Monday, December 31, 2007

How many masses mean balance?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space aliens

I haven't read anything by Julie E. Czerneda before, though it seems she's been writing well-received and award-winning SF novels for about ten years. She specializes in trilogies, with three in print already, and one "singlet". Reap the Wild Wind is #1 of her newest, the "Stratification" set.

The word Stratification is used but once in the novel, during a debate over the best use of new ESP-like Talents among the Om'ray, a human-like race of the world Cerci, which is host to two others, the insectile Tikitik and the huge, sluglike Oud. Subject to an ancient Agreement, the three share the world.

The balance is upset by the arrival of Strangers, survey teams from a collaboration of space races that includes humans. An accident involving Stranger technology seemingly dooms one clan of the Om'ray. Faced with a lost Harvest, they exile a number of their "unChosen", single males who must now seek another clan.

The lead character, Aryl Sarc, a young "pre-Chooser", a single female on the verge of coming of age, is one of many with new Talents. All Om'ray can sense the presence and direction of all other Om''s like an ESP radar. Aryl can also know who each one is, and she is able to send herself and others through "the dark", a kind of teleportation. This is a new, and very dangerous Power.

The conservative Council, afraid of upsetting the Agreement, suppress Talents deemed risky. The primary political thread is the tension between a paranoically conservative faction of the Council and the increasing numbers of new Talents whose Powers can no longer be denied or suppressed. The interference of the Strangers multiplies the dangers and the fears.

This first book ends in betrayal, further exile, and a hint that at least a fourth race is party to the Agreement. That will certainly figure into the following volumes.

Technology is not the main issue here. Ms Czerneda excels in characterization, particularly of aliens with their unique senses, feelings, and ways of thinking. By the end of the novel, I can't claim I understand either Tikitik or Oud, but they have become empathetic figures. A signal accomplishment!

Friday, December 28, 2007

At least this Muslim you could talk to

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion

I have written about the threat from radical Islam a few times, and other posts about Islam. A key post is A religion struggling to grow up. It is a short version of a talk I gave in the Spring of 2006. One portion of the talk that I didn't add to that post was that we in the West need to engage moderate Muslims in dialog and mutual understanding, and to support their efforts to further marginalize Islamic radical movements and overcome them. This is the job of Muslims, just as the solution to the excesses of 600 years of imperial Catholicism came from Christians in the 1500s, and the excesses of Protestantism are still being opposed and corrected by congregational, free-group, and local church styles of faith and Christian practice.

Because of the very deadly nature of radical Islam, moderate Muslims need not just support but protection. "Moral support" is not enough. That said, I recommend Ziauddin Sardar's recent small book What Do Muslims Believe? The Roots and Realities of Modern Islam to all Western readers, particularly serious Christians. I believe evangelical Christians ought to take the lead to support the efforts of such honest Muslims to take back their faith from those who evilly pervert it.

The book contains a comprehensive, if brief, exposition of Islam, its history, its varieties and its internal controversies, which are currently quite intense. The author frankly presents not just his view of "normative" Islam, but all the variety we currently see.

Points of greatest interest to me include:
  • Muslims are guided by two books, the Quran and the Hadith. The former is the collection of revealed verses (all are poetic in Arabic) that Muslims consider inspired by Allah. The latter comprises all other utterances of Muhammad that are considered genuine, though Shia and Sunni sects differ in the content thereof.
  • The Shariah "law" that is a current focus of much controversy was originally subject to much debate; it was intended to grow and adapt, to be amended as culture evolved, much as the U.S. Constitution is intended to be a living document. It has, however, been promoted, successfully, as inspired and unchangeable, and so is several centuries out of date.
  • Islamic legalists succeeded in stifling debate on most questions of Quranic interpretation and all manner of legal appendages, including Shariah. The author writes, "The freezing of interpretation [in the 1300s] had a catastrophic effect on the development of Islamic thought. In particular, it stopped the evolution of the its tracks." (p95)
  • The veiling of women is not demanded by any verse in the Quran or statement in the Hadith: "It was Caliph Umar who instituted segregated prayers, banned female imams and insisted that women should cover themselves. ... I see it as a perversion of the essentially egalitarian nature of Islam." (p79). The entire matter is based on two sentences in Sura 24, which enjoins men to refrain from gazing at women, and women to lower their gaze and veil their bosoms. Did the Quraysh women go about bare above the waist? Regardless, the Sura's statement is quite parallel to the longer statements one finds in the New Testament, and equally innocuous. Neither document supports the use of the heavy covering Arabs insist on.
  • As stated in the Quran every Muslim is responsible to learn its contents and interpret them for him- or herself. This goes beyond the personal Scriptural responsibility of most Christians, who tend to favor more institutionalized interpretation. As stated above, it also goes far beyond the stance insisted on by modern imams.
These are but a few things I found interesting. This book is required reading. Get to know your local Muslims.

Though as an evangelical Christian I cannot consider the Quran to be inspired, I certainly can, and do, have good relationships with the Muslims of my acquaintance without engaging in religious bickering.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Apocalypse at Yellowstone?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, geological history, volcanoes

For months or years, probably a decade or more, the signs accumulate. Sensitive equipment detects fifty or 100 earthquakes one month, 500 the next, then less than 100, and so forth. People sitting still might notice a tremor every few months. One rumbles through that knocks knickknacks off of shelves, and maybe someone falls off a chair. "Are they getting worse?" people ask the next day. A GPS device shows that the ground has risen another foot in just a week, but it has done that before, and often subsided.

Finally, one day a series of shocks that can knock a fellow down is followed by an eruption of smoke and a little ash. A new crack becomes a fumarole, then as the ground rises more rapidly, ash and hot rocks pop out.

This is new. This could be the beginning of a major eruption. This isn't Mount Etna or Vesuvius, which are dangerous enough. This is Yellowstone, and the modern park almost encompasses a set of three overlapping calderas (volcanic craters) big enough to hold Vesuvius and Etna both...not their craters, but the entire mountains.

It may be that these new events herald an explosion similar in size to Krakatau. That simply removed an island the size of New York City. Or it could be much bigger. Two million years ago, the oldest Yellowstone caldera was formed in the fourth largest eruption geologists have studied. It has erupted twice since, one just 640,000 years ago being about half the magnitude of the first, and one between the two in time, but about one-tenth the scale. A "smaller" eruption occurred just 70,000 years ago. That one was still ten to fifty times as destructive as Mt. Vesuvius when it destroyed Pompeii.

There are just under fifty known ashfall beds that Geologists classify as "Supervolcano" eruption debris. Each released at least 500 cubic km (120 cubic miles) of ashy lava. The largest, which spread the Fish Canyon Tuff in Colorado 28 million years ago, erupted 5,000 km3. The earlier Yellowstone ashfall was about half that, with the later one about 1,000. The ashfall 70,000 years ago was a "mere" 100 km3.

Within a few years from today, and perhaps in a much more compressed time frame, a new caldera could appear at Yellowstone, and whenever it does, an area the size of Connecticut could be covered in several feet of ash...or hundreds. Human civilization could be completely reworked as a result, or vanish entirely for generations. Then again, it may not occur for centuries. But the chances are deemed to be about five times as great as another asteroid impact like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

All this is my own synopsis of Greg Breining's thesis in Super Volcano: The Ticking Time Bomb Beneath Yellowstone National Park. My sketch is just a middle-of-the-road speculation, based on the history of Yellowstone and the Snake River plateau over the past 16-18 million years.

Think Hawaii: A series of islands that arose, one after another, over 20 million years or so. The Big Island is still erupting but a new island is forming to its northeast, and will grow above sea level in a few hundred years. This chain of island volcanoes is symptomatic of a hot spot anchored in Earth's mantle, somewhere at least a few hundred miles down. The Pacific Plate is moving over this stationary hot spot at a rate of about 5 cm yearly. From time to time, this starves off the heat supply to one island, so a new conduit to the surface is melted through, forming a newer island.

The North American Plate is moving over a similar hot spot, at perhaps 2 cm yearly. Our first bits of evidence for it are 350 miles WSW of Yellowstone, along the Nevada-Oregon border. Geologists have pieced together evidence of 142 major eruptions spanning about 17 million years. Many of these had Super status (500 km3 of ash or more). Events the size of the one 70,000 years ago are hard to discern because the larger ones tend to erase the smaller ones. A "70,000" style eruption would be the biggest in recorded history.

Hawaii and other island chains erupt much larger total volumes of lava, and very little ash, because the oceanic crust has a composition that, when melted into magma (when magma is ejected it becomes lava), is runny and flows readily. A hot spot that melts continental crust produces a much thicker magma. It is much hotter than Hawaiian magma, but so sticky it cannot flow at all. It allows pressure to build up until an explosion occurs. A "small" explosion reduces pressure at the top of the magma body, which allows water to expand into steam, leading to a bigger explosion; this process cascades until a large portion of the magma is blasted out. The caldera forms when the steam pressure falls and the overlying, "cooler" rocks collapse into the emptied magma chamber.

This can happen fast! The thick ash left behind by Yellowstone's largest known eruption is a single "welded tuff" that could have fallen in a single day. Near the caldera it may have been more than a mile thick.

When Mt. St. Helens erupted 27 years ago, it loosed a couple of cubic km of ash. I lived in South Dakota at the time. We had an ash fall of a quarter inch or less of fine dust a few days later. Had that been a supervolcano eruption, the thickness would have been three or four meters. Shoveling snow is bad enough! You gotta get ash like that off the roof of your house before the next rain, or it soaks up the water and your roof collapses! And it is likely to rain soon. Such eruptions usually trigger heavy rainfall.

The book's chapters survey the history of Yellowstone and of volcanic disasters through both recent Geologic time and historical time. The timing and scale of the largest eruptions points up the problem we have: There has been no super volcano eruption in the last 10,000 years, so we don't have any idea what events lead up to it, how rapidly it actually occurs, or how long the biosphere (and human culture) take to recover.

Here is the latest update from the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory:
day, December 3, 2007 10:27 MST
Volcano Alert Level: NORMAL
Aviation Color Code: GREEN

NOVEMBER 2007 Yellowstone Seismicity Summary

During the month of November 2007, 69 earthquakes were located in the Yellowstone Region. The largest of these shocks was a magnitude 2.9 on November 4, 2007 at 11:43 PM MDT, located about 2 miles south southeast of West Thumb, WY. This earthquake was slightly felt at West Thumb and Old Faithful but produced no damage. There were no earthquake swarms during the month.

Earthquake activity in the Yellowstone region is at relatively low background levels.

Ground Deformation Summary: Through November 2007, continuous GPS data show that most of the Yellowstone caldera continued moving upward at similar to slightly lower rates as the past year. The maximum measured ground uplift over the past 37 months is ~17 cm at the White Lake GPS station. An example can be found at: UNAVO time series

The general uplift of the Yellowstone caldera is scientifically interesting and will continue to be monitored closely by YVO staff.
When might it happen? The timing of past eruptions is quite irregular, so we could be overdue, or it could be thousands of years. Such an eruption takes time to gather its energies, so there will be signs, but like "false labor" that can come and go for a month before a baby is born, nobody can predict which set of gathering precursors will cascade into a huge blast. Knowing human history, when Yellowstone really blows, there will probably be tens of thousands of people there, inside the present caldera, enjoying the extra geyser activity and excitedly peeking at the new, smoking, spitting fumaroles. Not even their DNA will be found afterward.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Little book, big ideas

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, life

Freeman Dyson tops my list of original, broad-based thinkers. Among SciFi addicts, he is probably best known for "Dyson Spheres," the concept that an advanced species will gradually surround their home star with either a solid shell or a tightly-woven maze of orbital habitats, so as to capture all of its radiation for their use. He speculated that warm Infrared stars, radiating most strongly at a wavelength of 10-12 micrometers, corresponding to a "visible surface temperature"of 280-300 K, or about 10-30 ºC, which is the comfortable living range for "life like us."

He is a classic polymath: though his main expertise is mathematical physics, he displays mastery of the sciences generally, and in any field, his "guesses" are likely to be correct. In his new book A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe, partly composed from his Page-Babour Lectures of 2004, he speaks of life in many aspects, from the technological to the theological.

Known for keeping his own counsel and thinking much farther "outside the box" than others, he speculates on a near-future biotechnology when gene sequencing is cheap, and genetic engineering kits can be bought at the toy store, for kids who might want to create a purple-eyed kitten or a winged snakelet...or people of any age who wish to edit themselves. I like his characterization of scientist as hedgehogs and foxes. The foxes find all the new stuff, while a hedgehog learns everything about some new thing and makes it into practical products.

Dyson also explores Carl Woese's idea that before there were Bacteria and Archaea, there was a mega-species of cellular life that shared genetic material like we share e-mails, promiscuously, and with abandon. He thinks the segregation of DNA into cells that "kept it to themselves" has slowed down evolution. The toy store genetic kits might just return Earth to a rapid-paced evolutionary future.

In his third chapter he develops one of my favorite themes: the value of heretics (I tend to use the word fanatics, but the concept matches). Motivational speakers such as the Coveys say things like this: Innovation requires doing something others aren't doing. Therefore orthodoxy guarantees stagnation, and only the heterodox make any progress. Consider that 90% of what we now "know" was unknown twenty years ago, and that half of what was "known" then is now known to be wrong, while most of the rest has been subsumed into better theories.

In his heretic's garb, he points out that "global warming" is not exactly global, nor exactly warming. Extra greenhouse gases mean extra energy in the system, so some areas get warmer, other areas get cooler, and overall, climatic extremes get a little more extreme. He points out that if a much larger fraction of farmers used conservation tillage, the extra carbon stored in soil would begin to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In his last chapter he discusses theology and neurology. He demonstrates that people with significant "handicaps" such as autism or congenital deafness think differently than others, so much so that he calls them "alien minds in our midst." Their concepts of spirituality, for those who can express one, is quite different from any major religion. I've long said that people are worth more than doctrines. Augustine said, "If you understand, it isn't God." Dyson seems to be on to something.

This just skates the surface. I may return to some of his themes, when I am not against a deadline. I just have to get a few lines penned and take off on a a matter of minutes!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Coral versus . . . everybody

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space aliens, mysteries

Arthur Clarke said, "A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." When a writer of SciFi chooses an imagined world having technologies thousands or millions of years beyond our own, it is only the stated intent, and the strong tendency to adhere to consistent rules, that makes the book Science Fiction rather than a Fantasy.

Timothy Zahn has picked a winner in the two books he has placed in a universe with interstellar train transport. An unknown technology from a vanished species' distant past is used to travel between the stars. The trains seem to move at a 100 kph rate, but a trick of morphing space near a cosmic-string "coreline" allows them to traverse a light year each minute, or sometimes faster. I read his SciFi mystery Night Train to Rigel a number of years ago (pre-Blog), in which the premise is laid out. His newest book The Third Lynx develops the theme.

The train system, its hyper-paranoid custodians and their "Spider" allies, plus the danger imposed by a secretive, telepathic coral form the backdrop of these mysteries in which Frank Compton and the part-human part-Spider Bayta seek to thwart the coralline Mohdri's plans.

Twelve species now share the use of the Quadrail trains (plus a thirteenth, the custodians and the spiders combined), making a major chunk of the Galaxy resemble Europe. For a fee, including the cost of shuttle and torch ship transport between Quadrail stations and planetary surfaces, one may travel a few hundred light years overnight.

I found it interesting to speculate on the origin of the species names. The hulking Halkas—think a bipedal 120kg bulldog—and the bellicose Bellidos from Bellico—they look like chipmunks but carry four sidearms each—seem obvious. The Seejlis and Tra'ho'seej are less so. But that's OK. Zahn himself may know, and may not.

The human/alien drama aside, the core idea in this novel is a 3-section weapon that is quite innocuous when disassembled, but once the three parts are together, it packs almost nuclear levels of firepower into a rifle-sized package. The titular Lynx is one part of such a package.

I sometimes try to outline or diagram a plot line. Not here. There are enough plot twists and unexpected turns to fill three books by an ordinary writer; Zahn is way beyond ordinary!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Megavirus to the rescue

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction

New writer, new ideas. Anachronisms abound in Radio Freefall by Matthew Jarpe, but it isn't too serious. The title is intended to remind of "Radio Free Europe", for the theme enters that territory.

In the early 2030s, the world is rapidly being swallowed up by Unification. As usual, the mass of humanity is either too sheeplike or too busy surviving to pay much attention. The scenario is plausible. Also, music trends have done what trends do: morphed almost out of recognition. The mix of "classic" rock/hiphop/rap/CMA country (today's trends) is giving way to more techno versions of all of the above, and that is important to the story line.

Mr. Jarpe sure knows his music, and he's a fair hand with a lyric: every chapter has a head quote from a song dated 2008-2032. They're an eclectic sample of the kinds of semi-absurdist post-post-modern rage/protest rock that is quite likely to be popular among our grandkids...except that the turn(s) music will really take over the next 25 years is 'way too unpredictable.

The prevalence of AI running at a human and post-human level is much less likely. Moore's Law has been showing signs of wear for 10-15 years, and the curvature of the "linear" trend is quite noticeable now. That simply means that the predictions of the AI gurus have to be taken with an even larger pinch of salt than before. Whenever you read predictions of what new advance will occur when, simply add a zero: ten years means a hundred, and so forth. So that part of the narrative took some getting used to. I guess I know too much about the field, from the inside.

The idea of a pervasive Net virus evolving into the Digital Carnivore is enticing. However, evolution requires a population that can mix, reproduce and be frequently decimated by selective forces. The focus in the book on one big virus masks this, though a knowledge of the way the net works makes it seem more likely to me. Any one piece of viral code is endlessly replicated, and if it has been programmed to be self-editing, and able to mix-and-match among various copies of itself, who knows...?

The three main characters in the book—Aqualung, an aging rocker and electronics wizard; Walter Cheeseman, a political and business genius who is quite credibly taking over the world; and Quin Taber (with his AI assistant Molly), one of a small number of people who can handle the info overload of a "dataspray" implant, and a former Cheeseman employee who now wants to thwart him—are all larger than life, more so than I expected.

The book is compared in the trade press with Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and I can see the similarity. But Jarpe makes it more personal (in Moon the digital protagonist overshadows everyone else), and his craft is already good enough to make this quite unlikely plot seem possible. I'd watch this guy as his writing matures.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Being both sides of the dialog

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays

Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." That's a rather negative way of saying, "Pay attention." Alan Alda says it even better, summing up his new book: "Notice it." A one-word sentence (the next-to-last, but it would be better placed as the last) closes Alda's Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself: "Notice."

I found it interesting, having reviewed a book compiled from, to find one a popular cultural figure pondering the same questions. Alda's title refers to the source material. He is a sought-after public speaker, having spoken, for example, as the commencement speaker at all three of his daughters' graduation ceremonies. He realized recently that in all these talks, "...I was really talking to myself." Fortunately, unlike many celebrities, he has something to say.

He has not really had a quest for the "meaning of life." His passion has been enjoying it, and that not even in a focused way. He loves a lot of things--the animal pleasures, of course: wine, woman (one woman, Arlene), and song...and dance and acting; but also the heady pleasures of writing a script or a speech (on which he works harder than on anything else); though he had a taste for science, he bypassed a science education for the theater, so he instead grabbed the chance to interview scientists and see some of their work first hand for Scientific American Frontiers, for eleven years.

In the sixteen essays that make up the book we find glimpses of many people we've seen only on the surface, if at all. The actress Anne Bancroft, who underneath, as one who played with Alda's grandchildren, was Anna Maria Louisa Italiano from the Bronx, an amazing woman, perhaps the only one who could keep up with husband Mel Brooks. Martin Bregman, who became his agent: a complex, fun, passionate man, yet one who frequently hid his polio-ravaged legs behind a large desk; in any way that Alda did not make himself, Bregman made him. Yuan Long Ping, inventor of rice that will crossbreed and thus a hero of Chinese agriculture, who taught Alda more about Thomas Jefferson than any book he'd read...he did it by living a Jeffersonian life, with its inherent risks in Maoist China.

Alan Alda is seventy now. Now that he has a couple of books under his belt, I do hope he writes more, much more.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The value of thinking out loud

kw: realizations, self talk

(This post is relevant to the next book I'll be reviewing, later today or early tomorrow)

I've seen an article recently that reported the varying opinions of psychologists, whether we think in words, and whether we need words in order to think. Seeing an animal ponder, then visibly come to a decision, I have to conclude there are but two possibilities: if animals other than humans are entirely nonverbal, then words are not needed for thought; but if words are needed, then all thinking animals have language at some level.

Based on my experience, I'd say words are not always needed, but they sure help (and as an aside, I think the varied vocalizations and other signs we see in all mammals and birds indicate they have "words" that are meaningful to them. It is strange that a pet dog can learn to respond properly to many human words, and with little effort, but humans don't seem able to learn the dog's words!)
Yesterday, after working out this puzzle by Doris Clarke, I said to my wife, "These Acrostics must be a lot harder to make than crosswords. The writer has to find a quote that contains all the letters in the title of a book and the name of its author, then produce twenty or more partial anagrams."

As I spoke, I realized that the first part is almost laughably simple. The quote in this puzzle contains 165 letters. Just statistically, we know that almost any clip of English containing 150-200 letters will have at least one occurrence of twenty or more of the twenty-six English letters. The search for a usable quote is a bit harder if the title or author's name contains Q, X, or Z...but only a little bit. The real work is in using up all the letters in other words and phrases, the anagrammatic clues.

These days, there are a number of computer programs that will make anagrams from as long a string of letters as you like. But I suspect a number of puzzle purists still do most of their work without computer help, using anagram dictionaries and other helps. The creativity comes in having a good reserve of words and 2-3 word phrases that are "just tricky enough" but "just familiar enough" to make the puzzle more enjoyable.

For example, the 23 clues in this puzzle contain only these few "banal" items: YAWN, WREN, ROTUND, and LENGTH. The rest require plenty of literary, sports, geographic, biblical, and popular culture knowledge. I suspect that very few anagram dictionaries include FEVERFEW, ARCAB, or ALTAMONT, not to ignore SOMERSETSHIRE or ANTIETAM! I have to admit, being quite ignorant of sports trivia, I didn't "get" ERNIE BANKS until the only letter missing was the K! And you can see a couple of my musings there, where I had a first thought, but knew I didn't have a unique solution for a clue, because I also knew other possible answers with the right number of letters. By the way, I wonder how many folks out there have ever seen the word "uxoricidal", and how many know its meaning.

Just in case you're curious, I use CAPS when I am sure of the word or letter I am using, and lower case otherwise. Sometimes I've gone back and replaced a "d" with a "D" and so forth, but once I have about half the letters and clues, the rest of the solution usually proceeds too quickly for me to bother. I just write it all in.

But the point of my musings today is that I had thought to myself a few times about how hard it must be to create an Acrostic puzzle, but it wasn't until I spoke with my wife about it that the process became clear. Sometimes I've solved an enigma by thinking about how I'd explain it to someone; other times, it has required me to actually do the explaining out loud. Hearing what I have to say helps me get my thoughts straightened out. I suspect this phenomenon is quite universal.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy, collections

Go take a look at, where you can ask a question and one or more of a stable of 34 philosophers will post an answer.

An example "Question of the Day":

What is music? I can recognise music from cultures other than my own as being music, even if I don't enjoy it; but what makes a series of sounds 'music'? Similarly (I assume), when does human vocalising become song?

Response from Peter S. Fosl on January 5, 2007

What a fascinating question. I hope that some of my co-panelists can give you the answer this question deserves. For myself, I would briefly and cautiously answer this way: What makes a series of sounds (or even a single sound or even a silence) music is our agreement to consider it as music. Just as John Cage invites people to consider the silence and random sounds that occur during a 4 minute and 33 second period music (his piece is called, 4' 33") and Marcel Duchamp invites people to consider a urinal as sculpture (he called the piece Fountain), we make something music when we interpret it as music.

[Now we're back to me] As I recall, very, very few people accepted either Cage's or Duchamp's invitation. To most people, there is more to music than a chosen, empty interval, and many things are sculpted (dentures, for example) yet not considered "sculptures".

However, as nearly any philosopher will note, disagreement is central to philosophy. If you and I agree on everything, one of us is redundant. To me, divergent views complement one another, as the two not-identical views from our two eyes allow depth perception.

"askphilosophers" Site creator and organizer Alexander George has gathered a couple hundred of the best Q/A (of 1700+ so far submitted) into a fun little volume titled what would socrates say: philosophers answer your questions about love, nothingness, and everything else. The 34 contributors (and 21 former contributors) bring a wide assortment of philosophical viewpoints to bear on the "big questions" kids ask, and adults sometimes forget to ask.

To the question "Do good and bad luck exist?", Thomas Pogge offers one of the longer answers, which boils down to the principle of statistical independence: a series of instances of either good or bad luck ("streaks" in sports lingo) have no bearing on the goodness or badness of the next event coming down the pike.

A more probing question prompts three answers: "If every life ends in death, then how could life have any value?". Two short answers put the value in the experiences we have. A third, longer one, points to the hidden assumption that only unending life could have meaning or value, claiming instead that "endless existence would actually undermine the value of life." To me, this equates to the statement that a blank sheet of paper is less interesting than almost any other alternative; the background is needed, however dark it may be, to make the foreground visible by contrast. And I like that view.

The book is organized in four sections: "what can i know", "what ought i to do", "what may i hope", and "what is man". These are certainly more friendly than the "official" words for philosophy's branches: epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics (both personal and general).

When I first saw the book, I thought I'd be writing a posting that began, "What is duller than reading philosophy?". Fortunately, I underestimated author George and his colleagues. All are not only good writers, they are interesting writers.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Do machines really need emotions?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, artificial intelligence, futuristics

Item: Moore's Law for many attributes of electronic devices, exemplified as a straight line drawn on log-log charts, changed its trend in about 1980. Prior to that, number of devices per cm2 of chip doubled almost yearly; since then, it has doubled each 18 months. It shows signs of tipping further.

Item: The fastest, densest microprocessor chips as of mid-2007 ran at nearly 5 GHz speed and had transistor-gate widths of about 50 nm. Feature size is shrinking by half each 4 years, and maximum speed increases by 1.5x each 4 years.

Put these together, and what do you get? The size of a silicon or other semimetal atom is about half a nanometer. "It takes two to tango", so we can deduce that device features can be no smaller than one nm. From 50 to 1 is 5½ halvings; times 4 is 22 years. Moore's law must end by 2029, or be modified in slope before that time, but 1 nm is where it will end, at any speed. Also, 1.55.5=9.3, so the fastest switching speed possible is 45-50 GHz.

Now, IBM, Intel, AMD and others are putting multiple processors one one chip, as many as sixteen at last count. Many recent PCs have dual-core processors. Assuming appropriate software can take full account of such parallelism (a huge assumption), we get effective single-CPU speeds in the range of 0.5-1 THz. If 512-core CPUs become the norm in the 2020s, a device would have the power of a 25-THz processor. Not bad.

Consider the brain. The cortex of a mammalian brain is organized into "cortical columns" consisting of about a thousand neurons each. On page 214 of Beyond AI: Creating the Conscience of the Machine, Dr. J. Storrs Hall estimates that a cortical column has processing power equivalent to 10 GHz and functional memory of around 1 GByte (A PC made with the "fastest 2007 chip" mentioned above would be about half the speed, but with equal or more data storage).

A human brain contains about ten million cortical columns. I think it safe to say that the reason Deep Blue could beat Gary Kasparov at chess was not processing power but memory, and the fact that its processing power was focused on a single task. It could remember "advantage scores" for 50 billion board positions, and he could not. The "ten percent" of his brain that folklore claims we use consciously has a million times the calculating power of Deep Blue. But even human "lightning calculators" are millions of times slower than current machinery, so Kasparov had no way to pre-calculate more than a few dozen board positions.

Dr. Hall optimistically outlines the likelihood that artificially intelligent machines will outstrip humans in every way in the mid-21st Century. While this just might be true, such a device will be a networked collection of processing centers rather than any single center. Let's see: 10 GHz times ten million is 100,000 THz...a 2030's era 512-core processor could achieve 25 THz, so you need at least 4,000 of them with very, very good communication amongst them.

That communication may be more possible than it appears at first. The brain is only 15-20 cm across, but neuron signals travel only about 50 m/s. Between-device signals speed through copper wires at 2/3 the speed of light, or 200 million m/s; that is four million times as fast, so millions or billions of processors of almost any 21st Century technology could be coupled together, as long as they are within a 400-km sphere.

Getting that much hardware into a mobile robot is another story. Using Dr. Hall's terminology, an epihuman or hyperhuman intelligence would be pretty large: A quarter million processors of postage-stamp size, even if you can stack them two to the millimeter, occupies 3 liters, and you need room for communication interconnections, power supply wiring, and cooling..say you need 10 liters of total volume, and possibly much, much more. A human brain, which includes all this stuff, is about 1 liter.

Though the bulk of Beyond AI is occupied with the history of AI and estimates/speculations about what is needed to approximate human brain power, the author's aim is ethics. In several portions, he likens an advanced AI to a modern corporation. Run well, a corporation can do much more than an independent businessman. They are, in a sense, artificial intellgences, built of natural intelligences. In particular, they answer some of the questions of how an AI might feel about being owned by "lesser minds". He particularly notes that "Corporations are owned, and no one thinks of a corporation as resenting that fact." (p 249)

Of course, in my experience, corporations become bureaucracies, and a bureaucracy is the prime example of a whole that is less, much less, than the sum of its parts. This I see as the real problem with collective-mind AI architecture. If we can't figure out how to prevent creeping bureaucratism in our institutions, how can we ever teach our "children of the mind" to do so?

Dr. Hall, of course, thinks that at some point they will gain the ability to do it for themselves, that they could become our moral teachers. This might be so if morals can be reduced to cost/benefit analyses where the "cost" of harming another is set very high...but who'd do so?

I don't want machines that do my thinking for me, not even my ethical thinking. I am a "power user" of computers, and have been for forty years. I have built a career on correctly discerning the appropriate divide of tasks between human and computer.

I think it was Jerry Pournelle who wrote, at least fifteen years ago when Byte Magazine was still being published, that a computer is a difference detector, while a mind is a similarity detector. Neither is very good at the other task.

Machine memory is so perfect that a single-bit difference between two photographs will be instantly detected, but would require a human days or weeks of work to find unaided. This is why Jpeg compression makes pictures that look so good, even though we're seeing only a twentieth or less of what we think we see. The "recognition engine" in my brain is so good I can recognize a familiar face when a person is so far off their whole body only "lands" on a hundred retinal cone cells. It takes a ton of expensive machinery to do one-thousandth as well.

So I don't want a machine that recognizes my wife at a distance; I can do that for myself (maybe blind folks would feel differently, though). I don't need machines that tell me my conscience is bothered, either. I have a rather keen one. And a psychopath would disable the machine so it was as inactive as his own conscience, just as some folks kill police officers who "get in their way". I am not just being cute to say that; it is a fact of life in Philadelphia, for example.

I need machines that remember for me, and help me find what's in there. I need them to calculate rapidly and accurately. I need them to find stuff; I am a huge user of Google™.

If I become disabled, an inexpensive, reliable helper would be a big boon; it would have to be cheaper and more reliable than a trained monkey, which some people use, and if a monkey can do such tasks, a one monkey-power AI, without the monkey's emotions to distract it, should do nicely. And I reckon that means 5% of a monkey's total brain power is enough.

But one other thing about "personal service" machinery, a very important thing. Safeguards to their operation must be built into their hardware, not just programmed in there with the rest of the logic. It was a single entry in a table, after all, that allowed an advanced X-ray machine to occasionally blast people with unfiltered electron beams 1,000 times too strong, and burn holes in them!

It was a logic state the programmer never thought of that led to the "sudden acceleration" problem some cars were having a few years back. When they replaced the chip with a corrected model, the problem didn't reoccur; but in cars that were properly engineered, the problem isn't possible, no matter how bad the programming.

We need computing machinery to things we don't do well, and leave us the work we are better at, that we enjoy. I have no problems with robot arms doing the welding and riveting of cars and trucks. The work is stultifying. Just read Rivethead by Ben Hamper, about the problems such work causes its human victims. I do have a problem with machinery that replaces every useful function I might engage in.

Well, this has been long on rant, short on actual review. Dr. Hall may be over-optimistic, but I can't fault him for that. I'm a perennial black hat. There is a lot to fear when we consider, as he does, that large corporations and the military will be the first to develop really advanced AI. Neither entity is inclined to produce a "gentlemanly" machine. The army wants efficient killers, and a corporation wants efficient competition-killers.

What keeps corporations and armies from making Earth a living hell for everyone except a tiny oligarchy? Beginning with Teddy Roosevelt, we've had 100 years of "trust busting" and other anti-monopoly action in the US, and a much longer history thereof in Europe, particularly England. To Dr. Hall, this is a hopeful indicator, and I tend to agree.

My motto for the purveyors of AI devices in the future: Never build a computer that controls its own power supply.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Weight - when body and mind don't agree

kw: opinion, obesity

Many years ago I visited the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. I spoke for a while with the guide, a knowledgeable wrestler. When we talked of the different weight classes, he happened to mention that Bruce Baumgartner, the best-ever champion in the "Super Heavyweight" Freestyle Class, "just naturally weighs about 285 pounds, near the top end of the class."

While Olympic Super Heavyweight specifies 100+ kg (220 lbs), there is an unofficial maximum weight of 130 kg (287 lbs). Heavier contestants are seldom admitted.

Another attribute Mr. Baumgartner has, that distinguishes him from other men who weigh 250 lb or so, is that he finds it easier to get in shape and stay in shape. For most people, exercise on purpose is sheer drudgery, a hateful pastime, so while they'd like "to have exercised", they can't bring themselves to actually do it. Thus, most people who are strong are construction workers and others whose work activities keep them well-exercised.

Against this backdrop, a lot is being said and printed about an "obesity epidemic". Lots of blame is shed in all directions, primarily upon Americans. However, in every nation where food is becoming abundant, people are getting heavier. It is not just "fast food". You can get fat on a vegan diet, and some is just more work to eat enough calories when animal fats are excluded.

My wife and I eat the same foods. She weighs 112-114 pounds (51-52 kg), and I weigh 225-230 pounds (102-104 kg). One irony is she has high cholesterol, and I have so little I take a medicine to raise it, at least the HDL.

My brother and his wife eat the same foods. I don't know their weights, but he is thin as a rail, and she is Rubenesque (a beauty, but a voluptuous one).

To boil down what is known: People have natural set points. Left to ourselves, we hold a pretty steady weight. The set point tends to go up by two to five pounds per decade for some people, and as much as a pound per year for others, such as myself.

In feeding studies people agreed to eat an extra 1,000 or 2,000 calories daily, and of course gained lots of weight, at a rate of a couple pounds a week. Funny thing is, they were as miserable as someone who is forcing themself to keep a strict reducing diet!

In all cases but one, when they stopped forcing themselves to eat extra food, their weight gradually went back to what it had been before. In that one case, the person kept the new weight, but didn't gain much thereafter.

I have known several people who weigh more than 400 pounds (180 kg). All of them said they find it easy to lose fifty pounds, and to gain it right back. One guy I worked with only weighed himself once a year, on a freight scale near our workplace. He came to me, rather worried, saying he'd lost sixty pounds ("I only weigh 380 this time!") and didn't know why. Such people either have no set point, or it is very "soft".

The current "standard" is that Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25 or more is "overweight" and over 30 is "obese." Well, my BMI is about 30, and when I am undressed, I can see plenty of flab in the mirror, so I have plenty of extra fat. However, I have been getting back to an exercise regimen. I don't know if I can change my weight much, but I can make the mass I have into healthier mass.

I did so once before. In my early 40s, I did a lot of exercise, and learned to enjoy it. I used a stationary cycle 3 days a week, and did weight training 2 days. I had access to someone who could use a pinch tester to check my fat content. At the beginning, I was 35% fat; at 198 lb, that is 69 lb of fat! Two years later, weighing 199 lb, my fat content was 18%, or 35 lb. I'd removed 34 lb of fat and added 35 lb of muscle.

For a six-footer, at 199 lb, the metric is 183 cm and 90 kg, for a BMI of 27. But at that BMI, I was a lot healthier than before. By comparison, at six-two (188 cm) and 285 lbs (129 kg), Bruce Baumgartner's BMI was 36 when he was in fighting trim. Nobody is likely to call "Coach B" obese, even today!

Injuries and medical crises over the next fifteen years kept me from doing more than walking. So today my BMI is 30-31. I suppose that is really too much. I'll see if regaining a regular exercise routine will make me a healthier "fat guy". Will I lose weight? I don't know. But I think I can convert fat, and that's all to the good.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The twistiest day

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, weather phenomena, tornadoes

Pre-post: This is my 400th post!

F5 by Mark Levine chronicles the "Super Tornado Outbreak" of April 3, 1974. The whole title is F5: Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the Twentieth Century.

The "F" in the book's title commemorates Dr. Ted Fujita, "Mr. Tornado," who ranked tornadoes in six classes, F0 to F5. He is shown here at the University of Chicago, where he spent nearly fifty years, with a tornado simulation machine. He passed away nine years ago.

The 1974 super outbreak included tornadoes of all strengths, and six that were ranked F5. According to a modern revision of the scale, a "EF5" tornado has winds exceeding 200 mph (322 kph or 89 m/s). Fujita's original F5 ranking meant winds exceeding 260 mph (418 kph or 116 m/s). The modern revision was driven by the feeling (prejudice?) of many meteorologists that winds at ground level just don't get as high as Dr F believed...and he isn't here to defend himself.

Dr. Fujita surmised a rank of F6, with winds exceeding 318 mph (512 kph or 142 m/s). Since an F5 leaves little behind it but plowed ground, there is little likelihood that we could determine after the fact whether an F6 actually was present. All the wind speed estimates are based on damage to structures and trees, so there is a lot of possible variation.

This is Dr. Fujita's map of the outbreak, showing the ground tracks of all 148 tornadoes that struck that day. Detailed information, and this map, can be found at the April 3 1974 web site.

As a general pattern, the outbreak began to the northwest and moved to the southeast, and tornadoes tended to occur in groups that followed one another in a northeasterly direction. I saw such behavior twice, on much less desparate occasions, once in Ohio and once in Kansas.

On the latter occasion the storm itself, a large thunderstorm, was moving slowly northeast. It had a wall cloud and mesocyclone on its southeast side. A funnel would descend near the back edge of the wall cloud, move toward the front in a northeasterly direction, then lift. Sometimes the next funnel would appear while the first was on the ground. I saw five (fortunately F0 or F1) tornadoes in a half hour, from that storm. As that storm dissipated, another one formed to its south, but fortunately didn't grow nearly as strong, and spawned no funnels.

In F5 Mr. Levine focuses on two tornadoes called Tanner #1 and Tanner #2, numbers 96 and 97 in this clip from the larger map. They both swept through Limestone County, Alabama just after sunset. One mostly demolished Lawson's Trailer Park, the other crushed most of what the first had missed.

Tanner #1 was an F5, the other an F4, with winds only about 30 mph slower (48 kph or 13 m/s). Both made ground tracks about a third of a mile wide. The width of a tornado "on the ground" only roughly correlates with its strength. There are F0 tornadoes that get a mile wide, and F5 tornadoes that were no more than a quarter mile wide.

The widest ground track on record is 2.5 miles (4 km) for the F4 Hallam, NE tornado of May 22, 2004. However, radar measurements of the May 3, 1999 tornado at Mulhall, OK, also an F4, indicate damaging winds extended over a diameter of 4.4 miles (7 km), and the "hot circle", 1 mile (1.6 km) in diameter, had wind speeds exceeding 245 mph (400 kph or 110 m/s); that's EF5 by the new scale, F4 by the old one.

An F0 tornado like this one, and the F1 shown next, are more typically narrow at the ground, from 50 to a couple hundred feet wide (15-50m). Most of the tornadoes in the 1974 outbreak were in this range. Of recorded tornadoes in the Twentieth Century, 75% have been F0 and F1. However, F4 and F5, which comprise 5% of the total, account for 65% or more of tornado deaths.

When we lived in Oklahoma, there was a saying to back up the admonition to get out of your car when tornadoes were about: "When the tornado is done with your car, there won't be room inside for you." Having seen a car planted next to the road I took to work each day, well munged by an F1 tornado, I can well believe it.

An F1 tornado is an awesome beast. I can't imagine what it is like being close to an F4 or F5, but that is what happened to several dozen people who lived in the Athens-Decatur area of northern Alabama. Author Levine focuses on Limestone County, and on 25 residents who met Tanner #1 and/or #2, personally. Some didn't live through it.

Throughout the book, he presents vignettes from the experiences and memories of a young couple, high schoolers at the time, who married shortly after recovering from their injuries. Donnie and Felicia (neé Golden) Powers tried to get out of their car when the F5 roared up, but the wind at first held the car door shut. Then it ripped it off, blasted them both with debris, and blew then right out of the car. They were comparatively lucky. Some folks got out of their car and fled to a ditch. The tornado dropped the car on top of them.

By daylight, an F3 tornado like this is scary enough. In the dark just after sunset, the big F5 seemed to pop up right in front of Donnie and Felicia. Once a tornado has been on the ground more than a few seconds, it fills with dirt, and may also be wrapped in rain or hail.

The latter was the case when I almost drove into one, an F1 in Stillwater, OK over twenty years ago. The downburst that preceded it just about stopped my car, and the rain and hail that quickly followed kept me from seeing the funnel. Luckily it passed a quarter mile from me.

For the 36 people of Limestone County who died that night, there just wasn't anywhere to hide. Nothing above ground survived the winds and smashing debris they carried. As I mentioned earlier, an F5 leaves little but plowed ground behind, sometimes the slab. But I've read of instances where the wind plucked up a corner of the slab and extracted it also.

One family lost half its members when they crowded next to a heavy fireplace. The collapsing chimney crushed them. Some who were caught in the wind managed to hang on to the ground. Some were blown about, but landed alive.

The wide "wedge" of strong tornadoes hides a lot. Tornadoes of F3 and greater strength often have multiple vortices. Fujita called these "suction vortexes" and one of his publications has photos showing that there were ten in a single mega-funnel. This image shows a three-vortex funnel as it reaches the ground, before the details got hidden behind a shroud of dirt.

Levine interleaves stories of the time: Nixon was just about to cave in and resign; Patty Hearst, kidnapee or convert(?), was much in the news; and Alabama Governor Wallace's popularity was soaring even as he continued recovering from an attempted assassination.

But the consuming stories of the book are the person by person accounts of their experiences seeing, hearing, feeling, and mostly surviving having crossed paths with the most ferocious windstorms of which this planet is capable.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Microbes to the rescue

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, bacteria, public health, history

Decades ago, what was known about bacteria was mostly summed up in a picture like this one. A=a few kinds of bacilli, or rod-shaped bacteria; B,C,D=various clusterings of cocci, or spherical bacteria; E=a spirillum or two; and F=comma-shaped Cholera bacteria.

Living forms seen in an optical microscope are rather uninformative: cocci and rods look like the dot-dash diagrams of morse code; spirilli look like jittery bacilli at first, because they spin on their axis so fast, unless you add a touch of iodine to slow them down and see the helical shape; and I haven't seen live Vibrio (the Cholera bug)...fortunately!

The images I saw in 1950s and -60s articles in Scientific American, using electron microscopes, suddenly opened up a bewildering micro-world, but I was soon more enamored of plant cells—I could watch chloroplast streaming for hours—and didn't pay much attention to prokaryotes after about 1962.

I read Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters, already thirty years old in 1956, with great fascination, and wholly bought into the "all bugs are bad bugs" attitude of the time. I disdained the old proverb, "A healthy kid's gotta eat a peck of dirt". Yet I remember every sunbeam coming in through a window cast a dusty yellow streak as it crossed the room. My mother had to dust all the time. 1950s houses weren't tight, and if we didn't eat our quota of dirt, we surely breathed plenty of it. And we were quite healthy. When I see sunshine through a window these days, I can almost count the visible dust motes, there are so few.
A more modern illustration of bacteria morphology such as this one from Wikipedia shows a few more types, but only hints at the million-fold increase in knowledge we've gained in fifty years or so. However, most of that knowledge is aimed at understanding bacterial diseases and finding new ways to stop them, as once-conquered microbes evolve ever-stronger defenses against our antibiotics and biocides.

Fortunately, a little of the new knowledge is devoted to microbial ecology and understanding the many species that inhabit our bodies, inside and out, that are actually not just beneficial to us but necessary to our well-being.
This critter, a species of bifinobacteria, inhabits the milk ducts of all healthy women's nipples, and is one of the first microbes to colonize a newborn. It is a good bug, a very good bug. Just how good is detailed in an early chapter in Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and Survival in a bacterial World by Jessica Snyder Sachs. Without these little forked germs to help a baby jump-start its immune system, and to muscle aside latecomers, millions of infants would die of later, less beneficial invaders. And they are just one helpful species.

It appears that a healthy mouth is a well-populated mouth. Of 500 or so bacteria now known to inhabit human mouths, at least 200 are present in any one person, except the very ill, who actually may be dying of monoculture! These many kinds of critters don't just tumble over one another. Many, probably most, form stable aggregates that help protect us from invaders.
If you leave them alone, bacteria form multi-species aggregations dwelling in a mucinous slime, a biofilm. This image, found at, shows a single-species biofilm in its early stages of formation, 3d imaged using a confocal microscope.

We are all quite familiar with one sort of biofilm: dental tartar, the whitish scum that forms on our teeth, the target of flossing and of the dental assistant's uncomfortable probing every year or half year.

Biofilms coat the insides of the pipes in our homes. Don't be dismayed; without them, the pipes would rust through in short order! The critters that form them are typically innocuous, and may actually absorb and degrade some pollutants found in the water...they are living on something, after all.
This image, though, is much more typical of a beneficial biofilm. If you look carefully, you'll see nine or ten species of bacteria. This image from Wichita State University shows villi in the small intestine with part of the biofilm stripped away to show the resident bacteria, all of which are supposed to be there. The largest are cigar-shaped bacilli with stringy flagella enwrapping them, and cocci of similar size. The smaller rods may be E. Coli but are more likely to be a species of Corynebacteria. There are lots of smaller forms.

This community of resident microbes digests part of our food and passes on much of the nutrition to us, produces some of the vitamins we need, and protects our gut from bacteria we ingest all the time with our food, that may be either unhelpful or pathological.

In Good Germs, Bad Germs the author outlines the history of public health, and the good news-bad news story of antibiotics, the "cleanliness is next to godliness" attitude we've had since about 1900AD, and the increasing cost of our attempt to eliminate infectious disease.

Folks, it is going to cost a lot more to develop a more time-stable (but never permanent) solution. Bacteria can out-evolve anything we do that kills them indiscrimately, such as using a broad-spectrum antibiotic. Though antibiotics save lives, they also train germs to resist their effects.

Consider for a moment, the difference in evolutionary effiency between us. There are six billion humans, with about half this number on the Asian/Indian supercontinent. A generation is about 20-25 years, or perhaps as little as 15-18 years among the poorly-educated multitudes we call the Third World. At the rate of population growth seen in most of Asia—2.5% yearly—population doubles in less than thirty years.

There are a few billion bacteria on your tongue. Depending on species, a generation is between 20 minutes and an hour or so. On average, bacterial population will double twice per hour. That is, one human generation is equal to half a million bacterial generations.

Suppose you were to dump a few trillion gallons of chlorine bleach upon Asia; enough of it, one might think, to poison all three billion residents. Of course, not all will die. Some will be lucky, some will be able to swim to safety without total lung collapse, and some will just be stronger and outlast the flood. Of one thing you can be sure: whoever is left will likely have children that are genetically better at living through another flood of bleach. However, it will take a few centuries to rebuild the population.

This happens every time you use mouthwash. The lucky survivors may be little different than those that died, but the ones who survived by being a little stronger will have some offspring that are stronger yet, and the next morning—40 or 50 bacterial generations, equivalent to 1,400 human years—you can repeat the exercise with a nearly identically-sized "continent" of oral critters. Yet each morning, a larger number will survive.

The trouble is, researchers are finding that most of the germs we kill with mouthwash, antibiotics, antibacterial hand soap, and other measures driven by modern paranoia, are good germs. A human body is not a single organism. Your skin is colonized with 10- to 100-billion "good germs" of a few hundred species. They keep you from getting funguses, for example. Your insides host between 10 and 100 trillion bacterial cells, of hundreds of known species, and perhaps thousands nobody has yet discovered.

Experiments with various animals have shown that totally germ-free mammals are very hard to keep alive. Those few "bubble babies" that need to live in total quarantine are equally hard to keep alive. For one thing, they need to eat 30% more to get the calories they need that aren't being supplied by a healthy internal biosphere, and they need vitamin supplements you and I seldom hear about. For another, any stray germ that does get into their isolation chamber is likely to grow almost without opposition and destroy them.

A human body is a colony, and many of the residents are actually part of our immune system. Some provide early warning of bad germs arriving; some keep them from gaining an attachment or entry point; some engage in "war games" with our immune cells to keep them in top shape; and some, constantly present and in constant chemical communication among themselves and with our immune system, help modulate our immune responses so we don't destroy ourselves buy using a cannon when a popgun will suffice.

Lewis Thomas may have been the first, in Lives of a Cell, to say that we are a minefield, and one side effect of public health efforts has been that we've lost track of where the mines are, and lost the stewards who keep them in proper order, so that small disturbances can results in an eruption that kills us, needlessly.

It turns out that septic shock, both acute and systemic, are immune-system meltdowns, and the toxins that kill us are our bodies' overreactions to germs that ought to be dealt with by a more "sniper-like" response. Many times, doctors can't even detect the organism that is setting off the reaction. Were the body more properly tuned, perhaps only a few hundred bacterial cells need to be hunted down and sliced up. Instead, a massive response intended to kill trillions of invaders, and damn the cost, takes off and can't be stopped.

Finally, our allergies are mostly inappropriate responses to signals the body ought to greet with a "Ho hum, another pollen season." The author shows how we've detuned our immune system so that it is like a horde of bored warriors who need little prompting to go on a spree.

So, the research needed just to find out how all the modulations work is going to be costly. That needed to rebuild what we've lost will cost even more. Since you can't patent a germ, there is little incentive for drug companies to research probiotics treatments, even though they will often be found to be the right way to go.

If you want to see a vision of how it might be, read the first chapter of Tomorrow Now by Bruce Sterling. He makes the statement, "Nothing will rot without your permission." This includes our bodies. An appropriate alliance with our little friends could make that so.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Willis at large, part 5

kw: book reviews, science fiction, stories, anthologies

The final two sections of The Winds of Marble Arch and other stories by Connie Willis are titled "And Afterwards" and "Epiphanies", and contain two stories each. "And Afterwards" purposely follows "Matters of Life and Death", and these two with "Epiphanies" contain most of her thinking of spiritual things.
  • Service for the Burial of the Dead – A charming rogue attempts to attend his own funeral, but is stymied by a former paramour. Is he both alive and dead? His boating accident has saved another's life.
  • The Soul Selects Her Own Society – This seemingly scholarly paper, subtitled "Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson's Poems: A Wellsian Perspective", examines the notion that the reclusive poet whose handwriting is still not reliably deciphered helped repulse H.G. Wells's Martians...a couple decades after her death.
  • Chance – As in "another chance". Maybe some folds do get an opportunity to reverse prior bad decisions. The husband is one of the more oblivious monsters of Willis's creation.
  • At the Rialto – A scientist trying her mightiest to determine her agenda at a conference hotel (a conference on quantum theory and chaos) finds it better to make "choices" at random.
  • Epiphany – Exploring the idea that the second coming of Jesus will be more like the first than we suppose. It is a good thing that Ms Willis is a master of the unfinished ending; this one couldn't have reached a conclusion.
These stories in particular emphasize the author's ability to explore spiritual themes, which most writers of SF and Fantasy eschew. Je suis fini.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Willis at large, part 4

kw: book reviews, science fiction, stories, anthologies

The sixth section of The Marble Arch and other stories by Connie Willis, titled "Matters of Life and Death", has four stories:
  • Samaritan – Exploring whether animals (here, an Orang) have souls in the Catholic sense, and whether they can receive spiritual insight and qualify to be baptized. A bittersweet story, that probably imputes more to the ape's mind than is really found there, but is otherwise based on solid research.
  • Cash Crop – Another bittersweet story, of continuing human evolution. In this case, the environment appears to be a colonized planet.
  • Jack – A different kind of vampire story, set in the London Blitz, a favorite milieu of Willis's. It ends ambiguously, as do a number of her strongest stories. She seems eminently able to violate Campbell's Dictum ("Pose a problem, then solve it.") with impunity.
  • The Last of the Winnebagos – A dystopic near-future America: Dogs are extinct, it is a crime to kill any animal, even by accident, water is being trucked about the country (I suppose pipelines got too costly), and a hellishly intrusive "Society" has replaced the police force, mostly enforcing laws that harm all and help none. With this backdrop, a story of love and loss, in an unexpected direction.
To Ms Willis, life is like a game of Tetris. You gotta keep ahead of the falling blocks, until one falls on you.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Willis at large, part 3

kw: book reviews, science fiction, stories, anthologies

The fourth and fifth sections of The Winds of Marble Arch and other stories by Connie Willis are titled "Parking Fines and Other Violations" and "Royalty", and contain three stories each:
  • Ado – Here the "violations" in question are imposed by every possible special interest group imaginable, making it necessary to edit any piece of literature before presenting it to a college class. In the case of Shakespeare, the only play with anything left is Hamlet, and there is a bit more remaining than the word ado, but not much. I call the story's style "hilarious tragedy".
  • All My Darling Daughters – Ms Willis had a very strong message to get across, and found it necessary to use a horrifically corrupt background against which to make her case. With only slight exaggeration, a college stuck in an orbiting habitat is filled with kids who consider it normal to pursue a fresh orgasm about every twenty minutes, whenever they aren't in class or asleep. A new girl, seemingly innocent, reveals by far the most tragic background when she sends home a toothless, ferretlike animal bred as a male-fetish sex machine to her father, telling the protagonist she still has younger sisters, saying, "You don't really know what sin is."
  • In the Late Cretaceous – Another tragicomedy, about budget cutting on another campus. The portrayal of student attitudes, faculty bemusedness, and administrative doubletalk are searingly accurate.
  • The Curse of Kings – Another puzzler, as far as I am concerned. Which aliens had the planet first? Archaeological discoveries bring the question home, and the rubber really hits the road, when most of the scientists die of a very weird and horrifying virus...or poison.
  • Even the Queen – A hilarious tale based on the idea that one day a medicine to safely eliminate menstruation will be discovered. Several strong women talk about their experiences "before" in the presence of a young woman who is committed to a "natural" lifestyle. This must be the author's most popular story. I've read it several times in different places. A hoot.
  • Inn – If I read the subtext aright, Ms Willis's sympathies lie strongly with the liberal, established churches. On this background, we are asked to consider how Mary and Joseph might fare today, knocking on the church's door late on a snowy evening.
There remain nine stories in three sections. I find myself amazed already at the breadth of the author's reach. A word of caution concerning "Darling Daughters": there is an exception to every rule, and this is mine. Normally I don't read a story like this one. Having read it once, many years ago, when my standards were different from today, I remembered the point, and upon rereading I have to agree that its portrait of ugliness and depravity is the appropriate setting for its message.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Willis at large, part 2

kw: book reviews, science fiction, stories, anthologies

I've had plenty of time to read this Thanksgiving weekend. Here are a few more story reviews from The Winds of Marble Arch and other stories by Connie Willis, from the sections "Personal Correspondence" and "Travel Guides" (two stories each):
  • A Letter from the Clearys – I've read this one before, a sad post-apocalyptic tale. I didn't understand it then, and don't now. Perhaps it is simple. The letter, found and re-found over and over again seems to embody denial.
  • Newsletter – Ms Willis excels in ambiguity. Does Nan save the world from invading mind-controlling aliens that hide under hats?
  • Fire Watch – One of her best-known, most powerful stories. Time travel makes history a real profession again...on the lines of learning sports writing by playing professional football or hockey.
  • Nonstop to Portales – An homage to Jack Williamson, still writing, teaching, and speaking in 1996 at age 88 when the story was written. He lived another ten years.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Willis at large, part 1

kw: book reviews, science fiction, stories, anthologies

It takes me a little longer, per page, to read a story by Connie Willis. She wastes few words. Faced with a 700-page compendium of 23 stories—about half of them novelettes—I decided to review a few at a time. Though I've read about half of them already, they well bear re-perusing. The volume is The Winds of Marble Arch and other stories.

The stories are set in eight groups, which make convenient 'mini-books' on which to comment. The first four stories are headed "Weather" by the author. Though weather phenomena are a common thread, their themes are widely divergent:
  • The Winds of Marble Arch – A tale of love, betrayal, misunderstanding, and farcical hedonism, proctored by mysterious winds in the tunnels of the London Underground that herald, not what is to come, but what you're heading for if you don't change directions.
  • Blued Moon – With a backdrop of a shocking ecological premise (waste disposal in the stratosphere), a question: If "once in a blue moon" means rare coincidence, and that often unfortunate, will making the moon blue change your luck?
  • Just Like the Ones We Used to Know – Christmas is white, everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. Two guys are researching global warming, and argue whether this is a true discontinuity, heralding a novel climatic era, or a rare combination of "normal" phenomena. On this backdrop, several people's fortunes change significantly, either for better or for worse.
  • Daisy, In the Sun – A girl struggles to recover her memory, and wonders, are we waiting for the sun to go nova, or did it do it already, and my memories are all that is left?
Ms Willis is a master of making you care about a character, or several of them. If she were to confine her scenery to a corner of a room, the stories would be just as memorable. Yet the larger scenes in each story are thought-provoking in their own right. Amazing!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Black Friday, stayin' at home

kw: musings, holidays

We managed to foist off hosting a huge Thanksgiving dinner onto a friend. There were about forty folks in attendance, about a third of them noisy youngsters and teens: most of the church and then some. Since there were plenty of turkeys and hams promised, we mainly brought pies, plus some side dishes. Our apple tree bore huge, luscious fruit in abundance this year, so those pies were especially yummy. The pumpkins I grew were another matter; they'd somehow crossbred with a cucumber (think of a smooth orange gourd the size and shape of a watermelon), so I used canned pumpkin. But I know how to make a memorable pumpkin pie even with store-bought ingredients. The secret is in the crust.

(A background note: We eat together after the Sunday meetings, and the church is very international. English is the mother tongue for only six of us. A careful listen around the room during the meal will bring to your ear at least three Chinese languages, sometimes Japanese or Korean, and until recently, Telegu (from around Hyderabad, India)...that couple has moved to Boston. Our Nigerian newlyweds could speak Ibo, but only do so with their grandparents.)

So perhaps it is no surprise that among the leftovers we had with our brunch this morning, my wife and I had pumpkin pie and sushi.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Piers, you've gone too far

kw: book reviews, fiction, fantasy, xanth series, puns

In two prior posts I've reviewed three of the Xanth novels by Piers Anthony. I like them. If the author had shown a little more restraint, I'd have liked Air Apparent equally well. In its afterword he mentions being over seventy now. Perhaps that explains his lapse: to me, this book had a strong undercurrent, an attempt to justify overt pedophilia. To be charitable, perhaps failing inhibitions are leading to an authorial version of Tourette's Syndrome.

Xanth fans know that there is always a rather juvenile sexual tension, pitched at the level of ten-year-old boys, who think it the height of naughtiness to glimpse a girl's underwear. So what possessed him to close the first quest sequence with a grownup getting a solid double handful of a thirteen-year-old girl's bosom? Can having her magically aged by five years a few scenes later somehow make it all OK? I think not. And he manages to go downhill from there. The old dude's gone from a slightly risqué elderly uncle sort, to a dirty old man.

Sorry, Piers, you've lost a reader.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Pattern matching to the rescue

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, mysteries

I find it interesting how frequently space stories could have been rewritten to take place on contemporary Earth, or a reasonably near-future Earth, with nations substituted for planets, and other cultures and ethnicities substituted for the various aliens. When all the action takes place aboard a space liner, it is a simple step to transform the milieu to a cruise ship.

With the proviso that two of the protagonists are artificial personalities (emphatically not artificial intelligences, as explained at least twice), we have in Narcissus by Don D'Ammassa a straightforward mystery set in a constrained environment.

The emphasis here is not so much the Sci-Fi environment, nor the clash of social systems inherent in combining people and a very few aliens from sundry planets. It is primarily a showcase for the type of systems analysis the author calls pattern analysis. The mental peregrinations of "pattern analyst" Sandor Dyle and his associate Marym Dunnis, an equally skilled former police investigator, are the prime concern.

They have to deal with teasing out the actual crime(s) from two horrific actions—a sabotage and a murder—that may or may not be related. In the end (did you doubt it?) neither crime is what it seems.

The book is subtitled "A Sandor Dyle Novel", the second such after Scarab. The title Narcissus provides a strong clue to the astute reader. Perhaps the same is true of the former novel.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Will versus Reason at the end of time

kw: book reviews, crime fiction, fantasy, science fiction

I find I've reviewed four of Matthew Hughes's books (This search ought to bring them all up, plus this post). Between Baro Harkness, Guth Bandar, and Filidor Vesh, he has quite a stable of characters, with quite diverse personalities, to explore the Archonate for us.

I must have read Majestrum or a sister novel at some time in the past, but don't remember; it was pre-blog. I did remember Henghis Hapthorn and his dilemma—maintaining paid employment as a discriminator (detective) of impeccable empirical skills, while the age changes to one in which magic takes the place of logic. In The Spiral Labyrinth we find Hapthorn sharing his body with his intuitive side (which he'd previously denied having); a personality who's taken the name Osk Riever.

Together with his integrator (PDA), now become an animal "familiar" called a grinnet, he/they locate a missing merchant, who is found to be captive of a telepathic fungus on a small, cold world. Freeing the captive serves to close the introduction to the story, but our heroes are far from done with the fungus.

Rather than flog the tale, however, I find it more interesting to contemplate the question Hughes is asking through Hapthorn: If magic is the application of will plus skills by a trained, intuitive person, how is this different from a situation in which logic rules, given that will and skill is also needed to succeed?

It is sort of like the "irresistible force versus immovable object" of classical logic: There is no definitive answer, but there are sure to be plenty of interesting side products.

In this story, Hapthorn having lost Osk Riever, the now completely unintuitive discriminator finds that, whenever he can be coerced or tricked into speaking a magic spell, he has sufficient will to see its accomplishment, usually in a spectacular way. The grinnet supplies the magical knowledge, stored in it by Riever, who has been studying magic diligently since he became separate, but within. Yet Hapthorn is no magician, which is verified when he meets some real ones.

At story's end, the two halves of Hapthorn are resident in different bodies, and the grinnet, having found a will of its own, has been granted re-"decanting" into a mechanism; it's tired of being a small mammal, considered prey by an unfortunate variety of larger critters. I reckon Hughes has further adventures up his sleeve, perhaps leading to a reuniting of Hapthorn and Riever, perhaps not.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The riskiest element

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, nuclear materials

Shortly after moving to South Dakota for graduate school in 1978, I attended a forum and debate about storage of nuclear waste from electric power reactors. There was quite a bit of local controversy regarding the Union Carbide mine near the Black Hills. At one point, one of my Geology professors was explaining just what a "spent power module" was, and the problems that need to be solved to safely store one (or a few thousand of them) for many generations. He said the module was physically about the size of an oil drum, produced 10 kilowatts of heat, and would continue to do so for a few thousand years.

I stood and asked, "Can I have one to put in the crawl space of my house? My floors are really cold!" It didn't break the ice as much as I'd hoped. Folks whose fear outstrips their knowledge have little humor.

Seeing pictures like this one a few years later, during the debate over using Plutonium power sources for satellites in low orbit, did little to calm their fears. This sphere is somewhat smaller than a tennis ball, contains about half the amount needed to make a bomb, and is nickel-plated to prevent spontaneous combustion because it is as hot as a stove heating element, about 500 degrees F. It is a source of a few hundred watts of heat, that will emit about the same amount of energy for thousands of years.

Plutonium is actually much better, engineering-wise, as a heat source than as a source of explosive power. This is because of its very strange metallurgy. In a steam-generating application, you use it as a source of steady heat. In a bomb, it has to collapse—prompted by a spherical, surrounding TNT explosion—readily and smoothly in a fraction of a millisecond to a "supercritical" density. Pure Plutonium metal won't do this unless it is first heated to a few hundred degrees, into its "delta" (δ) state. In its cooler "alpha" (α) state, it is brittle and shatters instead. Precise alloying is needed to stabilize the δ state at lower temperatures, and keep it that way as the metal ages due to its internal radioactivity. Think about the implications for a thirty- or forty-year-old bomb core.

In Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element, physicist Jeremy Bernstein takes us through the history of radioactivity and radioactive elements, particularly the transuranics, those elements with nuclei containing more than 92 protons. He also details the chemical and metallurgical dilemmas posed by Plutonium.

A nucleus of Plutonium, symbol Pu, has 94 protons. These numbers, 92 and 94, are the Atomic Numbers of Uranium and Plutonium, respectively. Transuranic elements with Atomic Numbers up to 118 have been produced, but only named up through element 111; folks are still fighting over who gets to name the most recent ones (based on my experience in academia, scientists love to argue).

Dr. Bernstein shows how a greater-than-usual number of missteps occurred on both sides of the European Theater of WWII, as neither Germans nor English-speaking scientists realized how similar the chemistry of the cluster of elements from Uranium onward would be. Early speculative articles about elements such as 94 (not named at first) declared that separation of the new element from Uranium ought to be "simple and easy." It is anything but.

By analogy, the so-called Rare Earths, which are not so rare, and are metals (but their oxides were called Earths), all have very similar chemistry, because their outer electronic configuration stays the same while added electrons (to balance the added protons) go into an inner shell that has little influence on chemical behavior.

For the uninitiated: Chemistry is all about how the outer few electrons of an atom attract another atom's electrons as atoms approach one another. This can be complex, mainly because there are 90-plus different kinds of atoms, and each has its quirks. But there are regularities. The "alkali metals", Lithium, Sodium, Potassium, Rubidium, and Cesium, behave in similar ways, including their ability to burn on contact with water; however, Lithium is the mildest, while Cesium's reaction is rather explosive. This is because all have a single loosely-bound electron that does all the chemistry for them, and the binding is looser (so reactivity is greater) for the heavier members of this set.

By contrast, Sodium is element 11, and Magnesium is #12, but while both are reactive, Magnesium is less so than Sodium, even less so than Lithium. Magnesium is more similar to Calcium (#20), which has an outer electron configuration like Magnesium's: two outer electrons, not at loosely bound as Sodium's singleton.

The politics, chemistry, physics, engineering, and metallurgical conundrums encountered as Pu was produced, first in microgram quantities, then in milligrams, grams, kilograms, and finally by the ton, have formed an undercurrent of the past two generations' history, from 1938 onward. Today there are a 150 or so tons of "weapons grade" metal stored by half a dozen countries, and perhaps 1,700 tons of "reactor grade" mixes of Pu isotopes (versions with different numbers of neutrons, but all having 94 protons). The author makes the point that reactor grade plutonium can also be used to fabricate a bomb. It just takes more of it...and another 70 tons are produced every year.

In the current world climate, some things are likely to get very, very bad before politicians have to bow to social realities and take very, very good care of the stuff!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A fractal-edged discworld

kw: book reviews, science fiction, science fantasy, world-building, alien empires

The hyper-nobility and hyper-venality of Heinleinesque characters; a quest worthy of Galahad; a universe where you can travel by "train" and "boat" farther than starships travel in ours; a collection of ETI's beyond the imagination of Lucas (or his screenwriter)...

Or perhaps it's Terry Pratchett's Discworld, writ large...very large, crossed with a Star Wars or Lensman milieu. Whatever you call it, the author is Kay Kenyon with Bright of the Sky: Book One of The Entire and the Rose.

A jacket blurb calls the book "high concept." That used to be derogatory. In a way, I suppose you can state the premise in a sound bite: Another universe exists, intersecting ours at various 4-D points; one man went there, seemingly by accident, and returned with few memories; he left behind a wife and daughter, and now has the chance to return for them.

If you're going to do high concept right, charactization is everything. The plot can be simple, as this one is: a straightforward quest, with few divergences, so it expresses the very, very linear nature of the Titus Quinn. Yet he has his complexities, as do his supporting cast: Anzi, a Chalin (ersatz Chinese) woman and warrior; Cho, an alien clerk with a soft spot for Quinn; even the cruel, paranoid Yulin, Anzi's uncle, who vacillates between deciding to drown Quinn or to help him. His daughter Sydney, the blinded rider of an Inyx, a sort of telepathic tricera-horse, is equally strong in vignettes that show her rise to co-lead in the realm of the Inyx.

However, Quinn eventually returns to his home universe, to Earth, without finding either wife or daughter. A host of threads are left untraced, leaving plenty of room for for sequelae (a quadrilogy is planned).

What is the Entire? A strange realm: a flat plain, universe-sized, but finite. It has to be; if I did my math right, no matter how thin the plain may be, if it were infinite, its gravity would be infinite, regardless how high you ascended "above" it.

It is also not really a disc. It appears to be analogous to the Mandelbrot Set, but with fivefold symmetry. The five "arms" may be millions (billions, quadrillions?) of miles long, but they have one edge that divides and subdivides, with cusps through which "our" universe can be glimpsed, and perhaps visited. The opposite edge, if I read aright, is bounded by a "river" that can get you to the center in very little time.

And the sky overhead: As the title implies, it never darkens, though it dims to support a daily rest cycle. The Entire has no planets, so it has no stars. The sky is a seething river of light and heat called the Bright.

But the creatures! Mantislike "Tarig" rulers, creators of the Entire, and perhaps of the Rose, as our universe is called. Their purposes are almost unfathomable, as is their technology: sky ships that alone can approach the Bright, and are found to be enslaved creatures from the Heart, the universe of the Tarigs before they created Entire.

The humans of Entire are long-lived "simulacra" of Earth humans. The many other sentient creatures, having many, or six, or four, or two, or no legs, hint at planets other than Earth that supplied models. As the subject species live in the presence of their creators, one would think they have no other gods. But they do, a "Miserable God" that is universally feared and hated. The main blessing one bestows is, "May God not see you."

In such a realm then, Titus Quinn must pursue his quest as his memories return.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sudden Fogs

kw: nucleation

I've had two experiences of a similar phenomenon. The more recent occurred at 6:11 this morning. I'd just heard on the radio that there was heavy fog in the area. Before going out to get the morning paper, I looked through glass storm door, and clearly saw the streetlight across the way.

I stepped out the door, and exhaled a foggy breath. That tiny cloud spread quickly, and by the time I got to the driveway, the same streetlight was indistinct in a foggy gloom. It thickened a little more as I returned to the house.

The air had cooled slowly and was in a metastable state, with humidity over 100%, "supercooled." I happened to supply the trigger.

Thirty years ago, living in Anaheim, I took my usual (for then) morning shower, noting the clear sky through the window. After the shower, I opened the window to let the steam clear, and saw fog spread through the neighborhood in seconds, resulting in a real pea-souper (P.S. These days, I bathe at night, preferring to sleep clean).

I feel privileged to have witnessed supercooling and sudden condensation on a scale larger than a test tube.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Doctor, heal thyself

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, psychology

I had to save my own life. Seven years ago I was dying of cancer...but I didn't know that yet. I went to my doctor because of "stomach pain"; it hurt just below the rib cage about, two inches above and left of the navel. I said I thought I might have "an ulcer or something." The doctor's mind fixed on my guess at a diagnosis, and five minutes later I had a prescription for something to help an ulcer. This was in August, 2000.

My doctor's error? "Anchoring", a type of attribution error. Doctors are taught to seek the simplest solution. Though he did vaguely mention the possible need for a colonoscopy, given my age (53), that moment passed quickly, almost unnoticed.

Two weeks later, I was in the emergency room because of "running at both ends". The attending doctor collected a stool sample (right out of my "stool"), then came in and said, "There is blood in the stool, with a very high white cell count, but we can't yet identify an organism," meaning he thought I had an infection. I was thinking, "No bug? Sounds more like cancer!", but I was too weak to speak and my own fear made me shy away from saying anything later.

I took Cipro for a week (by the way, that sensitized me, and a dose earlier this year of the related Levaquin nearly killed me with anaphylaxis. It also cause minor, but permanent, hearing loss). Had I been a bit stronger, I'd have demanded a colonoscopy on the spot. But, the doctor having committed an error of availability—I seemed to have gastroenteritis—was sure it was an infection. He'd been taught, "Hoofbeats don't mean zebras."

A few days after the ER visit, my doctor phoned to say they'd identified Enteromonas in the stool. Maybe I'd caught that on a trip to Japan in June? When I looked into it, I wondered how that rare bug could have a 3-month incubation. I've concluded since that the bug was from ER contamination. That hospital is full of it!

After another visit to the ER, with a similar outcome, I simply dropped by the doctor's office and asked his receptionist (also his that a red flag or what?), "Dr. B has mentioned getting a colonoscopy. Who does he usually send people to?" She gave me the name, agreed to phone in the needed referral to Aetna, and I managed to see the Gastroenterologist three weeks later.

Funny thing, there, one of his first questions was, "How'd you get in here so soon? I have a 3-month backlog. Did you tell then you are bleeding?" I said I had. He looked me full in the face and said, "I can see that. Your blood count must be about 9." Normal is 12-16.

He was straightforward. I saw him on a Monday. His usual day to do colonoscopies is Thursday, but the coming Thursday was Thanksgiving, so he scheduled it for Wednesday, pushing aside other scheduled stuff. He said there were two or three possible diagnoses, including cancer, but that he was hoping it was "only" infectious colitis. By Noon Wednesday, I had a photo of a cancer the size of my fist. By the way, the pain was mis-located. I have nerves that hook up in a funny way; I should have felt pain lower and to the right.

I could go on and on with this story. The gastroenterologist was the only doctor in the whole year-long saga (until the end of my Chemo in June 2001) who would answer questions "normally". For example, rather than talking vaguely of "better chance" and such, he said, "After you have this removed, you'll have a 15-40% chance of 5-year survival. With Chemo, you can add another 25% chance of survival."

Later, when I told him how many cancerous lymph nodes (7 out of 42) were there, he said, "This is grave. One-year survival is 15%, and only 35% with Chemo." I know some people don't like to hear things this bluntly, but I am an analyst (compulsively so, according to friends). Numbers help me plan, and boy, did I need to plan! I had a 12-year old son who might be soon orphaned (He's in college now).

But the point here is, I had to push, prod, and bully at least three doctors to get, first a proper diagnosis, then timely treatment. I forced myself on a surgeon, to the point that I got my operation on the day he'd originally planned for a "first visit." I spent the three days prior to the operation in hospice care, being fed via IV with 3 days' nutrition per 24 hours, to make me robust enough to survive the operation. The hospice was ready to "dispose" of me if I weakened instead. How many people do you know who were in a hospice, and came out alive?

This experience is but one, and the most nearly terminal, that showed me I must be my own "best friend" when I contact the medical profession. My present family doctor is better than most. When I see him, it's not "10 minutes and out" as the insurance company would prefer. He takes time to discuss and to consider alternatives. I prefer them a but pushy, I can always push back if I think he's too aggressive. But I hate dragging a doctor uphill.

However, more than most, his office is full of drug paraphernalia. That is: calendars, pens, and notepads with prominent advertising messages, and two stacks of "educational" flyers supplied by the drug, pharmaceutical representatives. His examination rooms are plastered with colorful anatomiacal posters, all supplied by drug companies and proudly proclaiming it. To me, these are Demosthenes' [oops; a friend pointed out it was Diogenes. See comments] Lantern: Exposing a not-quite honest man. I'm still looking for a doctor with a "clean" office and exam rooms.

Listen to me, people: Doctors are HUMAN. YOU must be your own advocate. YOU have to ask—at the very least—three questions:
  • "What else could it be?" – Prod the doctor to consider other possibilities, and to test as needed to eliminate the most dangerous ones first.
  • "Is there anything that doesn't fit?" – Like the lack of a bug in my bowel: I had the right diagnosis, but lacked courage to state it; the doctor's incorrect diagnosis caused nearly two months' further delay.
  • "Could there be more than one problem?" – Some people with chest pain have both acid reflux and angina. In fact, they frequently occur together in overweight people.
I got these questions from the Epilogue to a wonderful book, How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, M.D. Though studying the psychology of physicians isn't his main line of work, he has thought deeply about his own mistakes, and gathered the best thinking of the best thinkers in the field.

Along the way, he makes the subject clear: both doctor and patient are human, with emotions, fears, unique histories and experiences that color everything. How many doctors have forgotten the advice of Dr. F. Weld Peabody in 1925: "The secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient" (My emphasis; quote on p54)?

How many remember that "what we know is based on only a modest level of understanding" (p134)? There are three problems:
  1. Not everything is known. There is much that doctors don't know.
  2. No doctor knows everything that is known.
  3. A doctor's prior experience, and the disorders that are most common in his or her current environment, cause some things to come to mind and not others, so only a part of the knowledge a doctor does have is brought to bear on the case at hand.
This fact doesn't appear in the book: Medical errors cause about 100,000 premature deaths in the U.S. yearly, that is more than twice the number of deaths due to auto accident. I spend 200 hours or more driving each year. I spend between two and five hours in a doctor's presence. Just from statistics and basic math, the average doctor is about one hundred times as dangerous as the average auto!

Dr. Groopman relates his own saga of six doctors and four diagnoses, leading to surgery on his own hand. Is such a case unusual? Not really. Had he not been a doctor himself, he might have presisted a little less, and perhaps taken the first treatment offered, and been sorry of the result. But he recounts several stories of patients or friends of patients who wouldn't take a first diagnosis when it didn't pass the "gut test", and finally got a better outcome.

Medicine, like democracy, requires the participation of an educated public. It is of too great value to leave only in the hands of the "professionals". Do not be a "passive patient." Be a consumer. My doctor is a consultant, not the god of my medical care. It took a long time for me to gain this viewpoint. We need to instill it in our children.

Also, like democracy, to quote a proverb, "It's the worst system there is, except for all the others." Thanks to Dr. Groopman for producing a guide to safer navigation!