05/8/12

Flatulent dinosaurs warmed ancient earth


Dino fartAn amusing story on Science Daily says researchers have determined that the giant, herbivorous sauropods of the Mesozoic might have been responsible for the era’s warm climate. Well, not the dinosaurs themselves, but rather the methane-producing bacteria in their guts:

“A simple mathematical model suggests that the microbes living in sauropod dinosaurs may have produced enough methane to have an important effect on the Mesozoic climate,” said Dave Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moores University. “Indeed, our calculations suggest that these dinosaurs could have produced more methane than all modern sources — both natural and man-made — put together.”

So basically, dinosaur farts created global warming. That would be one stinky environment.

Wilkinson, Ruxton, and Nisbet therefore calculate global methane emissions from sauropods to have been 520 million tons (520 Tg) per year, comparable to total modern methane emissions. Before industry took off on modern Earth about 150 years ago, methane emissions were roughly 200 Tg per year. By comparison, modern ruminant animals, including cows, goats, giraffes, and others, produce methane emission of 50 to 100 Tg per year.

Out-gassing animals have been blamed before as the cause of our recent climate changes. According to this site,

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) agriculture is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases world-wide (this is more than the whole transportation sector). Cattle-breeding is taking a major factor for these greenhouse gas emissions according to FAO. Says Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior author of the report: “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”

The site’s conclusion is to “Eat less meat and dairy products.” Now if dinosaurs did better in the hotter climate of the Mesozoic, then curiously the same advice would have been suitable for carnosaurs, because eating the sauropods could have reduced the global climate. Fewer herbivores equals fewer farts equals less methane in the atmosphere equals cooler temperatures. Somehow I can’t see a T. Rex nibbling on the Cretaceous equivalent of broccoli in order to keep a warmer neighbourhood.

Just another example of the wonderful delights we find in the world of science.

05/6/12

So-called psychic healers don’t see auras: they’re just ill


So-called psychicA story on Science Daily News this weekend reports that seeing so-called auras may in fact be the result of a neurological disorder, not simply another pseudoscience scam.

Self-described psychics who have bilked the gullible based on reading these alleged auras will have some ‘splaining to do. So-called psychic healers – aka charlatans – are likely to be in line for some big lawsuits once this story gets out!

The disorder is called “synesthesia.” People who are afflicted by it have regions in their brains cross connected so that they see sounds, taste colors, smell textures and so on. Their brains confuse sensory input and they mix up sensations.

This is the first time that a scientific explanation has been provided for the esoteric phenomenon of the aura, a supposed energy field of luminous radiation surrounding a person as a halo, which is imperceptible to most human beings.

In basic neurological terms, synesthesia is thought to be due to cross-wiring in the brain of some people (synesthetes); in other words, synesthetes present more synaptic connections than “normal” people. “These extra connections cause them to automatically establish associations between brain areas that are not normally interconnected,” professor Gómez Milán explains. New research suggests that many healers claiming to see the aura of people might have this condition.

If self-described psychic healers merely suffer from synesthesia, then what they’ve professed to see is not some paranormal effect, but rather the result of normal sensory input intruding on the input of another sense. They are not gifted with some sort of supernatural ability, just confused. Those auras were just sensory hallucinations.

We can forgive those among them for believing they actually saw auras, although one still has to wonder why they insisted in their belief after decades of scientific research showed no empirical evidence for their imagined auras.

Of course that only satisfies the explanation for those “psychics” who actually do believe they could see “auras” as the result of this disorder. What about those who are simply charlatans and scam artists? I would suggest that reflects the majority of self-described “psychics.” They don’t see or feel anything out of the ordinary; no auras, no vibrations, no spiritual resonance. They simply tell their marks that they do, and collect the money from them.

Once the sincere, but neurologically challenged among them realize their ailment, I would hope we will see a flurry of apologies and retractions. Those who are honest enough to recognize the problem (and their illness) will want to make amends and return the money they have accepted over the years. Once they admit that their “psychic” abilities are pure bunk, they will probably be forgiven by their victims, too.

It will be easy to recognize the charlatans and hucksters: they will be among those who do not recant or return the money they have bilked from their gullible clients. That will make it much easier to identify them for lawsuits.

Thanks to this research, “psychic healing” will soon join the Nigerian email scam and the Russian bride scam as one of those well-recognized frauds the majority steers clear of in the future. Well, we hope it does…

Another blow struck for science against the ignorance of superstition. One fraud down, a million left to go…

05/5/12

54,232 words… and it’s done


The Municipal MachiavelliI passed 54,000 words yesterday in my book on Machiavelli for municipal politicians. A little tweaking today, and an additional selection from The Discourses pushed it to 54,232 words. It prints out at 163 letter-sized pages.

Even though that count includes chapter titles and subheads, as well as the opening notes and quotes, dedication, bibliography, and back page copy, it’s still about 20,000 more than my original target. I just don’t seem to be able to stop working on it. I’m still reading books about him and his writing – bios and denser, academic tomes by scholars like Mansfield and Benner mostly. I find material to add daily.

I still have a dozen books in transit from various Abebooks sellers, too. There may be more lurking within their pages. I have amassed a large box of books by and about Machiavelli already. But I’ve stopped buying more, at least.

The size concerns me. Will it deter a potential publisher? I hope not.

The average typed, letter-size page has about 500 words in 12-point text (mine is mostly in 11pt Calibri). A typical paperback novel page has about half that, usually 10 pt. type. So based on paperback size, the book would exceed 200 pages. Not quite Tom Clancy or Stephen King, but still substantial.

A trade paperback around 6×9″ has roughly 340 words per page, so at that size it would be about 160 pages. But due to the formatting style I’ve used (including numerous quotations from Machiavelli’s works and others offset with whitespace for clarity), it is probably 25-40% larger in size than a book with simple, linear text. That would make it 200-225 pages.

A paperback novel-sized book with similar formatting would come in at over 250-280 pages.

As a comparison, most paperback copies of Machiavelli’s The Prince – my basic source – are around 100-125 pages, sometimes fleshed out to 150 with selections from others of his works, glossary, intro and so on. I guess I’ve gone a bit overboard.

But the content is basically finished, just some tweaking, editing and a little tightening to do. I really have to stop adding to it, despite my obsession to make it as rich, as clear and as full as I can. But I must stop because I have to return to my third book for Municipal World, and get it completed for publication in December.

I think it’s my best book to date, and I’m proud enough of it to consider self-publishing if I can’t find a print publisher willing to take it on. But that’s an other hurdle to tackle a bit later…

05/5/12

What is your dog thinking?


Dog thoughtsA story on Science Daily News says scientists are using an MRI scanner to look into the thought processes of dogs. As the article notes, “The researchers aim to decode the mental processes of dogs by recording which areas of their brains are activated by various stimuli. Ultimately, they hope to get at questions like: Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when their owners are happy or sad? How much language do they really understand?”

I don’t need an MRI scanner to figure this out: food. More food. When do we eat? Can I have some of that? What’s for dinner? Are you going to eat it ALL? Are those scraps for me? What else is for breakfast? Is that food I smell? Don’t mind my drool, I’m just starving. Hey, don’t waste it, I’ll eat it! Can you open the fridge again so I can sniff it? Say, is that bacon? Sure I’ll eat banana if you’ll just give me some. Hey, I’m hungry. Would it hurt you to give me a little? Just let me lick the plate after you’re done. I know there’s ice cream in your bowl. Can I have some? When do we eat? Is there any spare food around? When’s dinner?

“These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals,” Berns says. “And these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system.”

There’s a good article with more detail about this research on Wired.com.

Dogs have terrific senses. They have the uncanny ability to hear the sound of a banana being peeled from 100 feet away. They know when a fridge door is opened, and can differentiate between the sound of the drawers which hold the flatware and which hold the can opener. They can smell toast a block away and bacon miles way.

Okay, yo be fair, my dog also has other thoughts: can we go out now? Why am I inside? Is it time for a walk? I’m bored. Let me out. I have squirrels to chase. I need to go sniff something. Get off your ass and talk me for a walk. Are you going out yet? Can I come? When are we leaving? Why are you just sitting there? Let’s get going. Walkies! Out! Go out and take me along.

But while doing a little research into dog intelligence and behaviour this morning, I came across this story on Science News titled, “Breeding Is Changing Dog Brains, Scientists Find.” This is a very bizarre but intriguing line of study:

For the first time, scientists have shown that selective breeding of domestic dogs is not only dramatically changing the way animals look but is also driving major changes in the canine brain.
“As a dog’s head or skull shape becomes flatter — more pug-like — the brain rotates forward and the smell centre of the brain drifts further down to the lowest position in the skull,” Dr Valenzuela said.
No other animal has enjoyed the level of human affection and companionship like the dog, nor undergone such a systemic and deliberate intervention in its biology through breeding, the authors note. The diversity suggests a unique level of plasticity in the canine genome.
“Canines seem to be incredibly responsive to human intervention through breeding. It’s amazing that a dog’s brain can accommodate such large differences in skull shape through these kinds of changes — it’s something that hasn’t been documented in other species,” Dr Valenzuela said.
Co-author Associate Professor Paul McGreevy from the University of Sydney noted: “We think of dogs living in a world of smell — but this finding strongly suggests that one dog’s world of smell may be very different from another’s.”

Digging deeper into the effects of breeding on canine behaviour, this story noted,

“Canine behavioural traits are highly heritable, so in theory at least, we can genetically fix desirable characteristics in dog breeds. Just as we have previously produced dogs able to herd sheep or pull sleds, so we should be able to breed dogs better suited to their role as companions,” Dr Bennett said.

Smart dogActually I’ve known about the inheritability of traits for decades, since I first started reading about canine breeds and behaviours. But anyone who has ever worked closely with dogs knows that breeds have general characteristics.

This is why I have serious reservations around dogs bred for violence – the pit bull and its ilk, cane corso, dogo de Argentina and others. Even intense socializing may not eliminate inherited behaviour. Perhaps if we started a program of breeding these dogs with less aggressive breeds, it might make a better, more sociable dog.

But maybe not – Sophie was attacked this winter by a very aggressive dog allegedly a cross between a cane corso and a Lab (but looked 100% pit pull). So interbreeding (if that was actually true) didn’t make it a calmer, less aggressive dog. Maybe aggression is a dominant gene and cannot be easily sublimated.

In this story, titled, “Dogs’ Intelligence On Par With Two-Year-Old Human, Canine Researcher Says”, scientists found dogs can count, as well as understand words (any dog owner knows that). But they can also appear Machiavellian:

They can also understand more than 150 words and intentionally deceive other dogs and people to get treats, according to psychologist and leading canine researcher Stanley Coren, PhD, of the University of British Columbia. He spoke Saturday on the topic “How Dogs Think” at the American Psychological Association’s 117th Annual Convention.

During play, dogs are capable of deliberately trying to deceive other dogs and people in order to get rewards, said Coren. “And they are nearly as successful in deceiving humans as humans are in deceiving dogs.”

Fascinating stuff. I want to spend an evening or two reading more about dogs and how they learn and apply their intelligence, but I think it would be better spent playing with my own dog.

05/4/12

Gone to the Dark Side


iPadYes, I have been recruited to the Dark Side: I have an Apple iPad now. Well, it’s a loaner, but they’ll have to pry it out of my cold dead fingers if they want it back. Unless they offer me a 64GB model in exchange…

And, yes, I have been reduced to the fatuous abuse of capitalization in its name: iPad, rather than a more proper Ipad. You know, you can’t even type Ipad on the device because the auto-correct feature will change it into iPad every time. Sigh. Auto-correct is the reason there are still exorcists in business these days.

Some of the features of the iPad are cool and definitely a “wow” factor. Some are remarkably opaque or clumsy. Ever try to copy files to an iPad from a PC? No simple click and drag there. You need to follow some Byzantine process through third-party transfer programs or through iTunes (which requires numerous settings changes on your PC and iPad) or via a cloud service. I can easily copy files to and from every other USB deviceI own except the iPad. It won’t accept files. It’s got to be the least useful USB device on the planet.

And how the hell do I turn off auto-correct? Doesn’t come with a manual: I need to download it online. I haven’t figured out how to store the PDF manual on the iPad, either, and from what I can tell, that’s impossible. That means it’s only available when I’m connected to the Net.

Even the manual doesn’t tell me how to save itself on my iPad for offline reading. I’ve had to put everything on Skydrive for the moment until I figure out how to save files. But Skydrive only works when you’re connected, so it’s useless without the Net.

iPad cartoonFor a 25-year veteran of PC use, this is awkward, having to unlearn so much. However, I did have an original Mac in the late 80s, and played heavily with an Apple ][ in the mid-80s, so I’m not entirely a virgin to Apple products.

Unlike the Mac, the iPad comes with a scarcity of apps or programs, and you need to spend several hours hunting for files on the App Store if you want to add some zing to the device. It has a handful of basic apps installed, and it’s usable out of the box for music playing, or video watching, and with some setup you can browse the Web and read/send email (assuming you can recall all your user names and passwords for your services and wireless access).

You will really need more to turn the iPad from a high tech toy into something seriously useful. First thing I recommend (aside from the free CBC Radio and Tunedin Radio apps…) is the trilogy of Apple iWorks programs: Pages, Numbers and Presentations. These are reasonably serious productivity tools that allow your iPad to do real work. Price is modest at $10 each. Compare that to the MS Office suite for Windows at $200 or more! (I’m told there is an MS Office suite for the iPad but I’ve never seen it in the app store, so I went with the Apple package instead.)

And you need a real keyboard because as easy as the virtual keyboard is, it’s nowhere near as efficient as a real one when you want to type something longer than your username.

No, the iPad is hard pressed to be a serious business/productivity tool out of the box, but it is a good in-between tool when your laptop or desktop isn’t available.

The iTunes store browser is so stupid it makes Windows 3.1 seem like the work of geniuses. It reverts to the same display every time, even when you just go back a screen: iPad and iPhone apps are displayed no matter how many times I specify iPad only, and any categories like rating or price are wiped out, and need to be reset with every tap of the back arrow. When you select an app to install, it closes the store and loads the app. You have to re-open the store to look for more apps. Sigh. What genius designed this mess?

And don’t get me started on the ugly store screen display… designed for children or illiterates. Why isn’t there a straight text listing? I’m okay with the simple tap & swipe interface, but there really needs to be more options for power users. This November marks my 35th year as a micro-computer owner-user-hacker (Thanks for asking…), so it’s hard for me to really appreciate dumbed-down devices.

ipad cartoonWhile many of the apps are brilliantly executed and beautifully presented, there’s no way to identify which free apps are stripped down versions of for-pay programs, full of ads, clumsy and butt ugly. I don’t mind paying for something but to me advertising something as “free” simply to trick people into buying other services or features is vile. Warn users up front if it’s feature-limited and we need to shell out money to make it work or to get the extras.

The information screens on many store items are woefully inadequate this way. It’s easy to get lured into installing something that’s just a hook to get you to buy more. You have to install an app, then test it, to discover its worth or usefulness. I’ve deleted almost as many free apps as I’ve installed so far. It really discourages me from paying for apps if the quality is to be measured by what the app store tells you.

An iPad is nonetheless a nifty little device, but compared to a full-blown PC it’s pretty limited. So why then, does a techie like me have one? Because I’m the tester, the guinea pig, for council use. And despite my qualms about the store, I’m giving it thumbs up because it’s the perfect device for councillors.

This year the council laptops turn five years old; ancient as far as technology goes. They’re scheduled for replacement. We’ve already upgraded the OS from Windows XP to 7. Some have required new parts. Their screens are small and old, compared to today’s machines.

The cost of new laptops is in the range of $1,200-$1,500 each. Each one requires a licensed operating system (Windows 7 soon to be 8), plus licensed versions of MS Office, all renewed annually. Installation and setup time for each machine means considerable staff time and effort. Plus councillors also need cases, a mouse, cords, cables and so on. Batteries wear out, mice break – things need to be replaced fairly often.

Life cycle cost of a laptop over a term of council, including licence renewals, is probably over $2,500 (not including taxes). It’s a lot more if staff tech support and maintenance time is added in. Town computers were originally on a three-year replacement cycle. That grew to four (to save taxpayers money), but right now the council laptops are running about 4.5 years and some are creaking along. So the iPads make sense from a financial point of view.

Given that most councillors use their laptops for simply checking email, browsing the Web and reading Word or PDF documents, it’s like giving Ferraris to old ladies to go shopping once a week. Why do councillors need PowerPoint when they only view presentations, not create them? Why Excel when no one (except me) will create spreadsheets? Why have USB ports, DVD drives and so on when most council members don’t need them?

This is why I use my own laptop rather than a town-owned one: it’s crammed full of my own programs, data and work.

Voila the iPad. It does email, browsing, displays documents without needing a single additional app. Add a case and keyboard, some basic apps, and the life cycle cost for a council term is still under $1,000, taxes included.

Not to mention the iPad is more portable, easy to carry to conventions and events, and is so simple even a municipal councillor can operate it. Tech support time is considerably lower.

Well, it may take a training session to explain some of the nuances… it isn’t THAT simple. The single button and tap-for-functions system is actually somewhat of a disadvantage when you’re coming from a feature-rich computer-and-mouse environment. But for the majority, it’s a great little device that solves our technology needs at a lower price than a PC laptop.

I figure I’ll need the 64GB version if I’m going to load it with all the apps I need…

05/3/12

The End of the World is Nigh… Again


666 TattooSigh. And you though election time was silly season. The last year has certainly been silly season for apocalyptic predictions. From the so-called Mayan end of days to the failed “rapture” of Howard Camping, it’s been a great time for conspiracy theory and cult watchers.

The latest prediction for the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI) is from Jose De Jesus Miranda, a US-based fundamentalist religious preacher (of course).

According to Miranda, the world will end on June 30, 58 days from today (as I write this). A story in the HuffPost noted that Miranda predicts a massive earthquake and other catastrophes will make a lot of the continents disappear, except for a place for the “elect.”

But Miranda is bringing his own unique twist to the Apocalypse-faithful. While promising the “complete destruction of the bad seed,” the minister promises that he will emerge as a sort of superhero — with the power to fly and even walk through walls

Miranda is quite a guy. He’s apparently the messiah, having passed through being an apostle along the way:

What we do know of Miranda is that he was, in fact, born mortal — in Puerto Rico in 1946. By his own account, Miranda was visited by Jesus in 1973 — apparently the Messiah walked up to him and entered his body.
Hence, De Jesus.
From there, his pronouncements have only gotten more interesting.
In 1988, Miranda disclosed that he was actually the Apostle Paul. Not long after that, Miranda took it to the next level, calling himself both Jesus Christ and the Anti-Christ — a one-stop shop for all your Reckoning needs.

On his website, linked above, in a video he says that he “governs the earth” with technology.

He seems to have attracted quite a following – the story goes on to say how his followers are tattooing the number “666″ on their skin to mark the doomsday event, just like bikers and criminals. but, Miranda tells them, it’s really a positive symbol. from this Doomsday blog:

He even goes far enough to say that the numerical value of 666, most notable referred to as the sign of the devil is actual the symbol for the anti-Christ; meaning the second coming of Christ or new Christ. In the interview with a CNN correspondent, José Luis De Jesús Miranda says, “666, the Antichrist, do not put your eyes on Jesus Christ of Nazareth… put it in Jesus Christ after the cross”. Mr. Luis De Jesús Miranda Miranda then goes on to say, “thats him, [the anti-Christ].”

If everyone who has a 666 tattoo is going to heaven, Miranda is sure going to have a hard time explaining what those Hell’s Angels are doing in paradise…

Even among the more rabid fundamentalist Christians, Miranda is too far gone in his nutiness to be taken seriously: “According to 1st John 2:22, Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda is a LIAR and an ANTICHRIST. To no surprise, he uses reverse psychology, openly admitting to being an “Antichrist,” which confuses his victims. But one thing Mr. Miranda won’t admit to is being a BIG LIAR. Anyone who perverts the Gospel message, or denies the Lord Jesus Christ is a LIAR! 1st John 2:22 calls Mr. Miranda a “LIAR.””

Strong words for a Christian, I suppose. I have others I’d use that are less polite. What’s a polite synonym for scam artist?

Despite the evident silliness of his claims, Miranda seems to have a strong, passionate and equally loony following. In a 2007 story from CNN,

De Jesus says he learned he was Jesus reincarnate when he was visited in a dream by angels.
“The prophets, they spoke about me. It took me time to learn that, but I am what they were expecting, what they have been expecting for 2,000 years,” de Jesus says.
Followers have protested Christian churches in Miami and Latin America, disrupting services and smashing crosses and statues of Jesus. De Jesus preaches there is no devil and no sin. His followers, he says, literally can do no wrong in God’s eyes.The church calls itself the “Government of God on Earth” and uses a seal similar to the United States.
If Creciendo en Gracia is an atypical religious group, de Jesus also does not fit the mold of the average church leader. De Jesus flouts traditional vows of poverty.

Well, so does every fundamentalist US preacher I’ve ever read about, but Miranda is pretty showy even compared to the typical tvangelist. Ostentatious display of the money he’s bilked from gullible followers is not what makes Miranda special, however. Nor is it his slick self-promotion, his advertising, self-aggrandizing cable TV show, or his claims of divinity. It’s rather than he claims there is no sin, so you’re basically free to be a hedonist, a la Aleister Crowley. I wonder if there’s a Hedonism beach resort reserved for Miranda’s followers.

As the Houston Post reported:

His message is simple (you know, once you get over the whole “I am Jesus” thing). All sin died with Christ on the cross. Anytime a priest or a preacher calls you a sinner, he’s a liar who’s trying to steal your money. In fact, other churches should be picketed, which is something his followers have done in Miami and Latin America.

I wonder how his culties will feel on July 1, when the rest of America is waking up on that Sunday morning, thinking nothing has changed. Probably like ol’ Howard Camping’s followers who sold all their belongings and quit their jobs for the ‘rapture” that never came. I’d like to own a tattoo removal franchise in Miranda’s home town next July.

I guess I just don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who follow – and fund – wingnuts like Miranda.