Sunday, July 26, 2009

Nitpicking the First Person

Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers. ~ T. S. Eliot

In the other blog, I recently wrote a little ditty discussing a story about The Elements of Style, which has been the semi-precious-metal standard for writing for some years now. One of the elements I mentioned was that the use of the first person singular should be avoided unless the writer's subject was purely personal. Evidently, this style point has ceased to be taught in professional or journalistic writing classes.

I regularly read three magazines: Archaeology, The Smithsonian Magazine, and Biblical Archaeology Review. I have noticed an annoying trend that shows up in all three publications, so I must assume it's showing up in other non-fiction writing as well. What I'm talking about, if you haven't got my drift yet, is the ever-increasing intrusion of the use of the first person singular in articles that are not personal in nature.

An example of what I'm trying to describe (in my fumbling way) appears in the current issue of one the aforementioned magazines (name withheld to protect the guilty). In one article, the writer leads with "Shielding my eyes from the glare of the morning sun, I look toward the horizon ..." and goes on to tell us how she is at a particular historical location. A little later, she continues that she has arrived at the site (as if we were worried she wouldn't make it), saying "I drive partway up the mountain where I will meet" the person who is the expert on the site. "I am the sole visitor," she tells us for no good reason. Then: "At a kiosk, I buy a ticket that lets me ascend on foot ..."

I allow the reader to ponder how someone is coming to do an interview should have to buy a ticket to get to the interviewee.

At any rate, the travelogue continues for a few more paragraphs before the author relents and actually gets to the subject of the article.

Now the critical reader might complain that I am certainly no slouch at using the first person myself. But, this is a blog involving my opinions. There is a lot of me involved here, as one would expect. However, if I were to write an article about, say, a dig site where a major discovery had been made, I would certainly not spend time telling you how hot the day was when I got there, how tiresome the hike to the area was, and how scenic I found the views to be. I would spend a lot of time telling you about the dig and what had been discovered, quoting extensively from those involved in the dig and from other experts in the field. The only personal intrusions would be if I wished to express an opinion on the findings, and then only to make it clear that it was my opinion and not someone else's.

That's what you'd expect, and you'd be right to do so.

To be fair, the article I've been discussing does eventually get to the point and provide some interesting information, but the writer takes her sweet old time getting there. And she's not alone. I've seen this trend in article after article, and, frankly, I'm tired of it.

Now, there are lots of good articles that need the first person. For example, The Smithsonian Magazine has a series called "My Kind of Town", where well-known authors talk about their home towns. I'd expect a lot of first person in that; after all, the stories are as much about the influence of the town as about the bricks, mortar, and people who make it up.

Or, say the article is written by the person who has made a particular discovery. It would be hard to avoid the use of the first person, although most such articles tend to use the first person plural, because many discoveries involve the work of a team. The only time the use of the first person gets in the way in such stories is when the author gets into the same travelogue mode I discussed above.

It's rather like what Sherlock Holmes said to Watson one time when Watson was describing the results of an investigation Holmes had asked him to do. As Watson began to wax eloquently about the foliage and scenery, Holmes cuts him off with, "Cut the poetry, Watson, and get to the point."

That's exactly what I'm trying to say to these writers who insist on telling us how hot they are, how amazed they are, how dirty they are, or how cold they are. I don't really care, and I suspect the average reader of these periodicals doesn't care either. The reason folks like me subscribed to these magazines to learn new stuff. The fact that it's hot in the desert or cold in Alaska isn't new.

So, cut the poetry, guys, and get to the point. We'll all appreciate it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

From the Earth to the Moon -- and Back

Heroes abound, and should be revered as such, but don't count astronauts among them. We work very hard; we did our jobs to near perfection, but that was what we had hired on to do. In no way did we meet the criterion of the Congressional Medal of Honor: 'above and beyond the call of duty.'~ Michael Collins, command module pilot, Apollo 11

[This is a bit of a memoir that I also published on Gog's Blog, but it sort of belongs here, too. Well, they're my blogs and I can do what I want, so here's the piece.}


Do I remember where I was on July 20, 1969? You bet your Aunt Fanny's bloomers I do. I was at a friend's house where we huddled around his old TV set watching astronauts land and walk around on the moon.

I've been watching some of these programs over the last few days about the Apollo mission. Some of them have been pretty good, but I do get tired of the many shows that harp on the "primitive" technology available and how fallible all the equipment was and how it's amazing we got there at all.

Well, here's a bulletin for all those young producers: The technology was a quantum leap over what NASA had in 1961 when the project started. Those pitiful little computers were more powerful than anything that had ever been used before. And the people involved were the most remarkable aggregation of genius and determination since the Manhattan Project -- and this time a city didn't have to be vaporized in the process.

Yes, we lost three astronauts, the price of the builders not listening to what the geniuses, in this case the guys who were going to fly the thing, were trying to tell them. When they did, NASA ended up with a flight system could overcome an explosion in a fuel cell and return its crew in tact. The Saturn rocket, which, if you believe the current shows, was just waiting to blow up at any second, is the only U.S. rocket to never have a failure.

Now, we can't keep the toilet working on the ISS.

But, I'm not going to crab about the current space program, because I prefer to remember when we had inspired and dedicated people working toward a concrete goal. Sure, you can argue it was done because of cold-war politics. But it was still a magnificent example of what people can do with a purpose.

Michael Collins, the often forgotten man of Apollo 11, offers a collection of thoughts over at Space.com. I was stuck by the quote that starts this article. Mr. Collins is making a point lost on so many people. There are brave people doing their jobs everyday, but calling them heroes is devaluing the term. The astronauts came into the program with eyes wide open; this was their job, and they did one hell of a fine piece of work.

I suspect he feels the same way about the way the word "great" is thrown around as well.

He has no use for "celebrity" either, calling it an "empty concept". For a man who journeyed a half million miles through space, he has his feet planted firmly on the ground.

I also like his idea, shared by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, that we should quit piddling around and commit a dedicated mission to reach Mars. We've been to the Moon; going back serves no great purpose. You want a launch pad in space? Build a proper space station and launch from there. Going all the way to the Moon to launch rockets to Mars is absurd.

Collins, by his own admission is a bit of a grumpy old man, as is Buzz Aldrin. But, that astronaut's optimism and drive still sneaks out. In answer to the question, "Don't you have any keen insights?", he says:

"Oh yeah, a whole bunch, but I'm saving them for the 50th.

I'll be looking forward to reading them.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Endanged Neanderthals

Neanderthals are three times as different from us as we are from each other ... ~ Chris Stringer

It has become standard fare in the pop science media to portray the extinction of Neanderthals as being, in large part, due to the arrival of Homo Sapiens, because we sapiens were just so much smarter and clever and ruthless and good looking. Okay, maybe not that last. Now, it seems that detective work into Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA has indicated that they were pretty much doomed without our assistance.

There is no doubt that Neanderthal got a bad rap for years, based mostly on conclusions drawn from one set of bones. Those bones conjured up an image of a stooped, thick-browed caveman who was barely smart enough to get out of his own way. It turned out, of course, that the bow-legged, bent frame suggested by the bones in fact belonged to an elderly Neanderthal afflicted with arthritis. Later discoveries showed that Neanderthal most likely was put together more like a body-builder.

It also appeared that Neanderthal society was a little more complex than first thought. They buried their dead with grave goods, for instance, not something you'd expect from a stupid cave man. This sort of burial implies a belief in an afterlife, which takes the beginnings of a searching mind.

Along comes Cro-Magnon man, and Neanderthal, after chugging along for a quarter of a million years, drops off the face of the Earth. Conclusion: Cro-Magnons kicked Neanderthal butt. Or, if you prefer, Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons interbred to lead to the mess that we are today.

Well, maybe not. To begin with, studies of Neanderthal DNA have pretty much ruled out that they are in any way our ancestors. As to getting wiped out by Cro-Magnon, Chris Springer is quoted in the linked article as pointing out that there weren't many Cro-Magnons yet, so it's entirely possible they never even made contact. If they did, it's unlikely there was any large-scale warfare of extinction.

Because the populations were so small, it's also unlikely that Cro-Magnon somehow was using up scarce resources. In other words, there were plenty of animals for both of them. The conditions were changing so Cro-Magnon may have adapted better than Neanderthal, but the newcomers weren't taking the food out of the mouths of the cavemen.

Population size, however, is the nub of the matter. According to the study, Neanderthal populations were small. The mitochondrial DNA shows that Neanderthal was more prone to harmful mutations than modern humans; normally these would be weeded out as population grew. But Neanderthal population wasn't growing, so the mutations had a deleterious effect, perhaps affecting their immunity to ailments or their ability to process nutrients. Whatever it might have been, Neanderthal was doomed because their numbers were always relatively low.

No explanation is offered for why they never reproduced rapidly enough to be able to overcome the negative mutations, but low population may account for another thing that has always bothered anthropologists.

Neanderthal, as I said, was around for around 250,000 years. At the end of that time, they were using basically the same tools and methods that they were using in the beginning. Compare that to the progress made by Homo Sapiens in a 100,000 year span, and I'm not talking about space flight. Early modern humans discovered farming, domesticated animals, developed spear throwing implements, and continuously improved their stone tools.

Here's Neanderthal, with a brain as big as ours (in fact, slightly larger), which appeared to be basically wired the same as ours, yet they stagnated. One theory used to claim that Neanderthal didn't have the power of speech, but recent discoveries of hyoid bones would indicate that they could have spoken. Whether they did or not is still open to debate, but it's hard to imagine that they did not. They appeared to be good hunters, which implies some sort of communication.

A new mathematical model of population versus innovation might provide a clue. According to the model, given an increase in population and an intermingling of different communities can spur innovation. Now, I've often expressed my concerns about mathematical models and computer simulations, so I would suggest that this one should be taken with a grain of salt. But, it does promote an plausible scenario for the demise of Neanderthal.

Consider this: Neanderthals were spread across Europe in small numbers. They probably seldom crossed paths to exchange ideas. As their numbers dwindle, such interactions, if they occurred at all, became almost non-existent. Because of their small numbers, they don't even stumble across Cro-Magnon groups much either. Then the climate chilled and dried, causing game to move from the accustomed areas. Okay, Neanderthal was probably smart enough to move with the herds, but the worsening weather causes disease to have a greater effect on the health of individual Neanderthals, making it harder to muster a long hunt.

Basically, Neanderthal got weaker and more isolated, a recipe for demise. It's a very plausible scenario.

Because Neanderthal lasted so long, they're often referred to as a very successful species. But, they didn't prosper, they merely survived. While that's not exactly chopped liver, it's not a long term recipe for success.

We modern humans, who have been around for half as long as the Neanderthals were, should keep that in mind.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Any Color As Long As It's Black

Innovation! One cannot be forever innovating. I want to create classics. ~ Coco Chanel

Porsche says electric cars are not ready for prime time. Charging systems aren't adequate, batteries are too heavy, and so on. Of course, Porsche does happen to have a prototype floating around, but it's the same old story: 100 or so miles per charge, forever to charge unless you have a 220 outlet available, in which case it's only half of forever. What Porsche really means is that their own feeble attempt at an electric car isn't any great shakes.

Porsche does make a hybrid, the Cayenne, but it's a joke, getting a rousing 24 mpg (although this is considered a significant improvement over the 13 mpg the model usually gets. In this, Porsche matches the American auto makers who tout hybrids that get marginally better mileage while costing an arm and/or a leg more.

Only two manufacturers that I know of make for-real hybrids that are actually fuel-efficient and eco-friendly: Toyota with the Prius and Honda with the Civic Hybrid. [Truth-in-blogging notice: I own a Civic Hybrid.] Both are rated in the upper 40's for mpg's. The Prius gets its best mileage in short-hop, around town sort of driving, while the Honda is best for open road driving. The difference is in the way they use the electrical assist mode. Prius actually runs fulling on electric power in slower-speed, stop-and-go situations, while Honda uses it's batteries as a horsepower assist.

I've never driven a Prius, but I can vouch for the fact that I get over 50 mpg in my Civic, which is rated at 45/45 by whoever certifies those numbers on the sticker. That's because I drive 150 miles per day, 60% of which is on the freeway. Most of the rest is over a country road, that has no stops and light traffic.

By the way, no hypermiling techniques are involved in that. I suspect that if I was driving a Prius in it's best situation, I could do the same.

So, the first question is: Why aren't all the automakers providing hybrids, at reasonable prices, that can do at least 40 mpg?

When it comes to electric cars, the situation is even worse. The first electric car was built sometime between 1832 and 1839. You read it right; we're talking around 170 years ago. That's one hundred and seventy, one-seven-zero, almost two centuries ago. Electric cars were doing quite made for around 100 years before roads got to be good enough and gasoline engines got reliable enough for people to want to drive longer distances. And that was that until the EV1, first built in 1996 and off the roads by 2003. Fortunately, for the few of us who actually want to quit supporting Exxon executive bonuses, the Toyota and Honda hybrids appeared soon afterward.

So the second question is: Why haven't the automakers or even one automaker, started turning out electric cars at all ?

And, while we're at it, the third question is: Why hasn't any automaker made any serious attempt to produce hydrogen, natural gas, fuel cell, solar, or any other alternative fuel car with or without the back up of a gasoline-powered engine?

I have seen endless stories over the last five years about new battery designs that allow for quick charging and longer life. Five years ago, Honda announced a cheap way to produce solar cells. Yet we still talk about 100-150 mile range, 18+ hour charging times (at 110 volts), and ridiculously high prices when it comes to electric cars.

You wanna know why? Well, I'm gonna tell you why, buddy-row.

There's a story related by Robert Lacy in Ford: The Men and the Machine (1st Edition) that pretty well sums it up. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, automaking was an industry slopping over with innovation. Companies sprang up like weeds with new styles and new designs. But, the king of the hill was Ford, run by Henry Ford, who had created the assembly line, and produced the first affordable and reliable car, the Model T. Henry loved the Model T.

In 1912, when the Model T was four years old, some Ford execs decided that some updating was in order. So while Henry and family were vacationing in Europe, they put together a new, improved Model T which looked positively sleek compared to the boxy model they were currently providing. When Ford returned, the team proudly showed him their handiwork. Ford listened to them, then inspected the car closely, walking round and round it. After a pause, he tore it apart with his bare hands.

Literally.

It took almost 20 years and a 50% reduction in market share for Ford to realize that maybe, just maybe, he should update the vehicle.

That is the attitude that prevails in the auto industry, pretty much world wide. There comes an occasional burst of activity, caused by one manufacturer finally realizing they've lost enough sales. But fundamental changes have come seldom, very seldom. We'd still be looking at fleet averages of 15 mpg if the government hadn't legislated better fuel efficiency in the 80's. The main reaction to that by the U.S. automakers was to make some very fuel-efficient (relatively speaking) cars and getting trucks and SUV's exempted from the fleet mpg calculations. In truth, there's been no improvement in fuel efficiency since the mid-80's.

The auto industry hasn't cared for innovation. Rather than spend the money on R&D, they spent it on lobbyists and marketing. And now, two of three are bankrupt, and the third ain't feeling so good. Oops.

Meanwhile, the oil companies that helped push them over the edge is laughing all the way to the bank because companies like Porsche are moaning that alternative technologies aren't practical or, excluding Honda and Toyota, are producing so-called over-priced hybrids that are overpriced while providing minimal improvements in mileage.

Just to show that the Japanese aren't immune from the disease, two years ago, Honda was planning to dump the hybrids. They have thought better of that idea.

Now, if they'd do something with those cheap solar cells they were promising ...