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the boy in the white palace 2: thoughts on Judge Howell’s decision in the Columbia District Court

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Beryl A Howell, Chief Judge, District Court of Columbia

Canto: So I’ve read the decision by the Chief Judge of the District Court of Columbia, which waved away the claims of White Palace lawyers, representing their Department of Justice (DOJ), ‘that existing law bars disclosure to the Congress of grand jury information’. Now, neither of us are lawyers, and I’d never heard of a grand jury before being drawn like a ghoul to the disaster of the bullish boy in the White Palace china shop – so reading this decision has been another of those steep learning thingies.

Jacinta: Yes, the grand jury concept does sound very grand, and a bit Olde Worlde, and I’ve discovered that it’s essentially an obsolete British thing, going back to Magna Carta at least, but now fallen into disuse except in two countries, the Grande Olde US of A, and, would you believe, Liberia. They appear to be a blunt tool of government, and another ‘only in America’ thing, almost. Here’s what an Australian academic blog, the conversation, has to say about it:

The main concerns about the process are that it is run by the prosecutor, no judge is involved, jurors are not screened for bias or suitability, the defendant is not present or represented, the prosecutors and grand jurors are prohibited from revealing what occurred, and transcripts of the proceedings are not made available.

So why does it exist at all? Well, it’s made up of ordinary citizens, rather than uppity legal folks – a grand jury consists of 16 to 23 people, unlike the petit jury made up of the standard dozen – so I suppose they thought it more democratic. They have to decide whether there’s enough evidence to charge someone. It’s like a pre-jury jury. But you can surely see from the above quote that it can be easily manipulated. And has been.

Canto: So this Judge Howell had to decide – but her decision isn’t final because it can be appealed, I believe – whether the DOJ was right in claiming that grand jury info (much of it redacted in the Mueller Report) should be handed over to the House Judiciary Committee (HJC).

Jacinta: So it’s a battle between the HJC and the DOJ, and may the best TLA win…

Canto: Judge Howell is in no doubt about the matter. ‘DOJ is wrong’, she writes multiple times in her 75-page judgment, in which she goes back to the findings of the Mueller Report. It’s funny, we’ve read that report but it’s so refreshing to be reminded of all the damning evidence, and the redacted stuff in part 1 which raised so many questions. There’s been so much that’s happened since, or so much that hasn’t happened that should’ve happened, that we’re inclined almost to believe that Mueller’s findings were unable to lay a glove on the White Palace incumbent, when the truth is far more sinister – that the whole US nation seems to have connived in allowing the boy-king to get away with everything, simply because he’s the King.

Jacinta: Well, I’m not sure about the whole nation, but of course you’re right that any nation, or political system I should say, that grants immunity to its all-powerful ruler, elected or not it makes no difference, while he holds the reins of power, is a global disgrace. It’s more or less the definition of a dictatorship. For example, he can’t be held to account if, while in office, he makes an executive decision to declare a state of emergency due to the massive corruption of all his enemies, and to abolish all federal elections forthwith.

Canto: A reductio ad absurdum perhaps, but one probably not far from the boy-king’s mind. In fact, the lad has been ‘joking’ about a third and fifth term. So people need that reductio kind of thinking to see what peril they’re in, seriously. And Judge Howell sees it clearly, as she reminds those who would read her that the boy and his playmates were found to have behaved very naughtily indeed, in a way that undermined the proper functioning of the state in multiple ways, long before the attempted extortion of the Ukrainian Prez.

Jacinta: Judge Howell argued, correctly, that a revisiting of the Mueller Report’s findings were in order for the purpose of deciding about these grand jury redactions. And so, she correctly reminded Americans that the Special Counsel found that links between the Putin dictatorship and the boy-prince’s pre-ascension team were ‘numerous’, and of course there was the Ukraine-Manafort nexus, which is mixed up currently with the lad’s most recent peccadillos. In fact, Her Honour helpfully points out that the then princeling likely knew about Dictator Putin’s assistance toward his ascension, by quoting from the Report:

Manafort, for his part, told the Office that, shortly after WikiLeaks’s July 22 release, Manafort also spoke with candidate Trump [redacted]. Manafort also [redacted] wanted to be kept apprised of any developments with WikiLeaks and separately told Gates to keep in touch [redacted] about future WikiLeaks releases.

According to Gates, by the late summer of 2016, the Trump campaign was planning a press strategy, a communications campaign, and messaging based on the possible release of Clinton emails by Wikileaks. [Redacted] while Trump and Gates were driving to LaGuardia Airport. [Redacted], shortly after the call candidate Trump told Gates that more releases of damaging information would be coming.

Canto: Yes, those redactions seem to indicate that the then princeling and his courtiers knew about, encouraged and accepted foreign interference – hardly surprising news, but under the USA’s highly-worshipped Constitution that there’s a rootin-tootin High Crime and Mister Demenour.

Jacinta: But it doesn’t matter because the boy-king has absolute power and can do whatever he likes, he done said it hisself. And apparently there are some powerful American folks, apart from his courtiers, that pretty much agree. The King just has too many responsibilities to be interfered with while in office by such petty matters as criminal charges – which is a pretty obvious problemo, as the King can simply increase his duties, and make them permanent, in order to make himself more immune, for a lifetime.

Canto: So Judge Howell looked at this too, because this apparent immunity hangs by the slender thread of a view held by the DOJ ‘Office of Legal Counsel’ (OLC). Her Honour quotes from the Mueller Report, and adds her own very interesting comments:

“Given the role of the Special Counsel as an attorney in the Department of Justice and the framework of the Special Counsel regulations,” the Special Counsel “accepted” the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel’s (“OLC”) legal conclusion that “‘the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions’ in violation of ‘the constitutional separation of powers.’” …. This OLC legal conclusion has never been adopted, sanctioned, or in any way approved by a court. 

What I suspect Judge Howell as saying here is, ‘it’s about time a proper court got hold of this OLC ‘legal conclusion’ and subjected it to the proper legal scrutiny it deserves, or very much needs.

Jacinta: She’s also happy to use the term ‘stonewalling’ in describing the DOJ ‘s tactics with regard to these redactions, a stonewalling that continues to this day.

Canto: Yes, and it’ll be interesting to observe the fate of Billy Barr, a principal toadie of the boy-king and Grand Marquis of the DOJ, as these adventures in Toyland play out.

Jacinta: So, overall, Judge Howell’s pretty contemptuous of the DOJ arguments, which she would prefer to call “arguments”, and has been extremely diligent in refuting them from every possible perspective she can think of, with a lot of case law and something of a history lesson regarding the thoughts of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and others. I’m thinking that not only will we have to bone up on US Federal law (and a lot of other law), we’ll have to read the whole of the US Constitution and the Federalist Papers to get more thrills out of watching this battle between the boy-king and the Constitutionalists (if that’s what it is) play out.

Canto: Yes, and I’ll be even more interested in the aftermath, after the bodies are buried and the blood has been wiped away. Will Americans still want to say that their quasi-dictatorial political system is the greatest in the known universe?

Jacinta: You betcha.

first volume of a collection of papers on the US Constitution, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, quoted in Judge Howell’s decision

References

http://cdn.cnn.com/cnn/2019/images/10/25/grand.jury.release.opinion.pdf

http://grandjuryresistance.org/grandjuries.html

http://theconversation.com/only-in-america-why-australia-is-right-not-to-have-grand-juries-34695

Written by stewart henderson

November 4, 2019 at 2:14 pm

I walked into a bar…

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I walked into a bar the other day. There were about 30 or 40 people inside, and about 80% of them were women.
Okay, that was a lie – or a fantasy (a beautiful lie?) In reality that has never happened.
However, the exact opposite has happened, more times than I can recount. In fact it’s the norm.

What does this mean?

Written by stewart henderson

July 19, 2019 at 6:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Towards James Clerk Maxwell 2 – Francis Hauksbee’s experiments

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an electrostatic generator – one of Hauksbee’s many ingenious experimental devices

Canto: So we’ve witnessed electricity since we’ve had the wit to witness, in lightning. And through our attempts to understand and harness those scary bursts of energy we’ve transformed our world.

Jacinta: We’ve written about lightning before, but the info we presented there was accumulated over centuries. Now we’re going to travel back to the early years of the Royal Society in England, the early 1700s, a mere 300 years ago, to reflect on the first experiments with electricity – remembering that there was no electric power and light in those days, that gods were in the air and much was mysterious.

Canto: Electricity from the start was much sexier, and scarier, than magnetism – lightning very very frightning was the most obvious physical manifestation, and its power was easily recognised. It could kill at a stroke, while magnetism seemed all about metals getting stuck together, and needles pointing north. Interesting, but hardly earth-shattering.

Jacinta: Lightning was all about gigantic sparks shattering the sky, and the ancients, who spent so much of their time in darkness, must have seen other, less impressive and dangerous sparks, the sparks of static electricity, and wondered.

Canto: In the recent BBC documentary The story of electricity, narrator Jim Al-Khalili begins by describing Francis Hauksbee‘s experiments with static electricity and electroluminescence in the early 1700s, which dazzled visitors to the Royal Society. These were the first properly documented experiments with the mysterious force, and a collection of his papers describing these experiments was widely read by the 18th century cognoscenti – including Joe Priestley and Ben Franklin. He employed the newly-invented air pump (simply a pump for pushing out air, as in a common bike pump), popularised in England by Robert Hooke some decades before. Hauksbee made his own improvements, enabling the pump to create a vacuum.

Jacinta: Yes Hauksbee was a more interesting figure than The story of electricity presents. He didn’t ‘lose interest’ but worked on his experiments and reflected on them until his final illness in 1713 – and I’m thinking that illness, since he was only in his late forties – may have been due to mercury poisoning. Hauksbee was ‘lower class’ so few details of his life are documented. However, in these experiments he wasn’t thinking so much of electricity as of ‘attractive forces’. Also as an experimenter who must always have seen himself as an underling (in his book he mentions his ‘want of a learned education’), he doubtless felt obliged to follow the guidance of his Royal Society ‘master’, Newton, which took him into different fields of research….

Canto: The term ‘electricity’ was possibly not in common use then? You’re right, though, about Hauksbee, who rose from obscurity to become a member of the Royal Society, probably under the auspices of Newton. In late 1705, as a result of some spectacular effects displayed to the Society he became intrigued by ‘mercurial phosphorus’. The fact that mercury, in a vacuum, glowed when shaken, had already been noted by Jean Picard, a 17th century French astronomer, and the Swiss mathematician Johann Bernoulli.

Jacinta: And this has to do with electricity?

Canto: We shall see. Hauksbee wanted to work out the conditions under which this mercurial light was produced. He found that the more air in the container, the weaker the light. Also the light’s intensity depended on the movement of the mercury. He concluded that the friction of the mercury against the glass was the major cause. But was it only mercury that had this property, and was it only glass that brought it out? He experimented with other materials, finding a means of rubbing them together in a section of his air pump, Amber rubbed with wool produced a light, brightened in the absence of air. By contrast metal on flint only produced sparks when air was present. Remember, oxygen wasn’t known about at the time. In late 1705 Hauksbee presented one of his most spectacular experiments for the Society. Ingenious instrument-maker that he was, he created a glass globe, from which air could be pumped in and out, on a rotating spindle. The spinning globe came into contact with woollen cloth, and the contact created a weird purple light inside the evacuated globe, which reduced as air was let in. It was a fantastic mystery.

Jacinta: I’m hoping you can solve it.

Canto: Great expectations indeed. He experimented further, and found that when he pressed his own hands against a spinning evacuated globe, the same bright purple glow was produced, which again faded when air was let in to the globe.

Jacinta: Okay, what Hauksbee was exploring in these experiments are what we now call triboelectric effects. I remember playing around with this in schooldays by rubbing a plastic pen along the sleeve of my jersey and watching the fibres stand on end as the pen passed, and hearing the prickling sound of static electricity. The pen was then capable of lifting scraps of paper from the desk, for a time. But I didn’t see any purple lights and I’m not sure how the presence or absence of air relates to it all.

Canto: Yes, triboelectricity is about the exchange of electric charge between different materials – the build-up and discharge of electrical energy. It seems that some materials have a more or less positive charge and some have a more or less negative or opposite charge (because positive and negative are really arbitrary terms, the key point is their relation to each other), and we know that like charges repel and opposite charges attract.

Jacinta: You’ve brought up the word ‘charge’ here, and I’m wondering if that’s just an arbitrary word too – like degree of positive charge just means degree of being repulsed by its opposite, negative charge. In other words, different materials are attracted to or repulsed by each other to varying degrees under various conditions, and that degree or ‘amount’ of attraction or repulsion is referred to as ‘charge’. So ‘charge’ is a relational term…

Canto: Ummm. Maybe. In any case, if you take these different materials down to the atomic level, and I’m not sure how you take plastic and wool down to that level – I mean I know plastic is a petrochemical product, but wool, which I’ve just looked up, has a very complex chemistry – but the fact that the plastic pen, after some rubbing, pulls the fibres of your woollen sleeve towards it is because there’s an attractive force operating between opposite charges. In fact there’s a movement of electrons between the materials, from the wool to the plastic. This electron transfer leaves those woollen fibres with a net positive charge, which is attracted to the now negatively charged plastic due to the electron flow. I think.

Jacinta: Mmm. None of this was understood in the early eighteenth century, obviously. But before we go back there, we’ll stay with this concept of charge, which is nowadays calculated as a fundamental or base unit, based on the electron or its opposite, charge-wise, the proton. These elementary particles have the same but opposite charge, though they’re very different in mass (something which seems suspect to me). Anyway, taking things on trust, a unit of charge is ‘defined’ in standard macro terms as a coulomb, named for the 18th century French physicist Charles-Augustin de Coulomb. One coulomb equals approximately 6.24 x 1018 protons (or electrons). We’ll come back to this later, no doubt. Returning to Hauksbee’s experiments, he soon realised that it was the glass, not the mercury inside it, that was the agent of electrical effects. His experiments with glass globes were written down in great detail, a boon to later researchers.

Canto: Interestingly, I’ve discovered that, more or less exactly at the same time, one Pierre Polinière was conducting and presenting experiments on electroluminescence in Paris:

A closer examination of these experiments reveals not only that Polinière had personally presented them before the French Academy of Sciences, but that Polinière and Hauksbee, starting from a common interest in the ‘mercurial phosphor’, had conducted similar investigations and had in fact simultaneously announced their independent discoveries of the luminescence of evacuated glass containers.

Pierre Polinière, Francis Hauksbee and electroluminescence: a case of simultaneous discovery.
David Corson, 1968.

Jacinta: So we might finish by trying to explain our current understanding of electroluminescence (EL) and its applications. It’s a sort of combo of electricity and light, as you can imagine, or electrons and photons on the level of particles. For example, semiconductors emit light when subjected to a strong electric field or current….

Canto: Is that the basis of LED lighting?

Jacinta: Absolutely. Electrons in the semiconductor material recombine with electron holes, emitting energy in the form of photons. So it has taken us three centuries to really effectively harness the electroluminescent effects demonstrated by Hauksbee in the early days of the Royal Society.

Canto: What are electron holes? I’m thinking not ‘holes in electrons’ but holes left by electrons as they’re displaced in an electric current?

Jacinta: Yes, or almost. It’s like the lack of an electron where you might expect an electron to be. These holes where you might expect an electrically charged particle (an electron) to be, act like positively charged particles – a positron, say – and move through a lattice like an electron does. We could get into very complicated electronics here, if we had the wherewithal, but these holes are examples of quasiparticles, which mostly exist within solids. Fluid movement within solids (not apparently a contradiction in terms) is extremely complicated. Who would’ve thunk it? This movement of electrons and protons within solids is ‘regulated’ by Coulomb’s Law. Remember him? We’ll be getting to that law very soon, as it’s essential to the field of electromagnetism. And that’s our topic don’t forget.

Our clean energy ups and downs

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So in the light of the federal government’s most recent abandonment of an energy policy, it’s about time for a more positive update – perhaps – on what’s happening in the field of clean energy around Australia. 

I should start by plugging the Renew Economy blog/website, the best source for info on what’s happening round the country, both technology-wise and politically. Giles Parkinson has recently reported there on an important change of tack from the conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) vis-a-vis fossil fuels. The IEA has long been a big promoter of coal but last year it shocked its conservative backers by admitting that the coal boom was over and that the future was with renewables. The IEA has just published its annual World Energy Outlook, which recognises that coal production will have to be substantially reduced if we are to meet Paris targets. It notes that PV solar costs have dropped to the point that it’s the cheapest energy option in most countries, with wind power also becoming much cheaper and more viable. China, while still a massive consumer of fossil fuels, is leading the way in rapidly reducing that consumption.

Meanwhile, in Australia… Another report, this time from the G20, reviews the climate action performance of member nations. Called the Brown to Green report, its 2018 version rates Australia’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) targets as ‘insufficient’. That’s to say, they’re disappointingly unambitious and would be likely to worsen the situation if other nations followed. To quote from the report:

The 2018 CAT assessment confirms that Australia’s emissions are set to far exceed its NDC target for 2030 under current policies.

With no guidance or serious interest from our federal government, none of this is surprising, but there are projects completed and underway that give hope for a turnaround, and of course the conservatives are set to lose power in the upcoming federal election. Not that I’ve heard anything much about Labor’s renewable energy plans. 

As reported previously, and elsewhere, South Australia’s Tesla battery, mocked by fossil fuel dinosaurs Scott Morrison and Matt Kanavan, has exceeded all expectations, due to its ability to respond super-rapidly to system breakdowns, and Tesla’s success at Hornsdale has led to more projects here for the California-based company. Victoria’s Bulgana Green Power Hub, a project designed by Neoen Australia, will feature a 20MW/34MWh lithium-iron Tesla battery and a 194MW wind farm about 15ks east of Stawell in west-central Victoria. It should be complete by the end of 2019. The NSW government’s energy network operator Transgrid is purchasing Tesla Powerpack systems to be installed in a number of locations to smooth out variable solar generation and to facilitate growth of solar infrastructure. Small-scale Powerpack systems are already operating in Melbourne and Rockhampton. 

There will be another Tesla battery (25MW/34MWh) in SA soon, at the Lake Bonney wind farm. Interestingly though, the renewables developer Infigen Energy, which will build the battery, is concerned about future batteries investment in Australia because ‘the rules of the market do not yet favour battery storage, and battery storage costs need to fall further’.

In any case, state governments and private companies are forging ahead with clean energy projects in spite of federal indifference and inadequate legislation. One market, though, which seems to be stalled in Australia is the EV market.

And after a quick bit of research, I’d say I’ve understated the issue. According to Behyad Jafari, chief executive of Australia’s Electric Vehicle Council, the global average for electric vehicle purchases is about 2% of all car sales, with Norway leading the way at 20%. Australia’s uptake is at 0.2%, about the lowest in the western world, though surveys have shown that Australians are excited and intrigued by EVs. A large Roy Morgan survey recently found that half those surveyed were interested in buying an EV or a hybrid. So clearly there are barriers to investing in an EV here. Apparently the biggest barrier is the lack of a decent recharging network, according to research, with actual  vehicle cost coming a distant second. With no government action either on infrastructure or on import taxes and charges for EVs, it’s hard to see a big uptick in EVs in the near future.

However, some are optimistic, at least for the long term. Bloomberg New Energy Finance has predicted that Australia will start really getting on board with EVs by 2025. Its analysis of Australia is part of its global forecasting. It predicts that ‘by 2040, some 40 per cent of all vehicles on the road in Australia will have a plug, and 60 per cent of new car sales will be electric’. Only twenty-odd years to wait – nice if you’re young. Again, pressure needs to be applied to what should be an incoming Labor government in the next few months to support the EV industry as well as other clean energy schemes. 

And how about here in South Australia, with the conservatives winning the state election in March 2018? Fortunately, the plans and developments of the previous government are unlikely to be jettisoned because they’re clearly having a positive effect and are popular here. South Australia has been regularly targeted by federal conservatives as a crazy outlier of sorts for its focus on renewables, but the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has predicted that SA will be sourcing 100% of its energy from renewables by 2025. The scenario here is complex, and I may need to do a few posts to get my head around the issues and the technology, but briefly, SA currently gets around half of its energy from natural gas, and a third to a half from wind. The percentages vary on a daily basis. Solar also produces an increasing share – both rooftop and larger scale commercial solar. Over time, it’s expected that commercial or utility solar will play a much larger role, and gas turbines will be phased out. Utility storage will also be an increasing part of the mix from around 2025. 

I’ll try to get a handle on what’s going on in South Australia in a future post, because at the moment terms such as ‘synchronous generation’, ‘dispatchable capacity’, ‘grid level services’ and even ‘base load’ are giving me the screaming heeby-geebies. And once I familiarise myself with these terms I should be able to apply them elsewhere. I do get the impression though that base load, which has much to do with reliable on-tap energy (because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow) is a term much beloved by fossil fuel heavyweights and derided, at least to a degree, by the renewable energy crowd. So I think I’ll focus first on that in my next post, especially with regard to the new battery storage technology.  

Written by stewart henderson

November 20, 2018 at 6:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

the amazing physiology of hummingbirds

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The smallest bird on our planet is the bee hummingbird, of Cuba. The average adult weight ranges between 2 and 2.5 grams, with females being slightly larger than males. There are other tiny hummingbirds, including the bumblebee, from Mexico, and the calliope, of Canada and the US. Basically the adults of all these birds weigh little more than a couple of paper clips. Yet, as Jim Robbins reports in The wonder of birds, these featherlight birds are incredibly robust. Calliopes fly from the northern US down to Mexico every winter, often through powerful head-winds and raindrops as big as their ‘eads. They fly back north in spring, early arrivals, living on insects (their principal source of nutrients) until the flowers start blooming (providing nectar, their principal source of energy). It’s an annual journey of nearly 3000 kms.

adult male bee hummingbird

It takes heart to undertake such a journey, and hummingbirds have plenty. The hummingbird heart is the largest of any known animal relative to its size, and its rate has been measured to reach over 1200 beats per minute (in the blue-throated hummingbird). There are some 350 species of hummingbird, all living in the Americas. 

But it’s not just their long-distance flights that astonish, it’s their everyday manoeuvres. They can fly upside-down, change speed and direction smartly, and hover for long periods, even in strong winds, while collecting sweet nectar in vast quantities – as much as 12 times their body weight daily. Their wing-beat speed, which can reach 100 beats per second, is about ten times that of a pigeon, and they have the largest pectorals for their size of any bird. Birds’ pectorals, which power their flight, are always proportionally massive, taking up some 80% of their weight, but hummingbirds are clearly built for flight more than any other, which allows them to remain in the air more or less constantly. ‘It’s their default setting’, says Bret Tobalske of the University of Montana, who studies the mechanics of flight in birds, bats and insects. Tobalske has studied their flight using ultra high-speed cameras and atomised olive  oil illuminated by lasers, so that the revealed air-flow around their wings can help in understanding the mechanical processes involved. He’s also used wind tunnel experiments to investigate how well the birds can withstand wind forces. In a 20mph headwind, they simply increase their wingbeat rate, and can remain hovering for up to an hour and a half. 

calliope hummingbird

Hummingbirds are very trainable and human-friendly, especially if you reward them with sugar water, their favourite energy hit, though the more food is laid on for them the less they’ll visit and pollinate flowers. Their beaks and long tongues are adapted to extracting nectar. The tongues themselves are an extraordinary adaptation. They’re forked at the tip, and when retracted they coil up inside their tiny heads like a garden hose. For years it was thought that the nectar was drawn out of the flowers by capillary action, like a blotter soaks up ink (showing my age), but Margaret Rubega of the University of Connecticut quickly recognised this was a crock, on first hearing of the hypothesis in the 1980s. Capillary action is a slow process, especially with more viscous liquids, but hummingbirds stick their tongues into flowers at a rate of up to 16 times a second. How their tongue works has been revealed by slow-motion photography, another example of technological advances leading to advances in knowledge – though the ingenuity of Rubega and her colleague Alejandro Rico-Guevara in working out the process played a large part. Ed Yong provides a good account here, and the more detailed original paper is also online. The hummingbird’s tongue appears to be a unique evolutionary invention, a bespoke tongue, so to speak. At its tip, where it forks, it curls up at the edges, creating two tubes. Here’s how it works, from Yong:

As the bird sticks its tongue out, it uses its beak to compress the two tubes at the tip, squeezing them flat. They momentarily stay compressed because the residual nectar inside them glues them in place. But when the tongue hits nectar, the liquid around it overwhelms whatever’s already inside. The tubes spring back to their original shape and nectar rushes into them.

The two tubes also separate from each other, giving the tongue a forked, snakelike appearance. And they unfurl, exposing a row of flaps along their long edges. It’s as if the entire tongue blooms open, like the very flowers from which it drinks.

When the bird retracts its tongue, all of these changes reverse. The tubes roll back up as their flaps curl inward, trapping nectar in the process. And because the flaps at the very tip are shorter than those further back, they curl into a shape that’s similar to an ice-cream cone; this seals the nectar in. The tongue is what Rubega calls a nectar trap. It opens up as it immerses, and closes on its way out, physically grabbing a mouthful in the process.

As Rubega and Rico-Guevara suggest in their abstract, such a unique fluid-trapping mechanism may well have biomimetic applications. As the researchers have shown, the tongue mechanism works even after the bird has died, showing that it’s in some sense independent of the bird itself, and requires none of the bird’s energy. 

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to find that hummingbirds have the highest metabolism of any creature (excluding insects). Apart from their record heart rate, they take around 250 breaths a minute, even resting – which they rarely do. Their oxygen intake (per gram of muscle) during flight is ten times higher than that of the most elite human athletes, and they get almost all of their energy for this hyperactive life through ingested sugars – compared to a maximum of 30% for humans. They can utilise sugars for flight within 35 minutes of consumption, which requires a very rapid oxidation rate. Though it isn’t precisely known how this rapid oxidation occurs, it does explain how they can maintain flight while feeding – they’re essentially refuelling while in flight. This raises questions, though, about long-haul flights, for example across the Gulf of Mexico – a distance of 800 kms. It appears they’re able to store fat as a fuel reserve, like other migratory birds, thus almost doubling their weight before the big journey. 

Hummingbird songs and calls are highly varied, and some are even ultrasonic – at a frequency above that of human hearing. These may be used to disturb the flight patterns of small edible insects. Most interestingly, neurological and genetic expression studies suggest that they are capable of vocal learning, something rare among birds as well as mammals. Research in this area is something I hope to explore more fully in future posts – it involves brain design, development and epigenetic factors. 

blue-throated hummingbird, a larger species – only the male has the blue throat

A few other interesting points in closing. Hummingbirds do rest at night, and when there’s no available food – they can enter a state something like hibernation, when their metabolism slows almost to a full stop. They can lose about 10% of their body weight during these states. It’s also notable that they have surprisingly long life-spans for such hyperactive creatures.  Average life-spans have been difficult to measure, but individuals of different species have been known to live for eleven or twelve years at least. 

My growing interest in birds and other creatures, especially with regard to intelligence, has inevitably led me to the load of videos available online, displaying all sorts of amazing traits, as well as profound human-animal relations. There are too many to recommend, but I would strongly suggest to any reader that they sample some of them. Watching them is somehow uplifting, and inspires a sense of hope. Life is nothing if not ingenious, even if accidentally. 

References

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/11/hummingbird-tongues/546992/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hummingbird

http://www.pnas.org/content/108/23/9356

Written by stewart henderson

November 15, 2018 at 10:09 am

the USA’s presidential crisis – what will they learn from it?

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it really is this crazy

The USA has a tragic problem on its hands, of its own making. It now has, as its President, a career criminal, a narcissistic demagogue, a flim flam man who’ll stop at nothing to remain in power. Within a few days, though, his power will be curtailed and, I strongly suspect, and certainly hope, US law enforcement authorities will be rounding up some of his accomplices and generally turning up the heat. Everything about Trump tells me he would be prepared to destroy as much of the country’s political edifice as he possibly can, rather than go quietly.

But it’s the political edifice itself that’s allowed Trump, who isn’t a Republican, or a Democrat, or a politician or a businessman, to take over the ship of state and steer it on a bumpy ride to nowhere. This could never have happened under the Westminster system, which pertains in Britain and Australia, two countries of which I happen to be a citizen. 

The flaws in the US Presidential system have been unwittingly exposed by Trump, and this may be the one true gift he will have bestowed on his people, just as the horrors of the great European wars of last century left the one bright legacy of over seventy years of peace in Western Europe. 

So what are these problems? Well there’s one general problem of democracy, which is shared by all democratic countries, and that’s the fact that not everyone eligible to vote is sufficiently informed or detached to use their vote to the best advantage of themselves or the nation as a whole. Many are massively influenced by what is called ‘identity politics’, because they identify with a particular sub-culture, be it ethnic, religious, job-related, or special-interest-related in a host of ways. Many simply don’t understand much about politics and are easily swayed by political promises or the promises made by those around them on behalf of politicians. The intellectual elites, the cognoscenti, have no more weight to their vote than the more or less completely clueless. 

This problem is exacerbated in the USA by the fact that, every four years, they’re asked to cast a vote essentially for one person over another. In the run-up to that vote there’s massive fund-raising and lobbying, hype (short for hyperbole), overblown promising, and circus-like razzmatazz and bells and whistles. 

The one-against-one competition is, it seems, typically American, where the ‘great man’ who saves the world by single-handedly defeating all enemies is a staple of Hollywood blockbusters. In contrast, elections in the Westminster system are more like a blend of the American mid-term and presidential elections, but with much more of the mid-term than the presidential. People essentially vote for parties – a major party of the left and of the right, together with smaller independent parties and independent members. The two major parties and the smaller parties all have leaders, of course, and they’re elected by the rest of the elected MPs of their parties. They’re the ‘captains of the team’, and they work with them in parliament. The Prime Minister, the leader of the party elected to power in general elections, is thus in a very different position from the US President, who resides in and works from the White House, surrounded by staff and officials who are appointed by himself (though more or less vetted by others) without necessarily having been elected by the public to any office of any kind in the past. These include some very influential positions indeed – the 15 members of the Presidential Cabinet including Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Attorney-General and Chief of Staff. The President thus heads the ‘executive branch’ of government, which is entirely separate from parliament, or congress.

Under the Westminster system there’s no such separation. The Prime Minister does get to select his cabinet, but they’re all appointed from within parliament, and all of them work within the House, or the Senate. So the PM is literally ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals, and often has to defend his or her ministers and policies in the teeth of opposition sitting across the aisle. This creates much more of a team spirit, and if the PM ‘goes rogue’, as Trump clearly has, his party can organise a no-confidence motion to oust him. Such an event obviously has major repurcussions for the nation, but they are clearly nowhere near as disastrous as the ousting of an American President. Though, arguably, the difficulties involved in ousting the President are even more disastrous. 

In watching and learning about the US political system over the past year or so, I’ve been totally astonished at the power granted to the President, and with that power comes a sense of Presidential immunity, due to his ‘indispensability’. This is virtually a recipe for demagoguery and dictatorship. The current President has clearly utilised powers that previous Presidents quite probably didn’t know they had, because they grew up within the usual ethical guidelines of the vast majority of people, regardless of background. Trump has no such guidelines, and so has sacked appointed officials without replacing them, has used pardoning powers – and will continue to do so unless ousted – without restraint, and has issued executive orders in a manipulative and detrimental fashion. He has monetised the Presidency, obstructed justice by declaring war on the FBI and justice department officials, viciously and relentlessly attacked the fourth estate, and spread myriad falsehoods with impunity.

All of this has created a kind of internal paralysis in the US, while making the country and its President both a laughing stock and a cause for grave concern worldwide. Meanwhile the success of demagoguery and ‘power’ over ethics has had its echoes in elections in Austria, Sweden and Brazil. But the USA’s political problems are unique. The two principal problems are – How do you rid yourself of a rogue president? and, How do you present this from ever happening again?

Many concerned Americans are looking to the process of impeachment as the solution. I’m writing this on the day (in Australia) of the mid-term elections, November 6, though the USA is some 11-12 hours behind us in central Australia. It seems likely that the Democrats will take control of the House and possibly the Senate, though I wouldn’t bet on it – I usually get these things wrong. But impeachment is a political process and therefore highly partisan in a nation that has become partisan perhaps to the point of extreme violence. Impeachment doesn’t exist in the Westminster system, because there is clearly no need for it.

For a Prime Minister, under the Westminster system, to ‘successfully’ go rogue, as the US President has, he would have to carry the whole of his party with him, or a substantial majority, as the party system and party loyalty are deeply entrenched in the polity. A no-confidence motion in the Prime Minister can be put up at any time during parliamentary sessions, either from within the PM’s party or from the opposition benches. It’s easier for the President to become a ‘one-man band’ because he’s entirely cut off from congress. I don’t know if Trump has ever entered congress. There seems no reason for him to do so. This complete disconnection from what is is supposedly his own party and government is, I think, disastrous. 

The massive power of the President – veto powers, pardoning powers, executive orders, and apparent, if limited, immunity from prosecution – is no small problem for a country that is the most economically and militarily powerful in the world.  Rachel Maddow of NBC has highlighted the problem of prosecuting the President. If he is charged and placed in custody or let out on bail, does he still have presidential authority? If not, who does? This would not be a problem under the Westminster system – the Deputy PM would step up, as s/he does when the PM is overseas. And if the matter were serious enough, that deputy, or another senior cabinet minister, would take over the PM’s role permanently. And there would be no hesitancy, under that system, to arrest and detain. Why should there be? The law should treat all offenders in precisely the same way.

In the US there seems to be a lot of confusion on these matters. Many consider the President ‘too important’ to be charged with a crime while in office. This is truly ridiculous. If you have allowed one person to be so important within your political system as to be above the law, for even a second, then your political system sucks, to put it mildly. 

Another bizarre anomaly of the US system is this ‘hanging back’ by the federal authorities, in terms of subpoenas and indictments, during pre-election periods. This, it seems to me, is an interference, by a kind of stealth, of the judiciary by the political sphere. Where did this ridiculous idea come from? It seems abundantly clear to me that when investigating potential felonies of any kind, the political background should play no part whatsoever. Once investigators have ‘all their ducks in a row’, as Americans like to say, that’s when prosecutions should begin. I’ve no idea right now what will happen to Trump after these elections, but he has already been clearly implicated in campaign finance violations via his criminal fixer, so prosecutions should have occurred already. To not institute criminal proceedings when everything is set to do so, because of some election or other – that constitutes political interference. Am I missing something here?  

Assuming that Trump is indicted after these elections (though what I’ve heard is that the Mueller will only issue a report to congress, even if it includes indictable offences, which makes my head spin with its unutterable stupidity and dereliction of duty), is it likely that Trump will give himself up to authorities? Trump is a career criminal who has never spent any time in jail, though his tax crimes and various scams should have seen him incarcerated for much of his adult life. It’s hard to know what he’ll do when cornered, but I can’t imagine him giving himself up to authorities. The real crisis is about to hit the fan, so to speak. It will get very very bumpy over the next few months, no matter what the election result. 

The other major question is – what will Americans learn from the Trump disaster? Will they reform their political system? With their jingoistic pride, I don’t hold out too much hope. My guess is that there will be some reform around the edges – the emoluments clause might be ‘promoted’ to something more than a mere clause, for example – but their beloved but outdated Constitution will remain largely untouched, and they’ll still keep their POTUS in splendid isolation, a law unto himself and a potential threat to their nation and the outside world. But then, as some dipshit has often said, we’ll have to wait and see. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 6, 2018 at 8:52 pm

bird smarts and theory of mind

with 5 comments

human brain compared to that of a zebra finch, I think

I like birds a lot – how could you not? I particularly like their brains, which considering their ‘beautiful plumage’, their grace in flight, their songs, their treatment of mates and offspring and their dinosaur history, is quite a big call. Not that I’ve ever seen or examined a bird’s brain, but I’ve seen and heard of  some gobsmacking behaviour from some species, so I thought I might check out what’s known about their grey-white matter.

As with so many research fields, there’s been a surge in research into bird brains, and I’ve not heard the term bird-brain used as an insult in recent times. Still, when we think of bird intelligence, we tend to anthropomorphise, to compare them with us – do they play, do they use language or tools, do they recognise us individually, can they solve the same sorts of problems we can? That’s understandable enough, but in studying bird brains we should be just as thoughtful about the differences as the similarities.

The birds that have stood out for us so far are corvids – ravens, crows, jays and magpies, though many parrots such as the sadly endangered kea of New Zealand have also caught researchers’ attention. So how do these small-brained creatures manage to do the things that so impress us? Well for a start it may be more a matter of numbers than actual size (and it should be noted that birds have the largest brain to body ratio of any creature). Some research published in July 2016, which received a lot of media attention, found that bird brains pack neurons more densely than other animals. It was previously thought that neuron density didn’t vary much between species, but it’s now becoming clear this isn’t so, and actual brain size isn’t such a reliable guide to intelligence. But bird brains are really small compared to those of primates, so there must surely be other differences besides density.

But the 2016 research, which featured a revolutionary method for sampling brain tissue and making neuron counts, found that, in fact, a parrot brain contained as many neurons as some mid-sized primates. However, it’s also true that a bird’s brain is structurally different. Unsurprisingly, in the past, bird brains were thought of as primitive, and were classified as such, probably because they’re far removed from us on the evolutionary bush. Anthropomorphism again – understandably we used to feel that the only really intelligent creatures apart from us were those most closely related to us, but in recent decades we’ve learned that cetaceans, octopuses, elephants and birds, none of which are close to us  evolutionarily, are highly intelligent creatures. And they’re not all mammals, and in the case of the octopus, not even vertebrates. This is quite exciting for our understanding of intelligent life forms – they can have a multitude of ‘brain plans’.

The first important bird brain anatomist was the 19th century German naturalist Ludwig Edinger, whose work was so influential that it provided the orthodox view until a few decades ago. Noting the very different structure of the bird brain, Edinger understandably assumed they couldn’t be as smart as mammals, and being one of the first to name brain structures in birds, he assigned names such as paleostriatum, suggesting a very basic region involving instinctual and motor activity. Basically, he assumed birds lacked a neocortex altogether. However, we now know that the bird brain evolved from the pallium rather than the striatum, and in 2005 it was agreed that an overhaul of bird brain nomenclature was required. All part of our more informed and respectful approach to these wondrous creatures.

National Geographic, in combination with other interested organisations, has declared 2018 the Year of the Bird, and has some fascinating pieces on bird behaviour on its website. That’s where I learned that, according to one researcher, birds’ brains are more distributed ‘like a pizza’, whereas the mammalian brain is more layered. However, the wiring that underlies long-term memory in birds (and they clearly have impressive long-term memory) and decision-making is similar to that in mammals. 

Here are just a few of the extraordinary behaviours discovered. Green-rumped parrotlets of South America use calls as names for their chicks. Male palm cockatoos of New Guinea court females not only with calls but by drumming on hollow trees with twigs and seedpods – arguably a form of music. Goffin’s cockatoos, from Indonesia, make and use tools in captivity even though they’ve never been seen to do so in the wild. They’re also expert at opening locks. The National Geographic video ‘Beak and Brain: genius birds down under’ compares the kea of New Zealand’s South Island to the New Caledonian crow as problems solvers tasked with overcoming a variety of obstacles to obtain their favourite treats. It makes for riveting viewing. Other videos online show crows creating hooks on sticks and using them to pull food out of holes. 

Another video, involving experiments with jackdaws by Princess Auguste of Bavaria (really), a behavioural scientist, shows that these birds are much influenced by the gaze of humans, and can be directed to act simply by the gaze of a human they have bonded with. They also appear to know when they’re not being watched, and can act more boldly in such circumstances. All of this raises obvious questions, voiced by Auguste in the video. How do jackdaws think? How is it similar to the way we think? Do they recognise intentions? Do they have a theory of mind?

This theory of mind issue comes up with a lot of birds, and other animals. It refers to whether and to what extent a creature has the ability to attribute any or all of the variety of possible mental states to itself and/or others. The question of an avian theory of mind was explored in a study entitled ‘ravens attribute visual access to unseen competitors’. In describing their experiment, the authors highlight what they see – or what skeptics see – as a problem with much experimental work that tests for theory of mind in other species. This is the question – as I understand it – of whether the bird or animal actually ‘sees’ or reads what conspecifics are thinking, or is simply following particular observable cues. It was a complex experiment involving caching (hiding a store of food for later consumption, a common raven behaviour), peepholes that were either open or closed, and inference (by the researchers) from observed behaviour to either ‘minimal’ or ‘full-blown’ Theory of Mind. As a dilettante I found much of the discussion and analysis beyond me, but I found these remarks interesting:

In conclusion, the current experiment, together with the other recent studies on chimpanzees11,12, provides strong evidence against the skeptical hypothesis that the social cognition of nonhuman animals is limited to behaviour-reading. Peephole designs can allow researchers to overcome the confound of gaze cues, but further experimental work is needed to determine the specific limits of ravens and other animals—including humans—on such tasks.

In my general reading on these matters I’ve definitely found something like a rift between the skeptics on the behaviour of higher primates, dolphins and other ‘smart’ creatures, and those who have pushed, sometimes naively, other-life smarts with regard to ‘language’, memory and emotional intelligence. What I think needs to be kept clearly in mind is that in examining intelligence, or brain power or whatever, human intelligence may be only one of a possible infinity of gold standards. Is Theory of Mind itself an anthropomorphic concept, or one that lends itself too easily to anthropomorphic thinking? 

Meanwhile, experimentation and investigation of the neurological underpinnings of bird behaviour will continue, and I’ll be watching for the results. Just about to embark on Jim Robbins’ book The wonder of birds, and I hope to learn more especially about bird neurology in the future, and how it relates to birdsong. That’s a whole other issue.

Written by stewart henderson

November 2, 2018 at 9:40 am