Germans in the Woods

The following video comes from StoryCorps, a brilliant non-profit that records, preserves, and shares the narratives of Americans across the country. They tend to be brief but powerful pieces, and the one below is no exception – it nearly elicited tears from my eyes, and gave me the chills.

 
Given my interest in war and human conflict – intertwined with any formal study of politics, history, and international relations – I’ve long wondered what it is like to involuntarily take a human life. From what I’ve seen and heard, it is one of the most haunting and psychologically devastating experiences imaginable, even in cases where you had no choice or weren’t at fault.
 
That said, war amplifies this horrific circumstance like nothing else. The greatest tragedy of most military conflicts is that young strangers who would otherwise have no reason to harm one another are forced to kill or be killed, as the soldier above did. It is an obvious but painful choice between losing your life and taking another’s. Its pits our natural instinct for self-preservation, perhaps the most powerful driving force imaginable, against our underrated capacity to feel empathy for one another. It’s a cruel and regrettable experience I hope never to have to witness, much less partake in.
 
War is awful enough in a macro analysis. But when one hears and sees individual accounts like these, it becomes daunting to imagine just how compounded the agony is. Thousands and millions of casualty figures are not just numbers – they each represent a human being, who once had dreams, experiences, interests, loved ones, a personality, and a mutual desire to live. Despite our best efforts to dehumanize the enemy, or to necessarily encapsulate war’s consequences in cold statistical data, we can’t get past the human element, the emotional and psychological toll that can’t be measured and often can’t be fixed.
 
Nor should we forget, given the valuable, if morbid, lesson first highlighted by American Civil War general Robert E. Lee:
It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.
Had there never been a war, I wonder what would have become of that Angel Soldier, or his reluctant and tortured killer? Where would the millions who perished in that conflict alone be? Private Robertson’s compassion and empathy are a bright light in an otherwise horrific and consistent example of humanity at its worst.

Yosemite HD

This is one of the most breathtaking things I’ve seen in a while: it’s a time-lapse high-definition video of Yosemite National Park. It’s part of a creative effort known as Project Yosemite, which seems intent on capturing as much of this land’s fantastic beauty as possible.

This is a collaborative effort between photographers Sheldon Neill and Colin Delehanty. Kudos to them for sharing their incredible work. You can find their contact info on the video link. It’s amazing to think that this massive and mostly pristine land area is only a sample of our country’s natural beauty, let alone the world. There is so much that I’ll need to see for myself.

Hope you enjoy!

Life Span Increased in Aging Mice

Medicine is continuing to make promising inroads in the area of regenerative medicine. With most developed countries facing increasingly aging populations, there’s widespread concern about mounting healthcare and social security costs.

Furthermore, attention is focusing on ensuring that lives are not only long but also fruitful. Perhaps the greatest hardship of growing old isn’t facing death, but enduring a painful and extended process of physical and mental decline, which furthermore puts an emotional and financial burden on loved ones.
 
Therefore, any practical and ethical means of at least mitigating our inevitable deterioration should be welcomed. The quantity of life means far less without the quality – hence my excitement over a study reported in National Geographic that managed to biologically rejuvenate mice on the verge of death, not only extending their lives but making them function as if they were younger.
 
The study mice were genetically engineered to have a condition similar to a rare human syndrome called progeria, in which children age quickly and die young. (Learn more about the human body.) The fast-aging mice typically die around 21 days after birth, far short of a normal mouse’s two-year life span.
 
When scientists looked at the muscle stem cells of the fast-aging mice, they found what Huard called “tired” stem cells, which don’t divide as quickly.
 
The team then examined mice that had aged normally and found their stem cells were similarly defective.
 
Curious if these deficient stem cells contribute to aging, Huard and colleagues injected stem cells from young, healthy mice into the fast-aging mice about four days before the older animals were expected to die.
 
To Huard’s astonishment, the treated mice lived an average of 71 days—50 more than expected, and the equivalent of an 80-year-old human living to be 200, he said.
 
Not only did the animals live longer, they also seemed healthier, the scientists found.
Despite all the controversy, not to mention the legal and political obstacles (at least here in the US), stem cells continue to yield remarkable results for regenerative medicine, if not medicine as a whole. It is no wonder that many scientists regard stem cell research as one of the most important avenues for improving human health. With more time, money, and societal support, they could have considerable impact on improving the quality of life for millions.
 
Anyway, the implications of this study become more interesting. Like all good scientists, the team undertook repeated experiments to ensure that the first results weren’t fluke, reaching the same outcome in every instance. This raised the vital question as to how the stem cells were having such dramatic effect.
 
To find out, the team “tagged” stem cells injected into the fast-aging mice with a genetic marker that tracked where the cells went inside the body. Surprisingly, the team found only a few stem cells in the mouse organs, squashing a theory that the introduced cells were repairing organ tissues.
 
The scientists went back to the lab to test another idea: that stem cells secrete some kind of mysterious anti-aging substance.
 
The team put stem cells from the fast-aging mice on one side of a flask and stem cells from normal, young mice on the other side. The two sides were separated by a membrane that prevented the cells from touching.
 
Within days, the aging stem cells began acting “younger”—in other words, they began dividing more quickly.
 
“We can conclude that probably normal stem cells secrete something we don’t know that seems to improve the defects in those aging stem cells,” Huard said.
 
“If we can identify that, we have found an anti-aging protein that is going to be important” for people, said Huard, whose study appeared January 3 in the journal Nature Communications.
There is still a lot to learn about stem cells, and it seems we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of their potential benefits. As always, there are important caveats to keep in mind before we get too excited and begin to expect age-reversing medicine on the market.
 
But other scientists are cautious about how soon the discovery may help people delay the aging process or treat age-related disease.
 
“They did a beautiful job of showing that, when they put the muscle stem cells in [the mice], they improved function,” said Justin Lathia, an assistant professor of cell biology at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute.
 
But as far as people go, it’s still not clear what exactly stem cells do in the body, as well as what the mysterious stem cell secretion really is, Lathia emphasized.
 
Jeremy Rich, chair of the department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, also pointed out that the study is limited to muscle stem cells. That means the research can’t be generalized to include all stem cell types, which are often very different from each other.
 
Paul Frenette, a stem cell and aging expert at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, called the research “intriguing,” but said one of the messages for “patients is not to get too excited.”
 
“You see all these clinics that are popping up all over the world—even in New York—where they’re injecting stem cells” into people to treat disease, even though such therapies have not been proven.
 
“I don’t think people should run to the clinic right now to have injections of stem cells to live longer.”
Indeed, the news media and general public have a tendency to become overly enthusiastic or supportive of research that is still preliminary or incomplete. In our understandable anticipation of what ground-breaking benefits may emerge, we forget that scientific progress is a cautious, methodical, and arduous journey through a gauntlet of peer review, repeated experimentation, and – in the case of medicine – numerous clinical trials.
 
At the same time, I’ve noticed a pushback against this sentiment from the other direction, in which the response to scientific developments is too cynical or reflexively skeptical. This too is an understandable position, given the sad history of false positives, fraudulence, and exaggerations. It certainly doesn’t help that in age of information overload, we frequently encounter conflicting claims and counter-claims that it can make it difficult for us to make up our minds.
 
Without getting too off topic, I think the key is to maintain a balance between informed incredulity and hope – look at multiple studies, preferably from scientific journals and reputable institutions, and maintain some restraint until more time and scrutiny have passed. I’m obviously very eager about the latency of this finding, but I’m not looking forward to popping anti-aging pills anytime soon.
 
Science isn’t perfect, given human nature, but it has as good a track record as any of our endeavors when it comes to fact-checking. There’s a lot of work to be done.
 
Indeed, study co-author Huard noted that before any human anti-aging trials can begin, scientists need to repeat the experiment in normally aging mice to show whether these mice also live longer.
 
If that turns out to be true, Huard could imagine a scenario in which some of a person’s stem cells are harvested at about age 20 and then injected back into his or her body at around age 50 or 55.
 
Stem cell therapies do already exist for conditions such as incontinence and heart problems, so he thinks “we’re not that far [from applying] this approach clinically down the road.”
 
But Huard warned that such a treatment would not mean a 55-year-old will suddenly look and feel 25 again.
 
“The goal of doing this research is not to [be like a] movie star with a ton of money [who wants to] look great for the rest of their lives,” he said.
 
“The goal is, if you delay aging, maybe you can delay Alzheimer’s or cardiovascular problems.”
 
In other words, he said, such stem cell treatments would help people “age well.”
My thoughts exactly. We’ve made incredible strides in bettering the human condition, doubling or even tripling human life expectancy while – perhaps most crucially – changing the way aging effects people. Older people are becoming unprecedentedly fitter, and it’s no longer unusual to see people running for public office or joining the workforce in their sixties or even early seventies.
 
With the median age in most societies getting higher, even within developing countries, it’s vital to both individual and collective well-being to ensure that the majority of older people can continue to function well into advanced age. The social, economic, and ethical gains would be tremendous.
 

An Open Mind

Making the rounds on Imgur is a presumed letter written by a professor of Cross-Cultural Psychology and sent to his students following a prior dispute about his curriculum (the university and the professor’s name are, of course, withheld). Aside from eloquently scolding some of them for their behavior – which you’ll learn about as you read along – his lengthy tract makes excellent points about the importance of challenging one’s views, keeping an open-mind, and facilitating an atmosphere of free inquiry.

As a university graduate who loved school, I could certainly relate with the instructor’s dismay and subsequent suggestion. I even deal with or witness similar incidents. A lot of people, even in their vibrant and curious youth, are too embedded in their preconceived beliefs; they seem regard an education as nothing more than a path to get a degree and make money (and in fairness, this mentality stems from institutional flaws within the education system, as well as pernicious societal influence.

But even outside the university environment, we should strive for the kind of honest and free-thinking that is outlined in the letter. We’re not perfect, and we’ll always be prone to bias, irrationality, and prejudice. But the point is to at least try and, most importantly, not infringe on other people’s efforts to learn too (in or out of school).

Remembering Howard Zinn

When enough people do enough things, however small they are, then change takes place.

This pass January 27th was the second anniversary of the death of historian and social activist Howard Zinn. A remarkable and energetic figure within a wide number of social justice issues – civil rights, workers’ rights, pacifism – he sadly doesn’t receive as much widespread recognition among average Americans as he does among academics and humanitarians (although his written works seem to be getting more popular). Whatever the case, given his selfless and life-long devotion to the plight of others, I doubt this would matter all that much to him.

Noam Chomsky, a fellow activist and personal friend of Zinn, wrote a touching and informative remembrance piece on Al-Jeezera, noting that:

His primary concern, he [Zinn] explained, was “the countless small actions of unknown people” that lie at the roots of “those great moments” that enter the historical record – a record that will be profoundly misleading, and seriously disempowering, if it is torn from these roots as it passes through the filters of doctrine and dogma. His life was always closely intertwined with his writings and innumerable talks and interviews. It was devoted, selflessly, to empowerment of the unknown people who brought about great moments. That was true when he was an industrial worker and labour activist, and from the days, 50 years ago, when he was teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, a black college that was open mostly to the small black elite.

As a history buff, I certainly appreciate the value of giving a voice to the millions of average but forgotten people that made crucial contributions to human progress. This dedication to the common man (and woman) is what made Zinn a great and exemplary figure, whatever one thinks of his politics.

In that regard, I highly recommend his best-known work, A People’s History of the United States, which represents the many perspectives of our nation’s narrative that never get much, if any, sincere attention. It pretty much encapsulates Zinn’s overall message of valuing the contributions of society as a whole, rather than of only triumphal or famous figures. It may be a bit too leftist for some, but it presents an important alternative to consider. Given my own adherence to the ideals of dialogue and discussion, it very much resonates with me.

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.

The Sociocultural Origins of Inequality

Coming off the heels of my previous post concerning inequality (yes, I’ve discuss the issue a lot), is an analysis on the origins of our distinctly high rate of wealth disparity. One of the more interesting explanations I’ve read comes from a somewhat old but still relevant article in theNew York Times, The Paradox of the New Elite” by Alexander Stille.

In it, he suggests that the difference between the rates of equality between countries lies more in the nature of a given society, and its cultural values, than in any particular fiscal or political development. As I’ve long supported a connection between culture and overall national prosperity, I’ve taken a particular interest in his claim.

IT’S a puzzle: one dispossessed group after another — blacks, women, Hispanics and gays — has been gradually accepted in the United States, granted equal rights and brought into the mainstream.
 
At the same time, in economic terms, the United States has gone from being a comparatively egalitarian society to one of the most unequal democracies in the world.
 
The two shifts are each huge and hugely important: one shows a steady march toward democratic inclusion, the other toward a tolerance of economic stratification that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
 
The United States prides itself on the belief that “anyone can be president,” and what better example than Barack Obama, son of a black Kenyan immigrant and a white American mother — neither of them rich.
 
And yet more than half the presidents over the past 110 years attended Harvard, Yale or Princeton and graduates of Harvard and Yale have had a lock on the White House for the last 23 years, across four presidencies. Thus we have become both more inclusive and more elitist.
 
It’s a surprising contradiction. Is the confluence of these two movements a mere historical accident? Or are the two trends related?
 
Indeed, we Americans historically derived our sense of exceptionalism not only our democratic and constitutional traditions, but from the idea that socioeconomic barriers were virtually nonexistent; a hardworking and responsible person could transcend their humble origins and prosper like nowhere else – that is, if they were white males.
 
But there seems to have been a reversal in this narrative, for as more formerly disenfranchised groups gain ground politically and socially (albeit with more to be done), the overall socioeconomic picture looks grim. Wealth and income are more unequal, average wages have remained stagnant, and there’s a sense that things like healthcare and education are financially out of reach to the average person. Are political and socioeconomic equality mutually exclusive?
Other nations seem to face the same challenge: either inclusive, or economically just. Europe has maintained much more economic equality but is struggling greatly with inclusiveness and discrimination, and is far less open to minorities than is the United States.
 
European countries have done a better job of protecting workers’ salaries and rights but have been reluctant to extend the benefits of their generous welfare state to new immigrants who look and act differently from them. Could America’s lost enthusiasm for income redistribution and progressive taxation be in part a reaction to sharing resources with traditionally excluded groups?
 
“I do think there is a trade-off between inclusion and equality,” said Gary Becker, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and a Nobel laureate. “I think if you are a German worker you are better off than your American equivalent, but if you are an immigrant, you are better off in the U.S.”
The article goes on to highlight some examples of this tradeoff, such as the fact that most students at our top schools – regardless of their ethnic, gender, or racial origins – are of affluent backgrounds (the same pertains to our average member of Congress). Yet foreigners prosper far more in the US than in most European states, hence why we remain a beacon of immigration, and why our universities remain robustly international in their make-up.
 
The problem is that regardless of your origin, education is widely considered to be the main avenue for socioeconomic development, yet more and more of the people that need it most are shut out by financial restraints, creating a cycle of self-perpetuating elites. Certain minorities gain in relative terms, yet the average American on a whole seems to be facing barriers to upward mobility.

Removing the most blatant forms of discrimination, ironically, made it easier to justify keeping whatever rewards you could obtain through the new, supposedly more meritocratic system. “Greater inclusiveness was a precondition for greater economic stratification,” said Professor Karabel. “It strengthened the system, reinvigorated its ideology — it is much easier to defend gains that appear to be earned through merit. In a meritocracy, inequality becomes much more acceptable.”

THE term “meritocracy” — now almost universally used as a term of praise — was actually coined as a pejorative term, appearing for the first time in 1958, in the title of a satirical dystopian novel, “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” by the British Labour Party leader Michael Young. He warned against the creation of a new technocratic elite in which the selection of the few would lead to the abandonment of the many, a new elite whose privileges were even more crushing and fiercely defended because they appeared to be entirely merited.

Therein lays the catch: we defend a person’s wealth and privilege, no matter how high or disproportional it may be, under the pretext that it was earned and they’re therefore entitled to it. Even poorer Americans do this, mostly out of a commitment to the principle of merit that underpins economic mobility (and also because they hold out the possibility that based on this system, they too could be at the top one day). 
 
But the question is if such wealth and power is really earned through merit rather than birth. As noted before, access to education, public office, or higher paying jobs seem increasingly contingent on one’s wealth, as well as the connections that come with it. A causal dilemma ensues: to be better off, we increasingly rely on the kind of education and networking that is mostly limited to the better off.
 
This isn’t to say that there aren’t exceptions, or that people born to well-monied families don’t also work hard and persevere through personal challenges. But if being born within an exclusive socioeconomic level appears to significantly better your chances of attaining wealth and political power, then you have to wonder to what extent merit alone is going to cut it. This is where the balance between inclusion and inequality comes in.
Of the European countries, Britain’s politics of inequality and inclusion most resemble those of the United States. Even as inequality has grown considerably, the British sense of economic class has diminished. As recently as 1988, some 67 percent of British citizens proudly identified themselves as working class. Now only 24 percent do. Almost everybody below the Queen and above the poverty line considers himself or herself “middle class.”
 
Germany still has robust protections for its workers and one of the healthiest economies in Europe. Children at age 10 are placed on different tracks, some leading to university and others to vocational school — a closing off of opportunity that Americans would find intolerable. But it is uncontroversial because those attending vocational school often earn as much as those who attend university. In France, it is illegal for the government to collect information on people on the basis of race. And yet millions of immigrants — and the children and grandchildren of immigrants — fester in slums.
 
In the United States, the stratification of wealth followed several decades where economic equality was strong. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed underscored the excesses of the roaring ’20s and ushered in an era in which the political climate favored labor unions, progressive taxation and social programs aimed at reducing poverty.
 
From the 1930s to the 1960s, the income of the less affluent Americans grew more quickly than that of their wealthier neighbors, and the richest 1 percent saw its share of the national income shrink to 8.9 percent in the mid-1970s, from 23.9 percent in 1928. That share is now back up to more than 20 percent, its level before the Depression.
 
Inequality has traditionally been acceptable to Americans if accompanied by mobility. But most recent studies of economic mobility indicate that it is getting even harder for people to jump from one economic class to another in the United States, harder to join the elite. While Americans are used to considering equal opportunity and equality of condition as separate issues, they may need to reconsider. In an era in which money translates into political power, there is a growing feeling, on both left and right, that special interests have their way in Washington. There is growing anger, from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, that the current system is stacked against ordinary citizens. Suddenly, as in the 1930s, the issue of economic equality is back in play.
 
In short, one probable factor is that our focus on identity politics, coupled with a lack of class consciousness, has diverted our attention away from matters of economic equalitarianism. When we do discuss social and economic matters, it pertains to giving people the path to bettering their condition on their own, rather than having those conditions bettered directly (e.g. through tax-funded social programs).
Inequality and inclusion are both as American as apple pie, says Jerome Karabel, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “The Chosen,” about the history of admission to Harvard, Yale and Princeton. “I don’t think any advanced democracy is as obsessed with equality of opportunity or as relatively unconcerned with equality of condition,” he says. “As long as everyone has a chance to compete, we shouldn’t worry about equality. Equality of condition is seen as undesirable, even un-American.”
The key phrase being “as long as everyone has a chance to compete;” as I’ve stressed numerous times before, most people wouldn’t mind enduring the challenges of upward mobility if they felt that they could overcome them through personal perseverance. We’re a highly individualistic society, and we pride ourselves at achieving prosperity on our own. Again, that sentiment is what underpins the American Dream.
 
But if people continue to be shut out of avenues for economic improvement – such as a good education or a professional career – or find themselves unable to prosper even when they attain both, then the issue of self-perpetuating inequality could return in full-force. If no amount of hard work is getting us any better off, then questions are raised about the nature of the economic and political system, just as we see happening now.
 
Most Americans aren’t asking for socialism or a welfare state. What they want is a political and economic environment that actually gives them room to prosper on their own terms – for equality of opportunity to actually mean something. Many people are still doing well for themselves, and we’ll always know of someone who rose from rags to riches. But the concern is whether this ostensibly merit-based system is being eroded, and whether future generations, regardless of their identity and origin, are going to have the same opportunities as their parents.
 
I’m wondering: is inclusion and equality really mutually exclusive? Could it be that we’ll always have to choose between one and the other? A few other diverse countries, such as Canada and Australia, have maintained relatively higher income equality. But maybe they’re outliers, and maybe the average scenario necessitates a choice between an egalitarian society and an inclusive one.
 
What are your thoughts and experiences in this matter? I’m not even beginning to address the probable solutions, though I welcome feedback on that regard too.
 

Atheism and Patriotism

I can’t comprehend the inanity of believing that citizenship in our liberty-loving country should be predicated on one’s beliefs. I wasn’t aware that being religious was a prerequisite for being an American, and I’m not quite sure how a belief in God, or lack thereof, is supposed to have a bearing on one’s political and ideological loyalty to their country.

But Bush Senior is hardly alone in this noxious perception – like many, if not most Americans, he seems to think that Godlessness is inherently immoral, and that virtues such as duty and self-sacrifice are alien concepts to nonbelievers. You simply can’t be a good person without God, and it’s too difficult for most people to reconcile the two.

Curiously, religious skepticism didn’t stop the core of  our Founding Fathers – Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams, and others – from establishing the same free and and democratic republic that atheists apparently don’t have any place in (especially when it comes to politics). It’s ironic that the Americans who most lionize and deify these men are often the same ones who are most shrill about the evils of atheism. Many of the founders of this nation would be considered unsuited for public office – the one they themselves created – because of nothing more than a lack of religious conviction.

As for Mr. Tillman, the patriot who shouldn’t technically exist:

In May 2002, eight months after the September 11 attacks and after completing the fifteen remaining games of the 2001 season which followed the attacks (at a salary of $512,000 per year), Tillman turned down a contract offer of $3.6 million over three years from the Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army.

If that’s not a model citizen and patriot, I don’t know what is.

Sol Invictus

Yesterday, the Sun unleashed one of the most powerful solar flares on record, and certainly the strongest of the year so far (see photo above). Luckily, the bulk of this awesome power – equivalent to tens of thousands of times our entire planet’s combined nuclear arsenal – has avoided Earth, and we’re thus far unlikely to be affected significantly for the coming year.

The subsequent radiation storm that will nonetheless reach us, which will be the strongest in seven years, will at worse cause some disturbances to a few satellites and GPS devices, and merit some rerouting of airline flights in the polar regions as a precautionary measure. It will also lead to a dazzling display of auroras, which will appear far more south than normal (you can see more of that in the here).

But while the effects have been limited, the Sun still has plenty of magnetic power left, as it is only midway through its solar cycle, an 11-year period of variable solar activity, such as we’re seeing now. We can expect to see the peak of its power around 2013, but again, scientists aren’t expecting anything drastic. Astronomers at NASA and elsewhere predicted and surveyed this most recent activity far more accurately then ever before, which is a reassuring sign – even though determining solar weather remains a difficult feat.

To see a breathtaking sample of the sun’s activity click on this slideshow; you can also see a brief but neat display of  the most powerful flare in x-ray here. Searching “solar flare” or “sun” on Google or YouTube will yield a plethora of videos, reports, and images.

Looking at the awesome power of our sun, and the unfathomable amount of energy it has, makes me appreciate why most early humans deified it. Not only is it the only reason life on Earth even exists, but ancient stars were the origins of most of the elements that exist in the universe. We, along with everything around us, are literally made out of the remnants of stars. All we little creatures can do is marvel at the sheer scale and awesomeness of the universe’s power, and make our best efforts to understand it.

All Living Things

If you want to brush up on you phylogeny, check out this detailed and easily accessible tree of life, provided by Discover Life, an online encyclopedia of Earth’s organisms. This tree, like the rest of the site, seems very accessible and navigable for laymen, as this convenient introduction shows:

Phylogeny is the organizing principle of modern biological taxonomy. A guiding principle of modern phylogeny is monophyly. A monophyletic group is considered to be one that contains an ancestral lineage and all of its descendants. Any such group can be extracted from a phylogenetic tree with a single cut.

The tree shown here provides a guide to the relationships among the major groups of extant (living) organisms in the tree of life. The position of the branching “splits” indicates the relative branching order of the lineages of life, but the time scale is not meant to be uniform. In addition, the groups appearing at the branch tips do not necessarily carry equal phylogenetic “weight.” For example, the ginkgo is indeed at the apex of its lineage; this gymnosperm group consists of a single living species. In contrast, a phylogeny of the eudicots could continue on from this point to fill many more trees the size of this one.

The glossary entries that appear below the tree are informal descriptions of some major features of the organisms described. Each entry gives the group’s formal scientific name, followed by the common name of the group. Numbers in square brackets reference the location of the respective groups on the tree.

It’s great to see how every living thing that’s ever existed is interconnected in some way. To think that all the beauty and biodiversity we see around us represents only 1% of all life that has ever existed; that all of it began with a humble collection of protein constituting primitive, single-celled organisms. Nature, by its very existence, is a miracle.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

It almost slipped me by, but today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a globally-recognized memorial day for the  millions of people that were systematically butchered in the world’s largest genocide. It was established by the UN only in 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, when the Nazi concentrations camps were liberated.

It’s hard to fathom death on such a large-scale. A loss of single human being is tragic enough, but imagine multiplying that agony by 10 to 17 million, the overwhelming majority of whom were targeted for the crime of being born into the wrong ethnicity, faith, or sexual orientation at the wrong time. Each of them was an independent human life – they had names, dreams, loved ones, experiences, plans for the future. All of them ceased to exist within only six years. The speed and brutality was to such a horrifying extent that the term genocide was created as to describe it – mass murder simply couldn’t capture it all well-enough.

It may have been the largest and most infamous case of genocide, but it wasn’t the last, nor was it even the first. People have probably been systematically wiping each other out since we first broke off into tribes and distinct ethnic groups. Cases of ethnic cleansing come and go with brutal regularity.

Since the Holocaust, we’ve had notorious incidents in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, and the former Yugoslavia, as well as little-known cases in East Timor, Iraqi Kurdistan, the Congo, Guatemala, and still elsewhere. Then there are the pre-Holocaust cases such as the Armenian Genocide, the Holodomor, and the various massacres of indigenous people throughout centuries of European colonization. Most of these tragedies remain unknown or underrated, even by some academics.

I hope to live long enough to see this awful and recurring trend cease once and for all. While systematic violence and murder of the Holocaust’s scale no longer exist, we still have a long way to go before the hatred, ignorance, and fear that underpins these actions is extinguished – if that ever happens. I hope never again really comes to mean something.