Wednesday, August 31, 2011

In the grip of our ideas

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, speculative sociology, north american history, ideas

My all-time favorite comic is Calvin and Hobbes. As a child, like Calvin, I was interested in everything, did poorly in school, and had a stuffed tiger, though mine was named Tigger. And, the biggest factor, like Calvin, I lived inside my own head. I still am most simpatico with cartoon characters who have a rich internal life, such as Snoopy in Peanuts or the Red Rascal in Doonesbury (except my own blog happens to be factual).

Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in 1976 (not knowing of the older term mneme), and it was about then that the old term noosphere finally became widespread outside Russia. I read Dawkins' The Selfish Gene before 1980 and the "meme" idea in his last chapter clicked with me. From time to time I've thought about its implications, and wondered just how granular memes are. Now I find a book by someone who has thought it through more thoroughly, and the answer is, very granular indeed, almost atomic, in fact. On the scale gene-cell-tissue-organ-organism-colony, Dawkins wrote that the genes rule. In the noosphere, memes are not ideas, but tiny bits of ideas that come together like the components of an eukaryotic cell.

When you are looking for the origins of things it helps to study an archipelago, preferably one with a short history. The Galapagos Archipelago and its very simplified ecology were the perfect example for a young Charles Darwin. Its endowment of fourteen species of finches exemplify the "natural experiment" in species radiation from a small founding population. Their history was long enough for variants to evolve into species, but short enough that their historical development could be determined.

When Jonnie Hughes, enrapt by memes and the noosphere, was looking for a subject to test his ideas, he realized that his native England had a history much too deep for the history of any ideas to be unraveled. So he and his brother Adam paid an extended visit to the American great plains, where he settled on a collection of "idea species" that could be easily distinguished, occupied a limited geographical area, and had a comparatively short history: Indian tepees (or tipis or teepees). Starting in Minnesota, they drove a few thousand miles, visiting historical sites and museums and attending a powwow or two. Hughes boils down his findings in On the Origin of Tepees: the Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves).

The book is no dry tome of scientific findings. It is an incredibly fun travelogue of the road trip, well spiced with his musings on a great number of subjects related to memes and the noosphere. Rather than dump all the heavy ideas into a weighty introductory chapter or two, Hughes has skilfully woven them into his narrative. In a book full of ideas and about ideas, the method he has chosen manages to pack a ton of content into a package seemingly too small for it, and make it all palatable.

For example, one of the key ideas is the "ancestral flip book". It could have been introduced very early on, but was reserved for Chapter 7. It is a fantastic way to think about our ancestors, generation by generation (one per page), all the way back to the first Eukaryote (or if you are a glutton for punishment, the first cell a couple billion generations earlier). He estimates that the human eukatyotic flip book would have 200 million pages. But, counting at 20 years per human generation (for centuries prior to the 20th), morphing to nine years per ancestral ape or australopithecine, there are about 600,000 generations starting from the split between hominids and proto-chimps.

Such a flip book emphasizes a key feature: it represents a continuous record of breeding success, even though if you were to go back a few tens of thousands of generations, you'd find a creature with which you could not breed (and probably would be unwilling to try). A chapter or two later, such thoughts lead to a discussion of "what is a species, really?". Hughes concludes that, even for large, visible animals such as ourselves, the term species is slippery and ambiguous. Just as the flip book records a gradient through time, and can be divided into a succession of "species" at certain rather arbitrary points, the famous "ring species", herring gulls, are one example of a gradient in space.

It bears discussion, briefly: there are three populations of herring gulls in North America. At their margins, each can breed with the other two, but as they are distributed west to east, the ones on opposite coasts nearly never meet to do so (but they can when brought together). Crossing the Atlantic, we find another "species" of herring gull that can breed with the easternmost American variety. These gulls coexist with, and compete with, a smaller, darker gull, the Lesser Black-backed Gull, particularly in Hughes' home town. But wait; let's return to western North America. Crossing the Pacific, we find another herring gull that can interbreed with the western American variety. A series of gull varieties/species can be traced around Asia to Europe, where they become gradually darker and smaller, until we find, particularly in Western Europe, Lesser Black-backed Gulls! They are herring gulls in disguise, and cannot breed with their competitors, but form one end of a breeding population that rings the Northern Hemisphere and includes those competitors. Do we have one species here or many? Eight or nine names species comprise the whole ring. We find that the word "species" is not sufficiently well defined to be meaningfully applied to herring gulls.

This is even more true of ideas, and that is where Hughes is going with this discussion. Once he sets eyes on a few tepees, he learns they do come in different physical forms. One big division among types is whether the initial setting up is done using three poles or four. With either starting lash-up, you then arrange the rest of the poles (twenty or so) and mount the cover. Then, at the top of the cover there are two smoke flaps, and two methods of holding them open are used, one with a sewn pocket and the other with a hole and pin arrangement. This leads to a worrying matter; are (or were) all four possible arrangements in actual use, or does one kind of smoke flap always go with a 3- or 4-pole foundation?

It turns out not to matter too much. Idea reproduction is not like physical reproduction, where you have to have just one father and just one mother. Even among physical species, there are a few methods of horizontal gene transfer, such as retroviruses, which have recently been called the third sex.

After seeing several varieties of tepee, and in Montana stumbling on the book The Indian Tipi by Reginald and Gladys Laubin, Hughes is able to boil down his thinking into this diagram. He said to his brother that it isn't the origin of all tepees, but "the origin of these tepees." There is a Siberian tent much like a small tepee that probably bears a good resemblance to a true ancestral form. The ideas that were merged to lead to the various types of larger Plains Indian tepees originated of necessity, due to the particular environmental conditions along the eastern front of the Rockies, all across the North American grasslands.

Along the way, there is a discussion of genius, and how ideas originate. Though it may seem that certain ideas spring full-blown from a single mind, Hughes sticks to his thesis, that every idea, like every natural species, has a flip book of ancestors with very small differences from "generation" to "generation". In the case of seemingly giant leaps, such as evolution or relativity, many many generations of ideas were born, competed and died inside a single brain. In Darwin's case, the process took decades (both Einstein and Newton, while each had a seeming burst of ideas in a short period, percolated those ideas for a long time beforehand).

In the long view, it appears that the human brain and human society developed sufficiently to form a noosphere some 200,000 years ago. I would argue that full development required another 130,000 years, until the development of culturally modern humans some 70,000 years ago. Either way, once memes took over, physical evolution slowed down, way down. Mental evolution is so much faster. However, this is a variable process over the world. We need a new word for "mental ecology". Just as certain isolated parts of the world have their own unique ecology, certain human cultures, which may actually encompass a majority of Homo sapiens, occupy an ecology of mind that does not include modern medicine, sanitation, or widespread use of electricity.

In countries that have some aspect of the Western technological culture, life expectancy is in the 70-80 year range for infants and closer to 80-90 for adults. In many "underdeveloped" countries these figures are around 45 years for newborns and 50-60 for adults. Just spelunk around in the CIA World Factbook a bit. These are like different worlds, different mental ecologies. The spread of ideas that originate higher in the "design space" of the noosphere can be very fast indeed, but the ideas have to compete with existing ideas that are comfortable to the people they inhabit. "It was good enough for Grandpa, and it's good enough for me" doesn't refer only to the old-time religion. However, thinking geologically, the spread and continued development of Western culture over the past 2,400 years is astonishingly fast. Whole new species of ideas can arise in a year or two, where physical species take a few thousand to a million years to speciate.

Has human physical evolution stopped? I'd like to think it hasn't. I would like to see us become smarter, wiser, stronger and kinder. There ought to be no place for venality. Solomon wrote that an increase of books was a weariness of spirit. But writing is how memes achieve immortality. Do we have ideas, or do they have us? It is a little of both.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The bid is 8.7, do I hear 10?

kw: news, biology, evolution

Just a week ago (8/23/2011) it was announced by scientists at Census of Marine Life that the new, best estimate of the number of eukaryote species on Earth is 8.7 million, distributed as shown here in a graphic from ScienceDaily.

(Some group the Chromista among the Protozoa. All Chromista are photosynthetic, and colored golden or beige by pigments in addition to Chlophyll a and c, which are green.)

One detail in the announcement is that the estimate is "plus or minus 1.3 million". That is just enough that, if the estimate is a tad low, it could reach as high as 10 million species. I think it very unlikely that the estimate is high, and in fact, I tend to believe that 8-10 million is still quite an underestimate.

A few times (I don't have the references), scientists have fogged an entire tree in a rain forest with insecticide, then meticulously counted and classified every insect that fell out. There are typically 300 species just of beetles, and most of these are reported as "endemic to the tree". That is a dry way of saying that each such experiment caused the extinction of 100-200 species of beetle, because the entire species lived in that single tree.

How many trees are there in a typical acre of rain forest? A hundred or so? Can it be that every square mile of Amazon or Congo forest is host to nine or ten million beetle species? I think it quite possible. Then there are the ant species, and there could be ten or twenty species of little ant that are "endemic" to a single tree. There's another million animals species per square mile.

Yes, I think 8.7 million is still a bit of an underestimate.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hurricane diary 6 - Aftermath

kw: current events, observations, weather, hurricanes

Everybody has been using the line "Goodnight, Irene" from a song nearly nobody alive has ever heard. I am not sure Leadbelly would be pleased.

While the mid-Atlantic region is filled mostly with a sense of relief (except for nine families that suffered fatalities - breathe a prayer for their comfort), New York and New England have huge numbers of power outages, and people facing a week or more without electricity. My son in New Jersey said there are three million without power, though most of them can expect to have it restored in the next two days. The only saving grace here is that the weather will remain temperate, so air conditioning isn't strictly needed.

I don't know what I would do if I had a week or two without electricity. I don't think I would stay elsewhere, because I'd want to be on hand to discourage looting. We would learn how to make the most of daylight hours, as our grandparents did, rising and retiring with the sun. While I have enough vacation time accrued to stay at home, not all of my colleagues are so fortunate. This really brings home how critically dependent we are on the electric grid for our well-being.

For most of us, all is well that ended well. Lend a hand to any neighbor for whom it didn't end as well.

Hurricane diary 5 - New England under the gun

kw: current events, observations, weather, hurricanes

This Intellicast radar map shows that this area is in a dry band behind the storm, which is, as of 8:00 AM, bearing down on New York City.

Upper New York state and southern New England are in the heavy rain. We were told on a newscast that, because Boston will be on the east side of the storm, it will get heavier winds than we got.

My concern is for NYC skyscrapers. The wind may be only 50+ mph (80+kph) at ground level, but it'll be twice that at the fortieth storey of tall buildings. I'll be interested to find out what the anemometer atop the Empire State Building records. I believe it is at the 102d floor.

Hurricane diary 4 - Rainy night

kw: current events, observations, weather, hurricanes

At midnight we turned in, hoping for the best. It was raining hard, and windy, but not a howling wind as I'd expected. I slept fitfully, so I was able to note that at 1:00, 2:30 and just before 4:00 AM the rain continued steady, and the wind the same, probably in the 35-40 mph range. Then I slept until 7:00, and at present there is no rain and very little wind. We didn't lose power, but the news station reports that about 140,000 lost power in SE Pennsylvania and 100,000 in Delaware. This is much better than we expected.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane diary 3 - Rain band 3

kw: current events, observations, weather, hurricanes

The radar at 11:40 PM shows that the third rain band has just passed, and a finger of dryer air has pushed into the region. Rainfall total is approaching four inches.

We are starting to get heavier winds, in the 30-40 range (50-65 kph), though these have died down just now. We still have power (so I have internet).

Hurricane diary 2 - Rain band 2

kw: current events, observations, weather, hurricanes

Rain Band 2 of Irene hit about 5:00 PM, and the rain just stopped about 7:00 PM.

On the advice of friends, we have filled the bathtub with cold water, so we'll have something to flush the toilet with in case power is lost long enough to shut down the water system.

Half an hour ago Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia finished a news conference announcing a state of emergency. Those still in any flood-prone area are strongly exhorted to leave NOW, and everyone else needs to stay indoors.

We live at an elevation above 250 feet, several miles from the nearest river. Hanging in there.

Hurricane diary 1 - Rain band 1

kw: current events, observations, weather, hurricanes

This crop from the Intellicast interactive radar image shows the situation just after the first rain band north of Hurricane Irene passed our area, which is just south of the P in Philadelphia. We had rain from about 2:00 until 3:30 PM.

A glance at the birdbath, which was emptied at Noon, shows a half inch. Its bowl is flat bottomed and the sides are straight, so that is a real half inch. Just a foretaste of what is to come.

The storm's eye is overland in easternmost North Carolina. Its closest approach to the Philadelphia area is expected about 3:00 AM tomorrow morning. If the rain signature of the storm remains the same, the hardest rain will have already fallen by then.

The worry will be the strong winds, with increased impact because of the rain they carry. We're expecting 50 mph (80 kph) steady, with gusts in the 60-70 (95-110) range. Our three big trees are all south of the house, and the winds will be out of the north and northwest, which makes me most concerned for my neighbors.

We have plenty of water and some imperishable foods, so we're ready for at least a couple days without power if it comes to that. We put one car in the garage and moved the other to the end of the driveway farthest from all trees. Tomorrow morning's church meetings are cancelled. Many of our congregants drive 20-40 minutes to get there, and driving might be rather hazardous if there is a lot of wind damage such as downed trees and power lines.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Do we ever know them?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, espionage

If you are a spy, of course you know other spies. If you are not, and you think you know a spy, think again. Nobody outside the espionage community finds out that a spy is a spy until after retirement or betrayal. I have two relatives who spent time in eastern European countries. Only after they retired from the service were they able to tell us a little about it. One was in electronic surveillance, and the other repaired nuclear weapons in a country in which we do not officially have any nuclear weapons.

Neither one was CIA; they were military. That is deep enough. The real spies, the overseas covert operatives, always have an innocuous occupation (journalist, aid worker, construction contractor) as a cover. Reading The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wive True-Life Spy Story by Robert Baer and Dayna Baer, I realized at the end I hadn't even found out much about what the cover was, for either of them.

These were not "James Bond" type spies; there aren't any of those. They were the next best thing. The two wrote alternate chapters of the book about their experiences, and you learn they were both into surveillance (though Dayna was the one with special weapons training, while Bob was a linguist, fluent in Arabic, and a deal maker). It became clear that the most valued skill in a covert operative is the ability to meet people. Cloak-and-dagger stuff is fine for dreaming about, but building networks of trusted people around your untrustworthy self is the crucial skill.

They met in Sarajevo, a place no sane non-spy would go during the Bosnian civil war. Because of this, it takes a pretty good cover occupation just to have a reason to be there. A number of the chapters involve getting in and out of countries where "nobody" is able to leave or enter. It all comes across as quite a lot of seat-of-the-pants navigation, with a stiff dollop of knowing the right people.

I don't know how long either Bob or Dayna worked for the CIA, though it was apparently quite a bit longer for Bob. This story is of their final few years, and is the love story of their falling for one another and leaving "The Company". The cover blurb hints that getting out of the CIA is not so easy. Actually, the problem is internal; Bob in particular was addicted to upheaval. The kind of deals he knows how to make involve people trying to hold on to power, or those trying to oust them. Eventually, he did better as a writer (he has three previous books in print).

The final few chapters relate their adoption of a Pakistani infant. They immediately follow a chapter that took place largely in Syria, which Bob opens with a quote from St. Paul about the bright light that felled him near Damascus. Bob came to a realization that settled him. Without it, he'd not have been ready for the adoption that followed. It is a happy circumstance when people grow in substantial ways, in spite of the fact that growing is typically painful. My best wishes to a couple who beat the odds, and have a good chance of enjoying a long retirement together.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

IIII on the face

kw: clocks

I have several antique mantel and wall clocks, and one new one, all wind-up. Three of them have Roman numerals on the faces, and I've occasionally wondered why so many clocks (not all) use IIII instead of IV to represent 4.

This tower clock in Munich shows what I mean. It also has a funky X, which goes to show that readability is not the point here; everyone knows which numeral goes in which position anyway.

This morning I did a little digging around, and found this FAQ at UBR on the subject. There are a number of explanations offered. Several people propose that IV is the symbol for Jove or Jupiter (IVPITER), and that people didn't want to see a clock that read 1, 2, 3, GOD, 5 …

One of the correspondents, Ray Mialki of alt.horology sums up the most likely idea: economics. Using IIII for 4, the number of symbols on the clock face is 28, 20 I's, 4 V's and 4 X's. When casting the symbols, a clockmaker needed only a single mold thus: VIIIIX. The four castings could then be separated thus:
One of the IX's and the IIX could of course be turned over to be XI and XII. This makes eminent sense to me. Using IV instead of IIII would require a larger number of unique casting blocks, and they were not cheap to produce or purchase.

Of course, not all clocks use IIII. The Westminster Tower in England, a venerable clock to be sure, uses IV. You can get a contemporary clock made with the numerals any way you like. My newest clock happens to have IIII, and I like that just fine.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

When the rocks roll

kw: local events, earthquakes

It is just four hours since I felt my chair shake under me. I work on the ground floor, and from the Philly area the earthquake motion was rather subtle, or so I thought. Then I heard co-workers' voices as some of them left the building. From the third floor the motion was much more disturbing. Within a few minutes we had reports that the epicenter was between Richmond and Charlottesville, VA, and I knew it was rather a big one.

Big for the East Coast, anyway. An earthquake like this one would be considered small in California or anywhere around the Pacific Rim. But there is no active tectonic margin at this end of the continent. The faults that are still able to rupture are old and "sticky". However, we do need to remember that some of the largest earthquakes ever to hit North America were centered in Missouri.

A 5.8 or 5.9 is big enough to do damage near its center, even shift some buildings on their foundations a little. When I took earthquake geology oh, so many moons ago, we were told that the shaking near the epicenter of a 6.0 or 6.1 is as intense as it can get, and that larger and larger earthquakes just spread around the energy over larger areas. So as time goes on, I expect we'll hear at least a few stories of substantial damage from central Virginia.

And all this last few days my main worry has been Hurricane Irene!

Monday, August 22, 2011

A drop of kindness

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, manners

In her blog post for June 16, Dee Garcia rants about the behavior of the crowd in a sports bar. Plenty of bumping and shoving going on, and nobody ever says, "Excuse me." And that is just the start. Are we really a great deal less mannerly than our parents or earlier folks?

Lucinda Holdforth would say that we are, at least in the West, including Australia where she lives. She published Why Manners Matter: The Case for Civilized Behavior in a Barbarous World in 2007 in the UK and dependencies, and in the U.S. in 2009. I would say, rather "Yes and no", because there have been times when rudeness was even more widespread than we see today, and times in which great courtliness was the norm.

This is the first book relating to manners that was not a "how to", prescriptive work. It is instead a book about manners themselves, and why they are not just good but necessary.

People today think that "letting it all hang out" is somehow more genuine. That is true if all that you are is a human animal with an animal's habits and nothing more. Why, you don't even have to speak to live like an animal. Just grunt to warn others to stay out of the way, and take what you want. That'll last until someone has had quite enough and knocks your block off.

Where I work, a course is offered for those preparing to travel overseas for the first time on business, called "Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands?" In Eastern Europe and Latin America, an air kiss is the preferred greeting when you first meet; thereafter two-cheek smackeroos are often expected. Try that in Japan, where a bow is expected, and even close friends may never have had physical contact! And by the way, when presented to a Monarch, do remember to bow or curtsey, as one must never touch a sovereign.

Throughout the book, the author deals again and again with the arguments many make, that manners are somehow hypocritical, or they take up too much time, or that all the rules are hard to remember. Manners do change with the times, making that last point doubly cogent: Do I need to remember different rules of etiquette with each generation, the elderly, the Boomers, generations X and Y? Not really. Kindness and thoughtfulness underlie most mannerly rules. We are just out of the habit of being thoughtful. A thoughtful person will defer to others, yet knows how to make a point in conversation; will acknowledge a kindness, including sending thank-you notes; will remember to say "Please" and "Thank you", without getting too hung up on the niceties of "perfect manners." Nobody is perfect.

And I guess this is the bottom-line lesson. We can make our own day, and the day of those we meet, a little better by some common courtesies. Self-control wins more friends than self-assertion, and "self esteem" is so very over-hyped that it leads to more rudeness than any other single quality. But self-respect leads to respect for others.

It seems that one current trend may lead to more mannerly behavior in the future. Americans are arming themselves, and the two most polite eras in Western history were times in which everyone who could afford to went about armed at all times. In pre-Victorian times, it was de rigeur to carry at least a dagger, and a sword if you had one, and in America at least, the "Old West" was a time that any slight infraction in politeness might be answered with hot lead. In some neighborhoods, if you "diss" someone, you'd better be capable of catching bullets. This is spreading, and there are towns and counties that have passed laws that require citizens to go about armed. When your life depends on your manners, you will suddenly become an etiquette expert!

But I am also reminded of a story that made the rounds a few years back: a man held the door for a woman to enter, and she said, "Oh, you don't have to hold the door for me because I am a lady." He replied, "It is not because you are a lady, but because I am a gentleman." Ms Holdforth's last chapter is titled "Because manners give us dignity". That alone is reason enough. Letting it all hang out may genuinely express our animal nature, but gentlemanly behavior expresses a higher ideal, that we are better than beasts.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


kw: manners, courtesy

I am reading a book about manners (not a book of manners, but about the subject), one which I got at the library. Apparently, someone who previously checked the book out considered it useful as tissue paper upon getting a bloody nose. I have previously encountered library books that were full of dried snot, bread crumbs and sesame seeds, and other debris, but this is my first encounter with blood literally on the pages.

I hope the boor who did this happens across this blog. Dear hopeless fool: are you proud of yourself?

By the way, a bit of my secret is now out. Many of the books I review were borrowed from the local library. At 720 reviews and counting, where would I put the books if I bought each and every one? My shelves are already overflowing, and I've been taking books to the Friends of the Library book sale so I don't wind up stacking them on the floor.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Chimp like me?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, chimpanzees, anthropology

Are we just smarter Chimpanzees, who have managed to master language and fire, and lost our hair? Or are we more like Bonobos (formerly called Pygmy Chimpanzees), or another of the great apes? Or are we wholly unique?

For all the "monkey acts" and movie chimps, very, very few people have seen a mature chimpanzee, on film or face to face. The cute performers that everybody loves are all little more than toddlers. By the time they are eight or nine years old they are much too dangerous to appear with human actors. While the "common wisdom" that an adult male chimp is five times as strong as a human is overblown, the fact is that the average chimp is twice as strong as a well-conditioned human body-builder (Y'know, I'm not well-conditioned, so the chimp probably is five times as strong as I am!).

Also, the notion that chimps, or any of the great apes, are a "good" model animal for the ape progenitor of hominids is simply wrong-headed. Since the hominid line split from the common ancestor that also led to chimps and bonobos, the humans and the chimps have both evolved similar amounts. Call our common ancestor George. Tarzan's pal Cheetah is as different from George as Tarzan is, or we are.

Since Robert Yerkes published Almost Human in 1925, it has become fashionable to humanize chimps. In the view of many we are some mix of unstable, violent, patriarchal chimpanzee and conciliatory, sexy, matriarchal bonobo (the "hippie chimp"). It is simply rampant confusion. Amidst it all, science writer Jon Cohen undertook to find out what is the same, and what is different, about chimpanzees and humans. Because there is so much written about similarities, he chose to lean toward the differences, though he was warned to "be careful" by more than one researcher in the field.

The result of his travels and interviews and investigations is Almost Chimpanzee: Searching for What Makes Us Human, in Rainforests, Labs, Sanctuaries, and Zoos. Throughout the book's twelve chapters, the differences abound. Starting with a possible hybridization episode about five million years ago, genetic differences have accumulated, leading to different markers on our blood (and body) cells, different responses to viruses, and certain markedly different biochemical patterns: a human would starve on a chimp diet of 5-7 kilos of raw leaves and fruits daily and only 1-2% of calories from meat.

While it may be possible for any of the great apes to hybridize, because all have 48 chromosomes, humans have only 46, making hybridization next to impossible. A Russian named Ivanov tried to breed a humanzee, but failed. Our chromosome 2 is cobbled together from 90% of the 12th and 90% of the 13th ape chromosomes, appended end to end. The missing 10% of each has no function yet known, but something is surely missing.

Of course, what people most want to know is how apes think. Efforts to teach them to speak, or use sign language, or use symbolic languages such as Yerkish, have gone on for a century or more. I remember reading a touching article by a deaf woman who reported meeting Koko, the gorilla who knows sign language: "I was communicating with another species in my mother tongue!" Since the longest "sentence" Koko has used is three words ("you tickle Koko"), it must have been a rather limited "conversation". No discussion of Plato or the meaning of existence. The most level-headed researchers seem to have all concluded, a chimp really lives a day-to-day existence. There just isn't much to learn from talking to one. You can exhaust their cognitive repertoire in a half hour or so.

The other thing many people want to know (but are afraid to ask) is how sexy are they, really? A chapter on penis size and sexual habits debunks the notion that ape penises are tiny. The average "hang" for chimp and for human is almost exactly the same, but the testicles differ greatly, because of those "habits". When receptive females are available, a dominant male chimp might have intercourse five to eight times a day, for day after day. Most human males run dry after three days of twice a day (some persistent hedonists might be able to still "get it up", but they're shooting blanks by the third or fourth day). A quick look at the scrotum tells the story: chimp testicles are golf ball size or larger, with five times the volume of human ones.

Yet in the end, the author reports that there is a similarity, even a sameness, that he could feel. Near the end of years of travel and interviews, he had the opportunity to "visit" a group of wild chimps in a research area in Africa. After a few hours of watching them quietly feeding, he simply felt he knew what was going on, the way you or I might feel at a family gathering, where nobody may be saying much, but there is a comfort and kinship there, and you know what is going on. Chimps are social, and people are even more social, and that sociability overlaps in a way that we cannot experience with any other species.

We and chimpanzees, chimps and us: we are too different to be the same, but we're too similar to be wholly alien.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Turn what cheek?

kw: biblical interpretation, altruism

If I hear one more person misapply "turn the other cheek" I may do a bit of cheek-slapping. Let's take a look at the two passages where this concept occurs:
Matt 5:38-42 – You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Luke 6:28-30 – Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.
In both these Gospels, these words appear early in the "Sermon on the Mount", and a verse many people remember is "the meek shall inherit the earth". Consider first "meekness". It does not mean "weak" or "mild". It means "calmly obedient". Obedient to whom? To God, of course, but also to authorities, and Paul expanded on this in his Epistles.

Secondly, look at the key words Jesus uses: "If anyone slaps…" or "If someone slaps…". In most of his discourses about social relationships, Jesus tells how to treat your "neighbor", by which he means how his Jewish hearers were to treat fellow Jews. In the rare instances that he uses "anyone" or "someone", he is including non-Jews, and the principal number of these were the Roman soldiers, the occupying forces.

We tend to forget that Israel at that time was a tributary territory of the Roman empire. Relations between the Jews and the Romans were dicey at best. Authority and power are frequently misused, and resentment builds up to dangerous levels. Several instances of "suppression" by Roman forces are recorded in the Gospels. Now consider, who is most likely to demand your shirt or cloak, or who is likely to compel you to carry his stuff for a mile or so when he gets tired? Your "neighbor" would ask a favor. An oppressing soldier never would, but would make an arrogant demand. If you are slow to comply, a slap results. They considered it attitude adjustment.

A telling passage is found earlier in Luke, when John the Baptist is asked for some advice:
Luke 3:14 – Then some soldiers asked him, 'And what should we do?' He replied, 'Don't extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.'
John got to tell a few soldiers to moderate their own attitude. Jesus told his audience to moderate their own attitude.

Finally, that word "slap". A blow with a closed fist would be described as "smite" not "slap". A slap is intended to shame someone. Whether a Roman or someone else slaps you, Jesus is exhorting his followers to swallow their pride and take the shame. It beats getting smitten! But elsewhere, we see that we are allowed self-defense. Late in Luke, Jesus advises them to carry a sword when traveling. If someone is about to hit you with the fist, about to smite you to do you physical damage, defend yourself.

In the West, at least, we don't have much experience with invading, occupying forces. A weak analogy is being stopped by the police for a traffic offense such as running a light. In such a situation, whether the police officer is righteous or not, do not resist. If you are mistreated, just take notes. Contact your lawyer later. In America at least, assuming you live through the encounter, you can sue for redress later, when you are more physically secure. There is an old song that goes, "I fought the law, and the law won." I take it as the primary application of these verses, that Jesus is telling us, don't "fight the law".

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Half a million and counting

kw: computers, software

Just a quick note on something that has been taking up my time. I've been wanting to analyze asteroid distributions for some time, and I recently began using Office 2010. Excel 2010 is not limited to 65,535 rows the way Excel 2003 is; its default limit is 1,048,575, and there is a way to make that larger.

Last evening I downloaded the Asteroid Orbital Elements database from Lowell Observatory. It took about an hour, being a 143-Megabyte text file. It includes about thirty parameters for more than half a million minor planets. Just opening it in Excel 2010 and getting the columns set up correctly took a while.

I extracted the columns I care about to another workbook, which then had some 34 Mby. I found that my computer is pretty fast, doing trigonometric calculations on the entire set in about three seconds. I don't know what that is in MFlops, but I was impressed.

I have more selecting to do. I'm separating out two data sets, the major part of the Main Belt and the trans-Neptune objects. Then I'll be able to do the statistical work I've been waiting on. The more I use Office 2010 the better I like it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Solar system begins to settle down

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, astronomy, astronomers, memoirs, planets

I grew up with nine planets, like nearly everyone alive today. I didn't learn any fancy mnemonic, but just learned the names right off: Mercury-Venus-Earth-Mars-Jupiter-Saturn-Uranus-Neptune-Pluto. From time to time over the years, a new estimate of the size of Pluto was announced. Once thought to be a very dark object the size of the Moon, it gradually shrank (and its albedo increased), finally settling down to a size of about 1,400 miles; the current figure from images by the Hubble Space Telescope is 1,430 miles or 2,302 km.

In recent years, the discovery of large objects (but smaller than Pluto) in the Kuiper Belt and beyond precipitated a discussion of Pluto's status: Is it a planet or not? (The Kuiper Belt is like the asteroid belt, but composed of icy bodies that are farther from the Sun than Neptune.)

As of mid-2006, Pluto is definitely not a planet; that is, it is defined as a "dwarf planet", a designation that always merits the quote marks, because semantically, "dwarf planet" means "planet of a smaller size" rather than "not a planet at all".

This image from the Wikimedia Commons shows the status of the "dwarf planets" found beyond Neptune as of 2008. Six of these were found by Mike Brown, who was also instrumental in the decision to demote Pluto, though he disagrees with "dwarf planet" at least as much as I do. His memoir How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is a delightful romp through the life of a young astronomer who set out to "find a planet", and was known for just about a year as the first person to find a planet since the 1930s. Bigger than Pluto, and 2.5 times farther from the Sun, the body he provisionally called Xena was called the Tenth Planet for those heady months, until the IAU decided to define "planet" for the first time. It took a few tries to get it right.

The current definition, settled on as the book was being written, includes these factors:
  • A planet circles the Sun, not any lesser body in the Solar System.
  • A planet is large enough to have gravitationally settled into a sphere.
  • A planet gravitationally dominates its orbit, sweeping it clear of other bodies.
There is a bit of a quibble about Trojan asteroids in Jupiter's orbit, and similar bodies in the L4 and L5 regions of other planets, but the fact remains that Pluto shares its orbital region with several bodies of similar size, so it is demoted from planet status based on the third factor.

The book tells two stories. One is the search for planets beyond Neptune, and the other is the courtship and marriage of the author to his wife Diane, and the early years of their daughter's life. Both stories reveal a human side of an astronomer's life that is seldom seen. Astronomy is by its nature a night job, though this has abated somewhat now that professional telescopes are computer driven and gather their images automatically. But if an astronomer is not staying up all night tending a telescope, the midnight oil still gets burned: studying the images, using the information they convey to locate earlier images that may reveal more facts about the object of interest, and tons of book work eat up huge amounts of time. A night's observations can require months to digest and analyze, and long hours are the norm if a scientist doesn't want to get scooped by someone else willing to work longer hours.

Xena eventually got renamed Eris, and a satellite around it was named Dysnomia. Eris is the goddess of discord, and the body is fittingly named for the squabbles that erupted once its discovery was announced. Since about 2008 the larger Pluto-like bodies have been called Plutoids, and a few hundred other Kuiper Belt objects (KBO's) are called Plutinos.

The author conjurs a fantastic image of an alien approaching the Solar System, and noticing first the four Giant planets, led by Jupiter. Then four smaller bodies are seen from closer in, that lie between Jupiter and the Sun (Earth is the third, but the alien doesn't know that). Finally, two bands composed of multitudes of bodies are discerned, one inwards of Jupiter, the asteroid belt, and one outwards of Neptune, the Kuiper belt (plus an outer region called the scattered disk). We then can realize that the eight planets, four big and four small, dominate the System; a few rounded bodies are the largest members of the two belts, and it remains to be seen whether the Kuiper belt plus scattered disk will yield up an even larger body, or several. Eris may have a big brother or two waiting to be found.

Solar System astronomy is healthy and exciting.

P.S. What it takes to find a new Plutoid.
  1. A telescope with at least a meter aperture (Mike Brown used a 48-inch Schmidt at Palomar, first with film, later with digital sensors).
  2. A wide-angle camera with 50-100 megapixels of sensor. This combination can record bodies of Magnitude 18-24 (Xena/Eris was M17 when found).
  3. A half year to a year of observing time, mostly the half-month each month when the moon is the darkest and out of the way.
  4. Fast computer power to compare the millions of points on one day's images with the next.
  5. Gallons of midnight oil, so to speak, because the computer produces "possibles", which an expert human has to verify into a shorter list of "probables", and make extra observations to nail them down.
  6. Time reserved on larger instruments, including the Hubble, if possible, for that nailing down process.
  7. An accommodating spouse; you'll be traveling a lot.
P.P.S. Magnitudes. Take the time to read This Wikipedia article. Briefly, bright stars have small numbers as their Magnitude; "First magnitude" refers to bright stars. The dimmest stars visible to a young person in a dark sky have Magnitude 6 or 6.5. Magnitude is the negative logarithm of brightness, to the base of the fifth root of 100 (about 2.5), so a magnitude difference of 1 is a brightness ratio of 2.5:1 and a magnitude difference of 5 is a brightness ratio of 100. With a 10-inch diameter (250mm) telescope, the dimmest stars visible are magnitude 15. The brightest Plutinos have magnitudes of about 17 or 18, so they are very faint indeed. You'd need a telescope the size of a minibus to see one of them visually.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sleep here - no - how about here?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sleep, science, business

Sleep has become big business, or rather the lack thereof. Though there is a current fad of obstructuve sleep apnea (OSA) research and treatment, insomnia on the one hand, and enhanced vigilance on the other are the bread-and-butter of "sleep disorder" centers everywhere.

Coming from a long line of poor sleepers and non-sleepers, Patricia Morrisroe seems to have slept well when she was small, but it didn't last long. Of course, when you grow up and live in and around New York City, the City that Never Sleeps, you tend to live like the town lives, non-stop, go-go-go. It isn't just "shop until you drop", it is do anything and everything until you drop. Some people do well enough in this lifestyle, others don't. When she realized she was like a walking Zombie most days, Ms Morrisroe began to "do something about it." Being a writer by trade, she decided to make the quest meaningful, and possibly a bit lucrative, by writing about it. Thus we have Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia.

She remembered life with a boyfriend whom she calls the Good Sleep Boyfriend (GSB), who is still a friend. His place seemed to have the right combination: quieter than most NYC apartments, comfortable bed, and she remembers sleeping pretty well there. Throughout the book, she remarks about one night or another that she gets plenty of sleep. But all too often, she gets an hour or two early on then spends the rest of the night awake.

Stories of the sundry casual horrors inflicted by Catholic public school nuns eventually prove a major part of the key. She has a worrying kind of personality, and anxiety is a big part of her wakefulness. Discovering that this is the case takes some doing, and then doing something about it is quite another thing. Early on, she tries a few sleep laboratories and medical interventions. The business side of things shows up, in spades. One person she interviewed is Dr. Gary Zammit, who runs the Sleep Disorders Institute in NYC and is a strong proponent of sleep aids such as Ambien or Lunesta. She has a long paragraph about his associations with the drug industry, sleep education organizations, and various clinical groups; he seems to be the poster child for conflict of interest. There is a ton of profit in helping the sleepy get some sleep.

There is, fortunately, a balancing view, by Dr. Charles Pollak, who has shown that "sleep aids" do not outperform placebos. Placebos (sugar pills offered in a comforting manner) do work somewhat, and usually by reducing anxiety. Throughout the book, it becomes clear that the face of modern society wears an anxious expression, including anxiety about being kept awake by one's worries. As an aside, I sleep quite a bit better on Saturday and Sunday mornings, probably because I don't have to face the office upon arising. And I like my job!

I don't know just how long her sleep research lasted. At one point she jokes to her husband about the "stories of 8,001 nights", which comes to 22 years, but this probably dates to her earliest insomnia as a teen. The time was substantial, for they traveled the world, including spending Christmas at the Ice Hotel in northern Norway, 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Trying to sleep in a smelly down bag on a block of ice doesn't seem to have been the right prescription.

Along the way she learned of military research into enhanced vigilance, and the new drugs and techniques being tried to enable soldiers to perform well on "extended missions" of several days, all without any sleep. A traditional army needs sleep as much as it needs good chow, but in modern battles the winners are typically those who can keep fighting while their enemies fall asleep.

It is well known that older people sleep less. It is not known whether they are harmed by this. In her travels, the author meets a number of elderly people who report that they don't sleep much if at all, and are glad of it because they have so much to do anyway. Can it be that a normal pattern is getting relabeled as a disorder? As America's Baby Boomers get into their sixties, they are certainly buying plenty of sleeping pills, and spending their money at sleep clinics. Of course, the Boomers are also getting obese, and OSA is a problem for many of them, one that does need to be addressed (By the way, OSA afflicts a goodly number who are not obese).

The author attended various conferences, of both doctors and alternative practitioners. One of the latter suggested she has to also try meditation, that it helps many. She does, and for her it is the single thing that helps the most. I was impressed while reading that Ms Morrisroe is not the kind to try something three or four nights before deciding if it works. She will try for a month or more. Her odyssey with meditation extends over a year, and is continuing, for it helps reduce her anxieties, and thus sleep the night, or even fall back to sleep when she awakens in the middle of the night. It is ironic that after traveling worldwide, she finds her answer two blocks from home at the local Y.

I personally could not meditate, at least not the Sanskrit way (Om mane padme Om. . .). It would kick off so many religious anxieties in me as to be counterproductive. But reducing anxiety has much going for it, and Jesus exhorted His followers, "Do not be anxious." I have many colleagues who work from home some part of the day, and a number who get their e-mail out of the way before coming to the office for an ordinary 8-hour day, then doing more work from home in the evening. It is like having two jobs! I've made it clear that I do not work from home, and I leave the company laptop locked in a cabinet in the office when I am not there. I think I get as much done as they do.

That is the takeaway message for me: be satisfied with what you can do in a normal day's time, and don't sweat the small stuff. For the author, it took a round-the-world tour to stumble over this. We can benefit from her experience. If meditation can reduce your anxiety, it is worth trying. If something else, then do that. I'm learning to look beforehand: will this make me worry more, or less? Can I do without the worry? When I sleep as well on an "office night" as on a weekend, I'll consider that a success.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Just use the generic backup

kw: product testing, backup software

I do very few product reviews, but I just gotta do this one. The short report: The hardware is good, the software is not. Read on.

I bought a Toshiba Canvio 0.5TB external drive, which comes with NTI Backup Now EZ software for you to install on your computer. I did so on my Lenovo laptop and my homebrew ultra-fast desktop.

They do try to make the software easy to use. It presented me with two possible backup jobs, one a total system image, the other a backup of the document files gleaned from everywhere. On the Lenovo I chose the second option, and changed its direction a little, but left most settings default. Bottom line: it ran for ten hours, backing up 26 Gby of files.

I was a little bothered by that, but I decided to try it with my faster computer. This time, I pointed it at the C drive documents, and also the entirety of an external drive where I keep large files and archives. The total backup volume was 64 Gby. I also upped its "impact" setting to the maximum, for fastest backup. Early feedback from the program indicated that I was in for about a twelve-hour wait. After 12 hours, it was 97% done, but then it sat there. There is another feedback indicator that I could watch to see how frequently the next 10-Mby chunk was copied over. This was going slower and slower, so when it reported 98% done after four more hours, I aborted the program using Task Manager. There is no way provided by the NTI software to cut a backup short.

Of course, this trashed the backup folder, but I will just delete that. Here is what I did next. I plugged the drive back into the Lenovo and started the Backup utility provided with Windows XP. I allowed me to set up a destination folder on the Toshiba drive, and took off. It finished in 28 minutes. Almost 1 Gby/min.

There is one caveat with a Canvio drive. They are USB powered. Some low-power laptops limit the amount of power a drive can draw through a USB port. Then you have to buy a $8 cable that uses two USB ports so the drive can run.

The bottom line: Use the Windows utility. The NTI software is rated "Not Acceptable" by Polymath-at-Large.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Can you get it back together?

kw: analysis, synthesis, philosophy

When I was about seven, my father gave me an old, but working, windup alarm clock, with instructions to see if I could get it all apart, then put it back together. I had a much harder time than this tot, shown in an advertising pic from Wee Baby Stuff. It took two kinds of small screwdrivers and a pair of pliers, and there were a lot of gears. Fortunately, it was the single-drive design, so there was only one mainspring, rather than a separate spring for the alarm, so I needed only one mainspring clamp, thoughtfully supplied by my father.

I managed it, over a period of several days, and when it was all together, it ran, keeping time and ringing at the right times. I was sure proud of myself. It was years before I learned the lesson behind the task. To dismantle something and see how it works is one thing. To put it together without losing some necessary function is quite another.

The lesson sunk in years later when he and I rebuilt the engine of my old VW Bug, a 1964 model with the 1300CC engine. We had little trouble (just a bit of grunting) lifting and tilting the engine to get it out, and it didn't take long to get the block split open and take all the parts out. What tools we didn't already have, such as ring spreaders, we fabricated. We made the (wrong) strategic decision not to change the crank bearing inserts. The reassembled engine ran fine, but overheated badly, and we had to take it back apart to replace the worn bearing inserts, and carefully set up the spacing so they would not bind.

This illustrates the most common human activities, analysis and synthesis. Simply speaking, "ana" means "apart" and "lysis" means "cutting"; "syn" means "together" and "thesis" means "combining". Getting a clock or engine apart and back together is one thing. Doing so with human relationships is quite another. If we were to literally analyze a relationship, it would be destroyed, until we synthesized it again, if that were possible. So we use mental maps instead.

Just to get a small clock apart and back together requires a good memory of what pieces were next to one another during disassembly. Parsing the character of a friend or relative also requires having some kind of mental map of their reactions to various things. This parsing is analysis; we "figure out" how someone will react, as best we can, then we relate to them in a way that we hope will make the bad good and the good even better. The things we "put together" to do that relating constitute synthesis. Comparing our expectation, or hope, with the actual outcome, we learn, meaning we add more details to the mental map.

Sometimes the clock goes back together in good working order. Sometimes it does not. For people who have a good grasp of social variables, dealing with others seems almost effortless. For others, it can be a chore. The reverse seems to be true when it comes to mechanical, technical, even scientific endeavors. Some people have a good grasp of the way things work, whether microscopes or chemical machinery, and can "figure out" how to learn something or to produce something new. Others have a much harder time at this.

I recently reviewed a book that relied quite a bit on many proofs and demonstrations of the Pythagorean Theorem, that c² = a² + b² where a and b are the legs of a right triangle and c is the hypotenuse. The book was beyond me; the authors are capable of levels of analysis and synthesis that I could not hope to match. I felt like a tired old race car left in the dust. We all have our limitations.

None of this stops us from continuing to figure out how to cope with our world, the world of things, the world of events, the world of other people. The most crucial skill is getting help when we get beyond our depth. We all know guys who are loath to ask directions when they are lost. But that is a necessary skill. One of my Physics teachers said, "The most elegant solution is to know the right answer." Many, many times in my work I have found that the best solution is to know who knows the right answer, and to ask. Why re-invent things? Many times, the best bit of analysis you might do is to figure out who can help you. Then, persuading that one to do so, ah, that is the synthesis you must succeed at!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pythagoras 1, myself a half

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mathematicians, mathematics, history

Almost any article of advice to authors states that every equation found in a "popular" book will reduce the book's potential audience by half. Let's see, there seem to be multiple equations on almost every page of a 260-page book, so the potential audience, out of seven billions of humans, must be no more than one. In fact, if you start with all the atoms in the universe and divide by two 260 times, the result is very close to one!

I sometimes call myself a working mathematician. That doesn't mean I have any degrees in the subject, but I do use a lot of math in my work. Not just adding and subtracting, but calculus, trigonometry, and linear analysis. But I have long known my limitations. I hesitate to mention it, but it was the math needed for senior Physics that induced me to change my major to Geology one semester before graduating, delaying graduation by more than two years. Nonlinear analysis and non-Euclidean geometries defeated me.

Then there are proofs. I can understand the occasional proof, and I can even take delight in a particularly facile one, as yesterday's post shows. I did learn to derive certain algebraic relationships. Luckily, once my career hit its stride, tons of math resources showed up on the Internet, and I've been able to look up the "how to" of a great many derivations that are difficult for me.

I still enjoy reading books in the 510-519 section of the Dewey Decimal system, and math history hits that right in the middle. The book cataloged 516.22/K is Hidden Harmonies: The Lives and Times of the Pythagorean Theorem, by Robert Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan. It discusses in enormous detail the Theorem (often called just PT in the book), and shows dozens of ways it has been derived, or proved, or used in other proofs.

In fact, proofs abound, and these were my downfall. I read through the first half of the book, found myself slogging, and eventually skimmed through the second half, digging out nuggets here and there. Luckily, I slowed down long enough to at least get the flavor of a derivation that has puzzled me. In standard books about Pythagorean Triples (explained next), I had seen these formulas (here goes 15/16 of my readership):

Given positive integers U and V which are mutually prime, one even and the other odd, find a, b, and c thus:

a = U²-V²
b = 2UV
c = U²+V²

Then a, b and c will all be integers and obey the relationship c²=a²+b². Such a set of three integers is a Pythagorean Triple, and the most familiar is 3, 4, 5, because 9+16=25. Try U and V as 2 and 1:

a = 4-1 = 3
b = 2x2x1 = 4
c = 4+1 = 5

Now if U and V are 12 and 9,

a = 144-81 = 63
b = 2x12x9 = 216
c = 144+81 = 225

OK, that's about as far as I ever got with Pythagorean Triples (PTs). I made them too easy to find, so I didn't dig into it further. Of course, lots of other people dug into it, some for their whole lives. One such, Waclaw Sierpinski, asked whether there is or is not an unending number of PTs for which a and b and c are each triangular numbers. A triangular number is one found by adding n consecutive numbers, starting at 1, such as 1+2+3+4+5 = 15. So far, this PT, 8778, 10296, and 13530 has been found. No other examples are known. Sierpinski is best known for his "gasket" consisting of a triangle in which the middle quarter (a triangle upside-down from the first) has been removed, then each remaining triangle has been similarly dissected, and so on infinitely. The result is a fractal with no area left at all. The result of 0.75ⁿ approaches zero as n approaches infinity.

OK, I am delaying the inevitable. This kind of playing around the edges is about the best I can do. I bow before a couple who are consummate, real mathematicians, the kind who can make more math, for the rest of us to either use if we are sufficiently competent, or stand aside while the gods of the math world do things with it that are beyond our grasp. I'll go back to my toy box now.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The simplest Pythagorean proof

kw: analysis, history, mathematics

Preparing a short talk on mathematics, I produced the following set of slides. See if you can follow the reasoning of this 1,100-year-old demonstration.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

To decarbonate everything

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, global warming, carbon footprints, surveys

To answer the title question, eating a banana is a very carbon-friendly way to snack. The book is How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee. Make that almost everything. If you want to compare the carbon footprint of washing plastic or ceramic dishes versus using disposable paper plates, you won't find it here, but you will find nearly any other carbon-using or -saving option that there is.

I suppose there is a way to finesse the wash-versus-discard question, because there is a section on paper bags, with a carbon footprint of 12-80g CO2e (meaning "carbon dioxide equivalent") each, depending on size and decoration and transport. There he states, "The paper industry is highly energy intensive." He goes on to discuss the energetics of paper manufacture on a per-kilo or per-pound basis, whether it is virgin or recycled, and also the carbon release by landfilling used paper rather than recycling it. You can then calculate how many kilos of paper plates you might use, that are equivalent to a dishwasher load, and compare the result with 770-990g per load, a bit more than doing them carefully by hand.

Just now much CO2e does a banana represent? About 80g each, or 480g/kg. That includes shipping them half across the world. Compare apples at 550g/kg and oranges at 500 g/kg. Of course, if you grow any of these yourself, and don't need to water your trees, the net CO2e is zero. They absorb carbon dioxide as they grow and release it upon use (via your sewage and trash). All the CO2e of plant foods is in watering, fertilizer, transport and marketing.

At the other end of the scale, are you considering having a new house built? For a 2-3 bedroom bungalow, the CO2e is 50 Tons! For a house like mine (4Br, 2Ba, full Bsmt), double that or more. The book is arranged by intensity, starting at 1-10g CO2e, up to millions and even billions, for whole national economies and finally, for the World, meaning all of human civilization. One item never mentioned: human activities amount to about 2% of the trillions of Tons of CO2e represented by the geologic and hydrologic cycles. However, this seemingly small amount is enough to unbalance the system a little, which is why there is global warming.

A word on CO2e itself. Carbon dioxide is one of four prominent greenhouse gases. The most important is water vapor. Without the greenhouse energy trapping provided by water, Earth's average temperature would be sixty degrees F cooler than it is. Think Alaskan weather in Bermuda, and sea ice everywhere north of Los Angeles and Miami (and Morocco and Hyderabad; and similarly in the southern hemisphere). The other two are nitrous oxide, which is around 300 times as potent at CO2, and methane, at about 25 times the potency. These two break down in the atmosphere over a few years' time, however, so the calculation of CO2e depends on the time frame. They have a large effect on 10-20 year time spans, and comparatively little over fifty years. There is a small, and fortunately shrinking, level of refrigerant gases. Though more refrigeration and air conditioning are being produced each year, the chemical companies are producing better refrigerants with a smaller carbon footprint per pound or per kilo.

Throughout the book the author compares various actions with a "10-Ton lifestyle". Considering that the average Western family's present footprint is in the 15-20 Ton range, that represents quite a bit of frugality going forward. For example, over the past few years we have replaced all the windows in our 60-year-old house with tighter, more energy-efficient ones, and going back ten years or more we have replaced nearly all light bulbs with CFL's. I'd opt for LED's, but at current prices of around $30 each, they are less worth it than when CFL's were $15 some twelve years ago. My price point for LED's is $12. I can get equivalent CFL's for $6. I take my burnouts to a mercury recycler. I have spent close to $20,000, hoping for a long-term payback, but a lower-energy lifestyle in the meantime. But I am nowhere near a 10-Ton level.

Not surprisingly, transport is one of the heavy hitters. Unless a human walks or cycles everywhere, moving that heavy body (50kg and up) takes lots of energy, and most of that is liquid fuel, gasoline or diesel. Traveling about 800 miles in a small, efficient automobile produces 330 kg CO2e. For my car, it is more like 500, which is why we rent a modern economy car for road trips. That figure of 500 is the same as a one-person plane ride of the same distance. If my wife and I both go, my car is twice as efficient as the airplane, per person, and even more so in the rental car. A recent drive from the Philadelphia area to near Kansas City, Missouri in a car with 36 highway mpg was a revelation. Fill-ups were needed rarely, and the tank only held 11 gallons. My 12-year-old Camry gets 26 mpg on the road, so its 18-gallon tank will actually go a little farther, but needs 50% more gas to fill. One of the best decisions of my life was getting a house that is only three miles from my workplace. My commute puts less than 1,500 miles on my car each year.

The book was a great deal of fun to read. I like facts, and this is a veritable encyclopedia of CO2e information, with suggestions of reducing your own carbon impact in practical ways, ways that address the big factors while not sweating the small stuff. Mike Berners-Lee is a special advisor to Crichton Carbon Centre and founding director of Small World Consulting.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The teeth fit

kw: photographs, dentistry

I had a routine dental cleaning today, and the dentist asked me to take home the models from my most recent crown fitting. I'm supposed to keep them at least a year, in case something goes wrong and a re-fitting is needed.

I am (or my mouth is) #C134. It is interesting that the upper and lower sets fit together so well. It is something I'd been able to feel, but now I can see it. By the way, these are upside down. The upper jaw model was mounted on a base, so I put it downward and set the lower jaw model atop it.

The crown post is the second molar, the clear gap at upper right. The ordeal of getting the crown fitted took three months, because the trigger for all this was when a large corner broke off the tooth in April. The fitting for a crown added to the irritation the tooth felt, and it got "hot", where it hurt all the time. Somehow the temporary crown slipped a little early on, and a seed got under it, so I went back in a lot of pain. At that time, the dentist already had the permanent crown ready, but we both were reluctant to put it on permanently, because if the tooth stayed bad, getting a root canal would be very much harder after that. So in early May he put on the permanent crown with temporary cement.

Things were immediately better, but not all the way. The tooth was temperature and pressure sensitive, and had a tendency to just hurt for an hour or two at a time, so I was using a lot of Ibuprofen. At a visit to the dentist we decided to keep waiting, to see if the tooth would become painless. It did, and in July he pulled off the crown, cleaned the post, and re-set it with permanent cement. Then I made an appointment for today's cleaning.

That may sound like a lot of trouble, and it is, but the process of getting my very first crown pain-free was even more drawn out, 25 years ago. This is the fourth crown, and numbers 2 and 3 were a whole lot less trouble, though #3 did require a root canal, but that was because of decay.

Enough of such things. May your teeth be strong, your bite solid, and your eating painless all the days of your life!

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Controlled by the Unseen

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, quantum mechanics, analysis

In one of Bill Cosby's earliest comedy routines, he asked, "Why is there air?" and answered, "So we'll have something to fill up basketballs." When physicists get reflective, they might ask, "Why is there anything?" That metaphysical question may be unanswerable, but the related, seemingly simpler question, "How does the floor hold me up?" has at least a partial answer: "Because the floor, and you, are composed of fermions."

In the middle of my seven-year slog to get a Bachelor's degree, I spent two years as a physics major. Nearly all the senior-level physics courses were about particle physics and things like statistical thermodynamics, which is about averaging the behavior of large numbers of particles. I didn't realize it at the time, but Stat-Thermo is really about exploring the boundary between particle physics, AKA quantum mechanics, and classical physics. But at this point, at least some of you reading this are saying, "Hold on, back up a bit. What is a fermion?"

You may have heard of the rule that no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. To a physicist, this is only half true, because all particles are objects, and all "human scale" things are made up of particles, and only half of the particles obey the rule. Maybe you've heard of photons. They are the particles that we call "light". We see because of light; our eyes are light detectors. Some photons are of infrared "light", which our eyes cannot see, but our skin can detect because we feel the warmth. Some are of ultraviolet "light", which our eyes also cannot see, but our skin is like a slow photographic film, and tans or burns when we are exposed to it. There are several other varieties of "light", such as x-rays or radio, all of them being photons of various energies.

Light violates the rule. You can shine two light beams across one another, and the photons don't bounce off one another. If you had a kind of high-speed super-microscope and could watch photons saunter by, you might see a pair of photons slip right through one another without interacting at all. Ask a physicist why, and the answer will be, "Photons are not fermions." Then what are they? Bosons. OK, now, so what???

There are two kinds of particles. Fermions obey Fermi-Dirac statistics, named for the famous physicists who worked out the rules they follow. They cannot pass through one another the way photons do. Instead, they collide, or scatter. All the things we call material objects are composed entirely of fermions. They are "why" solid matter is solid, and why you don't drop through the floor. Bosons obey Bose-Einstein statistics, named for the famous physicists who worked out the rules they follow. Bosons such as photons do not interact with each other, but they do interact with fermions. There are different kinds of fermions and different kinds of bosons. And a key point: when fermions interact, they do so by exchanging bosons. You are held up by the floor because gajillions of bosons are bouncing back and forth between "your" fermions and the ones that make up the floor.

This is just the beginning of the road into the quantum world, a world explored and explained in 101 Quantum Questions: What You Need to Know About the World You Can't See by Kenneth W. Ford, a retired physicist. The material I ran through in the prior few paragraphs actually takes up several of the Questions in the book. Dr. Ford is one of the world's great explainers. I already know a lot of physics, but I learned a great many interesting things from him.

One is, that in certain cases, under very carefully arranged conditions, particles of solid matter can be bosons, and it relies on a simple mathematical rule we all learned in grade school: The sum of an even number of odd numbers is an even number. But if you have any number of even numbers, and add them to any odd number, the sum is odd. In the quantum world, electrons and protons and neutrons are fermions. A pair of fermions such as electrons can, under the right circumstances, be a boson. Bosons have "evenness" as a characteristic. Pairing of electrons is responsible for superconductivity, and a superconducting magnet the size of a washing machine is the core of a MRI scanner. But groups of electrons and protons and neutrons can "add up" to an even number, and that means certain atoms can be bosons, and at very low temperatures, a gas of the right kind of atoms become a "Bose-Einstein Condensate" in which the atoms no longer bounce off one another, but behave more like very slow photons. Way cool.

Another important item is the Correspondence Principle (Question 3). It refers to the change in perception when you get lots and lots of quanta, and things average out until they can be quite accurately studied using classical physics. It's like this. Take a piece of chalk. Break it in half. While you could say you have two half pieces of chalk, you actually have two pieces of chalk, because the word "piece" is not divisible. Take one of them and break it again. Keep doing so. According to classical mechanics, you can do this forever. But we know it isn't so. The chalk is made of bits of tiny shells, about 0.01mm in size. If you start with a standard piece of chalk, and cut it with a cleaver carefully, switching direction of cutting from time to time, you can cut it about 32 times, at which point the two "pieces" each consist of two or three shell bits each. Under a microscope, pick one with two shell bits and cleave a 33d time. Now you need a different strategy.

A little shell cube (for simplicity) 0.01mm on a side contains about 1023 atoms of a mix of calcium, carbon and oxygen. That means, with the right equipment, including an Atomic Force Microscope (AFM), you can divide this bit of shell another 76 times, at which point you have either one atom or two atoms in the remaining "piece". Without an atom smasher, you're done dividing, and you've "only" reached division number 109.

By the way, if you do have an AFM handy, you can shortcut the whole process by tickling a single atom away from its location, but don't be surprised if getting a chosen atom of C, O or Ca to move is fiendishly difficult. You're in a realm where the electrons in the CaCO3 molecules have been shared in such a way that the atoms strongly resist being relocated. You have entered the quantum realm. You are on the other side of the correspondence principle in which electron behavior is more important.

The physical characteristics of the original piece of chalk depend on the average behavior of all the little bits of shell, and they way that the shell pieces might break while you are drawing with the chalk on a blackboard depend on the average behavior of quintillions of molecules of CaCO3. You can be sure, just by drawing with chalk, that you aren't breaking up any of the molecules. You need to cook the chalk at a few hundred degrees to do that!

OK, I used the term "average behavior" a couple of times there, rather loosely. The "strength" of the chalk, or of an iron bar, or of a piece of glass in the window, is a measurable quantity, and chances are that if several careful people make measurements of the strength of an object like an iron bar, they will produce results that are very, very similar. When that is the case with a quantity, we call it a fixed quantity. So the ultimate strength of iron is 68,000 psi (I don't know what that is in KPa). But if you "get into" an iron bar at the atomic level, you'll find several causes of variation. The strength of the force between two iron atoms depends on if their magnetic axes are in the same or opposite directions, on the possible presence of a grain boundary between them, and even whether one of them is a different isotope. But in a 0.1kg iron bar containing around 1025 iron atoms, all those effects average out.

So where is the boundary between quantum randomness and classical fixedness? We can explore that with a thought experiment. Consider a baseball pitcher. They are famed (and paid millions) for being able to consistently hit the strike zone. The best pitchers not only hit it, but they can get most of their pitches near the lower inside corner where they are hardest to hit hard. Beware of a pitcher who throws too many in the "sweet spot" just a bit further out than the center of the zone. Home run hitters love a pitch that goes there; it'll soon be out of the park.

A pitcher's accuracy is based on the average behavior of many neurons in the brain, that control the motions of the pitching arm. A neuron is a very noisy signal processor, and it takes many neurons to produce consistency. Let's model one neuron as a on-off switch that "tries" to switch at a specific time. It may be off by a couple of milliseconds one way or another. Start with the world's worst neuron. It is so bad that, if it were the only control of the pitcher's arm, he could throw in the half-sphere that is "toward" home plate a little over half the time. Now if we combine three neurons (it takes three to calculate a standard deviation), the accuracy of the pitch may improve a little. Take larger and larger numbers, some firing earlier, some later, but the more you use, the closer to the right timing you get. We'll use random numbers to simulate the situation.

There are several ways to obtain random numbers. The modern RAND functions in computer software do an excellent job of simulating shot noise, the "gold standard" way to produce random numbers before there were computers. If you produce 10,000 RAND function results, and make a chart of the results, you'll find why it is called a Uniform distribution. Any number between 0 and 1 can occur. I did so, and gathered them into buckets from 0-0.01, 0.01-0.02, and so forth. The expected content of each bucket is 100; the actual range was 81 to 121, with no particular pattern (a graph below will show this).

Let's produce combinations. 10,000 sums of just three RAND functions have some interesting characteristics. This is a lot like our "worst neuron", if we assume that the entire range from 0 to 1 is a complete circle of 360 degrees. Half the "pitches" are within 43° of the strike zone, and most of them are in the general direction of home plate. The strongest "bucket" around the center of the strike zone now has 250 of the 10,000. Next step, multiply by four, using 12 numbers each.

Twelve RAND functions per sum gives us a lot better focus. A real strike zone is about two feet high and two feet wide. From 66 feet away, it is a square less than 2° on a side. In terms of our hundred buckets, just considering the right-to-left angle, the strike zone is smaller than one bucket; each bucket is 3.6° across. Of 10,000 12-RAND sums, 491 made it into the central bucket, and more than half the pitches are within 18° of center.

Another step of 4x: 10,000 sums of 48 RAND functions. Now the central bucket has received 950 pitches, and half of all pitches are within 7.2° of the center of the strike zone. 99% of the pitches are within 36°.

A final step of 4x: 10,000 sums of 192 RAND functions. The central bucket contains 1,830 pitches, or one out of 5.5. The true "strike zone", being 2/3.6 of a bucket, must have been hit about 1,000 times or a tenth of all pitches. What do we need for half the pitches to be in the strike zone? Continuing the trend we see in the numbers, it would take about 960 RAND functions per sample to produce this kind of accuracy, or 320 of the "world's worst neuron". The following chart shows the numbers behind these few paragraphs:

We expect the frequency distribution for a single RAND function per evaluation to be a uniform function, and we see that Freq 1 is quite uniform, with a little of the jiggle one would expect. Freq 3, the "world's worst neuron" has a visible central tendency, but only a little. By the time you get to Freq 192, there is a nice, sharp distribution. If we calculated and plotted a Freq 1 million, everything would be in the central bucket, a simple spike. At that point, re-running the experiment several times (lots of computer time), you'd find such tiny differences between the average values that you could say you have a very accurate pitcher! Probably, a real pitcher's throwing arm is controlled by a few thousand neurons or a few times ten thousand, which is why the good ones have control within the strike zone.

Physical properties of objects big enough to see, being based on the average of millions of millions of quanta, are similarly "fixed" to any level of accuracy we can measure. The little bit of shell we talked about, that is 0.01mm across, doesn't have millions of molecules, it has trillions of billions. It is hard to see except under a powerful microscope; it looks like a small chunk of glass at 400x. But it is already large enough that classical measurements of its properties are very accurate.

There is one quantum effect that you can see with a microscope: Brownian motion. It works best with pollen, but tiny, tiny bits of shell will also work. Get your microscope ready, and it is best to use dark field illumination, so the pollen grains or bits of shell look like bright points on a dark background. Stir an infinitesimal pinch of powder into a drop of water on a microscope slide, drop on a cover slip and look at it immediately. Focus on one of the dimmer bright spots (one of the smallest bits). You'll see that it jiggles a little. It is small enough that the difference in the number of water molecules hitting one side doesn't exactly balance the number hitting the other side, so it is moved back and forth, up and down, in a random fashion, just a tiny bit. Brownian motion provided the first clear evidence of the reality of atoms. It can't happen according to classical mechanics (explained with Question 5).

Well, these are just a couple of the ideas this book triggered in me. Read it and see what it triggers in you. I have hardly mentioned the many persons the author wrote about as he told the stories behind his 101 questions. There is a lot more to Fermi than just the way fermions behave, and there is a lot more to quanta than just that they do this or that thing when pushed into proximity. Read and enjoy!

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Intolerant religion

kw: religion, north american history

I have been reading about the three religious groups that founded Colonial America because among my ancestors I have immigrants of all three stripes: Puritans, Pilgrims, and Quakers. Some of what I have read is quite disturbing. Religious extremism, once it gains civil power, is trouble every time it is tried.

All three of these groups are well known in history as seekers of religious freedom. It is less well known that all three tried to establish theocracies in the New World, with differing levels of success, or rather, of un-success. A theocracy is by its nature intolerant, and the level of intolerance undermines its roots.

The least intolerant (I hesitate to say "most tolerant") were the Quakers. This is partly because they were the most persecuted, by not only the Catholics and Anglicans in England, but by the Puritans and Pilgrims of North America once they began to migrate to the Colonies. They learned about the dangers of intolerance and somehow became more tolerant themselves. This is not to say that they weren't intolerant, just less so by contrast, and they soon passed laws allowing most other groups to practice their religions unmolested. But they expected fellow Quakers to adhere to certain standards, and they had sanctions against those who failed to do so. Old Quaker meeting records are full of disciplinary notes, and many violations of "discipline", meaning their rules for conduct, were followed by a person or couple being disowned. Being disowned was a kind of excommunication, and was severe. No Quaker would trade with them any more and to make a living they had to go into exile.

The Puritans were, for a century, the most successful at forming a theocracy and making it stick. They became legendary for intolerance, and dissenters, including a number of Quakers, were hanged over the years. There was a long list of religious infractions for which a person could be fined, such as a few pence for missing Sabbath services, or jailed for varying lengths of time, or have property confiscated, and right up to hanging for serious heresy. The most infamous hangings were the 1692-3 killings of seventeen purported witches in Salem, Massachusetts.

The Pilgrims were in a middle ground. Religiously distinct from the Puritans, they avoided contact whenever possible, and there was little trade between Plymouth Colony (Pilgrims) and the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Puritans) until the two were politically merged in 1691. This followed a decree in 1689 from England mandating religious tolerance and an end to political sanctions against people for religious reasons. The Pilgrims of Plymouth had a list of infractions that they punished in various ways, just as extensive as the Puritans'. I don't read where they hanged anybody, but they were definitely hostile to Quakers, and suffered the hostility of the Puritans.

I find it ironic that all three groups fled intolerance in England, but it took the English Parliament's decree to force them to tolerate one another. It required a few centuries for this toleration to become enshrined as a kind of American virtue!