Sunday, July 29, 2012

Medusa Unleashed

A Medusa is a free swimming jellyfish. Anyone who's lived near a harbor or gone to an aquarium has seen one.

The mechanical structure of a medusa is fairly simple: a slotted semi-rigid body with a ring of contractile tissue connected just above the slots. The contraction causes a "dome" structure to appear pushing water out the back and giving propulsion. Structurally, it looks pretty close to what's pictured on the left.

Except that's not a medusa.

Instead, it's a bit of silicone polymer with a ring of rat cardiac muscle.

This feat of curious engineering is the product of the ingenious minds of Janna Nawroth and Kevin Kit Parker of Caltech and Harvard.

The original paper is here. Physorg's version is here along with video of both a real medusa and the medusoid that Nawroth and Parker have built.

This is very neat stuff. It couples biological and engineering materials and is a step on the road towards real tissue and organ engineering.

It also made me thing of something interesting. Since contractile tissue (and some electrical stimulation) was all that was needed, could something similar to this have happened before? Think of it: polymer films abound in nature. Cooperative organisms (such as volvox) are also just has ubiquitous. Imagine a colony of contractile organisms who manage to adhere to a non-living flexible substrate. They get a boost in that they become more mobile. Later, the substrate becomes catalytic: it is only necessary to trigger the response. Later, still, it's not needed at all.

Cooperative life begins.

Thanks to Jim Cambias, et al, over at Science Made Cool for this one. If you don't know their site, or Jim's work, run do not walk over there.

Friday, July 27, 2012

What's Really in Obamacare?

Sarah Kliff has a good treatment of a woman who has managed to take advantage of the Obamacare law. It shows what's in there. And it's great. See here.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Lies, Damned Lies and the RNC

It's started to look like this election is going to be between liars and ball-less wonders.

By the way, by "Ball-Less Wonders" I mean Democrats. By "liars" I mean Republicans.

This is not good.

Let's talk about the Republicans. Remember that to them Global Warming is a hoax. However, many Republicans in the house represent the farm states and the south. Several near west states such as North Dakota are similarly represented.

They are farm dependent. 

Yet we are in a massive drought. The worst drought since the fifties. This graph is from Ezra Klein. The red bit is us right now.

It's pretty clear that we're in for more droughts in the future. (See also here.)

Yet, where is the relief from congress? For that matter, where is the damned farm bill?

Locked up in a Republican congress, that's where, getting ready to be thrown under a bus.

Or, let's talk about Obamacare. Remember those states that are opting out of the Medicaid expansion? (For those that have forgotten it's Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina and Texas: all Republican controlled.)  Okay. They don't want to play. But the law says that if they don't the federal government does. So the rest of the country has to pony up to cover their sorry asses. Consequently, it costs more money than if they did their job.

Not to mention Medicaid is regularly cheaper than private insurance. Here's a quote from Ezra Klein's article here:

A number of factors explain why Medicaid costs less. It tends to pay doctors lower reimbursement rates than private plans. About 7 percent of the program’s funds go toward administrative costs, about half the rate seen in private plans. What exactly this means for the health of its enrollees certainly can
 be — and is being — debated. 
That lower spending in the Medicaid programs explains how, if states opt out of the expansion, the federal government could be on the hook to spend more money — all while covering fewer people.

So we can pump more money into the coffers of insurance companies or spend it on patients. The Republicans in those states thing money in private corporations is better.

For God's sake, California pays Medicaid doctors half as much as North Dakota. (See here.)

Let's not forget the debt ceiling debacle-- wholly and completely created by the Republicans. Which cost us at least 1.3 billion. (See here.)

All of this is in the name of fiscal responsibility. Which is clearly a lie.

But the Democrats will save us. Right? The Democrats who haven't been able to get anything through congress because of Republican filibusters? And after it was absolutely clear what the Republicans were going to do refused to reform the filibuster rule? Or hold their feet to the fire and actually make them filibuster? Who are only now saying they'll reform filibuster rules if they win in November?

Yeah. Right.

Republicans to Raise Taxes

The Tax Hike Prevention Act of 2013, Orrin Hatch's not-so-secrete love child by Grover Norquist, raises taxes. Not on the rich, mind you. Only on the poor and middle class.

What a *#$*& surprise.

See here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Small Footprints

I've been interested in tiny houses for a while. Here are some links that are fun.

Interesting entry over at the Tiny House Blog about Christiana, an interesting place in Copenhagen. Here's a wiki entry, atlas obscura entry and a youtube video.

More tiny houses here and here.

Earth bags at the Natural Building Blog.

Canopy Cottage, another curious construction over at tiny house.

The Ultimate designer aquaponics. Go thou and drool.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Romney vs Obama Tax Plan

Here's the graph showing who's getting a tax change on the two plans. Romney is red. Obama is blue.

Here's the text explaining the graph.

Now: go vote your pocket book.

Monday, July 23, 2012


There's nothing to say about what happened out there.

It probably would have been better with actual mental care and restricted access to guns that allow one mental deviant to kill tens. At least his AK-47 jammed.

I'm not going to say any more. Look at the following links for more articulate responses. And those of the dark side: Fox News.

Gin and Tacos
Gordon's Notes
Mike Huckabee blames sin
Bill O'Reilly: gun control wouldn't have helped
Bill O'Reilly: It's the parents of the six year old who are at fault

7/23/2012 13:13:
Just in here: Ezra Klein's terrific analysis of gun violence in the USA.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Tucker and Dale versus Alien

I will be talking about film details so if you're not interested in spoilers don't go beyond the fold.

I discovered something about my approach to writing years ago. I'm far more excited by a different take on an old approach than I am on a new work. Bester's The Demolished Man is good: a detective story that is a vehicle to examine a world where telepathists are common. However, I prefer his The Stars My Destination, a retelling of the Count of Monte Christo in SF form. New takes on old material happen all the time. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns is one example. One of my favorite's is Red Son, where Superman landed in the Ukraine rather than Kansas.

A subset of this sort of approach is what I call a reversal: where the work is an opposite or close to opposite take on an established approach. What makes a reversal a little different is it's based on the reader/viewer having actual knowledge of the previous approach. The effect of the work depends on the reader's foreknowledge of the previous approach. E.T. is a  reversals of a sort in that the audience has to understand the earlier approach of Bug Eyed Monsters towards extraterrestrials to get the countertype of the alien as oppressed person.

Enter Tucker and Dale versus Evil.

Think on the old evil hillbilly story. It goes back to Deliverance if not farther. College kids go out into the woods only to be horribly dismembered and killed by demented country folk. In TAD, the hillbillies are complete innocents. Oh, the college students get horribly dismembered and killed alright. But they do it in the process of thinking they're defending themselves from demented country folk. Tucker and Dale are just there for the ride. It's a terribly funny film. Though it's not surprising that you'd find a reversal in a comedy. After all, reversals are the stuff of parody and parody is one of the wonderful approaches to comedy.

Enter Alien.

I'm going to proceed as if the reader here has seen the films. If not, the entire franchise is discussed here.

There are four real Alien films: Prometheus, Alien, Aliens and Alien-3. The film that follows Alien-3 is interesting but doesn't really fit in the set. This particular order is the order of time of events within the world of the film. The order of production is also interesting: Alien, Aliens, Alien-3, and Prometheus.

Like Star Wars, the order of production of putting the prequel(s) later gives the production the ability to take advantage of the viewers foreknowledge. There are two reversals. On in Alien-3 and one in Prometheus.

In Alien, the crew of the ship Nostromo are directed to a world where the aliens live. One gets inside of a crewman, gestates and kills him. The rest of film is the crew trying to save itself by killing the alien. All fail and die until Ripley finally succeed. The alien is too much for everybody else. In point of fact it is almost too much for Ripley and it is through luck, brains and ability that she is able to kill the alien and save herself.

Aliens opens when Ripley is discovered decades later and awakened from hypersleep. Over the course of Aliens an entire squad of bad-ass marines are sent to take care of a colony that has succumbed to the aliens. They largely fail. It's clear in Alien that the alien is more than a match for unprepared humans either singly or in groups. In Aliens it's clear that the alien is more than a match for prepared humans, either singly or in groups. Ripley, a single marine and a little girl are all that is left of the expedition.

The message is clear: humans and their technology are no match for the aliens.

Alien-3 opens when Ripley's returning vessel is compromised and crash lands on a prison planet. There is nothing on this planet: no weapons, no tools, no sophistication. Just a bunch of hard criminals and their hands and brains.

Yet in this environment the alien is actually defeated and it and its seed destroyed. It costs nearly every human their lives. But the humans out of pride and rage place their bets down on themselves and take it on. This is the reversal against the previous material. Man's technology and sophistication is no match for the alien. His will, determination and self-sacrifice is.

Enter Prometheus.

 Prometheus is a prequel. It takes place before Alien. Several years before. All of the little bits are present. There's an android of mysterious motivations-- just like Ash in Alien and Bishop in Aliens and Alien-3. The corporate sponsor is the same. Since the films are already out there the prequel has the ability to just plant a flag in the ground and say look at this: these people don't know what's about to happen. In the previous alien films there's a hidden dark knowledge that the corporation knows about the aliens and is just trying to get them. But in Prometheus is does not. The corporate presence is there but it's motivation cannot be the same.

Prometheus suggests that the aliens were built with a specific purpose in mind: destroy humanity. Humanity is, itself, the creation of a humanoid race propagating itself. Reversal #1: the creation of humans by the gods is merely a bright reflection of the dark procreation of the aliens using humans to propagate themselves. Reversal #2: the gods (the humanoid creators) have devised the aliens to wipe out humanity. They who have created us have decided we are not worthy of life and must be destroyed.

Now we, the viewers, can see how this relates to subsequent films. Characters within the film, of course, do not know this. They have to figure things out on their own. In Star Wars, Anakin does not know he will be destroyed, turned evil and redeemed. But we do.

No one on the ship Prometheus returns to tell the tale. But those that remain behind are left with the knowledge that fueled the expedition to begin with. It is this left behind knowledge, imperfect and incorrect as it is, that informs the rest of the alien films. At the end of Prometheus the main character leaves the planet and goes to confront the gods. The cost of finding this knowledge out is not transmitted back to humanity. Humanity (the corporation) is left only with the knowledge that there is something out there worthy of being found.

Artistic viewpoints are malleable. We cannot read Shakespeare de novo. It has become part of our culture. We cannot consider Tarzan, John Carter, Huckleberry Finn, Macbeth, Catch-22 or World War II as did those first participants. To them it was a new thing. But that thing has warped our understanding into a new shape.

Subsequent artistic treatments change change the lens through which we view the original material whether we know it or not, whether we want it to or not.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

American non-exceptionalism

Canadians are richer than we are. (See here.)
Arkansas thinks the Medicaid expansion might save $372 million. (See here.)
The Republicans really are the problem. (See here.)
Physical inactivity is actually killing us. (See here.)
The right wing is using the rhetoric of elimination. (See here.)
The presidential election is going to be decided by 196 Americans. (See here.)

And people wonder why I don't believe in American exceptionalism. (See here.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Responses to those who drag us down

You know how you hear we shouldn't have a space program or NEA or NIH because they don't help people? Zack Weiner of SMBC has a response.

Also, here's a good post analyzing the bloviating about how Medicaid will be the end of of rational civilization. Heh. That train has left the station, ship has sailed, dog has moved on.

And an review of Robert Bellah's book Religion in Human Evolution.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Cooperation and the Divine

(Picture from Where the Hell Is Matt?)

The thing humans do more than anything else is interact with other human beings. We are supercooperators. Nothing on this planet is even close to us in our ability to cooperate with one another. We can, easily, be members of multiple groups, some of which might be in competition or conflict with one another. A Baptist in Wisconsin can cooperate with a Musllim in Arizona and have nothing more in common with one another than a rejection of the qualifications of a politician. (Not all cooperations are positive.) 

There are a number of articles coming out (notable in Martin Nowak's Scientific American article here.) that are starting to really examine cooperation scientifically and from the perspective of evolution. Cooperation has been a problem within human evolution for a while. Why cooperate? Why not cheat? Don't cheaters win?

Not really.

The problem of cooperation appears to have been a human conceptual difficulty rather than an actual problem. It is sort of like the bumblebee myth. You know the one. Bumblebees violate the laws of aerodynamics but still fly. Aren't scientists dumb?

The actual bumblebee story is much more interesting. Yes, bumblebees violate the Bernoulli principle underlying fixed and rotor wing flight dynamics. To call them "laws" is incorrect. They are models of flight where some components of the model-- such as the viscosity of the medium-- can be negligible. If you tried to fly an airbus in honey the results would be somewhat different. To something the size and mass of an insect, however, viscosity matters a great deal and new principles must be applied.

Cooperation has had a rocky road. First, there was the fact that Darwin came up with his ideas in the midst of Industrial Revolution England. The idea of the ascent of man being the result of individual triumph was attractive. Then there was Raymond Dart who first came up with man rising from the murderous ape. And all the rest. The result of which is this idea that human beings are competitors first and cooperators a distant second if not third. Then the math models kept suggesting that cheaters and individuals were favored by evolution. Where would such behavior come from if not from evolution?

It's interesting how such ideas get established and then accepted without really being examined further. The idea of the "rugged individual" succeeding against all odds is such a powerful narrative tic that it seems to blind us to reality. The fact of the matter which you can see driving down the street, checking out at a super market or standing in line for a movie is we cooperate all the time. We do it so naturally, so easily, so comfortably it is like the air we breathe.

The article referenced above has expanded the math models significantly. It turns out that while initially there is a leaning towards cheating and favor the individual over the group, after a few generations there is a shift towards cooperation. Nowak has identified not one mechanism for the evolution of cooperation but five. (See here.)

But remember that the actions that result in natural selection of organisms do not necessarily have evolutionary origins. Chimps don't have sex because they are trying to get their genes propagated. They do it because it feels good. People don't cooperate because it will make their group genes propagate. They do it because they value the group's existence, because they want to feel included, because they value the shared experience, because they are emotionally moved.

Enter Matt Harding.

You may remember Harding as the originator of the dancing video. Harding traveled around the world getting himself filmed dancing (Badly. Very badly.) in front of a lot of landmarks and locations. In Africa there wasn't much to dance in front of so he danced with some kids. He thought this was exciting and a whole lot more interesting than dancing in front of monuments. Harding put together the video along with a music background. Nothing engenders the group experience like music. But it wasn't enough.

So he did it again. This time he filmed people dancing (Some badly. Some not so badly.) with him. This time the center of the view was him dancing with kids, adults, dogs-- anything that was there. This time he did it with his girlfriend/fiance and eventually wife.

Time passed. They had a child. Something still wasn't quite right. The videos were good but he wanted a bit more.

So he did it again. This time he and his wife did it together. This time he tried to pull together the essence of the experience into a work of art-- although I don't think Harding would ever use those words. The result is extraordinary. It's at the Harding link above. I suggest you go watch it. Then watch all of the videos on the site page.

I am biologically inclined. Anybody who's read these posts is surely aware of that by now. If there are poles of orientation in my psyche they tend to be  material, human centric and scientifically directed. I don't have a lot of truck with things termed "spiritual." After all, it was our mammalian ancestors that gave us the limbic system that gets fired when we work together on a joint project or see Yosemite or meet our newborn child for the first time. 

That said, it is not our mammalian heritage that conceived of the project, recognized the transcendence of Yosemite and named our first born son. 

We can never leave behind where we came from. It is with us root and branch as we breathe in and out. We must remember we are not limited by it. There is such a thing as an organism transcending its biology. When we pursue goals that could never have been dictated to us by our evolutionary heritage. When we aspire to things that cannot possibly be explained by reproductive success. When we reach out to strangers to do nothing more than show our common ground by dancing on it. 

It is the only thing worthy of the word "divine."

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Back from the Dead and Ready to Party

I apologize for not showing up here for a bit. I'm sure both of my readers have been disappointed beyond measure.

Reader #1: Hey Freddie? Who was that blogger we used to read? Poppy? Kissy? Something?
Reader #2: I don't know anybody by that name. Put on the TV. Nova's got something interesting.

There are a number of reasons (no excuses) for this to have happened. Finishing the first cut of a novel. Some nuisance medical issues. Work. Family. The phase of the moon. Fluctuations in the element Carbon.

But one reason did seem to flocculate to the top of the pond: I got burnt out.

Ken Kesey said that he was in a writer's workshop when he realized that a bad book took just as much work as a good book. So are these science articles. One can argue their quality but they take a lot of work. After the last batch I just didn't have it in me to blog about anything for a while.

Clearly, something has to change.

What I've decided to do is lighten them up some. Show some science. Talk about some things that interest me that are not science. Have a bit more fun with less effort.

Yeah. Good luck with that.

In that vein here is the first one: A quick look at a bunch of interesting articles. Have fun.

U.S. Tightens Rules on Antibiotics and Livestock: 80% of all antibiotics used in the USA are used in livestock. Imagine the sea of excrement that comes from livestock and works its evil way to the sea. Now lace that wonderful river with antibiotics. Now listen to all of the rhetoric regarding antibiotic resistant bacteria and physicians prescribing antibiotics. Cognitive dissonance anyone?

Teamwork Builds Big Brains: What humans do better than any other species is cooperate with one another. Now there's solid evidence that it may serve as at least one of the sources of the selection pressure for all of that tissue between our ears.

Egg shaped dinosaur evolution: The big question about the Cretaceous extinction isn't that dinosaurs died. It's that mammal and birds lived when dinosaurs died. What is the selection mechanism of the Cretaceous extinction? Now one idea is that the life cycle of the dinosaurs might have made them vulnerable to the sort of extinction event that happened at the K-T boundary. Probably doesn't explain the demise of marine reptiles or pterosaurs.

New wrinkles in Dark Matter here and here: Something makes the rims of galaxies turn faster than they should. That's the original evidence of dark matter: a large amount of that something that has a gravitational effect but is otherwise unobserved. Yet it doesn't seem to show up around here: the locality around Sol. Why not?

Non-DNA DNA like molecules: DNA and RNA for the longest time were considered the sole possible mechanism for genetic inheritance. Not necessarily so. This does open two questions: 1) do we have to have DNA and RNA for extraterrestrial life and 2) Why did DNA and RNA become sole proprietors on earth?

Beating Down the Earth with Asteroids: The Late Heavy Bombardment is when the Earth was pummeled again and again with huge rocks. Big craters. Big events. It was supposed to have stopped about 3.7 billion years ago. New evidence suggests that it actually stopped about 1.8 billion years ago. Prokaryotic life is thought to have started about 3.5 billion years ago-- close to the end of the Late Heavy Bombardment. Now it looks like the early life forms might have happily tolerated being occasionally obliterated by a white hot impact. Eukaryotes, however, are thought to have originated 1.6-2.1 billion years ago. Hm. Interesting coincidence.

Wind Farms may have a role in climate change: They mix night time cool are on the ground with warmer upper air. Ah we live in interesting times.

New characteristics of the Permian Extinction: Biochemical evidence of "the animals died from a lack of dissolved oxygen in the water, an excess of carbon dioxide, a reduced ability to make shells from calcium carbonate, altered ocean acidity and higher water temperatures." Curious. That sounds very familiar.

Concerns about GM crops: Use of herbicide causes select for increased resistance to herbicides. Many GM crops have built in resistance to such herbicides allowing enormous quantities of herbicides to be dumped on them to kill the weeds and leave the crops. Result: increased weed resistance to herbicides. Wow! Who would have thought it?

New model of solar system formation: Jupiter started out as a little guy. But when he grew up he changed everything.

Mouse Brain in Silico: Scientists are building a virtual mouse brain. From which they will learn enough to build a virtual human brain. What will they think about?

Brain Scans of Comatose Patients and Consciousness: This is just scary. Is there brain death? And would anyone but the patient really know?

When Men are Less Moral Than Women: American men, anyway.

And that's it for now.