Monthly Archives: June 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 –, 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 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 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.

“She didn’t apologize. She started laughing. I was on my hands and knees picking up bone fragments.”

Actually, I think the TSA does a pretty good job at their security theater. (Calling it something like “security theater” does not automatically prove that such theater has no function.) I remember the old days when there were one or two hijacking of an airplane every single week. Hell, my friend Billy’s dad hijacked a plane!. And later when I was doing a lot of international travelling, when there were few hijackings but the security systems at airports were visibly flawed. So I appreciate that there have been improvements even if it may be not the way I would have done it.

Having said that, TSA agents can be real boneheads at times. The latest is a case of a man bringing his father through security. His father, as it happens, as in a jar in the form of cremains. The TSA agent ended up spilling about 25% of dad on the floor and laughing about it, supposedly.

“They opened up my bag, and I told them, ‘Please, be careful. These are my grandpa’s ashes,'” Gross told RTV6’s Norman Cox. “She picked up the jar. She opened it up.
“I was told later on that she had no right to even open it, that they could have used other devices, like an X-ray machine. So she opened it up. She used her finger and was sifting through it. And then she accidentally spilled it.”

Read the rest of the story here.

If those TSA agents could see the stuff I brought through airports before they showed up they’d freak. Human remains? Huh. Run of the mill.

More Proof that Most Republicans are Morons

Remember the whole WMD thing, where President George W. Bush and Colin Powell and all those guys looked the American People straight in the face and said “we are absolutely certain that Saddam Hussein has Weapons of Mass Destruction”? Many doubted this claim. The war happened, and the claim was absolutely totally undeniably indubitably proven false. But Republicans kept saying it like it was true over and over again.

Well, a current poll shows that a majority of Republicans believe that Saddam had WMDs.

The poll is here (PDF). It covers a lot more than just WMDs and is worth a look.

I find it interesting that the poll uses the term “Democrat” to refer to the “Democratic Party” but it does not use “Republic” to refer to the “Republican Party.” Anyway, the poll showed that “..63 percent of Republican respondents still believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded in 2003. By contrast, 27 percent of independents and 15 percent of Democrats shared that view.” (see this summary)

Claus Larsen and SkepticReport

The only time I ever heard of Claus Larsen and Skeptic Report are when Claus shows up here to make a fool of himself by acting at the archetypal “Skeptic” who has no appreciation whatsoever for how the process of inquiry and debate operate, for nuance or context, or for that matter, simple truth and dealing with fact. His latest stroll through my blog had him demanding evidence for claims I had made about Thunderf00t’s video, when I had made no claims whatsoever about any such thing. He also brought along a “when did you stop beating your wife” sort of question regarding

THIS IS A LINK to that conversation.

At first I found this annoying, then I realized that Claus is a Poe. He’s totally made up. No one can be that absurd without doing it on purpose.

But, then I realized that if Claus was here he’d DEMAND EVIDENCE that he is a Poe. And I don’t really have any. He’d be right.

So, I’ve put this blog post up for anyone to add any information, in the comments, about Claus Larsen and SkepticReport. Do you know who this guy is? Have you met him in real life? Is he really as silly in person as he presents himself on his site and in comments on other people’s sites?

Also, and this question is a bit trickier. His activism against sexual harassment guidelines at conferences seems to be way over the top for anyone. If he is a Poe that is easily explained. If he is not a Poe, then how do you explain that? Any ideas?

EPA Climate Action Upheld by a federal appeals court

This is coming from a few different sources none of which are really linkable so I’ll just copy and paste this press release from the Environmental Defense Fund:


Moments ago, a federal appeals court upheld EPA’s climate pollution emission standards, rejecting four legal challenges that had been filed by industry groups and several states’ attorneys general.

The court ruled in favor of clean air protections in four major cases, denying petitions against the Climate Pollution Endangerment Finding and the Clean Car Standards and dismissing petitions against the Timing and Tailoring Rules.

EDF activists submitted tens of thousands of comments in favor of these critical rules and today’s court decision affirms our efforts to defend EPA’s common sense solutions to promote cleaner air and a safer climate future.

This ruling also comes one day after the public comment period closed on the proposed new EPA rule that would limit climate pollution from new fossil fuel power plants. An incredible 113,579 EDF activists joined a record-shattering 2 million Americans who submitted comments in favor of this rule that, if implemented, will help end dirty energy as we know it.

Ruh Roh. Universe may not be what we thought it was.

Astronomers have discovered something that should not be there. It is an arc of light. The arc is the effect of gravitational lensing which happened as light passed by a massive galaxy about 10 billion years ago in space-time. In other words, in this universe, but very far away and a very long time ago, when our universe was a mere toddler. The galaxy that supplies the light is even farther away.

(UPDATE: See this post by Phil Plait for a detailed writup on this observation: The galaxy that shouldn’t be there)

Here’s the problem. A very massive galaxy…the one that is farthest away…over 10 billion years away in space time is an anomaly, and a galaxy massive enough to create this lensing is also an anomaly. According to the leader of the team that glimpsed this galactic puzzle, “According to a statistical analysis, arcs should be extremely rare at that distance. At that early epoch, the expectation is that there are not enough galaxies behind the cluster bright enough to be seen, even if they were ‘lensed,’ or distorted by the cluster. The other problem is that galaxy clusters become less massive the further back in time you go. So it’s more difficult to find a cluster with enough mass to be a good lens for gravitationally bending the light from a distant galaxy.”

So, is this just something that can exist but is very very rare and these scientists just happen to see it? Or is it the case that the models of the early Universe are somehow in need of adjustment.

Now the astrophysicists know what it’s like to be an astrobiologist!

More from NASA: Continue reading Ruh Roh. Universe may not be what we thought it was.

Should people be able to trademark body parts and looks?

Anthony Davis is apparently some sort of athelete, and he apparently has these eyebrows:

And he intends to trademark them. Well, actually, he’s already trademarked them:

Davis, known for his connected eyebrows, trademarked the phrases “Fear The Brow” and “Raise The Brow” earlier this month.
“I don’t want anyone to try to grow a unibrow because of me and then try to make money off of it,”

It is a good thing he does not have a twin, or there might be a fierce, and at the same time incredibly stupid, legal battle.

Romney: Outsourcer-in-Chief

Obama campaign’s latest ad:

The Washington Post story referred to is here, and says:

During the nearly 15 years that Romney was actively involved in running Bain, a private equity firm that he founded, it owned companies that were pioneers in the practice of shipping work from the United States to overseas call centers and factories making computer components, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission….

While Bain was not the largest player in the outsourcing field, the private equity firm was involved early on, at a time when the departure of jobs from the United States was beginning to accelerate and new companies were emerging as handmaidens to this outflow of employment.

Bain played several roles in helping these outsourcing companies, such as investing venture capital so they could grow and providing management and strategic business advice as they navigated this rapidly developing field….

Should the Flying Spaghetti Monster Rear his Awesome Noo-Noo?

Matt Lowry, whom I hope to be seeing in a couple of weeks, has written an article on his blog and republished on the JREF web site, called Is It Time To Call Creationists’ Bluff And Push For “Teaching All Views”?

The idea is this. There has been a recent change in strategy among creationists (which, I’m sorry, but I may have started a few years back for which I apologize). Instead of pushing creationism per se, they push “academic freedom” which doubles as a way to repress the teaching about climate change, evolution, and other inconvenient science, and a way to introduce whatever other “alternative view” a creationist or anti-science teacher might pull out of his or her nether regions. An by “nether regions” I mean material provided by the Heartland Institute, stuff they picked up at the Creation Museum, or took off the Answers in Genesis web site.

Matt is re-suggesting and giving new air to an idea that we all mutter under our collective breath about now and then; If they want to teach their particular religion in the classroom, then fine, but then we also must teach the origin stories of every one of the thousands of distinct tribal groups documented by anthropologists, all the other non-Abrahamic state level religion such as Hinduism, the much-hated1 Islam, and, of course, we must provide the origin and evolution related parts of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I recommend that you have a look at Matt’s blog posts, here and here.

Matt is obviously being both serious and not serious at the same time. Sometimes this seems like a strategy one should try, a sort of massive passive aggressive attack. “Well, then, fine. Let’s just do that. Let’s see what the Bhagavad Gita says about cellular biology,” is how we would say it here in Minnesota, where Passive Aggressive originated and is still a refined art.

I insist that the cults of Elvis and Bigfoot be taught in science classes from now on. Photo of Elvis and Bigfoot fighting courtesy of roadkillbuddha at
Other than pointing you to my colleague’s post, which also includes information about recent creationist antics in the legislative system, I also wanted to mention two-three reasons why we actually can’t do this. This is not a disagreement with Matt; he knows these things too. I just want to make sure they get mentioned.

First (but not most important), the curriculum is full. Only time neutral suggestion are reasonable. At times it seems like everyone has a thing they want taught in school. “If only they taught the kids how to bla bla bla then everything would be fine.” The thing is, whenever such an idea occurs to someone with power, like the person who happened to show up on nomination day and got elected to the school board in Poffadder Iowa, it actually DOES get added to the curriculum. School boards and administrators generally have no idea of what goes on in the classroom and despite words they may use have little respect for classroom time. Every year, in most schools, classroom time is taken away and replaced with dumb-ass crap mandated by the state legislature, the school board, the school’s administration, or whatever. Lockdown drills, Pledge of Allegiance, The News Minute, standardized tests that do not have a standardized schedule, etc. etc. People worry about snow days. Snow days are not the problem. Administrators with a microphone and a random thought popping into their head are the problem.

Another reason is the simple fact that if we let one of the hoard past the moat the rest will feel like they’ve been invited. The wall between church and state would actually have to be breached, or at least, a gate lowered, to let this happen. That can’t be allowed. This has happened already; at present, there are religiously based charter schools in the US being funded by tax dollars that give religious instruction and don’t teach evolution because the religion of the school does not accept it. That’s a breech. This is being walked back here and there, and the weakening of the charter school strategy is helping with that, but we can’t handle too many breaches.

Another reason which is the secret reason Matt would never really accept teaching the Origin Story of the Iroquois, as interesting and culturally relevant as it may be, as a scientific theory in a life science class, is because it is not science. A closely related but distinctly different reason is that it is not true.

One of the most important points Matt makes, and that I imply above, is that we are no longer talking about creationism vs. evolution. Increasingly we are talking about science in general. Well, we always have been to some extent, but it has gotten specific:

…let us note that the new Tennessee law also makes specific references to the science of global warming and human cloning, both increasingly hot-button issues for social and religious conservatives in the United States. But, interestingly, the language is more open-ended and doesn’t stop explicitly at those topics; in fact, the language states that “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of topics that arouse “debate and disputation”. Note that the law doesn’t specify among whom these topics can arouse debate and disputation.

If this strategy is attempted, though, I very much hope that the first law suit demanding equal time comes from … well, you can probably guess what I think about that.

Ancient artifact from The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion from the fourth millennium before the present. Source: Pastafarian at

1Hated by many of those who want to force their particular religious beliefs onto others’ children by legislation.