Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Friday, March 30, 2007

That does about cover it.

Today after I teach my own class I'm dropping by the class of a colleague to do a little guest lecture on science. This is a regretable necessity as my colleague's students seem to be laboring under the misconception that science is concerned with explaining tiny little idiosyncratic phenomena, rather than large general classes of things. Today I will do my best to disabuse them of this notion using, among other things, a class activity involving two students, two glasses, and one bottle of Drano. Stay tuned for the possible lawsuits.

In honor of today's impending discussion of science, however, I thought I'd just provide y'all with this classic illustration of the difference between scientists and regular people, courtesy of xkcd:



And do you know what the hell of it is? The scientist is gonna have to pull that lever at least a dozen more times just to be sure. Ah, the stupid things we do in the name of learning.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Supermarket Apologetics

An alert reader recently made me aware of a YouTube video that has to be seen to be believed. It's an excerpt from a creationist film on evolution and it explains how the entire complex theory of evolution, a theory that is so well supported by evidence that its falsification is exceedingly unlikely, is in fact thwarted by none other than a canister of Jif.



Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's right: peanut butter disproves evolution. Also: if my penis were a pogostick I could jump over the moon. Both statements are of equal veracity.

And if that punishing assault weren't enough, here we have Kirk Cameron and friend explaining how bananas are not just a delightful snack, they're also the atheist's worst nightmare!



So, as it turns out, peanut butter and bananas aren't just a cure for constipation, they're a challenge to my religious views. Oh no! My worldview is shattered! The truth of god's grace is right there before me at the local Safeway! What ever shall I do?

Eh. Probably just note the simple fact that these claims are utterly looney. Also, there's this guy:



And this guy:



So, all things considered, I think I'm going to sleep pretty well tonight. Hell, come to think of it, if this is the best* the religious fundamentalists can come up with, I'm going to sleep like a baby.



* Sadly, this ISN'T the best they can come up with, it's just distressingly convincing to people who should really know better.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Far and away...

For those who have come in search of a little Drek, have no fear: there is a post waiting for you. It's just over on Marginal Utility. I'm guest posting over there today on the subject of identity theft and markets. If you're into economics, organizations, or economic sociology you should probably read orgtheory.net, but if you've already finished that up my post might be interesting too.

Just be warned: Tom posted a picture of his kids that, to be honest, is almost stunningly cute.* Try not to stare directly at it or you may become trapped and/or feel compelled to say, "Awwwwww!"

You've been warned.



* This reminds me of the last ASA meetings in San Francisco when the Olympics were going on. After a hard day of conference-going my roomies and I were watching the gymnastics events when a commentator, referring to a young, female, Chinese gymnast remarked: "Uh-oh! Looks like someone just broke the cute meter!" Wow. I've never seen pedophilia mixed with imperialism before.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

If he only had a brain...

In the classic film The Wizard of Oz there is a character known as the Scarecrow who wishes heartily that the eponymous Wizard would grant him a brain. It always seemed odd to me that the scarecrow could walk, talk and, indeed, dance while lacking the core of the central nervous system but there you have it. In a world of make believe a man made of straw can move around and be jolly while lacking even the tinient shread of brains.

This came to mind recently when I was reading Uncommon Descent, the blog of Wild Bill Dembski, and came across a rather fascinating set of assertions by Dembski's henchman, DaveScot.* They begin as follows:

A recent disagreement about the critical importance of gut flora to animal health led me to look for research into germ-free animals. GF animals have been available for research for about 50 years and initially they lived very short lives. The decrease in longevity was eventually traced to lack of critical enzymes in their diet. In order to remain GF their food was sterilized at high temperatures (essentially autoclaved) which caused the needed enzymes to break down. Once their dietary requirements were established an unexpected result emerged - GF animals live twice as long as controls receiving the same complete diet but not housed in sterile conditions.


So, in essence, he's claiming that animals raised so as to be entirely lacking in microbes and viruses can be kept alive for considerable periods if they are given a diet containing the proper kinds and amounts of nutrients- nutrients which are sometimes destroyed by the sterilization process. More than that, DaveScot is claiming that they live twice as long! He then continues:

This got me thinking about evolution vs. design. The animals raised germ-free could not have evolved in the natural world without exposure to bacteria but they could have been designed for GF life. The fact that they live twice as long in a GF environment when eating a diet that is nutritionally complete except for being sterile seems to be favorable evidence that animals were created in and for a germ-free world.


So, what he's really trying to argue is, "Evolution says animals evolved alongside bacteria. Biology says we use bacteria to help us digest food but, since germ free animals can live longer than non-germ free animals, evolution and biology must be wrong." Or, to break it down more simply, "Hey! We're really designed for the Garden of Eden! Take that science!" This is an interesting claim, but is, of course, trivially incorrect. Indeed, it passes incorrect and goes straight into entirely foolish. We can, for example, note that DaveScot is factually incorrect about the extention of animal lifespans- the average extension is six months.** The rat, one of the most common laboratory animals in the world, and one for which germ free animals are available, has an average lifespan of 2-5 years, so a six month increase in life is hardly "twice as long." Among larger types of germ free animals, like rabbits, increases would have to be even longer than 6 months to even approach doubling total lifespan.

Leaving that aside, however, we have another basic definitional problem. Many biologists claim that bacteria commonly found in the gut and other locations in the human body are useful for two reasons: they aid digestion and they inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. In the latter case, the inhibition of other microorganisms, if we existed in a world without the possibility of infection we would not need symbiotic bacteria to protect us. So, under those circumstances, it's hardly surprising that the lack of symbiotic bacteria isn't an issue- the useful function they serve is no longer necessary. However, DaveScot overlooks something in this: if we were designed for an environment lacking bacteria we also wouldn't need an immune system. So, in other words, our "design" includes a very sophisticated and metabolically expensive feature that was entirely unnecessary. This is a little like building a helicopter out of solid gold: it becomes too expensive to buy and too heavy to fly. In the former case, the aiding of digestion, DaveScot is also overlooking a fundamental point. While a considerable body of work indicates that intestinal flora are useful in breaking down food, it doesn't usually*** indicate that they are indispensable. Humans can, and do, survive without these helpful assistants but life is considerably easier with them.

Even if they were indispensable, however, the germ free animals DaveScot refers to are being fed a diet tailored with the understanding that there are no germs, helpful or otherwise, in their environment. This diet is constructed to compensate for this lack in order to allow these animals to live as long as possible. Thus, using the success of said animals as an argument that they were "designed for a germ free environment" is a little like using the success of someone limited to intravenous feeding as an argument that humans were designed for an environment without eating. The success of artificial support is not an argument against the necessity of the natural function that support replaces.

And, of course, there's DaveScot's final**** idiocy: the misguided belief that intestinal flora we consider beneficial are beneficial in all circumstances. It is well-known, for example, that a perforated bowel allows beneficial bacteria to leave their assigned places and enter the body cavity. Once there their replication can prove very harmful to the host- even fatal. Similarly, beneficial bacteria are kept in check by an animal's immune system. Failures or deficiencies in immunity can result in unchecked bacterial growth also leading to the harm. Thus, while beneficial bacteria are beneficial, they don't come without their own unique costs.

Ultimately, the issue is that evolution doesn't predict, and biology doesn't argue for, a perfectly beneficial relationship between intestinal flora and an organism. Instead it is one of somewhat tense cooperation, good enough to keep everyone alive most of the time, but not by any means perfect. Yet DaveScot ignores all this, happy to take a set of organisms living in a completely unnatural environment, supported by advanced human science and technology, as evidence that animals are designed to live that way. Thus, much as in the Wizard of Oz, we have yet another strawman dancing brainlessly before us, hoping to entertain us with each ludicrous kick and leap.

Only this time, he's failing miserably.



* Whom Uncyclopedia refers to as "the Darth Maul to Dembski's Palpatine." I think the analogy is rather apt.

** Wostmann BS (1996) Germfree and Gnotobiotic Animal Models. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

*** There are exceptions in other species, such as the ruminant animals, which are quite dependant on microorganisms.

**** Not really. I'm sure he will continue to be an abundant font of foolishness.

As a side note: I'm rather excited that Tom posted earlier this week on intelligent design.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Windows Genuine Bullshit

Despite my not-insignificant computer prowess I, like many others, run the Windows operating system. I know, as many of you have told me before, that Unix is supposed to be better but, frankly, I have better things to do with my time than learn a new OS. I've done that several times before and I just don't want to spend that kind of time.

In any case, I run Windows and, the other day, was alerted that "New updates were ready to be installed." Now, I like to keep my machines well-updated and taken care of, if only to defeat the baffling number of security flaws in the Windows OS, so I checked to see what these updates were intended to do. The answer was so fantastic, I took a screenshot for your viewing pleasure:



For those who are wondering: yes, you absolutely read that correctly. Microsoft is offering me an "update" that will determine if my copy of windows is "genuine" and, if not, will help me obtain a legitimate copy. So, in other words, it's a part of Microsoft's copy protection/authentication program. One can only imagine what would happen if my copy of windows weren't genuine. Would I fall victim to annoying Microsoft-derived in-OS popups? Would it randomly crash my computer* until I obtained a legitimate copy? Would it somehow enter my name onto the sex offender registry?

Now, as it happens, my copies of Windows ARE legit but I still didn't install this bit of spyware. There are, frankly, better things to use CPU cycles for than calming Bill Gates' anxiety about software piracy. That said, however, I really wonder about the utility of this approach. I mean, think about it: what sort of person is going to be caught in this dragnet? The hardcore individual pirates probably check all updates before installing the same way I do- and so will thwart this puppy before it gets loaded. The computer startups that put cracked copies of Windows on the machines they sell** won't be the ones who suffer since only their customers will be subject to this idiocy. Oddly, the only pirates who are caught by this will be the unwitting ones- the people who bought a computer for an unreputable dealer or who don't really understand how this works. In other words: the people that are the smallest part of the piracy problem.

Then again, maybe Microsoft has done us a favor. It's given us a little warning about the next program from the Department of Homeland Security: Genuine Homeland Advantage. In the new GHA! program, a DHS agent will be dispatched to your home, will eat a meal with you, and will then search your entire house. If he discovers that you're involved in some sort of subversive activity he will helpfully escort you to a location where you can receive government-sanctioned help. That's awfully nice of DHS, don't you think?

I just have to wonder: if warrantless searches are too dangerous a power to allow a government to possess, why on Earth are private corporations different?


* More than it does now, I mean.

** Happened to me the last time I bought a machine. My copy of Windows came on a burned CD with a hand-scrawled note on it reading "Windows ME." Since then, I've gone to building my own stuff.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Questions of Scale and the Uncertain Origins of Life

Someone left last month's Wired at the gym, in which a variety of scientists and science journalists took on Big Unanswered Questions. Then there was Gregg Easterbrook, assigned to the question, "Where did life come from?" His review of the classic abiogenesis experiments starts off almost as if he doesn't have an ax to grind:

Famously, in 1952 Harold Urey and Stanley Miller mixed the elements thought to exist in Earth’s primordial atmosphere, exposed them to electricity to simulate lightning, and found that amino acids self-assembled in the researchers’ test tubes. Amino acids are essential to life. [Link in original.]
You might think, hey, that's pretty cool! And pretty neutral so far, even if he doesn't mention that followers-on have managed to synthesize all the protein-forming amino acids in the lab. But pretty soon, Easterbrook is reminding us what those smarty-pants scientists didn't do, as if he were writing a Conservapedia entry with slightly above-average balance:

[Easterbrook, continuing directly:] But the ones in the 1952 experiment did not come to life. Building-block compounds have been shown to result from many natural processes; they even float in huge clouds in space. But no test has given any indication of how they begin to live - or how, in early tentative forms, they could have resisted being frozen or fried by Earth’s harsh prehistoric conditions.
The thing Easterbrook might have noted, in a universe where he wasn't a hack, is that the "natural experiment" on Earth played out on a vastly greater scale. I'm too lazy to look up how much primordial soup Urey, Miller, and other researchers in the area sought to make (*), but let's assume for a realistic figure something on the order of a cubic meter (perhaps a lot less — that's a thousand liters, after all), allowed to stew for a relatively short time — on the order of weeks or years at most. Earth's oceans, meanwhile, have a volume on the order of a billion (10^9) cubic kilometers, or about 10^18 cubic meters. So imagine a quintillion versions of these experiments running simultaneously and interacting with each other. Moreover, nature ran its "experiment" for hundreds of millions of years.

So, while it's technically conjecture to say so, if you can get some building blocks of life to self-assemble in a relatively limited experiment, it doesn't seem like a huge stretch of the imagination to think that scaling up the experiment by 20 or more orders of magnitude would get results that might actually impress an Easterbrook. Easterbrook, instead, chooses to preach to the Intelligent Design (sic) choir (**):

Did God or some other higher being create life? Did it begin on another world, to be transported later to ours? Until such time as a wholly natural origin of life is found, these questions have power. We’re improbable, we’re here, and we have no idea why. Or how.
The question of the nature of our origin is interesting, no doubt, but how does appeal to a designer help answer them? If you're going to push the 'why' question back beyond the ability of essential chemicals to form themselves, why shouldn't the action of the designer be subject to question?

Moreover, if Easterbrook and/or the ID'ers were in some ways correct, one might imagine they might be disappointed to discover that we're The Sims 25 running on a really big computer.

(*) Interested readers may consult the intertubes for additional information.

(**) Unusually abundant in the Wired readership?!

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Well, at least South Dakota isn't the only place people are crazy...

Folks following the news are probably aware of recent developments in South Carolina. For those who don't know, I refer to a new measure that state is poised to adopt in the hopes of reducing abortion rates. What is this measure, you ask? Well, you've really got to read it to believe it:

...a measure requiring women seeking abortions to first review ultrasound images of their fetuses advanced Wednesday in the South Carolina Legislature.

The legislation, supported by Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, passed 91-23 after lawmakers defeated amendments exempting rape or incest. The House must approve the bill again in a routine vote before it goes to the Senate, where its sponsor expects it to pass with those exemptions.


Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's right: just in case the decision to have an abortion wasn't nerve wracking enough, just in case all those huge, publicly displayed propaganda photos of aborted fetuses weren't sufficient, just in case Operation Rescue and their ilk weren't intimidating enough, we now have this new measure further indicating that the state of South Carolina thinks all women are stupid. What's next? A law requiring that a woman seeking an abortion name her fetus and spend twenty minutes telling it stories? When you add in the fact that this measure, so far, doesn't even make exceptions for rape or incest, we have a recipe for utter insanity.

Still, despite the absurdity of this, perhaps we should look at this as a gift in disguise. I mean, hell, based on this logic, what sort of legislation might we try to enact?

-Require that before purchasing an SUV consumers must watch An Inconvenient Truth, and then spend four hours with someone dying of advanced stage pollution-derived cancer.

-Before purchasing a handgun consumers must watch three hours of crime scene photography involving children who accidentally shot themselves with a parent's firearm.

-Before purchasing or consuming veal consumers must spend three days locked in a cage so small they cannot turn around or move appreciably.

-Before purchasing or consuming meat of any kind, consumers must take a tour of a slaughterhouse.


Sounds like some great ideas to me!

Then again, maybe we should just acknowledge that there's a difference between the state ensuring that its citizens are properly informed and engaging in outright emotional blackmail.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Leave me alone.

I'm sick right now. Blogging will be interrupted until such time as (a) my co-bloggers post something* or (b) the vomiting, chills, headache, and stiffness abate sufficiently for me to be upright for more than 5 minutes at a time. On the plus side, I've been able to keep Gatorade down for two whole hours, and watching foreign language music videos is surprisingly entertaining when you're medicated.

And the truly sad thing? Even feeling like death on a triscuit I still write more coherently than most of me students.


* This is not a not-so-subtle hint so much as a statement of fact.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Adopt-a-Page

Many of you may recall a while back when I introduced you to Conservapedia, the "conservative alternative" to Wikipedia that is founded on the basic principle that, if we wish hard enough, we can make it so. Since my first discovery of Conservapedia I've been checking in now and then, watching it grow much as I imagine a proud parent watches his child mature doctor watches a cancerous lesion metastasize.

Indeed, the changes have been remarkable. The tiny little entry on evolution, for example, has blossomed into a wealth of disinformation and religious propaganda, including such howlers as:

A claimed lack of any transitional forms in the fossil record:

Currently, there are over one hundred million identified and catalogued fossils in the world's museums. [6] If macroevolution occured, then there should be "transitional forms" in the fossil record reflecting the intermediate life forms. Another term for these "transitional forms" is "missing links".

...

Evolutionists have had over 140 years to find a transitional fossil and nothing approaching a conclusive transitional form has ever been found - only a handful of highly doubtful examples of transitional fossils exist.*


and

The fossil record=creationism!

Creationists can cite material showing that there is no solid fossil evidence for the macroevolutionary position and that the fossil record supports creationism:


If we check out another entry say, for example, abortion, we find a similarly bizarre/inarticulate/factually incorrect wad of prose. From the initial description of abortion:

Abortion is the induced termination of a pregnancy.[1] The father of medicine, Hippocrates, expressly prohibited abortion in his ethical Oath long before Christianity. Today abortion is a billion-dollar industry[2][3] in the United States and Western Europe except for Ireland, Malta, Poland and Portugal, where it is generally illegal. Here is a discussion of the position of the United States National Cancer Institute on Abortion.


To the "fantastic" section, abortion and breast cancer:

The vast majority of scientific studies have shown that abortion causes an increase in breast cancer, including 16 out of 17 statistically significant studies.[4] Studies showing that abortion increases breast cancer predate the political controversy.[5] It is undisputed that having a baby protects against breast cancer, and thus early termination of pregnancy must increase the risk of cancer for the mother compared to carrying that same pregnancy to birth. Yet the abortion industry conceals this increased risk, just as the tobacco industry concealed its cancer risk for decades.


Indeed, conservapedia is "fun" like no other website I have yet encountered. Its disconnect from reality is so strong that NPR recently interviewed the founder to ask about the quality of Conservapedia entries. The answer, basically, was that since a lot of people believe that something is true we should present it as a viable alternative. Fascinating logic that would, indeed, be capable of resurrecting Elvis from the grave.

So, what to do? Well, what I'd like to suggest is this: The Total Drek Adopt a Conservapedia Entry activity! I'd like my readers to pick a Conservapedia entry of their fancy and begin editing it. I don't want you to propagandize or to insert offensive material but I do want you to try to bring that page in line with reality. Then, report back in every so often on how it's going. Your donation of just twenty minutes once a week can help a conservapedia entry reflect reality, develop proper spelling and grammar, and incorporate legitimate sources. Just send me an e-mail or leave a comment announcing which page you're adopting and I'll compile a list and talk about your findings every so often- say once a month or so.

And just to start things off, I'll adopt one of my own. Say hello to my newly adopted Conservapedia entry: Atheism.

This should be exciting.


* The passage then devolves into the sort of quote-mining typical of creationists. So, to give them their just due, allow me to "quote" their arguments: "Currently, there are over one hundred million identified and catalogued... transitional forms" in the fossil record..." Now wasn't that fun and informative?

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Cardboard Daggers

As many of you probably know already, this past week saw former covert operative Valerie Plame Wilson testify before the House of Representatives. Now, I could say a great deal about all this. I could remark that Ms. Wilson is probably the most attractive witness to appear before the house* in a long time, but that's irrelevant. I could remark on her lack of poise at the beginning of questioning, when she managed to make even simple answers confusing and meandering, but that isn't a big issue- she managed to clean it up by the middle of her testimony. I mean, let's face it- if I had to testify before a house committee while under siege by a sea of reporters, I might be a little skittish to start with too. I could discuss the deplorable command of English demonstrated by our elected representatives. Really, people, don't try so hard to sound smart- you come off sounding like one of my students answering an essay question with bravado and verbiage instead of substance. I could even remark upon the freak in the backrow of the gallery, just over Plame's right shoulder, who was nothing if not forceful in her dislike for President Bush. I think you can see her in the top link on this list. Just watch for the woman in hot pink. Really.

What I want to comment on, however, is the actual nature of the hearing itself. Mostly, I want to remark on just what an absurd waste of time it was. Arguably Wilson has been wronged in all this- whatever the investigation has been able to substantiate, I don't think there's any real doubt that Plame was outted for political reasons. Even if those in the White House "didn't know" that she was covert, as the Republican members of the panel argued, Bush's own rhetoric about the need for special powers to fight terrorism places him in a position of special obligation when it comes to protecting our intelligence assets. As the screenwriters of Spiderman took pleasure in reminding us, "With great power comes great responsibility," and if we're all supposed to merily surrender our rights to privacy and free speech the president cannot then hide behind a shield of, "Aw, shucks, I just didn't know, y'all, nobody told me." But I digress...

No, the thing is, everyone sitting on that committee came there with a purpose. For the Democrats, it was to highlight the wrong done to Ms. Wilson. We had much discussion of how many leaks there were, of how obvious it was that CIA operatives should be protected, and much chatting about the damage that such leaks can do. From the Republicans we had essentially the opposite: questions about what "covert" meant,** debating Ms. Wilson's actual harm from the revelation,**** and even outright questioning about her party affiliation. So, for Democrats, the purpose was to condemn the White House and, for Republicans, the purpose was to discredit Ms. Wilson. The entire hearing reminded me of nothing so much as a stage fight- it looks impressive, but it's really just a choreographed dance between people waving cardboard daggers. No injury, no surprise and no point.

Let me be clear on this: the last six plus years have been characterized by a level of political flim-flam that sickens me. The very concept of fair media has gone right out the window due, in no small part, to Karl Rove and Fox News. So please, for crying out loud, can we Democrats find something more productive to do than grandstand for the media? Talk about the Federal prosecutors, talk about the loss of civil liberties from the Patriot Act, hell, actually do something.

But knock off the political theatre because most of us are not in the mood.


* Let's be honest: not the most aesthetically pleasing group in the world.

** Reminding me of nothing so much as debate over the meaning of the word "sex" during the Clinton administration, with the exception that Monica Lewinsky was not an intelligence*** asset.

*** And I mean that in every sense of the word.

**** Seriously, one of the Republicans asked her if she'd suffered financial harm from being shunted involuntarily out of the covert operations career track. This is a little like forcing a doctor to become a lawyer and then asserting that you didn't harm that individual because they didn't take a pay cut. Maybe not, but you've deprived them of their freedom. Doesn't that exceed money in worth? Not, it would seem, to House Republicans.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

A Feeble Effort.

Some folks around the sociology world, for reasons that are best left unsaid, may be in need of a pick-me-up right about now. I don't have one handy, but maybe this will work in its stead?


Getting a Geek's Attention

It's funny- if you know what the heck it refers to- and it is at least a little distracting.


Thanks to one of my readers for making me aware of this via Alienacean's livejournal.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Turing Test of the Heart.

Someday, I feel confident, we will all replace those stupid little "type the word" verification tools and comment moderation features with something a little more... elegant.



And if that doesn't work, I suppose we're all just going to have to spring for those USB DNA sequencers,* aren't we?


* I recently saw the coolest USB device: it's a USB record player that allows someone to "rip" their old vinyl records to iTunes or other digital format. It's a really interesting melange of archaic and modern.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

I am still busy, but in the meantime there's this.

Regular readers may recall my occasional mention of kooky creationist Kent Hovind and his nutty Dinosaur Adventure Land theme park.* Some of you may see me talk about Mr. Hovind and roll your eyes, thinking Drek is just off on his hobby horse again. This, it goes without saying, is what you should do. All the same, if you've ever wondered why I'm so cranky about Hovind, you should really see this:



It's a quasi-documentary of Hovind's dream in Florida and it's fascinating in a bizarre sort of way.

And if that doesn't scare you, try this dude on for size:



He's "Patrick Henry" of the "Resistance for Christ Colorado." And he's scolding the government for arresting Mr. Hovind.** It's insane, it is totally divorced from reality, and it really isn't helped by the confederate flag in the background.

Personally, if I were Hovind, I'd be just as happy if these guys wouldn't support me.

Have fun, y'all.


* For a review, see here.

** My favorite part is where he accuses the IRS of behaving like nazis while he is, himself, dressed as a white supremacist. "Yo, kettle? Hey, this is the pot; you're black!"

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Some days I get lazy. This is one of those days.

Howdy folks. I'm busy today (hell, all week) so rather than produce anything "new" or "interesting" or "marginally amusing" myself, I'm going to shamelessly piggyback on someone else's hard work. It's a little like how some people get tenure, but without all the recriminations.

In any case, my victim honored guest today is a post from over on the fantastic Skepchick Blog. If you've never been over there, it's a blog associated with the magazine of the same name that has become a renowned home for skeptical women, as well as a publisher of nudie calendars. The post in question is an oldie, published in October of last year, but probably nonetheless is one few of you have seen since I think I'm the only person from this part of the blogosphere who reads Skepchick. This post takes as its focus the subject of spirit communication. Now, you've all probably heard of the idea of communing with spirits. Popularized back during the nineteenth century in the west, spiritualism involves communing with the spirits of the departed, usually by way of a medium. Many spiritualists have been shown to be frauds and all of their feats have been replicated in one form or another by skilled debunkers, including (believe it or not) Harry Houdini.*

More recently spiritualism has been on an upswing with great interest in supposed mediums like Sylvia Browne, Allison DuBois, and John Edward; supposed spirit communicators who have been popularized on television.** Of course, it's rather unlikely that they are communicating with the dead as techniques like cold reading are much easier to accomplish.*** To save us from this supposed tide of after death communication comes Rebecca with an account of spirit communication that just can't be beat. When we see or listen to a spirit "chat" we only see two parts of it: what the caller/subject says, and what the spiritualist says. Rebecca adds in- speculatively of course- what the spritis must also be saying. It is, in a word, hysterical:

EDWARD: However, I don’t know if you have your mom who’s passed or if there’s another parental figure, like an older female who had crossed, who had congestive heart failure or who had problems with her chest. Do you know who that is?

CALLER: It could be my gran. My gran.

SPIRIT #1: I might be related to her dad, but maybe not!

EDWARD: Would that be on your dad’s side of the family, as well?

CALLER: I have two grans that have passed away, both mom and dad’s side.

SPIRIT #1: Let’s go with Dad, why not?

EDWARD: OK. I think I’m connected to the one that would be on your dad’s side of the family. And your dad would have…

CALLER: Yes, she passed away from a heart attack.

SPIRIT #1: Just like heart failure, whatever, ha ha! Hey, this is very important: my son’s brother is here. Paul!

SPIRIT #2: Hey.

EDWARD: OK. Your dad would be with also another male.

SPIRIT #1: I’m not the dad, I’m the grandmother, I thought. Wait, am I the dad now? Is dad like, the same as a grandmother? I forget.

EDWARD: So I don’t know if he has a brother figure, as well. Where’s the name Paul come in?

CALLER: We don’t have a Paul in the family, as far as I know.

SPIRIT #1: Shit, hold on . . . who is this guy, then?


So, head on over and read the rest. It's worth it and maybe, just maybe, you'll develop an appreciation for the blog as a whole.

And if not, shit, at least buy a calendar.


* Little known fact: Houdini was an arch skeptic and, when not performing magic, spent a great deal of time unmasking supposed mediums for the frauds they were. In order to defeat mediums who would claim to contact him after his death, he even established a code with his wife so that she could confirm, or falsify, any supposed messages from him. It goes without saying that no confirmed spirit message from Houdini has ever been received.

** i.e. Larry King Live, Medium, and Crossing Over. Don't even get me started on The Ghost Whisperer.

*** Easier in that, you know, there are no confirmed cases of the living communicating with the dead. Ever. In that light, yes, cold reading could certainly be said to be "easier."

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Just to thoroughly confuse things...

Many of you may remember a while back when I introduced all of you to Conservapedia, an alternative to Wikipedia for those who think that reality can be changed by just wishing really, really hard. At the time I did a head-to-head comparison between the two and, as we discovered, comparing Wikipedia to Conservapedia is like comparing The New York Times to The Weekly World News.

Well, believe it or not, I've recently learned of a third-alternative in this war between ultra-conservatives and people who believe in objective reality. Rather than explaining things from a "factual" perspective or from a "conservative friendly" perspective they go a third route: just make it all up.

I refer, of course, to the fascinating Uncyclopedia, the Wiki for people who are less interested in correct factual information than in being entertained.* It has many of the same articles as Wikipedia or Conservapedia, but told from the unique and informative viewpoint of a crazy person. Take, for example, this excerpt from the article on Charles Darwin:

Darwin is best known for his second book, Dance Dance Evolution, and of course for his piercings, of which he had accumulated 1821 by the end of his too-brief life. Some philosophers argue that this is the only reason for which he was also called "The Neighbour of the Beast", but others claim this moniker was actually conceived because of the aviator's work as a bouncer at Iron Maiden's (May They rest in peace.) first concerts, and his subsequent founding of Mayhem, a band somewhat less known than his theories came to be.

...

As he lay dying, Darwin was reported to have requested some Ritz crackers. The pope saw his chance and, acting quickly, placed a communion wafer in Darwin's outstretched hand. Upon eating the wafer, Darwin immediately began a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They had four children and retired to Yorkshire where they lived happily ever after until Darwin died two minutes later.


Not to be outdone, William Dembski also has an entry:

William Dembski is a mathematician and a wannabe scientist. He is also one of the leading lights in the Incredulous design movement and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Math. From his lofty untenured position at whatever Baptist seminary couldn't find a real creationist in time for that semester, Dembski has proved a number of mathematical theorems which are so important that they make the guy that proved the Pointclick conjecture look like a pauncy prissypants. Dembski's ideas are generally not recognized by the stodgy Evil Atheist Conspiracy, but are quickly catching on with the youth of today who can't get enough of his catchy beatings and the hip sound of nasal whining. Dembski is widely known by his immediate circle of friends as the "Isaac Newton of Information Theory". Dembski has several publications, although people who oppose his ideas often point out that his contribution to science can best be described by the number zero and his publications are mostly incoherent ramblings on the internets.

CSI is Dembski's premiere accomplishment. Contrary to what most of the internets seems to think, jokes pretending to confuse CSI with the Tv show of the same name turn out to be more desperate than amusing, so let's instead pretend to be serious for a second, because it turns out that by doing so, we can discover something REALLY amusing.

CSI means "Complex Specified Information." But let's break that down further: in mathematics, one major definition of "complex" is "a lengthy string that cannot be compressed very much." And according to Dembski, one valid definition of specification is high compressibility. Therefore, Complex Specified Information means "something that cannot be compressed very much, but is highly compressible" which is another way of saying: "something that contains a lot of information, but doesn't contain a lot of information."

Clearly, there aren't enough Nobel prizes in all of Benmark for someone that could come up with a definition that profound: to properly award such genius we may even be forced to crack open next year's supply crate of Special Olympics Gold Medals, award them all to Hitler, lacquer Hitler, bronze the lacquered Hitler and present them to Dembski in a ceremony where he is stapled to bronzed lacquered Hitler and thrown into the sea to share his insights with Aquaman.


And, of course, if mocking scientists and not-scientists isn't quite your cup of tea, uncyclopedia also has a fine selection of irrelevent pop culture.** Take, for example, this article on the videogame Master of Orion II:***

Master of Orion II is a tern-based strategy game developed by Microsoft and released in 1989. In the game, the player takes on the role of emperor of a technological civilization, with the task of expanding to other star systems and eventually ruling the galaxy. It is considered a 4X game, the four Xs standing for:

eXpand - The bigger you can build your butt, the better. If you can build it Really Fucking Big, that's great. It doesn't mean you'll win the game, though, because the psilon empire is probably certainly bigger than yours anyway.
eXterminate - Diplomacy sometimes works, but usually it doesn't, in which case you'll have to blow every other civilization up as fast as you can.
seX - The more you can rape alien beings with different biochemistries and anatomy than you, the better. Apparently the game designers read too many Edgar Rice Burroughs stories.
Xylophone - The game doesn't actually have anything to do with xylophones, that was just put in to make it a 4X game instead of a 3X, or XXX, game.

...

After this you will get to customize your race. You can choose any of a number of pictures, most of which are pornographic. You will also be able to choose abilities for your race. You get to choose from the following abilities:

Aquatic - Your race will be able to play water polo.
Subterranean - Your race will live in basements with all the lights off, surfing the Internet for porn.
Lithovore - Your race will be able to eat rocks, and will therefore thrive on any planet made of rocks without having to grow extra food. However, this also makes it impossible to research oral sex.
Creative - Your race is creative during sex. This will help your diplomatic efforts by 10% and increase population growth by 20%.
Horny - Your race will be exceptionally horny, increasing population growth by 50%.
Communist - This lets your race start out in Soviet Russia, where Master of Orion II plays YOU! Except that it already does, so this doesn't really have any effect.

...

Space monsters

Some of the more useful stars in the galaxy are protected by giant space monsters, in order to prevent players from getting them. Other space monsters occasionally fly into the galaxy and attack players. They are quite tough, because for some reason random individual life forms can evolve in interstellar space to be more powerful than ships built by intelligent civilizations. Space monsters come in several varieties:

Dragon - Space dragons are enormous brown reptiles that fire plasma breaths at anyone who approaches them. However, they are also very greedy and occasionally it is possible to pay one off to go attack a different player.
Eel - Space eels are huge red invertebrates that cruise into the galaxy and start multiplying at an amazing rate. They must be dealt with quickly before their exponential rate of growth swamps everyone in the galaxy. It's not clear where they find the food to do this; apparently the designers didn't consider that part.
Crystal - Space crystals are gigantic silicon-based monsters that attack by telepathically taking over ships and using them against their former owners.
Jesus - As a tribute to Uncyclopedia, one of the monsters available is a 500-foot Jesus. Unlike other monsters, it is on a mission for peace in the galaxy, and will magically heal any damaged ships it comes across. Unfortunately, sometimes during a battle it will tend to heal the enemy ships, inadvertently making things worse for the player.


So, in short, Uncyclopedia is a fascinating mix of humor***** and fact that, ultimately, has the effect of draining your brain of useful information. Give it a try and see if you don't enjoy the experience.


* For those who are wondering: yes, this does also nicely describe Fox News.

** Indeed, given time, I think it may one day rival Wikipedia's outstanding collection.

*** This is all for you, Tom.****

**** For those who are wondering, we've discussed MOOII previously.

***** Note that I didn't say "good" humor.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

I'm not a narcissist- I'm just more important than you are.

Over on the fantastic Academic Secret blog Thistle asks whether students are really more self-centered than they used to be. In asking this, Thistle points to both another post and to a pair of articles that report on a finding that college students are more narcissistic than they used to be:

...She [Jean Twenge of San Diego State] and four other researchers from the University of Michigan, University of Georgia and University of South Alabama looked at the results of psychological surveys taken by more than 16,000 college students across the country over more than 25 years.

The Narcissistic Personality Inventory asks students to react to such statements as: "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place," "I think I am a special person" and "I like to be the center of attention."

The study found that almost two-thirds of recent college students had narcissism scores that were above the average 1982 score. Thirty percent more college students showed elevated narcissism in 2006 than in 1982.


Judging by posts appearing elsewhere, including one on Practicing Idealist's blog, the answer might well be yes. At the same time, however, I'm reluctant to engage in such sweeping generalizations. I don't know that an entire generation is really more self-centered than previous ones. I'm not sure I believe the personality inventories are that reliable over time.

But if they are more narcissistic perhaps, rather than condemning them, we should ask ourselves: who helped them to become that way?

If there's something wrong with kids today, maybe we should be wondering what's the matter with us for raising them that way.

I'm just sayin.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

As accurate as a Lifetime movie, and easily twice as entertaining...

Longtime readers of this blog are aware of my fascination with zombies. I enjoy movies featuring zombies, I spend time thinking about what I would do if I encountered zombies, and I have even read the fabulous Zombie Survival Guide, a book so useful, I actually keep it on the part of my office bookcase dedicated to methods and statistics.* Clearly, too, I am not alone in my interest in zombies.

With this knowledge it should come as no surprise to any of you that I recently took time out of my busy schedule to read, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. This is a fictional** account of an all-out struggle between humankind, and the shambling undead. It tracks events from their earliest beginning in China, to their brutal conclusion with mankind pushing back against the zombie hordes. Along the way there's a lot of death, a lot of destruction, and a lot of surprisingly interesting writing. For example, the author spends a lot of time thinking about what our military strategy would look like in a zombie apocalypse, thinking about refugee streams, and even pondering global economic conditions.*** As such, it's actually a pretty thought provoking read. It's also "fun," in the sense that it depicts a fantastical situation although, I must confess, it is well-enough done that I got pretty into it. Reading about the near-annihilation of mankind isn't exactly "fun" but it can be engaging. It's a good book and deserves a read.****

Oddly, though, what kept entering my mind as I read the book was that it could easily stand in as a metaphor for something else. The zombies of the book were mindless, almost totally insensitive machines that existed only to consume. They were not particularly fast, nor intelligent, but they were relentless and could not easily be stopped. Moreover, they possessed no real "genius" in battle or special advantages***** and instead simply overwhelmed the opposition with force of numbers. Crushing, unstoppable numbers. Given time they would dig up and eat every burrowing animal, chase every herd until they ran out of space or energy and then set upon them, and in short consume everything through inexhaustible patience.

And as I read this horrifying, unsettling depiction one uncomfortable thought kept entering my mind: I wonder if this is how other species perceive mankind? Don't get me wrong, I don't think most non-humans are sentient and so doubt they have any particular thoughts, much less beliefs about humans. That said, I think there are some interesting resemblances between the zombies' pursuit of animal life and our own rapacious appetite for resources. Our behavior has shown that we are willing to hunt species into extermination, to traumatize the natural environment, and even to stress our world to the limits of sustainability and beyond. Indeed, we have done so even as our numbers continue to rise, an unquenchable horde of humanity marching forward consuming everything in its path with the same mindless, thoughtless, relentless ferocity exhibited by fictional zombies. What was most frightening to me about this book was that I saw in the zombies what my own species must resemble to others: an unstoppable tidal wave of hunger.

Am I reading too much into the book? Oh, hell yes. At the same time, the comparison is interesting and certainly adds a layer of thoughtfulness to an otherwise fluffy book.

Read it- if not for the zombies, then for the self-discovery.


* See, it's a book full of methods for dealing with the undead. Makes sense to me.

** Or, dare I say, prophetic?

*** For example, Cuba becomes a free-market economic superpower after being nearly inundated with North American boatpeople.

**** Of course, if you want to do the Cliff's Notes version, see the wikipedia entry.

***** Aside, of course, for only dying as a result of brain trauma. That, I will concede, is a major advantage. Particularly given that many of our modern infantry rifles are designed to wound rather than kill so as to tax the enemy's support infrastructure.

As a side note: You should also check out the book's website which, among other things, has a tool for estimating your survival probability in a zombie apocalypse. I scored a 33% chance. Let's see how well YOU do.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Avalanche...

Folks who follow the news to any extent are aware that former White House Aid Lewis "Scooter" Libby* has been found guilty of perjury in the Valerie Plame** CIA leak investigation also known as Plamegate.*** This, obviously, is a victory for the American people but, unfortunately, a small one. Our intelligence agencies remain unsettled by the way that politics have endangered their efforts and by the ease with which those at the top have eluded blame. I can't say as I blame them.

At the same time, we're seeing new revelations every day about failures at Walter Reed Army Hospital, which certainly were not forseeable at all, and an investigation of the Bush Administration's handling of Federal Prosecutors. In total, this information paints a picture of an out-of-control Executive the likes of which we haven't seen since Nixon.*****

About all you can say about it is that malfeasance on this scale rarely goes completely unnoticed and unpunished. These investigations are, in all likelihood, just the beginning.

The rest of the avalanche has yet to come.



* In the interest of combatting a pernicious liberal bias in this blog, I am using links to the new Conservapedia in place of Wikipedia. This eliminates much unnecessary liberal editorializing. So, for example, where Wikipedia has a long, extensively referenced article on Scooter Libby, Conservapedia limits itself to the essentials, namely: "Scooter Libby is a former deputy secretary of defense, national security advisor to the vice president, chief of staff to the vice president and private attorney." Now that's some excellent work!

** Sorry, Conservapedia has no entry for Valerie Plame.

*** Conservapedia also has no entry for Plamegate. It does REFER to it, however, in the entry for jury trial as an "influential jury trial affecting American history." Also mentioned are the trial of O.J. Simpson, and John Scopes.****

**** About Scopes, Conservapedia remarks,
"John Scopes was just a young teacher in Tennessee when he unwittingly became a test case for promoting evolution in American schools. Tennessee had a law against teaching human evolution, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wanted to overturn it. It enlisted the top criminal attorney of the day, Clarence Darrow, to serve as Scopes attorney. As crafty as the day is long, he arrived in Tennessee armed with his bag of tricks.

William Jennings Bryan, the former presidential candidate and Secretary of State, had oratorical skills second to known. His "Cross of Gold" nomination acceptance speech in 1896 is considered one of the greatest political works in American history. He united the Populist and Democratic Parties then and laid the foundation for the takeover by the Democratic Party of American politics 36 years later.

After witnessing the horrors of World War I, Bryan became convinced that the teaching of evolution was leading society to ruination through war. "Survival of the fittest" provided an intellectual justification for the brutal killing of other nationalities and races. Bryan foresaw the ethnic cleansing that grew to its horrible culmination in the Holocaust.

Bryan defended the Tennessee law and its application to Scopes, with its mere $100 fine as the penalty for teaching evolution. Darrow agreed to take the witness stand in favor of teaching evolution if Bryan took the witness stand against it. Bryan then testified and performed well. So well, in fact, that Darrow reneged on his promise and forced Scopes to plead guilty to end the case. With that the trial ended, and Tennessee's law remained in effect for another half century. To this day, Tennesee schools teach little evolution, and George W. Bush won the presidential election by carrying this home state of his opponent, Al Gore.

A famous liberal reporter at the trial, H.L. Mencken, published such one-sided articles that it would make today's media blush. He excoriated Bryan at every possible turn, trying to make him look foolish. When Hollywood got into the act with a movie called "Inherit the Wind," it imitated Mencken's bias. Misinformed, many think Scopes and the evolutionists won the trial, but conservative rule in Tennessee today reflects the true outcome."


A masterpiece of moonbat revisionism in that it uses both prejudicial language, and is factually incorrect (e.g. John Scopes was not an unwitting part of the ACLU's strategy). Having read a decent amount of Mencken, I would probably also observe that he wasn't really a Liberal. He didn't like much of anyone and no person of any political stripe was safe from his caustic editorials. Not to mention that he wasn't a reporter so much as an opinion writer, so the sidedness of his pieces isn't really much of an issue. But I digress. Check out this article if you're really curious about Scopes.

***** For Wikipedia's take, see here.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

So what does that mean, exactly?

Every so often I hear people accuse academics of being out of touch with reality. Under normal circumstances, I defend academics as just being jargon-prone professionals. Very intelligent, very dedicated to their jobs, and inclined towards complex language for the same reasons that a medical doctor refers to a bruise as a "sub-dermal hematoma." And then, every now and then, I encounter jargon too thick for me to pierce myself, and I understand what non-academics are talking about. This is one of those times. The below is taken from a recent advertisement for a PostDoc position.* It's for a set of positions that combine feminism with some other field of inquiry and, to be honest, all three vaguely frighten me.

1) Gender and physics. The interface between gender research and physics has mostly been restricted to understand "women in science"; conditions, power-relations, mechanisms of exclusion and the like. We encourage applicants to focus on questions about gendered knowledge and materiality.


I'm really not at all sure what the hell this means. My best guess is they want candiates who can ask the tough questions like, "Would a female version of relativity work the same as a male version?" The answer, as it happens, is yes. I'm sure Alan Sokal would be impressed.

2) Gender and animal research. Animal research has traditionally, with some very important exceptions, been viewed as "outside" of gender and feminist concerns. Applicants in this area are welcomed to focus on issues concerning the gendering of animals, and the animaling of gender, in biological and other research.


I was almost with this one until we hit the phrase, "...the animaling of gender..." at which point the wheels came off the wagon. On the other hand, maybe this means that at next year's ASAs the Gender Section will co-host a reception with the Animals & Society folks? We can only hope.

3) Trans-disciplinary feminist didactics. Gender didactics is an undeveloped field, mainly in Sweden but also internationally. At the same time it is pivotal in all gender research to understand how gender is communicated. Hence teaching is the key to transdisciplinary encounters, which is why a national knowledge base in gender didactics is expected to contribute to deepen the planned trans-disciplinary research and theory development. To meet this requirement, we invite a visiting scientist position in feminist didactics who will start the building of such a knowledge base.


This, of course, is just self-evident. Didactics is simply the theory and practical knowledge of teaching. So, basically, this is saying, "We need someone to study how to teach others about gender studies so that we can get others to care about gender studies." Not exactly a brilliant insight, folks. Additionally, in a weird twist, this passage tries so hard to be fancy, it's actually made itself mysterious. There's no understanding of how gender is communicated? To the contrary, there's a shitload of research on how gender knowledge is communicated. On the other hand there is relatively little information on how feminist thought can be communicated effectively, but I'm not convinced it's sensible to establish research positions in that.

Does this mean I hate feminism or gender studies? No. I do hate needlessly obfuscating language, though.

I mean... damn.

* For those outside the academy, a PostDoc is sort of the intermediate position between grad student and faculty.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

The Gypsy Curse wins again.

Folks who know me personally are aware that I am suffering under what I refer to as a "gypsy curse." I believe* this to be so for a simple reason: I have a paper that everyone likes, but nobody wants to publish. Indeed, I think I've written one of the most beloved unpublishable pieces of crap ever. I thought I had defeated this curse recently but, as it turns out, not so much.

Fuck you, Gypsy** Curse! Fuck you right in the butt.


* No, I don't really believe I'm cursed. It just feels like it.

** I don't have anything against Gypsies, mind you, they were just the first group believed to level curses that sprang to mind years and years ago when I first started down this path to madness.

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I laughed when I saw this. Really.

In honor of my beloved Sainted Fiancee and her fondness for our cats, I offer this comic from xkcd.



Yeah, that's all I got. See you tomorrow.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Hard to be funnier than this...

Check out this headline from the New York Times:

Swiss Accidentally Invade Liechtenstein

ZURICH, Switzerland (AP) -- What began as a routine training exercise almost ended in an embarrassing diplomatic incident after a company of Swiss soldiers got lost at night and marched into neighboring Liechtenstein.

...

''We've spoken to the authorities in Liechtenstein and it's not a problem,'' Daniel Reist told The Associated Press.

...

Interior ministry spokesman Markus Amman said nobody in Liechtenstein had even noticed the soldiers, who were carrying assault rifles but no ammunition.


I don't know what's funnier: that the Swiss invaded Lichtenstein with a gaggle of unarmed men, that the government of Lichtenstein didn't notice, or that Lichtenstein didn't even care.

That is just flat-out awesome.


Thanks to Wonkette for this tip.

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I think it's a valid question...

While listening to NPR the other day I learned of something rather interesting: cafeteria workers at a local Houston school have discovered an image on the virgin mary on a baking sheet, one that appeared during a routine washing of the pan. I really and truly am not kidding. This is a picture of the newly discovered icon:



This "miraculous" appearance has led local community members to establish a shrine dedicated to the adoration of the virgin- or, at the very least, to the adoration of a baking sheet. It is being surrounded by flowers, candles, and praying people. Individuals are touching it, hoping for divine assistance as they face surgery and other difficult life events. Efforts are being made to find a permanent place to display this amazing artifact and, doubtless, a collection will be taken up to replace this sheet in the school inventory.* This is, unquestionably, more exciting than the much-loved "Jesus Toast" from a while back:



Yet, among all the hoopla, I really feel the need to ask about something. There's a war in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan, people are dying in Darfur, and there's an ongoing murderous struggle between the Arabs and the Israelis. And with all that, god and company decided to demonstrate their grace and power by defacing a baking sheet in an obscure Houston school. I just have to ask something in response:

Should we, maybe, be a little concerned about god's priorities? I mean, crap, do we want to be worshipping that kinda guy?

I'm just askin.


* Heh. Right.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Oh, sure, it's cute now...

But wait until they get to high school! Adolescent politics can be so cruel!



Yes, folks, that is what it looks like: a baby orang-utan is cuddling with a baby tiger. Will their friendship last? Eh. My guess is no, but that's just me. Only time, and zoologists, will tell.

This fits in well with something I've been thinking about a lot lately, however. This picture is striking because it seems unnatural to us: orang-utans and tigers do not normally buddy up, whatever the Jungle Book would have us believe. Yet, if this is unnatural then what, precisely, is natural?

The dictionary defines natural in a number of ways, but the one we usually think of is, "existing in or formed by nature." Seems simple enough but, really, it gets pretty complicated where we humans are concerned. Take a simple example: Dogs. Dogs are "natural" in the sense that they are not artificial constructs but, at the same time, have been domesticated by humans for somewhere between 15,000 and 100,000 years. In that time selective breeding, both intentional and incidental, has converted them from wolf-like ancestors into what we now know as "Canis Familiaris," or the common dog. Are dogs natural, or are they products of human ingenuity? When do they stop being a part of the natural world and become artifacts? I mean, let's face it: most of what we consider "technology" has only been developed in the past 5,000 years. We've been modifying dogs for at least triple that amount of time; does that make them a kind of human technology? We might ask the same question about domesticated cats, which have been associating with humans for less than 10,000 years and, yet, have been shaped substantially in that time. Are they natural or are they crafted, produced things?

Beyond these companions animals,* however, there are a huge variety of quasi-natural or completely unnatural things that we depend on each day. As Sense about Science points out in their .pdf Science for Celebrities we depend on a web of domesticated organisms for our survival. As Professor Vivian Moses comments, "Not one of our crop plants or domestic animals exists in the wild: they have all been created by selective breeding over the past 10,000 years. Wheat, for example, doesn't exist in nature; we made it. And nowhere on Earth do crop plants exist in rows unless we put them there." This is a point that Jared Diamond would almost certainly agree with, given that he more or less makes it himself in his book, Guns, Germs and Steel. He has pointed out that the totality of a civilization isn't simply its people, but also its crops and animals. It is also a point echoed in the most recent issue of the Skeptical Inquirer.*** Not only have we had a massive impact on dogs, cats, and crop species- we have been displacing and recreating biomes for thousands of years. How much of the "countryside" in Europe, for example, is really "natural?" Instead, how much of it has been cleared and cultivated by generations of humans? How many of the species of plants and animals are truly indigenous and how many were introduced, deliberately or accidentally, by humans as we spread across the land? How much of that "artificial" environment do we now regard as "natural" for the simple, if stupid, reason that it is the way things have been since our grandparents? And how far are we willing to go to avoid changing something that is, itself, the result of our own intervention?**** What, indeed, is natural?

I have no compelling answers to these questions but, instead, have an observation. Humans are unusual in a number of regards but this one, I think, is one of the most striking: we are the ultimate social species. A number of other species form partnerships with other creatures. Ants, for example, ranch aphids and the clown fish survives in partnership with the deadly Sea Anemone. Various creatures find ways to work together. Humans, however, are special in that we don't just work with one or two species, we form partnerships with dozens of other species and, in so doing, are as changed by them as they are by us. The changes to crop plants that we have wrought are certainly matched by the changes that the Neolithic agricultural revolution wrought on us. As a result it is in many ways a misnomer to refer to "Human civilization." We may, indeed, be the senior partners but our civilization is, if anything, a confederation of disparate species who now live together, each indispensible to the others.

And for those who belong, for better or for worse, that has become natural.


* I just find it a little insulting to refer to dogs as "companion animals." They aren't companions so much as they are our partners. Canis Familiaris and Homo Sapiens Sapiens have a relationship that is older than the most ancient human civilization. In that time we have lived together, worked together, fought together, played together, and died together. In all likelihood their presence has subtly influenced our evolution much as we have influenced theirs. So, in short, to refer to them as "companion animals" seems, to me, to deny them their just due. We are ally species** and so long as we endure I suspect that dogs will too.

** In fairness cats are an ally species as well, but their roles have been much, much more limited than those of dogs and, so, I don't feel so strongly about them.

*** Sadly, the most recent issue isn't available online yet.

**** I really am not trying to sound anti-environmental here. I just really do want to problematize the concept of "natural." Much of what we consider "natural" has been heavily shaped by humanity for a long, long time. We may as well recognize that and not get too wrapped up in a deification of what is, at the end of the day, partly artifice.

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