Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Doomsday Vault

In the news this week, the "Doomsday Seed Vault" opened in a Norwegian island north of the Arctic Circle. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, deep within the permafrost inside a frozen mountain. It is far from any substantial human activity, cold enough to keep seeds frozen even if the power goes out, high enough to survive the melting of the polar ice caps, and secured by armored airlock doors with electronic keys. It was financed by Norway, but the seeds will remain the property of whichever nations send them for storage. Other seed banks have been attempted in the past, but none so large, so well protected, so well thought out.

The seeds are, among other things, a bank of genetic diversity. Our cultivation of crops means we depend on fewer and fewer varieties; with less genetic variability, a drastic change in climate conditions (or pests, disease, etc.) could have disastrous consequences. These seeds represent the opportunity for new (old) strains, hybrids, or models for genetic engineering.

And it is a wonderful idea. Especially if the drastic change is not too quick. My first thought after hearing about the vault was "ok, so I am the Omega man, one of very few survivors of [insert catastrophe, war, or plague here]; how the hell do I get to Svalbard? Just where the hell is Svalbard, anyway? And how do I get through the locked, armored doors to get to the seeds?"

The doomsday seed vault, way up North
And deeply set in permafrost
Could be the savior of mankind
A second birth when all is lost.
(No, not the fake religious sort,
But hope in case of global crisis,
In case our species sees collapse
From space, or war, or plague, or vices)
The seeds are kept in frozen store,
Preserving the diversity
Of plant genetics, just in case
Of unforeseen adversity.

The site could hold two billion seeds
With airlocked doors, securely locked;
They’ll run it by remote control,
For safety, once it’s fully stocked.
Varieties now in decline
Can be preserved, so we don’t lose
Genetic lines which hold some trait
That later decades need to use.
A safety net, a Noah’s ark,
Insurance for the worst disaster:
If catastrophic change occurs
These help us to recover faster.

But… safely stored in armored vaults,
Surveillance cameras standing guard,
I think, although the seeds are safe,
Retrieving them might well be hard.
Suppose that, say, a comet hits,
Or World War III , or global plague,
And farms all fail—ok, now what?
Instructions are a little vague.
Suppose survivors even know
This treasure trove exists at all—
It’s deep within the permafrost
Behind a locked and armored wall!

A couple million years from now
When aliens arrive on Earth
The doomsday vault, if ever found,
Incalculable will be its worth.
They’ll see our species looked ahead,
Cooperation in our plan,
Intelligence, technology,
But will they find a living man?
Or will our epitaph be writ,
A lesson that our deaths will teach:
“They saved the seeds to save themselves,
But kept them safely out of reach.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ethics, morals, religion, and swarms of breeding squid.

Ok, not much time today--tests to make, papers to grade, that sort of thing. So I am simply putting a comment from last week on Pharyngula into some context.

A recent Pew report on religion in the US was one of the lead stories on all the networks last night. On CBS, they spoke of a "secular, morally void America", implying that morals come from religion.

I would (as would many others--I am not unique in this by any stretch) argue that morals have evolved with our culture (through selection by consequences, though not through genes), and that religion springs from morality, rather than the popular reverse. The customs, habits, rituals and mores that help a culture to survive in the long run are selected for, and the ones that do not promote long-term survival, no matter how religious, are selected against. (The easy example is the Jonestown cult, which was not conducive to long term cultural survival, but the more mainstream example is the Shaker sect, whose long-term cultural survival was doomed by a very moral prohibition against sex.) The things we see as virtues are the things that worked for our ancestors. Other cultures might have had vastly different cultural selection pressures, leading to very different moral virtues, and perhaps religions with very different sets of commandments.

Of course, Ogden Nash put it much better than I ever could--and used people instead of squid as his example...

Why does the Pygmy
Indulge in polygmy?
His tribal dogma
Frowns on monogma.
Monogma's a stigma
For any Pygma.
If he sticks to monogmy
A Pygmy's a hogmy. (Ogden Nash, "The Third Jungle Book")

My own verse was a comment on the Friday Cephalopod: breeding swarm! post on Pharyngula...

For squid or starfish, perch or porgy,
There's nothing like an ocean orgy
Where, unlike silly human rules,
Of course we want more sex in schools
Monogamy's against the norms
For those who have their sex in swarms!
Indeed, were there some fishy prude--
Who found such conduct simply rude,
And lectured others on their morals,
Preached of Sodom in the corals--
This Jerry Falwell of the waves
Would be the one who misbehaves!
The squid who do their moral duty
Join the swarm and shake their booty!
It's good, and not just glamorous,
When squid are polyamorous,
For in the moral code of shellfish,
Rule number one is "Don't be selfish".

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The singularity can't come soon enough

The New York Times reports on a journal article in Analytical Chemistry, by researchers at the Nestlé Research Center in Switzerland, about a machine designed to answer the question: "Can a machine taste coffee?"

Here's where it gets brilliant. Sure, machines can detect the volatile compounds in coffee; this is how we know that there are over 1000 of them. But there is a world of difference between detecting the presence or absence of a compound, and what we do when we taste. Taste is much more dependent on the relative concentrations of these compounds than on their mere presence. And although it would be technically possible to build a machine to sample 1000 chemicals and display their relative concentrations, it would not be terribly practical, nor cost-effective. The approach taken by this research team was far more pragmatic, and beautifully empirical.

First, the 16 most predictive (or in their words, most discriminating) ion traces (out of 230 measured), when compared with a panel of 10 expert tasters, were chosen as the working sense sample.
It is also important to point out that the chemical identity of the 16 ion traces is not relevant for this study, and in particular the correlation is not based on a set of identified key aroma compounds. Most of the odor active compounds in coffee are indeed known and can be analyzed and quantified with modern instrumental techniques. Yet, the aim of this work was to demonstrate the applicability of a data-driven method rather than a targeted chemical study.
The analysis is a bit technical, but straightforward; essentially, the 16-ion model is a functional condensation of our olfactory sense. The most predictive scent elements are still included, and the myriad other chemicals did not add significantly to the predictive ability of the machine. Think of it as an MP3 version of an audio file; lots of information is lost, but what is most acoustically relevant is kept, based on what we know about the human auditory system. Smell is a bit different, because so many different chemicals are involved, but the principle of building the machine based on human sensation is the same.

***Edit*** It occurs to me that there is one significant difference here that upsets the MP3 analogy. In the sound analogy, the desired outcome is a compressed file that retains as much usable sound information as possible; with the espresso-smelling machine, the outcome is not reproduction, but discrimination. They still used human olfaction as their comparison standard, but were looking specifically for the ion traces that discriminated among the espressos. The distinction is important. It may well be the case that these 16 ion traces do indeed determine enough about the aroma of an espresso to "fool" a human taster, but because the analysis focused on discrimination and not reproduction, it is also entirely possible that the perfect combination of these ion traces would be missing a huge part (but a part common to all samples) of the espresso taste and smell as experienced by the human taster. This is not a fault of their methodology at all, simply an artifact of what the goal of the experiment was. The same methodology could be aimed at reproduction, and it remains an empirical question whether the results would be much different than the present experiment. ***end edit***

Parenthetically, I note with sheer joy the fact that the paper cites Fechner (1877). And it is relevant. How cool do you have to be, to have your work cited 131 years after you wrote it? As cool as Fechner, that's how cool. Fechner more-or-less invented the science of psychophysics, managing to capture sensation and perception scientifically for the first time. And here he is, cited in a 2008 paper. On machines tasting espresso.

On second thought, that might be my problem right there. I am still impressed by Fechner, and I live in a world where machines can meaningfully taste coffee. Food... or espresso... for thought.

I have a machine to smell my coffee,
To see if it’s any good;
I asked it to make me the perfect cup,
But I think it misunderstood—
It analyzed alkaloids, sampled aromas,
Tried seventeen samples of beans,
Then told me I clearly had no taste at all:
I never was good with machines.

My pre-owned car has an onboard computer—
It measures my driving, you see.
I guess I don’t drive like the previous owner;
My car likes him better than me.
It spits out a spreadsheet of technical numbers—
I don’t know what much of it means,
Except that my car thinks it’s better without me:
I never was good with machines.

Of course, at my office, I have a computer—
The one I am using right now;
It laughs at my grammar and sneers at my spelling,
Although I’m not really sure how.
Just one tiny part of a cubicle farm
Where we’re packed like so many sardines—
Do we use computers, or do they use us?
I never was good with machines.

I’m worried that someday my household appliances,
Sitting at home on my shelves,
Finally realize there’s nothing I offer
That they can’t do better themselves.
They make better coffee, they get better mileage,
Their words rarely stink up their screens—
And I’ll be left out in the cold and the dark:
I never was good with machines.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Apple Of My Eye...

From Pharyngula, more of the fruit fetish argument from design (or is that argument from ignorance?). First the banana, then the orange, now the apple. Is no fruit safe? Women, hide your melons! Men, protect your kiwis! There are men out there (and it always seems to be men, doesn't it) with designs on your fruit!

The apple gets my sympathy; it's been abused so long
From Genesis, where Eve is blamed for turning us to wrong
Through childhood tales of razor blades to ruin Halloween,
And now this silly video--the one that you've just seen.
(Ironically, the hybrid fruits he uses in his screed
Are products of technology, not grown from wild seed;
The touch of Man is evident in root-stock and in grafting,
But truth should never interfere with moral story-crafting.)
The story as he tells it is amusing, but absurd,
That won't stop Rabbi Appleseed's attempt to spread the word.
A teacher spreading falsehoods? It may seem a little odd,
But a little apple-polishing should set him right with God.
And once again the apple is the patsy in this game;
I despair that "spreading ignorance" might be its claim to fame.
But then, a recollection comes upon me like a snap,
A story that's so obvious, my forehead gets a slap:
The apple holds a special place in science, as you know,
Cos it fell, and hit the head of Isaac Newton down below,
And that alone, if I were judge, would outweigh all the bad;
The apple's reputation once again is ironclad--
Let rabbis or creationists continue their pursuit;
We know which one's the apple, and which one is just a fruit.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Wonderful News! A Potential Cure For Diabetes!

A news release from Novocell today
Reports a major step to find a cure
For diabetes. They have found a way,
From embryonic stem cells, to make pure
And uncontaminated strains, in mice,
Of insulin-producing pancreas cells.
For human diabetics, this is nice
Of course, because this news potentially spells
The end to constant testing and injections,
Daily hassles, both the large and small,
Relief from greater risks of bad infections,
And generally a better life for all.
It’s time to end the ethical debate;
There’s too much cost in making people wait.

That's right--The news outlets are all reporting on Novocell's new discovery.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Human stem cells transformed into nearly normal insulin-producing cells when implanted into mice, possibly offering a way to treat diabetes long-term, researchers at a U.S. company reported on Wednesday.

The researchers used human embryonic stem cells -- the most powerful but the most controversial source of stem cells.

Writing in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the team at San Diego, California-based Novocell Inc said their work showed that human embryonic stem cells might fulfill the promise of treating or perhaps even curing diabetes.

"Our data provide the first compelling evidence that human embryonic stem cells can serve as a renewable source of functional insulin-producing cells for diabetes cell replacement therapies," said Emmanuel Baetge, chief scientific officer of Novocell.
The actual report is in the journal Nature Biotechnology (abstract here)

Oh... some of you know already... my son has Type 1 Diabetes. So yeah, I'm happy.

(just noticed....I beat the science blogs to this, and I did it in verse!)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Stop The Presses!

Randall tells me, as does "The Loom" over on science blogs, that there is a wonderful article about me in the New York Times! Ok, it's not about me. It is, however, about some other cuttlefish--some at the Woods Hole lab, some in Australia, but all wonderful cuttlefish, the most remarkable quick-change artists in the world! The Times site also has video of some of the experiments that Dr. Hanlon has been performing with these adorable creatures.

The New York Times, I rather think,
Could hardly be a waste of ink;
It’s good to see a thoughtful story,
Showing us in all our glory!
A walking (swimming) work of art,
The skin we wear is really smart!
Chameleons can only wish
To emulate the cuttlefish;
A master of the craft indeed,
With changing hues at lightning speed,
Resulting in a really slick
Near-magic disappearing trick!
Now Dr. Hanlon can surmise
A simple trick to our disguise:
Instead of thousands, only three
Designs account for what you see,
To help us disappear from view;
The doctor says here’s what we do:
We keep our color uniform,
When solid backgrounds are the norm;
If busy patterns come, we will
Turn mottled—that will fill the bill;
Our outlines disappear from sight
With our disruptive dark and light.
Discovering this rule of threes
Is one of many mysteries;
But many more are still unknown
To those who lack a cuttlebone.

This picture shows the three basic skin patterns: from left, Uniform, Mottled, and Disruptive. 
Picture credit: Roger Hanlon... I grabbed it from The Loom.

A Global Monopoly!

I can't believe it has been most of a month, and I only just found out about this! Monopoly--the board game--is going global, and is looking for your help to choose properties! Not streets this time, but cities. Just go here, and choose from 68 cities around the world, or nominate your own city if it is not already on the list. Actually, you get as many as 10 votes (and you can go back each day to vote again), so let me put my bid in, and insist that (ok, plead that) if you found out about it here, you include Athens on your list. Just because.

A splendid, magnificent, striking array—
In other words, a panoply—
Of cities you could vote to win
A place in global Monoply

(hmm… not quite right.)

Athens, Greece will get my vote,
With Plaka and Acropolis;
I want to see them in real life,
So why not in Monopolis?

(rats. still not right.)

I’d make a movie of the trip,
Directed by, say, Coppola;
The final scene, we’d sit and play
A nice game of Monoppola.

(dang. wrong.)

I’d play the game, the way we did
When we were kids, so happily;
I still recall long evenings spent
In marathon Manappily


There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme
That ends up less than sloppily;
I guess I’ll never find a word
That really rhymes Monopoly.

(oh. yeah. that.)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Science... through a New-Age filter

PZ Myers writes, in response to a cretinist who cannot wrap his cortex around the fact that we and oranges share a common ancestor, a post reviewing some of the evidence that shows just that. Of course, we do have to go back a bit to get to that common ancestor... 1.6 billion years or so. A 2002 paper by Meyerowitz compares plants to animals in order to find similarities, differences, and what a common ancestor likely looked like.

Of course, I suspect that Myers' orange-wielding muse will not ever read the post... which is too bad. One wonders what sort of conclusions a sharp thinker like that might draw from actual evidence. Sadly, it is beyond my imagination. So I cheated, and imagined a New-Ager reading it, instead. Sue me.

I took this post and ran it through
A New-Age Verbiage Filter—
Resulting in conclusions which
Are just a bit off-kilter.

It seems you’ve given evidence
For many a woo-woo notion,
And I predict the following
Will soon be set in motion:

If just two billion years ago,
In some primordial goo,
We shared a common ancestor
Then plants have feelings too!

And surely you have proved beyond
A shadow of a doubt
That houseplants are much happier
When folks don’t scream or shout.

Indeed, the information that
This science paper cites
Becomes a legal argument
That plants have civil rights!

The converse, also, must be true
That deep inside, we’re plants,
And we can photosynthesize
In meditative trance!

If just two billion years ago
The plants and we were one
It’s proof that man can live while
Eating only air and sun.

Of course, since none of this is true
No matter our desires—
The scientists are clearly wrong
And all a bunch of liars.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Evolutionary Biology Valentine's Day Poem

I suppose it is inevitable, on Valentine's Day, that we will see scores of stories of "what love is", citing one branch of science or another, or forgoing the science to bring out the poets. It always bothers me, though, to see some neurotransmitter named as the "cause" of this or that sensation, because it is only a cause in a very narrow proximate fashion. Simply put, neurotransmitter action is not why we feel love, but (at best) how we feel love. We still have to ask "well, why is that particular neurotransmitter released in the presence of my One True Love? What is so special about this person?

In sociobiology,
Why I love you and you love me—
Which anyone can plainly see—
Is mostly in our genes.
No, not the ones you buy in stores,
But what a scientist explores--
I like the way you look in yours,
And you know what that means.

What subtly-coded stimulus
Takes you and me, and makes us “us
And makes us feel ‘twas ever thus?
The list of suspects narrows.
No longer are we all a-shiver
From some Cupid with a quiver
Out of which he might deliver
Fusillades of Eros.

Nor Dopamine, nor Serotonin
Tell us why our hearts are moanin’
Though they serve to help us hone in
On–not why, but how;
The parasympathetic blush,
Adrenaline to bring a rush,
Are how, not why, I’ve got a crush
On you, my darling, now.

But if old Charles Darwin’s right,
The reason that the merest sight
Of you will always give delight
Is…reproductive fitness.
Throughout our species’ family tree,
Producing proper progeny
Is what determined you and me
And Darwin was the witness.

Is thinking that you’re oh so sweet
And how you’ll make my life complete
Some trick to make our gametes meet?
It seems it may be so.
I feel the way I feel today
Because some bit of DNA
Sees your genetics on display
And wants to say “hello.”

But think of this, for what it’s worth:
Millennia before my birth
That DNA had roamed the earth,
In residents thereof;
The neat thing is, it’s really true,
The feeling that I have for you
Although, of course, it feels brand-new
Is truly ageless love.

A Keane Observation

As reported on Pharyngula, the Danish cartoonists are once again the target of Muslim ire. Danish papers have reprinted the offending caricature in a show of solidarity with the cartoonists and an affirmation of freedom of speech. Why now? It seems a plot was uncovered to kill one of the cartoonists. That's right--use your ink, get killed. You can see why a cuttlefish might not like that. But rather than rant at length (which others do better than I can, anyway), I thought I'd put the cartoon jihad into a more fitting context. Is a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad the most offensive way one could use one's ink?

I don't think so.

The Muslims want to rid the world
Of all cartoons that irk us--
I say, come join in my jihad
Against The Family Circus!
To threaten death for doodling
Mohammed is just silly,
When much more damage has been done
By Jeffy and by Billy.
The mental anguish brought about
By P.J. or by Dolly
Makes Muslim claims of blasphemy
Just so much useless folly.
Who holds a gun to Bil Keane's head,
Against his plaintive plea,
And makes him write this sort of crap?
Oh! "Ida Know"; "Not Me"!

cartoon source: Infidel Blogger's Alliance

Monday, February 11, 2008

Valentine's Day Is Almost Here!

Only a few more days until it will be too late to pretend you did anything other than panic at the last minute and elbow three other people out of the way to get the last remaining Hallmark Valentine--the one with a family-friendly cute double-entendre featuring a cartoon dog and the fingerprints of the thousand previous shoppers who decided against purchasing it.

So as a public service, I am offering a few more Heart-In-A-Jar poems, for those people who are not content to give their hearts away only as a figure of speech. If I had the skill, I would mock up some cards for you to print out, but that is not what this cuttlefish knows how to do with ink. So, the next best thing. I am giving anyone the permission to use these poems as they wish--they can even take credit for them, so long as A) they know they are lying and B) they send me a line or so about how it went. If you actually put in the effort to create an illustrated card, then A) good on you! and B) send me a line or a link or whatever so I can see it too!

The previous three heart-in-a-jar poems (and the original news story that explains them) were posted here. And of course, if your fancy is bred not in the heart but in the head, here is a brain-based love poem you can also use.

So, have fun!

I give you my heart on this Valentine’s Day
In a jar you can keep on your shelf,
With your books and your papers, in cluttered array,
Or a prominent place by itself.
It is really my heart—deep within every cell
Are the strands of my own DNA;
I could have just given you chocolates, but, well,
My message is clearer this way:
I love you much more than a card, or some flowers,
Or trinkets you see in the stores;
So it’s off to the lab for a few hundred hours,
And my heart—if you’ll take it—is yours.

My love for you was different from the start;
A love like this, the world has never seen--
Not only will I offer you my heart,
But also kidneys, pancreas, and spleen.
You need a thyroid gland? Just say the word.
Quite gladly I’d deliver you my liver;
In giving and receiving, I have heard,
It’s always best to choose to be the giver.
I’d surely die for you, but better still,
I’d much prefer to live with you, in love;
To share your world with you would be my will
And not to gaze down on you from above.
I offer you my heart, but be aware:
You’ll have to wait until I grow a spare.

I gave you my heart, as a sign of my love
And I thought that you’d keep it from harm.
But you put it to work, in a flask in your lab
And I find, to my growing alarm,
That you’re growing another, and more after that,
In a regular cardiac farm!
But then, when I saw them, in sterilized jars
Neatly ordered, in columns and rows,
I thought that, perhaps for the first time in history
Anyone looking now knows
And can see, with the placement of every new heart,
How much greater my love for you grows.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Captain Ahab... er, Myers, and the Whale

I was thinking...  just reflecting on history... and it came to me, that the high seas of long ago were the routes of communication, of commerce, of social discourse--they were the internet of the past.  Or, rather, the internet is the high seas of the present.  The following is a sea shanty, a tale best told with a concertina and a hornpipe, and a fiddle if you are lucky.  It relates a legend told here, here, here, and here.

There’s some that call him Pee Zed,
And for others he’s Pee Zee
There’s some that call him “Doctor”
But that don’t sit right with me
There’s some that call him “Evil”
And I’m here to tell the tale
Of the dreaded Captain Myers
And the hunting of the whale.

The legends tell, in whispered tones,
Of a man as dense a lead,
“Immune to any argument”
Or so the stories said;
They called him “Dr. Simmons”
And they warned against the fate:
“If you’re sensitive to ignorance,
Don’t meet him in debate.”

But dauntless Captain Myers
Is the bravest of them all;
When destiny was on the line
He boldly took the call.
Though Jesus said you should not cast
Your pearls in front of swine,
The duel was “Evolution
And Intelligent Design.”

It would not be with pistols, and
They would not simply fence;
The duel that they’d agreed upon
Relied on evidence.
Each man would list the reasons
Which support his point of view;
Then each assails the other’s list,
If parts are… less than true.

But then, before the steps were marched,
And battle was begun,
The wriggly Geoffrey Simmons
Thought he’d have a little fun:
“A change of topic, that’s the trick”
The little slime-eel oozed,
“Prepare for this; debate on that,
PZ will get confused!”

Although he’d be within his rights
Refusing to debate,
The fearless Captain Myers
Sauntered out to meet his fate.
He knew his weapon’s brutal strength;
He knew its aim was true
Against the truth, well-argued,
There is nothing one can do.

The debate began in earnest
As the wily Geoff resolved
To explain that science can’t explain
How whales have (not) evolved;
There was, of course, no evidence
Supporting this position,
But ignorance would not prevent
This claim from repetition.

(When challenged by the evidence,
He doesn’t change his view;
His claim remains, unwavering—
That’s how he knows it’s true!
But meanwhile, Charles Darwin’s were
Evolving all along—
They change to fit the evidence;
That’s how Geoff knows they’re wrong!)

But Captain Myers’ rapier wit
And knowledge of his field
Were sharper than his razor, and
Much deadlier to wield;
He listed off some fossil finds—
Cetacean missing links—
And asked the baffled medico
Just what (or if) he thinks

A weaker man than Myers
Might have piddled in his shoes,
For the Great White Whale named Simmons
Simply calcified his views:
“My ignorance is solid rock
Upon which I will stand;
To bow before the evidence
Is only sinking sand!”

But even Dr. Simmons,
With his blinders on too tight,
Could see that if he stuck to whales
He’d surely lose the fight.
It wasn’t brave or daring;
It was more or less insane
But the M.D. made a topic change
To talk about… the brain!

(Forgive me, gentle reader
If I do not tell that story—
My stomach isn’t strong enough;
The tale is rather gory.
Suffice to say, his argument
Should hope to rest in peace;
By stroke of fate, the brain is Myers’
Field of expertise!)

But even as his ears and tail
Were nailed to Myers’ wall,
The doc declared his victory
(If only brains were gall!)
To hear him speak, you’d say he won
A brave and valiant fight;
(We’ve seen this once before, with
Monty Python’s brave Black Knight!)

It’s just another story, now,
It’s just another tale,
PZ as Captain Ahab—
Dr. Simmons as The Whale.
It’s not that Geoffrey’s intellect
Is mythic in proportion,
But rather, his ability
To live with such distortion

There’s some that call him Pee Zed,
And for others he’s Pee Zee
There’s some that call him “Doctor”
But that don’t sit right with me
There’s some that call him “Evil”
And I’m here to tell the tale
Of the dreaded Captain Myers
And the hunting of the whale.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

I Want To Go To Greece!!

ScienceDaily reports on a new discovery (actually unearthed last summer) that adds detail to the beginnings of Greek culture:
ScienceDaily (Jan. 28, 2008) —The Greek traveler, Pausanias, living in the second century, CE, would probably recognize the spectacular site of the Sanctuary of Zeus at Mt. Lykaion, and particularly the altar of Zeus. At 4,500 feet above sea level, atop the altar provides a breathtaking, panoramic vista of Arcadia.

“On the highest point of the mountain is a mound of earth, forming an altar of Zeus Lykaios, and from it most of the Peloponnesos can be seen,” wrote Pausanias, in his famous, well-respected multi-volume Description of Greece. “Before the altar on the east stand two pillars, on which there were of old gilded eagles. On this altar they sacrifice in secret to Lykaion Zeus. I was reluctant to pry into the details of the sacrifice; let them be as they are and were from the beginning.”

What would surprise Pausanias—as it is surprising archaeologists—is how early that “beginning” actually may be. New pottery evidence from excavations by the Greek-American, interdisciplinary team of the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project indicates that the ash altar—a cone of earth located atop the southern peak of Mt Lykaion where dedications were made in antiquity— was in use as early as 5,000 years ago—at least 1,000 years before the early Greeks began to worship the god Zeus.
Now... I am an American. I live in one of the older areas of the country, having moved here from a considerably younger area. Back in my old state, I used to be impressed by 100-yr-old buildings, which were few and far between. Now, just a few miles from me I can see cemetery headstones from the 1600's, still-functional buildings from the 1700's, and hundred-year-old houses are fairly common. I am having trouble wrapping my head around the concept of a structure in use 5 thousand years ago. Thousand. And I know that this site, old as it is, represents just under a tenth of the lifespan of our species.

Anyway, back to the report:
“Mt. Lykaion, Arcadia is known from ancient literature as one of the mythological birthplaces of Zeus, the other being on Crete,” noted Dr.Romano. David Gilman Romano is Senior Research Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and a co-director of the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project.

"The fact that the ash altar to Zeus includes early material dating back to 3000 BCE suggests that the tradition of devotion to some divinity on that spot is very ancient. The altar is long standing and may in fact pre-date the introduction of Zeus in the Greek world. We don’t yet know how the altar was first used, and whether it was used in connection with natural phenomena such as wind, rain, light or earthquakes, possibly to worship some kind of divinity male or female or a personification representing forces of nature.”
Actually, in a way, I find this report comforting. As much as I am boggled by the time spans involved, I can see that any concerns about mortality (and frankly, I am not that concerned about dying--I just want to focus on getting everything I can out of living first) are not mine alone. Even the gods, it seems, don't live forever.

In Arcadia, Greece, high atop Mount Lykaion,
The weather is rough, but the view is quite nice;
It’s not a location for children to play on,
But rather, an altar for burnt sacrifice.
Mythologists tell us, before written history
Lykaion was seen as the birthplace of Zeus.
Archaeologists now have uncovered a mystery—
Clues, which have thus far been used to deduce
That a culture was here that predated the Greeks
And which worshipped, not Zeus, but an earlier god.
That god is forgotten, and now only speaks
Through the fragments of artifacts under the sod.
The earliest pieces are pottery shards
That date back to 3000 years BCE.
Which pushes the date back that history regards
As the date the beginning’s beginnings must be.
High atop “Wolf Mountain’s” rocky side
A culture’s history comes into view;
Where one god was born, another died—
Reminding us: gods are mortal too.

(also--New York Times article in today's paper.)

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Vaccination Fixation

Oh, pity poor Orac! He's feeling the love of the anti-vax folks, who apparently think he is a stupid-head. So this one, like it or not, is for you, Orac.

It’s obvious that ignorance combined with desperation
And deliberate distortion mixed with misinterpretation
Not to mention giant leaps of overstressed imagination
May result in opposition to a helpful vaccination.

The Mercury Militia calls for more investigation
Till the government reveals what must be missing information;
A disinterested observer soon would see the explanation:
Anti-vaxxers, as a rule, misunderstand the situation.

The evidence is crystal-clear; I have no hesitation—
Quite the opposite, in point of fact, I have an obligation
To preserve the herd immunity throughout the population
For the sake of both my children and their children’s generation.

But the anti-vaxxers have a beef with modern medication;
I suspect that they’re the people who protested fluoridation
And who’d never take a pill when they could use an incantation
Or a regimen of regular colonic irrigation.

It is possible these whackos have an honest motivation,
Ah, but ignorance is toxic when in such a concentration,
And the Mercury Militia have attained a reputation:
They’ve developed an immunity to science education.

Though the latest of the studies you can find in publication
Once again, despite the protest, shows a lack of correlation—
And by rights should be the harbinger of end of disputation—
I suspect the odds are better we’ll see porcine levitation.

That conclusion, I imagine, may elicit some frustration,
And a straining reminiscent of a mental constipation,
But allow me now to offer you this meager compensation—
That at least this little verse of mine has reached its termination.