18 April 2019

Fossilized dinosaur nest

"A Chinese dinosaur scientist has expressed his disappointment and concern at the sale of a rare fossilized dinosaur nest for US$420,000 at an auction in Los Angeles.

The unusually well-preserved 65 million-year-old dinosaur nest containing fossilized eggs was sold by auction house Bonhams & Butterfields on Monday.

Before the auction, Xing Lida, a dinosaur expert with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, appealed to Bonhams not to auction the fossil, which he believes to have been smuggled out of China...

The nest contains 22 unhatched eggs arranged in a circular pattern around the edge. Embryonic remains were uncovered in 19 eggs and one egg was removed for study. Some eggs were so well-preserved that the embryo curled inside was still visible...

The theft and smuggling of fossils out of the country is a serious problem in China. Smugglers have often broken fossils to make them easier to conceal and carry."

The various upsides of running for president

Excerpts from an article in The Guardian:
The fact is, not all of the people running for president are actually running for president.
There is almost always at least a few candidates in these kinds of fields that are either there to push an issue agenda, or these are candidates who are interested in building their name recognition, building their stature and status within the party,” said John Sides, professor of political science at George Washington University and editor-in-chief of The Monkey Cage politics analysis site...

But the potential upside, even for candidates who do not win, can be large. For some candidates, there’s money in it. Ask Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor whose failed 2008 run netted him a Fox TV show, tripled his speaking fees and made his books bestsellers. The former House speaker Newt Gingrich ran what looked like a for-profit campaign in 2012, using campaign events to sell books.

Other candidates run to advance a signature issue or agenda. Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman, caught fire in 2008 with demands for small government and non-intervention overseas. Ralph Nader’s anti-corporate message sparked similar grassroots enthusiasm in 2000, and in 2016 Bernie Sanders went from being a protest candidate to swiping 23 primary contests from Hillary Clinton and emerging as a major force in national politics...

For others, the promise might be a greater profile, or a shot at a cabinet slot, or even a place on the party’s general-election ticket. The Reagan-Bush (1980), Kerry-Edwards (2004) and Obama-Biden (2008) tickets all sprang from primary rivalries. Herman Cain, the former restaurant executive who blazed across the sky as a Republican candidate in 2012, was mooted recently for a spot on the Federal Reserve board...

While running for president without running for president might seem to fall short of certain ideals about the call to service and the dignity of the office, Sides said it was “perfectly rational” for some candidates to jump in the race without necessarily intending to win.

Population density in Europe

Via the Europe subreddit.

A zoomable map of world population density.

Why you had to calculate your own taxes

Excerpts from an article in Vox:
Congress is set to make it illegal for the IRS to create free tax preparation software, software that could save millions of Americans from wasting their money on TurboTax, H&R Block, and other tax preparers currently profiting from the IRS’s failure to help taxpayers.

ProPublica’s Justin Elliott reported that the Taxpayer First Act, sponsored in the House by Democratic Rep. John Lewis (GA) and Republican Mike Kelly (PA), and in the Senate by Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), would prohibit the IRS from creating an online tax preparation system that would compete with TurboTax and H&R Block...

The IRS could prepare taxes automatically for the vast majority of Americans for whom it has all the required information. The bill, Elliott reports, would bar the IRS from the much more moderate step of creating software that competes with TurboTax...

It is a huge scandal that Congress has not yet instructed the IRS to automatically prepare taxes for the vast majority of Americans. The IRS has all the information required to do that for all but a few taxpayers, and the main reason it hasn’t to date is lobbying by companies like TurboTax and H&R Block...

In a way, creating a free online tax preparation program, as this bill would ban the IRS from doing, is the absolute least the federal government should be doing for you. There is little preventing the IRS from preparing tax returns on its own for most Americans...

If I’m not itemizing deductions (like 70 percent of taxpayers), the IRS has all the information it needs to calculate my taxes, send me a filled-out return, and let me either send it in or do my taxes by hand if I prefer.

This isn’t a purely hypothetical proposal. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Chile, and Spain already offer “pre-populated returns” to their citizens. The United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan have exact enough tax withholding procedures that most people don’t have to file income tax returns at all, whether pre-populated or not. California has a voluntary return-free filing program called ReadyReturn for its income taxes...

So why hasn’t return-free filing happened yet? Well, as the current fight in Congress suggests, the short answer is lobbying, and in particular lobbying by companies like Intuit...

About those airplane crashes

Some cogent discussion at Reddit.

The tyranny of p-values

An article in Science News this week will be of interest to anyone with experience in scientific research.
In science, the success of an experiment is often determined by a measure called “statistical significance.” A result is considered to be “significant” if the difference observed in the experiment between groups (of people, plants, animals and so on) would be very unlikely if no difference actually exists. The common cutoff for “very unlikely” is that you’d see a difference as big or bigger only 5 percent of the time if it wasn’t really there — a cutoff that might seem, at first blush, very strict...
More than 800 statisticians and scientists are calling for an end to judging studies by statistical significance in a March 20 comment published in Nature. An accompanying March 20 special issue of the American Statistician makes the manifesto crystal clear in its introduction: “‘statistically significant’ — don’t say it and don’t use it.”

There is good reason to want to scrap statistical significance. But with so much research now built around the concept, it’s unclear how — or with what other measures — the scientific community could replace it. The American Statistician offers a full 43 articles exploring what scientific life might look like without this measure in the mix.

More at the link, and the subject matter is important.

In an earlier phase of my life I spent uncounted hours in an empty lab after all the staff had gone home, crunching numbers with an HP calculator, and sometimes coming up with p values that didn't meet the 0.05 cutoff that would determine acceptance for publication - knowing that the results were "true" and "important" but wouldn't be accepted.  Then looking at the notebooks and seeing some outliers, resisting the urge to ignore (lose) a data point or two, then having to decide whether the dataset could be analysed with a Mann Whitney U nonparametric analysis instead.   And the counterpoint was serving as reviewer for several journals, reading manuscripts and thinking "yes I see the p-value, but the study is still bullshit" (but having to write something more circumspect in the review).  I totally agree with this guy:

This isn’t the first call for an end to statistical significance, and it probably won’t be the last. “This is not easy,” says Nicole Lazar, a statistician at the University of Georgia in Athens and a guest editor of the American Statistician special issue. “If it were easy, we’d be there already.

15 April 2019

The "first Brexit"

From the years 286 to 296, a crew of Roman dissidents reigned over a Britain severed from the rest of the Roman Empire. The revolt was instigated by Carausius, but he didn’t see it through to the end: His own finance minister, Allectus, offed Carausius in 293, and took over until the independent outpost fell three years later.

Little is known about Allectus, but traces of his brief reign can still turn up in the most unexpected of places. Just last month, in a field in the southeastern English county of Kent, an amateur metal detectorist stumbled upon a gold coin bearing the ancient emperor’s face. (The opposite side depicts two figures kneeling to the god Apollo.) He found it near an ancient Roman road, after 45 minutes of a search that turned up only “bits of old tractors and shotgun cartridges,” according to the anonymous detectorist... Certifiably ancient, the newly discovered Aureus—or gold Roman coin—will... sell for between £70,000 and £100,000...

Nearly two intervening millennia notwithstanding, the coin is a timely find. Last month, Moorhead gave a lecture at the British Museum “on Carausius, Allectus and the first Brexit,” so-called for the emperors’ efforts to disentangle Britain from greater Rome.
More at Atlas Obscura.

13 April 2019

The "superbloom" is producing a butterfly bloom

The extraordinary "superbloom" of wildflowers in California this spring is triggering an explosive growth in the local population of Painted Lady butterflies.
By the millions, the butterflies are fluttering through Southern California, feasting on a proliferation of herbaceous plants like cheeseweed and hollyhock.

It’s part of their normal movement north from the dry deserts of Mexico to the lush Cascade Range in the Pacific Northwest. But the population is outsized this year, the latest colorful natural phenomenon produced by winter’s abundant rainfall and a cooler February that has kept the plants from drying out...

Doug Yanega, senior museum scientist at UC Riverside’s Entomology Research Museum, said he and his colleagues spent their lunch break today counting butterflies. 

“We were seeing at least 100 of them a minute,” he says. “That’s just looking out one window. We’re talking about a population in the millions, easily no question.”  In the deserts outside of Southern California, Yanega says there are caterpillars “everywhere.”..
Their flight north is typically made up of multiple generations, with a butterfly going a certain distance, then laying eggs. Its brood will hatch and continue north. That’s similar to the famed migration of monarch butterflies, which are commonly mistaken for painted ladies.

Brown says the movement of painted ladies isn’t as dramatic, but it is far more ubiquitous—painted ladies are found around the globe. “The migration is not only happening here in North America. It happens between Africa and Europe as well,” he says. “It really is a worldwide phenomenon.”..

These painted ladies are native—and that’s something to celebrate, says Yanega.

Photoessay of the life cycle at Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui).

Top photo from Wikipedia; the other two from my files.

Corporate lobbyists write the laws for your state

Each year, state lawmakers across the U.S. introduce thousands of bills dreamed up and written by corporations, industry groups and think tanks.

Disguised as the work of lawmakers, these so-called “model” bills get copied in one state Capitol after another, quietly advancing the agenda of the people who write them.

USA TODAY and the Republic found at least 10,000 bills almost entirely copied from model legislation were introduced nationwide in the past eight years, and more than 2,100 of those bills were signed into law. 

Model bills passed into law have made it harder for injured consumers to sue corporations. They’ve called for taxes on sugar-laden drinks. They’ve limited access to abortion and restricted the rights of protesters.

In all, these copycat bills amount to the nation’s largest, unreported special-interest campaign, driving agendas in every statehouse and touching nearly every area of public policy...

This work proves what many people have suspected, which is just how much of the democratic process has been outsourced to special interests,” said Lisa Graves, co-director of Documented, which probes corporate manipulation of public policy. “It is both astonishing and disappointing to see how widespread … it is. Good lord, it’s an amazing thing to see.”..

“It’s not inherently bad, one way or the other,” said Siler, who now works for a political action committee. “It depends on the idea and the people pushing it. Definitely people use model legislation to push bad ideas around.”

Allison Anderman, managing attorney at the pro-gun-control Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said model bills are simply how the system works now...

USA TODAY found more than 4,000 bills benefiting industry were introduced nationwide during the eight years it reviewed. More than 80 of those bills limit the public’s ability to sue corporations, including limiting class-action lawsuits, a plaintiff’s ability to offer expert testimony, and cap punitive damages for corporate wrongdoing.

“No citizens are saying, ‘Hey, can you make it harder to sue if … low-paid (nursing home) orderlies happened to kill or injure my parents,’ ” Graves said. “That’s not a thing citizens are clamoring for. But you know who is? The nursing home industry, and big business in general.”

“This is how all laws are written,” she said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a law where a legislator sits in a chamber until a light bulb goes off with a new policy.”
Much more information at The Center for Public Integrity, via Boing Boing.

Introducing LeBron James and his "I Promise" school - updated

Most Americans don't need an introduction to LeBron James, but I suspect many readers of this blog do not follow sports carefully, and I know that in the past month there have been readers here from over a hundred countries*, so a few words of explanation are in order.

LeBron James is arguably the best basketball player ever to play the sport.  He went directly to the pros from high school without playing in college.  Those interested can browse his biography for the sports statistics - I want to focus on some other aspects of his life.

His exceptional athletic skills have not surprisingly resulted in huge salaries and lucrative endorsement contracts (he was signed by Nike - when he left high school - for $90 million).  In 2016 he was the third-highest earning athlete in the world (after Ronaldo and Messi).

That fame and fortune is not blogworthy, in my view; there are lots of extremely wealthy professional athletes.  I'm writing this post because of what he has done with some of that money.  NBC Nightly News featured the story this week:

For those speed-reading the post and without time for a minute-long video, here are the key points about the school as described in Time:
The most unique feature of the school may be the most ordinary: it’s a traditional public school. Celebrities often back charter schools... Or they open unorthodox private schools... James made a point of giving Akron a new public school. “It’s not a charter school, it’s not a private school, it’s a real-life school in my hometown.”

That said, the school is far from traditional. Its lengthy school day runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., along with an extended school year that runs from July through May. During a seven-week summer session, the school will provide STEM-based camps. Students will spend time each day on social-emotional learning, and participate in a “supportive circle” after lunch aimed at helping them refocus on work, Cleveland.com reports.

Nutrition is also central to the school’s mission. Every day students will receive free breakfast, lunch, snacks and drinks. They will have access to a fitness trainer. James says that, as a kid, he used his bicycle to explore different neighborhoods of Akron — so he gave one to every incoming student...

Since the school considers education to be not just for the pupil but for the whole family, it will offer GED classes and job placement assistance for parents and guardians...

The school selected area students from among those who trail their peers by a year or two in academic performance...  The school is launching with third- and fourth-graders, but plans to add grades each year until it houses first through eighth grade in 2022.

Students get one other notable benefit: If they successfully complete the school program and graduate from high school, James will cover their full tuition at the local public college, University of Akron.
This is a comprehensive approach to education that is way different from the typical charitable gift 
that just funds a building with someone's name on it.  James grew up in poverty in Akron, born to a 16-year-old mother and an absent father.  He understands that a modern school building and curriculum will not lead to success unless the students also have adequate nutrition and an improved home environment.  Also note the rigorous schedule: the school day is eight hours long and the academic year is 10 months long.  And note they chose students not based on prior success, but on prior failure - those trailing their peers in performance.

The next point to make.  LeBron James is the man to whom Laura Ingraham famously said "Shut up and dribble," when he had the effrontery to criticize Trump in an ESPN video.

The above is a screencap; the 2-minute commentary is embedded at this NPR site.  She gives viewers a "dumb jock" alert before showing a clip of James "talking politics again," which she describes as "barely intelligible not to mention ungrammatical."  "Unfortunately a lot of kids and some adults take these ignorant comments seriously.... This is what happens when you leave high school early to join the NBA... Lebron and Kevin, you're great players, but nobody voted for you; millions elected Trump to be their coach.  So keep the political commentary to yourself, or as someone once said, 'shut up and dribble.'"

James responded to her: "We will definitely not shut up and dribble. ... I mean too much to society, too much to the youth, too much to so many kids who feel like they don't have a way out...

That was background.  Here's what came next...

Two days ago, after LeBron's school was publicized, Donald Trump mocked LeBron's intelligence and education:

(The "Mike" he is referring to is basketball player Michael Jordan).  Trump was responding to a public statement by LeBron James that Trump is "dividing America":
“We’re in a position right now in America where this whole race thing is taking over. One, because I believe our president is trying to divide us. He’s dividing us, and what I’ve noticed over the last few months is that he’s kind of used sport to kind of divide us. That’s something that I can’t relate to, because I know that sport was the first time I ever was around someone white. I got an opportunity to see them and learn about them, and they got an opportunity to learn about me, and we became very good friends. I was like this is all because of sports. And sports has never been something that divided people. It’s always been something that brings someone together.”

Blogger's note:  I've spent a couple hours today researching and composing this post, so this will be all my blogging for a day or two.  I would prefer that any comments about this post focus on LeBron James and/or on public education etc.  I plan to delete any comments about Trump/Ingraham etc because at the moment I just don't have time to wade through a shitstorm of political bickering.  I'm due to write another q3monthly "Trump clump" in another couple weeks; save those comments for then.

Addendum:  A tip of the hat to reader Bulletholes for locating an article from Cleveland that provides some details regarding the expenditures by LeBron James vs. those of the school district in developing and maintaining this school and its curriculum.

*click map in right sidebar and scroll down

Top photo via Sports Illustrated.

Reposted from 2018 to add excerpts from a April 2019 update from the New York Times:
The academic results are early, and at 240, the sample size of students is small, but the inaugural classes of third and fourth graders at I Promise posted extraordinary results in their first set of district assessments. Ninety percent met or exceeded individual growth goals in reading and math, outpacing their peers across the district.

“These kids are doing an unbelievable job, better than we all expected,” Mr. James said in a telephone interview hours before a game in Los Angeles for the Lakers. “When we first started, people knew I was opening a school for kids. Now people are going to really understand the lack of education they had before they came to our school. People are going to finally understand what goes on behind our doors.”

Unlike other schools connected to celebrities, I Promise is not a charter school run by a private operator but a public school operated by the district. Its population is 60 percent black, 15 percent English-language learners and 29 percent special education students. Three-quarters of its families meet the low-income threshold to receive help from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
The school’s $2 million budget is funded by the district, roughly the same amount per pupil that it spends in other schools. But Mr. James’s foundation has provided about $600,000 in financial support for additional teaching staff to help reduce class sizes, and an additional hour of after-school programming and tutors. 

The school is unusual in the resources and attention it devotes to parents, which educators consider a key to its success. Mr. James’s foundation covers the cost of all expenses in the school’s family resource center, which provides parents with G.E.D. preparation, work advice, health and legal services, and even a quarterly barbershop...

A food pantry inside the school. At any time, parents can grab a shopping bin and take what they need. CreditMaddie McGarvey for The New York Times

The students’ scores reflect their performance on the Measures of Academic Progress assessment, a nationally recognized test administered by NWEA, an evaluation association. In reading, where both classes had scored in the lowest, or first, percentile, third graders moved to the ninth percentile, and fourth graders to the 16th. In math, third graders jumped from the lowest percentile to the 18th, while fourth graders moved from the second percentile to the 30th...

The students have a long way to go to even join the middle of the pack. And time will tell whether the gains are sustainable and how they stack up against rigorous state standardized tests at the end of the year.

11 April 2019

Human brain (left). Dolphin brain (right).

Note the impressive folding of the gyri and sulci that increase the surface gray matter, and look at that awesome cerebellum.
As some of you have pointed out, "the two halves aren't connected." In reality, they are connected, but the corpus callosum is very thin. Dolphins do that thing called unihemispheric slow‐wave sleep, and are able to remain vigilant even with only one hemisphere awake. Positron emission tomography (PET) scans during this type of sleep show that there's also lateralization in cerebellar activity. However, the fact that dolphins can remain vigilant even with one hemisphere asleep implies that there is no extreme lateralization of function that would cause severe impairment.

One of the theorized reasons why "the cerebellum is massive" is because dolphins rely so heavily on auditory input. In both humans and dolphins, the cerebellum coordinates voluntary movements such as posture, balance, coordination, and speech, but in dolphins the sensorimotor information is much more heavily influenced by auditory input. In directing echolocation trains and responding to this information, the dolphin must adjust its body quickly and precisely according to echolocation signals, and the corresponding lobules are much larger in dolphins than in humans.

Worldwide slaughter of pangolins - updated

From a report at The Guardian:
The true scale of the slaughter of pangolins in Africa has been revealed by new research showing that millions of the scaly mammals are being hunted and killed.

Pangolins were already known to be the world’s most trafficked wild mammal, with at least a million being traded in the last decade to supply the demand for its meat and scales in Asian markets. Populations of Asian pangolins have been decimated, leaving the creatures highly endangered and sharply shifting the focus of exploitation to Africa’s four species...

A total ban on the international trade in any pangolin species was passed by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species in September. But Ingram said the enforcement of both international and national laws had to be increased to prevent African pangolins following their Asian cousins on the path to extinction.

The demand in Asia for pangolin meat and scales as delicacies and supposed medicinal uses is a major factor in cross-border trade but a significant proportion of African pangolins are eaten locally. Ingram said that measures are also needed to develop alternative livelihoods for African hunters of pangolin...
More from Wikipedia:
The pangolin trade is centuries old. An early known example is in 1820, when Francis Rawdon, 1st Marquis of Hastinges and East India Company Governor General in Bengal, presented King George III with a coat and helmet made with the scales of Manis crassicaudata [low-res photo at the link]. The gifts are now stored in the Royal Armouries in Leeds.

The pangolins are boiled to remove the scales, which are then dried and roasted, then sold based on claims that they can stimulate lactation, help to drain pus, and relieve skin diseases or palsy. As of 2015, pangolin scales were covered under some health insurance plans in Vietnam.

The scales can cost more than $3,000/kg on the black market.
GIF of a pandolin.

Reposted from 2017 to show this image of a shipping container with the remains of 36,000 poached critically-endangered pangolins:

They sailed into a Singapore inspection port by shipping container, the vessel marked “frozen beef” and bound for Vietnam. Inside, customs officials found the sacks, packed and piled from floor to ceiling. They overflowed with the product of a wildlife smuggling operation so vast, yet so niche, it had conservationists worried about the extinction of an animal that most people haven’t even heard of yet...

Restaurants buy pangolin meat, which is considered a delicacy, an off-menu item that a well-heeled customer might order when trying to impress. Those seeking the new cure-all buy the scales, which are used in traditional medicine to treat everything from rheumatism to cancer, even though there is no known science that supports their remedial properties. And the fashion industry has shown interest in the skin, its diamond pattern making for an attractive leather design. It’s scale-to-tail consumption.
More information at the Washington Post (whence the embedded photo, credit Getty Images, cropped for size)

"The Girl in the Cafe"

I couldn't find an official trailer for this 2005 made-for-television BBC drama, so I've embedded someone's screencap of the opening couple minutes of the film.  Bill Nighy is at the top of his game portraying a painfully shy civil servant who has a chance encounter with Kelly Macdonald's character.  Although the storyline centers on world poverty and global aid, the power of the film comes from the sensitive portrayal of the relationship between these two actors.
"The film was noted at the 58th Primetime Emmy Awards, where it received seven nominations and won Outstanding Made for Television Movie, Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special for [screenwriter] Curtis, and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie for Macdonald."
Available on Netflix; I found the DVD in our local library.   I can recommend it unreservedly.

Ultranationalism on the rise in Ukraine

Photo essay in The Guardian.

New Zealand bans assault and military-style weapons

Excerpts from an article in New Zealand's Stuff:
The banning of a range of rifles will become law less than a month after the massacre that prompted the swift change.

In parliament on Wednesday night MPs of all political persuasions overwhelmingly voted in favour of The Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines and parts) Amendment Bill after its crucial third reading.

The law, which needs Royal Assent, will become law by the end of the week. It will mean there will be a ban on all semi-automatic and military-style weapons, such as those used during the Christchurch terrorist attack that killed 50 and injured dozens...
"There are good people in all of our communities who will find themselves in possession of banned firearms, parts and magazines.

"This is because we are changing the law, not because these people have done anything wrong."..
She told the House the weapons used in the Christchurch terror attack were designed to kill. When she visited the hospital, not one victim had just one gunshot wound, she said.

"I struggle to recall any single gunshot wounds. In every case they spoke of multiple injuries, multiple debilitating injuries that deemed it impossible for them to recover in days, let alone weeks. They will carry disabilities for a lifetime and that's before you consider the psychological impact. We are here for them."

"I could not fathom how weapons that could cause such destruction and large scale death, could be obtained legally in this country."

She also acknowledged the buyback scheme for compensation, which would be worked up over the next few weeks.

"We will operate fairly."
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