Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Diplomats behaving badly

kw: politics, diplomacy, leaks

It is no surprise to me that the recent Wikileaks release of diplomatic documents has put (or revealed) eggs on many faces. Of course some folks don't like one another, and of course people have unguarded moments, particularly when they think nobody is looking, and say and write nasty things about one another. This has been going on since Og and Ug began to speak, half a million years ago last Friday.

One of my first reviews was about the book Philosophers Behaving Badly. In fact, the eight philosophers limned therein behaved totally at odds with the ideals they espoused in public. So why is anyone surprised that so many diplomats, including our Secretary of State, so well known for her sharp tongue, should express very undiplomatic opinions.

While much is being made of the more salacious cables, let's step back to realize that the vast bulk of them are the more routine, banal, boring stuff that keeps any bureaucracy going. Considering the number of truly unpleasant characters out there who are titled "head of state", the proportion of "frank" statements is really rather small.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Not so different from today

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ancient history, essays

A mere 2,210 years ago the geographer Eratosthenes first measured the circumference of the Earth, using a method illustrated here. He lived near the middle of a remarkable millennium during which a number of remarkable scientific and technological achievements were made. Concrete that outlasts the usual "modern" product by a factor of 100, flammable weapons that exploded or ignited upon contact with water (including the water in an enemy's body), and the method of extracting iron from ore without actually melting it are among the achievements described by Vicki León in How to Mellify a Corpse: And Other Human Stories of Ancient Science & Superstition.

The title subject is not a chapter heading in the book, but is one subject covered in one essay. Do you know the word "mellify"? Here is a useful clue: melissa means "bee". The body of Alexander was mellified, or mummified by the drying action of honey, and continued looking remarkably lifelike for centuries. It was visited by Julius and at least one other Caesar before being destroyed in a tsunami in 365 AD, 687 years after he died.

Amidst all this scientific achievement, how were the populace affected? Only indirectly, by the improvement of infrastructure, such as the great water supply that Rome enjoyed due to its system of aqueducts. But public knowledge? Not at all.

Half the essays in the book relate superstitions and myths. Many, if not most, Athenians were buried with the little coin they'd need to pay Charon to ferry them across the River Styx, and to hold back Cerberus the 3-headed dog. Many Romans, from Caesar to peasant, believed that sealskin protected one from Zeus's thunderbolts. And the ancient provisions for avoiding the Evil Eye were as numerous as methods for producing aphrodisiacs.

Lest we laugh too quickly at their superstitions, however, we ought to consider the mental habits of moderns, even in "advanced" countries. Millions still use the thumb-in-fist gesture to avert the Evil Eye if a stranger looks at them too boldly. How many find their heart beating a bit faster to pass a graveyard after dark, or if a cat crosses their path? Who still throws a pinch of spilled salt over a shoulder? The most-read column in the newspaper is the daily horoscope. Thankfully, the number who treat a seance as more serious than an evening's entertainment are few.

But if you are ever in southern Greece and see the parallel ruts in the ground, don't take the story that wagon wheels made them. They were carved there to make it easier for wagons to take the paths! Which would take a larger investment in slave labor: a pyramid in Egypt or the four-mile train track (for wagons, though, as locomotives were yet to be invented), the diolkos, across the Isthmus of Corinth?

The book is a harvest of enjoyable insights into the lives of people in six European and Near-Eastern cultures. It is made the more enjoyable by the slightly tongue-in-cheek writing style, a method that makes one confront the similarity of the ancients and ourselves. As I read, I'd find myself thinking, "I could relate to this guy," or, "Glad I never crossed paths with him!" The amount of research behind the book is only hinted at by two pages of bibliography. All in all, about 300 pages of fun reading.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Good for another century

kw: home maintenance, photographs

We have a dining set of cherry wood that my great uncle gave us as a wedding present. It was nearly 100 years old in 1975. Under the table is a stencil saying that it was made by the Angelus Furniture Company. I assume the company by that name in Corona, CA is the same one. The table was used in Vermont until it was sent to us.

In recent years, the table top has been getting wobbly, so I decided to tighten it as a Thanksgiving weekend project. This picture shows the gluing operation on one of the leg assemblies. I don't have a large clamp, so I put a piece of petrified wood on top, which weighs more than 100 pounds (45+ kg).

Each of the two leg assemblies is attached to an 8"x8"x1.25" (20x20x3.2 cm) oak block, which was glued and screwed to a larger oak block which is screwed to the table top. Removing a leg assembly for shipping entails unscrewing the larger oak block. But getting the two blocks separated required breaking the glue bond. We did that, and pulled off the smaller oak blocks from the leg post, because the glue was already broken there.

I put carpenter's wood glue on the top of the post and on the scar on the block, and used the method you see here to clamp them while the glue dried. Then I re-glued the whole assembly back to the larger block, and it is clamped by the screws. I suppose if I'd used hot bone glue it might have been better, because if the top works loose again it could be repaired again. I'm betting it lasts the rest of our lives. We just now set the table back upright and it feels much more stable than before.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The first cold evening

kw: photographs, flowers, weather

It snowed in the Philadelphia area on Thanksgiving day, but the cloudy night stayed above freezing. We've just had one dip to 30 degrees (-1C) so far this Fall.

Tonight it is clear, with a forecast in the mid 20s (~-5C) in the suburbs, so we decided to bring the African violets from the sunroom into the kitchen for the night. This is an exercise we perform through the winter, as the sunroom warms up pretty well during even the coldest days. We take them out mornings, and bring them inside at nightfall.

This is our current violet collection. There are four varieties here; one is pink and the rest are variations on the traditional indigo color. It is nice that they usually bloom this time of year.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The usual spread for an unusual crowd

kw: local events, holidays, thanksgiving day

Some years we have a big event on Thanksgiving Day and get together with a lot of people, and other years it is a more modest effort. This time, some friends asked us to help feed a bunch of students who were having a special conference over the weekend. They were all from China, and the event was sponsored at the church.

Here is the spread, rather modest as it is intended to feed about twenty people. Three families joined together. There was another table full of desserts. In addition to turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, with gravy on the side of course, there were some interesting Asian dishes, including some crab wafers at upper left, two kinds of yam preparations at upper right, and a soybean concoction at lower right.

The local university has the odd policy of totally closing the dorms over the break, expecting that everyone will go home for the holidays. It doesn't take into account that some foreign students aren't going to return to China or India or elsewhere and have to make other arrangements locally. We kept a couple of the students for a night, trading them to other families after that.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Not just picnic pests

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, animals, social insects, photography

Ants! They outweigh us. There is at least one of their colonies, or societies, that outnumbers the human race by a huge factor. The renowned scientist Edward O. Wilson is but one of many scientists whose career has been devoted to them. Another is his student Mark W. Moffett, who has the added distinction of producing the best-ever photographs of insects. While Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari With a Cast of Trillions is not quite a coffee-table book, it sports numerous photographs that I would class among the best wildlife photographs ever taken.

Look at this image of the African army ant Dorylus [the species is not stated]. Sharply focused, superbly composed, with stunning lighting, it exemplifies the genre. As the author explains in his first chapter, when he set out to study ants, one of the first books he obtained was a guide to photographing models, and he particularly studied the lighting techniques. This attention to detail earned him the attention of National Geographic editors, and he has worked with them from time to time for decades.

In this book, Dr. Moffett focuses our attention on six genera of ants: The Marauder Ant Pheidologeton diversus and related species of Asia, The African Army Ant Dorylus, the Weaver Ant Oecophylla of Africa and Australiasia, and in the New World, the Amazon Ant Polyergus, the Leafcutter Ant Atta, and the Argentine Ant Linepithema humile.

Marauder ants, a moniker the author gave them, are similar to army ants, a case of convergent evolution. A marauder colony is omnivorous, taking about equal amounts of animal prey and high-quality plant matter by raiding along a broad front supported by a network of pathways and long-established trunk lines. This species has the greatest polymorphism known, with four sizes of workers, and the largest "giant majors" are up to 800 times the weight of the smallest minor workers. Imagine a small man, say 125 pounds, working with a large brontosaur weighing 50 tons (eight times the weight of the largest elephant). Can you say Fred Flintstone?

Both Marauder ants and Army ants exhibit great polymorphism and extensive division of labor. The large workers aren't just soldiers, but do all kinds of heavier tasks. A swarm of the smallest workers typically suffices to immobilize a prey insect or small vertebrate, but it often takes a visit by media or major workers to complete the killing and dismemberment of prey into carryable pieces.

What these two kinds of raiding ants are to ground-level biomes, the Weaver ants are to the treetops. They are less polymorphic, but do have a division of labor based more on the age of the ant. Though they raid like army ants, they are also ranchers, caring for scale insects and other honeydew-producing "cattle" in some of the leafy "houses" they construct using silk from their larvae.

Almost total opposites in habit are the Amazon ants, one genus of which are the familiar "red ants" of American back yards. I call them the Lazybones ants, because they don't work. Solomon certainly did not have Amazon ants in mind when he exhorted, "Look to the ant, sluggard." The only work an Amazon ant does is to raid a nearby Formica (black ant) nest to steal the pupae. A few thousand red ants at a time will go out in late afternoon and raid a Formica nest. The black ants put up little resistance besides blocking the anthill entrances. Once the red ants break in, the black ants let the raid proceed. The stolen pupae are hatched in the red ant colony and raised to be slaves, by slaves already there. The red ants don't even feed themselves, and would starve if not fed by slaves.

We're back to ants that work for themselves. Probably the hardest workers are the gardening ants, the Leafcutters, such as these Atta cephalotes workers, also called Parasol ants, carrying leaf cuttings to the nest.

In the nest, leaf pieces are chewed into mulch and added to a fungus garden, which small workers tend assiduously, cleaning out competing fungi and killing encroaching pests, except for a few species that employ chemical camouflage, which is a problem that most ant colonies encounter. These little agriculturalists have been perfecting their farming techniques for fifty million years. The relative efficiency of genetic versus cultural evolution is thus starkly shown: most of the progress they made over those millions of years was raced through by humans in about eight thousand years.

Hey! Any conspiracy theorists reading this? How's this for a global conspiracy? There is a supercolony of Argentine ants called the Very Large Colony that covers much of the state of California, and bids fair to spread nationwide. These little gray "sugar ants" (a frequent visitor to the American kitchen) number in the trillions and are the largest superorganisms known. Where the Argentine ant has invaded America, most other ant species are in decline or have been wiped out. The only ant that typically holds its own against them is the Fire ant. Get this: Fire ants also hail from Argentina.

Argentina is a breeding ground for super-ants. When a colony of any ant species from Argentina gets started in a North American (or European—watch out, you guys!) yard, it is like dropping the Phillies among the Little Leagues. Nobody else is gonna win any games. Argentine ants, in particular, are accustomed to constant warfare, are super-aggressive, and even though the workers are all quite small, they are fearless and stupendously numerous and simply swamp an enemy out of existence.

Both Argentine and Fire ants have multiple hills and multiple queens over the area dominated by one swarm. Dr. Moffett makes a good case that each swarm is a single species, so that there are four species/supercolonies known in California, and a handful around the rest of North America. They are reproductively isolated because they kill any ant that "smells wrong", including flying-in drones that might provide genetic mixing. The borders between colonies are no-mans(ants)-lands that host constant wars. If you happen to live in Escondido, for example, and live in just the wrong place, your yard is a battleground, always littered with dead ants.

In a closing chapter, the author muses on three ways of thinking about an ant society: as a society, as an organism, and as a mind. As to the latter point, though it seems a stretch, the way a group of ants milling about reach "decisions" related to food, or nesting places, or where to go, bears quite a resemblance to the way neurons in an animal brain are thought to reach decisions. Whereas the neurons in a human brain communicate over small distances at speeds of about 66 m/s (150 mph), ants communicate at their walking/running rates of about a meter per minute. Yet the number of neurons available for ant thought in a large colony easily exceed the neurons in a human brain. Like the mills of the gods, ant thinking must be very slow, but exceedingly detailed.

Just six species, of the 12,000 or more that are known! There is so much yet to learn, and one lifetime is so, so short. A book like this is the best reason for the existence of books.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Getting rebalanced

kw: aging gracefully

I've heard about this for years: stand barefoot, close your eyes, and lift one foot. Count how long you can stand before you have to put the foot down to catch your balance. The older you are, so it is said, the less time you can stand one-footed with your eyes closed. Now this procedure has been turned into a "test" by the folks at RealAge, with a table quantifying your "balance age" with the number of seconds you last.

With closed eyes, I can stand one-footed for seven seconds. My "balance age" is thus 60. Considering my actual age is 63, it is pretty close. But is it meaningful? In particular, a few months ago, thirty pounds heavier and in worse physical shape, my duration was five seconds and "balance age" was upwards of 65. In the past month I've been standing to put on my stockings rather than doing it sitting down. A month ago, even with my eyes open, I could barely get a sock on without falling down. Now I can put on my socks with ease. There are supposedly balance exercises you can use to improve your ability to stand on one foot. Dressing without sitting down seems to be a pretty good one.

There is another factor here. I think the "close your eyes" part was just to make the test shorter. The table at RealAge indicates that people under thirty can last for nearly thirty seconds. With my eyes open I last about a minute. If the proportion holds, it becomes a test of endurance. Holding one leg in the air for five minutes, at thirty or any age, is hard just because of the weight of the leg. But people vary a lot in how much they need visual cues to stay upright. For some, standing on two feet with their eyes closed can be an iffy business.

Like all such simple tests, this one is at best a very rough indicator, for some people but not all. It'll be interesting, in another month or so, to see if my duration grows longer than seven seconds.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Not seen from space

kw: observations, artifacts

The narrow feature seen down the middle of this image is a small section of the Great Wall of China, on the portion accessible from the Badaling Station northwest of Beijing. Four of the guard towers are visible. The northernmost is at an elevation of 2,550 ft (777 m). The viewpoint by Google Earth's reckoning is at an altitude of 5,322 ft (1,622 m).

If I understand correctly that altitude is measured from the geoid, not from "ground" level, the viewpoint is about a half mile (0.8 km) above the locally highest point of the Wall. At this altitude, the Wall is impressive. Using the "tilting" feature of Google Earth I was able to determine that the Wall extends from horizon to horizon.

The length of the main trunk of the Great Wall is given in several sources as 5,500 miles, or about 8,850 km. As the crow flies, it is probably about half this extent from end to end. Side branches and parallel sections are thought to extend the total to about six times this amount. However it is measured, the Wall is one of the largest of human artifacts. It is truly on a continental scale.

So, is it visible from space? I remember hearing that it is visible from the Moon, or from orbit, and so forth, then also hearing that it is not. What is the real story? Surely a continent-spanning object should be visible from pretty far away…right? I think the images here show, no, not really. It may be long, but it is rather narrow, rarely exceeding 100 feet (30 m) in width.

From an altitude of 21,000 feet (6,400 m) the Great Wall is seen as a thin scratch just left of center. I shifted the view over a bit so as to include a portion of a nearby divided highway, with each section easily twice as wide. There is also a river valley further to the left that is more visible than the Wall. Keep these two features in mind when you look at the third image below.

Let us consider what the unaided eye can see. Two criteria are found in the literature about keenness of vision. Firstly, for discerning two stars close together, either in the sky or in a telescope eyepiece, one arc minute is used, which is a factor of 1/3,400 of the distance to an object. Secondly, the "lines per degree" criterion: when discerning a small object in an image, the criterion is 1/1,000 of the distance to the object.

If a bright light was put on either side of the Great Wall, how high would you have to be before you could not tell there were two lights? Assume the lights are 100' (30 m) apart. 3,400 times this is 340,000 feet (62 mi) or 102 km. That's just high enough for the lowest orbit that won't decay quickly. However, to see the wall as part of an image, without the help of the lights, the more realistic criterion is 1,000x, or 100,000 feet (19 mi) or 30 km. That's only about a tenth of the way to the altitude of the International Space Station.

At an elevation of 15 miles (24 km), by the reckoning of Google Earth, this is what you might see. First, click on the image to see the 800-pixel-size version. Look near the center of the image, between the divided highway on the right and the river valley on the left. The Wall is barely visible between them. In the image on this page, half that size, it is what you might see from twice the height, and you aren't likely to see the Great Wall at all. Double the height yet again, and the divided highway gets rather hard to see.

In this essay, some reports are summarized, showing that nobody has seen the Great Wall from orbit without optical aid, and even then it was found only with difficulty. It may be really, really long, but it simply isn't wide enough to be seen from orbit, let alone from the Moon!

When you are right up next to them, the "works of man" do seem imposing, mighty to behold. But from afar, on the daylit side, the only detectable sign of human life on the planet is air pollution.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Calibrated pace

kw: measurements, walking, animals

During a walk today, I decided to re-calibrate my pace. The schoolyard running track was gravel until recently, when they put on one of the new rubberized, permanently marked tracks. Decades ago I calibrated my pace on a quarter-mile track with good markings at 5.6 feet, or 1.71m. That is also 942 paces to the mile.

Modern tracks are all in meters. It took 62 paces to go 100 meters, and both trials I measured, my last pace went long about 10 cm. So 100.1/62 comes to 1.615m or 5.3 feet; 997 paces to the mile. This is where the mile gets it name: mille pas or "thousand paces".

I first calibrated my pace as part of a field mapping class, when I was a Geology undergraduate. While we did most of our mapping exercises using an alidade (a calibrated telescope, but primitive compared to a theolodite) and plane table, we had to do a few the Boy Scout way, using a compass and pacing to get bearings and distances.

A steady pace works well enough on flat ground, but we soon learned how much it varies when the ground gets hilly, and of course much of our work was done in a cliffy area where pacing distances just wasn't an option. Triangulation from a well-measured base line provides the most accurate survey.

Update on our mouse problems (see This mouse got away): I checked the rat-size glue trap for a couple of days, then not until today. It contained a very dead mouse. I felt bad that I didn't find it in time to put him out of his misery quicker. But we thought he wasn't there; we saw a mouse in the garage the day after I wrote that post, and that one we caught with a snap trap. I put a new glue trap in the crawl space, in case they still have a way to get in. If I keep catching mice there, I'll have to go in again and see if there are holes to fill I missed the first time.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Healthier than the average horse

kw: local events, medical tests

Once every two years my wife and I take a set of the "Life Line Screening" tests. Our doctor recommends them as an adjunct to the tests he prescribes yearly. Today I took the morning off, and we went. In spite of the fact that I had a serious bout with cancer ten years ago, I am in very good health. The rundown:
  1. Mini-EKG for atrial fibrillation: Negative. My heart is as steady as sunrise.
  2. Bone density scan of the heel bone: Almost too dense for the machine to get a reading. Translated, that means I have no trace of osteoporosis.
  3. Arm and leg cuff test for peripheral artery disease: All negative, no trace of problem.
  4. Ultrasound of carotid arteries: No trace of plaque, so negligible risk of stroke.
In the past I've also had abdominal ultrasound to check for an aortic aneurysm, but the past negative tests meant there was no need to do one this time.

Considering that my father is 88 and going strong, I suppose I need to prepare for living until about 90. No sense in retiring too soon and going broke in old age.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fooling ourselves

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, perception

Before you read further, check out this video. It is the most famous example of missing the obvious out there. We'll come back to it later.

The latest statistics show that about half of motorcycle accidents occur when the cycle hits a car, or a car hits the cycle. In a great many of these cases, the car driver says something like, "I looked before I turned, and saw nothing, but when I began to turn, there was a crash. The motorcycle came out of nowhere!" In The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, authors Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons explain this and other scenarios as people running afoul of the Illusion of Attention. We tend to see only what we are looking for.

I have a much less life-threatening example from a fossil-collecting experience. I was taken by some friends to a "good place to collect trilobites" in the Nevada desert. We stopped by a road cut and got out of the car. I saw an expanse of gray rock with dark specks, and asked, what I should look for. One friend put his finger on a dark speck and said, "Look closely!" Suddenly I saw, it was a trilobite about an inch long. I stepped back and saw that the hillside showed thousands of them! I had seen nothing.

I hope the YouTube link above stays active for a long time. It shows six people, three wearing white t-shirts, three wearing black. You are supposed to count how many passes of a basketball are made by those wearing white. There is more than one ball, making this quite a challenge. During the action, someone in a gorilla suit walks to the center, pounds the chest, and walks off. Here is the kicker: Almost exactly half of people who watch this video do not see the gorilla! Half! The first time I saw it, I also missed the gorilla.

Seeing or not seeing is not related to intelligence (my IQ is 160), education, or even whether you like basketball, and not even if you get the number of passes correct. Just, half see and half don't. People reporting that they never saw the motorcycle they hit with their car, really did not see a motorcycle in plain view. Expectation is powerful.

As the authors explain, we don't have sufficient brain power (not even with an IQ of 200) to notice everything we see. In dangerous situations, we don't have time to take stock; we need to see the most salient threat and react to it quickly. This is why flight training simulators are so valuable. They set better expectations for pilots without putting them in grave danger, so they can quickly sort out a situation that may be rare in the air, but cannot be second-guessed. I suspect if we all were required to undergo driving simulator training, we'd be more likely to notice things like that motorcycle pulling up alongside.

Maybe not. We get used to what is usual. The illusion of attention is one of six experiences discussed and analyzed in the book. I'll touch on each one, because this is one function of my blog: to help me remember stuff I was really impressed with, but will forget after a while. And that brings up #2: The illusion of Memory. The remaining four illusions are Confidence, Knowledge, Cause and Potential.

How long did it take you to memorize your Social Security Number? For 90% of us, a nine-digit number is too long to memorize without several repetitions, and perhaps writing it down a dozen times. Telephone numbers were set up in exchanges with no more than a few million subscribers, so they could be limited to seven digits; it was known already that few people could recall more than seven digits without lots of work. To make it easier, in the early days, the sub-exchange was denoted by a word. For example, the first phone number I had was CR-7-3793, or "Crestwood 7-3793", which dialed out (no touch typing in 1954) as 277-3793. Everyone in the Crestwood area of Salt Lake City could dial one another with just the last five digits.

A memory experiment was done a generation ago. Youngsters between 7 and 12 who had been to Disneyland were asked if they'd seen Woody Woodpecker there. About a quarter said they had, and when probed for details, some told elaborate stories about holding his hand, getting a picture taken, or an autograph. But nobody had a picture or autograph, and nobody could: Woody Woodpecker is not a Disney character, and will never be seen at a Disney park (unless someone pulls off an elaborate practical joke! Hmmm). If we are wise, we use various methods to enhance our memories, and take care about what we report as "real experiences".

If you go to a doctor, who shows you in a book what the right treatment is for your condition, does this reduce your confidence in the doctor? Most of us prefer a doctor (or other expert) who expresses a complete grasp of the subject and confidently diagnoses and prescribes remedies. But which is more likely to be right? The doctor's (possibly out of date) memory, or a recent publication? It is told of E.W. Marland, founder of Conoco, that an aide of his was fired for taking notes; he told him, "I can't have someone who needs to keep his memory on a piece of paper." I have learned by experience that I can't trust someone who isn't willing to write important things down. Marland was wrong, and lost an employee he ought to have kept.

We all tend to follow confident leaders. Often, their expression of confidence is the only thing they have going for them! The biblical book of Proverbs uses two Hebrew words for FOOL. One word, used only a few times, means an ignorant person. The other word, used almost 80 times, means "SELF CONFIDENT". Solomon, the wisest man of his generation, had learned something about those who have plenty of confidence, but little to back it up. Are you a good cook? Don't just say, "I'm a Cordon Bleu chef," make me dinner. I don't care how Confident a cook you may be; I care how skilled you are.

The authors suggest you test your Knowledge by drawing a bicycle (a simple one-speed), in as much detail as you can. Did you remember to put in the front and back gear, the chain, the pedals, axles, and everything else? Here is a simpler one: draw one of the chairs in your dining room. What kind of back does it have? Are there braces holding the legs? How many slats in the back, if there are slats? We all know how to use a radio. How many of us could make a radio? One gift my father gave me when I was eight was an old wind-up bedside clock. He suggested I take it apart and put it back together. When I got it working again, I really knew what made a clock tick! Our lives are full of things we know only in superficial ways. What in your life could you write a Wikipedia article about?

The illusion of Cause is a big one. "Lung Cancer Causes Smoking!" This headline ran on a spoof paper some of us produced in high school. At that time, there were still TV ads for cigarettes and cigars, and the tobacco industry was pulling out all the stops to prevent the government from mandating the warning labels you find on all tobacco products (and lots of others, now). Let's think about smoking and lung cancer. While it has since been proven that chemicals in tobacco smoke do indeed cause cancer, in the 1960s the argument was made that "correlation does not imply causation", and that perhaps some third factor resulted in both cancer and in a tendency to use nicotine. Or that people predisposed to cancer were also more likely to smoke.

It is quite true that correlation does not mean causation. But as a joke based on another proverb has it, "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,...but that's the way to bet!" (The Bible quote is actually from Ecclesiastes) Anecdotes that seem to support a cause-and-effect are powerful, because our emotions make such strong memories (the illusion of memory gets involved here). Consider vaccination as a purported cause of autism. Kids get vaccinated for Measels (and Mumps and Rubella) with the MMR shot at about one year of age. Autism, when it occurs, is usually noticed between 15 and 18 months of age. Some parents have concluded that the vaccination caused the autism. They need to consider this fact: Vaccination with MMR has not been performed in Japan since 1993, but the rate of autism is exactly the same as it was before that. One might as well say that weaning causes autism, because it also happens before autism is noticed.

Finally, there is the illusion of Potential, most markedly seen in the (totally debunked) "Mozart effect". The thesis is simple: listening to certain sonatas by Mozart was claimed to raise the IQ of children by eight or nine points. While one study was published reporting this magnitude of "effect", it has never been reproduced by anyone else. It is more likely (this is me speaking) the Hawthorne Effect: People do better when they are paid attention to. The world is full of self-help advice on how to "easily" think better, read faster, do math, get stronger, or learn a musical instrument.

The reality is based on a number you really, really need to know: 10,000. It takes ten thousand hours of practice to become expert at something. Good readers read well because they read a lot. Math only comes easily to those who have done a lot of math.

I sometimes say I learned guitar easily. Actually, I easily learned the things that are easy to learn, about ten chords and a couple of strumming patterns. Beyond that, I think it had more to do with this: I played ukulele with my Dad from age eight to eleven. We sang together a lot. He got a 4-string banjo, tuned it like a tenor guitar (the same as a baritone ukulele), and we both played that for the next three years. Then my Mom got her old guitar out of the attic (I still have it), and showed me what to do with the extra two strings. She also showed me one tune she could do, where she played chords in a way that you could hear most of the melody, and told me that the tunes to most songs are "mostly in the chords".

Guess what I did for the next three years? I practiced four hours daily, for the good feeling of learning something new, making a sound I hadn't made before, and perfecting techniques I could see on TV shows such as "Hootenanny". During those same three years, we had a monthly singing evening at our house, with musical friends. Then, when I went to college, the "coffee shop" craze was just beginning, and I played every weekend. I also had a roommate who was a trombone player, and we learned some musical ideas from each other. Now it is up to you if that was "easy" or not. With all that background, of course I am good on the guitar!

And in spite of all that, I frequently meet people who have less experience than I do who can play things I cannot play. The range of guitar techniques is so vast, nobody can learn them all. There will always be someone who knows something few others can do equally well. I have my own signature licks that I've never heard anyone else do. If you want to do something well, do it four hours a day for ten years, or do it all day for five years. This is the reason that businesses like to hire someone with five years' experience. That is what it takes to become an expert.

So the illusion of potential is really an illusion of easy expertise. Sorry, but that is an oxymoron. I mentioned above one reason I write this blog: as a memory aid. There is another: to become a better writer. I cannot write for eight hours a day, but if I write for an hour a day, it is better than not writing. Because of college and graduate school, I put in lots of hours writing during the 1970s and '80s. It's a pity there weren't blogs already (none that I heard of, anyway). One does what one can.

Even knowing about these six illusions, how can we avoid their more dire consequences? Will our knowing about the motorcycle effect make it any safer for a motorcycle to zoom past you or me? I don't know, and the authors don't know. Will we still fall prey to every confident-sounding charlatan out there? Maybe sometimes. It is hard to say "No" sometimes. This is why we seldom answer the phone; we let people leave a message. Listening to the message gives us time to consider whether the call is reasonable, and we don't need to worry so much about being on all the "don't call" lists. Our friends know we'll call them back.

Now that I know the gorilla is there, I always see it when I watch the video, but I suspect there are other situations in which I fail to see what is right in front of me. I have learned to hesitate a little, to look or think twice. A little humility isn't just good for the soul, sometimes it is a lot safer, too.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Feeding us all

kw: food, agriculture, grains

Some of the people I've been working with on a recent project are food production researchers. Two weeks ago this report forecasting global grain production for 2010 was published. The bottom line:
  • Wheat: 644 mt (million tons)
  • Maize/Corn: 811 mt
  • Rice: 449 mt
The total is 1,730 mt. That works out to about 250 kg/person/yr or 0.69 kg/person/day. Grains are the staples, and provide most of the calories consumed worldwide. While it seems this ought to be enough for all, two factors cut into the total yield, which will be, incidentally, 3% less than last year.

Firstly, in richer nations large amounts of grains are fed to livestock, which are notoriously inefficient: 0.1 calorie produced per calorie consumed (cal/cal) for beef and other ruminants, and 0.3-0.35 cal/cal for poultry. Secondly, corn or maize is being increasingly used as a biofuel, producing ethanol for burning in automobiles rather than food for people. It isn't sustainable.

As much as I enjoy my affluent Western lifestyle, I suspect there will be less of it to enjoy in coming years. Water wars are on the horizon, and food wars are sure to follow. Fighting over food and water are not conducive to increased productivity. Sorry, I don't have a solution to suggest, just a growing worry.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The spade and the fork

kw: local events, gardening, folk songs

Yesterday and today were laboring days. We have a compost pile, and a smallish vegetable garden (~20 sq m), and both needed work. One thing we grow it tomatoes, and we favor a variety that can grow up a fence twice my height, and back to the ground, "Sweet 100", a cherry tomato variety. We also grow, typically, two or more other varieties that grow larger fruit, whatever is fungus resistant.

Side quibble: Many tomato growers aren't putting designations like VFNT on the tags any more. One has to know beforehand which variety is resistant, or try a variety and hope for a lucky break. It seems the varieties also change from year to year, because this year's Sweet 100 vines only survived a month after setting fruit, then were all dead of fungus infections. We had to rely on some volunteers from a grape tomato we grew last year for small-fruiting tomatoes in August and later.

We also grow other stuff, but this post is about the ending of the season. Some volunteer tomatoes grew so heavily that they pulled one fence half over. Saturday morning's task was to harvest the rest of the vegetables (in addition to tomatoes, we had sweet peppers and broccoli still growing. The cucumbers grew for only half the season, then collapsed. Probably another fungus), then fix the fences. We have rabbit fence four feet high (1.2 m) all around, except for a removable gate, and also the section on the North side is over ten feet high (3+ m), for climbing vines.

Then we tackled the compost pile. It is almost four feet wide (~1.1 m), more than six feet long (1.9 m), and was about 2.5 feet deep (0.7 m). It has been a-building for about six years, since the last time we harvested finished compost. Finished compost has a density about half that of water, so the harvest required moving about a ton of material. While clearing the garden, I'd uprooted and chopped all the plants, so I had quite a pile of plant matter set aside ready to restart the compost pile.

The upper part of the pile contained a lot of lawn clippings. I use a mulching mower most of the time, but I put some lawn clippings on the compost pile as a nitrogen source. The rest is fallen leaves and some of the kitchen garbage. Nothing goes down our garbage disposal (The only reason we have one is so the house can be sold some day). We had a tree removed three years ago, and a quarter of the pile was the shredded stump. I used a pitchfork to move the clippings and the shreds, and a shovel for the rest. As I worked on it, I remembered the old song, "Lavender's Green". Its first two verses go:
Lavender's green, dilly dilly, Lavender's blue.
Angels above, dilly dilly, know I love you.
Lavender's blue, dilly dilly, Lavender's green.
When I am king, dilly dilly, you'll be my queen.

Call up the men, dilly dilly, set them to work,
Some with the spade, dilly dilly, some with the fork.
Some in the field, dilly dilly, some on the farm,
Whilst you and I, dilly dilly, keep ourselves warm.
So I did both the spade work and the fork work, for this little task. Once I had the unfinished material forked off into a pile, I began moving the rest to the garden, using a wheel barrow. My wife did some of the spade work as well. Nightfall found us 3/4 done. This afternoon we finished. The entire garden is now about eight inches (20 cm) deep in loamy compost, and it is a sort of raised bed, compared to the past few years.

We put the freshest plant material on the bottom in the compost area, mixed the wood shreds and grass clippings, and put it on top. I'll put a couple of pounds of fertilizer on the garden and let the minerals spread through the winter. Now it's a hot shower (and maybe some liniment) for me. Glad that's done!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

This mouse got away

kw: local events, animals

This is a glue-type mouse trap, which ought to show close to full size on your monitor. All the white stuff is pieces of dead pillbugs that got into it as a mouse fought its way free of the trap last night. There is an impression of a tiny foot, or a couple of toes, down and to the left of the center cluster of bug parts, and some hair in the area more to the right.

Yesterday afternoon, prompted by scratching noises within the walls of the family room, we put this trap near the access window to the crawl space under the family room. The rest of the house has a basement.

Today, when we looked in, we didn't see that trap! After looking about, we could see it about twelve feet away, on the other side of the crawl space. I went in and retrieved it (hard hat and knee pads). I've never known a mouse to get away from one of these before.

Stay tuned: we went to the hardware store and got a rat-size trap. I put a dollop of peanut butter in the center and put it back near the spot this one was originally put. By the way, when I catch a critter, I don't let it starve to death. I put it in the freezer overnight, and throw it away in the morning.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Keeping the soda in the bottle

kw: acronyms, materials science

I chanced upon a new acronym this morning: WVTR, which means Water Vapor Transmission Rate. Controlling this material property is the key to using plastic for drink bottles and for other uses where water transmission must be minimized. The standard unit is g/m2/day. For high density polyethylene (HDPE), the kind used for a one-gallon plastic milk jug, the WVTR is about 6. Since the surface area of a gallon jug is about 1/6 square meter, a gallon of milk will lose a gram of water daily. This is acceptable for milk jugs, because you have to use the milk in a week or so or it goes bad anyway.

The situation is different for soda and beer bottles. The permeation must be a lot lower because these products are pressurized by CO2, but fortunately this molecule is larger than the H2O molecule. Still, a soda bottle has five layers of plastic and coatings to get the WVTR down by a factor of 100 or so. Since 1/100 is 10-2, this is called E-2 performance.

The application I was researching is encapsulants for electronic materials. Pure silicon, for example, the "active material" in most electronic parts, is very water sensitive, so if you don't keep it bone-dry, it will react, corrode and soon fail. I found that companies are presently striving to develop material combinations that achieve WVTR ratings of E-4 to E-6 (that is, from 100 down to 1 µg/m2/day). All plastics are a little porous, a little permeable, so attaining such low permeability is quite an achievement.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

More experiments and some finality

kw: story reviews, continued review, anthologies

Continuing and concluding prior reviews of stories in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories for 2010.
  • Into the Gorge by Ron Rash: Two lives in counterpoint, a man's great aunt who ends her life sitting unclothed under a tree in winter, and he, getting old, revisiting the land he no longer owns, and getting into more than a spot of trouble over it. As I read, a refrain of an old song: "I fought the law, and the law won." Right or wrong, it always does.
  • Microstories by John Edgar Wideman: In the endnotes, the author says a requested short short was followed by 120 others, of which this is a selection of eighteen. They range from evocative to disturbing, from one that is a single 500-word sentence to one that includes nearly as many full stops as words.
  • Some Women by Alice Munro: The story's impact hinges on a single decision by a dying man, perhaps the only decision he's been allowed by the powerful women who surround him.
  • Making Good by Lore Segal: Based on a few real incidents, descendants of "good Germans" (or in this story, Viennese) are closeted with Jews who've lost family members in the Holocaust. Who knows what people think? The focus character seems satisfied at the end, for no good reason; satisfied it is over, I suppose.
I'd say there were three stories I was glad I'd read, and only one or two that I felt wasted my time. I clearly have sensibilities very, very different from those who chose this collection.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The odd experiment or two

kw: story reviews, continued review, anthologies

Continuing prior reviews of stories in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories for 2010. Among these stories are a few literary experiments, which is at least noteworthy in itself.
  • Oh, Death by James Lasdun: A young man's struggles to make a living, amid forces he cannot comprehend, and his untimely death. The archetype of a puma's presence indicates a torch passed from the protagonist to the narrator.
  • Fresco, Byzantine by Natalie Bakopoulos: The milieu is the island prisons where members of the Greek opposition were kept. Artists and other political prisoners make what life they can, and a hidden fresco epitomizes their defiance. Actually quite a good story.
  • The End of My Life in New York by Peter Cameron: After an experiment in "open partnership" (the modern analogue to "open marriage"), the character ends the story as clueless as he began it.
  • Obit by Ted Sanders: An experiment in parallel-track writing. Everybody dies sometime, and by the end of this, you wonder if you've also died.
  • The Lover by Damon Galgut: A very odd story of compulsive travel told in a mix of first and third person (sometimes within the same sentence), and with a range of time perspectives. If there is a message, it is to take opportunities as they arise. Evocative phrase: "…the story of traveling a long way while standing still." Yet the piece is of traveling hard to go nowhere.
  • An East Egg Update by George Bradley: Another experiment, consisting of ten sentences, each a long paragraph of 300-800 words. The author has succeeded in producing a piece to which the Gunning Fog Index cannot be usefully applied. The subject is the mystery of the adult world to a pre-schooler whose mother has just learned she is soon to die of cancer.
These stories are at least interesting, if not (with one exception) enjoyable.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Some stories go somewhere

kw: story reviews, continued review, anthologies

Continuing yesterday's review of stories in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories for 2010.
  • Birch Memorial by Preeta Samarsan: This one is interesting in its voice, a Malaysian pidgin. A poor young woman becomes the research subject of a student of folklore and colonial history, which leads to a bit of culture shock in her home society.
  • Visitation by Brad Watson: A single dad trying to "help" raise his young son, an all-too-frequent situation these days. He almost learns something, culminating in a palm reading that leaves the end of the story ambiguous.
  • The Woman of the House by William Trevor: An elderly crippled man contracts with shadowy handymen to have his house painted. His sister deals the the flak of his passing away during the work. In an unusual development of trust, everyone leaves well enough alone at the end.
  • The Bridge by Daniel Alarcón: Differing interpretations of the accidental death of a blind couple, as a man struggles to cope with his insane father. Another story that almost goes somewhere, a protagonist left on the verge of learning about himself.
  • The Spoiled Man by Daniyal Mueenuddin: In counterpoint to "Birch Memorial", an elderly pauper gets employment quite a bit above his station, which of course turns out rather differently than he might expect, but is quite predictable to anyone who knows the ways of privilege.
Does today's audience for literature really like being left in the lurch by all these stories? While I might imagine various endings to such stories, I do so even when an author provides a clear and conclusive ending. I don't mind "what-if" thinking, but I do want to know what the author had in mind when writing the story. I am left thinking, the author isn't going anywhere either, and perhaps that is true.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Decline of a once-great anthology

kw: book reviews, story reviews, anthologies

This is the first of a few posts, reviewing the latest incarnation of the premier short story collection, currently named The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories: The Best Stories of the Year, this year edited by Laura Furman, selected by prize jury members Junot Díaz, Paula Fox, and Yiyun Li. I could not find out much, but apparently the O. Henry collection is now sponsored, or co-sponsored, by Pen America Center, which began as an anti-censorship organization and sponsors creative writing worldwide.

I suspect that Wm. S. Porter would be rather puzzled by some of the stories included in this year's volume, as I have been increasingly puzzled over the years as trends in American literature have shifted. While I may sum up in my last post on this volume, for now I'll just make comments as today's five stories seem to warrant.
  • Them Old Cowboy Songs by Annie Proulx: As close to a total waste of words as I've seen anthologized, this ugly, tragic story goes nowhere, and nobody learns anything. It epitomizes the "what's the point?" attitude of so many today. This surprised me, because I have liked other work by Proulx.
  • Clothed, Female Figure by Kirstin Allio: A nanny, reading letters from a former charge, letters she does not answer, comes to terms with her own past, at least a little.
  • The Headstrong Historian by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: A window into some little-known history, the "pacification" of the Ibo (or Igbo) and other tribes of Nigeria, told as the experience of three generations that produce a historian who will tell history honestly. This touched me particularly because of Ibo people that we know.
  • Stand by Me by Wendell Berry: I've always liked Wendell Berry's writing. While this may not be his finest hour, it is a sight better than the first two stories. It is about caring because you are there to care.
  • Sheep May Safely Graze by Jess Row: This one puzzled me. A man grieving the death of his young daughter contemplates a murder, which forces him to consider who he really is. But there is less here than meets the eye. It seems the author is trying novel-building techniques in a story much to small to support them. With a better story plan, he could have told this story in half the words, or told twice the story.
Fifteen stories to go. Maybe two or three more posts. I hope they didn't put "the best" first.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Getting to the origins of American life

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, north american history, colonial america

In the course of research in support of a family history project, I've done a lot of reading from source books of early North American history. Nothing much that I can review; a little here, and a little there. But I did read one book in its entirety, one renowned for its comprehensiveness and scholarship, Plymouth Colony: Its History & People 1620-1691 by Eugene Aubrey Stratton. At 477 pages, apparatus included, it is a bit of a daunting read, but made a little less massive by the large amount of bibliographical material, most of which is appended chapter by chapter, to avoid a hundred-page "References" section at the end.

When doing genealogical research, it is exciting to one day track down an ancestor whose great-grandparents were early colonists, or even Mayflower passengers. That means you've suddenly tapped into a treasure trove of published material, and your ancestor will undoubtedly prove to be descended from several others who came on the same ship, and quite a number more who came to colonial America in the years following 1620.

Plymouth Colony is comprehensive in three things. Firstly, it names more than 3,000 individuals who came on dozens of ships throughout the years the colony existed. Secondly, the author and editors have tapped all the primary and many secondary sources to produce this portrait of colonial life. Thirdly, the author avoids the narrow focus on religious freedom seen through a modern lens that mars so many treatments of "the Pilgrims", and instead paints a balanced portrait of colonial life among people very much like us, complex people, people who wanted better things than they'd been offered in the England of the 1600s.

The book has three sections of comparable size plus a set of appendices. First is a seven-chapter history from the landing of the Mayflower to the merging of Plymouth Colony with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691. The second comprises seven chapters of topical material, including politics, real estate, sex, daily life, and the writers among them whose writings are many of our primary sources. The third section presents mini-biographies of more than 1,000 persons. The appendices include lists of persons on various rolls such as the 1643 "Men able to bear arms" muster, and an example or two of estate inventories which give an idea of the material goods available to the colonists.

Having pored over the names and records in my family tree for half my life, I found it fascinating to read this or that tidbit about someone whose name I knew. As in any family record, there are a few famous names, such as William Brewster, the ruling elder of the Plymouth church in its early years. There are also a black sheep or two, such as Edward Doty, an irascible fellow who was before the court, usually engaged in a lawsuit, more than 100 times. Am I right to consider that appalling? I've never been in a courtroom except as a jury member, or to witness a naturalization (barring one traffic offense at age 18). The majority of the people were like the majority of people around you. Making a living, trying to raise their kids well, and enjoying life as well as they can.

A lot has been written about the Pilgrims (so-called only decades later) and their quest for religious freedom. That was true for about half the Mayflower passengers, but for a much smaller proportion of those who came later. Many were the younger sons of modestly wealthy English families who stood to inherit little or nothing from their fathers' estates. The right of primogeniture, in which the eldest son got all the land and most of everything else, was one English custom quickly abandoned by the colonists in favor of a more Biblical method of giving the eldest a double portion.

While the colony was indeed run as a theocracy, the rapid increase in population, and the mixed nature of that population, led to the splitting off of town after town in the Plymouth area, and also led to frequent religious conflicts as separatists and puritans of various (fairly recent) traditions chivvied for control of the churches. There was division after division. Quite a sad prospect. It is little wonder that the following generations did not share the zeal of their parents and grandparents. But it is the story of every religious movement throughout human history.

I took lots of notes about the lives of my ancestors as I read. Of most value to me, however, was the treasury of bibliographical material, which directed me to sources I'd been slowly gathering in a much more arduous way. It is one thing to build a tree and gather sources in Ancestry.com; they almost spoon-feed you with their database search results. Of course, not everything is in their databases (though they are working on that!). So it is quite another matter to do actual library research, searching for snippets of information in this book and that article. Having a narrative reference like Plymouth Colony is a Godsend. Though the book is 24 years old it is by no means dated, though a few conclusions are superseded by later research. Colonial history is an area of very active scholarly interest, and many smart and persistent people are continually making new correlations, and new conclusions being drawn. This book stands as a landmark of scholarship in this fascinating area of the nation's history.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Eleven ways to add a D

kw: words, english language

In a recent post, I showed that 95% of English verbs form the past tense by putting a "D" sound at the end. Here we'll look at the various ways that "D" sound is spelled, plus the sounds that are added to form the present participle, third person singular and associated noun. This will of necessity be presented in narrative form, because Blogger doesn't properly support tables.

In the lists I made of verb forms, I distinguished them into 42 categories by the patterns by which the past, past participle, present participle, third person singular, and related noun are formed. For the vast majority of English verbs, the past and past participle are the same: "Today I Start, earlier I Started, and I have Started many times." From this point, I'll show the full conjugations this way: Start//Started/Starts/Starting/Starter, where that // indicates that the two past forms are the same. In planned posts where I discuss verbs with a full conjugation, all the parts will be shown, as Swim/Swam/Swum/Swims/Swimming/Swimmer.

My numbering scheme was arrived at somewhat ad hoc. I reserved numbers less than ten (currently 0, 1 and 2) for those few verbs like Cut that re-use the infinitive in the past and/or past participle. The ones that use the "D" sound in past forms are numbered 10 through 20:
  • 10: 2,748 verbs ending in "e" that add "d" to produce past forms, add "s" in the third person singular, change final "e" to "ing" for the present participle, and usually add "r" for the "performer" noun, though some change the final "e" to "or". Thus, Bribe//Bribed/Bribes/Bribing/Briber but Create//Created/Creates/Creating/Creator. For a few of these, the "r" or "or" form has become superseded by another form, such as Associate→Associate and Irritate→Irritant.
  • 11: 2,538 verbs that add "ed for the past forms, "s" for the third person singular, "ing" for the present participle, and "er" (rarely "or") for the noun. Examples are Adorn//Adorned/Adorns/Adorning/Adorner and Obey//Obeyed/Obeys/Obeying/Obeyer.
  • 12: 473 verbs whose final consonant is doubled before adding "ed" for the past forms and "ing" or "er", but still add a simple "s" for the third person singular. Examples are Brag//Bragged/Brags/Bragging/Bragger (though also Braggart) and Stun//Stunner/Stuns/Stunning/Stunner.
  • 13: 374 verbs which are similar to Type 11 except for adding "es" for the third person singular. Examples are Bless//Blessed/Blesses/Blessing/Blesser and Crash//Crashed/Crashes/Crashing/Crasher.
  • 14: 212 verbs ending in "y", for which the "y" is replaced with "ied" for the past forms, "ies" for third person singular, and "ier" for the noun, while simply adding "ing" for the present participle. Examples are Bury//Buried/Buries/Burying/Burier and Rally//Rallied/Rallies/Rallying/Rallyer.
  • 15: 34 verbs ending in "e" that keep the "e" when adding "ing" for the present participle, but are otherwise formed like Type 10. An example is Dye//Dyed/Dyes/Dyeing/Dyer.
  • 16: 8 verbs ending in "c" that add "s" for third person singular but append a "k" before "ed", "ing" or "er". An example is Frolic//Frolicked/Frolics/Frolicking/Frolicker.
  • 17: 11 verbs ending in "ie" which add "d" and "s" as Type 10 but replace the "ie" with "ying" for the past participle and with "yer" for the noun. An example is Tie//Tied/Ties/Tying/Tyer.
  • 18: 8 verbs for which the final consonant is always doubled. An examples is Gas//Gassed/Gasses/Gassing/Gasser.
  • 19: 6 verbs ending in "y" that change the "y" to "ied" and "ies" but append "ing" and "er" for the past participle and noun forms. Examples are Try//Tried/Tries/Trying/Tryer and (this verb means to "jump or jerk in startlement") Shy//Shied/Shies/Shying/Shyer.
  • 20: 15 verbs ending in "y" that follow the pattern of these examples: Pay//Paid/Pays/Paying/Payer and Say//Said/Says/Saying/Sayer.
The numbers total to 6,427 in my lists, or 95.2% of the 6,753 verbs that I have analyzed. I can see where I ought to regroup these so that all the verbs with an infinitive ending in "e" are together, those ending in "y" are together and so forth. That is a task for another day.

Note that, though there are these eleven ways the spelling is taken care of, the endings of the spoken forms all sound the same: Creating and Bragging and Trying just add an "ing" sound; Sensed and Rallied and Picnicked just add a "d" sound. So the spoken conjugation of 95% of English verbs is quite regular.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Maybe futile, maybe not

kw: politics, voting

I usually go to work by 7:00 AM, but I was a bit later today. First, my wife and I strolled over to the local middle school and voted. We are registered Republicans in a nearly all Democratic district, so for the local races, we're unlikely to see our choices win. But for the state races, it may be another story.

I am no doctrinaire Republican, and these few years in particular, I am quite at odds with the party establishment. The prior election cycle seemed as though they had set out to purposely sabotage themselves. Anyway, I frequently split my vote, voting for the person and for qualifications over affiliation.

Today there was none of that for me. I voted straight ticket, except for one office having no "R" candidate. There, I voted for the Libertarian. I almost made one exception: While I seldom vote for an incumbent unless I really, really like how he or she is doing, and the Republican incumbent in one office is quite lackluster, the Democrat opposing him is a total groaner, and was easy to vote against.

Some might say that for me to vote is an exercise in futility. My candidates may all lose, but at least they won't lose by a total landslide. The closer the final tally is, the less likely a winner is to think they have a "mandate", whatever that means these days. The arising of the "tea party" movement shows that the supposed mandate of 2008 was nothing of the sort. While the most likely outcome of the current election is a divided Congress in which nothing gets done, that'll sure beat the past two years! You, there: Get out there and vote!

Monday, November 01, 2010

Not so irregular as one might imagine

kw: words, english language

An interest of mine that has been neglected thus far is words and how they work. Many years ago, I had sufficient free time to gather and categorize about 100,000 words, beginning with the construction of my own spelling dictionary but going quite a bit farther. Along the way, I found that there are two conflicting ways "word" is used.

Most of the time, "word" means a string of letters with a particular meaning and sound. In this usage, "start" and "started" and "starting" are thought of as different words, as are "hurricane" and "hurricanes". When one studies languages, however, "start" is considered a word that occurs in different forms due to inflection, as guided by the historical "rules" of grammar. Children learn to say, "Today I START, yesterday I STARTED, and I have often STARTED before." They also learn that while you and I START, he, she and it STARTS. Take off the ED, the ING or the S, and we have the "root word".

Every time I studied a language, whether Latin or French or Japanese, I was told that they were more "consistent" than English in some regard. This came to mind recently, and I decided to do a little checking. After all, I have my word-usage databases, lying fallow for half my life.

So today I'll consider English regular verbs. Some wags say there aren't any, which is what makes English hard to learn. My verb tables show a different picture. They contain the conjugations for 6,753 roots, which expand into about 33,000 "words". "Start", for example, produces STARTS, STARTED, STARTING, and STARTER (the latter is the -er noun form, which nearly every verb has. That is one reason there are more nouns than verbs).

START is an example of the most common of English verbs, in which the past tense and past participle forms are produced by appending ED. About 40% of English verbs work this way. Another near-40% work by simply adding D to words that already end in a vowel, such as CHASE. There are a few minor ways of appending a D or ED while deleting or doubling a final letter, that bring the total to 95% of all English verbs. If we treat English another inflected language, the two methods (adding ED or D) would be the "first conjugation" and "second conjugation" of English verbs. the other ways of adding the D sound would be considered variants. Then, even if you call all other verb forms "irregular", they total only 5% of English verbs. That is pretty small, smaller than the number of French or German irregular verbs!

I'll defer to another day writing of verbs that show other patterns, and thus could be grouped as third and successive conjugations. A final quibble while I close for the day: The Wikipedia article Verbs uses "write" for its examples. "Write" is an example of a much less common conjugation, using the pattern WRITE, WROTE, WRITTEN, plus WRITES, WRITING, and WRITER. A more regular verb such as "jump" or "start" or "create" would be a much better choice.