Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Science: It works, dummies.

I'm glad to hear that scientists are actually discussing the problem of getting scientific ideas across to the public. But this article also underscores how much I miss people like Carl Sagan, and dare I say it, even C. Everett Koop.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

An Automotive X-Prize Hopeful

A German automaker out of Munich is scheduled to release a production model entry for the Automotive X-Prize in 2009. The company boasts their 2-cylinder turbodiesel model, lightweight and aerodynamic, will attain an impressive 130 to 150 mpg. The car looks to be a mixed bag of ingenuity, and small sacrifices to economy. Instead of side opening doors the front of the car, windshield, steering column and all, tilt upward allowing driver and passenger to step into the tight cockpit "like stepping into a bathtub." The base model LS and a somewhat more powerful 3-cylinder GT model will debut in Europe, with plans to hit the US market the following year. The reviews anticipating this car are mixed, but then, nobody thought much of the Beetle at first either. With a price-tag under $20K and fuel economy of 150mpg, pocketbooks might be making all the decisions about this one.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Common Ancestors

At least once a day, I receive in my email one of those endlessly forwarded editions of one witticisms. They seem make their way from inbox to inbox like the common cold goes through an elementary school. I rarely take the time to read them anymore, and as a rule, I forward them only very selectively, when I have something to say about them. And though in some ways it will seem like a tired subject, I received one yesterday that I’m compelled to respond to, if only because it’s an idea I hear a little too often. What I read, partway through an otherwise innocuous list of queries about life, was this:

> If people evolved from apes, why are there still apes?

I can answer this one!

Because we didn't evolve from apes. We evolved from a common ancestor with apes, and subsequently filled differing, though overlapping ecological niches, both through a process of geographical isolation, and a process called punctuated evolution. Since humans have only been around for a few million years, it can hardly be said that that apes will survive our taking over of those ecological niches. We're competing directly with them for habitat, to say nothing of hunting them for meat or amusement, and we're winning on both counts. Neanderthals also evolved from those same common ancestors, and lived in competition with Homo Erectus (our ancestors), and Homo Sapiens (us). Neanderthals could probably offer you some insight into living in competition with Home Sapiens, but of course, they're extinct. In fact, at one time there may have been as many as five closely-related species of human in direct competition with each other. We are all that remain.

The process of evolution is neither as simple, nor as linear as the popular conception depicts. But if you take the time to study and understand it more fully, it's complexity is matched only by it's beauty.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Not in my Backyard!

Torture is in the news a lot these days, and the news items often include such high ranking officials as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. If it weren't downright scary, it would be laughable to hear a supreme court justice reference a fictional television show when discussing the constitutional merits of torture. But then, discussing should we be discussing the constitutionality of torture at all? I don't think the point of a governing document is to look for loopholes that allow us to do questionable things. I think we would be much better served if Justice Scalia were to stick to imagining one of his own nine children as the terror suspect to be interrogated. It's so much easier to ignore the torture of other people's kids.

In fact, it's becoming easier to ignore other people's children all the time. It might take a village to raise a child, but that village no longer includes some shopkeepers in England. First tested in Wales the Mosquito emits an annoying, high-frequency sound that for the most part, only younger people can hear. The device has proved successful at disbursing gangs of hoodlum teenagers from harassing people in front of shops with the device installed, so they can, I suppose, go harass people in front of shops that don't have such a device. Ironically, the shop owner where the device was tested had planned to install a system that would broadcast classical music in front of his store, a tactic also known to disperse teenage gangs, while also introducing them to the likes of Bach and Mozart. However, the shopkeeper had never gotten around to it, and in fact, did nothing until the maker of the Mosquito gave him a device in order to test it. So by doing nothing, he's found a way to continue ignoring these teens, now with technology on his side.

I wonder where those hoodlum teenagers are now? Perhaps they're busy becoming terror suspects.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Tow Truck Drivers and Three Legged Dogs

It's snowed a lot here recently, and lucky me, the heater in my car broke. So I took it in to my mechanic this morning. He's a really friendly guy, and we joked around about the weather and all the automotive trouble thereto appertaining. He commented that "When people make that phone call to the wrecker or the shop, the car is no longer their problem," and told a story about a really beat wrecker driver who shoveled people's cars out of snowbanks while they stood and watched. We concluded that it was a question of empathy.

So on the way home, I saw a lady and her kids walking their three legged dog. Now there's empathy for you. The dog had clearly been in some sort of accident, I'm guessing with a car, and had to have one of his hind legs surgically removed at the hip. That must have been a considerable expense, to say nothing of all the extra care that dog must have needed through all that. Empathy, and lots of it. It’s odd that we can have so much empathy for our dogs, but fellow human beings are little harder for us to empathize with. It’s so much easier to see a person’s flaws if they don’t have fur and big eyes to compensate for them.

To put it another way, it's easy to see the good side of someone going out of their way to help an injured dog, but a lot more telling to see how someone treats a waitress who's having a really bad day.