Daily Archives: June 27, 2012

Power, Sex, Suicide

Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life. From the publisher:

If it weren’t for mitochondria, scientists argue, we’d all still be single-celled bacteria. Indeed, these tiny structures inside our cells are important beyond imagining. Without mitochondria, we would have no cell suicide, no sculpting of embryonic shape, no sexes, no menopause, no aging.

In this fascinating and thought-provoking book, Nick Lane brings together the latest research in this exciting field to show how our growing insight into mitochondria has shed light on how complex life evolved, why sex arose (why don’t we just bud?), and why we age and die. These findings are of fundamental importance, both in understanding life on Earth, but also in controlling our own illnesses, and delaying our degeneration and death. Readers learn that two billion years ago, mitochondria were probably bacteria living independent lives and that their capture within larger cells was a turning point in the evolution of life, enabling the development of complex organisms. Lane describes how mitochondria have their own DNA and that its genes mutate much faster than those in the nucleus. This high mutation rate lies behind our aging and certain congenital diseases. The latest research suggests that mitochondria play a key role in degenerative diseases such as cancer. We also discover that mitochondrial DNA is passed down almost exclusively via the female line. That’s why it has been used by some researchers to trace human ancestry daughter-to-mother, to “Mitochondrial Eve,” giving us vital information about our evolutionary history.

Written by Nick Lane, a rising star in popular science, Power, Sex, Suicide is the first book for general readers on the nature and function of these tiny, yet fascinating structures.

This book comes highly recommended. I’ve not read it yet. Have you? It’s in the mail.

A Maasai Marriage

A young woman, “of age” but unmarried, appeared out of the forest near the base of the hill, a few of her relatives and friends staying in the woods while she headed alone up the well worn path. Before she had taken a dozen steps, six or seven women, of her age or a bit older, spotted her and ran down the hill to greet her. They had never met before, but as soon as the women got close they touched her, hugged her, held her hand, fondled some of her jewelry and patted her hair, and all the while they shouted the worst invectives and insults they could think of at her, laughing cruelly while they did so.

“You’re ugly. Where did you get these beads, in a bird’s nest?”

“Who picked you to marry my cousin, did somebody lose at a gambling game?”

“Please don’t go near the cows, we need them to keep giving milk!”

“What was the dog doing down in the forest?”

“Did you know that your future husband has only one cow?”

“Sorry about that large wound on your head. Oh, sorry, that’s you hair, isn’t it!”

“Oh, and your husband’s cow … did you know it has rabies?”

Eventually all the women were in the village located at the top of the hill. Over the next two hours, the insults continued but with less severity and frequency. The women of this Maasai village pruned and preened the newcomer, exchanged items of clothing and jewelry with her, fixed up her make up, and made friends. Eventually the insults went away and expressions of friendship and support replaced them. By the end of the day this young woman would be married to one of the men in this village, a man she had never met (or maybe seen once or twice but never knew of him as her future husband). The women who now worked out the last minute details for the imminent wedding were all married “into” this village. Every one of them had come from some other village, passed through the nearby forest, walked up this hill or a similar one, and suffered the insults. In fact, many of the insults the women used that day were very ones they had heard when they first arrived here, saved up and remembered for later use. And every one of these women had formed strong bonds with the other women in the village. One could say, depending on the individuals involved, that the relationship among the women married into this village was more socially significant, emotionally powerful, and personally stronger than the relationship between many of these women and their own husbands.

After settling in with her new friends, the young woman left the village with a couple of relatives of her new husband, and wandered about the nearby countryside to pick out her son’s cattle. She was allowed to choose a certain number of cattle, any one that she happened to see, as long as she could ask the owner in person for the beast. Needless to say many people chose that day to let their cattle run around unsupervised, but there is a limit to how much one can do that in lion country, so she did manage to get about half her allotment on that day. She would get the remainder over the next day or two. In fact, sympathetic elders would coerce relatives to make available a couple of really good head in order that this small herd be of reasonable quality and potential.

This small number of cattle will form the core of a herd that she will care for on behalf of her future first son, who would then own them. By the time he is old enough to care for them several cow-generations would have passed, and the herd would have grown. Since the offspring of two cattle are jointly owned by the owner of the cow and the bull, which are often different people, the ownership of each of the calves in her herd could potentially be complicated. Also, other cattle may be exchanged as part of the marriage transaction. A future divorce would be allowed by prevailing practice, but only if the ownership of the cattle could be established and every calf, cow, and bull be returned to it’s rightful place. This, of course, would be impossible starting from the birth of the first calves. But, no matter, really, because the herd was in many ways more important than the marriage.

In her marriage, she would eventually bear the “children of her husband” with the girls married off to a different village (usually) and the sons who survived a period of youth that involved banishment from the village during those difficult years (possibly the greatest invention of the Nilotic cultures: teenage boys must leave) would obtain their own herds, possibly marry, and vie for position as village Moran (pronounced “Moh Rahn” … respected adult male).

Those young men would have a certain degree of sexual freedom and even though they technically lived as young warriors most of the time in the bush “on their own” they could also visit the bed of a woman who was interested in them, and the married women could choose though only surreptitiously to take these men as lovers. The society consists, more or less, of a small number of married men, some married to more than one woman, women who are sexually mature who are either married or about to be married or widowed, and a fair number of unmarried men. That is how marriage and sex work together and independently among the traditional Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, according to what I’ve read about them and been told by them on my visits there.

This is a patriarchal society, and although a Western concept of ownership is probably inadequate, it is safe to say that if something or someone is owned, it is owned by a man or an agent of a man. The economy is based on cattle. I saw a census in Kenya years ago that listed the richest hundred men. About half were Maasai men living in traditional villages, and their wealth was in many head of cattle. In this society, marriage is life long because divorce, while technically not a big deal, requires splitting herds of cattle, and that is too difficult. Sexual liaison and marriage are poorly correlated and that is tacitly accepted, but infidelity can be severely punished.

In other words, it’s complicated.

There are tens of thousands of “different cultures” in the world, either at present or in the recent past known sometimes as the “ethnographic present.” Of these, a few thousand are pretty well known and several hundred are intensely studied. A few “Nilotic” Eastern Rift Valley cultures, including the Maasai, the Turkana and the Pokot form the core of our understanding of this more widespread form of cattle pastoralism, and these and all other cattle-based cultures, while very different in many ways, share these characteristics of the centrality of the cattle, polygynous marriage, and a strong patriarchy.


I finally watched Downfall. That’s the movie about the last days of the Third Reich, a couple of scenes from which form the basis for all those Internet Memes where Hitler is talking about how much meat there is in a meal from Taco Bell. It is actually quite a good movie. If you were worried that you might end up being sympathetic with the poor Nazis hiding out in their bunker as the
“Russian Army” approaches, with constant shelling in the background, don’t worry. The script has them mention little tidbits like the Holocaust and such often enough that you are reminded to continue to hate most of them. Well, there’s a couple that were sort of just doing their job, and then there are the children. That was pretty gruesome. Continue reading Downfall

Google Brain is a Cat Person

Google made an artifical brain by linking together 16,000 computers with 1,000,000,000 connections (a fraction of a normal brain, but what the heck) and set it loose on YouTube. Over a couple of days of constant work, the artificial brain learned to recognize various things including cats.

Picking up on the most commonly occurring images featured on YouTube, the system achieved 81.7 percent accuracy in detecting human faces, 76.7 percent accuracy when identifying human body parts and 74.8 percent accuracy when identifying cats.

“Contrary to what appears to be a widely-held intuition, our experimental results reveal that it is possible to train a face detector without having to label images as containing a face or not,” the team says in its paper, Building high-level features using large scale unsupervised learning, which it will present at the International Conference on Machine Learning in Edinburgh, 26 June-1 July.

Details here.

What I want to know is this: If I put a kitty cat on every one of my blog posts will I get more hits???

There is now a puffincam!

A lot of animal cams suck. The angle is bad, the lighting is poor, the animal is usually not there, etc. etc. But this puffin cam is actually pretty darn good. When the bird pecks at the camera you want to duck.

Check it out.

It’s from Audubon. Here’s some text from the press release:

Seal Island, Maine – June 27, 2012 – explore.org, the philanthropic media organization and division of the Annenberg Foundation, is expanding its collection of live HD cameras to bring people into the world of the charismatic and much-revered Atlantic Puffin. Through a multiyear partnership with Audubon, spearheaded by pioneering ornithologist Dr. Stephen Kress, nature enthusiasts worldwide now have a virtual front-row seat to observe the daily activities of these magical seabirds on any Internet-connected computer, phone or tablet.

With multiple HD cameras set up at Maine’s Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, the live-streaming HD video will show puffins as they court, breed, preen and strut about one of New England’s most remote islands. Audubon and explore.org recently launched an intimate live cam view of an Osprey nest on Hog Island, Maine, where three chicks just hatched, and will provide highlights and insights from field researchers on a new co-hosted blog.

With the new Puffin Cams, viewers will be treated to a rare, real-time view into a puffin burrow, where a pair of lifelong partners recently brought the newest member of their family into this world. Another camera provides a view of the “loafing ledge”— a massive boulder where the birds engage in “billing” (a ritual of gentle beak rubbing by courting and long-mated pairs), compete for a favored position on the ledge, and engage in feather preening to enhance their waterproofing.

“The Puffin Cams have a mesmerizing effect that we believe will help people escape the stresses of everyday life and provide a positive benefit that will carry over when they return to their daily obligations,” said Charles Annenberg Weingarten, founder of explore.org and VP of the Annenberg Foundation.

Overhunting and military activity wiped out puffins on Seal Island in the late 1800s, but the birds’ return began in 1984, when Audubon Project Puffin Director and Vice President, Dr. Stephen Kress, began reintroducing puffins from Newfoundland to the island in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service. Kress also pioneered the use of mirrors, sound recordings and decoys to encourage the relocated puffins to nest. This year, more than 550 pairs are nesting, making this the largest Maine puffin colony and an extraordinary conservation success story. The methods developed here have helped to restore 13 seabird nesting sanctuaries along the Maine coast and have inspired similar projects with at least 49 seabird species in 14 countries.

Maine’s puffins are now protected and studied by a team of scientists and summer interns who live in a tiny cabin and tents from May to August. The loafing ledge is located at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, jointly managed by Audubon and the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

“We’re excited to give people a window into this wonderful world of seabirds, and we hope to inspire viewers everywhere to take actions that improve the planet for birds and people,” said Dr. Kress.