Saturday, March 31, 2007

A meme post

I don't do many meme posts, but I thought this one might be ok, since it might give people more knowledge about me.

Ten years ago, I: was studying economics at the University of Copenhagen, after having dropped out of studying Economics and Business Administration at Copenhagen Business School

Five years ago, I: was on the last year of a 2½ year education called Advanced Computer Studies (Datamatiker in Danish). Basicly I learned systems development and programming there.
I finished the education in november, and had to look for a job in the middle of a down period of the Danish IT sector.

One year ago, I: was about to change job three times, and move twice (both times within the same city). My father would also die relatively soon (in August), after a long time of heavy alcoholism.

So far this year, I: have traveled to Australia to visit my family. I have also started a blog.

Today, I: am dead tired, due to a birthday party for a friend yesterday. I am planning on turning of the computer soon, and read a book for the rest of the evening (it's after half past nine in the evening here).

Tomorrow, I: need to study for an exam just after Easter. I am quite behind on reading up on the subject, and due to full-time work, I haven't been to classes at all.

In one year, I: will hopefully have finished my bachelors degree in computer science. Other than that, not much will have changed.

In five years, I: will probably be somewhere else than I would have thought today, so I won't make any guesses.

Via Skatje

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Big mansions, small profits

Slate had an article a couple of days ago that reported on the findings of a new study.

Haunted Mansion

A study proves that the bigger his house, the worse the CEO.


The article links to the study in question: Where are the Shareholders' Mansions? CEOs' Home Purchases, Stock Sales, and Subsequent Company Performance

It's an interesting study, with some pretty clear results.

We study real estate purchases of major company CEOs, compiling a database of the principal residences of nearly every top executive in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index of major U.S. companies. We test whether CEOs’ decisions about the size, cost, and financing of their homes contains information useful for forecasting future performance their companies, and we find patterns with strong statistical and economic significance. When a CEO buys a home, future company performance is inversely related to the CEO’s liquidation of company shares and options as a source of financing for the transaction, even though these stock sales are often small
relative to the CEO’s total holdings in his firm. We also find that, regardless of the source of finance, future company performance deteriorates when CEOs acquire extremely large or costly mansions and estates.


The authors behind the study argues that their findings are consistent with CEO entrenchmen - i.e. the CEOs feel secure in their positions when they acquire the mansions.

So, if you are out investing, it could be relevant to take the CEOs housing into consideration.

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It's the smallest things that trip you up

This is a good example of community-based journalism, where a group of individuals follows an idea, and finds a bigger story than they thought. It's also an example of why you have to remember every detail.

The GOP, GeorgeWBush.com and the line that jumped the Congressional Firewall

In the virtual worlds of computer security, networking, and email, the lines separating the inner workings of the current government in Washington D.C. and the outer world of partisan politics exist only in theory. The recent discovery that top strategists emailed plans for dismissing 8 U.S. Attorneys using accounts on the gwb43.com and georgewbush.com domains, hosted and paid for by the RNC, is just one indication of a much bigger disregard for the necessary separation of government and private industry.

Not only are the lines now blurred, but they became so years ago. Indeed, at the very inception of the Bush Administration, there was an effort to leverage partisan loyalty on the outside to preferred vending inside of dot gov.


What the investigators did, was to take a look at both partisan websites, like ohiogop.org, and non-partisan websites, like Intelligence.House.Gov, and find out that some of the elements were reused from the partisan websites in the non-partisan websites, even when they were made by two different companies.

Interesting story, and it's going to be interesting to see if something comes out of it.

Via ex-lion tamer

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A must read Salon piece

Go read this Salon piece by Joan Walsh.

Men who hate women on the Web

Is there really any doubt that women writing on the Web are subject to more abuse than men, simply because they're women? Really? I've been following the Kathy Sierra blog storm, thinking I had nothing new to say, but the continued insistence that Sierra, and those who defend her, are somehow overreacting, or charging sexism where none exists, makes it hard for a mouthy woman to stay silent.

I say this as a mouthy woman who has tried for a long time to pretend otherwise: that Web misogyny isn't especially rampant -- but even if it is, it has no effect on me, or any other strong, sane woman doing her job. But I wasn't being honest. My own reactions and those of others to the Sierra mess served to wrestle the truth out of me, and it wasn't what I hoped.


Joan Walsh explains the problems, and also relays some of her own experiences.

But once I joined Salon I started receiving the creepiest personal e-mails about my work. Anything I wrote that vaguely defended President Clinton or criticized his attackers, in particular, would get me a torrent of badly spelled e-mail, often from Free Republic readers and posters. There were themes: A significant subset tended to depict me in a Monica Lewinsky role, often graphically. Like Kathy Sierra, I endured too many references to "cum" in those e-mails. I'll forgo other details for the sake of brevity and discretion.

But it was hard to know for sure how much had to do with my gender. David Talbot was regularly attacked by wingnuts as a Clinton "butt-boy," so it was impossible to say it was all about my being a woman. It still seems that when a man comes in for abuse online, he's disproportionately attacked as gay -- and if he is gay, like Andrew Sullivan, who wrote a column for us for a while, his hate mail at Salon is likely to be comparable to mine: heavy on sexual imagery and insult, sometimes bordering on violence. Yuck. I couldn't see into anyone else's in box to be sure if the abuse I was getting was disproportionate, but I suspected it was. Mostly I just ignored it.

When Salon automated its letters, ideas that had only seen our in boxes at Salon were suddenly turning up on the site. And I couldn't deny the pattern: Women came in for the cruelest and most graphic criticism and taunting. Gary Kamiya summed it up well in a piece on overall online feedback, noting "an ugly misogynistic aspect" to the reaction to women writers. One thing I noticed early on: We all got nicknames. I'm "Joanie," Rebecca Traister is "Becky," Debra Dickerson is "Debbie" and on and on. There are lots of comments about our looks and sexuality or ... likability, to avoid using the f-word, a theme you almost never see even in angry, nasty threads about male writers. Most common is a sneering undercurrent of certainty that the woman in question is just plain stupid; it's hard to believe we have jobs at all. (But then, since a woman is, unbelievably, the clueless, incompetent boss of Salon, it makes a certain kind of sense.)


There is to my mind, absolutely no doubt that women who write, or is being written about, on the internet is under a relentless misogynist attacks.

They are objectified, and comments on their looks seems to be par the course, no matter the relevance - it's relevant to talk about looks when debating the unhealthy looks of models, or if the winner of Miss Universe was the right choice, it's not relevant when talking about politicians or pundits. An example: every time Ann Coulter is debated, someone makes a comparison of her to a man (and normally refers to her adam's apple). Every single freaking time. Some bloggers slaps down on it hard, while other bloggers think it's funny enough to include it in the actual posts. The later category of bloggers are not on my blogroll.

The misogyny is widespead in the "letters" (comments really) to Salon, which is why I rarely read comments to articles about feminist issues. They make me feel sick - literately. Not only because of the outright misogynist comments, but also because of all the appologetic comments. Comments of the type that "men are attacked too", or "since she is a right-wing shrill, all attacks are fair". You can see an example of this sort of comments at the very beginning of the comments to the Joan Walsh's article.
Such comments are part of the problem. They feed into a culture of misogynism, where men get away with being misogynist, because other men (and women) let them get away with it. That has to stop. We have to arrest such comments, and make clear why they are not acceptable.

And of course, there is always the commenters who want to change it into being about men. Again an excellent example can be found in the comments to Walsh's article. A commenter calling himself 'a father', tries to use an article about online misogynism as a vehicle for getting Salon to write about "fathers' rights". Because the misogynist comments obviously have some merit, even if they are beyond the pale.
Well, you know what, a Salon article that takes a hard critical look at the fathers' right movement would be a good thing, but it has nothing to do with the article in question. So why bring it up? Because we can't have the women getting all the attention? Well, fuck you. The whole world doesn't rotate around you and your pet issues. The article in question is about a very real problem that women, who post on the internet, face. Trying to hijack the article is part of the problem. It sends the signal that womens' problems are not as important as mens' problems - a signal I'm sure that the commenter hasn't got an issue with, but which decent people certainly should have a problem with.

Well, I'm speaking out, and I think so should all others. Not just the traditional feminist bloggers, but all bloggers. Make it clear that the culture on the internet has to change.

Note: Part of this post was posted as a comment to the article at Salon.

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Blogroll

As people might have noticed, I have now added a blogroll - this was very much prompted by this post by Lauren.

I have been meaning to put up a blogroll for a while, but hadn't gotten around to it before now.

The blogroll reflects which blogs I read more or less frequently, though I don't visit all of them daily (or even weekly in some cases). I'm sure I've forgotten some, and will make sure to update it as I remember them, or find new and interesting blogs.

There is not going to be regular purges or anything - blogs that goes on the blogroll stays there, even if I stop reading them regularly. The only reason I have for removing people from the blogroll, is if I start objecting to the content - and here I don't mean just that i just disagree.

If people feel that I have overlooked some great blogs, feel free to link them in the comments, and I'll check them out. So far I only link to blogs in English, though I might add a 'Danish blogs' section at some stage.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Lazy linking

Well, you know the drill - I've come across a few links that I thought might be of interest to people, but don't really have anything to write about them, so I'll add them all together.

Giant squid in a math answer - one of those funny answers to a math exam that you sometimes find on the internet, but involving a giant squid (yes, I have sent the link to PZ).

Richard Dawkins won the British Book Awards' prize for Best Author of the Year. BTW, the official title of his award is the Reader's Digest Author of the Year. Not really a flattering title, is it?

Last Female WWI Vet Dies at 109

The last known surviving American female World War I veteran, a refined Civil War buff who met face-to-face with the Secretary of the Navy to fight for women in the military, has died. She was 109.

Charlotte Winters died Tuesday at a nursing home near Boonsboro in northwest Maryland, the U.S. Naval District in Washington said in a statement. Her death leaves just five known surviving American World War I veterans.


I wonder if there is any known female WWI veterans alive outside the US.

For the Geek crowd: The Top Ten Lies of Engineers. Nothing about Intelligent Design in the list, though, since they ar all computer project related.

A classic paper from 1994: Barriers to Women in Academic Science and Engineering
I will perhaps comment on issues related to this paper some other time, and I will certainly comment on issues related to this 2005 article In computer science, a growing gender gap.

The Effort Effect - According to a Stanford psychologist, you’ll reach new heights if you learn to embrace the occasional tumble.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Are you a terrorist? No? Well, this list says something else.

Some times you come across some stories that each seem disturbing, but when you put them together, are much more so. Well, here is a good example of this.

On March 25th, Washinton Post brought a story Terror Database Has Quadrupled In Four Years

Each day, thousands of pieces of intelligence information from around the world -- field reports, captured documents, news from foreign allies and sometimes idle gossip -- arrive in a computer-filled office in McLean, where analysts feed them into the nation's central list of terrorists and terrorism suspects.

Called TIDE, for Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, the list is a storehouse for data about individuals that the intelligence community believes might harm the United States. It is the wellspring for watch lists distributed to airlines, law enforcement, border posts and U.S. consulates, created to close one of the key intelligence gaps revealed after Sept. 11, 2001: the failure of federal agencies to share what they knew about al-Qaeda operatives.


This doesn't sound too bad until you realize that the list has gone from 100,000 to 435,000 files since 2003, giving the people in charge of it a huge extra workload, and there are a huge potential for mixups.

And then there is this sentence from the article:
The bar for inclusion is low, and once someone is on the list, it is virtually impossible to get off it.


Now, on the March 27th, Washington Post brought another article Ordinary Customers Flagged as Terrorists

Private businesses such as rental and mortgage companies and car dealers are checking the names of customers against a list of suspected terrorists and drug traffickers made publicly available by the Treasury Department, sometimes denying services to ordinary people whose names are similar to those on the list.

The Office of Foreign Asset Control's list of "specially designated nationals" has long been used by banks and other financial institutions to block financial transactions of drug dealers and other criminals. But an executive order issued by President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has expanded the list and its consequences in unforeseen ways. Businesses have used it to screen applicants for home and car loans, apartments and even exercise equipment, according to interviews and a report by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area to be issued today.


So, not only is the number of people on the list growing, the list is being used for purposes it was not intended.
And you thought identity theft was bad, how about getting pegged with a terrorist suspect's identity?

The lawyers' committee has documented at least a dozen cases in which U.S. customers have had transactions denied or delayed because their names were a partial match with a name on the list, which runs more than 250 pages and includes 3,300 groups and individuals.


Why do companies risk turning away business? Well, there are some pretty sound reasons for that

Yet anyone who does business with a person or group on the list risks penalties of up to $10 million and 10 to 30 years in prison, a powerful incentive for businesses to comply. The law's scope is so broad and guidance so limited that some businesses would rather deny a transaction than risk criminal penalties, the report finds.


The article also have a few examples of people suffering from having names that appear on the list. Not necessarily the same full name, but rather sharing common names like Hassan and Hussein with them.

It is obvious that this system is broken. How should it be fixed? Well, first of all, I would say that there should be made a procedure for getting off the list. Second of all, the list should only apply to security related issues (airport flights, buying weapons etc.). Third of all, there should be some kind of penalty for companies that link individuals to the list without proper evidence - sharing a middle name with one of people on the list, but having wastly different dates of birth, would not be proper evidence.
Oh, and hire more people to maintain the list. Ensuring the data quality.

If you want to see if your name appears on the list, it can be found here: OFAC list (warning, fairly large .txt file).


Related to this in a way, is the SF Chronicle article from February 23rd: Going to Canada? Check your past - Tourists with minor criminal records turned back at border

This is largely a result of more data exchange between the US and Canada, and I have less problems with this (though I certainly find the Canadian stance unnecessary harsh), since there are clear rules about who can and cannot get into the country.

Still, makes me happy that Danish law mandates that minor crimes get scrubbed from your record after five years.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Flock of Dodos in Copenhagen

Note: Updated with more links to posts by PZ Myers about Haeckel's embryos.

I've just come back from viewing Dr. Randy Olson's A Flock of Dodos at the Night Film Festival in Copenhagen (in this case, the movie was shown in the afternoon, instead of at night).

It was the first screening outside the US, and Dr. Randy Olson was there to debate a ID proponent and answer questions afterwards. More about that later, but first a little about the film.

A Flock of Dodos is about the fight between scientists and the Intelligent Design movement in the US. Olson tries to present both sides of the debate, and while he makes it quite clear that he is no fan of Intelligent Design, he also makes clear that he thinks that the fight is being lost by the scientists - in a large part because of the scientists themselves.

As an introduction to the debate in the US, the movie is not bad at all, though I think Olson bends over a little too much to describe the ID crowd as charming (I personally found several of the specimens in the movie rather repulsive, but that might be due to cultural differences).

Still, I think the movie fails to both shows the problems with the Intelligent Design arguments, and to show what scientists should do better. The first is not the purpose of the movie, but something that frustrates some viewers (at least one viewer in the audience complained about the lack of science in the movie), while the second part should naturally from Olson's finding that scientists is a large part of the problem.

I also found it problematic that Olson didn't talk with any of the scientists actually working with communicating with people about these issues. Eugenie Scott, Ken Miller, PZ Myers etc. are all great at explaining the problems in clear simple ways, yet none such people were interviewed. Instead many of the insights of the scientists' problems came from a round board discussion (while playing poker) of a bunch of NY academics, who are undoubtfully good at their work, but who don't work with explaining these issues to lay people, unlike the ID proponents from the Discovery Institute.

Even with these problems, I still think it's a great movie, and it should certainly be viewed broadly in the US, as a supplement to all the other forms of combating Intelligent Design - I believe in a multi-front battle against the forces of ignorance.

Now, to the debate afterwards. Denmark has one major Intelligent Design proponent, the theologian Jakob Wolf, however he didn't participate in the debate. Instead it was some person I've never heard about, who didn't explain his qualifications for participating in the debate. According to some of the others viewing the film, he was a journalist, and believed in some kind of Hindu-derived religion (Hara Krishna perhaps?).

Anyway, the proponent started out attacking Olson for the movie's inaccuracies, and started with the Discovery Institute's talking points about Haeckel's embryos, and had even printed out examples of where they were used. Olson quickly dismissed this as nonsense, and as someone shouted from the audience (oops, did I do that?), it all depends on context. PZ Myer's will be happy to know that Olson referred to his sound debunkings of the DI's talking point.
In a sense it was interesting to see Olson's offhand dismissal of the ID proponent's arguments, since it was a display of the same kind of behavior that he complained about the scientists did. It's understandable, since Olson gets presented with the same stupid arguments every time, but perhaps it also explains why scientists do the same, when presented with the same abmyssal stupid arguments again and again (2nd law of thermodynamics, anyone?).

Other than that, there was not much worth noticing about the debate, except:

  • A member of the audience, a biology professor I believe, was rather abusive towards the ID person. He yelled something about not knowing any science...

  • The ID proponent referred to Dembski's math as sound evidence (don't cry Mark).

  • A Raelite spoke up, and asked if the debaters had thought of a human designer? (which prompted the whole audience to laugh).

  • The ID proponent said that you could define something as intelligent designed if you can't explain it by chemistry or physics. Both a rather broad statement, and a rather narrow definition of intelligently designed in another.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Nigerian teachers pressuring students to sex

Via Salon's Broadsheet, I became aware of this horrifying AP article in Washington Post

Lecturers Prey on Nigerian Women, Girls

When Nigeria's education minister faced an audience of 1,000 schoolchildren, she expected to hear complaints of crowded classrooms and lack of equipment. Instead, girl after girl spoke up about being pressured for sex by teachers in exchange for better grades. One girl was just 11 years old.

"I was shocked," said the minister, Obiageli Ezekwesili, who has several children herself. "I asked _ was it that prevalent? And they all chorused 'yes.'"


How can this go on in such a widespread way without the knowledge of the person in charge of the system? Don't ask me, but at least she is now aware of it, and hopefully will do something about it.


For years, sexual harassment has been rampant in Nigeria's universities, but until recently very little was done about it. From Associated Press interviews with officials and 12 female college students, a pattern emerges of women being held back and denied passing grades for rebuffing teachers' advances, and of being advised by other teachers to give in quietly.


In otehr words, this is systematic. The teachers who give the advice might consider their advice sound, but they are as fucking guilty as the one forcing themselves on the women. They are as much part of the systematic rape and abuse as the one directly perpetrating it. And make no mistake, forcing yourself on someone is rape, no matter if you do it physically or by threatening their future, as in this case.

Stigma prevents many more from speaking out, says Oluyemisi Obilade, a professor who teaches adult education at prestigious Obafemi Awolowo University at Ile Ife in central Nigeria.

Like many Nigerian universities, the seemingly peaceful campus with its flame trees and soaring art deco architecture has witnessed horrifying sexual assaults. After a student was gang-raped nine years ago, Obilade formed WARSHE _ Women Against Rape, Sexual Harassment and Exploitation.

Obilade estimates she has helped hundreds of female students _ and the odd male _ who have been attacked by students or harassed by lecturers. Students have been raped in libraries, reading rooms and their own dorms, she says. When one student needed reconstructive surgery after a particularly brutal attack, Obilade and some colleagues gave their year-end bonuses to help pay for treatment.


Obilade has all my respect for her work, but it shouldn't be necessary. Women should not have to live in fear of getting raped, nor should they have to dismiss the unwanted advantages of their teachers. However, as long as the people mentioned in the next paragraph are in charge, people like Obilade is needed.

"Some lecturers see young girls as fringe benefits," she said, wearing a black T-shirt that says "this is what a feminist looks like." "We've had cases where the girls have complained and the heads of their department have called them and said, 'Give him what he wants.'"


The lecturers can see the young girls as "fringe benefits" exactly because of people like the heads of their departments (who probably agree with those lecturers).

As the rest of the article explains, there are some indications of things getting better, but there is a long way yet. And as Amnesty International reports, rape is endemic in Nigeria in general.

Update: Something I didn't mention before, but which might be worth remembering as well, is that 60% of all new cases of HIV infections in Nigeria happens to people between 15 and 25.

Another thing to remember is that abortion is illegal except for medical reasons, even in the case of rape and incest. (.doc file)

I furious about this story, and there isn't anything we can do other than pressuring our politicans to pressure the politicans in Nigeria to do something about it.

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Lazy linking

I know that I am probably doing too many of these link posts, but I can't really think of anything intelligent to post about these links, yet I still think they could of interest to the rest of you.

Mother Jones has an article on the recent Teen Mania Ministries rally in San Francisco - no marines storming the stage this time.
What do we want? Chastity! When do we want it? Now!
The article was pretty slow to load when I read it, so there might be some server issues.

Mother Jones also links to this Washington Post article, Many Immigrants Are Losing Homes, and pairs it with their own article Bankers, brokers, and speculators generate huge profits even when the housing market goes bust.

A bit of history Queers Read This!

This manifesto was published in 1990-91. According to an informant from Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale University the documents were produced by people involved in Queer Nation and ACT-UP.


Dr. Free Ride has a post up on Science and Beleif over at the new We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now Party blog (don't ask, I don't really think much of the concept of the WAAGNFNP, so someone else should probably explain it).

A nice little comic strip on the flight safety demo.

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Free Speech in Europe and the US

I have been thinking of writing a post about the differences in free speech in Europe and the US ever since I saw Skeptico's post on the French case.

The reason why I wanted to do that, is that I frequently come across Americans making statements about European free speech cases which clearly show that they don't realize the differences.

Skeptico's post was an example of this, though not a very bad one. Skeptico said that it was not a free speech victory, though it clearly was, since it narrowed down the limits on free speech in France.
A much better example is this completely ignorant statement from Ed Brayton in a post discussing the same case.

Well I guess that's a victory, but why would it matter if he did have the intent of insulting the Muslim community? Insulting a person is not a crime, nor is insulting a group of people, nor should it be.


Why is it completely ignorant? Well, it's in a post discussing a verdict of a trial where the defendent was found not guilty of "publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion". In other words, yes insulting someone is a crime in France, where this case took place, if certain criterias are met.

You can say that insulting someone shouldn't be a crime, and I think most readers would agree with you, but claiming it isn't a crime when debating a case where the very statute that makes it a crime is being applied, is just plain stupid.
Just because it's not a crime in the US doesn't mean it isn't a crime elsewhere (likewise, just because it's a crime in the US, doesn't make it such elsewhere).

Update: Ed Brayton has clearified the text that I quoted in the comments to his post, and said "[W]hat I meant when I said it's not a crime, that it is not legitimately called a crime." Well, that does make the statement much less ignorant, though it can be debated what made Ed the decider of what is legitimately a crime.

Now, to the differences in free speech in the US and Europe. Well, in Denmark we say that we have "free speech under responsibility", which means that you can say what you want, but you have to take the responsibility for it (including the legal responsibility). It's much the same in the rest of Europe.

There are a number of limits to free speech in European countries. Probably the most famous is Germany's ban on holocaust-denial, but it's hardly the only one. Many European countries still have blasphemy laws on the books, though most don't enforce them, have anti-hate speech/-racism laws, and other limits.

Does this mean that European are totalitarian? No, it means that the focus of European laws are different from the focus of US laws.

I've been trying to think of how to explain the philosophical differences between the two types of free speech, and I think it can be defined as such:
The US focuses on protecting the individuals' rights, while Europe focuses on protecting the individuals.

In other words, if the rights of the individuals can potentially harm other indivuals, European law tend to err on the side of safety, while the US law err on the side of protecting the rights until harm is proven. This is of course an oversimplification1, but I hope it makes it a little more clear.

On the other hand, many Europeans see US limits on free speech as horrifying. For example, the many cases of people getting arrested for wearing specific t-shirts, though often dressed up as anti-trespassing arrests, are considered a violation of the most basic rights of expression by many (including myself).

1It's an oversimplification, because the basic concept of European law is that what the law does not forbid is allowed to the private person, and what the law does not allow, is forbidden to the state.
In other words, unless there is a law that explictly forbids something to individuals, it's allowed, and unless there is a law that explictly allows the state to do something, it's forbidden.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Southern Baptist John Avant on Sam Harris

I came across a column by John Avant in the Baptist Press, that mentions Sam Harris' Letters to a Christian Nation , and thought I'd comment on it.

Our real problem

I just read one of the great evangelistic books of our day -- “Letters to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris. It is an evangelistic masterpiece. Harris has invested years of his life preparing to write this book. He is so passionate about sharing his faith with others that he took the time to write a defense of his faith and publish it for the whole world to read. They are reading it, and it is becoming a national best-seller. Harris is bold. He realizes that everyone is open to talk about faith these days, and so while most of us stay silent, he speaks loudly and clearly to all of the importance of his faith, which he says is intellectually defensible and exclusive.


Those of you who knows that Harris' is an atheist, are probably seeing a big strawman marching in. Atheism as a faith? And "open to talk about faith"? Given how Dawkins' and Harris' books have been received by many, it would seem that while people might want to talk about faith, they certainly don't want to debate or evaluate the basis of their faith.

Isn’t this wonderful? Well, not really. You see, the faith that Sam Harris is presenting in his book is actually no faith at all. Harris is an atheist. He is one of the leading “evangelistic atheists” of our day. Of course, in the real sense of the word, Harris cannot be an evangelist.


The religious atheist strawman does not seem to make his entrance after all. Avant quite correctly states that an atheist cannot be an evangelist - he is right, because an atheist doesn't have a religious fundament to be evangalistic about. However, it seems that Avant thinks this for a different reason.

As you know by now, if you read my columns, I define evangelism as sharing good news with friends.


The good news being "yay, we're not going to burn in hell"? So, apparently when a friend recently told me that he got a new and better job, it was evangelism in action? I think we need a more precise definition.

Harris doesn’t have any good news to share. He is passionately committed to leading everyone he can to believe that they have no eternal purpose at all. According to him there is no God, no ultimate meaning or purpose in life, no design for the universe, no ultimate justice from the hand of God and no loving plan from the heart of a Redeemer-God. After just a few short years on a small insignificant place in an accidental universe, it will all be over for you. You then will rot in the ground, just like any dead animal you see by the side of the road. Not exactly good news.


Ok, this is where I don't get religious people. What's bad about realizing that you live in the now, and don't have to focus on some weird definition of afterlife (be it heaven, reincarnation or something else)? What's bad in seeing the universe as the marvel it is, without thinking that there is some purpose to it all? What's wrong in not being some kind of pawn in some supreme beings games, subject to his whims and so-called justice?

Personally I think it's healthy to live life as it's the only one, even if you believe in an afterlife. What does it matter if there is something afterwards? You are in the now, after all. But then, I'm the type who are planning on the small details, but impulsive in the big things in life (careers, studies etc.). I am trying to learn to be more impulsive in the small things as well.

Three things jumped out at me as I read Harris’ book. First of all, I admire Sam Harris. I know that may shock you, but how can you not appreciate the passion he has?

But if I really believed what he believed, I would be in despair. I would be living every moment in emptiness and maybe even terror –- the dread that all that matters is ticking away with every passing second. No hope. No future. But he believes it so strongly, he is willing to tell his belief to everyone, to risk ridicule and personal attack, to do anything it takes to get people to hear his message. I admire that. This is the second passionate book written by an atheist that I have read recently. I am beginning to wonder if atheists are becoming more serious about their faith that leads to nothing than Christians are about their faith that leads to everything.


Damn, the religious atheist strawman just showed up again.

And how poor a life do you have, if you have no hope unless you believe in a supreme being who doesn't involve himself in your life? I have many hopes, dreams and even fears - none of which requires a supreme being. And what's more, since I don't believe in such a supreme being, I don't depend on it to make my hopes and dreams come true. Instead I work, some times quite hard, to make it happen, as do many religous people, I'm sure - but why do they then need to believe in a supreme being to have hope?
Oh, and we all have futures. In some cases, those imediate futures invovles becoming part of the eco-cycle, but that's another matter.

The second thought that occurred to me is how much easier it is for us to evangelize than it is for Sam Harris. After all, we actually have good news to share. And yet, the vast majority of believers rarely if ever share their faith. I have to admit that this just amazes me and leaves me scratching my head. I have to ask you if you really believe what you say you do. If so, then why would you miss out on the greatest joy in life -– seeing others embrace the truth that has transformed you? Let’s start. Right now. Today.


What is this good news you will share? That unless people believe the same as you, they are going to be eternally tortured in hell? That they have no real purpose in life other than to serve the whim of a supreme being? How can you consider such messages good?
Oh, and maybe some of these people realize that religion is a private matter. That many of us don't appreciate having other peoples' faith pushed upon us.

Ask God to help you make a friend who needs to know His Son. Open your eyes and watch and pray as you live out this day. He will lead you to that friend and help you to share the good news. And when you get started, it will be hard to remember why you ever lived any other way before. It will be contagious as other believers around you see how full life is when you stop keeping the best thing in your life to yourself.


Is this some kind of code for taking drugs? Sounds like the effect is pretty similar.

The rest of the column is about what Avant sees as the real problem for the Southern Baptists - basicly that they are not converting enough atheists.

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Lazy linking - mostly photos edition

I've come across a few interesting sites, which I thought I'd share with the rest of you.

Via Readerville: 10 Most Magnificent Trees in the World. Of course, such lists are always subjective, and I would personally have included the Joshua Trees on the list, but still worth reading. There are some amazing photos of the trees.
Of the trees on the list, I've only seen the Baobab trees in Australia.

The list links to an Wikipedia entry of famous trees, which includes some that should interest Orac: the forest swastika. There are also some that might interest the rest of us though.

Also via Readerville, Shorpy - the 100-Year-Old Photo Blog. The age refers to the age of the photos, not the blog. Make sure to click on the description of the blog's namesake.
From the Shorpy blog, there is a link on to Patent Room, which describes its content thus: "Patent illustrations from the 19th and early 20th centuries."

From somewhere or other: Weight Watchers recipe cards from 1974.

People are aware of Grrlscientist's image of the day, right? I think my favorite so far is A Handful of Baby Crocodiles

Boing Boing have some posts with pictures of homeowner holdouts (people who refuse to sell their homes when their area is being developed): post 1, post 2 and post 3.

Via Martin, I came to The Silent The Complete - Modern Ruins in Finland.

Other links that might be of interest:
LibriVox
LibriVox volunteers record chapters of books in the public domain and release the audio files back onto the net. Our goal is to make all public domain books available as free audio books. We are a totally volunteer, open source, free content, public domain project.


And yes, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection is there.

Got wavs? - movie quotes in wav and mp3 format.


The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London 1674 to 1834


A fully searchable online edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing accounts of over 100,000 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court.


The Paris Review Interview Archive

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Another reason universal health care is needed in the US

Via Truthout I became aware of this LA Times article

Blue Cross cancellations called illegal

Blue Cross of California "routinely" violated state law when it canceled individual health insurance coverage after policyholders got pregnant or sick, making no attempt to determine whether they did anything to merit such "harsh" treatment, according to a state investigation of practices that appear to be industrywide.

State regulators plan similar investigations of other health plans in California, and the findings against Blue Cross ratchet up the risk of liability for other insurers, many of whom face lawsuits from consumers who claim they were illegally dumped and subjected to substantial hardships.


So, not only is the cost of health care coverage going up in the US, it appears that when you start to need it, you're denied it.

As I has written earlier, 54.5% of all personal bankruptcies are at least somewhat caused by medical reasons (source), so the price these people might have to pay is very high indeed, even if we ignore the cost of the insurance through the years.

My earlier posts on the issue of universal health care in the US:
Is universal health care affordable in the US?
Universal health care as a progressive issue
The price of lack of unviersal health care

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Friday, March 23, 2007

A century of posts

The title refers to century in the numerical sense, not as a time unit.

This post is my 100th post at this blog1. My first post was posted on the 30th of January, and it took a week before I posted my second post. Since then I've picked up my speed a little.

The focus of this blog has always been intended to be science-related, but hopefully with a progressive twist.

As it is now, a large part of my posts are pretty much just links to science news, with my take on it.
I don't expect that to change.
However, I will try to continue to make some well researched posts like my posts on US health care, Kent Hovind, and my recent post on US foreign aid donations.

I know that I have some regular readers, some of which have blogs that are read by thousands of more people per day than have read my blog in its entire existence.
Still, it could be interesting to see who reads this blog, so please make a comment and tell me who you are, and if you have a blog, please feel free to promote it at the same time.

Oh, and I am always interested in new subjects to write about, so if people have any ideas that they think I might be able to do something with, please don't hesitate to tell me.

1I say "at this blog", since I have in the past written two guest posts for Orac, so my total number of blogposts is actually 102.

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What is it with stem cell research and fraud?

Stem cell research seems to be a magnet for less than ethical researchers. It makes sense in a way - it's a new field, where there are a lot of money to be made. However, since the importance of the research is so high, you'd think that there would be more scrutiny on the research results.

The most famerous case of fraud is of course Hwang Woo Suk. His fraud might have very little direct impact on the field, but it made it harder for the rest of the scientists to seem credible (the rather large claims by some of them, certainly didn't help either).

Now, via Great White Wonder in the comments at Pharyngula, I see there is another case in the making.

Fresh questions on stem cell findings

Fresh questions surround some of the highest-profile research on adult stem cells. For the second time, New Scientist has discovered apparently duplicated data being used to describe results from different experiments in work published by a group of scientists at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

The research relates to a particular type of adult stem cell that appears to have a remarkable ability to turn into many types of tissue. This type of cell has been promoted by some activists and politicians as an alternative to human embryonic stem cells in medical research. The use of ESCs is unacceptable to some people because they can only be harvested from embryos that are destroyed in the process.

In June 2002, Catherine Verfaillie's team at Minnesota published a paper in Nature (vol 418, p 41) describing a population of stem cells from the bone marrow of mice that seemed able to grow into most of the body's tissues. This was a surprise, because adult stem cells can generally form only a narrow range of tissue types. Verfaillie's team called these cells "multipotent adult progenitor cells" or MAPCs. Other researchers have since found it difficult to replicate the work (see "A hard act to follow", below).


I have a few comments on this:

A) This shows the strength of the scientific process (including peer-review) - while the original article made it through without these questions being raised, the very fact that others are not able to replicate the results made New Scientist take a hard look at the research.

B) Note that there might be a political or religious agenda to the fraud. We are all aware of which group of people promotes this "as an alternative to human embryonic stem cells in medical research". Of course, there might also simply be a economical motivation.

C) While people can talk about a presumption of innocence, that is not relevant in this case. There are clear evidence of problems with this research - the duplicated use of data, the inability to replicate the results etc. The later might be because of bad research, but when you put it all together, it points towards fraud.

Hopefully this will put an end to the fruitless research into MAPCs, and instead lead to better stem cell research in general.

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Free Speech victories in France and the US

Via Skeptico, I see that free speech advocates won a victory in France.

French cartoons editor acquitted

A French court has ruled in favour of weekly Charlie Hebdo, rejecting accusations by Islamic groups who said it incited hatred against Muslims.

The cartoons were covered by freedom of expression laws and were not an attack on Islam, but fundamentalists, it said.


Skeptico is critical of the claims that it's a free speech victory, but I think he is wrong. It is a free speech victory, though there are still a way to go. In other words, the free speech advocates won a battle, but they have yet to win the war.

And in the US, there has also been a free speech victory - a much more important one in my eyes.

U.S. Judge Blocks 1998 Online Porn Law

Software filters work much better than a 1998 federal law designed to keep pornography away from children on the Internet, a federal judge ruled Thursday in striking down the measure on free-speech grounds.


The federal law that was struck down was the COPA. The article explains pretty well why it was important that this law was struck down.

The law would have criminalized Web sites that allow children to access material deemed "harmful to minors" by "contemporary community standards." The sites would have been expected to require a credit card number or other proof of age. Penalties include a $50,000 fine and up to six months in prison.

Sexual health sites, the online magazine Salon.com and other Web sites backed by the American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the law on grounds it would have a chilling effect on speech. Joan Walsh, Salon.com's editor in chief, said the law could have allowed any of the 93 U.S. attorneys to prosecute the site over photos of naked prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

"The burden would have been on us to prove that they weren't" harmful to minors, Walsh said Thursday.


Does anyone believe for a second that in today's political climate, it wouldn't have been misused? If nothing else, then it could have been used to harass websites.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Lazy linking - blog edition

In the last couple of weeks, I've come across some interesting and thought-provocing blogposts, that I thought I'd share.

Over at Retrospectacle Shelley desribes her journey from being deeply religios to becoming an atheist. On Religion and "Taking the Red Pill"

Little Light over at Taking Steps describes how the political can become very personal: de profundis

At Feministe, piny opens herself up to the rest of us: Undisclosed Locations, Unfinished Business

Via Lauren, Blue Lily writes about a very special anniversary: Anniversary -- Escaping institutionalization

Michael Bérubé has closed his blog, but has started over at Crooked Timber, and has written his first post there: Cover story

Via Auguste at Pandagon, I came to Eric Muller's post about his Uncle Leo's Medals

David Neiwert over at Orcinus is having his fundraising week, but before starting that, he considered if it was worth continuing the blog. Read about his thought here: Doing what we do

Speaking of closing the blog, three blogs have stopped that I know off:
Alon Levy's Abstract Nonsense, Tyler DiPietro’s Growth Rate n lg n (since it's deleted, I'm not linking to it), and more surprisingly Wampum.
What the later will mean for the Koufax awards I don't know.

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All female UN peace unit in Liberia

Via Salon I came across this article in the Christian Science Monitor:
All-female unit keeps peace in Liberia

Behind rows of razor wire, a machine gun peeking over the sandbags is trained on the road below. This is just one of many fortified compounds in the Congo Town suburb of Liberia's war-ravaged capital, Monrovia. But this compound is different, because everyone inside – from the armed guards to the cooks responsible for the inviting scent of curry that wafts around at lunchtime – is female.

The 103 Indian women who have called this compound home since January make up the United Nations' first-ever all-female peacekeeping unit. The women have quickly become part of Monrovia's urban landscape in their distinctive blue camouflage fatigues and flak jackets. They guard the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, patrol the streets day and night, control crowds at rallies and soccer games, and respond to calls for armed back-up from the national police who, unlike the Indian unit, do not carry weapons


This is an interesting development, and there are some pretty sound reasons behind the all-female unit. One of them, is that the UN and Liberia hope that the female soldiers can act as role-models for the Liberian women

Liberian and UN officials hope their presence will help inspire Liberian women to join a fledgling police force struggling to recruit female officers.


There is also a much grimmer reason for it. Protecting the locals against UN troops.

he all-female unit also signifies a revolution in UN peacekeeping, which has been rocked by rape and abuse scandals in recent years, notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti. Analysts say an increase in female peacekeepers will help limit abuses perpetrated by the very people sent to safeguard the rights of those already traumatized by conflict.


It's good that the UN is taking steps towards ensuring the protection of the people under their care.
However, this step is not enough, since there are not enough female soldiers to maintain all UN missions. Instead there have to be some major changes in the culture of acceptance of such acts. Until the UN clearly signals that rape and abuse is not tolerated, and the people committing it (and allowing it) will be tried for their crimes, then it won't stop.

Another issue that the article doesn't go into, is that all-female units also protects the soldiers against the kind of abuse that has been reported in the US military.

I hope this is a signal of the UN taking their responsibilities seriously, not only to their soldiers, but to the people under their care.

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Is USA the biggest foreign aid donor?

Quite frequently you run across people claiming that the US is the most generous country when it comes to foreign aid. Dependent on how you look at it, this can be considered true to a certain degree, but as most people estimates such things it’s not.

It’s hard to get exact numbers for how much foreign aid different countries give, since things like debt relief are often included in the numbers. While it can be argued that debt relief lessens the burden on the 3rd world countries, and thus can be considered foreign aid, the money has often been transferred much earlier than the debt relief, and thus should not be counted as part of the foreign aid for the year when the debt relief happens.

The Center for Global Development makes an annual report, the Index of Donor Countries, where they compare different donor countries. This comparison is based upon a number of factors, but among those, are the net transfers (i.e. foreign aid less dept relief).

Table 3, on page 12 of the Index of Donor Countries, contains the numbers of donations including and excluding debt relief.

From here it can be seen that in 2004 the US transferred 17,178 million dollars, while the second highest entity on the list, the European Commission donated 12,216 million.
If we consider debt relief as part of foreign aid, the US donated 18,639 and the EC 12,577.
Japan donated 10,847 millions with debt relief, but only 3,385 millions without.



The figure shows the total donations of all the countries in the index (sorry for the lack of values on the X-axis – Excel didn’t want to play along for some reason).

The problem with looking at the total numbers like that is that it doesn’t take into account the relative sizes of the economies and populations. If Bill Gates gives $100 to someone it’s not considered as generous as if a minimum wage worker gives $100 to someone, simply because $100 is much less of Gates’ capital. Similar, if ten minimum wage workers each gives $10, it’s not considered as generous as the one person giving $100, even if the amount is the same.
In other words, to judge if the US is the biggest donor, we have to take into account how large part of the GNP goes to foreign aid, and how big amount is used per capita.

To do so, I found the relevant data from the International Monetary Fund and used that for comparison.
The numbers I got was the countries' population, total GNP and GNP per capita, both of the GNP values are relative to their buying power (GNP (PPP)).

After doing that, I did a little number crushing. First I found out who donated most compared to their total GNP (PPP). In this, and the following comparisons, I only looked at the transfers without debt relief (net numbers in the above figure).



As the figure shows, the position of USA is quite different when taking the relative economies into consideration (I’ve removed the donations from the international organizations from the figure). As a matter of fact, the US ranks 17th, just below Greece, and just above Germany. And this figure doesn’t take into consideration that the EU countries make considerable donations through the European Commission, which was ranked second in the total amount given.

To reflect how much difference these donations makes, I’ve made a different figure that groups the EU countries together. As the donations by the EC probably came from money paid by the member countries before 2004, I’ve made two groups – on called ‘Old EU’, which includes only the countries that were members before 2004, and one called ‘EU’ which includes all EU countries in the donor table.



Here the US is doing better than the EU as a whole, even when taking the EC donations into account, however the US is doing considerably worse than the old EU, especially when including the EC donations.

Again, looking at donations as a percentage of GNP (PPP) doesn’t show the whole picture. If you have ten people earning $1000 each, and one person earning $10,000, then it doesn’t make sense to look at how large a part of their total pay is donated. The $10,000 earned by the first group has to cover the expenses of 10 people, while the $10,000 of the second group only have to cover the expenses of one person.

To take this into consideration, I want to take a look at how much is donated per capita, and then hold that relative to how much each person earn. First I look at the donations per capita. Again, I’ve made two figures, to reflect that the EU countries also pay through the EC.



When we look at net donations per capita, the US is ranked 14th, but again, this is without taking the EC donations into account.



When looking at the EU as a whole, we can see that both the EU and the old EU are doing worse than the US when disregarding the EC donations, however when taking those into consideration, they are doing significantly better.

The donations per capita measurement has the same problems as the original total donations, that it doesn’t take the relative economic strengths into consideration. To make up for this, I’ve calculated the donations per capita as percentages of the GNP (PPP) per capita.



Here the US is ranked 17th, just below Greece and above Germany.
Interesting enough, the percentage of GNP (PPP) per capita used for donations is almost exactly the same as the percentage of total GNP (PPP) used for donations in all cases (only Norway, Luxembourg and Iceland shows minor differences).



As the above figure shows, the old EU does better than the US both with and without the EC donations. The EU as a whole does less well.

All in all, it can be said that while the US is an important contributor to foreign aid, it cannot be justified to say that the US is the most generous donator. When looking at the total amount, the EU donates twice as much as the US ($35,065 millions vs. $17,178 millions) without having a relatively larger population (446.39 million vs. 293.816 million).
When looking at foreign aid as a percentage of GNP (PPP), the US is ranked 17th, and when measured as dollars per capita, the US is ranked 14th.

Note: I know there are a number of issues with the EU measurements that I’ve made. The most obvious that I’ve only included the numbers for the donor countries, and that I’ve considered the donor countries from the EU the only source of the EC donations, and ignored the non-donor countries. However, as I said, the donations from the EC were probably paid pre-2004, which means that the EU members paying are all included on the donor country list.
Even if the EU numbers are problematic, it doesn’t change the US ranking compared to other donor countries.

Other issues that is relevant to this, is the target of the foreign aid donations (is it fair to consider the US donations to Israel part of their foreign aid donations?), what the donations are used for – 23.2% of the US aid program in 2004 was used for military aid.
And is private donations included? There is a tradition for private donations in the US, and it seems unfair to exclude that from an evaluation.
Many of these things are included in the Center for Global Development’s measuring of the donor countries’ commitment to development. Here the US ranks 13th

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Resistant diseases news - Plague edition

Earlier today I wrote about how some strains of TB have become resistant to antibiotics.

Well, it turns out it's not the only disease where this has been observed. The Guardian reports:

Drug-resistant form of plague identified

A multiple drug-resistant form of the plague, one of the oldest and most lethal diseases in human history, has been identified by scientists, prompting fears of devastating future outbreaks that cannot be contained by antibiotics.

Tests on a strain of the disease-causing bacterium, Yersinia pestis, taken from a 16-year-old boy in Madagascar revealed the organism has developed resistance to eight antibiotics used to treat the infection, including streptomycin and tetracyclin.

The bacterium is believed to have become resistant to drugs after swapping genes with common food bacteria such as salmonella, E coli and klebsiella, probably while being carried in the guts of fleas, which spread the disease by biting infected rodents.


I don't expect that I have to explain why a senario of a resistent form of the plague is frightening the experts.

Update: PLoS One has an relevant article to this post: Multiple Antimicrobial Resistance in Plague: An Emerging Public Health Risk

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Lazy linking

As people might have noticed, most of my recent posts have been about news stories, with very little contribution or commentary from my side. I applogize for that, but it's mostly due to the fact that I am somewhat busy with work and preparing for an exam in a couple of weeks.

I do have a couple of posts in the pipeline though - one is about the relative contribution of the US to foreign aid (this might turn into a series of posts, since there is quite a bit of data), the other is about gender distribution in the faculty in Danish universities. The later involves some data collection, so it might take a bit of time before it shows up.

In liu of something better to post, I'll link to a few newsstories I find interesting.




At BBC they have an analysis of the legacy of slavery

What do we mean by the legacy of slavery? Is it something measurable - or perhaps a feeling that echoes of a terrible past can still be heard today?


BBC also reports on the finding of the fossil of a new type of dinosaurs: Dinosaur den diggers discovered - I guess they couldn't resist that headline.

The Guardian has more:
Fossil reveals a caring, sharing dinosaur


The NY Times report on how astronomers are Piecing Together the Clues of an Old Collision, Iceball by Iceball

"Why?" you might ask, but luckily the article explains that

“It’s telling us something very important about the early evolution of the solar system, and we’re still trying to figure that out,” said Harold F. Levison, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute’s department of space studies in Boulder, Colo.

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Is Intelligent Design a serious alternative to evolutionary biology?

The Quarterly Review of Biology has an article What Is Wrong With Intelligent Design? by Elliott Sober

This article reviews two standard criticisms of creationism/intelligent design (ID): it is unfalsifiable, and it is refuted by the many imperfect adaptations found in nature. Problems with both criticisms are discussed. A conception of testability is described that avoids the defects in Karl Popper's falsifiability criterion. Although ID comes in multiple forms, which call for different criticisms, it emerges that ID fails to constitute a serious alternative to evolutionary theory.


Sober explains the principles of testability which could apply to Intelligent Design, and end up concluding

It is one thing for a version of ID to have observational consequences, something else for it to have observational consequences that differ from those of a theory with which it competes. The mini-ID claim that an intelligent designer made the vertebrate eye entails that vertebrates have eyes, but that does not permit it to be tested against alternative explanations of why vertebrates have eyes. When scientific theories compete with each other, the usual pattern is that independently attested auxiliary propositions allow the theories to make predictions that disagree with each other. No such auxiliary propositions allow mini-ID to do this.

It is easy enough to construct a version of ID that accommodates a set of observations already known, but it also is easy to construct a version of ID that conflicts with what we have already observed. Neither undertaking results in substantive science, nor is there any point in constructing a version of ID that is so minimalistic that it fails to say much of anything about what we observe. In all its forms, ID fails to constitute a serious alternative to evolutionary theory.


In other words, there is no real theory of Intelligent Design, hence it cannot be an alternative to evolutionary theory.

Of course, the Discovery Institute is not happy about the article, and have responded: What is Wrong with Sober’s Attack on ID? (Part I): Defining ID and its Historical Origins

I see that this is part I, so hopefully they'll eventually write something dealing with the actual content of Sober's article, and not just try to argue that someone used the words "Intelligent Design" before it became necessary to try to cloak Creationism as such.
Of course, given the fact that Sober is quite right, I don't expect this to be the case - expect more nitpicking and no addressing of the actual content.

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The use of the word 'evolution' in science papers

Over at Respectful Insolence, Paula pointed to this PLoS Biology essay in the comments to one of Orac's posts about Dr. Egnor.

Evolution by Any Other Name: Antibiotic Resistance and Avoidance of the E-Word

The increase in resistance of human pathogens to antimicrobial agents is one of the best-documented examples of evolution in action at the present time, and because it has direct life-and-death consequences, it provides the strongest rationale for teaching evolutionary biology as a rigorous science in high school biology curricula, universities, and medical schools. In spite of the importance of antimicrobial resistance, we show that the actual word “evolution” is rarely used in the papers describing this research. Instead, antimicrobial resistance is said to “emerge,” “arise,” or “spread” rather than “evolve.” Moreover, we show that the failure to use the word “evolution” by the scientific community may have a direct impact on the public perception of the importance of evolutionary biology in our everyday lives.


The essay is quite interesting, since it clearly shows how Biomedical Journals doesn't use the word 'evolution', but instead use words like 'emergence' to describe the process.

As the essay rightly points out, this is a problem because it allows people to think that the understanding of evolution is not important in their daily life. It even allows doctors to think that an understanding of evolution isn't necessary for their profession (a misunderstanding the ScienceBloggers have dealt with at great length, in response to Dr. Egnor's ignorant claims).

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Sex not necessary for evolving new species

A new study over at PLoS Biology shows that sex is not a necessary mechanism for the evolution of a new species.

Independently Evolving Species in Asexual Bdelloid Rotifers

Asexuals are an important test case for theories of why species exist. If asexual clades displayed the same pattern of discrete variation as sexual clades, this would challenge the traditional view that sex is necessary for diversification into species. However, critical evidence has been lacking: all putative examples have involved organisms with recent or ongoing histories of recombination and have relied on visual interpretation of patterns of genetic and phenotypic variation rather than on formal tests of alternative evolutionary scenarios. Here we show that a classic asexual clade, the bdelloid rotifers, has diversified into distinct evolutionary species. Intensive sampling of the genus Rotaria reveals the presence of well-separated genetic clusters indicative of independent evolution. Moreover, combined genetic and morphological analyses reveal divergent selection in feeding morphology, indicative of niche divergence. Some of the morphologically coherent groups experiencing divergent selection contain several genetic clusters, in common with findings of cryptic species in sexual organisms. Our results show that the main causes of speciation in sexual organisms, population isolation and divergent selection, have the same qualitative effects in an asexual clade. The study also demonstrates how combined molecular and morphological analyses can shed new light on the evolutionary nature of species.


This is interesting. This shows that one of the assumptions of evolutionary biology isn't quite true. While sex probably speed up the process, asexual species can evolve as well.
It doesn't in any way invalidate the theory of evolution, but the exact mechanisms need to be re-evaluated. Science in action!

PLoS Biology has a synopsis of the study for those of us not as well versed in biology: Who Needs Sex (or Males) Anyway?. I highly recommend reading it.

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Resistant TB on the march

Bad news from South Africa. A nasty strain of TB that's resistant to virtually every antibiotics is becoming more and more widespread. While multi-resistant TB (MDR-TB) have been around for a while, this new strain of extremely/extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) have only been known since 2005. Unfortunately it is spreading

Dr. Karin Weyer of the South African Medical Research Council said XDR-TB has been found in more than 40 hospitals in all nine provinces of South Africa, The Times said.


The XDR-TB bacteria have been linked to HIV/AIDS in earlier studies, making health officials not only fear for their TB programs, but also their HIV programs.

"This is an issue of grave worldwide importance," said Friedland. "MDR and XDR carry the danger of blunting or reversing the success of TB programs and the roll-out of anti-retroviral therapies for HIV where they are desperately needed in resource limited settings. Urgent intervention is necessary, especially now that we know that MDR tuberculosis is far more prevalent than previously thought and that XDR tuberculosis has been transmitted to HIV co-infected patients and associated with high mortality."


According to the second article, there haven't been any new approvals of TB drugs in 40 years, so new treatments are desperately needed, as are new diagnostic tests - they still use the same ones that were used in 1882, according to Gerald Friedland, M.D., director of the AIDS Program at Yale and Professor in the Departments of Medicine and Epidemiology and Public Health.

And it's not only South Africa that sees the XDR-TB strains. XDR-TB is defined by the WHO as

a form of the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis that is resistant to standard oral drugs, to newer fluoroquinolones and to one of three injected drugs.


So far it has been reported in 28 countries, but mostly in China, India, and Russia.



And as a personal note to Dr. Egnor and his ilk - this is why evolution is important to medicine. Such multi- and extensively drug-resistant are predictable because of our understanding of evolution. This allows us to ensure that this sort of things are avoided, and shows us how to deal with it, when it happens.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A new vector against malaria: GM mosquitoes?

Scientists have managed to develop a new breed of genetically modified malaria-resistent mosquitoes, which can drive out natural malaria-carrying insects.

Now it is being debated if this new vector for getting rid of malaria should be used. While it might sound like a no-brainer, it would be the first case of large-scale releasing of GM organisms into the wild. Before that can happen, it must be ensured that the relase can't have negative consequences. As the Guardian writes

Trials in sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria claims the life of a child every 30 seconds, could be conducted within five years, but scientists will first have to prove as far as possible that the resistance genes will not trigger a more aggressive form of malaria, or spread to other insects.


While the mechanisms behind the resistance to DDT in mosquitoes is different, it's a good example of what we are up against.

The NY Times, brings a Reuters story about it, which makes clear that there is still some work left, even if there are no problems with the new breed.

Jacobs-Lorena and colleagues studied the mosquitoes as they bred in cages. The mosquitoes were allowed to feed on mice that had been infected with P. berghei, one of the parasites that causes malaria.

[...]

P. berghei is not the most serious cause of malaria -- another parasite called Plasmodium falciparum is. But the researchers said their study shows the idea of using lab-engineered mosquitoes to battle malaria is a valid one.


I hope, and expect, that this will bring us much closer to getting rid of malaria.

For people with a subscription to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online, the study can be found here: Transgenic malaria-resistant mosquitoes have a fitness advantage when feeding on Plasmodium-infected blood

And as a personal note to Dr. Egnor and his ilk, note how the concept of evolution and natural selection is the basis of this.

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Update on fired anti-evolution teacher

Earlier I wrote about how the Sisters School Board fired a science teacher for not teaching evolution correctly.

I didn't write much about what he was teaching, since the Fox News article I quoted didn't say anything specific about it. However, one of the parents, John Rahm, provides a bit more information

"Actually if you took the material and Googled the crucial passages it takes you to a creationist Web site called Answers in Genesis, www.answersingenesis.org, that is run by Ken Ham. ... One of the lines in his (Ham's) mission statement for the Web site is any statement which contradicts the Bible is inherently false"


So, a Creationist trying to sneak his agenda into science class. And he is defending it.

Helphinstine defended his usage of source material from the "Answers in Genesis" Web site telling The Nugget that some of the information presented is "good scientific fact.


The Sisters School Board definitely did the right thing. If they could, they should demand the money they paid him for teaching back, since he didn't do what he was hired to do (yes, I am aware that this is not a possibility).

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John W. Backus has died

A true giant of the field of Computer Science, John W. Backus, has died, 82 years old.

MarkCC explains Backus' contributions to the field.

The NY Times Obituaries: John W. Backus, 82, Fortran Developer, Dies

IBM's profile of Backus

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Teacher fired for deviating from the Darwinist party line

Or so many neo-Creationists will probably say. Fox News brings the story about a teacher who was fired because of his teaching.

Ore. Teacher Fired Over Bible References

During his eight days as a part-time high school biology teacher, Kris Helphinstine included Biblical references in material he provided to students and gave a PowerPoint presentation that made links between evolution, Nazi Germany and Planned Parenthood.

That was enough for the Sisters School Board, which fired the teacher Monday night for deviating from the curriculum on the theory of evolution.


He manage to include relgious messages and pseudo-history in just eight days? Sounds like a very justified firing to me. Religious messages have nothing to do in any science class, and anyone claiming that there is any kind of link between Nazi Germany and evolution is ignorant about history.
I guess it says something about the Helphinstine that he thinks that there is any kind of guilt-by-association with being linked to Planned Parenthood. Not that there is any such link, except for the link there is between evolution and any type of medical organization.

Of course Helphinstine has a lot of excuses, but the buttom line is that he tried to get his own religious and political agenda included in the class room, and was rightfully fired for that.
I applaud the Sisters School Board for doing the right thing, and stand up for proper teaching.

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Math team solves "unsolvable" problem

There are several problems in math that are considered pretty much unsolvable until they are solved. The msot well known examples are the Millennium Prize Problems. One of which Grigori Perelman solved - proving the the Poincaré theorem (earlier known as the Poincaré conjecture).

Now a different "unsolvable" math problem (not included among the six remaining Millennium Prize Problems) has been solved through a group effort.

Math team solves the unsolvable E8

If you thought writing calculations to describe three-dimensional objects in math class was hard, consider doing the same for one with 248 dimensions.

Mathematicians call such an object E8 (pronounced "e eight"), a symmetrical structure whose mathematical calculation has long been considered an unsolvable problem. Yet an international team of math whizzes cracked E8's symmetrical code in a large-scale computing project, which produced about 60 gigabytes of data. If they were to show their handiwork on paper, the written equation would cover an area the size of Manhattan.


It is an international group effort of 18 people working together across country borders. This is what science should be like - sharing results and working together to get the best results possible.

MarkCC has more about the actual problem over at Good Math, Bad Math.

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Another example of evolution

ScienceDaily writes about how a newly discovered bird species in the US contributes to our understanding of evolution.

New Bird Species Found In Idaho, Demonstrates Co-evolutionary Arms Race

One does not expect to discover a bird species new to science while wandering around the continental United States. Nor does one expect that such a species would provide much insight into how coevolutionary arms races promote speciation. On both fronts a paper to appear in The American Naturalist proves otherwise.

Julie Smith, now at Pacific Lutheran University, and her former graduate advisor, Craig Benkman at the University of Wyoming, have uncovered strong evidence that coevolution has led to the formation of a species of bird new to science in the continental United States. Benkman discovered in 1996 what appears to be a new species restricted to two small mountain ranges in southern Idaho (the South Hills and Albion Mountains). This species is a morphologically and vocally distinct "call type" of red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra complex), which is a group of seed-eating finches specialized for extracting seeds from conifer cones.


The original article in the American Naturalist can be found here: A Coevolutionary Arms Race Causes Ecological Speciation in Crossbills.

I am sure that the biologists out there can offer much more qualified oppinion of the importance of this.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Is this the new journalism?

I don't know if I should call it crowd-journalism or wiki-journalism, but NY Times describes a new news site that wants to explore collective open-source journalism.

All the World’s a Story

Journalism has always been a product of networks. A reporter receives an assignment, begins calling “sources” — people he or she knows or can find. More calls follow and, with luck and a deadline looming, the reporter will gain enough mastery of the topic to sit down at a keyboard and tell the world a story.

A new experiment wants to broaden the network to include readers and their sources. Assignment Zero (zero.newassignment.net/), a collaboration between Wired magazine and NewAssignment.Net, the experimental journalism site established by Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, intends to use not only the wisdom of the crowd, but their combined reporting efforts — an approach that has come to be called “crowdsourcing.”

The idea is to apply to journalism the same open-source model of Web-enabled collaboration that produced the operating system Linux, the Web browser Mozilla and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.


I will freely admit that I have conflicted feelings about this.
While I find the idea interesting, and can see how it can work (as seen in rare occations with blogs), the examples of the problems with Wikipedia and many blog-based stories shows the potential problems with this idea. There is also a huge potential for ideology coming in the way of the story.

Personally I feel that a similar project using freelance journalists would have a greater potential to succeed.

Other links:
Assignment Zero webpage
Wired article about the subject

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