Sunday, September 07, 2008

Neanderthal: Smarter than We Thought?

I bet when neanderthal kids would make a snowman, someone would always end up saying, 'Don't forget the thick, heavy brows.' Then they would get all embarrassed because they remembered they had the big husky brows too, and they'd get mad and eat the snowman. ~ Jack Handy

The rehabilitation of the Neanderthals goes on and on.

I have nothing against the Neanderthal folks. They were around for 250,000 years, about 150,000 years longer than so-called "modern man" has been wandering the planet. In fact, while Homo Sapiens might go back 100,000 years, his impact doesn't show up until 50-60,000 years ago. So, basically, we haven't lasted as long as the people we've ridiculed as "cave men." (Insert Geico joke here.)

That being said, anthropologists may be drifting too far in the "Neanderthal genius" direction now.

A few months ago, British experts claimed to have found relatively sophisticated tools being used by Neanderthals in Britain. A more recent report says Homo Sapiens tools were no better than Neanderthal tools. Note that the second report doesn't say anything about the Neanderthal tools being the sophisticated narrow blades mentioned in the first article. Contradictions like that bother me.

How about this for a more reasonable explanation of both events: There was trade going on between Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals. Or, even more likely, either group got the other's tools when happening on an abandoned site or after killing off a bunch of the other side in a fight.

Now, I like Neanderthals. Any group of beings that could survive a quarter of a million years through the most significant ice ages since the snowball Earth were not a bunch of dummies. But, the flip side is that after 250,000 years, their technology (tools, hunting methods, manufacturing methods) had scarcely changed. Compare that to Homo Sapiens. In the last 50,000 years, modern humans have gone from living as hunter-gatherers to developing farming, writing, buildings, and modern technology.

Yet, Homo Sapiens was on the verge of extinction because of climate change in Africa while Neanderthal was booming in Europes ice fields. Somehow, modern man managed to hang on long enough to move out of Africa and co-mingle with Neanderthal. Not only that, Sapiens was coming up with one technological improvement after another. Spear throwers, pre-Clovis tools, art, and, perhaps most important, communication.

Sapiens had some sort of advantage, and communication just might have been it. It's generally held now that Neanderthal had the equipment to engage in speech, but no one knows if they did. What we do know, though, is that they didn't create cave drawings or leave any other evidence of communication behind.

All animals have certain things hard-wired into their brains. That's instinct, and modern humans have it just as much as the Neanderthals did. But, in the case of Neanderthal, the next step seems to have been missing. Early in their history, they made some intuitive leaps that gave them better tools than earlier humans, perhaps had better hunting techniques than their predecessors. But once they made that initial leap, that was it.

The same thing can be said of earlier human ancestors. Homo Erectus, for example, who was around for a million years, was still using the same primitive methods at the end of their time as they had near the beginning. It was as if each step up the evolutionary trail was triggered by some great idea, but then the existing humans couldn't get to the next step. Until Homo Sapiens.

We don't know if any of those earlier humans could speak, but we sure know that Homo Sapiens could, because we can.

Something sparked a change in the way humans think around 100,000 years ago. It could be a mutation that changed the wiring in our brains. Or it could be the ability to communicate ideas, which would stimulate different thinking centers in the brain. Sapiens clearly had an ability to think ahead and play "what--if" scenarios out that Neanderthal could not. That small group of Sapiens that were on the edge of extinction evidently began to plan and find ways out of their predicament in way that the earlier humans could not.

Sometimes I think we're losing that ability, but I don't feel like going there today.

At any rate, by the time Neanderthal and Sapiens began to cross paths, the more modern group was on the way up, taking over prime hunting grounds and growing in population. While there may have been some peaceful coexistence, at some point conflicts occurred. The Neanderthal population was shrinking, so they may have tried to fight back to get resources away from the Cro-Magnons. Or the Cro-Magnons just may have been like modern people and decided that taking what they wanted was easier than bargaining for it.

It's unlikely, based on current thinking, that the two groups merged into a single modern humanity. It's not that there wasn't any pre-historic hanky-panky going on, but, either the differences between the species were great enough that no children issued, or the resulatant children may have been sterile. Or there just may only have been a little hanky-panky.

So we're here and Neanderthal isn't. That doesn't mean they were stupid; it just means they were wired differently. If things had been different and Neanderthal had developed creativity like Homo Sapiens did, things would have been very different indeed, especially given 300,000 years of development.

Presumably, some Neanderthal anthropologist would be wondering about whether those tall, slender guys out of Africa ever would have amounted to anything if they hadn't been wiped out when the Sahara got paved.

Then again, maybe things wouldn't be so different.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Viruses in Spa-a-a-a-a-ce

I think computer viruses should count as life. I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We've created life in our own image. ~ Stephen Hawking

There was general consternation the other day when it was announced that there was a computer virus on a laptop aboard the International Space Station. People were shocked--SHOCKED, I say--that such a thing should have occurred.

Lemme tell you a little story about the Federal Government and viruses.

Back in the mid-1990's, I was a contractor working for an Army Reserve unit. Viruses were already pretty big stuff, although many were ill-designed and did very little. Enough of them were nasty enough, though, that anti-virus software was considered to be a pretty standard piece of software to have on hand.

The Feds were a little late to realize this.

One virus in particular, Form, got the nickname "the Government virus" because you could readily find it on military and civilian government employee computers. We had put antivirus software into place on the servers which caught infections as they got onto the file system, but no one would spring to install the software on all systems.

One day, a group of non-comms and officers showed up for a promotions meeting, the purpose of which, I guess, was to discuss potential promotions (I'm a life long civilian; I don't know about this stuff). I got a panicky call, asking me to come to the meeting room with an antivirus floppy disk (programs were still small enough to fit on a floppy). The way they shared data was to pass floppy disks to one another to copy to each individual laptop. As it turned out, virtually every laptop was already infected with something; by passing the floppies around, most of the laptops now had four or five viruses.

It took a couple of hours for two of us to clean up seven laptops. Miraculously, no data was lost, although recovering some of it took a mixture of skill, luck, and magic.

So, I'm not at all surprised that a laptop on the ISS should have a virus. In fact, I suspect that infected laptops have been on more than one mission. It's just that this time, they detected it.

Of course, there's a big brouhaha over how such a thing might have happened. Well, here's two ways for you. One, the laptop was connected to the Internet, either at the station or on Earth prior to going to the ISS, and someone went a-browsing where they maybe shouldn't have been a-browsing. Two, someone carried a USB flash drive up with data or software, stuck it into the laptop and infected it.

The sad truth is that it is very easy to get infected.

Of course, NASA people were quick to point out that they have Norton Anti-Virus installed. They also pointed out that it was updated on August 22. Translation: It wasn't up to date. I'm not going to throw stones at Symantec, who is responsible for the Norton product, because there's no telling the last time anyone on the ISS actually updated their antivirus definitions. Typically, these are updated by antivirus vendors daily, sometimes several times a day. An antivirus product that hasn't been updated for a week isn't going to protect anything.

Once upon a time, NASA wouldn't have been worried about viruses because they ran Unix. There are attacks for Unix systems, but they're fewer of them, and the normally require action from the user to actually get installed. Unfortunately, NASA decided Microsoft Windows was the way to go, which opened them up to attacks from every quarter, including apparently legitmate web sites that have been compromised by malware artists. One of these days, if NASA doesn't get to providing adequate protection to their systems, a damaging worm is going to get loose on their computers.

Somehow the mental image of all those big displays at Mission Control displaying Blue Screens of Death is not a comforting thought.