Friday, August 31, 2007

Be a man, Kill a Seal

I'm about to suggest something that you may find difficult to believe, but it needs to be addressed in any discussion of species extinction.

There are many people who look favorably on the idea of making large numbers of species extinct, regardless of the economic consequences of that extinction. If they can make some money off of the matter, well and fine, but they take pleasure in species extinction even if there is no economic benefit, and even if there is probably some long term economic harm.

I know that seems crazy, but it is the only explanation for some behavior.

Now, why do they feel this way? I think it has to do with the way that politics interacts with personal psychology. It lets them feel "tough-minded" and assures them that they are not weak.
Consider those people you know who are anti-environmentalist, who probably label themselves as "conservative." Do they ever refer to "bleeding heart liberals?" Do they use phrases like "soft on crime?" (Previously, there was "soft on communism" but that sounds a tad archaic now). Are they themselves "tough on crime?" Do they ever speak approvingly of "tough love" as a way to deal with problem kids? (In my observation, "tough love" is always about the "tough," never about the "love").

In certain political circles, any real show of compassion or sympathy is a sign of weakness. They derided Clinton because he "feels your pain." Clinton was weak. They know that the proper way to show sympathy for the victims of crime is to use the death penalty more freely. The way to show compassion for the inhabitants of poor nations is to cheer when they cut down rain forests.

Under such a mind set, power is the only thing that matters, and anything that interferes with your own exercise of power is anathema. They want to drill for oil in the ANWR not in spite of the fact that it is pristine, but precisely because it is pristine--and as such is an afront to their complete dominion over the entire world.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

An Oysters Tale

The first time I traveled with Dale Enzenbacher, the sculptor, he managed to break the interior rear-view window in my little 1978 Honda Civic before we’d even left the driveway. He did this damage with his hip.

We traveled to a Westercon, in the Seattle-Tacoma area. I think it was probably 1979. We arrived and began to carry sculptures from the car (mostly tied up in the luggage rack) to set up in the dealers’ room. But people kept stopping us to buy things, and Dale kept stuffing the money into any available pocket. When we finally made it up to our hotel room, Dale started just shedding money. By the time he’d finished, I counted over eight hundred dollars, purchasing power equivalent to over two grand today.

In 1981 we went to the Worldcon in Denver, Denvention. We had a secret mission, to present Guest of Honor C. L. Moore with a guerrilla Gandalf, Fantasy Grand Master Award. I once wrote up the tale of the Last Gandalf on Genie, and at some point I’ll probably post it here as well, but I have another, minor Dale story to tell.

We were in the elevator, riding down to get still more of Dale’s sculptures from the car, when Dale noticed the ad for the hotel’s restaurant on the elevator wall. The special for that evening was Rocky Mountain Oysters. “That sounds good,” Dale said.

“Um,” I said cleverly. “You do know what Rocky Mountain Oysters are, right?”

“Some kind of freshwater clam?”

“Uh, no,” I said. “I mean I might have this wrong, but I believe that Rocky Mountain Oysters are the fried testicle of mountain goat, or whatever domesticated substitute they have.”

Dale frowned. “Goat balls?” he said darkly. “They wouldn’t give you goat balls, would they?”

I shrugged. “Maybe I have it wrong,” I said.

The elevator door opened and we headed across the hotel lobby. The restaurant was just opening for lunch. Dale looked at the maitre d’ standing at the doorway.

“Wait a second,” he told me. “I’ve got to check on something.”

He went over and spoke to the maitre d’ for a moment then headed back across the lobby, visibly excited. So excited, in fact, that he couldn’t wait until he got all the way across.

So, from halfway across the hotel lobby, he announced, in a clear, penetrating voice, “Hey, Jim, you were right! They are goat balls!”

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Phony Tough and Crazy Brave

Many years ago, I read a column by Stewart Alsop, in which appeared the classic phrase “The Phony Tough and the Crazy Brave.” I’ve googled and found that most people remember the phrase being from Full Metal Jacket, but Alsop’s column was about Watergate.

Most of the Watergate conspirators were Phony Tough, given to pronouncements like “I would walk over my grandmother if necessary to assure the President's reelection.” They liked to curse (expletive deleted), and strut around, and tell each other how manly they were.

Alsop had seen their like in the military, where such behavior is fairly common. Much rarer were the “Crazy Brave,” the men who really would walk over their grandmothers, punch out their enemies, hold their hands over flames, or do whatever else the phony toughs would brag about – and more. Such men flourish during wartime, because war is the dissolution of the rules of civilized behavior, and is the natural habitat of the lawless and the sociopathic. So the idea of war appeals to the phony tough, but the actuality of war gratifies the crazy brave.

Alsop wrote about the hoodoo that the crazy brave have over the phony tough, because the latter have few defenses against the man who dares them to follow through on their braggadocio. When G. Gordon Liddy proposes to break into DNC headquarters, how can John Mitchell say no, without being seen as weak? When Oliver North decides to sell arms illegally to Iran in order to fund his crazy brave brethren in Nicaragua, what is John Poindexter other than a rubber stamp?

As a friend of mine says, the Militia Movement is primarily about going out in the woods on weekends, getting barking drunk, and telling the other guys how manly you are. The crazy brave Tim McVeigh must have come as quite a shock. Now they're talking tough about policing the border, because illegal immigrants are easy prey. I'd say it would be interesting to see what happens if one of the Minutemen encounters actual drug smugglers sometime, but that's just me projecting my own violent fantasies on someone else, which is only one step away from the phony toughness trap. So I think I'll just say, "Drink up, guys! And stay off the highways."

Phony toughness is the essence of a certain kind of bully and we live in a time of national bullydom. I can’t pinpoint the crazy braves who could crystallize the disaster. Ted Nugent is a draft-dodging gas bag, for example, good at killing small animals and blasting away at trees, but you've got to wonder how he'd fare in a real firefight. My guess: badly.

But I do so hope my country comes to its senses before the right seductive sociopath appears, ready, willing, and able to lead his countrymen straight over the cliff. All for toughness, you understand. It’s always important to be tough.

What is the Frequency, Kenneth?

There are mathematical proofs, there are empirical tests, and there are good narratives. When push comes to shove, the good story gets more believers.

Last year, at an SF convention, I attended a panel titled, The “Future in Oil,” which was about oil painting, and had three artists on it. One of them wound up talking about the difference between CDs and vinyl records (because a subject like oil painting tends to get a lot of artistic musing). The cherished narrative is that vinyl is better than digital. I did try to set the record straight, but there were true believers in the audience, as well as one tech guy who thought he knew what it was all about (he did not). I don’t try to win unwinnable arguments very often these days, though I do kvetch about it afterwards, hence this essay.

In my own personal history, one of the most fascinating courses I ever took was a graduate level thing “Voice and Image Processing.” It’s been interesting watching the technology of voice, sound, and video over the past thirty years catch up to the things we learned in that course. Add to that the fact that I’ve also had a number of friends and acquaintances who were sound and music nuts, and I will claim some expertise on the subject. Whatever else may be said, I am not uninformed, nor am I lacking for opinions.

So why do so many people think that vinyl LPs are better than CD? We’ll leave aside whatever buried agendas are being worked out (rebellion against the digital age, simple nostalgia, etc.). In fact, I’ll stipulate that many people have had experiences that are consistent with the hypothesis that vinyl is better than digital. Why?

I know of three answers to that question, one kinda obvious and unsurprising, one that gets seriously arcane, and one that’s just counter-intuitive.

Let’s first take the one that’s unsurprising. In the production process for making an LP or CD, there is a thing called the “Master” tape, which is mixed, balanced, and frequency adjusted for the medium. Not surprisingly, CDs and LPs have different frequency responses. In fact, the old LPs had a lot of special things done to the frequency response to compensate the need to put all the sound in those little, inherently noisy, grooves. Then, on playback the “phono” jack on the pre-amplifier had a frequency response curve built into it to undo all those special tweaks. The net result was an RIAA standard “compensation curve” built into the master, to achieve closer to a flat frequency response for the final product.

When CDs first came out, and the record companies realized that they could make tons of money selling baby boomers their favorite music yet again (first on LP, then cassette, then CDs, and some poor guys had the Beatles on 8-track, too). In a few cases, they didn’t bother re-mastering the tapes, and the things sounded just horrible, especially in the high frequencies, which were artificially “bright.” In other cases, they did “digitally re-master” the tapes, but the guys who did it weren’t as good as the guys who had originally done it. So CDs got a reputation as being “harsh.”

Then there was the fact that early CD players weren’t up to properly implement the theory of sound sampling.

To understand what went wrong there, let’s start with the Nyquist Sampling Theorem. Short version: you can perfectly reconstruct any wave form like a sound signal, provided you sample it at a rate that is at least twice the frequency of the highest frequency in the signal. In the above noted course, we actually went through the proof of the NST, and while I can no more reproduce it than you can reproduce an aria by sampling it at ten samples per second, I did once know it well enough to have the sort of belief in it that qualifies as “faith” for my kind.

So CDs use a standard that samples at 44,000 samples per second, which, theoretically can perfectly reproduce sound up to 22 kHz, but actually is set up to go to 20 kHz, because you need to put in a high frequency cut-off.

See, if you try to reproduce sound at something less than the Nyquist rate, you get a phenomenon known as “aliasing,” where the lower frequencies also have an “alias” signal that is frequency shifted up to higher frequencies. This isn’t the same as a harmonic, because the frequency shift is related to the sampling rate, not to the original signal. I’ve heard aliased sound, and it’s one of the most unpleasant things I’ve ever heard, but I can’t think of any analogies for it. It just sounds alien and wrong.

So above 22 kHz in the analog signal that is reconstructed from a CD, you get this horrible noise. You can try to filter it out of the analog signal, but filters are imperfect, so some faint residual alias remains. Worse, real circuits have some slight non-linear responses, non-linear in the mathematical sense, not in the sense of a “linear frequency response.” What a mathematically non-linear effect can do it to take a high frequency signal and leak some of it to a lower frequency. Thus, the aliased signal above 22 kHz could result in some faint distortion down where even hearing-damaged Boomers could hear it.

Again, more for the CD reputation of “harshness.”

The aliasing problem was eventually solved by digital filtering. What later generation CD players do is to use “oversampling.” Basically, the original 44,000 samples per second is converted through interpolation to many more samples (12X oversampling is common). Then, use a digital filter to make damn sure that there aren’t any aliased frequencies in the thing, so when you finally do the digital-to-analog conversion, you only need a pretty good high-frequency cutoff filter. This winds up being both effective and cheap. Win/win.

Finally we come to the strange one. I think I saw it in Science a couple of years ago. I’m not even sure if it spoke to the issue with CDs vs LPs, but the implications were obvious, even if the result was counter-intuitive. Simply put, our perception of sound is such that we hear things more clearly if there is a little bit of low level noise in the mix. I think the speculation was that the noise allows us to “calibrate” our perceptions on the fly. Whatever the reason, it flies in the face of everything in sound reproduction in the past century. Noise is supposed to be your enemy, not your friend.

But the implication is that the slight surface noise that you get on even the best turntable with an LP actually assists your sound perception. Go figure.

In any case, I’ve made CDs of vinyl LPs; not all LPs have been re-issued, and besides, I don’t like buying the same thing twice. I’ve listened to the resultant CDs, and I don’t believe that anyone can tell the difference between the CD and the source LP. Furthermore, there have been many, many, controlled A/B tests of whether or not anyone can tell the difference, and it’s a simple fact that whatever differences there may be, they are imperceptible to human beings.

And if that’s not enough, Frank Zappa looked into the matter and he agreed; CDs can perfectly reproduce vinyl, if you want them to.

None of this will convince anyone who is sure that LPs, vinyl, and analog are better than CDs and bitstreams. Vinyl is “organic” (which is perfectly true in the chemical sense), while CDs and digital are harsh and artificial. And that’s a simple narrative, as opposed to what I’ve just described, which is convoluted (little math joke there) and knurdish.

I’m fine with that; I’d rather be right than win an argument.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


[Cross-posted from WAAGNFNP]

I know a lot of amateur scholars, including myself (ask me about New York City circa 1911 sometime). Many of them concentrate a fair amount of their scholarly impulses on science fiction, and that includes my friend Douglas. He’s taken advantage of the fact that U.C. Berkeley has a collection of the papers of A.E. van Vogt, for example. He also tells me of a movie review of Metropolis written by H. G. Wells.


Wells was highly critical of the movie, on science fiction and futurist terms. Specifically, Wells noted that the economics of Metropolis was simply non-functional. In the city, there is a small, wealthy class that owns everything, while there is a much larger class (literally an underclass, because they live in the city’s depths) of workers who produce all the goods. Nonsense, says Wells. This makes no sense. The number of workers, plus modern manufacturing, would produce vastly more goods than the small wealthy class can consume. Who buys the rest of it?


There are a couple of points worth noting here. One is that the society in Metropolis is very similar to Wells’ own book When the Sleeper Wakes, written 25 years before Metropolis. The second is that Wells belonged to the Bloomsbury Group, a collection of artists, writers, and other intellectuals, that included John Maynard Keynes. I suspect that Keynes once made the same economic critique to Wells, about Sleeper. Wells then passed it on.

It’s a relevant point, and quite true. Yet the image of the elite in the clouds while the toilers work in darkness nevertheless is the one that sticks in the mind. It’s way too easy to make the leap to Freudian symbolism here, even down to the parsing the phrases “bowels of the city” or “out of sight, out of mind.”

Can one even find a dystopian future story that doesn’t contain the extremes in wealth and power trope? Harrison Bergeron by Vonnegut comes to mind, since it, at least on the surface, was about forcing everyone to the same level. But scratch the surface and there’s the Handicapper General wielding power over everyone. Maybe that Twilight Zone where everyone has plastic surgery to look the same manages it.

For that matter, the highly unequal version of society isn’t confined to obviously dystopian works. Often it seems like the standard view of what’s to come, as if no one can really come up with a credible alternative.

If science fiction is a reflection of everyone’s hopes and fears about the future (and that’s surely one feature of our genre), what does it say that everyone has in the back of their mind a view of an undemocratic, faux feudal society, with the masses falling prey to a few predatory rulers? And if this vision of the future is the default, it certainly makes sense for people to engage in class warfare as a sort of full contact musical chairs, with the expectation that the winners and their progeny will have the rest of time to enjoy the spoils of the Social Darwinian State.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Swimming Pool Air

In “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff, Sturgeon mentions in passing a plethora of alien civilizations and lifeforms, including “fluorine fellowships.” Alliteration aside, the likelihood of a lifeform being based on fluorine in any significant way is very slim; the likelihood of an environment having free fluorine in it is so close to zero that I’m saying it’s impossible. Fluorine will burn water, so the most you could get would be hydrogen fluoride, and that will etch glass, so your putative fluorine world would need to be free of silica. Good luck on that one.
Chlorine, on the other hand, seems more likely. It’s actually a bit less electronegative than oxygen, so it isn’t obviously less likely to exist in a free state. But an atmosphere of chlorine has a serious problem: sunlight.

Chlorine photolyzes all the way down to yellow light, the chlorine molecule splitting into two chlorine atoms. And chlorine atoms are really promiscuous, especially to hydrogen. While they won’t strip hydrogen from water, they will do it for any hydrocarbon, including methane, as well as molecular hydrogen. So you’re really talking about an atmosphere of hydrogen chloride, i.e. intensely acidic.

We use chlorination as a disinfecting process for drinking water and swimming pools, with the latter getting a lot more chlorine than the former. Anyone who has ever had to maintain an outdoor pool can tell you that a sunny day can chew up your chlorine mighty fast. There’s a trick you can use to get rid of the chlorine taste in over-chlorinated water, which consists of just putting the water in a glass jar and leaving it in the sun for an hour. Then you can make your coffee or tea from it without the chlorine taste.

Part of the chlorine in swimming pools goes to hydrochloric acid, which will acidify your pool. We used to use sodium hypochlorite at the old YMCA pool where I was a lifeguard, and the sodium took up some of the acidity. Nevertheless, we sometimes had to add some sodium carbonate to the mix.

Chlorine doesn’t just kill bacteria though; it chews them up and grinds them down into small molecules, including ammonia and organic amines. Then you get chloramines which are even more toxic than chlorine itself. A substantial part of the “swimming pool smell” that most people think of as chlorine is actually from chloramines. For us former life guards, a little whiff of chloramines (or even Clorox) triggers memories.

A “chlorine producing photosynthetic algae” like the one mentioned in “Tranquility” and in Steve Gillette’s World Building articles (and book), probably wouldn’t affect a planetary atmosphere very much, at least at first. But it would begin killing sea life pretty quickly, in a kind of “green tide.” Depending on how it sequestered the alkali elements (I had in mind carbonate in a silica diatom shell), it would also raise the pH if the upper water layers. That would disrupt the carbonate-bicarbonate balance of the sea surface, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere while also depleting surface CO2 as the biologically sequestered carbonate precipitated down the water column. Oceanic primary productivity would plummet, while atmospheric CO2 would skyrocket; a combination of global climate change and a die-off of oceanic life that I figured as apocalyptic.

But of course no one would ever do so foolish a thing as to tamper with the global environment just out of curiosity, or while trying to make a buck, so I'm sure we're safe from this particular danger.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


[crossposted from WAAGNFNP]

If you try to light a match under micro-gravity conditions (we all got used to “zero-g” so some smarty pants had to go and call it “micro-gravity”) and just hold it in one place, it will self-extinguish. The match will use up enough of the oxygen in its surrounding volume of air to extinguish the flame. It doesn’t have to use up all the oxygen, either; most flames go out in air that still has enough O2 in it for people to breathe—barely.

Depending on the fuel, (e.g. hydrogen needs less oxygen to burn than methane does), the usual figure given is that 14%-16% oxygen is needed to sustain a fire. People can manage on a bit less; Biosphere II dropped below 14% before they pumped in some additional O2, but they didn’t have to contend with elevated CO2 levels; in fact, what they’d been losing was CO2, by absorption into their nice new concrete structure, with bacteria converting soil organics and O2 into CO2. They’d had a bit of a “slow burn.”

Your basic candle flame is fed fresh air by gravity, specifically, the air coming in to replace the hot gases that have become lighter than air in the hot flame. That’s called the “fire draft” and fireplaces exist to direct the fire draft upwards, so the smoke doesn’t choke the people warming themselves by the fire. The chimney/flue of the fireplace also accelerates the fire draft if you build it right, and both Ben Franklin and Benjamin Thompson, (Count Rumford), invented some tricks that are still in use.

So fires always produce an updraft. In truly big fires, the question becomes how the updraft interacts with the local weather. If the local winds are stronger than the updraft, and the fire is big, uncontrolled, and uncontained, you have a conflagration. If the fire creates its own winds, you have a firestorm.

Neither is anything you or I want to be near. A running wildfire can exceed 70 mile per hour under upslope flow conditions, where the fire draft adds to the natural winds. Firestorms generate their own weather, their own winds, and can create small tornadoes, “dust devils” made out of flaming gases that light everything they touch.

Oakland Hills Firestorm 1991

The heat in the interior of a firestorm pyrolizes everything within its boundaries, but the fuel produced exceeds the air available. So the hot mass rises as a fireball, sucking more air into it, maintaining its heat even as it expands, because there is still plenty of fuel gas left to burn. A firestorm spreads as much by thermal radiation as by flaming contact, sometimes triggering fires at a distance, like across a valley.

Kurt Vonnegut lived through the firebombing of Dresden, and wrote about it, so more people know about the 35,000 people who died there than in Operation Gomorrah, which killed a larger number (50,000 est.) in Hamburg, or the 120,000 who died in the Tokyo fire raids. I’d never even heard of the raids on Kassel, Braunschweig, Darmstadt, Heilbronn, Pforzheim, and Würzburg until I looked them up for this essay.

Aerial view of Tokyo firebombing

But fires are tricky to set with conventional incendiaries. Most of the WWII fire raids were duds, or semi-duds, producing some fires, but nothing like a real firestorm. There were four attempts on Hamburg before they hit the jackpot.

Hamburg: Operation Gomorrah

But Hiroshima was a jackpot; what the first blast didn’t do, the subsequent firestorm did, and 4 square miles of the city just went away, nothing left, not even steel, much less teeth and bones.

Hiroshima firestorm aftermath

The Nagasaki bomb was bigger, but the targeting wasn’t as good, and the city had the good fortune of having a lot of hills, which shielded some from the blast, the heat, the radiation. Moreover, the hills altered the wind field, and the resulting fires are only classed as a conflagration. Still, 40,000 people died quick, and maybe four times that number died slow, from injuries, from radiation, from the long term illnesses that go with radiation, from trauma, and grief.

In 1944, the most powerful bomb used in warfare was the British Grand Slam on the order of 10 tons of TNT, although the U.S. developed (but never used) one that was twice as big. In 1945, of course, nuclear weapons increased bomb yields by three orders of magnitude.

It’s hard to develop a sense of scale once you start dealing in factors of a thousand. People think “nuke” and think “Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” But those bombs were measured in kilotons.

Thermonuclear weapons are measured in megatons, another factor of a thousand, so we got a factor of one million increase in about half a decade. Go look for pictures of atmospheric bomb tests. See that one near the mountain? You can see the billows in the clouds and dust that it shakes up the near field.

Fifteen kiloton airburst

That’s a bomb that’s in the kiloton range. There have been industrial accidents that can be measured in kilotons, like the Pacific Engineering Company plant in Henderson, Nevada, where over a thousand tons of ammonium perchlorate blew up. That was a kiloton explosion.

Pepcon Explosion

Now go find some photos of the Pacific island H-Bomb tests. Google on “Castle Bravo” for example, the biggest miscalculation in the history of nuclear weapons. It was supposed to produce 6 megatons; instead they got 15. “Castle Romeo” was part of the same mistake. They expected 4, but got 11.

Castle Bravo - 15 megatons

See those shapes in the sky above the mushroom cloud? That’s the stratosphere.

The thermal radiation effects of nuclear devices loom larger as the energy release increases. In Hiroshima, the firestorm was likely caused by the blast itself, in the same way that an earthquake causes fires, by turning building into kindling, by releasing natural gas, by rupturing fuel tanks. The heat from the bomb itself probably lit only a few of the fires.

But megaton blasts, perhaps over grasslands, forests, farms? The experiment has yet to be preformed. And calculations, simulations, and estimates are so very, very unsatisfying, aren’t they?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Getting Rauchenberg’s Goat

I don’t always know what I like, but I do know art.

A few years ago, Amy and I went to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). I forget exactly which exhibit we went to see. Maybe it was Paul Klee illos; maybe it was the Fluxus display. Maybe it was just a collection of “modern masters.”

Whatever. One of the pieces on display was Robert Rauchenberg’s Monogram.

Monogram is a “mixed media” piece; that's a stuffed goat halfway through an old rubber tire. In the exhibit I saw, I think the tire had a rope on it going to the ceiling, like an old tire swing. I rounded the corner into the room where it was displayed—it was right in the middle of the room—and I just cracked up. I mean, the thing is just hilarious, the silliest sexual visual pun I’ve ever seen in a museum, I’m pretty sure.

So after looking at it for a while, walking around it, checking out the collage-y thing the goat is standing on, appreciating just how apt the expression on the goat’s painted face, I began to notice the reactions of other people who came into the room.

Or, more accurately, the lack of reaction. I don’t think I saw a single other museum goer even crack a smile. Certainly no one laughed out loud. And I thought, what a pity that is. I’m sure Rauschenberg had humor in mind when he created the piece, and it’s fairly easy to find critics (oh, those much maligned critics) who reacted with amusement. But the folks trudging through SFMOMA weren’t going to give in to such an easy thing as laughter.

I understand that we’re taught to “behave” in museums, and museums, like libraries are supposed to be places where you whisper. But it’s not like the museum guards are going to kick you out for a snicker, or even a good guffaw.

Well, I think I’ve already written most of what I have in mind here in the the final paragraph from my essay, “On Non-representational Art”:

This isn't a test. There is no right answer in the back of the book. It doesn't have to be "about" anything, or about any one thing. If it looks like something, if it reminds you of something else, well and good. If not, maybe it just looks good. If you don't like the looks of any given work of art, move on to the next piece. There's plenty of all sorts of art around, enough for everyone, really.

You can laugh at it, too. Sometimes that’s what the artist had in mind. And if it wasn't, so what? What is he or she going to do, kick you out of the museum?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Schedule III

Okay, here's the thing. In the midst of a general sort of argument about whether or not Barry Bonds is the Antichrist (or at least the Anti-Aaron), I got to looking into the laws behind the steroids scandal, and came upon a quandary that I have not been able to penetrate.

In the late 80s, in response to the "designer drug" craze, where "rogue chemists" (I would love to see "Rogue Chemist" on a business card), were making new and wonderful drugs faster than the authorities could outlaw them, Congress made some amendments to the Controlled Substances Act, one of which is sometimes called the "Analog Substances Act." This passed authority to the Attorney General, and by delegation to the DEA, to render judgment on whether or not something was a bad old mean and nasty recreational, I mean, high abuse potential, drug.

The Supreme Court held that this was not an unconstitutional conveyance of powers from the Legislative to Executive, so all systems were "Go" for a DEA crackdown, despite the fact that the law was kinda vague on exactly what procedure was to be used to tell if some designer drug was an immoral scourge. Sometimes a minor modification in structure can make a king hell narcotic into, well, basically just something with a long name and no biological effect to speak of. Other times, things that are completely dissimilar in structure will have similar effects. It's rather hard to tell, in fact.

Nevertheless, the DEA may not know drugs, per se, but it can tell when people are up to no good. They have almost a seventh sense about that sort of thing. So they keep busting people for stuff; that's their job, after all, both busting people, and stuff.

Then we get the BALCO case, all sorts of famous sports guys, and well, we're off to the races, and the ball park, etc. And BALCO President Victor Conte of San Mateo, BALCO vice president James Valente of Redwood City, track coach Remi Korchemny of Castro Valley and Greg Anderson of Burlingame, Barry Bonds' longtime friend and personal trainer, all pled guilty to drug-related crimes. And some of those involved non-analog drugs, like EPO, and testosterone cream.

Then last year, Patrick Arnold, 39, of Champaign, Ill., pled guilty to "conspiracy to distribute anabolic steroids." He was the chemist who invented "The Clear," an at-the-time undetectable steroid, plus several other drugs in a similar vein (damn it's hard to to avoid the puns here).

But here's the thing. The 1986/87 law that gives the DEA to power to declare a drug an "analog" does so for Schedule I and Schedule II drugs. Steroids are Schedule III. So it's not actually obvious to this oh-so-untutored-in-the-law observer, that what Arnold did in developing and helping to distribute those drugs was, technically, illegal.

What is obvious, however, is that the DEA had Mr. Arnold by the short ones, with a ton of other things they could indict him for, and what he got was three months in prison and three months of home detention.

What the DEA got was a precedent that looks a lot like it gives them the authority to classify Schedule III drugs as analogs.

It's probably just my ignorance, but it looks to me like the DEA just pulled a fast one. And they did it using steroids.


"She faked her orgasms, you know," said the little horned monkey on the empty seat beside him. "You can't trust anyone that demonstrative. What do you think she used to do when she vanished into the bathroom right afterwards? To do for herself what you couldn't do for her, that's what. You never satisfied her; that's one of the reasons she left you. Not the most important reason though."

The man's grip tightened on his drink glass. He tried to ignore the simian's jibes. Just hallucinating is all; the monkey would even agree with that. Agree? He'd insist on it.

Some woman's voice:

So this edge-boy über-tech worked up an electric arc rigged glove that could flash burn a pinhole in a metal can and inject the microcaps. Or so I heard. Dosed them up with Sunburn, Itchanol, and Tickleu, pretty tame stuff for such a fancy rig. I bet he just got off on the notion of people writhing around, ripping off their clothes...

His hearing had become overly acute as well, snatches of conversation sloshing onto him. It made the waiting go even more slowly. Come on, dammit! Where are you? You were supposed to be here already.

The monkey sneered. "Oh, come on! Don't be naïve. You think The Man's gonna bust his hump for a burned out Tranquility junkie like you? Especially one so far gone into Tranq lies that he lets his stash run low, thinking that it's all okay, his world's just fine, he don't need no evil drugs to cope, no synthetic boost to his self-deceiver. Ha! He's gonna let you stew for a least another hour."

"Shut up," he mutters without much conviction.

"Watch it, pal. You're starting to talk to yourself. I'm just a projection, remember?" The monkey grins all the way up to his horns.

Oh god.

"Sir and Madame? Here we are: Black Meat Supreme, the specialty of the house."

The couple cast brief furtive glances around the room as they swished the primer, then spit it out, the primer being quite lethal if ingested. No one took notice of their furtive feeding. Not here in a nameless suburb of Edge City. The Black Meat is illegal, but hell, what isn't nowadays?

The TV set over the bar had sound turned way down, but his hyperacute ears could make it out. Or was it just imagination? Liquor just intensified the Tranquility crash, but he ordered another drink.

# Welcome to the Future! The Newsmag of the videoretina. (Theme song: "I Want a New Drug"). #

Got a hot one just off the streets for all you gangs of ganglia. It's a nifty neurophilic tabbed 'Tall Tail'. It claims to activate the vestigial portion of the brain that controlled the tail 'way back up in the evolutionary tree when we were all lemurs. Now I'm not going to tell you if my phantom limb is bushy or if yours will be cute and piggly, only you will know it's there, but...

"Going to try for a maudlin drunk?" the furry devil smirked. "A bit late for that, isn't it? Too much disillusionment stored up. Say a career turns out to be just a job, love turns out to be just a joke, life starts showing self-destruct in big block letters with bar code, but what can you do? Distract yourself with mindless partying, pseudo-amusements, synthetic entertainment, group gropes, ‘relationships,’ you really lack imagination, you know that? Hell, just look at me; one jot less imagination and I'd be hanging from your back."

He tries to look away, out the window, second floor, down the street, anywhere but those shiny anthropoid eyes. It's a mistake. The sudden movement of his eyes triggers a nightblack daydream.

Outside the street crowds swirl, twilight near Christmas, people caught in consumer gimme-gimme frenzy. He suddenly imagines he's been dosed with telepathine, legendary drug that let's you have other peoples' hallucinations. Sound track goes hollow, CalBerk Sprawl Plaza bang jam, old gratched Brian Eno, laughing gas waka waka, dentist drill on super slo- mo, it's a jangle out there.

At all levels crisscross bridges, cat-walks, hanging vines, cable cars, Spanish moss, freeway interchanges. The latter are good for spook voodoo mysterioso fortune telling according to Poisson distribution of cars strumming the off-ramp vibes, traffic leaving, t-leafing, casting the auto tarot. Silent radios blaring, static cutting in and out, bad digital conversion alias, fender bender Thai sticking up on the Nimitz, 580's been cleared of the earlier stall, but it's still slow going into the Maze, and Hospital Curve is blocked, but elsewhere it's at the limit.

At the limit...

Crowds now boil in a feeding frenzy; someone has passed rumor of half price sale on hair dryers, diazepams, and domestic slaves. Greed-crazed consumers clash with sightless denizens of the sewers, brought to the surface by acid reigning black marketeers of the Third World Wars, addicts of drugs unknown to all but rumor, Tourette's afflicted barkers, elephantine priapic organ grinders, tailed by kinesthetic ghosts, temporally lobotomized servers of fragmentary warrants issued by former officials of nascent police states.

"See what I mean about lacking imagination? I've seen better deco-dances on golden oldie music videos. That may be your only survival trait: insufficient imagination."

The interruption pulls him back from the brink. Now the monkey's mocking eyes seem almost friendly.

Help me.

"You know what I think, pal? I think The Man had better get here soon or it's going to be too late."

The couple doing the Black Meat ordered another round, with discreet glances toward the back, where nestled the vomitorium. Once you start on Black Meat, it's so hard to stop, and the primer modifies your taste buds so it tastes delish both going in and coming out.

Well, you know, life's a bitch and then you die.

Ripple of non-glances toward the door and it's Dr. Drugs! Your Man is here. Your sigh of relief is guarded, because you see that he is on Edge. You know this because you hallucinate him as six foot tall crocodile with flickering snake tongue. His movements are reptile quick, with the pauses between movements motionless as stuffed lizard.

"Iss thiss sseat taken?" The forked tongue flickers with the inquiry. Your wave him to sit, trying to act cool, but he can only see your outline and it's getting mighty jagged.


The neurophysiology of the street drug "Edge City" is still in doubt and its illegality makes further investigation difficult. It has no close relative in either the licit or illicit pharmacopoeia, which suggest that its original synthesis was accidental, a product of the neurotransmitter-receptor "shotgun" approach used by many outlaw biochemists.

The general effect of the drug is to greatly enhance the perception of change. Its impact on vision, for example, is to acutely intensify the perceptibility of moving objects, or, if the field of vision is static, visual gradients. At high doses, only outlines and edges remain visible, hence the name of the drug.

To the Edge user, the world becomes sharp, almost digitized, and electronic. Sounds become grating, as if heard through a high-pass filter. Textures feel rough to the skin. By way of contrast, the movements of the user become more fluid, but with a speed that sometimes makes them seem snake-like or reptilian.

Many theories have been advanced to explain why Edge is the drug of choice among youth gangs, drug dealers, and other violence-prone delinquents. There is no question but that the drug does amplify violent tendencies and other outlaw behavior in its users. The physiological effects alone go far toward explanation. The drug lowers the annoyance threshold and enhances aggressiveness. In addition, the perceptual changes and quickened physical reactions make the user in every way a dangerous antagonist.

Theories concerning the drug's popularity range from the purely behavioristic, involving invocations of the reticular activating system, to the more philosophical, which suggest that the Edge user achieves a homeostatic matching between internal and external reality states...

So the croc slides over and his tongue flickers.

"Sso, how are thingss?" He does not bother to wait for the reply, just motions for a drink.

"I'm having a sspecial ssale," the reptile continues, seemingly speaking to the horned monkey. "A new 'veng drug, just the thing for office rivalss, petty functionariess and ex-loverss. No name for it yet, even; we're a test market. It producess four hourss of intense nausea, but it kills the vomit reflex."

"He's not really into anger, you know," the monkey tells the crocodile. "I think he needs a few more passes through the wringer, guilty secrets, broken dreams. Something nasty to cover up, to pretend away. He'll have to start doing something other than this Tranq junk, too."

One of the Meat eaters shyly makes for the back room, but midway is accosted by a small oriental, begging opium. When refused, the little guy pulls a knife and morphs into Fu Manchu, but dissolves into thick black smoke before completion of the homicidal act. The television begins to sprout eyes, old CBS logo gone animate, hypnotic. Our boy tears his eyes away.

"Look," he whispers to the smiling crocodile. "Can we do this deal now, please?"

Reptile eyes look right through him, then there is a shimmered ripple, like bad black-and-white TV dream dissolve, and the croc turns into a gray-faced man with thick glasses so strong that the fronts of them are flat. The monkey is reflected twice-fold in those lenses, mouthing the words that the Man is saying.

"I know another Tranquility addict," he says, Edge dreamy and sandpaper smooth. "One of my other customers, used to be a gene cutter, specialized in phytoplankton, algae, yeah? You know it's rough when even green slime betrays you.

"The lab he worked for was doing basic research into photosynthetic reactions. The primo green used by regular plants splits water into hydrogen and oxygen, but the H gets used immediatemente, dig? The research boys tried making hydrogen direct, but they also futzed around with other stuff, splitting different salts, growing the plants in high pressure ammonia and methane, real sci-fi material.

"One of the bio-mods worked in just regular salt water, maybe somebody had the notion to try for bulk production of hydrogen chloride, but midway through they got one that gave off straight chlorine gas, just like an electrolytic cell. They were real proud of that one they were.

"Then one night our boy remembered a phrase from a college lecture or maybe it was an article in a popular mag: 'We are all the survivors of numerous genocides.' He woke up in a sweat. It seems that about a billion years ago, the first green plants filled the environment with a powerful chemical, oxygen, and thereby killed off most of their anaerobic kin with chemical warfare. Not really polite, but we wouldn't be here otherwise.

"So the gene tech realizes that this new chlorine producer could do the same thing all over again, only to us this time. He hot foots it back to the lab, only to discover...."

The crocodile face is back, weeping gently, gazing into the monkey's eyes. "Must I continue?"

"Dumped, huh?" says the monkey.

"Illegally," says the croc. "Sewer, bay, ocean. When he takes Tranquility, he knows it died. Other times he's not so sure. So he takes a lot of Tranq."

"How long to know for sure?" asks the furry creature.

"Like cancer of the lung, years to know, then it's too late. Likely as not we die first. But our children...Do you have children?" Alien eyes stare into his.

But he can't answer. The Fear is on him now, so intense he dares not move.

"Oh hell," say the eyes behind the glass. "Take your damn pills." He rolls a bottle across the table. Only an Edged up pusher skating the razor in an Edge City bar would be so blatant. "It's a double-Edged sword, yes sir," as the monkey manqué would say.

He fumbles for the caps and gulps them dry.

Somebody sighs. Perhaps it's the monkey, the one who is never on his back, oh no.

The Tranquility wave begins and the world shifts on its axis. Life, love, job, hell, it'll all work out. He looks over at the simian, who is beginning to fade already.

The furred face grins. His voice has become inaudible, but he says his last in a sign language made understandable by the rush of Tranq plunging into a bottomless need.

"So long, it's been real. I'll be back, you know; there's no way out except the obvious." He looks at his watch. "Not much time left, so before I forget:

"Welcome to the future, pal. Now that you've arrived, where do you go from here?"

Monday, August 13, 2007

On Non-Representational Art

[hauled up from the depths of my web page]

Most of my hobbyist ventures into the graphic arts are abstract or non-representational. This seems to be one of the topics that sf readers and fans get mighty vocal about at times, and I seldom pass up a chance to get myself into trouble on controversial topics, so I think I’ll express a few opinions about the subject.

Let me start out in left field with a nod to the book City of Truth by James Morrow. It’s a political satire, which automatically puts it in the line of fire, and I’ve read various interviews with Morrow, and he seems to be a decently thoughtful fellow, so I’ll stipulate that I’m being unfair in picking on this one point, but there you go. One takes one’s examples where they show themselves.

City of Truth concerns itself with the city Veritas, a place where the citizens have been subjected to a treatment that makes them always tell the truth and abjure lies. Sort of. Actually, the “truth” that they tell is that sort of harsh candor that many people think of as truth (as Cordelia Chase says in a Buffy episode, “Tact is just not saying things that are true”). So elevators have warning signs that say, “This elevator has been serviced by people who hate their jobs,” and birthday cards say "Roses drop dead, / Violets do too, / with each day life gets shorter, / Happy birthday to you."

The protagonist’s job is “art deconstruction,” in its literal sense. His job is to destroy art from the “age of lies.” This takes out all non-representational art and all representational art that shows things that don’t exist, like winged Nike, Santa Claus, and so forth.
I did a brief web search, and the only comment that I found that noted a problem with this was David Kennedy, who wrote:

In addition, I felt that there was a confusion between Truth and Objectivity. People cannot lie, people find it uncomfortable listening to lies. People respond badly to artwork like Dali's clocks... but why must Nike be smashed? Why couldn't a Vertisian stand there and think, "That is a statue from the Age of Lies. It purports to resemble one of their gods, who of course does not exist. I do not believe in that god, but I recognise that this statue is only a statue. Perhaps I even find it nice to look at."?

In fact, the problem is much deeper. A stone statue of a horse is no more a horse than a stone statue of a winged horse is a winged horse. So why is one a “lie” and the other “true?” In fact, both are “lies” in the sense of trying to be something other than what they are.

La Trahison des Images (Rene Magritte)

This is not Rene Magritte's painting La Trahison des Images (The Treason of Images), since it is only a jpeg image of that painting. Ceci N'est Pas Une Pipe ("This is Not a Pipe") would also seem to be obvious. It is a painting of a pipe, not the pipe itself. So why would an image of a pipe be "true" while an image of Santa Claus be a lie? Both purport to be what they are not. By contrast, a Pollack action painting never purports to be anything but a painting. Why isn't the Pollack considered more true than a "realistic" portrait?

(Above) Enchanted Forest, 1947. Oil on canvas, 221.3 x 114.6 cm. Peggy Guggenheim Collection. 76.2553 PG 151. Jackson Pollock © 2003 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Yet it is easy to see how Morrow's description could work out. If people think that representational art is "true" then it would pass their conditioning, in the same way that readers who agree with the sentiment have no problem with the idea. Indeed, I've heard opinions of similar nature expressed by sf fans (and plenty of people other than sf fans, of course), that "modern art" is a scam, a con job, fit only for birdcage bottoms and fishwrap. What gives?

Well, truth is beauty and beauty truth, eh? That's not true, otherwise "ugly truths" and "pretty lies" would be oxymorons, and they are not, but we'd like for it to be true. Moreover, people tend to like comforting images over those that disturb, or are difficult to understand, or (worst of all) those images that seem to encapsulate the mockery that intellectual snobs (such as myself) bring to the table.

I have some sympathy for this view, especially the distaste for intellectual snobbery (I may be an intellectual snob, but that doesn't mean that I'm in favor of the philosophical stance), but also the desire to have graphic art that serves the purpose of storytelling in venues where storytelling is important. No disagreement there. It's the other aspects that get me into trouble.

I once was having dinner with some friends and acquaintances, and was talking to one of them about graphic illustration and book covers (something that I've personal interest in from time to time). I mentioned one (fairly well-known) artist with some disdain, as having a reputation somewhat greater than the craft he brought to bear on his assignments. Look, I said, it's not that difficult to do those realistic covers; he uses photographs for reference, probably in conjunction with an opaque projector. There's nothing wrong with that, but when he combines images, he often doesn't bother to match the shadows, so you'll get one figure that came from overhead lighting, while another has shadows that look more slant lit. It's just sloppy work.

The other fellow got very huffy. I learned later that he and said artist were good friends, though the person who told me this (another artist) suggested that they weren't such good friends as to have my acquaintance over to the artist's studio, where he kept his opaque projector and photo reference files. Still, tact lies in not saying things that are true, and I was tactless. Besides, it's not the lack of hard work that bothers me about photo reference art. I'm in favor of any shortcut that works. I think that what really bothers me is the larger issue, that there is a creeping sameness at work in sf art in recent times, plus a bit of beligerant knownothingism on the part of fans.

When I first began reading science fiction, the shared culture of the 1950s had not yet broken down under the pressure of the 1960s. Everything seemed to come in threes: Astounding, Galaxy, and F&SF were the magazines; Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were the writers; Powers, Emsh, and Freas were the artists. Of the big three artists, my favorite was Richard Powers, who was strongly influenced by the Surrealist artist Yves Tanguy.

Richard Powers' Illustration for Those Idiots from Earth (1957) .

Yves Tanguy, "The Absent Lady" (1942)

Powers was practically the art director of Ballantine Books, and his "look" defined an aesthetic sensibility. Ed Emshwiller was the most frequent and memorable cover artist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and while his art was somewhat more representational than Powers, he was hardly a photorealist. With his trademark (and often hidden) "Emsh" in every illo, he was a middle-class suburban white boy's delight.

Ed Emshwiller, illustrating Lieber's "The Secret Songs"cover for Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

Kelly Freas, illustrating Budry's "Who?" for Astounding

Frank Kelly Freas was the Norman Rockwell of sf illustration, and I mean that in the best possible way. He had a clean and easily recognizable style that could tell a story by itself if he needed it to. And, like Rockwell, he was very aware of the breadth of the artistic language and used that breadth when it served the needs of the gig. Rockwell, for example, once did a Pollack-esque action painting in order to incorporate it into his painting "The Connoisseur." Likewise, while I don't know for a fact that Freas drew inspiration from Indian sand paintings for the background to "Who?" above, I wouldn't be at all surprised if he had.

Moreover, while Freas' style was representational, what was being represented was extraordinary. It was anything but photographic. Consider the illustration above, and, for the sake of argument, imagine trying to use a photoreference technique in its production. How much would that have saved? Precious little. The background would still require design; the mechanical arm is from whole cloth. Trying to get this image from a photoshoot would take more time than the artwork did. Similarly, Freas drew aliens such that his designs could be used by makeup artists, so the design flow would be from art to realism, rather than the other way around.

So, okay, I'm an old fart who thinks that the stuff of his childhood was better than the swill available now. Except that there was plenty of realist art available when I was young; I don't mind it per se. It's just the steady diet of it that I find boring.

That said, I suspect that the hostility to "modern art" (in quotes, since we're talking about styles that have been around for more than a century in some cases), come from the belief that it's a trick, a swindle perpetrated by snobs to justify sneering at the uninitiated. So let me simple say this. This isn't a test. There is no right answer in the back of the book. It doesn't have to be "about" anything, or about any one thing. If it looks like something, if it reminds you of something else, well and good. If not, maybe it just looks good. If you don't like the looks of any given work of art, move on to the next piece. There's plenty of all sorts of art around, enough for everyone, really.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Minimum Wage

There's a concept in economics called "elasticity," more specifically, the “price elasticity of demand.” This is a concept in microeconomics, though experience tells me that it is often mistaken for macroeconomics. I have several theories about why that is, but simple ignorance is probably the real reason.

Most commodities have a relatively inelastic demand response to price changes, which is one of the reasons why firms try so hard to remove themselves from the task of supplying mere commodities by branding, or otherwise differentiating what they sell from the products of other firms, with copyright or patent protections, or some sort of barrier-to-entry strategy. One can also take advantage of commodity pricing on the upside, when there are supply crunches. The money Exxon makes from a supply scarcity of oil and gasoline (oil production or oil refining) is one such upside; oil firms literally make more money by supplying less gasoline. The electricity shortages in California a while back are another example.

But economics is a social science, and in social sciences, the “science” is often subverted by the “social.” That was the main sermon that the late John Kenneth Galbraith preached during his lifetime, and it took me longer to get it than it should have, partly (I will alibi) because he often used arguments that weren’t particularly strong. He argued, for example, that advertising does nothing but create artificial demand, and worse, that it made firms immune to consumer choices. I’d have loved to see his analysis of the “New Coke” but I don’t think he ever made one.

Still, agendas matter, and that is nowhere more obvious than in economics, and especially economists and their fellow travelers. There is a political philosophy afoot that holds “the market” (or “the free market”) to be some sort of moral fairy dust that can be sprinkled onto any policy to turn it into a just and moral action. This does, however, require some interesting mental gyrations on the part of the true believers.

Consider this analysis of the Minimum Wage, a tried and true policy of the advocates of labor. The basic argument in favor of the minimum wage should not be controversial: demand for the lowest economic value labor (sometimes called “unskilled” by those having never worked a minimum wage job) is inelastic, as befits a commodity. This means that a minimum wage above the “market clearing price” will result in some marginally lesser employment rate, but the margin will be proportionally less than the marginal increase in wages mandated by the minimum wage. In other words, the winners get more money than the losers have lost. This additional money must come from somewhere, of course, and traditional theory suggests that it comes from the business owners (and possibly managers) that have to pony up the additional wages.

Now there is a debate within the economic community as to whether or not there is any loss of employment in the minimum wage class (or in the overall labor force), at least for small enough increases. This might simply mean that the loss is too small to measure, given the other noise in the system, or it might actually mean that the increase in demand caused by a higher minimum wage (more money in the pockets of those who spend it), has a stimulative effect on the macroeconomics of the situation. In effect, minimum wage workers have more money to spend at Walmart, so Walmart has to hire more minimum wage employees. This is sometimes called the “Ford effect” because Henry Ford supposedly paid high wages to his workers so they could afford to buy automobiles.

But there isn’t really any way to make the case that the minimum wage hurts workers in general, because it simply isn’t true, and there is no intellectually honest way to make the economic argument that it does.

Nevertheless, I have seen quite a few articles, by economists, saying exactly that, in so many words. I remember one in particular, from an economist at Pepperdine University (the economics department at PU being essentially another right wing think tank, as is the one at George Mason University), that decried the terrible result that raising the minimum wage would have on the unemployment rate of black teenaged males. What are the odds that said economist has ever been concerned about the employment prospects of black teenagers in anything other than a context of arguing against policies that would actually result in monetary loss to large corporations?

But here’s where this all goes very meta. I once wrote more or less the same thing as the above in a posting to a Compuserve Forum. The result was that several other participants (who would all, I suspect, classify themselves as libertarians), simply refused to even acknowledge the argument, and castigated me for being so callous toward the unemployment that would surely result from a minimum wage hike. They were prepared to argue the does-it-or-doesn’t-it-cause-unemployment question, but the more general case of quo bono simply did not register.

Yet every one of them believed that he understood economics.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Singularly Unique

Unique is not a unique word, at least not in the sense of having no synonyms, since “singular” is a good replacement, and the phrase “one of a kind” will also do nicely.

But unique is one of the “battleground words,” one demarking the realm of prescriptive vs descriptive grammar, one whose use or misuse sets teeth on edge.

My ears hear the phrase “very unique” and I cringe a little, so my ears are pretty well in the prescriptive camp, at least on the “unique” question. That’s not all that surprising, since I use words and grammar professionally and besides, as I think I’ve explained before, I have a long history of intellectual snobbery.

Nevertheless, I’m not committed to my prejudices. The singular “they” offends my ear (“If someone has an illness, they should see a doctor”), but I recognize that it is neither ambiguous, nor is it of recent origin (see Chaucer, for example). So in writing I’ll usually try to finesse it, as any battleground usage can interrupt the flow for some people, and flow control is important. Clarity and communication are the goal; grammar is merely the means to an end.

In the case of “unique” however, there are some other things going on. It’s interesting, for example, that adverbs that are usually intensifiers, such as “very” or “highly” actually weaken the usage of “unique.” “Very unique” becomes equivalent to “very unusual” which is less uncommon than something that is unique.

There is also a deeper philosophical argument here. It is the nature of a singular event that it should not really be comparable to other events, otherwise its singular nature is threatened. But we do not live in the world of Platonic Ideals, nor a Thomist world where each Angel is a separate species.

My own take on the matter originated from the contemplation of Cabbage Patch Dolls. (Hey, you take your insights where they happen). Originally, the Cabbage Patch Dolls were soft sculptures, similar in some ways to my wife Amy’s Bat-a-Brats and Sock-Hoppies. So each head was a “unique” craft creation. But when the Cabbage Patch Dolls went mass market, the design was changed for ease of manufacture, and their heads became stamped plastic. However, each Cabbage Patch Doll has a pattern of freckles on its face, and the freckles are varied for each doll, so No Two Are Alike.

So each Cabbage Patch Doll is unique. They’re just not very unique, are they?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007


[crossposted from WAAGNFNP]

Hot gingerbread and dynamite
Boy, I drink nothing but that each night
Back in Nagasaki where the fellers chew tobaccy
And the women wicky wacky woo!

It was a lovely morning In Hiroshima town,
One summer morn in nineteen five and forty.
And the sun, how bright it shone
From a sky without a cloud,
One summer morn in nineteen five and forty.

Turn around, go back down, back the way you came.
Can't you see that flash of fire ten times brighter than the day?
And behold the mighty city broken in the dust again,
Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again.

Hail the day so long expected,
Hail the year of full release.
Zion's walls are now erected,
And her watchmen publish peace.
Through our Shiloh's wide dominion,
Hear the trumpet loudly roar,
Babylon is fallen to rise no more.

And there were many children
Yet lying in their beds,
For this was still an early morning hour,
And the dew lay on the meadow
In the lovely slanting sunlight,
And the crowns had barely opened on the flowers.

watch stopped at the time of the explosion

Turn around, go back down, back the way you came
Terror is on every side, though the leaders are dismayed
Those who put their faith in fire, in fire their faith shall be repaid
Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again

Hiroshima Nagasaki
Nagasaki Hiroshima
ko n nichiwa Mossadegh
arigato Mordechai
ko n nichiwa Mohammad
Hiroshima Nagasaki

All her merchants stand with wonder,
What is this that comes to pass:
Murm'ring like the distant thunder,
Crying, "Oh alas, alas."
Swell the sound, ye kings and nobles,
Priest and people, rich and poor;
Babylon is fallen to rise no more.

Aw, man, how they entertain,
I mean, they hurry a hurricane.
Back in Nagasaki where the fellows chew tobaccky
And the women wicky-wacky-woo!

I come and stand at every door
Though none can hear my silent tread
I come and knock yet remain unheard
For I am dead, for I am dead

I'm only seven though I died
In Hiroshima long ago
I'm seven now as I was then
When children die they do not grow

Turn around, go back down, back the way you came
Shout a warning to the nations that the sword of god is raised
On Babylon that mighty city, rich in treasure, wide in fame
It shall cause thy tower to fall and make it be a pyre of flame
Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again

You are my angel
Come from way above
To bring me love

Her eyes
She's on the dark side
Every man in sight

To love you, love you, love you ...

Human Shadow Etched in Stone

Hiroshima Nagasaki
ko n nichiwa arigato
Nagasaki Hiroshima
Nagasaki Hiroshima
arigato Vanunu
ko n nichiwa Mordechai
ko n nichiwa Mohammad
Hiroshima Nagasaki
ko n nichiwa arigato

Blow the trumpet in Mount Zion,
Christ shall come a second time;
Ruling with a rod of iron
All who now as foes combine.
Babel's garments we've rejected,
And our fellowship is o'er,
Babylon is fallen to rise no more.

Before we die, let’s dig that high, that frees us from our binds…
That blows all cool, that ego drool, and burns us from our minds…
That last big flash, mankind’s last gasp, the trip we can’t take twice…
But before I did let me make that trip, before the nothing comes…
The last big flash, to light my sky…and zap! the world is done…

My hair was scorched by swirling flame
My eyes grew dim, my eyes grew blind
Death came and turned my bones to dust
And they were scattered on the ground

Fujiyama, got a mama,
Then your troubles increase, boy!
It's a bottle in a, bottle in a, bottle in a, bottle in a, bottle in a

bottles melted by blast 900 meters away

They hug and kiss each night,
By jingo, boys, worth that price!
Back in Nagasaki where the fellows chew tobaccky
And the women wicky-wacky-woo!

Oh thou that dwell on many waters, rich in treasure, wide in fame
Bow unto a god of gold, thy pride of might shall be thy shame
Oh God, the pride of man, broken in the dust again

And only God can lead the people back into the earth again
Thy holy mountain be restored, thy mercy on thy people Lord


The Ballad of Hiroshima Town, Jens Bjørneboe, “Vise om byen Hiroshima.” Samlede Dikt, ©1977, 1995 by Gyldendal Norsk Forlag A/S. English translation ©1997 by Esther Greenleaf Mürer
Nagasaki, performed by the Don Redman Orchestra, 1932, lyrics by Mort Dixon, 1928
Pride of Man by Hamilton Camp
Babylon is Fallen, Sacred Harp, W. E. Chute, 1878
Foreign Accents, by Robert Wyatt
Hiroshima, Baez version of the Grey Silkie
The Big Flash, from short story of the same name, Norman Spinrad
Angel by Massive Attack

Sunday, August 5, 2007

What is John Galt?

Atlas Shrugged is a hard case. It's not clear how to even start writing about it, given the aura of political weirdness that surrounds it. By almost any standard, it's science fiction. As McGuffins, it includes an engine that runs on extracting static electricity from the air, a variant of ten-point steel (Reardon metal), a cheap process for extracting unlimited oil from oil shale, and a sonic death ray. And if those weren't enough, the book culminates in a 100+ page speech given to the nation on high-jacked airways by a spooky character who has waged an underground movement against the status quo, a character who is named in the first sentence ("Who is John Galt?"), but doesn't actually appear until Part Three of a three part book.

Then there's stuff like this:

The clouds and the shafts of the skyscrapers against them were turning brown, like an old painting in oil, the color of a fading masterpiece. Long streaks of grime ran from under the pinnacles down the slender, soot-eaten walls. High on the side of a tower there was a crack in the shape of motionless lightning, the length of ten stories. A jagged object cut the sky above the roofs; it was half a spire still holding the glow of sunset; the gold leaf had long since peeled off the other half. The glow was red and still, like the reflection of a fire: not an active fire, but a dying one, which it is too late to stop.

That could easily come from one of the better noir novels of the period. Its roots are clearly in Black Mask pulpitry, the offspring of Chandler and Hammet. Mickey Spillane, whom Rand admired, wrote like that on occasion, and seldom was given due acknowledgment for the craft of it.

Moreover, there was a novelistic purpose to the prose; the mood was deliberately evocative of decay, and a sense of loss. Within the context of the novel and its time, it called forth images of more heroic times, of a lost age of adventure that so appeals to those nostalgic for times from before their own births. In other words, Atlas Shrugged appealed to the dreamer children, and that is also where science fiction finds its grip.

Atlas Shrugged (as well as The Fountainhead) shows up on "The book that changed my life" polls with such regularity that it's a bit embarrassing, though I'm not sure to whom, maybe just me. Still, I'd like to get some sort of handle on it, and I think the pulp/science fiction aspect of it is a major feature of its appeal.

But, just as evolutionary theory is tested by examples where adaptation is imperfect, the appeal of philosophies are best tested by the internal contradictions that its adherents swallow. The internal contradictions of Libertarian/Randian/Objectivism have been remarked upon ad nauseum, but I'm looking to see what sort of novelistic contradictions there exist in the original text. I'm not going to waste time on the obvious gap between reality-as-portrayed and reality-as-it-is. That's too easy and beside the point. Yes, it is, in fact, very rare for the heads of businesses to be the engineering, scientific, and technical brains behind the operation. That's part of the Edison mythology, and ignores the importance of Charlie Steinmetz (even if Edison himself did not). It's also pretty clear from the boardroom scenes in Atlas Shrugged that Rand had never actually been in a boardroom (if I were a certain sort of catty person—which I am not—I would make a similar remark about bedrooms, but all evidence is that Rand knew her way around a bedroom, and furthermore, knew just how important fantasy was in that setting). Still, it's worth noting that, in Atlas Shrugged, when businesspeople make remarks about "helping the underprivileged," they seem to actually mean doing something that might have an adverse impact on their own bottom line, and that is somewhat less believable to this reader than the sonic death ray.

But this is beating around the bush, as it were, and I wish to draw attention to a very important feature of Atlas Shrugged, and that is the failure of its primary sexual narrative.

The point of view character and protagonist of the novel is female, Dagney Taggart, who is, at novel's beginning, the Vice-President in Charge of Operations of Taggart Transcontinental. Dagney is the granddaughter of the founder of the company (more-or-less modeled on Cornelius Vanderbuilt), while her brother, James is the incompetent President, whom she must always work around to make the railroad a success. James is supposedly a good "Washington man," able to get government concessions and favors from the Federal government, and, remember, I'm not going to discuss the unrealistic political economics of the book.

The first section of Atlas Shrugged, from one viewpoint at least, consists of getting Dagney into bed with the first male protagonist, Henry (Hank) Rearden, the head of Rearden Steel, who has just created ten-point steel…I mean, Reardon Metal, an unlikely (from a metallurgical standpoint) alloy of iron and copper. It's a superstrong alloy, and, naturally, everyone in the business and scientific community is against it, apparently because it's so good, and doesn't conform to theory and stuff like that. Dagney and Hank are first business partners, trying to get a railroad line to the previously mentioned shale oil fields, and to do this they have to reinforce a bridge, which is done with Rearden Metal, so there's this fantastic high-speed train ride through Denver, over the bridge, etc., into the Valley of the Oil Shale, or whatever it's called, and at the end of it, Taggart and Rearden have frenzied sex, because, well, come on now, this is Ayn Rand writing here, and both of them are rich, good-looking, talented, and very highly sexed.

Afterwards, Rearden, who is already married, has an attack of conscience and gets all moralistic and self-loathing, but Dagney laughs it off and convinces him that sex is good, which, frankly, isn't that difficult a bit of persuasion, is it? Still, it would never have been necessary with Howard Roark, the previous Randian protagonist with initials HR.

Later, Reardon's wife goes absolutely ballistic when she learns that he's having an affair with Taggart, and not, as she first thought some chorus girl or other cheap tart. Rand gets this bit of psychology almost perfectly correct, including the fact that Rearden is so clueless that he thinks that his wife would be more ready to accept his affair with Taggart, because it's high romance rather than low and tawdry, i.e. when it actually threatens his marriage, rather than being a cheap bit on the side.

Okay, we'll now fast forward over the second part of the book, Either-Or, which has its points, especially the ongoing romance/sexual frenzy between Dagney and Hank, plus the slow deterioration of the country (and our heroes' fortunes) as the evil altruistic philosophies roaming the land devour the wealth of the country's creators, and as those creative sorts slowly disappear, one by one, into some mysterious Void. Even the dull reader will, by the end of Either-Or (probably even earlier) guess that this John Galt fellow has something to do with it, and the brighter readers will have figured out that all the cool people are leaving their posts because John Galt or one of his minions has talked them into it.

Okay, let's leave that odd little point for a bit, though it is odd isn't it, that all these rich and talented folks are walking away from their fortunes and place in society? And it's a lot of them, with nary a one of them blowing the whistle, or blabbing to somebody who might take note of it.

But Part Three, A is A (for all you comic book fans, that's where Ditko's "Mr. A" comes from), finds Dagney Taggart, after crashing her plane in a small Colorado valley at the end of Part Two, waking up in "Galt's Gulch." And who should be her rescuer but the fabled John Galt?

All right, blah, blah, blah, Dagney can't yet bring herself to retire from the world and join the strikers. Yes, that's what they are, strikers. It's "the mind on strike," because, you know, businessmen are such intellectuals. Okay, there's also artists, composers, scientists, engineers, etc. Yeah, yeah, every artist I've even known knew his Schopenhauer. And read Aristotle in the original Greek. Crap, I said I wasn't going to do that.

Anyway, Galt pretty much effortlessly, I mean effortlessly, takes over Taggart's affections. Another of her former lovers, Francisco d'Anconia, is also in Galt's Gulch, but although he is damned dashing and all, he doesn't measure up to Galt. No one does, not really. Not even Hank Rearden, who later in the book, gives up the rights to Rearden Metal to save Taggart the public humiliation (!) of the exposure of their affair. Taggart then exposes the affair herself, on national radio, but Rearden figures out that she's fallen for someone else because she only uses the past tense.

Then, blah, blah, blah, hundred page speech from Galt explaining how the world really works, everyone who isn't a total asshole joins the strike, cut, fade to black and well, who knows what happens afterwards, the dictatorship of the intelligentsia? Some sort of Objectivist paradise perhaps.

Or maybe not.

Consider. You've got these two folks, Taggert and Rearden. They are as individualistic as they come. They come together (so to speak) over shared interests and passions, share triumphs and some defeats. They are star-crossed lovers.

Then this guy Galt waltzes in, Taggert swoons and Rearden lets it happen. And none of these folks, not the industrialists, the heirs of great fortune, the artists, composers, writers, the damn pirate even, none of them go against the class. All these rugged individualists join in a collective action, a strike, for God's sake.

How is this possible? I can come up with only one, plausible within the context of science fiction, answer.

John Galt is a Slan. Maybe he doesn't have tendrils, but slans don't have to have tendrils. But he's super-smart, capable of inventing a fantastic new energy device all by his lonesome. He's super-attractive, because, well, slans are like that. And he obviously has some sort of mind control power, just like Jommy Cross developed in Slan. Galt may not be an exact van Vogtian slan, but he's obviously some sort of telepathic mind-controlling mutant. It's the only reading of Atlas Shrugged that makes any sort of sense.

Because otherwise, all these rugged individualists would have had to have taken up exactly the same political ideology and exactly the same course of collective action in support of that ideology. And that's too implausible to believe. It's just ridiculous.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Meteor Crater

On one of my cross-country trips, I decided to visit Meteor Crater.
It was the first time I’d taken I-10 on my way across. There’s a point at which you can decide to take a side trip either north to the Grand Canyon or south to Meteor Crater. The Grand Canyon sidetrack is basically a day trip, while Meteor Crater is only like 20 miles off the Interstate, so I went to Meteor Crater.

Meteor Crater is seriously cool, a big hole out in the middle of nowhere. There was a debate originally about whether it was from a meteor or whether it was volcanic in origin. One of the arguments against it being meteoric was that it was so symmetrical, and people imagined that a meteor was more likely to come in at an angle, and that would show up as an asymmetry, an elongated gouge in the surface, in other words.

That seems intuitive, and it’s wrong. The problem is that our intuition doesn’t deal very well with the difference between momentum and energy. It drives me crazy in news articles about cosmic rays, where the energy of very high energy cosmic rays is compared to a well-hit golf ball. While this is technically true, when we think of a speeding golf ball, it’s the momentum that we’re visualizing, not its energy. The impact when it hits you, or the feel of it coming off the club, those are phenomena of momentum, rather than the amount of heat it would generate when it stops, which is a measure of energy. In the cosmic ray example, a better indication would be that it has an energy similar to what is required for a photoflash on a camera.

In the case of a meteor impact, the amount of kinetic energy involved totally dominates the behavior on impact. The meteor basically explodes, with the energy of many kilotons. It’s as if you lobbed a grenade into a sandbox. It doesn’t matter what angle it comes in at, the explosion is going to produce a circular crater.

All of which makes this last bit just a little embarrassing. There I was driving along a road in the Arizona desert, a flat, flat, desert. Then, after a while, the road began to climb. I looked ahead and saw the road going up a hill, the only hill in sight. I realized that the crater would be at the end of the road.

And I found myself thinking, “Gee, what are the odds that the meteor would have hit the only hill in the area?”


Wednesday, August 1, 2007


Isoprene is 2-Methyl-1,3-butadiene, photochemically a highly reactive organic compound, owing to the two reactive olefinic groups (double carbon-carbon bonds) in its structure:


It’s also of interest in air chemistry because it’s biogenic; the major source of emissions of isoprene into the atmosphere is hardwood trees and similar plants. Softwoods emit terpenes, the most common of which is alpha pinene, which is what turpentine is made of. Terpenes themselves are biologically synthesized from isoprene, but the terpene emitters don’t emit much isoprene.

The terpenes are even more reactive than isoprene, but that reactivity actually tends to reduce their ozone forming potential, for two reasons. The first is that they are so reactive that they react very rapidly with ozone itself. The second is that, after reaction, especially with ozone, the high molecular weight products that are formed tend to have a low enough vapor pressure that they form aerosol particles. Some amount of naturally forming haze comes from the reaction of terpenes with ozone, and it’s often said that the Smokey Mountains got their name from this pre-industrial haze.

One of the olefinic bonds in isoprene also has a methyl group associated with it, and this alkylation alters the electron distribution of the double bond and makes it more reactive. So that bond tends to be the primary reaction site, with the result that the product formed (after the usual smog reaction hugger mugger) is preferred. The usual product of that reaction site is methyl vinyl ketone, while the other site reactions give methacrolein, an aldehyde with a double bond in it.

Both MVK and methacrolein have interesting further reaction sequences. MVK will further react to give methyl glyoxal, which is also a product of the photooxidation of alkylated benzenes like toluene and xylene. Methyl glyoxal photolyzes like crazy, and it turned out to be the powerful radical source in the toluene system when we were earlier studying toluene.

Methacrolein primarily reacts via hydroxyl (OH) grabbing onto its aldehydic hydrogen, which give a peroxyacyl like compound. Faithful readers will be reminded of peroxyacetyl nitrate which was the first peroxyacyl nitrate (PAN) to be studied in smog chemistry, and it remains the most important. But the methacrolein analog to PAN turns out to be temporarily important in the photooxidation of isoprene. It serves as a temporary sink for both reactive radicals and nitrogen dioxide.

The nitrogen oxide sinks due to the PAN analog plus PAN itself cause an isoprene-NOx system to run out of nitrogen oxides relatively early in a smog chamber experiment, sometimes before the isoprene itself is gone. If that happens, the ozone may begin to decline (owing to the exhaustion of the NOx). But if the temperature continues to increase, as it does in smog chambers that don’t control the temperature (as is the case for outdoor chambers), then the thermal decomposition of the PANs will bleed both NOx and reactive radicals back into the system and the ozone will begin to climb again.

The first outdoor smog chamber experiments showed just such a phenomenon, resulting is odd looking “double peak” experiments. By selecting the appropriate value for the thermal decay of the “methacropan” and by paying attention to the radical-radical reactions that determined PAN decay generally, I was able to fit those experiments using gas phase chemistry while everyone else was suggesting that it was all due to “chamber effects.” Given a broad enough definition of “chamber effect” that was certainly true, but the actual effect that was responsible was simply the increasing temperature as the day progressed, a phenomenon that isn’t confined to smog chambers.

A Google search on “isoprene photochemistry” gives 45,000 hits. “Isoprene photochemistry Killus” gives only 200. Using Google Scholar gives 1740 and 84 respectively. That’s either 0.5% or 5%, not all that big a chunk either way. But for a brief while in 1983-4, I knew more about the photochemistry of isoprene than anyone else on the face of the planet.