Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Skin deep is deep enough

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, civil rights, appearance bias

Civil rights attorney Laura Einstein may have said it best, stating that nobody is likely "to say they were wronged because they are ugly." As Deborah L. Rhode writes in The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, this may be the biggest reason for the general silence about appearance bias in business, school admissions and many other areas of life. People would simply rather "edit reality," spending billions on cosmetics and plastic surgery ($160 billion worldwide in 2003, according to the Economist article Pots of Promise).

In The Beauty Bias Dr. Rhode (yes, JD is a Doctor's degree) systematically surveys the cultural and legal history of the human preference for "attractive" people, however one might define that. It is at once subtler and more widespread than the xenophobia that underlies racism. It seems there is an unspoken calculus each of us performs, to surround ourselves with potential mates of the highest quality, "in case there is a disaster and we'll have to repopulate the planet, just me and this or that one…" We don't say this, even to ourselves, but it underlies all our choices of those we want to have near us.

The most effective salespeople are attractive; of course pretty or handsome, but also witty and cheerful. We may laugh at Rodney Dangerfield, who "can't get no respect," but we're unlikely to buy a refrigerator from him. But I knew a businessman once who stood all this on its head. Knowing that plain people have to work harder just to stay even, he hired only competent, ordinary-looking folks for his office staff. The office ran with frightening efficiency. He also selected salespeople with a gift for gab and a natural integrity, regardless of their looks, and while they might have built up their sales figures more slowly, they built solid sales organizations upon repeat business with very loyal customers.

But his way is not the way most businesses run. How does a typical small business look? Front office and sales floor: the most attractive employees the boss can afford; back office and repair shop: homely, efficient workers. Dress codes abound. A local small hardware store employs young men who must wear ties and long sleeved shirts. Fortunately, the women at the register are not required to "make up" their faces, though I can tell which ones do. But at many places, makeup is required of all the women.

In her introduction, Dr. Rhode tells the quite entertaining saga of a succession of makeovers performed by well-meaning friends and colleagues when she began to appear in public. Her preferred "look" is "Bohemian Stanford professor", sweater over blouse and jeans, and an unadorned face. wysiwyg. Her friends would have none of it, and she found just how time-consuming and costly it is to "look your best" as a professional woman.

The book leads onward to a final discussion of the legal options for attacking and possibly reducing "appearance discrimination." She acknowledges that in certain professions, such as a Hooters waitress or a casino cocktail server, a superbly sexy appearance is de rigeur, but really, is it necessary for a female cashier at a box store to be required to make up her face? And can it be legislated?

It resembles other civil rights legislation. The argument has always been, "You can't legislate morality." The author replies that what we legislate is behavior, and interestingly enough, morality gradually shifts to match the behavior. My own reply is that we legislate nothing but morality; that is what it is for. As a society, we decide what will be considered "moral", and in particular, what immoralities might constitute a danger, then legislate to coerce those who are now defined as immoral, to conform.

Suppose we had strong laws that prohibited nearly all hiring based on "attractiveness". Consider wait staff, who live by tips (their hourly pay it a pittance). I suspect the more attractive waiters and waitresses would garner more tips, gradually driving the less attractive ones to other lines of work. Consider also salespeople, who live by commissions (with nearly no hourly "salary"): a similar trend would ensue. Call it business Darwinism. While it might have nearly the same end result as the pre-law situation, it would come about through customer action rather than employer preference. But it would have this salutary effect: A plain-looking person who knows how to "chat up" a customer would have a chance to succeed, that might otherwise be denied. In that, alone, I find justification for such laws.

I wonder what the financial situation of my household would be if my wife were an avid clothes horse and makeup artist; the kind of consumer the beauty industry tries to produce. I have never known her to wear makeup. She says she did so for a while in her late teens, before we met. She is a genuine, natural beauty. Now that she's sixty-five, of course she isn't the looker she was at thirty. But hers is still my favorite face. And what about me? We hosted a college group at our house a few months back, and one of them asked what I was like at their age. I showed them my high school senior portrait. One girl blurted out, "You used to be so handsome!" I guess that says it all. I hope my face is still my wife's favorite face.

Fortunately, I work for an employer that doesn't drive older workers out. Just a few years ago, two people retired who had each worked for this company for 58 years; both were 76. My father worked until he was 75 (he is 89 now), and I just might do so also. But I'd never make it as a commissioned salesman.

The Beauty Bias is scholarly—a third of the book is the end notes—and can be preachy at times, but is a compelling read. I imagine some people will read it and say, "So what?" But it makes more clear than ever, that as our civilization "grows up", we have to have laws that reinforce adult values and wean us from the childish behaviors that some so naturally. We're about halfway along the way to eliminating racism, and as my wife recently remarked, "It is getting fashionable to be gay!", but we've just begun to address the unfairness inherent in taking the easy way and letting someone's appearance dictate their chances of success.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Say no requiem for them

kw: practical darwinism

I just had a look at the 2010 Darwin Awards, which commemorate the most creative ways certain persons have removed themselves from the human gene pool. There are ten commemorative items for 2010, topped by a wheelchair-bound person who, angered because an elevator left without him, rammed the doors three times; he burst through and fell to his death. This has prompted a costly redesign of the doors to better withstand "heavy pounding."

To quote the curator of the awards, "Learn from the mistakes of others. You don't have time to make them all yourself."

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cat stand saga part 2

kw: photographs, local events, constructions

In this post of March 19, I related the construction of a cat climbing post. Here is our kitty on one of the shelves near the top. She hasn't tried the topmost part yet, but I think it just a matter of time.

I can still smell the carpet adhesive a little, so it must seem pretty strong for her. Perhaps in another week or so the smell will dissipate. Meanwhile, she is investigating it from time to time, but her favorite watching spot is still the back of a couch from which she can see out a window. We haven't decided yet whether to rearrange the furniture so that this stand could be near a window.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Up before the birds

kw: observations, astronomy

I went out at 5:00 AM to get the paper. It must have arrived after my neighbor left, because he usually leaves our paper at our doorstep. On days he hasn't done it, I deliver his, for the benefit of his widowed mother, and also the one next door where another widow lives.

After two days of gentle rain—though there was some thunder late on Wednesday—the sky was clear and the morning air was crisp, probably just below freezing. The birds were not awake yet; dawn chorus begins at 5:30 this time of year. I simply stood still to enjoy the quiet and take in the sky.

Sad to say, being in the exurbs means there is too much background light for much of the sky to show. The third-quarter moon was a lovely sight, low in the south, and I could easily see the big dipper high in the north, but the rest of the sky was scattered first- and second-magnitude stars. You need to see third-magnitude stars to pick out most of the constellations. Seeing the Milky Way was out of the question, even though it was very close to right overhead. Standing at the end of my driveway, I could see seven porch lights and four street lights. Though the latter were recently changed out for sodium lamps, they are still very bright. Several houses also have those little luminarias in each window. Once a Christmas season affectation, they have become a year-round thing for some folks.

Still, it was nice to be out for a few minutes and to see the sky. I only had those few minutes, because I need to get to work early today. Otherwise, I'd bundle up better and watch sunrise.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The unexamined life is easier to stomach

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy, essays

Robert Rowland Smith's title boldly proclaims it: Breakfast with Socrates: An Extraordinary (Philosophical) Journey Through Your Ordinary Day. Then, although Socrates is mentioned in passing in the Foreword and Afterword, there is no chapter on Breakfast, and doesn't appear anyway. The "Getting Ready" (as in " go to Work") chapter does mention Lucretius, Heisenberg, Milton, Carlyle, Francis Ponge (AKA "sponge"), Ockham (Occam), and even Freud (well, he had to). But the chapter is more about bracing yourself for the rude reality of life outside your home, your castle. With all these commentators' voices in play, it is little wonder that so many skip breakfast anyway.

The book's eighteen chapters are essays on a miscellany of the philosophical aspects of every part of one's day, including 17, "Having Sex", the first entire chapter on sex that I've read which totally failed to arouse me. I think the author would consider that a triumph. Unless you spend your day photographing wild game and running from rhinos, whatever you are likely to do today, he has it covered.

I find I'm already out of material. It is clear that I am no philosopher. Nothing much stuck with me. So I'll eat a piece of chocolate (a remedy for many ills that is not mentioned at all), and get on with my day.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The groundhog was right

kw: seasons, photographs

February 2 was cloudy, at least in and around Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where the official groundhog lives. And March came in like a lamb. Last year none of the flowering bushes bloomed until mid- to late April, but this year the Forsythia and Andromeda have been blooming for a few days already. These Andromeda flowers were photographed by Kathy Tempesta.

A quick look at a ten-day forecast shows me to expect rain and possibly even snow for most of the rest of March, prior to a sunny day or two leading up to April 1, so it looks like March will indeed go out like a lion. But with the flowering bushes getting into gear, and all my crocuses blooming, plus daffodils and jonquils popping up, spring is definitely on time this year.

I don't mind the rain. This is the time of year I like the best.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Supermoon still beautiful

kw: astronomy, moon, sun, eclipses

The Super Moon of 2011 occurred just three nights ago. I was out earlier this morning to get the newspaper, and the gibbous moon is still a lovely sight. But then, I love to see the moon no matter what its phase or distance from Earth. There are tons of websites explaining this super moon, but most of them leave out a crucial detail.

The diagram below, from a NASA Science News video (also found on YouTube), shows the basic phenomenon. The range of distance between apogee and perigee (apo- means "far" and peri- means "near") is about 14%. The apparent area of an object 14% closer and thus 14% larger, in an angular sense, is 1.14x1.14 = 1.30, so a perigee full moon is 30% brighter than an apogee full moon.

As it happens, this is a Super Moon not just because the full moon occurs the same day as perigee. It is doubly super because this is the closest perigee of the year. In 2011, perigee distances range from 356,577 km to 369,565 km, and apogee distances range from 404,274 km to 406,655 km. The "average" perigee is about 363,000 km and the "average" apogee is about 405,000 km. 405/363 = 1.116, but dividing largest apogee by smallest perigee, we get 406,655/356,577 = 1.140. See Lunar Perigee and Apogee Calculator to calculate these figures for any year.

Another way to state it is angular size. The moon's diameter is 3,476 km. The minimum angular diameter of the moon in 2011 will be 3,476/406,655 = 1/117.0, which is 0.4896 degrees or 29.4 arc minutes. Its angular diameter on the 19th was 3,476/356,577 = 1/102.6, which is 0.5585 degrees or 33.5 arc minutes.

Now, to take a side run, this helps explain why some total Solar eclipses are more "total" than others. I have been privileged to view several solar eclipses in the past fifty years, and one of these was annular. That is, at mid-eclipse, the moon did not cover the sun, but formed a central block, with the sun showing all around. The following diagram, from, shows the range of solar distances for 2005.

The Earth's distance from the sun varies from about 147 million km to about 152 million km. The sun's diameter is 1,392,000 km, so the range of angular diameter is as shown in this image, from 31.46 arc minutes to 32.53 arc minutes. This is a narrower range than that of the moon. This is fortunate for us. 152.1/147.1 = 1.034, and the square of this is 1.069. This, the sun's radiation varies only 7% over a year. Just by the way, this seven percent can either enhance or detract from the brightness of a super moon. A super perigee moon that occurred when earth was at perihelion would be 37% brighter than a super apogee moon at aphelion.

But the main point here is the ranges of angular diameter. When the moon is farther than 379,800 km, about halfway to apogee, it cannot cover the sun, even when the sun's angular size is at its smallest. A central solar eclipse that occurs when the moon is in the apogee half of its orbit will thus be annular. Now, I wonder if it ever occurs that there is an "exactly total" solar eclipse, such that, for observers in just the right place, Bailey's beads will be seen all the way around the moon for just a second (Bailey's beads are the bits of sunshine that pass through mountain valleys on the rim of the moon just as the totality begins and ends, or second contact and third contact. A single bright BB is called a "diamond ring"). Now, that would be a sight for a millennium!

Monday, March 21, 2011

One more mechanical pet

kw: local events, anniversaries, clocks

I recently achieved a milestone at work, my 25-year service anniversary. Rather a surprise, that, because before joining this company I seldom worked anywhere more than five or six years. I may actually last long enough to retire.

One nice tradition is that the company gives folks gifts at every five-year milestone, and 25 is one of the better ones. The catalog they sent had quite a selection of jewelry, but I really didn't want a diamond tie clasp with the company logo (I wear a suit to weddings and funerals, and very rarely otherwise), or a ring. There was also a luggage set, and then there was a clock. I got a small carriage clock at 15 years, and it doesn't work well, so I was a bit leery. But this clock sounded nice, and it was mantel size. I looked at the Howard Miller web site and found what looked like the clock. The one shown was described as battery powered. I decided to choose the clock.

When it came (presented by my supervisor), it was clear that this is no battery powered clock. The winding holes give it away! (The third hole is just visible behind the hands.) I have five other windup clocks, and keep two of them running. Now I have six, and three are running. This one is a Westminster Chime, and we've so far decided to let it chime, though it has a Silent setting. The chimes are very gentle and beautiful. I have another Westminster Chime clock, not running because it needs a new mainspring, but I didn't have it running anyway because the chimes are quite brassy and were driving us nuts. Every fifteen minutes!

Here is a look at the works. The striking hammers are at the bottom. I do love a well made clockwork. When I was about seven my father gave me an old Baby Ben alarm clock, and invited me to take it apart. He said to be careful and keep all the parts. Then he said, "Why don't you see if you can get it back together?" I did, and I got it running again. That was a great feeling of accomplishment. Since that time, I have always had at least one windup clock running.

Although I grew up taking care of house cats and yard cats, I've come to realize that caring for a windup clock is also a little like having a pet. They need to be fed (wound up) regularly, and you have to clean them from time to time, though it is usually two or more years between the need to soak out the old lubricant and re-oil the bushings and jewels (two different kinds of oil). Dusting is needed more frequently. Also, a windup clock, even a good one like this one, needs to be carefully adjusted to keep good time, or you find yourself re-setting it every few days. I believe this one is capable of keeping time within a minute per month.

I don't expect to get as involved with clocks as my father did. He repaired old clocks as a hobby. At one time we had more than twenty running mantel clocks, and midnight was quite a noisy time! Particularly because while most just chimed the hour, a few were Westminster or Whittington Chime, and three were cuckoo clocks. You can hear different kinds of chimes here.

I am satisfied with just a few nice windup clocks. They are almost like pets, and I don't have to scoop up any litter.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Cat stand saga part 1

kw: photographs, local events, constructions

It started when we began looking for a climbing post for our cat Dora. Being thrifty, we looked online and read some reviews. We found one that had a design we liked, at a price less than $60, but it had mixed reviews. It seems the post is heavy cardboard, and it is held together with plastic fittings. Some folks found it too flimsy. But they did mention that Wal-Mart and K-Mart had it for around $40.

Well, we looked at three different Wal-Marts and a K-Mart, and none of them had it. Maybe it is a poor seller. Then my wife suggested I build one. In my workshop, we found enough remnants of old 2x4's to make a (nearly) 4x4 post about five feet tall, so I promised to get some plywood pieces at the Lowe's and some other fittings, and make one. We agreed on a design. Guess what? This morning I wound up spending $55 for the wood and fittings and carpeting and adhesive, and another $40 for a jig saw to make the inside cuts needed for the design to work.

This is the stand, almost ready for adding the carpeting. One more piece needs to be glued and clamped. So far there's six hours of labor in it, just since I got home with the materials. I reckon I could not afford to do this for a living! (unless I could sell these for about $500)

After all this, I sure hope the cat likes it. Maybe if I put catnip into the carpet adhesive...

Friday, March 18, 2011

Some exceptionally good news

kw: health

A couple of weeks ago I went into central Philadelphia at my doctor's request to have the HeartCam™ perform a scan of my heart. This test uses ultra-fast, EKG-synchronized CT scanning to detect calcium deposits in the coronary arteries. Scores called "Positive" range from 1 to over 1,000. The great news is my score was zero.

These are a few of the images of my heart and lungs. The heart is the gray blob at the center. The upper two images are near the top of the heart, where trouble usually first appears, and the lower two are more in mid-heart. To see what calcium looks like, just look to the far right where a couple of my ribs are shown. The entire lack of bright white spots on the heart images indicates the happy (Negative) result.

The test took just a few minutes. I had to hold my breath, once for ten seconds and once for forty seconds. The scans are synchronized with the beat of the heart and are made when the heart is in a resting phase, where its position is most reliably the same from beat to beat. They call the technique EBCT because, rather than spin an x-ray tube around the patient, there is actually a huge tube with an x-ray producing electrode that wraps around below, and a fast electron beam (EB) makes a very fast swipe for each scan. The recording devices are stationary, and positioned above. Very clever engineering.

The zero score means I get a gold star (shown at the bottom of the chart). 75% of men my age have a calcium score of 12 or greater, and 10% have a score of 1,000 or greater. The percentiles they use are measures of "percent with a score less than X", so I converted them.

I feel very fortunate. I attribute it to good genes and God's care, and partly to a healthy lifestyle. This doesn't mean I can just go out and eat all the steak and potatoes I want. I could stand to exercise more, and while I lost some weight last year, I could really ought to lose some more. But I am not in any need of drugs to manage my cholesterol (it is very low already).

Of course, this mainly means I am quite unlikely to die of heart disease or stroke. One still has to die of something! With luck, I'll die of "old age", AKA general organ failure, rather than cancer. I've already had that, and I seem to have it beat. But this is one possible worry that has been taken right out of the running.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Animals above

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, animals, spirituality

"And to every animal of the earth and to every bird of heaven and to everything that creeps upon the earth, in which is a living soul,..." Genesis 1:30a (KJV has "breath of life" for "living soul", which isn't too bad, but the correspondence with the next quote is lost.)

"Jehovah God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul." Genesis 2:7

"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the coming glory to be revealed upon us. For the anxious watching of the creation eagerly awaits the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was made subject go vanity, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will also be freed from the slavery of corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans together and travails in pain together until now." Romans 8:18-22

Do animals have a place in the eternal plan of God? Or, if you prefer, in the "Summerland" and higher spiritual realms? When a pet rabbit died, Ptolemy Tompkins decided to find out, as he writes in The Divine Life of Animals: One Man's Quest to Discover Whether the Souls of Animals Live On. If he had a better translation of the Bible than the KJV with which he is almost certainly the most familiar, and if that familiarity were a bit deeper, his quest might have been shorter. The "groaning creation" mentioned by Paul in the Romans quote refers to animals, for it is unlikely that rocks or plants suffer.

In five longish chapters the author tours through twenty millennia of human (and animal) history, searching for the roots of modern attitudes in the beliefs of early societies and their remnants among peoples often called "primitive." While more "animistic" cultures imputed soul and intelligence to all things, even those we might call "inanimate," by some 2,500 years ago both Eastern and Western cultural traditions had evolved a rather bleak view of the afterlife. Traditions that believed in reincarnation or metempsychosis sought eventual escape from the endless round of incarnations, while both Greek and earlier Hebrew traditions had settled on the notion of a "shade," in which a departed soul did not enjoy the afterlife so much as endure it with a fading stoicism, tending to mindlessness.

While the much earlier traditions posited a rich interplay of humans with animal spirits, those cultures that began to think of animals as property gradually lost all thought of nonhuman animals as active agents or spiritual beings. Particularly with the rise of first Aristotelian materialism and then classical and modern science, the animals were thought of as instinct-driven robots that neither thought nor suffered. Just as a more cheerful view of the afterlife became common in the West, no place was imagined in it for animals.

But a more modern trend has restored a sense of spirituality to animals, at least in some circles. Tompkins found it among readers of the semi-Christian publication Guideposts, and when he wrote an article "Will My Pet go to Heaven?", he triggered a wave of correspondence that went on for years, and yielded a rich harvest of animal stories: stories of visions of departed pets running in an ever-green land of sunshine; of warnings of danger; and of dreams of communication with a loved animal that promised to wait at a Rainbow Bridge.

In his final chapter he concludes that we are the Rainbow Bridge and that our animals need us to cross over to the even better place that awaits us both. This somewhat echoes the Romans quote above, though Paul did not really have "heaven" in mind, as he also averred that God would bring his heavenly kingdom to Earth, a restored Earth with "corruption" banished.

There is further evidence in the Bible that God's kingdom has a place for animals, found in those mysterious passages about Cherubim in Ezekiel and The Revelation. In one passage, each of these has four faces on one head, the face of a lion, of an ox, of an eagle, and of a man. In the other, each of four creatures has one face of these four. Regardless, they represent before God, the human realm, two orders of the mammal realm, and one for birds. Then there are various passages about God's kingdom that speak of lions lying down with lambs, and the serpents losing their venom and becoming harmless. It's a pity Tompkins doesn't mention them. However, he tries to give more-or-less equal space to a number of religious traditions, so perhaps there simply wasn't room.

But let us think practically on one point. "Heaven" or whatever must be quite a bit larger than Earth. In human history, the number who have died probably amounts to between fifty and one hundred billion souls. Nearly all animals live shorter lives than we do, so the number of departed cats and dogs could outnumber departed humans by ten to one. The rats and mice and canaries and hummingbirds would outnumber those even further. Where does the admission ticket stop? With insects? With bacteria? God has to have some way to balance the heavenly kingdom, or the comparatively few humans present (!) will be lost amongst the animal denizens. If I am to be reunited with every cat I've ever owned, I think there will be more than forty. I also had three dogs, but none of them lived very long (cars got them all).

He concludes that at least the animals people have loved will be found in the afterlife. Perhaps. Let us then remember to keep our accounts short with our God, to make sure we don't "go elsewhere" and stand up our beloved pets where they wait for us!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Uranium 101

kw: observations, radioactivity

In the wake of the likelihood that a lot of radiation might be released from the damaged nuclear reactors in Japan, I'd like to address some common fears.

First, the danger is real, but it will probably be limited. If a total meltdown occurs, let us remember that Uranium metal is twice as dense as Lead, and nearly all of it will melt its way downward, until it is dissipated to the point that it can't sustain a chain reaction. Then it will cool off. However, some fraction of a percent of the total core will react with air and steam in the early stages, and this amounts to several grams of Uranium. Plus, because the reactor has been running for some time, the breakdown products of Uranium fission could amount to a few percent of the total, and these are more volatile. The most risky is an isotope of Iodine, which is why the Japanese government has been giving people Iodine pills. Having extra Iodine in the body will reduce the amount of radio-Iodine that the body can absorb, reducing long-term risk.

Uranium itself is only weakly radioactive. The half life of U238 is 4.6 billion years. Compare this with the most common isotope of Radium, with a half life of 1,200 years. It is four million times as radioactive as Uranium. Enriched Uranium has a little stronger activity, but still in the billion-year range, because U235 has a half life of 0.7 billion years.

What few people know is that Uranium is found in small amounts almost everywhere. Common granite (got a granite countertop?) contains 3 parts per million Uranium. That is three grams per tonne. It is present at about one part per million in ordinary Gypsum board, AKA drywall, or a gram per tonne. An ordinary room contains a tenth of a tonne of drywall in its walls. However, the paper and paint on the wall completely stop the main radiation the Uranium emits.

The Uranium in your environment is the largest component of the background radiation of 3 millisieverts (3 mSv) per year that we all absorb. How does this compare with other exposures? A full-mouth set of dental x-rays gives you a quick dose of 0.15 mSv, or some 5% of the yearly background. A CT scan, by contrast, produces a dose of about 10 mSv, or three years of background all at once. This is considered a safe dose if not repeated more often than once every two years. During the five years after my cancer operation, I had a CT scan yearly. The early detection was considered an acceptable risk.

What kind of dose would a meltdown produce? For those nearest the event, it could be truly grave: hundreds of mSv per day. This is why evacuation is going on. For the next continent downwind (America), the worst case is expected to be an extra mSv or two per month for a year or more, which is like getting a yearly CT scan, or two. However, the more likely scenario from a partial meltdown that gets contained, similar to the Three Mile Island experience, is an extra mSv or two total during the first year, then nothing more. Even people who are most susceptible to radiation would not be considered at any great risk from that. It would be like moving to Denver, where there is an extra half to one yearly mSv from cosmic rays because of altitude.

An even better scenario, assuming there is some kind of meltdown and release, is for very rainy weather to wash most of the stuff from the skies before it spreads around the globe. I'm glad March and April are rainy months in the Northern hemisphere!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Worth doing again

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, geography, new jersey, seasons, watermen

A good idea bears repeating. When, fifty-plus years ago, Edwin Way Teale drove about 150,000 miles to chronicle the American seasons in his books North with the Spring, Journey into Summer, Autumn Across America, and Wandering Through Winter, I wonder if he knew he was already repeating history. I have a much-read set of these, which I think of informally as America's Seasons. Another four-book series The Fall of the Year, Winter, The Spring of the Year and Summer was published just about a century ago, authored by Dallas Lore Sharp, a New Jersey-born naturalist who is buried on New Jersey's "west coast", in Haleyville. Now I have in my hands Bayshore Summer: Finding Eden in a Most Unlikely Place by Pete Dunne, the second in a four-volume set that is still in process (and I'll have to scare up a copy of Prairie Spring).

Pete Dunne and his wife Linda chose to live in Mauricetown, about a mile from Haleyville, and nine or ten miles by road from Thompson's Beach, a defunct community that is the closest access to Delaware Bay. Not far away, kids may "take" a crab or two like this one using baited jigs, while on the bay, more serious watermen take them by the bushel, though all complain that the catch is diminishing.

Unlike Teale's nation-spanning summer volume, Bayshore Summer is focused on a few square miles of land and bay, and on the almost unnoticed ways of life that linger there, though as the area gets "discovered", those ways of life are passing away.

One chapter is devoted to an influence that could well mightily delay "development" of the bayside: biting flies. In coastal areas of Salem, Cumberland, and western Cape May counties, you'll find the most dreaded collection of flying pests in the nation, and perhaps in the world. For seven months of the year, many residents wear a hooded, screened "fly shirt" when going to the coast, and they never wear shorts. To do so is akin to self-sacrifice.

People in many places learn to dread the deer fly. The New Jersey strawberry fly is worse, though being soft-bodied, one swat will do one in, perhaps before it inflicts a bloody bite. But the greenhead fly, a bit bigger than a horsefly and armored like a knight, will simply drive you inland if you fail to armor yourself. The author writes that if you are lucky, a swat followed by a rolling drag will knock one to the ground where you can stomp it, twisting your foot to be sure you actually crush it. Maybe. Well-designed clothing and a stiff breeze are your only defenses.

But there are delights here for the residents, who love the place dearly. A chapter on recreational fishing, whether singly or in a "party boat", explains that fishing draws a person into a different world, where different values and rhythms take hold. I recall talking with an elderly woman about fishing once, and I remarked on my frustration with spending a day to drag up a couple of barely-legal crappie (this was in South Dakota), when I could have bought better fish at the market, for less than the price of my bucket of bait. "Don't tell me you fish for economic reasons!" she scolded. I know many, many folks fish for the love of it, whether they catch much or not. At the time of the scolding, I'd already fished for the last time in my life.

The rhythms of life are different enough in these South Jersey places—akin in my mind to southern Delaware and rural Pennsylvania, and to other rural places I've lived—that one doesn't have to go fishing for a refreshing change of routine. In my case, most of the places I've chosen to live, I simply have to go home from work.

For many South Jersey residents, the place is their work. The watermen who fish for crabs, whether blue or horseshoe (I know they are in different taxonomic families), or for weakfish or eels, work harder for a living than anyone except perhaps coal miners. And, as many will tell you, they "get to work on the water." Many work a "day job" so they can afford to spend the half day between pre-sunrise and the start of the "9-5 workday" catching fish or crabs for market. These are not the "commercial fishermen" derided by the shallower thinkers among environmentalists. They are doing what they love.

The last chapter of the book describes the complex web of forces that underlie just one fishery, the weakfish of the Bay. The author spent a day on the water with "Captain George" Kumor, catching blue crabs and baitfish. He did some portion of the work, which probably slowed the Captain down a bit, but was received with good humor. But there are many forces at work behind the continually dropping population of weakfish, in spite of environmental remediation efforts. Just one example: The land that was flooded to "restore" buffering marshland had been growing salt grass for a generation or two, and as this grass rotted on the bottom, oxygen levels dropped. This forced the young fish into deeper water, where more were lost to predators. Although the weakfish population is dropping everywhere, it has been dropping fastest where "they" are doing the most to restore it!

A chapter on light pollution hit a chord with me. (It's already official; before the year 2000 began, there was no place left on Earth that did not have measurable light pollution. On a map of the night side of Earth as seen from satellites, a few stand out as the darkest: mountaintops such as the Himalayas and the Andes and the top of Mauna Kea—partly due to lighting regulations in nearby Hawaiian cities—, plus one more: the center of North Korea, where the feudal conditions don't allow such amenities as night lighting. Isn't it a pity that North Korean kids may be the only ones to really see the night sky!) The author recounts the gradual loss of the night sky, first in his boyhood home in northern New Jersey, and over the past twenty or so years in Cumberland County. How rare it is to see the Milky Way any more! (I see it no more than once or twice a year)

This well-focused book limns summer for us in just this one small portion of the planet. Summer is well-loved by many, everywhere, and there is room for a shelf-full of books on the seasons, as they are experienced everywhere. "Join the club, Pete, and much welcome to you!"

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Clearing up a point or two

kw: observations, earthquakes, tsunamis, geology

I made a couple of blunders in yesterday's post about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
  • Firstly, I reported the local time incorrectly (wrong UTC correction). It occurred at 2:46 PM, Tokyo time.
  • Secondly, I stated that this earthquake was larger than the one in 2004. That one was magnitude 9.1, and thus about five times as energetic as this one.
I also based my writing on the tsunami in Sendai on early reports that it was about ten meters high. This has been revised to 7.5 meters, still about 23 feet, and from the videos I have been seeing, enough to move far inland in such a flat coastal plain, and to do horrific damage.

Now I note that there was an explosion at one of the nuclear plants; overpressure in some steam lines. As a strong proponent of nuclear power, I recognize this will further delay any future installations. Clearly, the "fail safe" designs advocated in the 1960s have not been fully implemented.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Big One clear across the Pacific

kw: observations, earthquakes, tsunamis, geology

At 11:46 AM local time (12:46 AM EST; 0546Z/UTC) the fifth-largest earthquake ever measured struck a long section of the subduction zone beneath the Japan Trench, measuring 8.8 or 8.9 on the Richter scale. There was a day of medium-size foreshocks (in the 6 range), and so far more than 100 aftershocks measuring 5 or stronger. This map from the USGS Earthquake Center shows a good summary compiled just before 1:00 PM EST (1800 Z/UTC) today. Click for a larger view.

The makings of an earthquake this size are evident on the map. The yellow blocks (almost hidden) denoting yesterday's foreshocks cover an area near the epicenter, as measured from a distance, of the giant quake. The actual area of fault that ruptured covers most of the area outlined by the blue blocks that denote today's aftershocks and the big one itself. It takes energy release along at least 200 miles (300+ km) of a fault, and throughout a crustal thickness of 5-10 miles (8-15 km), to produce such a quake. The magnitude 7.1 aftershock, the larger block more to the right on the map, required a rupture along a total fault length of about 10 miles (15 km).

When I studied earthquake geology some forty years ago, one of the first things I learned was that the intensity of local shaking caused by a "sixer", an earthquake in the range of 5.8-6.2, is as bad as it gets. Larger quakes spread similar levels of damage over larger and larger areas.

One question people are asking is why such a huge earthquake produced such a relatively feeble tsunami? The maximum wave measured in Japan, that I've read of so far, was 10 m (33 ft). The much larger tsunamis of a few years ago were produced by a much smaller earthquake.

This is primarily because of this quake's depth beneath the crustal surface. The hypocenter of the 8.9 temblor was 24.4 km (15.2 mi), and the aftershock hypocenters range from 16 to 45 km (10 to 28 mi) depth. This is nearly all beneath the "edge" of the oceanic crust. By the time the p- and s-waves reached the surface they had softened a bit, and there was much less vertical motion of the sea floor than a shallower event would cause. Secondly, there was no submarine landslide. The more frequent seismicity in and around Japan keeps most of the debris from accumulating on the slopes of the continental shelves. A huge slide was the major factor in the 2004 tsunamis.

A few hours ago, I was hearing of 32-33 dead in the tsunamis in Japan; a short while ago a CNN feed here at work reported "hundreds dead". Even a 10 m wave is nothing to despise. Though the quake's epicenter was about 100 km (60 mi) offshore, the waves took only 12 minutes to reach the coast, long before most people could get to higher ground, once they got up from being knocked over!

There is a lot of sorrow in Japan today. Let us offer a prayer of comfort for the survivors.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Beyond the game

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, space fantasy, space warfare, video games

My son has been playing the XBox game Halo, in several versions, almost since its inception late in 2001. I am sure the main draw for him is the combat and its realistic venue. What I didn't know until recently is that its developers and fans have together created quite a backstory and universe in which the combat game unfolds. Nor that it has become a multi-faceted franchise, managed by 343 Industries, a unit of Microsoft.

One facet is several series of novels, and the one that came my way is Halo:Cryptum by Greg Bear, the first of a projected trilogy. The cover proclaims it "Book One of the Forerunner Saga". To get a better grasp of the covering story and backstory, see this Wikipedia article. Here I concern myself with certain ideas.

Interstellar and intergalactic travel in the Halo universe is accomplished by travel through "slipspace", and "slipspace chips" seem to answer to the trilithium crystals of Star Trek, as an energy-conversion mechanism to retrieve vacuum energy, and as an access mechanism to the variety of subspace or hyperspace the term connotes.

The Forerunners themselves begin much as humans do, and are of similar size and shape, but go through a series of changes, as many as four, which in the book are called Mutations. This is a misuse of the word, and Greg Bear ought to know better, though he is probably constrained by the language of the franchise. Such a change to an individual is more properly termed a metamorphosis, making the protagonist of this novel, with the first name Bornstellar, a first instar who metamorphoses to the second instar halfway through. This second instar is called his First Form, and his height then exceeds two meters. His Third- or Fourth-Form father is some four meters tall, and has changed aspect almost beyond recognition. This is the way of Forerunners. (By contrast, human metamorphosis, like mammalian growth in general, occurs gradually, or we'd more readily compare ourselves with locusts or butterflies.)

A particular emphasis is placed upon the armor all Forerunners wear nearly all the time. It is an active agent, controlled by them through an AI agent called an ancilla ("female slave" in Latin), and the term is used for all AI agents, of all levels of power. Nearly all speak with female voices. This probably answers to the human prejudice in favor of being served by women in most personal matters. The armor cares for its wearer, and can keep a person alive—for not only Forerunners wear such armor—even in vacuum for a time, and even when gravely injured.

This young person, Bornstellar, has defied his family, visited the home planet of humans, and accompanied by two humans, including a re-engineered Florian ("hobbit" in recent scientific literature), goes a-treasure hunting, only to encounter the cryptum (not a crypt, which would hold a corpse, but a suspension chamber to retain an exile in time) of an ancient warrior named the Didact. The Didact kidnaps him and the humans, later guides him through a "Mutation" that eventually converts him to a sort of clone of the Didact, and then leads them all into an adventure that gets them crosswise with the highest Forerunner authority. The book ends with Bornstellar, exhibiting a mixture of First Form types, replacing the Didact, who has been executed. I find it ironic that the most powerful figure in this saga (so far) is a Librarian, and wife of the Didact/Bornstellar. Located for the time being in an intergalactic Ark, the protagonists are now in position for the opening of the second novel, due out in a year or less.

While the author has a compelling writing style, this is less of a page-turner and more of a book to keep you thinking. It bears some resemblance to the work of Olaf Stapledon, who wrote of galaxy-spanning civilizations and star-building and -destroying cultures of future men. While many epic SciFi works and series owe their vision to one writer or to a small collaboration, this is Microsoft at work, and their stable of fantasists. So far, the Halo universe hasn't become the "camel" most committees tend to create. May it remain so.

Springing early

kw: observations, seasons

Perhaps the groundhog was right, and Spring will arrive in less than six weeks (from Feb 2). The yellow crocuses are already in bloom, and of the two kinds of mayapple, the smaller variety is just beginning to bloom. I also heard spring peepers (frogs) singing at a pond in Boothwyn, PA last night. It was remarkable, as the temperature was about 35°F (2°C). All this more than two weeks earlier than last year.

I seem to remember that prior to a few years ago, the Forsythia would bloom in late February. I don't see that any more.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The filter cannot keep up

kw: observations

I learned a new word in a book I've been reading, in more than one sense. The characters wear armor that has an AI agent built in, which is called an ancilla. I hadn't seen the word before, so I Googled it. One of the first hits explained that ancilla is the Latin word for a female slave, and the root of the word ancillary. Simple enough. The armor AI's in the book all use female voices.

Then, a few hits later, Google helpfully supplied some thumbnail photos illustrating the word; all pictures of women in suggestive poses. "Uh-oh," I thought, "the porn stars have learned Latin." A click on the Images tab confirmed that "Ancilla" is the stage name of an impressive number of porn stars who specialize in an edgy variety of S&M, and that their images are bypassing the "Safe Search" filter, which apparently doesn't have any Latin words in it yet.

There is always something.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Will the real Robin please stand up?

kw: local events, irritations

Let's see, is it Robin or Robyn; is it Blythe or Blyth?

A few dozen Facebook pages are attributed to Robin Blythe, and several to Robyn Blyth. Thousands of hits on Google and Bing return for any combination of these names. I suspect the one I am looking for is none of the above.

Over the past three years, I've received a phone call almost every week from a computer voice that begins by saying, "This is an important message for [pause] Robin [pause] Blythe. If you are [pause] Robin [pause] Blythe [pause] please press one now." The first time it happened, I hung up at that point. The tenth or so, I waited, and was asked, "If Robin Blythe [with pauses] does not live at this address, press two now." I pressed two, and a few clicks ensued, then a different computer voice, "Please hold, and someone will be with you shortly." I hung up. Thereafter, I've hung up by about the word "important".

Today, a person called, claimed to be named Mike, from a firm name I didn't catch, and asked if someone would be present so a process server could deliver papers for Robin Blythe. I made it clear that there was no such person at this number, nor at our address (which I did not state), nor had been for all the years we had lived here. He apologized for troubling me and hung up. Less than a minute later, another "Mike" called and began the same rigamarole. I cut him off with, "If you're after a Robin Blythe, there has never been one at this number." He apologized and hung up.

Is this the end of the matter? I suspect someone out there used an assumed name and number to "give information" after something like an auto collision. I wonder if the matter will ever be resolved.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

These dogs don't have their day

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space aliens, alien invasion, alien empires

It took Out of the Dark by David Weber a while to get going. There were several plot lines to establish, and I got a bit restive at first. Once the setup was out of the way, however, the book was a fast read, with plenty of action.

Consider a galactic web of civilizations that began over 70,000 years ago. In contrast to many space operas that are peopled mostly with humans in animal suits, this author's universe is full of bovines, on the premise that carnivores and most omnivores will bomb themselves to oblivion as soon as they invent nuclear weapons. At the beginning of the novel, set some 600 years ago, this planet is designated a Level 6 civilization, just a step or two up from spear-throwing savages. Then, in our near future, an aggressive doglike species, the only starfaring carnivores, are given permission to colonize Earth, as little progress is expected. These Shongairi, familiarly called "puppies" by humans, come expecting an easy takeover, but are surprised to find a Level 2 civilization has developed with unprecedented rapidity. They decide to take over anyway.

When you have the advantage of altitude, thousands of miles of it, you don't need advanced weapons to "soften up" a planetary target. Simply drop big rocks on it, which will come in like meteors and destroy with the force of megatons. So the puppies do just that, after stealthily hacking the loosely-defended Internet and the military computer systems connected to it. Having determined where most of the military resources of all major nations are, they destroy these in a matter of hours. Then they send in a force of 24 troop-carrying shuttles, and are aghast to find that these are destroyed in a sudden, five-minute attack by four fighter aircraft.

Things go downhill from there. We are so good at fighting one another, that turning against an alien invader is almost second nature. The puppies have never before tried to subjugate a Level 2 planet, and they find they've bit of much more than they can swallow. Finally, the Shongairi decide to create a super-virus and destroy the human species. At this point, humanity is found to have one more ace up its sleeve. To avoid totally spoiling a good read, let me just say that it originates in Romania.

An element that I like is that the invaders find a most peculiar (to them) element of human psychology, which is the secret of our fanatical fighting prowess: family values. We'll do anything to protect the family, and seek any revenge if they have been destroyed. Even among mammals on Earth, humans are peculiar in the intensity of our family attachments. Most animals will sacrifice their offspring if they must, pragmatically expecting to give birth to more. Humans are nearly unique in assigning to their living offspring "the future of the species." Animals consider only sunk cost; people consider future potential.

Of course the book is human chauvinist. Do you think an author could sell books about the defeat and extermination of humanity? It is nice to think we really could force the retreat of a seemingly superior race of aliens, even if they had thousands of years of head start. I wonder, though, whether the first aliens we meet will be more like millions or a billion years ahead of us. At such a juncture, I am not sure "meeting" is possible. Could we notice one another? It is not certain. So a comfy universe with a "mere" 70,000 years of sentient history is an easier concept to swallow (Actually, thinking it over, the aliens' "standard year" is twice an Earth year, so it is more like 140,000 of our years. Ho hum).

One of my tests of a book is how many hours of sleep I lose, reading half the night or more. Once it got going, this one ranks up there among the top page-turners of my experience.

Friday, March 04, 2011

We only think we know what we are doing

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, economics

I have gradually come to realize that economics is about cost/benefit calculations of all kinds, not just about money. Thus, at this late date, I now classify The Universal Elixir and Other Computer Projects Which Failed by Robert L. Glass as an economic text. Published in 1977, it exposes the real reason for many project failures, including "not invented here syndrome" and "I couldn't disappoint my golf buddy" and the "mythical man-month" (or why nine women can't produce a baby in one month). I wonder if Dan Ariely has read it.

In Predictably Irrational, Dr. Ariely (with dual PhD's) displayed the odd things we do and how they hold us back, and how even knowing how we are, we usually do it anyway. Now he has written an even more useful companion volume, The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home.

I learned long ago that, if I must negotiate with someone, I have to determine just how crazy he or she is, and be even crazier. Put another way, there's no sense deciding you need to go to the moon, then getting nickel-and-dimed down until you can only get halfway there. Instead, start by demanding funding to go to Mars, then "reluctantly" agreeing to about twice what you think you'll need to get to good old Luna, and calling it an "exploratory study." This is a metaphor for selling your house, by the way…

Parrots get bored if you don't "let" them "work" for their food. Who knew? In an early section, the author shows how rats can learn to push a lever to get food. Then you put a container with "free food" in it next to the box with the lever. The rat will still use the lever more than half the time. In fact, of birds and mammals with which similar experiments were done, the only one for which the principle fails is the domestic house cat. I grew up with cats. If you feed a cat, it'll ignore intruding mice, except perhaps as playthings. But if you put away the cat's food for a day or two, it will bring you the dead mice, perhaps partly eaten. Then you feed it.

I'll bet about half the middle-class homes in the US have at least one piece of furniture (most likely a computer desk or bookshelf unit) that was built from a kit. And in most cases, no matter how ugly the result, the builder thereof really likes that desk or shelf. Research experiments have shown that people who fold their own origami crane value it more highly than a professionally folded crane. Lest you be tempted to bestow a Golden Fleece award on such research, understand that such experiments are actually quite cheap (compared to medical trials of a new antibiotic), and help us learn a lot about how we think, or don't think.

One aspect of his own history that affects everything in the author's life is a terrible burning accident he had while in high school, and the long, painful recuperation and sometimes even more painful surgeries (one at least performed without anesthesia) he underwent. Yeah, he really is scarred for life, in all senses of the word. He considers it a wonder that he is happily married with two children. He has two chapters that deal with adaptation, and with "assortive mating" as a form of adaptation.

Beauty and the Beast and the new film Beastly explore this notion. If you were suddenly rendered quite ugly, would you settle for access to a more restricted pool of potential wife or husband material? Perhaps you think you'd have to find someone who values "good sense of humor" on a matchmaking questionnaire, knowing full well that "sense of humor" is a euphemism for "can break a mirror with a glance." At least half of us are going to go through this: most long-term marriages end with the death of one spouse. Many more end in divorce, often in late middle age. Now that you ain't young and pretty, how will you attract a partner who is sexy enough to attract you? Hmmm?

Adaptation is a wonderful thing. Dr. Ariely married a lovely woman in spite of his burns. This is one kind of case. Then there is my father. He was 82 when my mother died. He began dating almost immediately (at the time my son was 14; it was like suddenly having two 14-year-olds!). He married at age 86, and I recently visited them for his 89th birthday. It's been decades since anyone would spontaneously call him handsome, but his wife is quite crazy about him.

In plain fact, we get over both the good and the bad remarkably quickly and well, in most cases. An interesting case shows how to take advantage of adaptation to rebalance our happiness quotient. Experiments show that interrupting a pleasant or unpleasant experience takes us almost back to square one, so we have to re-adapt. Take advantage this way: When faced with the need to "slay a dragon", such as cleaning out the garage, do it all at once, without a break. The break will just reinforce the contrast between the onerous work and the break itself, making you more miserable. On the other hand, in the middle of doing something you like, distract yourself for a moment, then return, and the pleasure will increase.

In his last chapter, we find substantiation for the folklore to "sleep on it" when we are tempted to make a decision while in the grip of strong emotion. This goes for both positive and negative emotions. It is found that making an emotional decision will predispose us to make a similar (and often similarly misguided) decision again, even if the next time there is little emotion. Don't want your past to rule your future? "Don't do something you can't undo," "Count to ten (backwards is better)," or "Sleep on it." A corollary: I've learned that I often wake up with something on my mind, and before I'm out of bed, I can get myself into quite a lather to "do something about it." I've learned not to act on morning thoughts. They can get me into quite a bit of trouble! Eating a nice breakfast calms me down. I suspect Dr. A. would agree.

This is quite an optimistic book, even though some of the chapters reveal rather unfortunate side effects of our inherent biases and emotional traps. We can learn to avoid some of them, and the author's last message is a good one: "Test Everything." Don't assume you know what you are doing without trying an alternative (assuming it can be done safely). Develop a habit like the carpenter's rule to "Measure twice, cut once," so you don't have to say, "No matter how much I cut off this board, it doesn't get any longer."

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The biggest fools in Kansas

kw: first amendment, free speech, supreme court, homosexuality, religion

The radio news is full of reports about the tiny "church" in Kansas whose "right" to picket military funerals has been upheld by the Supreme Court. The supposed reason for the picketing is to declare that military deaths are God's punishment on the U.S. for its pro-homosexual attitudes and laws.

Let's apply their logic to a bit of history. From 1942-1945, 450,000 or more American boys (most were males 22 and younger) died in World War II. For more than three years, there were 10,000 military funerals every month. (The present rate: about fifty per month). How were homosexuals treated at that time? They were hated, hounded, jailed and some were legally castrated or chemically feminized. Were those tens of thousands of war dead in the 1940s God's judgment for something?

The chance that casualties of war are God's judgment for anything is exactly zero, folks.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Not just different mountains

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, comparative religion

I have been called a Pharisee—code for "dogmatic a**hole"—and at the time, I suppose it was true. Over time, I have come to see that people mean more than doctrines, and love more than rules, and, particularly, faith more than rituals. Sometimes this had made me wonder, am I now more Christian, or less? When I see what passes for Christian expression, I am ashamed in the designation. What is God thinking, to let such poor examples claim to witness for His Son? I have only to look at myself for the answer. Still too often rigid, too often a self-righteous jerk. It makes me cry out with Paul, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24)

Paul answers his own question in Romans 8:1, "There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." (BTW, in the best manuscripts, the verse ends there, with nothing about walking in spirit, not at this point). The answer isn't what I do, but who Jesus is. In short, the answer is not religion, it is faith; not performance, but a Person. I kept having to remind myself of this as I read Stephen Prothero's book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter.

In his introduction and elsewhere, Professor Prothero states his thesis, that the common claim that "we're all just climbing different side of the same mountain" is not just mistaken, it is fatally wrong. As I read the book I realized, not only do adherents of the different religions climb different mountains, they are in different mountain ranges on different continents. The term "worlds apart" never had more meaning than it does right here.

The author chose to limn eight religious traditions: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism and Daoism, and he has a ninth, short chapter on Atheism. For the eight, they are, as he judges, in order of importance to the next generation. Thus, while Islam is not the largest in number today, it is the fastest-growing and will dominate the twenty-first century. And, although Atheism is not a major religion in numbers, its more vocal members have had a disproportionate effect on the direction of law and culture in the West. the influence of atheists is primarily why one set of tired "PC" jokes about people who are "height challenged" (short) or "vocationally challenged" (unemployed) ends with "politically challenged" (Christian).

While the author has been as even-handed as possible, this is a book by a former Christian, written primarily for Christians and those who know primarily the Christian culture of the West. Many practices and understandings (AKA beliefs, for loose thinkers) of the "other religions" are explained by their contrast to the Judaeo-Christian cultural roots of Euro-Americans and Europeans. Fortunately, there are plenty of comparisons in a number of other directions. As a professor of religion and comparative religion, he is deeply familiar with those differences.

I find the contrasts between rather different pairings to be useful. For example, while Confucianism is all about propriety and "right action", Daoism is about flourishing and relaxing (that is, avoiding over-stress) one's way through life. Curiously, among modern Christian denominations, Baptists are more like Confucians, and Charismatics are more like Daoists, than Baptists and Charismatics are like one another. And while to most Westerners the Hindus and Buddhists seem awfully similar (and they have indeed converged a little bit in recent centuries), their aims are quite different. Hindus aim at joyful devotion to one or more deities, hoping to enjoy the many lives they expect to lead; Buddhists seek escape from both joy and pain of the endless round of reincarnations by "awakening" to a different kind of living entirely, to be incarnated no more. And I must say I was most fascinated by the inclusion of the Yoruba religion. It is no mere animistic "primitivism", but a sophisticated system with many similarities to Greek mythology, similarly expressed in epic poetry, all memorized. And if anything, the Yoruba deities are more involved in human lives and fates than the Greek pantheon.

And the biggest religious divide of the day, Islam versus Christianity? Islam arose as a reaction to the idolatry of Arabian tribal religions, and a similar idolatry in early Medieval Catholicism. The Islam visible to us in the USA continues as a reaction to the idolatry of consumerism in the professing "Christian" West. Yet the majority of the world's Muslims are in Asia, particularly Indonesia, where they don't much care what Christians do, and several religious traditions coexist side-by-side with a commendable measure of toleration.

The book left me with much to think about. I suspect a devotee of any of the religions I have mentioned will say that I have missed something essential. The larger picture I think I see is this: every religion tells stories that seek to answer "Why am I here?" and "What will give my life meaning?", including the atheist religion, even though its answers may be (this depends on which atheist you ask) "Nature doesn't need you" and "Don't bother, you are absurd." The attempt to answer "big questions" is the hallmark of religion.

I am, in the end, profoundly thankful to have found a way that does not follow any segment or sect of the Christian religion, or any other, but is bound up in a Faith that has the potential to make me utterly free from religion: "…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." May it become so.