Category Archives: Science

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!

Thanks as always to Pirate’s Cove and The Other McCain for the Rule Five links, and to Darkness Over The Land for the pingback!

Moving right along: Ever been frustrated by a left-lane vigilante driving exactly the speed limit in the left lane?  It seems that those speed limits may be based on some pretty outmoded science.  Excerpt:

In the US, our speed limits are derived from old studies, like this one from 1964 by traffic systems researcher David Solomon that looked only at rural roads in the 1950s. In line with conventional thinking, Solomon’s study fuels the premise that speed limits should be based on the speed at which 85 percent of the drivers on a road are maintaining. That means, if most cars on the highway are going 60 mph, that’s what determines the speed limit.

But with around 40,000 people dying in car accidents on American roads every year, something isn’t working, John Lower, a transportation engineer in California, told me. That includes the 85 percent formula, which traffic advocates have called for to be repealed. They’re calling instead for a data-driven system that reflects the actual traffic using sensor technology. In many cases, this will force us to drive slower.

Lower has spent decades as a city transportation manager, and now works at Iteris, an analytics company. He believes it’s time to reinvent the way we implement speed limits. “The way it works now, there are higher-than-expected crash rates along the system,” he said.

Lower’s solution is in line with Vision Zero, a network of traffic safety advocates he is part of, who want to use more recent data and technology to inform our speed limits. (The network is funded by entities including Kaiser Permanente, a health insurance company.)

In an ideal scenario, Lower said, we would be using smart sensors to collect the information from vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians to understand traffic flows. (A quick spin around the internet reveals multiple sensors are already on the market like this, including this one from Urbiotica and another from SMATS.) This data would then be analyzed to set speed limits based on the traffic flow, and the presence of the most vulnerable vehicles (bicycles) and people on the roads.

“Every traffic signal has to have some form of detection,” Lower added.

I have a question:  Who the hell is going to pay for all these detectors?

I’m generally in favor of using technology to make our lives better, but in this case, no thanks.  At present, our roads are publicly funded, and we don’t have the tax dollars to spare to be completely, totally revamping our system for determining speed limits.  Besides, improvements in car design have made driving much, much safer than it was in the 1950s – or even the 1970s.

For now, I’d say we should just stick with our good old-fashioned way of figuring speed limits.  And, on that note:

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

It’s sad and stupid, but apparently people thinking the Earth is flat is still a thing.  Excerpt:

The Flat Earth Society’s site — which posits that the idea of a round Earth is somehow related to the faking of the Moon landing — is remarkably well-designed and professional-looking, eliminating some of the old hallmarks of disinformation on the internet. The ease of creating a website as clean as this one is a problem that has been well-documented by information scientists. As recently as five years ago, high schools were teaching that you could identify a disreputable source by its cheap-looking site, bad design, and messy URL. That no longer holds.

Digital newsrooms churn out coverage of flat Earth truthers using tools that make it easy to find stories bubbling up from the depths of Reddit. Here’s how it works: conspiracy theories get people fired up enough to comment promiscuously, bringing them to the front of Reddit where journalists see them, says The Verge’s editorial director Helen Havlak. When a reporter writes an explainer of a new oddball conspiracy theory, the sharing and hate commenting that drove the theory to the top of Reddit reoccurs on Facebook. And, if the post is coming from a generally reputable outlet or involves a celebrity (e.g., B.o.B. or Kyrie Irving) or a major news event (e.g., a presidential election), it can also get a boost into the Top Stories slot on Google News. “Newsrooms watch each other’s highest-performing stories,” Havlak says. It’s common practice to use a tool that lets newsrooms make lists of their competitors and monitor the popularity of their posts (on services like CrowdTangle, for example) to see what’s doing well for other outlets, and what might be a sure traffic bet if they could find a fresh angle or a reason to weigh in. “People see all the traffic to be had, and look for the next thing trickling up from Reddit,” she says. “Cycle repeats.”

It is perhaps belaboring the obvious to note that counting visitors to a loony-tunes web doesn’t necessarily translate to those people believing in whatever brand of nutballery the site espouses.  However – the fact that a site exists is a pretty good indicator that the people who put the site up believe in that nutballery (parody and satire sites like the Landover Baptist Church aside).

And in this case, that’s just stupid and pathetic.

Seriously, folks – Eratosthenes of Cyrene calculated the circumference of the planet thirty-four freakin’ centuries ago.  This is hardly new stuff.  Still – there are people about who believe all manner of stupid shit.  When I was writing Misplaced Compassion, I was frequenting all sorts of Usenet (remember Usenet?) animal rights forums, and once encountered a nutbar who claimed to believe that there was a city of superhuman aliens hidden inside a dormant volcano in (where else?) California.

This is precisely as stupid as believing the Earth is flat.   It’s funny and sad all at the same time.

Animal’s Daily Mr. Sandman News

Ever wonder why we sleep?  I do.  Sometimes it amuses me to ponder how much more I’d get done if I didn’t have to sleep, especially on a day when I have woken up at oh-dark-thirty to head to the airport.

At any rate, here’s an interesting read on the topic.  Excerpt:

…despite all that has been written on the subject and all the effort devoted to studying the phenomenon scientifically, we do not have a clear answer to a question that would seem to be central to understanding the human experience: “Why do we sleep?”

To answer that we need to first ask what sleep is, and what its essential characteristics are. We know that it is probably evolutionarily conserved, meaning that it has persisted throughout evolutionary history ever since it first evolved. Many scientists also think it is universal among animals, though it has been studied systematically only in a small number of species. Sleep may show up under different guises in different species. Dolphins, for instance, may be able to sleep “unihemispherically” — falling asleep with one half of their brains while the other half remains awake. This allows them to perform complex activities, such as swimming to the surface of the ocean to breathe, without waking up. The nematode worm C. elegans enters into a sleep-like lethargus before molting. In many species, including humans, sleep is generally associated with certain postures, such as lying down, and immobility.

It’s not as easy as you might think to tell if an animal is sleeping. A crude but effective way is to test if an animal is “disconnected” from its environment by providing some stimulation that would typically provoke a strong reaction, such as an unexpected noise. If the animal does not react, there is a good chance that it is genuinely disconnected — and thus sleeping, rather than merely resting. Scientists consider such a reversible disconnection from the environment to be a defining feature of sleep. (An irreversible disconnection from the environment would be a coma.)

Why would animals periodically disconnect from the environment?

Maybe disconnecting from the environment is reason enough.

I studied biology years ago, and maintain an interest in the topic.  While behavior was my focus when I was still in the field, I never studied the phenomenon of sleep, other than engaging in it myself.  But here’s the main theory described in this article:

Still, learning, memory, and cognitive ability seem to be promising areas for trying to find an essential function of sleep. One recent proposal that attempts to draw these areas together into a single whole is the Synaptic Homeostasis Hypothesis (SHY), originally put forward by Giulio Tononi and Chiara Cirelli in 2003. (Full disclosure: I did my doctoral research in Tononi and Cirelli’s Center for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, though SHY was not my focus.)

To my mind, SHY stands apart from other scientific hypotheses about sleep because of its scope and its explanatory elegance. And, despite the fact that elegance is an important feature of scientific theories, there are surprisingly few elegant theories in neuroscience. This may be because so many neuroscientists treat the brain as a modular kludge, focusing on one specific part of the brain as pertaining to their research specifically. SHY, by contrast, is about neural networks in general.

In other words, sleep fulfills the vital function of sort of “resetting” the nervous system, allowing the collation of information gathered during the waking period.  That’s important in the learning and analysis process.  I’ve experienced it myself; the concept of “sleeping on it” is as old as the ages.

Interesting stuff.  A good night’s sleep my do us a lot more good than we think.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

Thanks again to The Other McCain for the Rule Five links!

Let’s go with a lighter (or at least, grayer) note today:  Yes, You Get Wiser With Age.  Excerpt:

There are three domains of aging: Physical, cognitive, and psycho-social. Most people think about aging as physical aging, and that’s why there is a negative perception about aging and a bias against aging. In terms of cognition, again, there is something similar. Starting after middle age, say around 60 or so, memory and other abilities decline. However, psychosocial aging is really important, and that is usually not studied and that is not included in the concept of aging. 

So what is psychosocial aging? It includes things like well-being, happiness, quality of life, control of emotions, socialization. Those are the kinds of things that matter a lot to people, and they need to be included. Successful aging mainly refers to better well-being, greater happiness, and not just arriving at old age, but thriving and even flourishing.

Not surprisingly, I have some thoughts on these three domains of aging.

First, the physical:  Nothing can (yet) be done about this.  But I’m in favor of doing so gracefully.  There’s nothing wrong with acting your age, and there is something mildly silly about a middle-aged person trying to dress and act like a teenager.  I wonder if it’s because the popular culture of our time, at least here in the States, glamorizes youth?  That may well be; us gray-haired old farts don’t automatically get the overt displays of respect we do in, say, Japan.  Personally, though, I’m rather proud of my gray hairs.  I earned every damn one of ’em.

Second, the cognitive:  I had something for this, but I can’t seem to remember what it was.  (Go on, tell me you didn’t see that one coming.)

Third:  The psychosocial.  I admit to not really having thought of this as a separate realm of aging, but there’s some logic to it.  There’s a reason they call them the golden years, after all.  Granted they aren’t golden for everyone, but youth isn’t a basket of roses for everyone, either.

Mine are shaping up to be pretty damn good, though.  I’ve achieved a certain level of financial success; Mrs. Animal and I are in good health, we have a wonderful marriage, our kids and grandkids are thriving.  We have big plans for semi-retirement and, at the moment, the future looks pretty damn good.

Aging is something that comes to all of us, whether we would or no.  But while it would be nice to have the brain I have now in the body I had at twenty (and the energy I had at three) that’s not an option.

So of these three aspects of aging, there’s only one that we can control.  Fortunately that’s the one that can yield the best bits of those golden years.

As Robert Browning said: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.”

Rule Five GMO Nutballery Friday


OK, now that this is out of the way, let’s spend what some nut thinks is our last day on earth talking about 9 stupid arguments against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.  Excerpt:

When discussing and writing about GMOs, many arguments are put forth on why they are “bad” and should be avoided. However, many of these are not about GMOs, but rather, are issues that we’re facing in modern agriculture and in our economy. In this post, I examine nine common reasons I’ve encountered for opposing GMOs that are much broader in scope.

Transgenesis, or the method used to make most GMOs, is a tool and it makes no sense to oppose a method with broad applications. It’s like opposing electronics as a category because you don’t like Microsoft or because Apple dominates the portable music electronics business. In fact in the comments section of an article just written in the NY Times about GMOs, you’ll see the reasons below being listed time and time again.

Here are a couple of my particular favorites, with my comments:

5) GMOs are being made by Big Ag to line their pockets. Unless your problem is with making money in general, then this doesn’t make much sense. Of course agribusinesses want to make money. Why would any corporate enterprise embark on a project where they think they’d lose money?

The proper response to this is “duh.”  Of course corporations exist to return profits to their shareholders; every corporation, everywhere, since the 16th century has existed to do that.  But it’s a fundamental law of the universe that whenever someone starts of an argument with a catch-phrase like “Big Ag,” or “Big Oil,” or “Big Anything,” that you can safely disregard anything else that they say.

2) GMOs promote a monopoly. Every time I see this, I think that someone over at Dow Agro is cackling. I work in a field in biotech where a single company has between 70-80 percent  of the market. Google web searches are used almost 70 percent of the time. Android has 80 percent of the market in operating systems for smartphones. But strangely enough, I’ve never seen a “March against Google”.

Anti-GMO’ers using this argument, as the author points out, almost seem to revel in their own hypocrisy.  It’s as deliciously stupid as the would-be “anarchists,” none of whom would survive ten minutes in a real anarchy, railing about “corporations” and “capitalism” via social media posts on their iPhones and sipping a latte from Starbucks, all the products of the world’s most successful capitalist culture.

Here’s the troublesome fact: Every modern crop planted and raised for human use has been genetically modified.  Corn was bred from a Central American grass called teosinte.  Potatoes were first raised up from a humble tuber in Peru.  Every human crop has been genetically modified – by selective breeding, by hybridization, and more recently, by direct genetic modification.

So why should we cease agricultural innovation now, in response to the bleatings of the ignorant?

GMOs have the potential to feed the world.  Drought- and pest-resistant crops, crops with enhanced yields per acre, crops that can grow in poor soils – the Third World clamors for such advances.

It’s ridiculous that science-illiterates in the developed world would deny them those advances due to idiotic arguments like the ones presented in this article.

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!

Thanks again to Pirate’s Cove for the Rule Five linkery!

Moving right along:  It sounds too good to be true, but it seems Viking shield maidens may have actually been a real thing.  Excerpt:

Researchers have excavated hundreds of Viking-era graves at Birka, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sweden. One of the graves, originally excavated in the 1880s, was particularly noteworthy for both its position — on a prominent terrace adjacent to what had been a garrison — and for its grave goods, which included a variety of weapons, from a sword to armor-piercing arrows, and two horses.

The grave, archaeologists believed, belonged to a high-ranking warrior. Although the individual buried in the grave was assumed to be male based on the grave goods, some researchers argued that the skeleton belonged to a woman. Controversy and the usual academic kerfuffle ensued.

But thanks to ancient DNA analysis, researchers confirmed this week in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology that Bj 581, as the grave is formally designated, belongs a woman who was at least 30 years old when she died.

While other women of the the Viking era have been found buried with weaponry, none had a grave suggesting a status as high as Lady Bj 581. Among the grave goods, for example, was a game board and full set of game pieces; but we’re not talking Chutes and Ladders here. Researchers believe the game set indicates she was an officer and involved in tactics and strategy.

From the History Channel's "Vikings." Also strangely hot.
From the History Channel’s “Vikings.” Also strangely hot.

Am I the only one who finds that strangely hot?

Anyway – this, True Believers, is the actual picture of a strong, independent woman.  Mrs. Animal had a stint of warrior-woman herself, in the Army, albeit in the Medical branches, more concerned with patching people together than taking them apart.

Ironic how the loudest of the modern “feminist” movement seem more self-absorbed than self-empowered; more preoccupied with whining than doing.

Animal’s Daily Vaccination News

File this under “deliberate but justifiable antagonizing.”  There’s an Uber driver who makes a hobby of trolling anti-vaxxers.  Excerpt:

When anti-vaccine activists gather in the shadow of the big black “Vaxxed” bus, it’s easy to spot the guy who’s there without an invitation.

He’s the protester holding a homemade sign declaring that vaccines save lives. He’s often wearing a T-shirt with the name of the polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, stylized like the logo of a rock band. You might even spot him filming a lighthearted video updating his online followers on his quest to chase down the Vaxxed bus tour, which grew out of a controversial anti-vaccination documentary with the same name.

Craig Egan estimates he’s put 7,000 miles on his Toyota Prius subcompact this summer following the bus tour everywhere from the Pacific Northwest to Missouri. And no, he does not mind being called a troll. In fact, he embraces it. He even plans his T-shirts to be as annoying as possible.

“I enjoy being, frankly, a pain in the ass to anti-vaxxers,” Egan told STAT last week from the road, where he was trekking from one Vaxxed event in Dayton, Ohio, in pursuit of another one in Lansing, Mich.

If there was ever a group of knuckleheads that deserved some trolling, it’s the anti-vaxxers.  The legacy of Edward Jenner and Jonas Salk comprises, probably, the single greatest advance in health care since sewers and clean water.

The anti-vaxxer nitwits are of a piece with the anit-GMO crowd.  Unlike the anti-GMO crowd, the anti-vaxxers seem to have adherents across the political spectrum – even President Trump has expressed anti-vaccine sentiments, although it’s not clear whether or not that was a campaign tactic.

It’s rather sad, but the world has no shortage of nitwits.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

OK, now, due to the wonders of genetic engineering, we now have yeast that can turn urine into food and plastic.   To which I can only add:  Eww.  Excerpt:

A tiny organism has big potential to produce both life-sustaining food and construction materials for astronauts on their long journey to Mars.

Yeast strains of Yarrowia lipolytica that naturally like to feed on urine have been bioengineered to produce omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to human health, as well as polyesters that can be made into moldable shapes.

Generating tools and products from waste compounds is more efficient for a space mission than stockpiling food and supplies, which take up precious cargo room and require extra fuel to escape Earth’s gravity. But the innovation could also serve people on Earth in places where resources are limited, said Mark Blenner, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Clemson University.

“In poorer countries, we think this might be an interesting way to reduce waste production,” Blenner told Seeker.

A yeast-based system could make good economic sense for remote military bases, too, where the price of fuel to ship supplies can cost hundreds of dollars per gallon.

Again:  Eww.

Drinking recycled urine is a science-fiction staple; a reference to recycled pee is always good for an author aiming for a bit of humor.  But at least in space, it may well be a necessity.  Especially on long voyages.

But eating recycled urine?  And making plastic from it?  That’s something new.  Imagine a conversation between Martian settlers, say a hundred years from now:

Bill:  “Say, Bob, I love that new addition on your house.  That shimmering translucent roof is great.  What’s it made out of?”

Bob:  “The roof on my new sunroom?  Oh, that’s pee.”

OK, that sounded funnier before I typed it up.

Animal’s Daily Rhinoceros News


Everyone knows that rhinocerii aren’t doing too well these days.  A big part of the reason for that is because massive ignoramuses in various parts of the world have the idea that powdered rhino horn has some medical value, or that it will result in “male enhancement.”

That has, of course, led to a huge black market in rhino horns.  It’s illegal to raise rhinos for their horn; which that may solve part of the problem, there’s possibly a better solution.

Synthetic rhino horn.  Excerpt:

Belief in rhino horns’ healing capabilities dates back to the second century B.C., as the powder was reported to reduce heat and remove toxins. Demand for horn products has greatly increased since 2008, and today rhino horn is more often valued as an exclusive status symbol.

Matthew Markus, CEO of the Seattle-based biotechnology company Pembient, sees this preference for rarity as an opportunity to reduce poaching. Over the past few years Pembient, along with other companies like CeratoTech and Rhinoceros Horn LLC, has started 3-D printing biologically similar artificial horns. This idea isn’t exclusive for rhinos either, as Pembient aspires to biofabricate pangolin scales, elephant tusks and tiger bones as well. At the University of Oxford one biologist is working on synthetic elephant ivory.

Currently, Pembient’s process involves engineering yeast cells to produce keratin, the predominant protein found in rhino horn, which is then combined with rhino DNA and trace elements. This aggregate makes up the “ink” for printing. So far, Pembient has only created low-fidelity miniature horns, but plans to have larger higher grade prototypes in less than two years. The horns aren’t commercially ready, but Pembient has already received interest from artisans, carvers and industrial designers.

Markus claims that introducing indistinguishable biofabricated horns at one-eighth of the price for real horn would lower wild rhino horn value. “At some point we would crash through the illicit profits that motivate people that go out there and risk their lives,” said Markus.

There are a couple of reasons this might not have the desired effect, though.

  1. Bob didn’t use rhino horn.

    Flooding the market with synthetics allows the ignorant goofs that believe in the medical or “male enhancement” value of rhino horn, to continue believing this utter nonsense – and may increase demand in the short term.

  2. An eventual side effect may be that the wealthy and ignorant may demand proof of the authenticity of the rhino horn, which would drive the price of the real thing even higher.

There are other solutions; for a brief time, South African farmers could be licensed to raise rhinos and periodically harvest their horns.  That produced a lower-priced, legal supply, and if deregulated, the practice could increase rhino numbers (captive, but still) but would perpetuate the stupid myths.

Or the nations of Africa could go back to an earlier practice.

Some years back I met a gentleman of Afrikaner descent, an engineer with a Jo’Burg pharmaceutical company whose brother still maintained the family farm in the bush somewhere out east of the city.  He told me of an “understanding” the South African government had once had with the various safari companies, wherein the safari guides would shoot poachers on sight and nobody in the government would say too much about it.

Harsh?  Yes.  Effective?  I bet it was.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

Could we – and by we, I mean humanity – be wiped out by a mega-volcano?  Well, maybe.  Excerpt:

In the Bay of Naples, Europe’s most notorious giant is showing signs of reawakening from its long slumber.

Campi Flegrei, a name that aptly translates as “burning fields”, is a supervolcano. It consists of a vast and complex network of underground chambers that formed hundreds of thousands of years ago, stretching from the outskirts of Naples to underneath the Mediterranean Sea. About half a million people live in Campi Flegrei’s seven-mile-long caldera, which was formed by vast eruptions 200,000, 39,000, 35,000 and 12,000 years ago.

The past 500 years have been fairly peaceful ones for Campi Flegrei. There have been no eruptions at all since 1538, and that was a comparatively small event that resulted in the formation of the “New Mountain”, Monte Nuovo. But recent events suggest that this period of quiescence may be coming to an end.

Here’s the scary bit:

“The last eruption of Yellowstone would potentially have put ash across both American continents,” says David Pyle at the University of Oxford. “If you take a continental land mass and you suddenly cover it with 10cm of volcanic ash, all the organic matter and trees will lose their leaves and probably die. Animals will take in chemicals which are toxic to them. The ground will suddenly be much brighter than before, so a lot of the incoming solar radiation might simply be reflected back into the atmosphere, resulting in a lengthy drought.”

With water supplies clogged, electricity transmission lines failing and a complete disruption in ground transport, there would be an immediate crisis.

So, as Owen Wilson might say, the scariest environment imaginable.

While a mega-volcano eruption would indeed have global consequences, I’m not spending much time worrying about one.  I find the geology behind mega-volcanoes interesting (I find pretty much all geology interesting) but if you read any of the science at all, there’s one ting you have to understand while considering the scariest environment imaginable resulting from a mega-volcano eruption:

Geologic time scales.

One of these monsters might go up tomorrow.  Or it might not happen for half a million years.  For the last few million years, ice ages have come and gone; on the geological time scale, glaciers have been marching up and down the Northern Hemisphere like window shades, but the only reason we know anything about the most recent glaciation is from the signs it left behind.

There’s another reason to remain calm:  There’s no point in worrying about something you can’t do anything about.  So, sure, a mega-volcano may wipe us all out tomorrow.  So might a Texas-sized asteroid.  But, while the science is interesting, I won’t bend many neurons worrying about either.