Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The energy expansions of evolution

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Olivia P. Judson writes in Nature:

Abstract

The history of the life–Earth system can be divided into five ‘energetic’ epochs, each featuring the evolution of life forms that can exploit a new source of energy. These sources are: geochemical energy, sunlight, oxygen, flesh and fire. The first two were present at the start, but oxygen, flesh and fire are all consequences of evolutionary events. Since no category of energy source has disappeared, this has, over time, resulted in an expanding realm of the sources of energy available to living organisms and a concomitant increase in the diversity and complexity of ecosystems. These energy expansions have also mediated the transformation of key aspects of the planetary environment, which have in turn mediated the future course of evolutionary change. Using energy as a lens thus illuminates patterns in the entwined histories of life and Earth, and may also provide a framework for considering the potential trajectories of life–planet systems elsewhere.

Free energy is a universal requirement for life. It drives mechanical motion and chemical reactions—which in biology can change a cell or an organism1,2. Over the course of Earth history, the harnessing of free energy by organisms has had a dramatic impact on the planetary environment3,​4,​5,​6,​7. Yet the variety of free-energy sources available to living organisms has expanded over time. These expansions are consequences of events in the evolution of life, and they have mediated the transformation of the planet from an anoxic world that could support only microbial life, to one that boasts the rich geology and diversity of life present today. Here, I review these energy expansions, discuss how they map onto the biological and geological development of Earth, and consider what this could mean for the trajectories of life–planet systems elsewhere.

In the beginning

From the time Earth formed, around 4.56 billion years ago (Ga), two sources of energy were potentially available to living organisms: geochemical energy and sunlight. Sunlight is a consequence of the planet’s position in the Solar System, whereas geochemical energy is an intrinsic property of the Earth. Geochemical energy arises when water reacts with basalts and other rocks8,​9,​10. These water–rock reactions—which continue today11—generate reduced compounds such as hydrogen, hydrogen sulfide, and methane8,​9,​10. Oxidation of these compounds releases energy, which organisms can capture and store in the form of chemical bonds. Although sources of geochemical energy can be at or near Earth’s surface, they need not be: many are deep within the planet, out of reach of sunlight.

Assuming that life did not parachute in, fully formed, from elsewhere, a number of authors12,​13,​14,​15 have argued that the transition from non-life to life took place in the context of geochemical energy, with the ability to harness sunlight evolving later (Fig. 1). Consistent with this, both phylogenetic16 and biochemical13,17 evidence suggest that the earliest life forms were chemoautotrophs, perhaps living by reacting hydrogen with carbon dioxide and giving off acetate, methane and water13,16. Mounting evidence18,​19,​20,​21,​22 suggests that the transition from non-life to life may have taken place before 3.7 Ga—a time from which few rocks remain23.

(i) Life emerges; epoch of geochemistry begins. (ii) Anoxygenic photosynthesis: start of energy epoch 2, sunlight. (iii) Emergence of cyanobacteria. (iv) Great Oxidation Event: energy epoch 3, oxygen. (v) Probable eukaryotic fossils appear. (vi) Fossils of red algae appear. (vii) Start of energy epoch 4, flesh. (viii) Vascular plants colonize land; fire appears on Earth. Finally, the burning logs indicate the start of energy epoch 5, fire. The dates of (i)–(iii) are highly uncertain. For (i) I have taken the earliest date for which there is evidence consistent with life20. For (ii) I have taken the earliest date for which there is evidence consistent with photosynthesis18,19,21. For (iii), I have marked the date currently supported by fossil evidence for the presence of cyanobacteria (see main text, ‘Cyanobacteria and the oxygenation of the air’). Tick marks represent intervals of 25 million years. Figure drawn by F. Zsolnai.

Energy epoch one: geochemical energy

Analysis of biochemical pathways suggests that, under favourable environmental conditions, early autotrophs could readily have adopted a heterotrophic lifestyle, feeding on the contents of dead cells24. At this time in Earth history, oxygen was at trace levels25, so the first ecosystems would have been anaerobic.

Early ecosystems may have quickly diversified to take the form of a microbial mat, where the waste products of one group of life forms feed the metabolism of another26,27. Such an arrangement generates layered communities of organisms, each layer having a different metabolic speciality28,29. In anaerobic ecosystems of this type, mobile predation is essentially nonexistent: growth rates are so low that hunting and consuming other organisms doesn’t yield enough energy30. Viruses, however, are likely to have been an important force from early in the history of life31. They act as agents of death—and by lysing cells, they would have provided additional sources of organic carbon to heterotrophs. Viruses also transport genes from one host to another, and thus may have enabled the spread of evolutionary innovations. Many of the coevolutionary selection pressures of the modern biosphere would have been minimal (for example, predation and the opportunity to live inside other organisms) or absent (for example, sexual selection).

The niches available would have been those near sources of geochemical energy, suggesting a patchy, local distribution of life. Consistent with this, geochemical models32,​33,​34 suggest that the productivity of the biosphere before it was powered by the sun would have been at least a thousand times less than it is today, and may have been one million times less.

Owing to the scarcity of rocks from Earth’s remote past, the impact of early life on the planetary environment is also hard to assess. Life inevitably creates a suite of changes in its environment (Box 1), and the establishment of life would have initiated biogeochemical cycling, but owing to the low productivity of the biosphere, the initial effects are likely to have been small32,​33,​34. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 May 2017 at 2:09 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

Rough justice: Trump’s plans to cut food stamps could hit his supporters hardest

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Caitlin Dewey and Tracy Jan report in the Washington Post:

President Trump’s anticipated cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, will likely be felt most in regions of the country with chronic high rates of unemployment — from the rural Southeast to aging manufacturing towns to Indian reservations.

People in those regions are temporarily exempt from national work requirements for the SNAP program, because there are not enough jobs there for everyone who wants one.

But there is growing anticipation that the budget to be unveiled on Tuesday could incorporate proposals drafted by the conservative Heritage Foundation that would eliminate or curtail the unemployment-rate waivers. That means the federal government could cut off assistance to unemployed adults who live in areas where few jobs are available.

The areas hit would likely include Southern and Central California, where the unemployment rate can spike as high as 19 percent, as well as cities, such as Detroit and Scranton, Pa., where joblessness remains rampant. The change would also affect numerous counties in Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Louisiana, according to anti-poverty advocates who were familiar with budget discussions within the administration.

Across the board, the people with the most to lose under plans to tighten work requirement are Native Americans living on reservations, where large percentages of unemployed adults rely on SNAP.

“It’s unconscionable, cruel and ineffective,” said Josh Protas, the vice president of public policy at MAZON, a national anti-hunger organization that focuses on hunger on reservations, among other problems. “I’m honestly not sure what their goal is.”

Changes to the work-requirement waivers will likely not be the Trump administration’s only proposed cuts to SNAP. While details remain sparse, Trump is expected to propose cutting as much as 25 percent of the program’s funding over 10 years, which would go far beyond past House Republican proposals — and require far more than axing SNAP’s unemployed adults. (According to the Department of Agriculture, only 14 percent of the people who receive benefits are able to work, and do not.) . . .

Continue reading.

Trump’s budget also guts Medicaid, again an important program for his supporters. See “Trump Officially Breaks Promise Not to Cut Medicaid.”

This pattern—promising something and then totally failing to deliver what was promised—is a standard motif for Trump: he promises to pay contractors on his building projects, then reneges (and in some cases driving a long-established company out of business, as happened to a Philadelphia cabinetmaker); he promises training and jobs for those enrolling in Trump University; and so on.

This pattern of breaking promises was well known, but…

Written by LeisureGuy

22 May 2017 at 1:51 pm

The Bondage of American Workers

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Paul Krugman writes in the NY Times:

American conservatives love to talk about freedom. Milton Friedman’s famous pro-capitalist book and TV series were titled “Free to Choose.” And the hard-liners in the House pushing for a complete dismantling of Obamacare call themselves the Freedom Caucus.

Well, why not? After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.

Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.

The reality is that Americans, especially American workers, don’t feel all that free. The Gallup World Survey asks residents of many countries whether they feel that they have “freedom to make life choices”; the U.S. doesn’t come out looking too good, especially compared with the high freedom grades of European nations with strong social safety nets.

And you can make a strong case that we’re getting less free as time goes by.

Let’s talk first about those noncompete agreements, which were recently the subject of a stunning article in The Times (the latest in a series), plus a report from the Obama administration pushing for limits to the practice.

Noncompete agreements were originally supposed to be about protecting trade secrets, and therefore helping to promote innovation and investment in job training. Suppose that a company trying to build a better mousetrap hires a new mousetrap engineer. Her employment contract might very well include a clause preventing her from leaving a few months later for a job with a rival pest-control firm, since she could be taking crucial in-house information with her. And that’s perfectly reasonable.

At this point, however, almost one in five American employees is subject to some kind of noncompete clause. There can’t be that many workers in possession of valuable trade secrets, especially when many of these workers are in relatively low-paying jobs. For example, one prominent case involved Jimmy John’s, a sandwich chain, basically trying to ban its former franchisees from working for other sandwich makers.

Furthermore, the terms of the clauses are often defined ridiculously widely. It’s as if our hypothetical mousetrap engineer were prohibited from seeking employment with any other manufacturing firm, or in any occupation that makes use of her engineering skills.

At this point, in other words, noncompete clauses are in many cases less about protecting trade secrets than they are about tying workers to their current employers, unable to bargain for better wages or quit to take better jobs.

This shouldn’t be happening in America, and to be fair some politicians in both parties have been speaking up about the need for change (although few expect the Trump administration to follow up on the Obama administration’s reform push). But there’s another aspect of declining worker freedom that is very much a partisan issue: health care.

Until 2014, there was basically only one way Americans under 65 with pre-existing conditions could get health insurance: by finding an employer willing to offer coverage. Some employers were in fact willing to do so. Why? Because there were major tax advantages — premiums aren’t counted as taxable income — but to get those advantages employer plans must offer the same coverage to every employee, regardless of medical history.

But what if you wanted to change jobs, or start your own business? Too bad: you were basically stuck (and I knew quite a few people in that position).

Then Obamacare went into effect, guaranteeing affordable care even to those with pre-existing medical conditions. This was a hugely liberating change for millions. Even if you didn’t immediately take advantage of the new program to strike out on your own, the fact was that now you could.

But maybe not for much longer. . .

Continue reading.

See also “How Noncompete Clauses Keep Workers Locked In,” by Charles Dougherty, which begins:

Keith Bollinger’s paycheck as a factory manager had shriveled after the 2008 financial crisis, but then he got a chance to pull himself out of recession’s hole. A rival textile company offered him a better job — and a big raise.

When he said yes, it set off a three-year legal battle that concluded this past week but wiped out his savings along the way.

“I tried to get a better life for my wife and my son, and it backfired,” said Mr. Bollinger, who is 53. “Now I’m in my mid-50s, and I’m ruined.”

Mr. Bollinger had signed a noncompete agreement, designed to prevent him from leaving his previous employer for a competitor. These contracts have long been routine among senior executives. But they are rapidly spreading to employees like Mr. Bollinger, who do the kind of blue-collar work that President Trump has promised to create more of.

The growth of noncompete agreements is part of a broad shift in which companies assert ownership over work experience as well as work. A recent survey by economists including Evan Starr, a management professor at the University of Maryland, showed that about one in five employees was bound by a noncompete clause in 2014.

Employment lawyers say their use has exploded. Russell Beck, a partner at the Boston law firm Beck Reed Riden who does an annual survey of noncompete litigation, said the most recent data showed that noncompete and trade-secret lawsuits had roughly tripled since 2000.

“Companies of all sorts use them for people at all levels,” he said. “That’s a change.”

Employment lawyers know this, but workers are often astonished to learn that they’ve signed away their right to leave for a competitor. Timothy Gonzalez, an hourly laborer who shoveled dirt for a fast-food-level wage, was sued after leaving one environmental drilling company for another. Phillip Barone, a midlevel salesman and Air Force veteran, was let go from his job after his old company sent a cease-and-desist letter saying he had signed a noncompete.

Then there is Mr. Bollinger, whose long-running legal battle is full of twists and turns that include clandestine photography, a private investigator, a mysterious phone call and courthouse victories later undone by losses in appeals court.

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 May 2017 at 10:44 am

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, apparently an idiot, praises the lack of protest in a country where it’s punishable by death

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Wilbur Ross shows the downside of Trump’s penchant to hire those who will ensure that Trump is the smartest guy in the room. Philip Bump reports in the Washington Post:

Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross offered two highlights from his trip to Saudi Arabia in an interview with CNBC on Monday morning. First, he enjoyed the two bushels of dates he was given by Saudi Arabian security guards and, second, he was pleased that he saw no protester with “a bad placard.”

Perhaps because an American-style protest is illegal in that country and can result in a death sentence.

Ross was using the lack of protesters as an example of how warmly the Trump administration was received in the country.

ROSS: There’s no question that they’re liberalizing their society. And I think the other thing that was fascinating to me: There was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there. Not one guy with a bad placard, instead there was …

CNBC HOST: But Secretary Ross, that may be not necessarily because they don’t have those feelings there, but because they control people and don’t allow to them to come and express their feelings quite the same as we do here.

ROSS: In theory, that could be true. [??? – LG] But, boy, there was certainly no sign of it, there wasn’t a single effort of any incursion. There wasn’t anything. The mood was a genuinely good mood. And at the end of the trip, as I was getting back on the plane the security guards from the Saudi side who’d been helping us over the weekend all wanted to pose for a big photo-op. And then they gave me two gigantic bushels of dates, as a present, as a thank you for the trip that we had had. That was a pretty from the heart, very genuine gesture. It really touched me.

It’s sort of fascinating, really, that Ross so seamlessly transitions from “they are liberalizing their society” — a recognition that the Saudi regime is staunchly rigid and conservative — to “and there were no protests.”

It’s also fascinating that Ross dismisses the host’s interjection about why there were no protests. “In theory,” there were no protests because it’s illegal? No, in practice. . .

Continue reading. Video at the link.

Read the whole thing. The Executive Branch is now in the hands of these people.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 May 2017 at 10:33 am

Justices rule North Carolina improperly relied on race in redistricting efforts

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Robert Barnes reports in the Washington Post:

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature unlawfully relied on race when drawing two of the state’s congressional districts.

The decision continued a trend at the court, where justices have found that racial considerations improperly predominated in redistricting decisions by Republican-led legislatures in Virginia, Alabama and North Carolina. Some involved congressional districts, others legislative districts.

The states had contended their efforts were partisan attempts to protect their majorities, which the Supreme Court in the past has allowed, rather than attempts to diminish the impact of minority voters, which is forbidden.

But the justices declared North Carolina had relied too heavily on race in their efforts to “reshuffle,” in the words of Justice Elena Kagan, voters from one district to another. They were unanimous in rejecting one of the districts, and split 5 to 3 on the other. . .

Continue reading.

I wonder what Abraham Lincoln would make of the Republican party today.

I sure hope SCOTUS takes up the gerrymandering case and puts an end to gerrymandering now that an objective test has been developed.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 May 2017 at 10:18 am

Posted in Election, GOP, Government, Law

An example of how a hidden agenda becomes obvious: IEA projections of growth of solar photovoltaic output each year

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I saw that via Kevin Drum’s good post, which includes the graph below, in which the solid line is what has transpired in the past and the dotted line is what the IEA figures the future will be:

Drum comments:

That looks…odd, doesn’t it? Solar PV has grown at a pretty fast clip over the past decade, but the IEA assumes the growth rate will suddenly level out starting this year and then start to decline. And this is their optimistic scenario that takes into account pledges made in Paris.

Read the whole thing.

 

 

Written by LeisureGuy

22 May 2017 at 10:13 am

Trump continues to work to destroy Obamacare, this time attacking the middle class

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Kevin Drum lays out the transparent GOP strategy to hurt Americans by making their healthcare insurance more expensive. The GOP really seems to harbor ill will against the middle class and the poort.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 May 2017 at 9:05 am

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