Friday, October 12, 2012

An Ancient Brain, Politics, and Searching for Life on Mars

Sometimes I get downright surly after wading through an election year's weird claims and emotion-drenched outbursts. (October 5, 2012)

The lofty-sounding 'I take no interest in politics' attitude isn't an option, though. As a practicing Catholic, I have to:
  • Support religious freedom
    (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2104-2109)
    • For everybody
      (Catechism, 2106)
  • Take an active part in public life
    (Catechism, 1915)
  • Contribute to the good of society
    • In a spirit of
      • Truth
      • Justice
      • Solidarity
      • Freedom
    (Catechism, 2239)
  • Submit to legitimate authorities
    • Refuse obedience to civil authorities
      • When their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience
      (Catechism, 2242)
    (Catechism, 2239)
    (June 1, 2012)
Happily, I'm also allowed to enjoy the wonders, beauty, and vast horizons of this creation:
  1. Simple Critter with a Complex Brain, a Half-Billion Years Ago
  2. Paying for a 'Free Lunch'
  3. A Scoopful of Mars
One of the important issues in the November election is whether Americans will retain the right to hire assassins: and have their employers pay the bill.

The polite term for that right is "women's health care services." The right to kill young Americans is based on the tacit assumption that we don't become 'real' people until we're born.

I think putting a lower age limit on legal personhood is wrong, but I'm aware that many other Americans like the status quo:

Legal, Yes: Right, No

A particularly nasty bit of regulation is a mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Employers will be forced to pay for lethal "health" services.

Some folks think this is a nifty idea. I think killing innocent people is wrong: but acknowledge that it's legal in this country.

I also think that more Americans are rediscovering the idea that something can be legal, but still be wrong:

1. Simple Critter with a Complex Brain, a Half-Billion Years Ago

I'm fascinated by this sort of thing: even if it doesn't make anyone's teeth brighter and whiter, improve gas mileage, or help some politico get elected.

(Xiaoya Ma, via LiveScience/, used w/o permission)
"Fuxianhuia protensa, a 520 million-year-old fossil from China discovered to contain a preserved brain."
"This brain is half a billion years old"
Stephanie Pappasn LiveScience, via (October 11, 2012)

"The oldest brain ever found in an arthropod - a group of invertebrates that includes insects and crustaceans - is surprisingly complex for its 520-million-year age, researchers reported Wednesday.

"The fossilized brain, found in an extinct arthropod from China, looks very similar to the brains of today's modern insects, said study researcher Nicholas Strausfeld, the director of the Center for Insect Science at the University of Arizona...."
I gather that there's been a lively discussion over how far back along the line in arthropod development the sort of three-part brain showed up. This very old arthropod, with its fairly complex brain, supports some ideas about that development: and makes others much less plausible.
"...'The rest of the animal is incredibly simple, so it's a big surprise to see a brain that is so advanced, as it were, in such a simple animal,' Strausfeld told LiveScience.

"The discovery suggests that brains evolved a complex organization early on in history, he added...."
(Stephanie Pappasn LiveScience, via

The Curious Case of the Three-Part Brain

This arthropod had a three part brain, apparently with the protocerebrum, deutocerebrum and tritocerebrum like the ones insects have today.

Vertebrates, critters that have their skeletons on the inside, have a three-part brain, too: except then it's called the forebrain, midbrain and hindbrain, and the wiring is a bit different.

Maybe having a three-part brain goes back to some stage of development we haven't found yet. Maybe not.

Either way, as the fellow said, quite a few folks "don't like that idea:"
"This complex, insectlike brain suggests that rather than insects arising from simple branchiopods, today's arthropods descend from a complex-brained ancestor. Branchiopods would later have shed some of this complexity, Strausfeld said, while other crustaceans and insects kept it. In fact, he said, the brain may have evolved to segment into three parts very early on; mammals, including humans, have a forebrain, midbrain and hindbrain, suggesting a common organization.

" 'Lots of people don't like that idea, sharing a brain with a beetle, but there's good evidence suggesting that you do,' Strausfeld said...."
(Stephanie Pappasn LiveScience, via
Some ideas bother me, but not these:
  • Change happens
  • This creation
    • Is more than a few thousand years old
    • Has changed quite a bit since its beginning
  • God
    • Seems to think on a grand scale
    • Is more patient than I am
  • Human beings
    • Don't know everything
    • Are curious
      • Being curious is okay
    • Can learn
      • Learning is okay
The notion that religion and science are incompatible, and that God hates it when folks get curious, goes back to a Victorian-era gentlemen's snit: and I've been over that before. (July 5, 2011)

2. Paying for a 'Free Lunch'

"Red Lobster, Olive Garden cutting workers hours due to 'Obamacare' "
Mike Delrio, Jobs, (October 10, 2012)

"Darden Restaurants Inc., the parent company of Atlanta area eateries Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse and Bahama Breeze, is cutting hours of full-time workers to shift them to part-time in an effort to reduce costs associated with health care reform.

"The Orlando-based company operates chains in other states that include Seasons 52, Eddie V's and Capital Grille.

"The Orlando Sentinel reported on Tuesday that Darden has stopped offering full-time schedules to many hourly workers, and is limiting workers to 28 hours a week in four unidentified markets 'to help us address the cost implications health care reform will have on our business.' The test program will determine whether it is a viable option in dealing with additional health care costs...."
One response to this news would be to rant about the capitalistic oppressors who won't be providing full-time employment. I won't do that, since I don't see letting folks learn a living as "oppressing" them.

Good News, Bad News, and Part-Time Work

My take on this situation is that folks who eat at Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and other Darden restaurants probably won't have to change their habits. It's unlikely, based on what the article says, that any of the eateries will have to close or reduce the number of hours that they're open.

For folks working at those places, it's another story. A cook, for example, who had been working full-time might now have a half-time job. That's bad news for the cook, good news for whoever picked up the other half of those shifts.

I suppose that a clever manager could 'fire' a full-time cook, hire the same cook back as a part-time employee: and hire the cook again as a part-time employee with a different name. Ethics aside, I'm pretty sure that there's a government regulation or two against that.

Economics and Ethics

"...Under the federal Affordable Care Act, known commonly as Obamacare, companies with at least 50 employees must provide health insurance, starting in 2014, to all those who work at least 30 hours a week. Those that don't will pay a penalty of $2,000 per uninsured worker after the first 30. It's not clear if any of Darden's Georgia restaurants are involved in the pilot program...."
(Mike Delrio,
We've been seeing logical consequences of the Obamacare, particularly the infamous 'kill or close' HHS mandate, for some time now.

Mike Delrio's article is in the Jobs section of, so he focused on the economic angle of Obamacare. Like other government programs that look like a 'free lunch,' resources to run a 'free' service come from somewhere.

'There's no such thing as a free lunch' may sound corny, but it's true. Whoever eats the 'free lunch' may not pay a cent: but someone did.

The big problem with the Obamacare sort of "health care reform," from my point of view, is the ethics. America's national government's notion of "health care" includes what's euphemistically called 'women's health care services' includes killing people who are too small to run away or defend themselves.

3. A Scoopful of Mars

"Curiosity's First Scoopful of Mars "
NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, via Video Gallery, Multimedia, NASA (October 7, 2012)

"This video clip shows the first Martian material collected by the scoop on the robotic arm of NASA's Mars Curiosity rover, being vibrated inside the scoop after it was lifted from the ground on Oct. 7, 2012. ... Churning due to vibration also serves to show physical characteristics of the collected material, such as an absence of pebbles. The scoop is 1.8 inches (4.5 centimeters) wide, 2.8 inches (7 centimeters) long."
NASA's website provides 'embed' code for this silent video, but their player is a bit too wide for this blog's format. This resized version looks okay on my computer screen, but your experience may vary:

I made a reduced-resolution copy and posted it on YouTube. If the resized NASA video doesn't display properly, this might. Or, not:

"A Scoopful of Mars"

Brian Gill, YouTube (October 11, 2012)
video, 3:32

I generally wouldn't be very interested in watching a few cubic inches of soil get shaken. What makes this video special is that the soil is on Mars:
That question - could living creatures have once lived on Mars - may not be answered after the Mars Science Laboratory mission has run its course. But we'll have more data than we did before Curiosity started its trek.

It's likely enough that Curiosity won't find definite proof that some sort of critters once lived on Mars. On the other hand, by this time next year: I may be reading about Martian microbes.

Either way, we'll have learned a bit more about Mars. I don't know whether we're standing on the only bit of rock in the universe that supports life: but as a practicing Catholic, I can't claim that there can't be other worlds.

For the last 735 years, saying that God couldn't have made more than one world like ours has been against the rules. (July 5, 2011)

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.