U.S. Department of Mwa Ha Ha

From time to time in the popular science press I see something about generating electricity by placing enormous solar collectors in space and beaming the power as microwaves to special receivers on earth.

One such article, “‘Drilling Up’ — Some Look to Space for Energy,” appeared recently from the Associated Press. It describes a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Defense and the island nation of Palau to demonstrate the feasibility of receiving power from an orbiting satellite. The satellite will collect solar energy during its ninety-minute orbit, storing it up in order to beam it down to a receiver on Palau as it passes overhead. It will send a million watts of power during a five-minute window.

The article touts it as a forward-thinking alternative-energy project that will benefit at first the citizens of Palau and later the world. But nowhere in the article, or indeed in other articles of this ilk, are any red flags raised about placing in the Pentagon’s hands a solar death ray that can incinerate targets from orbit.

Now I don’t wish to impugn the Pentagon’s motives. I am sure their ambitions have everything to do with altruistically improving the standard of living for every person on earth and nothing to do with a lust for high-tech war toys. But if you or I built something that could store up three hundred million joules of energy and then deliver it all in a five-minute burst to any spot on earth, you could forgive the people of the world harboring a little concern.

You’d think that science writers could follow the technological implications of the things they write about. Hell, for this story all they need to do is watch some James Bond.

From Die Another Day

What brings you here, 2007 edition

Here are some of the top queries from various search engines that resulted in hits on my blog during the past year or so, reproduced verbatim from my server logs. (Last year’s results are here.) Each related family of queries is listed with a main variant in bold and selected other variants, plus the percentage of query-hits represented by that family.

I was at first surprised to see that hits for “James Bond villains” outnumbers hits for “vampire lesbian girl scouts” (etc.) and “sex” (etc.) combined, but then realized: the percentages are a function both of the popularity of that search and of the ranking of my site in the search results. In other words, if you’re looking for anything about vampires or lesbians or sex I regret to say there are a lot of likelier websites for you to visit before mine.

James Bond villains; The Villains of bond; deformed bond villains; “james bond” +villains +clothes 10.2%
William H. Macy; william h macy photos; face de William H. Macy 5.0%
Vampire lesbian girl scouts; lesbian vampires; naked lesbians; lesbian girl scouts; naked girl scouts; kissing lesbian girls; zombie girl scouts; evil girlscouts; girl scout decorated cake 4.5%
Sex etc.; horsey style sex; lesbian masturbation; “sex positions illustrated”; vampire sex; lesbians having hot lesbian sex; lesbian sex soundeffect; “San Francisco Masturbate-a-thon”; squat girl masturbate -cock -man -boy -blow; dildo attached to wall; sex positions kitty style; attach dildo to floor; How to convince my lady staf for sex?; sex positions in alphanumeric; “park and ride” “sex positions illustrated” 3.2%
Jaws ride; Jaws ride construction; jaws hitchcock 3.1%
e to the i pi plus one; pi relation to e; mathematical constant e Euler comic; relating pi, e, 1 and 0; “amazing relationship” e pi 2.3%
Don Fanucci; vito corleone fanucci 2.3%
Honeybee/Bees in chimney; humming sound when close glass fireplace doors; honeybees in chimney; bees in fireplace; bees chimney flying down 2.2%
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Pirates of the Caribbean; pirate medallion; does elizabeth swann love jack sparrow; elizabeth swann’s red dress; jack sparrow character motivation 2.1%
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Godfather; Godfather part II poster; Godfather Part 4: Fredo’s Revenge 1.8%
Susan Oliver/Orion Slave Girl; vina star trek; star trek green orion slave; nude Orion slave girl; orion slave girls makeup; orion slave girls color correction 1.7%
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Bob Glickstein; gee bobg; “bob glickstein” +yoga; bob glickstein andrea; bob glickstein imdb; growing up Glickstein 1.4%
Trophy; ugly trophy; dna trophy; bezos trophy 1.3%
Dog; how to draw dogs; “remington dog park”; dog pee drives away evil spirits; veterinary dogs and chocolate 1.3%
Lulav; lulav and etrog; big picture of a lulav and etrog; lulav by its self; lulav etrog chabad; sukkot lulav without etrog 1.3%
Star Trek/Enterprise/Kirk/etc.; spock uhura; Uhura uniform; 60 star trek uniform; bonk bonk on the head star trek; Captain Kirk’s Insignia; enterprise blueprints; happy birthday star trek; Klingons-Star Trek; Atheist Star Trek; 1.2%
Amy Linker; what happened to amy linker; amy linker and tv land awards 1.1%
Jodie Foster; jodie foster bugsy malone; YOUNG JODIE FOSTER; +”give a little love and it all comes back to you” +foster 1.1%
Joseph Costanzo; joe costanzo restaurant; Joseph costanzo primadonna 1.1%
The end of Superman; superman reverse time; superman in the end; superman earth spinning; can superman go the speed of light; how many times can superman fly around earth in 1 second; +”it is forbidden for you to interfere in human history”; superman rewind time; how many times does superman fly around the earth in order to reverse its rotation 1.0%
Frank Pentangeli; frank pentangeli hit; roth corleone Frank Pentangeli assassination; frank pentangeli johnny ola 1.0%
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Evil cats 0.8%
Food photography; food stylist; food styling “pasta”; food stylists cereal; food stylist burger; tricks of a food stylist 0.8%
Each daughter has the same number…; In a certain family each daughter has the same number of brothers and sisters. Each son has twice as many sisters as brothers. How many sons and daughters are there in the family? Now there are two ways to do this obviously, you can do it the hard way or the easy way. 0.8%
Fizzies; what ever happened to fizzies drink tablets; how do fizzies work; fizzies that are new; Fizzie tablet sex aid; truckload of fizzies; FIZZIES FOUNTAIN 0.7%
James Bond; vintage james bond girls; james bond toys; the bond men; Live and Let Die Band James Bond 0.7%
Pez museum; pez incredibles violet; batman pez dispensers; pez guns; why didnt violet parr become a pez machine; headless PEZ dispensers 0.7%
Vincent Price; old photos of Vincent Price; Vincent Price gay; “the saint” vincent price; 0.5%
Candy; old time candy; “dylan’s candy bar”; Candy of yesteryear 0.5%
Entenmann’s; golden cake; entenmanns’ chocolate chip filled crumb cake recipe; entenmann fudge golden cake 0.5%
Adam Stoller; why i owe adam stoller an apology; fish adam stoller 0.5%
MoveOn; moveon.org bad; moveon.org founder; move away from moveon.org; moveon endorsements nov 2007 election 0.5%
Vertical speed indicator/Altimeter; static port; instrument dial Concorde speed; how does an altimeter work; pitot static instruments; ram air pressure pitot; how does the vsi work? flying 0.5%
Cigarettes/Camels/Still Life With Woodpecker; Joe Camel; tom robbins woodpecker; camel tom robbins 0.5%
Baron Munchausen; was baron munchausen an atheist 0.5%
Sharon Stone; sharon stone naked; sharon stone’ pictures, 1970; sharon stone en lingerie fine 0.5%
Computer; computers internet blog; “apple II home computer” 0.4%
xkcd; xkcd complex numbers; calculus xkcd; math xkcd 0.4%
Bob Falfa/Martin Stett; big bob falfa; purchase a bob falfa hat; falfa and milner 0.4%
Adrift/Open Water 2; “open water 2” true story tried everything; understand explain open water 2:adrift ending?; FORGOT TO LOWER LADDER ON YACHT 0.4%
Honda Fit; finding a honda fit; pre order “honda fit” bay area; vw rabbit or honda fit? 0.4%
Carl Sagan; “carl sagan” +billions; cosmos carl sagan vangelis heaven hell; “circumference of the earth” carl sagan; eratosthenes carl sagan; Carl Sagan and Star Trek 0.4%
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The Incredibles; Life Lessons The Incredibles; incredibles analogy of family togetherness 0.3%
Legobiggest lego city ever made; Cool lego creations; LEGO WORLD RECORD FOR MILLENIUM FALCON 0.3%
Birthday invitation; neverland invitation 0.3%
Mill Valley Pediatrics; what new rule causes pediatrician to close office; dr. Harris pediatrics mill valley 0.3%
BDSM; BDSM and rodent; hellium balloons bdsm; bdsm “trembling with fear”; professional bdsm pittsburgh; bdsm vanity plates 0.3%
Richard S. Castellano 0.3%
Bugsy Malone/Scott Baio; coca cola jingle+you give a little love and all comes back to you 0.3%
Games magazine/Calculatrivia marathon; ken jennings calculatrivia; “games magazine” contest t-shirt 0.3%
Penis; Jonah Falcon penis; christmas penis drawing; penis peeing pictures; penis doodles; “draw a penis” 0.3%
Drawing/scribbling/doodling; kids scribbles 0.3%
Raiders of the Lost Ark; indiana jones medallion + raiders of the lost ark; indiana jones finds millenium falcon; indiana jones harrison ford sean connery 0.3%
I know it was you Fredo.; Johnny Ola Fredo; HOW DOES MICHAEL KNOW ABOUT FREDO; +”why” +michael +kill +fredo 0.3%
Federation Trading Post 0.2%
Funny epitaph; headstone humor; headstone for mom 0.2%
Batman; shark repellent spray; batman and the shark; batman robin “more toyetic” 0.2%
Handshadow; Hand-Shadow play 0.2%
Peter and the Starcatchers 0.2%
Watch neighbor undress; neighbor undress photo 0.2%
Lemon Ice King of Corona; queens ices 0.2%
Weight; weight graph; college freshman weight graph; jewish weight loss 0.2%
Marty Goldstein/Black Book; ‘marty goldstein’ ‘creative black book’; i remember going to the black book office zanetti 0.2%
Kinds of meat; meatballs three kinds of meat 0.2%
Fligth to Mars 0.2%
Supertanker; how much does a supertanker cost?; how many barrels of oil does a supertanker carry; how much money does a supertanker captain make; running costs for a supertanker; becoming a supertanker captain; supertankers are curved 0.2%
Jewish; jew obnoxious; jewish products; mormon jew; mountain jew; val kilmer sephardic jewish 0.2%
Cartelligent; Leigh Taylor, Cartelligent; cartelligent price for honda fit 0.2%
Sweetener; hooray sweetener; cyclamates popularity sodas; Is Cyclamates good for you; sodium bicarbonate sweetener cancer 0.2%
Captain Morgan rum 0.2%
Gerald Zanetti 0.2%
Bush smile 0.2%
Salt Lake flats; nevada open salt lake 0.2%
Disney; disney+AND+fingerprint; disney park hopper fingerprint; thumper disney 0.2%
Koyaanisqatsi 0.2%
Katharine Hepburn 0.2%
Incremental backup; jungledisk incremental backups; s3 backup incremental mirror linux; simple linux incremental backups; infinite backup 0.2%
Rhymes with Bethany; bethany accident utah; something that rhymes with bethany; poem for bethany 0.1%
Sci-fi spaceships; cool Scifi Spaceships; most beautiful spaceships 0.1%
I Dream of Jeannie; healey irresistible to when i dream of jeannie episode; i dream of jeanie colorization 0.1%
Laundry; how to get quarters laundry; cold undissolved laundry soap; monopolize laundry machines; laundry pile 0.1%
Anakin/Padme; How much do Anakin’s talent, pride and ambitions affect his decisions to turn to ‘the dark side’? 0.1%
Making Mr. Right; malkovich “making mr right” 0.1%
Pop-culture grid; “the pop culture grid”+last concert you saw 0.1%
Adventurer’s Inn; toboggan adventurer’s inn 0.1%
Clemenza; young clemenza; who killed clemenza 0.1%
Glenne Headley 0.1%
1776/“Yours Yours Yours” 0.1%
Nature of reality; 10 dimensions of reality; how to understand ten dimensional reality; three-dimensional pants 0.1%
Dunk tank; “spring carnival” dunk 0.1%
Misconstruction 0.1%
Sarah Jessica Parker; sarah jessica parker in square pegs 0.1%
Mr. Arrigo; Robert arrigo teacher 0.1%
Eli Attie 0.1%
Hog-calling time in Nebraska; What tune is hog calling time in nebraska sung to?; ORIGINS OF HOG CALLING; hog calling songs 0.1%
Eulogy for a friend 0.1%
Indiana University; indiana university hofstadter 0.1%
Cynthia Nixon; Cynthia Nixon manhattan project 0.1%
Pine Knoll Bungalow Colony; bungalow colonies in monticello 0.1%
Prison Break; prisoner 94941; michael scofield myer briggs; “prisoner number” scofield 0.1%
Winnemucca, NV; Winnemucca weekly pet friendly motels; reasons to love Winnemucca, NV 0.1%
Steve Volan 0.1%
P.S. 196; all teachers from p.s.196 0.1%
Knish Nosh; knish nosh health department 0.1%
Mucoshave 0.1%
Laser/Theodore Maiman; 1966 national geographic “the laser’s bright magic”; what kind of food does theodore maiman likes; did theodore maiman get alot of money for making the laser 0.1%
Universal Hall Pass 0.1%

The beginning of wisdom

[This post is participating in Strange Culture’s Film + Faith Blog-a-thon. Warning: spoilers follow for the book and film Contact. Update 16 Dec: this post is also participating in Joel Schlosberg’s second annual Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-thon.]

I read Carl Sagan‘s novel, Contact, soon after it was published in the late 1980’s, and enjoyed it greatly. It’s the story of a radio astronomer, Ellie Arroway, who is the first person on Earth to detect, verify, and begin deciphering a genuine extraterrestrial message.

A considerable part of the story is devoted to the societal implications of Arroway’s discovery, especially among various religious communities. As it’s depicted in the book, Ellie must suffer various crackpots, blowhards, and garden-variety religious leaders (well-meaning but deluded) spouting their superstitious blather in her quest to secure the resources needed to finish decoding the alien transmission and build the Great Machine.

For the transmission includes, among other things, construction plans for a tremendous and tremendously complicated machine. At its center is a capsule that seats five intrepid adventurers. No one knows what will happen when the machine is switched on. Will the capsule launch into space? Travel through time? Pop into a different dimension? Or is it a weapon that will obliterate the Earth?

The trials involved in achieving the goal of building and activating the Machine are portrayed very much as the power of pure reason overcoming the fetters of fear and ignorance. In the end, Ellie and her fellow travelers are propelled across vast distances and have a surprising encounter with a superior but benevolent race. When they return days later, they discover that no time has elapsed on Earth, leaving a diehard core of doubters free to insist that nothing at all happened, even though there is compelling evidence to support the stories told by Ellie and the others. Science is the clear winner, religion the loser, and it’s pure wish fulfillment: what atheist hasn’t dreamed of winning one of those unwinnable arguments about faith and science against a true believer?

In Robert Zemeckis’ film version of Contact, things are subtly different. Ellie is as much an empiricist as in the book, but man-of-God Palmer Joss is much less easy to dismiss out of hand. His interplay with Ellie on the subject of faith leaves her uncharacteristically at a loss, unable to turn him aside by articulating the bedrock principles of skeptical inquiry.

When the time comes to try the Machine, crucially there is room in it for only one person, so that when Ellie returns from her amazing journey there is no one to corroborate her account. There is also a total absence of physical evidence to support her story. Ellie ends up passionately, desperately trying to persuade people to believe what she is certain is true but cannot prove. Palmer Joss sympathetically points out that this is precisely the situation in which persons of faith find themselves.

It’s a marvelous storytelling contrivance, and the dialogue and performances drive the point home economically and convincingly. But I left the theater conflicted. On the one hand, the film had excellent performances and astonishing visuals, it was exhilarating to see an intelligent, uncliched portrayal of science and scientists in a mainstream Hollywood movie, and it was in many respects faithful to the novel. Where changes were made, by and large they were to add some emotional depth that had been missing from Sagan’s plot- and technology-heavy writing. On the other hand, the rebalancing of science and religion changed what the story was fundamentally about! It offended me that Carl Sagan, recently deceased after a lifetime of science advocacy (today would have been his 73rd birthday, by the way), should have his fantasy about the triumph of humanism and reason watered down for a mass audience!

Over time, though, the film version grew on me and I recognized it as something greater than the source novel: an adventure in which reason triumphs and an exploration of the tangled interrelationship between belief and skepticism. Where I had been hoping to see religious moviegoers get schooled in the virtues of rational thought, instead I had received a lesson about the nuances and complexities of the human experience. The science-beats-religion version of the story had become, to me, overly simplistic. (Sorry, Carl.)

After all, even Mr. Spock admits, near the end of a long career working with humans, that “logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”

Webmaster deletes leaf node

Webmaster deletes leaf node, then performs some site maintenance.

Save the world with Admiral Bob

Recently I read a NewScientist article about changes in rainfall patterns due to global warming, and it predicted the usual depressing outcomes in the medium to long term: famine, disease, war, immense human suffering.

Then three thoughts occurred to me: 1) a very large amount of the world’s freshwater is lost in the form of rain that falls at sea; 2) meanwhile, enormous petroleum supertankers ply those very same seas; 3) in some places, people pay more per liter for bottled water than they do for gasoline.

These thoughts were synthesized into a pretty freakin’ awesome idea: deploy a fleet of supertankers harvesting rainwater. They would use weather radar to hunt the heaviest precipitation (and the stormiest seas, like as not — only the hardiest sailors need apply). Any rain falling on their decks could be funneled straight into the holding tanks. I’m not sure how you’d keep seawater out of the tanks, as waves would frequently break over the deck of the ship in stormy seas, but that seems like a surmountable engineering detail.

Does it make economic sense to harvest rainwater this way? Let’s start by assuming it’s economical to transport petroleum by supertanker. (A safe assumption.) The retail price of a gallon of gasoline here in Northern California is presently right around three dollars. I don’t know how much crude oil goes into a gallon of gasoline, but for our very rough calculations it’s simplest and safe to say a gallon of gasoline equals a gallon of crude.

That three dollars per gallon we pay at the pump has to cover a lot of oil-industry expenses that a freshwater industry would not have: refineries, research, exploration, and drilling, not to mention giant slush funds for dealing with corrupt foreign regimes. And oil-industry tankers must be double-hulled to protect against spills. Freshwater tankers can be single-hulled.

On the other hand, whereas the oil industry can use their supertankers simply to transport millions of barrels of oil from one place directly to another, a freshwater fleet would have to roam at sea for a while until it contained enough water to make a delivery. This is an operational expense the oil industry does not have. How long must a freshwater supertanker follow rainstorms around until it is full? According to Wikipedia, a supertanker named the TI Asia has a depth (height) of 112 feet. Let’s guess that the tanks it contains are 60 feet high. For simplicity, let’s further assume these tanks have a uniform width — they don’t taper at the bottom or anything like that. This means that the ship must collect 60 feet of rain to fill its tanks — possibly less if a catch area much wider than the tanks themselves can be funneled into them. How long would it take to collect that much rain, if you’re always steering into the heaviest rainfall? Let’s guess that a good freshwater supertanker captain can expect an average of four inches of rain per day. That’s six months at sea to fill the freshwater tanks.

How much does it cost to have a supertanker crisscrossing the bounding main for six months? I have no idea, but let’s keep guessing and say that that cost roughly offsets the petroleum-industry-only costs I listed above (drilling, bribes, etc). This means that the fleet could deliver freshwater for about three dollars per gallon, which is about 79 cents per liter, which is very reasonable compared to the prices paid per liter of bottled water in many places threatened by future global-warming droughts.

The TI Asia can carry half a billion gallons of oil. If a comparable freshwater supertanker can carry an equal volume of water (which is not certain, since water is heavier than oil), then it can deliver a year’s worth of drinking water for a million people. Half a billion gallons is also equal to 1,534 acre-feet, enough water to irrigate 736 acres of crops for a year, but that sounds much less impressive, and at a cost of almost a million dollars per acre-foot, it’s nowhere near competitive.

Would I like to be the admiral of a fleet of freshwater supertankers saving the world? Hell yeah. For many weeks after this idea came to me, I kept it to myself. But then I looked at my pile of ideas-to-implement-someday, and the large subset of those that are in the category no-idea-how-to-get-started (which includes this one), and decided the world needs this idea more than I do. So, one of you reading this: get started. Just do me a favor and christen the first ship the gee bobg.

Do mosquitoes still whine?

One night during the summer of 1977, my parents left me in charge in our bungalow while my sister slept and they went out together for a couple of hours. I stayed up, enjoying the stillness and the sound of crickets coming from outside, and (though I don’t specifically recall) more than likely re-reading Star Wars.

My repose was shattered by a faint high-pitched whine at the very edge of hearing. Eeeeeeeeeeee… a mosquito, buzzing in my ear!

I jumped up and spun around, trying to spot it. It landed on the wall. I smashed it; whew. I sat back down and resumed reading.

A few minutes later: Eeeeeeeeeeee! Jump up, hunt, smash, sit down. And then: Eeeeeeeeeeee! Jump up, hunt, smash, sit down. And again. And again. I started keeping count. I could no longer read. I was on heightened alert. Each time I sat back down I could only dart my eyes around the room, trying to spot the next mosquito, heart pounding, ears straining.

I had no particular fear of mosquitoes or of mosquito bites. I even sort of enjoyed getting them — they were so satisfying to scratch. (Even now, my worry about such things as West Nile virus is not very great.) But something about hearing them zeroing in on me made me crazy. They had to be destroyed.

By the time my parents came back, they found me in a wild-eyed feral state. I had annihilated seventy of the little bastards (this I do specifically recall) and was still hunting for more.

Fast-forward thirty years. I live on a different coast, in a different climate. There are still mosquitoes in summertime in Northern California, but nothing like there were in Monticello, New York. As recently as this past spring, the sound of “Eeeeeeeeeeee…” in the middle of the night could still rouse me from deep slumber all the way to frantic alertness in a single instant.

But I didn’t hear that sound all summer, though over the past few months I’ve spotted and swatted a goodly number of mosquitoes.

I know and accept the reality of age-related hearing loss, especially in high frequencies. In fact I’m almost too accepting of age-related decline. Soon after I turned forty last year, I got my first pair of prescription eyeglasses — after a quarter-century of expecting to need some any day now, but still not, as it turns out, needing them at all.

Still, I’m having a hard time accepting that these mosquitoes are keening their high-pitched whine as usual. After all, I can hear the famous “Mosquito” ringtones that made their way around the Internet recently. Can it be that we’ve had silent mosquitoes flying around? Is it possible I lost my hearing at only the precise frequency that mosquitoes emit?

Whatever the explanation, I look forward to no longer being jolted awake in the middle of the night just because a tiny insect wants a drop of my blood. Go ahead, drink up. Just be quiet about it.

All these worlds are yours except Earth

Amid all the mystery and worry surrounding the recent, ongoing disappearance of large numbers of honeybees, I have not heard any mention of the 1983 film WarGames. Remember? Stephen Falken, the retired computer genius who’s strangely sanguine in the face of nuclear annihilation, tells Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy,

Once upon a time, there lived a magnificent race of animals that dominated the world through age after age. They ran, they swam, and they fought and they flew, until suddenly, quite recently, they disappeared. Nature just gave up and started again. We weren’t even apes then. We were just these smart little rodents hiding in the rocks. And when we go, nature will start over. With the bees, probably.

The bees are not dead. They are hiding. (Possibly in my chimney.) They are organizing. They are flexing their tiny but oh-so-busy bee muscles. This is a little show of power they’re putting on to demonstrate how dependent we are on them. If we disappeared tomorrow, what would they care? But if they disappear, we’re screwed, and they want us to know it. Who’s in charge of whom?

I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.

No place for common sense

Not that this is especially deserving of a reasoned rebuttal:

Peanut butter disproves evolution

…A (serious) Creationist clip showing how peanut butter disproves the theory of evolution…

The video explains that evolutionists claim that energy plus matter sometimes results in the creation of life. But since no one has ever found spontaneously-generated life in a jar of peanut butter, that means that matter plus energy from the sun couldn’t have caused life on Earth… Link

…but I just happened to have one handy in some old e-mail. An outspoken creationist friend of mine wrote:

there are over 200 million different species on this planet. Since each is (presumably) evolving differently and over time, it seems reasonable to expect that one, only one, just one tiny one, of these 200,000,000 species would have “sprouted wings” in the last 150 years

where I understood “sprouted wings” to mean “underwent a significant, observable evolutionary change.” That may be a common sense outlook, but this is no place for common sense. Common sense breaks down when dealing with fantastically large numbers and fantastically small odds. Here is how I replied:

Let’s say the earth is 4.5 billion years old, and it took all that time to produce 200 million existing species. (We’ll treat the many other species that have come and gone as statistical fluctuations.) That’s 0.044 species per year on average. Over 150 years you should then expect to see the emergence of 6.67 new species on average, which is .00000334% of the total number of species. Easy to miss.

Let’s do it another way: 0.044 species per year is 22.5 years per species — that is, we should expect a new species every 22.5 years. Assuming each of the existing 200 million species is equally likely to spawn that new species, each species must wait an average of 3.12 billion years to have a 50-50 chance of creating a successor.



1-1/200000000 is 0.999999995, which are the odds of a species not spawning a new species in one year. 0.999999995×0.999999995 are the odds of not spawning a new species for two years in a row; 0.999999995×0.999999995×0.999999995 are the odds of not spawning a new species for three years in a row; and so on. How many times must you multiply 0.999999995 by itself to get to odds of 0.5? That’s what log1-1/2000000000.5 tells you.)

That’s by no means a rigorous analysis — it’s full of extremely coarse assumptions, among other things — but it should be at least accurate enough to convey the vastness of the timescales involved, the number of species, and the odds against having any particular evolutionary expectation met.

Or, as Darryl Zero said,

Now a few words on looking for things. When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad, because of all the things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good, because of all the things in the world, you’re sure to find some of them.

East is east and west is… wet?

For my first twenty-six years I lived near the East Coast: first in New York City for eighteen years, and then in Pittsburgh for eight.

After that I moved to California and encountered a strange phenomenon: my sense of direction kept getting confounded by having the ocean on the wrong side!

Though I almost never saw the ocean in New York other than when I went to the beach, and of course never ever saw the ocean in Pittsburgh, I still unconsciously navigated by the knowledge that where the ocean was, was east. After getting to California, though again I seldom actually saw the ocean, I had a lot of trouble adjusting to the knowledge that where the ocean was, was now west. In fact, for a while I made a conscious effort to think not of the nearby Pacific Ocean but of the distant Atlantic for purposes of orienting myself around the Bay Area. (And, that worked.)

What makes this interesting is that, years later, I discovered that other East-Coast transplantees had encountered the same strange phenomenon.

I wonder what the larger significance of this phenomenon could be, if there is one. Does it belie some innate primal connection we all have to the sea? Is it related somehow to the way migrating birds navigate by the shapes of shorelines? If there were no ocean nearby but there was a major mountain peak, would I unconsciously relate my position to that instead?

A scientific hypothesis

A short time ago, Slater, our neighbor’s cat, appeared in our backyard. I went out to say hi and pet him. I spent only a couple of minutes, in part because of being very busy with work and in part because of my severe cat allergy.

An allergy is an overreaction of the immune system to some stimulus. On this occasion I wondered: maybe my immune system is not overreacting, but merely reacting — possibly to the threat of infection by Toxoplasma gondii! Perhaps my cat allergy is just a sign that my immune system is more evolved than the immune systems of those who aren’t allergic and are therefore more susceptible to T. gondii infection.

Do cat allergies in fact protect sufferers against T. gondii? If so, are we, as a group, less likely to exhibit the personality traits associated with T. gondii infection?

If the answer to both questions is “yes,” we might expect to see a correlation between cat allergies and an increased likelihood to vote Democratic.