So… hi. Looks like I haven’t updated here in a while, right? Right.
The old (read: from 2002 or so) adage is that a blog isn’t worth its salt if it doesn’t last 3 months. I’ve heard that something like 80% of all blogs die within that time frame and I suspect the real number is much higher, or at least over 90% if you take it out to 6 months. Which is how long it’s been since I started this. So I’m calling it quits now, right?
Not quite. You see, this was sort of an experiment for me to see if I could do this whole science blogging thing. Over 100 posts in a four month period told me that yes, I could. I even got some excellent contributions from several talented and bright guest authors and, of course, the regular Friday feature from my wife. And then, about 2 months ago, it just sort of petered out as I had to shift focus to another project, one I started before this, namely my travel blog.
I half-expected I’d be done with detailing out latest major adventure in the second half of May by now, or at least close to done. Unfortunately, I’m not, due to the fact that I’m closing in one one of those Major Life Changes™ and that’s been my primary focus, with the travel blog being secondary, not passing out from heat stroke coming in third, trying to be not-fat coming in around fourth and, well, this is barely cracking the Top 5, now isn’t it? And so I need to set it aside for a while as I try to get my life – of which I appear to have more than I can handle at the moment – into some semblance of order. When I return, I hope it’ll be for good. I took FwLN2 for a test drive, and I think I’m gonna buy it. I’ve really, really enjoyed doing this and it’s honestly a matter of not having enough hours in the day to do it and accomplish my other, ultimately more important goals while not going completely insane from lack of sleep.
I don’t suspect you’ll hang around because “hiatus” is blogese for “quitting and not coming back” and I don’t expect to be treated as the exception to that rule who actually does come back. And, if I have time, I’ll try to bang out a few posts every now and then to keep the beat going, but that’ll be an irregular thing. So keep this in your RSS reader if you have it there (you should) but otherwise, I won’t feel hurt if you stop reading. I’ll be sure to make more noise when I’m ready to start again in earnest, a more dedicated, less sleep-deprived man.
So don’t stay tuned, but, much as Futurama arose from the ashes to broadcast TV seven years after cancellation two weeks ago, always keep FwLN2 in mind sometimes. Never know when I might make a comeback. Well, not for a couple months, at least. But after that, you never know.
Question of the Week What the hell happened to the weekend?
Sorry. I’m having a bear of a time catching back up, here, and I haven’t been running at 100% brain power for some time now, for reasons I’ll explain below. So today I figured I’d get at least something up and go through the massive backlog of links to cool things to share with you. So, yes, it’s Monday, but it’s a Saturday-style post; sort of blogging training-wheels until I can ride all by myself again. Yes, I know the old adage is “like riding a bike” to mean something one never forgets, so perhaps that wasn’t the best analogy to use, but let’s pretend that in this situation I suffered cerebellar damage or something like that. Or an inner ear infection. The point is, lack of coordination. Which is like not being able to write… good.
Hey, look at this! It’s a video interview of Conan O’Brien at Google I found via Neatorama!
There, now go watch Conan make teh funny for 48 solid minutes. That sort of makes up for my absence, right? A little?
Graph of the Week
Okay, folks, it’s time I admit something: I’m overweight. And I need to do something about it. In late spring of 2008 I was running 20+ miles per week and I weighed about 190 pounds. I’m 6′ 3″ (that’s 191 cm for you folks outside the US) and fairly broad-shouldered so that’s actually a very healthy weight for me. Since then my fitness has devolved to fatness, though:
That includes 5 vacations I’ve taken since then (the last of which being the time off including my hiatus from here) and two holiday seasons, the result of which was gaining over 30 pounds in 2 years. Not good. You’ll note that I’ve done nothing but pack on the pounds throughout 2010, too, whereas in between vacations I’d normally manage to drop a couple pounds or at least break even. This is because of writing here.
Oh, don’t worry, I don’t blame you, dear reader. You see, I’ve very much enjoyed writing this blog and I wanted to continue it as best I could. Unfortunately, this required taking up the free time I’d have normally spent exercising. Furthermore, since I’m mildly hypoglycemic and I struggle with being the clever witticism-generating machine you’ve come to know me as when I have low blood sugar, I wanted to keep my brain floating in as much ATP as it wanted as I was focused on writing here the first 5 months. The result of both was a healthy and happy brain but a body that got winded walking to my car. Which I’d then drive to KFC. To get a Double Down. Which would make it worse.
And so, when I returned from our vacation a couple of weeks ago, I weighed 221 pounds. I’d lost not one but two notches on my belt, which is leather and therefore was probably stretching some, anyway. Even my fat pants were tight and the majority of the rest of my pants didn’t fit at all unless I fancied rupturing my kidneys. I needed to go on a diet. And so, as of June 1, I have. It’s sort of a variation on the Public Humiliation Diet (hence this), with the exception that I do not weigh myself daily as I find it to be counter-productive, but rather shoot for 5-day intervals. This will go on for 30 days and then I’ll switch to 10-day intervals for weigh-ins. Results thus far are as follows:
So that’s a good start, I think. I’m running 16 miles per week now and I’m watching what I eat and curtailing (though not eliminating) my alcoholic beverage intake. It seems to be working so far. The trouble is that it has taken my body some time to adjust to the lower caloric intake and greater exercise and so, in addition to not having as much time to write as I’ve gone jogging more (not that I could have done much with a broken laptop last week, anyway), the hunger pangs and desire to KILL EVERYTHING THAT MAKES ME SO ANGRY WHICH IS EVERYTHING EVER that is associated with low blood sugar for me has left me struggling to relate the wonderful world of Science to you as I would like to. My body is grudgingly coming to terms with this regimen, though, and so I hope I can start producing some more quality material in the near future. Until then, here are some links:
Links of the Week
The 5 Most Famous Musicians Who are Thieving Bastards. As big of a deal intellectual property law is these days, it’s pretty dismaying to see how many successful musicians crossed the line between “adapting” and “stealing” in some of their more famous songs. I gotta come down on Cracked for not including Coldplay in the list but perhaps they felt it was unnecessary as everyone knows they’re rip-off artists.
The Prague Pneumatic Post. Apparently, pneumatic tubes were all the rage for postal delivery in major cities in the late 19th/early 20th century and Prague continued to use theirs until just recently. On a scale of 1 to Very Steampunk this registers about a 12.
Celebrating 50,000 Generations of the Long-Term Lines. Richard Lenski’s lab has been carrying out an experiment with E. coli called the Long-Term Evolution Experiment in order to show evolution in action in bacteria under controlled laboratory settings. So far the experiment has been going on for some 50,000 generations, which, if it were run on humans, would have taken in the ballpark of a million years. Not bad for one experiment [Ed: a word of warning - there is a Wikipedia entry on the LTEE but it is often heavily vandalized by anti-evolution thugs and other ne'er-do-wells with little else better to do than deface websites that present them with uncomfortable facts].
Yes, we’re back! After a month of floating down off the blogosphere to take a much-needed vacation, Fun with Liquid Nitrogen has returned.
And with a 90s pop culture reference. Surprise to no one.
So why were we gone for so long? Well, for the first week I had to scramble like mad to prepare for our journey both at home and by battening down the metaphorical hatches at work. After that I was in Washington DC for ASGCT 2010 for a week and then we spent another week down South on vacation. The past two weeks have been tricky as I’ve been trying to get my bearings and write about our trip for posterity without the aid of my laptop, which appears to have been broken by Alabama. I’m not sure how, but it worked just fine in Florida and, next day, didn’t work in Alabama. So there you go.
It’s fixed now, though! And so I plan on cranking this back up again and commencing with the daily posts right away. Tomorrow I’ll post an “unrelated content” entry and I might even make a bonus one on Sunday if you’re really lucky, since I’ve got an immense backlog of links and neat things to share to sort through. The same is true of blogging topics since our time away was not without some relatively big news in the world of Science, namely, it seems like Craig Venter has been up to some things. Perhaps you heard about it already. I look forward to writing about that.
At any rate, I hope you will continue reading after our bit of time off. I may tinker with the site design some over the coming weeks, as well, so please let me know what, if anything you like that I’ve done and what you hate or, more importantly, doesn’t work on your computer. A web designer I am not but since not being a writer by trade didn’t stop me from doing this I figured it’s worth a shot, too.
Question of the Week How many nuclear warheads exist in the world?
In this post-Cold War era of nuclear disarmament counteracted by rogue states, it’s difficult to get an accurate count on just how many nuclear warheads are out there. Still, in the name of transparency to further efforts with Russia to promote nuclear disarmament, the US government recently released the exact number of warheads the United States possesses in its usable stockpile: 5,113. You’ll note that 5,113 nuclear warheads is, in fact, still enough to blow up the entire planet several times over. As Neatorama explains, Russia is believed to possess a bit more than that, too. This is why joint US-Russian talks are key to properly disarming and disposing of unneeded nuclear warheads.
You’ll also note on that graph there are 9 confirmed nuclear powers in the world right now, with the US and Russia – the top two – constituting roughly 90% of the total military nuclear capacity of the planet, and the other seven combined constituting the latter 10%. Still, with the exception of the United Kingdom and France, that lower part is largely constituted of states not known to have the greatest stability nor transparency of government, which is probably more troubling than anything else; these are where there’s a chance of a nuclear warhead being sold – or stolen by – a corrupt or extremist regime that could potentially use it against normal civilians. This is why limiting nuclear proliferation is absolutely key to the safety of the planet in the 21st century.
When humanity took the Nuclear War Demon out of the box in 1945 we knew it would be difficult to put it back. 65 years later there has thankfully not been another incident of nuclear weapons being employed against civilians, though the threat is still there. The fact of the matter is that though the Cold War is long over and the United States and Russia are closer allies now than in nearly a century, the Doomsday Clock still exists for the very good reason that there are still far too many nuclear weapons on the planet. Or at least Iron Maiden think so.
Graph of the Week
It’s that time again: time for the monthly update on the top 20 most-viewed posts I’ve written:
TOP 20 MOST-VIEWED POSTS THROUGH 04/30/10
Not too many surprises, though I’m happy to report that Becky now has 5 posts in the Top 20 despite contributing only one day per week. This is well-deserved as she puts far more effort into each post than I do as she has to make a painting and then research and write about the subject; I just do the latter two, thankfully. Other than that not too much; I’m glad the post on the potential for microbial life elsewhere in the solar system (“Little Moon Big Hope”) is gaining traction as that was one of my favorites to have written. I also think it’s funny that of the two newcomers to the list, neither are new posts, just older ones that gradually accrued enough hits. I suspect there will be a couple additions to the Top 20 from April as of the end of this month, though.
Links of the Week
Nuclear Reactor Cutaways. A theme! My mom used to buy me books of hand-drawn cross-sectional diagrams like these back in the dark ages of the late 80s and early 90s before computer graphics became so ubiquitous and man, I loved them. So this gives me a little squirt of the nostalgia neurotransmitters in addition to being awesome of its own right.
Floating Wind Farm. A good idea to combine wave energy and wind energy. The only problem I see is that wind turbines require tons of regular maintenance, which might be difficult to do on these deployed far off-shore.
Piezoelectric Promise: Charge a Touch-Screen by Poking It with Your Finger. This is really neat: basically, there’s no good reason we should have to charge our hand-held electronic devices with wall outlets since they use such a low power draw. The regular movements, currents and thermal energy of the human body should be sufficient to keep them charged, if properly captured. The trick is figuring out how to do that in a non-invasive manner.
XKCD: Color Survey Results. Any children begotten by Randall Munroe will surely revolutionize the world of school science fair projects.
Meanwhile on land during the Eocene epoch, the terror bird was meeting up with some fierce competition for the limited open grasslands. Carnivorous mammals have finally reached apex predator status! No more hiding in the trees and in burrows for these mammals. And here he is, arguably the largest mammalian land predator of all time:
We’ve only ever found one skull of Andrewsarchus, a monstrous 2.7-foot long skull resembling the skull of a carnivore ( For contrast, a modern lion’s skull is about 15 inches long and the extinct great cave bear’s skull is 21 inches). Based on creatures of the time with similar skulls, such as Mesonyx and Synoplotherium, scientists can infer what Andrewsarchus might have looked like and how large it was. Estimates place Andrewsarchus at about 6-6.6 feet at the shoulder and 11-17 feet long, not including the tail. The weight of Andrewsarchus could be anywhere from 1,000-2,000 pounds. We don’t know for sure because Andrewsarchus might have been a slender, gracile creature or stocky and compact like a bear. At any rate, it was a monster predator the size of a rhino, if not as heavy.
There is of course, debate on whether Andrewsarchus was a loathsome scavenger or an admirable hunter, but as I’ve said before, very few animals are obligate hunters and nearly every carnivorous mammal that has ever lived will do whatever it takes to survive, whether it be hunting or scavenging. They don’t care about impressing you. Most hunt or scavenge depending on the opportunity they face at any given time. I think it’s a silly debate.
When I first saw some pictures of Andrewsarchus, I thought it was a massive prehistoric hyena. It turns out though, that Andrewsarchus was not related to hyenas at all. It couldn’t be- the order Carnivora was only just beginning to evolve from their ancestral family Miacidae. It would be a few more million years before large Carnivores appeared on the scene.
So Andrewsarchus was a carnivore but not a Carnivore. The way to make sense of this is to understand that an animal can hunt or scavenge other animals and be carnivorous, but not of the official Order Carnivora, which includes all hyenas, cats, wolves and other canids, seals, weasels, and some offbeat members like the civet and the otter.
One way that Andrewsarchus was similar to Carnivores was that he appeared to have carnassial teeth. Nearly all Carnivores have them- they’re the cheek teeth in front of the molars on the upper and lower jaw that occlude in a special way to ensure maximum crushing and shredding. Dogs are no exception. If you ever need to stick your hand in a dog’s mouth for any reason- maybe he’s like my dog and has a tendency to get tennis balls stuck in his throat- you need to be sure to enter only from the front and NEVER take a lateral approach. In front, you have some incisors and some canines, but if you put your hand between a dog’s carnassial teeth, you may not have much of a hand left afterward. If you’ve ever seen a dog or a hyena chew on a grisly bone, you might have noticed that they don’t use their canines or incisors to shred and crush it. They’re always chewing on it from the side. Andrewsarchus probably crushed and chewed bones the same way.
So if Andrewsarchus was not a Carnivore, what was he?
The short answer is that he was kinda-sorta a pig. An ungulate. Most likely the scariest thing with hooves the world has ever known. He was of the order Mesonyx, of which all members are now extinct. This order was a group of wolfish, carnivore-like hoofed mammals, somewhat related to pigs and ruminants. You can see his family tree here:
Andrewsarchus’s order is in the third column, center- Mesonyx. I found this family tree pretty interesting. You can see that also in the third column on the top we have Pakicetus, who was an ancestor of our friend Ambulocetus- as you can see, their kind evolved into the modern walvis, who also share some ancestry with modern zwijn and other hoofed mammals. He’s even related to the unfortunate paard, who always seems to be getting eaten.
Despite being a hoofed mammal, though, Andrewsarchus didn’t show any family loyalty to horses, the most delicious prey animal of the Paleogene period. Things still aren’t looking so good for horses.
Hi, folks. Things are going to be a bit touch-and-go throughout the month of May. Right now I’m working on preparing for a 2-week trip through 15 states and Washington, DC starting in under two weeks from today. The good news is that I hope to be able to still blog at least a few days per week during that time but the bad news is that I will miss some days and right now when I’m occupied with prep work for the journey I occasionally get too busy to provide a full post. Today would be one such example. But fear not! I’ve got a plan to keep you amused, however temporarily!
About a month ago I noticed that YouTube has updated their site layout to shove comments with the highest rating to the top, out-of-context of the discussion. Of course, anyone who’s been on the Internet for more than 2 hours knows how notoriously non-sequitur and devoid of meaning YouTube comments are to begin with. Even 3 years ago XKCD placed YouTube on the more provincial end of the spectrum and it certainly hasn’t improved its reputation since then.
These days I couldn’t help but notice how laughably off-the-wall these highly-rated comments are, especially on music videos. So I decided to make a game out of it. I’ll list five songs available as videos on YouTube and five highly-rated comments. It’s your job to match them up in the comments section here. I’ll post the answer key later. Have fun!
1) Andrew W.K. – Party Hard
2) Beck – Sexx Laws
3) Lady Gaga – Bad Romance
4) Meshuggah – Bleed
5) Naughty by Nature – O.P.P.
a) “Note to self: stay away from freaky looking lady and scary bald guy so as to avoid becoming a pale dog slave dude.”
b) “this is fucking song ”
c) “I’m Canadian and I’m proud of having less crime. Who cares if you are ‘hard’, that’s a pathetic thing to be proud of”
d) “like hendrix or mozart…..most people aint gonna realize his genius til he’s dead and gone….at least a few of us know whats up”
e) “he loves kids but he will kick your ass!”
Good luck with that. And for the record, I looked up the Lady Gaga video FOR SCIENCE.
A big part of what I try to do here is to show how art and science can complement one another. It makes sense to me: artistic talent seems to be X-linked through my family. My sister is a studio artist by training. My mother was an art teacher for a long time until art teacher jobs ran dry in the late 80s. Her mother – my grandmother – was a skilled painter. In possession of that crazy little Y-chromosome, something went haywire and my artistic abilities are limited to drawing crappy cartoons. I was, however, influenced by my grandfathers: an engineer and a physician. And so I am a scientist.
(Though I do not drink nearly as much as Bob Pollard.)
Still, an appreciation for art is a big part of my personality, I think. It translates to being dismayed when the otherwise-level-headed Roger Ebert says some rather regretful things as well as trying to get out of the house and away from my keyboard every now and then to see a decent independent film at the cinema down the road from us in Cambridge. Yesterday we saw the excellent Exit Through the Gift Shop, ostensibly billed as a documentary about street art as produced by the famous yet extraordinarily reclusive British street artist Banksy and including footage of and interviews with a laundry list of globally-recognized street artists, most notable among which in terms of name-recognition as well as contribution to the film was Shepard Fairey, creator of the now-ubiquitous Obama HOPE poster and Andre the Giant Has a Posse/OBEY Giant.
The film – now screening in most major cities in North America and opening in some more cities later this week – takes a bit of an unexpected turn, though. It starts off being the story of street art as told by French-American amateur videographer Thierry Guetta. The first two-thirds of the movie is carried by Guetta as he tells the story of how he got to know every major street artist in the world – culminating with filming the notoriously hard-to-get Banksy – over a period between 1999 and 2006, recording thousands of hours of footage. Then, as the street art movement started to gain a lot more traction in the public eye as it got coverage in the mainstream media of legitimate art shows, Fairey and Banksy urged Guetta to finally put together his footage into a documentary to re-claim the “street cred” of street art. They felt that the street art movement was starting to lose its moorings as a counter-culture movement and was instead becoming mainstream culture itself, an anathema to their original mission.
After months of work, Guetta showed Banksy the final product of his film, which was, quite honestly, unwatchable. Distressed but not wanting to alienate his by-then good friend, Banksy urged Guetta to leave him with the tapes and “go do some art” on his own in order to distract him while Banksy effectively re-edited the film from square one. He didn’t have a clue, he said, he’d be releasing a monster. Guetta adopted a street art personality called “Mr. Brainwash” and, in a matter of months, had leveraged his life savings into founding a studio of his own churning out pop art at a dizzying pace, all of which was, well… “showing great influence” would be a good way of putting it.
All of this – as now largely explained by Banksy as Guetta (that is, Mr. Brainwash) has now had the camera turned on him – was in anticipation of Mr. Brainwash’s first gallery show – paid for by himself – in his home town of Los Angeles in 2008. After exceptional trepidation, spending every penny to his name and nearly having his entire work force – by the end a small army of artists and laborers – walk out on him, Mr. Brainwash’s debut show opened in grand style, pulling down low 7 figures in sales. Guetta had done that thing you’re not supposed to do – or even supposed to be able to do – he bought his fame. Not only that, he bought it by producing what, to the objective viewer, looked like an alamgam of every notable pop and street artist (including Fairey and Banksy) over the past half-century thrown into a blender and shot across the entire gallery with a fire hose: a little bit of Andy Warhol here, some Roy Lichtenstein there. His style was so incredibly scattershot and manic as to be no style at all; it seemed like what one might imagine a bar in Tokyo themed on western street art might look like. And yet he was able to find instantaneous fame and critical acclaim, even producing the cover art for Madonna’s greatest hits album in 2009. As earnest as Mr. Brainwash was in his desire to create art that overwhelmed his ability to find his own voice in that art, he created an intensely powerful statement about art itself: how what is critically or monetarily valuable and therefore deemed to be culturally valuable can be so subjective as to be completely meaningless. It was a hard lesson in regard to the merits of “paying one’s dues” as opposed to finding instant fame by playing to what’s popular taken to the absolute extreme.
Or… was it? Following its release, rumors have surrounded the film to the effect that the career of Mr. Brainwash wasn’t manufactured by Guetta taking Banksy’s advice to the extreme all on his own, but rather the entire thing was a Kaufmanesque publicity stunt manufactured by Banksy from the inside as a way of illustrating the patent absurdity of publicity stunts. It would turn the film into a sort of documentarian Being There where the joke was not just on the art afficionados who bought up Mr. Brainwash’s products at a premium, not just on the street art community that encouraged him to find his voice and wasn’t happy when they heard it, not just on Banksy and Fairey for unintentionally sponsoring his rise to fame, but on the audience viewing the film, too; the joke is on everyone.
And that’s just the thing, isn’t it? That’s how it ties in here. It seems to me that Banksy’s work is all about the absurdity of valuing art and how any attempt to do so will ultimately culminate in a giant joke on everyone. And I can dig that. Science, you see, exists at the opposite end of things: everything at its core is objective and has the same meaning everywhere in the Universe, forever. Data is open to interpretation but facts are not. Art, though, is on the opposite end of things: you like it or you don’t, and who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong? Sure, there’s things like the Golden Ratio that seem to dictate how aesthetically pleasing something is to us, but that’s more of a guideline, not a rule. What tickles the human brain into releasing the neurotransmitters that encourage an emotional response will be as unique for every individual as that individual is unique his- or herself.
Which is why it’s necessary that art and science work together. Raw facts are immutable and objective, true, but how we interpret and visualize those raw facts are how we, as humans, are able to express our understanding of the Universe and share that understanding with others. Just as Exit Through the Gift Shop illustrates how art for art’s sake is meaningless, science for the sake of science has no language with which it can be converted into culturally transmissible knowledge without art. And so one will always need the other. And so, dear readers, I encourage you to not only use the power of awesome thinking to allow science into your life, but also to use the power of awesome doing through artistic expression to allow for yourself to be seen, heard and understood. Because, really, as far as I can tell, that’s what this whole “life” thing is all about.