Are all Arthropods connected?

Since the dawn of the biological sciences, humankind has struggled to comprehend the relationships among the major groups of “jointed-legged” animals — the arthropods. Now, a team of researchers…has finished a completely new analysis of the evolutionary relationships among the arthropods, answering many questions that defied previous attempts to unravel how these creatures were connected.

Now, for the first time, science has a solid grasp of what those relationships are, and a framework upon which to build. The new study makes a major contribution to our understanding of the nature and origins of the planet’s biodiversity.

There are millions of distinct species of arthropods, including all the insects, crustaceans, millipedes, centipedes, spiders, and a host of other animals, all united by having a hard external shell and jointed legs. They are by far the most numerous, and most diverse, of all creatures on Earth — in terms of the sheer number of species, no other group comes close. They make up perhaps 1.6 million of the estimated 1.8 to 1.9 million described species, dominating the planet in number, biomass, and diversity.

The economic aspects of arthropods are also overwhelming. From seafood industries worth billions of dollars annually to the world’s economy, to the importance of insects as pollinators of ornamental and agriculturally important crops, to the medical role played by arthropods (e.g. as disease vectors and parasites), to biological control of introduced species, to their role in every known food web, to toxicology and biopharmaceuticals, arthropods are by far the planet’s most important group of animals…

One of the most important results of this new study is support for the hypothesis that the insects evolved from a group of crustaceans. So flies, honeybees, ants, and crickets all branched off the arthropod family tree from within the lineage that gave rise to today’s crabs, shrimp, and lobsters. Another important finding is that the “Chelicerata” (a group that includes the spiders, scorpions, ticks, and mites) branched off very early, earlier than the millipedes, centipedes, crustaceans, and insects. That means that the spiders, for example, are more distantly related to the insects than many researchers previously thought.

This team approached the problem of illuminating the arthropod family tree by using genetic data (DNA sequences) obtained from 75 species carefully selected to sample the range of arthropod diversity. Many previous analyses were based on the sequences of a handful of genes. The researchers in this study, knowing the daunting diversity they faced, used DNA sequence information from as many genes as they could. In the end, they were able to apply data from 62 protein-coding genes to the problem, leading to an extremely well-supported analysis.

Key to the research was the assistance provided by the collections of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Exactly the sort of edifice the typical teabagger would probably consider useless – worth replacing with a monument to Jesse James.

Schoolchildren in the LA area are fortunate they have easy access to center not only for generalized education of the public; but, a facility with collections and staff capable of aiding scientific research.

Florida Republican resigns before he’s called to ethics hearing

Ray Sansom resigned from the Florida House of Representatives on Sunday night, a dramatic decision on the eve of an ethics trial by his colleagues over his dealings with a Panhandle college.

The move, rendered in a letter hand-delivered by Sansom’s attorney to the Capitol shortly before 8 p.m., ends a career that once put Sansom at the apex of Florida politics but unraveled in scandal as he took a job at Northwest Florida State College on the same day in November 2008 that he was sworn in as House speaker.

Sansom, Republican-Destin, did not acknowledge wrongdoing but said he was stepping down out of love for the chamber. The resignation was effective immediately.

The chairman of the disciplinary panel called it the right move.

This is a resolution that’s in the best interest of everyone involved. He is no longer a member of the Florida House,” said Rep. Bill Galvano, Republican-Bradenton…

Sansom, 47 and a father of three, will lose his health insurance benefits but will still be eligible for a pension for his time as a public servant.

He insisted he acted properly despite ample signs showing he used his power as House budget writer in 2007 and 2008 to funnel tens of millions in taxpayer money to the small college…

The prospect of a messy, public ethics investigation was something few fellow Republicans wanted to endure, and it had the potential to embarrass current and former lawmakers who would have been called to testify, including U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio, who picked Sansom as his budget chief when he was speaker.

And on and on. The interlocking directorate of corruption, sleaze and graft that characterizes “mainstream” American politics continues unabated.

Electing an Obama for President, a Udall for Senate – whoever – doesn’t do much to nationwide promises about ethics and democracy when the pigs at the trough are in charge of writing and administering the laws governing conduct.

Saudi women lawyers to be allowed to argue cases

Saudi Arabia is planning to bring in a new law to allow women lawyers to argue cases in court for the first time.

Justice Minister Mohammed al-Eissa said the law was part of King Abdullah’s plan to develop the legal system.

The law – to be issued “in the coming days” – would allow women to appear in court on family-related cases, including divorce and child custody…

Under a system of male guardianship, Saudi Arabian women are required to be kept separate from men they are not related to.

All are veiled to a greater or lesser degree in public, they are not allowed to drive, and women under 45 must receive permission from a male when they travel.

Opportunities for education and employment are also dependent on male guardianship.

Hey, Saudi Arabia. Welcome to the 19th Century!

Bloom Box promises cheap, emissions-free power


Large, economy-size Bloom Box for data centers

A boxy power plant that could one day produce efficient, inexpensive, clean energy in every home might sound like a pipe dream, but it’s the very real product of a Silicon Valley startup called Bloom Energy. Twenty large corporations that include Google, FedEx, Walmart and eBay have already purchased and begun testing the Bloom Boxes. 60 Minutes recently got a sneak peek at this possibly game-changing energy device.

The Bloom Box idea came from K.R. Sridhar, a former NASA rocket scientist who once built a similar box device to generate oxygen on Mars for future colonists. Sridhar simply turned the concept on its head by pumping oxygen into the box, along with fuel. The oxygen and fuel combine within a new type of fuel cell to create the chemical reaction that makes electricity.

There’s also no need for power lines coming in from an outside source, and Sridhar envisions the box eventually providing energy wirelessly to homes and businesses. That could do away with traditional power plants and the power grid.

Such transformative power may only come about if the Bloom Box fuel cells can work reliably and efficiently — other fuel cell technologies have proven notoriously finicky. Sridhar makes his fuel cells based on cheap sand-based ceramics, coated with special green and black “inks” that allow for the chemical reaction which makes electricity…And unlike fuel cells that require pure hydrogen, the Bloom Box can use fuels ranging from natural gas to bio-gas…

Four boxes have already powered a Google datacenter for a year and half, and used just half as much natural gas as a traditional power plant might require. And eBay’s CEO told 60 Minutes that his company’s five boxes have saved more than $100,000 in electricity costs over nine months. eBay’s boxes run on bio-gas made from landfill trash.

10 Things to Know About Bloom Energy – from a site which actually has assembled reasonable, analytical, knowledgeable pundits who read stuff.

The public introduction of the Bloom Box is this Wednesday. Once I read and digest all the info, I’ll probably add an opinion of my own. Especially if I understand what they’re talking about. 🙂

Ron Paul’s money plan rooted in Fool’s Gold

Ron Paul-style themes have percolated through the conservative movement since Paul’s beat-the-spread 2008 presidential campaign. Of all those themes, the one that has achieved the widest audience is Paul’s call for a return to money based on precious metals such as gold and silver…

In 1929, the U.S. economy slumped into recession. Under the weight of a series of terrible decisions, that recession collapsed into the worldwide Great Depression.

But why did decision-makers make so many bad decisions? The short answer is that they were trapped. Almost all of the right decisions would have ballooned the U.S. federal budget deficit. As budget deficits expanded, investors would inevitably worry that their dollars might lose value in the future. They would demand to trade their dollars for gold at the fixed price of $20.67 to the ounce. Under the rules of the gold standard, the U.S. government would be obliged to sell.

As long as the deficits continued, the U.S. government would lose gold. Threatened with the exhaustion of its gold supply, the government felt it had no choice: It had to close the budget deficit. So, in the throes of a severe downturn, the U.S. government did exactly the opposite of what economists would otherwise advise: It cut spending and raised taxes — capsizing the economy even deeper into depression.

It’s very strange to hear gold standard advocates criticize President Hoover for imposing steep tax increases in 1932, the Depression’s worst year. Yet the gold standard they champion was the reason for the tax increases they deplore…

Every other gold-standard country faced similar challenges in the 1930s. Those countries that quit gold first, like Britain, suffered least. Those that hung onto gold longest — the United States and France — suffered most.

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Filming holiday celebration constitutes “antisocial behavior”


Amateur photographer captures his own arrest

Police questioned an amateur photographer under anti-terrorist legislation and later arrested him, claiming pictures he was taking in a Lancashire town were “suspicious” and constituted “antisocial behaviour“.

Footage recorded on a video camera by Bob Patefield, a former paramedic, shows how police approached him and a fellow photography enthusiast in Accrington town centre. They were told they were being questioned under the Terrorism Act…

He and his friend were taking photographs of Christmas festivities on 19 December, after attending a photography exhibition. The last images on his camera before he was stopped show a picture of a Santa Claus, people in fancy dress and a pipe band marching through the town.

He turned on his video camera the moment he was approached by a police community support officer (PCSO). In the footage, she said: “Because of the Terrorism Act and everything in the country, we need to get everyone’s details who is taking pictures of the town.”

She replied: “I’m an officer of the law, and I’m requiring you, because I believe your behaviour to be of a suspicious nature, and of possibly antisocial [nature] … I can take your details just to ascertain that everything is OK.”

Patefield and his friend maintained that they did not want to disclose their details. They were stopped a third and final time when returning to their car. This time the officer was accompanied by an acting sergeant. “Under law, fine, we can ask for your details – we’ve got no powers,” he said. “However, due to the fact that we believe you were involved in antisocial behaviour, ie taking photographs … then we do have a power under [the Police Reform Act] to ask for your name and address, and for you to provide it. If you don’t, then you may be arrested…”

Patefield was arrested for refusing to give his details, while his friend, who gave in, walked free. Patefield was held for eight hours and released without charge.

Yeah, yeah. I know. Discretion is the better part of valor.

But, sometimes you have to stand up and be counted for the freedom we’re supposed to be fighting all over the world to protect. Even if some petty pop-up snoop has the authority to shut you down. UK or US? It’s all the same.

Parents major influence on child’s decision to pursue science

Parental influence and access to mathematics courses are likely to guide students to careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics or medicine (STEMM), according to research from Michigan State University.

The findings of Jon Miller, MSU Hannah Professor of Integrative Studies, and colleagues were presented at a symposium titled “Tomorrow’s Scientists and Engineers” at this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science…

“Failure to build and maintain a competitive scientific work force in the decades ahead,” Miller said, “will inevitably lead to a decline in the American standard of living.”

Miller used data from the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, which kept track of nearly 6,000 students from middle school through college, attempting to determine what led them to or guided them away from STEMM careers.

According to Miller, “The pathway to a STEMM career begins at home (.pdf).” He said this is especially true in families in which children were strongly encouraged to go to college.

“Only four percent of students who experienced low parent encouragement to attend college planned to enter a postsecondary program and major in a STEMM field,” he said. “This compares to 41 percent of students whose parents strongly encouraged college attendance…”

The research also reinforced the role mathematics plays in the pursuit of a STEMM career.

“Mathematics is a primary gateway to a STEMM career,” Miller said, “beginning with algebra track placement in grades seven and eight, and continuing through high school and college calculus courses.”

Makes sense to me. Reflecting on the article, I can still hear my father encouraging me to go to night school to study engineering even I had to start work at 17 as an apprentice machinist to contribute to the family income.

My interest in science had always been as respected within the family as our shared interest in creative and performing arts.

For a kid growing up in the downhill end of a New England factory town, I think I received solid support for STEMM.