“Mammoth species interbred, perhaps extensively”

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A new study of mammoth DNA suggests that mammoths mated outside of their species. Mammoth tissue specimens reveal that woolly mammoths of cold regions in North America bred with temperate climate Columbian mammoths. The news is surprising to me given the social cohesion of mammoth herds. I would have thought that herds would have resisted advances by bull mammoths with distinctive phenomes.

Phys.org sums up the study:

…By using differences in the size and shape of their fossilized teeth, a number of North American mammoth species have been identified. But, some scientists are not confident this method of species categorization tells the whole story.

“Species boundaries can be very blurry. We might find differences in features of the teeth or skeleton that closely correspond to what we think are real species boundaries. But other features may not correspond to those boundaries, suggesting that what we formerly regarded as separate species are in fact not at all,” explains Hendrik Poinar, a Professor at McMaster University in Canada, who co-led the new study with his former graduate student Jake Enk and collaborator Ross MacPhee, a Professor at the American Museum of Natural History.

Professor Poinar and his co-authors used cutting-edge methods to distinguish species of North American mammoths. Tiny samples of fossilized mammoth bone, teeth and faeces, were generously donated by a number of museums across America and Canada. DNA was extracted from these samples in a specialized laboratory of the Ancient DNA centre at the McMaster University, and used to create a family tree of their evolution. The results proved to be very interesting.

North American mammoths such as the Columbian and Woolly Mammoths were historically thought to originate from two separate primitive species. However, this latest DNA analysis agrees with a more recent idea that all North American mammoths originated from a single primitive species, the Steppe Mammoth.

“Individuals of the Woolly and Columbian mammoths look like they represent different species in terms of their molar teeth, but their genetics say that they were not completely separate in the evolutionary sense and could successfully interbreed,” says Professor MacPhee.

Professor Poinar continues, “Mammoths were much better at adapting to new habitats than we first thought—we suspect that subgroups of mammoths evolved to deal with local conditions, but maintained genetic continuity by encountering and potentially interbreeding with each other where their two different habitats met, such as at the edge of glaciers and ice sheets.”

So, while mammoths clearly evolved differences in their physical appearance to deal with different environments, it did not prohibit them from cross-breeding and producing healthy offspring…

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Book review: how tech enables smart cities

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Rio de Janiero's control room

Rio de Janiero’s control room

Anthony Townsend has blended the history of city planning and high-tech innovation and what it means for the future in Smart Cities:  Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia (2013).

A “smart city” is a city that taps into the power of the internet of things, mobile devices, and big data to improve public services, provide officials with better information, and to realize cost savings.  An example is deploying internet connected sensors to monitor leaks in city water infrastructure and ping officials for repairs.

A challenge to widespread knowledge and adoption of the smart city concept is the amount of salesmanship lurking behind it.  Much of what is written about smart cities originates from press releases by big companies like IBM and Cisco.  They are selling major systems like a control room for Rio de Janeiro to monitor its neighborhoods like NASA would monitor a space launch.

Townsend describes these high-profile smart city examples but also puts them in historical context.  Townsend is generally supportive of smart city innovations, but he is balanced.  He points out flaws, bugs, and risks in certain solutions.  He also explains smaller elements of smart city planning that are more practical for adoption.  Townsend’s context and balance make Smart Cities a valuable resource to cut through the clutter of big businesses’ marketing materials.

Chapter 1 tells a pleasant story in London in 1851 about building the Crystal Palace, an early microcosm of a smart city solution.  The Crystal Palace had precise climate controls through ventilation based on readings from 14 thermostats.  It’s an early model that also serves as a future vision:  an ecosystem where tiny devices trigger appropriate system-wide responses to improve urban living.

Chapter 5, “Tinkering Toward Utopia,” tracks the recent history of app development that has helped connect city dwellers and visitors.  Apps such as Foursquare and Meetup have demonstrated how social apps can thrive when they are tied to specific places like cities.

Chapter 9, “Buggy, Brittle, and Bugged” does a good (and ominous) job of highlighting the risks of large systems that are heavily dependent on technology that is prone to bugs, breaches, and interruptions.

Some of the other chapters aren’t as focused.  Specific topics overlap multiple chapters and previous themes are repeated seemingly at random.  The book would have benefited from better organized chapters with straightforward titles.

Still, there a lots of good nuggets and pearls of wisdom scattered throughout the book.  This book can help inspire innovative thinking among city leaders.  It is probably the best book about “smart cities” on the market.  Recommended for community leaders, civic hackers, government technology professionals, and city planners.

Review: BitCon makes the case against bitcoin

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If you’ve ever been at a meeting or cocktail party where bitcoin comes up in the conversation, BitCon is required reading.  After reading Jeffrey Robinson’s book, you’ll be able to join the conversation with an actual understanding of bitcoins, warts and all, rather than relying solely on vapid news articles and tweets.

The book is extremely critical of bitcoin.  But even bitcoin fans owe it to themselves to read the book.  Robinson has done his homework, and can’t be written off as somebody who doesn’t understand bitcoin.  BitCon explains the fundamentals of bitcoin with easily understood terms and comparisons.  In one passage, Robinson sums up how transactions are verified by bitcoin miners:

What the miners do is put each individually identifiable transaction into an unalterable “block”—more computer code—which is then attached to all the other blocks that have come before it, to form a “blockchain.”  That’s a public ledger where every transaction is visible and set in stone.

BitCon builds on these descriptions by explaining what bitcoin is and what it isn’t.  In terms of the classic definition of money, bitcoin doesn’t meet the criteria of being a medium of exchange or a store of value.  Bitcoin is not a reliable store of value because its exchange rates are extremely volatile.  Would you feel confident taking out a mortgage in bitcoin?

It is not a medium of exchange because it is rarely used to buy goods and services (except in the dark web for underground purchases).  Most of the bitcoins in “circulation” aren’t circulated much.  They are held, hoarded, traded, and speculated by individuals hoping that the volatility will swing in their favor.  When bitcoins are used for dollar-denominated purchases, fees are added coming and going.

High-profile stories about merchants such as car dealers or universities accepting bitcoin are exaggerated and misleading.  Typically, those purchases are cases of a consumer with bitcoin who pay an intermediary bitcoin processor to convert the bitcoins to dollars to pay the merchant.  The headlines leave out the bitcoin converters were involved.

Robinson is a delightful curmudgeon.  There are several laugh-out-loud lines, which is rare for a nonfiction book about technology and money.  BitCon compares bitcoin supporters to a religious cult (and provides several quotes from articles and social media that justify the comparison), referring to them as “The Faithful.”  Vocal bitcoin fans on social media are the “Noise Machine.”  Whenever news or a comment by a high-profile entrepreneur could be interpreted as favorable to bitcoin, the Noise Machine circulates the story far and wide without context or nuance.  When somebody speaks unfavorably about bitcoin, the Noise Machine excoriates them as fools.

Although BitCon takes no prisoners against what Robinson calls “the pretend currency,” he suggests that the enduring and useful aspect of Bitcoin technology will be the blockchain.  A decentralized public ledger will have staying power in recordkeeping separate from currency.  However, BitCon doesn’t spend too much time justifying this assertion.  Many experts are quoted touting blockchain, but the practical advantages of the protocol aren’t fleshed out.  That’s the only weakness in an otherwise enjoyable and informative read.

Book review: cold case heats up in Atlanta

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In Out of the Blues by Trudy Nan Boyce, an experienced police officer (but homicide newbie) nicknamed Salt must reopen an investigation into the suspicious death of a blues musician.  Fortunately for Salt, she is a bigtime blues fan and already knows the major players and venues in the Atlanta blues scene.  She’s also smart and has a knack for finessing the truth out of suspects and witnesses.

Unfortunately, the homicide unit assigns no partner to Salt.  She’s on her own even though it’s her first case.  This is dangerous because the case involves a criminal, drug-dealing, pimping syndicate.  The investigation also involves links to powerful men in Atlanta, including the pastor of a big church and a fellow police officer who is an unofficial gatekeeper for cops working part-time jobs for extra money.  Salt is strong, but she is also vulnerable and has to work diligently and carefully to overcome these obstacles.

Salt is also the only woman on her shift.  This causes some awkwardness and necessitates some heroics to prove herself.  But the gender roles in the book are handled with a fairly light touch—not nearly as heavy-handed as Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, which focused on the stacked deck against women and resistance to social change in the Atlanta police department 40 years earlier.  Out of the Blues is much less focused on cultural commentary than Cop Town.  Those looking for a more straightforward police procedural in Atlanta without the social analysis will prefer this book.

One weakness of Out of the Blues is the dialogue.  The characters use long words, speak in long sentences, and have very long conversations without major payoffs.  Nevertheless, Salt is engaging and the story is strong enough to carry the reader’s interest to the tidy ending.

Recommended.

Mammoth skull unearthed in Oklahoma

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A construction worker in Oklahoma recently found part of a skull and tusk of a Columbian mammoth.  Mammoth remains are found a couple of times per year in that part of the country.  They must have been plentiful back then.  From the Spanish wire service EFE:

Archaeologists have found a mammoth skull and two tusk fragments in a sand pit in northeastern Oklahoma, media reports said.

The Oklahoma Archeological Survey, or OAS, identified the animal as a Columbian mammoth, one of the last species of that giant mammal to inhabit both North America and Central America, ranging between what are today the United States and Costa Rica.

“The exact age of the deposit has not yet been determined,” the OAS said in a post on its Facebook page.

Archaeologists went to the scene after receiving images of part of a skull being dug out of the sand near Alva, located 240 kilometers (150 miles) northeast of Oklahoma City.

Before becoming extinct more than 11,000 years ago, mammoths were common during the Pleistocene epoch in this central area of the United States, where two or three mammoth remains are found every year, archaeologists say.

The Columbian mammoth could reach a shoulder height of 4 meters (13 feet), weigh 8 to 10 tons and have a life span of 80 years…

General Assembly creates fintech study group

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Atlanta's Transaction Alley

Map of Atlanta-area fintech companies

On the final day of the legislative session last month, the Georgia House of Representatives approved the creation of a new financial technology committee.  The study committee will examine possible incentives such as tax breaks for financial technology companies and payment processors in Georgia.

Lawmakers noted in the text of Senate Resolution 883 that over 70 percent of all financial transactions processed in the United States are actually processed by companies headquartered in Georgia.  Georgia’s “Transaction Alley” is responsible for 40,000 jobs plus another 40,000 related support jobs.  Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta) and Elena Parent (D-Atlanta)—the senator for the district I live in—were among the cosponsors.

Study committees like this tend to schedule a few hearings where they talk to industry experts and a couple of state government officials.  They come up with reports that often become the basis of legislation in the upcoming year.  I would predict that this study committee may come up with some tax incentives for financial technology companies to locate or remain in Georgia.  They could design these along the lines of Georgia’s successful film tax credit.  The committee may also encourage venture capital investments into fintech startups.

Book review: Invasive Species gets under your skin

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Invasive Species, an ecological thriller by Joe Wallace, crawls under your skin from the outset.  A large and seemingly intelligent wasp in Senegal bores into hominid hosts like a tumbu fly.  Getting stung is almost always fatal to humans.  The wasps are nicknamed majizi, meaning thieves, by the locals.  What exactly the majizi are stealing from their hosts, other than their lives, is unclear at first.

Trey Gilliard, a globetrotting biologist, scurries across borders from Africa to the U.S. to Central America and back in an effort to collect specimens and prove the gravity of the threat to a skeptical American government.  At his side are Sheila, a medical doctor and daughter of one of the first American victims of the majizi, and Jack, a loudmouthed New York wasp expert.

The first half of Invasive Species is marvelous.  The majizi are ominous.  Trey, Sheila, Jack, and a curiously insightful Senegalese woman named Mariama are sympathetic because they are alone in attempting to sound the alarm bell.  Like a Crichton novel, the biological explanations and descriptions of the threatening species are convincing without being overly technical.  The well-crafted prose is enjoyable.

About half of the way through, the book shifts toward political themes.  Mariama is implausibly “disappeared” to a Caribbean island by the U.S. government, apparently because her knowledge is a threat to officials who are trying to minimize publicity about the wasps.  Scattered wasp attacks in the U.S. become the subject of debates during a presidential campaign.  At this point, Invasive Species begins resembling the 1980s alien invasion book, Footfall, where government officials become embroiled in reacting to an aggressive, otherworldly species threatening to annihilate humanity.

Like the herd mentality of the Fithp elephants in Footfall, the majizi exhibit a collective awareness.  The human team learn the hard way that the wasps’ hive mind makes them an even more dangerous foe.  Star Trek fans will detect parallels between the majizi and the Borg, the aggressive species of invaders that absorb their victims in order to expand the collective.

Although the book is on firmer footing when dealing with scientific rather than political topics, the novel is well worth a read.  Fans of Crichton or the pulp horror animal attack books of the 1980s will love this more contemporary, globalized heir to the genre.  Students of disease outbreaks and readers of books like the Hot Zone will appreciate the disturbing trends of international pandemics that Wallace highlights.