Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The rhetoric heightens

kw: politics, polemics

I was out a bit before Noon today, and listened to part of the Dom Giordano program on 1210AM. At a listener's suggestion, he issued his first "Obamanation", or perhaps "Obamination": Nancy Pelosi saying that Congress had to "vote on the [health care] bill to know what is in it." There is no doubt that her pronouncement is abominable. I am with Dom on this one.

I am not sure he will be able to sustain interest in the feature through the election cycle, as he has stated. I guess there are a lot of things he finds abominable. I usually don't hear his program, because if I am out, I listen to Glenn Beck on a Delaware station (1450AM). But today, Glenn was playing, bit by bit, the President's recent speech in Detroit, and pointing out all the lies. It got oppressive after a while.

The real campaign hasn't yet started, and I am tired already. I suppose that is what both parties are counting on: all the honest people to get too numb to care enough to vote. In my case, there is no chance of that! I haven't missed a national election since 1972, and I've voted in nearly every off-year election also.

I remember my grandfather misstating the names, "Democracky" and "Republicracky". I agree, they are all cracked!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A juicy trip through the alphabet

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, wordplay, words, collections

Roy Blount, Jr. collects words, particularly their origins and associations. Three years ago he published Alphabet Juice, which has a very long subtitle. The title of the current volume is better-behaved: Alphabetter Juice: or, the Joy of Text. And a joy it is. As before, there is no need to read in any particular order. Indeed, throughout, a word or phrase in bold face indicates you ought to go look it up elsewhere in the book. It is a sort of hyperlink.

Each letter's section begins with a discursion—and often a digression—on the letter itself, its sound, other sounds it can contribute to, and so forth. C, for example, starts with the Sesame Street image of a cookie with a big bite taken out, passes via cookie-cutter sharks to "Cookie" as something you might call an attractive woman, then gets into the sound: kooky and cuckoo, but not why one has a "k"; then to cootch and to the similar-sounding, but much different "Coochy-coo". All that just to set the stage for thirteen short items (articles, essays, something else?), including a couple of pages of doggerel about eating crabs and lobsters (under crustaceous).

One of the longer items is gillie, girl and travels through quite a gaggle of related words and word origins. Somehow, he spends quite a bit of it upon fishing for salmon in Iceland, or rather, mostly watching a self-important master fisherman laboring to land a leg-length salmon on rather inadequate tackle.

Throughout, the author will frequently comment on whether a word is sonicky, a word he coined that he intends to carry more meaning than onomatopoeic. For example, knickknack (a great trap for playing SuperGhosts: follow an opening "k" with "k" and see if your opponent knows where to go with it) is echoic, made up of two instances of knack, an old word for snapping the fingers. This is suitably sonicky all by itself, but the author ends by stating, "Knickknacks tend to be clicky little things on the shelf." It just wouldn't be the same if your tchotchkes were called "smoofs". The word really needs all its k's.

And that knickknack-tchotchke synonymy is a large part of what the author is also about. In many languages, a word and its synonyms often carry similar sounds, and not just because "it all started with proto-Indo-European" (PIE). In Japanese, which is definitely not from PIE, the word for cat is neko. The "K" sound is the key here, as befits a small, skittery animal. Though we tend to think of our house cats as warm, soft bricks for keeping our laps occupied, they originated as high-strung mousers with a tendency to run right up a wall, particularly if there were drapes handy to ease the process. (Cat is not covered in this volume, and I don't recall if it appeared in the earlier one. This is just my fancy bouncing off his ways.)

In a closing word, the author hints at a third book that may be on the way, to be titled Alphabest Juice, but what manner of subtitle may be appended, we'll have to wait and see.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A clean limerick

kw: poems

I didn't come up with this, but read it today. It is the funniest I've seen in a long, long while:

A certain old person of Tring,
When somebody asked her to sing,
Replied, "Aint it odd?
I can never tell 'God
Save the Weasel' from 'Pop Goes the King.'"

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Burning their own book

kw: islamic extremists, news

The news is full of reports about troubles in Afghanistan over a few copies of the Q'uran being burned. Two servicemen were killed earlier today in the violence.

Isn't it strange...the Muslim population of New York City is 2-3%, and there were more than fifty Muslims among the victims who died when the twin towers were destroyed in 2001. Is it reasonable to assume that most of them, or perhaps all, had a copy of the Q'uran either on their person or in their office? The collapse of the WTC destroyed them all. Nobody said a peep about that, or about the roughly 2,000 Holy Bibles that were destroyed in the same event…and of course there were a couple hundred Jews killed, and many of them would have had scriptures handy for their reference.

The Q'uran is worthy of respect, as are the Torah and the Bible. But to go into a killing rage over any such book being destroyed, well, doesn't it prove that the Muslims (at least in Afghanistan) are idolators?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How near-infinite a speed?

kw: technical trends

We just had a Verizon tech spend a couple hours at our home adding Verizon FIOS TV to our phone and internet package. One part of the mix was boosting our internet speed. After running the wireless optimizer, the speed test showed download/upload speeds of about 20 and 6 million bits/sec (Mbps). I had a moment of reflection, not of nostalgia, really, because I have no desire to turn back the clock. Just recalling:

In 1979 I got my first home terminal, which came with a 300 baud modem, the kind you stuffed the phone handset into when phone handsets looked like earmuffs. I felt lucky; most affordable modems still ran at 110 baud. Baud is a term left over from Teletype days, when the standard had been 55 baud. For 5-level code with no parity or timing bits, that came to 11 characters/sec, the speed of a typist going 110 words per minute. ASCII, with its 8-bit characters, also had a parity bit and a timing bit, for 10 bits/character, so the standard was boosted to 110 baud, or bps, to keep the 11 char/sec rate. That is fast enough to stay ahead of nearly all typists, so it is perfect for data input.

However, 11 ch/s is rather slow for watching output arrive on a screen or paper (in a printing terminal), so 300 baud seemed luxurious. Then graphical applications began to spread, and 300 seemed slow. Prices fell and speeds rose, and by 1984 I had a 1200 baud modem that plugged into the phone jack through a splitter.

I don't recall my first 9600 baud modem, but I do remember adding a second phone line to my home in 1995, dedicated to a 56 kbps (baud no longer mentioned) modem. Speeds slowed down briefly two years later when the neighborhood was put on a multiplexer by the phone company—too many new phone lines had been added. Speed was limited to 28,800, or "28 kbps". It felt awful, so when DSL was offered I jumped at it.

DSL was troublesome at first, until they found that the piece of wire running from the pole to my house was fifty years old and badly oxidized. The phone company replaced the wire, and suddenly, I had rock solid 384 kbps, and it took only three minutes to download a 1 Mbyte file. Since I was still primarily into text computing, that was OK.

Not long thereafter, I learned about T1, the speed of a first-level trunk line, at 1.54 Mbps, and T3, at three times that speed. I remember wondering if I could make profitable use of that much bandwidth. When DSL speeds were boosted to 768 kbps, then to T1, over the next couple of years, at no extra cost, it became possible to go into music and photo sharing in a big way. It was about that time I got my first digital camera, in 2002 or 2003.

In 2004, FIOS was offered. We just got the phone plan and the most basic level of internet speed, which was close to T3, about 4 Mbps for download and 1 Mbps for upload. These speeds were doubled in 2008, or more than doubled because a speed test showed 9 down and 4 up. FIOS technology allows speeds as high as 150/50, but at a high price.

Now it is 2012, and speed has doubled again at my house. I don't know if the trend will continue. CPU speeds per core topped out at about 3.3 GHz about ten years ago. The current internet speed at our house is sufficient for three or four people to watch streaming HD video at once. I hear tell that "4x" technology is about to push video to a new level. HDTV has two formats, 1280x720 at 60 frames/sec and 1920x1080 at 30 frames interlaced. "4x" is in the range of 4000x2500 and requires about four times the data speed of HD. It is the format you see in many movie theaters. It is unlikely that data speeds need to exceed 30-50 Mbps for nearly all of us.

Screen prices have to come down a bit more before such a format becomes popular in the home. A 4x screen with about 100 dpi would be a 48-inch diagonal, but I expect the most likely screen size for 4x format to be 60 inches. I give it about ten years, by which time data speeds in the 20 to 50 Mbps range will be very widespread in America. But what do I know? Go ahead, technology, surprise me again!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Crocuses already!

kw: photographs, springtime

Someone from quite nearby posted a photo of yellow crocuses. Ours began to bloom in the last day or two, but the purple ones will be up later.

I wonder when the Forsythia will bloom. I've seen it bloom in February also, but April is more typical.

I have already seen the smaller species of mayapple blooming in fields nearby.

I also have a flowering quince with big orange buds just ready to burst into bloom. I sure hope there is not a late freeze to wipe it out.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

This actress is all about animals

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, zoos, animals, photographs

A lifelong lover of animals and frequent zoo visitor, Betty White has been a board member of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA) since 1974. Ms White, who recently turned 90 years old, grew up visiting zoos with her parents, as she relates in the Preface to Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo. Acknowledging that some folks deplore zoos, she works on their positive side, making them the best they can be, and fostering their role as conservators of wildlife that is all too often being destroyed in so-called Nature.

This image, the book's frontispiece, shows the author with a favorite of hers, Gita the Asian elephant. The two got to know one another before there was an L.A. Zoo, when there was just a menagerie at Griffith Park, up on the hillside. Gita lived 48 years, not as long as some elephant matriarchs, but about average.

Throughout the book, favorite animals are discussed, and shown in wonderful photos. The author will say, oh, she loves them all…but then admit that a few, such as Gita, really are a bit special to her.

For many people, a zoo visit is the only opportunity they will ever have to see many of these animals. I like being close enough to visit the Philadelphia Zoo, the nation's first, though I've been there only twice in the last couple of decades. It is a bit farther to the National Zoo in D.C., but there we got to see a pregnancy ultrasound being done on an elephant. When our son was little, we took him at least yearly to the Oklahoma City Zoo, one of the best in the West, and physically larger than the Philadelphia Zoo.

It is sad to think that an increasing number of animal species are to be found principally in zoos. The part that the L.A. Zoo and others have played in propagating the Condor and the Sumatran rhino is covered in two short essays. The Sumatran rhino is the only one with some hair on its body.

These tiger cubs were born in Los Angeles, where they were neglected by their mother and hand-raised by keepers. A chapter on Keepers outlines the strong bonds that frequently develop between these animals and their caretakers.

Not all animals are so warm and cuddly as a koala or a tiger cub (when young enough). Ms White's father was terribly fearful of snakes, but she fortunately did not inherit his fear. A large snake such as a boa, that is habituated to people, will settle into your arms and relax. They appreciate your warmth! In one picture she is shown holding a boa.

I think I told the story elsewhere of catching a king snake near my home in Los Angeles in 1973. It was fine with being handled by me, but when a youngster from the neighborhood wanted to hold it, it bit him. We persuaded the snake to accept his handling, and he ran over to show his mother. When he handed the snake back to me, it bit him again! I wonder if young Tony just had cold hands. Fortunately, the bite of a king snake is not dangerous, and a little soap and water was all that Tony needed.

It is a rare occasion that I can acknowledge the photographer whose work I use. This is Tad Motoyama, who took most of the pictures in the book, shown with a cheetah. His colleague Miguel Gutierrez took this picture. I reckon that these two guys think they are some of the luckiest people on Earth. I know Betty White does!

Her acting career, in film and on TV, began in 1945 (two years before I was born!), but I suspect it is her work with animals that keeps her feeling like the luckiest woman ever.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A feature I like

kw: computer usability, preferences

I have had Windows 7 going for about a year on my main computer at home, and I like it more and more. It is a worthy successor to Windows XP, which remains the most popular PC operating system. Yesterday I gathered together 64 images of America's national parks (and a few foreign ones). Some are pictures I took, but most are images I downloaded from all over the web. I cropped and resized to make them all 1920x1200 pixels, which matches the largest screen I am likely to get in the next several years. It also matches the aspect ratio of the main screen here, 1.6:1 (1680x1050).

By the time I am seventy, who knows what the popular screen sizes are going to be? Five years ago I didn't expect to have a two-screen setup with 20 inch and 22 inch monitors.

The reason for loading these pictures is to have a pleasing desktop background. No longer do I need to content myself with a single "wallpaper" image. Windows 7 lets you have a running slide show. It was easy to set up, once I loaded a folder with the pictures, under my "My Documents" library folder:
  • Right click somewhere on the screen. The screen control menu pops up.
  • Select "Personalize".
  • Near the bottom left of the dialog box that opens, click "Desktop Background".
  • Another dialog box opens. In the upper middle section, click "Browse".
  • Navigate to the folder your pictures are in. Mine were in "Libraries\Pictures\My Pictures\National Parks" (In Win7, the "My Documents" folder has been split up under "Libraries"). Click OK.
  • In the middle of the dialog box, you will have "Unsaved Theme". You can right click on it and select "Save Theme", then give it a name and close the dialog box.

I chose "Nat Parks" for the name of this theme. I also set it to shuffle the pictures (a check box) and to change pictures every five minutes. Even as I write this, I have seen several new views of lovely landscapes (or dripstone inside Carlsbad Cavern or Wind Cave).

This collection of pictures is a bucket list of sorts, for I'd like to see all these national parks.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Toxic is as toxic does

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, environmentalism, polemics

For lunch today, I had one of those microwave meals, something I very rarely do. I am not even sure why my wife bought it, because while she will often buy almost anything that is on special, she is very leery of anything that will result in using plastic inside the microwave oven (we microwave in ceramic or glass only). Regardless, there it was, and I agreed to dispose of it by ingesting the contents. Once I had done so (about an hour ago), I turned over the bowl to see what I could find. It is recycle group 5, helpfully designated "PP", meaning polypropylene. That is good: there are no plasticizers, and polypropylene, like the polyethylene found in milk cartons, has very, very little potential for leaching into food.

Just a few years ago, PVC's were common in "microwave safe" plastic materials. The fact is, they are only safe in that they won't melt when steam hits them. They have a much greater potential to release chlorinated chemicals into the food, and they are made with plasticizers, including phthalates, that are rather scary, with a long rap sheet of damaging effects.

For a long list of things that won't do such damage, consult the Appendix to What's Gotten Into Us? Staying Healthy in a Toxic World by McKay Jenkins. But do also take time to read the book. It begins with the author's own wakeup call, a bout with cancer at a young age, quite a bit younger than my own cancer episode at age 53 (he isn't 53 yet). It led him to study the matter, and he arranges the book by concentric rings of concern: the body (what is in it already), home, retail outlets and stores, and the yard.

For an answer to the title question, you'll have to consult one of the online "body burden" studies listed in his Appendix. Some of their conclusions are in the "Body" chapter. Brace yourself for a shock. People in seemingly pristine places were found to have significant amounts of numerous pesticides, of heavy metals but primarily mercury, and of contaminants from plastics manufacture and plasticizers. Most of us are probably even more "burdened".

I found the chapter on "Home" helpful, particularly because I am planning to paint a few rooms in the near future. His suggestions about the most benign paints are worth considering. At least modern latex paints are less damaging than what my grandfather, a house painter, had to work with. I wonder if all that painting has something to do with his death at 75, when his father had lived 82 years, and his mother, 87 years. I also paint in the spring or fall, when I can open the windows and fill them with fans.

A book like this requires a lot of research, and all research needs to be checked, at least for plausibility. While I am very appreciative of all the research the author has done, there are two claims I need to challenge. On page 171 it is stated the "mowing your lawn for an hour produces as much pollution as driving your car about 650 miles." On the following page we read, "Using a gas-powered leaf blower for a half hour releases as much carbon as driving a car 7,700 miles at 30 miles per hour." The first claim is implausible, the second is incredible.

Firstly, my 12-year-old Camry gets 28 mpg on the highway. Driving 650 miles consumes just over 23 gallons of gasoline. A fresh catalytic converter is 90% efficient, and I replaced mine less than a year ago. A lawn mower, of course has none, but it does have the benefit of running at a constant engine speed, which reduces emissions compared to more variable speed. Anyway, the cat converter means my car emits the amount of pollutants my lawn mower would by burning 2.3 gallons of gasoline. I can run my mower for an hour on less than a quart of gas, so my estimate is one mower-hour is equivalent to at most 2.5 gallons run through my car, or a 70-mile drive, which also takes about an hour.

Secondly, 7,700 miles of driving takes 275 gallons of gasoline. Half an hour of leaf blower use needs at most a pint, and probably less; my neighbor's leaf blower has a much less powerful engine than my lawn mower. The 7,700 mile claim is ridiculously wrong. Burning a pint of gasoline, no matter the engine, releases about three pounds of carbon dioxide. Burning 275 gallons releases about three Tons. I looked in the author's notes, and he has no indication what his source was for either claim. The sources are grossly wrong, stupidly wrong!

There is one other minor misstatement, and not a surprising one. The author notes that there are several thousand halogen-containing chemicals being produced, presumably products on the market. It is worse than that. A friend who works at a major chemical company told me that there are more than 30,000 products containing fluorine, chlorine, bromine or iodine in his company's database of chemical products. In my estimation, things are at least ten times worse than what the author states. Given the secrecy of these companies to most outsiders, this is not surprising.

OK, with those items put to bed, let's not forget that in general, the author's research is very good. In particular, a final chapter on regulations and the difference between Europe's REACH laws and America's TSCA is well outlined. Some US states, including Washington and Maine, have taken steps to implement some provisions of REACH within their borders. That is a useful early step.

I had an early impulse, reading the book, to scoff. No longer. My generation is the first "plastics generation". I have a 24-year-old son. What kind of world is he facing? Is there a chance that it will become more benign? There is hope. I cook mainly with cast iron cookware, and have taught him to do so. I do use Teflon coated cookware for a few things. I am watching research that one company is doing to replace PFOA with safer chemicals for Teflon manufacture. And PFOA is already pretty safe, which is a good thing, because everyone who has been tested has some in their body. Perhaps my grandchildren will grow up free of at least some of the chemicals that make up my own body burden.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Human hysteresis

kw: musings, psychology

Hysteresis is the tendency of a system's behavior to depend on its history. When the history is but one of a number of influences, possibly including inherent tendencies, we can more generally say it is the tendency to take one path in one direction, and another in the reverse direction.

A well known system that exhibits hysteresis it the magnetization of a piece of iron. In this diagram, H is the applied magnetic field, and B is the magnetization of the material. The red curve shows magnetization to saturation of an initially unmagnetized piece. The point Br, where H has been reduced to zero but some amount of B remains, is the remanent magnetization, rendering the piece a (provisionally) permanent magnet. You can make a nail into a weak permanent magnet by stroking it with a stronger magnet, such as one of the Alnico magnets used for holding things to your refrigerator.

When a strong enough reverse field is applied (see the blue curve), at the point Hc, the remanent field is erased. If H is returned to zero from that point, the piece's magnetism is gone. But if you continue along the green curve, you can magnetize the piece in the opposite direction. Magnetizing, demagnetizing, and reverse magnetizing all take energy. This illustrates one reason that putting a soft magnetic material into an oscillating magnetic field causes it to heat up.

This kind of Hysteresis Curve illustrates a lagging tendency. It takes a lot of H before B gets large, and the remanent B resists changes in B until overcome by a saturating amount of H. There is a slightly analogous tendency exhibited by a person going from one place to another, when there is a choice of paths to take. Some people will take later choices, some earlier. The first ones could be said to exhibit lagging hysteresis, the others, leading hysteresis. For an example:

Suppose you live in at the location marked "Home" at lower left, and wish to walk to "Store"; and, of course, return home. The green and blue paths shown illustrate two possible ways to get there or back. There is little to distinguish them. They have the same length. Assume that there are no stop lights, just four-way stop signs at every corner (this is a neighborhood store, not in a busy locale). Are you more likely to take the "leading" route (green) or the "lagging" route (blue)? I tend to make my turns early, and take leading routes whenever possible. I suspect there are about equal numbers of people who would make either choice.

It would be an interesting sociological experiment to gather information from a large number of people, which ones turn early and which ones turn later, and try to correlate other factors in their life or character, such as optimism or introversion or gender.

People are not pieces of iron. Some people will return by the route they took initially, while others will take the alternate route to go back home. Iron can't do that. Also, there are details about this route that we don't see in a magnetic hysteresis diagram. You must cross four streets to reach your objective. By my count, there are 20 distinct ways to get from home to the store, and all have the same walking distance, but the two shown are the only ones that have only two turns. The others have either four or six turns.

To do a social psychology study that gets into that kind of detail, you'd need to equip people with recording GPS devices, and see which people always take the same route and which ones tend to vary their route, and, well, I can think of more variations, but you get the point. People are interesting, because even in a very simple setting like this, there are so many possible outcomes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Microstructure matters

kw: observations, materials science

While preparing a talk on the semiprecious varieties of chalcedony, I read in a few articles about the way that these materials were used as tools, primarily in precolonial times. A significant dichotomy stood out: "hitting" tools such as hammers and clubs tend to be made of chert or light colored flint, and cutting tools such as arrow and spear points tend to be made of dark colored flint, or agate or jasper. These depend on material availability, but good material was often traded and transported long distances.

Cryptocrystalline quartz has a range of microstructures, from blocky to fibrous, that affect how the material can be used. These materials are called cryptocrystalline because the crystals cannot be seen under an optical microscope; these are nanomaterials. Seen with an electron microscope, chert and yellow flint have blocky structure, like sand grains compressed to eliminate the porosity, but the grains are very small, smaller than the wavelength of light. Agate, jasper and black or gray flint have a fibrous texture, as though felt had been petrified, again, with the fibrous nanocrystals smaller than a wavelength of light. That is why the broken surface of any of these materials looks very smooth, like broken glass. Yet they are crystalline on a very small scale.

The fibrous cryptocrystalline materials take a sharper edge and hold it better under wear. They are thus valued for cutting tools. Arrow points from the American southwest, for example, are usually agate or petrified wood, even where chert is the more abundant material. And grinding pestles and hammer stones are usually made of chunks of chert. It helps that chert often comes in larger pieces. It does take hammering well, while agate, for example, splinters more easily. But those shards are sharp!

As a lapidary hobbyist, I find jasper, including petrified wood, which is usually jasper, a favorite material for beautiful cabochons. But jasper is particularly tough on grinding wheels. Wheels of silicon carbide grit wear quickly, and diamond-charged wheels lose their diamonds faster—they get plucked out of the matrix—than with any other quartzose material. It comes with the territory. Chert can be beautiful also, but this is rather rare. Most chert is gray or off-white and dull. It takes a good polish, of course, and it is not quite as hard on the equipment. But the fibrous materials are nearly always prettier. Love 'em!

Monday, February 13, 2012

He placed us in the sky

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, mathematicians, astronomers

Sunday coming, in just a few days, will mark the 549th birthday of Nicolaus Copernicus, or very close to it. Born Niklas Koppernigk in German-speaking Varmia, then part of Prussia, now part of Poland, he Latinized his name as an adult. He is the classic example of one who, while seldom straying a day's journey from home, roamed the cosmos in his mind, saw better than others how it worked (at least the local billion miles or so), and wrote the book that dragged the rest of educated humanity, kicking and screaming, into the new view. His book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was only removed from the Roman Catholic Index of Prohibited Books 177 years ago, after a residence of more than two centuries.

There are partial biographies of Copernicus aplenty, but none other as accessible yet so thorough as A More Prefect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos by Dava Sobel. One great value of the book is placing Copernicus in his milieu as a canon, an unordained church official, nonetheless required to live celibate. His official duties occupied much of his time and energy. Yet he was able to compile a great mass of observations, particularly of the Moon. He had as a primary ambition the desire to revise the Moon's orbit; the accepted orbit inherited from Ptolemy required the Moon's apparent size to vary by a factor of four, which it clearly does not do. He succeeded in this, and these and other calculations convinced him that the Sun, not Earth, was at the center of all orbits except the Moon's.

Secondly, from close reading of many of his letters and other writings, Ms Sobel is able to open a window into the thought processes that enabled Copernicus to unveil a sun-centered Solar system. Now that he has led the way, we expect every child to come to the same realization, to understand that the apparently solid ground under their feet is in fact rotating about an axis that spins both it and them at hundreds of miles (or km) per hour. Not only so, the yearly motion about the Sun requires a planetary velocity of about 66,000 mph, or nearly 110,000 kph. Copernicus did not know this latter figure, having no accurate parallax for the Sun, but he guessed its magnitude within a factor of about ten.

Parallax is the measurement of distance using trigonometry, by measuring the angular difference between measurements taken at different locations. Accurate measurements of stellar occultations and near misses by the Moon, taken by observers a few degrees apart in longitude (say, one in London and another in Paris, if both have a clear sky!) suffice to measure the Moon's parallax of about a degree (normalized to Earth's radius). That is, if one observer plots the Moon's position just at moonrise, at the same time a colleague plots its position while the moon is near the zenith—because the two observers are some 10,000 km apart—, their measurements will differ by about a degree. But the Sun is 400 times as far away as the moon, and naked-eye observations cannot discern a parallax of 1/400 degree, or nine arc-seconds.

As a church official, Copernicus knew there would be strong opposition to his model of the Universe. He knew as well as anyone the verses in the Bible that implied the Earth is "fixed forever" and that the Sun moved, except when Joshua commanded that it stand still long enough for a key battle to be finished. He published a short document that outlined his mathematical calculations using a new system with only 33 epicycles (Ptolemy had needed more than 100), without clearly stating that he believed the Earth was moving about the Sun. He delayed publishing anything further, until he was prodded by a Lutheran mathematician named Rheticus. Even then he dragged his feet and the book was only finished as he lay on his deathbed. He died at age seventy, having, perhaps, seen the last few pages of the book's galley proofs, but leaving it to others to proofread and complete. In April of 1543 the book was finished, and he died in May.

So carefully had the writing been done, and so hedged about with arguments intended to deflect scripture-based criticism, that it took the Holy Office of the Inquisition (established in 1542) 73 years to determine it belonged on the Index, and only as a book needing "correction", not wholly prohibited. The prohibition was dropped in 1835, after 219 years.

Concerning one fascinating bit of detective work, the author relates the work of Owen Gingerich, who studied about 600 copies of early editions of On the Revolutions (or De Revolutionibus, as it is frequently called). The book had three major editions and several minor ones, and was always printed with wide margins. Nearly every copy has copious notes, which indicates that anyone who thought enough of it to purchase a copy, read it carefully and checked calculations and thought about its implications. Interestingly, Johannes Kepler's copy has fewer annotations than most, but those that exist are very thorough and insightful. Nearly the only major scholar of the years prior to 1700 for whom a copy of the book is not known is Newton! Yet his work indicates he was familiar with it.

A word about production values. I love a book as well thought out as this, with such care taken to make the reading pleasant. The carefully-chosen quotes that begin each chapter, the archaic type face for chapter titles, and the decorated letter used in preference to a bare drop-capital, all indicate a fine historical sense.

One of my professors once remarked about such embellishments, nearly universal in well-produced 19th Century books, that they showed the author had enjoyed the writing, and presaged an enjoyable reading experience. What a contrast to the dryness of most modern historical publications!

Thursday, February 09, 2012

But you still can't climb it

kw: card stacking, records

Many years ago my first wife and I filled a rainy weekend with building a house of cards that reached the ceiling of our spare room. We thought it was really something. We used about twenty decks of cards. Wish I'd thought to take a picture. As it happens, it is nearly nothing compared to the creations of Bryan Berg, as this image shows:

This tower is 25 feet 9 inches tall. The entire structure required 1,800 decks of cards. He has built other structures with as many as 4,000 decks, that cover large areas but don't go as high. Go to this Daily Mail article for more, including a video.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Coal that made good

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, gemstones, diamonds, memoirs

These three gems may not be the same size originally, but I took care to reproduce their photos to scale them to the same 32mm diameter on a 100dpi screen. That is about a 4x magnification for a 1 carat stone. Gemstones are rated under 10x magnification, and if no flaws are visible at 10x, the stone is pronounced "flawless", even though flaws might become evident under greater magnification. These three images show a few things about a gem's value. First, on the left, we see a stone that is losing some light out of certain pavilion (back) facets. It was cut a little too shallowly, which makes a larger stone at a certain weight, but detracts from the brilliance of the stone. The central image is of a properly cut stone (not just because it was photographed with a white background). The image on the right is not a diamond, but is Moissanite, a lab-grown, clear silicon carbide gemstone. With a higher refractive index and 2.5 times the spectral dispersion, Moissanite looks like an overdone diamond. Its value per carat, however is quite a bit less than a flawless white diamond.

Diamond value is traditionally based on four C's: Carat weight, Color, Clarity and Cut. A 1-carat stone of excellent cut may be worth $20,000-30,000 if it is entirely white ("D" color) and flawless, but a diamond you or I could afford, in the $2,000 range, will be very slightly yellow ("H" or "I" color) and have a tiny feather or speck over to one edge, not visible without magnification, but quite evident under 10x. Strange to say, there is a "valley" in value for stones of color "I" to about "T", then yellower stones, called "canary" if yellow or "chocolate" if more brownish, start to command a premium as "fancy" varieties.

I have a friend who used to travel about selling gemstones to jewelry stores, but only "colored" stones. He did not sell diamonds, because it is a very hard business to break into. Also, because of the over-hyped glamor of diamonds, it is a lot more risky to carry them around. Even so, he got out of the business when a bag of merchandise was stolen from his car. He lost $70,000.

Alicia Oltuski has an entree into the diamond business, having a father and grandfather who trade in diamonds and diamond jewelry. She let herself be drawn partway into the business, but mainly to gather information to write her book Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family and a Way of Life. She opens the book with her own experience carrying a chest pack containing a few thousand dollars worth of merchandise to an associate's office. She closes by telling of her father's help, a few weeks prior to her courier experience, when she was getting her engagement diamond reset into a new setting.

In between, she delivers a touching and fascinating memoir of the family business in the Diamond District of Manhattan's 47th Street, near Fifth Avenue. It really is true that most (but not all) of the diamond dealers are Hasidic Jews. Quite a number are Jews, but not Hasids, but a growing number are from India or are Muslim. For some reason, you just won't find many WASPs in the diamond business. Until recently, it was hard to do business there if you didn't speak Yiddish.

The book tells the intertwined stories of the men (and a very few women) who wholesale the stones and of the diamonds and an industry that grew up around a deliberate monopoly to enhance their value. From crafting the slogan "Diamonds are a girl's best friend" to the stockpiling of excess stones when prices fall, the deBeers company and its allies pretty much created value for a material that is much less rare than, for example, high quality ruby or emerald.

Nonetheless, there is a certain aura about this "coal that made good", for diamond is pure carbon; a certain cachet about the most strongly refractive natural material. The term "adamantine luster" is reserved for the way an uncut diamond looks when cleaned off. It looks more like a piece of metal than a transparent material ought to. That is because, with a refractive index of 2.42, diamond reflects 17% of the light that strikes it, as compared to 3%-5% for most kinds of glass and 3.5% for quartz. (Note: silver's reflectivity of 95% implies a refractive index near 80).

In a shop where diamonds are cut into gemstones, the dust is black, further evidence that this is carbon we are working with. The heat and stress of abrading material from a diamond causes the dust to revert to graphite. Only a diamond can cut diamond, so the grinding and polishing wheels are charged with diamond grit and diamond "flour", respectively. This material, four times as tough as sapphire, makes a lot of noise when it touches the wheel, though Ms Oltuski didn't mention whether diamond cutters lose their hearing.

A major section of the book details the way stones are valued and evaluated. The GIA (Gemological Institute of America) now grades most stones larger than a half carat or so, and trains (for a fee) diamond dealers and jewelers in the niceties of evaluating color and clarity. Color is more subtle than we usually imagine. The difference between the whitest stone, "D" in color, and a "G" colored stone, is almost impossible for most of us to discern. Properly trained, a jeweler can distinguish "D", "E", "F", and "G" and so forth, from one another.

Seeing inclusions is one thing. At 100x, no diamond is without some imperfection. But at 10x, at least a small percent are without visible flaw. When there is a flaw, is it central (very bad) or near an edge or corner of the stone? Is it a slight "feather" or a black blot (a chunk of coal caught up in the stone)? Clarity grading is almost alchemical in its arcane intricacies. One clue we learn from the author's father: he first examines a stone at 16x. This makes more imperfections visible. Then he uses 10x, to see if any are still visible. He can then focus on any that are still evident and more fairly grade the stone. One must be careful with such knowledge. I once ruined my sister-in-law's day when I applied a 20x loupe to her engagement ring and showed her the little feather near one edge. Under 10x I couldn't see it, and neither could she, but she was now suspicious that the stone wasn't really "flawless". I shoulda kept my big mouth shut.

Concealment of knowledge becomes second nature to a gem dealer. Mr. Oltuski, if asked, says he is a businessman, or a merchant, without ever letting an acquaintance draw out just what his merchandise is. He might carry about a fortune in stones in an old, taped-up backpack, but he prefers a smaller, under-the-coat chest pack. In more recent years, he won't carry his own stones at all, if he is transporting a large amount, to a show for example. He'll hire Brinks or another armed courier service to carry the merchandise. Yet the trading back and forth between dealers on 47th Street is still usually done using small envelopes, with nothing more than a handshake and a word or two of agreement to set up or seal a deal.

All that may be coming to an end. The Diamond District arose less than eighty years ago, and the newer generation of dealers uses the Internet more, spends little time in musty shops, and cares less for the mystique that absorbed the past two generations. A portion of the old district is being rebuilt into a few large buildings, and the GIA is planning to move into one of them. Among a couple thousand diamond dealers, some are retiring without a successor, so either a fellow dealer (or a group of them) will buy out the retiree's shop, or someone like "Johnny Buyout" will glom onto an entire shop's stock and parcel it out, high, low and middle, wherever it will sell the best.

I can't close without mentioning the chapter on efforts to stem the trade in "blood diamonds". With great effort, nearly all stones are now kept traceable to the district or mine from which they came, which has pinched off the river of profit that many African insurgencies fed from. The matter is not yet ended, but the early years of the 21st Century, with the emphasis on tracing everything, has made such work easier, and it will become easier yet. Who knows: Diamond is not only a great insulator, it can be made into a semiconductor, and it is quite possible that soon, one girdle facet of every diamond will be "doped" into a little RFID device so a diamond can literally tell you where it came from.

I bought a diamond ring for a girl once. When the engagement faltered, she did not return the ring. She pawned it. Fortunately, the lesson was not lost on me. I found a different kind of woman. My wife has no diamonds, but even though she cares nothing for jewelry (such creatures do exist!), she is a keeper, for 37 years now. Would she be a better wife with a half-gram rock on her finger? Knowing her, she wouldn't wear it anyway. So, though I am a geologist and a rockhound, I look at the gemstone world from the outside. I admire stones for their intrinsic qualities. A diamond is a mineral, a particularly lovely one. But I'd rather have a small, well-formed uncut crystal than a "rock on a ring". What I do value is the writing of a sensitive author about a world that is vanishing, and the people who inhabit it still.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Light goes in and comes back out

kw: minerals, gemstones

OK, time to drop the other shoe. My last post was about the importance of hardness in the beauty of a gemstone. Here we can take a quick look at brilliance and fire, as they are called. Brilliance is a somewhat subjective measure of the amount of light that can enter the stone and get back out again. The total light that meets the eye, though, is a combination of the white light that comes back white, and the portion that is refracted into a colored beam, and only one color reaches the eye. The refracted part is the Fire. It partially competes with brilliance, because if red light is refracted toward the eye, all the other colors went somewhere else, so the total light is less.

This assumes that the stone is optimally cut, a subject I can't cover in detail, partly because there are still epic disagreements over what constitutes the "right" cut for a particular material. Just in general, the higher the refractive index is, the smaller the angle of total internal reflection, so the shallower a stone can be and still reflect the maximum amount of light back out to add to the brilliance. Thus, each stone on the table below will be cut to a different set of angles for optimum brilliance. The level of fire is set by the dispersion, which is the difference between the exact refractive indexes for blue versus red light.

This blogging tool handles tables poorly, so I used a picture of a table produced elsewhere. Moissanite, an artificial material, has both a higher refractive index than diamond and a much higher dispersion, so people who are familiar with the "look" of a diamond can see right away that a Moissanite stone looks overdone.

Cubic zirconia, however, is optically very similar to diamond, so it is quite hard for a non-expert to distinguish without a specialized instrument.

Although Paste has a much lower refractive index than all these, its dispersion is very similar to diamond, which makes it a good stand-in. A well-cut paste stone is quite stunning, and only when one is placed right next to a diamond of similar size can most of us tell there is a difference.

Quartz is included primarily for comparison. Colored varieties of quartz were once useful stand-ins for corundum and clear emeralds, but the availability of low-cost synthetic crystals has just about eliminated its use. Bottom line: if you want a diamond, by all means get one, but there are more choices for lovely, affordable stones than ever before in history.

The harder the brighter

kw: minerals, gemstones

I was recently sorting some jasper material to determine what to donate to an educational rock club and what to keep "in case I want it later". Jasper is an opaque, semiprecious material that is cut into cabochons, never faceted into "gemstones". But it got me thinking about the hobbyists I know that do like the clear stones and make faceted stones.

Firstly, a little looking around confirmed that the gems termed "precious" are all the really hard ones: diamond, sapphire, ruby and emerald. Topaz is sometimes included, but most professionals prefer to group it with quartz and moonstone (a feldspar) as "semiprecious". Jasper is a quartz variation. There is no such thing as a "nonprecious" gem!

Hardness is the first quality that makes for a desirable gemstone, particularly if you plan to wear it. A hard mineral won't scratch easily (and only diamond can scratch a diamond). A subtler matter is that the harder a stone is the better it can be polished. Under a microscope, the best "paste" (glass) or "flint paste" (quartz) polished stone will be seen to have a trace of roughness, which limits the amount of light that can enter and leave the stone. The extra-smooth polish that only a diamond can acquire contributes quite a lot to the "adamantine" luster of a properly cut diamond.

Anyone who has taken an Earth Science or Geology course has learned the Mohs scale of hardness. Ten well-known stones were ranked for hardness, and a set of nine of these is used to make a "scratch tester". The vendors of inexpensive scratch test kits can be forgiven for not including a piece of diamond! They also usually substitute silicon carbide or tungsten carbide for #9. These artificial materials are much less costly than even a small hunk of clear-ish corundum. The scale is not in any way linear, but simply a ranked list.

Various methods have been devised for determining absolute hardness. About a century ago, things settled down, and a test that is not too hard to perform in the laboratory is the Knoop Indentation Test. A small piece of industrial diamond, ground to a sharp point, is pressed against a material using a known weight, for several seconds. The length of the impression the diamond makes is measured and converted to a number. The result for the ten Mohs materials is shown on this chart, which has a logarithmic scale:

You can see it is not at all linear. However, on this scale, the minerals numbered 5 through 9 are pretty close to a linear set. If they are taken as the determiners of a near-linear scale, numbers 3 and 4 would be close together near 2, and the two softest materials would be "below zero". Diamond would be about 14. It is about four times as hard as corundum, and 3½ times as hard as silicon carbide or tungsten carbide.

A recent innovation in the scale is being proposed using "fullerite", which is claimed to be harder than diamond, as the indenting material. I expect this to be resolved within a few years. Meanwhile, the hard materials make the best gemstones, not only because they are hard, but because they take the best polish and are thus brighter. The addition of clear silicon carbide, called Moissanite when in gemstone form, to the gemstone universe adds interest, and it remains to be seen if it becomes a coveted material.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Breakfast blah

kw: observations, food, dry cereals

My wife is a sucker for a bargain. Thus, we often get some new food to try because it has been introduced at a low, low price. This time it was a new breakfast cereal.

I grew up eating Cheerios® (from General Mills). It is hard to overeat with because a "serving" of 3/4 cup has only 100 calories and weighs one ounce (28g). It has only a gram of sugar and three of protein, but 16g of digestible starch, so about 70% of the calories are carbs. I used to eat five ounces almost every morning. I once calculated that I'd eaten one ton of Cheerios® in about fifty years. Nowadays I eat 2-3 ounces when I have it at all.

These days, having but half a colon, I find it better to eat denser foods. My favorites are the series of Post Selects; the one in front of me at the moment is their Great Grains Crunchy Pecans. A 3/4 cup "serving" weighs 51g (1.8 oz) and has 210 calories. So I eat a smaller volume by comparison. It has a lot more sugar, 8g, and 24g of starch, so the carbs make up 60% of the calories (there is 10% more from oils).

Now we come to the bargain of the week. A new brand called Bear Naked®, and their Nut Cluster Crunch, dubbed a "100% natural energy cereal". It is nearly as dense as the Post cereal (49g or 1.7 oz per 3/4 cup), but with fewer calories: 180. It has half the fat of Cheerios®, but 11g of sugar and total carb calories pushing 80%. There are only 4g of protein, so % protein calories are the least for this cereal of the three. Here is the kicker. It tastes like sweetened cardboard, and doesn't soften in milk for a long, long time. It is extremely crunchy and actually makes my gums sore. My wife gets to eat the rest of it.

I took a look at the ingredients lists. The item of interest this morning is sugar. As I said, Cheerios® has the least, 1g per serving (though I eat twice as many servings to get the same calories, so call it 2g). In the ingredient list, the third ingredient is, simply, sugar. To me that means either beet sugar or cane sugar. Both are sucrose. In the Post cereal, the fifth ingredient is brown sugar, and the seventh is sugar. Sucrose again, with a little molasses included. Sugars total 8g per serving. Now for the Bear Naked® stuff. Sugar totals 11g, and the third ingredient is "evaporated cane juice crystals", a fancy-schmancy way of saying sucrose. In their list of things the cereal doesn't have, it says, "NO High Fructose Corn Syrup". Well, the other two cereals don't have any, either. But its level of sucrose is by far the highest of the three. Really sweet cardboard. I'll stick to the Post cereal, which is at least enjoyable to eat.

Tomorrow I'm having eggs and toast.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Ants, flies and bees, if you please

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural science, insects

An ant colony in an acorn. A bedbug with a penis that is more of a spear. Talking bees. Crickets that sing, and some that don't. If we really make the effort to get down and look, we find that insects are even weirder than we could imagine. Marlene Zuk, arthropod amateuse extraordinaire, has done us all a great favor with her book Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language from the Insect World. I must say she has also produced the champion of provocative titles!

Indeed, in matters of sex, we vertebrates must seem quite prosaic and limited. One fly has a penis longer than his body, so he can mate with a female that is still in cocoon. Many of the "organs" of male insects are quite elaborate, with spikes, scrapers and spoons for rummaging around to dig out other males' sperm before depositing his own. You could call it sperm competition with weapons. Half of one chapter investigates same-sex courtship and its implications for our understanding of homosexual behavior. Even the insect variety elicits strong political statements from most proponents or opponents of human homosexual freedom. But the big lesson here is that, in sex as in all things, insects exhibit more variety by a huge factor than is found in all the rest of the animal world.

This is true of communication. When finding a new colonial home, some species of ant reach a partial consensus by "quorum sensing" of signals that are still not wholly known to us, then picking up their nestmates and carrying them ignominiously to the new digs. Swarming bees, on the other hand, may have a dozen or more competing selections to choose from, each supported by one or more "waggle dancers", and the entire swarm will grow toward consensus until they are in full agreement, upon which they all head straight for their target. Other means of communication seem to guide the swarm, as led by faster-flying "leaders".

Is such communication really a language? Let's not be too chauvinistic about our own language abilities. As means of conveying emotion, our words are rich and evocative, but as means of conveying information, not so much. We need lots of reinforcement, not unlike the ants that need to be carried. This is why it takes four to six years to get a B.S. or B.A. degree by attending lectures, when the same material can be learned via correspondence about twice as fast. My father enrolled in course after course through ICS (International Correspondence School) while my brothers and I were growing up, earning certificates galore; the school was not accredited to offer degree diplomas, but companies knew that a suitable collection of certificates was worth more than the degree any day. If insect communication gets the job done, what more can one ask?

Why is the sex ratio of most mammals about 50:50, while for social insects females outnumber males by thousands to one? This is no utopia for the guys, though. After a single sex act, they die. Further, that means that popular conceptions are typically wrong. The film Antz portrays male worker ants; all worker ants of all species are female. An ad for an antihistamine spray portrays a male worker bee courting a flower; all worker bees are female. So are the wasps that sting you when you tread on their nest or knock it out of the tree. And the spiders you see are nearly all female; the males are so small they are easily mistaken for offspring. The big exception to this is tarantulas. The migrating tarantulas are nearly all male. The females, which live ten times as long, stay in their nests awaiting males to find them and court them.

The book is filled with many more examples behavior of insects and other arthropods. Their range of behavior exposes their range of genetic diversity. Genetically, two species of beetle may be as diverse from one another as horses are from hummingbirds. And there are about a million known beetle species. But do any of them think? The opening chapter discusses "bug smarts", and the answer is, we don't know yet, but the more we study it the more likely it seems to be. Bees and wasps can recognize faces, and some kinds are reliable enough that it has been soberly suggested that a wasp in a cage could indicate when it sees a familiar face on a security monitor. Trouble is, you'd need to train a lot of wasps, and somehow overcome their impulses to do things like hunt caterpillars while they were watching the screen. We are probably closer to a reliable computer solution to this dilemma; viz. Picasa and other image-recognition photo album programs. They do a surprisingly good job picking out a person photographed at a new angle or even at a different age.

The author's primary interest is crickets. She has a cool story about them also. In one place, she could easily find crickets, but could not hear any. Usually, if there is a cricket within a half mile, you know it is there! It happens that parasitic wasps were using the cricket's songs to locate them. So the crickets had quit singing and were using other means to find one another. No matter what you think you know about insects, there is a species somewhere doing just the opposite. Learning their ways could occupy a lifetime, which is why there are entomologists, of course.