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.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Two semi-related snails

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

At the current stage of my inventory of the freshwater snails in the collection of the Delaware Museum of Natural History, I came across two species that  stretch the limits of the genus in which they have been classified. Indeed, as I shall discuss, they stretched those limits to the breaking point.

The first is Melanoides pantherina (von dem Busch, 1859). The genus Melanoides was created when a very large genus Melania was divided into several genera, and the family Melanoidea was broken into Thiara (to which these belong), Pleuroceridae, and several smaller families of genera.

"Melanoides" means "like Melania", and "Melania" means "dark". Snails in this genus are colored dark brown to nearly black.

This species was named "pantherina" because juvenile specimens are spotted. Faint spots in the smaller whorls of the specimen shown at right are still visible. At first, I thought the spots caused by their habit of laying their eggs on themselves were the reason for the name, but that habit is found in several related species.

Also note on the older label from Richardson's collection, that English and American conchologists tended to spell the author's name "Bush" instead of Busch. This arose during about a century of German-English conflict that culminated in two world wars.

The second species is presently named Melanoides Scabra (Müller), at least at Delaware, but many experts have renamed it Thiara scabra (Müller), and we plan to follow suit. The genus Thiara was created to gather the "Thumb snails", many of which really are about the size and shape of someone's thumb.

This species is a little smaller, but its lower spire indicates its affinity with other Thiara species. These species are also lighter in color than the typical specimen of Melania or Melanoides.

Both these species, and indeed, a great many of their relatives also, are river snails. Their shell shape and presence or absence of spines are clues to the energy of the rivers they inhabit, and the kind of predators they face. Larger, thick-shelled ones, for example, live in faster water and have little to fear from snail-eating fish, but are more likely to fall prey to boring predators such as smaller predatory snails.

The family to which they all belong, Thiaridae, is found throughout east Asia and the islands in the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. They are found mainly in rivers and a few are found in brackish estuaries.