Monday, June 18, 2018

Seeing half the birds — and more

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, bird watching, birding, obsessions, travelogues

Everybody collects something…or several somethings. Collections of small things are most popular because the collections don't take much space. A collection of 50,000 postage stamps takes up a few cubic feet; 10,000 worldwide coins would be of a similar size. These days, if one foregoes printing photos and putting them in albums, a collection of tens of thousands of high-resolution photos will fit on a single 64- or 128-Gbyte SD Card.

At the other end of the spectrum, H. F. du Pont, defining what it means to be filthy rich, collected salons. Not just "rooms", but the very large rooms used for large scale entertaining, complete with all furnishings, from 175 American mansions at his "home" in Greenville, Delaware, now known as the Winterthur Museum. A typical tour at Winterthur takes up to two hours to show just five of the rooms. I wonder whether many of the rooms have ever been toured; I don't think they have nearly enough unique tours.

Bird watching, bird listing, and other facets of "birding" can take up very little space, if one collects mainly memories. Just seeing and getting to know the habits of a few or a few dozen—or a few hundred—species of bird is very rewarding to many people. Lists can be made of the birds that visit your yard or neighborhood, or a certain town, county, state or country. Or the whole world.

Noah Strycker decided to take a whack at the all-time one-year record list of world birds by planning to see at least one-half of all species of bird in one year. 365 days. There is more than one "official" list of all species (biologists differ on a few percent of species, whether they are truly one species or more than one). Anyway, the number of known bird species in 2014 was roughly 10,500, so Noah set out to see at least 5,025 if possible, and possibly more. He traveled upwards of 40,000 miles, spent time in 41 countries in all seven continents, at a cost of about $60,000.

Just to get ready, he had to collect as many bird handbooks as possible. This photo shows the stack. Its volume is greater tha most stamp or coin collections…and that's just his prep work. How did he carry it with him? He scanned every page and stored them in his phone. It must have taken months! My guess is that the stack represents about 20,000 pages. I hope he had several backup copies, including one "in the cloud" in case his phone was lost, stolen, smashed by a Cassowary or whatever.

As chronicled in his book Birding Without Borders, An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World, he eventually saw, including verification by other bird enthusiasts that were with him, 6,042 species of birds. The prior record for a year's quest had been about 2/3 of that.

Creating such a world record is amazing in itself. To Noah, it was secondary to the memories of the birds, the stories about many of them as told by local birders who helped him along the way, and the relationships he built with literally hundreds of bird enthusiasts in every one of the 41 countries.

I had a vague thought of putting a lot of photos in this post. But I took Noah's example; he didn't put many photos in the book. Just 22. So I'll confine myself to just one more picture, of the world's most famous bird, a Giant Antpitta in Ecuador, that one of his new-found friends, Angel Pax, had half-tamed so visiting birders would actually get a chance to see one of the shyest bird species.

Birding Without Borders is astonishing. For one thing, Noah had much less trouble overall than he or anyone else would have any right to expect. When you share an obsessive fascination with people around the world, and you call on them for help, stand back! you're going to get help. Many of the local birders who accompanied Noah went out of their way to show him the rarest species they knew how to find, while keeping in mind the pace he had to maintain.

Just to see 6,000+ birds in 365 days requires a pace of 16-17 new species every single day. Since there are bound to be a few unfavorable days, and Noah even had a couple of "zero" days, seeing 30-40 birds on some days is practically a requirement. This is hyper-endurance marathon stuff.

The reading is much more enjoyable than running a marathon (at least for me, with my poor joints!). I consider portions of this book to be micro-biographies of a few dozen of the wonderful people Noah met all around the world. There's a lot of good stuff packed into this book.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Sing for your supper - er - survival

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space aliens, first contact, singing, competitions

Well, after a few serious books in a row, I was ready for some mindless escapism. Boy, did I find that! Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente is about the silliest bit of SF I've come across, yet based on an idea worth thinking about.

Scenario: When the aliens arrive, they arrive to everyone at once. By some kind of projection, a bizarre-looking alien being visits every single human on Earth, wherever they happen to be at the time, and converses with everyone individually (only much later in the book is there just a hint about translation technology). After various amounts of time for the human involved to get over the shock, the discussion gets serious (as serious as anything gets in this book): One human person or group is to be entered into a Galactic singing contest, to determine if humans are sentient. It turns out that "sentience" is not so self-evident as we'd like to think.

According to the Esca, the species chosen to "recruit" a human singing group, all entrants in the song festival are ranked, including any newcomers (in this case, humans). If a newcomer winds up ranked dead last, the species is indeed "Dead Last": the entire species is to be exterminated and the planetary biosphere will be given another few million years to evolve a new, purportedly sentient, species. Rinse, Dry, Repeat as necessary. The Esca were the most recent species to "enter" the contest, and are quite proud that they came in Eighth, rather than something like Seventy-Fourth, or whatever Dead Last would be. The proven sentient beings of the Galaxy have decided that the extinction of an occasional species is the price to be paid for the peace-promoting songfest. It succeeded "Galactic War X", after all.

To give you an idea of the hyper-enthusiasm of language Ms Valente, here is the description of the leading member of the Absolute Zeroes, the group that is taken a few thousand light-years to the competition venue, a certain Mr. Decibel Jones (né Danesh Jalo):
…a leggy psychedelic ambidextrous omnisexual gendersplat glitterpunk financially punch-drunk ethnically ambiguous glamrock messiah…
The prose reminds me of teachers of the art of composition, who advised us, "Use more adjectives!" This book is about 2/3 adjectives, frequently in sentences that run 100-200 words. Sentences full of immense enthusiasm. Also full of neologisms. Amazingly, newly coined words seem to fit into the text around them and practically define themselves. Other than the occasional jarring bit of potty-mouth, prose like that just washes over me like perfumed olive oil.

The concept is actually based on a real bit of history, though "last place" in a certain global competition does not result in anyone's being exterminated.

I don't know if I could call this escapism at its best, but it is certainly escapism of a most compelling sort.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Geology on the habitable edge

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, geology, plate tectonics

A formative experience of mine took place in a wilderness area north of Twenty Lake Basin in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The second session of Summer Field Camp was held there, for six weeks. What could we accomplish there that could not be done in the suburbs? To do geology you have to go where the rocks are…that is, where it is easy to get to the rocks. Where I live, near the Pennsylvania-Delaware border, you'd typically have to dig or drill 50-100 feet to find anything approaching "rock" as we know it: The Columbia Formation consists of loose to poorly consolidated (that is, cemented) sand with sparse fossils of Cretaceous dinosaur bone. You need to go a lot deeper to get to actual "bedrock".

Thus, a dozen other Geology students and I spent half a summer in high mountains, among lovely scenery, because the bedrock, mostly granite and limestone, was right there at the surface. We could walk up to it and hammer off chunks to take back to the "library" tent and study. We were interested in the intersection between the limestone and the granite, studying "cooked" rocks called skarn.

To study bigger problems you need to go to places even more remote. In A Wilder Time: Notes From a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice, William E. Glassley weaves a narrative of discovery around four field seasons, each about a month long, along the Arfersiorfik Fjord in western Greenland. The camp area is at or near the little white arrow I placed at the middle of this image. The map pin is on Tunertooq Island, where significant evidence was discovered by the author and his colleagues.

He and two colleagues were working to gather evidence that the area had been a continental suture in the deep past, around two billion years ago. The deformed rocks in the area look very similar to other areas of mountain-building, but are so much older that some geologists wonder if it is possible. The short answer is, "hard rocks", what we call igneous and metamorphic rocks, form primarily when continents collide and thrust softer materials ("soft rocks" such as sandstone and limestone) deep into the crust and mantle. They are later brought to the surface by various mechanisms of plate tectonics, where erosion eventually exposes them.

Plate tectonics describes the movements of the crust of the Earth over time. The "plates" are large portions of crust, including thicker continental crust and thinner oceanic crust; there are 8 major plates and about 20 smaller ones. They are in constant motion, but the rates are slow and imperceptible without instruments: 10cm/year or less, averaging 4-5 cm/year. That is just slightly faster than the rate fingernails grow. But give it time: If the Earth had only two continents, and they had separated some time in the past and were moving first away from one another, at a rate of 5cm/yr each, but later toward another as they each circled halfway 'round, how long would it take until they collided? This is equivalent to asking how long it would take one continent to circle the Earth at a rate of 10 cm/yr. The circumference of Earth, 40,000 km, is 4 billion cm, so the time would be 400 million years. That implies that the crust beneath the oceans is formed and then consumed on a time span of a few hundred million years. Indeed, the oldest sections of oceanic crust are no more than 200 million years old (except for a small portion of older crust, ~300 million years of age, that was preserved in the Mediterranean basin).

New material is added to the oceanic crust of tectonic plates at divergent margins, AKA mid-ocean ridges. Iceland rides atop one of these ridges, which is why it is so volcanic. Where plates move toward one another, one or the other will be pushed downward and (mostly) consumed into the mantle beneath. Such convergent margins are also volcanic, such as the "ring of fire" around the Pacific Ocean. The volcanic activity is evidence of the energies involved in the convergence. Where the convergence brings together two major continents, you get mountain uplift. The Himalayas are still growing as India presses into the Eurasian plate. In the roots of mountain belts, remnants of the collided plates, including bits of oceanic crust, remain to mark the suture zone.

Greenland, where you can get to the rocks (most of it is under a mile or more of ice), has large areas of strongly folded rock, similar to that seen in the Alps, the Himalayas, and the Rockies. These are understood to mark the continental collisions that produce each mountain chain. The Appalachian mountains, including the area shown here in central Pennsylvania, are understood to be the roots of a mountain chain that stood tall 300 million years ago, but is now eroded to these remnants. By comparison, the Rocky Mountains were formed during the Laramide orogeny, between 80 and about 40 million years ago; the Alps began forming about 65 million years ago, and the process is presently winding down; and the Himilayas began forming about 40 million years ago. Each such mountain range has buried beneath it a suture zone where two continents collided.

The folded rocks in western Greenland are about 2,000 million (2 billion) years old. There is still some controversy among geologists about whether plate tectonics operated that early, or if it did, whether it worked the same way as it has in the past half billion years or so.

When I was a graduate student of Geology in the early 1980's, in one class we were asked how we would determine whether plate tectonics had operated in the early Precambrian, prior to about 1.2 billion years ago. I didn't do well on the assignment, and received my only C grade. Dr. Grassley and his Danish colleagues would have received an A+. They not only figured out how to do so, they went and did it, though it took a couple of decades. I think it no spoiler to report that the field seasons described in A Wilder Time led to a much better understanding that the Arfersiorfik Fjord area does indeed include a continental suture zone.

The book is in three parts, describing first the breaking down of old concepts, then accepting ignorance and becoming open to new ideas, and finally the beginnings of integration as a broader understanding emerges. The author stresses several times that our biology constrains us to awareness of only a tiny fraction of what the Universe has to offer. We "see" within one octave of a span of nearly infinite radiative wavelengths; we hear a wider range of sound frequencies, but most animals can hear sounds we cannot; we can bear only a narrow range of temperatures without severe damage; and so forth.

I was doubly compelled and fascinated by the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the geological material, of course. Even more, the author writes with a rare lyric intensity. He sparsely limns the emotions and impressions evoked by the harsh landscape. And sometimes it is not so harsh. One day he knelt and lay flat, to see the outline of a ptarmigan and her chicks hiding in plain sight atop the tundra:
I was suddenly awash in layers of sweet flower scents. As I rested lightly on the surface, the smell of dozens of blossoms I hadn't noticed engulfed me. Arctic poppy and white Arctic bell-heather were interspersed among mountain sorrel, hairy lousewort, purple saxifrage, and mountain avens. I was awash in a botanical sea, carried into an unexpected world.
Upon arising, he found none of the scents could be discerned more than a few inches above. He realized that the bird and her young would live among these scents:
A world of perfumes would cloak the hatchlings and saturate their feathers, becoming a sensory background to the birds' accumulating experience of living…
If "poets" who like to write free verse could write it like Dr. Glassley, I'd read more free verse.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

The short life of the most famous wolf

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, wolves, yellowstone

A wolf in the wild seldom lives more than nine years. The wolf called O-Six, so named because she was born in 2006, lived less than seven years, though she was very healthy, with several good years left in her, when a hunter killed her late in 2012.

American Wolf: The True Store of Survival and Obsession in the West, by Nate Blakeslee, outlines the life of O-Six, the wolves in her pack, and other wolves and wildlife that filled the landscape of the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone Park where she lived. Partly because she was big, bigger even than most male wolves; partly because she was such a skilled hunter she could fell an elk all by herself; partly because she was wilfully ignorant of the humans that dotted the road and ridge tops around her; and mainly because she was a consummate survivor in a species that is known for toughness and surviving: she became the most famous wolf in America, perhaps in the world. Her fame brought more tourists to Yellowstone, just to see the wolves, and particularly to see O-Six, which wasn't really that hard, with Rick McIntyre helping out (the book is partly a biography of Rick).

Many people love wolves. Many people hate them. Neither stance is entirely rational. But the obsession that puzzles me most is that of the "sport hunter", whether the game sought is a deer, an elk, a wolf, or a bear (or a fish or a duck or goose). If you are using a rifle that can kill any creature on earth from a distance of 100-500 yards, there is no sport in it at all. As I have said before, the word "sport" implies a certain fairness or equity. If there is no chance that your target can retaliate, perhaps by taking your life before you take his or hers, that is not a sport. If you hunt for food, well and good. Hunt for your needs. If you hunt for fun, I pity you.

Y'wanna be a real sport? Go after a deer with a knife and a loincloth. You're allowed to carry a bottle of water. Going for wolf or bear, or perhaps an elk? OK, I'll permit you to carry two knives, one to distract the animal while you try to extract its life with the other. Even the Masai way of going after a lion with a knife and spear is heavily weighted against the lion. But, hunters, I don't hate you. I just don't understand why you are obsessed with killing.

I slowed down my normal hectic reading pace and savored the book. The author writes compelling prose, and has stories to tell that are worth taking in with care. O-Six was an amazing animal. She outwitted rival wolves and rival packs when it seemed she had no chance to survive. She and her mate guided a growing pack through numerous dangers, to thrive. And for the wolf-haters out there, the final bit of storytelling by the man who killed O-Six is an eye-opener. After he shot her, her mate ran off. The man went to collect her body, because he was required to bring the carcass to the wildlife office to register his kill against his license. As he stood over her body, her mate returned and howled, then one by one, her whole pack came. All eleven of them. They ignored the man. They sat in a loose arc around the body and began to howl. They went on for some time. The hunter backed away, safely returned to his truck, and drove off. The next morning, he returned to take the body to the wildlife office. Other than humans, the only other animals I know of that communally mourn their dead are elephants.

The book is bittersweet. The return of wolves to Yellowstone Park has re-balanced the ecosystem there. The Park is no longer overrun with elk. The kinds of plants that grow have changed. More beavers dam the streams, making habitat for a host of species. The drawbacks? Hunters may not always get an easy shot at an elk; they have to do more work to "fill their license." (Boo hoo!) Some domestic animals get taken by wolves, though the Park Service compensates them. The news storm that followed the shooting of O-Six resulted in laws changing; in my opinion, for the better. Why does someone or something famous usually have to die before the public does what is right?

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Taxonomy is alive but not well

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, naturalists, taxonomy, systematics, natural history, africa, african setting

Environmental stewardship is one of this generation's signature issues, but nearly nobody, from the Boomers (my generation) and the X-generation to the Millennials, knows what is needed to make it work. From a few sources I compiled this list of environmental concerns, in order of importance:

  1. Climate Change
  2. Species Conservation
  3. Mining
  4. Nuclear
  5. Pesticides
  6. Pollution
  7. Population
  8. Waste

These overlap quite a bit, of course, but it is rather tragic that, while Species Conservation is the second-most important issue, support for the fundamental, naturalistic studies needed has been drying up, year after year, decade after decade.

Questions: (1) How can we care for the species on this planet if we don't know what they are? (2) Do we already know enough so we can set public policies to mitigate (dare I say eliminate) extinctions that we are causing?

Answers: (1) We can't, even a little bit; and (2) No, not even close: we don't even know what most of them are.

Dr. Eli Greenbaum is a front-line soldier of species knowledge, one of a totally insufficient cadre of naturalists and taxonomists who actually gather the specimens held in museums and describe them for publication and further study. He and others like him gather and communicate the knowledge needed to actually perform Species Conservation. You need to know what you have if you expect to keep it or care for it!

An old fable, much abbreviated:
Two brothers inherited their parents' farm. The older brother did most of the work while the younger brother preferred to party. But soon there was a war and the older brother was called to serve as a soldier. He left the care of the farm to his younger brother, with the demand that the farm continue to prosper until his return, "Or I will demand an accounting of you!" The younger brother said nice things to his older brother, but continued to party and ignore the care of the farm. After a few months, he got a letter from his brother, stating that he hoped to return after another month, and repeating his warning and threat. The young man went to the bank to check on the finances, and was shocked to discover that very little money remained. He went to the barns and found that hardly anything was stored against the coming winter. In a panic, he took a gold doubloon to the village witch to ask for help. "My brother will kill me if he returns and the farm is in such a mess!" he told her. She went to a back room and returned with a small wooden chest, saying, "This and my advice are worth only half a doubloon." She gave him some silver pieces in change, and then said, "See the hole in the top of the chest? It contains enchanted dust. You must go to each corner of the farm, and to the middle of each building, and shake out a few grains of this dust, every day. Then your farm will begin to prosper. But do not open the chest." The young man returned to the farm and set out on his task. In a back corner of the land he found a farm hand napping next to a broken portion of fence he was supposed to be mending. The young man kicked him awake and demanded that he finish his work. In another spot, two men were playing cards. He set them to their tasks and took the cards away. In the barn he noticed the messy stalls, so he called another hand and together they cleaned them and put in fresh hay against the animals' return. And so his day went. Day after day he continued, and the farm began to prosper. The promised month came and went, as did more months. His brother never returned. After a few years, the farm was prospering indeed, and he took a wife. When he was very old and dying, he asked his wife to bring him the magic chest. He said, "I was told not to open this, but after I die, that will not matter. Please help me open it. I want to see what is inside." They forced the lock and opened the chest. Inside they found just a remaining ounce or two of desert sand.
I think you can draw the appropriate conclusion.

In his book Emerald Labyrinth: A Scientist's Adventures in the Jungles of the Congo, Eli Greenbaum chronicles two of his early field seasons (2008, 2009) in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of The Congo, once called Belgian Congo, and later, Zaire. Dr. Greenbaum is a herpetologist, one who studies snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, salamanders and toads. He describes his experiences in the Congo, where he photographed and collected a broad range of "herps", as such animals are colloquially called. His studies expanded knowledge of the geographic range of many species, particularly of frogs, and resulted in the discovery of several new species. He worked with a Congolese herpetologist, Chifundera Kusamba (AKA "Chif"), several other colleagues, and a variable crew of porters and guides, visiting some of the remotest areas of eastern Congo.

The chapters contain alternating sections of the author's experiences and historical narrative. Congo does not have a pretty history. Yet, because of the sheer difficulty of travel, large sections are still, well, not exactly pristine, but in better shape than much of Africa, environmentally. But it is not exactly a paradise.

Being a naturalist is difficult. In past generations, a naturalist had to be an artist, drawing from life the things being collected, because once a specimen makes it back to the laboratory, even a local lab in the same country, it has changed a lot, usually from being preserved in alcohol or formalin. Formalin is not used any more; it destroys DNA and is dangerous to handle. Even drying an insect changes it; many beautifully-colored beetles turn black soon after death, for example. While artistic skill is still very useful, now we have digital photography and memory cards that can hold thousands of images, even in larger formats (In the 35mm days, even up to the late 1990's, a day of serious shooting could consume about ten rolls of film).

Secondly, a naturalist must be a scholar in a chosen discipline (and pretty good in several others). What is the difference between an expert and a scholar? An expert has a wealth of useful knowledge of a subject. A scholar knows everything that is known about that subject. This is what is needed to be able to recognize if that yellow-spotted, blue-bellied frog in your hand is a new species, or a familiar species in a habitat from which it was not recorded before.

Thirdly, a naturalist must have the strength and energy of a triathlete and a superior immune system. In places like the Congo, you will get sick and clinics are scarce. Dr. Greenbaum suffered two rounds of malaria and one of typhoid fever, in addition to stings by venomous ants (of a variety that can kill) and a number of other diseases and afflictions. His colleagues in Africa would kid him about coming from America in a rather pudgy condition (in contrast to their whip-thin physiques). That would soon change. But he records unflinchingly that he was frequently the slowest climber and needed others to wait for him.

Fourthly, a naturalist needs sponsorship. Traveling to places that are hard to reach is costly. Not just in gasoline, repair parts for vehicles, and food and lodging: Keeping good will with the locals frequently requires giving small gifts, treating a village to a beer party, and other social expenses. It appears that actual bribery was hardly ever needed.

There was the added complication of the civil war among at least four rebel groups and the tatters of a national government. It takes more than documents with official-looking stamps and signatures on them to allay the suspicion of a militia commander. The crew were lucky as often as they were politically skillful, just to stay alive.

With all that, I want to return to the question of taxonomy and systematics. These two words are formally synonyms, and both refer to the classification of items and hierarchical structure of the classification system. But they differ in usage. Taxonomy describes determining how a specimen is classified; in biology this means assigning a binomial species designation such as Tyrannosaurus rex, Homo sapiens, or Turdus migratorius (the American Robin). When describing a new species, it means not only assigning it to the right Genus (the first word of the binomial), but possibly deciding that a new Genus is to be described, and into which Family it is to be placed. The original binomials were Latin words and compounds, but the language had too few words for the millions of species, so "Latinized" words of many languages are pressed into service, as are names of people one might wish to honor. For example, the author and his colleagues named a new species of lizard Congolacerta asukului: "Lacerta" is Latin for "lizard", and Asukulu was a helper on the expeditions who was murdered by a militia group later on. Tacking an "i" to Asukulu's name "Latinized" it.

Systematics describes the maintenance of the taxonomic structure, and is typically concerned with "everything from Family on up". Thus, the complete "branch" to which we humans belong is
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Primates
  • Suborder: Haplorhini
  • Infraorder: Simiiformes
  • Family: Hominidae
  • Subfamily: Homininae
  • Tribe: Hominini
  • Genus: Homo
  • Species: H. sapiens
  • Binomial: Homo sapiens
The six classification levels in bold are those originally set up in 1758. Other sub-classifications have been set up since, and this continues, particularly as DNA studies allow ever-finer relationships to be discerned. In my work at the Delaware Museum of Natural History, the Collections Manager and I are continually confronted with changes such as splitting a Family into several (and assigning which Genus goes in which Family), or re-assigning a species to a different Genus. At least, in the realm of land and tree snails in which I am presently working: these critters have been the subject of intensive work at many museums for 10-20 years.

There are at present about 1.4 million species that have been described. Estimates of the number of species still unknown, just of "animals and plants big enough to see", range from 10 million to 100 million. There may be even more species of microscopic protozoa, algae and fungi; and then bacteria and archaea ("germs" to most folks) are still very little known in comparison to what is likely "out there".

By one estimate the author quotes, it will take more than 600 years of work by half a million naturalists to fully describe all life on Earth. But Species Conservation has to be carried out now, or there will be a whole lot fewer species to describe. There are thousands of naturalists, but we need tens or hundreds of thousands...and the funding to support them. That is what it takes to put "magic dust" on every corner of the farm we call Earth.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A Doctor tells it like it is

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, alternative medicine, hype, advice

As much as I appreciate doctors and nurses, I am rather skeptical of over-confident physicians. However, I am even more skeptical about medical claims, veiled or otherwise, for "alternative" and "non-traditional" remedies and treatments. It is ironic that, in the earlier times when physicians had few useful techniques and fewer genuine remedies, phony doctors seem to have been rather scarce. Since the modern era of "miracle drugs" and effective vaccination, starting around 1800, the "snake oil salesman" became a fixture of Western culture; ironically, genuine Chinese oil of water snake is a pretty good liniment for sore muscles and joints. But the "patent medicines" of the American West…you'd be better off drinking some clean water! . . . and rubbing fish oil or olive oil into sore joints.

Hype, medical and otherwise, got a huge boost with the invention of the World Wide Web, as a service offered over the Internet, after 1993 ushered in the first browser, Mosaic. That is 25 years of rampant self-publishing of everything imaginable. According to an old proverb, the Devil will tell you the truth seven times to prepare you to believe one lie. Many Web pundits don't bother with the seven truths; it is just lie, lie, lie, preying on the gullible. Caveat emptor was never needed more than now!

Hype: A Doctor's Guide to Medical Myths, Exaggerated Claims, and Bad Advice—How to Tell What's Real and What's Not, by Nina Shapiro, M.D. and Kristin Loberg, takes a series of bold swipes at the whole enterprise of online medical quackery, misinformation, and tomfoolery. I had high hopes when I began the book, and those hopes were largely met. Dr. Shapiro knows her stuff, and it is told well.

Do you fear Ebola more than bees? The number of people in the U.S. who die of bee stings ranges from 75 to 85 yearly. Worldwide, it is hard to determine, but it is perhaps twenty times that, maybe 1,500 or so. In the U.S., there have been 11 cases of Ebola, with 2 deaths. Total. Of course, in central Africa, there have been thousands who died of Ebola, 11,000 by one measure. Both bee stings and Ebola pale in the face of the most dangerous thing most of us do every day: ride or drive a car. Safety technology has cut the number of auto-related deaths in half during my lifetime, but in the U.S., the number is still about 40,000 each year, and worldwide, it exceeds 1.2 million. For comparison, the most dangerous insect, the Anopheles mosquito, spreads malaria, which kills nearly half a million yearly (though very few in the U.S.). So worldwide, autos are almost three times as dangerous as malaria!

Another fun subject. Juicing. It is enjoying a resurgence. About 40 years ago, some folks put all kinds of stuff in juicers, and a friend of mine broke his juicer trying to extract the juice from wheat grass. So, you cut up carrots, fruits, and other stuff and extract the juice. What do you get? Tasty (maybe!) water with some vitamins and whatever phytochemicals survive the juicer. What don't you get? Any of the fiber, which is the main benefit of the fruits and vegetables!

Turn your juicer into a museum piece, and just eat an apple, including the skin. If you peel the skin you are throwing away most of the pectin, which is a major ingredient in Kaopectate, a diarrhea medicine. The pectin is behind the proverb, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away". Eat an apple without skin and you are more likely to have a runny B.M. Eat it with the skin, and you probably won't.

More fears: Formaldehyde and Mercury in vaccines. Guess what? If, during your first 18 years you received the usual schedule of 25-30 vaccinations, you received about half the formaldehyde you would consume by eating a single pear! Also, your body makes formaldehyde all the time. In some of those vaccinations, there was also a little bit of mercury in the preservative. How much? About the amount in two tuna sandwiches, if you use Albacore tuna, or four sandwiches made from "light chunk" tuna. There's even less mercury in salmon, so if you want to avoid mercury, eat salmon instead of tuna! And there is even less than that in Tilapia!! My wife and I happen to like fish, so even though we usually go for low-mercury varieties, we probably consume more mercury each year than we received from all our vaccinations (and those we still get, such as the Flu vaccine).

There is advice about detecting hype, though it will be hard for most of us to carry it out. When we are looking for medical information, we are usually worried about something, and thus more prone to believe almost anything that sounds plausible and is presented with an air of authority. At a time that we most need our critical facilities, they are weakest. Every day we read or hear or view ads about medications, some legitimate and some that are really just nostrums. (Def: nostrum. A medicine with unrevealed components, prepared by a private party or non-professional, that is claimed to "cure" ailments that "ordinary" medicines cannot treat.) Some, such as a recent rash of "T-boosters" ("T" is the current euphemism for testosterone), can actually deliver some of the results promised, but they also deliver results that are not mentioned.

To speak of "side effects" is too mild. Boosting testosterone in a man will indeed allow him to grow bigger muscles through exercise, it will indeed make him more "passionate" (that is, lustful), and it will also greatly increase his risk for heart disease and cancer. The ads don't mention that last item or two, do they? Nor do they mention the shorter fuse of any testosterone-addled male at any age. Why are teens so impulsive? Because they have twice the "T" level that they'll have just 10-20 years later. Guess what? The reduction of hormone levels in most men is not only normal, but beneficial, helping them live longer. In fact, one big drawback of too much "T" is the tendency to be accident prone because of increased impulsiveness. And trust me, most women don't want a man who is as randy as a bull elk in rut; things get a lot better when a man learns to slow down.

Here is my take-away as the #1 hype detector: If the beginning of the pitch is selling fear or dread, stop right there. Salesmanship comes in two varieties. One variety is to say, "If you have this need, here is a solution." The other says, "You have a big problem; in fact you could have several big, big problems, but this stuff will make them all go away." And here is my personal rule of thumb: If a company can afford frequent TV ads about their product, its price is much too high. On principle, I keep track of TV-advertised medicines and avoid them. So far, I think I've only had to violate that principle once.

Doctors can come across as stodgy and not so fun. Dr. Shapiro, with the help of her co-author, keeps a smile on your face as you learn a thing or two about keeping your health and your finances intact.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Science Fiction gets up to speed

kw: book reviews, science fiction, anthologies, victorian era, collections

I grew up reading Victorian-era science fiction and semi-fantastic fiction. Tales by Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling and others of the era filled my imagination. Upon reading Frankenstein Dreams: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Science Fiction, edited by Michael Sims, I find myself amused at my reaction to language that now seems stilted and wordy. Such writing was the magic carpet of my imagination in my pre-teens and teens.

This nGram chart shows a trend that explains much of it:

From Project Gutenberg I downloaded the text to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne. About 0.73% of the words are "which" (~770/106,000). His style of writing (or the English translation thereof) was entirely typical of the first half of the 1800's.

In the early 1900's Ernest Hemingway went on a "which hunt" in his writing, practically eliminated coordinating clauses, and transformed English language style. The Old Man and the Sea, ¼ as long as 20,000 Leagues, contains just 13 instances of "which", or 0.05%. As the chart shows, most writers of the late Twentieth Century, though their writing is briefer than Victorian-era writing, still use "which" about five times as much as Hemingway did.

Syntax and style aside, when the ideas are compelling, I am still drawn along, and thoroughly enjoy the story. The book introduced me to a dozen writers of the era that I hadn't heard of before. I find a few just too boring, but Grant Allen ("The Thames Valley Catastrophe") and E. Nesbit ("The Five Senses"), in particular, produced compelling writing to clothe their unique ideas.

The collection shows the roots of the several sub-genres of science fiction. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was not the first tale of scientific hubris and its penalty, but it is easily the keystone of the genre. By the way, I suspect nearly everyone has seen the Hollywood version of Frankenstein, with a nearly mute, grunting "monster", but how many know that most of the book is written as the narrative of the creature to its creator, Victor Frankenstein? Similarly, while early movies about Tarzan have Johnny Weismuller saying little more than "Me Tarzan, you Jane", the Tarzan of the book (Lord Greystoke) was a very literate, multi-lingual sophisticate. But that's the trouble with early fiction. The narrators and characters are wordy and even erudite, and if scriptwriters put in all the authors' dialogue, a typical Tarzan flick would last 4-5 hours.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

First contact - with AI

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space travel, space aliens, artificial intelligence

Considering recent titles by Ben Bova, I figure that his new novel Survival is one of a series, probably the second or third. Very generally, humans have been contacted by a starfaring machine culture that they call the Predecessors, an altruistic one that is attempting to contact as many planet-bound cultures as they can, to help them prepare to survive a "Death Wave" that is spreading from the galactic core. Periodic cataclysms there emit enormous waves of gamma radiation that scour all the planets in a galaxy of organic life, and also any "machine life" that is insufficiently hardened against the radiation.

Much of the dramatic tension in the book, aside from a couple of love stories, concerns the contrast between the Predecessors and another machine culture on a planet about 2,000 light-years toward the galactic center from Earth, dubbed the Survivors. The Survivors are not altruistic. They are motivated only by a drive to survive that was built into them by the organic beings that first created them and then perished in an earlier death wave. A human ship sent to warn the Survivors is held captive by them. They do not wish to receive such help, having survived prior death waves, and they are supremely indifferent to the fate of the organic life on their planet, even though they had a hand in preserving remnants of earlier biospheres, and re-instating them.

It would give away too much to describe more of the plot. Of course, this would not be a Ben Bova novel if the humans didn't find a way to influence the Survivors.

I am interested in decision making, by men and machines. A number of psychological and sociological studies in the past couple of decades have demonstrated that an emotionless, Spock-like hyper-logical being would actually be crippled when it came to deciding between competing alternatives. People who have suffered injuries that disconnect their intellect from their emotions, or that destroy their emotional centers, are incapable of making decisions. It seems that we need the ability to like or even love one thing more than another. Emotion is not contrary to logic, but in some way amplifies it.

We were, or at least my generation was, taught that our brains evolved in layers, with an entirely reactive "reptile brain" or even "fish brain" overlain by an emotional "rat brain", all wrapped in a cerebral cortex, the "higher brain" in which free will, creativity and intelligence resides. Further, if we learned a smidgen of endocrinology, we find that emotion is a largely bodily function, mediated by hormones and other small molecules that motivate us, or its opposite, in response to many kinds of stimuli. The reality is not all that simple. Disconnect the cortex from the inner layers, and reasoning spins along without having any "hooks" to pick one alternative over another.

The "modern" (50-70 years) efforts to create Artificial Intelligence (AI) comprise two branches. The engineering branch includes various attempts to replicate human reason by finding all the rules we follow. The "poster child" for this branch is the Expert System, much touted 20-30 years ago. Its best-known example was the Caduceus System for medical diagnosis. It was supposed to be able to ask a doctor or patient a series of questions and then produce a differential diagnosis of any condition. It could eventually diagnose about 1,000 conditions, a small fraction of the total. As is typical of the field of AI in general, it had a few dramatic successes amidst a great number of equivocal results and a large mass of failures.

The heuristic branch of AI includes neural nets and machine learning systems. A neural net is a framework that is thought to (very roughly) represent natural networks of neurons, and while it can be implemented in hardware, it is most often emulated by software running on a multi-core processor. A machine learning system can be based on a neural net, or on other technologies that are being tried on a rather empirical basis, almost trial-and-error. The Watson system, which won a round of Jeopardy against two very talented men, is the current exemplar. I doesn't make the news much these days. It cost billions to develop, and a number of applications (besides winning game shows) are still being developed. It has been 7 years since the Jeopardy event. So far as I can find out, its main strength is parsing and answering questions posed in natural language, presumably orally, and it is mainly being used for decision support in the treatment of lung cancer.

Many of us now encounter AI in the form of Siri, Alexa, Cortana or a few other voice avatars of our smart phones and "thing in the den" systems. They can indeed parse our vocalizations into text, and then the "big computer in the cloud" can come up with an answer for us. A few years ago a short article in the endpapers of Scientific American touted a machine system that supposedly exceeded the human brain in processing speed and memory capacity. Just a bit of miniaturization is needed before such a "machine brain" can be installed in Robby the Robot, however: the system requires a 9 megawatt power plant to support the electronics and the cooling systems, and fills a warehouse. Can we expect technology to advance until such a system is lunch-pail size and runs of a lithium battery? Can Moore's Law (very roughly: capacity tends to double about every 2 years) deal with this?

Wouldn't you know it, Moore's Law ended about 15 years ago with the development of CPU cores (because more than one CPU is now put on a chip) that run in the 3-4 GHz range. That has been the limit. I built the PC I am using about 8 years ago, to be a middle-of-the-road desktop system. It is still a middle-of-the-road system. In the 1980's a machine with this level of compute power was called a supercomputer. Today's supercomputers are enormous arrays of 4 GHz multicore processors running special software so they can effectively communicate and thus break up a complex process into numerous subprocesses. Had Moore's Law continued from 2005 until today, a single-core processor running at a clock speed close to 1 THz would be the basis of most systems (and phones, etc.), and a large chip holding up to 1,024 cores would form the basis of supercomputers that would fit in a filing cabinet-size unit, consuming no more than a few hundred watts.

Will quantum computing re-start Moore's Law where it left off? So far, it is a great deal harder to take advantage of quantum coherence and decoherence than anybody predicted in the 1990's when "quantum computing" was coined. Without that, however, we have little hope of developing a "machine brain" to rival the mammalian brain for its combination of size and capacity.

And we still have no clue how to even define consciousness, let alone reproduce it. Every SciFi story about artificial consciousness either finesses it with "it just happened when we put together enough circuits", or doesn't try to describe its workings at all. Based on the studies mentioned earlier, a big component of consciousness is our emotional response system(s). We really don't understand that, and until we do, it may be impossible to develop a Watson-like "decision support system" into an effective "decision system".

Still, a well-told tale of how we might interact with any machine civilizations out there is a welcome diversion from the "organic" aliens we usually encounter. It gets the brain cells working in a new direction or two...a good thing.

Friday, May 11, 2018

How soon would you like your future to arrive?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, futuristics, forecasting

OK, so where are the flying cars? Well, junior airmen everywhere, the first commercial one recently went on sale! For a mere $400,000 or so, you can own a brand-new Aeromobile. More upscale models range up to $1.6 million. Oh, you said, an air car for all of us? That could take some time. In the meantime, you just need two licenses, drivers' and pilots', and the financing, and an air car can be yours. I wonder where you'll be permitted to use it, with anything like the same freedom you use an automobile?

I remember a brief fad of building one's own ground-effects machine ("hovercraft"). I wanted to do so, though I was about 15, and I was doing all kinds of design and planning. But I wasn't planning on earning the money required…funny how the teen brain works. I mean, I had a spare lawnmower engine, with maybe 3 hp. A typical design found in, for example, Popular Mechanics, needed 10 hp, and used a chain saw engine. I talked to my dad about it. He had a practical point: "Why use all that energy keeping yourself off the ground, when four wheels will do it without burning any gas at all?" First nail in that coffin. More would follow.

Fast-forward half a century or so. Everything has a cost-benefit analysis associated with it. What is the benefit of a flying car? Usually, not much. If there is no road between the Point A where you are, and the Point B you want to get to, then maybe it can get you there, as long as the place has a pretty good landing strip (the Aeromobile and its kin cannot land straight down). But you can get a helicopter ride to the same place for a lot less than 400 grand, and you don't need your own pilot license. So, besides the cachet of having a really fancy toy, there isn't much benefit to the flying car. Not even if it cost a "mere" $100,000.

I just had a lot of fun reading Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything, by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith. Zach is the cartoonist of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal; Kelly is a faculty member at Rice University. They discuss ten "emerging technologies" in various states of emergence (and just a few others in an added chapter). Of the ten, the first two have to do with space, "Cheap Access to Space" and "Asteroid Mining". The cheapest way to get things off the Earth, like, a few thousand miles off the earth, is with a "space elevator", if you ignore sunk cost. The price to lift a kilo of stuff to orbit is presently around $10,000. Incremental cost could go as low as a few dollars. However, add the amortized price of the elevator, it would be a lot higher. How high? I haven't seen a credible projection, and neither have the Weinersmiths. Because (1) we don't yet have materials strong enough to build it, and (2) whenever we do have them, the construction cost will be greater than the total budget of all the nations of Earth for a century or so. That is a lot to amortize!

Hmmm. OK, suppose the cost is, in today's US dollars, 100 Trillion. If we gave everyone on Earth a joyride to geostationary orbit and back for, say, $1,000, and the population was 10 billion, that would only pay of the first 10% of it. Charge $10,000, and now you have it. Of course, 90% of the people on Earth can't afford even a $1,000 joy ride that would likely take about a week. And how many people could you run up-and-down the space elevator each week? How long would those 10 billion joy rides take? I'll leave further speculation and calculation to you. Trust me, people are being born faster than you can send them up and down any practically-sized space elevator.

The Weinersmiths take a great combination of lots of information and a stiff dose of humor to deal with their ten subjects. Augmented Reality, for example. A really good system would allow you to live in a single room some 20 feet on a side, that could appear as any room you want to be in, in the eyes of your AR system. That, and some Programmable Matter (a different chapter) to be instant furniture and various implements, and you could live almost any kind of life you like. Though it seems to me a lot like prison, just with better views and a bunch of cool "instant toys". Then there's the "outside" kind of Augmented Reality, where you can know everything about whatever you see using the heads-up displays in your contact lens or whatever: I foresee people at first being totally enamored at knowing everything there is to know about every random tree or building or animal or person they see, for, say, an hour or two. Or maybe ten minutes. Then overload kicks in, and they'd quit making whatever "hey, look this up" gesture or command they've been using and get on with life.

Precision Medicine seems a good thing. I hope it works out. You get your DNA tested and find out which things will cause what side effect, and if you are lucky, treatment Zed will have no noticeable side effects, for you. Maybe. I wonder, though, at the cost of medicine so utterly focused that a new drug has to be developed just for you, for anything that happens to you. How many people will find out they aren't really well-suited to using almost any actual treatment on the market? Of course, you probably knew that already. After all, that's why everything you try has side effects; if you can live with them, fine, you get cured or whatever, but you're scared to go through that again.

What will happen, and what won't? Who's to say? Nobody predicted that the first men to visit the Moon would do so on a color TV broadcast, watched all over the Earth. So at least some of the various ideas explored in Soonish are likely to come to pass. Whether we can afford any of them is another thing. And I had a kind of global realization: nearly none of this applies to the majority of the world outside the Euro-American sphere.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Spycraft for us all

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, do it yourself, spies, survival

Espionage is quite exciting to many people. My mother loved spy stories, the more sensational, the better. She had paperback copies of everything by John le Carré, Ian Fleming, and others. She did have sufficient self-control to wait for a book to be released in paperback; beyond that, she was rather compulsive about it!

This "hobby" of hers proved useful in an interesting, and sad, way a few years before she died. After the age of 60 she was afflicted with Alzheimer's Dementia, and it progressed steadily for the following 20 years until she died. She was in the hospital, having had a cancer operation. My brother went to see her, and before he got to her room he found her, in her hospital gown, sneaking out of the hospital. She had pulled out her IV and other tubes. If you don't already know, now is the time to learn it: Anyone with a tendency toward dementia gets delusional for a few days (or longer) after being anesthetized.

My brother asked Mom what was going on. She said, "I'm a prisoner here. They are trying to get me to tell secrets. So many questions!" He wisely jumped right into her world and said, "No, you are here to gather information. Your case worker cannot be seen in this facility, so I am the go-between." He led her back to her room and took the little note pad hospitals often supply like hotels do, saying, "Observe their comings and goings, and the things they ask you, and write it all down." I'll check with you daily and take your notes so you don't get caught with them. She was happy as a clam! She enjoyed her spy role for the next several days until she could be discharged and return home.

This is a good principle when we have delusional relatives. Constantly correcting them just annoys them, and is a significant reason that many become uncommunicative or stop speaking entirely. They don't live in the same world you do any more. Learn what makes them happy in their world, and foster that. Keep them happy, and keep them talking about things they like.

But we are here to talk about spycraft that can be applied to us all. Former CIA officer Jason Hanson has gathered many genuine spy stories (totally different from Hollywood or Fleming!), and uses them as the backdrop for very useful advice, in Survive Like a Spy. This is not his first book on the subject; a few years ago he produced Spy Secrets that can Save Your Life.

Do you think of a spy as a secretive, paranoid person, flitting through the shadows and occasionally fighting some enemy to the death? It is the job of spymasters the world over to minimize or eliminate such scenarios! I think of three lessons that I find important:

  1. A spy is very social. He or she makes friends everywhere. Spies tip well, but not ostentatiously, at hotels, restaurants, taxicabs. They cultivate every relationship, gaining credit with as many people as possible, because you never know who can help you out at a critical time. In one of the stories, an operative was at a social function where he was friendly with the host. He was tasked with protecting a brilliant scientist who could be subject to kidnap. Sure enough, he soon saw a few men there who were keeping very close watch over the scientist, obviously looking for a chance to apprehend him. The operative asked the host if he knew where those men's cars were parked; it wasn't hard to find out. Then he partly revealed his role and asked the host to order the cars to be towed away! Realizing the gravity of the situation, the host readily agreed. Soon an announcement was made that cars with such-and-such license numbers were being towed away, and the baddies abruptly left the party.
  2. Situational awareness is critical. You never know when a problem may erupt, anything from an argument to a fight to a bombing or gunfire. We hope we never see such things, but we sometimes have a sense that something is afoot. It is best to be observant, and if things seem "off", we shouldn't be shy about gently removing ourselves and those with us from the situation. I know it seems like a wet blanket to be always on alert when all you want to do is relax and have fun. But many times, getting a "spidey sense" that trouble is likely has led not only spies, but folks of all kinds, to "be elsewhere" when the trouble erupted. Also, and this ties into the former point, one story is of an officer who had just finished dinner, and the waiter nervously asked him if he wanted dessert. He began to demur, but the waiter urged him. So he ordered dessert, and then asked the waiter if there was a reason for his jitteriness. The waiter leaned close and told him that another waiter had gone out to tell local muggers that there was a well-to-do American who might soon leave the restaurant. He was kept from being mugged by being observant of the waiter's "spidey sense".
  3. Learn if you are being followed by planning a surveillance detection route (SDR). It is good to know several ways to get home (or anywhere else you go frequently), and to vary them, as randomly as you can. It is equally good to be aware of who might be following you. This is harder on foot than when driving, because your car has rear-view mirrors. If any car seems to follow you through more than two turns, make the next turn away from your destination, particularly if it is an illogical direction. If the car follows, then you need to know the location of the nearest police facility and go there. That is safer than trying to "shake the tail", which is harder than you think. My parents went to a good restaurant in a sketchy part of Los Angeles; they were in their seventies. They drove straight home and parked in the driveway. Mom got out to get the mail and Dad was getting his keys ready to open the door of the house. A car pulled up and a young man with a gun jumped out and told them, "Stick it up!" They both began screaming and Mom threw the mail at him. He got flustered and left. That won't always work! Had they taken a more "scenic" drive home, the situation may not have happened at all. When walking, it is good to know the area, and to purposely stop in to this or that boutique or café, particularly because turning to go in a door gives you a chance to look behind you without seeming obvious. There are a lot of added tips in the book, including knowing a safe "hunker down" site where you can wait out a tail. This can take hours.

Many of us lead remarkably safe lives…but not all. And we don't all stay in the safest areas all the time. It is not paranoia to understand that there are people out there who really might have it in for us. We do well to remember the Scout Motto, "Be Prepared." We may never need to use spy skills to survive, but learning them is interesting and can save us trouble, and perhaps save our life.

By the way, I learned a little more: A CIA officer is called an "operative", not an "agent. An agent is the foreign national that an operative cultivates into a source of information that is needed by the U.S. government. In official communications, an agent is also usually called an "asset", but is not the only kind of (human) asset.

Also, while we are on the subject, human intelligence (HUMINT) is usually the most reliable, but there are many others. The internet opens up several new ones. One symptom of that is this kind of statistical page that Google supplies, which I check from time to time to see if the Russians are watching. Hi, Russkies! I see you seeing me. I hope you are having fun! I wonder if they show up in the CNN or Huff Post blog statistics…or if those folks even care.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Half Čapek, half Rabbi Leow, part Shelley, and a smidgen of Stoker

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, robots, golems, automata

Since history began people have dreamed of creating beings like ourselves but from inanimate materials. Equally, myths such as Atlantis, drawn upon by Plato among others, belong to a genre of "The First Men", godlike beings that preceded humanity, or were perhaps our ancestors. Putting all these strains together in one well-written narrative is no mean feat, but in The Clockwork Dynasty, Daniel H. Wilson has pulled it off. The slipcover of the book indicates a Steampunk fantasy, but this is much more.

Peter, or Pyotr, is not a man; his sister Elena is no woman. They are Avtomat, automatons, built long ago and restored by a Russian mechanician. Much of the book follows them in chapters alternating between the 1900's and the 1700's, when they were (re)activated. Later in the book, the flashback chapters land us in about 3,000 BC, when an Avtomat was sheathed in articulated porcelain, much like a golem. Also like a golem, their motivating core, called an anima, embodies a Word; Peter's is pravda (justice), though it eventually turns out to be a much older word of the same meaning. Since that early period, they have taken advantage of improved technology to house their machinery in better "shells".

An Avtomat is faster and stronger than a human—otherwise, what's the use of their production?—and roughly equally intelligent, though perhaps not any wiser. The word "anima" is Latin for "soul", also "breath" or "breeze", and "animal" is derived from Latin for "that which breathes". In The Clockwork Dynasty, though, the anima is much more. It contains the Word and is also the power source of the entire mechanism.

So I'll leave the plot of the story—including wars between rival Avtomat factions over a 5,000-year time span—for the reader to enjoy. In fact, I suggest you read the book first, before reading further in this, because the rest isn't really about the book at all. It's a wonderful book, but it prompted a riff on my part about the energy that is needed by a self-contained robot or Avtomat.

The power needed to run a human body

The "standard" dietary requirement found on most food packaging refers to a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet. Digging around in various resources about basal metabolism, we find that people in the ordinary range of weights need from 1,700 to 2,400 cal/day. At any weight, men need a little more than women. These "calories" are, to a physicist, kilocalories (kCal). The key conversion factor needed is that 1 watt = 860 cal/hr = 0.86 kCal/hr. Over a day this comes to 20,640 cal or 20.64 kCal. Thus 2,000 kCal/day = 97 watts. The day's energy expenditure is thus above 2,300 watt-hours.

This is the standby energy we use because we are warm-blooded. This heat is generated by subtle twitching of all our skeletal muscles all the time, something termed "muscle tone". Animals that aren't warm-blooded, such as reptiles, have much lower energy needs, about 1/5 of what a mammal of similar size might need. And still, much of that is respiration of the living cells in the animal's body. What of a creature that doesn't respire, one that doesn't need to consume oxygen at all?

We may consider an Avtomat is akin to a laptop computer housed in a strong body, and lacking the energy-gobbling screen. Such a being, at rest, may consume no more than a watt or even a fraction of a watt. Of course, that is assuming the memory circuits use similar refreshing technology to that in a cell phone. Perhaps the "First Men" who devised these prehistoric robots had something better.

The energy of work

But when an Avtomat needs to walk, run, work, or fight, it will consume a great deal of energy. A mile walk consumes more than 80 kCal or almost 95 watt-hours. Running the same mile takes about 40% more energy. I remember the fad of the 50-mile hike of the 1960's. Such a hike takes roughly 4,000 kCal, tripling your dietary need that day. If you want to lose weight and be fit, that is a good beginning!

A friend who is a retired lumberjack told me that he and the men he worked with had to eat 8,000 calories daily (8,000 kCal). Subtract resting metabolism, and you find the work consumed about 6,000 kCal, or roughly 7,000 watt-hours. I don't know how much of that energy is consumed regenerating worn tissues, but we can figure that a robot lumberjack that operates similarly to a man will need about a one-horsepower power plant running during working hours.

That may not seem like much, until you consider holding such energy in a battery. Some of the most efficient electrical batteries currently in use are those in laptops and cell phones. A laptop battery weighing a few ounces can deliver about 65 watt-hours. You'd need more than 100 of them to run your robot lumberjack! And they would need recharging every day.

OK, now posit an Avtomat that began with a full charge in about 1700 AD and is still running today, over 300 years later. The anima is described as a device smaller than your hand. Even assuming such a robot isn't hard at work all the day, we're still looking at something over 100,000 days, at a few thousand watt-hours daily. "Only" one kWh/day means the anima has a capacity of at least 100 megawatt-hours. Let's move to physics momentarily: that comes to about a third of a trillion joules (0.36 trillion). Total annihilation of one gram of mass, according to Einstein's equation releases 90 trillion joules. So perhaps the anima begins as a container holding several milligrams of antimatter, plus machinery to meter it out in very tiny doses, and conversion of that energy to mechanical work at great efficiency so that poor Peter and Elena don't burn up during a hard run.

In case you'd rather consider chemical energy release, burning 1 liter of gasoline releases about 7,600 kCal, but only 1/3 of that is usable by the best "heat engines" we have been able to devise. So a liter of gasoline would be needed to run an Avtomat for a day or two, more if it was a lumberjack.

I think that has taken us far enough for now. I hope you read the book before reading this. Such thoughts might ruin the enjoyment of a well-written, page-turner of a narrative about ancient robots.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Star Wars - through other eyes

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, space opera, short stories

I must admit I like Star Trek more than Star Wars. As I recall, I saw only the first two episodes of Star Wars, now called Episodes 4 and 5. But that was enough for me to enjoy reading Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, a collection of 40 short stories celebrating 40 years since the first film was screened.

The stories each present the experience of a minor or side character in certain well known scenes, such as the Mos Eisley cantina or the attack on the Death Star…most of them. Some limn a scene between the scenes, such as "There is Another" by Gary D. Schmidt, in which Yoda learns he is to train one more Padawan, the one he is least willing to train. The more memorable scenes get stories from several points of view each.

The writing is excellent, though a bit hagiographic in places. I enjoyed every one of the 40 stories, a rare occurrence for me when I read a short story collection.

I think I enjoyed the stories more than I did the film, but had I not seen the film, I would have enjoyed the stories less. To various degrees, the stories can stand on their own, but it really requires familiarity with Episode 4 to understand what is going on.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Relativity from a photon's point of view

kw: musings, special relativity, physics

I am between books, catching up on journal reading. Something has arisen in my thoughts from time to time, and this is as good a time as any to solidify it a little. The question: If a photon had consciousness, what would it experience?

I have read in numerous books and articles that Albert Einstein began the mental journey that led to the special theory of relativity by imagining he could ride along with a photon. Reading his own writings, though, we find that he was really thinking of riding a very fast railway carriage, and seeing how this might affect the photon's motion. Based on the Michelson-Morely experiment and on theoretical work by Lorentz, Fitzgerald and others, he concluded that no matter what speed he attained, the photon would zip by at the same speed, the one we define as c, the "speed of light". Then, taking the constancy of c as an axiom, he derived the special theory of relativity.

Supposing the photon could be endowed with the ability to observe on its own, what would it observe? Based on a wealth of experimental data, we can discuss the "career" of a photon in three sections:
  1. Emission
  2. Propagation
  3. Absorption
Although we seldom think about the time it takes for a photon to be emitted, we can consider that the "wavicle" model implies a finite "size" that is similar to the wavelength, according to Feynman's probability-wave diagram (actually, when I saw Feynman draw this during a lecture, he only put in about 1½ or 2 cycles of the wave inside the envelope). Therefore, though we typically think of the emission as occuring "instantly"—if we think of it at all—it is reasonable to posit that it takes about the time required for one cycle to occur. In this discussion we will assume that everything occurs in a vacuum or near-vacuum, so that we don't need to consider refractive index or the reduction in the value of c within a material medium.

For a visible photon of wavelength 546.1 nm (the green Hg line), which has energy of 2.270 eV and a frequency of 549.0 THz, that emission might take 1.822x10-15 sec, or 1.822 fs (femtoseconds). We may also assume that absorption occurs in a similar amount of time.

This photon-observer needs to have quick reactions indeed to observe anything at all during such brief periods of time! Will it, then, have more leisure for observation during propagation? No! According to the special theory of relativity, no matter the physical length of its journey, the time experienced by the photon will be zero; it will be unable to observe its own propagation.

From the photon's point of view, whether the photon was emitted by an electron transition at one end of the lab, and absorbed by inducing a similar transition at the other end, or the photon was emitted billions of years ago in a galaxy far, far away and today happens to arrive and produce an electron transition in the CCD attached to yon telescope, its experience is the same: less than 2 fs of emission immediately followed by less than 2 fs of absorption, after which it exists no longer. To us, one photon "was there" for a few nanoseconds and the other, for billions of years. The "experience" of the two photons, however, was identical: be emitted/be absorbed.

That is it! A photon of green light can at most experience 3-4 fs of emission and absorption. The rest of the universe is irrelevant to it. For a photon to have a longer "career", from its point of view, it would have to have a longer wavelength, a lot longer! For example, the power grid leaks a lot of 60 Hz (ultra-low-frequency) radio waves, photons with a wavelength of about 50,000 km and photon energies of 4.1x10-15 eV. Such a photon might "experience" a time period of around 1/30 of a second. Pity the poor X-rays and gamma rays, with energies of thousands to millions, and even billions of eV! Their wavelengths are very short (from about a nanometer to a femtometer or less) and their frequencies are very high (from thousands to billions of THz). A one-billion-eV gamma ray photon is likely emitted in about 4 fs, and would most likely "experience" a total of less than 10-23 seconds of existence.

Had Einstein actually spent his time thinking like a photon, I doubt much would have come of it. But instead, he thought of a very fast railway carriage observing a photon, which is much more interesting, and led to much more interesting results.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Scoping out lamp spectra

kw: analytical projects, spectroscopy, photographs

Technical photography of biological subjects has its tricky aspects. An important one is the quality of the lights. This picture shows one setup I have used to avoid the use of the compact fluorescent lamps (CFL's) that were brought in to replace the incandescent flood lamps they had been using, but which burn out on a regular basis…and they are hot. CFL's have serious drawbacks for color photography, which we'll see later on.

The little blue lamps, wrapped in tissues, are "work lights" from Harbor Freight, with 18 small LED bulbs each. They have a pretty good spectrum (I'll point out a similar one below).

We have been considering a more quantitative approach, particular for photos of birds. Few mollusks have "interesting" colors, but nearly all birds do. Birds have an extra color sensor in their eyes and can see ultraviolet light, so it is also of interest to be able to photograph birds in UV light.

I decided to explore the various lamps available, not only for these reasons but a few extra ones. In recent years I used pieces cut from a page-size sample of diffraction grating, obtained from Edmund Scientific many years ago, to make two spectroscopes. One, about a foot long, is for handheld use, and another, about twice the size, is for use with a camera.

I originally made them to investigate which yellow lamp would be the best "bug light". Night-flying insects see UV even better than birds do, and many of them cannot see yellow or red light, and have low sensitivity even to green. The ideal bug light would have a cutoff in the yellow-green range, and would be rather orange. In order to keep people on your doorstep from looking too weird, all commercial bug lights include some green and look distinctly yellow.

This shows a test setup with the large spectroscope on my workbench, using a black light as the source. Not only does the camera "see" UV, it is also being overloaded by the bright blue and violet lines of mercury (Hg). That black light bulb is not nearly this bright to my eyes. The camera at the left is set back a little farther than usual; I usually use it with the front of the zoom lens about two inches from the grating, which is at the end of the white bell-shaped "front" of the spectroscope. The "slit" is currently a thin slot sawn into a PVC cap at the end where the lamp is.

Initial tests verified that the camera's sensor can record UV and that the lens passes it, and also that none of the lens elements is fluorescent (a problem with the lens of another camera I have!). I also learned that the "UV filter" I was sold with the camera does not block UV-A (longwave, or near-UV). It does block short-wave UV, that is UV-B and UV-C, pretty well. So I bought a better filter, a UV(0) filter from Hoya. Now to the recent batch of tests, summarized in this image, a screen shot from PowerPoint:

Depending on your monitor, this might be hard to read. To summarize, the top shows the spectrum of a "black light" CFL (a "party light"), at two exposures; the next 11 sets are at three exposures each. From the top, then, we have

  • two sets for different hues of fluorescent tube, 
  • two sets for incandescent bulbs, 
  • two sets for different hues of CFL, 
  • a yellow CFL "party light", 
  • two commercial "bug light" bulbs, and 
  • two sets for LED bulbs from different manufacturers; the spectrum of the work lights from Harbor Freight is a little bluer than the bottommost set.

Only the black light has a spectrum that includes a strong UV line at 365 nm. Most of the lamps have a cutoff near 420 nm, though a couple of the CFL's let through a little deeper blue and the UV line. The spectra of the CFL's show very strong lines with darkness in between, which is why these lamps have poor "color rendering", as it is called. LED's, as shown at the bottom, come the closest to mimicking the spectra of incandescent lamps.

My preliminary conclusions are (1) that for ordinary color photography, LED lamps are the best choice among the "non-incandescent" ones, and (2) to get good UV images we'll need to use black light CFL's, probably with a visible-blocking filter. It may also work to use UV LED flashlights like the ones used by TSA at airports, though they are a bit costly, because they don't produce any visible light.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Riding Mars Mania

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, planet mars, popular treatments

As large as the planet Mars looms in history and in the popular consciousness, a 250-page book can at best skim the surface of the many facets and subjects. This is as I expected when I began to read 4th Rock from the Sun: The Story of Mars, by Nicky Jenner.

The book is well written, and I found it enjoyable. I might have preferred the author to settle down to a smaller number of subjects, and to treat them in more depth. But that's just me. For those who have read little about Mars, this is a good introduction, covering history, science and popular culture. Also, with the chance to sign up (for a fee) to actually go there, albeit on a one-way trip with little chance of actually happening in this generation, some folks with Mars dreams but little knowledge could benefit from this book.

We have sent more spacecraft to Mars than any other "place" except the Moon. A useful Appendix lists them all, all 43 Mars missions by all nations, to date. That includes, of course, the USA and USSR (later Russia's Roscosmos), plus Japan, Europe's space agency, China and India.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The waxy snails

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

In the course of time I have come to a cabinet-and-a-half containing a couple of thousand lots of a family of snails (gastropods) named Cerionidae. Though there are four genera in the family, the Delaware Museum of Natural History holds members only of the type genus Cerion. The family was split out from a large family, Urocoptidae, by Henry A. Pilsbry in 1901. "Harry" Pilsbry spent much of his career at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where he described hundreds (thousands?) of new species.

This first photo is of the type species (of the type genus of the family Urocoptidae), Urocoptis cylindrus (Dillwyn, 1817). Lewis Dillwyn originally named this species Turbo cylindrus, using a genus name created by Carl Linnaeus in 1758, when he single-handedly invented biologic nomenclature. At the time these specimens were collected the species was considered of the genus Cylindrella, then was shifted again to the genus Urocoptis when the family Urocoptidae was set up. The family Urocoptidae contains many genera, and while many of the species are similar to this one, being cigar-shaped with a flaring aperture, they vary a lot around this gestalt.

The genus Cerion, pronounced "kerion" or "Syrian", from the Latin word cerea, meaning "waxy", was named by Peter Röding in 1798, based on his renaming of Turbo uva as Cerion uva (Linnaeus, 1758). The genus has just a handful of fully accepted species, but the DMNH collection contains representatives of more than 200 species, which have varying levels of acceptance among workers carrying on a decades-long reworking of land snail families. This photo shows two characteristics of many Cerion species: the off-white waxy color and the ribbing along the entire shell. The flared aperture is less pronounced than it is in most of the Urocoptidae. The following photos showcase three more Cerion species, chosen to illustrate the range of variation in the genus.

The photo below shows Cerion weinlandi (von Martens, 1860); Edward von Martens originally placed it in the genus Pupa. It does look like a pupa! I chose this species to illustrate the extreme of nearly absent ribbing. Also, while the background color tends to be waxy off-white, this species is one of many with color banding and mottling also.

Though this lot is labeled Ceriod dalli Maynard—publication date is probably 1889—it was renamed and included in the species Cerion rubicundum (Menke, 1829). I don't know what name Karl Menke originally gave it. The species name means "ruddy", and when the shells are fresh and moist, the brown markings are reddish-brown. I chose this species for its narrow ribbing.

Finally, Cerion marielinum Pilsbry, 1927 (the museum curator attributed the species to Carlos de la Torre, who had edited the journal in which Pilsbry published the description) is so named for its occurrence mainly near Mariel, Cuba. This species shows wider, more robust ribbing, and also has a ruddy background with the waxy white being confined to the tops of the ribs.

I chose the scale for these photos so that they would show the shells close to life-size on a 17-inch monitor. On my 22-inch monitor they are about 25% larger than life. Comparing the four Cerion species with Urocoptis cylindrus, there is certainly a resemblance. It is easy to see why the genus was originally put in the same family. However, details of their morphology, including not only the more pronounced ribbing, but also the smaller aperture and the small teeth inside the aperture, distinguish Cerionidae from Urocoptidae…at least for now! Biological naming is always a tug-of-war between "splitters" and "lumpers". In some mollusk families, large numbers of species have in recent years been combined into a relative handful of species, and this may soon result in the few hundred species of Cerion being lumped into a smaller number of species that are recognized as being rather variable.

Genetic studies and breeding studies are going on in parallel, and revealing more and more about the species and inter-species relationships of many animals, not just snails. But, you know, I just like opening a drawer full of shells once in a while to simply admire them.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The mistake collector

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, neurology, errors, consciousness

Oliver Sack's fifteenth, and last, book is The River of Consciousness. He died just two weeks after completing the design of the book, composed of his essays in various medical and popular publications. I first came across his books three years ago; this is the third of his that I've read and reviewed in that time. He may be best known to the public for The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which I have yet to read…but it is on my short list.

As any good clinical "brain worker", he collected mistakes. Freud with his "slips" may be the one we know the best for elucidating the shortcuts our mind and brain use, from certain mistakes that we make. I find Dr. Sacks to be the best at explaining the usefulness of the categories of our errors to us.

Not all the chapters in the book are explicitly about "useful errors". The chapter "Speed", for example, attacks questions such as, "Just how fast can we think?" and "What is it like to think a hundred times faster, or slower?" We all have heard of phenomena such as having one's life flash by in a moment during severe emergencies, or of becoming so absorbed in minutiae that hours can pass with hardly a ripple on our thoughts. Sundry drugs can affect our time sense: I once began to take a prescription drug for systemic fungus, and on the fourth day managed to work up enough ambition to phone my doctor to say, "I just realized that the wallpaper texture in my office is so interesting that I've been looking at it for four hours." He recommended that I stop taking it, and dropping by for a different prescription!

The chapter "The Creative Self" dwells much on the apparently unconscious problem-solving abilities we have (you can call it "right brain" but it is more involved than that). For much of my career as a systems programmer, I relied on it: Near the end of a work day I would often set up a structure in my mind, of the current algorithmic problem I faced, and sort of give it a mental push. I could usually expect to awaken at 3:00 AM with a flowchart "sitting there," ready for me to spool out into working code. From the dancing flames that Kekulé was watching when the structure of Benzene suddenly sprang to mind, to the introduction to Das Rheingold that Wagner had been struggling with, and which erupted into his consciousness while he took a hike to take a break, creative "flashes", while not too common, are well enough known to us all. They do not really denote lightning inspiration, but rather, they culminate a long and laborious fitting and re-fitting of ideas that goes on in the background; it seems almost independent of our conscious problem-solving, and usually quite linear, processes.

I was also quite taken with the chapter "Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science." The author digs into the lore of "ideas born before their time." It is usually the case that such ideas enter an arena that is already full of competing theories, and in particular, they usually incite the ire of numerous and powerful figures whose work is threatened thereby. My father used to say, "Really good ideas often have to take Moses's way: 40 years in the wilderness for a generation to die off." Sometimes it is more like a century or two! The most extreme example is that Archimedes seems to have invented calculus nearly 19 centuries before Liebnitz and Newton (re)formulated it.

Rather than comment on every chapter, I'll leave it to the reader to enjoy the book.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Biography of a friendship

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, celebrities, actors, friendships

This was a wildcard selection for me; I seldom read biographies. Hank & Jim, by Scott Eyman, was too alluring to pass up. It chronicles 50 years of friendship between Henry Fonda and James Stewart.

Henry Fonda and James Stewart were opposites in some important ways: politically left vs right; Fonda marrying five times (and finally getting it right) and Stewart taking his time and hitting a home run on the first try; Fonda never giving up his first love of live theater but Steward gravitating almost exclusively to film, where together they dominated for decades.

Their similarities were sufficient to sustain a friendship in which they didn't need to talk about what was different. In fact, they were both introverted and "lived inside" much of the time and could spend tons of time together with little said, if anything. They both got their start in The University Players, though at different times and didn't meet until later. They soon became roomies, along with a few other close friends, during their "starving artist" years. They loved model airplanes (these were not the punch-out-and-glue kits, but the sort that yielded a room full of balsa wood shavings and could make you dizzy with glue fumes). They both enlisted during WWII, Fonda in the Navy and Stewart in the Army Air Corps; both were considered war heroes, they weren't just pretty faces that hung around the base. Stewart, in particular, remained active in the Reserves for years thereafter, retiring as a Brigadier General.

The book is really a triple biography, one for each man, and one for their bond. They spent years apart but always stayed in communication. Stewart was particularly solicitous during Fonda's last days, though he wasn't present for his final moments. Trying to think of a way to encapsulate the impression the book made on me, I find myself tongue-tied (metaphorically; "finger-tangled?"). It is a bittersweet book.

I find a further similarity they shared: they managed to keep at least some of their private lives out of the limelight. I am not sure how possible that would be today, now that the paparazzi are so much more aggressive (and deadly at times!), and are getting drones. But perhaps a couple of expert radio-control airplane aficionados could playfully engage in homemade anti-drone warfare!

The book is far from the fare I typically favor, but was quite enjoyable anyway. Like trying a new and very different restaurant, I got a nice surprise.