Saturday, April 27, 2013

Interesting Things

Here are some thought provoking articles that have come across my desk lately:


Friday, April 26, 2013

Combat Juggling

Article on it here.

I was going to write a post and use combat juggling as a metaphor but it's just too awesome.

Go check it out.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Sad State of American Science Knowledge

The Pew Research Center put together a science quiz. You can take it here.

It's not hard. I scored perfectly without any particular head scratching. I think answering the question took maybe a minute and a half.

The sad part is I scored better than 93% of Americans. I mean, this had-- no. Don't give the test away.

Okay. This question is not on the test. It's something I made up to give you an idea of how easy the quiz was.
An atom is smaller than a Buick: True or False.
If you can get that right you will probably ace the quiz.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Fun things on a Wednesday

Check out 1A4 studios. I especially like the video on the Universe according to Scientology.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Welcome Spring

We live just outside of Boston. Everybody knows what's been happening up here so I won't go into it.

I usually like to take what's happening in my life and spin it into something I can blog about it. Not this time.

So I'm going to talk about spring.

When I was a kid in California the direction of the seasonal winds changed. There was a little rain but mostly the weather was pretty much the same-- which is why people like it out there. When we lived in Alabama it was mild relatively rainy winter followed by a warm spring and a brutally hot summer. Seattle was gray and dismal from October to April, lightening to haze in May until the sun finally broke through in June.

One of the features of living in New England is we have real seasons. Summers are warm and humid-- sometimes pretty hot though nothing to compare to down South. Our falls are famous. Winter makes for ice skating. ("You mean it gets cold enough to walk on it?") and skiing. Spring comes just about the point where you think you just can't take winter any more and it's time to move to Texas.

The cornelian cherries bloomed a week ago. The apricots are in full flower. The plum trees are about to open up in blossom and the apples are leaving out. True cherries will come out in the next week or two along with the peaches and the nectarines.

Spring is good up here.

Biologically speaking, spring is a compromise.

Every organism has a strategy it uses to exploit its environment. And by "strategy" I don't mean a plan hatched in the dead of night by the glow of lanterns. I mean the life cycle by which the organism survives. Here in New England the winters are cold, the summers hot and spring signifies the winter to summer transition.

The trees I mentioned above are angiosperms (flowering plants) and deciduous. Evergreen trees don't lose their photosynthetic organs (be they leaves or needles) but keep them all winter long. Both deciduous and evergreen trees are making a bet. Deciduous trees are betting they can photosynthesize so effectively when there is warmth and light to do so that they can afford to discard their light collecting organs at the end of the season and wait out the winter. Evergreens are betting they can get enough light to photosynthesize through the winter they can afford to keep their photosynthetic organs intact. Both groups make their bets and over time their statistical survival determines their success.

Up here most evergreens are conifers or similar sorts of trees-- though there are a number of rhododendron imports around. Conifers are not flowering plants but gymnosperms, and old and venerable taxon that predate the angiosperms by a considerable margin. Gymnosperms evolved over 300 myears ago. Angiosperms about a hundred million years later. The "flowering" part of flowering plants came 100 myears after angiosperms and gymnosperms diverged.

The interesting thing about flowering plants is that by and large they use insects for pollination. But, as we know, evolution can't plan. So, at some point there had to be an ancestral flower structure that was attractive to a predisposed insect. The result was so successful that flowering plants came to dominate the world. How did it happen? Darwin called it the "abominable mystery" and it was a very real threat to his theory of evolution.

Spring, therefore, has somewhat different meaning for flowering plants and gymnosperms. For the gymnosperm, it means an increase in metabolic rate that is sufficient to support reproduction. Hence the production of pine pollen in the spring. It is also a signal common to all of the local plants. If you're pine tree A and you toss off your pollen into the air and pine tree B is asleep in the arms of Morpheus, you've pollinated the world for nothing. Spring, then, is not only an enabled opportunity for reproduction and photosynthesis, it's a signal. Things can get interesting with variable weather. Start too soon and a local freeze can wipe you out. Start too late and there's not enough time to produce. There's a Goldilocks zone for all of this and it differs from species to species.

For an angiosperm, spring means all of this: metabolic opportunity and reproductive signal. But remember that angiosperms largely depend on insects for reproduction. Consequently, they have to incorporate not only the needs of their own species but the needs of a whole second phyla of animals that have completely different metabolisms.

"Abominable mystery" indeed.

You can see this in our yard. Some species (apples, for example) leaf out first and then blossom. The bet here is to get your production needs met first and then approach reproduction. Other species (such as cherries and stone fruit) operate in the opposite way. They put out flowers first and then leaf out. The apples are betting that the weather is going to be variable. Flowers are more vulnerable than leaves to frost so getting in some photosynthesis early doesn't entail much risk. Waiting a bit is prudent. Peaches put out flowers first-- get the reproduction started early. The bet here is that the weather won't be variable in the spring and a late frost is a low possibility.

Peaches evolved in China and South Asia-- a fairly warm climate. Some places don't freeze at all-- hence, while there might be a utility to being dormant there's not much downside to putting out flowers as quick as possible. Wild apples (Malus sieversii), on the other hand, evolved in the mountains of Central Asia, places such as Kazakhstan and Northern Afghanistan-- places not known for forgiving weather. Putting out flowers early would be foolish.

One could ask why make the deciduous bet at all? Why not keep leaves out all winter?

And some angiosperms do that-- live oaks, for example. Rhododendrons. These are from milder climates. Also, pick up a rhododendron leaf and, say, a maple leaf. The rhododendron leaf is mighty. Thick and strong. The maple leaf as delicate as tissue paper. The rhododendrons make a bet that the cost of making a thick leaf is born out by getting enough photosynthesis during the winter. The maple dispenses with the cost of the thick leaf and puts all its energy into thin translucent leaf. Not so durable perhaps but very efficient at photosynthesis. Instead, the maple places its bet on dormancy. It's so much cheaper to just go cold over the winter and barely live at all.

The most common ideas associated with Darwin are descent with modification with competition winnowing out the best strategy. This is true. But Darwin didn't exist in a vacuum. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" has a strong family resemblance to Darwin's natural selection. But, like evolution, economics has two sides. Production and cost. Production has to be distributed, sold, etc. It would be the analogy of Darwin's competition.

But the cost of production has a huge impact as well. Darwin recognized this. He saw that the cost involved in executing an evolutionary strategy had to be paid. The only currency in evolution is successful reproduction. Every time a rattlesnake strikes it risks breaking a fang. Every time a tiger pounces it risks an injury. Every winter a tree waits until spring it risks conditions that can be fatal.

Every spring is a bet.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Interesting Things

A bunch of fun items came across my desk.

Parasitic worms often have elaborate mechanisms to hold onto their feeding site-- the skin, intestinal wall, etc. Doctors have examined this method and are using it to keep skin grafts in place. See here.

One of the amazing things about the brain is how everything connects to everything else. We all have a problem visualizing that. Here's a solution.

We have a problem with race here in these United of States. Specifically, we have a collection of white people who just don't seem to understand how easy they have it compared to minorities. John Scalzi tackles it here in what I think is a pretty brilliant metaphor.

Ezra Klein points out that doing our taxes is hard. It doesn't have to be that hard. And there are vested interests in making it hard. See here.

We want home grown organs. We want them before we die without them. Here is a break through.

It's starting to look like every time we look we're going to find life on planet earth. Is there a "shadow biosphere?" Look here.

Here is a truly gifted set of people talking about story telling in science: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Brian Greene, Tracy Day, Ira Flatow, Neal Stephenson, and Bill Nye.


Given the Boston Marathon Bombing there are two sites I want people to think about. This one is about how the brain shuts down when it's afraid. We get good marks on running when we're scared but not so good marks on making decision.

The other is about death. Caitlin Doughty is a writer and mortician living in Los Angeles. She founded Order of the Good Death to talk about, among other things, death. She puts up funny videos about serious subjects, often under the rubric Ask a Mortician. After Sandy Hook, she put up a video about how to talk to kids about death. It's pretty good. Here it is.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston Marathon Bombing

For both of my readers, I'm all right. Wendy is all right. Ben is safely in China.

I never thought I'd see the words "safely" and "in China" in the same sentence.

At current count, three people were killed and over 140 injured.

To me this is less like the 9/11 event and much more like the Oklahoma City Bombing. Though, fortunately, much, much less destructive. I don't think it's a coincidence that it happened on Patriot's Day and Tax Day and within a week of the April 19 anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing.

Everything possible that can be said about the bombing is already being said so I will not add to it further.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Google Reader vs Netvibes, Part Deux

I've transitioned over to Netvibes and I've been using it for a month or so. Here are the results:

  1. I've figured out how to manage things like deleting feeds and moving them around in the reader mode. So that previous criticism no longer applies.
  2. I find myself regularly frustrated with the reader interface. For example, if I want to open up an entry in a separate window there is this eeny tiny icon to use. If you miss it you expand the current entry. Which is okay but if you then close the entry the UI puts you back up at the top of the list-- not so much fun when you have a few hundred entries to work with.
  3. The back end of Netvibes is quite buggy. It's regularly pushing up as read things that I have already read, marked as read and marked as read again. Then, this morning, it took everything that was new and marked it as read without me ever having signed on to netvibes at all
  4. There is still no good way to alphabetize a list in a category. That alone makes netvibes a lot harder to use.
So far, if Google Reader is a 10, Netvibes is a weak 5. 

I know there are other readers out there. I'll be trying them.

I'm also hearing now that Google Alerts is broken. Some alerts are working and some aren't. I tend to use feeds to support my alerts instead of email-- I get more than enough email. It may be tied to the demise of Reader.

This may be a bigger problem than Reader and an ominous indicator out of Google. I had thought Blogger was next on the block but it may in fact be Alerts. Both Reader and Alerts are intimately connected with the whole concept of searching-- what Google made its original money on. If they're abandoning core functionality, what's next? 

Getting an Alert replacement is going to be even more difficult. Most alert systems are tied intimately to social media and I'm not. I have a minuscule Facebook presence and don't use twitter. I don't like Facebook. I don't need Facebook. I don't trust Facebook. As far as I'm concerned the less Mark Zuckerberg knows about me, the better.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Bill the Galactic Hero

The BGH kickstarter is still 25k short.

Come on, people. In a world where Amanda F*ing Palmer can pick up over a million with a hug promise (See here.) can't we let the Alex Cox, the director of Repo Man, have a shot at Bill, The Galactic Hero? Is there no justice in the world?

Oh, yeah. There isn't.

Go and donate anyway.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Things Are Happening Here

(Picture from here.)

There are a lot of things we can be upset about these days. The sequester. Intransigence in Washington. Unemployment. However, one thing we should be happy about: the state of science.

A lot of things came across my desk that showed this.

NASA is looking into 3D printing-- on the moon. (See here.) How to produce a structure on the moon where humans can live? Print it. On another NASA front, they're looking into capturing an asteroid and bringing it back to the moon where we can get at it. (See here.)

Mars has water-- there's been evidence for it from previous Mars studies. There might be a fair bit of it underground. (See here.) We still don't know how much subsurface water there is right now but there might have been a whole lot of it as recently as 500 million years ago. (See here.)  Use of ground penetrating radar has uncovered flood channels. Big flood channels. As big or bigger than any that we know the earth has ever seen. Such a huge water outburst that the area that had housed it collapsed. 500 myears is a long time but it is considerably later than previously thought.


On the good science/bad news front, a new study (see here.) demonstrates the planet was in an accelerating cooling trend-- until around 1900. Bad news: we're heating up the planet and making the world a worse place. But hey. We avoided an ice age.

Oh, an a whole lot of the heat is getting picked up by the deep ocean. (See here.) Who knows what that's going to do.

The Neanderthal genome has gotten more interesting. Apparently there are a lot of sites that have preserved Neanderthal DNA. The Denisovans are more and more being shown to be separate from the rest of the Neanderthals and we now have a clearer idea of the separation between modern humans and Neanderthals. (See here.) Although a recent fossil find in Italy (see here.) has been suggested to be a hybrid between humans and Neanderthals. Though it was hard to take Discovery News' title ("Love Child between Humans and Neanderthals") very seriously.

Staying with human evolution for a moment, there's been some re-dating occurring. For a while now the fossil evidence and genetic evidence have confirmed one another. Humans came out of Africa around 50k years ago, etc. Well, some recent studies have suggested the mutation rate upon which the molecular clock was based have to be rethought. (See here.) This puts humans coming out of Africa considerably early-- 90 to 130k years ago.

There was also a gentleman discovered whose Y-chromosome genetically predates modern humans-- 334k years ago. (See here.) To be quite clear on this, this man's Y-chromosome had genetic material that looked as if it were descended from individuals much older. One theory is that there was a sub-group of modern humans that interbred with an older population and that Y-chromosome was preserved. This is interesting for a lot of reasons. Humans have one mother and one father. For a long time it's been thought that all living human beings descended from a single woman. This was derived from mitochondrial DNA research. The mitochondria of cells come only from the mother, hence the term "mitochondrial Eve." However, all males get their Y-chromosome from their fathers, only. Hence, there was thought to be a Y-chromosome Adam. This new evidence throws that out and, to me, brings the mitochondrial Eve into question. We might have a more varied ancestry than we thought and that it will come out the more people whose DNA are sequenced.

Voyager 1 fell over the "heliocliff" (see here.) but we're still trying to figure out if it actually made it into interstellar space. Certainly, particles emitted by the sun have dropped precipitously and there's been a corresponding increase in particles indicating interstellar space. However, the suns magnetic field is still there. So our identification of the boundary between us and out there is still in flux.

 But before we get two full of ourselves, I must relate the story of Val St. John and Scott Fish, two DJs down in Florida. (See here.) They put out a supposed news report that the water supply was filled with Dihydrogen Oxide, a dangerous substance that could fill your lungs if inhaled and kill you. A number of people called the water supply officials to ask if the water supply was contaminated. Turns out it's against the law to impugn the quality of water and the two DJs were suspended.

Makes me worry when people fall for something as silly as that.

Goes to show you can take some people right up to the Dihydrogen Oxide but you can't make them think.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bad Things

Give a baby a saber and he'll cut somebody. Give a baby a light saber and things get really bad.
See here.