Sunday, July 23, 2017


I took this picture on the train station on my daily commute. There are four problem species in the picture: Asian bittersweet, Japanese knotweed, bamboo and Concord grapes. Of the four, only the grapes are native.

For us, this year is a particularly bad one for bittersweet. We’re finding it everywhere. They Gypsy moths, which seemed to like everything, leave bittersweet alone. We’re finding it pretty much anywhere there’s any kind of shrubbery.

Different vines use different methods of gaining a foothold. Grapes have tendrils that curl around a base. Poison ivy—one of my particular favorites—actually bores its roots into the barks of the trees it parasitizes. I don’t know if it actually vampirizes the tree but it’s creepy to watch a poisonous plant stick itself right into the bark like some snarling alien.

Bittersweet is just as nasty. It grows around whatever it’s based on, encircling and eventually strangling it. It’s quite prevalent up here in the northeast. I’ve driven sections of highway where both sides are covered in rounded mounds of bittersweet, their searching tendrils sticking out like triffids.

The good news is they’re non-toxic so you can pull them up by hand—and you have to pull them up. They’re like Hydra: cut off a limb and two more shall take its place.

But these are just the visible aspects of a larger problem. The US has a real problem with invasive organisms. In large part, it’s a self-inflicted wound.

This goes back to the very beginning of the United States. Earthworms were not native to the northern US since the last ice age.  The result was deep beds of leaf litter and a rich understory. Enter the lowly earthworm brought over by English colonists in their fruit trees. Notice the lack of deep leaf litter in the area.

Not to mention sparrows and starlings. Sparrows were at least introduced here in an ill conceived attempt to control the linden moth. Ah, but the starling, a relatively ugly bird with noisy habits, was introduced because the American Acclimatization Society thought the USA should have all of Shakespeare’s birds. 

There is also the Burmese python. Who would have thought it would have thrived in Florida? I used to have a Burmese but I, like a lot of other people, found it got too big and so I gave it back to the guy I bought it from. He had a 23 and 24 foot pair. They lived in the first floor of his house. These were big enough to eat him.

But my own personal favorite is pampas grass—which you can still buy! Up here if you drive by a marsh that should have an abundance of native grasses and cattails, you’ll see unbroken pampas grass. Nothing eats it. Nothing nests in it. It’s the Styrofoam of the plant kingdom.

It’s interesting that we in the New World seem to get the short end of the stick with invaders. It turns out that the New World has a significantly shallower evolutionary history than the Old World. See here and here.)  I’m not sure why that is. When I read the original article I didn’t see an explanation. Could it be that the New World is the site of the Cretaceous meteor extinction event? Is it size—the Old World has Europe, Asia and Africa. We have North and South America connected by a fragile thread. Not clear.

Invasions are rarely pleasant for the invaders. For example, the brown marmorated stink bug destroys fruits and vegetables because it can reproduce without problems. Why? Because back in China, the bugs original home, there’s a parasitic wasp that lays its eggs on it. The larva hollow out the bug like United Fruit did Central America. 

This is a pattern. Species get transported here and do well because they do not have the same predators they did back home. Birds and turtles will eat Gypsy moth larva but with the numbers produced, they can’t keep up. Thank you, Étienne Trouvelot

Sometimes, I find this sort of thing discouraging. Okay, we’re poisoning the planet but putting out CO2, methane and mercury introduces passive problems into the system. Sure, it’s bad. But the CO2 molecules don’t go out there and make more CO2 molecules. Starlings and pythons are active agents. They’re the equivalent of Von Neumann  or Berserker machines. 

But from bittersweet to buckthorn to bullfrogs, human beings are one of the most successful couriers in biological history.  We’re just going to have to live with it.

Interesting side links

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Blending People

(Picture from here.)

Human beings are biased towards themselves.

We then to think of the world as reflections of ourselves. We project our nature on our pets, our automobiles, our weapons, the landscape and fictional entities. Sometimes I think we are incapable of separating ourselves from the world.

But we force three qualities together that are completely separable because they are bound together in us. These qualities are sentience, consciousness and intelligence.

Let me define my terms.

Sentience is the ability to feel and experience. It is the capacity to suffer and feel joy. Consciousness is the ability to be aware of ourselves as an entity. While sentience allows us to suffer, it is consciousness that determines that we are suffering as opposed to anyone else.

Which leaves intelligence as the ability to learn, retain knowledge and apply that knowledge. It is the ability to perceive the relationships between things.

In human beings, these are all mixed up. We are thinking, feeling beings that are aware of ourselves. Consequently, we blend these things when we think about things other than human beings. Bacteria, fungi, ants and bees function intelligently. Are they sentient? Are they conscious? Rats are sentient and demonstrably intelligent. Are they conscious?

Working with vertebrates, we start to see a difference between them regarding these qualities. That tetra has some intelligence-- intelligence is, in some ways, more easily demonstrable than the other two qualities. We have mechanisms we can use to test it. How can we test consciousness and sentience?

We can create avoidance situations for even lower animals-- a grid with an electric shock. The animal is shocked, behaves as if it find the experience is unpleasant, and moves off the grid. If a planaria exhibits the same behavior, is it sentient? Does it suffer?

In vertebrates, we can make an association based on how like us the animal is. Dogs and cats are clearly sentient and conscious. They can apparently model other animals' behavior and change their own accordingly. It is, therefore, reasonable to presume if they can model other animal behaviors they can model their own-- a prerequisite, I think, for consciousness.

Anybody who's seen a dog suffer knows they're sentient.

But when we drop down to frogs, are they conscious? The electric shock test still holds so we can intuit they might have sentience. They exhibit some intelligence in their interactions with the world-- not much, but some. But are they conscious? Does that green frog over there know who it is? I suspect not.

Do ants and flies? Is suspect that not only are ants and flies not conscious but they maybe non-sentient as well. Ants might flee a noxious substance but do they do it out of pain or is this an avoidance circuit of some sort, devoid of actual feeling?

These are important questions as we start to create truly intelligent systems. I think consciousness derives from the mechanism in the brain that models the behavior of other agents. One way-- perhaps the only way earth organisms have created-- is to model oneself as interacting with those agents. I suspect here-- the modeling of oneself-- is the origin of the little homunculus inside that is consciousness.

It is a common trope in SF that systems of sufficient complexity become conscious. Sometimes they become sentient as well. Neither of these propositions is inevitable or even likely. I think consciousness in organisms was selected for just like any other phenotype. Therefore, it derives from an organism's heritage and has value that is then supported at significant cost. The human brain uses up to 20% of the calories absorbed by the organism. It is unreasonable for that 20% to be preserved if it is merely a parasitical accident.

We must be prepared for artificial intelligences that have no consciousness or sentience. Or AIs that have only consciousness. Or have only sentience. Humans in their design select for intelligent systems. We like smart cars, phones and airplanes.

The Human Brain Project has, as part of its research, the full simulation of human brains in silicon. Other animals will also be modeled. Is a rat modeled in silicon sentient? Does it suffer?

I think that's likely.

Is a human brain modeled in silicon conscious? I think that's likely as well.

In 2014, the K supercomputer was used to model 1 second of human brain activity. It took 40 minutes and modeled only 1% of the actual neuron and synapse population. What is 1% of a human being? Is it enough to experience consciousness and sentience? Was that one second an eternity of pain for the equivalent of a severely coginitively impared human being?

Forget our moral obligations to an AI, what are our moral obligations to a simulated human being? A simulated dog?

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Bell Curve: Race and Bad Science

Science is important to me and a couple of articles have come across my desk recently that are not just bad science but bad science serving a political agenda. Bad science is bad enough. But using evidence based thought to serve an agenda usually tosses the evidence out in favor of the bias. It not only helps no one, it holds us all back.

As Stan Marsh said in the South Park episode, The Biggest Douche in the Universe:  

“The Big Questions in life are tough. Why are we here? Where are we from? Where are we going? But if people believe in… liars like you we’re never going to find the real answers to those questions. You aren’t just lying, you’re slowing down the progress of all mankind.”

From here.

Which is why I enjoy South Park.

The article that crystallized it for me wasn’t a recent one but it is representative of a lot that I’ve seen.

Back in 1995, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murry published The Bell Curve.  This book purported to represent how intelligence influenced class structure in America. I read it the year it came out and pretty much dismissed it since it violated most of the neuroscience I knew. (My Master’s is in Neurophysiology.) The book suggested that African Americans were too dumb to educate and should therefore we shouldn’t spend any money on them or the poor. A good refutation of the book is here. Vincent Sarich’s defense of the book is here.

Sarich’s defense was reprinted recently and when I read it, it ticked me off. It was bad science. But given recent events, I’m starting to think that people are having trouble detecting bad science when it comes up. So, I’m going to analyze the defense and show at least what goes on in my mind trying to winnow out good science from bad.

The first thing to notice about Sarich’s defense is that it is not a scientific paper. Forget its publishing history. That’s not germane. A scientific paper or other publication is distinguished by two salient characteristics: a dispassionate voice and a reliance on evidence and analysis local to the paper.

This latter concept is key. What it means is that a scientific publication attempts to enclose all evidence, reasoning and conclusions within the confines of the paper. Appeals to outside material—religion, ethics, popular concepts, etc.—should not be part of the paper. This is a goal but may not be possible in practice since the scope of the argument may exceed the boundaries of the paper. Hence, the concept of citation—the citing of other, relevant materials accessible to the reader.

This is not to say a non-scientific paper is not good, relevant, exciting or important. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is not a scientific paper but it is good, relevant, exciting and important. But a scientific publication defines its own venue of criticism. Consequently, stepping outside that realm means that such material cannot be taken as scientific. It is, at best, digested material. Interesting but not amenable to scientific judgement.

So: Sarich’s defense is not a scientific publication. There are a number of irrelevant references. Sarich attacks commentators on The Bell Curve. This is known as the ad hominem argument where the people promoting a point of view are attacked to besmirch their opinion. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. For example, if one notices that Koch Industries is funding a climate denial scientist, it injures the credibility of that scientist if he comes out favoring a position supporting Koch Industries. (See here.) But it is not a scientific argument. These are arguments are not couched in dispassionate terms. Sarich quotes a number of people using fairly passionate language.

That’s all right but it means that we should not give it scientific weight whether or not it purports to be a scientific publication. It’s a polemic.

But since we want to evaluate the science in the article, let’s winnow that out.

Sarich bases his defense of The Bell Curve on the following arguments:
Races are real with actual phenotypes that are identifiable among groups. These do not constitute species or subspecies as any race can easily interbreed with any other race and produce viable offspring.
The creation of racial phenotypes derives from historical geographical separation whereupon natural selection operated differentially on those phenotypes according to environmental success.
  • Intelligence is one of those phenotypes.
  • Intelligence is accurately measured by IQ as presented by intelligence tests.
  • Intelligence is a function of brain size.
  • IQ as an accurate measurement of intelligence can substitute for brain size.
  • Brain size is genetically determined.
  • Brain size (as derived from IQ tests) is varied across races.
  • Therefore, some races have greater intelligence than others as an inherited phenotype trait determined by genetics.
These are, in fact, many of the same arguments of The Bell Curve. No surprise there. So a lot of Sarich’s defense is saying “look at the evidence. It’s obvious these guys are right.”

Hm. Not so much.

Richard Feynman gave the 1974 Caltech commencement address, entitled Cargo Cult Science. I strongly urge anyone to read this.

The Cargo Cult was first described in Melanesia. It has come to mean circumstances where people built or rely on the attributes of what they want (runways, etc.) in hopes of attracting what they want (airplanes bearing material wealth.)

Science is hard. Figuring out what is actually going on rather than what we think is going on requires diligence, perseverance and a willingness to tear apart your own pet theories. Just pushing up straw men reflecting what you want to be true is Cargo Cult science.

He described Young’s very interesting rat experiments in 1937 trying to figure out why rats picked a particular door in his tests. While I urge you again to read the Feynman article, it’s worth quoting this bit:

“So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same.  Still the rats could tell.  Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run.  Still the rats could tell.  Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person.  So he covered the corridor, and, still the rats could tell.

 He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it.  And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand.  So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door.  If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.”

My point with this quote is that is what is missing from Sarich’s arguments: rigor. Let’s take them one by one:

Races are real with actual phenotypes that are identifiable among groups. The phenotypes that represent the groups do not constitute species or subspecies as any race can easily interbreed with any other race and produce viable offspring.

The latter statement here is obvious: any human being can interbreed with pretty much any other. So we are all one species regardless of how much some people want to argue against that. The “race” question is much more subtle. There are group phenotypes, some with longer lasting effects than others. Any genetically isolated group will start to show them as the gene pool narrows. Similarly, these phenotypes begin to fade as soon as the gene pool widens, though some phenotypes have more staying power than others.

But the group definition of race is often defined by the qualities of those outside the group in question and it’s of particular importance here in the United States with our heritage of centuries of African American chattel slavery. 

On average, African Americans are an amalgam of 73-80% or so West and Central Africa, 18-24% European and a little less than 1% Native American. (From here) This means that the group being criticized shares 20% of the genetic material as the group doing the criticizing. So: is there a cultural phenomenon of race? Sure. Is there a genetic component to race? Probably—there are phenotypic traits we identify. Do they mean much? Probably not.

The creation of racial phenotypes derives from historical geographical separation whereupon natural selection operated differentially on those phenotypes according to environmental success.

Sure. That’s how phenotypes arise—see above. The key component here is “natural selection.” What does that mean?

It means there is differential reproduction between individuals such that particular phenotypes are preserved. That’s all it means. It does not mean “fittest.” It does not mean “successful” except with respect to that differential reproduction. And it does not indicate in any way why those traits became established.

In some cases phenotypes can be established without any natural selection whatsoever. For example, there’s such a thing as genetic drift where traits become established in a given population from pure randomness. 

There is also sexual selection where individuals are selected based on appearance that has nothing to do with any sort of physical “fitness.”

Sarich brings up the fairly tired example of the preponderance of African Americans in the National Basketball Association. He suggests that there is a genetic fitness of the individuals, based on race, that predisposes African Americans towards success in the NBA based on their statistical presence.

This is confusing correlation with causation.

There are a lot of confounding factors in his conclusion: what are the relative population sizes of of cultural groups attempting to join the NBA. Are opportunities of those groups the same? Are there differences in competing attractive opportunities? Are there differences in access to those competing attractive opportunities between groups? What are the relative cultural ambitions of the two groups? Any one or combination or additional unmentioned issues can confound a biological interpretation.

If you want to examine the hypothesis that there is a predisposition towards basketball among demographics in the US, the obvious characteristic to consider is average height and height variation. And there is some variation. (See here.) Non-Hispanic Blacks average about 12% taller than average Non-Hispanic Whites according to the CDC. This could be a salient biological factor. Does Sarich investigate it? No.

If we were to investigate it, the hypothesis might be phrased:
  1. Height is important in basketball.
  2. African Americans are statistically taller than other ethnic groups
  3. Therefore, can African Americans be statistical overrepresentation in NBA basketball be related to a function of height?

That’s as far as the scientific analysis. It’s not, “African Americans are better at basketball.” That’s a conclusion that cannot be demonstrated. All that can be demonstrated is the correlation. But even that’s not a scientific approach. One would want to bracket each statement:
  • Is height a determining factor for player admission to the NBA?
  • Is the tall African American population the same population drawn on by player admission?
  • Are there countervailing factors that are more important than height in the admission process?
  • Do these factors outweigh the influence of height?

This is where the “fitness” argument begins to break down. People use the word “fitness” as a substitute for being “better”—that is not evolution. Evolution is all about statistical reproductive success. If that individual asthmatic neighbor with blue eyes has one more child than the NBA neighbor, the asthmatic is more reproductively successful.

It is common to confuse societal success with evolutionary success. They are completely different. 

Sarich’s example with the NBA is a classic result of this. He’s suggesting that success in the NBA is a result from genetic heritage and demonstrates some sort of evolutionary fitness. The only component amenable to scientific analysis on a racial basis is something demonstrable like height and that’s not a clear relationships. Yet, Sarich presents this as a scientific predisposition when it is not.

Intelligence is one of those phenotypes.

This is one of those “obvious” statements that’s anything but. In order to understand this statement we have to define intelligence and relate it to the concept of phenotype. Certainly, intelligence is demonstrable and it is a phenotype. However, in order to determine its genetic heritage, we have to be able to define it quantifiably and reproduce that quantity on demand. This brings the next three statements up:

Intelligence is accurately measured by IQ as presented by intelligence tests.
Intelligence is a function of brain size.
IQ as an accurate measurement can substitute for brain size.

In this context, “intelligence” is quantified as the score on an IQ test. This means that the definition of “intelligence” must be the ability to take IQ tests—we’ve redefined an important quality of a human being and narrowed it to the ability to take a standardized test.

Think what this means. Let us say, for example, we pull a Neanderthal from the past and plunk him down in a classroom with a pencil, booklet and test sheet. This would be a person that does not know what a pencil, booklet and test sheet is or how to read. By the above definition, the Neanderthal is not intelligent.

IQ tests are notoriously biased towards the culture that originates them. (See here.) As the cultures narrow towards each other, the IQ scores begin to approach one another. A wonderful example of this is the The Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity (B.I.T.C.H.) invented by Robert Williams in 1972. Williams deliberately developed a test with a cultural bias and, sure enough, African Americans did better than their white counterparts.

Then, the IQ score is linked to brain size, i.e., the ability to take standardized tests is a function of brain size.

Again, this is not a scientific proposition. Certainly, brain size is a variable. However, elephants have bigger brains than humans, men have bigger brains than women, big people have bigger brains than smaller people. Does this mean elephants would be better at taking IQ tests?

One has to define what is meant by “brain size” and justify the proposition that brain size, as it is defined, reflects what is defined to be intelligence. Sarich does neither of these. (There’s a good analysis of what does constitute intelligence vs brain component relative sizes here and here.) Note from those links that there is only a marginal relationship between head size and brain volume.

Studies of Cro Magnon Man (28k years ago) and NeandertalsClose analysis of brain size/intelligence correlation suggests that it’s not size alone that drives the relationship but the size of differing components. So size alone doesn’t matter so much. In both cases, their brain size is greater than modern man's. Would Sarich think we are, therefore, less intelligent than past members of genus Homo? I suspect not.

Brain size is genetically determined.

This is the point where Sarich’s argument begins to narrow towards his conclusion. Up to now the different propositions have been more or less separate from one another. But now, he is linking brain size to IQ and genetics.

It is, in part, the “genetics is destiny” idea. Essentially, it says your physical inheritance determines who you are. Historically, it’s been the basis for as diverse political ideas as eugenics, class breeding and the divine right of kings.

We’ve already suggested the relationship between brain size and brain function is a complex relationship—as we should expect. Leg length and stride have a relationship but it’s not completely straightforward. Certainly, hip to ankle length makes possible a certain stride. But this is mitigated by the hip to knee and knee to ankle lengths. In addition, the human hip and the hips of other animals are quite different as human beings are adapted to upright walking. 

Consequently, while we can say the relationship between leg length is straightforward, even a cursory analysis shows that’s not the case.

In addition, we also know that nutrition, birth traumas and other issues can dramatically change the leg length. We can argue something similar for “brain size.” In addition, while “brain size” might be genetically determined it must be corrected for body size, etc., to be meaningful.

By simplifying the statement to just saying brain size (stand in for IQ test performance stand in for intelligence) is genetically determined, the inference is that intelligence is genetically determined.

Which brings us to the next statements:

Brain size (as derived from IQ tests) is varied across races.
Therefore, some races have greater intelligence than others as an inherited phenotype trait determined by genetics.

Sarich tries to couch this in evolutionary terms saying this is analogous to leg length and other such items. The issue makes two very profound assumptions:

  • That the variation within brain size (stand in for intelligence) serves as an opportunity for natural selection.
  • That the natural selection on brain size (stand in for brain function, i.e., intelligence) must necessarily cause differences between the races.

That’s a lot to unpack.

There is variation in cognition. Everybody knows somebody smarter than they are or not as smart. All cognition tests, IQ or otherwise, shows a curve of ability. So we know there is variation. The implied shift between Brain Size and Race is couched as a derivative from the known evidence (which we have questioned but for this part of the discussion let stand) to a solid conclusion.

Instead, there are a lot of implied assumptions in that leap that are not obvious.

For one, there’s the presumption that intelligence variation between races is meaningful. For such a variation to occur, much less be meaningful, would indicate that natural selection within a racial group is operating differently when compared to a second group. The brain is expensive—it takes on the order of 20% of the entire energy budget of the body to keep it going. If we could do without it or could manage a reduction in its size and demand, natural selection would immediately push us in that direction.

There are quite minor variations between racial groups in brain size—much less than the width of variation within the same group. One would expect any group that could reduce the energy load would very quickly naturally select to do so. The fact that no human group has reduced that much when compared to one another suggests that the advantage of a large brain overcomes the disadvantage of the expense.

Given that, the presumption of Sarich’s argument then is that the mechanism that created racial differences is the same mechanism that creates differences in intelligence (brain size.)

This is a huge assumption. It’s comparable to saying that the same selection mechanism that gave us long legs got rid of body hair. Or the selection mechanism for stubby toes is the same one that gave us the taste of sugar.

No doubt there is selection for increasing intelligence in humans—that’s our heritage. And no doubt variation in intelligence and selection against that variation caused it to increase. But to presume that selection for one phenotype is equivalent to another is madness.

In point of fact, I argue right here that since the variation within groups is greater than between them, that argues that the selection mechanism for human beings evolving larger brains is independent of racial groups. It acts on all human groups equally—suggesting that whatever the mechanism is, it is intrinsic to human beings independent of their environment. I think it’s likely sexual and social selection. The complexity of human groups is much greater than any environmental complexity we’ve faced.

Regardless, there is no evidence that there is differential selection between "racial" groups which suggests that Sarich's conclusions are spurious.

The Bell Curve and its criticism and defense happened in 1995. Vincent Sarich died in 2012. You could say the discussion is more than twenty years old but, as I said, I'm started to see it rear its ugly head again. I’ve been fairly careful not to introduce subsequent neurological research. It turns out that the relationship between IQ and brain size is somewhat nebulous. (See here.) It also turns out that (what a surprise) when corrected for body size, brain size is astonishingly similar for everybody.

But my point here is that by just thinking critically about the material one can come away with pretty much knowing what is bad science and what is good science. The problem is that thinking critically is hard. Thinking critically about ourselves (human beings) is much, much harder.

It does seem in this post-reality society, we’re making our lives harder for ourselves.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

State of the Farm: June, 2017

The drought last year and this wet spring have been significant enough I thought it worthwhile to revisit our little farm.

As my two readers might recall, we had a multi-century drought last year. With the precipitation since last summer, the snow pack and rains, that drought has been rescinded.

A month ago (see here) I was cautiously optimistic that this year might be better than the last. Now, it's a maybe yes, maybe no.

As I said, the apricots did not put out a single blossom. I had hopes some of those nubbins might show up but no. The good news is that they appear robust in growth. So: next year. Looks good. Fruit set on the peaches, nectarines, almonds, plums, pears, cornelian cherries. Flowers just showed up on the grapes. Nothing on the kiwi. Anybody out there ever see a kiwi bloom? Let me know. I've never seen our kiwi bloom.

The caterpillars showed up en masse. Tents. Greens. Gypsies. I decided not to stick with Surround but to go with the hard stuff: Captain Jack's Dead Bug Brew.

The Brew's active ingredient is spinosad,

Spinosad was discovered from observation of the bacteria, Saccharopolyspora spinosa, discovered in a sugar cane rum still. With a heritage like that, how could one go wrong?

Spinosad is an insecticide and operates as a neurotoxin. It interferes with acetylecholine and GABA transmission. It, apparently, binds to the neurotransmitter sites of insects. It appears to have a low toxicity to mammals.  It is moderately toxic to birds and fish and moderately toxic to aquatic invertebrates. It is highly toxic to bees. (See here.)

So: we sprayed with the Brew only on plants that were not themselves in bloom nor near other plants in bloom. Those, we sprayed with Surround only. So far, we're not worrying about the garden but as soon as we have a bloom there, the surround trees go back to Surround.

We were unable to spray much, though, as we've had rain, rain, rain all the month of May. Even with the limited spraying, many of our apples (always the worst hit) have actually born this year. The stone fruits don't seem to have the same problem with caterpillars as the other trees. We have plums this year but the caterpillars don't seem to bother the fruit. Other bugs do.

I do think I'm going to seriously trim the tops of the trees if we're going to do this much spraying. Right now I can't reach the tops and that just leaves caterpillars for seed.

Spinosad is, supposedly, recognized as an organic insecticide. It doesn't seem to linger too much and, as I said, We Mammals aren't much affected. That said, calling spinosad "organic" raises questions about what "organic" means.

The Sun Joe tiller I spoke of last time performed beautifully-- with, of course, some caveats. I think it's worth reporting here.

First, there's a common thread between electric garden machine and gasoline garden machines. This is true, I think, for tillers and mowers. Electric chain saws have all of the assets and flaws of regular chain saws minus the issues of an internal combustion engine.

That is, the tillers and mowers are between 5 and 10 times faster than their gasoline counterparts. Essentially, gasoline engines as implemented in these garden machines operate on a low speed high torque principle. The electric machines seem to operate on a high speed less torque principle. Not that you should try to stop that electric motor with your hand. Or, if you do, make sure someone finds the lost limb. They're doing great things with reattachment these days.

Our old gasoline tiller rotated at a stately four rotations a second or so. The Sun Joe seems to run about 10. However, we could take the old tiller and bear down on a tough section of dirt and it would grind down and dig up all of the rocks. If it hit ledge, it would just rub against it until we figured it out and moved on.

Not so, the Sun Joe. The Sun Joe will dig up rocks but it won't grind them out like the old tiller. I tried and bent a tine. I couldn't have bent a tine on the old tiller with a sledge hammer.

It bent back all right. But it was a wake up call. The Sun Joe will still go down as far but the user has to be sensitive to what it's doing. I found that if I let it go forward and then pulled it back as it was turning, I got a very good turn of the dirt. That would have been prohibitive with the old tiller. It was just too dang heavy.

The Sun Joe is quite light-- my wife could pick it up easily. It worked fine. It did the garden in about the same time to (maybe) a slightly less depth. And with much less wear and tear on me.

Sun Joe: A win! Though, we'll see how long it lasts.

We didn't irrigate the main garden as we thought. With all the rain we thought it unnecessary. We might try that next year or revisit it later in the season.

Still too cold for beans. Corn is in along with basil and tomatoes and the different squash. Everything is growing. Hopefully, we'll get more warmth and sun.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

State of the Farm, Spring 2017

Well, it's spring up here finally. Real spring. When the fruit trees blossoms and the bees come out.

None of this sort of spring where the temperature hovers a few precious degrees above freezing and the sky is gray and cold and sheds a dismal rain worthy of November.

No: this is real spring when there are warm days mixed with cool ones, sunshine mixed with rain.

We sweat spring every year.

Not that we don't love the change of seasons. But in spring, the trees and shrubs wake up and tell us what terrible farmers we actually are. Hey there! You know those blueberries you planted last fall? Flattened. Those wile strawberries you tried to preserve? Guess again chucko. Oh. And just in case you think everything is all right? Here's a five hundred year drought.

*sigh* Welcome to New England.

Last year we had a continuing drought down to the point the trees-- even the deep trees-- were beginning to feel it. Beginning in the fall and all winter long the rain and snow have gradually been filling the reservoirs and our area (See here.) is no longer in drought.

But, of course, a lot of time this year's crops reflects last years conditions.

Going over the fruit trees: all of them showed the effects in one way or another. While we got blossoms on most of the stone fruit (apricots, almonds, nectarines, peaches), we got zip on the apricots. Not one.

Now, last year we not only had a drought we had a severe -12F freeze on Valentine's Day and another hard freeze late in the spring. None of the stone fruits even made the attempt. This year, we didn't get that. In fact, we got no freeze after the last snow in March. This meant that none of the blossoms were injured-- those that actually existed.

So what happened to the apricots?

I looked at the branches and found little blossom like nubbins. These were dry and dead. My hypothesis is that the trees put these out last year in a vain attempt to prepare for this year but then it was just too dry and they gave up.

There's always next year.

Many of the trees had dead limbs or thin trunks. Several of the apples have dead branches and the nectarine lost one whole limb set. The almond seems unaffected-- but that tree set are next to the septic system and I suspect it never got truly dry there.

All of the grapes came through all right. Grapes are incredibly tough. I'm not sure what I'll do about the bird problem we had last year. The poor things were so desperate that as soon as the grapes showed color at all, they swooped in and stripped the tree bare. Is that a one time thing from the drought or have they learned that grapes is good eatin'. Not sure. The grapes are fairly extensive and covering them with netting is difficult.

The caterpillars are out, too. I've been spraying with Surround for some years. It's a diatomaceous earth product-- earth made out of the skeletons of diatoms. These are small single celled organisms that encase themselves in a silica shell. So when it's ground up fine enough the caterpillar eats it along with a bit of leaf and gets the equivalent of ground glass in its stomach.

Surround is pretty effective but you have to spray regularly and it can be overwhelmed. This is one of the things that happened last year. I sprayed and sprayed but the caterpillars still ate the flowers to nubbins. In desperation, I tried Captain Jack's Deadbug Brew. This is a contact killer. I sprayed it where I was in danger of losing a whole plant.

So all fall, winter and spring, whenever I found a caterpillar egg set I destroyed it. I sprayed surround as soon as the leaves came out and had Captain Deadbug in reserve. Now that the blossoms are waning, we'll see if I need the nuclear option or if I can control the problem with Surround.

Let's see. The picture above is a pie cherry that looks promising. The other cherries blossomed well. One large cherry tree has rot in the trunk so we may lose it. The other trees have all survived well. We have planted new shrubs and trees: seaberries, blue berries and a couple of new paw paws. That wild strawberry patch survived and is making flowers. We'll see what sort of berries we get.

We have ripe papayas in the greenhouse this year. We planted a tree about 18 months ago and it shot up ten feet and put out long sort of turnip shaped fruit. A couple look ripe. I'll report back what they taste like when we eat them.

We're getting the garden ready now. We did a burn and spread the charcoal and ash across the surface so I can till it in. Last year I got a Sun Joe electric tiller. Our old tiller, a gasoline engine, finally died after twenty years of service. Now that we have solar panels, electric approaches actually net lower carbon. So I took a chance and bought the Sun Joe. I didn't have a chance to unpack it last year so it's still an unknown.

We had fairly good luck with the garden when we factor in the drought. Definitely going to put in irrigation pipe this year. If we don't need it, no problem. But if we have a drought again we'll be prepared. Of course, we're always chasing last year's problem while this year's problem is still unknown.

But standing here looking at the trees in blossom and waiting to see if they're going to set fruit, I'm cautiously optimistic.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


(Picture from here.)

NASA has announced some new findings from the Cassini probe. In 2015, Enceladus produced a geyser that Cassini managed to fly through. In its mass spectrometer, it detected molecular hydrogen. This is hydrogen that is only bonded to itself and not with other materials or in an ionized state. (See here.)

Before we go too far, we have to talk about Enceladus.

Enceladus is one of the moons of Saturn. Saturn ranges between 1.5 and 1.4 billion km from the sun. By contrast, Jupiter is between .81 and .74 billion km from the sun. Earth is 149.6 million km from the sun. So, Saturn is 9.7 times the distance of the Earth from the sun and Jupitor is about 5.23 times the distance from the sun. Since Enceladus orbits Saturn, the distance from the sun is about the same.

Enceladus has no atmosphere to speak of. It has a 5 kilometer icy shell floating on top of 65 km of ocean with a rocky core at the center. For contrast, the deepest part of the ocean is the Challenger Deep that is only about 11km to the bottom. Water pressure there is about 1000 atmospheres. However, on Enceladus the gravity is much weaker. I found this page that estimated it to 7.5 megapascals but presumed it was only 32 km deep. Doubling that and converting it to atmospheres, it's 148A or about the equivalent of 1.5 km on Earth.

Also, going down 62 km on Enceladus is a significant portion of Enceladus' radius (250km), so the gravitational attraction of the mass above begins to counteract the force from below. How much depends on the mass of that rocky core.

Enceladus has cracks in it and on occasion is spews out plumes of material-- mostly water but some additional material. Cassini managed to navigate through on of the plumes.

(As an aside, this is one of the many gripes I have with the film Europa Report. The explorers get dragged under the ice on Europa by aliens. If the ice were broken, there would be an explosion spewing the water, aliens and explorers hundreds of kilometers into space. But what of that.)

The thinking is that Enceladus is heated by tidal forces, which is what keeps the ocean stable.

Now, back to the article.

Cassini found molecular hydrogen. Hydrogen is a very chemically active element. Molecular hydrogen doesn't last long. It gets ionized in space. It binds with oxygen. (Note: the Hindenburg.) It binds with carbon-- most of the carbon in your body has some hydrogen attached. So having it show up out of Enceladus is a Big Deal.

The current idea is that it was created in the equivalent of thermal vents at the bottom of the Enceladus ocean-- sort of like hydrothermal vents on earth. This is exciting for a lot of reasons. For one, it confirms that Enceladus is an active moon. For another, it provides a food source for possible life forms. We have hydrogen oxidizing bacteria here on earth. Some of them have been found around hydrothermal vents. (See here.)

So this is exciting stuff.

But-- and this is a big but-- Saturn is twice as far as Jupiter and Europa has water vapor plumes just like Enceladus.

So we have not one but two oceanic candidates for life in the solar system other than earth.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Consideration of Works Present: Sully

(Picture from here.)

I saw the film Sully last night (Starring Tom Hanks. Directed by Clint Eastwood.) and found it both compelling and irritating.

The directing was quite good and Tom Hanks’ performance was quite good. The film is about Chesley Sullenberger, or “Sully”, who was the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 . This is the flight out of La Guardia where geese flew into the engines of an Airbus A320-214 causing both engines to cease to function. Captain Sullenberger had to land in the Hudson River.

The film is structured not directly around the flight (though, of course, the flight is central) but the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) investigation subsequent to the water landing.

And here’s where the irritation arises.

Though I haven’t flown for some time, I am a pilot. I’ve had the training, have my pilot’s license and have flown for many hours. I ran into health problems a while back and that dragged me out of the air. When those issues were resolved, the effort and expense to get back in the air was just too much so I didn’t return. But let me make something perfectly clear: I loved flying.

I loved just being up in the air. The idea of bringing the plane up to five thousand feet and just going somewhere was terribly exciting. The earth is beautiful from even a modest height. I was a fair weather flyer—a devoutly timid pilot. Once, I reserved a plane for a flight to New Jersey to visit New York. I woke up and it was absolutely clear. I checked the pilot’s weather line: chance of icing. I looked at the commercial weather report: clear and mid-forties all day. I rechecked the weather line: chance of icing.

I drove down to the airport. Checked it again. Chance of icing. I knew that it was just a stale report. It had probably been put in about 2:00 AM and for one reason or another had never been updated. I called again: chance of icing. Right up to my reservation time. So I released my reservation and drove down to New York. I called on the way. Sure enough: about an hour after I left Boston the report changed to clear and warm. But, as I said, I’m a timid pilot.

I also worked on several projects involving the design, construction, engineering and release of aircraft instrumentation. There are several hundred instruments flying in the air that I worked to develop.

Now, it’s important to know that the FAA and NTSB are a pilot’s friend and not his enemy. For example, the FAA has the AviationSafety Reporting System (ASRS). This is intended to incentivize pilots to self-report incidents. If a pilot self-reports an incidence the resulting report cannot be used for enforcement purposes. This means that a pilot can report something he did that was bad and not expect to lose his license or be prosecuted for it. (There are limits to this, of course. You can’t kill your parents and throw yourself on the mercy of the FAA because you’re an orphan.) Instead, the FAA requires additional training to overcome the circumstance that caused the incident.

Runway incursions are a good example. This is when the pilot brings the plane onto the runway when it is unsafe, such as when a plane is landing or taking off. The idea behind the incentive is to get to the pilot before an incident becomes an accident and both correct the problem and gather data.

Another example is the way that the FAA doesn’t charge for a lot of the actions required for flight. In other countries, the normal operations of flying are charged for: landings, tower interactions, flight following, etc., all incur a fee. Some large airports (like Logan or O’Hare) do charge a landing fee and some airports charge what is essentially a parking fee when you go in for a hamburger. But the vast, vast majority of airports, towered and not, charge nothing. I have made many hundreds of landings. If I had to pay a dollar for each one, it would be many hundreds of dollars. And, of course, I wouldn’t do it. I would land less. Pilots who learn to fly in countries that charge a fee have much less experience than pilots that learn here—which is why a lot of pilots-in-training come to the USA.

The NTSB is similarly structured. It is interested in truth, not blame. The NTSB reports (all of which are open to the public here.) are beautiful examples of dispassionate detail. I used to read them just to learn. Flight 1549’s summary report is here. The full report is here.

The investigation of flight 1549 is interesting. It’s in the Wikipedia entry for the flight. (See here, again.) They used a computer simulation and live pilot simulations. While the simulations suggested it might have been possible to reach either La Guardia or Teterboro, it would have required an instantaneous response—an unreasonable burden on the pilot.

The NTSB works with probabilities. At issue was Captain Sullenberger’s decision to land in the Hudson versus attempting to reach either of the two closest airports. The landing in the Hudson was a risk. Attempting to reach the other two airports was a risk. The question the NTSB had to answer was whether the risk of the water landing outweighed the risk of crash at the two airports. In order to do this, they also had to measure the probable loss of the 155 people on board with the additional potential loss of crashing in a densely populated area. (Remember, this was in 2009. 9/11 forcibly demonstrated the cost of crashing a plane in a densely populated area.)

It was not a determination of Captain Sullenberger’s competence. The fact that he had brought the plane down in the water with no loss of life amply demonstrated that. The NTSB determines what happened. The purpose is to make the skies safer.

Remember, probabilities are a measure of what we don’t know. For example, planes can get into spins. A spin is a stable rotation with insufficient lift to maintain altitude. Consequently, a plane in a spin will crash unless the pilot manages to correct the motion of the plane out of the spin. This is what “spin training” is all about. So, let’s say, we have five planes get into a spin and one crashes. You can say from that sample that survivability of a spin is 80%.

But that can be misleading. Some planes can’t get out of a spin. The Cirrus SR20 is an example. (See here.) So if your five planes are four Cessna 150s and one SR20, you’re analysis must be different. In the case of the SR20, it is 100% that the plane will crash without intervention and 100% the Cessna 150 is recoverable. (See here.) Consequently, an SR20 has a parachute for the plane. In the manual, if the pilot gets the plane into a spin the recover is to pop the chute.

Tom Hanks was in another similar film, Apollo 13. There was an investigation after that incident, too. This is spoken of at length in the book and only briefly mentioned in the film. Essentially, the event was caused by a long string of unlikely events that made the explosion inevitable. Similarly, once the birds were ingested by the engines on flight 1549 at that altitude, an emergency was inevitable.

The universe is deterministic. If we know everything necessary, the spread of possible behaviors narrows.

Which brings us (finally!) to the movie, Sully. After this there will be spoilers.

In Sully there is an antagonistic, almost prosecutorial, interaction between the NTSB investigation board and the pilots. The idea is that the NTSB is trying to blame Captain Sullenberger rather than find truth. Eastwood has been quoted as saying the NTSB tried to say Captain Sullenberger did the wrong thing. This flies in the face of my own personal experience and the experience of pilots that I know who’ve been through investigations. It is true that the NTSB attempts to determine all possible causes of an incident or accident. This is not railroading. This is good investigation. At one point Hanks told AP that Captain Sullenberger had reviewed the script and asked that the real names of the investigators be changed. They were not prosecutors and it was unfair to associate them so.

John Balzano, one of the investigators, went so far as to warn that this film might have a chilling effect on pilot reporting.  “The movie may actually be detrimental to aviation safety. Pilots involved in accidents will now expect harsh, unfair treatment by investigators.” (See here.)

This brings me to the idea of true drama, false drama and cheap drama. True drama derives from character driven conflict and the quest for the resolution of that conflict. False drama is when the reaction and quest for conflict resolution is done without any real conflict involved. Cheap drama is when the conflict is artificially contrived so that it can be resolved with the desired amount of effort.

In Sully, the NTSB's prosecutorial stance and behavior is contrived to create the dramatic tension and raise the stakes for the protagonist, Captain Sullenberger.

What’s problematic about this is that it was completely unnecessary and actually destructive. The true drama in the film is Captain Sullenberger’s wrestling with himself. Did he do the right thing? Did he make the right decision? He executed his decision flawlessly—remember, no one died. But was it the right one? Could he have just returned to La Guardia with nothing more than hard landing? If he had made the decision to return to La Guardia—and failed—the lives lost would have greatly exceeded the crew and passengers. The self-reflection should be agonizing.

And Hanks pulls this off. (This part of the New Yorker review I agree with.) He pulls it off so well that the whole NTSB motivation is actually distracting. It would have been much more compelling if the Eastwood had kept the NTSB as it was—a seeker of truth—and have it be the vehicle of Hanks self-exploration. As it is, he ends up fighting the NTSB and demonstrating it to be short sighted by forcing it to do things that in real life it already did.

I don’t know why Eastwood felt compelled to take this approach. Eastwood is a pilot and knows better. He is not known for cheap drama. He’s shown himself perfectly willing to tackle easy subjects the hard way. His film Unforgiven shows that. Perhaps he felt that the audience couldn’t handle such a subject in a complex way. Or that it was too subtle for us. Or perhaps he has an anti-government agenda that did not allow him to show a government entity in a positive light.

Regardless, he took what could have been a great film and made a poor one.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Unnatural Empathy

(Picture from here.)

The eastern gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) and the Cope’s gray tree frog (H. chrysoscelis) are closely related. They look identical. Yet they only mate preferentially with each other. Why? You might ask. The Cope's frog has a higher pitched and faster paced call. Each species prefers its own species' call.

Cope's frog also has only half the chromosomes of the gray tree frog.

Sometime in the past, a Cope's frog spontaneously doubled its chromosomes and its offspring had a different call. In this case, it was matched by the female's preference for the same call.

Reproductive isolation is what defines a species and these frogs were isolated by a behavior rather than a physical trait. They were defined by an invisible uniqueness that they perceived easily but was difficult to penetrate without thorough examination. (See here, here and here.) Though they look alike, both species of frogs are unique.

The forefoot of the horse is actually its middle finger. The hoof is made of keratin—the same material of your fingernail. So, in one way the horse shares its foreleg structure with us. In another, it is unique. Other animals have hooves but the hooves aren’t quite the same. Other animals run but not quite the same as the horse. The horse, as I said, has commonality and uniqueness simultaneously.

Humans are a unique species.

Oh, I don’t mean that we have a Single Qualifying Trait that Signifies Our Specialness—there is no such trait. We have history and heritage from our relatives back to the fishes that, in part, share all our qualities. But that doesn’t detract from our uniqueness.

So we are with our brains. All vertebrates have vertebrate brains. All mammals have mammalian brains. All primates have primate brains. All humans have human brains. We can’t say humans don’t have mammalian brains in contrast to having human brains. That’s not a fact. That's not even an alternative fact. What we can say is that the set of characteristics that we use to define mammalian brains (and, for that matter, the set of characteristics we use to define mammals) encompasses the set of characteristics we use to define human brains.

There are additional brain characteristics shared among humans that are not shared with a chimp brain in the same way there are characteristics of the human shoulder that are not shared with the chimp shoulder.

I think it’s important to keep these sorts of things straight because we humans tend to expect biology to reinforce our cultural image of ourselves rather than tell us the truth. And, these days, truth is in short supply.

I’ve been reading Frans de Waal’s  book, The Age of Empathy. I’ve been a de Waal fan ever since I read Chimpanzee Politics. (Which, by the way, I highly recommend. It follows the rise to power a particular chimpanzee male to alpha, his loss of power and how he regains it. After reading this book you’ll never watch House of Cards the same way again.)

Reading the Empathy is a little sad because it was published right in the aftermath of Obama’s first election and there’s a little glow of optimism all through it. Which is hard to take right now.

But the issues are still relevant. He points out that the individualistic, Ayn Rand-making-it-in-spite-of-all-odds-solely-on-our-own myth has very little basis in biology. Sure: individuals succeed. That’s how evolution works. That’s how human culture—not the same thing at all, by the way—works. But, for human beings, individuals succeed because of our cooperation not despite it.

Think of Andrew Carnegie. He starts off poor when he arrives in the USA. He works hard in the textile mill, learns telegraphy, gets promoted and does well. Educates himself and then invests in various things with profit and becoming, ultimately, one of the wealthiest men in the world. Was this due to his own efforts? Sure. Was it due solely to his own efforts? Maybe not.

Carnegie worked in a textile mill. Such a mill operates on the idea that many people must work together to produce product. They are paid in a fungible material called money—which operates because people agree on the rules by which it works. He educates himself using a library—a cooperative enterprise where the common material (books) is shared among a group of obligated individuals for the common good. He makes much of his fortune selling bonds—a group enterprise where a collection of people donates money to an endeavor that must be cooperatively achieved in order to profit on the result.

Carnegie could not have attained the wealth he achieved without his own drive and ambition. But he also could not have achieved it without a society of super-cooperative monkeys that agreed on the rules by which the society operated.

Here’s a quote from de Waal on the wiki page:

“Being both more systematically brutal than chimps and more empathic than bonobos, we are by far the most bipolar ape. Our societies are never completely peaceful, never completely competitive, never ruled by sheer selfishness, and never perfectly moral.”

America is an interesting place. It is a continuing tension between individual opportunity and the common good. A tension between doing what is morally right and what personally profitable. Much of our literature deals with this dichotomy. Every human society is a blend in balance but most places rely on homogenizing factors: race, religion, tribal heritage. America is based fundamentally on leaving the past and heritage behind and embracing who we are without past and heritage. It is also, fundamentally, based on preserving and nurturing the ideas and heritage we feel is absolutely essential.

The Puritans didn’t come over here to be rugged individuals. They came over for their own religious ideals. Even so, out of that came the Mayflower Compact and Roger Williams’  Providence PlantationsJohn Adams wrote a beautiful tract, Thoughts on Government, where he described good government as the mechanism for achieving happiness and virtue for the greatest number of people. As president, he also signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it harder for immigrants to become citizens.

Jon Stewart said it best here: “This fight has never been easy…America is not natural. Natural is tribal. We’re fighting against thousands of years of human of human behavior and history to create something new.”

I think the fact that we—and by “we” I mean any group of human beings, American or not—can attempt to create something this unnatural is what makes us human.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Boskone 2017

I will be at Boskone in a couple of weeks. Here is my schedule. Come on out and have fun with me.

Great Fantasy Worlds
Friday 19:00 - 20:00, Marina 3 (Westin)
A satisfying fantasy world is more than the obligatory map at the front of the book. What makes such a world appealing to the reader? Does that appeal correlate with the depth and complexity of the fantasy writer's creation?
Ms Melinda Snodgrass (M), Mary Kay Kare, Vikki Ciaffone, Justine Graykin, Steven Popkes, Julie Holderman

Autographing: Craig Shaw Gardner, Steven Popkes, Melinda Snodgrass, Walter Jon Williams
Saturday 12:00 - 13:00, Galleria - Autographing (Westin)

Making Things Out of Trash
Saturday 16:00 - 17:00, Galleria - Makers' Space (Westin)
Have you ever found an odd item in the trash that you were sure could become something cool, but you couldn't figure out what to actually do with it? Join Steven Popkes for a fun discussion of "deep recycling" and learn how you too can have some fun with .... stuff.

Chemistry: Spec Fic's Critical Compound
Sunday 10:00 - 11:00, Marina 2 (Westin)
It's got a long history within speculative fiction, but it's often overshadowed by biology, physics, and astronomy. From transmutating metals to creating fuels, gunpowder, poisons, and (in The Martian) oxygen, chemistry is often the unsung science of our genres. We'll discuss chemistry's practical aspects, and how they are successfully applied within a story. We'll also look at a few bang-up examples where the science went wrong ...
Milton Davis, Kristin Janz, Mark L. Olson (M), Justine Graykin, Steven Popkes

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Old Man’s Judo

(Picture from here.)

When I was in grade school, in California, my father enrolled me in a judo class. I have no idea why he did it—in fact, it was done so early in my life it seemed completely natural. Who wouldn't, right? I never even thought to ask him why he did it until after he was dead and I couldn’t. 

I loved it. Imagine wrestling as an art form. Chokes and pins as things of beauty. Learning to fly to the air and fall without pain—well, mostly without pain. I don’t remember much pain then. I had to grow older to get that.

I revisited Judo briefly in college and then left it until about six years ago. My son had left gymnastics and asked what sport he could try. I mentioned Judo and he tried it and stayed with it for a while. He was beautiful at it. About a year later I succumbed to the draw and started as well. He left it later but I’ve kept at it.

But it’s hard to talk about judo without knowing what it is.

Judo (pronounced Joo-doe) means “Gentle way” in Japanese.  It was invented by Kanō Jigorō in the 1880’s in Japan. He founded his own school in 1882. He was 22.

Kanō had studied jiujitsu—an older form of Japanese unarmed combat—much of his life. This turned out to be difficult because many Japanese thought that jiujitsu was outmoded and no longer useful. Kanō didn’t agree. When Kanō opened his school he called is discipline judo, in part, to break the association with jiujitsu. But also because he’d come to embrace two concepts that he felt had relevance to modern Japan and the world:

  • seiryoku zen'yō (精力善用): maximum efficiency, minimum effort
  • jita kyōei (自他共栄  ): mutual welfare and benefit

Kanō had adopted three basic categories of techniques from jiujitsu: throwing techniques where an opponent was brought to the ground, pinning techniques and submission techniques including chokes and joint locks. But he adapted them to be used safely.

For example, one jiujitsu throw involved using the arm with the elbow open—pretty much insuring that the joint was broken in the throw. The throw was modified such that this didn’t happen. Joint locks were restricted to the elbow only—much more easily controlled—and done in a manner that allowed the opponent to surrender. Chokes were changed from the windpipe to the neck—carotid pressure which can cause unconsciousness if the opponent does not submit but doesn’t cause permanent injury. Teachers step in to prevent even that. Throws involve falling from height so Kanō introduced ukemi—the technique of falling. 

A side note: about two years ago I stepped off the curb, slipped and fell forward. Instead of a face plant involving at the very minimum a broken nose, I hit the concrete in a perfect judo front fall. It hurt but I was without injury. Judo works.

Judo techniques are much more about timing and leverage than strength. It doesn’t have to be a young man’s sport. In my current dojo, one sensei (teacher) is in his fifties and the other is seventy. We have two other seventy year olds, one is a beginner and the other is a brown belt studying for black. It's no secret I’m not young. We also have a thirty-three year old who regularly mops the floor with me but sometimes I get him back. The fact that there is a discipline where I can compete with a younger man nearly half my age and do okay is pretty amazing. 

This all goes back to Kanō's two principles. The techniques reflect maximum efficiency and minimum effort. But they are connected to mutual welfare—you can’t play with an opponent if you break him. And you won’t get better without an opponent. Judo requires two players. It is an intimate discipline: you spend a lot of time in close physical contact with your co-students, teachers and opponents. It’s impossible to play judo alone.

This is what attracted me to judo all along. Few human endeavors are without ego. Judo is no exception. But judo is one of the few disciplines that structurally embodies cooperation. You must help your fellow student learn—he is essential for you to learn. And you must protect your opponent from injury insuring that he will protect you from injury.

Kanō realized that the physical concepts he was teaching in his dojo had a larger philosophical and moral dimension. This is an excerpt from what Kanō said in response to judo being considered as n Olympic sport:

“... judo in reality is not a mere sport or game. I regard it as a principle of life, art and science. In fact, it is a means for personal cultural attainment...Judo should be free as art and science from any external influences, political, national, racial, and financial or any other organized interest. And all things connected with it should be directed to its ultimate object, the ‘Benefit of Humanity’.”

This concept is attractive to me.

There's a tendency—at least in the United States—to narrow the definitions associated with affection. There's family bonds, some kinds of friends, bands of brothers and sexual love. I think human beings are far more diverse in their emotions. What ties together a judo dojo is a bond of affection that is local to the dojo but extends from it. It's not the band of brothers military thing where other people are willing to die for you. And it's not an intense colleague relationship where people on a project put their marriages at risk for some accomplishment. 

I've done other martial arts and it's been an intense experience—notice, please, that I've not called judo a martial art—but this is different. There is a close and personal bond based on something that we are all aspiring to do and for which we are all absolutely essential to one another. Is that love? I don't know.

There’s a free sparring component to judo called randori. At this point, people pair up and use what they’ve learned against one another. We get thrown, pinned, choked and locked a lot. But if you go to a boxing match or MMA fight or wrestling or tennis match and watch the losers you see anger, grief, humiliation, embarrassment. In randori, you see someone say nice. That’s the difference.

That happened to me last Thursday when Young Steve (I’m Old Steve) took me down in a yoko wakare. (Picture at left.) I was saying nice! as I was going over. Then, I got up and we went at it again.

It’s not all roses and carnations. As my sensei says, we’re not playing badminton. I’ve had some injuries in judo. Usually it was because I did something stupid. For me, half of understanding judo is learning not to do something stupid.

But it certainly feels great when my opponent—or my teacher—says nice when I do something right. It feels even better to say nice to someone else for the same reason.

And that’s why I’m there.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Kissing 2016 Goodbye

Yeah, yeah. I know the drill. I'm supposed to write about the year and how to look forward to the next.

Frankly, this was a kidney stone of a year and I have little to say about the next one.

So, like all writers, I steal when I have to.

Here's John Oliver's good by to 2016.

And here's one of the more articulate discussions of the turn of the year.

I'll get back on track next year.