Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I Guess the Plague is Over

When I first saw this ad on the Metro, I thought it must be some sort of sophisticated satire on vanity and death, or perhaps on the excess marketing enthusiasm of drug companies. But no, it seems to be a real drug, given by injection to treat "lipodystrophy."

I suppose it has to count as good news that now men with HIV are worried about their belly fat.

A Massacre of Theories, or, Supersymmetry on the Rocks

Perhaps I was too quick to dismiss the significance of the Higgs Boson results from CERN. According to Nature, there is already a growing wave of theoretical publications flowing from the data. The results, meager though they seem, may exclude whole classes of physical theories. They are especially hard on the models known as "supersymmetry":
However, for those who have spent their careers pursuing a more powerful extension of the standard model called supersymmetry (SUSY), the data offer scant succour. The theory predicts a suite of particles that are ‘super-partners’ to all the known particles, along with several types of Higgs boson. Many theorists regard SUSY as the most promising route to a broader theory of particles and forces, and a possible solution to puzzles such as the nature of cosmic dark matter.

But the LHC has yielded few signs of SUSY. Aside from a handful of tantalizing observations, the Higgs boson seems to match the standard model’s predictions perfectly. Under the weight of the LHC’s hard evidence, SUSY and other beloved theories are feeling the strain. “There’s going to be a huge massacre of theoretical ideas in the next couple of years,” predicts Joe Lykken, a theoretical physicist at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois.
This cheers me, because I have an empiricist's dislike of supersymmetry and all other such theories based only on the elegance of the mathematics. This is how physicist Brian Greene defended sypersymmetry in his bestseller, The Elegant Universe:
. . . from an aesthetic standpoint, physicists find it hard to believe that nature would respect almost, but not quite all of the symmetries that are mathematically possible.  Of course, it is possible that an incomplete utilization of symmetry is what actually occurs, but it would be such a shame.  It would be as if Bach, after developing numerous intertwining voices to fill our an ingenious pattern of musical symmetry, left out the final, resolving measure.
Which makes me gag. I therefore delight in thinking that nature has spit in the eye of all these aesthetes, and reminded them that the world is what it is, not what would be pleasing to us.

Resting Lions, Tanzania

By Daniel Dolpire. From National Geographic. Note the happy way these six male lions are hanging out together.

Monday, July 30, 2012

A Luwian Statue from Tayinat, Turkey

Love this strange statue from Tayinat in southeastern Turkey:
A beautiful and colossal human sculpture is one of the latest cultural treasures unearthed by an international team at the Tayinat Archaeological Project (TAP) excavation site in southeastern Turkey. A large semi-circular column base, ornately decorated on one side, was also discovered. Both pieces are from a monumental gate complex that provided access to the upper citadel of Kunulua, capital of the Neo-Hittite Kingdom of Patina (ca. 1000-738 BC). . . .

The head and torso of the human figure, intact to just above its waist, stands approximately 1.5 metres in height, suggesting a total body length of 3.5 to four metres. The figure's face is bearded, with beautifully preserved inlaid eyes made of white and black stone, and its hair has been coiffed in an elaborate series of curls aligned in linear rows. Both arms are extended forward from the elbow, each with two arm bracelets decorated with lion heads. The figure's right hand holds a spear, and in its left is a shaft of wheat. A crescent-shaped pectoral adorns its chest. A lengthy Hieroglyphic Luwian inscription, carved in raised relief across its back, records the campaigns and accomplishments of Suppiluliuma, likely the same Patinean king who faced a Neo-Assyrian onslaught of Shalmaneser III as part of a Syrian-Hittite coalition in 858 BC.
The site already produced this wonderful lion:

Tony Abeyta

Navajo/Anglo painter born 1965 in Gallup, New Mexico; educated at various places including Sante Fe and the Maryland Institute Collage of Art in Baltimore. Above is Storm from the South, 2011. I don't know the titles or dates of any of the works below, because Abeyta is one of those artists who likes to post things on his web site without such information.

Lidar in European Archaeology

Lidar mapping continues to amaze archaeologists with the details it can reveal even at well-known sites. Above, the Czech hillfort of Vladar, mapped using lidar accurate to a few centimeters. The site is mostly wooded, but Lidar can be programmed to ignore tree cover.

Above, the plain of Tara in Ireland.

Even at Tara, one of the most intensely studied prehistoric landscapes in the world, the Lidar mapping turned up hitherto undiscovered burial mounds (b above), circular ditches (a) and other features. (Note the trees, which were not removed from this image.)

At Skellig Michael off the coast of Ireland, Lidar revealed not only the well known buildings of the main monastery, but a second cluster of huts on the south ridge whose existence had generally been regarded as little more than a guess.

Romney and Israeli Health Care

Mitt Romney praised Israeli health care yesterday, saying:
Do you realize what health care spending is as a percentage of the G.D.P. in Israel? Eight percent. You spend eight percent of G.D.P. on health care. You’re a pretty healthy nation. We spend 18 percent of our G.D.P. on health care, 10 percentage points more. That gap, that 10 percent cost, compare that with the size of our military — our military which is 4 percent, 4 percent. Our gap with Israel is 10 points of G.D.P. We have to find ways — not just to provide health care to more people, but to find ways to fund and manage our health care costs.
Lots of people are pointing out the problem with a Republican Presidential candidate doing this, which is  that the Israeli system has all of the features Republicans claim to hate about Obamacare and then some. Israelis are required to have coverage (a mandate), most of the money comes from a payroll tax, insurance companies are required to cover a set basket of services, many prices are fixed by the government, and many treatments and drugs are not covered at all.

Even the less socialistic system in Singapore, also much praised by American conservatives, includes mandatory coverage, mandatory payments into health care savings accounts, and government cost controls.

It is simply a fantasy to think that we could achieve a system that both covers most Americans and controls costs without massive government interference. I understand the squeamishness about systems like Obamacare, with their thousands of pages of regulations and so on, but there just is no simple, free-market way to deliver health care to millions of people.


Svartifoss, or Black Fall, Skaftafell National Park, Iceland, by Giacomo Ciangottini.

Is Algebra Necessary?

Political scientist Andrew Hacker has a thought-provoking article in the Times arguing that teaching algebra to all students is a huge waste of effort, and blocks many otherwise promising students from pursuing higher education:
The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason. Shirley Bagwell, a longtime Tennessee teacher, warns that “to expect all students to master algebra will cause more students to drop out.” For those who stay in school, there are often “exit exams,” almost all of which contain an algebra component. In Oklahoma, 33 percent failed to pass last year, as did 35 percent in West Virginia. . . .

Another dropout statistic should cause equal chagrin. Of all who embark on higher education, only 58 percent end up with bachelor’s degrees. The main impediment to graduation: freshman math. The City University of New York, where I have taught since 1971, found that 57 percent of its students didn’t pass its mandated algebra course. The depressing conclusion of a faculty report: “failing math at all levels affects retention more than any other academic factor.” A national sample of transcripts found mathematics had twice as many F’s and D’s compared as other subjects.        
As an alternative, Hacker proposes courses that focus on how math is actually used in our society:
Instead of investing so much of our academic energy in a subject that blocks further attainment for much of our population, I propose that we start thinking about alternatives. Thus mathematics teachers at every level could create exciting courses in what I call “citizen statistics.” This would not be a backdoor version of algebra, as in the Advanced Placement syllabus. Nor would it focus on equations used by scholars when they write for one another. Instead, it would familiarize students with the kinds of numbers that describe and delineate our personal and public lives. . . . This need not involve dumbing down. Researching the reliability of numbers can be as demanding as geometry. More and more colleges are requiring courses in “quantitative reasoning.” In fact, we should be starting that in kindergarten.
The teaching of abstract math is something I have changed my mind about in adulthood. I loved math in school, especially geometry and calculus, and I was good at it. I loved learning how many different phenomena could be reduced to the same set of equations. I thought people who complained about math were either stupid or lazy.

But as part of my plan to stop imposing my own ideas on other people, I have given up my enthusiasm for math. For all that we live in a technological society dominated by equations, how many of us actually use math, other than arithmetic and basic statistics? As an archaeologist I am sort of a scientist, and yet I have never used algebra on the job, let alone calculus or trig. There is a great deal of irrationality about forcing so many students through difficult classes in things they will never use, and which will keep many from going on with their educations. Why not just stop?

There are some telling objections to such a reform. One is that math is intellectually difficult and therefore mind-stretching. I believe that minds strengthen with use, especially among young people, and that as the hardest subject most kids take math is therefore the one doing the most to strengthen their brains. As Hacker says, we could devise other kinds of courses that would be as difficult, but I doubt we would. Most likely we would replace trig with something much easier, and so students would study even less than they do now and learn even less.

Another is that math trains our minds for abstract, symbolic reasoning, and in a world of computers this is quite important. I have many friends who shifted into computer careers in adulthood, after pursuing things like English or History in college. Would they have been able to do this if they had not been through the whole course of required abstract math? I doubt it. Much of what primary and high school education does is keep people's options open, and any student who stopped taking math would quickly find options in science and engineering closed. Of course, only a few percent of us end up as scientists and engineers, so maybe this is a purely theoretical objection.

People sometimes say that a high school or even college diploma "doesn't mean anything." Removing math from the curriculum would take away one thing that it does still mean: that the student has sufficient intelligence and willpower to pass algebra. But is that a goal worth the misery imposed on millions by these requirements?

Marijuana Legalization in Uruguay

Troubled by drug-related violence, the leadership of Uruguay is considering legislation that would completely legalize marijuana:
Uruguay’s famously rebellious president first called for “regulated and controlled legalization of marijuana” in a security plan unveiled last month. . . . “It’s a profound change in approach,” said Sebastián Sabini, one of the lawmakers working on the contentious proposal unveiled by President José Mujica on June 20. “We want to separate the market: users from traffickers, marijuana from other drugs like heroin.”
This is just one of a range of legalization schemes being considered across Latin America, where people are tired of the price paid in criminality and violence for attempts to suppress the drug trade.

If I ran Mexico, I would certainly embrace legalization. How could legal drugs possibly result in more mayhem than their raging narco war?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ceramic Figurines from the Upper Paleolithic, or, Art and Technology

At the cave site of Vela Spila, on the Adriatic coast of Croatia, archaeologists have found 36 fragments of ceramic figurines in layers that date to around 17,500 years ago. All are broken, but they seem to have been animals. They are much like other figurines found in the Czech Republic, which are 10,000 years older.

What interests me about this find is that fired clay later became a supremely useful technology, but its first use in Europe and the Middle East was artistic. In these areas, ceramic figurines predate pots by thousands of years. If your idea of "primitive" humans is that they were so involved in survival that they had no great energy for art or religion, you need to rethink. On the contrary, the most impressive remains from the late Paleolithic cultures of Europe are all artistic or spiritual creations. Even the stone tools of these people were made far more beautiful than they had to be to do their jobs. The trend of archaeology over the past 40 years has been toward thinking that people made as many key advances for artistic or spiritual reasons as for practical ones.

A Manhattan Roof Garden

Cook + Fox, architects who specialize in environmental sensitivity, designed this "green roof" for their Manhattan headquarters:
A defining feature of the new Cook+Fox office is a 3600 square foot planted roof, a restorative green plane visible from nearly every workspace. Planted with drought-tolerant, low-maintenance sedum species, the green roof will reduce stormwater runoff, decrease the building’s cooling load, and fight the heat island effect that burdens the city’s energy infrastructure. When fully grown it will compose a living, green horizon line against the urban backdrop, while drawing the outside environment into the sightlines of the workplace. As we strive to incorporate the principles of biophilia—design that engages humans’ innate desire to connect with the natural world—the green roof will be an inspiration to staff, clients, and visitors alike.

Atomic Bomb National Park

Legislation is working its way through Congress to turn our three top World War II nuclear sites -- Los Alamos, Oak Ridge (Tennessee), and Hanford (Washington) into National Parks.

Certainly these are important historical sites. However, they remained in use for decades after the war, so no doubt they were heavily modified, and then modified again during he clean up of radioactive contamination. Isn't part of Los Alamos still in use? What really remains of their 1945 appearance?

Oak Ridge is already open to the public as a National Historic Landmark, but only 1500 people a year visit. Is there really a huge audience for these sites? (Part of the original Oak Ridge reactor is shown above.)

I raise these issues because the National Park Service can't maintain the historical sites it already owns, and the more it takes on, the worse the maintenance backlog is likely to get.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Beyond Meat

Another reason to be optimistic about our environmental future is that we will eventually have tasty, affordable, environmentally friendly substitutes for meat. If Farhood Manjoo is right, that time may be soon:
The first time a vegetarian tastes Beyond Meat’s ersatz animal flesh, he’ll feel delighted and queasy at the same time. There’s something about the way these fake chicken strips break on your teeth, the way they initially resist and then yield to your chew, the faint fatty residue they leave on your palate and your tongue—something about the whole experience that feels a little too real. “My first reaction was, if I was given this in a restaurant, I’d get the waiter to come over and ask if he’d accidentally given us real chicken,” says Biz Stone, one of the founders of Twitter, who has been vegan for more than a decade. “It has a plumpness to it, what they call a ‘mouthfeel,’ like a kind of fattiness. When you eat other leading meat analogues, they’re delicious, but you kind of know they’re not real. They’re missing something that’s hard to identify. This has a very realistic, meaty, delicious quality.” . . .

Beyond Meat is not perfect. Its faux chicken breaks apart in your mouth more easily than real chicken, so you won’t get strips of it stuck in your teeth. (In this way, I thought they resembled chicken breasts that have been prepared sous vide—the process of cooking food at low temperatures for a long time, yielding extremely tender results). But you only notice the slight differences if you’re looking for them. If you taste Beyond Meat’s chicken in a dish alongside regular chicken, there’s a good chance you’ll be fooled. This year, after tasting them in a sandwich wrap, New York Times food writer Mark Bittman mistook the fake stuff for the real stuff. So, too, have many others in the company’s taste tests. And once you forget you’re eating something fake, you will too. Over several days of eating Beyond Meat in sandwiches, salads, and burritos, I forgot I was eating something that didn’t come from a living creature. I was just eating something tasty.
Beyond Meat's chicken substitute is made from powdered soy protein, made into a paste and extruded like pasta. They are also working on ground beef, made from peas.

I have no moral qualms about eating animals, but producing meat is hugely destructive of the environment, so if this stuff tastes as good as they say, I would happily eat it.

The Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud

Ashurnansirpal II was one of the great rulers of the second or Neo-Assyrian Empire. He reigned from 883-859 BCE. After conquering central Anatolia, Syria, and Elam, he built an enormous palace at Nimrud, which was excavated in 1845-1847 by Austen Henry Layard. The walls of the palace were made mainly of mud brick, lined with sculptured stone panels. This reconstruction of the palace exterior was made by James Ferguson in 1853, based on Layard's work.

Layard's plan of the NW Palace at Nimrud, from Nineveh and its Remains.

Reconstructed gate from Nimrud, in the British Museum.

Layard's drawing of the gate under excavation.

The collection of sculpture from Nimrud was so vast that it is scattered around the world in a dozen museums, including the British Museum, the Metropolitan in New York, the Oriental Institute in Chicago, and the MFA in Boston. Above is a depiction of Ashurnasirpal himself, meeting with officials as a protective spirit hovers overhead.

Besides the sculptures, the palace was carved with a long inscription describing Ashurnasirpal's deeds, including the construction of the palace.
The former city of Kalhu [Nimrud], which Shalmaneser king of Assyria, a prince who preceded me, had built, that city had fallen into ruins and lay deserted. That city I built anew, I took the peoples whom my hand had conquered from the lands which I subjugated, from the land of Suhi, from the land of Laqe, from the city of Sirqu on the other side of the Euphrates, from the furthest extent of the land of Zamua, from Bit-Adini and the land of Hatte, and from Lubarna, king of the land of Patina, and made them settle there.

I removed the ancient mound and dug down to the water level. I sank the foundations 120 brick courses deep. A palace with halls of cedar, cypress, juniper, box-wood, meskannu-wood, terebinth and tamarisk, I founded as my royal residence for my lordly pleasure for ever.

Creatures of the mountains and seas I fashioned in white limestone and alabaster, and set them up at its gates. I adorned it, and made it glorious, and set ornamental knobs of bronze all around it. I fixed doors of cedar, cypress, juniper and meskannu-wood in its gates. I took in great quantities, and placed there, silver, gold, tin, bronze and iron, booty taken by my hands from the lands which I had conquered.
Other inscriptions describe the banquet he held to inaugurate the new palace:
When Ashurnasirpal, king of Assyria, inaugurated the palace of Calah, a palace of joy and great ingenuity, he invited into it Ashur, the great lord and the gods of his entire country, [he prepared a banquet of] 1000 fattened head of cattle, 1000 calves, 10000 stable sheep, 15000 lambs -- for my lady Ishtar 200 head of cattle [and] 1000 sihhu-sheep -- 1000 spring lambs, 500 stages, 500 gazelles, 1000 ducks, 500 geese, 500 kurku-geese, 1000 mesuku-birds, 1000 qaribu-birds, 10000 doves, 10000 sukanunu-doves, 10000 other  small birds, 10000 fish, 10000 jerboa, 10000 eggs,...10000 [jars of] beer, 10000 skins with wine, ...1000 wood crates with vegetables, 300 [containers with] oil, ...100 [containers with] fine mixed beer, ...100 pistachio cones, ....

When I inaugurated the palace at Calah I treated for ten days with food and drink 47074 persons, men and women, who were bid to come from across my entire country, [also] 5000 important persons, delegates from the country Suhu, from Hindana, Hattina, Hatti, Tyre, Sidon, Gurguma, Malida, Hubushka, Gilzana, Kuma [and] Musasir, [also] 16000 inhabitants of Calah from all ways of life, 1500 officials of all my palaces, altogether 69574 invited guests from all the [mentioned] countries including the people of Calah; I [furthermore] provided them with the means to clean and anoint themselves. I did them due honors and sent them back, healthy and happy, to their own countries.

Gallery as displayed in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and one of the winged bulls.

Reconstruction of the interior of one of the main galleries; all of the sculptures and reliefs were once brightly painted.

Ashurnasirpal II might be most famous for the outrageous savagery of his wars, about which he boasted in his own inscriptions:
I am Ashurnasirpal, the celebrated prince, who reveres the great gods, the fierce dragon, conqueror of the cities and mountains to their furthest extent, king of rulers who has tamed the stiff-necked peoples, who is crowned with splendor, who is not afraid of battle, the merciless champion who shakes resistance, the glorious king, the shepherd, the protection of the whole world, the king, the word of whose mouth destroys mountains and seas, who by his lordly attack has forced fierce and merciless kings from the rising to the setting sun to acknowledge one rule. . . .
Many of the captives I have taken and burned in a fire. Many I took. alive from some I cut off their hands to the wrists, from others I cut off their noses, ears and fingers; I put out the eyes of many of the soldiers. I burned their young men women and children to death. . . . I flayed the nobles as many as rebelled and spread their skins out on the piles of their corpses.
When he wasn't fighting wars, Ashurnasirpal was hunting; he claimed to have killed 450 lions.

The glory days of Assyrian archaeology were brief. The work of exposing the palaces and removing the sculptures began in earnest in 1844, and by 1855 it was finished:
After Layard had left for London in 1851, Rassam continued to dig at Nineveh. In 1853, he discovered the palace of Ashurbanipal (r. 668–627 B.C.), which furnished the British Museum with some of the finest sculptured slabs. Meanwhile, the French worked at Khorsabad under Victor Place (1818–1875) until 1855. After that date, however, despite increased archaeological work in the region, no more large palaces with sculptured reliefs were discovered. Although the world of Assyria continues to be revealed through spectacular finds (for example, the discovery of royal tombs at Nimrud by Iraqi archaeologists in 1988–89), none can match the dramatic, romantic discoveries of the earlier generation.

Methanogens and Clean Methane

Methanogens are microscopic organisms that produce methane as a biproduct of digestion; it is the methanogens living in mammal guts that make the methane in cow burps and human farts. There are at least 50 different kinds of methanogens, but all are Archaea. (Archaea are microbes we used to classify among the bacteria, but turn out to be more different from bacteria at the biochemical level than bacteria are from us.) They are anerobes and cannot tolerate exposure to oxygen. Their basic metabolic pathway looks like this:

CO2 + 4 H2 → CH4 + 2 H2O

Methanogens are in the news because it has been discovered that they can somehow metabolize electricity. Feed direct current into a properly set up colony of methanogens, and they soak up the electricity and produce methane. This is exciting because it might be a cost effective way to store and ship electricity from remote wind or solar plants. We already have great technology for transporting methane (natural gas) and using it very efficiently, and the carbon in the methane would be coming out of the atmosphere, so burning it would not add to global warming.

So far as I can tell, nobody knows exactly how methanogens do this:
"While conceptually simple, there are significant hurdles to overcome before electricity-to-methane technology can be deployed at a large scale," said Bruce Logan, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Penn State. "That's because the underlying science of how these organisms convert electrons into chemical energy is poorly understood."
But we know it requires communities of organisms rather than just a single species:
For the experiment, [Dr. Bruce] Logan and his Penn State colleagues built a reverse battery with positive and negative electrodes placed in a beaker of nutrient-enriched water. The researchers spread a biofilm mixture of M. palustre and other microbial species onto the cathode. When an electrical current was applied, the M. palustre began churning out methane gas.

"The microbes were about 80 percent efficient in converting electricity to methane," Logan said.

The rate of methane production remained high as long as the mixed microbial community was intact. But when a previously isolated strain of pure M. palustre was placed on the cathode alone, the rate plummeted, suggesting that methanogens separated from other microbial species are less efficient than those living in a natural community.
The amazing diversity of microbial chemistry is a reason to be optimistic about the future. Whatever it is that we need to make, there is probably some microbe that already makes it.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Romney = More Bush

Bush's economic policies failed miserably, and Romney's are exactly the same:
How does Mitt Romney's economic policy differ from George W. Bush's? It doesn't. How is it responsive to the extraordinary events of the last few years? It isn't. . . .

Bush had the worst economic record since Herbert Hoover. Every single measure we might want to track — jobs, growth, median household income, poverty, uninsurance, new firm creation, participation in the labor force — goes in the wrong direction. And yet Romney can’t explain how his policies differ from those of George W. Bush.

Giovanni Battista Moroni

Giovanni Battista Moroni (ca. 1520-1578) was a painter from the region of Bergamo, in the foothills of the Italian Alps. Long dismissed as a "mere portraitist" by top rank of art critics, he seems to be in vogue lately, with several major shows and publications over the past decade. I find the quality of his work uneven but I love some of it, including all the pictures shown here. Above, Portrait of a 29-Year-Old Man, 1567.

Portrait of a Girl of the Redetti Family, ca. 1570.

Portrait of Ercole Tasso, or, Titian's School Master. ca. 1575.

Jacopo Foscarino, 1575.

Portrait of a Young Woman, 1564-1570.

The Tailor, 1570-75.

Man Holding a Letter, ca. 1570.

A Senator, ca. 1570.

Portrait of a Nobleman, ca. 1570. After seeing that all of these dates are the same, I wonder if they are just made up by curators who randomly assign all of Moroni's best works to either 1570 or 1575.

Still No Voter Fraud in America

NPR reports:
In a Pennsylvania court filing, the state says it has never investigated claims of in-person voter fraud and so won't argue that such fraud has occurred in the past. As a result, the state says, it has no evidence that the crime has ever been committed. The state also says it won't present "any evidence or argument" that in-person voter fraud is likely to occur on Election Day if the voter ID law isn't enacted.
To me this seems like outright surrender, since the courts have always said states can't limit anyone's civil rights without a good reason, and the state has just admitted that there is no problem here that needs a remedy. Maybe the Attorney General never liked the law?

Fickle Dame Fortune

Actor Bradley Cooper is working on a new production of The Elephant Man, a play about the hideously deformed Joseph Merrick. He made this observation to Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker:
You never know what your legacy is going to be. Here's this guy who was heavily deformed, and died at twenty-seven in London Hospital in 1889 or 1890. And it's 2012, and all of these people are getting together to tell this story. And the guy who was the most popular, sexiest man alive in 1889? Nobody knows who the fuck that was.

Another Variety of Human Found in African DNA

Today's discovery in human genetics:
The human family tree just got another — mysterious — branch, an African “sister species” to the heavy-browed Neanderthals that once roamed Europe. While no fossilized bones have been found from these enigmatic people, they did leave a calling card in present-day Africans: snippets of foreign DNA.

 There’s only one way that genetic material could have made it into modern human populations. “Geneticists like euphemisms, but we’re talking about sex,” said Joshua Akey of the University of Washington in Seattle, whose lab identified the mystery DNA in three groups of modern Africans.

These genetic leftovers do not resemble DNA from any modern-day humans. The foreign DNA also does not resemble Neanderthal DNA, which shows up in the DNA of some modern-day Europeans, Akey said. That means the newly identified DNA came from an unknown group. “We’re calling this a Neanderthal sibling species in Africa,” Akey said. He added that the interbreeding probably occurred 20,000 to 50,000 years ago, long after some modern humans had walked out of Africa to colonize Asia and Europe, and around the same time Neanderthals were waning in Europe.
Very exciting, if it turns out to be true. But it is exactly what we should expect. Evolution generally works by branching, not by change within a single line of descent. So during the period of rapid change that led to the appearance of fully modern humans, we should expect that many different species or sub-species would appear. And that is exactly what the genetics seems to show. As to how that DNA got into the human line, I quote a friend of mine: "one thing history shows is that people will fuck anything."

The study was based on detailed sequencing of the DNA from fifteen Africans, five from each of three hunter-gatherer groups. Just as interesting as the possible new human species is the great diversity represented by he sample, with 3 million genetic variations never documented before.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

More on Doctors Refusing End of Life Care

I blogged last year about an article by physician Ken Murray, in which he observed that doctors rarely submit to the kind of aggressive end of life care they routinely give to others. Murray was challenged to provide some statistics to back up his argument, which relied mainly on anecdotes and impressions.

Now he has written a follow-up article that has some numbers. Such as, 65% of doctors who graduated from Johns Hopkins between 1948 and 1964 have or had advance directives, vs. 20% of the public. One thing doctors know is that CPR given in hospitals does more harm than good, and 90% don't want it done to them:
What people have seen on television is at odds with happens in real life. A 1996 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that CPR as portrayed on television was successful in 75 percent of 60 cases and that 65 percent of the patients went home. In contrast, in a 2010 study of more than 95,000 cases of CPR in Japan, health professor Hideo Yasunaga and fellow researchers found that only 8 percent of patients survived for more than one month. Of these, only about 3 percent could lead a mostly normal life. A little more than 3 percent were in a vegetative state, and about 2 percent were alive but had a “poor” outcome.
We give far too much "care" to dying people, to a degree that smacks more of cruelty than caring. The waste is staggering. We need, as a people to rethink how we feel about dying and stop fighting it to the last catheter and injection.

Alexander Semenov's Underwater World

Russian photographer Alexander Semenov has spent much of his career documenting the fauna of the White Sea, an amazing world. His web site has hundreds of photographs of marine species familiar and bizarre. Above, Caprellid Bush with Coryphellas.

Cerianthus lloydii.

Clione limacina.

Dendronotus frondosus hatch.

Tubularia indivisa.

And one irresistible fish from the Sea of Japan, Chirolophis japonicus