Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Celebrity Baiting: The Sport of Kings

More on: This is Just for Fun Week.

Celebrity watching is the premiere spectator sport of our time. Celebrity baiting is a subcategory of the celebrity watching in the same way that golf is an sedentary subcategory of actual exercise. However, while unadorned, boring exercise is far more entertaining than golf, celebrity baiting is a lot more fun than just watching.

Given that, it's time to talk about Jimmy Kimmel and Sarah Silverman. Jimmy Kimmel is a relatively well know comedian and writier and has his own talk show: Jimmy Kimmel Live. Sarah Silverman is an absurdist comedian who has been mining the annoyance vein for a long time-- a toned down Fran Drescher with a brain. She has her own show: The Sarah Silverman Program. Jimmy Kimmel and Sarah Silverman have/had (it's not clear and you'll see why in a moment) been going out for some time.

For a long time Jimmy Kimmel has been doing a bit of celebrity baiting of Matt Damon, long time friend of Ben Affleck. If you're that guy who lives under a tree stump in Idaho who hasn't heard of these two, check the links. Kimmel's baiting of Matt Damon has been in the form of signing off his show apologising to Damon that they had run out of time and weren't going to be bringing him on. Damon was never scheduled. Kimmel even brought his cohort, Guillermo Rodriguez, the parking lot security guard for his show to tug Damon's chain. The video for that is here. Finally, Damon was invited to the show only to be blown off as soon as he sat down. See here. Damon was apparently upset but with celebrities one can never tell.

Then, on January 31, 2008, Silverman appeared on Kimmel's show and showed a breakup video. That video is here. I won't say anything about it except it is very funny. Whether or not it represents an actual breakup is, as always with these things, unclear.

On February 24, 2008, Kimmel showed his revenge clip response to Silverman's video. That video is here.

Celebrity baiting is at its purest and most rarified form when the celebrities bait each other. As Lacombe said in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, they are events sociological.

What's incredibly fascinating to me is I was first turned on to this by the science blog, Gene Expression. Go figure.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Links of Interest

I should probably write something dramatic and inspired. Frankly, I'm too tired.

Just some bizarre links.

Links of Interest
American Scientist: Safer Vehicles for the Planet
Telescope for the Far Side of the Moon
Age of the Eyes
Peru's Lost City
Running on the Moon
Filtration in a Straw
Robots Overtake the Service Industry
Museum of Food Anomalies
Circus of Disemboweled Plush Toys
Other Hanttula Exhibits
Delegate Counter

Time for Fun Stuff

Okay. No climate change or rantings on evolution today. Just fun stuff.

NASA's Image of the Day
has some truly breathtaking pictures. Today's is of the Rho Ophiuchi dark cloud from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, the closest star forming are to our sun. It's just really pretty.

There's an encyclopedia for all known species of life. I'm not sure how it's going to manage bacteria and such, since species boundaries may not apply. But the idea of a compendium of all known species is very cool. Of course, it was out of date the moment it was conceived but science is like that. Maybe they'll put up a website. The site is here.

The "Doomsday Vault" has opened its doors. The vault is a repository for keeping the worlds plant food seeds in a viable form. Consider what it might be like to be able to reference apples from the nineteenth century? Wheat from the Rome? Or pecans from last week? This is not just an idea for preserving against catastrophe. It's a viable new food source for the future.

For the first time a snake hunting its prey has been filmed. A timber rattler hunting a snake was caught on film as part of the British Life in Cold Blood series. Rattlesnakes are fast. Notice that in slowmo it's still fast. There's an old story I heard when I was a kid and have no idea if it's true or not. You know in all those old movies how the gunslinger would shoot the head off a rattler to show how good he was. Well, it actually happened but not the way one would think. Remember those old pistols were large, heavy and the bullets were slow-- much, much slower than a modern gun. And the bullets, after leaving the barrel, were hot. The rattlesnake sees heat. So there's this fast hot thing flying towards it. Naturally, it struck.

Tetrapod Zoology has an entry about the Big Cats in Britain. It's pretty certain that the early humans in England had more to worry about than those pesky Normans. Snorki the Giant is pretty cool as well.

Finally, a treasure: the artist, Ron Pippin, who makes art that reflects a world that should have been.

Some of you have heard of Steampunk, alternate world science fiction that uses (often) Victorian sensibilities with modern (somewhat) science. A good example is the Phil Foglio's comic, Girl Genius or Jake von Slatt's Steampunk Workshop. Or Doctor Julius T. Roundbottom. Brassgoggles. Game Studio's office suite. There is even Steampunk Magazine. And a blog.

These are all fine and good but Ron Pippin takes us into another world. I first heard of him via Bioephemera. Pippin creates works of art, ephemera, notebooks, skeletons, animals from this other world and presents them as if part of a traveling exhibit. I'm not going to talk about him. Here are the links:

Interactive work at the Obsolete. Other pictures from the Obsolete.
Relic notebooks from expeditions that never were.
A collection of museum boxes.
Works of his at the Trovelaguna.
More Pippin work at Bioephemera.

I have a big investment in the honesty of art and the fine line between illusion and reality. Here we have representative art of things that never were reflecting an popular idiom of things that couldn't be.

This is the part where my brain explodes.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Back from the Grave. Again.

As the two people who read this blog, "believing in evolution" to me is the same thing as "believing in electric light bulbs". The only difference is that no one has staked their religious teachings on light bulbs having been around for six thousand years. I've even proposed a religious point of view that can allow someone to completely believe in young earth creationism and evolution-- see Back to the Dark Ages.

I feel about such arguments as did Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:11, "When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things."

But childish things are happening in Texas. Unfortunately, neither of my two readers are Texans. Florida has approved (sort of by accident) a fairly evolution heavy curriculum recently. But many in Texas won't be swayed by the Floridians turncoat behavior and are rallying forces to reintroduce (Not So) Intelligent Design back into the schools. Heinlein said once of the Irish that they were the only truly logical people on earth; facts did not sway them from a higher truth. Now, the same can be said of Texans.

Back in November, Chris Comer, the Texas Director for Science curriculum, was sacked for forwarding a email announcing a lecture on Intelligent Design being the Trojan horse to introduce Creationism into the schools. Anybody who followed the Dover trial can say that has been safely proven. Of course, that didn't stop Lizzette Reynolds from saying she should be fired since sending out this sort of email was inappropriate to her job.

Don McLeroy, the new Chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, believes similarly. Ever articulate, here is a transcript of one of his speeches supporting Intelligent Design.

What happens in Texas affects everybody. Florida, Texas and California are the largest markets for textbooks. Publishers of textbooks know this and gear their product to penetrate all three markets. If Texas drives a wedge into biology texts it's fairly probable that same wedge will show up in the other three markets and, eventually, in Kansas and Massachusetts.

As I said, we need to put these childish arguments behind us. Religion doesn't need science. Science sure doesn't need religion. But there are a lot of children that need textbooks and they ought to get the right ones.

It's possible the Texas State Board of Education will prevent that.

Links of Interest
Seabirds and Dinosaurs in New Zealand
West Antarctic Glaciers on the Move

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Do You Trust Them?

Every now and then something really scary comes across my desk. I don't mean the normal things: global warming, impending starvation for much of the world, the end of species I care about. I mean 1984-like politically scary things.

A free society is going to take a few hits-- I've said this before. But I'm beginning to think a free society is its own worst enemy. One example from a few years ago is Jose Padilla. Padilla is an American citizen and (now) a convicted terrorist conspirator. His case wound through the courts and he was convicted. The system worked.

Or did it? Padilla was arrested in 2002 as an enemy combatant even though he was an American citizen and arrested on American soil. This was the position of the Bush administration until 2006 when he finally went to trial. That's four years he was held without counsel, without habeas corpus, in violation of the US Constitution. Okay, people might say. But he was guilty.

Yes. But we must remember why the constitutional safeguards were created in the first place. It was because the Founding Fathers had first hand experience of the oppression of their own government. The Founding Fathers were not American citizens. They became American citizens.

A more recent example of oppression in the name of liberty is the 2004 story of Robert Farrell and Steven Kurtz, as told in the October Aetiology. Robert Farrell was working with some harmless bacteria-- bacteria considered so innocuous that they are commonly cultured in high school biology courses. Farrell sent some bacterial samples to Steven Kurtz, a fellow science and artist, who used them in an art exhibit regarding genetically modified foods.

Kurtz' wife, Hope, died of heart failure. Kurtz unsurprisingly called 911. The police came to the house and saw all of these petri dishes lying around and were understandably a little suspicious-- that's what police are paid for, after all. The FBI retained Kurtz on the way to the funeral home the next day. Up to this point, it seems fairly normal-- no weirder than how Boston reacted to the LED displays of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force a while back. Boston authorities went on high alert, got a little ticked at the advertising agency that both placed the LED displays in sensitive areas and failed to inform the police, but then pretty much let it go. I think News Corp was fined.

Kurtz, on the other hand, was held for 22 hours. No Miranda was read to him. No counsel. People stomped through his house in hazmat suits. A plague was brought down upon his house. (Pun intended.) The details are all in the Aetiology article and its follow up, as well as here. There is also a movie that has been made.

Perhaps even this was perhaps understandable. But it has now been three years going on four. Farrell gave up after three strokes and two battles with cancer-- a fine, suspended sentence and turning evidence on Kurtz. Kurtz is still-- still-- being prosecuted. Heck, if they want to see where disease threats are going to be, check here. Or maybe they should be using scientists to help as is the case here.

Anybody that has been following the shenanigans of the Bush administration has seen harassment of scientists right up there with Cheney being a government in his own mind. But the cases above are things we normally expect in police states.

This is what the constitution is all about, to protect ourselves from the government we elected.

Links of Interest
Religion vs IQ
Self Healing Rubber
The Anthrocene Extinctions
Ancestral Human Skull Found in China

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Todays blog comes from Skeptic Magazine and its most visible representative, Michael Shermer.

Both Skeptic and Shermer attempt to fact check ideas. The ideas come from people ranging from the ignorant to the fraudulent but everyone is fair game.

Being always interested in culture and biological evolution, I found Shermer's essay, The Evolution Wars, interesting. Though at first glance it appears to be a review of three books on science and science history, it rapidly becomes a discussion on the role of science and scientists within science.

TEW starts out discussing the debate on sociobiology-- human social and personal action in the light of biological imperatives. This really starts with E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology and involves the essentially political reaction Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. The problem centered on whether human activities were predetermined genetic operations or if there were extragenetic factors. That sounds like something very innocuous and simple. But for "predetermined genetic operations" you can also substitute eugenics and Social Darwinism. For "extragenetic factors" you can substitute the fight against injustice and altruism. Big, big stuff. My own personal understanding leans towards free will. I can't see a difference between something being foreordained by genetics or God other than scale.

The end conclusion of the review, derived from Jeffrey McKee’s The Riddled Chain, is something called "autocatalysis". That is, the effects of evolution on the organism is itself fodder for evolution. In humans, this shows up (among other places) in sexual selection. The reason some mates are better than others might not be just for reproductive purposes. People choose mates on how close they adhere to the latest body fashion-- thin vs. zoftig, for example. Because they like the conversation or their sense of humor. None of these necessarily result in more children. Strict adaptationists, such as Dawkins, hate this sort of reasoning. If it doesn't result in reproductive success, what good is it? However, when it comes to human survival and dispersal, basic reproduction isn't the name of the game. Societal cooperation is. And, as we've discovered, societal cooperation is all about extragenetic factors. For example, who would have expected that Henry Ford would have been responsible for an uptick in population growth in the USA? He created a mass produced vehicle with a back seat. Didn't benefit him but benefited lots of other people and created a niche for many other people just like him. Any biological model of human behavior somehow has to account for human activities that benefit the reproductive success of other humans.

Of course, the Skeptic article initially frames the debate in terms of Creationism-- skepticism that's the reason it exists, after all. However, it veers quickly into how scientists frame their own debate and how the political debate can be used to create a scientific debate.

Which brings me to the next article, Is God All in the Mind? This is a review of Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili's Why God Won't Go Away, an extremely interesting book that details the neurophysiological responses observed when religious experiences are experienced. Shermer suggests that the experience, as well as the presumption of the reality of the experience, as delusional. I think this misses the point of the book. The history of human evolution continually shows us subverting the original use of a mechanism for new uses-- evolution does this in general. We developed a whole cortex beyond our ape brethren. Subverting a small piece of it for religious experience doesn't seem too difficult to believe. If the cortex can be believed to be a selective advantage then so can the underlying neural process that create this "delusion". Dismissing it as a delusion trivializes it. A delusion becomes a psychopathology and is therefore a disease. Viewing it as something that was selected for gives it a whole different perspective.

Of course, the same mechanism that might be advantageous in one circumstance might be disadvantageous in some other context. One area where this shows up is in catastrophe deniers. Two leap to mind: 9/11 deniers and Holocaust deniers. Shermer has dealt with both.

Catastrophe deniers have the same approach to the problem as evolution deniers: take the reporting of the event and poke holes in it (sometimes faking holes in it) thereby "proving" that their alternative is the only reasonable choice. This is wrong for (at least) two levels: the holes are often incorrect and the presented alternative isn't the only option.

Shermer takes apart the 9/11 conspiracy model beautifully here. Shermer is now on a book tour for an unrelated book but that didn't stop the "truthers" from pursuing him. You can see that here.

Shermer also took on the Holocaust deniers. He, in fact, wrote a whole book on it, Denying History, of which you can find an excerpt here. and additional information here. I've not read the entire book but I did read the excerpts and I found myself disappointed. The Holocaust is narrowly defined to be the extermination approximately six million Jews by the Nazis-- as horrible a thing as has happened in human history. However, there were an additional approximately five million other groups also murdered. From his excerpt and the endorsements, I gather that Shermer did not address the additional crimes.

This bothers me. Holocaust deniers deny more than just the murder of Jews-- though they rarely realize it. To narrowly dismiss the deniers of the Holocaust as opposed to the denial of all the murders is a denial in and of itself.

Of course, I should read the book completely. It may be much more complete than the excerpts and endorsements suggest. Still, the two pages are on Shermer's website. It seems incumbent on him to be thorough.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Tuesday After

Went to Boskone last weekend. One of the nice things about science fiction conventions is not only do science fiction writers get a bit of a stroke, there is usually a lot of science on panels. The only thing I regret was finding out today that the AAAS had an open public day I didn't know about. So it goes. "My ancestors spent 3.8 billion years evolvingout of the primordial ooze and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."

But despite the dystopian nature of a lot of SF novels and stories (mine included) there's always this unrelenting optimism and excitement. A "Gee, isn't this neat" feeling. It also reinforces my understanding of the SF writer's mind as the only profession where all that stuff in the mental attic actually comes into use. After all, what other sort of person would bring together Digital Rights Management and interstellar colonization?

So: I came back in today and find the following articles come across my desk.

While we would like to think that Mars (or, actually, anywhere other than Earth) might have once harbored life it's not as likely as it once was. A recent report report from NASA suggests the ancient Martian seas were likely too salty. Martians invaded Grovers Mills back in the thirties for the fresh water. Unfortunately, they picked New Jersey.

From the AAAS, Nobel Intent gives us the JPL take on the Golden Age of Robots. Which is now, if you're in space. We're not going to be seeing Robby running down the street anytime soon but if you're going to Saturn, Robby's your man.

Robots are always defined in societal consciousness in contrast to humans. In this, they are a sort of German Cabinet of Miracles, exposing our own entrails by either lacking or mimicking them. Enter a real such cabinet in this article. These were models, drawings, etc., of anatomy. Imagine a reclining Venus, Botticelli-like, not only nude but with her entrails spread for your examination.

Statistical mechanics are being used to understand the brain. Another AAAS paper, brought to us by Nobel Intent, suggests the same mathematical approach that has been so successful in understanding Quantum Mechanics can also be used to shed light on brain activity. This is interesting since Penrose suggested a Bose-Einstein condensate could be a model for consciousness.

Nature has an article telling scientists they should lobby now for science advisers to the President, whoever that might be. It would be very interesting to find out who each candidate would pick.

Links of Interest
The Political Life of Animals
The Music of our Sphere
Math, Science and the Gender Gap
Chimps smarter than a 5th grader?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Scattered World

I have no overarching theme today. A bunch of interesting things came across my desk that are incoherent and chaotic. Not that my mind doesn't try. (Links are all below.)

Given its an election year, let's lead off with a lovely article on tactile illusions. Vincent Hayward has written an interesting article showing different sorts of these phenomena. What else are you going to do in a hardware store?

Some new bat fossils have been discovered that shed a bit of light on their evolution. Bats make up a fifth of all mammalian species. They are characterized by two fundamental features: All bats echolocate and all bats fly. Which came first? The evidence suggests flight came first. This seems likely to me if we also look at birds. Archeopteryx has teeth and fingers, neither feature being shared by modern birds. It makes sense that one single salient feature (flight) might have knock on repercussions.

There's a new carnivorous dino on the the block, a Carcharodontosaurids which is a group contemporary with they Tyrannosaurids that I find unpronounceable. My son, Ben, has a tooth.

Continuing on the theme of evolution, some genetic and fossil studies have shed light on the evolution of metazoans, organisms that are more than one cell. Sponges, kelp and human beings are all metazoans. The organism being sequenced is a
choanoflagellate , a creature that shares characteristics with several different groups. The results are mixed.

Several articles on chimp thought and chimp behavior have surfaced. One study suggests that diet is a key difference between chimps and humans. Another pair of studies show that chimps use stone tools and have used stone tools for thousands of years. They don't do flint knapping but I wonder if they could be taught.

Climate change means more drought in the Western United States. There's a significant chance that Lake Mead will dry up in the near future (a decade or so) and a much greater chance it will dry up within fifty years as the Colorado reduces flow. Though we promised Mexico would get some of the Colorado water, it doesn't and likely won't in the future.

Orgasms are coming under scientific scrutiny as scientists try to titillate the brain. One doctor discovered an implanted electrical treatment can induce sexual pleasure. The discovery was an accident when, following administering the voltage, the female patient declared she wanted her husband to learn how to do that. The device has been patented and is now being marketed as the "Orgasmatron".

One study has declared that one million Iraqis have died under occupation. Iraq has a population of 27-- eh, 26 million.

Links of Interest
Things to do in a Hardware Store
Bat Evolution. And here.
New dino in Africa
Metazoan Origins
Diet Differences between Chimps and Humans
Chimp Stone Age Tools. And Here.
No more Lake Mead
The Science of Orgasm
The Orgasmatron
1,000,000 Iraqi dead. And here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Questionable Power of Language

I don't normally talk about writing. I think about it all the time. It's always on the back burner and pops up to the foreground probably more often than any employer would like. But I feel that talking about it is not doing it. I'd rather do it.

But a phrase came out of a recent workshop that stuck with me. In a critique of a story, one of the members said, "The story is the language [of the story]."

I think this is fiction writing's equivalent to Marshall McLuhan's, "The medium is the message." Which, I think, is an updated representation of Antonin Artaud's "Theater of Images".

Certainly, prose is the road on which a story rides. It is the enabling technology by which a story is represented to the reader. The prose must be strong enough to carry what the author wants to communicate to the reader: theme, characters, morality, whatever. But to make the prose the sole representation of that information puts more weight on language than it can bear.

Language is a coded medium. That is to say, unlike pictures or recordings, language does not directly convey imagery to the recipient; languages symbolizes it. Not to say that pictures and film and music and other things don't carry symbolic information. Of course, they do. But a picture is not a word and can never be a word. Therefore, language must cause the reader (or hearer) to create the image for themselves. Prose is the code but, like all good codes, the recipient must carry enough information to decode it.

For my own part, I can admire beautiful prose but often I also find it annoying. When I read a work of fiction, I'm interested in the characters, the plot, the narrative-- all those intangible things I must create from the coded medium of a story. One of the reasons protestant churches are often so plain is to not present a distraction from the goal: to become one with God. Similarly, admiring the fresco of the prose shouldn't interfere with my engagement with the divine within. To put it a different way: I love the sound and texture of Yoyo Ma's cello playing but where would he be without Bach?

Prose is also part fashion. We're in a nihilistic, post-modern period now. We don't read much. Many writers are not being read outside of academia: William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway , Zora Neale Hearst, and my favorite, John Dos Passos. Especially, John Dos Passos. Much of the material of Faulkner and Hemingway is at least still in print-- though without college courses and the resultant post-college culture, I think they would fade. Black Studies, thankfully, keeps Hearst's material alive. It's discouraging to consider list of works Dos Passos wrote and what's now available.

But what does keep them alive in the culture is not their fantastic prose but the stories that fantastic prose conveyed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Safe Liberty

On 9/11 I left work after the second tower fell. I drove out to Northborough to the kindergarten where my son was, picked him up and took him home.

The next day I went back to work. Not much work was done, of course, but there was much conversation. One statement from my friend Steve went something like this: "If I have to give up my rights for the security of me and my family, so be it."

Steve was-- is, actually, just six years later-- a young man. He had a good job, a wonderful wife and a new baby in the house. I didn't fault him then and I don't fault him now for what he said. When I heard him I realized I was hearing the same conflict that has riven America since it was founded.

From the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Note the order here: Life, the security Steven was talking about, Liberty, our freedoms, and the distant third, the pursuit of happiness.

At the time, Jefferson was thinking about being jailed, tortured and hanged by the British so he was concerned about the oppression from another nation-state. But he wasn't thinking this was a safe bet. Liberty isn't something you can pursue so safely. Liberty is dangerous.

Recently, a murder plot was uncovered to kill Kurt Westergaard, one of the cartoonists of the Mohammad cartoons that were so well received by the Muslim world a while back. The Danish newspapers responded to the arrests of the conspirators by reprinting the cartoons. Exercising liberty is dangerous.

Liberty, like forgiveness, isn't something intended for convenience. It doesn't just apply to the guys I like with the opinions I support. To support freedom doesn't mean succumbing to terrorism. But if it has value it will have cost. The wages of a free society means we take it on the chin sometimes. This is not good or to be welcomed. It is merely inevitable.

"Conservatism" should mean to conserve our principles. It's should not be a code word for security via tyranny, liberty for the wealthy and powerful and preservation of only those ideals with which we agree.

When 9/11 happened, George Bush said we should continue to live as Americans otherwise the terrorists would win. I agree. But I don't think living as Americans consists of making sure we keep shopping.

We will get hit again. By creating the training ground that is Iraq, Bush has made that a certainty. That the only solution he's been able to provide involves the cost of our liberty shows the paucity of his imagination and the imagination of his supporters. But even if we didn't have Iraq, Timothy McVeigh showed that it could happen here.

I'm not surprised. After all, that's what "mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor" is all about.

Links of Interest
Toothpick Art
Compressed Air Car: Here, Here, Here.
Science Debate 2008
Why journalism fails.
Evolution vs Economics
Creation vs Evolution
PBS: The Question of God
Darwin Overview
Dinos Done In By Disease
Trunks Terminated By TB
Heat Harms Hadrosaurs
Lummoxes Lethalized by Lots of Lethalizers
Preposterous Posts by Popkes... Naah.

Back to the Dark Ages

I've been pretty silent on Creationism lately. I figured I'd pretty much heard both sides, commented on what I saw and left it there. Being an atheist, a Deity is not congruent with moral decision and Sunday becomes the second day of the weekend.

Until I discovered the Answers Research Journal, as nasty an anti-science rag that was ever spawned from human consciousness. It is a very pleasant, misleading and extremely hypocritical journal that purports to put up scientific, peer-reviewed journals in support of creationism.

Now, I don't particularly have a problem with fundamentalists per se. As I've said in previous posts, once you posit an all powerful God, there's no proof that we all didn't suddenly appear de novo about thirty seconds ago, universe and memories intact. Nor is there any proof we could not have just appeared, equally de novo, six thousand years ago, fossils and all. Through metaphysics and religion, all things are possible. I don't believe it but so what? Faith, or lack of it, has nothing to do with intellect.

But one must be consistent. If such a thing had happened, then the world was created as it is. Not how Creationists want the world to be. That means it was created with all of those nasty evolutionary relationships functioning and intact. That means that the DNA homology between humans and chimps was there at the beginning. The phylogenetic evidence of vertebrate history would be there as well. (Hey! Guess what! All mammals share the same bone structure. Surprise! Look! Most of the mammalian bones are homologs of reptiles! Wow!) In short, all of the evidence that scientists use to support evolution would be there on the morning of the seventh day-- or at least after the expulsion from Eden. I'm not willing to speculate on the DNA make up of animals before the introduction of sin into the world. But afterwards, they had the same DNA relationships they do now.

Enter the Creationist Lobby.

Not content to look at the world as it is, they try to make the world into what they think it should be. They try to blind themselves (and anyone else they can snag) to the evolutionary relationships right in front of their eyes.

I was at the Saint Louis Zoo a few years ago and they had a chimp with a rare disease. The disease caused all of the hair of the chimp to fall out. I came up on the exhibit so that the chimp was leaning forward, her head out of sight as she looked at the ground at something. All I could see was her back, shoulders and arms. The first thought I had was: what's a naked person doing in that cage? You could not tell that chimp was not human from that perspective. The kinship between us was undeniable.

Now, if you were a truly religious, thinking person, you could say something like, God has built us all according to His plan. Our kinship is obvious since we all have been built by the same Creator. When He created the world, according to His plan, it was one thing and it is incumbent on us to understand that Creation in order to understand His thoughts. We must look at the world as it is. Not as we, fallible children of Adam, would wish it to be.

But someone who was unscrupulously manipulating the gullible might instead say, there is no relationship between us and anything else. We were made last and singular. That the same physical forces that drive generators and light bulbs say the stars are many thousands of light years away is an evil lie perpetuated by evil scientists. That the same biological understanding that enables us to save premature babies and develop life saving drugs demonstrates evolutionary relationships is a story by God hating humanists bent on leading us from the true path.

This is not just fundamentalism. This is propaganda. This is the same mental bait and switch so beautifully characterized in 1984. Don't try to fight truth head on. Instead, change the frame of the debate. The Creationist Lobby as Big Brother.

I have no idea what the goals are of the Creationist Lobby-- except, possible indoctrination of the young, satisfaction of a constituency and the pursuit of power and wealth. As we know from Jimmy Swaggert, Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson, none of these people ever lost money doing this sort of thing.

What the Creationist Lobby is doing, and what I find so offensive, is trying to impress their own narrow definition of God onto the natural world. If God is infinite and nature is the expression of Him, then understanding the natural world on its terms is one of the highest forms of religious pursuit. Attempting to impress some tiny God onto nature is a level of arrogance I cannot stomach. People doing so show themselves to be insignificant in their thinking and trivial in their faith.

Pity so many people believe them.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Exciting Days

These days the data on the natural world is getting pretty overwhelming. Recently, a missing link for crocodiles has been discovered, linking modern crocodiles to their ancestors. A new monkey species has been discovered.

There's even been an interesting synthesis between geology and biology recently, cross checking against one another. Geologists have inferred for a while that the oceans of ancient earth, some 3.5 billion years ago were hot ocean; an ocean around 60 degrees C. We're talking in excess of 120 degrees F-- hotter than your hot tub unless your hot tub is a Yellowstone hot pool. But, like a lot of scientific speculation, there's been some discussion of the matter.

Now, living systems have a protein (EF-Tu), essential for life, that is finely tuned to species temperature. Mammals are tuned to body temperature. Reptiles would be tuned lower. Temperate plant species tuned lower still. (One wonders if EF-Tu can be tuned dynamically so a tree can optimize replication throughout the spring-fall temperature range. But I digress.)

Scientists have reconstructed ancient bacterial EF-Tu (techniques in the link) and, surprise, it has an optimal temperature of 60 degrees C.

The same sort of analysis gives some more unhappy results as well. Analysis of biofuels suggest that they are anything but green. Think about it. If you take a forest, which is sequestering carbon, and cut it down to create a field to grow sugar cane, you lose the carbon sequestration ability of the forest. It takes time to make that up. Curiously, corn-- a biofuel of a particularly pale shade of green-- fares better than, say, palm oil. Corn has a huge carbon debt engendered when it is grown, harvested, etc. But at least a forest isn't being cut down to grow it.

Further analysis of the world shows us what goes on if we reach the infamous 6 degrees C-- last seen in the
Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 55 million years ago. This has been dramatized by National Geographic in a television show. Here's its website. 6C isn't going to be fun.

As Tank said in the Matrix: "These are very exciting times."


Friday, February 1, 2008

Links of Interest

Links of Interest
TED Talks
Tierney Thys swims with sunfish
Janine Benyus - Sustainable Design Ideas from Nature
Susan Savage-Rumbaug - Apes that write, start fires and play Pac-Man
Jane Goodall - Chimps vs Humans

Sour Symbolism

We live in an era of symbolism. We swim in this sea so much that when something comes around in the real world we only know how to respond to it with symbols.

The European MPs have backed a ban on patio heaters. You know these things: a pole with a propane burner on top that radiates heat back down on you. The report suggests these patio heaters are putting as much CO2 out as a car over a year. I expect that's true if you ran it every day for a year. But I suspect these units were not in use during the heat waves in previous years. Or in Greece-- except maybe during that bizarre snowstorm. But people use their cars every day. IPatio heaters are and easy symbolic target. Who in the East End has a patio? Who in Italy needs to heat one?

Speaking of symbolic gestures, The Beatles "Across the Universe" is going to be beamed directly into space (and here) on February 4. This is to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the recording of that song and the 50th anniversary of the launching of Explorer I. Michael Griffin better get the cut of the alien royalties in writing. Apple has a history of stinginess. Here, boys, do this in lieu of something useful.

Nowhere is symbolism more rampant than sex and here are Gizmodo's 10 Most Blatantly Sexist Gadgets Ever Made. My favorite is the USB Pole Dancer. That's something I want on my desk.

Some symbols take over. Hello Kitty seems to have conquered the world. Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine talks about this at a recent TED conference. I mean, would you trust a God who has to show his face in a cheese sandwich?

We can even pull meaning and aesthetic satisfaction out of random noise-- or at least what is to us, random noise. Witness the pictures derived from JP Thivierge and the art from a petri dish of rat brain here in this article on neural networks.

Of course, none of these compare to the brandishing of symbols by political candidates. McCain bludgeons Romney with the Reagan stick. Romney pounds on McCain with the business club. Edwards couldn't make the populism symbols stick since he was caught between the Hammer of Historical Woman and the Anvil of Historical Black and they use their symbols to bludgeon each other. One wonders if in the political locker rooms if they compare symbol size.

Wait for the general election when things get really interesting. My friend Mark thinks McCain will twig to the ultimate symbolic soundbite: "First Obama, then Osama." You heard it here first.

Remember, reality's just a whisper away.

Links of Interest
Real water problems because of climate change.
A real new species of elephant shrew.
Old age memory decline might really be reversible.
Stem cells my really repair eye damage.
Lips evolved. Really. Here are some ideas on that.
Companies don't really have to be evil.
Double dipping chips really carry bacteria.
Vaccines really don't cause autism.