Tuesday, April 29, 2008


One of the hardest lessons to learn in life is that wishing doesn't make it so.

It's possible to view the history of science fiction as a long search for magic wands, for things that will fulfill the wish fulfillment fantasy. We've had potions and rays, ESP and PSI, interstellar empires, nuclear power, and radiation giving people mutant powers. Sometimes it's virtual reality, or cyberspace, the knurd imagination writ large. Sometimes it's something as simple as a new way to get laid (telepathically!).

So we come to parallel worlds and quantum indeterminacy, with the latter being shorthand for some method of wishing yourself into the parallel world that is to your liking. Some of this comes from the confusion that results when someone identifies personally with the word "observer" in the Copenhagen Interpretation. If you wish and wish with all your might, for Schrödinger's Cat to be alive when the box is opened, then, by golly, the Cat will live and come out to play with Tinkerbell.

But even if you take the "Many Worlds" interpretation, there are problems. Perhaps it excites you to imagine that there is a parallel world in which you are married to Angelina Jolie, but there are a number of problems with the very concept. First, even if there is a world in which someone who shared a timeline with you up until the lucky streak (for you; let's not consider what the situation would mean for Ms Jolie) that gave that result, that fellow isn't you. Not anymore. And this stricture applies even more forcefully to those worlds where "you" are of a different sex (because then "you" are actually "your sister"), or born with a different genetic makeup, etc. You might as well imagine yourself as someone else in this world, because identity doesn't give you a free ride. Who told you that you're the same person that you were yesterday, incidentally?

Moreover, just because you think you can imagine something doesn't mean that it can happen. There are a lot of ways for something to be impossible, and the deck may not have those five aces in it.

Besides, there are consequences to any proposition. That was Ursula LeGuin's point in The Lathe of Heaven. Sometimes what you think you want has consequences that you don't actually want. In fact, you might scratch that "sometimes" and put in "always." This is a principle that applies even to a single world. You just have to hope that the main consequences of your (always well-intentioned) actions outweigh the secondary consequences, over which you have less control, and certainly have less knowledge.

Ultimately that's why we have ethics, morality, and to a degree, even science. We want to know as much about the consequences of our actions as possible, and we want those consequences to be as good as we can manage. Sometimes we fail. But we should always try, and the trying consists of acting, and not wishing, because wishing doesn't make it so, nor do good intentions.

Monday, April 28, 2008


Phil worked at Systems Applications Inc. in the late 1970s, as did I, although he worked in the telecommunications policy analysis group, while I was a smog modeler. I'm not sure how long he'd worked there before we got to know each other, but I'm pretty sure that the first thing he said to me was "Were you at Westercon last weekend?"

So Phil was a science fiction fan, among other things, the other things including being an economist and a libertarian, back when there was still some intellectual meat in libertarianism, which is to say before it became a front operation for the Conservative Movement. Phil was a fan of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy, for example, and did a bit of work on "cap and trade" air quality management policy analysis for SAI before he left. In those days, cap and trade was a new idea, and new ideas fascinated Phil.

We were simpatico, he and I. We had one long conversation once on a drive down to Los Angeles, five or six hours of non-stop ideas, back-and-forth on philosophy, economics, space exploration, computers, science fiction and fantasy, all the seriously geeky stuff that we sort know each other by. There were the usual "agree to disagree" areas, and we were also fine with that.

At one SAI party, there was a game of charades where I drew "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Phil was on my team and the clues went, five words, first word short, second word sounds like [make circular movement with hands] round, ground, hound, on the nose, fifth word sounds like [makes dribbling motion] Basketball!—blank Hound blank blank Basketball, The Hound of the Baskervilles! On the nose, and we were done, total elapsed time less than fifteen seconds and the other players were just blinking. What had just happened? Some form of telepathy no doubt.

Phil left SAI to go to work on a "dream project," one of those companies trying to build a private space launch vehicle. He also got involved with Eric Drexler's Foresight Institute, and Drexler stayed with Phil and his wife Gail when he first moved to California. Gail was more serious than Phil; when one of my first stories, "Shaggy Purple" came out, one about the discovery of an astronomical object so implausible (a purple star, inspired by a piece of astronomical art I'd once seen at a convention) that one of the characters decided it must have been artificially constructed. Later in the story, some alien artifacts are discovered orbiting the star, cinching the theory, but the character does not tell anyone except the narrator that he's pretty sure that whoever made the star did so as a joke, to upset alien astronomers perhaps. But with only the star and a few enigmatic artifacts as evidence, the story soon fades from public attention.

Gail was of the opinion that the discovery of the existence of an alien race would have had a bigger impact. Phil understood why the story was named "Shaggy Purple."

I lost track of Phil when I got sick in the mid-80s. In the early 90s, when I was beginning to reconnect with various folks, I checked the phone book, found Phil's name, and called the number. I only got an answering machine the first time, and it was Gail's voice, and the message made no mention of Phil.

I was hoping that they'd gotten divorced. Not because I wanted them to split up, of course.

When I finally got through to Gail, she told me that Phil had died the year before, at 41, of stomach cancer, only a couple of years after his father had died of the same thing. She speculated that whatever had activated the cancer had done so for both of them at some time in the past and the induction time had just been a little different.

That's another one of those examples of intellectualization that I sometimes point out.

We spoke for over an hour, maybe more than two. It turned out that a college buddy of mine had worked for the Foresight Institute for a time, so there was some gossip about that. Periodically we circled around to Phil and his quick and untimely death. He'd only lived a couple of months after the diagnosis. One of his comments at the time was to envy the 18 months to two years that AIDS took to kill its victims. Two years looks awfully good to someone with only a month to live.

I want for Phil to not have died. I want for him to have made a lot of money, one way or another, and to have gotten into space, either in a sub-orbital flight in a craft from a company he was a part of, or as one of those space tourists who get to go to the Space Station by paying the Russians. I want for nanotechnology to have created a cure for Phil's cancer, even though I don't believe that Drexler has a clue and that his view of nanotechnology is snake oil squared. I want a time machine to be able to go back and stop whatever it was that triggered Phil's and his father's cancer so that both of them would still be alive.

I want world peace and I want to dance the Charleston with Louise Brooks. I want to hear a duet between Joni Mitchell and Tim Buckley. I want to teleport to Barsoom. I want all sorts of things that I can't have, that I could never have, even if I were fortune's most favored son.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Small Towns

I grew up in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, but I both entered and exited grade school in small towns in North Carolina and Kentucky, respectively.

I began the first grade (“pre-school” not being an operative concept in the 1950s South), in Summerfield, North Carolina. It’s now a bedroom community for Greensboro, and it’s not really that far, only 10-15 miles, but the roads back then weren’t that good, and Summerfield felt very rural. By “rural” I mean that there was a tobacco farm next door, a mule pen maybe 40 yards from our back porch, and the first money I ever actually earned (as opposed to little “tips” for being cute or helpful) was at a “tobacco stringing party” where the whole neighborhood tied harvested tobacco leaves to sticks, to be hung in the curing sheds.

There was also a General Store across the street, and across an open field and parking lot was a drugstore, complete with soda fountain. I must have charmed the manager of the drugstore, because he made me ice cream cones with chocolate syrup and peanuts and charged me far less than usual because I’d been buying Drumsticks at the General Store. Or maybe he was having some weird kind of competition with the General Store. In any case, I spent large amounts of time in the drugstore, reading comic books and magazines, and the sight of a pre-schooler bookworm was probably just cute as all get-out.

When we first moved to the area, we lived in Greensboro for a while. I’m not absolutely sure if Dad worked in Greensboro or Winston-Salem. If it was the latter, then we moved so he’d be closer to work, but I think he worked in Greensboro. I can only remember going back to Greensboro from Summerfield a couple of times, to see our friends the Appels; the son Steve, had been my “best friend” for maybe all of the three months we lived there. Steve’s sister was mentally handicapped, that may have been the euphemism for “retarded” then, although “retarded” may have been the euphemism. All I can remember about her was that she was sweet and shy, saying very little, and she had a lot of health problems. I know now that it’s very rare for health issues to be confined to the “mental;” there are usually profound developmental malfunctions accompanying most mental handicaps.

I don’t remember much about school in Summerfield; we weren’t there very long. There were two “alpha males” in my class, me and a guy named Terry, and we got along. It was actually a trio that included a girl named Carol (these are very treacherous memories, I acknowledge; I’m not positive that was her name). It being the Baby Boom and all, the school got some “Portables,” pre-fab classrooms, installed a month or two after we started school, and there was a split-grade 1st and 2nd grade class formed, with the brightest of the first graders put into it. I would have gone into it, but it was already known that we were about to move back to Nashville, Dad’s transfer not having worked to anyone’s satisfaction, so our trio got broken up and Carol and Terry left. I had only a few weeks to get used to that, then we moved back to Donelson, and I became “the new kid in school” despite having lived in Donelson for years.

As an aside, having reminded myself of Terry and Carol, I don’t ever recall passing through a “girls are icky” stage. I will acknowledge being terribly annoyed at times by my younger sister, but I’ll stipulate that I was probably even more annoying to her. But one of the pains of my adolescence was watching various girls that I’d substantially liked deliberately dumbing themselves down in accordance with “community standards.” At the time I thought it was because I was in the South; now I acknowledge the more general problem. Still, my experience suggests that it’s worst in the South.

Anyway, Donelson Elementary gave way to a new, much closer school, Hickman Elementary, which I left behind about six weeks into my Sixth Grade year. This move was to Russellville, Kentucky, where Dad had found a job managing a bowling alley (that dates me, I think; they call them “lanes” now). This was definitely one of those “small town gentry” places that John Barnes talks about; the business failed after a year basically because the man who’d purchased it hadn’t kissed the proper feet, and the local Men of Influence wouldn’t sponsor leagues, which are the lifeblood of a bowling establishment.

When my sister and I entered school, my folks were told (condescendingly), that the school was organized on a “three track” system, not really separate classes for “A,” “B,” and “C” students, but, well, that was how it actually was; they just didn’t call it that. And they’d found that transfers from Tennessee schools were “usually a bit behind” where the same grade Kentucky students were. So they placed Marilyn and me in the middle (B) group, and said that if we had any trouble keeping up, they’d move us back to the slower (C) group for a while. Then if we caught up, we could move back to the average group.

A week later, both of us were moved to the advanced classes; I spent the entire year more or less sitting in the back row, reading the World Book Encyclopedia and occasionally giving demonstrations to the class about such things as the destructive distillation of wood or writing short stories and little science fiction plays. My sixth grade teacher, very wisely, God bless her, realized quickly that she had a mutant on her hands and didn’t try to get in my way. As long as I turned in the assignments and didn’t disrupt class (well, the wood distillation was a little disruptive, in the sense that it stank up the place), she didn’t try to rein me in.

The school was also very musical, with the music teacher being a real power in the place, and musical numbers being a common entertainment at school assemblies. I had a good voice, but no musical training beyond church choir (no snide remarks, now), so it was one place that I had the unusual comfort of not being a standout (phys ed was another; I was pretty average except in things that they didn't pay attention to, like swimming). On the other hand, I’d have liked to learn to read music, and they didn’t teach that, for some reason.

I’d already turned into a science geek, making some of my first buddies by telling them about the difference between alpha, beta, and gamma radiation while we were discussing some of the first issues of The Hulk. And there was an older student, I think in high school, who was also a chemistry geek—gads, he actually had access to real nitric acid—and I expect we’d have done some interesting, if dangerous, stuff if the family had stayed in town.

After a year, though, it was back to Donelson, for an entire 7-12 sequence at Donelson High School. High school is itself a simulacrum of a small town, and, as many have noted, everything we do later in life reflects the tribal customs that we all learned in High School. But that another essay or twelve, and if I access this particular file structure much longer, I’m going to get maudlin, if I haven’t already.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Everybody Beats Mozart (Except Those who Don't)

“It is a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.” –Tom Lehrer

I noticed when writing (actually reposting from my sff.net newsgroup) my recent memoriam for Lin Carter that I am now the age at which he died of mouth cancer. Actually, I'm a little older than he was, so I beat Lin Carter.

Dan Fogelberg, who was not quite a year younger than I, died late last year, so I beat Dan Fogelberg, too, and, for that matter, John Entwistle, who died a few months shy of 56.

There's a whole raft of pop culture icons who died in their early-to-mid 50's. Frank Zappa, Jerry Garcia, Michael Landon, Bill Bixby, John Ritter, Jim Henson. All of us guys from the peak of the Baby Boom who are still around, we win the slow bicycle race, right?

My favorite headline from the now defunct Weekly World News was "Elvis Dead at 57!" which they published in 1992, when Elvis would have been 57. Or perhaps I should say, when Elvis was 57 in Earth-WWN. Elvis actually died in 1977, when he was 42. I have slightly-better-than-urban-legend knowledge (a friend of mine knew one of the ER staff that dealt with the body when they brought it in) that he was really D-E-A-D on arrival. They tried to revive him anyway, of course. I mean, it was Elvis.

"The parallels are astonishing. Elvis died on a toilet. Kennedy died in Dallas." –David Feldman

Kennedy was 46 when he died, so he beat Elvis. He beat Marilyn Monroe, also. But Elvis and Marilyn both beat Mozart. Hell, everybody beats Mozart.

Except, no, not everybody does. Mozart was just shy of 36 when he died. James Dean was only 24 when he died. Sal Mineo barely beat the Mozart mark by a little over a year, while Natalie Wood was and august 43, when she died, thus rounding out the doomed "Rebel Without a Cause" crew. Nick Adams, friend of Elvis, who played "The Rebel" on television (and also appeared in the sixth Godzilla film for Toho studios), just barely passed the Mozart mark and died of an apparent drug overdose at 36.

Hollywood can chew them up fast. Heath Ledger wasn't yet 29 when he died recently. River Phoenix didn't even beat James Dean. Even Jimi Hendrix did better than that; he was 27 when he died, as was Janis Joplin, and Brian Jones, for that matter. Keith Moon was a relative oldster when he died at 32, as was John Bonham. None of them beat Mozart.

Buddy Holly was 22 when his plane crashed. Richie Valens was 27. Jiles Perry "J. P." Richardson, Jr., aka "The Big Bopper" was 28. The pilot was named Roger Peterson, who was 21.

Duane Allman was in James Dean territory, dying from a motorcycle accident a month shy of 24. His bandmate Berry Oakley managed to make it to the full 24 before dying in his motorcycle accident. The rest of the Allman Brothers gave up motorcycles after that.

Part of the "famous death" thing is that you have to have time to get famous, and that tends to favor the artists and the warriors. Shelly was shy of 30 when he died, but both Poe and Baudelaire still managed to beat Mozart. Keats didn't, though; he died at 25. Christopher Marlowe died at 29, although there are legends that say he just skipped town, like Elvis.

√Čvariste Galois, the mathematician died in a duel at the age of 20. Mathematics and politics do not mix.

Joan of Arc was 19 when she died, and that's pushing the envelope for someone to actually accomplish something before their deaths. Sure, King Tut was a teenager, but he just died and was buried with a lot of gold that didn't get graverobbed. And history is awash with young royals dying of a plague or a murderous plot before they came of age.

But we do have child actors, and such folks as Heather O'Roark, of Poltergeist fame. She was 12, and did not die of a drug overdose, or a set accident. She had congenital intestinal stenosis, and died of septic shock following successful surgery. She died too young. Almost everyone does.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Women and Snakes: Snakebabe

As nearly as I can tell, pretty much all the possible linguistic permutations pertaining to women and snakes get some usage, somewhere, so it's inevitable that at least someone would be "Snakebabe." That someone happens to be Maria Gaza, who is a stage magician, fire eater, snake handler, and animal lover (get your mind out of the gutter, dammit; this is a nice lady we're talking about here). Her website is actually pretty tame, but there's a "Must be over 18" sticker on the front door, I expect because she hangs out with a fast (adult video, Vegas, etc.) crowd.

One of her activities is taking in snakes that have been abandoned by the usual idiot owners who didn't get the idea that snakes can get big enough to be a problem. She discusses this, among other things, in this interview. That interview is adorned by various photographs from Isabel Snyder. I'm copping one of them, because they are very good, and I'm hoping that Ms Snyder is okay the use in exchange for the linkback.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Tonya Harding: Capitalist Hero

Tonya Harding had a problem, and the problem was named Nancy Kerrigan. Harding probably believed that she was a better skater than Kerrigan, and it's hard to come up with an objective way to judge the matter, except to note that in the sport of figure skating, it's the judges' opinions on the matter that set the standards. And the judges loved Kerrigan.

Well, sure. Kerrigan was tall, pretty, with high cheekbones and a toothy smile. She gave off the aura of aristocracy that the hard-scrabble Harding so obviously lacked. It was the Ice Queen vs Trailer Trash, and, really, who was going to win that deal?

Harding could have concentrated on improving the product. She could, perhaps, have spent even more time practicing (perhaps by inventing the 28 hour day). She'd already increased the difficulty of her routines, by adding the triple axle to her skills, a risky procedure, of course, and a bad enough injury could have ended her career. Or she could have worked on her looks, taken charm lessons, and so forth. But really, nothing short of cosmetic surgery was going to raise her cheekbones, and wouldn't the press have gotten a lot of mileage out of that?

So Harding did what any proper CEO would have done with a difficult competitor. She conspired to have Nancy Kerrigan kneecapped. I mean, after all, when Microsoft was competing with Word Perfect, you don't think they put all their efforts into making Word better, do you? Sometimes corporations buy their competitors instead, but that option is not available to Olympic athletes.

But she got caught, so morality carried the day, right? Harding appeared on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, but that was because she'd been bad, bad, and the 400 members of the press who were jammed into the practice rink in Lillehammer, Norway were there to insure that everyone got the proper moral lesson. Besides, she placed 8th, while Kerrigan placed second, and it was Kerrigan who later benefited the most from the figure skating boom that the sensationalism kicked off.

Still, once a celebrity, always a celebrity, and Harding had an internet sex tape released (with stills appearing in Penthouse), then later turned to boxing, first on the Fox TV network Celebrity Boxing event against Clinton accuser, Paula Jones, then later professionally in a short career. She should probably have gone for pro wrestling, where the villains make more money.

A cautionary tale? Perhaps. But a lot of people made a lot of money off of Tonya Harding, and she herself had more notoriety and more of a career than 99% of Olympic athletes. That she never managed to rise far enough to transcend her origins is unsurprising. Few do.

Friday, April 18, 2008

See How It All Fits Together

In my essay, "The Scientific Method," I described (and bragged a bit about) some work I once did on the photochemistry of toluene, which has the unusual property of, under some very special conditions limiting the amount of ozone that is generated in a smog system. It's a weird effect, and I was bragging because I'd predicted it, then designed an experiment to show that its weirdness was real.

In a more recent essay, "PAN", I noted that there were some features of the chemistry of that compound that I'd gotten right because of a detailed analysis, a I-knew-what-I-was-doing sort of thing, which is more bragging, of course, but I noted that, science being what it is, I was only a little bit ahead of the curve. The rate constants that I'd had to adjust to make my simulations work were routinely measured as being what I'd needed only a little while after I did my work, and the ordinary workings of science would have produced models that did the right thing, even if no one was paying attention.

In "The Linear Hypothesis," I remarked that sometimes (in fact, pretty often) scientific models are used for purposes of policy and decision making, and a model is often chosen to make that task easier, because, well, that's the purpose at hand. Sometimes this is done for good reasons, like selecting a conservative model in order to observe "The Precautionary Principle," where we are dealing with asymmetric error; if an error in one direction is vastly more costly than an error in the other direction, then simple caution suggests using the more conservative model, even if there is some weight of evidence on the other side.

Anyway, I've just been talking to an old colleague, who tells me that one major smog kinetics model has been "fixed" so that it no longer shows that weird toluene behavior that we actually proved to exist. The experiment that proves it is now considered "old" (as if chemistry somehow goes bad with age), or "sloppy," or the result of experimental error. Not that anyone is bothering to replicate it, you understand.

I expect that it has to do with it just being too confusing to have models tell you that sometimes adding one pollutant can produce less of another pollutant. Or something like that. The rationalizations sound pretty sad, however.

We've been hearing a lot lately about the ways and methods that various players in the Bush Administration have been tampering with scientific reports, muzzling scientists, and twisting the system to their own ends. This is, of course, despicable. What I am saying here is that I've seen a lot of this sort of thing throughout my entire scientific career, coming from every policy quarter. Yes, the Bush Adminstration does it, and has been totally shameless about it. But they had plenty of precedent from the Tobacco Industry, the Oil Industry, the Pharmaceutical Industry, and, I will add, Environmental organizations and regulators. When people have an ax to grind, they will first grind it on the facts of the matter, or at least the theories and models that are used to codify the facts.

The "Probability Engine" that the time meddlers found in Destiny Times Three by Fritz Leiber was originally a simulation engine, developed by advanced beings to calculate the probable results of various actions, and to avoid the worst actions and their consequences. The horror of the story is that the device came into the possession of humans, who, with the best intentions (but insufferable arrogance) used it to create those dystopian worlds, rather than simply model them.

I do so hope that this is not, ultimately, a metaphor for science in the hands of human beings.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Stamp Collecting

A while back I picked up Motivation and Personality by A. H. Maslow from the free book table outside the Berkeley Public Library.

M&P is one of those books I’d never read, but is still so familiar that I might as well have read it. It was published in 1954, based on papers written during the 1940s, and it’s full of such phrases as “self-actualization” and “synthesis of holistic and dynamic principles.” Maslow isn’t really responsible for the ways in which those ideas were later turned into buzzwords and catch phrases; he used them first, and he was driving at something.

The couple of chapters constitute a long essay on the philosophy of science, because Maslow was dealing with a phenomenon in the psychological sciences that is nowadays called “physics envy.”

When I was a lad, close to the time of the publication of M&P, in fact, the popular image of the scientist was in the process of moving away from a guy in a white lab coat pouring the contents of one test tube into another test tube. What replaced it was a guy with a particle accelerator. Granted, the guy in front of the blackboard scribbling incomprehensible algebra bridged the two other images, but nevertheless, the image had changed from chemistry to physics.

The sci-fi magic wand changed, too. The old school method was the magic potion, or, in the case of Frankenstein (and even older tale from the dawn of electricity) the lightning bolt. The tame lightning bolt was accomplished by the special effect of the Jacob’s Ladder, you know, the gizmo with the electric spark crawling up between the two metal rods. But Steve Rogers gets to be Captain America by getting injected with the magic potion.

The new school was radiation. Radiation grew giant ants, woke up Godzilla, and gave Peter Parker spider powers. The magic potion became the magic ray.

It doesn’t take much reflection to uncover the source of the change, at so many levels. Hiroshima and Nagasaki went up in nuclear lit flames and suddenly physics is a much bigger deal, with big, big budgets The Manhattan Project was bigger than any corporation of its time, and the national lab system that grew out of it was likewise gigantic.

The number of jobs for physicists likewise increased enormously, as did the money available for education in the sciences, again, with physics being the glamour field.

I don’t think I’m going to single out the academic physics community for becoming all snooty about their sudden increase in worldly status; all academics are snooty, given anything like an excuse (and just being academics is usually enough). Being snooty is part of the academic job description.

Nevertheless, academia is always a status competition, and the physics guys suddenly had a lot of extra moxie. So all of the old canards (“All science is either physics or stamp collecting") got some more muscle behind them. Hence, physics envy.

I will grant that, since much of Maslow’s work was done before the end of WWII, physics envy was obviously in the making long before the post-war physics swarm, but why should I let an inconvenient time-line spoil a good narrative? Besides, I’m not saying that this is cause and effect, just that the effect was given a booster shot. Maslow gives a perfectly good description of the intellectual history of what he calls “atomistic and reductionist” thought; I’m just adding a sociological footnote.

Maslow, of course, was concerned with psychology, and his main point is well-taken, that science is too often centered on the means whereby something is studied, and the problem itself may be given short shrift for this reason. Thus, because physics uses certain kinds of mathematics to solve problems, other fields try to mimic the mathematical fireworks. Physics attempts to avoid teleological interpretations in its theories, because such interpretations are contaminated by the projection of human desires, etc. But psychology is about motives, desires, and purpose. In that way it is teleological at its core. Any attempt to avoid interpretations of motive, desire, and purpose make psychology into something other than what it is.

As it happens, I tend to get a little distracted by something that falls to the wayside. When it was all potions and funny smells, science was centered on chemistry. With the rise of the status of physics, chemistry lost status. And there I was, naturally attracted to chemistry.

Still, tastes and conventions change. The image of the heroic physicist has waned, particle accelerators have become prohibitively expensive (and what have they done for us lately, anyway?) and now biochemistry and genetic engineering have become the new magic wands, all the way to taking over the retconned origin of Spider-Man. And the most visible image of science in popular culture is the crime lab technician.

By the way, the author of the “physics and stamp collecting” quote was Earnest Rutherford. Who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Binding Energy

The most tightly bound of the nuclei is 62Ni, a case made convincingly by M. P. Fewell in an article in the American Journal of Physics. Though the championship of nuclear binding energy is often attributed to 56Fe, it actually comes in a close third…

The high binding energy of the group of elements around A=60, typically called "the iron group" by astrophysicists, is significant in the understanding of the synthesis of heavy elements in the stars. It is curious that the abundance of 56Fe is an order of magnitude higher than that of 62Ni. Fewell discusses this point, and indicates that the reason lies with the greater photodisintegration rate for 62Ni in stellar interiors.
--The Most Tightly Bound Nuclei

When I was eight, and cute as a bug, I spent several months selling candy door to door, to finance my way to YMCA summer camp. The camp’s name was Widjiwagan, some sort of Indian name that is at least superior to Sissimanunu (from the Dick Van Dyke Show episode "The Brave and the Backache").

That first year I sold enough mints to pay for the whole thing, something I never did again, I suspect because they kept lowering the price (and quality) of the sweets, first to mint cookies, then to some other kind of cookie (peanut butter?) as I recall. Every year I sold about the same number of units, but the unit price declined, and so did my sales figures.

My camp councilor that first year was James “Cookie” Cook, whose nickname was sometimes pronounced “Kooky” after the TV character on “77 Sunset Strip.” One story that he told was about his appendectomy surgery, which was funny as all get-out to hear him tell it. He did also say that his physicians were surprised at the speed of his recovery, and his surgeon had mentioned something about how many people get all anxious and tense before surgery, and that can be seen in the internal organs themselves, which “try to hide” as it were, under stress. His, Cookie said, were pretty well displayed, so the surgeon said it was an easy surgery.

I have no idea of the veracity of all this, of course. But I like Cookie a lot, which is why I was anything but a happy camper the next year, when I learned that he’d died in a car crash the previous spring.

I read the Norman Cousins book Anatomy of an Illness when it first came out, after seeing Cousins on the Dick Cavett Show. By then I was well along the path to becoming the raging skeptic that stands before you today, but I don’t think I saw much harm in telling sick people to take what enjoyment they could from life; hey, it probably doesn’t hurt and it might do some good. And Cousins book was specifically about laughter, which I do revere. But over time I saw the simple and basic prescription transmogrify into, at least in some cases, yet another way of blaming the victim. You can get well if you just have the right attitude, so your being sick is obviously because you can’t control your attitude. Suck it up.

Anecdotally, well, I’ve known what seems to be more than my share of people who died, enough for the Jim Carroll song to resonate pretty strongly. Some of them had terminal illnesses and plenty of warning. I’ve also known a fair number of people who had what might have been fatal illnesses who nevertheless survived. In one period in the late 70s and early 80s, I specifically remember four people who developed pretty serious cancers. The two who had really positive and optimistic attitudes died; the two gloomy depressives lived.

Sure, sure, anecdotes aren’t statistics, but the statistics are just as suspect. Certainly being ill makes people anxious and depressed, so you start out with the obvious correlation that sick people are inevitably going to be less “positive and optimistic” than people who aren’t sick. The studies that attempt to assess “attitude” attempt to correct for this by objectively assessing people’s prognosis, then seeing if those with a “positive attitude” have better results. The real problem there is that people may subjectively have some information about their own health that doesn’t show up in the objective prognosis. If that is the case, then all the “positive attitude” does is to include that subjective judgment into the mix. In other words, optimism may well be an effect, not a cause.

Still, physicians are human, and nobody really likes dealing with gloomy people all the time. So if the “positive attitude” prescription is more for the benefit of the physician than the patient, it still might make the situation better for the patient if it improves the attitude of the physician. That explanation is less harsh than to say that it’s just more victim blaming, and I’ll take the incremental improvement. Blaming the physician is seldom any more productive than blaming the patient.

In 1989, my Dad was diagnosed with cancer, first liver cancer, then someone else thought it was lung. Both had abysmal prognoses. Some family connections got him into the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, where they re-diagnosed him as having a carcinoid tumor, an intestinal tumor that was producing substantial amounts of serotonin, which accounted for some of his mood swings in the years preceding.

The tumor had metastasized to his liver, and there was the rub. Surgery could remove the colon tumors, but the liver tumors were inoperable, as such. But the Mayo boys had developed a life extending surgery that involved cutting the arterial blood supply to the liver. The liver can still live (albeit, not happily) on venous blood, and removing the arterial blood supply would starve the liver tumors and give an estimated 2-5 years of added life. Not the best result, but a lot of things can happen in 5 years including better treatments.

While we were visiting him prior to surgery, one of his doctors made a visit and made some remark about how important “attitude” was. As I’ve said before, I don’t have much of a poker face, so after he’d left, Dad said, “You looked pretty skeptical there when he said that.”

I said, “I don’t really think that attitude is that important. I think you’ll be okay because you have a healthy heart and good constitution, and I’m fine with that.” Dad nodded. Maybe he was getting tired of acting chipper all the time. Maybe he was relieved that I’d told him that I wasn’t going to blame his attitude if the outcome wasn’t as good as we hoped.

He survived the longer-than-expected four hours of surgery, then died in the recovery room, before he regained consciousness. The subsequent autopsy revealed that he had over 90% blockage in one of his coronary arteries, an absolutely “silent” condition, possibly because the serotonin had masked any chest pains he might have had.

Being right in the abstract and wrong in the particulars is seldom any solace. Things do not always work out for the best, unless your idea of “best” is that everybody dies, but life still goes on. I’m also none too keen on this unintentional irony business, so I try not to think of it too often. Yet there it is, emblazoned above my words, for the world to see.

If a person who indulges in gluttony is a glutton, and a person who commits a felony is a felon, then God is an iron. – Spider Robinson

Friday, April 11, 2008


'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

When I was in the seventh and eighth grade, I walked to school each morning with Mick, who was four years older than I. We both shared a love of science fiction and similar stuff, so the age difference was not as much a factor in our friendship as it first might appear, although it was a bit of a downer when he graduated, just as I entered my freshman year.

Donelson High School, where we both attended, was what would now be called a combined middle and high school, I guess, housing grades 7-12. The 7th and 8th graders were primarily situated in what was a newer addition to the school, judging from the construction. The upper grades were in the part of the building that had a pretty old feel too it.

Mick taught me Jabberwocky on the way to school one morning. Maybe it took a couple of mornings, but I doubt it was more than two. My memory was pretty awesome in those days.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

I'd already heard the opening verse of Jabberwocky, of course, because it was sung by the Cheshire Cat in the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. But the whole poem has more weight to it, and besides, it's cool to recite.

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought

There's a science fiction story entitled, "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" written by "Lewis Padgett, a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. In it, a scientist from the future sends some toys back in time, one batch landing in the 19th Century and the other in the 20th. The 20th Century children who find them play with them and begin to have their thinking transformed. The transformations frighten their parents, who take away the toys. But this action is too late, as the children find the missing information about how to travel into other dimensions by hearing a poem written by a friend of the girl who found a similar toy in the 19th Century. The friend and the girl were Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

Night of the Jabberwock was a mystery by Fredric Brown, a prolific author of both SF and mysteries. The protagonist is a small town newspaper editor who complains about there not being enough news. He is also a Lewis Carroll fan, and the story combines nearly surreal events (somewhat enhanced by alcohol) and complex plotting. It's a pretty wild ride.

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

My senior year in college I moved into an apartment that had been previously occupied by a couple of friends of mine. They did not completely clean the place before they left (do any college students ever do that?) and one of the things they left behind was an issue of the Chicago Seed, an "underground newspaper." That particular issue had a double page spread of the Tennille illustration of Jabberwocky.

I knew that the newsprint would fade; in fact it was already yellowing. So I got some tracing paper and traced the entire print, then pinned that on the wall. I must have had some time on my hands.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

I was driving with Ben a couple of days ago, and I forget which one of us began spontaneously to recite Jabberwocky. No matter. Both of us remembered the whole thing.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Planet Fabulon

This is more of what you can find if you do an image search for "Snakes on a Dame." Both from the website Planet Fabulon, which I recommend highly for its old pulp covers and Midnight Movie Madness feel.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


PAN is fascinating stuff if you’re an air geek, and it’s maybe interesting to other sort of people. PAN is the acronym of peroxyacetyl nitrate. It’s got two parts to it, peroxyacetyl:


And nitrogen dioxide:


The asterisk (*) on the peroxyacetyl is one of the conventions used for indicating that it is a radical; it has an unpaired electron that plays well with others, especially if they also have an unpaired electron.

Now a bit of history, in an attempt to lose anyone that I haven’t already lost with the chemical formulae.

Los Angeles was known to have a smog problem even before WWII, but during and after the war it got much worse, partly because of the massive expansion of oil refineries, and the attendant expansion of automobile travel. L.A. smog was known to be different from “London smog,” in that the L.A. sort was oxidizing, and London’s was reducing. Ozone was identified as a major component of L.A. smog, but the ozone alone couldn’t account for “plant bronzing,” damage with a characteristic yellow-brown splotches on the leaves of plants. A guy by the name of Haagen-Smit (mentioned in a magical incantation in SunSmoke), managed to replicate the plant damage by using the product of some smog chamber reactions, but could not identify the compound that was responsible.

Some researchers at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia (Stevens, Hanst, Doerr, and Scott), used a technique called long-path infrared spectroscopy on smog chamber products and spotted a set of IR bands that were particularly strong in the results of a biacetyl-NOx run. They dubbed the responsible agent, “Compound X.” Compound X turned out to be PAN, and how cool is that?

In the mid-1970s, PAN was discovered to thermally decompose, i.e. at elevated temperatures, it rapidly changed back to a peroxyacetyl radical and nitrogen dioxide. That made everything much more interesting, because PAN gets formed early in the day, when it’s cooler, then, as the air warms, it can decompose and feed radicals and NOx back into the smog formation system, producing more ozone. The thermal behavior of PAN is one of the reasons why smog is worse on hot days. PAN can also assist in the long range transport of oxidizing smog, serving as sort of an ozone storage system.

The thing is that PAN and its constituents/products form a steady-state at constant temperature, with PAN existing in balance with peroxyacetyl and NO2. Change the temperature and the balance changes. At higher temperatures, PAN decays and if there is still sunlight around, ozone goes up. But this process is dominated by the behavior of peroxyacetyl radicals.

If NO2 were the only thing that peroxyacetyl could react with, this wouldn’t happen. But peroxyacetyl also reacts with nitric oxide (NO), and that is one of the reactions whereby ozone is generated, by converting NO to NO2, which then photolyzes to ozone (note: the entire system is ‘way complicated, which is why I spent 20 years studying it). By the same token, if something reduces the amount of peroxyacetyl, relative to other peroxy radicals, then PAN concentrations decline, NO2 comes back into the system, and ozone can increase.

Peroxyacetyl radicals also react with other radicals, and that alters the balance. In the early 1980s, looking over the set of chemical reactions we had available, I decided that the cross-reactions between radicals were set too low. Fortunately, there was a paper by a fellow named Addison that had measured them higher that the generally accepted values, so I used Addison’s numbers. I can still remember the combination of excitement and satisfaction that came when Addison’s numbers led to a simulation that just nailed the PAN decay data. Since then, rate constants have been measured that are even higher than Addison’s; when I used the new, higher still numbers, the results was almost exactly the same. There seems to be a point of diminishing returns, a gating function, call it what you will. Once you get above the critical numbers, there is little additional effect.

So even without my own insights into PAN decay, mostly the result of my paying attention to that particular problem, it would only have been a few years until the problem was solved by better measurements, and correct PAN decay would have been achieved in simulations anyway.

On the other hand, there were several features of the system, such as the specific products of some of the radical-radical reactions that have not been addressed to this very day, to the best of my knowledge, and, nearly as I can tell, no one is looking at those problems and no progress is being made. Sometimes the great grinding engines get it and sometimes they don’t. There’s room for a ton of lessons here, I’m just not sure what they all are.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Destiny Time Three

I recently reread Destiny Times Three, by Fritz Leiber. Given that Leiber is my favorite science fiction and fantasy writer, and DT3 is possibly my favorite of all his longer works, it may not require explanation as to my purpose in the endeavor. However, given that I don't even mention DT3 in my long essay on Leiber, "Sleeping in Fritz Leiber's Bed," I may have some 'splaining to do. Moreover, there was at least one ancillary purpose that bears exploring.

In his autobiographical writings, Lieber says that his original conception of Destiny Times Three was grandiose. He intended a work of around 100,000 words at a time when "complete novel in this issue" meant a novella of maybe 30-40,000 words, and 60,000 words was the standard length for a book.

But DT3 was a victim of the WWII paper shortages, and, by editorial demand, Leiber cut it down to the more standard "short novel" length, so that it could fit into two consecutive issues of Astounding, losing, by his own account, all of the female characters and a great deal of the richness of the worlds he'd created. I had something similar happen to me with the magazine version of "SunSmoke," but I got to make up for it somewhat when I expanded it to book length. Leiber's full version of Destiny Times Three is lost forever.


The general story of DT3 is that there are parallel worlds, but not due to the natural workings of physics, etc. Instead, sometime in the late 19th Century, an alien device was found by a fellow who fancied himself a scientist. He enlisted the assistance of seven other individuals, because it took eight minds to operate the thing, and they used it to slowly create a "utopia," by splitting the world at crucial decision points, observing which world was most to their liking, then "destroying" the "experimental control" worlds. Very scientific.

In fact, they had not destroyed each of these worlds, but merely placed them beyond their own ability to access them, "swept them under the rug" as it were.

The protagonists on Earth 1, the utopian world, are Thorn and Clawly, who rather closely resemble Fahfred and Gray Mouser, or, more accurately, Lieber and his friend Harry Fischer, at least in their imagined incarnations. It's also not a great leap to consider the duo as Thor and Loki (or Loke, as Leiber spells it), given the former's name and the latter's specific comparison to Loke as the tale unfolds. Also, Norse imagery is an ongoing motif throughout the story.

On Earth 1, the power of "subtronics" has been harnessed, subtronics being a Campbellian trope for a sort of "unified field theory" that can also be found in Heinlein's Sixth Column/The Day After Tomorrow, itself a reworking of material supplied by John W. Campbell. All have access to its power, and the unparalleled freedom that results, anti-gravity cloaks and almost total environmental control (the book begins with a description of a "symchromy," an optical symphony on a grand scale) being throwaway mentions in the first couple of pages.

On Earth 2, subtronics was kept as a secret by "The Party" and a totalitarian state was created. Later in DT3 an Earth 3 is discovered to exist, where an attempt was made to suppress the discovery, with a resulting war that destroyed most of humanity and ripped open the Earth's crust to such an extent that rapid geological weathering removed so much CO2 from the air as to produce an ice age. This may be the first mention of the "greenhouse effect" in science fiction, incidentally.

There are versions of Thorn in all three worlds, and versions of Clawly on at least Earth 1 and Earth 2. But on Earth 1, they are fast friends, and Earth 2, they are bitter enemies, the difference being primarily Clawly's personalities. On Earth 2, he is a Party member, while the Earth 2 Thorn is part of the Resistance, such as it is.

But despite the fact that the connections between the worlds has been severed by the "experimenters" who now live outside of normal time, the worlds are not totally separate. There remains a connection between individuals who have duplicates on other parallel worlds: They dream each other's dreams. The dream visions of utopia are a grinding torment to those who live in the totalitarian dystopia. And as a result of this desperate yearning of millions of minds, the barriers between the worlds are beginning to blur. Sometimes, someone goes to sleep in one world, and awakens in another.

So the plot thickens, events transpire, and eventually there is considerable resolution. You can find DT3 in various versions on either Amazon or ABE books. Wildside Press seems to be promising a release, but it doesn't appear on their website, so caveat emptor. I have both the Binary Star reissue (which also contains Spinrad's "Riding the Torch," it's printing as Galaxy Novel #28, and the two original issues of Astounding. I told you I liked it.

Lately, I have been haunted by that initial vision from Destiny Times Three, the portrait of a world of people yearning so profoundly for something better than what they have that the walls of reality have begun to crumble. Or, if you will, think about people who are so enamored by a dream life that they cross over and take up living there.

A minor point in the book, it's true, but still…

We have news items that World of Warcraft gamers have died from devoting so much time and energy to the game that they neglected such matters as eating and sleeping. Second Life seems to sometimes create an almost religious fervor and perhaps a Ponzi scheme in those who choose to spend a lot of time there. Such things are hardly new, of course. Many of us recall the guy who got into Dungeons and Dragons just a little too enthusiastically, or the fellow who tried to use his SCA credentials for something out in the real world. There are "RenFaire" bums, just as there are those who have tried to spend their entire adult lives surfing. Sure, I get that.

I also get that we seem to have switched "autobiographical fiction" with the "fictional autobiography." The former is pretty inevitable; the latter seems a lot more fraudulent, doesn't it?

Then there are the "reality shows," made so very omnipresent by the writers' strike. Most such fair is just new variations on old game shows, but some of it shows a new sort of creepy voyeurism for voyeurism's sake, where the old line about a celebrity being "famous for being famous" gets too close to the truth.

What is the result when millions of people yearn for fame as the only thing they can imagine that will fill their emptiness? Do the walls of reality begin to crumble when everything becomes a reality show?

Ah, sure, I'm just being dyspeptic here, or maybe even dystopian. It's still possible to live a normal life. But I do get a little peep of horror when I consider how extraordinary an effort that can take.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Log-log Paper and a Straight Edge

The TV show Numb3rs started off magnificently, but has been predictably deteriorating. A cop show based on mathematics is a clever idea, and they managed to wring more story ideas out of it than I would have expected, but that’s been accomplished primarily by continually reducing the math content and increasing the amounts of character interplay, police procedural story lines, plus massive firepower.

They also “fine tuned” the ensemble, primarily by getting rid of Sabrina Lloyd’s character, Terry Lake, (photo at left)after Season One. Lloyd is fondly remembered by those of us who were hooked on Sports Night. Her character in Numb3rs was supposed to be a fairly cold and calculating “profiler,” which Lloyd did well, but cold women on TV don’t often go over, and I suspect that Terry Lake got written out of the show for that reason (the “official” explanation seems to be that it was Lloyd’s decision to leave the show, but I’m not buying it).

The replacement profiler on Numb3rs is Megan Reeves, played by Diane Farr (at right), and the first thing they did with her was to show her math illiteracy. She refers to something as “growing exponentially” and Charlie immediately smiles condescendingly and explains what “exponentially” really means: a rate of change that is proportional to size. So the math whiz puts down another dumb blonde. I know, I know, the show is actually better and more subtle than that, but I still have the suspicion that the exchange was supposed to make the new character less threatening, hence more appealing.

Exponential growth, or its twin, exponential decay is common as dirt, or at least the bacteria in dirt, which get to follow exponential growth curves pretty regularly. The typical “S” curve, in fact, is two exponential curves laid onto each other. The first one occurs when some growth phenomenon begins without significant limitation, like the first doublings of yeast in the brew vat. There are so few yeast cells relative to the nutrient that the growth at first doesn’t alter any of the factors that might affect the growth rate.

After time, of course, the yeast begins to run out of nutrients, or begins to be poisoned by their own waste products. At that point you switch to a case where the growth manages to get some fractional distance toward the inevitable limit with each cycle. As the old Firesign Theater bit goes, Antelope Freeway, one mile, Antelope Freeway, one half mile, Antelope Freeway, one quarter mile, Antelope Freeway, one-eighth mile, Antelope Freeway, one sixteenth mile… Xeno’s Paradox as logarithmic decay, in other words, “logarithmic” and “exponential” being two words for the same thing, a constant term added or subtracted to the logarithm of the quantity in question.

At Nasfic in Seattle a few years ago, I was on a panel with an energy consultant who had a good story to tell about the folly of assuming that exponential growth goes on forever. The title of this piece is a quote from that consultant: “…people who believe that you can predict the future with some log-log paper and a straight edge.” This, of course, identified him as an old foggy who remembers when log-log paper was used for that purpose. Now its all spreadsheets and curve fitting, but the principle remains.

My co-panelist told the story of a power company in the Pacific Northwest that did their predictions of electric power demand in the early 1970s and decided on that basis that they should build a nuclear plant. The Pacific Northwest has a lot of hydropower resources, but there came a time when all the easy dams had been built, so they decided that nuclear was the way to go. But nuclear power is pretty capital intensive; it costs a lot of money to build a nuclear plant, though not so much to keep one running. The PN power agency had a regulatory structure that allowed them to pass capital costs through to their customers, so that’s what they did. This raised their rates sufficiently that it effectively suppressed demand growth such that the anticipated growth in demand never occurred and the nuclear plant was an instant white elephant. They’d effectively saturated the market for low cost power and when it got more expensive, well, bye bye exponential growth. It didn’t do much good for the customers and stockholders, either, I’ll bet.

Before I’d ever heard of Moore’s Law, I read a book by Philip Sporn, who noted that electric power generation in the U.S. had doubled every decade in the 20th Century. That was in the early 1970s, just before the doubling stopped.

A goodly amount of both science fiction and futurism is basically just extrapolating growth curves indefinitely, but the really interesting stories are the ones where the exponential growth stops, the whys and wherefores. It takes more insight to do that, of course; it’s a lot easier to just use the log-log paper and the straight edge.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Linear Hypothesis

One of the many problems with using "animal models" for estimating human health effects of exposure to various toxins, radiation, etc., is that most animals are short-lived, so the effects of chronic exposure to low levels of the toxin of interest does not become apparent during the animal's lifetime. The method generally used to try to get around this problem is to boost the dosage, which is assumed to shorten the "induction period" of disease progression in a more-or-less linear fashion. The idea is that doubling the dosage will halve the time it takes to get a response, more or less.

That is a pretty kludgy method, of course, but all the methods are pretty kludgy. Using longer-lived animals also has problems, not least being that you have to wait much longer for results. Moreover, the lower the general exposure, the fewer responses you are likely to get, statistically speaking, so the use of realistic exposures and exposure times becomes prohibitively expensive. Also, longer-lived animals tend to be more "charismatic" in the sense that people like them more and animal rights activists pay them more attention, sometimes to the detriment of the researchers.

For the purposes of this little essay, I'm going to use radiation as the example, mostly because there are so many places to get information on the radiation/cancer debate, but also because the chemical/cancer debate gets even more arcane in spots, and I'm doing a once-over-lightly here.

The main alternative to the "linear hypothesis" is the "threshold hypothesis," the idea that a toxin or radiation does not overwhelm the body's cellular defenses until it gets above a certain level, or threshold. There are clearly many, many cases where such thresholds exist; "the dose makes the poison" as Paracelsus claimed, and there are few things that don't become poisonous at a high enough concentration.

There is a variation of the threshold hypothesis, which is called the "hormesis model." This is a somewhat more extreme version of the threshold model, and postulates that low doses of radiation are good for you. This isn't an entirely loopy suggestion; after all, radiation is used to treat some kinds of cancer, because cancer cells are more susceptible to dying from radiation than most body cells. It does, however, contain echoes of the early days of radiation, when things like radium were used as "invigorating" tonics, and that didn't work out well.

There are a variety of arguments and observations made to support both alternatives to the linear model. One of my favorite involves studies that create biological systems that lack the naturally occurring radioisotope potassium-40 and include only potassium-39. This apparently leads to birth defects. However, a high concentration of deuterium in the body (i.e. biological systems using heavy water) also produces severe-to-lethal effects, with no radiation involvement whatsoever. It's not out of the question to suggest that our bodies' enzymes are "tuned" to a particular isotopic weight of the elements involved, and that even relatively small changes in these elements can cause problems. To the best of my knowledge, the potassium isotope experiment has never been performed with some external source substituting for the missing radiation. The result would need to be normal development, obviously, for hormesis to be validated.

Other observations that seem to support various versions of threshold or hormesis include epidemiology in areas of high natural background radiation, which seem to show no excess cancers. Again, matters of the adaptation of local populations, questions of whether or not differences in infant mortality create a "harvesting effect" (where susceptible individuals die before they reach the age where cancers would present), or even simple things like actually getting the exposure levels correctly measured, become important. I've seen claims that the linear hypothesis cannot explain the epidemiology of the Japanese atom bomb survivors, for example, but I know for a fact that the actual radiation exposure to these individuals is a matter of estimation and guesswork, so the "failure" may simply be a matter of not knowing what the true exposure was.

Then there is the fact that when we talk of "radiation" we're not talking about a unitary subject. There are many different kinds of radiation, and many different ways of being exposed to it. These "hypotheses" and "models" that we are talking about are just that: models. A lot of different phenomena are being compressed onto a single, seemingly authoritative graph, but the real, underlying situation is complex and complicated. It's entirely possible that some forms of radiation show some hormesis effect, while others are linear, with no safe levels. The science necessary to make these distinctions is lacking.

Ultimately, however, these models are not some abstract scientific question, but rather, they are used to sort out issues of regulatory policy. And there is where the rubber meets the road. Advocates of threshold and hormesis models are invariably proponents of nuclear power (the reverse is not necessarily true, since there are nuclear power advocates to have no problem with the linearity regulations). There are claims that the public is "radiophobic," which may be true, but then again, that is the public's right. It is not as if there has been a consistent policy of telling the public the truth about these matters, and people tend to get a bit antsy when they know they've been lied to.

Ultimately, the linear hypothesis is the easiest to administer and produces the most clear-cut regulatory framework. It is conservative. Threshold standards tend to create situations where pollutant releases go right up to the threshold and bump against the standard, usually exceeding it from time to time. Linear standards say, "Reduce your impact to the lowest possible level." I find this to be a useful first (and usually second and third) approximation to regulation. But then I am what used to be called a conservative.

Your Weekly Woman and Snake

One of Toulouse- Lautrec's favorite models was the dancer Jane Avril. Here she is being threatened by the decoration on her own dress. Pre-surrealism, but definitely post-Freud.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Joke, a Variation, then Aphorisms


An economist and some students were walking on the campus and one of the students says, “There’s a twenty dollar bill on the ground.” The economist replies, “That’s impossible. If there were, someone would have picked it up already.”

Variation on joke:

Person #1: You know, they get health care in Canada that's just as good for less money.

Dr. Pangloss, the Doctrinaire Believer in Economics as Revealed by Someone or Another: That's impossible. If that were true, I'd have already moved to Canada.

Some Aphorisms

"The problem with people who have no vices is that they tend to have some pretty annoying virtues." -- [paraphrased] Elizabeth Taylor

“What if this weren’t a hypothetical question?” -- Unknown

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." - Upton Sinclair

A man goes to a psychiatrist. The doctor says "You're crazy" The man says "I want a second opinion!" "Okay, you're ugly too!" – Henny Youngman

There is nothing as permanent as a temporary fix.

A hostage to fate -- the first time I heard that phrase, I had no idea what it meant. Now I do. Fate could call me on the phone anytime and say, "I have your granddaughter," and I'd say, "I know you do," and Fate would say, "What would you do to get her back?" and I'd say, "Anything," and Fate would say, "It doesn't work that way." – Jon Carroll

[W]hat exactly is postmodernism, except modernism without the anxiety? – Jonathan Lethem

“Someone stole my identity and I feel sorry for him.” – T-Bone Burnett

“If you’re so poor, how come you’re not dumb?” – Merle Kessler

There are no atheists in foxholes; even atheists pray to the bombs overhead, that they may fall upon their fellows and not upon them.

I cried because I had no shoes, 'till I met a man who had no feet. So I said, 'You got any shoes you're not using'? – Steven Wright.

"I cut my finger. That's tragedy. A man walks into an open sewer and dies. That's comedy." Mel Brooks

Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally – J. M. Keynes

The plural of anecdote is conjecture. – B. Sano

A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, else what is “meta” for?

Two psychiatrists meet in a hall. One psychiatrist say to the other, “Hello.” The second psychiatrist thinks to himself, “Hmm. I wonder what he meant by that?” – old joke

"'Either way is fine with me' gets me though a lot of situations." Randee of the Redwoods (Jim Turner)

"Build a man a fire, and he'll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life." from Jingo by Terry Pratchett

“Versatility is a curse; one-dimensional people make all the money.” – Jonathan Winters

Half empty or half full depends on whether you’re drinking or pouring.

Tough love is always about the tough, never about the love.

A coward dies a thousand deaths, but the first nine hundred and ninety nine aren’t that big a deal.

If a lizard lays an egg that hatches a chicken, is it a lizard egg or a chicken egg?

It is unfair to ask someone to save the world before they have learned to save themselves.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


I have a thing for libraries, as so many of us do. I spent my high school years haunting the Nashville Public Library, as part of the auto-didacticism that is required of anyone who aspires to an education. I consider libraries to be an essential part of civilization.

When I was at RPI, however, the RPI Library was substandard, I mean officially so. The accreditation authorities said as much in so many words. The book collections were pretty thin, there were an insufficient number of journals, and the building was at the very edge of the campus, symbolic of an attitude of “They’ve got textbooks; why would they want to read more than that?” The library building itself was an old “phony Gothic” stone chapel, and not really suited for a library building, being dark, cold, and prone to dampness. So that was a factor as well.

There seemed to be something of a consensus that a new building was needed. But there were those in the RPI Administration who were dragging their feet.

One symptom of it all was that there were two different committees that were supposed to give “input” on library matters to the administration, the Library Advisory Committee (LAC), and another one whose name escapes me. No matter, I joined them both. Such committees always have trouble filling their student slots, so it was pretty easy.

I won’t bore you with the details, because this essay isn’t about the RPI Library per se. Suffice it to say that there were many interesting turns of events, and the library even became a Student Rebellion issue for a while, generating a few “feel-good” stories in the local media. See? At other schools they’re doing silly things like protesting the war, but at RPI, they just want a better library. (There were some anti-war protests at RPI also, but why ruin a feel-good story with that sort of detail?)

Anyway, I wasn’t a student protest kinda guy; I was a writer. I wrote about the matter. I wrote an article in the RPI Engineer, a student magazine that, just coincidentally, I’d recently managed to get supplied to all the Engineering Faculty for free (One more advantage of being friends with the Dean of the School of Engineering). So it became fodder for some Faculty/Administration arguments.

I wrote the article in diary/journal format, dated entries, that sort of thing. One administrator reportedly got into a bit of trouble because of some of the things I’d written, although I rather suspect that it was more because he was on his way out anyway, for very different reasons.

Anyway, eventually the decision was made to build a new library. A large part of the money came from a donor who stipulated that it should be named after the retiring University President, who, ironically enough, had been the single greatest obstacle to the project from the beginning. There were a few snarky comments about this from those in the know, but mostly it was a matter of “Hell, for $10 million, he can name it after his left testicle for all I care.”

The old chapel building became the computer center, if you can believe it. They built a climate controlled structure inside of the old building, the stone walls acting as heat ballast to assist in the air conditioning.

Time passes. One of my college reunions happened to coincide with the anniversary of the ground breaking (or some other important date). There was a gathering of people who had something to do with the matter, including the architect (it had been his first major building, and had basically established his career), the aforementioned former RPI President, various committee chairmen, librarians, etc. And me.

So there were some speeches. And bedamned if just about every one of them didn’t read from my article about the committees, and the back and forth with the administration, and so forth.

So here’s the thing. I said that I wrote the article in diary format. But I didn’t keep a diary. Hell, I barely kept notes. Occasionally, when writing the article, I’d come to some point where I didn’t remember something, and I’d just keep writing. In other words, I made some stuff up.

I know, I know. There have been a bunch of scandals in recent years about journalists making stuff up, and how bad it is, and I agree, in principle. I’ll even stipulate that it’s no excuse to say that I wasn’t a professional journalist (although actually, at the time I was a stringer for McGraw-Hill’s technical news service), or that I’d never had a journalism class, where they might teach about journalistic ethics (ha!). Or even that I was young and young people do make mistakes.

And I’m certainly not going to try to alibi that what I was writing about wasn’t that important. They were minor details to me at the time, but who gets to say what is and is not minor in the long run?

I will say this, however. It was a long time ago, and by now, despite having a really good memory, I have absolutely no idea which of the details in my article weren’t true. And furthermore, neither does anyone else. I wrote the history of the matter, and there it rests. It’s probably as true as any other primary source, and I’ll stand by it. History is a human invention, in more ways than one.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

It’s Grrreat!

At the World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim a few years ago, I was on the H. G. Wells panel. I reported the upshot of a discussion I had with some friends years ago, the basic question being “Are there any science fiction novels that are both great novels and great science fiction?” I reported that the only novel that we could generally agree as fitting both criteria was Wells’ War of the Worlds.

Well. You can imagine. My, what a brief ruckus, brief being operative because the moderator of the panel soon simply said basically, “Move along folks. Nothing to see here.” But there were plenty of suggestions that were taken as clear proof that I was wrong, wrong, I tell you, so many, many, novels that everyone agreed were great in every sense of the word.

Except most of them weren’t, and all were highly debatable.

Now obviously what I’m getting at here is the difference in standards of judgment that one applies to science fiction as opposed to general literature. Part of that argument is the difference between general literature and genre literature. Another, more subtle point is the difference between the novel and shorter works of fiction. There are any number of science fiction and fantasy stories that stand up to any short story in English literature. I read Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” in a 6th grade literature book, for example.

But novels are a harder sell, especially for science fiction, which isn’t really a genre that is well-suited to the novel. Science fiction, as such, is about ideas and speculation, and it’s hard to stretch an idea to book length. So you have to put more into it, and the “more” is often either inferior to the original conception, or is more like “ordinary” literature. Over the past several decades, for example, SF has become more “character oriented.” This is fine, but it rarely adds to the science fiction content per se.

Of course there are no objective standards for “great” in art, or anywhere else for that matter, but one can point to criteria that need to be fulfilled before something can be legitimately considered as great. In general literature, it’s easy to come up with at least a partial list:

The prose quality should be high; transcendent is better still.

It should be culturally influential. It should have cultural impact. It should add images, phrases, and concepts to the general intellectual discourse of the culture. “Quixotic” and “tilting at windmills” are part of world culture, and that fact is part of why Don Quixote is a great book.

It should be influential in the literary sense. It should inspire other writers to imitate it, copy it, and steal from it. It should also inspire other works in other arts, such as theater, motion pictures, painting, or whatever.

It should be broadly read, at least at some point in its life.

It should stand the test of time, connecting to audiences past its nominal shelf life.

So what about science fiction? How does a work get to be great science fiction? Well, SF is a literature of ideas, as noted earlier. The ideas should be novel, interesting, stimulating, and well-communicated. If the SF is future-oriented, it should convey real insights into the actual future. It doesn’t necessarily need to be predictive, although that’s certainly a plus, but it should make the future that does occur easier to understand. That applies generally, in fact. Great science fiction should make whatever it is writing about easier to understand.

Then, of course, there is the “gosh wow” factor, that ol’ sensawanda. It should be more than merely intellectually stimulating. Great SF stimulates the poetic sense.

Finally, like every other genre literature, to really make an impact on readers, even good SF (to say nothing of great), must be aware of the conventions of the genre. It may follow them, play off of them, or break them, but it must know what the genre is and how it functions.

On this last point, War of the Worlds could be said to cheat a little, since it is one of the works that establishes some of the conventions of SF, and many of the conventions came about because later writers imitated Wells. But that’s just another indication of greatness.

So let’s take a few of the works nominated by the panel in rebuttal to my suggestion. For example, Brave New World was mentioned, but, frankly BNW isn’t really that good a novel. It has practically no plot, the characters are writer’s puppets, and at the prose level, Huxley is pretty pedestrian. Or take The Stars My Destination. It’s definitely great SF, but who reads it besides SF readers? And as for literary influence, if someone wants to use the plot, they’ll go to the place that Bester stole it, The Count of Monte Cristo.

I’ve seen a lot of people reference LeGuin’s The Dispossessed_ as somehow typifying great literary SF. If so, the enterprise has failed. Yes, The Dispossessed is taught in schools and universities, but always as science fiction. I’ve looked at some of the academic literature around it, and it’s the SF elements that are taught, not the literary elements. And again, who besides SF readers (and the occasional university lit student) has read it? What influence has it had, other than among dedicated SF readers?

For my own part, I’m much more likely to go with 1984 as filling the “double great” bill. My quibble would be that it’s barely science fiction. It’s ostensibly set in the future, (which, of course, in now our past) but that’s really just for the distancing effect. In that sense, it’s similar to Animal Farm which deals with some of the same themes. Of course the “gosh wow” feature is wholly absent, but that’s par for the course for dystopian futures.

I’d personally also make the argument for Naked Lunch as a great novel and great science fiction. Of course, I then run into the problem that very few SF fans have read it. On the other hand, a Google search on “Naked Lunch” gives many more hits than does “The Dispossessed.” On the other, other hand, the movie version of Naked Lunch was amazing.

One can complain about the “science fiction ghetto” thing, but that’s gotten pretty old, given the amount of SF teaching at the university level and the general penetration of SF tropes into popular culture. Besides, detective fiction was hard core pulp until The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Now it’s an accepted form for serious fiction. For that matter, science fiction is considered an acceptable form for serious fiction, e.g. The Handmaiden’s Tale or Gravity’s Rainbow, but SF readers rarely accept the results as being good SF. So maybe the ghetto thing is self-imposed.

War of the Worlds on the other hand, succeeds on practically all levels. In the literary sense, it put Wells on the map, as it were, and, as SF, it carried along with it descriptions of warfare that were novel in 1898, but all too mundane by 1918. Additionally, it established the apocalyptic novel, introduced the idea of “death by exotic disease” into general public discourse, and made Mars the home of imaginary civilizations for generations that followed. Wells set the bar very high, and SF writers have been trying to jump over it ever since.