Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mikepedia Fact #3: The Theory of Evolution

Have you ever wondered why the theory of evolution is just that- a theory? Is it just a 'best guess'? Why isn't evolution a law, just like gravity?

Evolution comes from the root word evolve, which generally means to change over time. Many things evolve...the stock market, global temperature, the Earth's magnetic field...many many things.

But when we say theory of evolution we're referring to a specific kind of change over time. We're talking about the change over time in the proportion of individual organisms differing in one or more inherited traits.

Some of the misunderstanding surrounding this topic largely stems from the general public's faulty definition of a theory. Colloquially, a theory means something that someone has literally made up- sort of a best guess. For example, I theorize that the blue-colored rain today is due to the snow yesterday. This isn't a theory at all...it is a hypothesis- it is an attempt to explain an observation by using a measurable variable. Obviously, this isn't a very good hypothesis, as it is more likely that there is something wrong with my measuring device (ie/ there is something wrong with me if I am seeing blue-colored rain).

A hypothesis is something that we make up, usually grounded in some sort of logic, that must be tested to see if it can describe the outcome of an event. A theory, on the other hand, began as a hypothesis, and has been tested and tested (and tested), and has been proven correct so many times that it is now used as a mechanism to explain why something happens. For example, why are birds different then dinosaurs- they evolved.

So, evolution clearly isn't just a hypothesis- it's not something that needs to be tested to be sure that it has some merit. But why isn't it a law?

In order to become a law, a theory must be universal (meaning that it has to apply to every single situation in every part of the universe). Evolution has never been witnessed on other planets, only here on Earth, and so it cannot become a law until we can prove that it occurs elsewhere in the universe in the same way. Gravity is the same force here as it is on Mars...but is evolution the same in some distant planets?

Looks like we're stuck with a theory (but a pretty good one at that!)

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Life- just an Earthly miracle?

NASA scientists have recently discovered 1, 235 potential planets orbiting distant stars using the Kepler space telescope. These are of course potential planets, as they must been seen at least three times in order to confirm their existence.

Of these 1, 235, the NASA experts suggest that 54 of them may lie in habitable zones, where temperatures would allow water to exist in liquid form, which of course is required for life as we know it. The key here, is life as we know it.

NASA scientists have discovered systems that, prior to this, we had no idea could exist. For example, a cluster of 6 potential planets packed so tightly together that they influence each other's orbit around their respective sun. It seems like the more we know...the less we know?

But back to the point...life as we know it. Remember not too long ago when NASA had another big discovery? This one was about the bacteria that can use arsenic instead of phosphorus in its' DNA. (Remember your six key ingredients for life: carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, sulfur, and....phosphorus!) That's right, this little guy can replace one of the six major building blocks of life as we know it with a horribly poisonous compound called arsenic.

The point...what is life as we know it? Until this bacteria, we had a completely different view of life here on Earth, let alone on other planets. We have a poor definition of life...I remember arguing that viruses are alive in grade 11 biology...I still think they are, more or less, but that what we define as life only includes organisms that are similar enough to us- and wrongly excludes viruses. (Think about it- how can something have
DNA or RNA and not be alive...energy,waste, reproduction, etc- these are things that we like to associate with life because it includes most things- this makes it inclusive of the majority, but not necessarily correct).

This begs the question, if we saw life on another planet...would we recognize it?

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sorry Justin Bieber fans...the grammy's are still all about musical talent

Dear Angry Justin Bieber fans everywhere:

I for one am glad that Esperanza Spalding won the award for Best New Artist, instead of Justin Bieber.

Firstly, this shows that the academy maintains it's integrity and does not vote for individual musicians (or in Justin Bieber's case, performers) on the basis of their overall popularity. I trust that the academy has recognized that Esperanza Spalding possesses significant talent to be worthy of the award (if you're not convinced, visit her website below). Yes, Justin Bieber is more popular, but this does not mean that he is more a talented musician- contrary to popular belief, hoards of pre-teen girls wanting to cut and frame a loch of a star's hair does not speak to that individual's skill level. In fact, if popularity were the sole criteria, the Beatles' only competition would be Elvis Presley for most of the awards.

Secondly, I am glad that the academy apparently does not care how much media attention one gets throughout the year. Yes, Justin Bieber has received more media coverage, mostly because of his age, but the media (and his fans alike) do not get to vote for him- the Academy does, and they do so objectively.

Thirdly, I am glad to see someone win Best New Artist when that person composes music other than bubble-gum pop. This is truly a lesson for those interested in composing music- if you want to make money, but sound like everyone else on the Top 40 then enter the pop-world- if you are not concerned about money but would rather be valued and evaluated on the basis of your talent as a musician then do anything else but pop.

Finally, Jazz is a type of music that does not die. Pop, on the other hand, does. 10 years from now people will still be happy to own Jazz music...they'll just make sure that it rests in front of the dusty Justin Bieber album.

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http://www.esperanzaspalding.com/cms/

Friday, February 11, 2011

Mikepedia Fact #2- Language

Have you ever wondered why, when reading the newspaper for example, an organism's genus-species name is always in italics? For example, Homo Sapien, or Human. Homo is the genus name and Sapien is the species name. But why the italics?

The reason is, according to modern literary doctrine, that all text that is written in a different language than the main text must be in italics. Since the genus species name is Latin, it must be italicised.

If I wanted to include a French word, I would also have to write it in italics. For example, Bonjour!

Hopefully this will make reading these kinds of things a bit easier...they're not just 'special' and written in italics to look as such, they're just written in a different language than that of the main text.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mikepedia Fact #1 (the first installment of many)

The fact for today:

Lichens may be the evolutionary link for the transition of plants from water to land.

What's a lichen, you ask? Simply, a lichen is not a single organism- it is two organisms that interact in a symbiotic way- in other words, they help each other. The organisms: fungi (think mushrooms) and algae (think green stuff in the water).

Fungi are interesting in that they breakdown their food before ingesting it. Humans inject our food, and then break it down, but fungii breakdown rocks and other materials in their local environment and then absorb it- this is how they eat. Algae, just like plants, make energy from sunlight.

So, the algae make energy for the fungi, and the fungi breakdown minerals from rocks for the algae. Together, they're called lichens. They are still around today, and are some of the oldest known organisms on the planet.

Pretty cool eh?

The World's Newest Country

In about 6 months the words 'South Sudan" will be the newest and 196th (roughly...depending on the definition) country in the world. Their referendum has 98.9% support for the split...quite impressive- I think we got to about 49/51 here in Canada? Ah but the Nation within a Nation is still attached to Canada  :)

This is excellent! My understanding is that "south" Sudan has been tied up in a pseudo-civil war involving militatants on one side and, arguably, militants on the other- or something like that (are my ignorances too much?).

But MORE interesting perhaps, is that South Sudan will now have an opportunity to tap into some of their oil reserves...which inevitably will be sold in the West.

And finally, my question:
What do you expect will happen to gasoline prices here in Canada? Rise? Fall? About the same? And why?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Here's your chance to play God...

Imagine it is your job to create a system to allow humans to detect sound. You are the person in charge of developing the auditory system (aka hearing!). Go!

Uh...um...err...

Yup pretty much. Sounds difficult eh? Well good thing for you I'm here to help.

You would probably want to develop cells in the ear that detect sound- good place to start right?

You would have some cells detect different sounds too, right? What we call 'sounds' are simply differences in frequency- known by the lay person as 'pitch'. High pitch sounds are high frequencies and low pitch sounds are low frequencies. So, you would probably want different cells that are able to detect different frequencies.

Let's say you developed the auditory cells to hear frequencies from 200-800 hertz (hz)- which is actually the true case in humans- we hear sounds from about 200 to about 800 hz. Don't waste time developing one cell for 200 hz and another 201 hz- there is an immeasurable difference between the two! It would be a good idea to have some for 200 and some for 300, and for 400, etc. This way, when the one for 300 is fully activated, and the one for 200 is activated just a little bit, you know that you have 290 hz...and the same thing for the 300 and 400 cells if you had 310. Follow? In fact this is a simple version of how the human auditory system works...but here's where it gets tricky.

So, you have all of your cells that can detect specific frequencies of sound and, depending on how many are activated, etc, you can hear many different sounds. All is good in the world of hearing. Now we have to get this sound detection to the brain. Let's say we played a sound a sound at 300 hz over, and over, and over again. What would you want the brain to recieve as a message? I'm assuming you want the brain to recieve the exact same message every time a 300 hz sound is played, right? Makes sense...but apparently God (perhaps using his developmental tool of evolution) doesn't think this way. No- He decided that our auditory cells should send different messages to the brain each time it hears the same sound. This is explained in more detail below, but the cells respond either strongly or weakly, almost at random.

There is an average neuronal depolarization of about 33 millivolts each time a 300 hz sound is detected by the mammilian brain. This is an average...it could be 30, or 28, perhaps 51 or as high as 60. They will average to 33...but no one knows why it isn't 33 all the time.

Any thoughts as to why this would be? There are no known temporal or spatial mathematical relationships...try to think outside the box on this one.

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

What's the superbowl?

As I arrived to skate patrol today I was informed that the superbowl is apparently on tv tonight. The packers apparently? I can just imagine how much Uncle Chris must be losing his mind.

Too bad I'm studying...yet again...for the third year in a row. What 22-year-old guy doesn't watch the superbowl?

Maybe I'll slow down a bit and work a little less hard. I think the most imporant thing to learn while you're in school is when you need to work hard and, perhaps more importantly, when you don't. Right now, unfortunately, I do, because the exam is in 17 hours. (Students typically use hours to describe lenghts of time because of the vague distinction between  night and day while studying). That's what I am, right? A student? I think I've forgotten how to live like one.

Alright so I'll study hard this year during the superbowl...but next year...next year...who knows, maybe I'll learn how to be 23 by then...

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Quite the day

The following is my life in 250 words.

Well it's been quite the day.

I began by tutoring organic chemistry this morning from around 10-noon. I studied for about an hour and then walked down the canal to begin my shift at 2. What a shift it was!

A spinal injury, a couple of broken wrists, bruised knees, a broken leg, and of the course all of the regular bumps, scrapes and skate-blisters. Oh about 50 lost kids too...there are just so many people on the ice that parents can't even see 10 feet ahead of them.

I work the same shift again tomorrow, so we'll see which is busier- a saturday or a sunday.

I got home around 8 and ate dinner (I made pizza...looks like working at Amici's was actually good for something!) and I've been studying ever since.

Now time for bed.

Quite the day, and what a life!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Winterlude is underway! (Oh, and in French too!)

This is the first weekend of Winterlude. This is what we train for.

Jokes aside, this is really a great time to be in Ottawa. But it's not quite like Bon Soo for me...

Bon Soo is more of a community event. It's sponsored by local organizations, and not-for-profit groups alike. You know that when you buy a ticket or a pin for Bon Soo, it's going towards a good cause in one way or another. In Ottawa, it's all about the $$$. How many beavertails could beavertail stand sell if a beavertail stand could sell beavertails...that's Ottawa's version of the famous 'woodchuck' tongue-twister.

By the way, the Bon Soo pin is probably the best idea ever. It would be a nightmare to try to do that in Ottawa- the pin would have to be HUGE because the text would be twice as large in French than in English, and the French text would have to be on top!

In the words of a wise man I know, when told about the efforts that are pumped into ensuring bilungualism in Ottawa (which generally means rewriting everything in French), he replied "don't the people of Ottawa have anything better to do?"

 My response: Have you been to Ottawa?

Perhaps that's a bit edgy. Ottawa is too politically correct to say these kinds of things. Thank goodness for the rest of Canadians...

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Don't respect my privacy Canada Post

I hope that this catchy title not only displays my frustration with Canada post, but also eludes to the actual point of this post: privacy.

So...Canada post did not deliver an envelope today, presumably because it needs to be verified. Verified...what actually constitutes an envelope being verified? Someone at the door with a piece of ID...maybe? But who's home between 9 and 5 to pop out and 'verifiy' their person? Really, Canada post?

Verified...how about this for verification: Our mailbox is located inside of the apartment building to which there are 6 apartments (do the math to figure out how many keys this is, and how many people have reasonable access to the mailbox). Further to this, the mailbox is itself locked, to which there is only one key (can you guess who has it). My question to Canada post is: if I enter the building via my key and then open the mailbox via the ONLY key...can you not be reasonably certain that the envelope is verified?

The underlying rationale behind this is privacy. This is something that I have had the opportunity to learn a lot about in Canada- acts such as PHIPA and PIPEDA and the PCC...etc. Point: privacy doesn't exist.

Alright, now that you've gotten up from falling off of your chair (I know, quite the shocker, eh?), let me explain...

Privacy is a modern invention. Privacy hasn't always existed. Think about it: human beings used to live in a small communities where there was no such thing as privacy- everyone knew everything about you, and most often this kept you from doing socially embarrassing things, such as crimes. Ever wonder why the crime rate is higher in urban, rather than rural, areas? To put it far too simply: It's because people aren't embarrassed by a lack of privacy. They're protected. They have privacy rights. This scares the heck out of most of us, because the very people who may be trying to steal your private information have their own privacy rights protected. Nowadays, it's all about added protection and more security.

Privacy makes a lot of people a lot of money. Security/privacy are one of the fastest growing fields in the world. People can't enough of this stuff...alarms for your house, car, garage, office, briefcase, dog...if something can have it's privacy protected, there is a guy standing not too far waiting to sell it to you.

Point: Canada post, next time leave the envelope in the box behind the two locked doors to which there are very few keys to. I'll forgive you for violating my privacy.

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