Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tarp Surfing

Who knew? Check here.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Book View Café News

Book View Café Holds 30th on the 30th Contest for Fool's Paradise

To celebrate the 30 years of marriage of BVC member Jennifer Stevenson and her stagehand husband, on Friday, July 30th, BVC is holding a 30th on the 30th contest. BVC will be launching episode 30 of Stevenson's stagehand romance, Fools Paradise, and giving out a free, complete copy (including the ending) to the 30th person who reads the episode and can find the answer to the following contest question:

What type of women do stagehands typically marry?

Find the answer in Episode 30 at the BVC site.

Send your answer to []. Thirtieth responder gets a free, complete copy of Fools Paradise—including the ending.

Shortest Joke in the World: Truth in Politics

(Picture from here.)

Politics is a rough game. But it gets almost impossible when the politicians (both in office and trying to get in office) start lying.

I have a little trouble with "misstatements". A lot of these are out and out, bald face, up front, in your face lies.

A few examples.

The Democratic Primary for New York City happens on September 14. The current rep, Carolyn Maloney, is being challenged by Reshma Saujani-- who, I think from the pictures, suffers from Bush Smirk Syndrome. Be that as it may be, Saujani has been out and out lying. (See here.) Maloney might not be the right person for the job but Saujani looks no better.

Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman are competing to be California Governor. Both sides are lying about the other. Further, the supporters of both sides are lying about the other. Brown's side says Whitman has "done nothing for the middle class" which is patently false. For her part, Whitman's camp says much of California's woes are Brown's fault. Which is kind of tough since the decisions that got them there happened after he left office. (See here and here.)

Republicans like to hit Harry Reid. No surprise there. A PAC says Nevada got bottom of the barrel when it came to the stimulus money. (Interesting attack since the stimulus money was roundly attacked by Republicans. Their motto appears to be: "We hate that stimulus money. Give us more." But what of that.) Not entirely true-- Nevada is 43rd, not 50th as they claim. Even so, it's hard to blame Reid for it since the money is driven by formulas. (See here and here.)

In New York it's Democrat vs. Democrat. In the Georgia governor's race it's Republican vs. Republican. However, here, as in New York, deceit rules. Karen Handel has been annointed by Sarah Palin as her choice. It's with mixed feelings that I report she's under attack by John Oxendine. I don't mind the attack but Oxendine is lying. He misquotes an article describing skyrocketing budgets since 1997 attributing it to her after she'd been in office three months. He claims she funded abortions when she did not. (See here.)

When they get interviewed on television, they're not worth watching. (See here and here.)

Too many to count:
Obama here. Wisconsin Senate race here. Florida Governor's race here. Colorado Democratic Senate primary here.

What's strange is these guys say this and expect not to get caught by it. I just ran briefly over (bless them!) to get the above. It's easy to catch them. Pretty much, with the internet, fact checking is pretty easy. You have to rate the good sources (, etc) over lesser sources, journalists over bloggers who don't reveal their sources, bloggers over tea baggers and pretty much anybody over Ann Coulter. See? It's easy.

So: either people take what is being said without critical thought, have already made up their mind without facts or just don't care.

I don't know which is more scary.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

When the Sea Saved Humanity

Life was good 200,000 years ago. The climate was mild. Food was plentiful. We were happy.

Then, things went in the toilet. The climate went bust. Things dried up.

We almost died out.

But fortunately, we learned how to get some food from the ocean down in South Africa.

That's the gist of an online exhibit over at Scientific American on line.

Go check it out.

Monday, July 26, 2010

About "Winters Are Hard"

Winters Are Hard goes up over at Book View Cafe today.

WAH appeared on in 2002. It stayed up there for a long time-- long after the branch of the SciFi Channel quit publishing original literate science fiction. It's nice to have it hosted again.

I'd been working on a future history (the file is called "The Howard Cycle") for a long time.

Yeah, I know. What can I say? I grew up reading Heinlein. For all his faults Heinlein was one of the first popular SF writers that wrote within a framework that existed outside the published work. Nowadays, that's common.

I'm convinced that technology gets most interesting is when the line is blurs between what is human and what is human technology. That's part of WAH and, not surprisingly, a center piece of of the Howard Cycle.

Of course, I wrote WAH before Apples iPod and iPhone. Consequently, my idea of humans blurring the line between themselves and technology involved surgical changes. The way people interact with technology now suggests that the line can be washed away without messy medical procedures.

WAH was the first story of mine that was placed firmly in the Howard Cycle. It hasn't been the last.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Protozoan Inside Us

If you've ever looked through a microscope anytime in biology class you've seen cilia. Cilia are the tiny hairs that cover some cells and enable movement. Often, the example is a protozoan and often those protozoans are Paramecium. If there's a single "hair" it's calls a flagellum. If there are a lot, they're are called cilia. A single hair among cilia is a cilium. The plural of flagellum is flagella. Thus, we dispense with psuedogreek.

But cilia aren't limited to protozoans. The movement of invading particles out of the lungs is accomplished by cilia. Cilia are rendered still or damaged by nicotine, another of the many blessings of cigarettes. Sperm, desperately seeking ovum, wend their desperate way by use of a flagellum.

Peter Satir has been studying cilia since the sixties. The Scientist has a lovely retrospective article about his research here. I'm not going to follow his history here-- which is very interesting and I recommend it. Instead, I want to pull out some gems for my own nefarious purposes.

The moving cilia structure is a means of converting chemical energy (ATP) into kinetic energy. Each cilia is composed, in part, of microtubules. These microtubules slide across one another to create the motion. The energy of the motion is supplied by the ATP. The protein dynein is used for this purpose.

Dyneins, actins, kinesins and myosins are all motor proteins. (See also here.) Myosins are used in vertebrate muscle. They "walk" along actin threads to generate large level contractions. Myosins are also used in cytoplasmic streaming allowing movement of cytoplasm and organelles to different areas of the cell.

Kinesins are a group of related proteins that also walk a microtubule track. They're important in chromosome migration during cell division and also, along with myosin, allow moviment of organelles through the cytoplasm in eucaryotic cells.

All of these molecular motors function in a mechanically similar means: a particular protein slides along a microtubule to effect motion.

However, things get even more interesting in non-motile cilia. Satir soon discovered that the moving cilia were only the obvious ciliary cells. It turns out that the ciliary structure is replicated over many cell types that have nothing to do with movement. The hair cells of the inner ear have cilia.

Which makes sense from an engineering perspective. If it takes energy to move a cilium than it also makes sense that moving a cilium can result in energy generation-- or, to be more precise, if we can transform chemical energy into movement in one direction we can transform kinetic energy back into chemical energy. In the latter direction, we have a sensor.

But the kidney tubule cells also have cilia. Other cell types where non-motile cilia have been found include smooth muscle cells, fibroblasts, neurons and Schwann cells. Stunting the kidney cells caused polycystic kidney disease.

Further, the road to cell differentiation in the developing embryo was lined with cilia.

Cell differentiation is the mechanism by which cells specialize. Embryonic cells turn from a general cell from which (presumably) a total organism could be derived to a specialized cell type for the given organ tissue. One aspect of this process is the migration of cells to their indicated location. Christensen, a fellow of Satir, investigated how a specific cilium could direct cell migration in fibroblasts. They discovered a specific receptor for growth factor became localized to the cilium. When the cilium detected the growth factor, it induced the cell to follow it. The cilium, by virtue of pointing outwards from the cell, actually indicated the direction of migration.

They also showed that cilia was responsible for initiating signals for cell migration in the development of brain and spinal cord.

Very interesting, you say?

Yes, in and of itself.

Stepping back, however, there's another aspect to this.

Cilia are ancient. The development of cilia in green algae (Chlamydomonas) is the same process as the development of cilia in human beings. However, the green algae diverged from the line that produced us at least 1.5 billion years ago-- that's the age of the earliest fossils. (See here.) It is highly unlikely that the identical biochemical mechanism would evolve twice, suggesting that the mechanism was in place prior to that. Prior to the evolution of multicelled organisms.

Evolution always works with the materials at hand and repurposes them to fit the selection criteria of the moment. It makes much more sense to bend something to fit that you already have then to create something out of whole cloth. This happens over and over again. Something that had one use is bent into another one.

Perhaps we all should be listening to our inner paramecium.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Revisiting Mercury

I love the space industry. Just when you think that you know all about something, they come along and bust it all up. Of course, science does this in general all the time. But it seems that, like the jungle, all you have to do to find something new is look. This article came across my desk today.

Last September the Messenger spacecraft flew by Mercury again and last week three papers were the result.

Paper #1: Messenger photographed flat smooth plains within the Rachmaninoff crater. This suggests lava, suggesting volcanic activity. However, they appear to be less than 2 billion years old. Arguing that Mercury was volcanically active much later than was originally believed.

Paper #2: Messenger also detected rapid fluctuations of Mercury's magnetic field. Perturbations that on earth might take hours took place in minutes on Mercury. One wonders what's going on inside Mercury's core.

Paper #3: Mercury has a tenuous atmosphere that consists of atoms ejected from the crust by the power of solar radiation as well as charged particles and dust. Turns out that near the equator the concentration of Calcium changed over time; it was higher near sunrise than sunset. This effect was not seen for sodium or magnesium.

Messenger is getting ready to enter orbit around Mercury next March.

I have high hopes.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

CSA Forever... Well, Maybe Not

A truly wonderful piece of satire came across my desk from We Are Respectable Negroes. It is,
The Confederate States of America, a film by Kevin Willmott.

Imagine the CSA had won the war-- and by I don't mean Harry Turtledove's silly paen to Robert E. Lee, The Guns of the South. No, I mean what would happen if the vicious culture of slavery that dominated the South had persisted to the present day.

CSA is a documentary about the South in that period. It has teeth.

The website is here.

You Tube material is here.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Jaws vs Jaws

If you're a modern writer, or reader for that matter, it's highly likely you've read Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The title whale is a monstrous beast and ultimately kills the entire crew of the ship pursuing it with the exception of the narrator.

Moby Dick would be a meal for Leviathan melvillei.

Leviathan melvillei is an extinct toothed whale that looks a fair amount like the sperm whale but with a significantly larger jaw and enormous teeth. A normal sperm whale's tooth can range from six to twelve inches. Leviathan's teeth were twice that.

Further, the dentition of a modern sperm whale has teeth only on the lower jaw. Sperm whales more suck in their prey than bite and shred them. But Leviathan's dentition interlocks like cats or dogs and shows them to be functional predator teeth. Leviathan was fully capable of finding another whale, say a sei whale or a minke, and tear it apart.

Leviathan lived about 12-13 million years ago-- coexisting with Megalodon, a enormous extinct shark resembling a Great White writ large.

Megalodon looks to be about 20 meters in size. Leviathan is estimated to be as much as 17 meters. It is not known if they were competitors. However, I can imagine them meeting each other would be true clash of the titans.

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?-- Job 41:1

Scientific American
Nature, editorial
Science News
Nature, original article

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Things of Interest

A few interesting things have crossed my desk recently. I'll drop in a few.

I found some animated MRIs of fruit here. See the insides of a pineapple oscillating in beautiful black and white.

Here's a guy who has made hydroponic window farm.

A presentation on the evolution of flightless birds inhabiting the Children's Television Workshop in New York City.

Truly scare zombification in the natural world.

Lung on a chip.

That's it for now.

Monday, July 12, 2010

About "The Birds of Isla Mujeres"

The Birds of Isla Mujeres goes up today over at Book View Cafe.

The story is another take on the Frankenstein mythos-- the results of humans creating life. But it was the first story where I started playing with a loose connection between the technology of the story and the story itself.

I was involved with a woman at the time and we were going through a bad time. Things were going to get much worse before we split apart entirely but at the time I didn't know that. To try and patch things up we took a short vacation. To Mexico.

We stared at Cancun. Went on to Merida-- which is a very cool place by the way-- and whiled away the last few days before the return on Isla Mujeres.

At the time, Isla Mujeres was a cross between native Mexicans and ex-pat Americans. Several of the homes had walls around them studded with broken glass at the time. I'd seen that elsewhere in Mexico. It was open to the sea on the east side and the mainland was visible to the east. At night the lights of Cancun were visible but the island was mostly dark.

The ferry brought us to the piers of the island and the first thing I saw were the frigatebirds, flying high above us, like black swatches cut from the sky.

In those days I always carried a typewriter with me and worked on this while we were working, unsuccessfully, to salvage something from each other.

An end to romance, I thought. And the story was off and running.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Evolving Complexity

One of the more interesting problems in evolution is how we went from single celled organisms to multicellular organisms.

It's an interesting dilemma. After all, one celled organisms are perfectly fine. They evolve well. They manage to be the largest biomass on the planet. Why did some individuals decide to give up their autonomy to join together?

Remember, evolution is always working. Therefore, there had to be an advantageous reason for these organisms to band together. The problem is, of course, that the non-reproductive cells in an organism give up their reproductive rights-- which seems counter-intuitive for a single celled organism to do.

Sergey Gavrilets has published a mathematical model in PLoS of how such a differentiation can occur. He used as his model the algae Volvox, a primitive colonial algae. He concentrated on two genes, one for viability and one for fertility. Viability (v) was considered to be contribution towards survival of the colony and fertility (f) was defined to be the ability to found a new colony.

Since single cells found colonies all the time and still retain their individuality, we can use this as a starting point. Both v and f contribute to the proliferation of colonies but neither can be maximized at the same time. In his model individual selection favors larger values of f and colony level selection favors larger values of v. Mutation can affect the value of f or v. For individuals with mutations favoring f in the individual cell, the viability of the colony is decreased. Similarly, individuals with mutations favoring v cause a loss of colony fertility.

Volvox has a division of labor between two cell types: germ and soma, i.e., reproduction and the colony operation. The differentiation between the two is regulated by three types of genes and has an environmental factor. Gavrilets posulated similar genetic processes in his model such that the f and v values could be suppressed or initiated with respect to one another. He was able to control the regulation processes and see the results.

The coupling of the f and v regulation resulted fairly quickly (about 1 million generations) in a germ/soma differentiation very similar to Volvox. That is, the germ cells were the only ones that reproduced and the soma cells were exclusively producing material for colony consumption. Depending on the degree of f and v coupling he could create populations of varying differentiation. The degree of differentiation reflected a range of plasticity, the ability of a germ or soma cell to do the other type's job. Plasticity directly reflect the fitness cost. If that cost was high, germ/soma differentiation proceeded to full differentiation. If that cost was low, the differentiation remained limited or perhaps non-existent.

What's interesting here is that these are particularly simple numerical models. What is necessary is the coupling of only two traits (f and v) and selection towards a particular outcome. The question of where multicullular organisms came from gets turned on its head: why aren't all organisms multicellular.

Hazarding a guess, I would think that there are two areas where single celled organisms might not evolve into multicellular organisms. One is where there is no real coupling between fertility and viability. Bacteria organize quite well into colonies. However, the viability of the colony doesn't have to have a negative effect on the ability of individuals to colonize.

The other is the cost of plasticity. If there's a high cost to retaining plasticity (possibly as a result of the coupling of f and v) then, like anything else in evolution, plasticity is jettisoned. However, if there is a positive attribute to plasticity than it would be retained. One can see that plasticity is highly advantageous in many single celled animals. Thus, multicellular systems can evolve easily when the circumstances are right-- which they can often be-- but won't evolve from organisms which don't have the right repertoire.

Original article here.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Readercon 2010

I'll be at Readercon again this year-- as I am, pretty much, every year. I only have one panel at 6:00 PM Friday night. The panel is on global warming and science fiction.

Or, as I'm starting to call it: Global Warming vs. Science Fiction. Threat or Menace? Cozy Spooning or Celebrity Death Match?

I'll post my notes about it afterwards.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Broken Brain

About two years ago my son, Ben, fell backwards at school and hit his head. He went to the doctor. The doctor thought he had a concussion and we kept him home.

Ben was dizzy. He had trouble walking. We went through a lot of emotional trauma before he started to recover.

Ben was a competitive gymnast at that time. He was out of gymnastics for over two months. When he was getting ready to return he practiced some-- Ben was unable to do a handstand without falling over. He believed he was handstanding perfectly straight when he was at actually handstanding at quite an angle. Clearly, there had been damage. Just as clearly, over time, he recovered.

My Master's degree is in neurophysiology so I have perhaps a better acquaintance than most with the brain's complexity. I'm not going to go deeply into the trauma we went through-- what I consider some fairly serious mis-diagnosis by the specialist we went to. But I use it to illustrate a point: traumatic brain injury is not trivial.

So it is with some happiness that I direct the reader of this blog to some very interesting data and a new possible treatment for such injuries in this article.

Ben recovered completely both the normal actions and cognition of his age along with his gymnastics ability. He has since left gymnastics and pursues judo where he looks forward to cleaning his old man's clock.

His old man is very proud.

Links of Interest
Ancestor of squid found
Causes of the Great Recession
Fuel from Microbes
Infection blamed for bee's decline
Brain size changes in locust swarming
Humans in Separate Groups Prior to Diaspora
Neandertals Speak
Last Common Ancestor of Neandertals and Humans
The Age of Upright Walking
Single Main Migration across Bering Strait

Ancestor of squid found
Causes of the Great Recession
Fuel from Microbes
Infection blamed for bee's decline
Brain size changes in locust swarming
Humans in Separate Groups Prior to Diaspora
Neandertals Speak
Last Common Ancestor of Neandertals and Humans
The Age of Upright Walking
Single Main Migration across Bering Strait

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

News from Book View Cafe

Book View Café publishes Dolley’s Bizarre True Crime Story

Book View Café (BVC) is pleased to announce the publication of FRENCH FRIED, an unfortunately true account of English author Chris Dolley’s harrowing first eight months in France. The book has been described as ‘A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.’

Upon surviving a difficult move to a foreign country, Dolley and wife discover their life savings and Dolley’s identity have been stolen. Adding insult to injury, the authorities have no time for his problem so with the “help” of an 80 year-old mother-in-law, Dolley tracks the criminals himself through the bureaucracies of France, Spain, Ireland, and Great Britain. FRENCH FRIED is an account of the author’s hilarious, yet frightening journey through a nightmare of international crime.

Read Chapter One of FRENCH FRIED for free here.

Purchase the ebook here.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Bits and Pieces

A couple of new things came across my desk that are worth pointing out.

David Eller wrote a nice feature article analyzing Intelligent Design Creationism. He didn't bother to just attack it but to analyze it on its own terms. ID doesn't do well. See here.

Andrew J Bacevich wrote an interesting article on the problems in the civilian control of the military undergoing a long term war. McChrystal is just the canary in the coal mine. See here.

Look here for a preview of The Empire Strikes Back, made in 1950. This is a new genre called "pre-makes:" trailers for modern films that owe their roots to older movies made to resemble the old movies they were made from. More here and here.

There's been a lot of talk about "Obama's" deficit. Here's a quick article showing how much of it he inherited.

Paul Dirac's beautiful article from the May 1963 Scientific American. Back when men were men and commies were nervous.

What to do with glass things here.

Know how to glue anything to anything else here.

Terrific ocean videos here and here.

And, finally, possibly the saddest NYT story I've ever read: Tuna's End.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Change I Believe In

I haven't been blogging as much lately.

This is for a couple of reasons. One is that I've been finishing the first draft of my current novel and some other projects. This leaves little time for blogging. I have a rule: energy for blogging must not come from energy dedicated to writing. I can't put myself into the position of substituting something that is fun but not all that important to me for something that is much harder but more rewarding.

Writing the longer essays is a lot of work. My life is a zero sum game and time and energy that is spent on essays has to come from somewhere. It can't come from writing. It can't come from my job. And I won't let it rob me of time with my family. What's left is precious little.

So I have to think of better ways.

I do a fairly long essay every couple of weeks for the BVC blog and I cross post that here. That, for reasons that are obscure to me, have been largely about evolution. That covers a bit. I've been considering shorter, more frequent entries. We'll see how that works.

Another reason has been outright depression about some things.

Over the last couple of years I've been blogging fairly regularly about political and public foolishness. But over the last year the foolishness has gone from being humorous to being annoying, from being annoying to pissing me off and from pissing me off to outright malignancy. There are people in the political and social sphere that have made it their business and avocation to create a social cancer in this country. Jay Severin has gone so far as to talk about Obama being a communist and advocating impeachment. Newt Gingrich has written a bout about Obama's "secular socialist agenda". Anne Coulter-- well, the less said about her the better. Then, there's the Texas school board. The list goes on and on.

The left isn't a lot better.

Since nothing I say here is going to actually effect any change I've decided not to dwell on it here.

Which leads me to wonder what I want to say here.

Hence the lower output.

I do think I want to talk about science, making objects and drawing attention to wonderful things.

So: stay tuned. We'll see what I come up with.