Sunday, December 13, 2009


So, what about tolerance? Well, it might just be that even if we consider ourselves rational, open-minded and tolerant, we might still retain some bigotry buried within, after all.

A friend pointed me to this cartoon a couple of days ago:

Dino ate the image!



Just think about it: what if...?

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Dino ate the image!

Best elevator ever

What makes a great elevator? Well, certainly a bit of humor couldn't hurt.

It should be an honor for any mortal to be touched by His Noodly Appendage.


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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Don't peel the kiwi!

Dino ate the image!


The kiwifruit or the kiwi (Actinidia deliciosa) is native to Southern China and it is a commercial crop in several other countries, such as Italy, New Zealand, France, Greece and so on.

The kiwifruit is an excellent source of vitamin C and dietary fiber, but what is really interesting is the fact that the kiwi's skin is, in fact, edible.

Not only is the kiwifruit's skin edible, but its nutritional value is actually important:

  • the vitamin C intake is greatly increased if the kiwi is not peeled;
  • the skin apparently contains three times the quantity of dietary fiber than that of the peeled fruit;
  • the skin is a good source of flavonoid antioxidants (epidemiological studies have shown that flavonoid intake is inversely related to mortality from coronary heart disease and to the incidence of heart attacks).

I began to eat less and less meat until it occurred to me that I actually became a lacto-ovo vegetarian and that I should, therefore, study nutritional data and find meat replacements. One of the interesting things I found out about kiwifruit is that it has recently been shown that it is a natural blood thinner: two or three kiwis consumed daily for about a month significantly thin the blood, reducing the risk of clots. I just wish I'd had known this one month prior to the hand surgery I had to undertake as a result of a stupid and dangerous deep cut. Oh well.

Dino ate the image!

You can slice the kiwi like this

The kiwifruit's skin is actually very thin, so the only thing that might bother you if you try to eat it unpeeled is the somewhat thick fuzz it is covered in. As I see it, the best way to proceed is the following:

  • wash the kiwi really well;
  • scrub it with a towel (if you are lucky, then some of the fuzz might fall off);
  • cut both ends of the fruit (they are not tasty and are difficult to chew);
  • slice the kiwi as in the following picture and enjoy!

By eating thin slices, you will probably not even realize that they are covered with fuzz.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

George Coyne on the evolution of life in the universe

George Coyne is a priest and a scientist. He holds a license in mathematics, one in philosophy and a doctorate in astronomy. He was the director of the Vatican Observatory (astronomical research and educational institution) from 1978 to 2006. He published numerous scientific papers throughout time.

Father Coyne's approach is an accommodationist one – his balanced take on science and belief reconciles rationality with an elaborate theology that has nothing to do with nowadays religious kooks and their apprehension or plain denial of science.

The following video is a lecture on astronomy held by George Coyne, in which he also references the way he, as a scientist, can still be a believer. His faith, of course, is not based on the literal interpretation of the bible, nor does he think that God is some kind of anthropomorphic entity who interferes with people's lifes.

There are some very interesting points that George Coyne makes throughout his speech, such as showing that the physical formation and existence of the universe is a necessary condition for the emergence of life as we know it, but that it is not a sufficient one (it does not necessarily 'follow' that life should exist). He also hints at his skepticism in regards to some of the biblical miracles. And a lot more.

It is an inspiring lecture about an hour long, followed by an almost half-hour session of questions from the audience; this part should not be skipped either, as it makes Fr. Coyne address some issues that he did not refer to during the presentation. These being said, enjoy!

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

There may be a leprechaun

The Intelligence Squared edition that took place on the 29th of November (2009) was entitled Atheism is the new fundamentalism.

Let us explore last week's debate in relation to... leprechauns.

The format of the debates

The format of Intelligence Squared debates is to have four people invited to speak for the motion (the "defenders" team) and against the motion (the "opposers" team), respectively. Everything is overseen by an efficient moderator.

The speakers for Atheism is the new fundamentalism were:

  • in the defenders' team:
    • Richard Harries – retired bishop of the Church of England and the 41st Bishop of Oxford (1987-2006)
    • Charles Moore – journalist and former editor of the Daily Telegraph

  • in the opposers' team:
    • A. C. Grayling – philosopher, writer and professor of philosophy; also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts
    • Richard Dawkins (no presentation should be required...)

The debate itself is comprised of two parts:

  • the pleading, in which all the speakers state their case;
  • the questions and answers session, in which questions from the audience are answered by the speakers.

The full debate

The full Atheism is the new fundamentalism debate is embedded below:

However, it is over one and a half hours, so if you do not have the time to watch it right now, just read on to find out where the leprechaun kicks in.

The part of the debate that I am referring to in this article starts in the video embedded above at time 48:35 and lasts just a few minutes. (In-video navigation should be pretty fast, you can try it.)

The 'outrageous' episode

During the questions and answers session, Charles Moore stated:

Did you notice the atheist bus campaign that they had? On the side, it said: 'There's probably no God.' And the reason they said that, I think, is that they realized they were in a bit of a muddle about this, because they could only truthfully say according to their own position that there probably is no God, because if they said, 'There is no God.', they would be making a statement of faith, and of course they feel they mustn't do that.

Dino ate the image!

Atheist bus campaign

What is hilarious about this fragment is that each time I re-read or re-listen to it, I get the distinct feeling that Charles Moore intended to make it come off as an accusation. He did not seem to realize the fact that the arrogance of "knowing it all" is an exhibition of most believers (who just know or feel it in their gut that it is so) and not of atheists.

Atheism simply lacks the omniscience arrogance.

So Mr. Moore, beside completely having missed the point, actually helped Richard Dawkins, who promptly answered:

What could be more fundamentalist than saying, 'There definitely is no God'? We demonstrated our lack of fundamentalism by saying the proper scientific thing – 'There's probably no God'.

The audience applauded and then the moderator asked:

So, Richard, does that mean that there may be a God, logically?

to which Professor Dawkins readily replied:

There may be a... leprechaun.

Dino ate the image!

There may be a leprechaun

On leprechauns and reality

Indeed, why wouldn't there be a leprechaun? It is just as likely as the existence of any other supernatural being, claimed on faith grounds, with no evidence presented whatsoever.

Just so you know: mass delusion and hallucination do not count as evidence.

Since every religion assumes the existence of another 'realm' that does not fall within the control or influence of the world as we know it, it can virtually postulate just about anything. It is not the job of the physical laws of the perceptible and measurable realm to prove or disprove the truth of claims pertaining to spoken-into-being strata of 'reality'.

Therefore, being given that the "other realm" fails to accept any means of measurement, observation and investigation, science and philosophy cannot fully dismiss it as false. There is a remote possibility that a leprechaun, a Thor, a Zeus, a God, an Allah, a Pink Unicorn or a Flying Spaghetti Monster exist somewhere in those intangible strata.

It logically follows that we should be agnostic in regards to the existence of those beings, since we cannot scientifically disprove them. For all practical purposes though, we are a-thorists, a-pink-unicornists and so on.

Just as christians are, for practical purposes, atheists in regards to the "ridiculous" idea of leprechauns, Thor, Zeus, the Pink Unicorn, the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Allah, we take the "a-" thing one god further.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Funny inbreeding

Can you look at the following picture and not laugh out loud?

Dino ate the image!

I LOL'd.

I was looking for explanations on some particular biology-related issues and Google landed me on the website of Dr. Dana M. Krempels, director of undergraduate studies at the Department of Biology of the University of Miami.

As I peered through the interesting lecture notes that she posted there, I came across a few sample exams, one of them containing the question in this screen capture.

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Charles V (1500-1558)

Throughout European history

Sure enough, inbreeding is very, very bad. Offspring get immensely greater chances of being affected by recessive or deleterious traits. This risk amplifies, of course, with each newly "inbred" generation.

I am not set out to write an extensive article on inbreeding. However, a brief illustration of its effects on progeny (in the case of humans) comes to mind: the historical cases of genetic disorders due to repeated royal intermarriages. The two prominent examples throughout history are the mandibular prognathism in the Habsburg bloodline and hemophilia in the European royalty.

This photo shows a medal of Charles V (1500-1558), ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Spain, later on. The jaw deformity is clearly visible.

But... back to the point

The reference to the president who cannot properly pronounce "nuclear" was amusing. Even though I am not an American, I can commiserate with those who had to put up with George W. Bush for 8 years.

Here is a a short reminder, in case you find the "nuclear" reference too obscure:

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Donate to the RDF for a change!

RDF (The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science) is having a fundraiser.

You can contribute easily. For big donations you can also receive DVDs and books.

By contributing with even a modest amount, you can encourage science, reason and education. Which all go hand in hand for a better world.

Make sure you read Richard Dawkins's message on the fundraiser page.

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Giant hornets

I was reading Jerry Coyne's Why evolution is true when I stumbled upon one of the most hilarious paragraphs so far.

But first, a little background info:

Dino ate the image!

Vespa mandarinia (Japanese hornet)

Jerry A. Coyne begins the 5th chapter of the book, "The engine of evolution", by talking about Asian giant hornets: mean, huge predatory wasps that are most often found in Japan. They reach about 5 cm in length.

These Japanese hornets (Vespa mandarinia) are natural killers: huge, fierce, strong jaws and a venomous stinger that can easily kill humans. Not only that, but they can even outrun you, should you ever try to "race" them. Unless you can match 40 km/hour (25 miles/hour), that is. They can cover distances of almost 100 kilometers (60 miles) in a single day.

Hornets are predators in the sense that they raid the nests of social bees and other wasps. They are a nuisance for beekeepers, since they also prey upon honey-bees. The problem with honey-bees is that most of them (the ones introduced by Europeans, in any case) are defenseless. Just thirty (30!) hornets are enough to ravage a colony of up to thirty thousand (30,000!) honey-bees.

The giant hornets slaughter the honey-bees and then eat the honey and feed the bee grubs to their own offspring.

The raid strategy used by Vespa mandarinia is to send off a hornet scout in search of bee nests. When it finds one, it marks the entry with special pheromones that the other giant wasps pick up, knowing whose nest to invade.

Such horrifying killing machines.

However weird it may sound, there are certain bees which evolved a striking adaptation. It is only exhibited by native Japanese honey-bees.

I will quote Jerry Coyne. And, yes, here comes the phrase I found so funny, as well (the emphasis is mine):

The hornets are fearsome hunting machines, and the introduced bees are defenseless. But there are bees that can fight off the giant hornet: honeybees that are native to Japan. And their defense is stunning – another marvel of adaptive behavior. When the hornet scout first arrives at their hive, the honeybees near the entrance rush into the hive, calling nestmates to arms while luring the hornet inside. In the meantime, hundreds of worker bees assemble inside the entrance. Once the hornet is inside, it is mobbed and covered by a tight ball of bees. Vibrating their abdomens, the bees quickly raise the temperature inside the ball to about 47 degrees C. Bees can survive this temperature, but the hornet cannot. In twenty minutes the hornet scout is cooked to death, and – usually – the nest is saved. I can't think of another case (save the Spanish Inquisition) in which animals kill their enemies by roasting them.

(Coyne, J. A., 2009, Why evolution is true, page 122, Oxford University Press)

That is an unexpected and welcome remark. The writing style, in fact, is pleasant and humorous in many parts. I mean, how can somebody address creationist and ID claims without poking fun at the silliness of some of the claims?

This is not to say that Why evolution is true only addresses creationist claims; on the contrary, it is a very interesting and captivating read, packed with examples on every page and featuring fine illustrations. The print I have, the 2009 hardcover edition, is a pleasure to read. It is a very appealing book, I might say, from cover to cover.

Long story short, it is a book that I strongly recommend to science enthusiasts and flat-earthers alike. One of those "everybody must read this!" books. I will probably write a more in-depth post after I finish it.

Anyway, here is a video of Japanese honey-bees in action, defending their nest against the giant hornet intruder:

Suggested reading

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Amazon's bad jokes

Somebody's content-generating algorithms must be badly screwed-up. Amazon sent me an "offer":

Dino ate the image!

Amazon mocking me

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Smilodon (saber-toothed cats)

Once upon a time, there lived on Earth intriguing animals generically called "saber-toothed cats". These creatures spread across several taxa (taxonomic categories such as suborders, families, subfamilies etc.). I will be focusing, however, on a particular saber-tooth: genus Smilodon.

Often incorrectly referred to as "the saber-toothed tiger", Smilodon belonged in fact to the now extinct subfamily Machairodontinae, whilst the tiger (Panthera tigris) is part of the Pantherinae subfamily – both within the Felidae family.

Smilodon lived throughout North and South America during the Pleistocene, from about 2.5 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago.

Dino ate the image!

Figure 1: Saber-toothed cat digital reconstruction

Genus Smilodon is officially comprised of three species:

Smilodon gracilis

  • It is the earliest and smallest of the species
  • It lived from about 2.5 million years ago to 500,000 years ago in today's North America
  • It weighted 55-100 kg
  • Its height ranged from 1-1.2 m
  • Its canines could reach 18 cm in length

Smilodon fatalis

  • It was slightly larger than S. gracilis
  • It lived between 1.6 million years ago to 10,000 years ago in today's North America, then crossed over towards today's South America
  • It weighted in average 130-200 kg
  • Its height ranged from 1-1.2 m
  • Its canines were about 18 cm in length
  • It had sturdy front legs
  • To my knowledge, both S. californicus and S. floridus are now considered subspecies of S. fatalis
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Figure 2: Smilodon fatalis skeleton drawing

Dino ate the image!

Figure 3: Smilodon fatalis skeleton (Smithsonian Institution)

Smilodon populator

  • It was the largest of the Smilodon genus
  • It lived from about 1 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago and it seems it first appeared in today's South America
  • Its weight ranged from 220 to an impressive 470 kg (in males)
  • Its height was of about 1.3 m
  • Its ferocious saber teeth could reach 28 cm
  • It had very strong front legs and chest
Dino ate the image!

Figure 4: Smilodon populator skeleton

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Figure 5: Smilodon populator skeleton

Dino ate the image!

Figure 6: Smilodon populator skull replica


Such huge canine teeth required an impressive jaw mobility. Indeed, Smilodon could open its jaw to over 120 degrees (whereas the modern lion, for instance, can only open it at 65 degrees).

There is no sexual dimorphism in regards to canine teeth size (meaning that both male and female saber-toothed cats manifest no difference in canine length), thus invalidating the earlier assumption that suggested tooth size as a possible criteria of sexual selection.


Those cute-looking kitties were fierce carnivores. Studies suggest that they hunted and lived in packs, much like modern lions' nowadays prides. Since they were not the only predators around, getting organized in social structures was beneficial, increasing the individuals' survival chances.

It was proposed that Smilodon's victims were

large, slow-moving, thick-skinned animals, such as mammoths and bison. Unable to kill its prey with a quick bite to the neck, the sabertooth cat probably inflicted deep wounds in the victim's flanks or hindquarters, and then simply waited for it to bleed to death.

(Dixon, D., Cox, B., Savage, R.J.G., and Gardiner, B., 1993, The Macmillan Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals: A Visual Who's Who of Prehistoric Life, Macmillan Publishing Company)

The 2007 study Supermodeled sabercat, predatory behavior in Smilodon fatalis revealed by high-resolution 3D computer simulation suggests, however, that its bite strength was about a third than that of a modern feline of its size, due to the anatomical particularities of the jaws that had to accommodate such a large opening. It appears that Smilodon was a specialized hunter that used its massive size, robustness and well-developed chest and front legs musculature to bring down the large mammals that it preyed upon.

Only after the large herbivore was brought down, the saber-toothed cat applied a deep, stabbing bite in the prey's neck region (effectively immobilizing it until the animal bled to death).


Smilodon unfortunately went extinct at the end of the last glaciation, some 10-12,000 years ago. The reasons are not yet reliably determined. There is, however, speculation regarding factors such as climate change, slower evolution rate and human activity. The changing environment might have been too harsh for the saber-toothed cats and they might have failed to adapt at the rate that would have ensured their survival. The climate change also induced variation in the vegetation pattern and therefore it might have diminished its prey in numbers. On the other hand, the large mammals might have managed to adapt faster, therefore winning the evolutionary arms race against the Smilodon. Humans may also have played a role in these predators' extinction, by extensively hunting the herbivores.

I deeply regret that these awesome carnivores are not alive today. They must have looked marvelous. Here is another reconstruction:

Dino ate the image!

Figure 7: Smilodon digital reconstruction

Suggested reading

Image credits

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