Sunday Sensational Science

Tangled Banks

Ravenna Park, Seattle, WA

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

-Charles Darwin

I’m about to annihilate you lot with science – The 113th Tangled Bank shall be hosted here in just a few short days – so we’re going to take a leisurely walk along the banks, enjoy the glories of the natural world, and explore to our hearts’ content by way of getting ourselves warmed up for the event.

The Tangled Bank is ostensibly themed around “the science of the natural world,” but like so many other arbitrary divisions in science, the neat categories break down upon further inspection. Physics, chemistry, astronomy, and even mathematics aren’t really separate from biology and nature science. It’s all interconnected – inextricably tangled. That was the thing that attracted me to science, so long ago: discovering that everything is joined, and that any division we see is just an arbitrary convenience, when you get right down to it.

This leads to some entertaining juxtapositions. And it’s the excuse I use to study absolutely everything.

Follow me through the Tangled Bank of an SF writer’s interests. And then you might want to take the opportunity to wander off all on your own.

Growing up in Arizona, I heard quite a bit about the mytical jackalope. Imagine how excited I was to discover the truth from Thinkevolution.net in Tangled Bank #84!

Shocking photos of an unusual hybrid-type animal confounded biologists today. Images of what zoo-goers agree look an awful lot like a baby jackalope were posted on the internet today, making evidence against the canonical view of evolution by common descent—which thoroughly rejects the existence of jackalopes, which would require the mating of two phylogenetically divergent and anatomically dissimilar organisms—available worldwide. Jackalopes, also known as “antelabbits” or “stagbunnies” according to Wikipedia, had long been rejected as imaginary joke animals that people from the southwest described to gullible roommates when they went away to college in the east. But the late-breaking images challenge all that.

See? We Arizonans weren’t having you on at all. And we’ve still got that beachfront house for sale in Yuma, incidentally. Fantastic ocean views!

As a writer, two of my great loves are art and language. The Scientific Activist reported in Tangled Bank #71 on a project that combined both of those loves with the fight against global warming:

One potentially effective way of tackling these particular issues, then, could be through art: specifically through large in-your-face, impossible-to-ignore, publicly-visible art projects designed to bring the issue to the forefront of the mind of the incidental viewer.

This is precisely the aim of the debut project of the Precipice Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about global warming and environmental issues through public art. The project, entitled “Indestructible Language”, is the latest creation of artist Mary Ellen Carroll, and, as you might be able to tell, it could make quite an impression…

Indeed. Art can grab you attention in the way no amount of hand-wringing and dire studies ever could. And that’s why artists might end up saving the world.

With the help o’ some scientists, o’ course. We can’t do this all by ourselves.

Not that artists such as meself don’t have great big egos large enough to boast such superpowers – we create worlds, for fucks’ sake. That’s why articles like “Exotic Earths” from Dynamics of Cats, from Tangled Bank #62 , really grab my attention. It’s easier to facilitate the willing suspension of disbelief when you can point to science and say, “See? Perfectly plausible. There’s lots o’ earths. With oceans, even.”

More than one-third of the giant planet systems recently detected outside our solar system may harbor Earth-like planets, according to a new study by scientists associated with NASA’s Astrobiology Institute. Many of these planetsmay be covered in deep global oceans, with abundant potential for life.

There you have it. A Universe crowded with life. So shut up about the impossibility of my farflung space civilizations, already.

Another thing SF writers have to wrestle with is nothing less than the very structure of space-time itself. We’ve got to come up with somewhat reasonable ways for Bob the Bug-eyed Alien to get from Point A to Point B without spending generations doing it. And so it’s a little depressing when articles like “Building Space-Time” come along from Stochastic Scribbles in Tangled Bank #108 and throw cold water all over our FTL parade:

The July issue of Scientific American has an interesting article on how our four-dimensional space-time could arise from basic building blocks that self-organize in a quantum superposition. Their approach, called causal dynamical triangulations, is an extension of Euclidean quantum gravity. But instead of just seeing what a superposition of self-organized building blocks that assemble arbitrarily looks like, which turns out to be a bunched up and very messy space-time with plain Euclidean quantum gravity, they imposed causality on each building block so that they can only assemble in specific ways. Their computer simulations show that the result would be a space-time that looks much like our own on large scales.

[snip]

And if the theory is correct, then the built-in causality would imply that wormholes and time travel would not be possible. While it’s cool that ordinary space-time could be built from first principles, it would be a bummer in that faster-than-light travel or direct observation of historical events would not be possible.

D’oh, shit.

Well. Maybe if the buggers have big enough brains, they’ll figure out something clever. And speaking of brains… I remember being told as a child that when you stopped growing, the brain you had was It. Lose brain cells, and they’re lost forever. It wasn’t until I started researching neurology years later that I got the good news: we may grow new neurons after all. Sharp Brains had the latest on that for Tangled Bank #104:

In the last few years, researchers have discovered that new nerve cells (neurons) are born, presumably from residual stem cells that exist even in adults. That should be good news for all of us as we get older and fear mental decline. The bad news is that these new neurons die, unless our minds are active enough.

[snip]

A critical window of time determines whether or not the new neurons survive. In an experimental test of this time window, mice were housed for one week in an environmentally rich environment (toys, activity wheels, etc.), or for controls in regular cages, beginning one week after injection with a new-neuron DNA-synthesis marker. Results showed that lasting increase was restricted to new neurons that appeared between one and three weeks before living in an enriched environment. This corresponds to the time when new neurons are extending their neurons in search of targets and their dendrites are developing synaptic contacts to the neurotransmitters normally used in the hippocampus. The new neurons that developed during this time window survived up to the four months of monitoring, even when removed the enriched environment.

Ooo, before too much longer, I may be able to grow myself a better brain and keep it. That’s not just good for my characters, that’s good for me!

So many delights within the Tangled Bank, so little time. I haven’t even been able to touch on Salto Sobrius’s Tangled Bank #68 article on the Antikythera mechanism, which fascinated me as a child and may have led to my adoration of all things ancient Greek. I haven’t shared with you The Digital Cuttlefish’s delightful poem on the genetics of the spork from Tangled Bank #105, or PZ’s eminently useful explanation of historical contingency in the evolution of E-coli from Tangled Bank #107. I couldn’t even begin to delight you with genetic expression as explored by Tangled Up In Blue Guy in Tangled Bank #106.

So it goes.

I’ll leave you instead with this fragment of poetry from Denialism Blog’s beautiful Tangled Bank #111 edition. Says it all, really:

    You can’t go against nature
    Because when you do
    Go against nature
    It’s part of nature too.

Roadside Waterfall, Mount Rainier, Washington

If you have something science-related you’d like to submit for Tangled Bank #113, get it in to pzmyers@gmail.com by September 2nd. Or you’ll really wish you had.

As always, click on the pictures for their source. Except in the cases of those with actual captions, which are Dana Hunter originals. Are you impressed? I’m impressed. I’m a decent writer, but a piss-poor photographer, which makes these all the more special for being very nearly good.

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The Most Dangerous Politician Ever

No, it’s not McCain. Or Palin. ‘Tis Obama, and he’s dangerous because of a speech.

Obama’s acceptance speech Thursday night was indeed phenomenal, but I hadn’t thought of it as dangerous until I read Kevin Drum’s take:

Tonight Obama made a start on a campaign that’s based not just on talking points (though there will be plenty of those), but on a sustained assault on modern conservatism and a sustained defense of modern liberalism.

But it was only a start. He needs to keep pressing both halves of that game plan, even if it means occasionally saying some hard things. If he takes a few chances and does that, though, he’ll not only win, he’ll win with a public behind him that’s actively sold on a genuinely liberal agenda. This is why conservatives have so far been apoplectic about his speech tonight: if he continues down this road, and wins, they know that he’ll leave movement conservatism in tatters. He is, at least potentially, the most dangerous politician they’ve ever faced. [emphasis added]

*blink*

Wow.

Damn.

Really?

Fuck yes!

The more I see of this man, the more I see the Democratic Party falling in behind him, the more I see even Republicans stepping up to join him, the more I start to believe Kevin’s right. I’ve never heard people speak of a politician this way. Not this full-throated roar of acclamation. Not this thrill. Not to this degree.

Throughout history, a rare handful of human beings have inspired people to rise up, to envision a better world and then throw everything they have into building it. I think Obama’s that man for our era. I don’t know for sure yet – won’t know until I’ve seen him govern. But the enthusiasm, the sense of renewal, tell me that he’s got the potential to be someone very special indeed.

Dr. King was such a man. JFK was such a man. FDR was such a man. Our Founding Fathers were such men.

Every day, it seems increasingly more likely Obama is such a man.

No wonder the Republicons are shit-scared and throwing out every smear they can manufacture. No wonder they had to present a shiny gimmick as McCain’s VP pick. No wonder they’re terrified.

Well they should be.

“The most dangerous politician they’ve ever faced.”

What a ring that has!

Happy Hour Discurso

Today’s opining on the public discourse.

Yes, Happy Hour’s late today. I’ve had to wade through ten metric tons of Sara Palin bullshit to get to the actual news. I’d hoped the shine would’ve worn off by now, but no such luck.

She’s a fucking disaster. She’s a cynical political ploy. She’s a shiny object thrown on the tracks to derail us. Can we just fucking move on now?

Let’s talk about the RNC and the flourishing police state:

Protesters here in Minneapolis have been targeted by a series of highly intimidating, sweeping police raids across the city, involving teams of 25-30 officers in riot gear, with semi-automatic weapons drawn, entering homes of those suspected of planning protests, handcuffing and forcing them to lay on the floor, while law enforcement officers searched the homes, seizing computers, journals, and political pamphlets. Last night, members of the St. Paul police department and the Ramsey County sheriff’s department handcuffed, photographed and detained dozens of people meeting at a public venue to plan a demonstration, charging them with no crime other than “fire code violations,” and early this morning, the Sheriff’s department sent teams of officers into at least four Minneapolis area homes where suspected protesters were staying.

Denver had its bad moments when the police forgot who they’re actually meant to “protect and serve” part and started shoving reporters out in the street so they could then arrest them for obstructing traffic, but we saw nothing quite like this. There seems to be a qualitative difference between the way Democratic conventions handle security and the way Republicon conventions do. Dems don’t let police agencies too far off the leash. Rethugs, on the other hand, are more than happy to let the dogs loose:

When word first hit about the raids committed by uniformed officers against various sites in Minneapolis and St. Paul, it was really bizarre and confusing. Why were the cops staging raids against people like Food Not Bombs? Why did they shut down the RNC Convergence Center and take all their computer gear? What the hell were Ramsey County sheriff’s department people doing invading houses in Hennepin-fricking-County?

That last question, as it turns out, helps to answer some of the others.

Bob Fletcher is the sheriff of Ramsey County. Bob Fletcher is a Republican from the formerly lily-white St. Paul suburb of Maplewood, which has for decades had an uneasy relationship with its southern neighbor. Bob Fletcher is also on the verge of losing his job, as a long-standing FBI corruption probe that has already taken out two of his buddies is drawing its net around him; he may well feel that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain by using extralegal methods to please his RNC pals.

Maybe he’s hoping that if he silences enough dirty hippies, his grateful buddies the Rethuglicons will muzzle the FBI. Just saying.

So, we’ve got police brutality and extralegal raids. What else isn’t new in the Bush regime? Let’s see what’s hiding behind Shiny Object Palin:

But more importantly, critical and substantive things are going on that we need to be paying attention to. Eric Lichtblau in the NYT reminds us of a huge one this morning:

Tucked deep into a recent proposal from the Bush administration is a provision that has received almost no public attention, yet in many ways captures one of President Bush’s defining legacies: an affirmation that the United States is still at war with Al Qaeda.

The language, part of a proposal for hearing legal appeals from detainees at the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, goes beyond political symbolism. Echoing a measure that Congress passed just days after the Sept. 11 attacks, it carries significant legal and public policy implications for Mr. Bush, and potentially his successor, to claim the imprimatur of Congress to use the tools of war, including detention, interrogation and surveillance, against the enemy, legal and political analysts say.

The proposal is also the latest step that the administration, in its waning months, has taken to make permanent important aspects of its “long war” against terrorism. From a new wiretapping law approved by Congress to a rewriting of intelligence procedures and F.B.I. investigative techniques, the administration is moving to institutionalize by law, regulation or order a wide variety of antiterrorism tactics. (Emphasis added)

In all the flurry and bustle of the conventions and Palin, not to mention back to school and Labor Day weekend for the nation, this could be lost in the flow. It must not be. This provision has all the potential implications, problems, and potential for abuse that the Authorization For Military Force (AUMF) had in 2001. And with a Cheney/Bush Administration still in power, and with their known predilection for abuse, this simply cannot be allowed.

This is but another callous and cynical play by the Administration to manipulate timing and political posture for craven gain. Cheney, Bush and the GOP enablers are going to parry this against the Democrats during election season and try to fearmonger them into approving it.

Joyous. Another Bush play for power, one guaranteed to be parlayed into “Dems are weak on national security!” b.s. Just in time to help John “Hey Ladies, My Runningmate Has a Vagina!” McLame overcome his spectacular lack of sense, sanity and reason, and steal the election with the help of fear and election fraud. What a coinky-dink.

See why I’m saying Palin is too expensive a distraction to focus on? They’ll use her novelty to sneak shite like this through, and once it’s done, there’s no a godsdamned thing we can do about it. The time to raise a stink is now. Before that shit gets passed. Before it’s far too late and we’ve let the Republicons get their hands on a sapping tool. Let your congresscritter know we expect them to stiffen their knees this time.

Is there any sign of hope amidst the endless fuckery? A glimmer. Just that, but it’s put a sparkle in my eye today:

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner conducted a focus group in the swing state of Nevada with undecided voters or weak supporters of either candidate who watched Sen. Barack Obama’s speech last night.

Key findings:

After viewing the speech, more than 1-in-4 of these swing voters moved from undecided to supporting Barack Obama or from supporting John McCain to undecided.

That’s gold, that is. The more people we can siphon off from McCain, the better. I think I’ve got my father convinced: he knows that if he votes for McCain, I’ll never speak to him again, and he doesn’t love McCain more than he loves me. It’s great if we win folks for Obama. It’s fine if we just convince McCain supporters to sit this one out. Tell your conservative friends and family who might be fence-sitting: watch Obama’s speech, and if that doesn’t sway you, then at the very least just don’t fucking vote for McCain.

Enough of us voting Obama will ensure that even voter suppression and hinky Diebold machines can’t win this one for the Republicons. Not that they won’t be trying, especially in Florida, where open season on voters is off to a rousing start:

Republicans still run the state, so if there are any “discrepancies” in November, they will have the levers of power. Again:

Florida often is the butt of election jokes, and Indian River County unknowingly played a contributing role Tuesday when the Supervisor of Elections reported 5,189 more votes than were actually cast.

It doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the system.

No fucking shit, Sherlock.

And if you want something that’ll really curl your hair (right before it falls out from the stress), go have a gander at the other article Digby links after the one by Captain Obvious. If you’ve ever wanted to know, exactly, how far Republicons will go to win, you’ll get your answer there.

20,763 dead American soldiers is the number that struck me. I’m sure they counted it a small enough price for victory. It certainly hasn’t changed their behavior.

If you forget everything else, remember one thing: these are the cons who will sell you all the snake oil you’ll buy. They’re the ones who think they can completely redefine reality. There are the raving fucking hypocrites like Rove, whose criticism of Dems is praise of Republicons:

Earlier this month, Karl Rove repeatedly argued that Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) would not be “capable” of being Vice President. He complained that “he’s been a governor for three years” and said Kaine was mayor of only the “the 105th largest city in America,” referring to Kaine’s tenure as mayor of Richmond, VA. “It’s not a big town,” he quipped.

Yesterday, however, Rove argued just the opposite with regard to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R). He explained on Fox News that Palin was a good choice as McCain’s vice presidential nominee because she was “mayor of the second largest city in Alaska…”

Not. Even. Close. Karl.

But little things like facts don’t stop him. One of the smallest towns in Alaska will now be the second largest, Richmond’s demoted to Podunksville, Buttfuckofnowhere County, VA, and being a mayor is no accomplishment unless you’re Sara Palin, in which case it makes you total VP material.

Oh, and while the people of New Orleans flee Gustav, capitalize on their misery. Natch.

America: consider yourself warned. If you vote these outrageous fucktards into office yet again, I will never, ever speak to you again as long as I live.

Ames Takes Down Palin

I don’t know how he does it. Full-time job, beautifully-written and reasoned blog, and now: attack ads.

This is exactly the kind of ad I’ve been hoping the Dems will run: a sledgehammer to the nads using nothing but the truth. And a good dose of snark. Ames and his girlfriend Andrea put the professionals to shame.

Brilliant!

POW Week Concludes

My darlings, you’ve stuck with me through a solid week of harping on Johnny “Don’t Blame Me – I was a POW!” McCain’s fuckery. By now, we should all be heartily sick of his bleating. Of course, t’ain’t hardly over – there’s a long election season ahead, and plenty of opportunities for Johnny to pull out his battered and grubby POW card. I, for one, am waiting for him to start waving it around in defense of his choice of Palin for Veep.

But enough of the bashing. He’s done his best to turn his status into a joke, and I can think of no better way to end this parade of pathos by obliging him. Let’s have us some fun.

Courtesy of Jared Rea, let’s play the POW Game!

Digby’s Hullaballoo guestblogger Batocchio brings us John McCain POW Bingo!

And finally, Canadian Cynic found a video that says it all, really.


"Into the Valley of Death Rode the" 600th Post


I’ll take “Excuses to Yammer about Tennyson” for $1000, Alex.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was one of my favorite poets growing up. I got introduced to him, no shit, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Pioneers on the American prairie read England’s Poet Laureate. How awesome is that? Until I branched out and really got addicted to ancient and Eastern poets, he was Teh Master as far as I was concerned. Well, at times, Robert Burns edged him out, but only just.

I didn’t know how to read poetry back then, so I always read “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in a sort of nostalgic, lilting, mournful tone. I remember being annoyed at the high school English teacher who taught me how it was actually supposed to be read: with a martial, heroic tone, like a thunderous charge. “Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.”

Well, shit. There went my emo interpretation.

I was always amused by the “Oops” factor of this poem. If some absolute idiot hadn’t botched orders, and some other absolute idiot not blindly followed them, there would’ve been no heroic but doomed charge, and no poem. It was one of my first introductions to the importance of questioning authority. My future liberal and rationalist tendencies might have been predicted by the fact that I never could figure out why a grand and stirring poem was written in praise of a bunch of goobers who damned well should have reasoned why, and further, should have presaged Shaggy by saying, “Great plan, Lord Raglan. There’s just one problem – we ain’t doing it.”

Still. No one can deny that out of a total debacle came one of the greatest poems in the English language. And so, I use the excuse of my 600th post to present it for your reading pleasure.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892)


Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honor the charge they made!
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred