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Archive for August 2nd, 2021

Mating Contests Among Females, Long Ignored, May Shape Evolution

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Jake Buehler writes in Quanta:

As the midday sun hangs over the Scandinavian spruce forest, a swarm of hopeful suitors takes to the air. They are dance flies, and it is time to attract a mate. Zigzagging and twirling, the flies show off their wide, darkened wings and feathery leg scales. They inflate their abdomens like balloons, making themselves look bigger and more appealing to a potential partner.

Suddenly, the swarm electrifies with excitement at the arrival of a new fly, the one they have all been waiting for: a male. It’s time for the preening flock of females to shine.

The flies are flipping the classic drama reenacted across the animal kingdom, in which eager males with dazzling plumage, snarls of antlers or other extraordinary traits compete for a chance to woo a reluctant female. Such competitions between males for the favor of choosy females are enshrined in evolutionary theory as “sexual selection,” with the females’ choices molding the evolution of the males’ instruments of seduction over generations.

Yet it’s becoming clear that this traditional picture of sexual selection is woefully incomplete. Dramatic and obvious reversals of the selection scenario, like that of the dance flies, aren’t often observed in nature, but recent research suggests that throughout the tree of animal life, females jockey for the attention of males far more than was believed. A new study hosted on the preprint server biorxiv.org has found that in animals as diverse as sea urchins and salamanders, females are subject to sexual selection — not as harshly as males are, but enough to make biologists rethink the balance of evolutionary forces shaping species in their accounts of the history of life.

The new work turns a spotlight on a lopsidedness in sexual selection research that may have robbed evolutionary studies on about half of all animal species of important context. Scientists have reported scattered evidence of female sexual selection in the past, but more often they haven’t had reason to look for it. That could now be changing.

“We really don’t know very much compared to how much we’ve worked on the male side of things,” said Tommaso Pizzari, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford who was not involved with the new paper. “Sexual selection in females is still relatively unknown. It’s still barely charted territory.”

The concept of sexual selection dates back to Charles Darwin’s first writings on natural selection — briefly mentioned in The Origin of Species, and then covered more extensively in The Descent of Man — where he detailed reproductive preferences between the sexes as potentially driving evolutionary change. Within the framework of conventional natural selection, it makes sense that individuals prefer fit mates. But a key point of sexual selection is that attractiveness to potential mates can be a criterion for selection in itself, independently of how it affects fitness otherwise. Members of one sex can develop traits and behaviors appealing to the other that directly conflict with survival-driven natural selection. Taken to extremes, this can result in the unwieldy, exceptionally elongated display feathers of some male birds, for example, which are only useful in the mating contests that the males stage.

The Victorian View of Females

Yet from its very beginning, the science focused on males as the objects of sexual selection. Darwin saw females as reluctantly picking mates from gaggles of desperate male suitors. He was open to the idea of sexual selection in either direction, but the intensity of the obvious competitions for mates among males fed the idea that sexual selection happened primarily to males; the females were prizes to be won. Females might be setting the terms of the mating competitions, but it was the males who were truly being reshaped through evolution by those choices.

Darwin’s perspective was typical of his time. Theories about sexual selection were born “in the Victorian era, when you had these certain sexual stereotypes about how women should behave,” said Rebecca Boulton, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Exeter in the U.K. “And so, because the field essentially sprung up at that time, it was like, ‘Of course females aren’t mating with multiple males. Of course they’re coy or choosy.”

This viewpoint has contributed to a ubiquitous bias in how sexual selection has been investigated in the last century and a half, the researchers behind the new study argue. They estimate that studies of male-male competition and the phenomenon of female choice are 10 times more common than studies targeting the reverse.

“A lot of people are influenced by the culture that they live in and the things that [they] see,” said Salomé Fromonteil, a graduate student in evolutionary biology now at Uppsala University in Sweden and Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, and lead author on the study. “It’s influenced by what we read, and what they read is that sexual selection works on males primarily.”

There are undeniable exceptions. Some that have caught researchers’ attention are in species with “sex roles” that are flipped from the conventional arrangement, as in the dance flies. Females of the American tropical wading birds called wattled jacanas (Jacana jacanakeep and defend territories rich in male mates. Among the seahorses and other pipefish, males even take on the job of “pregnancy” by internally incubating their young in a specialized pouch.

Still, scientists studying sexual selection have mostly continued to defer to Darwin’s initial observations in the 19th century. It was generally accepted that males — with their propensity for ornaments and courtship displays — experienced greater sexual selection pressures.

“Of course, that’s not how research should be,” said Tim Janicke, an evolutionary biologist at the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology at the University of Montpellier in France, and senior author of the new study. “If the aim is to describe general patterns in nature, we need data-driven syntheses behind this.”

In 2016, Janicke and his team dove into the published literature measuring the strength of sexual selection acting on a variety of animal species and compared those values between the sexes. That study, published in Science Advances, confirmed that . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

2 August 2021 at 2:58 pm

Why targets of deliberate deception often hesitate to admit they’ve been deceived.

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Brooke Harrington, a sociology professor at Dartmouth College and author of Pop Finance and Capital Without Borders: Wealth Management and the One Percent (see: brookeharrington.com) writes in the Atlantic:

Something very strange has been happening in Missouri: A hospital in the state, Ozarks Healthcare, had to create a “private setting” for patients afraid of being seen getting vaccinated against COVID-19. In a video produced by the hospital, the physician Priscilla Frase says, “Several people come in to get vaccinated who have tried to sort of disguise their appearance and even went so far as to say, ‘Please, please, please don’t let anybody know that I got this vaccine.’” Although they want to protect themselves from the coronavirus and its variants, these patients are desperate to ensure that their vaccine-skeptical friends and family never find out what they have done.

Missouri is suffering one of the worst COVID-19 surges in the country. Some hospitals are rapidly running out of ICU beds. To Americans who rushed to get vaccinated at the earliest opportunity, some Missourians’ desire for secrecy is difficult to understand. It’s also difficult to square with the common narrative that vaccine refusal, at least in conservative areas of the country, is driven by a lack of respect or empathy from liberals along the coasts. “Proponents of the vaccine are unwilling or unable to understand the thinking of vaccine skeptics—or even admit that skeptics may be thinking at all,” lamented a recent article in the conservative National Review. Writers across the political spectrum have urged deference and sympathy toward holdouts’ concerns about vaccine side effects and the botched CDC messaging about masking and airborne transmission early in the pandemic. But these takes can’t explain why holdouts who receive respect, empathy, and information directly from reliable sources remain unmoved—or why some people are afraid to tell their loved ones about being vaccinated.

What is going on here? Sociology suggests that pundits and policy makers have been looking at vaccine refusal all wrong: It’s not an individual problem, but a social one. That’s why individual information outreach and individual incentives—such as Ohio’s Vax-a-Million program, intended to increase vaccine uptake with cash prizes and college scholarships—haven’t worked. Pandemics, by definition, are collective problems. They propagate and kill because people live in communities. As a result, addressing pandemics requires understanding interpersonal dynamics—not just what promotes trust among people, but which behaviors convey status or lead to ostracism.

Shifting from an individual to a relational perspective helps us understand why people are seeking vaccination in disguise. They want to save face within the very specific set of social ties that sociologists call “reference groups”—the neighborhoods, churches, workplaces, and friendship networks that help people obtain the income, information, companionship, mutual aid, and other resources they need to live. The price of access to those resources is conformity to group norms. That’s why nobody strives for the good opinion of everyone; most people primarily seek the approval of people in their own reference groups.

In Missouri and other red states, vaccine refusal on partisan grounds has become a defining marker of community affiliation. Acceptance within some circles is contingent on refusal to cooperate with the Biden administration’s public-health campaign. Getting vaccinated is a betrayal of that group norm, and those who get the shot can legitimately fear losing their job or incurring the wrath of their families and other reference groups.

Sociology solves mysteries like these by zeroing in on problematic relationships, not the decisions that individuals make in isolation. Many of the people refusing safe, effective vaccination amid a deadly pandemic are enmeshed in a very distinctive type of relationship that sociologists have been studying for more than 70 years: the con job. Con artists gain social or financial advantage by convincing their marks to believe highly dubious claims—and to block out all information to the contrary.

COVID-19-related cons have become big business, not just for right-wing media outlets that have gained viewers while purveying vaccine disinformation but also for small-time social-media grifters and enterprising professionals. The New York Times recently profiled Joseph Mercola, a Florida osteopath whom the paper described as “The Most Influential Spreader of Coronavirus Misinformation.” Four years ago, the Federal Trade Commission forced Mercola to pay nearly $3 million in settlements for false advertising claims about indoor tanning beds that he had sold. In February of this year, Mercola told his millions of followers on Facebook that the vaccine would “alter your genetic coding,” and promoted his line of vitamin supplements as an alternative to ward off COVID-19.

To outsiders, the social dynamics of the con appear peculiar and irrational. Those caught up in it can seem self-destructive and, frankly, clueless. But to sociologists, including me, who study fraud, such behaviors obey a predictable logic.

The seminal text in the field—Erving Goffman’s 1952 essay “On Cooling the Mark Out”—observes that all targets of con artists eventually come to understand that they have been defrauded, yet they almost never complain or report the crime to authorities. Why? Because, Goffman argues, . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it’s illuminating.

Written by Leisureguy

2 August 2021 at 12:51 pm

A brave new world, that watches everyone all the time

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Kashmir Hill reports in ProPublica about an interesting and ominous surveillance tool now used by police and probably other agencies of the government:

Mena Yousif wore dark clothing to the protest, with white sneakers and a blue hijab that she could pull over her face, perfect gear during a pandemic. Jose Felan, stocky and tall, wore a baseball cap and a gray T-shirt that showed off a distinctive tattoo on his forearm: “Mena,” with a crown above the “a.”

The couple had driven an hour north from Rochester to Minneapolis to join a crowd down the street from the State Capitol. It was three days after George Floyd had been killed by a white police officer; the couple was part of a growing protest movement that would send people into the streets across America to express their anger, frustration and pain over Mr. Floyd’s death.

Ms. Yousif, 22, had moved to Minnesota as a child, after her parents fled war-torn Iraq. She worked a series of retail jobs, including a stint at Chipotle, and was earning a business degree at a community college. Mr. Felan, 34, had bounced between Texas and Minnesota for most of his life, and had run afoul of the law in both places.

The unrest in Minneapolis had started to get destructive — that night, the National Guard would be called in — and the authorities would later allege in court filings that Mr. Felan was one of those to blame. He was carrying a thin white bag, sheer enough that, according to a criminal complaint, three canisters of diesel fuel were visible inside after he walked into a Napa Auto Parts store on University Avenue in St. Paul. Around 6 p.m., as captured on surveillance footage, he and Ms. Yousif entered a Goodwill next door and made their way into a back storage room where Mr. Felan allegedly took one of the diesel fuel canisters out of his bag, poured its contents onto a stack of cardboard boxes, and set them on fire.

Federal authorities assert that Mr. Felan also helped set fires at a school across the street and at a gas station, which were among over 1,500 buildings damaged that week. The surveillance footage from that day set off a nearly yearlong, international manhunt for the couple, involving multiple federal agencies and Mexican police. The pursuit also involved a facial recognition system made by a Chinese company that has been blacklisted by the U.S. government.

Ms. Yousif gave birth while on the run, and was separated from her baby for four months by the authorities. To prosecutors, the pursuit of Mr. Felan, who was charged with arson, and Ms. Yousif, who was charged with helping him flee, was a routine response to a case of property destruction. To fellow protesters, it’s part of an extreme crackdown on those who most fervently demonstrated against America’s criminal justice system.

But beyond the prosecutorial aftermath of the racial justice protests, the eight-month saga of a young Minnesota couple exposed an emerging global surveillance system that might one day find anyone, anywhere, the technology traveling easily over borders while civil liberties struggle to keep pace.

As the political and corporate worlds wrestled with addressing racial injustice in America, and the events in Minneapolis overtook the Covid-19 crisis and the presidential campaign, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or A.T.F., got to work trying to find the people who set fires.

The A.T.F., which is tasked with investigating arson cases, released photos of suspects, offering $5,000 for helpful tips from the public. A video of Mr. Felan “went viral,” leading to “several tips, including from individuals who wish to remain anonymous,” an A.T.F. agent said in a court document. (The A.T.F. has also used facial recognition technology, including the app Clearview AI, to identify unknown people, according to reporting from the Government Accountability Office and BuzzFeed.)

Mr. Felan and Ms. Yousif could not be reached for comment. Mr. Felan’s lawyer declined to comment as the case is pending, and Ms. Yousif’s lawyer did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him. This report is largely drawn from government documents and sources, and based on the account of their lives there, they were likely panicked. Mr. Felan had previous legal troubles.

And Ms. Yousif was approximately seven months pregnant.

So they drove, heading south on Interstate 35, a highway that runs down the middle of the country, stretching from Duluth, Minn., on Lake Superior, to Laredo, Texas, on the Mexican border. They had made their way through Iowa and just hit the northern part of Missouri, 300 miles from Rochester, when police first caught up with them.

A warrant had been issued for Mr. Felan’s arrest, allowing the authorities to ping his cellphone to locate him. According to a court document, late on a Monday night, more than a week after the events in St. Paul, local police in rural western Missouri, who were asked to go where the phone was pinging, stopped a black S.U.V. registered to Mr. Felan. Ms. Yousif was driving, and said she didn’t know where Mr. Felan was. The police let her go.

Ms. Yousif was then charged with helping Mr. Felan flee, and the A.T.F. put out a new request for help, setting the reward at $10,000: “We’re asking the public to be on the lookout for the couple along the Interstate 35 corridor.”

Over the next week, police kept pinging the location of Mr. Felan’s phone but kept missing him. According to a court document, he sent a message to his brother in Texas saying he was turning it off between messages, worried about being tracked; the couple eventually bought new phones.

They bore west, through Kansas and Oklahoma, making their way toward Mr. Felan’s family. His mother and brothers had heard about the manhunt and were sending one another worried Facebook messages. At some point, the couple exchanged cars with Mr. Felan’s mother.

Ms. Yousif’s family declined to speak in detail about what this experience has been like, and her life before she and Mr. Felan met in Minnesota and fell in love. Those who encountered Ms. Yousif as a college sophomore find the events of the past 14 months difficult to reconcile with the young woman they met in 2019. She had earned a scholarship from the American Business Women’s Association of Rochester and the woman who administered it remembered Ms. Yousif as mature and ambitious, wearing funky high heels, and chatting about her work as a bookkeeper for her father.

Ms. Yousif had dreams of starting her own business. She was on the dean’s list at Rochester Community and Technical College.

And then she was on the run.

On a Friday night in mid-June 2020, a surveillance camera at a Holiday Inn outside San Antonio captured Ms. Yousif and Mr. Felan driving his mother’s brown Toyota Camry into the hotel’s parking lot. They got out of the car, walked outside the view of the camera and then disappeared.

The A.T.F. increased its reward to $20,000 — $10,000 each for Mr. Felan, describing him as a “felon with multiple convictions,” and for Ms. Yousif, “his accomplice.” Mr. Felan faced a drug possession charge when he was 18 that led to an almost seven year prison sentence, and more recently, convictions for assault and for transporting undocumented immigrants near the Mexican border, for which he also spent time in prison.

The agency also released more images of them, including what appear to be their wedding photos, and warned that Ms. Yousif, “who appears to be noticeably pregnant, is known to have worn disguises while on the run, including wigs, hair extensions, hats and the absence of a hijab.”

Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said the Justice Department under Attorney General William P. Barr was “very aggressively” seeking to make prosecutions from the George Floyd protests. “It wouldn’t surprise me that this case would have been a high-priority one,” he said.

Two weeks after officials lost track of the couple, a deputy U.S. marshal told a Texas news station that the authorities suspected they were trying to get to Mexico.

“Mena is, we believe to be, between six to eight months pregnant. We’re also taking that into consideration in our investigation,” he said. “The fact that there is an unborn child, an innocent child here involved, as well, at this point, the quicker all of this ends, for everybody’s sake, the better.”

That “innocent child” would later be separated from his parents or any family member for more than four months.

The photo projected on the screen in the conference room leapt out at him, of a woman against a pale blue background, wearing bright red lipstick and a beige hijab. Her name was next to the photo: Mena Yousif. Federico Pérez Villoro, an investigative journalist and artist based in Mexico City, wrote the name down so he could figure out who she was.

Mr. Villoro was meeting with law enforcement officials in Coahuila, Mexico last year; they were demonstrating their new equipment: facial recognition software and nearly 1,300 cameras from a Chinese company called Dahua Technology.

A group of police officers and a government employee in charge of Mexico’s first large-scale facial recognition system, Luis Campos, were explaining how the new $30 million system could flag a face so that police would get an alert in real-time if a camera spotted that person.

The authorities in Coahuila, a state that borders Texas, had bought the system in 2019; in the months since it was installed, they had searched for only about 100 people, said Mr. Campos, and he projected a few of their faces on the screen, including those of Ms. Yousif and Mr. Felan.

Mr. Campos told Mr. Villoro that the F.B.I. had . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Big Brother is watching you.

Written by Leisureguy

2 August 2021 at 12:45 pm

H.L. Mencken Kindle collection for 80¢

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H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), famous Baltimore writer, had a glistening career, arousing both ire and admiration, generally not in the same person You can buy for 80¢ a Kindle collection of seven of his books:

The American Credo
The American Language
The Philosophy Of Friedrich Nietzsche
A Book Of Burlesques
A Book Of Prefaces
Damn! A Book Of Calumny
In Defense Of Women

Written by Leisureguy

2 August 2021 at 11:13 am

A compact shave

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The black case on which the Wee Scot rests is a Czech & Speake travel soap, and once the container held a small puck of C&S shaving soap. I was never able to get a good lather from that soap, so I pried out the puck and replaced with a better soap — but which particular soap, I have forgotten. I believe it was an Italian soap: I cut a thin disk from the puck, then mashed it into the C&S container.

Today I got an excellent lather, loading the Wee Scot well and taking my time lathering my face, given the two-day growth. Then the Merkur 37G came into play. I noticed today that the chequering on the razor’s handle is mediocre at best: not very deep and not offering a secure grip. They certainly could do a better job.

But the razor itself did a good job. This is a very comfortable and efficient razor — and the quality of shave it delivers is one reason the Merkur 37 has been in demand for decades. If you like slants, this is not a bad choice, though Italian Barber’s German 37 razor offers the same head design with the advantage of a three-piece format — so that, for example, if you don’t like the chequering on the handle it comes with, you can replace the handle with a better one. Indeed, you have a good choice of handles for your original purchase, though I’m partial their stainless Barber Pole handle.

A splash of Alpa 378 with a squirt of Hydrating Gel finished the job, and I love the feel of my face now.

Written by Leisureguy

2 August 2021 at 8:18 am

Posted in Shaving

Little walk yesterday

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Sundays I don’t take an exercise walk, but I did have to get some groceries, and on the way home I snapped a couple of pictures. I forget to use my iPhone app Seek to identify the tree, but the morning glory I know.

UPDATE:  I found that I can use Seek to identify flowers in photos I’ve already taken. It couldn’t identify the tree from the photo above (I’ll have another go at it when next I go to the store), but it tells me that the whiteflower is indeed a morning glory Calystegia silvatica (also called Calystegia sepium silvatica, C. inflata, and C. sylvestris) is known by the common name giant bindweed or large bindweed. It is the largest species of bindweed.

I’ve never encountered the term “bindweed” before, but I can see what it has that name. The plant is forbidden in Arizona — and apparently other states as well. From Wikipedia:

… because of its quick growth, clinging vines and broad leaves, it can overwhelm and pull down cultivated plants including shrubs and small trees. It is self-seeding (seeds can remain viable as long as 30 years) and the success of its creeping rhizomes (they can be as long as 3–4 m (10–13 ft)) cause it to be a persistent weed and have led to its classification in some American states as a noxious weed.[6]

Wikipedia also notes that the name “morning glory” is used for a wide variety of flowering plants, including the bindweed shown. That article also notes:

In some places, such as Australian bushland, some species of morning glories develop thick roots and tend to grow in dense thickets. They can quickly spread by way of long, creeping stems. By crowding out, blanketing, and smothering other plants, morning glory has turned into a serious invasive weed problem.[4]

In parts of the US, species such as Calystegia sepium (hedge bindweed), Ipomoea purpurea (common morning glory) and Ipomoea indica (blue morning glory) have shown to be invasive.

Written by Leisureguy

2 August 2021 at 6:45 am

Posted in Daily life

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