Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas in St. Andrews

St Andrews University - my alma mater - uploaded a series of videos for Christmas about what students like about St. Andrews University:

The video from around the (older parts) of the town bring back memories. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like they interviewed many biologists... (Or Scots.)

Regardless of whether I liked (or you liked) the videos, I hope you have a very Happy Christmas day.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Gov. Snyder vetos concealed weapons law; gun supporters make bad arguments about why this is a bad thing

In a bit of a surprise, Governor Snyder vetoed the concealed carry law that passed both houses along mostly party lines.

Already you're getting people saying, "Well, that won't stop criminals!" Of course it won't stop criminals. Neither does the threat of jail. Or the threat of the death penalty. Why? Because people who want to break the law will do so.

To all the people who think that social laws actually, directly cause people to do things, you're missing the point of what laws do, and I think you know that to be the case. Laws are not magical incantations that will cause people to change their minds, which is basically what you're saying laws amount to when you say, "Well that won't stop criminals!" Stop it: you're making yourself look stupid.

Okay, so what do laws do? Well, they provide guidance to the public as to what things are socially permissible and within what guidelines of permissibility. Don't want to follow those laws? Okay, well, there's a legally defined penalty. Don't like these laws? Well, you can try to change the guidelines or you can move to a place that doesn't have those guidelines. Laws also provide guidance to government as to what priorities for governance are as well as the procedures for pursuing that form of governance.

Using the argument of, "Well that won't stop criminals," for this ban makes you look both stupid and hypocritical when you try to ban abortions without applying your argumentation of, "Well that won't stop criminals."

It makes you look stupid and hypocritical when you try to ban drugs without applying your argumentation of, "Well that won't stop criminals."

In fact, you make yourselves look stupid and hypocritical when you try to ban anything that doesn't fit with your sense of morality when you don't apply your argumentation of, "Well that won't stop criminals."

Do you see the problem with your line of argumentation? It doesn't work, because people will break laws that they don't want to follow. Why? It's because the purpose of the law is not there for the benefit of the criminal, but to benefit society. And you know that. I'm sure you know that.

ADDENDUM: On December 16th, Annabel Park wrote a piece called "Replying to my pro-gun friends", and it's interesting to note that many of her points can be extended to the pro-gun crazies that are saying that this veto is the worst thing in the world, because it will lead to bad shit happening. (Never mind that you can't logically prove that the lack of something led directly to the outcome of a shitty thing at a later date.)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Whence come trees?

As you walk around Saginaw Forest - or actually any area with trees - you might not have wondered where the trees actually came from. I mean, it was probably never a question that you asked. But do you really know where all that "stuff" that makes the tree actually came from?

Before you check out this video from Veritasium, stop for a moment and make a prediction.

Got it?

Okay, now click, "PLAY":

For all of you who don't have a background in biology, was your prediction correct?

So now that you know where all the mass of a tree comes from, you might have an additional appreciation for why forests (and also deforestation) is important when thinking about the future.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Myths about the Maya Calendar (which doesn't have anything to do with the end of the world)

Many people (apparently as much as 22% of Americans, even) apparently believe that the world is going to end, and that the Maya calendar has something to do with it all. Uhhh... No. It doesn't. Here are two good videos and a decent radio spot (with a conversation with a real, living, breathing Mayan).

Recently from SciShow:

Almost a year ago from CPG Grey:

Recently, on The Story Christina Croc sat down with Phoebe Judge to talk about growing up with the Mayan calendar and what it definitely does not say is going to happen on December 21, 2012.

If none of these - or other pieces of evidence - persuade you, then all I can say is to please just wait until December 22nd before you do anything rash. After all, if the end of the world is coming, you can't do anything to change it, but if it's a hoax, then you would have done something silly despite all the real evidence.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Raking trails in Saginaw Forest

Much of the trails in Saginaw Forest have been raked - by yours truly.



Why did I do all of this? After all, next year, it will all get covered again, right?

Well, each of the last few years, I've had to negotiate walking along the pathways in the springtime, with them in a treacherous semi-frozen, semi-slushed, semi-muddy mess. Over the year, the walking of the trails crushes the leaves, breaking them down. And then, when the snows come, the ground (and leaves and mashed leaves) gets saturated. When this starts to thaw, the leaves produce discontinuous layers of ice, frozen leaves, water, slosh, wet leaves, etc. In other words: a mess.

The idea is that - since most of the soil of the property is sand, and the majority of the paths are gravel laid atop this sand - if I rake the leaves, there will be greater amounts of infiltration in the spring. Furthermore, even in places where the leaf litter buildup and decomposition have accumulated a significant enough layer of soil, raking away the leaves will allow for this soil to be more easily washed away, revealing the gravel path below (thus improving the quality of the pathways - as pathways).

I even raked a trail out to Westview Way, so that it will be easy to stay off the untrodden ground (we don't like unnecessary soil compaction) while walking into the facility:

Thursday, December 13, 2012

An a capella song from St. Andrews students: Christmas Gets Worse Every Year

The Other Guys are an a capella group from my alma mater, St. Andrews. Above, you can see them in the Scottish hills, two of them sporting college scarves (the Bute medical college and the university). Represent!

Here's their wonderfully upbeat cynical song of Christmas that so wonderfully captured the feeling that I saw surrounding me each of the four years that I was a student in St. Andrews. Lord, but I miss this cynical, negative, and depressing nature that so many Brits seem to look forward to (and dread) every year.

Enjoy the upbeatedness of British Christmas cynicism:

h/t to my friends from St. Andrews who posted this on Facebook. :)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

12/12/12 1212: A good opportunity to look at date/time notation

This is the last day for another 88 years and 20 days until we will get to the next DD/MM/YY combination that will be all the same (i.e., 01/01/[21]01). (And I've scheduled this to post at 12:12, which really takes the biscuit for "clocking in" to the current - and dominant - mode of time-keeping on the planet.)

Kinda sad, I s'pose. Still, I was able to live during a period of time that I was able to see so many "calendrical" and astronomical events. ... and remember them, too. Heh.

One nice thing about days like this is that I don't have to worry about what date notation convention to present the numbers in. Should I use the US date convention (month/day/year), the most-of-Europe date convention (day/month/year), or the Japanese date convention (year/month/day)?

I much prefer the year/month/day convention, especially when I have multiple drafts or versions of a document or project; it allows for automatic sorting of the title to display both the evolution of the file as well as present, in explicit notation, the date when the file was last saved. This is in contrast to some people who prefer to use notation like "v2," "v3" etc., which can become cumbersome (after all, how much change is necessary to indicate a new version?) or even the massively cumbersome notation of "new" and "newer", which usually devolves into some sort of hybrid of relative notations (e.g., "new2" or "new2_newer").

Some people might say that the European date and time notation (day/month/year) makes the most sense, since the time increments are increasing from left to right. This is usually used as an extension of the argument that the United States' conventions for measurement are quite arbitrary, antiquated, and confusing:

However, the expectation of left-to-right being equivalent to small-to-big is a normative assumption that has no more logical basis than saying that left-to-right is equivalent to big-to-small. (Similarly, it may be more simple to think in terms of base-ten - as one does with metric - but that choice is also arbitrary, and we could just think in terms of 360; which is also an arbitrary choice. But along that line of questioning madness lies!) Furthermore, the European version of annotation creates large problems of file sorting by name, since the same 28 days (or 30 days if you don't consider February to be important) will be recycled 12 times within a year, meaning that a file that is being worked on for more than one month will encounter sorting confusion:

01012002 = 1 Jan 2002
01022001 = 1 Feb 2001
01032001 = 1 Mar 2001
02022001 = 2 Feb 2001

Here, 2 February 2001 should come before 1 March 2001, since dates in January do come before dates in February. Furthermore, 1 January 2002 should be at the bottom of this list, since 2002 comes after all dates in 2001. These problems go away when you use the Japanese date reporting format:

20010101 = 2001 Feb 1
20010102 = 2001 Feb 2
20010201 = 2001 Mar 1
20020101 =2002 Jan 1

See? No problems.

Earlier today, a friend of mine wrote:
I don't get this 12-12-12 hype. Unless I've somehow time-traveled, we're neither in the year 12 and Jesus is alive, nor are we in 1212 and the crusades are in full swing. 20th of December this year is a lot more interesting to me, if we're talking symmetrical dates.
I couldn't help but respond with this comment:
Heh. Presumably, you'd also be especially interested at 8:12 PM. However, that only works if you're using European date convention of 20-12-2012 20:12. If you're using the Japanese date convention, December 20 would be: 2012-12-20, which is kinda palindromic, but not really.

Once you recognize that date notation is culturally biased and somewhat arbitrary (especially once you consider the various standardization changes that happened to date notation and calendar format that occurred even prior to the standardization that was the Julian calendar in addition to the later restandardization that left us with the Gregorian calendar), then the allowance of letting people get rid of the "20" in front of the "12" makes today kind of fun.

In the end, I recognize that this loosening of the rules for date notation may not be as much fun as having access to a time machine might be, but I'm not one to really wish to travel back to the years 12 (don't know enough Latin) or 1212 (don't want to be burned as a heretic or infidel), and if we did have a time machine the calculations that we'd have to make to ensure that we actually get to that era's notation of a repetitive date value would also take a bit of the romanticism out of the whole thing. 

Anyway... enough proselyzation about date numbering formats; today is one of the twelve that come about every century that make such discussions meaningless - at least for those singular days.

Looking to the future, here's to hoping that in 100 years from today, 12/12/2112, we won't have completely gone and screwed ourselves over, thanks to our evolutionarily stone-age brains being unable to adequately comprehend the intricacies of an increasingly complex, interconnected, non-linear system that is what we call "existence." Hopefully, too, Doraemon will actually be created in September of that year!

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Saturday Omphaolskepsis: They aren't the oldest trees in the world, but...

In reading through my news items for today, I came across an article describing the fragility old trees in a changing climate:
A report by three of the world's leading ecologists in today's issue of the journal Science warns of an alarming increase in deathrates among trees 100-300 years old in many of the world's forests, woodlands, savannahs, farming areas and even in cities.
The reason behind this increased rate of die-off among old trees? Well, it's not only because the trees are reaching the end of their lives (some trees can live for several centuries, after all), but because the environments in which these trees live are changing. And why is this happening? Well:
"According to one popular theory, trees get a double-whammy when the thermometer rises. "During the day, their photosynthesis shuts down when it gets too warm, and at night they use more energy because their metabolic rate increases, much as a reptile's would do when it gets warmer." With less energy being produced in warmer years and more being consumed just to survive, there is less energy available for growth. "This hypothesis, if correct, means tropical forests could shrink over time," Professor Laurance said. "The largest, oldest trees would progressively die off and tend not to be replaced. Alarmingly, this might trigger a positive feedback that could destabilize the climate: as older trees die, forests would release some of their stored carbon into the atmosphere, prompting a vicious circle of further warming, forest shrinkage and carbon emissions."
In Saginaw Forest, we don't think of the trees as being particularly "old" - at least I doubt that many people think of Saginaw Forest as some sort of primeval wood, but it's important to remember that some of the trees on the property have joined the century club, having been planted waaay back in 1904. And these trees are dying off, although whether it's due to being planted too close or due to physiological exacerbations caused by climate stress (since many of these old Saginaw Forest trees are actually native to more northerly regions of the state), I can't say.

Still, it's something to think about when you're walking through the forest, recalling (in some deep recess of your mind) that you are walking through a forested landscape that - while not a "natural" forest - is in the range of 60-100+ years old. It's still a relatively "new" forest in that way, having not "matured" to be dominated by the climax community that we would have experienced way back in the early 1800s: a hardwood forest of oak, maple, and beech. It may also be sobering to recall that - thanks to climate change and the changed driving forces that our new and future climate have on the local ecology - Saginaw Forest will not be changing to resemble that 1800s forest of Southeast Michigan so much as a forest that would have been more typical of central Ohio.

In sum - and to bring it back to the topic of the paper - the century-plus old trees on the northern side of the property will likely die faster now than they would have if the climate hadn't changed, that those trees will also be more quickly releasing their stored carbon into the atmosphere, and that those reaches of the property are on a destined path toward a climax forest that would have been more recognizable around the Columbus, OH of 1800 than the Ann Arbor, MI of that same time.