Friday, 31 July 2015

Epicurius, Diet and great bovine wedges of the stuff

Whatever you do, don't believe an atom; they make up everything! I love that!

Now I thought that I'd be serious today; what d'you mean by 'it makes a change'? The western industrialised nations appear to be obsessed with diet, food fads, what's good for you or bad for you and what you should do to remain healthy by eating a (so-called) balanced diet. So while half the planet doesn't get enough to eat or hasn't access to fresh, potable water, you, who make up the reletively rich, worry about you whether you should pursue the 'F-Plan', the 'Atkins', the 'Gluten-Free', the 'Dairy-Free', the 'Vegan' or even, if push comes to shove, the 'Breatherian'.

It is plain to me, sitting down on my little patch of ice nursing my egg, that there are many of you who are just way too fat and some of you stretch the bounds of the 'pathologically obese'; what's that character in Blade who is so obese that he/she/it can't rise from her bed? You don't have to go without food for four months every year, my excuse, so why do you insist on taking in far more calories than you can usefully use? And having gone down that road, assume that 'this diet' or 'that diet' will get you out of the hole that you have dug for yourselves?

All things in moderation, said Epicurius. But people, he didn't meant it as literally as the nay-sayers would have you believe. He didn't mean a little of what does you harm, can do good or, at least, no harm. He didn't mean that shooting up heroin or snorting coke, in moderation, would do some good; or at least no harm. He didn't mean that bestiality in moderation was good or eating magic mushrooms, in moderation, could be beneficial. What he meant was; nothing to excess! Epicurius was, inter alia and at best, dealing with a limited range of foodstuffs; beans, legumes, cereals, meat (not often). Whatever the ancient Greeks could grow and husband. Most of them, that were not slaves, were a kind of gentleman/soldier/farmer. In the context of ancient Greece, nothing to excess makes perfect sense.  Too much of anything, including water, is likely to damage and, no doubt, Epicurius knew that, albeit pragmatically. Was it Pythagorus who said 'steer clear of beans!'? Yes, an excess of beans will play havoc with a human intestinal tract but that's no reason to not eat beans in moderation! The Roman plebs practically lived on a diet of lentils!

There are people who have genuine, discernible intolerances to some foodstuffs. Much of East Asia is lactose intolerant as adults, which is considered to be the normal human reaction. Only the preponderance of cattle and sheep domestication and farming in Europe over the last ten thousand years has made the Europeans and their descendents in the Americas partially lactose tolerant as adults.  There are people who have certain conditions which certain foods exacerbate; ceoliac disease being the most widely known. But really; gluten intolerance in a third of the US population according to a recent survey? Get outta here!

The reality of all of this is that 'we' as a species evolve due to a complex set of interactions between supply and demand to favour the food that our bodies require. Me, I evolved to digest fish (and lots of it) and to lay down fat. I aslo evolved the propensity to eat far more than my daily calorific requirements in order that my body would lay down, as it is natural, any excess as fat, which I could draw on in the bleak, Antarctic winter; it is the prime reason why we survive in the environment that we live as a species. A King Penguin would not last three weeks here during the winter.

So humans evolved to eat a wide variety of foods; much like their ape ancestors. (Chimps ocaasionally eat meat, mostly murdered monkeys; just ask Jane Goodall.) But, and it is a very big but,  humans evolved in an environment in which food was energy-expensive to come by and, as a consequence, most of the energy expended in looking for, and hunting for, food was taken up by the energy which the food provided. Ergo few active people got fat. Nowadays, this does not apply. Once per week, you go to the supermarket in your SUV, you wander around at a leisurely pace filling your basket or trolley and then you go back to your home in your SUV. I doubt that you expend more than 200 calories of your expected 14,000 per week! Is it any wonder that you, as a society, are clinically obese!.

(I hereby apologise to all those who go regularly to the gym or the swimming pool on a regular basis to burn off your excess calories; you are regettably in the minority)

So, penguin; know-it-all. What's your answer, I hear you say!

Simple; educate the young!

My personal contact with humans is limited to a certain degree but MG, at 60, remains remarkably thin; if not toned. He is pretty much the weight he was at 21 and still sports a 29" waist, which he deems to be significant . (You can allow that as much weight as you choose.) What he says is this: I was brought up in 'just-about- post-austerity' Britain. We didn't have much and you learnt as a child to eat, however unpalatable it might have seemed, what was given. (Although he admits to the occasional sugar sandwich; or rarely, all too rarely, a banana and sugar sandwich.) Crisps (potato chips to you yankees) were not to be had until he was eleven and 'cordon bleu' cooking with copious quantites of butter (read fat) did not happen until he was seventeen or eigtheen, and then only by chance, when he first tasted 'real' food as purveyed by Michel and Albert Roux.

As a result of this, poverty by any of today 's 'western' standards, MG grew up with a concept of, what might be termed today, a healthy and balanced diet. And as a conequence, this has never left him. He still partakes of the occasional meat dish fried in '100% fat butter', still partakes of restaurant food occasionally which he knows to be grossly unhealthly. (But it tastes so good!) However it is in moderation people; once a month, twice a month; not to excess.

As hard as it may seem, get your young kids to eat vegetables and fruit. Get them to treat McDonalds, Pizza Hut and KFC as pariahs or 'once a month', treats and give them the arguments as why they are or, at least, as you perceive them to be; too much fat. Encourage them to do sport or some leisure activity like cycling which do not involve them sitting in front of the 'boob-tube' or texting their friends on Facebook. Get them to eat other cuisines, however much they SAY they don't like them; they seldom do not like 'it'. I have forgotten the numbers of children that have said: I don't like Chinese, Italian, Spanish, French, North African and end up liking it! Get them to encompass a balanced diet; one that embraces meat, fish,  legumes, vegetables, fruit; your ancestral diet. And slowly wean them off meat; not to the exclusion of meat, just get them to believe that every meal doesn't  have to possess great, hulking bovine, ovine or porcine wedges of it! And that one should rise from the table satiated not stuffed to overflowing! And while I am on a roll; cut out the sugar-laden drinks too. Messrs Coca and Cola have a lot to answer for when it comes to childhood obesity!

I know that it is difficult in these materialistic times when both parents work all day and time for food preparation is at a minimum; it is easier to phone out or get some form of 'ready-meal' that's over-burdened with too much salt (but that's another issue for another time) but realistically you owe it to your children not to make the same mistakes you all too clearly did.

Yeah, I know; it's not going to happen.

But, then again, maybe it might be Kansas after all! We can only hope.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Pew, the Straight Dope and the things that people believe (revisited)

I came across a little snippet of information the other day; somewhat out of date but no less relevant for that.

In 2014 a new survey was released by Pew, an American research organisation which purports to encompass world opinion - although I, or any of my 'turtle-mates', have never received one of their questionnaires or a telephone call, which leads me to believe that they are not much interested in a penguin's opinion - that showed that the “nones” or “religiously unaffiliated” in America have become the second largest religious group in the US (22.8% of the surveyed population, jumping up from only 16% in 2007). Big deal, I hear you cry.

Well, perhaps. For those coming from a European perspective, the American obsession (among certain sections of the population) with fundamentalist Christianity has baffled observers of that most technologically advanced society for decades. How could you possibly interpret the Bible as an objective factual account of events, even if you do believe in a God? It appears that some people, mostly the younger generations, are starting to realise that slavishly following your parents' beliefs it not the only way to go. I, for one however, do not believe that those who answered 'none' have necessarily abandoned their belief in God, merely that they do not fall into the categories that Pew listed on their questionnaire, so it's too early for the skeptics or rationalists to shout 'Halleluyah; at last we see some progress'.

Now at the same time as I was reading this (well not at exactly the same time, I'm good but not that good at multi-tasking), I was catching up on some answers to questions in the 'Straight Dope', which I think that I have mentioned before somewhere in this blog. The Straight Dope is a regular question and answer section in the Chicago Reader newspaper (syndicated over a small number of different titles) which purports to be written by one Cecil Adams, surely a fiction, and which addresses, in an authoritive way, answers to questions (purportedly) asked by readers of said newspaper. Most of the questions on the website are from the first decade and a half of the current century, although it has, it is said, been 'fighting ignorance since 1973 - it's been taking longer than we thought!'

I must confess to a certain skepticism over the questions. Are they truly being asked or is it just a few journos sitting in a room thinking 'what is a good topic for today' much as I assume 'problem pages' are because I have never come across a problem like; 'My wife won't swallow my semen and yet in all the porn I have watched women seem to enjoy it?' Is there something wrong with my wife? Can I change my diet so it tastes like honey as opposed, according to her, like acrid semolina or rabbit size-glue? Would Kegel exercises make me be able to come like Peter North and thereby give her no choice?  Answer: get a life!'

Let us for a moment assume that my cynicism is unfounded; they really are genuine questions. Reading through, I pick and choose whatever takes my fancy on a particular day. Some are generally interesting and quite obviously are authortitive and as well researched as time will allow but some are inane and a cursory search on Google will find the answer to the 'specific' question. Either the US is incredibally dim or just bone-idle lazy. Given the size of some of them, I'm inclined to think that laziness and a distinct lack of inquisitiveness on the part of 'middle America' is largely to blame; Sheezus, the sheer size of some of them, makes Cozy look like a supermodel!

Anyway, I tend to disregard the more inane (or those that surely are meant to be a joke) but some of them are quite interesting in a perverse, 'let us Europeans laugh at the Americans' sort of way. For instance, 'rule of thumb'. Is this, an enquirer asked, anything to do with an old 'rule' (from English common law) which allowed men to beat their wives so long as they did so with a crop or switch which was no bigger than the width of a man's thumb? I ask you? Really? It was apparently an urban myth propogated by some feminists in the States. An even basic knowledge of the English language would tell you that many measurement were based on 'human dimensions'; thus hands for the height of horses,  cubits (from Noah's Ark) based on the length of the arm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger and was considered the equivalent of 6 palms or 2 spans (with the latter two, I rest my case). Once measurements began to be standardised, measuring something by the length of your thumbs would be synonymous with less than accurate but good enough for a first approximation.

Perhaps, more importantly, there are number which throw doubt, in the minds of the enquirers, on well-attested theories or facts which no half-sane individual would be likely to question; the evidence so far as we can tell backs them up wholeheartedly and none of the evidence from empirical observation seems to refute them even if our theories don't quite explain everything.  No doubt, you can already guess the kinds of questions; isn't evolution refuted by the facts (what?); where is the evidence for the Big Bang (what again?); there is incontrovertible evidence of the Biblical flood, why deny it (three times, what?)

I am quite willing to believe that these are made up by quasi-members of the Skeptics Society (only the US could have a society promoting skepticism) merely to hold up such 'creationists' and 'fundamentalists' to ridicule, believing that of course their readers are all rational human beings. On the other hand, what if the questions are real? If so, be afraid people, be afraid; Obama is just a blip. It isn't only the Chinese that we have got to be worried about!

Sunday, 26 July 2015

DIY, MS and (let's be honest) God in all His/Her forms

MG has been bemoaning his lot (again!); in every email I get from him, he can't resist putting in some reference to how bad life is! The latest whinge, and it's not a whinge really because he likes helping people, is how he seems to be becoming a 'handyman' not just for his mother (which I doubt that he only does out of filial duty) but also his mother's neighbour, who has MS in its 'tertiary nasty' phase. Now, if you ask me, and since you're not in a position to do so yourself, I'll ask on your behalf; what the bloody hell is he complaining about? If he wants something to gripe about perhaps he should come down here and be bored out of his skull for four months with his arse glued to the freezing ice; I bet that would change his tune! Only be too glad to get back to hoovering the stairs and putting miniature water features and lamps together with instructions badly translated from Japanese; 'force sock A into ferrul B and tight screw, certain that wire H is already to thread'.

Now as MG's emails often do, that got me to thinking about things; a bit. Multiple Sclerosis, MS, is, I think one of the most malicious diseases imaginable. Not that I think that the effects of cancer of the bowel and breast or any other part of the body for that matter or Ebola or full-blown AIDS are any less nasty, they're not, but it seems to me that for a disease, for which there is no cure or palliative unlike HIV or cancer, to strike you when you are in, generally, your twenties and then to hang around for a long time without causing any undue effects, like a Damoclean xiphos hanging over your head, before progressively disabling you nerve fibre by nerve fibre seems to me to be the height of auto-immune, bacterial, viral, prional, whatever it is, vindictiveness. I feel the same way about Motor-Neurone disease. It just isn't fair. Disease should be cured or it should take its toll, usually death, pronto! That's how at least I want to go; not death by progressively disabling increments.

While I was thinking about this and the, seemingly, random nature of the disease (it doesn't seem to be down to any one cause, like diet or lifestyle), a phrase leapt into my mind; Bradford's 'there but for the Grace of God go Bradford', ie I. That got me thinking about how you could substitute God in the phrase with something more in keeping with the worldview of an atheist.  I came up with a few. You could substitute fate for God but then you are still dealing with God or Demi-Gods; the fates (or the Norns of Scandinavian myth) are still eternal beings who weave the web of our lives. Perhaps Fortuna, Fortune, would do; no she was a Goddess, Nemesis, too.

Destiny would be an option; 'Luke, it is your destiny', but destiny implies surety of the future. It does after all come from Old French which is in turn derived from the Latin destinata, the feminine past participle of the verb 'to make firm, establish', which surely must come back to Fortuna/Nemesis; why else, feminine. 'It is writ in the stars' would be another option but that explicitly implies a belief in Astrology, which, while prevalent in the past, cannot now be said to be a widespread belief. And there, perhaps, is the rub; belief.

The human mind, for all its vast scope, cannot deal with, come to terms with, chance; the random patterning of the universe. And so chance, a random occurrence must be dressed in the garb of purpose. Humans seek purpose in everything and it has brought them great rewards; dominance of the globe is not the least. But seeking purpose in everything is not perhaps the wisest of moves. Accepting that some things may be completely random is not, I think, so difficult to achieve. Many things which may seem random today will not seem random to our descendants but, and it's a BIG but, if Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle holds largely true, then we should accept that true random nature exists in the Universe; or at least to our eyes. And let's be blunt, It's only OUR eyes that we care about.

To go off subject a little, I often (not that often, I'm a penguin; remember?) cruise the web just looking for things you humans seem interested in. Now what I sometimes get interested in especially is your 'take' on sex. I have to be honest, human porn bores me; how you can get excited about the all too familiar women, even if she is a different person, doing the same things to similar (often the same) men, who all seem to have penises way bigger then yours? (I am of course assuming that the prime market for such things is male.) When you've seen one, you've seen them all! (Although the French during the mid-seventies and the Germans during the same period and the early eighties did produce some fine films; but perhaps they were to be only enjoyed by a more refined European market. Was it too subtle for the Americans? The Germans were once ace at 'funny pornography', there's a misnomer for you, but now seem to be trapped in a cycle of pandering to fetishists the world over while at the same time encouraging the wilful degradation of women.

However I noticed 'trolling' through some websites (the verb to 'troll' means to hang your bait over the side in hope; it doesn't mean {solely} posting offensive comments on a website), that there were a greater number than I expected of 'promoted as Arab' women performing sex-acts but also a statistically significant number performing in habibs and burkhas. This implied to me, that they were no different to American or European women who flaunt themselves by appearing in downmarket, fourth-rate porno-shorts (less than 45 minutes and shot with all the finesse of a rampaging ten-ton truck) for the Warhol-inspired fifteen minutes of 'fame' and some cash, which was surely the intention.

I have no beef with anybody's beliefs and if 'modern' women want to have sex on camera for money to pay the college fees with total strangers, that's fine by me. It's been happening for 10,000 years; except it was seldom captured on camera. But one has to ask oneself; what is this small Arabic fixation intended to achieve? Although it is counter-intuitive and perhaps not what the American 'studios' (I use the term very,very loosely) intended, what it says is that 'just like us!'  I find that, in the wake of 9/11 and the supposed 'war on terror', supremely ironic.

Thought for the day. If mankind should increase the number of mass extinctions of the past to six and some newly-evolved, intelligent life form 65 million years hence should look to causes, what are the odds that they will put it down to an arrogant, self-serving, erect ape-like creature who refused to accept that they were damaging, perhaps irreparably, their own continued existence? Probably not an odds-on chance.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Pterosaurs, the Great Dying and repeat five times; soon to be six

So, a few days ago I promised you pterosaurs.

What I knew about pterosaurs before last week could largely be written on the back of the proverbial postage stamp or, at the most, one side of A4. I knew about Pteranodon (thanks to Robert Mash's excellent little book, How to keep dinosaurs, which incidentally opened my eyes to the possibility of pycnofibres - essentially fur-like filaments - covering the beast and to the wisdom of using Deinonychus - you remember Deinonychus from the last post - as police dogs to quell unruly crowds or as a fuck-off alternative to Dobermans or Rottweilers).  I knew about Sordes Pilius (dirty fur) from a Nature article, when I was researching Bakker and the Dinosaur Renaissance,  Pteradactylus antiquus, antique wingfinger and the archetypal pteradactyl, and finally Queztalocoatlus northropi*, because everyone has heard of  Queztalocoatlus northropi, that giant, living flying machine; the size, at least, of a medium-sized microlite.

What I hadn't realised was how successful the pterosaurs had actually been; over one hundred 'discovered' and described species spread over the entire reign of the dinosaurs and fossils by the truckload! I suspect that we have only found a tithe of the actual number of different species. After the arthropods had initially conquered the air in the form of the flying insects during the Carboniferous  period - 360-299 million years ago - (and some of them were huge, relatively speaking, with wingspans of up to eighteen inches - think about that the next time you swat a fly), a glorious opportunity arose for any animal that could exploit that rich food source denied to ground-dwelling therapsids or dinosaurs. One only has to look at the diversity of the other two 'clades' of sky-borne species (birds number approximately 10,000 species and bats, who make up about 20-25% of known mammalian species number about 1250) to realise what opportunities are there for the taking if only you can get airborne.

At first sight the pterosaurs seem ill-equipped to deal with life on land, bi-pedal postures have been postulated but don't really stand up to scrutiny; pterosaurs are just too 'top-heavy' to maintain a bi-pedal posture for very long. Birds have grasping feet which allow them to frequent the trees and wings which fold back neatly across their tails. Bats, which are not at all related but which share the pterosaur's elongated fingers to support the wing membrane, although only the fourth was elongated in the pterosaurs, have relatively strong feet which allow them to roost upside down when they are not flying; something early reconstructions of pterosaurs tended to mimic.  However, there seems little doubt that pterosaurid feet do not seem to possess the bauplan or the musculature to 'hang on' in the manner of bats and were simply too big and/or heavy. And so we must assume that they hopped about on the ground, when they got down from the sky, and were prey to any carnivore that happened to fancy a pterosaur sandwich.

However, a variety of biomechanical analyses and the discovered 'trackways' of what appear to be pterosaurids 'walking', seem to show locomotion at least as good as a 'bunny-hop' and probably better. How much this is due to Bakker's (and by extension Ostrom's) postulate that dinosaurs were both 'endothermic' (having a mammal-like metabolism) and were highly active and dynamic and how much is down to real reasearch, one might never know; but certainly the whole concept of pterosaurid morphology and bioecology has gone through a sea-change over recent decades.

So what did it for the pterosauria. Was it truly an asteroid impact which wiped out 75% of all known species at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago? Me, I am inclined to a more relaxed view. If the fossil record can be believed and it is not just a collection of Lagerstaetten, which preserve fossils more readily that others, and that truly the paucity of species which we perceive from the fossil record actually represent 'reality' then we were already in a 'crisis' situation by the late Cretaceous. Most of the herbivorous fossils recovered from the late cretaceous were hadrosaurs, ankylosaurs and ceratopsians, most of the giant sauropods had already bit the dust and the diverse 'herbivore lineage' had all but died out; the predominant predator was T.Rex and its cousins; small to mid-sized predatory dinosaurs also do not appear in great numbers. The pterosaurs are themselves restricted to a few types; the Azhdarchidae and maybe the Nycosauridae in the main. The sea-going mososaurs and plesiosaurs, from the evidence of fossils, had begun to die off millions of years before.

It is difficult to determine what might have been going on during the last twenty-five million years of the Cretaceous, I am inclined to agree with those palaeontologists who conjecture that something was stressing the dinosaurs and related groups during that period which led to a decline in diversity. Species come and go regularly (about every 5 million years give or take) but usually another species evolves to fill the niche left by the extinct species; this, I feel, is not the case during the late Cretaceous. Of course, we, humans or penguins, probably would be very different if entire clades had not been wiped out and it would have been a likely descendent of a non-avian dinosaur which blasted off from Cape Gondwana and landed on the crater known, to them, as the Sea of Tethys!

So what did happen to wipe out an almost entire ecosystem; no one really knows.  Most of the earlier extinction events (four out of 'the big five', the fifth was the end-Cretaceous, K-Pg {or the Kt-T}) were thought to be multiple catastrophes involving two or more causes; I deem the K-Pg boundary event to be no more a single-event phenomena than the others. Something, climate, oxygen level, toxic gases, vulcanism, greenhouse or reverse-greenhouse effects, was, in my opinion, screwing up the environment; that asteroid or comet (opinion is divided) was the final straw!

It is comforting to know that I, as you did, survived the asteroid collision, but I can trace my ancestry back to Tyrannosaurus Rex or Gigantoraptor and the best you can do is a miniscule shrew, a mere Laurasiatherian titchy life form; that is immensely gratifying!

I am enormously indebted to Mark Whitton, at the University of Portsmouth (hell, I know it sounds too much like the Polytechnic of Colwyn Bay), for giving me so much to think about. I am too old now, to think of a career in ptersosaur palaeontelogy, but you have made me, at least, wish I were younger.

Footnote. In case you're interested, the other four major extinctions were: the Ordovician-Silurian (O-S, 450-440 million years ago) which killed around 60-70% of known species; the Late Devonian (D-C, 375-360 million years ago), which appears to have come in 'pulses' over a period of about 15-20 million years, and which finally saw the last remaining trilobites (my favourites!) who had been decimated at the O-S boundary - that too saw about 70% of all known species go extinct including most of the first invaders of the land; the Permian-Triassic (P-Tr 252 million years ago), which is also known as the Great Dying, in which 90-95% of all known species became extinct and is thought to have also been a 'pulsed' event also with possible multiple causes; the Triassic-Jurassic (Tr-J, 201 million years ago) which saw again around 70-75% of all species become extinct (notice a pattern here?), although the Dinosauria and their close relatives managed to avoid that particular catastrophe. There have other mass extinction where perhaps 25-30% of species went extinct but they are too numerous to mention here and may just be a pattern of life down the ages. If you are wondering why the mass extinction events always occur at the end of one period, it's just that often major periods of geological time are split solely for that reason; they are that catastrophic!

Sadly, future palaeontologists may mark down the end of the Cenozoic (our current era) as the sixth extinction event if humans continue on their present course; a truly unique event. It will be the first time that the biota has itself caused such an extinction but don't worry; life has a habit of bouncing back.

* So named after, I believe, Jack Northrop and early pioneer of the 'flying wing' design for aircraft (and that was what Queztalocoatlus was, a flying wing) which ultimately led to the American, cold-war B2 'Spirit' bomber. And yes, I also know that the Horton brothers in Germany in the '30s got there first but they were trying to build efficient gliders and only later did they get sidetracked by the Nazis into putting engines on!

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

What is it to be a bird; or a dinosaur? Huxley, Ostrom and Microraptor

I've been doing a little reading lately; well you do, stuck out the freezing ice waiting, hoping, for your mate to return. We had the usual batch of green newbies before the winter set in and one (or more I can't be sure) had brought some books with him, or her, (or has stolen them from the station's Amazon account).  Now what we usually get from the station's small library, the ones I don't purloin from Amazon, (see blog passim*) are things like bound copies of Nature and the Journal of Avian Biology or fiction (of often the most moronic kind, Zane Gray anyone?) or textbooks and their ilk on avian physiology or seismology. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find a number of books on palaeontology.

I don't know if one of the newbies is interested, the books looked unread to me, or whether someone is planning an expedition into the interior during the summer looking for feathered dinosaurs. If he, or she, is then he, or she, is most welcome to it. The interior of the continent is cold and as dry as a bone; think death valley at minus forty. It is not a place I would care to go. I have enough trouble sitting on this ice sheet; thank God for feathers!

Anyways, I have a certain fascination with dinosaurs ever since I came across a Nature or Scientific American paper written in the early seventies by Bob Bakker, who used to be John Ostrom's PhD student (you'll see the significance of Ostrom later), which, in effect, was one of the catalysts for the so-called 'Dinosaur Renaissance'; Bakker effectively said, mirroring Ostrom's views, was that everything you were ever taught about dinosaurs was wrong and a reappraisal was required.

Two of the books which I picked up, out of perhaps half a dozen or so, were a book on feathered dinosaurs and their link to birds, ie birds are the therapod's, small carniverous dinosaurs, descendents, written by a journalist (who at least has a science degree) and another about pterosaurs, flying cousins to the dinosaurs, which was written and illustrated by a professional palaeontologist; and mighty fine illustrations they are.

Now, Thomas Henry Huxley (we have met him before in Is God a Beetle?) was one of first to make a connection between dinosaurs, specifically small, predatory raptors, and birds on account of their shared anatomy; he was examining the 'London specimen' of Archaeopteryx, the so-called first bird, at the time. THH was ignored and the idea fell into oblivion; the dinosaurs were lumbering, slow-witted reptiles who grew to immense size.

To be fair to the Victorians, who had yet to fully embrace Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, this was not an unreasonable assumption. Most of the fossils that were found were of huge proportions, or at least that is what the press reported; fueled as they were by Cope and Marsh's so-called 'bone wars' and when confronted with Dippy, the Diplodocus carnegii, which Andrew Carnegie spent enormous sums of money creating casts of, which he could then ship out to museums around the globe, it is scarcely surprising that with brachiosaurs, stegosaurs, apatosaurs, tyrannosaurs and ceratopsians, the general concensus was big and small-brained.

Some seventy or eighty years later, enter John Ostrom; a professor of palaeontology at Yale University. In the mid-sixties, Ostrom uncovered a relatively small predatory dinosaur, about 3m in length including the tail, and about 1.5m at the shoulder,  Deinonychus. (Terrible claw; named after the five inch sickle-shaped claw on its second toe which could be articulated upwards so that it didn't touch the ground when running and thereby blunt it.) The importance of this find should not be underestimated; it did after all provide the basis of the depiction of the 'velociraptor' in Jurassic Park.

Ostrom noted certain similarities between what Ostrom assumed to be a bi-pedal, running on the rear legs only, ankle joint and the ankle joint of modern birds; other correlates could also be found, not least in archaeopteryx. And so began the search to find a link between birds and dinosaurs. Although Ostrom had said that, in the absence of marked feather impressions, archaeopetryx may be easily identified as a coelurosaurian dinosaur; few paid little attention, just like THH.

And then in 1996 (until the present), finds started to accumulate from Liaoning province in China, which date to the early to mid-cretaceous and preserve fossils to a remarkable degree, much like the Solnhofen limestone which thrust archaeopteryx onto an unsuspecting world. These fossils clearly showed bird like feathers on 'reptilian' bodies as well as what can only be considered proto-feathers; the first stages to forming a true feather capable of aerodynamic flight. 

The concensus is forming that not only did (at least) therapod dinosaurs, the stem clade which includes T-Rex, have active metabolisms (why else have insulation, which feathers are, irrespective of display characteristics) but they, at some point, not necessarily in the Cretaceous, maybe before, gave rise to the lineage that we call birds, or more accurately flight-capable therapods, and hence dinosuaria. There are still some dissenters, although not many, and most researchers now think that the 'feather innovation' rests entirely within the 'dinosaur/therapod' clade and that birds are now the sole survivors of a dynasty that lasted 150 million years and continues, after another 65 million years, to outnumber the number of species, mammalian to avian, by four to one. If it is 'true' (what is?) then dinosaurs stalk the earth still; they are are just not as big as they once were; thankfully!

It would be comforting, I think in a small way, to envisage Huxley and Ostrom up in Heaven, looking down and saying to themselves over a quiet beer: "We told you so! But you wouldn't listen!'

I have gone on far too long and what I have to say about my aerial cousins, the pterosaurs, will have to wait for another day; they are, however, truly wonderful illustrations. The guy has talent!

* Do you like the latin? I thought it really cool. I got it from Private Eye!

With thanks to John Pickrell (Isn't that a fish? A small pike?) for 'Flying dinosaurs'; a really good summation of current research, condensed into a easily-digested format. Pity there are no 'papers' cited, which would have been helpful for those who have subscriptions, albeit not their own, to the relevant journals

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Verity, Ellen and why do people believe this tripe!

Now, as a penguin, I have to accept certain 'facts' of life. My mate will not return and our offspring will starve. She, or I, may succumb to a marauding leopard seal or orca. I may not survive a particularly bad winter. I may be harpooned by a Japanese trawler, the crew of which mistakes me for a Minke whale; the latter unlikely I grant you but I can get quite fat just before jumping onto the ice for my four months of unmitigated hell and have you ever noticed the East Asians always seem to wear spectacles. Or at least the ones in my purview do.

Despite  my obvious intelligence and profound (!) knowledge of all thing chemical, biological and physical together with my deep and lasting scepticism of all things which seem too good to be true (they usually are), I find myself perpetually perplexed (like the alliteration there?) by the wilful ignorance and sheer, bloody stupidity of, supposedly, the most 'intelligent' species on the planet. The deceptions some of you fall for beggar belief sometimes. Scientology, Mormonism, Christianity, dare I say it, Islam, Spirit Mediums, Spoon Bending, Alien Abductions, 9/11 and JFK Conspiracy Theories (I capitalise them all out the of due deference to others' beliefs) have little, if any, tangible or verifiable proof that might persuade me and too many seem to be the work of 'knowing' (or perhaps ignorant) charlatans.

Don't get me wrong, you teeming billions can believe whatever you want, it's your life after all, but unfortunately your 'beliefs' and your missionary-like zeal in trying to persuade others cost lives at the very worst and financial penalties at best. Few zealots give away their secrets for free!

I was reminded of this during some idle moments when I revisited the Darwin Award website and came across someone (back in 1999) who had 'knowingly' removed herself from the gene pool of humanity by becoming a Breatharian. (The Darwin Awards, for those who have missed these priceless gems of ineptitude, are for those humans who have by their own stupidity or ineptitude counted themselves out of propagating their genes. . . by dying. One shouldn't laugh at the tales, I know, but they ARE priceless.)

Now for those of you who don't know, Breatharianism is a 'crackpot' philosophy dreamt up by an Australian women (born of Norwegian emigres - says it all really - I always thought the post-Viking- era Norwegians a little strange) which maintains that you can live on air alone with a little proviso that three hundred calories or so per day will keep the wolves at bay if you start to get a little peckish. Poor Verity Lynn, who as far as I can make out bought into this nonsense, died as a result of starvation, dehydration and hypothermia while camping out in Scotland on a 'seven-day detox routine'. Needless to say, Guru Jasmuheen, born Ellen Greve, denies all responsibility  for Lynn's death, as well she might; two other, I assume, adherents of this 'cult' were jailed for manslaughter when they failed to act over the impending death of a third member.

As I say, I don't have too much of a problem with people, or for that matter penguins, adhering to their own beliefs but when they start proselyting, Ms Greve has published eleven books at the last count on her cranky notions in an attempt to convert or at least make some money, then I do have a problem! The notion that a healthy human being can survive on air, a little water, 300 calories a day and 'lotsa faith' is simply arrant nonsense; just ask any anorexic or bulimic! As far as I can tell Ms Greve is either anorexic or bulimic or she is a out and out charlatan who has one agenda and one agenda only; to make money out of the extremely gullible!

She does have one thing in her favour. She is both a winner of an IgNobel Prize as well the recipient of the Bent Spoon Award (named after Uri Geller's famous 'trick') by Australian Skeptics. In 2005 she turned down James Randi's offer to compete for the one million dollar prize which he has promised to give anyone who can demonstrate that their crackpot theories and/or practices actually produce measurable results. As far as I know, no-one, but no-one, has taken the 'Amazing Randi' (a professional magician and arch-debunker of hokum) up on his offer. And that just about says it all!

I can understand the human need to believe in something. After all, as endowed with consciousness as you must surely be, it can be frightening, alarming and dispiriting to believe that all there is to life is just that; life. I can understand God, Allah, Buddha et al; a belief in something other than yourselves, a supreme Creator or the perfect being. But believing in pure, unadulterated drivel? The mind, and certainly my mind, boggles.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Feck, Frag, Frack and Dino 101

To humans, dinosaurs seem to have a peculiar fascination, I am not sure why but they do; usually from a very early age and this fascination continues through adulthood. Or at least it does from MG's perspective, who has just brought three recently-published books at an exorbitant price from Amazon, which I would only buy on the Station's account! (I ask you; £21.99 -$33.74- for a paperback of less than 300 pages?) However my interest in dinosaurs, in particular therapod, feathered dinosaurs, is somewhat different; they seem to be my ancestors!

While much debate went on amongst palaeontologists during the seventies and eighties about not only the lineage of birds and whether it was top-down (living in trees and finding gliding was easier for moving from tree to tree) or whether it was bottom-up (leaping to catch prey), the finds from China in the nineties, the noughties and beyond have seemed to settle the issue; birds are the descendents of feathered, predatory therapods which include the tyrannosaurids and the 'raptors' such as velicoraptor and deinonychus. (The latter was the 'model' for those in 'Jurassic Park', velicoraptor was a much smaller animal.) Even the top-down versus the bottom-up theories now seem to have settled into a kind of equilibrium with the discovery that many birds, using their wings, although not in the usual 'rowing' motion for flight, are able to climb vertical or near-vertical slopes, ie tree trunks, which feathered dinosaurs, when young, may have used to escape ground-dwelling, larger predators, ie full-grown adults of the same species.

This, as you may have noticed from the title, is going to be a post about subjects which are not, directly, related but please bear with me; the avian mind is prone to such discontinuities. Well, at least mine is! Rummaging through the detritus of MG's email (about the books), I came across a reference to a web-site that I had not previously encountered. The University of Maryland has come up with a geology course which includes (module 104) one of the best introductory courses on dinosaurs for non-biologists that I have ever come across. It is also very good on cladistics which, to be honest, I have never really understood but do now a little better than heretofore.

And here comes the discontinuity; while searching along dinosaurian lines, I came upon the verb 'to frag'. At first I thought that it was a 'euphanism' much like 'feck' in Irish slang and 'frack' in 'Battlestar-Galatica-speak' is for 'fuck'. (While the BG instance is clearly a way of avoiding the censor on prime-time US television, I am not sure about the prevalence of 'feck' amongst the Irish before the advent of 'Father Ted' and 'Father Jack', whose catch phrase it was.) The word seemed to come into prevalence among the US military during the Vietnam war and I naturally assumed that it was a euphemism for 'fuck' as its use was apparently used in the context of officer/non-com relationships. So; 'turd-burgling' between officers and enlisted men, which I found surprising given the ubiquity of Vietnamese prostitutes around army bases and Saigon. But no. It seems 'frag' is not a euphemism for 'fuck' but an abbreviation of 'fragmentation' as in 'fragmentation grenade'. It seems that the GI's got so arsed off with their lieutenants and captains that they lobbed fragmentation grenades in their direction no fewer than (a reported) 730 times between 1967 and 1971.

As far as I can tell, there was one incident reported in World War I, a few instances in WWII, none during the Korean War and yet a steady, and rising, stream of annual attempts by GIs to voice their dissatisfaction with the way the war was going and, more importantly, their roles in it! And these incidents mostly did not happen in the field, where you could at least exercise 'the benefit of doubt'; they happened in the army's base camps!

Now, quite clearly, this was an 'army' in meltdown. If reports are to be believed, an army that was high on marijuana most of the time, committed atrocities against the civilian population which got the Nazis hung at Nuremberg and to cap it all, laying the icing so liberally onto the cake as to have (purportedly) over two hundred instances in a single year of 'fragging' officers! It is little wonder that the Americans invested in and turned to other potential methods to wage war (SDI, drones, 'radar-invisible' planes, smart-bombs etc) to avoid sending combat troops, especially draftees, into whatever war-zone their masters had deemed fit to enter (usually mistakenly). One would like to think that it merely reflected the desire on the part of the leaders (of whatever nation) to protect the lives of the the young men, and women, who make up the 'standing army'.

Me? I am more inclined to think that it was merely to avoid bad publicity. Journalists, for all their faults, can be relentless in their pursuit of 'a story', ie the truth.