Something is Going Well Around Here!

The 1,000 “like” road marker disappearing in the rear view mirror…

The WP auto-post function just told me that I have accumulated 1,000 “likes,” which are all because the imaginary “you” have been appreciating what I’ve been pouring forth since June 22nd. It hasn’t been four months yet and I have so many “likes!” Who knew?!?

I’ve logged 87 posts (one was a repeat, so doesn’t really count and one was a reblog in respect for a new WordPress-induced friend) in 111 days, meaning that I’ve hit about 78% of the days between start and present. Not bad. Could be better. Let’s see if I can pick up the slack.

Thank you, everyone!

MSOC

Another Slow Day in Paradise

It was another slow day in paradise.

It was another slow day in paradise. A and B were flitting about the huge meadow with its vast and varied flowers, shrubs, and trees, all of them spaced perfectly so every flower, shrub, and tree got the perfect amount of sunlight, the perfect amount of water sipped from the fertile earth. Every kind of beetle, fly, bee, ant, butterfly, and spider floated about in the gentle breeze, while every kind of bunny, mouse, cat, dog, horse, goat, sheep, pig, lion, giraffe, elephant, and gazelle pranced about, munching on all of the good things there were to eat, which sprang back up as soon as they were nibbled. A stream ran through the center of the meadow but then again there were streams with stepping stones every so often all over the place. Some had waterfalls and some had pools of just the right depth in their centers, causing the stream to widen a bit more than usual, then tighten back up after the pool was behind the coursing waters.

Theit (that’s what it liked to call itself when it came down to check in with A and B; it wasn’t a real name, sort of a joke—”the it”—you see?) had just wafted in from everywhere and coalesced in the form of a fluorescent tapir. Theit had tried subtler appearances but had to spend too much time convincing these two that it was it. Theit did it gently as the last time it at coalesced, A and B had run off screaming and it took precious seconds to find them cowering behind a baobab tree. This time, Theit found form behind a yew bush growing near one of the streams and strolled out to talk to “the experiment,” as it called them in its mind.

“Hi A. Hi B. How’s it going down here?” The fluorescent tapir spoke in a perfect East African accent, which sounded startlingly like many of the sounds A and B heard on a daily basis, except shaped more carefully and regularly into sounds that made sense to their minds.

A and B stared at the tapir and knew what it said. This sort of thing had happened before and while it had been confusing and a little terrifying at first, they had grown accustomed to unexpected creatures sauntering up to them and having a chat. After all, they spent a good deal of any day doing the same thing with squirrels and horses. Walking up, having a chat, the creatures chatting back. Why not this oddly-hued beast with truncated snout?

“Hi Theit!” they said in unison. It was like they shared a brain. Not always in a good way either. “It’s going the same as always. Nothing new to say, just having a nice day speaking to everyone and enjoying the sunshine and streams and fruits. Did you want something in particular?”

“Well, yes. It’s lesson time.” Theit noticed that both of them shuddered. Theit was aware this was not their favorite activity, which was exclusively wandering about bothering their fellow creatures and picking an excessive number of flowers, which it had warned them about on numerous occasions: “They’re for the bees and butterflies, you two. All you’re doing is taking beauty out of the ground, sniffing it, then throwing it down. Just lean over and do your sniffing on the living thing, please!” he had said. They went ahead and picked flowers as if they had no memory at all.

“Do you remember what we talked about yesterday?” Theit had a really confused sense of time as it meant nothing to it at all, while still being this counter-function it had implanted in the world so that stuff might eventually get done.

A and B shook their heads. No surprise. And, to be fair, it may have been more than a day. Theit needed to work out how to be more regular in lesson-giving.

“Well, we worked through addition and subtraction. Remember those? I give you two fruit, then I give you two more. How many fruit do you have?”

“Two” they said in unison.

Theit breathed in slowly and then let the air escape from the tapirs lungs. “No. I first gave you two fruit. At that time you had two fruit. Then I gave you two more. How many fruit did you have?”

“Two” they said in unison. Then B said “Two two.”

“Good, B! And how many is two two? What do we call that number of fruit?”

“Fruit” said A. “Two two” said B.

“And what do we call “two two,” B?”

“Four?” said B. “Fruit” said A.

“Very good, A! I can hear that you remember the word for two two! That is very nice! Please teach that to A so he remembers, okay?”

“Yes” said B.

“Okay, let’s see how you remember subtraction. If you have four fruit and I ask for two fruit back so that I may share them with other creatures. How many fruit do you have?”

“Two” said B.” “Fruit” said A. At this point Theit thought A’s time might be better spent smacking himself in the head with a rock but Theit didn’t make him do that. Although that made sense. That would have been beneath Theit’s mission with this experiment, which was purely about creation, observation, data, and outcomes.

“B, could you help out A with this subtraction concept? There are bigger numbers to add and subtract and even different ideas that are not addition and subtraction and we must talk about them as well.”

“Okay” said B. A said “fruit!”

Theit was a little worried. It seemed that B was slowly understanding the information being shared but A was not. And both of them, to be honest, seemed more concerned with playing with the creatures and picking flowers than they were in learning. How was multiplication and division going to go if adding and subtracting up to four was proving this difficult? Theit let a rare shudder ripple through the tapir’s frame, although Theit was the one shuddering. Was this another failed experiment like the bacteria that ate all its own young and didn’t multiply? Or the lizard that popped off its own head when it was caught by a predator? They seemed like good ideas at the time—bacteria that controlled themselves, lizards with an escape mechanism—but those had gone wrong.

Theit didn’t really know how long that thought lasted. Was it brief or was it really long? In any case, Theit looked up and A was chasing a bunny through the meadow grasses and flowers and B was chasing A. Neither A nor B were catching what they chased but they laughed as they ran. You couldn’t really hate that.

“Come here, you two” said the fluorescent tapir. “More studying to do!”

A and B took their time but came over looking a little petulant with the tapir, which was an odd look as tapir’s usually provoke giggles rather than petulance. Theit didn’t care. It was time for lessons.

“Okay, let’s try something. It’s a trick I use all the time and it works on stars, planets, galaxies, and universes. I even used it here to make all these grasses and trees and flowers and bunnies. You like all these things, right?”

A stared and B nodded. A looked at B and noticed the nodding thing, which he had seen before, and nodded as B took the time to stare.

“Now, I’m going to talk about multiplication. It’s a way to make big numbers of things out of small numbers of things. Just listen and see if you get a pattern. We’re going to start with “one.” One multiplied by one is one. You can say this more simply just by saying “times” whenever you would say “multiplied by,” okay?”

“Okay” they said in unison. Theit had no idea if they were mimicking him or understanding, so he went on.

“If one times one is one, guess what one times two is?”

A said “one” and B said “two.” Perhaps there was some hope for B.

“Next. One times three is what, B?”

B said “three.”

“A. Anything?” asked Theit.

“One” said A, looking quite determined. Inside, the fluorescent tapir sighed a little sigh.

“B, what is one times four?”

“Four” replied B. A rubbed his leg and looked at a flower.

“Let’s try it something, B. What is four times one?”

“One” said B. Theit’s brief snout wiggled a little. It was confirmed. This was going to take a long time. Whatever would happen when the discussion turned to algebra? The snout wiggled ferociously at this thought. Theit sent a calming wave of thought through the tapir and got it to settle down. No one liked a condescending teacher, even if the teacher was a loveable tapir in bright colors.


Theit had a thought. There was a lot to do. Although Theit was coalesced in various forms all over this universe and every other universe doing this same kind of stuff, Theit thought that it might be time to pay attention to some of the more curious experiments and leave these two to their own devices. Their meadow too. It was a nice meadow and was perfectly balanced to live without dying and replenish itself without looking too sad. That took a certain amount of stamina from Theit’s other projects, which were infinite in number and completely manageable but still….

paramecium_caudatum

Theit visited A and B, this time as an enormous paramecium with lots of undulating cilia. A and B knew it was Theit because they had never seen this thing before. Although they found it sort of horrible, they also knew that it was okay to approach it as it ciliated its way over to them.

“A. B. How are you?”

“Good” they said in unison.

“Getting enough to eat?”

“Yes.”

“Finding enough playmates among the squirrels and bunnies?” Theit asked about these because it seemed that A and B had a particular fondness for them over the larger animals or the ones who roared, although they all lived well next to each other. As was planned.

They both nodded. That seemed like an advance. Perhaps B had taught A the nod thing.

“Okay. Well. I have good news and bad news. Which would you like to hear first?”

“Good” they said again, although perhaps they meant that they would like to hear the good news first. That’s how Theit interpreted it.

“Well then. The good news is that all of this stuff you like is going to stay here. You can play with it all and eat fruit and drink from the streams and have as much fun as you like. Would you like to hear the bad news now?” Theit asked.

“Good,” which Theit took as a tacit understanding that they would now like to hear the bad news.

“Well. Hmmm. The bad news. Erm. I’m not sure how this is going to work out but I’m going to be away for a while. I’m not going to be able to perform maintenance on this place. Instead, you’re going to have to start doing it yourself. What does this mean? Well, it means that I’m going to give everything the power to multiply and divide but I’m also going to give everything the power to add and subtract. New stuff will come alive and old stuff will die. Bunnies and horses and trees and flowers and bees will all multiply but their cells—the little bits of life inside them that make all of this stuff work—will divide. That probably makes no sense to you at all since you haven’t really graduated from basic addition and subtraction (and I really don’t want to think about algebra or calculus, Theit said internally) but I’m hoping that if you see it happening it will make sense over time. It may take a while.”

A and B stared at Theit and didn’t move. They really had no idea what Theit was talking about. This was often the case and sometimes if they remained really still for a sufficient amount of time, Theit was quiet and loped off into the trees. It didn’t seem like this thing was going to lope but they could hope.

“It’s been nice, A and B. You’re the only ones I’ve made that are as hairless as you are. Really, you’re just a variation on a theme. See the hairy ones over there? The ones chasing after a zebra? Yeah. You’re the hairless—relatively speaking, of course—variety. And you walk on your back legs without using your front legs. I’m pretty sure that’s going to have consequences, by the way, but that’s beside the point. I do like you. Don’t take any of what’s about to happen personally. It’s not. Really. I just have a lot to do.”

With this statement, Theit coalesced a giant chunk of wrapped paper blocks out of the air and opened one to a middle page.

“See these? I’m going to call them “books” because they don’t have a name. They don’t have a name because I’ve been thinking about them and it’s come time to make some, so here they are. If you look at this page (it’s called a page, guys), you’ll see black squiggly marks. That’s called “writing” and this writing is in the first language of your creature-type. It tells you stuff. But I can’t wait around for you to learn what it says. I’m going to call this “homework” and you have to worry about what it says or you’re going to be a little out of luck for a long time. Okay?”

“Okay” said A and B.

“Okay” said Theit. Then he made the paramecium lope off into the woods.

A and B stared at the “books” and then stared at each other and then sat down.

Then they got up and ran after the bunnies and squirrels.


After a while, A and B noticed that the grasses changed colors and were replaced with other grasses and other flowers and that when they picked the flowers, they didn’t grow back. They noticed that when they picked fruit from the trees, the fruit didn’t grow right back. They noticed that the beasts who roared stopped other creatures from moving and tore them apart and that the smaller creatures kept away from the roarers. Some of the larger creatures were none too thrilled with the roarers either, so a lot of creatures moved away from them and lived in trees. A and B moved along with them. After they ate all the low-hanging fruit, they climbed trees to get the other fruit. After they ate those, they started to look at the bunnies and squirrels sort of like they saw the roarers looking at the bunnies and squirrels. They caught a few and tore them apart but then the bunnies and squirrels got smart and stayed away. And then the streams dried up, so A and B had to start walking. Their hips hurt. Their feet hurt. Their lower backs hurt. And they learned to feel pain, which led them to cry. Then they learned to say mean things to each other, which made one or both of them cry more.

Then one day, B got fatter and fatter and eventually a new creature popped out. B took care of the little creature until it grew. A wandered around playing with animals and flowers and leaving B to do all the work of raising the creature, which was as hairless as they were. And they kept walking until they found a place to call “home,” which was not much like their old place and had less fruit and the creatures stayed away. But it was home and they raised their creature and then another.

There was only one thing they had forgotten. They left the books at the place where Theit made them and had no idea how to get back there.

It took a long time for them to figure anything out. They remembered Theit fondly now and made up some stories, almost none of which were true. And they left out the bits about the fluorescent tapir and the enormous paramecium. They had a difficult time believing those themselves. So who would believe them?

Featured image

Paramecium caudatum
Facade

I Was Nominated (and Accept)

Confabler nominated me for a Sunshine Blogger Award!

My distant, yet close friend Confabler has nominated me for the Shiny Shiny Sunshine Award. I love her imagination and sense of whimsy; she lets her muse du jour lead and she follows. There’s a wonderful freedom to that which is (1) difficult to allow in the rational process of “writing” and (2) enjoyable to find.

1. If you were to choose an insect that would take over the world after human extinction, who would that be?

It sort of depends on our route to extinction. If it involved an epidemic, the population of flies might see a giant uptick. This would be a good one:

mydas_sp
Gauromydas heros

If it is a slow process, then I nominate the Japanese Rhinoceros beetle because it would be awesome if creatures  with such improbably fashioned protuberances were to be the alpha species (Megasoma and Titan beetles would be acceptable alternatives):

800px-kabutomushi-japanesebeetle-july2004
Allomyrina dichotoma

 If our extinction took all other terrestrial life along for the ride, I would like to see this enormous isopod (a relative of our terrestrial roly-polies) rule the seas (note inclusion of actual human hands for sense of scale):

Giant_isopod.jpg
The underside of a male Bathynomus giganteus, a species of giant isopod captured in the Gulf of Mexico in October 2002.

2. How old were you when you first read Harry Potter? And your favorite author of course?

I was pretty old when I read my only Harry Potter book (the first one). I didn’t enjoy it enough to complete the series, although I’ve seen all the films and enjoyed them well enough. In the period I read that first one, I was typically reading a lot of history and didn’t find that it was a good use of my time. When I was really young, I read the Classics Illustrated versions of novels, which were quite good at introducing a curious young mind to the wonders of literature without having to do the work (sort of illustrated CliffsNotes (I didn’t use these in school though), if you will). When I was a little older, I read Robert E. Howard, Sax Rohmer, John Carter of Mars, H. Rider Haggard, Stanley Weinbaum, George McDonald fantasies, etc.

My favorite author is Gabriel Garcia Marquez for One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. His writing is so rich, amusing, full of simple wisdom and abundant humanity it is hard to believe he was just a human being writing about the lives he saw playing out around him. I literally would read some passages and have to put the book down as if I had just sipped the richest chocolate elixir in the world and needed to savor it until I sipped again. His Spanish-to-English translators did a good job in getting it right; Gregory Rabassa (OHYoS translator) was even praised by Garcia Marques himself!

3. If you were invisible what is the craziest thing that you would do?

Here’s an odd one: Go and hang around bigots, transcribe their conversations, and publish them for the world to see how terrible people speak when they think no one is listening (but, oh yeah, we have the internet so this already happens). If I could walk through things, which seems fair since I’m invisible, I would go around seeing what it felt like to do that—see if there were different textures to different things on the inside than on their surface.

4.what food makes you feel like a hungry hyena?

This has changed so much over time! These days, I don’t get this kind of urge anymore. In my early adult (late teen?) years… ICE CREAM!!!!

5. A song that makes you dream?

Gymnopedie #1 by Erik Satie


6. Have you ever planted a tree?

Yes. Unasked but answered: quite a few!

7. Choose your man: superman/ Spiderman/ iron man and if he was your best friend one thing that you would make him do?

Can I choose Supergirl? If I can, I would have her take me around to various places in the world, build shelters so I could stay there and visit free, then whisk me off to the next place on “our” list (she would be enjoying the sight-seeing with me, of course! What kind of boor do you think I am?!?!).

8.How much time do you spend in front of the mirror everyday?

As little as possible, which involves shaving and brushing my teeth. I find that shaving my teeth first helps with the brushing.

9.why you started blogging and tell us about the post enjoyed the most making.

I was having a bunch of conversations with people who did not seem to understand the wonderful humility of learning and doing science and wanted to see how well I could write about how science is a discipline that can assist us all in not leaning out too far over our skis (getting ahead of ourselves and pretending we know stuff we don’t). Blogging has become so much more than that since my first post on June 22, 2016, and I have had so much fun writing fiction and revisiting some poetry I wrote several decades ago (and finding them easier to “fix” than I remembered).

I’m not sure which of my posts I enjoyed the most. They’re all my children so I like them all? I probably like the odd bits of fiction that I had no idea were inside me when I woke up and then found them on the page looking up at me. I like The Big Day of these. Of the science posts, I like The Mess: Parts 1 & 2 and the Appendix 1 items best (maybe). Of the historical pieces, I like Risk Management. Of the life pieces, I like Building Blocks the best. Anyone who reads this is encouraged to make up their own mind; I am hopelessly biased.

10. Which social media platform are you addicted to (including WordPress)?

I don’t do much social media except WordPress. I don’t like Facebook at all and deleted my account. WordPress is addicting but in a very healthy way! You get to create something and share it with new friends from all over the world. That’s a great addiction have.

Now the rules:

1.thank the person that nominated you.

Thank you, Confabler. You are a true virtual friend, and I don’t mean that in any Pokemon way either!

2. Answer the questions from your nominator.

Done.

3. Nominate fellow bloggers you follow.

Hereinafter lie the following nominees in no particular order (order, of course, being an illusion):

Confabler – it would be completely wrong not to boomerang this thing back at her; how could I like what she writes and like that she nominated me but ignore why we share interests at all?

November_child –  in her poetry, every word is judiciously considered for its various meanings and the images they stir and she makes great short stories that are deep and playful and serious all at the same time

anonymouslyautistic – for doing an AMAZING job of writing about this misunderstood spectrum of living – and for inviting others who share her interest to contribute

English Lit Geek – because she searches the web and her library for poems that communicate her inner soul to us all out here in the ‘sphere and I appreciate this!

Wiser Daily – because this guy writes REALLY well about every single subject he wraps his mind around, because he is not a scientist but writes extremely clearly about science, because he is just a damned good writer!

Breathmath – because they are doing an astonishingly serious job of trying to get the world to see the beauty in mathematics

Sheryl – because she’s written a book, is working on others, has great tips for doing the same, and kindly visits my offerings fairly often

The Nexus – because he writes REALLY well about physics and does a great job of doing what I set out to do, whether I’m doing it on any given day or not

The Biology Yak – because she is passionate about biology and shares her passion in every word on every topic she chooses

afternoonifiedlady – even though I have no idea what it is to be an afternoonifiedlady, I love her rants about living with and without her ex and trying to wrestle with notions of romance – she is very witty and amusingly pissed off!

Yaskhan – for her lovely, succinct way with words

urbanagscientist – because she is at least as worried about the misunderstanding of science as I am

Luke Atkins – because he writes really well about difficult subjects and he writes like the stuff matters a lot, which it absolutely does!

And there are more in my list of 119 writers that I am following but this is enough for now.

4. Give them 10 questions to answer.

If you wish (and I clearly cannot impose this on any of you, please respond to confabler’s funny questions. I enjoyed them, maybe you will too!

Kind regards, MSOC

https://confabler.wordpress.com/2016/09/20/shiny-shiny-sunshine-award/

It was Generous of confabler to choose me. Now I have to Jump off and do other stuff!

Building Blocks

I am not a psychologist. I am really not an infant behavior specialist.

I am not a psychologist. I am really not an infant behavior specialist. I have never been a parent, although I have been a child (as I am a male, I probably still am one). On the other hand, it only takes a modicum of observational insight to notice that humans establish, almost insist on, dominance and submissive roles in many of or interactions. No, not THAT kind, although that is certainly a clear example of the phenomenon (and whatever… not my boat; if it floats go ahead and paddle forth (that’s probably a bad pun)).

Parents with two or more infants, particularly twins, or who host play dates with children of near-identical ages have probably seen dominance behaviors in simple interactions. Imagine two infants with a set of blocks positioned between them. It is likely that one of the two children will start dominating block play fairly soon, either by gathering them disproportionally to themselves, building something, or even exhibiting aggressive behavior towards their peer. They are peers, after all. Just a couple of infants who are supposed to be playing. For some reason, one is likely to develop an advantage of some sort with the blocks. The other child may be unmoved and unimpressed or see the behavior and attempt to gain block parity with the dominant child. This may lead to new dominance or to an increase in aggressive behavior—new attempts by the initially dominant child to have more blocks, throwing blocks, vocalizations by one or the other or both, banging blocks together, etc. It is probable that most of these interactions will be interrupted by adults. If they are not, it is likely that one child will dominate.

Dr. Anthea Pun et al., Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, published a study earlier this year in which 48 infants between 9 and 12 months of age were shown to exhibit submissive behavior to infants from numerically larger groups or to smaller groups that included larger infants—numerical and size-dominance. The following is a summary of the study’s significance:

The ability to detect dominance relationships is essential for survival because it helps individuals weigh the potential costs and benefits of engaging in a physical competition. Here we show that infants as young as 6 mo of age are capable of detecting dominance relations when provided with an ecologically relevant cue such as social group size. Furthermore, infants can infer the social dominance relationship between two competing individuals based on the size of the group to which they belong, and expect individuals from a numerically larger group to get their way. These findings reveal that infants may have an evolutionarily ancient cognitive capacity to represent social dominance relations that is shared with other species within the animal kingdom.

In the body of the paper, the study states that it seems that numerical size of a group is a more significant determinant than individual size. They cite several examples in chimpanzee and bird species wherein a single individual within a group does not gain dominance without the support of a group, regardless of the individual’s size. Interestingly, they also indicate that adults process social status indicators (e.g. military rank) in the same region of the brain in which group size (i.e. “numerical ratio discrimination”) is processed—the inferior parietal cortex (IPC).

grays_anatomy_plate_517_brain
Attribution

Of course, like all studies, this is dependent on many studies on similar questions. But it is the last sentence in the quoted paragraph that concerns me today:

These findings reveal that infants may have an evolutionarily ancient cognitive capacity to represent social dominance relations that is shared with other species within the animal kingdom.

This is elaborated on as follows:

Competition for valuable resources such as mates, food, and territory (1) is commonplace across the animal kingdom. To minimize the cost of fighting (e.g., energy spent and personal injury or death), natural selection appears to have favored the emergence of cognitive adaptations that help individuals predict whether they stand a chance against an opponent (25).

Okay. This seems like a set of behaviors that is well understood in our world, so well understood that infants “understand” that larger groups and/or groups with larger infants may have a dominance advantage over them, although it is an abstract concept to them at the time (i.e. they are probably not competing for mates, food, or territory unless their parents have abandoned them entirely).

This is the problem, though. Social cues that serve various fauna populations well to this day do not do our species much good at all. I would argue, in fact, that these behaviors set up domination/submission conflicts that have sometimes laughable, sometimes mortally serious implications for how we all live together. The behavior reveals itself everywhere!

Families in the same neighborhood compete to “keep up with the Joneses.” Who has the nicest driveway? Who has the best grille? In less suburban settings, the metrics may change but the game is the same. Who has painted their house, rethatched it, most recently? Who has the most wives and/or children (probably a correlation therein)? Who herds the most goats? It’s all about numerical (or value) domination and all is arbitrated right there in the IPC. If families do this, then the towns and cities in which they live also vie for superlatives. Who has the best sports teams? How many sports teams? Who won the season most recently and how often? From there, we go to national competitions, typically for resources of one type or another, which confer status and likelihood of dominance. Why? Wouldn’t it be better if competition was treated as a method of entertainment it is intended to be rather than a measure of self—and therefore group—worth? Wouldn’t each nation, each continent, the whole freakin’ planet gain a mutual advantage if those infant minds were not sorting out who to push about and who to fear… at the incredibly tender age of 9 to 12 months?

Let me put aside a notion really quickly. I am not talking about the benefits of “communism,” “socialism,” or any other imaginary sociopolitical construct. Any movement initiated in the name of Marx (wait, that’s not the one I meant!) quickly became an authoritarian state, with the most powerful enjoying luxuries the least powerful could not imagine. Just like infants sorting out who gets the most blocks.

groucho_marx_a_day_at_the_races
Attribution

What I am discussing is the potentially vestigial nature of infantile power-grabs, by which I mean that it is possible that our species has outgrown its need for this constant balance of power game. We have a vestigial tail—the coccyx—a bump that is located precisely where tails are located in other species and which we share with other tailless great apes. It is an important attachment point for a number of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Those of you who have angered it by sitting on it too carelessly will probably sit with greater care forever more. The coccyx isn’t the only example of items in human anatomy that are vestigial but it will do for the purposes of our metaphor.

coccyx_-_animation04
Attribution

If our IPC insists on keeping score as we group up, which is going to happen—we are a gregarious species, although not all extrovertedly so—we are going to keep making intellectually unsupportable claims about our superiority over others in our family, community, etc. We are going to keep believing that “our team (whoever that is)” have better recruiting, better warm-up games, better coaches and management, better fill-in-the-blanks (I really don’t care) than other teams. “Our nation” is number one, whatever nation that is (at least the politicians in that nation are going to say so; you can tell them by the gravy of corruption dripping from their lips). As long as “our nation” is peddling its superiority over its neighbors—or more likely, nations with delicious resources—this power-grab business will continue. The following clip from HBO’s series Newsroom addresses the “number one” business fairly directly with respect to the U.S. but again it is not my intent to be negative about one country or another. I am after the foundational issue, which is why some of us, as infants, start grabbing power while others might not like it but go along to get along? It’s wired in and it is going to take a conscious, deliberate, and probably relatively slow process to stop us behaving in accord with vestigial processes—by-products even—of the inferior parietal cortex (an irony that this rank ordering business occurs in the inferior PC!).

The foulest blunders our IPCs do in the name of supporting notions of superiority and domination are in the name of genderist, racist, nationalist—in general, chauvinist—thinking. Millions of people have engaged in dominant behaviors characterizable in the simplest way as “murder” because they have come to believe that their beliefs about another group of humans are correct and that other group is fated by deities to die because of their imagined inferiority. I wish I were still talking about infants and blocks at this point. I am not. I am saying something that everyone—those who read this and the billions who don’t—understands at a fundamental level. When one group of people goes after another group of people (or, for that matter, when one person goes after another individual) and kills them, it is murder and the verdict is not changed by calling it war or serial killing or ethnic cleansing or forced emigration (which results in numerous unnecessary deaths) or any other thing.

Women—yup, about 50% of the population (although seeing difficult days at present) of our species—are still treated as property of the male or of their family in many countries. They do not have an unencumbered right to vote in some countries (the U.S. “granted” women the right to vote in 1920, 144 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed (by men, just a footnote here, folks)). They, on average, do not earn as much as men doing the same job. While women nominally have equal rights in many countries, their rights within cultural groups are often quite different than what the law dictates.

This is just plain odd, not to mention wrong. While women comprise 50% of the earth’s human population, they bear 100% of the earth’s human children. In many families, women are responsible, at least tacitly, for raising the children. This works as follows: “I am the breadwinner” said Bob “and your job is to stay home and raise the kids.” That’s the explicit version of the conversation. The implicit version doesn’t happen… it just “is.” And perhaps that is not entirely bad but isn’t it just another form of the play block problem? The dominant person, often the male, tells the less dominant person that he’ll play with the blocks and she will play with the dolls. It should be a conversation (and often is in some cultural segments) but it should ALWAYS be a conversation and dominant/submissive posturing should not be part of the outcome. If all else fails, the jobs should be based on competence, merit, capability.

The place in our culture that this conversation has really been a complete mess for centuries, at the least, is in matters of ethnicity or race, which are often confounded by geographical separation as well. In her work The History of White People, Dr. Nell Irvin Painter discusses how the notion of “whiteness” became a stand-in for superiority and for suppression of regional rivals at least as far back as the Greeks and the histories of  conflicts documented by Herodotus. This whole process of domination was executed in part through creating a characteristic that was a “god-given” right for one group to dominate another. That right was “whiteness” and it is also the false notion that empowered enslavement of Africans, Indians (particularly in Central and South America but also in the “sub-continent” of India and elsewhere).

american_progress
American Progress, John Gast (1872) depicting Columbia, with telegraph wire and a book of knowledge, penetrating the “darkness” of the American West, driving the Native Americans and Bison before them (no kidding, this is how people thought! It was a popular engraving of the time)

The thing is we all have the capacity to be equal at the moment of our birth, absent very real differences in diet, cultural safety, exposure to environmental hazards (including drugs, lead, cigarette carcinogens, alcohol, plasticizers, etc.), and the like. As we grow older, the patterns of dominance emerge and submission kicks in. We have the intellectual capacity to understand that this is not the way we should live our lives.

Am I arguing against competition in products, in markets, in some people just doing some things better than others? Absolutely not! Differences among us will always exist. The differences that do not exist in the first place must go the way of our tails, though. I am white (actually sort of a weird, mottled pink as I have – or had – freckles and my skin is less uniformly “flesh” colored (is that even a color? really?)) than it once was. Do I care? No, I do not. I do not believe I am superior to anyone on earth. I do believe that to achieve this view, I have had to recognize this ancient dominance game that our IPCs play on us and I have to deny its sway. You can too. Every time your mind tells you that you or people that look like you or people from your family or neighborhood or state or nation or gender or race are better than someone else, find your voice and tell that idiot (your own internal, ancient idiot) NO!!!!!

That is a start. If we all do what I’ve described persistently for the next several decades, centuries, perhaps millennia (I sure hope not), we will become the species we should be, the species without that vestigial argument running around in our heads.

If we make it at all.

Featured image

Pun, A., Birch, S. A., & Baron, A. S. (2016, March 16). Infants use relative numerical group size to infer social dominance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 113(9), 2376-2381. doi:10.1073/pnas.1514879113
Radical

Risk Management

(or the lack thereof)

My father told me that one critical difference between humans and animals is that humans make tools.  I can’t remember when he told me that. I don’t remember the context. It was wrong then and had been wrong for countless millennia when he shared that tidbit. He was an intelligent, well-educated guy. Animal behavior was not in his wheelhouse.

Animals use found tools. Rocks, twigs, branches, sponges, bolas, bits of tile, all have been seen in use by various creatures.  Even exchange tokens have been used by apes under observation. Humans are the only creatures who learned to change tools to improve task achievement.

Anthropologists have found various stone tools in digs around the world. The earliest finds so far are from east Africa in areas dated to 2.5 million years ago. It is easy to see how stones became tools; pick one up, smash something, put it down. The modifications for size, shape, sharpness, use in spears or arrows, came from a human mind holding a rock, thinking about a problem. And the passage of time. The use of bones as awls, needles, harpoon points and fish hooks came later, around 100,000 years ago.

Tools through the early ages of humankind
Tools from the stone age

Let’s leap forward a bit to the invention of a flywheel to help manage thread and fabric making occurred around 8,000 B.C.E. It might have taken another 4,500 years for the potter’s wheel, certainly a related object, to make it into the world in 3,500 B.C.E. as a potter’s wheel. It took another 300 years before someone is thought to use them for a chariot. Mining and farming tools popped in somewhere between the flywheel and the chariot.

Another leap and in 350 B.C.E., we had figured out how to make mechanical gears, then rotary power, millstones, water mills, cement, and roads (200 B.C.E.) in relatively short order. This era also saw aqueducts built to improve agriculture and civic water supplies. It is interesting that all of these innovations occurred so rapidly after a long time gap.

Roman_aqueduct_of_Zaghouan_near_Carthage
Roman aqueduct near Zaghouan, Carthage, built between 200 and 100 B.C.E.

In the last century B.C.E. arches, bridges, vaults, and domes were created, along with a tool (the dioptra) for surveying land.  Strangely, it was the 7th C.E. before the next leap occurred. Windmills started popping up to mill grain. Canals started using locks to raise and lower boats used for transporting resources and people. The first tower clock was built in China at about the same time Europe was mounting an army to invade the Middle East (late 11th C.). It took another couple of centuries before Europe worked clockworks and put up its first public clocks. This was also about the time that cloth mills became a disruptive technology.

By the mid-15th C., the Gutenberg press had been invented and used to create an innovation in education, previously the realm of the rich and the cloistered. Inexpensive mass printing allowed books to be owned by anyone with some funds and an interest. Domestic clocks made it into homes in the 15th C. This was a liberating technology at the time, making it possible to schedule tasks in a day without relying on a public clock (they weren’t everywhere) or the sun’s circuit.

If you have a clock, you can measure the amount of time it takes to achieve certain outcomes. How long does it take to make a bolt of fabric? How many bolts can be made in 24 hours? The human mind is given a denominator – time – writ large and can ensure that as many tasks as possible are done in unit time (or tasks/time).

The steam pump, boiler, cylinder, and piston were all invented in the first years of the 18th C. Thirty years later, the flying shuttle, used in fabric looms, is invented and eliminates manually casting the shuttle back and forth; a machine does that and a single operator is all that’s needed for each flying shuttle apparatus. Thirty more years and James Watt invents the steam engine, an innovation that speeds the plow, makes trains, steamships, and automobiles possible, and provides a means of generating energy without wind, water, or manual labor.

Around the same time (1764-1779 , Hargreaves, Arkwright, and Crompton invented new ways of making and using thread that increased cotton mill output by huge amounts – and also put more pressure on “the colonies” (India and the American colonies) to raise more cotton through slave labor. The cotton gin came on the scene in 1793, again increasing the pace at which cotton needed to be harvested. By 1810, forty times as much cotton was produced as in 1793. More plantations are built and more slaves are kidnapped from Africa and sold in the new nation of the United States.

Landscape
Sweeper and Doffer in a Cotton Mill

It’s time for another leap, this time to the early years of the 19th century. Britain was the initial seat of the industrial revolution and this was fed by a set of natural and political circumstances that made it inevitable given the technologies created in the 18th C. Britain had plentiful water, iron, and coal resources. The water was directed into canals, into a force to drive millwork, and into half the raw material to create steam.  The political system had undergone significant changes; the royal powers had been reduced at the end of the 17th C. and inventions that drove increasing prosperity created a middle class of people who would have had no stature in a monarchy but rose due to their contributions to the economy. The unification of Britain and Scotland also created a tariff-free zone, removing a cost for resources.

Manchester and Liverpool, Machester’s closest port, became huge textile cities. Birmingham, with coal, iron, and wood resources in abundance, became Britain’s forge, creating the metal gears, boilers, engines, and tools of all descriptions. A railway line is completed in 1838 between London and Birmingham; what the north forges and mills, London can sell through its ever-increasing markets.

Button Makers in Birmingham
Hundreds of workers punching buttons out of sheet metal in a Birmingham factory

But the quaint countryside that once was is turning into something new and not altogether pleasant. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in his Journeys to England and Ireland (1835), described Birmingham as “an immense workshop, a huge forge,” where one sees only “busy people and faces brown with smoke” and hears “nothing but the sound of hammers and the whistle of steam escaping from boilers.” He wrote the following about his visit to Manchester during the same trip:

“An undulating plain, or rather a collection of little hills… On this watery land, which nature and art have contributed to keep damp, are scattered palaces and hovels. . . . Thirty or forty factories rise on the tops of the hills I have just described. Their six stories tower up; their huge enclosures give notice from afar of the centralisation of industry. The wretched dwellings of the poor are scattered haphazard around them. Round them stretches land uncultivated but without the charm of rustic nature, and still without the amenities of a town. The soil has been taken away, scratched and torn up in a thousand places, but it is not yet covered with the habitations of men. The land is given over to industry’s use. . . .Heaps of dung, rubble from buildings, putrid, stagnant pools are found here and there among the houses and over the bumby, pitted surfaces of the public places. . . . “

Alexis_de_tocqueville_cropped
Alexis de Tocqueville

With prosperity came squalor and mass violation of the land. With innovation came a new kind of feudal state in which people with great ideas gained status and people with a pair of hands (one would do), two legs and a back (weak or strong), child, senior, woman or man, became the peasants to the industrial “lords” who sped up production, funded mines, or savaged the countryside.

Along with these engines of commerce came billowing smoke from any coal that could be found. A type called “sea-coal” that burnt quickly and produced huge amounts of black smoke, full of sulfur and nitrogen oxides, not to mention carbon particles and the enormously cancerous compounds included in the amorphous group known as combustion or pyrolysis products, darkened the day and mixed with Britain’s cool, wet atmosphere to produce unknown levels of smog.

sea-coaling-1888_large
Collecting sea coal from the beach at Hartlepool in 1888. It is still carried out on a small scale today. (Hartlepool History Then and Now)

Pea-souper” fogs—smog really—had been reported back to the 12th C. due to the prevalence of “sea-coal” available to those who gathered this from shorelines where it was found on the surface. Add this in with the huge coal reserves and the metastasizing number of steam machines and iron forges and a pall hangs over the land, a constant night in which visibility is as little as one foot away.

South-Leicester
Leicester, Great Britain “at work”

By 1905, pea-soupers in London had gotten so bad that the public clamored for respite and the politicians started to respond. These pea-soupers would continue through the 20th C. and into the present but were diminished by increasing use of cleaner energy methods and enforcement of scrubber technologies on smokestacks.

Smog was not the property of London alone. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, much of industrialized Europe and the world created this same gloomy mess in their atmospheres. The ballistic increase in coal use in contemporary China, escaping post-WWII from its own feudal system, has created an environmental catastrophe in its major cities. Slowly, countries that could afford to spend on pollution control systems did so. In the ’60s and ’70s, acid rain, a by-product of sulfur oxides from coal plants mixing with water in the atmosphere, was acidifying lakes and streams and killing large swaths of forest across the U.S. Particle and acid scrubbers added to industrial systems reduced this dramatically but only because of environmental activism and the empowerment of a new agency President Nixon signed into being – the Environmental Protection Agency. Industry profits took a short-term hit but found their way forward. People living in smog-infested areas saw marked improvements in quality of life indicators.

The push-and-pull between innovation and human health has been a signature process from the beginning of the industrial revolution. For instance, the Cuyahoga River running through Cleveland, Ohio in Lake Erie, caught fire 13 times between 1868. It took the populace and politicians until the ’70s to correct this travesty and led to the establishment of the Clean Water Act, along with other environmental regulations and agencies.

This kind of thing went on around the U.S. The Love Canal neighborhood in Niagra Falls, New York became so polluted by Hooker Chemical that the neighborhood with its school and businesses became so poisonous that 900 families were evacuated, making a ghost town imbued with organic solvents, pesticides, and lethal carcinogens. The directly correlated health effects resulted in respiratory, liver, blood, and urinary tract diseases, and ultimately leukemia.


(Watch all episodes of this History Channel video available on YouTube)

In 1989, the impaired pilot of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran onto Bligh Reef, resulting in 11 million gallons (77.6 million pounds) of oil coating at least 1,300 miles of shoreline around Prince William Sound.

spillmap
Attribution: http://www.evostc.state.ak.us/index.cfm?FA=facts.map

From the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council report:

How many animals died outright from the oil spill?
No one knows. The carcasses of more than 35,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters were found after the spill, but since most carcasses sink, this is considered to be a small fraction of the actual death toll. The best estimates are: 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.

Astonishingly, this oil spill is no longer in the top 50 global oil spills, an enormous interactive list of which can be found on Wikipedia or at chartsbin. Here is an interactive map compiled by chartsbin that shows the impact globally (please visit – it is a great data visualization):

On the night of December 2, 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India released at least 30 tons (60,000 pounds) of lethal methyl isocyanate, as well as other toxic gases (there are disturbing photos in this article but it is worth a look). the release was determined to be due to inadequate maintenance and repair of valves connecting various reaction vessels in the plant and inadequate training of on-duty personnel. More than 600,000 citizens were exposed to this gas; the Indian government now estimates that at least 15,000 people died, virtually all of them the poor people who lived around the plant as no one with money would live close to such a plant. There has been no long-term epidemiological research to determine how many miscarriages, birth defects, and other health issues have resulted from this disaster. To this date, the site has not been cleaned up by Dow Chemical, which purchased Union Carbide. Thousands of tons of hazardous waste remain buried at and near the site and toxins are still detectable in area water and ground samples. A settlement of $470 million was paid in 1991 against a claim by the Indian government of $3.3 billion in damages. Various litigation efforts continued after the settlement.


An hour-long National Geographic India documentary (©2014 National Geographic)

Add to these the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear plant disasters, the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, and countless other man-made disasters, large, medium, and small, and you should arrive at an idea that, whatever “we” are doing to prevent these events, “we are not doing anywhere near enough.

A fascinating aspect of this entire problem is based entirely on humankind’s ability to create and innovate tools and technologies. Over the millennia, we have progressed from shaping rocks and bones for simple tasks to developing ever-smaller semiconductors that provide a stunning range of services to much of the world’s population through cell phones and other portable technologies that get less expensive to purchase every day. During this process of innovation, we have also created a wide array of sciences and skill sets that help us understand our world. From the roots of physics, biology, and chemistry, we have developed the environmental sciences field. From economics and engineering, as well as the sciences listed above, we have developed the discipline of risk management. This hybrid area of practice makes it possible to identify, assess, and prioritize risks to communities, businesses, governments, and the planet as a whole. The risks are associated with costs and benefits of various activities and are given with a range of outcomes, from the lowest cost that can be expected to greatest cost to be expected from executing a business plan, an international strategy, or development (and eventual exhaustion) of a resource.

We have developed this marvelous intellectual ability to determine what costs might be and what the probability of various outcomes might be… and then we almost always underfund the effort that will contain terrible outcomes, which quite often occur. Burning sea-coal and other fossil fuels were eventually going to cause overwhelming sulfur, chlorine, and nitrogen acids, heavy metal (e.g. lead, cadmium), combustion product, and particulate pollution. When did the U.S. get around to regulating this? The 1970s.

After the development of nuclear power, an intellectually fascinating effort well-described in Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning epic The Making of the Atomic Bomb, countries around the world developed nuclear energy as a means of generating electricity. To date, the creation of atomic weapons and nuclear power plants has created at least 75,000 TONS (150,000,000 pounds) of high-level radioactive waste – that’s just the high-level stuff! Here’s a map of where some of the nuclear waste is stored – at nuclear power plants – around the U.S. Of the seventy-five sites listed, nine are either decommissioned or in some stage of decommissioning, yet the waste is still there on-site. Why? Because over 70 years after WWII and the conjuring of nuclear power, this country has not come together and agreed on a single consolidated long-term nuclear waste storage site. The principle of “not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY)” rules over rational, concerted behavior in the general good. We created a risk for which we had no plan and we still have no plan. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years, meaning that in 24,000 years the amount of 239Pu presently in storage in the U.S. will drop to only 6.35 tons (12,700 pounds) as there are currently 12.7 tons in various storage systems. In 24,000 years after that, only 6,350 pounds will remain dangerous. Current plans for “long-term” storage take into account a safe storage period of 10,000 years. How is this prudent risk management?

We have a planet. We have created innumerable ways to interact with it, to study it and to change it. We have developed ways to understand the huge risks we pose its well-being so that we can live modern and comfortable lives – or at least so of us can live comfortably.

After developing these ways of understanding our planet, we ignore them as often as we pay attention to what we have learned. Let’s not jeopardize the splendor of our planet and an amazing human legacy by continuing to be stupid while being smart.

Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Sites
Commercial spent nuclear fuel storage sites




References:

Book “Animal Tool Behavior:” http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10565301-animal-tool-behavior

Animal tools: http://www.npr.org/2011/12/23/143833929/myth-busting-the-truth-about-animals-and-tools

Stone tools: http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/stone-tools/early-stone-age-tools

Fish hooks: http://www.nature.com/news/archaeologists-land-world-s-oldest-fish-hook-1.9461

Wheel: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/a-salute-to-the-wheel-31805121/?no-ist

History of Technology: http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab11

Zaghouan aqueduct, Carthage: http://www.roman-empire.net/articles/article-025.html

Industrial Revolution: http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?groupid=1236&HistoryID=aa37&gtrack=pthc#ixzz4I0wyt2V3

A. de Tocqueville Journeys to Ireland, England (1835) http://www.dhr.history.vt.edu/modules/eu/mod01_nature/evidence_detail_05.html

Feudal system: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feudalism

Pea soup fog: https://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/londons-historic-pea-soupers

Cuyahoga River fires: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuyahoga_River

Love Canal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Canal

Exxon Valdez: http://www.evostc.state.ak.us/?FA=facts.QA

Bhopal disaster article: http://www.cseindia.org/userfiles/THE%20BHOPAL%20DISASTER.pdf

Featured Image: http://predicthistunpredictpast.blogspot.com/2013_08_25_archive.html

Jeopardize

Bones

Before we started leaving our bones around to intrigue anthropologists a few billion years later, there were the cyanobacteria, which left stromatolites – precipitated calcium carbonate deposited in layers – as well as their distinct chemical footprints. Fast forward tens of hundreds of millions of years, breeze past a huge fossil record of living things large and tiny, plant and animal, bacterial and viral, and we start seeing remnants of creatures  eerily similar to ourselves.

Between 7 and 6 million years ago, the skeletons left behind were different from the great apes who also occupied east Africa. Somewhere around 2.4 million years ago (give or take a couple hundred thousand years), Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis became distinct from the remnants predominant before then. Around 2 million years ago, the bipedal Homo erectus was living and dying in the region. Around 850,000 years ago, Homo heidelbergensis distinguished themselves. Modern humans – Homo sapiens – crept into the picture around 200,000 years ago and have been improving on the original model every since, albeit slowly. What I’ve glossed over above is actually improperly abbreviated. Read the linked sites for more information. It is an astonishing story and one that deserves consideration by every one of us.

Given that humans started documenting themselves around 5,000 years ago and can only imagine our lives much before that, we must pay attention to the remains our truly ancient ancestors left us to ponder. The people who study this realm of human knowledge proceed cautiously, carefully, trying to make rational decisions about the remains they find. It is better to listen to their stories and read their research than it is to dismiss – or ignore – this fascinating, unimaginably long and incredibly complex process outright. While no single book, documentary, research study or perspective should be accepted without careful analysis, Dr. Donald Johanson has provided an estimable contribution through the website Becoming Human.
The Things We Leave Behind

A Brief, Mysterious Biography

I was born in 1953 to people I don’t know and raised by people I wish I knew better. I have an academic background in literature and science and have worked in positions of increasing responsibility for over thirty years in one realm of the healthcare industry.

Biographical note: I was born in 1953 to people I don’t know and raised by people I wish I knew better. I have an academic background in literature and science and have worked in positions of increasing responsibility for over thirty years in one realm of the healthcare industry. I am interested in many areas of knowledge; literature and science (obviously), but also film, art, many types of music, various episodes in our peculiar, shared, often ignored history, political behavior (rather than politics), various religions. I wish there were more time in every day and more days in every life. I have more books than I know what to do with and keep on adding things to my wishlist that I may never get to read, but it is better to be curious than not, alive than dead.