Thought of the day

Joe Biden has a million dollar smile.

Baffling statistic

This is from The Island of Doubt:

So, to recap:

More than 96% of working climatologists say the global mean temperatures are rising, but only 34% of the public believes “Most scientists think global warming is happening.”

How did we let this happen?

Before you answer, note that the public poll, published today by a Yale University group, also found that 47% say global warming is “caused mostly by human activities.” But only a third of them say scientists even believe the planet is warming. So there’s a bunch of Americans out who believe the science of anthropogenic global warming even though they don’t think scientists share their view.

This is not really news. But that doesn’t make it any less baffling.

January-February Edition

The January-February edition of Without Apology has finally arrived.

Big thanks to those who contributed. I got two articles from Kaytlyn Gillis and one article from Matthew Doyon. I also had a few photo contributions from Michael Amalfitano. Do check out his work as it is quite good.

I’m sure few have really picked up on it, but I have changed the way I’m going to date the papers. I used to just put the month of publication (i.e., “November 2009”), but I’ve found I tend to get all the copies near the end of the month, so things look outdated pretty quickly. I’ve remedied that by hyphenating things just as I’ve done for the title of this post.

As always, there are some minor issues with the physical copy of the paper. One article had its first couple paragraphs on the front page, but when one turns to where it is continued on page 3, the entire article appears – those first couple paragraphs and all. This isn’t as bad as the first issue where half of an article didn’t appear at all since the reader can at least get the entirety of what was written this time, but it’s still a bit annoying.

There are also a couple minor typos on my part. They both showed up in the Little Spencer article. The worst part is that they are on “too” (spelled “to”) and “it’s” (spelled “its”), two of the words I really hate to see misspelled. Well, so it goes.

Again, a big thanks to Katy, Matt, and Michael for contributing. I hope to have more from you all for the February-March edition.

Oh, How Times Have Changed

By Michael Hawkins

In all my attempts to explain certain things about science, I’ve noticed something: a lot of people just don’t know the general timeline of significant events. These are important things to know, if only so one can at least have a general idea of what’s going on whenever science is discussed. Even more to the point, I would have to imagine a lot of people care where their money is spent. In Europe, for instance, one of the largest scientific collaborations amongst nations, the Large Hadron Collider, has a budget of roughly 9 billion dollars. Most of that is not American money, but regardless, the people who are paying for it ought to know that it is entirely predicated on the notion that the Universe emerged from the Big Bang roughly 13.7 billion years ago. If someone believes instead that the Universe is, say, 6,000 years old, then there is clearly an issue. The predication on which the Large Hadron Collider stands doesn’t make much sense for that person.

So it is with that in mind that I present my own attempt to knock down that sort of ignorance, or at least give a refresher. “BYA” stands for “billion years ago”, with the substitute “M” meaning “million”, and “T” standing in for “thousand”.

13.7 bya – Big Bang
13.0 bya – First galaxies form
10.0 bya – Milky Way forms
4.6 bya – The Sun forms
4.5 bya – Earth forms
3.9 bya – First life appears
3.0 bya – Photosynthesis appears
2.1 bya – Eukaryotic cells appear (you are a eukaryote)
1.0 bya – Multicellular life appears
580 mya – Cambrian explosion, tons of complex arms races evolve
400 mya – Tetrapods evolve
360 mya – Amphibians evolve
230 mya – Dinosaurs evolve
200 mya – Mammals evolve
150 mya – Birds evolve (we would have called them dinosaurs at the time)
65 mya – Big ol’ asteroid. Dinosaurs that can’t fly die out
50 mya – With T-Rex et al gone, mammals diversify
5-7 mya – Great apes, monkeys split (humans are great apes)
2.6 mya – Earliest tool use detected
150 tya – First anatomically apparent humans emerge
30 tya – Last Neanderthals die
15 tya – Wolves domesticated as dogs
11 tya – End of last ice age
5 tya – First preserved written language
3 tya – Egyptians build pyramids. Also praise cats.
476 AD – Fall of Rome
1643 – Newton is born
1743 – Thomas Jefferson is born
1809 – Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln are born (same day)
1999 – Mystery Science Theater 3000 is cancelled
2009 – See evening news

So there you have it. A basic sketch of what has happened over the past 13.7 billion years. While most events, such as the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, don’t tend to be as hurtful as the cancellation of Mystery Science Theater 3000, they are all important.

Finally, the point of the time line I want to really take a moment to point out is with the evolution of humans. The split between us and other modern apes occurred roughly 5-7 million years ago. Emphasis on “other”. There is no taxonomic grouping that separates humans and, say, orangutans on the Family level. Humans, orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees are all Great Apes. Further included in that grouping would be a massive number of extinct species, many of which would resemble early humans in a number of ways. (And by “early”, I mean humans from just 50,000-100,000 years ago.) We are apes, which are first primates which are first mammals which are first vertebrates which are first animals which are first eukaryotes which are first simple replicators which are first the stuff of stars.

Poker Legends and the Game of Life

Apparently a big chunk of this article was cut off. I have no idea why, but it may cause a change in the company I use for printing. The full version appears here.

By Matthew Doyon

Emerging from a field of thousands of contestants, there were only two players left. And only one of those two could make history. It was November 2008, and the main event of the World Series in Las Vegas was coming to a culmination. The World Series of Poker, that is.

Neither one of the final two players left in the poker main event contest was American. On one side of the table sat Russian Ivan Demidov, and on the other side sat Austrian Peter Eastgate. Both men had outlasted over six thousand other players to earn a place at the final table of poker’s grandest stage.

The World Series of Poker is a group of poker games that is held every year in Las Vegas, Nevada. In the not so distant past, this event was attended mainly by professional players, celebrities and maybe other well-to-do persons who simply enjoyed bumping elbows with the poker pros. An amateur player aptly named Chris Moneymaker quickly changed all of that.

In 2003, Moneymaker came out of obscurity to beat hundreds of professionals, win the main event, and become the poker champion of the world. There were around eight hundred entrants that year. The year after this “no-name” became world champion over twenty-five hundred people paid the ten thousand dollar entry fee and joined the game. Since then, the number of entrants has always been comfortably over five thousand. Poker is no longer a professional gambler’s game. It is now the game of the “no-name”. And the no-names have won every year since 2003.

And so, in 2008, Peter Eastgate and Ivan Demidov sat at a table, each poised and hoping to claim the coveted title of poker’s best player. Demidov and Eastgate had about an even number of tournament chips. But in the next to last hand, Demidov bluffed off most of his chips to Eastgate who had made a lucky five-card flush.

In the final hand, Demidov, made two pair. He had few chips left and needed to act. From across the table, Eastgate coldly stared him down. Instead of looking up into Eastgate’s scorching eyes, Demidov simply focused. This intelligent young Russian had made it this far by remaining thoughtful and making wise decisions. A little luck hadn’t hurt either. And so thinking that he probably had the best hand with his two-pair, he said the two most famous words in Texas Hold’em poker, “All in.” With those words, Demidov effectively shoved his remaining chips into the middle of the pot and sealed his fate.

Texas Hold’em is a game that is played with each contestant using two hidden hole cards and five community cards to make the best possible five-card poker hand. In this situation, and unfortunately for Demidov, Eastgate had made a five-card straight with the same community card that had given Demidov two pair. Eastgate quickly called Demidov’s all-in bet with his made straight and after one more benign community card was harmlessly turned, the game was over. Eastgate won over nine million dollars. In addition to that, he had become the first Austrian and also the youngest poker champion of the world at age twenty-two. He would earn the name “Icegate” for his trademark stare. This “no-name” is now and forever a poker legend.

Poker was once a game played purely by gamblers and professionals. It was illegal in many places and the players were regarded as little better then criminals. In these days, poker has become a game that anyone can play. In any given hand, anybody can win. It is an underdog’s dream. And poker, just like life, involves both fate and good decision making. With good decisions, you can possibly cut down on the role that fate plays. John Wayne, one of the game’s biggest fans, once said, “Life is hard; it’s harder if you’re stupid.” But then again, in life, your wise decisions may or may not always help you in the end.

And so it goes with poker. It’s a game in which you can make the best decisions and still lose. It’s a contest in which you can be stupid and still somehow win. It is a competition that takes into consideration the controlled human element, and yet somehow always involves dumb luck.

And life, like poker, demonstrates the odd relationship between our freedom of choice and the irony of fate. That is why it is such a great game. The game of life, I mean. The game of poker is great too; and if you don’t believe me then just ask Chris Moneymaker, or if you prefer perhaps, Peter “Icegate”. Life is an underdog’s dream.

The Views Atop Little Spencer

By Michael Hawkins

Fierce views are difficult to tame. They inhibit legislatures, sometimes cause violence, and all too often mar friendships. So when two creationists and an atheist who constantly debate and argue with each other decided to hike Little Spencer Mountain near Moosehead Lake, context was ripe for torn relations and strained propinquities.

As with most Maine hikes, this one began with a long drive. Navigation was eased by a brand new GPS (with the British voice setting, of course; the “motorway” is much classier than the Interstate). Of course, technology only goes so far. Roads eventually cease to exist on any maps. This was remote country.

When we did find the undoubtedly dirt road – or the middle of the road-less woods, should you believe my GPS screen – we were quickly greeted by a familiar Maine native: a big, honking moose. He stopped to stare at us. We returned the favor. Infatuation seemed to be equal for both parties. Of course, the first to break the spell was the non-primate among us all. We quickly followed.

Reaching the point where the moose entered the more comfortable setting of the woods, my friends ran up a mound of dirt on the shoulder while I stood on the back of my car. There was at least one other moose in there to sustain our excitement. Soon, though, they both disappeared into the thickening Maine green.

But no, this wasn’t the end of our roadside entertainment. It turns out that one of my friends managed to step too near a black ant colony. They filled the car like something out of a movie. We soon made them the only residents of my vehicle – until The Great Insect Genocide of 2009 began. Rest their souls.

This was a good start to a hike. No Real Hiker wants any of his experience to be bland, even the parts that don’t involve walking up big hills or across wide expanses. Of course, it’s those big hills and wide expanses that are the real draw.

We ran into some trouble finding our starting point. The marking for the trail head was well hidden. This would be a common theme for Little Spencer. After see-sawing the road a little bit, we finally found the marker and began our trek to the peak of this 3,040 foot mountain.

All the information we found for this hike told us to expect about 4 hours for the totality of our journey. We were thinking it’d be a bit less – why, a few strapping men like ourselves (my best attribute is that I’m too humble) – but we had no hurry.

It wasn’t too long until we came to the Bermuda Triangle of Little Spencer. There were two rocks, both with identical white paint, both pointing toward plausible trails. One seemed to go up while the other went down. We naturally chose the “up” route.

That was wrong.

A solid 45 minutes later and we were back to the Triangle. It turns out the other trail only went downward until it reached a short curve around which we couldn’t see.

Sidebar, Your Honor: Is it legal to spray paint rocks and trees to better mark hiking trails in Maine? Someone seems to be doing it – just not well enough. I mean, I appreciate all the effort that goes into trail maintenance throughout the state, but come on. I can’t be blamed for losing the trail every single time it happens, can I?

Once we were back on our way, it wasn’t long until two notable events occurred. First, nature called. The names involved in this trip are Matt, Luke, and Michael. For the sake of the innocent and the guilty alike, let’s just say this caveat is about Bill. Well, Bill had a no-choice situation. It happens to the best of us. If you go up Little Spencer, don’t venture too far from the trail for a couple weeks.

Second, we approached a steep incline. This wasn’t just regular steep. The Cathedral Trail on Katahdin is regular steep. This was thank-goodness-there’s-a-rope-here steep.

This had to be one of the, frankly, coolest things I’d seen in all my years hiking around Maine. The rocks were narrow, wet, loose, and the rope was soaked and fraying. It was perfect.

We tackled this obstacle one-by-one. The trick was taking our time. No rushing, no dumb moves. It was a workout, it was dangerous, and it was tough, but even while grasping that rope in an effort to bring my weight closer to the peak, I couldn’t help but wait for the climb back down.

We pushed on, stopping only to live the day well: we seized all the scenic outlooks. They came as advertised.

Standing on one rock outcropping, we surveyed the great landscape before us. Spencer Pond lay before the grandeur of Moosehead Lake, completely dwarfed. Katahdin was easily viewable in the distance. The darkened clouds around its peak on this otherwise sunny day looked more like Mordor than a mountain in Maine.

It was here that I couldn’t help but imagine the immense power of the glaciers which slowly carved out the landscape that lay before us. There were great lakes and seemingly endless ponds. A great expanse of land set flat between the mountains. Perhaps it was a valley; it seemed too wide to be one to me. The colossal process that resulted in all this profound beauty only ratcheted up the intensity of this experience. If the majesty of this temporal view can be so uplifting on its own, then shouldn’t a much more grand and sweeping contemplation of deep and ancient time and measure be all the more enlightening?

Once we reached the summit, we were greeted with views of Little Spencer’s cousin, Big Spencer, to the east, and directly on the peak we discovered that we had all earned lunch. Normally the height of any hike, the top wasn’t my biggest anticipation. It was going back down that fraying rope.

Two hikers were just reaching the top of the rope when we returned. The first one to the top, Grizzly Adams beard and all, waited for his companion to reach him. I couldn’t wait for our turn.

It was one-by-one again. The rope had no knots, so it was all the more difficult going down. Momentum swung me into the narrow rock walls. Rocks slipped from beneath my boots. It was better than I had expected.

We soon returned through the Triangle, down the rest of the trail, and to my car. We came in right around 4 hours, even with our 45 minute detour. Egos were satisfied.

It’s funny. Mountains seem to have a way about them. Philosophies, theologies, politics: They all tend to fade into the background when faced with the scale, depth, detail, and outright beauty that a good hike has to offer. I’m not going to say who the creationists were and who the atheist was. We lost track of that ourselves up there on Little Spencer during that sunny Saturday afternoon.

Devil Facial Tumour Disease

The seemingly needless “u” in “Tumour” is how it is written in reference to the disease, regardless of the country.

By Michael Hawkins

Devil Facial Tumour Disease is a particularly nasty cancer afflicting the Tasmanian devil population of Tasmania right now. It is spread by devils biting each other in the face and has been fatal for upwards of 50% of the population. Recent research has shed some light onto its origins.

Australian scientists found that the disease originates in Schwann cells, which protect peripheral nerve fibers. This has opened the door to the discovery of a genetic marker which can be used to diagnose the cancer.

What they also found was that in each subject, the disease was fundamentally the same. That is, the cancer does not originate in the individual devils, but instead comes from one common source, some long deceased devil. This means the disease can effectively be regarded as a separate organism, free to undergo its own evolution. Of course, its evolutionary ‘goals’ do not jive with the evolutionary ‘goals’ of its host, so there is an obvious conflict. (Please note the scare quotes around “goals”. The term is metaphorical.)

The cancer may become more and more virulent, allowing it to spread further and faster around the island. That could mean the end of both the devils and the cancer. Eventual death is not a very good long term evolutionary strategy, but then natural selection does not have any sort of foresight. Alternatively, the cancer could become less virulent so that its host could survive longer, thus offering the devil a greater chance to pass the disease along. Either way, the devils are out of luck.

One question this indirectly raises is if this susceptibility to cancer has anything to do with poor contact inhibition, the mechanism by which cells stop reproducing upon coming into contact with each other. Cells that don’t do that are called cancer. Most animals have one gene for this (p27), but naked mole rats have two (p27 and p16). This constitutes an extra barrier against cancer; as such, naked mole rats have never been observed to have developed cancer. Ever.

This means that at least one theoretical avenue of research into the cancer afflicting devils could be into the efficacy of their p27 gene: it may not offer the same effectiveness it does in other animals, especially considering the devil’s susceptibility to cancer in general.

But wherever the research should go, the dwindling Tasmanian devil population clearly needs help. And soon.

OTR, On The Rocks

By Kaytlyn Gillis

An article in the January 6th issue of the Kennebec Journal informed locals that Club OTR is at risk for being unable to renew its liquor license. The club’s owner, Mark D. Coulombe, is concerned that the club may not be able to stay in business if the liquor license is not renewed. This is an obvious concern, as alcohol is one of the main draws to this – and any – weekend nightclub.

In the same issue of the Kennebec Journal. Police Chief Wayne McCamish recommended that the club’s license not be renewed by the city, reporting that local police “responded to a total of 135 complaints in the immediate area of the club last year.” Now, I’m sure we can all agree that the local police shouldn’t be tied up on Water Street on a Friday night when there are people going 30 mph in a 25 on Western Ave. Therefore, it comes to no surprise that the officers are tired of this scene, and adamant about making a beneficial change.

The shock factor is that business owners continue to attempt to run a successful hot spot in the downtown area. How long did Club Liquid last? I don’t think the newly painted sign even dried thoroughly. And, does anybody remember The Edge? …neither do I.

When will we come to terms with the fact that trying to put a club in that part of the downtown area is doomed to fail? Its central location makes it an easy walk for most people, which would presumably provide more revenue for the business. Instead, the police find themselves breaking up the after-parties that collect outside because its central location leads to it becoming a place to “hang out”. And with Wal-Mart’s recent reduction in late-night hours, many kids don’t know where to hang out after midnight, repeatedly find themselves gathering outside this downtown establishment.

If the club were to be re-opened in a different location, perhaps it would attract a different crowd. Margaritas does not offer the same ease of access, but the police also don’t find themselves at the top of its usual guest list. If the club were to reopen its doors outside of the downtown area, perhaps we could eliminate a lot of the assaults and other drama that occurs outside OTR’s doors. If OTR is closed, then the (even more) limited options will force locals to drive to nearby Hallowell or Waterville, possibly increasing the amount of drunk driving, and certainly decreasing the amount of money spent in our town.

The problem is the (otherwise dead) location, not the business. Why deprive Augusta of the much needed business that this nightclub draws in? Many of the other local businesses benefit from the money young people spend when they come into Augusta for the evening. And really, does Augusta need less entertainment? The options are already too limited, especially for a state capital. The vibrancy needs a move, not a demolition.

This Is Your Brain On Reality TV

By Kaytlyn Gillis

Every decade has its fads. Some leave us speechless. Some just never leave: how many of us wish that Billy Ray had never left us with the Mullet? (…or Miley for that matter?)

When my college roommates would get together and watch a weekly elimination, reality show, I would first blast my iPod, slowly losing respect for them with each passing episode. However, as all things that are bad for you tend to do, these shows soon became
addicting. My brain became addicted to the drug that is reality TV, and my DVR box found itself recording each episode of “Tool Academy” for my viewing pleasure.

Sometime after Dawson professed his undying love to Joey, someone thought it would be more entertaining to watch “reality”. After all, what could be more fun that watching everyday situations unfold on the screen after you’ve already experienced them firsthand? Families found themselves together once more, this time to watch people just like them compete against each other for large sums of money. As most fads in America do, this “real” TV quickly turned into “make-you-feel-boring-because-you’re-too-normal” TV.

People everywhere began to look at themselves closer, finding that their interpersonal relationships, their jobs, and their midlife crises were just plain old…well, boring. Soon people were competing not only for money, but for more “realistic” prizes, such as life partners.

The emergence of shows like Survivor seemed to unleash our inner Gladiators. Soon Americans couldn’t wait to see who’d be slaughtered next. Thanks to Paris Hilton’s “My BFF”, young girls worldwide now have a grasp on the true meaning of friendship: being able to match this season’s sweater with the hottest new designer bag, all while looking “sexy”. This, along with MTV’s “The Hills” and “My Super Sweet 16”, really brought youngsters down to earth and showed them the true value of life: money, looks, and popularity. I actually found myself feeling bad for one of the girls when her thoughtless father gave her a boring BMW sedan at her sweet 16th party instead of the shiny new Porsche she dreamed of. If my dad did such a careless thing to me I’d…. well I’d…. there I went slipping into “reality” again. I hate when that happens.

As for “18 Kids and Counting”? Yes, let’s praise this couple for having more children than there are eggs in the average carton. It is apparently entertainment to need an entire bus to bring your children into the community. Now we have people competing against each other in cooking competitions, modeling competitions, and even boyfriend competitions (even I felt bad for some of the guys in Tool Academy).

Have we simply run out of ideas for TV? Perhaps Hollywood is being cheap. After all, it probably costs a lot less to hire “average people” than to pay high-profile actors.

Nonetheless, there are always those brave ones who decide to bring things back, and I’m not just referring to Justin Timberlake. Just last week I stood behind a woman with striped balloon pants and a matching windbreaker. I half expected her to start telling me I couldn’t touch things (namely “this”) and that the time was Hammer. I wonder (hope for) when reality TV will become one of these retro-fads, leaving us to ask ourselves “What were we thinking?”

Atheism is Not a Religion

By Michael Hawkins

Despite popular belief, there is actually hardly anything which links atheists together.

It has become all too common to claim that atheism is a religion. This usually acts as a purely rhetorical tool to use against atheists. The implication is if there is agreement that something must be true (and there usually is), and all things are religion, then some religion must be true. It’s a form of false equivalence, like a creationist claiming that evolution and creationism are equally valid ways of looking at the (obvious) evidence.

Consider for a moment that there are approximately 14 million Jews in the world. The lobbying and political power of this group is owed in large part to the organizing principle of religion (not to mention a devastating past). But contrast this with the 350 million or so atheists (1.2 billion if you consider “non-believers”). There is little to no organizing power behind atheism. The reason is simply that atheism does not offer a system of belief.

Behind Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are central beliefs. First there is the Abrahamic God. From that follow a number of dogmas and various collections of doctrine which act to centralize belief. The same is true of all religion with substitution for specific god(s).

Atheism only has one common thread holding people together – the lack of belief in any deities. Nothing specific follows from this. Some atheists find religion to be a bad thing, others don’t. Some find that monetary success is the most important thing, others don’t. Some find that family comes before all else, others don’t.

If it were enough to say that statements on the existence of God define something as religion, then the deistic and (most) agnostics would be religious. The statements “the creator is hands-off” and “maybe” constitute claims about the existence of God. All belief, except perhaps the most strict “I don’t know” agnostic waffling, would then be religious in its nature. At best this is a confusion with metaphysics. At worst, it’s just a political and rhetorical ploy to pull atheism down to the lowly level of religion.

Fundamentally, that’s what this is all about. Call atheism a religion, and the claim by many – but not all – atheists that all religion is wrong is conveniently side-stepped. If everything is religious in essence, and something has to be right (sorry nihilists), then atheism becomes a whole lot easier to dismiss as just another wrong religion.

So of course atheism does not display any of the defining characteristics of religion – no more than clear displays any of the characteristics of colors. But there is a silver lining here. The implication that something is lost in atheism when it is deemed a religion actually has some appeal. While I cannot speak for the non-unified, disparate beliefs of any fellow atheists, the notion that there is something negative about religion seems nothing less than perfectly fitting.