May 7th, 2010

[BRIEF NOTE] The Neandertals live!

This GNXP link made me happy. Let's go to the Scientific American's Kate Wong.

Researchers sequencing Neandertal DNA have concluded that between 1 and 4 percent of the DNA of people today who live outside Africa came from Neandertals, the result of interbreeding between Neandertals and early modern humans.

A team of scientists led by Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig pieced together the first draft of the sequence—which represents about 60 percent of the entire genome—using DNA obtained from three Neandertal bones that come from Vindija cave in Croatia and are more than 38,000 years old. The researchers detail their analysis of the sequence in the May 7 Science.

The evidence that Neandertals contributed DNA to modern humans came as a shock to the investigators. “First I thought it was some kind of statistical fluke,” Pääbo remarked during a press teleconference on May 5. “We as a consortium came into this with a very, very strong bias against gene flow,” added team member David Reich of Harvard University. But when the researchers conducted additional analyses, the results all pointed to the same conclusion.

The finding contrasts sharply with Pääbo's previous work. In 1997 he and his colleagues sequenced the first Neandertal mitochrondrial DNA . Mitochondria are the cell’s energy-generating organelles, and they have their own DNA that is distinct from the much longer DNA sequence that resides in the cell’s nucleus. Their analysis revealed that Neandertals had not made any contributions to modern mitochondrial DNA. Yet because mitochondrial DNA represents only a tiny fraction of an individual’s genetic makeup, the possibility remained that Neandertal nuclear DNA might tell a different story. Still, additional genetic analyses have typically led researchers to conclude that Homo sapiens arose in Africa and replaced the archaic humans it encountered as it spread out from its birthplace without mingling with them.

But mingle they apparently did, according to the new study. When Pääbo’s team looked at patterns of nuclear genome variation in present-day humans, it identified 12 genome regions where non-Africans exhibited variants that were not seen in Africans and that were thus candidates for being derived from the Neandertals, who lived not in Africa but Eurasia. Comparing those regions with the same regions in the newly assembled Neandertal sequence, the researchers found 10 matches, meaning 10 of these 12 variants in non-Africans came from Neandertals. (Where the other two segments came from remains unknown.)

Intriguingly, the researchers failed to detect a special affinity to Europeans—a link that might have been expected given that Neandertals seem to have persisted in Europe longer than anywhere else before disappearing around 28,000 years ago. Rather the Neandertal sequence was equally close to sequences from present-day people from France, Papua New Guinea and China, even though no Neandertal specimens have turned up in the latter two parts of the world. By way of explanation, the investigators suggest that the interbreeding occurred in the Middle East between 45,00 and 80,000 years ago, before moderns fanned out to other parts of the Old World and split into different groups.

Razib Khan also links to a very extended John Hawks post that explains Pääbo's process in great detail. Neandertals went extinct, true, because their genes weren't evolutionarily adaptive, but they did leave genetic traces in the human population. That shouldn't be too surprising, since the latest genetic studies and recent anthropological surmises suggest that although more than 90% of human genes derive from ancestral populations in East Africa circa one hundred thousand years ago, a substantial percentage of genes come from other hominid populations, like the Neandertals or perhaps Homo erectus or maybe other hominid populations as yet undiscovered. There maybe be alternative models, but if the current surmises prove true the existence of fertile hybrids between Homo sapiens sapiens and the Neandertals suggest that we should be considered a single species with some variations. In some measures, Neandertals are less different from non-African humans than from any of the different regional populations of Africa.

The idea that the Neandertals left some progeny, of a sort, some genetic legacy, pleases me. Despite everything, something survived.

[LINK] "Painting whale makes splash in art world"

Xiao Qiang in Action
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei
Whenever we go to Niagara Falls' Marineland, I always go to see the belugas. I find them endearing, so gentle and intelligent and beautifully streamlined in their pale skin. Some of the members of this species are more accomplished than one might have reasonably expected, it turns out. This is a picture of beluga whale Xiao Qing, a beluga whale resident in Qingdao's Polar Ocean World water park, who has gained no small amount of fame for his paintings, one shown here.

Keepers at the Qingdao Polar Ocean World say Xiao Qiang started out when he simply grabbed a paint brush left behind buy a visitor and started playing with it.

Now the seven year old star's paintings are changing hands for hundreds of pounds among fans.

"He showed a lot of interest in painting right from the start so now all we have to do is give him the brushes and hold the paper while he paints with his mouth," said trainer Zhang Yong.

"His favourite colour seems to be blue and he's best of all at seascapes. His people always look like seals."

Experts say that dolphin-like Belugas - known as the sea canary because of their high pitched squeaks and twitters - have more soft tissue around their mouths than other whales which allows Xiao Qiang to manipulate a brush.

"He enjoys what he does and this turning of the head to paint is a natural movement that these whales perform in the wild when they are cleaning their food of sand," added Yong.

[LINK] "Czech visa issue erupts in Can-EU trade talks"

The recent Canadian government decision to impose visa restrictions on Czech citizens as a result of a flood of Roma refugees may be reversed, as they are complicating Canadian-European Union trade negotiations. New restrictive refugee legislation can be thanked for this.

Ottawa hopes to strike an even more comprehensive deal than the North American Free Trade Agreement by the end of 2011, and predicts such a treaty could boost the country's GDP by $12 billion annually.

[. . .]

The Harper government imposed visa requirements last year on the Czech Republic and Mexico in an effort to stem the flood of refugee claimants from those countries.

A Canadian government source downplayed the issue, calling it a "minor irritant" that is of greater concern to the Czech government than it is to the overall European negotiating team.

The Czech government indeed says it may not approve of any deal until the travel restriction is overturned. It also questions the logic of tightening borders while, at the same time, negotiating a deal to open them.

"The visa restriction launched by Canada against the Czech Republic . . . is in its very principal in discrepancy with the overall aim of the CETA agreement," the Czech government said in an email.

"If the visa requirement for Czech citizens travelling to Canada is still valid at the time of the ratification of the CETA agreement — which the Czech Republic hopes will not be the case — we could not rule out that this may be an obstacle to the ratification of CETA by Czech Parliament."

[. . .]

The prime minister also faced a question from a Czech journalist about whether a policy change could be expected soon. Harper left the door open to such a change, and suggested it could happen once ongoing refugee reforms were completed in Canada.

The government wants to speed up the deportation of rejected refugee claimants as part of a wider plan to reduce the backlog of cases.

"Our hope is that legislation will go through soon," Harper replied. "As we implement that legislation . . . I think that would be pretty key to us being able to remove visa requirements in some cases."

[LINK] "Prophets of the Great War: Friedrich Engels, Ivan Bloch, and Pyotr Durnovo"

Sublime Oblivion's Anatoly Karlin recently produced a profile of the three men--Marxist theoretician Engels, Polish financial and activist Bloch, and tsarist minister Durnovo--who understand that, contrary to established predictions, a major great power war like the First World War would become a meatgrinder that would end by destroying the established social and political orders.


… world war of never before seen intensity, if the system of mutual outbidding in armament, carried to the extreme, finally bears its natural fruits… eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other and strip Europe bare as no swarm of locusts has ever done before. The devastations of the Third Years War condensed into three or four years and spread all over the continent: famine, epidemics, general barbarization of armies and masses, provoked by sheer desperation; utter chaos in our trade, industry and commerce, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their traditional wisdom in such a way that the crowns will roll in the gutter by the dozens and there will be nobody to pick them up; absolute impossibility to foresee how all this will end and who will be victors in that struggle; only one result was absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the creation of circumstances for the final victory of the working class.


At first there will be increased slaughter – increased slaughter on so terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get troops to push the battle to a decisive issue. They will try to, thinking that they are fighting under the old conditions, and they will learn such a lession that they will abandon the attempt forever. Then, instead of war fought out to the bitter end in a series of decisive battles, we shall have as a substitute a long period of continually increasing strain upon the resources of the combatants. The war, instead of being a hand-to-hand contest, in which the combatants measure their physical and moral superiority, will become a kind of stalemate, in which neither army being willing to get at the other, both armies will be maintained in opposition to each other, threatening the other, but never being able to deliver a final and decisive attack… That is the future of war – not fighting, but famine, not the slaying of men, but the bankruptcy of nations and the breakup of the whole social organization… Everybody will be entrenched in the next war. It will be a great war of entrenchments. The spade will be as indispensable to the soldier as his rifle… All wars will of necessity partake of the character of siege operations… soldiers may fight as they please; the ultimate decision is in the hand of famine… Unless you have a supreme navy, it is not worthwhile having one at all, and a navy that is not supreme is only a hostage in the hands of the Power whose fleet is supreme.


Under what conditions will this clash occur and what will be its probable consequences? The fundamental groupings in a future war are self-evident: Russia, France, and England, on the one side, with Germany, Austria, and Turkey, on the other.

Italy, if she has any conception of her real interests, will not join the German side. … [Romania] will remain neutral until the scales of fortune favor one or another side. Then, animated by normal political self-interest, she will attach herself to the victors, to be rewarded at the expense of either Russia or Austria. Of the other Balkan States, Serbia and Montenegro will unquestionably join the side opposing Austria, while Bulgaria and Albania (if by that time they have not yet formed at least the embryo of a State) will take their stand against the Serbian side. Greece will in all probability remain neutral…

[. . .]

[A] war will necessitate expenditures which are beyond Russia’s limited financial means. We shall have to obtain credit from allied and neutral countries, but this will not be granted gratuitously. As to what will happen if the war should end disastrously for us, I do not wish to discuss now. The financial and economic consequences of defeat can be neither calculated nor foreseen, and will undoubtedly spell the total ruin of our entire national economy.

The question as to why the opinions of these three men weren't more widely shared is interesting. Did people not understand the technological implicati9ons of new war machines, the fragile nature of national economies, and the impact of war on national morales? Or did people not want to understand?

[LINK] "5 Offshore Oil Hotspots Beyond the Gulf That Could Boom–or Go Boom"

80 Beats' Andrew Moseman lists five areas of the world peculiarly vulnerable to the human demand for oil and accident.

After the fallout from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—the dispersal agents, the containment domes, the apologies, the blame game, the court rulings over who should pay, the know-nothing punditry, and all the environmental wreckage—offshore oil drilling will go on. The cold truth is that we need the oil, and under the sea is one place we can still find it—in part because extracting it is sufficiently difficult that companies focused on easier-to-get deposits in the past.

There’s plenty of oil under the Gulf, which became perfectly clear when responders couldn’t stem the flow of the current spill, allowing thousands of barrels to leak into the water every day. But other undersea sites are loaded with oil—and are similarly expensive and risky to exploit.

The North Slope of Alaska and the Sea of Okhotsk, with their very hostile climates and inaccessibility, are two areas of concern, as is the purate-infested Gulf of Guinea off of Nigeria and Cameron, and deepwater oil reserves adjacent to politically unstable Angola or located under geologically unstable and very deep salt formations off the Brazilian coast.

Any other suggestions, people?

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On space and maps

My favourite roleplaying game setting is 2300AD. A hard science-fiction setting with a very active fan base that I still participate in, it starts off as an alternate history where France stayed neutral in a Third World War fought by the rest of NATO with China against the Warsaw Pact, and accordingly ended up in a position to dominate the post-war world. The Earth greened again, civilization was restored, and in the 22nd century the French developed the stutterwarp drive which opened up the stars to humanity, notiwthstanding its peculiar limitations.

A faster-than-light device called the Stutterwarp Drive allows mankind to achieve practical travel between planetary systems. Ships can usually reach a speed of 3.5 light years per day; the real limitation of the Stutterwarp drive is that it can only propel a ship up to a maximum of 7.7 light years before it needs to enter a gravity well and discharge lethal radiation that would otherwise kill the crew. Because ships need to reach a world within this distance, the effect of this limitation is the creation of lanes along which travel and commerce are conducted and along which wars are fought, the Arms mentioned above.

Astrography--at least astrography as known in the late 1980s when 2300AD came out--makes the Arms look like this.

2300AD Starmap: Core and Arms

Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light years away, site of the prosperous world of Tirane is well within range of stutterwarp. Beta Canum Venaticorum (27.3 light years away) and Beta Comae Berenices (29.9 light years away) form the nucleus of a prosperous cluster of stars, the "French Arm," shown in light blue on the map above, colonized mainly by Europeans. Procyon (11.5 light years away) Tau Ceti (11.9 light years away), 40 Eridani (16.5 light years away), and Epsilon Indi (11.8 light years away) form the backbone of another cluster, the "Chinese Arm" (in dark blue), extensively colonized by Asian and Latin American powers with the addition of Canada and some local aliens, all under Manchurian hegemony, that's unfortunately much less accessible than the French Arm--these stars might be closer to Sol than the French Arm stars, but there just aren't any stars conveniently located to bridge the gap between the Chinese Arm and Sol. Finally, Mu Herculis (27.4 light years away) is one of the notable stars in the American Arm (in darkest blue), colonized by the Americans and Australians, but because of a lack of stars in sufficiently convenient locations the American Arm is self-contained. (Or, more accurately, it started off as being self-contained in the game, but that's another thing.)

It turns out that the star maps of the late 1980s were profoundly limited. In the game, despite nearly four centuries of technological development, only a few brown dwarfs have been found. In actuality, it looks like brown dwarfs are--if not commoner than red dwarfs, as theory predicts but observations seem to contradict--pretty common. One of these stars was just discovered lurking closer than Tau Ceti or Epsilon Eridani.

Astronomers have discovered the closest new star to us that’s been spotted in 63 years. Though “star” might be a stretch, depending upon whom you ask.

The new find, UGPS 0722-05, is less than 10 light years from here. But sky-watchers missed it for so long because it’s a brown dwarf, a member of the murky class of celestial objects that linger between gas giant planets and low-mass stars. Brown dwarfs have so little mass that they never get hot enough to sustain the nuclear fusion reactions that power stars like the sun. Still, they do shine, because they glow from the heat of their formation, then cool and fade [New Scientist]. This dwarf’s temperature is somewhere between 266 and 446 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the coldest scientists have even seen. With its minimal activity, the brown dwarf gives off just 0.000026 percent the amount of light that our sun does.

There are almost certainly going to be other, closer brown dwarfs found closer to our solar system, perhaps even closer than the Alpha Centauri stars. Rogue planets may be commoner yet, floating sun-less deep in interstellar space. Who knows what could lie in these barely hypothesized environments. One scientist thinks that a rogue planet could be a living world. But then, with so little known about even relatively well-understood bodies like Mars--for that matter, with so relatively little know about our own homeworld--making predictions might be jumping things a bit.

I really like maps. I like knowing where I am, where I have been, where I will be. I like knowing the grand sweep of things and the minute details. I write in order to bring out details to others, to learn about new things myself, and to know my world that much better. I liked orienteering in junior high school; I like urban exploration and travel now; I can only imagine the things I'll have a chance to experience in the future. I'm truly grateful that I'm one of the lucky minority of humans to live in this age, an era when we can map the dimmest stars at the same time that we can dissect our DNA for traces of unusual ancestors. Our maps are so finely detailed yet so vast, I can hardly believe it.