The Utility Animal

In the July/August edition of Pets Magazine (the Cat Care issue) there are two articles that caused me concern. One is “The Loyalty and Bravery of a Cat” (p.28), the other is “Quick-Thinking Cat Saves the Day.” (p.26). The latter is a pet profile from the Purina Hall of Fame that honours pets for “extraordinary actions.” The former is about a YouTube video showing a family cat attacking a dog that had itself attacked the family’s four-year-old son.

The acts themselves and the cats involved are extraordinary and deserving of praise as individual animals. But the idea that cats in general need to be propped up as utility animals, that in order to have intrinsic value they need to perform some service for humans, bothers me deeply.

It also annoys me that cat lovers feel the need to be defensive about cats and find ways to make them seem more like dogs. They are separate species with very different social (pack) cultures and cannot be expected to behave like one another.

All animals evolved to fulfill their own purpose. Some have become domesticated through their interactions with humans; a few are even companion animals we call pets. Dogs and cats top that small list. And a small percentage of those perform acts that are of use or beneficial to humans.

Valuing an animal on the basis of its utility is to devalue the life of that animal. Animals do not exist to serve human needs. Yes, they can be trained to perform tasks, but that isn’t their purpose.

Cats have value simply by being cats. All life has its own inherent value and we cannot measure that value against its usefulness to our lives. Not should not – cannot. There is no appropriate measuring stick.

Any attempt only promotes subjective value judgments over other species. It’s akin to measuring the distance to a neighbouring planet by the number of bicycle lengths between us. Irrelevant.

Value your pet, value all life, for what it is. Not what use, not what advantage and not what profit you can gain from it. And I am happy to share my home with my pets for the sake of their companionship alone.

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Gut instincts

Ars TechnicaA story on Science Daily says research suggests our so-called “free will” may be less free than we ever imagined. We may, instead, be meat puppets ruled by the desires and cravings of the smallest symbiotes we carry: our gut bacteria.

The story opens:

It sounds like science fiction, but it seems that bacteria within us — which outnumber our own cells about 100-fold — may very well be affecting both our cravings and moods to get us to eat what they want, and often are driving us toward obesity… researchers from UC San Francisco, Arizona State University and University of New Mexico concluded from a review of the recent scientific literature that microbes influence human eating behavior and dietary choices to favor consumption of the particular nutrients they grow best on, rather than simply passively living off whatever nutrients we choose to send their way… the authors believe this diverse community of microbes, collectively known as the gut microbiome, may influence our decisions by releasing signaling molecules into our gut. Because the gut is linked to the immune system, the endocrine system and the nervous system, those signals could influence our physiologic and behavioral responses.

Actually this is not really surprising. It has long been known that human evolution has been affected by both viral and bacterial presence, as well as having our own DNA encoded with bits from them. And recently it was discovered bacteria can encode DNA from other animals – even dead ones – into their own.

The discovery of the recombinant DNA process should have alerted everyone to the wider possibility that there may be biological analogues already. After all, it only makes sense that in any symbiotic relationship, there must be some way for all parties to communicate with each other for mutual survival. The gut is a competitive environment with numerous species, so they also need a mechanism for cooperation and communication in ways that also help keep the host alive.

Most life on the planet has some form of symbiotic relationship and many are mutually beneficial like that with our gut flora, although there are also parasitic relationships as well.

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The First Dark Age

End of the Bronze AgeThe causes of the first “Dark Age” have long been the topic of debate among historians and archeologists. Many ideas and theories have been put forward; none have found universal agreement. It’s commonly referred to in scholarly circles as “The Catastrophe.

Earthquakes, drought, migrations (or the more popular single-people migration theory), volcanoes, barbarian raiders, climate change and systemic collapse have all been blamed for the sudden collapse of civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean over a short period of time.

While any one of these may account for particular cities, or even a small geographical region, it is difficult to apply those theories collectively to the collapse over such a wide area. There is simply no evidence to connect the incidents of collapse.

Nor do they explain why the empire of Egypt and Assyria, both on the periphery of the larger area affected, seem to have escaped relatively intact from the collapse – although Egypt’s might and influence came out of the period severely diminished.

Whatever the cause, over a period spanning roughly 50 years of the late 13th and early 12th centuries BCE, many civilizations in the Aegean basin and southeast Asia underwent a violent collapse. Dozens of cities and settlements were destroyed or abandoned. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of fire and destruction in many of the remains of the great ancient centres. There are signs of “instant cities” – settlements that sprang up suddenly in previously unsettled areas, suggesting they developed from a mass of escapees bonding together for safety after fleeing a disaster.

It would be centuries before most of this area rose again to similar prominence. It was a Dark Age for the eastern Mediterranean.

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Testing a Homeplug-Powerline Network

DlinkI’ve had some wireless issues for quite some time now. There are dead spots in the house – a central wall has metal ducts and a gas fireplace, which are beside the laundry room with its metal-enclosed washer and dryer. About 5-6m of metal interfere with the wireless signal. The modem is attached to the cable, which comes through the north side of the house, and there are no other active cable outlets in other rooms (there are outlets for cable, but they’ve never been properly connected).

Plus the ducts and pies in the basement and the metal front door interfere with the signal out of doors, making it difficult to get good reception in a large portion of the yard – including our favourite summer sitting location; the newly rebuilt front deck.

 

And just to confound matters, my Acer Aspire laptop has the annoying habit of losing its internet connection – while all my other wireless devices are fine – although it can see other networks nearby and even connect to my modem. Just not the net.

I’ve looked at all sorts of solutions, from wireless extenders and bridge routers, to rewiring a large portion of the house to accommodate moving the cabling to allow the modem to be placed closer to the laptop. I’ve moved the modem a few times, but the reception has only improved indoors – out of doors it remains unstable.

There is often a 10-metre ethernet cable running across the floor between laptop and modem when I want to be sure my access isn’t interrupted. Susan hates it. It’s a trip hazard and looks hokey.

This week I decided to try a different approach (a suggestion from Neville on Facebook): a powerline (aka homeplug) network extender. It’s a whole area I knew nothing about before this week, except for the vague understanding that the network connects via the AC power lines in your home.

Basically you plug one adapter into a wall socket and attach it to your modem via a (shorter) ethernet cable. They you plug in a second adapter somewhere else in your house, preferably close to your computer, do whatever the device needs to establish a connection (in my case, push a button). When they connect, you plug another (shorter) cable into the adapter and your computer.

But which one? Which type, which standard, which brand, which feature set? That’s what I spent most of my past few days studying. Reading reviews, technical papers, speed tests, manufacturers’ claims. Prices range from $40 to almost $150 for the minimal two adapters. Why the difference and would it really matter to me?

In the end I went low-end rather than cutting-edge. I bought a D-Link “PowerLine AV 500 Network Starter Kit (DHP-309AV) from the local Staples store. Took all of two minutes to set it up, another minute to connect cables and my laptop was connected to the internet.

And if it proves itself in the upcoming months, I may look at the new models due out this fall to upgrade to the new AV2 standard, and get some extra ethernet ports strung around the house.

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Chasing storms on Saturn

There’s a beautiful video about the Cassini mission and its images of the storms on Saturn at the New York Times website. It’s amazing to see what images and information science has given us about a planet 886 billion miles (1.4 billion kms) away and its odd collection of rings and 60 moons.

Saturn’s storms

Saturn takes 30 years to orbit the Sun and in January, 2014, began its first spring in 15 years. Until then, the northern hemisphere was shrouded in darkness and the rings tilted away from us. Now the north pole is in sunlight and the magnificent, monstrously large, hexagonal storm at its centre is clearly visible. The video makes it quite an entertaining and awe-inspiring sight.

The hexagonal shape, while unusual, is natural and has been replicated in the laboratory. It is not, as some wingnut conspiracy theorists suggest, a supernatural event, anything to do with aliens or the gates of hell (nor, as uber wingnut David Icke has suggested, is Saturn a giant, artificial broadcasting device… ).

Cassini will be travelling right over the north pole in 2016 in its final – and perhaps most spectacular – mission, for a close-up view of the storm. You can read more about the weird hexagonal storm on the JPL website. The eye of the storm alone in 1,240 miles across (2,000 kms) and the dorm itself is estimated at 60 miles (100kms) deep.

Cassini took seven years to reach Saturn, but that’s a short time compared to New Horizons, which will reach Pluto next July, after a voyage of nine years.

In related news, the spacecraft Rosetta arrived at the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko last week, the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet. The images sent back so far have been breathtaking. Rosetta is in orbit 62 miles (100 kms) from the comet, but will soon lower to 31 miles (50kms) to prepare for a landing. Rosetta took ten years to reach its target.

All of this is truly exciting, inspirational stuff, isn’t it? Science never ceases to amaze and astound me.

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Neolithic site dig uncovers sophisticated structures

Orkney dig site
A Neolithic site in the Orkney Islands shows our ancestors had sophisticated building skills more than 5,000 years ago. According to a story in The Scotsman,

A groundbreaking excavation of a 5,000-year-old temple complex in Orkney has uncovered evidence to suggest that prehistoric people were a great deal more sophisticated than previously thought.
The archaeological dig at the Ness of Brodgar, which is still in its early stages, has already thrown up discoveries that archaeologists say will force us to re-evaluate our understanding of how our ancestors lived.
The picture that has emerged so far points to a complex and capable society that displayed impeccable workmanship and created an integrated landscape.

Well, it’s very premature to identify it as a “temple complex.” As for any structure being a “temple” or the whole site being a “temple complex” – that’s just a guess.

The article’s headline is hyperbolic: “Orkney dig dispels caveman image of ancestors.” This is followed by the equally fatuous opening:

THE image of our Neolithic ancestors as simple souls carving out a primitive existence has been dispelled.

I suppose that misrepresentation may have been dispelled from the writer’s rather confused mind, but few others are likely to be that daft.

Orkney dig

The media are ever wont to sensationalize things in this manner. I can’t imagine anyone with at least an elementary school education believes people living 5,000 years ago were “cavemen.” This time is contemporary with the development of early (“proto”) writing in many cultures, and actually later than some finds from 7th millennium BCE China (the Jiahu symbols from Henan, 6600 BCE). It was the time when the first towns were formed.

We’ve known about Neolithic building from the many megaliths and gravesites uncovered, as well as the communities already unearthed. The most famous of which is, of course, Stonehenge, built roughly in the same period as the Orkney site. You can see an imagined reconstruction on the National Geographic site. It’s impressive, but hardly spectacular in the way Stonehenge, Macchu Picu, Angkor Wat or the Pyramids are.

Cavemen, as they are inappropriately called, refers to people living in the Paleolithic period, which Wikipedia reminds us extended,

…from the earliest known use of stone tools, probably by hominins such as australopithecines, 2.6 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene around 10,000 BP.

The Neolithic is when human communities first start developing beyond the tribal stage; when architecture and agriculture, music, language and religion all developed. While archeologists and anthropologists bicker over the exact time span, in general it ran from about 10,000 BCE to about 4,500 BCE, although some place it as recent as 2,000 BCE for some groups.
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Gangs of Feathered T-Rex

Packs of tyrannosaurs
Imagine, if you will, an early morning scene in the late Cretaceous. The air is quiet as the day warms. At the edge of a large forest a plain of ferns ripples in the light breeze (grass would not evolve for another 20 or so million years). Under the canopy of the ancient beeches and maples, there is movement. Nothing fast, just a hint. A flash of mottled colour against the background. A glint of light off an eye. A soft snuffling. A feather falls silently to the forest floor.

Among the nearby ferns, a pack of ceratopsians grazes, adults watching the woods carefully, nervously, herding the young towards the safety of the pack’s centre with prods of their heads, honking to get the young ones’ attention. They eat the flowers that dot the plain among the ferns and cycads, chew the horsetails that grow at the edge of the ponds and streams. A youngster sees a tasty patch of moss and, unnoticed, slips out between the elders to get it.

Suddenly the forest explodes. Leaves scatter and branches snap as the muscular forms crash through the cover and converge on the young triceratops, separated from the horned protection of the pack. Two large adults, a teenager and two younger tyrannosaurs running a well-coordinated hunt as they have done many times int he past. Their speed makes them a blur against the trees.

The ceratopsians bellow in fear and rage, and quickly form a circle, heads out, protecting the oldest and youngest within the centre. The pack of tyrannosaurs’ charge sounds like thunder, and they screech in anticipation as they race to surround the doomed youngster. They circle rapidly, darting to avoid the feeble attempts at defence from the surrounded dinosaur.

The herd can’t save it, and they move away, quickly, the outer ring still shuffling backwards to keep their ferocious, horned heads facing the danger. The tyrannosaur pack ignores the herd as it feeds, tearing off chunks of the living flesh as the youngster’s screams get fainter.

Their hunger slaked for the moment, the pack would soon retire to the forest to look for another easy target that might venture close by.

Triceratops vs tyrannosaur

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The Strange World of E-Writers

Pulp magazinesThere’s always been a place for amateur or new writers to present their efforts and hope to see print: publications where you could submit your work and hope the editors found it good enough to print in an upcoming issue. That’s how some famous writers got their start, in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s: Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov and many more. But all of these depended on getting past the gatekeeper, someone like John Campbell: an editor who set standards – slim as they may sometimes be – and wrangled clumsy prose into shape for publication.

And then there have been self-publishing houses that can eschew the editor and simply print your book as you submit it – as long as you paid the bill to do so. This type of publishing house is still operating and plays an important role in getting many local and personal or family books into print. Many authors, frustrated at not being able to find a national publisher, has resorted to self-publishing. The wonderful book of local oral history, Butchers, Bakers and Building the Lakers used this method to get into print.*

Self-publishing runs the gamut from quality books like this to family genealogies, first novels and collections of atrociously sappy poems. It’s not simply self-printing: it’s self-editing, self-layout and self-design (unless you hire a professional to do it for you – there’s still a role for freelance editors and designers). Still, it has a respectable place in the history of publishing.

I remember in the 1950s and 60s there were ads in magazines for poetry books – submit your poem and an amount of money and you would get back a book of poems by aspiring writers like yourself, the printing paid for by the collective authors. No editor, just a compositor and printer. And usually awful stuff between the covers. But who cared about the rest if you saw your name in print?

Then came the internet and a new venue for self publishing: the website. And from that sprang the blog. But most of these efforts have been limited in scope and size. Almost no one reads a novel online, and would-be authors have had to either break their work into smaller parts or bundle it into a downloadable file for offline printing and reading. With the dwindling public attention span, it’s hard to get readers to stick around a website to read even something as long and rambling as these blog posts, let alone a whole book.

The Net also gave a boost to fan fiction because it allowed fans to collectivize and publish online. Like many other forms of writing, fan fiction has a long history. I remember many years ago, in the 70s, writing fantasy short stories in the world created by Fritz Leiber in his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series. Never saw print, mind you, but it’s interesting and entertaining to work within the universe created by another writer – and great practice for the wannabe novelist.

In a similar vein, the original Dungeons and Dragons gamified a fantasy universe for players to both participate in and develop their own, personal story lines – some of which led to fan books and magazine stories.

Now, with the arrival of e-readers, those authors have a new platform, a new audience, and what a world it has spawned.

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When good people do bad things in groups

Mob MentalityThe headline is taken from a piece on Science Daily on a study about how groups change personal behaviour and morality. The study is reported on the MIT website. I’ve seen that change myself, many times over the years, and most recently locally. The study adds intelligence on the neurology of how such group activity changed people.

The report itself is called “Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm,” which of course would have most people’s eyes glazing over. But the authors of the report start by asking a salient question:

Why do interactions become more hostile when social relations shift from “me versus you” to “us versus them”? 

Why, indeed? Why do people who seem rational and even friendly individually become angry bullies in a group?The authors themselves offer a hypothesis:

One possibility is that acting with a group can reduce spontaneous self-referential processing in the moral domain and, in turn, facilitate competitor harm. We tested this hypothesis in an fMRI experiment in which (i) participants performed a competitive task once alone and once with a group; (ii) spontaneous self-referential processing during competition was indexed unobtrusively by activation in an independently localized region of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) associated with self-reference; and (iii) we assessed participants’ willingness to harm competitors versus teammates. As predicted, participants who showed reduced mPFC activation in response to descriptions of their own moral behaviors while competing in a group were more willing to harm competitors. These results suggest that intergroup competition (above and beyond inter-personal competition) can reduce self-referential processing of moral information, enabling harmful behaviors towards members of a competitive group.

That’s fairly technical and likely not eyebrow-raising for us non-techies. Is this relevant to you and me, to our neighbours and friends and our daily lives? Yes, and very much so.

It means that our personal moral compass may not work, may be disabled when we interact in groups that identify an us-them dichotomy, or see outsiders as competitors. It explains why groups can become uncivil, nasty, aggressive, even violent although their individual members may not be.

It also suggests that to break away from group dominance, one needs to become introspective about our own values and ethics, and one must work hard to recover that moral compass.

We only need read the stories of the brave but estranged family members the late Fred Phelps, leader of the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church, who broke away from his control. Twenty-three-year-old Zach Phelps-Roper broke from the church recently, and spoke to the Topeka Capital-Journal about his decision:

Empathy and unconditional love, he said, are the keys to solving the world’s problems — a lesson he has learned contrasting his time inside the WBC compound and the past nearly 11 weeks outside it.
“I feel like I have unconditional love for every person around the world,” Phelps-Roper said Friday. “The Westboro Baptist Church sees things differently than I do now.”
The church he grew up in was too busy pointing out problems to look for solutions, he said. He has been able to spend the past two months investigating the second part of that equation.
His conclusion: “Most problems come from a lack of understanding of how we affect other people and things around us. I feel like I have found the holy grail, the overarching solution to solving all of our society’s problems, and I want to learn more. I want to do more.”

What is interesting to me is that Zach, although he broke from the abusive church and its leader, and rediscovered his own moral compass, he also retains considerable religious faith – even a fundamentalist view I would have expected him to abandon. So one can break free of a group’s dominance yet retain shared core beliefs., just behave differently – more normally, more civilly.

That was eye-opening. It certainly isn’t the experience of all Westboro members who have freed themselves of its grip (read this piece about another family member’s struggle; Libby Phelps-Alvarez), although most have said in the interviews I’ve read they are kinder, gentler, more empathetic and humane since leaving the church. I expect most people who break free of any group’s control feel that way.

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E-readers: worth the investment?

BookshelfI have a passionate, somewhat obsessive, relationship with books. Real books: paper, ink and glue. Not digital books. I have a lot of books and I treasure each one like an old friend. I love reading – I read books at least an hour every day, and usually much more. The feel of a book in my hands is a comfort and a delight.

I worked in book publishing – a dream job for anyone with a passion for reading.

I’ve never been seduced by an e-reader – even though at heart I’m a techie geek who likes hardware and gadgets almost as much as books. E-readers always seemed to cater to the pop-fiction crowd and I don’t read much contemporary fiction (mostly non-fiction: science, history, politics fill my shelves). However, I do read fiction: mostly the classics.

I also resist buying a digital book if I can’t share it, can’t keep it on a shelf to re-open later, can’t write my name on the inside, can’t clip it into a pocket or a knapsack. I like to have a small, unruly stack of books beside my bed so I can read chapters from several titles before I sleep. And books on the dining room table. Books on the toilet tank lid. Books on the floor. On the coffee table beside the couch.

An e-reader just seems so tidy.

But I suppose it’s not really very different from buying a computer game or DLC on Steam or buying vehicles on World of Tanks (which I’ve done without any philosophical pondering). They’re digital downloads, too, not actual purchases, like e-books.

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Is silver safe as a medicine?

Effects of colloidal silverThe short answer to that headline question – based on everything I’ve read of late – is no. It’s not that silver has no medical uses – one form has been used in dressings and bandages as an antiseptic (not, as is sometimes claimed, an antibiotic). Silver nitrate is sometimes used to treat warts and corns.

However, the benefits and long-term risks of silver in any form – especially an ingested form – have been not been fully researched.

It’s not that colloidal silver – an entirely different product from topical silver – may not have health-related benefits. It’s just that we don’t really know because there is no solid, peer-reviewed research to back up any of the claims. And those claims make it nothing short of miraculous. Quackwatch lists AIDS, chronic fatigue, herpes, TB, syphilis, lupus, malaria, plague, acne, impetigo, and Lyme disease among the diseases sellers claim their colloidal silver will cure. Others include “Common cold, stomach ulcers, acne, burns, shingles, arthritis, strep, tuberculosis,” fungus, bacteria, polio and cancer.

A 2013 study found colloidal silver (silver ions) improved the efficiency of antibiotics. But the study’s authors warned that this was just a preliminary effort:

Before adding silver to antibiotics, “we’ll have to address the toxicity very carefully”, says Fowler. Ingesting too much silver can also cause argyria, a condition in which the skin turns a blue-grey colour — and the effect is permanent.

Collins says that he and his colleagues saw good results in mice using non-toxic amounts of silver. But, he adds, there are ways to reduce the risk even further. “We’re also encouraging people to look at what features of silver caused the helpful effects, so they can look for non-toxic versions,” he says,

Silver is used in water purification: “The World Health Organization includes silver in a colloidal state produced by electrolysis of silver electrodes in water, and colloidal silver in water filters as two of a number of water disinfection methods specified to provide safe drinking water in developing countries.” That doesn’t mean that it’s safe to drink the stuff from a bottle.

Rosemary JacobsArgyria is an irreversible effect that comes from ingesting too much silver. It turns your skin cyanotic: blue-ish; from the bright blue face at the top of this post to the slate-grey face of Rosemary Jacobs shown here. Jacobs was given colloidal silver by her doctors and ended up with her discoloured skin. her story is tragic but illustrative – and a lot more real than the anonymous “testimonials” on many of the sellers’ sites.

My caution is mostly because of the charlatans in the alternative-health industry and how they promote their products.

Without considerable effort and research on the part of the consumer, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to determine which product is actually what it claims and is safe. My spidey-sense warns me that if it’s so hard to be sure, it’s best to avoid the product entirely.

Far, far too many of the sites that claim research or proof of colloidal silver’s efficacy as a cure point back to one another site that promotes colloidal silver – usually companies or individuals selling related products. Talk about a conflict of interest! Their “testimonials” are often unsubstantiated and anonymous. As Science-Based Medicine notes;

What perpetuates the use of colloidal silver are testimonials, like the nurse who suggested silver to prevent H1N1. The interwebs are filled with unsubstantiated testimonials, for common infections and unusual infections, with one gentleman crediting colloidal silver, rather than the vancomycin and gentamyin, for the cure of his subdural empyema (pus between the brain and skull).

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Confused Science

Confused In his book, The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin posutlates the ability to make or participate in music may have conferred an evolutionary advantage to early humans. It’s a reasonable hypothesis based on both archeological and anthropological evidence. And some paleontological finds, too.

We know from remains of bone flutes and other instruments, that humans made music at least 40,000 years ago. What that music was like, what role it played in primitive culture and society, what ceremonial or bonding purposes it had, will always be speculation (although we do know they likely used the pentatonic scale). We can only infer music’s roles from its uses in historic – i.e. since the invention of writing – civilizations, but we can never be sure what happened – and why – before the historical record.

When humans started singing, drumming, or making instruments to accompany themselves is simply something we will never know. Anything to suggest when is mere speculation. And even suggesting why is, too. We’re using post hoc analysis to infer purpose and reason.

We do know that group singing and dancing involves the release of certain neurochemicals like oxytocin, that can have powerful social-bonding effects on individuals, but we don’t know whether the particular chemistry is recent, ancient or even had the same effect on earlier cultures. However, given the relatively common and similar effects observed today, it’s another reasonable speculation that they occurred earlier within our evolution and helped humans bond, cooperate and accomplish group tasks.

And we do know that non-literate or non-technological societies – what few remain, such as those rare Amazonian tribes – use music and singing in social and cultural activities and rituals. Music and singing are as powerful in their cultures, in their daily lives, as sex and magic.*

(The co-development of music and civilization is fascinating, but apparently fragile. Music was mostly a communal activity, much more participatory, before the post-WWI development of communication technology. Today, thanks to the internet, digitalization and newer technologies, music is less a shared, bonding activity than it is a passive experience. Musicians – the people who create the experience – still create and shape public opinion and taste, but like alchemists and shamans, they are on the fringe of society.

There is a glimmer of hope that music may be returning to its communal, social roots with the recent growth in popularity of the ukulele and the resurgence of communal ukulele groups…)

Levitin – as brilliant as he is about neuroscience and music – seems confused about evolution and natural selection. And a few other sciences, as I’ll explain below.

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Seeing evolution in action

Peter and Rosemary GrantThe pop-science notion is that evolution takes a long time. Millennia, many millennia; even millions of years. But is that always true? Can one actually see and measure evolution in action? Can it happen in such a short time as to be recorded?

Peter and Rosemary Grant say they have. And it’s the subject of a new book they co-authored based on their research.

Their story was reported in the April 23 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. It’s a terrific read if for nothing more than their 40-year tale of dedication, science and adventure on the isolated Daphne Major Island, one of the smaller islands of the Galapagos chain.

Forty years studying finches together, away from human company, away from the comforts of civilization. The small birds that first gave Charles Darwin insight into the mechanics of natural selection were their focus. And the Grants report they have seen that mechanism in action on the island.

Scientists previously had reported seeing the processes of natural selection among bacteria, honeycreepers, cichlid fish, and fruit flies. As Peter Grant puts it, “Until we began, it was well understood that agricultural pests and bacteria could evolve rapidly, but I doubt that many people thought that about big, vertebrate animals.”

The Grants believe that hybridization is an important force in the rise of new species, and think this applies, too, to human evolution. For a long time, for example, paleontologists believed that Neanderthals and “modern homo sapiens” did not interbreed when they came into contact in prehistoric times, but recent research indicates that about 20 percent of Neanderthal genes have been preserved in our species. “It’s almost been a hobbyhorse of ours,” Peter says. “We were saying, ‘I bet there has been gene exchange between the lineages of homo sapiens throughout their evolution.’”

The Grants’ new book is targeted at both lay readers and scientists familiar with their work, and broadly discusses their findings about natural selection, hybridization, population variation (why do some populations of birds vary more dramatically in beak size?), the potential vanishing of a species through interbreeding, and, of course, the potential origin of a new species — the Big Bird lineage. They also touch on global warming and its possible effect on Darwin’s finches. Most of all, the book is an affirmation of the importance of long-term fieldwork as a way of capturing the true dynamism of evolution.

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What do we know about Bell’s Palsy?

Bell's PalsyBell’s Palsy is one of those rare ailments, and one that annoys more than threatens, but can be difficult and socially awkward for sufferers. It’s also one that still baffles researchers as to its cause. And also for an effective treatment.

According to facialpalsy.org,

The name ‘Bell’s palsy’ comes from 19th-century Scottish anatomist and surgeon Sir Charles Bell, who discovered that severing the seventh cranial (or facial) nerve causes facial paralysis.

It has no vaccine, no known method for prevention, and the treatment is still uncertain.

Wikipedia tells us:

Bell’s palsy is a form of facial paralysis resulting from a dysfunction of the cranial nerve VII (the facial nerve) causing an inability to control facial muscles on the affected side… Bell’s palsy is the most common acute mononeuropathy (disease involving only one nerve) and is the most common cause of acute facial nerve paralysis (>80%)… The hallmark of this condition is a rapid onset of partial or complete paralysis that often occurs overnight.

It also says:

It is thought that an inflammatory condition leads to swelling of the facial nerve. The nerve travels through the skull in a narrow bone canal beneath the ear. Nerve swelling and compression in the narrow bone canal are thought to lead to nerve inhibition, damage or death…
Some viruses are thought to establish a persistent (or latent) infection without symptoms… Reactivation of an existing (dormant) viral infection has been suggested as a cause of acute Bell’s palsy. Studies suggest that this new activation could be preceded by trauma, environmental factors, and metabolic or emotional disorders, thus suggesting that a host of different conditions may trigger reactivation.

Which, in essence, doesn’t tell us a lot about the actual cause or why it recurs; mostly it remains guesswork. Bell’s Palsy affects about 20 people per 100,000 population, and the incidence increases with age and with certain medical conditions.

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The dangerous idiocy of the anti-vax movement

Measles outbreakMeasles is on the rise in Canada. There have already been many cases in 2014: in PEI, London, Ottawa, southern Alberta, Regina, Qu’Apelle, Calgary, Fraser Valley (320 cases), Hamilton, Halton, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Waterloo, Nanaimo and other locations. Eleven cases in Ontario this year alone. Nine in Alberta.

That ancient, deadly foe we recently believed we had conquered, is coming back. And it’s going to kill children again, this time with the complicity of their parents.

Fifty years ago, science found the cure and made a vaccine for it. In 2000, the United States optimistically declared ongoing measles transmission had been eliminated. But it’s come back.

So have mumps and whooping cough – both easily and safely prevent by vaccinations. Both are deadly threats to children again.

Who’s to blame? And why is this happening? Why are people putting children at such risk?

It’s because of the anti-vaccination movement, a cult of pseudoscience, anti-medicine sentiments, gullibility, fear, superstition and mostly quackery promoted by witless and devious celebrities and greedy marketers, then spread on the internet to people who jump on every passing bandwagon. Parents who get their medical advice from unreliable online sources – mostly lies, rumour, gossip and unfounded allegation, like all conspiracy theories – or from quacks, not doctors.*

Health Link Alberta tells us how easily measles can spread:

Close contact with an infected person is not necessary to catch measles.
It is an extremely contagious airborne disease that can spread by coughing and sneezing, and through air currents.
Although there is no specific treatment or cure for measles, it can be prevented through immunization.
The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is part of the routine childhood immunization program in Alberta.
Children should receive their first MMR dose at 12 months and the second between the ages of four and six years. Both doses are required to be fully protected.

The anti-vaxxers are creating a public health disaster. Rather ironically, North American parents have that in common with the Taliban:

In Pakistan, polio remains an epidemic because the Taliban has banned aid workers from vaccinating children. They say they fear that vaccination efforts are simply a ruse meant to disguise espionage. Health workers attempting to distribute vaccines there have been attacked and killed. A total of 101 polio cases have been reported in the country as of mid-November, and another 240,000 children have not been vaccinated.

Continue reading “The dangerous idiocy of the anti-vax movement”

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