The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Good morning!

Just an hour or so into the first business day of 2021, and morning news had a few stories that grabbed my attention:

Finally, don't eat icicles. They're basically frozen bird poop.

Lazy Sunday morning reading

A couple of articles piqued my interest over the last day:

Finally, with only a few days left in December, we have now had 5 days this month with more Americans dead from Covid-19 than died on 9/11, and the STBXPOTUS won't sign even the miserly, half-assed recovery bill that Republicans in the Senate would agree to. January 20th can't come soon enough.

Studying how dogs age

How did I miss this Times article from November?

Lab tests can tell how old a human is just from the pattern of methylation. Thanks to this research, the same can be done for dogs. The results will help researchers studying aging in dogs to translate findings to humans. None of this research was done on dogs kept in a laboratory. All of the dogs in the aging comparison study were pet Labrador retrievers and the owners gave permission for blood samples.

Scientists are unsure about whether the physical decline seen in aging in dogs and humans, in fact in all mammals, is related to the process of development in earlier life, or whether the decline is a different process altogether. The researchers found that the pattern of methylation suggested that the same genes may be involved in both processes.

Good methods of comparing dog and human ages are important. Dogs are increasingly seen as good models for human aging because they suffer from it in many of the same ways humans do. As the Dog Aging Project, which is collecting genetic and other information from a vast number of pet dogs, puts it on its website, the goal of the research is “Longer, healthier lives for all dogs … and their humans.”

I miss my aging dog. And the day this article was published, Parker was old indeed.

Floating holiday: achievement unlocked

My company gives us the usual American holidays off, and adds two "floating holidays" you can take whenever you want. I took my first one in January and just remembered last week that I hadn't taken the second one. So I took it today. Which gave me some time to read a bunch of things:

Finally, the list I posted Wednesday needs an update. In October 1918, influenza killed 195,000 Americans, or an average of 6,290 per day. So clearly most of that month set records well above the records we set this week.

Mixed news on Tuesday morning

Today's news stories comprise a mixed bag:

Finally, a little sweetness for a cold December day: Whisky Advocate has a recipe for bourbon balls that I hope someone will try and share with me. I'll even supply the bourbon.

Star Trek: Discovery's 3rd season irks me

Don't get me wrong, I am enjoying the latest Star Trek series immensely. But the third season's handling of its pretty stark historical implications bug me to death.

Warning: spoilers possible ahead.

Star Trek: Discovery's third season begins with the series protagonist, Cdr Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), having jumped from the year 2259 to 3187, more than 900 years after the events of season 2. The eponymous starship shows up a year later. Now, even though Discovery has a unique propulsion system that enables it to travel to any point in space instantaneously, it's still a 900-year-old ship. And yet somehow it and its crew can function in its new era without too much friction.

Let me try to paint a picture of our world 900 years ago and see if the multitudes of problems with this scenario make you scratch your head too.

In 1100, the most powerful military vessels were Viking longboats, made of wood, using square sails, and projecting force 200 meters or so with iron-tipped arrows delivered by longbow. Today, the most powerful military ships (measured by deliverable ordnance) are ballistic-missile submarines, made of high-strength steel and titanium alloys, using nuclear reactors powering silent, computer-designed screws, and projecting force to any part of the planet with hydrogen-bomb-tipped rockets. A 17,000-tonne Ohio-class submarine could destroy a fleet of longboats merely by surfacing from directly beneath them. And you don't even have to think of how the Vikings would fare against a submarine or even an aircraft carrier to get a sense of what 900 years of technological advancement has accomplished: a Coast Guard Medium Endurance Cutter could lay waste to the entire Viking navy without even removing the safeties on its 62mm cannons simply by swamping the Viking ships with its 30-knot wake. Or forget military vessels: how well do you think a Viking fleet would do against a Panamax container ship? Or how about a 16th-century man-o'-war, which can sail almost directly upwind while firing guns?

In 1100, advanced non-military technology included windmills (10th century) and the number zero (8th century, just getting to Europe around 1100). The Chinese had just invented moveable type a few years earlier, and the Arabs were about to invent al-Jabr (algebra), but neither of these ideas would penetrate Europe for centuries. People would have to wait 200 years to button their clothes or wear eyeglasses, and 700 years before getting a vaccine for anything. I mention the first vaccine because the disease it prevented (smallpox) no longer exists in the wild, but neither does the vaccine. An average Roman from 1100 suddenly popping up in Rome in 2020 could kill thousands just by breathing—but social distancing wouldn't be a problem, because the 12th-century Roman probably never bathed in his life.

In 1100, nobody in Europe spoke a language that is spoken today, except possibly the Basques. Communication might be possible with a 12th-century Chinese person in Mandarin, but even then, I expect pronunciation might have drifted a bit. The Star Trek universe has universal translators, but personal-size UTs didn't exist during Discovery's era, and wouldn't for another 70 years. Maybe everyone in the 32nd century has one? Maybe all the UTs in 3188 also come with a package of historical languages that died out hundreds of years ago, like English may have, just in case? Before you say "people spoke Latin both in 1100 and today," I assure you that the Latin "spoken" in 1100 wasn't actual, spoken Latin, because that died out in the 5th-7th centuries after Rome fell. By the 1100s, the Catholic Church's "Latin" had devolved into a unique, bizarre, ahistorical form that no citizen of the Roman Empire would have understood even without the vowel drifts that occurred over time. Perhaps some scholars in the Vatican today might be able to speak with their 12th-century counterparts, but that is kind of my point. I'm sure someone in some university on Earth could speak and understand English in 3188, but that wouldn't help Burnham when she first met Book, now would it?

In 1100, traveling from London to Canterbury took about a week; traveling to Paris took about two; and traveling to Rome took about four. Today, all three destinations are about two hours away, by car, train, and airplane, respectively. Traveling to North America in 1100 would have taken just under 400 years, because even though people had known the diameter of the planet since Eratosthenes calculated it 1200 years earlier, no one in Europe knew anything lay between there and India heading west, and anyway ship technology wouldn't allow it save for that one time Leiv Erikson got blown off course trying to bring Christianity to Greenland. Erikson barely made it back, remember. Since 1969, if you have a whole week you can go to the moon and back. If you merely want to reach any other point on Earth, there are four commercial air-transport airplane models (A350, A380, B777, B787) that can get you there in under 20 hours with one fuel stop. (In theory, a ballistic missile could get you there in 40 minutes or less, but they haven't quite worked out how to land one safely.)

In 1100, political philosophy tended towards systems of government we generally find unacceptable today: feudalism, theocracy, absolute monarchy. Superstition and violently-enforced tradition mixed religion and politics to a level only seen today in groups we call "extreme right" like the Taliban. Think, for a moment, how representative democracy with universal suffrage would have seemed to even a well-educated person living 115 years before the Magna Carta gave limited rights to an hereditary aristocracy. His head would explode. And I do mean his, as European women weren't generally allowed formal education until the 18th Century. Women couldn't even own property in most places before then. Several things we consider horrible crimes in the 21st century wouldn't even raise an eyebrow in 1100. Beating your wife or child? Your family, your business. Torturing a prisoner to death? Expected. Killing your neighbor for taking a deer on your land? Well, if it's "your land," that means you own land, which means you're the local political power, which gives you all manner of rights over people living on it. Raping the newlywed bride of one of your neighbors is one of those rights, for instance.

I was going to write that "In 1100, the average naval officer wouldn't even understand the concepts of suffrage or democracy," but I realized that in 1100 they wouldn't even understand the concept of "naval officer." In 1100, the concept of "admiral" (in Arabic, "amir-al-bahr:" "lord of the seas") had just reached Europe, and ships had captains as a job but not as a grade. The idea of a formal, dedicated officer corps with fixed grades was still centuries off. The United States Navy had only the ranks of Admiral, Captain, and Lieutenant as late as 1860 when they introduced the rank that eventually became Commander. The 10-grade system we use in NATO countries today is from the 1980s.

In 1100, every government that existed eventually changed form or disappeared. Only one European quasi-governmental institution that existed then still exists in a similar form today: the Catholic Church. Not only have all the other governments that existed in Europe back then vanished, most of the political units have disappeared or changed unrecognizably as well. England arguably has the oldest continuous system of government in Europe, which goes all the way back to...the Act of Settlement in 1707. In the Star Trek universe, the United Federation of Planets was only 100 years old when Discovery slipped into the future, and it was founded only 80 years after most existing Earth governments blew themselves out of existence. So why would any of Discovery's crew, to whom First Contact with the Vulcans was more recent for them than the American Revolution is to us, find it at all surprising that the Federation has all but vanished 900 years later?

So the gulf between 1100 and 2020 is huge. But the gulf between 2259 and 3189 would be far, far larger, because we only recently learned how to innovate on purpose.

In 1100, technology advanced slowly. Pick a European country: 1100 looked almost identical to 900 and 1200. Even fashions remained the same decade after decade. The pace of technological change we live with today started gaining speed with the Enlightenment of the mid-18th century. The ideas that drive modern technology have surprisingly recent origins. Mass-produced books? Johannes Gutenberg, 1452. Modern written English? Mid 1600s. Steam-powered vehicles? James Watt, 1776. Permanent republican form of government? New Hampshire, 1776. Modern patent law? United States Congress, 1790. Light-speed communications? Samuel Morse's telegraph, 1836. First modern sewerage system? James Newlands in Liverpool, 1848. Voice communications? Alexander Bell, 1876. Formal industrial R&D and the electric light bulb? Thomas Edison, 1880s. Universal adult suffrage? New Zealand, 1893. Line-of-sight wireless communications? Enrico Marconi's radio, 1901. Airplanes? Orville and Wilbur Wright, 1903. Synthetic plastic? Leo Baekeland, 1907. Television? John Baird, 1925. Antibiotics? Alexander Fleming, 1928. Controlled nuclear reactions? Enrico Fermi, 1942. Digital computers? ENIAC, 1946. Integrated circuits and microchips? Jack Kilby, 1958. Computer-aided design? Ivan Sutherland, 1963. Geostationary communication satellites? Syncom 3, 1964. The Internet? US Defense Department, 1971. The World Wide Web? Tim Berners-Lee, 1990. The Daily Parker? May 1998. Google? August 1998.

All of those technologies accelerated the development of newer technologies. In some cases, technologies led to the discovery of principles that couldn't be imagined without practical experience with them—for example, how synthesizing a polymer in 1907 and creating a working radio in 1901 are both required before you can understand that an integrated circuit is even possible, let alone how to mass-produce a billion-transistor microchip.

The worlds of 1100 and 1800 would have been mutually comprehensible (though starting around 1700, politics, religion, and hair styles would seem stranger by the year), but the worlds of 1800 and 1900 would not. Someone from 1900 would probably understand the world of 2020, but that's because by the late 19th century people started to intuit Clarke's Three Laws (1962), so they would universally attribute modern technologies to artifice rather than magic.

That's on Earth. In the Star Trek universe, technological advances happened across hundreds of civilizations, with trade between them bringing everyone up to higher levels even faster. Humans independently invented warp drive in 2063; but the Vulcans who landed in Montana after detecting Zefram Cochrane's warp signature eventually shared technologies that humans had only imagined before. (Peaceful) trade and communication between cultures accelerates development in both.

So to sum up: Discovery popping into the late 32nd century should have even less success integrating into its new surroundings than a Viking longboat popping into 2020. They should find themselves in a universe with not just advanced technology, but totally incomprehensible technology; a universe protected by armaments that consider Discovery's weapons practically harmless—including its photon torpedoes, which can sterilize entire planets; a universe where no one save a few academics understands a word they're saying; a universe where all but fringe extremists find their views on politics and social norms not just embarrassing, but horrifying and immoral; and a universe where childhood diseases from either culture could kill millions in the other.

That said, it's not a bad show. Episode 7 drops tonight.

How hot was it really?

Geographer Randy Cerveny heads up an ad hoc committee of the World Meteorological Organisation tasked with validating weather records:

Since 2007, Cerveny has been in charge of organizing ad hoc committees to independently verify superlative weather measurements — such as the highest ocean wave or the strongest wind gust.

Now, when a new contender for a record appears, he gathers the top experts in any given subject.

"If we're looking at temperature, I'm going to get some of the best scientists that have looked at temperature across the world. If we're looking at hurricanes, I'll get hurricane experts. If I'm looking at tornadoes, I'll get tornado experts," he says.

Already, the new 54.4°C measurement in Death Valley has started to be scrutinized, by meteorologists from the local weather office to the National Climate Extremes Committee, all the way up to the World Meteorological Organization.

"We're in the process right now of getting ahold of the actual raw information, the raw data itself," says Cerveny. "My committee will then go over it with a fine-tooth comb and look for any problems or any concerns that they might have."

"I'm hoping that we would have a decision by sometime this winter," he adds.

We'll stay tuned, then.

The right-wing science counter-revolution

Writing for New Republic, Ari Shulman presents a nuanced and well-thought analysis of the apparent right-wing hostility to science. It's not science per se they object to; rather, they object to what they perceive to be left-wing science:

The panel of experts that Covid skeptics have arrayed provides a case in point. Where mainstream opinion quickly converged on flattening the curve, Boris Johnson sang the praises of a herd immunity strategy, an idea that continues to hold sway among many skeptics in the United States. The Trumpian right’s treatment of masks as a symbol of tyranny claimed to garner credence from public health authority, as journalist Alex Berenson cited the initial divided view on the mask question as a telling lack of evidence. Likewise, where polite opinion early in the pandemic had held that the virus isn’t as bad as flu, Trumpian skeptics echoed that refrain as all-but-proven science, just as they’ve also sought to downplay the pandemic’s high fatality rate, theorizing vast numbers of undetected, asymptomatic cases—which would mean that society is already close to acquiring herd immunity.

Each of these views was backed by elaborate interpretations of the evidence, and propounded by a cadre of scientists and self-appointed epidemiologists. And these figures, in turn, gained rapid celebrity on the right as brave truth-tellers to a hysterical orthodoxy.

It is tempting for anyone who’s tried to adapt to the shifting expert consensus on Covid-19 to defend, at least in broad strokes, the “Republican war on science” narrative by arguing that the emerging cohort of counter-experts on the right are simply cranks. But most of these figures are genuine experts, albeit not all in the fields on which they opine. More to the point, they all adeptly borrow from the methodologies and rationalist rhetoric of scientific inquiry.

The product of these dynamics has not been, as we are often told, a Republican rejection of science itself—of its methodologies, its hunger for knowledge of the world, its desire for mastery over nature, its admiration for the excellence on display in rational inquiry. Rather, it has been the adoption of an outsider’s stance to the current scientific establishment—to its particular institutions, and to the pronouncements of its expert class.

In these corrosive, shallow, interminable debates about science, what is most sorely missing is any talk of judgment. It is impossible to understand how experts arrive at their advice, or how leaders use it wisely, apart from the exercise of judgment. Though we might think this point is obvious, it is belied by the common image of science as a neutral, even godlike encounter with eternal, capital-T Truth.

The whole essay is worth the time.

Three cheers for a friendly fungus

As this 2017 article from National Geographic explains, humans and yeast have had a tremendously successful relationship for the last 9,000 years or so:

From our modern point of view, ethanol has one very compelling property: It makes us feel good. Ethanol helps release serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins in the brain, chemicals that make us happy and less anxious.

To our fruit-eating primate ancestors swinging through the trees, however, the ethanol in rotting fruit would have had three other appealing characteristics. First, it has a strong, distinctive smell that makes the fruit easy to locate. Second, it’s easier to digest, allowing animals to get more of a commodity that was precious back then: calories. Third, its antiseptic qualities repel microbes that might sicken a primate. Millions of years ago one of them developed a taste for fruit that had fallen from the tree. “Our ape ancestors started eating fermented fruits on the forest floor, and that made all the difference,” says Nathaniel Dominy, a biological anthropologist at Dartmouth College. “We’re preadapted for consuming alcohol.”

Flash forward millions of years to a parched plateau in southeastern Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. Archaeologists there are exploring another momentous transition in human prehistory, and a tantalizing possibility: Did alcohol lubricate the Neolithic revolution? Did beer help persuade Stone Age hunter-gatherers to give up their nomadic ways, settle down, and begin to farm?

The idea that’s gaining support...was first proposed more than half a century ago: Beer, rather than bread, may have been the inspiration for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to domesticate grains. Eventually, simply harvesting wild grasses to brew into beer wouldn’t have been enough. Demand for reliable supplies pushed humans first to plant the wild grasses and then over time to selectively breed them into the high-yielding barley, wheat, and other grains we know today.

Alcohol may afford psychic pleasures and spiritual insight, but that’s not enough to explain its universality in the ancient world. People drank the stuff for the same reason primates ate fermented fruit: because it was good for them. Yeasts produce ethanol as a form of chemical warfare—it’s toxic to other microbes that compete with them for sugar inside a fruit. That antimicrobial effect benefits the drinker. It explains why beer, wine, and other fermented beverages were, at least until the rise of modern sanitation, often healthier to drink than water.

Alas, the SARS-Cov-2 virus has made it nearly impossible to continue the Brews and Choos Project, which celebrates the ingenuity of yeast and the single-mindedness of humans.

Speaking of the B&CP, I may cautiously resume the project this coming Friday. Or tomorrow. It depends on the weather, because regardless of the state's official relaxation of distancing rules, I don't think going into a restaurant or brewpub makes a lot of sense until I can confirm my own immunity to and inability to transmit the virus. I have no idea when that will be, in large part because of the Trump Administration's endemic incompetence. But many brewpubs have outdoor patio space, and on a warm sunny day, risks seem to be lower.