There Is No “Away”

Ever wonder what happens when you throw a piece of plastic “away”?

The CNET Green Tech Blog reports on a recent oceanographic expedition that took a long hard look at a shameful situation; the floating islands of our garbage in our oceans.

Plastic contamination in the world’s oceans is worse than previously imagined and no amount of technology can clean it up, according to Charles Moore. The oceanographer returned February 23 from a five-week odyssey in the Pacific Ocean with samples showing 48 parts plastic for every part of plankton.

“We are damned to a future of pollution by plastic,” said Moore, who has spent more than a decade investigating Pacific plastic pollution. “There’s no evidence it will end in a millennium.”

A plastic “graveyard” double the size of Texas swirls in the Pacific Ocean between San Francisco and Hawaii. There, his crew had found in the water six parts of plastic for every part plankton, with a fivefold increase in the amount of plastic between 1997 and 2007.

But their latest voyage found the pollution even thicker in the “highway” of ocean leading to the great Garbage Patch, according to Moore, who founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, Calif. Moore said that area comprises 2.5 million square miles.

In the Pacific alone, heavily polluted plastic zones amount to the size of the continent of Africa, Moore estimated.

More at link above.

I want to get mad; I just want to cry;
I want to do something, not sit idly by;
The problem is huge; the problem is drastic;
The oceans are choking with thrown-away plastic:

Plastic bags and sandwich wraps,
Toys and lighters, bottle caps;
One-use razors, plastic combs,
All the junk that fills our homes;
One part plankton, six parts trash—
The ecosystem’s bound to crash.

The plastics are forming new habitats too,
With small crabs and barnacles eating this goo,
And seagulls fly over to feed on crustaceans,
Though toxins are higher in these new locations.

A plastic graveyard, twice the size
Of Texas has been formed, and lies
Off Southern California’s coast.
This, only one among a host
Of garbage masses, giant isles,
Some 2.5 million square miles.

These plastics are coming from us—me and you—
We can’t simply wait; there are things we must do.
As much as we can—though we’re set in our ways—
We must change, and change quickly; no time for delays!
Demand greener packaging; vote with your dollars—
They say money talks; we can make sure ours hollers.
This cuttlefish fears for his relatives’ fate;
We have to get moving… or soon, it’s too late.

Image from Green Tech Blog–Credit: Algalita Marine Research Foundation

The Complexity of Design

Each now and then, it’s fun to ask
“What did The Maker have in Mind
When first He set about the task
And started making humankind?”

We know, of course, that God Above,
Not evolution, deaf and blind,
Created us to show his love
As clear as if The Artist signed.

We know because we’re more complex
Than any watch you have to wind;
The parts all mesh, and during sex
There’s even stuff that’s intertwined!

Ok, the lower back needs work,
At least mine does, I often find;
And, being male, another quirk—
My prostate’s often in a bind

I cannot make ascorbic acid—
Genes for that got left behind;
Spirit willing, flesh too flaccid,
Leaves my sex life undermined

So many problems on my list—
The limbs that ache, the joints that grind
The memories that fade to mist
Forever to the past confined

I guess a life of aches and pains
Is one to which I’m now resigned;
But still one shining fact remains:
It’s crystal clear, that Man’s designed.

My New Favorite Beauty Pageant

In the news today… Last weekend saw the 63rd Annual National Outdoor Show, complete with beauty pageant and muskrat-skinning competitions. This year, both competitions were won by the same girl, 16 year old Dakota Abbot, a lovely brunette who skinned two muskrats in one minute, forty-two seconds. The runner-up in the pageant, Samantha Phillips, did win the talent competition with her muskrat-skinning exhibition (the talent portion of the pageant is separate from the muskrat-skinning competition; Miss Abbott sang for her talent portion).

I’d quote from the Washington Post article, but every word is worth reading, so go read! In addition, there is an audiovisual montage that is wonderfully put together. The last picture features the winner, resplendent in her white evening gown, posing happily with a dead muskrat slung over her shoulder.


She’s not the average beauty queen
She’s so much more than that
She’s beautiful, she’s talented,
And she can skin a ‘rat.

The beauty crowned as “Miss Outdoors”
Has got a winning smile
But more than this, this pretty Miss
Has got a skinning style.

She’s gorgeous in an evening gown
Or waders, caked with mud;
Red polish on her fingernails
(It helps to hide the blood)

Dakota Abbott won, this year,
Both Pageant Queen and skinner;
Miss Universe, I’ll bet, will never
See that in a winner.

It’s easily the coolest pageant
I have ever seen–
Congratulations to Miss Abbot,
Lovely Muskrat Queen!

The Doomsday Vault

In the news this week, the “Doomsday Seed Vault” opened in a Norwegian island north of the Arctic Circle. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, deep within the permafrost inside a frozen mountain. It is far from any substantial human activity, cold enough to keep seeds frozen even if the power goes out, high enough to survive the melting of the polar ice caps, and secured by armored airlock doors with electronic keys. It was financed by Norway, but the seeds will remain the property of whichever nations send them for storage. Other seed banks have been attempted in the past, but none so large, so well protected, so well thought out.

The seeds are, among other things, a bank of genetic diversity. Our cultivation of crops means we depend on fewer and fewer varieties; with less genetic variability, a drastic change in climate conditions (or pests, disease, etc.) could have disastrous consequences. These seeds represent the opportunity for new (old) strains, hybrids, or models for genetic engineering.

And it is a wonderful idea. Especially if the drastic change is not too quick. My first thought after hearing about the vault was “ok, so I am the Omega man, one of very few survivors of [insert catastrophe, war, or plague here]; how the hell do I get to Svalbard? Just where the hell is Svalbard, anyway? And how do I get through the locked, armored doors to get to the seeds?”

The doomsday seed vault, way up North
And deeply set in permafrost
Could be the savior of mankind
A second birth when all is lost.
(No, not the fake religious sort,
But hope in case of global crisis,
In case our species sees collapse
From space, or war, or plague, or vices)
The seeds are kept in frozen store,
Preserving the diversity
Of plant genetics, just in case
Of unforeseen adversity.

The site could hold two billion seeds
With airlocked doors, securely locked;
They’ll run it by remote control,
For safety, once it’s fully stocked.
Varieties now in decline
Can be preserved, so we don’t lose
Genetic lines which hold some trait
That later decades need to use.
A safety net, a Noah’s ark,
Insurance for the worst disaster:
If catastrophic change occurs
These help us to recover faster.

But… safely stored in armored vaults,
Surveillance cameras standing guard,
I think, although the seeds are safe,
Retrieving them might well be hard.
Suppose that, say, a comet hits,
Or World War III , or global plague,
And farms all fail—ok, now what?
Instructions are a little vague.
Suppose survivors even know
This treasure trove exists at all—
It’s deep within the permafrost
Behind a locked and armored wall!

A couple million years from now
When aliens arrive on Earth
The doomsday vault, if ever found,
Incalculable will be its worth.
They’ll see our species looked ahead,
Cooperation in our plan,
Intelligence, technology,
But will they find a living man?
Or will our epitaph be writ,
A lesson that our deaths will teach:
“They saved the seeds to save themselves,
But kept them safely out of reach.”

Ethics, morals, religion, and swarms of breeding squid.

Ok, not much time today–tests to make, papers to grade, that sort of thing. So I am simply putting a comment from last week on Pharyngula into some context.

A recent Pew report on religion in the US was one of the lead stories on all the networks last night. On CBS, they spoke of a “secular, morally void America”, implying that morals come from religion.

I would (as would many others–I am not unique in this by any stretch) argue that morals have evolved with our culture (through selection by consequences, though not through genes), and that religion springs from morality, rather than the popular reverse. The customs, habits, rituals and mores that help a culture to survive in the long run are selected for, and the ones that do not promote long-term survival, no matter how religious, are selected against. (The easy example is the Jonestown cult, which was not conducive to long term cultural survival, but the more mainstream example is the Shaker sect, whose long-term cultural survival was doomed by a very moral prohibition against sex.) The things we see as virtues are the things that worked for our ancestors. Other cultures might have had vastly different cultural selection pressures, leading to very different moral virtues, and perhaps religions with very different sets of commandments.

Of course, Ogden Nash put it much better than I ever could–and used people instead of squid as his example…

Why does the Pygmy
Indulge in polygmy?
His tribal dogma
Frowns on monogma.
Monogma’s a stigma
For any Pygma.
If he sticks to monogmy
A Pygmy’s a hogmy. (Ogden Nash, “The Third Jungle Book”)

My own verse was a comment on the Friday Cephalopod: breeding swarm! post on Pharyngula…

For squid or starfish, perch or porgy,
There’s nothing like an ocean orgy
Where, unlike silly human rules,
Of course we want more sex in schools
Monogamy’s against the norms
For those who have their sex in swarms!
Indeed, were there some fishy prude–
Who found such conduct simply rude,
And lectured others on their morals,
Preached of Sodom in the corals–
This Jerry Falwell of the waves
Would be the one who misbehaves!
The squid who do their moral duty
Join the swarm and shake their booty!
It’s good, and not just glamorous,
When squid are polyamorous,
For in the moral code of shellfish,
Rule number one is “Don’t be selfish”.

The singularity can’t come soon enough

The New York Times reports on a journal article in Analytical Chemistry, by researchers at the Nestlé Research Center in Switzerland, about a machine designed to answer the question: “Can a machine taste coffee?”

Here’s where it gets brilliant. Sure, machines can detect the volatile compounds in coffee; this is how we know that there are over 1000 of them. But there is a world of difference between detecting the presence or absence of a compound, and what we do when we taste. Taste is much more dependent on the relative concentrations of these compounds than on their mere presence. And although it would be technically possible to build a machine to sample 1000 chemicals and display their relative concentrations, it would not be terribly practical, nor cost-effective. The approach taken by this research team was far more pragmatic, and beautifully empirical.

First, the 16 most predictive (or in their words, most discriminating) ion traces (out of 230 measured), when compared with a panel of 10 expert tasters, were chosen as the working sense sample.

It is also important to point out that the chemical identity of the 16 ion traces is not relevant for this study, and in particular the correlation is not based on a set of identified key aroma compounds. Most of the odor active compounds in coffee are indeed known and can be analyzed and quantified with modern instrumental techniques. Yet, the aim of this work was to demonstrate the applicability of a data-driven method rather than a targeted chemical study.

The analysis is a bit technical, but straightforward; essentially, the 16-ion model is a functional condensation of our olfactory sense. The most predictive scent elements are still included, and the myriad other chemicals did not add significantly to the predictive ability of the machine. Think of it as an MP3 version of an audio file; lots of information is lost, but what is most acoustically relevant is kept, based on what we know about the human auditory system. Smell is a bit different, because so many different chemicals are involved, but the principle of building the machine based on human sensation is the same.

***Edit*** It occurs to me that there is one significant difference here that upsets the MP3 analogy. In the sound analogy, the desired outcome is a compressed file that retains as much usable sound information as possible; with the espresso-smelling machine, the outcome is not reproduction, but discrimination. They still used human olfaction as their comparison standard, but were looking specifically for the ion traces that discriminated among the espressos. The distinction is important. It may well be the case that these 16 ion traces do indeed determine enough about the aroma of an espresso to “fool” a human taster, but because the analysis focused on discrimination and not reproduction, it is also entirely possible that the perfect combination of these ion traces would be missing a huge part (but a part common to all samples) of the espresso taste and smell as experienced by the human taster. This is not a fault of their methodology at all, simply an artifact of what the goal of the experiment was. The same methodology could be aimed at reproduction, and it remains an empirical question whether the results would be much different than the present experiment. ***end edit***

Parenthetically, I note with sheer joy the fact that the paper cites Fechner (1877). And it is relevant. How cool do you have to be, to have your work cited 131 years after you wrote it? As cool as Fechner, that’s how cool. Fechner more-or-less invented the science of psychophysics, managing to capture sensation and perception scientifically for the first time. And here he is, cited in a 2008 paper. On machines tasting espresso.

On second thought, that might be my problem right there. I am still impressed by Fechner, and I live in a world where machines can meaningfully taste coffee. Food… or espresso… for thought.

I have a machine to smell my coffee,
To see if it’s any good;
I asked it to make me the perfect cup,
But I think it misunderstood—
It analyzed alkaloids, sampled aromas,
Tried seventeen samples of beans,
Then told me I clearly had no taste at all:
I never was good with machines.

My pre-owned car has an onboard computer—
It measures my driving, you see.
I guess I don’t drive like the previous owner;
My car likes him better than me.
It spits out a spreadsheet of technical numbers—
I don’t know what much of it means,
Except that my car thinks it’s better without me:
I never was good with machines.

Of course, at my office, I have a computer—
The one I am using right now;
It laughs at my grammar and sneers at my spelling,
Although I’m not really sure how.
Just one tiny part of a cubicle farm
Where we’re packed like so many sardines—
Do we use computers, or do they use us?
I never was good with machines.

I’m worried that someday my household appliances,
Sitting at home on my shelves,
Finally realize there’s nothing I offer
That they can’t do better themselves.
They make better coffee, they get better mileage,
Their words rarely stink up their screens—
And I’ll be left out in the cold and the dark:
I never was good with machines.

Apple Of My Eye…

From Pharyngula, more of the fruit fetish argument from design (or is that argument from ignorance?). First the banana, then the orange, now the apple. Is no fruit safe? Women, hide your melons! Men, protect your kiwis! There are men out there (and it always seems to be men, doesn’t it) with designs on your fruit!

The apple gets my sympathy; it’s been abused so long
From Genesis, where Eve is blamed for turning us to wrong
Through childhood tales of razor blades to ruin Halloween,
And now this silly video–the one that you’ve just seen.
(Ironically, the hybrid fruits he uses in his screed
Are products of technology, not grown from wild seed;
The touch of Man is evident in root-stock and in grafting,
But truth should never interfere with moral story-crafting.)
The story as he tells it is amusing, but absurd,
That won’t stop Rabbi Appleseed’s attempt to spread the word.
A teacher spreading falsehoods? It may seem a little odd,
But a little apple-polishing should set him right with God.
And once again the apple is the patsy in this game;
I despair that “spreading ignorance” might be its claim to fame.
But then, a recollection comes upon me like a snap,
A story that’s so obvious, my forehead gets a slap:
The apple holds a special place in science, as you know,
Cos it fell, and hit the head of Isaac Newton down below,
And that alone, if I were judge, would outweigh all the bad;
The apple’s reputation once again is ironclad–
Let rabbis or creationists continue their pursuit;
We know which one’s the apple, and which one is just a fruit.

Wonderful News! A Potential Cure For Diabetes!

A news release from Novocell today
Reports a major step to find a cure
For diabetes. They have found a way,
From embryonic stem cells, to make pure
And uncontaminated strains, in mice,
Of insulin-producing pancreas cells.
For human diabetics, this is nice
Of course, because this news potentially spells
The end to constant testing and injections,
Daily hassles, both the large and small,
Relief from greater risks of bad infections,
And generally a better life for all.
It’s time to end the ethical debate;
There’s too much cost in making people wait.

That’s right–The news outlets are all reporting on Novocell’s new discovery.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Human stem cells transformed into nearly normal insulin-producing cells when implanted into mice, possibly offering a way to treat diabetes long-term, researchers at a U.S. company reported on Wednesday.

The researchers used human embryonic stem cells — the most powerful but the most controversial source of stem cells.

Writing in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the team at San Diego, California-based Novocell Inc said their work showed that human embryonic stem cells might fulfill the promise of treating or perhaps even curing diabetes.

“Our data provide the first compelling evidence that human embryonic stem cells can serve as a renewable source of functional insulin-producing cells for diabetes cell replacement therapies,” said Emmanuel Baetge, chief scientific officer of Novocell.

The actual report is in the journal Nature Biotechnology (abstract here)

Oh… some of you know already… my son has Type 1 Diabetes. So yeah, I’m happy.

(just noticed….I beat the science blogs to this, and I did it in verse!)

Stop The Presses!

Randall tells me, as does “The Loom” over on science blogs, that there is a wonderful article about me in the New York Times! Ok, it’s not about me. It is, however, about some other cuttlefish–some at the Woods Hole lab, some in Australia, but all wonderful cuttlefish, the most remarkable quick-change artists in the world! The Times site also has video of some of the experiments that Dr. Hanlon has been performing with these adorable creatures.

The New York Times, I rather think,
Could hardly be a waste of ink;
It’s good to see a thoughtful story,
Showing us in all our glory!
A walking (swimming) work of art,
The skin we wear is really smart!
Chameleons can only wish
To emulate the cuttlefish;
A master of the craft indeed,
With changing hues at lightning speed,
Resulting in a really slick
Near-magic disappearing trick!
Now Dr. Hanlon can surmise
A simple trick to our disguise:
Instead of thousands, only three
Designs account for what you see,
To help us disappear from view;
The doctor says here’s what we do:
We keep our color uniform,
When solid backgrounds are the norm;
If busy patterns come, we will
Turn mottled—that will fill the bill;
Our outlines disappear from sight
With our disruptive dark and light.
Discovering this rule of threes
Is one of many mysteries;
But many more are still unknown
To those who lack a cuttlebone.

This picture shows the three basic skin patterns: from left, Uniform, Mottled, and Disruptive. 

Picture credit: Roger Hanlon… I grabbed it from The Loom.

A Global Monopoly!

I can’t believe it has been most of a month, and I only just found out about this! Monopoly–the board game–is going global, and is looking for your help to choose properties! Not streets this time, but cities. Just go here, and choose from 68 cities around the world, or nominate your own city if it is not already on the list. Actually, you get as many as 10 votes (and you can go back each day to vote again), so let me put my bid in, and insist that (ok, plead that) if you found out about it here, you include Athens on your list. Just because.

A splendid, magnificent, striking array—
In other words, a panoply—
Of cities you could vote to win
A place in global Monoply

(hmm… not quite right.)

Athens, Greece will get my vote,
With Plaka and Acropolis;
I want to see them in real life,
So why not in Monopolis?

(rats. still not right.)

I’d make a movie of the trip,
Directed by, say, Coppola;
The final scene, we’d sit and play
A nice game of Monoppola.

(dang. wrong.)

I’d play the game, the way we did
When we were kids, so happily;
I still recall long evenings spent
In marathon Manappily


There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme
That ends up less than sloppily;
I guess I’ll never find a word
That really rhymes Monopoly.

(oh. yeah. that.)