Insects Frozen In Time

A discovery in India of a cache of 50 million-year-old amber has allowed scientists to discover hundreds of new species of insects.  The insects are stunningly well preserved, so much so that they look like they could escape the amber, shake off the remnants, and hop, stalk, or fly away.

An example of an insect encased in amber from an earlier find in Spain

The photos of the trapped insects are very evocative, because the insects look so much like the insects of the modern world.  They feature antennae, and feelers, and segmented bodies, and lacy wings.  It appears that, in the last 50 million years, there have been no large, developmental leaps for insects — at least, not in connection with body design and external appearance.  Instead, the insects have been biding their time for those millions of years, letting the long roll of years and the forces of natural selection hone and incrementally improve what had already proven to be a very successful evolutionary design.

One interesting aspect of the recent find is that the soft Indian amber in which the insects are encased can be dissolved, allowing scientists to handle the insects themselves.  Imagine, holding an insect that lived 50 million years ago!

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Thanks Be To The Hardy Boys

What starts a person reading?  What makes a young child believe that sitting down with some printed pages and a cardboard cover and quietly reading can be an enjoyable way to spend a few hours?

For me, it was the Hardy Boys books.  I’m not sure when I first read one of the Hardy Boys books, but I’m pretty sure I immediately became hooked.  Who wouldn’t be interested in the exploits of Frank and Joe Hardy?  After all, they were two all-American, clean cut lads who lived with their wise, grey-haired Dad, who was a famous private detective, their Mom, and their Aunt Gertrude.  For some unknown reason, they were improbably wealthy — heck, they even owned a motorboat — and they had girlfriends, lots of other friends, and countless adventures.  I religiously collected the Hardy Boys novels, and tried to read every one that had ever been written.  My favorite was Hunting For Hidden Gold, where Frank and Joe were pictured on the front cover digging up a sack of gold coins by flashlight as some bad guy lurked dangerously in the background.

What was it about these books that spurred my imagination?  I’m not sure, exactly.  Maybe it was that the books used old-fashioned words, like “chum,” “sleuthing,” and “jalopy,” and that Frank and Joe had friends with weird names, like “Chet” and “Biff.”  Maybe it was that Bayport, where Frank and Joe lived, seemed to generate mystery about once a week.  Maybe it was that Frank and Joe always were impeccably coiffed and wore v-neck sweaters, no matter what season it was.  Maybe it was that their simple adventures, bravery, pluck, and nerve were just enough to trigger my imagination, but not overwhelm it.

Whatever the reason, the Hardy Boys got me in the habit of reading, and it is a habit that has lasted to this day.  For that, I am grateful to Franklin W. Dixon (and therefore all of the writers who created the imaginary world of the Hardy Boys under that durable pen name).

Mommy’s Brain

A new study published in Behavioral Neuroscience suggests that giving birth causes the brains of mothers to grow in certain areas.  The study compared brain size soon after birth with brain size months later and concluded that the gray matter of the brain increased by a significant amount.  The specific areas of the brain that were affected deal with maternal motivation, reward and emotion processing, sensory integration, and reasoning and judgment.  All of these areas are relevant to child-rearing (although you could make a case that every area of the brain is related in some fashion to child-rearing).

It shouldn’t be surprising that the female brain reacts to giving birth and caring for a child.  After birth, females are flooded with hormones like estrogen, oxytocin and prolactin, and first-time mothers are learning an entirely new set of skills, including surviving on little sleep, coming bolt awake at the first murmurings of a waking infant, and mastering the interpretation of baby cries to determine whether a child is starving, dealing with a poop-filled diaper, or just lonely for Mom’s smiling face.

Not surprisingly, the study did not include the impact of having a child on the brains of new fathers.  My guess would be that any such study would conclude that the birth of a child does nothing to divert the male brain from its long, gradual slide to eventual senility.  While maternal brains respond energetically to new stimuli, sluggish paternal brains just hope to get some sleep.

On A Possible Republican Sweep, And The Political Lessons To Be Learned From The Tale Of Brave Sir Robin

If the polls are to be believed — and that remains an open question in my mind — Republicans are likely to win the House of Representatives and have a long shot chance of assuming control of the Senate.  If that occurs, voters will find out whether the Republicans mean what they have been saying during the campaign or whether they will instead be like Brave Sir Robin.

Remember Brave Sir Robin from Monty Python and the Holy Grail?  He was the publicity-hungry knight who desperately wanted to join in the search for the Grail.  He left on his quest accompanied by a minstrel and a cadre of musicians who sang constantly about his adventures.  And yet, when the going got tough and the giant three-headed knight awaited, Brave Sir Robin made no attempt to fight.  As his minstrel sang:

When danger reared its ugly head
He bravely turned his tail and fled
Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about
And gallantly he chickened out
Bravely talking to his feet
He beat a very brave retreat
Bravest of the brave, Sir Robin

I’m tired of politicians who talk a good game but don’t deliver.  I’m hoping that, if Republicans in fact sweep to victory this November, they will indeed slash spending, reduce the deficit, and restore fiscal sanity to our federal government.  If they instead act like Brave Sir Robin, I think that will be it for me and the Republicans.  I’ll have to start looking for Sir Lancelot elsewhere.

Hey, Big Spender!

We all hear a lot about the enormous sums spent by outside groups on the 2010 elections.  Most of the complaints aired in the media have been about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the conservative issue advocacy groups that are supporting Republican candidates.  I therefore was surprised to learn that the biggest spender in this election, other than the two political parties themselves, is the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (“AFSCME”), a union that represents governmental employees.

It turns out that three of the five biggest spenders this election cycle are unions.  According to this article in the Wall Street Journal, AFSCME is the biggest spender by a considerable margin, having shelled out $87.5 million to support Democratic candidates.  That is $12.5 million more than the second place finisher, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent $75 million.  American Crossroads and Crossroads GOP, two groups that have attracted a lot of media attention because of their affiliation with Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, have collectively spent $65 million.  Rounding out the top five are the Service Employees International Union, which has spent $44 million, and the National Education Association, a teachers union that has spent $40 million.

When we hear people complaining about the glut of money in politics, we need to remember that the money flows in from both sides.  If Republicans are supposedly in the pockets of business interests because of the political activities of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where does that leave Democrats who have received enormous support from government employees and teachers who directly benefited from the federal “stimulus” legislation and the special “stimulus” spending specifically designed to help teachers keep their jobs?

If you are convinced, as I am, about the need to cut government spending as part of the effort to bring the budget into balance — which inevitably will mean cutting the federal spending that helps to support the jobs and benefits of government employees and teachers — you need to be concerned about how much money is being funneled into political campaigns by government employee and teachers unions.  Only the hopelessly naive would believe that Democratic politicians who get elected thanks to large-scale union spending are going to take a hard look at government spending cuts that will eliminate union jobs.

A Bounce Back Game

After losing at Wisconsin last Saturday night and falling to number 10 in the polls, the Buckeyes came roaring back yesterday.  On a fine fall day in Columbus, overcast and perfect for college football, they trounced Purdue, 49-0.  The score really isn’t reflective of how one-sided the game was.

The Buckeyes get ready to score one of their first half touchdowns against Purdue

Ohio State led 42-0 at halftime and racked up more than 400 yards of offense in the first half.  They ran the ball pretty much at will, Boom Herron lived up to his name as he blasted through Purdue for two scores, and Terrelle Pryor threw for three additional touchdowns.  The defense, after getting gashed by Wisconsin’s running attack, totally shut down the Boilermakers very banged-up offense.  In the second half the Buckeyes coasted (a bit of a concern to the Buckeye Nation, which knows that you don’t want to get sloppy).

Up next is Minnesota, where the Buckeyes will play their third Saturday night game of the year against a Golden Gophers team that has struggled all year and recently fired its coach.

Roger Waters And The Wall In Columbus

During the guitar solo on Comfortably Numb

Last night Richard and I, along with a bunch of other friends and colleagues, watched Roger Waters’ performance of The Wall, in its entirety, at the Schottenstein Center.

During Another Brick in the Wall, Part II

It was an awesome spectacle, and I am trying to use those terms with precision.  Waters, who is whippet-thin, was in good voice and good spirits and was backed by a large and skilled band and backup vocalists.  Together they were able to musically recreate the album — not quite note-for-note, but close.  The songs sounded great on an excellent quadrophonic sound system, and soon much of the audience was singing along.  By the time the show reached The Trial, a massive, crushing wave of sound was washing over the audience.

The music, of course, was married with a lot of showmanship and visual effects.  As the show progressed, workers steadily built The Wall brick by brick.  The Wall then served as the conceptual centerpiece for the show and the backdrop for wide-ranging video projections, many of which had overt political themes, before it finally crashed to the ground at the show’s climax.  The show also featured enormous, extraordinary puppets depicting characters in the same disturbed cartoon style found on the album, a crashing airplane, and a huge floating boar covered with advertising and political slogans and graffiti.

The Wall is a weird, disturbing album, filled with pain and misogyny.  This performance of the album sounded similar themes, and at times during the performance of album one the anti-woman messages became unbearable.  For album two the perspective was a bit less anti-female (but only a bit) and more political and anti-war, including a profoundly moving video montage of soldiers returning home to greet their children.  As we reached side four of the album, fascist concepts prevailed, with giant goosestepping hammers projected against The Wall, red and black flags, and Waters clad in a floor length black leather coat with a Nazi-style armband.  Watching the show beginning to end, you can’t help but conclude that Waters must have had to deal with some disturbing issues in his life.

For me, highlights of the night were Another Brick in the Wall Part II, where Waters was joined on stage by a group of children who sang and danced and then went to protest at the feet of an enormous strutting schoolteacher puppet, Mother, where Waters sang a duet with a 1980 video recording of himself that was projected on The Wall, Hey You, Nobody Home, and finally the stunning, irresistible Comfortably Numb, where a guitarist stood atop The Wall as he played the iconic guitar solos from the album.

This show was an experience, and one well worth having.