Tuesday, December 31, 2013

How to ruin a good speech

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, speeches, art, artists

In May 2012 author Neil Gaiman addressed graduating students. The transcript of his speech is published in a very small book, Make Good Art. The delivery took 19 minutes. The reading would take most of us about 8-10 minutes, but the goofy typography of Chip Kidd's design makes it take about an hour. I guess, to get a book out of it, Mr. Kidd had to mess around with it, stretching less than 2,000 words onto about 65 pages.

Mr. Gaiman's recipe for turning lemons into lemonade is, as the title suggests, "Make good art." Need I say more? I will, anyway. I have long contended that genuinely good art, whether fine art, writing, or performance, ennobles the reader/viewer/audience. If it doesn't, it isn't good art. Contrast the side-splitting but gentle humor of Red Skelton with a comic I saw on a cable TV show once: his entire act consisted of grinning and jumping and saying, over and over, with various inflections, "It's the S**t!!" And no, I don't know how long that act is, because I changed channels after about a minute.

C'mon folks, you know the difference between a true laugh and a snicker. You know the difference between delight and dismay, between an audience in transport and one hoping nobody sees them taking in the show. And those who claim that ugly art is somehow "great" or "beautiful" just enable their own degradation at "artists" who need a really, really serious attitude adjustment.

Now, Mr. Gaiman's books sell very well, so he must write well, and the speech is well written. I like his message, what I can glean from it, anyway. If the dark red/light cyan typography weren't so hard to read—there isn't a single letter in the book in black ink—I might have enjoyed it more, and gotten more out of it.

This post is also backdated to the day I actually read the book. Like my prior post says, it's been hectic.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Is friend support peer pressure?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, friendship

In my prior post, I noted that I have 127 FaceBook friends, well below the average among those same "friends". Growing up, I was usually relocated by a family move every 3-4 years. I think our stay at a house in south Salt Lake City was the longest spell during that period: 5 years. This kind of history predisposed me to shed my friends every few years and make my way as the "new kid" (again!). But since leaving South Dakota almost 28 years ago, we've lived in only three houses, the most recent, 19 years! So in late life I am finally learning to make more lasting friends.

It is funny. My wife, who left Japan 42 years ago, still has friends there that she went to middle- and high school with, and keeps up with them, mostly by snail mail. My parents, who moved as much as I did, hung on to friends after leaving a place, and there would be this or that trip to Europe or somewhere with "that bunch". So all the moving seems to have emphasized a quirk of my own personality, to keep my distance. There is nobody from any school or college that I attended, that I have stayed in touch with, and only one from the university. I do remember some of them, but am not in contact with any.

Now, though, we have been living near a set of neighbors for half our married life, and in the local church all that time, a full third of our lives in total, and they are some of our "oldest" friends! (They are nearly all younger than we are) Call me a late bloomer. Looking back on reading Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are, by Carlin Flora, I wonder who influenced me the most. Was it Danny, my closest friend in high school drama club? or Jim and the other members of the Madras Minstrels/Willow Tree Singers, as we variously called our folk-n-country music band? (I still have one of the Madras shirts. Doesn't fit any more…) or perhaps that one college friend who became a church friend? Not that we talk a lot. About every 3-4 years, "whether we need to or not".

I have studied and followed the nature/nurture wars for decades. Indeed, a country ballad I wrote, based on a family saying, is called "What Comes Naturally" and has the line, "Part of me is what they made me, part of me I made myself", though I was referring to my parents, not to friends. But Ms Flora states that we are shaped more by friends than by family. This may be so, as a story from our son's childhood illustrates.

In our first meeting with a 7th grade teacher of his, we were told how nice and kind and helpful he was. My wife and I looked at one another wide-eyed, thinking "Is this our son she is talking about?" I hope (probably in vain) that she wasn't too disturbed when I turned back and said, "Well, he knows we won't kill him; he doesn't know that about you." And there you have an example of the tactlessness that has characterized my social life. But our son is a very, very different kid than either of us were. He ran with a pretty good crowd, and turned out a pretty good young man. He is a FB friend also, which is how I know he has over 1,000 FB friends, and keeps up with a great many of them.

In the 8 longish chapters of Friendfluence, the author covers the gamut: how we find and make friends…or how about half the time, others make us their friends; the friends we are glad to have and those we wish we could drop (moving works, but little else does); the effects of friendship on our health and longevity, usually positive but there is no guarantee; the way friendship is changing now that we can Skype or V-chat with anyone anywhere; and, seeing how influential friends are, making the most of it, while avoiding becoming a cynical "user".

On balance, we need friendship. I read of an experiment in which a rat was kept in isolation from all other animals, not just rats, but keepers and everybody. Food and water were delivered mechanically, and I don't know how the keepers managed to clean up without being seen. But it didn't last long anyway; the rat soon just lay down and died, pretty much on purpose, it seems. At the risk of making a cruel experiment more cruel, I wonder if rats differ in sociability as much as humans do. Some people really don't seem to need others. But even the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, at least had rare contact with his brother, which led to his being caught. And though I was considered a loner most of my life, I have always enjoyed social contact, even if I often need time alone to recharge (and that just makes me an ordinary introvert).

I think "No Man is an Island" is literally true. Even for that guy who spent 30 years in Alaska making all his own stuff, and filming it. The filming was a social act, and he had monthly air drops during most of the year. He needed to at least talk to the pilot when picking up his stuff and paying and delivering film to be sent for processing. He got along with a lot less human contact than most of us, but more than the PBS specials about him would lead you to believe.

There're a dozen more kinds of thoughts that crowd together as I consider this book. That makes it a great book in my estimation. PS, I am writing this about 3 days after finishing the reading. Year-end was busy, and very social! So I'm backdating the post.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A quick, mindful read

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology

The cover of the book features a drawing of a sectioned head with numbered pointers to brain features and other items. But A Very Short Tour of the Mind: 21 Short Walks Around the Human Brain, by Michael C. Corballis, is about psychology, not physiology. In fact, the structures and features of the brain are scarcely mentioned. Rather, the 21 essays in this small book (scarcely 100 pages) feature the workings of minds, ordinary and not-so-ordinary, rather than the "hardware" in which they operate.

The author provides welcome relief from the nearly universal notion that our brain is some kind of computer and the mind is what it computes. The term "compute" cannot really apply to what the brain/mind does, but we have no other verb anyone likes, not even the slightly arty "cogitate". Come to recall, I don't remember seeing the word "compute" anywhere in the book. Nice!

So what word can we use for mental activity? "Think" is too narrow, and implies only conscious action. Most of what goes on inside is not willed. In fact, try to take over your breathing; breathing can be put under totally conscious control for short periods of time, but the least distraction results in an automatic system regaining control. We need a new word, and it is not likely a useful one will arise until we know a lot more about just what "mental activity" actually is. Cogito, ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am") was fine for Descartes in his day, but does that mean non-thinking items do not exist? He said that while kicking a rock…

OK, on to what Dr. Corballis writes. He writes of evidence that creatures other than ourselves think creatively and use language. "Not at our level, of course", is the mantra of human chauvinism. He discusses the Encephalization Quotient, a function of the 2/3 power of body mass. Naturally, the function yields its largest result for humans. However, the number for porpoises/dolphins (you know, those mini-whales like Flipper) is very close. I suspect if you discount body fat, the EQ for porpoises is higher than ours. Oceangoing mammals need a lot of insulation, and blubber fits the bill.

Hmm, let's do a riff on this. The expected weight of a brain, for a mammal, is discussed by Jim Moore in a 1999 article:

Ew(brain) = 0.12w(body)2/3

Reading this article, I find that all the data used were for female mammals. Presumably, this was done to reduce the effect of sexual dimorphism (males in species that compete for females are much larger). So, if a female monkey weighing 1 kg has a brain weighing 19 grams, is this greater or less than the expected brain weight (Ew)? In other words, is this monkey's EQ greater or less than 1? The steps:

  1. 10002/3 = 100.
  2. 0.12×100 = 12.
Thus Ew=12g, so the EQ for this monkey is 19/12 = 1.58. The table in this Wikipedia article lists the EQ for a Rhesus monkey as 2.1. It also uses the house cat as the standard, with an EQ of 1.00. An average cat weighs 3.3 kg. Ew is thus 26.5. Most cat brains weigh from 25 to 30 g, so the "standard" number must have been for a slightly large cat with a slightly small brain. My cat weighs 5 kg and is of a large-headed breed. Her Ew is 35 g. I suspect her brain is closer to 30 g, so her EQ is probably less than 1. Now, on to humans and porpoises.

A Euro-American female in optimal health, of average height (1.65 m), weighs about 60 kg (BMI=22). Her Ew is 184 g, but with the average female human brain weighing in near 1,400 g, her EQ is 7.6. Suppose instead her BMI were 18.6, like my wife? Now with a weight of 51 kg, her Ew is 165 leading to an EQ of 8.5! Is my wife a lot smarter than average? She's smart, but no genius (unless she's a great actor!). And what of an obese woman? Height of 1.65 m and BMI of 30 implies a weight of 81.5 kg. This leads to EQ of 6.2.

Now, the EQ for a Bottlenose Dolphin is listed as 4.14. It is hard to discern where this figure arose. These dolphins range from 2 to 4 m in length, but average size for populations near the U.S. east coast is 2.5 m, with weights in the 250 kg range. The Ew for a 250 kg dolphin is 476 g, so the brain weight used for the table must have been about 1,970 g. Now, suppose we discount the blubber? This is typically 20% of the total, or 50 kg for our example. Considering that this blubber is in addition to ordinary body fat, let's figure EQ for a 200 kg dolphin with a 1,970 g brain: it comes to 4.8. This is closer to the human range.

Now to my point. Do dolphins think? Well, of course they do, but do they think like humans do? Of course not. They "see" by sonar, a sense we don't have, and live in a more 3-dimensional world. But they have social lives and friends and enemies, just as we do.

OK, the book is about the human mind. A quite different measure of mental capacity is the breadth of one's circle of relationships. The Dunbar Number for humans is about 150. While troop size in baboons can be larger than this, stable groups that tend to hang together tend to number 20-30. Yet the naked mole rat, with a truly tiny brain, lives in colonies that average 75 individuals. Perhaps a rat's circle of good buddies is smaller than this.

We may have the capacity for 150 active relationships, but I think few of us take full advantage of it. I am probably more solitary than most. Prior to moving to the Philadelphia area 20 years ago, I seldom lived in any neighborhood longer than 5 years. This led to a habit of shedding relationships every few years. Most of our neighbors live near many relatives, and socialize mainly with them. But I'll just compare the social circles of myself and our son. We moved here when he was 6, so he spent all 12 years of schooling in one district. My high school yearbook has lots of signatures from classmates, but only a handful wrote more than their name. I don't recall signing very many yearbooks with more than my initials. The day our son brought home his middle school yearbook, I found him circling pictures. I inquired, and he said, "These are my friends." I checked later; it was about half the student body, more than 300. He has kept up with quite a number of them. Many are now his FaceBook friends.

OK, I have 127 FaceBook friends. My Friends page lists the number of friends they have, for nearly all of them (some folks hide this). Dropping the page into Excel and filtering a little, I find the range is from 3 to 4,979. This last number is for an evangelist, who has a strong interest in reaching people! But there are 8 others who have at least 1,000 FBF's, our son included. The mean of the numbers I have is 461 and the median is 319, so FB facilitates keeping at least a tenuous connection with large numbers of people, compared to village sociodynamics.

So does Picasa or other picture album applications. The number of People albums in my Picasa archive is just over 500. There are large "slush" albums of "HS Kid" and "Church Kid" and a few other collections, for faces that Picasa found among my photos, and I can recognize them but don't have a name I can recall, just an association.

Well, it will be a while before dolphins or any other creature comes up with something like FB. The human brain is remarkably powerful. Yet it is limited. Chapter 13 opens with words worth remembering: "Got a bad memory? It's actually much worse than you think, for the simple reason that you don't know how much you have forgotten." Truth to tell, when my wife and I have a "blast from the past" and remember someone, the stories she tells me, and the stories I tell her, are wholly different. Our memories overlap no more than 20%, for the same event and person(s)! Without the ability to forget, though, even the amazing memory capacity we have would get too cluttered for us to function. We remember what we find useful, freely edit many parts so our self-story is more pleasing, and skate most of the rest off to limbo.

Now, if a little 100-page book, in 12mo size, can trigger such a bunch of fun riffs, I say you gotta give it a read. It wasn't what I expected. It was a whole lot better!

Monday, December 23, 2013

We are all just tubes wrapped in muscle and bone

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, alimentary canal, physiology, lore

The squeamish may wish to avoid eating while reading Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach. But that goes for many of her books, particularly Stiff (about cadavers) and Bonk (about sex science). I do intend to hunt down a copy of Packing for Mars.

A large part of Gulp is debunking myths. Such as that the human bite is the most dangerous, in terms of causing infection. That's only likely to be true for the bite of someone accustomed to eating food so rotten it endangers his health. Otherwise the Komodo Dragon holds gets the prize for the riskiest bite. And how about the other end? A gastroenterologist of our acquaintance once said he can do all kinds of cutting inside someone's colon, and it'll heal without infection or even a scar. He said he seldom needs to prescribe antibiotics. I've seen the followup colonoscopies after having part of my colon removed, and the trimmed end fitted to re-attach to the ileum, which is something like one-third its diameter. The "fitting" section, called an anastomosis, is a smooth taper from big tube to small tube. My intestinal flora didn't cause any trouble during healing.

OK, that paragraph is about 20% upper GI, and 80% lower GI, just like the book. The mouth gets a couple of chapters, saliva one by itself, the stomach two, the ileum (small intestine) just one, and about 8 chapters dwell on the colon, rectum and anus, plus "gas". This is particularly because of the many uses to which our lower GI is put. You'll just love learning how cell phones get smuggled into prisons… or the recreational uses of the rectum and nearby parts.

Recreation aside, the book is very well researched. The author traveled and interviewed and studied. For the macabre end of things, she discusses some of the exhibits of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, including a "megacolon" 29 inches in circumference (over 9" diameter; a normal colon maxes out at about 3" diam at the cecum). This is caused by a nerve problem that prevents peristalsis, so the colon won't empty without extreme measures: lots of enemas. Most sufferers die young, Elvis included. She also visited the Restaurant of the Future at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands. They study chewing. You know that business about chewing 32 times, to do a thorough job, or "Fletcherizing" (chewing each bite for several minutes; you spend all day chewing), to do a thoroughly obsessive job? Neither is needed for proper digestion. Chewing mixes sufficient saliva with the food so it'll go down. Experiments with barely moistened, swallowed chunks found they digested just fine. However, chewing is pleasurable for most of us, such that people who have esophagus damage and must eat by putting macerated food into a tube that enters the stomach through a fistula never feel they've eaten, and are continually famished, regardless how much they stuff through the tube!

Just as studies of "abnormal psychology" help us understand "normal psychology" (I prefer the terms less-usual and more-usual psychology), studies of pathology all along our bodily canal tend to focus on the unusual so as to illuminate the usual. The very few people who have literally eaten themselves to death had to overcome a series of bodily mechanisms that make it harder and harder to keep eating, long before we are in physical danger of bursting our innards. But it has been done, usually by first consuming barbiturates to numb the inner nerves. A clue to the unwary: don't go to a buffet line just after taking medicine that might numb your stomach's defense mechanisms! A paragraph or two on those performers who eat things like broken glass or a chopped-up piano would have been right at home in this chapter, but no go.

Among the major animal groups, we vertebrates are deuterostomes, a term meaning "two mouths". Ms Roach reminds us to be thankful we are not monostomatic like sea anemones, which must defecate back through their mouth, as their body cavity has only one opening. The same goes for all corals and jellyfish and similar critters. Our body plan is essentially a tube wrapped in muscle, enclosed in bone, with skin over all. Insects and relatives such as lobsters differ from vertebrates primarily in having no skin over their bones (it is just inside), and in being "upside down", with the main nerve chord (equal to our spinal chord) along their front side, and the alimentary canal more to the back.

Seeing as how I typically read if I am eating alone, I scheduled reading time away from the table, and read other things (such as Wired or Scientific American) at mealtimes. Much of the book is actually not icky at all, but you never know when turning the page might unleash a surprise. But Ms Roach's surprises are laced with gentle humor. Like a good meal, it left me wanting more.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Developing a voice others will hear

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, spirituality, women, environmentalism

A peek behind the scenes: I don't buy every book I review. Some, but not most. I haunt the new book sections of a few libraries. I look first at the Science Fiction section (inexplicably mingled with Fantasy in most libraries!), then at Science, then at everything else, but usually not biographies or "mainstream fiction". If I haven't found 3-5 books on a particular visit by that point, I peruse the new LP (large print) section.

I picked up When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations of Voice by Terry Tempest Williams because of the title, and because it was the first book I saw in the 500's (Science in DD system; it is classified 508: Natural History). While I would probably still have gotten it if it were in either 298 (Mormon Religion) or 305 (Women's Studies) where it belongs, perhaps that is less likely. At any rate, it was a very good read.

The author's mother died young, of cancer, as did many of her relatives, possibly because they lived downwind of the A-bomb test site in Nevada (I lived in the same area in the 1950s, and I have also had cancer, but I am a fortunate survivor). Her mother's legacy was a bookshelf of journals; Mormon women are instructed to keep a journal of family history. There was a journal for each year. Every page of every volume was blank.

The book is Ms Williams's autobiographical meditation on what her mother might have written. The 54 chapters are only loosely related to the 54 years of her mother's life; perhaps a bit more to the 54 years of her own age when she wrote. Not in time, but in substance. Assuming the subtitle was her choice alone (editors often arrogate that to themselves), we find a development of her own voice as influenced by the strong women in her family, her mother, both grandmothers, and a couple of aunts. In a key chapter toward the end, she learned to recruit other voices when she found her own voice being brushed aside.

"Voice" has several meanings. Perhaps someone reading this encountered it because to them the title meant gaining singing skills. To the author, "voice" is a political power. Persuasive voice. Voice of influence. The voice that gets things done. If possible, a voice with the power of the one that spoke "Let there be light." Because…then there was light. Thus a major theme of the book is to develop a voice of light in the midst of the voices of darkness and destruction. That is the environmental voice, in her case.

I find it interesting to read this right after Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. Williams's writing is not as lyrical as Leopold's, but it is seen to be at least as effective. She did not persuade legislators directly, but by forming a coalition of voices more likely to be heard, at least one major piece of environmental legislation did get enacted, and another has been pending for a decade and may yet be passed.

Finally, I realized how she chose her title. She writes of songbirds scolding a raven that has seized a nestling. Ignoring them, it gulps down its prey. More and more small birds gather and scold. Then there is a sudden silence. And the small birds begin to sing, ignoring the raven. They rise above the incident, rise above the raven. They sing because they have voices to sing with. One nestling may have been lost, but others will survive, and life goes on. Regardless what voices there may be in the world, women who know who they are have voices of life.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A classic that will never go out of date

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ecology, naturalists, advocacy

(For the record, I read most of a book on investing, and it was so poor I decided not to review it. Thus the delay for this book, which is shorter than most.)

I just finished reading A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. In case anyone doesn't know, the volume includes Sketches Here and There plus The Upshot. I suppose it is a bit odd that I had not read it before, as I have read Thoreau's Walden and a couple of writings by John Muir. This book outclasses Walden by a large margin.

I suppose Sand County has been reviewed hundreds of times in the 66 years since it was published, so I feel little need to plow worn-out ground. But a few things struck me with sufficient force that they require comment.

In the essay "Prairie Birthday" he writes of the annual blooming of Silphium, seen here, in mid-July. In the
1940s he could find it only in one small abandoned graveyard, and at the end of the essay he notes that the graveyard has been "developed" and the plant is now probably extinct in Wisconsin. This image shows a low-growing planting; this perennial can reach two meters. From the comments at Rob's Plants, it is apparently still found in Vermont and environs. I was particularly struck by the plainness with which Leopold reported the demise of the plant and the yard in which it grew. His is not to castigate, but to unflinchingly report.

Later in the same essay he writes, "…it comes to pass that farms are good in proportion to the poverty of their floras." Having kept a record of the species he has seen blooming in two areas—one his farm and the other the campus where he taught—he noted that the former hosted 226 flowering species, the latter, but 120.

In the essay "Marshland Elegy" his penultimate paragraph reads, "Thus always does history, whether of marsh or market place, end in paradox. The ultimate value of these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate. But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondls, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish." This may be the truest and saddest ecological statement in print.

In the essay "Green Lagoons", one of the Sketches, he writes in a similar vein, more tersely, "Man always kills the things he loves, and so we pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?"

I find it strange that land is being developed at a clip greater than the increase in population. Here are before-and-after satellite images (clipped from Google Earth), one just about 20 years ago, the other earlier this year:

The two neighborhoods thus constructed, not more than a few miles from where I live, quite overloaded the school seen at upper right in both images, so a couple of miles away a new one was built. I know, continued construction is good for the jobs market, but the number of unused homes in the US has reached more than 14 million (11% of the total), quite an incredible number! Having lived most of my life in rural areas, I consider it tantamount to a capital crime to put houses on land that can grow crops, or even worse, shelter wild things. It is even more criminal to do so when there are a few million acres of land under millions of homes that nobody lives in. Hey out there! Remodeling is construction work also.

A final note. I am so poor at both fishing and hunting that I never enjoyed either activity. Leopold excelled at both, and writes of them with lyrical fervor. It touched my heart. He deeply understood all the motives that a person could have toward the land and its denizens. I wonder if any of today's "environmentalists" either hunt or fish. Yet I am distrustful of most "sport" hunters and fishermen. I favor both activities only if you eat everything you kill. But I think it is not true "sport" unless you do all your sport hunting naked with only a knife in hand, and all your sport fishing with your bare hands. I suspect Leopold would be at least mildly supportive of such a view.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Spy life like you've never seen it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, espionage, spies, biographies

In 1998, Bill Powell caught a tiger by the tail, but he didn't know that at first. As a Newsweek reporter in Moscow, he had become accustomed to all sorts of cranks and hard-luck stories walking in and looking for help, or at least a friendly ear. When a fit, conservatively-dressed man of about 50 came to see him, he almost brushed him off. But this man claimed to have met Powell's predecessor while in a prison camp for treason. Powell was intrigued and let him talk, and continued to meet with him. The story took several years to play out.

The plotline of Slava Baronov's life was twisty and complex, but the core of the story was simple. He'd been a colonel in the GRU after serving as a military pilot; while in Bangladesh he grew sufficiently disenchanted with the pervasive lies of the USSR's leaders that he allowed himself to be recruited by the CIA; during the "courtship" prior to "signing on", information he provided about the black box aboard the KAL 007—its survival was never admitted by the USSR—became the only substantive work he ever did for them; soon afterward he found himself out of contact and effectively dangling in the wind. He was arrested by the KGB, tried for treason, but this was now the new Russia, the old USSR was gone, so he didn't get the customary bullet to the head but an actual trial. He concluded he'd been betrayed by someone in the CIA, and this was a few years after Aldrich Ames had been exposed, so what he wanted was twofold: to help the CIA and FBI find the mole, and to find out what really happened, why he was treated so badly.

Against the urging of his wife, and with only grudging permission of his Newsweek superiors, Powell got deeper and deeper into the matter, eventually becoming an intermediary between Baranov and the US government. Powell made it clear he planned to write the story once it had played out, which helps explain why he was not forced into becoming a CIA agent himself. The book that resulted is Treason: How a Russian Spy Led an American Journalist to a U.S. Double Agent by Bill Powell.

If I go further, I'll spoil it. You'll need to read to what extent Baranov was eventually vindicated, and how the CIA atoned. It is a fascinating book.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A utopia, in her eyes

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, places, technology

Did you ever talk to someone who was full of excitement about something that didn't excite you at all? That is how I felt during and after reading Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Everyone Else Can Learn From the Innovation Capital of the World by Deborah Perry Piscione. It is odd; Ms Piscione is a good writer, she is passionate about her subject, and Silicon Valley is truly a marvelous place and state of mind. I'm not sure why it leaves me underwhelmed (not cold, mind you, but not all warm-n-fuzzy either).

I scarcely remember my early childhood in California, but I do recall the decade or so I lived there as an adult. I spent most of that in Orange County, arguably the next-best utopia after Silicon Valley. But, not liking the crowds, and preferring not to spend half a million bucks for a bungalow, I left for less populated places. I suppose I'd have enjoyed going to Stanford rather than Cal Tech (where I worked but did not matriculate) or Cal State (where I did matriculate, and graduate). I have a ton of friends there, in San Jose and Los Altos and nearby places. But I have a bigger ton of friends now, here, in the southern and western suburbs of Philadelphia. Not exactly a Silicon anything, but it is where I've spent the longest stretch of my life yet, coming up on 20 years. I've retired here, so I reckon another 20 is in the works, God willing.

But we are supposed to be talking about Silicon Valley. The core of its appeal is twofold: Stanford University and nearly perfect weather. (Aside: depends on how you define 'perfect'. I prefer enough rainfall so water doesn't have to be imported.) The ideals set forth at the University's founding and further developed over the decades since have resulted in a nearly perfect climate for entrepreneurship. Somehow, the California legislature agreed, and onerous laws seen in other US states do not exist there. However, when you have a lot of money chasing the usual amount of goods, prices rise. Land along "Investors' Row" on Sand Hill row can cost up to $144 per square foot (the land, not the structures), or nearly $6.3 million per acre. And I thought land was high here, at a quarter million an acre! Imagine paying $750,000 for a 5,000 sq ft lot. And there is no house on it yet! (I live on a 16,000 sq ft lot, valued at $90,000, under a house of modest value, say twice that of the land.) Of course, Sand Hill is commercial, but commercial real estate in this area isn't much over 30% more than residential, for undeveloped land. I certainly hope residential land there is less than a million for a ¼ acre lot!

Well, I suppose if I'd become an internet millionaire, I wouldn't complain about such prices. The amenities are surely attractive. You really can water ski or surf in the morning and snow ski before nightfall. The eateries are nonpareil. There is usually enough gentle wind, in the right direction to keep SF smog going somewhere else. (Another aside. Traveling westward some years ago, as we descended to land in Salt Lake City, I saw it was smog-bound. Flying out westward an hour later, I saw that the smog was flowing through the mountain passes from the west. It covered all of that part of Nevada we flew over. Then I saw it coming over Cajon Pass and others as we approached LAX. It was LA smog, covering a third of the country! SF smog can get as dense, but is not nearly so voluminous.)

The key to Silicon Valley's success is the mind set. Based on the Stanford ethos – if the school wants a student, its huge endowment ensures they can attend for free, but if they don't want you, all the money in the world won't get you in – there is an egalitarian spirit there that ensures almost anyone with an idea to pitch can get some attention, however brief, from a venture capitalist or investment angel. Your idea better be good, but you won't get brushed off just because you don't have a PhD from, say, Georgetown or Harvard, which is what it takes to get to talk to a VC in DC or NYC.

It takes three kinds of people to make a venture a success: Openers, those with the good ideas and a fair notion of how they might be carried out; Closers, those who know how to complete a task once begun; and Producers, the ones you can hire who will hit the ground running and take the Opener's idea and ideals, and develop them to the point that the market-oriented Closers can induce folks to part with cash. A Silicon Valley culture brings these together in abundance, and provides the mental framework in which they can work together without mutual antagonism.

That last phrase is why Bill Gates is a hero of mine, and Steve Jobs is not. Jobs was a jerk, and managed to antagonize, or exile, everyone who didn't agree with him about nearly everything. Bill Gates knows that if two people agree on everything, one of them is redundant. He hired for variety as much as for talent. Though Microsoft is based in Seattle rather than San Jose or thereabouts, it has connections there, and it embodies the Silicon Valley ethos. It is nice to have the surf-n-ski climate and so forth, but it is the quality of mind and openness to the tremendous variety of human thought, that makes an enterprise successful.

Now, that excites me more than the rest, and deserves stronger billing in this book. So, underwhelmed I may be, but I declare it is a book well worth reading, particularly by anyone who might wind up in the Valley someday, or is there but directionless, or someone in one of the other places seeking to replicate its success.

Changing Gears

kw: authorship

I've invited a new author to this blog, known as Polymath77. Also a book lover, devoted to reviewing. But maybe someone who'll have a new take on things, and write posts on subjects I might have missed.

Changing Gears

kw: authorship

Times are a-changin', and so is authorship of this blog. Polymath70 is transitioning to Polymath77. It will still consist of mostly book reviews. Maybe I'll have time for more frequent posts than ol' 70. We'll probably both be posting for a while, we'll see.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Random Thoughts on the Virtual Human

kw: musings, artificial intelligence, computers, supercomputers

In one of Isaac Asimov's early Robot stories, the president of U.S. Robotics keeps demanding a more and more perfect robot, until at great cost a robot is produced that cannot be distinguished from a human. At that point aliens arrive, and in the course of time visit U.S. Robotics, where they are shown the robot. One of them turns and says, "So what is the point?"

What, indeed? It was published earlier this year that the largest supercomputer complex currently in use has a storage capacity and parallel processing speed that exceeds that of the human brain. What is required to do this? The facility fills a room the size of a medium-size warehouse and uses a total of 7 million watts, both for processing and for cooling. Of course, we are told that Moore's Law ensures that all this will "soon" be scaled down to a much more manageable size and power requirement.

I wonder what "soon" means. A loose way to state Moore's Law is that circuit density doubles about every two years. The Watson supercomputer, which has considerably less capacity than the brain—but is really, really good at looking up trivia needed to score points in Jeopardy—fills a dozen racks and would barely fit in a large bedroom. The warehouse-sized machine mentioned above must occupy 20 to 50 times that volume. Let's say, 2,000 cubic m, or 2 billion cc. The brain's volume is less than 1,500 cc. The ratio is about 1.33 million. Dividing in half enough times, we find it'll take just over 40 years for the brain-sized supercomputer to be possible.

Is that really needed? Why do we want to replicate humans? It presently takes 15-20 years and anything from a few thousand to a quarter million $US to produce an adult human, depending on education level and the level of development of the country in which this person is born and raised. No, the real desire for producing "artificial intelligence", aside from the coolness factor (yawn), is to have a machine that can do jobs humans don't want to do, or cannot do, yet requires more intelligence than we find in waldo-sorta robots (actually teleoperated devices).

At present, even Watson and the larger supercomputers are horribly inefficient. What would it take to do brain things the brain way, using silicon chips and wires instead of neurons and their support systems? Signals along sensory and motor neurons in the body are rather quick, in the range from 20-100 m/s. But they have a larger diameter than brain neurons, so the latter are slower: 3-5 m/s. Thus, it takes a signal about 40-50 ms to go from one end of the brain to another, such as from the optic lobes to the prefrontal lobes. This may underlie the frequency of the Alpha wave, at around 10Hz (8-12). It is the highest frequency rhythm in which the brain can participate as a whole.

But if you use coaxial cables or optical fibers or other kinds of wire for signal transmission, what is needed to keep signal transmission below 50 ms? Signal speeds in wire or fiber are about 2/3 c, or 200,000,000 m/s. In 50 ms, a signal can traverse about 10 million m or 10,000 km. So a mechanical brain can be continent-sized, leaving plenty of room for the really massively parallel kind of computation that the real brain performs.

A neuron is not just some on/off switch. It does some nonlinear processing of its own, so it would take a small CPU to emulate its activity (We'll need to learn a lot more about the various ways neurons in the cortex, the hippocampus, the amygdala and so forth, react to incoming signals).

Well, the brain has 10 billion neurons and 100 billion supporting cells called glia (of several different kinds). We can consider the glia as infrastructure and focus on the neurons. The modern package of a CPU is the cell phone. A smart phone's volume is 80 cc. 10 billion of these comes to 800 billion cc, or about 40 of those warehouses mentioned above. If they are "rackified" outside their cases, and powered externally so they need no batteries, and the radio module replaced with a hard-wire fanout, the volume can be reduced by 10, but you do need to wire them together. Each neuron has from 1,000 to more than 10,000 connections to other neurons, so it'll require a lot of wire. Still, we are in the range of a warehouse with less than 10,000 cu. m, quite a lot smaller than the continent we could fill, and retain the speed we need.

A question might arise at this point: Why is this system so much larger than one which is already faster than a brain? It is because I chose a neuron analog with around 1/10th the volume of a cell phone. The big supercomputer does not use virtual neurons; it does processing by a method entirely different from neuronal activities. But if you want to emulate the brain's functions, you have to emulate the way it does them. That vaunted supercomputer is not nearly as effective as the average house cat at recognizing faces, or voices, or footstep rhythms.

OK, whether it needs a few thousand cubic meters, or ten times that much, it might be costly, but it is theoretically possible to build a system that does brain things in the brain's way. But such a mind would be insane from the outset. Our brain is part of a complex system that includes a body full of sensors and an endocrine system (the original brain) with at least a couple dozen signalling molecules, and a few ways of expressing itself to external beings. Unless a brain, natural or built, has lots and lots of input and stimulation, it "spins its wheels" into helpless catatonia. Of course, using wires or optical fibers allows fast reflexes across pretty large spaces, but you'd really want a body much more human sized, attached to a brain locked away somewhere, via a fast data link no more than a few dozen km in length. A world traveler this one could not be. Remember, motor and sensory neurons have transit speeds in the 30-100 m/s range, so a 2m axon is traversed in 10-40 ms, but the shorter ones (upper body) on the fastest reflex arcs can get a signal to or from the nearest ganglion in a couple of milliseconds.

That's enough for now. And I still await my own criterion for genuine artificial intelligence: A mechanism, unaided, does its own research and development and obtains a patent.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Why are there so many important numbers?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, numbers, short biographies

A subject that is exercising many physicists and cosmologists is why so many peculiar numbers are needed to define the physics of the Universe, and why they are so seemingly unrelated. Even more, some of them, according to the current theories, need to take rather precise values or the Universe cannot exist, or if it can, it cannot support carbon-based life.

For example, the efficiency of conversion of hydrogen to helium in stars like the sun is very nearly 0.007. (A proton weighs 1.00739 AMU, where the C12 nucleus is defined to weigh 12.0, and a helium nucleus weighs 4.0015 AMU; 4×1.00739 = 4.02956; subtracting 4.0015 gives 0.02806; dividing by 4.02956 yields 0.00696). Were the efficiency as low as 0.006, to quote James D. Stein, "The neutron and proton would not bond to each other, deuterium would not form, and the Universe would consist of nothing but hydrogen" (We'll get back to the error in this statement later). And were it a little higher, at 0.008, "…it would be far to easy for protons to bond together," and the "big bang" would seemingly have gone on to bang away all the Universe to helium and heavier elements in short order: no hydrogen means no water, and any life that forms would need a different fluid.

Given that nobody has yet determined some tiny (five or fewer) set of really fundamental constants, from which everything else can be derived, we have quite a number of them. The recent discovery of the Higgs boson was supposed to pave the way for a more fundamental physical theory, but that seems about as far off as it did before. My most recent printout of the CODATA list of "important" constants runs to several pages.

The book is Cosmic Numbers: The Numbers That Define Our Universe by James D. Stein, a mathematics professor at CSU Long Beach. Out of the zoo of CODATA constants, he has chosen 13 to explain to us, and even better, he presents short biographies of the scientists whose work led to an understanding of each of them.

Some numbers have dimensions, meaning that their numerical value depends on the system of measurement. Such is Avogadro's Number, 6.0221413×1023, the number of atoms in 12 grams of the carbon-12 isotope. It is the ratio of the gram to the AMU. By extension, it is the definition for a mole of any substance, where a mole is the weight in grams equal to the atomic or molecular weight of the atoms or molecules. Thus, one mole of pure isotopic iron as Fe56 is 56 grams (or, strictly speaking, 55.9349393 grams, because the atomic weight of that isotope of iron is 55.9349393 AMU). Now, suppose instead of grams, we had in history defined a unit mass to be something else, call it a marg, with a mass about 1.66 times as large. Then Avogadro's Number would be, nearly exactly, 1024, and it is likely that scientists would lobby hard to get the marg redefined to make that number exact. Something similar happened fifty or so years ago, when the inch was redefined to be exactly 25.4mm.

Other numbers are dimensionless, such as absolute zero. This is an extrapolated temperature, defined according to the ideal gas law, at which no more heat can be extracted from a substance, and the atomic or molecular motions that define what we mean by "temperature" would cease completely, except for the tiny gyrations needed to avoid violating Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. The "temperature" 0K (K for "kelvins", which have the same size as Celsius degrees), AKA 0R (in which a Réamur is equal in size to a Fahrenheit degree, but the scale begins at absolute zero), needs no units. Zero is zero.

Another dimensionless number is 1/137, the Fine Structure Constant, initially derived from spectroscopy in a magnetic field. Its actual value is 1/137.036 and about six more digits. Though it can be derived from more fundamental constants such as the unit charge and the speed of light, all the units cancel out, so it is the same numerically in all possible systems of units. This isn't one of Dr. Stein's examples. He presents only two dimensionless constants, Avogadro's Number and the efficiency of hydrogen fusion, discussed above. In the latter chapter (Chapter 10), I was surprised at a number of errors that the physicists among his reviewers ought to have caught.

One was the fusion of proton with neutron, mentioned above. Highly energetic P-P collisions are required for the protons to physically approach close enough for one to emit a positron and become a neutron. Then the strong force can take over and fuse the two. The value of actual interest here is the efficiency of P+P→D+e+ conversion. A deuteron weighs 2.01355 AMU, so the conversion efficiency is 0.00061. I suspect it is this number, not the 4P→He++ efficiency, that matters most. Another error was quite a long discussion of the mechanics of the P-P chain, in which the text uses "electron" instead of "proton" throughout. Electron collisions don't matter in the core of a star. The substance is a plasma. In essence, it is a mass of colliding protons (and deuterons and other nuclei) in a thin soup of unbound electrons, where there is nearly (or entirely) no impediment to P-P collisions except their own positive electric charge. At much lower energies (temperatures up to a few hundred degrees rather than tens of millions), H-H collisions that occur are primarily mediated by interactions between the electron clouds of the H atoms.

OK, gripe over. I confess to being rather staggered by that, but the rest of the book is a delight. We learn, not just the scientific endeavors of Boltzmann or Newton or Boyle, but their lives and something of their personalities. Science is a human activity, and one could say it is the most human of activities: figuring out how things work is our stock in trade (even if we devote our adolescence to figuring out how the opposite sex works!). The beauty of the numbers Dr. Stein has chosen lies in the sheer brilliance needed to first see the requirement for such a quantity, then to ferret out a way to determine what it is. We may see them as obvious in hindsight, but, for example, prior to Newton's insight, a law of common gravitational attraction just didn't fit in anybody's head.

A story is told of Napoleon, challenging his generals to make an egg stand on end. After they'd all given up, he held the egg and rapped it gently on the tabletop, enough to crush the end just a little. Then it stood. One general protested, "Well, that is obvious!", to which Napoleon replied, "It wasn't obvious before you saw me do it."

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Does the Devil know he is evil?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, evil, villains

The title of this post is a question I like to ask people when the subject of evil comes up. Think of the great villains of history, distant and recent: Athaliah (a genuine evil queen: see 2Kings 11), Herod, Nero, Caligula, Pope Boniface VIII (who "came in like a fox, reigned like a lion, and died like a dog"), Catherine the Great, Lizzie Borden, Hitler, Mao, Stalin or Osama bin Laden. With the possible exception of Ms Borden, each of these persons, and a great many other "meanies", was convinced he or she was good. There's a Crip hit man who wrote the book Monster while in prison. It is his nickname. He likes it. Most of the book is an attempt to convince the reader that he is really a good guy.

Then there's the corner drug dealer/hit man. If you dare, catch up to him and interview him. He'll go to great lengths to show you he's just a guy trying to make a living, giving people a product they want very, very much. I wonder if Earl Bradley, the Delaware pediatrician who raped at least 100 2- and 3-year old girls, thinks of himself as fundamentally good? He even videotaped many of the rapes. What was he thinking?

Flitting thoughts along these lines went through my head when I saw the book I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman. I've been hoping to find a book that delves into the possibility that some people actually choose to be evil. The jacket blurb raised my hopes, claiming the book is about people who wanted to be evil. That is as far as it went.

Starting with a discussion of rock bands he hated, the author primarily discusses people who are hated by others, whether or not they actually did anything evil. He derives a rule (we can call it Chuck's Rule of Evil): The villain is the one who knows the most and cares the least. The poster boy for this rule is supposedly Newt Gingrich. Howzatt? His "Contract for America" did more good for this country than any congressional action since. There is no mention in the book of something many folks consider evil, Newt's tendency to have affairs, but wait to file for divorce when the current wife is badly ill.

Klosterman goes on to various other public figures and groups, including a couple of really witless comedians and the rap group N.W.A. (who practically invented Gangsta Rap), and mid-book he discusses sports teams, dwelling on the Oakland Raiders. Now the Raiders' owner Al Davis seems to revel in a bad boy image, with his rule book centered on "Just Win, Baby!". But I suspect, inside, he thinks, "I am such a good coach" (Or thought, since he has now died).

The obligatory chapter on Adolph Hitler, which also mentions Stalin and Mao, really goes nowhere. Hitler is the exception that tests the Rule, because, whether he really knew the most or not, he certainly cared the most. But everything that can be known about Hitler has been written hundreds of times, so all that is left are speculations.

In the end, Klosterman admits that the adage, "he who writes of others writes of himself" is true. The book isn't about whether the hated people he writes about are/were really bad, but about the hatred (or not) he and others feel towards them. We are left with the question, who is worse, the hater or the hated one? In most cases, if there is someone or something you really hate, you'd do well to take a long, thoughtful look in the mirror.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Why the war on terror is an illusion

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, terrorism, crime

Cast a net wide enough, and everyone will be in it. This is the single flaw in Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat by Jeffrey D. Simon. I'll get to that anon; otherwise, this excellent book is a comprehensive survey and diagnosis of a phenomenon that has always been with us, but could become much greater in the future.

We all know what is the greatest terrorism incident in U.S. history: the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by al Qaeda members in NYC and Washington, DC (the Shanksville, PA crash was probably intended to terminate in DC also). What was the second? The April 19, 1995 bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh and abetted by Terry Nichols.

It is hard to imagine a blast that large. I was in Stillwater, OK that day, and I heard the sound. Hearing what it had been on the radio later that evening, my wife and I went the next day to see it. The sight was amazing. So is the thought of a sound heard more than fifty miles away!

Simon introduces three themes:

  • The lone wolf is changing the dynamics of terrorism.
  • Technology plays a key role in terrorism, and this will increase.
  • A lone wolf can me more creative and innovative than a group.
He traces the history of terrorists who worked alone, or with only minimal help, such as the help Terry Nichols gave to Timothy McVeigh in helping him construct the fertilizer bomb. The early examples are primarily assassins, such as John Wilkes Booth. But he includes John Gilbert Graham, the first person to bomb a commercial aircraft in 1955, whose motive was entirely pecuniary; he'd heavily insured his mother who unknowingly carried the bomb onto the plane. This is because he has produced five categories of terrorism:
  • Religious – those such as radical Islamists or certain white supremacists who claim a religious motive for their racism.
  • Secular (i.e. political) – those such as the assassins of presidents or other public officials, including Timothy McVeigh, and Joseph Stack, who flew a small airplane into an IRS building in 2010.
  • Single-Issue – such as those who bomb abortion centers or sabotage logging equipment in old-growth forests.
  • Criminal – those who perform terroristic acts for financial gain.
  • Idiosyncratic – insane persons, such as schizophrenics or those with "antisocial personality disorder", driven by their delusions to kill or destroy. The Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, is included here.
J.G. Graham was a criminal terrorist by this scheme. For that matter, so is the Mafia when its depredations erupt into the public sphere, though they are usually more circumspect in their tactics of intimidation. I find myself troubled by this classification.

I understand his reasoning, to a point. He includes as "terrorists" all who commit acts that cause public terror. If, for some reason, a group of organized criminals had committed the 9/11 attacks, then issued a demand for, say a few billion dollars ransom in return for not doing it any more, is that a terrorist incident? I think not. It is a kind of extortion. There is an entire category of actions for which people who intimidate others too severely are charged with "terroristic threatening", but they are not considered terrorists; they are considered extortionists or other kinds of criminal. So I would deny the category of "criminal terrorist". Otherwise, it will develop into a wide net that includes everyone who goes on a destructive spree, like the guy who blew a gasket and used a tractor to tear down a neighbor's house.

Setting that matter aside, I was (properly) unsettled by his analysis of lone wolf creativity. A loner is not bound to the decisions of a leader or a committee. Thus it was a lone wolf, Bruce Ivins, who first committed bio-terror in the modern era, by sending anthrax spores through the mail in 2001. It is not certain, though, whether his intent was criminal (seeking publicity leading to quicker acceptance of an anthrax vaccine he'd developed) or political (anger at those blocking his research). I wonder if the distribution of "smallpox blankets" among Indian tribes in the 18th Century qualifies as bio-terror, or was it "just" attempted genocide? Simon predicts it will be a lone wolf who first creates havoc with Cyberterror (haven't hordes of virus coders already done that? Most of them work alone).

In the late chapters, Simon turns his attention to ways to prevent lone wolf terrorism—indeed, of terrorism in general—and, failing that, ways to ameliorate the conditions that lead to terrorism. This I find most useful. Terrorism, particularly by small cells and lone wolves, is an arms race between law enforcement agents and the terrorists. For example, it took a generation, but you can now take training courses in defeating a Polygraph. And terrorists are always coming up with new ways to smuggle bombs or bomb-making materials into airplanes and other public venues; the police and TSA and Homeland Security are engaged in a "catch up" race.

I liked the discussion of biometric identification by video, coupled to a hot computer. The way people walk is characteristic, for example. But then I remembered things like putting a tight piece of duct tape between someone's shoulder blades, or taping two of their toes together, to change their posture and gait. These methods are pretty old hat, but could easily defeat a biometric ID scheme.

Simon considers the ways our government and society have aroused ire in others. It is pretty well known, for example, that a lot of Osama bin Laden's hatred for America arose from our cavalier treatment of Muslims and rather open denigration of Islam. But the fire in his belly was because of what he saw as a promiscuous, excessively sinful society. So we may be able to reduce some of the resentment by treating the Muslim countries more respectfully. But what do we do about those who plan to impose Sharia law on the entire world?

By the way, my Islamic friends: this sort of thing was tried by the Christians, several times, most recently by John Calvin in Geneva in the 1600s. It has never worked. The Catholic Church imposed Canon Law for a few hundred years on much of Europe, but it fell apart as people learned more and more about science and psychology. Ironically, much of the impetus for the overthrow of Canon Law during the Enlightenment came from rediscovery of Greek scientific texts that had been preserved by Islamic scholars. The current generation of Sharia promoters are trying to bury the effects their remote ancestors brought about!

I have wondered for a long time, if a society could be developed in which the greatest number of people could develop their genuine abilities and use them to the fullest. Even those we consider unsavory. During the long ages in which European laws required death for a wide range of infractions, kings and governments employed great numbers of executioners. The squeamish need not apply; there were plenty of psychopathic killers whose urges could be in some measure satisfied by such work. I don't know what we would do with people who like to pull wings off butterflies, but such activities are sublimating something else and better understanding of psychology just might ferret out the real motive, and help such a person find a calling that makes him happy without harming others. We Americans claim to believe that the basic rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. While it is foolish to believe we can help absolutely everybody actually to achieve happiness, it is worthwhile striving to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.

Yet a very good society, were it achieved, would not eliminate terrorism, either by groups or by individuals. "There is no pleasing some people." So the continuing "war on terror" is actually a branch of criminal jurisprudence, where the action is domestic, or of international diplomacy. Overcoming criminality, including terrorism, is a permanent game of Tetris. The blocks keep falling, and you never quite get them all. And I remember a saying from the Vietnam War: "It is costing us a quarter million dollars for each Viet Cong we kill. We could pay them off for less than that." Is it too crazy a notion to think we can just bribe most of the potential terrorists? I mean, we could have BOUGHT Viet Nam for what the war cost us.

Yeah, I know, the ideologues and single-issue (e.g. anti-abortion) folks will never be satisfied. But a happier society would go a long way toward removing two or three of the five categories above. Worth thinking about.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sometimes it is just easier to walk

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, air travel, airline industry

I first rode an airplane in 1953, aged 5. I barely remember it. I am told it was a DC-6. At a cruising speed of 270 kts (311 mph or 501 kph), it would have taken about 2 hours to fly from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, assuming it went straight through. I probably slept through most of the flight.

I sure wish I could still sleep on airplanes. In my longest ordeal, we flew a 3-leg flight: Tokyo Narita to LAX, then to Dallas, then to OKC, where a friend picked us up for the drive home. I didn't even sleep in the car, nor during the layovers. Starting when my wife's brother drove us the 3 hours to Narita, 2 hours before flight time, I was awake and in one way or another on the move for 24 hours. My wife and our son did get some sleep. I am glad we weren't returning from Sydney! After that trip, I began to say, "The worst part of travelling is the travel." And this was years before 9/11! Security check-in was "show your ID and walk through", family members could sit with us at the gate until boarding, and there were real meals on board two of the flights.

Well, I won't go on about what has changed. That's the job of Mark Gerchick, in his new book Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths About Air Travel Today. He has been in the industry all his career, including some time as chief counsel to the FAA.

The author might have provided us a checklist of discomforts that now accompany air travel – and this would  be an even bigger book! Instead, he has focused on the important stuff, such as our changing status, from "guests" or even "clients" to "self-loading cargo"; or the tremendous economic effect of the steep rise in fuel cost plus a global recession, a double whammy that is still being ironed out.

You don't need me (or him) to tell you that even "business class" is less comfortable then the "coach" seats and service of the 1960s and '70s; that it might be better to be anesthetized upon arrival at the airport, and awoken at our destination (except we wouldn't be self loading any more!). But after going over all the changes of the past half century, he is actually hopeful that things are getting better. For example, newer planes, built of carbon fiber more than of aluminum, and thus more resistant to repeated stress, can house a higher cabin pressure and a bit more humidity. The airline keeps the pressure low, not so you'll be too groggy to make a pass at the attendant, but because an aluminum airframe develops cracks much more quickly if the pressure is like Denver's altitude rather than Nepal's. There is a bit of hope that airplanes will back off a little bit from being "flying buses".

And there are things that are better than before. Unless you are a total computer-phobic, online ticketing and online check-in really reduce the hassle we used to endure to get tickets and boarding passes. Imagine all that added to modern TSA procedures! We would need to arrive 3-4 hours early instead of just 1½ or 2. But our Internet advantage when finding tickets is eroding. I have noticed that Southwest was the first of several airlines that don't fully cooperate with Travelocity or its clones any more. You want the best deal, you go to their own website. That means I have 4-6 tabs open when I am looking for a flight. And I have to read a lot of fine print to unravel the surcharges and extras. It is an arms race.

Mark Twain said, "Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." We actually have better control over the airlines than we do over the weather. They do depend on our good will to stay in business. So there is hope.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Countering the China syndrome

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, radiation, radioactivity

A couple of years ago, in answer to fears expressed by friends and relatives, I posted Uranium 101, to explain what we should fear and what we should not fear, about Uranium and the possible release of radiation in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami.

I am gratified to read a comprehensive summary and explanation of these matters in Radiaton: What it is, What You Need to Know, by Robert Peter Gale, M.D., and Eric Lax. The authors discuss the sources of background radiation, and the things we do that add extra radiation exposure, such as getting X-rays and CT scans, flying, and smoking. That's right, smoking increases exposure to radiation. Tobacco plants do not take up uranium from the soil, but the "daughter elements" radium (4 million times as radioactive as uranium) and polonium (5,000 times as radioactive as radium) do get into the tobacco leaves, and into cigarettes. If this really worries you, but you can't stop smoking, do this: the half life of polonium is 138 days, so just stockpile your smoking materials, write dates of purchase on the packages, and don't use them for 4 years. Then the polonium content will be less than 1/1000 of what it was when you bought it.

OK, back from digression. Americans living at sea level are exposed to 3-4 mSv (millisieverts) of radiation yearly. Higher elevations take us above some of the protective atmosphere, so nationwide, the average is about 6 mSv. When you fly in a jet plane at 36,000 ft, you are above 3/4 of the atmosphere, so more space radiation reaches you. However, now you are shielded from most of the radiation coming upward from the ground. Still, you receive a lot more radiation during each hour of flight than you get from the X-ray backscatter scanner at the airport. Better news: many airports are replacing the X-ray scanners with T-ray scanners, which cannot cause harm.

Many people are afraid of all kinds of radiant energy. The electromagnetic spectrum is very, very wide, and only about half of it (in logarithmic terms) is harmful. Too see how wide, we need to talk units. Two sets of units are used, wavelength and energy per photon. Wavelength is used for the longer, less energetic photons, and energy is used to discuss the higher energy, very short-wave photons. The "center" of the spectrum is visible light, and in this region, both units are used depending on the reason for discussing them. So let's start with visible light, and the near-visible regions of near infrared and near ultraviolet.

The limits of normal vision are considered to be at wavelengths of 400 nm at the blue end, and 700 nm at the red end. Actual visual response at these limits is about 0.4% of the response to yellow light near 580 nm. The unit nm is the nanometer, or a billionth of a meter. To convert to energy, the proportionality constant is 1,293.7 eV-nm, and we divide this number by the wavelength to get energy. So blue-limit light's energy per photon is 1,239.7/400 = 3.1 eV, and at the red limit, it is 1,239.7/700 = 1.77 eV. The eV is the electron-volt, the energy an electron has when accelerated by a 1-volt potential. Old CRT type TV sets used an electron gun with about 30,000 volts, so the electrons were hitting the front plate with an energy of 30,000 eV, usually shown as 30 KeV, for Kilo-eV. We'll get back to this.

Near-infrared (NIR) is typically considered to range from 700 to 5,000 nm, AKA 0.7-5 µ (microns; the "consistent" term micrometer hasn't really caught on). Near-ultraviolet (NUV) ranges from 400 to 280 nm, the range of UV that can easily pass through the atmosphere. It has two components, UVA and UVB, with a cutover at 315 nm. UVC that you may have read about is the germicidal UV used in hospitals, ranging down to about 240 nm, where the atmosphere blocks it even over short distances, such as across a room. The UVA-UVB cutoff has an energy of 3.94 eV. Organic chemical bonds have energies in this range, which makes UVA and UVB risky for our skin. The thinner ozone layer is letting through a little UVC from the Sun, also, which is why sunblock is needed more now than in the past. The energy of UVC is at least 4.43 eV per photon, and it can damage exposed skin quickly.

Energetic as these wavelengths may be, they are not ionizing radiation. That takes a lot more energy per photon. Although the C-C bonds in organic materials can be broken by UVC, that produces free radicals, not ions. True ionization needs at least 10 eV/photon, or a wavelength shorter than 124 nm. This is the boundary between Far UV and "soft" X-rays. The X-rays used by your dentist are generated by an electron beam hitting a tungsten anode at 70,000 volts. They have a range of energies peaking at about 40 KeV. These are called medium X-rays, while hard X-rays are in the range above 100 KeV. Such X-rays are used by industrial inspection X-ray machines.

Remember the CRT TV? It produces small amounts of rather soft X-rays at about 20-25 KeV. That's why parents used to tell their children to stay farther from the TV set. Today's flat-screen TV's, whether Plasma, LCD or LED, do not produce any X-rays.

Now, how about your cell phone? Can it cause cancer? While you are talking (not listening), the phone is signaling to the tower using about 1 watt of microwave radio. While "microwave" may sound scary, that just means it is at a wavelength shorter than the UHF band used for analog TV signals (channels 13-65), in the pre-cable days. Microwaves have wavelengths over a wide range, from 1 m to 1 mm. Let's convert the shortest wavelength (most energetic) to nm and check the eV formula: 1mm = 1 million nm, so 1,239.7/1,000,000 = 0.0012 eV per photon. This is much less energetic than visible light. You'd suffer more damage by shining a flashlight into the side of your head! By the way, T-ray scanners use a wavelength near 1 mm.

Other kinds of radio use even longer wavelengths, and their tiny photon energies are why this unit is not used in this range. The longest common frequency to which we are exposed is the 60Hz signal from AC power transmission, which has a wavelength of 5,000 km. Thus the range of non-ionizing radiation is between 5,000 km and about 500 nm, a range of 1 quadrillion to 1. Now let's look at higher energies than X-ray.

There is a big gap in the spectrum of natural radiation to which we are exposed, because of blocking by the atmosphere, and because common radioactive elements produce energetic particles starting at a rather high point, though typically at a low level. Three elements form the foundation of natural radiation in Earth materials, mostly rocks: Uranium, Thorium and Potassium.

First and foremost, we cannot avoid Potassium (symbol K). The human body contains 0.25% K. Thus, I weigh 200 lbs (91 kg), so my body contains half a pound of potassium, or about 0.23 kg. The radioactive isotope of potassium is K-40, and makes up 0.0118% of the total, or 0.027 g; just over 1/40th of a gram. That isn't much, and K-40 is weakly radioactive, with a half life of 1.28 billion years. But that 40th of a gram is about 4x1020 atoms, of which nearly 7,000 decay each second. Now we get to energy. K-40 decays by the beta process, ejecting an electron or positron (it can do either, to become either Ca-40 or Ar-40, both of which are stable). The ejected particle has an energy of 1.3 or 1.5 MeV (million eV), some 1,000 times as energetic as a hard X-ray. It also produces energetic photons with an energy of 0.5 or 1.5 MeV. The beta particle stays in the body, while the gamma photon can exit, meaning that during a hug (or sleeping together) we receive some gamma radiation from our partner!

K-40 gamma radiation is near the low end of the range of natural radioactivity, but is not the lowest. Uranium and Thorium in the soil, particularly in areas with a lot of granite, produce energetic alpha particles, but these are absorbed by almost anything, such as a sheet of paper. A typical room with gypsum sheetrock contains a tenth of a gram of U and half as much Th, but their alpha radiation is stopped by the paper and the paint on the wall. Not so their gamma photons, which are actually in the hard X-ray region, at 48 KeV and 59 KeV respectively. Also, they have long half lives, 1.41 billion years for Th-232 and 4.51 billion years for U-238.

What about Radon? When U-238 emits an alpha particle, it becomes Th-234. That emits a beta particle (24 day half life) to become Pa-234 (Protactinium), and the chain continues. After a few more decays, Radium (Ra-226) is produced, which has a half life of 1,600 years. After an alpha emission, the next daughter element is Radon, specifically Rn-222, with a half life of 3.8 days. This is a gas, and is a concern everywhere there are soils derived from granitic rock (most of the U.S.). Radon is the primary cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers. Although it produces gamma radiation, with an energy of 500 KeV, it is the 5 MeV alpha particle, with nothing to stop it, that damages the lung. In sum, the ionizing range of radiations goes from about 10 eV to about 10 MeV, and there are cosmic rays with much higher energies. This is about a million-to-one range, a much smaller part of the entire spectrum than the non-ionizing range.

All this, a combination of salient facts from the book plus things I knew or dug out of the literature, set the stage. When you put everything together, people worldwide experience a background radiation level of 2.5-8 mSv. That is a combination of exposure to K, U and Th in soils and rock, to Rn in the air, to Ra in some rocks, and a contribution from solar radiation more-or-less blocked by the atmosphere and depending mainly on the elevation above sea level. That unit, milliSieverts, is a complex measure of the potential damage from ionizing radiation. The radiation of your cell phone is ZERO mSv, because it is not ionizing. A dental X-ray is in the range of 0.005 mSv, or about 0.1 mSv for a set of 18 over your full mouth. If you live in Florida, with little granite, and your background exposure is 3 mSv, you'd have to get 30 sets of dental full-mouth X-rays in one year to double your dose. Of course, that is skewed because most of it would be to your head, particularly if the dental technician puts a lead shield on you like mine does.

CT scans are another situation entirely. A chest-abdomen spiral scan totals 50-60 mSv, equal to 5-10 years of background radiation for most of us. This is the greatest radiation exposure most of us will ever have. When your doctor orders a CT scan, make sure it is for a good reason!

The authors of Radiation dwell much on what was learned from the casualties and survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear explosions. This sets another baseline, the high end of survivable exposure. The LD50 (lethal dose for 50% of victims) for whole-body radiation dosage is 5 Sv or 5,000 mSv. That's only about 100 CT scans! However, that is a single-event dose; little is yet known about doses spread over years or decades. It seems the body can repair radiation damage up to a point.

The authors stress several times, when a doctor prescribes any kind of radiation beyond a simple X-ray, you need to ask what the exposure is, as compared to background (stated in mSv or in milli-Grays, which is equivalent). If the doctor can't state that, or won't, you need a different doctor! The doctor also should be able to explain the expected benefit and how it outweighs the risk of the radiation dose, whether from a CT scan, radiation applied to a cancer, or an ingested or injected radioisotope for some therapeutic or test purpose. This is a general rule, but is particularly important regarding such therapies and tests: if your doctor can't or won't explain, get a new doctor!

Finally, I have to tout nuclear power generation. The authors make it clear that we are much more likely to get radiation-induced cancer from coal burning power plants than from nuclear power plants. There are radioactive elements in coal, and they go right into the air when coal is burned. Also, the slag remaining from burnt coal contains heavy metals and other toxins, and these don't have a half-life like U or Ra, so they are toxic forever and ever. A nuclear power plant produces a few tons of high-level radioactive waste per year. A coal fired power plant produces hundreds or thousands of tons of toxic waste per year. The waste dump for a single coal plant could be used to store all the output from all U.S. nuclear plants for decades or centuries, and not run out of room. Just put the canisters on pallets on the ground, fence it off, and guard the stuff.

Really, we ought to be recycling spent uranium. 95% of its energy is still in there, just "poisoned" by the fission products. The problem isn't scientific; the science and technology are well known and safe. The problem is political. Even better, we ought to be using breeder reactors, to turn U-238, which won't "fizz", into Pu-239, which will. There's 140 times as much U-238 as there is U-235, the usual fuel. I suggest having the U.S. Navy oversee the design, construction and operation of nuclear power plants. They've been running aircraft carriers and submarines with nuclear power for more than half a century, and they seem to be able to do it without meltdowns or other accidents.

OK, I really like this book, and got quite inspired as you can see above. Without minimizing or distorting the risks, the authors make it clear that current fears about radiation are unfounded. Knowledge is the enemy of unwarranted fear. This book belongs on everybody's reading list.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How many philosophies are there?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy, history of philosophy, philosophers

The Wikipedia article "List of Philosophies" has nearly 450 entries. But this list is more of a grab bag of philosophical terminology: it includes Descartes' summation of Rationalism "Cogito ergo sum" and the Empiricist's shibboleth "Occam's Razor"; there are 37 collective terms such as "German Philosophy"; and it includes the major category terms Metaphysics, Epistemology and Ethics, plus Meta-philosophy (AKA Meta-metaphysics). Checking just terms ending in "-ism", I find 257. That is a more appropriate list of actual philosophies. Of course, it is in no way complete, but we'll return to that.

Long ago I learned that the major categories of philosophy are Metaphysics—concerning the causes and nature of things—, Epistemology—concerning knowledge and knowing—, and Ethics—concerning moral choices. To these some would now add Meta-metaphysics or Meta-philosophy—concerning philosophy itself, particularly the boundaries of Metaphysics. Having just read The Philosophy Book, I find another 11 categories added by the six authors/contributors, and a total of 59 "isms", all of which are on the Wikipedia list. The contributors of the 107 short articles in the book are Will Buckingham, Douglas Burnham, Clive Hill, Peter J. King, John Marenbon, and Marcus Weeks. In addition, another 58 very brief items are listed in a Directory assembled by Stephanie Chilman. These include the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, not covered in the main text.

The 11 extra categories are Chinese Philosophy, Eastern Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Science, Islamic Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Language, Ontology, Philosophy of History, and Aesthetics. The only one of these that I would include as a major category is Aesthetics. The others are in-between categories, as they incorporate elements of the major categories, or, indeed, cross with them in a mathematical sense. Methinks the taxonomy of philosophic terms is in need of cleaning up!

The articles, ranging in length from one to six pages, are gathered into six historical eras, showing the progress of philosophical thought over the centuries in the major cultures. A seventh era could have been included, a set of entries under the heading Egyptian Philosophy. Several of the earliest philosophers of "ancient" Greece studied in Alexandria, a hotbed of pre-European philosophy.

This leads to a side thought. I wonder what philosophical traditions existed in Africa south and west of Egypt, prior to being mainly eliminated first by the slave trade, then by misguided missionaries from Europe. I do recognize that there were a few truly godly apostles to Africa, but most missionaries were actually agents of colonial powers and destroyed the cultures of those they were trying to "save".

I considered discussing some of the articles, but I realized my motive was mainly to take cheap shots at those I don't like. In every category, the spectrum of thought is more broad than any of us could comprehend. Ethical thought, for example, ranges from a few kinds of Absolutism to a Relativism that denies Ethics exists. This book is like a flea market. It has a wide array of "products"—as wide an array as possible, according to the contributors' goals—and I am free to "buy" what I like and ignore the rest. On one hand, I don't consider myself a philosopher, but on the other, everyone is a philosopher, to whatever extent we think about why we do things and what we know and how we know it.

Any discussion of "reality", particularly if religion is involved, leads to someone saying, "Well, I have my own philosophy." My typical reaction has been to say (or at least to think), "That just means you don't know what philosophy is." But in more recent years I have realized that human thought exhibits such incredible variety, it is very likely that every one of the seven billion of us does indeed have a unique, personal philosophy.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Build me a memory

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memory, memory studies, psychology

We describe memories by relating them to the familiar, and these days, that means a computer is involved. But the way a computer functions is about as different from brain work as it can be. The most enduring metaphor for memory is the storehouse. We imagine opening drawers and cupboards to find a memory, and pulling it out whole, to be viewed or even re-experienced. With more thought, we might consider that some part of our brain has many cubbyholes where memories go. People with "good memories" then have a better index than the rest of us, or are quicker sorting through all the cubbies.

Think instead of a warehouse full of spare parts: boxes of different kinds of sunsets, bins with collections of similar sounds or smells of people and places we've experienced, piles of "the feel of walking in narrow lanes" or holding hands in various ways, and albums of the look and feel of loved ones and friends and acquaintances. At one end of the warehouse, a catalog index directs us to the various bits, so we can relive or review that walk, hand in hand with a lover, speaking together, turning down an alley to stop at the verge of a hill and seeing just that sunset together. Many memories start with a smell, and you are suddenly in that bakery with, say, your long-deceased grandmother on shopping day. I imagine the warehouse might resemble the workshops in Mythbusters.

Charles Fernyhough set out to write a book about the science of memory, and has delivered a book of stories, with the science to explain them: Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts. I confess I didn't fathom the interplay of the Medial this and the Posterior that. I have a vague idea of the Amygdala and Hippocampus, but as a diagram in the book shows, some dozen named parts of the brain are involved in "Autobiographical Memory". I suppose I ought to have studied a bit as I read along, but I was so taken with the stories (Charles, that is a compliment) that I did not.

But I think the view from 10,000 feet is enough for now. The "Pieces of Light" of the title aptly summarize the way a memory surfaces: bits of various kinds are brought together at some switching center—which is probably the Hippocampus—and reviewed. Such a process affords us much more space for storing memories than if each memory were a five-sense videotape record. Thus, those parts of an experience that we pay attention to, or that thrust themselves into our attention, are picked apart and stored in some sorted manner, and indexed for retrieval. Repeated experiences of the same place or kind of event are in part blended together, and in part kept separate when there are singular experiences on certain occasions.

Quick: try to remember every one of your own birthday parties. If you have a family like mine, there were at least 15 or so that occurred while you were in your parents' home, and a few others since you began to live on your own. Though I have been the "target" of at least thirty birthday parties, the only one I remember is when my beard caught on fire as I was blowing out the candles (so I was 23 that year); my dad clapped both my cheeks with his hands to put it out, growled, "I have been waiting a long time to do something like that", and gave me a grin. Otherwise, the parties are a mishmash of the kids I knew and a vague feeling of too much cake and ice cream and soda. I don't recall any of the gifts!

Another notion: try to remember the second time you did something, such as driving by yourself or making love or hang-gliding. Aren't a lot of our memories all about the novelties? This makes sense from a biological and evolutionary perspective, as the author explains. When we are tiny, everything is new, and we struggle to make sense of it all. We are automated categorization machines, and work at increasing efficiency as we gather memories with which to compare new events.

While studies of people with various kinds of brain damage or under the spell of certain drugs may indicate the function of various parts of the brain, we find that the workings of the intact brains that most of us have are not really geared toward faithfully recording our life. We don't really have a camera crew tucked inside, laying down tracks of videotape (or SD card MPEG files). Later experiences influence the way we remember those "first times". And, because we store the imaginings we have about others' stories in the same way we store our own, the record may be quite faithful for certain details, but rather sloppy about others.

Fernyhough's focus is autobiographical memory, the memories that tell our own story. They are different, in quality if not in kind, from memories such as the times table or the way we make apple fritters. We could say that our memory is not so much a textbook of "My History" as it is a historical novel: many genuine events (or portions of them) strung together with fabrications and borrowings to make a coherent whole. Coherence matters to us more than exactitude. And we tend to remember what happened a lot better than when it happened. In my story of the beard fire, I had to think to recall my age, and had I worn a beard for more than just that year, it may not have been possible.

It makes sense that our memory serves us according to the needs our ancestors had. It is usually less important to recall the exact year of, say, each time the family camp was flooded, and more important to remember what was done to rescue this or that person or to restore the damage. I think of it as akin to managing by exception: we remember the first flood, and recall the others by how they differed from it.

Shocking events that lead to "flashbulb" memories illustrate the extreme edge of memory use. Something in our brain realizes, "This is so unusual it must be VERY IMPORTANT. Record it faithfully!" At least the first time. Thus, people my age have clear memories of the assassination of JFK—where we were and who we were with and how we heard it—but are less clear when recalling the assassination of Bobby Kennedy or Martin Luther King. The events were just as shocking but were no longer novel. Similarly, the Challenger explosion produced sharper memories for us than the incineration of Columbia.

The "first time effect" is critical, and goes a long way to explain the juvenile bump in our collection of important stories. The way our brains develop allows only a few very early memories, so the "formative years" are from about age 10 to 20 or so. In a late chapter we read of the author's grandmother, recalling many events in the 1920s and 1930s, when she was a girl, and the world was in crisis, particularly for a Lithuanian family in the midst of emigration and assimilation into a new culture. He tries bringing a Yiddish-speaking acquaintance to meet her, thinking she may remember some things better if asked in the language of her childhood. A few new memories do surface, but she'd been fluent in English from such an early age that she no longer understands Yiddish very well. A visit from a woman she'd been in school with is another story (or a lot of stories!). They hadn't met in 80 years (one was 93 the other 94), so once they got the small talk out of the way, they had a lot to talk about as they shared those childhood and pre-teen memories.

So here is a clue, if you have been gathering stories from an aged relative. At some point, round up a childhood friend or favorite cousin, and get them reminiscing. I had some hopes of doing this for my father a few years ago, when I visited his childhood home town. He had given me a list of people whom he thought might still live there, and I hoped to find one and call Dad for them to have a chat. At the end of the trip, I reported to him that I'd found them all…in the cemetery. By age 88 he had outlived his entire home town. Now he is 91½, and still pretty sharp, at least for old stuff. I'll be with him for the next few days (I have to cross a continent to see him), and I'll see what I can gather.

Meantime, we all need to realize that it is hard to keep most memories "pure". Later experiences of an event or place, or with similar import, can influence the way we recall just this experience in that place. This is important. State justice departments are only now changing how they make proper use of "eyewitness" testimony. The Biblical requirement that two witnesses had to agree was very wise.

We are like the 7 blind men encountering an elephant. To one it seems like a wall, to another it is like a snake. We each remember different stuff about a shared experience. Nobody gets it all right. We even edit our stories about ourselves, and when we forget the editing, whose story are we telling? Ah, that's the fun part, for we are who we remember we are.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

It is right in front of your eyes

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, observation

Do you remember getting your first car? Maybe you shopped and dithered for a while, before settling on this model of that make, at a price you could (barely) afford. Maybe it was a nice, affordable Honda Civic. After that, for weeks, it seems every second car you see on the road is a Civic, "just like mine!" You got eyes for it.

I remember another experience of getting eyes for something. On a field trip, some classmates enticed me to take a side trip to collect trilobites. I rode along, imagining the iconic "oversize pillbugs" that seem to define the notion of "fossil." We stopped at a road cut, and everyone got out. I looked at an expanse of light gray rock with a peppery texture, asking, "Where are the trilobites?" Someone said, "Right here," pointing at a dark double-speck. I looked closely, seeing two dots with a couple of lines between them. It was a trilobite, all right, no more than a centimeter in length.

It was similar to this Perenopsis (cropped from a photo found at fossilguy.com). Stepping back, I saw that the texture of the rock face was peppered with thousands of them! I now had eyes for them.

Sometimes we look and look, and finally see. Sometimes we just need someone to point out what was there all along. Alexandra Horowitz sought about a dozen someones to help her see what she had been missing on the 3-times-daily walks she took with her dog, around her block in New York City. Now she kindly brings us along on those walks in her new book On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes.

Not all the walks were around her own block. Sometimes she went to the block where her expert lived or worked. The first and last of the book's 13 chapters are walks she took alone. First, she walked on her own, observing her very familiar block, and finally, on another solo walk, remarked on all the things she now has eyes (and ears and nose) for.

Her first expert was her toddler son, Ogden. To a tiny child, all is new, all nearly equally absorbing. A block you can walk in 5 minutes can take a couple of hours with a toddler…I almost wrote "with a toddler in tow," but of course, Ms Horowitz did her best to be "in tow" to her son. After all, he was the expert on this occasion. The infant brain seems to hoover up everything, struggling to make sense, to discern what is important. Young Ogden had a wide array of interests. Triangles at one point (the bracing in a railing), at others dump trucks (particularly their unique sounds), an insect, or a weed growing in a crack. All could stop him in his tracks. It seems little ones either haven't learned to make quick observations while moving along, or just prefer to stop still for long enough to fully appreciate what has just caught their attention. There's this thing about toddlers, though. They aren't specialists yet.

Geologist Sidney Horenstein is a specialist, and a walk with him shows the author that there is a great lot of geology to specialize in.  From the crinoids and brachiopods that decorate the foundation stones of her apartment building, and that she'd never noticed, to the various colors and textures of the limestone, marble, sandstone, granite and so forth that formed their structures. Urban geology is a history of the distances people were willing to go to get building stone. Then a walk with type designer Paul Shaw opened her eyes, not to the signage with which a city is festooned, but to the shapes and forms of the letters used. Crinoids in the stones, and Garamond or Helvetica on the signs. Did the signmaker create text that faithfully evokes the character of a business? To Shaw, many were too slapdash to do a proper job. And artist Maira Kalman opens a world of observation, to expand what we think of as aesthetic. To some people, most things are ugly or at best commonplace, and it takes an uncommonly lovely scene to evoke any positive feeling in them. Not Ms Kalman. Maybe she doesn't quite find everything lovely, but she does her best to come close. A discarded couch on the sidewalk catches her attention, and prompts a painting (found before page 87).

Entomologist Charley Eiseman ought to be named "Wiseman", for he makes Ms Horowitz wise in the ways of the little animals that outnumber us, even in our most crowded cities. Probably, just the sidewalk ants outnumber human residents. The next time you sweep for cobwebs, think that there are probably a dozen nearly invisible spiders (and maybe some that are all too visible!) sharing your rooms. Outside, there are even more. Funnel webs abound in a city, tucked into inside corners or at the roots of bushes, or where railings attach to walls. And every spider needs many insect "clients". I learned something I'd never thought of. City trees come in two varieties: those with many signs of insect damage, and those that appear pristine and unchewed. The unchewed are the imports. Insects (and mites and other eaters) in the local environment are not specialized to eat them, as they are the native plants. This is why "invasive" imports invade so well. They are free of enemies to slow down their spread. Larger animals are the province of naturalist John Hadidian, with whom the author walked in Washington, D.C. In a city, they may not outnumber us (well, maybe the squirrels and pigeons do), but they are surprisingly ubiquitous. (I don't know as much about cities, but my suburban yard houses squirrels, rabbits, mice, voles, shrews, frogs, toads and a dozen or more kinds of songbirds, and we've seen visiting foxes, raccoons, vultures, hawks, crows and deer.)

Fred Kent of Project for Public Spaces is an urban planner of another sort. He and his colleagues study the way people interact in cities. They discern how an apparent obstacle can facilitate foot traffic, and which kinds of spaces make a place more or less friendly-seeming. He is a fan of food vendors' carts and restaurants with outdoor tables, for their ability to foster interaction. He is in favor of social streets.

Take a walk with a doctor, and you get eyes for something else entirely, particularly with a classical diagnostician like Dr. Bennett Lorber. He, like my uncle's father, diagnoses first based on what he sees, hears and smells when he first meets a patient; then he listens closely to the patient's story. On a walk, taking someone's story isn't possible, but by seeing how people walk, Dr. Lorber can tell that this man will soon need a hip replaced (or suffer badly if he doesn't) and that young woman is pregnant and probably doesn't know it yet. Ridges on fingernails can indicate a number of conditions (when I was on chemotherapy, ridges on my thumbnails chronicled every treatment). This chapter takes a long digression with Dr. Evan Johnson, the author's back surgeon. Sometimes, your walk reveals problems in your back, and sometimes, problems in your walk cause problems in your back.

To really learn about seeing, take a walk with a blind person. Arlene Gordon, sighted for about 40 years, then blind for another 40 or more, was the perfect companion for a different kind of walk. Our visual cortex occupies 1/4 to 1/3 of our brain's capacity. When the eyes aren't keeping it busy, it finds a way to help out other senses. By helping out hearing, for example, it enables many blind people to echolocate, seeing the way bats do. I've seen a TV program about a blind man who can ride a bicycle, all the while clicking with his tongue. Ms Gordon uses a cane and her ears. The cane has two functions. It is a feeler, but it also clicks when it touches down, and the blind wielder learns to build up a visual image from the return echoes, even if born blind. The ambient sound changes with our surroundings also. Ms Gordon knew when the walk took them under an awning or past the edge of a building at a corner. Walking with a sound engineer exposed the author to another dimension of sound. Scott Lehrer helps us understand the different sounds of auto tires on pavement that is wet or dry, or, more subtly, macadam or concrete. He finds charming a much wider array of city noises. After a walk with him, the author is less offended by "noise", having become attuned to a greater variety of aesthetic qualities. She also learned more about protecting her hearing. Don't be shy about putting your fingers in your ears when a shrieking motorcycle screams by. It may just save you from partial deafness or tinnitus later.

The last expert is a dog, Finnegan. His world is a world of smells, though dogs' vision is as keen as our own (but less richly colored). It is a pity to see someone dragging a dog along on a brisk walk, when the dog would much rather first check the pee-decorated fireplug and curb corner, and then briskly trot to the next signpost. The author's walk with Finn almost wasn't a walk at all. Rather than prompt him to go right or left, she stopped on the stoop to see where he would go. He was content to sit there and take in the smells as the passersby passed by. Dogs expect us to take the lead, when they are on a leash, so she had to lead out. Once on the move, the dog had plenty of opinions about where to go and when to stop or start. Would it surprise you to learn, that the way most of us make a visual map in our brain, is mirrored in the brains of bats and blind people by an auditory map, and in the brains of dogs and many other animals by a scent map?

The map is the thing. The more richly we learn to experience the world, the more rich and detailed our mental map will be, and the more ways we can continue to build it. These walks were, for Ms Horowitz, an education you cannot obtain in any classroom or from any lecture. To learn how to observe as you walk, you need to get out and walk.