Thursday, September 30, 2010

Life with a smaller star

kw: musings, astronomy, extrasolar planets

Late yesterday it was announced that extrasolar planet Gliese 581g, the sixth planet discovered circling dwarf star Gliese 581, is in a "Goldilocks" orbit: not too close, not too far away, but just right, smack in the middle of the habitable zone around the star. The planetary particulars:
  • Mass: 3x Earth or more (most likely: 4x)
  • Distance to Star: 0.146 AU or 14 million miles
  • Equilibrium temperature of an airless body: 228K = -45C (A watery atmosphere's greenhouse effect adds about 35C → -10C average, but can range much higher and lower depending on latitude)
The star's particulars:
  • Mass: 0.3 Sun
  • Diameter: 0.3 Sun
  • Surface Temperature: 3200K (Sun is 6500K)
  • Stellar type: M3V (Sun is G2V)
  • Visible brightness: 0.002 Sun (see below)
  • Total luminosity: 0.012 Sun (lots of infrared)
This image, from this Wikipedia article (recommended reading!), shows how Gliese 581 would look were it in the vicinity of our Sun. However, if there are inhabitants about the new planet, they are almost seven times as close to a star which is 0.3x the diameter of our Sun, so it would appear twice the diameter in their sky, having an angular width of more than one degree.

That is the first thing that would be different about life on this new super-Earth, so-called because it is larger, probably about 1.5x the diameter of Earth. What else would be different, and what would seem the same?

Firstly, just because astronomers call an M star a "red dwarf" doesn't mean they are all that red. An incandescent bulb's filament has a temperature near 2800K, while a carbon arc (think searchlight or old-fashioned movie projector) has a temperature near 3400K. Both of those look pretty white unless you compare them to sunlight on a clear day, then they look a little yellowish. The Sun is the standard of "white" to our eyes because all the eyes on this planet evolved to take maximum advantage of the Sun's light. Similarly, any creatures on the new planet (which I propose naming Goldilocks) will have eyes adapted to take advantage of its light, which will look white to them, even as light from our Sun would appear a little bluish to them.

So, being closer to the star means it covers a lot more sky, about 4.5x compared to the Sun's apparent area. 4.5×0.012 = .054, or 1/18th and 4.5×0.002 = 0.009, or 1/111. The different sensitivity of the eyes of a resident of Goldilocks would cause the apparent brightness to be closer to 1/20th than to 1/100th. While the ambient lighting will be brighter than the inside of an office building, it won't be by much. And what color would that sky appear? It would be blue, even for one of us. The Rayleigh scattering in a clear atmosphere scatters blue light nine times as well as red light. In fact, it takes a very, very cool star, less than 2000K, to have light that would scatter to look whitish or yellowish rather than blue (to us).

One nice thing about an M3 star compared to a redder star of M5-M9: stability. While more variable than the Sun, an M3 star is not a flare star, so it won't periodically blast the planet's surface with x-rays. The star is considered to be about twice the age of the Sun, but its stellar evolution is so much slower that is is probably only a few percent brighter than it was eight or nine billion years ago (the Sun is 40% brighter than four billion years ago). So the stability of any ecosystem on Goldilocks depends on the stability of its orbit, which we know very little about yet.

One consequence of having much less of the incident light in the "energetic" wavelengths that we humans can see is that there is a lot less energy available for photosynthesis of the kinds we know. Both C3 and C4 photosystems use blue photons with energies greater than 2.6 eV and red-orange photons with energies close to 2 eV. They don't need the green ones in between, so the green light is rejected (reflected). There are precious few 2.6 eV photons that reach Goldilocks, so a different system is needed. Plants there might look black; they have to absorb everything effectively. It'll take some interesting chemistry to utilize infrared photons, if it is possible at all.

This means the energy available to drive a biosphere is correspondingly small, maybe 1/50th to 1/20th of the productivity per acre compared to Earth plants. That corresponds to the productivity on the floor of a thick forest or rain forest. Ferns and other dimness-tolerant plants do well enough there, but life runs at a slower pace. The forest canopy is where the action is. Goldilocks will probably have few places where a canopied forest is even possible, being more of a tundra planet.

And all that is if, big IF, there is life there. While the temperature range is right for having liquid water on parts of Goldilocks, it will be some time before we will be able to determine whether there really is any water there.

My speculation? That it is an ocean planet, and may not have any land that emerges to the air. Look at our solar system. There's lots of ice on the moons of the cooler planets (Jupiter and outward). Mars lost most of its water because it is to small, with low gravity. Goldilocks is cooler than Earth, more like Mars, but is quite a bit heavier. It will have lost very little of any water that came its way, or was part of its formation. I do hope there is some permanent, solid ground somewhere on Goldilocks. It is hard to imagine smart dolphins developing effective telescopes or radio transmitters and thus finding out about the rest of the universe. A radio message has been sent their way, to arrive about 2029. If they receive it, we could get a reply in another twenty years, about 2050. Long before that, maybe we'll have a telescope system that can image the planet directly, so we can see whether it has continents or any weather.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Partnering with your doctor

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, polemics, self help

Item: More than one-third of cases of female infertility are caused by low thyroid. Guess how many women who visit a "baby doctor" get a thyroid hormone test early in the process? You can count them on the thumbs of one hand.

Item: In an emergency room, if you've brought your youngster in because your doctor's office is closed, and you want to have the tyke checked for bronchitis, they'll usually do a chest x-ray. In fact, they'll often be rather bullying about not providing any services at all without that x-ray.

On the other hand: Item: Some doctors have to be persuaded to order a test that is genuinely needed. This can go hand-in-hand with the first item, in principle: the most useful test is deferred in favor of a string of less-effective, but more costly, tests.

These items come from the experience of me and my family. Here is what to do in each case. Infertile? Demand a blood test for thyroid hormone levels. Got a sick kid? Prepare by getting a stethoscope and asking your family doctor what to listen for to distinguish bronchitis from pneumonia. If you must go to the ER, be prepared to say, "Use your stethoscope, or let me use it. Otherwise we're outta here." Don't allow that x-ray. Finally, if the doctor is setting you up for a battery of tests, ask, "Which single test will do the most to rule in or rule out a life-threatening condition?" If the doctor can't or won't answer, get another doctor, pronto!

I may rant at length some other time, but I really want to introduce Rosemary Gibson and Janardan Prasad Singh, who have written The Treatment Trap: How the Overuse of Medical Care is Wrecking Your Health and What You Can Do to Prevent it.

This is a very scary book. Rather than use lots of statistics, the authors present a selection of cases. These cases really get a fellow's attention: unneeded brain surgery that results in debilitation then, three years later, death; unnecessary amputation; chemotherapy for someone who doesn't have cancer. These aren't cases of mistaken identity or getting a patient mixed up in the shuffle. They are cases of doctors going to extremes "just in case".

While I have had some bad experiences, as hinted at above, I've also had some good ones. I had the good fortune to go to an oncologist who is the one the other doctors in the area would go to themselves if they had cancer. He is a sensible man. In particular, when I asked him what follow-up was needed after the chemo, he gave me a copy of a medical journal article. This article presented the results of a study done with a few hundred cancer patients, all of whom had been treated for colon cancer. One group received a standard follow-up, yearly checkups with the oncologist and the surgeon for five years and CT scans plus colonoscopy after years 1, 3, and 5. The other group got twice as many CT scans and colonoscopies and a quarterly checkup, plus quite a battery of blood tests, looking for all kinds of obscure enzymes. The article concluded that there was no difference in outcome. My oncologist said, "All that extra testing turned out to just be an early death detector for some, and a confirmation of wellness for the rest."

The biggest problem the authors unearth (and it isn't hard) is the Green Monster: financial incentive to do more to get paid more. Doctors are paid per procedure, so they have an incentive to do more procedures. Some doctors can be ethical in this environment, perhaps even most can. But to see how ethical your doctor is, count the decorations in the waiting room and the anatomy posters in the exam room, and figure out what percent of them were "gifts" from drug companies. Are the pens at the desk carrying a drug company logo? I have yet to find a doctor's office that is free of such trinkets, but in some offices, it is a deluge! In for a penny, in for a pound I say, so I assume the doctor's judgment is shaded and take precautions.

I can think of one doctor whose office is nearly free of such stuff. There is art on the waiting-room walls, not ads, and the only drug-company-supplied item is a single anatomy chart in the exam room. The doctor actually has several other anatomy charts that must have been purchased, because they don't have any advertising on them!

I think everyone must have a story or two of going to the doctor and getting more than you bargained for. Some of it is defensive medicine, intended to pre-empt problems that could lead to a lawsuit. Not all. Are you, or do you know, a woman over fifty? Ask her (or ask yourself) if a doctor has recommended a hysterectomy, "just in case." Even if an aging uterus grows a few fibroids, a D&C can remove them at much less cost and pain. Has anyone recommended back surgery for your sore sacroiliac? There's a case for the traction/massage table at the chiropractor's. Lost less invasive and usually lots more effective (but the chiropractor couldn't do anything useful with my sore neck).

The book's four parts end in a self-help section, including a chapter "Twenty smart ways to protect yourself." The chapter needs two or three more items that relate to handling emergency situations. You don't always have the leisure to get a second opinion, or contact Cochrane (see below), or dig around in the medical journals (online or at a University library). However, the points given are very helpful, and include a number of online resources, listed at the end of this post.

The chapter with the most useful message, however, is titled "Do it with me, not to me." It is worth the trouble to find a doctor who is willing to explain, one who is not irritated by questions, one who will collaborate with you in your treatment rather than demand that you passively accept "medical care" without knowing why. A doctor who can intelligently answer the question, "How do you know this will help me" is worth rubies.

We can't do everything for ourselves. We trust farmers and grocers to provide wholesome food; we trust the auto mechanic (who is also paid by the procedure) to do just what our car needs and no more; we trust the appliance repair service to get a broken dishwasher working again; and we can't do our own surgery, so the time is likely to come that you and you and you (and perhaps I, again) will need to trust a medical team with our life and future health. The more we know, and importantly, the more that they know we know, the better things are likely to go.


Cochrane Consumer Network – "a global network of consumers who are experts in their field." (that is, an experienced patient is often the best doctor)
Health News Review – reviews of news stories by independent experts.
Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making – provides information and resources to help patients make better medical decisions.
FBI – whom to contact if excessive tests or procedures were charged to Medicare or Medicaid.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

If you see one, check your BAL

kw: book reviews, fantasy, food, judaism

I suppose most people of European heritage are familiar with the Banshee, an Irish spirit that moans and shrieks when someone will soon die, or has just died. Considering that most of us have never heard a Banshee, its attentions must be reserved for the especially deserving or important.

In The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals: The Evil Monkey Dialogues, by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, we also learn that the Banshee is definitely not kosher. As Ann writes, "Any 'creature' you can call 'he' or 'she' is probably not kosher." Then she goes on to ask, "But why are the evil ones always women?" to which the Evil Monkey (her husband's alter ego) replies, "Nothing I can say here will save me."

Each of the 34 items in this book takes a couple of pages: one page for a cute graphic plus a short essay on an imaginary creature, and a page for witty dialog between Ann and Evil Monkey, followed by a K, not-K, or K? ruling. Among the creatures deemed Kosher we find the Behemoth, the Leviathan, and the Ziz, touted in Jewish folklore as rulers of the land, sea and air creatures, which will be slaughtered in the age to come and fed to the righteous in a gigantic feast.

Folklore traditions of many lands were plumbed for the subjects of the book, including Colombia for this Pollo Maligno, or Evil Chicken. While it is called "cannibalistic" in folk tradition, that doesn't mean it eats other chickens, but that it eats hunters after luring them deep into the forest. (Until recently, all chickens in American factory farms were fed dried and powdered slaughterhouse waste, making the entire poultry industry cannibalistic.) While chickens are Kosher, this one rates a K? from Ann, as the Evil Monkey dashes about chanting "POLLO MALIGNO!"

A number of creatures from Japanese traditions appear in these pages, including the Abumi-Guchi, an animated stirrup from a slain warrior, the Akaname, which cleans the toilet room with its tongue (though most toddlers will do that if you don't stop them), and the Jotai, or folding-screen spirit, one of a great number of spirits that arise from articles which achieve duration of a century or more. If you want "what we do here, stays here" to be true, do it among furnishings less than a century old, or the walls will gossip about you later.

One creature seems to have arisen de novo from the authors' imagination, the Borges, a "blind magical creature" made entirely of books. The authors take sly digs at Dr. Borges in several of the essays, so I guess he is either a family friend or favorite enemy. The Borges rates a K?.

Among creatures ruled Kosher we find the Greek sea-goat, which has a front half that is Kosher because goats are, and a back half with fins and scales, which also yield a Kosher ruling. In the end, whether Chupacabra, Owlman, or Dragon, nearly everything else is ruled Not Kosher. But what did we expect? Most folk traditions produce monsters and dream creatures whose hooves and cud-chewing abilities were never imagined. Even—glurk! From one word to the next, the call comes to go out and retrieve the newspaper. There go the creative juices!

I read the book at a sitting. Not only is it small enough to do that, it is such a fun read that I zipped right through it. Kosher food for the mind, and for the funny bone. The book is based on this blog post, which Ann and Jeff produced for Purim 2008. The scope of the post is larger (more animals, including not-so-imaginary ones such as the Hoopoe), but the articles are briefer. Do go and read the post also.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A library is a kind of heaven

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, libraries, archival, information science

"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library" – Jorge Luis Borges

Now that I am an information scientist, I work with librarians. They've become some of my favorite people. I used to travel a lot for my work, and I still take a business trip about every year or two. It usually happens that I have at least one free evening, and I always go to a library, whatever is closest to the hotel where I am staying. It beats watching cable TV in the hotel room, and I've always been more of a reader anyway. Usually I find the current issue of a journal or magazine and read a few miscellaneous articles, but if I have more time, I'll scare up a smaller book from the "recent acquisitions" shelf and read the whole thing at a sitting.

On a few occasions I've been in the middle of some research, and took advantage of the collection in a larger library that I happened to be near. Usually, though, for research I go to a nearby library that has what I am looking for. Books and collections about any subject are easy to find now that Google Books has a "Find in a Library" feature. That is how I found that the nearest library to my home with "Mayflower Families Through Five Generations" (I needed volumes 2 and 11, for starters), is at the Corbit-Calloway Memorial Library in Odessa, Delaware. That's a lovely small library with very hospitable librarians.

There are also numerous special collections of interest in the college libraries along "University Row", that stretch of PA Highway 3 that is anchored at one end by Drexel University and at the other by Westchester University, and has something like thirty small universities and colleges strung along it (including Villanova, which isn't so small). But lest I go on to fill a large post with my own library stories, let's get to the book.

This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson belatedly peers into the huge transition that libraries everywhere are undergoing, now that it seems everything is being put on the Internet. The title contains a double pun: "Overdue" is a self-reference, and librarianship is the art of saving everything and cataloging it so it can be found again.

What do librarians do when they are not checking books in or out and levying fines (and saying "Shh!")? A great deal more than people think. A library is a kind of museum. One could think of it as a museum of stuff you can read, and take home to read at your leisure. The cover of the book shows a librarian decked out as Supergirl, bursting out of a pile of books while grasping a Kindle™. This is only part of the message the author wants to convey, however, and by the end of the book she has circled back to a love of less virtual materials.

Most of the book chronicles the rapid changes to libraries as everything goes online. Gone are the banks and banks of card catalogs, where you could search by author, title or subject. I can search the online catalog via the local library's web site (or any library's web site). The space thus saved is taken up by extra tables to hold computers for public use. In some libraries, certain older collections have been discarded in favor of paying for access to online databases that contain most (but usually not all) of the same material in virtual form. And if a book is available as an e-Book, you don't even need to check out a paper book. If you don't have a Kindle™ or similar device, or a PDA or phone with a reader app, you can download to your computer and get an add-on for your browser that displays e-books.

Virtual access doesn't cover all the bases, not by a long shot. Most e-books are black/white only, so color illustrations lose a lot, and if care was not taken during scanning to de-screen photographs, the resulting aliasing can make the images undecipherable. Then there are books with "nontraditional" content: scratch-n-sniff panels, pop-ups, and fold-outs come to mind. Overdue! contains one long chapter on zines, particularly zines produced by librarians. A zine is a self-published magazine, typically issued as just a few hand-produced copies (we used to call this samizdat). Many, and particularly those produced by librarians, contain items you can't scan: buttons, pop-ups, stapled-in pressed flowers, upholstery or even carpet samples…

This brings up a side story I just have to tell here. The research department libraries where I work issue laboratory notebooks to scientists, where they enter their results, have each page dated and witnessed, and return them to the library periodically to be microfilmed. This is important for evidence in patent disputes that can arise years later. The advent of cheap printing and cheap copying has resulted in some issues that cause our microfilmers fits. Some scientists seem to think they need to squeeze all the results of a whole year, or even their entire career, onto the pages of a single 156-page notebook. So they print everything rather small and tape these little printouts, dozens to a page, in overlapping fashion. I have seen notebooks that started out 7/8" (2.2 cm) thick with the binding stretched to accommodate five or six inches of content. To microfilm the book, each taped-on printout has to be filmed, so it can take an hour to film one "page". This is a significant reason that research departments everywhere are introducing electronic lab notebooks and requiring that all content be rendered in PDF form; PDF format is the new "virtual microfilm".

And this points up matters taken up in the latter part of the book. A collection of someone's letters can be a pain to archive and curate (I know; my parents' letters during WWII take up twenty binders). But how do we preserve the e-mails of someone, particularly if they tended to delete a lot? And with MS Word or Word Perfect being used to write and edit manuscripts, how is a later student to know the creative process behind a writer's book or article? Time was, you had a series of drafts, but unless a writer has saved intermediate versions of a word processing file, the only item in existence is the finished product, in .doc or .pdf form. Now what?

By the end of the book, Ms Johnson has become jaded with the thrill of the digital takeover of our libraries, and is clearly longing for the feel and smell of paper-based collections. Research libraries everywhere still collect the tangible memorabilia of memorable people. I visited the Ronald Reagan library in Simi Valley, California a few years ago. I looked at some of the items on display. While I might be able to read this or that old letter just as well over the Internet, there was something about being there, in the presence of a paper that the President labored over as he wrote to someone, that the Internet cannot provide.

I have a semi-famous relative (a cousin of my grandmother). Last year I contacted the library where her letters are kept, wondering if they might have correspondence from my grandmother to her, when both were young women. They didn't have anything quite that old, but perked up quite a bit when I remarked that I had letters written by her when she was 18 or so. Eventually, I produced good scans of the letters and sent them color prints and a DVD with the images. They are really hoping I'll pass along the originals some day, which I expect to do if it happens that none of my grandmother's great-grandchildren want the materials. There is a bit of a thrill in handling and conversing over such artifacts. This is why I call libraries a kind of museum.

Love your local library. They are changing a lot, but the fundamental stuff of being a librarian is not changing: they want to help. And they can help. They have resources, with which they are very familiar, that we can seldom imagine. If you have an interest in something, anything, go ask a librarian about it. Chances are, you'll learn something new, something surprising, even something quite satisfying that you could not have found any other way.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Market timing futility

kw: observations, investing

Look at this image for a while and let it sink in. It shows the correlation between the market change of AT&T stock on one day with that on the day following.

It was produced thus: At Yahoo Finance I entered the symbol T to get a stock quote, then in the navigator on the left I chose "Historical Prices" (the 4th item). In the page that comes up I set it for daily and used the default time span (from some time in 1984 to present). At the bottom of the page is a button for downloading an Excel worksheet; I clicked that.

In Excel, I copied the "Close" column (NOT "Adjusted Close") to a new sheet and labeled the column "Day1". I copied it again, starting at the second value, to the next column and labeled that column "Day2". This sets up the basic correlation. I highlighted the two columns and made an X-Y chart, then changed the symbol color to dark red. I set the scale on X to -3 to +3 and that on Y to -2 to +2, so the plot is approximately square. There are several data points in the range of 30 to 70, where the stock split. This scaling gets rid of those from the view, and focuses on the day-to-day variations in the range of a few percent or less, which is 99% of all the data.

Just for fun I performed a regression using Excel's Data Analysis package; the correlation coefficient was 0.0003, which is even closer to zero than I expected. Consider this visual proof that no matter what the stock did today, it has no bearing on what it will do tomorrow. Any slice of these data in any direction whatever is a random distribution, centered on zero, with heavy tails, meaning that larger jumps are more common than for a Gaussian distribution.

The only "market timing" technique that works is to hold a stock for a very stable company for a long enough time that the general rise in prices will bring you a gain, then perhaps watch it for a day-to-day variation that will snag you an extra percent or so, then sell. Of course, at that point, in what will you invest now? All the other stocks in the market have been going up also. So the basic method of "buy when you can, sell only when you need to spend the money" actually outperforms any "technical" scheme.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

An upshot

kw: photographs, local events

I happened to walk under this water tower today during my constitutional. having my camera with me, I took four shots to make a wide-angle panorama. Although I was careful to stand still, it is clear from a few infelicities in both these images that I wasn't quite successful.

The first composite image was stitched using the Canon software that comes with all Canon cameras, and the second was using the tool in Windows Live Photo Gallery. Each one treated the process a little differently. The Canon software didn't smooth the sky brightness as well, and it has one glitch that the Windows Live software doesn't.

Also, the Canon software introduced a bit of barrel distortion, something the Windows Live software doesn't do, which means the latter image seems to cover a wider angle.

The images both look pretty good, but the glitches do emphasize that it is best to use a tripod when shooting for a panorama.

I like the different view, for it is rare to have the chance to be directly under a water tower.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

2012, here we come!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, false prophets, debunking, mesoamerica

At least once per generation, since there have been Europeans in North America, members of one group or other have donned special clothing (white robes are popular), gone to a special place such as a hilltop, perhaps given away many of their possessions, and waited for a savior, or a spaceship, or the end of the world. Apocalyptic, millennial beliefs undergird American life.

While these oddities are usually carried on by small groups, sometimes apocalyptic fervor grips the entire nation, infiltrating all of popular culture. Not so long ago, the "big fear" was an asteroid hit, and two 1998 films, Deep Impact and Armageddon, made millions of dollars as millions of our fellow citizens flocked to the theaters to see them. Just a few years earlier, over about a decade, the Left Behind book series raged through like a twelve-stroke battering ram.

Now, we are told, in just over two years, we all face extinction or extermination or at least the loss of our pensions, when the Maya calendar runs out on December 21, 2012 (or maybe two days later…). The popular movie 2012 has again made millions for a crafty few. Now a professor of History, a Mayanist, has published a book with a different view. Disclaimer: The author is a relative of mine.

What did the Maya of eight centuries ago expect to happen when calendar date rolled around? In 2012: Science & Prophecy of the Ancient Maya by Mark Van Stone, we find that the simple answer is, not much, depending on how good a party you throw to mark the occasion. If we notated time the way the Maya did, our last "great occasion" would have been shown as, but instead we showed it as 2000/1/1 or January 1, 2000. Then we quibbled for months over whether the real beginning of the 21st Century was 2001/1/1. There was a real threat of apocalyptic troubles with the "Y2k problem" in computer systems, but computer programmers worldwide met that threat and the new Century began with hardly a ripple.

The book is composed of 34 essays, many of them interlinked in series, and eight Appendices, including a very informative FAQ that summarizes the author's points. This means you can read the book in any order, and it makes a good reference work. While the main message of the book is the debunking of apocalyptic speculation, it contains a wealth of information about what the Maya were really interested in, which was (is this any surprise?) appeasing the gods so they could all have a better life. The unique feature of Maya religious practice was that the shedding of blood was frequently performed by the religious and political leaders upon themselves! You'll have to read the book to find out where they'd stick the knife, but, gentlemen, be prepared to be squeamish. Anyway, despite depictions of the Maya as bloodthirsty purveyors of human sacrifice, that title goes to the later Aztecs, who did indeed sacrifice a few ten thousands of victims yearly. Maya sacrifices seldom resulted in death.

I find it more fascinating to learn what the Maya believed and practiced; what was really important to them. The precession of the equinoxes was not important to them, so although they measured it, they didn't account for it, and kept a 365-day year. They didn't even bother with a Julian-type "leap year" correction. They were much more interested in the 260-day period between apparitions of Venus, and how it related to a 360-day near-year with an 18:13 ratio. The special dates upon which they liked to perform coronations and special religious observances were chosen by a complex system of numerology with these factors plus small prime numbers (if you consider 273 a "small prime"). Appendix 5 contains a two-page list of "important" time periods ranging from two days to 9,504,000 days (composed of 6×11×20×20×360). This last period is more than 26,000 years, and is a pretty good match to the "grand round" of the precession of the equinoxes. This partly explains why the text depicting the date of an event in an inscription can take up more space than the recounting of the event itself.

But not all their symbols were numerical. In common with many cultures, they revered a "world tree", which was shown in many ways, such as the two shown here, along with the caption from the book (p. 99; click for a more readable image):

On the left, the tree is a fruiting cactus, rooted in a woman's skeleton and serving as a perch for a great eagle with flint-tipped feathers. On the right a pregnant tree (a very common image) is giving birth, while its root is a woman's head, as two gods assist (it is a caesarian birth). Mayan religious symbolism was much more variable than what we are familiar with, though a perusal of the stained-glass windows of three or four cathedrals reveals plenty of variation, and that is in just one Christian sect. Sometimes the eagle holds a snake in its beak, which led, via the Aztecs, to the modern seal of Mexico, seen on its flag:

The eagle grips a snake with beak and talon, standing on a fruiting cactus that grows from a bone-like pedestal standing in water. This is a clear creation-legend image. The oak and laurel leaf clusters are a symbol of sovereignty added in modern times. This image also adorns the back of Mexican coins.

If we anointed astronomers and geologists for priests, we, too might find our national consciousness grasping time periods ranging into thousands and millions of years. Instead, we get antsy waiting 60 seconds for the microwave to heat up a sandwich, and the second-most common traffic offense is running a red light, often by someone who already sat there for one whole minute while traffic cleared, and can't stand to wait another half minute for the light to "get around to changing" (the most common offense is speeding).

So how ought we prepare ourselves for Mayan date Be nice to people. Forgive you brother for what he said last year. Live like the world really could end, but don't liquidate your long-term investments!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Trying to use statistics well

kw: observations, musings, statistical distributions

A simple illustration is more enlightening than a page of derivation, at least to me. I was thinking recently about the law of small numbers and its inverse, the law of large numbers. Though they are related, they have quite different emphases.

The law of small numbers embodies the observation that a sample of a few items taken from a large population, such as four balls from an urn containing an unknown number of black and white balls, is quite likely to give you a very inaccurate impression of the relative distribution in the larger population. Suppose all four balls drawn are white. How likely is it that the actual population contains equal numbers of black and white balls? Not as unlikely as you might imagine. What would you guess? One chance in ten, or fifty, or 1,000?

Suppose there are ten white and ten black balls. As you extract ball after ball, each being white, the odds for each draw are:
  • 10/20 = 0.5000
  • 9/19 = 0.4737
  • 8/18 = 0.4444
  • 7/17 = 0.4118
Multiplying these four together, we find the total probability of drawing four balls to be 0.04334, or about one in 23. If the number of balls is much larger, the probability approaches 0.54, or 0.0625, one chance in 16. How does that square with your guess above?

Now, suppose you decide to draw twenty balls, hoping to get a better estimate of the distribution. If you don't know there are only twenty balls, you don't know, without trying to draw a 21st ball, that you've taken the entire population! But if there are a great many balls, and you draw twenty white balls, you have a much better idea that there must be very few black balls, because 0.520 = 0.00000095, about one chance in a million. On the other hand, you can state that, if only one-tenth of the balls are black, 0.920 = 0.1216, or one chance in about eight. But this is not the law of large numbers. It is still making inferences from a single sample.

The law of large numbers expresses the surprise we feel when a "one in a million" event occurs, until we realize that there are billions of events occurring every day among the seven billion people on this planet: Given a large number of events, some of them are bound to be very unlikely. For this, a different kind of illustration is in order. The following four charts show Gaussian, or Normal, distributions containing one hundred, one thousand, ten thousand, and 100 thousand observations. I have them all here in a bunch, as Minitab "statistical summary" charts. Click on each to see it in more detail.

The overall impression is what is important at first. The first chart shows how a relatively small number of observations of a truly Gaussian variable add up to a rather poor fit to the normal bell curve. The fourth chart shows how a large number of observations produces a much better fit.

The standard Gaussian, or standard Normal, variable has mean of zero, standard deviation of one, and zero skewness and kurtosis. I'll explain the latter two terms in case they are new to someone.
  • Skewness represents an imbalance between the right and left halves of a distribution. Positive skew means the distribution is "right-heavy". Natural phenomena that exhibit positive skew often follow a lognormal distribution. The power law distribution, beloved of fractal enthusiasts, has the greatest positive skew of any naturally-produced variable.
  • Kurtosis refers to an imbalance between the "pointiness" of the distribution and the heavy or light tails that result. Positive kurtosis yields a super-Gaussian or Leptokurtic distribution. "Lepto" means "skinny" or "small" in Greek (the smallest Greek coin is the Lepton). Negative kurtosis yields a flattened or Platykurtic distribution (think Plate). Positive kurtosis means the tails are heavier than "normal", and extreme events are more likely than you might expect. Negative kurtosis means the tails are light and extreme events are scarcer than expected. Significantly negative kurtosis is rare in nature.
I planned to present a table of the key parameters of the four distributions, but the Blogger interface does not support HTML tables properly. So I'll finesse it this way. Each statement below gives the values of a parameter for the four data sets in order, for 100, 1,000, 10,000, and 100,000:
Mean: 0.0032, -0.0276, 0.0136, 0.0010
CI Mean: ±0.1831, ±0.0625, ±0.0195, ±0.0062
CI Mean refers to the confidence interval for the mean, as calculated by Minitab. Note how rapidly they shrink, reducing as the square root of the number of observations.
St Dev: 0.9231, 1.0070, 0.9941, 0.9975
Skewness: 0.0865, 0.0483, 0.0062, 0.0002
Kurtosis: -0.581, -0.169, 0.019, -0.033
Extremum: 2.2, 3.2, 4.0, 4.7
I know these are harder to read than a properly formatted table. The last line illustrates the law of large numbers. While a value such as 4.7 is possible for a 100-observation sample, it is very unlikely. Such a value occurs about once per 770,000 observations, so it is actually rather unlikely even for the sample of 100,000. The expected extremum for each sample is 2.33, 3.09, 3.73, and 4.27.

OK, how is this practical in my daily life? Let us consider height. The standard deviation for the height of American males is three inches (7.6 cm), and the mean value is currently seventy inches (178 cm). Out of 100,000 American men, what is the expected extremum? Take 4.27x3 to get 12.8, nearly thirteen inches or 32.5 cm. In such a sample, then, you can reasonably expect there will be one man nearly 83 inches tall (6-ft 11 or 2.1 m) and one man as short as 57 inches (4-ft 9 or 145 cm). What does it take to get someone eight feet tall (I think there is currently one Chinese man this tall)? That is an excess of 26 inches, or 8.67 standard deviations. Minitab tells me that the expected proportion is one chance in 4.6×1017. The tallest expected man out of 3.5 billion males on earth today is at 6.175 standard deviations, which is an extra 18.5 inches, or a total of 88.5 inches (7-ft 4.5 or 2.25 m).

Finally, can a study of statistics help us out in the stock market? Can a fellow get rich? See the following chart (click on it to see more clearly).

This is the daily variation for AT&T stock (symbol T) since 1984, nearly 6,600 observations. Note that the two or three central bars push way above the fitted curve, and that the tails also rise above the curve. This is classic positive kurtosis. It means that unexpectedly large deviations from the normally-fitted curve are very likely. In fact, although the standard deviation of the fitted curve is 0.76, the extremum is 7, more than nine standard deviations away!

These data are far from "normal", which gives us our first hint that the stock market is a great place to lose your shirt, as millions of investors already know. Of course, a plus extremum is as likely is a minus. The problem is, by the time one happens, you've missed it anyway, and because the stock market has a history (investors remember), regression toward the mean is more common than for a truly random variable. Study the curve above to understand the shape of investor emotion, which is what drives it away from a Gaussian normal curve: when the daily motion is small, the next day's motion is likely to be small also. A big motion might precipitate an even bigger motion the next day, but is more likely to be followed by a much smaller change, closer to the mean. Lots of "technical analysts" stay up late at night trying to fit time series estimators to stock market motions. None of them gets rich. D'you know what my richest friend invests in? Real estate. As Will Rogers said, "Buy land. Nobody is making any more of it."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Zoo or theme park?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, zoos

As the sign clearly shows, the Lowry Park Zoo has taken the elephant as their mascot. This was done as part of a major makeover of the zoo by former director Lex Salisbury, beginning seven or eight years ago when the zoo began negotiating the permits to import four elephants from Swaziland to Tampa.

As chronicled in Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives, by Thomas French, this marked the beginning of a period of great prosperity for the zoo, but also a period of peril that eventually risked the zoo's existence. While there were perils enough from the competing constituencies of multiple levels of government in both countries, plus organizations like PETA that demanded the elephants be either returned to the "freedom" of their game park or killed, the greatest danger to the integrity of Lowry Park was the huge ambition of the director himself, a "my way or the highway" kind of manager, called by many employees "El Diablo Blanco".

The book starts with the transport of the elephants by 747, along with seven others bound for San Diego as part of the same deal. They were removed from the game park because the herd there was outstripping the resources of the park, destroying the vegetation faster than it could grow back. Unwilling to "cull" (kill) any of the elephants, the owners of the preserve had sold these elephants to the two zoos to buy time. At the close of the book we learn that the herd has continued to increase, and the owners are now trying vasectomies and other "reproductive limitation" methods to buy more time.

Over the years, the elephants became the centerpiece of a new exhibit space at the zoo, and the former "king" and "queen", an alpha chimp named Herman and a cantankerous tigress named Enshalla, were gradually being set aside. Tragically, both Herman and Enshalla died in recent years, Herman to an alpha-battle with another chimp, and Enshalla to shotgun blasts when she escaped her cage and rushed to attack the veterinarian who attempted to tranquilize her.

The author makes it clear he does not blame all the zoo's troubles on Lex Salisbury, but the director bears the bulk of it. He simply begged for trouble by opening a for-profit wild animal park north of Tampa, quite cavalierly muddling the relations between it and the non-profit zoo: trading animals back and forth, one entity charging the other for animal upkeep, and paying for a "this is more of a vacation than a business trip" jaunt using zoo funds. While he had played a great political game for years, he displayed a horrendous amount of ethical tone-deafness. His best friends finally could not bear to support his case, and he was ousted early in 2010.

This is a story of one of the better small zoos, and the troubles it faced from overworked, underpaid staff led by predatory management. It makes a fellow wonder about the operation of zoos of lower quality. Yet in the end, it is a story of people who love animals, averting disaster heroically in spite of mismanagement going on all around them. If the human race had fewer people who are, to use E. O. Wilson's term, biophiliacs, one shudders to consider how much more dismal zoos would be, or if they could exist at all. Conservation is the natural impulse of large numbers of us. It is what has so far saved us from extincting everything else on the planet, though the rest of the human race seems to be proceeding with just that program anyway.

Lowry Park Zoo's story is a cautionary tale that mirrors our care—or the lack thereof—for all of Earth. The very richness of the biosphere isn't sufficient proof against human depredation. As the one species that has so far denied all responsibility to limit its impact on the planet, we may indeed find ourselves making such an impact that many fewer of us will be able to survive on Earth in the future. Do you want to see both the best and the worst of human nature? Volunteer at your local zoo and learn what really goes on behind the scenes.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Filling the money pit

kw: home maintenance

It isn't hard to see what is inside a garage door opener. Just unplug it and remove four screws (from this model at least) and the cover drops off. I've been swamped with a lot of home maintenance stuff, and this was the last for a little while. The garage door opener jammed a few days ago, and I knew I was out of my depth, so I called in a repairman.

Boy, howdy would I have been out of my depth, trying to do this one! First, the gentleman used a pair of pliers to turn the motor back so the rail wasn't jammed any more, then he removed the limit switch assembly.

Some navigation aids: the motor is the biggest thing in the case, or course, set at an angle. The ring gear that it drives is partially visible at lower center. On the plate that holds the ring gear, you can see the limit switch assembly: three threaded nylon rods with the switches on them, and some wires attached.

Here is the limit switch assembly close up. A gear drives the middle screw, which carries the switch actuator. One switch is at top left, at the end of the "upper" nylon rod, and the other is near bottom right, on the other rod. You can see the holes where one may stick a screwdriver to adjust these things.

The old assembly was badly worn, so I'm glad it is replaced. There are three wires the repairman removed and attached to the new unit, each a different color. I'd probably have gotten them back in the wrong order! For a job like this, I don't mind that the labor costs 90% of the total bill. It was worth it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Infinity is only the beginning

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mathematics

Where is Buzz Lightyear when you need him? When he says, "To infinity, and beyond!" it just sounds cute, but it can mean so much, much more. Here's Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion Through the Astonishing World of Math, by Alex Bellos, is a singular pleasure among books that popularize mathematics. It manages to cover mathematical endeavors from one end of mathematical experience to the other in less than 300 pages (291, if you don't count the Bibliography and Index).

Where to begin? The author begins with innumeracy, both cultural and personal. Some peoples speak languages that have no more than three words representing numbers, if they even mean what we do by the concept "Number". "One", "Two", "Many" is kind of an anthropological joke, but it is a reality some folks live with. If you ask one of them how many children he has, he will most likely answer, "Children are a gift from God. Why tempt Him by worrying about that?"

In a way, the book ends where it begins, with numbers for which we, at present, know no more than three words. The first of those words is "Aleph-null", the second is "c", and the third is "d", and you have to pronounce c and d in italics ;> NOTE: I don't find a convenient way to show the Hebrew character Aleph that will work on all browsers, so I will continue to spell it out. We'll get back to what these three terms mean a little later.

In the meantime, think about what the world must have been like when you had to tally the family flock of goats thus: //////////////////. If you want to sell two goats (uh, that's // goats), how many are left? Get out a fresh piece of bone and scratch into it ////////////////. There, wasn't that easy? But can you tell at a glance that the two long tallies are different? This is why herders named their goats. You soon come to recognize them, and it is easy to tell if Hephzibah is missing. The innovation of Roman Numerals made it easier to recognize that XVIII and XVI were different, but it took the invention of positional notation and Indian (AKA Arabic) numerals to render the sale of those goats thus: 18-2=16.

The stories the author tells while recounting such historical concepts insert lots of interesting mathematical concepts as you read along. I found it fascinating that, while the Babylonians and Chinese had a useful concept of Zero a few thousand years ago, somehow the Europeans had to go through more than a century of wrangling about Zero once it was imported from India at the beginning of that amusing period called The Enlightenment. The rest of the world must have been thinking, "It is about time those dullards got with the program."

Mathematics couldn't really progress much beyond basic arithmetic until algebra and symbolic representation came on the scene. I remember my sudden shift of outlook when I realized that the x in 10x=50 represented a quantity all by itself, not just an unknown digit in some number a little bigger than 100, and that I was multiplying it by ten. Thereafter, I have sometimes asked people, "What is the fundamental concept of mathematics?", looking for the answer "Operations". The implied multiplication and equivalence operations in that tiny formula 10x=50 opened up to me a great world of symbolic thought.

Higher and higher mathematical disciplines are actually language lessons, in which new kinds of operations are learned, and a language for describing them. So, for example, we learn very young to use the operators + - × ÷ and = , and soon thereafter the parentheses and √ . Calculus classes are a long series of lessons in the use of the D and the Integral (a skinny "S") operators. In still other classes we learn functional operators like cos and log. And so it goes.

About halfway through the book Bellos introduces logarithms in the clearest presentation I have yet seen. While I can't hope to do better, let me just say that we tend to think in a logarithmic way by nature; it allows us to focus on what is important. The difference from 1,000 to 1,100 "feels" similar to the difference from 10 to 11, even though in absolute terms that difference of 100 is much, much greater. The context matters. Our senses respond to the world logarithmically: take any sound and make it twice as loud; no matter the intensity of the first sound, the difference between the two is felt as the same. But I'll leave it to you to read how the author goes on to introduce the concept of a slide rule (I still have one) and the mathematical power that goes with it.

No book about enjoying mathematics is complete without a chapter on mathematical games, featuring Martin Gardner, who died not long ago. There is enough to enjoy about math that Gardner was able to write a very entertaining column, "Mathematical Games", for 25 years in Scientific American magazine. I remember his columns about different kinds of zero, about "flexagons", about making a machine out of matchboxes that plays perfect Tic-Tac-Toe. The skills needed to keep bowling scores are far from trivial, but because we're enjoying ourselves, we find them easy to learn.

But where does Aleph-null come in? It turns out to be the "smallest" kind of infinity. The term was coined by Georg Cantor, who also invented Cantor Dust. This is not covered in the book, but it ought to be: Take a line of any length. Remove the middle half. For each remaining line segment, remove the middle half. Repeat forever. You are left with an infinite number of points, scattered in a specific way, whose length adds up to zero. Now, start with a triangle, an equilateral triangle. Mark the midpoints of each side, and draw the triangle (also equilateral) that they define. Remove this inner triangle, which has an area of 1/4 the original. Repeat the operation (there's that word) with each of the three remaining triangles, then repeat again and so forth. This results in a triangular doily called the Sierpinski Triangle. It is an extension of the Cantor Dust into two dimensions. If you start with a square, think of it as nine squares and remove the center square, then repeat infinitely, you get the Sierpinski Gasket, a different doily. Both the Triangle and the Gasket are fully-connected (not like the Cantor Dust), having infinite edge lengths but zero area.

OK, Cantor showed that, not only can the numbers on the number line be "counted" all the way to the infinite limit, but so can the fractions. He called any set that can be counted an Aleph-null infinity. The "counting numbers" plus all the fractions (rational numbers) are such a set. Then he showed that one can easily (in concept) produce decimal numbers (or in any base, if you please) that are not parts of any Aleph-null set. These are the irrational numbers. Because of the way they can be constructed, they are not countable. It turns out that between any two rational numbers, there are infinitely many irrational numbers, and this "larger infinity" has come to be called c, from the word continuum. Without the irrational numbers, the rational numbers do not fill the number line, but form a kind of Cantor Dust of zero total length! It takes the irrational numbers to fill the line. Then where does d come from? It is the next letter after c, and no word has been associated with it. It is the set of all functional graphs (or any kind of wiggle whatever) that can be drawn on the two-dimensional plane. It is known to be larger than c. What is not known is if there are other infinities that are larger than Aleph-null but smaller than c, or between c and d.

So we wind up with three kinds of infinity, but we don't know if there are more, nor if these even form a consecutive set. As students of infinity, we are in worse shape than the "one, two, many" people! At least they know that two comes right after one…if they care.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sunflowers fading

kw: nature, wildlife, conservation

My sunflower plants are done for the year. In a summer of recording bee activity for The Great Sunflower Project, I learned a few things:
  • At this latitude, don't bother planting seeds until late May. The first plant didn't come up until June.
  • It takes another month for the first flower to appear.
  • On a robust plant (I had one very robust plant and two much smaller ones), a new flower will bloom every 3-4 days.
  • Only the latest 2-3 flowers have any pollen.
  • Don't expect to see honeybees; they concentrate on nectar-bearing blooms, and sunflowers have no nectar. (The GSP is all about native pollen-gathering bees)
  • Goldfinches love half-ripe sunflower seeds. They picked the flower heads almost completely bare within a couple of weeks of each one getting seed development.
  • There are five common species of native bee in this area: two sizes of bumble bee, 30mm long and 25mm long; a green-thorax-black+yellow-abdomen mason bee of the genus Osmia, 20mm long; a small green bee, 15mm long; and a bee colored like a honey bee but about 18mm long (honey bees are 25mm long).
During just over 60 days that my plants bloomed, I made more than 40 observations of bees, plus a few days when no bees landed on the flowers. The mason bees were most frequently seen, followed by the smaller bumble bee. I had a variety of other blooming plants that came and went in that time. The chives brought the most bees; they have plenty of nectar, though the flowers are very small. They were the only place I saw honey bees. The most common nectar-gathering bee, however, was a tiny black bee, 9mm long or less.

I am looking forward to next Summer.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Graves matter

kw: genealogy, good finds, tools

I stumbled upon a very useful web site for certain genealogical information, Find a Grave. While it is often used to find graves of famous people, such as Paul Revere, it is most useful as a first place to look for information about the burial of a relative.

This shows the search I used to locate someone six generations back in my family, tree, Phebe Lamb (née Macy). This search returned four records, one of which was in the Lamb Cemetery, with the right date of death; see below:

This is a good example of a grave record for which a useful amount of information has been entered. The Lamb family was prominent, and has many descendants, so someone has not only taken a picture of the graveyard entrance, but also of the gravestone, a double stone for both Phebe and her husband John Lamb.

While a headstone date is not always accurate, it usually has the most accurate record of the date of death. It is at least a great starting point for pinning down the dates and locations of a person's life. I am very thankful to the people such as those of "Vermilion County Saving Graves" who make these records for all of us.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Clash of worldviews

kw: politics, islam, christianity

I think the latest is that the Florida Quran burning is off again, but time will tell. I personally hope the burning does not happen, but for another reason:
"Pastor, instead of burning all those Qurans, give them out to your parishioners to read so they will know what Moslems are talking about. They can learn for themselves how un-peaceable the 'religion of peace' really is!"
Then again, who needs books? I have an English version of the Quran I downloaded to my computer. It is smaller than the Old Testament, and certainly not harder to read. My advice to all: get it, read it, so you'll know instead of just supposing.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Seeing the season shift

kw: poems, seasons

Orion in the morning sky,
Cassiopeia riding high,
Pleiades right overhead:
Autumn weather's just ahead.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Hosting horrors

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, parasites

'Big fleas have little fleas
upon their backs to bite 'em.
Little fleas have lesser fleas,
and so ad infinitum.'

This paraphrase of a classic ditty by Jonathan Swift expresses the fact that much more than half of all species are parasitic. Just considering the 1.8 million known species of eukaryotic life, most are parasites. And as the ditty says, parasites have parasites. I thought of putting a couple of photos with this article, but I am squeamish, and couldn't bear to spend any time sorting through the images that are publicly available.

Parasites: Tales of Humanity's Most Unwelcome Guests, by Rosemary Drisdelle, a Canadian clinical parasitologist, deals nearly exclusively with parasites that cause human disease. This keeps the book within bounds; stories of parasites that afflict our livestock (from bees to bovines), plus wild animals and plants, could easily fill a five-foot shelf.

There are parasites—technically commensals—that cause us no harm, such as the tiny Demodex mites that live in the hair follicles of all human faces. These get a brief mention in the book, but the focus is on the ones that do damage or kill us, from tiny protozoans such as Malaria organisms to yard-long Guinea worms and even longer tapeworms.

I once read that if you went outside, away from the paved existence we suburbanites live, and then all matter except nematode worms was removed, the scene would look more ghostly, but almost exactly the same. The ground, the plants, the animals, and possibly you, would be outlined, and usually permeated, with tiny worms. The common lab animal C. elegans is no longer than a millimeter and is nearly invisible, but your back yard contains billions of them. They don't parasitize humans, so any we carry are incidental to the fact that even the air contains a few floating around with the dust that we breathe. They die inside of us.

Many, many species don't. In fact, for most of the worm-type parasites, being breathed in or eaten by someone is their preferred way to invade. Their eggs are too small to be damaged by chewing, they are unfazed by our stomach acids, the waterborne ones brush off the Chlorine in our drinking water unharmed, so that getting into us is the easy part. Fortunately, particularly in the "first world", getting to us in the first place is much harder, which is why many of us are nearly parasite-free (except for those face mites).

Dr. Drisdelle begins her book with a fresh look at Jericho. The town was a fortified enclave surrounding a spring. Springs are good places for snails, and snails carry flukes and schistosomes and other bad actors. People with intestinal infestations shed the worms' eggs with every visit to the toilet, and in Biblical times, the toilets drained into the spring. Rahab and the rest of the townspeople were probably sick, and easy prey for the invading Hebrews, wall or no wall. Rahab saw the invaders as her ticket out of town, a place of sickness and early death.

At least half the human race lives in similar conditions today (at least 2 billion have no toilets whatever, using the ground "out back"). The amazing thing is that parasitic diseases afflict anything less than 100% of the population in the "developing" countries. For the more fortunate half, the good news is that filtered water is comparatively safe to drink, and most municipalities have at least minimal filtering of the water supply. The bad news is that breakdowns of the system are getting more frequent. Growing populations and aging infrastructure tend to collide in ways that lead to widespread diarrhea, at the very least, and coma or death for some.

Then there's your friendly neighborhood produce market. What is in the water that the store uses to spray the lettuce to keep it looking fresh? Where was it grown? What animals lived uphill from the field, and how healthy are they? And fresh meat: Do you dare to eat it in any way other than cooked well done?

My wife is paranoid about meat. She cooks hamburgers to leather, and prefers to stir-fry ground meats quite thoroughly. And with good reason. She had to be de-wormed once. Luckily her invader was one of those that a medicine can cure. Some invaders die only of old age, which can be 10-20 years unless the host dies first. Then, water: we filter all our drinking water, no longer trusting the municipality to keep it save 100% of the time.

Their long lives make elimination of parasitic diseases a very long-term proposition. The book's closing chapter explores efforts to eliminate several of the most damaging parasitic diseases. While rich countries have eliminated Malaria and a great many other fellow travelers, poverty and disease are still nearly inseparable. Sometimes it seems new parasites are arising faster than we can exterminate the older ones.

One minor caveat about the book: I am used to zoological terminology, but not all readers will know that the abbreviation "spp." means "species", plural, nor that when you see something like B. procyonis, it is shorthand for Baylisascaris procyonis, which will have been mentioned earlier in the section, and is a binomial species name. The book is a fascinating survey of the crawlies that we hate to think about. My fondest wish for you all is that "think about" is as close as we ever come to them!

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Impossible ancestors

kw: genealogy, software

As one might guess from several recent posts, I've been spending a lot of time on my family tree at recently. I finally purchased the companion software, Family Tree Maker, the 2011 version. It has a few specialized tools I've been wanting. One is the Errors Report, which audits a list of conditions, particularly date anomalies.

When I first began loading the family data, the web site had an option to take "hints" that included copying up to five generations from another public tree or from the One World Tree, which is a semi-curated meta-tree. Once I had entered the people and relationships I knew already, I happily took hints pretty freely. I got a lot of junk in the process. I am glad that the download options are much more restricted now, a generation at a time, with the chance to check each person before clicking OK.

Anyway, the Errors Report produced a five-page list of people, mostly those who are recorded as having married or had children prior to their 13th birthday, after their death, or past childbearing age. I'll go through the targeted sections of the tree and remove those that are most suspect, unless there is new information with better dates. While I like to collect ancestors, I don't want to collect imaginary ones!

Monday, September 06, 2010

An extra Saturday

kw: musings, work

Labor Day has come, and nearly gone. Other than re-seeding the lawn, I did little this weekend.

The day has great significance for a few, and is just an extra day off for most. When I was very young, there were Labor Day parades and parties in the park. By the time I was working for a living (late 1960s), organized labor had gone too far and was becoming unpopular, even viewed with horror, by those who weren't union members already, and by many in the unions: union membership dropped by half in a decade. Unions had such a bad name, and often deservedly so, that I quit more than one job just prior to the "you gotta join or leave" date (I didn't live in a "right to work" state).

Now union membership has dropped by half again, but is on the rise, a little. The disastrous policies of the "Stimulus package" are making jobs at anything close to a living wage so scarce that joining a union is often the only way to find work. Working "on call" part time at $18/hr is usually better than full time at minimum wage, particularly when the unemployment "insurance" runs out (It hasn't been run as an insurance program for about a generation now). Fortunately, many unions have cleaned up their act, so the pendulum will continue to sway in their favor for a while, maybe a decade or so, if they remember why they were humbled.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Telepathic kitties

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

Noted cat lover Anne McCaffrey and introduced the Barque Cats, spaceship cats that hunt vermin and detect leaks and other dangers, in a the novels of her Tower and Hive series. Now she has teamed up with fellow cat lover Elizabeth Ann Scarborough to produce a few books of backstory, the first being Catalyst.

As the book begins, Barque Cats are already established as a special breed of angora coated cat, bred for intelligence and spaceworthiness. During the course of the novel, a few cats develop a telepathic bond with humans, a one-to-one bond between one cat and one caretaking person. The kidnapping (catnapping) of a prominent breeding cat first triggers an adventure story as her Cat Person sets out to find her, then morphs into a second story of interstellar intrigue involving an ancient Egyptian space vessel and its feline captain. Mysterious glittery scarab-like beetles round out the cast.

In the book's setting, shared with the Tower and Hive series, the Earth is long abandoned and people have been in space for millennia. One can hop aboard a shuttle and drive out to meet an orbital mother ship, to be taken to another solar system, with the same nonchalance we go to the station to catch a train to New York. Absent the space elements, the story could have taken place on Earth, limited to, say, the Kentucky-Tennessee-Ohio area of the US…or even all within Ohio. Just substitute cities for planets.

The Barque Cats are truly extraordinary. The authors posit cats that can speak amongst themselves almost from birth, and a few chapters relate cat-to-cat dialog (catalog?). They quickly learn Standard (AKA English) also, at least to hear. The telepathic ones communicate ideas that their link-fellows interpret in words. For an animal with a two-ounce brain, this is a stretch, and requires a great deal of willing suspension of disbelief.

It is an entertaining yarn nonetheless. A cat person like myself will enjoy cat fiction, no matter how far-fetched. But I suspect if I had a telepathic link to my cat, its "utterances" would be no more complex than "Food!", "Open door!", "Play!" and "Stop that!", which I understand in Cat already.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Is moving genetic?

kw: genealogy, family history

In answer to a friend's question, I said something like "all my ancestors come from different places." Then I looked into it and found it is true on two levels. Firstly, from four to fourteen generations back, I have lots of immigrants to and emigrants within the continental United States and Canada. Secondly, just picking the fourth generation, my eight great-grandparents each have a different birthplace from all the others.

Running down the Ahnentafel (ancestor table) from father's father's father to mother's mother's mother, the places of birth are England, Canada, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, Alabama, Illinois, and Indiana. The next generation prior, of sixteen people, twelve states or countries of birth are represented. None of the above was born in California, but I was, so every generation moved somewhere.

No wonder I have been a wanderer. I come from a long line (a dozen long lines) of people who moved multiple times in their lives. I find it astonishing that I've lived in the same place for fifteen years now. It is more than twice as long as I lived anywhere else. So, OK, I am slowing down. Not at a full stop, though, not yet!

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The control freaks are coming

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, climate change, geoengineering

Planethacking: (not plane-thacking but planet-hacking) noun; informal synonym for Geoengineering, a set of technologies for effecting global influence or control over climate and atmospheric dynamics.

Did you ever suddenly become aware of your breathing, and then try to control it? For a moment or two, it seems cool [in, out, huff, puff], but just as suddenly you realize with horror that to continue to breathe consciously becomes a kind of slavery. You dare not give attention to anything else!

The dilemma we face in a technological world is to decide what is worth controlling and what is better left to its own devices. HACK the Planet: Science's Best Hope—or Worst Nightmare—for Averting Climate Catastrophe, by Eli Kintisch, raises this question a half-dozen ways. Though the author bases his premises on greenhouse warming by CO2, clearly the big picture is that weather and temperature disasters are increasing, and this is going to lead to increased public desire, then pressure, to "do something about it."

In the author's view, we are quite likely to be pushed into doing something about it, and precipitously, all unprepared. Knowing that CO2 is much of the problem, there are two sides to dealing with it: making less of it or removing some of it. Making less involves conservation and developing more solar and renewable and nuclear energy sources (There is enough sunlight to run all of civilization, if we just have the political and financial will to install the infrastructure). Removing some of it, the author calls by the colorful term "the sucking 1-ton challenge": What is the minimum cost to remove a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere?

This is the first kind of geoengineering, because if it is done, it will be large in scale and global in scope. The atmosphere weighs 5.1×1015 metric tons (Tm). One part per million of this is 5.1×109Tm, or about five billion tons (that is 5.6 billion English short tons). The current CO2 concentration is 385ppm. To reduce this to 350ppm means removing 35ppm, or more than 175 billion tons of CO2. Problem one: What does each ton cost? Problem two: Where will you put it?

The author doesn't just discuss the various ideas for removing and "putting" the CO2, he discusses the people who are trying to work out the methods for doing so. These methods range from injection into the deep ocean or deep wells to making concrete, lots of it (build your next house from used CO2!). As to the latter idea, I got no sense of where we'd get that much calcium. Most of Earth's calcium is already carbonated; we call it limestone. Another scheme is to fertilize the oceans so plankton will bloom, removing CO2, at least for a while.

OK, that is one side. Many folks say we'll never be able to afford renovating the atmosphere directly, we should just do something to shield the planet from excess solar energy. This can be done by brightening clouds (force them to be made from smaller droplets) and by injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere. My take on this is, let's not block the sunlight, let's instead use it to make solar energy so we're producing less CO2. All schemes for reflecting or blocking sunlight would make solar power less effective, a great loss. The only possible benefit of solar-blocking methods is that they cost a lot less than atmospheric revamping efforts.

Each chapter (there are twelve) is preceded by a short cautionary tale. Ranging from aerosol experiments in Russia a couple of years ago to introduction of various species (such as Nile perch) into new ecosystems to drying up the Aral Sea for Soviet agriculture, each resulted in disaster except the last, which utilized dung beetles in Australia to hasten the decomposition of cattle pats and reduce fly-borne diseases. That one, at least, worked well. Never mind that cattle are themselves an introduced species in Australia!

Clearly, while the author hopes something will work, he holds out little hope that it will. In a chapter on the politics of geoengineering experimentation, he found that the present social climate is very anti-experimentation. Nobody has yet been able to complete a large-scale experiment, so we haven't yet found out the most basic parameters.

Human emission of CO2 is actually a geoengineering experiment that has been going on for a century, and we are just now getting scientifically clear about its effects. It is not the first, however. Agriculture, which directly affects more than a quarter of Earth's land area, was the first geoengineering effort, with a duration of eight or ten millennia so far. Earth's biosphere has been remade to support about seven billion of us and our two billion cattle. Without this huge project, Earth could support no more than half a billion of us, or perhaps far less.

What would a further geoengineered world be like? According to David Brower, technology makes the world into a cage. The author closes with a riff on this: "Maybe geoengineering makes [the world] more like a terrarium, an enclosed, controlled garden. Even if geoengineering helps us one day stave off the worst climate crisis, we'll still be inside its walls."

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

One third Irish?

kw: genealogy, family history

A guy announces that he's one-third Irish, and a friend challenges him, "That's impossible? How can you figure you are one-third anything?" He answers, "It isn't hard at all. My Mom isn't Irish at all, and my Dad is two-thirds Irish!"

I happen to be blessed with many ancestors who were good record-keepers, so I know a lot about my family heritage. I recently began gathering together all the information I have about the ancestors who were immigrants to America. I know that, except for a line of Cherokees, all of my ancestry goes through immigrants, but I don't know who the actual immigrants were in all cases. I can determine about 2/3 of my heritage at the moment, and I think I'll be able to increase that with a little more study.

If I add up the influence of each immigrant I know about (there are 152), it totals about 62% of the total. It works this way. A great-grandparent (three generations ago) has a factor of 1/8, or 12.5%, while a great-great-great-grandparent (five generations back) has a factor of 1/32, or 3.125%. Some of those 152 are 12 generations back, a factor of 1/4096 or 0.0244%. It takes a bunch of them to equal a great-great-grandparent.

So here is the approximate breakdown. Of the 62% I know, 22% (just over one third of the 62%), is English, and 21% is Irish. Less than half the rest is Welsh, a bit less is Scottish, and I have one known Cherokee line and one known German line, far enough back to be about 2% each. If those proportions fairly represent my entire heritage, then I am about 1/3 English and 1/3 Irish (But only "about", not exactly 1/3!). And that surprises me. I'd gotten the impression from the prominence of one Scottish line that I was mostly Scottish, but it is closer to 8%. The largest contingent, by a small margin, is English.