Thursday, May 31, 2007

Chance And God

Many people know that Chinese Taoists evolved a complex methodology for interacting with random chance called the I-Ching. Many people do not know that Judeo-Christian history also shares some of these ancient beliefs centered on the notion that God makes His will known to us through the outcomes of random events. Students of the Kabbalah are probably familiar with Old Testament allusions to hidden meanings. Christians might be surprised to read some New Testament references to chance and God that are bluntly plain, not hidden at all. Perhaps the most obvious is from early in the Acts of the Apostles:

“...of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” And they proposed two: Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, O Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which of these two You have chosen to take part in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place.” And they cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. And he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

Acts of the Apostles
chapter 1, verses 21-26

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Gambling And Synchronized Oscillators

The classic example of synchronized oscillators is that of two grandfather clocks side by side with their pendulums swinging in the same direction at the same time. The theory is that, over time, tiny vibrations in the support, the wall and even the air act as feedback mechanisms between the two clocks. Although they start with their pendulums swinging individually, out-of-phase, over time—sometimes very long periods—the pendulums will gradually work themselves into phase, that is, into sync with each other. The synchronized state will be a stable state which then will last until the system of the two clocks is disturbed.

This phenomenon was first observed hundreds of years ago by Christiaan Huygens.

In the modern world physicists and mathematicians have deeply explored the concept of synchronization among oscillators, and have observed the effect throughout many diverse systems, from electrical circuits to fireflies. (An interesting pop account is in, “Sync: The Emerging Science Of Spontaneous Orderby Steven H. Strogatz)

I’ve often wondered if synchronized oscillators could help with gambling.

For instance, a roulette wheel can be thought of as an oscillator, a system that fluctuates between disorder and order. The wheel spinning with the ball bouncing along the rim is an unstable, disordered state. When the ball drops into a slot, the system state becomes stable, ordered. I wonder if a software model could be constructed which oscillates randomly, say, some manner of random number generator. But that software oscillator would provide for input feedback in the form of a sequence of winning numbers from a given roulette wheel. Could the model be constructed so that the numbers from the roulette wheel would modify the random oscillations of the software system in such a way that the two systems would become synchronized? It wouldn’t be necessary for the systems to be completely synchronized—from a gambling point of view a loosely-coupled system which only occasionally moves in lock-step would be fine. (You only need to beat the odds, not the system.)

Similarly, a daily lottery drawing can be thought of as an oscillator, a system that fluctuates between the ordered state of a selected winning draw and the disordered state of the universe of all possible draw combinations. Could a software model be constructed which mimics that oscillation and which inputs a sequence of previous winning numbers as feedback in an attempt to synchronize the software oscillator with the lottery oscillator? Again, a loose-coupling is fine—you only have to win once.

Thoughtful gamblers attempt to maintain awareness of a great many interesting mathematical domains in their quest for thoughtful play. Complexity theory, chaos theory, catastrophe theory, Parrondo’s Paradox and many others.

I suspect over the coming years our understanding of “randomness” will change greatly. At the moment, I think the study of oscillators and their interaction is the most promising avenue to explore.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Roulette And The Magic Of Math

Steve McQueen plays a young officer on a Navy ship where a scientist, Jim Hutton, is testing a state-of-the-art computer. The computer is programmed to predict exactly where a ballistic missile will impact based on knowing where the missile took off from and the missile’s launch trajectory. It occurs to Steve McQueen that a roulette ball falling onto a roulette wheel is kind of like a missile coming down and perhaps the computer could predict which sector of a roulette wheel a roulette ball will land in...   Steve McQueen talks Jim Hutton into trying, an admiral’s daughter gets involved, a rich hot dog heiress gets involved and by the end of the film everybody—the Venice government, US Navy brass and Russian politicians—has gotten involved. It’s great stuff, great fun and one of my favorite movies of all time.

No More Bets,” CSI Las Vegas, Season Four, Episode #91 — The son of a Vegas old-timer convinces some college friends to try hacking together small computers and custom software in an attempt to beat the odds at Vegas roulette wheels. His friends come through and their system works, but the young man has an agenda of his own. And so does his father. And so does the owner of the casinos that get scammed. Gil Grissom and his team, however, sort it all out. This is much more depressing than “The Honeymoon Machine,” but it’s an interesting crime story that turns out to be more about the gritty personalities of Las Vegas regulars than the magic of mathematics.

This is the real thing. This is the narrative of the real-life events which have been fictionalized by writers over the decades. A group of college students hack together fancy little computers, hack together software based on the mathematics of orbital decay and head off to Las Vegas to beat the odds at roulette. Thomas Bass, now a physicist, then one of the students—interestingly, now living overseas!—provides lots of details of why the group attempted their adventure, how they thought it out and practiced it, and how they finally succeeded. There’s none of the international intrigue of “The Honeymoon Machine,” and none of the dark death and retribution of CSI’s “No More Bets,” but the story is about as interesting as a non-fiction book can get. Oddly, it’s not particularly fun, and I suspect Thomas Bass isn’t revealing all the details of why the group breaks up after their initial success.

The simplicity of roulette is very seductive. Mathematics can perform amazing tricks. There are still lots of people out there trying to beat the odds of roulette with tricky algorithms. Good luck.

I will confess that “The Honeymoon Machine” has shaped a great deal of my thinking. I have written one or two programs touching on the odds of a roulette wheel. I've never actually entered a casino, however. I've nothing in common with the people from “The Eudaemonic Pie” and the violence of “No More Bets” is terrifying to me.

The wacky fun of “The Honeymoon Machine” has always been my idea of what life either is, or should be. I'm working on it. Wish me luck.

Roulette Wiki Page

Friday, May 25, 2007

Dumpling Kaiser #5: Thinking About It Now

Years back, there was an old brick schoolhouse

a couple of miles from where I live.

When the suburb tore down the building

to make space for a more modern school

the demolition crew created

a full block of rubble—timbers, bricks,

shattered glass and big chunks of blackboard.

Even covered with dust the grey slate

stood out, dark, almost black, against bricks.

The bricks, covered with dust, were still red,

the blackboard, under the dust, still black.

When I walked through the rubble, I touched

a finger against a piece of slate.

Where my finger moved it pushed away

the light dust covering the dark slate.

Where teachers once had drawn with white chalk

my finger made a pattern of black

by pushing through demolition dust.

An artist might call it sgraffito

scratching, revealing what’s underneath.

The art world has a large lexicon

of terms for how an artist makes marks.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dumpling Kaiser #4: Clouds

“I’m going now,” Dumpling Kaiser said.

“No,” I said. “Wait. Please. You must tell me—”

Dumpling Kaiser disappeared quickly.

But she didn’t disappear behind

the convenience store roof. The light parts

of her Britney Spears-like face turned white,

the shadows turned grey and indigo.

The giant head of Dumpling Kaiser

became a cloud, shaped like Britney Spears,

bright, puff-ball white with grey-blue shadows,

drifting against the sky, losing shape,

becoming one particular cloud

among many others, and then lost,

an anonymous white patch among

a near infinity of white, laced

by shadows of grey and indigo.

I thought to myself: Clouds are moisture,

evaporated, risen, then cooled.

Tiny droplets suspended in air.

How many of those clouds are just clouds?

How many are just droplets in air

and how many had been something else?

How many had been somehow talking?

To whom did they talk? What did they say?

(Tomorrow: Dumpling Kaiser #5: Thinking About It Now)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Dumpling Kaiser #3: Jack And Jill

The giant head of Dumpling Kaiser

stared down at me. Her cheeks, round and full,

so much like the cheeks of Britney Spears,

made her bright eyes appear to smile but

her lips were straight, tight. She said, “Tell me:

What do you know about Jack and Jill?”

I did smile. I said, “They went uphill

to fetch water. But they both fell down.”

Dumpling Kaiser asked, “Do you know where

the nursery rhyme comes from? What it means?”

I shrugged. “Somewhere in Europe,” I guessed.

“I don’t know that it means anything.”

Dumpling Kaiser said, “It’s been around

more than four hundred years. Do you think

something that means nothing could persist

all around the globe for centuries?”

“When you put it like that,” I said, “no.”

Dumpling Kaiser asked, “What is a well?”

“You dig a hole for water,” I said.

“You dig a hole,” Dumpling Kaiser said.

“A hole in the ground to get water.

If you’re digging down to tap into

an aquifer, would anyone start

on a hill? Would you dig on a hill?”

“I’m a city person,” I said, “but

I don’t think people dig wells on hills.”

“But,” Dumpling Kaiser said, “Jack and Jill

went up the hill. They went up the hill.

And why? To fetch a pail of water.

Even you as a city person

know you don’t find a well on a hill.

You must have recited this stanza

hundreds of times. Did you ever think:

No one would go up a hill to fetch

a pail of water? Did you wonder

why people say this strange nursery rhyme?”

I frowned. “It never occurred to me

there was anything strange about it.

Of course, once you point out the weirdness

the weirdness seems bluntly obvious.

And it seems almost equally strange

that the stanza never puzzled me.”

“What do you think?” Dumpling Kaiser asked.

“Can something that means nothing persist

all around the globe for centuries?”

I said, “No.” Dumpling Kaiser nodded.

“What do you think,” Dumpling Kaiser asked,

this Jack and Jill business really means?”

I said, “I don’t even have a guess.

But I’ll be thinking about it now.”

(Tomorrow: Dumpling Kaiser #4: Clouds)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Dumpling Kaiser #2: Dumpling Rising

I’m thinking of somebody walking

through an alley. I don’t think gender

is a key to this story, at least

not as I’m imagining it now.

The person can be male or female.

As the person walking approaches

the end of the alley they walk past

the rear wall of a convenience store.

Before the person walking can turn

the corner and start around the store

they see something moving in the sky.

The person stops walking and stares up.

Rising like an impossibly large

or an impossibly close full moon,

pushing upward from behind the roof

of the convenience store, is a head.

It’s a giant head against the sky.

The giant head looks like Britney Spears

and is staring down at the person

standing behind the convenience store.

At this point there’s a conversation

between the person in the alley

and the giant head to establish

two plot points: Although the giant head

looks like Britney Spears she is really

Dumpling Kaiser; And she is using

physics of wave manipulation,

interference and reinforcement,

to focus her image and her voice

on the person’s retinas and eardrums

directly, so no one else could see

or hear the giant head in the sky.

And at this point, by hook or by crook,

they get to the meat of the story.

(Tomorrow: Dumpling Kaiser #3: Jack And Jill)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Dumpling Kaiser #1: Dumpling

I’ve been wanting to write a story

about a giant head that looks like

Britney Spears but tells people her name

is Dumpling Kaiser. I can work out

the science—well, the science fiction

that would let the giant head be seen

and heard by only one person, but

I can’t work out why the giant head

that goes by the name Dumpling Kaiser

but looks exactly like Britney Spears

would want people to see and hear her.

But Dumpling Kaiser certainly wants

to be seen and to be heard by me

because I haven’t tired of trying

to work out the giant head’s motive.

(Tomorrow: Dumpling Kaiser #2: Dumpling Rising)

Friday, May 18, 2007

Computers, Language And The Goblin Universe

Monday morning, I hesitated to begin a week posting about computer languages because I understood a connection between computers, programming and the Goblin Universe was not immediately obvious. And I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make the connection in just five days. But I wanted to get started. At some point in the future I will return to this topic and get a little further along toward actually making one or two points...

I think there are, in fact, two aspects of computers and language which touch on the realm of the magical, areas of the cosmos that defy logic.

The first has to do with the kinds of things a person can accomplish with even a very old computer that is equipped with a good computer language.

The second point is about the way the contemporary computer world has so consistently moved away from good languages which empower programmers and which empower users. A dedicated follower of Ayn Rand would see deep philosophical issues at work. A dedicated Marxist would see the evils of the corporate marketplace at work. A dedicated conspiracy theorist would see all manner of interconnections between the business world, the education world and the shadowy agendas of the movers and shakers making decisions about computer hardware and software. The reality, however, is simply so strange that I strongly suspect any one dimensional explanation (or possibly even any three dimensional explanation) will fall short of the mark.

As a conclusion to this week’s sort of introduction to the topic, I will finish up with two teasers, two examples of the kinds of things computers and programming can do which are so absent from the mainstream of the computer world today.

Consider this excerpt from a traditional, very old nursery rhyme:

This is the farmer who sowed the corn
That kept the cock that crowed in the morn
That waked the priest all shaven and shorn
That married the man all tattered and torn
That kissed the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog
That worried the cat
That killed the rat
That ate the malt
That lay in the house
That Jack built

It is relatively easy using list processing tools to write functions which take as input text like that and play with it by outputting amusing and sometimes thought-provoking text like this:

This is the house
That worried the man all tattered and torn
That tossed the malt
That lay in the cow with the crumpled horn
That Jack kissed
This is the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cat
That married the dog
That lay in the malt
That waked the cow with the crumpled horn
That worried the cock that crowed in the morn
That the priest all shaven and shorn ate

It’s hard not to smile reading output like that, and even when you write the functions which transform the input to the output, you often see results that are wildly unexpected. This sample was taken from the book, “Exploring Language With Logo.”

Consider this image:

This image was created and executed entirely by a computer. An artist named Harold Cohen programmed a computer using the Lisp language to generate images based on various rules and conditionals. He also designed and built computer-operated equipment to actually form the images in the ‘real’ world. (Incidentally, Harold Cohen was first taught to program by Jef Raskin.)

Although the ‘thinking’ behind this image is quite sophisticated, it is relatively easy to use turtle graphics to generate images that approximate the look and feel of the amazing images Harold Cohen creates.

I don’t have a schedule for when I will resume posting about computers, language and the Goblin Universe, but there is a great deal left to say, and I’m looking forward to taking one of today’s ugly, mind-numbing tools—possibly JavaScript—and twisting its arm and forcing it to do some cool stuff.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Do you need an operating system?

INTERVIEWER: Your whole approach seems counter to the industry trend to make bigger computers to accommodate bigger programs...

RASKIN: Yes. Instead of saying bigger, bigger, we’re saying better, better. When I told our investors about this project, I said, “We’re going to have a word processor, information retrieval, and telecommunications package with only fifteen commands and 64 bytes of code.” All the other companies were talking hundreds of commands and hundreds of bytes of code. The company (Information Appliance) was surprised that it came down to five commands. It’s the only project I’ve ever been on that got simpler with time instead of bigger or more complicated.

We have a whole valley full of people talking UNIX versus MS-DOS. What do you need any of that for? Just throw it all out; get rid of all that nonsense. Maybe you need it for computer scientists, but for people who want to get something done, no. Do you need an operating system? No. We threw out that whole concept. Applications like VisiOn, Gem, and Windows are just cosmetic treatments on hidden operating systems, but we have no operating system beneath this. You know what happens when you apply heavy cosmetics to something? You get that heavy cosmetic look.

So here is a program that runs on an ancient Apple IIe, a one-megahertz processor, and from the user’s point of view it runs faster than IBM, Macintosh, mainframes, SuperVax, or anything.

Jef Raskin
Programmers At Work

Jef Raskin’s Wiki Page

Raskin’s company, Information Appliance,
never earned him great fame or fortune.
(Raskin passed away in 2005.)
The phrase and concept, however, have become part of
the contemporary high tech world.

Information Appliance Wiki Page

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Fourth Generation Computer Language

I developed Forth over a period of some years as an interface between me and the computers I programmed. The traditional languages were not providing the power, ease, or flexibility that I wanted. I disregarded much conventional wisdom in order to include exactly the capabilities needed by a productive programmer. The most important of these is the ability to add whatever capabilities later became necessary.

The first time I combined the ideas I had been developing into a single entity, I was working on an IBM 1130, a “third-generation” computer. The result seemed so powerful that I considered it a “fourth-generation computer language.” I would have called it FOURTH, except that the 1130 permitted only five character identifiers. So, FOURTH became Forth, a nicer play on words anyway.

One principle that guided the evolution of Forth, and continues to guide its application, is bluntly: Keep It Simple. A simple solution has elegance. It is the result of exacting effort to understand the real problem and is recognized by its compelling sense of rightness. I stress this point because it contradicts the conventional view that power increases with complexity. Simplicity provides confidence, reliability, compactness, and speed.

...Although I am the only person who has never had to learn Forth, I do know that its study is a formidable one. As with a human language, the usage of many words must be memorized.

...Forth provides a natural means of communication between man and the smart machines he is surrounding himself with. This requires that it share characteristics of human languages, including compactness, versatility, and extensibility. I cannot imagine a better language for writing programs, expressing algorithms, or understanding computers.

Charles Moore
forward of Starting Forth,” by Leo Brodie

Charles Moore Wiki Page

Forth, Inc. Corporate Page

IntellaSys Corporate Page
(Chuck Moore’s current business)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Design Of A [Computer] Language

From our experiments and from observing a generation of students, we had very definite ideas of what features our language should have:

  1. It should be easy to learn for the beginner.

  2. It should be a general-purpose language, allowing the writing of any program.

  3. Advanced features had to be added so that, if there was a price, it was paid by the expert, not the novice.

  4. It should take full advantage of the fact that the user could interact with the computer.

  5. It should give error messages that were clear and friendly to the user.

  6. It should give fast response for small programs.

  7. No understanding of the hardware should be necessary.

  8. It should shield the user from the operating system.

John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz
Back To Basic: The History, Corruption,
And Future Of The Language

John Kemeny Wiki Page

Thomas Kurtz Wiki Page

True Basic Corporate Page

Monday, May 14, 2007

Two Schools Of Thought About Computer Science

There are two schools of thought about teaching computer science. We might caricature the two views this way:

  • The conservative view: Computer programs have become too large and complex to encompass in a human mind. Therefore, the job of computer science education is to teach people how to discipline their work in such a way that 500 mediocre programmers can join together and produce a program that correctly meets its specification.

  • The radical view: Computer programs have become too large and complex to encompass in a human mind. Therefore, the job of computer science education is to teach people how to expand their minds so that the programs can fit, by learning to think in a vocabulary of larger, more powerful, more flexible ideas than the obvious ones. Each unit of programming thought must have a big payoff in the capabilities of the program.

Brian Harvey and Matthew Wright
Simply Scheme: Introducing Computer Science

Brian Harvey’s Home Page

Matthew Wright’s Home Page

Friday, May 11, 2007

Britney Spears: Death By Dinosaur

If Britney Spears were booked to perform

at the refurbished and reopened

Jurassic Park, how would she get killed?

Stepped on by apatosaurs feeding?

Impaled on a stegosaurus tail?

Knocked down, nibbled to death by compys?

Eviscerated by a raptor?

Charged, run through, by a triceratops?

Torn up, fed to pterodactyl chicks?

Chomped and swallowed whole by a T-rex?

Or would she pass out drunk in her room,

gag on her back, drown in her vomit

leaving her publicist to leak out

a gruesome horror story about

death by dinosaur although details

would be few and frustratingly vague

and strangely no lawsuits would be filed . . .

Thursday, May 10, 2007

My Favorite Dinosaur Book

This is one of those books that’s great in a dozen different ways.

Just about everything anyone would ever want to know about dinosaurs is at least touched on in one way or another in this book. It’s a great survey of paleontology in general.

Some of the most interesting topics in paleontology are covered in great detail. The hot blooded versus cold blooded debate. The linkage between contemporary birds and dinosaurs. The questions surrounding various extinctions throughout the epochs.

Also some relatively obscure and very interesting topics are covered in depth. What dinosaur tracks tell us about how the animals’ shoulders were structured and how that compares to contemporary animals. Predator and prey ratios and what that tells us about lifestyles of the creatures. Odd precursors to the dinosaurs and how their characteristics evolved into dinosaurs.

Throughout the book Bakker writes with a blend of erudition and anecdote that makes reading fun. He is obviously passionate about dinosaurs and their world(s) and he shares both his knowledge of them and his love for them on almost every page.

Finally, like many non-fiction books which really stand out, this book is illustrated by the author. The illustrations are black and white, but they are all beautiful, dramatic and startlingly realistic.

Great stuff.

“The Dinosaur Heresies,” by Robert T. Bakker

Robert T. Bakker Wiki Page

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Dinosaurs And Low Gravity

Beyond scientific thinking about dinosaurs, there are any number of amateur enthusiasts who think outside-the-box about issues scientists are quite circumspect about.

One such issue is the question of how extremely large creatures such as many dinosaurs could have existed at all, let alone in great numbers for great spans of time.

One popular so-called tin foil conclusion is that many millions of years ago the surface gravity of the Earth was significantly reduced. Now, the physics of this and the astronomical implications of this seemingly make it unthinkable. However, lots of people have thought about it and it is, at least, entertaining to read their thoughts. Here is a typical example:

On the Origin of Dinosaurs and Mammals


The coincidence in time of incipient rifting of Pangea and the origin of dinosaurs during the Carnian age (230-225 Ma) of the Late Triassic suggests a fundamental link between the two. That link may have been the onset of Earth expansion, triggered by the Pangean thermal anomaly and resulting in a 20% reduction in surface gravity. In reduced gravity, animals will have less skeletal mass and thinner bones than equally massive animals adapted to normal gravity; a significant increase in maximum body size will also ensue. These predictions, inferred from allometric scaling principles and supported by biomedical space research and gravity tolerance experiments, are borne out in the fossil record: the Late Triassic witnessed the transition from Paleozoic faunas dominated by relatively small and robust synapsid reptiles (therapsids) to Mesozoic faunas dominated by large and gracile diapsid reptiles (archosaurs), including many families of gigantic dinosaurs.

Dynamical principles of locomotion indicate that a gravity reduction will lower the speed at which animals change gait. In adapting to reduced gravity, the advanced thecodonts may have shifted from a bipedal symmetrical running gait to a bipedal asymmetrical hopping gait, much as the Apollo astronauts did on the Moon. This behavioral shift by the thecodonts engendered fundamental structural changes, including the fully erect gait and obligatory bipedal pose that characterized primitive and many advanced dinosaurs. Like kangaroos, the ectothermic archosaurs may have relied on elastic storage and rebound to hop at high speeds over long distances at a low metabolic cost, which gave them a competitive edge over the proto-endothermic therapsids. The latter became restricted to small-scale niches left vacant by the dinosaurs. In the primitive shrew-like mammals, a high surface-area-to-volume ratio increased metabolic requirements and thus hastened the development of the high-grade mammalian physiology.

Triassic archosaurs were the first vertebrates capable of sustained powered flight. In reduced gravity, the capacity for sustained powered flight may have evolved directly from the archosaur's bipedal hopping gait.

Reduced gravity during the Jurassic implies a subsequent increase in gravity to its modern value. A post-Jurassic gravity increase (associated with terrestrial contraction?) may have fostered the transition from faunas dominated by large, high-browsing sauropods in the Jurassic to faunas dominated by smaller, low-browsing ornithischian dinosaurs in the Cretaceous. Finally, a gravity increase in the latest Cretaceous may have played a role in the wholesale extinction of the remaining dinosaurs at the K-T boundary.

Increasingly precise geological data indicate that the Pangean singularity – final supercontinent coalescence and initial rifting – occurred during the Carnian age (230-225 Ma) of the Late Triassic.1 Coincidentally, dinosaurs originated during the Carnian age2 at almost precisely the same time and were dominant by the end of the Triassic (208 Ma). (See Figures 1 and 2. ) Despite an increasing wealth of fossil evidence, many important dinosaur adaptations – including giantism, bipedality, and powered flight – have never been adequately explained. The dinosaurs’ remarkable success at the expense of the once-dominant mammal-like reptiles also remains an open question. In an attempt to solve these problems, it is hypothesized here that the thermal anomaly associated with the Pangean singularity3 actually signals the onset of a brief episode of global swelling during the Early Mesozoic which caused, as a direct consequence, a slight reduction in surface gravity. Such a change in the geophysical environment would have had a profound affect on vertebrate evolution; it will be argued that many of the dinosaurs’ unique adaptations, and their evolutionary success at the expense of the mammal-like reptiles, were made possible by a decrease in surface gravity during the Triassic and Jurassic.

Bill Erickson's
Earth Expansion Website

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Dino Rat

Living Fossil: DNA puts rodent in family that's not extinct after all

Susan Milius

The Laotian rock rat, which is very much alive, belongs to a rodent family that scientists had assumed had vanished 11 million years ago, [okay, so the dinosaurs vanished sixty-five million years ago and the title 'Dino Rat' is bad, but it sounds cool] says an international research team that examined DNA evidence. The family resemblance was also suggested from fossil evidence last year.

The Laotian rock rat (Laonastes aenigmamus), or kha-nyou, was new to science in 1996 when a wildlife-survey team bought some specimens in a food market in Laos. Since then, scientists have debated what sort of rodent it is, even proposing that it belongs to a new family of mammals.

Now, researchers in five countries have finished the biggest rock rat–DNA analysis yet. Their study dashes the idea of the new mammal family, says Dorothée Huchon of Tel Aviv University. The team argues for an even more dramatic solution: The rock rat is a member of a supposedly extinct family, the Diatomyidae.

"People think the world is explored, and it's not," comments mammalogist Darrin Lunde of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The Laotians who live near the creature's rocky outcrops know of the animals. But until 1996, mammalogists hadn't encountered the dark, squirrel-size creature, which has a long skull, rounded ears, and a furry tail.

In 2005, researchers at the Natural History Museum in London placed the rock rat in a new family of mammals (SN: 5/21/05, p. 324), the first to be described since the bumblebee bat family in 1974. The Laotian rock rat's family, they claimed, belongs within the Hystricognathi group, which includes guinea pigs, chinchillas, and porcupines.

Huchon says that when she read about the new family, she was unconvinced because the researchers had studied DNA from only one of its sources within cells. She appealed to the London team for tissue samples to expand the genetic analysis. So did other researchers, and an international network was born.

Altogether, the researchers looked at two mitochondrial genes, four stretches of nuclear DNA, and genetic elements that insert themselves randomly into the genome. Overall, the lines of genetic evidence agreed, Huchon says.

The new species doesn't fit easily within the Hystricognathi group. Instead, its closest living relatives are African rodents called gundies, the researchers report in a paper now online for an upcoming Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Fossil evidence had indicated that the gundies are close relatives to the Diatomyidae family. In 2006, a team of paleontologists based at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh had argued that the rock rat is a Diatomyidae, making that family a Lazarus taxon, one that reappeared after seeming to be extinct.

Lawrence Flynn, a paleontologist who described some of the Diatomyidae fossils, says that he's happy to welcome a living member to that family. Flynn, at Harvard University's Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Mass., says that the rock rat has such a strong family resemblance that had independently suggested a connection.

Huchon's new genetic study makes "a very nice molecular confirmation," comments Ronald DeBry of the University of Cincinnati, who uses DNA analysis to examine rodent evolution.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Loch Ness Toad

US researchers who found a toad crawling on the bottom of Loch Ness said their most important discovery had been the remains of an ancient seabed.

Experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been surveying the loch.

Lecturer Bob Rines will tell a conference in Aberdeen next month that carbon dating of the remains revealed they were 12,800 years old.

The common toad was also spotted 324ft (98m) down during the survey.

Mr Rines will present a paper to the Oceans 07 conference in Aberdeen on its work on Loch Ness.

He hopes others will make use of data and targets - objects picked up in the survey, such as animal remains - gathered by MIT's Academy of Applied Sciences.

'Further secrets'

In a briefing on the paper, MIT said: "The academy invites United Kingdom university and other research teams to use our mapped data of these targets in helping identify the further secrets - geological, animal, man-made and maybe hysterical - that are waiting to be revealed.

"Perhaps the most important discovery to date is the remains of an ancient seabed, recoveries from which we have been able to carbon date back to the date of the melting of the last glacier 128 centuries ago."

MIT said the run-off from the melting glacier was at least one of the entries of the sea into the loch.

Loch Ness Monster

Information amassed so far has been compared with a geological map of the bottom made by Sir Edward Murray using plumb lines 100 years ago.

The toad was spotted during the MIT survey.

Scientists at Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) have been intrigued by the amphibian's ability to move around at such a depth and its sighting has sparked a "healthy debate".

SNH said the toad's appearance was scientifically more interesting than speculation on the presence of a Loch Ness Monster.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Experts' 'important' find in loch

Published: 2007/05/05 11:56:14 GMT


Friday, May 04, 2007

‘Lost Horizon’ Versus ‘Camelot’ — #5: Shangri-La

Can I accept what I see around me?
Have I found Shangri-La or has it found me?
Would I go back
If I knew how to go back?
Will I find there really is
Such a thing as peace of mind
And what I thought was living
Was truly just confusion
The chance to live forever
Is really no illusion
And this can all be mine?
Why can’t I make myself believe it?

on finding himself in Shangri-La

When I was a teenager, a writing class I attended was given an assignment with only one direction: We were to write about a moment when we’d been truly happy, some moment we experienced when the whole world around us seemed perfect.

We worked alone and didn’t discuss our work until we read our writing aloud to the class.

I wrote about a time I’d spent the afternoon at our local park with a friend named Maryjo. We’d held hands and walked around the small lagoon and just talked.

A friend of mine wrote about a time she’d spent the afternoon tending to her backyard garden with her young niece.

Another friend of mine wrote about his summer vacation. He’d spent a month in Kathmandu, hiking the foothills of Mount Everest.

When the whole class had read their works, the teacher checked his notes, then pointed out that although we were all city kids, each of us had written a scene that in some way involved getting back to nature. Whether it was in Asia or a neighborhood park or a backyard garden, all of us had written about what’s called the ‘natural world.’ None of us had written about a trip downtown or to the corner store or an adventure in a car or any other purely urban experience.

I remember being shocked because not only had I not expected any similarities in our work, but I hadn’t even noticed the trend listening to everyone read what they’d written.

Maybe we’d written nature scenes because we were all city kids. Maybe a class of young writers from a rural school would have written about trips to the city or a mall or the local factory.

Or maybe there is something deep within us that recognizes that the world under construction around us isn’t the world human beings were made to inhabit.

Friendly doors
Open wide
Come and share the peaceful life
You will find inside
Share the joy

Let the sun
Comfort you
It will keep you safe and warm
Always shining through
Share the joy

All the lovely songs you will hear
These we all hold dear
At the same time
All the grandest things
We possess
These we value less

So many small things
Can bring happiness
Love is in all things

Flowers bloom
People grow
You may never want to leave
When it’s time to go
Share the joy

Mountains rise
Mountains fall
You have nothing more to prove
You have climbed them all

Now you’re here
May you stay
Share the joy

Now you’re here
May you stay
Share the joy

People Of Shangri-La

Thursday, May 03, 2007

‘Lost Horizon’ Versus ‘Camelot’ — #4: Fie On Goodness!

Fie on goodness, fie!

When I think of the rollicking pleasures
That earlier filled my life

Lolly lo, lolly lo

Like the time I beheaded a man
Who was beating his naked wife

Lolly lo, lolly lo

I can still hear his widow say
Never moving from where she lay
"Tell me what can I do, I beg, sir, of you
Your kindness to repay"

Fie on goodness, fie!

Knights of Camelot

What the heck is going on here?

It’s worth remembering that “Camelot” is not a parody or spoof like “Springtime For Hitler,” or like, in fact, “Spamelot.” “Camelot” was created by Lerner and Loewe, two very big names in American theater. It was based on a well-thought of non-fiction book, “The Once And Future King.” The decision to treat topics like this in song and dance, like this, was done with eyes wide open. It’s difficult to say exactly what kind of thinking was going on behind those wide open eyes, but it’s fun to speculate.

First of all, there might be nothing going on with the weirdness in “Camelot.” It may be just an artifact from the 50s (well, 1960), with no deeper meanings than, say, “I Was A Teenage Werewolf.” (Although, let’s face it, I could talk about that movie for a week, too.)

However, “Camelot” has many elements which suggest it is worthwhile to think about.

Camelot” is, in folklore terms, an origin story. It recounts the origin of the modern world in the destruction of the idyllic kingdom of Camelot.

It might be argued that it is an origin story about Britain, but for a couple of reasons I think were are safe to speak in much broader terms. Lerner and Lowe, of course, were Americans and Broadway is in New York, not London. The King Arthur mythos, though British, exists within the Grail Romance genre and that genre appears in France, Germany, in fact all across Europe.

What makes “Camelot” intriguing as an origin story of the modern world is that it treats the characters who destroyed Camelot as heroes and heroines. It presents Camelot as oppressive and boring.

In early Protestant culture, it used to be very popular to ‘interpret’ pagan myths and legends in light of the received ‘truth’ of Biblical history. Nowadays, of course, Biblical history is regarded—by academics!—as just another myth. And ‘interpreting’ any myth in terms of another is regarded as culture imperialism. But such comparisons and interpretations can be fun. And enlightening. And, of course, if Biblical history eventually is found to be, in fact, received truth, then those early Protestants and this kind of thinking will be vindicated.

At any rate, in this line of thinking, all origin stories are re-tellings—in one manner or another, for one purpose or another—of the Christian origin story of Adam and Eve getting expelled from the Garden of Eden.

Christian legend, however, does not cast Adam and Eve as hero and heroine. Or as villains. Rather they are just two humans, a woman who was deceived by the devious Satan and a man who made the choice to disobey God. And all history has been consequences.

But from the time of the children of Adam and Eve there have been two ways of reacting to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. With grief and sorrow and regret, typical of modern Christians and the child Abel. Or with pride and passion and self-assurance that humans neither need nor want God, typical of modern secular people who quite willfully and happily see themselves as descendants of the child Cain.

Writing of the origin of Greek myths, Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr., puts it like this:

Ancient Greek religion, what we call mythology, tells the same story as the Book of Genesis, except from the point of view that the serpent is the enlightener of mankind rather than our deceiver. Zeus and Hera, a husband/wife and brother/sister pair, are pictures of Adam and Eve. Athena represents Eve also—the reborn serpent’s Eve in the new Greek age. She and the Parthenon and the entire ancient Greek religious system celebrate the rejuvenation and re-establishment of the way of Kain (Cain) after the Flood. Though on one hand Greek idol-worship contradicts the teaching of the Word of God, on the other, if properly understood, it reinforces the truth of the Scriptures.

The Parthenon Code

See also: Solving Light Books Website

What the Greeks did thousands of years ago has never stopped happening. The past is forever being re-told. Our past, as embodied in our thinking about it, is forever in flux. Those who would shape our thinking are forever re-telling the stories of ancient times. Whether they do it consciously to manipulate thinking or simply as an expression of the way their own thinking has been shaped is an open question.

However, some modern expressions of the past are so bizarre it’s difficult to think the creators weren’t laughing at least with one or two diabolical snickers.

Here’s Guenevere singing about the ‘joys’ of being a young woman:

Where are the simple joys of maidenhood?
Where are all those adoring daring boys?
Where's the knight pining so for me
He leaps to death in woe for me?
Oh, where are a maiden's simple joys?

Shan't I have the normal life a maiden should?
Shall I never be rescued in the wood?
Shall two knights never tilt for me
And let their blood be spilt for me?
Oh, where are the simple joys of maidenhood?

Shall I not be on a pedestal,
Worshipped and competed for?
Not be carried off, or better st'll,
Cause a little war?
Where are the simple joys of maidenhood?

Are those sweet, gentle pleasures gone for good?
Shall a feud not begin for me?
Shall kith not kill their kin for me?
Oh, where are the trivial joys?
Harmless, convivial joys?
Where are the simple joys of maidenhood?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

‘Lost Horizon’ Versus ‘Camelot’ — #3: Two Different Worlds

Let me put my love into you, babe
Let me put my love on the line
Let me put my love into you, babe
Let me cut your cake with my knife

Let Me Put My Love Into You
off of Back In Black

That’s sweet, isn’t it?

It’s twenty years old and the point I want to make today is that it really is kind of sweet compared to pop music today. Teenagers nowadays listen either to rap and hip-hop, or to pop music heavily influenced by rap and hip-hop.

For instance, three years ago Ashlee Simpson had a pop hit with a song called, “Pieces Of Me.” The chorus of the song includes the lines: “It seems like I can finally rest my head on something real/I like the way that feels/It’s as if you know me better/Than I ever knew myself/I love how you can tell all the pieces, pieces, pieces of me...”

However, without exception, when I’ve heard teenage girls singing this song in malls or parks or on sidewalks, they invariable play with the intonation of the words and change the lyrics to: “It seems like I can finally rest my head on something real/I like the way that feels/It’s as if you know me better/Than I ever knew myself/I love how you feel with your penis, penis, penis in me...”

In today’s world even the silly metaphors of AC/DC have been stripped away, even the mock poetics of metal rock have been tossed aside to create a world where the very concept of poetry is lost. And poetry is lost not just from modern music, but from the minds of the people listening to modern music.

Meanwhile, in Shangri-La, far beyond a very lost horizon, men and women sing lyrics like these:


Seems like I’ve had so little time
All through my life
Maybe that’s why I’ve always been
So impatient
I must learn to be patient
Or I might frighten her away


Seems like I’ve had just too much time
All through my life
Maybe that’s why I seem to be
So unhurried
Some things just have to be hurried
Or I might frighten him away

Diana and Jerry

Seems like we’re part
Of two different worlds
In the way we live
More than in just a few things
That means we both have a lot to give
Learning how we do things
Sharing new things


Looking back I see
That I’ve always been alone
All through my life
Maybe I knew when it was time
Love would find me


I must just let it find me
Or I might frighten her away


Yes, I might frighten him away

Diana and Jerry

If we rush we may lose
What we may have found

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

‘Lost Horizon’ Versus ‘Camelot’ — #2: It’s May!

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on

Led Zeppelin, “Stairway To Heaven

I think most people hear “Stairway To Heaven” and think nothing more than it’s a pretty darn good rock song. People who actually listen to the lyrics in passing might peg it as a vaguely religious song, maybe a little anti-Catholic in a typically British Protestant way. But for people who read the lyrics and know about Jimmy Page’s fascination with Aleister Crowley, the song clearly is a kind of lament, a typically British pagan hymn to the elder gods—that is, more real gods to pagans—and their unfortunate usurpation by more superficial, modern—that is, Christian to pagans—beliefs.

And nobody much cares about a reference to the May Queen. First of all, nobody these days much knows what a May Queen is. Second, most people who know what a May Queen is think she is simply the young girl who gets to dance around a pole and wear flowers in her hair, kind of like a spring festival prom queen. Only history buffs and folklore types know that, historically, the May Queen was the young girl who was ‘queen’ of the spring festival and, at the end of the festival, was sacrificed to the real May Queen, the elder god of fertility and abundance to ensure successful crops that year.

But even if people did know backstory data like that to “Stairway To Heaven” nobody would care much because, after all, it’s still a rock song and rock musicians are supposed to be kind of weird. You expect it.

I’m not sure fans of “Camelot,” however, expect such things, and I’m not sure most fans of the King Arthur mythos realize the pseudo-Christian trappings of that legend cycle are just that, trappings, a superficial veneer over celebrations of older ways and elder gods.

It’s strange that such things are so easily overlooked. Guinevere’s lyrics are a good deal less obtuse and more straightforward than Led Zeppelin’s:

Tra-la! It’s May!
The lusty month of May!
That lovely month
When everyone goes blissfully astray
Tra-la! It’s here!
That shocking time of year
When tons of wicked little thoughts
Merrily appear!
It’s May! It’s May!
That gorgeous holiday
When every maiden prays that her lad
Will be a cad!
It’s mad! It’s gay!
A libelous display!
Those dreary vows that everyone takes,
Everyone breaks
Everyone makes divine mistakes
The lusty month of May!

Whence this fragrance wafting through the air?
What sweet feelings does its scent transmute?
Whence this perfume floating everywhere?
Don’t you know it’s that dear forbidden fruit!
Tra-la! That dear forbidden fruit!

Tra-la! It’s May!
The lusty month of May!
That darling month when everyone throws
Self-control away
It’s time to do a wretched thing or two
And try to make each precious day
One you’ll always rue!
It’s May! It’s May!
The month of “yes you may”
The time for every frivolous whim
Proper or “im”
It’s wild! It’s gay!
A blot in every way
The birds and bees
With all of their vast amorous past
Gaze at the human race aghast
The lusty month of May!

It’s mad! It’s gay!
A libelous display!
Those dreary vows that everyone takes
Everyone breaks
Everyone makes divine mistakes
The lusty month of May!