Saturday, December 31, 2016

Prevaricators' Paradise, or Victims' Vengeance?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, logic, lying, critical thinking

I'm sure you've heard the old chestnut about public figures who lie, that some lie when they must, and some lie constantly to stay in practice. Or that for some, that the way to tell they are lying is that their lips are moving. And then we have Mark Twain remarking on "Lies, damned lies, and statistics", which he attributed to Disraeli, but he was mistaken (or, perhaps, lying!). And we occasionally hear a paraphrase of "To err is human" into "To lie is human". Ah, the great benefits we seem to attain by lying, at such a little cost!

Is it safe to say that nearly anyone trying to advance a viewpoint (or sell a product or win an argument) is lying? Usually, I suppose. It is your best, first assumption. But when you want to know "the truth", where do you turn? Now that the biggest news story closing out the year 2016 is "Fake News", where do you get "Real News"?

We have to take what we can get, and verify it the best we can. This is the primary reason for learning to think critically. It is why right, right now is a great time for a book to appear with the title A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age. To quote the opening paragraph of author Daniel J. Levitin,
"This is a book about how to spot problems with the facts you encounter, problems that may lead you to draw the wrong conclusion. Sometimes the people giving you the facts are hoping you'll draw the wrong conclusion; sometimes they don't know the difference themselves. Today, information is available nearly instantaneously, but it is becoming increasingly hard to tell what's true and what's not, to sift through the various claims we hear and to recognize when they contain misinformation, pseudo-facts, distortions and outright lies."
Dr. Levitin jumps right over "lies and damned lies" to statistics in the first third of the book, "Evaluating Numbers". It is a great place to start because we are so damnably bad at evaluating numbers. The brain is an unbeatable pattern recognition machine. It excels at finding similarities, and it is over-tuned: it finds patterns where none exist. Thus we see all kinds of animals and scenery in clouds; a highly educated astronomer such as Percival Lowell spent much of his career mapping the canals on Mars; and to my recollection there are at least three pieces of burnt toast being carefully stored in freezers because they bear a mark that looks sort of like Jesus, so they have become objects of worship. But we are woefully deficient in discerning the meaning of numerical quantities.

It is curious: Recognizing a face reliably is something we do thousands of times daily, and we are very, very seldom mistaken. We almost never mistake a not-face for a face. What we do easily our computing machines do slowly and rather poorly. I have made heavy use of the Picasa face-tagging system for several years, for organizing my photos. It is really, really good, but will on occasion put a hopeful "Who is this?" tag on what I see as some random blob, or on a hubcap or the "face" of a clock. And it misses about a tenth of the genuine faces in an average scene, particularly when there is quite a range of sizes, that is, distances to the subjects. The computing power needed for Picasa's algorithms to work has only been available for about ten years. It takes a few billion computations to locate a face in a scene, and more billions to match it with a similar one in the database of recognized faces in your photo collection. Every one of us can recognize a person with great reliability in a tiny fraction of the time. But very few of us can determine the product 347x94 in less than several seconds, and probably not at all without the help of a calculator or a pencil and paper. Yet a computer can perform millions or billions of similar calculations every second, and does so whenever you recalculate an Excel spreadsheet. We must face the fact that our brain is tuned to see the tiger in the grass so we don't get eaten. Prior to the ascent of "civilization", we had no need to count the tiger's stripes, and if we were interested in doing so (unlikely!), it was only after we'd ganged up on the tiger to kill and skin it.

Part Two is "Evaluating Words", and in just under 60 pages, is the briefest of treatments of logical fallacies. There are numerous volumes written about the few dozen fallacies of formal logic that philosophers study, and further volumes that cover the fallacies of informal logic, the "everyday fallacies" such as "50,000 dentists agree" or "All the Kardashians (or celebrity of your choice) love product X" or "only a fool would pass up this offer". Pet Advertising Peeve of the year: any ad containing the phrase "don't want you to know" is fallacious. Period. Trust your uncle Polymath (but, then, this is possibly another fallacy!).

The third part of the book, "Evaluating the World", presents an excellent review of the Scientific Method, which is an armory containing our best weapons to discover error and falsity and correct them. The scientific method is collaborative; it cannot be practiced in isolation. The great difficulties we encounter using the scientific method glaringly illustrate just how prone we are to being deceived and to deceiving ourselves. Thus, if the brain is a pattern-recognition engine, the scientific method harnesses many brains to sharpen the focus and more properly set the boundary between "perceived facts" and "true facts".

I hesitate to go further. A book like this presents a quandary. While it exposes a few hundred ways you could be lied to, it is also a kind of prevaricator's textbook. I am reminded of the dilemma faced by missionaries to Hawaii, as described in James A. Michener's enormous novel Hawaii: They wanted to put up a sign with the Ten Commandments, but there was a problem. The Hawaiians didn't understand them, particularly "Thou shalt not commit adultery?" What was adultery? The missionaries argued thus: If we try to describe adultery in general terms, some people will say, "Oh, that isn't what I am doing." But if we list all the different things that are adultery, others will read the list and say about one item or another, "Wow, that sounds like fun. I'll try it!" They were further troubled by the cultural requirement that the king of Hawaii must marry his sister. It took the missionaries about two generations to change Hawaiian culture enough to eliminate "that kind of adultery". Thus there is a risk that some will read the book to get ideas.

I suppose Dr. Levitin has thought the matter through, and judged that putting weapons into our hands is worth the risk that a few liars might become better liars as a result. I agree. Caveat emptor is still the best policy, and always will be. Let this book full of caveats arm you.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Presenting CWWN v09 - The Present Testimony (2)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

The present volume of the Collected Works of Watchman Nee contains Issues No. 19 – 36 of The Present Testimony, from the years 1931 and 1932. Issues 19 – 22 and a portion of Issue 23 concern a number of spiritual matters, and I find two of special note: "The Principle of the Second" (Issue 21) and "The Pattern on the Mountain" (Issue 22). The first shows how frequently God confers a better blessing on the second-born (Jacob over Esau) or the second-anointed (David over Saul). The second drives home the point that God does not permit human innovation regarding our carrying out of His service. Indeed, He must frequently hinder, stop, or even curse innovators. The great example of one whose service is pleasing to God is Moses, who "was faithful in all [God's] house" (Num 12:7; Heb 3:5). He oversaw production and construction of the tabernacle exactly according to the pattern he was shown on Mount Sinai. Those who have all kinds of "good ideas" for working for God are most likely to hear His rebuke at the Judgment Seat of Christ, "I didn't know [i.e. authorize] you; depart, you workers of iniquity".

From the tenth page of Issue 23 through the end of this volume we find the content of seven messages given at the Second Conference, which had been held in October, 1931, on the subject "The New Covenant". These 101 pages (as here printed) constitute the most thorough treatment to be found anywhere, of the meaning, purposes, contents, and consequences of God's new covenant.

Prior to becoming joined to a church that follows this ministry, I heard some preaching on the new covenant, and on the principles of God's covenants. I have heard preachers who claim to preach nothing but Covenant Theology. Some of what I heard was pretty good and quite encouraging. This volume could be a text for a doctoral-level course on the subject. The Covenant Theology preachers of my past are at best at grade school level by comparison.

From these messages I gleaned one item worth recalling (and I'll need to re-read to gain others equally precious): A covenant is not for God, it is for His people. He keeps the promises He makes, but we are weak and find it hard to consistently believe that He will do so. As He promised in foretelling the new covenant to Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-34), God writes His laws on the hearts and minds of His people, He becomes their God, and they become His people. Based on those three things are three more, that they will all know God and need no instruction to do so, that He will make propitiation for their unrighteousnesses, and that He will erase the record of their sins. By themselves these are promises. By making them a covenant, and even more, a testament (secured by the death of the testator, our savior Jesus), God has done all He can to ensure us that we need only claim the provisions of this covenant. We don't beg for forgiveness according to God's mercy; we claim forgiveness because, by believing Him, we fulfill the only requirement this covenant makes on us; all other provisions have been made by God and God guarantees them to us. We are saved by grace not according to mercy, but according to God's righteousness. When we see this, we will pray in a different way.

One may ask, why if I am presently partaking of ministry according to Watchman Nee and his co-workers, did I not already gain the point I make just above? These things are difficult to minister. Do not think the paragraph above is in any way a substitute for the several pages of Issues 35 and 36 where they are explained. Little by little over the years, much has been imparted to me. Reading this volume of CWWN is like taking a large and meaty meal. This is partly why it was so long since I wrote of the prior volume.

Those who wish to truly know the New Covenant must obtain this volume!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Figures kept in hiding no longer

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, space program, computers, human computers, civil rights

If the USSR had not launched Sputnik I in 1957, would the civil rights movement in the USA have gone as far as it did in the following decade? This event and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr just over ten years later bookended a sea change in American race relations, and we'll return briefly to that below.

The period 1955-1965 marked a great scientific change also. Prior to the mid-1950's a "computer" wore a skirt and performed calculations on paper forms, though assisted by calculating machines with names like Monroe and Smith-Corona-Marchant. They followed in the proud tradition of "Pickering's Harem", the women who performed astronomical calculations for the Harvard astronomer beginning in the 1880's. At Langley Air Force Base, from the beginning of World War II, women computers did the calculations required to design aircraft that changed how the war was fought, and later, how air frames in general could be made more durable, faster, and more nimble. By 1965 most numerical calculations had been turned over to automatic calculating machines such as the IBM 7090. And the skirted computers? Some had retired or moved on, and many others were dispersed into various engineering groups around Langley.

The existence of these women—these hundreds of computers—is practically unknown. Even more, without the work of Margot Lee Shetterly, hardly anyone of this generation would know, or could know, that about fifty of them were black. An executive order by President Roosevelt opened the door to government employment of black Americans in 1943, and, because Langley AFB was hiring people by the hundreds and thousands for the war effort, many blacks obtained employment there, including black women who were working as underpaid teachers, tutors of mathematics, and in other fields. As Ms Shetterly tells it, in her book Hidden Figures, by the end of the War, it wasn't unusual for a group of white, male engineers to find that the computer assigned to work among them for a time, that small, quiet and unassuming black woman, was the smartest person in the room.

Just over a decade after the War ended, when John Glenn was preparing for his orbital flight in the Mercury "Friendship 7", he didn't wholly trust the mechanical computing equipment and asked for the figures to be checked by "the girl". That "girl" was Katherine G. Johnson, who wasn't just a whiz computer; she had written the definitive report on the calculations needed to plan both easterly- and westerly-launched orbital spacecraft. Once she had verified the calculations, Glenn was satisfied he would be safe enough aloft, and would likely survive the splashdown. She just says she was in the right place at the right time, that it might have been any of "the girls", but we know better.

The Hampton Roads area in which Langley AFB resides is a core population area of eastern Virginia, and Virginia was the core of segregationist attitudes in the Jim Crow south. Racial segregation was like the smell of garlic in a kitchen; it was a part of the atmosphere, and hardly any white person gave it a moment's notice. Any employer other than the US government would have ignored any effort by non-whites to obtain employment outside the few menial areas "allowed" to blacks. But times were changing and the Air Force was hiring. However, segregation still ruled to a great extent. Langley's computing pool was divided into East Computing, where all the women were white, and West Computing, where they were all black.

Hidden Figures chronicles the lives of several of the Langley West computers during the war years, and then the fortunate circumstances that kept many of them employed during the crucial years 1946-1957. At least, I suppose you could call the Cold War "fortunate" for those whose employment depended on military expansion. The arms race with the USSR was not only in the nuclear arena. Fighter and bomber aircraft were getting better and better on both sides of the Iron Curtain. And in America this was largely due to the ex-computers, now engineering assistants and engineers. Several of them became ace programmers, learning FORTRAN almost overnight.

The quantum jump in American attitudes toward science arrived in October, 1957, when the Russians orbited Sputnik I. America was caught flat-footed. And a racial sea change was in the works simultaneously. During and after World War II, as one after another former colony of former European empires established themselves as independent countries, they looked at the world around them and saw America as a stronghold of racial discrimination, particularly as compared with nearly everywhere else. Folks, that right there is at the root of the mostly anti-American stance of the United Nations. To many nations, composed of non-whites, the racial tension that remains in this country besmirches every good-will effort we make.

Simply put, in order to jump-start technical education in America, we simply had to get rid of official segregation. We couldn't afford to waste any brains, of any "color". Hidebound reactionaries like Senator Byrd couldn't see that, but most national leaders could. Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, and other black leaders took advantage of both the rapidly rising groundswell of black longings, and the growing sympathy for their cause among primarily northern-based political leaders (and a growing minority of southern ones also). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the end of a long and terrible struggle, and marked the beginning of another, one that is still going on.

Margot Lee Shetterly was, like Katherine Johnson, in the right place at the right time. When the time was ready, it happened that her father knew a few of the retired black computers, and put her in touch with them. They led her to others. She interviewed and researched and chronicled a truly astonishing story of the real brains behind many of the triumphs of American aviation in the 1940's and 50's, and in the space program ever since. It is still true that you can sometimes find yourself in the presence of a quiet black woman who is the smartest person in the room.

As I write this on Christmas Eve, 2016, a movie based on the book is to be released to theaters tomorrow, on Christmas Day. I hope it does the book justice. Even more, I hope the book is nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Great Pond Snail

kw: species summaries, natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs

This tray contains all but four of the lots of Lymnaea stagnalis (Linnaeus, 1758) that are currently in the collection of the Delaware Museum of Natural History. It is called the Great Pond Snail because it is the largest freshwater snail found in Great Britain ("Great" in this case meaning "large"). L. stagnalis is the type species of the genus Lymnaea, which is the type genus of the family Lymnaeidae. You'll notice one box contains only a pink label. That indicates the lot is a Topotype; it was collected in the location where Linnaeus's first-described specimen (the Holotype) was collected. The museum keeps types in a special cabinet. I'll get into more about types on another occasion.

The Latin prefix lymn- is equivalent to limn-, which refers to a lake. As a matter of fact, I am a bit puzzled that the family is not named Limnaeidae and the genus Limnaeus (but see below). The species was first named by Linnaeus as Helix stagnalis. He placed nearly all the spiral-shaped gastropods he knew of in the genus Helix, for obvious reasons. Later workers broke up the genus into quite a number of new genera so as to group the species more appropriately. For a time, subgenera had been created to group the species, and in fact, Lamarck renamed this species Lymnaea (Lymnaea) stagnalis in 1799, while placing several other former Helix species into that subgenus; the subgenus name is in parentheses. Later genus-splitters removed the subgenus designation. In 1875, Sandberg tried to rename the genus Limneus, considering it a justified spelling correction. Nearly everyone else disagreed because of priority rules, and so Lymnaea it remains.

Members of the family Lymnaeidae are lake snails almost exclusively, and some are also found in slow-moving streams, such as in deltas. This species in particular favors very quiet, shallow waters, even stagnant waters if the oxygen content is not too low. Thus the species name stagnalis.

I chose to photograph two of the lots. This first, catalog #60565, was collected in a shallow part of the Niagara River, on the New York side. These are the largest specimens of this species at DMNH. I neglected to put the scale in, but the museum label is 1" x 3", so the largest specimen's height is about 2.3" or 57 mm. The largest recorded specimen just exceeded 60 mm.

These shells, being nearly translucent and very light in weight, practically broadcast their environment: very quiet water and an absence of shell-crunching predators. However, they are hosts to several parasites, and intermediate hosts to at least six different flukes, including one that can severely affect humans. Thus, these are well studied because of their medical and economic impact.

They are "ubiquitously holarctic", meaning they are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, particularly at higher latitudes, though south of the permafrost line. They apparently hunker into the mud to over-winter in England, Scotland, across northern Europe including Russia, and across the northern U.S. and Canada.

The second lot shown, #119635, contains some of the smallest adult specimens in this collection. The longest is just over 0.8", or 21 mm. Although these were collected in 1926, this indicates that the river where they were found, in or near Detroit, Michigan, must have already been heavily polluted.

Note that both of these lots have subspecies designations on the collectors' labels; one was jugularis and the other, expensa. These are now deprecated; so far as I have determined, no subspecies of L. stagnalis are recognized at present.

The labels of the second lot also show its history, or most of it. Originally collected by L. F. Merrill, it came into the hands of Grace M. Seymour, and then G. M. MacCoy, who donated it to DMNH. Sometimes, collections are accompanied by letters and other documents that tell more of the story. I haven't dug into the library records for the MacCoy collection to see if there is more to the tale.

Shell collectors who are dedicated enough to identify and index and label their specimens are dubbed Shellers. By contrast, the designation Conchologist is reserved for those who also devote time to studying shells, and perhaps living mollusks, and professional Conchologists are called Malacologists. Mollusk enthusiasts and dealers Guido and Philippe Poppe have gathered information about more than 41,000 Shellers in their site Conchology Inc., from which they sell and trade shells, and curate a kind of online museum. It is one of a handful of online resources that I have found very useful to determine the full name of someone. Interestingly, however, none of these three Shellers is included. Neither is Esley Doremus, the donor of the lot from New York.

At least we have the initials for two of them and full names for the other two. In many cases I find a label that says nothing more than a species name, a location, and a surname followed by "leg." or "legit.", the usual Latin designations for a collector. The abbreviation "col." is also sometimes used, but "coll." usually means "from the collection of"; Shellers trade and buy shells so much that for many large collections, only a small percentage of the holdings were actually self-collected by the owner.

The 78 lots of this species held at DMNH allow researchers to study areal extent, presence through time at locations or in areas that were visited more than once, and changes in animal health. I occasionally find a note among the labels that specimens were collected from the bed of a dried-up pond, indicating at least local extinction. Rather poignant, that.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Multiple gulping spiders

kw: blogging, blogs, spider scanning

Nearly two months ago I posted about what appeared to be a periodic internet spider that seemed to be grabbing about 30 posts at a time in this blog, roughly every 4 hours. A few weeks later, such activity increased. Today I find that it has increased again. Have a look:

These are hourly hits for the past week. The prior increase was to roughly one 30-hit session each two hours. I think now there are several spiders at work, and it is hard to tell how many posts each one is getting. There is also a shift in the source of the activity. Prior to the past couple of weeks, most activity was based in the US. Now:

In this pair, the left side shows one day's activity (nearly 900 hits total), and the right side shows one week, the week shown above. Clearly, the US activity has held steady at around 210-220 daily hits, while Russia has ramped up to dominate my "audience" just in the past two or three days.

Does it strike you, as it strikes me, that the sudden boost in activity starting late on Dec. 16 coincides with the threats against Russia made by President Obama in his latest news conference? It looks like they are targeting a whole lot more than just political operatives! I mean, I am probably one of the lowest-rated bloggers out there, and I write at most one politically "interesting" post every year or two.

Thus, I wonder just who in all that immense country called Russia is really Hoovering up data from my blog. Fellow bloggers, if any of you happen across this post, check your stats, and their pattern since mid-year. I am sure I am not the only one. And I'd like to hear from you.

This activity doesn't concern me much. It isn't hacking. I have about 80 to 100 legitimate daily readers. Most of them stumble across the blog and seldom return; I have no more than a handful of followers. The only annoyance to me is, I don't any longer have a good handle on how many actual readers come to this blog. The spider activity swamps that signal almost out of existence. Oh, well. Maybe they'll get bored and go away.

I find it amusing to think that, just perhaps, the KGB has some poor analyst reading my posts (at the rate of a couple of hundred per day?) to find out what is interesting. Or maybe they have a really smart AI doing relevance searches. Has anything been passed along to Wikileaks? If any human is at the other end of one of these spiders' pipeline, I counsel you to get a more interesting hobby! It can't be my stellar writing style.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Valuable Volunteers at the Museum

kw: natural history, museums, volunteers

At least a few days per week, from my desk along the side wall of the mollusk collections room of the Delaware Museum of Natural History, when I look to my left, I see something like this. This day there are three volunteers on duty.

No museum—indeed, no nonprofit organization—can function without volunteers. I think museum volunteers have some of the best "jobs" going (but I am a science geek; what do I know?).

The Collections Manager at DMNH is also the Volunteer Manager. Of the daunting variety of tasks needed to care for a large seashell collection, he must prioritize and assign them, and also perform many himself (a couple of years ago there was a "herself"). At the moment, much work is being done on shells from a couple of new donations, and updating some existing material.

Here the woman sitting nearest me is labeling specimens. That little Coffee Bean Cowrie is just about the smallest shell that can be practically written on with a "00" nib India Ink pen. The first four digits of 121472 are already there, and she graciously paused long enough for a photo. (The number indicates this is some re-work on older material. New material is getting numbers above 240,000.)

The policy is, if a lot has 30 shells or fewer, and the shells are large enough, they are each numbered. Considering that the average size of a lot is seven shells, and that most shells are indeed larger than a fingernail, that comes to a lot of inking! Where they are too small or too numerous to number individually the shells are not put in an open box but into a lidded plastic container or vial.

This man is identifying shells, as is the other. We don't expect volunteers to be experts, but nearly anyone with good eyesight (and a magnifier or microscope if needed, and this fellow has one within arms' reach) and a good reference book can match a shell with a picture.

Online references are improving all the time, including WoRMS, the World Register of Marine Species, which he and the other man have up on their screens.

Most preliminary identification can be done by volunteers, and then the Collections Manager can verify their work. Sometimes, the species cannot be fully discerned at first, and the volunteer reports only the genus. In all cases, to make sure an identification is up to date, the literature is searched to see if a specialist has renamed a species or lumped it into another species. Then the identification (now called a determination once it is verified) is recorded for that lot.

The third volunteer of the day was working on a different donation, shells from Papua New Guinea, collected by a former ambassador. The standard reference to shells from that huge island's seas can be seen next to the specimen tray. Tropical shells are the most fun to work with. They are beautiful, incredibly varied, and species are usually easier to distinguish from one another, compared to the mud snails with which I have spent the past year!

Few museum volunteers work more than a day or two per week, and those are frequently short days of 4-5 hours. But their work adds up. The time spent by these three volunteers amounts to about 3/4 of a full-time person; and there are a few more volunteers who work on other days. Even more, as our lunchtime banter attests, having a few volunteers around makes the work a lot less lonely, compared to a couple of folks sharing a huge room with two million seashells.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

No bridge yet discovered

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, evolution, human origins

One popular conception of evolution is the giant leap: A rabbit wakes up one morning to find that it is a deer; a monkey goes to bed a monkey and wakes up an ape, or maybe a human. This was a popular view in the early Twentieth Century, and the occasional story appeared in which someone used radiation to "evolve" into a higher being with massive intelligence and penetrating wisdom. It lingers in genres such as the Fantastic Four or X-Men, and even Spider Man, in which some mysterious energy or chemical influence suddenly "evolves" ordinary folks into super beings. I don't pay as much attention to these stories as most folks, but it seems to me that the only "superhero" story that doesn't depend primarily on some kind of magical transformation of this type is Batman.

We do like our catastrophes, and we do like the solutions to disastrous problems to be simple, complete, and in particular, FAST. Need I belabor our addiction to the 30- and 60-minute TV episode formats, or two-hour (more or less) films? Emotionally, we need fast solutions, because if we don't solve the problem of "one death per person, no exceptions", in a matter of a few decades, we are all to be thrust into eternity, not even knowing if there is an eternity. Of course, as a Christian, I have a spiritual answer for that. But as a Humanist, I know that most folks don't really believe in an afterlife; instead they hope against hope that there really is one, and that it isn't Hell.

Humans are the longest-lived of the mammals, although perhaps some species of baleen whale might live longer. A few slower-living critters are known: A turtle that was collected while Darwin was living died last year; some species of clam were recently shown to have individuals aged as much as 500 years. But among animals that can recognize themselves in a mirror, only humans routinely live more than 60 years. But compared to evolutionary time or geologic time, this is very short and inevitably forces our mind into rather short-term thinking.

Can any of us, without great effort and practice, comprehend time spans much greater than 50 years? Aficionados of genealogy gradually come to comprehend spans of a few hundred years, perhaps a thousand or so: a few Europeans and Euro-Americans can trace their family tree to Charlemagne, some 1,200 years ago. A few cities (Damascus comes to mind) have been occupied more-or-less continuously for 3,000 years or more. How can any of us comprehend a million years or more? The "young earth" Evangelicals, who allow no more than 6,000 to 10,000 years for the entire age of the Earth, are onto something. That is the limit most people's minds can reach, and a span of 10,000 years is practically meaningless; how much more unfathomable a million or a billion?

The basic unit of the evolution of vertebrate species is one million years. That seems to be on the shorter side of the survival of a species of mammal, bird, or reptile. The longer side is three to five million years (I may discuss marine invertebrate species, some of which appear to survive for tens to hundreds of millions of years, on some another occasion). Interestingly, the survival of primate species seems to be inversely correlated with body size. Species of monkeys and small apes weighing less than around ten kilograms may go on for five to ten million years. Larger apes seem to speciate more frequently and vanish sooner. The human ancestral apes and proto-human species of genera such as Homo, Australopithecus, Ardipithecus and so forth seem to stay around between 100,000 and 500,000 years. Of course, the fierce competition among paleoantrhopologists to be remembered for naming new species and genera has resulted in some over-splitting, so future scientists will most likely lump together many putative species .

I also wonder: If there were equally huge prestige associated with naming each new species of fly or snail or nematode, would the number of named species multiply, and the duration of fossil species accordingly shorten? A side note: I spent the last year taking inventory of a few thousand specimen lots of river-and-pond snails of the family Pleuroceridae, at the Delaware Museum of Natural History. The collection includes about 300 names species in a dozen genera. This is a winnowing (i.e., lumping together) from about 1,000 named species described prior to 1980 or so, and more recent work using DNA methods is finding that many "species" are regional variations of more widespread species. A specialist in the field told me recently that there may actually be no more than five or six actual species in this family! To the point, though, evolution makes no sense in time frames much shorter than a million years, and significant levels of change can take much longer.

Well, to come to the matter in hand. About 20 fossil species have so far been named in the Hominid line—those creatures purportedly descended, on the human side of the tree, from the common ancestor of Homo sapiens (us) and the two Chimpanzee species of the genus Pan. There were most likely many more. The species that we find today in every genus or family represent, in metaphor, the tips of the twigs of a dense bush. In the case of the little branch that began with the proto-Chimp-Human, only three twig tips remain. In the six or seven million years that have elapsed since that primeval split, who knows how many twigs on the Chimp side, and how many on the Human side, really existed? Several proto-Chimps are known (or suspected), and, as I said, about 20 proto-Humans.

In a book published in 1998, Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness, author Ian Tattersall describes what is known of the major changes that arose among the five or six of those proto-Human species that are actually ancestral to Cro-Magnon, the earliest expression of Homo sapiens, which arose between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago. Dr. Tattersall set himself two challenges: to explain to a popular audience the actual bushiness of pre-Human evolution, and to describe and account for the qualitative differences between humans and the rest of the apes.

It has become fashionable in the past generation or so to "demote" humanity from the pedestal on which our cultural habits have placed us. In the author's mind, these demotions have gone too far (Am I becoming a curmudgeon? It seems to me that "going too far" is what people do best, and most frequently, and almost without exception!). Thus, he skates a careful line in this book. The origin of humanity has not been some unrelenting upward march. On the other hand, something very striking has indeed happened, that produced a species that isn't just a big-brained ape, but something new.

To cut to the chase (I'll leave it to you to read this very well written and thoroughly fascinating book), the Cro-Magnons and their cousins the Neanderthals had brains of about equal size. They co-existed, usually not in the same areas, for a few tens of thousands of years. Here is a point that struck me with particular force: Many, but not all, Neanderthal skulls have an arch in the skull base atop the vocal tract, something that is necessary for articulate speech. All Cro-Magnon skulls have it. Yet prior to about 40,000 or perhaps 50,000 years ago, neither species left fossil or archaeological remains that indicate they used symbolic thought. The Cro-Magnon remains of this period are usually termed "anatomically modern". Then, almost overnight, a dramatic cultural shift occurred. Some time in the "thirties" (a little before 30,000 years ago), art of all kinds began to be produced. Cave paintings are rightly famous, but personal artifacts became much more artful, both decorations on useful items and items that are purposely artistic but otherwise (probably) useless. In this period, the term used is "culturally modern."

It is hard to draw conclusions about what actually happened when we can't go back and interview them. We don't even have really good DNA from anybody who lived 30- to 50,000 years ago. Yes, we have enough Neanderthal DNA—all discovered since the book was written—to allow us to determine that various human populations carry between 1% and 6% of Neanderthal DNA. But, as the author describes, skills such as language arose only after the physical (including to the brain) changes needed had arisen for other reasons. These are called exaptations, a kind of adaptation that gets co-opted for another use. Personally, I find it hard to think that Broca's and Wernicke's areas in our left brain hemisphere could have arisen for purposes that we can't discern, and were then found to be just what was needed to support language. In any case, positing pre-existing exaptations, the further changes needed to produce language, symbolic reasoning, and art seem to have taken place quickly, without making any discernible changes in fossil remains. And that is where Dr. Tattersall has to leave it. We still don't know enough to say how such a significant cultural shift occurred.

In the last few pages, he allows himself to speculate on future evolution of Homo sapiens. He thinks not much will happen. I intended earlier to write of the tension between uniformitarianism and catastrophism, both in geology and in biology, but the writing took a life of its own. Let me instead briefly say, a mix of uniformitarian periods and catastrophic events have happened to mold the Earth we see today, and the styles of living species we discover all around us. He points out that species don't evolve much. They go on for millions of years unchanged. But when some circumstance isolates a smallish population of a species, the narrower gene pool available among them is more prone to genetic drift and to the fixation of new, beneficial (even though small) mutations that would be swamped and eliminated from a larger gene pool. Given enough time, usually at least tens to hundreds of thousands of years in the case of large primates, the small "drifted" population will have changed enough that interbreeding is no possible with the larger population from which they arose, should they come back into contact. They are a new species. If they are viable, and even more, better able to thrive in the same environment, they original species may die out in their favor.

Today, what opportunity is there for some small but viable population of humans—say, a few thousand—to remain isolated for 100 or 1,000 centuries? Zero, Zip, Nil, Nada. Small evolutionary changes will continue: maybe our descendants will have fewer back problems; maybe few or none will have wisdom teeth. Our inefficient retina will probably never be replaced with the more efficient squid retina, unless genetic engineering really, really takes off (but would there somehow be a tendency for these engineered folks to spit ink?). We are the first truly global species. That will last as long as we do, or until we experience, or even cause, a catastrophe that reduces humanity to a scattering of small tribes, no more than 100,000 people in groups seldom exceeding a few hundred. Then speciation is possible. Not before. You don't like catastrophes? Then take care of the things that remain. Also, look around. The sorts of people we see today are about what we can expect for the next thousand centuries or so.

Monday, November 28, 2016

An apple-size apple snail

kw: species summaries, natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs

I am presently checking and correcting geographic information for the freshwater snails in the research collection of the Delaware Museum of Natural History. Though I am not constantly using the lots in the cabinets, it sometimes happens that something I find in the database doesn't make sense, so I go to the lot in question to see what the collector, and perhaps later owners, have recorded. Today I happened to look up some "Apple Snails" of the genus Pila, and they are such nice-looking shells, and so much larger than many of those I've seen of late, that I just had to share a few of them here.

Firstly, here are two views of the largest specimen of Pila in the collection, and it ought to display at about 80% of actual size if your screen resolution is 100 dpi. The shell length, with the spire eroded, is about 5 inches, or 125 mm. The smaller item next to the scale is the operculum. Many snails have these; they are armored "doors" they can use to shut themselves into a shell when a predator threatens, or to avoid drying out during a dry season.

For the second view I turned over both shell and operculum. On this side of the operculum it is a little easier to see that it grew in a spiral pattern as the shell grew.

The original designation of this species was Ampullaria leopoldvillensis Putzeys, 1898. Sylvère Putzeys was a Belgian who collected in the Belgian Congo, as it was then called, and named this species for its type locality, which is now called Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which was also called Zaire from 1971-1997).

I tracked down this specimen to be sure of the spelling of Coquilhatville. Then I was able to determine that the town is now named Mbandaka. It is about 550 km upriver from Kinshasa, and while I haven't looked it up, I suspect that snails of this species are found throughout the Congo river system. I understand that just one of these makes a good meal for a child, and two or three are sufficient for a teen or adult.

While I was in that cabinet, from the same tray I picked out two other lots to photograph, to show specimens of a more "average" size for this genus. This next species seldom exceeds 2 inches, or 50 mm, but is of a very similar shape and has a lighter color:

Pila globosa Swainson, 1822 is primarily Asian, and these were collected from the Mekong River system. The abbreviation of Swainson's surname is quite common. The better-known, more prolific naturalists were all abbreviated in field notes and earlier museum labels. L. means Linnaeus (or Linné), Lam. means Lamarck, Pfr. means Pfeiffer, and so forth.

As the name implies, this species is very globular, almost spherical. It is a contender for being the original "Apple Snail", but there are several others. All members of the family Ampullariidae are called Apple Snails, though not all are quite so globular. For example, this final species has a more pronounced spire:

The scratching-out and overwriting on the museum label, printed in about 1990, shows that the species now called Pila polita (Deshayes, 1830) was originally placed (by some authorities) in the genus Ritena, of the family Neritidae. The Nerites are mostly marine snails, but many species in that family inhabit brackish estuaries and quite a number are fully fresh water-dwellers. Sometime since 1990 this species was re-examined and re-named to be among the Apple Snails, to which it bears an even better resemblance when the spire is eroded, as in the third specimen in the top row. It is a pity we don't know just where in Thailand these were found. The Apple Snail website records these from Thailand all across south Asia to the southern part of China.

It is interesting that the original collector identified these shells as Pila, while the curator or collections manager who accessioned them into the collection used a different reference work to identify them as Ritena. Later someone else changed it back. So it goes. When all we have to go on are physical characteristics of a dry shell, convergent evolution can make two species look very similar when they are actually only distantly related, and in other cases a species will look quite different from its closest cousins because of rapid adaptation to changing environments.

Now that DNA sequences are getting almost cheap, museums are beginning to go through their collections to figure out just what species certain specimens belong to. There is usually enough DNA within the shell material to use with modern techniques, though at present one must destroy one or more shells in the process. This will change. Even more exciting times are on the way!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Short Sci-Fi for the ultimate binge

kw: book reviews, science fiction, collections, compendia

Take 105 science fiction stories by 105 authors, culled from the past century or so, and you get 1,150 pages of really great reading: The BIG BOOK of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. I don't know yet if it is fair to call it the "best of the best", because I haven't finished reading it yet. I cannot fairly review either the book as a whole, nor any large portion of the stories on a story-by-story basis. I must simply introduce the book and let it go at that.

The editors do review the book as a whole, and in the context of the several eras and sub-genres of science fiction writing, in their 18-page introduction. That article is quite good reading in its own right. The Table of Contents consumes four pages. I checked through it and saw that I had read stories by 38 of the authors, and of the stories printed here, only 17. I had thought that I've read pretty thoroughly in this genre (or set of related genres), but they have gathered nearly 90 stories I have not read, and brought 67 authors to my attention, some of whom I am sure I will wish to pursue further.

One of the editors' aims was to bring a wide international focus to this collection, so a number of the stories are translations from, for example, Spanish and Chinese, and a few stories are by English-writing authors from outside the Anglo-American axis to which most readers of English-language science fiction—and editors of genre periodicals and books—confine themselves.

The editors also sought to dispel the myth that "early" science fiction, that of the "golden age" of the pulps and the pre-pulp era of Wells and his contemporaries, is somehow "primitive" or "naive". Nothing of the sort. A lot of it was, but not nearly all (Perhaps they consider Doc Smith and his Lensmen series to belong to a too-naive arm of early sci-fi, because they include nothing by Smith nor by most other early "space opera" authors).

Having read but 17 stories so far (3 were re-reads), I can say that, indeed, early Twentieth Century science fiction included stories of great scope and sophistication. But the Pulp Era was named that for a reason, and it wasn't only the the low quality of the paper. A great majority of the pulp fiction of the first third of the century really was junk, and set the stage for Sturgeon's Law that "90% of everything is crap." But as I recall, it was fun crap! The early stories included here are equally fun, though they tend to demand a bit more of a reader.

So, when I want sophistication, I can find it, and when I want mindless fun, there is plenty to be found. But you won't find much mindlessness in this volume. The Vandermeers have a higher purpose. And that's OK. I love the stories I have read so far. But rather than binge-read my way through the whole volume, I'll keep in on my nightstand for reading in between other books and journals.

Friday, November 18, 2016

A dual memoir full of unexpected things

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, mother and son

I remember hearing that Anderson Cooper's mother is Gloria Vanderbilt, but it didn't mean much to me. I knew the Vanderbilts were once immensely rich, and on a vacation, I've been to see Breakers, their 60-room "summer cottage" in Newport, Rhode Island. I've watched A.C. 360 on CNN a time or two, and mainly thought of Mr. Cooper as a well-spoken commentator with whom I seldom agree. Having switched back from cable to antenna some months ago, the rare itch to watch CNN is no longer being scratched. But I couldn't pass up the chance to see how he and his mother pull back the curtain in their joint memoir The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss.

The book's title is from a poem by Wordsworth, with a second stanza that reads:
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
The title? "Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood".

Ms Vanderbilt lost her father at age 15 months, was raised mainly by a nanny and one grandmother, was the subject of a celebrated custody battle at age 10, and thereafter was a ward of the court, though she lived with an aunt. Mr. Cooper enjoyed the company of both parents for his first ten years, when his father died, and has remained close to his mother. More or less close; all children must break away at some point, but it is lovely when they return to closeness as a secure adult.

The book is in the form of a long e-mail correspondence between them, with occasional explanatory notes by Cooper. We learn that, though they are mother and son, they responded in quite different ways to the sudden insecurity that comes when a parent is lost so young. The mother was, by her admission, quite a ditz for quite a while. She reveals herself, warts and all, to her son and to us. The son sought strength in forthright toil as a foreign correspondent, beginning with a solo trek across Africa during his last year of high school. He may not have had a press pass in his sights just then, but testing himself against such a journey was great preparation once he knew he liked to write and report.

But for them both, including later in life when the mother started several fashion businesses, including Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans, their drive came from early insecurity, and the way it knocked the pins from any hope of an ordinary life.

I would not have wanted to live most of the life that has been the lot of either of them. I am reminded of a slogan that is going around these days: "Be nice to everyone. That person across from you has struggles about which you know nothing." Frequently the word is "suffering" rather than "struggles". Fair enough. I've had my sufferings, my struggles. I count myself lucky by comparison to some stories I encounter, including those in the pages of this heart-searching memoir.

Each in their own way, Vanderbilt or Cooper, the mother and son retained a certain vulnerability, and do not shy away from the consequences. It is how life is lived, if it is to be lived at all. I am glad I read it.

P.S. As I write this, Gloria Vanderbilt is 92 and in remarkably good health. Her son is 49.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Mussels and mother of pearl buttons

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, outreach, photographs

The Collections and Research Department of the Delaware Museum of Natural History recently hosted a class of conservators-in-training from nearby Winterthur Museum, for special instruction in conserving natural materials that might form part of a piece of clothing or artwork.

Some items that were brought out for display and discussion related to the mother-of-pearl button industry that flourished in Arkansas and other southern states from the 1880's to the 1940's. America's rivers are full of freshwater clams and mussels, and many species of the mussels in particular have thick shells composed mainly of mother of pearl. Mainly in the south, some species get quite large millions of shells were harvested for button manufacture.

The upper shell in this picture has been drilled for buttons. The lower shell is an undrilled one, so the students could compare. A shell drilled like this can still be a valid natural history research object, as long as its collecting locality and a date of collection—or harvest—are known. Even in this condition it provides a data point for the existence of this species at a certain time and place.

The conservators in training were quite surprised that the museum doesn't seem to care much about the appearance of specimens. They are taught to exercise extreme care with objects in their charge. A culture museum such as Winterthur has goals quite different from a research collection. They aim to stave off damage and decay as much as possible, frequently with the aim of showing beautiful objects to the visiting public. Natural history specimens don't need to be pretty, although we also work to minimize damage or decay. The data that accompanies the specimens is of equal value.

These two photos show other items that were on display. One is a sample card used by salesmen to show distributor-customers the range of button types a factory could produce. The other is a box of random unfinished buttons. Some have holes cut already, others not. Many have pink or black dopping wax still attached. The wax was used to affix a piece to a post in a polishing jig to flatten the opposite side and cut any pattern, such as a circular groove.

The study of natural history is not just about natural objects themselves, but also about what humans do with them. Though I spend my time in the mollusk ("sea" shell) side, the bird collection takes an equal amount of space. Think of the millions of feathers that were once used to decorate clothing. A Natural History museum collects and preserves specimens, and the field data about them, to support the study of their biology (or geology) through space and time. A cultural museum collects and preserves specimens primarily of human artifacts—which in the years before plastics manufacture, were made of natural materials including shells and feathers—to support the study of cultural trends through time and around the world. It is nice that we work together, each having knowledge to offer the other.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Major mathematical MEGO moments

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mathematics, mathematical games

Is it possible to be too enthusiastic about something? We might say, Yes, look at fanatics. I would say that Mathematics Professor Arthur Benjamin falls somewhere between an "ordinary" enthusiast and a fanatic, in his book The Magic of Math: Solving for x and Figuring out Why.

Perhaps the title of this post is a bit hyped—I do love alliteration—but I can only describe the style of the book as Barrage. A barrage of facts, tricks, methods and tips along a spectrum that I call "ordinary" mathematics, the string of mathematical disciplines that most of us encounter if we were paying attention for some parts of all twelve grades of an El-Hi education. Plus a few side trips into less-well-known things such as Fibonacci Numbers and why (or how) π is irrational.

Now, I am a math enthusiast, and working as a scientific programmer for decades, I frequently corrected the algebra or calculus derivations of the scientists I worked with. So I was already familiar with many of the tips and tricks scattered throughout the book. Others were new, and some were beyond me. I remembered some advice once given to Stephen Hawking, which he reports in A Brief History of Time: Keep equations to a minimum, because each equation in a book cuts its potential audience in half. At the rate of several equations per page, the audience for Magic of Math could be tiny indeed!

A bit of math trickery to emphasize the point: ½ times ½ times ½ just ten times yields less than one in 1,000; 1/1024 to be exact. Can ten equations in a book really reduce the readership to a tenth of a percent? Possibly. But the word "half" above is a bit hyped. Let us instead suppose that, while a single equation might drive away half an audience, beyond that, you lose only 1% per equation. So what is 0.5x0.99x0.99 and so forth for a total of, for example, 20 equations? There is a neat little yx button on many calculators that lets me push 0.99 yx 19 x 0.5 and get 0.413… But this book has 300 pages. Let's be optimistic and suppose one per page (there are more): What is the effect of 300 equations? I do it again for 299 instead of 19, to get 0.0247 and some more digits. That's not the end of the world for a writer. It is about a fortieth of the original audience.

I am tempted to say that the twelve chapters of the book correspond to grades in school, but the subject of Chapter 2 is Algebra, which few of us encountered before Grade 6 (where I had it 55 years ago, but more recently it's a Middle School subject, and Common Core has now pushed it to Grade 9). The third chapter is about the number 9, including "casting out nines", which was once taught as a way to check the addition of a column of numbers. Our calculators and other machinery don't make mistakes in arithmetic, so it hasn't been taught for decades. What else could he possibly say about 9? Well, the chapter has 20 pages. He says a lot! For example, casting out nines is a type of checksum that is easy for humans to calculate. Similar schemes, some of which only a coder could love, are used for various reasons, including the checksum that is the last digit of the ISBN or ISBN-13 found in every book and many other publications. It is the remainder in a calculation using the prior 9 or 12 digits, to see if someone has phonied up an ISBN, or if in some human process digits were transposed in writing it down.

I know I sound like I am down on the book and the author, but his writing is really quite good and engaging. It just didn't all "reach" me, particularly Chapter 6 about Proofs. I don't have the right kind of mind for formally proving theorems, and getting my axioms (or propositions) in the right order. That is where My Eyes Glazed Over, big time. Yet the following chapter, on Geometry, has many interesting examples of the way we think geometrically, and the way we sometimes err consistently in certain ways. Again the proofs slid by me, but near the end of the chapter he shows how Geometry and Algebra are equivalent and can be used to check each other. I assure you, this will help students who might find one or the other more congenial, to bootstrap their understanding. Few teachers even know this.

I was amazed that Dr. Benjamin had the audacity to write a chapter on Calculus (#11). But if a mathophobe is capable of learning calculus, this chapter can get him or her started learning it. Its clear explanations show how calculus is a logical extension of simple algebra. In one lovely example, we find the shortest route from point A to point B, with point C to be chosen along some line to the side (say, you want to go by way of yon brook). One more step shows that it is the same as using the "brook" as a mirror and reflecting points A and B to A' and B'; drawing a line from A to B' shows that the shortest path is a mirror reflection, with equal angles on both sides.

This is not a book to sit down and read like a novel. Neither is it a textbook. It is somewhere between, and rewards a reader who reads it at a desk, with paper and pencil handy, to try out things as they are presented. If you are familiar with many of the items, you'll soon encounter something new, something that is probably both interesting and fun. Hey, maybe you'll even like proofs much better than I do! The world needs a few such folk. So the book still gets a big Like from me. Maybe one day I'll look back at Chapter 6, go more slowly, and learn a smidgen more about proofs, that has to date eluded me.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Some confusing specimen labels

kw: labels, natural history, natural science, museums, research, photographs, puzzles

This post has two parts. Firstly, of several reasons that research collections wish to have multiple—even many—specimens of a species from a particular collecting location and time, with this first set of labels I wish to explore one that is not often thought of: Lot splitting for sharing. Sometimes a collector or museum desires specimens of a particular species, and also possesses multi-shell lots of a species desirable to others. Each can extract several shells from a larger lot to trade with the other.

These labels show one interesting consequence of this. The species Planorbis duryii Wetherby, 1879, now known as Planorbella duryi (Wetherby, 1879), is a moderately desirable snail of the Rams' Horn shape. But today the shell is not the story, the labels are. I don't know the protagonists here, so I will call them Collector 1, 2 and 3 (Coll1, Coll2, and Coll3).

Coll1 collected a largeish lot of this species, numbered it #1193, and later split the lot to share portions with two other collectors, Coll2 and Coll3. One of them, let's say Coll2, received both lots and wrote labels for them, giving one to his (or her) friend, Coll3. These were numbered No. 23 and No. 24. Notice that Coll2 did not care about the county they were found in, just the town and state.

Over time, the original lot and both splits made their way into one collection, which was donated to the Delaware Museum of Natural History. Judging from the catalog number, 153565, this occurred in the late 1980's. An alert collections manager, sorting through the donated material, naturally sorted them by species (if they weren't already sorted) and noticed that they were all from one originally collected lot. So they were combined and cataloged as one lot.

What makes their labels of further interest is the location information, and this brings up the second subject of this post. The location seems to be an unknown place! Survey, Florida is not found in the GeoNames geographic name database, nor in GNIS from which it originates. But these paragraphs in an online history of Bonita Springs unlock the mystery:
(1st paragraph) Bonita Springs had its beginnings when, some time in the 1870's, government surveyors in a remote part of Southwest Florida pitched camp near a medicinal spring which the local Indians believed could heal the sick. After the crew left, the site became know as Survey and the stream running from it, Surveyor's Creek.
(4th paragraph) In 1912, a Tennesseean named Ragsdale purchased 2400 acres around Survey. He and his associate, Dan Farnsworth, surveyed the area and laid out a small town with streets and avenues named for potential buyers. There was no church, but, in 1915, a Naples minister held the community's first non-denominational service in the school house. The developers decided that the name, Survey, lacked sales appeal, so the town was renamed Bonita Springs; Indian Spring Branch became Oak River; and Surveyor's Creek was upgraded to Imperial River
Without the Internet, it could have taken weeks to write letters or phone around to find someone who knows what happened to Survey. Name changes such as this are more common than one might suppose, leading to all kinds of interesting puzzles for researchers, and for errant database cleanup specialists such as myself. This is particularly a focus now that I am cleaning up the geographical information for the current project.

Just a month ago I finished taking inventory of the freshwater snails in the collection of the Museum. Now I am working on pinning down the collecting locations, correcting as needed—such as putting in Bonita Springs as the new name for Survey, Florida—and attaching or correcting county, state, and sometimes country. For example, one database record was attributed to Papua New Guinea, and a locality name of "Lake (Cape?) Palousa". I went to the specimens, and was able to puzzle out that the collector's handwritten label actually read "Cape Palmas", not mentioning a country. The species is an African endemic, which made it easy after that to determine that the country was Liberia. Cape Palmas is a prominent point near the southernmost part of the country. Here are some other interesting labels that I saw today; not all could be pinned down:

Lot #17002 is from the initial donation by John du Pont, used to set up the mollusk collection when the museum was chartered before 1970 (it opened to the public in 1972). As this label indicates, Mr. du Pont was the collector. This label replaced whatever label there might originally have been. More likely, the information was taken from a notebook when the label was written. (Note to collectors of all kinds. Never throw away an original label! Keep old notebooks also.)

It is curious that this label names the collecting locality as "Java, Singapore". The closest points of southern Singapore and northwest Java island are more than 500 miles (800 km) apart. I have taken this to mean the species is found in both places, but I wonder if the lot is a combined lot. Nerita lineata Chemnitz is a marine snail in a family that has many freshwater species. That is why it was included in a "freshwater gastropod" inventory. Being marine it could easily be represented all along the Malay peninsula and throughout Indonesia. The actual collecting locality remains a puzzle.

This collector's label for lot #90224 says, "Little Sur River Bridge Hwy 1 nth of Monterey Santa Cruz Calif", with the date and collector's initials. We think "nth" means "north." The bridge indicated is 10 miles south of Monterey, and more than 60 miles south of Santa Cruz. We have a "Verbatim Location" field in our database, and that is where the quoted text was put, while the "Locality" field for publication now reads, "Little Sur River bridge, Hwy 1, near Monterey", with the county (Monterey County) entered in its own field. I've driven the Big Sur highway, and crossed that bridge. Most of the highway is slow and curvy, but I would not expect actual confusion as to which direction one is traveling.

Finally, this label with older catalog numbers from two collections, and written in 1924, originally read, "Rio Hondo at S.P. Trestle". Much later someone  wrote "San Pedro Calif", which was entered into the museum ledger in about 1980 as "San Pedro Coll.". Ever since then, this has been assumed to refer to a college, but there is no such college. A look at the label showed me the real situation. The Rio Hondo wash splits off the Los Angeles river going northward between Lynwood and Compton, 16 miles or more north of San Pedro. The Southern Pacific trestle is a mile or so north of that, so the Locality field now reads "Compton" and I added the coordinates of the center of the trestle to our "Coords" field.

Fortunately, most of the geographic data is much easier to determine, and frequently can be vetted by a quick glance. A lot of data cleansing is routine and can be boring, but there is enough "detective work" involved to keep the boring times to a minimum.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Weaponizing science writing

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, natural theology, philosophy, poetic naturalism, polemics

A few years ago it was fashionable to coin terms using the word "challenged" to euphemize various handicaps and other perceived drawbacks. For example, the words "moron", "idiot" and so forth were to be replaced by "mentally challenged" or "intellectually challenged", and criminals were to be described as "ethically challenged". Soon humorous neologisms arose such as "vertically challenged" for "short" and "financially challenged" for "underpaid" or even "poor". One day I said to someone, "Yeah, and Christians are Politically Challenged", by which I was referring to concerted efforts (that continue) to remove First Amendment rights from Bible believers.

About 3% of Americans claim to be Atheists. But the word has gained political overtones. A noisy contingent of American atheists are what I call "evangelical atheists", those who try to get all matters of faith driven underground. (Just as an aside: take a look at China and Russia, the two major nations to make atheism the official "religion".) But I have said, and continue to say, most "atheists" actually do believe in God, but they know that He disagrees with some major factor in their life, so they deny His existence to brush the conflict under the rug. I have met very few honest Nontheists, as I prefer to call them. These are the ones I actually respect.

Sean Carroll appears to be one such. A number of shriekingly polemical books have been written, if not to change the faith of the faithful, at least to keep most questioning folks from seeking for faith. Dr. Carroll (a physicist) is much more measured in his approach. I understand him as a gently evangelical nontheist. His recent book is The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. I would call it the most effective gospel of nontheism I have yet to see. It is a big book, more than 440 pages, dense with meaning, and my slow and careful perusal is the primary reason I spent nearly a month reading it (Sorry for the long silence, followers of my blog!).

The fifty chapters make up six parts: Cosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking, and Caring. Boiled down into a near-criminal over-simplification, the author promotes Poetic Naturalism as a philosophy that can accept multiple levels of description, from the quantum-mechanical to the chemical to biological to psychological and even to the cosmic level. As he makes clear numerous times, language that is appropriate to various emergent phenomena is meaningless when it is applied at a different level. Even though we do that all the time!

For example, when my cousin was teaching basic electronics to a class of raw privates in the Army, he'd begin discussing semiconductor electronics thus: "See, N-type material is full of extra electrons, and P-type is full of holes, and they've all been eating eggs, so they want each other." With a bunch of guys "just off the farm" it would jump start their understanding of electromagnetic forces between charged particles.

In The Big Picture, Dr. Carroll had the unenviable task of using language with exceeding precision. Generally speaking, each Part of the book explains things at a different level, and each succeeding level is emergent from the one(s) before. He starts with the Core Theory, which used to be called the Standard Model of Physics. It bases everything on a handful of fermions (particles of matter) and bosons (particles that convey forces). The Higgs Boson that was finally detected in action last year at the Large Hadron Collider is the last of the expected boson particles, and completes the theory.

In order to make the Core Theory of physics intelligible, the author has to work through the concepts slowly. There are several of them. They obey the "rules" of quantum mechanics and general relativity. Even though those two theories seem to us to be incompatible, the fermions and bosons just go along doing their thing without distress (there I go, anthropomorphizing quarks and neutrinos!).

I looked up the Core Theory and found that it is a pretty new term (2014), that is more satisfying than Standard Model, which has always sounded somehow temporary. Now, to a Theist, whatever you call the theory, it is temporary, because we believe God is able to operate outside of physics as we know it. The author does his best to show that such a belief is contradictory. As a scientist who is also a theist, indeed a Christian, and a Christian mystic at that, I recognize the argument as an effective filter. How real is the faith in which you claim to believe? If this book can shake your faith, then it ought to be shaken. Someone who has experienced divine things cannot be argued out of those experiences. Someone who has been "argued into faith" can just as easily be argued out of it.

At the most basic level, all known physical effects are particle interactions according to the Core Theory. For example, you can look at Chemistry as a complicated set of rules for the multitude of ways atoms react to form or unform molecules. Or you can peek under the covers to see the particle interactions that dictate why Sodium can easily either release or share an electron, but that no known chemical reactions have extracted a second electron. But each level of description must use appropriate language to convey what is going on, or what is theorized to go on in many cases. The terms "ionization" and "covalent sharing" just don't go together with the wave-statistical language of the Schrödinger Equation that describes what the electron can do when a Sodium atom and an Oxygen molecule come into proximity…or, rather, what the relevant electrons in outer orbitals of the various atoms can or might "do". Even the word "do" gets problematic at a Core Theory level!

Jumping to the human level: Are our thoughts simply a bunch of electrochemically-mediated, deterministic activities that would run in exactly the same way if all the relevant atoms could be re-assembled into the same starting positions? In the case of a random cubic millimeter (one milligram) of brain tissue, that comes to about 600 billion trillion nucleons (neutrons plus protons) and about half as many electrons; or at three quarks per nucleon, and who knows how many gluons, you can multiply that by a factor of about ten. I suspect the average "thought" or "memory" seldom takes up more than a cubic millimeter, so you'd be faced with putting that many "things" in just the right places, to see if the same thought would recur in exactly the same way.

"Wait a minute! Just a darn minute! What about quantum mechanics?" you might ask. Well, yeah. There is a bit of a paradox there. To what extent is there an element of randomness in our thoughts, and do they constitute an element of what we call "free will." Every "explanation" I have encountered about that has eventually sidestepped the matter. We just don't know, and it may be that we can't know. This is as good a place as any to remind my readers of the three limits of science: Heisenberg Uncertainty, Schrödinger Undecidability (is the cat dead?), and Gödel Incompleteness.

It is also a good place to bring up a related matter I've been thinking of for a few years. If you wanted to put those billions of trillions of atoms back into place, assuming that their subcomponents would not misbehave so this can work, just how accurately do they have to be placed? What are the acceptable errors of placement? This is analogous to the placement accuracy of the Transporter in Star Trek. Get too large a percentage of the atoms out of place by too large a distance, and as Scotty said on one occasion, "I canna guarantee brain function." Let's assume an Ångstrom unit (0.1 nm) is the maximum allowable displacement. That means the device used to nudge each atom back into place—and all of them have to get into place in the same billionth or possibly trillionth of a second—needs to have Ångstrom-level precision. Laser "tweezers" are typically used to move single atoms about, such as nudging one after another into a Bose condensate. Light that can place an atom with that accuracy has to have a wavelength of no more than 2Å, which is a pretty hard X-ray, one with an energy of 6,200 eV. Thus, the minimum energy expenditure to re-align those atoms is a few times 6,200 eV per particle. OK, folks, 6,200 (eV to place an atom)×(roughly)1020 (atoms)÷6.2×1018 (eV per Joule) comes to 100,000 Joules…and actual energy needed is several times that much. The 100kJ is 23,900 calories, and the total energy needed is probably much, much more. It would heat that milligram of brain tissue to tens of thousands of degrees, exploding the poor head in which that brain resided.

This is why, even if we had the help of Laplace's Demon (who is responsible to know where the atoms were) and Maxwell's Demon (who is responsible for putting them into place), there is no hope of trying such an experiment. No wonder Hell is hot, of those demons can wield such energies so freely! By the way, Laplace's Demon needs to exercise similar levels of energy just to know those atomic positions. Just sayin'.

Another side thought, based on Chapter 42, "Are Photons Conscious?" If they are, it is wasted on them. Remember time dilation? Photons always zip along at exactly the speed of light, and so they experience no time whatever. A photon formed by some electronic transition may travel billions of light years before being absorbed and triggering an electronic transition. To the photon, were it conscious, its awakening would be simultaneous with its annihilation. No time even to think, "Oh, crap, here comes an atom to …" To photons, there is no time, no space, no nothing. We are the conscious ones. They exist for us! And that is where Poetic Naturalism leads. We speak in experiential terms because we experience things. At the level of human experience, of caring and feeling, the Core Theory is as remote as some distant galaxy. With four or five emergent levels between, we paraphrase Descartes, "I think and feel and love and hate and care about meaning and purpose…and therefore, I am." And is God also, who named himself "I AM"? One day we all will know, if we know anything at all.

As trying as the book was to read, it was enjoyable. The author writes very well, explains things with great clarity, and makes quite the air-tight case. In the face of such powerful arguments, how can I resist the siren call of Nontheism? I think of Isaiah 45:15, "Surely you are a God who hides himself…" To date, God has not submitted himself for scientific analysis. Why should he? In the Bible that he inspired, we read of a soul and spirit within us, and that our spirit can interact with the Holy Spirit. That is how he chooses to interact with us…with me.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Is a new Spider gulping up our blogs?

kw: blogging, blogs, spider scanning

Dear fellow Bloggers, particularly on,

A few months ago I noticed a sudden surge in the number of views of my blog. My blog is pretty specialized, so I don't get a lot of traffic, usually 80-100 daily views. In past years, when I posted daily, there were more, but seldom more than 200. So I know I don't compare to bloggers with thousands to millions of daily views and many followers.

The present rate averages 240 per day. That is nice, but I wonder if it is really more readers, or a periodic partial dump via a Spider app? Take a look at the Stats for the past few days (the Week view):
That's a little unusual, wouldn't you say? Previously, the line would jigger along in the range of 2-5 per hour. That kind of traffic still exists, but is overwhelmed by a 30-view spike roughly every four hours, with lots of variability. That 99-view spike and the two in the 60 range indicate a possible third factor. But let's concentrate on the 30's. In the Month view, they rock along in the 200-300 range (boring, so I didn't snag it), and I see this with the All Time view:
This begins in 2010 because that is when Google began recording stats; I've been blogging since 2005. But except for the heavy period in 2011 and 2012, readership has seldom breached 3,000 views per month. Then in June of this year, the spiking began. At first, it wavered, but September and October seem pretty consistent. One more chart, the Now view:

This is minute-by-minute for a 2-hour period. Someone or something dumped 30 posts at 5:04 PM today. This is why it can't be ordinary readership. Those single views rocking along there are the folks who are actually reading. Sometimes I will see two or three in the same minute.

So I am interested to find out if other bloggers have looked at their stats and seen an extra spike about six times per day. Feel free to comment. If you want to send an e-mail address for further contact, put it in a comment, along with a note whether you are OK to publish the comment or not. I moderate comments, so nothing will be published until I've had a look at it. Thanks for having a look!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Writing the manual as you go

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs

Picture it: a girl, a woman, growing up in a home with at least three heritages: Jordanian Arab Christian, Catholic, Muslim…where nobody knows what they want to be when they grow up! Life Without a Recipe is not the first memoir by Diana Abu-Jaber, but the second. In the confusion of a house truly divided against itself, yet filled with love (and food!), young Diana wrote to escape, wrote to focus her heart, wrote to create worlds that were hers and hers alone, not somebody else's.

I really don't know how to review a book such as this. She writes in bits and pieces—and perhaps this is witting—and just sort of drops the reader into the confusion of the life she experienced, as she experienced it. At least, in the first portion of the book, the necessary background (Even if one has written an earlier memoir, one cannot assume a reader has any inkling of its existence). The vignettes turn to more rounded and more extended pictures once the author has presented "life before baby".

For this is the story of Diana making her way, or perhaps, muddling her way through, to a marriage that works (her third), adopting a child in her forties (one presumes her husband is somewhere close to the same age), and, by the time little Gracie is four, losing both her father-in-law and her father to cancers.

It is also a story of the various food traditions she learned, from rather demanding cooks. I was appalled at the story of nine-year-old Diana making a special dish for her beloved grandmother Grace: upon the first taste, Grace wept, saying it wasn't the same.  Well, of course it wasn't; how could it be when Grace herself never made it the same as the time before? Diana soon learned it wasn't worth trying to please them, not her parents, not her grandmother, nor a gaggle of aunts, though she never overcame the urge to try.

Near the end of the last chapter, on making knafeh late into the night, almost to sunrise, her aunt Aya sums it up: "You learn food by feel, not on a paper." That reminded me immediately of a very aged family friend, famous for her chicken-and-dumplings. The proper making of the dumplings, according to my mother, depended on her instinct with her particular kitchen faucet, under which she would hold a fistful of flour and baking soda mix, and "turn the water on and right off again" before kneading up a perfect dumpling to throw in the boiling pot. I infer a succession of less-than-perfect dumplings in her past as she calibrated her twisting wrist.

And so it is with good cooks everywhere. Is it so with good lives everywhere? I suspect so. As a favorite proverb has it, "Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement." Diana the successful novelist and memoirist may have a closet full of imperfect "dumplings", but the ones that came out well are a joy to read, to feel, to experience, to taste.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

A peek into physics

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, physics, popular treatments

Physics is the intersection of mathematics with observations of nature. So a book that promised an entirely non-mathematical presentation of the deepest puzzles of physics was impossible for me to pass by. In Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli aims not so much for non-physicists to understand the great theories of physics, but for them to become intrigued by them.

Optimistically enough, he begins with "The Most Beautiful of Theories", discussing Albert Einstein's two related theories of relativity, the Special Theory, which treats of the effects of relative motion on time and space, and the General Theory, which unifies space with gravity. He discusses the problems left unsolved by Newton's mechanics, and at least helps us get a glimpse of the way that these two theories resolve them, at least in part.

Many people think that Einstein's Nobel Prize was for one of this theories of relativity, but it was instead for his work on the Photoelectric Effect, with which he demonstrated that light is quantized, or made up of particles. Newton had thought this might be so, calling the particles "corpuscles", but had no way at the time to prove it one way or another. Albert Einstein did so, and then worked on quantum theory for many years. Today, many, at least many of those with some scientific training, are more or less comfortable with light's having both a wave nature and a particle nature. Not only that, but elementary particles such as protons are found to also have a wave nature, though it takes subtle apparatus to winkle out the evidence for it.

Eventually, Einstein was dissatisfied with quantum mechanics, not least because his theory of general relativity and the developing theory of quanta were in fundamental conflict. General relativity requires that space and time be continuous. All aspects of quantum theory require them to be "chunked". Is this just another duality we simply have to accept, like the particle-wave duality of light and even matter? Dr. Rovelli is clear: At the moment we don't know, and nobody is sure how to resolve the dilemma. I like that about him. He doesn't sweep the problems under the rug. They are just there, waiting for someone to hit upon the right approach to straighten them out.

Rather than discuss each of the following chapters, I think it best to leave folks with the following picture of the way light behaves as it enters our eyes and is perceived. Once light is on its way to us, either directly from a source such as the sun or an artificial lamp, or indirectly after bouncing off something, whether it travels as a wave or as a stream of particles is not important. But as it reaches the cornea of the eye, and before that the very thin film of tears on the cornea, it behaves as a wave and is refracted. There is no equation in quantum mechanics which can adequately describe refraction. This shows us that quantum theory is still not complete. During the tenth of a nanosecond that the light is traveling through the eyeball, it is refracted several times, as it passes from one thing to the next: the tear film, the cornea, and aqueous humor in the front of the eye, the crystalline lens behind the iris, the vitreous humor that fills the rest of the eye, and a very thin film of liquid between that and the retina. At the retina, all of a sudden, the light behaves like a stream of particles. The "color" of light depends on the kinetic energy of those particles, the photons, the quanta of light. The cone cells in our retina come in three varieties (for most of us). The cones that respond only to a range of higher energy photons stimulate the color "blue", those that respond best to lower-energy photons stimulate "red", and those with a medium energy preference stimulate the color "green". Thus the particular mix of variously-energetic photons in the beam of light striking a particular patch of cone cells stimulates a color response, which may differ quite a lot from the response of the next patch over, depending on the energy mix of photons that reach that spot.

An interesting side note is that the solution to a quantum mechanical event requires an "observer", and in a simple way, we humans are typically considered the observers. But if phenomena such as diffraction occur when none of us is watching, as we think is true, then the "observer" is actually the whole of the universe, which responds at some level (usually a very, very, very low level) to every quantum event. So we aren't really the "observers" of quantum theory, but those who have figured out that whatever happens in the universe seems to matter to all the universe. At that point physics begins to border on metaphysics. By definition, science gets left behind if we go further.

The other matters covered in the book, cosmology and the shape of space, the resolution of the "particle zoo" that first emerged from our early cyclotrons and synchrotrons, what black holes might really represent, and where we fit into all of this, are each treated succinctly. Dr. Rovelli revels in the beauties of natural science as studied by theorists. His little book is a "good college try" at helping some of the rest of us respond to that beauty.