Monday, April 17, 2017

The making of a most beloved detective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 10, 2017

Putting America-based Jihad in perspective

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, terrorism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 31, 2017

A collection on which I'll pass

kw: book reviews, short stories, collections, contemporary life

Some wild card choices just don't stack up to others. I won't name the book or the author, who gets enough publicity without my help. Supposedly award winning and all that. There's a lotta awards out there!

The title page blurb said, "One of the most satisfying cover-to-cover short story collections…" I guess some folks are easily satisfied.

Story one got very seamy very quickly, so I jumped to the last paragraph to see if anybody grew or even learned anything useful. Nope. Another story of clueless people who stay clueless.

Story two circles in on itself. A guy fooling himself, and it's a habit he's apparently won't break.

Story three, the narrator, someone with few values and no stomach to stand for those few, is left about where the story started, but perhaps even slower on the uptake.

OK, that's enough. I have better ways to spend my time.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Pioneers of celestial measurement

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, scientists, astronomy, astrophotography, spectroscopy

Look carefully at the white line across the gray band, where the ink marks are in each section. The ink marks were made by Edward Pickering in 1889, when he noticed the doubling of the Calcium K line (λ=393 nm, near UV) in the upper photo of the spectrum of Mizar. Mizar, also known as Zeta Ursa Majoris, is the brighter of the Mizar-Alcor double star in the "corner" of the handle of the Big Dipper. One needs keen eyes to see that it is double.

Mizar itself was found to be double by comparison of these two spectra photographed a week apart in 1887. It is the first known "spectroscopic binary". Two stars of roughly equal brightness circle each other in about 20½ days. The splitting of the K line (and all the other lines shown if you look closely) is because of the Doppler effect: when one star is moving toward us, and the other is moving away, the wavelength of the light that reaches us is shifted, one toward the blue, the other toward the red end of the spectrum.

This discovery was made possible by the "glass universe" being compiled at Pickering's behest by pioneers of astrophotography and astrospectroscopy whom he had commissioned to photograph the whole sky, over and over, on glass/emulsion plates using telescopes owned by Harvard Observatory.

This immense photographic effort, and the numerous women—and a few men—who made literally hundreds of thousands of discoveries using the plates, are chronicled in The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, by Dava Sobel. I believe I must declare this book the most fascinating I have read so far this year. I have known for many years of "Pickering's Harem", the female "computers" who carried out manual calculations for the Harvard Observatory, and I knew of a few astronomers, names now to conjure with!, such as Annie Cannon, Mina Fleming, Cecelia Payne, and Henrietta Leavitt, whose work in the late 1800's and early 1900's literally opened the heavens by classifying the stars, discerning nebulae, measuring stars' temperatures, and discovering the period-luminosity relationship that became the yardstick for measuring the size of the Universe. This book brings them all to life for us.

Please forgive me a sort of quibble at the outset (not about what the author wrote, however): I read the Large Print edition by Thorndike Press. On the copyright page the publisher put a standard disclaimer for a work of fiction. I contacted Ms Sobel, and she assured me that there is no fiction in this book. I am very glad of that!

There is a common notion that the Harvard computers were given mainly "grunt work" and had little else of value to contribute. Not so! When Edward C. Pickering assumed leadership of the Harvard Observatory in 1877 a number of computers already worked there, most of them female, and he added more and more, eventually hiring more than 80. He always looked for hidden talents and helped the computers develop as far as they could. Williamina ("Mina") Fleming was originally hired as a maid, but he soon found she was a capable computer, and she went on to co-develop the system for classifying stars that we still use, based on the mnemonic "O, Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me", which sorts the spectral types by temperature from hottest to "coolest" (still hotter than the filament in a light bulb). In this picture, Mrs. Fleming is standing, and the computers of the day, including Annie Cannon just below her, are shown searching photographic plates and calling out their readings to a compatriot seated nearby.

Ms Sobel presents the life stories of a dozen or so of the computers-turned-astronomers and their colleagues, and shows equal interest in the instruments and methods used to make their discoveries. And the entire narrative is wrapped around the philanthropy of two women whose fortunes underwrote much of the work. Firstly, Anna Draper, wife and collaborator of astronomer Henry Draper, came to Pickering after her husband's untimely death in 1883 and offered to support a continuation of the stellar spectroscopy and cataloging work that Henry had begun with her assistance. The support continued until her death in 1914, and her bequest to the Observatory allowed the rest of the Henry Draper Catalog (still in use) to be completed thereafter. Stars with labels such as HD217014 (AKA 51 Pegasi, the star around which the first exoplanet was discovered) are cataloged therein. Secondly, Catherine Bruce funded the production of the Bruce Telescope, a 24-inch-diameter refractor, which was used first at Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1893, then in Peru and finally in South Africa until 1950. This telescope and several of smaller size were used to take the photographs that make up the bulk of the Glass Universe, a four-dimensional archive of the sky from 1885 to 1993!

This is a small segment of one of the glass plates, showing the globular cluster 4 Tucanae. Astrophoto plates are negative images, and were read directly by researchers such as the Harvard computers, one of whom has inked directly on the plate a few arrows and lines to point out certain stars of interest, most likely variable stars.

A technical note: Very early on it was found that the best discernment of star images could be had by exposing a plate until the background skyglow produced a "density 1" gray, which passes 10% of the light when the plate is back lit. Depending on the darkness of the sky at the observing location, and the photographic speed of the plates used, this would usually take an exposure of between 30 and 90 minutes. In one night of observing at a very dark site with fast plates, one might take 20 or more exposures.

A very major part of the work at HAO was to discover variable stars and chart their variation over time. The stars marked in this plate were found by comparing plates taken over several days' or weeks' time. The long- and medium-period variables were typically the most consistent, and this was fortuitous, because Henrietta Leavitt later discovered that the greatest number of these are Cepheid variables whose period of variation is proportional to their brightness at its peak.

Cepheid variables are giant stars with masses 4 to 20 times that of our Sun, and are as much as 100,000 times as bright. This makes them visible over very great distances, up to tens of millions of light-years, using larger telescopes. The Leavitt Law, or Period-Luminosity Relationship, allows measurement of the distance to galaxies within that range of distance. Such measurements led to Edwin Hubble's discovery of the expansion of the Universe.

If you look at a group of bright stars such as the Orion constellation or the Hyades cluster (the horns of Taurus, the Bull), after a while you can notice that a few stars are yellowish or reddish compared to the rest. Orion, in particular, has the star Betelgeuse (and, yes, it is pronounced "beetle juice"), which is visibly rather orange, in one corner. Most of the rest of the stars in Orion are quite bluish.

For stars, blue means very hot, white means "sorta hot", yellow is not as hot, and orange-red is the coolest. To put numbers on it, Rigel, in the corner of Orion opposite Betelgeuse, is a blue-white giant star with a visible-surface temperature of 12,000 K (over 21,000°F), as compared to our Sun, a yellow-white star of temperature about 5,800 K (9,900°F). Betelgeuse, while not the coolest visible star, comes close at a temperature of 3,500 K (5,800°F). The tungsten filament in a (now nearly obsolete) halogen light bulb typically has a temperature of 3,300 K (just below 5,400 °F), so a "piece" of Betelgeuse brought into your living room would look slightly less yellow than a halogen lamp.

The observers and computers at Harvard took advantage of spectroscopy to do much better than just making visual color estimates. The gray and black streaks on this plate image are spectra of stars, photographed with the help of an objective prism. The objective prism for the Bruce Telescope was a thin wedge of glass more than 24 inches in diameter that turned the whole telescope into a multi-stellar spectrograph. It also incorporated a slight curvature in one direction to turn a stellar point of light into a thin streak, so that the spectra would have useful width.

These little streaks may not look like much but they record an amazing amount of information about a star. Much more than the proportion of blue to red light—which are hard to determine from such photos, though it is not impossible—, the spectra include Fraunhofer lines. These are absorption lines caused by elements in the gaseous upper atmosphere of the star. The kinds of lines that are present are a much more sensitive indication of both the composition and the temperature of the star.

If one were to look through a telescope set up in this way, it might look something like this, from a photo taken at the University of Virginia. This shows the Hyades cluster; if you concentrate on the position of the red end of each spectrum you can see the tilted "V" shape of the cluster.

This photo as shown here is too small for Fraunhofer lines to be seen, so I made this clip of just a few of the spectra:

The dark lines are the more prominent Fraunhofer lines. The K line mentioned above is barely visible in one of these spectra at the far right. Its wavelength of 393 nm is just beyond the traditional edge of Ultraviolet (400 nm), but that wavelength is actually visible to most people if the spectrum is bright enough. Each line is characteristic of a particular element. A dark line in the narrow yellow area would indicate Sodium, for example, just as the K line indicates ionized Calcium. The very strong lines for Hydrogen and Helium found in the spectra of the hotter stars of categories O and B led to the discovery that stars are primarily made up of Hydrogen, about ¼ Helium, and all the other elements add up to no more than about 1%.

Annie Cannon and others excelled in looking at the gray streaks, the hundreds to thousands of them that populated each plate, and categorizing each star by temperature and "spectral type" such as G2 (the spectral type of our Sun). Miss Cannon eventually categorized a third of a million stars.

I could go on and on, but this is long enough already. I love a book like this, that tells about the people and the work they did and why it is important. Without the "boring" work of the Harvard computers and astronomers, nearly all female, we would know only a tiny fraction of what we have learned about the Universe.

Follow-up: The Harvard plates are presently being digitized for Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard, or DASCH ("Dash"). Have a look, but beware, there is a large learning curve. If you want to have a turn at stellar classification, check out Stellar Classification Online Public Exploration, or SCOPE., a Citizen Science project. While a few million stars have been classified, the great majority of the billions of stars, just in the Milky Way galaxy, have yet to be classified. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Can a scientist be well-rounded?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, nature, essay collections

Nearly a month has passed since I reviewed Eiseley, Volume One. Loren Eiseley's writing rewards close reading. If you are an aficionado of the Evelyn Wood speed reading method, you probably won't like Eiseley's essays. But if you can "slow down and smell the roses" you will find much to enjoy in Eiseley: Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos, Volume Two.

This book collects all of The Invisible Pyramid, The Night Country, and many selections from The Star Thrower. It is this last that probably engendered a parable about meaning that has circulated for most of my lifetime:
Walking along a lonely beach one windswept day, I saw that many starfish had been thrown onto the sand. I saw in the distance a man stoop, pick up a star, and sling it over the waves back into the sea. As I came up to him I looked around and said, "There must be thousands of starfish. You cannot throw them all back. How can it matter?" He held out a star and said, "It matters to this one," and flung it out to sea.
This is not a quote from Loren Eiseley; when he met a star thrower, he began throwing also, but said nothing to the man. That story is from an essay somewhere amidst Volume One. But, to take last things first, when he gathered essays to publish as The Star Thrower, perhaps he saw himself as one striving to do something "that matters to this one," among any who might read from him. These essays explore the boundary between science and, not just art, but everything else one might call "not science". Musing on the dramatic changes in human life that occurred once speech was attained, he considers the significant costs of our exceptionally large brain:
"His skull has enhanced its youthful globularity; he has lost most of his body hair and what remains grows strangely. He demands, because of his immature emergence into the world, a lengthened and protected childhood. Without prolonged familial attendance he would not survive, yet in him reposes the capacity for great art, inventiveness, and his first mental tool, speech, which creates his humanity. He is without doubt the oddest and most unusual evolutionary product that this planet has yet seen." (p. 357; emphasis mine)
The essay is titled "Science and the Sense of the Holy." Animals other than a very few primates (most especially humans) are divorced from considerations of time, space, and greatness (though not from rank: viz. pecking orders and the "Alpha male" phenomenon). A common house cat is able to anticipate tracking down the mouse she has just discerned beneath the stove in the kitchen. But for her, the next three or five minutes constitutes long-term planning. Your dog may consider you a deity, and thus the joking answer to the question some evangelists pose: "Why do we never see a dog set up an idol and worship it?", "Because dogs live among their gods!" But you dog's planning abilities are slender as compared to those of any toddler.

Eiseley gets to the meat of the matter in the essay "The Illusion of the Two Cultures." He writes here, and had written before, of the dismissive attitude he saw among numerous young scientists, that to pay attention to anything "arty" was quite suspect and to be discouraged, strenuously if necessary. These young Philistines are presumably in it either for glory or a good salary, but have no "sense of science."

Science is the art of the repeatable. The pinnacle of scientific achievement is to produce experimental results, publish them, and to have another scientist, or a laboratory full of them, reproduce the experiment and attain the same results. This is called "confirmation". Phenomena that cannot be repeated cannot be "confirmed" and are not admitted as science. Thus, one of my favorite parables (and less widely known than the one about the starfish), titled Non-repeatable phenomena:
There is a class of activity that is undertaken by nearly every person on Earth. Sometimes it produces great emotional responses—either positive or negative—and sometimes, not. Some people undertake these things alone, and some with one or more others; sometimes with many others. Some use various artifacts and implements, and others are able to obtain great results using only their bodily members. Some may attempt to repeat what others have done, to no effect whatever; others do so with greater and greater effect upon each repetition. There is no way to measure, ahead of time, whether a particular instance will be effective or not, or even perhaps quite negative. What is this activity? Music!
The same could be said of any performance art, of fine art, of "folk art"—which is fine art that hasn't been "discovered" yet—or even telling a story or joke ("Some can tell 'em, and some can't"). Thus, Eiseley gnaws at the great rift between "science" and "the arts" that had arisen in the past couple of centuries, and is growing still. Pointing out the need we all have for awe and beauty (I remember Einstein and his violin), he declares that this rift does disservice to both. It may not be possible to write great operas about the experiments of Edison or Faraday (though I once wrote a somewhat creditable sonnet about photosynthesis). Perhaps no painting can convey the beauty a mathematician sees in a new and succinct proof. But the best scientists everywhere confess that, when an experiment "comes together", they feel a sense of awe or beauty; when an astronomer has discerned a pattern in the dry data gathered from star after star or galaxy after galaxy, the emotional release equals that from hearing the climax of a great symphony as performed by a great orchestra. By the way, check out the audience who paid $100 or more to hear, say, the Berlin Philharmonic perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. People whose day job is technical or scientific will be well-represented. Thus Eiseley declares that "the two cultures" so frequently decried by some and touted by others, are an illusion. Without a sense of beauty, awe, and even holiness, few would persist.

I'll leave it to the reader to enjoy the first two-thirds of the volume and discover its delights. See why we are more similar to a slime mold than we may like to think ("The Star Dragon"), or how our attainment of wide-ranging consciousness of past and future has caused us to suffer "the wound of time" ("The Mind in Nature"). You won't be sorry.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The bones may be dry, but not the writer

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, nature, essay collections

Once or twice over the years I stumbled upon an essay by Loren Eiseley. He always had a fresh take on a subject, and his writing has a lyrical quality unlike anyone else from the mid-Twentieth Century on. So when I came across his collected essays in two volumes, I couldn't resist!

I've just finished reading Loren Eiseley, Collected Essays, Vol. 1, edited by William Cronon. This volume and its companion are the 2016 offering of The Library of America Series. Volume 1 contains in three sections the three books The Immense Journey, The Firmament of Time, and The Unexpected Universe, and a fourth section, Uncollected Prose.

In modern terms, Eiseley was primarily a hominin palaeontologist; he studied the bones and grave-related artifacts of ancient humans and their ancestors and related species such as the Australopithecines. He studied human and prehuman evolution. This is in contrast to an anthropologist who studies human artifacts as evidence of culture and technology. Gathering specimens of archaic humans has always been difficult and very few were known in the 1950's to 1970's when Eiseley was most active. As late as the 1990's you could fit all known specimens of non-sapiens hominids and hominins into a footlocker. A small one. In his day a largeish suitcase was probably sufficient.

When writing for scientific publication, he could write prose as concise and acerbic as any. When writing for the public—and it is clear that this is what he most enjoyed—he wrote with heart and imagination and great lyricism. I know no other like him. He could immerse himself in a different viewpoint and somehow the writing drags us in with him. For example, writing of a spider, that was spinning a web in the heat of a street light late into winter:
  "Good Lord," I thought, "she has found herself a kind of minor sun and is going to upset the course of nature."
  I procured a ladder… There she was, the universe running down around her, warmly arranged among her guy ropes attached to the lamp supports—a great black and yellow embodiment of the life force, not giving up to either frost or stepladders. She ignored me and went on tightening and improving her web. … a kind of heroism, a world where even a spider refuses to lie down and die if a rope can still be spun on to a star. (p 111)
He notes that the web was her entire universe, and that she paid attention to nothing that wasn't in direct contact with her web. Then he wonders what we are missing, thinking that all the universe we see is all the universe there is.

He had a kind of sideways take on natural selection. Clearly understanding evolution and evolutionary theory, he points out that the popular image of "survival of the fittest" is quite wrong-headed and actually back-to-front. More than once he described how little lungfish struggle from drying pond to, hopefully, wetter ones, and calls them "fish failures". The genetic pathway their ancestors took made them less fit as a fish, but more fit overall, allowing them to endure where "fishier fish" could not. A species of lungfish or something like it evolved into the earliest amphibian. Those lungfish that still exist aren't much in the way of being fishes, nor of being salamanders, but are a compromise of both.

In the same way, proto-human primates were small, became hairless and rather weak, adopting an upright posture before they had brain enough to be much of a toolmaker. Somehow this "failed ape" survived long enough to develop toolmaking, fire, and broader social groupings, all with a brain not much larger than a chimp's.

But at a later stage, language erupted. To this day we know less about the development of language skills than about the depths of the sea. In several of the essays Eiseley waxes lyrical about what this could have meant. Language effectively brought most physical evolution to a halt, substituting cultural evolution. Human culture effectively shields us from most strictures of natural selection. But as compared to the lungfish, are we closer to the salamander, or still only a little ways beyond the ape? Are we like the lungfish in truth, no more than halfway developed in a direction we cannot discern? Are we still "failed apes" and "not-quite amphibians"…let alone a true "land" animal along the track of that analogy? In one of the last essays in the book Eiseley wonders if, having grasped the fires of the universe, will we survive our own half-formedness and grow to be worthy of the powers to which we aspire?

Indeed. I can hardly wait to dig into the second volume!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Presenting CWWN v10 - The Present Testimony (3)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

With the "Overcomer Conferences" of 1929-32, which formed the subject of many earlier issues of The Present Testimony, Watchman Nee laid a solid foundation for Christian life and practice in our understanding of God's covenant and the reality of the indwelling Christ, who alone can carry out God's will in our lives and in the church.

Fifteen verses in the New Testament speak of "him who overcomes" or similar language; seven of these are in the conclusions of the seven letters in Revelation 2 and 3. It is primarily due to Watchman Nee's written ministry that many Christians have come to know a phrase that arose about the time of his death in 1972, "An overcomer is a normal Christian."

The current volume, Volume 10 of The Collected Works of Watchman Nee, contains Issues 24 to 31 of The Present Testimony. Several subjects based on the earlier foundation are presented, and three issues (26 to 28) are devoted to the messages that became the book The Latent Power of the Soul. I'll hold comment on that book until I read its updated version in a later volume of CWWN.

Two messages were particularly helpful to me, to remind me of the balance in God's ways: "The Two Sides of the Truth—Objective and Subjective" from Issue 29 and "Faith and Obedience" from Issue 30. These two are really two treatments of the same subject. For example, the redemption of Christ, accomplished on the cross, is an objective fact, a historical fact with a tremendous spiritual meaning because it forms the foundation of our relationship with God. To such a fact, we can respond in one of two ways, to believe or to disbelieve. There is no "obedience" involved in gaining the benefits of redemption, because they are like a bank deposit and faith is the only key to open it.

The promise of the Holy Spirit, both internal for our life and external for our work—this is the difference between the Spirit received as "breath" by the disciples on the day Jesus was resurrected, and the Spirit poured out on the disciples praying in the upper room at Pentecost—, this promise is another fact, which we obtain by faith. But the working out of our living in spirit day by day is through obedience, and our carrying out the work to which God has called us is also through obedience.

Jesus spoke of some who would stand before the Lord to say, "Lord, Lord, we did many great things in Your name," but that He would refuse to recognize their work, calling it "lawless". Why? No obedience. Such workers do things they want to do "for God" without being at all clear what God actually wants them to do. But this has a more day-to-day aspect. When we pray, do we treat God like a "sugar daddy" or "magician" who exists to fulfill our desires? Or do we love and enjoy Him and seek His desire, trusting that we will be the most fully fulfilled in the daily tasks and life work that He has chosen?

Nee was concerned that many Christians get things backward. They ask God to do something for them that He has already done. In the extreme, some might ask Jesus to die again on their behalf! This cannot be, and forms a large subject in Hebrews. Seeing that we have been redeemed, we simply believe it, and this is the foundation of our obedience. But others try to obey "what the Bible says" without first having faith on the One who redeemed them. In effect, they want to walk about God's kingdom without first entering its gate. Had Israel never crossed the Jordan River, they could walk about all they wished, and never gain a single inch of Canaan. This is the sad condition of many "good" people, many "well behaved" people, who have sidestepped the cross of Christ but try to live a "Christian" life anyway.

It takes a certain exercise to partake of powerful ministry such as this book contains. If I read in a lazy way or let myself get in a querulous mood, I gain nothing. Watchman Nee had the gift to repeat a truth in several ways and from several angles, to get around our fleshly defenses, to induce us to wake up and actively take in spiritual truths with a spiritual mind. And to this end, a pair of messages on "The Renewing of the Mind", also from issues 29 and 30, are particularly helpful.

Russian spiders back on the web

kw: blogging, blogs, spider scanning

It looks like two days ago the Russian spiders became active again, but in a more sporadic way than what I noticed in mid-December. This screen shot shows activity over the past week, and while the U.S. dominates, there is a darker tint than usual over Russia. Looking only at the past day, I find that while the U.S. is the source of the largest number of views to this blog, Russian activity is about 80% as great.

I can only say, Я надеюсь, что вы наслаждаетесь себя!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Political Math - Not so Clear-Cut

kw: politics, crime, population, economy, trends, charts

I have heard it claimed for years, by various "conservative" commentators, that the most crime-ridden American cities are led by Democratic administrations. I finally decided to gather some data and find out for myself.

The four pairs of charts presented below summarize data gathered from sources as reliable as I could manage to find. All were online. The basis was a table of crime statistics for 80 cities with population greater than 250,000. Based on data compiled by the FBI, it is found at this Wikipedia page. The population estimates are for 2009, and the crime statistics are mostly from 2014 (a few from 2013). Not perfect, but a usable start. U.S. population rose 4% from 2009 to 2014. Thus the numbers used are likely in error by no more then a few percent.

I also gathered the basic economic factor, GDP per capita, from the OpenData Network, where you can ask a question like "What is the GDP per capita for New York metro area?". The result is a map showing US Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) with the area highlighted that you asked for. But then you can move the map around and click on each area of interest to see a summary for it. These data are also for 2014 (mostly). The highest GDP/person is for Oakland, California, just over $100,000/yr.

I used information found in Wikipedia and various city and county web sites to determine the political environment for each of the 80 cities. This was the most time consuming. On occasion, it is pretty easy to get the party affiliation for the Mayor and the City Council, or its equivalent, but usually only the Mayor's affiliation can easily be found. So I relied instead on the voting records that are conveniently compiled in the Wikipedia page for every county, to determine the county's political leaning, and the combination of the Governor, Lt. Governor (if there is one), and the congressional delegations, to determine the state's political leaning. I used 0, ½, or 1 for Republican, Moderate/Independent/Mixed, or Democratic, for each case. Then I combined these numbers into a single factor in which the Mayor had the most weight and the county had a little more weight than the state. I bucketed these into these categories that are shown in each chart's legend:

  • Strong R (Red) – City, state, and county are represented by all or nearly all Republicans
  • Mod. R (Magenta) – Significantly more R than D, but R not totally dominant
  • Mixed (Purple) – Somewhere between 60/40 and 40/60
  • Mod. D (Light Blue) – Significantly more D than R, but D not totally dominant
  • Strong D (Dark Blue) – All three represented by all or nearly all Democrats

Now to the charts. First, Violent Crime in aggregate, normalized at incidents per 100,000 persons for the whole year:

You can click on this image to see it at full size (1672x519). Right away this seems to confirm the claims of the commentators I had heard. There is hardly anything but blue to be found above 1,000 violent crimes per 100,000 persons. However, the situation with the "Mixed" group is interesting. Crime is not in the lowest range, but the average range for these is the lowest of the five groups. And the situation for Democratically-controlled and -influenced cities is more nuanced. Many of the cities with the lowest crime also lean Democratic. For this category of crime, the safest city is Virginia Beach (Strong R), with 146, and the most dangerous is Detroit (Strong D), with 1,989.

The style of the Democratic politics clearly varies a lot, and this is worth looking into. Not that I am likely to do so any time soon. One thing I do happen to know: Two cities in Minnesota are right in the middle, Minneapolis with 1,012 and St. Paul with 663. A number of Strong R and Mod. R cities are also in this range. Democrats in Minnesota belong to a party called "Democrat-Farm-Labor", jokingly called "Democrat For Life". They are more conservative than "RINO" Republicans and even most of the so-called "Republican Establishment", while Minnesota Republicans are typically staunch conservatives, well to the right of the GOP Establishment.

I had thought that crime statistics might show some trend with city size, or with economy, but I see no clear trend here. Nonetheless, both parameters serve as a way of spreading out the data so that's how they'll be shown here and below.

Such nuances demand a deeper look than just one crime statistic. Knowing that homicide trends with violent crime in general, and is the crime that gets the most news play, I charted homicides:

Other than Chandler, Arizona (0.4 homicides per 100,000), the Strong R and Mod. R points all plot in the lower 2/3 of a bubble outlines by the other three categories, particularly Strong D. The upper part of the chart is dominated by blue markers. The "killingest" city in 2014 was Saint Louis (50 per 100K), not Chicago. I don't have current statistics to determine if this was still so in 2016, the year everyone is talking about. Thus, although details vary, this chart tells the same story as the prior one, that the Reds are a bit safer than the Blues, but the Purples are, by a small margin, the safest overall.

Let's look at crimes that are less violent. First, burglaries:

This is very interesting. Here, nobody "wins", at least no political party "wins". A handful of cities come off as very safe, led by, of all places, New York City, with 186 burglaries per 100,000. The place in which your home is most likely to be burgled is, by a small margin, Cleveland, with 1,788 burglaries per 100,000. But Toledo and Cincinnati are right up there with it (maybe there is something about Ohio…), and also Memphis. If there is any trend at all, it is that the Mixed category is still the safest in general, but only slightly.

Finally, let's look at auto theft. This is usually nonviolent, but I suspect carjacking was included in the statistic:

This resembles the first two charts a little bit more, in that Strong R and Mod. R cluster below Strong D and Mod. D. But, again, Mixed clusters below the average of all the others, though two such places crept above 500 thefts per 100,000: Bakersfield (621) and Dallas (524). The safest place to park your car is Virginia Beach (80) and the least safe is Oakland (1590).

These charts broadly support the contention that the most crime-ridden cities do tend to be led by Democrats, and in the few cases I looked into, the Democratic party has been entrenched there for decades. However, clearly not all Democrats are created equal! Several of the cities with overwhelming Democratic environments are among the safest cities in America.

I just had to devise one more chart. I normalized and combined the four statistics used above into one number. A dangerous generalization, to be sure, but here it is:

I know, I ought to have swapped the horizontal axis to put the R's on the right, but perhaps it is healthier for our mind to reverse such a convention once in a while. First, the five cities with the lowest Index scores:

  • Virginia Beach, Virginia (0.331): P.E. = 0.25, Mod. R
  • Plano, Texas (0.343): P.E. = 0.5, Mixed
  • Chandler, Arizona (0.369): P.E. = 0, Strong R
  • El Paso, Texas (0.465): P.E. = 0.55, Mixed
  • Chula Vista, California (0.503): P.E. = 1, Strong D

And the five cities that "top the chart" with the highest Index scores:

  • Detroit, Michigan (3.55): P.E. = 0.8, Strong D
  • St. Louis, Missouri (3.22): P.E. = 0.8, Strong D
  • Oakland, California (2.78): P.E. = 1, Strong D
  • Cleveland, Ohio (2.62): P.E. = 0.8, Strong D
  • Memphis, Tennessee (2.57): P.E. = 0.65, Mod. D

Is there any point in drawing further conclusions?

Friday, January 27, 2017

A serendipitous friendship

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, friendships, food, cooking

Isabel Vincent was nearing the end of a toxic marriage. Her friend Valerie had just lost her mother and was worried about her father Edward, a 90-year-old. She asked Isabel to "look in on him". Over the next few years, a friendship blossomed, and Ms Vincent's book Dinner With Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship, is an intimate peek into it.

Just a touch of a spoiler: Though at the end of the book Edward is still living, at age 94 he is getting frail and has just hosted what he calls "the last supper". The eighteen chapters of the book focus on eighteen meals, most of which Edward cooked for Isabel or for her and a few others. Edward is an extraordinary man. Like many self-taught polymaths, he had a few careers, not just the usual one or two. Along the way he learned to cook very, very well.

Isabel and Edward each had a huge need. He was suddenly adrift, having been widowed after 68 years with an extraordinary woman. She was "going under for the third time" as her marriage dissolved around her. She needed his perspective, along with the comfort of a warm and exceptionally delicious meal, about weekly. He needed a focus outside himself, a way to divert his grief into caring for another.

In the end, each felt the other had rescued them. Need I say this was not a romance? Except in the way that every deep friendship forges a bond nearly as strong as a happy romance. Most folks know the Bible verse, "It is better to give than to receive." Both Isabel and Edward felt they were receiving something precious. Neither could fathom the value of what they were giving. That is the best kind of gift, the best kind of friendship.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Getting comfortable with some big numbers

kw: technical information, numbers, large numbers

When I was in college a classmate told me of something his Fourth-Grade teacher had done: She cut up about 20 sheets of "millimeter paper", the kind of graph paper with a millimeter grid that has 5- and 10-mm highlights, and taped them together into a 1,000x1,000 sheet, one meter square. This she hung on the wall with a sign above, "This is What a Million Looks Like."

I had occasion to remember this recently. It got me thinking. Most of us can't easily think of numbers such as a million or billion, or even several thousands. Yet we live in a world in which large numbers like that are bandied about: "93 million miles (or 150 million km) to the sun", "4 billion dollars" for such-and-such a system of highways, "7 billion people on Earth", "20 trillion dollar national debt", and so forth. What does a billion or a trillion even mean any more, when you can get a pocket-sized external hard drive with 1TB or 2TB of storage, or even more, for a hundred dollars or so? (Folks, a TB is a TeraByte, or a trillion 8-bit computer "characters").

Let's first be clear whose billion and trillion we mean. These days, even the English and other Europeans have pretty much surrendered to the American system of large numbers, in which a billion is 1,000 million, which is a 1 followed by 9 zeroes, and a trillion is a million million, or a 1 followed by 12 zeroes. But when I was young, the British and others still clung to an older system in which a billion had twelve zeroes and a trillion had eighteen. Some used the French term "milliard" for 1,000 million, the American billion. I remember reading a humorous article, "Why there will never be a British Billionaire", that made this vocabulary stick in my head.

Now we can start to think first of the humble Million. The King James Bible has 8/10 of a million words, or 783,137 if you don't count chapter headings and other auxiliary items. So consider the time it might take you to read the whole thing, add about 1/4, and that's the time you'd need to read a million words. I read novels at about 600 wpm, and nonfiction, if it is any good, at about half that speed. Thus I could read a million words of fiction in some 28 hours (so reading the Bible in a year isn't all that hard, no more than 4 minutes daily) and a million words of nonfiction in twice that time.

I once downloaded The Papers And Writings Of Abraham Lincoln, Complete from Project Gutenberg. In plain text (UTF-8) it comes to 3.1 MB, from which I infer about half a million words. That is Abraham Lincoln's lifetime out put of text. About half a million words, or some 64% of the King James Bible in volume. Now, you know how long reading that would take, but imagine writing those half million words longhand, with a quill pen. Writing with a good mechanical pencil I cannot exceed 20 wpm, and I am pretty sure that even a fast writer could seldom exceed half that using a quill. So Lincoln put a lot of time into his writing, perhaps the equivalent of a year or two of full time work. Several percent of all the minutes that he lived.

OK, let's talk about one billion. That teacher with her million tiny squares on the classroom wall would be hard put to show the children a billion tiny squares. All spread out, it would be larger than 30x30 meters. On some reasonable set of surfaces, such as a long stretch of 8-foot (2.4 m) wall, the paper would extend more than 415 meters, just a bit over a quarter mile. A stack of 1,000 1x1m sheets, had she the patience to make them, would be compact enough, about 10 cm thick (4 inches).

So let's consider something a bit easier to put in a bucket, such as sand. I have on hand some sand from Imperial Beach, California, that I collected about a year ago when I was visiting family there. It is from the southern end of the beach, near the Mexican border, where they don't dump a lot of dredged sand to replenish the beach; thus, it is the "natural" sand from that beach. After some examination with a low-power microscope, and counting the grains in a few milligrams of sand, I found that the average grain diameter is 1/3 millimeter and a gram of the sand would contain about 26,500 grains. That means that a billion grains would weigh 37.7 kilograms (about 83 pounds). The volume comes to about 20 liters (porosity is about 40% because the sand is rather angular and poorly sorted), or 5.3 gallons. That's about two buckets of sand; our household buckets are just under 3 gallons' capacity.

How about something smaller? I'd like to have a billion of something I can conveniently, and without strain, hold in one hand. Considering a weight of a kilogram or less, let's start by assuming a specific gravity similar to water and work backwards. A billionth of a kilogram is then a mass of one microgram, and a cube of ice with such a weight would be 0.1 millimeters on a side. In this size realm, the micron (micrometer for purists) is a convenient dimension. A cube 100 microns on a side is about the size of a mammalian fat cell, so a kilogram of fat contains, very approximately, a billion cells. The volume of that kg of fat is one liter (just over a quart).

Fat cells are larger than average. Another familiar cell type is the buccal cell, those you can gather by the hundreds by lightly scraping the inside of your cheek with a soup spoon. Their diameter is about 25 microns and their mass about one-eighth that of a fat cell, so a billion of them would weigh 125 g and fill 1/8 of a liter (about 4 fluid ounces). That's about the size of a golf ball.

For a big step into smallness let's burrow inside. We all have within us trillions of microbes. Most of them make up our "intestinal flora". They are called "flora" because something like a century ago bacteria were thought to be some kind of plant life. Now we know they are a kingdom of their own. But the term remains. What size are they?

They come in quite a range of sizes, because there are thousands of species. But the most common, the now-familiar Escherichia coli ("E coli" in the Press), also known as "coliforms", have a cell volume close to 2 cubic microns, and with a density just a little greater than that of water, a mass of about 2 trillionths of a gram. Whoa! We've already entered a realm in which it isn't hard to imagine a trillion of something. Two grams of E. coli bacteria contain a trillion cells! The volume would be about that of a thimble.

Now, bacteria are small, but viruses are smaller yet. Let's pick the "familiar" influenza virus. They have a modest range of size, but average 100 nanometers (nm). That is 1/1000th the size of the fat cells we mentioned above. The virus particles are flexible enough to pack together with little porosity, if you can gather a large number of them. So one billion of them, packed together, would have the same volume as one fat cell. And a trillion of them would have the volume of 1,000 fat cells; if packed into a little cube it would be one millimeter on a side. That same volume would hold half a million cells of E. coli.

I don't know how much this might help anyone think about the quantities million, billion or trillion. The meter-square piece of "millimeter paper" is easy enough to imagine, and not too hard to make. You could try holding a golf ball and thinking, "A billion of the cells that line my cheek would just fill this ball". Then, pluck a thimble from the nearest sewing kit and, holding it like a cup, say to yourself, "Fill 'er up with E. coli, and that's a trillion." I can't think of any convenient artifact that would hold "only" a trillion influenza virus particles. One cubic millimeter is pretty small!

Well, this was fun to write, and satisfies a "wild hair" I had a couple of hours ago.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Keeping the pixies up to date

kw: book reviews, fiction, fairy tales, anthologies

I have mentioned before (elsewhere) the time that I realized, in a fairy tale, the subjective meaning that unfolds when we understand that most of the characters are within us: the knight in shining armor is me (I hope!), the damsel in distress is me, but so also I am the dragon! And sometimes, I am also a troll or ogre…or, more properly, these represent something in me that I need to overcome, and then I am also the billy goat Gruff or whatever. Other times, the troll or ogre or giant represent, not actually parents or other "big people" in a child's life, but external barriers and other retarding forces.

So what does it mean for a modern author to write a new fairy tale? How much of the author is revealed in the tale? How much of the reader? As with other fiction, the best tales allow the reader to explore self-discovery. If a story doesn't fit? Table it; maybe it will fit a later situation. Or maybe never. Or maybe you're being self-blind, and it is worth another look.

What I didn't know is that at least a few authors' organizations exist that are devoted to promoting authors of new fairy tales. I wonder how many we have room for? At least a few, it seems: Paula Guran had edited a new anthology containing eighteen new stories, titled once upon a time. The title (and the typeface) consciously reflect the ABC series by that name, in which familiar fairy tales (and made-up Disneyifications) are twisted, darkened, and reinvented.

Some of the stories are familiar settings told from the viewpoint of a different character, such as "The Spinning Wheel's Tale" by Jane Yolen and "Tales That Fairies Tell" by Richard Bowes. One tale is painfully touching, "Egg" by Priya Sharma, a tale of nurturing and letting go; it is hard to exaggerate what is already a strong, overwhelming, even rending experience for us all, but Ms Sharma manages it. At least a couple of the stories I got no more than a page into, thought, "What could the editor possibly be thinking?!?", and skipped to the next story.

The last is the best, "Blanchefleur" by Theodora Goss, based on a less familiar story, and told with just enough hint of magic to transform it from an allegory of metamorphosis into a fairy tale of personal transformation. The stories we find ourselves loving inform us who we are.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Time catches up to Mr. Hitchens

kw: book reviews, collections, essays

I knew nothing of Christopher Hitchens besides his name when I obtained a collection of his essays titled and yet… I didn't know at the time that this was his final collection. There is no mention of an editor. Considering that the last five chapters didn't appear in print until after his death, I am forced to conclude that he prepared the book himself in his last months, with those last five essays awaiting publication in various journals, and that officers of his estate went ahead with the publication in 2015.

The book contains essays he wrote from 2004 until his death in 2011, with the exception of the first chapter, "Che Guevara: Goodbye to All That", from 1997. From the flyleaf I learned that he is one of the most prolific authors and essayists that I'd never heard of. I had heard of only one of his book, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I suppose when I heard or saw that book referenced somewhere it planted his name in my memory.

Reading the 48 essays in and yet…, I was quite impressed with the breadth of his reading and interests. He brings in more "thoughts from left field" (and right field and center and from over the park wall) than I typically see from even the best essayists I have read. And he seems able to look at almost anything from an angle nobody else thought of. Writing of "Arthur Schlesinger: The Courtier" (pp 197-202), he illuminates the tension  between Schlesinger's attempt to retain some measure of distance from the Kennedy "Camelot", while becoming in effect a courtier in that court. In "The Politicians We Deserve", he notes that "Populism imposes its own humiliations on anyone considering a run" [for public office]. He closes that 2010 essay on demagoguery with, "How low can it go? Much lower, just you wait and see." It seems to me it would be well to keep collections of his essays handy, lest we lose that collective memory of the surge and sway of culture and politics. In an era growing more divisive by the day, it is well to remember that these things have indeed happened before, and had Hitchens lived into this end of the 20-teens, he'd surely have a lot to say about that.

I am not much concerned that he was anti-god. A person of faith recognizes that most religion is used to replace faith rather than uphold it, so that his analysis in god is Not Great is in part correct. 'Tis a pity he never brought himself to give the time of day to anyone of genuine faith so as to have the chance to see the difference. Yet, in the world in which he dwelt, Hitchens had clearer vision that that world has a right to expect.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Prevaricators' Paradise, or Victims' Vengeance?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, logic, lying, critical thinking

I'm sure you've heard the old chestnut about public figures who lie, that some lie when they must, and some lie constantly to stay in practice. Or that for some, that the way to tell they are lying is that their lips are moving. And then we have Mark Twain remarking on "Lies, damned lies, and statistics", which he attributed to Disraeli, but he was mistaken (or, perhaps, lying!). And we occasionally hear a paraphrase of "To err is human" into "To lie is human". Ah, the great benefits we seem to attain by lying, at such a little cost!

Is it safe to say that nearly anyone trying to advance a viewpoint (or sell a product or win an argument) is lying? Usually, I suppose. It is your best, first assumption. But when you want to know "the truth", where do you turn? Now that the biggest news story closing out the year 2016 is "Fake News", where do you get "Real News"?

We have to take what we can get, and verify it the best we can. This is the primary reason for learning to think critically. It is why right, right now is a great time for a book to appear with the title A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age. To quote the opening paragraph of author Daniel J. Levitin,
"This is a book about how to spot problems with the facts you encounter, problems that may lead you to draw the wrong conclusion. Sometimes the people giving you the facts are hoping you'll draw the wrong conclusion; sometimes they don't know the difference themselves. Today, information is available nearly instantaneously, but it is becoming increasingly hard to tell what's true and what's not, to sift through the various claims we hear and to recognize when they contain misinformation, pseudo-facts, distortions and outright lies."
Dr. Levitin jumps right over "lies and damned lies" to statistics in the first third of the book, "Evaluating Numbers". It is a great place to start because we are so damnably bad at evaluating numbers. The brain is an unbeatable pattern recognition machine. It excels at finding similarities, and it is over-tuned: it finds patterns where none exist. Thus we see all kinds of animals and scenery in clouds; a highly educated astronomer such as Percival Lowell spent much of his career mapping the canals on Mars; and to my recollection there are at least three pieces of burnt toast being carefully stored in freezers because they bear a mark that looks sort of like Jesus, so they have become objects of worship. But we are woefully deficient in discerning the meaning of numerical quantities.

It is curious: Recognizing a face reliably is something we do thousands of times daily, and we are very, very seldom mistaken. We almost never mistake a not-face for a face. What we do easily our computing machines do slowly and rather poorly. I have made heavy use of the Picasa face-tagging system for several years, for organizing my photos. It is really, really good, but will on occasion put a hopeful "Who is this?" tag on what I see as some random blob, or on a hubcap or the "face" of a clock. And it misses about a tenth of the genuine faces in an average scene, particularly when there is quite a range of sizes, that is, distances to the subjects. The computing power needed for Picasa's algorithms to work has only been available for about ten years. It takes a few billion computations to locate a face in a scene, and more billions to match it with a similar one in the database of recognized faces in your photo collection. Every one of us can recognize a person with great reliability in a tiny fraction of the time. But very few of us can determine the product 347x94 in less than several seconds, and probably not at all without the help of a calculator or a pencil and paper. Yet a computer can perform millions or billions of similar calculations every second, and does so whenever you recalculate an Excel spreadsheet. We must face the fact that our brain is tuned to see the tiger in the grass so we don't get eaten. Prior to the ascent of "civilization", we had no need to count the tiger's stripes, and if we were interested in doing so (unlikely!), it was only after we'd ganged up on the tiger to kill and skin it.

Part Two is "Evaluating Words", and in just under 60 pages, is the briefest of treatments of logical fallacies. There are numerous volumes written about the few dozen fallacies of formal logic that philosophers study, and further volumes that cover the fallacies of informal logic, the "everyday fallacies" such as "50,000 dentists agree" or "All the Kardashians (or celebrity of your choice) love product X" or "only a fool would pass up this offer". Pet Advertising Peeve of the year: any ad containing the phrase "don't want you to know" is fallacious. Period. Trust your uncle Polymath (but, then, this is possibly another fallacy!).

The third part of the book, "Evaluating the World", presents an excellent review of the Scientific Method, which is an armory containing our best weapons to discover error and falsity and correct them. The scientific method is collaborative; it cannot be practiced in isolation. The great difficulties we encounter using the scientific method glaringly illustrate just how prone we are to being deceived and to deceiving ourselves. Thus, if the brain is a pattern-recognition engine, the scientific method harnesses many brains to sharpen the focus and more properly set the boundary between "perceived facts" and "true facts".

I hesitate to go further. A book like this presents a quandary. While it exposes a few hundred ways you could be lied to, it is also a kind of prevaricator's textbook. I am reminded of the dilemma faced by missionaries to Hawaii, as described in James A. Michener's enormous novel Hawaii: They wanted to put up a sign with the Ten Commandments, but there was a problem. The Hawaiians didn't understand them, particularly "Thou shalt not commit adultery?" What was adultery? The missionaries argued thus: If we try to describe adultery in general terms, some people will say, "Oh, that isn't what I am doing." But if we list all the different things that are adultery, others will read the list and say about one item or another, "Wow, that sounds like fun. I'll try it!" They were further troubled by the cultural requirement that the king of Hawaii must marry his sister. It took the missionaries about two generations to change Hawaiian culture enough to eliminate "that kind of adultery". Thus there is a risk that some will read the book to get ideas.

I suppose Dr. Levitin has thought the matter through, and judged that putting weapons into our hands is worth the risk that a few liars might become better liars as a result. I agree. Caveat emptor is still the best policy, and always will be. Let this book full of caveats arm you.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Presenting CWWN v09 - The Present Testimony (2)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

The present volume of the Collected Works of Watchman Nee contains Issues No. 19 – 36 of The Present Testimony, from the years 1931 and 1932. Issues 19 – 22 and a portion of Issue 23 concern a number of spiritual matters, and I find two of special note: "The Principle of the Second" (Issue 21) and "The Pattern on the Mountain" (Issue 22). The first shows how frequently God confers a better blessing on the second-born (Jacob over Esau) or the second-anointed (David over Saul). The second drives home the point that God does not permit human innovation regarding our carrying out of His service. Indeed, He must frequently hinder, stop, or even curse innovators. The great example of one whose service is pleasing to God is Moses, who "was faithful in all [God's] house" (Num 12:7; Heb 3:5). He oversaw production and construction of the tabernacle exactly according to the pattern he was shown on Mount Sinai. Those who have all kinds of "good ideas" for working for God are most likely to hear His rebuke at the Judgment Seat of Christ, "I didn't know [i.e. authorize] you; depart, you workers of iniquity".

From the tenth page of Issue 23 through the end of this volume we find the content of seven messages given at the Second Conference, which had been held in October, 1931, on the subject "The New Covenant". These 101 pages (as here printed) constitute the most thorough treatment to be found anywhere, of the meaning, purposes, contents, and consequences of God's new covenant.

Prior to becoming joined to a church that follows this ministry, I heard some preaching on the new covenant, and on the principles of God's covenants. I have heard preachers who claim to preach nothing but Covenant Theology. Some of what I heard was pretty good and quite encouraging. This volume could be a text for a doctoral-level course on the subject. The Covenant Theology preachers of my past are at best at grade school level by comparison.

From these messages I gleaned one item worth recalling (and I'll need to re-read to gain others equally precious): A covenant is not for God, it is for His people. He keeps the promises He makes, but we are weak and find it hard to consistently believe that He will do so. As He promised in foretelling the new covenant to Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-34), God writes His laws on the hearts and minds of His people, He becomes their God, and they become His people. Based on those three things are three more, that they will all know God and need no instruction to do so, that He will make propitiation for their unrighteousnesses, and that He will erase the record of their sins. By themselves these are promises. By making them a covenant, and even more, a testament (secured by the death of the testator, our savior Jesus), God has done all He can to ensure us that we need only claim the provisions of this covenant. We don't beg for forgiveness according to God's mercy; we claim forgiveness because, by believing Him, we fulfill the only requirement this covenant makes on us; all other provisions have been made by God and God guarantees them to us. We are saved by grace not according to mercy, but according to God's righteousness. When we see this, we will pray in a different way.

One may ask, why if I am presently partaking of ministry according to Watchman Nee and his co-workers, did I not already gain the point I make just above? These things are difficult to minister. Do not think the paragraph above is in any way a substitute for the several pages of Issues 35 and 36 where they are explained. Little by little over the years, much has been imparted to me. Reading this volume of CWWN is like taking a large and meaty meal. This is partly why it was so long since I wrote of the prior volume.

Those who wish to truly know the New Covenant must obtain this volume!