The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

New hints about dog domestication

Via Deeply Trivial, a new study published last week provides new evidence that only a few genetic changes made wary wolves into friendly dogs:

Not much is known about the underlying genetics of how dogs became domesticated. In 2010, evolutionary geneticist Bridgett vonHoldt of Princeton University and colleagues published a study comparing dogs’ and wolves’ DNA. The biggest genetic differences gave clues to why dogs and wolves don’t look the same. But major differences were also found in WBSCR17, a gene linked to Williams-Beuren syndrome in humans.

Williams-Beuren syndrome leads to delayed development, impaired thinking ability and hypersociability. VonHoldt and colleagues wondered if changes to the same gene in dogs would make the animals more social than wolves, and whether that might have influenced dogs’ domestication.

The team notes, for instance, that in addition to contributing to sociability, the variations in WBSCR17 may represent an adaptation in dogs to living with humans. A previous study revealed that variations in WBSCR17 were tied to the ability to digest carbohydrates — a source of energy wolves would have rarely consumed. Yet, the variations in domestic dogs suggest those changes would help them thrive on the starch-rich diets of humans.

I hope they're not barking up the wrong tree here.

Bias in science?

Two stories today about science, one implicitly about how money influences reported outcomes, and another about how people don't really understand science.

First, the New York Times reported Monday on a $100m National Institutes of Health clinical trial that is getting $67m indirectly from five major alcohol producers:

[T]he mantra that moderate drinking is good for the heart has never been put to a rigorous scientific test, and new research has linked even modest alcohol consumption to increases in breast cancer and changes in the brain. That has not stopped the alcoholic beverage industry from promoting the alcohol-is-good-for-you message by supporting scientific meetings and nurturing budding researchers in the field.

Five companies that are among the world’s largest alcoholic beverage manufacturers — Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken, Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Carlsberg — have so far pledged $67.7 million to a foundation that raises money for the National Institutes of Health, said Margaret Murray, the director of the Global Alcohol Research Program at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which will oversee the study.

George F. Koob, the director of the alcohol institute, said the trial will be immune from industry influence and will be an unbiased test of whether alcohol “in moderation” protects against heart disease. “This study could completely backfire on the alcoholic beverage industry, and they’re going to have to live with it,” Dr. Koob said.

“The money from the Foundation for the N.I.H. has no strings attached. Whoever donates to that fund has no leverage whatsoever — no contribution to the study, no input to the study, no say whatsoever.” But Dr. Koob, like many of the researchers and academic institutions playing pivotal roles in the trial, has had close ties to the alcoholic beverage industry.

Keep in mind, funding does not automatically create bias. But it does make people wonder about the study's legitimacy. (This is an enormous problem in elections, too.)

When people start doubting the legitimacy of a study—or an entire body of research—we can get into real trouble. In an op-ed in today's Washington Post, climate scientist Ben Santer explains how he's fighting back against ignorance:

After decades of seeking to advance scientific understanding, reality suddenly shifts, and you are back in the cold darkness of ignorance. The ignorance starts with President Trump. It starts with untruths and alternative facts. The untruth that climate change is a “hoax” engineered by the Chinese. The alternative fact that “nobody really knows” the causes of climate change. These untruths and alternative facts are repeated again and again. They serve as talking points for other members of the administration. From the Environment Protection Agency administrator, who has spent his career fighting against climate change science, we learn the alternative fact that satellite data show “leveling off of warming” over the past two decades. The energy secretary tells us the fairy tale that climate change is due to “ocean waters, and this environment in which we live.” Ignorance trickles down from the president to members of his administration, eventually filtering into the public’s consciousness.

I have to believe that even in this darkness, though, there is still a thin slit of blue sky. My optimism comes from a gut-level belief in the decency and intelligence of the people of this country. Most Americans have an investment in the future — in our children and grandchildren, and in the planet that is our only home. Most Americans care about these investments in the future; we want to protect them from harm. That is our prime directive. Most of us understand that to fulfill this directive, we can’t ignore the reality of a warming planet, rising seas, retreating snow and ice, and changes in the severity and frequency of droughts and floods. We can’t ignore the reality that human actions are part of the climate-change problem, and that human actions must be part of the solution to this problem. Ignoring reality is not a viable survival strategy.

People are attacking truth on several fronts. We've got to keep fighting.

Cool find in Canada

A fossil found in a mine in Alberta six years ago is one of the best-preserved dinosaur specimens ever discovered:

On March 21, 2011, Shawn Funk was digging in Alberta’s Millennium Mine with a mechanical backhoe, when he hit “something much harder than the surrounding rock.” A closer look revealed something that looked like no rock Funk had ever seen, just “row after row of sandy brown disks, each ringed in gunmetal gray stone.”

What he had found was a 2,500-pound dinosaur fossil, which was soon shipped to the museum in Alberta, where technicians scraped extraneous rock from the fossilized bone and experts examined the specimen.

The fossil, which looks more like a statue than a skeleton, is 110 million years old, and will be at Canada's Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology.

The merry month of May

April seems to have gone quickly this year, but that could just be my advancing age. I'm hoping to have a little more inspiration this month to return to 40+ blog entries a month—i.e., the running average since November 2005. For the 12 months ending yesterday, my average (mean) has been 34.4 with a median of 35, just barely holding above 1.0 entries per day.

Of course, the total number of entries doesn't really matter if they're good. Deeply Trivial took part in last month's A-to-Z blogging challenge, and did a fantastic series on basic statistics that's worth reading. Her 26 entries (plus 5 bonus posts) provide almost a complete intro course in statistics. Start with X and then bounce back to A.

I'm also glad to see center-right commentator Andrew Sullivan back on the Internet, even if only once a week. His column from yesterday, "The Reactionary Temptation," is a must-read.

And, of course, Josh Marshall's frequent posts from the center-left will be vital in keeping tabs on the sub-surface wrigglings of the current administration.

May should see more activity on The Daily Parker for reasons I will get to later in the month. It's time to get writing again.

Things I'll be reading this afternoon

Some articles:

And now, Parker needs a walk.

Another milestone on the way to planetary disaster

The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii announced this week that the atmosphere passed 410 ppm of carbon dioxide and is heading for a monthly average of 407 ppm, the highest values observed on earth in millions of years:

Carbon dioxide concentrations have skyrocketed over the past two yearsdue to in part to natural factors like El Niño causing more of it to end up in the atmosphere. But it’s mostly driven by the record amounts of carbon dioxide humans are creating by burning fossil fuels.

“The rate of increase will go down when emissions decrease,” Pieter Tans, an atmospheric scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said. “But carbon dioxide will still be going up, albeit more slowly. Only when emissions are cut in half will atmospheric carbon dioxide level off initially.”

Even when concentrations of carbon dioxide level off, the impacts of climate change will extend centuries into the future. The planet has already warmed 1.8°F (1°C), including a run of 627 months in a row of above-normal heat. Sea levels have risen about a foot and oceans have acidified. Extreme heat has become more common.

Too bad all that data isn't persuasive enough for some people. I guess the planet just needs better P.R.

The BST of times, BBC style

Author Tim Harford, who wrote The Logic of Life and a few other books I've liked, yesterday published an explanation of what telling time is all about:

Water clocks appear in civilisations from ancient Egypt to medieval Persia. Others kept time from marks on candles. But even the most accurate devices might wander by 15 minutes a day. This didn't matter to a monk wanting to know when to pray.

But there was one increasingly important area of life where the inability to keep accurate time was of huge economic significance: sailing.

By observing the angle of the Sun, sailors could calculate their latitude - where they were from north to south. But their longitude - where they were from east to west - had to be guessed.

Mistakes could - and frequently did - lead to ships hitting land hundreds of miles away from where navigators thought they were, sometimes disastrously.

How could accurate timekeeping help? If you knew when it was midday at Greenwich Observatory - or any other reference point - you could observe the Sun, calculate the time difference, and work out the distance.

But does anybody really know what time it is?

Massive flooding in low-lying areas; Continent cut off

Via a longtime reader, geologists have new evidence clarifying how Britain split off from the European mainland 450,000 YBP:

Researchers have found geological proof of one theory, that a catastrophic flood sparked massive waterfalls that cut through the rock ridge running through what's now the Dover Strait.

Analysis of [sonar] imagery, alongside existing supporting data, has led Collier and Gupta to report that Britain left Europe via a much more catastrophic route than erosion simply nibbling away at our connection to the continent. Instead, a glacial lake — perhaps sparked by an earthquake — over spilled its bounds in giant torrents of water.

"The waterfalls were so huge they left behind the plunge pools, some several kilometres in diameter and 100 metres deep in solid rock, running in a line from Calais to Dover," Collier said.

The chalky escarpment - similar to the cliffs at Dover - fell apart and released an epic flood, partially washing away the British land bridge to Europe.

That event wasn't enough to entirely separate the UK from Europe, with the final breach caused by a second megaflood that followed the first by as much as a hundred thousand years.

They conclude, "Had the initial flood not happened, the researchers added that Britain could still be connected to Europe, jutting out the same way Denmark does today."

Wait a second...

In about 10 minutes, time will once again stop for just a moment as clocks go from 23:59:59 UTC to 23:59:60 before slipping to midnight:

In a bulletin released this summer, the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, or IERS, said it would be necessary to introduce a "leap second" at the end of December. Timekeepers use this added second much as leap years are used — to bring the world's atomic clocks in sync with the Earth's own distinctive rhythm, which in this case is determined by its rotation.

According to a study published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, Earth's rotation has slowed about 1.8 milliseconds per day — which means the solar day itself has lengthened, little by little. The researchers based this assessment on records dating back to 760 B.C., long before the implementation of the precise atomic clocks.

The Los Angeles Times broke down the findings: "If humanity had been measuring time with an atomic clock that started running back in 700 BC, today that clock would read 7 p.m. when the sun is directly overhead rather than noon."

2016 was already a leap year in the Gregorian calendar, will be one second longer still. So if you've felt like 2016 was the longest year ever...you're technically correct.

More stuff to read

Even though there are about 58 hours left in the year, I still have work to do. Meanwhile, a few things to read have crossed my RSS feeds:

OK, back to work.