Monster gator in Florida

Readers Michael (and contributor Matthew Cobb) sent a video of a monster American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) crossing a path near Tampa, Florida. It was estimated to be 13-15 feet long, but they can get up to 20 feet.

As you can imagine, it’s gone viral on social media.

The lichen story and the guy who revised it

A story I wrote in July of last year described a huge change in our understanding of one of the best known cases of symbiosis: the view that a lichen is a symbiotic partnership between a fungus and an alga. That happens to be true—the alga photosynthesizes, producing food for the fungus, while the fungus provides support, water, and minerals for the alga. But there’s more.

The alga/fungus partnership was discovered in 1868 by the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener, and it’s what all of us who took biology were taught—until last year. For that’s when a paper came out in Science by Toby Spribille et al. (see my summary of it here) showing that there was a third partner in the symbiosis: another fungus, but a basidiomycete (a group that includes yeasts) along with the well-known ascomycete (the two groups of fungi diverged about 400 million years ago),

A piece by Ed Yong in last year’s Atlantic, called to my attention by reader Hempenstein, tells how Spribille, raised in a trailer park in Montana, came to the discovery that overturned over 150 years of conventional wisdom.  It’s a cool tale, involving sequencing the genome of two lichens that seemed to involve the same species of ascomycete fungus but one of which appeared to contain basiodiomycete genes as well.  The failure to recognize this third partner in the relationship explains why scientists had encountered difficulties trying to make synthetic lichens by combining the constituent ascomycete and alga in the lab. They were simply missing a partner.

Of course Spribille wasn’t working by himself: there are 12 other authors on the Science paper describing the finding. And we’re not sure if all lichens have these three constituents: so far Spribille has found this situation to obtain in most of the “macrolichens”, but not all of them. And there are other groups of lichens that haven’t yet been examined. Finally, this whole revision may lead to a revision of what each of the partners provides for the others. Clearly the algal role is well defined, but what about the two types of fungi?

At any rate, the story shows the surprises that await us, and how easily long-established paradigms can change in an instant—especially now that we have the ability to sequence DNA. I’ll give just one excerpt from Yong’s piece, “How a guy from a Montana trailer park overturned 150 years of biology”. (I have to say that’s a bit clickbait-y given that Spribille did get a Ph.D. and did his work in a great lab (the McCutcheon group) working on symbiosis; and, moreover, it was a collaboration and not just the work of one guy.)

Down a microscope, a lichen looks like a loaf of ciabatta: it has a stiff, dense crust surrounding a spongy, loose interior. The alga is embedded in the thick crust. The familiar ascomycete fungus is there too, but it branches inwards, creating the spongy interior. And the basidiomycetes? They’re in the outermost part of the crust, surrounding the other two partners. “They’re everywhere in that outer layer,” says Spribille.

Despite their seemingly obvious location, it took around five years to find them. They’re embedded in a matrix of sugars, as if someone had plastered over them. To see them, Spribille bought laundry detergent from Wal-Mart and used it to very carefully strip that matrix away.

And even when the basidiomycetes were exposed, they weren’t easy to identify. They look exactly like a cross-section from one of the ascomycete branches. Unless you know what you’re looking for, there’s no reason why you’d think there are two fungi there, rather than one—which is why no one realised for 150 years. Spribille only worked out what was happening by labeling each of the three partners with different fluorescent molecules, which glowed red, green, and blue respectively. Only then did the trinity become clear.

Here’s a photo from the science paper showing the yeasts:

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(from paper): Figure from paper. (A) B. fremontii, with (B) few FISH-hybridized live yeast cells at the level of the cortex. (C) B. tortuosa, with (D) abundant FISH-hybridized cortical yeast cells (scale bars, 20 μm).

And the mysteries that remain:

“But really, we don’t know what they do,” says McCutcheon. “And given their existence, we don’t really know what the ascomycetes do, either.” Everything that’s been attributed to them might actually be due to the other fungus. Many of the fundamentals of lichenology will need to be checked, and perhaps re-written. “Toby took huge risks for many years,” says McCutcheon. “And he changed the field.”

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A macrolichen. (Source here).

Eight people have as much money as the poorest half of the world

When I talked to Dave Rubin yesterday morning, he asked me, if Americans are so resistant to the facts of evolution, what could I do to get people to accept it as truth? I told him that we’d have to get rid of those forms of religion (read: most religions) that make people resistant to evolution, and to do that would require mitigating the conditions that promote religion: social dysfunction. I added this: “If I could wave my hands and make two social changes in the world (besides dispelling religion) that would promote the acceptance of evolution, it would be to reduce income inequality and install universal medical care.” Those, I think, would go a long way toward reducing the need for religion and therefore the resistance to evolution, but of course their salubrious effects would be far more important than just getting people to accept evolution. Creationism is a long shot from being the worst thing that religion does.

Rubin looked a bit startled when I talked about income inequality, and asked me if I meant that everyone should have the same income. (He’s a libertarian, and I doubt that libertarians would favor that.). I quickly added that, no, I don’t favor everybody making the same wage, but that something had to be done to raise up the poorest people in the world, and perhaps pare down the exorbitant amount of money that the hyper-rich make, perhaps by increasing taxes.

And, shortly thereafter, I read a story in USA Today taken from an Oxfam report (“An economy for the 99%”; see also the PuffHo report) which gives data on the dire nature of income inequality in the world and the devastation it wreaks on well-being. The Oxfam report, for examples, says these things (my emphasis)

  • Since 2015, the richest 1% has owned more wealth than the rest of the planet.
  • Eight men now own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world.
  • Over the next 20 years, 500 people will hand over $2.1 trillion to their heirs – a sum larger than the GDP of India, a country of 1.3 billion people.
  • The incomes of the poorest 10% of people increased by less than $3 a year between 1988 and 2011, while the incomes of the richest 1% increased 182 times as much.
  • A FTSE-100 CEO earns as much in a year as 10,000 people in working in garment factories in Bangladesh.
  • In the US, new research by economist Thomas Piketty shows that over the last 30 years the growth in the incomes of the bottom 50% has been zero, whereas incomes of the top 1% have grown 300%
  • In Vietnam, the country‟s richest man earns more in a day than the poorest person earns in 10 years.

Left unchecked, growing inequality threatens to pull our societies apart. It increases crime and insecurity, and undermines the fight to end poverty. 10 It leaves more people living in fear and fewer in hope.

Frankly, I was startled to read this, particularly the bit in bold. Granted, people like Gates and now Zuckerberg give a lot of their money to good causes, but few of the rich (i.e., Trump) have Gates’s sense of obligation. I’m not sure yet where I come down on the issue of inheritance (the third point). There is inheritance tax, but some think that nobody should be allowed to give any of their wealth to their offspring. (After all, the human trait that shows the most “heritability”—fidelity of transmission from parent to offspring—is not height or IQ but wealth, which of course is not a genetic trait at all.) But many people work just so they can create a family legacy, and leave their children better off. Readers can weigh in below on all of this, but particularly on taxing the ultra-rich and on the laws of inheritance.

Here are the RICHEST EIGHT; how many can you name? (Answer below.)

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The Ultra Rich in the pictures above (text from PuffHo):

Six of these billionaires, from Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people, are American entrepreneurs: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Berkshire Hathaway chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Rounding out the list are Carlos Slim, the Mexican tycoon, and Amancio Ortega, the Spanish founder of a retail conglomerate that includes clothing chain Zara. Together their net wealth ― assets minus debts ― amounts to $426 billion.

Their wealth (from USA Today): Bill Gates ($75 billion, source of wealth Microsoft); Amancio Ortega ($67 billion, Zara); Warren Buffett ($60.8 billion, Berkshire Hathaway); Carlos Slim Helu ($50 billion, Telecom); Jeff Bezos ($45.2 billion, Amazon);  Mark Zuckerberg($44.6 billion, Facebook); Larry Ellison ($43.6 billion, Oracle); and Michael Bloomberg($40 billion, Bloomberg LP).

 

h/t: Randy

Turkish government removes evolution from nation’s high-school curriculum

“I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea. He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap. My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth and the teachings of science. Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will; every man can follow his own conscience, provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him against the liberty of his fellow-men.” —Kemal Atatürk

President Recep Erdoğan’s dismantling of Turkey’s secularism continues, and this time it’s personal.

Several sources, including Turkish Minute and SolInternational report that the Turkish Education Ministry has removed a chapter on evolution from a 12th-grade textbook. The earlier chapter was called “The beginning of life and evolution,” but, beginning with the 2017/2018 school year, it’s been replaced by a chapter called titled “Living creatures and the environment.” I seriously doubt that this is just a change of title; all indications of what’s happening in Turkey suggests that this will be either a pro-creationist chapter or one that questions the truth of evolution. After all, this is all part of Erdoğan’s drive to make Turkey an Islamic theocracy, and the Qur’an (which is often read literally, and has a purely creationist description of human origins) has no truck with evolution. While the modern theory of evolution is taught in some Muslim countries, in many the topic is simply off limits.

SolInternational reports, in English that’s a bit fractured,

The debates around whether to exclude Evolution Theory and include Intelligent Design model has been escalating recently. Responding to a question on the exclusion of Evolution Theory from the curriculum, the Minister of National Education, İsmet Yılmaz said that the draft is open for feedbacks, and the Evolution Theory is not an exception. Yılmaz claimed that “whether it is scientific, merely a hypothesis, or just theoretical, all these are debatable.”

The AKP government [Erdoğan’s party] had long been attempting to transform the education system and curriculum in line with Islamic principles and credo. In 2012, weight of Religion courses had been increased from 2 to 6 hours a week. In 2013, the government had made a regulation, which let the Intelligent Design model to be included in the curriculum beside the Evolution Theory.

There are other changes as well:

– Information about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, is being reduced in the first grade.

. . . On January 5, pro-AKP teachers’ union Eğitim-Bir-Sen has suggested that courses related to Atatürk should be removed from school curriculums. The union’s statement came after the Education Ministry announced that it had concluded efforts at renovating the schedule. 

You can read my appreciation of Atatürk here. As you can see from the quote at the top, he was secularist, a reformer, and an atheist whose legacy is being systematically dismantled by the new government. What we are seeing in Turkey, and which is verified by my friends there, is a metastasizing Islamization of the country. The elimination of evolution is one aspect of this, but of course that tactic, while removing an important aspect of knowledge from the Turkish curriculum, will do far less damage than the increasing repression of women, muting of freedom of speech, and jailing of opponents. Many of us who have spent time in Turkey love that country, and weep for what’s happening to it now. Going back to secularism seems an impossible task.

h/t: Stephen Muth

Trump enters office with lowest approval rating of any recent President: 40%!

In just three days we’re going to have to choke out the words “President Trump”. And while there’s a small and deluded group of people who really do think they can prevent his taking office, I’m betting on his inauguration on Friday. (Of course, I bet about $500 that he wasn’t going to win in the first place!). At any rate, CNN reports that he’s coming into office with an extraordinarily low approval rating for a new President: only four out of ten Americans show approval. As CNN reported in an email:

Donald Trump will become president Friday with an approval rating of just 40%, according to a new CNN/ORC Poll, the lowest of any recent president and 44 points below that of President Barack Obama, the 44th president. 

Following a tumultuous transition period, approval ratings for Trump’s handling of the transition are more than 20 points below those for any of his three most recent predecessors. Obama took the oath in 2009 with an 84% approval rating, 67% approved of Clinton’s transition as of late December 1992 and 61% approved of George W. Bush’s transition just before he took office in January 2001.

 

Trump’s wobbly handling of the presidential transition has left most Americans with growing doubts that the President-elect will be able to handle the job. About 53% say Trump’s statements and actions since Election Day have made them less confident in his ability to handle the presidency, and the public is split evenly on whether Trump will be a good or poor president (48% on each side).

 

I have little doubt that many readers here share my fear about what is to come. The Congress is Republican in both houses, we’re going to have a right-wing replacement for Antonin Scalia, the President is an egomaniacal bully with no real sign that he cares about America, and, to be frank, I don’t think he’s fully compos mentis. Moreover, he’s the one man in this country who can order the deployment of nuclear weapons. 

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Readers’ wildlife photos

How about some wildflowers today to remind us of the spring that is coming up in the Northern Hemisphere? These come from reader Mike McDowell, and his notes are indented (his website and gallery are here):

Even during intense insect missions (tiger beetles, robber flies, etc.), I’ll take time to photograph interesting wildflowers whenever I find them. All ten that follow were photographed in southern Wisconsin; some have a conservation status of special concern. Anyway, I don’t recall seeing wildflower photography collections on your website, so I thought I would help spread a little cheer for readers in the form of botanical natural beauty.

Prairie Fame-flower – Phemeranthus rugospermus:

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Sand MilkwortPolygala polygama:
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Venus’ Looking Glass Triodanis perfoliata:
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Eastern Prickly-pear CactusOpuntia humifusa:
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Clustered Poppy-mallow Callirhoe triangulata:
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Dotted HorsemintMonarda punctata:
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Rough Blazing StarLiatris aspera:
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Silky AsterSymphyotrichum sericeum:
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American Pasqueflower Anemone patens:
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Yellow Lady’s SlipperCypripedium pubescens [JAC: this is an orchid]:
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Tuesday: Hili dialogue

Thanks to Grania for keeping the Hili dialogues going when I was in LA! Now I’m back in Chicago, and it’s Tuesday, January 17, 2017: National Hot Buttered Rum Day. There are no other national holidays of note.

On January 17,1912, Robert Falcon Scott reached the South Pole, only to find that Roald Amundsen had beaten him by one month and three days. Scott, of course, perished on his return, but alongside his body was a sledge of plant fossils that had been dragged by hand—fossils that proved that Antarctica had once been joined to other continents (see the story of Glossopteris in WEIT). On this day in 1929, Popeye the Sailor Man (who ate his spinach) first appeared in the comics. And on January 17, 1991, Operation Desert Storm began, launching the first Gulf War.

Notables born on this day include Benjamin Franklin (1708), Al Capone (1899), Betty White (1922; she’s 95 today), Eartha Kitt (1927), James Earl Jones (1931), Shari Lewis (1933), and Andy Kaufman (1949). Those who died on this day include John Ray (1705), the conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker (1874), Francis Galton (1911), Dougal Haston (1977), and Bobby Fischer (2008).

I am saddened to note the death yesterday of Eugene Cernan at 82; he was the last human to walk on the moon (there have been 12); his walk was in 1972, and I don’t know if we’ll see that feat again in our lifetime.  Here’s a trailer for a movie about him, “The Last Man on the Moon”. Note his wife’s comment at 0:45. (h/t: Michael).

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili and Cyrus are still chafing about the weather, but there’s a lot of cold to come; Hili is making reference here to both the Paris conference and the Illiberal Leftism of the West.
Cyrus: The frost is coming back.
Hili: I don’t like these frosts from the West.
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Cyrus: Znowu idą mrozy.
Hili: Nie lubię tych zachodnich mrozów.

Monica Crowley, accused plagiarist, quits position with Trump administration

As I’ve reported previously (here and here), Monica Crowley, whom Trump’s appointed to be senior director of strategic communications for the National Security Council, was accused of extensive plagiarism not just in a 2012 HarperCollins book (which has since been pulled), but also in her Ph.D. thesis at Columbia University. Now, according to CNN and the Washington Times (link below), there’s even more plagiarism, and Crowley has bowed out of the offered position:

Here’s an excerpt from the CNN report (my emphasis):

The Washington Times first reported the news of Crowley’s decision. A transition official confirmed the move to CNN. [JAC: they mean confirmed Crowley’s decision, not her taking a position with CNN! Bad writing!]

“After much reflection I have decided to remain in New York to pursue other opportunities and will not be taking a position in the incoming administration,” she told the Times in a statement. “I greatly appreciate being asked to be part of President-elect Trump’s team and I will continue to enthusiastically support him and his agenda for American renewal.”

CNN’s KFILE originally reported last week that Crowley had plagiarized more than 50 times in her 2012 book “What the Bleep Just Happened.” In response to the story, publisher HarperCollins pulled the book from sales until it could be updated to include proper attribution.

CNN’s KFILE later found thousands of words plagiarized in Crowley’s 2000 dissertation for her Columbia University Ph.D. Columbia has said any review of her work would be kept confidential. A review of Crowley’s columns for the Washington Times also found plagiarism in seven columns.

I’m not sure what motivates people, in these times of Googling, to plagiarize—to publish words not your own as if they were your own. I’ve previously reported that book publishers try to guard against this simply by putting in the contract that you can’t do that kind of stuff, for it’s impossible to vet an entire book for instances of plagiarism. But sooner or later, as C. J. W*l*m*n  and Jonah Lehrer discovered (the latter self-plagiarized and fabricated quotes), you’re going to be caught out, and then your reputation is shot.

Mr Rubin, I’m ready for my close-up

When in Hollywood. Blending with the indigenous population. They won’t suspect a thing.

Note by JAC: The pictures and text above were posted by Grania, to whom I sent the photos for posting. It was great fun meeting Dave Rubin and his coterie—an amiable and helpful bunch—and being on the Rubin Report. Dave and I had an hourlong conversation that, as I recall, was mostly about evolution, with a tad of atheism thrown in. The hour flew by, and I think it went well. I’ll send the link when it goes up.

Now I’m cooling my heels in LAX, ready to fly back to Chicago; I dare not look up the temperature there!

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After the taping. I love this sign!

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HuffPo Arabic pushes anti-Semitism and demonization of gays

It’s not clear that, with the HuffPo, the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. In November, the Arabic edition of the site, which appears even more in love with Islam than is the American version, published a blog post (in Arabic here), that was a nasty, anti-Semitic accusation of a Jew poisoning Mohammed. This was noticed by the Anti-Defamation League, which reports this:

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) today voiced disappointment over the failure by editors at HuffPost Arabi to remove a blatantly anti-Semitic blog after it was first brought to their attention several weeks ago. The Arabic-language blog promotes a conspiracy theory blaming Jews for the death of the Prophet Mohammed.

“It is troubling that an anti-Semitic screed cleared The Huffington Post’s editorial review process and that our concerns so far have been ignored,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO. “We call on The Huffington Post to immediately remove this offensive entry and to ensure that the proper safeguards are in place so that the Arabic site is free of anti-Semitism and incitement against Jews.” [JAC: As you see above, the post hasn’t been removed.]

The blog, initially titled “’Arsenic’ The poison, which a Jewish woman put in the food of the Prophet, peace be upon him,’” has been live on The Huffington Post’s Arabic language web site since it was first published on Nov. 29. It claims that a Jewish woman used arsenic to poison the Prophet Mohammed and includes other offensive anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.

After the ADL complained, the title was changed to “Did the Prophet Die From Being Poisoned With Arsenic?”, but the content of the post wasn’t changed.

In another issue, Mediaite reports that after singer George Michael died, the Arabic PuffHo headline noted that he was “addicted to drugs with homosexual tendencies.” This did not go unnoticed by Arabic-speaking readers, nor the different headline in the English notice of Michael’s death.

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I’m not sure what’s going on here, and it’s entirely possible that the editorship of this site is non-overlapping, but still, HuffPo is a brand, and when this stuff is called to their attention, maybe they should do something about it. HuffPo, it seems, is engaging in the same sort of anti-Semitic nonsense that’s promulgated by the private and state media of Middle Eastern countries.

h/t: Tom