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March 28, 2004

The Panda's Thumb added to blogroll

Thanks to Pete's Organic Linkfarm, I have found The Panda's Thumb, a blog that serves as a line of defence against the anti-scientific nonsense spouted by creationists. It reminds me of the classic Australian No Answers in Genesis site but being a blog it's updated much more frequently. Added to the blogroll in the new "science" category.

May 4, 2004

Lies about famous scientists

Via The Panda's Thumb: Behavior scientist and author BF Skinner's daughter writes a rebuke and correction to the much-repeated canard that her father used her as a test subject.

His careless descriptions of the aircrib might have contributed to the public's common misconception as well. He was too much the scientist and too little the self-publicist - especially hazardous when you are already a controversial figure. He used the word "apparatus" to describe the aircrib, the same word he used to refer to his experimental "Skinner" boxes for rats and pigeons.

The effect on me? Who knows? I was a remarkably healthy child, and after the first few months of life only cried when injured or inoculated. I didn't have a cold until I was six. I've enjoyed good health since then, too, though that may be my genes. Frankly, I'm surprised the contraption never took off. A few aircribs were built during the late 50s and 60s, and somebody also produced plans for DIY versions, but the traditional cot was always going to be a smaller and cheaper option. My sister used one for her two daughters, as did hundreds of other couples, mostly with some connection to psychology.

My father's opponents must have been gratified to hear - and maybe keen to pass on - the tales about his child-rearing contraption and crazy daughter. Friends who heard an abridged chapter of Slater's book on Radio 4, or read the reviews, have been phoning to ask if I had really sued my father or had a psychotic episode. I wonder how many friends or colleagues have been afraid to ask, and how many now think about me in a different light.

In his Observer review, Tim Adams at least suspected something was amiss with Slater's research. He realised she could have contacted me to confirm or verify what she suspected, but plainly hadn't. His conclusion? I had gone into hiding. Well, here I am, telling it like it is. I'm not crazy or dead, but I'm very angry.

Misrepresentations of science and scientists, including the 'mad scientist' meme, are harmful to our understanding of what scientists actually do, and to our understanding of the world. I'm glad Deborah Skinner Buzan has chosen to strike back.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), I have recently added snopes.com, which also debunked this story, to my blogroll.

June 24, 2004

Color-blindness filter!

Via Comixpedia:

The Wickline Color Blindness Filter allows you to test how your web page or image looks to a color blind person. Useful, but also entertaining, as these sample ROCR pages will show:
(large images below the fold)

Continue reading "Color-blindness filter!" »

August 12, 2004

Spelin reformz 'n Germinnee

Scott Martens at A Fistful of Euros gives us the lowdown on the controversy in Germany over spelling reforms:


Continue reading "Spelin reformz 'n Germinnee" »

October 8, 2004

They pulled this one with Dawkins too, you know?

A few days ago, Andrew Sullivan gleefully exclaimed:


AN ATHEIST RECANTS: Philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of the influential 1995 book, "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," now says he sees a higher purpose in the universe. Bob Wright breaks the news.

Well, not quite. Timothy Sandefur looks at the evidence for Dennet's "recantation". Read the whole post, but here's his conclusion:

In philosophy as in all other scholarly pursuits, conversation is the least likely to lead to an important statement on a subject. Conversation is not peer reviewed, it’s not very carefully weighed before it’s uttered; people frequently misspeak, or concede points they don’t very clearly understand. Yet Wright is willing to declare on the basis of this statement alone, despite the nine or ten books that Dennett has published, that Dennett believes that evolution has a direction that upholds the concept of a conscious Designer.

This sort of “gotcha” argument is, to say the least, childish. When I was a kid, I would sometimes get in arguments on the playground, and perhaps I would misspeak—I would say the ball belonged to Rob instead of Tom—whereupon Rob’s friends would snatch my error as if it were some sort of subconscious confession of the truth, rather than a simple misstatement or error. What Wright has done here is similar. Hammering Dennett with terms like “design” and so forth, he has extracted from Dennett the most lukewarm of responses (“Yeah, I guess”) and takes the lukewarmness as evidence that Dennett is either scared of being caught or is embarrassed at how wrong his career has been all this time. At the least, Wright’s device here is the sort of exaggeration which makes for children’s playground conversation, not for science.

It's not exactly the first time creationists/ID'ers (for reasons why I can't be arsed to make any fine distinctions between the two, I refer to The Panda's Thumb and Dispatches from the Culture Wars in toto — Short version: closer examination of their statements when they're among themselves reveal their agendas to be identical).

They tried to pull a trick like this with Richard Dawkins way back when. Then, it was a hesitation from Dawkins that was taken as proof that he was stumped by whatever damn fool question they'd asked him, and therefore, that Arrogant Science Had No Answers, and therefore, that the answers the Creationists had must have been correct. In reality, Dawkins paused because it was at that time that he realised his questioners were not the unbiased reporters he was led to believe they were.

Update: Man, the blogosphere is fast. Even as I type the above, I find that Ed Brayton, via Sullivan again (much to the guy's credit), has Dennett's response. Expect much hairsplitting debate to follow, but the bottom line is that Dennett's philosophical positions are as they were in his 10 or so books, not as they were in one spoken response.
Update #2: Doing Things With Words has more.

October 11, 2004

More on Wright vs. Dennett

Evolutionblog has a series of entries forming a single article about the bruhaha over Robert Wright's interview of Daniel Dennett. I'm sorry I can't give a single permalink for the whole article, but here's the conclusion:


Continue reading "More on Wright vs. Dennett" »

October 18, 2004

'shrooms



Note when identifying mushrooms: if the guide book asks: "is the mushroom easy to push in?" the next sentence may very well be: "this mushroom is extremely toxic."


Pictures taken by me. Book: Readers Digest veldgids voor de natuurliefhebber paddestoelen van west- en midden-europa.

October 27, 2004

National Geographic Bait and Switch

Spike:

Yes, it can be observed in the laboratory. Shut up.

Yes, there is fossil evidence. Shut up.

No, no one claims we evolved from present-day apes. Shut up.

And yes, it's just a theory. And so is that whole "the Earth orbits the Sun" thing. Time out to look up the scientific definition of the word "theory," okay? Go on. I'll wait here.

Got it? All done?

Good. Shut up.

The article didn't tell me anything I didn't already know, but I don't think it was written for me. It was written for the 44 percent of Americans who, through force of will, misinformation, or simple ignorance, don't actually understand evolution, or refuse to understand it. It's for the special class. This issue's for that kid who shit in the study hall garbage can. It's for the Young Earth Creationists among us going through their homeschooled kid's textbooks with black Sharpies, crossing out the blasphemy. This one's for the snake-handlers picketing the Harvey Milk school in New York, and the hysterical Baptists rolling around on the cement in front of courthouses while Ten Commandments monuments are jackhammered out of the lobby floor.

What's she referring to?

Continue reading "National Geographic Bait and Switch" »

October 28, 2004

Homo hobbitus

homo floresiennsis Not exactly breaking news at this moment, but something I'd very much like to read more about - in print, say, a full National Geographic special - so I'll blog it for future reference:

Dwarf Human Ancestor Lived on Pacific Island. The fella shown at left, as imagined by Peter Schouten is one of them, a Homo florensiensis. They were only about 1 meter tall with a grapefruit-sized but apparently quite efficient brain. According to this Guardian article, they may have existed even later than the already staggeringly recent 18,000 years ago that the fossils have been dated at. That sounds more than a bit fanciful to me, but you never know.

November 10, 2004

Cuttles!

When I'm not webcomicking or fuzzballing, I study cuttlefish for my Honours project.

This is what my cuttlefish look like. Cuttlefish are relatives of squid and octopus (they're cephalopod molluscs).

This species, Sepia plangon, is about 10cm long and lives around Sydney, but no work has been done on it before now.

What I'm doing at the moment is making an inventory of all the behaviours they display. This includes some fantastic colour/shape and posture changes: they can go from completely black with knobbles all over them and kinked-up arms to nearly white, with black spots like eyes and a black rim around the margin, they can have a kind of black latticework pattern, or show up their pattern of white stripes against a dark background as in the photo.

Then I'll do some more serious experimenting on their reaction to stimuli from prey. Except there's a bit of a hiccup with that right now owing to them being more inclined to run away from the crabs than attack them...

I think they like to be in pairs, otherwise they get lonely and scared and eventually die.

Poor things. But they're very cute. You can watch a little video I made of them catching a fish here.

November 23, 2004

Counter-stickers

Via Peteychap:
Someone at Swarthmore University has created a batch of counter-disclaimer stickers to put in science textbooks.


This book discusses heliocentrism, that the earth orbits around a centrally located sun. Because astronomers still disagree over the details of the heliocentric model, this material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

They forgot to do stickers for gravity, Mendelian genetics and the germ theory of disease, though.

December 4, 2004

Scare story about testing on foster care children debunked

Respectful of Otters discusses a documentary shown recently by the BBC in which it was claimed that "that HIV+ children in foster care were used in horrific drug-testing experiments without the consent of their parents." The story as relayed to her set off all her bullshit detectors:


I read the BBC article a couple of days ago, and it didn't sound right to me. Too much is missing - including anything that could be used to check the veracity of the story, such as the names of the experimental drug compounds or the names of scientists running the trials. Another detail that didn't ring true: the drugs were "supplied by major drug manufacturers including Glaxo SmithKline." Glaxo SmithKline is a major manufacturer of HIV drugs - I have several of their pens - but why the lack of specificity?

The language used in the BBC piece also seemed familiar. A vocal contingent of people oppose HIV medications, and they favor certain turns of phrase. "Human guinea pigs." "Experimental." "Toxic." They focus on side effects and subjective sensations to the exclusion of clinical or lab data. It's hard to pin down exactly, but when you've read enough of their writings you begin to recognize the tone. I heard that tone in the BBC article.

The story also broke my plausibility meter. Severely. I do research with human subjects for a living, and I have an excellent sense of the regulatory tangles and layers of oversight surrounding any research with human beings. For "protected classes" of research subjects, including children and institutionalized people, the rules are even more stringent. What happens when research protections are violated? Banner headlines and regulatory Armageddon....

So I did some poking around, and instantly hit pay dirt. The documentary filmmakers state that:


We asked Dr David Rasnick, visiting scholar at the University of Berkeley, for his opinion on some of the experiments.

He said: "We're talking about serious, serious side-effects. These children are going to be absolutely miserable. They're going to have cramps, diarrhoea and their joints are going to swell up. They're going to roll around the ground and you can't touch them."

He went on to describe some of the drugs - supplied by major drug manufacturers including Glaxo SmithKline - as "lethal".


Dr. David Rasnick is an AIDS denialist. He doesn't believe that HIV causes AIDS. He doesn't believe that AIDS is contagious or sexually transmitted. He doesn't believe in protease inhibitors, the class of drugs which, since 1997, have caused a dramatic decline in AIDS diagnoses and deaths in the developed world. He thinks HIV drugs are the problem, not the solution.

Read the rest if you don't like being bamboozled.

January 12, 2005

Ernst Haeckel mushroom trip

A while ago, Adam suggested to me that I should have done Professor Rásdondr's testimoney in the style of Nineteenth-Century biologist Ernst Haeckel. At that time, I'd already finished the work on that section but in case I ever need a reference for that style again, here's a collection of Haeckel's drawings, mostly of marine invertebrates. Found on the ever-interesting Boing Boing.

Continue reading "Ernst Haeckel mushroom trip" »

February 8, 2005

Evolution and Gilbert and Sullivan

(To the tune of By the Mystic Regulation (here sequenced by Clifton Coles) from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Grand Duke

At the start of life's creation
'Twas the chemical relation
That allowed the duplication
Of the precursors of life
That began this vale of strife
(That began this vale of strife, this vale of strife)


And those that copied faster
For the others caused disaster
For the resources they'd master
And the others would lose out,
Then new mutants start their bout
(Then new mutants, then new mutants start their bout)


Continue reading "Evolution and Gilbert and Sullivan" »

April 25, 2005

Bug Dreams

Via Boing Boing, Bug Dreams has some very good artistic photography of insects. Photographer Rick Lieder makes those bugs look like heroic, rugged individualists.

April 29, 2005

High Powered Corporate Hemichordate!

Reinder showed me a clipart of one of those Dynamic Businessmen on Barry's Clipart Server (www.barrysclipart.com), but I got bored of the people so I had a peek in the animals category instead.

And what did I find there? A clip art of a hemichordate!

What particularly impressed me was that despite the fact a very limited number of people in the world actually know what a hemichordate *is*, the artist had rendered it accurately enough for me to recognise it, even though its proboscis wasn't so phallic as to make me shout "penis worm!" (see image from my invertebrate zoology textbook, below...) They've even drawn the hepatic sacs!

I also like this swimming gastropod (not sure whether it's a nudibranch..) But it's clearly been engaging in kleptoplasty, the practice of nicking useful things out of other organisms' tissues and sticking them in your own. It's full of chlorophyll from the green algae it's been eating. Now it can photosynthesize for itself!

Is this intended as a hint to ambitious businessmen?

May 2, 2005

Technically, you'd only need one

OK, so this is being publicized all over the continuum, but I would like to point out that the pitch for a student-organised time traveler convention at MIT opens with a quote from Modern Tales' own, our very own Dorothy Gambrell (but from her non-MT comic Cat and Girl):


Technically, you would only need one time travel er convention.

And that shows comics' power to set the agenda for thinkers and scientists. Is that cool or what?

May 27, 2005

The Dutch Secretary of Education should read this...

... and then resign in shame.
Creationism: God's gift to the ignorant

Admissions of ignorance and mystification are vital to good science. It is therefore galling, to say the least, when enemies of science turn those constructive admissions around and abuse them for political advantage. Worse, it threatens the enterprise of science itself. This is exactly the effect that creationism or "intelligent design theory" (ID) is having, especially because its propagandists are slick, superficially plausible and, above all, well financed. ID, by the way, is not a new form of creationism. It simply is creationism disguised, for political reasons, under a new name.
The creationists' fondness for "gaps" in the fossil record is a metaphor for their love of gaps in knowledge generally. Gaps, by default, are filled by God. You don't know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don't understand how memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent! Is photosynthesis a bafflingly complex process? Wonderful! Please don't go to work on the problem, just give up, and appeal to God. Dear scientist, don't work on your mysteries. Bring us your mysteries for we can use them. Don't squander precious ignorance by researching it away. Ignorance is God's gift to Kansas.

Maria van der Hoeven, you've been had. At least your stupidity has had the positive result that all the mainstream political factions in parliament except your own party, the Christian Bloody Stupid Democrats, are now looking to remove creationism from the curricula of schools that still teach it to their unlucky, indoctrinated students. Now for the love of God, hand in your notice and let someone who actually wants to promote education take over.

(Via Pete Ashton)

May 30, 2005

Black-tailed Godwit redux

I got a few people asking me what a Godwit was in response to the latest cycling report. Here's a site about them, in Dutch: Grutto.nl. It's got some information about the decline of their population, and a diary from a farmer trying to do the right thing and adapting his mowing schedule and the placement of his animals to the nesting birds.

June 20, 2005

Really, one Ig Nobel is enough...

A few years ago, Groningen-based scientist Pek van Andel won an Ig Nobel prize for his paper Magnetic resonance imaging of male and female genitals during coitus and female sexual arousal. The criteria for the Ig Nobel allow for scientifically sound papers to qualify if the idea is crazy enough, which this was.
Of course, as enlightening as Dr. van Andel's study was (and it did correct some misconceptions about what exactly goes on with the male and female genitals during coitus), focusing on the genitals only will only get you so far. This study could be seen as sort of a follow-up: the researchers have used PET scans to figure out what happens in a woman's brain during orgasm. Turns out bits of it get switched off. This will be a comedy writers' goldmine, I'm sure.

December 3, 2005

Carl "Olduvai George" Buell interviewed

Fun interview with paleontological illustrator Carl Buell aka Olduvai George, in which he discusses Australopitecine boozing, the blending of science, imagination and guesswork in creating illustrations based on incomplete fossil material ( Since you can't rely on photographs, you need more than a passing knowledge of comparative anatomy. And learn to draw feet.), keeping up to date (If the American Museum can change an entire T-rex mount to reflect new, more accurate ideas of posture, I can (and will) change something when new information presents itself. That's how science works. Actually, Ambulocetus is an example of new fossil finds changing images.), Intelligent Design (I grew up with Bible literalists. When I asked questions about things that didn't make sense to me I was told I needed more faith, that I thought too much.) and American politics (I remember a couple of elections back reading the Republican platform for the 1948 Dewey Presidential campaign. Much of it seemed to the left of where the Democrats now are. So I guess I'm mostly a 1948 Republican.).

He also mentions that his job is "a 3rd graders dream job. I'm still amazed that I can draw or paint an animal and occasionally somebody actually sends me a check for it.".

Come to think of it, he is a pretty lucky bastard. I grew up with Zdeñek Burian's paleontological illustrations, and those made me want to be a paleontologist for several years as a kid. I would trade with Buell in an instant. Not that he's quite as good to my eyes as Burian, but he's pretty darned good, judging from the samples in the interview. He lacks Burian's grandeur and painterly touch, but he is more polished and probably more current as he is working with contemporary information.

Olduvai George has a blog to check out, too. (Via Dispatches From the Culture Wars)

September 5, 2006

[Adam Cuerden] If you will kindly read a bit further....

One popular "problem with evolution" that Creationists and Intelligent Design Advocates love to bring up is the problem of the evolution of the eye. For instance,

"To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree."

...Oh, drat. I seem to have accidentally quoted the introduction to DARWIN'S EXPLANATION OF HOW IT COULD EVOLVE instead of a creationist tract. So, let's see what Darwin has to say:

"Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.

In looking for the gradations by which an organ in any species has been perfected, we ought to look exclusively to its lineal ancestors; but this is scarcely ever possible, and we are forced in each case to look to species of the same group, that is to the collateral descendants from the same original parent-form, in order to see what gradations are possible, and for the chance of some gradations having been transmitted from the earlier stages of descent, in an unaltered or little altered condition. Amongst existing Vertebrata, we find but a small amount of gradation in the structure of the eye, and from fossil species we can learn nothing on this head. In this great class we should probably have to descend far beneath the lowest known fossiliferous stratum to discover the earlier stages, by which the eye has been perfected.

In the Articulata we can commence a series with an optic nerve merely coated with pigment, and without any other mechanism; and from this low stage, numerous gradations of structure, branching off in two fundamentally different lines, can be shown to exist, until we reach a moderately high stage of perfection. In certain crustaceans, for instance, there is a double cornea, the inner one divided into facets, within each of which there is a lens shaped swelling. In other crustaceans the transparent cones which are coated by pigment, and which properly act only by excluding lateral pencils of light, are convex at their upper ends and must act by convergence; and at their lower ends there seems to be an imperfect vitreous substance. With these facts, here far too briefly and imperfectly given, which show that there is much graduated diversity in the eyes of living crustaceans, and bearing in mind how small the number of living animals is in proportion to those which have become extinct, I can see no very great difficulty (not more than in the case of many other structures) in believing that natural selection has converted the simple apparatus of an optic nerve merely coated with pigment and invested by transparent membrane, into an optical instrument as perfect as is possessed by any member of the great Articulate class.

He who will go thus far, if he find on finishing this treatise that large bodies of facts, otherwise inexplicable, can be explained by the theory of descent, ought not to hesitate to go further, and to admit that a structure even as perfect as the eye of an eagle might be formed by natural selection, although in this case he does not know any of the transitional grades. His reason ought to conquer his imagination; though I have felt the difficulty far too keenly to be surprised at any degree of hesitation in extending the principle of natural selection to such startling lengths."


-Origin of Species, Chapter 6

Alright, yes, he skims over the explanation. He could have done a better job going through the path from light-detecting spot - light detecting spot in a low pit to allow directionality, pit closes off into sphere, providing pinhole camera focus, development of rudimentary lens, etc. But the explanation is there. And, since they are choosing an example Darwin himself brought up as a seeming difficulty in his theory that isn't, it becomes clear that whoever in Creation Science popularised that difficulty HAD READ DARWIN, and thus KNEW HE HAD AN EXPLANATION FOR IT, but decided they didn't care, and so brought it up.

What makes it all the more infuriating is that even people who should know better say that Darwin was unable to explain it. Take this review of Dawkins' latest book:

Review of Climbing Mount Improbable, by Valerous Geist. "Charles Darwin admitted he was stumped to explain its evolution. However, what Darwin couldn't do, Mr. Dawkins can. Chapter 5 explains, step by step, the evolution eyes. It is a masterpiece. Like much of this book, this chapter was screened by colleagues who had the expertise to insure accuracy, and whose help Mr. Dawkins properly acknowledges."

Darwin was quite able to do it. He didn't, perhaps, do it well, and Dawkins in all likelihood explains it better. But HE DID IT.

Hell, Darwin even deals with how some organs can change function, going through a transitory form in which both functions are done by the same organ, before the new one dominates. Which explains away many of the other Creationist supposed evidences against evolution:

We should be extremely cautious in concluding that an organ could not have been formed by transitional gradations of some kind. Numerous cases could be given amongst the lower animals of the same organ performing at the same time wholly distinct functions; thus the alimentary canal respires, digests, and excretes in the larva of the dragon-fly and in the fish Cobites. In the Hydra, the animal may be turned inside out, and the exterior surface will then digest and the stomach respire. In such cases natural selection might easily specialise, if any advantage were thus gained, a part or organ, which had performed two functions, for one function alone, and thus wholly change its nature by insensible steps. Two distinct organs sometimes perform simultaneously the same function in the same individual; to give one instance, there are fish with gills or branchiae that breathe the air dissolved in the water, at the same time that they breathe free air in their swimbladders, this latter organ having a ductus pneumaticus for its supply, and being divided by highly vascular partitions. In these cases, one of the two organs might with ease be modified and perfected so as to perform all the work by itself, being aided during the process of modification by the other organ; and then this other organ might be modified for some other and quite distinct purpose, or be quite obliterated.

The illustration of the swimbladder in fishes is a good one, because it shows us clearly the highly important fact that an organ originally constructed for one purpose, namely flotation, may be converted into one for a wholly different purpose, namely respiration. The swimbladder has, also, been worked in as an accessory to the auditory organs of certain fish, or, for I do not know which view is now generally held, a part of the auditory apparatus has been worked in as a complement to the swimbladder. All physiologists admit that the swimbladder is homologous, or 'ideally similar,' in position and structure with the lungs of the higher vertebrate animals: hence there seems to me to be no great difficulty in believing that natural selection has actually converted a swimbladder into a lung, or organ used exclusively for respiration.

I can, indeed, hardly doubt that all vertebrate animals having true lungs have descended by ordinary generation from an ancient prototype, of which we know nothing, furnished with a floating apparatus or swimbladder. We can thus, as I infer from Professor Owen's interesting description of these parts, understand the strange fact that every particle of food and drink which we swallow has to pass over the orifice of the trachea, with some risk of falling into the lungs, notwithstanding the beautiful contrivance by which the glottis is closed. In the higher Vertebrata the branchiae have wholly disappeared the slits on the sides of the neck and the loop-like course of the arteries still marking in the embryo their former position. But it is conceivable that the now utterly lost branchiae might have been gradually worked in by natural selection for some quite distinct purpose: in the same manner as, on the view entertained by some naturalists that the branchiae and dorsal scales of Annelids are homologous with the wings and wing-covers of insects, it is probable that organs which at a very ancient period served for respiration have been actually converted into organs of flight.

In considering transitions of organs, it is so important to bear in mind the probability of conversion from one function to another, that I will give one more instance. Pedunculated cirripedes have two minute folds of skin, called by me the ovigerous frena, which serve, through the means of a sticky secretion, to retain the eggs until they are hatched within the sack. These cirripedes have no branchiae, the whole surface of the body and sack, including the small frena, serving for respiration. The Balanidae or sessile cirripedes, on the other hand, have no ovigerous frena, the eggs lying loose at the bottom of the sack, in the well-enclosed shell; but they have large folded branchiae. Now I think no one will dispute that the ovigerous frena in the one family are strictly homologous with the branchiae of the other family; indeed, they graduate into each other. Therefore I do not doubt that little folds of skin, which originally served as ovigerous frena, but which, likewise, very slightly aided the act of respiration, have been gradually converted by natural selection into branchiae, simply through an increase in their size and the obliteration of their adhesive glands. If all pedunculated cirripedes had become extinct, and they have already suffered far more extinction than have sessile cirripedes, who would ever have imagined that the branchiae in this latter family had originally existed as organs for preventing the ova from being washed out of the sack?

But I digress. My point is that using the eye as evidence against evolution, as well as several other "problems" would appear to stem from a downright dishonest use of Darwin's text, taking the very difficulties Darwin explains away, but realising that others would, as Darwin clearly says, find them difficult, decided in their pompous morality that they knew best, that their goals were right, and if they had to be immoral, but would keep others from believing evolution by being so, then they would gladly do it for the supposed greater good.

And that logic makes me sick.

February 19, 2007

22 Panels challenge, Science/Faith flowchart

Peter Venables' 22 panels challenge. Peter has re-worked Wallace Wood's famous 22 pictures that always work in his own style. I'll take this challenge some day, but not now.

Wellington Grey explains how science and faith work in nifty flow charts. His website and journal are also great, except that for some reason he wants to stop people posting cat pictures on the internet, which tells me there's something not quite right about him. He'll be calling for a ban on internet porn next (via Boing Boing).

Wellington Grey's going to hate this: 1700+ pictures of cats found on the internet (via Pete Ashton, who asks "what more do you need? " Er, another 1700 pictures of cats?)

March 26, 2007

Baaah


Meet the parents?

While a large portion of the Western world is worried about the nuclear threat Iran supposedly poses, personally I'm more spooked by a different development. Dr. Esmail Zanjani, an Iranian scientist working in Nevada, has now reached new levels spooky science. A sheep whose organs are half human, making it a 85% sheep 15 % human hybrid.
Really, I don't have to bring up a list of sheep diseases to tell you what kind of a baaaaad idea this is?

Maybe I've been frightened by science-fiction writers, perhaps I've been warned. I don't believe in acceptable risks, not when the stakes are this high.
What is our Christian leader doing looking overseas once again while this threat to the human race is being harbored in America's bosom?

News story here. First read on Boingboing.

May 10, 2007

Beer and morons - Two items worth reading

First: Beer! Crooked Timber's pet contrarian, Daniel Davies, writes In Praise of Budweiser in which he argues that the much-reviled American beer is a perfectly tasty product, not a ripoff of Budvar beer and by any criteria every bit as good as any British Real Ale. He discusses its history, its recipe, the merits of using rice as a brewing grain, and beer as an industrial product. Of all the evidence he mentions, taste is the one that is the most subjective and contentious, but on this issue, he backs up his argument with science:

Budweiser does not taste like piss. Normal urine has a pH of 4.6 to 8.0. Budweiser, like most lagers, has a pH of around 4.0. Therefore, Budweiser is definitely more acidic than piss. It’s also just the ticket if you happen to be drinking beer for breakfast, as the fresh taste of the rice content goes particularly well with most cereals (it is not coincidental that nobody has yet marketed Barley Krispies).

Read the rest.

Second: Morons! P.Z. Myers has something to say about March of the Morons and the familiar underlying argument that stupid people will outbreed smart ones:

The most troubling part of it all is the attempt to root the distinction in biology—it's intrinsic. "They" are lesser beings than "us" because, while their gonads work marvelously well, their brains are inherently less capacious and their children are born with less ability. It's the kind of unwarranted labeling of people that leads to decisions like "three generations of imbeciles are enough"—bigotry built on bad biology to justify suppression by class.

People, they are us.

There are no grounds to argue that there are distinct subpopulations of people with different potentials for intelligence. Genes flow fluidly — if you sneer at the underclass and think your line is superior, I suspect you won't have to go back very many generations to find your stock comes out of that same seething mob. Do you have any Irish, or Jewish, or Italian, or Native American, or Asian, or whatever (literally—it's hard to find any ethnic origin that wasn't despised at some time) in your ancestry? Go back a hundred years or so, and your great- or great-great-grandparents were regarded as apes or subhumans or mentally deficient lackeys suitable only for menial labor.

Are you staring aghast at the latest cluster of immigrants in this country, are you fretting that they're breeding like rabbits? That generation of children will be the people your kids grow up with, go to school with, date, and marry. It may take a while, but eventually, your line will merge with theirs. Presuming you propagate at all, your genes are destined to disperse into that great living pool of humanity. Get used to it.


Again, read the whole thing and might I add that if I'm ever stuck out at sea in a small lifeboat with a Young Earth Creationist Jesus-Zombie type of person and a Social Darwinist, I will conspire with the Jesus Zombie to eat the Social Darwinist first. They're just about the one group of people that get my hackles up more than outright evolution-deniers.

November 21, 2007

I guess it depends on perspective

PZ Myers on the recent breakthrough in stem cell research that allows for the transformation of adult human cells into something approaching the capacities of stem cells:

This discovery is probably going to become a political football in short order, with the far right politicians who have restricted American research into embryonic stem cells claiming vindication. However, let's point out some realities here. Americans did not make this discovery; Japanese researchers did. It required understanding of gene expression in embryonic stem cells, an understanding that was hampered in our country. It's going to require much more confirmation and comparison between the induced pluripotent stem cells and embryonic stem cells as part of the process of making this technique useful — science doesn't take just one result from a few labs and accept it as gospel truth. And we definitely need to figure out better ways of switching the four genes on. Figuring that out will require more research into how organisms switch cells into the ES state in situ — we can't figure that out from these cells with inserted, artificial gene constructs.

Another essential point is that scientists are excited about this work because it opens up avenues for basic research into development and differentiation. These cells are NOT useable for therapies…the immediate, practical applications that the electorate wants from stem cell research. They also cannot be used for reproductive cloning, although that won't trouble most people. These are cells with retroviral infections, potential unknown mutations, and that have genetic modifications that make them prone to collapse into cancers. We are not going to be able to grow new organs and tissues for human beings from a few skin cells using this particular technique. It's going to take more work on embryonic stem cells to figure out how to take any cell from your body, and cleanly and elegantly switch it to a stem cell state that can be molded into any organ you need. What this work says is that yes, we'll be able to do that, it isn't going to be that difficult, and that we ought to be supporting more stem cell research right now so we can work out the details.

Or we can just sit back and let the Japanese and Europeans and Koreans do it for us, which is OK, I suppose. Just keep in mind that ceding the research to others means giving them a head start on the development of all the subsequent breakthroughs, too, and that what we're doing is willingly consigning US research in one of the most promising biomedical research fields ever to an also-ran, secondary status.

Actually, that sounds perfectly fine to me.

December 20, 2007

African fractals in buildings, braids,games and code

Fantastic talk by ethno-mathematician Ron Eglash on fractal mathematics underlying African village architecture, games, and ritual.There's a fascinating bit of computing history in it towards the end as well. Sixteen minutes, but worth the time.

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