Monday, May 29, 2017

Multiple utopias

kw: book reviews, science fiction, near-future, dystopias, utopias

Has Western society already become a plutocracy? A passel of disappointed Democrats, decrying the country's first billionaire President, and further decrying the number of billionaires and near-billionaires he has installed in his cabinet and other executive posts, seem to think so. Of course, they conveniently ignore that their own plutocrat, who has managed to avoid "personally" amassing too many millions, has instead created a pay-for-play foundation with, to date, close to a half a billion dollars that "everyone knows" is to be used for political purposes, a "charitable" foundation that spends three or four times as much on said plutocrat's travel and hotel expenses as on the foundation's purposes as stated in its charter. At least the plutocrat who made it into office is honest about his great wealth and doesn't play poor-face.

In a true plutocracy, only the plutocrats own anything. How close is America to that?
  • The "one percent" of Americans own 38% of all wealth in the U.S.
  • The richest 10% own just over 75% (or, you could say, "the next 9%" own "the next 37%).
  • The poorest 50% own 1%.
  • The "middle class", the remaining 40%, own just under 24% of all wealth.

Thought that is not quite full-on plutocracy, it is pretty dramatic inequality. This "wealth inequality" is greater than "income inequality", because below the median income (around $50,000 per household in recent times), it is hard to accumulate wealth, while for "upper middle class and above" (about $200,000), most income can be socked away and add to accumulated wealth, and for a genuine plutocrat, tremendous luxury can be enjoyed while spending only a few percent of income as great wealth continues to multiply.

Let's look at that $200k threshold. For someone working a 40-hour week, it would be nearly $100 per hour. Someone with a modicum of prudence can live quite well on less than half of that, and save the rest, which after taxes exceeds $60,000 yearly. About every 16.7 years, even if investment income is nil, another million dollars accumulates. If investment income is instead in the 4% range, then during the second 16.7-year period, another million will accumulate from the compounding alone. Now, there are numerous "professionals" out there who demand fees of several hundred dollars an hour, and probably earn half a million to a million yearly. Then there are CEO's of top corporations who are routinely paid a million per month. I consider that excessive.

My own take on earnings that exceed one or two dollars (2017 dollars) per minute: The only guy to whom I will pay as much as $400 per hour (an average lawyer's fee in this area), without feeling resentful, is the dude who can go in with a screwdriver and side cutters and defuse a bomb. (Before you cry "sexism", I'd pay it to a similarly skilled gal with screwdriver and side cutters. Doesn't matter to me.)

I conclude that we are well on the way to plutocracy replacing democracy in America. Don't think the current President will make that go any faster, he won't. But had the Democrat won, she'd have pushed it in that direction much, much faster! America would have become "Godfather country" in pretty short order.

OK, so what will things be like in a full-blown plutocracy? Cory Doctorow thinks he knows, and it forms a society universally called "default" in Walkaway, a Sci-Fi novel of the sorta-near future. The hyper-rich who run everything are called "zottas" (I guess that is a combination of "zetta" and "yotta", the two largest prefixes in the metric number system. "Yotta" means a trillion-trillion, or 1024, and "zetta" is 1/1,000 the size , or 1021.) Either way, I suppose a zotta is rich enough to treat the odd billion dollars as pocket change.

In the face of zotta-controlled wage-slavery for those few who are ambitious enough to work, and a grinding welfare state for the rest, increasing numbers of people have been walking away, going to unoccupied areas and learning to live without "default society". They are not as badly off as things may seem. Technology has kept pace with the times, and nearly all human needs can be "fabbed" (an advanced form of 3D printing) from suitable feedstock. That goes not only for vehicles and houses and furniture but even more so for many foods and medicines, and also recreational drugs. Walkaway society is a society of abundance. No more zero-sum. If you take my sandwich, and I can throw leaves in a hopper and fab another in five minutes, why should I care? If I do feel a bit put out, I can make ten sandwiches and throw them at you…or ten darts, if I want to do something more than just shame you.

The political discourses that the author uses to point up the differences among default and walkaway philosophy make this a rather dialog-heavy book, sort of like the Foundation books by Asimov. Abundance philosophy has the potential to create genuine utopia, but human nature is not used to it, and there'll be tremendous growing pains. Part of the dramatic thrust of Walkaway is about such growing pains. Another big part is what we might call "World War W", as "default" tries to regain control of "walkaway".

This is intensified because the walkaways possess sufficient technology to be winning the race to produce effective scanning and simulation of a person, so that they can be reincarnated in software after dying. A lot gets glossed over about this, and that's OK, because there are significant questions to address, such as, "How will a person who wakes up in silico react to the knowledge of being dead?", and "Can the scan of a person become enslaved?". Two questions that I wondered about, that are barely touched upon: "How will the simulated person communicate; is there a need to emulate the signaling systems of the Occipital and Temporal lobes of the brain, and translate machine video and audio signals to and from appropriate optic and auditory nerve signals?", and "What will replace the endocrine signaling of the body with which the brain/mind was accustomed to relate?".

Such a book raises many questions and answers few. This one had the obligatory happy ending, but it didn't have to. The downfall of a plutocratic culture takes longer than a generation. They tend to leave little but scorched earth behind. The end of Walkaway has a continued coexistence, at arms' length, of the two cultures, with default becoming the secondary, left-behind one. I found that puzzling.

Those who know me may well wonder why I subjected myself to a book containing explicitly erotic scenes. There are but a handful, and I know how to skim past what I don't want to read. Whether you roll your eyes at this and say, "Yeah, sure," or not, you're entitled to believe what you wish.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

When governments peer down the wishing well

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, esp, research, government programs

Beginning in the 1940's (so far as we know) several U.S. military and government agencies studied phenomena typically called ESP or psychic, and actually made use of "Remote Viewing" and "Map Dowsing", for example. Although most official connection with such "enhanced skills" ended in the 1990's, not all such efforts have ended, and an unknown amount of work has likely "gone dark".

The title of the book introduces the whole subject: Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government's Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis by Annie Jacobsen. A few startling successes have been recorded, and were brought out by FOIA requests by the author:

  • In 1972 Ingo Swann affected the operation of a "quark detector", really an ultra-sensitive superconductive quantum interference device (SQUID). As scientists and graduate students watched, a chart recorder that was just drawing a slowly shifting line suddenly drew a wiggly line. Swann asked if that was "a result." Asked to do it again, he looked thoughtful a moment, and it did it again. The lead scientist concluded that he had influenced the detector, which was located a level below them in a shielded chamber. I consider it equally likely that he influenced the chart recorder itself; this possibility is not mentioned.
  • Beginning in 1973 several kinds of tests were performed with Uri Geller, the "spoon bender", who still entertains folks by bending spoons, tongs, or whatever, including items too strong to be bent sneakily, and by reading minds or putting thoughts into others' minds. He is credited with correctly reading the uppermost face of a die in a closed metal box, at least 8 times in a row. While living in Israel before this, he had been employed by Moshe Dayan as a map dowser, pointing out to Dayan the locations of archaeological sites and artifacts that had not yet been discovered.
  • Also in 1973 Ingo Swann and an even more talented remote viewer, Pat Price, were asked to describe that they "saw" at a set of geographical coordinates, provided by another researcher. They were the coordinates of his mountain cabin. But the two of them, also describing the weather (easy today, using, not so much 40+ years ago), described a large installation, partly underground, with communications and listening equipment and many technicians. Puzzled, the project leader drove to the site, and then around the side of the mountain he came upon a military installation the cabin's owner had not known was there. Swann and Price said, of course they had seen the cabin, but thought the nearby listening post was the real target.
  • Skip a few: In 1981 Gary Langford, who was an active remote viewer, said, "A United States Pentagon official will be kidnapped by terrorists on the evening of 17 December 1981." On that date at 5:30 PM General James L. Dozier was kidnapped, and later killed. Remote viewers called in to locate him and check his welfare were certain he was alive for some time after his death, because, as it turned out, the killers kept his body on ice for months.

There are numerous other events that researchers called "8 martini results", because they'd need to go drink themselves blotto after witnessing such startling successes. These were military and CIA folks, not used to having their exceedingly rational world view challenged. But this last item above emphasizes a weakness of information provided by precognition and remote viewing. You can't do anything about it until it is too late. Had Gary Langford told the location of the kidnapping, perhaps something could have been done to prevent it. But he would likely then have also said it would be an attempted kidnapping that may or may not succeed.

A great many viewings by Angela Dellafiora, "the woman with the third eye", just drove the researchers wild. She was uncannily accurate. For many years the government officials had tried to separate these "extraordinary skills" from occultism. Ms Dellafiora made no bones about coming from a long line of women with "second sight", and she just wouldn't keep with protocol.

What are we to make of all this? The military, in particular, did their best to make remote viewing a trainable skill. All the evidence so far gathered points instead to what one skilled viewer said, "You have to be born. Not many folks will ever be able to do this."

Before going onto another tack altogether, I need to pick a nit or two with the author: On page 104 of the Little, Brown Large Print edition I read, she writes about the U.S. Embassy in Moscow that was constantly bombarded with microwaves in the 1950's and 1960's. She writes that the signal had "a power density between 2.5 and 4.0 Ghz". That describes a frequency, not power. This is nit 1. Also, it is never mentioned that years later this was found to be a bugging scheme, not an attempt to damage American consuls with microwaves: a decoration in a conference room was resonant at the frequency used, and had a thin metallic membrane on its outer surface. It would modulate and re-radiate the microwaves to a receiver outside the building. The Soviets were listening in on whatever went on in that room. Nit 2.

So, are there truly "paranormal" powers that are owned by a few "adepts"? More than half of us think so. This is a good opportunity to present a Christian perspective, or actually two of them. These are unlikely to be what you are thinking right now.

Firstly, some supposedly occult powers may actually be rare powers of the human soul. The premise of a book by Watchman Nee, The Latent Power of the Soul, is that great powers were to be found in Adam before the fall (whether "Adam" refers to one man or is a collective name for a number of humans who may have dwelt in Eden, makes no difference to the argument). Nee thought that Adam's managerial abilities alone might exceed our best executives by a million-fold or more. He also thought that some powers claimed by Yogis and other occult adepts might be soul power, and he considered that part of the curse of the fall was that most such soulish powers became imprisoned in the flesh; that this might be the reason Yogis and others must be such strict ascetics, so that they can subdue the body and release their soul power. Nee writes that this was God's doing, and without such restrictions, we would likely be too dangerous to one another, above and beyond the dangers we pose from physical means! Think of Darth Vader using "the Force" to kill at a distance.

Secondly, necromancy and other "information gathering" occult powers are typically performed with the help of a "familiar spirit." Shamans in many cultures have special spirits they call on. The Bible's point of view is that a familiar spirit is a demon, usually called an evil spirit in the Old Testament, and a demon in the New Testament. According to an analysis by G. H. Pember, there were men or manlike creatures before Adam, who remained loyal to the Archangel ("Lucifer") when that one rebelled against God. God's judgment on them was to be disembodied and sent to dwell in "the abyss", the deepest parts of the oceans. From time to time one or another will escape temporarily, and it wishes to re-enter a body. Susceptible persons, usually those already weakened in will by persistent and promiscuous sin, can thus be "possessed". I have seen a few startling things that convinced me that demons are real, they do possess certain persons, and that they can be expelled by a spiritual Christian. But on a different note, a witch or sorcerer is someone who has formed an allegiance with such a disembodied spirit, which does favors and proffers information in return for part-time possession of the person's body. Channeling is apparently something that takes place during such a temporary possession. Remote viewing and other information gathering activities may be carried out by demons so informing certain "sensitive" persons, for their own purposes. They can apparently, to a limited extent, foretell the future: perhaps Gary Langford was informed by a demon of a plot that was already planned by General Dozier's kidnappers. Pember wrote about these matters in the second part of his book Earth's Earliest Ages, in 1884. The first part of the book is about "the Gap", the eon's-long period between the first and second verses of Genesis.

Can we say for sure if any of these things are so? Not really, Isaiah sang, "Truly, You are a God who hides Himself" (45:15). God apparently actively prevents most demonic activity, preferring people to live earthly lives in which they will suffer enough anyway, from their own foolishness and from various unfortunate natural events. Such matters would be too time- and space-consuming to enter upon here.

The conclusion of Phenomena is that ESP sometimes happens, but is not very useful. There have been a few surprising successes, and far too many things that were shown to be accurate after the fact, but could not be of any help otherwise. And, of course, for every genuine adept who may exist, there are hundreds or thousands of charlatans and illusionists. A fascinating, if rather sad, book.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Have the spiders gone to sleep?

kw: blogging, blogs, spider scanning

Well, now looky here!

It looks to me like all the spiders, both US- and Russia-based, have shut down. Now I get to see the real readership of this blog. As you can see, I am not all that popular. Before the spiders began to confuse the issue, daily readership was in the 50-100 range. It seems to have dropped since then. I don't mind. I write for myself, and I know I am a rather unusual fellow. Not many folks share my interests. I like an honest metric, no matter what.

Interestingly, the spiders' focus was on a one year span, 5/10/2016 to 5/10/2017, with a peak hit rate in mid-February, 2017. I wonder if other Blogger users have noticed similar patterns of timed usage. I asked that before and heard nothing.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Inside the diagnosis

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, diagnostic procedures

It has been said that one human brain is more complex than all the rest of the universe…minus the other brains. Add a body to that brain, and the total human person is complex indeed. Thus, for a physician to correctly diagnose a troublesome condition is akin to a detective gathering clues in the mean streets of an immense, universal city. It is no coincidence that both the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and the man who inspired Holmes, were doctors.

Some diseases are simple enough; red, puffy eyelids leaking pus clearly indicate conjunctivitis, or pink eye. That is one of a handful of diseases anybody can diagnose. Most others, not so much. As Stuart B. Mushlin, M.D. tells us in Playing the Ponies and Other Medical Mysteries Solved, a syndrome such as POEMS is indicated when five factors are all present: Polyneuropathy, Organomegaly, Endocrine abnormalities, Monoclonal protein abnormality, and Skin changes. It is a blood disorder that is, fortunately, treatable, but is fatal without treatment.

Dr. Mushlin enjoys a good tussle with the facts of a difficult case. That is a trait he shares with my uncle and his father, who were legendary diagnosticians. In the chapter "The CPC", he describes two cases brought before a Clinical Pathologic Conference. Here, a doctor is presented with all the facts of a case, one from the recent past, and must then discuss before the group his diagnosis and the thought processes that led to it, and suggest treatment. Then the pathologist will either praise or pillory the presenter while describing the actual history and final diagnosis and treatment. It is a great educational setting, in which doctors of all levels of experience learn in ways no textbook can convey.

In this book we learn the great humility a physician must have. Knowing how to listen is a greater asset than encyclopedic knowledge of all diseases (though that helps!). Being willing to take a step back and think again, looking for that evanescent "other factor", can be the key to discerning a subtle syndrome.

I enjoy reading books by doctors. They usually write well. In Dr. Mushlin's case, he clearly enjoys writing, and it came through in my own enjoyment of the reading. I love a joyful teacher. Oh, and the "ponies"? That's about what one of his patients did with the insurance payoff!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The new normal arrives about twice per generation

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ecology, limnology, great lakes

My family moved to a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio in 1961. One of the first things we did was ride a tour boat up the Cuyahoga River. The tour operator proudly showed how the thoroughly channeled, and very twisty, river had been scooped out here (and cemented in) and patched there (and cemented in) so that ore boats could just barely be eased around corners and bends that sometimes exceeded 180 degrees. He showed off more than 100 bridges across the Cuyahoga that had various ways of turning, tilting and lifting out of the way when a ship came through.

He also, almost casually, mentioned that the oily sludge atop the river was about four inches thick. We could smell it; it was the backdrop to the whole cruise. I remember Dad leaning over to us, sotto voce, "This could burn!" Eight years later it did burn. What none of us learned until much later was that the June,1969 Cuyahoga River fire, which motivated the legislation that became the Clean Water Act, was only the latest of thirteen fires over 101 years. Yes, the Cuyahoga River first caught fire in 1868.

The Great Lakes, Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, are really a sort of "northern ocean". When I tell people I have lived on all four coasts of the U.S., it takes most of them a while to realize that the "third coast" is the Gulf Coast. Only one has thought it through and asked which of the Great Lakes I'd resided at.

In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, Dan Egan chronicles the repeated environmental insults that these "unassailable" lakes have endured. The century-long "fire season" was not the first. Canals linking the lakes to the sea were first constructed in 1783, 85 years before the first fire on the Cuyahoga. The most famous, the Erie Canal, links the Hudson River to the Niagara River above the falls, near Buffalo, New York. It allows barge traffic to bypass the rapid-strewn St. Lawrence River and Niagara Falls, to get to Lake Erie.

Prior to 1825, when the Erie Canal opened, the great lakes were ecologically isolated, mainly by gravity. The rapids along the St. Lawrence River prevent even mighty salmon from reaching Lake Ontario, and Niagara Falls effectively blockades upstream motion by downstream species. Once canal and lock systems were completed, allowing large ships to be lifted as much as 600 feet to reach Lake Superior, they could bring cargo in and out. Their unintended cargo was devastating to the lakes. Some creatures such as the sea lamprey could swim up the canals and through the locks on their own. Others, such as shellfish, traveled as larvae in the ballast water that all ships carry to keep their balance.

Take a close look at these museum specimens. The small shells are about 12-15 mm long, smaller than one of my thumbnails. They are Zebra Mussels, Dreissena polymorpha (Pallas, 1771). They are native to the Ukraine and southern Russia. Looking carefully you can see the stripes and zigzag lines that give them their name. The specimen on the right is attached to the shell of another, native freshwater bivalve.

In 1988, two zebra mussel shells were found in Lake St. Clair, between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. Soon, they were to be found throughout the great lakes. At first, it was thought that they would not infest the deepest part of the lakes because they are not found deeper than about 30 meters. Then a second, related species the Quagga Mussel, Dreissena bugensis Andrusov, 1897, was found. They live deeper down, all the way to the bottom of the deepest part of Lake Superior, 406 m (1,332 ft). (A quagga is an extinct relative of the zebra.)

The portion of this museum tray outlined in blue shows the specimens of zebra mussel in the collection of the Delaware Museum of Natural History. The few older specimens are from Crimea. All the newer ones are from Europe and the U.S., primarily the great lakes.

The list of insults to the great lakes' ecology is long, and it is likely that Dan Egan hasn't covered each and every one. But he has covered all the critical ones:

  • After lampreys came, most of the lake trout died out. An effective poison was developed to "control" lamprey populations, but it was too late for the trout. An east coast herring had also sneaked in, and here they were called alewives. They had boom-bust cycles that left millions or billions dead on the beaches.
  • Two species of salmon were introduced purposely to prey on alewives and also to provide sport fishermen some excitement. Nothing fights like a salmon.
  • Zebra and quagga mussels are just two of the invasive shellfish. Others are less troublesome, but there are dozens of them. A fish from Russia, the roundhead goby, also made its way over, and they prey on these mussels.
  • Another species related to lake trout can prey on gobies. It has become established and, while it doesn't have the fight of a salmon, is a fun catch and good eating.
  • The aforementioned fires, and not only on the Cuyahoga River.
  • Prior to the introduction of second- and third-level sewage treatment, when we lived there, Cleveland's "sewage treatment system" consisted of a big pipe five miles long that discharged right into the lake. Cleveland was not alone. Only when there was an offshore breeze was it sort of safe to swim off the beaches of Cedar Point. Onshore breezes could bring undigested turds ashore.
  • The Chicago Ship Canal siphons some of Lake Michigan into the Mississippi River watershed, also carrying away Chicago's sewage. St. Louis fought several lawsuits before Chicago was forced to quite literally clean up its act.
  • Envious eyes are frequently cast on "all that water", particularly during droughts, which by definition, happen about half the time in any particular place! A city, county or state gets used to fully using the available water in good years, then goes crying for alternatives to fill the gap when things are more "normal". Climate change may make the great lakes even wetter, but the extremes from driest to wettest are likely to be greater than now, and it will just establish a new baseline.
  • Dredging and blasting for ship channels between Huron and Erie has led the level of Lake Huron to decrease by a couple of feet. The "new" channel bottom is softer than the old, and eroding fast. The drawdown will certainly increase.

As long as the stewardship of such resources is in the hands of people who have to run for election every two to four to six years, things can't get much better. Political decision makers have a short memory.

This book is as fascinating as any novel. Sometimes I found myself saying, "What??" Each generation finds a new way to make things worse. The lakes are resilient. They can recover, slowly, to a new ecological balance, if allowed to do so. But we don't have much capacity to leave things alone.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A hard read, but a necessary one

kw: book reviews, sociology, race relations, polemics

After I finished reading this book, I gave myself a couple of days to think it over. Professor and minister Michael Eric Dyson confronts whiteness and white privilege in a way nobody else has dared to do, in Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. And, being about as white as they come, of course I knew it is directed at me. This is the only way to properly receive a sermon. If you are there to hear (or read) it, God has arranged it: It is for you.

So I thought it over. I remembered a few things.

I remembered a lovely young woman I took on just one date. This was in the Los Angeles area, in 1967, and I couldn't tell if she was Hispanic or what. When I picked her up, though, I saw that her father was black, though he stayed in another room, probably hoping he would not be seen. It didn't matter to me. She and I had a nice time. On the way to take her home in Altadena, it was raining a little and I was stopped for speeding. The policeman was matter-of-fact, I was very quietly polite, and he decided not to ticket me. As we drove off, though, I did notice she was looking at me like I was from Mars. The reason didn't occur to me until decades later…

What did occur to me was to wonder what might happen if I continued to date her and my parents met her. Mom from Arkansas. Dad from Missouri, whose sweet mother called Brazil nuts "Nigger toes". Sheesh! They had got all up in arms when I dated a Catholic girl. What about a "black" one (even if she didn't look particularly black)?

Twenty years later: I remembered living next door to a black family, a couple a few years older than we were, in Oklahoma. They were living "north of the tracks", in our neighborhood because they couldn't stomach the "black culture" at the other end of town. But it had a long reach. Their two boys, both in their twenties, were into gang culture, and their daughter was a cocaine addict who stole from us a couple of times. Still, we hung out with them once in a while, though some of our neighbors would kid us about eating too much watermelon.

I thought about other things, but it is better to think about Dr. Dyson and what he has to say. In plain fact, according to his own experience, and experiences of his family, all very well-educated people, America is still two nations, one white, one black. Hispanics and other "people of color" are largely ignored outside of their own enclaves, and don't seem to belong to either nation. But Black America is an occupied country. Plain and simple.

When I am stopped while driving, I always know what I did wrong. I stay in my car. The policeman is calm and matter-of-fact, and whether I get a ticket or not, the encounter lasts no more than ten minutes. When a visibly black person is stopped, it is a different world. The driver has seldom violated any law he or she knows about: more than half the time the stop is for DWB, "Driving While Black". The policeman is at best stern, usually loud, and issues sharp commands. The driver, and sometimes all the people in the car, is frequently told to get out of the car, hands up, and to "assume the position", with hands on the hood, legs spread. All too often, a ticket is issued for some trumped-up reason the driver knows is false. The car is frequently searched, and if even a trace of marijuana is found, everyone gets at the very least a night in jail. It easily escalates from there. All the car's occupants are praying, "Lord, let me go home alive." In about 250 cases in 2016, somebody whose only offense at the time was "being black while breathing" wound up dead. One is bad enough; five per week is appalling!

Dr. Dyson is a skilled preacher. He goes straight for the heart. It is the heart of America that is sick, particularly White America. We don't have to be racist to get racist results. We benefit from a system that was rigged in our favor generations ago, and the "civil rights movement" has hardly made a dent in that. Sure, in most places the "white sheets" are no longer seen, but the "white environment" still eases the way for the non-colored, and holds back all the rest, with varying degrees of rigor.

Where does the rubber hit the road? What is the bottom line? Dr. Dyson's book is in the form of a worship service, but I suspect you've never been to a service this soul-searching. But you ought to. It is like eating your vegetables; it is good for you. If you say you don't see "white privilege", it is just a kind of institutional blindness. Let the book open your eyes. But what to do? The "Benediction" part of the "church service" is subtitled "R.E.S.P.O.N.S.I.V.E." It would rankle you if I spell out these ten words. Read the book and see. These are actionable items, and they directly touch on the responsibility every so-called "white" person has for the state of our two-country national culture.

I'll keep to myself the things I can do or have done, because to do otherwise would be grandstanding. I am humbled by Dr. Dyson's honesty.

I use the term "polemic" in the keywords advisedly; a sermon is polemical. The "sermon" in this book is a polemic in the most positive sense.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Presenting CWWN v11 - The Present Testimony (4)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

This volume of The Collected Works of Watchman Nee contains the last part of the letters and articles by Watchman Nee published in The Present Testimony from October 1933 to August 1934. The articles include parts five through seven of "The New Covenant"; classic teaching by Nee such as "The Meekest Man", about the life and labors of Moses, "Living by Faith", about how God prepares us for a life that is steady in spite of circumstance, and "A Shallow Life", where he expounds the Parable of the Soils (which begins, "The sower went forth to sow") in a most searching and personal way.

A great portion of Watchman Nee's teaching is devoted to training young Christian workers, both those who might become elders and those who might engage in apostolic (missionary) work. After reading "Ministering to the House or to God?", a young and eager Christian might be forgiven for thinking he or she can never come up to the standard. And, of course, that is the point. Only Christ can minister to His church; our most pressing responsibility is to learn to "live Christ", based on Galatians 2:20, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me."

The closing portion of the book is "Questions Related to the Workers", not from The Present Testimony, but the contents of a talk delivered in January 1934. This was not a Q&A session, but is instead full answers to the ten most frequent and most crucial questions he had heard over and over from young workers. I consider this message an excellent "warm up" for reading his book, The Character of the Lord's Worker, published in 1948 and the subject of a (much) later portion of this series of posts.

The volume concludes with a Table of Contents for all 36 issues of The Present Testimony.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Russian spiders redux

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

When I was setting up a new post yesterday I noticed that someone(s) in Russia is/are at it again:

The new activity began about 10:00 AM EDT on May 7. That would be 5:00 PM Moscow time or (more likely) 9:00 PM in Novosibirsk…and also 2:00 AM on May 8 in Kamchatka. Hmm. The time zone where it was midnight is VLAT, in Vladivostok. It is entirely possible that a timed trigger was set for 0000 hours somewhere near there.

Last I checked, Russia is still my primary "customer". I expect them to subside again in a day or two. Oh, well. As I've said before, this is an annoyance, because with the (now usual) American spider logging about 200 hits per day, scattered throughout my blog, and the occasional Russian activity that reaches several hundred per day, I don't have much idea how many genuine readers this blog has. Even though I write primarily for my own enjoyment, it is still nice to be noticed.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

A snail family and a photo experiment

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

A few weeks ago I finished a project to clean up the data for all of the specimen lots of freshwater snails at the Delaware Museum of Natural History. We loaded almost 10,000 data records to the new database product, and linked them to the InvertEBase site (the link opens the Collections page; we are #3). Then I began working my way through the land snails (called terrestrial gastropods in most literature, and they include tree snails). The Curator and I decided to work taxonomic family by family, or in groups of related families, working with about 1,000-2,000 records at a time.

The two great groups of terrestrial gastropods are the Pulmonates (infraclass Pulmonata of class Gastropoda) and the Operculates (in class Caenogastropoda along with many freshwater and marine species). "Pulmonate" means they have a lung; "Operculate" means they have a small, separate shell with which they can block the aperture of their main shell when they pull inside, and this allows them to survive periods of dryness and also blocks most predators.

The majority of land snail families are Pulmonates, so we began with the family Ellobiidae and two related families, Carychiidae and Amphibolidae. Digging into current taxonomic research, I found that the family Carychiidae is now a subfamily of Ellobiidae, and is now named Carychiinae. I also found that, while a few species in family Amphibolidae are terrestrial, most are marine, and our collection contained only marine species. Nonetheless, having extracted the records, I proceeded with both families, dealing with 75 lots of Amphibolidae and 1,236 lots of Ellobiidae.

It is instructive to survey the family Ellobiidae, which tend to have a certain appearance no matter what environment they inhabit. Some genera are all terrestrial, some are all marine, a few genera are estuarine (adapted to brackish water), and others contain species found in various habitats.

We'll first look at Ellobium chinense (Pfeiffer, 1856). Lawrence Pfeiffer originally described the species under the name Auricula chinense, thus the parentheses around his citation, indicating the reclassification of the genus.

These are medium-sized, up to 3 cm long and 1.4 cm wide, and rather ovate or cigar-shaped. In the closeup below notice the small lump on the inner lip of the aperture. The apertures of nearly all species in this family are variously decorated, probably depending on the kinds of predators these snails encounter.

The genus Ellobium is primarily Asian, and this species occurs in Japan.

Here we have another strictly terrestrial species, Pythia pantherina (A. Adams, 1851). Though the genus of this species has been changed to Pythia, I don't have information what its earlier name was. (Scarabus) on the older label indicates a subgenus, now no longer used.

Shells of this genus have the most elaborate dentition in the aperture, which indicates they have more severe predation at the aperture, probably by birds. Such a wiggly aperture allows the soft-bodied snail to emerge and crawl about, but prohibits entry to all but the slenderest of bird beaks. Other predators have other ways in: see the shell at lower left in the closeup, with two tiny pinholes in its lower left area (I didn't notice them until I looked at the closeup). They are from a predatory drilling snail, which uses its abrasive radula (sort of like a tongue with tiny teeth) to scrape a hole through the shell. It then injects a nerve poison. The animal inside relaxes, and enough of it extrudes through the wiggly aperture that the predator can either dismember it in place or pull it out to be consumed.

The genus Pythia is found throughout the Indo-Pacific region, typically on mangrove roots above the high tide line, and a little further inland. These specimens, six of the eleven in this lot, are from the Sulu Archipelago of the Philippines.

The third species of interest is Auriculastra subula (Quoy & Gaimard, 1832); the genus was formerly Auricula. These are quite small, seldom exceeding 1 cm in length.

The closeup below shows a single tooth in the aperture on the inner lip, simlar to the Ellobium specimens above. This is an estuarine species, found on mangroves in tidal marshes. It is not fully marine and cannot tolerate ocean water for any length of time.

The genus Auriculastra occurs throughout the Indo-Pacific and South Pacific. These are from Fiji. They show more wear than the prior two species, indicating that they get roughed up in the sandy lagoons, probably during the frequent storms.

The fourth and final species is Ovatella algerica (Bourguignat, 1864), originally called Alexia algerica. These are very small, just a bit bigger than those called "minute", seldom exceeding 0.6 cm in length. Note, however that like the others they have the ovate/cigar shape characteristic of the family.

The closeup shows that they also have small teeth, in this case two of them, partially blocking the aperture. These are 8 of the 20 in this lot. The original label also shows a better example for future shell collectors than the other three: the town, the beach ("Quarry Beach" in Las Palmas), and the country, plus the month and year of collecting. Is lacks only the collector's name. I am not sure why an earlier version of the database placed these in Argentina, but I am glad it has been corrected ("Argentina" on the oldest label is in someone else's handwriting. The handwritten correction on the older DMNH label is from the 1990's.)

These species are found near-shore Europe and north Africa. Their habitats are fully marine to salt marsh. The Canary Islands are offshore from north-western Africa.

The photographic experiment I mention in the title is a matter of spacing for the sake of good focus. The typical way to photograph museum mollusk specimens is to arrange the specimens on black velvet, velveteen, or (as in 3 of the 4 cases above) on black felt, and then to arrange the labels and the scale indicator around them. But even the small shells of these Ovatella specimens have a significant thickness when being photographed close-up. One may either focus on the upper surface of one of the shells, or on the labels, with the consequence that the other will be a little out of focus. One way around that is to use a lens aperture of f/8 or f/11 for greater depth of field. I tried something different.

I cut a number of small pieces of corrugated cardboard, either 3/4" x 2" (2x5 cm) or 1/2" x 1.5" (1.3x3.5 cm). I put these under the labels to bring them up to a plane close to the tops of the shells. In the case of the Ellobium specimens above, it took three thicknesses of cardboard, and you can see the spacers under the smallest label in that photo and the first photo of the Pythia specimens. It worked very well! Everything I want to see is in good focus, using f/4 to f/5. I was also using a +2 closeup lens on my camera's 18-105 mm zoom lens.

With the camera back fixed at 24" (60 cm) above the table top, I used focal lengths of 36 mm and 105 mm. I used a spot focus just below the top of a central shell in each group for the autofocus to work with, and I am pleased with the results.

Each of the original images was cropped, and the color levels clipped to remove the grayness the camera allowed in the black background, and the gamma and saturation were adjusted so the colors in the image matched the colors of the shells. The images above are all re-sized to 1620x1080 pixels, so you can click on them to get images that fill most screens. I also used just a little bit of Unsharp Masking to emphasize the shell decorations, also to make the images look more "eyeball true". My Nikon camera under-sharpens its images, which I like. I usually prefer its usual, softer look, but when I want to sharpen back to "normal", UM is the most versatile way of doing so.

Finally, although felt is cheaper than velvet, the clean, smooth blackness of genuine velvet makes for much better final images, as can be seen by comparing the first two images with the other six.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Not a book for the squeamish

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, biology, microbiology, microbiome, microbes

Anyone who pays attention to at least a little news of science should know by now that 9/10 of the cells in our bodies are bacterial cells, primarily in the gut (intestines plus stomach). The human colon in particular is packed with them. They are tiny, but 80-100 trillion bacterial cells take up a volume of about one pint, or ½L, and weigh a pound or so (half a kilo). They comprise a significant percentage of our feces. They multiply rapidly enough that their numbers don't diminish.

But there are numerous bacteria on our skins also, in the millions. As Ed Yong writes near the end of I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, shaking someone's hand is to exchange microbes with them. Certain germophobes who know this will not shake hands. One man I know keeps a bottle of Purell in his pocket and uses it frequently. But maybe the situation is not quite so dire as folks like him think it is.

Numerous experiments that produced germ-free mice, rats, and other animals have shown that the animals cannot develop normally, and have shorter lives, compared to their "dirtier" species-mates. Bacteria and viruses were around for something like two billion years before larger organisms arose, starting with protozoans ("protists" to most systematic biologists now). Symbiosis between critters of a whole range of sizes has been the rule for the ensuing 1.5-2 billion years.

When a human child is born "naturally", that is, through the vagina, it picks up a cocktail of symbiotic bacteria—hundreds to thousands of species—that immediately begin to cover the infant's skin and fill its innards. And this is good! The mother's milk contains hundreds of special compounds that the infant itself cannot digest, but that feed the bacteria within, ensuring that the baby's development will be normal and its immune system will operate properly. As long as the mother is not desperately infected during delivery, the "Mom germs" are good germs, and the immune system takes them for "our guys". Babies delivered by C-section and/or fed only "formula" (germ-free cocktails that rather badly imitate the nutritional composition of human milk) are not going to develop as they would have, nor have as robust an immune system.

This is ubiquitous throughout the animal kingdom. The "body" of any animal, from a nematode 1mm long to an elephant or whale, is covered and filled with enormous numbers of microbes, and most of those are at worst neutral, and usually beneficial. There are foods animals (us included) cannot digest without them. There are amino acids a vegetarian cannot get in sufficient abundance from food, but effective amounts are supplied by internal microbes. Microbes ensure the survival of pandas, which would otherwise starve on a bamboo-only diet.

There are five kinds of microbes:

  1. The smallest are viruses, and are typically a few tens to a few hundreds of nanometers in size. Most viruses in our environment, and in us, prey on bacteria, or form symbioses with them so they can be properly symbiotic with us. Such "bacteriophages" are probably mis-named. "Bacteriophage" means "bacteria eater", and while many of them do invade bacteria and destroy them, others live with the bacteria, within them, and cause them to produce biomolecules that are useful to the bacteria or to their animal hosts.
  2. Bacteria are the next largest, from half a micron to several microns in size. Now that genetic tools can be used to take a proper census, it is found that there are hundreds to thousands more species of bacteria than we ever thought, when we were confined to knowledge of those that could be cultured in the lab and peered at with microscopes. But the concept of "species" is a little slippery with bacteria. They have a "sideways sex" operation called conjugation, by which even rather widely unrelated kinds can exchange genetic material. This is how antibiotic resistance can spread not just through a population of, for example, Salmonella, but through the whole microbiome of which they are a part. Bacteria are also called "prokaryotes", meaning their genetic material is not found in a nucleus, but is spread throughout the cell.
  3. Archaea are similar in size range to bacteria but are a different kingdom, very different. Many of them are extremophiles, living best at temperatures near or even above the boiling point of water, or in very salty water. Their relationships and history with animals is very poorly known. These are also prokaryotes.
  4. Fungi range from the very tiny, slightly larger than bacteria, to enormous. The ones of interest in the context of this book are primarily single-celled for most of their life cycle, but they have a nucleated cell, and are thus called "eukaryotes". Nearly all life big enough to see without a microscope is composed of eukaryotic cells.
  5. Protists, or protozoa, are eukaryotes that used to be considered either one-celled plants if they had chlorophyll, or one-celled animals if they didn't. All can move about, so they seem to be on the boundary between plant and animal kingdoms, and are now considered a kingdom of their own. The critters that help both cattle and termites digest cellulose are protists. They could not live without them.

The book discusses numerous research programs aimed at finding out just how widespread these mutualisms are. Mutualism is often a better word then symbiosis, because the latter implies a more positive, almost meaningfully positive, relationship. A deeper look shows that animal bodies all have systems for keeping their "inner critters" where they will do good, and keeping them out of the circulatory system or the bodies of cells, where they are more likely to do harm. Indeed, septicemia is a serious failure of such systems, in which bacteria are allowed into tissues or blood, and can quickly lead to death. When we do die, whatever our cause of death, it results in these systems collapsing, and our bodies are invaded and devoured by our inner symbionts, unless we are soon embalmed.

As a result of much recent research, it is becoming apparent that pathological behavior is comparatively rare, and is usually short-lived (ending in either death or cure), while mutualistic relationships are life-long, numerous, and range from innocuous to very beneficial for us.

Some bacteria have become very general in application, across entire phyla. The best example is Wolbachia, which can strongly influence the reproductive behavior of insects. It also tailors their internal microbiome, allowing some microbes and disallowing others. It is found in specimens of more than half the species of insect in which it has been sought. It has the potential to be a great friend to us: research going on as we speak is aimed at using a strain of Wolbachia as a symbiont in Aedes mosquitos, making it impossible for them to harbor the dengue virus, while also giving Wolbachia-carrying female mosquitoes a reproductive edge. This incredibly painful disease infects millions annually. What a blessing if dengue could be wiped out! Early tests show that this might come to pass in as little as a decade or two. Research is also going on to work a similar miracle with mosquitoes that carry malaria.

Mr. Yong strove in his writing to avoid sounding like a pro-germ cheerleader. Our understanding is growing rapidly, and must remain balanced. We have for a century or so treated all bacteria as evil denizens to be extinguished at every opportunity. We need a more nuanced response. Widespread use of antibiotics can make the microbiome in many of us quite dysfunctional, leading to further problems, that we try to cure with more medicines. A fecal microbe transplant (FMT) might have done the job right the first time. So far, the only condition that FMT is known to usually cure is infection with Clostridium difficile (C-diff). And why does someone get C-diff to start with? Aggressive treatment with antibiotic, which cleans out the gut, allowing the C-diff bacteria a fertile field to colonize. As FMT and other probiotic methods become better understood, it may be that we will one day cure many of our ills by taking a microbe-laden pill that is designed to scoot through our stomach and release its payload in the intestine, where it might re-formulate the mix of critters in there to drive out the problem microbes and strengthen the immune system, all at once.

I have touched on just a tiny few of the matters raised in the book. It is well worth the read. Unless, of course, you are such a germophobe that the very idea gives you the willies! Then, maybe it would be best to make the book a gift for your physician, with strict instructions not to tell you what goes into your treatment in the future.