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Archive for November 14th, 2017

Who first buried the dead?

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Paige Madison, a PhD candidate in the history and philosophy of science at Arizona State University, writes in Aeon:

A mysterious cache of bones, recovered from a deep chamber in a South African cave, is challenging long-held beliefs about how a group of bipedal apes developed into the abstract-thinking creatures that we call ‘human’. The fossils were discovered in 2013 and were quickly recognised as the remains of a new species unlike anything seen before. Named Homo naledi, it has an unexpected mix of modern features and primitive ones, including a fairly small brain. Arguably the most shocking aspect of Homo naledi, though, concerned not the remains themselves but rather their resting place.

The chamber where the bones were found is far from the cave entrance, accessible only through a narrow, difficult passage that is completely shrouded in darkness. Scientists believe the chamber has long been difficult to access, requiring a journey of vertical climbing, crawling and tight squeezing through spaces only 20 cm across. It would be an impossible place to live, and a highly unlikely location for many individuals to have ended up by accident. Those details pushed the research team toward a shocking hypothesis: despite its puny brain, Homo naledi purposefully interred its dead. The cave chamber was a graveyard, they concluded.

For anthropologists, mortuary rituals carry an outsize importance in tracing the emergence of human uniqueness – especially the capacity to think symbolically. Symbolic thought gives us the ability to transcend the present, remember the past, and visualise the future. It allows us to imagine, to create, and to alter our environment in ways that have significant consequences for the planet. Use of language is the quintessential embodiment of such mental abstractions, but studying its history is difficult because language doesn’t fossilise. Burials do.

Burials provide a hard, material record of a behaviour that is deeply spiritual and meaningful. It allows scientists to trace the emergence of beliefs, values and other complex ideas that appear to be uniquely human. Homo sapiens is unquestionably unlike any other species alive today. Pinpointing what separates us from the rest of nature is surprisingly difficult, however.

The paradox is that humans are also unquestionably a part of nature, having evolved alongside with all the rest of life. Anthropologists have narrowed in on one singular human feature in particular: the capacity to think in the abstract. Our ability to imagine and communicate ideas about things that are not immediately in front of us is a complex cognitive process, scientists argue, one that is remarkably different from simple, primitive communication about nearby food or imminent danger.

Humans use symbols to communicate and convey these abstract thoughts and ideas. We imbue non-practical things with meaning. Art and jewellery, for example, communicate concepts about beliefs, values and social status. Mortuary rituals, too, have been put forward as a key example of symbolic thought, with the idea that deliberate treatment of the dead represents a whole web of ideas. Mourning the dead involves remembering the past and imagining a future in which we too will die – abstractions believed to be complex enough to be contemplated only by our species.

The assumption, then, was that death rituals were practised only by modern humans, or perhaps also by their very closest relatives. The possibility that primitive, small-brained Homo naledi could have engaged in the deliberate disposal of dead bodies not only challenges the timeline about when such behaviours appeared; it disrupts the whole conventional thinking about the distinction between modern humans and earlier species and, by extension, the distinction between us and the rest of nature.

For humans, death is an enormously culturally meaningful process. Cultures around the world honour the deceased with rituals and ceremonies that communicate a variety of values and abstract ideas. Since the 19th century, anthropologists have examined these mortuary practices to learn about the religions and beliefs of other cultures. During this time, it never occurred to anyone that other creatures, even other hominins (the primate group encompassing the genus Homo, along with the genus Australopithecus and other close relatives) could have engaged in similar behaviour. Surely, the thinking went, humans alone operate in such an abstract world as to assign deep meaning to death.

Yet this behaviour must have appeared at some point in our evolutionary history. Since mortuary rituals such as song and dance are invisible in the archaeological record, scientists focused on material aspects such as burial to trace the history of the practice. The discoveries soon prompted tough questions about the conventional viewpoint, suggesting that mortuary rituals might not have been uniquely human after all.

The first debate over non-humans burying their dead arose in 1908 with the discovery of a fairly complete Neanderthal skeleton near La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France. After excavating their find, the discoverers argued that the skeleton had clearly been deliberately buried. To them, it looked as though a grave had been dug, the body purposefully laid inside in the foetal position, and safely covered up from the elements. Many contemporary scientists remained dubious of this interpretation or dismissed the evidence outright. Later skeptics suggested that early 20th-century excavation techniques were too sloppy to prove such a sweeping conclusion. Debate over the burial of the La Chappelle Neanderthal continues to this day.

It is fitting that the controversy over mortuary ritual in hominins began with the Neanderthals, now known as the species Homo neanderthalensis. Ever since the first discovery of Neanderthal fossils in 1856 in the Neandertal valley in Germany, the species has occupied an ambiguous relationship to humans. Neanderthals are the closest species to humans, and their location on the spectrum between humans and other animals has constantly been contested.

For the first century after their discovery, they were typically imagined as highly non-human creatures, their primitive aspects emphasised to such an extent that they became known as brutes who couldn’t even stand up straight. More recently, the pendulum has swung the other way, with some scientists arguing that the creatures were so close to humans that a Neanderthal wearing a suit and a hat on a subway would go largely unnoticed. The debate over Neanderthal burials has similarly wavered back and forth. At some times, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2017 at 2:37 pm

Posted in Evolution, Religion, Science

A completely rebuilt Firefox browser: Firefox Quantum

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I use Firefox to write my blog posts, and it just updated itself to the newest version, Firefox Quantum. This version looks damn good. You can read about it (and download it) on this page.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2017 at 1:21 pm

Posted in Software, Technology

She Took On Colombia’s Soda Industry. Then She Was Silenced.

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Andrew Jacobs and Matt Richtel report in the NY Times:

It began with menacing phone calls, strange malfunctions of the office computers, and men in parked cars photographing the entrance to the small consumer advocacy group’s offices.

Then at dusk one day last December, Dr. Esperanza Cerón, the head of the organization, said she noticed two strange men on motorcycles trailing her Chevy sedan as she headed home from work. She tried to lose them in Bogotá’s rush-hour traffic, but they edged up to her car and pounded on the windows.

“If you don’t keep your mouth shut,” one man shouted, she recalled in a recent interview, “you know what the consequences will be.”

The episode, which Dr. Cerón reported to federal investigators, was reminiscent of the intimidation often used against those who challenged the drug cartels that once dominated Colombia. But the narcotics trade was not the target of Dr. Cerón and her colleagues. Their work had upset a different multibillion-dollar industry: the makers of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.

Their organization, Educar Consumidores, was the most visible proponent of a proposed 20 percent tax on sugary drinks that was heading for a vote that month in Colombia’s Legislature. The group had raised money, rallied allies to the cause and produced a provocative television ad that warned consumers how sugar-laden beverages can lead to obesity and diet-related illnesses like diabetes.

The backlash was fierce. A Colombian government agency, responding to a complaint by the nation’s leading soda company that called the ad misleading, ordered it off the air. Then the agency went further: It prohibited Dr. Cerón and her colleagues from publicly discussing the health risks of sugar, under penalty of a $250,000 fine.

The battle over taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is becoming one of the world’s most ferocious policy brawls — a clash of science, politics and money in dozens of countries and cities.

“The industry sees sugary-drink taxes as an existential threat,” said Dr. James Krieger, executive director of Healthy Food America, which tracks beverage tax initiatives. In the United States, the industry has spent at least $107 million at the state and local levels since 2009 to beat back soda taxes and beverage warning labels, a new study found. Compared to the domestic tactics, Dr. Krieger said, overseas, “it’s much dirtier, much more bare-knuckled.”

The harassment of Dr. Cerón and her colleagues was never proven to be carried out by the industry, and federal prosecutors declined to investigate. In response to questions from The New York Times, Coke and Pepsi said they were not involved, and Postobón, the soda company that filed the complaint about the organization’s ad, deferred comment to The National Business Association of Colombia. The association, which represented national and international beverage makers on the soda tax issue, said it had nothing to do with the episodes.

The International Council of Beverages Associations, the parent organization of trade groups around the world fighting the taxes, would not directly answer the question about whether its allies in Colombia were connected to the alleged harassment, but it condemned such actions.

“We reject under any circumstance the improper influence or harassment of any individual or organization for any purpose, at any time, in any way,” Katherine W. Loatman, executive director of the organization, said in a statement.

The experience in Colombia may be the most extreme, but a juggernaut of industry opposition has killed or stalled soda tax proposals around the globe, including in Russia, Germany, Israel and New Zealand.

Nevertheless, the idea is gaining momentum; such levies have been enacted in 30 countries, including India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand, Britain and Brunei. More than a billion people now live in places where such taxes have driven up the price of sugar-sweetened beverages.

The battles have been particularly intense in emerging markets as the industry seeks to make up for falling soda consumption in wealthier nations. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2017 at 1:15 pm

Seeing the Beautiful Intelligence of Microbes

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John Rennie and Lucy Redding-Ikkanda have a very interesting article in Quanta, from which I quote the text below, but you really should click the link to see the stunning photos and gifs. They write:

Intelligence is not a quality to attribute lightly to microbes. There is no reason to think that bacteria, slime molds and similar single-cell forms of life have awareness, understanding or other capacities implicit in real intellect. But particularly when these cells commune in great numbers, their startling collective talents for solving problemsand controlling their environment emerge. Those behaviors may be genetically encoded into these cells by billions of years of evolution, but in that sense the cells are not so different from robots programmed to respond in sophisticated ways to their environment. If we can speak of artificial intelligence for the latter, perhaps it’s not too outrageous to refer to the underappreciated cellular intelligence of the former.

Under the microscope, the incredible exercise of the cells’ collective intelligence reveals itself with spectacular beauty. Since 1983, Roberto Kolter, a professor of microbiology and immunobiology at Harvard Medical School and co-director of the Microbial Sciences Initiative, has led a laboratory that has studied these phenomena. In more recent years, it has also developed techniques for visualizing them. In the photographic essay book Life at the Edge of Sight: A Photographic Exploration of the Microbial World (Harvard University Press), released in September, Kolter and his co-author, Scott Chimileski, a research fellow and imaging specialist in his lab, offer an appreciation of microorganisms that is both scientific and artistic, and that gives a glimpse of the cellular wonders that are literally underfoot. Imagery from the lab is also on display in the exhibition World in a Drop at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. That display will close in early January but will be followed by a broader exhibition, Microbial Life, scheduled to open in February.

The slime mold Physarum polycephalum sometimes barely qualifies as a microorganism at all: When it oozes across the leaf litter of a forest floor during the active, amoeboid stage of its life cycle, it can look like a puddle of yellowish goo between an inch and a meter across. Yet despite its size, Physarum is a huge single cell, with tens of thousands of nuclei floating in an uninterrupted mass of cytoplasm. In this form, Physarum is a superbly efficient hunter. When sensors on its cell membrane detect good sources of nutrients, contractile networks of proteins (closely related to the ones found in human muscle) start pumping streams of cytoplasm in that direction, advancing the slime mold toward what it needs.

But Physarum is not just reflexively surging toward food. As it moves in one direction, signals transmitted throughout the cell discourage it from pushing counterproductively along less promising routes. Moreover, slime molds have evolved a system for essentially mapping their terrain and memorizing where not to go: As they move, they leave a translucent chemical trail behind that tells them which areas are not worth revisiting. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2017 at 12:30 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

The Uranium Follies Continue

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Kevin Drum has a pointed post on the uranium “scandal,” well worth reading. From that post:

. . . In fact, what happened is this: the Obama administration allowed a Russian company to acquire a Canadian company called Uranium One, which owned about 10 percent of our uranium production capacity, not 10 percent of our uranium.¹ The actual amount of uranium it produces is about 5 percent of total US uranium production. What’s more, the Russian company has no license to export this uranium, so it’s going to stay in the United States no matter who owns the mines.

So why not just say “uranium mining capacity” and qualify it with “a modest amount”? And why not add a brief sentence saying that no actual uranium has been approved for export outside the US? Even in a quick summary graf neither one takes up a lot of room, and omitting them leaves readers with an extremely distorted view of what happened.

Everyone knows this is all that happened, and everyone knows that Hillary Clinton did nothing wrong when the State Department joined eight other agencies in approving the deal. But this is no longer about Clinton anyway.  . .

Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2017 at 12:22 pm

Congress just doesn’t know enough to do its job well. Here’s why.

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Kathy Goldschmidt and Lorelei Kelly report in the Washington Post:

There is one thing that a deeply divided America agrees about: Everyone is angry at Congress. Approval ratings are in the single digits. Citizens feel frustrated and ignored by the democratic process. Civic discourse has degenerated into shouting matches or worse.

What Americans might not realize is that many who work for Congress feel just as frustrated.

The recent report “State of the Congress: Staff Perspectives on Institutional Capacity in the House and Senate,” by the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving the working of Congress, describes the results of a 2016 survey of 184 senior staffers in the Senate and the House of Representatives. This research reveals an institution suffering from decades of neglect and erosion. The Americans who work on the front lines of our democracy also long for a Congress that is informed, responsive and effective, but Congress barely has the capacity to stay afloat. If we want to have a resilient democracy in the 21st century, we need a Congress that is much better able to absorb, organize and use knowledge to make laws and policy.

Congress is suffering from a huge knowledge gap.

The report examines the results of two kinds of survey questions. First, staffers were asked how important a given feature of Congress was: “In your opinion, how important are the following for the effective functioning of your chamber?” Second, they were asked how happy they were with how Congress is doing: “How satisfied are you with your chamber’s performance in the following?”

We can figure out the places where something is wrong by looking at features where there is a big gap between the percentage who said something was “very important” and the percentage who were “very satisfied.” Most glaring is that senior staffers generally felt it was “very important” that staff knowledge, skills and abilities are adequate to support lawmakers’ official duties, but only 15 percent were very satisfied with their chamber’s performance. In a knowledge-based workplace like Congress, staff are critical for understanding and shaping public policy. If their skills are not up to the task, our democracy cannot function at its highest level.

Democracy also suffers when members of Congress do not have adequate time and resources to understand, consider and deliberate public policy and legislation. This is the core function of Congress, yet only 6 percent of the senior staffers surveyed were “very satisfied” with their chamber’s performance.

Indeed, Congress has abandoned the deliberative process. The summer’s secretive health-care bill was the rule rather than the exception. In recent years, Congress has held about 50 percent fewer hearings than in the 1990s. Hearings are opportunities for Congress to engage and inform lawmakers (who are assigned to committees) as well as citizens (as witnesses) with the policy process. A dearth of hearings makes meaningful learning, policy discussion, and holding power accountable harder.

How Congress is organized makes the problem worse

Both political parties now use committee memberships as campaign currency, downplaying the importance of knowledge in the policy process. Instead of being distributed based on seniority, geographic focus and expertise (i.e., a farmer or a doctor) — relevant factors to public policy knowledge — the best committee assignments are awarded to those who raise the most money for the party.

This makes it far harder for Congress to intelligently consider the legislation before it. Over 6,000 bills are before Congress. In 1994 — when congressional resources started to decline — Congress had a generous capacity for knowledge creation. Now, it has only a handful of weeks to complete its mandatory funding bills and usher through its own policy priorities.

The most recent legislative branch budget flatlines expert capacity and raises the budget for security of members. This is an understandable response to real fears. Members of Congress have received 950 threats so far this year. One was shot and terribly wounded in June. However, skimping on trustworthy information has consequences. Despite valiant internal efforts, Congress lags in adopting new technology and has had to prioritize protecting safety and keeping systems secure from malicious hackers, rather than bolstering institutional capacity to access, understand and process information.

Many of the root causes of this situation are nonpolitical. Members of Congress have hundreds of thousands — even millions — more constituents than their counterparts did just a few decades ago. Even so, today’s Congress is working with 45 percent fewer expert personnel than in the 1970s. That means lawmakers are often missing trusted, unbiased, seasoned expert advisers in the rooms where decisions are made.

This gap is exacerbated by junk news and malevolent information that can infiltrate decision-makers’ information streams almost as easily as the public’s. Today, House and Senate offices are also overwhelmed by a tsunami of incoming information. The monetization of expertise adds to this maelstrom, thanks to vastly more money spent on lobbying and public relations.

It is hard to be sure that improving Congress’s knowledge infrastructure would make it more popular with voters . . .

Continue reading.

This is a serious sign of decline: the Federal government is becoming incapable of doing its job.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2017 at 12:08 pm

Posted in Congress

The Grim Food Served on 17th-Century Sea Voyages Wasn’t All Bad

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I found this of interest, although the voyages recounted in Patrick O’Brien’s wondeful series of British Naval novels with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin are late 18th century. Still the Naval food stores seems not to have changed all that much at that point.

Paula Meija writes in Gastro Obscura:

Sailors in the 17th century had it rough. For months, they were away at sea, sustaining themselves on an unsteady diet that included brined beef, dirty water, and tough crackers known as ship biscuit. In the days before pasteurization, seasickness likely came more often from the food than the waves.

A handful of cookbooks and ship journals detail the odious smells and tastes of 17th-century ship fare. But we can only imagine the decomposing food and its effect on the health of sailors.

Until now, that is. These questions led Grace Tsai, a PhD student specializing in nautical archaeology, to recreate ship food aboard an old-timey vessel. She and her fellow researchers at Texas A&M University have spent over three years on what they dubbed the Ship Biscuit & Salted Beef Research Project. They’re now analyzing beef as gnarly as what sailors ate, and are planning to give the rest of us a taste of a sailor’s life.

In August, the team mounted their barrels of ship food, which included salted beef, ship biscuits, peas, and beer, aboard the Elissa in the port of Galveston, TexasTheir model was the English galleon the Warwick, a ship sunk by a hurricane in Bermuda’s Castle Harbor in 1619. A team of archaeologists began excavating the Warwick’s remains in 2010. Among the wreckage, they discovered glass shards containing beer and wine, as well as cow bones. So Tsai packed for Bermuda.

“There are just a handful of ships where you can find remains like this,” Tsai says. “We have a good archaeological record of the bones that are on board.” Studying those (mostly beef) bones gave Tsai a sense of the cuts of meat sailors brought—knowledge she used to butcher beef for the Elissa. Working from an additional year of archival research, she and her team slaughtered and butchered a hog and steer, then made salted food according to a 1682 recipe. Each food and drink put onboard was the product of a similar process, and the plan was to let everything sit for two months. . .

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At the link there are interesting photos along with more text.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 November 2017 at 11:33 am

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