Archive for August 2010
Humans turn out to be self-domesticated. As I’ve blogged previously, if you cull the most aggressive individuals from a breeding pool (minks, foxes, whatever) and continue, breeding only the least aggressive, within a few dozen generations the animal changes: coloration changes, the coat and build change, it becomes affectionate and resembles a young animal of the species. It, in a word, becomes domesticated. (The article at the link contains more info and is quite fascinating.)
In the current issue of Discovery, not available on-line as yet, is an article on how humanity began to direct its evolution from the beginnings of the hunter-gatherer stage. At that point, humans are living in groups that thrive best when their members cooperate. Being uncivilized, some members of the tribe doubtless did not want to cooperate: perhaps and bigger and stronger than the others, such a member might seize more of the food, and perhaps the best mates.
In those cases, it’s likely that the others cooperated in killing the bully—and found that, as a result, things went better.
This process, culling out those who are least cooperative and most aggressive toward other members of the group, certainly went on for more than a few dozen generations. Indeed, it’s still going on.
Very interesting article. Check it out in the magazine.
Maybe I’ll make it. After I reach my goal.
Here it is: The Beautiful Red Bell, a gin cocktail.
Why do they think that?
Because you’re reading the Washington Post.
From a Greenwald column:
The New York City cab driver who was stabbed in the throat last week for being Muslim, Ahmed Sharif, is unable to work due to his injuries and is struggling to be able to support his family. Those interested in donating to help him can do so here.
Three weeks ago, I wrote about a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, based on the Treasury Department’s failure to grant a "license" to those groups to represent U.S. citizen Anwar Awlaki in his efforts to obtain a court order barring the U.S. Government from assassinating him without due process. In response, Treasury officials issued the license (those groups are nonetheless proceeding with that lawsuit in an attempt to have the entire licensing scheme declared unconstitutional on the ground that the Federal Government has no authority to require its permission before American lawyers can represent American citizens, even if the citizen in question has been accused of being a Terrorist).
With the license now issued, the ACLU and CCR this afternoon filed a lawsuit on behalf of Anwar Awlaki, with Awlaki’s father as the named plaintiff, to prevent the Obama administration from proceeding with Awlaki’s due-process-free assassination. Awlaki is unable to file the lawsuit on his own because the U.S. government’s threats to kill him, as well as its prior unsuccessful attempts, cause him to be in hiding and thus make it infeasible for him to assert his legal rights directly.
The lawsuit — captioned Al-Aulaqi v. Obama — was filed in federal court in the District of Columbia, and names Barack Obama, Leon Panetta and Robert Gates as defendants. Among other relief, the Complaint asks the court to (a) "declare that the Constitution [along with 'treaty and customary international law'] prohibits Defendants from carrying out the targeted killing of U.S. citizens, including Plaintiff’s son, except in circumstances in which they present concrete, specific, and imminent threats to life or physical safety, and there are no means other than lethal force that could reasonably be employed to neutralize the threats"; (b) "enjoin Defendants from intentionally killing U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Aulaqi" unless they demonstrate the applicability of those narrow circumstances; and (c) "order Defendants to disclose the criteria that are used in determining whether the government will carry out the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen" (emphasis added).
Just how perverse is the Obama administration’s assassination program is reflected in the rights Awlaki is forced to assert. He alleges — as the Complaint puts it — that the Government is violating his "Fifth Amendment Right Not to be Deprived of Life Without Due Process." Just re-read that and contemplate that in Barack Obama’s America, that right even needs to be contested. The Complaint also alleges that using lethal force against a U.S. citizen in these circumstances violates the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizure, and also violates the Alien Tort Statute, which bars "extrajudicial killings." Reading Awlaki’s Brief in support of his request for injunctive relief is almost surreal, as one witnesses an American citizen try to convince a federal court to stop the Government from trying — far away from a battlefield and without any violence used to resist apprehension — to murder him without due process:
The right to life is the most fundamental of all rights protected by the Constitution and by international law. Outside the context of armed conflict, the intentional killing of a civilian without prior judicial process is unlawful except in the narrowest and most extraordinary circumstances.
The United States is not at war with Yemen, or within it. Nonetheless, U.S. government officials have disclosed the government’s intention to kill U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Aulaqi, who is believed to be located there, without charge, trial, or conviction. . . .
Outside of armed conflict, both the Constitution and international law prohibit the use of lethal force against civilians except as a last resort to prevent concrete, specific, and imminent threats that are likely to cause death or serious physical injury. An extrajudicial killing policy under which individuals are added to "kill lists" after secret bureaucratic processes and remain on the lists even in the absence of any reason to believe that they pose a threat of imminent harm goes far beyond what the Constitution and international law permit.
That the government has kept secret the standards under which it targets U.S. citizens for death independently violates the Constitution: U.S. citizens have a right to know what conduct may subject them to execution at the hands of their own government. Due process requires, at a minimum, that citizens be put on notice of what may cause them to be put to death by the state.
Periodically, I hear some people assert that American citizens have no Constitutional rights once they physically leave the country. Just as is true for the ludicrous claim that the Constitution only applies to American citizens — a proposition which has been squarely rejected by the Supreme Court for more than a century, which has held that it applies equally to non-citizens on American soil — this notion that the Constitution extends only to America’s borders is rooted in pure ignorance of the law:
It is "well settled that the Bill of Rights has extraterritorial application to the conduct abroad of federal agents directed against United States citizens." In re Terrorist Bombings of U.S. Embassies in E. Africa, 552 F.3d 157, 167 (2d Cir. 2008) (discussing the applicability of the Fourth Amendment to citizens abroad [emphasis added]); see also Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1, 5-6 (1957) (plurality opinion) ("[W]e reject the idea that when the United States acts against citizens abroad it can do so free of the Bill of Rights. The United States is entirely a creature of the Constitution. Its power and authority have no other source. It can only act in accordance with all the limitations imposed by the Constitution."); United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, 494 U.S. 259, 270 (1990) ("[Reid v. Covert] decided that United States citizens stationed abroad could invoke the protection of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments").
What I’ve found most disturbing about this controversy from the start is how many Americans are willing to blindly believe the Government’s accusations of Terrorism against their fellow citizens — provided they’re Muslims with foreign-sounding names — without needing to see any evidence at all. All government officials have to do is anonymously leak to the media extremely vague accusations against someone without any evidence presented (Awlaki is involved in multiple plots!!), and a substantial number of people will then immediately run around yelling: Kill that Terrorist!!
It’s an authoritarian scene out of some near-future dystopian novel, yet it’s exactly what is happening. This is precisely the reaction of a substantial portion of the population which has been trained to believe every unproven government accusation of Terrorism. The mere utterance of the accusation — Terrorist — sends them into mindless, fear-driven submission, so extreme that they’re willing even to endorse a Presidential-imposed death penalty on American citizens with no due process: about the most tyrannical power that can be imagined, literally. The fact that this very same Government is continuously and repeatedly wrong when it makes those accusations does not seem to be even a cause for hesitation among this faction. They just keep dutifully reciting the ultimate authoritarian anthem: if my Government says it, it must be true, and I don’t need to see any evidence or indulge any of this bothersome process stuff — trials and courts or whatever — before punishment is meted out, including the death penalty.
So now Barack Obama is being sued by an American citizen who is forced to plead with a court to protect him from due-process-free, state-sanctioned murder. There are multiple reasons why this lawsuit may not succeed, beginning with the demonstrated reluctance of federal judges to "interfere with" war-related decisions of the President, particularly when the specter of Terrorism is raised. The power-revering factions on the Right have joined with some Democratic loyalists who are comfortable with any power now that their Party controls the White House. But if the Obama administration succeeds in vesting itself with the power to order American citizens killed far from any battlefield, with no evidence of violent resistance to arrest and no due process whatsoever to contest the accusations, that is a power that will endure with future Presidents as well.
* * * * *
The New York City cab driver who was stabbed in the throat last week for being Muslim, Ahmed Sharif, is unable to work due to his injuries and is struggling to be able to support his family. Those interested in donating to help him can do so here.
UPDATE: As always with this topic, it’s worthwhile to recap the worldview of many Democrats (including Barack Obama) on such matters:
It was an extreme outrage of the highest order — a shredding of the Constitution — when George Bush imprisoned or even just eavesdropped on American citizens without any due process. But it’s perfectly acceptable — even noble — for Barack Obama to kill them without any due process.
UPDATE II: The ACLU has produced this excellent 4-minute video about Obama’s assassination program and this lawsuit:
Seeking the Cure: A History of Medicine in America
by Ira Rutkow
A review by Charles Barber
All surgeons must devise a "way in" to their operation — choosing the entry point and the methodology for each complex procedure. In Seeking the Cure, Ira Rutkow, a surgeon himself, hits upon an elegant approach to the contentious story of American medicine. Throughout his remarkably entertaining account, Rutkow selects telling medical episodes — the tormenting of colonial surgeon Zabdiel Boylston by a violent mob, who believed that his smallpox inoculations spread disease; President James Garfield’s death in 1881 at the hands of his own surgeons, who neglected basic antiseptic techniques in treating his gunshot wound; or doctors’ extraordinary measures in 1926 to save Harry Houdini from appendicitis, which were unsuccessful but underscored clinical advances — to capture the essence of medical knowledge of the day, and place it in a social context.
Several powerful themes emerge in Rutkow’s account. One is the persecution and general calamities endured by many of the great innovators of American medicine. Boylston was so terrified of the mob that he visited his smallpox patients under cover of darkness and disguised in a wig. The three men who, in the 1840s, made the findings that led each to claim he had discovered anesthesia, all went under-recognized and largely uncompensated. All three also had unhappy deaths: One took his own life, aided by chloroform; another, beset by despondency and paranoia, suffered a fatal stroke; the third spent his last days in a Massachusetts insane asylum. William Halsted, whom Rutkow describes as perhaps America’s greatest surgeon, tested cocaine on himself in the 1880s before using it as an anesthetic for his patients. He became addicted and spent months in psychiatric hospitals, before resurrecting his career — by using morphine to wean himself off cocaine. Reading Seeking the Cure is not unlike watching the television series House: The great medical visionaries are simultaneously portrayed as brilliant, eccentric, and suspect, and the narrative is told through specific, pithy anecdotes that illuminate larger controversies.
Another theme is the inexorable growth of the medical-industrial complex. Between 1940 and 1965, as expensive technologies came to dominate American medicine and the power of the American Medical Association (AMA) grew, national health care expenditures multiplied tenfold. Today, health care spending accounts for nearly a fifth of America’s gross domestic product. Rutkow describes the current system of "for-profit corporate-guided medicine," which rewards physicians and hospitals for how much care they provide rather than how clinically valuable that care is, as "an economic tyranny of medical services and scientific technology." Yet this "tyranny" was perhaps not inevitable. Harry Truman raised the notion of national health insurance in the 1948 presidential campaign and eventually brought a bill before Congress. The AMA spent nearly $3 million — more money than any interest group had ever mustered for a single lobbying effort before that time — to defeat the bill. In 1962, it opened its war chest again to defeat President John F. Kennedy’s more limited proposal to provide national health insurance for senior citizens. It is one of the many contributions of Seeking the Cure to place recent events in the health care debate in a historical context.
Rutkow’s otherwise graceful narrative suffers from the occasional infelicitous phrasing, as when he writes that no disease encapsulated medical progress as well as appendicitis, "which burst onto the medical scene in the years surrounding World War I." And the narrative concentrates overly much on the history of surgery — which is perhaps natural given that Rutkow himself is a surgeon. He acknowledges this bias in the book’s introduction, where he quotes Henry Bigelow, a 19th-century Harvard surgeon: "Why is the amphitheater crowded to the roof on the occasion of some great operation, while the silent working of some drug excites little comment? Mark the hushed breath, the fearful intensity of silence, when the blade pierces the tissues, and the blood wells up to the surface. Animal sense is always fascinated by the presence of animal suffering."
Charles Barber, a lecturer in psychiatry at Yale Medical School, is the author of Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry Is Medicating a Nation (2008).
15 minutes non-stop on Nordic. Same for tomorrow, and then on Thursday I substitute a stress EKG (fasting).
I don’t seem very blog-prone right now. The slow-up will end soon. I’m doing a lot of last-minute work on a book.
Another exceptionally good shave, absolutely perfect in every way. I soaked the Tres Claveles horsehair brush while I showered (not sure that it’s needed, but why not?), and it worked up an excellent lather from the Geo. F. Trumper Coconut Oil shaving soap: plenty for lots of passes. The curiously comfortable iKon High Polish open comb did a fantastic job with its gradually aging Swedish Gillette blade. I like this razor a lot, and I’m thinking of having it gold plated. Razor Emporium offers both red and green gold, and I’m inclining toward the green.
A splash of Jade East, and I’m (finally) ready for the day. (Today was sleeping late and the like.)
As readers of the blog know, I’m not too good at hiding my illnesses. I’m of the other school: knowledge is good and should be shared. Having an illness is an education of sorts, and it’s good to let others know what you learned so that, for example, they will maintain daily exercise (even a 30-minute walk) and avoid becoming fat and thus greatly decrease their changes of getting type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and many other lifestyle ailments.
But some hide diseases for a reason. US presidents, for example, have often hidden a disease from the public. Paul Atkinson, who has an interesting blog whose main focus is listing and reviewing the programs offering a masters in public administration, sends this link:
If history shows us one thing, it’s that the people of the U.S. don’t exactly have a soft spot for an ill President. It isn’t so much as we’re unsympathetic, it’s that we don’t understand how someone battling an illness can run a country successfully. In most polls taken, Americans say they’d rather go with their second choice than a President that is ill.
The five men on this list perhaps knew of the public’s harsh criticism of someone with an illness and chose to hide their sickness while serving in office.
1. JFK. John F. Kennedy started his life as an unlikely pick for U.S. President. At the age of 3, JFK almost died of scarlet fever and he hid the fact that he had Addison’s disease throughout his presidency. After his assassination, the Kennedy family continued to hide the President’s illness. Addison’s disease is a life-threatening illness that is caused by faulty adrenal glands and is treated twice a day with steroids. In addition to Addison’s disease, the President suffered from osteoporosis, colitis and duodenal ulcers. Starting in the mid-‘50s, Kennedy had to take methadone and Demerol to ease the pain of his various health issues. He also took barbiturates to sleep and tranquilizers to control his anxiety, often taking eight different medications per day. There is some evidence that JFK abused amphetamines.
I don’t hear much from the commenter who once suggested (seriously) that we could simply trust companies to do the right thing. James McKinley, Jr., reports in the NY Times:
TEXAS CITY, Tex. — While the world was focused on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a BP refinery here released huge amounts of toxic chemicals into the air that went unnoticed by residents until many saw their children come down with respiratory problems.
For 40 days after a piece of equipment critical to the refinery’s operation broke down, a total of 538,000 pounds of toxic chemicals, including the carcinogen benzene, poured out of the refinery.
Rather than taking the costly step of shutting down the refinery to make repairs, the engineers at the plant diverted gases to a smokestack and tried to burn them off, but hundreds of thousands of pounds still escaped into the air, according to state environmental officials.
Neither the state nor the oil company informed neighbors or local officials about the pollutants until two weeks after the release ended, and angry residents of Texas City have signed up in droves to join a $10 billion class-action lawsuit against BP. The state attorney general, Greg Abbott, has also sued the company, seeking fines of about $600,000.
BP maintains three air monitors along the fence around the plant and two in the surrounding community, and they did not show a rise in pollution during April and May, the company said. “BP does not believe there is any basis to pay claims in connection with this event,” said Michael Marr, a spokesman for the company.
But scores of Texas City residents said they experienced respiratory problems this spring, and environmentalists said the release of toxic gases ranked as one of the largest in the state’s history.
Neil Carman of the Lone Star Sierra Club said the release was probably even larger than BP had acknowledged, because the company estimated that more than 98 percent of the pollution was burned off by a flare, an overly optimistic figure in the eyes of many environmental scientists.
He also said there were too few air monitors to accurately assess what had happened. “There are huge gaps in the monitoring network,” Mr. Carman said.
Dionne Ramirez, 29, who lives about a mile from the refinery, said she had little doubt that elevated pollution harmed her family. Not only have both she and her husband had coughs, but all three of their young sons have suffered from severe chest congestion, sore throats and endless coughing since April. Her 4-year-old had to be hospitalized for two nights because he could not stop coughing, she said.
When the news of the pollution was made public on June 4, Ms. Ramirez was irate. “I didn’t know why they were getting sick or what was going on,” she said. “They are healthy little kids.”
Her experience was echoed by other families living in the shadow of the jumbled smokestacks, pipelines, cylindrical tanks and giant globes of the refinery. Nearly every household on one block of First Avenue, just a half-mile from the BP complex, had someone fall ill during May, residents there said.
“We all became real sick — throwing up, diarrhea, couldn’t keep anything down — and we just thought it was something that was going around,” said Khristina Kelley, who lives with her husband and four children on the street. “But then everybody around here got it.”
Ms. Kelley said the release of chemicals was less troubling to her than the company’s silence. “I’m worried that one day I’ll take my kids to the doctor and something that could have been prevented wasn’t prevented because we didn’t know to the last moment,” she said.
Officials in Texas City said they were not informed of the scale of the release until it was over. BP said it met the requirements of state law by informing state officials of the release in writing on April 7, then filing a final report on June 4, after the equipment was fixed.
That final report said the release of chemicals had gone on for 959 hours, until May 16. Among other pollutants, the plant had released 17,000 pounds of benzene; 37,000 pounds of nitrogen oxides, which can cause respiratory problems; and 186,000 pounds of carbon monoxide. Another 262,000 pounds of various volatile organic compounds also escaped.
“The state’s investigation shows that BP’s failure to properly maintain its equipment caused the malfunction and could have been prevented,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement.
Mr. Marr, the BP spokesman, declined to comment on those accusations…
Continue reading. I suppose Joe Barton will now apologize to BP for the complaints from the people affected.
I don’t have the razors themselves yet, but here’s a photo of 5 of them, all new plated in rhodium:
Click photo to enlarge. From left: Fat Boy, Super Speed, English Gillette Aristocrat #22 (formerly plated in silver), President, Fat Boy.
I’m very excited about their imminent arrival. It took a while. Sebastian at Razor Emporium, which took care of the plating, told me at the outset that he would be away for July and so could not get to them until he got back, but I went ahead and shipped them off on 6 July, all for rhodium plating.
We actually began emailing about the project 17 June. I had thought of asking that one of the Fat Boys be plated with ruthenium: a black Fat Boy! But Sebastian responded:
I just called up my plating shop to see if they offer ruthenium or platinum. They told me that they tested black colored plating like ruthenium and hematite but they don’t offer it because they found that the plating dulls very quickly. The also don’t offer platinum because all platinum plating requires rhodium plating over top and given that they can do rhodium on nickel they decommissioned their platinum bath since there was little demand for it.
As for a black colored coating on the razor, they told me that in about 3 months they will have a new black colored clear coating. It is a polyurethane coat so it would allow us to make black rhodium razors or black nickel. The polyurethane should last many many years and it would protect the plating as well.
So I may still have a black razor someday. At any rate, once Sebastian returned and looked at the razors, he spotted the crack in the Merkur Slant Bar, which I knew about. I had sent it thinking that the plating might fix the crack, but 5 microns doesn’t really stretch across 0.5 mm. Instead, Sebastian suggested that he send it to a jeweler for repair (which was about half the cost of plating it), so I went that route.
It turns out that Razor Emporium does quite a bit of refinishing work on the razors before they send them to be plated. Sebastian says that their process is proprietary but that it does, for example, address little pits in the finish. So there is that time (a couple of weeks, perhaps) and then the time at the platers (another couple of weeks). But now they’re back and will be on their way here soon.
More photos to come, along with my reviews of the replating.
Back from Whole Foods where I bought black rice (aka “forbidden” rice) and frozen wild blueberries, along with several small containers of different types of yogurt: sheep’s milk, goat’s milk, regular. All non-fat, some vanilla, some plain.
Plan it to cook rice, and then when I want dessert, put in a bowl some rice, blueberries, and yogurt. :)
UPDATE: Actual recipe:
1/3 c. cooked black (“forbidden”) rice
3/4 c. frozen wild blueberries
3/4 c. yogurt
I’ve made it twice now (lunch and dinner).
First batch I used sheep’s milk blueberry yogurt. Tasty, but I shouldn’t get the yogurts with fruit because they add sugar.
Second batch even better: goat’s milk vanilla yogurt with a little maple syrup and about 1/2 tsp cinnamon. I stirred this batch together more (to work in the cinnamon), and it was a good idea.
For the time being, I’ll end each lunch and dinner with this. Great way to get the starch and fruit and extremely tasty, not to mention high in anti=oxidants. I’ll be switching to plain old nonfat yogurt once I get through the little special yogurts I got for fun.
The reason for the sudden interest in black rice is found at the link.
The Eldest points out this article:
An international scientific team has identified for the first time a genetic risk factor associated with common migraines and say their research could open the way for new treatments to prevent migraine attacks.
Researchers who looked at genetic data from 50,000 people from Finland, Germany and The Netherlands found that patients with a certain DNA variant affecting regulation of a particular brain chemical have a greater risk of developing migraines.
The results suggest that a buildup of that chemical, called glutamate, may play a role in the mechanism of migraines.
"This is the first time we have been able to peer into the genomes of many thousands of people and find genetic clues to understand common migraine," said Aarno Palotie, chair of the international headache genetics consortium at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Britain, which led the study.
Migraine affects around one in six women and one in 12 men, and has been estimated to be the most expensive brain disorder to society in the European Union and the United States.
Not only is migraine painful, it also can be disabling and is often a life-long condition. The World Health Organization ranks it 19th among all causes of "years lived with disability," and family life, social life and work capacity are negatively affected in almost all migraine sufferers.
Global sales of drugs to treat migraine were around $2.6 billion in 2009, according to analysts at Deutsche Bank. GlaxoSmithKline’s Imitrex, Merck’s’ Maxalt, AstraZeneca’s Zomig and Pfizer’s Relpax are among leading medicines currently on the market for migraine, but the exact causes of the condition remain unknown.
In a study published in the journal Nature on Sunday, Palotie’s team said the particular migraine risk DNA variant they had identified was on chromosome 8 between two genes known as PGCP and MTDH/AEG-1.
Their research showed that it appears to regulate levels of glutamate, a chemical known as a neurotransmitter which transports messages between nerve cells in the brain.
It does this by altering the activity of MTDH/AEG-1 in cells, which regulates the activity of the EAAT2 gene — a protein responsible for clearing glutamate from brain synapses.
Previous research has found links between EAAT2 and other neurological diseases, including epilepsy, schizophrenia and various mood and anxiety disorders.
"Until now, no genetic link has been identified to suggest that glutamate accumulation in the brain could play a role in common migraine," Christian Kubisch of University of Ulm in Germany, who also worked on the study, said in a statement.
"This research opens the door for new studies to look in depth at the biology of the disease and how this alteration in particular may exert its effect."
The scientists said further research would be needed into the DNA variant, and into its effect on the genes around it, to find out more about how migraines occur. Further work was also needed to search for other possible genetic links, they said.
First to my PCP, who’s on vacation so I saw another doctor (whom I liked a lot). I discovered that our problems with CHOP and BCBS are not unusual. As the doctor said, "CHOMP doesn’t play well with Blue Cross," and in talking with others today I learned that CHOMP doesn’t play well with anyone.
She gave me an EKG, which did show an irregularity in my heart: an extra beat every 2-3 regular beats. This is certainly new since my last EKG (3 years ago). As I told her, the issue has become noticeable only in the last couple of weeks. So she sent me to a cardiologist.
He will give me a stress EKG on Thursday. He said to continue the Nordic Track, which might help: apparently putting the heart to work helps the irregular beat, which shows up when the heart is not under any load—and in fact I’ve noticed it in the evening, resting in my chair and sometimes in bad. So perhaps a few minutes on the Nordic in the evening might help.
He also was very suspicious of the potassium supplement the diet plan suggests: 196 mg potassium with breakfast and another 196 mg potassium with dinner. Potassium, he said, was something to be extremely careful of. (I plan to drop that from the regime: I never took it before.) He sent me for a blood draw to look at the levels of calcium and potassium in my blood.
Regarding the calcium, both doctors said that a dose of any more than about 500mg was wasted: the body can’t absorb more of it than that at a time. So the calcium will now be a single 500 mg tablet at dinner, along with 2000 IU vitamin D.
The stress EKG is Thursday morning.
When you look at “reality”—by which I mean the sum total of the universe and everything in it—you quickly encounter emergent phenomena. Emergence is fascinating in itself: the way in which complex systems seem to generate newer, higher-level complexities.
For example, the initial state of the universe/reality was, to our best knowledge, a tiny dot of intensity that immediately started unfolding in time, following rules we later have deduced as “natural laws”, but are really simply descriptions of what stuff (matter/energy, forces, particles) does when interacting with itself through time. And emergence started at the very beginning, creating new things that (so far as I can tell) could not, even in theory, be predicted.
Indeed, Edward Fredkin’s “digital philosophy” posits that the universe/reality is a cellular automaton whose purpose, such as it is, seems to be to work out what happens when the singular event unfolds in space-time. The idea is that some processes are sufficiently complex that by far the fastest way to determine the outcome is simply to let the process run: it’s figuring out the result as fast as theoretically possible.
So what has emerged. First were the forces, which seem to have split, perhaps, from a single force at the beginning. (Gravity is always the outlier—the hypothesis is much stronger for the other forces: electromagnetic, strong, and weak.) Then matter appears—but only hydrogen and helium, no great shakes.
But emergence continues: stars and galaxies form, and from those emerge the other elements and we get chemistry and chemical compounds.
Things roll along like this for quite a while. Every part of the universe seemed to obey one overriding law: follow the path of least effort. This principle seems to hold in all of nature: water flows only downhill, light travels in straight lines and when reflected follows the shortest possible distance. (In quantum electrodynamics, Feynman shows that although many paths exist, they coalesce around the minimal time path. Highly recommended: QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.)
As we later learned, light actually follows the fastest path through space, and if space is curved (by the effects of gravity) light’s path curves as well—but it is still following the overall rule of finding the minimal-effort path.
All of inanimate nature obeys this rule of least effort: physical movement, chemical interactions, and so on.
The next major emergent phenomenon seems to have been life as we know it. So far as we can tell, life originated in deep-sea vents that created tiny chambers for chemical interactions to work through various sequences. As in the case of the pebbles in Part 1 of the argument, everything that was going on affected everything else, so parts of this reaction would mix in with that, and so on—all following the principle of least effort.
New Scientist has an excellent article on how this probably worked, unfortunately locked behind a subscription wall, but fortunately New Scientist is well worth subscribing to. The article contains a link to these 10 steps to the first cells:
We may never be able to prove beyond any doubt how life first evolved. But of the many explanations proposed, one stands out – the idea that life evolved in hydrothermal vents deep under the sea. Not in the superhot black smokers, but more placid affairs known as alkaline hydrothermal vents.
This theory can explain life’s strangest feature, and there is growing evidence to support it.
Earlier this year, for instance, lab experiments confirmed that conditions in some of the numerous pores within the vents can lead to high concentrations of large molecules. This makes the vents an ideal setting for the “RNA world” widely thought to have preceded the first cells.
If life did evolve in alkaline hydrothermal vents, it might have happened something like this:
1. Water percolated down into newly formed rock under the seafloor, where it reacted with minerals such as olivine, producing a warm alkaline fluid rich in hydrogen, sulphides and other chemicals – a process called serpentinisation.
This hot fluid welled up at alkaline hydrothermal vents like those at the Lost City, a vent system discovered near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in 2000.
2. Unlike today’s seas, the early ocean was acidic and rich in dissolved iron. When upwelling hydrothermal fluids reacted with this primordial seawater, they produced carbonate rocks riddled with tiny pores and a “foam” of iron-sulphur bubbles.
3. Inside the iron-sulphur bubbles, hydrogen reacted with carbon dioxide, forming simple organic molecules such as methane, formate and acetate. Some of these reactions were catalysed by the iron-sulphur minerals. Similar iron-sulphur catalysts are still found at the heart of many proteins today.
4. The electrochemical gradient between the alkaline vent fluid and the acidic seawater leads to the spontaneous formation of acetyl phosphate and pyrophospate, which act just like adenosine triphosphate or ATP, the chemical that powers living cells.
These molecules drove the formation of amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – and nucleotides, the building blocks for RNA and DNA.
5. Thermal currents and diffusion within the vent pores concentrated larger molecules like nucleotides, driving the formation of RNA and DNA – and providing an ideal setting for their evolution into the world of DNA and proteins. Evolution got under way, with sets of molecules capable of producing more of themselves starting to dominate.
6. Fatty molecules coated the iron-sulphur froth and spontaneously formed cell-like bubbles. Some of these bubbles would have enclosed self-replicating sets of molecules – the first organic cells. The earliest protocells may have been elusive entities, though, often dissolving and reforming as they circulated within the vents.
7. The evolution of an enzyme called pyrophosphatase, which catalyses the production of pyrophosphate, allowed the protocells to extract more energy from the gradient between the alkaline vent fluid and the acidic ocean. This ancient enzyme is still found in many bacteria and archaea, the first two branches on the tree of life.
8. Some protocells started using ATP as well as acetyl phosphate and pyrophosphate. The production of ATP using energy from the electrochemical gradient is perfected with the evolution of the enzyme ATP synthase, found within all life today.
9. Protocells further from the main vent axis, where the natural electrochemical gradient is weaker, started to generate their own gradient by pumping protons across their membranes, using the energy released when carbon dioxide reacts with hydrogen.
This reaction yields only a small amount of energy, not enough to make ATP. By repeating the reaction and storing the energy in the form of an electrochemical gradient, however, protocells “saved up” enough energy for ATP production.
10. Once protocells could generate their own electrochemical gradient, they were no longer tied to the vents. Cells left the vents on two separate occasions, with one exodus giving rise to bacteria and the other to archaea.
Notice that all the reactions and developments following the path of least effort: the protons, electrons, and the like in the atoms, the atoms in the elements, the elements in the compounds, and the chemical reactions among them: every single entity, at every level from quark to cell, does what minimizes effort at each step, following the most efficient path.
With this emergence, we get living cells, and as soon as those arise evolution kicks in by logical necessity: resources used by the cells are limited, and cells pass on their characteristics. Cells that make best use of the resources available tend to generate more copies of themselves, and the new process begins: life.
Life at this point is a lot more complex than a rock, but like the rock, life consists of a myriad of particles, each of which simply follows the path of least resistance through space-time, given the context in which it exists.
Things get rather complex. Take a look at this video:
The yellow molecule is messenger RNA (mRNA); it leaves the nucleus; at the ribosome, ribosomal RNA (rRNA) binds to mRNA; transfer RNA or tRNA (in green) can read the three letter code on mRNA or codon; each codon codes for one animo acid (red molecule attached to tRNA); the sequence of codons on the mRNA determines the sequence of amino acids in the protein, which in turn determines the structure and function of the protein.
The video is fascinating: watching the little machine read its instructions and churn out a string of a particular protein. But it’s totally mechanical, in the sense that it is merely matter and forces following the principle of least effort at every level of scale. Of course, what you see in the video is the result of perhaps millions of years of evolution: small simple systems struggling for survival and passing along their characteristics.
15.5 minutes on the Nordic Track this morning, the extra .5 because (a) no Nordic yesterday and (b) I had to stop for a glass of water en route.
My weight-loss plan had me taking around 1200 mg of calcium bid, and only the evening dose was accompanied by vitamin D. After reading the article I posted yesterday, I immediately discontinued the morning dose and cut the evening dose to 600 mg, continuing the vitamin D.
So for three months I’ve ingested quite a bit of calcium daily. Because of that, my fat, and some general heart worries (exacerbated by PZ Myers’s heart problem last week: he had a stent inserted), I decided that I would be a lot more comfortable if I got a heart workup, so I’m calling the doc this morning for an appointment. In the meantime, I’ll continue with weight loss and the Nordic Track, taking it moderate.
Sometimes the planets align and a shave turns out exceptionally well. This morning was one of those. A superb lather from the Valobra shave stick (recommended!) and the Simpson Persian Jar 2 Super. Then the Merkur Slant, with a used Swedish Gillette blade, did three extremely smooth and fault-free passes, followed by a small splash of Alt Innsbruck. Terrific.
Remarkable Power. So far, and I’m fairly into it on Watch Instantly.
Important health note reported by Evra Taylor-Levy and Eddy Lang in the Montreal Gazette:
Why worry about calcium and the heart?
To understand the possible relationship between calcium and your heart, you need to know about coronary artery and vascular plaques. Plaques are deposits on the inside of arteries that lead to poor circulation and, ultimately, to heart attacks and strokes. The plaques are made of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances found in the blood. In fact, it is the calcium that makes these narrowings particularly stiff and more likely to cause problems. This accumulation of plaque describes the condition known as atherosclerosis, which includes coronary artery disease (CAD), a leading cause of death worldwide.
High calcium levels in the blood have been shown to accelerate calcium buildup in plaques. Taking calcium supplements raises calcium levels in the blood and may contribute to the development of atherosclerosis.
What about vitamin D in the treatment of osteoporosis?
We know that a lack of vitamin D contributes to bone weakness and an increased risk of falls and fractures. Vitamin D is therefore important for treating osteoporosis as it works primarily by enabling the body to absorb calcium from the diet and to use it to strengthen bone. The benefits of vitamin D also seem to extend to cardiovascular health and may somehow reduce the risk of heart attacks and stroke, leading to longer and healthier lives.
Bolland MJ, Avenell A, Baron JA, et al. Effect of calcium supplements on risk of myocardial infarction and cardiovascular events: meta-analysis. BMJ 2010;341: c3691.
What type of study was this?
This kind of study is called a meta-analysis, or systematic review, and is often the focus of HealthWatch columns because it provides a critical analysis and summary of multiple trials that are designed to answer the same question. In this case, researchers attempted to collect and analyze every well-done study conducted on calcium supplements that followed patients long enough to determine if the supplements led to an increase in heart attacks, strokes or death.
Why didn’t we know that calcium might be harmful to the heart?
The potentially harmful effects of calcium are never immediate and take years to develop. When you consider this, as well as the fact that heart attacks and strokes occur fairly often in the elderly, it’s not surprising that the influence of calcium supplements might go largely unnoticed. Only careful studies in which two very similar groups of people, distinguished only by their use or non-use of calcium supplements, can provide an accurate picture of potential health risks. Fifteen such trials comprising more than 8,000 patients were included in this meta-analysis.
Tell me about the risks.
Taking a calcium supplement alone increases your risk of a heart attack by about 30 per cent. This study is only about doses higher than 500 mg per day, and does not relate to diets that are high in calcium or cases where supplements are taken together with vitamin D. Another way to look at this risk is to note that if 1,000 women were to take calcium supplements for a five-year period, 13 would die, 14 would have at least one heart attack, and 10 would suffer at least one stroke as a result of trying to keep their bones healthy.
Is there any reason to question these findings?
Yes. All studies are at risk for getting things wrong, and this one is no exception. The concern here is that the studies in question were not specifically designed to measure cardiovascular disease and did so in differing and non-standardized ways. However, this is equally true for the subjects taking calcium and for those in the comparison group, so it probably does not affect the conclusions.
Should I stop taking my calcium supplement?
If you are taking calcium without vitamin D or another treatment specifically for osteoporosis, the answer is yes. This may come as a surprise to you but when taken alone, calcium supplements have little or no benefit when it comes to preventing fractures. As a result, without a compelling upside, the decision not to take them should be a relatively easy one, at least based on what we know today. The benefits of taking vitamin D together with calcium are an entirely separate issue with the science suggesting that whether for bone or heart health, taking the two together continues to make sense.