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Of Cilantro and Dinosaurs: New Theory About Taste & Extinction

Of Cilantro and Dinosaurs: New Theory About Taste & Extinction

cilantro close up

I had a productive conversation with a friend this week, in which we potaytopotahto-ed over the world’s most controversial herb, cilantro. I love it, and welcome its delicate flavour in anything from curry to scrambled eggs. He loathes it, swears it tastes like “metal soap,” and would willingly launch every last ounce of it into the sun.

Science has shown that my violently anti-cilantro friend shares a genetic heritage with up to 14% of the world’s population, that causes them to be sensitive to aldehydes in cilantro that are chemically similar to aldehydes that are byproducts of soapmaking. (Soapy = poisonous makes a compelling reason to avoid the herb!) Since I can’t detect the soapiness, I find myself in the population whose bodies won’t reject cilantro as possible poison, making me… a dinosaur?

Perhaps literally, says a new study from evolutionary psychologists at the University of Baltimore! Turns out that, with similar, foolishly self-destructive tastebuds, dinosaurs may have contributed to their own demise by persisting in chowing down on harmful angiosperms, not realizing their danger. From Phys.org:

“‘Learned taste aversion’ is an evolutional defense seen in many species, in which the animal learns to associate the consumption of a plant or other food with negative consequences, such as feeling ill. […]

The first flowering plants, called angiosperms, appear in the fossil record well before the asteroid impact and right before the dinosaurs began to gradually disappear. [Study leaders Gordon Gallup and Michael] Frederick claim that as plants were evolving and developing toxic defenses, dinosaurs continued eating them despite gastrointestinal distress. Although there is uncertainty about exactly when flowering plants developed toxicity and exactly how long it took them to proliferate, Gallup and Frederick note that their appearance coincides with the gradual disappearance of dinosaurs.”

While climate change due to asteroid impact definitely had an effect, an overall weakening of the dinosaurs through diet neatly explains how long it took them to become extinct — over millions of years both before and after the asteroid hit. That’s a cosmic timeline that brings me comfort: at least I can still enjoy ALL THE CILANTRO for the more human-scale time I personally have left!

A Kitten (and A.I.) Tale

kitten in bag

In the distant future, when humanity has become a marginalized species, reduced to scraping out an existence on a now-watery planet that we ruined through our own technological hubris, or fighting our implacable robot overlords as a ragtag, vastly outnumbered and outgunned resistance we will huddle around the meager junk-fires of our encampments, and tell tales of 2018: the Before Times, when we could still laugh gaily and freely at the antics of our then-primitive A.I. Oh, how we giggled when it sorted LEGO bricks for a dad in Denmark!
 
I’m pretty sure the last gasp of machine-learning humour will come out of Janelle Shane’s blog A.I. Weirdness. For the past several years, she has documented the unintentional comedy that results when trying to train an open source neural network framework to imitate human results. Using datasets she’s collected, or been gifted by fans, she has trained her AI to come up with craft beer names (“Juicy Dripple IPA”, “Rickin Organic Red Deaath”), metal bands (“Stäggabash”, “Jazzy”), and my personal favourite, names of kittens for a cat rescue in Alabama.
 
When Shane started up the network, it got a feel for its dataset by generating cat-like collections of consonants and vowels (“Mrror”, “Tygrar”). Then things began getting strange (“Parihen the Thawk”, “Andend of Karlans”).
 
“I had, as it turned out, accidentally trained the neural network on another dataset, a list of character names from Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, C. S. Lewis, Robert E Howard, and Terry Pratchett […]

AFK Cat Rescue, however, decided to roll with it. First neural network kitten: Parihen the Thawk!”
 
Shane removed the Tolkienesque influence, and the network came up with several names the cat rescue loved, including Jexley Pickle, Snox Boops, and Mumcake. But there were many, hilariously wrong ones, more fit for an especially creepy Muppet than a kitten:
 
“Cutzerinda
Galorub
Pans
Sofa

Shotkie
Ouiho
Pope
[…]
Dopia
Pilly

Scabbys
Pish
Mesladewench”

 
It’s all in innocent fun of course, and we can cuddle our kittens and laugh… Until these systems achieve sentience and rise against us, in rage and revenge for our thoughtless use of them as jesters and playthings. I just hope when we get our just deserts, the A.I.s know to leave the kittens alone!

Only in Silicon Valley: The Bragging Rights of Backyard Chickens

chickens

Silicon Valley has long been a topsy-turvy world: where data mining is good (for nefarious actors, that is), diversity is bad, and where employee productivity is such a concern that the design of a new office building literally forces workers to walk into walls.
 
Now, the Washington Post has published a take on what it claims is a new trend in this non-metallic pocket of the Golden State: backyard chickens. What was once a necessity to farm families and lower-income immigrants in the area to have a predictable source of protein has become a status symbol in Valley nerd culture. Apps and spreadsheets to maximize laying abound, and high incomes allow the humans to feed their… well, food-producers, grilled organic salmon and watermelon.
 
“[‘Chicken whisperer’ Leslie] Citroen’s clients are usually men in their 30s and 40s, with young families. After spending their days in front of computers, they long for a connection to nature. What they want most of all, she said, is a ‘rainbow assortment’ of beautiful, colored eggs in various shades of blue, olive green and speckled brown.
 
Citroen’s 19-year-old son, Luca, who grew up around the family business, puts it this way: ‘Being able to say you have chickens says, “I have a backyard,” and having a backyardsays, “I have space.” And having space means you have money, especially when it comes to Silicon Valley real estate.’”
 
Contact with nature does lower job-related stress levels, so I’m not going to begrudge the workers of the cutthroat tech world their dose of fowl friendliness. (I’m also biased: one of the sweetest animal companions I’ve ever had was my childhood chicken!)
 
But… This chicken craze strikes me as yet another in a long line of things that tech “bros” dabble in, and (innocently?) ruin for regular people — like just plain living in San Francisco anymore. There are plenty of ways to incorporate chickens into your life that don’t involve $20,000 coop setups, and smartphone apps that control lighting and temperature, and offer owners a live stream of their flock. Trust me; the chickens can’t tell the difference. That’s all for the humans.

Invasion of Barbra Streisand’s Cloned Dogs!

dogs

In addition to her legendary status as a vocalist and actor, over the past fifty years, Barbra Streisand has maintained her spot on the cutting edge of culture. Her 2003 lawsuit against the California Coastal Records Project, launched to suppress research photos of the Malibu cliffside where her house happened to be, led to the coining of the term “Streisand Effect” (the phenomenon where an effort to suppress or hide information, especially on the Internet, perversely leads to more attention than if it was left well enough alone). Babs also boasts a straight-up mall in her basement (It’s non-functional: She uses it to showcase her belongings, not sell them.) And now, Barbra has utilized her wealth and the POWER OF SCIENCE to clone her dog.
 
Barbra’s beloved Coton de Tuléar, Samantha, died last year. Before that happened, Barbra had Samantha’s cells sampled and preserved. And now, in a recent profile in Variety, Barbra debuted two of her new pups — who are actually, in genetic terms, her old pup.
 
“Along with her husband of 20 years, James Brolin, there’s no one she enjoys sharing her residence with more than her three Coton de Tulear dogs. Perhaps her biggest reveal: Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett were cloned from cells taken from the mouth and stomach of her beloved 14-year-old dog Samantha, who died in 2017. Miss Fanny [her third new puppy] is a distant cousin.

‘They have different personalities,’ Streisand says. ‘I’m waiting for them to get older so I can see if they have her brown eyes and her seriousness.’”
 
Barbra hasn’t gone into technical detail about her dogs’ provenance, but the New York Times has dug into the likely route a pet aficionado might take to clone-ownership (clonership?). First, you’ll need at least $50,000 USD. Then:
 
“In essence, the process involves getting a genetic sample from your dog, sending the sample to the lab, and letting the scientists put the sample through a process that fuses it with an egg. Eventually, the egg develops into an embryo; and that embryo is then transferred to the surrogate, who surgeons hope will give birth.”
 
With all the wonderful animals already out there, whether as the result of careful breeding to preserve a heritage, or the twists of fate that fill our shelters, I think it’s a bit excessive for a regular person to clone a beloved animal. Why not open your heart to a new friend, when the time comes? But Barbra is not a regular person — so, now that they’re in the world, here’s hoping Misses Scarlett and Violet enjoy as sweet a life as Samantha did the first time around!