Daily Archives: November 12, 2007

Roots Coming Home to Roost

Many years ago a couple of researchers (Hatley and Kappleman) suggested omnivory, including eating of roots, to be a common theme in the adaptations we see in bears, humans, and pigs. Some years later, Richard Wrangham and I independently and for different reasons came to the idea that roots are potentially important in human evolution, so we collaborated on a paper suggesting this. Subsequently, bits and pieces of data have been accumulating to support this hypothesis (the “root hypothesis”). And here, Jim Moore of San Diego, is reporting on living chimps eating roots in a relatively savanna like environment. As we predicted.

Chimps dig up clues to human past? from PhysOrg.com
One of the keys enabling the earliest human ancestors to trade a forest home for more open country may have been the ability to gather underground foods. Now a team of scientists reports for the first time that in Tanzania our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, are using sticks and pieces of bark to dig for edible roots, tubers and bulbs.[]

Plants can help you. They can kill you. And they can get you stoned.

I find it absolutely fascinating that scientists often bother to estimate the effects of diet by feeding controlled quantities of food, especially plant food, to rats to see what happens.For example, there is a common substance in cooked food that, if fed in even modest quantity to rats, causes the rats to get cancer and die in no time. This raises concerns for humans because, well, the rats died. So the substance must be “bad for you.”But this approach to nutritional science, and the reasoning that goes with it, is deeply flawed. Continue reading Plants can help you. They can kill you. And they can get you stoned.

Operating System Choices

Can we afford not to give our kids Linux?

For any parent, myself included, setting your kids loose on the net is a daunting prospect. We have to do it because the net is a fact of life – it’s in our schools, the workplace, public libraries and in many if not most homes of the developed world. Therefore, do we really have any option but to give them Linux?When I first conceived this article I considered giving it the title “can we afford to let our kids use Windows online”. However, I felt that taking a positive tack would be more constructive. The fact is that these days security is paramount with kids surfing the net, exchanging emails and chatting online while still in primary school.

The Cost of running Windows
Wal-Mart’s Cheap PC is only $199. It runs Linux. Oh, but if you want it with windows, that’s $298.
Windows Is The Wrong System For the Security-Unconscious

It’s one thing to make a computer easy to use, but if you’re going to do so, you must also make it secure. If you’re not going to develop a secure OS, then at least give more thought to your emphasis on “Ease of Use”.A dear old Aunt recently sent one of those stupid chain e-mails – you know the ones, “forward to as many people as possible” – simply because she agreed with the sentiments it expressed. What she obviously never gave thought to was that she just might be passing along a trojan horse to the rest of the family. When I responded that she might be jeopardizing other people’s computers, she got upset, responding that she only sent the e-mail because she agreed with it.She uses Windows. ….

The rest of this story, as you can imagine, is not pretty.

Do Your Customers Hate Vista? Rip and Replace with a Twist

So, you just delivered that new PC to your customer and gave them a quick tour of what’s new and then watched their eyes glaze over with confusion.After a few seconds, the questions start. Questions that should be easy to answer, but turn out not to be! Where is my start button? Where are my programs? What happened to the Menu in Internet Explorer? Why is the system constantly asking for my permission to do simple things? Why does my system take so long to boot? Now your eyes glaze over, not with confusion, but with frustration and you have to ask yourself: What did I do to deserve this?

the rest of the story…

Oh, and there’s this:
Top-10 gift ideas for the Linux Gadget Geek … (email me for my mailing address if you need to. The phone is nice.)

When Geeks Don’t Have Enough To Do

I was very interested in reading an on line article comparing two Linux distributions, Ubuntu (the one I use) and Fedora (a very different distribution that I used to use). Hey, any article with a sexy title like “Ubuntu 7.10 & Fedora 8 Performance Compared” is not going to fail to get your interest, right?Well, it turns out that the results of this difference are rather astounding: Continue reading When Geeks Don’t Have Enough To Do

Linux wins Nigerian school desktops back from Microsoft

They tried bribery, they tried bullying. And both worked. But only for a little while….

Mandriva had closed a deal in mid-August to provide a customised Linux operating system and support for 17,000 Intel Classmate PCs intended for Nigerian schools, but found out last week that the company deploying the computers for the government, Technology Support Center (TSC), planned to wipe the computers’ disks and install Windows XP instead.Now, however, a government agency funding 11,000 of the PCs has overruled the supplier. Nigeria’s Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) wants to keep Mandriva Linux on the Classmate PCs, said an official who identified himself as the programme manager for USPF’s Classmate PCs project.”We are sticking with that platform,” said the official, who would not give his name.[source]

There is still a chance that Microsoft will prevail and become the operating system “of choice” for the Nigerians….

Microsoft is still negotiating an agreement that would give TSC US$400,000 (£190,323) for marketing activities around the Classmate PCs when those computers are converted to Windows.

Wow. A bribe of nearly a half million dollars. Go Bill Gates!

“Microsoft is able to offer a comprehensive education solution – including software, training and support – on the 17,000 Classmate PCs for 200 schools across Nigeria,” the statement said.After public statements from Mandriva officials implied the marketing deal is legally questionable, Microsoft said last week that it complies with international law and the law of the countries in which it operates.

Complying with the law? In Nigeria? Do they understand how funny that isI strongly suspect that Microsoft will win this one. All they need to do is to keep paying more and more in the way of extortion, and they have the pockets to do this. The Nigerians will not have the will to resist.

The Robots. They’re here….

FUDAN University has invented an intelligent robot with a child-like ability to learn new things by following human voice commands.The robot, which is on display at the ongoing Shanghai International Industry Fair, is a man-shaped multi-functional machine with a small electronic screen “face,” a big square screen in the “chest” and two big wheels as “feet.””It is expected to become a good household mate for ordinary families, especially the elderly, in the future,” said Jin Cheng, one of the researchers.[source]

Tuesday, November 13th. Judgement Day

i-dbb4e5d243b0fff25b9a4187dd31fdc0-nova.jpg“Evolution is the central organizing principle of all biological science, yet teaching evolution has become controversial in many states. When the National Science Teachers Association recently surveyed its members, 30 percent said they experienced pressure to omit or downplay evolution and related topics in their science curriculum. What would you do if someone objected to the teaching of evolution in your school or district?”From the Briefing Packet for Educators.From the Judgement Day Website:In this program, NOVA captures the turmoil that tore apart the community of Dover, Pennsylvania in one of the latest battles over teaching evolution in public schools. Featuring trial reenactments based on court transcripts and interviews with key participants, including expert scientists and Dover parents, teachers, and town officials, “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial” follows the celebrated federal case of Kitzmiller v. Dover School District. This two-hour special was coproduced with Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Productions, Inc.In 2004, the Dover school board ordered science teachers to read a statement to high school biology students suggesting that there is an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution called intelligent design–the idea that life is too complex to have evolved naturally and therefore must have been designed by an intelligent agent. The teachers refused to comply. (For more on this, see Board vs. Teachers.) Later, parents opposed to intelligent design filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the school board of violating the constitutional separation of church and state.”There was a blow-up like you couldn’t believe,” Bill Buckingham, head of the school board’s curriculum committee, tells NOVA. Buckingham helped formulate the intelligent-design policy when he noticed that the biology textbook chosen by teachers for classroom use was, in his words, “laced with Darwinism.”NOVA presents the arguments by lawyers and expert witnesses in riveting detail and provides an eye-opening crash course on questions such as “What is evolution?” and “Is intelligent design a scientifically valid alternative?” Kitzmiller v. Dover was the first legal test of intelligent design as a scientific theory, with the plaintiffs arguing that it is a thinly veiled form of creationism, the view that a literal interpretation of the Bible accounts for all observed facts about nature. (See Defining Science and arguments for and against evolution.)During the trial, lawyers for the plaintiffs showed that evolution is one of the best-tested and most thoroughly confirmed theories in the history of science, and that its unresolved questions are normal research problems–the type that arise in any flourishing scientific field.U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III ultimately decided for the plaintiffs, writing in his decision that intelligent design “cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.” As part of his decision, Judge Jones ordered the Dover school board to pay legal fees and damages, which were eventually set at $1 million. (Hear Judge Jones read excerpts from his historic decision.)”Judgment Day captures on film a landmark court case with a powerful scientific message at its core,” says Paula Apsell, NOVA’s Senior Executive Producer. “Evolution is one of the most essential yet, for many people, least understood of all scientific theories, the foundation of biological science. We felt it was important for NOVA to do this program to heighten the public understanding of what constitutes science and what does not, and therefore, what is acceptable for inclusion in the science curriculum in our public schools.” (Hear more from Paula Apsell on why NOVA took on this controversial subject.)For years to come, the lessons from Dover will continue to have a profound impact on how science is viewed in our society and how it is taught in the classroom.

Framing the Language Gene: FOXP2

You can now read the Krause et al (2007) paper from Current Biology regarding the FOXP2 variant found in Neanderthals in an open-access on-line form at Current Biology Online. Here is the summary of the article:

Although many animals communicate vocally, no extant creature rivals modern humans in language ability. Therefore, knowing when and under what evolutionary pressures our capacity for language evolved is of great interest. Here, we find that our closest extinct relatives, the Neandertals, share with modern humans two evolutionary changes in FOXP2, a gene that has been implicated in the development of speech and language. We furthermore find that in Neandertals, these changes lie on the common modern human haplotype, which previously was shown to have been subject to a selective sweep. These results suggest that these genetic changes and the selective sweep predate the common ancestor (which existed about 300,000-400,000 years ago) of modern human and Neandertal populations. This is in contrast to more recent age estimates of the selective sweep based on extant human diversity data. Thus, these results illustrate the usefulness of retrieving direct genetic information from ancient remains for understanding recent human evolution.

The authors actually get more specific regarding the role of FOXP2 in language:

Although language and speech are clearly genetically complex phenomena, the only gene currently known that has a specific role in the development of language and speech is FOXP2. The inactivation of one FOXP2 copy leads primarily to deficits in orofacial movements and linguistic processing similar to those in individuals with adult-onset Broca’s aphasia

While the paper by Krause et al is an important contribution because it involves allele-level comparison of nucleic genetic material between hominid groups and across living and extinct forms, the role of FOXP2 and the characterization of the genetics of language may be misleading, if not simply very very wrong. Continue reading Framing the Language Gene: FOXP2