On One Hand

December 30, 2009

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December 29, 2009

How Life Transforms the Landscape: Evolution on a Global Scale

Filed under: science — ononehand @ 11:25 pm
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Most of us are familiar with the concepts that drive evolution and adaptability – that species with traits or features that allow them to thrive do thrive, populating the landscape, while species with traits that are not as well-adapted remain rare or go extinct. That’s why almost all the organisms we see in the wild are tough and well-adapted evolutionary “winners,” and while species come and go, life itself is nearly impossible to kill off.

But equally importantly, life has a tendency to bring other life with it; a successful new species creates a food source and shelter for other species to evolve or move in. Over billions of years, the net effect of this has been to expand the biosphere to cover the entire planet with increasing numbers of living things.

In the beginning of life on Earth, a few single-celled organisms stuck to the gentle shores of balmy, salty seas, while the rest of the planet was as barren and desolate as Mars or the Moon. The oceans filled with microorganisms first, aided by the mobility that sea currents provide but still few and far between. Early photosynthetic bacteria began to colonize into Stromatolites, forming grainy pillows of mud and sediment that dotted tropical coastal areas and are still visible today in some places, both in active growth and ancient fossils.

Left: Stromatolytes. Right: Red moss, a primitive, rootless plant that requires humid conditions.

When plants adapted ways of storing water or sucking it out of damp soil, significant numbers of species were able to move out of semi-submerged swamps and live on hills and plains. Early plants stayed within a few miles of the coast, places that are now known as marshes, cloud forests and coastal rainforest. But over time a few pioneers crept out onto continental interiors, and gradually evolved to larger sizes, for the first time making visual impact on the landscape on a global scale.

It was only recently in the timeline of life that an observer from space would see continents turn green with forests and grasslands. Deserts were quite barren until plants developed advanced strategies for storing water, allowing rocky, sandy places like the Mojave Desert to become littered with cactus and Joshua trees, dry grasses and woody shrubs with massive underground root systems. The establishment of consistent greenery, even if not as lush as a forest, allowed herbivores to move in, followed by predatory species, fungi, bacteria and other scavengers.

If you look at the kinds of plants that exist in Earth’s most difficult environments, you find that they are dominated by angiosperms – blooming plants – which emerged during the time of the dinosaurs and are recent introductions to Earth’s biosphere. It is hard to imagine ferns and cycads – Earth’s early plants with weak root systems and a strong preference for humid climates – growing comfortably in the desert or the arctic. Grass, a type of angiosperm and very recent development in the plant kingdom, was absent until about the time that dinosaurs went extinct, and now dominates semi-arid and arid areas. Before 65 million years ago, landscapes now covered in grass would be filled, instead, with caked dirt and only occasional greenery.

Grass changed the environment not only by introducing a food source for animals, but by taming it with extensive root systems. Grass has a dramatic, Earth-changing effect of controlling erosion, turning sand dunes into hills and muddy river banks into pastures. Dead grass decays and fertilizes sandy soil with water-absorbent organic material, which makes the land fertile. The systemic change of the landscape allows other drought-tolerant trees to begin growing, benefiting even some of the species that are less well-acclimated to the landscapes grass species take over.

Left: Grass taming a sandy area. Right: Grass dominating a semi-arid climate

Other angiosperms formed symbiotic relationships with bacteria in their roots to turn Nitrogen in the air into usable fertilizer. This is known to help other surrounding plants thrive, and has been used by farmers to benefit crops. The concept of crop rotation takes advantage of one species’ assistance of another, using nitrogen-fixing plants like alfalfa or clover to enrich soil for grass crops like wheat or corn.

A recent study has shown that blooming plants also humidified entire regions to make continental rainforests possible. Angiosperms, with advanced root and circulatory systems, are so good at finding water and pumping it into themselves that evaporation from their leaves humidified the air and generated new rains. Those rains invited millions of species to move in. Ferns have about a fifth of the leaf veins that blooming plants like ficus trees and avocados have, so weren’t able to humidify the air in the same way. But when ferns adapted the ability to grow in shady places beneath trees or cling to rainforest tree trunks themselves, they benefited greatly from the expanding biosphere, and developed their own ways to contribute to it. Again, it was a new evolutionary development that allowed places like the Amazon Rainforest to cover half a continent with green.

Clouds form over the Amazon Rainforest. Water evaporates from tree leaves, facilitating
cloud formation, at a faster rate than even the warm ocean does.

Even what we see as “primitive” kinds of species continue to evolve. Mosses don’t have roots or the ability to store water, but by developing the ability to survive freezing, they were able to begin growing on mountain tops and arctic tundra between rocks and logs, provided the area is moist with melting snow. Moss is known to be a pioneer species itself since it does not need soil, but produces soil when it dies and decays, allowing other plants to grow.

The way a species can make room for other species to thrive – as well as our understanding of it – is increasingly complex. Also increasing is the hostility of environments that diverse ecosystems cover with life. There is life beneath the ice in Antarctic, in abandoned nuclear reactors, and covering undersea volcanic vents. Animal species have long been learning to thrive in human environments, turning urban parks and sewers into thriving ecosystems.

If we see human beings as part of this system, greenhouses and irrigated farms are examples of one life form improving things for another. When there’s snow on the ground outside, the potted plants in my bedroom are certainly glad to have their human-built, adapted environment. Sure, ecology leaves room for the idea that one species can royally screw up an ecosystem for many others – even driving itself to extinction by overpopulating itself or overtaxing its food source – and doesn’t suggest that every species’ impact on the environment is “good.” (Evolution doesn’t see things in terms of “good” or “bad,” just working and not working.)

But humans are part of the principle nonetheless; we bring water to deserts and pass through tunnels blasted through solid rock. If we are able to seed Earth’s life on artificial space stations, the moon, or even other planets, isn’t this, too, an example of Earthly life facilitating its own expansion and filling inhospitable areas?

Expansion and adaptation will continue with or without human influence. It is easy to predict that evolutionary trends that have led to today’s green planet will only continue into the future. If a complex plant evolved to grow in ice or snow, it would turn huge tracts of arctic land into shrubland. As more desert species evolve, a landscape that gets only five inches of rain a year doesn’t seem so dry. Maybe the brown areas on the Earth we see in satellite images will be filled with shades of green in 50 million years.

Perhaps scientists will someday be able to use this concept to determine how long life has existed on a planet as humans begin to explore space. A planet that seems hospitable but only has life forms growing in specific areas is new, and a planet utterly covered in organisms has been experiencing the processes of life for billions and billions of years. Either way, it is obvious that this planet is experiencing somewhat of an unlimited expansion of its own, and that the natural world has its own way of unconsciously creating and organizing itself towards growth.


Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 4:37 pm

I just started two new blogs.

First, OnOneHand, for political commentary and sourced articles.

Second, PaperBeatsPaper, for fiction, prose and poetry.

They both still need a lot of work when it comes to design and layout, and I might buy domain names for them. In the mean time, I now have a professional-looking home base to link to when I write for other publications (where all they offer is a link), and an easy html to direct people to while networking.

I use this journal for the breeding ground for new material, posting it as private, friends-only or public based on how useful it is to the people I know – but if something is good I’ll cross-post it to one of the others.

Comments and suggestions on the blogs are more than welcome!

December 16, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 5:14 pm
Tags: ,

X-posted to: Kos Diaries

The anger we are feeling over the healthcare reform process is, today, palpable. I am only 24 years old but I can tell you that this month I am cynical about politics for the first time in my life. The thought that the institutional barriers to genuine healthcare reform in America – reform that guarantees all citizens access at affordable rates and saves lives – are so powerful that they withstand the will of more than 60 percent of Americans and a powerful Democratic presence in every branch of the federal government, is sickening.

Now the idea that we will likely be forced to buy insurance from companies that live to screw us is the last straw. I refuse to accept that another generation will die before we see genuine and substantial healthcare reform in America.

This is the kind of moment when we need to get off of our computers and demonstrate our anger in a public way. We know there are more of us than there are teabaggers, and we can make a bigger statement than they have made in light of all the glory and attention the fringe Right got this year. This is the time when we need to be setting up permanent picket lines around insurance offices, hospitals and state capitol buildings.

This is the time when we need to be posting lists of people who died when their coverage was denied on the insurance companies’ front doors to shame them.


December 13, 2009

Thoughts on God

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 1:40 pm
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I think the course of my life has been to veer towards being increasingly agnostic. Whatever mechanism that people convince themselves that their own religions are “correct” doesn’t work for me, nor does it make sense for someone to “choose to believe” a certain thing. To me, believing something isn’t a statement that you like it or want to identify with it, it’s a statement that you think it’s true. But your own opinion has no influence on the greater universe. Can you say “I choose to believe there is sushi in the refrigerator” and by your belief have any influence over whether it’s there or not? I say the same is true for religious doctrine.


December 12, 2009

Protected: New Blogs

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December 10, 2009

Protected: No Middle Ground

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December 9, 2009

Fox News’s Blatant Sexism

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 6:07 pm
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The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Gretchen Carlson Dumbs Down
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Crisis


So, according to this video clip, it’s clear that Gretchen Carlson dumbs down just about everything she says on Fox and Friends, which is a perennial critique of American media, particularly of Fox. That is, at least, the case Jon Stewart poignantly makes on the Daily Show. In Stewart’s file footage, Carlson pretends she doesn’t know what a “double-dip recession” is, and looks up “czar” in the dictionary and is just totally shocked that it means “king.”

Then Stewart uncovers that Carlson was valedictorian of her high school class and graduated with honors from Stanford University after designing her own degree there. She spent time studying in Oxford. Getting into Stanford is no cake walk, so either she got to where she was by grit and merit (an analysis I’m always willing to give the benefit of the doubt on), or it was unearned privilege from having wealthy parents. Either way she’s not the airhead she pretends to be on TV.

I see in this something deeper, and more insidious, than what Jon Stewart saw, which is just a dumbing-down of rhetoric so that Joe the Plumber can get what you’re saying. Fox isn’t across-the-board turned-off by intelligence; they have Karl Rove and Neil Cavuto to appear as informed experts making the case for conservatism. On Fox and Friends, Carlson often plays the coy and curious muse of her two colleagues, Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade, who tell her what’s up on a regular basis. The difference between Gretchen Carlson and the “smarter” Fox figures is that she’s a woman.

Come to think of it, isn’t this exactly what every high school cheerleader in America is expected to do? You gotta play dumb so the boys want you. They don’t want blonde girls around for their witty banter, they want a pretty face and tits.

What John Stewart didn’t touch was the blatantly sexist element of Fox’s programming. Gretchen Carlson could thoroughly outclass the other two dunces on that program, but has to dumb herself down and let the boys lead the conversation because this is what conservative Fox viewers want; an intellectually submissive girl.

It’s totally insulting. Can anyone imagine Norah O’Donnel or Rachael Maddow playing dumb perennially on a news program?

Actually, the feminist critique seems like a good way to pry off the fairly robust rhetorical advantage Fox News has with exurban America. Perhaps the station “speaks their language” and taps into a deep-seated (and justifiable) resentment of academia, and the economic privilege that it is wrought with, often serving simply to ensure that people who grew up in wealth are set up to look smart and continue being wealthy. But Middle America is still at least 50% female, and Fox and Friends is clearly demoralizing to women.

Conservatives made feminism legitimate when they attacked criticism of Sarah Palin as “sexist,” particularly when they lamented how the McCain campaign “controlled” her to her image’s detriment. How can they now defend the message they are sending another message to women, that they must be the followers, not the leaders (even when they are smart enough to reverse that role) on their popular morning program?

December 1, 2009

Some Conversation-Framing Concepts in Free Discourse

Filed under: media — ononehand @ 11:13 pm

When we talk about free speech and the media, we often delve into intellectual absurdities and passionate yet bizarre mentalities that derail conversation. Since I talk a lot about talk, about language, oppression, speech and pop culture, I frequently encounter conflicted views on what “free speech” or “discourse” means. The White House vs. Fox News debate is offering up a litany of examples.

That’s because the Fox News agency is just aghast that the President of the United States is opposing their “free speech” by telling the world that Fox News is unfair and unbalanced. Commentators compared Barack Obama to Hugo Chavez, the leftist president of Columbia who shut down newspapers that were critical of his government.

Whenever somebody criticizes the effort or purpose of an entity that is exercising “speech” (such as a news organization, a pundit, or even just a loony person ranting), indignant self-proclaimed First Amendment advocates rise to the surface. “How dare you criticize my argument!” the self-serving defendant will say. “My opinion is my free speech! You can’t oppose it!”

Which brings is to the first component of free speech, as part of a set of three components I think need to be acknowledged by all parties to frame healthier conversations about speech. That component is:


You have a right to “free speech,” meaning freedom to make your controversial point or offend somebody, and to express views that are sane, controversial or even forehead-smackingly ridiculous. Inversely, others are allowed to respond to your statements, even to offend you back. People may respectfully disagree with what you say, disrespectfully disagree with what you say, tell you that they don’t like you any more because you said it, tell you that you shouldn’t say it at all or even say that you are a vile scum-sucking cretin and your mother was a lunatic. This is because free speech is reciprocal; their rights are equivalent to your rights, and everyone is allowed to respond to speech with speech.

People have a hard time understanding this. For example, when I posted How to Confront Hate Speech on the Internet on YouTube several months ago, I got comments and personal emails from people essentially saying “how dare you condemn hate speech, that’s so totalitarian!” because I am infringing on a hate speakers free speech by responding disapprovingly, or asking others to respond disapprovingly. They said that my video was one step on the road to a fascist society because hate speech is hard to define so who knows what other kind of views against minorities could be argued against using that very video! I struggled to explain that telling somebody who made a racist comment that her or his comment was racist is hardly an infringement of a racist’s rights and is considerably less antagonistic than racism itself. I also struggled to explain that telling someone her or his ethnic slurs are “not cool” is not to infringe on that person’s right to use them, which I even specifically explained in the original video.

I do think that hate speech should be called out and that public misinformation should be called out and condemned. But that doesn’t mean I advocate censorship; I advocate discourse. Which brings me to point two in the components of discourse.

Saying somebody should stop saying a certain thing is not “censorship.”

Understanding this principle requires your ability to make a distinction between force and encouragement. It explains why telling your mother to go jump off a bridge is just frowned upon but throwing her off a bridge is murder.

Censorship entails the use of force. When censorship occurs, the language being censored is removed from discourse by a moderator on an Online forum, by a publisher, editor, or most critically, by government (government censorship of political speech is the only kind that is protected by the First Amendment). Responding to the comments and saying that they are inappropriate is not censorship, because the original comments are still available.

People have a hard time understanding this. Let me use the following reader comment on an NPR online poll over the White House vs. Fox News debacle as an example:

The “White House” and it’s Czar’s are Socialist….the type of people that I feared most when first learning about this type of government in my junior high social study classes. Limiting our freedom of speech and controlling the news is the first step toward absolute tyranny…

This is an example of conflation at its finest, which seems to epitomize the way wacky people of all strips (I’m choosing not to single out the Far-Right) deal with political conflict. First, the commenter conflates “socialist” (which is an economic system practiced in Norway and Sweden) with the totalitarian governments of Orwell’s 1984 and Stalinist Russia. The two may overlap, but do not coincide. Second, the commenter conflates a political comment from the White House with tyranny.

Shutting down news agencies would be a step towards tyranny. Using laws or coercion to remove certain viewpoints from the public discourse entirely would be tyranny. Those are the things that the Bill of Rights seeks to protect Americans against. Censorship is, acknowledgedly, very problematic.

But the White House never made an attempt to shut down a news agency or to control news content; it issued a public statement that it will henceforth treat the Fox News Channel as a political opponent (because it is) and claimed the Fox channel’s news reporting is often conflated with opinion reporting (which is not outrageous to claim, especially considering that Fox constantly accuses every single other news network of doing that). The people who work in the White House have the right to say and do that because the people who work in the White House are protected by the same right to free speech that everyone else is. You can consider their comments inappropriate if you choose to, but it’s a pretty distant stretch to say it’s “totalitarian” for them to make the comments. The Bush White House did the exact same thing when it maligned NBC’s “liberal bias,” and political leaders have always been free to criticize their critics. Any leader who could not do that would be ineffective. Yet 40% of the comments from Fox News fans on the NPR comment forum seem to carry the assumption that the White House took some form of legal action against the Fox News agency.

What the White House essentially did was say, Fox News can say what it wants, but we don’t find it to be legitimate. As in, we don’t find them credible, and anyone listening is invited to decide whether or not to agree.

Ironically, Fox News, which is up in arms over the Obama White House’s statement, was very supportive when the Bush White House launched similar criticism of NBC. Which leads me to my third and final conversation-framing concept in free discourse.

Reciprocity, revisited.

Other peoples’ rights are based on your rights, and vice versa. Think about whether you would be willing to abide by the rules you call for, or whether or not you are doing exactly what you indignantly oppose somebody else doing. Do you ever criticize people? That means they get to criticize you. It is stupid to call somebody out for being mean when you are both being mean. It is stupid to call somebody out for being violent when you are both being violent. It is stupid to call somebody out for being combative when you are both being combative, and for being critical when you are both being critical. If you want to call a “new rule,” you have to stop doing the thing that breaks that rule before you can even consider holding the other person to it.

Interestingly, conservative commentators who celebrated the Bush White House condemning NBC launched scathing attacks on the Obama White House for condemning Fox News. Keith Olbermann, who had criticized the Bush Administration, defended the Obama Administration and criticized the pundits. These sorts of double standards are rampant in political discourse, and make useful bits of opinion or information particularly difficult to find.

Intellectual reciprocity is an important component of any constructive discourse. It is impossible to force compliance, but for any two sides to come to agreement they must first agree that both parties are allowed to respond to each other in analogous ways. It seems that it is the responsibility of K-12 English and Social Studies teachers to explain this concept, and where they fail, we must pick up the slack. That is why I have written this, as a free exercise of my own free speech, and critique of but not an infringement of the rights of those who claim otherwise.

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