Aug 112023

Here’s a sunflower, which grew in a large planter right here on our driveway, as photographed by my beautiful wife just the other day (before Ottawa got an incredible deluge of rain):

If you look closely, there’s a bumblebee in the flower. May there be more! I keep reading about the crisis pollinating insects face worldwide, sometimes accompanied by tragic images of entire beehives, dead. Pollinating insects play an essential role in nature, including our food supply. And they seem to be in serious trouble. Climate change, habitat loss, reckless use of insecticides, whatever the reason, it might be a good idea to take this problem seriously before it is too late. (Just don’t turn it into politics please. It’s a real crisis, not fodder for virtue-signaling by wannabe liberals or progressive-bashing by wannabe conservatives.)

 Posted by at 5:38 pm
Sep 302021

I have had it up to my eyeballs with misinformation about vaccines, mRNA vaccines in particular. People who up until 2020 could not tell the difference between acronyms like “RNA” and “WTF” suddenly became experts on molecular biology, capable of evaluating the professional literature and arriving at profound judgments, telling us that the vaccines are “fake” and such, or worse yet, they amount to “gene therapy”.

With all due respect, I first encountered the acronym “mRNA” (or its Hungarian equivalent, mRNS) not in 2020, not in 2019, but in 1980 or 81, from a Hungarian translation of Watson’s book on molecular biology of the gene.

Now granted, even if I had read that book cover-to-cover (I didn’t) it would not make me an expert on molecular biology. But I knew enough for the expression “mRNA vaccine” to make sense to me right away when it first showed up in news reports. In short, I know enough to spot the bullshit. Such as all that anti-vaccine scaremongering that has become ever so popular on the Interwebs lately.

Something similar happened 20 years ago, in the wake of 9/11. Many folks, especially Americans, who previously couldn’t tell Mohammed the prophet from Mohammed Ali, and who have never been in the same room with a textbook on comparative religion previously, suddenly became experts on Islam, making grand pronouncements about it being the religion of terror and all that. I first read a textbook on comparative religion back when I was 10 or so, from a 1927 2-volume tome on religions of the world:

This is volume one, titled “Primitive and cultural religions, Islam and Buddhism”. As with the Watson textbook, the images in this blog entry are of my own making, done just moments ago using my phone camera, of the actual books I have in my personal library.

Again, reading this book did not make me an instant expert. But it did give me enough background to spot the flood of bullshit that permeated the discussion after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Coming from a family and personal tradition that values learning, values impartial knowledge, it almost feels like physical pain, being confronted with such gross ignorance and outright lies each and every day. Enough already. Don’t listen to me, but don’t listen to the bullshit artists either. Listen to the actual experts (and not a cherry-picked subset of so-called experts who say what you want to hear). That’s what experts are for in an advanced scientific-technological society in which no human can be a master of all trades, and in which we rely on each other’s knowledge and experience.

Someone on Quora recently compared the anti-vaxxer movement to a hypothetical scenario on an airliner in distress: instead of following the crews’ instructions and donning oxygen masks, passengers stage a revolt, led by an “expert” who already knows better than the pilots how to fly the damn plane because he played with Microsoft Flight Simulator!


 Posted by at 1:10 am
Jun 072016

Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin in 1928. He received the Nobel prize for his discovery in 1945.

A Facebook friend shared his Nobel lecture. Particularly, the following quote:

The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant. Here is a hypothetical illustration. Mr. X. has a sore throat. He buys some penicillin and gives himself, not enough to kill the streptococci but enough to educate them to resist penicillin. He then infects his wife. Mrs. X gets pneumonia and is treated with penicillin. As the streptococci are now resistant to penicillin the treatment fails. Mrs. X dies. Who is primarily responsible for Mrs. X’s death? Why Mr. X whose negligent use of penicillin changed the nature of the microbe. Moral: If you use penicillin, use enough.

Fleming thus foresaw the dangers of emerging antibiotic resistance. Too bad the world failed to listen. Now, a growing number of people die from once treatable (e.g., post-operative) infections because the evolution of bacteria outpaced our ability to develop new antibiotics.

 Posted by at 11:07 am
May 182016

In the fourth volume of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy”, we learn that just before the Earth was about to be destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a new interstellar bypass, the whales left. They left behind a simple parting message: “So long and thanks for all the fish.”

Which makes me feel rather alarmed now that I am learning that hundreds of North Atlantic right whales went missing. I hope it’s not a bad sign.

 Posted by at 7:55 pm
Feb 032014

According to Radio Free Europe, there are some remarkably law-abiding deer living along the one-time Cold War border between the former West Germany and Czechoslovakia.

The border (barbed wire, complete with electric fences, heavily armed guards, watchtowers and whatnot) is long gone. Yet the deer are still reluctant to cross, and this behavior is passed on from one generation to the next.

Remarkable. I am sure it would meet the approval of those comrades who came up with the idea in the first place that the primary purpose of a nation’s borders is not to keep enemies out, but to keep their own reluctant citizens confined inside.

 Posted by at 9:47 pm
Oct 112013

Is this a worthy do-it-yourself neuroscience experiment, or an example of a technology gone berserk, foreshadowing a bleak future?

A US company is planning to ship $99 kits this fall, allowing anyone to turn a cockroach into a remote controlled cyborg. Educational? Or more like the stuff of bad dreams?

For me, it’s the latter. Perhaps it doesn’t help that I am halfway through reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, sequel to Oryx and Crake, a dystopian science fiction novel set in a bleak future in which humanity destroys itself through the reckless use of biotech and related technologies.

A cockroach may not be a beloved animal. Its nervous system may be too small, too simple for it to feel real pain. Nonetheless, I feel there is something deeply disturbing and fundamentally unethical about the idea of turning a living animal into a remote control toy.

To put it more simply: it creeps the hell out of me.

 Posted by at 11:49 am
May 222012

I just read (link in Hungarian) that a far right member of the Hungarian parliament found it necessary to use a genetic test to prove that he is free of Jewish and Roma blood.

Even if it were possible to do so, I have no inclination to use a genetic testing service to find out the ethnicity of my ancestors. But, I do hope that I have Roma, Jewish, Hungarian, Slav, Russian, German, or for that matter Chinese or Indian ancestors. That is because there is only one group of people that I wish to belong to: the group of human beings. I have zero desire to join any subgroup whose sole purpose is to revel in the idea that they are somehow superior by birth to other subgroups. And, well, if all this makes me a mongrel or a tyke in the eyes of some with a better defined ethnicity… you know what, I don’t really like your purebred attitude either.

 Posted by at 8:32 am
Feb 212012

Some thirty thousand years ago, homo sapiens was busy perfecting techniques to produce primitive stone tools. They may have already invented nets, the bow and arrow, and perhaps even ceramics, but they were still a long way away from inventing civilization.

Around the same time, an arctic squirrel in north-eastern Siberia took the fruit of a narrow-leafed campion, a small arctic flower, and hid it in its burrow, never to be touched again. The fruit froze and remained frozen for over three hundred centuries.

It is frozen no longer; rather, it is blooming, thanks to the efforts of a research team led by Svetlana Yashina and David Gilichinsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Against all odds, the genetic material in the seed appears to have survived. I say “appears” because such an extraordinary claim will be subject to extraordinary scrutiny, but what I have been reading suggests that this is indeed real: the age of the fruit is confirmed by radioactive dating.

 Posted by at 9:21 am
Aug 022011

I am catching up with my reading of recent issues of New Scientist, which arrived all at once after our recent postal strike.

Cephalopods are smart. So smart in fact that they are tool users, the only invertebrates we know about that have this ability. Yet they evolved entirely differently from us, having split from us some half a billion years ago on the evolutionary tree. Some argue that cephalopods deserve extra protection; on the other hand, we don’t even know how to anesthetize them properly.

I also wonder if the SETI folks are taking notice. We think we are so smart that we can talk to aliens? How about learning first how to communicate with a giant squid. Compared to aliens, these guys are our cousins after all.

 Posted by at 12:41 pm