Friday, November 30, 2012

Sensibility and sensibilism

kw: philosophy, sensibility

We are variously blessed and plagued by the richness of vocabulary. Yet there are notable gaps. I have been seeking a word to encapsulate the way I tend to think of things; not exactly a philosophy, I suppose, but that is itself of a higher level. I used to call myself a Pragmatist, but pragmatism in practice is rather harsh. I liken this to the way I once answered the question, by a supervisor, "Do you think I am fair?" I said, "Fairness can come across as harshness, as equally harsh to all. We like some mercy with our justice." He liked that. Then after more thought I said, "People don't only want to be treated fairly, they want to be treated well." Fortunately, he liked that also.

I have found these days that I often answer questions about dilemmas by asking, "What would make sense?" or "What would be the sensible thing to do?" It occurred to me to find out if Sensibilism is a recognized philosophy, and if so, what it is. I soon came across Sensibilism as defined by B. Russell (later rejected by him), but—what a disappointment!—saw that it is entirely related to the perceptions of our senses (and how we think about such perceptions). It traces back to the conundrum, "If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" Now you have to define "sound" and decide whether sensing the vibrations in the air is required. This kind of recursive reasoning is why philosophy was taken over by "linguistic analysis" a couple of generations ago, and is still largely fixated on meanings of words rather than the pursuit and classification of ideas.

The primary antonyms of "sensible" are "senseless", "unrealistic", and "unreasonable". Even as I think about this, I realize that what is sensible or reasonable to me is going to seem senseless or unreasonable to someone else…and vice versa. "One man's meat is another man's poison." Thus even a redefined Sensibilism, based on reasonableness rather than sense-perception, is unlikely to avoid a death spiral into linguistic analysis and similar conceits.

Nonetheless, I do like the notion of basing my decisions on, "What would make sense?" Without making an implied promise, I expect to consider these things, so don't be surprised if I post some ideas on a "What would be sensible?" theme in the future.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The first cracks in ancient Egypt's facade

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, egyptology, hieroglyphics, decipherment

Prior to 1822, a document such as this papyrus of the scribe Ani was wholly opaque. Avid students of Egypt had been laboring for decades to decipher hieroglyphic script, and Thomas Young had determined that at least a few symbols were phonetic when used for a non-Egyptian name such as Ptolemy or Cleopatra (both were Greek). Until the breakthroughs by Jean-François Champollion that he began publishing in 1824, however, scholarly theories and speculations greatly outweighed known facts.

Hieroglyphic writing appears to be a pictographic system, and many think it is similar to Chinese. But while the Chinese use 70,000 or more ideographs, there were only about 800 unique hieroglyphic symbols (with recognizable variations) in use during any period*. That seems too many for an alphabet, but it is much too few for a conceptual script such as Chinese. It is also too many for a convenient syllabary.

* Hieroglyphs were in use for some 3,000 years. Numerous signs came into use, and others fell out of use, leading to a total corpus of some 5,000 signs used over the centuries.

The Amharic language of Ethiopia is written with signs that represent syllables, and by my count, uses 282 symbols. The Japanese kana, used for phonetic spelling, number 72 (Japanese also use several thousand kanji, derived from Chinese). Languages such as English that are written with purely alphabetic scripts tend to develop larger numbers of spoken syllables, and thus an English syllabary might need 5,000-10,000 symbols.

The complexities of hieroglyphic script, and the hieratic script that was derived from it, were teased out by a number of workers over many years, beginning with the aforementioned Thomas Young, but the key breakthrough by Champollion was realizing that the script is primarily phonetic in a way similar to Semitic scripts, and that the larger-than-expected number of symbols (linguists call them glyphs) resulted from several factors:
  • Like Semitic scripts such as Hebrew, nearly all the phonetic symbols denote consonants.
  • Hebrew and many other Semitic scripts use "points" below or within a symbol to indicate the vowel sound that follows the consonant, or an aspiration. Hieroglyphs used a more complex system of determinants, within or above or below a symbol, for a similar purpose.
  • More than half the symbols used are indeed ideographs, and denoted whole words. The English ampersand or the +, both used to mean "and", are examples, and we use ¢ instead of writing "cents", £ for "pound Sterling", and ∞ for "infinity".
  • Other kinds of determinants were used, in ways I don't understand, but some may have had grammatical meaning such as the "particles" or postpositions in Japanese.
If the complexities of Egyptian writing only were the subject of Andrew Robinson's book, it would be interesting enough, but perhaps rather dry reading. However, Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion reveals the life of a singularly interesting genius. He was an interesting man living in interesting times. Born in 1790 during the Terror, his lifetime included the founding of the first French republic, the rise and reign of Napoleon (twice), and the restoration of the monarchy under Louis XVIII. While he and his family were republican in sympathies, Champollion's career after 1815 was dependent on royal favor and sponsorship.

I find it interesting that we Anglicize his surname, but not the given names: Champollion wrote his name "Champoléon", as seen by this inscription, probably in his own hand, made in 1829 in Thebes. It took another 100 years or more for archaeologists to (mostly) get over the impulse to vandalize monuments. The name means "field of lions".

J-F Champollion was a difficult man. Without the protection of his older brother Jacques-Joseph, and other influential men he managed to befriend, he'd have become a forgotten footnote of history. Their father was a book seller, and both boys were bookish. Both became librarians. The Napoleonic expedition to Egypt, when J-F was 11 years old, resulted in an "Egyptian frenzy" in French society. Family friendships with some of the scientists who'd been on that expedition resulted in opportunities to see materials returned to French museums and academic institutions, and ignited this frenzy in young J-F, called Champollion jeune  ("the younger") in writings of his time, as his brother became known as Champollion-Figeac, after their birth city.

His labors to decipher the Egyptian scripts were based on his knowledge of Coptic, taught him by a priest who'd been sheltered in the Champollion house during the Republic, when priests were persecuted. This was both a help and a hindrance, because while Coptic has many cognates with ancient Egyptian, there are many false cognates and other words that are simply different. Words in two related languages have a cognate relationship if they are spelled and/or pronounced similarly and have very similar meanings, such as "wine" in English and its Italian cognate "vino"; in Old English, AKA Anglo-Saxon, the "W" was pronounced as a "V". False cognates are words that seem similar but aren't. Thus in French, "assister" does not mean to assist or help, but to "attend", such as going to a symposium. Because I know French, I can sometimes read a sentence or two of the related language Spanish, but usually find Spanish mostly unreadable, and I cannot understand hardly any spoken Spanish.

We must also remember that the Egyptian spoken language of 3000 BCE was probably quite different from that of 196 BCE, the time that the Rosetta Stone was made. This, and the nearly universal opinion in the early 1800s that Hieroglyphic was almost entirely conceptual (ideographic like Chinese), led Champollion down numerous blind alleys during the two decades (1802-1822) prior to his breakthrough.

The publication of a system that allowed a scholar to read most hieroglyphic and demotic inscriptions led to a burst of activity, and fame for Champollion. He obtained sponsorship for a joint French-Italian expedition to Egypt in 1828-9, and was made the first Professor of Egyptology upon his return. Sadly, the sickly J-F had not long to live. He died early in 1832. The enemies he had made in his life continued their attacks after his death, and delayed acceptance of his system. But once scholars began to test it and found it useful, much work went on to expand it, and to correct a few matters, leading to the ability to read nearly all (but not quite all) hieroglyphic papyri and inscriptions.

An interesting result of Champollion's work, and an area where even he had the wisdom to tread lightly, was his discovery that the early Egyptian dynasties dated to several hundred years prior to the accepted date of the Biblical Flood. Modern Biblical chronologies still place the Flood in either 2268 BCE, or less frequently a range of dates reaching to about 2500 BCE. The 280 kings, in 31 dynasties of Egypt, prior to 332 BCE when Alexander took over, reach back to about 3050 BCE when you add up the years that each reigned. Also, a number of earlier documents discuss "legendary" events described as 2000 to 3000 years earlier than the First Dynasty, indicating times that predated the accepted date of Adam's creation in about 4000 BCE by many centuries. In the 1820s, to claim such things might be fact was to put oneself in mortal danger.

The book details the life, the work, and the people surrounding Champollion and makes the times live again for us. Linguistic progress since that time has even led to toys such as this "Hieroglyphic Alphabet" that you can use online to create a cartouche with your name in Egyptian. It is rather bogus (compare O and U), but amusing. Champollion might even have been amused, but knowing a bit about his personality, I suspect he would chide the web site's creator about the anachronistic mix of ages selected for this "alphabet". A postscript to the text briefly discusses the contrasting styles of Young, who provided the first clues, and Champollion, who truly deciphered much of the hieroglyphic system. The one was a polymath, and triumphed in many areas, where the other had a singular focus, almost tunnel vision. It took the talents of both men, each in his own area, to make it possible to read Egyptian, but the bulk of the work was indeed Champollion's.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Can liberalism save the poor?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, poverty, policy

Jesus told his disciples, "The poor you will always have with you" (Matt. 26:11 and Mark 14:7), and some think this means God favors some amount of poverty. Instead, we must understand that this phrase expresses God's sad understanding of human nature. It is not to be taken as a prophecy that must be fulfilled. The Old Testament contains frequent admonitions to relieve the poor, and specific provisions for their debts to be forgiven, such as the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee. In the New Testament we find that, when Judas went out to betray Jesus, the other apostles thought he might be going to give alms, and this tells us that Jesus would send Judas (the group treasurer) to do so from time to time.

Today, what do we find? In the richest nation on Earth (for the present), poverty continues to increase, not just in number, but in proportion. This in spite of the famed "war on poverty" launched by President Johnson nearly 50 years ago. Poverty, as defined by the government, had been decreasing already in the mid 1960s; it had been over 18% (8 million) of families in 1962, and continued to a low of 8.7% (4.8 million) families in 1973. After some gradual swings up and down, the figure currently stands at 11.8% (9.5 million) families. There is a defined threshold for each family size; for a family of 3, it is about $18,000 yearly. Folks, that isn't much!

Curiously, in Washington, DC public schools, spending per student is nearly $19,000, yet the education received is better in "mid-continent" schools (in the Central time zone), where yearly spending is $6,000-9,000. Hang onto this thought.

A few years ago, two prominent liberal activists, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, launched "The Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience", a bus tour of 18 cities in 8 states. They write of their experiences and findings in The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. The recession of the past four years has pushed many in the middle class toward the poverty threshold, without necessarily taking them right across it. By grouping the near-poor with those defined as poor, the authors can state that the numbers of struggling Americans is 150 million, "the greatest number in five decades".

After presenting a "Portrait of Poverty", which focuses on poverty as a fact (the lack of sufficient money, and nothing more) the authors present five aspects of poverty: Opportunity, Affirmation, Courage, Compassion, and Imagination (or, in particular, the lacks thereof). Poverty of Affirmation is a particularly insidious difficulty. The (still) well-off have a nearly overwhelming tendency to think that the poor "deserve it". However, one's politics affect this outlook. People with a more liberal attitude expect government to solve problems, and have low rates of charitable donation. People with a more conservative attitude do not expect government to help in a sufficient or useful way, so they give on average four times as much to charity as liberals.

Let's back up to some of the figures above. What would it cost to raise the effective income of those families below the poverty line to, say, $30,000? With no knowledge of the income distribution, I can guess that it doesn't exceed $10,000 on average, for those 9.5 million families. So that is $20,000 times 9.5 million. That comes to $190 billion. Then, for those above the line, but making less than $30,000, we can roughly estimate another 50% added, for a total of about $285 billion. That is substantial, but it is one-third of the money wasted on the TARP programs, just in 2009. However, total charitable giving in 2011 was nearly $300 billion. While most of this went to church programs, some amount was given to organizations such as "missions" that help the poor directly, and many churches pass on funds that come to them to support such efforts.

Government spending on about 50 "war on poverty" programs totaled more than $475 billion last year. Clearly, that hasn't resulted in America's poor living at a $30,000+ level (per family of 3). By far the greatest part of it stays in the pockets of the huge army of civil "servants" who administer and carry out the programs.

The book hardly touches on figures like this. The authors call for more spending. I'd think the focus ought to be on "right spending". I'd prefer a manifesto, a demand, for a simple criterion: that governmental organizations be required to have at least 75% efficiency. Thus, three fourths of every dollar that passes through the hands of every such agency must go directly into the pocket of a poor person, either as direct cash, or as whatever kind of "food stamp" is currently in fashion, or as some other kind of voucher to cover living expenses. But be sure to make welfare frauds such as amassing vouchers for multiple dead persons, punishable by death.

A great effort is also needed to improve education, primarily by doing away with most of the administrators and other non-teachers. In the 1950s, my grade school, with 600 students, had about 20 teachers (class size was about 30), plus a principal, an assistant principal, a secretary, and the janitorial staff. There was no cafeteria staff, as we all brought our lunches. However, in schools that had food programs for poor students, it was handled by the teachers. The grade school our son went to in the 1990s had so many "junk" administrators, that only 40% of the roster was teachers, and their rate of pay was less (adjusted for inflation) than a teacher's salary in 1955. I shudder to think what the situation is now, after another 15 years. I do know this: while a number of my son's teachers, in most years, were very good, there were also a distressing number of "bottom of the barrel", tenured fools in the classroom. We need to get rid of all the vice-assistant-this and that, and apply the money to the salary budget for teachers, and apply realistic accountability for teachers to keep their jobs.

The lowest rate of publication spending is $6,000 per student. Times 20, that is $120,000 per classroom. Suppose we paid 60% of that directly to the teacher? Do you think we could attract some higher-quality teachers? There are other significant problems with public education, but I'll leave them for a different rant.

Here is my greatest area of agreement with Smiley and West: Predatory CEO's make way too much. It seems de rigueur now for a company head to receive at least $1 million per month, and often much more, just in base salary, plus they usually get stock options that can earn them even more than their salary (and how is this not insider trading?). How much is a million a month? Of course, they don't work a 40-hour week. Many are workaholics that stay at their desks 70-80 hours. So, a typical working month might contain 325 hours. That comes to more than $3,000 per hour. Quite frankly, I don't think anybody's time is worth more than about $300-400 per hour, no matter what they do (except maybe a bomb squad guy who saves a few thousand lives—he deserves an extra large bonus). I once walked into a law office to ask about their terms. This was no hotshot agency, just a small practice of four lawyers. There was no free first consultation. The first visit would require a $3,600 retainer, and their rate was $550 per hour. I didn't even smile as I walked out. I found a lawyer who did a fine job at less than half the rate, and the first visit was free.

I used to subscribe to Utne Reader. I don't know if it is still true, but Eric Utne once wrote that they followed a company principle, that the highest paid person could make no more than seven times as much the lowest paid full time worker. I am on the board of a nonprofit organization, that pays its director about $75,000. That's plenty for a good director; it is in the top 20% of national salaries. The receptionist gets something like the mid-$20s, so the place would qualify as a "good" organization by the Utne rule even if the director were paid twice as much.

The book's title is mainly there as a provocation. The only discussion of the rich is similar to the prior two paragraphs, plus a call to prosecute the predatory bankers and congresspersons who actually caused the recent recession. This shows that politics don't matter to a President, only money matters. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama have protected the guilty at every turn.

A lot is made these days about "choice", whether related to abortion ("it's a choice that must be protected") or homosexuality ("it isn't a choice, it is genetic, and must be protected"), or another half dozen areas. More and more of us must realize that poverty is not a choice (except for a few ascetics). The Bible uses the words "oppress", "oppressed" and "oppression" more than 120 times, most frequently in the sense of a rich person taking advantage of a poor person. This is something God particularly hates. This is the core of the problem that Smiley and West are discussing. We have a system that protects the oppressors and oppresses their victims. They suggest 12 points to deal with this. You and I know that none of the 12 points has a breath of a chance of passing Congress or being signed by any President, of whatever party. It will take a renewed civil rights movement to, at the very least, force governments to allow people to escape the direst forms of such oppression, such as by re-occupying foreclosed dwellings that are left vacant by the banks. I just don't know whether such a renewed movement can go forward with as little violence (on the part of the protesters) as was seen 40-50 years ago.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Third time is the charm, ain't it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, dictionaries, short biographies, lexicography

When I was a kid, we'd sometimes poke fun at someone's diction by chanting, "'Ain't' ain't a word 'cause it ain't in the dictionary." Then in my sophomore year, the high school library obtained a copy of the latest "big dictionary," Webster's Third International (to use its short title). Some smart aleck or other looked in it right away, and came running out to say, "Hey, now 'ain't' is in the dictionary!" We all had to run in to see. Sure enough, big as life:

I crept back in later and checked in a few other dictionaries, something I had not considered doing before. Surprise! "Ain't" was in each and every one!! The new dictionary was remarkable only in what it left out: a notification that "ain't" was colloquial, or substandard, or "to be deprecated", and though it did say "disapproved by many", it seemed to approve, noting its use by "many cultivated speakers". As a much-abused nerdy kid, I knew well enough to keep that discovery to myself.

Unbeknownst to all of us kids, the publication of Webster's Third (W3) by the Merriam Co. triggered a controversy that is still not quite over. A debate or dispute is a short-term affair, but a controversy can go on and on, particularly when it touches on matters of tradition. Then, like the centuries-long arguments about the Trinity, the self-worth of touchy intellectuals gets called into question, and the fray outlasts the original participants.

The scope of the W3 controversy is ably canvassed by David Skinner in The Story of Ain't: America, its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published. It is no spoiler to mention that anti-W3 material has been published as recently as 2011, a full fifty years after the dictionary was issued. This book is neither pro- nor anti-W3, but is rather a history of the making of the volume, and the story of the principal characters surrounding it.

About the first half of the book's 40 chapters consist of mini-biographies of more than twenty men, and a woman or two. The central figures in the drama are Philip Gove, editor of W3, and Dwight Macdonald, who wrote the most damning (and still quoted) attack upon it. Equally important are William A. Nielson, who edited the predecessor volume (W2) that was issued in 1934, and Charles C. Fries, a pioneer of scientific linguistics. Ordinarily, I am quite put off by biography (I very seldom read one), but Skinner has woven the little biographies together in a most readable way. I still found that it took me a few extra days to read.

Scientific Linguistics remains a difficult issue, partly because no two linguists agree on just what it is. Some years ago a friend of mine was working towards a PhD in linguistics, under a professor who is a structuralist, and claims that as the most scientific approach. C.C. Fries would have damned him for ignoring empirical data about current usage in favor of theories about "generation" of language as promoted by Noam Chomsky. Philip Gove followed Fries's lead (by the way, grammarians are an equally contentious breed, and some would condemn me for that apostrophe-s, claiming the proper possessive is Fries'), basing his instructions to contributors on empiricism.

Where earlier dictionaries, particularly W2, sought to be normative or even prescriptive, Gove in W3 sought instead to embody competent reportage of the English language as American's speak it. This led to a bit of clumsiness because all the illustrative examples are from written, even published, material. But how else can one obtain historical usage? Unlike the Oxford English Dictionary, which traced each word to its earliest use, W3 used history as a springboard to the present, emphasizing current (as of 1960) American English.

In the later chapters that report on the controversy that erupted in 1961, we find that most of those complaining about it compared W3 to an imaginary W2, not having checked to see that most of their bugaboos were right there in W2 also! Yet W3 is definitely not some slightly-altered clone of W2. It is quite different. W2 was not only prescriptive, it also resembled a one-volume encyclopedia, whereas W3 stuck to defining words, not discoursing at length on the item a word "meant". This was by design, and controversy or no, it has influenced dictionary making ever since. I find that the Collins (also called a Webster's) Unabridged on my desk, published in 1979, owes much to Gove's approach, and defines by reporting.

The way we learn language is by imitation. A dictionary doesn't need to prescribe to influence. We who use them do so to learn what is not just normal or normative, but what is ordinary, because only by using a word in its ordinary sense(s) can we be understood, at least in expository prose. In more creative work, it can be salutary to stretch the meaning of a word, but most of what I write is instructional, and being understood is primary. New words and new meanings arise from children and poets; once they are established, the rest of us can use them for the everyday purpose of communication.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

It will blow away again

kw: agriculture, irrigation, natural disasters

For the past two evenings we watched The Dust Bowl (in 2 episodes) on PBS (WHYY). The core of the first episode was the plowing up of the buffalo grass sod, and that made the land vulnerable to being blown away when the inevitable multi-year drought came, starting in 1932. The nation didn't take much notice until a dust cloud crossed the nation in 1935, piling Kansas and Nebraska and Dakota dirt onto Chicago and New York and upon the decks of ships 300 miles out in the Atlantic. The second episode largely covered the migration of the "Okies" and the gradual recovery once the drought broke, albeit with agonizing slowness.

This image shows central Cimarron County, Oklahoma as it looks today, centered on Boise City (pronounced "boys"). The personal stories recorded by Ken Burns took place in Boise City and nearby places. Though the area subject to drought shifted from year to year, Cimarron County was affected every single year of the disaster.

The green dots seen in this October, 2011 satellite image are fields irrigated by center-pivot systems. The squares are irrigated by other means. All are watered by mining the Ogallala Aquifer. Most of the aquifer's storage is in Nebraska. Irrigation has kept the land covered by vegetation, staving off dust blows during droughts.

As a whole, the aquifer has been depleted by 10% in 60 years. That doesn't sound like much, but half of that is in the past 15 years. Current rates of depletion greatly exceed recharge, which is primarily via the Sand Hills of northern Nebraska and southern South Dakota, an area that receives only 10-12 inches of precipitation yearly (Cimarron County receives about 18).

Further to the east, in central Oklahoma, where we lived for nearly 10 years, rainfall totals 30-32 inches yearly. It was still hard to grow large trees there; we had a few smallish trees in our yard, less than 30 feet. The only areas you saw large numbers of 30-40 foot trees was along streams. In more humid areas of the country, such as the Mid-Atlantic where we live now, with 40+ inches of rain yearly, trees grow 60-100 feet.

The area in the upper left of the image is mostly natural grassland, over an area too rough or steep to plow. This area didn't "contribute" to the dust bowl, but dust blowing through from other areas made it impossible to keep cattle alive even though there was grass to eat. The natural use of this whole area is grassland and can support livestock if the natural grasses remain intact. The irrigated areas, instead, produce wheat or other water-thirsty cash crops. The time will most definitely come that this will end. Will there be a way to restore grassland then?

The OK-panhandle/TX-panhandle area is expected to get even more dry as the climate warms. Farmers and ranchers have been able to ride out more recent droughts by buying more water or drilling more deep wells into the Ogallala Aquifer. Another 5- to 8-year drought like the 1930s is certain to happen again. If climate warming settles in for a longer term (think decades), a mere 5-year drought will seem like "good old days". Wish I had a solution…

Monday, November 19, 2012

Why conservatives exist

kw: comments, sociology

Aesop's fable The Ant and the Grasshopper ends with the ant refusing to feed the grasshopper in wintertime. In reality, society's ants typically feed grasshoppers by the bunches. You know who the grasshoppers are. They can never make ends meet. They may hold a job—some do and some don't—but their savings rate is zero or negative. I am thinking of a relative who is a college professor, aged 60, who has yet to put a penny into the 401(k) that is available to him. He also still pays interest only on his college loans. He makes good money, spends every penny, and his credit card balance seems to just grow and grow. Guess how he votes: straight Democrat. Guess what is likely to happen in another five years or so when he has to retire: either myself or one of my brothers or cousins will wind up helping buy his groceries. Guess how every one of us votes: nearly straight Republican.

Mr. Romney has been roundly criticized for blowing off "the 47%" whose primary support is the Federal Government. That figure is incorrect. About half of that 47% consists of those receiving Social Security. That is a return of funds that were saved on their behalf over a working life of 30, 40 or more years, exacted by the payroll tax. The fact that no "trust fund" exists to support this does not negate the fact that Social Security is an EARNED BENEFIT, not a handout. Then there are a smaller number who currently eke out a living on their unemployment insurance benefits, who continue to look for work. The official number is just under 8% at present. This is an insurance program, no matter that Congress has broken the bank by extending benefits to four times the insured amount.

On the other hand, the rest, about 15% of Americans, genuinely live "on the dole." A few are truly unable to work and need assistance. Assistance should not be withheld from them. The rest are unwilling to work, and in their case the Biblical injunction ought to be observed: "Whoever will not work, let him not eat." That "will not work" means "is not willing to work". To be blunt: If there is a job offered out there, whether it is a "McJob", or cleaning hotel rooms, or picking seasonal fruit, or in a warehouse (I have done all of these and more), if someone who is capable is unwilling, no "benefits" ought to be offered, period. A touch of starvation could mightily improve a fellow's attitude toward a job that is "beneath" him.

Among taxpayers in general who voted earlier this month, about half voted for Obama, and half for Romney. What pushed Obama to a near-landslide? Not those on Social Security, for sure, but among the "47%", it was the "15%", the ones who won't work. They don't dare vote for candidates who actually care about personal responsibility. Thus, someone sent me this picture today, which sums up the present situation:

So now I can present the question: Why are there Conservatives?

Answer: Someone has to support all the Liberals!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Going extinct

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, genetics, sociology

A few weeks ago I reviewed a book by Bryan Sykes, and liked it so much I began looking for his other books. The first I encountered is Adam's Curse: A Future Without Men, published in 2003. The actual prospect of male extinction (and, probably human extinction) is taken up on the last chapter, after quite a bit of necessary ground has been covered.

The first serious matter we need to understand is the three kinds of DNA that we all contain:
  • Firstly, we all have 22 pairs of autosomes, that make up 44 of our 46 chromosomes. Almost always, we receive one set of 22 from our father and the other set of 22 from our mother. During production of the gametes (egg or sperm cells), the autosomes in a man or woman couple up and crossover, mixing the DNA from one set of grandparents so the gamete receives about an even mix of both.
  • Secondly, there are the sex chromosomes. Females have two X chromosomes, while males have one X and one Y (exceptions are rare and cause trouble). Females get one of their mother's X chromosomes (which has experienced crossover) and their father's only X chromosome (which hasn't). Males get an X from their mother, and the Y from their father.
  • Thirdly, there is a little DNA in our mitochondria, the cellular power plants that most likely started out as bacteria, but got incorporated into larger cells. This comes in the egg only, so whether we are male or female, our MtDNA is always only from our mother.
Much of Dr. Sykes's work has been using MtDNA and Y chromosomes to track population migrations around the world. He covers this work as briefly as he can (it takes up half the book). To be even more brief, let's first consider this diagram:
Joseph Macy is seven generations back in my tree, on my mother's side. I chose him because, being a Quaker, his family history is very well recorded. He was born and died on Nantucket Island (The little green leaf icons are nagging me to check out some hints they have found to add documentation to my records about all these folks).

The reason for using MtDNA and the Y are because they are so well focused. Joseph Macy had the same Y chromosome in him that was in Thomas Macy at upper right, the great-great grandfather who was born and died in England. That same Y chromosome, with perhaps a minor mutation every dozen generations, runs in the paternal line far, far back in time. He also had the same MtDNA as Katherine Reynolds, the great-great grandmother who immigrated from England with her husband Edward Starbuck. That same MtDNA, also with rare mutations, traces back through the female line, far, far back in time.

If a random man had his Y chromosome "typed", and it turned out to be the same as mine, we would have to conclude that he and I had a common ancestor, and that the descent for both of us was strictly patrilineal. If any other random person were found to have the same MtDNA as I, we are also related, but through strictly matrilineal lines. Of course, my son has his mother's MtDNA, and none of mine.

There is no such clear signal with any of the autosomes. Yes, you do have one set from your mother and one from your father, but every one of the 44 is a mosaic of pieces from two grandparents, also from four great-grandparents, and so forth. Since there are less than 24,000 genes, if you go back more than 14 generations, it is certain that for some of the ancestors in that generation, exactly none of their genes has made it to you. So there are some genetic tracks that can be followed using autosomes, but they are not nearly as well focused as the maternal and paternal tags found in the MtDNA and the Y.

Some interesting conclusions result from comparing human society in pre-agricultural times with today. In the very few non-agricultural people that still exist, property is a minor concept, limited to a few personal items a nomadic person can carry, and perhaps a tent or yurt or other portable dwelling. If one person is better off than another, it is due primarily to diligence and character. But in every other social system something else has happened. Property now mainly means ownership of land; agriculture promotes stability rather than nomadism, so possessions can be accumulated leading to Wealth; and the more complex social systems of agricultural societies need managers and overseers and leaders, leading to accumulation of Power. Property, Wealth and Power form the three-legged stool that has held most human societies together for the past 8-10 millennia.

As it happened, this became a happy hunting ground for the Y chromosome. Where pre-agricultural societies are egalitarian or matriarchal, agricultural societies are patriarchal. The physical strength of males led to a dominance game, driven by the Y chromosome's "need" to propagate. One matter brought out very clearly by the author is that the two kinds of non-autosomal DNA have opposed interests. MtDNA doesn't "care" about males. The sperm carries no MtDNA into the next generation, only the egg. The Y chromosome doesn't "care" about females, which never have one (or if one does, by some fluke, it isn't passed on anyway).

If you only look at the nuclear DNA, there is an imbalance. Men make tens of millions of new sperm cells every day. A woman is born with a thousand or so eggs, and if she never mates, releases one (or rarely two) monthly for 30-35 years, thus using about 400. If she bears a child every two years, as many women did in prior generations, and ovulates no more than 2-3 times between pregnancies, AND lives through the process, by age 55 she will have released 40-50 eggs, no more. However, when you look at MtDNA, there are tens of thousands of mitochondria in each egg cell, which rebalances the scales a bit. Also, while a woman's mitochondria go to all her children, they only get to her grandchildren through her daughters. Her sons are mitochondrial dead ends.

The remaining imbalance has led to opposed strategies for getting one's DNA propagated. Women want lots of daughters to pass on both their nuclear DNA and their MtDNA. Men want lots of sons to pass on their Y chromosome. Men can father lots of children, if they can persuade (or coerce) lots of women to mate. Women can mother fewer than 20 children (unless one can have lots of twins), so their strategy is more conservative. In the end, usually, women choose their mates. And in most societies, women have long known how to induce miscarriage if impregnated by the "wrong" man. As in peacocks and elephant seals and nearly all animals, sexual selection results. In humans, this leads to male greed: get more stuff means get more mates.

Property, wealth and power turn out to be strong signals of apparent fitness; at least that is how many women think. Thus it is no surprise that leading men of every society are able to gather lots of women, sometimes as explicit harems (like the King of Siam in the movie The King and I), sometimes through "serial polygamy" (like Donald Trump or any number of other celebrated and oft-married men). The inherent greed this leads to is what Dr. Sykes calls Adam's Curse. It has led to CEO's with near-billion-dollar "compensation" (often for ruining rather than running the company); and to short-term-focused "business" that has fished out the seas, filled the earth with pollution (there is DDT atop Mt. Everest), and is presently doubling down on the production of energy and its side product, carbon dioxide (This may not extinguish human life, but it will certainly lead to coastal depopulation as the seacoasts rise to a new contour). And of course, there is war. Just wait'll the water wars begin, within the next 10-20 years…

Nature has a trick or two up her sleeve, though. The Y chromosome is eroding. All the autosomes that go into gametes get "cleaned up" of most mutations during the crossover process. The Y does not (It was not emphasized that the two X's in a woman can and do cross over, so on average, an X chromosome gets detoxified every couple of generations). The Y chromosome has its own DNA repair mechanism, but it is much less effective than the machinery used during crossover. Also, MtDNA is so much more sparse and efficient, that most mutations are fatal, and do not get into viable eggs, plus a mitochondrion also has its own repair kit. So the good old Y is at risk.

What is the risk? Fertility is dropping, worldwide. Some of this is due to the chemicals we have invented since the 1880s. But some is because key genes in the Y are getting wiped out by mutations. In every generation, about one man in a thousand is sterile because of such mutations. In the last couple of chapters the author describes his reasoning and assumptions. Bottom line: The Y chromosome's continued erosion will lead to a further 99% decrease in fertility in the next 5,000 generations, or about 125,000 years (based on a 25 year generation; based on 32 year generations, it could be 160,000 years). That's a long time, but I suspect most people would have thought that if we avoid blowing ourselves up with H-bombs or polluting ourselves out of existence, we could go on for millions of years.

How much longer might it be until no fertile men could be found? He doesn't say. But he does speculate that women may find a technological way to fuse two eggs to produce a viable fetus, and thus bear children without men being involved. Such children would always be female. Men would go extinct. If such a process turns out to be impossible, then, sad to say, the women will go extinct along with the men, leaving the planet to other species.

But...with men out of the way, would women be less inclined to accumulate property, wealth and power? It is hard to say. I know women who are just as acquisitive as any greedy man (think Imelda Marcos). It could be that "Adam's Curse" is in actuality only slightly worse than the general "human curse".

Thursday, November 15, 2012

How long is a generation?

kw: analysis, genealogy, history

Many years ago I noticed that when I drew out my family tree as I knew it then, there was a distinct skew. My father had an ancestor on the Mayflower, who was born just before 1600, in the 13th generation (counting myself as Generation Zero). My mother had an ancestor from Nantucket, whose forebear came to the New World in 1626 on one of the later "fleets", who was born in 1608, but was in the 10th generation. This made the tree longer on my father's side, to reach approximately to the year 1600.

Recently someone asked how many generations there are in a century, another way of asking how many years there are in a "typical" generation. I decided to look into it in my own pedigree. I scouted all the ancestors born between 1590 and 1610 (nearly all were immigrants, and of course, for those who were not, their child or children immigrated). I found 13 on my father's side and 13 on my mother's side. I determined their generation. They are all in generation 10, 11, 12, or 13. I also found an ancestor, born in 1628, in generation 9 (nearly all of that generation were born from the 1640s to the 1660s).

I have three brothers, and the average of our birth years is 1952. Of the 13 paternal ancestors scouted, the average birth year was 1603, and for the 13 maternal ancestors it was 1601. I suppose I could have found averages for each generation, but we'll see that this is sufficiently accurate. The year spans of either 349 or 351 years, divided by the number of generations, produced these results:
  • On my father's side, 349 divided by 10, 11, 12 and 13 yield 34.9, 31.7, 29 and 26.8 years per generation. The grand average is 31.1 years.
  • On my mother's side, 351 divided by 10, 11, and 12 yield 35.1, 31.9 and 29.25 years per generation. The grand average is 32.8 years. Also, that one maternal ancestor born in 1628, in generation 9, leads to a figure of 36 years per generation (this one is not counted in the average).
The overall range of between 26.8 and 36.0 can now be treated as the 2-sigma limits of a normal distribution, centered on about 32 years, with an approximate standard deviation of 2.3. Turning this into a 3-sigma range, I conclude:

For European immigrants to the New World, a generation for them and their descendants, averaged over 10 generations or so, is 32 years, plus or minus 7 (25-39). This ought to cover 997 out of 1000 cases.

It will be interesting to see if I hear from avid genealogists who have 10+ generation cases outside this range. Of course, single generations will be more variable, ranging from 12 to about 50. My wife and I were both just over 40 when our son was born, for example, while the ages of my brothers and their wives when their children were born range from 25 to 35.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Battling my acquisitive nature

kw: collecting, manuscripts

About an hour ago I had this document in my hands (protected by an acetate sleeve), while on a visit to the Stamp Center. It is described thus:

"Lot 390. Manuscript court document dated 1502 & signed by Queen Isabella I "Yo La Reyna" (I the Queen) 8"x10" w/ authentification by Dr. R. Ayerbe-Chaux of Syracuse Univ Document shows normal aging & toning but no tears, repairs or restoration is evident, far nicer than the few others that have appeared on the market on occasion. This dictate concerns a financial dispute between the "Village of Madrid" & the Real De Manzanares a Unique historical item!"

As a lover of history, I was strongly drawn to attend the auction (in a couple days) and bid. The manuscript is likely to auction for a few thousand dollars. However, if I buy it, where will I keep it? Hanging it on a wall at home is too scary. I don't have anything else of comparable value except a nice piano, which would be much harder to steal! I'd need to rent a larger safe deposit box at the bank to avoid rolling or folding it.

Too much trouble. Whew! Glad that is over. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A star or two of interest

kw: citizen science, stars

To date, I have classified about 7,000 stars in the Planet Hunters section of Zooniverse. Today I ran across a couple of interesting ones.

First we have a star whose temperature indicates it is a middling G star (~G5), just a bit cooler than the Sun. I could see two apparent transits, which I have marked here. After this screen, I had the chance to examine all the data from this star. There are no other transits apparent, and the star is usually flat-steady quiet. This particular period the instrument seems to have imposed a bit of gentle waviness to the data. These "transits" are pretty quick. #1 lasts 4 or 5 hours, and #2 about 3 hours. Those are consistent with orbits in the 30-60 day range in a star of this size. Since I saw no other transits in data from other periods, I have to instead suspect something else is going on.

Now this star definitely has a companion, but it is probably a small star, making this an eclipsing variable. The transits marked 1-4 show a dimming of about 10%, and thus indicate an object probably a third of the diameter of the main star. The transits marked 5-8 show that it is dim, but not nearly as dim as a planet would be. It is probably an M star, in a 4.5 day orbit, and the timing of the two kinds of transits shows that the orbit is quite eccentric. A short-period variable like this would not have been detected as a variable in the days of photographic photometry, because the variations are only about 4% of the main star's brightness. The Kepler spacecraft's instruments are truly marvels!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Spending the principal

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, oceanography, environmentalism

Scenario 1: Everything seems normal in the forest. Squirrels scurry about seeking nuts or mushrooms or fruits; birds fly hither and yon; deer forage in the shadows; a puma is stalking the deer, but as yet undetected; and a fox sniffs for a field mouse track in the undergrowth. All seems well in upstate New York. Unseen to them all, something is floating a mile above, nearly invisible. Then a shape separates from the dirigible, slowly lowered on cables, and unfolds to exceed it in size. Down it comes, until it thuds to the forest floor in a clearing. It looks like an enormous wind sock with a flat, heavily armored and weighted bottom. A few animals scatter, but at first the interloper is still, and quiet returns, as the cables begin to pull taut. They jerk taut, and the "wind sock" shudders through the forest, dragging down trees that its clever shape pushes aside, but it is moving faster than even puma can run, and drags together a multitude of animals and smaller plants. Several acres of forest are leveled to bare dirt. Then the cables tighten and pull harder, and the filled "sock" rises into the sky, to the waiting dirigible above. After an hour or so, things begin raining from the sky: Plants of all sizes and branches from trees, then dead squirrels and mice and foxes and skunks and badgers and even some birds. The puma and the deer do not return, dead or alive. They and they alone were the targets of the ship above.

This is how ocean dredging for halibut or other near-bottom-dwelling fish or shellfish would be, were the technique used on land.

Scenario 2: A different forest, perhaps a tropical rain forest, perhaps the Siberian taiga, perhaps the savannah, and it all begins the same, with a nearly invisible shape floating above. What descends is not a dredge, but a pair of thinner cables bearing baited hooks. They are miles long, with gas-filled floats keeping the full weight off the ground. They are dragged along, much more slowly. Predators smell the bait and trot alongside, perhaps wolves, perhaps lions or tigers or jackals or hyenas. Some take the bait and are hooked. Their cries scare others from the vicinity, but further up or down the line, others are not deterred and are similarly hooked. So are smaller predators, even perhaps a meat-hungry primate or bear. Eventually, the lines are hoisted back into the sky, dangling a dismal variety of dying creatures. After a time, many dead, everything but the wolves or lions or tigers, rain down again, all dead.

This is how long-line fishing would seem, were it carried out on land.

Now that your imagination has been primed, imagine how a purse seine trap might work on land, or drift nets. Nearly every method of large-scale fish or shellfish "harvesting" wastes more tonnage than is kept. Suppose our taste for meat paralleled our taste for fish. People prefer the big predators of the sea, and disdain most of the herbivores. There is a huge market for tuna, cod, ling and other large predators. The market for herbivores, which are often denigrated as "bottom feeders", is smaller. This is just the opposite of our land meat appetite, which is almost exclusively for herbivores such as beef and sheep. Imagine the meat market piled with the carcases of lions, wolves, foxes, hyenas, and tigers. That is the analogue of a typical fish market!

This is just one issue raised in The Ocean of Life by naturalist Callum Roberts. It is not the largest. As you might expect, the book raises an alarm about the condition of the oceans. By far the greatest threat to the oceans is a nearly universal attitude. The oceans are so big, and contain so much life of so many kinds, that they are considered beyond our grasp, untouchable, eternally replenishing. For the first half million years of human existence on Earth, the oceans were truly oceanic, hardly touched by the level of fishing and shell-gathering practiced by our ancestors. Then came the industrial revolution. Since about 1830, first using sailing craft, then ships powered by steam and then petroleum, fishing became an industrial enterprise that has reduced the total mass of fish and sea mammals to less than a tenth of what it was 200 years ago.

But our more distant ancestors were not entirely feckless in their depredations. Careful study of the middens of shore dwellings, in America in particular, demonstrates that over a period of a few centuries, the variety of shellfish used decreased, along with their average size. Some shell beds were cleaned out completely and abandoned, long before Europeans arrived. We are hungry critters, we humans, and as omnivores, we pretty much eat the land down to the dirt, we or our domestic animals. That is why the "fertile crescent", swinging in a gentle arc from near Baghdad northwest, is no longer fertile.

It reminds me of a story told me by a fellow geologist. He was prospecting in Canada, for a mining company. He met an old Indian who told him, "When the first Europeans came to Canada, they shot all the large game and hauled away the meat. Later they came again, trapping all the small game and hauling away the furs. Then some came that cut down all the big trees and hauled away the lumber. Others cut the small trees and hauled them away to make paper. Now here you are again, to take the rocks!"

The book is in two parts. The first part, with 15 chapters, outlines the changes wrought upon the oceans over time. Chapter 1 covers the first 4 billion years or so. Then the human race arrives, and the author shows how we've impacted nearly everything about the sea, and nearly always in a negative way. I used to think, for example, that global warming is nothing new, and that there have been past episodes of high carbon dioxide, but sea life survived and we still have shellfish. I didn't know about the fossil evidence that these carbonic episodes were periods of very low shellfish abundance. The extra carbon dioxide made the seas acidic, which made it harder for a snail to produce its shell. Only a few particularly robust species were able to produce shells, for millions of years at a time. We are making it happen again.

Here is an interesting fact, brought up several times in several chapters. If an area, say several tens of square miles, is protected, not only do the large fish return (it can take a few years), but once they do, they do not stay put, and fishing in a large area of surrounding waters gets better and better. Late in the book, the author compiles work that indicates a total of around 30% of the seas need to be "no fishing no taking anything" zones, and that this will lead to a gradual increase in abundance of many, many species. Fishing will get better, and it may just be possible to support the 9 or 11 billion people that are expected to be on this planet in another 50 years or so. The problem is, we have to start now, and nobody with any power wants to.

Side note: What if scientists had genuine authority and power? Could they run things any  better than "politicians", the most despised class of humans (yet the most fawned over by way too many of us!)? Suppose the President and Congress were REQUIRED to take the consensus advice of scientific advisers in any areas in which they did not have personal competence? My father is of the opinion that nearly all members of the Legislature are lawyers who were too incompetent to make a living in the "real world" so they went into politics. You don't have to be competent at anything but giving rousing speeches, to be a legislator.

To spin another analogy: A man inherited $2 million in 1960, and began living like a king. At the time, you could get 5% if you just kept the money in a bank, and 7% from Money Market accounts or CD's. In 1960 an income of $100,000 or so was like a million today. But our greedy fellow found himself spending more like $120,000 a year (and didn't have the wisdom to build a CD ladder). After 20 years, he finds a third of his money is gone, and he is earning about $69,000. He has grown up a little, so he cuts back, and manages to keep his expenses to $75,000 yearly. You could live very well on that kind of money in 1980. Another 20 years pass, and not only has his fortune shrunk more, but the rates have dropped. He still has a million left, but the income is barely $10,000. He reasons, "I am getting old. I'll probably die before I run out." He keeps spending $75,000 which buys a lot less in 2000 than in 1980. He never had income, so gets no Social Security. Today he is still alive, to his surprise, and he has only $100,000 left. Now what?

Suppose instead he had kept his expenses in the $80,000 range in 1960, and allowed them to grow only 1% yearly. By 1995, when interest rates began to fall precipitously, he has nearly $3 million, and if he didn't cut back, he'd still have more than $1 million today, in spite of interest income in the $10,000 range. Now suppose that the 5% rate had continued to the present. He'd be able to enjoy $130,000 yearly and he'd have $3.5 million in the bank. This last represents managing your stock so you don't deplete your principal. It also represents what fish stocks can do if appropriately managed. Interest rates don't fall if the capital is sufficient.

Our fisheries have been taking the principal for 150 years or more. The year 1860 is not in living memory; nobody living can remember the abundance of fish at that time. We think today's situation is "normal" because it hasn't changed much in the past 10-20 years. But we are not "harvesting" the sea, we are mining it. We are taking fish so fast we truly will take them all within the lifetime of people now in college. A comparatively small investment now can raise the "interest rate" on our fishy "savings account", so in the near future, taking a smaller percent of the fish in the sea will actually yield a larger total harvest.

The matters I have discussed here are just a few of the many the author presents. We are taking the oceans from our children. The second section of the book, in 7 chapters, discusses measures some people are already taking to improve the situation, and what needs still to be done to ensure a living ocean in the future. It is by no means clear that we will do enough soon enough. Today, a percent or two of the oceans have been set aside for protection. An appropriate level for long-term health is 30-35%. If we do not do so, the earth simply won't have a population of 10 billion in 2050 or even 2100, because so many will die of starvation. No matter what "green revolution" still may be in the works, the planet is finite, probably a lot more finite than we think. The author estimates that we are now using 150% of the earth's "earnings".

Take that last statement to bed with you, and do try to sleep well.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

OK it is full already - now what?

kw: population, religion, demographics

From time to time I read that this or that international body "expects" human population to peak at some number, such as nine or ten or eleven billions. I wonder if those respected experts have consulted with people in sub-Saharan Africa or in the Middle East, or with the strongly religious of every culture, whether Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian (and others): all are trying to out-breed the competition.

I can't speak for any of the world religions, but I do know Christianity, particularly the strongly Biblical variety such as Evangelicals. In the U.S. as a whole, the rate of population increase is just over 1%. Among Evangelicals it is much, much higher. A great many families in the churches I know have 3-5 children. Most of them think they have a divine mandate to have many children. Halfway through the first chapter of the Bible we find God's command to Adam: "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Genesis 1:28, NIV).

I have never heard a sermon on Revelation 11:18, "The nations were angry, / and your wrath has come. / The time has come for judging the dead,and for rewarding your servants the prophets / and your people who revere your name, / both great and small— / and for destroying those who destroy the earth." (NIV, emphasis supplied). So here is a mini-sermon: Listen up, people, are you among those who destroy the earth? If so, you are NOT among His servants the prophets, nor those who revere His name. That verse about multiplying until you fill the earth? It has been more than fulfilled. It is time to stop!

The earth is groaning under seven billions of us, even though half of them are in poverty. By far most of the burden on the earth is the top two billions. The "green revolution" is pretty much over, and nearly all fisheries are decreasing. If another two or four billions are added, nearly all of them will be miserably poor. And many of the 3-4 billion who are not poor today, will become poor. That doesn't sound like what God wanted in Genesis chapter 1!

So, Evangelicals, if you truly believe in God, stop trying to outbreed the Muslims and Catholics and everyone else. Do whatever you can to improve worldwide education! The birth rate drops, the more educated the population is. There is a young Pakistani girl, recovering from being shot by the Taliban for promoting education for girls. Support her cause! The best kind of missionary is an international teacher. Do you want to serve God? Raise up a giant outcry for better education everywhere, and prepare your kids to teach everywhere!

Friday, November 09, 2012

When did the labels switch?

kw: sociology, politics, economics, opinion

Around 30 years ago someone who had a lot of influence over me at the time, said he tended to have a liberal attitude towards domestic policy and a conservative attitude towards foreign policy. That describes my own political leaning, for the most part, but I've come to realize things are more complicated. There is actually no single "political spectrum". The traditional "radical-liberal-moderate-conservative-reactionary" labels are not all on the same line.

In the mid-1800s the social and political disputes centered on slavery. To be an abolitionist was considered a somewhat radical viewpoint, yet abolitionists were nearly all Republicans, at least from 1854 when the Republican Party was initiated by anti-slavery activists. Fifty years further along, Theodore Roosevelt, the leading Republican, led the way to establish a national presence in Environmentalism by creating the first national parks, and also practically re-created economic competition in an era of moneybags monopolies by "trust busting" and getting laws passed that still forestall the creation of economic monopolies. The Republicans had become the leading socially liberal party. Strangely, it was also a conservative party: for example, environmentalism, rightly construed, is a conservative value. I am staunchly environmentalist, though I am "conservative" in many areas.

After another fifty years, much had changed. The Republicans were practically left out of the debates over civil rights that led to landmark social legislation from 1964 to 1968. The fight was between "conservative" and "liberal" Democrats, and now "liberal" meant pro-liberation, pro-voting-rights, and "conservative", at least among the Dems, meant pro-Jim Crow. The only nod to Republican influence was the perceived need to modify the language of the original 1964 bill so that a greater number of liberal and moderate Republicans would be willing to vote with the liberal Democrats.

The labels are out of date. "Liberals" and "Conservatives" don't know what the terms mean. Both the Democrat and Republican Parties have a mix of positions that can be confusing. To be a "loyal" member of either faction, one has to pass a number of "litmus tests" and it is getting harder to do so with any consistency.
  • Bigger versus smaller government? Liberals are for bigger, conservatives for smaller, except conservatives are for a larger army, while liberals are the reverse. Here I am a moderate: enough government to do the job, but no more. We do need continuing debate over what "the guv" ought to be doing, however.
  • Capitalism versus Socialism? Conservatives are for unrestrained capitalism, and the more reactionary ones wish to reverse "trust busting" laws. Liberals are for increased regulation and restraint on "business", particularly "big business". Another element needs to be added here: Transparency. I am for less regulation but more "light", and thus very strong laws protecting whistle-blowers, perhaps even rewarding them, while I strongly support the efforts of investigative reporters to expose bad business practices. Remember Ralph Nader and Unsafe at Any Speed? Nader went nuts later, but in a way I still appreciate.
  • The Second Amendment? Conservatives tend to be led by the nose by the NRA. Liberals would wholly disarm us. I give great weight to the "well-regulated militia" phrase, and would require membership in the National Guard of all wishing to own non-sporting firearms. You don't need an Uzi to shoot deer. The NRA talk of "hunting" is a red herring. Make a gun license like a driving license: it expires and requires regular reinstatement, and gun-safety courses.
  • Abortion on demand? AKA a woman's right to choose? Libs pro, Consies anti. I favor abortion where it makes sense. I am opposed to abortion as a form of "birth control". I prefer conception control, so coming right up:
  • State-provided (or mandated) Contraception? Libs pro, of course. Some conservatives actually favor some form of this, but not the more religious ones, particularly Catholics. I favor a strong, well-funded research program to develop a means of contraception that is applied at puberty, works long-term (at least a few years but 10-20 is better), and requires definite action to reverse before the term expires. If women want a right to choose, it ought to be in favor of choosing to have a baby, rather than choosing to abort one. In a world of 7 billions, the default state of men and women ought to be "infertile."
  • Immigration, particularly amnesty (or "don't ask") for illegals? I'll abbreviate: L+, C-. I say pass a minimum wage law that mandates a truly "living wage", with the only exceptions being after-hours or summer jobs for dependent teens, and only dependent teens (who are in school) are allowed to hold such jobs. Then open the borders. If a Mexican or Canadian or Algerian or Kenyan or German or Chinese or Norwegian qualifies best for the job, let 'em have it. No "working visa" required. Ya wanna better job? Earn it. That is genuine conservatism!
  • Welfare, food stamps, WIC, etc.? L+, C sorta -. A tough one. Let's hark back to FDR and the CCC, and at least require anyone "on the dole" to do something productive, like sweep the streets or scrub off graffiti in their own neighborhood. The able-bodied non-parents can be sent farther afield, to undertake infrastructure repair, which is long overdue.
  • Foreign policy? L appeasement, C "big stick". Both are outdated. We presently occupy more than half the nations. Let's commit to a drawdown, to reduce all our foreign bases to zero American occupancy within ten years. That leaves us with the problem of a million or so soldiers to re-integrate into US society. Replace with contractual agreements with allies so we can use their facilities if needed to handle the logistics of any war we need to get involved in. I pray the need shrinks over time.
  • Legalizing illegal drugs? L+, C-. It is clear that the "war on drugs" is a colossal failure. The majority of those in our prisons are its victims, and have now been trained to live criminal lives. It can't be undone overnight, but steps must be taken to repeal the whole thing. This is the Prohibition of the 2010's and is just as misdirected as the prior one of 70-80 years ago. If you, Mr or Ms Pothead, want to screw up your brain until you are unable to work and die in the gutter, go right ahead. That's a kind of social Darwinism I can get behind. Maybe a soft-hearted politician or two will get a law passed to feed you in your gutter.
  • Separation of church and state? This is a misunderstanding of the First Amendment's "establishment" clause. Both L and D are confused about this. Many modern L's are anti-faith. Many modern D's push to inject religion into national policy. Both are wrong. Government ought to take no notice of faith or religious practice, except where it violates common morality, such as human sacrifice or ritualized theft or public fornication, for example. That could come to mean removing the tax exemption from church corporations. I think "non-profit" tax exemption is so misused it ought to be abolished anyway. Just think, Scientology would have never been founded by Hubbard if the exemption wasn't there.
I've gone on long enough for one post. I guess I can't be claimed as either a C or an L. I am for what is sensible, but "Sensibilist" is such a clumsy word!

Thursday, November 08, 2012

A fish to fish out

kw: invasive species, lionfish, sashimi

This critter, the Lionfish, is a popular, if risky, denizen of many a saltwater aquarium. A half dozen of these were released into Florida waters from a homeowner's tank by Hurricane Andrew twenty years ago, and have become a very destructive pest. Native to the Pacific, they have been enjoying a rolling feast of Caribbean sea life, which has yet to evolve the avoidance behaviors needed to survive lionfish predation.

The lionfish is one of the most venomous fish, sharing these "honors" with the stonefish and toadfish and a few others that have poison-loaded spines. The flesh itself is not poisonous, however, so these are good eating, though they are rather small; the largest seldom exceed 16 inches (40 cm) in length. I don't know if they can be caught by hook, but they are a popular target of spear fishers. This opens a door to at least some reduction in their numbers: Lionfish Sashimi. The human appetite for fish has led to the near extermination of cod, shad and other food fish. Now let's do some good with this tendency! Eat more Lionfish.

Here is a serving option found at Kuriya Dining in Singapore. One reviewer noted that the fish is also served poached or grilled. I understand that a few chefs (not necessarily at Kuriya) are able to utilize just a smidgen of the venom, to give it a bit of "bite", similar to Fugu. I'd prefer it venom-free myself. I don't eat for thrills, but for the taste.

However, the Singapore lionfish aren't invasive there. So if you don't want to spend $2,000 in airfare to satisfy your Lionfish craving, and wish to do some good where it matters, here are a few more "local" options:
I thought I would find more places serving lionfish. Because they are a bit hard to handle safely, they are not a low-cost menu item. But considering what people pay to eat bluefin tuna sashimi (and get their daily dose of mercury along with it), that ought not hold back dedicated diners. Go to your local fish restaurant or sushi bar and ask them to add lionfish to the menu.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Setting Obama free

kw: governance, politics, president

There are at present in the United States of America ten truly free persons, where yesterday there were nine. Who are the nine? The Supreme Court Justices: once appointed they serve for life or as long as health allows. Once appointed they are free of party influence or indeed any influence besides their own conscience.

The tenth is President Barack H. Obama, who never again has to campaign for President, who has a bit more than four years to do just about whatever he likes, free of the need to pander to any constituency, and if you think the divided Congress might cramp his style, you haven't been paying attention to his use of Executive Orders. He has already shown great readiness to sidestep the Constitution and the constraints of Congress. While President G.W. Bush actually signed more EO's during his first term than B.H. Obama has, none had the import of Obama's "Can't wait" initiatives.

Whether he uses these purported executive powers more or less in his second term, we principally want to watch what it is he tries to do, or writes EO's to accomplish. Now his true heart can come out, if any of it has been hidden during his first term. Does he really want to turn America into a Socialist state? Now's his chance to try. If he doesn't do so, or go far in that direction, it will only be because that is not what he wants. Does he really want to make an unbreakable majority of U.S. residents so beholden to Government that they would never dare to vote against a Democrat? Here is his chance. He's a Lame Duck. He's free.

I kinda hope something else is going on inside that skull of his. I noticed during the second and third debates that he really seems to have learned a few things during the past four years. He may have had a little sense knocked into his formerly ultra-liberal head. I think by now he has learned, at least a tiny bit, why certain conservative principles (such as personal responsibility, and self-respect in preference to empty "self esteem") resonate with a genuine majority of Americans.

It is said, "He who hopes for nothing cannot be disappointed." Regardless, I dare to hope. At the very least it feels better than despair.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Lining up to vote

kw: voting

The key parameter to emerge from today's election is percent of eligible voters who vote. I learned decades ago that when the population is mainly satisfied, voter turnouts are low, and rise with rising distress. I expect this turnout to set records.

On the way to work, heading south on US 202 towards Wilmington, Delaware, I heard on the radio (WPHT 1210) that there were lines of up to 50 people waiting for the polls to open, reported from all over the Philadelphia area. A few minutes later, just after 7 AM, I passed a polling place on 202, and saw the parking lot half full, with perhaps 50 cars. The tail of the line consisted of a dozen or so people just outside the door. I don't know how many people fit inside.

I plan to leave to vote in a minute or two, hoping that the pre-pre-lunch hour will have shorter lines.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

All that in 3 centuries

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, interplanetary politics

Is the key to longevity a dose of androgyny? Could Al Gore's global warming film have been too conservative? Might we, and soon, command energies sufficient to make visiting Mars no more costly than taking a cruise ship from Los Angeles to Sydney? Can quantum computing lead to conscious computers? Is there a genuine solution to the problem of poverty? In Kim Stanley Robinson's novel 2312 the answer to the first question is Yes, to the last it is No, and the rest are Maybe's or qualified Yeses.

The backdrop of the novel is a combination of continued ecological destruction on Earth, continued technological progress in both access to interplanetary space and ultrafast computers, and progress in anti-aging, at least for some. From a viewpoint near the year 2400, the plotline centers on converging events in the year 2312, including the rewilding of Earth by animals and plants that had been propagated in thousands of spacefaring zoos (also used as interplanetary cruise vessels) and a turning point in the relationship between humans and their mechanical creations.

An important subplot is the courtship between two main characters, a 113-year-old "man" and a 137-year-old "woman", Wahram and Swan, with the interesting complication that both of them have both fathered and mothered children. On the spectrum of male-female, which today has only two endpoints plus a tiny cluster of hermaphroditic "errors" that are typically corrected by surgery (and a tiny number of people who become medically switched to the opposite pole), our two protagonists, and apparently all who partake of extended longevity, are near the 25% and 75% points.

I found myself wondering, "Who pays for all this stuff?" Is it really affordable for Swan to go from Mercury, her birthplace, to Earth, Venus, Titan and other locales near Saturn, and back and forth a few times between some of these places, and then to Mars? Saturn is a billion or two billion km from everywhere else, so to get there in a month you need to crank the old rocket up to around 600 km/sec, some 20 times the speed of Earth in its orbit. The 2312 Solar System is apparently filled with city-sized hollowed-out asteroids running shuttle service hither and yon, but the velocities implied by the narrative mean you need huge energy expenditure from time to time to keep your cruise ship from heading off into interstellar space. It is stated that there are 16,000 of these zooming around. You also need a pretty fast shuttle just to catch one to get on it.

Well, I can suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the multitude of interesting ideas the author weaves into the book. The idea of walking around Mercury near its terminator, so you are just ahead of being baked by the Sun, leads to some interesting plot devices, including a long tunnel walk by Swan and Wahram. A walking speed of under 4 km/hr is sufficient at Mercury's equator, and at a greater latitude, the speed needed is less so you can trot ahead enough to get in a few hours sleep before the Sun catches up with you. You just need a space suit with an air and food and water supply for 176 days, and a way to eject waste, to do a circumnavigation on foot.

A big political notion is the balkanization of humanity. The possible rise of self-directed, quantum-computer-based AI in one secretive culture, and attacks on Mercury and a couple of other places that could only have been carried out with the help of extremely capable "qubes", drives events toward one of the pivotal events in early 2312. Considering the probable need for petaflop or even exaflop capability in a phone-sized device that is required for this to work, is 300 years enough time? Probably so, and maybe quite a bit less. The bottleneck in AI progress will be, as it always has, programming not hardware. You can't program what you don't understand. Assuming humans return to space in the next century or so, and learn to (and can afford to) hollow out 30 km asteroids and colonize them, balkanization is the most likely outcome. Unity is hard to achieve, and harder to maintain, as the increasingly creaky American experiment, and the faltering European experiment, demonstrate.

The book ends on an optimistic note. While I am skeptical that the space developments found in it are likely, I am more optimistic that the human race can increase in wisdom over time. It is either that, or self-extinction. K.S. Robinson votes for wisdom.

Friday, November 02, 2012

The fast and slow of planetary travel

kw: interplanetary travel, analysis

The Hohmann Ellipse principle has been known for more than a century, and was once thought to be the lowest-energy method for moving from one orbit to another around a planet, or from one planet's orbit to another around the Sun. Since the 1970s, lower-energy methods utilizing "slingshot" paths by planets have been devised. These are OK for mechanical spacecraft, which don't get bored like people do, but I am more interested in ways of getting around that are at least as fast as a Hohmann Ellipse. This table shows why:

These are "mean-to-mean" times, and they are in years. Careful choice of launch timing, so the orbit is between aphelion of the inner planet and the perihelion of the outer planet, can reduce these times by a few percent. Thus the average transfer time from near-Earth to near-Mars is 0.709 years, or 8.5 months, while the minimum possible is 0.657 years, or 7.9 months. The least favorable ellipse from Earth to Mars is 0.762 years or 9.1 months.

Going farther takes longer, a lot longer! Earth to Jupiter is about 2y 9m, and you can see how the times multiply from there. It is an interesting paradox that, the closer to the Sun you start out, the quicker you get to your outer target. For example, from Mercury to Mars is less than six months. That is because, when the spacecraft crosses Earth's orbit, it is going a lot faster than one that leaves from Earth. However, the energy needed to exit Mercury orbit and to enter Mars orbit after 5.6 months is much greater than that needed to leave Earth orbit and then enter Mars orbit after 8.5 months.

The lower row shows why it will be a long time before any astronaut is sent to Neptune. Launch a brand-new PhD, aged 25; she'll arrive at age 55. Let's hope she is fanatically productive, and willing to retire "out there," because the soonest you can get her back to Earth will be after she is 85 years old. But after 60-plus years at zero G, she won't be able to return to Earth's surface. She'll have to watch the planet roll by from her orbital nursing home. PS: I picked a female astronaut because women have a 10x chance of living to 85, compared to men.

Another reason is that energy is very costly in space. I am not talking about solar energy you can catch to run your zero-G toilet or for growing your food. I am talking about propulsion. This is why the NASA folk are so enamored of the very-low-energy (but very much more time-consuming) "slingshot" pathways around the solar system. But what if we find a means of fueling much faster spacecraft?

The ideal would be a ship that could accelerate at 1G (9.8 m/s²), indefinitely. Before starting to analyze this, I checked on the influence of the Sun. At the orbit of Mercury, some 58 million km from the Sun, a stationary craft, not in orbit, would need to push with 0.004G to resist Solar gravity. Not bad, and there is less the further you go out. So I ignored the Sun to make the following table:

I used each planet's average orbital distance as the datum for the "scale" of its influence. A convenient place for a space station or colony would be the L4 or L5 spot ahead of or behind the planet in its orbit. The distance from a planet to these Lagrange points is the same as its distance from the Sun.

Going 58 million km, to get from Mercury to L4 or L5, is pretty quick, only 1.78 days. That's under 43 hours. From Earth to its L4 or L5 is not much longer, only 2.43 days or 58 hours. With such a propulsion method, it is a matter of less than a week to get from Earth to Jupiter, and two weeks will take you nearly to Neptune. Now our astronaut can go to-and-from Neptune in about a month, so there's no need to retire upon return. Even getting from Uranus to Neptune, when they are at opposition, is only a little longer than getting to either one from Mercury; no more than 20 days.

However, look at the peak velocities (Vmax): ranging from 752 km/s bombing around near Mercury to more than 6,600 km/s getting to Neptune or its Lagrangian point(s). Compare this with planetary orbital velocities ranging from 10 km/s (Neptune) to 45 km/s (Mercury). At thousands of km/s, even a grain of sand packs quite a punch. Imagine the kinetic energy of a locomotive (say, 20 million J) concentrated on a square millimeter of a spacecraft's meteor shield. You'd need a dozen meters of Kevlar® to stop it! It would melt around a cubic meter of the Kevlar® into an odd "plasticsicle".

Multiply that kinetic energy, 20 million J per microgram, times the mass of a spacecraft plus its meteor shield. Bombing around the solar system is never going to be cheap. Drat!

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Oxymoron of the day - Straight-talking Doctor

kw: human nature, human relations, doctors

Doctors see a lot, much of it tragic. And many of their patients do not particularly want to know what is really going on. I imagine this is the reason most of them have lost the ability to speak in clear terms. I have had the misfortune to be a patient of many doctors, and only two, my current G.P. and my gastroenterologist (or GI), seem able to speak frankly, avoiding vagueness or even untruth.

At the time I had cancer surgery, there were four doctors involved: The G.P. I had at the time, the same GI I still have, the surgeon, and an oncologist. I clearly remember when I met the oncologist, two days after the surgery, he said he was optimistic because my cancer was Stage 2. When he left the room, he talked to a nurse right outside the door, and told her, "Late Stage 3." Only weeks later did I get a chance to pin him down, without letting him know what I'd heard, and got him to admit Late Stage 3, and that he was most concerned because 7 lymph nodes had been cancerous; the threshold of worry is 4. Thereafter, he was more forthcoming with genuine information.

During the hospital stay, the surgeon and the GI came by to see me, at different times. I asked each for a prognosis. The surgeon would only say, "Well, the cancer was rather large, and I had to remove a lot of stuff, but I think Dr. [Oncologist] will be able to help you a lot." But the GI said, "It looks pretty bad. Dr. [Surgeon] is excellent, and he thinks he dug out everything." I asked what the percentages were, both with and without chemotherapy (I was still mad at the oncologist for what I'd heard). He looked right at me and said, "Today, you have a 15% chance of one year survival. With chemo, it ought to improve by 25% or 30%, to the 40-50% range."

My G.P. came by a couple times, but he was clearly clueless. I realized he was too young, and afraid to speak in any quantitative way. Hey, I am a quant kind of guy, and I am hardheaded enough to take a frank assessment about the chances of my own demise. My primary desire to avoid death was that my son was only 12 at the time.

Fortunately for me, that G.P. moved his business 30 miles away, so I went looking for a new doctor. The one I have now is a great deal better. He is old enough to know the score, but not so old that he'll retire any time soon. During my physical a few weeks ago, I told him I appreciated how clearly he would say things. He said something about being frank, "perhaps too frank." I said, "Just remember the motto of the Diplomacy Dept.: We say the awfullest things in the nicest way." And I told him I thought there was no such thing as too much information.

I feel very lucky. The stories I hear from others, you'd think their doctors went to school to learn how to be vague. Just today it occurred to me, they are like teenagers who don't want to tell Mom where they were, who was there, or what they did. Their arsenal is every vague term in the book: Some, More-or-less, Kind of, Perhaps. I realize not all medicine is cut-and-dried, quantitative knowledge. But, doc, if you know something, tell it to me clearly. Thank you.