Birds of a feather

Scientists have been using DNA analysis to create a new family tree for birds and our finding out the relationships are not necessarily what you would think:

Though land-based dinosaurs died, a few bird ancestors survived, explains Edward Braun, a biologist who studies bird evolution at the University of Florida and contributed to the new analysis.

With the big dinos out of the way, the birds spread their wings and covered the entire globe. They quickly evolved to live at sea and on land — everywhere from deserts to the arctic.

“The major groups of birds appeared very rapidly,” Braun says…

More than 200 researchers got involved, sequencing 48 avian genomes. Then they fed that genetic information into supercomputers. The computers crunched the data, and out popped the most likely evolutionary tree for birds. It shows that “only four lineages survived that massive extinction,” Jarvis says, “and they gave rise to 95 percent of the species we have on the planet today.”

The genetic information reveals other interesting facts about birds, Jarvis says. For example, bird genomes are about a third the size of a mammal genome. Birds appear to have lost a lot of junk DNA, but they also lost some traits to save weight. (For example: They once had teeth but evolved lightweight beaks instead.)…

The overall tree reveals some surprising relationships among bird species. Parrots are actually close relatives of falcons. Pigeons are more closely related to flamingos than they are to crows. And land fowl, like chickens, are related to ducks.

And here’s the family tree:

The updated avian tree shows how many different kinds of birds evolved quickly after a mass extinction 66 million years ago.

Back when I was a father of only 2, I actually used to do some birdwatching.  Not so much as father of 4.

Photo of the day

From a great In Focus photos of the week gallery:

A surfer drops in on a large wave at Praia do Norte, in Nazare, on December 11, 2014. Praia do Norte beach has gained popularity with big wave surfers since Hawaiian surfer Garrett McNamara broke a world record for the largest wave surfed here in 2011.(Reuters/Rafael Marchante)

Quick hits (part II)

1) Who actually funds college athletic programs?  At non power conference schools, it’s excessively high student fees.

2) Excellent Brendan Nyhan post on how we expect too much from presidents, especially in the modern era.  Love that he also hits the fundamental attribution error:

That’s why it’s a mistake to personalize Mr. Obama’s failures so much, as his critics often do. Critics suggest that Mr. Obama is too aloof and hasn’t done enough to solicit Republican support or build relationships with legislators. Both may be true, but as John Harwood recently noted in The Times, Bill Clinton’s more successful outreach to his opponents didn’t keep him from getting impeached. Likewise, George W. Bush was more gregarious than Mr. Obama, but it didn’t make him any more popular among Democrats once the post-9/11 glow had worn off.

It’s a common mistake to attribute other people’s behavior to their inherent characteristics in this way. We seem especially prone to this pattern, which is known as fundamental attribution error, with presidents. But as recent history shows, our current political system tends to produce division and conflict no matter the circumstances.

3) Nobody seems to have noticed we don’t need the Ebola Czar anymore.  I don’t blame Obama for the appointment, but it was always pure political theater that he felt he had to go along with.

4) You know why torture is okay?  Because America is awesome, damnit.  Gotta love Fox news.

5) I also think Eric Posner is right about why Obama should not prosecute torture (even though these guys really are war criminals):

But Obama’s best argument for letting matters rest is the principle against criminalizing politics. This is the idea that you don’t try to gain political advantage by prosecuting political opponents—as governments around the world do when authoritarian leaders seek to subvert democratic institutions. Of course, if a Republican senator takes bribes or murders his valet, the government should prosecute him. But those cases involve criminal activity that is unrelated to the public interest. When the president takes actions that he sincerely believes advance national security, and officials throughout the government participate for the same reason, then an effort to punish the behavior—unavoidably, a massive effort that could result in trials of hundreds of people—poses a real risk to democratic governance.

Obama’s problem is that if he can prosecute Republican officeholders for authorizing torture, then the next Republican president can prosecute Obama and his subordinates for the many questionable legal actions of the Obama administration

6) There’s a famous saying that when it comes to elections, all politics is local.  Seemingly not so anymore.

7) Maybe depression is not really about serotonin deficiency.  Regardless, it surely is a hell of a lot more neuro-chemically and biologically and psychologically complicated than we’ve come to believe.

8) Love this confessional Op-Ed from an Abu Ghraib torturer.

9) Of course Adam Gopnik’s commentary on torture is spot-on.

10) Forget the seven minute workout– the one minute workout?  Yes.  Science.   (I was too lazy for even that yesterday– though I did at least get a bunch of grading done.  And a nap).

11) I found the Supreme Court decision that Amazon does not have to pay its workers why they wait in long lines for Amazon-required security checks to be pretty deplorable.  That said, Congress could actually easily fix this via legislation.  Sadly, I’m quite sure they won’t.

12) Why stores once beloved by teens, e.g., Abercrombie, are all struggling.   My wife worked as a temp for their corporate office 20 years ago.  What a nasty place.

13) Another in Kristof’s excellent series columns on race in America.

14) Climate change is almost the perfect problem for us to do nothing about do to psychological biases in human reasoning.  Wonkblog explains.

15) Mike Munger on over-criminalization.

16) It’s really kind of astounding the way so many conservatives have deluded themselves into thinking that racism is basically over.  I recently heard David Plotz suggest that a downside of Obama being president is that those so inclined can offer this as proof that “racism is over” and ignore all the obvious racism that persists.  Among other things in his response to this problem, Chait nicely sums up various empirical evidence on the matter.

This is not some vague liberal notion, or merely an inference made by liberals to explain the persistent racial income gap. It is the inescapable conclusion of a vast trove of evidence. Employers are less likely to call back an equally qualified candidate whose résumé has a black-sounding name. Policein simulations are more likely to shoot black suspects. White medical staff are less likely to perceive pain by African-Americans. Despite having similar rates of marijuana use, blacks are more than three times as likely to be arrested for it.

17) Apparently flu vaccine denial is a thing among people who know better.  Here’s all the reasons you should get vaccinated even though this year’s vaccine is off.

18) Just how psychological versus physical is fatigue?  And does it explain why the world record marathon time is not 5 minutes faster?


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