previous Other items
Miscellaneous Items from 2012:
to enlarge a
photo, click on itWatch the dog's tail Science blogging Duh and Doh Farming slime molds Do pets make us happy? The big companies Bloody Beavers
The savanna look Too dumb to know it A moral issue The big warming around the corner Ready to say goodbye to bees? Re-runs New way to explain extreme weather Doing the arithmetic Events of AD 774 Harry's little trick A very old flower Fraud found using stats
What is it about nines? There will be 'omes everywhere Prehistoric artists Big History
Watch the dog's tail
The left-brain right-brain thing is
almost all silly hype. Stuff about logical verses creative, linear
verses parallel and so on has not stood up to testing. But there is
something that has. Left-brain 'approach' and right-brain 'aversion'
has turned out to be true of many birds and mammals and is less clear
in humans but seems to be colouring our difference in the use of the
two hemispheres. For example, when eating birds like to position
themselves so that the vision and sound from the food goes to the
left-brain and the information from the least protected direction
goes to the right-brain. The same pattern in frogs and monkeys and
every vertebrate tested for it – and my big favorite, dogs
Stanley Coren say:
“Since tail wagging is meant as
signal a dog will only wag its tail when other living beings are
around-e.g. a person, another dog, a cat, a horse or perhaps
a ball of lint that is moved by a breeze and might seem alive. When
the dog is by itself, it will not give its typical tail wags, in the
same way people do not talk to walls.”
“There are many combinations,
including the following common tail movements:
● A slight wag-with each swing of
only small breadth-is usually seen during greetings as a tentative
"Hello there," or a hopeful "I'm here."
● A broad wag is friendly; "I am
not challenging or threatening you." This can also mean, "I'm
pleased," which is the closest to the popular concept of the
happiness wag, especially if the tail seems to drag the hips with it.
● A slow wag with tail at 'half-mast'
is less social than most other tail signals. Generally speaking, slow
wags with the tail in neither a particularly dominant (high) nor a
submissive (low) position are signs of insecurity.
● Tiny, high-speed movements that
give the impression of the tail vibrating are signs the dog is about
to do something-usually run or fight. If the tail is held
high while vibrating, it is most likely an active threat.”
But here is the new thing:
“We can now add another newly
discovered, feature of dog tail language that may surprise attentive
pet owners as much as it surprised scientists like me. It now appears
that when dogs feel generally positive about something or someone,
their tails wag more to the right side of their rear ends, and when
they have negative feelings, their tail wagging is biased to the
left...It is important to understand that we are talking about the
dog's left or right viewed from the rear as if you are facing in the
direction the dog is viewing. That means that if you are facing the
dog and drew an imaginary line down the middle of his back that
positive right-sided signal would appear as tail swings mostly
curving to your left...Since the left brain controls the right side
of the body and the right brain controls the left side of the body,
activity in one half of the brain shows up as movements on the
opposite side of the body.”
What is it all
about? What science bloggers do is to comment on science news or
explain scientific theories. The bloggers are either working
scientists, working authors/journalist or, like me, dedicated
followers of some corner of science. A few are advocates for a cause
but treat the science honestly.
is a style of science blogging that is newish and called research
blogging. “Cognitive Daily, a blog written by a husband-and-wife
team of Dave and Greta Munger, quickly grew a very large audience.
But more importantly – and that is easy to see looking back with
20-20 hindsight – Cognitive
Daily ushered in
a new style of science blogging, what we now call research blogging:
picking up a scientific paper (usually, but not always, one very
recently published in a peer-reviewed journal, though a few bloggers
specialize in older, more historical literature) and explaining what
it really means. Many, many new science bloggers liked this format
and started emulating Dave and Greta’s style, and today this style
of blogging is almost synonymous, at least for some audiences, with
science blogging as a whole.”
This style of
blogging is taken up by aggregator sites. The first was
Researchblogging. I submit every third posting to this site, which
means that a third of my posts are comments on original papers rather
that abstracts, press releases, books or other bloggers. “The
emphasis is quality over quantity. Our 29 editors monitor the site to
ensure that the posts all meet our community-based standards for
discussing authoritative research...Unlike many other sites,
ResearchBlogging doesn’t aggregate every post written by its member
bloggers. Instead, it focuses only on those that cite and discuss
peer-reviewed research. Like anyone else, science bloggers can write
about politics, their vacation plans, or the latest editorial
cartoon, but when they take the time to seriously discuss journal
articles, they place a special bit of code in their post, which
alerts our system.” The Researchblogging site is a sort of gold
standard for serious science bloggers.
I also submit all
posting to the ScienceSeeker aggregator. It does not require citing
original papers but has a high standard of bloggers. It “first
appeared on the science blogging aggregation scene in January 2011 at
ScienceOnline2011, to an enthusiastic reception. It was the
brainchild of Bora Zivkovic, Anton Zuiker, and Dave Munger, who hoped
to provide an interface to the world of science blogging that would
include independent bloggers who were not associated with a network.
The site was intended to provide one central place to list (almost)
every science blog active on the web.” This site gives independent
bloggers the sort of listing that ScienceBlogging aggregator gives to
networks of science bloggers.
I treat my
blogging almost like a job rather than a little hobby. I keep an aim
in mind, have a set of standards come dos-and-don'ts, keep to a
restricted area of science, and post in a regular schedule. I spend 3
to 4 hours a day reading and writing, mostly reading. So I am glad
that there are these aggregators to submit my posts to and have them
read by people interested in my little area of consciousness. I don't
pretend to be a working researcher or an accomplished author, just
doing my best to finding developments in the field and putting them
in context as plainly and clearly as I can.
are the links to the site I have mentioned: http://charbonniers.org
my blog, Thoughts on thoughts; http://www.researchblogging.com
Research Blogging; http://scienceseeker.org
Science Seeker; http://ScienceBlogging.org
Duh and Doh
When we go past new year all sorts of
lists appear: top 10 lists of every kind of event in the previous
year. I saw two blog posts (apparently unconnected), one called Duh
and the other Doh. The first was a list of very obvious scientific
papers and the other a list of very obvious retractions of papers in
2011. I think that if this is the worst of the useless and the faulty
for the year, it is not bad compared to the huge number of papers
published in a year (probably around a million).
First the Duh list by Stephanie Pappas:
sex is more likely after drinking
- for every 0.1-milligram-per-milliliter increase in study
participants' blood alcohol levels, there was a 5 percent increased
likelihood of having unprotected sex.
appear confident by suppressing fear, pain and empathy
- tamping down those emotions might make someone seem more
pot and driving isn't safe
– people who drove within hours of smoking pot were twice as likely
to have accidents.
– they are not pretending.
magazines glorify youth
– magazines rarely feature women over 40.
with generous partners have happy marriages
– it would be interesting to know which causes which.
don't think their kids are doing drugs
- Most parents believe at least 60 percent of 10th-graders drink
alcohol, only 10 percent thought their own teen did.
aren't doing anything in particular on the Internet
- 53 percent of people ages 18 to 29 get online at least once on any
given day just to pass the time.
driver's licenses decreases teen fatalities
- Restrictions such as limits on the number of passengers a teen can
ferry around and rules against night driving decreased fatal crashes
by 13 percent and 9 percent, respectively.
shoppers ignore nutrition labels
- 1 percent looked at information about total fat, trans fat, sugar
and serving size on nearly all labels, even though between 20 percent
and 31 percent of people said they looked at each of those categories
when they shopped.
outlive their contemporaries
- Money, knowledge and good health care tend to buy health and
the Doh list by Christopher
Angeles marijuana dispensaries lead to drop in crime
- The RAND Corporation retracted its own report in October after
realizing its sloppy data collection. They did not include data from
the L.A. Police Department. Isn't that where you would expect to go
for crime figures?
meets worm, falls in love, and has caterpillars
– Refuters based their arguments entirely on well-known concepts of
both basic evolution and the genetics of modern worms and
butterflies. How did the paper get published in the first place?
appendicitis with antibiotics, not surgery
– The article was attacked for its science, the authors defended
and the publication took out the article but not for its science but
for plagiarism – chicken.
breeds crime and discrimination
– The author Diederik Stapel may have faked data in at least 30
papers and has been suspended from his post while being investigated.
It is too bad that his many theories were featured in the New York
Times and sounded so good.
fatigue syndrome is caused by a virus
– This is a long story. There is still some physicians who do not
accept CFS as a physical disease. Then there was a paper associating
CFS with a virus (XMRV) seeming to prove CFS was real. But no other
lab could reproduce the results. The authors refused to retract the
paper. A Science editorial distanced itself from the paper. The
authors issued a partial retraction and removed data from
contaminated samples. Science did a full retraction and continues its
investigation of the data. It seems that the heated controversy over
the nature of CFS complicated the correction of an innocent mistake.
Farming Slime Molds
You all know my soft spot for slime
molds. Here is highlights of a blog on a paper in Nature, Primitive
agriculture in a social amoeba by Brock and others.
Joe Dictyostelium - by
The practice of agriculture is not
limited to humans: ants, termites, and snails all grow fungi, and who
knows who else does something similar. But not many have claimed that
such activities are to be found among simpler organisms. Now we have
a report that slime molds have also gone down the road to
agriculture. Dictyostelium discoideum, the best studied of
the cellular slime molds, is a social amoeba that thrives by grazing
on bacteria. Given ample bacterial food, these organisms grow as
single cells. When food becomes scarce, they aggregate into pretty,
differentiated fruiting bodies (called sorus, plural sori)
consisting of a round mass of spores held up by a stalk. The spores
eventually become dispersed, to repeat the cycle at a new site.
What is new here is that about one
third of 35 clones of this species collected in the wild do something
extra, namely they carry bacteria with them as they differentiate.
They even include them within their sori—like packing a lunch, sort
of. Once released, the spores have the ready opportunity to enjoy the
source of food providently supplied for them. But non-farmers eat up
all the available food before differentiating, whereas the farmers
leave about half of the bacteria uneaten. It’s a little bit like
humans not eating a whole grain harvest, but carrying some along when
migrating to provide seeds for future sowing.
This sounds mighty prudent, but it
comes with costs. The farmer amoebae don't travel as far before
differentiating, thus are less likely to make it to a locale with
more abundant food. And their sori contain fewer spores. If the
spores find themselves in places with abundant bacteria, the
advantage of carrying the bacteria along may disappear entirely. This
was the case when they were grown on agar plates with plenty of food
in the form of their preferred bacteria. However, in experiments
closer to real-life using two arboretum soil samples, the farmers did
better than the non-farmers, and produced more spores. The authors
suggest that clones of this species consistently employ one of these
two strategies, either farming or not farming. Each may have an
economic advantage, just like with people. Not eating all your seeds
is prudent for the future, but eating them all makes you better fed
Now let me pick a nit. Calling this
agriculture, even "primitive agriculture" as in the title
of the featured paper, seems like a bit of a stretch. In contrast to
the tending of the fungal gardens by the ant or termite farmers,
these amoebae do not cultivate their bacteria. And the term is rife
with anthropocentric connotations that could lead one down a slippery
teleological path. Nevertheless their kind of farming does involve
multiple changes to enable these slime molds to become farmers. In
truth, in this blog we use anthropocentric terminology all the time.
But, no matter, this does not detract one whit from a fine paper.
Do pets make us happy?
I have been to people's houses where
there is no non-human living thing, not even a gold fish or a cactus
plant. To add to this, some lived in apartments in city centers and
would be lucky if they saw a tree or a pigeon some days. I have
wondered how they keep their sanity (which they do seem to do).
As I grow older I get to feel more
deprived whenever I am without a pet and a bit of garden.
People with pets often believe that the
pets make them happier. But when measured, pet owners and non-pet
owners do not differ in happiness or in depression. However, pet
owners are less lonely and have more self-esteem. They also may be
healthier. But happier – no.
People without pets often believe that
pets are used to make up for less social contact. But it has been
shown that the more that people felt that their social needs were
fulfilled by their dogs, the more they also felt that their social
needs were fulfilled by other people. There is no difference in the
number of friends that pet owners have compared to non-owners. The
order in which dog owner's rate their social support is: closest
friends, parents, dog, siblings, other friends.
I have thought that the unconditional
love of a pet is very important. It is the hardest thing to obtain
except from parents and very young children. Even our spouses and
close friends love us for reasons – their love is conditional on us
being somewhat worthy of it. There are times when unconditional love
is just what is needed. I think that is why some people are so
attached to their cats. A cat's love is even more unconditional then
a dog's because a cat is a less dependent animal – they don't feel
they need us.
So why do pets not make us happy?
Actually I don't think anything much changes how happy we are in the
long term. We return to our own set point for happiness. We get some
money and we are happier for a while and then back to normal. We
fight with a friend and we are less happy for a while and then back
to normal. Set points change slowly of course but that takes more
than a pet.
The big companies
Three systems theorists at the Swiss
Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have taken a database
listing 37 million companies and investors worldwide and analyzed all
43,060 transnational corporations and share ownerships linking them.
They built a model of who owns what and what their revenues are and
mapped the whole edifice of economic power.
They discovered that global corporate
control has a distinct bow-tie shape, with a dominant core of 147
firms radiating out from the middle. Each of these 147 own
interlocking stakes of one another and together they control 40% of
the wealth in the network. A total of 737 control 80% of it all. The
top 20 are below. There are many reasons for tightly bundled nodes
and connections: anti-takeover strategies, reduction of transaction
costs, risk sharing, increasing trust and groups of interest.
Here are the top 20:
Capital Group Companies
State Street Corporation
Morgan Chase & Co
Legal & General Group plc
Merrill Lynch & Co Inc
Management Co LLP
Deutsche Bank AG
Credit Suisse Group
Walton Enterprises LLC (holding company
for Wal-Mart heirs)
Bank of New York Mellon Corp
Sachs Group Inc
T Rowe Price Group Inc
Legg Mason Inc
Being from Canada, I am supposed to
have a soft spot in my heart for the beaver. But... they can be
annoying. If they hear running water, a nice little stream, they go
mad. Running water must be stopped at once, dam building begins and it
does not stop until there is no sound of running water. So when
paper.li had a problem and put up this notice – I laughed out loud
and took a screenshot. Someone has to find the beaver that has
stopped the flow of data and get rid of the dam.
The savanna look
Savanna has a look. Grass and few
widely spaced trees dotting it. The trees are oddly shaped with a
flat top and no lower branches. They all seem the same height. Along
any little streams or ponds there are taller and shorter trees close
together like a woods. The main tree is the acacia thorn but there
are others that grow the same way. The thorn trees can grow
flat-topped in the grass, tall in the woods and like a big ball in
some other places.
Why the few trees on the savanna? It is
dryish and so the new saplings grow slowly and most are killed by
herbivores or fire before they are big enough to protect themselves.
The grass fires and most of the animals kill trees that are less than
2 or 3 meters high. The saplings shot straight up as fast as the
climate allows until they are out of reach of the grass fires and the
shorter animals. Then they spread out horizontally. Why horizontally?
It is because they are not competing with close neighbours for light
and because their defense against giraffes is to have a very wide
umbrella of thorns protecting the middle of the tree's crown from
grazing. So low water, high light, heavy grazing, and frequent fire
is what produces the savanna look.
The photo is one we took at dawn near
the Rift Valley with a Marabou stork waking up for the day.
Too dumb to know it
Incompetent people don't know it –
they think they are above average. So if someone is not very smart,
they are not smart enough to know it. If they have a poor sense of
humour, they do not have enough sense of humour to know it. The same
applies to social and emotional intelligence, language skill, logic.
Lack of ability makes it difficult to notice one's deficiency.
The very top performers underestimate
their skill and the very bad performers greatly overestimate theirs.
So everyone thinks they are above average whereas about half are
going to have to be below average, that is what average means. Here
is a graph by a researcher (Dunning) who tested people in a number of
areas, ranked them, divided them into four groups and then asked them
to guess their place in the ranking.
This accounts for the fact that when
people do not understand something, they think it is simple or easy;
they simply do not understand it well enough to see the difficulties.
But there is another ingredient in this
situation. When we judge our own actions we are very aware of the
constraints and difficulties that we faced and make allowance for
that. (it was too cold, I was not feeling well, etc.) But when we
judge other's actions we are often not aware of their circumstances
and assume that they choose to do whatever they did, the way they did
it without any constraints. We therefore tend to judge others harder
than we judge ourselves. By doing this we underestimate their smarts
and skill compared to our own.
It explains a lot!!
A moral issue
Jim Hansen is the director of NASA's
Goddard Institute for Space Studies and has just won the Edinburgh
metal. He used the occasion to say that climate change is a moral
issue on a par with slavery.
“The latest climate models had shown
the planet was on the brink of an emergency. Humanity faces repeated
natural disasters … The situation we're creating for young people
and future generations is that we're handing them a climate system
which is potentially out of their control. We're in an emergency: you
can see what's on the horizon over the next few decades with the
effects it will have on ecosystems, sea level and species extinction
… Current generations have an over-riding moral duty to their
children and grandchildren to take immediate action. This as an issue
of inter-generational justice on a par with ending slavery. Our
parents didn't know that they were causing a problem for future
generations but we can only pretend we don't know because the science
is now crystal clear. … We understand the carbon cycle: the CO2 we
put in the air will stay in surface reservoirs and won't go back into
the solid earth for millennia. What the Earth's history tells us is
that there's a limit on how much we can put in the air without
guaranteeing disastrous consequences for future generations. We
cannot pretend that we did not know. … It can't be fixed by
individual specific changes; it has to be an across-the-board rising
fee on carbon emissions. We can't simply say that there's a climate
problem, and leave it to the politicians. They're so clearly under
the influence of the fossil fuel industry that they're coming up with
cockamamie solutions which aren't solutions. That is the bottom
The big warming around the corner
In a nut shell:
Many people have used the same
metaphor – here M Mukerjee, “Remember how Wile E. Coyote, in his
obsessive pursuit of the Road Runner, would fall off a cliff? The
hapless predator ran straight out off the edge, stopped in midair as
only an animated character could, looked beneath him in an
eye-popping moment of truth, and plummeted straight down into a puff
of dust. Splat!” We may be running in thin air right now.
dioxide has risen enough already to melt some of the Arctic and
Antarctic ice. Even if carbon dioxide emissions started to drop
overnight, there would still be melting in polar regions for some
time. But emissions are not dropping; they are rising faster than
ever. Polar regions are warming faster than other latitudes.
- The melting
of arctic ice liberates large amounts of methane. The permafrost and
tundra is rich in methane. In some places it will sustain a flame as
it leaks out when the permafrost is disturbed. Recent warming has
resulted in plumes of methane bubbles rising in shallow parts of the
Arctic Ocean. The release of methane will increase as melting/warming
- The amount of
methane in polar regions and its escape has been underestimated.
Recently a team identified about 150,000 methane seeps in Alaska and
Greenland lakes along the margins of ice cover. A Siberian study
found more than 100 fountains, some more than a kilometer across
emitting methane into the atmosphere. The region stores vast
quantities of the gas in different places - in and under permafrost
on land, on and under the sea bed.
- Methane is
about 24 times more powerful a greenhouse gas compared to carbon
dioxide. So the effect of rising carbon dioxide as it causes the
increased release of methane will be a jump in temperature rise and
rate of temperature rise – a big jump. The warming will feed
One of the mass extinctions in the
past, possibly the greatest, was the End-Permian extinction. It was
not caused by a big meteor or a cool sun or lots of volcanos. It was
caused by the combination of global warming, acid rain, acidification
of the ocean, and drops in oxygen – sounds familiar. These were
enough to kill 90% of the species on land and sea. It took 10 million
years for life to start coming back from the abyss. If we have enough
nerve to metaphorically look down, this is the sort of 'splat' we
The melting bear in oil is a work by Takeski
Kawano brought to her facebook friends' attention by Judith
click to enlarge.
Ready to say goodbye to bees?
Everyone agrees that we need bees –
ecosystems in the natural world need them, and farmers, gardeners,
honey producers need them. In the US they pollinate $15 billion worth
of crops. They are being killed by particular insecticides but no one
is outlawing those chemicals.
The problem is neonicotinoid type
insecticides such as imidacloprid which were introduced in the early
1990s and are now the most heavily used insecticides in the world (Gaucho,
Prestige, Admire, Marathon, Cruiser, Platinum, Actara,
Helix, Adage, Meridian, Centric, Flagship, Poncho, Titan, Clutch,
Belay, Arena, Confidor, Merit, Ledgend, Pravado, Encore, Premise,
Assail, Intruder, Adjust and Calypso etc.).
Its use correlates with the death of bees since its introduction.
Honey bees are suffering colony collapse and wild bubble bees are
becoming rare, in some cases extinct. The chemical is used on cotton,
corn, grains, potatoes, rice, vegetables and more. It was, of course,
tested before it was licensed but the testing was for the level that
was safe for contact with bees. It passed the test but the problem is
not contact. The residue levels of the insecticide are perfectly safe
for bees to come in contact with.
But the bees actually eat the
insecticide and that is because that the insecticide incorporates
itself in the nectar and pollen of plants (most insecticide do not do this). The bees take the poison
in and take it back to the hive to feed the queen and young. But even
here, although this may be hard on the bees, they might survive it.
Some people say the bees would; they are spokespersons for the
chemical companies for what its worth.
So why do the bees disappear?
Neonicotinoids target the nervous system in insects. There are
several clues to how whole hives just die or disappear. One is that
although adult bees may be able to survive, the next generation that
developed on poisoned food are not able to survive. Another is that
the bees when foraging lose their sense of direction and cannot find
their way back to the hive. Whatever it is, there have been trials in
the US, France and UK that show that neonicotinoid kills honey bee
hives as they overwinter and kill bubble bee queens.
Trial 1 showed that repeated low-dose
(legal) exposures can kill whole hives of bees.
In trial 2, 20 brand new hives were set
up in 4 clusters, far enough apart to not mingle. In each
cluster the bees were given sugar syrup. 4 hives in each cluster had
imidacloprid added to their sugar and one did not. They were fed like
this from the start of July to the end of September and then all
hives got the pure sugar syrup. Mid-December the hives went into
wintering mode. The first hive collapsed at the end of December and
by late February only one hive fed insecticide was not empty. There
was no sign of bacterial, virus or mite disease. The control hives
were healthy except one which was suffering dysentery but not dead.
Trial 3, fed hives a related
insecticide, thiamethoxam and found that it weakened the bees, the
hives failed to prosper. Bees that were fitted with trackers
were not navigating well compared to controls.
Trail 4, fed wild type bumble bees the
insecticide in trace amounts and found that they were less able to
produce queens and start new colonies. There was an 85% drop in the
number of queens in each generation.
Trail 5, small, single doses of
imidacloprid fed to bees made them more 'picky eaters', poorer
dancers, poorer at remembering and learning. They are being made into
dumb and uncommunicative bees.
Because the first die off noticed in
Europe was where and when treated corn seed was used. Attempts were
made to improve the seed drills but it made no difference. Now in
some places there is a ban on seed corn treatment.
The companies are not withdrawing their
products and are disputing the scientific results. Farmers are not
avoiding these insecticides much. Only partial and piecemeal bans are
in place. Meanwhile about a third of American bees are already gone.
(I don't know what the figure is for Europe). Honey producers are
going out the business. And crops are not being fully pollinated
(almonds, apples, grapes, soybeans, cotton are amongst the crops at
What is happening with bee colonies is no longer a 'mystery'. The mystery is why these insecticides are not completely banned.
This is the time of year for bad, bad
television – the Jubilee events, the run up to the Olympics, the
Euro2012 football from Ukraine, tennis non-stop from French Open,
Queens and then Wimbledon, the Tour de France and so on. What I
wouldn't give for some old, good re-runs.
I have assumed that it is my age that
make re-runs enjoyable. As I get older I get more annoyed by high
voltage entertainment. I want something interesting and engaging but
that has very little suspense, shock or extremely strong emotions. I
never was happy with having my emotions played with for no real
purpose and stopped going to movies years ago. I do watch movies on
TV sometimes but I know that I can just turn the program off if I
feel manipulated. Anyway, I thought it was me and my age that made me
so fond of re-runs.
No, apparently, most people enjoy
re-runs. I'm not odd at all. And their reason are probably the same
as mine too. We have a guaranteed outcome – if it was good the
first time, it will not be bad a second time around. I can know just
what to expect and therefore know whether I am in the mood for it. I
also find that knowing where the story is going, I notice many things
that I missed the first time, little subtle details, even slightly
different stories emerge. Some re-runs are even a bit nostalgic.
There are people who peek at the ending
of a book before reading it. Good idea! If we can enjoy the same
painting or music over and over, why should literature or drama be
different. And far from being my age, I recall that children just
love to hear the same story over and over. They know every word and
still enjoy it one more time.
New way to explain extreme weather
A new concensus is growing in climate science. Climate change cannot be
used to explain any single weather event, but climate change can be
used to explain the probability of a class of weather events. Up until
now scientists have just said, when asked, that a cause and effect line
cannot be drawn between climate change and this flood or that drought.
Now 400 scientists from 48 countries have address this problem in a report.
“Authors of the study found that a
heat wave is now around 20 times more likely during a La Niña year than
it was during the 1960s, and that frigid Decembers are half as likely
to occur now compared to 50 years ago. 'While it remains hard to link
single events to human-caused climate change, scientific thinking has
moved on and now it is widely accepted that attribution statements
about individual weather or climate events are possible,' the report
added.' Scientists liken carbon's role in climate change to the effect
of steroids on a baseball player. While steroids are likely the cause
of improved performance, a natural variability in the player's swings
must be accounted for.'” - Big Think
“Last year's record warm November in
the UK – the second hottest since records began in 1659 – was at least
60 times more likely to happen because of climate change than owing to
natural variations in the earth's weather systems, according to the
peer-reviewed studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration in the US, and the Met Office in the UK. The devastating
heatwave that blighted farmers in Texas in the US last year, destroying
crop yields in another record "extreme weather event", was about 20
times more likely to have happened owing to climate change than to
natural variation.” - The Guardian
“We are much more confident about
attributing [weather effects] to climate change. This is all adding up
to a stronger and stronger picture of human influence on the climate.” - UK Met Office
But this does not mean that all extreme weather can be confidently be
blamed on climate change. If the patterns that caused the sort of
weather point to the probability of the event not being extraordinary
then it can not be explained by climate change. If there
is a very high probability that climate change is involved than that climate change is
now used in explanations (not avoided as previously).
Take-home is that we really are looking at the future when we have extreme rain, extreme drought, extreme heat, extreme wind.
Doing the arithmetic
From numbers published by Bill
McKibben, we have a very clear picture of what is happening with
The upper limit of climate change that
the world agreed to in Copenhagen 2009 was 2 degrees Celsius (3.6
Fahrenheit); "we agree that deep cuts in global emissions are
required... so as to hold the increase in global temperature below
two degrees Celsius." Since then it has become clear that 2
degrees is too high. The problems are far more serious than was
realized in 09. So far the rise has been 0.8 degrees and this has
caused effects that science had not expected in 09. But 2 degrees is
the limit, agreed by 167 countries.
But the 0.8 degrees is not fixed. If we
stopped putting any carbon into the air at this point, the
temperature would rise another 0.8 degrees, the effect of previously
released carbon continuing to overheat the planet. So we are
three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.
So how much carbon can we put into the
air and still have a hope of coming in under the limit of 2 degrees.
The most favourable number seems to be about 565 gigatons of carbon
dioxide by mid- century; by many models that would squeeze us in
under 2 degrees. Last year the world put 31.6 gigatons into the
atmosphere. If emissions go on as usual, rising 3% per year, we will
use up our headroom in 16 years.
If all the fossil fuel reserves that
are known and proven by the the energy companies and countries what
we get is 2795 gigatons. In other words the world as a whole has
plans to burn 5 times as much carbon as the planet (and the human
race) can accept. And people are still looking for more reserves.
Even if the number have some small errors, this is clearly an
What do these numbers mean for the
energy companies (and countries dependent on oil and gas)? We have
five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate
scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of
those reserves locked away underground to avert disaster. But the
reserves are the companies main assets and if they were effectively
cut by 80%, company stocks would sink like rocks. They are in the
wind by about $20 trillion. And many countries are counting on their
cut of this future fuel.
So what energy
companies/countries want is for this plain arithmetic to not be
understood by the population. Short-term politics and short-term
economics are the pressure on everyone who could do something about
the situation. The big shareholders are people with money but they do
not spend it on finding ways to burn less carbon – the money is
spent on denying that there is a problem, thwarting efforts to deal
with the problem and of course looking for even more reserves.
Instead of investing in non-carbon forms of energy and becoming
forward-looking companies/countries; they spend on PR, lobbying,
lawyers, politicians and continuing business as usual.
Our future is being
bought and thrown away by greedy men.
of the American Petroleum Institute from 1990s memo quoted in Steve
Average citizen “understands” (recognizes) uncertainties in
Recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the “conventional
Media “understands” (recognizes) uncertainties in climate
Media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of
the validity of viewpoints challenging current “conventional
Those promoting the Kyoto treaty [a
global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions] on
the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.
I guess the list has had all items checked off - too bad for humanity.
Events of AD 774
A lot of things happened in AD 774. For
example Charlemagne defeated the Lombards and added Italy to his
empire. In that year the Northumberland king changed from Alhred to
Aethelred. In the year 774
AD Kukai, founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan was born. But the
event of cosmic importance was recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,
the year 774 AD, appeared in the heavens a red
crucifix, after sunset; the Mercians and the men of Kent fought at
Otford; and wonderful serpents were seen in the land of the
A Japanese group headed by
Fusa Miyake noticed that tree rings dated to AD 774-775 had 20 times
the normal rate of variation in C14. This is only known to be
produced by gamma rays from supernova or giant solar flares. They
found reference to abnormal increases of C14 in European and North
American trees from that time and increases of beryllium10 in ice
cores. They looked for historic records of some possible event and
found none. So it was a little mystery – the unknown massive cosmic
event of AD 774. It should have been seen but apparently wasn't. This
mystery was featured on a Nature podcast.
In California, a biochemistry student,
Jonathon Allen, listened to the podcast and he was interested in
history. "I knew that going that far back, there's very limited
written history," he says. "The only things I'd ever seen
or heard of were in religious texts and 'chronicles' that listed
kings and queens, wars and things of that nature." He checked
the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 774 and found the reference to the red
crucifix and got in touch with the Japanese group.
The big question was why was this
supernova not seen as a new bright star for a period of time on
earth. It seems it was probably behind the sun and so was not
directly seen. But there was certainly something going on in the sky
near the sun. It made enough of an impression to be mentioned again.
Mike Baillie, another tree ring researcher found another historical
record. The 13th-century English chronicler Roger of Wendover is
quoted as saying: "In the Year of our Lord 776, fiery and
fearful signs were seen in the heavens after sunset; and serpents
appeared in Sussex, as if they were sprung out of the ground, to the
astonishment of all."
Harry's little trick
Harry and I have a little joke about
the Ukraine being the center of civilization. (Else why did God
speaks Church Slavonic? Why is Ukrainian onomatopoeic?) Until
recently Harry had some evidence – the steppe in the region of the
Ukraine was the place of origin of the Indo-European languages – so
obviously that was the source of civilization. Now he has to change
Some upstart scientists have run the IE
languages through software used in genetics with words taking the
place of genes. And then they used epidemiological software with
language spread rather than disease spread. They showed that it was
more likely that Indo-European started in Anatolia 8000 years ago
rather than the steppe 6500 years ago. It was spread by early farmers
rather than Kurgan horsemen.
When I told Harry this he remembered as
a boy he could turn into a Turk. It was his party piece as a very
small boy. He sang the song and then did a somersault.
Bo ya vzhè
This is a rough
version in latin letters rather than cyrillic for those of you who
can speak Ukrainian. Harry's says the Ukrainian is remembered from
his childhood and might not be that accurate.
would translate as “Now I'm a Turk not a Cossack because
I'm already completely turned over.”
So now I can tease him about being prepared for even a change in the
home of civilization.
A very old plant
This flower was produced from seed that
had been in the Siberian permafrost for 32,000 years. The seed holds
the record for the oldest seed to germinate into a healthy plant.
The researchers were studying ancient
soil composition in an exposed Siberian riverbank in 1995 when they
discovered the first of 70 fossilized Ice Age squirrel burrows, some
of which stored up to 800,000 seeds and fruits. Permafrost had
preserved tissue from one species—a narrow-leafed campion
plant—exceptionally well, so researchers at the Russian Academy of
Sciences recently decided to culture the seeds to see if they would
grow. Team leader Svetlana Yashina re-created Siberian conditions in
the lab and watched as the refrigerated tissue sprouted buds that
developed into 36 flowering plants within weeks. The frozen plants,
blooming again after millennia in the freezer, seeded a new
It is very slightly different from the
modern form of this plant.
Fraud found using stats
Uri Simonson has made a name for
himself by identifying fraudulent scientific papers using statistics.
Data can be just too good. The odds of such 'nice' numbers is just
too long. This has been done a number of times lately (but maybe not
as often as it should). Sometime ago, I read that Mendel's famous pea
experiments, the experiments that launched genetics, were too good
but would be just right statistically if he had done each experiment
twice and reported the average of each data point. We can forgive
Mendel – it was 150 years ago and he was an amateur scientist as a
side-line to being a monk-gardener.
There are many ways that a scientist
can sort of cheat that would not be called fraud. One, outliers can
be included when there is good reason for cutting them, or, they can
be excluded when there is no good reason to cut. A single outlier can
make a big difference to many stats. Two, experiments that give some
evidence of an effect but are not quite significant can be repeated
until one passes the significance test. That sort of thing accounts
for 'regression to the mean'. There is a surprising paper but the
effect reported is less and less with each paper that looks at it –
until the effect has just disappears. Statistically there are always
going to be unusual results and if the results are statistical
artifacts rather than real effects, they will be washed out in later
runs - typical regression to the mean. If a scientist has a surprising result, then he should be
suspicious, and repeat the experiment until he is sure that it is or
is not safe to publish it.
Stats can be used to look at elections
and see if they were fairly done. The trick is to plot the % vote for
the winning party against the % turnout for each voting station.
Normally this gives a round or oval blob of points (one point for
each station). If the results are being fiddled, the blob will have a
smeared tail towards the top right. In extreme cases there will be a
small second blob in the top right. I think this analysis should be
done on all elections as normal precaution. It would stop the
common, easy ways to rig elections.
Another tool in finding fraud is
Benford's Law. In many systems there is a simple relationship between
the frequencies of various digits. Suppose that you are measuring
something that is growing, at say 20% per year. 100, 120, 144, 173,
207, 249, 299, 358, 430, 516, 619, 743, 891, 1070. You can see that
the first digit is 1 for 5 numbers; 2 for 3 numbers; 3 4 5 6 7 and 8
for 1 each; and no 9. This is just a little example of how the digit
frequencies can be unequal. The law: in lists of
numbers from many (but not all) real-life sources of data, the
leading digit is distributed in a specific, non-uniform way.
According to this law, the first digit is 1 about 30% of the time,
and larger digits occur as the leading digit with lower and lower
frequency, to the point where 9 as a first digit occurs less than 5%
of the time. Benford's law also gives the expected distribution for
digits beyond the first, which approach a uniform distribution as the
digit place goes to the right.
Benford used a number of
sources in his publication of his law: surface areas of rivers, US
populations, physical constants, molecular wieghts, entries in a
mathematical handbook, numbers in an issue of Readers' Digest, street
addresses, death rates. There are few natural systems that break this
It has been used to uncover
fraud and has stood up in court. People who make up numbers tend to
pick digits randomly, close to the same frequency for all the digits.
So fictional book keeping and reporting can often be checked by
simply comparing the ratio of 1 to 9 in first digits. Of course, not
everyone bent on fraud may be ignorant of Benford and pick their
numbers more carefully.
What is it about nine?
When I was little, my grandfather
showed me an arithmetic trick that had to do with nines. It was a way
to check an answer to an addition, subtraction, multiplication or
division to see if it is correct. I asked Mom or a teacher or someone
about it and they said it was an old thing that wasn't taught
anymore. So I ignored it. (And it was very old, in fact ancient)
Later in tech training I was taught to use a venier and again
encountered the nine thing. Years later, studying computer science, I
was learning about check sums and a lecturer said that modular
arithmetic was the basis of the old method called 'casting out
nines'. There was nothing magical about nine except it was one less
than the counting base 10. So here is a nice little puzzle to figure
out how this pattern happens.
Write down any 3 digit number, then
reverse it, subtract the smallest from the biggest. The result will
be a number with 9 in the middle and the first and last digit adding
up to 9.
There will be 'omes everywhere
Now that there are big computers with
big memories, it is possible to find things out by brute force
rather than clever elegance. And since the genome project, every
really big data collection and sorting is called a something ome. It
seems to have started with genome, a sort of pun on chromosome, but
then the next big project carried the suffix on.
There is an old idea about science –
that each science starts with a stage where things are just
documented. In this way of looking at science, chemistry started with
finding the describing new elements, compounds and reactions. More
and more individual facts were collected but it was only later that
patterns appeared and theories were constructed and tested. When
geology started, people collected and characterize all the rocks they
could find and described elements of landscape. Later came the how
and why questions. In biology, taxonomy was first. But most
biologists thought they were over that stage many, many years ago.
But molecular biology/genetics was different and it is now doing its
taxonomy. The 'omes just get this taxonomy stage out of the way in a
hurry. Find everything and give each thing a place in a huge
datebase, as an activity on which other activities can be based. It
is a kind of mind boggling way to do things.
Here are some of the omes:
genome – a complete reading of
the base pairs in DNA of an organism, finally all? organisms.
Unsurprizingly, that didn't tell us much until we could figure out
what the body does with this information. We needed a …
transcriptome – a complete
reading of all the pieces of RNA that is transcribed from the DNA.
Guess what – this was not too useful if we didn't know what the RNA
was doing. Lots is making protein so...
proteome – a complete list of
proteins in cells with their function and structure. Now we should
have all the info needed but there are still problems. We don't know
how things are controlled. …
– all the inheritance information that was not included in the
- all the other molecules not covered so far and their reactions,
especially the end points of all the cells chemistry. This has given
birth to reactome
(all biochemical pathways) and interactome
(all interaction between molecules in cells). The image is one of the
very early drafts of a interactome.
Why limit this
to what happens inside cells?
– a list of all ecosystems with their descriptions,
– a map of all the connections in the brain. Even many biologists
think this one is a just plain crazy idea.
anything is now a candidate for 'oming if there is a fast, cheap way
to collect the information (or even if there isn't).
probably go on and on until the world's disk space is all gone. For a
'ome to be useful there has to be ways to present the information so
that researchers can find, compare, annotate and so on – good
databases for mining. And access has to be open and free or cheap.
The objects studied have to be relatively stable. But the sky is the
limit. What about a languagome? A residencome?
How inventive were the artists in
30,000 years ago artist were making
images in the caves of France and Spain. (We visited one in the 60s
but it is now closed to the public as I believe are most of them.)
Often there is what looks like multiple attempts at the same animal
over painted on the same spot. And you think 'oh well no one is
perfect'. Marc Azema tried a flickering light like the light that might
come from a burning torch – and the images came to life.
In the flickering light the multiple images acted like a movie. He
studied the images in detail and found that the animals would move in
a very characteristic way for that particular type of animal. Whether
they were looked at sequentially like a comic strip or view with a
flicker like a movie, the artists were capable of separating a
movement into components true to the actual animal. Here is a link to
a video of the effect
You might think this was not that
deliberate but Azema has 20 years of studying the effect and tons of
evidence. Florent Rivere found palaeolithic small bone discs with
animals drawn on them. They have holes in the center and if spun, the
drawings are superimposed to give a movement.
So not only were Cro-magnon great
draftsmen of animal anatomy, they found ways to show the movement as
well. In fact, the Palaeolithic artists were more correct about
animal gaits then recent artists. “Most quadrupeds have a similar
sequence in which they move each limb as they walk, trot or run, and
this sequence was studied and outlined in the early 1880s by Eadweard
Muybridge. The authors examined prehistoric and modern artwork
ranging from cave paintings of cows and elephants to statues and
paintings of horses, elephants and other quadrupeds in motion to see
how well these artistic depictions matched the scientific
observations of animal motion. The majority of depictions of these
animals walking or trotting had their legs incorrectly positioned,
but the prehistoric paintings had the lowest error rates of 46.2%,
whereas modern pre-Muybridgean art depicted animal motion incorrectly
83.5% of the time. This error rate decreased to 57.9% after 1887”.
There is also Iegor Reznikoff who
visited the caves. He was in the habit of humming as he studied. He
noticed the parts of the caves that resonated 'like cathedrals'.
People had wondered why some parts of the caves had lots of paintings
and others had none. Some paintings were in very hard to access parts
of the caves. He mapped the painted areas and resonant areas for
several caves and found they coincided.
There are many later examples of early
people using acoustic engineering with some real skill.
It is not just an artful representation
of nature that these ice age people showed. There is a figure of a
man with a lion's head that is at least 40,000 years old. It is made
from extremely hard mammoth ivory and is a foot tall. It is very
skillfully made and it is estimated that it took about 400 hours.
Some group feed and looked after the craver for months while he made
This taste for art and skill at
producing it did not start suddenly with Cro magnon. 150,000 years
ago people were using pigments, probably to paint themselves, their
things, their shelters, and their special places. Nothing much
remains except the stores of prepared pigment. But even that shows
that it was already a big thing to them.
There is a new movement in teaching history – stop being nationalistic.
Forget about British History, Canadian History, French History,
American History; think instead about the History of Mankind. The idea
is that of David Christian and it has been taking off as the new idea
in Britain, Australia and the States. It is unlikely to fade away
because Gates money is backing it.
Using a vast timescale and covering the whole world, this history
traces the cause and effect patterns without the constraint of
political borders - without the borders on subject matter either as it
involves geology, climate, biology, disease and so on as well as
politics, wars, and powerful people. They aim for course material for
students anywhere in the world so that all share a common sense of
Here are some facts that were used to advertise a recent TV programs on BBC using the Big History approach:
The human body has changed more in the past 100 years than in the
previous 50,000. Adults are 50% heavier and four inches taller.
100,000 years ago, there were barely enough people on Earth to fill a football stadium.
Ancient Rome was eight times more densely populated than New York today.
When Columbus "discovered" the New World, there were already 90 million
people in the Americas, a third of the world's population.