Evolution of a peeve

I am often peeved at the way evolution is presented and explained. It is bad enough when lay people get it wrong, but it is intolerable when science commentators and scientists explain it sloppily.

First things first, the term evolution comes from the Latin evolutio meaning unrolling. In modern English vernacular is has the generally understood meaning of a progressive change in a particular direction - the general direction being understood as being better or more advanced from the previous form.

This is a horrible term to use for the process Darwin described because it comes with preconceptions that are simply untrue - namely that of a progressive change in a particular direction for good (as opposed to its antonym, devolution).

It also does not help that so many science commentators (all I would say) and scientists (most, I would say) continue to perpetuate this inaccuracy. The say things like, "Plants evolved colourful flowers to attract insects," or "Organisms evolved camouflage to evade predators," or "The species evolved to adapt to its environment."

All three of those statements are totally and completely false and dangerous because they put the cart before the horse and presume some sort of deliberate and intentional progressive development. Using the terms evolution and adaptation are, in my opinion, wrong and dangerous. We should instead be using an expression like, "propagation of advantageous survivability traits", which is a far more accurate description of the process going on.

Every organism has genetic variations from its predecessors, some are simply the result of mixing characteristics (we get half our DNS from our mother and half from our father), there are transcription errors (when a piece of DNA is not properly copied - commonly called a mutation), and finally there are transpositions (this is when a piece of DNA from one strand is grafted onto another. Our DNA contains, not necessarily identical, copies of genes on both strands, but sometimes during the transcription process, a copy of a gene may be moved from one strand to another, thus introducing a change). Most changes are harmless or provide no survival benefit - i.e. there is no reproductive benefit for you to passing on your genes and so those changes simply get lost in the wash of genetic information out there. Some changes are not harmless and severely curtail your survivability - these usually are quickly eliminated from the gene pool. However, there is an interesting class of traits that are fatal (for example sickle cell anemia), which have not been excised from the gene pool. Why? Because having one defective gene and one good gene confers a survivability advantage. People with a single sickle cell anemia gene are more resistant to malaria than people without it.- consequently, they get to live to sexual maturity and reproduce.

Plants did not evolve colourful flowers to attract insects. Plants which had a mutation which gave them colourful flowers attracted more insects. Consequently, the insects preferred to visit the colourful flowers, thus pollinating them, this allowing them to propagate. The plants with dull drab coloured flowers, being ignored by the insects, died out.

Organisms did not evolve camouflage to evade predators. Organisms which were harder for predators to find, had a higher survival rate, consequently they passed their characteristics on to their descendents. Those that did not hide well from predators where soon gobbled up and their genes removed from the gene pool. A rather recent example of camouflage evolution was in Great Britain, where a species of moth came in two colours: grey and black. Before the industrial revolution, the grey moths were the dominant ones, since they blended nicely into the bark of trees as they rested, the black ones stood out and got eaten up. When lots of coal was being burnt and everything was covered in soot, the black ones had the advantage and the grey ones became rare.

A species does not evolve to adapt to its environment. Either the species, or some members of the species are able to survive in the new environment or not. If not, the species dies. Suppose there is an earthquake and a river is diverted as a consequence. All the mice living downstream suddenly find themselves scarce of water. They do not suddenly start changing and learning to live with less water (which would be adaptation). Those who can't live with less water die. Those, assuming there are some, who, perhaps owing to a small genetic variation which permits them to survive with less water, may continue to survive. When water was plentiful, they had no survival advantage over the other mice. Now that water is scarce, they do. The mice did not adapt, those that were able to survive and pass on their genes survived, the others died. Genetic variation and mutation are rarely isolated to a single effect. Typically there is a cascade effect which may include morphological changes as well - for example, Down's Syndrome results when there is excess (duplicated) genetic material on chromosome 21. This results in the over expression of certain genes, resulting in morphological, as well as other consequences.

This is not to say that there are no unanswered questions with evolution, there are plenty, but as a mechanism which describes the transmission of common traits to descendents which confer the ability to survive it works very well.

Darwin's vision of a slow and steady progressive evolution is archaic and is better replaced with Niles Eldrege's and Stephen J. Gould's notion of punctuated equilibrium: for large periods of time, there is little or no change in organisms, however, during times of great environmental or ecological stress, evolution occurs quickly as those who cannot survive die and those that can pass on survivability traits to descendants. Add in some mutations and you have a recipe for rapid change. Which organisms are least likely to survive? Ones which reproduce slowly, they cannot introduce genetic diversity fast enough for natural selection to take place. That is why dinosaurs are extinct. This is why large mammals are dying off, they cannot cope with rapid changes. There is probably some upper limit on how fast change can occur before an organism is unable to cope with the necessary changes and dies off. Also, even if an organism reproduces quickly (say mice), it may still die out if the change is too rapid (for example, if the aforementioned river increased its flow toward the mice and flooded them, I would expect them to drown and not adapt - since I consider it unlikely that there are any mice capable of underwater respiration).

As for unanswered problems? Consider what good a quarter trunk or half trunk is for an elephant. An elephant's trunk is very complex. How it could evolve slowly or in fits and starts is a mystery. Of course, we could always consider the tapir and its elongated snout as a starting point for our question.

The next time someone tells you, "Abc evolved xyz in response to ijk", tell them they are wrong. Tell them that "The selection pressure introduced by ijk caused those abc organisms with the characteristic xyz to survive. Those that did not have characteristic xyz died out."

Image nabbed from here.

[Updated 06-Septemeber-2006 to correct typos (including one caught by Nathalie).]



Of travel and wonder

People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering. - St. Augustine

Image nabbed from here.

Or, go here and navigate to Norway (link is on the left side).

[UPDATED: 13:23 30-August-2006 to attribute quote.]



Love is in the air

Noticed lots of swarming ants today.

Pointed them out to Jason and told him that all the prince and princess ants were flying off to find mates. His response was to stomp on them. He is very pragmatic when it comes to bugs - the sole of his shoe seems to be the general solution to any question involving bugs.

Image nabbed from here.



Keeping Fresh

If you are like me (which is unlikely), you probably large quantities of fruit and notice that some of them tend to go bad by weeks end. This is especially noticeable with small fruits like grapes, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries.

What I have found helps is to wash them when you get home (or at least rinse them), they seem to last until the end of the week without spoiling. (Of course, I have not done any controlled experiments by washing only half of them and then observing what happens, but my sublective opinion is that washing them seems to make them last longer).




I had a friend who believed that humans did not achieve sentience (self awareness) until sometime in their 20s.

Consequently, for her, there was little difference between a child and, say, a dog or a cat. A child may have more sapience (knowledge, understanding and ability to reason), but it was not sentient.

A rather severe opinion, but I suppose it could be argued that people achieve sentience at various times in their life - or, perhaps, never.



Touch your toes

While I presume most of you are wonderfully supple and flexible, I am not. Even when I was much younger, I could not touch my toes - and that has not changed over the intervening years.

However, I did come across a little trick that can get you closer to your toes, if not actually touching them.

Bend over to try and touch your toes. Don't strain yourself. While bent over, take a deep breath. As you exhale you will notice that your finger tips get closer to your toes. You can repeat this exercise a few times and see if you can reach your toes.

It takes me four sets of inhale / exhale to get me to touch my toes. I can feel the muscles at the back of my legs straining, but no pain.

WARNING: use your common sense, don't hurt yourself. If you are in pain, stop. If you have difficulty breathing, stop. If you are faint or dizzy, stop. If you lack common sense, then definitely don't start. If you are prone to be litigatious, don't even think about starting, just move onto the next blog.




Sofia and the kids returned from their extended stay in Peru last night. I went back to Montreal (I work in Ottawa) to greet them. I arrived home around 17:45 and they arrived around 18:30.

It was very good to see them again, to hug them and to hold them. It is a different feeling to sleep in a house with people in it, rather than alone in an empty house.

I took the kids to the park and played with them a bit there, but Jason's bike got a flat so we returned home. I went with JJ to buy a new inner tube, which I had hoped to install last night, but didn't. It will have to wait until I return Thursday night.

Holding those we cherish in our arms is a very, very powerful experience.



Balancing act

If our car tires are unbalanced the car shakes at high speed. If our diet is unbalanced our health suffers. If a building is unbalanced it falls down. If our neurochemicals are unbalanced our sanity suffers.

Talking about balance is somewhat cliched. It seems everyone does - at least indirectly by promising miraculous ways of improving some aspect of our lives.

When I slipped into despondency around three years ago, I began to think about what could be possible causes and what solutions I could apply. One of the things I noticed was that my life was seriously unbalanced (it still is). I identified 5 areas I thought were essential for maintaining a balanced life (there may be more, for example faith, but I think that one fits into community).

Work was and continues to be the single largest occupier of my time, although I have managed to make some meager improvements to family and self aspects. Sadly, friends and community are significantly lacking.

Looking at work: Monday through Thursday I spend 9 hours at work. Every alternate Friday I get off and the other Friday I am at work 7.5 hours - for a total of 75 hours of work every 2 weeks (although that is 80 hours spent at work). Add in time in the morning preparing (washing up, shaving, getting dressed, eating and preparing a lunch): 0.5 - 1.0 hours. Commute time: 1.0 - 1.5 hours (although traffic problems can easily increase that). So we end up with 10.5 to 11.0 hours for a nominal day spend within the domain called work. However, that is not the end of it, for me it takes about 2-3 hours to unwind from a day at work - veg out. So, the reality is that work actually occupies 12.5 - 14 hours of my typical day. This does not leave me much time for anything else.

The irony is that when I was in college, I could hardly wait until I finished so I could go to work and have my evenings and weekends to myself. College meant homework that occupied some of my free time. (High school doesn't count because I don't remember much in the way of homework, most of it was done between classes anyway). Now, I can't think of anything else except how I long to be freed of this burdensome yoke (living in a cardboard box on a street corner may have some romantic appeal, but is not really practical).

Personally, I feel that work should occupy the smaller portion of my life and not consume it as it does. Family, friends, self and community are richly more rewarding. Is there any way to make work only 20% of my life?

The image is copyright by me.



Stimulating Questions

One of the problems I have with institutions of learning (schools) is that they are not structured to foster and nurture independent thought. I agree with Plato's assertion (at least I think it was Plato) that learning consists not of stuffing people with information so much as opening the doors of knowledge within them.

Clearly there is a bit of a precedence dilemma, since it seem that we need to have at least some knowledge imbued into us in order that we can start to ask questions (or even realize that there are questions to be asked). As an aside: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The best answer I have heard is "the egg because the Earth is the egg from which the chicken originally came".

I believe that some priming of the mind with information is necessary to get it started asking questions, but once it is up and running and asking questions then we need to switch to a different mode of teaching. Maybe other people are different, perhaps many people like to be stuffed into classrooms, facing the teacher and having information droned into them. I never have been. I remember that from around grade 3 onward (once I had learned to read), I was paying very little attention in class. I often was lost in my own thoughts or discrete artistic / exploratory activities, periodically looking up and wondering what was going on around me. High school was one of the worst experiences of my life - 5 years of stasis (on the other hand, working life is not any better), 5 years of waiting until we were old enough to be passed off to college.

I don't recall finding school interesting again until I went to CEGEP (the equivalent of college, but you start at age 17 in Quebec), with its myriad of course choices. I took Theories of Man, children's literature, oceanography, and various other non-core courses - which were absolutely stimulating. I also took the course which were core to my studies (electrotechnology). In most cases the actual program courses where significantly less stimulating than the elective course I chose. This was also the case in university - electives were always more interesting than core course.

Recently I was thinking about why children's experiment books are rather bland and unstimulating. The books may be wonderfully produced with beautiful pictures and wonderful explanations. But, let us be honest, the whole idea of an experiment conjures up visions of something exciting. As an example, we did an experiment on pressure with my daughter: get a plastic water bottle, poke three holes vertically along its side, fill it with water and observe that the water at the top does not flow out as far as the water from the whole at the bottom. (Tania picked this one, not me). The experiment is fine, it demonstrates pressure and the book offered some explanation, but … it was lacking.

The problem is that the books do not stimulate questioning. They present information, they even show how to demonstrate the effect, but they do not respond to a question. A book of experiments presents a lot of information. One may look through it to find an answer to a specific question, but we get sidetracked with a lot of information about which we had no question.

Rather than slaking a thirst for knowledge, it simply is given to us, whether we are ready or not for it. We become lazy, why should we think when the knowledge is given to us. Like animals in captivity who lose the ability to hunt and forage because they are regularly fed. Does our education system, in feeding us knowledge, make us lazy? Does it discourage us from discovery and questioning.?

Another aside: chemistry sets today are not anywhere as interesting or exciting as they were when I was a kid. All the interesting chemicals and substances seem to have been removed and we are left with bland substances generally no more toxic than chalk. sigh. NOTE: I am not suggesting that toxic chemicals are better, but typically they resulted in somewhat more interesting experiments.

I learn because I follow a trail of questions - though this means my knowledge tends to be eclectic rather than comprehensive.

Image nabbed from here.



Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation

Ever wanted to control the movements of a human being, well you can (sort of) with Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation

Essentially there are a pair of electrodes mounted behind the ears and a small electric current will stimulate the vestibular system causing the person to feel pulled in that direction.

While it is not perfect, it does allow you to somewhat control when a person turns.

I saw a good example of it on Daily Planet this evening - although the person under control had a rather drunken quality to their movements.

You can read more about it here. There is also a video available (8Mb), but it does not show as clearly the effect as I saw on Daily Planet.

It is envisioned that this could be used in conjunction with video games to enhance the sensation of virtual reality. It was also suggested that this could be used as a personal guidance system for those who are map reading challenged. You would enter you destination on a small device plugged int othe system. then you would set off. At each turn point, rather than having a voice whisper "turn left" or "turn right" into your ear, you would instead get a little jolt to you vestibular system and automatically turn in that direction.

Not quite for me, I'm afraid.



As I was going to St. Ives,

I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits;
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?

I have often wondered if this was intended as a mathematical puzzle to keep the kids quiet on long trips as the tried to figure it out or if it is simply a nursery rhyme.

Interestingly enought, the total number of objects including the wives and their cargo is

7 + 47 + 243 + 1701 = 2000

Add me and the man and you get 2002.

I wonder if there is a simple way to solve the problem? I used brute force, calculating out the number and then summing them.

While I can do math, doing the products and sums in my had requires a lot of attention, I need to constantly focus and remind myself of the numbers = so I end up pretty zoned out.

Is there a simple property of 7s that can be exploited? Similar, perhaps to properties of 9s? Can I easily calculate it on my knuckles?

Nine is an intersting number. You can easily discover is a number os divisible by nine by simply summing the digits up until you are left with a single digit. If that digit is 9, then the number is divisible by 9. Example: given 523 we would add the digits together 5 + 2 + 3 = 10 => 1 + 0 = 1. So the number of not divisible by 9. Given the number 282429536481 => 2 + 8 + 2 + 4 + 2 + 9 + 5 + 3 + 6 + 4 + 8 + 1 = 54 => 5 + 4 => 9. So the number is divisible by 9.

The same also works for 3s, simply sum up the digits, if you are left with 3, 6 or 9, then the number is divisible by 3.



"Lovely day, isn't it?"

There is something fundamentally wrong with people being cheerful as they walk into work extolling the magnificent day outside. The past few days in Ottawa have been magnificent - low to mid twenties (70s for my imperial readers), with a sane humidity (69% today). It is the sort of day you should be outside, not entombed indoors.

So what makes people so cheerful when it is sunny outside and they are stuck inside? Don't they feel a sense of lost opportunity? Of life passing them by as the grind away the nose on their face?

I sit here wondering how many days I will be able to enjoy. How many days I will be able to say, "I lived and enjoyed this day. A day I shared with my friends and family." Or shall I be one of those who on his deathbed will say, "If only I had played hooky. Was turning my back on the this wonderful gift God gave today worth it?" (note, I am literally sitting with my back to the window).

Staring at my monitor, surrounded by gray cubicle walls, breathing air-conditioned air, with blinds closed tight so there is no glare on my monitor, I miss my old view.

Makes me reflect upon the lyrics of Morning Has Broken by Eleanor Farjeon (though made famous by Cat Stevens).

Mine is the sunlight! Mine is the morning,
Born of the one light Eden saw play!
Praise with elation; praise ev'ry morning
God's recreation of the new day!

So the day is reborn, but am I? Hmmm … hard to say yes, since I follow pretty much the same routine each day. Is that life? To be reborn each day as Sisyphus?

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. - The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

NOTE: My mental and emotional states are fine, I am just musing on the injustice of being indoors working while the beauty of life is just outside my shaded window.

Image nabbed from here.



The Trial

I started reading Franz Kafka's 'The Trial' last night.

I had seen Orson Welles' film version and thought, despite his assertion that it was the best film he had ever made, that it was unfocussed and rather jumbled. Personally, I thought it could be editted to make two separate films. As well, I found that Mr. K. (played by Anthony Perkins) was inconsistent: sometimes afraid, other times defiant, or flippant, or even indifferent.

In reading the notes to the book, I discovered that it was an unfinished manuscript and Kafka had requested that all his works finished and unfinished be burned on his death. Since the book was unfinished the first few publications reordered the chapters to try and make a more sensible and coherent story (Kafka did not number his chapters, he simply named them).

The book starts pretty much the same way the movie did with a rather bizarre arrest sequence. Surreal is probably a better way to describe it, since it is more like a bad dream than blackboots breaking down the door and dragging the accused away to a secret detention centre.

The hardest thing about reading the translation I have is that here are no paragraphs! Everything is just one long paragraph with dialogue and prose jumbled together without any breaks (aside from the punctuation).

Not sure if I will finish the book as there is nothing as yet to hold my interest.

Image nabbed from here.



Easing back into blogging

Borrowed this from ms q while I search for new topics to blog about.

Brain Lateralization Test Results
Right Brain (54%) The right hemisphere is the visual, figurative, artistic, and intuitive side of the brain.
Left Brain (52%) The left hemisphere is the logical, articulate, assertive, and practical side of the brain
Are You Right or Left Brained?
personality tests by similarminds.com

Some more from teh site:

Left brain dominant individuals are more orderly, literal, articulate, and to the point. They are good at understanding directions and anything that is explicit and logical. They can have trouble comprehending emotions and abstract concepts, they can feel lost when things are not clear, doubting anything that is not stated and proven.

Right brain dominant individuals are more visual and intuitive. They are better at summarizing multiple points, picking up on what's not said, visualizing things, and making things up. They can lack attention to detail, directness, organization, and the ability to explain their ideas verbally, leaving them unable to communicate effectively.

Overall you appear to have fairly Equal Hemispheres


According to Darwinian theory, optimal evolution takes place with random variation and selective retention. The evolution savvy individual will try many different approaches when faced with a problem and select the best of those approaches. Many historical intellectuals have confessed their advantage was simply considering/exploring/trying more approaches than others. The left brain dominant type suffers from limited approaches, narrow-mindedness. The right brain dominant type suffers from too many approaches, scatterbrained. To maintain balanced hemispheres, you need to exercise both variability and selection. Just as a company will have more chance of finding a great candidate by increasing their applicant pool, an individual who considers a wider set of options is more likely to make quality decisions.

That rather sounds like me, many narrowly focussed, but scattered approaches.



Food! Glorious food!

My last photo blog about Peru.

What can one say about the food except that it is good. That is one of my main joys of traveling - sampling authentic cuisine and trying new foods (street vendors with their wafting aromas are a big temptation for me, this time I was a good boy).

The most common type of restaurant to be found is pollo a la brasa (roasted chicken). The most common chain being Roky's, followed by Norky's and a host of smaller restaurants. At Roky's they roast the chickens over a wood fire and they have the best taste. Norky's is indistinguishable from Roky'y - identical food is served. A quarter roast chicken with fries and salad is about 8 Nuevo Soles (about US$2.75). You can get the same at a smaller mom and pop type restaurant for about 4.50 Soles. The French fries are fantastic.

Chinese food, called chifa, is also very popular. Things like hamburgers, hotdogs and pizza are less popular (mostly only in touristy areas, but if you are really desperate, you can find a McDonald's, or KFC, or Domino's Pizza).

The national soft drink is Inca Cola (which looks like and tastes a lot like Mountain Dew). They also make a sweet drink (chichi morada) from purple corn. An alcoholic favourite is Pisco sour.

Peru has over 200 varieties of potato and probably an equal number of varieties of corn.

Arroz con pato y carapulcra (Rice with duck and a dish made from dried potato and meat)
Sopa seca y carapulcra(Dry soup (the noodles) and carapulcra)
Ceviche (a marinated seafood dish made from fresh raw seafood with onions, hot pepper and spices marinated in lime juice)
Ceviche de pato (Cooked duck marinated in lime juice)
Mmmm … lunch
They are not skinned, only shaved.
A tasty morsel on a plate. I was fortunate to have cuy twice. Once prepared by my cousin Imelda and once by my aunt Cecilia. You wouldn't imagine it, but guinea pigs have very tough skin.
Something to nibble on.
Me nibbling on that something. It has a taste somewhere between rabbit and chicken. Imelda's had overtones of rabbit, aunt Cecilia's could easily pass for chicken (and I am not choosing these foods because I have a limited palette - I have eaten many different types of meat and am looking forward to one day trying snake and dog)). Tania ate cuy. Jason kept calling it chicken, but didn't eat - he is a very picky eater.
Plateful of food: Starting at the top with the red pepper and moving clockwise: rocotto relleno (stuffed hot pepper), ceviche, papa relleno (stuffed potato), something in a mussel shell, some battered and fried sea food stuff, llama with some sort of vegetable, chopped up chicken rolled up in potato, and in the middle some seafood dish with potato (think of it as seafood shepherd's pie).
The spread I filled my plate from.
It was a big spread. Probably one of the more interesting items was something made of chicken blood. It was dark and chunky with a texture and taste reminiscent of liver.
It took three shots to get it all in and I didn't get the desserts (masa morada - a purple gelatin made from purple corn, arroz con leche - rice pudding, and fresh strawberries with chocolate. Sorry, I forgot the name of the restaurant.

All pictures are copyright by me.




Lest I leave you with the impression that Peru is dry and arid, I present for you some of the flora I took pictures of as well.
A red flower in Ica.
Rose in Ica.
Purple flowers in Ica.
Cactus berries in Ica.
Wide shot of cactus and berries.
Orange flowers at a zoo near Ica.
Colourful leaves at a zoo near Ica.
Rock garden at a zoo near Ica.
Vegetation in the Paracas National Reserve.
Wider shot of vegetation in Paracas National Reserve.
Scrub in Paracas National Reserve.
Wide shot of scrub in Paracas National Reserve.
Flowers in Paracas National Reserve.
Poinsetta outside aunt Cecilia's home in Lima.
Flowers outside aunt Cecilia's home in Lima.
Berries from above plant.
Orange flowers in Baranco, Lima.
White flowers in Baranco, Lima.

All pictures are copyright of me.



Paracas National Reserve

Paracas is one of the driest places on the Earth, averaging about 1.6mm of rain per year. You can check out more about rainfall in Peru here. The driest place on Earth is the Atacama desert in Chile - where in some places rainfall has never been recorded.

The Paracas National Reserve is 335000 hectares and about 2/3 of that is Pacific Ocean coastal waters. While the land is very arid, the ocean is teaming with life. You can take a boat trip to observe penguins, sea lions and porpoises (we did not).

Salt bed road.
First stop - The Cathedral.
Desolate mountains.
More desolate mountains.
Arid surface close up. Taken while lying on my belly.
More coast.
Yet more coast.
Even more coast. Note the yellowish rock, the red sand and the blue-green ocean.
Still more coast. Close-up of rocky part from the previous picture showing various algal life.
Last coast picture. There be sea lions down there. We could hear them - even see some movement, but my camera did not have enough zoom (6x) to get anything resembling a decent shot.
Fishing village. Ok, I guess this counts as coast too.
Life – not so desolate after all.
Map of the area.

All pictures are copyright of me.

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