Monday, January 31, 2011

Don't bet against the dotty old guy

kw: book reviews, fiction, mysteries

Add a gaggle of truly nerdy students, ancient anarchists, a murderer (or several), and a couple of elderly eccentric detectives to the London underground, and stir well. You get not just a rollicking murder mystery, but a sort of "cousins of Holmes and Watson"—their crazy cousins. Bryant and May off the Rails by Christopher Fowler is apparently the eighth B&M mystery. Fortunately, there are few inside jokes to distract one, because as the author tells us right off, each volume stands by itself.

Arthur Bryant and John May are the lead detectives of the Peculiar Crimes Unit (I had to look it up; of course it is imaginary, but if only…). They manage to accomplish more by pottering around than a roomful of more "by the book" gumshoes. They are the odd couple of the genre, Bryant having the well-cluttered room, and mind, while May is more buttoned-down, though with a "culch pile" of his own. (Culch pile is my mother's word for that box or drawer or room full of miscellany we all accumulate and dare not get rid of. "Culch" derives from "culture".)

They are confronted with a criminal who has committed a murder during a burglary that went wrong, been apprehended, and escaped while killing a police guard with a skewer, an oversize ice pick. Now he is suddenly seen as much more dangerous, and the entire PCU is tasked to nab him, and given a rather brisk deadline. The natural habitat of this "Mr. Fox" is the Tube, the London underground (subway to an American), so the action focuses there.

The chapters have various viewpoints and voices. Certain ones are stream-of-consciousness of a desperate criminal, and I gradually became convinced that there were two or three, not just one murderer. The PCU are looking for a single perpetrator, but as the body count rises, it is difficult to imagine that the crimes are connected. Initial clues lead the detectives to a houseful of students, who seem very unlikely to be associated with any of the crimes. But Bryant has a feeling…

How big is the world's largest flash mob? One of the students does his best to assemble it, while the others play games of their own. Meanwhile, a witness who knows who Mr Fox really is has been attacked, but is getting out of the hospital, and the PCU uses him for bait. The denouement took me by surprise, as I'd picked out a different couple of persons for the real murderers.

That is the fun of these mysteries. The author's job is to mystify the reader, and the reader's to see through the deceptions. Mr. Fowler does a masterly job of it. I seldom like mysteries with a body count this high, but he certainly kept me going in this one.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Maybe a planet

kw: science, citizen science, astronomy

In the past few weeks, I've learned to classify stars released by the Kepler Mission to the Planet Hunters project in Zooniverse. Two sayings of Thomas Edison come to mind as I check the light curve of star after star for the telltale feature that signals "planet here": "Invention is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration" and "I learned hundreds of things that don't make a light bulb." To date I've checked about 2,200 stars.

The Kepler instrument records the brightness of about 150,000 stars every thirty minutes. At the Planet Hunters web site, a thirty-day supply of such data are kept and parceled out, star by star, to interested hunters such as myself. The vast majority of the stars have a "curve", really a collection of dots representing the brightness measurements, that looks like this one, except for the little dip at the right end.

This is a typical quiet star, though there is a flare at day 4. The scatter in the data arise from the statistics of photon counting when you are taking short measurements from a 14th magnitude object. As you can see, nearly all the data are confined to the range 1.0075-1.0085. The band of light that draws the eye is mostly in 1.0078-1.0082. This star is a K type star of the same radius as our Sun, so it is probably K0 or K1. A planet the size of Earth would intercept only 0.0001 of its light (0.01%). Now look at the dip near day 30 (on the X axis). Its depth is about 0.00025, so if this is truly the transit of a planet, its size is 1.6 times that of earth. It is even more exciting that the transit takes so long. See the next image:

By counting the dots, I find 34, which means the transit took 17 hours. A transit of the Earth across the Sun, as observed from a nearby star, would take 13 hours, so the velocity is about 75% of Earth's about the Sun. This is a lighter star, so the orbital radius will be similar, but this is also a dimmer star, so I'd say it is near the outer edge of the star's habitable zone, perhaps in a 500-day orbit, comparable to a spot halfway from Earth to Mars in our solar system.

That is a lot to infer from 34 dots on a graph. It may be that there is no planet and this was something else. But it is exciting to realize that some of the features like this one, as seen by "citizen scientists" and cross checked by the project scientists, will indeed signal planets about some of the stars. They eventually expect to find hundreds.

I did a few rough calculations about this project. The chances of finding any random planet about a star of type F, G, or K, in an orbit ten days or longer (shorter ones don't interest me much) is one in thirty. If every star has planets, then the project as a whole could find five thousand. However, the chances of seeing a planet in the habitable zone are quite a bit smaller. For a G star, the chance is about one in 600. Double that (1/300) for a planet of a K star, about half of that (1/1,200) for a planet of an F star. K stars dominate, so overall, the number of planets at a habitable distance from their star, that we can detect with this project, is likely to be about 400 or 500. This number will be smaller if any substantial number of stars are totally planet-free. I count that unlikely.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Green fading to black

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, environmentalism

You buy E-15 Regular at the gasoline station, and wonder if you ought to get a flex-fuel vehicle that'll take E-85, assuming you can find any. You've put CFL's in most of the fixtures of your home, and wonder if it would still be worthwhile to purchase carbon offset credits. You go to the farmer's market for certified Organic groceries, whenever you can afford it, and wonder if buying "Beyond Organic" produce would be worth it.

In an ideal world, the answer to all three questions would be an unqualified "Yes!" In today's world, don't waste any more time; the answer is nearly always "No!!" That is, unless Heather Rogers is wrong on all counts. In her book Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy is Undermining the Environmental Revolution, she went around the world to record and report just how three huge areas of popular environmental activism have worked out: Food, Shelter, and Transportation. The six chapters of the book are organized into these three areas.

Beginning in a farmer's market in New York City, and visiting a few of the farmers that sell there, she finds that none of the producers can afford to farm sustainably; all either have outside jobs to support their farm, or inherited the land so they have no mortgage to pay, yet they are still barely eking out a living. There is huge pressure to either "go conventional" or to get out of farming. And their customer base is small because their products cost so much more than factory-farmed, "conventional" produce. Many cannot be certified as Organic, because the paperwork and filing fees would swallow up all their available time and money.

In South America she finds that "Organic" is largely an illusion. Monocrops prevail, and the certifying bodies won't blow the whistle because they'll just be ignored anyway. Many fields are fertilized with chicken dung and waste from chicken farmers that fatten up their birds using definitely non-organic means, but this slips through a loophole in the Federal definition of Organic. And let's not even begin to discuss what happens to the indigenous people who inhabited the (former) forests—and managed them sustainably for centuries.

Amid multiple nations full of failed "green housing" projects, the author found a bright spot or two. One was in Freiburg, Germany, where the Vauban housing units demonstrate that green apartments can be very pleasant, comfortable, and economical. Startup costs are high, but the energy savings makes up for this in relatively few years. Rogers makes clear that it took a concerted effort by quite a number of social organizations, government and NGO groups, and citizen activism to create a social climate that was amenable. Freiburg is one of a few places where a Vauban could work.

Side note: Twenty-five years ago I had the opportunity to purchase a new SIPS home (Super Insulated Passive Solar), which included an air-to-air heat exchanger to allow good ventilation without losing heated or cooled air. Had the development been located convenient to anything, I'd have done it, but we decided location meant more. I wish I'd done it now, so I'd know more about living in such a home, because I want to have such a home built for us the next time we move.

Fully half the book is taken up with the three chapters regarding transportation. This is a big bugaboo of mine: E-15 or E-whatever is made from food, and in a world with one billion hungry people, we ought not be burning food to get around!!! Then we read of the author's visit to an oil palm plantation. The company's web site promises all kinds of good things, but the reality is a brutal rape of the Borneo rain forest to monocrop oil palms and the subjugation of the Dayak people. She could have titled this chapter "Every Promise Broken". It gets worse.

Back in Detroit, we find that our Big Three automakers can successfully market autos in Europe that get as much as 80 mpg, but claim that the U.S. market won't support them. Knowing how little such a car costs "over there", I can only answer, "Try me, dammit!" I once figured out that the fuel savings from a Prius (at 50mpg) didn't balance out the extra cost over a Corolla (at 32mpg), so we got the Corolla. It was a close thing. We're about to trade in a Camry, and the newer Prius is a very tempting alternative, as relative costs have come down. One of GM's Eurocar alternatives would be an even more tempting alternative, if importing one didn't almost double the cost of the car…and I might still do just that. My dad has railed for years about the engineered "failure" of GM's EV-1 electric. And if the author has it right, the automakers conspired over decades to dismantle the public transportation systems in all major U.S. cities to increase the market for autos. Once the trolleys are gone and the tracks paved over, it is hard to bring them back.

Finally, consider the "economics" of buying a carbon offset, where the organization promises to plant so many trees per ton of carbon you pay for. Will they really plant the trees? Maybe, if you're really lucky. Where? Oh, in the middle of somewhere that gets no rainfall, like central India. And, that promise to water and tend the saplings? Don't make me laugh! The author had a dangerously creepy moment in India, trying to get truthful answers about these things. I reckon she's lucky to have gotten away with her skin. Then think of this. Trees take twenty years to hit their stride and start absorbing lots of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But the carbon we've "offset" is going to be released right now, or it has been already. Then in fifty years the trees will die and their carbon will go back to the atmosphere. Will the atmosphere be ready for that in 2061?

In two closing chapters the author sums up the situation (bad and getting worse) and offers some slightly hopeful comments titled "Notes on the Possible". It is going to take a massive citizen effort, sustained over a couple-to-several decades, to straighten out these things. It is going to take a disaster to get people's attention, but will it be by then too late?

This book made my blood boil. Not at the author, I really appreciate what she has done. But at the venality of banal people who can find a way to subvert anything to their own benefit. A family proverb of mine, and perhaps one you've known: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." The primary reason that is so true is that you are not in total charge of what happens to any of your well-intended efforts. Do not trust others, particularly when they are a world away, to ease your conscience. Do things where you control the outcome. As Mark Twain wrote, "Go ahead. Put all your eggs in one basket. Then watch that basket!"

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Liniment time!

kw: current events, blizzards

We had six prior snowstorms since October, and in most cases, the forecast proved to be an overestimate. The worst was a four-inch fall (ten cm) that had started out as a prediction for eight to twelve inches (20-30 cm). The predictions made Tuesday were for rain with a little snow mixed in on Wednesday morning, followed by heavier snow Wednesday evening, in the four to eight inch range (10-20 cm).

I arose Wednesday morning (yesterday) to an inch of snow on the ground and more falling. I didn't bother to shovel, just went to work early before other cars were on the road, just before 6:00 AM. It snowed until noon. I went home at 2:30 PM and shoveled off four inches of snow in about an hour. We have more than a thousand square feet of pavement that needs shoveling, including a 220-foot sidewalk. My wife helped a little, but she fell a couple days ago and bruised a knee rather badly, so I asked her to take it easy. By dinner time I was sore, sore, sore. The wind was howling by 7:00 PM and snow was falling hard. I went to bed early after taking a gram of Ibuprofen.

This morning I could see there was a lot of snow. My wife at first said it looked like half a foot, but when I went out, it was clear we'd had over a foot, probably fourteen inches (36 cm). I had a large breakfast and began shoveling at 7:00 AM. At 8:30 I called work to tell them I'd take the day off. My wife helped a lot this time, but it was still after 11:00 AM when we finished. Snow is piled head high all down our driveway and at its end. I had another gram of Ibuprofen with lunch (my wife took a more normal dose of 200 mg). It is just wearing off as I write, so I'm going to take another gram and head for bed. Let's hope I recover quickly. There's another blizzard forecast for next week.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Doubling up for old eyes

kw: computers, home, photographs

For someone who is often called a power user, I can be remarkably behind the times. With my son's help I built a new computer this past summer, to replace an 8-year-old Dell machine. But I kept my monitor, a 19-inch 1280x1024 LCD.

It took a gift from my son to boost me into dual-monitor land. He decided to get a big monitor for gaming, a 28-inch 1920x1200 beast. He handed down his "small" monitor to me, not so small at 23 inches and 1680x1050, not quite HD.

Nearly all modern video adapters come with multiple plugs; the NVidia card in my new machine has three, a VGA (the "old" standard blue plug), a DVI, and a HDMI. Its documentation says any two can be used simultaneously, so we plugged the bigger monitor into the DVI port and kept the older monitor on the VGA one. Everything came up just fine. I imagine lots of people have done this already, years past even, but I am as tickled as if I'd invented it.

Both monitors have 86dpi resolution, compared to the setup where I work, with smaller dual monitors at 100dpi. This makes my home setup much easier on the eyes. All the text is 16% larger, so 12pt type looks like 14pt at home. This photo washes out the screens: I have a Word document open on the left, and a browser on the right, making it easier to do research while writing. No window switching required, just glance back and forth. I must report, however, that this does not double the rate at which I get ideas.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Darwinian view of abortion

kw: current events, abortion, evolution

When abortion was legalized about forty years ago, much was said about the elimination of back-alley "house of horrors" abortion clinics. I wish it were so. The case of Kermit Gosnell (I decline to use the title Dr.) shows that, somehow, the back alley is still with us. Some would say it shows the effect of a continuing social stigma, but the reality is much more banal. Clean clinics cost more, and far too many women have no medical insurance.

As much as I hate to admit it, abortion has a place in population moderation ("population control" bears too much hubris). The most modern methods of conception prevention, mis-named "birth control", are about 99% effective. It has been estimated and published a number of times that a woman in the Free World who uses the pill, an IUD, or a condom for every sexual encounter, intending to have no children during her thirty to forty years of fertility, will on average conceive three times. As a character in Jurassic Park said repeatedly, "Life will find a way." If a woman wants fewer than three children, what is she to do? RU-486 is one possibility, but only when used early. Abortion is the final resort.

In an ideal world with a generous economy, the cost of raising a child would not be a deterrent to having one. Welfare moms take note: you appear to be living in such an economy, albeit a bit skimpy on the "generous" side. But in the face of a planet that in forty years will be bearing nine billion persons, something has to give. The planetary economy will give out at some point.

However, there will always be wide differences in the number of children a particular woman or particular couple wishes to raise. Again, referring only to the free world, the cultural preference is now to have one or two children, not more. But some want more, and some want none. In Darwinian terms, what does this mean?

It means a lot of abortions. Abortions have become a factor in natural selection among humans. It can be imagined that the tendency to of some people to use abortion more than others is genetically determined, at least in part. People with those genetics will have fewer offspring than others, and many will have none. This will lead to a gradual reduction in "abortion-favoring" genes in the population. Generation after generation, the proportion of women who can "easily" choose abortion will decrease. Perhaps, if we are lucky, newer versions of the Pill will be developed that are more like 99.9% or 99.99% effective. Otherwise, the number of abortions will slowly decrease, and population will grow beyond UN projections.

Again, "Life will find a way," which in this case means population moderation is going to get harder as time goes on.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Eels are people too

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, fish, eels

This large freshwater eel from Singapore is typical of Asian eels in its mottled color, but is otherwise similar to eels found worldwide (Image from The Lazy Lizard's Tales). Most freshwater eels are dark brown or black. A strange fact: The food provided by Indians to the English immigrants, commemorated in Thanksgiving celebrations, was largely an eel feast, with venison a minor component.

Freshwater Eels are catadromous, meaning they move downstream and out into the ocean to breed; "cata" means "down". This is in contrast to salmon and shad, which are anadromous, moving from the ocean upstream to breed; "ana" means "up". Just where the eels breed is still not known in any detail, and eels remain very mysterious, as described in Eels: An Exploration, From New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish by James Prosek. Eels from around the Atlantic are known to breed somewhere in the Sargasso Sea, and Asian eels have very recently been caught, dying, a few days after breeding, but despite a century's diligent effort, they have never been observed breeding.

Author James Prosek traveled the world, initially searching for the facts of eel biology and ecology. After several years he found he was learning much more of eel folklore and mythology. While in most places eels are a food animal, the Lasialap people of Pohnpei (formerly Ponape) Island in Micronesia believe they are descended from eels, and look upon the eating of eels with horror. Although the Maori of New Zealand eat eels, their folklore is filled with cautionary tales of those who would abuse them, and with stories of the taniwha (pronounced "tanifa"), or guardian eels.

Like every other ocean resource, the eel fishery is collapsing worldwide. This has led to an immense trade in glass eels, the first post-larval stage when they are 4-5 cm in length, which are used to stock rivers and lakes for "fattening up". Current prices for glass eels are a few hundred dollars per pound. Imagine what a five-ton shipment of glass eels from Maine is worth!

One of the author's long-term friends has been Ray Turner, who maintains an eel weir near Peas Eddy in New York State. Each year he endeavors to capture something like a thousand eels from the many thousands who migrate downstream into the Delaware River each year. When the weather doesn't cooperate, he'll capture only a fraction of that. Prosek returned year after year to Peas Eddy, and was able to gradually participate in most aspects of the commercial eel business of which Turner is a part.

Though freshwater eel numbers from all nineteen species are crashing nearly everywhere, there is as yet no designation of them as either endangered or threatened, particularly in the U.S. Activists that Prosek got to know believe this is political. Eels are found throughout North American watersheds, and an Endangered designation would disrupt activities along all the continent's rivers. But it is precisely those activities, damming for hydropower and "recreation", and commerce with its effluents, that prevent eels from completing their life cycles. At one time the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River were the premier eel growing areas; no more. There is too much that is in their way now. The Delaware is the main river of the Eastern American seaboard that is not dammed every few miles, and is the last major eel growing region. The nearby Susquehanna River is nearly eel-free now. If eels were more "warm and cuddly"—they happen to be cold and slimy—they would probably get more respect. There are few who stand up for them.

There is an interesting parallel between the history of the Atlantic eel species and that of the green sea turtles. Both migrate thousands of miles to breed. Both are about 200 million years old. Both apparently began breeding, the turtles on the Azores, the eels in mid-water, when the Atlantic Ocean first opened. As the ocean widened over the millennia, both gradually adapted and honed their navigation skills, so as to find their breeding grounds as these were taken farther and farther from the coasts of America and Africa and Europe by continental motions. Prosek tells the story of the eels' evolution, and I happened to know already of that of the turtles.

The book is a real eye-opener. The eels' story is a lot like our story. They live up to 100 years, just as people do. They are easily tamed, and have personalities. They have become a worldwide success over those millions of years, but this upstart primate species is taking over the rivers, to the point that eels are getting squeezed out. Only in places where they are revered are they in any sense still thriving. The book, first conceived as a recipe book, became a spiritual journey for its author. This mysterious fish, which can travel overland if needed to reach its goal, deserves to be better known.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sledding the State Capitol

kw: pastimes, childhood, sledding

To the right in this image is the Utah State Capitol building in Salt Lake City. (Click to see a larger, clearer image. The image is looking due west.) Lined up with the Capitol building and heading south is State Street, and the next major street to the west is Main. The major east-west street that passes the large building on the left is North Temple Street. The Mormon Tabernacle is just out of the picture to the left.

When I was a child the city police would block off that 1/3-mile stretch of State Street for sledding. Parents could drive their children to the entrance to the Capitol grounds, then drive over to Main and down to North Temple, and back over to State to pick them up. Younger kids might be driven back to the top; older kids got to walk back up. I remember that we did this only once, when I was about eight (1955 or early 1956). This hill has about a 6% grade, just perfect for sledding. We were there a couple of hours, time enough to slide down seven or eight times.

I suppose it was done on either a holiday or a Saturday when there was little business along State Street and none at the Capitol. Who can imagine in these days being allowed to sled on a major city street, no matter how nice its hill?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Can medicine be healed?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, pharmaceutical industry

In 1996 I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), partly by symptoms and partly by a blood test for Rheumatoid Factor (RF). A normal RF level is less than 60 units per cc of blood (some labs use 50 or even 40). My level was 100 u/cc. At the advice of a doctor named Oliver, I also had a test for antibodies to the Mycoplasma organism, and that test was positive. After some discussion and disputation with my doctor, I was treated with tetracycline, on a regimen Dr. Oliver recommended to my doctor, and after three years I was free of symptoms. In 2009, after a lapse of ten years, I was re-tested for RF and other, newer clinical indicators. I was then told I have no clinical signs of RA. I had it, and now I don't; I was cured. Yet most doctors, if you ask about treating RA with antibiotics, will tell you it is a quack remedy.

My father had found Doctor Oliver years earlier, looking for an effective treatment for his own arthritis. Dr. Oliver was a colleague of Dr. Thomas M. Brown, who developed the understanding that arthritis is a bacterial allergy, treatable by antibiotics to eliminate the bacteria. You can learn more from the resources provided at The Road Back Foundation, named based on Dr. Brown's first book, The Road Back. More recent editions by his co-author Henry Scammell are titled Arthritis Breakthrough.

Most RA specialists treat the symptoms (not the disease) with a series of quite expensive treatments, including gold injections and various semi-steroid and steroid pain management medicines. There is a sort of standard round of treatments that lasts about twenty years before they declare they are out of effective treatments, and leave you to the tender mercies of NSAIDs such as Advil, just at the age when a large dose of Advil is most likely to cause a perforation of your stomach lining. During that twenty years, you and your insurance company together will spend about $100,000 on treatments.

A one-year supply of tetracycline costs less than $30. It takes three to five years to cure arthritis when it is caught early enough. In my father's case, his infection has proven too advanced to cure completely, so he is still taking tetracycline, at a cost of $30 yearly. For him, tetracycline is like a vitamin. Without it, he soon loses the ability to walk without pain.

I have written a number of times that the main problem with American medicine is that it has become a big business. Little did I know. I just finished reading White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine by Carl Elliott (M.D., PhD, if I read his CV right). I am horrified. I am also fortified, when I run up against my doctor saying he relies on "evidence based medicine." As shown in the second chapter of the book, the "evidence" is largely fudged! But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll go chapter by chapter.
  • Chapter 1, "The Guinea Pigs" – Phase I trials of a new drug test whether it has acceptable levels of side effects and how safe it is. Such trials often involve unpleasant procedures such as colonoscopies or frequent blood testing, and often require residential sequestering of some or all subjects. So trial subjects are paid, and most such trials are dominated by "professional guinea pigs" who make a living at it. Many will lie about their state of health, how recently they may have done a previous trial, and other things that invalidate the results of the trial. Bottom line: Phase I trials of new drugs are often worthless, which is why every couple of years there is a problem with a Phase II or Phase III trial, such as patients dying of a supposedly "safe" dose.
  • Chapter 2, "The Ghosts" – Every pharmaceutical company employs teams of writers who write a great variety of materials, some disguised as journalism, some being direct press releases, but many being articles intended for publication in medical journals. These articles report the results of drug trials as favorably as possible. They are published under the name of a medical researcher, who has usually been paid for the use of his or her name. Sometimes the "author" never sees the article. A bit of statistical lingo here: A "significant" result is one that is "different from a null hypothesis at the 0.95 level". That means if you do something twenty times, you'll probably get a "significant" result at least once, just by chance. Then there are "outliers". A statistical analyst is allowed to throw out an extra-high or extra-low result, claiming it was "experimental error". This will often change a finding of "nothing of significance" to "significant." Then there's the "drawer veto". A trial that yields negative results is often left to molder in a drawer while the trial is repeated (if the company has enough money). The repeated trial will show a better result about half the time, and by throwing out an outlier or two, a "significant" result can he claimed, so they go to publication, pay an unwitting "author", and get "scientific" backing, or "evidence" that the new drug works. Bottom line: Several studies of medical literature have been done, tracing the source of articles about specific drugs. In every case, more than half (up to 75%) of the articles were ghostwritten by writers in the employ of a drug company. "Evidence based medicine" is illusory, at least as regards drug trials.
  • Chapter 3, "The Detail Men" – This is the older term for "Reps" or drug company representatives, the very personable, very attractive, very well dressed salespersons who show up at a doctor's office, often with pizza for everyone on the staff, with baskets full of pens, note pads, wall calendars, perhaps anatomical posters, all helpfully branded with the company's logo, and of course, samples of the current "hot drugs". I have yet to see a physician's office that was free of drug company trinkets. Dr. Elliott shows with overwhelming evidence that doctors are strongly influenced by even small gifts. Public databases show that after a Rep visit, prescriptions for the "hot drugs" skyrocket. Bottom Line: Your doctor's suggestion for a prescription is quite likely to be influenced by whose Rep visited the office last, more than by the exact medical needs of your case.
  • Chapter 4, "The Thought Leaders" – These are public figures, manufactured out of mild-mannered researchers by generous stipends, star/celebrity treatment, lots of force-fed PowerPoint presentations helpfully written by drug company staff. They speak at conventions, often organized by the companies; they get on TV talk shows; they give press briefings; and generally promote the drug company's interests, but nearly never mention the source of their paycheck. Bottom Line: The people you doctor is listening to are most likely KOLs, Key Opinion Leaders, in the employ of large pharmaceutical companies.
  • Chapter 5, "The Flacks" – At this point, I confess I was becoming overwhelmed by the pervasive manipulation of perception the book's author was describing. It got worse. These are the Public Relations specialists. They take a page from the fellow who first learned to sell pianos by selling the public on the idea that every home ought to have a Music Room, even if it was just a corner of the parlor. What else ya gonna put in your music room? They take it much further, preparing the public's perception of a drug for years before it passes through its trials (if it does). The rather recent FDA ruling that allowed drugs to be marketed directly to the public (one third of all TV ads, by my count), has just upped the ante. Doctors who decline to prescribe the latest "hot drug" to their anxious patients soon lose those patients to more complaisant doctors. Bottom Line: The people you are listening to are a different kind of KOL, the ad company writer.
  • Chapter 6, "The Ethicists" – Imagine a warehouse full of gold, surrounded by a pack of attack dogs. But! The dogs are all munching on steaks supplied by your friendly local gold thief while he waltzes in and out with a wheelbarrow. Do you really need details? A great many, perhaps most, ethical review professionals are in the employ of the drug companies. They are allowed certain freedoms, and even encouraged to criticize certain abuses. But those few who allow themselves to become too independent, who expose the more sensitive misdeeds of their benefactor, find themselves without funding, and may find it hard to secure employment. Bottom Line: Where you stand depends on where you sit. American Big Pharma is doing their darndest to make sure everyone who matters is sitting right where they want them.
Author Elliott has been inside. He survived and got back out again. The one chapter I wish he'd written would be titled, "What to Do". The story I recounted above illustrates that we can't just be passive "patients", but that we must be active participants in our own treatment. We have to dig into the weeds ourselves. Resources such as Medline, WebMD and MedicineNet may be tainted, but they are more reliable than the ads in the newspapers and magazines, or on radio and TV.

One rule I follow as strictly as I can, is to request generic drugs whenever possible. This is not primarily to keep my money out of drug company coffers (though that is a nice side benefit), but it restricts the pool of drugs to those that have been used for ten or twenty years, because they are out of patent, and have at least not been taken off the market for excessive danger. Their effectiveness has also become pretty well known. Few "younger" drugs are likely to be significantly better. Make your doctor prove that a "hot drug" is really so much better it is worth the extra cost and extra risk. Don't be a passive patient. You might know more than your doctor does!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Do we turn them away?

kw: medicine, insurance, mandates

When my grandmother had a stroke in 1972 she was taken to a hospital, where she died the next day. My mother remarked later, "If she had awoken in the hospital, she'd have died of apoplexy." It was her first visit to a hospital since 1918, when her first child was born. That birth experience so disgusted her that she had her younger children, including my mother, on the kitchen table, delivered by my grandfather. She never partook of medical services again, consciously at least.

From 1918 to 1972 is 54 years. More than a half century during which she spent not a penny on medical services. That is how she wanted it. More to the point, when my grandfather became troubled by dementia, probably Alzheimer's although it was called "hardening of the arteries" in the 1960s, she cared for him at home, right up until his death at age 75.

My grandparents ran a family business their entire lives together. Their only employees were their children. They had no medical insurance. Being well-to-do, when they needed a doctor to see to a sick child, and that was very rare, they simply paid for it. What would they have paid for insurance, had they had any?

The current medical insurance premium for a family of five is about $14,000 yearly, or nearly $1,200 per month. If you have insurance, that is what is being paid, probably by your employer. That is what it has to be because the average American family uses on average more than $1,000 in medical services monthly. Now if we back out inflation and other changes in the value of money over time, consider what fifty years of such insurance would cost: $700,000. About three-quarters of a million dollars (current 2010 dollars). This is the level of payment that every family will be required to pay in medical insurance premiums according to the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act", often nicknamed Obamacare.

I am inclined to bridle strongly at the notion that people should be forced to buy medical insurance. The original bill was sold to the American public as a way to make medical insurance "available to all" at affordable rates. Making something available is definitely not the same as making it mandatory. On the other hand, what if we don't? What if the effort to repeal PPACA were to succeed? And further, what if a new law were passed that provided insurance to all who wanted it, at the same cost to all (that'll be the day!), but did not force people to buy any?

A single consideration illuminates the problem. Will there also be a mandate to care for everyone, insured or not? If there is, what incentive will people have to pay for insurance? Or will there be an explicit proviso that hospitals and doctors can decline to care for someone who is not insured and cannot privately pay? Will they actually turn patients away at the door? Will ambulance crews be required to check the insurance status and solvency of a person before taking them to the emergency room? "That one's not insured, leave him there." Really?

Though I am conservative, a registered Republican, I must reluctantly affirm that this is just like automobile insurance, which is currently a requirement in nearly every state, and will eventually be a national requirement. If you are alive, you will pay medical insurance premiums. Life is uncertain. You cannot guarantee that you will live fifty years without the need to get medical help. My poor grandmother would be spitting mad at such a requirement. It can't be helped.

I look back at my working career, in which I have had medical insurance since 1967. It has proportionally risen the most in recent years, so I can only give an approximate figure, but in current dollars, the premiums, mostly company paid, total about $400,000. Would I like to have that money in my bank account instead? You bet. But I've had some expensive medical stuff done, so I don't grudge it.

There are bound to be horror stories of all kinds, no matter what kind of medical insurance law we live under in the next fifty years. Our task as a civilized society is to continue to revise laws to minimize the horror stories, and to make right what we can when one occurs. That is what we have done for 234 years so far, with variable success. It beats anarchy.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Had we better eyes

kw: astronomy, photography, atlases

For many years I have dreamed about making a photographic sky atlas. This desire was sparked when I worked at California Institute of Technology (in the machine shop), where one day I was allowed to peruse their copy of the plates from the Palomar Sky Survey. Those plates from the POSS-I Survey, numbered 1,874. Half were "blue" plates and half were "red" of the identical areas. Each plate is roughly six degrees square on the sky.

Not wishing to expose (and pay for) more than 25 rolls of color film, I had the idea of making exposures that would approximate naked-eye views of the sky, but exposed so as to "see" with ten and 100 times the sensitivity of an ordinary eye. Using ISO 1600 film, that would have been 12 seconds and two minutes, ignoring reciprocity failure, or about twice that long to account for it. My scheme would have resulted in a set of about seventy exposures (less than three film rolls) to cover the northern sky and that portion of the southern sky visible from North America.

Time has always been the most deciding factor with me. I would need three or four observing sessions of several nights each, spaced around the year, from a dark location such as the top of a mountain in Colorado. In more recent years, now that digital photography is the norm, I realized that processing costs were now nearly zero, though printing was much the same if I wanted a "book" format. But I couldn't free up the time to go shoot the exposures.

Even more recently, the project has become moot. The successors to POSS-I, completed in the 1980s and 1990s, have been digitized into the Digital Sky Survey and incorporated into the "Sky" section of Google Earth. When you are looking at Google Sky, a notice at the bottom of the screen shows a credit line. Most of the sky is credited "© 2007 DSS Consortium". Some areas of the sky are instead credited to SDSS, the Sloan survey, and a few small bits to STSCI, which holds the images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

To see how closely I can realize my dream without shooting any film at all, I took a look at a portion of the sky near Orion, centered on the Rosette Nebula:

This image approximates a POSS-I plate pair, combined and colorized. It is about six degrees across. The nebula, which contains the open cluster NGC 2244, is one degree across, or twice as wide as the full moon. It would be a stupendous sight were it bright enough to see without the amplification provided by photography, film or digital. A six degree field of vision is about what you see with 7x to 10x binoculars. However, the next image is more representative of what such binoculars would show you from a really dark location:

The eye just doesn't have the sensitivity to see more than the brightest bits of such a nebula, though a number of stars would be more visible than what is seen here. I reckon this image is probably a bit optimistic. The Rosette Nebula, as large as it is, wasn't named until it had been found photographically. It is dimmer than the great Orion nebula, the central portion of which is quite distinct when seen with binoculars.

On the other hand, adjusting the brightness of the image upward, we see what would show if the DSS had used a deeper baseline and higher gamma. With just a doubling of effective exposure, a myriad of faint background stars can be seen, and the nebula's details are even more distinct. If we could see this well, though, the sky would be rather confusing. Too much to see!

Friday, January 14, 2011

When it hurts to hear

kw: medical conditions, over sensitivity

In the book I reviewed yesterday, Zero Decibels, author George Michelson Foy describes two persons who built special "quiet rooms" in which to work or sleep, Marcel Proust and Joseph Pulitzer. Both probably suffered from auditory hyperesthesia. In this condition which can be either short-lived or chronic, sounds most of us consider ordinary are unusually distracting or even painful.

I have read of two persons, originally thought to be autistic, who were greatly helped by special training to overcome their aversion to sound and noise. A training regimen called Auditory Integration Training has arisen and is helpful to many. Children in particular may find it difficult to express that they are overwhelmed by others' daily noises and agonized by the shrieks of playing children or the shouts of an angry parent.

Sometimes such training is not sufficiently helpful, and a person just needs to wear earplugs most of the time. A supply of modern, foam, insertable ear plugs could have saved Proust and Pulitzer much discomfort. So, perhaps, could a pair of noise-canceling headphones; several popular ones are reviewed by CNET here.

When I really want quiet, I use a double system: Foam inserts, good for 30dB, and a bulky pair of headphones, unplugged, which add another 20+ dB. Then it takes a bit of a shout to get my attention. With the inserts alone, I can hear ordinary conversation just fine. I have, I think, quite normal hearing, but I have been in overwhelmingly noisy environments (a Huey helicopter, for example), where without noise protection I just could not function. Imagine if your refrigerator's hum was just as distracting as the engine of a helicopter!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Can you hear me now?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sound, noise

Alone in an abandoned mine, some five hundred feet from the surface, I shut down the acetylene flame on my miner's helmet and just looked and listened. Of course, I'd been in absolute darkness a number of times, so I was prepared for the phantom lights, phosphenes, that the eye and brain generate when there is no input. But I'd never been alone, with nobody else's breathing or heartbeat or intestinal rumbling to interfere with the deep silence; but there were still my own bodily noises. For part of the time I put my hands over my ears.

I was young at the time, in my early twenties, so I had no tinnitus. The loudest sound was my breathing, which I could stop for half a minute or so at a time. I've consulted several charts of sound levels, and they tend to agree that quiet breathing has a sound level of 10dB (dB means decibels. The "bel" was named for Alexander G. Bell, so it gets a capital letter). If your heart is not racing, its sounds are quieter than that, but perceptible.

This compares with the sound level of ordinary conversation, 60dB. Because the decibel is a logarithm, a 60dB sound has 100,000 times the energy of a 10dB sound. On a slightly geeky note, sound pressure is proportional to the square root of energy, so the pressure on your eardrums from a 60dB sound is about 300 times that from a 10dB sound. The eardrum is quite a wide-range instrument. It takes another 1000x of sound pressure, or one million times the energy, to cause pain, at 120dB.

Your eardrum isn't the most delicate part of the system. The hair cells that transmute sound into nerve signals begin to sustain damage at 90dB, which is why OSHA requires hearing protection wherever the sound level in a work place exceeds 85dB. That's the sound level of an older lawn mower. The newer ones have better mufflers and top out at 75-80dB. Wearing ear plugs when mowing is still a good idea.

If that is the loudest routine sound in your environment, consider yourself lucky. Some years ago, George Michelsen Foy lived in New York City, where he frequently rode the subway. Though he was often irritated by the loudness of the subway trains as they came into the station, he told himself he was used to it. One day something new happened, as he writes in the opening chapter of Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence. A local train was stopping in either direction, just as two expresses, also one in each direction, zoomed through the station. In that hard-walled tunnel, he clapped his hands to his ears and barely restrained a scream. Later he measured the sound of one train stopping or zooming by at 105dB. Multiply the sound energy by four (double the intensity), and you add 6dB to attain 111dB. That is the sound level of a punch press lopping pieces out of inch-thick steel.

That event started the author on a year-long search for a really quiet place, one where the threshold of hearing (0dB) would have some meaning. He eventually found, in an anechoic chamber in Minneapolis, a place recognized in The Guinness Book of World Records as "the quietest place on Earth", rated at -9.7dB, in which the ambient noise level is 1/11th of the hearing threshold. In such a chamber, besides heartbeat and breathing sounds, he also heard very thin sounds generated by the hearing system itself, kind of a feedback sound because of the amplification that our ears and brain perform.

For most of us, most of the time, the quietest environment we are likely to experience is in a less-populated area of the public library, where sound levels in the 30-35dB range can sometimes be found. Get too close to the copier machine, however, and the background hum will reach 40dB. It is a testament to the feebleness of a 40dB sound that most commercial sound meters are made to detect sounds in the 40-140dB range. A few more expensive ones can detect 30dB. George Foy bought such a meter, and began, perhaps obsessively, to measure sound levels everywhere. Nowhere in New York City did he find any place with a sound level lower than 37dB.

He tried finding silence in the countryside, such as the Berkshires in Massachusetts. It takes a pretty still day for the wind noises to be quieter than 35dB. One bird chirping, and you're back in conversational range, 50-60dB! Though he never tells us how quiet a snowy country day is, I've read elsewhere that, if you are the first one outside after a 1-foot snowfall, the sound level can drop below 10dB. You have to be pretty far from the nearest active roadway…

He moved his family to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The background noise level was not that much different from NYC, but the trains weren't quite as loud. More importantly, the kinds of sounds were different, and he began to realize that quality means as much as quantity in sound, also.

Foy visited people known for silence, such as the Native Americans of the Southwest. They value silence whenever there is no reason to speak. He found it can drive a more gregarious Anglo rather nuts. The pauses after their sentences were so long he was never quite sure when someone was finished speaking.

He visited the Neutrino Observatory near Sudbury, Ontario. Though the Argon tank there is remarkably free of electronic noise and radiation, the equipment that maintains it kept the acoustic sound level in the range of 65dB. Apparently, sound doesn't affect neutrinos.

He even visited the Trappist Monastery at Cîteaux, France, where the monks speak so seldom that some almost forget how. He interviewed a leading monk who is allowed to speak with "outsiders" at specified hours, and found it as disconcerting as speaking to a Sioux elder.

What is silence, really? He considers that silence marks boundaries; words and sentences are preceded and followed by short silences. The more gregarious a person, the shorter those little quiet spaces become. Silence also precedes ideas. But Westerners tend to denigrate the "idea people", and look down on those who are "too quiet." In modern culture, silence is treated as though it were as dangerous as the vacuum of outer space. While some office spaces (my own workplace included) are remarkably quiet, retail establishments are typically filled with sound, including Muzak, the buzz of cash registers, and the nearly continuous chatter of gregarious sales clerks. Young people (such as my son) keep an iPod going whenever they aren't playing a video game or watching a TV show (whether online or on a real TV). They frequently talk while all these things are happening. My generation tends to watch a show in near silence, and we don't have the TV's volume up very high, either.

At the very end of his quest, the author attends a two-day retreat of silent meditation. Now he knows that complete silence is unattainable. But relative silence has its uses. It allows you to pay more attention to the sounds you cannot control. It lets more of your thoughts reach a conclusion. Even in the quietest retreat center in the forest, there are many small sounds and each tells a story. With our evolutionary history, no matter what we are listening to, we are also listening with more than half an ear for any sound that might portend a predator on the prowl. As the retreat draws to a close, he is longing for a certain sound, the welcoming yell of his children when he returns home. The sound meter has done its work, and he is done with it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A word few need

kw: lexicography, chemistry

I learned a new word today: thermomorphic.

Used in the expression "thermomorphic catalysts".

By itself the word thermomorphic just means "temperature-mediated change in form". We all know an example, a piece of ice melting. That is the key to the meaning here, except in the other direction, of water freezing to ice.

Why is it applied to catalysts? There are two great classes of catalysts in chemistry, homogeneous catalysts and heterogeneous catalysts. Each has virtues and each has drawbacks. A homogeneous catalyst is in the same phase as the materials being reacted. Usually this means that everything is in liquid form. This has the great virtue that a bit of stirring will accomplish intimate contact between the catalyst and the reactants (reacting materials). The reaction runs at a maximum rate. But it has a significant drawback, that it is hard to get the catalyst out of the reacted product. Usually, the separation is accomplished by distillation or some kind of absorption separation.

Heteregeneous catalysts are in a different phase from the reactants. Usually, the catalyst is a solid and the reactants and product are liquids (at the temperature of reaction). It is easy to separate the catalyst from the product, just by filtration. But the drawback is that intimate contact during the reaction is harder to maintain, and the reaction is slower and perhaps not uniform everywhere.

Enter the thermomorphic catalyst. It is liquid at the reaction temperature, and turns solid when the completed product cools, but before the product itself freezes. So you run the reaction at a high temperature, cool it partway and filter out the catalyst, then cool the product further if needed. I call that neaty-keen.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Deep Thud

kw: wild caves, spelunking, potholing

Talking to someone about climbing and rappelling reminded me of a memory from forty years ago. Though I have done quite a lot of spelunking, and participated in a couple of surveys in wild caves, I've never rappelled. But I have friends who've dropped into some of the deepest holes on Earth.

This shows one of them; you see here the 50x60m opening of Las Golondrinas (Cave of Swallows) in central Mexico. You can see the scale by the outbuildings of several farms in this image. The floor of the pit is 370m below the upper lip.

In 1971 I attended a show-and-tell session at a NSS (National Speleological Society) meeting, where a group of "potholers" shared their experiences of rappelling into this and other deep-shaft caves in the central Mexican mountains. The sides of the pit contain many holes; the entire mountain range is cavernous limestone. Thousands of birds nest there, mostly swifts, swallows and parrots (conures). The presenters showed many pictures at this meeting, but the most memorable item was a half-minute-long tape.

After spending a couple of nights in the cave, these folks decided to do a rock drop and record the sound. Leaving their last member at the bottom with a tape recorder, they selected a 20 kg stone and dropped it off the upper lip of the pit. The recorder was left running near where the stone would most likely hit, and the fellow moved away. Early in the recording we could hear the last walkie-talkie messages, then a few seconds of bird noises that get quiet as a thrumming, whooshing noise increases. In a vacuum, the fall would have been nine seconds, and the stone's velocity would have approached 300 m/s. The fall actually lasted almost fifteen seconds, and the bird noises entirely stopped during that time. Then there is a huge THUD!, and it sounds like every parrot in Mexico screams!!

I have searched for an online copy of the recording, without result. I wonder if the tape still exists (or an mp3!).

Monday, January 10, 2011

Puzzle the finder

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, tracking, search and rescue

When the shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas in early 2003, it resulted in one the largest search-and-rescue operations ever conducted. This was not because there was any hope of rescuing any of the crew, but because SAR teams were the best equipped to locate the debris which was scattered over an area of 700,000 acres (280,000 ha; ~1,100 sq. mi.; 2,800 sq. km.) After more than three months of work by 30,000 searchers and a great many search dogs, about 40% of the debris was gathered.

Susannah Charleson was there. As she writes in Scent of the Missing: Love & Partnership With a Search-and-Rescue Dog, her part in the Columbia search effort was small, and frustrating. Not yet having a dog of her own, the author was an aide to a search team, following a handler and his dog as they searched, keeping data, and calling in finds to the coordinators. Dogs who are trained to locate missing humans or their substantial remains were often able to only locate an area with plenty of human scent, but no visible remains. Finding a walnut-size piece of bone or a hand-size scrap of torn plastic could be the culmination of a day's work. When a 100-ton artifact breaks up 39 miles overhead at Mach 18, few items bigger than shreds make it to ground level.

Scent of the Missing is not all about frustration, however. The book chronicles the author's journey to become first a searcher, then an aide following a handler-plus-dog team, then a dog handler herself. Interspersed with stories of searches that had results covering the spectrum of success (and not) are chapters recounting the raising of her dog Puzzle and the training regimens they both endured.

There is something exceptionally lovable about Golden retrievers like Puzzle. She was brought into the author's animal-filled home: When your other dogs are mostly Pomeranians (that is, cat-size), the addition of a big pup can be overwhelming. Somehow, though Puzzle worked to establish dominance over the younger Poms, she was sweetly solicitous of the more ancient dog that, at 21, was otherwise lost in his own deaf and blind world. Retaining only his sense of smell, the old dog could navigate the yard and house by scents alone. Puzzle frequently seemed to be guarding the old fellow.

A dog has about forty times as many scent cells as a human, and they must have even greater sensitivity per each, for a dog can smell not just forty, but thousands of times more acutely than a human. Thus the mechanics of air following.

We all have this image of a bloodhound, nose to the ground, snuffling along as it tracks a fugitive. Most often, however, the hound and any other dog can follow our air trail. All of us shed skin cells continually, a gram or more daily, or billions of particles. Each particle carries molecules of oil and sweat that slowly evaporate over the next few days or weeks (In quiet air, these settle to the ground, leaving the ground track we think of). Sleep somewhere once, and a dog visiting a month later will know you were there. A dog trying to find you will circle downwind until she picks up your scent, then zigzag to find the limits of a scent cone in the air. This can be followed upwind until the dog can sight you. Search dogs are trained to alert their handlers by posture and voice when a person is found.

While Ms Charleson was training Puzzle, she was also training herself to recognize the habits and postures and alerts of a searching dog. All of us who have pets know that they learn quite a lot of our language. A search dog handler has to learn a lot of Dog. It takes two-way communication to make a good search team. It also takes plenty of practice, and finally three rigorous certification tests, in which the team must locate three or four hidden "victims" in a designated search area under a time limit.

Time is important, as pointed up by the last story in the book, the only chapter that details one of Puzzle's searches. An impaired elderly man named Jimmy has run away from his care facility, and not for the first time. This time, however, he is wearing only pajama bottoms, and the temperature is dropping to near-freezing as evening advances. The crux of the story is that Puzzle and two other dogs all agree that Jimmy's scent is strongest on the eastern boundary of their designated search area. Because it is a city limit, the police cannot send the searchers beyond that boundary. But they do alert the police in the next town, who find Jimmy in a fast food place, where kind strangers have given him a blanket and bought him a milk shake. While it would be nice to have Puzzle lead her handler right to Jimmy, in a great many cases it is a collaboration between search services, working together, that complete a search.

This warm-hearted book almost gets us inside the mind of the young dog, and it does get us inside the author's mind, as she learns her craft—all on a volunteer basis, mind you—and goes through the worries and elations of growing with her dog into a certified team.

Saturday, January 08, 2011


kw: relationships

I've been under the weather, meaning under the covers, for a couple of days. Just began to feel better. So I check my email backlog, and find that a friend is bragging about being "in a polyamorous relationship." I'd heard the term, but had to look it up. The older term for this is "group marriage", though the "marriage" part is rather flexible, more like "group of friends with benefits." I wonder how long it will take him to get tired of it. The "benefits" may be fun, but there is inevitably a ton of drama queen stuff that goes on, no matter how well-meaning everyone is. They don't last.

Back to line one. "Under the weather" indeed! I ran the phrase through the Google Ngrams analytical tool. Give it a try. I found that "under the weather" dates me. It was used in print mostly prior to 1960, with a peak before 1940. Usage since 1960 runs steady at about half the peak rate. Passing in the term "polyamorous", I find it was coined in 1966, vanished after 1975 (along with most sixties-era group "arrangements"), then burst back into steadily increasing use since 1991.

Myself, I've been monogamous since 1975.

Thursday, January 06, 2011


kw: book reviews, nonfiction, law, art, intellectual property

Just over twelve years ago, with the "Copyright Term Extension Act" (CTEA) the U.S. Congress extended copyright terms a further twenty years, to "life+70" for persons and "creator's live+95" for corporate-owned copyrights. The latter term is further "limited" by the provision of 120 years from first publication, should that term expire first. Let's see: Suppose I write a book and publish it next year. In this instance "publication" would be the day I render the completed work as a PDF and release it to be converted to an e-Book or "print on demand" item. Pick the date March 21, 2012, my father's 90th birthday; and yes, I expect he'll be alive.

I come from a long lived family. Let's be conservative and assume I live "only" 90 years, until 2037. My personal copyright will then run out in 2107. If I've assigned the rights to a corporation (after going stark, staring mad), their rights will continue until 2132, because 2012+120 = 2132 and 2037+95=2132 also. Both terms run out about the same time.

Get serious, now! Does it make any sense that anything I write will be capable of generating a revenue stream into the 2100s? Seriously? And why should I care? I've trained a son who writes well and will presumably be able to generate his own revenue stream without my posthumous help—whether by writing or in some other way. Besides, he'll be 119 in 2107, most likely having shuffled off the scene in his own right a couple decades before that, and will have grandchildren older than I am now.

The 1998 CTEA adds insult to injury. The prior law had already stipulated excessive terms. In the nannyish way of much post-1950 legislation, no longer was a work's creator required to register to obtain copyright; now it is impossible to avoid the automatic copyright, and a great deal of trouble to ensure that a work enters the public domain prior to the deaths of your grandchildren.

A voice of sanity has emerged, now that Lewis Hyde's book Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership has hit the shelves. He takes serious issue with the whole notion of "Intellectual Property." Because of that word property, otherwise reasonable people submit to having their children indoctrinated that "Theft is theft" in the schools, in anti-piracy programs (piracy is another loaded word), and there is a Boy Scout merit badge for "Copyright respect".

Author Hyde presents a long argument for the view that creative works together form a commons that is for the benefit of all, a view that is echoed in the Creative Commons movement and the Open Source software movement.

Many have a vague notion of the "Tragedy of the Commons", based on an essay by that title by Garrett Hardin. What very few know is that the "commons" as depicted in that essay is a straw man, which Hardin later acknowledged as "unmanaged commons." A commons such as a forest or grazing field (like the Boston Commons) was a managed entity, in which citizens bore responsibilities to a commons and were required to work towards its upkeep. The idea of free, unfettered exploitation of a commons was totally foreign to our forebears, and was considered barbaric. "The Tragedy of the Commons" does accurately describe most modern fisheries (which are running out of fish), but not the always-restricted, well-managed commons that worked so well for many generations, and still work well where they are in use.

Constitutional provisions and laws that provide for patents and for copyright were, prior to 1978, designed to encourage creativity and provide a limited monopoly before a work was released into the public domain. It is that public domain which provides the fodder for further creativity, for no creative person produces in a vacuum.

For example, I have written a few songs. The ones people like the most are my "family love" songs, originally written for my parents' fiftieth and fifty-fifth wedding parties. They are strongly based on concepts found in some country songs I like such as "I Come From a Long Line of Love" by Paul Overstreet. I just mixed my own experiences with a narrative structure I am familiar with. There is a bit of tune-copying there, also: a portion of one chorus starts out like the chorus of "Long Line of Love." I wonder to what extent I might have to pay a royalty if I ever perform my song for a paying audience? What price four or five notes?

Then there's a favorite rag, "Alice's Restaurant," by Arlo Guthrie. The chord pattern is used in thousands of blues rags. If that chord pattern were copyright-protected, old Arlo'd have been out of luck getting that song recorded! Luckily the rag's structure is older than dirt. So is the "La Bamba" tune, which the Beatles recorded as "Twist and Shout." In fact, just about every rhythm & blues writer has produced a La Bamba clone, and "La Bamba" itself is derived from an older Latin folk tradition. And lest you think the words make all the difference, compare some of the lyrics of "Twist & Shout" with "The Twist" by Chubby Checker.

In the Commons tradition of pre-Enclosure England, there was a yearly bounds-walking exercise by interested townsfolk. They would break down any fence or enclosure that encroached on the commons, and warn other perpetrators who had committed infractions against its proper management. We are seeing a similar exercise arise today, though it is being called "piracy" by the powers-that-be in the entertainment industry. File-sharing is the primary way most people I know get their music. Not being one to listen to music, I don't even have an iPod, but if I did, it'd be full of Western Swing tunes that are easily obtained via one of many free Torrent services.

For those who don't want to download stuff, there is always the public library. The local one is well stocked with CD's of popular bands. It is rather easy to bring a laptop to the library and rip tunes from a handful of CD's in an afternoon, and you don't even need to check any out. Let me ask you, how does this differ from reading the library's copy of a book? Hyde makes an excellent point about the First Amendment: that it primarily protects, not just the right to free speech, but the right to free listening.

There is an amusing dichotomy at the corporation for which I work. The company employs strong safeguards to protect the electronic copies of technical reports, for after all they are the crown jewels upon which innovations and products are built. Those reports are based on laboratory notebook records. Until recently, the notebooks were all paper books issued by company libraries at all research sites, and microfilmed recently. Mostly, this is still happening. But electronic notebooks are increasingly used, which are electronically published. There is a lot of worry about the contents of around half a million notebooks which exist only on microfilm, because they contain the records of millions of experiments. It costs money to perform an experiment. If you don't know what was done in the past, you are likely to repeat work. So there is a push to get the old notebooks into electronic form also. All this material has to be indexed and cross-referenced so it can be found.

Here's the rub. The easier it is to find, the easier it is to steal. Every research company, mine included, has had incidents of theft of such records. So the safeguards are beefed up every few years as new ways are found to circumvent them. This kind of "arms race" has been going on since before the invention of the test tube. And do you know what? It is OK! The rapid expansion of knowledge and technology that results is a benefit to all, even if it sometimes makes a dent in this or that company's bottom line. A rising fleet is good for all the ships.

There is plenty of evidence that sharing can be more lucrative than secrecy. That is why there are so many joint ventures. Genuine creators don't have to look over their shoulders. They always have something new up their sleeves, so if one particular song, or book, or pharmaceutical, or plastic, or movie, or anything else starts to lose market share, there is a pipeline of new stuff coming along to replace it.

Stuff gets old. Newer stuff can be better. Edison was issued about a thousand patents. Guess how many Edison inventions are still in use? Exactly one, the light bulb. And in the U.S., the incandescent light bulb has just been legislated almost out of existence. 100-watt bulbs are now illegal to manufacture. In two to four years, the 75- and 60- and 40-watt bulbs will follow. Only little "chandelier flame" bulbs will be allowed. By then, LED bulbs will begin to replace the CFL's that we're using today to replace "light bulbs".

Hyde hopes, but doesn't much expect, for a new "breaking the enclosures" movement to arise and restore some sanity to the Intellectual Property arena, particularly where the big money is, in entertainment. Copyright terms are much too long. In the consumer products arena, patents are still limited to twenty years. Very few products have a marketing cycle even ten years long before something better comes along. Some songs may last generations, even the occasional film, but will people still be watching episodes of Twilight in 120 years?

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Seven suns

kw: beauty, observations

It is rather easy to be up before sunrise this time of the year. Over the past week or so I observed the moon drift past Venus high in the morning sky as it waned toward New Moon yesterday. The moon was closest to Venus Friday morning (Dec 31), a fat crescent a couple of days past third quarter phase. I found the beauty of the sight overwhelming. It got me thinking about beauty in general. What is so beautiful about two bright lights in a black sky? Or a starry sky? Beauty seems to reside in contrast, but contrast of a certain type.

I think of paintings that use a very dark, low-key background with a strong highlight on the focal scene. Of course, the highlight draws the eye to what the painter wants you to notice. But the painting overall is more beautiful than one which is more evenly "lit". On the other hand, certain op-art, with its garish color contrasts, rarely seems beautiful to me. It certainly draws attention (I think of the multicolored LOVE emblem in Philadelphia), but I find overly strong color contrasts to be less compelling than strong brightness contrasts.

Then I got to thinking, is it possible to overdo a contrast in brightness? Is there a "sweet spot" of contrast, and overly bright brightness loses its beauty? I recalled an experience from thirty years ago in Irvine, California. At the time I worked for Fluor E&C, before it became Fluor Daniel. Their engineering center in Irvine contains three triangular pods, and one wall of each pod is curved. It is kind of like a propeller. The vertical walls are faced in glass that reflects 85% of the light. One of those curved walls faces East.

I was taking an early walk around the perimeter of the property with two colleagues. We noticed that the morning sunlight was being focused onto a spot on the grass, which looked very bright. I remembered the verse Isaiah 30:26, "The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the LORD binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted." I decided to find out what that might be like, seven-fold sunlight.

I went to stand in that spot. I remember counting seven reflected suns, and of course the sun was shining on my other side. For about a minute it felt really, really good, and seeing those multiple suns was amazingly beautiful. Then I got very hot and got out of there! We calculated later that the seven reflections, at 85%, constituted 5.95 suns, and the sun itself was one more, for just under seven total. Then we calculated the radiation balance (we were engineers, after all). Had I stayed in that spot long enough, I'd have been heated to 540°F, or over 280°C. Not quite conducive to long life. But for the moment the experience lasted, I found it quite beautiful!

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Not quite the oldest

kw: technology, video chat, telephony

For someone who is considered a power user, I am sometimes well behind the curve. It took my father to propel me into the realm of video chat. I remember one of the first exhibits at Disneyland when it opened in 1955 was a kind of videophone, which would "soon" be "commonplace." Well, "soon" took a little matter of forty more years to begin to happen, and a total of fifty to become easy and cheap enough to be in any danger of being "commonplace."

The first problem was bandwidth. Although analog TV had channels spaced 6 Mhz apart, the video and audio signal combined only needed a third of that. The smaller picture on the Disney videophone probably only needed half a Mhz, but that is still 150 times the bandwidth required to carry decent voice. One video channel could tie up all the bandwidth for an entire town's phone service. Only when the telephone system was capable of carrying DSL signals to most homes was there any chance for analog video telephony to become possible. Digital video with Mpeg compression solved the bandwidth problem a couple decades ago. While it takes a 0.5 Mhz bandwidth to carry HDTV, it only takes a few Khz to carry a 320x240 pixel "personal video" signal. Hobbyists who already had ISDN (twin line data) available cobbled together videophone systems that sent the digital video over one ISDN line and audio over the other.

ISDN wasn't cheap. It cost much more than just having two telephone lines. The cost barrier began to fall when cable TV providers installed 2-way amplifiers and began to offer internet services, and later a handful of companies (I use Verizon) offered fiber optic internet hookups at reasonable cost. "See-U-See-Me" (CuCme) type programs spread, albeit slowly. But the other cost factor was that early web cameras cost $200, dropping below $50 only a few years ago. Now they are cheap enough that nearly every new laptop contains a webcam built in, just above the screen.

The final hurdle was software more usable than CuCme. I've been a (Very) occasional Skype user for a couple of years. I only used it to make conference calls, because I have a mobile phone plan with free calling nationwide, so I don't care that Skype is free. My cell phone has better sound quality.

While I may have heard last year that Skype offered video chatting, I didn't pay attention. But not too long ago I got a new laptop, and it had a camera built in. No built-in microphone, however, but I had one I'd gotten for audio-only Skype. About that time my Dad called. He'd seen his neighbor using Skype video to talk to distant relatives, and wanted to know how to set it up. Adroit timing!

An hour later, we both had it running and had our first video chat. This was just a couple of days ago, the last day of 2010. When I returned to work I told a colleague the story and remarked that I reckon my Dad might be one of the oldest Skype users, at age 88. She said, "My dad uses it, and he is 90." It makes sense that there is probably someone out there age 100 or so, using Skype video chat.

If ninety-year-olds are using a technology, I count it as having gotten over the hump. Whether it is "commonplace" now, it easily can become so. For me, that Disney promise was finally fulfilled, after 55 years. And for anyone who wants to comment and say you've been video chatting for twenty years, that's OK. As I said, I was well behind the curve on this one.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Havin fun in the deep sky

kw: astronomy, surveys, pastimes

Among my favorite images from my involvement with The Galaxy Zoo Hubble is this one of AHZ2000ke7, a distant (2.26 GLy or 0.7 GPc) spiral galaxy near the boundary of Leo and Sextans.

Its dimensions are about 7"x10", and it is located at RH 9:59:57 and Dec +1°59'14" (Decimal: 149.9891 and 1.9872). Ten arc seconds at this distance works out to about 110,000 light-years across, making this galaxy very close in size to the Milky Way. This image is about 44" across, and every visible object is a galaxy. I decided to see to what extent it is shown in Google Sky. An image to about the same scale is shown here:

Most of Google Sky is from Sloan (SDSS) images and other earth-bound imaging. Viewing through the atmosphere, even at mile-high elevations such as the Sloan's location, seldom exceeds 0.3" resolution, so this image is probably among the best earth-bound views available. Most of Google Sky is intended (At least so far) for viewing at about a 10x smaller scale, such as this view, centered on the same galaxy, but 7'20" across:

As before, everything visible in this image is a galaxy. The resolution is about 1" per pixel, so it corresponds to the view at about 300x through a telescope larger than 8 inches. However, you'd be hard put to see these galaxies visually, even through a larger telescope, because they are quite faint. A "rich field" telescope at 300x would be a 60-inch, such as the McDonald telescope in Texas. The digital detectors in modern telescopes reach far beyond what the eye can see. If we back off another factor of ten, Google Sky shows us a view like this:

This image is just over a degree across, and represents the view at 30x, though with greater sensitivity than the eye. Now, nearly everything shown is a star in the Milky Way. Considering how hard it is for an amateur to get good views approaching 300x, and how much harder it is to take pictures with such resolution, I find Google Sky is a great resource for "desktop astronomy", and Galaxy Zoo gives me the deepest views available, though of objects the survey directors find interesting. There's a great deal of beauty "out there."

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Say "limburger"

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, photographs, family, humor

There is one in every family, someone who blinks at the wrong time, or forgets to smile, or one who just doesn't seem to fit in… This image was chosen at random from the "Family Portrait" area of It is graced by a double whammy of awkwardness.

The web site has been running about sixteen months, and has already collected thousands of submitted photos. So much so that its perpetrators Mike Bender and Doug Chernack have issued a book, Awkward Family Photos. Being short on words and long on pictures, it makes for a quick first run-through. Then I found myself going back through more slowly, to savor a few favorites, and occasionally to puzzle out what may have happened. Like the picture here: Did the woman at the end blink, or was she just keeping her eyes closed as a matter of principle? When the daughter of friends of ours came home from college with purple hair, the mother spent lots more time trying to look elsewhere, or just not looking at anything.

The book is great fun. In addition to portraits, and the many ways they can go awry, there are pictures of family members with pets, on vacation, with the extended family, and on special occasions like weddings and birthdays. At the web site the number of categories is even greater.

We all have a box or book of photos, and there are some there that we hope nobody will see. This is one of mine; I have gotten over not wanting anyone to see it—it has been only 53 years. This is the year after all four of us boys got Mohawk hair cuts. When I went to school that way at the end of the prior summer, I was sent home, so Dad shaved my head and sent me back. This time, he shaved me early and let it grow out a little before the school year started. Though the negative is right at the end of the roll, this pic was too good to throw away.

Family photos are like that. They are family, so even though they are often awkward, we don't throw them away. Eventually, we learn to enjoy them. The book and web site let us enjoy the generous offerings of others.