Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The weird and wonderful world of electric eels

Here's another in my occasional series about weird and cool animals (see the entry on tardigrades, for example).
Electric eels, it turns out, are not actually eels. They are eel-like in shape, but they are technically a type of knifefish (they have actually been reclassified several times since Linnaeus first classified them back in 1776). What else do we know about them?
  • They grow up to 2 metres in length, and a full-grown adult may weigh up to 20 kilograms. 
  • They can be purple, grey, blue, black or white in colour, and do not have scales like most fish. 
  • They are only found in the Orinoco and Amazon rivers in South America. 
  • They have poor eye-sight but an acute sense of hearing. 
  • They live in water and have gills, but actually breathe air (they surface about every ten minutes or so to breathe). 
  • They are carnivores and eat other fish, small mammals, birds and amphibians (very young electric eels are quite happy to eat unhatched eggs and other eels).
  • They live for around 15 years in the wild, and up to 22 years in captivity.
  • They use three different organs in their abdomens to create electricity (which together make up most of their body mass). Two of these organs are used to shock their prey, the other is used for "electrolocation" (they have frequency-sensitive receptors on their skin that can sense electromagnetic fields).
  • A shock from an electric eel is enough to knock over, but not kill, a human, although it can cause heart attacks in those who are prone to them. The eel itself is insulated, and so immune to its own electricity.
  • There are about 500 other species of electric fish, including electric rays and several species of electric catfish.
Cool or what?

Minimum wage (and almost minimum wage) stats an eye opener

I've already blogged my support for Ontario's proposed increase in the minimum wage from $11.40 to $15.00, and addressed the complaints of some that such a move will bring our whole economy crashing to a grinding halt. But I am still reading regular reports from companies and business types whining that their businesses will be decimated, the latest such being Metro supermarkets' dire warnings that food prices will shoot up overnight.
So, I got to wondering just how many people will be actually affected by the changes. It's difficult to find up-to-date figures (not sure why), but I did find some 2015 stats that throw some light on the subject.
It seems that, in 2015, some 675,500 Ontarians were paid the minimum wage ("or less"), representing about 11% of the entire workforce. I have to say that's way more than I expected, and it's also more than in any other province (both in absolute and in percentage terms). Only PEI and Manitoba come close in percentage terms.
And then there's something else I had never considered before: it's not just minimum wage earners that will be affected - everyone who is paid less than $15 will effectively receive a raise. The same stats tell me that, again in 2015, 1,670,100 Ontario workers earned less than $15 per hour, or a huge 28.6% of the working population. Looked at through this lens, in percentage terms at least, several other provinces (mainly in the Maritimes) are even more reliant on the low-wage economy than Ontario: 38% workers in PEI earn less than $15/hour, 36% in New Brunswick, and about 33% in Nova Scotia and in Newfoundland.
One thing these stats highlight - apart from the blunt fact of the appalling numbers of Canadians who are essentially on the breadline - is that there are more substantially more people earning just above minimum wage than there are who earn the minimum wage itself, something that had never occurred to me before.
Other sources go on to explain that women, young people and the poorly educated are significantly overrepresented in the low-wage sector (which I DID know), and that the industries most affected are food and accommodation (27%) and retail (17%), which comes as no surprise.
Anyway, none of this has changed my opinions on Ontario's proposed legislation. But it certainly is an eye-opener to see the extent of such wage poverty within a wealthy country like Canada, and particularly in the very wealthy part of it in which I live.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

My gamified Prius has changed my driving style forever

So, here's some free advertising for Toyota. We recently changed our old Ford Escape Hybrid for a brand spanking new Toyota Prius. It's red. And it's a lot of fun.
The game, of course, is fuel efficiency. I'm not going to the extremes of some "hypermilers", but the Prius' computerized displays definitely gamify the experience. Our old Ford was a 2009 model, so the displays were basic at best. The new Prius - even though it is only the standard configuration and does not boast the upgraded "Technology" or "Touring" packages - is a revelation to me. You can see exactly where the gas goes (sharp acceleration from standing, hills, etc), and it is so much more efficient than the Ford anyway that you can take a positive pleasure in starting off smoothly, keeping within EV mode, and saving lots of gas. And it's interesting to note that, although I start off much slower than the BMW next to me, I usually see it at the next lights anyway...
So, whereas I used to get around 8.5 L/100km (about 33 mpg UK, or 28 mpg US) in the Ford - despite being a hybrid, it was a 2.5L all-wheel drive to be fair - I am now averaging about 4.3 L/100km (66 mpg UK, or 55 mph US). Typical short trips around town, and even some medium-length highway journeys, regularly give me closer to 3.3 L/100km (86 mpg UK, or 71 mph US). On some journeys, I have managed 2.4 L/100km (118 mpg UK, or 98 mph US).
This continues to be an interesting game for now, although I am sure that the novelty will wear off eventually. It has probably changed my driving style forever, though.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Make America great again?

Make America great again? How's that going, Donald?

Biggest ever dinosaur now has a name

Remember when the biggest dinosaur was something called brontosaurus, as it was back in the murky past of my own childhood?
Well, for several years, brontosaurus was no longer even called brontosaurus - it was reclassifield and consider a type of apatosaurus, although even more recently it has been re-reclassified as a separate genus containing three different species. Either way, brontosaurus, large as it was, is no longer considered to be the largest of the large, and neither are other names from my childhood like brachiosaurus, diplodocus, etc.
Of course, it depends to some extent on how you measure "big" (length, height, weight, etc), but as paleontologists have continued to toil away in ever more obscure parts of the earth, and new and better modelling techniques revise and refine estimates of the size and weight of the various contenders, a bunch of new names have vied for the title, some of which positively dwarf old brontosaurus: megalosaurus, supersaurus, giraffatitan, futalognkosaurus, elaltitan, turiasaurus, sauroposeidon, paralititan, dreadnoughtus, amphicoelias, puertasaurus, argentinosaurus, etc.
Then, in 2014, a truly massive dinosaur fossil was found in Patagonia, one which is the current favourite for the largest ever land animal. Although parts of its skeleton have been on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York for over a year now (with its head and tail protruding into adjacent rooms, despite the immense size of the display hall), this specimen hit the news again just this week when it finally received an official name: patagotitan mayorum.
Weighing in at about 69 tons, patagotitan mayorum is the largest of the titanosaurs discovered to date, some 10% heavier than the previous record-holder (argentinosaurus) and almost twice as large as brontosaurus and apatosaurus. It grew to about 130 feet long, and lived during the Cretaceous Period, around 101 million years ago.
And, for now at least, it is largest creature ever to walk the earth.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

So, what is this CRISPR thing anyway?

There has been a lot of attention paid to CRISPR - and particularly to the ethics of its use - in the wake of the recent announcement of a successful American experiment to edit the DNA of human embryos.
CRISPR is no longer new technology, but its use in the human genome remains controversial, and this particular study - which involves editing the genes of early-stage, viable, human blastomeres in order to correct for a genetic mutation that often leads to heart failure (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) - pushes the technique past even recent Chinese advances in the field. The edited embryos in this study successfully eliminated the mutation, and also avoided any incidence of "mosaicism" (i.e. where only some of the desired cells are repaired).
This kind of "germ-line editing" (genetic manipulation of embryos, eggs or sperm) is much more contentious than "somatic editing" (genetic manipulation of grown body tissues), largely because of the possibility of introducing errors or leaving "stowaway" mutations that will go on to affect future generations. But this Oregon Health & Science University suggests that successful, eror-free, germ-line editing is in fact quite possible, at least for certain specific heritable disease-causing mutations. Which of course raises the question of "should we?" and, if so, under what circumstances, for which diseases or mutations, etc. The "designer babies" argument and all that.
This is a huge debate for medical ethics, which the serious press is all over at the moment, and I don't have the time or energy to go into it all here. But what I did want to look at, at least briefly, is just what CRISPR actually is, because I think there is a reasonable amount of confusion, or at least misunderstanding, about it.
Part of the confusion is due to the popular media's insistence on calling it a "technology", and the use of the phrase "molecular scissors", which is a useful analogy but not quite accurate. All of this gives the impression of a kind of man-made machine or tool, perhaps something involving nanobots, which is really not the case.
So, without getting TOO technical, what is CRISPR really?
CRISPR is shorthand for CRISPR Cas9. CRISPR is an acronym for "clusters of regularly interspaced small palindromic repeats", specialized sections of DNA that include repeated sequences of nucleotides, interspersed with "spacers" (in the case of bacteria, bits of DNA from viruses that previously attacked the bacteria). So, CRISPR itself, then, is really just bits of bacterial DNA, not too exciting in itself. The "molecular scissors" part is actually the Cas9, a "CRISPR-associated" protein or enzyme that is naturally capable of cutting (chopping up and destroying) strands of foreign DNA by binding to two CRISPR RNA in a "double-stranded break".
Thus, the whole CRISPR-Cas9 process is actually the natural defense mechanism of single-celled bacteria and archaea to foil attacks by viruses and other foreign bodies. It was the achievement of a few very clever humans in 2012 to realize that this same simple process could be used to manipulate (or "edit") the genomes of other, more complex, organisms, including humans. The rest, as they say, is history.
So, the bacterial CRISPR-Cas9 process can be used as a kind of tool, effectively tricking a cell's natural DNA repair mechanisms into introducing the required changes (e.g. cutting out genetic mutations that lead to diseases). It is absolutely not a tiny pair of nano-scissors, or a microscopic programmable machine
But it sure is cool.

Google engineer's sacking has opened up the debate on women in computing

The 10-page memo about gender differences that got a Google engineer fired recently has generated a lot of discussion online, and by no means all of it is gender-specific.
Google tries hard to be a progressive company, and it has instituted a affirmative action (positive discrimination) initiative aimed at improving its gender and racial diversity, However, even with this recent push, currently just 20% of its worldwide technology employees (as opposed to admin staff) are female, about 7% were black, and 6% Hispanic, although this is still an improvement from the position just three years ago when these percentages were 17%, 1% and 2% respectively.
Software engineer James Damore's internal memo entitled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber", which has been leaked and is now available online in full, criticizes these attempts by Google to circumvent what Damore sees as a natural order which is no fault of either men or women.The memo attempts to show, in a more or less scientific way, that gender differences in preferences, psychology and personality - in particular, the ideas that women are more open to feelings, are more interested in people than in things, have a tendency towards gregariousness rather than assertiveness, are more prone to neuroticism and anxiety, and are more concerned with work-life balance than status - are underpinned "in part" by biological differences rather than by socialized responses and institutional sexism. The memo, though, has been publicly slammed by Google's management, including CEO Sundar Pichai, and has even resulted in Damore's termination.
Various responses to the leaked memo and the sacking, such as this one, have concentrated on refuting the science he quotes (via Wikipedia), arguing that Damore cherry-picks his studies, misquotes them, or extracts false conclusions from them. Others, however, like this one by a female scientist in Globe and Mail, suggest that, actually, his science is spot on.
No doubt the debate will rage on, with little hope of a resolution. The various views on affirmative action policies are a whole other subject on which many people will never agree. But I suppose we at least owe Mr. Damore a debt of gratitude for instigating the conversation, and for putting it front and centre in the international media.
There again, Google may have overreacted and overreached itself by firing Damore, in a hasty knee-jerk response that may end up causing it more headaches than the original leaked memo. He was officially fired for "advancing harmful gender stereotypes", a phrase I would be surprised to find anywhere in Google's employee handbook. Apparently, Damore is considering taking legal action for wrongful dismissal, and he may well have a case.
Certainly, even if you disagree with the man, an internal memo espousing unpopular but legal political views is not a sacking offence in any corporate world I know.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

€222 million soccer vanity project

Top French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) have just paid a record-smashing €222 million transfer fee to acquire Brazilian star Neymar from FC Barcelona.
Yes, Neymar is one of the best players in the world, up there with Messi and Ronaldo (and younger than either), but this is more than twice the previous record transfer, Manchester United's acquisition of Paul Pogba last year. To put it in some North American perspective, is is about C$330 million, an amount that would more than cover the combined player payrolls of the Toronto Blue Jays and the Maple Leafs.
PSG are a good team and the addition of Neymar gives them a good chance of winning a major trophy like the UEFA Champions League. Their attendance, sponsorship sales and merchandising will doubtless benefit too. But, unlike in North America where the profit motive rules professional sports, there are other forces at play here.
PSG are owned by Oryx Quatar Sports Investments, which is in turn controlled by Qatari emir Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, a very rich man fom whom €222 million is not that big a deal. Winning a prestigious soccer trophy would lend Qatar itself some serious prestige in the Middle East, something it desperately wants, mired as it is in an ongoing dispute with Saudi Arabia. Qatar also needs friends in high places, and France's position on the UN Security Council is a big attraction, and probably a subsidiary motivation in the deal. France also played a major part in helping Qatar secure the 2022 FIFA World Cup, a controversial decision which is still being talked about. And it doesn't hurt that the Qatari royal family own the company that broadcasts France's Ligue 1 and Champions League games on French television. A tangled web indeed.
But, as much as anything, and completely alien to the North American profit-motivated sports industry, the main impetus for the deal may be simply the glory that a resurgent PSG would reflect on Sheik Tamim. First and foremost, this record-breaking deal at just be a €222 million vanity project.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Happy Earth Overshoot Day!

Today, August 2nd, is the day in the year when we, as a planet, have officially used a year's worth of the planet's natural resources, hence the label Earth Overshoot Day.
Through overfishing, overharvesting of forests, and the generation of more carbon dioxide than the forests can naturally absorb, we are currently using about 170% of the earth's natural output (i.e. the extent to which it can renew or regenerate), a clearly unsustainable situation.
Yes, this is a slightly artificial and arbitrary measurement of our ecological footprint, one developed by the NGO Global Footprint Network. But it does provide us with a salient reminder of our actions, and all the more so when we look at the trend over the years: 10 years ago we used up 144% of the planet's biocapacity each year; going back to 1963, we only used about 78%. In fact, the tipping point came in about 1970, the last time the earth as a whole was in a more or less sustainable position, and since then our ecological footprint has been accelerating out of control. Currently as much as 60% of this excessive footprint is as a result of our carbon emissions. Cutting our carbon emissions in half would have the effect of pushing back Earth Overshoot Day by as much as three months.
Another interesting graphic produced as part of this report, shows the number of times the ecological footprint of individual countries exceeds the earth's biocapacity. Australia heads this table of shame with a score of 5.2, the USA 5.0, South Korea and Russia 3.4, with Germany, Switzerland, France, UK and Japan all at around 3.0, etc. Canada is not listed but it would probably be somewhere around Australia and the USA. When looked at in terms of their own individual biocapacities, though, South Korea and Japan are far and away the worst offenders, followed by Switzerland, Italy, UK and China, while the USA, Germany and France (and presumably Canada) are much lower down the list.
Anyway, it's an interesting metric, even if not definitive, and kudos to the Global Footprint Network for getting it into the mainstream media.