Sunday, December 13, 2015

Biological Revolutions: The Green Invasion, Part 2

(Picture from here.)

It's hard to overestimate the importance of the plant invasion of the land. It's the precursor to everything else.

I don't just mean plants, either. The current model of vertebrates invading the land involves the changes in freshwater swamps being the source. What causes freshwater swamps? The plants surrounding the fresh water.

Let's imagine for a moment the world prior to the land invasion.

We have oxidation geology-- that started long before when the cyanobacteria pumped oxygen into the atmosphere. But there was no soil. No fixed nitrates. No decomposing strata. It was bare rock and gravel. Sure, there was slime at the edge of the estuary pools but not much else.

Even fresh water was different. One of the reasons freshwater lakes and swamps have life in them is the washed down organic material from the life on the land. Without washed down material there is nothing to eat. Nothing to feed the bottom of the web of life and without that bottom there's nothing to build anything above it.

The green invasion had to happen first. It was the enabling technology for everything else that came later. The land plants fix carbon out of the air into organic material. That organic material falls and decomposes-- how? It needs fungi and bacteria. Fungi are absolutely dependent other materials to consume. On the land that can't work without the plants, right? Fungi are very old-- they diverged about 1.5 billion years ago. But they couldn't invade the land until plants were there for them. Again: plants are the enabling technology.

Before the vertebrates, the most successful animals invading the land were what became the insects. Again, without plants there was nothing there for them.

Back to the swamp, the vertebrates came out to invade the land and become amphibians. I suspect the very first were there chasing the insects. But they wouldn't have been there at all unless the swamps were fertile first. Oh, yeah. That's due to the plants.

One of the very earliest innovations in plants that enabled this colonization was the development of the alternation of generations. This is analogous to the sperm and egg vs. organism in animals. Animals produce gametes-- eggs and sperm-- that are haploid, i.e., have 1/2 the total number of genes in the full organism. They come together to create a diploid individual with both sets of genes that then goes on to grow into another gamete producing adult. There are a lot of ways this occurs but this is the mechanism boiled down to the roots. (Heh.)

The embryophyta, are the equivalent in plants. There is a sporophyte,  which is diploid, and a gametophyte, which is haploid. Almost every plant you see, from liverworts to sequoias, are embryophytes.

There's been an enormous amount of discussion about haploidy vs diploidy. Why are diploids pretty much universally the norm in highly organized multicellular organisms? Diploid organisms have double the genetic material to work with and the sexual mechanisms are very efficient at presenting new combinations. Yet selection is far more efficient in acting on haploid organisms. Possibly the blending of these two approaches, diploid for organism and haploid for gametes, is the strength of the system.

The bryophytes were very early-- non-vascular plants. We talked about them last time.

Clearly, there were several early innovations but the first one that really enables increase of scale is vascularization-- the creation of a plant vascular system to move nutrients, oxygen and waste products around the plant system. The development of lignin was key for this and it gave structural rigidity to the plant cell walls and from that the structural strength of the xylem and phloem. This happened about 440-360 million years ago. This was a brand new innovation for plants and a significantly more recent than the similar system developed in animals.

It's interesting the plant vascular system and animal vascular system serve similar needs but evolved completely differently and under significantly different environments. In both cases, it enabled the organisms to scale up since it severed the requirement of being intimate with the organisms outside world.

All through the Devonian, these vascular plants proliferated. At some point, they developed an outside material to resist the loss of water. Thus we come to cellulose.

Land plants didn't invent cellulose. Algae did that and how it happened is a long and ongoing discussion. (See here.) But land plants had it in their repertoire. It was a component of their cell wall. (See here.) At some point, that cell wall thickened on the outside. The thick outer wall, likely selected for by the ability to preserve water, had an inadvertent advantage: it gave structural rigidity to the plant. Plants could grow tall.

Now, plants use a lot of mechanisms to support themselves. Trees use a dead rigid inner core (called "wood") they continually encapsulate. Bananas, for example, use a completely different mechanism. Cut a banana tree down and take it apart and you will find no wood. Just what looks like a tightly coiled leaf. In this case, the tree gets its rigidity by hydrostatic pressure-- the same thing that makes a garden hose stiff when the water is blocked.

The lignophytes, those plants that could generate wood, arose very pretty quickly. The first land plants showed up in the Ordovician, about 485-443 mya. Vascular plants showed up in the Silurian period: 443-419 mya. Wood shows up in the Devonian: 418-358 mya. The time from the first known land plants to woody plants that could become trees is about 67 million years. Approximately the time that it took from the meteor drawing the curtain on the Cretaceous to now.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Monday, December 7, 2015

"All Lives Matter" vs "Black Lives Matter"

I was taken by the recent Trump event where a Black Lives Matter protester was roughed up. (See here.) As he was carried away, members of the crowd called out "All lives matter!" as some sort of argument against Black Lives Matter.

This refrain has been echoing across the media quite a bit, apparently without much thought. The idea of the All Lives Matter people is that Black lives shouldn't be singled out since everybody is important. The roughed up BLM protester might think their protest hypocritical.

I have my own point of view on racism in the United States. It's here. It's a problem. We have to deal with it. But that's not what caught my attention here.

The subtle shift from "Black lives matter" to "All lives matter" is a truly diabolical shift in perspective that is not being noticed enough.

First, let's consider the situation. Engineer that I am, I always go to numbers. The Guardian has provided a lovely database of statistics for a horrible collection of facts: police killing constituents. (See here.)

From this, we can determine that, so far in 2015, 775 armed people have been killed by police and 205 unarmed people have been killed by police. For the White, Black and Hispanic people, this breaks down into:

Event Total Wht Blck Hsp
armed people killed by police 775 397 185 125
unarmed people killed by police 205 91 68 32

Which works out to the following percentages:

Event % wht % blk % hsp
armed people killed by police 51.23 46.60 16.13
unarmed people killed by police 44.39 74.73 15.61

Now the population percentages of the USA for these three groups is %77.4 White, %13.2 Black and %17.4 Hispanic.

Given these percentages, we can derive expected numbers of police killings. This comes out to be:

Event Exp. Wht Exp. Blk Exp. Hsp White factor Black factor Hisp. Factor
armed people killed by police 600 102 135 0.66 1.81 0.93
unarmed people killed by police 159 27.1 35.7 0.57 2.51 0.90

Where it gets interesting is the ratio between the expected value and the actual value-- the factor column. From this, I conclude that Whites are under-represented, Blacks are over-represented and Hispanics come out pretty much on the money. The Hispanic statistics serve as a sort of control in this experiment. Black people are getting screwed.

Certainly there are other confounding factors: geography, poverty, etc. Statistics are slippery. If there is a correlation to wealth, perhaps there are enough rich Hispanics driving down the incidence of the police killings in their demographic. However, if that were the case, it would indicate that something was preferentially keeping Blacks in poverty more than Hispanics.

Which brings us back to the Trump incident in a predominately white crowd. The "Black lives matter" has an entire subtext that says: "Look, you f*$&*rs. We matter just as much as you do but you're killing us a lot more often." The "All lives matter" response denies that subtext and makes the (blatantly false) presumption that by someone saying "Black lives matter" implies that lives other than black lives are valued less.

The only rational response to that is pretty much: yes but so what? That has nothing to do with what was said. And the statistics shows pretty clearly that certain lives are valued more highly than other.

I'm very sensitive to how language is used and this is far from the most egregious example of subtly shifting the nature of the debate.

This is not the worst of this debate. Another mechanism is to bring up statistics that show Black on Black violence is far worse than police killings.

Again, the rational response: sure. Yes, non-police killings outnumber police killings. Thank God. Demographic on demographic killing outnumbers cross-demographic killings.  Does this surprise anyone?

But it has nothing to do with the problem at hand. Non-police violence cannot be compared to police violence. The police are the recognized officers of the state. They are our tax dollars and votes expressed locally. They are arbiter and authority in local disputes. Is the best argument supporting police is that they're not quite as bad a road rage?

Police should represent our best selves, not the hunkered down mentality of a soldier being fired on in a foreign land. We must make that happen.

I like how they do it in Canada with the Special Investigations Unit. The SIU is a civilian oversight agency that is called in to execute the investigation of any police circumstance involving death, serious injury or sexual assault.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Biological Revolutions: The Green Invasion, Part 1

(Picture from here.)

There are a number of revolutionary events in the biological history of earth. I've spoken about many of them.

But one extremely large one was the invasion of the land by plants.

We had life in the seas nearly four billion years ago. The most likely origin of life is in the sea unless we were planted here by the Prometheans. However, life on land didn't happen until significantly later. And by life on land, I mean plants. Animals might have ventured on land before then but they didn't stay. Likely the looked around, realized this was a bad idea, and ran/skittled/slithered back to the water before they cooked.

And it was inhospitable. Imagine a bleak bare rock environment. No soil-- that's a product of life. Sure there's sand but soil requires an organic constituent. And without plants that didn't happen. No fungi-- fungi requires decaying organic matter.

There might have been photosynthetic single celled organisms here and there. For example, an algal cell blown up past the water might have landed in a lake and survived. It's not an invasion of the land but it's getting away from the sea.

Even then, it would have been a rough life. The organisms in freshwater lakes also depend on incoming organic material and specific minerals. Much of which happen as a consequence of-- you guessed it-- plants on land.

This was a hard problem.

Consider that nice green algal cell in the ocean.

No problem with water-- it's surrounded by it. It can get all the water it needs. Minerals and organic material? Not a problem: it's in the ocean. Even a billion years ago the ocean was a functioning ecology and a veritable soup of edible organic and inorganic material. All carried by the water. Reproduction? Dump eggs and sperm in the water. The probabilities are that a few will find each other. The water is doing all the work. Radiation? The water stops most of it. Heat and cold? It's going to range from freezing to boiling-- physics prevents anything else. But the temperature is always highly buffered by the mass of water itself. It takes an enormous amount of heat energy to push the water temperature around. (Question: why doesn't global warming happen more quickly? Answer: It's in the water.)

You see a pattern here. Water serves as a wonderful compendium of capabilities: medium of reproduction, temperature and chemical mediator, container of nutrients. Take away the water and what's a poor little algal cell to do?

Plants comprise the kingdom Plantae. All land plants and the green algae are in this kingdom. They are multicellular eukaryotes just like mammals. Unlike mammals-- or any other animal-- plants have have cell walls. The land plants have cell walls of cellulose. Cellulose is just like starch except for how the individual sugars bind to one another. That little difference in binding is the difference between the contents of a potato and the heart of an oak.

Plants photosynthesize-- a feature they share with the red algae and brown algae, which are not part of Plantae but are photosynthesizing eukaryotes.

There are two main divisions in Plantae: the land plants and the green algae. The current presumption is that a species of green algae made its home in fresh water lakes. This would have forced them to evolve mechanisms for coping with the lesser nutrient load, increased radiation load (depending on shallowness) and increased tolerance for temperature and chemical shifts. I.e., it prepared them for land.

This isn't all that far fetched. If you've ever been to a fresh water lake where the level fluctuates regularly, you'll see a band of dried algae at the high water mark. It's black, dried and crusty and looks like nothing more than burnt toast. Toss it in the water and wait a day and you'll get bright green algae.

But it's far cry from that to aforementioned oak. There are a lot of steps between.

The first, obviously, is to be able to operate in a dry, or relatively dry environment.

The land plants are called embryophytes.

Molecular evidence suggests the following clade relationships between living embryophytes:

(Picture from here.)

It's chancy to examine a clade of modern organisms and then attempt to project back in time. For example, humans and chimps share a cladistic relationship: in the great ape family humans and chimps share the most recent common ancestor.

However, that happened several million years ago. Chimps kept evolving since then. All that means, then, is that this common ancestor had shared traits between humans and chimps that evolved over time into humans and chimps. Looking at that last common ancestor, we'd likely expect a blend of traits.

In this cladogram, we would expect the last common ancestor of modern plants branched off to liverworts before it branched off to something else. But that's not the same as saying plants descended from liverworts. Like our chimp example, liverworts have been evolving right along with the rest of plants. The best we can do is examine liverworts and compare them with other modern plants and try to tease out what traits might have been preserved from that ancestor and what traits liverworts evolved on their own.

That said, what's a liverwort?

The Marchantiophyta are  bryophyte land plants. Bryophytes consist of mosses, hornworts and liverworts.

They're small, usually less than an inch. If you find a rock in a relatively moist environment you'll probably find lichen-- that flat, gray, leaf-like material-- and liverworts. They have no stems. No leaves. The ones that I've seen look like bits of green clay spread over a rock with a spatula.

They are non-vascular. Vascular plants have tubes inside of them that are used to transport fluid and nutrients-- the plant analog to blood vessels. Liverworts lack this. So it can't get very big.

Liverworts need water to reproduce. They build reproductive structures for their gametes and the gametes have flagella to propel themselves through thin films of water. It's not surprising that they are not prevalent live in excessively dry environments and are not terribly tolerant of direct solar radiation. That rock you found them on was likely shaded. Although, there are desert species.

The liverwort plant body is called a thallus-- interestingly enough, the same term is used in describing algae and fungi. It's anchored to the ground by a rhizoid. Rhizoids can be as little as one cell across and are hair like. Since the liverwort lacks vascularization, diffusion of nutrients, oxygen and waste products has to be across cells. Hence, it's thin. It's outer skin is often covered with a waxy material called cutin to protect it from drying out. Liverworts lack lignin, the main support polymer of vascular plants, so it can't get very tall.

(See here.)

In short, the liverwort does pretty much the bare minimum to survive on land. It looks as if a green algae thought of the cheapest and easiest ways to survive on land and implemented them. It's a long way from a liverwort to our towering oak. Still, it's a step in the right direction.

It's not hard to imagine liverworts (or something like them) in the shade of a boulder a few feet from a lake, in a lonely and barren world, bare rock in all directions.

The liverwort doesn't care. It's got a foothold.

More reading:
Early evolution of plant evolution
Invasion of the land by plants: when and where?
Climate change caused by land plant invasion

Sunday, November 1, 2015

State of the Farm: The Problem of Abundance

(Picture from here.)

Yeah, another State of the Farm. We're still in harvest season. It tasks me. I shall have it.

I've complained about this year's weather before and, truth be told, we did not get the amount of garden produce we wanted. Potatoes, not so great. Tomatoes were a joke. Beans and cold crops ended up lunch for a woodchuck.

I mean we did have enough garden crops to enjoy many good meals. We have some beans in the basement. But we didn't have what one would call abundance.

Not from the garden, anyway.

Much of our tree harvest-- chestnuts, peaches, cornelian cherries and persimmons-- were quite good.Which brings us to the problem of abundance.

Getting beans, tomatoes or plums here and there adds spice to the table. But harvest has to cope with the problem of scale.

For example, let us consider the chestnut.

The native American chestnut is all but wiped out by the chestnut blight-- a nasty fungus brought over to us from Japan. The chestnut ranged from north Alabama to Vermont. It was a climax tree and supplied food to native Americans and wood to colonists. In Italy, chestnut flour in some places was a more important staple than wheat flour. The blight changed all that.

What we have now are hybrids of various sorts between Chinese chestnut and American chestnuts or pure Chinese chestnuts. Resistant strains have been developed and it is possible that someday the American Chestnut will return in force. I hope for that. I hope for the return of the American Elm, as well.

We have three trees on our property. Until this year, we didn't have a mature enough pair to get a good yield. This year we went from a pound or two to somewhere between thirty and sixty pounds. This is several hundred chestnuts.

If you look at the picture at the top, you'll notice a vicious looking burr and brown nuts. The spikes on a burr will penetrate most leather gloves. It has to be removed.

The brown on the remaining nuts is a sheath. Most people boil the nuts in some way to loosen the sheath. That's okay for a few but isn't practical for hundreds. What we do is puncture the sheath and microwave them. This loosens the brown sheath so it can be removed with a paring knife.

Not shown in the picture is the papery covering underneath. We dry the nuts and then remove the papery covering. Then, we vacuum seal them and store them in the basement.

This process isn't so bad for a pound or two. But we've been skinning burs for a couple of weeks now. 

In previous years, we've used it in soups. I'm not sure how many dried chestnuts we have but it is north of twenty pounds. Clearly, we'll be discovering new uses for it.

My point is that the scale of harvest is meaningful. Every gardener has a zucchini story where they kept on coming like it was the zombie apocalypse. It's a painful experience. Here is the very earth providing you with more than you asked for. The compulsion to make use of it is overwhelming. I remember one place I worked where the break room had three large zucchinis on the table labeled "free", every Monday throughout the month of August.

But we'll manage the chestnuts. Grind them into flour like the Italians did.

A bigger problem for us this year was fruit. Specifically: peaches, grapes and persimmons.

The peach harvest was in the tens of pounds. Cut 'em up and put them in the freezer. Then the grapes came in-- somewhere around sixty pounds of Concords and about twenty pounds of Marechal Fochs. Twenty pounds isn't that much for the M/F's. The grapes are small and the bunches compact. I intended them for wine so I wait until I have about thirty to forty pounds and then it's into the press.

The Concords are a different problem.

The Concords loved this weather. This is the greatest yield we've ever had. All from one vine. But the Concords have always had a fairly good yield. This year was exceptional but perhaps as much for the low numbers of yellow jackets as anything else. In previous years, I've had to fight them for the grapes. About the time they come in the wasps start looking for a good food source for the winter.

I blended in the Concord to the M/F in the wine making and it worked pretty well. But then the harvest became too much.

I don't really like the taste of dried grapes and getting rid of the seeds is a problem. In addition, there are only so many grapes one can eat either directly or in the form of jam. I considered making a grape syrup similar to maple syrup but that turned out to be a shortcut back to jelly.

So, about fifteen years ago, I started an earnest journey to make a good, dry Concord wine. It took about ten years. I have technique and recipe, which I'll talk about in the future, but this post is already too long. Suffice to say, forty pounds of Concord grapes can be spun into six gallons of a nice blush wine. Much easier to store. But the steps are still a scale issue:
  1. Harvest the grapes.
  2. Pull the grapes off the stem.
  3. Freeze them.
  4. Thaw and press.
  5. Make wine-- it's own set of steps.
As the total amount increases, small inefficiencies start to play a center role. Once we figured out the best way to remove the nut from the burr, the limiting factor became removing the sheath and drying it. Our little food dry is running 24/7. In the case of the grapes, I spent a lot of time in front of the TV removing grapes from stems. Pressing can be done in a batch but it needs a big press. About six years ago I gave up and bought a good one. The time consumed in lots of little batches more than made up for any lost juice in a big press. But if I wasn't making wine, what would I do with the grapes? 

Abundance is a fact of nature-- we're not the only ones that take advantage of it. All organisms produce more offspring than are strictly needed to allow for attrition. Cod lay up to 500,000 eggs/kg of body weight. Our two chestnuts provided us with hundreds of potential offspring. The natural systems presume predation on offspring and produce accordingly. In this context, we're the predators. Others, like commercial bananas, depend completely on us to propagate them. The supermarket banana will not sprout on its own.

On our little farm, we're interrupting the chestnut reproductive cycle, preventing them from recolonizing the northeast for our own selfish purposes.
Makes me want to laugh like a super villain. 
Ha ha! Castanea dentata! Foiled you again!
Oh, please. Let me propagate and become a climax forest species again. I'll do anything you ask.
Never! You had your chance! Now it is the turn of the oaks and the maples.
Gives you something to do when you're pulling off burrs.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

State of the Farm: The Revenge of the Two Cycle Engine

 (Picture from here.)

It's harvest time on our tiny, tiny farm. It was an interesting summer.

A woodchuck found its way into the garden and it took some doing to get him out. The old fellow was too smart for traps. We tried a few ways to just persuade him to go. Things like about a pound and a half of mothballs down the hole.

This didn't dissuade him. For all I know he absorbed the naphtha and became a mutant, inhuman, hybrid woodchuck. You wanted to know how the Aliens in Alien came to be? Naphtha and woodchucks. I'll tell you that for free.

Anyway, we finally did in the woodchuck but not before he managed to do in a lot of the garden. So most of the cold crops-- broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, etc.-- are history. We've been waiting for the weather to turn to replant. It's not so productive to plant broccoli in 90 degree weather.

The beans and the corn survived. So did the carrots. The cold and wet June did in the melons. The woodchuck plundered the pumpkins but left the basil.

So we'll refer to this season as a "learning experience."

Made quite a bit of wine this year and ran into a couple of snags there, as well. We did three fruit wines this year: rhubarb, cornelian cherry and strawberry. The rhubarb came out fine. A bit dry and pleasant. Very nice. But the CC and the strawberry came out too sweet.

I thought it might be temperature. Last year I bottled a currant wine that was a little sweet and discovered over Christmas dinner I had created a currant champagne. I have been warned since to never open the wine at the dinner table again. Remembering this, I brought up the strawberry. No change.

I went over the log book and lo: I had added additional nutrients to the currant and rhubarb but failed to do so on the CC and the strawberry. Next one I'll add scads of nutrients and see what I come up with.

But it is now fall and we have to set up for winter.

About two years ago we had three large trees felled on the property. I gave them a measuring stick and a size and sure enough only about a third of the wood fit in the wood stove. We burned through it but had this evil woodpile in the front lawn.

It also turned out that we had to clear out from under the power lines. Ben and I tore at that last summer and dropped about twenty medium sized trees, exposing the power lines and (more importantly) the land under the power lines. We did this with hand tools because I don't like chain saws.

Not that I have anything against a device that ruin a human limb in a split second and cut it off in a few seconds more. What's not to love about that?

No. It's the dreaded two stroke engine.

Let me explain.

Your car has a four stroke engine in it. The piston goes up and comes down to pull in fuel and air. Then it rolls back up and compresses the mixture and ignites it. Then it comes down again and returns, this time pressing out the waste gases. The "stroke" means the travel of the piston: two up and two down. They are named:
  1. induction (down)
  2. compression (up)
  3. power (down)
  4. exhaust (up)
Also referred to as "suck, squeeze, bang and blow."

A two stroke engine does that in two strokes. That is, one up and down movement of the piston. Suck-blow and squeeze-bang. You can see it in the GIF above.

There are a lot of reasons to like a two cycle engine. Fewer moving parts means it's lighter. There's a very good power to weight ratio. The fewer moving parts means that it's cheaper to produce. Lubrication is by the addition of oil into the fuel.

But all of these things means that the two stroke engine has been the power source of choice for small fuel powered appliances: lawn trimmers, clippers, edgers and, of course, chain saws.

Because they are intended for a market that is very price sensitive (i.e., me and people like me.) they cut corners. In fact, they have cut so many corners on these products they could easily be called spheres.

So, I've never had a chain saw last more than a few hours. Never had a trimmer that lasted more than a season.

Now, there are reasons for this. Alcohol in modern gasoline plays hell with the cheap parts of these sorts of engines and turn the carburetor into a glue block. I've gone to alcohol free gasoline, run the unit dry and cleaned it thoroughly each time. But it costs money to rebuild the carburetor every season.

In addition, a chain saw is one of those essentials for a place like ours. If we're in the middle of Deep Winter and run out of wood, I can go out and cut a few trees with a handsaw. But I can't cut a cord of wood that way.

This year I had a nice unit I'd gotten from a friend and I babied it. Sweet store bought gasoline brought by angels. Oil produced by the finest crushed Cretaceous bees. Cleaned it every day. And it still crapped out on me. I tried cleaning the innards but no joy. Took it to a repair person I knew.

Glue block.

Plus the unit had low enough compression it wasn't worth saving.

So I went back home and rummaged around in garage. There, in smudged glory was an electric chain saw. Not very strong. But no two stroke engine, either.

I sharpened it up and went out to cut wood without much hope.

Two cords later I'd had enough and took it back to the house. This was promising.

Next time, I took it apart and cleaned it-- simple enough, really. Sharpened it up again. Two cords more. Then, three.

We have now about five cords in the shelter. There are a few pieces left but this has largely been a success.

Hm, I'm thinking. We went to solar a few years ago so using an electric chainsaw makes ecological sense. It's a lot cheaper-- a new electric chainsaw is about $50. A good gas unit is about $350. So I could go through one a year with no pain if I had to. But the way it's going, it doesn't look like I'll have to.

The long extension cord is a pain but so what? Finishing the day with the two stroke and having one arm longer than the other from pulling the start cord was a bigger pain.

Ecologically sound and easy? I'm sold.

And screw you, two cycle engine.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

How to Bike in Boston

(Picture from here.)

I’ve been biking in Boston for the last three years via the Hubway system.

Hubway is a bike rental system. You find a corral where the bikes are located, pick one and rent it and then drop off at a corral near your destination. Since I come into Boston on the train, I only had two choices: one of those collapsible bikes or the Hubway. The train won’t allow regular bikes during my commute time.

It’s sort of a choice between the sublime and the ridiculous. The collapsible bikes are pleasant, light and as nice to ride as a regular bike. But they’re expensive and once you bring the bike in you’re committed to riding the bike out again.

Remember those clunky bikes you rode when you were eight? Coaster brakes, three speeds—and only two worked—balloon tires fit for the moon and it outweighed you by ten pounds? That’s a Hubway bike. They have hand brakes instead of coaster brakes but the rest is much the same. They’re built to be tough. Elegance and pleasantries are distant luxuries. But they cost $85/year for an unlimited number of 30 minute rides. There are a bunch of corrals near the endpoints of my commute and if it rains in the middle of the day I don’t have to get the bike home somehow.

Ridiculous wins again.

So, over the last three years I’ve seen a lot of miscreant biking.

The hierarchy of vehicles in Boston goes cars to pedestrians to bicycles. The peds might disagree with this. I have seen a man in the middle of green lit lane staring at the oncoming cars and daring them to run him down. I take that as evidence that at least in the mind of some pedestrians they are on top. Still, I have to give it to the cars. The old kinetic energy = ½ mv**2 still holds better for cars, given their mass and velocity.

In the hierarchy of bikes, it starts with the Olympic multithousand dollar bikes ridden by people wearing not much more than an oil slick, the plethora of medium cost bikes, collapsible and then Hubway. 

Yup: bottom of the barrel again.

I’ve come up with some rules by which one might bike in Boston and live to tell the take.

Rule Number 1: Wear a Helmet
Really. This one should be obvious but I see about half of the bicyclists without them. I mean it won’t protect you from broken bones or wrenched ligaments but it will keep your noggin alive. Isn’t that what it’s all about? My Dad used to say as long as he had his right eye, right hand and his brain intact, he wanted to live. And the eye and hand were optional.

I did know one bicyclist who didn’t wear a helmet because he said it made him more wary of the traffic. He also said that he shouldn’t wear a helmet because it was the cars’ fault. If it wasn’t for them he wouldn’t need it.

The nice thing about helmets is it protects the stupid and smart equally. It’s a democratic safety measure. If you make a mistake—and all of us have done that—it helps you. If the other guy makes a mistake, it still helps you.

Yeah. Helmets are a pain. So are concussions.

Hell, you could make a case for pedestrians to wear a helmet. They’re the ones that get hit the most. Not drivers, though. If airbags, seat belts and crumple zones don’t save you, nothing will.

Rule Number 2: Pay Attention
The thing about riding around Boston is that nobody is looking. They don’t see you. They don’t even look up. When I’m riding and run into a situation, nine times out of ten it’s because somebody wasn’t paying attention. They were arguing with someone next to them, listening to music, yelling into a cell phone, arguing with their child. And then there were the pedestrians who weren’t looking either.

Nobody evades physics. The sharp pants and teardrop helmet are not going to save you if you’re not looking where you’re going. Or, worse, you’ve made the decision to make a curl around a pedestrian with half an inch to spare and they suddenly turn towards you. It’s not their problem. It’s yours.

And while we’re talking about physics, remember that old KE=½ mv**2? Cars have both ends of that equation. They are your predator. You should feel about them the way gazelles feel about a lions. Moral superiority has no effect on physics. You might be right turning into traffic the correct way and still get squished. We’ll put “He was right” on your tombstone.

Rule Number 3: Survival Trumps Traffic Rules
It only takes a drop of quinine to spoil a bowl of ice cream. It only takes a few idiots to mess up traffic—driver, pedestrian or bicyclist.

I have absolutely no qualms about running a red light or slipping through stopped traffic. That said, if you decide to do this you are in the wrong. You have no special dispensation because you’re a bicyclist so someone obeying traffic has the perfect right to give you the finger. But, then, if you were paying attention (See rule 2) you wouldn’t have cut them off and put yourself and them in danger.

Traffic rules are not bad things and not things to be ignored without thought. If I come up into an intersection that has a red light on four sides to let pedestrians cross the intersection, I don’t have a problem going through it. But—and this is a big but—I have no right to put people in danger when I do so. It’s incumbent on me to go through safely. (Again, see rule 2)

Survivorship doesn’t just mean the cyclist. It means everybody concerned. It means stop the bike when it’s clear you can’t get through without hitting someone. It doesn’t mean plow ahead they’ll get out of the way because slowing down will bring down your time. It means going slow over bridges and hanging behind a pedestrian until it’s safe to pass. It doesn’t mean yelling at them to get out of your way.

Rule Number 4: You Are Not That Important
Yeah, yeah. You want to make your train. You want to shave a few seconds off your time. You want to get a good workout and look good doing it.

So what?

If you’ve caused a driver to brake unnecessarily or a pedestrian to run to get out of the way or made another cyclist who had right of way stop to avoid hitting you, you messed up! It’s not their fault. It’s yours.

Get over it. Cope. Don’t give them the finger. If you’re lucky enough not to hit somebody or get hit, take it as a lesson and quit doing it. There’ll be another train. Those seconds were eaten up by the stoplight anyway. Ride a little bit further to make up the workout.

Rule Number 5: Don’t Do Anything Stupid
Emblazoned in my mind is a woman I saw going up Broadway in Cambridge on the wrong side of the street, without a helmet and carrying a puppy. I am not making any part of this up.

I see people willfully doing really dumb things all the time. Riding up Charles Street the wrong way. I’m not against disobeying traffic rules (See rule 3) but Charles Street, Boston, is a hot street. You are asking for trouble. Remember KE=½ mv**2? That’s velocity squared. Which means if the car is coming towards you at 30 and you’re traveling towards it at 15, the velocity of impact is 45. If it’s the other way, the velocity of impact is 15. 225 is a lot less than 2025.

These are my rules. They all apply to me—at one time or another I’ve violated all of them. But that’s no reason to continue the violation.

When I was learning to fly, one of the lessons was about not being stupid. Every risk is statistical. So if you act irresponsibly there’s a significant chance you’ll get away with it. The tendency is, then, to downgrade the risk.

But the risk hasn’t changed. If there’s a 30% risk you’re going to get clobbered by the oncoming truck and it misses it doesn’t change the risk the next time. It’s still 30%. The only change is you have decided the risk doesn’t apply to you.

Physics hasn’t changed. Physics always wins.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Parenting in an Evolutionary World

(Picture from here.)

Tomorrow we take our son to college.

Yes, it’s an emotional. We’re taking someone we’ve known for 18+ years, who has essentially been the center of our lives for all that time and putting them in an environment where we no longer have control. He has to sink or swim on his own. High school is more forgiving than college and college is more forgiving than the outside world. So this is a step that still is somewhat protected. That said, it’s still a step and a big one for him.

So, as I tend to do, I want to examine this in a larger context.

Humans are incredibly diverse. We have some common behaviors: religion (in its broadest sense), managing the relationships between men and women, rearing children, language, music. One of the common markers across all cultures is the transition from child to adolescent to adult. It can be as abrupt the onset of menstruation determining a woman is fit to marry or as long as going through high school, college, graduate school, internship and, finally, a job. But the passage is marked.

Evolution suggests that we express our heritage in our behavior and frame. The horse’s hoof is made of the same material as human fingernails, though its form is different. Even the furthest relatives to us, perhaps single celled eukaryotes and even bacteria, still use the same DNA that we do, though they use it differently. It shouldn’t be surprising that our closest relatives show common ground with us in their behavior and frame.
They mark the passage from child to adolescent to adult as well.

In general, chimpanzee community retain the male children while the females migrate away to join other groups. This isn’t universally true. Flo, one of Jane Goodall’s Kasakela community subjects, had several children both males and females. The males stayed with the community as expected but several of her daughters did as well. Flo’s status passed down through her offspring. Several of her sons and daughters gained high status in the community. All of them retained relationships with their siblings and their mother for the duration of her life.

Still, the transition is important. Chimps nurture their offspring for about five years. While the childhood phase passes after that there are often strong sibling relationships—similar to adolescent to child or adolescent to adolescent relationships in human families—for a long time after. Goodall talks about one of her subjects, Sniff, who at six adopted his little sister when his mother died. However, Sniff didn’t manage to get her the milk she needed and she died. Sometimes, adult females will adopt orphaned children. One wonders, then, if Sniff’s attachment to his sister was a help or a hindrance.

You can cast the same story into human terms: a young boy struck with grief at his mother’s death and holding onto his sister as his sole remaining family member. But the boy is too young to care for her properly and the community too disorganized to step in. Tragedy occurs. Would it be any less a tragedy for Sniff and his sister? I don’t think so.

I wonder, then, how the parents of the chimps that leave feel. There’s no direct way to determine the nature of the relationships between parent and child in the chimpanzee. We can infer relationships by how many times one chimp grooms another, how often they are in each other’s company. But we can’t tell if Flo is proud of Figan’s rise to prominence or if she might grieve the loss of a daughter when she leaves for a new community.

When we look at our relatives closely, a gulf opens up, made up of our inability to communicate directly and how we must guard ourselves from projecting human attributes on what is clearly something different. Not to say there is not common ground—there is enormous common ground. But when we try to apply things that are important to us—pride in our children, shame at past deeds, hope for the future, despair at our own inadequacy—these cannot be attributed to our biological cousins. Either there is no way to determine them or the context is too close to us for us to drill down to the common ground.

What would pride in your children feel like if you were a chimp? In what context could it be applied?
I don’t know the answer.

My son is a beautiful young animal. He’s smarter than I am and certainly stronger. I think he feels about things differently than I do. I was far more excited than scared going to college. But I had moved from city to city, state to state, all of my life. The transition from home to college was just a mark of geography. The confidence and skills had already been discovered.

He has had a different upbringing. He grew up in the same place, the same house, the same piece of land and town, from the day he was born. This is a much bigger transition for him. His skills at living outside the family and in a new place are untried and that makes him nervous.

I’m not going to hover over him. But I’m glad he’s only a couple of hours away.