Sunday, August 29, 2010

Week 34: Los Diablos Rojos is one of my favorite websites. The premise of the site is simple: random people ("farkers") submit real news stories that are distinguished by their hilarity, stupidity, or strangeness. Each article is submitted and linked with a funny but fake headline - of the thousands of articles submitted each day, only a few dozen make the main page. So regular readers of Fark end up with a free gonzo news clipping service, with the witty headlines as a bonus. Last night one of the Fark headlines caught my eye: "Bad news: Man-eating squid on the loose in the Pacific. Worse news: Each female produces up to 30 million offspring. Fark: Please tell us you're squidding." Needless to say, I clicked on the link to the article.

The article is fascinating - it claims millions of predatory Humboldt giant squid have in the past few years moved north from their typical equatorial waters to the Californian and even Alaskan coasts. It goes on to say that "two Mexican fisherman were recently dragged from their boats and chewed so badly that their bodies could not be identified even by their own families." So notorious are these squid that they are called "diablos rojos" - red devils - by Mexican fisherman. By this point, my BS meter was running high. For one, if two Mexican fisherman had literally been eaten by these super squid it would likely have been reported on the major news channels. And second, 30 million offspring per mama squid just seemed downright inconceivable (pun intended). I decided to investigate.

The truth about Humboldt Squid, while not necessarily as fantastic as the article suggests, is still pretty nuts. They can grow to be six feet long, and can swim up to 15mph (three times faster than Olympic swimmers). They have three hearts and a very large brain, to go with their ten tentacles. Each tentacle has over 1,000 sucker disks, and each sucker disk has over 20 teeth. They hunt in packs of up to 1,000 and change colors and reflect light to communicate and possibly confuse their prey. When the fish are in sight, the Humboldt Squid go into a feeding frenzy, aggressively attacking everything around them, using their baseball-sized beaks to devour what they catch. To add to their legend, Humboldt Squid eat each other - scientific estimates suggest fellow Humboldts make up perhaps 20% of their diet.

But what of all the man-eating reports? As it stands, there are no scientific reports confirming this has ever happened. Any claims have come from fishermen's stories passed on through the years. Then again, there are relatively few scientific reports on the species in general. A few things are clear - according to leading squid expert William Gilly of Stanford these squid do two things in life: they eat and they reproduce. They are intelligent, inquisitive, and communicative (even if we don't yet know what they are saying). They have indeed moved north to California waters, and there is no question they are eating a significant portion of already depleted fish stocks. Ongoing studies are taking place to determine the long-term ecological implications of these new staples of the California coast. Unfortunately, almost nothing is known about their mating habits or their total population. Even their life expectancy is unknown, although estimates range from 1-2 years.

This lack of solid information probably plays a role in this particular squid lore. In a vacuum of scientific data it is easy to call these bizarre and ferocious predators man-eaters. Then again, those who have been brave (or stupid) enough to swim with Humboldts while they were feeding have been attacked quite viciously. If not for armored wet suits designed specifically for these missions, a squid-Jaws moment is certainly conceivable. No matter what the science shows going forward, I know enough to keep me far away from los diablos rojos.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Week 33: Navy SEALs are badass.

My first exposure to the Navy SEALs came from reading The Lone Survivor, written by former SEAL Marcus Luttrell. It is the harrowing story of his four-man SEAL team's location being compromised in the mountains of Afghanistan, and their subsequent battle against hundreds of Taliban (waged while simultaneously scaling down a mountain ridge to attempt to escape). Needless to say, the book piqued my interest. Why was the Navy operating in the mountains of Afghanistan? And who are these guys who show up deep inside enemy territory - typically at night and with painted green faces - execute their mission, and get out before sunrise?

To help understand the SEALs - whose name is derived from their ubiquitious "sea, air and land" mandate - and why they are so extraordinary, I will begin with a few facts. No Navy SEAL has ever surrendered. No Navy SEAL's body, dead or alive, has ever been left in combat. There are fewer than 10,000 Navy SEALs - retired and active combined. Navy SEALs are typically the first on-the-ground troops in any thorny situation, anywhere. They are trained to operate in the arctic, the desert, the jungle, underwater and in the air. SEAL training is notorious for being the hardest military training on the planet. Every SEAL is trained to be proficient in all types of operations, from shooting to demolition to recon to counterinsurgency. From the Viet Cong to terrorists in Afghanistan, enemies of the United States have often reported being absolutely terrified of the stealth and ruthless efficiency of the SEALs - and for damn good reason.

How do they get so good? It starts with attracting those who are basically unmatched in both physical and mental strength and endurance. It ends with uncompromising, intense training that makes these men warriors. The initial six months is called Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) Training. Perhaps the most widely known part of BUD/S is Hell Week, which consists of five and a half days of continuous physical training with a maximum of four hours of sleep. Not four hours of sleep per night - four hours of sleep total. The Navy's website echoes what many SEALs said in the interviews I watched: "Hell Week proves to those who make it that the human body can do ten times the amount of work the average man thinks possible." Written at the training facility in large letters for all to see is a quote that taunts the new trainees: "The only easy day was yesterday." One SEAL laughed at his trainers in the Army's parachute school, because their sets of push-ups were only ten at a time. Navy SEALs do fifty. SEAL snipers are expected to be able to hit within one inch of a target a football field away. Among the more hated drills is "log training", during which teams of six wannabe SEALs lift, push and pull 200+ pound logs for ninety minutes straight. The overwhelming majority of those trying out to become a SEAL quit during initial training. But it is this type of almost sadistic training that weeds out the weak, and prepares the new SEALs for battle.

But "battle" for Navy SEALs is different than for others in the armed forces. For Navy SEALs, battle is done on their terms. SEALs are the hunters, not the hunted. They embrace complexity and welcome bad conditions. In fact, for their missions they seek out bad conditions, because they know that their ability to deal with a monsoon (or jungle... or blizzard) is a competitive advantage over their adversaries. This is also why most SEAL operations are carried out in the dead of night, when the element of surprise can be further leveraged.

Today, SEAL teams are playing a leading role in the war against Islamic terrorists. They have been a huge - and hugely successful - part of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. And while their operations are typically clandestine, there is the occasional high-profile event. Earlier this year, Navy SEALs were responsible for the successful release of an American boat captain from Somali pirates. Five days into the standoff, with tensions rising and an AK-47 to the captain's head, SEAL snipers simultaneously shot dead all three pirates. Each sniper shot only once, and all three were headshots. I might add that this was in a patch of particularly rough seas, making an already difficult shot even more tricky.

So the next time you feel too tired to get up for work, or don't feel like running the extra mile at the gym, think about the fact that in Cornado, California there is a group of young men who have not slept for days and are doing sets of fifty push-ups in the cold ocean water. All I can say is I'm glad we have these guys on our side...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Week 32: New York's Hapless Homeless

I've been meaning to research and write about this topic for some time now. Since I started living in New York City in 2007, there has been an undeniable increase in the sheer number of homeless people on the streets. Just last week, a group of three chose the stoop outside my girlfriend's house as their new pad before yesterday deciding to move on. The Coalition for the Homeless claims New York City shelter inhabitants are at an all-time high of 39,000 per night. If accurate, that represents about one half of one percent of the city's population. The range of homeless in the city spans from the depressing - from Vietnam vets to the severely mentally and physically disabled - to the entertaining
Fifth Avenue drummer and the many subway system

In resesarching this topic, I'm sad to say it was difficult to find an objective view or analysis of the problem of homelessness in New York City. Almost every video or article began with the homeless but ended with some kind of politics-driven diatribe. My perhaps cynical impression is that many making these documentaries were using the homeless as nothing more than a political tool. That said, I'm not blind to the fact this is a social issue and social issues are inherently political issues as well. And it isn't terribly controversial to say the bleak economic situation is driving the wedge between the "haves" and the "have nots" even farther apart.

But from these documentaries there was one oft-repeated refrain: how could there be so many homeless in such a rich city? Many made references to the fact that Mayor Bloomberg is a billionaire, and suggested it is outrageous that a city run by a billionaire should have any homeless people. Aside from the simple answer - it's just not that simple - I'd like to point out that Bloomberg just accepted Buffett and Gates' challenge to donate over half of his net worth to charity. And as for a rich city, I'd like to note that both New York City and New York State have incredibly high tax levels and both institutions are running massive budget deficits. But the point isn't really about what is or is not "rich" - the point is in New York we are surrounded by tall buildings and fancy restaurants and men in suits... sharing the streets with some down on their luck people who for many reasons are not in a position to help themselves. And trust me - as someone who gets asked at least 5 times a day for money, the stark contrast between these two worlds is eye-opening.

To be frank, these repeated and forced encounters are awkward. Of course I want to help, and I suspect others do as well, but how? One solution is to give food and not money - a few weeks ago I gave a homeless person a granola bar - he seemed surprised but happy. It reminded me of a time when my Mom was once approached by some homeless children in a parking lot. They asked for money and she refused, but gave them a pack of yogurt. Out of empathy or perhaps guilt I do occassionally give a token amount of money (when I don't have a granola bar). And yes, I know it will not change the situation... I also know they will probably spend it on booze or drugs. But I do it anyway. What else is to be done? The scary part is that at some point - perhaps the 4,000th time you've been asked if you can spare some change - your mind glazes over and that initial empathy isn't there. Hey not my problem, man.

But if you don't want to give money directly to the homeless because it might go to poor habits, surely you can give to an organization that advocates for the homeless? Unfortunately, it's not that simple either. Perhaps the biggest and certainly the most visible organization in Manhattan was the United Homeless Organization (UHO). Their tables were planted on just about every other block with a red table cloth and an old water jug into which you were implored to contribute. Well, it turns out the whole thing was a fraud. The founders used the money for themselves and the volunteers took the balance of the funds. None of the money went to help anyone else. A judge recently ordered the "charity" to be shut down. I'm positive that most charities are not like this one, and that there are many worthwhile organizations that strive to serve the homeless. My point is, it's difficult to make an individual contribution to this problem on the margin, because everywhere you look there are "feel good" opportunities that ultimately do nothing and perhaps exacerbate the underlying problems.

From a practical perspective, it seems to me that there is no way to solve the immediate problem with a sweeping, top-down idea. One of the homeless women whose interview I watched put it best: "how do you even begin to find a job with no address, no phone number?" Without treatment, how can those who have serious but treatable mental disorders be anything but homeless? The fact is, I am incredibly lucky to have never been in a situation without some support network. I can't imagine how scary it would be to have nothing. So I do believe there has to be a focus on the basics - that which is just enough to help people help themselves... to get the positive feedback loop going. While this may not be enough for many of the worst cases, there are no doubt some bums who just need another shot.

As I anecdotally notice a larger and larger homeless population, I can only imagine that the status quo is becoming less and less acceptable. The humane case for help goes without saying. For those who don't care about the humane case, they should care that the streets are noticably more likely to be covered in urine, for instance. After all, we aren't talking about the 46% of Americans who don't pay federal income tax - we're talking about an incredibly small, hapless portion of the population...

Unfortunately I've got no overarching solution this week, but I will end with a question that has challenged me a great deal in the last few months: what is the best way to help people help themselves?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Week 31: Are we alone?

Three weeks ago, a Harvard astronomer named Dimitar Sasselov gave an 18 minute TED conference talk that caused quite a stir.  His contention is that recent research suggests there could be 100 million "earth-like" (read: earth-size) planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone!  This is the perfect topic for a blog about learning new things - there is arguably nothing I know less about than planetary science.  But given the press coverage and controversy resulting from Professor Sasselov's talk - oh yeah, and that whole nagging issue of "are we alone in the universe" - I've decided to take a stab at the topic. I will start with a very brief overview of what he said, quickly explain the controversy and finish with a few big picture thoughts.  For those who don't want to read on, I'll make it simple for you: I don't think life exists only on earth.     

Sasselov starts with Copernicus, from whom we learned that planet Earth is not the center of the universe.  This realization led to 400 years of curiosity and scientific study focused on the possibility that other forms of life exist.  Indeed, every new, more powerful telescope has shown us a bigger and bigger universe.  Put another way: the more we learn about what is out there, the smaller we realize we are on a relative basis.  The latest and greatest telescope - Kepler (think souped up Hubble) - is at the center of a $600mm NASA project to identify other planets in our galaxy.  More specifically, the goal is to find other planets orbiting stars in our galaxy that are similar to Earth.   

The process by which the Kepler does this is fascinating.  It monitors over 100,000 stars in the galaxy, and tracks the dimming of spots of light on the stars.  This small dimming of light can potentially represent a planet orbiting that star - as the dimming mass moves, you can deduce things like planet size, rotation, orbit, and closeness to the star around which it is orbiting.   The Kepler has identified many potential planet candidates, and the scientist teams follow up on promising leads from there.  Perhaps the most important planet characteristic sort is by size.  If the goal is to find earth-like planets, this makes sense.  For a variety of scientific reasons, small planets are better suited for water and for life (or at least life as we know it).  In our solar system there are four planets besides Earth that fall into the "small" category: Mars, Venus, Mercury and Pluto.  Looking out to our galaxy, we had previously found a disproportionate number of planets bucketed in the large planet category (think Jupiter). We now know this was because our telescopes caught only the biggest masses.  The latest Kepler data have found about 1160 planet candidates.  Compositionally, this group of planet candidates seems to have significantly more smaller planets relative to larger planets! This is hugely important; for the first time we have real scientific data verifying the proportionally large existence of small, potentially earth-size planets in our galaxy.   

Now, there were a number of blogs and articles that reacted somewhat negatively to this talk.  One objection was that he used "planets" to describe the newly found masses, and not the scientifically correct "planet candidates."  There is apparently a scientific process that must be followed before something can be officially called a "planet." A second objection was that he used the term "earth-like" to describe the planets they found, when they are not necessarily earth-like, but rather are earth-sized.  Both of these are fair contentions, but in my mind they do not take away from the significance of the research being done or how exciting this is for all of us. If after all the analysis is done there are only one hundred thousand truly "earth-like" and not merely "earth-size" planets in our galaxy, that would still be an incredible scientific finding.

Of course a tremendous amount of work remains: the scientists must now study the existing sample size to determine the habitability of some of these planet candidates, and there is a constant stream of additional data to be reviewed and analyzed.  What's REALLY cool about this is the overlap between the Kepler project and Harvard's Origins of Life Initiative. This is an interdisciplinary institute with all types of scientists (biologists, chemists and astronomers among them) whose goal is to learn about the beginning of life on Earth and perhaps in other places. This gets at the still unanswered question of: if there is life on other planets is it similar to life on earth? Is life as a chemical process universal - like gravity - or is it tailored to a specific environment? One example of how biology experiments can help astronomers is a recent finding that some clay and liquid water, when mixed, can produce naturally available molecules that form spontaneous bubbles, whose membranes are similar to every living membrane on Earth. As Sasselov puts it, this interdisciplinary group at Harvard is building a bridge from two sides of the proverbial river. There are those like him who are looking at planets (think pond scum) and those on the other side who are in the lab (think DNA/RNA). Both groups are trying to get to the foundation and formation of life, and they hope to do so by meeting somewhere in the middle. Right now it is not a full bridge, but if you believe Sasselov it is an important stepping stone to what he says is science redefining life as we know it.

Copernicus helped us realize our spatial insignificance relative to the universe around us. It is possible that through our evolving discoveries about life we will again change our thinking. As Sasselov points out, life may be insignificant in size but it is not insignificant in time. The Earth's biosphere (i.e., life) has existed almost one third of the time the universe is predicted to have been around. And the importance of life relative to the universe increases even more if earth-like or even earth-size planets are nearly as prevalent as they seem to be. Perhaps, then, we aren't alone... and perhaps we will soon learn more about our intergalactic partners in this funny thing called life.