Friday, December 31, 2010

DIY Friday

I haven't done one of these for a bit and this one won't be too long. But here are some fun hacks.

Skulladay: puts up or creates a skull image every day.
Jointmaker: a new kind of hand saw.
Springfield Middle School Tilapia Project
Jar Lights
Brass Rocking Horse
Famous Hacks from NASA
Garden Arbor
DIY Spectrophotometer
Growing Silver Crystals
Media stand furniture: looks a bit like some old Chinese furniture I saw in a museum once
1o1 Crafty Ideas
Blue Tooth Robot

and finally

DIY Fusion Reactor: I don't think he's kidding

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Brass Ukuleles

Nice and interesting build of a brass ukulele here.

Were you thinking I was referring to something else?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Speaking Norwegian in Hell

Here is a comic from Russel's Teapot. (Link here but it no longer seems to work.)
Get more here, here and here.

Russel's Teapot is by Chaz Broman. As far as I can tell he as copyright. So if he chooses to contact me I'll take it down.

But just in case the site never returns:

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Holiday Thoughts

I've been talking about how the evolution of things for a long time now. And it's very, very cool stuff. I've talked about shoulders, feet and hands. I've talked a little bit about Neanderthals. Animals. Cuttlefish.

But there's still a great deal of mystery out there. A lot about life in general and a whole bunch about us in particular.

These mysteries are still there. For one, our brains are seriously over-engineered for hunter-gatherers. Chimps are hunter-gatherers and don't have near the horse power under the hood we do. I know that comparing chimp hunting and gathering to what we do in the wild is a limited comparison-- we do a whole lot more. But, that said, why is the horsepower so necessary for what we clearly did in the past?

Why is there art, for example? And we've had art for a long time-- over twenty-thousand years if you judge by the cave paintings. Probably a lot longer. What is it about our evolutionary history that caused us to accrete an appreciation of beauty? Is it just that our surroundings were important to us? Then why do we view such blasted landscapes as the badlands or the Grand Canyon as beautiful? Why do we care?

Why is there music? How is it we can be transported by a Beethoven symphony or a Bach concerto? How is it we're transported at all?

Are these qualities side effects of the extraordinary brain or is there something more going on here? Something fundamental. Something interesting.

Let's be clear: I'm not saying there is any supernatural force here. We made ourselves by our reproductive choices over the last few hundred thousand years. There's nothing supernatural to it.

But I am saying that if there is such a thing as divinity in the universe, it's us and it would be a big improvement if we started acting like it.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Creeptacious Era

Another Bioephemera winner. I give up. Just subscribe to her feed like I do.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Vas du Nacht Before Christmas

Bioephemera comes through again.

Werner Herzong's Night before Christmas.

Fox Viewers More Misinformed than Others

Here's the study.

Like any good evolutionary biologist, I know correlation is not causation. Are the viewers of Faux News misinformed because of Faux News or is it their innate stupidity that attracts them to Faux News and they are therefore more misinformed?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

Statistics Visualization

One of the problems, I think, with science education is visualization. By this I mean the ability to take data and transform it into a good representative metaphorical representation so that it can be understood. The best scientists can do this with raw information. Many of us that are familiar with managing data can do it fairly well but stumble.

Those without the skills are forced to rely on anecdotal evidence-- which is no evidence at all. Personally, I think this is at the root of a lot of American problems including understanding evolution, climate change, vaccination and economics.

The BBC is doing a documentary on the joy of statistics. Part of the documentary directly involves visualization. (Terrific visualization here.) Brought to my attention by the , brought to my attention by Bioephemnera.

Visualization is the key to understanding and understanding science is the key to human survival.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Red Stimulus Forever

Interesting link between net government revenue recipients with social and economic conservatism.

I like living in a blue state.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

BVC News

Holiday Cheer: Free reads from Book View Café.

BVC authors present their holiday-related fiction for your reading pleasure!

Go here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Now that I have your attention...

The evolution of sex is one of the hardest problems in evolutionary biology. I'm defining here sex as the combination of genes between two individuals producing a new individual or set of individuals that is genetically novel from the parents. There are two pieces of it and I'm only going to talk about one of them. These are:
  1. How did sex originate?
  2. Why has it remained?
I'm just going to talk about why it's still around.

You would expect asexual reproduction to to win hands down at evolutionary roulette. After all, there's a fair cost to sexual reproduction. Regardless of how it's done, whether there are two organisms that find each other against all, subsequently losing their reproductive opportunity when their host ship strikes an iceberg or vast clouds of paired cell types mixing together in the restless sea, two different genetic patterns have to discover each other, meld and produce a new organism.

Cells reproduce non-sexually by means of mitosis: duplication of the DNA into two new cells. Reproductive cell division is different in that the result is a cells with half the original complement of DNA. Even worse, for the DNA to be meaningful it has to be a meaningful half-- a complete working copy of the mechanism. Which means each cell of a sexually reproducing organism has to have double the amount of necessary DNA for its operation. Otherwise, when it produced sex cells they would not have the necessary completeness for the next generation. More expense.

We have the expense of sexual delivery and the expense of duplicated material. In addition to that, given the increase of raw material there is the increase of the total amount of mutations in that raw material.

These are the basic costs of sex itself. But there is a second category of problems with it. The reproducing organism only gets to pass on 50% of its genes.

With all of this, nearly all of the multicellular organisms use sex. Multicellular organisms who reproduce exclusively asexually are often found to be evolutionarily recent and die out quickly. All this despite its cost and inefficiency.

You can't win. You can't break even. You can't get out of the game.

There are a lot of theories about sexual advantages, it being one of the central problems.

The oldest idea, proposed by August Weismann back in the nineteenth century, was that sex introduced dissimilarity in offspring thereby enabling variation. Variation is the necessary precondition to natural selection. A variable population is better able to respond to a changing environment. Asexually produced offspring and genetically identical to the parent. Whatever variation has to derive from beneficial mutations-- a rarity.

Another approach to variation tackles the issue of variation propagation. In an asexual species a beneficial mutation is limited to the bloodline of the parent. In effect, all bloodlines within a species are competing directly with each other as if each bloodline were a separate species. There is no mechanism to share possibilities with one another. In a sexual species a beneficial variation can spread through the species, sometimes very quickly. Such a propagation is called a selective sweep.

One of the more widely held concepts (and one that I particularly like) suggests that a variable population is better able to resist parasites and disease. Let's say you have a genetically identical population of animals. Like any other population, they have parasites that prey on them. If a parasite develops a novel and effective way of attacking the population it can strike them down to the last individual since they are all genetically identical. (This theory, by the way, was derived prior to the discovery of shifts in traits across generations by non-genetic means. As far as I know there is no modulation of the hypothesis from this recent discovery.) A genetically diverse population, and one that continues to propagate its diversity, presents a moving target to parasites.

This is something we've seen in both plant and animal husbandry in recent decades. Several plant disease, such as the potato blight, had as a precondition use of a monoculture of agricultural organisms.

It's also been seen in the wild recently. Potamopyrgus antipodarum is a common fresh water snail in New Zealand. There are sexual versions of this snail and asexual versions. The population dynamics of the two versions were studied over the ten years. (See here.) Initially, the clones had the numeric advantage. But over time they degraded and some bloodlines disappeared altogether. The sexual populations remained largely stable.

There is strength in diversity.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

BVC News

Book View Café Releases Katharine Eliska Kimbriel's HIDDEN FIRES

HIDDEN FIRES (Chronicles of Nuala 2)
Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
December 1, 2010 $4.99
ISBN: 978 1 61138 031 6

Nuala ... planet of deadly radiation levels, humans who heal by touch, and the rarest platinum group metal in the known galaxy.

Tribal leaders "Silver" Darame and her husband Sheel Atare have brought an uneasy peace to a world racked by sterility, intrigue, and unimaginable wealth. But two con artists ripe for mischief (and maybe murder) tangle with two misplaced quests, and political intrigue explodes into a conspiracy of death, treason, and abduction.

See here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Not much today

I'm having a pretty busy time and can't do much more than my biweekly blog.

But I did find a couple of interesting things:

Periodic Table of Irrational Nonsense -- from Science Made Cool.
A vile condition in Florida here.
Epic Misney by T. Campbell.
Tom Tomorrow's take on The New Bipartisanship... It isn't pretty.

That's it for now.