Friday, 27 August 2010

A newly old brand of crazy?

I was going to write about the big behav-ecol kerfluffle that's stemming from E.O. Wilson's decision to go off the deep end (gee, I wonder where Tuuk stands?), but time has conspired against me. I didn't have enough time to write it up today, and probably want to put it off so I have a chance to re-read the paper. It's familiar - I was there for a lecture previewing the arguments about 6 years ago (?) at the University of Utah.

Instead, here's a brand of crazy I had no clue existed. There are people out there who dispute germ theory? Seriously? Are we going back to the witch based theory of disease?

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The other Air Force Falcons.

Birds and Aircraft don't mix. Just ask Sullenberger about how well his plane dealt with the multiple bird-strikes. This is even more the case in high performance military jets, which are even more expensive to fix. So, what's an Air Force base to do? In the latest issue of "The Wildlife Professional" there was an article (p. 52) with a great number of approaches laid out a bunch of approaches, from Habitat modification to Non-lethal dispersal, and capture and translocation. Well, an Air Force base has an idea I think stands out because it's neat - they're fighting falcons with falcons.

More likely, they're using them to harass prey. Falconry has been around for thousands of years now, and I've always been fond of it. Although there's occasional bird smuggling (primarily to the Middle East), on the whole falconers are a force for good, in terms of outreach and education about bird of prey conservation. Many of them volunteer at wildlife rehab centres. So the idea of using falconry to limit other human-wildlife conflict is appealing to me.

Side note - anyone else notice the B-2s flying around Fairbanks about a week ago? I can definitely see how those could be mistaken for alien spaceships! If you didn't know what you were looking at, you could easily say "That's not from this planet."

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Think like an Economist

My BiL  linked a really neat talk about how incentives matter (or don't) that had a neat animation to go with it. I'm not going to link it, because I'm mean like that. I'm not even going to link what I clicked on after that, which is an animation of another talk by Dan Levitt. Instead, I want to share the full version of the talk. It's a talk that's been in social psychology and economics circles for ages: is there such a thing as altruism?

Originally, my training is as a behavioural ecologist. Not as a geneticist, or population ecologist, or whatever. I studied behaviour. From a biological standpoint, altruism doesn't make much sense. Give away what you've worked to earn? If there's a gene for that behaviour, that gene will quickly go away as sure as a gene that results in an animal that tears holes in its side. In fact, for a long time, altruism was raised as an issue against evolution. Well, some very clever solutions show that you can have altruistic like behaviour, where you help your relatives (who have a copy of a gene for helping relatives), thereby increasing your own gene's fitness. An alternative solution, no less clever involves "I help you today, but you help me tomorrow." We call that reciprocal altruism. There's a number of other solutions to apparent altruism, where the giver is really getting something in return.

There's the rub. Is it possible to envision a situation where someone gets absolutely nothing in return? Or their family? Even feeling good about giving something is a benefit (although then you need to explain why one feels good about it). I think there probably is true altruism, but it's a mistake. It's a behaviour that goes off in the wrong context - we express the 'care for family' behaviour towards a total stranger because it miss-fires. But just because it's evolutionarily a mistake doesn't make it bad. After all, some of my favourite body parts don't have any function at all in one gender or another (I'll keep this blog pg-13 by not listing them. ;) ). Mistakes and misfires can be beautiful, wonderful. But that's not to say the whole problem of altruism is foxier than you'd think.

Monday, 23 August 2010

The end all of Traffic Jams

I don't deal with heavy traffic well. I avoid driving in Anchorage or downtown Fairbanks because I find it a mix of scary and infuriating that's hard to describe - When I briefly lived in Utah, the traffic was a bit of a nightmare, and I took the train 9 times out of 10. So, when I read about a 9 day, 100km long traffic jam in China...

I'm very glad I consider College Road "heavy traffic!"

Friday, 20 August 2010

Daily Mail takes a trip into National Enquirerer territory.

A woman in North London claims she is a living magnet, says the Daily Mail. Oh, so many things I could say to that. "She has a magnetic personality?" "I can't see what drew the reporter to write this story." "She's definitely got a large chunk of ferromagnetic material between her ears, that's for sure." See? The possibilities are endless.

Magnets don't work that way. Magnets are definitely not controlled by hormones. But we shouldn't expect better from the Daily Mail, I guess. As someone once quipped - "The Daily Mail - because throwing feces was outlawed as a form of journalism."

Daily Mail:

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Does caffeine help you drink?
It was my brother who told me that drinking coffee while drinking alcohol was a good idea - it would lessen the effects of intoxication. I launched into an ethanol fuelled discussion of how physiologically implausible that sounded to me, but we were celebrating a great occasion, and so I don't think I got much beyond slurring something about cyclic AMP before we instead had some of Arizona's finest porter. But I recall that exchange fairly well, a few years later.

It's with the fact that I'm taking on my brother that I write this - here's a man who can, and has when I was younger, beat me up, so I'll be diplomatic about it. Energy Drink-Cocktails have been in vogue for the last little bit, so Ferreira and colleagues decided to perform a small experiment of the effects of Redbull® and vodka. They took 26 subjects, all Brazilian males, and were put on treatment of one of two doses of vodka (a lesser and greater amount), modulated with and without Red Bull. There were a total of 3 treatments at least 7 days apart, and the whole thing was double blinded throughout - meaning neither researchers nor subjects knew whether they were getting alcohol, or the alcohol mixed with the energy drink. They also standardized the subjects on calories in a novel way - they used a big mac as a pre-drinking caloric unit. Who knew McDonalds was a research tool?

The graph most worth reproducing is the one that shows absolutely no effect on breath alcohol concentrations. I've included it to the right. I'm not fond of breath measurements (blood is better), but that aside, the effect is pretty clear: there is none. Co-drinking caffeine does not appear to modulate your BAC. Already, one urban myth dead.

But even if it doesn't effect your BAC, perhaps it effects how intoxicated you are, or your performance while intoxication. They tested this, by examining motor co-ordination and visual reaction time. In both cases, there was no effect of energy-drink on performance. Having a Red Bull® does not improve your ability to function while intoxicated. The popular myth of co-administered caffeine appears well and truly dead. But this raises the question, why did such a persistent myth get started?

There's no good figure for this (basically a page of tables), but at the same time they asked their subjects a variety of questions about wellbeing, and how they felt at the time. It covered the field from tiredness, tremor, to speech impairment and so on. Now, right now, these menus are basically a laundry list, and some of the results can easily show up as positivity spuriously. With that in mind, they found that individuals felt they had significantly better motor co-ordination than they in-fact had. Remember, they were double blinded, so they didn't know what they had just drank. The expectation bias should be weak in this instance - something about the energy drink makes us /feel/ illusory confidence in our motor skills. Perhaps it prevents us from feeling how poor our skills have become, or perhaps it bolsters confidence in the skills. It's hard to divine which, from the data.

Aside from the problem of multiple tests on that, I've got one other criticism of the study, and that's how they standardized their subjects. I've long suspected that self-reported alcohol consumption is not a reliable indicator of true alcohol (or other drugs) consumption. There's a stigma attached to excessive drug consumption, and so people are likely to under-report their use. There needs to be a better way to gauge participant alcohol consumption.

Ferreira, S., de Mello, M., Pompeia, S., & de Souza-Formigoni, M. (2006). Effects of Energy Drink Ingestion on Alcohol Intoxication Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 30 (4), 598-605 DOI: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2006.00070.x

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Evolution of Mickey Mouse

A while back I wrote about neoteny in humans, and why most of us can't look at a bucket full of puppies without going "Aww!" It's all rooted in the evolution of the human brain, shaped by the millions of years something resembling Homo has been around. Jerry Coyne, author of the wonderful book "Why Evolution is True" (and author of a blog by the same name) gave his own take on the issue, which you can find here. I strongly recommend you give it a read! In it, he has a wonderful picture showing the neotenic evolution of Mickey Mouse. How could I not reproduce it here?
Notice how Mickey's characteristics keep changing. Gradually, he's become shorter snouted, thicker limbed, large headed and more squat. In short, more like a baby human's form. 'Generations' of drawings have been winnowed down to what we find the most visually appealing, and that turns out to be the most juvenilized version!


Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Back again; Catching up with Stevens.

There's probably a reason why in English, "Fishing" also means blindly searching for something.

While I was in the field, enjoying bright sunny days in Southeast, I was necessarily away from news outlets and the like. So it came as a bit of a surprise when I got back at the end of the fieldwork and found out that Ted Stevens had died. Immediately, I asked some people near me (I was using a tourist internet connection) if they knew any details, since I'd just found out. Apparently they didn't live in Alaska full-time because their first question was "Who is Ted Stevens?"

It's one of those questions an Alaskan wouldn't need to ask. If you've lived here a year, or a hundred, you know Ted Stevens. There's a good chance you've met him in the flesh. One of my friends is repeatedly on record as saying that he owed his first job to Ted Stevens, when he funnelled some money this way. Obviously, Ted Stevens was not without his detractors. There are arguments for and against him, and one could debate in circles whether he was for good or ill. In fact, our skipper (who got the news on the sideband, but failed to share it with anyone since we were all ashore) launched into a heated debate with some other folks about Stevens' goodness (or lack thereof). I'm not sure this is the time to decide a legacy - when it comes to politicians, it's difficult to gauge legacy until time has passed just a bit. And I won't try to argue one way or the other just yet. But one thing I think we could all agree on is that Ted Stevens was a massive figure in our state.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Awol in the SE

Things will be quiet here at Geneflow for the next little bit, as I'm heading out to the SE to go poke at bears for a while. I'm looking forward to getting away from this gosh darned smoke!

Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale

Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale by Samuel Smith Old Brewery, United Kingdom. 
One can't help but admire Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale's bottle, with enough moulding on the glass to lend it elegance, without being gaudy. It's sturdy glass, with simple labels that seem a touch olde-timey. The beer has a course pour, and after an initial flush of head, it dies down to the tan ring. The beer is a opaque red-brow, almost like oak. It smells fruity like freshly ground nutmeat. It's the malts that stand out when you drink it though, thick on your tongue as syrup. I'm disappointed about the lack of nutty hints - it isn't much of a brown ale without some nuttiness to it. There's barely detectable undercurrent of apple that I missed in the first few sips. It has a fine mouthfeel, and the carbonated bite is minimal. Rather, this beer has a watery, clean finish. Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale would excel as in many other beer styles, but is a weak entry in the field of brown ales.  4.0 of 5. B+

Thursday, 5 August 2010

I want to fly in an Airship

It's no secret that I love neat gadget-y things. I've got a love affair with a hovercraft, and I've wound my own wind turbine stator. Basically, if it's geeky and new (or a new old thing) chances are I'll drool over it. This is the case for the hybrid Airships that the Telegraph wrote about. In a nutshell, they're half blimp, half helicopter, using much bigger turbofans for thrust vectoring and lift. Normally, planes use wings to generate aerodynamic lift, and control surfaces to modulate the direction of airflow. Thrust vectoring generates pressure on the craft itself, so the craft is moved by a stream of engine exhaust. Think of the Harrier when it vertically takes off, for a good idea of how this works.

The best part about airships is that they really rework the economics of heavy air-lift. Running a C-130 or anything of the like is expensive, and in rural situations, it's hard to take full advantage of a C-130 flight all at once. An airship would be comparably cheaper, and could make multiple stops on a circuit, meaning that no one stop would need to fill the cargo capacity. Additionally, air-barging fuel becomes slightly less insanely expensive, with the largest of the air ships being able to move upwards of 30,000 us gallons of heating fuel in a trip.

Of course, there are barriers to this technology making it to practical use. It feels like I've been promised heavy lift airships for 10 years now, and I haven't seen a single one. And that's just as long as I've been aware of them. The Article talks about proposals using these things in the Troubles, which extended from the late 60s to the early-mid 90s. They have been taking a long time about practically fielding airships...

Monday, 2 August 2010

Some Observations on UPS et al.

Living in Alaska gets you used to shipping stuff. Whether it's bush orders, or buying speciality parts you can't get in the state, everyone has a go at it eventually. A discussion with an out of state acquaintance on her woes using UPS lead me to a stunning realization: UPS is run by cosmologists! I mean, of course, the physicists who describe the make up of the universe (and the >5% of it that is made of normal matter). This would explain quite a bit.

First, shipping companies seem to work on a different clock than the rest of us, when it comes to scanning in packages. Not GMT, PDT, or anything like that. No, hours can pass in minutes, and minutes can pass in hours. This is what you'd expect from shipping companies who occasionally accelerate close to the speed of light. The opposite effect must stem from the rest of the world, accelerating similarly while the package remains at rest.

Second, if you know where a package is (via a tracking service), you have no clue where it's going. If you know its velocity, you don't know where it is. This is keeping in line with the Uncertainty principle. Very rarely does anyone know exactly where the package is at any moment.

Other quantum effects can be noted in our third line of evidence, in that a package can be said to be delivered, and yet undelivered to the recipient, at the same time. This is keeping in line with the Copenhagen school of quantum mechanics, showing that our package's wave form has not collapsed yet. This is worrisome because until it's observed, the package is both delivered, undelivered, and a Tyrannosaurus rex all at the same time. It's not that the T. rex is dangerous that worries me, but there's a sur-charge for shipping animals and I'd rather not pay it.

If it were observed, it would collapse down to a single state of being either delivered or undelivered (or less probably, the aforementioned Triassic animal). The package is rarely observed, however, because of our second issue - no one knows where the package is. I can only assume this inability to observe it is because they have near perfect information about the package's velocity.

Finally, packages seem to have a temperature, in that the faster they move from ground to plane to wherever, the more they're banged around (no matter how many 'fragile!' stickers you put on it). Packages that are sent over-night arrive looking like the army used them for target dummies, while packages sent two-day merely look like a herd of football players trampled it.

Clearly, the evidence is irrefutable. FedEx and UPS are run by physicists.