20080922

Happy New Year!

Autumn starts today, and that makes it the first day of the year 217 in the French Republican Calendar. Also, next week is Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the year in the Jewish calendar. Around the same time is Eid ul-Fitr, the end of the Moslem holy month of Ramadan. So enjoy!

20080920

Darwin was wrong

Recently the 150th anniversary was commemorated of Charles Darwin's letter which was read to the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858, on the subject of "natural selection", which was followed in 1859 by his famous book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, often shortened to The Origin of Species. (Thank goodness!) In the process, he pissed off a lot of religious people, and they're still pissed off to this day. In fact, there's a whole industry of creationists who try to cast doubt on his ideas. One way they do this is by quoting any scientist who says that Darwin was wrong about any detail.

Of course, Darwin was wrong about many details. He was writing 150 years ago! Science has moved on since then, and discovered things like Mendelian heredity, mutations, DNA, population genetics, the genome, etc. Heredity was a particular problem for him, and he threw out a hypothesis which turned out to be completely wrong. However, he was right on most of the important stuff, like natural selection, common ancestry and descent with modification, all of which fit in nicely with later developments.

I have been interested in this subject since elementary school, and over the years I have occasionally been aware that there was some debate amongst legitimate biologists on the importance of darwinism, i.e. natural selection, versus other things, such as genetic drift. None of them claim that natural selection does not happen, just that other things are more important.

Recently, I read a blog post that clarified the debate for me. (I forget where, but will post a link when I find it.) I realize that what some are saying is that the title of Darwin's book was off! That is, that the origin of species do not arise through natural selection, but through processes such as genetic drift. This relates to the common definition of species as a population which breeds only with itself, and is incapable of breeding with other populations.

What happens when species originate is that a population becomes isolated for one reason or another from other populations, and over time these separated populations diverge genetically until they can no longer interbreed, even when they are no longer isolated from each other, because when they have sex with each other, fertilization does not occur, or the offspring may be nonviable or sterile in marginal cases, because their genomes are no longer compatible with each other.

Note that this has nothing directly to do with natural selection. Natural selection operates at the level of phenotype, allowing populations to adapt to their environments. However, natural selection alone is not responsible for preventing fertilization of unions. Natural selection can happen relatively quickly with large changes, and yet the different-looking groups can still interbreed. On the other hand, populations can differ little from each other outwardly and yet be incapable of interbreeding due to accumulated random mutations in their genomes, which takes a relatively long time to happen.

What we're talking about is two different aspects of evolution: phenotype and genotype. Phenotype is the outward expression of the genes, which is strongly influenced by adaptation through natural selection, while genotype is the sequence of DNA base pairs, which is affected by both selection and random effects including mutations and genetic drift. The phenotype is what we see changing during evolution, and the evolution of the genotype is invisible, but causes separate populations to become different species. Paleontologists study phenotypic evolution, because that's all that is preserved in the fossil record, but geneticists study genotypic evolution, which has only more recently been observable. For example, domestic dogs have evolved vastly different forms (although the selection was artificial, rather than natural), even though all breeds are almost identical genetically, and they can all interbreed with wild wolves; but there are species, such as various species of mosquitoes, which appear identical and yet cannot interbreed. (If you prefer vertebrate examples, I'm sure there are some, too.)

So even though Darwin is still right on the central laws of evolution: common ancestry, descent with modification by means of natural selection, etc., on the issue of how species originate, which is in the title of his book, he is now thought to have been wrong. However, to be fair, there are other, older definitions of species, for which having different adaptations was the important criteria, rather than genetic compatibility, so it could be considered to be more about semantics, and in the context of the science of his day, he was probably right. After all, he was talking about the "preservation of favoured races", by which he meant populations, and the means by which they came to appear in the record while others became extinct.

In any event, the creationists are never right, even if Darwin was wrong.

20080919

iPod Nation

I finally got an iPod. Actually, my wife did. She was expressing her frustration with CD players, so I suggested that she get an MP3 player, instead. To my surprise, she actually did, a 1GB iPod Shuffle. I imported all her CDs, and now she's happy as a clam. (Whatever that means.) And we're sharing it. I'm not big into music (the radio is fine for my musical tastes) but I like talk radio. The problem with listening to radio programs is that I cannot pay attention to them when I have a customer, and in between customers, too often I get ads, boring stuff, or just don't get enough of what they're talking about. I sometimes listen to four radios simultaneously: the 2-way taxi radio (which I'm supposed to listen to at all times), the car stereo (on which I play music for my customers), NPR through the FM receiver on my cell phone in one ear bud, and AM talk on a portable radio in the other. When something interesting comes in on one, I turn down the others.

Plus, some shows come on when I'm sleeping during the day. But on the iPod, I can listen whenever I want, and I can pause the podcasts when I'm talking with a customer. And, of course, I can listen to other podcasts off the Internet. I tried using my cell phone as an MP3 player, but it didn't work well, because it's hard to get them uploaded, the capacity is very limited, and if I actually have to use my phone or get a text message, I have to stop the podcast and then start over from the beginning, with no fast-forward. But the iPod lets me stop and start, and also rewind or fast-forward.

So, I've joined the minions of the iPod Nation, with the white wires coming out of my ears, tuning out the world while trying to stay connected to it.

20080814

Pluto

A couple of years ago there was a big brouhaha over whether Pluto is a planet. The International Astronomical Union declared that it is not. The controversy has popped up once again, as seen on blogs such as Bad Astronomy, Universe Today and The Planetary Society. The problem arose because when Pluto was discovered in 1930, it was believed to be Planet X, a large planet which was perturbing the orbit of Neptune. Well, better observations proved that there is no such perturbation, and that Pluto is relatively tiny, smaller than our moon. It was unlike all other planets in other ways, as well. Then astronomers started finding similar objects, some of them nearly as large as Pluto, and eventually they found one which was larger. Astronomers such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson had already been disputing Pluto's classification as a planet, and this brought the controversy to a head. Either we had to accept this new object, and possibly many others, as planets, or admit that Pluto is not one.

The problem was that there was no accepted definition of what a planet is. Originally, the Greeks called anything that moved in the sky a planet, which included the star-like Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, as well as the sun and moon, but not the earth. After Copernicus and Galileo showed that most of these orbited the sun, rather than us, the earth was recognized as being a planet, and the sun and moon were recategorized. This worked fine, until a couple of hundred years ago when astronomers accidentally discovered Uranus orbiting far past Saturn, which fit in with the other planets. They wondered why there was a large gap between Mars and Jupiter, and when they looked found something, a small, round body which was recognized as a planet and named Ceres. However, Ceres was tiny compared to other planets, and then other small bodies were found in the same region, which were then reclassified together as "minor planets", or asteroids. Around this time, oddities in the orbit of Uranus led to the discovery of Neptune, making for eight planets.

Inaccurate measurements of Neptune's orbit led to the belief that there must be another large planet, called Planet X. This led to the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. As with Ceres, after several decades and the discovery of numerous other bodies in the same region, Pluto was demoted. Some people are still unhappy about this, and consider Pluto to be a planet. This all begs the question of what is a planet? It really comes down to semantics. It's easy to classify things when the differences between them are large, but when there is a range of intermediate objects, then the question of where to draw the line becomes rather arbitrary.

The most obvious place to draw the line is on whether the object is round. This would include little Ceres as well as Pluto and a number of objects past Neptune. The problem with this is that there may be a great many small, round objects. (That a planet must be orbiting the sun, and not some other body in the solar system, is agreed by everyone; then it would be a moon.) There are also some smaller bodies that are kind of round, and no planet is perfectly round, so how round does it have to be? It is even possible for a non-round object to be larger than a round one. And then there is the question of planets outside our solar system; some are large enough that they border on being small, dark stars. And obviously none of these are orbiting the sun; there are probably planets out there which don't orbit stars, having been kicked out by some other object at some point.

Two years ago, the IAU declared a new definition for a planet, which had three criteria: it has to orbit the sun, be round, and also contain most of the mass in its region. Ceres and Pluto do not qualify on the last count, and so they were designated "dwarf planets". Now, they want to create a new category, called "plutoid".

My opinion is, that it does not matter whether we call Pluto a planet or not. It does not change what Pluto actually is. It's simply a matter of convenience, not a real distinction. I'm inclined to not include Pluto, rather than adding a lot of similarly sized objects, but it really doesn't matter. It's just as important that it be studied, no matter what we call it. And fortunately, there is a space probe already on the way there.

20080813

I miss POPCORN

For most of my life, I have been able to get the exact time of day over the telephone, set by atomic clocks. Here in Northern California, the usual number to call was 767-2676, which is better known by the letters POPCORN. It must have been started by AT&T way back when, and continued for years by Pacific Bell. Then PacBell got absorbed by SBC, which shortly after merged with the rump AT&T, and the new AT&T canceled the service last September, which I found out when Daylight Saving Time ended. As Lily Tomlin said, "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company."

Now, it could be argued that it's not necessary anymore, since many devices are synced to atomic time, including cable boxes and computers. In fact, the very cell phones that we use to call POPCORN display the time updated from the cell network, and many people use their phone instead of a watch. My problem with this is that, the time is usually wrong! That is, I have noticed that it can be as much as a minute off from atomic time. I don't know why; maybe it updates occassionally and then drifts inbetween updates. Now, that is not much, and I can live with that most of the time, but when I am setting the clock on my car dashboard, or wherever, I want it to the second, not a minute off.

Fortunately, I have free long distance in the contiguous US, so I can call WWV at 303-499-7111, which is operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). This gives the time in both Mountain Time and UTC, which is good enough. I don't call it very often; mostly when the time changes twice a year, or when the dashboard clock gets reset at the shop. But it's nice to know it's there.

Well, my cab got worked on the other day, and I needed to reset the clock. But when I called WWV, I got no answer. I called back several times and finally got an answer, but when I called again it just rang again. I am not sure, but I suspect that they have been getting a lot more calls since the end of POPCORN and similar numbers across the country, and are exceding their capacity. Or it could be just a coincidence.

Georgia on my mind

I recently drove some Georgians in my taxi, and they explained about how depressed they were about what is happening in their home. I've been watching the depressing news over the past few days about the conflict in the country of Georgia, on American, British and Russian media, which give different versions. It apparently started when Georgian forces attempted to take over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which has been supported by Russia. The Russians retaliated. Both sides are blaming the other; Russia is accusing Georgia of "genocide", while Georgia is accusing Russia of "ethnic cleansing" and attempting "regime change". I think that both share blame. Fortunately, there now appears to be a ceasefire; I hope it holds.

The current conflict raises a difficult question: when do regions have the right to secede from their parent country? It is ironic that Russia supports two breakaway regions in Georgia, while brutally suppressing such regions within their own borders, most notably Chechnya. In defending their actions in Chechnya, Russia pointed out that the US used force to prevent the secession of several states, including another Georgia, during the US Civil War. While those states failed then, some of those same states, along with those on the other side, successfully seceded from the British Empire some fourscore and several years earlier. There are many other secessionist movements around the world. The country of Georgia, itself, seceded from the Soviet Union in 1991, and had previously seceded, in 1918, from Bolshevik Russia, before being reconquered in 1921. The usual resolution of these issues is by force.

I believe in the concept of self-determination. People should be free to democratically choose to be part of whichever government they want. If the parent country wants to keep a region (and they usually d0) then it should use persuasion, other than the threat of force, to make it worthwhile to stay together. This would encourage the parent government to settle outstanding grievances. If that fails, then they should go their separate ways, peacefully.

I mentioned the US Civil War. Would I apply the same principle there? Sure. I would oppose using force to prevent states from seceding from the Union, if that was the will of the people in those states, even though I personally am in favor of maintaining the integrity of the Union. However, there is one difference with the states of the Confederacy: nobody asked the slaves. A large part of the populations of those states, a majority in some, even, were deprived of their rights, and not allowed to participate in the democratic process, just as under apartheid, only worse. However, although democracy was instituted after the war, its practice was brief and not enforced by the national government again until a century later.

One disturbing aspect of secessionist movements is that they tend to be driven by ethnicity. People often want to associate with those with whom they share linguistic, religious and racial/tribal affiliations. Unfortunately, most places are not ethnically homogeneous; different groups live to different extents intermixed with each other, so that if an ethnic enclave secedes, it has smaller ethnic enclaves within it. This is what has repeatedly led to ethnic cleansing and other evils. However, in a society of equal rights and secular rule of law, it does not matter so much who your neighbors are. What difference does it make whether I live under this government or that one, if they are the same, and leave me alone? It also helps if there is devolved local authority, rather than strictly centralized control. The more liberal and democratic a country becomes, the weaker secessionist movements seem to be.

20080529

Mars Landing

I watched the Phoenix landing on Mars live the other day, right before I had to leave for work. Amazing! What's even more amazing is that another spacecraft, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, actually took a picture of Phoenix descending on a parachute.

20080515

Gay Marriage

The California Supreme Court today did the right thing and declared the ban on gay marriage unconstitutional, because it deprives citizens of the right to equal protection under the law. This is not "legislating from the bench", it's protecting constitutional rights. A majority vote cannot violate basic civil rights. It's too bad it's my night off, so I don't get to see the Castro celebrating in the warm weather. (98 degrees today at my house!)

20080426

Politics

I am an independent, or "decline to state" voter. I have voted for various parties in the past, but am satisfied with none of them. Although I have occasionally voted for Republicans in the past, in the current state of affairs I cannot in good conscience vote for any now, even if I liked the individual, because the Republican party as a whole has become disastrous. Like many, I am forced to vote Democrat just to try to counter the GOP, not because I entirely agree with that party. The issues I believe in are civil liberties, separation of church and state, nonintervention, multilateral relations, environmentalism, education, scientific research, and probably others I'm not thinking of now. I guess that you could call me a liberal.

More specifically, I despise Bush and his cronies, and what they have done to this country and the rest of the world. I opposed the invasion of Iraq, and was disappointed that spineless Democrats, like Hillary Clinton, voted for it, and am disgusted that McCain supports continuing the occupation. I am not enamored with any of the candidates, but I will vote for whichever one the Democrats put up. I think that the Republicans need to be removed from power at every level and in every department, to be kept out of control of the legislature and eventually replaced in the Supreme Court. The Democrats may not be all that great, but they're far better than the Neocons and theocrats in the Republican party.

20080425

Religion

As you might be able to tell from the scarlet letter A, I label myself an atheist these days. It's not that I'm against everything about religion, it's just that I do not believe in supernatural beings. I was raised religious, but over the years have become increasingly convinced that beliefs in invisible spirits based upon texts written by primitive peoples have no basis in reality. I recognize that religious individuals and organizations do a lot of good things, but they also do a lot of bad things, and the good that they do does not require belief in any god. So, from time to time I will comment about some of the silliness, like the new creationist movie called Expelled.