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The Mother of All Apes?

Marta Palmero/Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont
Another discovery, another possible rewrite of evolutionary history. A partial skeleton found in northeastern Spain of an 11.6-million-year-old primate, nicknamed Lala, suggests that, far from evolving from huge ape-like creatures, today's African apes may have started out as small primates more along the lines of gibbons. It also shows that these smaller creatures migrated from Africa to Europe. But was Lala the common ancestor of gibbons and apes, or just of gibbons? Scientists do know some things for sure. She was a tree dweller with wrists like those of today's apes, but her ear openings have something in common with those of monkeys. "Enigmatic" was one word used by paleoanthropologist David Begun of the University of Toronto:

Bin Laden and the Politics of Journalism

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
"One role of the journalist is to debunk crazy conspiracy theories, but another, more difficult role is to expose real and harmful conspiracies, of which there have been many." So states this interesting editorial that uses two writers' and the U.S. government's conflicting accounts of Osama bin Laden's demise and some journalists' reactions to the controversy (that never really rose to the level of controversy in the public mind) to illustrate the ebbs and flows of journalistic inclination. "During the ’60s and ’70s," it continues, "growing journalistic skepticism of the American adventure in Southeast Asia fueled a wider culture of dissent and investigation, and produced an unprecedented golden age of investigative journalism. Once the cold war ended, however, the public mood changed, and journalism resumed its previously supine position on the divan of American triumphalism and self-regard." The war in Iraq and the coincident government spin brought investigative journalism back, for a time. "This spring, Politico conducted a poll that found that 65 percent of White House correspondents believe [President] Obama to be the 'least press-friendly president they’ve ever seen' ... ":
   Seymour Hersh's article, The Killing of Osama bin Laden, in the London Review of Books:

On a Different Kind of Stage

AP/Luis Soto
Guatemala's recent presidential elections yielded an interesting result: Jimmy Morales. The comedian who co-starred with his brother in a weekly TV show for more than 15 years won the country's highest post by a landslide. So what does his victory say about the state of the country? Simply this, that while its president and vice-president are awaiting trial on charges of corruption, a man with little political experience but lots of public exposure won the people over with the campaign message "neither corrupt nor a thief." But will that be enough to see him through his tenure? As Kevin Casas Zamora of the Inter-American Dialogue, in Washington D.C., says "One should expect much more than that from the leaders in a normal democracy—not just not being a thief":

Yikes! Stripes!

Of all the things most of us don't know about our bodies, this has to rank among the most bizarre. Moles, freckles, age spots, wrinkles, and scars ~ these we are familiar with. Apparently, our skin is also a labyrinth of stripes that can usually be seen only under UV light or in the case of certain diseases. These undulating lines are called Blaschko's Lines after the German dermatologist who first posited their existence. This was in the early 1900s, and Blaschko noticed that his patients' rashes and moles seemed to follow a pattern around the body. We now know that the patterns are much more extensive than he thought and that they are the result of our growth from a single cell that divides, and specifically, from the division and expansion of our skin cells:

Hey Batta Batta

reason to celebrate                                                            AP/David J. Phillip
Was it the email or something else entirely? New York Mets second-baseman Daniel Murphy has no idea and probably doesn't really care as long as his hitting streak continues. One more homer, in fact, and he'll join the very tiny eight-homers-in-a-single-postseason club. Murphy credits his hitting coach, Kevin Long, who, after watching video of him at bat, sent him an email last winter with suggestions about the mechanics of his swing, and they resonated. So now everyone's watching. Can he do it again? Science seems to be telling us there's no such thing as a "streak" or even a "zone." Conventional wisdom seems to be telling us there is: and

The Meat of the Matter

giving peas a chance
Investors and entrepreneurs are betting that, from here on out, we will be getting less and less of our protein from animal meat ~ and liking it. Soy products (like tofu and tempeh) and beans are already familiar products on store shelves, with wheat protein (like seitan) and, now, pea protein gaining adherents. "There's two ways to look at meat," says Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown. "One is, meat has to come from a chicken, a cow or pig, but you can also think about meat in a different way, which is, what is meat made of? ... Meat is really made of ... five constituent parts: the amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, minerals, and water. They're all actually present in plants. What we're doing is building a piece of meat directly from those plants." But they're not the only ones entering the "new meat" field (video):

It IS Brain Surgery

Greg Grindley, a vet with Parkinson's, is the patient                                                    screen shot
October 25 is a day for the non-squeamish. National Geographic and Mental Floss (two of my favorite resources) will be presenting a two-hour special whose straightforward title says it all: Brain Surgery Live. This will be the first time that such surgery has been performed live on U.S. television. The patient has Parkinson's disease, a disorder of the central nervous system that affects movement. It is chronic and progressive. In an effort to reduce his tremors and the amount of medication he has to take, surgeons will place four electrodes deep in his brain to provide deep brain stimulation. The kicker is that the patient will be awake throughout the procedure. His reactions will help the surgeons know if they're on the right path, so to speak (story, video):
   National Geographic has put together a page of links to related and fascinating information:

Men in Black

David de la Mano
People riding a whale. Some with tiny people riding them, some with implements that sprout other people. People with beaks, snouts, some with four legs. All in black silhouette (or the reverse) on walls in cities around the world. The works of Spanish muralist David de la Mano, often in collaboration with Pablo S. Herrero, are rather Hieronymus Bosch minus the nightmares. (mainly lots of pix):

photo by Anne Provignon

David de la Mano

Hawaii's Angkor Wat

the way in                                                                   KW
Anyone who was lucky enough to visit Kauai before Hurricane Iniki tore it up in 1992 may remember the Coco Palms Hotel. A friend who stayed there with her family once remembers that the sinks were huge shells. We never stayed there, but we did have dinner there a couple of times. I recall sitting at a table next to the low wall that opened onto the garden outside and watching a guy come out and blow on a conch shell, others running while swinging fireballs at the end of what looked like long ropes so that, each time the fireball would touch the ground, it would light a low torch. It was all pretty hokey and definitely touristy, but it was also beautiful. There was a lagoon, too. Anyway, after Iniki, the hotel fell into disrepair and nature started slowly eating it up. There were rumors of legal problems, money problems, etc., and it just sat there. Of course, there were the vandals and looters, and last year, a suspected arson fire ate up much of what was left of one section of it ( But there's good news: A company called Coco Palms Hui LLC, is planning to build it again. The same hotel (plus updated amenities, I'm guessing) on the same footprint. It will be managed by Hyatt Hotels. I know this because our tour guide told us so. "Tour guide," as in he gives tours of the ghostly old structure and surrounding, jungle-draped property. Bob Kauai Jasper is the property overseer. He's

Really, California? Lifesavers?

Trick or treat? Not sure how much of this survey to believe, but according to influenster, the candy voted most popular in the most states was candy corn. Apparently, it's the treat of choice in Oregon, Wyoming, Tennessee, Texas, and South Carolina. The survey of more than 40,000 of our fellow citizens led to an infographic showing which candy is preferred in which state this year:
   You know you'll probably have left-overs. Heck, most of us plan on having them, right? As in, "Hmmmm. I'd better buy candy I like, so that in case there are a few left, they won't go to waste." Very ecologically sound thinking. And you deserve a special treat for that kind of altruism. Like a beer with which to wash those sugary snacks down. Candy corn, for example, the folks in Oregon, Wyoming, Tennessee, Texas, and South Carolina might be interested to hear, would go best with an English ESB but also would work well with an English or American IPA:

Things Just Got Weirder

Delft University campus                                                                                                                                                                     arXiv:1508.05949 [quant-ph]
Scientists at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands say their experiment has proved that "entangled" particles that are separated by distance can communicate instantaneously. This reinforces quantum theory and undermines standard physics' principle of local realism. The idea that two particles could become so entangled that such communication could occur was rejected by Albert Einstein, who called it "spooky action at a distance." An earlier experiment could not definitively prove anything, as it contained three loopholes. As explained by, the scientists "set up two stations for creating photons entangled with an electron spin, far enough apart to close the first loophole. The entangled photons were all sent to a common third location via fiber cable where they were entangled under just the right conditions and measured (and tested for measurement with their entangled mate back at the original site)." The experiment was repeated hundreds of times over several days and achieved enough successes to close the second loophole. While the experiment is a huge leap in proving one of the most basic principles of quantum theory, it is still not definitive. There remains one final loophole to be closed, and the experiment that is expected to do that will be conducted over the next few years:

Out of the Woods

some members of the Nomole (Mashco) tribe, 2013                                                           Reuters
Here's something you probably won't see happening in many places in the world anymore. The residents of a couple of villages on the edge of Peru's Manu National Park have known for a while about their reclusive indigenous neighbors in the woods, but lately, they've been seeing more and more of them. And not necessarily always in a good way. "It’s a complex and rapidly evolving situation," according to this article in the National Geographic. "Any early contact with an isolated tribe carries a risk of death for all involved from violence or disease, as jungle immune systems are ill-equipped to handle the flu, measles, or even the common cold." The tribe in Peru, the Mashco or, as they call themselves, the Nomole, has become more aggressive in its forays, as well, which in the last year, has led to one death of a villager and the evacuation of two villages. Nor are they the only "uncontacted" tribe that seems to be reaching out. "Something has shifted," is how anthropologist Glenn Shepard of Brazil's Goeldi Museum puts it:

Are You Sure?

... and if you're not, are you OK with that? We live in a time of instant access to information, instant communication ~ and concurrently, a seeming accretion of extreme and fundamentalist religiosity (as typified by a bumper sticker I once saw that read, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it") and politics. Both speak to our discomfort with uncertainty and the unknown. We humans dislike ambiguity, says Jamie Holmes, a Future Tense Fellow at New America and author of Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. In this interview, Holmes describes the work being done in the field and the evolving theories that have emerged from it (story, link to test evaluating need for closure [I am, apparently, a "Master of Ambiguity"!]):

Food Plight

October 16 is World Food Day, a day of action that, according to the website (, began in 1979 and "celebrates the creation of the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations" in 1945. In this crucial area, as in so many others in the world, women are given much responsibility and few resources. In fact, contends, Bettina Luescher, a communications officer for the World Food Programme in Geneva, "If women farmers had the same access to loans, land, seed and selling their harvests on the markets, we think we could lift some 100 to 150 million people out of hunger":
   Dr. Jeannette Gurung has worked for decades to empower women farmers and food preparers, especially those in poor, rural areas of the world. The organization she founded in 1984 and now heads, WOCAN (Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management), is a global network of primarily women working to support women farmers and others along the food chain by linking them with professional women, thereby giving them a voice and facilitating organizations' transition to gender equality:

Islands in a Storm

2014 satellite photo shows Chinese land reclamation on Fiery Reef, with dredging ships in the harbor                                                                      CNES 2014
Washington recently announced plans to sail warships in the South China Seas. Not that big a deal, except that they would be in an area around islands China claims, and now China has responded. "We will never allow any country to violate China's territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands, in the name of protecting freedom of navigation and overflight," said China's foreign ministry spokesperson. The area is a local fishing ground and a major shipping zone, and the U.S. and others are concerned that China may be building military bases on the islands, whose ownership is in contention to begin with. China has been enlarging some of the islands and recently finished building two lighthouses on the Spratlys. What's going on here? What's the background, and which other countries are laying claim to the islands?:

Just Because: 'A Brief History of Seven Killings'

Man Booker Prize Twitter
"I'm not an easy writer to like." So says Marlon James, the first Jamaican to win Britain's esteemed Man Booker Prize, which he did on October 13. The novel for which he won, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is his third. It uses as its launching pad the 1976 attempted assassination of Jamaican musician Bob Marley. "I thought it would be considered as one of those experimental novels that no one reads," James said. But far from being unread, it has gotten rave reviews, with New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani calling it "epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over the top, colossal and dizzyingly complex”:

Gonna tell the truth about it,
Honey, that's the hardest part
                                      —Bonnie Raitt, Tangled and Dark

If it no go so, it go near so.
               —Jamaican proverb

Sir Arthur George Jennings

   Dead people never stop talking. Maybe because death is not death at all, just a detention after school. You know where you're coming from and you're always returning from it. You know where you're going though you never seem to get there and you're just dead. Dead. It sounds final but it's a word missing an ing. You come across men longer dead than you, walking all the time though heading nowhere, and you listen to them howl and hiss because we're all spirits or we think we are all spirits but we're all just dead. Spirits that slip inside other spirits. Sometimes a woman slips inside a man and wails like the memory of making love. They moan and keen loud but it comes through the window like a whistle or a whisper under the bed, and little children think there's a monster. The dead love lying under the living for three reasons: (1) We're lying most of the time. (2) Under the bed looks like the top of a coffin, but (3) There is weight, human weight on top that you can slip into and make heavier, and you listen to the heart beat while you watch it pump and hear the nostrils hiss when their lungs press air and envy even the shortest breath. I have no memory of coffins.
   But the dead never stop talking and sometimes the living hear. This is what I wanted to say. When

Citizens Requited

almost $13 million came from Preston Hollow, Dallas                    Google Maps
It should not be news that running a political campaign has become an increasingly money-driven affair. What might be news in this presidential campaign, though, is that almost half the $176 million given to the candidates so far has come from just 158 families (and the companies they own or control). Who they are might also come as a surprise, because, while some fit the expected mold, many do not. "Relatively few work in the traditional ranks of corporate America, or hail from dynasties of inherited wealth," according to a New York Times investigation. "Most built their own businesses, parlaying talent and an appetite for risk into huge wealth: They founded hedge funds in New York, bought up undervalued oil leases in Texas, made blockbusters in Hollywood. More than a dozen of the elite donors were born outside the United States, immigrating from countries like Cuba, the old Soviet Union, Pakistan, India and Israel." And wherever they're from and however they got to where they are, "the families investing the most in presidential politics overwhelmingly lean right" (story, link to list of families):

100 Years, Relatively Speaking

This November marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. The articles and books that have been written about him and his concept since then could probably fill a stadium, and maybe even a couple. Four of the more recent ~ The Hunt for Vulcan, The Road to Relativity, An Einstein Encyclopedia, and Relativity: The Special and General Theory, 100th Anniversary Edition ~ may, together, "provide glimpses into Einstein’s mind and his methods," according to Science News managing editor Tom Siegfried, who compiled this list. Even beyond that, he promises, they "should not fail to generate a sense of awe and appreciation for one of the greatest intellectual accomplishments in the history of human thought":

Kiss Off?

screen shot
Is it passion or resistance? "Don't look at him, look at her," counsels art historian Dr. James Fox as he presents his alternative interpretation of Gustav Klimt's famous The Kiss. "Maybe I'm wrong," he says, "but if that's a kiss, it isn't very mutual." And what he sees in this painting, the star of a 1908 art exhibition in honor of Emperor Franz Josef's diamond jubilee, is a metaphor for the darkness that was beginning to roil just beneath the tranquil, beautiful surface of life in Vienna, capital of the great and vast Habsburg Empire (story, video):

Where the Wild Things Are Undisturbed

wild geese in Korea's DMZ                                                                                          Korea Times
Here's an amazing assertion. It comes from environmental scientist and University of Portsmouth (UK) professor Jim Smith. Smith authored a recent study of the fauna living near Chernobyl, Ukraine, site of a massive nuclear accident in 1986. “We’re not saying the radiation levels are good for the animals," he says. "We know it damages their DNA, but human habitation and development of the land are worse for wildlife.” In fact, animals are living in all sorts of areas that humans, for one reason or another, have abandoned. Some are, like Chernobyl, just plain unhealthy, others are demilitarized zones, but all are No Man's Lands ( And where humans aren't, it seems, animals survive, even among the land mines and toxic waters we left behind:

Debating Pros and Cons

Peter Foley for the Wall Street Journal
In September, the Bard Debate Union at Eastern Correctional Facility in New York took on the debate team of Harvard University. The topic was whether public schools should be able to deny admission to undocumented students. Harvard was assigned to argue that they should not, and lost. The team on the other side, inmates at a maximum-security prison who are part of Bard College's Prison Initiative, argued, against their own belief, for enrollment denial and were named the winners by a 2-1 vote of the judging panel of debate experts. This brings the team's record to 3 wins and 1 loss (to West Point, which it also beat once) since its first public-style debate, in April 2014. “The purpose of work is not to reform criminal justice per se,” says Max Kenner, founder and executive director of the Initiative, “but to engage and to relate to people who are in prison, who have great capacity and who have that dedication and willingness to work hard, as we engage any other college students”:

3 Billion and Counting

the Internet 2003                                                                 The Opte Project
According to this website, less than 1 percent of the world had an Internet connection 20 years ago. Today, approximately 40 percent does. That's about 3 billion individuals. Not surprisingly, because of its large population, China leads the United States in number of Internet users, but we are ahead in percent of the population using the resource. Figures from 2014 show that 86.75 percent of us are using the Internet, which, interestingly, puts us behind countries like South Korea (91.52), Canada (92.89), the UK (89.90), Australia (89.62), The Netherlands (96.08), the UAE (93.24), and Germany (86.78) in that category. Nor should it come as a surprise that the countries with the highest percent of Internet users tend to be in Scandinavia and north Africa, while those with the lowest tend to be in sub-Saharan Africa, like Malawi (2.23), Niger (1.61), and Ethiopia (1.70):

Grand Gourds and Ghouls

It is that time ~ you know which one. Halloween kind of kicks off the whole holiday season, so knowing that, this year, you're absolutely committed to getting everything ready ahead of time, and as it's already October, here's just about all you need to peruse to fire up your own ideas or copy someone else's, not that there's anything wrong with that. We'll start with pumpkins (or whichever kind of gourd you prefer). Traditionalists will stick with the whole carving, jack-o-lantern thing, not that there's anything wrong with that, but here are some ideas for different ways to craft it up, some of which don't require you to get elbow-deep in gourd guts, not that ... (pix with tutorial links):
   And then there are the costumes ~ some of these are actually pretty clever (hello, numbers 1, 10, 16, 23, 24, 27, 42, 43, 45, 46, 61, 72, 75, 93, 100) (slideshow with instructions):

Track the Trek

wildebeest crossing the Mara River                                                                       © Burrard-Lucas
The ants may go marching two by two, but the wildebeests, zebras, and antelopes of Africa accept no such subtlety. When they're on the move, they do it up big, as in the largest migration of land animals on the planet, happening now and streaming live for a couple more days. They're traveling north from the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya in what is actually a circular migration pattern. At this time of year, September through November, they are on the lush Mara plains (story, video):
   Some interesting facts, courtesy of
  • Wildebeest are also called Gnu because of the grunts they make which sound like "gnu gnu."
  • Wildebeest young are almost all born during a three week period (an estimated 400,000 each year). This overwhelming supply of potential food for predators means more of them survive.
  • Wildebeest are born to run. They can run alongside their mothers just minutes after they are born.
  • Zebra and wildebeest graze in harmony because each animal prefers a different part of the same grass.

Another Millennial Millstone

photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon and Richard Redditt
The questionable sustainability of Social Security, the rising cost of education, the dicey job market (the recession of 2008, anyone?), international terrorism, climate change. It has long been acknowledged that Millennials' life is littered with new and daunting challenges. And here's another one. A recent study has found that, even at the same levels of food intake and exercise, it's harder for millennials to maintain the same weight as adults 20 to 30 years ago. Jennifer Kuk, a professor of kinesiology and health science at York University in Toronto, explains. “Our study results suggest that if you are 25, you’d have to eat even less and exercise more than those older, to prevent gaining weight," she says. "However, it also indicates there may be other specific changes contributing to the rise in obesity beyond just diet and exercise.” Kuk names three possibilities: the greater number and level of chemicals to which this generation is exposed; the growing use of prescription drugs, many of which have weight gain as a side effect; and today's diet, which includes more antibiotics and hormones in the animal products, and more artificial sweeteners:

Brain Train

Chicago's got a great idea. In fact, it's got a whole week of them, but this one's particularly elevating. As part of Chicago Ideas Week, October 12-18, the city's Transit Authority is creating mobile libraries by putting books in its train cars. The event is called Books on the L. Commuters are welcome to pick up any that strike their fancy, read until they reach their station, and then leave the material there for the next person to enjoy:


Joonas Lumpeinen
Used to be that our only choices for what to do with old clothing were sell, give away, or throw away. We may soon have a fourth, because a group of organizations in Finland has developed a way of turning old fabric into new. Called cellulose wet-spinning, it uses the same technique and equipment as those to make viscose but is more environment-friendly in that it doesn't require the use of carbon disulphide. It is also a step up from the process used to make first-generation cotton fabric, as its water footprint is more than 70 percent lower and its carbon footprint is 40 to 50 percent lower. The first clothing line made entirely of this reused fiber is expected to be available by the end of the year.:

Guns and the Antebellum South

armed "slave patrol"                                                                 America's Black Holocaust Museum
The latest mass shooting took place October 1 at a community college in Oregon. Oddly, as I heard about this, I was in the middle of an article that ties the idea of an armed public to the antebellum South. Quoting antebellum historian Richard Hildreth (1807-1865), the authors of this piece note that "Southern men ... carried weapons both 'as a protection against the slaves' and also to be prepared for 'quarrels between freemen.' " The idea of open-carry, they contend, came from that period as well. "During the antebellum years," they say, "many viewed carrying a concealed weapon as dastardly and dishonorable ... . In an 1850 opinion, the Louisiana Supreme Court explained that carrying a concealed weapon gave men 'secret advantages' and led to 'unmanly assassinations,' while open carry 'place[d] men upon an equality' and 'incite[d] men to a manly and noble defence of themselves.' ” Public-carry, they go on to explain, was much more restricted in the North, as it was in England, even as far back as the 14th century, and in the colonies in the 1600s. Hildreth's observation that "duels 'appear but once an age' in the North, but 'are of frequent and almost daily occurrence at the [S]outh' ” recalls the chicken-or-egg question: