I Contain Multitudes.

You are currently covered in bugs.

That’s the fact that drives Ed Yong’s book I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, his highly acclaimed 2016 book about the microbiome, a relative neologism that refers to the interconnected world of microorganisms that exist in, on, and around all other life on earth. Without these bugs, we almost certainly wouldn’t exist, and the best estimates Yong has have bacteria and other microbes in and on our bodies outnumbering the cells of our actual bodies by a margin slighter over 1:1. You do not just contain multitudes, Yong quips (borrowing a line from Walt Whitman), but you are multitudes.

Yong spends as much time dispelling myths as he does explaining the new science of the microbiome because everyone who reads this has probably grown up believing one of two things about bacteria and other microbes: They’re dirty and bad and cause illness and death; or, some bacteria are good and we want lots of them but not the bad ones. Yong says neither is accurate; there aren’t “good” or “bad” microbes per se, but that the effect a microbe can have depends entirely on where it lives and thus what it’s able to do.

Microbes make the complexity of life on earth possible, sometimes serving as the difference between life and not-life, as in creatures that live in inhospitable, lightless environments at the bottom of the ocean near steam vents that bring geothermal heat out into the water. Scientists discovered creatures there that seemed to have no business existing in the first place, such as a worm that had no mouth or digestive tract. It turned out that the worm in question plays host to bacteria that provide it with all of the energy the worm needs by converting sulfur compounds found in that dark environment into chemicals the worms can use.

He also explains how evolution works differently – and apparently faster – in bacteria than it does in multicellular organisms, thanks to something called HGT, Horizontal Gene Transfer. (As opposed to, say, the Mariners moving Segura to second base if Cano is hurt; that would be a Horizontal Jean Transfer.) Bacteria have the ability to swap genes with other bacteria in their environment, meaning they can alter their genome on the fly while still alive, as opposed to humans, who are stuck with the genes that brought us to the dance.

Perhaps most relevant to the lay reader are the two chapters near the end of the book where Yong talks about how probiotics don’t work and how we might use bacteria, including their HGT superpowers, to fight diseases like dengue and Zika. Probiotic products are all the rage now, but there’s no evidence that swallowing these bacteria – which appear in tiny amounts even in products like yogurt – alters your microbiome in any way. Your gut flora are largely a function of what you were born with, meaning in turn what you got from your mother in birth (vaginal delivery exposes the infant to the bacteria in the mucosal lining) or via breast feeding (which contains more bugs plus compounds that encourage the growth of helpful bacteria in the cut), and what you eat now (more fiber, please). So skip the kombucha and eat more plants.

Mosquitoes that spread disease often do so with the help of bacteria they host, but there’s an effort underway in Australia – a country far less hostile to science than the United States is – to release mosquitoes of the same species that carries viruses like dengue or chikungunya, A. Aegyptes, that have been infected with a Wolbachia bacterium that renders the critters immune to the viruses. These mosquitoes would then move into the environment, mate with other mosquitoes, and thus spread the bacterial ‘infection’ through the population, thus dramatically reducing the number of bugs flying around with the disease in the first place. A separate but related endeavor aims to do the same with the mosquitoes that carry the parasite that causes malaria in people, a disease that has proven particularly obstinate to the development of a vaccine (in part because it’s neither viral nor bacterial).

Yong’s book seems comprehensive, although I came into it knowing extremely little about the subject. He gets into fecal transplants, including why they’ve helped people with deadly C. dif infections where traditional treatments failed. He discusses antibiotic resistance, of course. He provides copious examples of symbiosis and dysbiosis in the wild, and how many species, including animals, deprived of their normal microbiomes fail to thrive. And he gets into how climate change is altering microbiomes worldwide, leading to mass deaths on coral reefs and the spread of a fungus (also highlighted in Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, the most recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction) that has already wiped out numerous species of tropical frogs.

Most important, however, is that Yong keeps this all so accessible. I find the subject interesting anyway, but his prose is readable and his stories quick and quirky enough that the audiobook held my attention throughout, including during some rather dreadful trips between spring training sites in Florida. Granted, it might make you think very differently about shaking hands or touching various surfaces, but I Contain Multitudes might also encourage you to eat better, get a dog, and throw out all your triclosan, while giving you a new appreciation for germs.

Stick to baseball, 4/1/17.

My predictions for 2017, including full standings, playoff stuff, and award winners. If you skipped the intro and got mad online about it, I’ll reiterate here: it’s just for fun. I do not run projections, and I will never beat a well-run model at the predictions game except as a fluke. I also wrote one post earlier in the week covering Cardinals, Tigers, and Atlanta prospects I saw while in Florida; there will be another post coming this weekend. I did not chat because I was in the car or at games all week.

My book is back from the printers! You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. The book now has two positive reviews out, one from Kirkus Reviews and one from Publishers Weekly.

Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 3/26/17.

My annual column of breakout player picks went up on Thursday for Insiders, and I held a Klawchat that same day. I had one other Insider post since the last roundup, on four prospects I saw in Arizona, one Cub, one Royal, and two Padres.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. The book now has two positive reviews out, one from Kirkus Reviews and one from Publishers Weekly.

Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 2/5/17.

My organizational reports for all 30 teams, featuring at least ten prospects ranked for each club (and as many as 25), went up this past week for Insiders. You can find them all here on the landing pages for each division:

American League East
National League East
American League Central
National League Central
American League West
National League West

My list of thirty sleeper prospects, one for each MLB organization, for 2017 went up on Friday, wrapping up the prospect rankings package for the year. I also held a Klawchat on Friday.

For Paste, I reviewed the complex strategy game Forged in Steel, a citybuilder with some worker-placement and card management aspects that, once you get the first few moves underway, really gets going and manages to be both smart and fun.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

  • The must-read piece of the week – actually published in early January – comes from British journalist Isabel Hardman, who wrote about how even England’s vaunted NHS doesn’t do justice to people with mental illnesses, although the piece itself also provides a great window into her own difficulties recognizing what was happening to her and getting properly treated.
  • It’s Super Bowl Sunday! If you wouldn’t let your kids play football because it’s dangerous (and has led to the premature deaths of many players), is it moral to still watch the NFL?
  • I thought this New Yorker profile of Evan McMullin, who has emerged as a major Trump critic from the center-right was both an excellent piece of balanced journalism and a good window into someone who, even though I disagree with him on a couple of major policy issues, speaks very clearly to my concern that the man in the Oval Office – well, that man, and the one pulling his strings – needs to be stopped.
  • The batshit insane people who claim Sandy Hook was a hoax believe Trump’s election furthers their cause. I’m just glad these hoaxers are facing legal consequences when they harass relatives of the deceased.
  • As if Betsy DeVos’ awful answers in her confirmation hearing and embrace of creationism and other anti-science bullshit weren’t enough to disqualify her from running the U.S. Department of Education in everyone’s eyes except, well, our President and 50 Senate Republicans, she’s also a major investor in an utterly useless pseudoscience business of neurofeedback that claims it can use brain waves to diagnose and treat autism, depression, and why are we even talking about this it is such obvious bullshit? If you have a U.S. Senator who is planning to vote for DeVos – that’s every Republican right now except Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Sue Collins (Maine) – get on the phone on Monday morning, or send a fax, or go to their offices and make it clear you want a no vote on DeVos. One more Republican will end her candidacy, and while we aren’t guaranteed that the next nominee will be better, I’m not sure they can find one who’s worse.
  • You want more about DeVos being delusional in her belief in anti-science folderol? Look at her use of code words for creationism. While her camp has hidden behind the federal law and court rulings that intelligent design can’t be taught in public schools – it’s religion, thinly disguised as pseudoscience – that opens the door for her to push to change such laws, or challenge the court rulings, to suit her own misguided beliefs.
  • The House Science Committee is something between a joke and a modern-day Spanish Inquisition, thanks to its science-denialist head, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas, where else?), and the new Holman Rule that allows House appropriations bills to target any federal employee and reduce his/her salary to $1. Boys, all you boys, you think you’re so American.
  • Is the white-supremacist (and possible fascist) Steve Bannon positioning himself to be the de facto President? Fifty Democratic Congresspersons have called for Bannon’s removal from the National Security Council, co-sponsoring a House bill that would ban political strategists from serving on the council. (Reports that the appointment requires Senate approval were false or at least incomplete.) Meanwhile, filings from Bannon’s second divorce include accusations that he failed to pay child support and was abusive toward his daughters.
  • I think this ProPublica piece has the wrong title. It’s not can the Democrats be as stubborn as Mitch McConnell, but will they? Of course they can, but so far, I see no signs that they well. Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley is prepared to lead a filibuster of Trump’s SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorusch, who’s filling a seat that should have been filled last year by Merrick Garland. (By the way, if you saw the claims that Gorusch had created a pro-fascism club while a student, those were false.)
  • Eric Trump’s business trip to Uruguay – that is, a trip to benefit the Trump family business, not on U.S. official business – cost the taxpayer over $97K in hotel bills. This is a good example of where the Democrats need to be obstructionist – Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill requiring him to divest, but even the Dems appear to have little interest in this fight.
  • How about that immigration order, now halted, that served as a de facto Muslim ban? The Archbishop of Chicago spoke out against it. The order stranded a Brooklyn doctor in the Sudan. VICE published a list of doctors and researchers thus barred from returning to the United States. Don’t you feel so much safer now?
  • Bloomberg published a short op ed that argues that Trump has failed his Wall Street and big business backers twice over, by putting all permanent resident employees at risk of deportation or refused re-entry, and by failing to repeal the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule, which – get this – which requires financial advisers to act in the best interests of their clients in retirement accounts. I don’t know what’s worse: that Trump’s camp wanted to repeal the rule, or that the rule was ever necessary in the first place.
  • The farewell message from Tom Countryman (!), Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, who was summarily dismissed along with five other State Department lifers last week, is well worth your time.
  • Who’s behind the fake-news site CGS Monitor, which uses real experts’ names in bylines on articles they didn’t write? It could be Russia – I mean, of course it’s Russia, right? – although this piece speculates it could also come from Iranian interests.
  • This post from “The Jester” on Russia’s infiltration of our federal government pissed someone off enough that the site was hit with a DdoS attack a few hours after the article went up. Within it, he points out that the ex-KGB/FSB official suspected of helping MI6 agent Christopher Steele assemble that dossier on Donald Trump was found dead in his car on December 26th, and the the author accuses the Kremlin of orchestrating his murder.
  • Republicans are further trying to rig the electoral college system in their favor by pushing blue states to adopt “proportional” electoral voting, which, as that FiveThirtyEight piece explains, means that Clinton could have won the popular vote by five percentage points and still lost the election.
  • A new law in Arkansas allows rapists who impregnate their victims to stop the latter from getting abortions, or a husband to sue to prevent his wife from doing so, and so on. Even setting aside the clear infringement of religious belief into law here, this is as blatantly anti-woman as you can get. I’ve got one state left to visit to be able to say I’ve visited them all, but you know, I think any trips to Arkansas can wait until they start to treat women like actual people. UPDATE: Snopes has more details on the law, such as pointing out that rapists can’t sue for damages, and that the law delays rather than prevents the abortions. The ACLU is still planning lawsuits.
  • Abortion is an important, sometimes lifesaving medical procedure, and keeping it legal and available reduces deaths from unsafe abortions, while improving access to abortion and contraception reduces abortion rates overall. Again, women are actual people, and the infamous photo of Trump signing an anti-abortion executive order while surrounded by men sort of says it all – and that’s why the photo of the Swedish Prime Minister trolling Trump is such a thing of beauty.
  • Protesters plan to shadow Trump whenever he travels so he feels their dislike, an extension of the idea that he thrives on public adulation.
  • The apparently random murder of a woman walking on a Reykjavik street after dark has shaken the city, which is known for its low crime rate and 24-hour party culture.
  • I tweeted about this earlier in the week, but donors across the country are helping pay students’ lunch debts. It’s such a little thing, and so easy to do if you have any cash to donate. We called our daughter’s school, asked how much it would take to clear any outstanding tabs, and wrote them a check. You’ll make a lot of families’ lives easier, and will reduce the shame these kids feel for something that’s no fault of their own.
  • The Brits have all the legislative fun: A Labour MP held up a sign saying “He’s lying to you” behind Nigel Farage in a televised address by the far-right UKIP leader.
  • The University of Nevada joins the growing list of NCAA football programs reneging on scholarship offers weeks or even days before the official signing day. I’m no lawyer, so I’ll ask the crowd: at what point does such an oral agreement become binding on either party?
  • I’d never heard of the Chinese delicacy fat choy, a bacteria that grows long, noodle-like strands, but it turns out its farming is harmful to the environment, and the Chinese government is now cracking down on its production and sale.
  • Recode has a long, fascinating interview with my former colleague Bill Simmons on The Ringer, the rise and abrupt end of Grantland, the demise of his HBO TV show Any Given Wednesday, and much more. I’m still not sure I get the mission of The Ringer; they’ve mixed some great sports content with some head-scratchers where they offer advice to the movie or music industry. But it’s early in the site’s history, and I’m 100% behind any site that supports good journalism and pays its writers.
  • I’m linking here to a piece I saw on Google’s home page (I think) but that I really thought was trash: you could read 200 books a year in the time you waste on social media. There’s a lot wrong with this piece, but let me highlight two things. One, not everyone is wired for the kind of sustained attention required to read a lot of books, and no one should make someone feel bad because s/he isn’t a book reader. I love finding fellow bibliophiles, but if you don’t read books, you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Two, his math suchs. He says “typical non-fiction books have ~50,000 words,” which is wrong; that’s under 200 pages, and even Smart Baseball, which I did not want to be too long, runs over 80,000 words. He also says he reads 400 words per minute and assumes that most Medium readers will too; I doubt he reads that fast unless he’s speed-reading, which doesn’t work (you don’t retain what you read as well), because reading 400 wpm would mean reading about 80 pages an hour, which I think would put anyone at the far-right end of the scale for reading speed … or means he’s reading books written for children. I read a lot, and I read fast, and I doubt I read 400 wpm unless it’s something simple and incredibly engrossing, like genre fiction or a Wodehouse novel. So, yeah, if you don’t read 200 books a year or 100 or even 20, don’t feel bad. This article was just stupid.
  • Is the hunt for paid editors tearing Wikipedia apart from the inside? That seems a bit dramatic, but I think the mere existence of paid editors is cause to retain or recover our skepticism about the reliability of information found on the site.
  • From McSweeney’s: The Rules of This Board Game Are Long, But Also Complicated. I don’t understand why this is supposed to be funny.

Stick to baseball, 12/10/16.

I wrote a bunch of stuff this week to cover all the major transactions before and during the winter meetings, including:

The Cardinals signing Dexter Fowler
The Yankees signing Aroldis Chapman
The Nationals’ trade for Adam Eaton
The Cubs/Royals trade with Wade Davis and Jorge Soler
The Rockies signing Ian Desmond
The Rays signing Wilson Ramos
The Red Sox trading for Chris Sale
The Red Sox trading for Tyler Thornburg
The Giants signing Mark Melancon
The Yankees signing Matt Holliday
The Astros signing Carlos Beltran

I also held a Klawchat on Friday afternoon.

Over at Paste, I reviewed Terraforming Mars, one of the best new boardgames of 2016, and one that will place high on my ranking of the top ten games of the year when that’s published in the next few days.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 10/15/16.

I have written two posts on the Arizona Fall League so far, one on real prospects and one on Tim Tebow. (These were originally one article, but the baseball editors chose to split it up.) There will be another post coming soon covering everything else I saw while in Arizona. I wrote a piece earlier in the week discussing the use of instant replay on slides, which has come up several times already this postseason. I held my usual
Klawchat on Thursday as well.

My latest boardgame review for Paste covers the abstract two-player game Agamemnon, which I think is just fantastic. It’s quick to learn and play, offers some simple variations to increase the replay value, and has just the right amounts of competition and randomness for a great two-player title.

You can also preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

  • One of the Central Park Five – five men arrested and convicted of a brutal rape, only to be exonerated when the actual rapist confessed over a decade later – wrote an emotional editorial on how Donald Trump continues to harm him with the candidate’s continued insistence that the men were guilty. (Trump ran a full-page ad at the time of the crime, calling for New York to reinstate the death penalty for these five kids.)
  • Trump’s comments about “rigged” elections pose an existential threat to our democracy, and Professor Rick Hasen’s post calls on other Republican leaders to disavow these statements, as we already see Trump supporters talking about taking up arms if he loses the election. Of course, this isn’t new for Trump; he is also threatening to jail his opponent if he wins.
  • Adults who weren’t vaccinated and caught vaccine-preventabble diseases cost the U.S. $7.1 billion in 2015 in medical costs and lost productivity, in case you’re wondering why you should care about morons who don’t get vaccinated.
  • Yet another study has found no link between thimerosal or mercury-containing vaccines and autism.
  • Creationism is on the rise in Europe, even though Europe as a whole is more secular than the U.S. and has been more accepting of the reality of evolution.
  • The Guardian has a great longread on the insanity of the bottled water industry. In the developed world, where tap water is safe to drink, it is absolutely criminal to consume bottled water at the rate we do, from the environmental costs of shipping it to the wastes of plastic involved in packaging it.
  • World leaders meeting in Rwanda this week are trying to ban another set of greenhouse gases. Banning hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) requires amending the Montreal Protocol, but these gases are more than 1000 times more potent in contributing to warming than carbon dioxide is.
  • A Chinese mining firm has received approval to destroy a koala habitat in Australia so they can build a coal mine. There’s a lot wrong here, since burning coal itself is a contributor to climate change.
  • There’s a state of emergency in Ethiopia, where two ethnic groups, the Oromo and the Amhara, have protested rule by the minority Tigreans, the same sort of sectarian divisions that led to Eritrea’s secession and ongoing skirmishes between the two countries.
  • A reader sent along this story on the ‘biryani wars’ in India, where the iconic dish has become subject to accusations of tainted food and government inspections.
  • The Trump/sexual assault storyline has been well-covered everywhere, so I’m not linking to any of those hundreds of stories. But one thing I want to highlight that’s tangentially related is writer Kelly Oxford’s call for women to share their stories of sexual assault on Twitter, which produced a deluge of replies. The Washington Post and the Guardian had two of the best summaries of Oxford’s efforts and the conversations it has launched.
  • Meanwhile, Mike Pence’s own policy positions have skated a bit under the radar, which I think is a mistake given the instability of his running mate. This is the first time I’ve linked to Cosmopolitan, but their summary of Pence’s anti-abortion policies is worthwhile. He tried to pass a law that would have required women who had abortions or miscarriages to hold funerals for the dead fetuses. Not mentioned is that he also tried to allocate state funds to “gay conversion” therapy, which doesn’t work and is opposed by the American Psychiatric Association.
  • The NY Times found the one 19-year-old black man who’s skewing the USC/LA Times poll. The reasons are a bit technical, but I think they provide some good insight on how polling works.
  • The President of the Iowa Federation of Republican Women resigned her post and wrote a long explanation of why, calling it an “unhealthy relationship” when the party she supports is backing a candidate who has a history of sexual assault and of bragging about it.
  • Three men were arrested in Kansas this week for plotting terrorist acts. The men were white and appear to claim to be Christian, and their targets were Muslims. I doubt they realize how incredibly un-Christian such actions would be.
  • Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes dropped some truth on his Twitter feed about the NCAA and its institutions profiting off the unpaid labor of athletes:

    Emma Baccelleri wrote more about Hayes’ commentary in a strong post on Deadspin.

Stick to baseball, 12/26/15.

I only wrote one new Insider piece this week, on Mike Leake contract with St. Louis, although I got a nice response from readers on my 2009 article on the shameful, insidious exclusion of Tim Raines from the Hall of Fame.

And now, the links…

  • Lots of vaccine-denier bullshit out there this week, like the mom in Texas who hosted an infection “party” for unvaccinated kids and said the illness is “meant to eliminate the weak.” Aside from how callous this is – one would presume she thinks her own kids are not among the weak – meant by whom, exactly? Did God send us the measles to wipe out a bunch of toddlers?
  • Meanwhile, a nurse and other vaccine-deniers in Australia have been ripping down vaccination posters in hospitals. If you catch someone doing this, stop them. Report them to security. Do whatever it takes. Idiocy like this breeds faster when rational people stay silent.
  • Some vaccine-denier tried to “argue” with me by citing the so-called “fourteen studies” on vaccine safety, a site and claim that originates with Jenny McCarthy. Well, as you might have guessed, it’s science-denying doggerel.
  • The Washington Post tried to name the country’s ten best food cities by sending its food critic to 30 20 13 cities this year. Yeah, I get that travel is expensive, but this would be like me listening to 108 songs and then giving you my top 100 for the year. Also, the list itself has a lot of very dubious opinions in it – the author goes out of his way to dump on New York City, which has about 8.5 million people in it, and dwarfs almost every other good food town in the country on sheer quantity. I asked the author on Twitter what he had at the amazing Cosme that didn’t impress him, but he hasn’t responded. If you don’t like Cosme’s food – the prices are another matter, but that’s Manhattan for you – I absolutely question your taste.
  • Iceland has an awesome Christmas tradition: giving and reading books.
  • The title of this thinkpiece, “We Are All Martin Shrkeli,” is rather clickbaity, but the message within, about how the modern pharmaceutical industry and its pricing structure deny critical medications to the poor and sick around the world.
  • The new Netflix series Master of None, starring Aziz Ansari and co-created by Ansari and Alan Yang (“Junior” of FireJoeMorgan fame, and MouseRat’s bass player), is phenomenal: funny, sweet, insightful, and different. One episode dealt with racism in Hollywood, and Ansari penned an editorial last month expounding on the same topic.
  • Slate has a somewhat scary piece on the evolution of creationism bills in state legislatures. If you live in a state where this garbage is legal, get active. Creationism and its Trojan horse of intelligent design are not science, and teaching them in any fashion in a public school violates the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the Constitution.
  • Boy does the Guardian ever do a number on Sepp Blatter and his corrupt fiefdom.
  • Speaking of corruption, the Las Vegas Review-Journal is embroiled in a scandal that combines plagiarism and a conflict of interest, which has led to more than one situation like this, where a longtime reporter has quit over these ethical violations.
  • Another thinkpiece, but a worthwhile one: What the Mast Brothers scandal really means to those of us reveling in it. I’m only in agreement with the author to a point; even if the victims are rich, or stupid, or both, does that make a particular fraud any less of a crime? It may color our opinions of the people who perpetrated it, but the nature of the fraud itself – in this case, Mast Brothers’ likely lie about how and where they sourced their chocolate – is unchanged.
  • The Atlantic discusses the schism within the Republican Party in a balanced way, without exulting in the party’s potential for self-immolation.
  • The New Yorker looks at the rise and ongoing fall of for-profit colleges, which takes advantage of our already horribly broken student-loan system.
  • Via a reader, Quartz gives us (and fixes) the most misleading charts and graphs of 2015.
  • My adopted hometown of Wilmington called in the CDC to help stem the gun violence epidemic. Of course, the CDC’s ability to help is limited because the NRA has essentially bought budget clauses that prevent the CDC from researching this topic too heavily or promoting anything that might lead to tighter gun control.
  • Tweet of the week – enjoy these fake yet highly credible thinkpiece titles:

Saturday five, 11/6/15.

My annual ranking of the top 50 free agents this offseason is now up for Insiders, and I held my weekly Klawchat right after they were posted.

I reviewed the app version of Camel Up for Paste this week. Since I wrote that review, there’s been a minor update that cleaned up some of the issues I had with the graphics, notably the info available on screen to you. It’s available here for iOS devices or Android.

And now, the links…

  • Well this just sucks: Kevin Folta, scientist and advocate of genetic engineering of food crops and generally of the safety of food science, is removing himself from public debate. He’s been attacked by the FraudBabe and the dipshits at U.S. “Right to Know,” a group that uses the veneer of consumer rights to mask a blatant science-denial/anti-GMO policy. They’ve been using FOIA requests to try to scuttle legitimate research and discussion. The only solution I see is for more of us to speak up and out about science.
  • Peet’s Coffee has purchased a majority stake in Intelligentsia, their second such move into high-end craft coffee after their purchase of Stumptown. I don’t know what this means for the space; I don’t see a natural synergy here but fear it’s more a move to neutralize competition from a higher-margin competitor
  • We forget that the people pictured in certain memes are actual human beings, such as the skeptical Third World kid, so the BBC has done a story on that picture, finding the aid worker pictured but not the child.
  • Canada’s new government seems about as pro-science as it gets, including the creation of a new post, Minister of Science. Can you imagine any of the current Republican candidates for President doing such a thing? So many of them have staked out one or more denialist positions that this seems out of the question.
  • Some good sense from the Environmental Defense Blog on what the news about China’s coal consumption really means. Tip: Climate change is still real, and the CO2 measurements aren’t affected.
  • Thanksgiving is coming and it’s never too early to start cooking, at least when it comes to preparing stock, as Michael Ruhlman explains. I actually make a brown chicken stock instead, since I always have chicken carcasses in the freezer (bones and necks, and sometimes wings) but rarely have turkey.
  • Smile You Bitch: Being a Woman in 2015” lives up to its provocative title. Rape culture is everywhere, and it’s ingrained in many young men from childhood.
  • Speaking of treating women like navel lint, I give you the NFL’s attempt to hush up Greg Hardy’s domestic violence case.
  • So the demise of Grantland led to a lot of thinkpieces (and a few readers telling me they were canceling their Insider subs, which, to be perfectly honest, just punishes all the wrong people here), but one I liked was from Fortune, talking about its implications for the business of longform journalism. I didn’t read a lot of Grantland’s stuff, but I do believe their mission mattered, and I hope the end of that site is just a blip.
  • From Forbes, a good piece looking at the limited research to date on pediatricians who turn away vaccine-refusing parents. That’s a lot better than the nonsense hit piece on Bryce Harper the same publication ran earlier last week.
  • I’ve often wondered about whether linking to Spotify in my music posts was helping or hurting the artists in question, but Cameron from the band Superhumanoids told me in September that it was the former, and now FiveThirtyEight has a piece supporting this with data.
  • The long-running TV series Mythbusters is ending after its next season, and the NY Times offers an appreciation, crediting the show with rising interest in STEM education and careers.
  • New research on the lizards called tuataras supports the theory that the penis evolved just once for mammals and reptiles and has just, well, hung around.

The Sixth Extinction.

My annual column on players I got wrong is up for Insiders.

I was feeling okay until I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, winner of the most recent Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction, an unbelievably well-written and thorough accounting of the history of mass extinctions with a particular emphasis on the current one that is the first to be caused by another species – us.

The various scientists who work on the history of life on earth and of the planet itself agree that we’ve seen five mass extinction events since life first began, including the one we all learned about in school, the massive impact of a foreign body on earth that ended the Cretaceous period, killing all non-avian dinosaurs and three of every four species extant on the planet at that time. That wasn’t even the most damaging to life on earth – the end Permian event wiped out over 90% of extant species – and other extinction events had differing causes, including widespread glaciation or gradual oceanic acidification. But these events did occur, along with numerous smaller extinction events, which is why the current biosphere looks like it does, with our species the dominant one … and causing the current mass extinction event, which could lead to the loss of half of the biodiversity on the planet by the end of the century.

Kolbert has a lot of what could be some very dry paleontological and geological research on the history of mass extinction events, but instead weaves them into numerous narratives around specific species that we’ve lost or are trying to protect. She flashes backward into historical research to discuss long-vanished species like graptolites, which were wiped out in the ice age that ended the Ordovician period roughly 444 million years ago, or to discuss the various natural environmental phenomena that caused previous mass extinction events. In many of these chapters, she traveled to conservation sites, to zoos, or to natural habitats to follow scientists attempting to stave off extinctions or learn the causes of population losses. She travels to Panama to witness the desperate attempts to save various golden frog populations from the chytrid fungus, which eats away at amphibians’ skin, and to a cave in upstate New York where the native bat population was decimated by “white nose syndrome,” caused by another fungus called Pseudogymnoascus (formerly geomyces) destructans that thrives in the cold temperatures the bats favor.

By the end of the book, Kolbert has devoted a chapter to each of the major effects of human development on the biosphere that are now factors in the ongoing mass extinction event, including climate change, ocean acidification, habitat destruction, geographic fragmentation, spreading invasive species, and hunting/poaching. It’s utterly horrifying, not least because there’s so little we can do at this point: Our very existence, and our (temporary) supremacy atop the evolutionary pyramid, has led to numerous extinctions, from our hunting the great auks out of existence to deforestation that has wiped out numerous bird and amphibian species. Global warming is a dire threat to marine life in particular, and ocean acidification, climate change’s “equally evil twin,” is killing the world’s coral reefs. We’re bringing pathogens to ecosystems where the native species haven’t evolved any resistance, and bringing invasive plant, insect, and reptile species to environments where they lack natural predators. We suck.

Of course, we are also the only species in the history of the planet to actually care about stopping extinctions, although our efforts tend to focus on single species and to come very late, rather than trying to stop massive factors like climate change that threaten thousands of species simultaneously. Kolbert can’t even muster a high note on which to end the book, not that she should sugar-coat the truth, and concludes with the open question of what consequences these environmental catastrophes and the consequential loss of biodiversity might have for us.

Kolbert goes into the suspected causes of the mass extinctions, four of which are more or less tied to the current event. The end Permian “impact” event makes for a fascinating story because the hypothesis is so recent (first proposed in 1980) and was so widely derided at the time, including a famous New York Times editorial from 1985 titled “Miscasting the Dinosaur’s Horoscope,” which concluded with the line, “Astronomers should leave to astrologers the task of seeking the cause of earthly events in the stars.” While it’s the one kind of mass extinction event cause we’re not currently putting in play ourselves, it makes for a compelling side story as Kolbert explains both the discovery of the evidence that backs it up and the scientific establishment’s resistance to the idea when it was first proposed.

Undeniable.

I’ve had three Insider pieces go up in the last 36 hours, on the the Johnny Cueto trade, a few Binghamton Mets prospects, and the Tyler Clippard trade.

Bill Nye’s Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation should be required reading for every American high school student, and I’d hand the book to anyone who indicated s/he plans on voting in our next election. Nye demolishes the many ignorant anti-evolution arguments out there, while eloquently and ardently presenting a case for science in a world of denial and fear-mongering.

The title refers to the persistence of evolution deniers, those folks who refuse to accept the scientific proof of evolution because it interferes with other aspects of their worldview. Nye engaged in a well-known debate with a particularly ardent denier, Ken Ham, who also refuses to accept the actual age of the earth, substituting his own fiction (I believe he says it’s 6000 years old, although some other deniers go with 10,000 years, not that it matters in the least because they’re wrong) for geological fact much as he substitutes his own fiction (that the first book of the Christian Bible is the literal truth of our creation) for biological fact. That debate, in which Nye clowned Ham, who continually referred to the Bible as his “evidence,” was one of the spurs for Nye to write Undeniable, but it serves more broadly as a frontal assault on the anti-science/anti-intellectual movement that hinders or prevents us from facing major societal or global problems, from disease eradication to feeding the planet to slowing anthropomorphic climate change.

The book should convince anyone who still denies evolution yet is willing to listen to some basic facts. We know now that all mammals descended from a common ancestor that lived some 70 million years ago, something demonstrated by patterns in the fossil record and the similarities between our DNA and those of many species seemingly unrelated to us. We’re barely distinguishable at the DNA level from chimpanzees, sharing 99% of our DNA with the related primates called bonobos, while we share about half of our DNA sequences with bananas (themselves the product of cloning; every yellow banana you eat is a Cavendish and is genetically identical to all of the other Cavendishes in the world). NOTE: I edited the common ancestor bit, as I conflated two numbers when writing this review from memory. Thanks to the readers on FB who pointed this out.

He attacks some of the most common (and dumb) creationist arguments against evolution, swatting them down like so many genetically-similar-to-human fruit flies. The argument that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics fails because that law only applies to closed systems, whereas the Earth – getting energy from that big yellow ball in the sky – is very much an open system. The argument from irreducible complexity, that current organisms are too complex to be explained without an Official Designer™, fails on multiple counts, not the least of which is all of the suboptimal designs we see in nature; Nye even mentions ulnar collateral ligaments for pitchers in an amusing aside on this topic. He points out more significantly that the only reason you’d see the “designs” we see in nature are as the result of a process of incremental changes through genetic mutations, and that the “what good is half a wing?” variation of this argument misstates how features like wings evolved. He takes down the false dichotomy of macroevolution versus microevolution (which creationists claim is only “adaptation”), including how the latter is the inevitable result of the former – and how there’s plenty of tangible proof of the latter, despite what Ken Ham might claim.

Once Nye has explained the theory of evolution by way of the various insubstantial criticisms levied at it by creationists, he takes on multiple issues that are related to or follow naturally from our understanding of evolution, all of which are significant issues in the science policy sphere.

* GMOs. Nye has already walked back some of his criticisms from this chapter after taking fire from the scientific community at large, although the concerns he raises about the introduction of DNA from distant species into food crops – notably that their effects on the crops’ ecosystems are difficult to predict – are valid. Humans are particularly terrible at foreseeing unintended consequences, as explained in The Invisible Gorilla and demonstrated in nearly every public-policy decision or the entire Bud Selig reign in MLB, and such genetic modifications entail lots of unpredictable ramifications. Nye has continued to raise the alarm about the massive reduction in the monarch butterfly population thanks to the widespread use of glyphosphate, the enzyme-inhibiting herbicide marketed as Roundup, which has decimated the natural supply of milkweed plants. You should plant some in your yard if you’re in the right part of the country; we have for the last two summers and were rewarded in 2014 with several visiting monarch caterpillars.

* Abortion. Nye points out that the claim that life begins at conception is untenable, as a successfully fertilized human embryo may fail to implant in the uterine wall or fail to successfully undergo gastrulation; if such eggs are considered to be alive and human, then a woman who miscarries for these reasons has committed murder. Nye broaches the topic when discussing stem cells and the concerns, most of which are baseless, about harvesting such cells from fertilized embryos that would otherwise be headed for the sewer.

* Antibiotic drug resistance. If you’ve read my stuff for a while, you know this is a huge issue for me, particularly as it relates to food safety. The problem exists because evolution is true: bacteria that have beneficial mutations that allow them to survive an antibiotic purge reproduce and eventually spread, leading to resistant strains that defeat our drugs. We can’t ever win this battle, but we can certainly fight it more intelligently than we do now.

* Race. It’s not real – that is, not biologically real. Race is a social construct, and Nye explains why.

* Space exploration. Ah, here’s where Nye and I diverge in our views. Nye discusses the possibility of life on other bodies within our solar system, naming a few likely candidates (Mars, Europa, Enceladus), and argues in favor of fairly expensive missions to try to determine if there is life of the microbial variety on any of these planets or satellites. I won’t try to paraphrase his case for fear of doing it an injustice, but I did not find the case satisfactory. A multi-billion dollar mission like this has to have a significant potential payoff for us, and he doesn’t provide one. Knowing there’s life on other worlds would be interesting, but does it advance our knowledge in any practical or meaningful fashion? How would it? Perhaps we’d find microbes that can produce energy in a novel way, or that can consume chemicals that are pollutants on earth … but he doesn’t even broach those possibilities. And, of course, that $10 billion or $20 billion mission has a very high probability of finding no life at all, so the potential payout has to exceed the cost by a significant factor.

* Another chapter, on the evolutionary explanations for altruism, also fell a bit short of the mark for me, but for different reasons. I’m strictly a lay reader on this, and can’t put my opinions on the matter on par with those of Nye or his sources, but it seems even after reading Nye’s explanation that the evolutionary psychology explanation for human altruism is too post hoc – crafting a narrative to fit the facts, rather than working from the facts forward as evolutionary biologists have done. The comparison of human altruism to altruistic behavior in other species also struck me as facile, an argument by weak analogy that did not address the extent or nuance of human altruistic behaviors.

Nye does not explicitly offer any arguments against religion or theism, although he is arguing heavily against creationism, Intelligent Design, and any sort of Creator force behind life on this planet. He also makes several points that are inherently anti-religious, such as the fact that we are not “special” from a genetic perspective and the fact that we aren’t the end product of evolution because evolution has no end product. Nye points out that some readers may find these points depressing, but says he finds evolution and the march of science inspiring, especially because of the breadth of knowledge out there waiting for us to discover it.

I listened to Nye’s narration of the Audible audio edition of Undeniable, and there is no question in my mind that he made the book more enjoyable for me. He brings tremendous enthusiasm to the subject, and his comic timing and delivery are effortless and natural. It’s hard to hear him exude over these topics and not feel his excitement or his indignation. Nye says he wrote this book because teaching anti-scientific topics like creationism hurts our children and our country, a point with which I agree wholeheartedly. Hearing those words from his mouth made the message seem more potent.