Monday, March 31, 2008

Stellar Peanuts!

Astronomers have spied a faraway star system that is so unusual, it was one of a kind -- until its discovery helped them pinpoint a second one that was much closer to home.

In a paper published in a recent issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters, Ohio State University astronomers and their colleagues suggest that these star systems are the progenitors of a rare type of supernova.

They discovered the first star system 13 million light years away, tucked inside Holmberg IX, a small galaxy that is orbiting the larger galaxy M81. They studied it between January and October 2007 with the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) on Mt. Graham in Arizona.

The star system is unusual, because it's what the astronomers have called a "yellow supergiant eclipsing binary" -- it contains two very bright, massive yellow stars that are very closely orbiting each other. In fact, the stars are so close together that a large amount of stellar material is shared between them, so that the shape of the system resembles a peanut.

A little bit of something kewl from the Heavens!

Can NASA Afford Them?

It will be weeks, months, or perhaps longer until we get an accurate picture of why the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Alan Stern, unexpectedly resigned last week, along with the agency’s chief scientist. One suspects that the reasons are budget related, but frankly, at this stage no one other than those directly involved really knows. The long-term science program that Stern and Griffin had proposed in the 2009 budget submission was as realistic as any government plan could be. It took into account the situation of the agency as a whole and gave the scientists some—but not all—of what they wanted.

It was disappointing to see that NASA would have to cut out some of the Mars missions that it had hoped to fly, but the big and very ambitious Mars Sample Return mission is now planned for the end of the next decade. Developing the technology and building the infrastructure for this project will strain future budgets and make extraordinary demands on the skills of academia and industry.

In contrast, the proposed “flagship mission” to either Jupiter or Saturn, which is now scheduled to launch in 2017, will not require any fantastically heroic feats of engineering. Designing and building any spacecraft that can survive such a trip and effectively gather useful scientific information is not going to be easy, but will not push the state of the art the way the Mars Sample Return will.

Paying for both missions at about the same time will not be easy, especially if NASA continues to be kept on what is, in relation to what they are expected to do, a near starvation diet. The idea that a major flagship mission can be launched, even with support from European and Japanese partners, with a US expenditure of $2 billion is just not realistic. If that sum could be doubled then NASA would be able to begin work on the project with a reasonable expectation that politically damaging cost overruns and delays could be avoided.

I would like to think that we could afford both of these missions, to build the Orion spacecraft, and more. However, a lot depends on the political capital that the next President of the US is willing to spend on space related issues. Truthfully, based on every president that has taken office since LBJ, that's not going to be much at all.

If it were really up to me, I'd be popping off robotic missions all over the place! Three to Mars every launch window: one orbiter and two surface missions of some kind: rovers, landers, or aerial vehicles. I'd send a mission to Venus or Mercury every three years. I'd also like to see a lunar mission AND a small body mission every year. I'd love to pop off an outer systems mission every three or four years too. Except let's look at that price tag: Mars, $1.5 billion/year; Mer/Ven, $200 million/year; Lun/SB, $750 million/year; Outer Sys, $1.2 billion/year. There ought to be a $1 billion/year for interesting ideas or challenging missions. That's nearly $5 billion/year for direct mission costs for the 'routine' missions, nevermind the upgrading of infrastructure necessary to make it work (DSP upgrades, frex). that would probably take it up to somewhere around $8 billion.

That doesn't count aeronautics research. That doesn't count astronomy research. That doesn't count earth observation research. That doesn't count any other basic science research. That doesn't count human space flight: all of you know that I really want a lot more manned space exploration and definitely not just goign 'round and round in low Earth orbit.

To get all of what I want out of NASA you would be looking at tripling or quadrupling NASA's budget. We're talking around $48 - 64 billion per year. Somehow I doubt that it's even remotely politically feasible.

...especially when they're talking about whether or not NASA can afford an outer systems mission and a sample return from Mars!

Nonfossilized Cellulose from the Permian Period

The cover story for the April issue of the journal Astrobiology, the new research also pushes back the earliest direct evidence of biological material on Earth by about 200 million years.

Cellulose is the tough, resilient substance best-known as the major structural component of plant matter. It is one of the most abundant biological materials on Earth, with plants, algae and bacteria generating an estimated 100 gigatons each year. Prehistoric forms of cellulose were made by cyanobacteria, the blue-green algae and bacteria still found in almost every conceivable habitat on land and in the oceans, which is known to have been present on Earth 2.8 billion years ago.

Jack D. Griffith, Ph.D., Kenan Distinguished Professor of microbiology and immunology at the UNC School of Medicine, found cellulose microfibers in samples he took from pristine ancient salt deposits deep beneath the New Mexico high desert.

“The age of the cellulose microfibers we describe in the study is estimated to be 253 million years old. It makes these the oldest native macromolecules to date to have been directly isolated, visualized and examined biochemically,” said Griffith, who is also a virology professor at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The samples came from the WIPP site near Carlsbad, NM.

There are two things that are very exciting about this for me. The obvious one is that they recovered biological material from 253 million frakkin years ago! I mean Holy shibbit!

Second, if they have samples from 253 million years ago, they probably have samples that cross the PT Boundary. This was tropical or near tropical at the time. What sort of fossils from that area might there be given the climate at the time?

Keep your ears perked!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

That SoAm Croc from Africa

via National Geographic News.

Definitely not like geosaurus, Zach!

84 yo Takes Down Would-be Teen Mugger

A boy in his mid-teens learned Wednesday afternoon that it is not a good idea to try to rob a former U.S. Marine at knifepoint, even if the former Marine is 84 years old, police said today.

Santa Rosa police Sgt. Steve Bair said that's what happened around 2 p.m. in the 1600 block of Fourth Street. The elderly man was walking with a grocery bag in each arm when the boy approached him with a large knife, Bair said.

The boy said, "Old man, give me your wallet or I'll cut you," Bair said. The man told the boy he was a former Marine who fought in three wars and had been threatened with knives and bayonets, Bair said.

The man then put his bags on the ground and told the boy that if he stepped closer he would be sorry. When the boy stepped closer, the man kicked him in the groin, knocking him to the sidewalk, Bair said. The ex-Marine picked up his grocery bags and walked home, leaving the boy doubled over, Bair said.


dumb kid.

PR Governor Charged with Fraud

Puerto Rican Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila and 12 associates face charges related to the financing of three of Acevedo's campaigns, according to a federal indictment unsealed Thursday.

Acevdeo faces 19 charges, including conspiracy, making false statements and wire fraud.

Acevedo, 48, and legal adviser Inclan Bird are accused of soliciting, accepting and reimbursing illegal "conduit contributions" from Acevedo's family and staff. Conduit contributions are those made by one person in the name of another.

In addition, "a group of Philadelphia-area businessmen solicited, accepted, and then reimbursed illegal conduit contributions from their own Philadelphia-area family members and staff" on behalf of Acevedo, a Justice Department news release said.

The governor also is accused of conducting unreported fundraising and making unrecorded vendor payments during his 2004 campaign "in order to raise and spend far more than the limited amount to which they had agreed," according to the release.

Ouch. However, with the complicated view of the Feds by Puerto Ricans this may or may not actually end his career over the longer term. He is a super delegate for the Democractic Convention though. Does this impact his voting eligibility there at all?

More here.

Sulfur and Chlorine in Late Cretaceous Deccan Magmas and Eruptive Gas Release

(kewl pic, huh?)

Large-volume pahoehoe lava flows erupted 67 to 65 million years ago, forming the Deccan Traps, India. The impact of these flood basalt eruptions on the global atmosphere and the coeval end-Cretaceous mass extinction has been uncertain. To assess the potential gas release from this volcanism, we measured sulfur and chlorine concentrations in rare glass inclusions inside crystals and on glassy selvages preserved within lavas. Concentrations range from ~1400 parts per million of S and 900 parts per million of Cl in inclusions down to a few hundred parts per million in the lava. These data indicate that eruptions of Deccan lavas could have released at most 0.103 weight % of S, yielding up to 5.4 teragrams of SO2 per cubic kilometer of lava. A more conservative estimate is 0.07 weight % of S and 0.04 weight % of Cl, yielding 3.5 teragrams of SO2 and 1 teragram of HCl for every cubic kilometer of lava erupted. The flows were very large in volume, and these results imply that huge amounts of S and Cl gases were released. The environmental impact from even individual eruptions during past flood basalt activity was probably severe.
hm. Another Vulcanists Strike Back Paper. Now the problem I have is not with the science wrt the geochemistry. It looks pretty good as far as I can tell. They did some very good work. This is the sort of science that needs to be done to test theories. That said, the only caveat is that they need to have it verified by another team. Like all scientific discoveries, it needs to be tested. otherwise, we would end up with a lot more fullerene at the PT Boundary embarrassments. That said, there needs to be more than merely sampling the lava flows from the Deccan Traps to back up this claim. There are two ways to test this idea - that out gassing from the Deccan Traps caused climate problems, namely erratic cooling, and acid rain.

The first one is to go through the isotope ratios from the time period that the Deccan Traps are supposed to be erupting. There are multiple isotopes that can be used for determining whether or not the Cretaceous had an erratic climate in terms of temperature changes. The most famous is the ratios of oxygen isotopes. It should be noted that there needs to be isotopic shifts that are chronogeologically specific to the time period in question that support their hypothesis. IIRC, there was no shift in the isotopes that in that time frame. At least the ones wrt climate. I'll verify tonight with my copy of Mass Extinctions and Their Aftermath (every extinction in there has a nice discussion of the isotope ratios and shifts thereof).

It should be noted that one of the traditional bits of evidence that the climate was cooling was that the fact that the Cretaceous inland seas receded (the "Oceans of Kansas"). If you look at a temperature graph across the KT Boundary there's not much shift at least under the current research. Furthermore, the recession of the inland seas now looks like it may be because of the expansion of the Atlantic...something that was not caused by any climate changes (though the Atlantic did change the climate!)

The second test is to check whether or not there is evidence of a sulfur induced "impact" globally (and I don't mean an asteroid smashing either). Originally, this was suggested as one of the kill mechanisms for the asteroid/comet impact theory: the Yucatan has strata that are very high in sulfur content and the vaporization of that rock would have dumped all that sulfur into the atmosphere and came back down as acid rain. Now, in this case, the vulcanists are stating the Deccan Traps could have done this as well since the evidence is insanely stacked against the KT Extinction being anything like the PT Extinction where the PT has been pretty much sown up as being caused volcanically (please see my post, Stop Dreaming). In either case, if there was acid rain, there ought to be evidence of either chemical weathering or ph-sensitive species die offs.

At this point I am unaware of anything that has been published about chemical weathering related to sulfuric acid at the KT boundary or the globally distributed sections chronospecifically associated with the Deccan Traps. I could be wrong and perhaps some readers could point me to papers that might have been done taht I haven't seen. I don't believe that this has been looked at yet. However, I could be very, very wrong. However, should there be evidence of it, it's not proof that either the impact or the eruptions would have been the cause. The specific ratios of sulfur isotopes will have to be examined and compared with the ones from the Yucatan and those that the team that produced this paper have resolved. Since the Yucatan's sources of sulfur ought to be different and laid down over a longer time period than during the Deccan Traps, there should be a different ratio. Whichever matches the that evidence at the KT boundary would probably be the source...and that would be evidence of which caused the die off.

On the other hand, there ought to be a lot of die offs of critters that are specifically sensitive to changes in water pH. Freshwater fish and amphibians ought to have been disproportionately whacked by anything that dumped tons of sulfuric acid into their habitats. That would cascade up the food chain and munge anything associated with freshwater. Yet...yet...this didn't happen as far as we can tell. If you were associated with the brownwater ecosystems you largely marched through the KT Extinction in better shape than anyone else. This would suggest that the brown water ecosystems continued to have nutrient influxes even when the terrestrial environment had been devastated and whatever caused the die-off on land didn't effect the brown water ecosystem. Or couldn't. That would probably rule out a sulfuric acid kill mechanism from either model.

So where does this leave us? Probably not much different than we were before. There has been some nice geochemical work about the outgassing of the Deccan Traps. This is scientifically good and useful research. In reading the paper and the extrapolations that the vulcanists involved are trying to connect the Deccan Traps with climatic and biotic effects that are quite contrary to the one extinction event that has been linked to vulcanism.

In fact, these effects have been proposed by the impactists. That thought is...interesting. hrm.

As a parting thought, I have to wonder if they could extract out information about the carbon isotopes frm that same source as they did for the chlorine and sulfur. Just a thought.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Once Upon the Permian: Beaked Bites of a Lost Lineage

Imagine you were standing out in the field and there grazing was a herd. It wouldn't be a herd of cattle. It couldn't be. Cows didn't exist. Mammals didn't exist. You...well... you must have been borrowing the TARDIS or hitched a little with HG Wells or Marty McFly, because there are no people. In fact, even if there were cattle, they would probably starve: there was nothing even closely related to grass or any other flowering plant rooted anywhere in the world. No, in the days of the end Permian, when Gorgons ruled the world, the thing that looked up at you in the field as a member of the heard didn't even look like a cow. With its semi-sprawled posture and beaked face, it was no cow. It and the other members of its herd were something different. It was something that survived far better than the Gorgons, its original predators. Its descendants would outlast the sabre fanged menaces to the early Cretaceous at least. Alas, they didn't make it to the present or even into the Cenozoic as far as we can tell. They're your cousins umpty million years removed. Those creatures with their bleary eyed gaze, beaked mouth, and - possibly - hairy bodies that oggle you in their semi-sprawled state are dicynodonts.

The dicynodonts are moderately more famous than the Gorgons. They are one of the major actors in the Late Permian Ecosystem and were probably one of the main sources of prey for the gorgons. What they are most famous for though is not the Permian Era, but just afterwards, on the other side of the Permian Mass Extinction, in the Early Triassic. That would be because Lystrosaurus would become the most successful and wide spread critter until the advent of Humanity.

They were found on every continent of the modern world: in truth, back then, it was all one giant supercontinent called Pangaea. Even so, they ranged from pole to pole, across virtually all terrains and environments. Lystrosaurus was what we call a disaster taxon: a species or genus of critter or plant that exploits the clearing of niches by some sort of extinction event. In this case, the ultimate of extinctions (to date) is what cleared the actors so the Lystrosaurus' time strutting and fretting on the geological stage would be noticeable at all. Unfortunately, multiple times, this time period has been called "When Pigs Ruled the Earth." Alas. Partially that's because they were approximately pig sized and generalist herbivores of a sort. I believe that the origin of the phrase can be traced back to Dr Micheal Benton, since I encountered something similar to it when reading his book on the subject. However, let's back up a minute, or perhaps better yet, several million years and discuss the chronology of the dicynodonts before - and after! - Lystrosaurus.

The dicynodonts appeared during the great radiation of synapsids in the Middle Permian, around 230 million years ago, alongside the Gorgons and numerous others. The dicynodonts ranged in size from moles and gophers to as large as hippos. They were exclusively herbivores. It was thought for a very long time that they were largely wiped out by the Triassic-Jurassic Mass Extinction with a mere handful surviin into the early Jurassic and petering out there as the dinosaurs took over. Remarkably, there was a singular fossil found in Australia from the early Cretaceous from an unknown dicynodont. It came from a region that contained exclusively Cretaceous strata and thus precluded this being a reworked fossil. This is a good example of a Lazarus Taxon or Ghost Lineage. It's exciting that the megafauna therapsids held out so long, but in some ways given the fauna of what is now Australia and then a part of Gondwanaland, it shouldn't be was much of a surprise.

Australia has been something of a refugium for animals for a very, very long time. Obviously, the fauna of Australia is pretty unique now. However, even back in the Cretaceous this is true. For a moment, this bares discusses, because its something of an enigma. While our late surviving dicynodont is one good example, there are others as well. Another excellent example is Koolasuchus. This is a Temnospondyl that seems, as far as we can tell, to have been the last of its kind. It lived in rift valleys that were too cold in winter for crocodiles to survive in and presumably lived a similar life style. Another good example of Australia's odd and unique refugium status is that of the dominance of the Hypsilophodonts long after they were supplanted elsewhere. The most famous of the Hypsilophodonts from Australia is the odd, but interestingly dark adapted Leaellynasaura amicagraphica. As to why this is the case, since Australia was a part of the greater Gondwana, we're not sure. The only guess is that Australia and Antarctica might have been more isolated because of the rising Cretaceous continental seaway transgressions. However, we're not sure, because it would be thought that Australia should have something similar in fauna to at least the late Jurassic doesn't. It truly is odd. At any rate, let's return to our subject at hand, the dicynodonts.

So what makes a dicynodont a dicynodont? The name dicynodont literally means "Two" (di) "dog" (cyn) "tooth" (dont). The dicynodonts lost most of their teeth, including all of their incisors, through their own convoluted evolution except those two tusks that reminded their early discoverers of dog's teeth, especially the canines. Even so, some of the dicynodonts lost even those. So what did they eat with? Something that was unique among the synapsids: they had a beak. Instead of dicynodont, perhaps they ought to have been called psittacostiosaurs (bird mouth reptiles/lizards) or psittacoaazosaurs (pretty much the same thing) rather than refer to the tusks. Their jaws were something extraordinary though. They had a shearing action that, as far as I have found to date, is unique among the synapsids. To show it, I am going to swipe a picture from what is probably one of the best websites on the therapsids online:

In some ways, it reminds of how the Gorgons would thrust their jaws forward to get around their sabre teeth. The closest analogs to their seem to have been either the ceratopsians or the rhynchosaurs. Their beaks filled the role of incisors and their own bony plates or dental batteries would sheer the plant matter into smaller bits to be digested. Our own molars crush and grind. Their equivalents were closer in function to our incisors....which seems a little odd to us with the generalized mammalian set of teeth. It is interesting that this chewing arrangement arose three different times in three different very unrelated lineages. This tells us that the arrangement of teeth and chewing as such was useful for some reason. Also interestingly when this arrangement arose in the dicynodonts, it was the first complex chewing mechanism to have evolved.

There are other characteristics that characterize up the dicynodonts, one that was important was the arrangement of their legs. We have a pretty good picture of how the dicynodont legs evolved over time. Originally, soon after their appearance in the fossil record, they were sprawlers, that is to say that they had their legs jutted out not unlike a crocodilian does, looking as though they are in the start position to do push-ups. At the start, botht he front and back legs were like this. Over time though, and especially in the larger specimens, the hind legs were pulled in under the body to support its larger weight and possibly deal with the the improved respiratory system that may have accompanied it. Based on fossil footprints from South Africa's Karoo Basin, the locomotion of the dicynodonts was something more akin to a slow waddle than anything else: these guys were not going to outrun anyone. On the other hand, based on their bite, they might have given their predators quite a fight.

Their senses were not as developed our mammalian line. Their hearing was poor and limited to lower frequencies rather like the Gorgons. The acute sense of hearing that we take advantage of to listen to Mozart or try to remove as much as possible by playing the ipod too loud is a mammalian derived characteristic: our earbones as call them are derived from our ancestors' jaw bones. Interestingly, it seems at though the sense of smell for a dicynodont was not very developed either. Unlike the Gorgons, they had no reason to track anything by smell, but on the other hand, they couldn't get a whiff of a stinky Gorgon until it was too late. Their eye sight seems to have been pretty good and they would have relied on that as their means of detecting danger and getting around.

There are a few other distinguishing characteristics as well. Finishing up with the head, their's was heavy. Really heavy. They had extensive musculature across their back to support it. They would have had thick, meaty necks if we were to see them. In fact, several vertebrae were fused for attachment purposes if I have understood correctly. Dicynodont bodies were also tubular. They were eating machines and their bodies were built for it. They had a short tail for a therapsid. It probably didn't look like a mammalian tail though.

One thing that we seem to know is that the dicynodonts were definitely social. The Placerias Quarry has what seems to have been a herd of Placerias that died there, possibly due to a drought.

What don't we know? Simply. A lot. We don't know if the dicynodonts laid eggs or had life birth or something in between. Based on recent work though for the genes related to producing egg yolks, there's a good chance that laying eggs is the basal position for the synapsids in general. There's also the possibility that the dicynodonts gave milk. However, we really don't know and it depends on when lactating evolved. Was it before or after the split off of our ancestors and our subjects here? we don't know. There's working being done though. Likewise, we don't know if they were hairy or not. No dicynodont mummies have been found. There was some fossilized skin of a therapsid (or possibly two), but neither was a dicynodont; however, what those skin samples showed, despite the drawings above that show hair, was that there was none. There is no mention in the literature that I have perused that dicynodonts had any identifying marks on the skulls that suggest that they had nerve endings for whiskers. Though that would have made them even more...odd...looking. Finally, no one really seems to know whether or not these creatures were warm blooded or not.

Most likely the original main carnivores of the dicynodonts were the Gorgons. However, the therocephalians and the large croc-like amphibians probably munched on them as well. As time went by the archosaurs took over that role after the Permian Extinction wiped out the previous fillers of that role. In the end, you can imagine that theropods were doing the dirty work in what is now Gondwana at the twilight of the dicynodonts. Just imagine, a big allosaur ripping apart a carcass instead of that Euchambersia. Talk about an odd, odd visual. It's almost like one of those B movies where they mix up all the different dinosaurs from different periods. was real.

That said, it is very possible that the dicynodonts made it to the end of the Cretaceous. What a bitter irony it would be that they made it through all those millions of years of dinosaur dominance and two of the five major mass extinctions only to get munged by a rock from the sky. Such a pity. After all, they might have had a chance to do the Lystrosaurus dance again. Then again, what would have happened had they not had most of their families wipe out by the Permian Extinction? What would they have done had they survived the KT impact? Assuming that they made it to the KT, of course.

However, just because I am me and can't help myself: let's play a little what-if here. By luck, there's a microsized dicynodont that lived off shore of Gondwana. It's suffered island dwarfing and is about a half meter long. The Great Rock in the Sky pours itself into the Caribbean and the dinos dies. Well, the non avians ones. By a fluke that didn't happen OTL, the small dicynodonts get rafted off their island before they die out as they did in OTL. ATL they end up on Australia and are able to find just enough food to survive the months of darkness that crashed the Mesozoic ecosystems. Then in Australia, because they have the size edge on the mammals, they grow large and in charge...for the herbivore role. At least for a time. I could easily see a Paleogene in Australia and Antarctica with large sized dicynodonts. Past that? Whose to say...

To wrap up, I hope that you all have enjoyed our little exploration of the dicynodonts. My apologies that this is not as long or nearly as high of quality as the post on the Gorgons. I am under a lot more of a time crunch these days and I have been using this as a means to relax as I dig through articles and try to write this. I'll be revisiting the dicynodonts when Zach and I finally get the No Permian Extinction Post & Art done. It'll be a while though. Too much to do with the mischief and not enough time.

Hey, if there's anyone out there with $30k to burn on a sponsorship lemme know. I am getting tons of expensive goodies for my side project but no cash. Need cash. Machinists don't get paid on software, hardware, or other goodies. Sheesh.

Guarinisuchus munizi: An African Croc in SoAm

A fossil of a new species of prehistoric crocodile found in Brazil and presented here Wednesday has led scientists to believe the reptile benefited from the [KT mass] extinction ... to migrate from across the Atlantic.

Guarinisuchus munizi -- the "warrior of the seas," as the crocodile has been dubbed -- is believed to have had its origins in Africa some 200 million years ago.

But the remains of a jaw, skull and vertebra discovered in Palaeocene deposits of northeastern Brazil suggests the species set off for new territory 62 million years ago, according to researchers.

"They left the African continent and are believed to have occupied zones in South America, and later regions in North America," paleontologist Maria Somalia Viana told a media conference in Rio de Janeiro.

She added that, back then, "Africa and the northeast point of Brazil were much closer than today."

The reptile, which grew to around three meters (10 feet) and was perfectly adapted to living in the ocean, apparently took advantage of the extinction of bigger marine lizards called mosasaurs to dominate the waters, another paleontologist, Alexander Kellner, said.

The Guarinisuchus munizi became "the main predators, together with sharks, in shallow marine Palaeocene environments" the researchers from the federal universities of Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro theorized in their paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

hmmm. How well adapted was it to the ocean? Was it like geosaurus? Or was it more like the modern salt water crocodile?

Dinosaur fossil found on bus in Peru

Officials found the fossil of a giant dinosaur jawbone while investigating a suspicious package on a bus in the mountains of Peru on Tuesday.

The fossil, weighing some 19 pounds, was found in the cargo hold of the bus, which was headed for the capital of Lima, and had been sent on the bus company's package service.

"They began to check the package because it didn't have anything to indicate what was inside. They were worried about its weight, opened it and found the fossil," said Kleber Jimenez, a local police officer.

Peru has struggled for years to combat trafficking of fossils and artifacts. Recently Yale University in the United States agreed to return thousands of pieces taken from the ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu to Peru.

"The jawbone that was found could be from a triceratops, even though dinosaurs like that have never been found in southern Peru," Pablo de la Vera Cruz, an archeologist at the National University in Arequipa in southern Peru, said after examining police photos.

Okay, guys. This that a ceratopsian jaw? It looks more like a mammal jaw. Maybe a proboscidean?

Molybdenum Defiency Delayed Animal Evolution?

A deficiency of oxygen and the heavy metal molybdenum in the ancient deep ocean may have delayed the evolution of animal life on Earth for nearly two billion years.

Dr Simon Poulton, Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Newcastle University, was part of an international team of biogeochemists who took part in the University of California-led study.

The study’s results are published in today’s edition of Nature (27th March).

‘For decades it was assumed that the ocean became oxygenated shortly after an initial rise in atmospheric oxygen about 2.4 billion years ago,’ said Dr Poulton. ‘This study provides independent confirmation that there was a major delay in the oxygenation of the ocean, and furthermore, it now appears that the availability of molybdenum may have played a crucial role in animal evolution.

‘At last, a coherent picture of the environmental conditions that led to the evolution of animal life is emerging.’

The researchers arrived at their conclusion after tracking molybdenum in black shales, a kind of sedimentary rock rich in organic matter found in the ocean. Molybdenum is a key micronutrient for the life-forms that control the production of oceanic and atmospheric oxygen.

Following the initial rise of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere 2.4 billion years ago, oxygen was transferred to the surface ocean to support oxygen-demanding micro-organisms. However, the diversity of these single-celled life forms remained low, and their multi-cellular [descendents - fixed WB] (animals) did not appear until about 600 million years ago.

Suspecting that deficiencies in oxygen and molybdenum might explain this evolutionary lag, the team measured the abundance of molybdenum in ancient marine sediments over time to estimate how much of the metal had been dissolved in the seawater in which the sediments formed.

The researchers found significant, firsthand evidence for a molybdenum-depleted ocean compared to the high levels measured in today’s oxygen-rich seawater.

‘These molybdenum depletions may have retarded the development of complex life such as animals for almost two billion years of Earth’s history,’ said project leader Professor Timothy Lyons, at the University of California’s Department of Earth Sciences. ‘The amount of molybdenum in the ocean probably played a major role in the development of early life.

‘As in the case of iron today, molybdenum can be thought of as a life-affirming micro-nutrient that regulates the biological cycling of nitrogen in the ocean.

That's interesting. Everyone has been focusing on just oxygen for a very long time yet it may have been the right combination of nutrients at the right time for the actual evolution of multicellular life. That's a rather more complicated question than merely there being enough oxygen in the ocean. What other nutrients were necessary, but not present in the ocean for a long, long time?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

More on the Wilkins Ice Shelf

Satellite imagery from the University of Colorado at Boulder's National Snow and Ice Data Center shows a portion of Antarctica's massive Wilkins Ice Shelf has begun to collapse because of rapid climate change in a fast-warming region of the continent.

While the area of collapse involves 160 square miles at present, a large part of the 5,000-square-mile Wilkins Ice Shelf is now supported only by a narrow strip of ice between two islands, said CU-Boulder's Ted Scambos, lead scientist at NSIDC. "If there is a little bit more retreat, this last 'ice buttress' could collapse and we'd likely lose about half the total ice shelf area in the next few years."

In the past 50 years, the western Antarctic Peninsula has experienced the biggest temperature increase on Earth, rising by 0.9 degree F per decade. "We believe the Wilkins has been in place for at least a few hundred years, but warm air and exposure to ocean waves are causing a breakup," said Scambos, who first spotted the disintegration activity in March.

Satellite images indicate the Wilkins began its collapse on Feb. 28. Data revealed that a large iceberg, measuring 25.5 by 1.5 miles, fell away from the ice shelf's southwestern front, triggering a runaway disintegration of 220 square miles of the shelf interior. The Wilkins Ice Shelf is a broad sheet of permanent floating ice on the southwest Antarctic Peninsula roughly 1,000 miles south of South America.

The edge of the shelf crumbled into the sky-blue pattern of exposed deep glacial ice that has become characteristic of climate-induced ice shelf breakups such as the Larsen B ice shelf breakup in 2002, said Scambos. A narrow beam of intact ice about 3.7 miles wide was protecting the remaining shelf from further breakup as of March 23.

A bit more info.

Wilkins Ice Shelf Threatened

British Antarctic Survey has captured dramatic satellite and video images of an Antarctic ice shelf that looks set to be the latest to break out from the Antarctic Peninsula. A large part of the Wilkins Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula is now supported only by a thin strip of ice hanging between two islands. It is another identifiable impact of climate change on the Antarctic environment.

Scientists monitoring satellite images of the Wilkins Ice Shelf spotted that a huge (41 by 2.5 km) km2 berg the size of the Isle of Man appears to have broken away in recent days – it is still on the move.

Glaciologist Ted Scambos from the University of Colorado alerted colleagues Professor David Vaughan and Andrew Fleming of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) that the ice shelf looked at risk. After checking daily satellite pictures, BAS sent a Twin Otter aircraft on a reconnaissance mission to check out the extent of the breakout.

Professor Vaughan, who in 1993 predicted that the northern part of Wilkins Ice Shelf was likely to be lost within 30 years if climate warming on the Peninsula were to continue at the same rate, says,

“Wilkins is the largest ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula yet to be threatened. I didn’t expect to see things happen this quickly. The ice shelf is hanging by a thread – we’ll know in the next few days or weeks what its fate will be.”

That's a good map of the different ice shelves. While it was meant for pointing out the Wordie Ice Shelf, the Wilkins (and others) are easy to find there.

More on the PT Extinction "Revision"

National Geographic has an article on the proposed changes to the PT Extinction model. It's a bit and better more of the same as yesterday's links. What really caught my eye though was the following map of the terrestrial hypoxic conditions:

Now compare that with a map of the mountainous terrain of the time.

Looks like we have a nontrivial correlation to me.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Mexican Ceratopsian

Scientists have discovered a new species of plant-eating dinosaur in Mexico whose large neck frill and three giant horns helped it attract mates and fight predators on a jungly beach 72 million years ago.

Mexico's Coahuila desert -- now rocky and cactus-filled -- was once covered by ocean where dinosaurs of all kinds thrived along the coast and hid from a giant relative of the fierce predator Tyrannosaurus rex.

Paleontologists say they have found evidence of a new species here related to the Triceratops, known to have the largest head of any animal ever to have walked the earth.

The new species is slightly smaller at around 23 feet (7 meters) than most Triceratops, but its three-foot-long (0.9 meter) horns were just as big. Holes in its neck frill would also have set it apart.

The scientific name of the new dinosaur will not be revealed until the end of the year, said Scott Sampson, a curator from Utah Museum of Natural History who helped make the discovery with Mexican investigators.

It will be only the second dinosaur species named in Mexico after scientists in February announced a new duck-billed dinosaur from the same region called Velafrons coahuilensis, which cruised the ancient beaches in large herds.

Scientists say they expect to find evidence of dozens of other new dinosaur and plant species buried in Coahuila's rich sediment in coming years.

"This is just the beginning," said Martha Aguillon, a paleontologist at the local museum near the Rincon Colorado fossil beds in the northern state of Coahuila.

The new three-horned species likely used its massive horns to fight off meat-eating predators.

But scientists say the flamboyant head armor and neck frills were also an important part of courtship rituals, showing dominance with head-butting battles much like modern-day horned animals such as antelope.

"That whole section of the head was for sexual display, it was all ornamentation," said paleontologist Terry Gates, who works with Sampson at the University of Utah museum and is also one of the scientists behind the Velafrons discovery.

"The females liked it," he added, with a chuckle.

Sorry, Zach, this is an uber tease: "The scientific name of the new dinosaur will not be revealed until the end of the year, said Scott Sampson, a curator from Utah Museum of Natural History who helped make the discovery with Mexican investigators."

I wonder why they brought this Y'know, instead of when they were going to name it.

Modifications to the PT Extinction Model?

There's a paper out about computer simulation of the atmosphere at the time of the Permian-Triassic Boundary and during the PT Extinction. The model aimed at determining whether or not the hydrogen sulfide had a great an impact upon the atmospheric chemistry. As currently theorized H2S has a huge impact upon the event and may have been one of the main kill mechanisms.

There were probably two ways that H2S was such a powerful kill mechanism. The first was directly: H2S is a nasty chemical. As the waters of the Permian Ocean warmed and became more and more anoxic, bacteria that produce the stuff became more and more common until very large parts of the ocean were belching the stuff. More and more depths of the sea became poisoned. The warmth of the ocean combined with the anoxia and hydrogen sulfide is probably the main killing mechanism in the sea.

There is a suspicion that in the terrestrial environs, hydrogen sulfide killed in three ways. The first is the classic acid rain scenario. The second is direct inhalation or exposure near the ocean. Finally, and possibly the most important many variants of the model is the mixing with the upper atmosphere. Up there, it would react with the ever important ozone that protects life from all that harmful UV radiation. When it did, the UV blasted the terrestrial ecosystems in a pretty nasty way. It also, by reacting with the ozone, made it possible to extend the period of time that the methane hydrate belching would continue to oven cook the planet in conjunction with the carbon dioxide coughed up in massive amounts by the Siberian Traps. I blogged some time ago about the Permian Triassic Extinction. That was the current understanding of the PT Extinction mechanism. Then along came this paper. So how much does this paper change that understanding? What does the paper say?

The paper proposes that based on their own 2 D modeling that there was no way for the hydrogen sulfide to be transported to the upper atmosphere where the ozone layer is reside. One of the primary problems with this is, according to the paper, the tropics are an oxiding zone that would remove the hydrogen sulfide from circulation prior to updrafting. Obviously they had a chem model attached and are confident in their findings. Their paper appeared in Nature Geoscience.

Color me skeptical, but I am going to have to wait until I have a moment to read the whole paper to see what they have to say. That moment isn't now. This week is crunch week for the mischief project. I'm getting sponsors, but will it be enough? We shall see!

That said, a hat tip goes to Paleoblog for calling this to my attention.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bone Yard XVI

Welcome to the 16th Boneyard Paleo Carnival. Let us dig back through time and strata to see what the blogosphere has worked out of the sediments of knowledge. Like my last hosting, this BY will follow the convention that the posts that deal with the more recent eras and periods will come first. So let us begin.

First up, not even out of the Holocene, Dr Micheal Ryan from Paleoblog brings our attention to the hands bones of Hadropithecus stenognathus, one odd lemur.

(Picture added for clarity for the following; pic credit, AMNH)

We wander back further and find ourselves looking in the mirror of our past in the Pleistocene, following the evolution and bushy branching of the hominid line. The controversy over our relatives, the so-called Hobbits, rages on. Greg Laden discusses the recent paper that staked out the claims that Homo floresiensis is in fact a separate species. John Hawks also weighs in on the H floresiensis and Palau pygmy population discoveries. John has been a busy beaver in general. He also has interesting posts on the Neandertals: their linguistic capabilities and whether or not genetic drift was responsible for their divergence from Homo sapiens. He also found the time to discuss the paleoecology at Hadar and the new study about Orrorin's bipediality. Afarensis also has a good post on the Palau island dwarfed skeletons.

Diverging from the hominid line, we find that over at The World We Don't Live In, there's a very good discussion of the deinotheres being tapir convergent probisceans. Also discussed there are the ever fascinating second attempt at theropods in the Cenozoic and whether or not Megatherium americanum was a carnivore specializing in glyphodonts!

Over at Nimravid's Blog, we have the discussion of a rather interesting and unique carnivore, Simocyon. Also discussed is the diet of big sabre tooth felids.

Chris Taylor over at Catalogue of Organisms has the odd ball of a whale that seems to thought it was a walrus!

Over at Archaeozoology, the discussion of the oldest known fossil of the rabbit family is quite interesting. Equally interesting, the discovery of fossil rhino bones has brought into question whether or not Anatolia was truly isolated up to the Oligocene as has been thought.

Transition backing across the iridium layer, we find ourselves working through the Mesozoic strata. Therein lies some interesting posts themselves. First up is whether or not the Deccan Traps were responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs over at Everything Dinosaur. My own post on the subject languished alas.

Amanda at Self-designed Student titillates us with another discussion of Dino Teen Sex. (degenerate dinos must repent!)

The ever reputable Darren Naish of Tetrapod Zoology comments on dual discoveries of the Cretaceous. The first being Nemicolopterus crypticus with Darren pointing out this fossil looks a lot like an underage representative of a known pterosaur and he continues on the uber sized anuran of Madagascar. He also has the most unforgivable set of pictures under the title of LOLSAUROPOD!

Zach Miller up at When Pigs Fly Returns has a great drawing (and the reasoning behind it) of Nyctosaurus. He also has up his latest Guess the Dino (no, that's not what its called).

Both Brian Switek of Laelaps and Manabu Sakamoto of the Raptor's Nest have good posts (here and here) about Megalosaurus and its problematic status. Manabu goes on to delightfully discuss Velociraptor mongoliensis and whether or not the uber alligatoroid Deinosuchus was cotemporal with T rex. Brian turns his attention to the newly discovered Cretaceous plesiosaur, Nichollsia borealis.

Over at the Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, there is a fascinating expose on whether or not all giant sized sauropods exhibited pneumaticity. There's a uber tease about a giant vertebra found at the earliest Jurassic!

My own The Dragon's Tales has the OMG moment that the pterosaurs also had teen sex! Bad archosaur! Bad!

In the very early Mesozoic, Scott at the Coherent Lighthouse gives us a wonderful head study of Euparkaria.

Straddling the Mesozoic/Paleozoic transition with the Permian Extinction, I raised the question, based on the very recent research on the genetics of casein and the pseudogenes for vitellogenin, whether or not the nonmammalian therapsids might have been nursed their young. Just how basal is milk in the synapsid line?

Over at Real Climate, they take a hammer out to yet another claim of periodicity.

Brian Switek and Nimravid both blog about the complexity and evolution at the Ediacaran and Cambrian Explosions (here and here).

In the Vendian, Micheal Ryan at Paleoblog highlights the Ediacaran life form of Funisia dorothea.

And that, my fossilized friends, is the Boneyard Carnival for this edition. If I missed anyone, please drop me a note, and I will add your post. The Bone Yard XVII will be appearing at Greg Laden's place in two weeks. Until then, enjoy! And post more original work, folks! We're also lacking for Paleozoic posts here!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Dude! Get your hand off me!

I know this is Santa Fe, but...

Mexican American Integration & Education Study

Second-, third- and fourth-generation Mexican Americans speak English fluently, and most prefer American music. They are increasingly Protestant, and some may even vote for a Republican candidate.

However, many Mexican Americans in these later generations do not graduate from college, and they continue to live in majority Hispanic neighborhoods. Most marry other Hispanics and think of themselves as "Mexican" or "Mexican American."


Telles and Ortiz noted that some Mexican Americans were able to move into the mainstream more easily than other minorities. Mexican immigrants who came to the United States as children and the children of immigrants tended to show the most progress, perhaps spurred by optimism and an untainted view of the American Dream.

"A disproportionate number, though, continue to occupy the lower ranks of the American class structure," the sociologists said. "Certainly, later-generation Mexican Americans and European Americans overlap in their class distributions. The difference is that the bulk of Mexican Americans are in lower class sectors but only a relatively small part of the European American population is similarly positioned."

More than any other factor, Telles and Ortiz said, education accounted for the slow assimilation of Mexican Americans in most social dimensions. The low educational levels of Mexican Americans have impeded most other types of integration.

"Their limited schooling locks many of them into a future of low socioeconomic status," they said. "Low levels of education also predict lower rates of intermarriage, a weaker American identity, and a lower likelihood of registering to vote and voting."

Education is key to virtually everything in this country. Whether formal or self education, it has become crucial that people have the equivalent of a bachelor's degree to any real degree of success any more. Even so, it's no guarantee that you will be able to use the knowledge gained to get anywhere in life.

It should be noted that one of the great assimilation tools that the US has traditionally had was the public educational system. Peer pressure combined with a monolithic, inclusive education has taken peoples of disparate backgrounds and molded them into being 'Americans.'

My wife is an ESL student. She's taken ESL classes and they have helped her. Yet, some of the classes for ESL at the secondary school level were not aimed at bridging into English as a first language classes. It should be the goal. The singular goal. First and last and everything between goal. If for no other reason that it creates a huge parallel infrastructure that helps eat budgets and that is a disastrous thing for our underfunded educational system as it is.

Anyways, take a read. It's interesting stuff up there. I'll be hunting for a copy of the book.

Saturn Moon Titan May Have Underground Ocean

Saturn's moon Titan may have an underground ocean on which its crust slides like a giant, floating icecap, pushed and pulled by climate-driven winds.

The discovery, to be announced in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science, was made when scientists tried to match corresponding features on radar maps created during two-and-a-half years of flybys by the Cassini spacecraft.

Each of the flybys had mapped a swath of the moon's surface; on 19 occasions, the craft crossed over the same areas twice.

But on the revisits, easily recognizable geologic features weren't at the expected coordinates, with some of them out of place by about 20 miles (30 kilometers).

Obviously, hills and valleys weren't swapping places, said Bryan Stiles, a radar engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Rather, the maps didn't align because Titan's surface wasn't rotating at quite the expected rate.

That was a surprise, because scientists had thought that Saturn's enormous gravity would keep the same side of Titan pointed directly at the planet, just as one side of Earth's moon always faces us.

One possible explanation was that Titan's rotation had been altered by a large, recent asteroid impact. But such impacts occur infrequently, Stiles said.

A more likely prospect, he said, is that Titan's crust is moving on top of something more slippery than rock or ice.

"There has to be some effect causing the spin to be different from what we had thought. And the most obvious cause that we can come up with is this deep ocean."

It is beginning to sound like a lot of the icy moons have subterranean oceans. I have to speculate here that this may be a universal characteristic of icy bodies greater than a certain mass. Much like the iron core aspects of our own terrestrial style worlds.

On the other hand, this seems like an excellent SF setting. Imagine a world where Europa-esque life arose under the all encompassing ice cap. Then intelligent life arises and realized there's a whole lot more above the great cold world. The first expedition beyond is undertaken and...they pop up in the middle of a methane rather than water based ecology. Much whackiness ensues.

Richardson to Endorse Obama

(that picture has a funky angle on it or something)

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the nation's only Hispanic governor, is endorsing Sen. Barack Obama for president, calling him a "once-in-a-lifetime leader" who can unite the nation and restore America's international leadership.

Richardson, who dropped out of the Democratic race in January, is to appear with Obama on Friday at a campaign event in Portland, Ore., The Associated Press has learned.

The governor's endorsement comes as Obama leads among delegates selected at primaries and caucuses but with national public opinion polling showing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton pulling ahead of him amid controversy over statements by his former pastor.

Richardson has been relentlessly wooed by Obama and Clinton for his endorsement. As a Democratic superdelegate, the governor plays a part in the tight race for nominating votes and could bring other superdelegates to Obama's side. He also has been mentioned as a potential running mate for either candidate.

I am not a fan or Richardson whatsoever despite his credentials and what he has done for me personally. A lot of this is personal. It has to do with what he helped orchestrate against a friend's family. He has been fingered as the major source of information to the media (aka leaks) that time and again made as much pro-gov spin as possible (biasing the media). This could be seen as something I am just ticked about and its my problem.

Let's stop and look at him now. Richardson has been tagged as a lame duck governor and he's just biding his time until he's tapped for something in Washington in the presumed next administration. Do you remember his boasting about making health care available in New Mexico to one and all? it's dead. Really dead. As soon as he stopped campaigning for President, he stopped pushing for it. New Mexico as a whole is a very poor state. The majority of NMicans would have really benefited from this. If Richardson was really serious about this issue, rather than merely grandstanding for the party primaries, he'd be still pushing for this in the NM legislature. He's not.

Draw your own conclusions.

Anyways, Richardson has endorsed Obama. From what I can read of the Democratic Party tea leaves, this is something that will carry some positive weight within the party. This is something of a slap to the Clintons since Richardson has been so close with them.

It's notable that Richardson only done this after it looks like Obama's going to get the nomination.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tuatara Undergoing Rapid Evolution

In a study of New Zealand’s [...] tuatara, evolutionary biologist, and ancient DNA expert, Professor David Lambert and his team from the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution recovered DNA sequences from the bones of ancient tuatara, which are up to 8000 years old. They found that, although tuatara have remained largely physically unchanged over very long periods of evolution, they are evolving - at a DNA level - faster than any other animal yet examined. The research will be published in the March issue of Trends in Genetics.

“What we found is that the tuatara has the highest molecular evolutionary rate that anyone has measured,” Professor Lambert says.

The rate of evolution for Adélie penguins, which Professor Lambert and his team have studied in the Antarctic for many years, is slightly slower than that of the tuatara. The tuatara rate is significantly faster than for animals including the cave bear, lion, ox and horse.

“Of course we would have expected that the tuatara, which does everything slowly – they grow slowly, reproduce slowly and have a very slow metabolism – would have evolved slowly. In fact, at the DNA level, they evolve extremely quickly, which supports a hypothesis proposed by the evolutionary biologist Allan Wilson, who suggested that the rate of molecular evolution was uncoupled from the rate of morphological evolution.”

Interesting that.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Why Global Warming is Inevitable Part N + (I Forget)

China's greenhouse gas emissions are rising much faster than expected and will overshadow the cuts in global emissions expected due to the Kyoto Protocol, according to a new study.

Forecasts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had predicted that China's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would rise by about 2.5 to 5 percent each year between 2004 and 2010.

But the estimates are two to four times too low, according to new research led by Maximilian Auffhammer of the University of California, Berkeley.

The study calculated that for the period from 2004 to 2010, China's CO2 emissions will have grown by at least 11 percent a year.

"The emissions growth rate is surpassing our worst expectations, and that means the goal of stabilizing atmospheric CO2 is going to be much, much harder to achieve," Auffhammer said.

Especially when China refuses to do anything about its national carbon foot print until 2050. Considering that China's carbon output has surpassed the US and its economy is smaller, meaning its - oh forgive me for saying this - less carbon efficient per capita. As the Chinese population as a whole raises its standard of living with the methods that China has been using, we're all just plain screwed.

Then there's India.

If we're lucky, it'll be Back to the Eocene.

If we're unlucky, it'll be a return of the Permain End Times.

Mare Nostrum Envy: Future Meets Beauty

One of my coworkers came back from a conference and showed us the the pictures of the Spanish HPC site. Or should that be sight? All of us in my group had instant computer room envy. I mean, WOW. Would you look at that! Our computer room is as bright white dull as they come. And half empty right now since seaborg - my rotational nemesis - was retired.


Someone is producing some just plain awesome Permian therapsid art out there. Whoever you are, please, keep it up! This is just wonderful!

Did Pre Mammalian Therapsids Have Milk?

A new paper by David Brawand, Walter Wahli, and Henrik Kaessmann investigates the transition in offspring nutrition by comparing the genes of representatives of these three different mammalian lineages with those of the chicken—an egg-laying, milkless control. The authors found that there are similar genetic regions in all three mammalian lineages, suggesting that the genes for casein (a protein found in milk) arose in the mammalian common ancestor between 200 and 310 million years ago, prior to the evolution of the placenta.

Eggs contain a protein called vitellogenin as a major nutrient source. The authors looked for the genes associated with the production of vitellogenin, of which there are three in the chicken. They found that while monotremes still have one functional vitellogenin gene, in placental and marsupial mammals, all three have become pseudogenes (regions of the DNA that still closely resemble the functional gene, but which contain a few differences that have effectively turned the gene off). The gene-to-pseudogene transitions happened sequentially for the three genes, with the last one losing functionality 30-70 million years ago.

Therefore, mammals already had milk before they stopped laying eggs. Lactation reduced dependency on the egg as a source of nutrition for developing offspring, and the egg was abandoned completely in the marsupial and placental mammals in favor of the placenta. This meant that the genes associated with egg production gradually mutated, becoming pseudogenes, without affecting the fitness of the mammalian lineages.

We knew that milk arose before the split between the mammal lineages. In all probability the gene for casein problably arose at the younger end of their projected chronology. However, there's the possibility that this arose much earlier in the synapsid line.

Just imagine: lactating Dimetrodons. boggle.

It would blur the line between the various therapsid lines if it did hold true. Now if we found evidence of hair too...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Arthur C Clarke Has Died

He was 90 years old.

Clinton's Position on Puerto Rico

"Hillary goes after the Boricua vote," said the island's main daily, El Nuevo Dia, in a front-page headline that referred to Puerto Ricans by their nickname. Other dailies also splashed Clinton's remarks on Puerto Rico across their front pages.


The New York senator said she would vigorously advance plans that would let Puerto Rico decide if it wants to remain a commonwealth or become a U.S. state or an independent nation.

Clinton also pledged to provide new tax benefits to create jobs in Puerto Rico, which is struggling through a second year of recession, and to return some federal land on the outlying island of Vieques — formerly a U.S. Navy bombing range — to local residents.

Her adviser may be a statehood supporter, but Hillary remains whatever you want her to be so long as you vote for her. Say anything, eh? hmmm...

Frigid Earth?

A planet roughly the size of Earth could be tracing a vast, elliptical orbit at the outer edge of our solar system—and astronomers in Japan think they know where to find it.

The presence of this unnamed body has been suggested before, noted Tadashi Mukai, a professor at Kobe University's department of earth and planetary sciences.

"We have been able to identify more than 1,100 objects beyond Neptune since 1992, and a huge number of objects are showing large orbital eccentricities and elliptical orbits," Mukai said.

This suggests that a body with sizeable mass must be influencing the movement of these objects by exerting a gravitational pull.

But the extreme distance and unusual orbit of the elusive "Planet X" have made it difficult to spot even with the most advanced telescopes.

In a paper appearing in an upcoming issue of the Astronomical Journal, Mukai and colleagues propose that other researchers have simply been looking in the wrong place.

"We have reached our conclusions from simulations that explain the orbital elements," Mukai said.

"We are now looking in places that we have not looked before, and I think we will be able to see the planet within the next five or ten years."

Another Planet X hunt? Is it really planet X though? Y'know since Pluto got demoted.

Retasking the DOE NNSA Labs?

The nation's nuclear weapons agency, already committed to slashing the size of America's battle-ready arsenal of bombs and warheads, is planning major cutbacks and transformations at its complex of laboratories and bomb-making plants across the country - including Livermore and Los Alamos.

Barred by Congress from developing new warheads to replace the decaying weapons of the Cold War, the agency intends to harness the skills of its scientists and engineers for research into counterterrorism, intelligence and nuclear nonproliferation, while continuing to assure that the remaining weapons stockpile is "safe and reliable," said Thomas d'Agostino, director of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Even so, the plans by d'Agostino's agency to revamp the complex of nuclear research and weapons production sites are controversial.

First off, it should be noted that the NNSA Labs - Los Alamos, Livermore, Sandia - have always done research that has little to nothing to do with nuclear weapons. There was one division dedicated to that work at LANL while I was there and a few that gave nontrivial support. However, a lot of good science of all sorts was conducted (including the Human Genome Project) and other programs pursued (including SDI). The work I got to do while at LANL wrt astronomy was emphatically not nuke weapon related.

That said, I do think it would be a mistake to get rid of nuclear weapons. I do not believe that international treaties and guarantees will ever be able to remove them, nevermind the means to produce them. The basic inherit advantage that these grant when held is simply overwhelming. You don't have to use them. Merely have them. For any weapon, if it is neglected it becomes useless. Having a nice big muzzle loader might look scary when in fact it is anything but that and especially when its rusty and might misfire on you.

On the other hand, the ens of thousands that were kept during the Cold War are ridiculous. We do not need that many to blast virtually any nation into the pages of history. At most, I feel, we need between 600 - 900 nuclear weapons. No more.

Monday, March 17, 2008

IDK WTF to do

My wife's mouth hurts. We had some extensive work done some time ago when she came under my insurance. Since then, she's had issues with her mouth hurting. We keep going back to the dentist I've had for some time and they tinker a bit here and there, but generally throw up their hands saying either they don't know what's wrong or there's nothing wrong or its in her head.

I can see she's in pain. I can see she's hurting. Her dental hygiene is impeccable according to the dentist. In fact so clean that there's no point in the dentist cleaning or polishing her teeth. Yet Lyuda's still in pain.

We just got back from another appointment and it was pointless. Nada was figured out. It was a complete waste of an hour and a half. I needed to get stuff done for work - we thought they were going to open up the crown to take a look, always fun - and Lyuda needed to meet with a prof. I was unhappy, but Lyuda was even more than that to the nth degree.

It looks like we're going to change dentists. It's too bad. They've done some good work for me, but...geez this is ridiculous.

Ex Mex

As some of you know, Mexico and the politics of immigration have been one of my main reading themes these days. I really want to get a better understanding of what is going on here. There is an awful lot of FUD out there about the illegal immigrants. That said, it is one of the most important issues that we have today. We have 12 million illegals in the country. They're mostly not bad people, just individuals that are seeking a better life. Just like the rest of the immigrants that are seeking to come to the us. Just like Americans, they work for it. Often times they work under some rather nasty conditions and there's de nada they can do because if they complain to the cops, well, they're illegal and could quite probably be deported for it. That said, they are, despite what some corners would like us to believe, criminals: they have most definitely broken the law in a nontrivial way.

Yeah, I am a 'rule of law' stickler and not just here: if you don't like the law, get it changed, but until then, follow it. Considering the immigration nightmares we've faced trying to get Lyuda's family to immigrate, we have some nontrivial biases here too. It really pisses us off that we have been unable to get my sister-in-law here as either a student or under the fact that she is an ubercompetent, trained professional in an in demand field (nurse), yet can get past the evil embassy.

That said, I really want to fill out my opinion with more facts than merely personal experience. There's more to this than merely my personal feelings of frustration, anger, and idealism: there are real people with real hopes, dreams, and needs involved seeking a life that they can't get in their home country. In the vast majority of the cases that would be Mexico.

The books I have read about the subject have been from the right (oy) to the left (ugh) on the political spectrum, but before I picked up Ex Mex the only books on the immigration issue that I had read were all written by Americans. While I had read some Mexican history books that had been contributed to by Mexicans, mostly they too had been written by Americans in Mexico. I do have a tome sitting up on the to-read stack that is a Mexican history written exclusively by a Mexican historian in English, I hadn't gotten to it yet due to its size. I have had a reading cycle that has been going something like this: mischief related reading (normally embedded or real time computing)->paleo related reading->Mexican/immigration politics & history->mischief related reading. I couldn't take too much time between getting back to the mischief related reading since I am cramming as much into my brain as fast as I can, yet still I needed a mental rinse between each lathering so to speak. Hence, Krauze's tome is simply too long at this point.

On the other hand, Castenada's Ex Mex seemed the right length and was explicitly on the immigration issue and written from the Mexican point of view. So! I picked it up and read it as soon as the next cycle came around. Unfortunately, I am very disappointed with the book. Taking a line from my wife as she learns how to appease her English profs, the book was super-repetitious. It kept looping through the same information in different chapters. At times I could swear I was reading the exact same text as from a previous chapter. Perhaps this is a writing style in Spanish, IDK, but since I don't - to my everlasting shame - read Spanish, I can't say. However, when rendered into English, its pretty awkward and makes for a unpleasant read. The total amount of original information contained in the book, and that which is worth making the effort to read, could have been contained in a single, much smaller essay or magazine article.

That said, there are bits that are interesting and worth reading. None of the books I've read to date on Mexican history touched much on the Bracero Program. In fact, I barely knew it existed, nevermind that it was a 'bitter' experience for Mexicans. Castenada highlights this and points out that the idea of a guest worker program is nothing new. I'm not really fond of the idea because of my liberal-ish thoughts that this would lead to the same problems that have arisen elsewhere (frex, the Turks in Germany).

One tidbit that I hadn't heard before is that there is a strong opinion among demographers, according to the author, that somewhere between 2016-2022, the immigration flow will largely stop. Huh?! I hadn't heard that before. My own head in sand? Or something that people in the political debate just didn't want to discuss? The reasons are pretty good that they argue this. The reason is that fertility is continuing to fall in Mexico just as it is all over the world and not just in the first world countries. Virtually all nations are falling to or below replacement levels. Mexico is no exception (fwiw, amusingly, the US is one notable exception). If the trends hold true, Mexicans will reach a population growth that matches their job growth somewhere between 2016-2022. At that point the economy will provide enough jobs and wages that immigration pressure will fall off and probably end completely. That's interesting. I have to think through whether or not I buy it. Castaneda isn't sure he buys it. Even so, it's worth pondering.

One of the other points that make me take notice is that the Mexicans have a looooong history of coming to US illegally and the government - and Americans in general - just looking the other way. When Americans state that we are a nations of laws and that Mexicans, if they want to come here, should follow the rules, the Mexicans have a "huh!? What rules?!" The reason being that even though we had a set immigration policy, when it came to the Mexicans, we haven't enforced it, almost ever[1], over the course of one hundred years plus that the illegal immigration has been happening. Therefore, it has seemed and still does to the Mexicans that they had a special status, a special unsaid exemption and that those of us that talk of the "Rule of Law" are hypocrites. In some ways, they have a point, but only in some. We ought to acknowledge that we shouldn't have done that and that we did, but work to improve the situation, imo.

There's more in the book, but for the most part, I can't say a lot of it was that original. There bits (Mexicans have swung wildly from condemning anyone that leaves Mexico as traitors to declaring them heroes, frex) , pieces (almost ten percent of Mexico's population now resides in the US), and nibbles (Mexico tried in the 1970s to set up cross border cultural associations for the Latinos and Hispanics in the US of Mexican descent, but it failed badly since they viewed themselves as Americans of Mexican descent who loved Mexico, but not Mexican nationals), but by and large I have to say that if you would like to read this one, I'd wait until its in the bargain bin or pick it up used. I felt a bit cheated and disappointed by the book. The insight wasn't that deep. The prose and organization was awkward. The amount of new information, despite being written by the former foreign minister of Mexico, wasn't that large. Alas.

1. Notable exception being Operation Wetback.