Friday, August 31, 2012

Opus 1601 is for the pollinators

kw: natural history, insects, pollinators

Today I took a day off to do yardwork, leaving more of the Labor Day weekend free. It was easy to notice that the small flowers had plenty of pollinators. I have been watching the news about honey bees and colony collapse disorder, so I am alert to the level of "alternative pollinators". This collage shows that there are plenty of them.

I took pictures of quite a variety of insects that were coming to these flowers, but only these six were in good focus. The first four (the top row and the lower left) were all on the chives. The small, dark bee at lower left was the smallest variety I was able to get a picture of. There was a multitude of smaller bees, but they are too quick to photograph without better equipment. The wasp at upper left apparently has a sweet tooth. A close look showed it was lapping nectar. Other varieties of wasp visit the flowers to capture small bees; they paralyze them and bury them for their larvae to eat. I was happy to see very few of such wasps today. The skippers at bottom center are shown just over life size. They are on a blue, finely-divided composite flower I haven't identified. The fritillary butterfly at lower right is on a pink flower, another one that grows in fine clusters. This is also close to life size. These pink flowers were mainly visited by skippers, and there were also some small, dark bees flitting about. A robber fly would occasionally make a pass at a skipper, but I never saw it catch one. It was also too quick to get a picture of.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A crystal future?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space aliens, artificial intelligence

Like many, I have a lively interest in the possibility of other sentient species throughout the Universe. I have supported the SETI program for decades, including running the seti@home "screen saver". More recently, I have vetted a few thousand stars' light curves for the Planet Hunters project; I noted this morning when I checked in that there are 666,916 participants.

However, as a radio amateur, I realize how unlikely it is that SETI will turn up anything, even if there are millions of inhabited planets "out there". Our term as a radio-loud species lasted barely 100 years (it is all on cable and glass fiber now), and even though some TV stations of the 1960s-1990s utilized million-watt transmitters, even the Arecibo 300 m radio telescope would be unable to detect I Love Lucy or Jeopardy at a distance greater than about 10 light years. An intelligent species 100 to 1000 light years away would need to do one of two things to produce a signal we are capable of detecting: point a gigawatt signal right at us using a kilometer-scale dish, or broadcast an omnidirectional signal with a power of billions of gigawatts. Both are costly undertakings.

An economic analysis that I read a few years ago compared the cost of a huge radio transmitter to the cost of sending a number of small (around 10 kg) objects, propelled at about 1% of light speed, carrying some kind of message. The hard part is for such a small object to carry a technology for slowing down at the other end! One percent of c is about 100 times the velocity of Earth as it orbits the Sun. That's a lot of kinetic energy to shed.

This is the kind of idea a science fiction writer can run with. Couple it with likely developments in computer technology, possible advances in artificial intelligence, and a few projections—or flights of fancy—about human society, and a book like Existence by David Brin emerges. A very enjoyable book, I might add.

Some 40-50 years in our future, with a planetary population of 9 or 10 billion who are apparently all networked into the MESH (successor of WWW), an effort has finally been undertaken to clean up the mess left behind by NASA, ESA, and the various Soviet and Russian space agencies. With tens of thousands of broken satellites, shed fuel containers and bolts and bits of exploded stuff, near-space is getting hazardous. A trash-collecting astronaut named Gerald snags an unusual crystalline object, so rather than nudge it into an Earth-intercepting orbit, he retrieves it, at some risk to his career. When Gerald and the object return to Earth, he touches it, whereupon a word appears—a lot like the way a magic 8-Ball toy's message floats up—: Greeting.

So, as usual, the author leaves it up to the brains in the alien machine to figure out how to communicate with us. In an already big book (553 pages), this does avoid a large digression, so I can forgive it. Anyway, you might ask, is this the only one? No, as it turns out, and something like half the book is taken up with the consequences of finding multiple crystal ovoids from competing species, now that people know what to look for. Yes, the aliens are competitors. A peaceful Galactic Federation is about as likely as a one-world government here on planet Earth, or even less so. Star Wars trumps Star Trek.

I won't go further along the plot line. There are too many other fascinating threads to this story. Much is based on continued increases in becoming one with our computers. All but the very poorest (there is still a bottom few percent, more's the pity, but I am not surprised) have access at least to TruVu specs that let them access the many levels of the MESH. The software in the specs takes its cues from where you focus your gaze. Many, particularly the younger folks, get equipment installed in their vocal chords and teeth, and wear intelligent contact lenses, so they can effectively live in the MESH and control it with subvocal commands and tooth-taps and eye-flicks and hand motions. (Let it be noted, fifteen years ago I predicted to friends that "soon" people will be able to get a smart cell phone—the "smart phone" had yet to appear—implanted in the mastoid bone, attached to a tiny microphone in the jaw and a tiny speaker in the wall of an ear canal; it would respond to spoken or muttered commands. Maybe "soon" still means another 20-50 years…)

True artificial intelligence has yet to arise, but Brin's 2050s society has a close simulacrum, that can pass the Turing Test if it doesn't go on too long. Allied words have been coined, such as maind, aiware, aitomatic, aissistant and ailectronic. A brief vignette, wherein a high school student manages to download the personality of her pet rat into a computer, sets the stage for the crystal ovoids to contain numerous downloaded personalities. Then there are new acronyms. My favorites are WAIST (Wow! Ain't It Strange That…) and TSOOSU (To See Ourselves as Others See Us, and the command tsoosu invokes a MESH view of oneself from nearby cameras).

Here is an idea for someone capable of writing it into a novel: a possible process for capturing someone's personality in software. A backpack containing a massive neural network with heuristic programming, plus a "sensor hat" you would wear. Other sensors on or in the body are possible, but I haven't thought that out. You would wear the equipment for a few weeks or months, while it tries to learn to predict your behavior from the stimuli you encounter, plus periods during which you explain your behavior to the backpack. I suppose a breakthrough would occur at some point, and thereafter the longer you wear the equipment the better the simulation gets. How good you want it to be depends on the purpose to which it will be put. Once created, the simulation is easily copied. This would probably work best with people who have a lot of toleration of solitude, because such a simulation of your personality is most likely to be used to control a machine with a dangerous or one-way mission, including a small interstellar spacecraft.

That brings us to another interesting thread: Auties, a slang word for autistic people. Might it be that, for those who don't communicate, their only possible mode of communication is not words but something else, such as dance or broad-spectrum sounds packed with more meaning than our "words"? Brin treats at least some Auties as an evolutionary advance or even the vanguard of a new human species, one with immensely greater problem solving skills than run-of-the-mill geniuses.

Last evening I heard Sher Valenzuela speak to the Republican National Convention. Her son is autistic. She and her husband started their business, 15 years ago, in hopes of earning enough money to afford the specialized therapy their son needed. They succeeded. He is soon to be a sophomore in college. It would be amazing if such children had untapped potential and we could somehow learn to bring their abilities to fruition. In Brin's story, ubiquitous computer technology makes this possible. In our world, today, I dare not offer such hope, not yet. We know so little… I do know this. The two best computer programmers I ever met are autistic. I don't mean they have Asperger's syndrome. They have much more trouble communicating than my friends who have Asperger's. They have machine-like minds, and have said that dealing with people requires them to run a sort of social simulator program in their heads, which takes a lot of effort.

Another thread, a less encouraging one, is the Trillies, the trillionaires who scoop off about the top third of all human productivity for their pleasures and hobbies. There is a hint near the end of the book that their influence is abating, by the year 2100 or so. Really, what possible good comes of having billionaires and trillionaires around? I know one billionaire. He is a nice guy. But is the Earth better off if he owns, like, one percent of its land surface? The billionaires and some other celebrities are the new aristocracy. They would do well to beware, and learn from events such as the French Revolution.

When I worked at Conoco, the Marland Museum had a placard with a quote of E. W. Marland, founder of Marland Oil and then Conoco. As I recall, it says, "Who knows why people do what they do? I spent money like water on my town and my people, and they prospered." Let us remember that the money "he spent" was originally earned by those people in that town. My supervisor's and manager's salaries—and right up to the CEO—comes from money my colleagues and I bring into the company, which is not paid back to us but to them. The work that they do does not earn money directly, but rather produces the environment for us to earn the money. If they do it well, they deserve just compensation. I don't believe, however, that there is a person on the planet whose work is worth more than about half a million dollars per year (my CEO earns a million a month).

Finally, I was very intrigued by a list of twelve detailed questions, directed at Lurkers, possible alien AI objects in our solar system, as to why they have kept silent all this time. Think about it. If self-replicating Von Neumann machines are the least expensive way to communicate with the Galaxy, and it would only take 5-10 million years for such devices to spread to every star, multiple times, then where are they? Is the human race truly the only intelligent species? Two books explore the boundaries of this question: Vital Dust by Christian DeDuve and Rare Earth by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee. But before you read them, read Existence.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Who built it?

kw: business, politics

I have been watching the Republican Convention on C-SPAN. The theme of the event is "We Built It." With this statement and the sentiment behind it, I heartily agree.

When President Obama said, "You didn't build that," he ignited a firestorm that threatens to burn steadily through November and beyond. Oh, I know what he was trying to say, that the national highway system, the air traffic control system, and bridges and so forth, that business takes advantage of, were government programs, and businesses "couldn't do that."

In the movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, there is a very enlightening scene. The character played by Sidney Poitier has been drawn aside by his parents, who are trying to convince him of their viewpoint (that he shouldn't marry a white woman). His father uses the old, "We gave you life, we raised you, we educated you" argument. He answers, "You did what you were supposed to do. Parents all do that. But parents aren't supposed to choose my job or my wife. Only I know what will make me happy."

By constitutional provision, the government is supposed to provide for interstate commerce (highways and bridges and air traffic control systems). A government that will not provide infrastructure for its citizens is doing them a disservice. But a government cannot  and must not tell you what kind of (legal) business to go into, or how many employees to hire, or where you must borrow (if you need to) and so forth. Government cannot tell a farmer when to plant; the failure of Soviet agriculture for 70 years proves that, as does the continued failure of North Korean agriculture. Government cannot decide for you what kind of supplies your company might need, nor set your alarm clock for you, nor stipulate how few or how many hours you must work in a week. When you have a business, it is your business.

Businesses were succeeding for centuries before "government" built anything. The old roads, that may have started out as cow-paths, not just in colonial America but in Europe and Asia, the old roads that are still the main arteries of travel in much of the Third World, were not government projects. Wherever the government has, rightly, provided infrastructure, the country's economy has prospered as compared to former times. This is a 5,000-year-old principle. But in old Assyria, if Mr. Sathrop had a chariot-building cottage industry he runs out of his house, there was nothing the imperial officials could do to "help" him run that business. It is also a 5,000-year-old principle that micromanagement by government guarantees failure (which is why American education began to go downhill with the creation of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and has fallen even faster since the split-off of the Department of Education).

Mr. Obama, I know what you thought you were saying. I reckon it was even well-intentioned. But you simply put your foot in you mouth up to the knee. You have no clue what it takes to build a business. You have never done so, and I suspect you have very, very few you would call friends who have; maybe none. We are very fortunate as a country that, in the 1950s and 1960s, government did a few things that government is supposed to do. The decades of "the good life" were a result. But then government began meddling in things not enumerated in the Constitution. As a result, for more and more of us, the good life is over.

President Obama and VP Joe Biden might be re-elected. I hope not, but they might. If so, four more years of pathological mismanagement of America will certainly lead to a Republican landslide in 2016. But if Mitt Romney is elected, and both houses of Congress shift to the right, there is a chance that the huge inequities and injustices and enormous deficits of the past three-plus years can be reversed. Dear God, I hope so!!

Aprotic - new to me

kw: words

Reading a report I found the word aprotic. I could guess that it refers to a chemical that cannot donate a proton, thus limiting the kinds of reactions it can undergo. Such substances make good solvents, good hosts for oxidation-reduction reactions (which operate by trading protons). A little searching confirmed my horseback hunch.

Digging around in Google Books, the earliest reference I could find is in a 1953 volume, Non-Aqueous Solvents by Audrieth and Kleinberg (seemingly earlier uses in print are instances of typos or mistaken OCR, such as 1907 for 1987. Of course the Google Books project hasn't snarfed up everything just yet).

Early usage focused on nonpolar solvents such as benzene, or non-H-bearing chemicals such as sulfur dioxide, but in more recent years polar chemicals that hold their hydrogens very tightly have been included, such as phosphazenes, which are full of NH2 groups but do not permit any hydrogen ions to be removed. Acetone and DMSO are considered aprotic, polar solvents.

A useful word, in certain contexts, and an interesting one to have learned.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

In from the cold - he beat the odds

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, autobiographies, espionage, policy

Sometimes I get a book so far beyond my experience, the author may as well be another species. Such a book is The Art of Intelligence: Lessons From a Life in the CIA's Clandestine Service, by Henry A. Crumpton. You may have read Bob Woodward's book about the first year of the war in Afghanistan, Bush at War. Did you wonder, who was Hank? Wonder no longer. It was Hank Crumpton.

During the first months of the war, the Taliban were routed and many al Qaeda (AQ) fighters killed or driven into hiding. As Woodward wrote and Crumpton confirms, this was largely due to a coordination among the CIA, U.S. Special Forces, and Afghan tribal leaders, well before any American (and Coalition) troops were on the ground. Hank directed this phase of the war. About a third of the book's text covers the war in Afghanistan, but there was a lot that led up to it. I must admit, much was beyond my comprehension. I am a techie, a "geek", and I'm still learning human relations. I do think, however, that I caught a most important fact: The early success (which was not repeated in Iraq) was due to human relations, that led to a vast flow of intelligence that was intelligently used to provide air cover and logistical help and some amount of practical aid for the Afghan ground fighters.

Well, a lot did lead up to this, both in world affairs and in Hank's life. He obtained entry to the CIA and to the Clandestine Service at quite a young age, and did well. He became a productive recruiter of "unilateral resources", foreign nationals who worked with the CIA (this is in concert with Liaison, which is more of a 2-way street). Hank spent years in Africa, and he and his wife raised a family there. When the slow churning of the Federal mind (such as it is) realized that terrorism was becoming a real threat, Hank got the opportunity to work in counterterrorism. This led, in a few years, directly to his being asked to direct the opening phases of the war against AQ and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

After the first year, the war fell into the possession of the professional military. A ground war began, that is still going on, and proceeding slowly if at all. Hank makes the point repeatedly, that the three presidents who best understood the value of intelligence were George Washington (a spymaster supreme), Abraham Lincoln, and George H.W. Bush (former head of the CIA). Presidents Bush, Jr, and Obama both started their terms mostly ignorant of intelligence, but grew to rely on it.

After Afghanistan, Hank worked in National Resources (NR), that arm of the CIA that works on American soil. Few folks realize they are even there. Their task is focused on international policy, not on spying on U.S. nationals, but they use in-country resources, such as business leaders and visiting foreigners, as sources and resources.

One result of the counterterrorism work is friction with the FBI, which treats terror crimes as law enforcement targets, rather than as acts of war (It seems many in civilian government still do not realize that World War III began in  1992, or perhaps earlier. I place it on that date because it is the first bombing of the World Trade Center by AQ). War is different than it was in Roman times, or in 1864, or 1912, or even 1944. The war in Vietnam was our first failure to recognize the value of guerrilla tactics. By the time American forces figured this out and began to get the upper hand, national leaders had lost the political will to win, and pulled out. The later years in Afghanistan, and the entire Iraq adventure, shows most of the Pentagon brass still doesn't get it.

I really have to digress here. A comedian in about 1970 said, "I heard it costs us $150,000 per VC (Viet Cong) fighter we kill. We can buy them off cheaper than that!" The "after-war" in Afghanistan has cost a trillion dollars or so, all consumed by an army that is in the business of blowing things up and killing people. we could have spend 80% of that on infrastructure for the country and jump-started them as a modern nation. The same goes for Iraq. We had won within the first year. Spending the next trillion dollars on rebuilding and modernizing their infrastructure would have gained us a reliable ally. Instead, we have bungled both wars and made a growing roster of enemies as a result.

I hope Hank's successors in Clandestine Services, and in Counterterrorism, and in NR, are doing a good job, as well as he did or better. It is only a matter of time until the next 9/11. Someone will slip through again, because you can't watch everywhere or everybody. The Dept. of Homeland Security needs to recruit us patriotic and loyal citizens as deputies, in a much, much more productive and definite way than having a few signs around that whiningly beg us to report "suspicious activity". We need a National Neighborhood Watch; dare I dub it NNW?

OK, off soap box. Although I didn't understand all he wrote, I really enjoyed Hank's stories. I have two relatives who were spies. One is dead, the other doesn't talk about his service. They were not CIA (not that I know of!). But the essence of such work is human relations. It is like computer hacking; as Kevin Mitnick wrote in Ghost in the Wires, his primary weapon was gaining the confidence of someone who could grant him access to systems he really shouldn't have been getting into. He is a brilliant programmer, no doubt, but it is his human skills that led to his being called the world's most dangerous hacker. So with Hank Crumpton. He didn't need to be a gun-toting gadget-happy James Bond or Matt Helm. He just needed to be a good drinking buddy. He just happens to be a drinking buddy with a razor sharp mind and a prodigious memory. A good writer, too.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Rethinking Rev. Wright

kw: sociology, religion, race

A few years ago, I heard the sound clips on the radio, of Rev. Jeremiah Wright saying "God damn America!". Naturally, I had a very negative reaction. Since that time, I have reflected a time or two about it, and I finally decided to get off my duff and learn more. After reading transcripts of some of his sermons, including "that one", I think I have a better handle where he is coming from.

On March 19, 2003, the invasion of Iraq began. Nearly four weeks later, on April 13, 2003, Rev. Wright spoke on the text Luke 19:37-44, where Jesus on Palm Sunday wept over Jerusalem, "…because you did not recognize the time of your visitation." The sermon is titled, "Confusing God and Government". His initial goal was to decry the Iraq invasion and the trumped-up reasons for it.

The sermon has three sections: "Governments Lie", "Governments Change", and "Where Governments Fail, God Never Fails". It was at the end of the second section that he said,
God Damn America!—That's in the Bible—for killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. God Damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!
He had led up to this, and I think it was spontaneous, by recounting the failures of the U.S. Government, particularly regarding race, and beginning with the Constitution and its provision that a slave was counted as 3/5 of a person (The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of 1865 and 1868 annulled this provision). He believes that HIV was created by government "as a means of genocide against people of color" (Which is strange; in the U.S. the majority of victims are not black).

I now look at his "Damn" statement as an example of preacher's hyperbole, and not entirely out of line. In the past, the U.S. government has killed citizens (look up "WWI bonus army"), and has treated some as less than human. The question is, to what extent are these things still true? Because Rev. Wright is a bit older than I and even more because he is black, he lived through the Civil Rights era with much keener sensibilities than I did, and it had a powerful effect on me. To him, the Jim Crow provisions we all once lived under are a living memory, and a painful one.

Someone once said, "The universal bank of Trust accepts deposits, but if you make a single withdrawal, the account is closed." Trust once lost may never be regained. Considering the extent to which most government leaders lie, quite by habit it seems!, how far can we trust them? That is what the Rev. is asking. I would answer with him, not so very far!!

I began to rethink the "Damn" statement after a conversation with my aunt. She is a dear Christian lady aged 92. She does not agree with anything President Obama has done, and she thinks he is bad for this country. But, she said, "I think he will be re-elected, mainly because God wants to punish America." I don't know if God is still in the nation-punishing business. If he is, the U.S. is an easy target, but not the easiest.

Religious people often point out that at least half of Americans commit adultery, but this is true everywhere; the whole world fits that target profile! And among the rich and powerful, worldwide, it is nearly 100%. Could it be gambling and casinos? If so, Monte Carlo and Monaco would be the first targets of divine lightning. No, God's primary issue is oppression. The Bible has many expressions of God's displeasure with the rich who withhold a worker's pay, or who foreclose a widow's dwelling. And even though God permitted the Assyrians and the Babylonians to chastise Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom), when they enthusiastically oppressed the captives, going beyond the chastisement God had in mind, God punished them even more severely; Assyria and Babylonia are gone, but Israel remains.

So I can see where Rev. Wright is coming from. His teaching has been called "Black Liberation Theology." Well, there is a spectrum of this "theology", and he is actually rather moderate. I dug out one salient societal indicator: the unemployment rate for those 20 and older:
  • White: 6.6%
  • Asian: 6.3%
  • Latino: 10.3%
  • Black: 14.1%
For teens, 16-19, the rate is about 22% for non-Blacks, and 38% for Blacks. To compare with a decade ago, just divide all these numbers by two, across the board. You can look up more accurate numbers, but half of today's rates are pretty close. Contemporary American life is hard on blacks.

It is clear, America has a ways to go to become race-blind. This is just one item that underlies black liberation theology. Nonetheless, it is not a Christian theology. Jesus had a lot bigger purpose than liberating people from government excesses. He worked to free us all from indwelling Sin! Rev. Wright does teach this, so I cannot say that his theology is non-Christian, nor anti-Christian as I once thought; yet it does have a theological element that is not Christian, but political.

We Whites also need liberation, though, from stereotypes, from our cultural and ethnic ignorance, from our assumed entitlement. But that is not an onus I place on Jeremiah Wright and his ilk. As a Christian leader among a congregation of my own (one of mixed races, though mainly Asian), that is my job.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Clear at dawn

Kw: weather, clouds, sky

We are far enough past the summer solstice that I sometimes get out before sunrise. Today I was out, under a half twilight, and at first saw a totally clear sky. I saw them frequently when I lived in the mountain west. I called certain days, "Couldn't find a cloud to save your life." I very rarely see such a day here.

As it happened, I was wrong. Once I got away from the house and could see the northeastern sky, there were perhaps a dozen small, scattered clouds. Oh, well.

A look at the tables at Weather Today gave me a little perspective. In this area there are nearly 100 sunny days yearly. I take that to mean with nearly no cloud cover, like this morning. We also get 41 inches (1.04 m) of precipitation in about 115 days. Interesting, I saw that Daytona Beach, FL gets 97 sunny days yearly, also has 115 rainy days yearly, but gets 48 inches of rain.

A few places are extreme in one way or another:
  • Cold Bay, AK has the fewest sunny days, 10, but not a lot of precipitation, 36 inches (0.91 m), yet there are 228 rainy days yearly. I guess most of them are actually drizzly days.
  • Hilo, HI has only 36 sunny days a year, but gets 129 inches (3.28 m) of rain in 278 rainy days. I've been told that the frequent, smallish rains are called "pineapple juice". They sure make the pineapples grow.
  • Yuma, AZ has 242 sunny days yearly, the most in the U.S. In just 17 days with measurable precipitation, it gets no more than 3 inches (0.08 m) of rain. Most of that comes as one or two gully-washers.
My father still lives in Portland, OR. He used to live near Los Angeles, CA. In Portland he sees 68 sunny days and 129 rainy ones. Rainfall totals 36 inches (0.91 m). He may move to San Diego, where my brother lives. There, he'd enjoy twice the sunny days (146) and only one third the rain (10 inches, or 0.25 m).

South Dakota is called the "northern sunshine state". It is not as sunny as Arizona, but Rapid City does get 111 sunny days and only 96 rainy ones. Most of the other 158 days have few clouds and they cover less than half the sky. It only gets overcast when it is going to rain or snow in earnest. I really remember those fine, fall mornings, with a deep blue sky from horizon to horizon. This morning's sky, though marred by those few small clouds, was nice and blue but quite pale by comparison. Deeper blues will come by October, but nothing here in the Philadelphia area can compare to a clear day in Big Sky country, which covers a lot more ground than just Montana.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Life out of death

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, death

Most people have never seen a Sexton Beetle. This one, identified as Nicrophorus investigator in Calwer's Käferbuch, from which this illustration comes via Wikipedia, is found across northern North America. It is one of 68 known species in the genus Nicrophorus. Some are all black, but most have dark orange markings on a black background.

To see one, on a hot summer day place a dead mouse in a field somewhere, then stand back and watch. One or more beetles ought to show up soon, and a mated pair will proceed to move the mouse carcass to a spot with soft enough ground, and bury it. Underground, the female lays eggs and tends them until the larvae are well on their way to devouring the mouse. She will leave; the larvae will pupate and emerge weeks or months later as adult beetles. As you might have learned in The Lion King, this is part of the circle of life.

This is typical of the way small animals are disposed of in the wild. If they are not eaten by a predator, the beetles probably get them. It is the fate of nearly all animals in nature to be eaten. This is the message of the opening section of Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death by Bernd Heinrich. Of course, he does not stop with mice. The deaths, and particularly after-death disposal, of deer, swine and larger animals are discussed, as is the career of "the ultimate recycler", humans.

Later in the book the human and natural viewpoints are contrasted. For example, at a salmon run in Alaska, a grizzly bear does not always eat all of a fish. It often eats just the fatty eggs and discards the rest to be eaten by the ravens and other scavengers in the vicinity. To us, we consider that the bear has "wasted food". But why not ask the ravens if any actually goes to waste? They get fed, as do many other creatures, from birds to mammals to insects and reptiles. And, of course, bacteria and fungi get their share.

Ravens, vultures and eagles are, to various extents, carrion birds. Even the so-called dedicated predators (such as lions or wolves) will take carrion when they get the chance; it is safer than attacking a prey animal, though fighting off other eager eaters can be risky enough. These all are just the most obvious "undertakers". Unlike human undertakers, they do not dispose of a body to hide or preserve it, but to consume it and to recycle its energy content. One vignette describes the many lives that feed upon a fallen giraffe.

In clear and lyrical prose, the author discusses also the fate of trees that fall in the woods (and are not dragged off by loggers). A "nurse log" can take 200-500 years to decompose, all the while supporting a varying crew of fungi, insects, bacteria, smaller plants, and eventually other trees. Then there are the various ways that things that die in lakes, streams or oceans are recycled. To see a truly gross video, search for "hagfish eating whale" in YouTube. The action happens several kilometers down on the ocean floor.

In the last section, the author gets more philosophical. He had been prompted to write the book by a letter from a friend requesting a "green burial"; that is, having his body left on the ground on land belonging to Dr. Heinrich in the Maine woods, there to be consumed by nature's undertakers. Of course, without proper permitting and supervision, such disposal of a human body is illegal. Rather than bothering him, or a friend who owns land in the woods, contact Green Burial Council, which can help you find such services, or at least a way to be buried without being embalmed in formaldehyde, so your substance can be returned to the earth.

Considering that it can take centuries for the formaldehyde to break down and release a body to decomposition, and that cremation uses huge amounts of fuel, going green is a better option. Whether religious or spiritual views of life after death are accurate or not, there is still a body to be disposed of when a person "transitions". Letting it provide life to nature is another kind of life after death, the life of many creatures that would be deprived of a meal by formaldehyde or the fire.

It is only in the "developed" countries that such deprivation is practiced. Green burial, including "air burial" (feeding the birds) is still the worldwide norm. And why not? We are animals also. From dust (soil) we came, and to dust we shall return.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A mushroom harvest

kw: natural history, fungi

I went out to mow, taking advantage of the spate of nice weather. When I got to the side yard, it didn't take long to run across this big mushroom. Its cap is about 15 cm (6 in) across. It felt woody, more like a bracket fungus (shelf mushroom, like you find on tree trunks) than a "toadstool".

A later search among fungus identification web sites indicated that it is probably a species of Boletellus. Most members of this genus are not edible, but I wouldn't want to eat such a woody mushroom anyway.

When I pulled it out, I found beneath it a dark brown spore print. The spore color helped identify it. I suppose I could also have gathered some spores to check under the microscope. The main way you distinguish among dark-spored Boletellus species is by spore morphology.

Instead, I went around the yard and gathered them all up. They were clearly following the trace of roots of a tree, a sweet gum or Liquidamber, that we removed five years ago. It takes the roots of a cut-down tree years to be convinced that they are dead. At that point, the commensal fungi push up fruiting bodies like these in an effort to propagate wherever the wind blows.

Here is the collection, on the back stoop. I count six mature fruits (two are shown sideways, in back, so their white underside is visible) and fourteen smaller ones. All are quite woody, and it took some effort to break them free from the mycelium underground. The one shown above is on the left.

From a close look at the underside I saw that they have no gills. They have pores instead, but I was hard put to see the pores, they are so small. It was the fine pores that led me to the genus identification. Even though the pores are small, they are quite large enough to drop copious spores, which are less than 10 microns in size. That spore print shown above must contain millions of spores.

The pores look like this at about 10x magnification. The brown object is a piece of weed stem that the mushroom had enveloped as it grew. Compare these tiny pores with the pores of Boletus fraternus, a smaller and softer mushroom with a red cap and yellow underside, that I found growing in a corner of the yard when I was gathering the Boletellus.

I understand that Boletus fraternus is edible. I don't plan to test the notion. I am reasonably certain of my identification, but not enough to stake my health on it!

Here it is, in case someone wants to tell me I got it wrong (or right!).

Monday, August 20, 2012

Normal is not a definition

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, psychiatry

What is normal? It depends. My Funk and Wagnalls dictionary has several definitions, and even the first, purportedly primary, definition is not definitive: "Conforming to or consisting of a pattern, process or standard regarded as usual or typical; natural." Do you see that last word there, "natural"? It conflicts with the rest of the statement. Properly speaking, the first 15 words define "normative". ("Normative" has its own definition a ways down the page, one which is identical in meaning to those 15 words) "Natural" is a good first definition, particularly when we realize that nature embodies a range of "natural variation".

For about 200 years, psychologists and statisticians have developed an understanding of the "normal distribution", also called the Gaussian distribution. It crops up everywhere because of the way variation is so often dependent on many factors.

For example, the height of uninjured, healthy, adult male Norwegians has a certain range and an average value (about 1.8 m or 71" or 5 ft 11). The height of a particular Norwegian man is derived from many factors. There are many genes that influence how large the body grows; and also the kinds of food he ate growing up, the amount he exercised, and perhaps his favorite sport all contributed to his eventual height. Now suppose an otherwise ordinary Norwegian has a height of 1.5 m (59" or 4 ft 11), and another is 2.1 m (83" or 6 ft 11)? Men with either height are rare. However, among male gymnasts 1.5 m is a bit short but not that unusual, and among basketball players 2.1 m is also not unusual. Are both these men normal? Actually, yes. That doesn't mean they are problem-free.

"Normal" among people who vary in all their characteristics is properly understood as a range of variation. A mathematical concept called the Central Limit Theory shows that the normal distribution has no clear limit in either direction. The formula for the probability distribution has a very small but positive value for a height of zero, and also for a height of 4 m. However, for a homogeneous population such as native Norwegians, the standard deviation is about 7 cm, and the probability for someone to be outside the range of ±3 standard deviations (called "±3 sigma") is about 1 in 750. That means 1 in 1,500 for men shorter than 1.62 m (64") and 1 in 1,500 for men taller than 1.98 m (78"). A man who is 1.5 m tall is at -5 sigma, and the one 2.1 m tall is at +5 sigma. The probability for each is about one in 3 million. There are about 5 million Norwegians, so we might expect to find, on average, one perfectly healthy man who is shorter than about 1.5 m, and one perfectly healthy man who is taller than about 2.1 m, in each generation.

At what point would most people look at a man walking down the street, who is either quite short or quite tall, and say, "That isn't normal"? Now we are talking about what is normative. The fact is, society tends to cater to people who are within ±2 sigma of average, in height, intelligence, and BMI, which are the main three things you can measure. That range, from -2 sigma to +2 sigma, takes in 95% of us. The other 5% are just expected to cope with a world that isn't really made for them; for example in the U.S. doorways are 2 m tall and countertops are about 0.75 m high. Those who have trouble coping often wind up being classified as "handicapped" in some way. They may be "normal", but they are not usual, and that causes problems.

There are other characteristics that are harder to measure: a tendency be trusting or suspicious, one's ease or difficulty of forming loving attachments, the quickness or slowness of "temper", or the tendency to be altruistic or selfish. With several dozen psychological dimensions available, it is distressingly common to fall outside the ±2 sigma range on at least one of them. Some psychologists estimate that about half of us, at some time in our lives, will have a "condition" that can be diagnosed as "abnormal", or at least, treatable. I find that a bit disturbing, and I am not alone.

Professor of Psychiatry Jordan Smoller has written the first book (that I have seen) advocating the study of normal psychology: The Other Side of Normal: How Biology is Providing the Clues to Unlock the Secrets of Normal and Abnormal Behavior. I just checked; there are more than 4,000 books with "Abnormal Psychology" in the title, and 47 published in the past 90 days. There are only 35 titles containing "Normal Psychology", but most of these are editions of Mental Pathology in its Relation to Normal Psychology by Störring and Loveday. It is pretty safe to say that Dr. Smoller currently has the field of normal psychology to himself.

The thesis of his book is quite simple. William James a century ago wrote that "the best way to understand the normal is to study the abnormal." The result has been a steady process of studying various pathological conditions and staking out a supposed range of behavior (a syndrome) to define it. There is no doubt that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), now in version IV, has helped standardize communication among mental health professionals. However, the "edges" of the diagnoses are necessarily hard to specify, leading to continuing encroachment on "normal" territory. Only about half the people are still "normal", and that doesn't include me, because of my diagnosis as Bipolar II.

Is someone with a diagnosable condition, who can cope well with it, sick? Like many writers who are bipolar, I've learned the rubric, "When you are up, write, and when you are down, edit." For people in creative professions, a certain level of bipolarity is a benefit. It opens up a wider range of creativity, and also allows one those periods of narrowed focus necessary to prune the extra wildness off and complete work that might otherwise need the services of an expensive editor (painters and sculptors can't use editors, but writers and composers and lyricists can; and dancers' and actors' "editors" are called choreographers and directors).

I have two friends who are schizophrenic. One knows it and the other doesn't. The one who knows it used Thorazine for a time, but learned to cope with his inner demons so he could get off Thorazine, which has devastating side effects. He makes his living by tutoring in electronics and computer programming. The other fellow is institutionalized because it would take extreme force to put a pill down his throat. If left to his own devices, he hitchhikes around the country, which isn't bad in itself, but he can't earn money so he becomes a danger to himself. I guess I can't really call him a "friend" any more, since he can't reciprocate my friendly feelings. He is a likeable guy most of the time. I guess these men represent two ends (or near-endpoints) of a schizophrenia spectrum.

In seven chapters of the book, the author considers the intricate dance of genetics and environment (including family upbringing, if there was one) that influence a person's mental makeup—the genetics of behavior may take up 10% or more of our genome, so no one gene is the "gene for" any characteristic—; various ways researchers have used to tease out environmental influences; the surprising role of epigenetics, which is actually a non-Mendelian means of heritability; and the ways we can choose to change our behaviors (it ain't easy but it is possible!). He ends with a plea in favor of studying the normal ranges of behaviors, intending to turn William James's dictum on its head. It now seems better to study the normal so as to better understand abnormality.

In height, being tall is an advantage for getting a job and a mate, but being super-tall is not super-good. Men taller than about 2 m have paradoxically few jobs open to them. They duck through doorways; people stare at them (or try very hard not to stare). If they have exceptional athletic coordination, they might become professional basketball players, but for the rest, being unusually tall brings with it trust issues. It is also paradoxically difficult for those with extreme IQ's to get work. There are two issues here. Firstly, someone with an IQ greater than 160 probably grew up lonely. At +4 sigma, he or she was one in 32,000 and probably had no acquaintances of similar brilliance. This leads to significant social ineptness. Secondly, people with extreme IQ's have different interests, or you could say, they are seldom interested in things that interest those in the ±2 sigma range. This makes it harder to communicate with a boss or a customer. That is why Mensa was started.

In other areas, being "super" may not be possible. In the chapter on "Baby Einsteins", Dr. Smoller points out that an overloaded "learning" environment is probably akin to a hyper-oxygenated atmosphere. The body can only use so much oxygen. When we need extra, we breathe deeper, but going to the "oxygen bars" that cropped up some years ago didn't do the patrons any good, though it fattened the wallets of the proprietors. Alert: SCUBA divers know that pure oxygen at twice atmospheric pressure is toxic. If you fill your tanks with pure oxygen and dive deeper than 30-35 feet, you'll die; if you use regular air, you can dive to 150-170 feet, and then you'll die of oxygen poisoning. To go deeper you need special oxygen-poor gas mixtures. Fortunately, making your baby listen to Mozart music won't poison the little tyke, but it will not raise IQ.

So why is the "Mozart effect" popular? The studies upon which the craze is based are flawed. They didn't take into account the fact that parents who might play Mozart for their infants are also more likely to read to them, play with them, and take them places. That is what helps the kids' minds develop. Parents who plop a a little one in front of an "educational video" for a few hours a day will probably find the child is more passive in school and could have trouble learning.

So far, I have neglected the "biology" portion of the thesis. Our brain is biological. Most of modern pharmacology of behavior is based on a number of accidental discoveries that are some forty years old. Much more recent work with chemicals such as oxytocin is just beginning to hint that better chemical interventions are possible. Here is where Dr. Smoller's caution is advisable: we really, really need to know what is normal before we do any more manipulation of people's minds. Otherwise, how do you know when they are "better"?

How do you define success? This lack of a defined target leads to people who spend years and years in psychoanalysis, with little change. Aimless maundering to a clueless therapist is like circling under a lamppost, just because that is where the light is. A proper study of normality, and of the amazing adaptability of all of us, can shine more lights where today most are groping in darkness.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Painting the town, or lighting it

kw: community service

When you do something for others, you never know quite what will happen. I am visiting relatives in Decatur, Alabama, and had some free time this morning. I heard on a local station (800 AM, WHOS) about Jim Cotter of Glouster, Ohio (CBS report), a retired painter. After his wife died, he decided to spend his time by painting the houses of his neighbors. He got permission from one person to paint the house, and did so, then went on to another. After some time, word got around, and people began to come along to help. Then a youth group got involved, and even people from nearby towns volunteered. According to the commentator I heard, they are very close to finishing the painting of every house in this town of 2,000.

It reminded me of the stories I heard the last time my wife and I visited her mother in Japan. Her father Sanshiro had recently died at age 86. He never really retired, because the couple and their sons ran a family grocery store, but the older man was less involved in the store after about age 70. The area they lived in, called Fujimi-cho, a part of Yokosuka, is very hilly. There are small paved lanes winding from house to house up the hillsides. Though the streets had municipal lighting, the lanes were dark at night. One day about 25 years ago, Sanshiro bought a few fluorescent fixtures and some wire and borrowed a 10 meter ladder. He put the lights up on the poles that carried telephone wires and initially hooked them up to his own electricity. With the support of his neighbors he convinced the city to allow him to tap into the city power used for the street lighting. For many years thereafter, often with the help of a neighbor or two, he put lighting up above the hillside lanes throughout Fujimi.

Finding a need, and filling it. That sounds like just about the best retirement plan ever. And who says you need to wait until you retire?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Strangeness for the sake of science

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, experimentation

It starts out simply enough, with a story of Benjamin Franklin attempting to electrocute a turkey. This was before he proposed it as the national bird, many years before his more famous experiments with electrified clouds and kites, and it came closer to killing him. He got across the circuit while trying to hook up the turkey, and the rest might have been history, forty years too soon. Upon his recovery, he re-charged the Leyden jars and managed to zap the bird instead of himself.

Electrical experiments in a mix of the sober, the strange and the wacky form the first section of Electrified Sheep: Glass-Eating Scientists, Nuking the Moon, and More Bizarre Experiments, by Alex Boese (I assume the name is pronounced the same as Bose). It is a follow-on to his book Elephants on Acid: And Other Bizarre Experiments. He also originated Museum of Hoaxes. Seems he likes that word "bizarre". He also likes mad scientists, and all the people profiled in the book were attempting to further the cause of science, whether they themselves were sane or not.

An electric generator in the 1740s was a globe or large tube of glass that rotated on an axis, driven by a handle. You rubbed your hand, or leather, or felt on the glass and picked up the resulting charge using a Leyden jar, the first capacitor. It is easy to make a Leyden jar using a glass mayonnaise jar with a plastic lid: wrap it in foil, to about half an inch below the lid, fill it with salt water (easier than trying to wrap the inside with foil) and stick a metal rod through a hole in the lid into the water. Be careful. It is easy to generate 20,000 volts or more with a glass-and-leather generator, and the amount of charge stored in the jar can hurt you rather badly. I used such a jar as the tuning capacitor for a Tesla coil I once built.

Ol' Ben was not the first nor the last to "measure" the power of an electric charge by determining how large a bird it might kill. Two charged jars would kill a chicken but it took five to kill a ten pound turkey. But now we have voltmeters, so the only folks still zapping birds are the "killers" at chicken processing plants. Electrocution results in more tender meat.

Years after Franklin, in 1903 in fact, during the battle between Edison and Westinghouse over DC or AC electrical supply, a large Westinghouse generator was used to electrocute an elephant (A short movie of the event, recorded by Edison, is found here.) But later in the Twentieth Century electricity became a much more manageable commodity, and the rage among scientists got an atomic edge. When the shine wore off atomic energy, and the cold war got under way in earnest, there were still those who hatched schemes such as one to bomb the moon, and one H-bomb was actually set off in space, something over 200 miles up (View video compiled of formerly classified films of the Starfish Prime explosion. This video runs for more than an hour).

I would have thought at that point, things could not get more strange. I was wrong. The third section of the book is on deception, primarily the kinds of deception used by researchers into psychology who employ actors to subject unwitting persons to various kinds of stress and see how they react. The experiments into conformity and obedience to authority are the most disturbing. Stanley Milgram's work is a case in point. Students who thought they were administering painful electric shocks to an actor, as a purported "memory aid", could usually be made to run the current all the way up, in spite of the actor's screams, with surprisingly little coercion. But there are lots of ways for a shrink to lie, because people in general are very inventive liars. Scientists have to deceive us or else we will deceive them.

Note to those who inflict telephone surveys on the public: I lie flagrantly to survey workers.

The book's fourth section describes numerous experiments with monkeys, including some that finally helped crack the old canard that female primates (including female humans) do not experience orgasm. A couple of chapters also discuss the century-long effort to humanize apes, now thankfully pretty much over. You can't raise a chimp like a human kid, past about two years.

The last section is the toughest to read through. Titled "Do-It-Yourselfers", it chronicles self-experiments such as ingesting parasitic worms, drinking the vomit of yellow fever victims, and even a number of cases of deliberate suicide, for various scientific purposes. When Barry Marshall drank a concoction of H. pylori in 1984, to prove that the bacterium causes ulcers, it was such a case. Self-inflicted pain is a further step. The fellow who developed the scale of venom pain, that tops out at 4 for the sting of the Bullet Ant, must have been nearly nerveless. A bee or scorpion sting rates a 2. Apparently the boundary between 3 and 4 is where you have to scream. The pain chapter is followed by one on self-surgery (a few committed without anesthesia!) and then one about near-suicide, and a few cases of suicide, done to make scientific observations while dying. I admit I skimmed that last chapter very quickly. Detailed explanations of a half dozen ways to commit painful suicide are just beyond my endurance. Call it a 4 on my mental pain scale.

Each portion has a dramatized section, then a series of essays on an experiment, or kind of experiment. Each chapter has a few such portions, and 4-6 chapters comprise a section. The first four sections were quite entertaining. I suppose there are a few folks who'll find even section five an enjoyable read. At the very least, all the sections are quite interesting reading. It is amazing, what has been done to gather scientific data.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Keep that heart ticking

kw: heart disease, medicine, risk analysis

My doctor always has something to exhort me about: losing weight, reducing blood pressure, getting more exercise. Of course, he is right. Being an analytical sort, though, I decided to dig into his main worry, which is heart disease. I think it is mainly reflex on his part, because I have no risk factors. So I looked up the risk calculators for coronary heart/vascular disease (you can search for "(CHD OR CVD) AND risk"). The one I settled on is this one at Medical College of Wisconsin. I entered my information, and learned I have a 10% risk of developing cardiovascular disease in the coming ten years.

I dug a little further. The calculation is not a continuous formula in several variables, as I had thought. It is based on a block model. This table is the relevant set of blocks for my age (65), no smoking or diabetes, and systolic blood pressure of 140:
I also included an ancillary table for the block I am in (Total Cholesterol below 159 and HDL 35-44), for blood pressure. You can see that blood pressure is a significant factor, and that 10 points in systolic BP is about equivalent to 10 points in HDL, but negatively correlated. My doctor thinks I ought to take a medication to try to reduce my BP into the 120 range. It looks like he has a point; that would cut my risk in half. Were I a smoking diabetic, the risk would be doubled, to 20%.

I would like to see these calculators include a few more factors, assuming the relevant risk functions are known. Factors such as BMI (I am at 29, not so good) and HeartCam score (mine is zero, the same as a very healthy 30-year-old), for example.

Based on my family history, and my own history (!), what we really need is a cancer risk calculator. Hmmm (running a search…). Siteman Cancer Center has one. Pick one of 12 kinds of cancer, and have at it. I'll have to look into it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Health care - too much and too little

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, public health, policy

When I finished six months of chemotherapy in mid-2001, I remember saying to my wife, "I am glad for modern medicine. Fifty years ago I simply would have died." As it happened, I lucked out; I hit a sweet spot in the history of colon cancer treatment. Someone today who discovers a large, Dukes' stage C tumor, will probably get care as good as I had, but they will not get identical care.

For one thing, the "gold standard" for chemo has changed. I received 5FU plus Leucovorin. At about the three month point I told the oncologist that it was getting painful to clap my hands (my son was playing basketball in a YMCA league every week). He became very grave, showed me an article about "hand-foot syndrome", and decided to adjust my dosage. He said if the syndrome was not checked, I could suffer from skin sloughing off the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet, and I might also have extensive nerve damage and numbness.

The modern regimen adds oxaliplatin (a platinum-containing cancer suppression substance) to the other two. The code word for this triple play is FOLFOX. It is much more likely to cause nerve damage, but I haven't read whether it makes the hand-foot symptoms worse or better or what. This means a larger number of people do not complete their regimen. Is it better overall? That is not yet known.

Other aspects of my good luck were a totally obsessive and incredibly skilled surgeon, at least one doctor who will talk sense without lying—I still see him every 3 years for a colonoscopy—and the oncologist all local doctors agreed was the one they would use or send family members to.

Many are less fortunate, and Otis Webb Brawley, executive VP of ACS, has encountered a great many of them. Once in a while, a book simply makes me furious. This was the case with Dr. Brawley's book How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick in America. I have reviewed at least a half dozen "anti-medical establishment" books in this blog. This one is the most revealing.

The opening scene is disturbing. A woman comes into an emergency room carrying her breast in a plastic bag. She wants it reattached. It turns out to be a large lump of tumor, so this is clearly not possible. Most doctors have never seen a breast self-amputation, and I had never heard of it before. It happens when breast cancer is untreated for a long enough time: The tumor takes over the blood supply to the point that the rest of the breast dies and just falls off, tumor and all. At the Atlanta hospital called Grady, they see about two such cases per year.

Early on, this woman had health insurance. When she first found a lump in her breast, several years previously, why didn't she see a doctor? Two kinds of fear. Firstly, like many women, she feared being disfigured. But even greater was her fear of losing her job if she took off too many sick days at work. She knew that surgical treatment might cause her to lose almost a week of work, maybe the whole week. She knew that if she had follow-up chemotherapy, she would miss one or two days a week for months. She would get fired. Once the self-amputation happened, keeping her job didn't matter, as she soon died.

Note to medical establishment: Require oncologists to work evenings and weekends. Not all of your patients are conveniently retired. Not all are allowed sufficient sick leave to take off fifty days in six months' time. When I was on chemo, I'd have been delighted to have my 5-hour session start at midnight. I could have slept through it instead of watching inane daytime TV. Ditto for dialysis centers.

This woman's story, and that of a few other patients Otis (he doesn't like to be called "Doc" or "Doctor") saw at Grady, introduce us to his first subject: Under-treatment. When I first got the book, and while I was reading the early chapters, I was expecting a polemic in favor of the PPACA, usually called Obamacare. Actually, this bill is mentioned only once, late in the book, and only in reference to the provision requiring insurers to accept people with "preexisting conditions". A deeper problem he sees is that, whether someone is insured or not, many poorer people are discouraged from getting routine medical care by job restrictions or a bullying culture at work. As a result, they only get "care" by visiting an emergency room, and frequently when it is too late.

The axis of the book is simple. Poor people are under-treated, and the rich and well-insured are over-treated. Both are evils. The middle of the book is about evidence-based medicine. There is precious little of it. Otis writes, "I don't know how you can practice medicine without measuring the effectiveness of the therapies you are administering." (p 166) Yet most doctors operate primarily by feel and supposition. They do what they might have seen in medical school or heard at a conference or read about in a journal, but very few take the time to dig in and find the facts behind it.

I know from my own study, and from a number of things I have read, that articles which report on clinical trials that actually tell us something useful are extremely rare. Many of those few have been gathered and summarized by the Cochrane Collaboration. It seems they have a substantial database, until you learn that there are thousands of clinical trials going on at any time, and tens of thousands that have been published, but a larger number that have not been published because they didn't prove what the company (usually a drug company) paying the bills wanted to prove, and finally that only a few percent are considered reliable enough for CC to recommend!

The over-treatment stories are, if anything, even more horrifying than those of under-treatment. One of the most disturbing is that of a 70-year-old man whom Otis calls Ralph, who was badgered by his wife into getting a PSA test. The ads for PSA testing for "prostate health" are targeted at women, pushing all their worry buttons; confirmed bachelors and unpartnered widowers almost never get screening of any kind, particularly for their prostate. Ralph's PSA measured 4.3, where "normal" is 4 or less. To many doctors, PSA in the range 4-8 means "watch and wait and check, using a finger, periodically." Ralph's doctor sent him for a biopsy, which was actually 12 painful needle sticks. Two showed low-grade cancer. Prostate cancer is typically slow and self-contained. One would think, "OK, let's check it yearly for a few years." Not Ralph's doctor. Ralph was "advised" to get the prostate removed, and eventually he did.

I won't go through the whole story of incontinence and impotence, radiation, eventually a bowel bag and a bladder bag, and death at age 77. Left alone, he had a good change of living into his 80s and dying of something else, never knowing he had cancer. I know only one man who died of prostate cancer, and he was 92. Ralph probably died early, and he sure suffered during those seven years. His death certificate doesn't mention prostate cancer, and because there is no category for iatrogenic over-zealousness, the recorded cause is septicemia.

Otis makes a good case in this chapter that the most likely reason prostate cancer "mortality" has been going down is that more prostate patients are dying of things like hormone treatments and other complications of over-treatment.

The USPSTF is one (so far) entirely honest reporter of well-analyzed clinical and epidemiological data. They do not recommend PSA testing for anyone, any time. The PSA level is very poorly correlated with cancer incidence or severity. It misses half the cancers. The more aggressive tumors get found by finger probing or by symptoms like having a hard time urinating anyway, so PSA is medically useless. It is, however, very useful fattening the wallets of quite a range of medical specialties, not to mention the makers of Depend® undergarments. A single PSA blood test costs between $70 and $240. The annual cost of roughly 20 million of these unnecessary tests is $3 billion, mostly from Medicare. The follow-up treatments, also mostly unneeded, cost billions more. No wonder there is a huge lobby working against setting standards for establishing risk before recommending PSA testing.

That is just one example. Not all screenings are bogus. Colonoscopy, for example, is the one way to prove whether or not you have a polyp or a tumor in the colon. When a polyp is found, a quick snip on the spot will prevent a possible cancer. When a tumor is found, a life may be saved, as mine was. Mammography is also worthwhile for older women. There is a recent flap over whether women 40-49 ought to have a mammograph. I think of it this way. The benefit is very small in this age range, and ten years less radiation exposure means fewer 70-year-old women would develop cancer from the radiation. Mammography is less definitive than colonoscopy, but it is a great deal more useful than a PSA blood test.

The closing chapter is a call to all of us to use our minds, to question our doctors. We all need to ask, "How can we know that (this dangerous condition) exists?"; KNOW, not just suppose. And to ask, "Supposing it exists, what are the effective treatment options?"; EFFECTIVE, not "sounds like a good idea" or "what my grandfather's doctor did". And to ask, "Are you afraid to say 'I don't know' when you don't know?" If the doctor hesitates, you probably have the wrong doctor.

On p 280: "The system is not failing. It's functioning exactly as designed. It's designed to run up health-care costs." In America in 2009, $2.53 trillion changed hands for medical "care". We only spend $1 trillion on food! It really ought to be the other way around: pay a bit more for better food, and a bit for a gym membership, and less for medical intervention. Otis's final call to us: Demand a health care system that can prove it, and when it can't, say "Enough!"


kw: musings, workplaces

A career has an arc, and mine has apparently peaked, some time in the recent past. I am now officially working my way down the ladder of success. After a decade or so in an office with a window, today I finished moving into a cubicle in a large room with nine co-workers, including our supervisor. The larger group to which we belong is bringing everyone from scattered locations into a single building. At least I won't be sharing an office.

After 45 years on the job, at a variety of companies and institutions, I've had nearly every work arrangement a desk worker can have. My first job was in a laboratory setting, and I had a desk in a corner. Later, working as a draftsman/design engineer, I was in a low-walled cubicle in a space almost too big to see across. Even sitting down, I could see and be seen across the cavernous room. Since then, I have usually had a private office.

The last thing I did after packing my stuff was measure the office, by the simple expedient of counting ceiling tiles. Twelve 2'x4' tiles, plus a row of partial tiles, comes to just over 100 square feet (9.3-9.4 sq m). The ceiling tiles above the new space number precisely 10, for 80 sq ft (7.4 sq m). However, there is a five-drawer horizontal file just outside the entryway, which would have been inside were this an office. It now contains my 40-year collection of algorithms and other analytical projects. I have as much shelf space as I had before. There is also a large common space with a table, where one or another of us can sometimes be found doing paperwork that takes more space than a desk affords. So in a sense, I have more space and flexibility than before.

I find I am not much bothered or distracted by hearing the others when they talk together or on the phone. The walls of this cubicle are pretty high (64" = 1.63m), and they absorb a lot of sound. So perhaps my colleagues won't be too bothered that I frequently talk as I work. I warned them that I talk and mutter almost constantly. That's not exactly true, it overstates my habit, but it is better to set expectations in a beneficial direction.

Now that the several days of move preparation and moving are done, I can turn my mind back to work and to productive pastimes like this blog.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Searching for fellow citizens of the Universe

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, exobiology, space aliens

Take a look at this artist's rendering of the Milky Way galaxy. The yellow and blue circle left of center represents the volume that can be reached with the SETI listening program, with a radius of about 200 light years (The new kilometer-scale array ought to increase that, at the cost of fewer simultaneous targets). Using an accepted scale height of the main disk (the spiral arms) of 1000 light years, or an effective thickness of 2000 ly, and a radius of about 50,000 light years, the (very rough) effective volume of our Galaxy is about 16 trillion cubic light years. The SETI listening volume is four million cubic light years.

To date, after listening very hard to one four-millionth of the Milky Way ("the Galaxy"), we have not recorded any radio signal from any other civilization. If, as Carl Sagan believed—and he has plenty of company—there are about a million alien civilizations in the Galaxy, there is about one chance in four that one of them is in range of the SETI program, to date. With one proviso: that "they" are broadcasting a signal quite a bit stronger than our own radio and TV "spill".

Further, megawatt TV broadcasting began in the 1950s, and will soon come to an end. Nearly everything is now on cable or glass fiber. I suspect any aliens out there also discovered ways to get their entertainment without using megawatt broadcasting, in less than 100 years, as we have. And by the way, now that TV and much radio is digital, and compressed, with suppressed carrier technology, if anyone "out there" detects our more recent signals they won't be able to decipher then, unless they have stumbled upon exactly the same MPEG and framing standards that we use. Our signals may as well be encrypted.

Carl Sagan didn't create the SETI program, Frank Drake did. Sagan had too much else to do, but he and Drake were friends, and Sagan was always a friend to Drakes' radio listening programs. In 1975 the two went to Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico and listened for any signal from the Andromeda galaxy. They were hoping, if there are a million civilizations in our Galaxy, there would also be a million in the even larger Andromeda galaxy, and perhaps at least a few of them employed multi-terawatt radio beacons. Maybe one would be pointed this way? They didn't detect any. Actually, even listening with the 300 meter dish at Arecibo, it would take an alien beacon with a trillion trillion watts to punch a signal this far.

Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe, by Joel Achenbach, was published in 1999, nearly three years after Carl Sagan died. It is in part a biography of Sagan, but even more, it is a chronicle of belief in extraterrestrial aliens throughout the United States. We find two attitudes toward the existence of alien civilizations, either "Of course!" or "Of course not!!". Very few people are indifferent or neutral.

Sagan was unusual. Though he passionately believed that there must be someone else in the Universe besides us, he was a scientist through and through (and often rather a jerk about it). This made him what Achenbach calls the Gatekeeper. As a very public, very popular astronomer and popularizer of science, he received tens of thousands of letters (and later, e-mails), frequently with someone's grand idea: how to go faster than light or travel in time (they come to the same thing), or for anti-gravity devices, or for ways to detect "the aliens among us", or about UFO's and government conspiracies to conceal their existence, or from people who believed that they themselves are aliens. As much as Sagan wanted to believe at least some of what he was told, he always checked an idea out scientifically. Thus, he had no truck with New Age and spiritualistic approaches.

His desire was his Achilles Heel. Achenbach notes that, time after time, often in a public forum, Sagan would bring himself to the edge of some looney position, only to swerve away at the last moment. He was an expert at having second thoughts, which usually kept him out of totally going bonkers.

Not so for many others. During the near-decade of research for this book, Achenbach attended a wider range of conferences and seminars on the general theme of "alien studies" than we might imagine could even exist. Of course, he was in Roswell, NM for the fiftieth anniversary of the alleged "flying saucer" crash in July 1947 that made Area 51 famous, and jump-started the fame of Major Jesse Marcel. Marcel's description of the materials as being unlike anything from Earth got into the news, and stuck in everyone's memory. Marcel's son is still a popular figure at "flying saucer" conventions. Twenty-odd years of study by the Air Force, culminating in Project Blue Book (terminated 1969; I remember that), just fed into the conspiracy theories of the suspicious.

But the real stars of the book are not the conventions so much as the conventioneers, the many people with a huge spectrum of beliefs. This says more about us than about aliens; in the absence of any clear evidence that any aliens exist, it is impossible to actually say anything about them! Humans want to believe. In spite of the rise of science, half or more of people in Western cultures still believe in a god or God of some sort (Elsewhere, it is much more than half). For many avowed Atheists, their aggressive non-belief is a religion in itself. And for many, science has become Science, a religion in its own right. Here again Sagan shines. He was never willing to call himself an atheist. I suppose we would call him an agnostic, one who "doesn't know", but he didn't use that word either. Stephen Jay Gould was the most adept at answering belief questions, whether about God or aliens: "No data."

There is an interesting journey among the ranks of "abductees". Achenbach is himself subject to sleep onset paralysis. All of us (except sleepwalkers) have our muscular system switched off just as we go to sleep. For some people, it sometimes happens a few minutes earlier. It can be terrifying. Fears are amplified, and hallucinations are frequent. I have a related "condition". When I am tired enough to be woozy, simply closing my eyes is enough to start a dream, even though I am mostly awake. I frequently hear voices in this state, but I can tell I am dreaming, and it stops immediately if I open my eyes. It is probably related to what schizophrenics suffer; they can't shut it off so easily. Sleep researchers consider that all "abduction" experiences have sleep onset paralysis as their source. Lots of people disagree.

During the final chapters, Achenbach takes a journey in a more spiritual direction. Not that he is a spiritual person, but he saw how many people, when faced with evidence that contradicted their belief, or especially when there were simply, "No data", would respond, "But I feel it is so." This is equally true of the "Of course not" folks, and some have gone to the extent of producing statistical analyses of how long our own civilization might last (one published paper states from 7,000 to 7,000,000 years, with "90% certainty"), or of the probability that "anyone" might be "out there". Strangely, even the most anti-scientific of the "I feel so" crowd want some sort of scientific patina upon their belief system. I say, if you aren't going to take science's answer, at least be honest that your position is based on something other than science.

In one section near the end, he recounts and updates the stories of some of the people he has written about. I just had to look up a few of them to see how they have fared in the thirteen years since:
  • Frank Drake, now 82 and Chairman Emeritus of the SETI Institute, continues active work with SETI. He has been at it for 52 years.
  • Jill Tarter, who worked with SETI nearly as long, recently retired from active service to go into fund-raising for ongoing SETI programs.
  • Dick Joslyn, who left the Heaven's Gate cult a few years before they suicided, died of Aids in January, 2000. Achenbach interviewed him for a chapter on the cult and "alien cults" in general.
  • A facilitator of Starseed (a group who think they might be aliens), Miesha Johnston continues the weekly meetings, and also holds meetings for abductees, or those who think they might have been abducted. Her former friend Jan Bingham, who really thought she was a Pleiadian, seems to have dropped out of sight.
  • Dan Goldin, who was NASA administrator from 1992 to 2001, a strong advocate for a human space program and for searching for extraterrestrial life (but mainly focused on bacteria), is presently involved in robotics research.
This could be seen as a sad book. We don't know anything more about aliens, or ETs, or whatever, than we did in 1947 when pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine shiny objects that moved "like saucers skipping on water", and estimated they were moving about 1,200 mph (1,900 kph). We really haven't progressed since the time of Ezekiel, who saw "a wheel in a wheel" with a rim "full of eyes". He was probably reporting a dreamlike vision, but a lot of people think it was an alien spacecraft. These have never been explained, nor have many, many other unusual sightings and experiences. Like Achenbach, I'd like to see a spacecraft land and someone come out to greet us. Failing that, a radio or light signal that clearly comes from off-planet (at least, farther away than our Moon), and not from one of our own Pioneer or Viking robotic craft.

Note, Pioneer Ten's transmitter used 8 watts until it was shut down in 2003. It was barely detectable from 67 AU (an AU is 149 million km; a light year is 63,500 AU). Pioneer used a directional antenna, but I don't know its gain. This implies it would take a signal of 7 million watts to be detected at a distance of one light year, and about 80 million watts from the distance of Alpha Centauri (or a lot larger antenna and "only" a few million watts—and it would have to be pointed right at us). Out at 200 light years, based on 7 million watts at one light year, an alien would have to really want to get through to us: it would take 280 billion watts with the Pioneer antenna, or at least 2-3 billion watts with one that had 100x the gain (about the size of Arecibo's dish). We are not going to hear anybody's accidental, unfocused signal at stellar distances. We just aren't.

I have to agree with Joel Achenbach's conclusion. We detect ourselves. We project our own hopes and dreams and fears and loves and hates upon imagined aliens. Yet we don't know whether dolphins or whales or apes or octopi have languages. How will we ever learn to understand a form of life that didn't originate here?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Hydrogen restoration

kw: interstellar medium, analysis

Oh, wow, I just read an interesting speculation. It seems we could be in danger of losing our air. The Solar System (SS) is presently in a "local bubble" of extra-thin interstellar gas, but we are moving through it and some time in the future we'll exit into thicker gas. Most of the interstellar medium (ISM) is pretty thin, though it is as much as 100 times as dense as our current surroundings. But there are big clouds of hydrogen out there, "molecular clouds" (MC) that are as much as ten million times as dense as the gas through which the SS is moving. If we pass through a MC, it is thought that lots of hydrogen will be added to the Earth's atmosphere, combine with oxygen to make water, and it could get harder to breathe.

Really? This is worth a bit of examination. Some real numbers:
  • More than half of the ISM has a density of 0.2-0.5 atoms or molecules per cubic centimeter (cc). Another 10-20% is 10-20 times as dense as that. Most of those molecules are neutral hydrogen, H2. From this point we'll just call everything "particles".
  • The gas in the local bubble has roughly 0.1 particle/cc (~100,000/cu m).
  • The density within MC's ranges from 1,000 to 1 million particles/cc.
What is the density of normal air at sea level? It is a mix of gases, but the standard molar volume at one atmosphere of pressure and at 0°C (32°F) is 22.4 liters and contains 6.022x1023 particles, which comes to 2.7x1019/cc. That is between 27 trillion and 27 quadrillion times as dense as a MC.
But, of course, were the SS to move through an MC, the Earth's average velocity relative to the MC would be at least 30 km/s, our orbital velocity. How much gas would we sweep up at that velocity? The Earth's cross section (intercept area) is about 1.3x1018 cm2. The velocity in cm/sec is 3 million, so the volume of MC swept up per second would be 3.8x1024 cc. The number of hydrogen molecules entering the atmosphere would range from 3.8x1027 to 3.8x1030. The mass of hydrogen gathered would then be between 13 and 13,000 kilograms per second.

That sound like a lot. What is its proportion to the whole? The mass of the atmosphere is about 5.3x1018 kg. Twenty percent is oxygen (just over 1018 kg). One kilogram of hydrogen combines with 8 kg of oxygen to form 9 kg of water, so the larger figure from the densest MC would remove 104,000 kg of oxygen from the atmosphere each second.There are about 31.56 million seconds in a year, so the oxygen consumed per year would be 3.3 trillion kilograms. Again, it sounds like a lot, but it is 1/320,000th of the available oxygen. Thus we can conclude that, if the SS catches up to a thick MC (or the converse), one percent of our oxygen will be consumed in 3,200 years.

Let that settle in: 1% in 32 centuries. In terms of a human lifetime,it is nothing, but in more "geological" terms, it is significant. The earth loses 3 kg/sec of hydrogen to space, because water in the upper atmosphere is broken apart by UV light, and the hydrogen escapes. Over millions of years, this will cause the oceans to be lost. Even a thin MC would counteract this effect, and delay significantly the eventual loss of our oceans. That is not a bad thing!

When is this likely to happen? The closest MC, in the direction of the constellation Taurus, is 400 light years away. But we are moving "sideways", parallel to it. The nearest MC that we are getting closer to, as well as I have been able to determine, is a bit more than 1,000 light years away. Because the SS and the MC are in similar orbits around the center of the Milky Way, the approach speed is relatively low, at most 10 km/s. At that velocity, it takes 30,000 years to go a light year. It will take 30 million years or so to catch up to that MC. I guess we won't have to worry about the consequences of that for a while!

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Bouncing around at cosmic speeds

When I began reading a lot of science fiction in the 1960s, my local library had a great collection of the S.F. classics, including a set of E. E. "Doc" Smith's books Skylark of Space and the Lensman series. I remember being quite taken with the concept of the "inertialess drive" that allowed travel at speeds much greater than the speed of light. In one scene, a Lensman explains to a dance partner how traveling at 30-40 parsecs per hour can be compared to her experience of driving a motorcar at speeds of 30-40 miles per hour.

Doc Smith had given some thought to the implications of turning inertia on and off. In just a few scenes, two spaceships meet and must transfer personnel. They don't want to cancel initial velocities of the ships, so they just do it for the passengers. The notion is that when inertia is restored, the ship instantly takes on the velocity it had when its inertia was turned off. So do its passengers. Each one ship carries a compensator, a huge chamber with lots of bungees or some such inside. People go inside, the inertia is turned on, and they bounce around for a while. Then they can safely enter the other ship, the one the compensator came from.

I suffer from too much knowledge. I didn't think this through when I was fourteen years old. Now I know some physics. It turns out the compensator will have to be really, really big. The equations of motion we need are

v = a t (acceleration times time), so t = v/a
d = ½a t²

A well-conditioned person can tolerate 6 G's for a little while. Let's call that our maximum acceleration, which comes to 58.8 m/s².

Planetary speeds are great, and stellar speeds are greater. Start out with the speed of Earth in its orbit: just under 30 km/s, or 30,000 m/s. OK, you have traveled from Earth to near Pluto, which is moving much more slowly. You need to cancel out a 30 km/s velocity difference. First calculate the time: 30,000/58.8 = 510 seconds, or 8½ minutes. How far do you go while you are slowing down? The distance is ½(58.8)(510²) = 7,650,000 m or 7,650 km. That is quite a bit more than the radius of Earth.

Going to another star? Some of them are going at speeds comparable to Earth orbital velocity, or even slower, but not all. Arcturus, for example, has a speed relative to the Sun of 122 km/s. How to compensate for that kind of velocity? The time is 122,000/58.8 = 2,075 s, or more than 34½ minutes. I think 34½ minutes, and probably even 8½ minutes, at 6 G will do some damage, but let's find out the distance covered anyway: ½(58.8)(2075²) = 126,600,000 m, or 126,600 km. That's a third of the Earth-Moon distance!

Kind of a spoiler, isn't it? An interia compensator would have to be, not a big chamber with bungees, but a substantial rocket with fuel enough to blast at 6 G's for half an hour…or more! And then to bring you back to the ship you need to board, presumably at lower G so you can recover. That would take a few more hours. Ah, Doc, I love ya, and I sort of wish I didn't grow up.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Siberia in the crosshairs

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, meteorites, craters

Take a look at Manicougan Crater in Quebec, 100 km (60 miles) in diameter and 214 million years old. It is one of hundreds of impact craters known; see the Impact Database.

I was hoping to find a nice image of a crater in Siberia, but none are this photogenic. The Popigai crater in north-central Siberia is the same size as Manicougan, but is only 35 million years old. Popigai is one of the places visited by Dr. Roy A. Gallant, and reported about in his book Meteorite Hunter: The Search for Siberian Meteorite Craters. Northern Siberia is a lot harder to reach than central Quebec.

Meteorite Hunter chronicles seven of Dr. Gallant's expeditions ("trips" is too tame a word), facilitated by his friend and colleague Katya, Ekaterina Rossovskaya, from 1992 to 2000. For the Popigai expedition, the number of researchers, family members, guides and staff numbered more than 25. The impact sites visited were Tunguska (of course!), Sikhote-Alin, Chinge, Pallas, Tsarev, Popigai and Teleutskoye. Four of these were meteorite falls in the Twentieth Century. Contrary to some reports, the Tunguska impact of 1908, really an aerial explosion, killed at least two people.

Any visit to Siberia is an ordeal. Crossing the continent via the Trans-Siberian Railroad is difficult enough, but getting to the geologically interesting locales requires vehicles that can manage deep bogs, cross rivers and climb boulder-strewn hills. A driver told the author that the best vehicle to use on Siberian roads is a helicopter. Indeed, three of the seven locations did require helicopter transport. Then I read that in 1992 the author was 68. Clearly, he has the endurance of a man half his age.

Dr. Gallant's interest is not simply geological. As he explains in his last chapter, Earth is still being pummeled by a rain of cosmic dust, pebbles and larger objects that amounts to between 40 and 60 tonnes daily, or 14,000-22,000 T/y. According to NASA's Near Earth Object program, an object 10 meters across or larger hits Earth about every ten years. Calculated another way, such an object passes inside the Moon's orbit every day. The Barringer Crater in Arizona, 1.2 km across, was excavated by a 50m metallic object. The most reliable estimate by Russian researchers is that the Tunguska object was about 156 meters in diameter, but it must have been stony or even a stone/ice combination.

The Google Maps Meteor Crater Viewer shows these known craters for North America:

A similar view for northern Asia and part of Europe:

The Mercator projection used exaggerates the size of Siberia, because it is so far north. Its area is about 15 million square km, while that of North America is 25 million. But the seeming sparseness of craters in Siberia just indicates how little explored it is, compared to North America and Europe. There are hundreds of craters yet to be found.

Among known craters, this list from Wikipedia is instructive:

This shows the eleven known craters, 20 km or greater in size, that are 65.17 million years of age or younger. It may be that the two oldest, Chicxulub and Boltysh, were simultaneous, though the Ukranian crater's size indicates it had less than 1% of the energy of the other. Then there is a cluster of three craters aged 35 million years, including Popigai. There was an extinction event at that time, though it wasn't quite as bad as the one 65 million years ago, the younger impacts having perhaps one-fourth the energy of the older ones. The youngest crater on the list, Karakul, is but 5 million years old. It is likely that continued study will turn up dozens to hundreds more craters in coming years, to help us better estimate our chances of getting wiped out. Doing something about it is another thing entirely.

Reading this book reminded me of reading the "dinosaur hunter" books by Roy Chapman Andrews, many years ago. The thrill of adventure is the same, as is the frank assessment of the difficulties encountered. Of course, getting around Siberia still requires the good will of Russian bureaucrats, and some of that was hard for Katya to earn. Fortunately, the people who aren't bureaucrats were very welcoming. But getting from somewhere like Moscow to a remote Siberian village mainly required braving abominable travel conditions, and biting insects that are unrivaled (I've encountered mosquitoes the size of horse flies in southern Kansas, but the Siberian ones must be even worse). And, you'd better love beet soup. Borscht is the common fare in most places. The author reports it is all well worth it. Lovely scenery, welcoming people, and amazing science to be done. There is much more yet to do.