Archive for the ‘Geekery’ Category

The Nightmare Before Christmas

November 9, 2012

This movie, a story about a mid-life crisis, has wonderful music and engaging characters…

… I know. Mid-life crisis?

The main character is a man successful in his field, but he feels empty:

He decides on a drastic change in career, radically changes his wardrobe and gets a new ride:

And starts a romance with a woman much younger than him:

At the end, the moral is that it isn’t a matter of what you do, but of loving whatever you do, and making connections along the way.

So, my dear readers, am I wrong?

Military vs. Space: why the Mars Rover is a great deal.

August 6, 2012

The United States military budget was 711 billion dollars for 2011, more than the next 5 highest military budgets combined. Some of the projects that Congress supports are things the Pentagon doesn’t want. Such as 3 billion dollars for refurbishing tanks that the Pentagon plans to replace anyway: with a model that doesn’t have a glaring weakness to IEDs. Or the drones and ships that Congress is forcing on the Pentagon to the tune of 4 billion dollars.

And yet, the 2.5 billion dollars spent on Curiosity is described as “budget busting.” In contrast to the 711 billion dollars in military spending, the entire 18.4 billion dollar NASA budget seems downright piddling. If the entire United States Federal budget for 2011 was represented by a dollar, the NASA portion would be about half of a penny. And the rate of return? A study by the Midwest Research Institute concluded that “the $25 billion in 1958 dollars spent on civilian space R & D during the 1958-1969 period has returned $52 billion through 1971 — and will continue to produce pay offs through 1987, at which time the total pay off will have been $181 billion.”

Maybe the reason war has a reputation for being so good for scientific advancement and the economy is because during wars is when governments are willing to spend money on research and development. Maybe if we took that knowledge and used it for R&D for things other than weapons, we could advance without blowing each other up. After all, you can’t tell me that this didn’t require advances in our engineering:

More than the present engineering challenges though, space exploration is inspiring. Some of the kids who are in elementary school today, who stayed up late last night, the kids who are writing reports about the Mars Rover, who are going to be naming their next pet Curiosity… those are the kids who will go into science and engineering to follow their newly ignited passion. When we make advances into space… the excitement, the wonder, the joy of discovery creates the next generation of explorers.

And for those of you who think that international affairs are more important than space exploration, consider how much smoother diplomacy would go if these were the mental images associated with Americans:

NASA’s Curiosity rover and its parachute as seen by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

People watching the Curiosity landing from Times Square.

…rather than this:

Tell you what: If you are really paranoid, we could reduce our military by 450 billion per year and still be the number one military spender on the planet – and have 450 billion per year to put into science, education and infrastructure and to eliminate the deficit.

To follow Curiosity’s progress, here is its Twitter feed.

(Edited to correct a “m” to a “b” for one of those “illions.”)

Aquaman’s Lament

July 23, 2012

PZ Myers has posted the Tragedy of Aquaman, but what about Aquaman’s point of view?

Evolution and us.

July 9, 2012

Jerry Coyne blogs posts over at Why Evolution Is True, on the subject of (appropriately) evolution, with a list of its components, and following with a list of what would falsify the theory. The former is concise and clear, and the latter is the sort of thing you would never see from a creationist regarding creationism: intellectual honesty is too risky when your worldview hangs from a thread.

However, it is obvious that he is talking about Evolution by Natural Selection, and since I don’t want to at the moment, I’m taking a hard left and reevaluating his lists in terms of what would apply to evolution more generally, including artificial selection and genetic engineering:

Evolution occurs, that is, there is gene frequency change in populations over generations.

Check. Unless you are really bad at artificial selection (or you have chosen a population without variation regarding the desired trait), you will see a change.

Significant evolution takes time—that is, it usually (though not always) requires hundreds to thousands of generations to occur. It is not instantaneous, and it is the population and species rather than the individual that evolves.

A lot less time with artificial selection. With control over the surrounding environment, and the ability to send any of the (for instance) cattle with a less desirable trait away from the group you want to change, you can get results with just a few generations.

Lineages of organisms split, or speciate, so that the single lineage that gave rise to life 3.5 billion years ago has undergone numerous splitting events to produce the millions of species alive today (and also the even more millions that went extinct).

Except for laboratory experiments. And possibly on other planets.

The converse of #3: any pair of living species has a common ancestral species some time in the past.  That is, if you trace any pair of twigs on the tree of life, you will find a node where the line from the trunk bifurcates to produce them.

See above.

The process producing the appearance of design in organisms is blind, purposeless natural selection. (There are, of course, evolutionary forces other than selection, including genetic drift, but they don’t produce the marvelous design that was once seen as the prime evidence for the hand of God.)

Or the Hand of Man! (Cue Mad Scientist Music) Ahem, to the second list: Is anomalous for natural selection anomalous for artificial selection?

Fossils in the wrong place (e.g., mammals in the Devonian). If the fossil record were all out of order like this (a single anomalous fossil might not overturn everything, of course, since it could be in the wrong place for other reasons), we’d have to seriously question the occurrence of evolution.

Not applicable. Although given enough time, we might feel sorry for future paleontologists finding the remnants of a nonfiction version of Jurassic Park.

Adaptations in one species good only for a second species.  There are plenty of adaptations in species that are good for other species, but also help members of the first species: these are the basis of mutualisms. (Cleaner fish, for example, remove parasites and dead tissue from other marine fish, but thereby gain a meal.) But we don’t expect to see—and don’t see—adaptations in one species that evolved solely for the benefit of another species.

This is an interesting one! Corn has adaptations that are good primarily for humans, but at the same time, those very adaptations are what increased the likelihood of humans spreading corn far and wide. Similar thing with the temperament of pets… Pets. Oh. I submit for your attention: The French Bulldog. A breed of dog often unable to breed and which has 80% of litters being born through caesarean section.

A general lack of genetic variation in species.  Evolution depends on genetic variation. If most species had none, they couldn’t evolve.  However, the universal efficacy of artificial selection (I’m aware of only three lab experiments that failed to show a response to such breeding experiments), shows that genetic variation is ubiquitous in nearly all species.

I could see this going either way: on one hand, we are likely to focus on increasing food yields and reducing disease, but on the other, humans are amazingly creative, and we might gengineer anything given long enough.

Adaptations that could not have evolved by a step-by-step process of ever-increasing fitness. This is of course the contention of advocates of Intelligent Design like Michael Behe. But adaptations like the flagellum, which Behe and other IDers cite as features that couldn’t have arisen by a step-by-step process of increasing adaptation, have been shown to plausibly arise by just that process.  We don’t need to completely reconstruct the evolution of things like flagella, but simply show that their evolution by a stepwise adaptive process was plausible.

While we will probably be borrowing a lot from existing structures, we will probably play “what combinations work best?” and come up with results that can’t be traced as a stepwise linear process, as it will derive more from inspiration and nonlateral problem solving.

The observation that most adaptations of individuals are inimical for individuals or their genes but good for populations/species.  Such adaptations aren’t expected to evolve often because they would require the inefficient process of group or species selection rather than genic, individual, or kin selection.  And indeed, we see very few features of organisms that seem inimical to organisms or their genes but useful for the population or species. One possible exception is sexual reproduction.

I could imagine some schemes with bio-mechanisms that could have this result.

Evolved “true” altruistic behavior among non-relatives in non-social animals. What I mean by “true” altruistic behavior is the observation of an individual sacrificing its reproductive output for the benefit of individuals to which it is either unrelated or from whom it does not expect to receive return benefits.  In this “true” altruism your genes give benefits to others and get nothing back, and this shouldn’t evolve under natural selection. And, indeed, we don’t see such altruism in nature. There are reports that vampire bats regurgitate blood to other individuals in the colony to whom they’re unrelated, but those need confirmation, and there may also be reciprocal altruism, so that individuals regurgitate blood to those from whom, one day, they expect a return meal. Such cooperation can evolve by normal natural selection.

I could absolutely see true altruism being programmed into a species by humans for humans benefit, of course. We didn’t evolve that way, after all.

Complete discordance between phylogenies based on morphology/fossils and on DNA. While individual genes can show discordance by lateral transfer—rotifers, for example, have incorporated into their genome from DNA from very unrelated organisms, and this is also common for bacteria. But lateral transfer of genes, as opposed to their direct descent from parent to offspring, is relatively uncommon.  So, for example, if we sequenced the genome of a blue whale and found that on the whole the species was more closely related to fish than to mammals, we’d have a serious problem for the theory of evolution.

Of course, gengineering would likely have a lot of lateral transfers as people try things just to figure out what works.

Obviously, artificial selection is an entirely different ballgame using the same basic concepts. It is amazing how much a little bit of evolution granted intelligence can change things.

Now, if only we had a reliable way to gengineer things without a high risk of causing cancer: I want humans to not be so susceptible to diabetes, I want our eyes to be wired correctly, and oh, yeah- can we do something about our backs being poorly designed for walking upright?

Intelligent design – rejected by schools and Wikipedia.

July 8, 2012

Some creationists pretending to do science under the heading of “intelligent design proponents” are angry with Wikipedia, essentially because Wikipedia’s editors have standards too high for creationism in a lab coat.

Here are the words of the creationist making the complaint:

PLoS One has a highly technical study out of editing patterns on Wikipedia. This is of special interest to us because Wikipedia’s articles on anything to do with intelligent design are replete with errors and lies, which the online encyclopedia’s volunteer editors are vigilant about maintaining against all efforts to set the record straight.

Right, it isn’t at all because they are maintaining articles about science fact, and you are trying to advertise your Christ fanfiction.

Meanwhile, here is Wikipedia’s article mentioning “cdesign proponentsists.” But perhaps that’s not fair. Wikipedia is apparently run by a tyranny of the unemployed, what about the court of popular opinion? Urban dictionary gives this example of the use of the word:

Science says man evolved from other apes. Cdesign proponentsists say apes smell and prefer the scientific explanation “Goddidit”.

Ouch. Rational Wiki? Good luck there, creationism.

You know, maybe creationists should stick to editing Conservapedia, if they don’t want to deal with people pointing out nasty facts.

Found the story at Friendly Atheist.

Happy Tau Day!

June 28, 2012

Emily and I simultaneously found and started playing this video on our respective electronic devices:

Emily found it at The Mary Sue. I found it at Friendly Atheist.