Thursday, June 30, 2011

It is mostly what holds you up

kw: rocks, mineralogy, gemstones

My screen saver is a picture gallery program, and at present it is pointed at images of mineral crystals. Some I took, mostly at museums but a few of my own specimens. Others were gathered from all over the internet. I have the timer set to three minutes, so the pictures frequently start up when I'm getting a little think time at the keyboard.

After lunch today, seeing the minerals, I got thinking about feldspar. Most people seldom or never heard the word, yet feldspar minerals are the most common on Earth. Maybe you know that most tombstones that aren't made of marble are of granite, either whitish or reddish. The light-colored mineral that makes up most of the composition of granite is feldspar. In granite, the white or pink feldspar is usually a type of orthoclase.

Feldspar is a kind of junkyard mineral, because it has such a variable composition, variable chemistry. There are two "solid solution series" that make up the main feldspar family of minerals. Sodium feldspar, or Albite, is one end member of both series. The composition of pure albite would be NaAlSi3O8. The other end member of the alkali feldspar series is Orthoclase or potassium feldspar. The composition of pure orthoclase would be KAlSi3O8. In this series, most orthoclase contains a little sodium, and most albite contains a little potassium, but mixes near the middle are very rare. More common is orthoclase in which a tiny bit of iron substitutes for aluminum, making it pinkish.

A whitish or yellowish orthoclase that cleaves exceptionally well is also called microcline, so named because its two cleavages are very nearly at 90°, just a tiny angle (a micro-cline) shy of a perfect right angle. If the microcline contains lead instead of iron, it can be a lovely turquoise color, and is called Amazonite:

I have sometimes wondered why doesn't adopt this mineral as a mascot (Image from Wikimedia Commons). Amazonite is sometimes polished into cabochon gemstones, though it is a bit fragile. Also, its hardness is equal to that of glass, so it scratches rather easily, because sand and silt contain quartz which is one step harder (7 versus 6).

Microcline, usually of the white variety, tends to crystallize in large crystals. A very coarse-grained granitic rock called pegmatite is often mostly microcline, with the other nice mineral specimens in between. The largest known crystal on Earth, a microcline crystal in a miles-long pegmatite in Russia, has been mined for road-grading gravel for decades – that one crystal! It isn't in pretty condition, and wasn't recognized as a single crystal until about thirty years ago.

There is one other feldspar stone that is sometimes made into gems, Labradorite. It is a member of the Plagioclase feldspar series. One end member is albite, and the other is Anorthite, or calcium feldspar. The composition of pure anorthite would be CaAl2Si2O8. This series mixes readily enough that there are several mineral names for intermediate compositions. Labradorite is right in the middle, 30-50% albite and 50-70% anorthite. By the way, that ancient moon rock that was dated near 4.5 billion years old was nearly pure anorthite. A labradorite that is 60% anorthite would have the chemical composition Ca0.6Na0.4Al1.8Si2.4O8.

This labradorite specimen has been polished. It reflects light with this bluish hue in a way similar to opal, because of a series of tiny offsets in the crystal structure that cause constructive interference for blue light. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Labradorite is sometimes called Moonstone, but there are other minerals also called moonstone when polished. It is as fragile as polished microcline, but with care it makes a lovely gem. I have a tie pin with a labradorite cabochon, about 12x16mm. It was polished with the "blue angle" set a little upwards so it glows when the light comes from above. At other angles it looks black.

Most of the time, our contact with feldspar is by walking on it, almost any time there is a gravel driveway or walkway. These special varieties show a pretty side of this most common mineral family that makes up 60% of the crust of the Earth.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Crowds, shmouds

kw: commentary, sociology

I've had a couple of instances lately when people said something like, "Well, we can trust the wisdom of the crowd." I didn't know how to reply. For example, there is a controversy that has been going on for decades about the need for professional indexing, versus free text searching, lately known as "Googling". In actuality, the PageRank method used by Google is a kind of popularity contest, with the greatest weight given to the most popular "linkers". It is a kind of human indexing method, using the free labor of those who build web sites, and who have an interest in having the best links. It resembles the "hidden hand" of Adam Smith, that regulates economic well-being due to the selfishness of those who know better than to mistreat their customers (too badly). But this is not really a "wisdom of the crowd" arena.

As described in books like The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, the crowd being consulted is a special sort of gathering. For example, if you ask ten or twenty people at a "guess the number of beans in the jar" contest, what their guess is, the average of their guesses is usually closer to the real answer than anyone's individual guess, except for perhaps one or two lucky ones. But the "crowd" has to be consulted on a question of fact, that can be verified by something like counting the beans. On matters of belief, things can get weird quickly.

Of course, we know the difficulties that follow trying to have any kind of rational discussion of either religion or politics when those present have differing views. Mayhem is likely! But just try talking to a few people when some of them have a fixed idea about someone else's intentions. A neighbor once shared with us the cost of installing a cobbled waterway between our properties, the better to carry runoff during rainstorms. But a couple of times, some of the cobbles were moved by the neighbor, and one of us became convinced that there was a malicious intention, such as trying to make more of the water run over our property, rather than out the end of the cobbled way. Asking others' advice yielded quite a range of opinion, and nobody but me suggested the wisest choice, which is to walk over and ask. Though I plan to do just that, I'll have to do it in secret, or risk a real blowup with my loved ones!

Sociology isn't subject to factual, scientific parsing. Being emotionally inept myself, I'll have to play this one carefully. No help from this crowd.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Idea quotes

kw: quotes, ideas

A few of the quotes I dogeared while reading Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson:
  • "Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and, occasionally, contracts,) over time." -p35
  • "…some scientists have argued that natural selection has gravitated toward a small but stable error rate in DNA transcoding, that evolution has, in a sense, "tuned" the error rate to the optimal balance between too much mutation and too much stability." -p144
  • "…all decisive events in the history of scientific thought can be described in terms of mental cross-fertilization between different disciplines." -Arthur Koestler, quoted on p159
  • "There are good ideas, and then there are good ideas that make it easier to have other good ideas." -p243

The greatest power

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ideas, creativity

I had extra time to read over the weekend, and added think time also, so I finished reading Where Good Ideas Come From:The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. The thinking part will take a considerable time yet to come. I pre-reviewed some of the crucial points earlier; Scaling in this post and the Adjacent Possible and Liquid Networks in this one. These last two items are called "idea structures" by the author.

There are five more of them, which I'll touch on briefly:
  • the Slow Hunch – The "flash of insight" that we equate with a flashbulb going off typically takes a decade or two of back-of-the-mind cogitation before it occurs. When Friedrich Kekule had his dream about the fiery snake eating its tail, that led to his discovery of the Benzene ring, he had been thinking for a long time about how C6H6 could work and be so stable (Linear C6H6 is nearly impossible to synthesize, and is expected to soon fall apart).
  • Serendipity – Ideas are often monistic, and need the support of other ideas to become a practicable reality. One of the best ideas I ever had arose from a mental collision between astronomy (orbital mechanics) and civil engineering, which I applied to physical chemistry calculations and simulations.
  • Error – Most of us know how Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin; he was a sloppy housekeeper and let a culture plate get contaminated. Also, the cosmological microwave background was discovered only after two radio astronomers got over their conviction that their radio telescope was somehow at fault. When an experiment produces unexpected results, that isn't a problem, that is a golden opportunity!
  • Exaptation – This word was first coined for evolutionary uses, such as the conversion of feathers from thermal insulation to their use to aid flight. My example above of astronomy+geotechnology is an example of exaptation.
  • Platforms – A city, or a coral reef, or a Darwininan "tangled bank", are examples of Platforms, infrastructure that other developments can rely on. Newton and others wrote of standing on the shoulders of giants. There are actually millions of shoulders out there. I didn't have to invent the FORTRAN or COMPASS languages to have a career as a computer programmer; others had laid the groundwork. You don't have to be a road-builder to be a driver, nor must you lay rail and build locomotives in order to take a train ride.
The author closes with a chapter in which he develops a four-quadrant model of the origin and environment of the great inventions of the past 600 years, taken two centuries at a time, and focusing on the Fourth Quadrant, which refers in software development terms to the Open Source movement. That is where 90% of great innovation is currently happening, in all arenas. The Appendix to the book is a key value: 44 pages limning a couple hundred key inventions from 1400-2000 A.D.

All of this is written with a fluid, easy style that makes reading easy. Early on, I expected I'd need to take plenty of time to read the book. Its thickness and small font made me cautious. But it reads as fast as a novel. That is a danger in itself, for this book is so full of material, it requires a second read to have a chance of grasping more than a fraction. That makes it a good reference work to have on hand. And what fun!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bee islands

kw: chores, wildlife

Mowing earlier today, I saw a few dozen honeybees; the first time I've seen more than one at a time in several years. They were working over the clover flowers in the yard. I began to regret that I was turning my yard into a bee desert by mowing off nearly all the blooms. So I chose two patches that are nearly all clover with very little grass and mowed around them. They are oases for the honeybees.

My sunflowers for this year's Great Sunflower Project are about half grown. Buds have appeared on the largest plant, so I'll be taking statistics starting in another week or so. Honeybees seldom come to sunflowers, which have no nectar. The Project monitors wild bee activity. Most wild bees are pollen gatherers.

Idea structures one and two

kw: ideas, review reference, exploring, liquidity

This is Friday's post, as it mostly wrote itself in my head then, but circumstances intervened and I had something of a holiday from the keyboard. Fear not, it's all there.

Reading a book as packed as Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson takes time and care. He structured the book around seven structures of innovation, and the synergies that play among them to make larger assemblages—whether of people or of molecules or of creatures—more creative and innovative. A large and rich environment leads to more creativity per unit, not just more overall.

The first such structure is The Adjacent Possible. Anyone who spent the 80s and 90s reading Stephen Jay Gould's columns in Natural History, or who has read his magnificent treatise The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002), should have picked up this enormous thread in his work: evolution proceeds by adapting, editing and expanding upon what exists at the moment. Thus in his great essay "The Panda's Thumb" he explained how the Giant Panda species, descended from animals that lack a thumb, was over time endowed with a thumb as a wrist bone was modified into an opposable, grasping digit.

In another context, the printing press developed by Johannes Gutenberg was an adapted wine press, a device in use for more than a thousand years. Movable type by themselves were no quicker than calligraphy if one had to use them like ink stamps, one by one. But by assembling them in a frame, inking, and pressing with the great power of a screw press, sheet after sheet could be printed in a few seconds each. Modern web presses further add the idea of a roll of paper and a cylinder press, so that hundreds of pages per second can be printed.

It is very rare for a working device to spring de novo from ideation alone. I once thought the Linotype® was one such. I had read that Ottmar Mergenthaler gradually thought through the entire concept, and that the first one he built worked, and little had changed since 1884. But the great new thing about the Linotype machine was the slug matrices that sort the character slugs back into the "font" after use; the rest was gathering together all the processes that went into making a "line of type". As late as the 1960s headlines were still being composed by hand in a composer's box. My father's first job was as a headline composer in 1938. A composed line was taken to a hot lead pouring station, fitted in with shims, and the hot lead poured to a prescribed depth (by the way, the "lead" is largely antimony, a metal that is rare in swelling upon freezing the way water does; this drives the cooling type metal into every crevice of the slugs). What I didn't know until recently was that the matrices were based on the cards used for the Jacquard Loom, which was also the inspiration for the IBM card. All the other ideas in the Linotype's construction were pretty much off-the-shelf "stuff" one could assemble in the mid 1880s.

By contrast, the great mental constructions of Charles Babbage, the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine, were really ahead of their time. Though they were possible to construct using 19th Century technology, they were simply too costly in both time and money. Babbage's patrons just could not afford the construction of either one. It was at the time lest costly, and faster, to employ legions of diligent young women as "computers" to carry out calculations using pen and paper. The ideas behind Babbage's devices required the invention of electronic circuits to become practical, so a hundred years passed before special-purpose electronic calculators and electronic computers arose in the mid 20th Century. Until then, the ideas themselves were not in the realm of the Adjacent Possible.

The following structure is titled by Johnson Liquid Networks. He uses the analogy of phases of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. The key here is that innovation requires interaction. One mind may produce an invention, but it is the aggregation of inventions that produces a civilization and a society, and most smaller items. There are dozens of inventions, by many different people, that are embodied in a digital wristwatch or laser printer, or even the hose-end sprayer I used this afternoon to fertilize my garden.

During the hundreds of thousands of years that humans lived in hunter-gatherer bands, they were like a gas, and the bands were like gas molecules. If someone or some small group produced an innovation, a new way to make a fishhook, perhaps, there was little chance for the idea to spread throughout humanity. The interactions between bands were too infrequent. At the other end of the scale, totalitarian societies such as cloistered Medieval Europe or modern-day Cuba and North Korea are noted for stagnation, not innovation. In a solid, each molecule interacts only with those it is locked to in the crystal structure. New stuff just doesn't spread. But, like the warm porridge in The Three Bears, a liquid is "just right". Interactions between molecules are frequent, and any new thing is rapidly transmitted throughout the whole.

It is this frequent interaction that underlies the power of the Adjacent Possible. One inventor may explore a few "open doors" that he or she comes upon, but it is the thousands and millions of explorations, in an environment that promotes communication, that enables rapid innovation. That is the power of the blogosphere, for example (cough, cough). The more popular blogs act as conduits for new ideas to larger audiences; the first that comes to mind is Boing Boing. Give it a try.

The synergy of these two structures underlies my career as a computer programmer, at which I spent forty years. In mid-career, I spent ten years using assembly language in large computer centers. At first, I learned the syntax of the Compass languages (there are two). Then I wrote a few callable subroutines for specialized tasks, such as a faster square root calculator for the Geologists to use in seismic prospecting. Then I took advantage of a large number of code libraries from which I could crib snippets (sometimes hundreds of lines of code) that would perform specialized tasks I didn't have to invent. These were pre-built mental "gadgets". They opened up more "doors", making more territory "adjacently possible". To this point, I was progressing as I had as a FORTRAN programmer fifteen years earlier.

Then I began to work with a team. Once I experienced the power of genuine teamwork (not groupthink!!), there was no looking back. I probably spent a quarter of my time in team interactions of many kinds, brainstorming, bouncing ideas around, "talking philosophy", or just shooting the breeze. But the group's productivity was phenomenal.

Jump fifteen years the other direction: a team of two. I was asked to learn Perl for some Web programming and other scripting tasks. After a couple days digesting a book of Perl syntax and semantics, I spent a few weeks on my first big project, in the company of an experienced Perl programmer. We alternated who sat at the keyboard and who walked about and waved arms and shouted. We also conferred with a few others at times. We knocked out a very impressive piece of work, I learned Perl, and he learned something about language processing. By then we had not just a program that worked, and is still in use, but a library of ideas too good to leave inside the product. It circulates inside the company among the community of Web programmers. Sorry, can't tell you the name just now. Companies can have their totalitarian sides…

In an example from the book, Psychologist Kevin Dunbar decided to watch scientists at work; he must be quite adept to avoid lots of awkwardness. His conclusion? "…the ground zero of innovation was not the microscope. It was the conference table." Ah, but there are conferences and conferences. My son visited the GooglePlex in Manhattan with a friend. There is no button-down mind stuff going on when the Googlers get together. Truly innovative meetings are loud! (Remember me and my friend, waving arms and shouting.)

I propose a new kind of IQ test, the NQ for "iNnovative Quotient". In a traditional IQ test, you are required to work alone. In the NQ test, you are required to get the answer from someone, and the questions are framed so that Google searches are unlikely to help (this is getting harder every day). In the spirit of "six degrees of separation", when you contact someone asking for an answer, you instruct them to ask someone else, if they don't know it, as long as they report who actually knew the answer. The test is designed to take between a week and a month to complete, and it is time to completion that counts, more than correctness of answers, though that counts also. As I think about this, NQ can also refer to "Networking Quotient". Not bad!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

How cities differ from animals

kw: ideas, scaling, review reference

I am reading Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. It is just a bit bigger than the average book at some 75,000 words, but it is packed with ideas. I simply have to explore a few of them as I read.

A major point in the book's introduction is the concept of scaling. For example, we would expect larger mammals to require more food then smaller ones, just to keep a larger body warm. But how, exactly, does the rate an animal burns food increase with increased mass? Max Kleiber studied this in the 1930s, and by the mid 1940s had derived Kleiber's Law, that metabolic heat production increases as the 3/4 power of mass for mammals. This chart is from his 1947 report, "Body Size and Metabolic Rate", published in Physiological Reviews.

The 3/4 power is the fourth root of the cube, so we can apply it thus. One dot in the middle of the chart represents the data for a woman: Mass = 50kg, Met = 1,500 kcal/day. Down and to the left, we find a mouse: Mass = 20g = 0.02kg, Met = 3 kcal/day. Ratio of masses = 2500; ratio of metabolic rate = 500. 25003 = 15.625 billion; the fourth root of this = 354. This is pretty close; using logarithms to find the exact exponent we find it is 0.79. The red line on the graph follows an exponent of 0.75. (If I had Kleiber's original data for woman and mouse, perhaps the numbers would match more closely, and perhaps not.)

It has been said, particularly in literature, that a city is like a large animal, with its own metabolism. However, when cities have been studied, many important parameters are found to scale with an exponent greater than one. The easiest to study is total cash flow, the sum total of the income of a city's residents:

This chart, from this government report, uses the natural logarithm of population and total income, which makes it harder for most people to parse. I'll pick the upper-right point (probably NYC), and the one at lower left closest to the trend line. Big city: 18.8 million people, $440 billion; small city: 57,000 people, $800 million. Dollar ratios = 550; population ratio = 330. The trend line has an exponent of 1.2, and from these two points I find an exponent of 1.09. The difference per capita is stark: $800M/57k = $14,000; $440B/18.8M = $23,400, or 67% more. No wonder so many people flock to larger cities! (Except when recession hits…)

This is not just that the rich tend to live in larger cities (I live in a suburb of a city of 80,000 and there are millionaires aplenty). Rather, Johnson's point in his book is that larger aggregations of people yield disproportionately greater amounts of innovation, invention, and entrepreneurship. For example, it takes about a thousand patients to support a physician, and at least a few hundred to support a lawyer. In the smallest towns, you might have no more than one or two local physicians or lawyers, or none.

I recently visited three small towns in Missouri. Malta Bend, where my paternal ancestors lived, has fewer than 300 residents, and not a single retail or professional establishment. Even the single Methodist church is served by a circuit rider. The residents all go to nearby Marshall, population 11,000 to shop, see the doctor, and everything else. The circuit rider also lives in Marshall. A bit farther from Marshall there is Grand Pass, population 53. They also go to Marshall for everything except neighborly socializing.

A second item larger cities provide is a greater diversity of "stuff." An inventor needs "stuff". I remember growing up in Pasadena, California. There was a military surplus store, where all the radio hams and other homebrew hobbyists got "stuff". A town much smaller than Pasadena, population 147,000, but near gigantic Los Angeles, can't support a surplus outlet. And Los Angeles is one of only three huge metro areas I know of that support a walk-in parts store for antique cars. I used to shop there for parts for a 1948 truck I had in the 1970s. They had walls of parts for Model A and T Fords! The proprietor bragged to me that you could build an entire 1955 VW bug from parts he had on hand. I wonder if that is still true. To go a step further, my brother bought two junkyard Subarus, one wrecked in front, the other wrecked in back, and put together one working car, though he had to go to the same outlet for a few parts. "Stuff". He'd have got nowhere in Malta Bend, or even Marshall.

The prime difference between a city and an animal is that a city is a colony. I wonder if metabolic rates or other parameters for colonies, such as anthills, bee hives and termite mounds, follow a super-linear scaling law, one with an exponent greater than 1.0. For whatever reason, innovation in cities is a super-linear function. As the book proceeds, the author promises to ferret out other factors of similar power. If innovation is what you need, such factors are a must-know. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Doggy detectives

kw: book reviews, mysteries, animal fiction

There is an interesting twist to A Nose for Justice by Rita Mae Brown. Two murder investigations run in parallel, although the murders occurred a century apart. First, the two dog heroes of the book, King and Baxter, a shepherd mix and a wire-haired dachshund, dig up the bones of a long-dead Russian in a barn. Then, in a conflict over water rights and land purchases a series of murders occurs. The dogs figure importantly in the solution to these murders as well, about the time their owners, women called Jeep and Mags, have figured out why and how the Russian died in 1902.

The author drew upon three rich veins of history to produce the milieu for the action. First, Jeep, the great aunt of Mags, was a pilot in the WASPs during WWII. Her ranch, Wings, and the friends she still has among former service women form one thread. Then, the dead Russian is found to have been a performer with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, which played in Nevada in the early 1900s. Thirdly, water rights struggles going back before the founding of Nevada as a state are the primary backdrop, and the millions to be made from land and water as Reno expands provide all the motive needed for not just the murders, but chicanery of several kinds.

The characters, human and canine, are richly rounded; Ms Brown has a gift for reifying her creations. The dogs' gradual accommodation as they get to know one another is paralleled by Mags's growing fondness for a deputy named Pete. Jeep, in her eighties, is in a class by herself. A real character, bright, a beauty when younger and still handsome, witty and irascible, she is clearly the queen of the land. This enjoyable read made me care about them all, even the bad ones.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Two-headed camels and starfish superminds

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space opera, space aliens

I gotta hand it to Larry Niven, he comes up with interesting alien races. While Betrayer of Worlds, written with Edward M. Lerner, is not the first novel in which the Gw'oth appear, it has the first extended treatment of their culture. A Gw'oth looks like a starfish, as they are aquatic and are built of five "tubacles". Certain groups of them—I am not sure if all are supposed to be capable of this—can merge together as 4-fold or 8-fold or 16-fold assemblages with nerve connections that allow them to work as a combined intelligence with a new name and identity. In a 16-fold configuration they can solve four-dimensional problems and generally out-think the best minds known to both human and "citizen" (i.e. puppeteer) species, and even perhaps the Paks.

Betrayer of Worlds is a prelude to Ringworld, and fortunately is quite free of the vulgarity found in it. While much of the action revolves around the genius Louis Wu and his citizen patron (friend is too strong a term) Nessus, and their conflicts with deranged citizen Achilles, I found most interesting the way the authors imagine the cultural and political life of the Gw'oth.

The citizen Fleet of Worlds, five planets fleeing the galaxy and a galactic explosion, is flanked fore and aft by the Gw'oth home planet and a colony planet further out. The colony is actually a rebel world trying to escape the totalitarian influence of the home world, led by the 16-plex mind named Ol't'ro. The rulers of the home world and their disgust for multiplex minds are well portrayed. A few multiplex minds, in particular one 8-plex, are tolerated because they are useful, but are held prisoner.

The excessively paranoid Achilles has fomented war with the Gw'oth, misunderstanding their civil war as an invasion, and it takes the combined cleverness of Louis and Nessus, plus cooperation with Ol't'ro, to forestall open warfare and even genocide. Ol't'ro is the wild card here. It maneuvers Achilles into leadership of the citizen worlds, where he can be manipulated to its will. The novel ends about fifty years prior to the events related in Ringworld.

I felt compelled to determine the energy budget of the species involved here. The Fleet of Worlds is moving at about 0.5c towards galactic north, and is still accelerating. The kinetic energy of each of the five planets (and a sixth, New Terra) is around 1041 Joules. This is about seven million times the yearly solar luminosity, which makes the citizen/puppeteer species a Level 3 species in my informal taxonomy of spacefaring species:
  • Level 0 - muscle power only.
  • Level 1 - fossil fuel and stationary fission plants. Planetary energy budget at least 1020 J/y. Earth is in this category.
  • Level 2 - fusion energy. Planetary or species energy budget at least 1030 J/y.
  • Level 3 - fusion and perhaps antimatter. Energy budget at least 1040 J/y.
  • Level 4 and higher - antimatter control including stellar annihilation. Inconceivable energy budget.
I can imagine these things, but I don't know if they are possible. It seems the citizens don't utilize antimatter, but deuterium is mentioned several times. It takes a lot of deuterium to generate 1042 Joules; several stellar masses of deuterium.

I like the writing of these two authors together better than Niven's earlier collaborations. I understand this is not their first, so I have some catching up to do.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Models cannot trump reality

kw: debunking, climate change, disasters

A project named EPOCA, for European Project on OCean Acidification, aims to determine just how much trouble shellfish will be in with increased CO2 levels, in the range up to 1000 ppm. There are two parts to this question:
  1. How much harder will it be for shelled marine creatures to produce calcite and/or aragonite shells?
  2. How rapidly, if at all, will those shells dissolve back into ocean water, at various levels of atmospheric CO2?
It is to be hoped that useful answers to the first question can be answered with the experiments currently being carried out off the shore of Spitzbergen (By the way, I wonder why they aren't also trying it in more tropical waters, which dissolve much less CO2?). The answer to the second question is already known, and it is, "Not at all, or very slowly." Why do I say this?

The blue line on this chart is of interest here. It represents CO2 levels, measured by various proxy and semi-direct methods, for the past 450 million years. Note the tiny horizontal segment at lower left. That represents the past several million years, the period since the evolution of C4 photosynthesis, since which time CO2 levels have been lower than at any period in prior history!

I spent many years happily collecting fossil shells from deposits throughout the geologic series from Cambrian times right through the mid-Pleistocene (550 to 2 million years ago). Let's consider the Triassic, a period during which the CO2 level was four to five times what it is today. I have a lovely Triassic ammonite shell, with mother-of-pearl colors still evident. I don't know how long it was exposed to carbon-rich ocean waters after the death of the host animal, but it survived unscathed, even un-etched, for all the time since, some 200 million years.

Environmentalists fear that "modern" species will have "forgotten" how to make calcite or aragonite shells from more acidic waters, in the past few million years. The energetics of shell production may have changed, so that they are easier to produce now, but it is not likely that there is a difference in kind between ancient shell-producing chemistry and the modern version, just in intensity. A generation is pretty quick among shellfish. While the oceans may be acidifying at a rapid clip, compared to geologic rates, it is still rather slow compared to the adaption time frame of animals that have one or more generations per year, and plankton that have several generations per month. There is another factor to consider.

Suppose it takes several percent of a creature's energy budget to produce its shell. Further, suppose at some level of ocean acidification that requirement doubles. We must remember that it does so for all shellfish. No species or genus is going to have some kind of broad selective advantage over others. They will all be affected equally. In any species, some individuals will have a little more efficient shell-producing organs than their conspecifics, and this will continue, year after year, generation after generation. Genetic drift is more than sufficient for the species to keep up and continue making shells. I expect the EPOCA experiments to show that all species considered will have widespread ability to cope with acidification at all carbonation levels.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A little - all there is, and all you need

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, faith, memoirs

A rabbi and a pastor came into Mitch's life, and, no joke, he was more profoundly changed than if he'd known only one of them. In Mitch Albom's Have a Little Faith, we find that the rabbi "came into" his life at birth, and retained a place in his heart even as he drifted from his faith. But when eighty-two-year-old Rabbi Albert Lewis asked Mitch, "Will you do my eulogy?", he "came in" in a much deeper way. They agreed to meet periodically so Mitch could get to know the rabbi on a more human level. Mitch figured on a few months, a few meetings. The meetings went on for eight years.

In the middle of those eight years, Mitch, involved with a charity for the homeless, met a Christian pastor named Henry Covington. He visited him and his ministry to the homeless regularly, trying to figure out if Henry was on the level. If you wanted to find someone the exact opposite of Albert Lewis, Henry Covington is about as close as you could come: black, tall, enormously overweight, a former criminal and drug dealer, a champion commandment-breaker.

I once read that some people come to faith in extreme crisis, and are changed overnight. They have a traumatic birth. For others, finding God is as smooth as putting on a well-fitting glove. I think you can guess which man had which experience. Thinking of Henry, I am reminded of George Müller, a 19th Century leader of the "open brethren", who started out life as a thief. Once he'd had his own jackhammer experience with God, he became one entrusted with millions as he built a series of orphanages in and around Bristol, England. His diary is great reading.

Albert, by contrast, had a more comfortable relationship with God, and like any couple that ages together, he sometimes stormed at the Deity, but they always reconciled. When Mitch was a child, the rabbi seemed like God himself, awesome and imperturbable. Once when asked to speak to the children at a Christian church, a young boy plucked up the boldness to ask, "Where are your horns? I thought all Jews had horns." He invited the boy to come forward and examine his head, removing his yarmulke. After a while, the boy lapsed into embarrassed silence, and he asked, "Yes?" The boy said, "No horns." "Ah."

I have often been troubled at the way we deify our men of God. There seems to be a natural inclination to look, first to a father, then to other authorities, as infallible guides. To discover that nobody is perfect is a frightening blow, and leads to our first life crisis, in the preteen or teen years. Why do kids rebel? They find out that Dad and Mom are not God, and it typically happens just when they've grown to have some confidence in their own opinions. Of course, as Ben Franklin said, "Nature keeps a hard school." Unless we are utter fools, we learn that we are not infallible either. Most of us are lucky enough to reconcile with our parents by then.

Having spent half a life or more running from God, Mitch is drawn back, by the example of these two Men of God, their simple faith, and the comfort and steadiness he learns accompany a life of ordinary faith. Faith may be what we believe, but to others, the only clue is, faith is what we do. To a Jew in particular, faith is worked out in ritual. As Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof, "Tradition!" To a faithful Christian, ritual takes a back seat to service.

One time, I was trying to comfort a suicidal woman, and she said, "You're just being nice because it is your job." I replied, "It isn't my job, it is what I am, and not because I am some kind of pastor, but because of God in me." I wasn't really a pastor, but she thought I was, and was blind to remonstrance. But when I said, "I care because God cares," she took comfort in that. I'd do miracles for people if I could, but I've discovered that I don't have any miraculous gift. But each of us has the gift of a listening heart, if we're patient enough to use it.

Pastor or rabbi, whether a good speaker or not (Albert and Henry were/are champion sermonizers), it is when they listen that they change lives. Listening is how each of us can change lives. Mitch learned that as he listened to the both of them, and then to a few others who had things to say about both their lives.

Without Henry, Mitch could not have completed the eulogy. We need contrast to see clearly. But the end came, as the end must, when Albert was ninety years old. Mitch buckled down, in a room filled with his notes and recordings and research materials, and wrote without touching any of them. He saw that both these men had, not the great faith we imagine a man of God has to have, but just a little faith. A little faith, well and persistently used, accomplishes much.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The half life of the past

kw: family history

In the course of researching ancestors, I happened upon a wonderful archive of telephone book transcripts from the late 1800s, at the Midwest Historical and Genealogical Society. My ancestor, a land examiner named Joe Lindsey, seems to have carried on a side trade similar to house flipping, where he would live somewhere a year while fixing it up, then sell it and move on. Starting in 1885, he lived at these addresses in central and east Wichita, Kansas:
  • 110 W Lewis Street
  • 418 So Lawrence Lane
  • 212 Mathewson Street
  • 1033 Laura Avenue – the family lived here four years
  • 139 Ida Avenue – last residence in Wichita

I couldn't resist tracking down these addresses in Google Street View. Guess what? Three are entirely industrial now. Lawrence Lane is still residential, but all the houses are from the 1990s or later, judging by appearance alone. One whole side of Lawrence is taken up with the grounds of a church. The house numbers along this three-block street are in the 600-900 range, so the 400 block is entirely missing. The Mathewson Street location is partly industrialized. The only house standing on the 200 block is this one, at 204. It may be of the right period, but it is could be from the 1930s, built after older houses were torn down or burned down. Other houses across the street appear 1930-ish.

When I visited Malta Bend, Missouri, where my father grew up, although I found ten ancestors in the little graveyard, only one house that any of them lived in is still standing. My father told me that his old house burned down twice, his grandfather's house burned, and other older houses had all burned at one time or another.

I guess that in the course of one lifetime, about half the artifactual history around us vanishes, one way or another. Old neighborhoods are replaced with commercial or industrial complexes, or they are torn down and all new neighborhoods erected; things we own may burn in a fire or be ruined in a flood; we throw away stuff; people inherit heirlooms but don't appreciate them and send them to the Salvation Army store or throw them out. Considering how much "stuff" we bring into our homes every year, I guess it is good that most of it is done away with. Otherwise, we'd be buried in refuse (hoarders self-bury!).

I mourn the passing of old neighborhoods, though. A well-build house can last for many generations. But after 50-100 years, everything is so out of style, few people want to live there. A place gets neglected, then abandoned, maybe condemned, and if it doesn't burn down, it'll be torn down and replaced. A few "lucky" remaining structures may finally be put on a Register of Historic Homes. But, really, when I think back over the places I've lived, I can only think of one or two houses that really deserve preservation. The rest are, or were, middle-class ticky-tacky that may survive a few upgrades—replacement windows, upgraded kitchen and bathrooms, a few coats of paint, maybe new siding, and a new roof every ten or twenty years—but will eventually be cheaper to demolish than to refurbish. Sic transit gloria mundi!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

This cat is a little too human

kw: book reviews, crime fiction, mysteries, animals

Ten brothers, former mobsters (mostly); five old desert rats called the Glory Hole Gang; three generations of feline PI; a former priest; a petite redhead with a penchant for sticking her nose where it doesn't belong: Mix all these with a dozen or so supporting cast and a couple of corpses, and you have a great bit of escape literature for my last several evenings. Cat in an Ultramarine Scheme by Carole Nelson Douglas is the 22nd in her Midnight Louie series.

And who is Midnight Louie? He is the Alphacat, in a series that began with an introductory book or two, then settled in to an acrostic run at B and is now up to U. While miss Temple Barr bombs around Las Vegas on purposes of her own, Louie looks out for her. This time, keeping Ms Barr from winding up the third corpse in the case requires Louie to bring in his parents, Ma Barker and Three-o-Clock Louis, and his daughter, Midnight Louise, plus a gaggle of variously distant relatives, as the Cat Pack. It takes all of them, at one juncture, to extract her from the inner sanctum of the mysterious Synth, a cabal of magician-performers, whose most recent "president" is now one of the corpses.

But what is the Synth, really? Why has a European bombshell "favored" them with a visit? What connection do they have with IRA fundraising (and weapons smuggling)? Those questions await answers as the book closes. With the letters V to Z waiting in the wings, I see that Ms Douglas is going way beyond the idea of a trilogy. Perhaps at the end of the viginte-quintilogy all the threads will be nicely tied up.

Well, a few threads do get tied up in this volume, but the story is more about the production of a Mob museum and associated eateries (and drinkeries), an amnesic magician seeking his memories in the locales of his past exploits, and the ongoing question: Who is Temple Barr really going to marry? In these novels, it really is all about her.

I sometimes wonder what a cat is thinking. In the Midnight Louie books, about every third or fourth chapter is in Louie's voice, and he sounds a lot like Sam Spade (Yes, Ms Douglas, I know it is on purpose). I suspect if we could get into a real cat's mind, the thoughts would be rather one- and two-word snippets: Hungry. Chase bird! Out? But it is kind of fun to imagine cats having richer mental lives than their usually stoic faces might let on.

For most mysteries, it is de rigeur to have everything all tied up and brought together, usually in the last chapter. We know life is more iffy than that, and this writer, at least, takes her cue from that. Somehow, the crimes that are solved are satisfying enough. This was a fine read for the rainy nights we've been having.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Done biting my tongue

kw: public service, morality

A friend from Georgia told me of a politician there who, it was found, had hundreds of thousands of dollars stashed inside a mattress in his home. There was shortly a recall election, and he was run out of office. My friend explained, "We sort of expect public officials to be corrupt, but we won't tolerate rank stupidity."

I have refrained from commenting on the idiocy of New York Representative Anthony Weiner, but a few things must be said. I sort of expect congresspersons to be philanderers; it is well known that many of them are. Probably most are. But Weiner's behavior is rank stupidity, even dumber than filling a mattress with cash. There have to be dozens of ways of communicating with targets of one's seductive wiles that are more secure! If this fool can't keep personal secrets—mainly because he can't pick discreet partners—just how safe are the nation's secrets with him?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

We have our cake and it is killing us

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ancient history, civilization

Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization by Spencer Wells is filled with interesting ideas, but all are overshadowed by his Big Idea, that we have yet to adapt fully to the Neolithic invention of agriculture, from which followed cities and "civilization". As though those living hunter-gatherer lives, such as the Hadzabe in Tanzania, were somehow bereft of civil polity.

Looking at the anthropology as a historical flow, we find that the beginnings of "taking charge of the food supply" were followed by shorter lives caused by more infectious diseases, higher rates of mental ailments caused by overcrowding, and more frequent warfare. Looked at through such a lens, modern life is seen as an early stage in the adaptation of the species Homo sapiens to a kind of life that is a mere 10,000 years old. We haven't evolved enough in a mere 0.01 million years for our bodies and brains to be more than a little adapted, and even our cultural evolution is clearly not yet up to the task.

I have read of Daniel Boone, in old age, being encountered with most of his possessions in his pack, "Moving out," as he told his friend. Why was that? He had seen the smoke of a new chimney no more than two miles from his cabin. "Neighborhood's getting crowded. Time to move on." Then there are a couple of PBS videos of men living (mostly) solitary lives in wilderness settings, where they had to provide everything for themselves. Of course, in one case, the man had obviously accumulated enough money to purchase ammunition, flour, and certain tools via a pilot who made a supply run once or twice yearly. Now if he was smelting his own iron and brass, manufacturing his own black powder, and so forth, maybe planting and milling wheat, I'd be more impressed.

At the other end of the spectrum are people like my son and some of his friends, who love spending time in New York City, and those who love living there (I visit Manhattan once or twice per decade, whether I need to or not). Then in the middle, people a little more sociable than I am, people who get along comfortably in an urban or suburban setting, working at a sedentary job, shopping for all their needs, and as far as subsistence goes, maybe growing a tomato plant or two more for fun than anything.

But all this is in the Western world. In developing countries, where a family has to produce a lot more because there is so much less to buy, there is still a strong connection with others in a setting that is quite settled. The biggest element that defines "civilization" as the author means it in Pandora's Seed is land ownership, and by extension, private property of all kinds. Hunter-gatherer bands are communes by default. They take care of one another if they are to survive. A farm run by a single family may have strong communal elements, but communal living is quite antithetical to agricultural life (The experience of the Hutterites notwithstanding; they are communal by group law, not of necessity). Even more, urban life requires private property.

We are part way—may ten percent—through our transformation into a wholly "civilized" species. The domestication of nature is partway done. The "Pandora seed" of the title was either a grain of rice or wheat. Maize came later to complete the triumvirate of grains that now feed the world. These and other "staple" plants such as potato, taro and breadfruit have become total artifacts. When is the last time you went into the woods to collect wild berries to make jam, or gathered roadside asparagus or wild mushrooms? Wild plant foods make up a tiny fraction of a percent of most of our diets.

For the carnivores among us (most of us), the proportion of wild food is even less. I have known one family that hunted their entire meat supply. I, for one, think we ought to arm the population and add a lot more venison to our freezers; at least here in the midst of the Boston-Washington Megalopolis, most gardens are being devoured by deer! That's a species we have over-protected. Back to the point, the most common source of wild food for many, many of us is fish. And that too is changing.

I am a really bad fisherman. In the past nearly sixty years, I have caught and eaten no more than ten wild fish: trout, crappie and catfish. Many people I know love to fish, and have a fish fry regularly. We buy fish every week or two. But in the past ten years, the salmon in the supermarket has changed over from nearly all wild to nearly all farmed. Salmon is comparatively easy to farm. The next easiest it Tilapia. Only tuna, flounder and other "whitefish" are caught wild. I suspect in another ten or twenty years, there will be very little wild fish available to buy, and that at high prices. Maybe one day the fish will come back the way the deer have over the past century!

The side effects of all this civilization upon us are profound. Infectious diseases are largely diseases of crowding. We are near the end of less than a century of "miracle drugs". We will soon find out just what civilization without antibiotics is really like; it is why in the 19th Century the average life span in the West was about thirty. Cleaning up the water supply starting in the 1880s pushed it to about fifty by the time Sulfa drugs and Penicillin were discovered. It is likely to drop back towards fifty for our grandchildren, unless we discover a new kind of anti-microbial therapy.

Secondly, many of us are living on Prozac or Zanax or Abilify. Even those who are not on antidepressants are using large amounts of caffeine to stave off the ennui of the "hurry and wait" style of life. A symptom, a reaction, to this is the rise of fundamentalism, to which Wells devotes much of his last chapter. A modern, "civilized" life is a life based on logic and facts. The pre-agricultural life included much more story. We have replaced the nightly story circle with the movie theater, wall-size TV, and various personal screens (laptops, phones and PDA's, all of which are now entertainment centers for solo use).

A side point: I'd like to see Olympic-class events for poets, storytellers and songwriters. The coffee-shop environment tends to keep them out of the limelight.

Story brings in an element of myth. While the Christian and Islamic fundamentalists do no think of their scriptures as myths, the fact that they are primarily story cycles reveals that they use the tools of myth-building to convey their message. It is remarkable that the Christian Old Testament (the Hebrew Torah plus Prophets) is composed of story cycles based on the lives of herders who were making the early transition to citified life, while the Christian New Testament, though it has stories aplenty, is characterized by reasoned argument and logical analysis by a small number of very citified writers. These two collections illustrate the transition from story to essay.

As the book winds down (rather abruptly), Wells encourages us to seek "a new mythos", a new kind of story that will fit better into a world that is becoming more finite. We really have but one choice: we will most definitely reduce our consumption of energy and material, whether we do it willingly or by a supply-and-demand spiral that leaves "modern" civilization a tattered memory.

Friday, June 10, 2011

More mileage per milestone

kw: business, work

I've just finished a week-long slog through a file of more than 600 documents that needed to be quickly indexed. It was one of those projects than a former supervisor was talking about when she said, "You don't have to like it, you just have to do it."

I am blessed with a job that is usually enjoyable. That generally includes the indexing. There is always something interesting to read along the way, for the reports I index are usually a result of hot research projects. From time to time, however, there isn't the luxury of time for a report-by-report, detailed analysis. When we get a whole slug of related reports, such as from a technical conference, or when a collection is to be archived, bulk techniques are needed. Clicking along at ten or twenty reports per day won't do.

This week was such a case: the collected proceedings of a technical conference. The authors had been required to add a list of suggested key terms to their abstracts. A few of them are familiar with our controlled vocabulary for indexing, but most just put whatever was meaningful to them. It was my job to turn these into "official" terms, plus pick a term or two from the title or abstract that the author may have passed over, but that we IS folks prefer to capture.

One helpful technique was to sort the suggested keyterms into unique strings. That reduced 2,880 items to 1,850. A check using various stemming techniques against the official concept list netted 400 hits, so I only had to run through 1,450 "by hand". Four days. Then a day spent running through the abstracts for "missed" terms, sorting everything back in, and I am done. This'll get my numbers up for the month! I'm going home for a nap.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

We now have one S

kw: history, historical linguistics, typography

In the original manuscript of the Bill of Rights, the word "Congress" is seemingly spelled "Congre⌠s" or even "Congrefs" to many eyes. That funny letter before the final "S" is the "Medial S" and was used everywhere except where S was the last letter, prior to about the year 1800. There are plenty of discussions of the medial S available, and that isn't my point here anyway. Rather, it is that with the help of the Google Labs Ngram tool, we can see the change take place.

As the Google Labs people explain in their "About Ngram" information, the medial S in older documents was OCR'd to an F, so that we need to be wise when searching older documents. Here is a search for both "wish" and "wifh":

You can actually see the change take place. You can also see that the medial S seems to have arisen about 1630 but become common only after 1660. Either Google is fixing older books' renderings, or only the common S was used in the oldest books.

By making a run with "wish,wifh,desire,defire" (not shown), I found that "desire" (+"defire") has a rather steady frequency going back to 1600, but, as we see here, "wish"+"wifh" grew from a low level early on prior to 1800. Since about 1800 the two words have very similar frequencies.

Does the downslope from 1850 to 2000 indicate a reduction in wishfulness? Further study may ferret that out.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Are the best among us good enough?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, genetics, altruism, biographies

How do you know you are good? Of course, everyone thinks they are good, or at the least, better than "that guy over there." But can it be measured? And if so, what does the measurement mean?

Altruism is the central puzzle of human existence. Why are so many people so good to others so much of the time? Is it just because our parents so often admonished us to "play nice"? Why would they do that? Is it because of the Bible (or Q'uran or the Vedas), or whatever god we believe in? Pushing it off onto a god or another generation doesn't answer the question, though.

In some human groups, we cannot expect even tolerance beyond a certain level of relatedness. When my father's cousin was a missionary in New Guinea in the 1950s, the missionaries found that, when two strangers met in the forest, their first priority was to find out if they were related. Only if they could establish kinship could they escape the obligation to fight to the death. This xenophobic/xenocidal tendency made it rather difficult for the missionaries, clearly not related to anyone, to survive early encounters with the native people. They had to earn their trust by being very, very good to them!

Another side is found in an old letter:
6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
There is a big caveat here: Christ could get away with it, because He could rise from the dead! But the puzzle is clear: why offer your life for that of another, no matter how "good"?

Somehow, that is what Dr. George Price did, or at least, what he thought he was doing. Sometime before the morning of January 6, 1975, this scientist and humanitarian took his own life with a pair of scissors; for mixed motives, surely, but at least partly because of altruism, thinking his passing would be better for others. Having experienced a religious conversion several years before, then a deeper conversion (to the point he considered the earlier one was "false"), he'd been living among the homeless, giving away everything, eventually squatting in a decaying tenement. He had decided to care a little more for himself, so he wrote to others, but in the end, for reasons truly shrouded in mystery, he removed himself from this life. His biography, and a "biography" of his times, are detailed in The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness by Oren Harman.

I have long held that we are dealt a hand at birth, pick up a few more cards here and there through life experiences, but are responsible for the way we play the hand. George Price's hand seems to have been a single ace and four twos, and little he did in life yielded anything stronger than a trey. I know something of myself: when it comes to significant projects, I am a great opener but a poor closer. I have learned how to complete some things, if not all (and it has been hard learning!). Dr. Price was a much poorer closer, and it doesn't seem he ever learned better. One way to look at his life is that he started with a premium-quality brain and a good education, but worked his way down the ladder of success, finding rungs lower than most of us can imagine. Yet by his own report, he was happiest during the homeless years, giving his all for others. How do you count success?

George Price was curious about goodness very early on, and his most significant achievement is uncorking the mathematics of the progress of natural selection, now embodied in the Price Equation:

I am in no way competent to explain this equation. Please refer to the Wikipedia article Price Equation for a derivation and examples. In a very simple way, I can say that the first term is a covariance relationship among genetic variables, and the second is an expectation expression that sums up the faithfulness with which each trait is passed to the later generation. This is a difference equation (notice the delta), so it expresses the increase or decrease of fitness in an aggregate of "genetic vehicles" (which may be individuals, groups, or populations, or a mix), from one generation to a later one.

Though he derived it, he didn't know how to use it. His collaborations with other scientists led to useful results that are just now bearing fruit; see work by Bill Hamilton, for example. I see these collaborations as a "face card" or two, dealt to him at a few critical junctures. Without them, his work would remain unknown. His goal was to elicit the genetic underpinnings of kindness. He understood early that the brain and its workings are subject to natural selection just as much as the color of our eyes, or indeed, the sharpness of our vision. We can see this from some of our experiences.

In a litter of kittens, including one in which care has been taken to ensure the entire litter has been sired by a single tom, a range of personality is seen. One kitten will be more adventuresome, another more cautious; some play nicely by "kitten rules" and keep their claws in, but others are rougher; some like being handled by humans, while others are more standoffish; and one female will make a better mother than her sister, being more prone to fighting off enemies rather than abandoning them to run away.

In the same way, people's children differ, sometimes so much so that people suspect "the mailman" got involved. I've written before of a family I know well. The older boy turned out kind, gentle, and a real achiever. The younger one has spent most of his life since age sixteen incarcerated, and I've never detected a trace of conscience in him. This latter man is very, very unlikely to exhibit altruism. But most people seem to be kind by default, even when they have been wronged (of course, remember the proverb: Beware the anger of a patient man).

No matter what else he was working, on, George Price sought to puzzle out just how "determined" such differences are. This led to internal quandaries, for we seldom know our own minds much better than those of others. Am I being kind so someone else will be kind to me? Do I hope to get some advantage, or even a lover? Considering that civilization depends on some minimum level of tolerance and kindness to strangers, just how selfish are our actions, even the most seemingly altruistic?

Throughout the book, the author takes pains to present the multitude of scientists and other players in both their professional and personal aspects. As he writes, "…the people doing science, their backgrounds, historical context, family histories, education, political views, religious affiliations, temperament—all play a role." Science is done by people. Such an insight is a most valuable attribute of this biography. Oren Harman has said it much better than I could.

And I know I could never do what George Price did, on a human level. I like my comforts, and though I claim to follow Jesus, I've yet to follow Him to a slum. It is unlikely that I shall. I find it more "convenient" to share alms through those who are more capable of navigating the slum, such as Salvation Army or a mission church. But really, why give alms at all? This is a question that no equation can answer. George Price did what he could, both as a scientist and as a humanitarian, to discern the meaning and origin of altruism. We have much to learn from him.

Monday, June 06, 2011

More oil on the hedge

kw: gardening, hedges, pests

As I reported last May, I sprayed our hedge with horticultural oil spray to control privet rust mites. The trouble with them is, by the time you discover they are there, they've already done most of the damage they are going to do this season. So here it is, June, and I ought to have re-sprayed a month ago. The spraying last year reduced the problem a lot, but not completely. I spent a couple hours Sunday afternoon spraying, in hopes it would do some good this year.

I noticed on the back of some affected leaves, larger critters, barely big enough to see without magnification, and faster moving. Further digging at horticultural web sites got me an identification: privet thrips. Fortunately, they are also susceptible to oil spraying, but a heavier dose is recommended. As it happens, I did use a heavier dose this time.

We decided to put this on our calendar for next year, in early May: spray again and see what arises in June.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Fun with words and history

kw: words, wordplay, history, graphics

Google has a useful and fun tool in its Ngram viewer! At the URL shown, a page opens up with a couple of sample words already loaded, and the default time limits set from years 1800 to 2000. For this first graph, I reset the first date to 1600 and put in a couple of words I know are historical and nearly out of use: thee and thou:

You'll need to click on these images to see all the detail. They are reduced to about 45% here. Those who are familiar with thee and thou know they are the archaic singular pronouns for "you". In this graph, we see primarily the references in literature that use Shakespearean language (the language of the King James Bible), up to the early or middle 1700s, and later on primarily those found in literature that quote the KJB or early versions of Shakespeare. Many modern printings of Shakespeare's works have replaced thee and thou with you, and removed numerous other archaisms.

While there is lots a person can do with the Ngram tool, I'll just introduce the possibilities with another example. First, I changed the collection from "English" to "English Fiction", set the smoothing factor from 3 to 1, and then put in the name of three major cities in which I've spent some time (eleven years, in the case of L.A.):

This is interesting. San Francisco is the most-mentioned city of the three prior to 1910, then New York City is neck-and-neck with it for thirty years; this is followed by NYC dropping out as L.A. rises, to run equal with S.F. after 1970. "So," I thought, "let's add the best-known Midwestern city, Chicago.":

What a difference! Since about 1870, Chicago has been by far the most-mentioned of these four, in English-language literature. To keep this short, I'll refrain from adding graphs for overseas cities, but as a hint for the US-centric: London is mentioned at least twice as often as Chicago, every year, and at that same level, steady, going back 250 years or more.

In a part of the web page that I didn't show, you are offered the chance to download portions of their word index to do your own larger-scale experiments. There's your chance to try this experiment with dozens of cities, or word groups of your choice.

Friday, June 03, 2011

From a pyramid to a pie chart

kw: food, government programs, history

The USDA branch of government has been dumbing down their advice to us for nearly a century. They mean well. As America urbanized after the Great War, while public health in general improved, chronic diseases began showing up more frequently, and peoples' average weight trended upward, prompting some in government to "do something about it."

They began issuing "food guide" advice in 1916, and settled on "four food groups" in 1956: meat, dairy, grains, and fruits & veggies. Various versions of the list were fashioned until 1992, when they went graphic and the first Food Guide Pyramid was issued:

There are six categories in this pyramid: grains at the base, fruits and vegetables in separate boxes at the next level, then dairy and meats above, and finally dietary fats, to be used "sparingly", as though meats contained no fat.

This worked during the years that people worked, by which I mean a predominance of physical labor. But bread, the "staff of life", has been found to be the foundation of fat for the sedentary. With the spread of the "service economy" and the "information economy" has come the spreading of our bottoms.

I don't know what year this version came out, but it was in the mid 1990s. In a way it is more complex, but it is an attempt to refocus our attention away from the "bad carbs" (potatoes and bread) to "good carbs" (beans, lentils and other legumes) and to emphasize even more greens and fruits. Note also the fillip to multivitamins and a glass of red wine for the heart.

Why the addition of a multivitamin? In older literature we read of people having "an ordinary four-pound meal", then working until sundown at hard labor. If you are burning 4,000 calories as you work, you can afford to eat a lot. For less strenuous occupations, the standard became 2,000 calories for "wholly sedentary workers" and 2,400 for those that do at least a little physical labor, or at least work out a couple times a week. It's a simple equivalence: half the total food equals half the natural vitamin sources, so it is more likely you'll need a multivitamin. And what happened? We still got fat.

As I recall, this version arrived in about 2000, or a year or two later. Now the proportions are shown by the widths of the triangles, and the importance of exercise was introduced.

In my experience, observing others' and my own behavior, this became the most-ignored promotion ever. It exemplifies the adage, "If you make it truly idiot-proof, only an idiot is willing to use it." True idiots couldn't figure it out, and the rest of us were too insulted to care what the USDA thinks.

So this morning, all the pyramids were discarded in favor of a pie chart. Meat is not mentioned, I suppose to avoid offending vegetarians. "Protein" is in its place (Never mind that every food group contains some protein). The biggest section is Vegetables. Dairy gets its own mini-circle.

It's too bad they didn't keep some indication of exercise, because that is the key to health. It is hard to keep physical work and labor and exercise as a part of daily life in a sedentary occupation. In the absence of the downright exhausting level of labor most people used to undergo, sure we are going to get fatter.

Human nature ensures two things: most people eat a lot because eating is enjoyable for most of us; and most people avoid exertion because it is so much easier to do more enjoyable things. A few people actually enjoy working out. A few people actually become satisfied with a small amount of food. There are genetic differences among us because of all kinds of differences in the way our ancestors lived, and natural selection fitted various populations to the prevailing lifestyle. For the majority of us, with less strenuous lifestyles overall, our "human nature" leads to overweight or obesity, and our taste in foods often unbalances our diet.

The basic question to answer, then, is "Why make myself uncomfortable when I can afford to be comfortable?" In the West, at least, most people can afford a surfeit of food, and most can afford to make a living without breaking a sweat. We eat more because we can, and we exercise less or not at all because we don't need it to make a living. No plate or pyramid or other top-down advice is going to change that. We do what we want. When we want better health, badly enough, we'll find a way to get better health, even if by then "optimum health" has gone quite out of reach. It is the way we are.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Of a hundred all is made

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, chemistry, elements

If you were to touch molten aluminum, you'd lose some skin, at the very least. But there is an aluminum-like metal, about twice its density, but less dense than pewter or tin, that you can hold in your hand, where it will gradually melt into a shiny puddle. It isn't mercury, but gallium, and it melts at just under 30°C, or 85.6°F. This makes it amenable to a chemist's practical joke. Cast an ounce or two of it into a teaspoon, and bring it out with a serving of tea on a cool day. When your friend attempts to stir in some sugar or cream, the spoon will vanish into the tea! Do stand by, and prevent your friend from drinking the tea at that point; gallium is not strongly toxic, but ingestion is a rather bad idea.

Thus the title of the book, The Disappearing Spoon: and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, by Sam Kean. While early sections of the book introduce the elements and the periodic table and its history in a pretty regularized way, most of the book is a cross between rummaging through the intellectual attic and a topical, eclectic story-fest that manages to introduce us to every element by the end. That includes the newest members, Roentgenium (Rg; 111) and Copernicium (Cn; 112), and some others that, though long known, have never been seen, such as Francium (Fr; 87). In the latter case, a visible amount of the element's most stable isotope, 87Fr223 with a half life of but 22 minutes, would probably kill you within the first few seconds of viewing. It is 38 million times as radioactive as Radium.

Fortunately, most elements are more prosaic, frequently with lively or even colorful chemistry, but with little tendency to strike you dead upon sight. The regularities in the elements' chemical nature underpin the structure of the periodic table. Ever wonder why it is called "Periodic"? Even many who have taken a chemistry course or two may not be clear on this. Here is a blank table, such as those used for dreaded quizzes, because the clues are in the table's shape:

The term "periodic" stems from the regular repetition of chemical properties as you advance through the elements. There are eighteen columns to the main table, plus fourteen in the added double row below. If those were inserted where the little gap is near the bottom, the table would have 32 columns. But it is the way in which each pair of rows lengthens that reveals something that is only explained by quantum electrodynamics—and by "explained", I mean the "what" of it, not the "how" or "why", which remain wholly mysterious.

In all the natural elements, and in all fabricated elements up to number 120, electrons are nested in shells and sub-categorized into four kinds of sub-shells called orbitals. The rightmost column in the periodic table contains those elements which have completely filled shells, while the first column contains those with completed shells, plus one electron. This lone electron gives these elements a strong similarity; they can rip the oxygen right out of water, and as you go down the column, they get more violent about it. But the elements with filled electron shells will have none of it. Only a few of them, under extreme duress, have been persuaded to form fragile compounds. Ordinarily they are aloof from chemistry, and are called the noble gases as a result.

The odd shape of the table is due to the way orbitals enter the picture; each has a letter with historical import, and a capacity for a finite number of electrons. They are designated s (2 electrons), p (6 electrons), d (10 electrons) and f (14 electrons). These letters are based on an old spectroscopists' convention, in which spectral lines caused by electron jumps that terminate in the various orbitals are denoted "sharp", "principal", "diffuse", and "fundamental". Highly-excited gaseous atoms can have even higher orbitals, which are just called g, h and so forth. But no known elements fill such orbitals in a stable state (yet).

From the second row onward, the s and p orbitals together form the "valence shell" that controls the principal chemical nature of the element, though the presence of other orbitals in deeper shells modifies it. Thus, row 1 contains just two elements, hydrogen (H; 1) and helium (He; 2), with only s electrons. The next eight elements fill first the s orbital then the p orbitals (there are three, each holding just two electrons, to total the six mentioned above). The following eight elements repeat the pattern.

After elements 19 and 20, however, the pattern changes. For reasons unknown, but mathematically explained by quantum mechanical equations, the five d orbitals "want" to be filled first, before the p orbitals. This pattern occupies the fourth and fifth rows. Then in the sixth row, we find that the f orbitals (seven of them) get filled first, then the d orbitals, then finally the p orbitals. The seventh row is the same. All those elements that occupy the middle ten columns characterized by d orbital filling are called "transition metals", because their chemistry makes a transition from oxidizing at one end to reducing at the other. The lower section, two part-rows of fourteen columns, are called first "rare earths" above then "rare earth-like" below, and have such similar chemistry that obtaining any of them as the pure element is nearly impossible (a mass spectrometer is the most effective method).

The table shown has room for 118 elements. To date, 112 have been unambiguously found or produced. Scientists, and the author, have speculated about finding quasi-stable elements with atomic numbers (proton number, in other words) greater than 118. What happens in the eighth row, assuming enough of an element could be accumulated long enough to scope out its chemistry? Here is a point that I've never seen discussed. Element 119 will have a single s electron in its eighth shell, and 120 will have two. Then what? Here, quantum mechanics predicts the intervention of a new orbital, which we can call g, still following the spectroscopists. Assuming the nine possible g orbitals all fill first, before the f orbitals get any electrons, there will be the need for another "moat" of length 18, below what is already shown. Were the table to be assembled with all elements in order, it would at that point be fifty columns wide.

How far can it go? As the author explains, the velocity function of the electron is described by a "fine structure constant", which has a value just a whisker greater than 1/137. Once the number of electrons surrounding an atom reach this number, the electrons in the innermost s orbital will need to exceed the speed of light! Maybe so, maybe not. I suspect people now living will be around when elements with atomic numbers approaching 137 are synthesized. Whether such elements are possible or not, the attempt will cause rewriting of our physics books.

That is quite a digression from a few opening chapters, plus a little speculation on my part. Most of the book is the stories of how all this was put together, by Mendeleev and others, and even more how various elements have played a role in world events, or declined to do so. Consider Ruthenium (Ru; 44). A white metal very similar to its neighbor silver, (Ag, 47), though harder, it was considered useless until the Parker Pen Company decided to produce a really luxury fountain pen, the Parker 51, with a gold nib. Gold is soft, so the very tip was an alloy of 96% Ru and 4% Iridium (Ir; 77), which hardened it further. So far as I know, its only other uses are as a minor alloying element, and it is seldom considered essential. While the Parker 51 didn't change the world, it was "the" accessory of every powerful person from 1944 until fountain pens were superseded by ball point pens a generation later.

The elements that changed the world the most, uranium (U; 92) and plutonium (Pu; 94) are known primarily for their damaging potential, as the stuff of bombs. Yet they (nearly all U) quietly drive a couple of hundred power generation plants around the world, keeping the air conditioners of millions of people running.

The topical sections of the book cover the gamut of human history and endeavors. While the "heavy metals" such as lead are in the news these days (can you believe we used to burn a lead compound with our gasoline?!?), there is a "poisoner's corner" from arsenic (As; 33) down and to the right, that contains the really bad actors. Arsenic sits below nitrogen (N; 7) and phosphorus (P; 15), such that its chemistry allows it to substitute for phosphorus when it gets into us, gumming up the energy-producing machinery that keeps us alive. This is because the As ion is larger than the P ion, so things get stuck. Interestingly, below arsenic we find antimony (Sb; 51), which is reasonably safe to handle, and used to be used in type metal. It and gallium (Ga; 31) are the only two metals that freeze into a solid less dense than the liquid. The Sb atom is too big to substitute for P, so it doesn't poison us the way As does. Next down we find bismuth (Bi; 83), so innocuous it is safe to ingest (there is a lot of it in Pepto-Bismol!). By the way, the most stable isotope of Bismuth, 83Bi209, was recently found to be very slightly radioactive, but with such a very long half life—between ten and twenty billion billion years—that a gram of it will experience only about one decay per day.

The next column over is just the reverse. Oxygen (O; 8) and sulfur (S; 16), which are required for life, sit just above selenium (Se; 34). A tiny bit of selenium is an essential nutrient, at least for most mammals. But a lot of it damages the brain, leading to the designation of Se-bearing plants as "locoweed". But cattle love it, preferring the great high it gives, even as it kills off the brain. Ingested selenium also smells bad, so that it is sometimes called "stinkelenium". Next below Se we find tellurium (Te; 52). Not too toxic, but just a little of it will give you such stinky breath and bad BO that it will be years before your social life recovers. Then, next down, there's polonium (Po; 84). Always radioactive, with a very short half life and thus very strong activity, it is easier to make this stuff these days than to extract it from uranium ore. It was named in honor of Poland by Marie Curie, but the world simply yawned. Poland has usually not even been there, though these days it looks like it'll endure for a while. But polonium became famous when it was used to poison a former Soviet spy. A few micrograms sprinkled on some sushi were all it took to do him in.

I guess I simply have to wrap up. This is one book I could go on reading, if only it were longer (It is only 376 pages, endnotes included). I have a really geeky desire to repeat all the stories, but it is for the author to shine, not me. I had to slow myself down so as not to miss things. It is a real page-turner. The introductory chemistry that starts the book eases any reader into the meat of the book, so I am sure it is accessible to an audience much wider than chemistry addicts like myself. More than any popular book about chemistry, it shows how chemistry is geometrical in nature (remember that bit about "big" arsenic messing up the phosphorus works). This is even more true of organic chemistry, which is only slightly touched on in this book (hint to Sam Kean: You could do book after book about interesting families of organic compounds!). Now I regretfully lay it aside to take up the next book on my nightstand.