Archive for April, 2009

Antivaccination and Risk Evaluation

April 30, 2009 - 2:20 pm Comments Off

One of the perpetual puzzlers to the general community of science-and-skepticism oriented folks is the prevalence of people, especially people who are otherwise apparently rational in all respects, who choose not to vaccinate their children. I’m not talking about those that decide their kids don’t necessarily need a chicken pox shot or a human papillomavirus shot; I’m talking about the ones that eschew shots for childhood diseases that used to be both common and deadly, and only aren’t common anymore because generations of children in America have been almost entirely vaccinated against them- polio, diphtheria, pertussis, measles, and so forth.

On the face of a sheer risk assessment calculation, the choice is absurd; the odds of a negative reaction are extremely low and the possibility that vaccines cause autism or some other nebulous lifelong ailment has been shown in twelve studies and counting to be unlikely in the extreme- and the originator of the autism meme has admitted he faked his data. The potential cost with a risk of vaccine reaction is fairly low; among the reactions that DO occur, most are very minor. The potential cost with a risk of a child contracting diseases normally vaccinated against is fairly high; while deaths from such diseases are rarer than they used to be, they can still cripple and scar for life, and such diseases are NOT gone- especially in the age of globalized travel. Skipping the sticks that hundreds of millions of children get with no cost and substantial benefit seems, by actuarial standards, insane. So why do normal, rational people do it?

Because normal, rational people are using brain hardware developed to evaluate the risks of being a hunter-gatherer living in a small stone age tribe rather than being a 21st century member of the developed world- and the brain systems for doing so are fairly jury-rigged even by the hunter-gatherer’s standard. People are not entirely rational* when evaluating risk- and because of the nature of the system, they usually have no idea they’re not unless the disconnect between reason and reaction is glaring enough to get noticed.

For starters, the brain has two entirely different systems for coping with risk- your amygdala is a part of your brain that’s been with you since your ancestors breathed water, and it handles the emotional reactions of risk. This is the part of you that is afraid when it sees a predator nearby, and that teaches you to BE afraid the next time things associated with something Very Bad crop up again. If you’ve ever developed a phobia of something technically innocuous because it was somehow involved in a trauma, thank your amygdala for the reaction. This is how lizards cope with risk and it works just fine for being a lizard.

Meanwhile, we make decisions about risks that are NOT so immediate as a lion coming for your face with an entirely different part of the brain- the neocortex. This is the hot new mammal brain that gives us the ability to do advanced mental tricks like avoid risks that are merely possible rather than ones that are immediate. This is a much harder trick for a brain, and there are all sorts of kludges, shortcuts, and basic heuristics involved in the process. If you want to cover it all read the article I linked and then start in on the footnote material (this is a huge subject), but right now I’ll cover the aspects that directly affect the vaccinate/don’t vaccinate risk evaluation.

-The statistical data for both sides of the issue- the risks of vaccination and the risks of not vaccinating- right now present risks of a size too small to be handled well by our intuitive systems. If you know that if you do something you have a seventy five percent chance of some horrible effect, you’ll never do that thing unless you make some horrible mistake and do it inadvertently. If you know you have a three percent chance of having a horrible result, it will probably vanish off your mental radar altogether unless something else makes you re-consider the risk evaluation- this is one reason why so many people don’t wear sunscreen or don’t fasten their seatbelts. Their costs are almost negligible and the risks are significant, but they feel like it probably won’t happen anyway and the risk is dismissed, nearly automatically. Our brains are designed to cope with numbers relevant to hunter-gatherers- numbers greater than, say, a few hundred are just handled by our brains as “many” or “few”- or “almost never” or “almost certainly”- even with large differences such as one in ten thousand versus one in a million.

-Personalization. We react far more to a perceived risk if we can personalize it rather than thinking about it abstractly. Fifty years ago, the risks of “childhood” diseases were personalized for everyone- basically everybody knew the kid in their neighborhood that had gotten polio and was now crippled, or the kid who was soft in the head after a nasty bout of measles, or the kid who had up and died. Thanks to widespread vaccination efforts, now almost no one who hasn’t traveled to countries where such dieases are still commonplace does; the personalization is relegated to the history books, not “people now like me”. On the other hand, the risk of a vaccine reaction or a possible developmental affect has a personalized face- the kid for whom the power to give the shot or not is in your hands. It is very easy to imagine the child ceasing to breathe or with flat autistic affect. And as every parent knows, risks to your children are always perceived as much more threatening than risks to yourself. This is how a generation went from being kicked out into the neighborhood to play unsupervised for most of the day to playdates with helmets.

-Control bias. Parents see themselves as having a certain degree of control over illnesses that have been with humanity for a long time; they can (they think) keep their child away from people sick with certain diseases and away from hospitals with people sick with exotic things, keep them in with the vaccinated and count on herd immunity to protect them, and if they get sick then we have modern hospitals and modern technology. It’s not the nineteenth century anymore, after all, surely they’re not all that fatal/crippling NOW. Reactions and the imagined potential for poorly-understood developmental disorders are a much less scrutable possibility, with the only sense of control being the choice to vaccinate or not vaccinate- and therefore much more threatening. This is how somebody can ride a motorcycle but still be afraid to fly on an airliner- he’s driving the motorcyle, in control. In a plane his fate is in some stranger’s hands.

-One major factor for risk evaluation is what’s being talked about by people around us. In the developed world, measles and polio epidemics aren’t talked about much anymore, where once they were perennial subjects for all parents. We DO talk about autism and allergies- and regardless of whether they’re being painted as cranks or concerned parents, antivaccination talk is in the air. West Nile virus is still with us at the same rate it was when it was a topic of great concern- a friend of ours recently missed an airport pickup because her ride had been stricken with it- but it’s not talked about anymore, and very few people include it in their risk evaluations concerning activities and precautions anymore. We are a social species- one of our major tools for evaluating dangers is what the rest of the group is concerned about.

-Hidden benefits, hidden costs. The benefit of vaccination is almost entirely hidden- the child is simply not stricken by what is already imagined to be a dismissably-rare event. The cost is usually the same- simply a higher likelihood of a bad outcome. Unless that actually happens- and such cases are usually dismissed as “rare” in the same failure of intuitive numbers-handling- no cost is perceived at all, just as no benefit to the vaccinated child is.

Tying the biased risk evaluation all together is a phenomenon that science fiction writer Douglas Adams once wrote into his books as the Someone Else’s Problem Field**. If you think the risk is going to be borne or mitigated by someone else, but not you (or your child), then its risk profile drops precipitously. What parents who choose not to vaccinate are counting on is every other parent that makes the same risk evaluation differently- and vaccinates THEIR child. This is the aforementioned herd immunity- traditional epidemiologists count on it to protect those who *can’t* be vaccinated or for whom vaccination would make no difference, such as the immunocompromised. If sufficient numbers of vaccinated are present, then diseases will find so few vectors of infection that the outbreak will be a complete nonstarter. Of course, herd immunity depends on very high percentages of vaccinated, so each such choice made breaks the protective wall down a little further- but that’s a remotely abstract concept that the intuitive assessment dismisses, and the individual family is personalized and concrete.

And so the wall crumbles.

*Link goes to a longer article that explains everything in much more detail. Recommended reading.

**SEP field had nothing to do with risk, but rather was a plot device that allowed the owners of the field to be ignored utterly by anyone around them, but the underlying phenomenon is the same.

Content Forthcoming

April 29, 2009 - 8:40 pm Comments Off

I had hoped to leave y’all with at least one more semi-meaty chunk before I lit out of town again, but I ran up against a combination of an unexpectedly difficult research phase and a strong antibiotic making it tough for me to focus, so it’s only about a third done. Hopefully I should have it finished tomorrow before I leave.

In the meantime, check out the latest webcomic to entertain me: SPQR Blues. It’s a historical comic featuring Romans, Titus’s “interactions” with Judea, and Chekhov’s Volcano. It’s done by someone obviously very big on the classics and features historically appropriate humor and a surprisingly complex storyline. Hit “first” and do what I’ve been doing since I got back- archive bingeing.

Don't Panic Yet

April 27, 2009 - 7:37 pm Comments Off

So, mere years after the bird flu that cut a swath of destruction inches wide across North America, the new flu concern is swine flu part two, Mexican boogaloo. Scientists are warning of a pandemic, and an awful lot of folks I know are stocking up on their Purell wipes.

Me, I’m not particularly sweating it right now. I’ll probably get a flu shot when they get the strain sorted out, but then I think flu shots are a good idea anyway. Do I think we’re looking at the potential for an apocalyptic attack on civilization, Spanish Flu the Sequel? Too soon to tell.

First, a little background on influenza, our starring virus. Influenza has the relatively uncommon viral ability to infect several different unrelated species; while influenza is actually quite the slut of an upper respiratory virus and can get at a very wide range of host species with various levels of consequence for the host, the ones we hear the most about are birds and pigs, partly because of the bird’s mobility and partly because both come in domestic forms that have a great deal of interaction with humans. This versatility gives influenza one extra leg up in the evolutionary arms race that is being a pathogen- it mutates with tremendous speed as it picks up new genes and adapts across species. This is why you need a new flu shot every year instead of being good to go with a handful in a lifetime as you are with a human-only species like smallpox. Influenza strains are like popular dance tracks- each new host and generation of host provides its own remix.

This is why influenza is so popular in apocalyptic scenarios; their evolutionary chops make it virtually impossible to produce targeted vaccines and drugs against it, and its versatility in choice of host and method of transmission makes containing it equally impossible once a successful strain gets legs. The way that influenza jumps across multiple species also makes it scarier in one other respect- the normal evolutionary pressures on pathogens are blunted by the way a strain “grown” in one species may do something drastically different in a new one. Normally, an upper-respiratory virus is under pressure to be very successful at infecting, but not to be particularly virulent*; a host that feels well enough to be up and walking around and coming into the office saying “itds justg a liddle code” is a host that’s spreading the virus further and making it more successful. Diseases that depend on on a method of transmission independent of the host’s mobility- like insect-borne diseases and water-borne diseases in regions with poor sanitation- can afford to be more virulent than respiratory viruses. Influenza’s rapid mutation rate and multiple hosts make it a bit of an exception**.

The other reason influenza is so popular as a terrifying pandemic is that we’ve already HAD a terrifying pandemic from one particularly awful strain, the Spanish flu. World War I claimed its bodies, but the flu was responsible for far more of the generational gutting of the period- its death toll was double that of the war. One of the things about the Spanish flu that’s gravely cited in discussions of the epidemic is its odd pattern of fatality- it included a disproportionate number of the young and perfectly healthy. The morbidity and mortality graphs for “normal” flu look like U’s; the very young and the very old, those with undeveloped or compromised immune systems, get sick and die far more often. The 1918 pandemic’s morbidity and mortality graph looked more like a W- there was another big spike in the middle, healthy adults. Right now the hot theory for how this could have happened is the cytokine storm, which boils down to an overreaction by a robust immune system causing more damage than the virus on its own could have. It’s been observed in mouse models infected with the 1918 strain, but is overall not very well understood at all. Aside from the general lack of clarity into what exactly is involved in a “cytokine storm”, there’s plenty of obfuscating factors- the data isn’t great, and there’s also the role that the war itself played in creating massive congregations of young men in poor (immuno-suppressing) conditions and then letting them cough on each other for indefinite periods.

The major problem with projecting a 1918 style pandemic from a modern flu strain is that, in developed countries especially, a number of things have changed since then. In both normal flus and the Spanish flu, the number one killer isn’t/wasn’t influenza itself so much as it was bacterial pneumonias and other opportunists- once the flu set in and started knocking down the immune system and tearing up tissues, secondary infections would set in and finish off the weakened patient. The super-virulent flu of 1918 had its share of acute cases in which (apparently) severe damage to the lungs and intestines rapidly followed infection and death occurred soon after- but these cases were far from the majority. One of the reasons this new “swine flu” is gathering such attention is that this may have happened to some of the Mexico City fatalities- but one of the things missing from the media reports is how very few of the fatalities have been confirmed by culture to BE swine flu, just as the cases in the US have a big question mark attached to them. Unfortunately, our news cycle is a lot faster than our laboratories are. Either way, even if the new flu is every bit as virulent, the developed world isn’t likely to see anything like 1918′s fatality rate- simply because we have medical technologies hospitals of the time lacked, like antibiotics and antiviral agents for more acute cases.

The thing about the word “pandemic” is that while it technically means just the same thing it always did- a global epidemic- the differences in fatality rate are now tremendously more local than they were even as late as the beginning of the twentieth century. This is why, when we hear about some scary new flu, SARS, or other virus du jour, the fatalities seem to kick hell out of the less developed world and then virtually halt by the time they hit first-world nations; not only is the medical treatment available of a much higher quality for victims, but the level of sanitation and rapid identification of victims tends to put a huge damper on the spread of infection. This is why ordinary flu is regarded in the US as interchangeable with “a sucky week off from work”, whereas if you live in rural Madagascar it’s a serious risk of death. To put it in some perspective, bear in mind that right now the worldwide death toll for all influenzas hovers around the hundreds of thousands… whereas deaths from simple diarrheal diseases, particularly for children, are in the millions.

So, could the swine flu be as virulent as the 1918 flu? It’s a possibility. There’s not near enough known about it yet to tell, though it’s good that people are getting serious early about trying to contain it. Should you listen to the media? Take with several large grains of salt- reporters tend to be no better educated on the subject than “the flu was a horrible pandemic once!”. Should you worry about the flu-caused collapse of civilization? Really, I wouldn’t.

*Virulence: the technical term for just how severely a disease kicks the shit out of its host. A disease like herpes has very low virulence, whereas one like ebola has extremely high virulence. Infectivity- how good it is at breaching immune defenses and setting up shop- is an independent trait.

**This may well be one reason the 1918 pandemic lasted less than a year- terrifying as it was, it was also not very fit by virus standards.

Yawn

April 25, 2009 - 7:15 pm Comments Off

I’m back. Technically. I missed a ton of sleep while gone- word to the wise, antihistamines and science fiction short story collections don’t mix- and generally spent the entire time either stressing or running from one place to another, so even though I got a solid nine hours last night, I still feel ready for a nap. Downtime is most definitely required.

IF there is no breach of mediation agreement, the Legal Hell may finally be over. We ate it on a pretty large scale, but the alternative was essentially to give most of the estate to various lawyers for only a chance at minor further gain for us. Opponent’s victory was not total.

This made me laugh today: World Leaders’ Facebook Group

Lawyer Filler Two: Stabby Boogaloo

April 24, 2009 - 3:14 pm Comments Off

As promised yesterday today’s boring filler is all about my thoughts on the Mantis Slimline 3

As with the monacoe, I’m whelmed. At its price point, this knife has no major drawbacks, and only a few nitpicks against it. The balance is good, and the belt clip grips very securely. The grip is not exactly world-class comfort, but it’s reasonably secure and not uncomfortable. The 420 steel is rather soft, but that means it’s easy to sharpen (which you’ll do a lot anyway). There’s a bit of a ring of flux, or adhesive, or whatever they affixed the red rivets with around each one, but it’s not tremendously obvious. Since one of the main attractions on this knife is it’s svelte profile, it bears mentioning that yes, this knife is very slim:
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Pardon the glare. Oleg Volk, I ain’t. That’s a dime next to it. From outside edge to edge on one of the rivets, it’s just over 1/4″ wide. The sheath provides decent retention, but it doesn’t take too much in the way of sharp jostling to get it to pop free. This does make it great for easy draw/sheath motions if you’re doing something like opening and/or breaking down cardboard boxes. On the downside of the sheath, the belt clip is one way. Inspecting it, you can see it’s detachable with some screws and nuts:
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“Handy!” you might think to yourself. “Now if I need it on my other side for some reason, it’s just a couple nuts and the clip is reversed!” Sadly, not so much. Here you see where the clip has the curve of the sheath molded into it. It simply doesn’t fit the other side.
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Given that it’d take maybe an extra 1/8″ of material and a slight repositioning of the screw holes to make it flippable, I’m not sure why they chose to go with the one-way mount. Even at $35 that shouldn’t add more than a penny or two to the overall production cost, I imagine. The only other drawback on the knife has apparently self-corrected. When I first got it, I gave it a standard soap-n-water wash with a bit of scrubbing for good measure and set about cooking dinner, since I figure any knife I own had better be able to pull double duty in the kitchen from time to time. All washed and cleaned, I went to cut a stick of butter with it. Needless to say, I was rather surprised when the cut surfaces of the butter came up streaked black from the finish on the blade. I attempted to recreate this effect for this post, but in the knife’s favor, all the finish stayed applied this time. I don’t know if they just didn’t do much in the way of cleanup on the blade before it went out the door or what, but given that it did get a thorough wash before meeting the butter, it was a tad unsettling.

All in all, this is a solid knife. At $35 and 420 steel, it’s perfect for chores in the garden you don’t want to ding up your Emmerson on, or throwing in the truck to have on hand for the various situations that crop up semi-regularly when you have a truck. Or car, for that matter. A decent and reliable cutting tool you’re not overly attached to is always a good thing to have around in a vehicle. It even looks fairly slick, too.

And since I’m still waiting to hear back from LabRat, proper application of knife to lawyer will have to wait until I find out just how badly the little pustule we’re fighting behaved.

Almost Forgot…

April 24, 2009 - 9:51 am Comments Off

…to link this week’s Vicious Circle. Alan worked his ass off editing the alcohol-fueled ramblings of a bunch of gun-interested folk down to an hour on the subject of anti-gun-owner discrimination and 2nd amendment incorporation, and there’s talk of a bonus round later with some of the stuff he had to snip to get it down to length. As usual, my optimism runs rampant in this one. (Also we got someone who actually knows a thing or two about the incorporation issue. Bonus hint: it’s not me.)

Lawyeritis Flare-up Filler: The Mantis Monacoe

April 23, 2009 - 8:40 pm Comments Off

Sorry folks, but LabRat is off dealing with the latest round of flaming horseshit from our ongoing legal drama. There’s a slim chance this could be the last one, but that would hinge on the psycho pile of shit masquerading as a person we’re up against acting rationally, so nobody is holding their breath. Since she’s wrapped up in the nuts and bolts and going-elsewhere for that, and the rest of my day was filled with a boss who damn near had a panic attack when she saw debugging information after she told me to debug, there’s not much in the way of brain goo left to provide deep insights or noteworthy snark at the moment. Hopefully tomorrow will see something better (or at least enough time for the continuance of what follows), but since I’m still stuck without my normal filter between me and said boss, and LabRat doesn’t get back till may-as-well-be-Saturday o’clock, the outlook is currently hazy.

Rather than just throw up “sry, busy. Later, kthxbai,” I’ve got a nice mindless one I’ve had sitting around for a while. A few months ago, Breda and Caleb interviewed the president of Mantis Knives for their weekly radio show. I’m generally fond of nifty tools for stabbing and cutting and so forth, so like any good obsessive compulsive, I wound up snagging a pair.

The two I picked up were the Monacoe, ’cause I’m a sucker for higher-end steels like the BG-42 that the blade is made of, and a Slimline 3 because, what the hell. As a bonus, the company threw in a pair of Necessikeys too.Having had both for a month or three now, my overall reaction is that I’m whelmed. I’m not overwhelmed, but I’m not underwhelmed.

Both knives are decent for their price point. The Monacoe holds its edge well, and is reasonably easy to resharpen. One handed opening is possible and reasonably simple, though I wouldn’t count on being able to do it in an emergency. The balance is good, but it suffers a few drawbacks. Due to a minor hiccup in my order (the Slimline was accidentally omitted – and their customer service was great about fixing that, and with a good attitude to boot), I had an opportunity to speak with the company’s founder (see? How’s that for service!), who explained a bit about the design impetus for the Monacoe. Specifically, he said he was going for a higher end steel for the blade on a knife with a bit of a classic race car look to it, hence the “Monacoe” name. To that end, he succeeded. The bad news is also that he succeeded. When rigged with a pocket clip, the rear hole on the knife (or front wheel of the car, depending on how you’re looking at it) sticks out a pretty fair ways above the edge of a pocket:
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That’s high enough up that it with the slightly-sharp edges on the frame, it wound up scratching up my inner forearm pretty good over the course of a couple days. Also, that hole there making the wheel is freakin’ huge.

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Yeah, that’s a .45acp sitting comfortably with wiggle room to spare in there. Pretty big decoration for a pocketknife. That aside, the knife does look good. The race car lines are pretty clear, and it works, aesthetically. The blade is good and sturdy, and behaves as expected for BG-42 steel. It’s not so sturdy I’d want to use it for any sort of life-or-death load bearing gee-gaw, but it’s more than fine for the tasks a clip knife should be able to handle. The hinge is good, and the lockup is reasonably solid. It has a few flaws that more expensive knives correct for, but it is pretty cheap for a BG-42 blade. Like I said, the knife didn’t rock me to the back of the auditorium, but it didn’t disappoint either. If you’ve got the space in your pocket to lug it around without the clip o’ arm-scratchiness, I can’t think of much reason not to snag one if you’re in the market for a solid $50 knife.

And now because it has been a long day, I leave you with the dreaded “To Be Continued.” Tomorrow, the Slimline 3 and Necessikey.

Fit Now, Fail Later

April 22, 2009 - 5:39 pm Comments Off

So in the last post, I mentioned in a footnote that while giant pandas have adapted to a bamboo-intensive diet completely unlike that of other bears*, this might not have been the most sensible choice for them as a species. I said that matter deserved its own post. Several said I should write that. I am nothing if not eager to please.

The panda’s most famous “problem”- that they are extremely difficult to breed in zoos because the males have disproportionately small penises and no instinctive knowledge of sex, and the females have a very short estrus period- aren’t really problems for wild pandas. In the wild, a cub would spend years with its mother; in the Chinese breeding programs most zoos try to follow because they have such a smaller comparative amount of knowledge of how to breed them in captivity, cubs may be taken from their mother as young as six months to ensure that she goes into another cycle as soon as possible. In other words, in the wild a male cub can expect to pick up sexual behavior by watching and learning- which is actually how a number of other species operate, including elephants and rhinoceri, for whom mating carries logistical problems on a scale roughly equivalent to figuring out how to park one tank on top of another and then separate them again without damage. Likewise, the short estrus period is pretty much status quo for bears across the world, and the proportionately small genitalia are also not uncommon in other species, including the gorilla, and no one has accused them of being unable to breed. Pandas aren’t the world’s most efficient breeders, but they can do it a lot better in the wild than in zoos.

Almost all of the panda’s real problems stem from its diet: all bamboo, all the time. Other bears are omnivores- fish, meat, fungus, berries, insects, roots… and especially for smaller bears like black bears, grasses and forbs**. Contrary to campers’ usual imagination, for a black bear life is mostly vegetarian***. The panda has done this one better: it has exchanged a life of constantly rummaging around trying to find grubs, berries, and meat for feeding on what were at one time seemingly endless forests of incredibly abundant food… bamboo. On the face of it, this is not a problem, it’s a smart fitness choice- and in the short term, it was, for all the reasons that are obvious.

The problem is that pandas are not all THAT much changed from being bears. Unlike other herbivores, they have short guts without much in the way of dedicated bacterial colonies to extract nutrition from the bamboo. Unlike other herbivores, they have no ability to move their jaws from side to side to efficiently grind plant foods. (You can see this same carnivoran jaw structure in your cat or dog- notice how they try to chomp everything to pieces instead of chewing as we know it?) The massive jaw muscles they had to develop to chew up a woody plant like bamboo also required their skull to grow in a way that essentially closes off any potential development of this capability, too. Like other herbivores that subsist exclusively on grasses, they are large- being big and round is the most efficient shape for conserving heat, and if you’re a mammal, most of the calories you eat go toward maintaining your body temperature. Unlike most other herbivores that subsist exclusively on grasses, they can’t digest what they eat very efficiently, so they have to conserve energy; like another herbivore I’ve written about in the past, they have virtually no energy to spare and spend as little of their time possible moving, which is one reason they’re not the world’s most enthusiastic about socializing and mating.

The problems of their diet don’t stop there. They don’t do another sensible thing that other bears do- hibernating through winter’s months of poor food supply- because they can’t. The nutrition they get from bamboo is completely inadequate to building up the necessary supplies of body fat required to hibernate for a few months; therefore, this animal that moves as little as possible is forced to spend a great deal of energy migrating up or down mountains every season in order to find places where the bamboo is still growing lushly enough to sustain it. More than that, it makes reproduction difficult in a way totally unrelated to their sex lives- the bamboo is also a poor diet both for sustaining pregnancy and producing nutritious milk after birth. Therefore, baby pandas are born at a far earlier stage of development than other bear cubs- they are famously tiny and fragile, and they will take quite awhile to grow to a reasonable size- a panda cub is three months old before it can even walk, and a year old before it has a full set of teeth. Bear in mind, this is based on pandas being fed a comparatively rich zoo diet that includes as much meat and fruit as the animals will take (they prefer bamboo)- for wild pandas it’s likely to be considerably slower. The panda does have some compensations, first in the form of delayed implantation of fertilized embryos that allows the mother about two months of latitude to “time” a birth after a mating for the time when the bamboo is youngest and richest, and extremely powerful maternal instincts that need no learning curve****. These are enough to keep the panda going as a species, but not to give it much resilience against difficult changes- like, say, encroachment of human habitation on those suddenly not so endless forests of bamboo.

Pandas aren’t, as some intelligent design proponents like to claim*****, an “unfit” species. They had a wide open, unexploited ecological niche, and they radiated into it, established a monopoly on it for large animals, and they even managed to survive an ice age in it. What they aren’t is a species likely to last all that long on a geological time scale; specialization, especially specializations with such large costs, tend to be the ultimate death knell for a species. Exploiting nascent island ecosystems is also a way for a species to thrive for awhile, but becoming an island species- which often entails losing a lot of expensive capabilities like flight, body size, and alertness and aggression- is essentially suicide in terms of a lineage that survives across the epochs. It may yet turn out that an omnivore from a carnivore lineage going fully herbivorous is a mistake of similar proportions.

*You may have some recollection of a old bit of trivia that pandas aren’t actually bears. There was a taxonomic tug-of-war dating back to the nineteenth century about whether they were, in essence, smallish bears or really large raccoons, based on observations of many morphological similarities to another creature classified as a Procyonid (raccoon family). In more recent years, multiple molecular studies have effectively resolved the debate: giant pandas are bears and red pandas are procyonids. The morphological and behavioral similarities are convergent evolution due to the shared diet.

**This is a fancy botanical term for a class of plants that gardeners are familiar with both as “the wildflowers I’m trying to grow” and “the weeds in my wildflower garden”. Dandelions are forbs, as are other small, non-woody flowering plants that aren’t grasses or shrubs.

***Right in line with campers’ fears and driving the dump bear phenomenon, black bears are VERY eager to opportunistically seize on protein and fat-rich foods- they’re incompetent predators, but hungry for meat all the same. Outside of human influence they get it from carrion. Unlike polar or brown bears, which ARE competent predators and may kill you for food, the black bear will just kill you in the process of trying to steal your hamburger or out of fear.

****Unlike our ancestors. For a lot of primates, it’s rare for the firstborn infant to survive its mother’s ineptitude.

*****Yes, really. They claim the panda’s so screwed up it’s proof evolution, with its reliance on “survival of the fittest”, can’t possibly have produced it and God must have. They never seem to go into the theological implications of God creating such a supposedly hapless animal; sure, they’re cute and all, but wouldn’t that make the Divine Creator something of a sadist?

Government Inaction

April 21, 2009 - 4:36 pm Comments Off

Given standard postal travel times between Los Alamos and the capitol in Santa Fe, both senators and my congressman have had ample time to receive and review my previous request. So far, I haven’t even received the standard canned “thank you for contacting us” reply. Thus, it’s time to poke the pig again.

Dear Senator,
As I have not yet received my Letter of Marque and Reprisal to engage in anti-piracy operations in the waters and costal regions of Somalia, I am writing today in hopes of expediting the process. I am well aware that government efficiency is an oxymoron, but streamlining this process is in everybody’s best interest. Clearly, the pirates are not wasting time in their operations, I see little reason to dawdle on this end of things.

Since the standoff between a billion-dollar warship filled with hundreds of well paid, highly trained sailors and a lifeboat with four men with a few rifles finally came to an end, I’m sure you are well aware that the Somali pirates have vowed revenge, and stepped up the tempo of their own operations. Since the U.S. does not posses an equal number of billion-dollar warships to the number of Somali pirate vessels (and because many of the ones we do have are engaged in operations more appropriate to their scale), this is an ideal condition for a small vessel flying the colors of the United States to conduct operations in the interest of securing international shipping. The pirates are already quite angry with us, and I am convinced that spotting any ship flying our flag will draw quite a bit of attention. Normally I’d feel confident that the logical procession from that given is clear, but as you are an elected official, this means that my job will be simplified as the pirates attempt to capture a force already expecting and prepared for them. Simply put, they’ll be sailing into a trap.

Further, since my previous letter, I have received dozens of offers from people volunteering to join my crew. As I have made no attempt to advertise my intentions beyond their initial declaration, this enthusiasm has all been generated by word of mouth. Suffice it to say, once my Letter of Marque arrives, I will be well staffed, and I urge you to consider the positive effects a public appearance with a successful band of pirate-hunters would have on any re-election efforts in your future.

Now, as an elected official, you must be – at least theoretically – concerned with fiscal responsibility. Again, actual practice of this is not a hallmark of current government, but observing formalities tends to smooth operations further down the road. As I noted in my previous letter, there will be no actual cost to the government incurred by my operations, unless of course another tradition that went hand-in-hand with Letters of Marque were involved, the issuance of bounties. Personally, I feel that $20,000 per dead pirate is a fair price, but this is not strictly necessary. Instead, in order to help my operation run at a profit (and thus generate taxable revenue for the treasury – reported as promised to the standards of the Treasury Secretary), I propose an exemption to current BATFE regulations be included in my Letter.

I realize it’s something of a shift to go from notions regarding the destruction of a threat not en vogue for hundreds of years to modern firearm law, but please bear with me. Under current laws and regulations, fully automatic firearms are extremely difficult for an honest citizen to own for any reason. There is tremendous expense involved, and an amount of red tape that is truly staggering. I’m sure you’re busy, Senator, so I’ll spare you all the grisly details, but suffice it to say the only other industry with profit margins as large as the legal transfer of fully automatic weapons is the illegal transfer of narcotics. Consider, merely for an example, that the M-4 Carbine issued to our fighting men and women costs the government approximately $450 per rifle. For a citizen to legally own the same rifle, he or she will pay well in excess of $25,000. As the Somali obviously have tremendously different gun laws, most of the pirates are armed with (among other interesting things) AK-47 pattern rifles, of the fully automatic variety. With the stroke of a pen, my Letter of Marque could authorize me to seize their weapons and sell them as a private individual in the United States. Again, this is a win-win-win situation. There will be fewer pirates preying on US and international shipping interests, earning us good will from all who benefit. The treasury will gain as the taxes paid from the obscene profit margins on seized weapons (not to mention the added value of being the first legitimate “weapons of the high seas” sold to private collectors in over a hundred years) will be non-trivial at best, at least to the scale of a private citizen such as myself, and finally, US citizens will receive an influx of tools essential to any free society, circumventing the unconstitutional closed registry the BATFE maintains on fully automatic firearms.

Senator, I realize that in terms of the overall US budget my efforts will be trivial at best. Given President Obama and his administration’s $1,000,000,000,000 spending plan, the savings garnered by having one or two US Navy ships tasked elsewhere are but a drop in the bucket. Consider, however, that this same administration is quite pleased with itself for cutting $100,000,000 worth of spending- a whopping .0001% cut. How much would it cost to repair a Navy vessel if the pirates get a lucky shot with an RPG and take out some sensitive electronic cluster? What of ongoing maintenance? Saving 100 million dollars is not a difficult task when the assets involved appraise in the billion dollar range. Imagine the boost your re-election campaign would have being able to honestly (even further amazing the electorate) claim that your efforts saved the nation more money single-handed than the entire administration could manage as a collective entity?

In closing, I’m afraid I must point out one more point in which my own qualifications are clearly greater than that of a world-superpower military. In a recent press conference, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff opined the following: “One of the big challenges, quite frankly, is when we capture pirates, what do you do with them? What criminal court do you take them to? … It’s a very big challenge.” Senator, the proper care and feeding of pirates has been made very well known over the last few hundred years, and if you would like, upon return from a successful anti-pirate cruise I would be happy to demonstrate the proper assembly of rope, pirate, and yardarm to the Admiral.

Sincerely,
Stingray

Junkyard Ape

April 20, 2009 - 11:19 pm Comments Off

So, when I reduced myself to outright begging my readers to hand me content ideas, David actually obliged me with the following question:

Really, though, I guess my question is more along the lines of ‘why do we keep remnants of design that are no longer useful?’, or maybe how long does it take for something like that to go away? Is it really that all the common knowledge useless body parts aren’t actually useless, or is there something deeper that I’m missing about evolution?

The answer to the very last question is essentially, “yes”, and the first and second ones have two related answers.

The first answer- “why do we keep remnants of design that are no longer useful”- is essentially “because there’s usually no reason not to”. Selective pressure is an efficient driver of change, but it only works when there’s actually pressure. If an element of design isn’t particularly useful anymore, but also isn’t actively detrimental, it will stick around. This is especially true in terms of large features like limbs and organs- those are formed during embryonic development, and development is necessarily a highly conserved state because the vast majority of mutations that affect development are either lethal right there or produce a seriously crippled result. One of the complications with molecular “clocks” and dating is that while different regions of the genome may mutate at constant rates, the speed at which different regions accumulate variations is NOT constant; there are some things you can mess with almost endlessly without serious consequences to the organism, usually in old bits of broken code that no longer have a function anyway, and other things that develop variation extremely slowly because almost all possible variants produce a non-viable organism. When we say some feature is “conserved”, we mean it’s one of those vulnerable areas where mutation is almost always a disaster. This is why human fetuses still go through stages with gills, tails, fur, and all sorts of other things adult mammals have long since disposed of that do the fetus not a bit of good aside from a bit of wasted energy- it takes a tremendous amount of time for anything to change at all there, especially with no selective pressures pushing every single step in the “right” direction hard.

Selective pressure does have SOME influence on limbs and organs that are no longer useful- structures that are very expensive or that impede the organism in its new role create pressure to reduce them. This is why some pythons have vestigial pelvises for hind limbs that no longer exist, but no hind legs to drag around. Some legless lizards, being far more recently slitherers, do this step one better by having complete limbs hidden underneath the skin- a little expensive and will no doubt reduce even further over time as the snakes’ limbs did, but still there as they are not actively interfering with the lizard. All in all though, things that do not create any significant cost to an organism will stick around for an extremely long time, and will probably leave some form of trace on the organism more or less for its entire run as a lineage, if only as a patch of scrambled code.

Selection can also actively interfere in the reduction of an organ in some unexpected ways- for example, the human appendix, which not only represents the shadowy remains of the caecum more herbivorous primates have but also represents an active ongoing health hazard in the form of a nasty potential for fatal infections. The more the appendix fades away, the narrower the “neck” of the organ connecting it to the rest of the intestine gets- BUT, the narrower the neck gets, the more likely it is to get blocked up with crap, become horribly infected, and kill its owner. The last few stages in “disappearing” the appendix are actively selected AGAINST- therefore we’ll probably still be carrying the thing around for quite a long time to come, at least until surgery is such a feature of human existence across the entire planet that many generations have that selective pressure removed. Still, the sheer inertia involved still means that will take quite a long time- as it is with another feature of our relatively recent ancestors that were far more serious plant consumers, the wisdom teeth. These represent a feature with active selection against- the tendency to become impacted and seriously screw up your jaw- and they also represent a feature that is fading out of the human population. I was only born with three of my wisdom teeth (which all grew in various horrifying directions), with the fourth entirely missing, and some people have fewer or none at all. Ironically, unlike the appendix, surgery as a common feature of human life will retard the disappearance of the wisdom tooth- dental problems used to be something very likely to be eventually fatal if not merely crippling, as opposed to a reason to moan about novocaine and drills.

Someone in the audience is no doubt eager to point out about now that the human appendix DOES do something, which is house lymphoid tissue that produces various cells important to the immune system, like other organs with the kind of lymphoid tissue associated with the gut in general. This is true, but it’s important to emphasize at this point that vestigial does not mean completely useless. It CAN, as in the case of the python’s pelvis, but it doesn’t NEED to. What makes the human appendix vestigial isn’t its uselessness, it’s that it is directly homologous- derived from the same structures and apparently having once had the same function- as a larger and much more active part of the digestive systems of many mammals, including many primates- the ceacum. The ceacum is a big pouch found in animals that eat a lot of plants that’s essentially a bacterial storage bag; it houses colonies of friendly bacteria that can break down the celluloses found in plants, which no animal can do with its own enzymatic toolkit. Ceacums in larger animals not only do this, they ALSO produce those same immune system cells- and do it far better and in far higher volume than humans use their appendixes for. This kind of work is easy to recruit an appendix for- it’s derived from tissues associated with the lymphatic system*, and it was probably what that bit of digestive system was doing before it became recruited by herbivorous mammals to be a caecum. As most have noticed, the capabilities provided by the human appendix in the realm of immune maintenance are so minor that there is no apparent difference between individuals that have had theirs removed and those that haven’t.

One of the things that makes evolution as (relatively) fast and robust a system as it is- and it’s a nonintuitive thing, to judge by the number of people that object to evolution because it’s supposedly TOO fast and robust in practice for the mechanisms behind it to possibly be responsible- is that it isn’t particularly linear as we think of it. Oh, sure, it is in ONE sense- each generation is derived from the prior generation, and it gets whatever genetic hand it was dealt by whatever system of reproduction created it. How it isn’t linear is in how systems are developed; it doesn’t evolve one part and then evolve another part and then ta-daa, a complex system to do a complex thing is produced. This is the fallacy that “irreducible complexity” rests on, but as I’ve gone on at some length before, that’s not how things actually *work*.

How most people think of genomes is as being carefully drawn blueprints, with maybe a few things sketched in here or there, but overall careful plans for the eventual organism. How most people think of organisms is as being much like things that blueprints are for- like, say, cars: a carefully machined and implemented design. They can hardly be blamed, as this is certainly what they look most like, and that’s certainly the narrative that’s easiest for a species that designs and builds things to understand, and it’s a useful narrative for when you’re trying to fix the damn things when something breaks. However, it’s generally a lot messier than that; genomes contain tons of information that will never be used, because it’s only useful in certain contexts, like in ice ages or droughts or an extinct disease or something we did when we were amphibians or something that’s only actually information if it’s in combination with certain other genes- and that’s not even getting into what happens when a virus gets in and half-rewrites the whole thing. Which happens often. The resultant organism is as much a product of how much information that makes actual sense can be wrung out of the genome plus various environmental factors (that often signal parts of the genome to activate or deactivate**) plus the more conserved aspects of the genome that really *do* act more or less like a blueprint.

Organisms, in other words, are less like cars than they are like ambulatory junkyards, at least on the inside. Parts aren’t machined to order whenever something new is needed, they’re picked up and adapted from something else- whether that be a bit of old code, or a larger part that’s sitting around not doing much in its current role that could be used for another. The classic teaching example of this is the panda’s thumb. Pandas are bears that have adapted an entirely vegetarian diet, unlike all their more sensible*** bear relatives. In order to manipulate the bamboo that became their diet, a really useful thing for them would be an protuberance at an angle to the rest of their digits that could help them hold things in place against their “palm”, much like primates have enjoyed for basically their entire history; however, being bears, their fifth digit had long since become completely dedicated to being a claw and was, in that role, unavailable for recruitment as a proper thumb. What pandas have for a “thumb”- something that can press against the pad and be a rudimentary grasper- is a really enlarged and protruding radial sesamoid bone, one of the fiddly little bones in your hand that helps hold the whole complicated thing together to create some kind of flexibility in a bony structure. It’s not a fraction so flexible as a digit, but it’s good enough to do the job- and good enough is all that counts in evolution until somebody comes up with something a little better. Stephen Jay Gould termed this overall phenomenon- organisms using a part being used for one function for another- “exaptation”.

Exaptation is the other thing that can happen to structures that are no longer needed for their original function: they get folded into another system, and over enough time, may well become an indispensable part of that system. This is how we can come across genes that code for synapses in humans in an ancient creature that has no real nervous system at all and therefore no need for synapses- they’re not “genes for synapses” at all, or at least they weren’t always. The sponge uses them for other kinds of cellular junctions****- they’re junction genes, which nearly everything subsequent to the sponge level of multicellular organism has specialized into synapse genes.

Improvise, adapt, overcome isn’t just a military motto- at the core of things, it’s the motto of life itself. It just doesn’t run half as high speed and low drag.

*Yes, I know this bit is vague. In order to properly un-vague it, I’d have to get pretty extensively into developmental embryology. Neither of us wants that. Trust me.

**This is called epigenetics. Not a concept you encounter often outside of college, as evidenced by periodic articles in otherwise scientifically sober-sided popular science that tout newly discovered examples as some kind of challenge to “Darwinism”.

***Sometimes specialized adaptations that are a good move in the short run are really *bad* for a species in the long run. Pandas are one such. Explanation of why deserves a separate post.

****Cell communication functions, which go well beyond nerves, which are just cells really specialized for communication. Remember my threat about developmental embryology? I can do it with this too, and once again, neither of us will like it.