Natural selection simplified

Antibiotic resistance - natural selectionI was startled by the simplicity of the forumla. Stephen Jay Gould, the late eminent paleontologist, biologist and historian of science, summed up Darwin’s basic theory of natural selection so eloquently and so succinctly that it rocked me back on my heels. It was something even a diehard creationist could understand (assuming he or she wanted to try…)

First there are three basic facts Gould states about life and living creatures:

  1. All organisms produce more offspring than can possibly survive;
  2. All organisms within a species vary from one another;
  3. At least some of these variations will be inherited by offspring.

From these three, simple facts – easily proven by observation, research and analysis – Gould says the principles of natural selection, as Darwin postulated in 1859, can be inferred. These are:

  1. Since only some offspring will survive, on average these survivors will have those variations that are generally better adapted to survival in changing environments;
  2. Those offspring will inherit the favourable variations of their parents;
  3. Organisms of the next generation will be better adapted to local environments.

Simple, eh? I thought so, too. Next year will mark 160 years since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was first published. I already have a bottle of wine aging for the celebration.

I came across this elegant description some years back, while reading Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, by Carl Zimmer (Harper Collins, New York, 2001). The book is the companion to the PBS series on evolution. Gould wrote the introduction. I have yet to see the series (we don’t subscribe to TV) , but I enjoyed the 364-page book. It’s one of many such titles in my library.

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Misquoting Shakespeare. Again.

Folded toilet paper memeLet me begin with a digression on memes. Like a virus, a meme can spread uncontrollably in the right environment and infect millions with an idea or goal. This, of course, is good for such advocates of social ideals as Greenpeace or PETA, but like viruses, there can be bad memes that do more damage than good. More, it seems, than good or socially constructive memes.

A meme is the self-propagating cultural equivalent of a virus*, but rather than spreading its DNA, a meme spreads ideas, cultural practices, thoughts, symbols, ideals, aesthetics and icons of popular imagination.

Like a virus, a meme requires the communication between people to spread – talk, mail, the medium of literature, TV or music, and of course the Internet. A good example of a wildfire meme in popular culture was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Another pop-culture meme is the spread of tattoos as fashion. Fashion itself is a seasonal meme, not unlike a seasonal cold.

But there can be bad memes as well; memes that poison, memes that distort and damage. Similar to Ebola virus or prions, these memes can jump cultures like viruses jump species.

Anti-semitism – disturbingly on the rise in France and the USA today – is a bad and infectious meme. So is any form of religious fundamentalism – look at how the meme of the jihad has spread across the Middle East. Computer hoaxes like the email chain letter that promises you riches if you forward the email to everyone on your mailing list, is another bad meme albeit more innocuous. Donald Trump’s tweets become memes almost as soon as he posts them.

One of the factors that accelerates a meme’s spread is its brevity. In an age when deep reading is a dying art and skim reading is the new normal (to disastrous effect ion our collective education and society), a meme finds easy access to hosts online.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in 1976 to describe evolutionary principles help explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. As Wikipedia points out,

He gave as examples melodies, catch-phrases, and beliefs (notably religious belief, clothing/fashion, and the technology of building arches).
Meme-theorists contend that memes evolve by natural selection (in a manner similar to that of biological evolution) through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual entity’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Theorists point out that memes which replicate the most effectively spread best, and some memes may replicate effectively even when they prove detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.

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How capitalism has failed us

We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin… our homes are covered with mortgages, labor impoverished; and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists… The fruits of toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for the few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two great classes … tramps and millionaires.*

The failure of capitalismYou might be forgiven for thinking that was something that came from the mouth of a modern Democrat lamenting on the decay of America and the rise of the rich under Donald Trump and his Republican minions. But you’d be wrong: it’s actually from the late 19th century. It was the preamble to the platform of the People’s Party, back before American politics was dominated by just two parties. Between 1870 and 1900, there were at least nine or ten political parties running for office in the USA, some of which merged or morphed into others in that period.

It’s not so much the number of parties that identified the era, but that America had a much more diverse political culture with a much wider range or platforms and perspectives from which to choose. And there was a lot more leftist, activist sentiment than today.

At least some of the issues and problems faced by the nation in the late 19th century were the same as they are today. The great and increasing disparity between the working classes and the rich was causing enormous social and political upset, just like today. People took to the streets to protest about it. Violently and often. Our Labour Day holiday is the result of workers’ protests. May Day celebrates the protests for an eight-hour workday. Our child labour laws came from similar protests.

But today, we don’t seem to have much of an organized protest movement to challenge the control of the government by the rich. Alvaro Sanchez, writing on the Common Dreams website, noted,

Tell people their gas taxes are going up and they will riot, literally. Tell people that 62 individuals hold the same amount of wealth as the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population and we don’t blink an eye.

An Oxfam report on wealth inequality is headlined, “Richest 1 percent bagged 82 percent of wealth created last year – poorest half of humanity got nothing.” The Oxfam website notes:

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International said: “The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system. The people who make our clothes, assemble our phones and grow our food are being exploited to ensure a steady supply of cheap goods, and swell the profits of corporations and billionaire investors.”

Many of the economic and social conditions today are frighteningly similar to those in the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1914), the time of the industrial revolution and the monopoly capitalists.

Yes, there was Occupy Wall Street, a short-lived protest movement that launched in 2011; it gave us some hope that people were not going to tolerate the wealth inequalities and pro-rich tax policies of Western governments, but it faded away after barely a year of action. Fickle media attention moved on.

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Council’s financial follies part 1

This is the first in what I expect will be a long series of posts about the financial follies and shenanigans of our council.

Another fine messOur council begins its term not with a bang but a groan and the shaking of heads. To quote Oliver Hardy, “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.” I’m sure it won’t be the last time I get to say that to this council.

To be fair, the debacle is not the responsibility of everyone at the table – that falls squarely on the shoulders of the four re-elected incumbents. However, since most of the newcomers hitched their horses to the Saunderson Campaign Bandwagon, the continuing debacle is an albatross they too will have to wear this term.

First up, a story in Collingwood Today about the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial inquiry (SVJI) that suggests the SVJI’s skyrocketing costs are just beginning. It notes (sic):

Public hearings will take place from April 15 to 18, April 22 to 25, April 29 to May 3, May 13-17 and May 21-24. The policy phase hearings are expected to take place on June 10, 11, and 1.

(I assume that last number was truncated and should read 12 – and BTW, the story wasn’t even covered in The Connection. Surprise.)*

The SVJI was initially scheduled to begin its hearings last November, but they are running late. Five months late, in fact, and then 25 days of hearings are scheduled from mid-April into mid-June. After that the inquirers have to judge the input, come up with a conclusion, write a report and present it. Likely they will not conclude until mid to late fall. During this time the cash register continues to sing its chirpy song.

Meanwhile the number of documents continues to pile up (more than 400,000 already and more still to come… as I wrote about earlier). So many that the SVJI has had to hire two more lawyers to handle the paperwork. Ka-ching!

Last April, I predicted the SVJI would cost taxpayers at least $6 million, based on comparisons between the Mississauga judicial inquiry and the SVJI. But it now looks like that was a conservative estimate. Its original cost estimate was $1-$2 million, too. Here’s what I wrote back then:

The Mississauga inquiry interviewed nearly 100 people and collected about 35,000 documents and held hearings where 35 people testified over a period of 38 days. And cost the city $6.2 million.

Money grows on trees in CollingwoodThe SVJI has already interviewed more than 60 people (as of early November) and hasn’t even started the public inquiry portion. There are more than TEN TIMES the number of documents involved (so many that the earlier deadline to submit documents had to be extended another six weeks). This suggests to me the SVJI is going to cost us a lot more than we were led to believe. Millions more.

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One Million B.C.(E.)

One Million BC(E)
You can’t help but chuckle when Tumak runs down the rocky slope to battle the baby Triceratops (about the size of a Sheltie) and ends up rolling in the dirt with the all-too-obvious rubber model. I half-expected it to squeak like a dog toy.

Akoba and TumakIt’s just one of the many scenes in the 1940 version of One Million BC that make makes it fun to watch. Corny, yes, cheesy, perhaps. But mostly fun. And it was the top-grossing film of the year; that’s no small accomplishment.

The film is basically a Romeo-and-Juliet love story with a happier ending. Throw in some moralizing, a bit of clumsy sexism, warped Darwinism, paleontological anachronisms, some special effects (of sorts… although nominated for an Academy Award for those effects, today they are pretty comical, some even cringeworthy…) and you have a good movie. For its time. Those effects don’t stand up quite so well nigh-on eighty years later, what with out CGI-dense extravaganzas, but don’t give up on it too quickly.

Instead of the Montagues and the Capulets, we have the Stone people with their Romeo (Tumak – Victor Mature) and the Shell people and their Julie (Loana – Carole Landis). And there’s no Mercutio. Or a friendly Friar Laurence. But there is Akhoba – Tumak’s brutal father (Lon Chaney Jr) who gives the film its pathos in a poignantly moral scene, and Ohtao, the friendly rival for Loana’s love who takes his loss of lover and spear who takes the whole competition with a smile.

Call it Romeo and Juliet lite. Without even a syllable worthy of The Bard, of course, since everything vocal in the movie is either a grunt, growl or a made-up word (both tribes seems to speak in single-word sentences and seem to have vocabularies limited to only a handful of words per tribe). Others have pondered more deeply over the language than I, but I did wonder if they only had nouns; verbs were to be discovered only sometime in the future.

Carole LandisAnd despite the cornball (and egregiously inaccurate) notion of dinosaurs and cavemen co-existing, or even cavemen of this level of advancement a million years ago, or the hard-to-watch battles between real lizards (cruelty of a sort no longer allowed in cinema – it is a disturbing part of the film, although the monster scenes were re-stitched into several other B-films in later years), there’s still enjoyable watching here. Assuming you like B-films, that is. To which I always answer in the affirmative.

It’s shot in glorious black and white, has no sex and the violence is very tame (no blood and very few deaths). Even the loincloths and costumes aren’t particularly titillating even for the time (no fur bikinis like Raquel Welch wore in the 1966 sexploitation remake). However, the rather demure Carole Landis looks pretty fetching in her outfit. For the women in the audience, the clean-shaven and frequently topless Victor Mature was considered a romantic hunk in his day. Their romance is remarkably chaste given their skimpy outerwear.
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Another bad year for ‘psychics’ and quackery

'Psychic' con artistsThe year 2018 was another bad year for so-called ‘psychics,’ astrologers and others in the prediction business – and yes, it is a business – because nothing they predicted came true. Nothing specific or meaningful, that is. Sure lots of general “predictions” and vague lifestyle comments phrased as “predictions” were made – many which echoed what others have been saying in real news. But that wasn’t because of some astrological or ‘psychic’ effort.

When you read these sites you find a lot of that bloviated nonsense like “The main astrological indications of 2018 are those of releasing the past and preparing for new beginnings. There is a letting go of the old that will be taking place and emerging developments in new sectors.” And when I read “Jupiter is in the balsamic phase of semi-square to Saturn,” I thought more about salads than predictions. Gad, what utter balderdash.

How about this for nonsense?

Seeing as 2018 is a number 11 year in numerology, we are really going to be supported to start dreaming and conjuring up what we want from life. Even though part of our journey here is decided before we come into human form, we also have free will and the opportunity to create our lives.

Since you’re already wading in the murk of one pseudoscience, why not throw another – numerology – into the mix? Diaphanous piffle, as Conrad Black would say. As is all astrology, numerology, phrenology, iridology, reflexology and whatever the popular mumbo-jumbo-du-jour is. “Before we came into human form”…WTF is that all about? I hesitate to investigate lest it lead me to another rant on the gibberish generators these people use. Consider this intellectual pablum from Elle magazine:

You’re hosting structured Saturn in your tenth house of career from December 19, 2017 until December 17, 2020, a three-year period that could position you for new levels of leadership, as long as you’re willing to put in the work. While Aries CAN get by on charisma and a bounty of natural skills, Saturn demands that you pay your dues—no shortcuts allowed.

But predictions there are to be found, although a lot of the predictors have a habit of erasing or re-writing their predictions when they inevitably fail to come true. Or claiming after the fact they predicted something would happen. Fortunately for us, others copy and share them, so it’s hard to completely erase one’s failures online.
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The slow death of media credibility

A story in the recent issue of New Republic opens:

“A decade of turmoil has left a weakened press vulnerable to political attacks, forced into ethical compromises, and increasingly outstripped by new forms of digital media.”

Collapsing media credibilityThis points to the continuing erosion of public confidence in traditional media. While this piece refers to national (American) and international media, it applies equally to local media – all types.

Traditional media has been disappearing under the waves of digital media for the past two decades. In its fight to stay afloat and retain audience, a lot of media outlets have tried to pander to the lowest common denominator: the public’s obsession with conspiracy, scandal, gossip, the glitterati and rude allegation. Nipple slips and leaked sex tapes in the headlines.

This grasping attempt at salvation sinks media’s credibility: going down that road it’s not long before every medium looks like the National Enquirer or the Daily Mail, with little to no relationship between what is printed and actual events. It’s not a long voyage from scandals and unfounded allegations to UFO abductions and chemtrail conspiracies. 

But decaying standards and disappearing journalism are not the only cause for its collapse. Cutting the staff necessary to do the job expected of them has helped guide it down the path.

Local radio stations lack news directors or reporters. There is no regular TV coverage of local events and issues (Council coverage on the Rogers-only community network being the exception; however it is tediously flat coverage without annotation, explanation or analysis). A single print reporter here is expected to cover all issues, events, sports and politics. But the local print media barely covers local news* and avoids anything controversial or that requires significant investigation. Plus with such little space dedicated to actual news in print, a vast array of issues and governance gets ignored.

Personal relations with politicians have tainted some local media and further reduced its credibility (avoiding controversy or criticism to prevent friends from embarrassment results in blandly supportive reporting that readers should distrust). Ads and computer-generated playlists get more vastly time and space than news in local media – which speaks to the audience about the media’s priorities.

How does the public become engaged without a reliable, credible news source? How does the public get to understand and decide on issues without investigative reporting to explain all the facts? How does the public even learn of events and issues when no media provides the space or time they require? How does the public choose its politicians at election time when the media has failed to provide unbiased coverage of local governance?

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The towering heights of the SVJI

Mountain of paperworkFour hundred and twenty seven thousand, two hundred and sixty five. That’s how many documents have been submitted to the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI) to date, according to a story in Collingwood Today.*

There is no indication if more are expected after that, but it wasn’t ruled out, either.

More than 425,000 documents. The sheer volume is gobsmacking. Let’s take a look at what that might mean.

It isn’t specified if these are single or multiple page documents. We have to assume at least some are more than a single page. For the sake of easy calculations, let’s say 17% of them have two pages. That brings the number of pages up to 500,000. Now we need to do some calculations about just what the SVJI is doing to your tax dollars and the environment.

One typical ream of paper, and a cat (right).

Start with a base measurement: a standard ream of 20-lb paper is 500 sheets. It measures (in imperial) 8.5 x 11 x 2 inches and weighs 5 lb. Heavier weight paper (24 and 28 lb.) result in thicker and heavier reams. I’ll translate those numbers to metric below.**

Five hundred thousand pages is 1,000 reams of paper. That stacks up to 2,000 inches or 166.7 feet (almost as many as I have feet of books in my home). Just a little wider than an American football field. Laid end-to-end it would be 917 feet long. It would weigh two and a half tons  – about what a mid-size pickup truck or SUV weighs.

According to the Sierra Club, that much paper would take 25-50 full-grown trees (an average 8-inch diameter trunk and height of about 45 feet) to produce – not taking into account any other environmental, industrial or energy impacts from cutting trees to produce the paper. Other sites suggest about 16-17 reams per tree (or about 60 trees to make 1,000 reams)

Paper is sold by the box of 5,000 sheets and the SVJI has 100 cases worth of paper in those documents (printed one-sided). The least expensive paper on the Staples.ca website sells for $54 for a box of low-grade copier paper, but it can rise to $70 or more for better quality paper (heavier, brighter). Assuming the town buys in bulk from a wholesaler, they may pay as little as $40 a case.

The image on the left shows to scale 1,000 reams of paper  – 500,000 sheets – measured against the average male (174 cm or about 5’9″).

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Baby, It’s Politically Correct Outside…

Double facepalmI must have travelled to another universe because when I awoke, the world had gone mad. Radio stations were pulling a popular, rather over-played, 74-year-old, playful holiday song because some folks thought it was about rape. Sexual assault. Or at least non-consensual sex. The media was full of Chicken Littles screaming that the cultural sky was falling if radio stations continued to play it. The song was subject of weighty opinions on editorial pages.

What is going on in this strange, politically correct and apparently unhinged universe?

Let me back up. Two items appeared simultaneously on my Facebook timeline this week: one was a video of a peacock strutting around, trying to win over a pea hen by flashing his tail at her. The other was news that Baby, It’s Cold Outside was causing such a furor that radio stations were banning it. But these Facebook items are actually two aspects of the same thing.

The song is a duet, a playful banter between a man and a woman about, yes, sex. But not sex as in explicit. Inferred, yes, perhaps implied, but never stated. And never forced. The peacock video is also playful banter, albeit wordless and nothing is forced.

There are a hundred or more shows on Netflix you can watch right now that include graphic nudity, sex and even rape that don’t even try to hide behind innuendo. The abysmally-written mommy-porn novel, Fifty Shades of Grey was graphically explicit – and so popular it sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. Sex and seduction are in the Bible – read the Song of Solomon! As far as I know, no one is having these banned or burned.

Is there some strange hypocrisy at work here? CBC writer Jessica Goddard wrote,

…nothing says “happy holidays” like the death of nuance and frantic institutional overreaction…
The accusation that Baby, It’s Cold Outside is about sexual assault is absurd unless you isolate the entire duet down to the lines “Say, what’s in this drink?” and “The answer is no.” That ignores the lyrics that suggest that same character internally wrestling with wanting to stay (“I wish I knew how / To break this spell,” “I ought to say ‘No, no, no sir’ / At least I’m gonna say that I tried”).

Baby, It’s Cold Outside is not pornographic or even bawdy. It’s about seduction and the age-old mating game. You know: the old tail-flashing peacock routine in the video a few tens of thousands shared without anyone being offended. You want bawdy, go listen to some madrigals or early Renaissance love songs.

If people were really kerfuffled about sexually explicit lyrics or misogynistic treatment of women, they’d have banned rap music years ago. No, this is unfathomably different.

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Astrology: millennials in search of woo hoo

Astology debunked“Astrology is not a science; there’s no evidence that one’s zodiac sign actually correlates to personality.” I was disappointed to read that line in a story in The Atlantic, a piece titled, “The New Age of Astrology: In a stressful, data-driven era, many young people find comfort and insight in the zodiac—even if they don’t exactly believe in it.

Disappointed not because it isn’t true – it is: astrology is woo hoo – but rather that writers still feel the need to state the obvious. It’s like a movie reviewer starting with “There’s no evidence that Batman is actually a real person.” Or a political columnist starting with “There’s no evidence Donald Trump can actually distinguish between truth and fiction.” Or a medical writer in an article saying, “There’s no evidence homeopathy actually works.” Some things are just so obvious they should not need to be repeated.

No one should ever have to remind others that astrology ISN’T a science. Or even an “alternate” belief because there’s no collective agreement on pretty much every part of it: hardly any two astrologers agree on interpretations, there are different types of charts and calculations used in different countries, the constellations are not the same as they were 3,000-plus years ago when astrology was first concocted, and constellations themselves are arbitrary associations of distant stars, not actual connections. Plus the whole thing was created before anyone knew about planets beyond Saturn, or the asteroids, or the moons of any planets.*

But sadly, what is evident to anyone with even a modicum of critical thinking is not always so for many people on social media, where simplistic memes – the digital equivalent of bumper stickers – often take the place of informed discussion and learned conversation. In part it comes with the declining IQ from people not reading longer articles, newspapers or books. And as the article’s author, Julie Beck wrote,

…astrology is perfectly suited for the internet age. There’s a low barrier to entry, and nearly endless depths to plumb if you feel like falling down a Google research hole. The availability of more in-depth information online has given this cultural wave of astrology a certain erudition—more jokes about Saturn returns, fewer “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” pickup lines.

Internet erudition is an oxymoron. It has allowed people to put words or terms into their vocabulary of which they have neither knowledge or understanding.

Words show up in memes in entirely the wrong use or context. Political terms like liberal, socialism, fascism and communism are all highly misused (especially, it seems, by Americans). GMO, health, natural, detox and chemical are frequently misused by diet-fad followers and “alternate healthcare” providers. Creationists dismiss evolution as merely a “theory” with no evident grasp of what a theory actually means in scientific terms.

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