Friday, July 27, 2007

Electrons vs. Animals

This didn't really belong in Arch's book review. I was tempted to make some fun analogies inspired by Gould's book on punctuated equilibrium.

I liked his idea of pseudo-individuals in nature. If you ever get into the funny intersection between materials science and physics, you'll find no shortage of pseudo-particles, much like pseudo-individuals (i.e., species) in Gould's formulation. This is done because it simplifies complex interactions both mathematically and conceptually. It's difficult to solve electron wave functions for a molecule, never mind an assembly of molecules, and never mind a big pile of randomized but anisotropic crap that might be an organic solid. So you represent actual electrons with "free electrons," which have an effective mass due to the varying interactions that the natural particles have with the assembly of atoms that they move through. You look at an electron vacancy (a "hole") in exactly the same way, and that's not a particle at all. When you try to understand what goes on in transistors and diodes, you're counting some entities that aren't electrons exactly, but mathematical constructs sufficiently related to electrons for the purposes of description at the right scale.

Or take another example. Below is a graph that any freshman chemist would recognize, called a reaction coordinate. (Chemistry is actually another fudging of electronic motion, but that'd be digressing even further.) Molecules have some stability in an initial state (they exist in a free energy minimum), and they can combine (in the illustrated case) to make another stable state. To get from one to the other, however, takes a lot of stress applied to the system (usually in the form of increased temperature), and the two molecules must get distorted uncomfortably as they move over the hump. To me, this looks a whole lot like punctuated equilibrium as Gould describes it. Consider further that each point on the graph really represents a whole population of similar probabilistic and dynamic states much like species are a distribution of individuals. Some subset of them will be stressed enough to change into another stable population. In the chemical analogy, even if some transition states can be identified, it's still a rare and short-lived meeting of A and B individuals, twisted far in energy from where they usually like to be. Chemical engineers call it "collisions" and are done with it except for the probability. Physical chemists care a little more about the individual mysteries of what's just so at that high energy interaction, but even then, any individual is only understood in a universalist Platonic sort of way. It all makes throwing thermodynamic analogies at evolution seems less abstruse.

I find this energy map a useful way of looking at things in general, and it gets into my world view all the time. We fall into minimums of energy that are hard to get out of. On the other hand, transitions are fast between those periods of stasis. I think it's an analogy that Stephen Jay Gould would have avoided, but I also think it's how he would have dearly loved to regard his contribution to paleontology.

Anyway, I'm taking a break (really, really now) as I party it up in Seattle. I'll be back Wednesday, and I'll be fun again, I promise.

Review of Punctuated Equilibrium by Stephen Jay Gould

Biology's not my thing, really, but go ahead and ask Archaeopteryx about it, or even better, get him started about evolution denial. He's great at thrashing the idiots and it's fun to watch. Reading something along the lines of denial-bashing seemed like the fun angle for a reading selection, but I was disappointed to learn that what's the matter with Kansas doesn't really begin or end with wrongheadedness about evolution, but evidently falls under the usual broad, glib, partisan brush, and partial as I am to East Coast elitism, I don't really need to accentuate my biases.

So after striking out on my first choice for Arch, I decided to go straight, and chose Punctuated Equilibrium by Stephen Jay Gould. It makes a nice companion subject to the previous reading selection. I expected the world from this book, but left feeling that I could have done better for the best ornithologist I know.

I'm not at all sure who the intended audience for this book was supposed to be.* It seems too jargon-heavy and detailed for the omnivorous science reader, and too fluffy and personalized for a monograph. Most of the book is explaining ad infinitum the way in which the punctuated equilibrium model has affected the field, positively and negatively. If you want to call it something of a memoir and something of a rebuttal to his critics, then it succeeded on those levels.

Punctuated Equilibrium leaves the unfortunate impression that evolutionary biology is a science of words and not math. And (statistics aside) there may be something to that. If a physical or chemical principle is in dispute, you can go to the lab and construct experiments that can, in principle, confirm or deny the hypothesis. In paleontology, there are rarely extra data for the taking, and so instead it gets down to argument. Next to dropping enormous words with unforgivably compounded suffixes, examining researcher bias seems to be Gould's chief hobby horse. To hear him describe his field, it's a disappointingly lawyerly form of inquiry. Say it ain't so, Arch! I expected so much better from the most celebrated scientific writer of our times.

Punctuated equilibrium is only part theory. Gould identifies three legs of it: (1) the fossil record prevalently shows stasis of species accompanied with sudden changes, not the gradual transformation that Darwinism predicts, (2) species are proper evolutionary individuals, not (only) organisms, (3) that this explains the pattern of stasis and sudden change in the fossil record. These are Gould's descriptions by the way, though he acknowledges (at book length) that there is broad contribution (and criticism) that goes into the theory itself. Point 2 of his triad is the theory part. (1) is an observation, and (3) is a predicted result. I'd have been interested if he worked up a general mechanism for punctuation when it occurs, but it can almost be any old thing, and it may be many things. Gould mentions that some various researchers have demonstrated the third part of his theory in simulations, but he spends surprisingly little time on it. He spends more time describing how enhancing the debate is a validation of his ideas. I don't think it made for good reading.

I love the idea of species as individuals though. It seems right in teh context of my own way of looking at things, in which populations need to get pushed out of their stable states. I can think of several parallel and unrelated examples. In evolution, interbreeding is what locks that stability in, and in a way, same-species sexual preferences can be seen to preserve the species-individual (take that old man Darwin). I don't think Gould much approved of reasoning by analogy, by the way, but as a harper on researcher bias, he'd probably realize how we people tend to construct our models similarly, in a way that we can use the same language to describe different trends. Calling species out as Darwinian individuals, locked into stability by sexual compatibility, doesn’t seem so bold to me, and I'm comfortable enough with it in the above context. Like geology, the part that's hard to wrap a mind around is that even if speciation may approach human timescales, stasis is spread throughout the ridiculously long geological history of the earth. Speciation is a useful way to look at the quasi-individual at incomprehensible slowness--and Gould went far enough to address every counterargument he could think of on that one--and we talking apes are just fly-by observers of that long slow dance.

*much like this blog

Monday, July 23, 2007

Duuude, it's all connected

Science fiction can open some doors to exploration that the typical stuff leaves closed. It's easy enough to the remove parameters of known physics to avoid honesty, to jam in more gods than the machine can bear (and to be fair, this is a reputation SF has often earned), but when it's done well, it can create conditions to laser in on deep human constructs that are hard to see by conventual illumination. Branding can be tough on the critical praise I suppose, but then authors tend to segregate themselves by market too, even if the lines are finer than the distance between the shelves would indicate. When J. M. Coatzee dug into a bizarre fantastic afterlife to note on the human condition, he was treading established ground (hell, that one's been established for as long as people have talked about death). When Richard Powers made up a disease as a tool to peer into the way we connect to each other, he made a scientific extrapolation too. The science fiction genre expects some ballsier risks than these, but on the other hand, you can sometimes get a bigger payoff.

When Raphael Carter came out with The Fortunate Fall ten years ago, it hit the fanboy circles pretty hard. Carter finally accomplished what writers like William Gibson promised to: she used the interconnectedness of computer networks as a tool to get into people's heads. This author lost the cyberpunk attitude and found some of the tender spots hidden deeply in there. Fun as it may be to imagine inhabiting machine bodies and machine minds, the more interesting questions get at the essence of who we already are and how we already relate. The Fortunate Fall is a lot of things--it's too many damn things actually--but stripped down, it's the life story of a woman who has lived through a technological revolution that brought wireless into the cranium. The story is brought out through confusing flashbacks, through plot exposition, through returning conversations between the protagonist and the world's villain, the complex architect of much of it, a war criminal, a visionary. Mankind is presented as animal that aspires to reason, riffing heavily on the Biblical tragedy of that idea, but Carter has the figurative balls to put us talking apes in a continuum of thinking beasts. What is animal intelligence like? What are bigger intelligences like? What are we together, and together with whom? The ending dramatically breaks open all three queries.

This business with dogfighting in the news brings into focus our relationships with minds more similar to ours than we usually like to acknowledge. Why are dogs and cats special? Why do we treat pigs and rats so badly? I'm not talking unnecessary cruelty here, I'm just saying that it takes a little cognitive dissonance to eat a ham sandwich while cat-blogging. Archaeopteryx makes a point that there is a physiological similarity we have with the animals we bond with, and IOZ (the bastard beat me to tying Coatzee into this one) takes the similar approach, but stressing a conceptual similarity rather than an anatomical one(that is, we bond with dogs because they trust us; we don't like hurting chimps because they look like us). Hipparchia (in the first conversation) pointed to years of domestication as a cause. Arch is a biologist, IOZ is informed by philosophy, and I think hipparchia has a little farm-girl in her.

I find that last argument the most intriguing though. It's not what animals are exactly, but how the old and slowly changing habits of how we treat them have defined them. Coatzee, another philosophically minded writer, has suggested that eating animals is a crime on par with genocide, enabled by the way we're collectively accustomed to seeing them as inferior. He spends all of Elizabeth Costello exploring that moral gray space between perceptions of the self and the greater culture. Even though we're breeding selectively, people and domestic animals aren't evolving into new species anytime soon. If anything, it's the cultural catalogue of information that is changing and growing, the expectations of cow nature slowly morphing, of horse nature, dog nature, human nature. I remember a conversation on the old Slate Fray, someone had an ancestor who was a member of the Klan (maybe someone can remind me of who this was). Horrible yes, but different times, different times. There's a century of evolution of concepts of justice, of growing awareness (and a growing body) of philosophical knowledge that makes hate groups a much harder apology in today's society. To beat another tired old horse, it's a nurture argument, but on a cultural scale. Does technology spread it better and more evenly? You bet.

At birth, every creature is plopped down into the world feral and dumb, an empty little vessel knowing nothing but hunger, contentment, and the satisfaction of a bowel movement, oblivious of the finer distinctions that civilization requires. With no improvements in the hardware, the softer rules of the interactions have still mutated and changed. For every individual, the system has to be learned, our parents' faults and hopes passed down by decree and by emulation, and we incorporate and share our mental models of individuals in order to map ourselves and our relationships. So long as the frameworks exist in a lot of people, the information can be shared as in a six billion person game of telephone, and it appears this contributes to the formation of societies as sloppily stable groups. Maybe an optimal indoctrination program could even work itself out from this, some least-bad mode of mutual existence, at least until we start drilling our skulls or (more likely) miss a couple meals and go back to forming tribes and killin' pigs. It's almost enough to give me an ounce of hope for our filthy species. Certainly enough motivation to keep on writing.


[Edited a whole bunch for clarity. And yes, I'm the guy who called "memes" ridiculous six months ago. I'll sort that out eventually.]

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

When Giants Walked the Earth

"Once, the world was flat."

Predictably, heads flitted up at the gesture. The professor registered surprise from some of the students, and emitted his own pleasure. He was not enough the sophisticate to hide it. It mingled with the scent of warmed vermin wafting up from the cafeteria, with the silvery tang of the old tarnished paneling of the lectern. The ceiling curved comfortably just over his head. He was teaching, and he savored it.

"I don't mean that the world wasn't round, we have known for generations that the earth is a ball. I mean the surface of it. It was significantly less rough..." the mass of his forelegs rippled with the dramatic word "...much less rough than it is today." He inclined his head expectantly at his students. Timid wafts from one of them.

Its young legs moved tremulously. "The oceans? The oceans too?"

The professor reared threateningly. Idiot. "The oceans had an extremely important role in the cataclysm!"

The student pulled back. Satisfied, the professor continued. "In a way, the oceans became flat too, but only figuratively. There was an enormous amount of limestone that grew from the species that survived the great extinction, but by all of our available measurements, the ocean floor did not become level in the way that most of the continental crust evidently did. You have heard of fossil fuels?"

"Limestone is a fuel?"

"Absolutely not! Copper is a fuel, especially when used with iron. Zinc and aluminum are excellent fuels in their pure state and we use them to power vehicles as they oxidize. Lithium--" A sharp smug scent scent interjected, and the professor stopped, only moving his eyes toward its source.

He didn't recognize this student, but then, juveniles were harder to tell apart every year. "Most of that stuff was always oxidized. It doesn't come out of the earth that way."

"I take it one of you has actually studied?"

"It's not really a fuel. You need to take it to the geo plant, or maybe the solar one, and--"

"Actually, the ancients used to burn the things that grow on the surface to generate metals. They started with veins of pure copper though."

The student's top legs twitched sullenly, signing nothing.

"Yes, it's the metal that is a fuel," the professor went on, "and you have to recover it from ores, but those ores come from the earth. And the fossil record contained in those ores is amazingly rich and complex. The world was thoroughly vermin-infested."

"Were they really giant?" There was certainly such a thing as stupid questions, but this one played to the professor's sense of drama, and he indulged himself.

"Some were. Luckily for us, most of the large ones didn't survive for long past the cataclysm. There were vermin the size of a whole burrow, and some were even bigger. When the meteor hit them, they needed too much energy to survive when resources got scarce. Our own ancestors were smaller and hardier than the vermin, and had a much easier time adapting."


"Our young friend disagrees with the foremost scientific minds? How else did minerals concentrate so strongly in such a short geological epoch? What else could nearly kill a thriving world?"

Another student stirred. "There are orogenic minerals. And fresh volcanic ones."

"Hardly any! The great concentration of metallic minerals come from sedimentary rock. The earth was flat because it filled up with them. The ores from the verminiferous era are far richer in iron, copper, and carbon than those few from the mountains. Almost all native carbon that has been discovered comes from that age. There are also great pockets of pure noble metals, a tremendous concentration of rare metals. It came from the sky like a vast fireball and distributed its ash and dust across the globe. Imagine the size of it! Little could have survived."

"A gift from the founders."

The professor stopped moving and looked carefully at the student who just communicated. Its legs, lightly earth-colored from recent molting, remained in a defiant poise. The creature reeked of defensiveness.

The professor's legs moved slowly, explaining. "The founders. Are you sure you are in the right class?"

"The founders built the world."

"And they just put all those older rocks there, all those giant vermin fossils, just to confuse us? We have radiometric dating now. If the founders built the world they made it from an older world."

"They made it whole. How do you explain all those straight lines that the geologists find? They were the scaffold of the earth. The founders filled it in with rocks, and then added metal at the end for us to use."


The student moved more quickly, sensing the mood. "The giant vermin were their machines. I read about the fossil site near West Burrow 6425. Vermin stretched out flat, row on row of them, each one with its own rock. They were filling the earth in."

"This is not science!"

"I don't know why those weren't used, the ones that were found. The founders--"

One of the other students curled up its back and jumped against the zealot, stopping its spiel. Another used some of its gripping legs to pull it toward the back of the room.

Still on his lectern, the professor ranted. "Out, out! Get it out of here!"


It was a good lecture, the professor thought. An incident like that always helps to establish the primacy of scientific thought in the minds of the students. He felt the smooth, worn surface of the floor with his motive legs, faint vibrations coming through them. Traffic in some other corridor.

He followed his own faint chemical trail down the winding halls of the university warren, ignoring the few passersby and glancing only out of habit at the frescoes that decorated the walls and floor around every skylight, stylized art indicating to students (and forgetful faculty) the departments they were closest to. The professor noted to himself, not for the first time, how the path grew stronger as many old routes converged. It was remarkable the way a life could be deciphered just by walking from place to place, but like all things, these faded with time, and surely every triumph of civilization would disappear as completely as a trail of vapor. The long view was the geologist's curse.

By the time he reached his quarters, his ebullient mood had become completely introspective. He looked at the figures on either side of the entrance to his private corridor. They marked his field, and they marked the passage as his. To his knowledge, no students had seen this part of the warren.

One of the figures was the internal skeleton of a modern vermin in a typical pose, bound together with wire. It was about the same size as the professor himself. Four of the bony legs held the creatures awkward shape above the ground, and its other two legs were hunched in front, good for nothing more than shoveling food up into its fleshy mouth. On the other side of the opening was what looked like a magnified view of the end of one of the vermin's legs. It was a plaster cast of an original, buried somewhere deep within the department, part of the skeleton of one of the prehistoric creatures.

The professor looked closely at the appendage. It split into five smaller legs, which must have helped stabilized the creature's massive bulk when it stood. If you compared it to the modern vermin, you could see the arguments of his paleontologist colleagues in evidence. They theorized that in the evolutionary event after the cataclysm, this appendage split such that the bottom portion became the modern animal's central legs, presumably so it could keep its balance while peering over around objects, or through the dust and ice that must have been present after an impact of that scale. The professor imagined the one off-axis subleg pulling away from the others and descending down the creature's shrinking body.

These hairy creatures would have evolved motive and gripping legs on an independent path than his own species then. The professor looked at the giant thing in front of him. If that could grip like a modern vermin's then it could pick him right up to be mashed to bits in the monster's dull, wet internal jaws. Caught in the reverie, he exuded alarm, but there was no one to observe it. He calmed, and reassured himself that the feeling would be dissipated well before anyone else came by.

As machines, the giant vermin would be as formidable as any mechanical terror that existed in modern times. The founder cult died hard. But still, any mythical god creatures would have needed better machines than these to build the world--these animals could never have pulled apart rocks with their soft legs. And if the founders had built machines, why not build metal ones, which could actually do something? Even if the rest of the earth was remarkably metal-poor, then surely they had their magic ore at their command to work with, right? There was simply no reasoning with true believers.

The professor had some time before he needed to report to research, and he chose to spend it dormant. He leaned back and drifted off, thinking of amazing lost ages, when giant, soft, unthinking brutes stalked the earth, stumbling about on clumsy inarticulate legs, unaware of their imminent fate by metal from the sky.


[Random thoughts from obvious sources, dashed off just for fun. I was thinking how people have done more to rearrange the composition and shape of the crust than millennia of geology. The professor's theories are mostly wrong of course. Call it a comment on our own reasoning, if you want to read that much into it.]

[Also, metals as fuel if anyone else is up late and bored...]

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Review of Earth: an Intimate History by Richard Fortey

I am the bull godSo I'm trying to explain the book project to Twiffer.* "Something to reflect one of the many aspects of you, dude."

"The many aspects of Twiffer? That's a laugh."

"No, you know, I want to read something that captures your personality in some way, or something that inspires or interests you, or makes me think of you, or works in whatever minor level of free association. Hell, it could be about the life of the water buffalo for all it matters. This isn't meant to be deep psychological science here, just an excuse to read interesting stuff."

"Interesting stuff? That inspires me? All right, you might like this one."

Thank god I didn't make myself read that book about the Red Sox. Twiff and I have traipsed over a lot of the same geology anyway.


Any detailed history of the earth would fill (and has filled) volumes. Earth: an Intimate History is less a catalogue and more a survey of well-chosen interesting bits. Richard Fortey relates the world's geological features like a man telling old family stories by the fireside. You can picture him unwinding them around his pipestem, getting animated at the exploits, chuckling at his occasional and minor wit, and making long sad eyes when the human timeline is inevitably compared against all those great, slow rocks. (Commendably, he resists the urge to lay too thickly on that last bit.) There are a lot of anecdotes at his disposal, and they fit neatly into the arc of history. The reader is carried along with the flow of narrative, finding himself suddenly rubbing his eyes as the storyteller concludes, and stumbles out the door to see a world around him that looks slightly different before, older and bigger.

Science, it's said, changes one funeral at a time. I can see what Twiffer was getting at when he hinted that hypothetical immortality could be the death of science. On the other hand, certain branches seem to be more susceptible to cults of establishment, geology evidently among them. If the 20th century was chemistry's triumph,** then the 19th belonged to geology. But this explosion of earth science was in a way behind the times, as the astronomers of the day had already survived running afoul of the church, and a culture of doubt and falsifiablity was already firming up. Still, along with the contemporaneous evolutionary theories, geological science had a tough go of it when it bumped up against the creation myths--there's more disappointment at stake in dating the age of the earth than in describing whether electrons more resemble particles or waves--and the entrenchment around either side of religious debate surely took some time to break up.

Fortey struck me with the degree to which geology and biology (and biology's footnote, sociology) intersect. The earth is bout four and a half billion years old, and has a fossil record of about 3 billion. Geological time scales coincide neatly with evolutionary ones, and in the same time it took the continental plates to dance and drift from the poles to the tropics, open and close oceans, the earth exploded in shellfish, the dinosaurs came and went, mammals scurried from the trees and along the plains. Climates have always been shaped by plate tectonics. Mountains capture rain, and the local rocks supply minerals with the abandon of a drunken youth or the parsimony of an old miser. The appearance of people clinging on the end of the evolutionary chain is an instant in all of this, but just the same, geology shapes cultures too. It supplies water, arability, building materials, and borders. For all the usual talk about biology as a whole outliving the human race, life itself remains an impermanent and mutable scum on this massive and quivering globe of rock. Mull that on over for a couple thoughtful puffs on the briar.

I'm not a big-time inorganic chemist, but one interesting thing about playing with minerals in the lab, is the general inability of people to reproduce natural materials. We can attain the pressures and temperatures with reasonable ease, but it is impossible to grow crystals at geological slowness. The crystallinity, the phase and compositional distribution, they seem like unimportant things, but they make all the difference in the properties of rocks at the human scale. It seems like the geologist can find nearly as many morphological variations in silicate minerals as the organic chemist recognizes in carbon bonding, and you have to admire the complexity with which molecular tetrahedra can be assembled, and wonder if it ultimately holds the same potential for higher level organization.

Fortey reveals the earth as a stately dynamic body. The continents float on a gently convecting mantle, bumping and separating like toy boats battling in the bath. The mantle is heated (and this was a big surprise to me) radioactively, and the crust sags into it under the weight of oceans and mountains and glaciers, and the whole ball jiggles like torpid gelatin as they bang into one another. It leaks into the ocean floor, and resorbs the rigid plates at subduction zones, a two-dimensional non-Euclidian lava lamp of rocky masses. It feels wrong to even try to spread my mind to such scales of time and length.

Regarding the human race, Fortey's about as sanguine as I am, which is to say that even while not thinking very much of humanity as a species, he still holds a lot of affection for the thoughtful oddballs he sees as part of his own sphere. He's got a soft spot for the unsung gatherers and compilers of information, and a bit of reluctant love for the attention-gathering theorists. He makes a point to forgive the sins of closed-mindedness for scientists who enabled greater advances. He puts people and the earth together in a sort of lonely, awestruck, and intimate worldview, and as something of a recreational misanthrope and eschatologist myself, who nonetheless cherishes his human connections, it's a voice I was able to deeply enjoy.

* You can find the actual exchange somewhere down below,. My memory always tries to make conversations more entertaining in hindsight.

** Fair to say, I think. Spectroscopic analysis, kicking in the 1940s roughly, blew the field out of the water (as did two war efforts). Physics was famously big in the 20th of course, but then physics has been flourishing madly since Newton.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Five More Thoughts: Five Columns o' Crap Edition

By Keifus
(Keywords: science, death, witchcraft, innovation, bullshit, Italians, standards, stupidity, litigiousness, fun.)

PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF MASSACHUSETTS - Normally, I don't read the newspaper very much. Given an inexcusably long commute, I prefer to multitask my news intake via radio. I will peruse any number of online sources, and I'll dutifully skim Time at home since it comes there. The remainder of my information comes from specific research projects (sometimes assigned), and a smattering of television that depends on my state of boredom, drunkenness, and/or fatigue. When I go to the can, I try to make a point to skim a journal article.

But traveling, even traveling for vacation, is newspaper time. You can hardly avoid it. The USA Today slipped under the door is execrable reading, but since the ink doesn't come off in your hands, it makes a fine accompaniment to a continental breakfast, and it stashes cleanly under your arm on the way to the airport or train terminal. When I visit my parents in central Connecticut, the newspaper hangs around the house all morning, and I like to leisurely sip too much coffee and lounge with it until everyone gets up (and usually longer). The local fishwrap is surprisingly good for a small-city rag, but on the other hand its editorialists are the only people I've caught disavowing the voting rights act of 1965 in writing, right there in black and white.

I have trouble with such absolutes myself. Here are five more newspaper-inspired thoughts, delivered right to your doorstep in two shades of gray.

1. From the Obituaries
Cable television came late to my neighborhood, and even later to my parents' home (about ten years after I moved out), but my grandparents were early adopters, and on those occasions when my brother and I visited, we'd often spirit ourselves downstairs to catch whatever was on the fledgling Nickelodeon network. I remember the wholesome feeling in those days of limited marketing--only the kids cereals had broken in--and a whole bunch of polite English-flavored children's' broadcasting completed the genial mood. One of the shows I was happy to catch was Don Herbert's reprise of Mr. Wizard. He died last month.

Hard as it may be to believe, the production values on his original show were reportedly even worse than those from his swan song on basic cable, but Mister Wizard was never about flash. He was as calm and informative and approachable as Mr. Rogers, but unlike the good reverend, a subtle knowing smile wouldn't be out of place on Herbert's face if something were to safely get blown to bits in the kitchen lab as the kids aahhhhed on cue. You had to like that. As a working scientist (or one avoiding work) I remain amazed that his shit always worked, even, I understand, on his many live shows. I can't imagine.

I've got some issues with the 1950s vintage representations of scientific discovery (a little more on that below), but Mr. Wizard's stressing of observation and inquiry and reasoning were brilliant, not a promoter of revelation so much as one of deduction. If there were more teachers like that, the world would be a less stupid place. God rest his soul.

2. Editorialists who should know better
During my lengthy science education (nine years of college down the drain), a great deal of stress was placed on counterintuition. You'd need the math or the principles to predict something that wouldn't be obvious from more quotidian observation (i.e., you'd think this, but the answer was really that). I admit it was fun, and I can be a contrarian prick myself sometimes. Okay I can be one often, but my point here is that too many lessons in this vein can lead to shitty intuition, and even though all that education felt like job training, what it really taught was the most valuable thing an engineer has: a good bullshit detector. While it's true that people believe a lot of stupid things that are wrong, it's also true that just because an answer looks obvious doesn't mean it is incorrect. There's a counterfactual culture that's positively damaging to honest debate, an endless succession of smug gotchas, a cacophony of logical-sounding attitude by which actual logic is dwarfed. Too many people wrongly think they are gifted in knowing what bullshit smells like.

In the local Connecticut paper on Sunday, an editorialist chirped in a global warming denial (here's the article scanned on the right, and now online (thanks hipp)). There's a lot of consensus about climate change these days, and as such, gotchas that look too easy should be questioned. This guy should really know better. He's a chemistry professor, teaches courses on phase equilibrium, and has published textbooks. I may even have one boxed in the basement. In the editorial he plays the usual retarded "a-ha, but did you consider this" game, hinting that the ocean is a big-old sink for CO2, making everything all OK.

Part of me is happy to see anyone resisting the urge confuse correlation with causation, but he's brushing away the important correlation between warming and the fact that people have liberated 300 million years worth of carbon from the earth into the atmosphere in a geological instant--something on the order of 500 billion tons of CO2. He is not wrong to cite that increasing ocean temperatures will result in lower CO2 solubility, but that's one variable of many, and it's hardly independent of anthropogenic effects. This is why climatologists develop fairly sophisticated models to predict global climate trends, and why, despite whatever comforting stories may be told on the editorial pages, it's not likely to be refuted by a smug and casual onlooker, even one who has basic thermodynamics at his grasp. To put it another way, while there is valid debate and some inconsistency between models, there aren't legions of climate scientists slapping their heads in a collective V-8 moment at the alleged revelation shouted from the fucking peanut gallery.

Evidently this guy has a side gig as a credentialed denier. Mr. Wizard is building up some early posthumous angular momentum.

3. What a difference a century makes
Strictly speaking, this wasn't on any opinion page I thumbed through this past week, but based on a conversation. If you're worried about my thematic integrity, go ahead and open dig for three seconds on Google to find the appropriate opinion piece on immigration and how it sucks. "They all should learn to speak English," my friend said. I owe august (couldn't find the link, sorry) for the comeback that their children surely will, going on to note that I knew any number of European grandmothers that were illiterate enough in the common tongue.

My friend is Italian (and I probably should have been more tactful). Casual analysis of my old hometown paper will reveal an editorial board rich in Italian heritage as well, with some Polish names thrown in there, quite like the city itself of a couple generations ago. That editorial board sure is uncomfortable with the crop of Spanish-speaking immigrants that's in there now and I for one don't understand why they don't see more of their grandparents echoed in that community. The American dream narrative from the old European influx goes something like this: arrive penniless, work hard, and make a better life for your children. I think the resentment of Latin Americans comes not from the illegality, not from the jobs they do, hell, not even from the suntans. I think what pisses off the more acclimated Americans is the standard of living that they are willing to accept. Work for shit, live like shit in crowded houses behind nasty lawns with cars parked on them. A lot of editorial crap complains that the new immigrants feel entitled. It might be projecting. I think the writers are frustrated that they don't they feel as entitled as the rest of us.

4. From the classifieds
Thankfully, USA Today publishes its dreck online so I don't have to scan. Here is an article they published about a "real life Q" working on interesting and often secret projects under the Department of Homeland Security. Toning down the rag's exclamatory prose, I'm wondering how one single guy got some magical carte blanche where the government is willing to fund any cockamamie proposal that he can write in crayon on a dirty napkin. Because let me tell you, I have some fucking brilliant ones. DARPA doesn't even work this way, and in my limited interaction, the DHS is not terribly likely to fund any research that hasn't already been solved. Maybe they waste all their funding for forward-looking innovation on that one guy.

I mentioned my distaste for teaching by counterintuition. I have similar issues with presenting scientific research as a collection of unlikely gadgetry and Eureka!-style breakthroughs. As though it's not ever a tough incremental slog. As though the environment for crazy somehow prospers when you need money to do work. Some people out there really are a fountain of brilliant ideas, but I've got a deep suspicion of researchers who advertise themselves as such. (As do a lot of people. "Edisonian" is not a compliment in science circles.) I still haven't decided whether to submit a resume to one of those companies founded by a "serial entrepreneur." Maybe he actually is so chock full of brilliant ideas that he leaves a trail of companies behind him like deershit through the forest, but I've been in the innovation game too long to really believe it. More likely he's a top-notch gladhander. Research brilliance can only be a distant second.

5. Scoop! Somewhere out there kids are having fun
One of my fond memories from high school (one of the few) is of driving out with some friends to a local reservoir on a dirt road, clambering up the path to a rock bluff, and jumping in. It was about 15 feet, not particularly safe if you were dumb enough to go head first I suppose, but what a find it was! It was on the back end of little-traveled maintenance road, hidden from the highway and from the dam itself. Good, clean, mildly dangerous fun.

It went on for a whole year of summer weekends, but eagerly driving up the reservoir path next June revealed a giant tree felled directly under the outcrop, making it dangerous for real, and prohibitively so. (I don't know if they left it in there long enough to become submerged and invisible.) Undeterred, one of the local hooligans scaled a different tree on the opposite bank (real danger in that too) and set up a rope swing. It was even better than jumping off the cliff, but you had to swing way the hell out to avoid hitting the bank way below, and it wasn't quite as safe as the cliff had been. The town caught wind of that too of course, and before long the swing tree was cut down too. I spent the rest of the summer experimenting with alcohol, which worked out fine, shut up.

Thanks to USA Today's breaking news reporting, I know that kids in Arkansas are doing it too. Go to the link and look at the photos. Jesus, it looks like fun, but someone got hurt, and even worse, someone could get really hurt, and well, you know. Despite libertarian fantasies (maybe I should start using the word "glibertarian" for this subset of ideas) in which litigation improves freedom, the perpetual fear of litigation is a hallmark of the dreaded state nannyisms, and it sure sucked the life out of a teenage summer.

I'm looking at it from the other side these days, and it sure ain't easy being a parent, especially now that we're all so worried about everything. I hope I can give the girls the tools and the confidence they need, at the very least to remain calm about all the crap they read in the papers.


Friday, July 06, 2007

...another service announcement - optional comment forum

I think most of the readers of this blog realize that I crosspost some of the items to the Wikfray group blog as well as to BTC News. Both are communities that originated in the discussion forums of Slate magazine, and eventually outgrew it for one reason or another. BTC News is a finely written (left-leaning) political blog, but luckily enough for me, a book reviewer was needed (I bundle the reviews, and lately remove the personalized touches, to post there). Wikifray is a group effort at blogging, and its attached forum is getting close to what I used to like about the old boards on Slate. Right now, it has a welcoming and ecumenical feel and everyone's on good behavior, all of which is nice. It's open to all who want to stop by.

On the other hand, even though I freely swap around the copy I dribble out, I enjoy being an independent blogger with my own identity, and I like "Keifus Writes!" as the locus of my online presence, and I am thrilled that people visit and comment here. It's an empowering sort of freedom, if a somewhat self-absorbed one. I suppose there's often a fine line there.

But those things don't have to be exclusive. I have opened up links so that anyone who is interested can comment to the Wikifray forum instead of below the post (you need to register to post there). It's totally optional. Regular comments will still be allowed and encouraged, and as before, they will not be distributed by the rss feed. Opinions on the idea are certainly welcome.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Or, Notes on the Mojo of Automotive Field Repair

One of the glorious parts of being young in a rich country is the ability to combine poverty with freedom, to maintain a state of economy based on selfish tradeoffs instead of on the unremitting brink of cold, hard nature. Being responsible to no one is an incredible liberty. Insufficiency with a visible lifeline is totally worth it for the good stories.

As a student (or a recent student), you're not worth very much skill-wise, probably neck-deep in debt and sinking, and that beer money has to come from somewhere. I lived in a succession of shitholes that were comical in their abjection, from the uninsulated summer cottage (memoirs of Spring Weekends a decade past still carved into the wood paneling; we bought a dartboard to match the pattern of holes in the wall) to the cat-damaged apartment block maintained by a scary-looking backwoods dude (3/4 of the apartments unrentable) to the old Victorian house that fit a ping-pong table on the screened porch (fucking bliss; too bad no one got along).

Getting me to class or the lab from the series of condemnable shanties was, naturally enough, a series of dilapidated wrecks, a half dozen versions of chugging death (averted!) on wheels, replete with rotting hoses, bald tires, rusting bodies, misaligned doors, shot rings, corroded batteries, rotted mufflers, stuck valves, name it. Statistically, these shitboxes should have failed in a stunning variety of ways, but somehow the same things seemed to go wrong over and over again. I'm pretty sure I can still pinpoint a dying alternator from miles out (even though they should outlive any car), and I know exactly how to hobble an automobile home when it's spewing coolant all over the highway. There's a certain mojo, some weird mystical juju, that sends recurring themes my way. Or so it pleases me to believe sometimes, and who am I to tempt the fates?

Now if I were being scientific about my problems with cooling systems, I might note a possible correlation with the tendency of a young Doofus McDreamy to rear-end people when futzing about at low speed. These accidents tended to produce spectacular results in a tinfoil and chewing gum jalopy, and didn't agree with radiators very well at all. I am not an enthusiastic mechanic, but necessity can drive these things, and for a rank novice, I remain proud of my creative re-assembly of that '82 Dodge Ram 50 in my senior year of college on the snowy driveway of the wannabe Delta house. (It was only technically a truck, incidentally. Think a Dodge Omni--remember those?--with an improbable pickup bed behind it. I drove it because it was free.) The collision took out the water pump as well as the radiator, some other things too, but I got it together without too many leftover parts, and eventually even bought a stock fender in the right color and replaced the grille. Even though I thought the milk crate made it look sort of badass, I got pulled over enough for good reasons.

The five-pound hammer (I wasn't ready for bluegrass yet) that I used to pound the thing back in shape was considered lucky and I still have it, mostly for pounding in rebar these days. I accumulated tools randomly over the next ten years, and they'd gain or lose mojo based on how successful the project was. I got in the habit of keeping a supply of them in the car. The summer following the accident (after one of those eight-month eternities--O, youth), I was foolish enough to attempt a road trip in that thing clear across the state of New York.

I should have been more worried about the clunk-n-rattle in the front end, should have been more cognizant even then of my special radiator magic. I had needed to tighten the belt to the water pump before the trip, which seemed to shut it up. The part was salvage--frugality demanded no less--and when I picked it up, a friendly junkyard dog trotted right up and pissed on my leg. It was a special time. The shaft inside that water pump had already suffered unknown levels of wear and deterioration, but was decent enough to choke and sputter a bit before giving up the ghost.

It happened on the highway, in Middletown, NY, on one of those scorching August days. The temperature was spiking again. (Uh-oh.) I turned on the heater and slowed into the shoulder, trying to assess my chances here. Not good. I pulled over and felt the cap--it was ice cold, but the engine was in the red. Kill it, wait. The stretch of road is clear in my mind, the highway gently curving around the dry, grassy hillside. Somehow, an hour or two of redlines and pauses got the thing off the exit, and I was fortunate to catch an older guy out watering his lawn. I begged a few minutes with the hose, and he was good enough to supply a milk jug of water to go. As I filled her up, steam coursed angrily from the front and back of the radiator.

I hadn't given up on getting across the state, or, failing that, at least back home, and I parked it in the first place I could, and prayed for an auto parts store within walking distance. My habit of unlocking the door with a coat hanger convinced me that leaving my tools--which aside from my stereo were the most expensive things I owned--in the truck, and I loaded them into my duffel bag and hiked a couple or three miles until I found one. I bought, optimistically, some pour-in radiator sealer, a gallon jug of antifreeze, and some RTV silicone. As I walked back, I was struck by fat raindrops, and a crack of thunder followed as though Zeus himself were hurling personalized juju from the sky onto my errant head. My gym bag included two days worth of clothes, the better part of a wrench set, a small but decent hydraulic jack, and a gallon of liquid. I had the handles around my shoulders so I could wear it like the backpack it wasn't. It hurt.

my Rocinante

Resting Place of a Trusty Steed

Sometimes my memories look like action photos, snapshots in time. This one is a classic, lit by lightning, for it's rather late by this point, and there's me eyeballing the radiator, trying to tell if it's rain coursing off of it, or if it's just spewing more coolant. I uncapped the RTV and squirted it prodigiously into the general area of the breach, a whole tube's worth of orange goo sticking through the fins like icing. The sturdy screwdriver I used to gently spread it is still stained, and for years afterward, that tool bore some serious mojo indeed. Bedraggled, dejected, I unpeeled the plastic from my sodden wallet and sprung for a hotel room, agreeing to pay for it when I grew up. The truck never made it out of Middletown. A year later, I got a ticket driving through there on other business. Fuck Middletown, New York.

I'd have preferred not to go back through that bad mojo burg, but you can't go through life with superstition weighing you down. It might have been through Middletown that the cooling lines went on the minivan last week. There was serious stress on the system what with the summer heat and the stop-dead traffic. At least the leak was slow enough to wait until evening to reveal its overheating. (I still habitually watch the temperature gauge.) It's existence hung like the day's ominous cumulonimbi, but it was still about as enjoyable as family vacation can get, and minor adversity can be uplifting when the mood is right. Soaked to the bone and fleeing the park in a thundering torrent, had us giggling uncontrollably, and here I was cranking drinking water into the radiator in the middle of it again, and praying the family truckster got us back to the hotel.

More field repair in the morning: the leak was not in the radiator, but it was huge, and I epoxied the living shit out of the guilty heater lines and stocked up on gallon jugs for the eight hours home. We needed them, but damn if we didn't make it. As far as auto repair goes, I don't even bother to change my own oil these days, but I'm still not about to fork over five hundred bucks to pay for something I can fix jury-rig myself for ten. I shortened the corroded section, and made the rubber hose six inches longer, and that worked out fine too. I made sure to use my old orange-stained screwdriver to tighten the clamps. Completely rehabilitated the motherfucker.

You look for symmetries to bookend events in the arc of life. I couldn't have ended this bad luck streak on a more positive note, nor started it on one more comically heartbroken. I'm glad to have the story, but now it's only a story, purged from my current reality. Given the hypothetical chance, I'd love to be once again driving some wreck or other back to the projects, with life's realities still ahead of me.

And we all nodded at him: the man of finance, the man of accounts, the man of law, we all nodded at him over the polished table that like a still sheet of brown water reflected our faces, lined, wrinkled; our faces marked by toil, by deceptions, by success, by love; our weary eyes looking still, looking always, looking anxiously for something out of life, that while it is expected is already gone--has passed unseen, in a sigh, in a flash--together with the youth, with the strength, with the romance of illusions.
from Joseph Conrad's Youth