Thursday, October 22, 2009

fitter, healthier and more productive

Today's boycott: Industrial farmed meats

A friend related a story of once being sick with some kind of nasty bug, for which he took strong medicine. He would wake up in a panic thinking "I'm dying!" It was explained to him that living things share a lot of chemical signatures (hormones or enzymes or something), and that humans and tiny parasites both release similar chemicals when dying. If you kill a ton of bugs inside yourself, you get the chemical signal of all those bugs saying "I'm dying", in your blood, and you think it's your body that's saying it.

You wouldn't want to put this "I'm dying" chemical into your body. That's partly why it's important that animals raised for food aren't slaughtered in a stressful way. How they die matters. But what about how they live?

High-density hog factories are disgusting. There are plenty of surprising and disturbing documentaries that show the terrible conditions in which factory pigs live. People are willing to effectively torture animals if it means greater profit. Pigs are confined in dirty metal pens, squished in together till there's no room to move. The "stench of liquid manure" affects communities for miles around, and makes people sick outside of the farms -- imagine what it does to those living their entire lives inside.

One reason not to eat pork is simply that it's aesthetically and morally gross to eat something that has been raised in such filth and appalling conditions. There are other reasons: I've been told that pork is the closest meat to human flesh, and it doesn't digest easily, it just sits in your intestines rotting as much as being digested. Then there are parasites, etc.

Imagine though that when you eat meat, you are putting into your system the chemical signatures that an animal built up as it lived and grew. You are taking its chemical memories, and making them your own. So if you eat a ton of industrial hog factory meat, could your body be absorbing a feeling of being stressed out all the time, of being confined and crowded, frantic and agitated, living in filth? Could you be absorbing a little constant unhappiness, a desperate need to escape? Whether or not this actually happens, simply thinking about it might make you want to cut back on meat consumption.

Non-factory farms, where animals live and die decently, shouldn't have this problem. If you eat only ethically raised meats, it means lower-density production, which means that we can't all eat huge amounts of meat without requiring an impossibly large environmental footprint. But this isn't a problem; eating less meat is a solution.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

If we had some bacon we could have some bacon and eggs if we had some eggs

Evolution is all about the chicken and the egg. If you get the paradox, you probably get evolution. If you don't believe in evolution, I'll bet you're also puzzled by the paradox.

So which came first, the chicken or the egg? The paradox kind of disappears if you accept that a chicken and chicken-egg go hand-in-hand... they are so interdependent that it neither makes sense nor is relevant to consider one existing without the other. So it's not sensible to consider one coming first, without the other. They both evolved together. *

To be puzzled by the C & E paradox, all you have to do is imagine one or the other existing completely on its own. Imagine just a chicken... how was it born? Imagine an egg with no chickens... what hatched it? It is exactly these types of black-and-white narrow perspectives that leave evolution non-believers perplexed by all that evolution explains. Usually the standard solution is, "Something must have created it"; thus the need for a creator. But understand that they evolved together, in long sequences of many steps, none of which was such a leap as to be inconceivable to happen randomly, and the puzzle disappears. There is no step where a chicken appears without something very chicken-egg-like, and no step where an egg comes from something not very chicken-like.

Understanding evolution by looking at its current state and then working backwards, we're certain to come across many different chicken-and-egg paradoxes. If we assume that a particular species or trait "should" have evolved, then we are puzzled by all the unlikely events that brought it about. If we think that species are pre-designed, then we tend to think that only an intelligent entity could have created it. But evolution doesn't work to fit any pre-existing design. The design evolves along with the species. The design is never more than one mutation away from what currently exists. Which came first, the human or its design? They evolved together.

A typical chicken-and-egg-type conundrum involves taking 2 things that are dependent on each other, assuming one of them once existed without the other, then trying to figure out how the other came to be. Sometimes one of the dependencies isn't properly considered, either assumed to be a constant, or not considered a product of evolution, or not even noticed as a key element in the problem.

For example, one might ask, how did the human form "randomly" evolve into something so beautiful and aesthetically pleasing? Even our hands are works of art. If evolution favors functionally "fittest" traits, how did it also just happen to create such beauty? If your only answer is "Something must have planned it that way", or even "It must be a pretty big coincidence", then it may seem like evidence against evolution. But realize that our perception of beauty is also evolved. Our brains have developed to find the human form beautiful. You may equally validly ask, why did brains develop to find our form so attractive? Which came first, the human form or human perception of beauty? Chicken or egg? Of course, they developed together, hand-in-hand. If we had instead evolved to look like Darmok, then an evolved perception of beauty would have found his form as perfect as we consider the human form.

Questions involving the results of evolution must be asked within the context of what has evolved, to truly be answerable. Why do the conditions of Earth just happen to be so well suited to life as we know it? (Or the egg to that chicken: Why did we just randomly evolve into something that thrives here?) If the conditions on Earth were different (but still conducive to life), then life would have evolved differently, into something well-suited to those different conditions and vice versa. We can't answer any "How did evolution arrive at this unlikely point?" questions without realizing that what makes that unlikely point important is itself a product of the same evolution. Otherwise, it is simply a random point, as likely or unlikely as any other.

The Earth happens to be so well-suited to life as we know it, because life as we know it evolved within the conditions on Earth.

Evolution makes sense if you consider what may have existed before, and imagine how what existed later could have come about. If you focus on why certain things happened, it's not as clear. Asking "why" suggests there are predetermined reasons for evolutionary events, and having reasons leads to assumptions about some form of conscious thought involved in the process.

Because we tend not to naturally understand evolution, we create a need for and a strong belief in a supernatural creator. But once we've done this, even if we try to consider evolution from different perspectives, the assumption of the existence of a creator leads to further assumptions (such as predetermined reasons for events or existences) that make evolution confusing. Understanding evolution intuitively can remove one's intellectual need for a creator, but understanding evolution is much more intuitive when one fully suspends belief in a creator. This is another chicken-and-egg problem. Which comes first, understanding evolution without accepting it, or accepting it and then trying to understand it? Of course, they must come about together. The simple solution is to not try to require one side completely without the other.

Science: it's supercool!
-- Unknown

* To be technical, and to avoid trying to make an interesting paradox disappear by saying "I couldn't be bothered to think about it", I submit that the egg came first. For one thing, other animals reproduced using eggs long before chickens existed. It is highly unlikely that chickens ever reproduced in any other way, and later evolved to use eggs (there is probably proof of this). Birds evolved through various species of kinda-chickens, all using eggs in reproduction, before finally evolving after a very long time, into chickens. But which egg was "officially" the first chicken egg? I assume (without bothering to look it up) that species-to-new-species evolution can occur through many different mutations over many generations, and that there isn't always a perfect dividing line that says "this is a chicken, and it's parents are not-chickens". I assume that species changes blur across several or many generations, and it may not even be valid to isolate a single individual and say "this is the first chicken". This would be a clear case where the chicken and egg paradox is neither solvable nor relevant.

But if it so happened that a single distinct mutation separated a chicken from its not-chicken parents, that at some point in prehistory there was some kinda-chicken that wasn't technically-chicken, but which then evolved into a full-blown-chicken, then the technically-chicken egg probably came first anyway, because it is most likely that meaningful mutations resulting in the technically-chicken occurred during the genetic recombination of parental DNA, and less likely (I assume) that it occurred within the first or first few cell divisions of the kinda-chicken's life (either way, within an egg), and much much less likely that a grown kinda-chicken mutated in some key way that turned it into a full-blown-chicken. For certain, as this article is all about, it is extremely unlikely that a non-egg-laying non-chicken suddenly evolved the ability to lay eggs in one mutation or generation, all at once taking on that and every other characteristic needed to distinguish non-chicken from technically-chicken.

That kind of argument goes against the point of this article. Evolutionary changes occur on the level of random molecular changes, a tiny change in a single cell's DNA that expands to a larger change after a ton of cell divisions, some tiny defect that can be used as a new advantage, or at least results in a still-viable living creature. The "What came before that?" is nothing more miraculous or unexplainable than "The same kind of creature, less that one mutation." Big changes occur over generations and generations.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Question: What's cooler than being cool?

On a recent trip around the world and back, on foot I passed through the Rambo tunnels of Hope, British Columbia. There I met some fellow travelers also from Edmonton, who were making the same trek that I was. Here is a piece of worldly advice I picked up while conversing with these wandering strangers in that foreign land.
  • To endure a cold winter comfortably, spend at least a half an hour outside every day.
The reasoning is that this will allow you to acclimate to low temperatures, the way we did as kids when we walked to school every day, back when winters never seemed that bad. Apparently, the face is an important meteorological sensor for our bodies, and keeping ourselves inside too much prevents us from getting used to the oncoming cold of winter.

If you find an excuse to be out while the weather goes from okay to bad, it should be tolerable when it goes to worse. I will try to test the idea this coming fall.

For your health!

Bonus-beats advice!
  • Soak raw nuts overnight before eating them.
Raw nuts have enzyme inhibitors on them that allow the nut to stay fairly inert through dry periods, and only "come alive" to start growing in the presence of water. These inhibitors make nuts hard to digest. Soak yer nuts overnight for like 12 hours or whatever, to get rid of the inhibitors. Beware though that what keeps the nuts inert, keeps them from spoiling, so the nuts won't last as long once they've been soaked. It's a good thing!

[Top notch post but could you add a witty and original "nuts" joke before we send this off to print? Thx. Maybe get Vince in for ideas. --Ed. PS. don't forget to remove this note, this time]

Also ran

GM's new slogan is "May the best car win. TM"

Um. Okay, but, like... didn't that, like, already happen?

American car companies recently fell hard on their asses and it seemed for awhile that they were desperate to clean up their act, to finally look to what foreign car companies were doing right, and to try to catch up. Their ads reflected this. Then they got all bailed out, and as far as I can tell from their commercials, they immediately returned to selling us crap that we don't really want: Bulkier trucks and SUVs; body detailing that looks like bad cheap stereos (about which I also feel curmudgeony... "Back in my day, a stereo looked like a stereo, not a carnival ride!"); and generally, fantasy over function. It seems that building a car that has what I want (high gas mileage, quality construction, doesn't die after a few years for no good reason, made out of duroplast and runs on solar power, etc) is only worth doing when you're against the ropes (that's a boxing reference, y'all). Any other time is business as usual: Making crappy cars, trying to sell them with deceitful advertising, and getting bailed out when you can't compete with companies who make decent cars.

Here are some future slogan ideas for GM:
  • "Okay best car, 2 out of 3, wins!"
  • "Do over? May the best car win, starting..... now!"
  • "3 out of 5?"

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Is it bigger than a bread box?

When I read about the giant rings recently discovered around Saturn, I wanted some frame of reference to help understand how big they are. So I started calculating some ratios between various measurements...

Scale: If you could walk around the earth

Suppose you made a map of the earth to the size of a city. The equatorial circumference of the Earth is 40,075 km. The length of Manhattan, or an average city like Edmonton, is about 21 km. This is a long walk for an average person, but most should be able to do it in a day.

If you laid a large map of the globe across such a city, the map scale would be 21:40075, or 1 to 1908.333 (repeating, of course). You can multiply this ratio by any map distance to find the equivalent distance on earth, or divide to do the reverse. For example, a big 1 m step taken in your city map would cover 1908 m on Earth, which is about half the length of Central Park (on your map, the park would be about the size of a tub). The distance from London to Paris is 343 km, which would be 180 m on your map. That's about the depth of the Met Museum of Art in real life.

Note: This ratio is actually only valid along the equator on the map, because the projection from sphere to plane will deform the map, but let's just pretend that the map was made in such a way that any of the distances we measure here share the same ratio.

By the way, the ratio also means that if you laid 1908 average cities side by side, they would circle the entire globe.

A map of Earth the size of a city.
Scale: 1 : 1908.3

MeasurementActual sizeSize on mapAbout as big as...
Width of a house10 m5.2 mma pea
Height of CN Tower in Toronto553.3 m0.29 mthe height of a garden gnome
Height of Mount Everest8848 m4.637 mthe height of a house. Imagine a city the size of Manhattan with nothing taller than 1-story buildings. That's how relatively "flat" the Earth is.
Average city length21 km11 ma house
Length of the equator40075 km21 kma city, of course!
Diameter of the moon3475 km1.820 mhalf the length of central park
Average distance to the moon384,403 km201 kmLong Island
Diameter of the sun1,391,000 km728.9 kmNew York to Chicago; highway driving for 7 hours
1 AU (Distance to sun)149,598,000 km78391 km6 Earths side by side
Distance to Proxima Centauri (nearest star to sun, 4.3 light-years)4.07×1013 km21,317,173,156 km142.5 AU... within the heliosheath of the solar system; 5x the distance from sun to Uranus

Scale: The solar system in a ball park...

Suppose we have a park that is 60 m (just under 200 ft) from home plate to the outfield fence, and we want to build a scale model of the solar system with the sun at home plate and Neptune orbiting around where the fence is.

Home plate is 0.4318 m across, the pitching rubber is 18.44 m away, 1st base is 27.43 m away, and the outfield grass line is 47.40 m straight ahead.

Neptune orbits at about 30 AU, or 4.48794×1012 m.
Scale: 60 : 4.48794×1012 = 1 : 74799 million

MeasurementActual sizeSize in ballpark modelAbout as big as...
Diameter of the sun1,391,000 km18.60 mma nickel
Diameter of Mercury4,879.4 km0.0652 mmthe width of a thin hair. All of the inner planets are like hairs of varying thickness.
Distance to Mercury59,839,200 km0.8 ma big step
Venus12103.6 km0.1618 mm
To Venus104,718,600 km1.4 ma short person laying down
Earth12756.2 km0.1705 mm
To Earth149,598,000 km2 mwidth of a car. If you tape a nickel to a window and stand 2 m away from it, the coin should just eclipse the sun. Try this with the moon to be safe, if you're curious. The moon looks slightly (103%) bigger than the sun, on average.
Diameter of the moon3475 km0.0465 mm
Average distance to the moon384,403 km5.14 mma pea
Mars6794 km0.0908 mm
To Mars224,397,000 km3 m
Distance to the Asteroid belt418,874,400 km5.6 ma limousine
Jupiter142,984 km1.9116 mm
To Jupiter777,909,600 km10.4 m
Saturn120,536 km1.6115 mmwidth of a grain of rice
To Saturn1,421,181,000 km19 mjust past the pitching rubber
Diameter of Saturn's main rings273,560 km3.66 mmthe width of 3 pennies
Saturn's new ring13,000,000 km173.8 mma cantaloupe. As seen from Earth (2 m from home plate), this should look twice as big as the moon or sun.
Uranus51,118 km0.6834 mmUranus is huge.
To Uranus2,932,120,800 km39.2 mhalfway between 2nd base and the outfield grass line
Neptune49,528 km0.6621 mm
To Neptune4,487,940,000 km60 mthe park, to the outfield fence
Solar system bow shock34,407,540,000 km460 ma few long city blocks
Distance to Proxima Centauri (nearest star to sun, 4.3 light-years)4.07×1013 km543 kmToronto to Montreal. If it took us a year to get from the sun to Neptune's orbit, it would take 9064 years to get to the nearest star.
Diameter of Proxima Centauri201,695 km2.70 mma spitball
Size of the galaxy9.50×1017 km12,700,705 kmSize of Saturn's newly discovered rings. 33 times the average distance to the moon and a twelfth of the distance to the sun.

In a model where the planets' orbits fit in a ball park, the galaxy fits in Saturn's "new" rings. The next time you make a model this big, have someone in another city 543 km away hold up a spitball, to represent the nearest star.

Scale: If the distance to the nearest star was the length of a house...

Length of house: 14 m
Distance to Proxima Centauri: 4.3 light-years = 4.07×1013 km
Scale: 1 : 2905733 billion

MeasurementActual sizeSize in house modelAbout as big as...
Diameter of the sun1,391,000 km0.000479 mma bacteria cell. Though not visible to the naked eye, if it was very bright and seen from across a dark house, it would be a visible, single point of light, just like a star in the sky
Distance from sun to Earth149,598,000 km0.0515 mmwidth of a thin hair
To Neptune4,487,940,000 km1.54 mmwidth of a grain of rice
To bow shock34,407,540,000 km11.8 mma marble
Distance to Proxima Centauri (4.3 light-years)4.07×1013 km14 mlength of house
Size of the galaxy9.50×1017 km327 kmDistance from Edmonton to Calgary
Distance to nearest galaxy2.37×1017 km81.4 km
Distance to Andromeda Galaxy (whose size is comparable to the Milky Way Galaxy)1.89×1019 km6512 kmRadius of Earth
Size of the visible universe4.40×1023 km151,395,348 kmDistance to the sun

References: google, wikipedia

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Uhhhmm... the planet just exploded sir.

We apologize for the recent technical difficulties that have prevented updates of this blog. Earlier in the summer, a wild pack of feral wookies chewed on some vital cables within the MegaCorp(tm) North Compound reactor core, causing a minor nuclear holocaust which disabled the satellite uplink. Please bear with us while we carry out the necessary repairs and cover up. Our sincerest apologies to all who were affected by the blackout.

Legal disclaimer: This apology is not endorsed by Bloggo Corp(tm), nor its parent company MegaCorp(tm), nor any of its affiliates, including FudgeMuffin Industrial, DeathCorp, Superhappy Positiveness Funtime Productions, nor the author. Pursuant to section 12.3, MegaCorp apologizes for nothing(tm)! No refunds will be provided for any real or imaginary losses. Subscribers of the Post Picayune Premium Pack Infotainment, Edutising, or Cryptofaciofunpack Super Mega Bundles may be compensated with a complimentary 12kg canister of MegaCorp Formula B General Purpose Peanut Butter and will be charged a nominal fee plus shipping and handling.

"Choose MegaCorp Formula B General Purpose Peanut Butter, the only non-corrosive mucilaginous anti-frictant with that acceptably peanut-like taste, for all your high-volume edible filler and biodegradable lubricating mechanical adhesive needs!(tm) Now in regular and extra-salty."