The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

When did consciousness evolve?

New thinking says longer ago than you might think—with implications throughout the animal kingdom:

If [Attention Schema Theory (AST)] is correct, 300 million years of reptilian, avian, and mammalian evolution have allowed the self-model and the social model to evolve in tandem, each influencing the other. We understand other people by projecting ourselves onto them. But we also understand ourselves by considering the way other people might see us. Data from my own lab suggests that the cortical networks in the human brain that allow us to attribute consciousness to others overlap extensively with the networks that construct our own sense of consciousness.

Maybe partly because of language and culture, humans have a hair-trigger tendency to attribute consciousness to everything around us. We attribute consciousness to characters in a story, puppets and dolls, storms, rivers, empty spaces, ghosts and gods. Justin Barrett called it the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device, or HADD. One speculation is that it’s better to be safe than sorry. If the wind rustles the grass and you misinterpret it as a lion, no harm done. But if you fail to detect an actual lion, you’re taken out of the gene pool. To me, however, the HADD goes way beyond detecting predators. It’s a consequence of our hyper-social nature. Evolution turned up the amplitude on our tendency to model others and now we’re supremely attuned to each other’s mind states. It gives us our adaptive edge. The inevitable side effect is the detection of false positives, or ghosts.

And so the evolutionary story brings us up to date, to human consciousness—something we ascribe to ourselves, to others, and to a rich spirit world of ghosts and gods in the empty spaces around us. The AST covers a lot of ground, from simple nervous systems to simulations of self and others. It provides a general framework for understanding consciousness, its many adaptive uses, and its gradual and continuing evolution.

The author makes a strong argument that many vertebrates, including canids and corvids, have consciousness as we understand it, just so they can make sense of the world. It's an intriguing theory.

Note, also, that both the article and I use "theory" in its scientific sense: a hypotheses repeatedly tested and not yet falsified.

All the single ladies

Demographers Richard Florida and Karen King crunched some numbers to determine which metro areas had more single men or single women. Some findings:

In absolute numbers, heterosexual men have a considerable dating advantage in metros across the East Coast and South. New York City  has more than 200,000 more single women than men; Atlanta 95,000 more; Washington, D.C. 63,000 more; Philadelphia nearly 60,000 more. The pattern continues for Baltimore and Miami. Meanwhile, the opposite is true out West, where the absolute numbers favor heterosexual single women. San Diego has more than 50,000 more single men than women; Seattle has 46,000 more; San Jose has 37,000 more; Phoenix 32,000 more. The pattern is similar for Denver and San Francisco.

Overall, more than 60 percent of metros (234 metros) lean male, and about a third (136) lean female. There are a dozen metros where the odds are more or less even.

Among large metros (with more than one million people), tech-driven San Jose has the smallest ratio of single women to men (868 per 1,000). But across all metros, the geography is more varied. Jacksonville, North Carolina; Hanford-Corcoran, California; The Villages, Florida (a retirement community); and the Watertown-Fort Drum, New York all have ratios of 500-600 single women to 1,000 single men.

The map for singles aged 45 to 64 shows the odds shifting sharply, simply because women tend to outlive men. The map is almost entirely orange: By this age, single men have the advantage in most metros across the country.

Of course, this analysis does not account for factors that often influence our mating life. We don’t know the sexual orientation of these singles—a huge factor—nor does our analysis account for education, race, or ethnicity; or those people who are in relationships but not yet married.

Now put your hands up!

Correlation is not causation

American diplomats injured in Cuba in 2016 reported hearing strange noises before their symptoms set in. Apparently they heard crickets:

[W]hen the biologist Alexander Stubbs heard a recording, uploaded by the Associated Press, he heard not mechanical bugs, but biological ones. He realized that the noise sounded like the insects he used to hear while doing fieldwork in the Caribbean.

Together with Fernando Montealegre-Z, an expert on entomological acoustics, Stubbs scoured an online database of insect recordings. As first reported by Carl Zimmer in The New York Times, they found that one species—the Indies short-tailed cricket—makes a call that’s indistinguishable from the enigmatic Cuban recording. The duo have written a paper that describes their findings and are set to submit it to a journal for formal peer review.

That's interesting, but not the point. There was some speculation that the diplomats' injuries came from a microwave weapon, but that hypothesis didn't hold up. Last month, some evidence appeared that it may have been a sonic weapon after all. But probably not crickets.

No smarter than the average bear

It turns out, trying to demonstrate that canis lupus familiaris are smarter than other similar animals winds up proving the null hypothesis instead:

If you are convinced your dog is a genius, you may be disappointed in the conclusions of a study just published in the journal Learning and Behavior.The study finds that dogs are cognitively quite ordinary when compared to other carnivores, domestic animals, and social hunters. “There is no current case for canine exceptionalism,” the authors conclude.

Nevertheless, systematically reviewing the animal cognition literature, British psychologists Stephen Lea and Britta Osthaus found dogs to be unremarkable in their cognitive capabilities compared to wolves, cats, dolphins, chimpanzees, pigeons, and several other species. For example, dogs seem no better at learning associations—such as between a behavior and a reward—than other species. Similarly, dogs can spatially navigate within small spaces, but other species can, too. And while dogs have an excellent sense of smell, the “pig’s olfactory abilities are outstanding and might even be better than the dog’s.”

On the other paw, having dogs appears linked to longer and healthier lives for dog owners. Take that, Wilbur!

Au revoir au Grand K

The International Bureau of Weights and Measures voted earlier today to ditch the platinum-iridium prototype kilogram in favor of a value of mass based on Planck's constant. The Post explains:

Since the 19th century, scientists have based their definition of the fundamental unit of mass on a physical object — a shining platinum iridium cylinder stored in a locked vault in the bowels of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Sevres, France. A kilogram was equal to the heft of this aging hunk of metal, and this cylinder, by definition, weighed exactly a kilogram. If the cylinder changed, even a little bit, then the entire global system of measurement had to change, too.

With Friday’s vote, scientists redefined the kilogram for the 21st century by tying it to a fundamental feature of the universe — a small, strange figure from quantum physics known as Planck’s constant, which describes the smallest possible unit of energy.

In 1875, the signing of the Treaty of the Metre made the system official. Two platinum and iridium prototypes — a meter-length bar and a kilogram-mass cylinder — were forged to serve as the standard units for the whole world. The BIPM distributed copies of each prototype to the signatory nations; the century-old U.S. national kilogram still sits in a glass case in a locked room down the hall from Pratt’s lab.

But the kilogram prototype, known as “Le Grand K,” was made by humans and is subject to all our limitations. It is inaccessible — the safe containing the cylinder can be opened only by three custodians carrying three separate keys, an event that has happened fewer than a dozen times in the object’s 139-year history. And it is inconsistent — when Le Grand K was examined in the 1980s, it weighed several micrograms less than it was supposed to. This meant that anyone who made products based on the standards had to reissue their weights. Manufacturers were furious. Lawmakers were called. Metrologists, people who study measurements, were accused of incompetence.

The article doesn't say what the Bureau will do with the kilogram prototype.

Falling into the sun is hard

In the geocentric model of how things work, it's really easy for you to fall directly toward Earth. This happens because you are already moving fast enough to have a very small delta vee with the surface at any particular moment. Not so falling into the sun, which is so hard, we only just launched the first probe that can do it on purpose:

The reason has to do with orbital mechanics, the study of how natural forces influence the motions of rockets, satellites, and other space-bound technology. Falling into the sun might seem effortless since the star’s gravity is always tugging at everything in the solar system, including Earth. But Earth—along with all the other planets and their moons—is also orbiting the sun at great speed, which prevents it from succumbing to the sun’s pull.

This arrangement is great if you’d like to avoid falling into the sun yourself, but it’s rather inconvenient if you want to launch something there.

“To get to Mars, you only need to increase slightly your orbital speed. If you need to get to the sun, you basically have to completely slow down your current momentum,” says Yanping Guo, the mission-design and navigation manager for the Parker Solar Probe. Based at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Guo has been working on the probe for about 17 years.

Probes bound for deep-space destinations like Mars can piggyback off Earth’s momentum to fly faster. For a spacecraft to launch toward the sun, on the other hand, it must accelerate to nearly match the Earth’s velocity—in the opposite direction. With the planet’s motion essentially canceled out, the spacecraft can surrender to the sun’s gravity and begin to fall toward it. But this is almost impossible with current rocket technology, so spacecraft have to get some help, in the form of slingshot maneuvers off other planets, called gravity assists.

Douglas Adams, therefore, was partially correct: generally speaking, if you throw yourself at the sun, you will miss (and wind up in a stable orbit). NASA has just started the process of hitting it.

Meant to post yesterday

Four articles I read late in the day and wanted to spike here:

And now, I will start working.

Evidence suggests people heard Earhart's distress calls

More data has emerged about Amelia Earhart's final days:

Across the world, a 15-year-old girl listening to the radio in St. Petersburg, Fla., transcribed some of the desperate phrases she heard: “waters high,” “water’s knee deep — let me out”  and “help us quick.”

A housewife in Toronto heard a shorter message, but it was no less dire: “We have taken in water . . . we can’t hold on much longer.”

That harrowing scene, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes, was probably one of the final moments of Earhart’s life. The group put forth the theory in a paper that analyzes radio distress calls heard in the days after Earhart disappeared.

Some of Earhart’s final messages were heard by members of the military and others looking for Earhart, Gillespie said. Others caught the attention of people who just happened to be listening to their radios when they stumbled across random pleas for help.

Almost all of those messages were discounted by the U.S. Navy, which concluded that Earhart’s plane went down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, then sank to the seabed.

[Research director Ric] Gillespie has been trying to debunk that finding for three decades. He believes that Earhart spent her final days on then-uninhabited Gardner Island. She may have been injured, Noonan was probably worse, but the crash wasn’t the end of them.

Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro, fits the classic description of a desert island: it's a small atoll with trees and a very long swim to the next nearest land mass. Crashing there might have meant a slow death from dehydration instead of a quick one from impact. We'll never know for sure, but this new data, if accurate, adds some weight to the hypothesis that Earhart crashed on Nikumaroro in 1937.

That's not a moon, that's a--wait, no that's a moon

Astronomer Scott Sheppard has discovered 10 more moons orbiting Jupiter, bringing the gas giant's coterie up to 79:

Sheppard found them with the help of a ground-based telescope in Chile that had recently received an upgrade: a camera made for scanning the night sky for very faint objects. Sheppard was looking for Planet Nine, the planet some astronomers believe lurks somewhere at the edge of our solar system, jostling the orbits of other objects in strange ways. As the telescope gazed in the darkness way beyond Pluto, it ended up catching something much closer: a flurry of glinting, tiny objects near Jupiter, the smallest of which was about half a mile wide.

Sheppard couldn’t say whether these points of light were actually moons, at least not right away. To determine whether something is indeed a moon, astronomers must track the object for about a year to determine that, yes, its motions are governed by the gravitational tug of a planet. Sheppard says he couldn’t get excited about his findings in earnest until he observed the objects again a year later, this past spring, and his suspicions were confirmed.

If you came to this story expecting to find dazzling, close-up images of Jupiter’s newly discovered moons, we have some bad news: The era of discovering massive worlds around the gas planet ended more than 400 years ago, with Galileo. Like this latest batch, many of the moons astronomers have discovered around Jupiter in the past several decades have been smaller than cities. Their minuscule size has prompted some astronomers, including Sheppard and Williams, to wonder whether they should even bother giving them names. Williams says that discoverers of moons don’t have to name them if they don’t want to. Sheppard suggests perhaps it’s time to add another layer to our definition of a moon. “The definition of a moon is just anything that orbits a planet, so maybe once you start getting down to a kilometer or so in size, maybe we should start calling these things dwarf moons,” he says.

Now they just have to name all of them...