Weekend Coffee: September 6

Weekend Coffee: September 6 September 6, 2014


• This week, Bob McDonnell, a.k.a Virginia’s former “Governor Ultrasound“, was convicted by a jury on multiple counts of corruption. The schadenfreude-y part is that McDonnell ran for office as a religious-right, pro-marriage, Christian-family-values candidate, whereas his defense at trial basically consisted of arguing that his own marriage was a shambles and that everything he said on the campaign trail was a lie.

• In weird and cool biology news: two unclassifiable animal species – belonging to no known phylum – were discovered on the ocean floor off the Australian coast. The creatures, placed in the new genus Dendrogramma, resemble tiny, free-drifting mushrooms and have curious similarities to the Ediacaran life forms that flourished just before the Cambrian explosion. Frustratingly, the methods used to preserve them mean that we can’t sequence their DNA. (You can read the full paper in PLoS One.)

• There’s a new line in our cosmic address: scientists have determined that the Milky Way is part of a newly mapped, 520-million-light-year-wide galactic supercluster which they’ve dubbed Laniakea, Hawaiian for “immeasurable heaven”.

• Take the long view: Margaret Atwood, along with dozens of other writers, is taking part in a conceptual-art project to write a book that no one will be able to read for a hundred years.

The Economist publishes, and then hastily retracts, a review of a book on American slavery by Edward Baptist which argued that Baptist wasn’t “objective” because he was biased against the slaveholders. Yes, in 2014.

• After a long string of court losses, the religious right has finally found a single federal judge willing to uphold a ban on marriage equality. Less auspicious for them is that this judge apparently doesn’t know what the Fourteenth Amendment says.

• Nigerian “witch hunter” Helen Ukpabio, an extraordinarily evil woman who encourages parents to abuse their own children, is trying to silence criticism by filing spurious libel suits against British humanist organizations.

• To understand what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri, you need to read this lengthy but essential piece of journalism by Radley Balko.

To summarize: The outlying land around St. Louis is a patchwork of tiny municipal fiefdoms, shaped by decades of white flight and segregation, which fund their local governments through predatory law enforcement that seizes on every excuse imaginable to fine and jail their mostly poor, mostly black residents. The anger and resentment this treatment engenders has been building for a long time, until it boiled over in response to the shooting death of Michael Brown.

For our democracy to thrive, we need media-literate citizens. News literacy is a vital skill, combining equal parts critical thinking and civic engagement, but can it be taught? An investigative piece by my friend Lindsay Beyerstein.

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  • BeaverTales

    Non-sessile Ediacarans were once the most advanced hypothesized phylum of life on Earth when they came into existence during the Avalon Explosion of the last portion of the pre-Cambrian about 575 million years ago, after the thawing of Snowball Earth, and only 40 million years later were replaced as the dominant non-plant species by other members of the Animal kingdom. During the Cambrian explosion (the largest growth of species diversity in the fossil record) that occurred during those 40 million years, early animals may have favored them as food sources…so it may be that they weren’t so much a “dead end branch” or “failed experiment” in the evolutionary tree, as much as hunted almost to extinction. Animals that arrived later in the Cambrian then had to evolve to thrive on plants and other forms of life.

    It’s probably coincidence that the area the Australian Ediacaran-like creatures were found in is suspected to be the largest preserved bolide impact so far detected to ever hit the Earth. The impact of the suspected 50 km (31 mi) asteroid was so powerful that it may have begun the separation of supercontinent Gondwana by rending the Australian land mass apart from Antarctica. The better known Chixulub crater that likely wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago was estimated to be ‘only’ 10 km (6 mi) wide, by comparison.

    These large asteroid impacts likely drove evolution in ways that favored (and disfavored) particular phyla. The Australian impact occurred at the time of the Permian-Triassic extinction 250 million years ago, the largest planetary extinction event in the fossil record, which led to the dying off of 95% of all marine species diversity and 70% of all land-based species. This massive extinction event led to the evolution of the dinosaurs as the dominant (i.e. most advanced) form of life for almost 180 million years. It’s possible that these Ediacarans survived because they mildly bounced back locally in recolonizing the nascent Antarctic/Australian rift valley. By then the more complex animals had evolved far from the event, and the newcomers were different enough from their ancestors to favor other food sources and therefore mostly left the Ediacarans alone.

    Hopefully they’ll get DNA on another field trip and be able to make some good hypotheses about these mysterious animals, should these creatures be conclusively proven to be the oldest known example of a non-plant, non-fungal or non-protist Lazarus taxon, a.k.a. living fossil… or it might be an Elvis taxon instead.

  • Doug Langley

    Great stuff, Adam. Don’t know where to start commenting.

  • Tommykey69

    I subscribe to The Economist, and when I read that book review, I was like “Seriously?” I can see arguing that not all enslaved African-Americans were passive victims. Some rebelled violently, others ran away to the north, and others engaged in passive agressive behavior. But regardless of their individual actions, they were all victims of a system that regarded them as property.

    As for the slave holders, even the “benevolent” ones were upholding a system that deprived people of their rights based on skin color. In 12 Years A Slave, Northrup’s first “owner” Ford is portrayed as a more or less paternal and kind plantation owner, but he would never entertain for a microsecond that Northrup was a free man who was kidnapped and should be set free.

  • Kenny

    This is just dumb coincidence, but I am quite amused.
    President of the Family Research Council: Tony Perkins
    Outspoken Fundamentalist Pastor in Texas: Tim Conway
    Louisiana Judge who ruled against gay marriage: Martin Feldman