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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Marriage Equality in New York

Defend EqualityThis news is almost a week old, and you'd have to be living under a rock to not have heard it by now, but it was such good news that I can't resist mentioning it: New York has granted marriage equality to same sex couples.

It required a few Republicans to cross party lines to pass. I get so frustrated with issues becoming so partisan. How does marriage equality tie in with economic policy or other political issues? Why in the hell is this issue so sharply divided on party lines? Republican senator Roy McDonald made a very good statement on this issue that I agree with (found by me via Bad Astronomy).

You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn't black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing.

You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, fuck it, I don't care what you think. I'm trying to do the right thing.

I'm tired of Republican-Democrat politics. They can take the job and shove it. I come from a blue-collar background. I'm trying to do the right thing, and that's where I'm going with this.

I just wish more politicians acted like that on more issues.

Congratulations New York. Only 44 states and one federal government left to go.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Something Fishy at Answers in Genesis

Fish With LegsI don't generally go looking for articles at Answers in Genesis (AiG). I have written about them previously (the most explicit mentions being in I Can't Escape Fundamentalists Even When I'm Researching Pure Science, Creation Museum, Creation Museum/Creationist Rule of Thumb with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, AiG's Creation Museum Follow-Up, and Another Creation Museum Review), and I haven't been terribly impressed with anything coming from their organization. It would be a time sink to go looking for articles to debunk from their site, because there are so many bad articles to choose from (it would also be a bit superfluous since so many have already been covered in the Index to Creationist Claims). However, in a recent comment thread on Pharyngula, someone included a link to AiG, and I took the bait.

The article in question is Something fishy about lungs, written by Joachim Vetter. I was interested in it, because it was related to an entry I wrote previously, Book Review - At the Water's Edge.

The introduction starts off simply and accurately enough.

It is well known that creatures which live permanently in water generally breathe through gills, not lungs. The lungfishes, which are able to survive long periods when their watery habitat dries up, are regarded as a peculiar exception.

In then goes on to set up a possible scenario by which lungs could have evolved, and adds the following statement.

For a long time it was believed that this swim-bladder was a logical ‘first step’ towards the later development of lungs as vertebrates conquered the land.

I don't know the full history of scientific thought on how lungs evolved, but I'll grant them that this could be true - that at one time, people believed it probable that lungs evolved from swim-bladders. Just keep in mind that it's not the current consensus.

Next, the article points out a simple fact about the natural world, but one which I don't see why would have any negative repercussions for evolution.

The first awkward fact, usually not mentioned in high school evolutionary texts, is that there are actually many modern species of fish (not mammals, but real fish) which have lungs as well as gills.

The article then points out a fact from the archaeological record that forces one to question the 'swim-bladder to lung story', and rightly so.

An even more bitter blow for evolutionists (again seldom seen in basic texts) is that fossil evidence has come to light forcing a 180-degree reversal in the ‘swim-bladder to lung’ story. Lungs appear to be much more ‘ancient’ than swim-bladders, so by this reasoning, lungs must have evolved into swim-bladders!

In fact, as noted in my other blog entry, this is the current consensus on the relationship between lungs and swim bladders. It's not just the fossil record that demonstrates this, but cladistics as well. Only teleosts have true swim bladders. Just like this article itself noted, there are other groups of fish that have lungs. And there exist other groups with structures intermediate between lungs and swim bladders. The most parsimonious explanation is that lungs evolved first, and only developed into bladders in one lineage. And just for reference, sharks and rays, which diverged from other fish around 450 millions years ago, don't have any type of lung or swim bladder at all.

Next was another statement that seems obvious enough.

Whether endowed with gills, lungs, or a combination of both, all fish, living or extinct, appear to be (or have been) well equipped for the requirements of their way of life.

But with that in mind, read the passage that immediately followed.

The ‘obvious’ evolution of lungs from swim-bladders turns out to be a myth. In addition, a literal evolutionary- chronological reading of the fossil record shows that evolution must have had remarkable foresight. In spite of the fact that lungs are not needed for survival (fish being able to cope well with gills) they appear and are prevalent among fishes at least 100 million years (on the alleged evolutionary time-scale) before their (imaginary) migration to the land. How wonderful of evolution to develop, all by chance of course, such a ‘test pattern’, ready to be taken out of mothballs when required.

It's like the author completely forgot what he had written just one paragraph before. If he acknowledged that living fish with lungs appear to be well adapted to their environments, why would he think it must have been 'foresight' that made lungs appear in the first place. And how could he write that 'lungs are not needed for survival' of fish, when he just listed examples earlier in the article of fish that do require lungs to survive. And the author never even considered fish with swim bladders that have secondarily evolved non-lung means of breathing atmospheric oxygen (such as bettas). It seems that air breathing is a useful adaptation for aquatic life without any consideration at all for life on land (though there are probably multiple reasons for this, as noted in my previous entry, one of the most obvious is that oxygen levels aren't as consistent in water as in the atmosphere, with some bodies of water being nearly completely devoid of oxygen).

I know there's not a whole lot of new information in this entry compared to my previous entry on lungs and swim bladders, but to read an article that no only ignores evidence and sets up a straw man explanation of evolution, but which also contradicts itself so clearly from one paragraph to the next, is just really frustrating. I couldn't read something that bad without venting about it here. It's just one more example of why not to trust AiG.

Added 2011-07-06 - I should add that I only covered the most obvious errors from the AiG article. There were numerous others, such as what's actually in biology textbooks, as well as details of which animals have lungs vs. swim bladders.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 20

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 20, An Osborn Letter.

Perhaps this has something to do with McCann's seeming personal vendetta against Osborn.

Professor Osborn himself, in a letter to the editor of the New York Globe, June 1, 1921, gave a demonstration of his method of creating impressions at the expense of truth. He said: "The American Museum of Natural History and the Hall of the Age of Man, to which Alfred W. McCann refers, scrupulously avoid presenting theories and rest on the solid ground of well ascertained facts. This is why this Hall is sought not only by scientists from all parts of the world and by the rising generation of scientific men and women, but also by religious teachers who come here to see what Nature has thus far revealed concerning man's past history." (McCann 248-249)

Here McCann's still quoting Osborn's letter. The modern Clergy Letter Project (and its associated Evolution Weekend is definitely in this spirit.

"From time to time I see parties of clergymen of different denominations studying what this Hall exhibits of our past life. The spiritual value of the emergence of the Cro-Magnon race, many thousands of years ago, with its deep religious sentiments, is one of the greatest discoveries of modern times relating to the spiritual development of man. It is so regarded by all teachers and writers who are keeping up to date in the progress of discovery and human thought." (McCann 249 - quoting Osborn)

McCann made several mistakes here when discussing convergence.

Osborn's own evidence of convergence explains the "resemblance" of whales to fish, although whales are not fish at all, but true mammals. Changing their fore-limbs (arms) into fins (paddles) and their hind-limbs into nothingness the whales have converged ever more and more in external features toward true fishes with whom they are not at all related while they themselves have remained true mammals. Why does Professor Osborn withhold the suggestion that apes, despite their superficial convergence in externals toward a fantastic resemblance to man, remain nevertheless true apes? The writer frankly admits that convergence explains nothing, adds nothing and takes nothing away when any theory of evolution based on natural selection is under discussion. Why has the giraffe, for instance, not converged toward the elephant? If natural selection explains the long neck of the giraffe for high browsing purposes why would an extension of its nose, like the extension of the nose of the elephant, not have been better? Why has no other hoofed quadruped acquired a long neck and a lofty stature besides the giraffe? Why has the camel not acquired a proboscis like the elephant? Why is the elephant alone the beneficiary of a proboscis? Why has the elephant no neck at all? If natural selection is a freakish, whimsical, capricious handmaiden of evolution it ceases to be natural selection and becomes merely bizarrish selection. (McCann 253-254)

First of all, whales are only superficially similar to fish. A look at their anatomy, from mammary glands to lungs, shows them to be quite clearly mammals. Apes and humans, on the other hand, are not merely superficially similar. The similarities go right down to the bone. We can catch many of the same diseases that other types of mammals don't. Even Linnaeus, who was a creationist himself, classified humans as apes when he came up with his system.

McCann once again made the mistake of assuming teleology in evolution. There are no goals. A long neck may work for giraffes, but it doesn't mean that other animals will attempt to copy that strategy, or that evolution will strive towards long necks. The 'strategies' come about by chance, and are honed through natural selection.

There are many strategies that evolution can take, and some are 'easier' than others. For example, simply growing longer or shorter limbs is an easy adaptation. It only takes a few mutations. So, you'll see many animals with elongated necks, from giraffes, to llamas, to geese, to the now extinct baluchitherium. A prehensile nose is not a simple adapation. It's a fairly complex limb that takes many, many mutations to develop. So, you'd expect it to be a lot less common than long necks. And even though elephants may have the most developed prehensile nose, they aren't the only animals with one. Tapirs have a short prehensile nose, and there's evidence that some extinct animals also had one.

Organisms are also constrained by the laws of physics. The reason why cetaceans, fish, and ichtyosaurs look superficially similar, is because that's the shape it takes to be hydrodynamic. Physics explains why flying animals tend to have high aspect ratio wings. It's just what works.

Here, McCann discusses variation.

The vagueness and confusion provoked by the giraffe is set forth by Sir Charles Lyell, who so greatly influenced Darwin. He says ("Antiquity of Man," 1863, pp. 410-411): "Lamarck when speculating on the origin of the long neck of the giraffe imagined that quadruped to have stretched himself up in order to reach the boughs of lofty trees until by continued efforts and longing to reach higher he obtained an elongated neck. Darwin and Wallace simply supposed that, in a season of scarcity, a longer-necked variety survived the others and transmitted its peculiarity to its successors. Every naturalist admits that there is a general tendency in animals and plants to vary; but it is usually taken for granted that there are certain limits beyond which each species cannot pass under any circumstances or in any number of generations. (Here you have a law which is not bizarrish.) Darwin and Wallace say that the oppositive hypothesis, which assumes that every species is capable of varying indefinitely from its original type, is not a whit more arbitrary. We have no right, they say, to assume, should we find that a variable species can no longer be made to vary in a certain direction, that it has reached the utmost limits to which it might, if more time were allowed, be made to diverge from the parent type."

Perhaps in another million of years the giraffe will have twice as much neck as he now has and the elephant less neck than none at all, and a proboscis tremendously extended. Perhaps! (McCann 254-255)

Darwin and Wallace had it right. Why should it be 'taken for granted that there are certain limits beyond which each species cannot pass under any circumstances or in any number of generations'? Especially now that we understand genetics, we know there are no stop signs in our chromosomes. McCann's idea reeks of Platonic idealism.

McCann continued to harp on marsupials, which he discussed in the previous chapter.

Why, let us repeat, through these millions of years, have they remained marsupials, although Australia has presented opportunities for the most diverse modes of existence? Why, if not because the marsupials present a real type which varies in form but is not abandoned? There is an overwhelming body of proof that certain basal forms are firmly retained and that the whole theory of evolution from, a common ancestor must be completely abandoned. Certainly the marsupials have had time and opportunity for the full development of their maximum evolutional capacity. Why, then, through all these millions of years, have the limits to such evolutional capacity been so sharply defined? (McCann 256)

Once again, he thinks in teleological terms, or in the Ladder of Progress. There is no goal for evolution. There is no reason why marsupials should be expected to evolve into placental mammals.

The earliest mammals laid eggs, which isn't surprising, considering that it's the primitive form of reproduction for all tetrapods. Some mammals, the monotremes, still lay eggs. At some point, obviously, mammals began giving birth to live young. This also isn't a big deal, considering how many other animals also practice vivipary. It probably started simply by allowing the eggs to develop inside the mother without laying them. Now, the exact relationship between marsupials and placental mammals is a bit murky, but there are two probable scenarios. Either placental mammals evolved from marsupials, or they both evolved independently from that lineage of mammals where the mothers retained their eggs.

Recall from an earlier discussion in this series, where I said that some evolutionary strategies are more difficult to evolve than others. Simply retaining eggs to develop inside a mother is fairly simple, so it's seen in multiple lineages. A placenta, on the other hand, is not so easy to develop. For us mammals, in fact, it looks we owe the placenta to a viral infection. Endogenous retroviruses are those viruses that have managed to get their DNA incorporated into the genome of a population (by infecting germ cells). Many of the genes used that help protect a fetus from the mother's immune system are from endogenous retroviruses. Considering the circumstances involved, you would expect that this is a pretty rare way for animals to acquire genes, so it's not surprising that marsupials haven't independently evolved a placenta.

But just because marsupials haven't evolved a placenta, it doesn't mean that they've remained 'primitive'. In the hundred million years or so since our lineages have diverged, marsupials have gone on evolving, as well. Just look at the diversity of life forms in Australia. And, as should be expected, they've evolved some of their own unique characteristics that are absent from us placental mammals (for example, us humans haven't evolved the ability to glide like sugar gliders). Every animal can only build on the innovations that arose in its ancestors, not innovations that arose in its cousins. There is no single most evolved animal.

Proceed to Chapters 21 & 22

Friday, June 17, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 19

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 19, Evolution in a Muddle.

Biogeography is one of the greatest bits of evidence for evolution. It really is strange to see McCann try to twist it to cast doubt on evolution.

This we know: the American opossum is a form of marsupial life now found only in America. It exists in lonely isolation in the midst of a vast continent abounding in non-marsupial forms of mammalian life. All other marsupials live together in one mass in all but complete isolation from non-marsupial beasts, yet the American opossum singularly upsets all the inferences that the evolutionist who demands progress would draw, if he could, from these baffling facts of natural history. (McCann 235)

Immediately following, we see a strange jump (well, not so strange when you understand that pride is one of the reasons many creationists don't want to accept evolution) from marsupial evolution to human evolution.

Whence came the opossum? How did it get to North America? Why didn't it bring along the kangaroos and other marsupials of Australia? Why didn't the Australian marsupials include the American opossum in the general family? Who knows? Who will ever know? These questions are precisely like those which one must ever ask when examining the strange theories of man's ape-origin. (McCann 235 - 236)

After going on for a few pages about this problem with opossums, McCann answers his own question, although he doesn't seem to know it.

Why were Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Haeckel and the rest so significantly silent with respect to the opossum? Why have the foremost evolutionists of this generation maintained similar silence? They have never lacked the knowledge that the marsupials, or pouched mammals, flourished during what is described as the Secondary epoch, and that the opossum, even though its first relics were found in the so-called Tertiary rocks under Paris, is really a true marsupial, and therefore originated with all the other marsupials in the Secondary epoch. (McCann 236)

The distribution of marsupials is a strong bit of evidence for evolution. First, recall that the history of life on this planet involves both time and place. Marsupials and placental mammals both evolved around the same time, but not in the same regions. Marsupials had a chance to colonize Australia before Australia split off from Asia and Antarctica, but placental mammals didn't. Therefore, for a very long time, the only mammals in Australia were marsupials and monotremes, monotremes being an even more ancient branch on the mammal family tree. Marsupials weren't limited to just Australia, however - they were living in other nearby parts of the world before Australia became isolated, and so had a chance to spread to the rest of the world.

For some reason, placental mammals fared better than marsupials wherever they came into contact, and most marsupials became extinct as placental mammals spread. But there's no rule saying that all marsupials had to go extinct - it was just the trend. So, it's not surprising to find some marsupials still surviving among placental mammals, such as opposums. But, because the placental mammals didn't have the chance to colonize Australia before it became isolated, Australia's marsupials flourished. The first placental mammals that did get a chance to colonize Australia were bats - blown in on the wind. Rats, surviving on driftwood, were the next placental colonists. But outside of bats and rats, no other placental mammals lived in Australia until the arrival of humans and their livestock.

The present distribution of marsupial and placental mammals makes perfect sense considering the evolutionary and geologic history.

Man, talk about arrogance.

Why does man alone make progress and why does such progress as he does make have nothing to do with his body? All beasts have bodies, yet if there is one beast-characteristic concerning which we are certain, it is that no beast makes progress of any kind whatsoever. (McCann 237)

I've already mentioned this in previous installments, but I wonder what McCann would have thought of current studies of chimps - their tool use and cultures.

This is either a case of gross ignorance, or deliberate misrepresentation, since I know archaeopteryx was known in McCann's time. After a whole discussion of bird evolution, and wondering what an intermediate form might have looked like, how could McCann have not even mentioned archaeopteryx, at least in an attempt to refute it?

What kind of a reptile could have been the ancestor of the turkey? Not a rattlesnake, of course, or any such reptile form. We must find something special, so we attempt to smooth out the difficulty by insisting that the line of descent from reptiles to birds has not been from ordinary reptiles, through pterodactyl-like forms, to ordinary birds, but to the birds without keels on the breast-bone from certain extinct reptiles such as the Dinosauria.

One of the best known of these Dinosauria is the Iguanodon of the Wealden formation. The skeletal characters of these Dinosauria are wholly unlike those of ordinary birds, but in certain points they manifest resemblances to the osseous structure of such birds as the ostrich, rhea, emeu, cassowary, apteryx, dinornis, etc. These resemblances are quite as marked toward each other as are the resemblances, heretofore referred to, between the skeleton of the horse and the skeleton of man. (McCann 238)

Actually, his last sentence was very telling. Horses and humans have very similar skeletons because we're both mammals. We're not the most closely related mammals, but our skeletons are still more similar to each other than, say, to a frog. The fact that a turkey and an iguanodon have very similar skeletons is a strong indication that birds are just another type of dinosaur. If you look at other types of dinosaurs, particularly the theropods, and narrowing it down further to the maniraptoran theropods, you see quite a few similarities. In fact, there are so many similarities, that it gets a bit murky trying to determine the whole genealogy. One archaeopteryx specimen was even originally mistaken for a Compsognathus theropod by the amateur collector who found it.

Book Review - Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution

Now McCann has made it personal! (or, as personal as an attack can be by a dead man, directed at a person who wasn't even born when the attacker died, and at a field that was still in its infancy).

Nothing could be so inefficient as the aerial navigation of 1921. There is more power in a 1921 airplane than was in the sails of a whole flotilla of frigates a hundred years ago. The stupendous power of the aerial motor has given us sensational results quickly, so that the problems of flight have been actually disregarded. Man's flight depends upon freak devices in which an aviator has at his command a howling volcano. The bird's wing fans the air with a slow motion, three strokes to the second. This slow motion produces high speed in flight, whereas the airplane's propeller has the speed of a rifle bullet with comparatively slow speed of flight. (McCann 243)

Birds do have a few advantages over us human aircraft builders. Their nerves provide them with feedback about the airflow over their entire body, and they can then use their muscles to move their feathers to tweak the airflow. This type of thing would be very difficult to do on an airplane made out of metal, or even with newer composite materials.

Bird also have the advantage, through evolution, of being able to customize the shape of their payload (i.e. their internal organs). Aircraft must be sized to have hollow interiors that can accommodate us humans and our bags.

Aside from those advantages, airplanes are pretty damned good. For example, at cruise speeds, propellers are around 90% efficient at converting energy from the engine into thrust. 90%! I don't care if McCann doesn't like how fast they spin to do it - that's pretty good. Lift to drag ratios of aircraft compare quite well to birds, as well. According to this site, American black vultures have an L/D of 22 (that's the highest I found for a bird in a quick google search). That's just about the same as the B-52, which has an L/D of around 21. More extreme aircraft can do even better than that. The U-2 has an L/D of around 28, and the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer has one of about 37. If you want to get really extreme, sailplanes (i.e. gliders) have lift to drag ratios of around 70.


I know I discussed modern planes above, but even those from the '20s were pretty good. The fact of the matter is that air is so sparse that it makes flying a challenge. You can go to one extreme and be supremely efficient, such as sail planes or albatrosses, or go to the other extreme and expend a lot of energy, such as helicopters or hummingbirds. Most birds and man made flying machines fall somewhere in between, but flight is always more demanding than other forms of travel.

McCann then went on to wax poetic about birds, which I can certainly appreciate. Unfortunately, he went on to show once again, that he doesn't really understand the whole concept of common descent.

As no such thing as a feather is possessed by any other creature except birds, the turkey, which possesses feathers, must be a bird. But birds, we are told, stand midway between reptiles and beasts. All reptiles possess cold blood. All beasts possess warm blood. A reptile's blood may be as low as 60 degrees or 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The blood of beasts approximates 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The blood of birds should come between them, yet the temperature of the turkey is 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Thus the turkey, which comes between the reptile and the beast, puts the beast between the reptile and the turkey. For that matter so does the barnyard fowl. (McCann 244)

First of all, we now know of other animals besides birds which possessed feathers - dinosaurs. So, possession of feathers is not unique to birds, and can't be used to define an animal as a bird.

'Beast' is not an evolutionary relevant term, but I think we can assume that McCann meant mammals. Still, birds did not evolve from, nor into, mammals, so there's no reason to use mammals as any type of comparison to what you'd expect birds to be like.

This following quote is wrong on a couple levels.

The limbs of beasts and reptiles are variously constructed. There is no resemblance between the structure of the wings of the bat and the scoop of the mole; the paddles of the whale and the foot of the horse, but in birds the hind-limbs are always "walking" legs and the fore-limbs are always wings. (McCann 244)

No resemblance between bat wings and mole legs? What is he talking about? Here are images of the skeletons of both a mole and a bat (stolen from Meriam Webster's 's Visual Dictionary Online).

Mole Skeleton

Bat Skeleton

Now, they're both highly specialized limbs, but the similarities are obvious. Both have a humerus that starts at the shoulder, a radius and ulna that go from the elbow to the wrist (the ulna is extremely reduced in the bat), several carpal bones in the hand, and then five fingers going out from there. Obviously, from looking at birds and insects, there's no reason wings have to look like bat wings. The reason is that because of evolution, they're limited by their ancestry.

Regarding his last sentence, hasn't McCann ever heard of Kiwis, penguins, or ostriches? They have 'wings' in the same sense that whales have arms. It's obvious from the homology, but it's also obvious that they no longer serve the same function.

Ah, I see McCann has heard of archaeopteryx, but I'm not sure if he's really studied it. Just consider these two paragraphs, with nothing omitted.

Is the turkey reptile, beast or bird? All beasts and reptiles have teeth except ant-eaters, turtles and terrapins, yet no bird has teeth. The many thousands of species of animals, with three lonely exceptions, have teeth, yet of the twelve thousand species of birds not one has teeth. How comes it that these toothless birds have descended from toothed reptiles?

In Miocene times, although the parrot lived in Europe, the turkey did not. The evidence indicates that it was confined to America. The Archeopteryx, found, 1861, in oolitic strata in Bavaria, is generally looked upon as the oldest of all the extinct birds. It, too, differed from all other birds. Instead of having a stubby, fleshy, nosey pad of bone and flesh for a tail, it possessed a real tail containing twenty bones, from each of which two long feathers projected. (McCann 245)

How can he make the categorical statement that no birds have teeth, and then in the very next paragraph discuss archaeopteryx? Did he even look at the fossil?

Again, with the arrogance.

The broad indisputable fact stands out beyond dispute that no species of animal, save man only, makes progress. Progress results from the exercise of a rational intelligence, free choice and free will. Man alone possesses these attributes of man. (McCann 246)

We may be the most technological animal, but we're not the only one who makes tools. Once again, I'll direct readers to Frans de Waal's article in the New York Times.

Proceed to Chapter 20

Monday, June 13, 2011

Directly Downwind Faster Than the Wind (DDWFTTW)

DWFTTW BlackbirdThere's an interesting topic that stirs quite a bit of debate in certain circles these days - whether or not a wind powered cart can travel directly downwind faster than the wind, itself. This concept is generally known by one of two acronyms, Down Wind Faster Than The Wind, DWFTTW, or the slightly longer Directly Down Wind Faster Than The Wind, DDWFTTW.

The cart in the concept has a propeller connected to wheels through a driveshaft and transmission. You might intuitively think that this is impossible. I know I did. It sounds too much like a perpetual motion machine, with the wheels powering the propeller which pushes the wheels. So, I thought I would set out to prove it impossible with a few free body diagrams, but now that I've studied the diagrams, I find myself thinking that it might actually work.


First, to get a bit of background on this concept, here are some of the websites of its main proponents:

To get an idea of just how much passion this concept evokes, take a look at some of the discussion threads arguing over it:

As one last link before getting into my own discussion, the Faster Than the Wind Team claims to have built and tested a car that demonstrates the concept. The North American Land Sailing Association (NALSA) witnessed and authenticated the event. While some might think that would be enough to convince doubters, many remain skeptical of the claims and suspect foul play or incompetence (such as not running directly downwind or measuring windspeed incorrectly in the more generous accusations).

Here's some video of the record claiming run.

Main Issues

There are two big discussions in this debate, whether a DWFTTW car is even possible, and second, whether the widely circulated 'Treadmill Experiment' is useful in demonstrating its validity. Since the first claim is more interesting, I'll address that first.

Is DWFTTW Possible?

To address this, I drew up some free body diagrams. All the diagrams are shown in an assumed steady state condition. For simplicity, the vehicles are all simplified as just a single wheel, a prop/turbine, and a transmission connecting them.

Let's start with something that we know works, an upwind vehicle.

Free Body Diagram of Upwind Vehicle

In this case, V_wind will be greater than V_ground. The prop/turbine will be acting as a turbine, so it will be creating drag. The wheel will be driving the vehicle, so F_ground will be in the forward direction. Since the vehicle is in equilibrium:
F_ground = Drag

To calculate the power from the turbine and the power from the wheel:

P_turbine = Drag * V_wind
P_wheel = F_ground * V_ground

Since Drag = F_ground, if V_wind > V_ground, then P_turbine > P_wheel. That's what it needs to be to overcome transmission losses and the vehicle wind drag that I didn't account for. So, the diagram and analysis agree with what we expect from reality.

Next, let's move on to a case that we know doesn't work, a vehicle with no wind.

Free Body Diagram of Vehicle in No Wind

Once again, to maintain equilibrium:
F_ground = Thrust

Since I labeled the forces slightly differently, here are the power equations:

P_prop = Thrust * V_wind
P_wheel = F_ground * V_ground

Since Thrust = F_ground and V_wind = V_ground, then P_prop = P_wheel. That doesn't work, since transmission losses will sap the energy out of that system, as will the air drag. I think it should be obvious enough that if you reverse the drive direction (i.e. a turbine powering the wheels), that it still comes out to P_turbine = P_wheel, which doesn't work. So again, the diagram and analysis agree with what we expect from reality.

Now, let's move on to the DDWFTTW case.

Free Body Diagram of Downwind Vehicle

Once again, to maintain equilibrium:
F_ground = Thrust

The power equations are the same as the previous case:

P_prop = Thrust * V_wind
P_wheel = F_ground * V_ground

Since Thrust = F_ground, if V_ground > V_wind, then P_wheel > P_prop. Like the first case, that's what it needs to be to overcome transmission losses and the vehicle wind drag.

So, it seems counter-intuitive, but unless I've made a mistake somewhere, it looks like it should work. Maybe there is something to what the propenents have been saying, that the differential velocities are the source of energy, and why this isn't a perpetual motion machine. As the diagrams show, if there's no wind at all, then the vehicle doesn't run.

The Treadmill Experiment

An early proof of concept experiment that made its rounds on the Internet was to put one of these carts on a treadmill and see what happened. The video is included in the links I gave at the start of this entry, but I'll embed it here to make it easier for you.

The treadmill experiment prompted two big questions - is it representative of a cart moving downwind over the ground, and does it demonstrate the validity of the DWFTTW concept?

The answer to the first question is a clear yes. The treadmill is an equivalent reference frame. That's how wind tunnels work – it's all about relative velocities. If a treadmill is moving at a steady 10 mph in still air, it's the same as the ground being stationary with a steady 10 mph wind.

Consider this. The Earth's surface is not stationary itself. Given a circumference of approximately 25,000 miles, and a rotation period of 24 hours, the ground is moving at just over 1000 mph at the equator (and that's ignoring the Earth's motion around the Sun, the Sun's motion around the Milky Way, and the Milky Way's motion about the local galactic cluster). In other words, the Earth could be considered a giant treadmill. But we can safely neglect that if we use a frame of reference that moves along with the earth. It's the same thing with the treadmill. As long as all the relative velocities are equivalent, then your reference frames are equivalent.

But, did the experiments in the video demonstrate the validity of DWFTTW? I think the answer is yes to that as well, but I also have an idea for another experiment.

My initial skeptical thought was that by physically holding the cart stationary on the treadmill before releasing it, they were storing energy by spinning up the propeller on the cart. When they released the cart, it would surge forward using that stored energy. It's just like a toy helicopter where you pull a string to make it take off. There's nothing surprising about that.

But, if you watch the video, once the cart is operating, they aren't holding it against the treadmill, they're holding it back against its own thrust. That, to me, is indicative that the cart wants to run faster than the treadmill. Unfortunately, given the short length of their treadmill, the videos never show the cart reaching a steady state.

My suggestion for a better experiment (aside from the full size human carrying cart) is to build a long treadmill inside a building, and put their cart on that with some guides to keep it from running off track. If it achieved a steady state forward velocity relative to a stationary observer (and was well documented by independent observers), then I'd think most reasonable skeptics would be convinced. Alternatively, the cart could be placed on the treadmill before the treadmill was started in motion, so that it wouldn't be touched by human hands at all once the experiment started. Judging by the Faster Than the Wind Team's human carrying cart, I would think they have the means to carry this out, and all remaining doubts could be put to rest.

Alternate Explanation 1

I think a better way to understand this vehicle, is rather than thinking of it as a ground vehicle powered by the wind, think of it as an aircraft powered by the ground. I have a little thought experiment that might help. Envision the vehicle suspended on some rails, with the prop aligned to propel it down the rails, and with the wheel hanging below on a caster that enables the wheel to face any direction. If you put a conveyor up to the wheel with the conveyor running sideways relative to the vehicle, it's obvious that the conveyor will turn the wheel, which will drive the propeller and push the vehicle down the tracks. Now, if you start rotating the conveyor to more closely align with the tracks, it will continue to drive the wheel. The more closely it aligns with the tracks, the higher the drag load that it will impart, but it will continue driving the wheel.

So, think of the cart as an aircraft that with no other forces acting on it would want to be 'at rest' with zero relative windspeed. But, once the ground starts moving relative to the aircraft, it provides a power source that the aircraft can tap into to propel itself.

Alternate Explanation 2

Consider a cart where one set of wheels is turning a generator used to power another set of wheels driven by motors. This obviously won't work. Since both wheels are moving over the ground at the same speed, if the force at each wheel was of equal magnitude, then the power created by the generating wheel would be equal to the power being used by the driving wheel, which doesn't work when you account for losses.

If a cart with a propeller was moving through still air, then it would be the same thing. That was what I tried to explain with the no wind case. When forces are equal and velocities are equal, then powers are equal.

What makes the downwind case work, is that the wheels and the propeller are operating in two different media at two different speeds. For a propeller, we typically look at the thrust generated for a given power, since that's the way engines operate. It's well understood that for a given power, thrust drops with airspeed. But looking at that a different way, it means that to generate a given thrust, the power requirement goes up with airspeed. So, using the no wind day as a baseline, when the thrust from the prop and the drag from the wheels are the same, the input and output powers are the same (which doesn't work because of losses). Now, if you add a little bit of tail wind, it means the propeller is not travelling through the air as fast. If you maintain it at the same thrust, it means the power requirement goes down. So, now we're getting into a regime where the power generated by the wheels is higher than that required by the prop. With enough of a tail wind, the power differential can get big enough to overcome the inefficiencies and make the system actually work.


So in the end, once I gave this a little thought, I surprised myself. I think my initial gut reaction to this concept was wrong, and that the DDWFTTW proponents are right. That's all part of honest skepticism - knowing when to admit you were wrong and to change your views based on new reasoning and evidence. It's certainly nice to know that the Faster Than the Wind Team is most probably honest, and that the videos probably aren't a hoax. Congratulations to them for their achievement.

Now that I've had my say, and hopefully convinced people that this is possible, here's a good article on it:

I'll also add that the nice thing about this question is that it's testable. If I get a chance, I'll build a little cart myself. If enough people do this and test it, it should be confirmed pretty quickly. If you're one of the people that feels really strongly about this, go do a test for yourself.

Added 2011-06-13

I figured it might be fun to throw in a few real numbers to get a feel for how this would work. So, I pulled some numbers out of the air to see how the calculations come out.

I started out with a ground speed of 30 ft/s (~20.5 mph). Assuming 100 pounds of drag on the wheels, this works out to 3000 ft-lb/s of power (~5.5 HP). Assuming a 90% efficient drive train, there's 2700 ft-lb/s going into the prop. Now, the next step requires a little understanding of propellers which I've explained on my static site (Theoretical Max Propeller Efficiency). Assuming a figure of merit of 0.9*, and a propeller diameter of 15', the prop will create 170.5 lbs of static thrust. So, at the state where ground speed matches wind speed, the thrust created by the propeller will be greater than the drag on the wheels - the cart will accelerate forward. And since the cart is at zero relative airspeed at that condition, there's no aerodynamic drag to consider. Also note that there's no stored energy from a flywheel effect in this analysis, so the steady state condition will necessarily be at some speed where the cart is going faster than the wind speed.

You can play around with those numbers if you want to. For the given efficiencies and prop diameter, the break even point where thrust = drag is around 495 lbs (27 HP @ 30 ft/s). If you hold the efficiencies and drag constant, the break even point on thrust & drag occurs for a 6.7 ft diameter propeller. All of these numbers appear to be fairly reasonable, giving me yet further confidence that the Faster Than the Wind Team probably achieved what they stated.

* This figure of merit is a measure of how much of the power is going into accelerating the air. This is a more useful measure than efficiency for low speeds, since by definition, propeller efficiency is equal to zero for static thrust. A figure of merit of 1 is the theoretical limit. The propellers I've designed at work typically achieve figures of merit of 0.92 to 0.94 for static thrust.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 18

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 18, The Mason Bee.

There's nothing in particular about the following passage - I just thought this was funny.

The clash between monophyletic evolution on the one hand, with its rejection of God, and polyphyletic variation on the other with its fixed laws, plan and purpose, merely serves to emphasize the vagueness and uncertainty of the materialist's extravagant speculations and to show the loss of an objective worthy of the pursuit of rational man. (McCann 222)

First I have to deal with people saying bees show my own field of aerodynamics is impossible. Now, I see McCann saying that it also shows that evolution is impossible.

The materialist encounters in the bee an insurmountable obstacle which would be no obstacle at all if the Creator were not rejected. (McCann 222)
Monophyletic evolution demands acceptance of the theory that the bee was evolved from a lower organism which neither made honey nor built a hive, notwithstanding the fact that the one distinguishing characteristic of the bee is that it is the only creature in nature that does both, though no explanation of its instinct as a honey gatherer and hive builder has ever been offered. (McCann 223)

Hmm. Wasps couldn't be seen as any type of analog as a precursor to bees, huh? As a kind of communal insect that makes hives but not honey?

This one doesn't exactly have to do with evolution, but it is pretty insulting to the non-human animals he's describing.

Much has been written about the "singular intelligence" of the bee. It has been compared to human reason just as the intelligence of dogs, seals, and other animals has been compared to human reason, as if upon the brains of some of them, learning their tricks, the human intelligence of the teacher had not been imposed. (McCann 225)

I've never understood how a person could have pets, and not recognize the personality and intelligence of those creatures.

McCann posed the following strange argument from instinct.

Who forms the plan of the bee? (McCann 226)
Yet even the untrained observer detects the strained quality of these theories of chance evolution. He notes that acquired habits vary, but that instinct never varies. (McCann 226)

The plan of the bee, obviously, comes from instinct. No higher intelligence plans it. But where he goes off the rails is in saying that instinct never varies. Why not? Instinct is just one more trait controlled by our genes. If physical traits can vary with genetic mutation, why wouldn't instinct, also?

McCann seems to think the chicken and the egg is a serious problem for evolution.

If the specific law is that each species comes from the germ of its own species, every bee since the first has been hatched from the egg of a pre-existing bee. Whence came the first pre-existing bee? Like begets like. We get no bee, except from the egg of another bee. (McCann 227)

This is the very question that evolution explains. Every parent begets offspring very similar to, but not exactly like, themselves. The changes from generation to generation may be very small, but these changes can add up to a lot over time. Think back to my example from a previous installment of short necked animals evolving into long necked animals, where the average neck length of the population only changed 1 mm per generation. From generation to generation, nobody would notice any big differences between parents and offspring. But after a thousand generations, the population would look quite a bit different than their many times great grandparents.

If you were to somehow travel in a time machine, tracing the ancestry of a given bee hive, you wouldn't notice any big changes from generation to generation. But, you would notice that the ancestors become icreasingly different from the modern day hive. Initially, they would still be bees, just slightly different. Then, they would still be bee-like, but not quite bees. Keep going further and further back, and you'd find insects that weren't bee-like at all, and even further into the past, it would be a worm-like population of animals. You could keep tracking the ancestors until eventually you got back to the first life on the planet, never noticing a big change from one generation to the next.

Modern creationists would be very familiar with the following argument, only now they've given it the term 'irreducible complexity'.

The chance evolutionist suggests a low form of pre-existing honey-gatherers and a low form of pre-existing cell-makers as the ancestors of the bee. But if this be true, the first product of the chance evolution must have been equipped with an apparatus for gathering honey and a plan for making cells. The bee couldn't have acquired this apparatus SLOWLY. It couldn't have developed its tools and its skill SLOWLY for the reason that its offspring could have survived no such delay. (McCann 228)

I don't know much about bee evolution, to be honest, but seeing as how many types of animals make nests/dens to raise their young (birds, ants, wasps, mammals), and many types animals produce a nourishing food for their young (some birds, mammals, honey pot ants), I don't see why the two would have had to have evolved together in bees. Perhaps the ancestors of bees simply made the cells to protect their young, and then co-opted that already existing structure to store honey. Cells and honey would each have been useful independent of the other.

Here's the same 'irreducible complexity' argument concerning mammals.

How could the new-born infant of a mother who had not yet developed mammary glands survive the delay of ages until chance evolution might succeed in developing mammals capable of suckling their young! ... But Darwin himself also says that the mammals have descended from the marsupials, and instantly we have a new set of complications in which the opossum, the kangaroo and the turkey become the most bewildering riddles of the chance evolutionist's scheme. Since Darwin's time no evolutionist has attempted to explain how, by chance evolution, the offspring could have survived the millions of years which are said to separate the marsupial from the mammal while the latter was evolving from the former, or, in other words, until the mammary glands of the mother could be developed beyond the pouch stage. (McCann 228-229)

Nobody except naive creationists expects that prior to the development of mammary glands, that our ancient ancestors gave birth to completely helpless young that would have starved to death. I think it's much more likely that nurturing behavior would have evolved first (such as in birds), and then later, mammary glands would have developed initially as a supplementary food source for the young. And then only much later than that would mammary glands provide the primary food source for infants.

Speaking of mammary glands, I think the platypus and the echidna are a very good example of what 'primitive' mammary glands would have been like in our ancestors. They produce milk, and excrete that over a region of their body, but they don't have ducts to transport the milk, nor nipples where the babies can latch on to suckle.

This line of reasoning is actually a bit funny.

All theories of chance evolution repudiate plan, purpose and definite intention, yet the sting of the bee is certainly an organ of definite intention. (McCann 229)

Because having to commit suicide to defend your colony shows clear intent in design. It's even worse when you consider other animals have evolved stingers that don't leave them dead after using them.

I really, really wish McCann could see the fossils coming from Liaoning.

On the theory that special organs, designed for a particular use, were developed ever so slowly before the time came when they might be used, it would be necessary for birds, evolving from reptiles, to acquire feathers gradually through thousands and thousands of generations before such feathers could be used for flight, and, of course, during all this period of development there would have had to be another and equally marvelous co-ordination of development in the direction of flying bones and flying muscles, and a still more marvelous co-ordination, all by chance, whereby the center of gravity of the bird would fall within the limits of flight. (McCann 229)

This is exactly what has happened. Feathers originally evolved in dinosaurs, having nothing to do with flight. Flight like feathers might have evolved originally for display purposes, or maybe even for extra thrust to aid the dinosaurs while running. Later, these already developed flight like feathers would have been used for actual flight (either short powered flights or gliding). And considering that an animal can move its limbs to adjust its center of lift, it wouldn't have been hard for the CG and center of lift to be in the correct locations relative to each other. Once rudimentary flight had been developed, then natural selection would have favored modern asymmetrical flight feathers.

More info:

Proceed to Chapter 19

Monday, June 6, 2011

Beware the Scareware

Scareware Screen CaptureAs the IT manager where I work, in the past couple weeks, I've had to clean two computers with a 'scareware' infection, as well as a website for another company which had been hacked to host scareware. Since these types of malware seem to be on the rise, I sent a note to the employees of the company to warn them to be careful of these types of infections, and figured I'd repeat that here as a public service.

Scareware infections usually come from compromised websites. The site will load a page that looks very much like a legitimate antivirus program, with fake messages about the computer being infected or a virus trying to run, tricking users into installing the malware on their computer. Once infected, these programs are very difficult to uninstall, and will usually block legitimate antivirus software from working. The main purpose of these programs is to scare users into paying for software to clean the supposed virus infection, but some versions will also install viruses or password stealing malware.

If you're browsing the Internet, and you get what looks to be an antivirus program warning you of an infection, chances are that it's scareware. Do not trust any warnings about infected files on your computer unless you're sure they're coming from your already installed anti-virus software.

Here is more detailed information on these threats, including a slideshow with some known examples.

Also, do not assume that these attacks only come from disreputable sites. The majority of sites with scareware are legitimate sites that have been hacked or which have security holes in advertising. These include large, popular sites such as Sony, so exercise caution at any website.

If you happen to use a Mac, keep in mind that criminals have expanded to targeting Macs as well.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 17

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 17, Psychical Activity.

Here we see what might be a precursor of the now common entropy argument.

Natural science compels us to assume certain formal principles, which are not makeshifts meddling with material energy, nor do they disturb the permanence of the law of energy; they simply direct the lower energy, quicken to life the atoms hitherto dead by absorbing them into the organism and, in short, effect THE PURPOSE of the vital processes by action from within. This postulate is eminently reasonable - I personally cannot dispense with it, and should not be able to dispense with it, even if theology did not exist. (McCann 214)

There's all the talk of energy that creationists now like to bring up when discussing the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but this could just be vitalism. Now I wonder if vitalism somehow influenced the Second Law canard, or if it's just a matter of trying to sound 'sciencey' by talking about energy.

Then we get the 'evolution says we're nothing but chemicals' complaint.

But, according to the latest theories of the materialistic evolutionist, as announced at the Second International Congress of Eugenics, American Museum of Natural History, New York City, September, 1921, it is not the soul that distinguishes man from the ape, but rather a physical difference brought about by the action of the endocrine glands, the secretions of which are responsible for the development of man from the ape. Dr. Charles B. Davenport, director of the Eugenics Record Office, says that all crimes and all moods are produced by various chemicals called hormones, which are manufactured by the different glands and poured into the blood stream which carries them to the different organs, including the brain, where they produce profound bodily and mental effects. (McCann 216)

We now have the benefit of nearly a century's worth more research, and it's very clear that our brain chemistry affects our moods and actions. The most common example is alcohol, but there are also the new drugs used to treat depression, ADHD, and other aspects of personality.

In fact, the more we learn about the brain, the more superfluous souls become. Go read Ebon Musing's article, A Ghost in the Machine, for lots of good examples of how our material brain is sufficient to explain our personalities.

After mentioning a hypothesis that perhaps meat eating gave our ancestors the extra energy needed to develop larger brains, McCann again demonstrates the misconception of a ladder of progress.

Dogs, cats, wolves, hyenas, lions, tigers, vultures and other carnivorous creatures have been eating meat for thousands of years, and doubtless in time will more fully develop the distinctively human factors which even now, due to a meat diet, must be well advanced, though unobtrusively so, on their way to the human stage. (McCann 218)

We are a very rare animal. It took a very specific set of circumstances to come together to lead to our evolution. It wasn't simply eating meat that transformed our ancestors into humans. That was only one requirement (which gave us the calories for our big, energy intensive brains). With how much energy (i.e. food) big brains require, it takes a specific type of environment where the advantages offset the disadvantages (for us, it appears to have been for social reasons). But even just being smart isn't going to make a human. Look at dolphins and elephants. They're pretty damn smart, too.

From our modern perspective where humans dominate the planet, we don't realize how precarious our survival was in the past. There's some evidence that we nearly went extinct 70,000 years ago. There was a fair amount of luck in our lineage surviving, and but for a disease outbreak at just the wrong time, I might not be sitting at a computer writing this, and you wouldn't be reading it. In other words, there's nothing driving evolution to produce human like animals.

Here we get two misconceptions for the price of one - evolution can't produce new information, and evolution can't explain a subjective experience.

It would be difficult following William Bateson's dictum, "An organism cannot pass on to its offspring a factor which it did not itself receive in fertilization," to attribute the music faculty of man's soul to the seed of an ape...

The evolutionist who says there are no miracles is confounded by the miracle of music and made dumb by speculation concerning its origin. (McCann 219)

I'll cut McCann a tiny bit of slack in the first claim. Genetics wasn't as well understood then as it is now, so mutation wasn't understood. But now, of course we know that children can pass on genetic information that they didn't receive from the parents. I've already covered all this in previous entries in this series, but just to repeat, current estimates for human mutation rates are around 100 mutations per individual. And I'll once again link to information on Richard Lenski's experiment, where e. coli developed mutations that gave them the ability to digest a new food source (citrate), as an example of how random mutations can result in new functions. I'll also link to an article by Richard Dawkins, The Information Challenge, which explains the processes of how information can be added to the genome.

Proceed to Chapter 18

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Website Update - Top 10+2 Page List for May 2011

Top 10 ListIt's the start of a new month, so it's time to go through the server logs and see how my site did last month. As far as overall traffic, the surge appears to have plateaued. I had more traffic than last month, but not quite as much the few months prior to that.

All of the entries in the top 10 had made the list before, although one of them had only made it once before, and was a bit of a surprise to see there again, Recipe for 3 Cheese Chicken Enchiladas with Cream Cheese Sauce (though it's a really good recipe and entirely deserving of getting quite a bit of traffic).

I'd mentioned previously that none of my entries from 2011 have managed to make it into the top 10, yet. That still hasn't changed, but this time, it was close. A week ago, a couple entries from 2011 were in the top 10 for the month up to that point, but they barely lost out by month's end. A mere 8 page views separated the 10th and 11th most popular pages from May, and it was only another 12 more to the 12th most popular page. And the 11th and 12th most popular pages were from this year. So, as the title of this post suggests, I decided to add in those pages to the list this month.

Here are the 10 + 2 most popular pages from my site for May 2011.

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  4. Blog - The Texas Republican Platform, or Why I'm Not a Republican
  5. Blog - My Favorite Airplanes
  6. Blog - Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  7. Recipe for 3 Cheese Chicken Enchiladas with Cream Cheese Sauce
  8. Blog - Running AutoCAD R14 in XP Pro 64
  9. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  10. Blog - Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution
  1. Blog - Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 12
  2. Blog - Book Review - More Than a Carpenter

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