Sunny with a chance of squirrels

Bella sittingWhat is going on in that furry little head of yours? I was standing on the porch one day last fall watching Bella, our terrier-cross dog, and latest addition to the Chadwick pack. She was watching Diego, our ginger tom cat who was watching something in the trees. Bella stared, then turned to look where Diego was looking. Together they stared at something I couldn’t see, but which captivated them to the point of obsession.

Heads moved in unison as they stared, fixated. Tails twitched in syncopation.  I looked, unable to see what fascinated them. Suddenly they gave up, again in unison, and looked elsewhere.

Humans are often just befuddled observers of this stuff. Most of my thoughts about pets these days begin with the phrase “What the hell…?” I ask myself over and over what is in that furry head. Pick a furry head – we have four cats and two dogs (our max was once three dogs, seven cats and 23 ferrets, so this is a small pack… most of whom were abandoned or rescue animals, by the way, and they all had a good life within our walls).

Bella at fireplaceThought I understood dogs fairly well, I did. Thought I had had enough experience with all sorts of breeds and varieties. After all, I studied animal behaviour for years;read dozens of books on dogs and their inner selves. Spoke at length to breeders, animal behaviourists, dog trainers and owners.

But as much as you think you know, a lot of it is guesswork. Or just anecdotal experience that doesn’t apply to other dogs. There are days when I think dog behaviour is a pseudoscience like astrology or phrenology: just hot air and codswallop.

Bella reminds me daily that there are new horizons of dogdom I have yet to comprehend. She’s a delight, but sometimes as crazy as a bag full of bloggers.

It’s been nine months since we got her and we’re still learning her ways. When winter arrived, we learned much to our surprise that she likes snow. loves it, in fact, and will happily charge into drifts that almost swallow her.

She also likes to eat snow. A lot. Can hardly walk 10 metres without her snapping up some snow to crunch on. Crazy dog, for a dog that loves the heat so much she sits in front of the fireplace when it’s on. Not the roll-in-the-snow every few metres that Sophie likes, but loves to run and play in it anyway.

And she tries to climb trees when she sees a squirrel in one. I’d never seen a dog trying to climb up a tree before, but she just doesn’t get it that it isn’t happening.
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Thinking about a new ukulele

Kala resonator uke
I’ve been thinking seriously of adding another ukulele to the herd. A tenor resonator, or resophonic, like the Kala shown above. That’s the re-designed 2014 model.

I’ve played earlier models, including the 2013 version with the strings attached to a tailpiece (see photo below, left). The 2014 design (shown above) anchors the strings back into the cover plate, which I expect will be a better design; it looks cleaner, too. But I believe the biggest change is that the through-the-plate model has more tension on the biscuit (see below). And I like Kala products, too.

Earlier Kala resoI really like resonator instruments and currently own a Soares resonator tenor guitar. It’s lovely; all-metal body, but a heavy beast (20lb or so)

I owned a Republic all-metal reso uke, a few years back, but it was concert scale. Interesting uke, but I didn’t keep it. I loved the look, but I don’t like concert scale as much as tenor, and I think that concert scale strings don’t put enough tension on the biscuit to make the cone work effectively. However, it gave me some ideas about improving reso uke output.

In the physics of guitars and ukuleles, the more tension on the saddle, the greater the energy passed along through the bridge to the sounding surface (top). Thus the greater the tension, the louder the sound and the greater the sustain.

A tenor uke has more string tension than a concert, and because of this it is this is generally louder and richer in tone than a shorter scale uke.

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Litter, litter, everywhere

LitterPop cans. Coffee cups. Candy bar wrappers. Fast food wrappers. Cigarette packages. Cigarette butts. Dog feces. Bags of dog feces. Flyers. Cellophane package wrap. Water bottles. Juice bottles. Chip bags. Beer cans and bottles. Disposable lighters and pens. Cardboard beer boxes. Discarded newspapers and junk mail. Plastic grocery bags.

I just don’t get littering. I’ve never gotten littering.

These are just some of the items I’ve seen stuck into snow banks and hedges in my neighbourhood, or dropped on the road the past few weeks. There’s always litter, it seems, always someone carelessly and thoughtlessly dropping garbage on the sidewalk, the boulevard or street. The snow has covered up the older stuff. Come spring it will come out again. The streams and creeks will thaw and deliver a new load of garbage into our harbour.

Why do people litter? Why would anyone pollute their own home? Dump their trash on streets and sidewalks they have to walk themselves? Why would anyone get a dog and let it crap on someone else’s lawn and not pick up after it? Or more confusingly, pick up then leave the bag of feces on the lawn for the homeowner to deal with. Or someone else to walk on.

What sort of animal fouls its own nest? What sort of person would foul a beautiful town like Collingwood? Surely we all want this to be the best, the prettiest, the cleanest and most livable town in Canada. Litter won’t let that happen.

Why would anyone – even a smoker – consider it acceptable to dump the contents of a car ashtray on the public street? After all, the public space is their space too: it belongs to us all. Would you do this in your living room? In your bed? yet I’ve often seen people do this downtown and in parking lots.

I’ve seen people buy oil and windshield washer fluid at Canadian Tire, fill their car in the parking lot, then drive away leaving the empty bottles on the asphalt. I’ve seen people walk into local pizza joints, buy a slice, eat it and drop the cardboard tray on the sidewalk only feet from the place they bought it.

I’m baffled. And I’m not the only one. Anneli Rufus wrote in Psychology Today:

I believe that the proliferation of discarded packaging peppering urban and suburban America — strewn over sidewalks, streets, gutters and gardens rather than being dropped into recycling bins and trash cans — tells us something. I just can’t figure out what.

Every day we each step over and around a slurry of discarded cups, cans, straws, snack wrappers, cigarette packets, and more – all dropped by others. Most of us pay no mind. Litter isn’t pretty, but it won’t bite. So over it we step, averting our eyes.

But hey: Each of these items got where it is because someone was holding it in his or her hands and then let go…

Public areas are ringed with recycling bins and other trash receptacles. Litterers are nearly always within sight of at least one receptacle when they choose, instead, to litter. And it is a choice. Something is in your hand; then it isn’t. It ceases to be in your hand. How? Reaching the nearest trash receptacle would mean only grasping the item a few seconds longer, two or three minutes at most. But somehow, for countless someones, that wait isn’t worth it.

I understand somewhat that not all children have been taught not to litter, and that a child’s sense of social responsibility is often under-developed. Some of the garbage I see is from elementary students walking to school. Candy wrappers, chocolate milk containers, that sort of thing. I’ve seen them drop it, even while parents escort them home. Sometimes the parents even stop and pick it up.

But coffee cups and cigarette butts – these are adults. I’ve seen adults at sports fields and events cheering their kids on in some game, then leaving coffee cups, discarded food wrappers and condiment bags on the ground at their feet when they leave. Usually there is a waste bin a few feet away. No wonder their kids litter; no wonder they don’t develop a healthy sense of social responsibility: they learn the lesson from mom and dad.

Toronto StarI’m sure every reader here has seen images of Canada Post superbox installations awash in the discarded junk mail people simply drop on the ground rather than take home and dispose of responsibly. A Google search will produce hundreds of such images, if not. Disgusting, I suspect you will say when you see them.*

These are adults, not children doing this. Adults are supposed to know better. We’re supposed to be the role models for children: responsible, aware, conscientious, ethical. Stewards of the environment. Not lazy litterers.

And I’m sure everyone of them who did it knows full well that littering is irresponsible and anti-social behaviour. So why do it?

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Feb. 12: Happy Darwin Day

Charles DarwinFebruary 12 is international Darwin Day, the day when we collectively celebrate science and reason. And, of course, we recognize Charles Darwin’s birthday: February 12, 1809 (the same birthdate as Abraham Lincoln, by the way).

If Collingwood made such declarations, I would propose we recognize the day in our municipality. Other Canadian municipalities have done so. Maybe we could raise a flag with Darwin’s face on it outside town hall.

Darwin Day was first celebrated in 1995 and has been growing in recognition and popularity ever since. As Darwinday.org tells us the celebration was:

…initiated by Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Stephens and took place at Stanford University. The first EVENT sponsored by the Stanford Humanists student group and the Humanist Community, was held on April 22, 1995. The famous anthropologist Dr. Donald Johanson, who discovered the early fossil human called ‘Lucy’, gave a lecture entitled “Darwin and Human Origins” to over 600 people in the Kresge Auditorium.

In subsequent years the location and date of the celebration was changed to coincide with Darwin’s birthday and was held on, or near, February 12 each year. The success of the venture is reflected in the list of speakers which include Richard Dawkins, 1996; Paul Berg, 1997; Robert Sapolsky, 1998; Douglas Hofstadter, 1999; Michael Shermer, 2001; Robert Stephens and Arthur Jackson, 2003; Robert and Lola Stephens, 2004; and Eugenie Scott, 2005.

And, as the site also adds, “Celebrating Science and Humanity within our various cultures throughout the world is an idea that is overdue…”

I would hope, too, that people would take some time out of their busy days to read something of Darwin’s, even if only a few pages. He wrote beautifully, albeit rather obtusely at times.

Of course, I don’t expect creationists will break out of their cult mentality and celebrate science today: they haven’t in more than 150 years since Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. But while we celebrate Darwin, we should give some thought to creationism on this day, not just to critical thinking, if for nothing else than to remind us that we still have a long way to go to get universal appreciation of science and reason.

Especially, it seems, in the USA, where 43 percent of Americans believe in young-earth creationism. Not entirely bad news, given that figure has dropped from 54 percent in 2009. But still very, very scary.*

On Facebook today there were a couple of links to articles about creationism worth reading on this Darwin Day.

Creationism museum displayFirst is a cutely risible piece on Buzzfeed called “45 Things I Learned At The Creation Museum.” For those who don’t know it, the Creation Museum in Kentucky is where Bill Nye recently successfully debated creationist Ken Ham. It’s probably the most strenuous effort to rationalize away science ever constructed.

If I ever get to Kentucky, I will pay a visit, but I expect I’ll get escorted out for laughing too loudly at the exhibits. And if you’re like me, you will probably enjoy the virtual tour in the Buzzfeed article more than actually being there, because you don’t risk being ejected. After all, how can you keep a straight face when confronted with a sign that claims all dinosaurs were vegetarians before Adam?

Uh, and those razor-edged, pointed, cutting, slashing teeth were for… broccoli? Okay, stop snickering or they won’t let you in the museum either.

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Psychics 2013: the silly, the scams, the failed predictions

Joke...Action News, an ABC affiliate, ran a late-year story with the headline “Psychics interpret pets’ thoughts.” No, it’s not April Fools’ Day: this was December 26. Yet the reporter treated it seriously; just like it was a real story; actual news, rather than a steaming heap of superstitious dung. That reporters for any media outlet treat would such codswallop as “news” calls into question their ability, their competence and their education.

Lorrie The Pet Psychic has been tuning into the thoughts of animals for 18 years, appearing on Oprah after she helped locate a local dog who was blown away by a storm and then found alive.
“I feel very honored, you know, because I get to give animals a voice. Especially with the older pets that are getting ready to cross over and their owners get to say goodbye,” said Lorrie.

I don’t know whether to laugh at Lorrie’s ludicrous statements, or weep at the gullibility of people who have used her “services” for 18 years.

“Cross over”? You mean die. Kick the bucket. Shuffle off this mortal coil. Run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. Pet ghosts talking to former masters? Sheesh… if dead pets could talk, why don’t these “:psychics” get messages from dead raccoons, or other roadkill? The mouse that died in the trap? the bird caught by your cat? Wouldn’t the afterlife ether just crackle with that noise?

Psychics and so-called clairvoyants feed on people’s fear of mortality; they create a culture of alternate realities and other worlds populated with dead people (and pets – or is it all animals?) in order to suck the money from your wallet when they pretend to be in contact with people who “cross over.” Now, it seems, they can contact pets, too, living and dead.

“I think he likes his hair a little longer,” said Psychic Eve. “He prefers it that way. He feels more, I don’t know, macho more desirable.”

That’s what another self-described “psychic” told the credulous reporter, who dutifully wrote it down and printed it. Come on – a dog being “macho” over its hair? What journalism school taught you to be so naive?

To add insult to intellectual injury, the reporter then lists contact information so the simple-minded readers can call these “psychics” and give them their money.

If you want to know what sort of justification “pet psychics” give to their clients before denuding them of their finances, on How Stuff Works, you can get pages full of their gibberish:

According to most pet psychics, you communicate with your pets telepathically all the time, without even knowing it. Your cat hides and your dog gets ready to play because of signals you send with your mind, not because of your actions… According to pet psychics, electromagnetic energy surrounds and penetrates everything in the universe, much like the force in “Star Wars.” This energy is part of the radio spectrum, but scientists haven’t figured out how to detect it. Pet psychics can use energy to contact animals, no matter how far away the animals are or whether they are still living.

Enough to make your brain hurt, isn’t it? The real message, though, is buried in the article:

For a fee, they then relay telepathic messages to and from pets. The pets don’t even have to be present — often, psychics use photographs or descriptions to make contact.

There’s the hook in the worm: a fee. Of course they charge a fee because they make their living fleecing the gullible.

I have a tough time telling my black cats apart some days even when they’re sitting side by side. Who would be dim enough yet willing to pay someone to “telepathically” converse with a photograph of a black cat?

Here’s what my dog would say if a “pet psychic” could communicate with it:

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

And I learned that without shelling out money to a “psychic!”
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American belief in evolution is growing: poll

Alien SaintA new Harris poll released this month shows that Americans apparently are losing their belief in miracles and gaining it in science. The recent poll showed that American belief in evolution had risen to 47% from its previous poll level of 42%, in 2005.

True, it’s not an overwhelming increase, and it’s still less than half the population, but it is an improvement. Belief in creationism dropped 3% during that time, to 36%. Good news, of course, but don’t break out the champagne yet. There’s other data and it’s not all so good.

At the same time more Americans are believing in the science of evolution, American belief in many religious teachings is falling. Belief in miracles, heaven and others has dropped since the last poll:

  • 72% believe in miracles, down from 79 percent in 2005;
  • 68% believe in heaven, down from 75%;
  • 68% believe that Jesus is God or the Son of God, down from 72%;
  • 65% believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, down from 70%;
  • 64% believe in the survival of the soul after death, down from 69%;
  • 58% believe in the devil and hell, down from 62%;
  • 57% believe in the Virgin birth, down from 60%.

CNS News also tells us the poll shows:

  • Absolute certainty that there is a God is down vs. 10 years ago (54% vs. 66% in 2003).
  • Outside of specific religious samples, the groups most likely to be absolutely certain there is a God include blacks (70%), Republicans (65%), older Americans (62%), Baby Boomers (60%), Southerners (61%) and Midwesterners (58%), and those with a high school education or less (60%).
  • There continues to be no consensus as to whether God is a man or a woman. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans (39%) think God is male, while only 1% of U.S. adults believe God is female. However, notable minorities believe God is neither male nor female (31%) or both male and female (10%).
  • 19 percent of Americans describe themselves are “very” religious, with an additional four in ten (40%) describing themselves as “somewhat” religious (down from 49% in 2007). Nearly one-fourth of Americans (23%) identify themselves as “not at all” religious – a figure that has nearly doubled since 2007, when it was at 12%.

The Harris Poll has some not-so-good news to report, as well. According to the pollsters, more Americans believe in ghosts, reincarnation and UFOs than in 2005:

  • Reincarnation: 25%, up 3%
  • Ghosts 42%, up 1%
  • UFOs 36%, up 1%

I’m not sure whether to blame this lapse in critical thinking on ‘reality” TV or the internet. Either way, it’s troubling.

Belief in witches is down to 5% to 25%, and belief in astrology remains unchanged at 29%. Belief in angels is down 6%, but still staggeringly high at 68%. Imaginary beings are losing followers, while pseudoscience still hangs in there. The good news, if one reads it thus, is that belief in the science of evolution is finally higher than the belief in witches, ghosts, UFOs, astrology, creationism and reincarnation. But not angels.

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We have heading up for your net

Spam cartoonI have to admit that I frequently read the spam comments WordPress traps for my moderation, and I often do so with a smile. The clumsy, crazy constructs, the awkward English, butchered punctuation and the twisted word use just make me laugh.

Yes, like everyone else, I detest spam, and I quickly delete the comments into whatever digital wastebin they descend to. But I often chuckle to read them first. They make me wonder: are they deliberately written poorly, are they the sincere efforts of someone struggling to learn English, words strung together in random order by a bot, or are they the result of some Google translation gone awry?

Some have question marks which suggest symbols from other languages that didn’t get through the translation process. or are they just machine constructs dropping in characters at random?

This one is a good example, taken from today’s lot waiting for the delete button:

Of training course exceptional post. We have heading up for your net. Usually publish with your very own encounter and share. Oh! really grateful.

Some read like odd poetry, if you parse them so. Take the above, for example and write it thus:

Of training course exceptional post.
We have heading up for your net.
Usually publish with
your very own encounter
and share.
Oh!
really grateful.

Okay, not great poetry. Reads like computer-generated poetry, though, doesn’t it?

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Anti-Intellectualism: The New Elitism

Anti-intellectualismThere’s a growing – and disturbing – trend in modern culture: anti-intellectual elitism. The dismissal of art, science, culture, philosophy, of rhetoric and debate, of literature and poetry, and their replacement by entertainment, spectacle, self-righteous self ignorance, and deliberate gullibility. These are usually followed by vituperative ridicule and angry caterwauling when anyone challenges the populist ideals or ideologies.

As if having a brain, as if having any aspirations to culture, to art, to learning – or worse, to science – was an evil, malicious thing that must be stomped upon. As if the literati were plotting world domination by quoting Shakespeare or Chaucer. Or Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins.

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, oration to the Phi Beta Kappa Society Cambridge, August 31, 1837.

Anti-intellectualism isn’t new – Richard Hofstadter wrote about it in 1963 – but it has become highly visible on the internet where pseudoscience and conspiracy theories have developed unchallenged into popular anti-science and anti-rationalist countercultures, many followed and accepted by millions.

Hofstadter wrote,

Anti-intellectualism is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.

He warned in his book that intellectualism was “on the run” in America. It still is.*

Just look at the superstitious Jenny-McCarthyites who fear vaccinations with the same religious fervour medieval peasants feared black cats crossing their paths. Or the muddle-headed practitioners and followers of homeopathy. The chemtrail conspiracists. The anti-wind turbine and the anti-fluoride crowd. Any Scientologist. Or any religious fundamentalist. The list of true believers in the anti-intellectual crowd is huge.

Online technology didn’t create these mythologies, or the gullibility of their followers, but the internet is the great equalizer and the great popularizer. It’s not making us smarter; in fact, it may be dumbing down a lot of folks. That’s because anyone, anywhere, can have his or her say and there’s no way to easily discern the intellectual wheat from the. abundant chaff without doing some hard thinking and analysis.

Technology has created the sense of entitlement that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment. It’s the ultimate democratizer. But it’s a democracy where communication is reduced to the lowest level: the instant, the brief and the angry retort.

Facebook and Twitter don’t have categories that identify posters as more relevant or more important than others. If the prime minister posts on Facebook, he doesn’t get a gold box around his post that says he’s in charge of the country. If Stephen Hawking weighs into a Facebook debate about the nature of the space-time continuum, he doesn’t get a special icon that lets people know he owns this conversation.***

All messages we post have the same weight, the same gravity. There’s nothing to identify any post as more informed, as factually correct or even relevant. So it becomes easy to derail a discussion by spurious claims and allegations, but innuendo, lies or simply confrontational language.

We’re all equally important on the internet. One person’s belief in magic, superstition or conspiracies gets the same opportunity to be heard and seen as those about science and empirical fact. In the online land of the blind, the one-eyed man has no special significance.

Facebook image

We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation.

When they can’t respond with an intellectual counterargument – as is often the case – the anti-intellectuals respond with the ideology of their peer group (see the religious content of the message in the image taken from Facebook on the left) or ad hominem attacks. Name calling. Belittling and demeaning the opponent.

Bill Keller, writing in the New York Times, said,

The Web culture is simultaneously elitist and anti-authoritarian…

But it’s not an elitism of wisdom, education, experience or knowledge. The new elite are the angry posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response.

Together they ferment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool.

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Survival of the Fittest

Herbert SpencerCharles Darwin has long been associated with the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” For a century and a half people have used it to refer to their understanding of his explanation of how species evolved.

But it wasn’t his. And it has obscured the understanding of Darwin’s own theory.

It came from a contemporary, Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a contemporary of Darwin – an English polymath:  philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, economist liberal political theorist, utilitarian – and, by some accounts, an early libertarian. His ideas came from people like Malthus and Adam Smith (read more about his philosophy here). Wikipedia tells us:

For many, the name of Herbert Spencer would be virtually synonymous with Social Darwinism, a social theory that applies the law of the survival of the fittest to society; humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature’s laws, including the social struggle for existence. Spencer desired the elimination of the unfit through their failure to reproduce, rather than coercion or state intervention to initiate their physical annihilation.

He wrote his interpretation of Darwin’s ideas in an 1864 textbook of biology:

“This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

Spencer was really trying to apply Darwin’s ideas to his own ideas about economics, class struggle, competition and politics. He also believed in Lamarckism – the inheritance of attributes gained in one generation by the next – which has long since been discredited. But whether you agree with Spencer’s views, his reduction of Darwin’s theory to a convenient axiom did the theory an injustice.

In the public mind, Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were confusing and challenging. They became conflated with Spencer’s ideas and somehow the phrase stuck – the Victoria era equivalent of a bumper sticker phrase. It became wildly popular, and was soon applied to social and political phenomena, not simply biological.

It was so popular as a catch phrase that in the 1869  fifth edition of his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin – unfortunately – added this line:

“But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”

The problem is really in how the word “fittest” is defined. Like its sister term, theory, it has both a common and a scientific meaning.*

Survival of the FittestFittest, in Darwin’s sense, doesn’t mean the biggest, best, toughest, strongest or even the most competitive. It’s not the macho concept of superiority. It isn’t about power, control or brute force.

It means the “best suited for the immediate environment.” It has also been described as a “property of the relationship between the organism and the environment.” That might be a different colour, smaller size, less active. Whatever offers the best opportunity to survive and breed. Having offspring is key.

It’s a far more subtle notion than commonly used. As Wikipedia says:

Modern evolutionary theory defines fitness not by how long an organism lives, but by how successful it is at reproducing. If an organism lives half as long as others of its species, but has twice as many offspring surviving to adulthood, its genes will become more common in the adult population of the next generation.

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Infestations, Microbes & Parasites

Micrococcus (Actinobacteria)Staphylococci, Corynebacteria, Actinobacteria, Clostridiales, and Bacilli. They’re the most common, but they’re not the only ones. Bacteria. Microbes. Yes, even parasites.  Living in your belly button. And on your skin. Your hair. But the belly button flora and fauna fascinate me the most.*

We’ve known ever since the microscope was invented that we had a population of hitchhikers living on our skin, scalp – and even inside us. The great Antony van Leeuwenhoek is known as the “father of microbiology” for his explorations through his fledgling, primitive microscope in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. But we are still learning about the biodiversity we all have.**

There was a recent story in the Atlantic that researchers had found, of 2,368 species of bacteria living in our navels recorded so far, 1,458 new species.

New as in previously unknown until some scientist stuck a Q-tip into his or her belly button and examined the results. Which is what they are still doing, exploring this brave new frontier in microbiology. It must have been one of those eureka moments.

Gawd, dontcha love science? To bold go where no Q-tip has gone before…

The Atlantic story opens:

Instead of taking your fingerprint, maybe police should swab our belly buttons with Q-tips. No, that’s ridiculous, actually. But the idea illustrates a point made by a group of North Carolina-based researchers in their new Belly Button Biodiversity (BBB) project. Last month, the group published results of their first of many experiments, in which they swabbed 60 belly buttons and identified a total of 2,368 species of bacteria. People’s individual profiles were snowflake-ily, bacterially unique.

Most of the microbes that live on our skin are harmless, and many are actually beneficial: they protect us from more virulent invaders. What’s remarkable is the sheer number and variety of them.***

The scientists at Your Wildlife wrote that among all those species, there are some common forms found in most navels:

Turns out, belly buttons are a jungle of microbial biodiversity: we detected over 2300 species! And get this, only eight of those 2300 species– we call them oligarchs – were quite frequent and abundant, present in more than 70% of the individuals we sampled.

Oligarchs. Make me think of the Politburo. Or Putin’s new Russian clique. What role do these bacterial oligarchs play in their micro-environment?

We’re an entire ecosystem, Scientific American tells us:

Over the past 10 years or so, however, researchers have demonstrated that the human body is not such a neatly self-sufficient island after all. It is more like a complex ecosystem—a social network—containing trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that inhabit our skin, genital areas, mouth and especially intestines. In fact, most of the cells in the human body are not human at all. Bacterial cells in the human body outnumber human cells 10 to one. Moreover, this mixed community of microbial cells and the genes they contain, collectively known as the microbiome, does not threaten us but offers vital help with basic physiological processes—from digestion to growth to self-defense.

By the way, you can contribute to this ongoing research; check the notes at yourwildlife.org about how to help. The belly button experiment is over, as researchers assess their samples, but they are moving on to armpits, a whole new territory.

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From 7 to 29. Should I be worried? Or just keep monitoring?

Peaksaver PlusSeven cents per hour. That’s what the energy monitor was showing me a moment before I plugged in the kettle. Then it jumped to 29 cents. Wow! And this is mid-peak time, too, my new energy monitor warns. Should I be worried?

Better cut back on the tea if I want to conserve energy.

It did the same last night when we turned on the microwave at dinner time, but that was off-peak. Still, that’s pretty high, compared to seven cents. Those two devices seem to be the biggest energy hogs we have.

I need to do some calculating, however, to figure out real costs. What does five minutes’ worth of microwave heating translate to in terms of KWH used, and costs? I need a new app…

Energy monitorI’m reading the real-time display on my new energy monitoring toy tool and it’s telling me a lot about how I use electricity. It gives me that geeky satisfaction of watching data flow, just having it in front of me.

I got it when I signed up for the Peaksaver Plus program through Collus/Powerstream. Collingwood residents would have received a notice about the program in their last utility bill. If not, you can read about it here.*

The program (for homes with central air only, it seems), offers a free digital, touch-screen thermostat (Peaksaver Plus) and the wireless In-Home Energy Display. Free. For both. As in no charge, no additional billing, no hidden costs.

The stick behind this magnanimous carrot is simple: to reduce energy usage. The thermostat is connected wirelessly to the utility’s computers. If the power demand on the grid looks like it’s going to exceed capacity and cause a brownout, the utility can raise the temperature of your air conditioning by two degrees for 15 minutes to lighten the load. Does it all by itself.

Seems like a pretty good idea to me. After all, we don’t use the A/C a lot, and even when we do, the effect is a small change for a short time.

It won’t affect the winter heat (which is gas), so why not? Everyone has to do their part for our environment.

We’ve been using programmable digital thermostats for a couple of decades now. They really make a difference to your gas bill. Not least of all because, since it’s programmed, you never forget to turn the thermostat down when you leave the house. Or when you go to bed at night. Plus they are more accurate than the old manual, analog system. You get 68 degrees when you ask for it, not 70 or 72.Besides, the digital thermosat is cool, very programmable, and touch-screen. Not quite an iPad, but nonetheless, it’s pretty neat. And it runs off power from the furnace – not on batteries like the previous one (which always seemed to go dead on the coldest nights of the year…).

Our gas bill dropped significantly when we installed one.

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We are Stardust… and Viral Genes

SupernovaIn her classic song, Woodstock, Joni Mitchell ended with the chorus:

We are stardust
Billion-year-old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Which most people assume is merely poetic licence. Well, Joni wasn’t wrong: we – and every living thing on our planet – are made of stardust. As we learn at Physics Central:

If we know how many hydrogen atoms are in our body, then we can say that the rest is stardust. Our body is composed of roughly 7×1027 atoms. That is a lot of atoms! Try writing that number out on a piece of paper: 7 with 27 zeros behind it. We say roughly because if you pluck a hair or pick your nose there might be slightly less. Now it turns out that of those billion billion billion atoms, 4.2×1027 of them are hydrogen. Remember that hydrogen is bigbang dust and not stardust. This leaves 2.8×1027 atoms of stardust. Thus the amount of stardust atoms in our body is 40%.

Since stardust atoms are the heavier elements, the percentage of star mass in our body is much more impressive. Most of the hydrogen in our body floats around in the form of water. The human body is about 60% water and hydrogen only accounts for 11% of that water mass. Even though water consists of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen, hydrogen has much less mass. We can conclude that 93% of the mass in our body is stardust. Just think, long ago someone may have wished upon a star that you are made of.

Mitchell’s theme was picked up by the late cosmologist, Carl Sagan, in his hit TV show, Cosmos. Live Science tells us:

In the early 1980s, astronomer Carl Sagan hosted and narrated a 13-part television series called “Cosmos” that aired on PBS. On the show, Sagan thoroughly explained many science-related topics, including Earth’s history, evolution, the origin of life and the solar system.

Since stardust atoms are the heavier elements, the percentage of star mass in our body is much more impressive. Most of the hydrogen in our body floats around in the form of water. The human body is about 60% water and hydrogen only accounts for 11% of that water mass. Even though water consists of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen, hydrogen has much less mass. We can conclude that 93% of the mass in our body is stardust. Just think, long ago someone may have wished upon a star that you are made of.

“We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff,” Sagan famously stated in one episode.

His statement sums up the fact that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Because humans and every other animal as well as most of the matter on Earth contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff, said Chris Impey, professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona.

“All organic matter containing carbon was produced originally in stars,” Impey told Life’s Little Mysteries. “The universe was originally hydrogen and helium, the carbon was made subsequently, over billions of years.”

So how did all this stardust get into out bodies? Supernovae, spewing heavy material into the vastness of space, scattering atoms and molecules at near lightspeed. Our “Garden of Eden” was the nuclear furnace of an exploding star.

We are made of the material created 13-plus billion years ago, We are, as Mitchell sang, stardust. Recycled and reused, but the stuff of the cosmos nonetheless. *

And we’re also built of viral genes, a product of the evolution of life, of the co-evolution of life and that strange creature, the virus. Viruses have helped shape us, and our adaptations to the environment. That’s the premise of Frank Ryan’s latest book, Virolution.**

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Why Creationists Don’t Win the Nobel Prize

Looking at the list of Nobel prizes awarded in 2013 for science, we see three prestigious entries:

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2013
François Englert and Peter W. Higgs

“For the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2013
Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel

“For the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.”

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2013
James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof

“For their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells”

Impressive stuff. If you want more detail on why these three were chosen, read this National Geographic article.

Dinosaur flood jokeHmm. No ‘creation science”  in that list. In fact, not a single “creation scientist” was even nominated.

Not that the Nobel Prize hasn’t been without its controversies, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a list that showed a single creationist nominated for the award. Something along the line of “For proving dinosaurs and humans shared the planet before an angry, vengeful deity wiped out everything living including humans which it created only a few years earlier, except a pair each of  those creatures that could comfortably fit in a large boat, but on which dinosaurs and all but a single family of humans were not invited to board.”*

Probably because creationism isn’t science, not even when you try to gussy it up by labelling it “creation science.” It’s a political viewpoint based on a literalist take on Biblical mythology.”Creation science” is an oxymoron.**

You’d think if they had God (their particular god, not everyone’s god, mind you, and not every Christian’s god…) on their side, that God would belly up to the award committee bar and make sure at least one creationist won the damn prize. Not some folks doing experiments with particles no one can even see and that 99.9% of us don’t really understand.

But nope, creationists get shut out again.

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Hijack the Starship

Space station conceptNineteen seventy. A great year for music, and a sad year, too. The death of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin.* Many of the great acts were kicked off their record labels and would struggle to find new publishers.**

The great psychedelic band, Jefferson Airplane was breaking up, but before it did, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick put together a new band, named Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship (which would change its lineup before finalizing as the Jefferson Starship a few years later). They released a science fiction-counterculture concept album called Blows Against the Empire in 1970. It would go on to be nominated for a Hugo Award in 1971.

It was the voice of our dreams. Wikipedia tells us of the album:

Side Two is an integrated suite of songs which opens with “Sunrise”, Grace Slick’s allegory describing the breaking dawn the couple was awaiting, while also symbolizing the dawn of an Utopian civilization, freed from conservative mores and violent influences. “Sunrise” leads directly into “Hijack,” in which the revolutionaries storm the transport to the orbiting starship and head off into space, boarding the ship by the end of “Hijack” and leaving orbit in “Home.” As the story progresses with “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite,” hopes and misgivings are revealed. After the ship’s engines and systems are readied in “X-M,” “Starship” relates a mutiny fought for control of the ship, to determine whether to surrender and return or to continue. Eventually the idealists win control and the ship is flung by gravity sling-shot around the sun and out of the solar system.
By Kantner’s admission, the underlying premise of the narrative was derived in part from the works of science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, particularly the novel Methuselah’s Children. Kantner went so far as to write to Heinlein to obtain permission to use his ideas. Heinlein wrote back that over the years, many people had used his ideas but Paul was the first one to ask for permission, which he granted. Blows was the first rock album to ever be nominated for a Hugo Award, in 1971 in the category of Best Dramatic Presentation. In voting, the album garnered the second most votes for the award, losing to “No Award”, which received the most votes.


The lyrics of Hijack the Starship start with:

You know – a starship circlin’ in the sky –
It ought to be ready by 1990
They’ll be buildin’ it up in the air, ever since 1980
People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty
and HIJACK THE STARSHIP
Carry 7,000 people past the sun
And our babes’ll wander naked thru
the cities of the universe.

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Why do so few Canadians get a flu shot?

VaccinationThat’s the headline for a recent Toronto Star story. It suggests that as few as one third of Canadians get a flu vaccine, and in some place the number may be as low as 20 percent.

This despite Ontario having the world’s first universal free flu shot program, introduced in 2000. The 2013-14 vaccine is on its way to doctors’ offices now. It’s also available at pharmacists’ offices. It’s free, easily accessible, it prevents and helps stop the spread of many kinds of influenza, it can save the life of anyone at risk – so why don’t people get one?

Superstition and pseudoscience. Gullible people turn to untrained, celebrity wingnuts in the anti-vaccine movement – like Jenny McCarthy – for medical advice rather than to doctors, health care professionals and pharmacists. They turn to dangerous cranks and pseudo-science wingnuts like homeopaths, “faith healers,” astrologers and psychics instead of doctors.*

Many of these people deliberately and purposefully distort or misrepresent the facts about vaccines, disease, scientific research and health. Others are simply ignorant of the facts and accept what others say, without bothering to verify it through independent sources or published research.**

I know, you’re probably thinking like I was when I read this story, “are people this crazy?” And the answer, it seems, is yes.

McCarthy’s anti-vaccine preaching was called “belligerent ignorance” by the Toronto Star earlier this year, noting,

From McCarthy’s point of view, it’s a major victory in her battle to get her message out: vaccines are bad and autism can be cured, if you just ignore the scientists and sawbones who insist on pesky factual data.
It’s David vs. Goliath, Warrior Mom vs. Stuffed Shirt Medical Establishment, New Age Rebel vs. The Man.
Ah, but there’s another side: those who value facts over opinions and view McCarthy as a fear mongering dimwit whose sanctimonious crusade, however well-intentioned, threatens to turn the clock back on medical science.
Given that measles and whooping cough have already staged a comeback as parents panic and vaccination rates drop, it’s also potentially dangerous.
To be clear, there is no medical evidence to support her assertion — based on a discredited study — that vaccines cause autism, no evidence that the alternative treatments she promotes will have any positive effect on this ballooning developmental disorder and no evidence that her own son was, as she insists, “cured” of autism (the diagnosis has been disputed by experts).

The LA Times concluded the same about McCarthy:

She also peddles the discredited, poisonous claims that the way we vaccinate our children against the diseases that were once regular killers of children places our young ones at greater risk of developing autism — the kind of conspiracy theorizing that will draw only more eyeballs.

And the New Yorker wrote of McCarthy:

McCarthy has spent much of the past ten years campaigning against vaccines—which, it must be said, are the most effective instruments of public health in human history, aside from clean water. That does not mean that vaccines carry no risk: nothing is entirely without risk, and there is a small but measurable possibility that any vaccine can cause a serious adverse reaction. Still, the benefits for society so powerfully outweigh the risks that suggesting otherwise is irresponsible at best. It spreads fear and incites the type of ignorance that makes people sick. That is exactly what McCarthy has been doing. By preaching her message of scientific illiteracy from one end of this country to the other, she has helped make it possible for people to turn away from rational thought. And that is deadly.

And The Nation wrote,

Oprah Winfrey’s decision to let McCarthy act as an expert, to dismiss science with alchemy, without asking any tough questions, was unconscionable. The same could be said of the producers of Larry King Live and Good Morning America, both of which hosted McCarthy soon after. Even though they at least asked questions about her views, Larry King had her debate a doctor, as though her disproven ideas should be given the same equivalence as those of a medical expert.

In fact, McCarthy’s beliefs—that vaccines and mercury cause autism, that a good diet cures autism and that “diagnosticians and pediatricians have made a career out of telling parents autism is a hopeless condition”—have been roundly dismissed and discredited by doctors and scientists, who insist that her claims are based on no scientific data or research. McCarthy wasn’t deterred. “The University of Google,” she said to Oprah, “is where I got my degree from.”

Let’s be clear: there is no connection between vaccines and autism.

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