Piscine nihilism

So a couple days ago I was harvesting white hair algae from the fish tank. Amazing and annoying stuff, it begins to clump on a leaf or stalk with bunches of fine grey filaments and you have to either remove the leaf or yank a clump of the hairy stuff from a stalk until you’ve got a little pile of algae that looks more like the floor of a Leisure World barber shop than anything algal and slimy. It smells faintly of kelp, also an algae, but a mega algae. In comparison these white hair algae are maybe an inch or two long. Yet apparently these white hair algae are actually a community of algae species, each filament a towering algal skyscraper, like a tiny stromatolite waving in the current.

But I digress.

Removing the algae stirred up the Gordian knot of plants floating in the center of the tank, a mass of interconnected triffids rising from thin stalks anchored in the gravel to take over their known universe. Suddenly, almost like magic, a tiny little fish appeared. An infant platy. Uh oh. It should have had two or three or even four dozen siblings. There should be a whole herd of tiny fishlings. But this little guy.seemed utterly alone. For the week prior all the other fish had been giving unusual attention to the eddies and recesses in that mass of plants. Now I know why. They’d been stalking baby prey. A piscicidal massacre. Even the orange platys, both mom and dad, had pitched into the feast, eating more than their share, devouring their own DNA and shitting it out again, any chance of their own evolution stopped cold. Now that’s a Darwin Award. Literally eating their own. Sick little fucks, fish.

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Quirks of fate

It seems that 70,000 years ago the global population of homo sapiens was reduced to less than 26,000. Apparently they teased out that bit of info through some genetic analysis. As humans were by then in Africa and across much of Eurasia, that means we were very sparse on the ground. All seven billion of us spring from remarkably small numbers of people. Indeed, it’s been suggested that as few as seventy individuals came across the Bering Strait land bridge to eventually people the entire western hemisphere. We’ve had more than seventy people in our pad at parties. I never thought of them as a genome before. Well, I did once and got my face slapped. But I digress.

A million or so years ago our antecessor species Homo erectus seems in the genetic analyses (if I knew how they do this I’d tell you) to have been reduced to less than a thousand individuals….and remained like that on the razor’s edge of extinction for maybe a hundred thousand years. Everything we are was dependent on a population the size of a very small town or a medium sized high school or the fans of failing rock band in a big, mostly empty concert hall. Somewhere in that tiny population was some of us, genetically. Whatever genetic factors helped members of that population survive a particularly brutal hundred thousand years of Darwinian natural selection (as other related human species went extinct) lies deep in our own genome. And when 70,000 years ago something happened globally that reduced Homo sapiens to less than 25,000 individuals, we survived while the last of Homo erectus died out, unable to survive what it had once survived for a hundred thousand years. No one ever said natural selection was fair. It’s anything but. The fossil record is full of species of humans and proto-humans no longer here. Fleshed out by talented artists, they gaze at us with all the pathos of a Rembrandt. You can sense their intelligence and emotions. Then you look at the skulls again, bare and ancient and hopelessly extinct. There but for quirks of fate, is us.

There are a hundred trillion bacteria in your body as you read this, and a bunch of these guys in those bacteria.

The surface it is standing on would be, I assume, the interior of the exterior of a bacterium, being that bacteriophage viruses invade and then replicate within bacteria, taking proteins from the bacteria to create copies of itself. Sounds creepy, though the influenza virus does the exact same thing, using our cells instead of a single cell bacterium. From a virus’s unthinking and barely even alive POV, a cell is a cell. What matters is the proteins in the cell, without which there can be no baby viruses.

They did not have a flu shot in 1918

The 1918 influenza epidemic infected half a billion people out of global population of 1.8 billion. Somewhere from fifty to one hundred million of those people died. Nearly everyone killed by the flu was under 65, with most being between 20 and 40, in whom the body’s immune system’s reaction was so severe that lung tissue was reduced to a thick mass and the victims drowned in their own phlegm. A perfectly healthy young person could fall sick in the morning and be dead that night, as a strong  immune system made the disease all the more deadly.

There was no flu shot in 1918, which means people in 1918 were just as vulnerable as people who didn’t get the shot this year. Fortunately the flu this year is vastly less deadly, and will probably only kill a few tens of thousands world wide. It’s a roll of the dice every year, but at some point  a flu virus will evolve that drops people like flies. Could be next year, could be in a hundred years. If you get the shot you lessen the odds of dying a rather quick and ghastly death. It’s up to you.

So it turns out octopuses will never rule the earth.

Wow, here’s one of those science articles in The Atlantic–“Octopuses Do Something Really Strange To Their Genes” by the excellent science writer Ed Yong–that demand a full reading because every paragraph is a cephalopodic mind freak. Turns out that cephalopods have an extraordinary ability to edit their own nervous system genes in a massive way. The astonishing nervous systems and intelligence of the octopus has been created by editing the RNA, as if humans could go in and edit our own DNA to make us smarter, say. Which we can’t. Hence Trump.

The downside of this is that in order to this, cephalopods have to maintain the integrity of their RNA…and I mean maintain it over hundreds of millions of years. So their nervous systems have evolved to incredible degrees–human brains are much more intelligent than any cephalopod, obviously, but the other parts of our nervous system are infinitely less so–we can’t disappear into our surroundings, say, or communicate via rapidly changing colors in what is probably language, or control eight limbs that operate autonomously from one another. But if you carefully edit your RNA to dispose of any unwanted mutations you are essentially putting a brake on natural selection, that is, you are not letting evolution make the changes that alter the genome and create new species out of older species. Humans are the result of series of changes in genomes from apes twenty of thirty million years ago that went into overdrive about four million years ago. The Australopithecenes four million years ago were basically bipedal chimpanzees. Two million years later was Homo erectus , every inch a human. We showed up 200,000 years ago, though none of us today are exactly the same as we were then. We have not stopped evolving (our brains are larger, for one thing, and structured a bit differently). And we are still apes, just dramatically transformed by an extraordinary number of mutations. Our genome has changed fundamentally over and over, and you can even see that process at work around you. In me, for instance. I’m way taller than most people, everything bigger. I’m full of mutations. I could have eventually led to a sub species of really huge, really dumb homo sapiens–homo sapien brickus–and ruined everything. Luckily I had no kids.

But this can’t happen among cephalopods. Well, among coleoid cephalopods, the smart ones, that is octopus, squid and cuttlefish. Nautilus never made that adaptation–this may have been nearly half a billion years ago–and so never developed the ability to edit their own RNA. And while an ocean existence makes for far less evolutionary change over vast expanses of time than a land existence (the ocean changes very little, and is much safer) so that the nautilus today looks remarkably similar to the nautilus in 400 million year old fossil beds–natural selection at some point extended its lifespan to twenty years. That is a very good age for a mollusc (cephalopods are molluscs.). That was about how long our own early ancestors, australopithecines like Lucy, lived. Nautiluses have unedited naturally occurring mutations in their genes, and while Nautilus lives are so stable and unchanging there is little chance for any of those mutations to succeed as new species, it has lengthened their life span because living longer is apparently useful (or not unuseful, anyway). And that was a very fundamental change in the nautilus genome. Three hundred million years ago they probably lived no longer than an octopus, two years. The genome was fundamentally altered. Probably very slowly, over tens if not hundreds of million of years, but it was altered, and now a pet nautilus would live longer than your cat.

Your pet hamster would outlive your pet octopus, though. Would outlive virtually every coleoid cephalopod (that is, all the cephalopods but the nautilus). For at least 350 and perhaps as much as 480 million years the octopus has carefully maintained the vast number of edits in its RNA, because their extraordinary nervous system is based upon the integrity of that design, just as the computer you are reading this on can only function if the memory maintains the integrity of its design–go in their and randomly mutate the thing, moving chips around, deleting some, adding others, and you’ll be looking at a blank blue screen. The cephalopod nervous system, perhaps as extraordinary a work of nature as our own, is a delicate construct, built by billions of generations of cephalopods carefully maintaining the original RNA structure and making myriad new carefully selected edits. It’s like they’ve been speaking the same language for half a billion years with the same basic grammar, so that one could pick up a book written hundreds of millions of years ago and be able to read it still. It would be less changed than English now has changed from English a thousand years ago. There is a continuum in octopus RNA across deep time. Nothing has fundamentally changed, Roman Latin didn’t turn into Chinese. The same basic design has remained for half a billion years, just fine tuned to an amazing degree. Which means you can never have a giant six legged octopus attacking ships and tearing the Golden Gate bridge apart. You would need to have a genome that can change dramatically with unedited RNA allowing for mutation. Nor could ever have them leaving the water and becoming land animals. Or shedding limbs and walking about. Or flying starships and colonizing other planets. You can’t even change the octopus genome to let them live longer than two years.

So you have extremely intelligent invertebrates–smarter than probably 99% of vertebrates–trapped in bodies that, like some ancient, primitive molluscs of the Cambrian Era, live a couple years, lay a zillion eggs, fertilize them, and die. You can fine tune your nervous system till you are an eight legged Einstein but you can’t alter that ancient method of self-destructive reproduction. So you have invertebrate geniuses trapped in bodies designed for no brains at all. Octopuses will never rule the earth. They’ll live an astonishing two years–some only six months–and die. Squids live a year. Even giant squid live less than five years. (Their vertebrate arch enemy, the sperm whale, lives to be seventy.)  And so “Octopuses Do Something Really Strange To Their Genes” was one of the most exciting articles I ever read, and one of the saddest.

However…recently a deep sea Graneledone boreopacifica was observed guarding its brood for an astonishing fifty three months (the longest brood time ever witnessed in the animal kingdom)…which is over twice as long as the typical longer lived octopus lifespan (some live as little as six months). A female octopus spends about one fourth of her life brooding and then dies (of starvation) and if that ratio holds, the Graneledone boreopacifica could live as long as twenty years….or about the length of a nautilus life span. Somebody let some mutations slip through, apparently. Perhaps there’s no reason an octopus can’t live as long as a nautilus. An incredibly smart nautilus at that. Of course, that depends on whether those mutations don’t unravel that beautifully maintained matrix of RNA edits that goes back half a billion years upon which the extraordinary sophistication of the coleoid nervous system is dependent. But a problem solving, tool using octopus could do quite a bit in a twenty year life span. Maybe in a hundred million years we’ll know. Well, we won’t. We’re terrestrial animals, and mammals, and primates, and humanoid. Ours is a tough neighborhood. All the various human species have had a million years or two and then gone extinct. It’s a rough world out here on land.

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/04/octopuses-do-something-really-strange-to-their-genes/522024/

DNA testing

So apparently if you get one of those DNA tests, they send you a chart that shows you all the percentages of what ethnicities you are. Then you get to pick out the one that is coolest and be that, as if only that little slice of your genetic heritage made you what you are. But sadly, your Cherokee great great great grandmother didn’t leave you the least bit Cherokee other than a smidgen of Cherokee genes, or your Zulu great great grandfather or the one Irish great grandmother left you neither Zulu nor Irish. Think about it like math–an eighth (your great grandparent) or a sixteenth (your great grandparent) or a 32nd (your great great great grandparent) is just a tiny little bit of you, and the other seven eighths and fifteen sixteenths and 31/32nds long ago washed out most of that inheritance. You are what you are, which is whatever most of you is, all mixed up together, blended, and poured anew into what became you after hopefully a terrific simultaneous orgasm. Your Cherokee great great great grandmother would never even recognize you as one of her own, nor would you take in anyone who said he has 1/32nd of your own genetic background. After all, there are probably hundreds just like him out there, all equally related to that same woman who was born maybe two centuries ago. Which kind of takes the shine off of those DNA tests. It’s just DNA. But it doesn’t mean you have any actually viable connection to any of your distant ancestors other than sharing some of the same genes. And many (if not most or all) of those genes would have mutated during some of those successful couplings between you and your great great great grandmother anyway, so they aren’t even all the same genes. Go back far enough, in fact, and provided you do not come from a carefully maintained line of strict inbreeding (sisters marrying brothers) there will likely not be a single genetic behavioral trait–that is, something that makes your personality distinctly you–remaining that you share directly from your very distant ancestor. The genes behind those traits have all been replaced during successful couplings since then. The raw material of genetics are there, and have always been there, since life began, but the actual genes last only so long. None of us share any of the exact same genes from critters millions of years ago that we have descended from (the synapsids, or mammal like reptiles, for instance), and none of us are passing on specific genetic traits from even several hundred years ago. Maybe your great great great grandfather from Ireland was a writer. And maybe you’re a writer. Did you inherit writing from him? Nope. Lots of people are writers. It just so happens that two people out of the 32 people in the line from your great great great grandparent to you happen to be writers. And two out of thirty-two is almost surely nothing more than coincidence. You might look like him…but then you might look like people you are not directly descended from. After all, that great great great grandfather is only one out of 32 grandparents having sex 16 specific times that gives you the DNA that, all mixed together and randomly mutated, is you. You are much more likely a writer because you had a good English teacher than because one of those 32 great great great grandparents also wrote. Culture trumps genetics in most human endeavors.

Stick with reincarnation. That gets around the whole genetics thing, saves you money on DNA testing, and maybe you slept with Shirley MacLaine in Ancient Egypt. She was a queen. You a slave boy with gumption. Torrid passions two hundred generations ago in the shadows of the pyramids. I mean why not? Though that might make you 1/1280 of yourself in a past life.

Mammal-Like Reptiles

None of my Synapsid ancestors were writers.

 

Can your car be hacked?

(2010)

Here’s something you probably never thought you’d have to worry about, (courtesy the Norton Cybercrime News which pops up on the screen here monthly and magically and a tad creepily even). Can Your Car Be Hacked? it asks, in a big bold font. Oh yeah baby:

Vehicle disablement — After a disgruntled former employee took over a Web-based vehicle-immobilization system at an Austin, Texas, car sales center, more than 100 drivers found their vehicles had been disabled or their horns were honking out of control.

Tire pressure system hacking — Researchers from the University of South Carolina and Rutgers University were able to hack into tire pressure monitoring systems. Using readily available equipment and free software, the researchers triggered warning lights and remotely tracked a vehicle through its unique monitoring system.

Disabling brakes — Researchers at the University of Washington and University of San Diego created a program that would hack into onboard computers to disable brakes and stop the engine. The researchers connected to onboard computers through ports for the cars’ diagnostic system.

Wow. More fear, icy fingered, merciless, terrifying, annoying. It just keeps piling on. Must be the recession. There are fears everywhere, some big, some little, some a disgruntled employee making my horn blare in the middle of the night or a tire pressure monitor going nuts or my brakes failing on Baxter St., plummeting me down onto the Glendale Freeway at the speed of light.

Ya know, I get the OnStar Diagnostic Report which pops up monthly and magically and a tad Star Treky which tells me what condition my car is in, including the aforesaid brakes and tire pressure (and maybe even the horn, hell I don’t know.)  I can also press a button on my rear view mirror in the middle of nowhere a thousand miles from home and some dude in OnStar World Headquarters can tell me why this or that light came on and if I am doomed or merely inconvenienced or even not to worry at all. That’s very Star Trek too. OnStar also lets me call people and yell at them over traffic noise, it helps get the schedules of two-car ferries that cross the Mississippi from the middle of nowhere Illinois to the middle of even more nowhere Missouri, and there’s a button to press when you are dying and a guy will tell you not to die.  It’s pretty cool. Cars are full of Star Trekness anymore. Or maybe Forbidden Planet, and the dudes at OnStar are the Krel, knowing and doing all for $18.95 a month, except without the Walter Pigeon voice (or Ann Francis legs.). But it never occurred to me that they could take control of my car. The whole monster of the id thing, but it’s Manny, Moe and Jack’s id. Who knows what their evil plan is. I don’t want an air freshener in my car. Especially the pina colada one. I found one hanging from my rear view after a car wash. I get in and there it is dangling, reeking to high heaven of the worst pina colada ever. There are probably bars in Ensenada that smell just like that. I did the Repo Man thing and chucked it out the window before peeling out of there. But it was too late. That cheap tropical smell took weeks to fade away. It was a piece of shit car though. I used to fill the trunk with a beaten up drum kit and play loud abrasive music in the unseemliest dives ever. Those were the days. I smell pina colada and I think of my youth. Back then no one hacked into your car except to swipe the battery. No one was stealing AM radios anymore.

And here I am, decades later, and it’s Good Friday morning and I’m wondering if some evil twerp will make my horn blare between noon and three. Or sunder my brakes on a steep street. Or just mess with my car somehow.  And I’m telling myself not to worry about it. It’ll never happen. Bad things never do to good people. Which is a lie of course and doesn’t help me at all. This didn’t happen in my parents’ 1967 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, I tell you. We controlled our own destiny then. We were masters of our own flat tire.

4/2/2010