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Alien culture

May 17, 2021

OysterCatcherPairInstinct has some advantages. It can direct behavior from an animal’s earliest stages. It doesn’t require much in the way of neural complexity. It can be fast. Its large drawback is fragility. Instinct adapts or not to a changing environment only slowly, requiring evolutionary change over generations. It is not surprising, then, that as animals became more intelligent, they came to rely more and more on learned behavior. Which gives rise to culture, as Andrew Whiten explains:

If you define culture as a set of behaviors shared by a group and transmitted through the group by social learning, then you find that it’s widespread in the animal kingdom. You see it from primates and cetaceans, to birds and fish, and now we even find it in insects.

I particularly like this example of sperm whale adaptation to hunting:

“The whales were very quickly learning from each other ways to avoid being harpooned,” Dr. Whitehead said. Tip No. 1: Humans are not like your traditional enemy, the killer whale, so forget the old defense strategy of forming a tightknit circle with your babies protected in the middle. “That just gives the whalers something to aim their harpoon at,” Dr. Whitehead said. Tip No. 2: Swim upwind fast — humans hate rowing upwind in the ocean, and they’ll soon give up the chase. Tip No. 3: Find your inner Moby; dive deep, rise up and smash that whaling vessel to pieces.

Those rowers earned their shares. Cites: Whiten’s paper and Whitehead’s paper.

Photo shows a pair of oystercatchers meandering down North Beach.

Electoral fraud

May 13, 2021

These winter months, Americans suffered both the peak of the Covid-19 epidemic and an attempt to overturn election results that has no parallel in their nation’s past. Those who pretend Trump did not attempt a coup either are disingenuously playing politics, like Kevin McCarthy, or dupes who actually believe Trump’s lies on the matter. Or often, a bit of both. The very conservative Mona Charen explains why we should expect future such attempts. Instead of facing directly that near break in our democracy, Republican state legislatures are writing laws that, at best, are distraction with a bit of voter suppression, or worse, meant to enable the next such attempt. The scary thing about the cult-like state of the current GOP is not that it has to spit out those who do not go along, but what it will support going forward. While I agree with Adam Kinzinger that Trump serves as a useful test of integrity, keep in mind that Trump did not create the movement he rode to power. That was forged by Limbaugh, Ingraham, Hannity, et al.  The movement eagerly took a conman as leader, because it first was steeped in conspiracy theories, myths, and cultic thinking.

Update: As if on cue today, Matt Gaetz tweets something that is uncharacteristically accurate. And damning. 

Getting outside

May 12, 2021

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is significantly expanding the areas available for fishing and hunting. Which seems to be a good thing to me: the more people visit preserved areas, the more they will value them.

What, if anything, is a tree?

May 11, 2021

Georgia Ray explains that lumping every upright, long-lived, woody plant into one category makes about as much sense, in its basic biology, as doing the same with every sea creature. Yet there is a practical sense in which trees are what we climb and clear and plant for shade, and sea creatures are what we raise in fishing nets, so it is quite natural that our language provides terse terms for those. This post’s title copies that of Stephen Gould’s famous essay on phylogeny.

Rafflesia_sumatraIt turns out that corpse flowers (Rafflesia arnoldii) are aptly named. They are botanical zombies, parasites that have lost their chloroplasts, taking not just sustenance from their hosts, but also picking up some host genes every once in a while.

Botany is weird.


May 10, 2021

After last week’s election, it seems ever more likely that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will push for a referendum on Scottish independence. I quite understand the hesitation of those Scots who don’t want that. Untangling from a nation-state is quite a bit more complex than the UK’s recent exit from the EU federation, due to the common financial instruments and shared political institutions. England will want Scotland to assume some portion of the national debt. Scotland will want some credit for pension reserves. As all that is negotiated, many Scots, especially perhaps those older, will wonder if the new nation will be able to provide a similar level of related services, given that its GDP per capita is only about three-quarters that of the UK as a whole.

Battle_of_AssayeNationalists fight for some particular political unit they consider organic or having special history, working for or against secession depending on whether they identify with the part or the whole. Hegemonists lean toward the larger political unit. But liberals don’t have a strong view of secession. They recognize a notion of self-determination. Such notion is tempered by taking account of the significant cost of political rearrangement, consideration of the cause, and attention to the means. We damn the Confederacy not because secession necessarily is wrong, but because those states had as their cause the preservation of slavery.

While there no doubt are a variety of causes for the Scottish push, including rank nationalism, the morass of Brexit has brought it to a head and given it more solid rationale. Many Scots are weighing which political ties matter more to them, and prefer the red passport. If an independence referendum passes, it will be interesting to see if any English decide to move north for the same reason that others have found an Irish grandparent.

Americans should not be too confident that our own union is beyond fragmentation in the decades coming. There is a faction of the paranoid right that long has urged secession of various states. Once, they were neoconfederates hoping that the south would rise again. Today, they are part of the cult that Trump rode to power and continues to validate. We can hope their power weakens as a sane majority asserts itself. What challenges that is the brittleness of our Constitution. Any amendment today that brings significant structural change has little hope to be ratified, because only thirteen states can block it. If those pushing a convention of states ever get their way, that conflict encourages solution by partition, so that each group of states gets some change it wants, rather than none getting any.

The drawing shows the battle of Assaye (1803), that killed every officer of the 74th Highland Regiment of Foot. That Regiment was raised in 1787, by the British East India Company, the Amazon of its day. Going to fight for it was a young Scot’s route to fortune, if he avoided an early grave in a distant and strange land.

“Old times there…”

May 6, 2021

one_mississippiLouisiana state Rep. Ray Garofalo recovered adeptly when he seemed to attribute some good to slavery. Running to his defense, Martha Huckaby gave a Biblical defense  of slavery right out of Lost Cause ideology. Tennessee state Rep. Justin Lafferty followed that with the idiotic claim that the 3/5 compromise “had the purpose of ending slavery.” Maybe there were spurred by Mississippi’s declaration that April was, again, Confederate heritage month.

US culture has advanced tremendously in the last half century. Even in the deep south. Though sometimes, it seems the past isn’t that far past.

Stochastic paths

May 5, 2021

Kelsey Houston-Edwards writes about the mathematics of mesh networks, first explaining why they should be important:

When you hit “send” on a text message, it is easy to imagine that the note will travel directly from your phone to your friend’s. In fact, it typically goes on a long journey through a cellular network or the Internet, both of which rely on centralized infrastructure that can be damaged by natural disasters or shut down by repressive governments.

Any popular science article that includes a description of Kolmogorov’s 0-1 theorem deserves a bit of praise. I wish, though, that she had spent more time on the fact that most people have no such software on their phones. And that when they find themselves incommunicado because of natural disaster or political catastrophe, it will be too late to acquire it, because they won’t be able to download software. Alas, I see no way to help such software burst through the use barrier, except that some government starts to mandate it as a safety feature.

The previous sentence is a counterfactual. Seemingly, David Deutsch and his protege  Chiara Marletto are looking at rewriting physics by construction theory, which puts counterfactuals front and center. It sounds both oddly plausible and far-fetched at the same time. Not being a physicist, I shall not venture more. 

Bad evolutionary psychology

May 4, 2021

One of the silliest things to think about most any animal is that it wants to be an evolutionary success. Birds know no more about genes than they do about Russian literature or the internet. So it is disappointing to read in a Wired article about tanagers:

The fancy feathers he produces then serve as an honest signal, in the evolutionary sense, as his ability to consume a lot of carotenoids shows that he’s fit. And the female wants to pass those genes along to her offspring, please and thank you.

Stuff and nonsense. The female tanager just gets turned on by what turns her on. She likely is less aware of what that is than a teenage girl. The male tanagers that do better at that have more offspring. Regardless of how they do so. Sexual preference and satisfaction of it does indeed influence genetic change over generations. Darwin knew that could lead to traits that are not otherwise beneficial. Not because a female bird in making her choice of mate is deceived, but because the evolution of mating choice creates a game of its own.

summer-tanagerThis article about animals raising young that are not their own, and sometimes not even their own species, tries to pose that as a puzzle, and initially veers into the same fallacy. Animals don’t care for their young because they are trying to be an evolutionary success. They do that either instinctively, or from emotional attachment. Either can lead to raising young not one’s own. Now yes, emotional attachment can help a species survive, and that in turn may explain in part how our emotional facilities evolved. Once they evolved, that generates complex behavior that doesn’t necessarily align with gene propagation. That article does better in its conclusion:

Perhaps instead we may just have to accept that humans are not unique in their capacity to care for and help each other

Of course. Our emotions are not something that popped into being by magic. They are a faculty of larger brains, and ours of necessity are part of a continuum with those of related species.

Summer tanagers are one of my favorite birds to spot. I saw only one this spring migration.


May 3, 2021

The first person I knew who lived in a van was a schoolmate trying to save money. He parked it down by the river. This was at least a decade before Chris Farley became a comedian, a half century before the current trend. Were someone today to park their van on my street while visiting neighbors, I would see no cause for complaint. Assuming they did not otherwise create a disturbance. Even if that became routine at a couple of houses on the block, I try not to be quick to kvetch.

But what if it were more than a couple? A half dozen vans parked on this block would require others to jockey for space, cause trouble for service vehicles and on trash days, and crowd parking for day guests. Home residents would wonder whether items on the ground were neighbors’ things or discarded items from itinerants since gone. I suspect it would be one too many late, open air parties that would push me to complain.

There are many areas where the effect of five doing something is more than five times the effect of one doing the same. That includes most any activity that has a capacity limited by space or water or some other resource that isn’t easily expanded with the number wanting it. Such problems include some of our thorniest political issues, from global warming to how cities respond to the homeless.

As recent example, Austin is renewing its ban on camping. The linked article fails to mention that, until recently, Austin had quite a bit of inner city public land that was not easy to reach. A decade past, I would hike frequently near homeless camps that were out of sight — and therefore out of mind — to all but a few residents. Recent public improvements have turned much of those spaces into accessible parks and byways. Which is better for taxpaying residents, and worse for those who once camped at such sites. As with living in vans, the homeless do best when they can find a spot that simultaneously is near and out of the way. When those places shrink, conflict increases. Especially if the number vagabonding increases at the same time.

DodgingBigShipsHere on the coastal bend, tanker traffic has increased noticeably since the new LNG terminals started operating near Ingleside. Though it actually is quite a broad, the ship channel near Port Aransas can seem narrow from the vantage of a small boat keeping distance from large ships passing each other. Photos don’t do that justice. The shot above comes close. It was taken by Charles Giffin during the return race in this year’s Port Aransas regatta. We had good weather both days, though coming back, the wind was dead aft. Giffin won first in fleet the race out, the day before. I suspect the pilots in that part of the channel think the deep sea fishing boats and jetty boats and sailing craft are a nuisance. Especially on regatta days, some sailboats taking one side, some the other, some gybing back and forth from one side to the other. There are plans to dredge the channel deeper, for larger ships. Fortunately, we have a ways to go before it becomes as busy as the Houston ship channel.

They should lobby against it

April 29, 2021

The Texas legislature is writing legislation requiring lobbyists to take sexual harassment training, after one of allegedly slipped a date-rape drug to a staff member. I trust there already are laws against that last act, and am quite dubious that mandatory training is much going to change the behavior of someone who would do such a thing. Are lobbyists, as a profession, any more likely to engage in such behavior? The ones I’ve known seem quite nice. Of course, that’s their job.