January 25th, 2010

[LINK] "Adam Giambrone To Launch Mayoral Campaign February 1"

Torontoist, so far as I know, beat the traditional media to this (very plausible) speculation.

Since the day that Mayor David Miller announced that he would not be seeking reelection, Adam Giambrone has been included on any list of potential candidates to replace him: to replace Miller as mayor, and to replace him also as the standard-bearer of the left at City Hall. We have just learned that Giambrone will soon make good on the rumours and the speculation and launch his candidacy in just over a week, with a party at Revival. (It is expected that he will be filing his nomination papers at City Hall earlier that day.)

While many have greeted the prospect of Giambrone's campaign with some scepticism, citing his youth and growing frustration among many Torontonians with the TTC (of which he is chair), it is also the case that Giambrone enters the race with several organizational advantages that make him impossible to dismiss. He has a long history of involvement with organized labour (he was, among other things, president of the federal NDP from 2001–2006), and thus will be well-placed to make a bid for the majority of union support. It is also rumoured that Giambrone has secured the services of John Laschinger, the formidable political organizer who helped shepherd David Miller to victory in 2003 and 2006.

An Angus-Reid–
Toronto Star poll released ten days ago had Giambrone in second place among decided voters, with 17% of the vote compared to 44% for current front-runner George Smitherman. It's a long time until election day, though—nine months can be several lifetimes in politics—and those numbers will undoubtedly change many times between now and then.

For the record, Giambrone is actually my representative in City Council, as the incumbent for Ward 18 in the south of the Davenport electoral district as well as the chair of the Toronto Transit Commission.

[LINK] "Three-second fish memory 'a myth'"

This isn't surprising. The goldfish and koi in my tank are clustering on the side and in the corner of the tank closest to me, watching me and waiting to be fed, after all.

The traditional view that fish lack the brain power to retain memories is "absolute rubbish" said Dr Kevin Warburton, an adjunct researcher with Charles Sturt University's Institute for Land, Water and Society in Australia.

He made his conclusions after studying the behaviour of Australian freshwater fish such as the silver perch, which can remember a predator for several months after only one encounter.

Dr Warburton said: "Fish are quite sophisticated.

"Fish can remember prey types for months. They can learn to avoid predators after being attacked once and they retain this memory for several months.

"And carp that have been caught by fishers avoid hooks for at least a year.

They've also a fair degree of social sophistication, too.

Fish can also learn to improve how to catch food, said Dr Warburton, carry out acts of deception and modify their behaviour.

For example, in reef environments cleaner fish who eat parasites off 'client' fish act on best behaviour when they spot a larger patron.

Dr Warburton said: "What's fascinating is that they co-operate more with clients when they are being observed by other potential clients.

"This improves their 'image' and their chances of attracting clients.

[LINK] "Oops, that was a bad call, Earth"

The Times' Richard Woods and Chris Hastings examine the apparent absence of evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence in the cosmos and wonder whether it's a good idea to actively seek out such intelligences by sending out directed messages of our own.

At an astrobiology conference in Texas in April, SETI enthusiasts will discuss new methods of discovering extraterrestrial life, including sending out interstellar messages. Alexander Zaitsev, a Russian scientist who has already beamed out four carefully composed signals to nearby stars, has been invited to attend.

In the UK, Dr Marek Kukula, public astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, said: “Part of me is with the enthusiasts and I would like us to try to make proactive contact with a wiser, more peaceful civilisation.”

However, he warns that advertising our presence could be risky. “We might like to assume that if there is intelligent life out there it is wise and benevolent,” he said. “But of course we have no evidence for this.

“Given that the consequences of contact may not be what we initially hoped for, then we need governments and the UN to get involved in any discussions.”

[. . .]

Among the speakers will be Professor Simon Conway Morris, a Cambridge University evolutionary biologist, who says there is good reason to think aliens exist — and that they may well have chemical and biological similarities to us.

Conway Morris, whose talk is entitled “Predicting what extraterrestrial life will be like — and preparing for the worst”, said: “My basic argument is that, contrary to most neo-Darwinian thinking at the moment, evolution is much more predictable than people think.

“In particular, I would argue that the emergence, by evolution, of intelligence, cognitive capacity and all that stuff is an inevitability.”

In short, under the right conditions of a “biosphere” such as that present on Earth, the molecules necessary to form complex and intelligent life are already available; Darwinian evolution will do the rest.

“I think we can argue some intelligence must emerge in a biosphere,” said Conway Morris. “If that is correct — and it applies to manipulative skill — then that suggests there should be alien technologies.”

[LINK] "McWhorter on Proto-World"

Language Hat has started up an interesting discussion on the question of whether modern languages can be used to construct the original human language. Such groupings may exist, the blogger implies, but be unretrievable.

The most interesting aspect to me was [John McWhorten's] take on the idea that we can use surviving languages, and the proto-languages we can reconstruct from them, to see back 100,000 or more years to find bits and pieces of the very first human language, conventionally called Proto-World. I personally consider this notion (associated with the names of Joseph Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen) ludicrous on the face of it, appealing to those who are so enthusiastic about piercing the veil of time that they are willing to overlook the glaring problems (the prevalence of coincidence and the inevitability of sound change rendering forms unrecognizable after thousands of years, for two), but then I'm one of those stodgy Indo-Europeanists the partisans of the theory love to mock. McWhorter has a more nuanced take on it; while rejecting the theory in its strong form, he emphasizes the likelihood that there are regional groupings that can't be strictly reconstructed but are nevertheless real:

IV. Final verdict.
A. Ruhlen’s point that comparative reconstruction is not the only way to show that languages have a common ancestor is valid in itself. He observes that linguists posited the Indo-European group long before Proto-Indo-European itself had been worked out by working backward from the languages. The similarities between language families are close enough that his point is likely valid for mega-groups, such as Amerind and Eurasiatic.
B. A question still remains, however, as to how realistic even this approach is for Proto-World. The issues could be resolved as more proto-languages are reconstructed, although work of this kind is done increasingly less by modern linguists, and for reasons we will see in later lectures, it may be entirely impossible to reconstruct protolanguages for many families.

He gives some great examples; to illustrate the point about sound change, for instance, he says: "Proto-Algonquian words have been recovered through comparative reconstruction; the word for winter, for example, was peponwi. But the word in Cheyenne that has developed from this root is aa’—because of gradual changes over just 1,500 years."

The comments are great, too.