Saturday, June 30, 2007

8 random things about me - do you really care?

ERV tagged me with the '8 Random Things About You' meme, so I thought I'd better be good and post something. Not that I really think that there is anything interesting to say about me.

First the formalia:
Here are the rules:

* We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
* Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
* People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
* At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
* Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

1. Though I work as an IT-consultant, and enjoy it very much, I actually came into IT late. Before I started on a study called "Advanced computer Studies" (Datamatiker in Danish) in 2000, I hadn't really programmed before (except for some basic web-related stuff). Fortunately I found it fairly straightforward, and quite interesting.

2. Most of my friends are also working within IT, though in most cases I have known them long before they began to work with these things. We all just moved in the same general direction, I guess.

3. One thing you'll never experience, is me singing. I cannot sing, and I have a pretty decent ear for music, so listening to my own singing is painful. The same goes for playing muscial instruments.

4. I practiced martial arts for over 15 years. Judo was the main thing, but I also did some Karate and Jiu-jitsu, and a little Aikido and Kendo. Currently I am not practicing martial arts, but I am planning on finding a new dojo - the problem is that I don't want to practice competition judo (where the aim is to win), but rather focus on correct techniques.

5. I used to be an avid reader, reading at least one book per day. Now the internet has cut down on my reading time, so I am down to a book per week.

6. My parents had a large book collection, and I have seem to have inherited their collecting gene. Due to lack of space, I am not buying many books these days, but I have an ever-growing CD and DVD collection. Currently I am trying to convince myself of the need to cull my CD collection of those CDs that I won't listen to again, but these things don't come easily to me.

7. When going to town, I usually drink beer or standard drinks like gin and tonic. However, my drink of choice is whisky, and I am working on getting a decent range of them. Together with a bunch of other people, I am planning on buying a hogshead of whisky, that will mature for 10 years, before we get the bottles.

8. I don't consider myself a scientist, though I have a B.Sc. and write in a blog called 'pro-science'. My basic grasp of math, chemistry, physics, biology etc. is too low for me to feel that I can call myself a scientist in any sense. While I do pass the math-based subjects in computer science, I have to put a lot of work into it.
Rather, I consider myself a systems developer/architect that applies science to systems development (something that's not a given).

And, now for the hard part - who to tag?

Kaethe is one of my few faithful readers, so she's a given.

Peter Cashwell usually does some mean lists, so it could be interesting to see his repsonse.

Sara Speaking has turned into a daily read, so I think I should also tag Sara.

Shelley over at Retrospectacle has just returned from a nice trip, so she be rested and able to write something interesting about herself.

I don't know if ancient hominin do blog memes, but just in case they do, I tag Afarensis (hopefully his hiatus won't be too long).

Orac is one of my blog-fathers, so I think it's fitting to tag him. However, he is pseudonymous, so it might be that he wants to skip this one.

Blake Stacey is one of these bloggers that write stuff that I wish I could write.

Skeptico is a must-read, so he is also tagged.

As with all memes, I don't take it personal if people don't want to participate. I personally only participates in memes that is relevant to the blog's general theme, or which can provide the readers a little better understanding of who I am.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Mosquitoes spread more than malaria

Ny Times has an article about Singapore's loosing war on their mosquitoes. Normally such stories would be about the spread of malaria, but in this case, it's about a different disease.

Mosquitoes Have the Edge in Singapore’s Dengue War

Mr. Govindarajoo is one of roughly 500 inspectors from Singapore’s National Environment Agency specially trained to conduct house-to-house search-and-destroy missions against Aedes mosquitoes, which transmit the potentially deadly dengue virus. Despite their best efforts, though, the mosquitoes appear to be winning, abetted by the boom in international travel, global warming and their own adaptability.

Singapore and its Southeast Asian neighbors are in the midst of a new epidemic of dengue (pronounced DEN-gay) that is already on course to claim more victims regionally than the last epidemic, in 2005.

Thailand has already had more than 11,000 reported cases so far this year, with 14 deaths, while 48 people have died among Malaysia’s more than 20,000 dengue cases. Sprawling Indonesia, with more than 68,000 reported cases, has had 748 deaths. And while Singapore’s two dengue-related deaths give it the lowest fatality rate in the region, its nearly 3,000 cases make its infection rate second only to Malaysia’s.

Dengue is a relative of yellow fever, hepatitis C and the West Nile virus. It infects an estimated 50 million people a year, and there remains no vaccine or treatment. In acute cases, it causes high fever and debilitating lethargy, accompanied by joint pain so intense that the disease was called “breakbone fever” when it was first diagnosed more than 300 years ago. About 1 percent of these more serious cases develop hemorrhagic fever or shock, with gastrointestinal bleeding and, in rare cases, brain hemorrhages and death.

At the moment, the mosquitoes are winning the fight, partly due to the fact that this breed of mosquitoes are more adapted to urban life than the breed of mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite.

Aedes aegypti, the most prolific transmitter of dengue, has become ideally suited to the rapidly growing tropical urban environment. Unlike malaria-transmitting mosquitoes that stick to rural areas and swampy waters, it prefers fresh, clean water. It breeds largely indoors, needing only tiny pools of water to lay its eggs. Christina Liew, a medical entomologist at the agency, said Aedes mosquitoes are not as fussy about where they will lay eggs as was once believed. In the absence of clean water, Ms. Liew said, females will lay eggs in polluted water.

I will freely admit that I don't know anything about dengue, but the article's description of it, and the problem of creating a vaccination against it, sees rather nasty.

Dengue is an enigmatic virus, difficult to diagnose and impossible to quarantine. Ninety percent of those infected with dengue develop only mild flulike symptoms, if they feel anything at all, making them unwitting reservoirs for the virus.

Even when symptoms appear, they do so days after the patient has become infectious. And after the onset of dengue’s characteristic fever that varies widely in temperature, antibodies do not appear in significant levels for days, meaning doctors cannot use conventional blood tests to detect the virus until the worst is already over.

Creating a vaccine against dengue might be a simple matter if it were not for another quirk of the virus. Dengue has four known strains, and while infection with one strain appears to provide lifelong immunity against that strain and one of the others, it seems to make a person more likely to hemorrhage if infected with one of the other two strains. Any vaccine, therefore, would have to work simultaneously against all four strains.

Because dengue was long confined to the tropics, it remains a little-understood disease. Experts still do not know precisely how the virus affects the liver or why it causes the level of blood-clotting platelets in the bloodstream to decline.

Hopefully better research into the disease will help put an end to it.

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But how was its dance moves?

While reading one of the many free daily newspapers in Denmark, I noticed a small notice of the discovery of a penguin fossil in Peru. The fossil showed that there had been giant penguins in Peru in the past. The penguins, Icadyptes salasi, reached 1.5m in height – the current largest breed of penguins, only reaches 1m.

This small notice made me look at ScienceDaily to see if they covered this discovery, and I was not disappointed.

March Of The Giant Penguins: Prehistoric Equatorial Penguins Reached 5 Feet In Height

The article tells us that it’s not just one, but two pre-historic penguin species that have been uncovered in Peru.

The first of the new species, Icadyptes salasi, stood 5 feet tall and lived about 36 million years ago. The second new species, Perudyptes devriesi, lived about 42 million years ago, was approximately the same size as a living King Penguin (2 ½ to 3 feet tall) and represents a very early part of penguin evolutionary history. Both of these species lived on the southern coast of Peru.

The new finds changes how and when scientists think penguins spread.

These new penguin fossils are among the most complete yet recovered and call into question hypotheses about the timing and pattern of penguin evolution and expansion. Previous theories held that penguins probably evolved in high latitudes (Antarctica and New Zealand) and then moved into lower latitudes that are closer to the equator about 10 million years ago -- long after significant global cooling that occurred about 34 million years ago.

Perhaps the idea of penguins in Peru seems far-fetched to many, but there are actually still a living species of penguins there, though much smaller than the pre-historic species.

"We tend to think of penguins as being cold-adapted species," Clarke says, "even the small penguins in equatorial regions today, but the new fossils date back to one of the warmest periods in the last 65 million years of Earth's history. The evidence indicates that penguins reached low latitude regions more than 30 million years prior to our previous estimates."

Quite interesting.

BBC also writes about the story.

Apparently the find was reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but I’m unable to located anything online.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A follow-up post on Natasja's death

The death of Natasja was frontpage news in Denmark, and some more information about her death has come out.

It seems like the driver of the car that Natasja was in was drunk, and probably high as well. On top of that it's speculated that he was speeding and that Natasja wasn't wearing a seatbelt.
If this is true, then this was not only a sad and meaningless death, it was a very avoidable death. If any one of these factors had been different, Natasja's death could have been prevented. There are three cardinal rules for driving:

a) Don't drive while under influence or while tired. This affects your reaction time and ability to make correct judgements.
b) Don't speed. In most places, the speed limits are set according to local conditions, and breaking them not only risk the health of you and your passengers, but it also risks everyone in the area.
c) Wear your seatbelt. It's a known lifesaver. It's speculated that Karen Mukupa was relatively unharmed in the accident because she was wearing her seatbelt.

Please, everyone, follow these rules if you are driving. You don't only risk yourself, but also everyone in the car, and everyone in your area.

At the moment, Natasja's body is still in Jamaica, and her mother and friends are working on getting it to Denmark for a burial. It was feared that the cost of the transportation (100-200,000 kr., approx € 15-30,000) would have to be covered by the family, but it turns out that the insurance for musicians in Denmark will cover it. Instead her friends are collecting money for a proper burial for Natasja, and financial support for her mother.

A memorial concert is in the works, but no details have been released yet. Apparently a large number of Danish artists have contacted Natasja's manager, and said that they want to play at her memorial concert, so it will undoubtfully happen. For futher development in this matter, I refer to Natasja's Myspace page, which is updated with news.

Shortly before her death, Natasja had finished an album in Danish. It was set to be released on August 27th, but as of this moment, the album's future is uncertain, and no decisions will be made until after her burial.
My guess will be that the release will be postponed, but it will be released. I also predict that it will have good sales by Danish standards.

Update: Todays webpapers say that Natasja's mother has said that she think that the album should be released, since it would not be in the spirit of Natasja to waste all her hard work.

For a blogpost about Natasja, focusing on her music, I recommend this post by an old friend of mine, Matthias Wivel. Matthias didn't know Natasja personally, but he has known her music since the start.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Natasja Saad, 1974-2007

Edit: I had written the wrong year in the headline - obviously it was 2007.

I just found out that one of my old classmates from primary school has been killed in a car accident in Jamica.

Natasja Saad, aka Little T, was a dance-hall musician, who had her big international breakthrough last year.

She died while she was on the top of her musical career, which has spanned since I went to school with her. I haven't had anything to do with her since we were in the same class, but I have been following her career, and been happy that she finally got her well deserved breakthrough.

Damn it.

Update: I can see that many people have found this post through google. If people are looking for information of what will happen now, I suggest keeping an eye on Natasja's Myspace page, where there will be updates.

If you can read Danish, and bear it, I would also suggest reading all the comments at her profile. Those show how big an influence Natasja had on people. There is one post there that nearly made me break down, by one of our former classmates, who contained such anguish that it was nearly unbearable. Rasmus, if you ever read this, my thought goes out to you.

My thoughts also go out to Karen Mukupa, who was in the car with Natasja, and had the sad duty of telling Natasja's mother about the death. I've never met Karen Mukupa, but I remember talking with her when I was having a birthday party in 9th grade. She and Natasja then formed the dou No Name Requested, and had suddently gotten a job that evening, so she had to get Natasja there. She was very nice on the phone, and appologized many times to me for calling one of my guests away.

While Denmark has lost a great talent and I a piece of my past, Karen Mukupa has lost a childhood friend under the worst circumstances imaginable. Let's all hold her and Natasja's family in our thoughts in these hard times.

Update II: I have written a follow-up post

Picture by Jeanet Trebbien. Used with her permission.

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Stupid remark of the month

I came across this quote at Evolution News and Views - the website of the Discovery Institute. It's about the Kitzmiller ruling.

Although there was general jubilation at the ruling, I think the joy will be short-lived, for we have affirmed the principle that a federal judge, not scientists or teachers, can dictate what is and what is not science, and what may or may not be taught in the classroom. Forgive me if I do not feel more free.

(J. Scott Turner, Signs of Design, The Christian Century, June 12, 2007.)

Turner, who according to the DI is a pro-evolution scientist, apparently have little understanding of US law and history, and have no understanding of what the trial was about.

This shouldn't surprise anyone who read his opinion piece in the January 19 2007 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, discussed at Recursivity here.

For the benefit of mr. Turner, I'll try to explain why his quote is so stupid.

In the US there is something called a constitution, which has a number of amendments to it. One of these admendments, the 1st in fact, deals with the subject of religion (among other things), and simply states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The important part of this amendment, in this case, is the very first part "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;".

Now, it is a pretty straightforward law at first glance, but when you think about it a little deeper, it isn't quite as straightforward. What does "an establishment of religion" actual mean - does it just mean that there can't be any state religions, as known from Europe and the Middel East, or does it go a little deeper than that?
Through numerous court cases, it has become clear that the Courts interpret it a little broader than the naive understanding, and take it to mean that government should stay out of religion all together, and not endorse one religious view over the other.

Since funding of religious teaching or religious programs can be seen as a kind of endorsement, the US Courts apply a specific test to such funding. This test, called the Lemon Test, is described in Wikipedia thus:

The Court's decision in this case established the "Lemon test", which details the requirements for legislation concerning religion. It consists of three prongs:

1. The government's action must have a legitimate secular purpose;
2. The government's action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion;
3. The government's action must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religion.

If any of these 3 prongs is violated, the government's action is deemed unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Kitzmiller was a case where some parents brought the Dover School Board to court for violating the 1st amendment, by teaching religion disguised as science.
The court had to evaluate the evidence, as provided by the experts of both the neo-Creationists and the scientists, as to whether the teaching of intelligent design would violate the 1st amendment.

It can be argued whether a judge is qualified to establish if something is legitime science or not, but that's not what the judge needed to do in this case. Instead the judge had to establish whether intelligent design was religious in nature or not - a somewhat easier task, given the easily demonstrated historical ties to creationism (as seen when the different editions of the textbook was provided in court).
Then it needed to be demonstrated that intelligent design actually was scientific enough to be taught in spite of being religious in nature (the "legitimate secular purpose" part of the Lemon Test). Since this couldn't be demonstrated due to the lack of scientific content of intelligent design, the Judge John E. Jones III ruled that teaching intelligent design is unconstitutional.

So, in other words, the Kitzmiller trial wasn't about dictating "what is and what is not science", but to establish whether teaching a specific pseudo-science was unconstitutional. Had intelligent design been scientific in nature, then it could have been established that there were legitimate secular purposes for teaching it, even if there are religious connection (whether it would have violated either of the other two prongs of the Lemon test is something we can only speculate about).

This is something US courts have done numerous times, for example in Edwards v. Aguillard, where the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that it was unconstitutional to teach Creationism. In that ruling, it was made clear that critiques of exisiting scientific theories can't be taught - they just have to be taught with "the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction".

Now, back to the Kitzmiller trial - Judge Jones does write at rather great length about whether intelligent design is science in his ruling. This part of the ruling starts thus:

After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980's; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research. Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena. (9:19-22 (Haught); 5:25-29 (Pennock); 1:62 (Miller)). This revolution entailed the rejection of the appeal to authority, and by extension, revelation, in favor of empirical evidence. (5:28 (Pennock)). Since that time period, science has been a discipline in which testability, rather than any ecclesiastical authority or philosophical coherence, has been the measure of a scientific idea’s worth. (9:21-22 (Haught); 1:63 (Miller)). In deliberately omitting theological or “ultimate” explanations for the existence or characteristics of the natural world, science does not consider issues of “meaning” and “purpose” in the world. (9:21 (Haught); 1:64, 87 (Miller)). While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science. (3:103 (Miller); 9:19-20 (Haught)). This self-imposed convention of science, which limits inquiry to testable, natural explanations about the natural world, is referred to by philosophers as “methodological naturalism” and is sometimes known as the scientific method. (5:23, 29-30 (Pennock)). Methodological naturalism is a “ground rule” of science today which requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify. (1:59-64, 2:41-43 (Miller); 5:8, 23-30 (Pennock)).

As the National Academy of Sciences (hereinafter “NAS”) was recognized by experts for both parties as the “most prestigious” scientific association in this country, we will accordingly cite to its opinion where appropriate. (1:94, 160-61 (Miller); 14:72 (Alters); 37:31 (Minnich)). NAS is in agreement that science is limited to empirical, observable and ultimately testable data: “Science is a particular way of knowing about the world. In science, explanations are restricted to those that can be inferred from the confirmable data – the results obtained through observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. Explanations that cannot be based upon empirical evidence are not part of science.” (P-649 at 27).

This rigorous attachment to “natural” explanations is an essential attribute to science by definition and by convention. (1:63 (Miller); 5:29-31 (Pennock)). We are in agreement with Plaintiffs’ lead expert Dr. Miller, that from a practical perspective, attributing unsolved problems about nature to causes and forces that lie outside the natural world is a “science stopper.” (3:14-15 (Miller)). As Dr. Miller explained, once you attribute a cause to an untestable supernatural force, a proposition that cannot be disproven, there is no reason to continue seeking natural explanations as we have our answer.

Note something about this? It's not Judge Jones who is difining science - he bases his definition on the definition used by the scientific community. So again, while the judge does evaluate if intelligent design is science, he bases that evaluation on the definition by the scientists. In other words, it's the scientists who "dictate what is and what is not science", not the judge. For Turner to fail to understand this, shows how little understanding he has of law.

And not only does the Judge base his ruling of intelligent design not being science on the definitions oby the scientific community. He also bases it on the admissions by the intelligent design crowd themselves.

It is notable that defense experts’ own mission, which mirrors that of the IDM itself, is to change the ground rules of science to allow supernatural causation of the natural world, which the Supreme Court in Edwards and the court in McLean correctly recognized as an inherently religious concept. Edwards, 482 U.S. at 591-92; McLean, 529 F. Supp. at 1267. First, defense expert Professor Fuller agreed that ID aspires to “change the ground rules” of science and lead defense expert Professor Behe admitted that his broadened definition of science, which encompasses ID, would also embrace astrology. (28:26 (Fuller); 21:37-42 (Behe)). Moreover, defense expert Professor Minnich acknowledged that for ID to be considered science, the ground rules of science have to be broadened to allow consideration of supernatural forces. (38:97 (Minnich)).

Prominent IDM leaders are in agreement with the opinions expressed by defense expert witnesses that the ground rules of science must be changed for ID to take hold and prosper. William Dembski, for instance, an IDM leader, proclaims that science is ruled by methodological naturalism and argues that this rule must be overturned if ID is to prosper. (5:32-37 (Pennock)); P-341 at 224 (“Indeed, entire fields of inquiry, including especially in the human sciences, will need to be rethought from the ground up in terms of intelligent design.”).

So not only doesn't the judge define what is and isn't science, be bases his evaluation of the scientific nature of intelligent design on the proponent's own words, which makes clear that it's not science. So in other words, both scientists and pseudo-scientists agree that it's not science.
Somehow, Judge Jones reaching the same conclusion as all involved parties doesn't seem to great a threath to freedom to me.

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Why religion and hospitals don't mix

Recently I read Christopher Hitchens' excellent The Missionary Position - Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, which pretty much explains how Mother Teresa's religion got in the way of good health care. The book's main points are summed up in this '98 interview, but basicly, the part relevant to health care is this:

Indeed. I was even sort of thinking, hmmm. . . maybe I should fumble for some money. And with a gesture of the arm that took in the whole scene of the orphanage, she said: you see this is how we fight abortion and contraception in Calcutta. And I thought: Oh I see—so you actually say that do you? Because it had crossed my mind that part of her work was to bear witness for the Catholic creed regarding the population question, to propagandize for the Church’s line. But I hadn’t realized it was so unmediated. I mean, that she would want to draw my attention to the fact that this was the point.

I don’t know Calcutta terrifically well, but I know it quite well. And I would say that low on the list of the things that it needs is a Christian campaign against population control. And I speak as someone who’s personally very squeamish on the abortion question. People who campaign vigorously against contraception, I think, are in a very weak position to lay down the moral law on abortion.

So in other words, the fight against abortion and contraception is more important than the health of people they treat.

Now, Abbie at ERV has a post up that shows that the same can be said about Catholic (and other religious) hospitals in the US.

What Abbie also points out, is that religious hospitals in the US are primarily state funded, yet they are allowed to refuse to give people proper treatment because of religious dogma.
So, when can we expect hopsitals run by Jehova's Witnessses refusing blood transfusions?

My message is simple - if you don't want to provide proper health care because of religious reasons, you have nothing to do in the health care industry.

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Did lack of food kill Alaskan wolves?

An article in ScienceDaily caught my eye.

Ice Age Extinction Claimed Highly Carnivorous Alaskan Wolves

The extinction of many large mammals at the end of the Ice Age may have packed an even bigger punch than scientists have realized. To the list of victims such as woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats, a Smithsonian-led team of scientists has added one more: a highly carnivorous form of wolf that lived in Alaska, north of the ice sheets.

It was thought that these wolves were related to modern (Asian) wolves, but recent studies show that this isn't the case.

The researchers extracted mitochondrial DNA from the fossil wolf bones preserved in permafrost and compared the sequences, called haplotypes, with those of modern-day wolves in Alaska and throughout the world. The fossils showed a wide range of haplotypes--greater in fact than their modern counterpart--but there was no overlap with modern wolves. This was unexpected.

"We thought possibly they would be related to Asian wolves instead of American wolves because North America and Asia were connected during that time period. That they were completely unrelated to anything living was quite a surprise," Leonard said.

The result implies that the Alaskan wolves died out completely, leaving no modern descendents. After the extinction, the Alaskan habitat was probably recolonized by wolves that survived south of the ice sheet in the continental United States, Leonard said.

As the ScienceDaily article makes clear, it's pretty plausible that these highly carnivorous wolves died out because of the lack of prey. This show how the extinction of some species can lead to the extinction of other species.

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"Flying saucers" turn sixty

Through Wired, I found out that the term "flying saucers" were coined exactly sixty years ago, on June 24th 1947, by Kenneth Arnold, when he reported seeing nine objects flying in a "V" formation over Mount Rainier, Washington.

On this occation, Wired has a good article by Nigel Watson.

Out of This World: 60 Years of Flying Saucers

What I like about the article is that while it explains the views of UFOlogists, it doesn't try to pretend that there is any evidence supporting their views. I would of course have prefered a more critical tone to the article, but I think the overall message of lack of evidence (and conspiracy theories) shines through pretty well.

I should perhaps conclude this post by saying that I don't dounbt that there is other intelligent life out there - there are a huge number, perhaps infinite number, of galaxies after all. However, I don't believe that there is any governmental coverup of alien visits, and I certainly don't believe that a large number of Americans have been picked up by aliens and had highly personal thing done to them (to paraphrase Terry Pratchett).

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Digby unmasks herself

I might have missed it, but I don't think Digby has ever shown herself before (nor actually confirmed that she was female).

Now she has - you can see a clip with her speech at Take Back America over at Firedoglake.

She is a good speaker, though I would say that the written medium is still her best. However, with practice, she could become a great speaker.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Two interesting articles from PNAS

While looking for the article about the early panda mentioned in my last post, I came across a couple of interesting articles at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that were open access.

One of them is about how geographic range affects the risk of extinction.

Wide geographic range is generally thought to buffer taxa against extinction, but the strength of this effect has not been investigated for the great majority of the fossil record. Although the majority of genus extinctions have occurred between major mass extinctions, little is known about extinction selectivity regimes during these "background" intervals. Consequently, the question of whether selectivity regimes differ between background and mass extinctions is largely unresolved. Using logistic regression, we evaluated the selectivity of genus survivorship with respect to geographic range by using a global database of fossil benthic marine invertebrates spanning the Cambrian through the Neogene periods, an interval of {approx}500 My. Our results show that wide geographic range has been significantly and positively associated with survivorship for the great majority of Phanerozoic time. Moreover, the significant association between geographic range and survivorship remains after controlling for differences in species richness and abundance among genera. However, mass extinctions and several second-order extinction events exhibit less geographic range selectivity than predicted by range alone. Widespread environmental disturbance can explain the reduced association between geographic range and extinction risk by simultaneously affecting genera with similar ecological and physiological characteristics on global scales. Although factors other than geographic range have certainly affected extinction risk during many intervals, geographic range is likely the most consistently significant predictor of extinction risk in the marine fossil record.

So, in other words, animals that live in large geographical range are less likely to become extinct than animals that live in a narrow geographical range. This is less notable during mass extinction (i.e. times where large numbers of species go extinct), but even then it can be measured.

This is something that was expected, but undocumented until now.

The other article, is also something that follows quite logically from what we know. It shows that resources have an influence on biodiversity

I probably explained the findings incorrectly, and would love to see any of the real biologist out there (e.g. Coturnix or PZ Myers) explain these papers to the rest of us.

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I wonder if Amanda has any comments....

I could help thinking of Pandagon when I saw this bit of news on ScienceDaily

Remains Of Earliest Giant Panda Discovered

Although it may sound like an oxymoron, a University of Iowa anthropologist and his colleagues report the first discovery of a skull from a "pygmy-sized" giant panda -- the earliest-known ancestor of the giant panda -- that lived in south China some two million years ago.

The remains were found 18 months ago, and shows that pandas have remained relatively unchanged through the last couple of million years, both in regards to anatomy and to diet.

"Pandas are very unique bears --- the only bear species that is known to exist wholly on a vegetarian diet," says Ciochon. "The evolution of this unique dietary specialization probably took millions of years to refine. Our new discovery shows the great time depth of this unique bamboo-eating specialization in pandas. Thus, pandas have been 'uniquely pandas' for many millions of years says Ciochon."

Ciochon says that the find further helps establish conditions that existed in the region during the varying climatic conditions of the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs, stretching back some three millions years before the present. The pygmy giant panda lived in lowland tropical bamboo forests. It is often found associated with the extinct elephant-like creature, Stegodon, and the giant extinct ape, Gigantopithecus. Today's giant panda is isolated in mountainous upland bamboo forests, partly due to the pressure of modern civilization.

The article was brought in the June 18-22 online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but unfortunately it's behind a paywall.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

A couple of days late, but still worth remembering

June 12 1967 the US Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia on behalf on the right to marry, no matter your race. Until the, there were still places in the US where people with different skin colours were not allowed to marry.

Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars, I came across the public statement (.pdf) by Mildred Loving on the 40th anniversary. It's really worth reading, and I am happy to note that Loving used the occation to support gay marriage.

My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God's plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation's fears and prejudices have given way, and today's young people realize that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry.

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the "wrong kind of person" for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about.

Let's work on making this true.

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Blind as a bat? Don't think so....

ScienceDaily brings the news that researchers have found out that fruit bats (aka flying foxes) are not blind during daylight.

The retinas of most mammals contain two types of photoreceptor cells, the cones for daylight vision and colour vision, and the more sensitive rods for night vision. Nocturnal bats were traditionally believed to possess only rods.

Now scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt and at The Field Museum for Natural History in Chicago have discovered that nocturnal fruit bats (flying foxes) possess cones in addition to rods. Hence, fruit bats are also equipped for daylight vision. The researchers conclude that cone photoreceptors might be useful for spotting predators and for social interactions at periods of roosting during the day. Flying foxes often use exposed treetops as daytime roosts, where they assemble in large colonies (Brain, Behavior and Evolution, online May 2007).

The original article is unfortunately hidden behind a pay-wall (but for those with access, it can be found here), so I haven't read it. However, even the ScienceDaily article taught me a few things.

I wasn't really aware of how night/day vision worked, but the fact that there are two different mechanics for seeing duing night and day explains why some people with pretty good eyesight are more or less blind when it's dark.

The second fact I wasn't aware of, was that fruit bats (Chiroptera) sub-order doesn't echolocate. It's only the microbats (Microchiroptera) sub-order that does. I honestly thought that all bats did so, but then, I'm not sure that I actually knew that fruit bats and flying foxes are the same.

One interesting fact that the study picked up, is that some of the fruit bat species are colourblind.

The studied flying fox species (genus Pteropus) were shown to have two spectral cone types, the so-called blue cones that detect short-wave light, and the so-called green cones that detect middle-to-long-wave light. With these two cone types, flying foxes have the prerequisite for dichromatic colour vision, the common mammalian condition.

Curiously, the retinas of the three other studied genera Rousettus (rousette fruit bat), Eidolon (straw coloured fruit bat), and Epomophorus (epauleted fruit bat) completely lack blue cones, they possess only green cones. "With just one cone type, spectral discriminations are not possible, so these species must be colour blind", says Leo Peichl. "A loss of blue cones is a rare event in evolution, it has been found in only a few mammals." The scientists conclude that for the three affected fruit bat genera colour vision is less crucial than for the flying foxes.

Rather interesting.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Old bomb found in whale

Updated - see below

Another data-point against whale hunting - these giants of the sea can become quite old.

19th century bomb found in whale

Scientists have retrieved a weapon fragment from a whale that suggests it may have swum its first strokes not long after the American Civil War.

The fragment is part of a time delay bomb that was introduced in 1879 and manufactured until 1885.

Scientists say it is rare to find a whale over 100 years old but believe some may reach 200.

The bowhead whale was killed by indigenous hunters off Alaska as part of their subsistence quota.

Experts think the wound was inflicted in about 1890.

That's about 120 years ago. So a whale that escaped death by whale hunting more than a century ago, was killed by whale hunting this year. Tragic.

Edit: Triggerede by ERV's comment I did a little research into the living span of mammals, and it turns out that due to the discovery of the bomb and other discoveries, as well as chemical analysis of the levels of aspartic acid in the whales' eyes, Bowhead whales are now considered the oldest mammals. A honour previously thought to belong to Homo Sapiens.

And they are not the longest living by a small margin either.

Bada found that most of the adult whales were between 20 and 60 years old when they died, but five males were much older. One was 91, one was 135, one 159, one 172, and the oldest whale was 211 years old at the time of its death. That whale, alive during the term of President Clinton, was also gliding slowly and gracefully through the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas when Thomas Jefferson was president.

Bada explained that the method of measuring changes in aspartic acid to determine age has an accuracy range of about 16 percent, which means the 211 year-old bowhead could have been from 177 to 245 years old.

The oldest known ages for mammals are 110 years for a blue whale and 114 years for a fin whale, based on a Japanese scientist's counting of waxy laminates on the inner ear plug of the whales, a method that does not work for bowheads. The oldest living person with a birth certificate was a 122-year-old woman from France who died in 1997. Elephants have lived to 70 in captivity, so bowheads may be the oldest mammals that exist.

Of course, non-mammals, such as parrots and turtles, are also know to live to great ages, so there are probably other animals that lives as long as the Bowhead whales.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Drooling cockroaches

Ok, I guess the correct title should have been salivating cockroaches, but that doesn't sounds as cool - and anyway, the best title was already used by PLOS One: Pavlov's Cockroach by Hidehiro Watanabe and Makoto Mizunami

The two Japanese scientists have studied the salivation of cockroaches, and how those could be activated by specific odors, that the cockroaches associated with food. This study is of course very similar to Pavlov's classic study of a similar mechanism in dogs (used sounds instead of odors).

The interesting part of this study, is that the mechanisms behind the salivation is little understod, and had so far only been observed in Humans and dogs.

Secretion of saliva to aid swallowing and digestion is an important physiological function found in many vertebrates and invertebrates. Pavlov reported classical conditioning of salivation in dogs a century ago. Conditioning of salivation, however, has been so far reported only in dogs and humans, and its underlying neural mechanisms remain elusive because of the complexity of the mammalian brain. We previously reported that, in cockroaches Periplaneta americana, salivary neurons that control salivation exhibited increased responses to an odor after conditioning trials in which the odor was paired with sucrose solution. However, no direct evidence of conditioning of salivation was obtained. In this study, we investigated the effects of conditioning trials on the level of salivation. Untrained cockroaches exhibited salivary responses to sucrose solution applied to the mouth but not to peppermint or vanilla odor applied to an antenna. After differential conditioning trials in which an odor was paired with sucrose solution and another odor was presented without pairing with sucrose solution, sucrose-associated odor induced an increase in the level of salivation, but the odor presented alone did not. The conditioning effect lasted for one day after conditioning trials. This study demonstrates, for the first time, classical conditioning of salivation in species other than dogs and humans, thereby providing the first evidence of sophisticated neural control of autonomic function in insects. The results provide a useful model system for studying cellular basis of conditioning of salivation in the simpler nervous system of insects.

Quite interesting, and hopefully something that will give us a better understand of how brains work.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Social mobility in the US

The classic American Dream is about how anyone can become rich in the US through hard work and endurance, no matter how humble a background they come from.
There are many stories out there about how someone got out of poverty and became rich - among them Kirk Douglas' auto-biography The Ragman's Son, in which he describes his childhood in absolute poverty, and how he worked his way up to become a world-famerous actor (and how he had to hide his Jewish background to be able to do so).

However, for each such tale, there are literately hundred of thousands of untold stories about those who didn't make it. Those that grew up in poverty, and stayed in poverty. Or those that sank into poverty either through bad decisions, or sheer ill luck.

What I want to do with this post, is to provide an place for links to articles and papers about social/income mobility in the US. The idea is to make it easier for people to find out the true state of affairs of the American dream. Something that large groups of the US don't seem to know. As a NY Times article from their 2005 special feature about class in the US made clear:

Most Americans remain upbeat about their prospects for getting ahead. A recent New York Times poll on class found that 40 percent of Americans believed that the chance of moving up from one class to another had risen over the last 30 years, a period in which the new research shows that it has not. Thirty-five percent said it had not changed, and only 23 percent said it had dropped.

Study after study has shown that income mobility in the US has declined in recent decades, as the article also makes clear

One study, by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, found that fewer families moved from one quintile, or fifth, of the income ladder to another during the 1980's than during the 1970's and that still fewer moved in the 90's than in the 80's. A study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics also found that mobility declined from the 80's to the 90's.

What the study (.pdf) by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston also shows, is that the poorest quintile was the least mobile of all the quintile - 53.3% of all from the poorest quintile stayed there.

Interestingly enough, research also shows that the American Dream is more alive in Europe, than in the US. And not just in Scandinavia, but also in the UK and France.

One surprising finding about mobility is that it is not higher in the United States than in Britain or France. It is lower here than in Canada and some Scandinavian countries but not as low as in developing countries like Brazil, where escape from poverty is so difficult that the lower class is all but frozen in place.

Those comparisons may seem hard to believe. Britain and France had hereditary nobilities; Britain still has a queen. The founding document of the United States proclaims all men to be created equal. The American economy has also grown more quickly than Europe's in recent decades, leaving an impression of boundless opportunity.

But the United States differs from Europe in ways that can gum up the mobility machine. Because income inequality is greater here, there is a wider disparity between what rich and poor parents can invest in their children. Perhaps as a result, a child's economic background is a better predictor of school performance in the United States than in Denmark, the Netherlands or France, one recent study found.

This flies against the perception that most people have.

The mis-perception of how the true state of affairs is, could explain why there is a greater adversion towards social welfare in the US. If you believe that it's possible to get out of poverty through hard work, it social welfare would seem like support of people who are not willing to work. The legendary "welfare queens" that Reagan talked about back in the days.
A belief in upwards mobility could also explain why many people accept tax-cuts for the high income groups, instead of more distributed tax-cuts, that also benifits low income groups.

This theory is supported by a bi-partisan study (.pdf) carried out by the Economical Mobility Project, which consists of a coorperation between The American Enterprise Institute, The Brookings Institution, The Heritage Foundation and The Urban Institute. Here they found out that while only 33% of Americans agreed with "It is the responsibility of government to reduce differences in income", fully 89% of respondends from other countries agreed. As the study explains

The underlying belief in the fluidity of class and economic status has differentiated Americans from citizens in the majority of other developed nations. As the data in Figure 1 suggest, compared to their global counterparts, Americans have tended to be far more optimistic about their ability to control their own economic destinies through hard work, less likely to believe that coming from a wealthy family is important to getting ahead, less likely to think that differences in income within their country are too large, and less likely to favor the government’s taking responsibility to reduce those differences.

I highly recommend reading the report, and am looking forward to the future work of this bi-partisan project.

Hopefully it will be noticed enough to become an issue in the next US presidential race.

Other resources:
The Russel Sage Foundation's working papers on inequality

The Growing Importance of Family and Community: An Analysis of Changes in the Sibling Correlation in Earnings (.pdf) by Bhashkar Mazumder and David I. Levine (revised edition 2004, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago)

If you have any good links on the subject, please feel free to post them in the comments.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Is this how religion makes people more moral?

If it is, I'll stick to atheistic amorality.

Eliyahu advocates carpet bombing Gaza

All civilians living in Gaza are collectively guilty for Kassam attacks on Sderot, former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu has written in a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Eliyahu ruled that there was absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket launchings.

Obviously, he and I operate with two very different sets of morality. In mine, murder is wrong, in his, it's okay. Obviously, he must be right though, since his morality is based upon religion.

According to Jewish war ethics, wrote Eliyahu, an entire city holds collective responsibility for the immoral behavior of individuals. In Gaza, the entire populace is responsible because they do nothing to stop the firing of Kassam rockets.

The former chief rabbi also said it was forbidden to risk the lives of Jews in Sderot or the lives of IDF soldiers for fear of injuring or killing Palestinian noncombatants living in Gaza.

I could swear that the Bible contained something about "an eye for an eye", not "an city for a person". And "an eye for an eye" is considered a horrible principle among civilized people, since it will only keep the perpetual circle of violence going.

"If they don't stop after we kill 100, then we must kill a thousand," said Shmuel Eliyahu [son of Mordechai Eliyahu]. "And if they do not stop after 1,000 then we must kill 10,000. If they still don't stop we must kill 100,000, even a million. Whatever it takes to make them stop."

In the letter, Eliyahu quoted from Psalms. "I will pursue my enemies and apprehend them and I will not desist until I have eradicated them."

Let's not mince words - what Eliyahu is advocating is genocide, pure and simple. Jews, of all people, should oppose this, yet here we have the former chief rabbi of Israel calling for that very thing.
To call for such a thing is illegal according to international law, though it is only prosecuted if it actually leads to genocide. Let's hope that this never have to be prosecuted.

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Brownback on evolution

I'm sure we've all been dying to hear Senator, and potential GOP presidential candidate, Sam Brownback's informed take on evolution. Luckily we have the chance, since NY Times brought an op-ed by him a couple of days ago.

What I Think About Evolution

IN our sound-bite political culture, it is unrealistic to expect that every complicated issue will be addressed with the nuance or subtlety it deserves. So I suppose I should not have been surprised earlier this month when, during the first Republican presidential debate, the candidates on stage were asked to raise their hands if they did not “believe” in evolution. As one of those who raised his hand, I think it would be helpful to discuss the issue in a bit more detail and with the seriousness it demands.

Actually, the question gave the subject at hand every nuance or subtlety it needed. It was pretty straight-forward, and could be answered either as a 'yes' or 'no', and there was no need for any nuances at all. Much like questions about peoples' "belief" in a spheric Earth or a heliocentric solar system don't need any nuances.

Sure, there might be different opinions about the details involved when you answer 'yes' or 'no', but the overall concepts are pretty straightforward.

The premise behind the question seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days. But limiting this question to a stark choice between evolution and creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.

No, the premise behind the question is wether you believe in a well-documentated, well-explained biological process, that explains how life on Earth has evovled to it's current state.
In other words, do you accept the scientific evidence and process that leads to conclude that evolution happens? Yes, or no?

No God, or other deity, is involved in that question at all.

It's true that most Americans who reject biology tend to be Creationists/neo-Creationists, but that's besides the point.

You, senator Brownback, was asked a specific question, in your role as a potential presidential candidate, and you aswered it in a way, that shows us that you reject evidence if it doesn't suit you, and indeed the entire scientific process.

The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.

It's nice that you think that there cannot be any contradiction between faith and reason, and you are certainly not alone in feeling this, yet when asked to affirm your belief in reason, you rejected it.

There are numerous places where religious scriptures goes against science, and reasonable religious people understand that then the scriptures must be rejected. Yet, you, Senator Brownback, has not shown us that you are willing to do that - instead you claim that faith doesn't contradict reason, while at the same time rejecting reason. Not a good sign.

People of faith should be rational, using the gift of reason that God has given us. At the same time, reason itself cannot answer every question. Faith seeks to purify reason so that we might be able to see more clearly, not less. Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose. More than that, faith — not science — can help us understand the breadth of human suffering or the depth of human love. Faith and science should go together, not be driven apart.

Faith does not help us understand neither the "breadth of human suffering" nor the "depth of human love". If it did, religious people wouldn't commit the attrocities, in the name of religion, that they some times do. What helps us understand these things, is empathy. A quality several species show.

The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.

Evolution means neither of those things. The focus on the destinction between micro- and macroevolution is a creationist contruct, and doesn't have anything to do with the theory of evolution. Instead, it's an attempt to explain away the many observed cases of evolution in daily life, such as the continiously evolution of the flu virus. However, there are also several observed cases of speciation.

Evolution, as a scientific theory, does not hold any place for a guiding intelligence, but it certainly does so as a process. As a matter of fact, humankind have through the ages often used, and guided, the evolutionary process. Yesterday, I heard that a company had located a cow that produces low fat milk - this cow will presumably be used for breeding more such cows.

There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today. Many questions raised by evolutionary theory — like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations — go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology.

There is a overall theory of evolution, which is just about universally accepted by biologists world-wide. Then there are some debate about the exact mechanisms, and the importance of them, in the bigger picture, but that's like debating how commas should be used in sentences, when all other grammatical rules have been laid down.

The question of how Homo Sapiens evolved to it's current evolutionary stage, and to the uniqueness of that particular species' place in the world, in a biological sense, is not something that's better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology. Those questions are easily answered by the fossil evidence and the understanding of evolution we have, and should be answered by these things. To claim that these things should be answered by theology ("the study of God") or philosophy, is on par with claiming that the relative movement of the Earth and the Sun should be answered by those two disciplines - a claim that has a historical precedence, but which would, rightfully, be rejected by anyone of a sound mind.

The most passionate advocates of evolutionary theory offer a vision of man as a kind of historical accident. That being the case, many believers — myself included — reject arguments for evolution that dismiss the possibility of divine causality.

Once again, evolution is a observed fact and a scientific theory. None of these two things have anything to do with "the possibility of divine causality". Instead they deal with the physical world. Now, if you want to dismiss the real world, that's up to you, but don't claim that it's the facts that reject your belief.

Ultimately, on the question of the origins of the universe, I am happy to let the facts speak for themselves. There are aspects of evolutionary biology that reveal a great deal about the nature of the world, like the small changes that take place within a species. Yet I believe, as do many biologists and people of faith, that the process of creation — and indeed life today — is sustained by the hand of God in a manner known fully only to him. It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science.

Yet, even though you are willing to let the facts speak for themselves, you still reject them. And don't think we didn't notice that you only focus on intra-species evolution, and seem to ignore, or reject, inter-species evolution.

Personally I find it quite amusing that anyone would claim that rejecting things with no empirical evidence, indeed things that by its very nature cannot have any such evidence, is stepping outside the real of empirical science. What the senator doesn't seem to understand, is that empirical science, indeed all science, only deals with falsible things. That's the very nature of how science is conducted!

Biologists will have their debates about man’s origins, but people of faith can also bring a great deal to the table. For this reason, I oppose the exclusion of either faith or reason from the discussion. An attempt by either to seek a monopoly on these questions would be wrong-headed. As science continues to explore the details of man’s origin, faith can do its part as well. The fundamental question for me is how these theories affect our understanding of the human person.

Many religious people have brought a lot of things to the table - Mendel would be a very logical example. However, they can only do so, if they are actually willing to put aside their preconceived notions, and go where the evidence takes them. When we are in the realms of science, faith can take us no-where, which is something that every scientist (religious or otherwise) knows. Evidence, reason and the scientific process can, on the other hand, take us everywhere.

The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded. I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man’s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose.

I think you misunderstand the meaning of the worth "truth". It means that something is based upon facts. Not on faith.

The theory of evolution doesn't seek to undermine anything. Instead, it explains the observable process of evolution to the best of our udnerstanding. It has hold remarkable well since Darwin first explained it, and though there are minor changes, the general concept still stands as it did when he first explained it.

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

We could say that, and in your case, it is probably with conviction. But remember the part about being willing to go where the evidence leads us? Seems like you don't really understand what that actually means. It means, that we don't know for certainty anything.

Without hesitation, I am happy to raise my hand to that.

Yet again demonstrating that you reject science, reason, the scientific process, evidence, and indeed any claim to be grounded in reality.

So, after this long and "nuanced" explanation, we reach the same conclusion about you.

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Who watches the watchmen?

Or, maybe it should be, who holds the spies accountable?

Salon has an article, The corporate takeover of U.S. intelligence, about the new trend of outsourcing intelligence business to private contractors, and the lack of oversight of these contractors.

More than five years into the global "war on terror," spying has become one of the fastest-growing private industries in the United States. The federal government relies more than ever on outsourcing for some of its most sensitive work, though it has kept details about its use of private contractors a closely guarded secret. Intelligence experts, and even the government itself, have warned of a critical lack of oversight for the booming intelligence business.

On May 14, at an industry conference in Colorado sponsored by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the U.S. government revealed for the first time how much of its classified intelligence budget is spent on private contracts: a whopping 70 percent, or roughly $42 billion. The figure was disclosed by Terri Everett, a senior procurement executive in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the agency established by Congress in 2004 to oversee the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence infrastructure. A copy of Everett's unclassified PowerPoint slide presentation, titled "Procuring the Future" and dated May 25, was obtained by Salon. (It has since become available on the DIA's Web site.) "We can't spy ... If we can't buy!" one of the slides proclaims, underscoring the enormous dependence of U.S. intelligence agencies on private sector contracts.

The DNI figures show that the aggregate number of private contracts awarded by intelligence agencies rose by about 38 percent from the mid-1990s to 2005. But the surge in outsourcing has been far more dramatic measured in dollars: Over the same period of time, the total value of intelligence contracts more than doubled, from about $18 billion in 1995 to $42 billion in 2005.

While such large numbers, and especially such increases, should always get notice, it's especially troublesome when cloaked in secrecy.

Because of the cloak of secrecy thrown over the intelligence budgets, there is no way for the American public, or even much of Congress, to know how those contractors are getting the money, what they are doing with it, or how effectively they are using it. The explosion in outsourcing has taken place against a backdrop of intelligence failures for which the Bush administration has been hammered by critics, from Saddam Hussein's fictional weapons of mass destruction to abusive interrogations that have involved employees of private contractors operating in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Aftergood and other experts also warn that the lack of transparency creates conditions ripe for corruption.

Given how stories about Pentagon contracts to companies like Halliburton have been filled with examples of gross misuse and corruption, such worries would seem very reasonable to me.

The Democrats are trying to do something about this

Both the House and Senate are now considering intelligence spending bills that require the DNI, starting next year, to provide extensive information on contractors. The House version requires an annual report on contractors that might be committing waste and fraud, as well as reviews on its "accountability mechanisms" for contractors and the effect of contractors on the intelligence workforce. The amendment was drafted by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who introduced a similar bill last year that passed the House but was quashed by the Senate. In a statement on the House floor on May 10, Price explained that he was seeking answers to several simple questions: "Should (contractors) be involved in intelligence collection? Should they be involved in analysis? What about interrogations or covert operations? Are there some activities that are so sensitive they should only be performed by highly trained Intelligence Community professionals?"

If either of the House or Senate intelligence bills pass in their present form, the overall U.S. intelligence budget -- approximately $48 billion this year, by most estimates -- will be made public. Such transparency is critical as contracting continues to expand, said Paul Cox, Price's press secretary. "As a nation," he said, "we really need to take a look and decide what's appropriate to contract and what's inherently governmental."

What's the odds of such a bill passing without a presidencial veto?

In general, US spending is quite corrupt by European standards, which has much to do with the lack of accountability, and the general acceptance of bringing "pork" back to the districts of the politicians. Due to EU rules about public spending, such things are not generally possible in the EU (though corruption certainly still happens in other forms). Anything that can make public spending more transparent is a good thing.

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And I thought I collected too much junk

Sorry about the light posting, but it has been a busy week. However, I thought I should bring this article to peoples' attention.

Falwell memorabilia hits eBay after death

Since his death two weeks ago, more than 300 items related to the Rev. Jerry Falwell have been put up for sale on eBay, including an autographed bobblehead doll of the controversial evangelist dressed in a suit and holding a Bible.

It sold for $145.

$145? Couldn't those money have been used much better? Think of the meals for the poor such an amount could buy.

Oh, and I noticed something disquieting

An autographed 1978 Bible that the seller said was given to contributors to Falwell's Liberty University in its early stage of construction went for about $90.

Aren't books normally autographed by the author, illustrator or translator? Why would Falwell feel it appropriate to sign a Bible? Did he consider himself on equal level with "author" of the book?

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