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.