Friday, January 23, 2009 the Virunga National Park

Virunga National Park is the website of the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is one of the few remaining domains of the mountain gorilla and where they under the protection of scientists and lightly armed park rangers. The rangers and others there work quite hard under the most difficult circumstances (one, Ranger Safari Kakule, was killed by militia fighters a couple of weeks ago). My kids give (well, it is more of a payroll deduction) part of their allowance to support the protection of the gorillas in the park. You can follow the link to their site and blogs, etc.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

NPR on Television, Prisons, & the Digital TV Conversion

NPR did this story back in December that was noteworthy for the discussion of the use of TV to control prisoners. Prisoners have committees in one prison that decides the schedules of shows each week. A soap opera is one of the few programs that every prisoner wants to see. Marcuse would have to smile.

Prisons Excluded From DTV Coupon Programs
by Catherine Welch

All Things Considered, December 30, 2008
"Many cash-strapped prisons rely on analog television sets to keep prisoners occupied."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Humans driving rapid change in hunted/harvested species

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this month it was reported that a review of studies of species used by humans for food showed rapid changes in these species size and growth rates. The study shows:
"that average phenotypic changes in 40 human-harvested systems are much more rapid than changes reported in studies examining not only natural (n = 20 systems) but also other human-driven (n = 25 systems) perturbations in the wild, outpacing them by >300% and 50%, respectively. Accordingly, harvested organisms show some of the most abrupt trait changes ever observed in wild populations, providing a new appreciation for how fast phenotypes are capable of changing. These changes, which include average declines of almost 20% in size-related traits and shifts in life history traits of nearly 25%, are most rapid in commercially exploited systems and, thus, have profound conservation and economic implications."

Human predators outpace other agents of trait change in the wild

by Chris T. Darimont, Stephanie M. Carlsonc, Michael T. Kinnisond, Paul C. Paquete, Thomas E. Reimchena and Christopher C. Wilmers.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

One of the best science essays I read last year was this one by Times Blogger Olivia Judson on the possibility of clouds being an unrecognized and unexplored ecological niche.
The Wild Side, New York Times An excerpt:

"Clouds. It’s been known for ages that microbes — bacteria, algae, fungi, and other tiny organisms — can be found in clouds. This isn’t surprising. Microbes often get airborne. They can be lofted by the wind from the leaves of a plant; or thrown into the air when a bubble of water bursts, and then lofted by the wind.

They get high. They’ve been captured in the mesosphere — that’s the layer of atmosphere above the stratosphere — as much as 70 kilometers (more than 40 miles) above the Earth’s surface. And microbes regularly travel long distances by wind. Indeed, in 1832, Charles Darwin, at sea on the “HMS Beagle,” noticed that dust had landed on the ship; and from the position of the wind and the ship, concluded that it must have come more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) from the coast of Africa. He collected it, and sent it off for analysis; it turned out to contain numerous species of African freshwater algae. Similarly, clouds have been suggested to be a way that microbes get around the planet — a sort of bus system for bacteria.

But the paper in “Geophysical Research Letters” went further. It claimed not just that microbes are traveling via cloud, but that some of them are actually living there — growing, metabolizing, reproducing — until plummeting back to earth when the cloud rains."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Atlas of True Names

This new Atlas using the etymological roots for our more familiar place names.
It is a good read and of interest for a multitude of reasons.
The Atlas of True Names at Some of the names, like yucatan, are quite funny while others reveal a long historical memory of a place.
Here is the map of North America (or "Northland of the Home Ruler")

Saturday, January 3, 2009

60 Years of Underground History for Sale

BT (British Telecom) is selling its secret London tunnel system. Built under the city during WWII, it became a part of the Cold War infrastructure. This is a New York Times slide show on the complex:
Underground History

Friday, January 2, 2009

Melvyn Bragg In Our Time series: Darwin January 2009

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, Melvyn Bragg presents a series about Darwin's life and work.
Darwin: In Our Time site and schedule of programs.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Video shorts from class available on OurMedia/Internet Archive

Adorno on Popular Music and Protest
Horkheimer on Critical Theory
Freud on Psychoanalysis

Horkheimer's Eclipse of Reason available from Internet Archive

Max Horkheimer's Eclipse of Reason (1947), which contains the essay "The Revolt of Nature" is now available from the Internet Archive at

Biology Letters: Calculated reciprocity after all: computation behind token transfers in orangutans

From the BBC item
"So we have a calculation behind the giving," explained Valerie Dufour who led the research at the Scottish university. "If you don't give me enough, then I don't give you either; but if you give me enough, OK, then I buy your co-operation, and I secure it by giving too."
Many animals exchange goods and services with each other; the grooming of primates is an obvious example. But the researchers say there has been no experimental evidence before of "calculated reciprocity", where animals adapt their own behaviour in response to how another is helping them. "It's not just humans that calculate about giving, and it's not just humans who expect to be given something in return when they are co-operative," Dr Dufour told BBC News. "Orangutans do that too."
However, other apes - chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos - were less able or willing to play the game.

V. Dufour, M. Pelé, M. Neumann, B. Thierry, J. Call. 2008. Calculated reciprocity after all: computation behind token transfers in orangutans. Biology Letters (Royal Society).

Authors abstract:
Transfers and services are frequent in the animal kingdom. However, there is no clear evidence in animals that such transactions are based on weighing costs and benefits when giving or returning favours and keeping track of them over time (i.e. calculated reciprocity). We tested two orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus abelii) in a token-exchange paradigm, in which each individual could exchange a token for food with the experimenter but only after first obtaining the token from the other orangutan. Each orangutan possessed tokens valuable to their partner but useless to themselves. Both orangutans actively transferred numerous tokens (mostly partner-valuable) to their partner. One of the orangutans routinely used gestures to request tokens while the other complied with such requests. Although initially the transfers were biased in one direction, they became more balanced towards the end of the study. Indeed, data on the last three series produced evidence of reciprocity both between and within trials. We observed an increase in the number and complexity of exchanges and alternations. This study is the first experimental demonstration of the occurrence of direct transfers of goods based on calculated reciprocity in non-human-primates.