Tuesday, July 25, 2017

How tech is changing business

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, business, technology, artificial intelligence, trends

My, my, what a long time it took me to work my way through this book! It goes to show that I still have a poor mind for business. During the latter half of my career in IT, the managers and even some supervisors would speak of the "business reasons" for doing one thing or another. One day I asked a manager named Carol, "What is a 'business reason'?" She replied, "It's something people are willing to pay for." The thought had never entered my head. I have always done things for reasons such as "it is interesting", "it will make this or that task easier", "it does things in a more excellent way" and so forth. Getting paid was nice, but it wasn't my focus. When I heard a new company president speak of having a "passion for profits", I sent him an e-mail explaining how I had always had a passion for excellence, and that profits seemed always to follow. His response was so disturbing, revealing such abysmal blindness to everything I find meaningful, that I immediately sought work in a different company among the Dupont family of companies, and luckily found one within a few months.

I am not sure what I expected once I saw the cover of Machine Platform Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. Something more techie than what it delivered, certainly. But the authors' application of technological trends to present and future business was sufficiently appealing that I read it all.

The three words that begin the title emphasize the subjects of the book, which is a follow-on to their book The Second Machine Age. These words outline three dichotomous trends that are driving businesses:

  • Mind and Machine
  • Product and Platform
  • Core and Crowd

The trends are toward the right, and it is uncertain how far each will proceed. I debated with myself, whether to use "versus" rather than "and". But these pairs are not truly at odds; rather they are synergistic and supplementary to each other. For example, I built much of my career as a scientific programmer and systems analyst on discerning the appropriate tasks for the Machine to do, so as to free up people's Mind to do the things that we do better. From the beginning of the Computer Century (now about 70 years along), computational machinery has been called "mechanical brains", and the term "artificial intelligence" began to be applied even before ENIAC's tubes first lit up.

We now have pocket phones and nearly-affordable wristwatches that are millions of times as computationally powerful as ENIAC (this article includes notes on its speed of computation). But only within the past decade have "AI applications" begun to carry out tasks that are still – usually – done better by people and many animals. Many Sci-Fi stories bring us ideas of giant computers somehow becoming conscious more-or-less by accident (e.g., "Colossus" and "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress"). There is a reason for that. Nobody yet has the slightest idea how to define consciousness in any unambiguous way, and therefore, no idea how to write appropriate code to "do consciousness". To repeat myself, I define "genuine artificial intelligence" thus:
That a mechanism, electronic or electromechanical, carries out its own investigation, does its own research, and obtains a patent or at the very least has its patent application accepted by the U.S. Patent Office.
For the time being, the next generation or two at least, there will remain numerous "real world" tasks that minds will perform better than machines. The authors contend that nearly any repetitive task, including many now deemed "too creative" for a machine to carry out, will over time become the province of machine work, and that humans will be squeezed out. Will the day arrive when humans are no longer permitted to pilot an automobile? Cook their own meals?

The discussion of Product and Platform was harder for me to follow. Having a viable Product is the essence of a Business Reason for doing something. People pay for products, including those more squishy "products" we call "services." For example, technically, nursing care is a "service", but in the context of business, it is a product, delivered as a series of "service tasks" by a skilled person on behalf of another. Where does that fit into the notion of a "platform"? I think I understand that a platform packages products and services to make them easier for a producer to deliver and for a consumer to order and obtain. Will there one day be a platform like Uber for nursing care? I am almost afraid to look; it may already be out there. But there is still the need for the nurse-person (one day, a nurse-machine?) to physically do something to or for the person receiving nursing care.

Then, Core and Crowd. Hmm. I look on this as an expansion of Mind and Machine, where the "machine" has become a human-machine synergy we call the Crowd. I love the Citizen Science efforts out there, 73 of which (to date) are available under the Zooniverse umbrella. I have participated in about a dozen of them, and am most recently active in three that are of most current interest to me. A few years ago I classified more than 6,000 galaxies in one of the early Zooniverse projects. The machine part is the image delivery and questionnaire system. I and thousands of others (many minds) do the crowd part. The designers build in lots of redundancy, so as to spot errors and the occasional troll. The key to such projects is good planning and curation.

The authors focus on more business-oriented crowd projects. Their aim is to show that many untutored folks find innovative ways to solve problems that the "experts" would never think of. Very frequently the synergy of various "out of discipline" methods come together to do something ten or 100 times as well as the best that the "experts" had produced.

This principle comes home for me. Although I long aspired to be a scientist, because I was someone who nearly always wrote software for other scientists I had little occasion to publish; I wrote stuff to support work that other scientists published about. But the key paper of mine that made it into a peer-reviewed journal (Computers and the Geosciences) applied some sideways thinking to the numerical analysis of stiff differential equations used to simulate complex chemical reaction networks. I mixed principles used by astronomers in orbital mechanics with methods devised originally by civil engineers. In my dissertation, I used, and described, another numerical method that applied descending reciprocals to Runge-Kutta methods so that linear equations (linear in the "Diff Eq" sense) could be solved to any order desired. It was just a little part of my research, but crucial for certain computations that were otherwise too lengthy to carry out on the mainframes of the late 1970's.

So, I have rambled a lot into technical areas, mainly to cover up my difficulties "getting" the business focus of the book. It is written as a self-help text, with summaries and guiding questions following each chapter. It is written for business managers and executives. It is well enough written to hold my interest, even where I was in over my head.

Not to end on a downer, but I must quibble: on page 271 it is stated that the "amino acids" are strings of the genetic bases A, C, G and T. Those who know how wrong this is, just take comfort in "the old college try" that McAfee and Brynjolfsson gave it, when they were even more out of their depth than I am in their realm of expertise. (Hint to others: ACGT make genes, which are translated into proteins, composed of amino acids that do NOT include ACGT. That is why it is called translation.)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The most comprehensive course ever

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, astrophysics, cosmology, physical universe, galaxies

As a student of geophysics, I occasionally remarked that the subject's bailiwick was "from the center of the Earth to the end of the Universe." The same could be said for astrophysics. Geophysics and astrophysics are a kind of tag team, covering the same realm from different perspectives. Astrophysics deals in part with how stars forge the elements that wind up in planets, while geophysics deals in the main with what happens to those elements once they form a solid or semisolid body (e.g. a gas giant planet).

I have great interest in both subject areas, so it was a real treat to read Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott. The book is a distillation of material from a course taught by these three men at Princeton University, to non-astronomy students.
  • Part I: Stars, Planets and Life, was written (and I presume taught) primarily by Dr. Tyson with certain sections by Dr. Strauss.
  • Part II: Galaxies, was written (and presumably taught) entirely by Dr. Strauss.
  • Part III: Einstein and the Universe, was written (and presumably taught) entirely by Dr. Gott.
You could say that Tyson deals with stellar and condensed matter, Strauss with galaxies and their formation, and Gott with the gamut of cosmological theories. For me, given my lifelong love of reading astrophysical books, both popular treatments and texts and monographs, there was little I would call "new to me." But these scientists are writing at the top of their form, and present their subjects in a most enjoyable way. I had certain take-away's from each author:
  • Chapters 7 and 8 [Tyson], "The Lives and Deaths of Stars", parts I and II, are a good summary of the different types of stars based on their masses, certain features of their internal dynamics that are a result of their mass, and the fate of each type. I did not note a discussion of the first stars, those that were entirely metal-free (Astronomers call all elements heavier than helium "metals", which is understandable from a statistical viewpoint: of the 88 natural elements beginning with lithium, and also the two synthetic elements among the first 92, all but 18 are metals). Perhaps it would have been confusing, because such "zero-metallicity stars" could not have had "careers" that fit well into the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram that does such a good job classifying all known stars in the present universe.
  • Chapter 16 [Strauss], "Quasars and Black Holes", provides a clear summary of the spectral evidence that led firstly to the discovery that quasars are receding at phenomenal rates and are thus very distant (up to more than 90% of the way to the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago) and thus extremely luminous; and secondly that they must be powered by matter streaming into enormous black holes at the centers of galaxies. Nearly all quasars are more distant than a few billion light years. The closest is 600 million l-y. Quasars are the highest energy "active galactic nuclei" (AGN's), and since it seems that every galaxy hosts a supermassive black hole (from millions to billions of solar masses), any galaxy could host an AGN whenever a clump of matter finds its way to the galactic center.
  • Chapter 24 [Gott], "Our Future in the Universe", discusses what has happened to the whole universe since the Big Bang, and what is expected to happen, according to current theories. It is on a sort of super-logarithmic scale, highlighting 15 events ranging from the first 10-44 second to (very approximately) 10100 years in the future. In the text other possible events are mentioned, and one is as far off as a number of years described by a number with 1034 zeroes! That number of zeroes equals the number of hydrogen atoms in about 17 billion kilos of hydrogen. There will never be enough paper to "write" it down.
I was eager to see how Dr. Gott discussed Dark Energy and the (alleged) accelerating expansion of the universe. In the seven chapters he wrote, from time to time he discusses one or another mathematical principle that seems to require cosmic inflation (near the very beginning) or accelerating expansion (ongoing). I have yet to see an explanation of accelerating expansion that makes sense to me. The "evidence" for such acceleration is the anomalous brightness of some very distant supernovae. I have read recent articles that question both the data and the interpretation.

For my own part, I have yet to see an analysis of Type 1a supernovae that originate with a C-O white dwarf that accretes material of very low metallicity, as we would expect of very ancient objects at very great distances. Accretion, however, is not certain as a mechanism; WD-WD collisions are thought to produce the more prevalent type of supernova. The mass limit that must be crossed to yield a supernova is 1.44 solar masses. Thus the product of a collision will momentarily have a mass in the range 1.44 (plus a little) to 2.88 (minus a little). So, how "standard" is the standard candle known as a Type 1a supernova?

Well, that question did not get addressed, but for now that is OK. Astrophysicists and cosmologists are not single "voting bloc" in this regard, and I continue to read with interest the work being reported in this area.

Fascinating subjects, excellent writing: I expect this book to become a classic in its field.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

A millennial in space

kw: book reviews, science fiction, near-future, space aliens

Caution: the book reviewed was written in the language of many millennials and late Gen-Xers, including the casual cussin' my generation calls "potty mouth." It's not suitable for youngsters you wish to shelter from such language.

I wonder why space aliens are so frequently imagined as having magical attributes. In Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař, a Czech astronaut on a solo flight of 8 months' duration, to a mysterious purple cloud between Earth and Venus, spends a lot of time with a spider-like being that apparently talks to him in his language, but soundlessly, in his mind. It also rifles through his memories.

The real thrust of the story is, what is real? what is imaginary? How does the ill-starred astronaut return to Earth after the destruction of his space capsule, from a distance of tens of millions of miles? I was reminded of The Life of Pi (reviewed in 2015), and the long trip the young man Pi takes in a lifeboat with a tiger as his companion. The same ambiguity fills both stories.

In its wider sense the story is one of someone cycling back to the beginning to restart with a wiser outlook. Yet the protagonist is full of obsessions, and not all have been resolved at the end. Was his experience more delusion than fact, and is he still delusional? Probably.

About half the chapters are flashbacks to the astronaut's formative experiences, from the Velvet Revolution to the "Capitalist Invasion" of Prague. Assuming the history is accurate, there are a few things one can learn about the development of Czechoslovakia into the new nations that succeeded it after 1989, and a few things to learn about peasant life pretty much anywhere in Eastern Europe in those years.

I wonder how much astronomy and cosmology the author has been exposed to. The purple cloud is supposedly emitted by a "comet … from the Canis Major galaxy." There actually is a dwarf galaxy well behind the Canis Major constellation. It is about 25,000 light-years away. All known comets are members of our solar system, and perhaps a very few originate as far away as half a light year. So this is a book for the astronomically illiterate.

The book jacket blurbs treat the book as a great feat of humor. I found nothing funny in it. I wonder what joke I have been left out of. I'll chalk that up to a generational thing, and remark only that, if this is humor, I tremble for the generation now entering middle age.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Russian spiders at it again

kw: blogging, blogs, spider scanning

Late last evening I went in to add a post to the blog and noticed heavy traffic from Russia again. We'll see how long it lasts this time. The activity is not as regular as before (though the Russians are not as regular as the Americans), and began on June 30. That tall peak just over a day ago (as I write this) represents 96 hits in one hour. When the spiders aren't active, I seldom exceed 96 hits in two days.


Sunday, July 02, 2017

What might one learn from having cancer?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, self help, cancer

When I saw The Cancer Whisperer: Finding Courage, Direction, and the Unlikely Gifts of Cancer by Sophie Sabbage, I wasn't sure what I would find, but I was hoping for a practical self help book. I think that is what this book is, but let me confess at the outset that I did not read the whole book: I read the Introduction and the first and last chapters in their entirety, and skipped here and there within the other 8 chapters.

I am certain this book is worth at least beginning to read, by anyone facing a new cancer diagnosis. You will know soon enough whether it suits your needs. I had cancer 17 years ago, died in the recovery room and had to be resuscitated, and fought a series of very different battles from those that Ms Sabbage describes. This was one reason I could not connect with the book's message.

The other primary reason I could not connect is that the writing style, though written in a self help style that is quite popular, simply puts me off. Sorry, Ma'am!

It is worthwhile to introduce the Compass concept, the subject of Chapter 1. In a diagram of an 8-point compass, the first item (the subject of Chapter 2) is at the top, and the subjects proceed clockwise around. They are, in order:

  1. Coming to Terms – a matter of balancing feelings and facts, and setting the boundaries you wish to preserve (such as those around work and relationships).
  2. Understanding Your Disease – learning all you can: more facts, the more the better. And here the author wisely tells (most of) us to avoid statistics, but I'll touch on this later.
  3. Knowing Your Purpose – to decide what you want and why, and establish a plan toward obtaining it.
  4. Stabilizing Your Body – prioritize actions such as changing eating habits.
  5. Clearing Your Mind – including building the support network you need when your own control slips, as it will from time to time.
  6. Directing Your Treatment – learn from your doctors, set your own priorities, and preserve your own integrity as a person not a disease. You may need help from your support network to lead your healing team, not just blindly following "what the doctors want". I'll have more on this below.
  7. Dancing With Grief – embrace grief; there are automatic losses, including the possible loss of your future. 
  8. Breaking the Shell – I am not totally sure, but this seems to entail "making friends" with your cancer to learn from it. Here we part ways. I am quite comfortable learning all I can from an enemy, all the while planning the most efficient way to totally eliminate it!

For many of us, the first in time will be 4…if we have time. In my case, I was working toward stabilizing a deteriorating situation for about two months before I had a cancer diagnosis. Once that occurred, I had no more than 8 days from diagnosis (Nov 22, 2000; the day before Thanksgiving!) to major surgery (Nov 30). I entered the hospital on Nov 27, and they took care of the stabilizing, because the doctor was not sure I could survive surgery. The bare facts:

  • Stage 3+ colon cancer, with a major mass visible in the colonoscope, about the size of my fist (I have big hands).
  • Nearly two months of enforced fasting due to intestinal blockage.
  • Loss of 25 pounds during 2 months.
  • Blood count of 8.5 and falling (15 is normal).

On Nov 27 I was placed in the hospice ward, and they began intravenous feeding. The normal "dose" is one 1-Liter bag of "lion milk" daily. I was given three bags daily. I was allowed a little walking around, steering my IV pole. I realized I was in the hospice when the message board outside all the other rooms said, "Comfort", while mine said "Comfort and Feed 3x". How many people do you know who spent 3-4 days in a hospice, and came out alive?

What led up to my diagnosis? I had a rather passive doctor. When I went to him with persistent pain that seemed to be near my stomach, he spent more than a month trying ulcer remedies and then an antibiotic. One day he said something like, "Maybe it would be a good idea to get a colonoscopy…at some point."—Appalling! At that point, I silently took charge (in the book's terms, I began directing my own treatment). I had been in the ER twice already with violent vomiting and bloody stools, and had overheard the ER doctor say, "There is a very high white blood count, but we can't find an organism." I was thinking, "Sounds more like cancer than an infection." Inside me I already had my diagnosis.

The next day, after the doctor had expressed puzzlement and made his immensely stupid statement, I went to the receptionist and innocently asked her, "He said something about seeing a gastroenterologist. Is there one he prefers?" She gave me a name. I had a fleeting thought that my inept doctor might have inept friends, but decided to give the man a try. In those days you needed a referral so I faked one. After a talk with that doctor's receptionist, she got me an appointment three weeks on. I'm not sure why I didn't immediately call some other GI doctors, but I didn't.

I made it through the 3 weeks (now it was 2 months since I had effective nourishment), and saw him on a Monday. He asked, "3 weeks? How'd you get in here so fast? My backlog is 3 months! Did you tell her you are bleeding?" I said, "Of course!" He said, "You're very pale" and took me right downstairs to a clinic that drew blood and determined my blood count was 8.5. He said, "Go to such-and-such a hospital at 7:00 AM on Wednesday and I'll meet you there." And on Wednesday the cancer was seen by my wife and me via the 'scope. But I was on Demerol and the memory didn't "take"; I had to be told about it after I came around.

Thanksgiving Weekend! What a time to suffer through telling my dear friends of my disease. They prayed for me. My wife and I had planned to go to a church conference for two days, so we went. It was just 2 hours away. There I told certain ones, who took the news to their churches so they could pray for me.

Early Monday I called my doctor. He called back saying he had a surgeon who would see me for "consultation" on Thursday. I hung up without a word, thought it over (chronic pain level had reached 8 and I had to think very slowly and thoroughly). I called him back and said, "I won't live that long." He said, "Go to the ER now. I'll call ahead that you are coming." Thus began 3 nights in a hospice, 9 days of IV feeding in 3 days, an an operation on the same Thursday that was going to be a "consultation." I was in the OR 5 hours. In the recovery room they put in an epidural to administer Morphine. It turns out I am over-sensitive to Morphine and I stopped breathing. My heart slowed to about 30/minute (any slower and it'll simply stall and stop). A nurse stood by with defibrillator paddles as another gave me mouth-to-mouth and then oxygen. Once the morphine wore off, they tapered off the oxygen and let my wife see me. After that I suppose I recovered as normally as one can.

That's enough on such a subject in this much detail. I followed up with chemotherapy. The GI doctor was frank enough to give me accurate statistics. In my case, being a mathematician, I knew exactly what they were telling me and what they were not telling me. He said, after the operation, I had a 15% chance of living for one year. After the "gold standard" chemotherapy for six months, that chance would improve to 35%. "Gold standard" is leukovorin plus 5-FU. 5-FU was originally developed as a "weapon of mass destruction", but was found, rather accidentally, to cure many cases of colon cancer. Leukovorin helps it work better.

And what does 35% mean? Survival rates in such cases follow the same statistics as failure rates in a transistor factory. Technically, it is a type of Weibull distribution. At some time 65% of the devices will have failed. The doctor's prediction put that point at one year, when 35% are still alive. Such a distribution has a very long tail such that, for example, about 10% survive for five years. In the case of colon cancer, there is very little chance of recurrence after five years, and different statistics come into play. Most folks who live for five years after colon cancer surgery will die of something besides colon cancer, 10, or 20, or 30-40 years later, depending on their original life expectancy. In my case, I was 53 at the time of my operation (pretty young for this kind of cancer), and now I am just a couple of months shy of being age 70. My father is alive, so I have some chance of living into my 90's, at least medically speaking. The last time I saw the GI doctor (he does a follow-up colonoscopy every 3 years), he called me "a trophy".

Looking back at the list above, I think I covered most of the bases of the Compass. The one thing I'd have added, perhaps as a part of "Dancing With Grief", or perhaps as a ninth point: "Laugh as much as possible". For some reason, the six months of my chemotherapy were the longest sustained period of great happiness of my life. Perhaps 5-FU has a side effect of being a superb anti-depressant (too bad about losing your hair if you are young; I didn't lose any). I also stumbled on AFV (America's Funniest Videos) on ABC, and have watched it pretty regularly every since. My kind of humor.

Considering that this is not a very popular blog, I conclude that few people think the way I do or like many of the things I like. So, while I was not so enamored by this book, I think it can help a great many people either to become cancer survivors, or to muddle their way through their cancer experience better than they might have done if left totally to their own devices.

Monday, June 26, 2017

When the math you used could mean life or death

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mathematics, geometry, analysis, renaissance

Who would have thought that for a period of decades a student's adherence to certain mathematical methods could get him in trouble with the Inquisition, imprisoned, or even burnt at the stake. Galileo was placed under house arrest for the last two decades of his life, not only for advocating the motion of the Earth, but also for the kind of mathematical analyses he published!

Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World, by Amir Alexander, chronicles the development of a "new" kind of mathematics, one that had actually existed alongside Euclidean geometry for centuries, but had been little used and was denigrated by Aristotle and others. It flowered along with the Italian Renaissance, but ran afoul of the reactionary politics of the Jesuits.

To most mathematicians of the early Renaissance, mathematics was geometry, and all proofs and analyses that proceeded by any method other than straightedge-and-compass derivation from first principles were suspect. It is rather amazing to read how the Society of Jesus, originally rather blind to mathematics because of the proclivities of its founder, Ignatius of Loyola, took up Euclidean geometry as a point of pride within a generation after his death.

In their to-the-death struggle to throw back the influence of the Protestant Reformation, the Jesuits, brought into being as the Reformation was blossoming throughout Europe, realized that geometrical proofs provided a perfect model for their rigid theology and social structure. The Reformers declared that all persons had a right to know and understand Scripture, and offshoots such as some Anabaptists, and free-land proponents such as the Diggers, began to question the "divine right of the King" and the "natural order" of aristocracy. Dogma was being replaced by opinion. Long-held traditions were in danger of being overthrown. Chaos was imminent. The execution of the English king Charles I emphasized the danger.

If one accepts the validity of the methods of Euclid, there is no room for opinion. A geometrical constructive proof, proceeding by pure deduction, leads step by step to a conclusion that cannot be denied. But it had become evident to the disciples of Pythagoras, nearly a full twenty centuries earlier, that some propositions one could state, could not be proved. They had begun by proclaiming that all problems were subject to "rational" proof; by "rational" they meant using only ratios of whole numbers. An early demonstration that the hypotenuse of a square could not be exactly expressed as a ratio, that it was "incommensurable", led to the breakdown of the Pythagorean system and eventually to the disbanding of the Pythagoreans.

By Aristotle's time, about 200 years later, inductive methods based on "indivisible" quantities had shown some promise, and had been used to demonstrate certain propositions that geometric methods could not solve. But Aristotle, at first intrigued, later decried such methods. Euclid he could understand; the new methods seemed to allow a certain leeway for error. In his way he was as rigid as any Jesuit of the Sixteenth Century.

I have often been astounded that the Medieval Roman Catholic Church based so much of its philosophy on Aristotle, whose only brush with Theism is some vague statements about an "unmoved mover." I was further amazed to read of the process that led to this, via Thomas Aquinas. The Jesuits believed that Aristotle had it right. Mathematical induction by "indivisibles" (also called "infinitesimals" after about 1730) was unreliable. The Church needed … NEEDED! … a rigidly reliable theology and rule of society that disallowed dissent as thoroughly as a Euclidean proof disallows "alternate opinion". Galileo was only the most prominent of a large number of Italian mathematicians to learn of inductive methods, and use them to great effect, so much so that these methods swept through Europe. But over about a century's time the Jesuits drove "indivisibles" out of Italy. Indivisibles and inductive methods flourished elsewhere, in all the countries of Europe.

Reasoning similar to that of the Jesuits led Thomas Hobbes to found his political philosophy on Euclidean geometry. He strongly felt that the chaos following the Reformation simply cried out for a more totalitarian form of government. His exceedingly famous book Leviathan proposes the most profoundly totalitarian political system ever devised. When he learned that three very significant propositions were incommensurable via Euclidean methods, he realized that this left a great loophole in his philosophy.

Three problems: Squaring the Circle (making a square with the same area as a given circle), Trisecting an Angle, and Doubling a Cube (constructing a length that can be used to construct a cube with twice the volume of a given cube). None of these can be done using Euclidean geometric methods. This has been proven, using mathematical methods developed centuries after the time of Hobbes. He spent the rest of his life trying to square the circle, and eventually lost his reputation as a mathematician. He ran afoul of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem: that every mathematical system can be used to formulate problems that cannot be solved withing the confines of that system. This includes geometry. But Kurt Gödel was two centuries in Hobbes's future.

In the opening chapters of the book, it seemed to me that "indivisibles" and "infinitesimals" were described as being in opposition. It took careful reading to understand that they were synonyms separated by a century or two of usage. They form the foundation of The Calculus, as developed by both Newton and Liebnitz. The modern world would not exist without the analytical methods of calculus. From a modest number of "demonstrations" using induction—based on lines being composed of an infinite number of "indivisible" points, planes being composed of indivisible lines, and volumes being composed of indivisible planes—calculus and modern analysis in general have become supercharged, and now include both inductive and deductive methods.

I spent much of my adult life as a working mathematician, and I find it fascinating that such a life-and-death struggle had to be won, and won decisively, for the modern, technological world to appear. I have just touched on a few of the trends and a handful of the players in the saga of Infinitesimals. I have to mention John Wallis, whose 25-year battle with Hobbes "saved" inductive mathematics in England. How much longer would the modern era have been delayed otherwise? He originated the symbol for infinity: . Infinitesimals is quite an amazing story, very well told.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Wu Li: Circular reasoning to the max

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, physics, cosmology, buddhism, copenhagen interpretation, quantum mechanics

From time to time I have heard about The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics, by Gary Zukav, since it was published in 1979. I had never read it until now. As a student of all the sciences, particularly the "hard" sciences (those amenable to experimental verification), since before 1960, I have at least a reading familiarity with physics, which is a hard science, and cosmology, which is not. Now having read the book, I find it contains no surprises, at least, none of a scientific nature. Of course, a lot has happened in physics and cosmology in the past nearly forty years.

The author, an admitted outsider to the field of physics, conceived of the book while on a retreat at Esalen along with a real mixed bag of folks including numerous scientists and science hangers-on (some would consider me more of a hanger-on, though I am a working scientist, even in "retirement" from a career in the sciences). Al Huang, who was teaching T'ai Chi at Esalen when Zukav was there, introduced him to the concepts of Wu Li. That is concepts, plural.

I have a great many Chinese friends. The Chinese languages, primarily Mandarin, the principal written Chinese language, abounds in homophones, words that sound the same, at least to a Westerner. Most basic Chinese words consist of one syllable, and very few require more than two syllables. Spoken Chinese sounds to us like a long string of only a few syllables repeated various ways, with a "sing-song" quality that means nothing. What Westerners miss is that the "sing-song" variations in tone are meaningful and are part of the proper pronunciation of Chinese words. Thus, the syllable "MA", depending on the tone, and its context in a sentence, has at least these meanings:

  • Mother.
  • When doubled, an affectionate term for Mother, just as in English, at least when pronounced with two flat tones.
  • Horse, using a different tone.
  • The verb "ride", when the context demands a verb rather than a noun, and using still another tone.
  • The pronounced question mark that ends (nearly) all Chinese questions, spoken with a rising tone.

The familiar greeting "Ni Hao Ma" is a lot like the New Jersey, "How are ya?" The Chinese sentence, "Ma-ma ma ma ma", with the proper string of tones, means, "Is mother riding the horse?" (Chinese has no articles, so "the" is implied).

Depending on tone and context, "WU", pronounced "woo", has about 80 meanings, and "LI", pronounced "lee", has a great many, primarily focused on pattern. Different written Chinese characters (ideographs) are used for the various meanings of wu and li. In combination, the word wu li is the primary Chinese term for "physics". But when other combinations of ideographs with the same pronunciation (except for tones) are used, there are other meanings. In the context of this book, Al Huang gathered five. The literal meaning of the ideographs used for wu li meaning "physics" is "patterns of organic energy". The other four are "my way", "nonsense", "I clutch my ideas", and "enlightenment".

The book is structured around these five concepts, with each section containing two or three chapters. As I might have expected from a book inspired at Esalen, each chapter is numbered 1.

The "new physics" on which the book is centered is quantum mechanics and its relationship to Einstein's theories of relativity (special and general). The core message is the ambiguity of quantum phenomena—when any single "particle" is studied—coupled with the exactitude of the predictions the mathematical theories of quantum mechanics make regarding the statistics of interactions when many particles are subjected to the same set of conditions. The "scripture" of quantum mechanics is the Copenhagen Interpretation, that of Niels Bohr and his followers (I almost wrote "disciples").

Thus, for example, when light is shined through a pinhole, which spreads the beam by diffraction, and this beam is passed through a pair of narrow slits, an interference pattern emerges. This works best when monochromatic light is used, such as from a laser, but "near-mono" filtered light works well enough for visual purposes. The intensity in each part of the interference pattern can be exactly calculated by the Schrödinger wave equation, although the calculations are formidable; various simplifications of the wave equation yield very precise results with less arithmetical grinding.

I mentioned diffraction. This matter is first mentioned on pages 64-65 of the book. In the upper half of an illustration, a series of waves in a harbor are shown exiting a rather broad opening, and those that get through are shown going straight onward, with a sharp edge to their pattern. In the lower half, the opening of the harbor is smaller, and the waves exiting are shown as semicircular wave fronts spreading beyond the opening. There are two major errors here. Firstly, the upper pattern should show a little spreading at the edges of the "beam" of waves exiting the harbor (you can verify this using a wave tank, as I was shown decades ago in a Freshman physics class). In other words, diffraction occurs when waves pass through any opening of any width, not just very narrow ones. Secondly, for the lower wave pattern, the wavelength of the exiting waves is drawn as much shorter than the waves in the harbor.

In actuality, diffraction produces a nonzero probability of the waves at every angle. They seem to "go straight" through a larger opening only because the off-axis waves lose energy with angle very rapidly in such a case. When a wave front passes through an opening of a size similar to the wavelength, or smaller, there are significant amounts that are found at nearly every angle, making a much more divergent beam. Zukav seems to have been ignorant of this.

Interestingly, if a double-slit setup using extra-sensitive photographic film is set up, you can get a surprising result. The best photo film can record the capture of each photon, as long as the light is blue enough, meaning the photons are energetic enough. One silver halide grain is exposed by the capture of a single photon. If the light is dimmed enough that only a few photons per second pass through the apparatus, and you let it run for less than a minute before extracting the film and developing it, the developed film will have one or two hundred tiny exposed grains that are seemingly scattered at random over the film. If instead, you leave the film in place for an entire day, there will of course be many more exposed grains, tens of thousands of them. They will show a very clear interference pattern, identical in form to the one you could see when the light was shining brightly and tens of trillions of photons per second were passing through the apparatus.

Interference is a wave phenomenon. Photons are particles; each carries a specific amount of energy and has a specific momentum (these are all the same for monochromatic light). It took me and all my fellow students a long time to become comfortable with the fact that light has both wave and particle characteristics. Eventually we thought of a photon as a "wavicle", a small wave bundle, that could somehow "sense" that both slits were open and "interfere with itself", when passing through a two-slit apparatus. It seems that light behaves as a wave when wave "behavior" is demanded of it (the two slits), and as a particle when particle "behavior" is required (exposing a silver grain in the film).

Where does Gary Zukav take this, and several other experimental results of quantum mechanics, special relativity, and general relativity? Straight to the door of a Buddhist sanctuary. The language he uses is usually as ambiguous as the language physicists typically use to describe concepts like the "collapse" of a wave function when an "observation" is made. He compares some conclusions and statements of physicists to similar statements of Buddhist doctrine, though I could seldom recognize the resemblance. The core of the Copenhagen Interpretation, at least as it is explained in this book, is that the Observer is central. But, to date, nobody has adequately defined "Observer". That doesn't stop Zukav from equating the one-is-all-all-is-one that he believes the new physics is trending toward to Buddhist teachings of the pre-Christian era. I have a question or two about observers, or Observers.

Must an Observer have a self-aware mind? Can the photographic film described above be an observer, or has no observation been made until the film has been developed and a human (or other self-aware entity) has looked at it to see the pattern? If I understand the Gary Zukav presentation of the Copenhagen Interpretation, there is no "collapse" of the wave function into an actual "event" without an observer. It is as though, outside your peripheral vision, nothing exists until you pay attention to it. Taken to an extreme, it means there was no Universe until humans evolved to be the Observers to bring it into existence. This is the reason for the title of this post. If this is actually what Niels Bohr believed, I have to say to him and his disciples, as Governer Festus long ago said to the Apostle Paul, "Much learning has driven you insane!" Paul was not insane, but I think Zukav might be. More on this anon…

At the time The Dancing Wu Li Masters was being written, some "newer" new physics concepts were arising, such as the Quark/Gluon resolution of the Particle Zoo, and the theory of the Multiverse. To take up the former: It appears that the quark is truly fundamental. All the hadrons seem to be made up of various combinations of quarks and anti-quarks. However, it takes such enormous energies to generate interactions that give evidence of the existence of quarks—and they apparently cannot be brought into independent existence—that we may need to await a particle accelerate wrapped around the equator of the Earth to achieve energies sufficient to determine whether quarks do or do not have any substructure. Apparently, electrons have no substructure, so maybe they and quarks are as fundamental as it gets. But our experiments have reached "only" into the range of 10 to 100 TeV. What might be achieved with an energy a thousand times as great, or a million? Fears have been expressed already that the current experiments at CERN could trigger destruction of the Universe. Maybe the Multiverse is real, and we inhabit a surviving Universe that didn't get destroyed.

The notion of the Multiverse is simple. Rather than the wave function for a particle "collapsing" into some actual event, an entirely random outcome within the statistical framework described by the wave function, perhaps every possible outcome actually occurs, and a new Universe is spawned to contain each of those outcomes. This is simple enough if the "outcome" is that a particular photon passes through either the left slit or the right slit of a two-slit apparatus. Two universes result. I one of them, the photon passes to the left, and in the other, it passes to the right. But there is detail in the interference pattern, and when I have done the experiment with a laser pointer and a home-made pair of slits cut in aluminum foil, I could see more than twenty interference fringes. Now what? Did each photon create twenty or more universes to accompany each outcome? When the light is bright enough to see, trillions of photons per second are "in use"; the beam of my laser pointer emits 200 trillion photons or deep red light per second. Did I inadvertently create a few quadrillion new universes, just by shining my laser pointer through a pair of slits? Were new universes being created at the same rate even when I wasn't looking?

So what are the chances that the search for the Higgs boson at CERN caused the creation of truly enormous numbers of universes, nearly all of which were immediately destroyed, and we inhabit one of those that survived. I think you can see where such thinking can lead.

And some folks say that I am crazy to believe in God, a God who knows a level of physics (if it is called that) that can resolve this stuff, without the insanity of Multiverse speculations. I think it is fair to say that "modern physics" has reached a point of adding more and more epicycles to a group of theories that seem to produce very precise results, but that they are really analogous to pre-Copernican cosmology. Actually, Copernicus used epicycles also, because he thought orbits were based on circles. It took Kepler and others to work that part out.

Another item or two that have arisen in physics since 1979:

  • On page 119 we read, "No one, not one person has ever seen an atom." If you are talking about direct visual sight without the use of a microscope, you could say the same thing about bacteria or viruses. But we have microscopes of several kinds that can show us what they look like in rather amazing detail. Since about 1981, highly refined transmission electron microscopes have been able to show atoms directly, and since the invention in 1982 of the scanning tunneling microscope and the atomic force microscope, we now have three methods for seeing where the atoms lie in a surface. Whatever point the author wished to make based on the above statement is now moot.
  • Beginning on page 292 we find an illustration using polarized light. Simply put, when light is passed through a polarizer (such as the special plastic in some sunglasses), the light that emerges is now all vibrating in the same plane (for convenience, we use the electric vector as the "direction" of polarization, though the magnetic vector could be used equally well, and is at 90° to the electric vector. Zukav does not mention this). When you place a second polarizer with its polarizing axis at 90° to the first, it blocks all the light. If you rotate it to various angles, some of the light gets through, in accordance with an elliptical formula. Now, if you set the two polarizers so their polarization axes are at precisely 90° so that no light is getting through, then put a third polarizer between them, with its axis oriented at 45° to the other two, quite a lot of light gets through! This goes on for several pages and is presented as quite a mystery. Strangely, elsewhere in the book we find the tools to solve this mystery (I didn't look up page numbers):
    • In a discussion of Feynman Diagrams and the S-Matrix (Scattering Matrix) we read that physicists consider every interaction to entail the destruction of all the impinging particles and the creation of new ones that exit the interaction locus at the appropriate angles with appropriate velocities. Thus, when a photon reflects off a mirror or any shiny surface, it is actually absorbed and a new photon is released at the appropriate angle. So they say. Refraction works similarly. Thus, the polarizer absorbs the incoming photons and releases a somewhat smaller number of photons, all with the appropriate polarization.
    • As I recall, a polarizer made of stretched plastic film passes 38% of the original light. A Nicol prism can actually split light into two beams with nearly no loss, so that 50% exits with horizontal polarization at one angle, and 50% with vertical polarization at a different angle. This would make no sense according to the "picket fence" analogy, because very, very little of the original light could get through any polarizer: only that which is already polarized the "right" way. Thus, a Nicol prism, in particular, "tests" each photon, and either twists its polarization to match the nearest direction (and shifting its exit angle according to the one or the other), or annihilates the photon and emits one of appropriate polarization and exit angle.
    • Polarizing plastic is less efficient, passing only light of one polarization, but obviously changing whatever the polarization was of most photons to match its orientation. Thus, what is happening with the 45° polarizer is this: it absorbs some photons entirely, and twists the polarization of the rest of them by 45°. Then when they reach the last polarizer, they are now subject to a further absorption or twisting, so that the "twisted ones" get through, with perhaps 5% of the original beam intensity. That is a lot more than the fraction of a percent that "sneaks through" the original set of crossed polarizers because plastic film polarizers are not perfect.
    • So polarizing devices do not just passively allow certain photons to pass and block all others, but they change the polarization of the photons that they allow to pass.
  • I cannot pass by the chance to mention circular polarization. A thin piece of calcite or quartz (or, indeed, any colorless crystalline material that does not have cubic molecular symmetry) rotates the polarization of the incoming light. What is more, if it is just the right thickness, it will produce circularly polarized light. This is sometimes thought of as two streams of photons that are related to one another. Think of a vertically polarized photon coupled with a horizontally polarized photon, and their "waves" are out of phase by a quarter of a wavelength. Then, in effect, their polarization will rotate as the go.

As interpreted by Gary Zukav, physics was becoming one with Buddhism. I wonder what he would make of today's situation, with the great popularity among physicists of cosmological string theories (at the moment, they can't decide which of the potential 10500 possible string theories to favor!), the supposed detection of increasing cosmological expansion that may lead to a "big rip" in which all things will be literally shredded to their composite quarks, and the theory of cosmological inflation (developed in the early 1980's) that supposes that the initial expansion of the big bang took off at several trillion trillion trillion times the speed of light for just a tiny fraction of a second, during which the Universe grew to a size somewhere between that of a grapefruit and a galaxy (nobody can pin that down too precisely).

In my view, coupling physics theorizing with Buddhism is tantamount to solipsism. Let us accept as a first premise that what exists, does indeed exist, and go from there. Then the extreme versions of "New Physics" simply vanish, like an unobserved photon.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The public versus science

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, sociology, anti-science sentiment

Someone once described scientific law as "What always happens." They were referring to things like "the law of gravity", which is a colloquial way of saying that what goes up must come down.

There is a commonplace view that flying things such as birds "defeat" the law of gravity because they have a flying life, a "different law". Only when they die do they succumb to gravity. In reality, birds take advantage of gravity to fly. The way they fly requires the gravitational force to keep "the wind under their wings". A bird in a zero gee can't orient itself (see this video for an example). Given time, a bird might learn to compensate to some extent, but fast, directed flight requires gravity as one of the forces the bird is adapted to naturally balance.

This is one example of someone getting something partly right because of partial scientific knowledge. While we all take great advantage of technology—all the gadgets and appliances around us—most of us know little about what those things do. Decades ago Arthur Clark wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." For most folks, their phone or auto engine may as well work by magic.

A million years ago, advanced technology was the hand axe. Anyone could make one, though few could make them well. 150 years ago, advanced technology was an automobile. Few could make one, but many could repair them. I grew up learning to do my own oil changes and even did major engine work. My Dad and I rebuilt a VW engine once. I wonder how many backyard mechanics could rebuild the engine of a 2017 Honda Civic or Chevy Impala! The fuel injection system of a 2017 Impala has more moving parts than the entire assembly under the hood of that 1964 VW I had.

There are two fundamental barriers that impede the majority of people from learning science. First, science has proceeded in a stepwise manner, primarily for the past 500 years (with a few 2,500-year-old roots), and to truly comprehend (let alone understand), say, chemistry, geology, physics, botany, zoology, or microbiology (and let's not mention medicine!!) requires years of study to build the core structures in a person's mind that were discovered by hundreds of scholars and experimenters over the past half millennium.

The simplest example is mathematics. We are all able to use basic arithmetic. We learn that 2+2=4 by counting on our fingers, by lining up stones, and many other ways. Probably our first mental step is realizing that negative numbers and zero are useful. Then we learn about fractions, maybe decimals…but it is questionable whether most people ever grasp irrational numbers, even though the vast majority of actual quantities are irrational. And we haven't even got to algebra yet, which forms the foundation for all the disciplines of calculation needed for all engineering and science. Without a solid grasp of algebra, we cannot put useful amounts of geometry, trigonometry, and calculus into our mental toolbox. I thought I was pretty good at mathematics when I gained a solid (so I thought) facility with calculus. Then in graduate school I learned that calculus just opens the door to more dramatic realms of mathematics, which I would need to master to succeed as a geophysicist. I barely made it. I was still not anywhere more than halfway up the mathematical ladder, and did not proceed farther. Most of us never need to proceed anywhere near that far, but if we can't even handle basic algebra (most of us can't), most physical science remains a mystery to us.

The second barrier is that science requires thinking. Sustained thinking. Not the kind of quick figuration we all use to perform most paying jobs. We all start out as sprinters in that realm. It is like we are all born to be pretty good at the 50- or 100-meter dash. But to grasp science requires marathon-level mental performance. Fortunately, understanding the basic concepts of most fields of science is more like running a quarter or half mile; a bit of a stretch for a sprinter, but achievable. Of course, it is hard work. It makes you tired. Most folks aren't willing to put in the work. And so, lacking a tremendous level of effort by both teachers and parents, the vast majority of people grow up with only the haziest notion of the way things really work.

Take eyesight. What happens to make your eyes see? I understand from material presented in Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World are So Often Wrong, by Andrew Shtulman, that most of us think that our eyes work by sending some kind of ray outward, and receiving it back. Kind of like the comic book illustrations of Superman's X-ray vision, where the X-rays went out from his eyes so he could see through things. But if such a belief were true, you would be able to see in the dark. It would not matter whether or not the sun was up or a light was turned on. Just by turning out the light and thinking hard, we can usually figure out that "light", whatever that is, scatters off of things and gets to our eyes, which receive it and are then able to "see".

Andrew Shtulman is concerned that the level of science ignorance, particularly in America, is so great that very few of us can make proper decisions about most technical issues. For example: Do vaccinations cause autism? Certain influential people loudly proclaim that they do, to the extent that many people, not wishing to leave anything to chance, ignore the protestations of every single scientist who has actually studied that matter. If you never get it anywhere else, get this true knowledge right here: Autism is not caused by any of the chemicals or deactivated organisms in vaccines. The proportion of autistic children among those vaccinated is exactly the same as the proportion among those not vaccinated. Period.

Dr. Shtulman presents twelve kinds of knowledge in which we form "natural concepts" or what he calls "intuitive theories". They are all based on everyday experience. For example, when you throw a ball, what path does it follow? Does it rise gradually to a maximum height and then descend just as gradually? Or does it rise up, hang a while, and then fall straight down? Because of perspective, as the thrower, we see it appear to rise, hang, and drop. But have you ever carefully watched a ball thrown by someone else who is some distance away? For example, at a ball game, if you are in the seats either behind home plate or out beyond second base, watch a "clothesline peg" from the third baseman to the first baseman. It is called a "clothesline peg" because a ball thrown hard seems intuitively to go "straight" from hand to glove over a distance of about 125 feet. But if you watch carefully, you'll see that the ball rises at least 16 feet, in a smooth curve like a stretched circular arc (a parabola), and is highest when it passes over the pitcher's mound. It is actually thrown upward at an angle greater than 25°, and is descending at that same angle when it reaches the first baseman's glove.

One of the hardest concepts for most people to grasp is "deep time." I was lucky to have preparation from a young age, when my parents told me that the Earth and the Universe are very old. We were Bible-believing Christians, but one of the first things I was taught, probably from about age seven, is that there is a "gap" between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, between "God created" and "The earth became". Thus, when science teachers in middle school began talking about millions of years having passed, I was not ready to receive it.

We naturally think of most things happening on time scales that are familiar to us. When I first knew my grandfathers, born in 1885 and 1887, they were nearly 70 years old, and in the early 1950's, that was old! Growing up on Bible stories, I was familiar with stories of Jesus and his apostles, who lived nearly 2,000 years before, and Abraham, about 2,000 years before that. I remember as a sophomore in High School learning that when Caesar and Cleopatra went sightseeing along the Nile, the Pyramids were already about 2,500 years old and were considered "ancient history". Particularly in America, few of us know of any building older than 300 years, though some kids in Illinois grow up in sight of the Cahokia Mounds, which are between 600 and 1,200 years old. Even residents of Damascus and Jerusalem seldom see a building older than 3,000 years. So to our natural way of thinking 10,000 years is "really long".

Now imagine one hundred times ten thousand: 100x10,000. That is one million. A human generation is about 25 years. A million years is about 40,000 generations! I love science, but that took me some time to grasp. I had to think about it, and think about it, and think some more. Then there was the concept of a billion years, a length of time 1,000 times as great! Now I am comfortable with such quantities, but it took work. Most people I know are not comfortable with deep time. In particular, the majority of religious Americans firmly believe that the Earth is no more than 6,000 to at most 10,000 years old, and that the first humans were created within a few days from the creation of the universe.

By the end of the book it became clear that the author's heart was in the ignorance of and opposition to the theory of evolution, particularly the idea of human evolution or human origins as anything other than direct, instantaneous creation by God. Very few writers properly distinguish the fact of biological evolution—that it did happen, that life has changed through time—from the theory of natural selection, which is the mechanism of biological evolution. When we say "theory of evolution" we mean the theory of natural selection. It is likely that most scientists, along with nearly all the public, conflate the fact and the mechanism. Fortunately, Dr. Shtulman distinguishes them, though not as clearly as I might have hoped.

To "get" evolution, one must know a great many things, including that many species are now extinct, that all life on Earth is based on DNA, and that there has been life on Earth for many millions of years, even several (3.8-4) billions of years. Without that foundation, all talk of evolution is a castle built on air, and is fruitless. Then, to "get" natural selection, one must know several things further, in addition to the facts of evolution, primarily that the offspring of one pair of creatures differ a little from one another in small, random ways; that not all those offspring will have offspring of their own; and that small differences in the DNA of that set of offspring lead to differences in how well they can grow, thrive and reproduce. Further these small differences naturally occur and over many generations and great spans of time, small differences in the health and reproductive ability among creatures of the same species add up to significant differences in the range of characteristics to be found throughout the individuals of that species.

Very, very few people willingly do the work to learn all those things. In a very real sense, then, most people have no right to an opinion about evolution! They don't have the mental tools to form a valid judgment. Sad to say, many of American society's decision makers are so ill-informed about every single branch of science that they have no proper basis to form valid judgments. But they write legislation that the American public must follow, upon pain of legal sanctions such as fines or imprisonments!

Well, I've chased that rabbit far enough. The subject of Scienceblind is fascinating. Unfortunately, all too frequently the writing is rather dull and I had to slog through it. I didn't skip any, but believe me, I was tempted to!

There was a time in both Europe and America during which a very popular form of entertainment was to attend science lectures and demonstrations by noted scientists. Scholars such as Michael Faraday and Humphrey Davy made much of their income from such lectures. It would do most folks a great deal of good to attend such lectures today. Those who are willing to watch programs such as Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson and programs such as Nature and Nova get a little bit of what they need to "get" the underpinnings of modern science. But those whose eyes glaze over at such material have little hope of making valid decisions about topics, such as vaccination, that can lead to great consequences for them, their children, and for those around them.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

The yellow-tipped little agate snail

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

Earlier this year I completed two major projects to prepare about 17,000 data records at the Delaware Museum of Natural History for all the freshwater species of bivalves (clams and mussels) and gastropods, and load them to a new database system from which they can be served up via the internet. The principal portal is iDigBio. A secondary portal, from which it is easier to dig into the records on a museum-by-museum basis, is InvertEBase. Each project took about a year.

That done, I have begun working through the museum's data for terrestrial gastropods (land and tree snails), which total about 38,000 records. We decided to take these a cabinet or two at a time, for the most part. I am basically tackling between 1,500 and 2,000 records per mini-project. A first project took about a month, so I expect the sum of about 20 projects to take a couple more years, maybe three or more.

I am in the midst of inventory for three related families, and the first is Achatinellidae. These snails were so-named because they resemble the large tree snails of the family Achatinidae. The prefix "achat-" means "agate" in Greek, and refers to the striped appearance of the most familiar species, the giant African tree snail, Achatina achatina (Linné, 1758), also called the tiger snail.

The one shown in this image may have a shell as long as 8" (20cm). The suffix "-ell" means "small"; the snails of family Achatinellidae are much smaller than the Achatinidae, but many have a similar striped look.

The type genus (the one the family's description is based upon) is Achatinella, and the type species is Achatinella apexfulva (Dixon, 1789). As I was taking inventory of the specimen lots of this species, I noticed that some had been collected by a major donor to the museum, Munroe L. Walton, when he was quite young, not more than eleven years old. In the three photos below, you can see they were collected in Hawaii in 1901; Walton was born in 1890. First, the photos, which mostly speak for themselves. Commentary continues following.




Around the year 1900 it was common to distinguish the many color variations of variable species by assigning subspecies names. The original labels for the first two lots reflect this. The third lot was originally attributed to a different species because many of the shells in certain parts of Oahu are left-handed, such as the one on the right in the third picture. These are now recognized as part of the species apexfulva. The suffix "-fulva" means "yellow", and shells of this species have a yellow tip. Specimens of this species grow to 1.5-1.9 cm (0.6-0.75 inch).

The second lot shown has an added label, written by Edward W. Thwing, who may have been the actual collector of that lot or part of it. He was 22 years older than Walton. The designations "New." and "Newc." on some of the labels refer to Wesley Newcomb, a physician who became a curator of mollusks at Cornell in the 1870's and until 1888. He described the first specimens of many species in the family Achatinellidae.

Although Achatinella apexfulva does not have a common name, I call it the "yellow-tipped little agate snail" as a direct translation of its scientific name. The Achatinellidae in general are colorful and attractive. Sadly, most, including A. apexfulva, are now extinct.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Multiple utopias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 25, 2017

When governments peer down the wishing well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Have the spiders gone to sleep?

kw: blogging, blogs, spider scanning

Well, now looky here!

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

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Inside the diagnosis

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, diagnostic procedures

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The new normal arrives about twice per generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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