Archive for October 2012
Wen Stephenson has an excellent article in The Phoenix:
On October 2, I led a climate protest inside the offices of the Boston Globe.
OK, it was really a meeting in a small conference room with editorial page editor Peter Canellos and members of his staff. But it was, in essence, a protest.
I used to be a card-carrying member of the mainstream media; just a few years ago, I was the editor of the Globe‘s Ideas section. Peter is a former colleague.
With me was Craig Altemose, founder and executive director of Better Future Project, a Cambridge-based non-profit dedicated to climate action, on whose working board I serve as a volunteer. We were joined by two members of BFP’s advisory board: MIT’s Kerry Emanuel, one of the country’s leading climate scientists (and, until recently, a Republican); and Boston College’s Juliet Schor, a sociologist and economist who is a respected thinker on climate and the economy. Last year, Altemose was arrested protesting the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House along with another advisory board member, Bill McKibben of 350.org, and 1251 other concerned citizens.
After a quick round of introductions, I explained to my former Globe colleagues that I wasn’t there to “save the planet” or to protect some abstraction called “the environment.” I’m really not an environmentalist, and never have been. No, I said, I was there for my kids: my son, who’s 12, and my daughter, who’s 8. And not only my kids — all of our kids, everywhere. Because on our current trajectory, it’s entirely possible that we’ll no longer have a livable climate — one that allows for stable, secure societies to survive — within the lifetimes of today’s children.
And I told them that I was there, in that room, because the national conversation we’re having about this situation, this emergency, is utterly inadequate —or, really, nonexistent. And I looked Peter in the eye, and told him that I’m sorry, but that’s completely unacceptable to me. If we can’t speak honestly about this crisis — if we can’t lay it on the line — then how can we look at ourselves in the mirror?
Since I had requested the meeting, I told Peter that I hoped to frame the discussion around two points:
First: We need to see a much greater sense of urgency in the media’s coverage of climate change, including in the Globe‘s editorial and opinion pages. This is more than an environmental crisis: it’s an existential threat, and it should be treated like one, without fear of sounding alarmist, rather than covered as just another special interest, something only environmentalists care about. And it should be treated as a central issue in this election, regardless of whether the candidates or the political media are talking about it.
Second: . . .
Dylan Matthews and Ezra Klein in the Washington Post have a cool interactive column that you can use to see how Romney’s budget will (or will not) balance the budget without adding new taxes. They write:
The two parties may not agree on much, but they do agree on this: It’s time to reform the tax code.
The last time the tax code got a deep clean was 1986. Since then, it has been clogged up with deductions, credits and loopholes that have made tax time a burden for individuals and tax decisions distortive for businesses. Eliminating many of these special carve-outs would pay for a reduction in tax rates, deficit reduction or perhaps even both.
But the minute one moves from that vague goal of making the tax code simpler into the knotty questions of what provisions of the tax code ought to be eliminated, the broad consensus breaks down. Should the next president limit the mortgage-interest deduction, and if so, by how much? Should he end the charitable deduction? What about the tax-free status of employer-provided health benefits?
These are the real questions of tax reform, and they’re often hidden by politicians who prefer to talk vaguely of “tax breaks and loopholes.” But if either President Obama or Mitt Romney attempts to “broaden the base and lower the rates,” those questions will be the only ones that matter.
To help make them clearer, we’ve worked with the analysts at Citizens for Tax Justice, and its sister organization the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, to create the Wonkblog Tax Reform Calculator. We in particular thank Matt Gardner at ITEP for running the numbers necessary for the simulation to work. Today’s version allows you to try and pay for Romney’s tax cuts by choosing which deductions and exemptions to eliminate. Tomorrow we’ll release a simulation based on Obama’s specifications and goals.
Romney’s tax plan
Romney’s tax plan is less a plan than a set of promises: A 20 percent cut to individual tax rates. A 30 percent cut to the corporate tax rate. No change to overall tax revenues. No cut in the tax burden of the rich. No increase in the tax burden of the middle class. No increase in taxes on savings and investment.
But if those promises are simple to explain, they’re almost impossible to keep simultaneously. And so the scrutiny of Romney’s tax reform plan has been of an odd sort. Rather than asking what policy choices Romney would make to achieve his goals, the debate has focused on whether, as a question of abstract math, his goals are achievable. (The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center’s analysis suggests they’re not.)
This simulator can’t answer that question. In order to keep the calculations manageable, we’ve had to sacrifice so-called distributional analysis, which estimates how much different income groups will pay. So this won’t tell you whether you’ve raised taxes on the middle class or cut them on the rich, though hopefully the descriptions and numbers we’ve included for each tax policy choice will give you a rough idea.
What the calculator does do is let you try and raise the $480 billion that the Tax Policy Center estimates Romney’s plan will cost in 2015 by doing exactly what Romney says he’s going to do if elected: Capping or ending deductions and closing loopholes. The simulation doesn’t include literally every deduction or exemption in the code. But it includes all of the major ones — including some Romney has taken off the table, like the preferential rate for capital gains income.
It will also let you do what Romney has said he won’t do: Raise taxes. After all, pledges get broken, and if Romney’s plan is going to balance out, he’s going to have to break at least a few of his previous promises. So we’re including a few possible new taxes and tax increases. Some of these are dramatic, like implementing a carbon tax or a European-style value-added tax (VAT). Others are more modest, such as a slight increase in the taxes on alcohol and gas. All the data are courtesy of ITEP, the Congressional Budget Office’s budget options or the Office on Management and Budget’s summary tables.
Remember that all the policies below serve purposes besides raising revenue. Gas and carbon taxes reduce the threat of global warming, and gas taxes reduce congestion, smog and other irritants as well. Alcohol taxes deter alcoholism and deaths from drunken driving. The charitable deduction is a crucial lifeline for artistic and philanthropic groups such as soup kitchens, regional theaters and churches, and the mortgage-interest deduction is a key subsidy for homeowners. So keep in mind while playing that you’re not just making Romney’s math balance out. You’re making policy. . .
Work the plan!
For new readers: Glorious One-Pot Meals (GOPMs), so named by Elizabeth Yarnell in her cookbook of that title, are cooked in a 2-qt cast-iron dutch oven. I use a 2.25-qt Staub round cocotte, which I think is terrific and clearly much better than the corresponding Le Creuset pot despite Le Creuset’s higher price. For example, the Le Creuset plastic knob can’t take high oven temperatures; the Staub pot has a metal knob with a slightly extended shaft that makes it easy to grasp while wearing oven mitts.
GOPMs are easy to make—you normally can ready the pot in the time it takes the oven to heat—and afterwards there is only one pot to clean. In addition, the meals are healthful: heavy on vegetables, light on fats, and using measured amounts of starches and proteins.
Spray or wipe the interior of the pot with olive oil, layer the ingredients, then cover and cook in a 450ºF oven for 45 minutes. They seem to be always delicious, but of course I layer foods I like, so I have a head start. Yarnell’s recipes tend toward blandness (a sprinkling of crushed red pepper helps), and for some reason she always specifies 4 servings of rice even though the 2-qt pot is intended to make two meals. (1/2 c uncooked rice is two servings; she always uses 1 cup uncooked rice. Go figure.) But after you’ve made one or two GOPMs, you’ll find it easy to create your own recipes: two servings starch, 8 oz protein, and the rest of the pot is filled with vegetables, with the pour-over adding some oil (the vinaigrette in this case). For myself, I often use 1/3 c uncooked rice instead of 1/2 c: slightly less than two servings.
My next GOPM for The Wife, with layers listed from bottom up (that is, in the order in which you add to the pot):
1/2 c converted rice
2 Tbsp sherry vinegar
1 spicy Italian pork sausage, sliced into rounds
2-3 shallots, chopped
8-10 cloves garlic, minced
1 boneless pork chop, cut into chunks
good sprinkling of Penzey’s “Mural of Flavor” seasoning
1-2 handfuls chopped celery
1/2 large red bell pepper, chopped
3 smallish purple carrots, chopped
1 yellow crookneck squash, diced
Chopped red cabbage to fill pot
2 Tbsp vinaigrette (Penzey’s Country French Vinaigrette seasoning mixed with olive oil and sherry vinegar according to the label instructions)
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbsp Amontillado Sherry
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
UPDATE: Very tasty, as usual. Putting the sausage on the rice worked out well.
We are now in for many extreme weather events, which will get extremer as we go. This post on emergency gear may be of interest.
The flowchart is big:
Interesting analysis of how plastics stop bullets. Rachel Ehrenberg writes in Science News:
You don’t have to be a caped superhero to stop a speeding bullet. Scientists have created a material that demonstrates how common plastics can bring projectiles traveling faster than a kilometer per second to a screeching halt. Similar materials might be used to make supertough lightweight body armor, or coatings to protect jet engine components or spacecraft from flying debris.
“This may provide a way to make new materials that are more durable,” says Catherine Brinson, a specialist in advanced materials at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who was not involved with the work. “There may be applications for anything that is impacted at high speeds — body armor, satellites — anything that you don’t want destroyed.”
Experiments that shoot projectiles into the new material at breakneck speeds suggest that it goes through a weird, liquidlike phase that envelops the miniature bullets without cracking the material. The ballistics tests suggest that the material’s parallel layers of glassy and rubbery ingredients enhance its bullet-stopping power by 30 percent, an international team reports online October 30 in Nature Communications.
Some polymers such as hardened polyurethane are tangles of both hard and soft components at the microscopic level and are known for . . .
They all tie together, and the connections are obvious and now undeniable. Tom Philpott has a good article in Mother Jones on the topic. From the article:
. . . In 2005, the sixth-most powerful hurricane ever recorded blitzed into the Mississippi River Delta region, flattening $900 million worth of crops. Just two years after Katrina, a “500-year flood” visited the Midwestern corn belt—which, as the US Geological Survey pointed out at the time, marked the second “500-year flood” in 15 years. In 2011, Texas suffered the most severe 12-month drought in its recorded history, resulting in a stunning $5.2 billion in crop and livestock losses, eclipsing the state’s previous record high in crop losses set just five years earlier. Then came last August’s Hurricane Irene, which deluged farmlands and destroyed crops from Puerto Rico to Canada, taking a particular toll on farmers in Vermont and New York State. This summer, farmers in the Midwest suffered the worst drought in a generation—which cut into crop yields and sparked yet another global hunger crisis. And now comes unprecedented “superstorm” Sandy. . .
The culprit for routine “extreme weather” is becoming obvious. Cary writes that “scientists used to say, cautiously, that extreme weather events were ‘consistent’ with the predictions of climate change.” There were lingering questions about whether extreme weather events were on the rise—or whether people were just paying increased attention to them. That idea has crumbled under the weight of data. Cary quotes Peter Höppe, head of the European reinsurance giant Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research/Corporate Climate Center, who “has compiled the world’s most comprehensive database of natural disasters, reaching all the way back to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79″:
Our figures indicate a trend towards an increase in extreme weather events that can only be fully explained by climate change… It’s as if the weather machine had changed up a gear.
Even US government scientists acknowledge the connection. “Now we can make the statement that particular events would not have happened the same way without global warming,” Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), tells Carey.
What does the rise of a hyper-volatile climate mean for farms—and our food supply? . . .
And, speaking of zombies, an article by Jef Akst in The Scientist:
A normally insatiable caterpillar suddenly stops eating. A quick look inside its body reveals the reason: dozens of little wasp larvae gnawing and secreting digestive enzymes to penetrate its body wall. They have been living inside the caterpillar for days—like little vampires, feeding on its “blood”—and are finally making their exodus to build their cocoons on its bright-green exterior.
In the caterpillar’s brain, a massive immune reaction is taking place—the invertebrate equivalent of a cytokine storm—and among the factors being released is an invertebrate neurohormone called octopamine. “It’s a very important compound for controlling behavior in insects,” says invertebrate behavioral physiologist Shelley Adamo of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “Octopamine levels go up, and that plays a role in shutting off feeding.”
But the parasitic larvae don’t stop there. They also inhibit the host’s ability to break down the substance. “Octopamine levels remain high for days, and this caterpillar never really eats again,” Adamo explains. “Basically, it starves to death.” This plays the important role of preventing the caterpillar from picking off the cocoons, one by one, and eating the metamorphosing larvae alive. Simply killing their host isn’t an option, Adamo says, because if the caterpillar dies, its body will become overrun with fungal pathogens—unwelcome visitors to a wasp nursery. Plus, non-eating caterpillars retain their defensive reflexes, which protect both them and the young wasps from arthropod predators. “They’ve turned their host from being a meal ticket [into] their bodyguard,” Adamo says.
Although researchers have observed countless examples of parasites hijacking the autonomy of their hosts, only now are they beginning to understand how the parasites tinker with numerous systems within the host, ultimately changing the host’s behavior in grotesque and horrific ways. Taking a proteomics approach, for example, scientists have compared the proteins expressed in the brains of infected and uninfected animals to gain clues about which molecules might be involved in the manipulation. And more directed neurological approaches have flagged certain brain regions and particular neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, as likely culprits.
“The real nuts and bolts have yet to be figured out for any system,” says Adamo. “But we have some hints—good hints.”
Pet cockroaches . .
Interesting and disturbing. Op-ed by Amy Wilentz in the NY Times:
Zombies will come to my door on Wednesday night — in rags, eye-sockets blackened, pumping devices that make fake blood run down their faces — asking for candies. There seem to be more and more zombies every Halloween, more zombies than princesses, fairies, ninjas or knights. In all probability, none of them knows what a zombie really is.
Most people think of them as the walking dead, a being without a soul or someone with no free will. This is true. But the zombie is not an alien enemy who’s been CGI-ed by Hollywood. He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. In Africa, a dying person’s soul might be stolen and stoppered up in a ritual bottle for later use. But the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery.
For the slave under French rule in Haiti — then Saint-Domingue — in the 17th and 18th centuries, life was brutal: hunger, extreme overwork and cruel discipline were the rule. Slaves often could not consume enough calories to allow for normal rates of reproduction; what children they did have might easily starve. That was not of great concern to the plantation masters, who felt that children were a waste of resources, since they weren’t able to work properly until they reached 10 or so. More manpower could always be imported from the Middle Passage.
The only escape from the sugar plantations was death, which was seen as a return to Africa, or lan guinée (literally Guinea, or West Africa). This is the phrase in Haitian Creole that even now means heaven. The plantation meant a life in servitude; lan guinée meant freedom. Death was feared but also wished for. Not surprisingly, suicide was a frequent recourse of the slaves, who were handy with poisons and powders. The plantation masters thought of suicide as the worst kind of thievery, since it deprived the master not only of a slave’s service, but also of his or her person, which was, after all, the master’s property. Suicide was the slave’s only way to take control over his or her own body.
And yet, the fear of becoming a zombie might stop them from doing so. The zombie is a dead person who cannot get across to lan guinée. This final rest — in green, leafy, heavenly Africa, with no sugarcane to cut and no master to appease or serve — is unavailable to the zombie. To become a zombie was the slave’s worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand. It is thought that slave drivers on the plantations, who were usually slaves themselves and sometimes Voodoo priests, used this fear of zombification to keep recalcitrant slaves in order and to warn those who were despondent not to go too far.
In traditional Voodoo belief, in order to get back to lan guinée, one must be transported there by Baron Samedi, the lord of the cemetery and one of the darkest and most complicated of the religion’s many complicated gods. Baron is customarily dressed in a business jacket, a top hat and dark glasses; he’s foul-mouthed and comic in a low, vicious way. One of Baron’s spiritual functions, his most important, is to dig a person’s grave and welcome him to the other side. If for some reason a person has thwarted or offended Baron, the god will not allow that person, upon his death, to reach guinée. Then you’re a zombie. Some other lucky mortal can control you, it is believed. You’ll do the bidding of your master without question.
Haiti’s notorious dictator François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, who controlled Haiti with a viselike grip from 1957 until his death in 1971, well understood the Baron’s role. . .
I’m trying to understand the high regard in which some hold Semogue brushes, but so far no luck. Yesterday I linked to a Wicked_Edge post comparing the knots of the two brushes above (Omega 40033 on the left, Semogue Owners Club on the right), and today I used both. The Semogue does indeed have a soft feel after soaking, but the knot’s unruliness did not go away and by the second pass the lather in the Semogue had pretty much vanished, while the Omega, feeling slightly stiffer and with a very together knot was still lathering like a champ on the third pass and beyond. (I didn’t refresh either brush at the soap, which does have a mild and pleasant whisky fragrance.)
I remain in the dark about why Semogues are appealing to some, particularly in comparison to Omega, but I guess this is yet another example of YMMV.
The two razors are side by side simply to show the similarities between the Apollo Mikron and the Merkur Progress; the latter seems to me to be a cost-engineered version of the former, with cost savings through design simplifications. Both shave quite well, and I used the Mikron this morning. The Swedish Gillette blade was on its last legs, though, and at the end of the shave I switched it out for a new blade for next use. Still, I did achieve a good shave, and with a hearty splash of Alt-Innsbruck I’m ready for a little more unpacking today, plus kitchen clean-up and some grocery shopping.
After blogging this post, I got to thinking, and I just made this salad:
3 crowns broccoli, cut in florets and steamed until tender
1 large carrot, shredded by using fine julienne in my Swissmar V-Slicer*
1/2 c pecans, chopped coarsely
1 avocado, cut into chunks
4-5 scallions, sliced
1 can sardines in olive oil, drained
dressing of 1/2 c yogurt, 1/4 c vinaigrette
Tossed and tasted: quite nice. Might add some juice from a Meyer lemon.
My intention was to simmer a cubed yam in the water I used to steam the broccoli and add that. Then I would have starch, protein, oil, and veggies, but I used up the yam already and didn’t feel like going out. Still, that would be a good addition.
*I have a cut-proof glove, so I shred fearlessly and end up using the V-Slicer often.
UPDATE: Added half an apple, diced; a handful of pitted Kalamata olives, cut in half; and juice of half a Meyer lemon. Extremely nice.
Whole Foods had some nice darkish jalapeños: starting to turn red, and some with stretch marks (which I’m advised mean hotter). So I got a big bag of those and about 10 very nice-looking habaneros. I removed stems (but not seeds) from all, put them into the blender with 2 Tbsp olive oil, 1/3 c sea salt, 1 small can chipotles in adobo, 3 dried ancho chili peppers (large not especially hot), and added vinegar to cover: some white vinegar and when I ran out, organic white balsamic vinegar. I blended that well, and it’s now simmering.
I usually include 8-12 dried chipotles, but I’m out, so I added a dash of liquid smoke.
I’ll simmer it 20 minutes, let it sit 20 minutes, then bottle. That should hold me a couple of months. Good stuff, very easy.
Hmm. I just discovered that at the same setting, the new burners are hotter than my old ones. Had a little boil-over. Now I know.
Interesting article by Bonnie Tsui in Pacific Standard on exploiting discoveries on how we recall information. She doesn’t mention Ankisrs.net, but its (free) flashcard system uses these ideas extensively. Tsui’s article begins:
A few years ago, Captain Emmanuel Joseph decided to learn Arabic before his deployment to Iraq. “At first it was easy,” he told me. At his base in the U.S., he explains, “we had native speakers teaching us basic things like greetings; imperatives like stop, go, walk; and some numbers and nouns. It was very much survival-level.” In Iraq, Joseph (not his real name) continued trying to learn Arabic with Al-Kitaab, the main textbook used by American universities and the military. But he struggled.
“I was forgetting more than I was learning,” he said. “With every chapter in the textbook came a hundred more vocabulary words. The language and the culture were accessible, but I also had a job to do. So I didn’t—and couldn’t—spend all my time studying.” Joseph cast about online for help and came across LinguaStep, an online Arabic-language program that quizzes a user in vocabulary and adapts to a user’s specific rate of learning.
LinguaStep was first developed in 2006 by Loren Siebert, an energetic computer-software entrepreneur with coppery hair crowning a triathlete’s build. Siebert has packed several lifetimes into his 40 years: computer coder at age 9, programmer for the Department of Defense at age 15, Marshall Scholar at age 21.
Siebert decided to learn Arabic on something of a lark: He took an aptitude test that told him he’d be good at languages. He thought Arabic was beautiful. So he signed up for a beginners’ class at the University of California, Berkeley. Like Joseph, Siebert struggled with the vocabulary. “Arabic is a language of memorization,” he said. “You just have to drill the words into your head, which unfortunately takes a lot of time.” He thought, “How can I maximize the number of words I learn in the minimum amount of time?”
Siebert started studying the science of memory and second-language acquisition and found two concepts that went hand in hand to make learning easier: selective learning and spaced repetition. With selective learning, you spend more time on the things you don’t know, rather than on the things you already do. . .
Fascinating article by David Talbot in MIT Technology Review:
Academic researchers have improved wireless bandwidth by an order of magnitude—not by adding base stations, tapping more spectrum, or cranking up transmitter wattage, but by using algebra to eliminate the network-clogging task of resending dropped packets of data.
By providing new ways for mobile devices to solve for missing data, the technology not only eliminates this wasteful process but also can seamlessly weave data streams from Wi-Fi and LTE—a leap forward from other approaches that toggle back and forth. “Any IP network will benefit from this technology,” says Sheau Ng, vice president for research and development at NBC Universal.
Several companies have licensed the underlying technology in recent months, but the details are subject to nondisclosure agreements, says Muriel Medard, a professor at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics and a leader in the effort. Elements of the technology were developed by researchers at MIT, the University of Porto in Portugal, Harvard University, Caltech, and Technical University of Munich. The licensing is being done through an MIT/Caltech startup called Code-On Technologies.
The underlying problem is huge and growing: on a typical day in Boston, for example, 3 percent of packets are dropped due to interference or congestion. Dropped packets cause delays in themselves, and then generate new back-and-forth network traffic to replace those packets, compounding the original problem.
The practical benefits of the technology, known as coded TCP, were seen on a recent test run on a New York-to-Boston Acela train, notorious for poor connectivity. By increasing their available bandwidth—the amount of data that can be relayed in a given period of time—Medard and students were able to watch blip-free YouTube videos while some other passengers struggled to get online. “They were asking us ‘How did you do that?’ and we said ‘We’re engineers!’ ” she jokes.
More rigorous lab studies have shown large benefits. Testing the system on Wi-Fi networks at MIT, where 2 percent of packets are typically lost, Medard’s group found that a normal bandwidth of one megabit per second was boosted to 16 megabits per second. In a circumstance where losses were 5 percent—common on a fast-moving train—the method boosted bandwidth from 0.5 megabits per second to 13.5 megabits per second. . .
Jonah Lehrer has had some serious setbacks, and this article explores how that came about.
The Sister pointed out this site: a Web-based, smartphone accessible, family-oriented listmaker (to-dos, groceries, appointments, etc.) Pretty cool and it’s free.
I wrote a compare-and-contrast post on Wicked_Edge, including photos. Might be of interest to those who shave.
The HJM is a synthetic brush (made by Mühle): extraordinarily soft, wonderful, and effective. Again this morning I encountered the idea that it’s difficult to get a good lather from a soap if the brush is very soft, which notion is (in my experience) totally false: I can get an immediate fine lather from any of my soaps—Klar Seifen this morning, Mitchell’s Wool Fat (said to be finicky), or any other—instantly and easily with the softest of brushes. Any difficulties in lathering soap are due not to the brush but to the water (too hard) or to the soap (not a good shaving soap). The brush works.
And the feel of the HJM is totally wonderful. Considering that this brush costs but $25 shipped (from ConnaughtShaving.com or Shaving.ie), it is becoming my standard beginner recommendation, along with the similarly priced silvertip badger from WhippedDog.com. Klar Seifen is a fine soap, and I got a fine lather, immediately.
Yesterday I used the Merkur 37G slant, and today the Merkur Bakelite slant so I could do a side-by-side comparison. It turns out to be easy: the Bakelite slant is easily superior. It simply shaves better and more easily, the light weight a definite plus. And once more I have a BBS result without taking any special pains: a simple, 3-pass shave, producing a perfectly smooth face. Terrific razor. The blade was a newish Astra Superior Platinum, and that of course may make some difference in the smoothness of the shave—but not in the razor handling and feel.
A splash of Klar Seifen Klassik aftersahve, a favorite, and I’m ready for the day. I have pepper sauce plans.
It’s very weird that some people deny that human evolution happened—is happening, in fact: evolution never sleeps. The ability to digest lactose is a recent mutation that spread quickly, as described in Slate by Benjamin Phelan:
To repurpose a handy metaphor, let’s call two of the first Homo sapiens Adam and Eve. By the time they welcomed their firstborn, that rascal Cain, into the world, 2 million centuries of evolution had established how his infancy would play out. For the first few years of his life, he would take his nourishment from Eve’s breast. Once he reached about 4 or 5 years old, his body would begin to slow its production of lactase, the enzyme that allows mammals to digest the lactose in milk. Thereafter, nursing or drinking another animal’s milk would have given the little hell-raiser stomach cramps and potentially life-threatening diarrhea; in the absence of lactase, lactose simply rots in the guts. With Cain weaned, Abel could claim more of his mother’s attention and all of her milk. This kept a lid on sibling rivalry—though it didn’t quell the animus between these particular sibs—while allowing women to bear more young. The pattern was the same for all mammals: At the end of infancy, we became lactose-intolerant for life.
Two hundred thousand years later, around 10,000 B.C., this began to change. A genetic mutation appeared, somewhere near modern-day Turkey, that jammed the lactase-production gene permanently in the “on” position. The original mutant was probably a male who passed the gene on to his children. People carrying the mutation could drink milk their entire lives. Genomic analyses have shown that within a few thousand years, at a rate that evolutionary biologists had thought impossibly rapid, this mutation spread throughout Eurasia, to Great Britain, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, India and all points in between, stopping only at the Himalayas. Independently, other mutations for lactose tolerance arose in Africa and the Middle East, though not in the Americas, Australia, or the Far East.
In an evolutionary eye-blink, 80 percent of Europeans became milk-drinkers; in some populations, the proportion is close to 100 percent. (Though globally, lactose intolerance is the norm; around two-thirds of humans cannot drink milk in adulthood.) The speed of this transformation is one of the weirder mysteries in the story of human evolution, more so because it’s not clear why anybody needed the mutation to begin with. Through their cleverness, our lactose-intolerant forebears had already found a way to consume dairy without getting sick, irrespective of genetics.
Mark Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist at University College London, points out that in modern-day Turkey, where the mutation seems to have arisen, the warm climate causes fresh milk to rapidly change its composition. “If you milk a cow in the morning,” he says, “by lunchtime it’s yogurt.”
Yogurt has plenty of benefits to confer, among them large testicles, swagger, and glossy fur—at least if you’re a mouse—but most salient to our ancestors was that the fermentation process that transforms milk into yogurt consumes lactose, which is a sugar. This is why many lactose-intolerant people can eat yogurt without difficulty. As milk ascends what Thomas calls the “fermentation ladder,” which begins with yogurt and culminates with virtually lactose-free hard cheeses, ever more lactose is fermented out. “If you’re at a party and someone says, ‘Oh, I can’t eat that—I’m lactose intolerant,’ ” he says, “you can tell them to shut up and eat the Parmigiano.”
Analysis of potsherds from Eurasia and parts of Africa have shown that humans were fermenting the lactose out of dairy for thousands of years before lactose tolerance was widespread. Here is the heart of the mystery: If we could consume dairy by simply letting it sit around for a few hours or days, it doesn’t appear to make much sense for evolution to have propagated the lactose-tolerance mutation at all, much less as vigorously as it did. Culture had already found a way around our biology. Various ideas are being kicked around to explain why natural selection promoted milk-drinking, but evolutionary biologists are still puzzled.
“I’ve probably worked more on the evolution of lactose tolerance than anyone in the world,” says Thomas. “I can give you a bunch of informed and sensible suggestions about why it’s such an advantage, but we just don’t know. It’s a ridiculously high selection differential, just insane, for the last several thousand years.”
A “high selection differential” is something of a Darwinian euphemism. It means that those who couldn’t drink milk were apt to die before they could reproduce. At best they were having fewer, sicklier children. That kind of life-or-death selection differential seems necessary to explain the speed with which the mutation swept across Eurasia and spread even faster in Africa. The unfit must have been taking their lactose-intolerant genomes to the grave.
Milk, by itself, somehow saved lives. This is odd, because . . .