Sunday, February 27, 2011

The worst remaining

kw: psychopaths, news

The neighborhood had a 2-day internet outage, so a few potential posts have gone by the wayside. If I don't write down ideas I forget them.

In Friday's paper the front page had a quote by Muammar Gadhafi (the name is still spelled several ways in the press) of Libya: "People who do not love me do not deserve to live." Assuming this is an accurate translation, it is clear proof that the man is a psychopath, of the sort that must be removed from the human race. This statement is absolutely characteristic of the way the worst humans think. May all such be eliminated from the gene pool!

It is very rare for me to advocate assassination, but in this case it is more than justified, and I do so without a trace of guilt.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

As usual, favorites are rare

kw: astronomy, photographs, galaxies

I have a folder full of galaxy images as my current screen saver. Looking at it in a contemplative moment, I was struck again by how we prefer the big spirals to the much more common ellipticals. This image of M74 exemplifies what people think of as a galaxy:

By contrast, elliptical galaxies are simply bright blobs with a brighter center, and hardly any other features. This image of the center of cluster Abell SO740 is dominated by a very large elliptical galaxy. The large spiral to the lower left is probably a bit larger than our Milky Way galaxy, perhaps the size of the Andromeda galaxy (M31).

In this image, I can pick out two larger spirals and six or seven smaller ones which are probably part of a more distant cluster in the background. By contrast, there are dozens of elliptical galaxies of all sizes visible (again, many of these probably belong to a more distant cluster). Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, and in this case, that eye seems to like a certain amount of detail and contrast. Compared to a richly detailed spiral galaxy, an elliptical galaxy is only slightly more interesting than a round, featureless spot.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

No I am NOT killing myself

kw: articles, medicine, safety, sweeteners

For the record, I drink about a liter of Diet Pepsi daily. It is sweetened with aspartame. My doctor and others get on my case about that. Here is some 21-year-old news from Archives of Internal Medicine:

Safety of Long-term Large Doses of Aspartame

Arthur S. Leon, MD; Donald B. Hunninghake, MD; Catherine Bell, MBA; David K. Rassin, PhD; Thomas R. Tephly, MD, PhD

Arch Intern Med. 1989;149(10):2318-2324.


• Safety of long-term administration of 75 mg/kg of aspartame per day was evaluated with the use of a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group design in 108 male and female volunteers aged 18 to 62 years. Subjects received either aspartame or placebo in capsule form three times daily for 24 weeks. No persistent changes over time were noted in either group in vital signs; body weight; results of standard laboratory tests; fasting blood levels of aspartame's constituent amino acids (aspartic acid and phenylalanine), other amino acids, and methanol; or blood formate levels and 24-hour urinary excretion of formate. There also were no statistically significant differences between groups in the number of subjects experiencing symptoms or in the number of symptoms per subject. These results further document the safety of the long-term consumption of aspartame at doses equivalent to the amount of aspartame in approximately 10 L of beverage per day.

This won't end the matter. People are going to believe what they want to believe, even my doctor, who claims to believe in "evidence based medicine", but only does so when it fits his prejudices. The article is sufficient for me.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Me not robot, me Person

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, manifestos, technology
Computationalism (noun): The belief that human thought processes are entirely describable as computations, or can be perfectly mimicked by computations. Coined by Jaron Lanier and published in his book You are not a Gadget: A Manifesto.
Try this. The next time you search using Google or Yahoo (or whatever), locate a site that answers your question that is not from Wikipedia or another Wikimedia entity. In just under ten years, this most successful of web 2.0 products has become the "go to" place for information. It is the exemplar of the now-popular notion that "the wisdom of crowds" is somehow greater than the wisest individual. Try telling that to Jaron Lanier, and he'll likely ask which crowd would have produced the special or general theory of relativity, or nylon, or the Hubble space telescope.

I made a few Google searches, with the following results: The first hit for Mayflower Compact, E coli, geomorphology, Edison, and Churchill was wikipedia; for life insurance and bioinformatics wikipedia was the second and for metabolic engineering it was third. Making almost any "what is" query yielded a first hit from Wikimedia Answers. But make the experiment yourself. You are likely to find that the non-wiki site has better content.

Lanier's book is primarily a push-back against the more dewy-eyed predictions of the promoters of web 2.0, which began as a synonym for Semantic Web (that is, the web itself "understanding" meaning), and morphed into a looser composition of interactive services including blogs, wikis and "the cloud". The phrase "wisdom of the crowd" underlies many web 2.0 dreams. All too often, the crowd becomes a mob, and little wisdom results.

The author first tackles the concept of lock-in. While there may be many ways to do something, only one or a few become predominant, and often not the best way(s), just because of history. The classic example is the QWERTY keyboard. Few know that the prototype typewriter had an alphabetical keyboard. Typists soon gained sufficient speed to jam keys frequently, so the keyboard was carefully redesigned to slow them down! 75% of common words are typed entirely or all but one letter using the left hand on the QWERTY keyboard. No alternative keyboard has become popular, even though several designs make typing easier and faster, for someone learning for the first time (I once spent a month learning to use the Dvorak keyboard. It was too late; I'm locked-in to QWERTY).

The most telling example from computer science is the UNIX/Linux set of operating systems, which are designed around a command-line interface. Windowing systems laid on top of these systems (including their close cousin MS-DOS, which underlies MS Windows) are sending commands to a command-line interface. This makes it very, very hard to write truly real-time responsive software. Current systems are responsive only because they run on CPU's that can perform a few billion operations per second. It takes a lot of overhead to turn a "command" into a few simple instructions that request the CPU to perform what the user is really asking for.

It seems that modern culture is based on the mash-up. Like "mix tracks" made of snippets of favorite songs, everything is being mashed together, with little thought of the creativity that went into the original productions. While it can be quite creative to produce a collage, the collage-maker must rely on truly creative artists to produce the works that are cut up to make it. When the collage-maker gets more recognition (and money) than the original artists, what incentive is there for artists to produce more art? They have to get "day jobs" to keep body and soul together, and produce much less art as a consequence.

I built a forty-year career upon the premise that people ought to do what people do better than machines, and machines ought to do what they do better than people. Confusing these categories is bad for both people and their machines. Lanier has a very similar stance, and it underlies one of his principal complaints. Technological lock-in, as mentioned above, is one result of trying to make people conform to what is overly easy for machines. But things can change. For many tasks, mouse clicks are much better than keyboard commands. The recent spate of gesture-driven devices such as the I-pad gives hope that innovation is continuing. And I like the Kinect attachment for the XBox 360. For tasks where it is appropriate, particularly for an immersive virtual environment, it is a large step in the right direction.

Thus, the last quarter or third of the book is more optimistic. The author, a working musician, has looked for working artists who are able to make a living by distributing their work over the internet. The number is discouragingly few. However, a trend is just arising toward a compensation scheme similar to pay-per-view on cable TV, but more equitable (and lots cheaper, individually). Though he does not mention it, the Netflix model of movie distribution is a step in the right direction. My brother, a self-published author, has found that Amazon is a great way to eliminate the middle man, and that having a relationship with a print-on-demand publisher completes the circle of resources an author needs. As more books are published electronically to Kindles and Nooks, and to print-on-demand for those who love paper, fewer authors will need either agents or the big publishing houses to market and distribute their books. This aspect of web 2.0 seems to be largely positive.

And Lanier thinks it can be more and more positive if we can step back from the wilder claims and take advantage of what the web can do for us in a practical way. The web is not just a lot of machines. Behind the machines we find hordes of very talented people. Without them the machines do nothing. Only people can either have or confer meaning. Only people innovate. People make things work. Even an "inference engine" that produces (actually, reproduces) inventions, was programmed by some person(s). So far, no machine-designed machine has gone beyond the capabilities of the original machine without human help. Until we understand much more deeply what consciousness is, none ever will. And maybe not even then.

As a working programmer, I can verify the author's contention that only small programs can be made to work perfectly. The larger a program gets, the larger the number of intractable bugs it will contain. There is an axiom in this business, "A large computer program that works grew out of a small program that worked." A huge system like Linux or Windows will have thousands of programming errors, and in addition, will have thousands of unexpected behaviors because no complete flow chart of stimulus and response can be produced.

With that in mind, consider that the human brain contains 10 billion neurons and 100 billion glial cells. The average neuron has 7,000 synapses to other neurons, and a smaller number to the neighboring glia. This means that an average brain has something like 100 trillion connections. A computer simulation of ten neurons with complete connectivity among them is a huge challenge for a supercomputer. And just in case nobody else noticed, Moore's Law for processor cycle time ended about five years ago. The primary way to get more speed from our computers is now to add more and more processors. The software to parcel out a problem to multiple processors is difficult and buggy. We're not at risk of a computer "brain" superseding us anytime soon.

Computers have the potential to free us to be more human. Far too many techno-enthusiasts have been busy finding ways to make people more like machines. This violates our humanity. So does trying to make the machine "too human". Let the machines do what they do well, and the humans do what they do well. We remain irreplaceable.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Decisions, decisions

kw: observations, thinking, mental health

My father has received some help with his balance and other problems from a hypnotist. He repeated a statement made by the hypnotist that we make about a thousand conscious decisions daily, while our unconscious makes a million decisions a day. That got me thinking.

Firstly, what is a decision? Upon reflection, I concluded that it is a sequence of brain activity that leads to an action or to refraining from an action. By "action", however, I don't mean just a bodily motion, but I include a mental state that differs from before, such as a realization, a word choice for a sentence one may soon speak or write, or a "mental note" to do something in the future. Do we count the sub-decisions that lead to something more major? Sure, why not?

A thousand decisions amounts to about one per waking minute. Let's consider this as a starting point. While I am writing, I can type 50-60 words per minute, but I don't always think this fast. Nonetheless, I am capable of sustained burst of "word choice" and "sentence-concept choice" in the range of one per second. When I play a computer card game such as Freecell or Spider Solitaire, I may think about a move for a minute or several minutes, and at other times make several moves per second. My hand speed limits me to about three per second. Nobody can do that all day, however.

Speaking with someone, we make one or two decisions per second, and some of us spend a lot of time conversing. Of course, half of the conversation a person spends listening, but they will be thinking, often planning what to say next, the while. So sustained decision making can approach one per second. In 16-18 hours of waking time, the number of seconds is 54,600-64,800. Thus I conclude that most of us make fewer than 50,000 conscious decisions daily, and that nobody exceeds 100,000.

What counts as an unconscious decision? When some part of the brain builds a dream image in your sleep, how many decisions are involved, and how long did it take? The visual cortex operates in parallel, and I recall dream images, just from last night, that were rather complex, containing dozens to hundreds of objects. For an image sequence to seem continuous, they must occur at about twenty per second. That is one kind of decision-making we need to consider. It parallels the recognition process that makes us aware of dozens to hundreds of items in our visual field, also at a rate of about twenty per second. In either case, a minute of visual activity is sustained by as many as several hundred thousand recognition or recall decisions. Watching an hour-long movie, which I've noticed is often visually less rich than a "real" experience, let's just guess that each minute requires 100,000 decisions (hundreds are made in parallel at every instant), so that movie prompts six million decisions by our visual processing system.

There is a lot more going on in our body; regulation of heart, liver, stomach and other organ rhythms, for example. I don't know how to analyze the number of decisions this takes, but I think it is safe to say that it does not require the sustained level found in visual processing. Then let us consider that the visual cortex is one-third of the total cortex, and the cortex is a fifth of the total brain. The cortex may then be capable of twenty million decisions per hour. The rest of the brain runs at different rates. The largest portion of the limbic system involves emotional responses, another kind of decision entirely. There may be some parallelism in this as well, but it is more mysterious overall. Then there is the memory system. Again, it is hard to decide how to count activity, and harder still to figure out what is a "decision".

Instead, let us back off and consider. The cortex alone is capable of twenty million unconscious decisions per hour, which is probably a few thousand per hour (one or two per second) in each of thousands of regions. Conscious decision making requires getting more of the brain into gear, and seems not to run in parallel.

It seems the hypnotist had his ratios about right, but the figures were wildly conservative. I suspect it is more accurate to say that we make 10,000-50,000 conscious decisions daily, while unconsciously the whole cortex makes around a third of a billion decisions…during waking hours. During sleep, the rate of activity is hardly changed, so that another hundred million or so decisions get made.

In all the above, I have considered only the cerebrum, not the cerebellum and brain stem, which regulate bodily states and mediate our decisions to perform bodily actions. I don't think I need to. The hypnotist was using the thousand-to-one figure to make the point that if we can influence how the unconscious functions operate, even a little, we can make big changes in bodily and mental states, and perhaps even rates of healing. Now that takes more consideration.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A space opera to fly with

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space opera, interplanetary politics

I was traveling cross country yesterday, a good opportunity to get a lot of reading done. A factual text isn't sufficienty engrossing for effective escape reading; I get distracted by the grim reality of being in an airplane seat the size of a floor tile. But a good space opera is just the thing to transfer me to far horizons and make the time melt away.

David Drake, a writer new to me, has a deft hand at interstellar politics and applying known concepts to a new idea for plying the space lanes. In What Distant Deeps, the latest of his RCN series, he pits Captain Daniel Leary of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy and his friend the spy Adele Mundy—both aristocrats who choose the military life—against an ambitious autocrat, the Autocrator Irene, who is taking advantage of an exhausted peace between two formerly warring empires to promote her own agenda of attaining a mini-empire from a few planets on the fringes of civilized space.

Both Mundy and her bodyguard/companion Tovera are described a few times as murderous psychopaths, not by enemies, but in the ruminations of Mundy's own mind; there is a lot of stream of consciousness twined amongst the action. Yet by nature Lady Mundy is a librarian, happiest when digging meaning from the data she is continually harvesting from any computer system she can break into, such as the planetary archives or an entire naval fleet's ship systems. She uncovers traces of a secretive "Farm" that is really a military camp being set up for an expected invading army. Leary recognizes the potential for such an invasion to destroy the fragile peace accord, and sets about short-circuiting the process.

To author Drake, the emphasis in RCN is on Navy. Space travel is a matter of inserting the ship into what is called the Matrix, where there are currents and forces that one can "sail" through using literal masts and sails on a starship's hull; this is followed by extraction into normal space. While in the Matrix, a ship can be guided by a skilled person who knows how to interpret the vision of an infinite array of bubble universes, and the swirls and currents that accompany galaxies, stars and starships within our own universe. There are mental and physiological effects of insertion and extraction, and a little of the drama rests upon their potential to debilitate people at critical times, such as extracting into the middle of a pitched battle. Only one major scene hinges on these effects; the author could have done more with it, and perhaps he has in prior RCN novels.

The author has done a competent job of interpreting the tropes of naval warfare into a space setting. The missiles and the plasma cannons that answer to the torpedos and cannon of water-based battles provide plenty of drama, as long as one refrains from thinking too deeply. The narrative really kept me going at times I sorely needed the escapism. Quite an enjoyable reading experience.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A little math helps

kw: citizen science, astronomy, observations

I have been giving a little time to classifying stars' light curves on the Planet Hunters project, and by now I've classified a couple thousand stars. A recent addition to the process is the option to download a star's data, a boon to statistics-minded folk. The download is offered after one has finished classifying the star and marking any features that look like planetary transits. I hope they'll instead offer the download at the beginning.

This image shows how a simple process can extract a signal from the noise in a light curve. The blue crosses are original data for a star. I added to it two simulated transits, for a planet about twice earth's size transiting the star, which was a somewhat oversize star 2.3 times the size of our sun. In the blue crosses alone it is hard to pick out the transit features at 5 and 30. The red dots show the features more clearly.

The red dots simply show the running average of five data points at a time. The original data points were taken at thirty minute intervals. I don't know how much of that interval is used to gather light, but I assume it is most of the period. The amount of scatter shown is typical of data for a star of magnitude 13. I'll discuss why in a moment. But first note that the scatter of the red dots is much less than that of the blue crosses. One danger of averaging is visible: four features that also look like transits at about 13, 15, 19, and 26. Their narrow width, and the absence of a steady time pattern gives them away as spurious: transits this brief ought to occur frequently, every 5-10 days, and very steadily. The longer an orbit, the slower the planet, and the longer a transit will take.

Why is there this scatter in the data? Primarily because of photon counting statistics. The bulk of the blue crosses are found in the range 0.9999-1.0001, a band only 0.02% wide. This indicates that around 100 million photons were collected per observation of this star. The standard deviation of a counted sample is very close to the square root of the number of counts: the square root of 100,000,000 is 10,000; divide the two to get 0.0001. Many of the stars in the project are magnitude 15, or 6.3 times dimmer than this star. The square root of 16,000,000 is 4,000; divide to get 0.00025. Starting with more than twice the noise makes it more than twice as hard to "see" a transit feature of a specific size.

The averaging simulates counting 5x as many photons, and thus reduces the noise by a factor of 2.2. Even a very close-in planet will have a transit lasting at least a couple of hours, or four 30-minute data intervals, so the averaging helps over most of the range of possible planetary orbits.

So far, I've identified lots of things I thought were transits. One of these has recently been declared a verified transit. I saw that about ten other planet hunters also identified it. Just a tiny thrill, but something to keep a lot of folks checking star after star. Our work helps focus the energies of the people running the project.

Monday, February 14, 2011

We are getting there

kw: weather forecasting, analysis

Not so many years ago, three-day weather forecasts were reasonably accurate, and the earliest forecasts you could get were five or six days. As computer models, particularly general circulation models, have improved, we have a bit more look-ahead, such that the Accuweather add-in to my browser presents fifteen-day forecasts. Getting ready for a trip, I decided to check about half that range (to tell the truth, I didn't think of it until I had eight days to go).

Anyway, I primarily looked at the day I'm leaving, which is Wednesday coming, or the 16th, and at the locations at both ends of the journey. At my end, then, we have the following; each line is the date of the forecast, the high, the low, and the outlook:
  • 2/08 - 54, 36, sunny
  • 2/10 - 49, 35, mostly sunny
  • 2/11 - 50, 35, mostly sunny
  • 2/13 - 51, 36, partly sunny
  • 2/14 - 49, 34, partly sunny
Now let's look at the other end, on the West coast near Portland, Oregon:
  • 2/08 - 41, 32, rain
  • 2/10 - 47, 36, a few showers
  • 2/11 - 47, 34, rain possible
  • 2/13 - 47, 34, clouds and showers
  • 2/14 - 47, 34, clouds and showers
A quick glance shows that the forecast in Oregon is steadier than the one here. The Delaware valley area is similar to New England in having volatile weather, what with 2-3 conflicting air masses in play on an ordinary day. During a typical cycle of two or three days' duration, a continental air mass arising in Canada or the northern plains (the Dakotas) bangs into a maritime air mass, and both are influenced by a warm air mass that arose in the Gulf of Mexico or off the coast of Georgia. The timing of the ensuing events gives weather forecasters fits.

On the other hand, in the northwest, the maritime weather is more stable, as the continental air masses that arise further north typically travel to the southeast and bypass the Seattle-Portland area. Now that I have a two-day forecast for both places that agrees with the three-day forecast, I can be pretty sure that I'll have good flying weather early in the trip, and at worst a little rain upon landing, depending on the timing of the showers.

In the meantime, I marvel that I can call up such data so easily, and test it for reliability. Having fifteen years' experience with the local weather, I could probably surmise the slight warming trend the forecasts describe, but I'd have no chance at guessing what lay at the other end. The people I'm visiting are newcomers to Oregon, though they have said that the weather patterns tend to run to longer cycles than those in this area. There was a time I'd have said that the weather problem is inherently unsolvable more than three days in advance, but clearly, I was wrong. I wonder if we'll one day have highly reliable two-week forecasts for everywhere.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Custodian of nature

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, veterinary medicine, africa

Dr. Roy Aronson is one lucky man, with a job he loves in a lovely setting. He has a veterinary clinic in Cape Town, South Africa, and he also works part of the time with wildlife in the bush. In his book, Tales of an African Vet, he writes of working with the "big five", elephants, rhinos, lions, buffalo and leopards, but also of gemsbok, pythons, hedgehogs, and other wild creatures that needed human help to survive or thrive.

In the last chapter, about performing tuberculosis tests on lions, I learned how much of a problem TB is for both humans and animals. No animal may be moved from one game park to another without being TB tested. Animals that test positive are "culled", meaning euthanized. With diligent attention this terrible disease, which still claims more lives (human and animal) than AIDS, might be brought under control.

As if there were not enough large predators in Africa, there was some time ago a popular hobby of raising wolves and wolf-dog breeds. Once people find out that a three-year-old wolf or dog with more than 45% wolf is a truly wild animal, and not at all safe with children, many are abandoned or killed outright. This frequently leads to more work for the vets, who wind up caring for animals of many kinds that have been cast out by disgruntled owners.

At the other end of the scale, the author found that farmed fish raised in an environment with more oxygen than they are used to can get the bends, or gas bubbles in their tissues, and changes to their environment are required to adapt to their needs. For some fish farms, the changes must be made economically. For others, such as those that raise thousand-dollar koi, the changes are a minor expense!

A lesson driven home time and again is that Africa is far from the wild place of the Western imagination. Most of the bush is fenced and allotted among ranches and commercial game parks, with a few national game parks. Many try to retain some semblance of the bush experience on behalf of ecotourists and other safari-goers. Few folks realize that the lions and cheetahs they are taken to see have implanted radio tracking devices. How else do you think the trackers can find them so quickly? Expert trail readers can indeed locate animals one may wish to see, but not quite so rapidly. Pre-radio safaris had to be longer than the attention span of modern tourists.

In his 25-year career, the author has seen a lot. He has, in particular, seen how the fragmentation of habitat is driving all the big wildlife to the edge of extinction. It is only because of farming, for example, that the Nile crocodile is being kept from dying out. With this in mind, he takes issue with those who say we should not intervene on behalf of injured animals, but should "let nature take its course." In all too many cases, it is our interference with nature that has led to the injury in the first place, so he sees it as our duty to right such wrongs wherever possible. It is one thing for a lion to run down a healthy impala. It is another to encounter an impala with a poacher's noose caught on one leg; not to help the latter animal is tantamount to murder by neglect.

Would the African bush animals be better off if there were no humans? The question is meaningless. Humans are a part of nature, also. We have taken control of much of nature, but close encounters with these marvelous creatures has shown Dr. Aronson how much power and beauty nature retains in spite of our short-sightedness. Due to the efforts of many like him, some portion of the grandeur of primordial Africa is being kept for the education and awe of our descendants.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Spinning for science - and the rush

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, weather phenomena, tornadoes, storm chasers, memoirs

You don't have to be crazy to chase storms with Reed Timmer, but it sure helps. He exemplifies the X generation's emphasis on the X in eXtreme—just ask him—as he recounts in his new book Into the Storm: Violent Tornadoes, Killer Hurricanes, and Death-defying Adventures in Extreme Weather. Andrew Tilin is cited as co-author.

By my count, from 1998 onward, Timmer's storm chasing buddies have lost four autos, destroyed by hail or flood, and he has lost at least one and perhaps two of his own. His truck-based armored vehicle "Dominator" is probably next on the list, because he plans to drive it right into a tornado vortex. I haven't yet heard whether he's done so.

Reed Timmer appears in the Storm Chasers show on Discovery Channel. The ups and downs of his life that led to this gig are the subject of the book, which begins with his arrival in Norman, Oklahoma in 1998, where he studied Meteorology. He obtained Bachelors' and Masters' degrees there, and has begun PhD Studies, but is apparently still at work on that.

The book is his memoir of involvement with tornadoes, and a couple hurricanes, and of his career as a publicity hound, once he found that his videos were a salable commodity. His web site TornadoVideos sells plenty of videos. He is not much into still pictures, so I got this image from one of his rivals, who kindly supplies her copyright notice in the image; see Green Sky Chaser.

For geographic reasons, the United States great plains are Tornado Central, the location of Tornado Alley, where more than half of all the world's tornadoes occur (some sources claim 80%, but I think that is high). During the years I lived in Stillwater, Oklahoma, while I didn't see a tornado, I almost drove into one that was wrapped in rain. I believe that was in 1990, when one tore through the middle of town and caused a bit of havoc. The road leading north from Stillwater to Ponca City crosses the buckle of the tornado belt.

Four years later, on a family vacation, we saw one that looked a lot like this image, as we approached Goodland, Kansas from the southeast. It crossed the road about ten miles ahead of us, and the storm dissipated by the time we got there. I like to see a tornado over there, just close enough to see well, but that's it. Storm chasers like a more up-close-and-personal experience.

This "up close" element sets Timmer apart. He's managed to get himself inside a couple of F0 twisters (In yesterday's post I wrote that an F0 has wind speeds less than 73 mph or 117 kph or 33 m/s. That is almost enough to knock you off your feet, but not enough to pick you up. Anything stronger, you're not likely to survive). He thrives on getting close enough so the storm fills his video camera's viewfinder. As a result, he's obtained many dramatic videos.

The "up close" element makes more conservative storm chasers uneasy, even angry. Timmer is a maverick, and revels in it. While he frequently writes of his desire to improve the science, it is the adrenaline rush that drives him. Let's be clear, he is a scientist all right. He's simply one of the more colorful ones. I'd compare him with Robert Bakker, the paleontologist who did the most to popularize the more active, intelligent side of dinosaurs. If Timmer's swashbuckling style gets more people's attention, and particularly helps the denizens of Tornado Alley save their own lives, I'm all for it. I don't have cable TV, or I'd mark my calendar to watch the next episode of Storm Chasers.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Spinning up to speed

kw: weather phenomena, tornadoes

I am reading a book about storm chasing. I expect to review it tomorrow or the next day. As a preliminary, I'll review some technical points about tornadoes here, based on the tornado intensity scale developed by Ted Fujita, from F0 to F5. The wind speed cutoffs for each increase in intensity are
  • F0-F1: 73 mph = 117 kph = 33 m/s
  • F1-F2: 112 mph = 180 kph = 50 m/s
  • F2-F3: 157 mph = 252 kph = 70 m/s
  • F3-F4: 207 mph = 333 kph = 93 m/s
  • F4-F5: 261 mph = 420 kph = 117 m/s
  • Max measured: 318 mph = 512 kph = 117 m/s
Three of these are illustrated below. All the images are shown rather small; clicking on any of them will bring up a larger version.

An F0 tornado from Scenic Reflections. Most tornadoes are in this category. This kind of storm most "looks like a tornado", the tapering rope shape with a dust cloud at the bottom. They are seldom strong enough for the entire rotating wind funnel to fill with dust, though you can see dust wrapping around the funnel cloud for about half its height.

Stronger tornadoes look more menacing because they widen out with enwrapped dust. The funnel cloud is just the low-pressure center, where the cooling caused by the low pressure causes moisture to condense. Tornadoes only form in moist air, so the funnel cloud is a universal feature, whether visible or hidden by dust or dirt and debris.

An F2 tornado from TopCities. At ground level, the dust cloud is probably a quarter mile (0.4 km) across. With winds that exceed 100 mph by quite a bit, such a tornado will at least remove the roof of any house it happens to hit, and usually take down the walls also. While an F0 tornado is unlikely to flip a car over, an F2 will certainly flip it over, and may roll it quite a distance.

From here up the scale, tornadoes get more wedge-like. It takes a lot of suction to hold the funnel together as the wind speed rises, and the diameter grows proportionally. Tornadoes F2 and larger often have multiple vortexes, which will be discussed below.

An F5 tornado from Weatherzone. These are the insane kings of weather trouble. Wider at the base than they are tall, they are wedge-shaped and the debris funnel hides multiple "suction vortexes", as Dr. Fujita called them. The largest F5 track known was more than two miles (3+ km) wide.

These don't just roll cars around, they fling them like paper balls. I have seen an auto that spent a little time in an F4 or F5 tornado. It exemplified one weatherman's advice, "Get out of your car. When the tornado is finished with it, there won't be room inside it for you." The Chrysler was crumpled to the size of a Smart Car.

Hiding in a basement is not a certain path to surviving an F5, though it is your best shot. They have been known to clean out a basement, even ripping out part of the concrete walls.

A multiple-vortex tornado, probably of intensity F4, from The complex nature of the storm helps us understand how they can generate such high wind speeds, such as the 318 mph noted earlier. The major rotation of the storm is about 100-150 mph. This is the ground speed of the suction vortexes when the storm itself is stationary. The whirling of the suction vortexes about their own axes is another 75-150 mph. The outside edge of a suction vortex thus reaches 175-300 mph relative to the ground. Then when the entire storm picks up horizontal velocity, it can zip along at 25-50 mph, so total wind speeds of up to 350, and perhaps greater, are possible.

If you must try to survive a major tornado, the safest shelter is one of the totally buried steel shelters. I've never heard of a storm uprooting one of these. They are expensive, however, and when I lived in Oklahoma, we knew of only two people who had one. The next best is a specially built storm shelter in a basement room or near the center of a house. An above-ground storm shelter, however, is unlikely to ride out an F4 or F5 storm. Some things, you simply can't afford to prepare for. Then, your best defense is to be elsewhere. Anyone living in Tornado Alley who doesn't have a weather radio is a statistic waiting to be recorded.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Roving eye at work?

kw: dating, work, policy

I just got an e-mail from that refers to this article about office romances. The title in the e-mail was "Office romance: Five reasons not". From a practical point of view, dating or marrying a co-worker, one who is in the same administrative unit, is forbidden by all large and most smaller corporations. Why? To avoid conflict of interest. A romance that a couple tries to keep hidden, when it is found out, will result in this choice: one of you quit, or end the relationship.

There is a second reason office affairs are proscribed. A person with poor self-control is an inferior worker. Over the years, I've known several people who were fired for this reason. Their managers were unhappy with mediocre performance to start with, and the romance simply gave them cause for termination.

I do have colleagues who dated and married, but they were in different organizations, and they both talked to their management before letting the relationship get too far. Since no affair can be kept secret for long, daylight is the best option.

All figured out, on hold

kw: taxes

I like to get my income tax figured out as soon as I can after the forms come in, because if I have a refund, I want it quick! This year, one of the mutual fund companies sent a letter with the 1099-DIV, which said that the form was being sent to comply with the federal time deadline, but that an amended form would be sent about Feb 14. If I want to avoid filing an amended return later on, I gotta wait. It's a good think my refund is rather modest this year. I hit the right number of exemptions on my W-4 just about right.

A caution to others whose refund may be small this year. Whatever the number of exemptions on your W-4 has been, reduce it by one for the coming year. Tax law changes could result in underpaying your withholding tax.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Schrödinger's camera

kw: observations, physics, quantum theory

OK, I reckon most folks know the thought experiment called Schrödinger's cat: A cat is put in a box with a glass jar of cyanide and a hammer that will be dropped on the jar if a signal is received by a Geiger counter. A radioactive source is used that has a 50% chance of emitting a particle into the receiving window of the Geiger counter within the next hour. After one hour the radioactive source is removed and the box is opened. Is the cat alive or dead? Before you opened the box, was the cat either alive or dead, or in some combination of states?

Schrödinger intended this as a bitter joke, but it has deep philosophical implications, according to physicists. It emphasizes the rôle of the "observer" in quantum events. According to the dogma I was taught, until a quantum event, or an event governed by a quantum event, is "observed", all possibilities exist in some superposition of states, and only when an observation is made does this superposition "collapse" upon one of the possible final states, in a random fashion. Does that mean that the cat in the box doesn't either live or die until an observer opens the box? More to the point, is the cat an observer? Or does observation require human intelligence, or that very loosely defined quality, "sentience"? (or the equally fuzzy "consciousness" … I think cats are conscious, but …)

Let's go further. Suppose the box is to be opened automatically, and a camera takes a picture of the inside. Hours later the experimenter develops the camera's film (or, if it is digital, puts the picture in a computer to look at it). Does the dead/alive superposition persist until the experimenter (or any other conscious being) looks at the picture?

I resolve the dilemma this way. Consider diffraction. When light passes an edge, some is scattered into the shadowed area. By using a laser beam and a razor blade you can verify this for yourself. Not only that, with a sensitive detector, you can determine that some tiny amount of light is diffracted even if the visible beam entirely misses the edge of the blade. The amount depends on the magnitude of the "miss". Now consider the diffraction pattern itself. Perhaps it is just seen on a screen, or a scan by a detector yields a string of numbers representing the brightness of the beam at various points. Is the same diffraction pattern there if the detector, and you, are absent? If a specific small area is seen to receive 0.001% of the laser beam, does it continue to do so when you and your detector are absent? I happen to think it does.

This shows that the "observer" rôle must be conferred upon any object that is capable of affecting the path of the photons of the light beam. Since the quantum wave function is typically nowhere zero, that means that every particle in the universe is an observer. The universe doesn't need us or other "conscious" or "sentient" observers. It observes itself, and it does what it does whether we exist or not.

Thus I contend that there is no superposition of states to collapse. Every particle, whether lepton or boson (or mysterious dark matter particle), is continually influenced by every other particle in existence, and not just by its gravitational force. The probability that a particular influence will make a measurable effect on the particle's position and velocity at some future time is proportional to the distance between them, and to the sensitivity of the measurement, with the understanding that the measuring apparatus also influences the particle. For example, when you move a razor blade closer to or farther from a laser beam, the blade is part of the measurement, and so are you. Your position in the room influences things, though your detector may not be sensitive enough to record it. And just by the way, the laser "beam" is simply the brightest part of a photonic phenomenon that fills all space, or will if given time enough.

Going further than this leads to madness. I'm glad I got that off my mind.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Birdbrain is a compliment

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, birds

"In medieval times, biblical scholars imagined that Hell was a place with no birds." This statement occurs near the end of the book, but could serve as an introduction. This is a book about birds for those of us that simply like to watch birds and learn about birds: Birdology: Adventures with a Pack of Hens, a Peck of Pigeons, Cantankerous Crows, Fierce Falcons, Hip Hop Parrots, Baby Hummingbirds, and One Murderously Big Living Dinosaur, by Sy Montgomery.

There are a number of ways of looking at birds. Sometimes, we only notice them when a flock of them makes an obvious spectacle, like this flight of shorebirds. Some have a pet bird, a parakeet, canary, macaw, or mynah. Many more of us know someone who has a bird. A friend I had years ago had a parrot that would always call out "Goodbye!" as you were leaving the home.

At a bird of prey show at a place such as Sea World, you might come nose-to-beak with a hawk, and see things, if only for an instant, from the prey's point of view. In such a moment there is no doubt that the bird in no way considers you superior; quite the contrary (I'd be fascinated to learn how the photographer for Wallpapers Crunch got this picture; if indeed it isn't a painting).

The seven parts of the book's subtitle correspond to its seven chapters, though in a different order. Each chapter is an extended essay and memoir of the author's explorations of different aspects of birdhood. Ms Montgomery empathizes with the birds to the point that, though she is a vegetarian, learning how to train a falcon and send it to hunt, she experiences the joy of its bloodlust in the kill. Tracking cassowaries in Australia, she must imagine herself as a living dinosaur, calming her impatience until one of the birds, larger and heavier than she is and as dangerous as a Velociraptor, deigns to wander into her presence to scarf up a piece of fruit.

In every chapter we learn more of the smarts and cleverness of birds. In a chapter on Snowball the dancing cockatiel and Alex the speaking parrot, we learn that their level of feeling and understanding rivals our own. Imagine rocking to your favorite tune, and seeing a robin-sized bird rocking right along with you, even leading at times. Consider trying to ignore a gray parrot who asks, "Want a nut?", "Want corn?", and finally, in exasperation, "Well, what do you want?" Can there be any question that Alex understood when spoken to, and knew what he was saying? Both dancing and speaking are unknown among nonhuman primates, and mammals in general.

This shows that these activities, once thought to be exclusively human, are not restricted to large brains, but are expressed when certain brain functions exist, regardless of size. Rhythm is common to language and to music, and birds have rhythm in a way very few mammals can rival. Also, birds have grammar. Utterances in a different order have different meanings, just as "Run, Sid!" means something quite different from "Sid? Run!"

Some of the most touching scenes are in the chapter on raising orphaned hummingbird babies. A half grown Allen's hummingbird may be 3-4 cm long and weigh but one gram. A mammal that size would weigh 5-7 grams. The bird is mostly air; as the chapter subtitle has it, "Birds are made of air". Half of that gram is feathers, and the body, including all the larger bones, is filled with air sacs that extend the capacity of the lungs and add structure without adding weight. You can kill a hummingbird by trying to pet it. Imagine spending a few weeks feeding this tiny feather puff with a catheter, every twenty minutes. Even sitting still, the baby burns through food so fast that it will die in a few hours if unfed. Yet when grown—now weighing three grams—the adult bird will fiercely defend all the flowers in its territory from rivals. Hummingbirds can be remarkably mean.

Time and again, the author makes it clear that birds are really quite alien to our understanding. One minute you think you and a bird are on the same wavelength. Then you realize that hour thoughts and its thoughts are as different as can be. Alex is just one of many birds that learned to use human language expressively. How many humans have learned to speak a bird language? Birds began speaking their own languages millions of years before there were humans.

The last common ancestor of birds and mammals lived more than 300 million years ago. The two lineages have developed quite differently, and you could say that the birds succeeded better. Bird species outnumber mammal species about 2.5 to one. Were it not for a single omnivorous primate species, birds would be clearly dominant. We worry that, if we blow ourselves up, perhaps the cockroaches will take over. I doubt it. Birds eat cockroaches. The most likely successor species to ours is the crow.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Super yawn but no freedom dawn

kw: current events, sports, politics

Here in the Philadelphia area, about half my colleagues at work are anti-Pittsburgh, and the other half are Steelers fans. Nobody talked about yesterday's game today, however. All the talk I heard was about the ads and the flub by Christine A. I didn't see the game: no cable, and the Fox broadcast doesn't come reliably to my antenna. I watched AFV and the Nature program on PBS instead, and turned in early.

On the Egypt front, the various sides' positions are hardening, and while "only" a couple of hundred deaths have so far resulted, there could be a real blood bath there with the tiniest of sparks. I mourn in advance, and pray. I marvel that the political "dignity" of an 82-year-old despot is more important to him than the lives of so many of his countrymen. That is the proof he is a despot.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

This might be too late to help

kw: warnings, fafsa

I was forcibly reminded again today that there is no end to those who take advantage of ignorance, timidity, and impatience. I am neither ignorant nor timid, but my impatience caught up with me. Fortunately, I caught my error before it was too late, just barely!

Today was my day for slaying the big financial dragons of the new year: Preparing my income tax return and filling out the FAFSA application for our son's financial aid. It is possible to do all that in one day. At this point, I need two numbers from numba-one-son, which have been promised later this evening; then all will be finished.

I use tax preparation software from H&R Block. It is very good. That was no problem, and I was done by 1:00 PM. I had my Adjusted Gross Income, which is needed for the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Note that word "Free". I took a little nap, then started in. I used Google to find FAFSA, and saw a number of returns. I hurriedly clicked the top link.

I saw that the login process was set up for a user name and password, which is a little different from the form I was used to over the past couple of years. I thought, "Hmm, it looks like they've gone to a more familiar system," and proceeded to create my account. I spent a couple of hours filling everything in. Knowing that the form I'd used in the past saves with every turn of the page, I just filled in and filled in and filled in blanks until the end. There were frequent sidebar items that looked like very low key ads, which I ignored. Then I got a gut check.

A banner at the top of the last page stated that there were two probable errors that could cause the amount of aid to be significantly reduced. This was followed by a large box offering a "Standard" product and a "Deluxe" product for about $79 and $99. Whoops! I checked the address bar, which included, not, as I thought. Big Whoops!! I clicked the browser's Back button; all along there'd been warnings that doing so would cause the filled-in data to be lost. That was what I wanted at this point! Hoping against hope that the folks had not been storing our financial data and other details, I closed the browser and opened up a new one.

I entered, manually,, and got the entry form I'm familiar with from past years. I filled it out. Here's the amusing part: It is easier to fill out than the one I'd just (nearly) completed at the commercial web site! Yeah, I know, you never expected anyone to call the government's FAFSA form "easy". Comparatively, it is. It took me about half the time. So here it is, about 8:00 PM, and I'm done. I could have been done 2-3 hours earlier...

Bottom line, folks. Don't bother with commercial "helper" web sites. Use, which is free! If you want advice about possible "mistakes" that might cause a smaller "package" to be offered, there are plenty of FREE services, including one at

Friday, February 04, 2011

On the up and up

kw: book reviews, memoirs, letters, devotional

Do you remember details of your life before the teen years? Yeah, me neither. I can recall an event or two per year prior to about age 14, and I think I have a better-than-average memory. How can we know what we have lost? If we have a mother like Kelly Corrigan, not all will be lost. In her book Lift, written as a longish letter to her children, she does more than remind of them of their early childhoods; she opens her heart to reveal her attitudes in those times.

At about 16,000 words, this is a book I could finish in a sitting. A half hour or so would suffice. But Evelyn Wood techniques are not appropriate here. I dwelt on this story and that, as the children and their mother and their interactions were gradually revealed. It seems that the slower I read, the better the reading. Reading a novel, I like one I can race through. In Lift, the point is not the memory of the writing, but the writing as memory. It requires imprinting.

The book is of a genre I call secular devotional. Though God is scarcely mentioned, the tone of many portions is that of sacred things. We all can understand (one half of us better than the other): regardless of her faith in God, a mother's children are sacred to her.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Spirits above, spirits below

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history, angels

Former friar David Albert Jones has the same curiosity I do about human nature and what people are thinking. He has tackled the archetype that is at once the most beloved and the most paradoxical in his book Angels: A History. While this little book delves into the sources of angel beliefs found in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Quran, in the end our beliefs about angels say a lot about ourselves.

To many in the "Christian West", angels are blond, ambisexual, winged and humanlike; they intervene in human affairs under the direction of God, who is thought of as somewhat distant, an enthroned, elderly deity who gives the orders and sits back to await results. The source of Western angel beliefs is a small set of poorly-remembered stories in the Bible. Yet it is remarkable what the Bible does not tell us about angels: the color of hair, skin, or eyes is never mentioned; neither is height or whether they possess facial beauty, or have wings; they are not described as either material or immaterial, though three apparent angels ate with Abraham, two of them took lot and his wife and two daughters by the hand to drag them from Sodom, one kicked Elijah in the side, and the same one or another did so to Peter 1,500 years later. Jacob wrestled all night with "a man" who is universally understood to be an angel.

Among the few things upon which the Bible is clear: Both the Hebrew and Greek word for "Angel" means "messenger", and are sometimes applied to humans. Angels primarily carry messages from God. At least a few angels have authority over other angels, as implied by the title "archangel" applied to Michael. Angels are not the only "spiritual creatures", whatever that term may mean. There are cherubim (singular, cherub), seraphim (singular, seraph), and entities called "evil spirits" which may be the same as demons, or maybe not always. While theological theories devise seven or nine "choirs" or ranks of angels that include seraphim, cherubim, principalities, and so forth, it is not clear in the Bible that all these terms refer to the angelic order of creation. In this I differ with Jones, whose Catholic sensibilities remain with him in considering them all to be different kinds of angels. I see that angels primarily speak for God, while cherubim and seraphim primarily worship.

I won't discuss at length whether demons are fallen angels; I happen to believe they are not, though for this essay I'll confine myself to noting that the province of angels seems to be the air and the heavens above the air, while the province of demons is the abyss, the waters, and the waters of a human or animal body that is possessed.

Beginning, then, with these matters of the history of angels in sacred literature, and continuing to popular culture, Jones finds that what we think about angels tells us much about what we think about ourselves, as revealed in the phrase, "the better angels of our nature" (from Lincoln's inaugural address). Angels are usually thought of as lacking human free will, but, paradoxically, being able to "fall". As the Bible tells us, one-third of the total number of angels are in rebellion against God and instead follow their leading angel, formerly named Lucifer, but now called Satan (always "the Satan" in Greek or Hebrew). "Satan" means "adversary", and has the connotation of a family member who has turned against the family, a "dear enemy".

Few people give any thought to the fallen angels. Angels are mostly considered do-gooders, who encourage humans to do good also. They reflect the belief that we're just barely able to control our baser impulses, and need external motivation to do so. They externalize the conscience. But a few seem to prefer the fallen ones, becoming Hell's Angels, perhaps, or following Gothic culture icons like Black Sabbath or any of the heavy metal rock groups (KISS is, to me, emblematic of the whole). It seems only a few die-hard atheists deny angels entirely.

I have to this point nearly ignored Judaism or Islam. This is deliberate; I don't know enough about them to have useful opinions. But Jones treats of the range of beliefs about angels found in both these religions, and just hints at the non-Abrahamic religions such as Hinduism in which angels are not needed because there are gods aplenty to take their place. A Hindu who watches any episodes of the old TV show Highway to Heaven finds the Michael Landon "angel" character puzzling at best (at least that's true for the ones I've asked).

Half of the archetypes upon which our folklore is based are stories that let us consider, "If I were such and such a being, how would I behave?" Setting aside the tendency to call any pretty woman an angel, we may sometimes think, "If I had more direct contact with God, and knew what He wanted right now, and I was as un-killable as an angel, what kind of message would I carry?" To be perfectly honest, when I ask that question myself, the answer is a decided, "I truly don't know." To answer any other way is to invite martyrdom.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Time to switch the screen saver

kw: hobbies, photographs, astronomy, galaxies

You really ought to click on this image to see the larger version (~1,000 px across); this 400 px version is just a bit puny.

I really appreciate the many observatories, including the space ones, that post large, high-resolution images on their web pages. A number of "wallpaper" web sites also post lovely images in their Nature sections. I downloaded these images and others for a specific purpose (my enjoyment), and cropped or resized them to the same dimensions in a 1.6:1 format.

I recently decided it was time to go for a new look with my screen saver. I like the "My Pictures Slideshow" supplied by Microsoft, and I have several folders that I switch among from time to time. For several months I've been showing pictures of various mineral specimens, some that I took of my own minerals, and some downloaded from museum and rock store web sites. Now that I've been classifying galaxies for several weeks in Galaxy Zoo, I decided to show some galaxies that are close enough to home (all less than half a billion light years) to make good subjects for "astro cheesecake".

Although spiral galaxies are the most interesting from a visual perspective, most galaxies are elliptical, such as the first thumbnail in the second row above. Galaxy clusters are typically dominated by one giant elliptical galaxy that is busy consuming its neighboring galaxies, and heavily populated by medium-sized to small elliptical galaxies. About 40% are spirals. The Local Group that includes The Galaxy, the Milky Way where we are, does not have a giant elliptical within it, but contains a number of smaller ones, and only three large spirals, the Milky Way, the Andromeda galaxy M31 and the Triangulum galaxy M33. The Local Group is part of the Virgo Supercluster, which is centered around a pair of giant elliptical galaxies. The fifth and sixth thumbnails in the second row above show central portions of the Virgo Cluster and the Coma Cluster.

When I was a child, I was fascinated by galaxies, and learned to "draw" rather realistic ones on a chalk board by rubbing colored chalk on an eraser and then blowing the dust onto the board. It is quite time consuming. None of these ephemeral artworks was photographed, more's the pity.

The ice arrives - whew!

kw: local events, current events, weather phenomena, ice

Considering that an inch of ice has blanketed the Dallas area, that close to a meter of snow has hit Chicago, the half-centimeter of ice we got overnight, where I live south of Philadelphia, is a huge relief. This pic shows the dogwood tree in my back yard, taken at 5:30 this morning.

I came in to work early to avoid traffic on the road, but found that the roads were still warm enough to be wet rather than slick. Whew! The last time there was ice in this area that stuck to the roads was, I am told, the year before we moved here, in 1994.

The worst ice I've seen was in 1984 when I lived in South Dakota. There was an inch on almost everything. Tree branches that managed to stay on the trees looked like two-inch (5cm) silvery sausages. It was too slick to walk—I practically crawled to the car—but I drove anyway and of course got in a crash. At 10 mph I still did $1,000 damage to my car.

Today, the temperature is supposed to reach 40°F (4°C) or more, and as the rain continues, wash all the ice away. Now that it is pushing 6:30 I'd better get some work done.