Friday, April 28, 2017

How (living) things move

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biomechanics

We take motion for granted. For most of our lives, from about the age of one until we are in our dotage, we walk, trot, jog, run, and jump; we also creep, crawl, sidle, and shimmy. Most of us dance in one way or another. Familiar pets also move about, as do animals in general. That is what defines animals: the ability to move with intention and comparative rapidity.

How many of us give any thought to how we move? Eadweard Muybridge was one who did more; he set up groups of cameras, either in a line or in a cluster, and set them to trigger in sequence while someone, or himself, walked or ran or performed some motion of interest.

This sequence of photos, from three different angles, of a woman performing an underhand serve in lawn tennis, was captured in 1887.

The word "biomechanics" has been around since the 1860's, possibly coined by Sir Norman Lockyer for a series of articles in Nature. But it remained a niche discipline for a century, until the late 1960's and the great expansion of cross-discipline work among scientists, the "breaking down of the stovepipes", so that physicists and mechanical engineers and biologists could collaborate more freely.

For the book Exploring Biomechanics: Animals in Motion, author R. McNeill Alexander could have taken various approaches. He chose a functional arrangement: beginning with a discussion of muscles and their mechanisms—and noting that non-muscular mechanisms of motion would be discussed as he came to them—he gathered his material into chapters on

  • Running and walking
  • Jumping, climbing and crawling
  • Gliding and soaring
  • Powered flight (such as flapping)
  • Floating (in water)
  • Swimming
  • Non-muscle motions, primarily of microbes and protozoans

I was particularly intrigued by "Floating". I had not thought of that as a biomechanical area. But it turns out there are several ways that sea creatures keep from sinking into the abyss, other than to just keep swimming (Of course, one way is to live in water shallow enough that one can safely rest on the bottom). I knew that bony fishes usually have gas-filled swim bladders, and I also knew that deep-sea squid such as the giant squid have lots of ammonia in their tissues to reduce their density (and that's why if you have a grilled giant squid steak at the Explorer's Club it will taste like soap!). There are several other passive flotation methods. None is perfect, but each serves a purpose for a certain group of animals. The most extreme to my mind is the semi-cohesive, fatty "jelly" of a jellyfish. I didn't realize that 95-99+% of a jellyfish is nonliving, low-density jelly, surrounded by a layer of living tissue only one or two cells thick!

A lot of biomechanics has to do with ratios. The ratio of limb length to body size tells a lot about lifestyle: short legs on a long body (think dachshund or mole) are good for tunnel running or tunnel digging; long legs and a flexible backbone are for speed (such as the ongoing contest between antelope and cheetah); long, slender wings are good for soaring but not so good for speed runs; the short, wide wings of a hawk give it speed and maneuverability; and on and on.

In an epilog "What we want to know next" the author emphasizes that most past study of animal flight was based on our understanding of airplanes. Helicopters and gyrocopters are a better model, because in birds, bats, and insects, the flight surfaces are dynamic elements, not static. The details of their dynamic motion allow greater efficiency than any static wing can hope to accomplish. But dynamic aerodynamics is an infant field. In fact, as much as we may know already, we are nearer the threshold of biomechanical studies than we are to the finish line.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The making of a most beloved detective

kw: book reviews, biography, novelists, short story writers

It would be too much to say that Arthur Conan Doyle saved my life, but during one terrible year, he did indeed save my sanity. More on this anon.

I am pretty sure I have read every story and novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, many of them several times. I have a one-volume edition of the stories that were published in The Strand. Thus, although I almost never read a biography, I could not pass up Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes by Michael Sims.

The book focuses on the first 33 years of the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, culminating with the year before he "killed Holmes off", though this is not mentioned; the text climaxes with Conan Doyle's dedication of the collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to his teacher, Joseph Bell, the inspiration for Holmes.

I hadn't known that Arthur Conan Doyle used both middle and last names as his surname. I find this is sometimes done in Britain, so Mr. Sims, while usually referring to him as Arthur, also calls him Conan Doyle. Never "Doyle".

The back-story illustrates that nobody really springs fully-formed into maturity, particularly in a creative career such as writing. We find that Conan Doyle began writing for publication while still in medical school. I suppose the curriculum was not nearly so rigorous as that in modern medical colleges. He had his first story published in 1879. His writing mainly spent time going 'round and 'round the circuit of being sent out and returned with a "No thanks". But his works were published from time to time during the eight years before he first created Holmes.

The first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887, but the great detective did not immediately become popular. That took a few years. The bulk of the early Holmes stories were published in The Strand between 1891 and 1893, when "The Final Problem" culminated in Holmes's apparent death along with his nemesis, James Moriarty, in a waterfall.

The Strand collection signaled success to Conan Doyle. He had quit his medical practice to write full time. I find that Joe Bells' assessment of himself and his student, in the light of Sherlock Holmes, brings light to the reality that Conan Doyle himself, having learned all he could of Dr. Bell's deductive method, practiced it himself as a diagnostician, and then brought it to its ideal fruition, taking it beyond what either himself or Bell could do. I do recall noticing as I re-read my favorite Holmes adventures in recent years, that while Holmes is portrayed as making startling deductions about Watson and a few other people they meet, the solving of crimes owed much more to gathering clues, and frequently to staking out a suspect. Holmes thus exceeded Messrs. Lestrade and Gregson in persistence more than analysis. He gathered more "stuff" to be analyzed.

Conan Doyle freely acknowledged his literary debt to prior writers such as Poe and Gaboriau. He sought their influence while avoiding raw imitation. In the public imagination, his Holmes exceeded their creations, which are less remembered.

I was hoping that this book would delve into the rest of Conan Doyle's life, but of course, the ten-year hiatus in Holmes stories from 1893-1904 puts a cap on such an idea. Holmes had been created, had run a popular career, and had apparently died in Switzerland. Finis. So the stories and books that began with The Return of Sherlock Holmes are never mentioned. Neither are the Dr. Challenger stories, The Lost World, the Poison Belt, and The Land of Mist. But here my life intersected with Conan Doyle's world-building in a most salutary way.

In the 1959-60 school year I attended a College Preparatory school, which was suggested by a family friend who had a son there. I hated it. The school contained grades 7-12, which is a formula for rampant bullying, for one thing. It was run along the lines of a British academy. We wore suit and tie daily, no exceptions. I had passed some kind of entrance exam with a very high score, but did not do well academically. High IQ is mainly based on a good memory and lots of reading. I had the social skills of a potato.

A study period each morning and afternoon were included in the long school day. I had the freedom to spend them in the school library. Soon I discovered a complete set of Conan Doyle's books. I had already read nearly all the Sherlock Holmes stories, in various books belonging to my parents. But this collection had everything, all of his fiction. That includes the three Professor Challenger stories, which provided just the right kind of escape for me at a critical period in my life. Naturally, I read each of them at least twice, plus everything else, Holmes and all, at least once through. I found that I connected better with Professor Challenger. He didn't set as high a standard of emulation as did Sherlock Holmes. To this day, when I read a Holmes story, I take it slowly. I read a Challenger story at a more rapid clip.

The life of Conan Doyle is a cipher to nearly everyone, even the most avid readers of the Holmes stories who can quote which odd clue occurred in which story and whatnot. I like Holmes even better now, knowing the men whose accomplishments underwrote his own.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Putting America-based Jihad in perspective

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, terrorism

For those of us who were adults in 2001, the 9/11 attack that destroyed the World Trade Center towers was a before-and-after moment. For those of us a generation or two older, it is remembered as keenly as the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. A certain few events, lesser in scope, perhaps, but serious enough, can loom as large for many people who were close enough to be affected.

In my case, the Oklahoma City bombing just 22 years ago affected me in two ways. I was in Stillwater, 70 road miles but 52 straight-line miles away. I was outside on a fine Spring day and I heard it and felt it. Initially, I thought it was a somewhat large explosion within Stillwater, such as a natural gas explosion demolishing a house. Then I heard radio reports of what it really was, although they were garbled at first. I had to be in OKC the next day, so I drove by, as close as I could get. Seeing how the front of that enormous building had simply been removed was a gut-hit experience.

Such an event happening today would immediately bring Islamic terrorists to mind. But Timothy McVeigh was no Muslim. He did not claim any religious motive at all in the things he wrote about the attack. He professed that he sought vengeance for Federal hypocrisy.

America has a long history of terrorism upon its territory; see this Wikipedia article, for example. Probably the most famous terrorism campaign prior to 2001 was the long history of the KKK, primarily active from 1865-1877 (more than 3,000 victims), but with scattered bombings, lynchings, riots and smaller massacres reaching into the 1970's.

Today Americans are worried about terrorism at home and abroad, wondering whether this country is in danger of "Islamofascist takeover" for example. No doubt, the past 16+ years have taken their toll on the American psyche, but fortunately, most of the worrisome incidents have happened in other countries. Yet people worry, "Is it time to arm myself? To get shooting lessons for the whole family?" and "What do we do if someone comes for US?"

Into this ferment author Peter Bergen offers his new book United Stated of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists. Although Mr. Bergen deals at some length with events throughout the Middle East and around the world, his focus is on American citizens and legal residents. He studied the case histories of more than 300 such people. Some of them, such as the Tsarnaev brothers, committed terrorism within the USA. Some managed to "join jihad" by going to Somalia, Yemen, Syria and other places where they could learn to be a muhajid (colloquially, a Muslim guerrilla fighter) and fight (and usually die) alongside member of ISIS or other groups. A goodly number of them were caught before they could do anything, and quite a number started attacks that failed, such as the "underwear bomber".

America's law enforcement and military leaders have been trying to learn, mostly the hard way, what makes a terrorist's mind tick. You can look at any sort of situational arc, and find the entire range of responses to it. For example, long before 9/11 there was the phenomenon of someone "going postal", named for the killing of 14 in a post office in Edmond, OK by Patrick Sherrill. While this was a revenge killing rather than a specifically terrorist action, it is otherwise similar. He had a grievance of long standing and, in the parlance of the day, "snapped" and went on a rampage.

As we often hear, many people have chronic grievances, but most tend to blow off steam by singing along with "Take this Job and Shove it" or frequenting "happy hour" or taking on a vigorous sport such as Rugby. An example in the book struck me very memorably, for it exemplifies the spectrum of response. It is used to illustrate the difference between "affective" violence and "predatory" violence. Rather than quote, I'll paraphrase:
You are in a bar at happy hour and get just tipsy enough to spill a drink on the guy next to you. Nine times out of ten, he'll say, "Hey, buy me a drink and we can forget about it." One time out of ten he'll take a swing, or offer to "settle it outside", and the violence that ensues is "affective". That is, he gets mad, you get mad, and the two of you have it out. But in a very few cases, a guy who says, "...we can forget about it" will surreptitiously keep an eye on you, follow you home, drive around the block a time of two, get into your house by a back door or window, and slit your throat. That is "predatory" violence. It is the source of the proverb, "Beware the wrath of a patient man."
Going postal is similar. The kind of psychopathic mind that "snaps" in that way doesn't really "snap." It calculates and when the cost/benefit ratio is favorable, watch out! True mayhem takes planning.

As it happens, getting into the mind of someone who shows signs of radicalization (by Islam or any other ideology, including conspiracy theories) has not proven fruitful. Gathering behavioral signals works better. All too many of the 300 talked to a few or even several friends in ways the friends thought worrisome, for example. A method now known as MOSAIC does a fair job of gleaning the signal from the noise. It was developed by Gavin de Becker, the author of The Gift of Fear, which I read a few years before I began blogging.

I won't take up space by listing the steps and so forth. Take a look, for example at the online Mosaic Threat Assessment method that de Becker maintains. It uses indicators that are not specific to any religion or ideology, but are behavioral, and while it can indeed yield a better sense of someone's level of potential for jihad, it can also help you determine if your chronically angry spouse or co-worker is a threat to you. Note: the site contains instructions to help you ensure that "someone" won't find out you are checking out a threat. If such a person is a genuine threat, that's helpful!

Circling back to the core of the book's message: While the threat of jihad in America is real, it is over-hyped. International terrorist organizations such as ISIS know how to keep the 24-hour news business humming, and take full advantage of the premise, "There is no such thing as bad attention". But how much threat is there, really? Not every plot is foiled. Some come "out of the blue", or so it seems. We would have to educate all 200 million adult Americans in MOSAIC-style assessment to catch nearly every case. So some risks always remain. How much? Left to ourselves we are poor judges of risk. I like this example:
On the beach one day, someone yelled "Shark!" Most folks ran up the beach and jumped in their car. About half of them lit up a smoke. Many started the engine and drove off.
What is the real risk here?

  • Is there really a shark? Maybe...perhaps probably.
  • A dangerous shark? Maybe...I've bumped into "sand sharks" four or five times. Most shark species don't bite anything bigger than they are.
  • A few people per year genuinely die of shark bite.
  • In America, almost 40,000 die yearly in auto accidents. Driving ten miles puts you at about the same risk of dying as the chance you'll die of shark bite in your lifetime.
  • In America, about 400,000 die yearly because they smoke/smoked. I don't know how to figure out how many ciggies equal the risk of dying of shark bite. Probably less than a pack!
  • If the person screams "Shark!" with real, curdling terror in their voice, the chances you'll die by being crushed in the rushing crowd are much greater than the chance that a deaf guy over there who stayed in the water will actually get bitten.

Final thought. The number of people who died in America in massacres and similar events that were not connected to jihad is greater than the number who died of events such as the Boston Marathon bombing or the Fort Hood shootings. And if we contemplate single events: if you happen to be murdered, by far the most likely culprit is a relative of yours, someone who is not a Muslim or any other kind of religious fanatic.

Terrorism in America began while the colonies were a-borning. Twenty or fifty years into the future, will Islamic terror still be at the forefront? Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not, I think. But acts of terror will go on. Until we find a way to "breed out" the seeds of terror, it will remain some people's chosen revenge.