Obama’s prize

Many people are taken aback. Justifiably or not is a matter of dispute. He’s only been in office for nine months for goodness’ sake! Granted, however, how many of his predecessors has taken the issues of nuclear disarmament and climate change seriously? Let alone act upon them? As the head of the most powerful country on Earth? I’m no political analyst, but even I know that substantial measures have been taken by President Obama in order to further the above issues. This award makes George W. Bush look even more like a donkey.

On the other side of the coin, the president himself is obviously not happy about the decoration. It is apparent when you take a look at his press conference. Just look at his facial expression. It is a huge and unexpected burden. As he articulated it in his speech, the award is not intended to honour his past achievements, but more of an incentive for future actions to be performed. I think it is an extremely clever decision on the part of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. This award will be hovering over his head like a halo every time he makes a decision regarding Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, or North Korea. I guess we shall see how he lives up to the expectations by the end of his term. I certainly wouldn’t want to walk in Barack Obama’s shoes.

I may be in the minority with my opinion, yet I do believe the appropriate stance is a supportive one.

(On a side note: Is anybody remotely familiar with Herta Müller’s body of work?)

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Tongue-eating isopod: an amazing parasite

FishParasite My favourite parasite is back in the news. This is an isopod (a crustacean, closely related to woodlice) named Cymothoa exigua, and here’s what it does: it slips into a miserable fish’s oral cavity and clamps itself on the base of the tongue and commences to drain blood. As it grows on the fish’s expense, the tongue will atrophy and waste away completely leaving but a stub. Then it assumes the role of the tongue and starts acting like a normal tongue! It is no doubt hideous to look at, but it just as much amazes me how this sort of adaptation can come about. It apparently does no other harm to the host, but I still definitely don’t want one in my mouth.

Great tits took to bat-eating

An incredible behaviour has been observed in the Bükk Mountains of Hungary. Great tits (Parus major) developed the habit of hunting down and killing bats for food. Scientists are quite taken aback, for these nice little passerines were not expected to be able to predate on prey as large as pipistrelle bats. The behaviour is most likely a ‘cultural phenomenon’, that is one of them made a hit by trial and error and, being quick-learners, the new type of food acquisition quickly spread through the population.

See more on this in BBC News (with a grisly photo of a half-eaten bat) and Times Online. The original results appear today in the journal Biology Letters.

Snow leopard

Now that Apple has released the latest operation system for Mac, OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, here’s a short clip about what it takes to capture an image (one of which is included in the desktop pictures) of this elusive animal in its natural habitat 5,000 metres above sea level:

Evolution in action

PD*30858692 I’ve just come across an interesting evolution item in the news. A North American mouse species has changed its fur colour from brown to blonde in a mere 8,000 years. It is a very fine opportunity to understand natural selection at work.

Let’s consider a mammalian species that lives in an environment it has adapted to through the millennia. Let it be a mouse and let’s pick a particular trait – fur colour. When the mouse lives in an area where the soil is dark, it is advantageous to sport a dark fur in order to avoid predators. But if an ice age happens to occur and a glacier deposits sand (which is much lighter in colour) onto that particular area, then, all of a sudden, the dark brown pelage turns disadvantageous and counter-adaptive. What this means is that the brown mice against the yellow background are too conspicuous to evade the attention of predators. Now, if a random mutation occurs in the colour, say blonde, and it happens to be advantageous, natural selection will preserve it. How? Let’s say in a litter of eight mice, seven is brown and one is blonde. Only one gene regulates fur colour in mice, and the blonde allele (variant of the same gene) happens to be dominant. In a light-coloured environment, the one blonde mouse is hugely favoured with respect to camouflage as opposed to its brown siblings. All the browns are selected out, and the light-coloured individual has increased chances of survival, because it blends in the colour of the sand dunes. Then in a couple of  generations (this means, of course, given the reproduction rate of mice, thousands of generations) the new colour will be fixed and the species will have adapted to its new environment.

It took about 8,000 years for the deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) population of this area in Nebraska to gradually change from brown to blonde. How do we know they used to be brown? Deer mice of surrounding areas of darker soil all wear dark brown fur.

Zebra in Gaza Zoo

090722_SS_4 What a nice zebra! Except that it’s not a zebra. It’s a donkey painted to look like a zebra. Even the ears are striped! I understand that they can’t really afford to obtain and keep expensive animals in the Gaza Strip, but I don’t think the solution is to counterfeit one. The solution is to shut down the ‘zoo’ completely. Why do people in a war-stricken area even bother to open and run a zoo? They also keep a lion that’s currently for sale, because its mate has allegedly been killed by a shrapnel.

Teeth of a plant eater, claws of a meat eater

A most interesting fossil – Nothronychus graffami – has been found in Utah. Four metres tall, huge belly, small head, herbivorous teeth. 22 cm sickle-shaped claws. Odd coupling, wouldn’t you say? For what on earth does a leaf-eater need claws of such gigantic dimensions? Scientists have no idea. I mean, they do have some ideas, what they are in want of is evidence. Sure enough, the claws might have been great assistance in pulling down branches. They could just as likely have used them to deter predators. They might have had some reproductive advantage.

But really, all these fine hypotheses belong in the business of guesswork. Such great findings have the effect of disenchantment, and make one realize how little we know of the world around us.

Back to medieval times

A brand new blasphemy law has been introduced in Ireland. As of now, whoever dares so much as sneer at Christian faith is liable to a fee up to €25,000 in 21st century Ireland.

A couple of questions have been spat out by the neuronal network that resides inside my head.

Does it apply only to atheists or between religions as well? Any good Muslim would claim that Muhammad is God’s final prophet, would that be a blasphemous remark?

How would they intend to uphold this utterly despicable law, anyway? They revert to the methods of good old communism and denounce whoever takes the Lord’s name in vain? That would be childish, wouldn’t it?

Here’s what Richard Dawkins has to say on the matter:

“It is a wretched, backward, uncivilised regression to the middle ages. Who was the bright spark who thought to besmirch the revered name of Ireland by proposing anything so stupid?”

What’s next, Orwellian thought crime? Next thing you know is people getting locked up for merely thinking about nasty things of Jesus Christ. Free speech has been criminalised in a developed European country.

Running bull kills

It’s the time of the year when the running of the bulls (encierro) takes place in Pamplona, Spain. Popularized by the excellent Hemingway novel The Sun Also Rises, courageous, or should we say stupid, young men run in front of a group of vexed oxen to demonstrate their virility. The run ends when the bulls enter the bullring where they will eventually meet their fate at the hands of the toreros later the day.

This time the bulls killed someone on the run. I don’t really feel sorry for the guy, to put it mildly. It must be a very nice and spectacular tradition, in which animals are willfully tortured and killed for the sake of fun. How can such an event still flourish in an era when the European Union rigorously regulates even what you may or may not feed your own swine? I don’t get it.

Oh, it sounded like I’m some animal rights activist or something.