Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Huzzahs are in order

What could drag me back from vacation to blog about something? Two words: Jurassic Park.

Technically, it's Holocene Park. Here's the meat and potatoes of the story, as the cool kids say: Researchers have successfully cloned an extinct subspecies of Ibex, where they had tissue preserved from the last surviving individuals. The Daily Telegraph has the story. This is a long sought holy-grail of conservation Genetics - to revive extinct species means that the end is no longer the end. Right now, when we lose biodiversity, it's 100% gone forever; impossible to recreate. But if whole-organismal cloning can be used to recreate extinct species, then then suddenly it opens the prospects that maybe we could get a second chance at a few species.

Especially the big, fuzzy lovable ones. You know, like Pandas.

Of course, whole organismal cloning is very crude currently, and the technique... well... it has issues. Our success rate with it is still very low. I can't help but wonder if our lack of success in cloning has to do less with DNA damage, and more to do with inappropriate epigenetic enviroment. How I hate that word, epigenetic. It basically means `Anything inherited, but not from the DNA, and we're not sure where.` Or maybe it's my cynicism showing through.

Still, our first subspecies cloned. To quote a TV show, Huzzahs are in order. I hope we do better, and we can make this work. Of course, the underlying causes of the species' extinction must be addressed, otherwise we'll just bring them back to die off all over again. But with some species, who knows? Maybe we stand a chance.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Mox Jousting

I know I'm on vacation, but here's a video I made before the public tours at Lars. :)

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Doing it wrong

Here's a sign that you might be doing it wrong:
Wanted: PR firm to fight species listings

The Alaska Legislature is paying for a conference and public relations campaign to persuade Congress to limit the Endangered Species Act.
The argument goes "Polar Bears cost us money as an endangered species. So, we should have them unlisted as endangered species." If you can't spot the numerous non-sequitors in there, give it another read.  Since apparently it needs said, Polar Bears are very probably endangered by habitat loss.

I'm disappointed by this - it's nothing more than politicization of Science - but I'm not surprised by it. There's a phrase we hear often that goes "We need more science." That means, "We need more people who agree with us." It's one of the things you realize early on in the critter management field. If you're unscrupulous, it also means you found a willing payer to revisit some topic.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Ahhh, winter break.

It's that time of year in the University, when the campus is a ghost town. Things are quiet, as students work on their finals, professors work on hiding from students, and Graduate Students try to slip out the back for a long vacation. You can hear a pin drop in the hall. Many of us choose to work at home if we can - I did yesterday, where I paradoxically got heaps more done than I ever do at work. There's no end of parking, which pleases me greatly, since I hate parking in Sri-flipping-Lanka.

As a side note, worrying about Parking is such a strange luxury. Just a hair over 100 years ago, some of my ancestors were worrying about starvation. Now, in 2009, I worry about having to walk 10 more minutes for parking.

This is one of the few times that a Academic job really shines. When people realize that working 50+ hour weeks for the previous 51 weeks has entitled them to slack off just a little bit. The rest of the year it seems like the onslaught is never ending: an endless parade of students, meetings, deadlines, expected overtime, proposals... It's almost bizarre, when you think about it, how much time goes to these alien tasks.

Some of us will take work home with us over the next week or so - I'm trying to limit myself to a book, "Genetics and the Extinction of Species." It seems potentially interesting, and I've been meaning to read it for a while. Maybe I'll blog it, if I'm feeling ambitious.


Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Yellowstone Cauldera Bigger than previously thought

And they laugh at us for living in a place where -20°C weather is toasty warm. At least we're not living on top of a giant, 250 mile deep bomb.

Well, except those of us in the Aleutians. 

For those of you who didn't know, Yellowstone sits on top of a massive Caldera that's still active, geologically. It last erupted a few hundred thousand years ago, when it sent a few hundred square miles of material into the air, raining it down as far as the other side of the world. It's a big-un', as the cool kids say. Whether it goes soon (In the next 100,000 years)  or not depends on whether now having the Rocky Mountains on top of it is enough to bottle it in, but when it goes it'll take out a chunk of Idaho, Utah, and Montana with it.

If Utah, Idaho and Montana still exist, when it explodes. 

Monday, 14 December 2009

Breath Deep!

This is very cool: SEM microscope Pictures of Spider Lungs. Makes me wish I had an SEM lying around. ;)
Spiders don't have tidal lungs as you or I have, but instead folded structures called book lungs. They're so-called because they're folded in like ridges, hanging down like pages from a book. The folds are highly vascularized, and take up oxygen directly into the blood through a passive process. They're quite remarkable, and something that makes Spiders and Scorpions quite amazing!

Rejected hypothesis

This is the way science works. You make a hypothesis, you form a prediction, you test the prediction, and then evaluate your hypothesis.

We are forced to reject the hypothesis of massive rural influx into urban areas as the data does not support it. I, myself, was wrong. This graph pretty much says it all:

More at the ADN, where the story is from.

Not only do we need to revise our hypothesis, but it appears the data supports an nearly opposite mechanism! a) Students come from primarily urban areas and b) Among rural areas, those worse off economically appear to export less students! Speculating, this may be because households worse off economically cannot afford to move their households. Or, they tend to value living in situations like their current situation more than the additional leap in economic opportunity.

No one else would put it in economics speak like that, so here's an example: C lives in Alakanuk. With commercial fishing having crashed in the area (and subsistence having been slashed), C decides to move his family. C compares other places - Bethel, Dillingham, Anchorage, Nunapitchuk, Kwigillingok etc - for characteristics including 1) economic oppertunity, 2) current relations 3) similarity to C's preferred ideal of a village/city/whatever. Among those options, he makes a decision where more than immediate economic oppertunity factors in. ("Anchorage has more jobs, but I've got family in Dillingham, and he can get me work on a boat"). 

You'd test this by finding out who moved, who moved where, and whether presence of relatives or some other similarity factors influence movements more than chance. Sounds like a project for some young aspiring masters student out there. ;)

Saturday, 12 December 2009

It sounds barbaric when you put it like that...

From an issue of "The Citizen" from 1910
There were forty-seven homicides in Louisville during the year just closed, and not a single hanging. Life in the Falls City is much cheaper than property.
Also, elsewhere, there's a mention of Taft's visit to the Canal. I wonder what we think is important, that 100 years from now will be laughable. I wonder what we do now that will seem totally inhumane 100 years from now. The idea of chasing down a person and stringing them up is, I think most of feel, repellent. Contrary to the course of justice.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Phew! And, was Alaska Worth it to the States?

I've finished my week long sprint to the finish line, yesterday, and I was so burnt out I loitered around drinking Moose Drool and doodling while watching TV for the rest of the day. A friend of mine told me I look like hell, which means I probably look positively monstrous to the public at large (since my friend is not exactly the `most polished` of people...). Still, it's done, which means I can go back to normal life for a week, before the holidays strike. :)

Enough about me! Was Alaska worth it? To the states, that is. Arctic Economics makes a great point:
An annual gross state product of over $40 billion is not the appropriate benefit measure.  That's gross, not net.  Moreover, $40 billion - or whatever the right benefit figure is - would have been heavily discounted in 1867.  Still more - Alaska costs a lot to maintain; the $7.2 million was a start; we had to defend it from the Japanese, rebuild it after the 1964 earthquake, and pay the heavy costs of governing in this large, remote, and often hostile environment.
Instead, they argue, you need to look at the differences between the outcomes if the US had bought Alaska (what we have today) and what would happen if it hadn't. It's hard to quantify things such as the benefit of having a military base near the far east (apparently it's at least worth Eielson Airforce Base's operational budget), but Dave Barker at the University of Iowa takes a crack at it.

Of course, the more ego-centric question is "Is Alaska better off having been bought by the US?" That's harder to quantify. If we were to assume Alaska would be bought by England (and ended up part of Canada), politically it would depend on whether Alaska ended up acquiring provincial status. Given the comparably large population of AK, I think it might have (~600k is larger than the population of Newfoundland and Labrador) - it's my gut feeling that Candian Provinces enjoy slightly greater autonomy than American States.  Definitely the Alaska would have better representation - Somewhat better than 3% representation, compared to our <<2% representation currently. While whether Eskimo have done better living under US law than their counterparts living under Canadian law is highly debatable (there's a Ph.D. dissertation for Rural Development somewhere in that topic!), the fact that NWT spun off Nunavut as a separate territory and Quebec is granting areal autonomy to Nunavik definitely speaks somewhat better of modern outcomes.

It would be very interesting to quantify each outcome, but it appears at least politically, Alaska drew the short straw!
I don't have an appropriate picture to go with this post, so here is a random fox:

Monday, 7 December 2009

We're number 1!

We're number one!

... in food stamp usage.

The Wade Hampton Census area, generally called the lower Yukon River region, is tied for the nation's highest rates of food stamp use, a state official said.
"It's 49 percent of all people," said Craig Kahklen, senior research analyst at the Division of Public Assistance.
A county in Kentucky and South Dakota share that rate, he said.
"It's a dubious honor," he said.
The region had one of the nation's lowest per capita income rates during the 2000 U.S. Census, so it stands to reason that food stamp use would be high there, he said.
Food stamp use grew rapidly across the state last year, mostly in urban areas, Kahklen said.
I'd thought it'd be higher, honestly.

Other news, aside from my normal Wed post (which I've already picked out), I'm laying low until Friday. I need to buckle down and work on prepping for Thursday. And I anticipate being too bleery on Thursday to make a serious attempt at a blog post.

Friday, 4 December 2009

The Parnell plan for reducing Domestic violence contrasted

When Governors announce that they'll reduce Domestic violence, rape, incest, or anything of that sort, it feels a bit like when teachers from the states come here and announce that they'll solve all our problems - you know they mean well, but they don't have a clue what they're doing. Parnell, bless him, says he'll be the man to reduce domestic violence rates.
  • They plan to aggressively pursue stiff sentencing for offenders.
  • The sex offender list will become unavoidable through plea bargains.
  • New sexual assault and domestic violence investagors will be added to the roll.
  • Increased funding to shelters.
  • An expansion to the VPSO project.
I'm afraid the end result will not be a reduction in the real rate, but that the real rate will remain unchanged, and we'll see an increase in the observed rate thanks to the increase in enforcement. Domestic violence is not a pre-meditated thing. It's typically a crime of passion, where deterrence just doesn't work. In fact, there's been a study on just this subject, where Sherman et al 1991 found, "Contrary to deterrence theories, arrest had no overall crime reduction effect in either the official or victim interview measures of repeat domestic violence." In fact, there's a chapter in a book, titled, "Does Arrest Deter Domestic Violence." The answer seems to be 'no.'

Even more problematic, it appears not only arrest appear to be ineffectual, but it may actually increase domestic violence in the long run as those penalized through stiff sentences increase the rate of battery. This may be due to the increased disruption in the batterers' leading to a poor economic situation, and this hypothesis would be supported by the fact that increased arrest increases the rate of domestic violence and sexual assault among the unemployed. It seems that the situation is positively hopeless!

The current situation is clearly not tenable, so what would a better plan be? The bush suffers differentially from domestic violence, with some areas it being positively epidemic. There are a few strong links to domestic violence that we could address, possibly with greater success. Most studies have focused on male to female violence, so please keep that in mind.

  • Female highest level of education is negatively associated.
  • Having multiple partners is positively associated.
  • Conflict over his drinking is positively associated.
  • Greater income inequality between partners is positively associated.
  • Other conflict in their lives was positively associated.
  • General increasing income equality was negatively associated.
  • Family income is negatively associated.
  • Living with more extended family members is positively associated.

I've only listed the things we societally could address. For example, the older you are, the less likely domestic violence is, but we can't go out and age people. In the light of this information, it should seem highly unsurprising that many bush communities have high rates of violence, because they are on the increased risk end of many of these factors. My arm-chair quarterback suggestions for reducing the rate of domestic violence in Alaska would be:
  • Invest very heavily in rural economic development.
  • Continue to invest in domestic violence shelters.
  • Increase the availability and desirability of bush student scholarships.
  • Increase the amount of available affordable, energy efficient housing in the bush.
In my last point, energy efficiency is important, because households (in my purely observational opinion) tend to consolidate over the inability to keep two houses running at once. Typically over heat. As a side note, I went to AZ once, and a lot of the old BIA houses are the exact same ones they use on the Navajo reservation. And they wonder why they leak heat!

The problem with the TwoYaks proposal is it'd be slow. It would take a long time to see the fruits we've planted, but I don't know of any method to give the state an immediate short-term drop in domestic violence. There just doesn't seem to be a quick and easy fix. But the TwoYaks proposal has the advantage of being based on sound science and observation, and also effecting other things we find societally undesirable too. For example, poor opportunities for employment is associated with high levels of murder and alcoholism, two things we also don't like.

Sadly, I'm not Governor, so I just make them start. That means it's time to hit the pen and paper, and write some letters to my congress critters.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Check for flying pigs!

This is the corner of my desk. Notice anything? My coffee pot is clean. That's right. Hell froze over, and I finally scrubbed 6(±1?) years of grime off the pot. This photo is to prove to the world (and the relevant family) that I can, in fact, clean the coffee pot.

I just choose not to. Now the coffee tastes weird! :p

Climate Gate matters, but not really.

A few years back, a group of Scientists called `bullshit` on a Korean scientist who had claimed to human embryos to make batches of embryonic stem cells from nine patients. Far from data manipulation, the data of Hwang Woo-Suk was outright invented, and was as grounded in reality as hairymen and UFOs.

(Un)interestingly, no one used the scandal to doubt that scientists were doing this cloning business at all. It wasn't an opportunity for the public to go `Right, now that we've disproven stemcells, we can go back to treating humours like people should.` People rightly realized that there's more than one horse in town. Science is done by networks of people, and rarely does science rest or fall on one person working alone.

This is Tyler Cowen's point in an incredibly eloquently written post on the so-called "Climate Gate" scandal:
I am by no means an expert in climate science but I will explain in more detail why I would stress different issues.  (Please do set me straight where I am wrong.)  I see science, including climate science, as very much a decentralized process, based on the collective efforts of thousands of researchers.  The evidence for our current understanding of climate change also comes from a wide variety of disciplines, including chemistry, meteorology, oceanography, geography, tree ring studies, ice sheet studies, and a good body of theory, which has held up well.  These results all point in broadly similar directions.  Call me naive but, with apologies to Robert Sugden, I don't think many scientific results depend on what comes out of East Anglia, even if you include its emailing affiliates from Penn State and the like.  Even very, very simple climate models generate many of the basic results.
He forgot growing times, distribution of species in terms of biological evidence. Otherwise, spot on. I'd encourage you to read the rest.

And that's leaving aside whether there was foul play with the East Anglian data - far from some random emails, the papers from their group will be dissected and either stand on their own in the face of independent verification, or be redacted.

It's worth noting that redaction is Scientist-death. And rarely do dead scientists get the opportunity to shamble around as a zombie. Science is self correcting, and carries a wooden stake.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

2nd Grade Math.

Find your nearest 2nd grader and show them this. Maybe they can tell Fox News what they did wrong when making a piechart. :p

Priming the Pump

You've probably seen it a million times in the newspapers. "Alcohol was not a factor." It seems innocuous enough, but it's actually journalistically unethical. The biggest objection to the phrase comes when you apply it to something else, such as `Teenaged Drivers were not a factor in the accident.` There might be good reason to suspect Teen drivers were involved in an accident, since they're more prone to crashing their truck. However, because they're not relevant, it's not mentioned. In fact, there's a great deal of non-relevant things that are not mentioned.

But far from wasting page space, these kinds of phrases when given by authority figures (such as a newspaper, or a police agency) actually have the opposite effect. It's called `priming,` and Obama has a lot of problems with it. The meat of the issue is when an authority figure discusses something, even to say it's not associated, it almost instantly becomes associated. Because of how the Human Brain works, when you hear Obama say "There are no death Panels," people are more likely to think Death Panels exist. The more time an authority figure spends dispelling a rumour, the more authority that rumour takes. It seems backwards, but the human brain often is.

So, when people talk about accidents and say `Alcohol was not involved,` readers are more likely to take away the message that alcohol was involved. Or, at least, they're primed to consider that as a possibility, if they weren't before.  The News Miner is terrible about this, when they say that drugs were found at the scene of some crime, but drugs were not a factor in the crime. Instantly, people begin to assume it is a drug related crime, when in reality it's a totally false association. My favourite example of this is  when someone pointed  out that both Hitler and Stalin had moustaches, so history books should mention that mass-murder is not moustache related.

And the worst bit is, Journalists aren't ignorant of this. If the journalist went to that fancy pants college place, they almost invariably have learnt that a) this stuff happens and b) doing this is unethical. Sadly, many reporters and editors don't seem to be able to remember their actual training. Now, I'm probably never going to the battle on accident reports, when when people detail crime victims, and say they were in possession of, say, an once of marijuana in a totally drug-unrelated crime, that really cheeses me off.

Alcohol was not a factor in this post.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Salmon Jalapeno Quesadillas

Obviously, an authentic eskimo recipe. ;)

Boil your salmon, then flake it and dry it. You can use the left overs for salmon dip. When you're done, take a skillet, and melt butter in it. Mincing garlic (about two cloves), poke it around in the melted butter for a bit. When the butter is fairly reduced, throw in dried basil and Jalapano peppers and as much salmon as desired. Set this aside. Butter up some tortilla shells and brown them. Then you start to get big air bubbles in them, throw in Mozzarella and the salmon mix. Fold in half and allow the cheese to melt. Eat with copious sour cream and Wack-a-mole (Guacamole).

Monday, 23 November 2009

Tanana Valley Meats

Something is rotten in Tanana Valley Meats:
FAIRBANKS — After Travis Marsh shot his first moose back in September, a nice 52-inch bull near Delta Junction, he couldn’t have been happier. The thought of having a full freezer of tasty, high-protein meat made his mouth water.
But Marsh and Morgan were left with a bad taste in their mouths after waiting almost two months to get their meat back, and they say it was rancid. Not to mention the fact that Marsh dropped off 421 pounds of meat to be processed and got back less than 200 pounds.
I processes my own game (the way god intended), but I've heard good things about Interior Alaskan Fish Processors (Aka Santa's Smokehouse). Their rates are reasonable, and I've eaten their breakfast sausage, and it isn't half bad! Not as good as our own, of course! ;)

Nothing pisses off someone more than working hard to catch an animal, only to have it go bad on them for things outside their control. All the effort, and this place just ruins it all. And then there's this gem:
Miller said he has a list of about a half-dozen customers who have called to complain about how long it took to process their meat or the bad-tasting meat. One of the complainants is threatening a civil suit against the Tanana Valley Meats because he and his hunting partners took in 315 pounds of moose meat to get ground up and it all came back bad.

In that case, Miller said he offered to replace the hunter’s 315 pounds of moose with beef, a trade the hunter seemed receptive to but had not agreed to as of Friday. In other cases, the plant has reduced processing fees or offered full refunds, he said.

 My head would explode, if it were me in that situation. Replace with beef? Are you nuts? I don't want to eat beef, I want to eat moose! It'd be like replacing bars of gold with a bag of rocks. I'm getting angry just thinking about it, and I didn't even have my meat ruined! And then the owner goes on to blame the hunters. If it were just a few, that might be believable, but this large number? Blah.

It sounds like there's a resounding `Don't use Tanana Valley Meats`

Santa Update

An update to the North Pole Santa letters story:

FAIRBANK — Santa’s elves in North Pole may want to sharpen their pencils.

The U.S. Postal Service announced Friday that it is resuming a program in which volunteers respond to some of the estimated 150,000 letters to Santa Claus that accumulate at the post office in North Pole.

New security measures protecting letter writers’ identities will ensure that personal information about small children doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, officials said.

Leaders at the Christmas-themed city and statewide applauded the decision and credited postal workers in Alaska for acting to keep the tradition alive.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Graphs revisited; Ice puzzles revisited.

First, an answer: this graph...

is a windchill graph. The coloured regions are the onset of frostbite in exposed people. :) NOAA has a nicer version here.

Avery chimmed in on the question about the ice, and raised potentially good points. I knew that the explanation that I'd got when I was younger had considerable doubt cast on it, and caveated my post appropriately. Or, maybe not enough! But, luckily, I'm in fine company, as my incorrect answer is repeated in various textbooks. Here's the most correct answer, as we understand it today, from ScienceNOW, the news arm of the Journal Science:
Ice has always been a slippery subject. As simple as an ice cube may seem, scientists have long been baffled about why its surface is so slick. But an upcoming paper in Surface Science may give researchers a firmer grasp of ice's surface subtleties by hinting that its outermost molecules behave like a liquid.

That would give the surface layer drastically different properties from those of the bulk of the crystal, says Gabor Somorjai, a surface chemist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The liquidlike layer could explain, for instance, why it is more fun to skate on ice than on concrete. According to Somorjai's colleague, Michel van Hove, the popular conception that ice's slipperiness comes from pressure-induced melting is wrong. "It doesn't work out," says van Hove. "You put data into the formula, and there's not enough pressure." The slippery layer, he says, is there to start, even at very low temperatures.

Somorjai and van Hove discovered this layer when they probed the surface of thin layers of ice with low-energy electron diffraction, a technique that uses electrons to determine the surface structure of a crystal in the same way as x-ray diffraction reveals the crystal structure of a solid. The researchers expected to see the scattering signature of the first three layers of ice molecules, but they only saw two. After determining that the invisible top layer did, indeed, exist, the researchers hypothesized that its water molecules were vibrating three or four times faster than those in the lower layers--blurring its diffraction pattern to invisibility. Although the water molecules are bound in the lattice like a solid, says Somorjai, "the vibrational amplitude is like a liquid."

Besides making ice slippery, says Somorjai, the liquidlike layer could help explain how ice crystals in the upper atmosphere help catalyze the chemical reactions that deplete ozone. The finding, says Steve George, a chemist at the University of Colorado, "illustrates how we don't understand the simplest things we know about."

Thursday, 19 November 2009

How the post office stole Christmass

This is just wrong:
FAIRBANKS — The U.S. Postal Service will no longer forward “Dear Santa” letters to Kris Kringle’s elves in North Pole, citing security concerns and putting in doubt the future of a volunteer letter-answering effort that dates back 55 years.
North Pole Mayor Doug Isaacson has called on Alaska’s congressional delegation to intervene, saying the Postal Service is “running roughshod” over the city of North Pole, whose very identity is tied to Christmas.

In other news, this is ~M. He's living with me for a bit, while his owners are off in some flat square state in the lower 48.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Man eating lions!

Man eating lions! That's the title that Yeakel and colleagues used for their recent PNAS article. Actually, they used "Cooperation and individuality among man-eating lions" which has less zing to it. Still, `Man eating lions` is in the title. Of course, I have to read it.

The story goes that in 1898, two male lions in Tsavo, Kenya, formed a coalition and begun eating railway workers - between 28 and 135 of them. After 9 months of attacks, a British field engineer and Officer, Lt. Col. Patterson, hunted down and killed each lion. I'm willing to guess this made him a very popular man. Somehow, these animals eventually ended up in the collection of the Field Museum of Natural History, where people could oggle the Man Eating Lions.

We're supposedly confident that Patterson definitely got the right lions, since the attacks stopped, but how much of the lions' diet was humans? Well, the old phrase that "You are what you eat" is literally true, and different sources of food leave different isotopic signatures. This allows scientists to go in and assay the isotopic ratios to find out what categories of diet an animal ate, and the relative dietary ratios. Using potential prey items as references, they found that one of the lions was eating humans 30% of the time, when it was eating at all. Here's the abstract:
Cooperation is the cornerstone of lion social behavior. In a notorious case, a coalition of two adult male lions from Tsavo, southern Kenya, cooperatively killed dozens of railway workers in 1898. The “man-eaters of Tsavo” have since become the subject of numerous popular accounts, including three Hollywood films. Yet the full extent of the lions' man-eating behavior is unknown; estimates range widely from 28 to 135 victims. Here we use stable isotope ratios to quantify increasing dietary specialization on novel prey during a time of food limitation. For one lion, the δ13C and δ15N values of bone collagen and hair keratin (which reflect dietary inputs over years and months, respectively) reveal isotopic changes that are consistent with a progressive dietary specialization on humans. These findings not only support the hypothesis that prey scarcity drives individual dietary specialization, but also demonstrate that sustained dietary individuality can exist within a cooperative framework. The intensity of human predation (up to 30% reliance during the final months of 1898) is also associated with severe craniodental infirmities, which may have further promoted the inclusion of unconventional prey under perturbed environmental conditions.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Avatar Revisited.

I just saw the trailer for Avatar while watching House, and I have to say, it's even worse than I thought. They managed to show that they totally missed what made Dances with Wolves not suck in about 4 minutes in an very succinct way.


On the other hand, House is funny.

Ice Puzzles

So, I asked a pretty innocuous question. What's more slippery? Smooth Ice, or bumpy Ice? Well, ice is slippery not because it's smooth, though its reasonably so. The exact reason ice is slippery is apparently poorly understood. Back when I learnt my elementary physics, I was told a fairly simple explanation, one that'd been repeated through many text books over the years. This explanation, that ice's melting point drops when pressure is increased, is partially true, (though not the whole story), but its what's relevant to this discussion. As pressure on the ice increases, the melting temperature of the ice decreases (and becomes more slippery for our purposes).

When we're walking on smooth ice, the whole of our mass is distributed across the surface of the ice. However, when you walk across bumpy ice, your foot only comes in contact with a smaller percent of it. Let's say you you weigh 150 lbs. I'll use English units, even though it makes me feel scientifically dirty. Using a quick approximation, the surface area under a men's size ten boot is around 34 square inches, for a total of 68 inches total in contact with the ground. Your feet exert a total of 2.2 pounds per square inch on the ground. However, in reality, the whole of the bottom of the boot isn't in contact with the ground. For every 50% reduction in area, the pressure increases by 50% - 4.4 psi for half the surface area, 8.8 for 25%, etc.

Now imagine a complex boot sole coming into contact with either of our ice surfaces. One is bumpy, and one is smooth. Which one has the greater contact between the boot and the ground? Obviously, the smooth one. The bumpy surface, you'll only come in contact with the tops of the crests. The surface area is then very small, and so the pressure quite large. At this point, it is easier to slip and fall. Bumpy ice is more slippery, C.P.

This is part of the reason that old style boot soles are much better. A old style kamguk (mukluk in English) has a soft sole, meaning the foot conforms to the ground. This has two immediate effects. First, it increases the surface area, so pressure is more evenly distributed. Secondly, that increased surface area means the friction between the ice and the boot is greater. I'd actually be interested in demonstrating this numerically, which means getting a force meter. An idea for another day!

Here's another fun one from the book! And a bit easier, since I think a lot of people intuitively know the answer. Let's say you want to cool a completely full pot, and you only have one block of ice. Should you put the ice below it, above it, or to the side of it? Why?

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Can you recognize this graph?

As the title. I made this graph after an experiment in its contents. Hit me with your best guesses!

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

China and demographic consequences

From an article in Forbes.com: China might have problems being a dominant player unless it comes to terms with its ethnocentric problems.
These anxieties have the air of self-fulfilling prophecy. Given that many if not most Koreans prize ethnic homogeneity, migrant workers will remain on the margins of society. This, in turn, will fuel alienation and resentment among this class of permanent second-class citizens. And so South Korea's major cities could very well see the rise of segregated ethnic slums. It's worth noting that anti-foreigner sentiments are flourishing in a time when South Korea is experiencing rapid economic change, including a new social and economic inequality. Just as racism provided the basis for solidarity among whites in U.S. history, it could be playing a similar role in South Korea.

Next to China's race problem, South Korea's pales in significance. Earlier this year, the Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a report that found that the current ratio of 16 retirees to 100 workers is set to double in the next 15 years. In absolute terms, the number of over-65s will go from 166 million to 342 million. Someone will have to care for them, and though China has relaxed its profoundly wrongheaded one-child policy, the reform has come too late to arrest rapid aging.
The bigger problem, almost paradoxically, is demographic. If China hadn't arrested it's development, they could have gone on as racist as they'd like with just a few institutionalized consequences. The same is true for very `developed` nations. Are we seeing a new form of source-sink dynamics among human populations? Certainly, some areas are more productive biologically than others, but the trend among nations has been to population stability, or even contraction. So I suppose it has to do with the rate that the source populations (i.e., poor, biologically productive nations) transition...


Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Cancer Screening - the complete story.

I was thinking about doing a post, prompted by the recent rash of stories in the media about whether regular prostate and breast cancer screening is a good idea. This is a very interesting topic, one I got interested in a bit back when I wondered why people didn't get screened at younger ages. Surely, you'd catch fewer, but you'd still catch the rare few people who develop these cancers early. The answer revolves around the rate of false positives, in that case, and the recent rash of questioning has to do with how many tumours go on to become actual problems...

Luckily, I can point you all to a write up by an expert. Orac is a surgeon and a cancer researcher - an MD PhD in academic parlance. That's a very rare breed of person, but one of the most important links in advancing human medicine. He has problems with how the issue is being portrayed in the media (there's a shock), and puts the research in appropriate context. If you want to be educated on cancer screening, I strongly recommend you read his review of the science.

Smooth or bumpy ice

I found this old book, origionally written in the 1920s in Russia, with the translated title "Physics for Entertainment." I have to say, this is one of the most interesting books I've ever picked up. It's full of fun brain teasers like this:

What's more slippery, smooth or bumpy ice? Why?

Monday, 9 November 2009


I was thinking about writing about differences in use of objects in "Cultural activities" (I hate that phrase. Can you think of an un-cultural activity?) and how they drift over time. For example, nasqurrun, or the head things for yuraqing, used to be worn by men at some frequencies. But after kass'at contact with Alaska, female-only use got codified, and that's pretty much the way it is now.

Instead, I've got side tracked with a much more light hearted topic - physical aggression between spousal partners. A cheery subject! If I were to ask you to guess who is more likely to aggress against their spouses across the whole United States, you'd probably guess men are. Unless you're suspicious of a trick question, in which you'd guess the opposite. You paranoid people would win this round.

That's probably a surprising result, but it's actually a well supported one. Surveys in 1975, 1985 and other periods found shockingly high level of wife-to-husband violence. The results became even more surprising when you found out that severe violence (Kicking, hitting, beating, threatening with a weapon, using a weapon, etc.) was consistently higher amongst females than males. According to Bhrehm et al. 2005, (p.433) " Prospective research on aggression during the first years of marriage also found higher rates of Wife-to-Husband [aggression] (O' leary et al. 1989)".

Since the initial bunches of surveys and studies, there's been more, including some as recent as 1999 and 2005, "[...] including more than eighty published articles, books and other sources [...]" Obviously, this is an under-discussed facet of the human social experience. It may be men are reluctant to talk about it for cultural reasons, but more there seems a slightly more probable explanation.

Women out aggress their spouses in all measures of violence. However, our intuitive expectations for the subject might be somewhat explained through the outcome of aggression. To quote Barbra Morse (a researcher on such issues; 1995) "Women were more often the victims of severe partner assault and injury not because men strike more often, but because men strike harder."

Any given blow by a male is more likely to result in serious injury or harm. Normally, I'd be prattling on about how humans are more or less mono-morphic, when you compare us to differences between the genders in other species. Just compare bull moose and cow moose! However, in this case, the muscular differences between males and female humans are enough to result in a very different adverse outcomes (to steal the term from medicine).

The factors that predict spousal violence are complex, and I won't pretend to understand them. I could parrot back what's in my text book on the subject, but that wouldn't be a substitute for actually understanding the interplay of factors. Needless to say, like all aggression, it's complex.

The reason I'm blogging about this is I've been on an "Aggression" kick lately. I've got a question that's bothering me - one that sounds deceptively simple. I wonder how many fights an average male is involved in, in his lifetime. How many fights an average female is engaged in within her lifetime. And within the genders, how much 'heterogeneity' is there - that is, is it either people have many/no fights,  or is it that there are many intermediate of fights?  If you know the answer to this, I'd be greatly interested in hearing it.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Moose Lasagna

I'd like to announce I've successfully made my first Lasagna, and it is delicious. Please, inform the press. Take moose sausage and brown it, before drowning it in spaghetti sauce. Be generous, since people love meat! When it's done, simmer while you finish boiling your Lasagna noodles. Boil for 12 minutes in a pot full of generous salt. I tried my aana's method of putting oil up top to keep them from sticking, but that didn't work for me. Sorry, mom!

Layer the noodles on the bottom, then a tub of cottage cheese. Don't skimp, because you need that energy tonight - it's -20°C! Then cover that with about half the moose sausage and spaghetti sauce. And then add Mozerella cheese, or if you're cheap like me, Fred Meyers' "Italian Cheese" of unknown composition. Layer more noodles on top of all of this, then add the remaining sauce. Dump on more Italian Cheese, and then top that off with a bit of cheddar. Why Cheddar? Because I have a lot of cheddar!  Put it in an oven heated at 375 degrees for ~20 minutes, or more if your oven leaks heat like a shopping bag.

Consume with as many other unhealthy things as you can find around, such as pilot bread smeared with mayo, or sour cream.

Hey, if you want healthy recipes, check out Dave's Delightful stuff, he'll kill you slightly slower. :)

Friday, 6 November 2009

Catch up

The great irony of being sick while having a lot of chores to do is that although you suddenly have a lot of time to do them in, you're much less able to do them. I caught the damned gastric virus going around, and now that I'm feeling somewhat better, today is going to be a day of hurrying to catch up.

So! All that to say, no real post today, but here's a cute comic! Read all of it Here!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

A funeral for the internet

Kevin E. was a good man, who was sadly beset by health problems as long as I knew him. He died too soon. While we both played the same game (which is how I met him), and I greatly admired his ability to play it, I'll more remember him for his congenial nature, his warm heart, and his willingness to be the butt of good-natured jokes. I'll miss him. The world is poorer without him.

I'd just found out that an acquaintance of mine, from a while back, died. We weren't close, but we were definitely very friendly. While I'm very sad to find this out, I'm not overcome with grief. It does have me introspective about various bits of my own life, and how I'd let people know that I've died.

I've lived in a lot of places, and many people I only keep in touch with through e-mail or chat programs. Others still I've never met in my life, but I've known so long from the internet that I consider them as good as any friend I've been with in flesh and blood. Some even better. Technology has let me trade car stories with an Australian miner in Perth, talk about Dr. WHO and Sci Fi movies with a welsh gal who makes her own chainmail. And jabber on about nothing with a pair of Kuwaiti sisters who speak better English than I do! Not to mention all the people I keep in contact with here and in the states. The list goes on - the internet has let us internationalize our contacts.

But the down side to this is, if any of them where to die, how would I find out? I would want to find out - some of these people I like a lot. And if I were to die, how would they find out? I'd just be another person who disappears into silence on the web. A few emails would go unanswered, and then maybe a few people would try to call me. After getting my voicemail, or a disconnected line, there's not much else many could do. When you're dead, you can't update facebook saying 'Hi guys, nice knowing you. Thanks for all the good times.'

How can we fix this problem?


Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The snack-raficing of squirrels

Where does altruism evolve from? It's a legitimate scientific question, because altruism appears to fly in the face of natural selection.
Why should a ground squirrel give an alarm call at the sight of a hawk, which raises her chances of being eaten by the hawk? She should duck and cover, to save her own skin.

These questions long since puzzled people who study behaviour, since the trait should become rare in the genepool as these self-snack-raficing individuals are digested and turned into parts for baby hawks. In the end, there should be nothing left but the squirrels that get the heck out of dodge.

The beginning of our understanding of apparent altruism among animals came when people began understanding fitness better. The ground squirrel could be a mother, trying to save her offspring. If she can save them easier than she can produce more pups, then she should do that. Putting it mathematically, she should act when


Where B is benefit, C is cost and i is rIsk. In this case, the benefit is past reproductive success - potential grand-offspring to carry her traits into the future. The cost is how much she'll pays - all the future potential offspring she could make. And the rIsk is the probability that she'll have to pay that cost. The cost can be very high, but if the risk is low, you don't need much benefit to justify the action.

W.D. Hamilton  formalized this even better, with Hamilton's rule (imaginatively named) where a trait (such as this self-snack-raficing behaviour) is expected to become more common in a population when the inequality is satisfied:


Where r is probability that the recipient of the actor has the trait. From our understanding of Mendelian genetics, this is .5 for parent-offspring, .5 for sibling-sibling pairs, .25 for half-siblings or Grandparent-Grandoffspring. There are some interesting exceptions to these rules that I'll mention in a future post.

So, in plain English, if we define all the future offspring our Ground squirrel can have as being 1,  and assume 100% risk, then the other ground-squirrel she saves should be worth 2 times that many offspring if if the altruistic squirrel is a parent. Along these lines, J.B.S. Haldane was once asked if he'd give his life to save his brother. Jokingly, he replied "Would I lay down my life to save my brother? No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins."

Of course, there's far more to altruism than this; we call this principle `kin selection`, where evolutionary impact isn't just from one's own offspring, but from an organism's blood-family members as well. The description of kin selection went a long way to explaining how many forms of altruism we find among animals evolved.

You can find some extreme examples of this in some insects, where queens produce sterile workers. These sterile workers get all their evolutionary fitness from the queen's success, and none through their own reproduction (Because they can't). Because the cost is so low (they'll never have offspring), it doesn't take much benefit to justify extreme actions. In this system, bees with stingers evolve. They die when they use them, but they manage to advance the queen's reproductive fitness just a little more in doing so.

Interestingly, because of bees breeding system, the workers are more related to the female future-queens than the reproductive males. Because of this, the workers siphon off resources from the males larva and invest it in the female larva. There's insurrection in the beehive! 

Monday, 2 November 2009

Payall Bidding to explain political lobbying.

I haven't the time for a proper post this morning. So instead, brazenly stolen from Marginal Revolutions: Payall Bidding to explain political lobbying.

I wonder at which point you you are indifferent to bidding. Is there even such a point? In fixed increment bidding, the point is probably equal to the increment you win plus the bid in terms of the indifference point. But don't quote me on that.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Invading Soviet Canukistan

I've long been suspicious of Canada. After all, how could a country so big, with cold weather be so rotten at Hockey? Just look at the last time they came even close to the Stanley Cup. That just smells plain fishy to me. What's worse, they never told the Queen to take a hike like the US did. I think conflict between the US and Canada isn't just innevitable, but desirable. Let's finish what the country started in 1812! Luckily, there are already military plans in the works for our invasion of Canada... albeit from the 1930s.

We're coming for you, maple leaf loving jerks!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Substance Abuse

Sometimes, It's hard to explain how things are around the state. I've been asked to describe how living in the state is/works to someone who is considering taking a job, here, in treating addictions and abuse issues. She'd come to the conclusion that based on the number of job offers she recieved, Alaska has serious substance abuse and domestic violence issues. I won't say Alaska doesn't have those problems, and they're not serious, but the number of jobs metric is deceptive - part of the problem is we can't retain (or in many cases, get) doctors, PAs, therapists, etc. to move to the state. If you want a job in this economy, consider being a Nurse in Alaska. God knows we need it, and there's no shortage of positions available up here.

It's also hard to explain that the nature of substance abuse is different. Supposedly (and this is second hand information, so don't quote me on it) studies show that most teens in the states who abuse alcohol do so with cheep beer. Here, anecdotally, teens are more likely to use RR, Thunderbird, or bucket. Bucket is a solution fermented in a bucket. It tastes disgusting, but it'll get you drunk. We also have high levels of inhalant abuse. I don't know about in Fairbanks, but I'm guessing the good access to pot keeps huffing lower. This is pretty uncommon in the states, because this information really surprised some people.

So here's a post by a PA who lived in Bethel for a short period. They actually do a very good job discussion the problem with inhalant abuse in the vill, and its long term consequences.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

MHC and stinky t-shirts.

I'm going to talk about human behaviour and evolution here. Remember my disclaimer! Don't commit the is-ought fallacy!

Go ahead. Go smell your significant other. I'll wait! Back. Smell good, don't they? Unless they're splitting wood, or something. Even then, I bet they smell better to you than anyone else while splitting wood.

This isn't a coincidence. Human mate choice is governed by quite a bit, and part of the `goal` is to mate disassortatively. That is, you don't want to mate with close relatives. Part of what helps you avoid inbreeding is MHC. Wait, isn't MHC the thing I mentioned earlier to help your immune system? It's the same! It also helps you pick mates. Versatile, eh?

We suspect MHC because of a few experiments. The first, by Wedekind et al. in 1995, had men wear t-shirts for two nights without washing. After that, the t-shirts were sealed in bags, and were presented to a number of women, who were to asked to rate the smells. Wedekind and colleagues collected the questionnaires, and some DNA from both the men and the women, to find out which type of MHC they had. They found that the women rated men with different MHC types as being more pleasant.

People were resistant to this study, because of the long-held wisdom that MHC was for the immune system only. Eventually, the study was replicated in Brazil by Santos et al. (in 2005), except using sweat directly instead. Critics cried that sure, there might be an inclination, but surely other factors weigh out in the final mate choice. Well, we have reason to believe these turn into actual matings - Ober and colleagues analysed marriage patterns in Hutterite  communities and concluded that people tended to marry individuals with different MHC types.

Interestingly, MHC also seems to predict fragrence preference in perfume Milinski and Wedekind found that MHC type predicted the type of fragrance people preferred for themselves. This predictive power didn't hold over to preferences for partner fragrance. But this is, in a way, expected: for self, perfume is advertising one own MHC complement. For others, it doesn't matter what MHC they have, so long as it's different from your own. 

Humans aren't the only critters who tend to marry/mate this way. Mice (Potts et al. 1991) tend to do that, as to Fat-Tailed leamurs (Schwensow et. al 2007), and fish such as Three-spined sticklebacks (Reusch et al 2001). There are many other species that have been studied, and this pattern found - though others where it hasn't. It's important to note the magnitude of the mate selection bias varies among species to levels difficult to detect.

It's worth noting that finding MHC disimilar mates is not a hard thing to do. If this was just to keep offspring MHC diverse, it'd probably be easier to pick an individual at random - they've got a low probability to be MHC similar. All human groups have a large amount of MHC diversity, and it's been well conserved through most human lineages. Truly, the only purpose this could serve is to avoid mating with those similar to ones-self - such as close relations. Today, avoiding inbreeding might seem trivial, but you don't have to go far back in human history to have a situation where two individuals don't know how related they are to eachother, because of incomplete genealogical knowledge. If you're a ground squirrel, life is even harder, knowing who your family is!

But if you're a ground squirrel, how are you reading this blog?

It's interesting to think that this is all going on without our being aware. Aside from some researchers, I don't think anyone out there is thinking, "Gosh, this person is right for me, because their MHC is clearly quite different from mine!" This is all going on inside our nose and brain without us even being aware of it. This is just one of many things we smell, but aren't quite completely aware of - the more we learn, the more it seems we're some of the worst judges of why we do things!

Bonus points to anyone who recognizes the movie clip. :)

Monday, 26 October 2009

PLBs in the DNM. RLY.

Sad but true:
If they had not been toting the device that works like Onstar for hikers, “we would have never attempted this hike,” one of them said after the third rescue crew forced them to board their chopper. It’s a growing problem facing the men and women who risk their lives when they believe others are in danger of losing theirs.

Technology has made calling for help instantaneous even in the most remote places. Because would-be adventurers can send GPS coordinates to rescuers with the touch of a button, some are exploring terrain they do not have the experience, knowledge or endurance to tackle.
This story makes me mildly angry, because we rely on this stuff to get us out of really dangerous messes. The one day I have to actually activate a PLB, I don't want the guys on the end wondering if I'm just some jerk from the states who forgot to bring his toothbrush. I wish there was a way to punish people for non-emergencies...

Locus of Control

You might think Biologists look down their noses at Psychology. Well, you'd be mostly right. There's a lot of snobbery when it comes to other fields of science. Like, Physicists think they study the one true science, and everything else is just derived from their reality. Economists see most systems in an economic light, and question why other people just can't see how things work.

But I like Psychology, and I've taken a couple of courses in it. It's everything you didn't know about yourself - we're actually quite terrible at knowing why we do most of the things we humans do!

Recently, I started reading a bit on the Imposture Syndrome - it's where you feel that you've got to where you are by faking it. It's a big problem in Academia, where you're constantly surrounded by very smart people, and it makes you feel like you're the dumb person in the room who got in because of some sort of mistake. A related phenomenon is that you're more likely to seriously question your own work, and give other people a pass because you underestimate your own expertise.

A related thingy is the idea of a Locus of Control. It is a measure of how much control you think you can exercise in your life. People with a low score mean they think anything they do or don't, accomplish or fail to accomplish, is purely on their own head. That is to say, you think you can control whether good or bad things happen to you. A corollary of this is that when bad things happen to people, people with a low score tend to say they brought it on themselves. They also are more likely to assume their actions will be successful

On the opposite end of the spectrum are people with an external locus of control. The perceive the ones' advancement (or problems) as being due to things outside their control. You didn't get that promotion? It's because you weren't lucky, or there's grift in the system. Or something was fated. The view is more of life blowing them around to wherever they are.

There's suggestions that one's locus of control is derived from experiences in the family. Based on this, it shouldn't be surprising that culture is somewhat predictive of whether one has an internal or external locus of control - though, it's a weak prediction. Arabs, for example, are slightly more likely to be `fatalistic` (not my words!), and therefore score as having more external control.

There's a cool little questionaire that you can take online from a psych proffs' webpage, where you can find out whether you have a more internal or external locus of control. You can find it here. When you take it, just follow the instructions, and if you find one you can't decide on, pick the least worst of the two. For the curious, I scored as having a weakly external locus of control.

Friday, 23 October 2009

So long as you've decided...

Sadly, I haven't time for a proper post this morning. But I'd like to share something that popped up via slashdot:
Professor Ariely describes some experiments which demonstrated something he calls “arbitrary coherence”.  Basically it means that once you contemplate a decision or actually make a decision, it will heavily influence your subsequent decisions.  That’s the coherence part.  Your brain will try to keep your decisions consistent with previous decisions you have made.
The author goes on to describe how even basing an initial decision  on random data (in this case, the last two digits of their soc. number) strongly influences subsequent decisions. It goes back to the whole cognitive bias of `Well, it doesn't matter if you made a bad decision, so long as you made a decision.`

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The next big project

I was talking to a guy last night, he he'd said that with advances in materials, they can run hovercraft year-round, even in the interior. I was surprised. And then he tells me apparently they'd been running them up on the slope for a while now, in colder-than-Bethel temperatures. Why doesn't anyone tell me these things!

Part of the reason why I've been thinking about hovercrafts so much is I've begun drafting out my next project. While building my kayak, I started dreaming about building a larger boat - not much longer (my kayak is ~17ft), but wider and with a deeper draft. I'd rolled around projects the whole time I was building the kayak, and talked to some pro-ship builders who were generally supportive. I've even go as far as to begin researching, before doing - a novel idea, for me! I found a shipwrights manual from ~1910, reprinted in the 40s, that I've found incredibly interesting.

However, I've recently run into a bit of a jam. It turns out that since the 1910s, federal regulations governing powered boat safety have got incredibly complex. I hadn't read half the required paperwork, and I'm already feeling incredibly overwhelmed. I almost feel like I need someone who's done this before to hold my hand through all the regulatory work! So while I have a lot of drafting ahead of me, if I'm going to make this project work, I need to spend even more time learning the legalities of boat building.

Interestingly enough, the only legal requirement for a hovercraft is that it have a flashing light.
Maybe it's time to bone up on my aluminum welding? ;)

Monday, 19 October 2009

Don't poke an angry bear.

Believe it or not, I wasn't born espousing my point of view. It took me a while to become an annoying, opinionated jerk. And despite what my aana thinks (love you!), I don't always share it. ;)

This morning, I read a bit of one-sided, mean-spirited reporting from what I normally consider a reputable news source. I'll keep the subject matter vague, for reasons that I'll quickly make clear. But suffice to say it's something I care about.

Normally, I'd write a letter to the editor expressing my vague consternation, and if I was really upset, I'd place a call as well. But in this case, the story is about something I've always felt unsafe opining on. People who take the same stance as me, in my position, have a history of facing retaliation. Or worse. It's not the vague sort of threat you get from being, say, a staunch Libertarian in a Green Party neighbourhood (or anything like that).

It's easy enough to write an anonymous letter to the editor. However, those are frequently ignored. If not outright trashed. And I do have a name that I do occasionally use for signing up for things, so if get letters intended for my faux-ego, they get tossed before I even go inside my home.

But what responsibility do I have to stand up for my convictions? Surely using a pen name is somewhat disingenuous. Surely I should stand up for what I earnestly believe to be the truth. I've no problem facing down animal rights nutters and terrorists when it comes to standing up for my field, etc. Why not here?

Sadly, I think I'll sign with a pen-name. It's the cowardly way out, but I suppose that's how I'm feeling this morning.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Racism, obviously, is dead.

NEW ORLEANS – A Louisiana justice of the peace said he refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple out of concern for any children the couple might have. Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, says it is his experience that most interracial marriages do not last long.
"I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way," Bardwell told the Associated Press on Thursday. "I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else."
In my experience, the words "I'm not a racist" is usually followed buy some incredibly racist comment. The full story is here. Oh, it should go without saying that this is flamingly illegal. It's not even close to being slightly legal. It's not even legal if you squint at it after a few pints, and it's dark, and you have pinkeye, and you left your glasses at the bar.

It's pretty damn illegal.

I know, now that we have a black president, racism is obviously dead.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Lower Yukon Fishing season in summary

  • King salmon harvested in 2009: 316
  • Annual average of kings harvested in the 10 years before 2009: 35,027 
  • Summer chum salmon harvested in 2009: 170,272 
  • Annual average of chums harvested in the 10 years before 2009: 63,341 
  • 2009 value of Yukon commercial fishing (summer chums and kings) for the fishermen: $556,256 
  • Annual average fishery value to fishermen for the 10 years before 2009: $2.3 million 

The summary Stats from The Tundra Drums. Here's the original source. There's not much positive spin you can put on it. The monetary value is almost exclusively from chum salmon - 20k of the 2009 sum is from kings.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The other-other-hoverround.

How cool would it be to have an arctic-ready hovercraft? That is simply too cool! And asteroid hunting! My inner 10-yearold is going to hyperventilate. I don't know much about hovercraft, but I'm betting that it can't run year-round. Which is a shame, since having a single vehicle that you could use in both the summer and winter would be too neat.



Tuesday, 13 October 2009

"So we've rediscovered the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. So what?"

We welcome the recent announcement by the conservation partnership BirdLife International that they have launched a "global bid to try to confirm the continued existence of 47 species of bird that have not been seen for up to 184 years" (see http://go.nature.com/6Hc2Cn). But there are pitfalls, as the recent history of 'rediscoveries' has shown.

One of the species on BirdLife's target list is the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), a bird that was prematurely alleged to have been rediscovered in 2005. This seemingly improbable reappearance provoked intense debate within the scientific community about the veracity of claimed sightings and, more generally, about what represents sufficient proof of continued existence (or extinction). Accusations of 'faith-based' ornithology resulted, increasing scepticism among politicians and policy-makers that conservation organizations are often too willing to put public relations before scientific rigour. [...]

Some people really know how to get my attention.

I've been kicking around this idea for a while, too, though not as eloquently. The authors of the opinion piece make their case that even if we re-discover species living in the wild, the discovery means very little unless there's a minimum viable population. I would have taken a different tact, saying the quest to re-discover these species burns through vast sums of critical conservation money; money that would be better spent on species who are a little more accessible.

I do see a small amount of scientific utility in this, though - extinction rate is sensitive to what we a) declare a species and b) an and can't find. It's hard to talk about, say, Giant Squid demographics without being able to look at them (or otherwise detect them). So how hard we try to look for relictant populations influences our measure of current extinction rate. To get an accurate measure of the current extinction rate, it makes sense to apply copious effort.

That said, these expeditions are expensive. They're multi-person, multi-year affairs frequently requiring access to remote areas by specialist personnel. If you can't hear the dollar signs ring up as you read that last sentence, you should get your hearing checked! The price on the knowledge that a species isn't totally extinct, but instead a hairs-breadth away from extinction, is very massive, and surely that money could be used to keep other species from getting that far-gone to begin with.

Ladie et al. Caution with claims that a species has been rediscovered. (2009) Nature 461, 723

Monday, 12 October 2009

Smoking Nooks.

Anyone else catch the Nanooks on TV? I caught both the U of M game and the Mercyhurst game, and neither was pretty for the other team. Where UAF had a shaky power play before, both times special teams managed to capitalize on the single man advantage and puts some pucks in the net. It almost makes me feel good about the season.

I wish things looked so good for my other team, the Red Wings. They're solid as a rock; a strong mix of old skill and new talent. Except for that one tiny bit - except for the guy in front of the goal, Ozzy. And that person is pretty important. Last season he was pretty lacklustre, and this year it looks like a repeat.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Gambling on your grades?

I got this link from Marginal Revolutions, an economics blog with multiple authors. There are markets in everything. Including, apparently, gambling on your grade:

While hanging out together one Sunday afternoon, I mentioned to my friend Steven Wolf that I had an exam the following day and that if I were to study I was sure to get an A. (At the time, I was a student at University of Pennsylvania.)  But I was enjoying my Sunday afternoon, and I told Steven that I had no intention of studying. That's when, in order to provide me with motivation, we made the following agreement: If I got an A on the exam, he would give me $100, and if I didn't get an A, I would give him $20. Steven and I quickly realized that lots of other students might like this kind of motivation.  To that end, we began developing what is now Ultrinsic Motivator Inc. - Jeremy Gelbart
 Ultrinsic.com is company that offers you a chance to buy class insurance, speculate on your grades, and other organized and legalized forms of gambling. I'm of mixed feelings on this. I do recognize that college education is a massive investment, and investments deserve insurance (Car, Home, Health...), so why not education? On the other hand, this makes me feel a bit uneasy. What do you all think? I'm curious to hear your two cents.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Bear Story update

While it's hard to prove that someone shot from the highway, it is very easy to demonstrate someone fired a gun in a federal closed to firearms.

Difference between Anchorage and Fairbanks #293

In South Central AK if you legally and lawfully harvest a brown bear in the view of others, and it's news in the Anchorage Daily News.

In Fairbanks, if you do the same, it's an average day on Chena Hot Springs Road.

All joking aside, the bit about shooting from the road is devilishy hard to prove. Unless there's video of the men shooting from the road, or a trooper witnesses the event himself, it's just the word of a very upset wildlife viewer against two hunters. If there were multiple parties who saw it, a DA might have a case. Though, again, it's hard to weigh the testimony of a group who is (understandably) upset that the bear they were watching was shot right in front of them, as they have incentive to lie.

Another problem comes from differing expectations as to fair-chase. Fair-Chase is the idea that a human shouldn't have an undue advantage over the animals they're trying to catch. Expectations vary wildly from rejection that any fair-chase is possible (typically from people who oppose hunting on moral grounds), to people who put a high burden on the hunter (e.g., rifled hunts are unethical, but bow hunts aren't), to a whole mish-mash of what hunters consider acceptable equipment (ATV okay? High powered scopes? Electronic predator calls?). There are a whole group who reject the idea of fair chase entirely, arguing that it is a hold over from European trophy hunting; that if you're hunting for food, no advantage is less acceptable than the alternative (i.e., not getting the food).

With the increasingly urbanized nature of America, the more strict interpretations of fair-chase will probably win out in the long run. The morays are definitely shifting towards stricter ideas of what acceptable human-game interactions are. That's not to say that moral interpretation is the more correct one, but more to say that in the future, it will probably be viewed as the most correct thanks to the changing moral zeitgeist.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


Here's some things I've been keeping my eye on, in bullet point:


Public Drinking Fountain

Monday, 5 October 2009

Pie in the sky, and sonar stations.

The Susitna Dam is back in the news again. Any bets on which gets finished first? The Susitna Dam, or the Road to Nome? My project to build a Trolly Car line all the way to Hooper Bay is currently ahead of them both, when I kicked around some dirt this morning on the way to the outhouse.

On an unrelated note, Anderson's scheme to give away free land to revitalize their community seems to have failed. Who would have thought that giving free land to random people wouldn't work...

A while ago, a bunch of fishers in Marshall staged a fishing protest against the subsistence closures. A bunch of other people in other villages did it too, but they didn't publicize the fact. The Feds finally ticketed someone - the only person they couldn't ignore, who was a VPSO. Word is around the water cooler that they really, really want this year's cluster**** to go away. Days like this, I'm glad I don't do anything with fish.

Friday, 2 October 2009

2009 Ig Nobels are out!

The 2009 Ig Nobel Prizes are out! They celebrate research of questionable veracity or utility - you know, the stuff the Nobel Prize committee rudely ignores. My favourite study is the recipient of the Ig Nobel Peace Prize. They were awarded it for determining whether it is better be smashed on the head with a full bottle or an empty bottle in a bar brawl.

Are full or empty beer bottles sturdier and does their fracture-threshold suffice to break the human skull?

Stephan A. Bolliger, Steffen Ross MD, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael J. Thali, and Beat P. Kneubuehl PhD
Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine
Volume 16, Issue 3, April 2009, Pages 138-142

Beer bottles are often used in physical disputes. If the bottles break, they may give rise to sharp trauma. However, if the bottles remain intact, they may cause blunt injuries. In order to investigate whether full or empty standard half-litre beer bottles are sturdier and if the necessary breaking energy surpasses the minimum fracture-threshold of the human skull, we tested the fracture properties of such beer bottles in a drop-tower.

Full bottles broke at 30 J impact energy, empty bottles at 40 J. These breaking energies surpass the minimum fracture-threshold of the human neurocranium. Beer bottles may therefore fracture the human skull and therefore serve as dangerous instruments in a physical dispute.

Keywords: Breaking energy threshold; Beer bottles; Blunt head trauma

So remember. If you're going to get in a bar fight, pick a fight with a person who's been drinking for quite a bit. Ooops! I originally said just started, but that'll get you glass shards in the brain.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Conservation priorities

Here are some facts that conservation biologists don't like to hear:
  1. Conservation money is limited. Conservation effort is also limited.
  2. There are many species in need of conservation.
  3. The number of species in need of conservation is likely to grow.
And I'll add on one fact that I don't think any conservation biologist would disagree with:
  1. Some species are harder to conserve than others.
Given these four basic premises, one conclusion pops out: we need to be selective in what we attempt to conserve, so to maximize the number of species we can conserve. It also means we shouldn't be wasting money on things that don't contribute significantly to conservation, like banning Canadian Polar Bear rugs, or wasting enforcement money chasing down native subsistence users who hunt polar bears through a ban (luckily, that one would be politically untenable).

Some species are challenging to conserve for space issues - try keeping a Grey Whale in captivity for captive breeding! Others are difficult for husbandry issues, like the Shanghai soft-shell turtle where the only male in China once attacked a female instead of mating. And ask the Black Footed Ferrets what re-discovery did to their numbers - I once heard a colleague describe the worst thing that happened to the Black Footed Ferret as being "Scientists discovered they weren't extinct yet."

The idea that we should maximize our bang-for-our-buck in conservation is a very unpopular one, though one that more scientists are coming around to. Recently, this argument poked its head up in the main stream media when a prominent scientist advocated just letting the Giant Panda go extinct. MSNBC downplays his comments through a rebuttal from another scientist - and would have thought the WWF, an organization that uses a Giant Panda as their logo, would oppose it?

Mr Packham is probably more in the right, here. The problem is that the Giant Panda is too much of a specialist, and its habitat is disappearing, and likely can't be re-created. Even if we stabilized their numbers at their current levels, they're (and would always be) highly vulnerable to chance events - like the introduction of a new disease, or a dry year. But from a public relations point of view, it would be un-reasonable to let the Panda go quietly into the night. People like bears (so long as they don't have to live with the). They're willing to shell out millions of dollars to see even a small return on their investment. Practically speaking, not the best course of action. But the one we're apparently taking, none the less.