Friday, April 18, 2014

The Most Earth-like Planet Yet?

Scientists have announced the discovery of what they say is the most earthlike planet yet:
The newfound planet, called Kepler-186f, was first spotted by NASA's Kepler space telescope and circles a dim red dwarf star about 490 light-years from Earth. While the host star is dimmer than Earth's sun and the planet is slightly bigger than Earth, the positioning of the alien world coupled with its size suggests that Kepler-186f could have water on its surface, scientists say. . . .

"This is an historic discovery of the first truly Earth-sized planet found in the habitable zone around its star," Geoff Marcy, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, who is unaffiliated with the research, told via email. "This is the best case for a habitable planet yet found. The results are absolutely rock-solid. The planet itself may not be, but I'd bet my house on it. In any case, it's a gem."
The planet's diameter is 1.1 times that of Earth's, so its mass and gravity will be about 30% more than Earth's. It would also receive slightly less solar radiation than Earth does, so it might be much colder, although that, of course, depends on the details of the atmosphere.

How Not to Talk about your Children

Those who are constantly talking about their children, their wives or their nursemaids, are equally at fault. 'Yesterday my boy made me laugh so much. Listen to this...You have never seen a more lovable son than my Momo...' No-one has so little to do that he has the time to answer or even to listen to such nonsense and so it irritates everyone.

Giovanni della Casa, Galateo (1558)
Via Ask the Past, this is a nice reminder of how timeless our parenting instincts are.

Natural Genetic Engineering

Ferns got a jump start by stealing genes from other plants:
The scientists found that roughly 100 million years ago, ferns exploded into a number of new lineages. Eighty percent of today’s fern species can be traced to that evolutionary burst.

Intriguingly, these successful ferns also evolved a new kind of light-sensing protein. Known as a neochrome, it makes ferns sensitive to dim levels of light. These neochromes may have enabled ferns to thrive on shady forest floors.

In 2011, one of Dr. Pryer’s graduate students, Fay-Wei Li, set out to discover the origin of neochromes. It was possible, he speculated, that an older light sensor that was sensitive to brighter light became adapted to dim forest shade.
But Li could not find any precursor for the neochrome gene in any species of fern; all their neochrome genes were pretty much the same. Frustrated, he turned to a new database of plant DNA. There he found what he was looking for, a neochrome gene with the sort of variability one expects closer to the evolutionary root of anything new. It was not in ferns, though, but in a distantly related group of plants called hornworts:
Comparing all the data, Mr. Li and his colleagues came up with an unexpected hypothesis for how ferns got their neochromes. Neochromes did not gradually evolve in ancient ferns. Instead, a single lineage of ferns picked up the neochrome gene from hornworts about 180 million years ago.
This discovery is another triumph for the now deceased Lynn Margulis, who always argued that the key stages of evolution happened more by the sharing of genes than by Darwinian natural selection. It is also a reminder of the risks involved in inserting genes for things like herbicide resistance or insecticides into crop plants, since there is a small but real chance that those genes will jump to weed species.

Grand Expositions: St. Louis, 1904

The 1904 World’s Fair was a celebration of American expansion. It as officially called the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, although like the Chicago Fair it actually opened a year late for the centennial of the 1803 event it was supposed to celebrate. It was saturated with references to the frontier and to American exceptionalism, and among other things it was, at 1200 acres (4.9 km²), by far the biggest great exhibition yet celebrated. The fair's official brochure proclaimed:
The heroes of Homer’s Iliad were engaged in petty achievements when compared with the work of the men who wrestled a vast wilderness from savages and wild beasts and made it the seat of twenty great commonwealths in a single century.
The fair was staged on what had been the Forest Park, and there were even some protests against the clearing of these woodlands. But in America in 1904, you were wasting your breath to complain about the clearing of forests for progress, so of course the trees were cut and the show went on.

The landscape was designed by George Kessler.

The fair as huge -- more than 1500 buildings, one of which, the Palace of Agriculture, covered 20 acres (324,000 m²) by itself. There were 75 miles of roads, plus a railway.

The Plaza.

Palace of Liberal Arts.

Electricity dominated the technical wonders. The newest hot technology was wireless, and a radio tower allowed visitors to send messages to Chicago via wireless telegraphy.

One of the lagoons, with the wireless tower in the background. The sort of people who post World's Fair pictures on the internet seem fascinated by these early color photos, so much that it is hard to find the sort of magnificently clear black and white images I found by the hundreds for the Chicago World's Fair.

But I did find this one, of the Festival Hall, which featured the world's biggest organ.

And this one of the Brazilian pavilion.

At these fairs they always wanted to break a sheaf of records for the biggest of all sorts of things; this was the world's biggest aviary.

The entertainment district was called The Pike, and it featured the usual assortment of nineteenth-century fun:
Considered the carnival side of the Fair, Pike visitors could enjoy fifty different amusements, including contortionists, reenactments of the Boer War, babies in incubators, the Dancing Girls of Madrid, Jim Key the Educated Horse, and Hagenbeck’s Zoological Paradise and Animal Circus—which featured an elephant water slide.
Above is the design for the Creation Pavilion, which looks grand and sinister, but since it as on the Pike, I have to wonder.

I find it amusing that the Pike included an Irish village. I suppose instead of starving people got drunk while dreaming of the Old Country.

The most controversial part of the fair, then and now, was the Philippines exhibit. The US had acquired the Philippines just five years before, and Congress voted the then princely sum of $1.5 million to stage an exhibit introducing Americans to their new friends. More than a thousand Filipinos from ten different ethnic groups were brought over for the fair and housed in a 47-acre compound that included several distinct villages. They were drawn from groups of fairly primitive farmers, the better to display quaint, savage customs. There was also a troop of Filipino soldiers who drilled and saluted the American flag to show their new patriotism.

Among the people offended by this show were the Filipino elite, the sort of people whose families had been speaking Spanish for 300 years, and from their haciendas in Manila they fired off angry letters to the governor, the President, the Secretary of the Interior, the Governor of Missouri, and the officials of the fair. The governor fired back, saying that the tribesmen were just as Filipino as the people of Manila and maybe the Manila elite should pay more attention to their fellow citizens instead of pretending that they represented everyone in the islands.

But plenty of Americans were just was offended, in their case by the display of people in what amounted to a zoo, which, they said, was the perfect expression of the sort of dehumanizing militaristic imperialism on display in the Spanish-American War.

The show went on, though, and the exhibits were fairly popular. It is harder to find out how the various Filipino natives felt about the experience, although Filipino Americans have tried. Ambivalent, seems to be the answer; some complained about being used and not paid all the money they were promised, others were pleased to see something of the world at government expense. Some were fascinated by the notion of electing the President, so a voting booth was set up for them -- although their votes weren't part of the official count.

On a lighter note, the fair has a big place in American popular culture. The ice cream cone is supposed to have been invented there, and Dr. Pepper was introduced to the nation. The hamburger was certainly not invented there, but some people do say it got a huge boost as the quintessential American food. And, yes, Meet Me in St. Louis was written for the fair. All in all, quite a happening.

RIP Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) wrote many books, but for me he will always be the author of only one: One Hundred Years of Solitude. It begins:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.
For me, nothing else he ever did comes close. But for me, only a dozen other books by anyone come close, and to have written one such masterpiece is more than enough for one life.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Is that Monkey Mourning, or Just Confused?

From Science:
The two marmosets—small, New World monkeys—had been a closely bonded couple for more than 3 years. Then, one fateful day, the female had a terrible accident. She fell out of a tree and hit her head on a ceramic vase that happened to be underneath on the forest floor. Her partner left two of their infants alone in the tree and jumped down to apparently comfort her, until she died an agonizing death a couple of hours later.
Biologist Bruna Bezerra calls this "caretaking of his dying partner" and "mourning" and says it is the first clear evidence of mourning behavior in wild primates other than chimps. But then she adds:
that some of his behaviors—such as emitting alarm calls and trying to mate with her—might have been signs of stress rather than compassion.
If you're trying to have sex with a dying mate, does that count as compassionate mourning?

St. Andrew's Church, Roker, Sunderland

Another wonderful church of the modern era: St Andrew's, Roker, designed by Edward Schroeder Prior and built in 1905-7.

Prior was a Cambridge man from London, but once he got involved in the Arts & Crafts movement he developed an affection for local materials and regional styles. He also had definite ideas about church architecture. A church, he wrote, should be "a dignified distinct building dedicated to the service of the Church." Of his contemporaries he complained, "Church architecture, least of all, has been able to go beyond the trivial efforts of traditional picturesqueness; least of all our building it has been monumental".

Roker is a suburb in Sunderland, in the north of England. In the early 1900s it was a rapidly growing residential area but when a subscription was taken to build a new church, not enough was raised. Then ship building magnate John Priestman stepped in with £6,000 and a couple of conditions. First, the church tower had to be visible from the sea, and second, the church had to seat 700 people, all of whom could see the altar. Prior's first design could hold less than 600, and because it had nave columns in the usual way, not all of them could see the altar. So he rethought his approach and replaced the columns with these buttressing arches.

The church was decorated by Arts & Crafts stalwarts. The carpet is by Morris & Company,

some of the stained glass by Henry Paine,

and for high holidays they bring out this wonderful Edward Burne-Jones tapestry of the Adoration of the Magi.

The choir was painted in the 1920s with this charming evocation of the creation.

 Other wonders are found throughout.

Tesla Motors and the Car Dealer Lobby

Tesla Motors makes expensive electric cars that some people think are awesome. But as Tesla tries to expand across the U.S., they are running into a major legal obstacle. Forty five states have laws that forbid car manufacturers from selling directly to the public and require them to work through locally-owned car dealerships. Tesla could, of course, develop their own dealer network, but they don't want to. Their people come out of the high-tech, internet-based culture of Silicon Valley, and they despise both the culture of car dealers and the inefficiency of these complex distribution arrangements, which economists think add at least 5% to the cost of cars in America. State laws protecting car dealerships go back to the days when the Big Three automakers were among the most powerful and profitable companies in America, and the idea was to force them to distribute some of their money around to every community. Because at the time they liked the idea of having a local face on their product lines, they didn't fight. These days the automakers would like to experiment with other arrangements, but car dealers are politically well-connected, and they have fought hard against any change in the laws.

I can't decide how I feel about this. Fifteen years ago I would have been all on Tesla's side, and if I had had a blog I would have written a rant about selfish car dealers driving up prices for everyone so they can be sure to take their cut. Plus I just hate car dealers.

But now that ever-growing inequality dominates my thinking about economics, I have to wonder. Car dealers say they create lots of middle-class jobs. Are they right? Is this the sort of inefficiency that ends up redistributing money from investors to regular people, or at least capturing some of what people pay for cars and turning it directly into jobs? The lesson of the past 25 years seems to be that ever greater corporate efficiency leads to lower prices by squeezing out lots of jobs; the most efficient possible arrangement seems to be the one that pays out the least in salaries and returns the most to billionaire investors. In the long run, do those lower prices come out of the future of the middle class?

Or does most of the money actually flow to a few thousand dealership owners who are themselves in the 1 percent? Are laws protecting dealers actually just helping one class of millionaires stiff another?

I really don't know. But I am sure that if we want to preserve the middle class and limit inequality, we have to get used to balancing other things against greater efficiency and lower prices.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bodies of Teens Missing since 1971 Finally Found

I'm not sure why, but something about this story grabs me. It is such an ordinary sort of tragedy, and it reminds us that some mysteries have the most ordinary of resolutions. AP:
Two South Dakota girls on their way to an end-of-school-year party at a gravel pit in May 1971 drove off a country road and into a creek where their remains lay hidden until last fall when a drought brought their car into view, authorities said Tuesday.

State and local officials held a news conference Tuesday afternoon confirming that the 1960 Studebaker unearthed in September included the remains of Cheryl Miller and Pamella Jackson, both 17-year-olds who attended Vermillion High School.

The investigators showed dozens of photographs of well-preserved clothing, Miller's purse and even her driver's license complete with a smiling photograph. Those personal items and DNA were used to identify the girls, said Attorney General Marty Jackley. Jackson didn't have her purse along.

The Egerton Picture Book Genesis

Fourteenth-century manuscript in the British Library. Made in a British monastery, possibly in Norfolk. It seems to be unfinished, since only about half the pictures are colored.. Above, the first day of creation.

And the second day.



The Ark.

Tower of Babel.

They're trying to tell Pharaoh something.

Egyptian soldiers with captives.

Angels appear to Abraham.

Jacob's Ladder.


God leans in to command Abraham.