Friday, February 26, 2010

Notes for Feb 26

  • Ancient crocodile fossils. The history of crocs is pretty amazing. I'm really glad they stick to rivers and lakes now.
  • PLoS Medicine's decision to ban articles funded by the tobacco industry highlights a particularly difficult problem in research that often isn't acknowledged: It is very difficult to distinguish real results from faked results when all you're looking at is the resulting papers. One of the reasons PLoS banned the papers was: "the industry's long-standing attempts to distort the science of and deflect attention away from the harmful effects of smoking". Jeff Stier (of the American Council on Science and Health) seems to think PLoS is making a bad decision: "By deciding to no longer allow for research funded in any part by the tobacco industry, they're acknowledging that they're no longer able to evaluate science." I would just point out that the key is that they were never able to evaluate the science. When a person or persons is intentionally trying to manipulate the science, it is very hard to distinguish.
  • I don't really understand what NASA does or is supposed to do. But, it sure doesn't seem to do science. Oh, and they had to testify in front of Congress yesterday.
  • Everyone I know who knows anything about energy in the country seems to think nuclear is the big solution. I remain unconvinced for a variety of reasons. This isn't helping me feel better though.
  • The convoluted and confusing debate about salt and health. Personally, I'm extremely skeptical we're eating too much salt as a culture.
  • The story of how the all-female whiptail lizard retains such impressive genetic diversity has apparently been solved. Not so apparent: How. This article in the NYTimes just raises more questions than answers, but the actual article is interesting. The 'diversity' being referred to by the NYTimes is really heterozygosity...and it's maintained by a double meiosis. So there isn't really diversity in the population (they all have the same genotype). The author talks about this restricting their evolutionary ability (i.e., if their genotype is fixed, how are they going to evolve), but I wonder how much epigenetic variation might be able to allow them to evolve.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Notes for Feb 23rd

Monday, February 22, 2010

Notes for Feb 22

  • Epigenetics is a pretty fascinating topic in general. Not to boil an entire idea down to a single sentence, but basically there are mechanisms of transferring information from parents to offspring that are independent of DNA. What mechanisms? Gosh, what do I look like? An epigeneticist? All I know is apparently crickets have such a mechanism.
  • In an increasingly developed world, military bases have become something of a safe-haven for threatened and endangered species. Fort Riley in Kansas has several beautiful streams on-site, and also happens to have a secret stash of morel mushrooms!
  • The feds are going to try to clean up the Great Lakes. Wow. The Lakes are only the most prominent ecological feature in North America. Are we finally going to take them seriously? I'm skeptical.
  • This article feels a little bit like piling on with regards to Amy Bishop (the nutjob prof at U. of Alabama who shot up her co-workers). I mean, we know she's a nut, do we really need to know that she also deserved to have her tenure denied. Well, at least, that's what I thought at first, but I obviously read the article anyway. My whole opinion changed when I read this line:
"Dr. Bishop's paper in that journal, on nerve cells grown in the laboratory...lists her school-age children as the first three authors. The fourth author is herself, and the fifth is her husband, who is identified as being at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, although he does not have a position there."
Holy cow. How did this lady even keep her job? As it turns out, this article was definitely interesting.
  • Maybe there's more genetic variation in the human population than was originally thought. Sequencing of tribal Africans seems to indicate that individuals separated by no more than walking distance have more genetic differences than Europeans and Asians.
  • Kids are getting more chronic health conditions than they used to, apparently due to environmental and cultural factors.
  • A real scientific debate. As opposed to a perceived scientific debate. Just a hint, the real debate is much more difficult to understand. The fake debate is easier to understand, because those doing the debating seem to have no grasp of reality. And if you're interested, a 2004 paper [pdf] on why the press doesn't understand how to report on science.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Notes for Feb 19th

Sick day in the house, so not a lot of web-browsing:

  • Old, seriously old, shipwrecks.
  • The physics of curling (definitely the most interesting Olympic sport).
  • Paleontologists are always publishing papers about fossils and new species that, as it turns out, have been sitting in a museum for thirty years or were collected ten years back. No exception. C'mon paleontologists! Hurry it up!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Notes for Feb 17

  • Holy mother of awesome. Saturn's rings...seen edge on!
  • Ciliates are pretty awesome.
  • And I'm too busy today to read anything else online, so instead an environmentally-related musical number from They Might Be Giants:

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Notes for Feb 16th

  • Although I know many people moved to Florida to avoid the cold, apparently there are some benefits to the surprisingly freezing conditions: Invasive tropical species are dying by the thousands! Of course, these are species that invaded with a very small initial population, so I doubt enough are being killed by a single freeze to seriously damage the viability of the long-term population.
  • More about feathers on dinosaurs. Open debate about why feathers evolved: For flight? For insulation? What about for sexual displays? Sexual displays links directly to fitness, so it is hard to imagine they weren't used for this as soon as it was possible for them to be used for this, but is this what drove their evolution? Interesting observation by Luis Chiappe: Essentially, reptiles can display color on their skin without feathers, so he doubts dinos would have needed feathers to make colorful displays. Ah, but I think we sometimes forget that we're talking about modern reptiles displaying color on their skin. Dinos broke off from the modern reptile lineage a long, long time ago. Can birds display colors on their skin? (I don't know...but I doubt they need to, so it could have been lost) Anyway, my image of a terrifying dinosaur has changed completely. I find the new version way more plausible.
  • Often scientific names are depressingly boring (The Big Bang? Really? That's all you got?). Not always though. I present: The Armored Devil Toad. I'm not even kidding.
  • I've been saying for years that p=0.05 as a cutoff for statistical significance is ridiculous and arbitrary. I've tried to get away with avoiding it altogether. But that isn't easy to do when your advisors are wedded to the idea. Maybe things will start to change now that Hurlbert (pdf) has spoken. Some big picture explanation here. For some reason Hurlbert can drive a point home to biologists like nobody's business. Finally.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Notes for Feb 15

  • I'm not sure I totally understand this mechanistically, but it seems interesting that an antibiotic can cause bacteria to become resistant to other antibiotics. And by interesting, I mean that sucks!
  • So someone looked at the genome of an ancient human (4,000 years not pre-historic) found in Greenland, and discovered the genome is most similar to people living on the eastern edge of Siberia, and bears little relationship to the Native Americans or Inuit living elsewhere in the new world. And apparently he has a terrible haircut.
  • I'm sure this study is interesting for a variety of reasons, but I really can't get past the fact that we're talking about a four-winged dinosaur here. Read more here. Did birds start out four-winged before graduating to two wings?
  • A catchy title ("The importance of stupidity") tricks me into reading this pdf every three months or so. Is it really that good though? I don't know. I think there's a lot of playing around with semantics here. I never felt stupid as a graduate student or a postdoc, just frustrated or amazed. Frustrated when things didn't work out because of stuff I did (human error) and amazed when things didn't work out because that's just not how things work (disproving a hypothesis). Funnily, I can't recall ever feeling astonished that something worked out exactly as I planned.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Notes for today

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Notes for Today

  • Cellular aging. This is pretty neat: If you can't get rid of your waste, you're going to have to pass it on to your offspring (during cellular division). Or are you? Maybe you only pass it on to one daughter cell? Pretty interesting discussion of a neat process whereby waste products are accrued in particular cell lines.
  • Ok, the effects of mobile phones on the brain (or on health). I'm not really sure what to take out of this article. Am I really supposed to believe cell phones have a health benefit? I'm not convinced by the evidence that there is any reason to be concerned about their normal use, but I don't exactly think of them as a healthy activity.
  • Speaking of radiation and its effects on health: I've been increasingly troubled by the over-use of medical imaging devices (this might deserve its own post at some point). X-rays, CT scans, and a variety of other medical diagnostic procedures all involve ionizing radiation (it is generally easy to detect ionizing radiation). I know a lot of medical doctors, and they almost never consider the cumulative doses of the diagnostic procedures they require. Here is a page showing the doses from various procedures relative to the doses we tend to receive from background effects all the time. I have refused diagnostic procedures because I didn't think it sounded likely that they were really needed, and nurses and doctors look at me like I'm completely insane. Well, now the FDA is going to try to address this issue. My feeling: Good luck.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Notes for Today

  • The anti-vaccine movement has been fueled by parents who need someone to blame for their child's autism. Do you think they'll blame themselves? The sad part is, they probably will.\
  • Barnacles have ridiculous sex lives. I'm not sure they should have to endure what's described at the end of this article though.
  • Considering we've already talked about this, and the evidence seems overwhelming that the carp are already there, I'm not sure this isn't just throwing good money after bad with regards to the Asian carp invading the Lake Michigan.
  • Living spiders are cool (although sometime I'll have to have a friend of mine discuss his zombie spiders). Fossilized spiders are also cool. This one is amazingly well preserved.
  • Agricultural intensity is related to declines in fish communities. Declines, in this context refers to loss of rare species and decline of natives. That's hardly surprising, in fact it is hard to imagine this wouldn't be the case. I guess this doesn't get documented that often? That's the only reason I can see this being news.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Notes for today

  • Turkeys were domesticated twice! All kinds of interesting information in that article. Turkeys are the only New World domesticated animal that has been spread globally (quick: Name all the New World animals that were domesticated and then spread elsewhere). Apparently the turkey was domesticated twice: Once in Mesoamerica (think Mayans) and once in the SW US (think Athabaskan...I think). Apparently the SW US domestication was done not for meat, but for feathers.
  • I've said it before and I'll say it again, nothing is more amazing to me than the reality that we can get a good idea of what animals looked like that lived over 65 million years ago. They can now get a pretty good idea of what dinosaur feather patterns looked like. The photo accompanying that article is amazing.
  • And on the flip side: How weird is it that we can build something like a windmill and then not understand why it isn't working?
  • I believe many people wish they could see dinosaurs or mammoths or other extinct creatures (I, for one, would love to see a stand of mature American Chestnut trees). However, I'm fairly certain that if humans and dinosaurs had co-existed, we would have killed them and eaten them hundreds of years ago. Just look at what we're continuing to do to the whales. And it turns out there may have been far more of them than we previously thought.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Notes For today

  • The conservation value of airports. The reality is that the airport in the study is a 'high conservation area' just because the surrounding areas (New York) are so awful for everything that nothing survives. Even in the managed open areas surrounding the airport, the big benefactor of the 'conservation' area are insects. A group that is pretty adaptable and usually unwelcome.
  • So they've built a better tomato. Kinda. The overwhelming frustration I have with genetically engineered food is not that it is GM. Rather, it is that it isn't being engineered for taste. I mean, look at the evidence they provide that the food is better: Pictures. Pictures don't taste good. I'm not sure how we can improve the taste, but it sure doesn't seem like anyone is even trying.
  • Another reason to avoid shellfish: Apparently they cause amnesia.
  • An interesting list of emerging conservation issues.
  • Even among otherwise intelligent people, there seems to be core resistance to the idea that humans are actually causing climate change. People like to bring up all kinds of things (water vapor, the fact that CO2 is at very low abundance in the atmosphere, the temperature adjustments made to account for urbanization). I think this is happening because people don't want to believe that humans are messing everything up. Every piece of evidence demonstrating climate change is occurring ends up being undermined or ignored. Now that the evidence is becoming overwhelming, the response has been that this climate change is driven by 'natural' processes. Of course, there are still those who just want to believe the whole thing is a liberal conspiracy to mess with their sex lives.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Photos from NASA

If you're like me, when you think of amazing NASA images, you typically think of stuff like this:

But in reality, I think there's a lot more like this:

What is that? Well, according to NASA those are different faces of Pluto (note: not a planet) as seen through the Hubble telescope. I'm not saying they are lying or anything, I can't tell what the heck I'm even looking at. Astronomy is kind of like using a spectrometer, and I'm honestly amazed we're able to understand anything as well as we do.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Notes and a photo

  • The good news is that a line of communication may have been opened between those who are superficially in a vegetative state. The bad news is: Holy cow, we don't necessarily know who is really in a vegetative state. The brief brief summary. 4 people (out of 23 tested) who were believed to be in a vegetative state were able to respond to questions by altering their brain wave patterns. Does this mean those people are conscious? I think it does...but I'm not certain. I can't help but notice that the ages of those who seemed most responsive were all under 28 (22, 22, 23, 27). I also can't help but remember the dead salmon that cause an MRI response. Still the odds are ridiculously against this happening by chance.
  • Toads are, by their very nature, awesome. Just like every other amphibian. However, I apparently don't know as much as I need to about them. Apparently they evolved in S. America? I didn't know that. Anyway, this paper looks great (someone please send it to me!). More on toad invasions here.
  • The more about crayfish I read, the more I like them. Turns out they can probably sense electrical fields as well. Uh...duh? I mean, I understand, but why wouldn't they be able to?
  • I love stuff like this. How did the animals in New Zealand get there? Remnants of Gondwana? Or much more recent immigrants? I'm always excited that we can actually figure out things that happened millions of years ago.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Notes for sick day:

  • Hydrogen is an odorless colorless gas which, given enough time, turns into people. A great quote that makes a so-so poster.
  • This might be the most interesting photograph of an interstellar object I've ever seen. There were links yesterday about this being a 'spaceship-shaped' object, and I think there was a joke there. I don't get it, and I don't see it. However, it does look cool. People who presumably know are thinking it is the remnants of a recent collision.
  • Dr. Andrew Wakefield is a bastard who is (and I am not even remotely kidding about this) killing kids. But at least his 'big paper' is now retracted. And BA summarizes reasons why he sucks nicely.
  • A really big snake? Long dead? Ok...sounds good. But the picture alone here is worth a link.
  • I don't care what anyone else says. It is really hard to find a way to justify the construction of dams environmentally. Here's another example. What the heck are we supposed to do with these frogs now?
  • Wolverines may be one of the first big "climate change" casualties that gets any attention. After all, it's a large-bodied mammal. What it lacks in cuddleness, it makes up for with an awesome name.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Notes for Today

  • Whenever someone says "is harmless to the environment" the first thing you need to think is "doesn't hurt the environment in any of the ways we currently hurt the environment." Or, even more likely "doesn't hurt the environment as much as our competitor." In the case of liquid glass...color me skeptical when the two articles I can find on the topic are basically just a re-hashing of the company's press release.
  • I'm admittedly not sure about the source of this information, but based on its content, I'm completely confident in the result. Apparently drinking alcohol does not lead to weight gain. Again, I'm skeptical, but this might be one I dig into a little bit more in the future.
  • Isn't there a part of everyone who is still fascinated by dinosaurs? Considering the mounting evidence that birds are the modern descendants of dinos, I wonder why birds evoke absolutely none of the same fascination for me. Regardless, here's an article discussing the earliest yet known bird-like dino. Obviously, this isn't yet a bird, because I was able to read the article without getting bored.
  • Iron-plating armor on snails. Holy did I miss that?
  • Something a lot of people have been concerned about in conservation circles is the decision a couple of years ago to delist the Gray Wolf in the lower 48 (except Wyoming apparently), and the subsequent decision by Idaho and other states to open a hunting season on the wolves. If nothing else, the decision to delist occurred because the people who are opposed to listing the wolf got a lot better at speaking the scientific lingo. Right now the evidence seems to be showing that the wolf numbers are stable (they had been increasing for years).