Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2014 Evelyn C. Leeper.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/31/2014]

The discussion group's "book" this month was the first eleven articles in THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE AND NATURE WRITING 2012, edited by Dan Ariely (ISBN 978-0-547-79953-7). For each article, I'll give a one-sentence summary, then make some comments.

"The Teeming Metropolis of You" by Brendan Buhler ("California Magazine"): You have nine times as many bacterial cells in your body than your own cells (but because they are very much smaller, they are only 1-2% of our body mass).

"Two unrelated North Americans will share only 10 percent of their intestinal bacteria, and a North American and a South American will share only 5 percent." One wonders if intestinal bacteria could be used in place of (or in conjunction with) DNA matching.

Rob Knight says that because of the ubiquitous use of laboratory mice, "We're really good at curing diseases in mice and somewhat less good at curing them in humans."

"Our Body the Ecosystem" by Virginia Hughes ("Popular Science"): This is pretty much the same basic message as "The Teeming Metropolis of You", with a few variations.

"The average human body is made up of millions of cells. The average human body also houses 10 times that number of bacterial cells." However, as noted above, the size difference means that the bacterial cells are still a tiny fraction of our body mass.

Hughes looks at surface bacteria more than intestinal flora, and sees more similarities between individuals. "For example. the bacterial communities under your arm are more similar to those under someone else's arm than to those behind your knee."

There are, of course, many other questions to be answered; for example, "[Julie] Segre doesn't know whether bacteria associated with eczema are the cause of the disease or simply a consequence of living with it."

"The Peanut Puzzle" by Jerome Groopman ("The New Yorker"): Food allergies are exacerbated by the total avoidance of some foods, and consuming them in small amounts which have been cooked or otherwise "weakened" may help acclimatize the body to them.

"The Long, Curious, Extravagant Evolution of Feathers" by Carl Zimmer ("National Geographic"): Feathers evolved a lot earlier than we thought.

Rather than "the evolution of feathers [happening] along with the evolution of flight," feathers seem to have been common even among non-flying theropods. Further study seems to indicate that they developed from patches called placodes, and while modern reptiles(*) have placodes, their genes cause them to grow as scales rather than as feathers. So, Zimmer says, "[P]erhaps the question to ask, say some scientists, is not how birds got their feathers, but how alligators lost theirs."

[*] "Reptiles" used to form a separate Class in the Linnaean system, but ever since it has been shown that birds descended from theropods, reptiles as a taxonomic group have had a somewhat shaky standing, being a paraphyletic group (defined as all descendents of a common ancestor except for a small sub-group or sub-groups). Cladistics does not recognize such exclusions, so reptiles" has to be expanded to include birds, possibly getting a new name in the process.

"How to Hatch a Dinosaur" by Thomas Hayden ("Wired"): Jack Horner thinks he can raise a dinosaur by reverse-evolving a chicken.

Horner thinks chickens are very close to dinosaurs in their DNA. As Hayden notes, though, "Human beings are almost indistinguishable, genetically speaking, from chimpanzees, but at that scale we're also pretty hard to tell apart from, say, bats." So "very close" is not necessarily very close.

Horner says the genes are in a chicken for (say) teeth, and claims, "So making a chicken egg hatch a baby dinosaur should really be just an issue of erasing what evolution has done to make a chicken."

But [Sean] Carroll, an expert in evolutionary developmental biology ("evo devo") says. "... even if you raised an adult chicken with teeth, you'd really end up with nothing more than Foghorn Leghorn with teeth, And sh*tty teeth at that." This is because, according to Matthew Harris (who is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School), while the basic genes for teeth are there, there is nothing to create enamel and dentine.

"Faster. Higher. Squeakier." by Michael Behar ("Outside"): Scientists are developing a pill that will give someone all the benefits of exercise without their even having to break into a sweat.

I cannot say I followed all the science perfectly. Behar explains, "At rest, PPAR-delta [a protein that regulates metabolism] is dormant. But during exercise it awakens to sustain a metabolic chain reaction that produces muscle fibers with slow-twitch properties, which feed on body fat. ... In his first experiment, Evans coded the PPAR-delta gene to activate only in fat cells, where he thought it would have the most impact on weight loss. ... By 2004 he'd figured out how to tweak the PPAR-delta gene to fire in muscle cells. If the muscle became oxidative, like in the fat-cell experiment, it would cultivate the growth of mitochondria-rich slow-twitch fibers, essential for endurance."

The net result (in mice, anyway) was that mice given the treatment were able to run longer and faster than mice which had not been treated, even if the latter had been training for weeks.

"The Wipeout Gene" by Bijal P. Trivedi ("Scientific American"): Scientists are trying a new genetic approach to wiping out disease-carrying mosquitoes.

Trivedi writes, "Anthony James, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues have added genes to A. aegypti that block the development of flight muscles in females." Although previous extermination projects have relied on releasing sterile males into the population, "... sterile insect technology had never worked with mosquitoes. Radiation severely weakens adult males, and the processes of sorting and transport kill them before they can mate."

And as proof that attempts by governments to regulate such projects may work in a limited geographical area, and for a limited time, Trivedi reports, "Beginning in September 2009, [Luke] Alphey said, Oxitec had been releasing genetically modified mosquitoes on Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean." The reason, of course, was that Grand Cayman Island had little or no regulations controlling such experiments. The argument is that because it is on an island, there is little chance of the mosquitoes escaping to other areas. But as just about every disease and pest has shown us (with Ebola being the latest), all it takes is one plane or one ship to let the genie out of the bottle.

"Deep Intellect" by Sy Montgomery ("Orion"): Octopuses are even more intelligent and amazing than we thought.

I have been reading and learning about octopuses a lot in the last few years, so most of what this article said was not new. Montgomery starts by noting that, while octopuses had small brains, "Small brain size was the evidence once used to argue that birds were stupid--before some birds were proven intelligent enough to compose music, invent dance steps, ask questions, and do math." In fact, "Octopuses have the largest brains of any invertebrate."

Montgomery gives the example, "Octopuses even learned to open the childproof caps on Extra Strength Tylenol pill bottles--a feat that eludes many humans with university degrees."

And although it seems obvious when stated, "Octopus and human intelligence evolved independently." Most things that two species have in common can be traced to a common ancestor. We have legs and cows have legs and the most recent common ancestor of us and cows had legs. But the most recent common ancestor of us and octopuses did not have intelligence. (Even the most recent common ancestor of us and cows did not have what we would call intelligence.) Rather, what we see is convergent evolution, the same phenomenon that produced (for example) flight in bees, birds, and bats. According to Montgomery, "... the event driving the octopus toward intelligence was the loss of the ancestral shell."

There are science fictional implications: "Meeting an octopus," writes [Peter] Godfrey-Smith, "is like meeting an intelligent alien."

The octopus's camouflage abilities are well-known. "But how does an octopus decide what animal to mimic, what colors to turn? Scientists have no idea, especially given that octopuses are likely colorblind."

Not surprisingly, Montgomery alludes to Thomas Nagel's ground-breaking paper, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?"

"Ants & the Art of War" by Mark W. Moffett ("Scientific American"): Ants wage war using many of the same tactics that humans do.

What is interesting about this is that humans seem to think they have perfected the art of war through study and intelligence, while it turns out that ants manage to discover and develop the same tactics without the benefit of an Imperial War College, ROTC, or even training by tribal elders.

"The Scent of Your Thoughts" by Deborah Bloom ("Scientific American"): Humans react to pheromones just the way other animals do.

"Sleeping with the Enemy" by Elizabeth Kolbert ("The New Yorker"): Humans interbred with Neanderthals, and with Denisovans.

Kolbert notes that our ideas about Neanderthals are almost all wrong. She says, "... there was--and still is--no clear evidence that [Neanderthals] were hairy," and "Neanderthals did not walk with a slouch. or with bent knees." In addition, in 2013 (after this article was published) it was discovered that the shape and position of the hyoid bone and the existence of the FOXP2 gene in Neanderthals would seem to indicate that they may well have been capable of, or even have, speech.

The only studies on "intelligence" done with species closely related to modern humans has been with other primates and the results were that "the chimps, the orangutans, and the kids performed comparably on a wide range of tasks that involved understanding of the physical world. ... Where the kids routinely outscored the apes was in tasks that involved reading social cues." Kolbert observes, "From an experimental viewpoint, the best way to test whether any specific change is significant would be to produce a human with the Neanderthal version of the sequence," but also notes that for a lot of reasons this is unlikely to happen. This experiment is the premise of Robert J. Sawyer's FRAMESHIFT, and while Kolbert says "such Island of Dr. Moreau-like research on humans is not permitted," she does not say who is prohibiting it. The answer would seem to be the United States government, or perhaps most Western governments, but 1) what makes her think everyone follows the laws, 2) what makes her think scientists won't just go to some country that does not have such laws, and 3) what makes her think that scientists won't just sit on a ship outside the territorial limits and do their experiments (or an unclaimed island, which they might as well name Moreau Island while they're at it)?

Tests show that "all non-Africans. from the New Guineans to the French to the Han Chinese, carry somewhere between one and four per cent Neanderthal DNA ... and ... contemporary New Guineans carry up to six per cent Denisovan DNA."

So using the "traditional" definition of species as the equivalence class of all animals able to mate and produce fertile offspring(*), it should not be Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens, but Homo sapiens neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens sapiens. So far, scientists have avoided assigning a similar designation to the Denisovans, because there is still a lot of debate about whether they are a separate species ("Homo denisovensis"?) or merely a sub-species ("Homo sapiens denisovensis"?).

(Actually, there is even disagreement on whether modern humans and Neanderthals are separate species. The "fertile matings" definition is just one of many, and people point to the wholphin (or wolphin), the fertile offspring of a bottle-nosed dolphin and a "false killer whale" (actually in the "oceanic dolphin" family). These are two animals that are not only different species, but different genera.)

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/31/2014]

The discussion group's "book" this month was the remaining thirteen articles in THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE AND NATURE WRITING 2012, edited by Dan Ariely (ISBN 978-0-547-79953-7). For each article, I'll give a one-sentence summary, then make some comments. "The Touchy-Feely (but Totally Scientific!) Methods of Wallace J. Nichols ("Outside"): Nichols wants to figure out what is going on in our brains when we look at the ocean.

The idea that appealing to our emotions has more effect than appealing to our reason has been pretty clearly demonstrated, so it is not obvious why finding out exactly why oceans appeal to us would improve our techniques to make people act more responsibly towards the environment. (Although, as they note, if it turns out that polluted, dead oceans would have the same effect, the whole plan could backfire.)

"The Feedback Loop" (original title "Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops") by Thomas Goetz ("Wire"): Feedback loops can be used to improve behavior, but only if properly implemented.

"The ideal feedback loop gives us an emotional connection to a rational goal." --Sounds like the last article.

Feedback loops have four stages: evidence, relevance, consequence, action. That is, measure the behavior, convey the information to the user in a relevant way, make the user aware of their options, and have some way for the user to make a choice. The example Goetz gives that seems to be very successful are the spread of speed-sensing radar signs ("Your speed is ..."), although Goetz attributes the drop in average vehicle speed entirely to the feedback loop and assumes the drivers know there is no policeman standing by to give them a ticket. Frankly, when I see these, I assume there *is* a higher probability that there will be a policeman, since the sign is clearly gathering information which could be used in court.

Up until now the main problems have been the cost of collecting data, and the delivery of data back to the user (rather than some central repository).

"What You Don't Know Can Kill You" by Jason Daley ("Discover"): We have a hard time evaluating risks.

The fact that people obsess more over shark attacks (1 US death per year) than cattle attacks (20 US deaths per year) or even drownings (3400 US deaths per year) was not just recently discovered. Even the reason behind this--we are still instinctively reacting as our prehistoric ancestors were evolved to do--is not news. However, Daley has a few new additions. We have an "optimism" bias, and more of a fear of man-made risks or those causing dread (painful/gruesome deaths) than of natural or "peaceful" ones.

These in turn are fed by what the media covers and how it covers it. A single shark attack gets far more coverage than the 3400 drownings.

And over-reaction can be deadly. WHO estimates that 4000 residents and recovery workers for Chernobyl will develop a fatal cancer as a result of that accident. However, it has already resulted in 1250 suicides and between 100,000 and 200,000 elective abortions. (The last figure is for all of Europe, but I am still not sure I trust it.)

"Beautiful Brains" (original title "Teenage Brains") by David Dobbs ("National Geographic"): It had been thought that teenagers do reckless things because their brains were still developing, and in fact undergoing major changes during those years; Dobbs says it is more that they are adapting.

The claim had been that between ten and twenty, young brains were modifying both their physical and logical structures and this is why they seemed to do things that made parents ask, "What were they thinking?" The changing patterns also explained why the same person could make mature decisions on Monday, and completely reckless ones on Tuesday.

Dobbs claims that these traits, rather than being negative, are "highly functional, even adaptive," and that this is the correct response to the changing environment teens are undergoing.

However, when one considers this in terms of the previous article's premise (our reactions are the result of evolution for prehistoric conditions), one gets a different picture. One major result of these "reckless" decisions, for example, are a lot of pregnancies (and offspring) that with more rational thought might have been avoided. So whoever is the most reckless sexually has the best chance of producing the most offspring. Similarly, reckless driving might derive from reckless hunting--inept hunters get killed off faster, while good hunters survive (with food) to reproduce. All this is highly beneficial from an evolutionary standpoint, but not exactly the behaviors we want our teenagers to have.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle called it "evolution in action." That was not intended as a compliment.

"The Brain on Trial" by David Eagleman ("The Atlantic"): Yet another tale of the amygdala (see Daley above) and how physical and chemical changes in the brain can affect what we think of as behaviors entered into by free choice. This reminds me of "Reasons to Be Cheerful" and "Oceanic" by Greg Egan, in which he examines what it means to talk about free will when it is known that chemicals can affect one's moods or even one's religious beliefs.

Eagleman looks at this from a judicial point of view. If people are forced into certain behaviors because of their neurological make-up, what does this mean in terms of criminal sentencing? We now recognize that people may have all sorts of involuntary physical movements, vocalizations, and so on due to the state of their brain, and Eagleman thinks it is only a matter of time before more and more behaviors can be traced to specific conditions of the brain. While Eagleman does not advocate eliminating punishment altogether, he thinks it is important to use the most efficacious treatment. He seems to prefer the "prefrontal workout," which he admits is just the biofeedback of the 1970s, but far more sophisticated and scientifically based than it was then.

"Crush Point" by John Seabrook ("The New Yorker"): The science of how to prevent crowd disasters is more complicated than people thought.

For a long time, people believed that crowd disasters were caused by people fleeing a fire or otherwise trying to leave an area. Now scientists who have studied the phenomenon (notably Paul Wertheimer, who personally observed thousands of concert mosh pits from the inside!) have determined that these can be caused by crowds attempting to enter a space, or even by crowds simply within a space. (Crowds leaving a space and crowds entering a space are in some sense identical--both are attempting to pass from one space to another through a bottleneck. But crowds entering a space, even when attempting to get "Black Friday" bargains, are not driven by the same instincts that crowds fleeing a fire are.)

The opening of the article is an account of the 2008 "Black Friday" death of a security guard at a Wal-Mart on Long Island. Unfortunately, the article was written before the OSHA suit against Wal-Mart was decided.

"Ill Wind" (original title "Made in China: Our Toxic, Imported Air Pollution") by David Kirby ("Discover"): Air pollution in the United States is increasing because of China pollutants.

"All of the world's atmosphere is interconnected." Even if this is obvious, the idea that pollutants such as mercury and even dust could be carried to all parts of the globe came as a shock to a lot of people. Currently the increasing pollution from China is such that we have to decrease our emissions quite a bit just to stay at the same level, or as the Red Queen said, "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere you must run at least twice as fast as that."

"The City Solution" by Robert Kunzig ("National Geographic"): Cities are good; urban sprawl is bad.

Although the wretched conditions in parts of London (and New York) in the late 19th century led planners to attempt to empty out the cities, or at least to stem their growth, it is now recognized that the response is to fix what is broken in the city. Moving people out is environmentally unsound, both from the point of view of requiring people in the distant, sparsely populated areas to rely on cars, and in requiring more resources to supply electricity, gas, water, food, and everything else to a much more distributed population. Seoul is a good example of how planners can make cities work--even if the apartment buildings are ugly blocks from the outside, they are comfortable and affordable inside, and the city provides a stimulating, thriving emotional and intellectual environment.

"Test-Tube Burgers" by Michael Specter ("The New Yorker"): We have not achieved vat-grown meat on a consumer level yet, but that is probably just a matter of time.

Specter references William Gibson's NEUROMANCER and Margaret Atwood's ORYZ AND CRAKE, but fails to note that Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's THE SPACE MERCHANTS had vat-grown meat 32 years before either of them (in 1952). Yes, Gibson and Atwood are better known to his readers, but it still seems like stealing the credit from where it is due.

Environmentally, livestock produces 20% of greenhouse emissions, and uses 10% of all fresh water supplies and 80% of all farmland. Of course, the flip side is that if we switch to vat-grown meat, why would there even be cattle, or sheep, or pigs, or chickens? And some organic farmers say that livestock provides an important part of the ecosystem, although they are very specific about how it should be raised and treated. (And needless to say, they think there should be a lot less livestock, because it is only factory farming methods that allow us to raise as much as we do.

Most methods of creating vat-grown meat also involve using some animal cells as a "starter", so vegans (and some vegetarians) would still have concerns. And vat-grown pork started from pig cells is not going to be declared either kosher or halal in the foreseeable future. (Scientists are experimenting with starting with algae.) The techniques used are more suited to producing the equivalent of ground meat than a steak with actual structure including blood vessels, etc., but the vast majority of meat raised is used in a ground-up form.

Specter talks a lot about making vat-grown meat resemble "real" meat, in look, texture, taste, etc. But to my mind, this may be just another example of the same mistake so many vegetarian restaurants make. They take ingredients that are perfectly fine on their own, and try to make them seem like something else. I would rather have an honest bean or tofu dish, than something that tries to make them into a burger that they claim tastes like a beef burger.

As for converting current meat eaters to vat-grown meat eaters (assuming the technique is improved to production level and the price comes down), Ingrid Newkirk says that the only way would be if at the beginning of those cooking shows everyone loves, they brought a baby lamb out, killed it, beheaded it, and cut it up to make the lamb roast or whatever. Synchronistically, I earlier today listened to the commentary track of CHEF, a film about cooking in which at the beginning, a whole pig is slung up on the kitchen counter and cut up into ingredients, including bacon that we later see being cooked. (At least the pig was already dead.) Roy Choi talked about how this was the scene that would separate the true foodies from people who wanted a sanitized Hollywood studio film, and that people need to recognize that the delicious bacon they see sizzling later in the film started as this.

"Mad Science" (original title "Microsoft's Former CTO Takes on Modernist Cuisine") by Mark McClusky ("Wired"): Nathan Myhrvold has written what is McClusky calls the "Principia" of the kitchen--or will it be its "Consolation of Philosophy"?

Myhrvold has written MODERNIST CUISINE--a six-volume, 2400-page, $625 cookbook. It is more than just recipes-it goes into a lot of the physics and chemistry of cooking. However, reviews elsewhere note that the first printing is rife with errors--there is an extensive errata sheet, though it apparently still misses some howlers (such as that one cup of cornstarch weighs eight grams). There is also a MODERNIST CUISINE AT HOME for the more reasonable (though still expensive) price of $140. (By contrast, Harold McGee's ON FOOD AND COOKING: THE SCIENCE AND LORE OF THE KITCHEN is only $40.)

The food may be great, but even great French fries are not (in my opinion) worth two hours of preparation time, a vacuum sealer, an ultrasound machine, and a $2000 vacuum chamber. (Your mileage may vary.)

Myhrvold (or his assistants) did all the food research as part of a general "wild-ideas" lab where people get to try all sort of things out, from lasers to zap malaria-carrying mosquitoes to using the global cooling effect of sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere to counteract the global warming effect of carbon dioxide.

"Dream Machine" by Rivka Galchen ("The New Yorker"): Quantum computing is hard to understand.

As best as I can understand it, quantum computing makes use of parallel universes to carry out calculations. This supposedly lets you do factorizations (for example) 10^500 times faster (according to an algorithm by Peter Shor). As David Deutsch notes, since there are only 10^80 atoms in the whole universe, so the whole universe "would not even remotely contain the resources required."

This requires qubits. According to Galchen, eight cubits are less powerful as an abacus, but fifty to a hundred would be the equivalent of a laptop.

Galchen writes, "Babbage suggested rewriting 'Every minute dies a man / Every minute one is born' as 'Every minute dies a man / Every minute one and a sixteenth is born,' further noting that ... the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre." Never mind metre; 1.167 is one and one *sixth*, not one sixteenth! (According to one web page, this was a typo in the original, and has since become what is quoted. That Galchen fails to comment on it, however, is inexplicable.)

"The Crypto-Currency" by Joshua Davis ("The New Yorker"): Yet another article about bitcoins.

"Mind vs. Machine" by Brian Christian ("The Atlantic"): Machines are coming close to passing the Turing Test, but what does that prove?

These days, definitions of human beings seem all to be of the form "The human being is the only animal that _______." "Uses tools," "uses language," and "does mathematics" have filled in the blank in the past, but then discovered to be wrong. ("Blushes, or needs to" may still be the best answer.) Indeed, I have commented that linguists seem to spend a lot of time defining and redefining language in such a way as to allow that still to fill the blank. But Christian asks, "Is it appropriate to allow our definition of our own uniqueness to be, in some sense, reactive to the advancing front of technology? And why, is it that we are so compelled to feel unique in the first place?" In fact, given recent discoveries about Neandertals, Denisovans, and Hobbits, it is not clear that there is anything that makes us unique.

Christian feels this will not end: "The story of the 21st century will be, in part, the story of the drawing and redrawing of these battle lines, the story of Homo sapiens trying to stake a claim on shifting ground, flanked by beast and machined, pinned between meat and math." (If we ever find a way to upload consciousnesses, then all bets are off.)

The Turing Test competitions show up what our conversations look like when we have no real connection between the conversants. Consisting of dodging questions, changing the subjects, and so on, they lead Christian to suggest that "what shouldn't pass for real conversation [under the rules] at the Turing Test shouldn't be allowed to pass for real conversation in everyday life either."

To order The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2012 from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/16/2009]

PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL: THE HIDDEN FORCES THAT SHAPE OUR DECISIONS by Dan Ariely (ISBN-13 978-0-06-153544-4, ISBN-10 0-06-153544-0) addresses questions such as "Why are we happier to do things when we are not paid for doing them?" and "Why are free things frequently more expensive than things we pay for?" I don't necessarily always agree with Ariely's conclusions, though. For example, Ariely claims that more people will choose a free $10 gift certificate than a $20 gift certificate that costs $7, but that the latter is a better deal because one gets $13 of profit rather than $10. Well, he uses as an the vendor and they are probably reasonably priced, but consider a more extreme case: you have the choice between a free $100 gift certificate for Tiffany's or a $200 gift certificate for $70. Unless you are the sort who buys in Tiffany's, most of what they have will appear over-priced (and unnecessary). You may very well prefer something that requires no expense on your part than a "better" deal that puts you out of pocket for $70. Or, put another way, if you think everything at Tiffany's costs four times what you are willing to pay (i.e., what it is worth to you), a free $100 gift certificate gets you $25 worth of goods for nothing, while a $200 gift certificate that costs $70 gets you only $50 worth of goods for that $70--hardly a good deal.

To order Predictably Irrational from, click here.

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