Monday, December 31, 2007

Evolution as Point of View

In these unread (and perhaps unreadable) blogs here and in the essay section I've talked about evolution. In the last couple of weeks there have been some amazingly articulate articles published and republished that are worth bringing up here.

First, a hats off to John Timmer of Nobel Intent for discussing the journal Nature's centennial retrospective. As its celebration, Nature is republishing some articles that became seminal in the field. It's hard to believe Nature has not only been around that long but published such ground breaking material. The one I enjoyed the most was Raymond Dart's original findings of Australopithecus. The Dart article was one of the foundations of the "Out of Africa" model of human evolution. Go read the articles. They are well worth it.

Similarly, Timmer discussed a new periodical, Evolution: Education and Outreach. It is a societal sham that America requires a journal intended to intelligently present evolution for purposes of education. But there it is.

One article from EE&O is particularly close to home as far as I am concerned. It is David Zeigler's The Question of Purpose. It seems to me that evolution presents two basic challenges to religion: loss of any shred of fact behind a given creation myth and the loss of extrahuman purpose to human existence.

Geologic time puts paid any creation myth and evolution just erects the gravestone. People who are attached to the creation myth are put into one of three positions. They translate creation into something inherently metaphorical. They attempt to channel ancient and venerable storytellers (or God), enabling them to couch geologic events in metaphorical terms. ("After all, no one knows how long a day was then." Or, "A 'Day' means a long period-- these are representations of periods of creation.") Some deny the facts in front of their noses and embrace the creation myth as fact.

Because the creation myth problem is obvious, it's the one seems to come up in discussion most often on both sides. The idea that evolution can't be true because the bible is fact and therefore nothing can exist before about six thousand years ago gets equal discussion with "Can you believe those hicks? They really believe the earth is only six thousand years old!". But the creation myth problem is only a problem in one narrow venue: viewing the religion's creation myth as fact and not metaphor. While many people in the USA view the Genesis myth as literal fact, many of good religious faith do not.

The other, much more seditious aspect of evolution in particular and science in general is the absence of human purpose. Human beings are fully capable of creating their own purpose. But within evolution and science no such purpose has been discovered. Humans model the universe. For whatever reason, we like to model the universe in our own image. We like to believe we have a purpose and therefore it must be so. One collection of phrases I've heard over and over in the evolutionary discussion boils down to: There must be a purpose to all of this or what's the point? Even the word, "pointless", has great connotations of futility, depression and emptiness.

Many modern Christian evangelists start with this in their sermons. Without God I am nothing. A pointless universe is an empty universe. A place where all the works of man are as nothing.

Personally, while I can tell the heartbreak behind such statements is sincere, it's really pretty incredibly arrogant. First, it's not true. We've usurped a huge amount of the energy absorbed by the entire planet. I deplore what we've done but not without acknowledging humanity's raw exercise of naked power. As Mister Ollivander said in the first Harry Potter film: "After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things. Terrible! Yes. But great."

But even more than untrue, it is an unnatural comparison. In a universe billions of years old with nearly everything a brilliant mystery, where life exists and shows genius in even it's smallest and most trivial actions, how could we ever expect our accomplishments of a few thousand years to be in any way comparable? Is our estimation of ourselves so inflated we must compare ourselves to the universe and invent God when we come up short? We would have to be God to play in that league.

I have to think this is a result of monotheism. In polytheistic religion man is often the foil. There are many gods, goddesses, demigods, demons and supernatural creatures to play with. Man is pretty low on the pole and rarely gets noticed. Monotheism narrows the playing field, lowers the standing of everything other than God (angels and demons alike get demoted since there can be only one God) and raises the level of human beings as the only being worthy of purpose.

We're the only game in town.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Paleontology

I've been in a downhill grind lately on these blogs. I decided to talk about something I'm actually excited about.

There have been a lot of interesting fossil work published in the last year or two. Usually, you hear in the news about this species or that fossil found. But there is rarely any context reported. What we would like to hear about is fossil ecologies: how did the world work a few hundreds of millions of years ago. We don't know that yet but there have been some interesting insights.

First, let's go to Mars.

Poor little Spirit has been dragging a non-functioning wheel for some time now. Eventually, somebody noticed that it was digging up the ground and what was underneath was pretty interesting: silica. Now, silica (the main ingredient of window glass) on earth when found in high concentrations is usually the mark of a hot spring or a fumerole. Both are locations of archaebacteria. Some have speculated that life originated on earth after being knocked over here from Mars.

Once life got started, it eventually evolved into something that could fossilize. Figuring out what life forms looked like prior to the obvious fossiles has been a problem for some time. About a year ago, it was reported that some rocks that pre-date the advent of modern day forms contained some pretty interesting fossils. It looks like these may be embryo fossil molluscs. A year later nearly to the day a different group found some very small fossils that appear to date from the early Cambrian. These are tiny crustaceans. If they were already in existence at the beginning of the Cambrian, then they must have evolved earlier. This pushes back by a fair amount the beginning of a very large and diverse group of animals and, by implication, perhaps some other groups as well. The sudden appearance of many different multicellular forms in the Cambrian is referred to as the Cambrian explosion. The discovered crustacea imply that the roots for the Cambrian may lie not in the Cambrian itself but before it.

Adding on to that, a new find published in October of 2007 of a jellyfish shows that Cnidaria was fully formed within the Cambrian-- again, suggesting the features that describe that phylum were in place earlier than thought.

Crustacea and Cnidaria represent two great flows of animal life: the Bilateria and the Radiata. Bilateria are animals that are bilaterally symmetrical and Radiata are those animals that are radially symmetrical. These are higher order abstractions of animals beyond phyla. They exemplify biological strategies for metazoan life. Since the animals appear in the Cambrian it has always been assumed the strategies predated the Cambrian. Now that the animals appear earlier than expected it could be that these strategies may have existed long before the Cambrian and the Cambrian presented an opportunity for those strategies to get traction. Once school of thought suggests it was the invention of predation that triggered the explosion. If so, given the new evidence, predation may have caused the explosion but the foundation of the new forms was already in place.

Modern phyla have their roots in the Cambrian and before. However, some phyla did not originate before the Cambrian as has been shown in some recent work published in the spring of 2007 with the discover of Orthrozanclus reburrus. O. reburrus shows a simultaneous strong resemblance to molluscs, annelids and brachiopods suggesting it might be a relative of a common ancestor of those three groups and may clarify the family tree. I'm waiting to see how the embryo mollusc find mentioned above relates to O. reburrus. It could be that the embryos found were not mollusc embryos but the fossil relative (such as O. reburrus) of the three groups.

Moving forward in time we reach the point of land occupation by life. For a long time this was thought to be by primitive plants. However, a report published in the spring of 2007 re-examined that idea. It turns out the original colonizers of the land were not plants but the fungi Prototaxites. A tree like organism that went extinct 350 mYears ago was long thought to be a plant but its microstructure now reveals it to be a fungi. Which makes a great deal of sense. May of the structural components of fungi were ideal for land colonization and, presumably, there was plenty of fodder up there for them to eat. Not to mention there was no competition. When plants got their act together, Prototaxites went extinct.

Some light has been shown on the origin of plants by the sequencing of Chlamydormonas reinhardtii-- a single celled soil dwelling algae. C. reinhardtii has many aspects of both plant and animal. It has flagella and it has a chloroplast. It can move and it can photosynthesize. And it shares in pretty close to equal measure some genes that are found in both plants and animals.

The first plants that hit the ground weren't trees, either. The Bryophyte Physcomitrella patens is a on the border between algae and plants-- presumably the sort of plant that would be best suited for land colonization. To quote John Timmer of Nobel Intent, "If you view Chlamy as lying on the border between algae and animals, you can view Bryophytes as on the border between Chlamy and trees." This moss has been sequenced and the results are interesting in that it shows how the moss is only partly adapted to life on land and what biochemical mechanisms were yet to be developed.

But trees did come later-- more than once, it turns out. The tree strategy-- base trunk, height, crown of material-- showed up in the middle Devonian as exemplified in the Gilboa trees. True trees that we might recognize didn't show up until the latter Devonian. These trees likely didn't use their crowns for photosynthesis but instead probably used them as a mechanism for seed dispersal. A later development, the addition of photosynthesis to the crown, would have outcompeted these organisms. It's not clear to me whether the Gilboa tree was a dead end or precursor to the modern tree. What is clear, however, is that the Gilboa trees were among the first true vascular plants were a component of a Paleozoic forest. They were part of the vanguard that forced poor Prototaxites out of the sky.

Moving forward to our favorite group of ancient animals, the dinosaurs, new species are being discovered right and left. A sauropodomorph (the ancestor group of both the sauropods and theropods) was found in Antarctica. Not only is the location interesting but it sheds light on the debate on sauropodomorph development. It looks like sauropodomorphs and sauropods coexisted for some time-- as did Neanderthals and human beings though for a much longer time. Fossils found in Niger were identified as belonging to a new species of Carcharodontosaurus. This guy would have been one of the biggest carnivores around: 13-14 meters long.

This year also showed the sequencing of the protein bits found in the T. Rex bones back in 2005. Collagen (expected in bone, after all) was sequenced and found to be essentially the same as modern collagen. This shouldn't be surprising since collagen is very conserved across species. But the sequencing itself is big news.

My own personal favorite animals from the saurian period are the great sea monsters: mosasaurs, pleisiosaurs, etc. These animals were just as evolved and interesting as dinosaurs but without their press agents. Pteranodons, another interesting non-dinosaur group, also have this publicity problem.

In 2006, the BBC has started reporting on a new collection of fossils. Big, big, mosasaurs were found. I haven't seen the National Geographic film but I'd like to.

And, finally, the mammals.

One of the continuing hypotheses of the mammalian radiation following the demise of the dinosaurs was that they just barely survived until the dinos died and then they took off. This turns out to be wrong. Apparently, according to sequencing evidence, mammals split between marsupials and placentals about 145 million years ago, went through a number of changes and then things got quiet. About 95 mYears ago, long before the Cretaceous extinction, mammals woke up and started changing again to the point that by 95 mYears ago most of the orders of mammals were in place. This seems to have taken only 10 mYears. Those orders survived the Cretaceous extinction but didn't do much until 15 mYears later. The spike in mammalian diversity coincides with the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) when sea surface temperatures rose 5-8 degrees C in just a few thousand years. (Not re-creating the PETM is what we are trying to avoid by carbon conservation.)

What's odd about this study is it suggests that mammalian evolution was largely unrelated to saurian evolution. This seems strange to me-- after all, dinosaurs occupied virtually every niche except flight. It doesn't make any sense to me that there would be no sign of evolution pressure from competition at all. The scientists involved suggest that instead the driver for evolution in mammals was the global environment.

We live in paleontologically interesting times.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Random Monday Moments

More snow over the weekend. You have a lot of time to think as you push the snowblower on and on and on...

Jan Sokoloff actually commented on one of my essays. She pointed me to an entry over in Sacred Texts that held some of Albert Einstein's essays. Here is the one she pointed me to. My own views on science versus religion versus evolution are on record with some lengthy and unread posts (except by Jan) and I won't bother to reiterate them here. However, it was interesting to note that from Einstein's 1930 essay that the issues have been with us a long time and no less a person than Albert Einstein was unable to solve them. There's very little reconciliation between a person who isn't drawn to church rhetoric and symbolism and and one who is. It's hard to get past the "what I believe is the real deal and you better believe in it, too!" mindset.

But: the February 2008 issue of F&SF is in my hot little hands and there's my name on the cover-- in small letters and towards the bottom of the list but there none the less. James Cambias, a member of the Cambridge SF Workshop, of which I am a member, is also there. In bigger letters and higher on the page.

I can't top the magazine, the snow and reading Einstein. So that's it for now.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Commute From Hell

Commute from Hell

Last night the Northeast was hit by the first real snow for a long time. Certainly it was the first such snowfall of the season. And we have another one tomorrow that may well be worse.

But, as snowfalls go, this one wasn't that bad. I've driven through worse. It wasn't, say, like the Blizzard of 1979 that shut down everything between Chicago and Saint Louis. It wasn't even close to the Blizzard of 1978 which shut down Boston for days. It more resembles the April Fool's Blizzard of 1997, though not as bad. On that April Fool's, in the mid-afternoon, I had a two hour commute. Not bad. I expected it. After all, 20mph, 40 miles. The math isn't that hard.

But yesterday a storm of significantly less intensity hit and the results were much worse.

The problem arose not because of the weather-- which was admittedly bad-- but because of the drivers. People were, for example, aggressively ignoring stoplights. People? Gridlock slows traffic. It doesn't help. But the flaunting of traffic laws wasn't limited to crowds; one SUV I was following whipped through a red light at about forty when there was only a couple of cars about. There was no reason for it save impatience.

There were also people flooring the gas pedal to get up an icy hill, making, you guessed it, more ice. At one point I was sitting behind a Chrysler sedan (buying that car was probably mistake number 1) whipsawing back and forth on a gentle hill, taking up three lanes as the rest of us waited for him to find either traction or flip off the overpass and get out of our way. I went throgh the same patch afterwards with my little Geo metro and just sailed up the hill.

So, here's the Popkes take on driving in snow:

1) Learn to drive your car in all conditions. If you can drive your car in the bright sunshine on dry pavement (questionable for some owners of large SUVs) it doesn't mean you can drive that same car at night on snow covered ice. Go out in a parking lot somewhere and figure it out. If you can't manage an SUV in heavy weather it doesn't matter if it's really fun to drive in nice weather. Get rid of it. If you can't do this, don't drive.

2) If some technique (flooring it on ice leaps to mind) doesn't work, quit doing it. Only psychotics and idiots continue to do the same thing expecting different results. If you can't do this, don't drive.

3) Know the limits of the car in the current conditions. You should be able to feel this. It's a tiny uncertainty in your body that says maybe you're not really in a safe place. Listen to it. Driving on ice is essentially driving on a frictionless surface. It takes very, very little to break the connection and then you're a puck on an air hockey board. Driving on slushy snow isn't like driving on a surface at all. It's driving in a fluid. Turning is more akin to using a rudder than anything else. If you can't do this, don't drive.

4) Slow down. Let me say this again. Slow down. Giving yourself more room to stop doesn't mean adding a couple of feet. In slick conditions it means doubling the space. Tripling it. Slowing down doesn't mean going from 65 to 60. It means going down to 30. If you can't do this, don't drive.

5) Obey the traffic laws. This is, in part, a plea aimed at traffic cops. I know tickets have become a revenue source and speeding tickets the mechanism of choice. But not enforcing most traffic laws in good weather doesn't mean not enforcing all traffic laws in bad weather. In six hours of commuting I did not see a single cop car. Not a single cop directing traffic. A cop either directing traffic at a few intersections would have gone a long way to managing a really, really bad situation. But if you can't obey the traffic laws, don't drive.

6) If you must abandon your car, drive it to the side of the road. (I know. This seems obvious. But last night people were abandoning their cars in the middle of the highway and then the snowplows couldn't do their mostly inadequate job.) If you can't do this, don't drive.

7) Turn off your four wheel drive. 4WD is only really needed in very few circumstances. Think about what happens in a spin. If you have front wheel drive, the front wheels spin and the back wheels act as a drag. If you slow down the car, the front wheels act as a drag and the back wheels are free. In both cases you have one part of the car acting as the center of the spin and the other part of the car acting as a drag on the spin. By changing the drag you can regain control. In rear wheel cars, it's exactly the same except which wheels do what is reversed. It analogous to spinning around a pivot. By altering the nature of the pivot you can change the nature of the spin and regain control.

4WD allows spinning on all four wheels. Where's the pivot? Right in the middle of the car. A 2WD car when it spins looks like it's washing back and forth on the road. A 4WD car spins like a top. You can get the same effect in a 2WD car but you have to be going faster. See #4. If you can't do this, don't drive.

For a lot of the people I saw last night, forget all of the above. Just don't drive.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Fun with IRS

Every now and then you see some sort of policy decision that is so inane that you wonder if you've somehow wandered into the world of the Simpsons or Family Guy.

I don't mean the usual lies, blatant stupidity and outright thievery that can happen in any political environment-- such as the latest Bush Veto-to-protect-Health-Insurance-Companies. (Question: who does "socialized medicine" hurt the most? This is a timed question. Ready. Set. Go.) No, I saying those strange machinations that make you feel you've been dropped by a tornado someplace that is definitely not in Kansas anymore.

The last time (for me, anyway) was the 2005 Kelo v. City of New London decision by the US Supreme Court where it was decided that eminent domain could be used to transfer property from one private owner to another private owner. When is property theft not property theft? When it is sanction by SCOTUS. One of those few times that Scalia and I were on the same side. Only time, actually. Clearly a sign of the End Times.

One interesting wrinkle that fell out of that decision was the proposed construction of the Lost Liberty Hotel to be sited on property owned by Justice Souter. Unfortunately, it failed a ballot initiative.

Well, the government has officially recognized virtual property as, well, property. Turns out one "content creator" for Second Life was stealing products created by other "content creators". The creators sued the thief and a judgement handed down recognized virtual property as property.

What's interesting here is the nature of the decision as I understand it. There is such a thing as intellectual property a recognized by the law. I engage in creating some of it in the form of stories and novels-- for which I have been paid real dollars. The content I provide for a given publisher (a manuscript) bears little resemblence save for the actual words to what is finally published. For an example you can check on the online fiction portion of my website. There is an entry there for a story I wrote called "Winters Are Hard" and two links. One link is to the original location on scifi.com and the other for a pdf of the same story. In that case the words are identical but the formatting, pictures and other bling are very different. The point is that there is a mechanism (copyright) for handling these sorts of conflicts. Given that Second Life exists as miles of computer code, for which copyright has long been recognized, it seems to me that this is the venue to settle these sorts of things.

But the products here are referred to as "merchandise", not works of fiction or computer code but real live things. They have been defined as real property.

There is absolutely no reason not to tax the sales of such things. When you sell something that has no intrinsic value for real dollars the IRS is right there to help. But the IRS is much, much more insidious than that as I found out a few years ago.

Now that it is viewed as real property it can be taxed.

Say you have this pretty little condo you built in Second Life. You own it. Can your town put an excise tax on it? Can it be an asset against which you can make a loan? Can it be collateral for a mortgage? If buy it at one value and sell it at another, is it taxed as income or as capitol gains?

Oh, this is fun!

Can there be virtual inflation? Can you claim a loss if the virtual space station you bought and intended to make into a night club (Not making this up. Check here.) goes bankrupt? For that matter, can virtual property be claimed in a bankruptcy proceeding? If you go bankrupt in Second Life (does SL have bankruptcy?) does it affect your credit rating in your real life? Can you have virtual stock on the NYSE? I wonder if you could have the voting shares in a virtual stock market and the non-voting shares in a real stock market.

We can go further.

Children are not really property in the classic sense of the word. But you can have custody of them and such custody can be determined in a court of law. On the internet no one knows you're a dog. And in Second Life, no one knows the dog is a child. So, if Real Child A is the child of Real Parents A & B but is also Virtual Child X, child of Virtual Parents Y & Z. VP Y and VP Z get divorced and fight bitterly over VC X. Maybe RP A and RP B aren't so happy about that. Does Real Child A (also VC X) go through the same trauma of a regular divorce? That means RP A and RP B have to deal with that. Can they sue VP Y & Z for pain and suffering?

Oh, I can't wait.

Monday, December 10, 2007

irrelevance

Two scientists in the UK have come to the conclusion that climate goals are unattainable. Which brings us back to the climate depression post I made last week. The problem appears to be that while people are talking the talk in public, they are not walking the walk. The reasons span from not understanding what's going on, not wanting to pony up the cost or not caring.

As I sad before: this is a management problem not a technical one.

Wind farms are big now. Up here in New England they're running into rough water. Turns out that people would rather be liberal in name only (LINO) and have their ocean view instead of losing part of the view and actually doing something about carbon emissions. People like the Kennedys, who don't want their Hyannis view sullied. My heart bleeds. They're going to try windfarms in the UK and may well have better luck. There are also attempts at harnessing ocean energy. (See here.) But they have run afoul of fishermen.

Eventually, technology may well have to step in where politicians fear to tread. Hopefully, they'll be able to.

However, there are a couple of interesting brain articles that might shed light on this problem. Some brain researchers have developed a model of how the brain learns from its mistakes. (See here.) In addition, another group of researchers have an idea how the brain tunes out irrelevalent distractions. (See here.)

All this gives us hope we can learn from our mistakes if we can manage to quit finding climate change irrelevant.


Neat Science Category:
See how the Death Valley pupfish changes phenotype to suit the environment here.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Survival of Democracy

It's in the news that Putin's party won big time by stuffing ballot boxes and intimidating voters. It's also in the news that nobody much cared. The country is stable. People aren't being shot in the streets. What's wrong with only getting the party line?

The big conclusion is that Russia is returning to a Soviet style dictatorship.

Is that a bad thing?

Before the nails get hammered to far in, let me say I like living in a democracy. I don't care much for the current demonstration-- I remember a time when an American could visit other countries and not get spit on. But I digress. As Churchill said, there's not much to recommend democracy except it's better than any other form.

I agree with that as it's stated. However, I also agree with the notion that "not as good" is not the same as "reprehensibly bad". A bad government can be bad regardless of type. The government that ruled the antebellum south was in fact a democracy if you were not a slave. All voting systems determine who is eligible to vote. We do it now. The Greeks defined voting privileges by owning property. In this case, slaves were constitutionally defined to be non-citizens. Further, the slaves were badly treated both before emancipation and afterwards. I think we can consider the whole United States from the point of view of a slave as a bad democracy. But if that's too controversial, we can certainly label slaveholding states as bad democracies. Certainly, the governments of Stalin and Hitler could be considered bad governments and they were not democracies at all. By contrast, was the government of Augustus Caesar, certainly non-democratic by our definition, a good government? I submit that it was.

So: my initial idea is whether a government is good or bad is independent of its mechanism. Perhaps a democracy might do better in the long roun or worse, but I'm not pursuing that.

Good government can go bad and bad government can become worse. A truism, right?

One great corrupter of government is war, not from the conquering army but in the fire of self-destruction. Often allied with this corruption is an unwavering ideology. This one-two punch of preparing for war and driven by an unwavering ideology is what I think sunk the Soviet Union. In fact, we're seeing it now. Putin is doing fine. He's operating in about the same level of control as Krushchev. Putin is no Hitler or Stalin but he is in control and Russia is not a democracy any more than the Soviet Union was. The Soviet Union had elections, too.

What makes the Putin of Russia different from the Krushchev of the Soviet Union is two fold: 1) He is unfettered by any inconvenient ideology such as Communism. 2) He knows the West will not invade.

It's hard today to realize how the Soviet Union from the moment of it's creation was under attack both by other countries and by insurgents. Nobody in Europe liked the Czar but when he was deposed, Europeans liked Communism less. It was viewed as a threat to Capitalism. It was viewed as a threat to stability-- here was a revolution on their very doorstep. The Soviet Union was born in a state of war and never left it. Even after we were allies in World War II as soon as the ink drie on the treaties we were telling the Soviets how bad we thought they were.

Not to say Stalin wasn't an evil and despicable man. He was. Not to say he didn't kill millions of people. He did. But he died. And when Krushchev came to power-- a very different man from Stalin-- we painted him with the same brush. We see it now. What keeps Fidel in power? We do by telling Cuba what a terrible threat he is we put Fidel in the wonderful position of saying: Look. I am all that stands between you and the Americanos. Support me because the alternative is worse.

Speaking of Fidel, Cuba is another country that has kept itself on a war footing for nearly fifty years. The country has nearly been bankrupted by it. I submit that Raul Castro has been able to soften Cuba's position not only because Fidel is sick but because the United States has been trumped by the global market which does not view Cuba as a threat. I predict, though, that if the US does not back down from stupidly continuing to marginalize Cuba, Raul or his successor might return to the psuedo-wartime rhetoric of Fidel.

No country's economy or quality of life can stand being on a war footing for long without severe damage.

The US put an enormous amount of pressure on Nicaragua in the eighties-- compromising our own constitution to do so-- just so the Sandinistas could lose by 41% to 55% in 1990. Bush I thought this was great, neglecting after ten years of war, the fall of the Soviet Union and a series of natural disasters 41% still thought the Sandinistas were the right government. It was rarely pointed out that the Sandinistas ceded power without violence-- something that should not have happened if they had been the terrible villains they were described to be. The return to power of the Sandinistas in 2006 was never mentioned in the news.

One reason Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became and remains President of Iran is based on how he is treated and continues to be treated by the West. Certainly, he's a buffoon. But so what? We have our own buffoon and we demand he be treated with respect. The President of Iran deserves no less and by not doing so we are one of the reasons he remains in power.

Israel also has problems of being on a war footing for sixty years. But I won't discuss Israel in this post. It's too big a subject.

Given all of the above, why are we surprised by excesses of Bush and Cheney? We have allowed ourselves to be put on a war footing. To be duped into a stupid war in Iraq and thereby ignore a legitimate conflict in Afghanistan. We are being pushed around by exactly the same rhetoric used by Putin, Ahmadinejad and Reagan.

Put a country on a war footing and bad things happen. The best that can be hoped for is to keep it short and dump stupidity whenever we see it.

That's
the reason that democracy is the best of the bunch. Because we can.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Climate Depression

The climate change news this week is pretty much universally bad. We have a meeting in Bali that will likely not produce much in the way of actual change even though there is now added urgency after the recent UN Report. One of the big problems that has to be addressed hasn't gotten much press: deforestation, which accounts for as much as 25% of the greenhouse gas problem. Fewer forests, fewer uptake of carbon. The knock on effect of melting ice is now better known. The news is bad here, too. Turns out open ocean absorbs nearly 10 times as much heat as sea ice and since there's a lot of melting going on, there's a lot more open ocean. There are additional effects of climate change. One is the increase in glacier floods. This is the sort of thing that scoured the scablands in Oregon and caused those big floods in Iceland a few years back. Well, they're a consequence of getting warm. No surprise there.

Marginal environments are the first to show changes. One study has been in the mountains of Spain, where the ranges of butterfly species have been creeping up in altitude as the weather warmed. Another shows how the tropics are expanding. Humans (notably Americans) don't really believe what's going on unless it's in their own back yard. But the Spanish research suggests that the canary in the coal mine isn't going to be in your garden; it'll be uphill. Or in the ocean.

There was actually some hope that with the additional CO2 there would be a larger sink in the ocean in the form of marine phytoplankton. Such phytoplankton account for about 50% of the global biological uptake of CO2. With elevated CO2, the hope was this biological pump would become stronger. A Norwegian experiment to determine if this would occur. This results were somewhat ambiguous as the experiment produced some unexpected behavior. (The article is here.) However, a couple of conclusions that could be drawn. The increase in uptake of CO2 isn't going to take care of the problem on its own and, in fact, will not have a large impact. The second is showing that the ocean is not going to just sit there and not react to the CO2 increase. The ocean is dynamic and will react dynamically and, as shown in the experiment, unexpectedly. There's even talk of burying CO2 from coal plants beneath the Firth of Forth.

The discussion appears to be shifting away from mere conservation to active carbon capture. I have to view this with some sadness since it's not attacking the problem at its source: human production of carbon.

However, as my friend Erik noted, we're seeing a curious moment in time where the CO2 emissions come from a source ostensibly under our control. Other, similar CO2 eruptions were not generated from human beings. The Deccan Traps, for example, spewed CO2 into the air for millions of years when India slammed into the backside of Asia and caused the Himalayas. His point is regardless of how we get through this current CO2 problem, if we survive we are sure to eventually encouter exactly the same problem but when the source is out of our control.

Several articles have been coming out dealing with carbon capture. First, it has to be determined if we need to-- I think we do for the above reasons. Alex Thompson has a two letters in Nature discussing this. (Here and here.) Olive Heffernan has a letter discussing how to assist the natural weathering process and clean the ocean at the same time.

These are big, big problems. Heffernan's article talks about a huge amount of seawater that has to be processed. But having to approach a management problem with a technical solution has all of the marks of failure. Add in the difficulty of dealing with large problems through large institutions, such as governments and large multinational corporations, and it's easy to get depressed.

Enough sad posts. Next I'll talk about puppies or something. Or truffles.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Scams

Lobotomies are interesting operations. The surgery involves the prefrontal cortex being disconnected from the rest of the brain. Patients who've had a lobotomy are no less intelligent than they were before but they are unable to determine significance properly.

When lobotomies were done originally, the prefrontal lobe of the cortex was actually removed. Later, when the operation was refined, it was discovered that mere severing of the connection between the thalamus and the prefrontal lobe was enough to cause the same result. The thalamus is one of the oldest sections of the brain. It is in the archaecortex, something we have in common with lizards. The mechanism that determines the use of our great intelligence operates in service of the oldest and most primitive section of the brain. Intelligence is a tool and need not be used intelligently. We choose whether or not to be stupid.

The choice to be stupid shows up everywhere, from public policy to religion. Often it happens when we desire a particular outcome so much that we will change our perception of the facts to suit the desire. Religion, Amway and Nigerian Bankers are built on this.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in psuedoscience, whether it is in the service of parting a fool from his money or parting the taxpayers from theirs. Money, it seems, is often the attractive means by which our substantial intelligence is subverted.

Nobel Intent has a good article on the debunking of some psuedoscience. In this case, it is the whole cause-of-autism debate that's now been around a few years. I find this one particularly noisome since it preys not just on greed and gullibility but also on legitimate parental concerns for their children.

Recall for the moment the mercury link with autism-- a linkage thoroughly debunked some time back. (See here.) Now, the same sort of folks are linking WiFi to autism. (See here.) The fact of the debunking is not so surprising. Science tends to be self-regulating in the long term. That's the beauty of it. The sad part is the way it needed to be debunked. If you read the original article you can just tell it's bogus. I won't go into why-- the Nobel intent article referenced above does a much better job. But the same impulse that drives people to give bank account numbers to Nigerian scams is at work. If it's too good to be true (or if it scares parents enough), it probably isn't true. Or at least it should take some thought to determine if it's true.

This isn't limited to parental fear or greed. Sometimes it's just poking at people's preconceptions. I had the misfortune to catch one side of a conversation a while back on the scientific conspiracy regarding global warming. This is on the same order of the medical conspiracy for vaccination. Or the biologist conspiracy against God when investigating evolution.

If you don't like what you see; make something up. If you can make a buck doing it, go for it. Somebody will unhook their prefrontal cortex and pay.

Friday, November 30, 2007

News on the Home Front

There are few more hostile (and fascinating) environments on the face of the earth than Antarctica. Landsat, that venerable satellite system of the seventies, has released an Antarctic mapping site. Here you can crawl over Antarctica to your heart's content. Likely it will penetrate Google maps shortly if it hasn't already.

On another note, if you've been getting a lot of CT scans lately (as I have) you might have been sanguine about the radiation risk. Don't be reassured! CT scans have now come under radiation scrutiny. I'm thinking of getting my own dosimeter.

Ubergizmo gave a couple of interesting entries this morning: Turns out the Army is considering using non-pilots to pilot their new Sky Warrior UAVs. Interesting. Another issue that has been discussed over at AOPA is how to integrate UAVs into the civilian airspace in order to watch the borders. One wonders if these two issues might collide in the future.

If you need a loo in London (just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?) there's now a texting service that aids you in your search. I don't have anything to say about it. Check it out for yourself.

And, finally, Nature puts out a science fiction. If you're interested in science vs. fiction, here is the place to check.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Artifice of the Real

There's an old Zen Koan that goes something like this: A warlord is walking up the steps to a temple. He is contemplating himself, his world, thinking about the temple, etc. A monk runs out of the temple, rushes down the steps to the warlord and slaps him hard across the face, crying "Wake up!"

Often, when I'm reading the news or listening to people on the train I'm tempted to exercise the Zen Monk Option.

There's a conflict at the heart of the American experience between the subjective and the objective, the trivial and the real. When the nation was riveted to the artificial drama of OJ's bronco wandering down the highway, I would have slapped my hands bloody walking down the street. Wake up! This is not real.

Well, it turns out I am not only not alone in this style of perception. I need the ZMO myself.

Phillip Ball has an interesting book review in Nature entitled "Is technology unnatural?" What is the boundary between natural and artifice? Check it out. He crawls right to the heart of the matter of where that boundary is drawn.

Greg Bear, in the same issue, takes on the state of artificial life. Again: the artificial versus the real. You can read it here. When is life the product of artifice?