Wednesday, May 26, 2004

If you've ever wondered aloud about how cave-dwelling creatures lost their eyes, you know that the standard answer is unconcious Lamarckism (or maybe perfectly conscious Lysenkoism, American schooling being what it is): that through disuse they simply disappeared over time. A highly unsatisfactory answer, in any case, the more so the more one thinks it over.

Darwin himself doesn't go into much detail:

It is well known that several animals, belonging to the most different classes, which inhabit the caves of Styria and of Kentucky, are blind. In some of the crabs the foot-stalk for the eye remains, though the eye is gone; the stand for the telescope is there, though the telescope with its glasses has been lost. As it is difficult to imagine that eyes, though useless, could be in any way injurious to animals living in darkness, I attribute their loss wholly to disuse. In one of the blind animals, namely, the cave-rat, the eyes are of immense size; and Professor Silliman thought that it regained, after living some days in the light, some slight power of vision. In the same manner as in Madeira the wings of some of the insects have been enlarged, and the wings of others have been reduced by natural selection aided by use and disuse, so in the case of the cave-rat natural selection seems to have struggled with the loss of light and to have increased the size of the eyes; whereas with all the other inhabitants of the caves, disuse by itself seems to have done its work.

This article has a bit more of the story.

The neutral mutation hypothesis suggests that eye degeneration is caused by random mutations in eye forming genes, which gradually accumulate in the absence of selective pressure. In contrast, the adaptation hypothesis suggests that natural selection causes the loss of eyes due to advantages in losing eyesight. As exclaimed in Darwin's famous quotation, the actual benefits of blindness are uncertain. Thus, different versions of the adaptation hypothesis have attributed the loss of eyesight to energy conservation, citing the high cost of making an eye, or to enhancement of other sensory organs that are highly beneficial to survival in the cave environment. Through the years, however, little or no experimental verification has been leveled in support of any version of either hypothesis. To understand the evolution of eye degeneration, it is necessary to determine the molecular and cellular mechanisms of the degenerative process, and whether the same or different genes and mechanisms are involved in loss of vision.

A detailed paper, and I'm not about to give away the surprising twist at the end. (Here's a hint: it's not that surprising.)

Here you can see the cavefish morph into its light-dwelling kin, and here see a transplanted surface lens in a normally eyeless specimen. More movies (large ones) here.

Read more Darwin! I've linked to the section I quoted, although, just for the record, I want it made clear that I looked it up myself, in a real book. I don't rely on Google for everything.

The Dinosaur

Behold the mighty dinosaur,
Famous in prehistoric lore,
Not only for his power and strength
But for his intellectual length.
You will observe by these remains
The creature had two sets of brains--
One in his head (the usual place),
The other at his spinal base.
Thus could he reason "Apriori"
As well as "Aposteriori."
No problem bothered him a bit
He made both head and tail of it.
So wise was he, so wise and solemn,
Each thought filled just a spinal column.
If one brain found the pressure strong
It passed a few ideas along.
If something slipped his forward mind
'Twas rescued by the one behind.
And if in error he was caught
He had a saving afterthought
As he thought twice before he spoke
He had no judgement to revoke.
Thus could he think without congestion
Upon both sides of every question.
Oh, gaze upon this model beast,
Defunct ten million years at least.

--Bert Leston Taylor, Chicago Tribune, 1912

It's most apt that I stumbled across this poem just now, for I am abiding in Vernal, Utah. Vernal, as anyone who has driven through is well aware, is a town obsessed with dinosaurs, and not in the most laudable fashion. My manager and I were discussing today which plastic dinosaur statue deserves recognition as the most absurd. I feel that the long term champion is the green brontosaurus which entirely lacks hindquarters, excepting the tail; imagining its locomotion generates some fascinating imagery. But there's stiff competition right now from a tyrannosaur who's lately been dressed up as a senile fly-fisherman. And I was disappointed to see that the smiling pink beast on the edge of town no longer has a length of steel pipe through its thorax.

But it's not all so dismal. We went the other day to the grand opening of Vernal's new dinosaur museum, and it's really rather good, much better than the old one, (though the Vernal flavour's still there, embodied in the old shag-carpeted mammoth statue, still roaming free amidst the stegosaurs and deinonychus). They've got a splendid array of fossils, almost all of them local Uinta basin products, from many eras. Standouts: a towering wall completely tiled in lovely lithified leaves; some stunning sets of tracks; one of those bizarre spiral jaws sharks used to have, overflowing with teeth; and, representing the Cenozoic, a complete Uintatherium. We also bought, in a moment of civic pride, a button, the proceeds from which will go to keep the allosaurus statue in the yard from being sent to Salt Lake, a city that really ought to be able to afford its own allosaurs. The image on the button is meant, I suppose to look like a baby dinosaur eye seen through a cracking eggshell; the actual effect is very H.P. Lovecraft. It also reminds of the B'Zoar, the big squishy thing which Buffy killed in the high school basement with a pickaxe.

And in other news: everyone knows that there are two kinds of raft guides, those who have flipped and those who are still waiting. Thanks to Submarine Hole on the Illinois, I am at last a member of the first group. Success!

...all things created flow from numbers as if from their natural fount, and from the principles of mathematics, which therefore, with geometry, were always held in the highest honor and reverence by the ancient philosophers. For there cannot be found nor can there be, among the liberal arts, any science more noble or illustrious than that of mathematics, in which there truly appears to be present some indwelling power of unfathomable divinity.

Agostino Ramelli, The Various and Ingenious Machines

Sunday, May 23, 2004

In Which I Reveal My Ignorance

Remember me talking about how cool a pigeon/falcon conflict would be, if brought on by the use of pigeons to convey sensitive information? Check it out:

Under interrogation, captured "German pigeon personel" told how the birds were a vital component of Hitler's plans to invade Britain.

The MI5 report on the phenomenon, released with a batch of wartime secret service documents this week, said: "From these prisoners of war it was learnt that it was anticipated that the birds would be used to convey information obtained by short-term pre-invasion agents."

To counter the menace, MI5 tamed and trained its own crack force of peregrine falcons, with the aim of felling incoming pigeons.

Mea culpa. I had no idea this had ever happened. But hey: real life should always be more complicated than we can handle.

I note also that the captured Nazi pigeons were treated as though part of una guerra dichiarata, but not una guerra ad ultimo sangre. Later in the War, things might have been different, as this rather serious arruixada played itself out.

In keeping with the title of this post, I should confess that only immediately recent research has enabled my to use the above foreign terms at all. Google and a decent library trump real knowledge any day, at least online.

Edited for clarity.

My lovely wife has gone off to visit her family, which means that I am alone in the house. I can only hope to survive on frozen pizza and Sprite until she returns. If only I were Maltese. I could enjoy the taste of bitter oranges.
Here, by the way, is St. Teresa's vision of Hell.

The entrance seemed to me like a very long, narrow passage, or a very low, dark, and constricted furnace. The ground appeared to be covered with a filthy wet mud, which smelt abominably and contained many wicked reptiles. At the end was a cavity scooped out of the wall, like a cupboard, and I found myself closely confined in it. But the sight of all this was pleasant compared with my feelings.

"All that I have written seems to me like straw compared with what has now been revealed to me," said St. Thomas Aquinas.

Mostly due to sheer bloody-mindedness, it's unusual for me to put down a book before it's been read through. The last one was The Fountainhead, which I threw at my wall in disgust when I reached, yes, the "love" scene. In my defense, I recently went back and finished it. Note to Objectivists: yurgh. Bad writing, bad philosophy.

Now, however, I'm struggling to finish a much better book: The Life of St. Teresa of Ávila by Herself. St. Teresa (shown here and here) has that uniqueness of character common to saints. Afflicted by rather remarkable illnesses:

My tongue was bitten to pieces, and my throat was so choked from having eaten no food and from my great weakness, that I could not even swallow water. My bones seemed to be wrenched out of their sockets, and there was great confusion in my head. As a result of all these days of torture I was all twisted into a knot, and unless someone moved them for me, could no more move arm, foot, hand, or head that if I had been dead. All I could move, I think, was one finger of my right hand. It was impossible for anyone to see me, for I was in such pain all over that I could not bear it. They used to move me in a sheet, one taking one end and one the other; and this state of things lasted till Palm Sunday.

...she still showed nothing but humility and resignation. Lest one should underestimate her trials, I might mention that the above suffering lasted eight months, and her paralysis nearly three years.

Her writing is charmingly direct, even if careless about syntax, and chatty in tone, even when she is discussing profound mysteries. She digresses constantly; indeed, the story of her life is interrupted almost immediately by a study of the various states of prayer, their benefits and dangers.

So she writes well, on a subject that ought to be of the greatest interest to me. Her life should inspire us during our own trials. Why then am I considering putting the book down for the foreseeable future? Simply put, she's too advanced for me.

The last biography of a saint I read was that of St. Thomas Aquinas, by G. K. Chesterton. As with all Chesterton, he's always there, making puns and looking over your shoulder while you read his book, but he's such good company that it's easy to forgive him. Jack's take on the book is just about right.

But I've got at least a hold on St. Thomas' philosophy, which gives us, as it were, a conversation-starter. I can begin our talk there, and end with him saying, "I shall write no more. All that I have written seems to me like straw compared with what has now been revealed to me," and at least know how we got there. St. Teresa's experiences are so far beyond mine as to be incomprehensible, no matter how well she writes or how clearly she describes her nearness to God during prayer.

One of the reasons that C. S. Lewis is so accessible, I think, is that his own religious life was not as dramatic as the saints'. He came into it late in life, and was always more concerned with converting people than advancing them along the Path. He therefore concentrates his arguments on the beginnings of faith.

St. Teresa is wholly concerned with the Path; she addresses no concerns outside a Christian context, which makes her a poor choice for the skeptic. Faith is, for her, an assumption. St. Thomas, on the other hand, is quite openly addressing skeptics, and so covers arguments that for St. Teresa are quite unnecessary.

A confession: I still have a great deal of the skeptic in me. St. Teresa's faith is nearly impossible for me to understand, honor it though I do. She recedes in the distance, as she leaves me behind.

So I struggle along, rather bewildered, and consider putting her auto-biography down and turning to something more comprehensible to someone such as I.

UPDATE: a brief biography of St. Teresa here.

I may at some point post a comparison between the two great saints and their autobiographies: St. Augustine and St. Teresa. But not now.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

A quick link, for the enthusiasts among the readership: pigeons and warfare.

Although the off-hand tone of the article is inappropriate. Short of physical capture, pigeons cannot be bugged, and as a low-tech counter to American electronic superiority they should not be discounted. In one account of wargames simulating an American force attacking a Middle Eastern, the American general "playing" the Middle Eastern force used human couriers for all communications, thus preventing the Americans from listening in as they had assumed they would be able to. The article was in Army Times, even if I can't get their damn' search function working.

The Arabs were the first recorded pigeon-breeders, even if today the birds are bred for sport rather than war. It would be unwise in the extreme to discount the abilities of pigeons. Perhaps our only option is to deploy a corps of falconers. A running Darwinian battle 'twixt pigeons and hawks, as the technologies on both sides cancel each other out, is a pleasingly Frederick Turner-ish notion. The ancient and the modern, side by side in co-operation and competition.

Any knowledge I have of pigeons is from Aloft, by Steve Bodio. Of whom Peculiar spoke here, and I here.

Original pigeon-y link via Mr. Sullivan.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

This time is perhaps as good as any to declare my intention of neglecting this blog for a week or so. Real Life, with all associated troubles and fluids, is interfering with my ability to reach my computer prior to my court-assigned bedtime.
Please welcome Nine Scorpions, helmed by the able Proclus, to the blog-roll. I imagine the title is a reference to the Supreme Court, although it may also be Proclus' gong fu style.

Friday, May 14, 2004

I just heard Marin Marais' Bells of Ste. Genevieve and thought of Georgia O'Keefe coming to New Mexico: "Well! Well! Well!... This is wonderful! No one told me it was like this!"
I've been trying to suss out my new role as manager: to find out my duties, privileges, and opportunities for massive, Enron-style fraud. And it came to me that I'm in precisely the same position as any number of rulers in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Let us be clear: I am not Liu Bei, virtuous to the point of self-abnegation. I am Cao Cao. Ruthless, efficient, charming, and determined to gather together great heroes to support my cause. The heroes, in this case, are servers and bartenders, but that's beside the point.

I will gather up such advisors and great generals as I need, in order to run my kingdom smoothly while at the same time expanding in all directions. I will steal them from nearby restaurants, with bribes of money, silk, and women. I will send false letters to their managers implicating them in treasonous gatherings, so that they have nowhere to turn but to me. I will take them prisoner in battle, then untie them personally, grant them the greatest horse in existence and a cloth bag for their magnificent beard, all the while attempting to turn them to my ends. WU, SHU, AND WEI! ALL SHALL BE MINE.

Erm. I believe I have gotten rather carried away with my new status. I rather doubt we shall pass down through the ages a poetical account of restaurant management. Still:

But overtopping all ODIOUS the strong
Became first minister, and to his side,
Drew many able men. He swayed the court,
Without, he held the nobles in his hand;
By force of arms he held the capital
Against all rivals.

With apologies to Lo Kuan-chung, and C. H. Brewitt-Taylor.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

For those of you that keep up with such things, Mr. Smartypants, David Martin, will be on SoapTalk sometime soon. I can't imagine he'll be any less charming on screen than in person, so either quit your job or remind your TiVo to record it for you.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Kant drunk? The mind wobbles.

Link via FARK.

And speaking of wasps, our new Current Pick is Wasps and their Ways, by Margaret Morley. Take a look, learn to love Vespidae.
The Australian takes on Troy.

It's going to be a bad movie. Quite possibly Waterworld bad, but without gills for the hero. As far as I know. But that's no excuse for piling on Homer.

The author of the article, a Mr. Slattery, claims that the Iliad no longer resonates with us, at least "large tranches" of it. He points to one of Achilleus' minor tantrums, the killing of Lycaon. "We hold war crime tribunals for this sort of thing," he says. Of course we do: because it still happens. Achilleus has just lost his closest friend, Patroklos. Moreover, Achilleus himself bears some of the guilt for that death, in his refusal to battle the Trojans. Patroklos is fighting alone at the suggestion of Achilleus, who remains, sulking, in his tent. The rage he must feel is overwhelming. And perfectly understandable; "it's easy if you try," as Mr. Lennon put it.

"Detailed rendering of extreme violence" is a charge no one can honestly refute about the Iliad, as is "glorif[ying] the victor"; but to ascribe "demean[ing] his victim" to Homer is to misread the text. The other warriors may well demean their victims. Hector's body is dragged 'round and 'round the city behind Achilleus' chariot, and only the gods keep it from ripping apart. But Homer gives almost every victim of the war a name, and often an origin, a family, something which makes them more than a faceless corpse.

There's a metaphor I love:

Yet they, like pliant-bodied wasps or bees,
That build their cells beside the rocky way,
And quit not their abode, but, waiting there
The hunter, combat for their young -- so these,
Although but two, withdraw not from the gates,
Nor will, till they be slain or seized alive.”

It's repeated later, once again comparing the Greeks to wasps. One might originally think that this metaphor de-humanizes them, in comparing them to swarming insects far beneath the stature of a man. But Homer's metaphors are seldom as simple as they appear at first. They imply something by its opposite, or with an ironic twist:

As when some Maionian woman or Karian with purple
colours ivory, to make it a cheek piece for horses;
it lies away in an inner room, and many a rider
longs to have it, but it is laid up to be a king's treasure,
two things, to be the beauty of the horse, the pride of the horseman:
so, Menelaos, your shapely thighs were stained with the colour
of blood, and your legs also, and the ankles beneath them.

The metaphor finds its greatest strength in first comparing two things, then contrasting them. Just so the warriors are compared to wasps in their ferocity and determination to defend, but, unlike wasps, are all men, with names, roles, and families to mourn them.

Mr. Slattery is quite right that only at the end does Achilleus regain his humanity, when he and Priam weep together. This is, ultimately, the point of tragedy: to remind us what we share with other men, even if those qualities are often grim, and to bring us back into their company. To claim that the Iliad, the greatest of tragic works, is only at its close comprehensible to us it to be ignorant of what lies within us, and to ignore the difficulties of true communion. It is to assume that the savagery of our ancestors has been completely sublimated, a position demonstrably false.

Mr. Slattery may never have an anti-social feeling, a desire to promote one's own good at the cost of others. Perhaps that is why he cannot enjoy the Iliad. For those of use whose imperfections make for constant struggle, the Iliad reminds us of the price we must pay.

Link to the Australian article found on Arts and Letters Daily.

UPDATE: A review. Of the movie.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Ye armed men, knights templars, that sleep in the stone aisles of that old Temple church, where all is silent above, and where a deeper silence reigns below (not broken by the pealing organ), are ye not contented where ye lie? Or would you come out of your long homes to go to the Holy War? Or do ye complain that pain no longer visits you, that sickness has done its worst, that you have paid the last debt to nature, that you hear no more of the thickening phalanx of the foe, or your lady's waning love; and that while this ball of earth rolls its eternal round, no sound shall ever pierce through to disturb your lasting repose, fixed as the marble over your tombs, breathless as the grave that holds you!

--William Hazlitt, On the Fear of Death

I've been reading his essays, which are wonderfully lively. He was a bit of a curmudgeon ("The impertinence of admiration is scarcely more tolerable than the demonstrations of contempt."), but with a bright, clear tone to his writings. A perfect antidote to tedious Teutonic toxins.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

A Dutch mutation leads to hearing loss. What, like a tendency to argue with Gauguin?
Check out what Opportunity's doing. I don't need to repeat myself, do I? We need to be there. On Mars.
Also, Kate likes marriage. Which is good, since we're married. In case you didn't know.
Mr. Clifton mentions the origin of grenadine. Bien sur! That fact is precisely why I stopped drinking Shirley Temples at work: I really don't want to be there six months out of every year.
And speaking of Jack, who comments on Heidegger (and if you didn't know that I can bartend, well, there you are), I mean, what's the point? Being, time, die sach im selbst, fine, sure, whatever. I just want gas to cost less than $2/gallon, and for Alice to blog again. Is that too much to ask? Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?

I mean, these bloody Universals keep springing up, and all I care about are the particulars. If you really believe that each thing has a transcenden, and that the soul is the ens quod natum est convenire cum omni ente, and it seems more and more like I do, then how are we supposed to put principles over people? Principles come and go; people are immortal. And Jack was supposed to post about how people only care about money and health, so that she and I could write scathing things about said trend. Everything's an object these days, even ourselves, and when we talk about self-improvement we've got a self in mind that would nauseate Plato. And money is the soul of everything; everything is reduced to it, so that when I say I would be happier waiting tables than playing Minesweeper for hours on end (and still not getting as good as Peculiar), people remind me that I'm making more money now. Bloody hell, people, if it were money I were after I wouldn't have fled to some damn' liberal arts college and kept dropping out. I must hold some kind of record for that. I don't listen to Mozart because it makes me smarter, for one thing because it don't. Mozart is its own reward, which is to say that there is no prize for "Most Magic Flute recordings listened to". But of course nothing, even people, can be an end in itself. We're all just genes selfishly propagating, except for the exceptions, which somehow seem far more prevalent than the rule, who give their lives for something greater, and something intangible.

The question of "Why something?" seems to me exactly the same as "Why choose something?" Nothingness is close, always, and it takes little to reach out to it. Yet here we are, and the fact that my ancestors chose Something again and again is no help for me, here and now, choosing Something.

And yet on Monday I shall get up early in order that I may RAPPORTER DE REVENU!

Saturday, May 08, 2004

And here they are obviously thinking of Parsifal with their nasty comments about cuts in Wagner's operas, which is poodlishly ridiculous and we hates them forever. And what's wrong with Liszt, dickhead?
And all I want to do is get a really good spinning heel kick.
Please note that even in the throes of inebriety the subjunctive will always have a place on this blog. Who dies if the subjunctive live?
I proposed some time ago that the motto for this blog be "Post drunk; publish sober". Peculiar opposed on the entirely true grounds that one or the other of these rules in invariably violated.

Bloody hell, people, what's wrong with everybody? Nobody drinks anymore, and if they do they don't end up amusing P.G. Wodehouse drunk, they start grabbing people's asses and I have to 86 them from the bar, 'cause I'm the manager and so forth, which apparently means now I have to deal with all the nonsense that previously I ignored whilst filching 20 year old port from the restaurant, but now I have to make sure that our liquor costs are below 40%, which would be fine except that the bar gives away free shots to all and sundry, and I mean, sure, I can understand the pretty girls, but the free drinks to old guys whose only talent is playing craps for cheap jewellery is beyond me: I mean really, fine, whatever, but COME ON and all of a sudden I'm wearing a tie which I bought 'specially for the stupid job which as far as I can tell consists of playing Minesweeper until someone comes crying that they had to promo a dessert and is that okay (short answer: yes. Long answer: Yes, goddammit, whatever, I don't care) and even though I look DAMFINE in my new tie, like James Bond if he were a restaurant manager, I really hate the thing, I mean, clothes that strangle you about the neck, please people, it's worse than briefs and when am I going to find the time to steal my friend's idea about writing a guide to the correct usage of commas called the Comma Sutra (hee!) and anyone that guesses which of the guidelines proposed in the proposed motto is hereby violated like a Japanese schoolgirl in Urotsukidoji gets a prize.

Bloody sobriety.

And, Jack, where's that post on Utility, capital letter and all, because frankly independent thought is not coming freely to Yours Truly?

Friday, May 07, 2004

How many posts are worth a series of beautiful spring days? You do the math.