Thursday, March 27, 2008

Links of Interest

Again, no opinion from me. I'm tired.
The Flim Flam Man
Death of Homo economicus
Hearing that which was never intended to be heard
2008 Wellcome Image Awards
Organic crops compete with standard agriculture
Rocket Plane
Everything at once or one thing at a time?
Dino Bugs
Expelled Exposed

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Links of Interest

Nothing much from the last few days. Here are some interesting links.

Arthur C Clark dead at 90
wobbling neutron stars
genetic link to PTSD
chemistry of uranium
UAVs in Antarctica
All Your T-Cells Belong To Us

Wrighting Wrongs

It's odd that an atheist such as myself keeps coming back to theology and religion. I do think religion attempts to answer important questions. But, like all symbolic organizations, the problem is confusing symbol with substance. Much like politics. Much like the media. Which brings us to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

I listened to Wright's "hate" sermon that's been making the media rounds-- notably on Fox News. Since Sean Hannity dislikes him and thinks he's unamerican my first inclination is to think Wright must be on to something. After all, somebody disliked by Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh can't be all bad. I heard him compare the 9/11 deaths at the hands of terrorists to the nuclear bombings in Japan. The comparison between these two acts and the implications that both are acts of terror was obvious: "The stuff we have done overseas is brought right back into our homes."

And the controversy is... where?

There's a long standing controversy over the Japanese bombings. After all, when thousands of people disappear in and instant with nothing left but a sooty shadow on a wall it leaves a psychological mark. I'll not debate the necessity of the bombing-- that's been debated many different places. But it was an act of terror and planned that way. Truman said it. Eisenhower said it. The intent to use the bombs was to scare the Japanese government into surrender. They had to think we were ready to obliterate them. That it was bluff (we had only two bombs) was immaterial. So, yes: it was an act of terror. Like all acts of terror, it was a dramatic act. An act of theater. The Japanese government was the audience. The theatrical act was effective.

It's also no secret that we created Osama bin Laden in a similar manner to Saddam Hussein. Hussein was seen as a bulwark of anti-communism and as such supported for years. Little things like the fact he was a murdering dictator wasn't considered germane. Bin Laden's education as a terrorist came with our blessing in when he was a mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Russians. Since he was fighting our enemy (the enemy of our enemy is our friend sort of thing), he was our guy.

Again, where's the problem with Wright? Sure he's a fiery preacher and states things strongly. He's not saying anything that hasn't been said before.

Wright's problem-- or rather, the public's problem with Wright-- is that he's speaking truth to power. Not to politicians, necessarily, though they are in the audience of his church. But to the bland symbolic representation of ourselves we like to believe.

We like to think of ourselves as a democracy or a republic-- and our political system reflects dominance by a popular majority. However, the framers understood that in addition to tyranny by individuals there is also tyranny of the majority. Majority rule, minority rights, as the saying goes. They understood that humans are herd animals and do not like to be poked where they are most smug. We want to believe ourselves to be the best, brightest, most free and smiled upon by God.

Americans are particularly prone to being smug about themselves. We have it made. We live in the biggest economy in the world, the freest society and the most sophisticated culture in the world. That the economy is built on borrowing from other countries, not everyone is as free as some and many of the world's cultures are appalled at our ignorance isn't something we want to hear. We especially dislike being called hypocrites. We hate that.

It's a minister's job to poke his parishioners right in the eye. A minister is supposed to bear your problems to the sight of the congregation and God so they can be corrected. This is a founding tenet of liberation theology, the idea that it's not enough to set store in heaven. You have to take care of people here as well. Martin Luther King knew that. So did Ghandi. So did Jesus: "Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven." (Luke 18:22)

The job of the minister in this country, like many things, has become blandified. Hell and brimstone preachers are perfectly happy with those that are saved at the communion rail on Sunday regardless of how rich or powerful they are the rest of the week. Ministers to more affluent churches make homilies that give minimal insight but great comfort to people with more stuff than anybody else on earth. Priests are scandalized by social injustices that are happening thousands of miles away or are of minimal cultural importance. Wright speaks from a culture of those who were bought and sold a hundred and fifty years ago. Who had lost their names and country. Who had lost their original religion. Who are even now the most jailed group in the country. What a surprise he might poke at the prevailing white wisdom.

Is it safe to say such things? Not particularly. Is it politic to have them referred to in a presidential campaign? Not at all. Is everything going to be cut but the twenty or so seconds that most demonizes this impolitic minister so that any rational judgment of the man is impossible without any data but we'll do it anyway because we don't like what he has to say?


Links of Interest

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Links of Interest

No opinion pieces today. Laurie Garret wrote The Coming Plagues. Her view of humans as an exploitable resource for bacteria is disturbing. The Tsunami piece shows that what happened in 365 AD might happen again. New small island humans open up the Hobbits again. Bird eggs show contamination from a bunch of pollutants.

There you go.

Links of Interest
Laurie Garret on Global Health
Tsunami, AD 365
More small island humans
Music and Math
Dextre: The ISS Robot
Foreign Chemicals in Bird Eggs
Chemical Control of Nanobots
Craig Venter at TED
Myth of the Hydrogen Economy
Rational Athiesm
Darwin's Duomo
How the T-Cell got its spots
How academia was broken
Bioethanol from Waste

Humans on the March

The news today is mixed and disturbing.

Monkeys have been shown to combine sounds to communicate. Combining sounds is a human trait and thought to arise in humans when the number of sounds used to indicate surrounding circumstances exceeded the capacity of a human to make those sounds. However, these Nigerian monkeys do not have a large vocabulary. Chimps and Gorillas have been shown to combine symbols when signing but not sounds.

Pollution has been shown to affect brain processing. Scientists have known when nanoparticles were inhaled they did reach the brain. Brain activity had not been shown to be affected. This experiment put groups in two rooms, one that mimicked the exhaust by the side of the road and one not. The group that were exposed to the exhaust room showed stress response for up to an hour after exposure. Makes you wonder about what's going to happen at the Chinese Olympics later this year.

Staying with nanoparticles for the moment, as in viruses, an HIV study reported today that just because the level of virus is extremely low in HIV patients responding to treatment doesn't mean these patients are cured. HIV is even more adept at hiding within the body than scientists had thought. Even small amounts of the virus only bespeak how well the virus is hiding, not how well it is under control. Therefore, patients under treatment should be considered infectious even if they test negative for HIV.

Continuing with disease for the moment. Remember Gulf War Syndrome? Remember how it wasn't really a disease according to the government? Vindication may come late but it does often come, as reported today from the BBC. Turns out it exists after all and is apparently linked to an anti-nerve gas agent given to the troops. At least it's not due to the depleted Uranium. ... Or is it?

Finally, from the People-can-be-cruel-beyond-imagination department comes this tidbit. I'm not even going to try to paraphrase it. Here's the abstract:

"In this article we have described 25 year-old female student of the University of Gdańsk, treated for eight years because of depression and for four years because of anorexia nervosa, who to commit suicide had taken 50 tablets of carbamazepine (Tegretol CR á 200 mg), 30 tablets of clonazepam (Clonazepamum á 0.5 mg) and 50 tablets of flupentixol (Fluanxol á 3.0 mg). In 1999 the patient got an internet (IRC) contact with a person introducing herself as a 26 year-old lonely student. After getting acquainted with the life history of the patient she had systematically encouraged the patient to commit suicide. Almost everyday she used to send the patient instructions regarding the best way to kill herself. On parent's request, after the patient regained consciousness in the Clinic, the case was sent to public prosecutor's office. It was found, that the person who urged the girl to commit suicide was a 33 year-old married woman, fascinated by psychology and parapsychology."

Friday, March 7, 2008

A (Mostly) Happy Day

The news has been interesting so far this week. Of course it's only Monday.

On the down side, an AP probe has found a whole complex of things in our drinking water. This includes, but is not limited to, sex hormones, pain killers, anti-epileptics, etc. I found this interesting since waterways in general (as well as farm animals) are a major source of antibiotic resistance. As noted in the link of farm animals, profligate use of antibiotics in feed is considered by many to be the major source of antibiotic resistant pathogens. Next time you go to the doctor, he might refuse to prescribe antibiotics because they might cause antibiotic resistance. It's happened to me. Though the quoted science isn't exactly wrong, the physician is in fact being put in the position of changing treatment to respond to a problem originating in the agricultural industry. The AP probe suggests that now we're inadvertently adding additives to our own "feed" in a way similar to the way we added things to the "feed" of our domestic animals.

On the up side, a bacteria discovered in the Chesapeake Bay might help with ethanol production. Turns out Saccarophagus degradans, a bacteria that likes what other organisms don't, is in part responsible for the degradation of cellulose in the marine environment. Which makes sense if you think about it. All that brush that washes down the rivers into the sea over millions of years goes somewhere. Apparently, a substantial portion is eaten by S. degredans. A company has been made to culture/modify the bacteria so that any dead cellulose can be turned into alcohol. One wonders 1) how the organism decides that cellulose is dead and why all the trees in the world weren't turned into gray goo and 2) if it's limited to cellulose or if it can be used to help solve the problems discovered in the AP probe mentioned above. Regardless, it's pretty hopeful.

Going further afield, an X-ray burst caught by the NASA Swift satellite has suggested a signature of a supernova. Apparently, the X-rays are emitted prior to the visible explosion. I expect this might have implications in understanding the mechanics of how supernovas occur. But regardless, a continuing low cost scan of stellar X-rays gives us warnings of when we might see one and that alone should generate a significant amount of data.

You would think a way of predicting supernovas would be the topper. But not today.

TheWilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) experiment is trying to detect variations in the original Big Bang microwave signature. It's been going on for a bit and now the WMAP group has some interesting conclusions. Nobel Intent has digested it for us here. One of the things determined was a much more accurate universe age (13.7 billion years, +/- 120 million years). The other are physical constraints that must be explained by theory. Sometimes I think the limitations within which a scientist must work are more important that the possibilities.

You would think that would be the topper. But not today.

In the past I've had issues with religion-- some of which I've shared in this blog. However, even groups having the most disparate of opinions can coalesce around a common goal. Given that, I am extremely happy to report the following: in a recent report on the BBC, the Southern Baptist Convention have decided the evidence for the human origin of global warming is "substantial". What's even better is they came to this conclusion for the best of reasons: human stewardship of the planet.

Links of Interest

Animal Artistry

It's easy to appreciate our own sense of esthetics. The examples are too numerous to mention but here's one: Jack Rouse, a designer of public spaces. We're so talented that we even dress up dowdy science museums.

We are, however, in many ways more like other animals than unique to ourselves. It's been a continuing question whether or not animals can actually be artists.

Chimps have been touted as artists for some time and the current artiste, Moja, is in a similar vein. She is supposed to be a representational artist. I don't see it. Especially since one of her paintings is "named" "Name This". More is said of the humans wanting the ape to be an artist than the ape itself.

But there is something to this, I think, even though it's not the obvious human invention. Evolution works with what the animal has to derive what the animal becomes. The impulse and ability that makes humans natural artists were present in our ancestors either directly or as a latent side effect of what now are. Therefore, it should not be surprising that a chimp would be able to ability to discern something it finds pleasing in light and color. I think Moja's "representational art" is a stretch but if an animal likes the curve of a wing, for example, it's not too much of a stretch that it would also like the curve of a drawing that resembles a wing. Saying that the chimp intended the drawing to mean "wing" is too big a jump for me.

What, then, to we make of the efforts of an elephant? This is exactly the point being discussed in today's Bioephemera-- Jessica Palmer's sciene blog. Palmer referenced several articles worthy of interest. Notably, Gisela Kaplan's article in Cerebrum.

There are a number of points that Kaplan emphasizes that are interesting. Elephants, for example, are quite able to paint and paint pictures that humans find esthetically pleasing. Here are a collection of prints for sale at the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project. Many of them are quite pretty. But what does the elephant mean by them, if anything? Elephants don't see the same range of colors we do-- they resemble two visual pigment color blind humans. Humans with this disability discern only two primary colors, blue and yellow, and do not see intermediate colors between the two. Consider the collection of prints referenced earlier with this limitation. There are pure blue and yellow colors in the prints and blends of red and yellow. What are the elephants seeing?

Chimps and humans are much more closely related than humans and elephants but think about how art reflects culture. We have all seen souveniers exhibited to us by our traveller friends: little African woodcarvings, Mexican God's Eye yarn constructions, Japanese teapots. Put aside for the moment such items being built exclusively for export and think how they appear to the Masai? The Mayan? The Zen Monk? Do we actually see the art at all? And this is from our own species.

We know that both chimps and elephants have something we label culture. Chimps have different tools in different bands, interact in different ways depending on which group is observed. Therefore, if there was some proto-art being created it might have meaning within that band we would not be able to see without the context of experience of that band. It would be an interesting experiment to take the chimps in Africa (or in Antwerp, for that matter) and have them paint regularly and observe events that occur in the band to see if those events have any reflection in the "art" being produced. I have no idea if this experiment has been done.

Elephants, too, have culture. We know, for example, that elephants are responding to human incursion and aggression by acts of aggression of their own. (See here.)

What's interesting about Moja, for example, is she can also sign. Moja tells her keepers what she's drawn. There are significant criticisms of the whole signing movement with great apes but there is, here, some conversation about what Moja has done. As I said before, her labelling the art as, for example, a bird, may or may not be representative. At least, as we think of representation-- humans are always confusing symbols with substance.

Koko, the gorilla, also painted. The Gorilla Foundation shows some here. Apple Chase is ostensibly about a black and white dog named Apple. Sure enough, the painting is black and white. Koko's Bird looks sort of like a bird. It also looks like an F-15. Michael Shermer has a long talk at TED how humans see what they want to see. Determination that the paintings of the elephants, Moja and Koko are art is further complicated by the fact these paintings are all for sale. They are fund raising mechanisms and selected to be the most pleasing to human beings. The equation is fairly clear. Humans make Art. These animals make Art. Therefore, these animals are like Humans. Give money.

Bowerbirds also use objects to attract a possible mate. They put a great deal of time into the effort and each has an apparently clear idea of what constitutes attractiveness. Humans find this activity very compelling to the point that a performance group has named itself for them. See here. There's an artistic raven in Russia. If you can penetrate the cyrillic, the site is here. Birds are the last relic of dinosaurs and split from the line that produced mammals over 200 million years ago. Given that either bowerbirds came up with this "esthetic" sense de novo or it came from a common wellspring that mammals share. Since we don't know what it really a sense of esthetics is, it's nearly impossible to speculate.

But we do know what it does. Chimps like to paint. They get upset if interrupted before they are finished. It's not clear if the chimps just like the extra attention or if they like the painting itself-- but consider human motivations. Do artists make art because of the act of creation or because other humans appreciate it? Maybe one, maybe the other, maybe both. Certainly, bowerbirds will get upset when their creations are disturbed. Perhaps elephants do as well. I didn't find any indication of such in the literature but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

My own feeling is that if we share tool using, joy and love with other animals, why not an esthetic sense as well? It in no way diminishes us, with our edifices of art the size of mountains, to say that we share it with an elephant wielding a paintbrush.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Terrific Human Animal

While the normal amount of grungy science and doom have been crossing my desk of late, I'm still disinclined to comment on them. Recent primaries notwithstanding, there are larger issues of inspiration and imagination to be considered. Sometimes I think such topics will change our way of thinking about the tough problems we do face. Other times I think it's just fiddling while Rome burns.

Regardless, it's very interesting fiddling.

Most intelligence studies have involved primates. This isn't too surprising. The only species that has demonstrable intelligence is our own, in part because we define intelligence as something we do. It's the scientific equivalent of the definition of art: if I look at it and decide it's art, it's art. Similarly, we look at our own accomplishments and define intelligence. Once Darwin comes along and shows us we have actual relatives, it's a natural thing to look to them as mirrors.

The recent Nova episode, Ape Genius, goes a little further than most. Often in such documentaries there's a sort of embarrassed, back door conservationist theme. A sort of Watergate recording problem:

Narrator: "Look at those guys. They're just like us."
Pause as the director is pointing desperately at the mike. The narrator, getting the hint, leans close to the microphone and intones,
"And wouldn't it be a shame if they just disappeared. We should conserve them."

Ape Genius doesn't bother. The show isn't about apes. Its about what humans are and what makes them different from apes. The only criticism is how chimpanzee-centric the show is. I would have liked a bit more on orangutans and gorillas. Even so, the show is well worth watching but in case you don't watch it, I'll give you a hint: teaching, impulse control and encouragement aren't so prevalent in chimps.

But intelligence isn't the sole province of primates. Animal cognition has been studied in elephants, cetaceans, birds and cephalopods with varying results. The variation, in my opinion, often comes from trying to generalize a feature of one species (humans) against another species that doesn't necessarily have hands, upright posture or language.

To this list of apparently intelligent animals now comes hyenas. Kay Holecamp has been studying hyenas for some time and finds in them a fair intelligence. The jury is still out on how intelligent they are since laboratory studies have not yet been performed but her findings are intriguing. In the article she comments on selection for intelligence as a community function-- something that would dovetail neatly with elephants, cetaceans and birds. Possibly this is a vertebrate model since it does not fit with cephalopods. Squids, octopi and cuttlefish they have no community to speak of.

To investigate this eventually brings us back to human beings, a truly interesting animal. I've spoken of TED (Technology Entertainment Design) before. Two talks came across my desk that truly brought home how interesting humans are. The first is the talk of Steve Jervetson, Venture Capitalist by Day, Rocket Aficionado by Weekend. He belongs to the Rocket Mavericks, a fairly motley crew of model rocketeers. Watching his talk is an excursion into excitement of things forced supersonic and (sometimes) exploding.

The second talk is very recent. This is Roy Gould's talk on the World Wide Telescope, coming out later this year. The WWT takes all of the astronomical pictures available and blends them into one seamless whole so that a user can look at a section of sky and go as deep as the data exists, seeing galaxies in a smudge, suns in the galaxies and gas around the suns. As Gould says, this shows our relative size to the universe but it also shows our significance in that we have created the means by which this universe can be perceived. That we do something like this at all says something truly wonderful about humans. That it is sponsored by Microsoft says that there is something truly wonderful about humans everywhere.