Sunday, September 30, 2012

You lie, you cry

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, intelligence services, detection

Ten years ago I saw an interview of Art Linkletter on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday. He was asked how he could get children to open up the way they did for him. He said, "I'll tell you, but you won't be able to do it. They have to know that you are on the same mental level." I had an eerie feeling of déja vu as I was reading Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, and Susan Cernicero, with Don Tennant. Yeah, I could read all about it, and I can understand all the principles involved, but having the right mental and emotional equipment to make it work for me? Well, It is kind of like teaching a fish to fly.

The authors frequently stress the need to avoid being judgmental. I have been told I am a natural-born Pharisee, and Judge is my middle name. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and it doesn't take much to make me frown. It became clear within the first few chapters that "the Model" is a stimulus-response system, and is designed for interview situations. The stimulus is a question. The cluster of behaviors that your "subject" makes are your data to determine greater or lesser likelihood of deception. There is no certainty either way, of course, unless you can elicit a confession. And even then you have to watch out for pathological confessors. Every time there is a sensational theft or murder, the police have to deal with a rash of people who "come forward" to "confess", who are really just hungry for attention and publicity. I suspect the authors interviewed few such people, because their subjects were applicants for the CIA or for promotion within it, or foreign "assets" who were suspected of being double agents, or were otherwise in need of vetting.

On the other hand, they provide a running commentary upon the televised interviews of several famous cases, among them Anthony Weiner and Jerry Sandusky, showing how they tried to deceive their interviewers. It is clear that it takes a clear strategy, and a practiced facility in ignoring behavior that is not directly related to the question, to dig out attempts to misdirect or mislead you. For most of us, we are most likely to get in an "interview" situation if we feel the need to ask our teen about drug use, or if we need to hire a babysitter. The authors provide possible scenarios to help us prepare (but remember my Linkletter moment).

A comforting element is learning that reading Spy the Lie will not help a perpetrator learn to beat a skilled interviewer. The Model relies on the way our mind and body work together, particularly when we need to keep our story straight. It is said that while we all lie, some folks lie constantly, just to keep in practice. But in the presence of these folks, even secret agents, who must lie to stay alive, when they have something extra to hide, cannot hide everything. My Mom used to say, "Remember Lincoln: You can fool some of the people all of the time, and you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool ME!" I wonder if the authors got some of this stuff from their Moms.

The three CIA authors founded QVerity, which provides training in interview techniques and deception detection in particular.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Governors of universal evolution

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, cosmology, astronomy, black holes, kerr black holes

Chandra X-ray Observatory image of Centaurus A and its X-ray jet. Centaurus A, at a distance of 11 million light years, is the nearest powerful active galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/CfA/R. Kraft et al. The more visible jet is more than a million light years in extent, but only about half of it is clear in this x-ray image. The "bubble" on the opposite side is quite a bit larger than the galaxy as seen in visible light.

This image is much better than any amount of words to describe the subject of Gravity's Engines: How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars and Life in the Cosmos by Caleb Scharf. In a synthesis of discoveries about the formation and growth of black holes, a subject of continued and avid study, the author shows how some of the physically smallest objects in the universe govern the development of stars and galaxies on the largest scales.

Black holes are indeed small. The Event Horizon radius is a simple function of mass: r = 2.95km/Ms, where Ms refers to solar masses. Physicists like to use radius. The rest of everybody thinks in diameter. So I'll primarily use diameter when writing of an object's size. If the Sun were squeezed into a black hole, its diameter would be 5.9 km, which is about 3.7 miles. That is the size of a small city.

Black holes come in two ranges of size, so far as we know. Stellar-mass black holes range from about 2 to 20 or so (probably not exceeding 100) solar masses. Their diameters thus range from 12 to 120 km, to perhaps 300 km. Galactic black holes are much, much heavier and larger. Those so far known range from about 1 million to 20 billion solar masses. The diameter of their event horizon is thus anywhere from 6 million km to 120 billion km. An average one, if that makes any sense, would be about the size of the Solar System, but weigh a billion times what the Sun does. On the scale of a galaxy, that is tiny!

It is not known how mass is distributed inside the event horizon of a black hole, but in a non-rotating black hole, it may indeed all be concentrated at the center, in a "singularity" of zero size. Physics really cannot describe it.

I have used the term "event horizon" a few times already. Its radius is also called the Schwarzchild Radius, the point from which the escape velocity is equal to the speed of light. Let's think about that. An object falling from far away toward a black hole would approach the speed of light as it approached the event horizon. As it crossed the event horizon, would its velocity really exceed the speed of light? I have read descriptions that state that space itself gets dragged in, so that the object falling is exceeding the speed of light relative to "outside", but not relative to the infalling space. Such descriptions imply that space is a kind of something, which makes no sense. Whatever is really happening near and within an event horizon, we cannot describe it with any known science.

Two paragraphs earlier I mentioned a non-rotating black hole. Actually, no such thing exists. Every object we have observed, from moons and planets and galaxies and clusters of galaxies, is rotating. A huge rotating star that collapses into a black hole when its fusion fuel runs out will keep rotating, and its RPM's will increase dramatically. Dr. Scharf writes that black holes probably start out rotating near their maximum rate, at which any matter just inside the event horizon will have a speed just below that of light. For stellar black holes, that can be a million times per second, while for galactic black holes, the rotation rate is in the range of one RPM.

Deep in the center of a rotating black hole, there is not a point singularity. Instead, there is a ring. Whether it is a torus or a ring of infinite thinness is not known, but this gets us away from having all matter fall to a dimensionless point. In fact, if rotational energy is extracted from a black hole, and its RPM's decrease, the ring shrinks, but the slower it goes, the harder it is to get more energy out, so I suspect there is no such thing as a truly non-rotating black hole. Kind of like a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle for angular momentum! (The HUP explains why temperatures of absolute zero are unattainable. This is similar.)

There is one other characteristic of a rotating black hole. There are two horizons. The inner one is spherical, just like a non-rotating event horizon. The outer one is an ellipsoid, shaped like a doorknob, and when rotation speed is the maximum possible, its outer radius is twice the radius of the inner sphere. The ellipsoid is tangent to the sphere at the rotational poles. Between these two horizons, space and time get mixed up, and matter that falls in off-center can pass through this Ergosphere and back out again, with more energy than it had going in. This is how energy is extracted from a rotating black hole. I have yet to read an explanation of these two horizons in which their size was clearly explained, but I think I understood that the outer edge of the ellipsoid is at the Schwarzchild Radius, and the polar radius is smaller. At maximum RPM, the inner sphere has half the size of the event horizon of a non-rotating black hole. I think...someone correct me if I got it backwards!

The first half or more of the book explains all this in an engaging way. It is all leading up to the explanation of the jets and bubbles seen in the image above, which requires one more parameter: magnetism. Whichever size of black hole we are talking about, the matter than came together to form it had a magnetic field. All known planets and stars and galaxies have a magnetic field. It is part of the territory, so to speak, when you have rotating mass. You may have read that Mars has no magnetic field. It's field is weaker than Earth's, by a factor of a hundred or so, but it is definitely not zero. So when a black hole is formed, the magnetic field doesn't vanish. Its total extent remains the same, but in the vicinity of the horizon, its intensity grows dramatically. A rotating magnetic field sets things up for an enormous dynamo.

I don't  pretend to know the physics of it, and even this author glides right by it, but when the spinning magnetic field gets spun up enough, it twists into a "tail" at each rotational pole. Any matter in the vicinity of the black hole will either orbit it, or fall inward. Most of this is likely to be gas and thin dust. The dynamics of this orbiting stuff and the "frame dragging" of the black hole's rotation (a mysterious effect of general relativity) will force most of it into a disk in the plane of the hole's equator. Friction within this disk will heat it to a few thousand degrees. As the innermost material gets inside the ergosphere, it gets sped up a lot, and some of it gets caught up in the twisted magnetic field and squirted out into the jet within the magnetic tail. Here, it can approach the speed of light, and temperatures of millions of degrees. This jet crashes through any gas and dust it finds surrounding the area, and blows a bubble in it. These big bubbles interfere with star formation, and also reduce the rate that stuff can reach the black hole.

What does that have to do with stellar or galactic evolution? Just about everything! A distant object that Dr. Scharf and his colleagues studied, called 4C41.17, showed that galactic black holes formed very early. Their jets and bubbles slowed down the formation of stars and guided the development of the earliest galaxies. Distant, and thus early, galaxies are seen to have active nuclei, and the ones for which we are looking down the throat of the jet we call quasars. The bottom line is that the activity of these huge black holes, tiny as they are compared to their host galaxies, regulates the rate of star formation. Without them, most of the Universe might have burned out by now, leaving just quintillions of dim red dwarfs to sputter away for the next few trillion years.

Now I'm going to leave the author a few things to say. This all is just what interested me most. There is just one thing left I wonder about. So-called dark matter is posited to react only to gravity. It seems to make up between 80% and 90% of the mass of the universe. Isn't it also being pulled into black holes of all sizes? Does it contribute to their mass and perhaps other properties?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Am I moving left or did Bubba move right?

kw: current events, world events, articles

I just read in the current (Oct 1, 2012) issue of Time Magazine the article "The Case for Optimism" by Bill Clinton. I was quite unfavorable to President Clinton while he was in office, but I did notice that he moderated quite a bit during his second term, to the point that George W. Bush began his first term seeming to be to Clinton's left. Of course, 9/11 and the two wars changed all that. A wartime President has to govern from the right, as FDR and Truman both did.

In the article, Mr. Clinton stressed five items, which I'll list along with their subtitles:
  1. Technology: Phones Mean Freedom
  2. Health: Healthy Communities Prosper
  3. Economy: Green Energy Equals Good Business
  4. Equality: Women Rule
  5. Justice: The Fight for the Future is Now
To some extent, the article could be considered a long plug for the Clinton Global Initiative, because CGI efforts are mentioned throughout. However, that is the arena where he spends his time, and what he knows the best. It is amazing that more than 85% of everybody has access to a cell phone. This is good for business, it is good for the economies of developing countries, and it is making the notion of a Digital Divide obsolete. Similar things could be said for green energy. And listen: resource conservation was originally a Conservative cause (just ask Teddy Roosevelt). The level of personal responsibility that widespread communications make possible just makes a Conservative grin. The other three areas, while appearing more "Liberal", are treated in an even-handed way that nobody is likely to argue with very much.

It is a funny thing, that a decade or so of being out of office has gone a long way towards rehabilitating the former President. There were a few storm clouds overhead by the end of his second term, mostly because of personal failings. But he is attaining stature as a statesman, a "wise old head", and people seem more ready to forgive (me, too, slightly grudgingly).

The CGI is worth a look, not because they are a charity but because they aren't. CGI is a connection machine for those wishing to do good and those who know how to go about it. Perhaps it is not a FaceBook for the philanthropically inclined, but that gives a bit of its flavor.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A hierarchy of energy

kw: references, energy, combustion, fission, fusion, kerr black holes, annihilation

From time to time I find or gather a synthesis of related ideas, and this is as good a place to store them as any. Reading recently about the energy released from matter falling into a spinning black hole, often called a Kerr black hole after the New Zealander who first worked out the math, I sought to place it in the context of more familiar sources of energy. Not that a Kerr black hole is going to be easy to harness as a "source" of energy, but perhaps a sufficiently advanced civilization could do so.

Sundry classifications have been made of speculative levels of civilization, and they frequently hinge on the level of energy use. Here I present one based on energy source. The characteristic figure for an energy source is the fraction of the mass-energy that is made available at each level.

Level 0 would have to be pre-Human, based on what follows. The only source of energy is food energy, a type of slow combustion; overt, external combustion is not used.

The primary energy source of Level 1 civilizations is combustion. The genus Homo began using combustion (very) roughly a million years ago, and that is still the primary source of energy used by the human race, though our fuel supply has changed from time to time. One of our most efficient combustion systems is hydrogen-oxygen, so far primarily used for rocket propulsion. Burning a gram of hydrogen releases about 142 kJ of energy, while also consuming 8 grams of oxygen. By Einstein's energy equation, e=mc², we find that the combustion products must be lighter than the uncombusted gases by 15.8 trillionths of a gram per gram of hydrogen burnt, or 1.75 trillionths of a gram per gram of combined gases. Note that hydrocarbon combustion is somewhat less energy intensive on a gram per gram basis, when oxygen consumption is included.

Some nations are on the boundary of Level 2, in that a large fraction of their total energy is derived by nuclear fission. In the fission of U-235, a large variety of reactions may occur, but on average we find that the fission products and neutrons emitted weigh about 0.2 AMU less than the original uranium nucleus. Thus the mass conversion is about 0.00085 grams per gram of uranium fuel. This is about 490 million times as much energy per gram as hydrogen combustion.

Nuclear fusion has been a holy grail for many. Success in developing economical fusion power would yield a Level 3 civilization. Note, however, that the 4H-to-He system is only about 8 times as powerful as uranium fission, or 0.0071 grams per gram of H consumed. The methods being studied are mostly based on deuterium fusion, which has very little advantage over uranium fission, on a grams released per gram converted basis. If we could, however, capture large fractions of the Sun's energy output (such as by a Dyson sphere), we could sidestep our way to energy use characteristic of this Level, as the Sun uses the 4-hydrogen reaction.

Now we come to Kerr black holes. The theoretical maximum energy that could be extracted is 28% of the rest mass of the infalling matter. Thus, if a Level 4 civilization could harness a rapidly spinning black hole (in the range of 10,000-100,000 rotations per second if it is stellar-sized), 0.28 grams of effective mass-energy per gram consumed is 39 times the energy available from hydrogen fusion.

Is a higher proportion of energy release attainable? Could a Level 5 civilization arise that makes effective use of total annihilation? In the Star Trek civilization, "antimatter generators" produce antimatter fuel for use in starships (at least), moderated by "dilithium" and "rubindium" and other special materials. The matter-antimatter reaction does result in annihilation, but if you are generating the antimatter somewhere, rather than having found an antimatter mine, it may be assumed that you are using energy characteristic of a lower Level to do so.

For those of us on the threshold of Level 2, we find there is no political will, and great public opposition, to expanding energy sources that release large amounts of radioactivity or produce radioactive waste. Thus I favor sidestepping our way to Level 3 by effective use of solar energy. So far, we barely have a bit of a toe in the water on this. The side of earth facing the Sun at any one time intercepts about 64 quadrillion watts of solar energy, at ground level. Total human energy use is presently less than 20 trillion watts, or about 1/3200 of what is available. Of course, paving land and sea with solar cells is a formula for ecological suicide, but covering 0.1% of the total (because much is in darkness at any one time) would be enough to meet all our needs and then some.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Innocent fall fun

kw: seasonal activities, corn mazes

Putting in a plug for a fun place I've been, Ramsey's Farm, just across the border in northernmost Delaware.
This image, which was taken just about a year ago, is from Google Earth. Last year the Ramseys had two corn mazes, a little one for warming up, and for younger kids, and the bigger one, a few acres' in extent, which doubles as an advertisement if you happen to find them in Google Earth or another aerial mapping site. This image is oriented with South up.

We went with a church group when our son was in high school, 8 years ago. We cooked campfire food, took a hay ride, and of course, made our way through the maze by flashlight after dark.

That year the maze was a map of the US. It was too detailed, making it easy to push through the corn and cheat your way through the maze. This one looks much better designed. There is enough corn between the paths that cheating is harder. It's never impossible, of course. If you jump up enough to see the bridge and get your bearings, you can just push through the corn in a straight line to get out.

This is just one of dozens of corn mazes to be found in southeastern PA and northern DE, and thousands around the country. Most of the farms also have campfires and hay rides and other family fun events. For a great fall weekend outing, go to a nearby orchard and pick apples, then make your way to one of these places.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Holocaust century

kw: politics, genocide, prejudice

How will the Twentieth Century be remembered in the distant future? It was certainly a century of amazing progress. Travel jumped from the rail to the air, such that millions now travel thousands or tens of thousands of miles per year, where a record-breaking traveler of the 1880s could scarcely accumulate 10,000 miles in a lifetime (Recently, Ron Akana retired after 64 years as a flight steward with United. He accumulated 20 million miles on the job). Telecommunications began with the telegraph and early telephones in 1900; it grew to nearly universal cell phone usage by the mid 1990s, plus video calling using Skype just "around the bend" in 2003. Food became more abundant in greater variety than anyone could have imagined. World population grew from 1.6 billion to about 7 billion; now about 1.5 billion are counted among the desperately poor! The other 5.5 billion are better off than nearly all those 1.6 billion of 1900.

While a lot is positive, the centralization of political power that accompanied vast improvements in technology has been primarily a negative factor. The century began with the Great War, now called World War I, was marred in its mid-to-late years by World War II and the Cold War, and closed with the first forays of a new kind of war, that has now morphed into the "War on Terror" (the American term; others call it Global Jihad). If you add up the deaths of all those killed in combat, both "soldiers" and "collateral damage", however, they are dwarfed by a different sum: what I call the Three Holocausts.
  • The first of these began in 1938, when Josef Stalin began a series of "purges" that eventually led to 10-20 million deaths of Soviet citizens by 1954. The cause was primarily political paranoia.
  • The second was the Nazi "final solution", in which about 17 million died. Six million of those were Jews, another about 6 million were Ukrainians, and the rest were various Slavs, Soviet POWs, Gypsies (Romanies), and smaller numbers ("only" thousands to tens of thousands) of leaders of the Jehovah's Witnesses and Catholics, and others considered "unfit", such as the mentally or physically handicapped, homosexuals, and political dissidents. The cause was rabid racism under the guise of Aryan eugenics.
  • The third was a combination of two long disasters in China, the "Great Leap Forward" and the "Cultural Revolution" under Mao Zedong, with a death toll of at least 40 million, and perhaps as many as 100 million. The cause here was the hubris of an incompetent man. By the way, more than sixty years of failed harvests in the Soviet Union are attributed to central planning, a similar kind of incompetence. You can't centrally plan the agriculture of a continent: Mao failed, and the Russian leaders failed.

About 100 million dead, due to the insanity of a handful of improbably powerful men. The crucial social task of Western democracies and republics in the Twenty-First Century is to ensure that nobody gains such power, ever again. How can we accomplish this? Some are even now trying to spread "democracy" in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the "Arab Spring" coups (which aren't quite all over yet). This is misdirected.

It took more than 2,100 years to progress from the raw, imperfect and partial democracy of Greece to the Western constitutional governments of Europe and much of the New World today. The despotic governments of most of Asia and Africa are pre-Greek in outlook. It will take work just to get them to a social level comparable to the Athens of Solon and Cicero (minus the institutionalized slavery), and huge further effort to speed them on the way toward republican institutions that are the "atmosphere" of Western society. It will take decades if it is possible at all.

A core concept of Western civilization is social and religious tolerance. Many of the Eastern despotic governments (Pakistan is a prime example) have severe laws against religious heresy, blasphemy, and "alternative" lifestyles such as homosexuality or unmarried cohabitation. Compare: a misguided preacher in Georgia burns a Koran in public, and the Muslim world is immediately aflame. If an Imam were to burn a Bible in Times Square, most folks would say, "Oh, another Bible burner. Let's walk upwind to keep ashes off my jeans, please." Of course, there is a slight chance that a passerby would deck the guy, but that would be the extent of it.

You know what is crazy? That last scenario is touted by radical Muslims as a sign of our weakness. It actually indicates our strength. We are not threatened by theatrics. The kind of civilized attitude that underlies this tolerance is worth spreading everywhere. If that can be accomplished in this century, we just might approach the year 2100 with a more genuinely civilized human race than ever before.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Direction without destination

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, biology, sociobiology, evolution

I was out of pocket and on a 'computer vacation' for a few days. While I was out, though, I had some time to read. While this is not light reading for most, it was an enjoyable book for me: The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson. Dr. Wilson is best known for his work with ants, but he is also a philosopher of evolutionary biology and sociology, with broad understanding of eusociality throughout the animal kingdom.

The kinds of animals that have developed at least some eusocial species ranges from termites, bees, wasps, and shrimps to rodents and primates and, or course, ants. Interestingly, flogging my own memory, I know of solitary species of bees, wasps and shrimps, and nearly all species of rodents are solitary most of the time; primates are typically found in groups of various sizes, but usually lack the kind of organization we think of as eusocial…but I know of no solitary ant or termite species. Finally, humans are eusocial to a degree found in no other primate species, though not in the kind of robotic way seen in eusocial insects.

Eusociality is an level of sociality that is characterized by a nest-focused grouping with a division of labor that includes members of multiple generations. Chimpanzees are social but not eusocial; there is no division of labor. All chimps gather or hunt their own food, though food sharing is common; where they use tools, each individual makes his or her own tools. There are status rankings, but no "Queen Chimp" who has all the babies. A certain amount of such reproductive ranking is found among dog and wolf packs, with the alpha female usually being the only one to have pups.

Dr. Wilson does not intend to classify us with the ants. Among humans, there is no "Queen" who has all the babies, no alpha couple. In fact, the human tendency to encourage everyone to reproduce is leading to pathological levels of overpopulation everywhere but parts of Europe. On the other hand, humans do have strong bonds to a home "nest" which is vigorously defended. In fact, we each tend to belong to multiple overlapping groups, each with a "nest", whether we call it home, or church, or lodge or fraternity. We typically feel that each group to which we belong is superior to all competing groups; if we didn't we would change groups! You know how it goes, "Uncle Morrie may be an jerk, but he is our jerk." You may despise your kid sister, but if a schoolyard bully gives her a hard time, you'll knock his block off. And then there is the rampant "My church is better than your church" attitude that is behind World War 3, currently under way.

Humans also have taken the division of labor to a level vastly beyond anything seen in another species. Among ants, the foragers "pay" non-foragers by sharing food with them, and the recipients further share among one another, whether their duties are janitorial, construction or caring for the young. What did humans do? We invented money, a currency easier to quantify and balance. No other species understands quantity. We have, uniquely, built our civilizations around quantitation. There are tens of thousands of job specialties. I remember when I was doing electronics design for one of the Xerox companies. We occasionally worked with people at JPL, the Jet Propulsion Lab. At JPL, no one person designed a whole circuit. There was a resistor specialist, a capacitor specialist, and so forth! It took 8 or 9 of them to design and build a radio. But what a radio! One of their radios is still sending signals back from far beyond Pluto.

A major, major theme of the author is to describe the evolutionary basis of everything human. Everything. To ask "What is human nature?" seems to be asking a question whose answer nobody has the time to hear. We should live so long. A list of our characteristics is not an answer, but can be used as a foil for getting there. In 1945, George P. Murdock wrote "The Common Denominator of Cultures," in Ralph Linton (ed.), The Science of Man in the World Crisis, that there are 67 social behaviors and institutions shared by every culture known. These are, listed alphabetically:
age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethno-botany, etiquette, faith healing, family feasting, fire-making, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift-giving, government, greetings, hair styles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstitions, magic, marriage, mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious ritual, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, tool-making, trade, visiting, weather control, and weaving.
(That's curious, I don't find music on that list, nor any concept under which it might be subsumed, unless music and storytelling and other performance arts are included in folklore.) Anyway, these are not human nature. They express human nature. To quote Wilson, "Human nature is the inherited regularities of mental development common to our species." (p 193) To use a bodily analogy, some things are fixed, such as the five-digit hand. Wherever we find someone with six digits on hand or foot, a certain clumsiness results, and the cause is a deleterious mutation. But other things are more fluid: we all have fingerprints (and toe prints), but the details of the loops and whorls and junctions differ so that no two fingerprints are identical (that's roughly 70 billion unique fingerprints on living persons today, and an equal number of unique toe prints). Some of our mental equipment is fixed. Barring mutation or injury, we have "equipment" for interpreting our senses. In fact one-third of our brain is devoted to vision. And it is pretty well established that we have a "mental machine" for language learning, which is especially active prior to puberty. But which language or languages we may learn is as variable as our fingerprints. Even among those speaking a common language, there is more than one way to say any particular thing, and we are prone to saying things in as many different ways as possible. It is amazing that we ever understand one another! (Take that into account, you folks working on Natural Language Processing and Language Generation)

While any individual human has amazing abilities and talents, it is our social organization that has subdued all of Planet Earth. Dr. Wilson seems to be saying, along with God, "Behold, the people is one…and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do." (Genesis 11:6). The book closes with a section devoted to asking the biggest question, "Where are we going?" (And I should mention that the book is built around the title of Paul Gaughin's last painting, "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?") Will we attain sufficient wisdom to preserve the life-sustaining biosphere we are currently wrecking? Can we, as the most social species of large animal, overcome the conflict between individual interest and altruistic service to society? For that is the source of evil.

On the one side, the super-individualistic "survivalists" (though most of them at least care for their family) reject society at large to an evil extent. On the other, extreme forms of Communism, such as Maoism, have perpetrated appalling evils. The Chinese still have the proverb, "The nail whose head sticks up will be hammered down". As much as I admire the Amish, their overly-collective society is ultimately stultifying, a dead end that will eventually wither away. At least they do recognize that people need their own clothing and their own toothbrush. I am not sure Chairman Mao understood that (except in the case of his own clothes and toothbrush, if he used one). Most nations and societies today strive to balance individual and collective rights, with various degrees of success. Naturally, I think the U.S.A. has had it most nearly "right", at least in the past. There's no telling where we are going!

The book closes with a sort of diatribe against religion. Dr. Wilson classes religious groups as equivalent to other groupings, but singles them out for special opprobrium, saying he thinks humanity deserves better. I think he goes overboard. If the strength of the American Republic can be retained (not at all sure given current political trends), one of its foundational characteristics is toleration of religious belief and practice, without favoring any, and an explicit prohibition against establishing any theocracy. For the Muslims to agitate in favor of imposing Sharia law is just as wrong, and as anti-Constitutional, as for the Christians to agitate in favor of imposing Christian regulations (if the various denominations could even agree on what those are), as for the Jews to impose the Torah (Mosaic) law. When the founding law of the Republic draws the teeth from the monster of theocracy, the faiths still retain their power to comfort and care for one another, to a level second only to family love, and sometimes superior to it. This, too, is part of our heritage; fundamental Christians may not like the idea that our tendency to group ourselves in a family of faith is a side effect of multi-level evolution. But it is, and it is a fortunate one, wherever we have the wisdom to deny political power to religious organizations.

I like so much about E.O. Wilson's work and writings that I can forgive his anti-religious attitude. He has been a core figure in biology, evolutionary biology, and sociobiology (a term he coined) for decades. For a non-specialist, this book clears up much of the confusion around "kin selection" and some of the other theories that have come into and out of vogue during his lifetime. Wilson explains multi-level evolution clearly and succinctly. Multi-level evolution kicks in once a species attains a certain level of social organization, and in rare cases produces a eusocial species. Humanity is a fortunate benefactor of this. While at each stage of the way the genus Homo was "ready" for the next step, the stochastic character of natural selection is no guarantee that any particular step will be taken in a particular direction. Among the two most recent Homo species, the Neandertals and us, one species progressed to eusociality and one did not, and became extinct, probably out-competed.

Is there a further major step of evolution? Humans appear to be the brainiest and the best-organized species so far produced. There is really no way to predict what is next. Evolution continues. I hope the future is better than the past, and not a turn toward extinction. There is no guarantee.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The longest odds

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

What goes a light-year per minute, is operated by folks that scare just about everybody, and offers all the amenities you could possibly afford? If you have been reading Timothy Zahn's books, you know: the Quadrail. This cross-galactic "railroad" can get you across the entire Galaxy in about ten weeks. A minor jaunt to someplace nearby such as Dubhe (the brightest star in the Big Dipper, as seen from Earth) takes a mere two hours, once you get to the station, somewhere beyond Neptune. For getting to and from the station, Zahn has thoughtfully provided torch ships, which presumably can zip the required 5 billion km in a day or so (compared to a decade or so for NASA spacecraft), at a velocity in the neighborhood of 0.2 c.*

Judgment at Proteus is the fifth, and apparently the final novel in Zahn's Quadrail series. I has been quite a ride. By the middle of this volume, we understand that Frank Compton and his sidekick Bayta are up against the biggest odds I've ever seen an author get away with. A former galactic empire called the Shonkla-Raa is being revived, and Compton is nearly alone in standing against their attempt to arise again. His one ally, a chancy one at that, is a collective, self-telepathic being called the Modhri, that spreads by "infecting" members of other species, which it can then partially or totally control.

Early on the Modhri was Compton's perceived enemy, but the greater danger forced them to work together. The secret of the origin of both Modhri and Sonkla-Raa is the hinge upon which the situation is resolved.

So what can one man do, pitted against a Galaxy-wide conspiracy of powerful agents? Compton knows there is no such thing as a fair fight. As the twists and turns of the novels reveal, it is tactical creativity more than strength that makes him the warrior he is. At one point, expecting an attack using sound waves, he provides for a hefty dose of helium to be mixed into the atmosphere. You know how helium makes your voice sound? It turns the fearful sonic weapon into a squeaky, impotent joke.

I read a book like this and think, "If only…" It'd be nice to bomb around the Universe as easily (!) as we cross the skies of our lone planet. Even better if some super-engineers belonging to a million-year-old species have provided the means to do so. Now if we can just find out what it takes to be invited to join the galactic federation.

*Note, just under 20 hours at 10g acceleration will take you 2.5 billion km, reaching a velocity of 70,000 km/s or 0.23 c. It takes you another 20 hours to come to rest at the 5 billion km point. You'd better have great gravity control to live through the trip.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Dear whoever for the X and Y generations

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, columns, collections, advice

This was my wild card selection for the month, and wild it is indeed. I grew up reading "Dear Abby" and "Ann Landers" (advice columns written by twin sisters who competed fiercely most of their lives), and now that both are dead, Abby's daughter Jeanne Phillips carries on her mother's column. When I saw Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed, I wondered how it might compare. It doesn't, and we'll discuss why in a moment.

"Dear Sugar" is the advice column for The Rumpus, a literary e-mag with 11 columns and quite a list of other features and sections. I note that the most recent "Dear Sugar" column is #98, published May 17, 2012. I suspect Ms Strayed is no longer writing the column, and has not been replaced.

There is little likelihood that the daily newspaper would carry an advice column like "Dear Sugar," nor any chance that they would publish any of the questions or their answers. For one thing, most of the questions, and nearly all of the answers, are longer than the entire section devoted to "Dear Abby" in our daily paper. Secondly, the subject matter is quite a bit further afield than anything Abby or her sister ever printed. I wouldn't call most of the articles offensive, per se, but it is easy to see that a lot of newspaper readers would take offense to them. And thirdly, Sugar is a bit of a potty-mouth, a trait she shares with most of those who wrote to her. There is still a lot of implicit censorship in the Fourth Estate. I can tolerate an occasional F-word or S-word, and a few stronger expressions; in this case, "occasional" has come to mean "only" 3 or 4 times in any particular question or answer. There's no sense faulting these folks for language I've been known to utter when sufficiently provoked, but it is sad that they need so little provocation, or none at all.

I judge from internal evidence that Sugar is about 45 years old, solidly in the X generation herself. Although my generation pretty much invented the "sexual revolution", most of us have a few qualms about it. Generations X and later appear to have no such qualms. In one of the questions, after describing a painful love triangle, the writer begins her actual question by saying, "I know I didn't do anything morally wrong, but…". I can just hear the original Abby, had this letter come to her, writing "Of course you were morally wrong! You made a promise, and broke it, and tried to justify it with a lie. How do you expect your 'friend' to be anything but hurt or even devastated?" And that is just winding up for a fastball straight to the conscience.

All that aside, I found myself marveling at Sugar's wisdom. There are places where she says, "Yes, you were wrong." But it is not in a judgmental way. "Being judgmental" implies punishing someone, or at least trying to. Stating a fact is not judgmental, it is often a highly respectful act that can lead to healing. Sugar is all about healing. She makes it clear that the first target of forgiveness is usually yourself. Get that hard work done, and forgiving someone else gets a whole lot easier. And when you are the one needing another's forgiveness, go about it honestly: do what you can to right the wrong, or at least acknowledge it when "righting" it isn't possible, and then ask to be forgiven. If a scumbag who won't even admit wrong is in your life, break the connection. Who has time and energy for all the drama?

The items are full of self-revelation by Sugar herself. She frequently establishes her right to an opinion by having been there, having messed up (not her word…), having done the right thing only after exhausting all alternatives, or simply having been broken by her own choices. Yet she came out the other end alive, and her example is often enough to encourage someone else that they, too, will come out alive, and can do better.

The book consists of 56 Q-n-A items, well over half the total "Dear Sugar" collection. The questions answered online were culled from the thousands that have been sent in. Reading between the lines, it seems a large additional number were answered privately and not published. I hope someone comes along to continue the column. There are a lot of confused, hurting, lonely and otherwise messed-up folks out there, full of questions that need to be asked, and who will be helped by simply asking them, and helped even more if they can get an answer. Today's e-culture produces more than its share of lonely people. How helpful if a portion of it offers some easing of that loneliness.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Rounding up the beasties

kw: book reviews, science fiction, animal fiction, short stories, collections

It is really hard to review one of Mike Resnick's anthologies. I love the ideas he embodies in the stories, but to discuss the idea inevitably reveals too much about the story, and his surprise endings are half the fun…even if you can sometimes see the ending coming by halfway through.

Resnick's Menagerie gathers the best of Mike's animal stories and a few essays, including a hilarious tragicomic recounting of him and his dogs participating in a dog show while he has a sprained ankle. I had read a few of the stories before, such as "The Elephants on Neptune" and "Stalking the Vampire". When I compare the range of these two stories, and consider also "Post Time in Pink" and "The Boy Who Cried 'Dragon'", I marvel at the range of the author's interests and expertise.

I think it safe to mention at least a couple of the stories, and I'd feel remiss if I didn't try. "Barnaby in Exile" centers on an extra smart chimpanzee, who can sign (ASL I suppose), and communicates on the level of a human adolescent. It is told from Barnaby's viewpoint, as much as Mike is able to enter a chimp's mind. As a sweet tragedy, it ranks with Asimov's "The Ugly Little Boy", which famously made Robyn Asimov cry and say, "You didn't tell me it was going to be so Saaa-aad!".

In "Travels With My Cats" we learn how powerfully writing can turn a life, even a life that has descended into default staleness. As one whose life is built around my reading, I was affected by this story the most of them all. By reading, we really do commune with the author. I have a colleague who learned ancient Greek solely for the purpose of reading the plays of Aeschylus and Thucydides in the original language. Maybe one day he'll find these gents on his porch swing of an evening.

This book deserves a permanent place in the bookshelf of anyone who likes animals, and good short fiction, and the kind of humor that catches you unaware, about half an hour after you've read a story.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Guitar Tuning - harmonics plus tweaking

kw: music, musical instruments, instruction

I played guitar for forty years before I obtained an electronic tuner. At first, I kept my guitar in tune by ear using the piano; my mother was a fine pianist and our piano was kept in tune. Before going off to college, I got a tuning fork, the A-440 one. I learned to tune the A string by sounding its 4th harmonic, striking and setting the fork, and tuning for zero beats. Then I tuned the rest of the strings using harmonics, which I'll describe shortly.

As my ear got keener, I noticed that tuning with pure harmonics led to certain chords, such as D, not sounding quite right, and I tinkered with the tuning a lot before I learned more about what I was doing. Finally I learned enough about equal temperament and how the harmonics relate to it to get my guitar tuned right, no tinkering needed.

This fingerboard diagram, the first octave cropped from a larger illustration in Wikipedia Commons, shows how the 3d and 4th harmonics relate everywhere but between the G and B strings:
The Nut is on the left, and the bridge would be off to the right a distance equal to the width of this image. The harmonics at the 7th fret (the rightmost set of orange dots) are the 3d harmonics, and those at the 5th fret are the 4th harmonics. You produce a harmonic by very lightly touching a string above the fret, being sure not to depress the string, and plucking the string near the bridge, preferably pretty close. The closer you pluck to the bridge, the greater the amplitude of higher harmonics. The 4th harmonic is strongest when you pluck 1/8th of the way up the string from the bridge, or about 3.2 inches (80 mm or so). This is also a good place to pluck for a strong 3d harmonic, which avoids having to adjust when you are trying to get two strings to sound on different harmonics so you can hear if they are in unison, or nearly so.

"Nearly so" is very meaningful in this context. This table shows why. Note first that the 4th harmonic of the A string is 440 Hz when it has been tuned to the tuning fork. Now, when the D string is in proper tune according to equal temperament, its 3d harmonic is almost half a Hz higher. By the same token, the 4th harmonic of the low E string is almost 0.4 Hz lower than the 3d harmonic of the A string, when the E is properly tuned.

Early on, I would tune to exact harmonics, using the A string to tune the E and D, then the D to tune G, the low E to tune the high E', then the high E' to tune the B. Working out the math, we find that with A at 110 Hz, the two E strings are then 82.5 and 330 Hz, the D is 146.67 Hz, G is 195.55, and B is 247.5 Hz. We'll see in a moment that tuning a pair of strings to harmonics this way results in the lower string being 2 cents sharp with respect to the higher string. A "cent" is 1/100th of the halftone interval. Thus if E and E' are 2c sharp, B becomes 4c sharp, while D is 2c flat and G is 4c flat. Thus the G-B interval is off by 8c.

One would think that these little errors, which amount to fractions of a Hz, would be too small to hear. Not so. An error of one musical cent or two is not easy for everyone to hear, but almost anyone can hear an 8c mistuning. This table shows the frequency and cent differences, string pair by pair, and how I compensate for them:

As you can see, for the lower strings, the frequency differences are less than 1Hz, so it is hard to adjust by counting beats. In my experience, I cannot hear the beat when it is less than 1Hz, and I can barely hear the B4 to E'3 beat. What I do, then, is adjust until there is a difference I can barely detect. For example, I first tune the low E to the A using E4 and A3, and get it exact by nulling the beats. Then, knowing that the E is a tad sharp, I flat it until I can just detect the difference. I do so for each pair. This procedure leads to a final tuning so close to equal temperament that the G and B sound good together, and the chords D, A, C and E all sound equally good.

Of course, now that I have an electronic tuner, I can get a guitar in tune pretty quickly, but I have found that the green light stays on over an interval of plus-or-minus a cent or two. Thus, after I tune electronically, all the strings are probably within a cent or so of being right, but if I tweak a little by ear, I can make my guitar sound just a little bit better.

One caveat. This does not take inharmonicities into account. Because of small nonlinear effects the harmonics are slightly sharp compared to the open note, but for a guitar using steel strings the difference is half a cent or less at the 4th harmonic, and negligible at the 3d harmonic. Nonetheless, the result is a slight stretch of the tuning. You may know that pianos are usually stretch tuned, and over the 88-key range, the highest notes are 10-15 cents sharp as compared with the lowest notes. Piano strings are stretched tighter than guitar strings, and the harmonics get sharper as a result. Stretch tuning makes notes a few octaves apart sound better together. This is also true for the guitar, in principle, but it is very rare to play notes more than 3 octaves apart on the guitar. I haven't found a noticeable difference.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A great explainer makes all the difference

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mathematics, equations

I've been told I ought to show a book's cover in these reviews. I almost never do. In this case, I just had to. The cover illustration by Jennifer Carrow is incomparable! It is said that Euler's Identity (we will come to it) is the most beautiful equation ever devised, and it ranks high among equations printed on T-shirts for math lovers. This circle of 17 of the most influential equations belongs on one of those T-shirts.

I admit this mathematical soup bowl doesn't have the concise heft of the Maxwell System (4 very short equations, and probably the "equation" most commonly found on a geek's T-shirt). But it does show that a major chunk of modern technology depends on a working understanding of a few deep principles.

The equations chosen by Ian Stewart for In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations that Changed the World span the gamut of mathematical understanding. And mathematical understanding makes nearly everything work upon which we depend: auto engines, electrical power transmission, cell phones, the water and sewage system, airplanes, and the radios and TVs we dote upon.

Some of those equations go way, way back. The venerable Pythagorean Theorem, that the sum of the squares of the legs of a right triangle equals the square of the long side (c²=a²+b²), is possibly 500 years older than Pythagoras, pushing it back some 3,000 years. Much more recently the Logistic Equation (new x=kx(1-x)) has codified the "butterfly effect", illustrating that in unstable systems, and nature is full of them, a butterfly that decides to flap twice instead of once during a particular moment can make the difference between a clear day two weeks later, or a thunderstorm.

The title embodies a lovely pun. A mathematical equation is a mental machine, used to combine things we know into discovery of what we don't know. It is usually written with some symbols on the right, the "knowns", and you have to solve it to get an "answer", symbolized by whatever is on the left, the "unknown". In the case of Pythagoras's equation, we know a and b, and use the equation to find a value for c.

For the Euler Identity, embodied in the seven characters shown here, there is nothing to "solve". Rather, it expresses a deep relationship between quantities that once were thought to have nothing to do with one another. The first symbol, e, the exponential number, is the basis of natural logarithms (a large subject all in itself). The second, named pi, is the circumference of a circle whose diameter is 1. This is not one of the 17 equations, but shows up in the chapter on the square root of -1, which is often written i, and originally called "the imaginary number". When I took engineering math courses, though, we used j, both to use a larger symbol that we would be less likely to misplace, and to get our minds used to the fact that this number is very, very real. All of modern electronics, and indeed, all wave phenomena, would not work without it.

For those that know a smidgen of trigonometry, the first cluster of symbols above, the exponential function of pi times i, represents a particular combination of the sine and cosine function, which adds up to -1. Until i was understood, the others had no known relationship.

I have known some of the equations in Dr. Steward discusses, but others were new to me. In all cases, his explanations may not have made me any kind of expert, but they did convey an understanding of what the subject was about. For example, I had only a glancing contact with Maxwell's Equations in the past. There is really no way for me to get into these; I'll just say that their chapter got me a little closer to understanding the relationship between electrical and magnetic fields that wrap together into light, radio waves and x-rays. That little pair of symbols after the fourth equal sign, mu-zero times epsilon-zero, works out to the reciprocal square of the speed of light. When you solve the two lower equations together, you get the speed of light, an insight that led Maxwell and his colleagues to realize that light is an electromagnetic wave.

Most of us will never know much about such things as the way air and gasoline vapor mix inside an auto engine. We just want to drive the car. Fortunately, some very smart people do know a great deal about vapor mixing and burning, and also about the way the steering wheel affects the direction the tires point, and how to do so stably, plus how to size the brakes so you can safely stop. We don't have to know digital signal compression theory to operate a cell phone. But a few folks have to know it to design its circuitry. The equations that lie beneath all our gadgets can be beautiful to a mathematician, and wholly opaque to most of us. But if you read this book, you'll appreciate the power of a skillful explainer such as the author, to crack open the lid on our minds. It can take years to learn to work some of these mental machines. With Ian Stewart's help, it takes just a few minutes to appreciate their effects.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Pushing my small camera's limits

kw: photography, photographs, techniques

 This morning I happened to awake quite early, so I was heading for my car prior to sunrise. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the Moon near Venus. I grabbed the camera I always carry in my lunch bag, and snapped this, zoomed all the way out (3X). I could see that, handheld with a 1/6-sec exposure, it was rather blurry. Also, the camera had focused on the leaves, which while still blurry are sharper than the Moon.

It took me a couple of minutes to run back inside and grab my mini-tripod, and then to back my car up so I could use it for a base. I took another shot with the leaves in the frame, and finally this one for which the camera focused on the Moon. Much better. There is just one thing missing in this shot, that does show up in the first one: Earthshine is just barely visible in the upper image. In the few minutes between the images, the sky brightened to the point that it swamped the Earthshine. This exposure was 1/15 second, so the sky brightness had more than doubled.

I'll have to await another occasion that I can get a sharp picture of the Moon with Earthshine. Getting Venus in the same frame is probably not in the cards. The residual blurriness in the second image is primarily due to the inexpensive optics in the Canon SD1200. Both images are 1080x720 pixel clips out of 10Mpx frames (7.8% of the frame).

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why I floss

kw: dental care

The number of people who report that they floss their teeth daily ranges from 22% to 48%, depending on how the pollster asked the question. Prior to about age 32, I was one of those who did not floss, and nobody had been able to convince me that I ought to do so. Then, when I went to graduate school, and moved to South Dakota, I got a new dentist.

The first time I went in for a cleaning, I saw a poster similar to this on the wall (different old codger). It got my attention, and the dentist never had to say a word. I've flossed ever since.

A friend recently mentioned why he flosses: He was told, "Just floss the teeth you intend to keep". It is all in how you say something!

Monday, September 10, 2012

I knew Time was left wing, but...

kw: politics, language

How you say something reveals how you think about it. In the most recent issue of Time, dated Sept 17, 2012, the cover article is titled "One Nation on Welfare: Living Your Life on the Dole", by Michael Grunwald. His attitude is simple: the Government owns you, and any "benefit" you receive is a subsidy. The article is illustrated with four large photos, littered with yellow squares. Some of them state:
  • At least $15 billion goes each year to farm supports.
  • The IRS allows a $3,800 tax exemption per child and more for child care.
  • Deductions for health care expenses cost the Treasury $184 billion a year.
  • Charitable tax deductions cost the government about $40 billion a year.
  • Depreciation of business property like computers and other capital goods cost the feds $5.7 billion in 2011.
  • The home-mortgage-interest deduction costs the Treasury $84 billion a year.
Let's look at one word used in four out of these six items (the number of yellow boxes totals 17). That word is "cost". Folks, let's be clear, the deductions and depreciations mentioned do not cost "the government" anything! The author's language implies that we, the taxpayers, are reaching into the pocket of "the Feds" and taking money out.

Wrong! Taxes are when "the Treasury" reaches into your pocket. A deduction is a statutary provision that "allows" you to reduce what "they" take, because you are behaving in a way "they" think is worthwhile and want to encourage, or because you have incurred an unusual expense, and "they" are in part giving you recompense. Two examples will suffice.

When I first began doing my own taxes in 1967, all consumer interest was deductible from income taxes: home mortgages, car loans, and credit card interest, for example. Two things were changed about ten years later. First, all consumer interest other than mortgage interest was removed from the list of allowed deductions. In particular, that part of the deduction was thought to be driving a rapid increase in people getting deeply into debt via credit cards, revolving-charge accounts at retailers, and unsecured loans. The change in the law did make a dent in unwise borrowing, but consumer credit has continued to increase anyway. It was also considered "unfair" that rich people with a dozen homes scattered about the country (or the world) were deducting huge amounts of interest from their income taxes, so the law was changed to allow the deduction only for a primary residence and a secondary one (such as a vacation home). The deduction for house 1 and house 2 was retained, because it is desirable to encourage home ownership. People who own their own home usually take better care of it than renters (as every one of my friends who is a landlord will attest). Occupant-owned houses simply last longer and cost less in the lifetime of the structure, than rented properties.

Secondly, in 1967 nearly all medical expenses were deductible. At the time, there were no HMO's or other vestiges of socialized medicine. "Traditional" health insurance was "Major Medical", which paid for hospitalization or visits to the emergency room. When you went to see your family doctor, or bought pills or had an injection, you simply paid for it. If you were a sickly sort (or hypochondriac), you might spend a lot more than the average. The medical deduction partly offset this. Though an increasing set of limiting thresholds has been imposed, now about 7%, before you can deduct anything, the principle is the same.

Let us recall that a deduction is not a tax write-off. If you had "extra" medical expenses of $10,000 last year, over and above the threshold, and you are in the 20% bracket, taking the deduction will yield a $2,000 reduction of your taxes owed. I don't call that very generous, but it is what it is. Also, if you had mortgage interest of 4% on a $150,000 loan, or $6,000, in the same tax bracket, that deduction will reduce your taxes by $1,200.

For people who take the time to think it through, the mortgage interest deduction can allow them to buy a slightly better home. If you can afford a payment of $6,000 per year (ignoring escrowed taxes and insurance), working the math backward means you could afford an up-front payment of $7,500, and at 4% the loaned amount would then be $187,500. That's enough for an extra bedroom or a nicer neighborhood. Now your deduction is $1,500 instead of $1,200. Is this money "taken" from the government? No. On average, you are among those who are increasing in prosperity, earning more, spending more, and particularly in this case, supporting home builders at a higher level than you might have done without the deduction. The extra $37,500 (at least; we've ignored down payment) in the cost of the home went into someone's pocket, who had it to spend and make their own contribution to the flow of cash in the economy.

This is not to say that all tax offsets and genuine subsidies (many of which are in the form of direct payments) are good. Some are "special interest" items that benefit a few who really don't need it. But let's consider one more, farm subsidies. In the author's yellow box, these are pegged at $15 billion. In a $3.8 trillion federal spending spree (there is no budget, for three years running), that is a rounding error-sized amount. It comes to about 2.4% of the total amount we spend on food in America. While not all of this little nest of subsidies is well spent, the main effect has been to allow larger numbers of small farmers to stay in business. This, again, is a case of encouraging behavior that is better for the country. So not all subsidies are "bad things".

But to state that we are all "on the dole"? Ridiculous! Consider the Interstate Highway System and Air Traffic Control. These are examples of what President Obama was actually talking about when he said, "You didn't build that". While the way he said it was a monumental gaffe, just think what life here would be like without them. Prior to President Eisenhower's initiative in the 1950s, the best road from where I live to my cousin's home in Bucks County, PA was the road now called Route 202. You can still go that way, if you want to spend an extra hour on the road. But it's better to take the Interstate and the feeders attached to it, also built with federal funds. And if air traffic were strictly a state-by-state system, probably with conflicting standards, could we support 3 million daily flights around the country? Are you on the dole when you take a road trip, or fly somewhere? No.

"The Dole" properly refers to support for those who cannot support themselves. As a society we have the Welfare system, administered at the state level. Of course, because no law is perfect, there are abuses, which various "workfare" bills have attempted to address. But there is no question that some folks simply can't make it without help, and as a civilized people, we have decided to help. "The Dole" is not properly applied to publicly supported infrastructure that enable more efficient economic activity. If federal money was used to improve the local sewage disposal system, or the township's water supply (true in both cases), are all of us living here "on the dole"? Hardly! We paid the taxes that were used to pay for those projects. In such cases, yes, dammit We Did That! It was just indirect.

And so, finally, even in the case of Interstate highways and air traffic control, every dollar used to create those systems was taken from the American people. We Did That. Or, more properly, Our Parents Did That. To keep those systems running well, we continue to pay taxes to "the Feds", which uses them to pay for infrastructure maintenance. It is not "the dole" if you pay for it.

To avoid going on and on, and so I can have my lunch before the end of the day, I'll stop here.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The worlds next door

kw: book reviews, science fiction, alternate worlds

Some stories require more suspension of disbelief than others. Having just completed reading a (mostly) scientific survey of the origin of the universe, including a brief discussion of the multiple worlds hypothesis, I was less ready than usual to read The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. But a good yarn can captivate me anyway, and this one did. The Pratchett/Baxter collaboration is one of the more fortunate combos in the sci-fi world today.

Most science fiction is based on asking, "What if this or that were different…?" Here, it is, "What if there really are a multitudes of parallel Universes, and what if there were a way to 'step' from one to another?" In this novel, the word 'step' takes on a whole new meaning. The authors thought this through quite thoroughly, and a few of the important implications include:
  1. Evolution played out differently on different Earths. Sundry hominids, that can step between worlds, could then be behind legends of fairies or elves or trolls.
  2. Stepping may be an evolved skill.
  3. With possibly infinite real estate suddenly opened up to humanity, how will it affect politics and economics? Just consider if known gold mines can be re-mined many times over…
  4. People would vary in their ability to step, once it is unleashed. Suppose it is easy and quick for some, tricky (requiring technical help) and slow for most, and impossible for some. Class warfare, anyone?
For some reason, metallic iron and its alloys cannot be stepped. This has implications on the kinds of technology one must develop both to step in the first place, and to carry with you when you go. In an early scene, on "step day", a policewoman takes possession of a device left behind by an arsonist. It has a note that says, "Finish Me" and "Try Me", and a 3-way switch marked East and Off and West. Of course, who could resist? It is humorous when her gun, and other iron or steel items, are left behind. About the same time, the device's design has been published on the Internet, and people, mostly curious preteens, are vanishing by the thousands.

By the way, I read somewhere that the approved directions for a fourth dimension are Ana and Kata. As prefixes, "ana" means to build up, as in anabolism, and "kata" means to break down, as in katabolism; they are the two halves of metabolism. Of course, any pair of antonyms one might choose instead of East and West are going to have extra baggage, so perhaps the authors were wise to stick with East and West.
The stepper device is powered by a potato with dissimilar metals stuck in it, forming a crude battery. All commercial batteries contain iron, so none can be used. However, I've made potato batteries; the usual way is to use a piece of heavy copper wire and an iron nail. Obviously, some other metal has to be used in a stepper's potato battery. Which one it is, is never mentioned. I wonder why iron is discriminated against, though.

The action is set just far enough in the future, about 20 years, that Moore's Law is likely to have produced a modest-sized computer that could contain a downloaded, or in this case, reincarnated, human soul. A Tibetan who died at just the right moment takes up residence in a newly-booted-up organic computer. Once it is verified that he is really "in there", and thus it would be murder to turn off the computer, he gets the backing of a powerful magnate, is paired up with a young man who needs no technical help to step, and can endure rapid stepping (most can't). They go on the adventure of a lifetime, into the High-Meggers, worlds a million steps away and further.

Along the way, the authors get to try out an extreme evolutionary hypothesis: Suppose a pre-DNA form of life became dominant. How would it evolve, and what would be the result after 4+ billion years? Further, would there be a way for modern humans to communicate with…whatever it is?

These ingredients have produced a tasty ragout of a book, a great read. And it is a clever place to begin a new series, if the authors are so disposed. After all, with a few million newly-discovered Earths to choose from (and that is just to the "West"), they'll never run out of almost-ordinary situations they can tweak to their heart's content.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Astronomers are the real time travelers

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, astronomy, cosmology

This will be the seventh book "about" cosmology that I've reviewed here: How it Began: A Time-Traveler's Guide to the Universe by Chris Impey. I never tire of astronomy or cosmology. However, it is getting harder to find a book that covers new ground. Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time is a hard act to follow! Dr. Impey manages to follow very, very well.

The plan of the book ensures nothing will be missed.
  • Part 1, "Proximate", takes us from Earth and the Solar System out into the Galaxy. 
  • Part 2, "Remote", covers the rest of the Universe, with frequent reminders that the farther we look, the further back in time we see. 
  • Part 3, "Alien", doesn't deal with E.T.'s hardly at all, but with the hierarchy of increasingly unfamiliar regimes in which we find ourselves as we approach the first year, the first second, the first picosecond, and back to the Planck time interval after the Big Bang began…and perhaps a bit beyond.
Each Part has five chapters. One device the author uses to bring us into the realm of each chapter is to open and close with a "you are there" vignette, told in first person. When the "I" becomes an atom or proton doing its best to avoid annihilation by its antiparticle, the language gets a bit strained. Nonetheless, it does get you thinking. I am not sure what the "I" is in the earliest moment, probably a gamma ray photon.

A significant feature of the book is great analogies. For example, while explaining the fusion furnace in the Sun's core, Impey notes that the power generated is about 280 watts per cubic meter, "the same as a compost heap." The fact that a cubic meter of solar core weighs about 150 tons per cubic meter is elided over for the moment. Thinking about that, I realized that pound for pound, a compost heap is hundreds of times as energetic as the core of the Sun! Of course, a compost heap's heating cycle is over in about a year. That cubic meter of star stuff can cook along for millions of years before it needs to import a little hydrogen from further up to keep going. And just by the way, this helps us understand why "doing" fusion in a Tokamak is so hard; we're trying to devise a fusion system that is thousands of times as rapid as Solar fusion (I wonder just how many people realize that the Sun's volume is 1.3 million times the volume of Earth, and it weighs 333,000 times as much—most of it is less dense than water).

Dealing with light and special relativity, early in the 9th chapter there is a scene discussing "slow light", in which the speed of light is about a meter per second (around 2.2 mph). You can walk faster than that, though it is dangerous to do so; turn on a switch and you must wait a few seconds to see what is in the room; waving at a friend across the street may be futile because the friend might be half a block away before seeing your wave; driving and riding a bicycle are probably impossible, and even jogging would apparently have you seeing events in reverse order. In a note among the endnotes, Impey jokes that he had to "leave Einstein bound and gagged in a corner and play fast and loose with his theory." Actually, the scene had to be in a classical Newtonian universe, so you could outrun (or outwalk) the speed of light. In such a universe, approaching anything at any speed would just make you move closer and closer in time to its "present". In other words, you would seem to move faster forward in time, not backwards in time. You could not see events in reverse, because the light that is "behind" you could not catch up to you.

So let us at least ungag Einstein in his corner, and consider the scene if "slow light" of 1 m/s were the case. It isn't too hard to stroll along at speeds up to 0.9 (2 mph), but trying to get all the way up to light speed, you'd find your feet dragging, as though you were pushing something heavy—and you are: you. Even at 0.9 your inertial mass would be more than doubled. There'd be no brisk walking, no jogging, and certainly no bike or auto (if they existed) could go any faster than a medium walk. You'd also notice that the world seemed compressed ahead of you, and brighter and bluer, and things to the side would seem to whip by and dim behind, fading redly. In fact, pushing as hard as you could toward a bright light would be inadvisable. You'd likely get a bad sunburn from the excess UV.

By the way, it is stated on page 193 that light illuminates a room in a ten-billionth of a second. Not so fast, Dr. Impey! Light travels about a foot per nanosecond, or a meter in 3 ns. A medium-sized bedroom is thus filled with light from a central lamp in about 8 ns, and appears fully illuminated to you, standing it the doorway by the light switch, by 20-26 ns (depending on whether the door is in a corner or mid-wall). Fast enough for practical purposes, but 200 times slower than the author suggests.

Later in the same chapter is a great explanation of the extra dimness of distant galaxies because of Hubble expansion. Ordinarily, if a bright object is twice as far away, you receive ¼ the amount of light, simply because it covers ¼ the visual solid angle while its surface brightness, in lumens per square degree, is the same. However, if the first distance is a few billion light years, the light would be somewhat redshifted, and doubling the distance more than doubles the redshift (it is not a linear relationship, and a chart on p.203 shows the function). For example, looking back 5 billion years (a visual distance of 5 billion light years from our perspective), the redshift is about 0.5, but at 10 gy, the redshift is close to 1.8, rather than 1.0.

By definition, at a lookback time of 13.72 gy, the actual instant of the Big Bang, the redshift is near-infinite (we are not sure whether it is actually infinite). The redshift is related to the factor by which light is stretched by the stretching of space. To conclude, two exactly similar galaxies, one at 5 gy and one at 10 gy, would not differ in brightness by a factor of 4, but by a factor of close to 7.5. In particular, not just the total light from the further one would be less, its surface brightness would be about 45% less. This is why it takes such huge telescopes to see the most distant galaxies; not just because they are visually small, but because they are extra-dim (and we haven't even touched upon the extra dimming by intergalactic gas).

In the explanation of Dark Energy, which is the current explanation for an apparent acceleration of Hubble expansion since 8 billion years ago, I was struck by an odd thought. This mysterious Energy is apparently constant on a volume basis, so its total quantity increases as the Universe expands. Now that sounds a lot like a kind of continuous creation! Fred Hoyle would be pleased.

Dr. Impey doesn't ignore philosophy. The chapter titled "Something Rather Than Nothing" is pretty much all philosophy. After all, we have no empirical evidence (yet) why or how a Universe could contain matter rather than just a sea of photons. And at the book's writing, the Higgs Boson hadn't been detected yet (Now it has: for more, go here and search for ATLAS). He spends a quarter of the chapter on the fine-tuning problem, AKA the Anthropic Principle, which states that if certain physical quantities were a little different, we could not exist. Actually, most of the "fine tuning" turns out to be in a rather wide range, so the Penrose Number of 10 to the 10 to the 123d power "against", is rather too pessimistic (to put it extremely mildly!). In perspective (sorry, I can't stop myself), the fanciful number Googol (NOT Google) is 10 to the 100th power and Googolplex is 10 to the Googol-th power. Let's coin the Gargle as 10 to the 123d power. The Penrose Number is a Gargleplex.

Finally, here is a great graph (p 342) that summarizes just why the Planck Time (~10-43s) and Planck Length (~10-35m) represent an absolute limit to how far we can probe the beginning of time. Unless… unless the Universe is part of a Multiverse, and new quantum events trigger the creation of new Universes, so that ours is just a bubble blown off from a corner of an earlier one. I know Chris Impey had to take the obligatory excursion into Strings and superstrings and multiverse theory and all that. Considering that the number of possibly viable "string theories" is a Googolplex to the fifth power, it bears more resemblance to Medieval monks deciding how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Fortunately, Dr. Impey seems to keep his tongue firmly in his cheek, and manages to distance himself from astro-theological speculations.

There are things we know, and things we don't know, and very likely there are things we cannot know, even if we survive for millions or billions of years. The little triangle at bottom center of the chart above represents a region of "cannot know, whether there is something to know or not". A smidgen of humility is a salutary attribute for a scientist.

The book's main text is 362 pages, but do be sure to read the endnotes. They are equally entertaining, and take you to page 416 with the greatest of ease.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

You'd think they forgot the TV cameras were on

kw: politics, religion, current events

I hardly saw any of the Democratic Convention, but I did catch the odd "Booing God" moment. Here is how it was reported by Josh Lederman and Julie Pace of the Associated Press, as reported on Yahoo News:

Needled by Mitt Romney and other Republicans, Democrats hurriedly rewrote their convention platform Wednesday to add a mention of God and declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel after President Barack Obama intervened to order the changes.

The embarrassing reversal was compounded by chaos and uncertainty on the convention floor. Three times Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the convention chairman, called for a voice vote on the changes and each time the yes and no votes seemed to balance each other out. On the third attempt, Villaraigosa ruled the amendments were approved — triggering boos from many in the audience.
I give credit to the President for requesting the changes, even though it has the flavor of too little, too late. Dear party leaders: when you detect you are in the hole, at least stop digging!

Commentators favorable to the Democrats have been scrambling ever since, stating that the ones who'd voted No were booing Mayor Villaraigosa, not God or Jerusalem. It doesn't matter. They were against the changes, some perhaps for good reason, and some for no good reason.

It is well known that militant atheists are a vocal constituency of the Democratic party. They are tentatively supported by a larger, less vocal number who believe religion has no place in politics. I tend to sympathize with this latter bunch, though I disagree. It is also well known that a constituency of anti-Zionists (some of them Jews) has also found a home among the Democrats. Some of these, probably a minority (and certainly none of the Jews), are also anti-semitic, though they've learned to keep that rather quiet. It appears that it was largely due to these folks' influence that administration officials recently met with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Whether a party platform mentions reliance on God, doesn't concern me much. It does concern me that the status of Jerusalem was initially left out, and had to be reinstated by Presidential request.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

How full of galaxies is the sky?

kw: references, galaxies, astronomy

This is just a quick reference note, to bring together a few useful quantities. I began to wonder just how many galaxies there might be in each square arc-minute or arc-second of the sky. I was surprised at the result.

First, the entire sky contains 4 x pi x (180/pi)² = 41,252.96 square degrees. This comes to 148.51 million square arc-minutes or 534.62 billion square arc-seconds.  The best resolution under "good seeing" with a ground-based telescope, and not enhanced with wavefront correction technology, is about one arc second. Thus, just recording and managing those half a trillion "sky pixels" is a big job already. The Hubble Space Telescope has a resolution in blue light of 0.05 arc-sec, so its potential number of "sky pixels" is 400 times greater.

How well populated is the sky? The Atlas of the Universe contains these figures:
  • Number of large galaxies in the visible universe: 350 billion.
  • Number of dwarf galaxies (ditto): 7 trillion.
Thus, an average set of three one-square-second bits of sky must contain two large galaxies. Each square second must contain about 13 dwarf galaxies. It takes a long time to gather enough light to see them all, clear out to just over 13 billion light years, but there is a lot going on in every square arc-second!

How big will they appear? A typical dwarf galaxy of 1,000-light-year size, 13.4 billion light years away (right after the universe cleared up enough to see that far), has an angular diameter of 0.015 arc second. So even Hubble won't be able to do more than register its existence in a particular pixel. Back up to 13 billion light years, when larger galaxies were forming up, and a 100,000 light-year-sized galaxy would subtend 1.5 arc seconds. Hubble can see a little detail in such an object. We can expect, as wavefront correction improves for large, and multiple-instrument, ground-based telescopes, that clearer images of such faraway objects will be obtained.

It is going to take a while, however, for a multi-exabyte database of the sky to be gathered and curated. Astronomers have a never-ending subject to explore!

Monday, September 03, 2012

Perhaps 223 is long enough

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, politics, bureaucracy, polemics

My father used to say that institutional change had to follow the "Moses Principle": Forty years in the wilderness, until the entire generation dies out. He was thinking of paradigms of running a business. When someone comes along with a new idea, it can take a generation for it to take root and take over.

But nations are not like businesses. It can take hundreds of years to turn the course of a nation, should it survive so long. We really ought to take warning from the ossification of China for hundreds of years until the Communist revolution. And without the American revolution, England would have continued its own ossification and, most likely, have been eliminated from the world stage long before the Nineteenth Century.

The career of the United States' federal government has led to its own ossification, as it has become subject to an unbreakable bureaucracy, every bit as stagnant and deadly as the one that gripped China for four centuries. I complained in an earlier post that the federal payroll has grown so large, that reducing "government spending" in any meaningful way would put one or two millions out of work. I had no idea; my figures were off by a factor of at least two, in a most unfortunate direction!

I find in Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, by Edward Luce, that the size of the federal payroll is limited by statute to 2 million, irrespective of the military, but that our leaders have gotten around this by hiring contractors, which now number nearly 11 million! Add in the military, and the total number of federal personnel exceeds 14 million. That is coming up on 5% of the total U.S. population, and is more than 10% of the working population.

You'd think, with so many people doing the government's business, that a lot of work would get done. In reality, their productivity is a fraction of the productivity of the average business enterprise. The primary business of a bureaucrat is to avoid responsibility. Somehow, it has come about that dozens of committees, regulatory bodies, and agencies get involved in the siting, design and construction of a single bridge. There is chapter after chapter in Start Thinking that illustrates this principle with examples from every area in which the government is involved (and that is nearly everything!). I think it safe to say that the web of multiple responsibilities guarantees that no single person is ever responsible for any particular decision. Thus, no matter what a Presidential candidate may say about "reforming" Washington, the system of today's federal government is a Gordian knot, now the size of a battleship, and there is no sword sufficient for a latter-day Alexander to slice it open.

Mr. Luce's premise is that this and other ills are not directly the "fault" of the government. We keep voting for the people that run this circus. What we have not done is demand a say in the bureaucracy. Nor can we, with the current system in place. A generation ago, a commission reported, "If any nation were to attempt to impose upon America the current system of education, it would be considered an act of war." In spite of "No child left behind" and "Race to the top", it has gotten worse. At the time, the U.S. education system was ranked eighth; now it is twentieth, and falling. Amazingly, just yesterday I met a family from Shanghai, who moved here so their children, middle-schoolers, could "have the benefit of an American education." What were they smoking? They lived here ten years ago, but I don't think they realize how much has changed in just that short decade. From what I can determine, it is now nearly two years since Chinese primary education surpassed America, and in math and science, China is now number one in the world.

I happen to live in a favored location, along the Eastern seaboard, where there is good support for maintaining infrastructure. This is mainly so that congresspersons can more readily travel back to their districts, from New York to South Carolina. If the nation's capital were in Omaha, I wonder what the highway and train systems of Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas would be like? (I understand the Vice President still takes the train home to Delaware frequently; now with half a dozen Secret Service bodyguards. The Wilmington station has now been named for him.)

Elsewhere in the country, parts of the Interstate Highway System are crumbling, and the side roads are worse. And trains? Forget it. A few years ago my brother and his family reserved a sleeper for the 3-day ride from Ohio to California for a family reunion. The ride was so bruising, that my sister-in-law, who is terribly afraid to fly, insisted that they cancel the return reservation and fly home. Much of the trip, the train went no more than 35 mph due to poor track conditions, and even at that speed, the train shook terribly.

In the memorable chapter "Maybe We Can't: Why Money Continues to Rule Washington", the author details how the entrenched system defeated every intention of President Obama, and of George W. Bush before him, to make any improvements. In a sense, going to war is about the only thing a President can do nowadays. Even the famed (and vilified) "Obamacare" bill wound up containing very little of what Obama originally proposed, and nearly everything that the insurance lobby wanted. It is strange: The Republicans are finally getting around to revealing that the "Affordable Care Act" guts Medicare to the tune of more than $700 billion, but they have neglected to point out that nearly all of that will go straight into insurance premiums!

P.S. I am a registered Republican, so I am allowed to vote in primary elections. You can bet that I do not vote straight ticket. Sadly, my wife and I may be the only ones on our block who bother to find out what candidates really stand for and what initiatives really are proposing.

My mother once said that the 50% voting rate in America was a sign that the people were satisfied; at the time nearly 100% of the Russians voted, but could only vote "Yes" or not vote at all. In America, those who voted were mainly those who want a change plus a number who don't want a change and want to counter the opposition. That principle worked well in 1955. It doesn't any more. We are like the proverbial frog in the slowly-heated cauldron, that doesn't try to jump out until the water is warm enough to loosen its muscles so much it can't jump, so it gets boiled. We have been gradually jollied into the present situation over two generations, by my reckoning. It won't be an easy road back.

Mr. Luce doesn't claim to have a prescription for change. The closest he comes is to quote lobbyist Mark Garten, "America will ultimately stand or fall by the health of its middle class." At the moment, the middle class is squarely in the sights of an ossified bureaucracy. This is not a Liberal-Conservative problem. It is a "Damn right I'm going to cover my ass so I can't be held to blame for my decisions" problem that afflicts nearly all of those 14 million federal employees and contractors. There is no simple prescription. Thomas Jefferson wrote, in words that ought to have been included in the Constitution, but were not:
"…to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."
How long will it take until the American people decide that the "evils" are no longer "sufferable"? Our union has lasted 236 years, and the federal government 223 years. For the union to continue, the present system may need to be abolished and replaced. Churchill said, "Americans always do the right thing, after exhausting all alternatives." It seems we are just about out of alternatives. Mr. Luce writes that we actually need a new Constitutional Convention, but "That can't happen." I pray that it can happen.

In his own review of this book, David Gergen of CNN wrote, "Warning: this book could be a danger to your peace of mind." I am certainly happy to have finished reading it. I hope I can return to better sleep as the shock wears off.