Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Things you didn't know you wanted to know

The origin of Homer Simpson's "D'oh." Here.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Okay, Now We're Being Stupid

Turns out that all of the victims at the OK Corral-- I mean Empire State Building-- other than the shooter's intended victim were hit by police.

That's right. The shooter shot his target. Killed him. Two police officers killed the shooter and wounded nine other people. (See here. Discussion here.)

There are those that are better discussing the assholity of what happened. I'll take a different tack.

Pay for a trained police officer just out of the academy is $44K. (See here.) After training costing thousands.

So: New York City paid to have nine people shot.

And I'm certain somebody will state that I couldn't do any better in the same circumstances.

To which I respond that if I were paid and trained to be a police officer I damned well better.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Consideration of Works Past: Red Planet

Over the past few years I've been performing an interesting personal experiments. I've been rereading the books that were meaningful to me when I was young. This has included things like Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia, the works of Clifford Simak, John Brunner's The Whole Man, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Rudyard Kipling's Kim, Paul Tabori's The Green Rain, John Dos Passos Chosen Country and others.

Mars figures hugely in science fiction and since Curiosity and her sisters are blithely laying waste to any shred of support for those old stories I thought I'd look at one: Red Planet by Robert Heinlein.

Red Planet takes place on Heinlein's take on Percival Lowell's Mars. There are canals. There is an ancient and dying race. Unlike the martians of Burroughs and others these martians are completely unhuman.

In an aside, my interpretation of Red Planet is that these are the same martians found in Stranger in a Strange Land rather than the martians in Double Star. This is interesting in that Red Planet was written in 1949, Double Star in 1956 and Stranger in 1961. Heinlein scholars may be able to contort the different descriptions and culture of the Double Star martians to fit Red Planet and Stranger. I couldn't do it.

Red Planet is one of those early books by Heinlein maligned by the word juvenile. To me it's analogous to labeling Huckleberry Finn as a Young Adult because the main character is young. While Heinlein may have determined that he was speaking to a young audience and needed young characters, I believe that the underlying decision was artistic rather than marketing. Heinlein was born in Missouri and no one from that state (me, included) is unaware of the contribution Mark Twain made to American literature. More specifically, no one is blind to Huckleberry Finn. Huck Finn is a limited narrator in the Twain's work. He's an unsophisticated boy. Consequently, his realizations, emotional journey and character cannot be aligned with the author. I think this limited narrator approach attracted Heinlein to attempt it in several novels. I think these are his most successful novels and they are the ones where Good Heinlein is ascendant and Evil Heinlein is held at bay. More on that in a moment.

The plot in Red Planet is fairly simple. On Mars the human immigrants must migrate from north to south and return according to the seasons. The planet is in the process of being terraformed and is survivable with relatively simple equiment-- living below the summit of Everest but above the last base camp. Oxygen equipment, insulated clothing, etc., are enough to manage. There still exists a number of native flora and fauna, most of which the colonists have made their peace with. (The future fate of the native life in the terraforming world is never addressed.)

Two boys, Jim Marlowe and Frank Sutton are sent from the current established colony to the capital boarding school-- one of the contractual benefits to the colonists along with the cost of moving the colony north and south with the seasons. The colony is administered by the local arm of a corporation-- analogous to the East India Company control of India. As would be expected, the foreign administration of a local colony invites corruption. Bad things happen at which Jim Marlowe is the center due to his friendship with Willis, a local animal called a "bouncer"-- a round alien creature that bounces like a ball and has other interesting alien traits. Willis is about chimp level intelligence though Jim doesn't really figure that out fairly late in the book. The bouncer can speak in simple sentences and the two have a deep affection for each other. This friendship sustains them through the inevitable revolution and ultimately is extremely important to the future of the human colony.

A more detailed version of the plot is here.

I blew through the early Heinlein books starting when I was about ten about <cough>-ty years ago. Red Planet was one I particularly enjoyed. How did it stack up to Steve of present day?

Actually, fairly well.

There is, of course, a lot of technology predictions and appliances that a modern reader just has to jettison. There is some libertarian crap with weapons and independence, etc. But these are relatively minor. Yes, the technology is dated. But it's a primitive society that is no longer completely cocooned by technology and there are beasts that require sidearms. Weapon mythology follows weapons wherever they are so the whole sidearm subtext was understandable.

Best of all, Evil Heinlein was not given much room to squirm.

Heinlein's bibliography is here. Evil Heinlein doesn't really show up initially. But there are hints. As long as Heinlein is dealing with boys, girls and men there's not a problem. In this section, they're talking about the terraforming of Mars. There has just been a not terribly objectionable boy/girl argument between Jim and his sister about the roles of girls with guns. Nothing any brother and sister haven't been through in modern times though perhaps a bit dated. Then comes this bit:

"No doubt. But this was good news. The pilot plant in Libya is in operation, successful operation. The first day's run restored nearly four million tons mass of oxygen to the air and no breakdowns."
Mrs. Marlowe looked startled. "Four million tons? That seems a tremendous lot."
Her husband grinned. "Any idea how long it would take that one plant at that rate to do the job, that is, increase the oxygen pressure by five mass-pounds per square inch?"
"Of course I haven't. But not very long 1should think."
"Let me see-" His lips moved soundlessly. "Uh, around two hundred thousand years-Mars years, of course."
"James, you're teasing me!"
"No, I'm not. Don't let big figures frighten you, my dear..."

This is Evil Heinlein at work. In this little segment not only have women been shown to be inferior to men, childlike and incapable of personal independence, the man goes out of his way to put down the woman. 

I was reading this book to my son when he was ten. We were enjoying this at the time. I hit this and bogged down as I heard it in my head as heard by him. Ben's mother is a PhD biochemist. It's no secret in the house she's smarter than me. In retrospect I should have just skipped this in the reading but instead we talked about it and the result is he hasn't ready any Heinlein at all since. 

This is pretty much the only Evil Heinlein in Red Planet. But that is, I think, because there just aren't that many adult female characters in the book. In Tunnel in the Sky, there's a segment in the very beginning that has a lot of Evil Heinlein in it and a segment at the end. In the middle a group of young men and women are marooned on a planet without any real hope of return. In this section there isn't much Evil Heinlein. There are segmented roles across the sexes but it grows organically out of the fact that pregnant women and mothers have special dispensation in a hunter-gatherer society. Someday I'll go over Tunnel in detail. But that is not this day.

Heinlein had a problem with adult women, pure and simple. But he didn't always have this problem. If you read The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag the relationship between the man and woman detective is pure gold. There's a shade once or twice but it can easily be dismissed as just a product of the times. It's not really Evil Heinlein. 

What is the net effect of Red Planet on a modern reader?

The good parts are still very good. There's a sequence where Jim and Willis make friends with the martians and Willis is taken away from Jim for what are to the martians are very good reasons. Jim demands to see him so the martians show him a room full of bouncers and say he should find Willis. The bouncers, of course, all look alike so Jim can't tell them from sight. But he doesn't have to: he calls for Willis and Willis comes to him and refuses to part with him. This bond is the core of the book and it still resonates for me <cought>-ty years later. The colony attempting to grapple with its new destiny is still as attractive as ever. Revolutions are fun.

But the eerie landscape of Lowell's Mars is still just as compelling and powerful as it was, for all that we know it cannot be. Whether it is Barsoom, The Martian ChroniclesRed Planet or War of the Worlds, that vision is still just as strong as ever even though Lowell's Mars is gone forever.

Maybe that gives Red Planet a heft to me now it didn't have back <cough>-ty years ago.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Dalliances in Human Evolution

A few interesting things came across my desk in the last couple of weeks. Unrelated things but interesting none the less.

Recently a collection of hunter gatherer tribes in Africa were whole-genome sequenced. (See here.) Africa is the source of more human genetic diversity than anywhere else. This isn't surprising. We've been there for longer than we've been anywhere else.

The research was led by Penn State and in the report from them (See here and here.) some of the curious and odd sequences suggested interbreeding between Homo sapiens and perhaps as many as three other distinct species. (My wife, the biochemist, pointed out if there was interbreeding how could they be distinct species? But I digress.)

There is also evidence that humans interbred with Neanderthals and Denisovans (See here.) Again with the wife's raised eyebrow from across the room. The African genetic evidence is at odds with the fossil evidence since there haven't been three other groups that look different enough to constitute anything like a species. No so, of course, regarding the Neanderthals and Denisovans.

The lack of fossil evidence is interesting but not necessarily problematic. There are a number of species who would fossilize as identical but are reproductively isolated. The Hyla versicolor and Hyla chrysoscelis are both tree frogs and almost indistinguishable from one another. Yet they do not interbreed. H. versicolor has a faster mating call than H. chrysocelis. It is also double the number of chromosomes. A paleontologist looking at the fossils of either species would not see them as different. A geneticist would.

In addition, we can only analyze the fossils we find and most corpses do not become fossils.

Another interesting piece of news is the new species of human ancestral fossils in Kenya. (See here and here.) These new fossils are astonishingly flat faced. This is more of Leakey's work at Lake Turkana.With A. sediba, there may have been several species, some at the same time.

Another article showed that there were different diets between the different groups. (See here.)  Australopithecus had a more varied diet than early Homo. More varied than another human relative, Paranthropus.

I keep coming back to my wife's comment: how can they be different species if they interbred?

I collect old jokes. Bad jokes. Really nasty ones-- jokes that are so embarrassingly horrible you want to erase the last five minutes of your life just to get rid of them. These are not funny jokes. I rarely tell them. They're for looking at the twisted bits of human beings and figure out how they tick. These are not for the squeamish. Several of them involve human males having sex with non-human primates. There have been several SF stories about this-- at least one has been nominated for the Nebula. Humans are really different from other animals in this way. Most animals are really selective on who they have sex with. Humans, not so much.

I can't help it. Humans and Neanderthals have significant differences in their bone structure. Yet the DNA shows the two groups interbred. When did this non-specific lust develop? Was it with us in the beginning? We see fossil differences between groups and interpret that fossil difference to mean species difference. Probably it is. The fossil differences between Homo sapiens and chimpanzees are more profound than between Neanderthal and Homo sapiens. We're sure that chimps and humans are different species-- though I don't know any lab unscrupulous enough to attempt interbreeding.

This loss of mate specificity happened at some point. We don't know when. But it did and it has shown an interesting mix in our genetics.

 I keep having the image of groups of human ancestors getting isolated, developing adaptations to diet or behaviors and then getting brought back into the fold. Some of our relatives made it out of the human bedroom but maybe some didn't.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

More Lies and Distractions

I am a liberal. I was one before Bush the First tried to make it a dirty word. I am one now. I've not seen anything on the right that has persuaded me to change teams. And I'm willing to pay for my pleasure in the form of higher taxes.

So that's my bias.

I don't have a problem with conservatism in general-- I could probably find common ground with a Reagan Republican. Or even a Goldwater Republican. An Eisenhower Republican would be downright pleasant to meet. Remember the term "Loyal Opposition?"

But the current crop of conservatives don't have a lot of sense on their side. They manage to mask rampant gutting of the economy under the either lies or distractions. To be absolutely clear, I don't care about abortion, religion, gun control or other forms of such red meat. When one side says "it's the economy stupid" or "jobs" I expect them to address the economy and jobs. If instead they quickly say "Look! Over there! Gun control and abortion!" I don't turn in that direction. I keep looking at them. Then we get Ted Cruz. At least over in the liberal camp we can look and actually see a problem. (E.g., see here.)

Recently Romney has done a number of things that show the true stripe of his policy. He's proposed a tax plan that doesn't work. (See here, here and here.) Note that the same think tank he liked in one occasion he didn't like when it analyzed his tax plan and found it wanting. Turns out Romney's plan will increase the deficit far more than anything Obama has done.

The whole culture thing has been done to death although I will make a couple of points. All of the countries that he likes (Poland, Israel, UK, etc.) have much, much more governmental intervention in the private sector than we do. All of them have centralized health care though their methods differ.

In contrast, this "liberal" think tank has proposed an interesting plan that just might reduce health care costs.

In a world where the Republicans might actually care about something that matters.