May 29, 2009

Eccrine sweat glands: A new sensitivity & mobility.

Round about 2,000,000 years ago our ancestors were moving across the landscape, out of the forests, running long distances, collecting tool material, exploiting the midday period when quadripeds soaked too much heat to be active. This meant we needed to dissipate heat ourselves. What better way than a network of two to four million eccrine sweat cells spread across the surface of our skin? By that time most of our sweat glands were on our palms and soles. They originally provided moisture for better grip when fleeing or fighting and were emotionally activated. Since we started to stand upright, exploit the midday times when most quadripeds rested our species evolved any sweat glands that activate based on heat. Now most sweat glands are used solely to dissipate heat. 

I'm amazed by simple seeming innovations to our genotype that end up providing a real advantage to us as individuals. I'm also amazed at how memotypes sometimes work to overcome innovations as in the development of antiperspirants and deodorants. 

Drug Resistant Diseases: The gift of ignorance.

Not all gift we get are good things. 

This morning I heard the evolution of a drug resistant strain of malaria described as a gift from drug counterfeiters in South East Asia. These crooks create fake drugs that use a small amount of the real medicine to allow them to pass certain tests. When people use the weakened drug their malaria strain soon builds up resistance to that drug. In Cambodia today, a resistant strain of malaria is the newest gift from the underworld to our culture.

I say the gift of ignorance not just because people using the fakes are ignorant of their culpability in this but also because so many people misunderstand the various modes and methods of medicine that their confusion can lead to drug resistance as well. Learning the facts can really help you stay healthy.

May 27, 2009

The focused energy of light.

I had to go back and mention another gift from my old buddy Archimedes. This Greek from Syracuse is said to have developed a series of large mirrors he could position on shore overlooking an approach to the City's harbor. He was able to focus the light of the sun with these mirrors to either blind ships' tillermen or start the ships on fire. The first Death Ray(!) three centuries before Jesus.

A simple, elegant defensive solution almost no troops required to operate it. Risk of the loss of life in minimal on the part of the defenders. Low cost. I'm always awestruck by the genius of Archimedes. Sad to say a Roman soldier killed Archimedes as they overran the city despite specific orders to spare Archimedes because he was so brilliant! <|:-{(#

May 26, 2009

Empathy: The first gift of human civilization

IT has to be said as the elected "nay sayers" in Congress start to sing their chorus against any Supreme Court Justice nominee who might have empathy: our ability to see the world thru the eyes of others was the beginning of our transition from cold blooded, killers and procreators to the civilized people we are today.  Yes, empathy, the gift of being able to put yourself into the shoes of others. 

Without being able to see the world thru others eyes we never learn to communicate. We never learn to care for our children, we never learn to govern, we never learn human emotion. Many mammals have an ability for empathy but, it our finely tuned skill at being able to understand what another creature, not just another human, is experiencing that unlocked most of what distinguishes us from reptiles. Empathy allows a mother to nurture her young. Empathy makes mentoring possible. Empathy is a necessary concept behind all economic transactions. 

Please, tell your Republican Senator  your opinion of empathy. It's the foundation of our legal system. From the Ten Commandments to the Koran, to the US Constitution, the primary purpose of these instruments is to codify empathy. Listen to a Senator try and create a dichotomy with Empathy & Legal decision making on opposite sides!

(Why are the the Republicans so opposed to anyone who might display empathy? My guess is John Kyl, the junior Republican Senator from Arizona didn't think before he came up with this amazing way to criticize any potential nominee that our President proposed. 
Of the President, Kyl said, "He believes in justices that have empathy," Kyl said if Obama goes with empathetic judges who do not base their decisions on the rule of law and legal precedents but instead the factors in each case, he would try to block those picks via filibuster.
Had Senator Kyl thought first I'm sure he would have realized the key place empathy holds in our culture, our community, our government, and our civilization.)

It really makes Santa wonder: What are these leaders thinking? Who are they trying to impress? I remember talk about mainstream values and ideas. We are really getting far out of the mainstream if we take empathy, a basic, core aspect of human existence off the table for any potential Supreme Court Nominee.

May 20, 2009

Sports: Our bodies' are learning tools.

I've been thinking about writing on this for some time now. Some anthropologists suggest that one reason for the growth in the human brain over the past 3 million years is due in part to our physical expertise growing. As we became better stone throwers our diet could improve because we took down more creatures with our rocks. This made selection pressure to throw more accurately and, because throwing a rock at a moving target requires large amounts of brain capacity, judge the rate of speed and direction of the target, judge the force, direction, and timing of your throw, coordinate these judgements to ensure your rock intersects with the water buffalo temple or neck at a high rate of speed . . . . Our brains grew.

I've taken this idea to new extremes and argued with Mary that I need to go watch football or golf or soccer to research brain growth! While Mary doesn't buy this she is supportive of my daily workouts on rollerblades or skis, my crunches, twists, bends, and lunges. She can see not only changes in my body shape, but my mental capacity is clearly enhanced when I engage in varied activities and have a chance to increase my heart rate for an hour or more everyday.

Couple a better diet with the learning required to engage in new activities, like taking down a water buffalo, & over a few hundred generations we see clear brain growth. This same idea has scientific support on phenotypes as well. The more tuned your body, the better your posture, the stronger your muscles, the healthier your blood, the more active your mind. You can use your physical structure to build a new shape to your body (training) just as you can use your thoughts to rewire your habits. A few five minute "practice" sessions thinking about a new complicated task such as playing scales on a musical instrument will help you with that task the next time you do it physically. Just thinking about doing a thing builds the neurons in your motor cortex allowing your brain to work better the next time you do that thing!

Try it!

May 14, 2009

The Lever: Move the World

"Give me a long enough lever and a platform to stand on, I will move the earth"

When Archimedes discovered the power of the lever in the second century BCE humans had been using science and it's language, mathematics for tens of thousands of years. (Meanwhile, conceptions of God were much more recent ideas on the human memescape.) People had likely been using levers for quite some time as well but the gift Archimedes gave us, (one of many, many gifts he left for us) is the ability to calculate all the forces involved to create levers, fulcrums, pulleys, rigging, etc. to carry out the work that previously required many strong men!

Now, we use leverage and the concepts in areas beyond the strictly mechanical. In finance for example, the concept of leverage refers to the ability to attract and service debt as a growth strategy at certain phases of an entities life. Some might argue that leverage had substantial influence on the recent banking/lending crisis. We might try to understand what are the basic constituents of leverage in lending? 

In simplified form, the assets are the "weight" to be moved, liability is the "lever", equity is the "fulcrum" and cash is the force applied to one "end of the lever." Of course there are other ways to interpret the lever metaphor and finance. I suggest this one to show how the concept of lever is used in diverse situations.

Just this morning a radio commentator suggested that President Obama had leverage in dealing with Republicans and with Congress because of his popularity with the people. Political leverage is an even more abstract image for levers. What is the weight? The fulcrum? The lever?

May 7, 2009

Counting time: Joining the magic of number & life's events

Back on Santa's Birthday I talked about the magic of number. How our ability to count beyond one, two, a few and many has allowed us amazing advances. Today, in honor of my beloved's birthday I want to expand on number to the counting of time. I think this might bring us to the origin of SANTA, that bearded gift giver who came at the winter solstice to predict the return of the sun from the south after it seemed to fall almost to the horizon in some northern reaches. Those first Santas brought seeds, and that prediction. They were able to predict the return on f the sun because they had learned to count time.

Counting time seems a simple, unimportant task now but this shared skill allowed some groups of people to thrive while their contemporaries who could not count time floundered. As with all deeply rooted memes, this gift pushes evolution without directly affecting the genome, or the phenotype. It means a slowing of change in physical characteristics and advance for those skilled at manipulating abstract concepts. My goodness! What a gift. Counting time!

May 5, 2009

The Inclined plane: Great tool for many things!

I know you're all thinking the inclined plane is no big deal. Slide a block up the hill to make a pyramid. Make a wedge to keep a door closed! There is a lot more to it than that. An inclined plane allows the user to lift an object using less force than would be required to move the object directly up. The plane allows the object to rise slowly but steadily. When it was invented, about ten thousand years ago it changed the height and majesty of building we could make.

You probably know that Archimedes advanced the uses for the inclined plane by wrapping one around a cylinder and making a screw! Archimedes Screw allowed water to lifted and run through out an area by way of aqua ducts! Let's hear it for the Inclined Plane another gift to us from the smart people Before the Common Era!

May 1, 2009

Rhythm & Music: Gifts of story and action

I've been thinking about music lately because I spend so much time practicing the guitar and listening to music. I used to let the music flow over me and I was inspired by the song, the lyrics, the beat, the melody. I couldn't really tell what was happening. Now that I've taken some lessons and start to understand more clearly the structure of music like the simple 8 measure verse or chorus. AABA or AABBAA or ABAB rhyming schemes and chord progressions like I IV V I or I IV V IV I now seem more obvious when I listen to the songs I like. 

Music experience like mine seems to mirror the flow of music in human evolution. We started out with simple stories, maybe told later with approving sounds of our cohorts. Or, stories told with a beating drum in the background. As musicians became more adept, tuned their instruments differently, or built new ones, stories & rhythms became more complex. 

As rhythms evolved our ability to hear them was enhanced. We could move to them more smoothly. Dance co-evolved with the rhythms. Our species grew stronger bodies, bigger brains and better prediction skills. 

Music really was a gift that keeps on giving. Finally, its only in the past hundred years that we have have widespread recording techniques so all the sounds that went down before the first sound recorders are lost forever! Those performances were written down at times but many are really lost, vibrating forever into the ether at the speed of sound but unavailable to us.

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