Thursday, August 21, 2014

Trouble on the Planet of the Apes

Some of the most fascinating experiments in primatology have been the attempts to teach apes human languages. Jane C Hu takes a look and finds some troubling details. One of the problems is that the people crazy enough to dedicate their lives to an ape for decades can't really be trusted to be objective observers.

Last week, people around the world mourned the death of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams. According to the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California, we were not the only primates mourning. A press release from the foundation announced that Koko the gorilla—the main subject of its research on ape language ability, capable in sign language and a celebrity in her own right—“was quiet and looked very thoughtful” when she heard about Williams’ death, and later became “somber” as the news sank in. Williams, described in the press release as one of Koko’s “closest friends,” spent an afternoon with the gorilla in 2001. The foundation released a video showing the two laughing and tickling one another. At one point, Koko lifts up Williams’ shirt to touch his bare chest. In another scene, Koko steals Williams’ glasses and wears them around her trailer.

But how seriously should we take claims that Koko understood? Hu looks behind the curtain and sees some reasons for doubt.

The world Hu looks at is infested with backbiting, obsessive secrecy, and dubious claims about the ape's actual cognitive abilities. There have always been skeptics about the claims made by the researcher/foster parents of the apes, and the pervasive non-disclosure agreements required of those who work with the apes do absolutely nothing to quell those doubts, but the disclosure of Hu's informants seem mostly to be concerned with whether or not the apes are being properly fed and cared for.

The experiments have taught us a lot about ape cognition, and its limitations, but we are left with doubts about many of the claims as well as about the ethics of such experiments.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mixed Economy 200,000 BC

The economic systems of our close relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos involve a very limited type of sharing. Meat is prized but hard to come by, and kills are typically appropriated by the most alpha male present. Typically he will share a portion with a few cronies - probably just enough of them to deter a mass attack by those without.

There is evidence that a quite different system had evolved among humans as early as 200,000 years ago, in which large kills were systematically shared by all members of a band, just as they are by extant and recent hunter gatherer bands.

Christopher Boehm thinks that this socialized distribution of major game, combined with severe punishment of would be bullies who would take more than their share, was the basis of the development of human morality. The sharing, by the way, only applies to big game, with each family on its own with respect to smaller scale gathering hauls.

The sharing pattern is probably necessary for big game hunting to be a major economic strategy, both because it helps even out good and bad hunting days and because whole group cooperation is probably needed to bring down the really large game animals.

Boehm, Christopher (2012-05-01). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Harbinger of Doom?

This article suggests that there might have been some factual basis to the ancient myths of comets as Harbinger's of doom. It seems that it's possible a hunk of Halley's comet hit the Earth in 536 A.D., triggering a 10 year bout of cold and famine.

The ancients had ample reason to view comets as harbingers of doom, it would appear.

A piece of the famous Halley's comet likely slammed into Earth in A.D. 536, blasting so much dust into the atmosphere that the planet cooled considerably, a new study suggests. This dramatic climate shift is linked to drought and famine around the world, which may have made humanity more susceptible to "Justinian's plague" in A.D. 541-542 — the first recorded emergence of the Black Death in Europe.

The new results come from an analysis of Greenland ice that was laid down between A.D. 533 and 540. The ice cores record large amounts of atmospheric dust during this seven-year period, not all of it originating on Earth.

More detail in the link.

Trophy Strife

Andrew Sullivan has been running an extensive series on the controversy over giving out trophies indiscriminately to stars and bench sitters, winners and losers, in kid sports. I'm not much of a fan of trophies for anyone in kids sports - I think adult intervention in kid sports should be minimal, restricted if possible to teaching skills, organizing facilities, and preventing mayhem, but if anybody gets a trophy, everybody should. This, of course, is very much in keeping with our hunter-gatherer ancestors egalitarian ethos.

In addition, singling out individual players undermines team spirit and morale. The players probably know who is really good and who isn't - why should adult validation be necessary.

Andrew has plenty of opinions on both sides. Two:


The disgust that so many adults feel at the idea of everyone getting a trophy has to do with creating incentives. If everyone gets a trophy then no one will try hard; if everyone gets basic food and housing to survive, then no one will work. Of course, this isn’t true. A soccer team full of 10-year-olds who all get participation trophies won’t all sit down and stop playing soccer– the kids who are good at scoring points will still want to do so. But the kid who never scored a point will, for a moment, be recognized: You played soccer too.


I don’t know, maybe because the world IS unfair and we’re realists and not delusional purveyors of utopian fantasy?

And my favorite:

Giving trophies to everyone is practically like giving away none, because with the ubiquity comes devaluation.

One approach I sort of liked when my kids were in youth sports was recognizing each player for something he or she did particularly well.

Ferguson and Government by Extortion

The first governments were probably little more than protection rackets. Jeff Smith, writing in the NYT, takes a fascinating look at a variation on this theme in Ferguson MO.

Back in 1876, the city of St. Louis made a fateful decision. Tired of providing services to the outlying areas, the city cordoned itself off, separating from St. Louis County. It’s a decision the city came to regret. Most Rust Belt cities have bled population since the 1960s, but few have been as badly damaged as St. Louis City, which since 1970 has lost almost as much of its population as Detroit.

This exodus has left a ring of mostly middle-class suburbs around an urban core plagued by entrenched poverty. White flight from the city mostly ended in the 1980s; since then, blacks have left the inner city for suburbs such as Ferguson in the area of St. Louis County known as North County.

Ferguson’s demographics have shifted rapidly: in 1990, it was 74 percent white and 25 percent black; in 2000, 52 percent black and 45 percent white; by 2010, 67 percent black and 29 percent white.

The region’s fragmentation isn’t limited to the odd case of a city shedding its county. St. Louis County contains 90 municipalities, most with their own city hall and police force. Many rely on revenue generated from traffic tickets and related fines. According to a study by the St. Louis nonprofit Better Together, Ferguson receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees; for some surrounding towns it approaches 50 percent.

There is more on how this generally disadvantages the poor and black people in particular.

History: Running Out of Steam?

One of the great puzzles of history is why civilizations rise and fall. We understand the history of distant stars far better than those of the cultures we live in. John Darwin:

The greatest puzzle in Chinese history is why the extraordinary dynamism that had created the largest and richest commercial economy in the world seemed to dribble away after 1400. China’s lead in technical ingenuity and in the social innovations required for a market economy was lost. It was not China that accelerated towards, and through, an industrial revolution, but the West.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (pp. 44-46). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Unlike some other civilizations (Roman, Islamic, Indian, and perhaps Western), China was neither disrupted by internal convulsions nor external invasions.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Phoning it In

Amateur theater has some challenges usually not faced by those that actually pay the actors. For example, during rehearsal of a local play, the lead actor really had to be out of town on business. Now the assistant director could have read the lines, but instead the actor skyped in and the other actors carried his virtual presence around the stage.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Matters of Size

In principle, there is not much limit to black hole size. We expect little ones to evaporate quickly, but nobody has seen any of these. The ones we can measure are mostly big - several solar masses - or really really big - millions or billions of solar masses. We have a pretty good idea how the former form from the death throes of giant stars, but the latter are more mysterious. It's also surprising that we haven't measured any intermediate sized ones - a few hundred to a few thousands of solar masses - until now.

The universe has so many black holes that it’s impossible to count them all. There may be 100 million of these intriguing astral objects in our galaxy alone. Nearly all black holes fall into one of two classes: big or colossal. Astronomers know that black holes ranging from about 10 times to 100 times the mass of our Sun are the remnants of dying stars and that supermassive black holes, more than a million times the mass of the Sun, inhabit the centers of most galaxies.

But scattered across the universe like oases in a desert are a few apparent black holes of a more mysterious type. Ranging from a hundred times to a few hundred thousand times the Sun’s mass, these intermediate-mass black holes are so hard to measure that even their existence is sometimes disputed. Little is known about how they form. And some astronomers question whether they behave like other black holes.

Now a team of astronomers has succeeded in accurately measuring — and thus confirming the existence of — a black hole about 400 times the mass of our Sun in a galaxy 12 million light-years from Earth.

Richard Mushotzky from the University of Maryland (UMD) said the black hole in question is a just-right-sized version of this class of astral objects.

“Objects in this range are the least expected of all black holes,” said Mushotzky. “Astronomers have been asking: Do these objects exist, or do they not exist? What are their properties? Until now, we have not had the data to answer these questions.” While the intermediate-mass black hole that the team studied is not the first one measured, it is the first one so precisely measured, “establishing it as a compelling example of this class of black holes,” said Mushotzky.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Modern Times

What is modernity? John Darwin, in After Tamerlane, offers this perhaps idealized version:

But modernity is a very slippery idea. The conventional meaning is based on a scale of achievement. In political terms, its key attributes are an organized nation state, with definite boundaries; an orderly government, with a loyal bureaucracy to carry out its commands; an effective means to represent public opinion; and a code of rights to protect the ordinary citizen and encourage the growth of ‘civil society’. Economically, it means the attainment of rapid, cumulative economic growth through industrial capitalism (with its social and technological infrastructure); the entrenchment of individual property rights (as a necessary precondition); and the systematic exploitation of science-based knowledge. Culturally, it implies the separation of religion and the supernatural from the mainstream of thought (by secularization and the ‘disenchantment’ of knowledge) and social behaviour; the diffusion of literacy (usually through a vernacular rather than a classical language); and a sense of common origins and identity (often based on language) within a ‘national’ community. The keynotes of modernity become order, discipline, hierarchy and control in societies bent on purposeful change towards ever higher levels of ‘social efficiency’.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (pp. 25-26). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition. (pp. 25-26). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

Among other problems, this version is both Eurocentric and also objectionable to many who consider themselves modern. At best, it's an idealized version of what some leading Western states consider themselves, but it is nonetheless something of a model.

Black Hole Digestion

Consider a 10^8 solar mass black hole powering an active galactic nucleus, with an accretion disc consisting of say 300,000 solar masses. How long does it take the hole to gobble up the whole thing?

About a million years.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

More Ukraine

Ukrainian separatists were boasting today of large scale reinforcements from Russia: tanks, armored personnel carriers and troops.

DONETSK, Ukraine — The new pro-Moscow leader in the breakaway republic of Donetsk bragged openly today that Russia has strengthened his besieged rebel forces with men, armored vehicles and tanks. His boast would appear to confirm Ukrainian claims that the Kremlin is stepping up backing for the insurgents, defying the West with a dangerous escalation of the conflict Russian President Vladimir Putin said midweek he hoped would end soon.

Alexander Zaharchenko, who was appointed “prime minister” of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic earlier this week, told The Daily Beast that the rebels have received reinforcements from across the border, and specified in an interview with Russian radio station that “1,200 men trained in Russia have joined his force and that separatists have received also 120 armored personnel carriers and 30 tanks.”

It's not clear exactly what Putin is up to. This seems likely to be enough troops for the rebels to stave off defeat, but probably not enough for any kind of win. Ukraine can't fight Russia, but the talked about full-scale invasion hasn't happened yet.

Cultural Imperialism

In a world where American sitcoms, Yoga, Chinese manufactures and Coca-Cola have penetrated nearly everywhere, how much autonomy do traditional cultures still possess? Industry, economy, science and technology have been global now for many decades. The financial and intellectual elite have become cosmopolitan classes of their own. Vast population migrations have created exposed people from all over to cultures other than their own.

Nonetheless, cultures are things that don't easily loosen their grip. They are good at building walls. The most fundamental wall is probably language. 12,000 years ago, when there were 1000 times fewer people, these people probably spoke 10,000 different languages, each with 1000 or so speakers. today there are about the same number of languages, 6500 or so, but speakers are heavily concentrated in a few: Mandarin, Hindustani, English, Spanish, Arabic etc. Many of the smaller language groups are likely to disappear soon, but that will still leave thousands of languages, and perhaps, different cultures.

Nonetheless, a global superculture (super in the sense of being grafted onto the respective cultures of the members) is likely to persist, and likely to dominate business, technology, science, and aspects of art. At the moment, the native language of that group is English. For the future, TBD.

Believing in Evolution is Silly

Says Keith Blanchard. And I think he's right. Faith has very little to do with it.

So if someone asks, "Do you believe in evolution," they are framing it wrong. That's like asking, "Do you believe in blue?"

Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don't believe in it — you either understand it or you don't. But pretending evolution is a matter of faith can be a clever way to hijack the conversation, and pit it in a false duality against religion. And that's how we end up with people decrying evolution, even as they eat their strawberries and pet their dogs, because they've been led to believe faith can only be held in one or the other.

I think his analogy is badly chosen. "Blue" is closely tied to a primary sensory experience, evolution isn't. A better analogy would be, "Do you believe in gravity?"

I don't think that this argument is going to persuade many doubters, though. Faith is mentally cheaper than understanding.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Eve of Destruction

Save the date, March 16, 2880. That's when asteroid 1950 DA is scheduled to make a very close approach to Earth, with a 0.3 % estimated chance of impact. It's a big rascal, with a 1 km diameter, so that would be bad.

The date of Earth's potential destruction has been set at 16 March 2880, when an asteroid hurtling through space has a possibility of striking our planet.

Researchers studying the rock found that its body rotates so quickly that it should break apart, but somehow remains intact on its Earth-bound trajectory.

Read more: Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

Breaking apart would probably be bad, increasing the sum of the collision cross sections of the fragments.

Habla RNA?

Or maybe I mean ARN.

Anyway, it seems that your plants apparently do.

It’s well known that DNA and RNA strands are able to encode vast amounts of information, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that RNA is also being used as a means of communication between species. Virginia Tech scientist Jim Westwood has discovered that messenger RNA is regularly exchanged between plants and parasitic weeds, allowing the two to communicate with each other.

“The discovery of this novel form of inter-organism communication shows that this is happening a lot more than any one has previously realized,” said Westwood, reports. “Now that we have found that they are sharing all this information, the next question is, ‘What exactly are they telling each other?’.”

Punishing Deviance

Christopher Boehm believes that social communities getting together to punish deviance had a lot to do with the development of conscience and the human moral sense - a sense seemingly lacking even in our closest animal relatives. Hunter-gatherers (HG) are good at that, and modern humans have carried that over into small towns, churches, and other groups.

Mostly our HG ancestors have been concerned with behaviors that directly threaten the group survival: bullying, psychopathy, excessive murder, can rate the death penalty, but lesser crimes are first dealt with by shaming and threats of exclusion.

More modern societies extend the list of condemnable behaviors considerably, often in the form of various religious prohibitions and shibboleths. I'm thinking here of everything from tatoos to dietary restrictions to rules about who can marry whom. What sociobiological function, if any, do such prohibitions and rules perform?

My guess is that the central function is to weld the members into a unified community. By drawing sharp, if largely imaginary, boundaries between groups, people are forced, or at least incentivized to draw a boundary on the "us" side and against the "them" of the outsiders. Think of it as the cultural equivalent of a cell membrane, or a vertebrate skin.

Uh Oh: Ukraine Again

After simmering offstage right for a bit, Ukraine heated up when Russian armored personnel carriers entered Ukraine and were attacked.

Ukraine said Friday that its artillery destroyed part of a convoy of Russian military vehicles that crossed into Ukraine at around the same time as a Russian relief aid convoy was reaching the border area.

The Russian defense ministry flatly denied the report and the Russian Foreign Ministry said it has information that Ukraine was planning to attack the now stalled 262-truck Russian humanitarian convoy.

A Good Year for Polar Bears?

Well maybe, if they live on the American side. Sea ice area is greater this year than for almost a decade, and the melt season is unlikely to last much longer. On the Asian side, there is a lot of water between the ice and the coast.

The denialist crowd is no doubt high fiveing, but sea ice area is still well below long term averages. More dispassionate observers note that weather is variable, and likely to remain so.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Another Example of Why...

I really can't afford to indulge WB and remove him from my blogroll: elaborate stories

"Today, Mirzakhani .. still writes elaborate stories in her mind. The high ambitions haven’t changed, but the protagonists have: They are hyperbolic surfaces, moduli spaces and dynamical systems. In a way, she said, mathematics research feels like writing a novel. “There are different characters, and you are getting to know them better,” she said. “Things evolve, and then you look back at a character, and it’s completely different from your first impression.” The Iranian mathematician follows her characters wherever they take her ..." Quanta Magazine

He will just have to start publishing lower quality stuff.

Astrophysics Fact of the Day

Co-moving coordinates and the scale factor.

The most dramatic discovery in the history of cosmology was probably Hubble's discovery of the expansion of the universe: distant galaxies are rushing away from us, and from each other, and the rate depends on the distance. Perhaps the most fruitful way to think of this is in terms of co-moving coordinates. Imagine a set of coordinates attached to each point in space, stationary with respect to the average local mass distribution. Over time, these coordinates get farther apart. In fact, points that were a distance of 1 mile apart in the year 1 of the Universe are now about 1 million miles apart. Roughly speaking, all that mass that now makes up the Andromeda galaxy - a trillion Sun's worth - was then about as close as the nearest star is now.

Distance between any two points is increasing, and the rate of increase is about the same everywhere, though it does change a bit with time. We measure this in terms of the scale factor a(t). By convention, it is now 1, which means that back at year one, it was about 10^(-6) or 1 millionth. Local effects like gravity and electrical forces break this rule on smaller scales - I'm not getting any taller due to the expansion of the Universe.

Campbell Brown's War Against The Teachers Unions

Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown is at war with the teacher's unions. Brown is married to Bush admin war propagandist Dan Senor, and now fronts a shadowy organization called "The Partnership for Educational Justice." She was on the Colbert report recently, and Colbert was uncharacteristically tough about asking her who funded her enterprise. She dodged, she evaded, she weaved but finally had to admit that she just wasn't going to tell.

Is it a stretch to guess that the usual suspect are at work here, the billionaires who hate to admit that their real mission has more to do with subverting democracy than improving education. If they - whomever they may be - really care about education why are they ashamed to have their names mentioned in this connection.

I have my own quarrels with teacher's unions, but I really don't like the smell of this operation.

Astrophysics FOTD: Interstellar

NASA thinks that they have identified some some grains of interstellar dust collected by some cosmic flypaper they flew.

Astronomers have likely located the first ever grains of interstellar dust they can get their hands on with the help of thousands of citizen volunteers in the Stardust@Home project.

Just seven tiny particles of stardust have been located in the aerogel and aluminium foil collectors of NASA’s Stardust spacecraft, which were dropped off on Earth in 2006 after seven years in space.

Stardust’s primary mission was to snag samples of comets and bring them back home, but the craft also had separate interstellar dust collectors, which were dropped by parachute along with the comet versions. A group of scientists and volunteers have spent the last eight years combing through the tennis-racket-sized mosaics of 132 aerogel tiles in search of the exceedingly rare, microscopic motes from outside our Solar System...


While the scientists are happy to say that the motes are likely to be interstellar dust particles, they’re not fully confident yet.

“The composition and trajectory modelling tell us that it is most likely that the grains are interstellar,” Stroud said.

Isotopic analysis could discriminate whether the grains originated in the proto-solar nebula or elsewhere, I expect.