Sunday, July 29, 2007

Does religion and feminism mix?

That's the question I can't help wonder about, after reading this Media Transparency article.

Are high-profile evangelical leaders endangering victims of domestic violence?

Dr. James Dobson and Dr. John MacArthur, two influential evangelical family counselors, 'blame' battered women for their plight, says Christian evangelical author Jocelyn Andersen.

Before going on, I should say that I am talking about organized religion, not people being religious.

When looking at religions, one can't help notice that they have a strong trend towards patriarchy, with the focus on males as the rulers. The example most commonly mentioned these days is Islam, where women are often treated as second-class people, having to cover up, and some times getting murdered for not doing so. However, there is also similar tendencies in Christianity, where some groups puts a heavy emphasis on men as the head of the families, and the fact that women should not speak out, as dictated by the Bible.

The Media Transparency focuses on Christianity in the US, where the evangelical groups can pose a danger to victims of domestic violence.

While domestic violence -- also known as intimate partner violence -- is in no way limited to any particular race, religion, ethnic group, class or sexual preference, author Jocelyn Andersen maintains that for far too long too many evangelical pastors have tried to sweep the problem under the rug. According to Andersen, the problem of physical, as well as emotional and spiritual abuse, is being exacerbated by the outdated teachings of several high-profile conservative Christian pastors.

In the introduction to her new book "Woman Submit! Christians & Domestic Violence" (One Way Cafe Press, 2007), Andersen points out that "The practice of hiding, ignoring, and even perpetuating the emotional and physical abuse of women is ... rampant within evangelical Christian fellowships and as slow as our legal systems have been in dealing with violence against women by their husbands, the church has been even slower."

Andersen maintains that domestic violence in Christian families "often creates a cruel Catch-22 as many Christians and church leaders view recommending separation or divorce as unscriptural, but then silently view the battered woman, who chooses not to leave, with contempt for staying and tolerating the abuse. Victims quickly pick up on this hypocritical attitude and either leave the church altogether -- or begin hiding the abuse. Either way they are giving up the spiritual guidance, and emotional support, they desperately need."

I see several problems here.

The major problem being the domestic violence that takes place. I don't know of any statistics that shows it happens more often in evangelical households than other households, though given the willingness of some religious people to physically punish children, it would seem likely.

The second problem is that the churches creates an environment where the victim either shuts up, and prolongs her abuse, or has to break with her current life, since she won't get any support from her surroundings.

The third problem is of course that some people depend on churches for "spiritual guidance, and emotional support" - while I can understand why you would depend on churches for the first, it seems to me that the second is something that's rarely to be had in fundamentalist groups, such as evangelical churches.

The first problem is something that must addressed by the law, and by society as a whole. Domestic violence is too widespread in the US, and as long as it's somewhat accepted, or that people blame the victims, it will continue to be so.

The second problem is something that needs to be addressed within the churches. Something which Jocelyn Andersen appears to be working on with her book.

The last problem is a little harder to deal with, but if atheism became more widespread, more religious people might realize that it's possible to find support of all kinds outside religious settings.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Messed-up ecosystem

Just felt like sharing my absolute favorite Girl Genius strip with everyone (from May 1st 2006).

If you don't already read Girl Genious, by Phil and Kaja Foglio, you should.

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Long New Yorker piece on bonobos

Via Readerville I became aware that the New Yorker has a long article (12 pages on the web) on bonobos, and the people who research them.

Bonobos are celebrated as peace-loving, matriarchal, and sexually liberated. Are they?

It's a pretty good piece, and the answer is of course, yes and no - the truth is a little more nuanced than the "Hippie Chimp" image of the bonobos. The article also makes a pretty good job of describing what we actually know about these creatures, and how much researchers disagree with each other.

Well worth the time spent reading it.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Physical and mathematical modelling gives new knowledge about the feeding habits of pterosaurs

ScienceDaily has an interesting piece about how new research shows that our theories about some pterosaurs' feeding habits have to be re-evaluated.

Feeding Habits Of Flying Reptiles Uncovered

Using new physical and mathematical modelling, Dr Stuart Humphries from the University of Sheffield, along with scientists from the Universities of Portsmouth and Reading, has shown that suggestions that extinct pterosaurs gathered their food by 'skimming' the surface of the ocean with their beaks are inaccurate.

Previous studies have suggested that some pterosaurs may have fed like modern-day 'skimmers', a rare group of shorebirds, belonging to the Rynchops group. These sea-birds fly along the surface of lakes and estuaries scooping up small fish and crustaceans with their submerged lower jaw. Inferred structural similarities between pterosaur and Rynchops jaws had previously been used to suggest that some pterosaur were anatomically suited for skimming.

However, new evidence provided by the researchers suggests that the fossilised jaws of suggested pterosaur skimmers mean that these creatures may have found it impossible to feed in this way.

According to the research, the thicker jaws of pterosaurs would make it difficult for them to deflect water the way the extraordinarily slim bills of Rynchops do. By combining experiments using life-size models of pterosaur and skimmer jaws with hydrodynamic and aerodynamic modelling, the researchers demonstrated that skimming requires more energy than the giant reptilian fliers were likely able to supply.

In other words, what we assumed about the feeding habits of these prehistoric creatures is almost certainly wrong, and other ideas have to be tested. Due to the simple fact that these creatures cannot be observed while feeding, we can never be entirely certain about how they feed, but we can at least remove some possibilities, and make a case for the most likely way.

The findings are also interesting because they show that we can't assume anything from just the shape and form and form of the fossils. Something the article also states.

Discovering the ecological traits of these reptiles though is far more complicated. One way scientists currently gain an insight into ecological traits of extinct animals is by comparing fossilized morphological (shape and form) features to those of living animals.

However, as this new research shows, these records do not provide direct evidence of behaviour and ecology. Dr Humphries, from the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, said: "Our results illustrate the pitfalls involved in using morphological data to study the ecology of extinct animals, including dinosaurs and pterodactyles."

This shows the importance of re-evaluating and testing our ideas frequently. In this case, it probably makes little difference that our assumptions were wrong, but in other cases, those assumptions could be the basis of other assumptions, which would have to be re-evaluated, or maybe even discarded, as an result of the first assumptions being wrong.

Annoyingly, the ScienceDaily article didn't state where the study was published, but I managed to locate it at PLoS Biology
Did Pterosaurs Feed by Skimming? Physical Modelling and Anatomical Evaluation of an Unusual Feeding Method

Author Summary

Just because a component of an extinct animal resembles that of a living one does not necessarily imply that both were used for the same task. The lifestyles of pterosaurs, long-extinct flying reptiles that soared ancient skies above the dinosaurs, have long been the subject of debate among palaeontologists. Similarities between the skulls of living birds (black skimmers) that feed by skimming the water surface with their lower bill to catch small fish, and those of some pterosaurs have been used to argue that these ancient reptiles also fed in this way. We have addressed this question by measuring the drag experienced by model bird bills and pterosaur jaws and estimating how the energetic cost of feeding in this way would affect their ability to fly. Interestingly, we found that the costs of flight while feeding are considerably higher for black skimmers than previously thought, and that feeding in this way would be excessively costly for the majority of pterosaurs. We also examined pterosaur skulls for specialised skimming adaptations like those seen in modern skimmers, but found that pterosaurs have few suitable adaptations for this lifestyle. Our results counter the idea that some pterosaurs commonly used skimming as a foraging method and illustrate the pitfalls involved in extrapolating from living to extinct forms using only their morphology.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tired of Conservapedia's liberal bias?

There is a new alternative to Conservapedia out there, and it's even more wacko than Conservapedia.

Conservapedia too pinko? Try Metapedia

Those among you who feel that Conservapedia - the "conservative encyclopedia you can trust" dedicated to countering liberal bias - is not sufficiently tough on Marxist-Leninist dogma are directed forthwith to Metapedia, the "alternative encyclopedia dedicated to the pro-European cultural struggle".

Pro-European is a codeword for anti-immigrant in the most racist of ways. It's nothing but a front for racists.

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Tripoli Six freed!

The six medics jailed and sentenced to death in Libya for the wrongful conviction of deliberately spreading HIV to the patients they were treating, were freed today.

After their sentence got changed to life in prison, the Bulgarian government asked for the rest of their sentence to be served in Bulgaria. When the medics arrived in Bulgaria, they were pardoned by President Georgi Parvanov of Bulgaria, thus ending their sentence, after they had spent 8½ years in jail.

The medics, 5 Bulgarian nurses and a Palistinian doctor, were freed as an result of the significant pressure put on Libya by the EU, and the hard negotiations between Libya and the EU. Libya got a treaty with the EU out of it, plus som financial aid for specific (medically related) projects.

The Palestinian doctor got a Bulgarian citizenship last month, enabling him to also serve the rest of his sentence in Bulgaria, and thus get pardonned by the Bulgarian president.

Medics Jailed in Libya Arrive Home (LA Times)
HIV medics freed after Libya-EU deal (Reuters)
Bulgarian Medics Pardoned (Sofia Echo, Bulgaria)
Libya Frees Bulgarian Nurses in AIDS Case (NY Times)

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Are older drivers more likely to cause accidents?

ScienceDaily has an article about some new RAND research that shows the usual RAND quality in their papers - i.e. next to none.

Drivers 65 and older are just one-third as likely as drivers 15 to 24 to cause auto accidents, and not much more likely than drivers 25 to 64 to cause accidents, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

Does that RAND study show that? Well, RAND and the authors of the studies says so, but when reading the RAND paper about the study, it becomes clear that this is a highly doubtful claim.

The paper can be found Regulating Older Drivers - Are New Policies Needed? by David S. Loughran, Seth A. Seabury, and Laura Zakaras (.pdf)

In the introduction, the authors write

Although it has been scientifically established that physical and cognitive degeneration at older ages compromises driving ability, it is not clear just how much riskier older drivers are than other drivers. Most published research shows that accidents per mile driven increase when drivers are in their fifties and, by the time they reach their eighties, accidents per mile driven are almost as high as they are for the youngest drivers (see, for example, Li, Braver, and Chen, 2003). As we describe later, however, this measure of risk can be misleading.

Our research departs from previous studies that rely on this measure. Instead, we use an innovative statistical method to estimate the likelihood that older drivers will cause an accident relative to the likelihood that other drivers will cause an accident, controlling for vehicle miles driven. We will refer to this statistic throughout this paper as the relative riskiness of older drivers. Levitt and Porter (2001) first devised and employed our statistical method in their study of the relative riskiness of drunk drivers. Based on our findings, we make a number of policy recommendations aimed at stemming the rise in traffic-related injuries and deaths that are expected as the average age of the driving population increases.

I am probably not alone in thinking that a study using "an innovative statistical method", that reaches a different conclusion from all studies, raises some major warning signs.

The traditional method of looking at accidents per mile driven takes into account that older people drive less than other people, and looks at the relative risk created by the older drivers.

The authors of the paper argue that older drivers tend to be more risk adverse in their driving (avoiding high speed zones, driving in the dark etc.), so they feel that a look of the dangers imposed by giving older driver easy access to renew their driver's license should reflect this.

This sounds somewhat reasonable, until one realizes that even with the risk adverse behaviour, people aged above 75 is more dangerous when they are on the road than any other group of people, except people aged below 25 (see figure 2.1 in the paper), who certainly are not risk adverse. In other words, the old people who renew their diver's license impose a disproportional number of the accidents. Making it harder for older people to renew their driver's license would have a disproportional positive influence on the number of road accidents (as would making it harder for people under 25).

There are also some other problems with the study, since it only looks at the age of drivers involved in accidents resulting in fatalities. This is certainly one parameter of risk, but there are also the accidents resulting in non-fatal injuries (something the authors acknowledge), accidents with only material damage, and accidents caused by other peoples' risky behaviour.

Once the authors have looked at the age of people involved in fatal accidents, they find that more accidents are caused by younger people than older people (two groups that are not precisely defined in the study).

In summary, we find that older drivers are only slightly likelier than other drivers to cause an accident but are considerably likelier to be killed in one. Younger drivers, on the other hand, are considerably likelier than other drivers to cause a crash, drive much more frequently than older drivers, and are less susceptible to fatal injuries than older drivers are. These findings do not mean that driving skills do not, in fact, deteriorate with age as a result of worsening mental
and physical impairments. Instead, our evidence suggests that older drivers adjust their behavior in light of these worsening impairments. Many older drivers cease to drive altogether; many others reduce the miles they drive and avoid the most dangerous driving conditions. Because they are aware of their own limitations and adjust their driving patterns in response, older drivers pose only a slightly increased risk to other drivers. The main danger they pose on the road is not to others but to themselves.

Again this sounds reasonable until you think a little harder about it. Yes, we know that younger people causes more accidents than older people (here I define younger people as below 25), but that's because of very different reasons. Younger people are usually involved in accidents because of inexperience and/or risky behaviour (like drunk driving), something that cannot be tested for when renewing a driver's license. Old people on the other hand, are involved in more accidents due to having their driving ability impaired. Something that could easily be tested for when renewing a driver's license.
In other words, just because a different group of drivers are more risky, doesn't mean that the problem of old people driving past their ability shouldn't be addressed. And the fact that they are more at risk to themselves doesn't mean that they are not unqualified for renewing their driver's licenses. The driver's license is a license to drive a potentially deadly vehicle, and should only be given to people who are actually able to drive it without posing a danger to themselves or others.

I agree with the study that the relative risk caused by younger people should certainly be addressed, but this is not a zero-sum game. Making it harder to get a driver's license for younger people (or easier to loose it) doesn't mean that the states can't at the same time reduce the risks caused by older people driving. Both things could (and should) be done to reduce the number of accidents.

RAND probably publishes some well-researched papers some times, but I have yet to come across any. I am quite disappointed at ScienceDaily for just passing on such bad stuff.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Lazy linking - cleaning out my bookmarks edition

During the time I've had this blog, I've bookmarked a number of links, so I could write a post about them at some later stage. Of course, in quite a few cases, I've never gotten around to actually write something, so I thought I'd link them here, so the rest of you can comment on them, if you feel like it.

Praise the inspiring, fascinating - and pointless by Sam Leith (the Telegraph)

'Do something pointless every day." That was one of the key mantras of the motivational speaker John Jackson, star of the award-winning Jackson's Way. As it happens, Jackson is a spoof - the creation of Will Adamsdale - and the award he won was for comedy. Nevertheless, what a wise piece of advice.

How much better we all are for a peck of pointlessness. In the dreadful grind of this week's news - all that getting and spending and blaming and shaming - the three stories that stood out were all testament to the unquenchable human appetite for the pointless-but-interesting.

I am not quite sure that I agree that the stories are pointless, but I find the general point somewhat charming.

Human Security Report 2005 - War and Peace in the 21st Century

Human security is a relatively new concept, but one that is now widely used to describe the complex of interrelated threats associated with civil war, genocide and the displacement of populations. The distinction between human security and national security is an important one.

While national security focuses on the defence of the state from external attack, human security is about protecting individuals and communities from any form of political violence.

Human security and national security should be—and often are—mutually reinforcing. But secure states do not automatically mean secure peoples. Protecting citizens from foreign attack may be a necessary condition for the security of individuals, but it is not a sufficient one. Indeed, during the last 100 years far more people have been killed by their own governments than by foreign armies.

All proponents of human security agree that its primary goal is the protection of individuals. But consensus breaks down over what threats individuals should be protected from. Proponents of the ‘narrow’ concept of human security, which underpins the Human Security Report, focus on violent threats to individuals, while recognizing that these threats are strongly associated with poverty, lack of state capacity and various forms of socio-economic and political inequity,

Proponents of the ‘broad’ concept of human security articulated in the UN Development Programme’s 1994, Human Development Report, and the Commission on Human Security’s 2003 report, Human Security Now, argue that the threat agenda should be broadened to include hunger, disease and natural disasters because these kill far more people than war, genocide and terrorism combined.

Although still subject to lively debate within the research community, the two approaches to human security are complementary rather than contradictory.

Haven't gotten around to reading it yet.

White Hats vs. Black Hats - Who's who in Washington's scandal investigations by T.A. Frank and Zachary Roth (Washington Monthly)

A bit late to comment on that May 2006 piece, isn't it?

Researchers find kids need better online academic skills by Beth Krane (University of Connecticut)

When researchers in the Neag School of Education asked 25 seventh-graders from middle schools across the state to review a web site devoted to a fictitious endangered species, the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, the results troubled them:

* All 25 students fell for the Internet hoax;
* All but one of the 25 rated the site as "very credible;"
* Most struggled when asked to produce proof - or even clues - that the web site was false, even after the UConn researchers told them it was; and
* Some of the students still insisted vehemently that the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus really exists.

The students - identified as their schools' most proficient online readers - are taking part in a federal research project, funded by a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Could explain a lot....

de profundis

Four years ago, the political got very personal.

I was a good little radical then; that night, if anything, is what galvanized me. I had wandered down into the streets ready to spend a few hours protesting the oncoming war and then go home and on a date and to my homework. I can't really claim much in the way of nobility: I cared, I cared until my little heart was worn out, but I wasn't a grownup about these things, not yet. I still wanted Bad Guys to line up against. I still wanted to Win and Go Home, because I still thought there was a chance things worked that way.

I might have linked that post before, but it's certainly worth a re-read.

Endless matter of life and death

Cassandra Laing's large, photorealistic, black and white drawings demand a reaction. How can one not respond to a delicately drawn dead finch, supine, sapped, a tag wrapped around its limp, pitiful little legs, the down on its underbelly so intricately detailed it seems clumped and damp? The dead finch lies over a snapshot of two pretty blonde girls, sitting on the tourist train at Queensland's Big Pineapple - the requisite family album shot. The older girl waves and smiles at the camera.

One woman who saw the drawing of the dead finch and young girls loved it. Her husband, however, couldn't get away from it fast enough. He walked out of the Helen Gory gallery where Laing's work is now on show. Images of transience, of life's fragility can be repellent to those who do not want to be reminded of their mortality, who cannot bear to contemplate the impermanence of all things.

Magazines: where are the women writers? by Heather Mallick (CBC)

When it comes to the magazine business, why is Harper's so bizarre about women writers?

Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2007 - Political Landscape More Favorable To Democrats (The Pew Research Center)

Geometric whirlpools revealed - Recipe for making symmetrical holes in water is easy (News @ Nature)

Bizarre geometric shapes that appear at the centre of swirling vortices in planetary atmospheres might be explained by a simple experiment with a bucket of water.

Researchers at the Technical University of Denmark in Lyngby have created similar geometric shapes (holes in the form of stars, squares, pentagons and hexagons) in whirlpools of water in a cylindrical bucket. The shapes appear easily enough once the bucket is spinning at a rate of one to seven revolutions per second, they say.

Joan of Arc remains 'are fakes' (BBC News)

Bones thought to be the holy remains of 15th Century French heroine Joan of Arc were in fact made from an Egyptian mummy and a cat, research has revealed.

Giant crystals enjoyed perfection (BBC News)

With lengths over 11m, the giant gypsum crystals found in Mexico's Cueva de los Cristales are a great natural wonder.

Mouse brain simulated on computer (BBC News)

US researchers have simulated half a virtual mouse brain on a supercomputer.

From Thinking Ape Blues


Saturday, July 21, 2007

Unholy water?

I'm sure that most people have heard about holy water - water blessed by the clergy, often used against undead beings, if they happen to pester you (would that work against Jesus or the Holy Ghost?).

Well, somehow I can't help thinking of this as unholy water.

Falwell's dream of selling bottled water nears reality

Falwell envisioned the 16.9-ounce bottles of Liberty Mountain Natural Spring Water as novelty items. Plans are to sell it at the museum bearing his name, the school's visitor center and possibly at athletic and church events, school officials said.

"He saw it as sort of a souvenir," said Jerry Falwell Jr., Falwell's son who took over as chancellor of the university after Falwell died on May 15. "He thought it was a memento that people could take back home after visiting Liberty."

The spring is located university property once owned by the late U.S. Sen. Carter Glass, who used it to provide water for his mansion, which now serves as the school's administrative offices.

The spring had been out of commission for at least three decades until about six months ago, when Falwell decided to get it going again. Before his death, he frequently drove up to what he called Liberty Mountain to check on its progress.

In other words it's another money making scheme, to rip off the faithful.

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Understanding anaesthetics better

One of my friends is an anaesthetic doctor, who works in hospitals all over Europe. My friendship with him has resulted in at least two pieces of worrysome knowledge. One is, how bad certain countries' hospital systems really are. The other one is how dangerous anaesthetics really is (don't worry, in modern hospitals, it's pretty risk-free).

One of the reasons why anaesthetics are so dangerous is because of the lack of knowledge about how they works on humans. We know that a certain amount will knock someone out, but individual reactions are very varied - that's why people are observed pretty closed while under anaesthetia. This is generally done with hi-tech equipment these days, which is why it's pretty much risk-free in modern hospitals - not so in countries/hopsitals with less than state of the art equipment.

In ScienceDaily there is some good news related to this.

Scientists A Step Closer To Understanding How Anaesthetics Work In The Brain

An important clue to how anaesthetics work on the human body has been provided by the discovery of a molecular feature common to both the human brain and the great pond snail nervous system, scientists now report. Researchers hope that the discovery of what makes a particular protein in the brain sensitive to anaesthetics could lead to the development of new anaesthetics with fewer side effects.

This is great news, as the article makes clear.

This kind of research, explains Professor Franks, is important because understanding exactly how anaesthetics work may pave the way for the development of a new generation of anaesthetics which solely affect specific anaesthetic targets, which could potentially reduce the risks and side effects associated with current anaesthetics.

"At the moment, anaesthetics have many unwanted side-effects on the human body such as nausea and effects on the heart. This is because our current drugs are relatively non-selective and bind to several different targets in the body. A better understanding of how anaesthetics exert their desirable effects could lead to much more specific, targeted alternatives being developed, which could greatly reduce these problems," he said.

Hopefully this will create the desired break-through in the development of anaesthetics.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Flood made Britain an island

A news relase by Nature brings our attention to a new study showing that the Dover Strait, the narrow piece of water between Britain and France, was created by a flood.

The island that is now England, Scotland and Wales was severed from continental Europe by a cataclysmic flood during the last ice age, according to a group of researchers based in Britain.

The team, led by Sanjeev Gupta, a geologist at Imperial College London, have found strong evidence at the bottom of the English Channel for a 'super-flood' theory first suggested more than 20 years ago. At that time, the idea that the Dover Strait — the narrow seaway that separates England and France — was created by a massive surge was widely ignored because of lack of solid geological evidence. That has now changed.

According to the news release by Nature, there was probably not just one flood, but two - one 450,000 years ago and one 200,000 years ago. Both during times where Europe was experiencing an ice age.

The study from Nature can be found here (behind a pay-wall).

Other coverage:
Herald Sun (Australia)
The Guardian

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What caused the changes in the size of shell ornaments?

This is a question being asked in a new paper in PLoS One

Climate Change, Genetics or Human Choice: Why Were the Shells of Mankind's Earliest Ornament Larger in the Pleistocene Than in the Holocene? by Peter R. Teske et al.


The southern African tick shell, Nassarius kraussianus (Dunker, 1846), has been identified as being the earliest known ornamental object used by human beings. Shell beads dated from ~75,000 years ago (Pleistocene era) were found in a cave located on South Africa's south coast. Beads made from N. kraussianus shells have also been found in deposits in this region dating from the beginning of the Holocene era (<10,000 years ago). These younger shells were significantly smaller, a phenomenon that has been attributed to a change in human preference.

Methodology/Principal Findings

We investigated two alternative hypotheses explaining the difference in shell size: a) N. kraussianus comprises at least two genetic lineages that differ in size; b) the difference in shell size is due to phenotypic plasticity and is a function of environmental conditions. To test these hypotheses, we first reconstructed the species' phylogeographic history, and second, we measured the shell sizes of extant individuals throughout South Africa. Although two genetic lineages were identified, the sharing of haplotypes between these suggests that there is no genetic basis for the size differences. Extant individuals from the cool temperate west coast had significantly larger shells than populations in the remainder of the country, suggesting that N. kraussianus grows to a larger size in colder water.


The decrease in fossil shell size from Pleistocene to Holocene was likely due to increased temperatures as a result of climate change at the beginning of the present interglacial period. We hypothesise that the sizes of N. kraussianus fossil shells can therefore serve as indicators of the climatic conditions that were prevalent in a particular region at the time when they were deposited. Moreover, N. kraussianus could serve as a biomonitor to study the impacts of future climate change on coastal biota in southern Africa.

I will not claim that I think this is an amazing find, but it broadens our knowledge about our early ancestors, and the condition they lived under. On top of that, the findings can be used in other fiels, as the text I quoted above shows.

Go read the article over at PLoS One.

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Is walking upright more energy efficient?

ScienceDaily reports on a new study that gives some evidence for the hypothesis that walking on two legs is more energy efficient than than dragging your knuckles while walking.

Study Identifies Energy Efficiency As Reason For Evolution Of Upright Walking

A new study provides support for the hypothesis that walking on two legs, or bipedalism, evolved because it used less energy than quadrupedal knucklewalking.

When I read that last night, while rather tired, my first thought was that that it sounded inplausible - if walking upright is more energy efficient, then why don't most mammals walk on two legs. Rereading it today, I of course realized that walking upright, like a Home Sapiens, is more energy efficient than walking on your legs and knuckles, like our fellow apes does. That doesn't mean that it's necessarily more efficient than walking on four legs, like the majority of mammals do.

Bipedalism marks a critical divergence between humans and other apes and is considered a defining characteristic of human ancestors. It has been hypothesized that the reduced energy cost of walking upright would have provided evolutionary advantages by decreasing the cost of foraging.

"For decades now researchers have debated the role of energetics and the evolution of bipedalism," said Raichlen. "The big problem in the study of bipedalism was that there was little data out there."

The researches collected metabolic, kinematic and kenetic data from five chimpanzees and four adult humans walking on a treadmill. The chimpanzees were trained to walk quadrupedally and bipedally on the treadmill.

Humans walking on two legs only used one-quarter of the energy that chimpanzees who knuckle-walked on four legs did. On average, the chimpanzees used the same amount of energy using two legs as they did when they used four legs. However, there was variability among chimpanzees in how much energy they used, and this difference corresponded to their different gaits and anatomy.

Interesting result, and it certainly explains why bipedalism became the movement of choice for Homo Sapiens and our ancestors. Or at least, it does so, once we moved down from the trees - I would expect that if we looked at movement in trees, the energy use would be somewhat reversed.

The study is published in PNAS, but unfortunately it's behind a pay-wall. The abstract can be found here though.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Lazy linking

The Flying Trilobite has the story about how ground dinosaur fossils were used as traditional medicine in China.

Sheelzebub at Pandagon has a call to action: Take action to stop an execution

Also at Pandagon, but by Amanda: Theocracy on the march and faith-based contraception education

Orac has a great post about the dangers of secondhand smoke


The Mystery of the Disappearing Pigeons

Via Readerville I became aware of this New Yorker article


Last month, the National Audubon Society issued a paper documenting a decline in the populations of many common American birds, including bobwhites, whip-poor-wills, grackles, and grosbeaks. The study did not list the feral domestic pigeon as a species under siege, but apparently it is—at least, in certain local precincts. In Greenwich Village, residents are reporting a Columba livia domestica crime wave. Like the Upper East Side flock-nappings of a few years back, this recent spate of abductions has become a heated mystery, giving rise to the feeling, among residents, of having stepped into an episode of “Law & Order: Avian Victims Unit.”

Judith Monaco Callet was walking her neighbor’s dog one afternoon in April when she saw a man in an S.U.V. with tinted windows park on the west side of LaGuardia, near Bleecker. The man—Callet thinks he was Caucasian, and wearing a cap—got out of the S.U.V., crossed the street, and threw a big pile of birdseed onto the pavement. “Out of the corner of my eye,” Callet said the other day, “I saw a big black net, like a butterfly or fishing net. So I see it moving, and I’m thinking somebody’s lost a cat. The guy swooped the net up, closed it off, and there he went.” He made off with about fifteen pigeons.

A few feet away, in LaGuardia Corner Gardens, was Wilhelmine Hellmann, a retired electron microscopist, tending to her peach tree. “Wilhelmine shouted, ‘Get the license plate!’ ” Callet recalled. Callet managed to jot down the number before the S.U.V. sped away. She called the police and, later, the Villager, which noted the incident. “Someone is scooping up Village pigeons and no one knows why,” the paper warned.

Quite a strange story (if true), and it sounds like it is quite a puzzle. Nobody can figure out why anyone wants to catch these pigeons, though people have their pet theories, often based upon stereotypes

A few plots over from Hellmann, a gardener who gave his name as Jack was pruning his daylilies. A couple of years ago, he said, he’d seen something similar happen early on a Sunday morning. He put forth two explanations: either the pigeons were being eaten, perhaps in Chinatown, or they were being taken to shooting ranges in Pennsylvania. “You know something—just hit me right now?” he asked, his tone turning ominous. He looked across LaGuardia to the umbrellas of Señor Swanky’s. “Rich folk don’t like pigeons.” Jack pointed out a set of spiky metal apparatuses that, along with a parliament’s worth of owl decoys, had been installed on the window ledges of a nearby building. “It’s, like, follow the money.” Another gardener whispered, “Maybe it’s N.Y.U.!”

A racist and a conspiracy theorist. Nice, isn't it?

I wonder if we are going to ever hear what happens to those pigeons - somehow I don't think this case has the highest priority at the NYPD.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Religion and politics in the US

Too many Americans want faith-driven decisions by the President

A new poll conducted by Time magazine reveals that, by a two-to-one margin, Republicans want a U.S. president who will let his faith guide his decisions.

By the same margin, Democrats are against this notion, stating they believe a U.S. president's faith in a higher power should not be a factor in how he governs.

That's pretty horrible numbers, since it means that half of the US voters seems to think that faith is a good guide to political decisions. Or maybe not. The questions people answered were this:

Do you think that a president should or should not allow his own personal religious faith to guide him in making decisions as president?


We are a religious nation and religious values should serve as a guide to what our political leaders do in office.

Not quite as bad as the article stated, though I would still say no to those questions. The reason I say it's not quite as bad, is that "religious values" can cover such things as humility, kindness etc., rather than thinking that one should govern by some specific understanding of a book written by a bunch of goatherders nearly 2000 years ago. There is even a question directly related to the use of the Bible in decision making.

"Do you think that a president should or should not use his or her personal interpretation of the Bible to make decisions as president?"

To this, 61.5% of the likely voters answered no, while 29.1% answered yes. Way too many for my taste, but hardly the kind of numbers mentioned above.

Time has of course a number of articles based upon the survey, all of them focusing on the religious aspects of it. However, unsurprisingly, they write the article in such a way to make it sound like the Democrats have a huge problem because of religion.

Well, looking at the numbers from the survey (can be found here), I can't help noticing that there is a lot of other stuff worth mentioning about the poll. I will comment on these things, as I go along discussing a particularly bad article from Time.

TIME Poll: Faith of the Candidates

The hoary joke that a "religious Democrat" is more of an oxymoron than "jumbo shrimp" couldn't be more wrong in this election cycle, in which it's the Democrats who are talking comfortably about faith while their Republican counterparts dodge the subject. Even so, as the results of a new TIME poll show, the conventional wisdom about the two political parties and religion may be so ingrained that no amount of evidence to the contrary can change perceptions. That may very well help Republicans in 2008 despite their various religion issues. And it may also mean that most Democrats, with one important exception, will have to try twice as hard to reach faith-minded voters.

Ok, first of all, let's look at the number of likely voters who said that they would vote for the different parties if there was an electiontoday. 34.3% of the likely votes said that they would vote for the Democrats, while 30.3% said that they would vote for the Republicans. The rest were undecided (29.4%) or refused to answer.

Straight of the bat, it seems like the votes are evenly divided betweent the two parties, which means that the religious vote could have an influence. However, for that vote to have an influence, it would be necessary for the people to vote because of the religious stance of the candidate.

A question if the poll was "Have you ever voted for or against a candidate mainly because of the candidate's religious beliefs?", to which only 12.1% said yes (R.:14.8%,D.:10.4%,I.:8.5%). In other words, religious belief is not the deciding issue when deciding who to vote for, especially not among the important independents.

That doesn't mean that the religious stance of an candidate doesn't have an influence, as the answers to the following question indicates:
For each, please tell me if that characteristic makes you more supportive or less supportive of the candidate.

Catholic: More: 23.6%, less: 8.7%, No diff.: 66.7%
Muslim: More: 6.8%, less: 47.3%, No diff.: 42.3%
Mormon: More: 10.2%, less: 30.2%, No diff.: 56.5%
Jewish: More: 18.4%, less: 10.9%, No diff.: 68.4%%
Fund. Chris.: More: 29.3%, less: 29.4%, No diff.: 35.4%
Atheist: More: 5.3%, less: 60.1%, No diff.: 33%

So, while the candidates religious stance is not the deciding issue, being an Muslim, Mormon, or especially an atheist could be the final straw for many voters.
Given that none of the Democratic candidates belongs to either of these groups, that hardly seems relevant though.

As Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy report in this week's TIME cover story, the three Democratic frontrunners are leading a fundamental shift in how their party thinks about religious Americans, which includes the first party-wide effort to target and court Catholic and evangelical voters. Republicans, meanwhile, have been lining up to receive the seal of approval from Pat Robertson and James Dobson. But at the same time, Mitt Romney has gone to great lengths to avoid talking about his Mormonism, John McCain's religious advisors quit his campaign in disgust, and when the AP inquired as to what church Rudy Giuliani attended, the former mayor essentially told them to mind their own business.

Democratic candidates in the past have targeted Christian voters. J.F. Kennedy didn't talk loud about his Catholicism, but people like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have always been willing to play to the religious base. Heck, Carter belongs to it.

In spite of all that, according to the new TIME poll, only 15% of registered voters believe that Hillary Clinton is "strongly religious," compared to 22% for John Edwards and 24% for Barack Obama. Perhaps more problematic for Clinton is the fact that nearly one-quarter of respondents (24%) say they know she is "not religious" — that's almost twice the nearest candidate, Rudy Giuliani (13%).

On this point, Clinton undoubtedly suffers from the double whammy of being a Democrat and a Clinton. Even Democrats tended to chalk up her husband's religious fluency to his general political skill, the ability to be everything to everyone, while Republicans saw him as a fake who exploited religion for political purposes and pandered to voters. Now Senator Clinton, the lifelong Methodist and one-time Sunday school teacher, is in a bind: So many voters think they "know" she can't possibly be religious that when she speaks about her faith, they interpret it as pure political posturing.

Interestingly enough, it's possible to see what percentage of people who think someone is either strongly religious, moderately religious or not religious )or don't know), and if you add the religious categories together, you get a different impression of how religious people think Clinton is compared ot others.

When you look at the Republican candidates, McCain is considered religious by 57.8%, Guiliani by 51.8% and Romney by 47.7% - funny that the person who probably is the most religious, is considered the least so.

On the Democratic front, Clinton is considered religious by 52.9%, Edwards by 58% and Obama by 60.2% In other words, only McCain among the Republicans, is considered religious by more likely voters than Clinton. Maybe that's not such a big problem after all? Maybe people not obsessed with hating Clinton realizes that she is religious?

Still, for at least one Democrat, another piece of conventional wisdom is working in his favor. Democrats have long outsourced religion to their African-American members, showing up in black churches the weekend before elections to clap along to gospel tunes, and treating black ministers as cuddly social justice mascots. As a result, black politicians rarely need to prove their religiosity-they're given the benefit of the doubt. Obama is no exception. On the ranking of candidates with strong faith, Obama comes in second (24%) among all voters. And even Republican voters put him (18%) above John McCain (17%), Rudy Giuliani (14%), and Newt Gingrich (14%).

Is Gingrich even a candidate? Well, he is considered even less religous than the other Republican candidates (43.3%).
And maybe Obama is considered religious because of him being religious? Remember his Democratic convention speech in which he kept on harping about God? Why is it that Democrats are considered non-religious by default by the writers, having to prove themselves 'religious'? The Republicans don't have to do that (except to the fundamentalists), so why presume the Democrats need to do so?

When it comes to the Republican field, Mitt Romney ranks far above the rest of the pack. Fully 26% of all voters think Romney is a person of strong religious faith, and among Republicans that number rises to 32%. What should worry Republicans, however, is that Romney's numbers are nearly double the closest Republican and still far below George W. Bush's in 2004. They also suggest an opening for Fred Thompson, who is expected the enter the race within weeks. James Dobson may have declared on his radio show that Thompson isn't a Christian, but given the alternatives, social conservatives are likely to disagree.

Ok, time for a reality check.
If religion is really that important to the voters, you'd expect this to refelcted in the number of likely voters who have a favorable impression of people.

Luckily, the poll also asked people what their impression of the candidates were, and funny enough, there were no correlation with the perceived religiosity. For example, Clinton and Edwards are considered favorable by an equal amount of people, and more people had a very favorable impression of Clinton than Ewdards (24.8 vs. 14.3). The Republican most people had a favorable view of, is Giuliani, which 53.7% considered favorable (17% vary favorable).

Could we stop focusing on the damn religion, and instead focus on policy? And maybe we should look at what the poll really show us, if we ignore all that nonsense about religion.

The poll clearly shows that Democrats have a small lead over the Republicans, with a large number of undecided. McCain and Giuliani are considered favorable by a majority of the likely voters (50.4% and 53.7%), with the later currently leading the pack of Republican candidates. McCain isn't too far behind, while Romney is nearly joining Gingrich with single digit backing among the Republican and Republican-leaning voters.

Among the Democrats, all of the three main candidates, Clinton, Obama and Edwards, are liked by a majority of the likely voters, though there is a large group of people who have a very unfavorable view of Clinton (35%) and Edwards (31.9%). While Obama is not out of the race by any means, Clinton is the front runner among the Democrats. Edwards seems to be trailing far behind.

What this poll shows me, is that neither the religious stance, nor the perceived religious stance, of the politician has absolutely no relation to how well they do. In other words, there is no need to try to pamper for the religious vote. Instead, the candidates should try to sell themselves on the issues they stand for.

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Ancient Mexicans enjoyed their chili

Or so I presume. They grew and ate several different sorts, so it seems reasonble to presume so. According to ScienceDaily, people have eaten spicy food in the Mexican area for a least 1500 years.

Ancient Americans Liked It Hot: Mexican Cuisine Traced To 1,500 Years Ago

Plant remains from two caves in southern Mexico analyzed by a Smithsonian ethnobotanist/archaeologist and a colleague indicate that as early as 1,500 years ago, Pre-Columbian inhabitants of the region enjoyed a spicy fare similar to Mexican cuisine today. The two caves yielded 10 different cultivars (cultivated varieties) of chili peppers.

"This analysis demonstrates that chilies in Mexican food have been numerous and complex for a long period of time," said lead author Linda Perry, of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. "It reveals a great antiquity for the Mexican cuisine that we're familiar with today."

Living in a country where people complain about the food being too strong if you pepper it too much, or get a chili within one meter of the food, it's quite facinating to see that the goodness of chili has been enjoyed for so long.

If anyone has any good recepies for dishes involving chili, this would be a good place to post it in the comments.

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Political science

Mother Jones has put online a 2002 article by Ken Silverstein, about the politification of science that has happened under the Bush adminstration. Or rather, they have mentioned it their newsletter - I am fairly sure I've read it before.

Bush's New Political Science

[T]he Bush administration has been screening candidates about their political views -- an unprecedented move intended to make sure that conservatives get seats on NIH advisory councils. In some cases, Mother Jones has learned, a White House liaison with the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the NIH, has called candidates and asked detailed questions about their political leanings.

One candidate screened by the White House was William Miller, a widely respected researcher and professor at the University of New Mexico who was nominated to serve on the advisory council on drug abuse. Miller says he's never been secretive about his politics. "If somebody started digging, they wouldn't have to dig too far to find out I'm a lifelong liberal," he says. "I've never been arrested or joined the Communist Party -- I'm just what Garrison Keillor calls a 'museum quality' liberal Democrat."

There is nothing new in the article for those of us that has followed the Bush administration's war against science, but it's still good to be reminded. Especially as we get closer to the next election, where several of the Republican candidates have take anti-science stances.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

New ancient hominid fossil found in Ethiopia

Ethiopia unveils new find of ancient fossils

Ethiopian scientists said on Tuesday they have discovered hominid fossil fragments dating from between 3.5 million and 3.8 million years ago in what could fill a crucial gap in the understanding of human evolution.

Ethiopian archaeologist Yohannes Haile Selassie said the find included several complete jaws and one partial skeleton and were unearthed in the Afar desert at Woranso-Mille, near where the famous fossil skeleton known as Lucy was found in 1974.

"This is a major finding that could fill a gap in human evolution," he told a news conference in Addis Ababa.

"The fossil hominids from the Woranso-Mille area sample a time period that is poorly known in human evolutionary study."

Researchers say the area, about 140 miles northeast of Addis, boasts the most continuous record of human evolution.

Last year, an international team of scientists unveiled the discovery of 4.1 million-year-old fossils in the region.

Lucy, the most famous find, lived between 3.3 million and 3.6 million years ago. But Yohannes said Afar had yielded early hominid fossil remains spanning the last 6 million years.

"This has placed Ethiopia in the forefront of paleoanthropology," he told reporters.

"Ethiopia is known to the world as the cradle of humankind."

Keep an eye on Afarensis. I'm sure he'll write something about this discovery sooner or later

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If you can't provide the science, threaten the scientists

That seems to be the logic of some Creationists in Boulder, Colorado.

Threats by religious group spark probe at CU-Boulder

University of Colorado police are investigating a series of threatening messages and documents e-mailed to and slipped under the door of evolutionary biology labs on the Boulder campus.

The messages included the name of a religious-themed group and addressed the debate between evolution and creationism, CU police Cmdr. Brad Wiesley said. Wiesley would not identify the group named because police are still investigating.

"There were no overt threats to anybody specifically by name," Wiesley said. "It basically said anybody who doesn't believe in our religious belief is wrong and should be taken care of."

The part I quoted, was about half the article in the Denver Post, the only newspaper in which I can find the story. What would you bet that it would have been much bigger news if it had been a Muslim group that threatened scientists that didn't believe in the same as they did?

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Now this is a real conspiracy

When debating a link between autism and vaccinations, people who believe in such a link always claim that there is a big conspiracy to hide the evidence for such a link. This is of course nonsense, as there is no proper scientific studies that shows such a link (there are a couple of very flawed studies that shows one, but those were financed by people with an economic interest in showing such a link).

Now, I noticed in PLoS Biology an article about a real such conspiracy, which wants to hide how some toxins can be linked to some diseases.

The Toxic Origins of Disease by Liza Gross.

As all skeptics, I am always weary of believing in conspiracies, but if you have a case where all industrial studies show one result and all independent scientific studies show a different result, there is something very wrong.

It is worth noticing that the people who are raising this issue is the scientists.

Make sure that you also read the box about "skeptics for hire", which explains how this isn't an unique case.

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Generalized reciprocity between rats demonstrated

PLoS Biology has an article about some experiments with cooperation between rats that showed that rats that had been helped by others before were more willing to help others, regardless of who those others were. In other words, they seemed to behave according to the old principle "what comes around, goes around".

Generalized Reciprocity in Rats by Claudia Rutte, Michael Taborsky

The evolution of cooperation among nonrelatives has been explained by direct, indirect, and strong reciprocity. Animals should base the decision to help others on expected future help, which they may judge from past behavior of their partner. Although many examples of cooperative behavior exist in nature where reciprocity may be involved, experimental evidence for strategies predicted by direct reciprocity models remains controversial; and indirect and strong reciprocity have been found only in humans so far. Here we show experimentally that cooperative behavior of female rats is influenced by prior receipt of help, irrespective of the identity of the partner. Rats that were trained in an instrumental cooperative task (pulling a stick in order to produce food for a partner) pulled more often for an unknown partner after they were helped than if they had not received help before. This alternative mechanism, called generalized reciprocity, requires no specific knowledge about the partner and may promote the evolution of cooperation among unfamiliar nonrelatives.

The authors sums up the finding pretty well, and I see no real need to elaborate on the findings

Author Summary

The evolution of cooperation is based on four general mechanisms: mutualism, where an action benefits all partners directly; kin selection, where related individuals are supported; “green beard” altruism that is based on a genetic correlation between altruism genes and respective markers; and reciprocal altruism, where helpful acts are contingent upon the likelihood of getting help in return. The latter mechanism is intriguing because it is prone to exploitation. In theory, reciprocal altruism may evolve by direct, indirect, “strong,” and generalized reciprocity. Apart from direct reciprocity, where individuals base their behavior towards a partner on that partner's previous behavior towards themselves, and which works under only highly restrictive conditions, no other mechanism for reciprocity has been demonstrated among conspecifics in nonhuman animals. Here, we tested the propensity of wild-type Norway rats to help unknown conspecifics in response to help received from other unknown partners in an instrumental cooperative task. Anonymous receipt of help increased their propensity to help by more than 20%, revealing that nonhuman animals may indeed show generalized reciprocity. This mechanism causes altruistic behavior by previous social experience irrespective of partner identity. Generalized reciprocity is hence much simpler and therefore more likely to be important in nature than other reciprocity mechanisms.

Of course, it's not possible to say if this behavior is abnormal, until similar tests have been carried out on other species. It does, however, tell us that it is possible that such behavior happens in nature, which is something that has only been speculated about before.

Need I say what this would mean regarding the percepted uniqueness of human altruism? If generalized reciprocity is the norm, then altruism would make evolutionary sense on a species level, and should be quite comment in nature (and it has been observed before among several species, so that supports this idea).

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

The racial history of the US over at Orcinus

Sara Robinson has started a great series over at Orcinus called Truth & Reconciliation.

Truth & Reconciliation, Part I: Reconciling the Wounds of Lynching

The first thing whites need to know about the legacy of lynching, Ifill told us, is that Americans -- both black and white -- are still carrying deep scars, which are clinging to us through the generations. Working for many years on voting rights cases throughout the South, she noticed that people in the towns she visited had never really let go of these events. "Everywhere I worked, I heard from my clients about lynchings. Invariably, they'd tell me about some horrific act of racial terrorism that had happened in the past." The practice of lynching ended decades ago; but even today, Ifill found that the memories are still as fresh as if they'd happened yesterday.

The next thing Ifill noticed is that whites and blacks in a community talk about lynching differently -- and have very different memories of what happened in their towns so long ago. "When I spoke with my [African-American] clients, I deliberately used the word "memories" -- even though my clients often weren't even alive when these lynchings happened. Still, I discovered that they 'remembered' details of the lynchings in great detail. They'd heard the stories directly from their parents as tales of how to survive life in the towns they lived in." Ifill was struck that "memories" were invariably extremely vivid, recalled with such specificity -- where the bodies were found, how the corpses looked -- that even people born years after the event thought they'd been there themselves, even though they knew it wasn't possible.

White people in the same towns, on the other hand, usually had very vague memories, even if they or their parents had been witnesses to the lynching. " The difference was striking between the two communities," she marveled. Nobody knew anybody involved. Usually, the lynch mob comprised "people from the next county" or "over the state line" -- people not from around here. (The people from the next county would usually point the finger right back.) Even when photos were available -- and, as Dave has noted, photos were very often available -- nobody recognized anybody. "They closed ranks, and never opened them," explained Ifill. "The lynching was not really about their community, so there was nothing to talk about."

Truth & Reconciliation, Part II: James Loewen on Sundown Towns

If you think the town you grew up in didn't have a race problem because either a) it wasn't in the South, or b) it was all white, Loewen -- the author of "Sundown Towns" and an active Unitarian himself -- has news for you.

"When I started researching this subject, I expected to find three types of sundown towns," Loewen recalled. "I expected to find small towns that were all-white because they'd expelled their black populations; suburbs that were all-white because they excluded blacks (and usually Asians and Jews, as well) from the very beginning; and then a third class of places that were all-white simply because African-Americans never got around to coming there.

"And what I discovered was that this third class is virtually non-existent. If you're an American who grew up in an all-white neighborhood, you need to realize that it was, almost certainly, all-white by intentional design."

There was a time when there were very few cities in America that didn't have a significant black population. "Between 1863 and 1890, they did live everywhere," Loewen asserts. Freed slaves spread far and wide throughout America, seeking to put down roots in places Jim Crow couldn't reach them. But reach them it did: within just a couple of generations, these towns began systematically harassing their black populations in a wide variety of ways designed to get them to move elsewhere.

Both of these posts are quite interesting, and tells a lot of stuff I didn't know before. I'm unsure if there will be any more posts in the series, but make sure to check out the rest of the blog as well. Both Sara Robinson and David Neiwert are some of the best bloggers out there, and Orcinus is absolutely a must-read blog.

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For fundamentalists, it's always the gays who are to blame

Ampersand has a great post up at Alas, A Blog

Fundamentalist Flunks Bar Exam And Sues Because Of Exam Question Involving Lesbians
I suggest people go read it and the comments. The rest of this post will be about the article he linked to in the post.

He links to a story in the Boston Herald: Bar-exam flunker sues: Wannabe rejects gay-wed question, law

A Boston man who failed the Massachusetts bar exam has filed a federal lawsuit claiming his refusal to answer a test question - related to gay marriage - caused him to flunk the test.

Stephen Dunne, 30, is suing the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, claiming the “inappropriate” test question violated his religious convictions and his First Amendment rights. Answering the question, Dunne claims, would imply he endorsed gay marriage and parenting.

The suit also challenges the constitutionality of the 2003 SJC ruling that made Massachusetts the nation’s first state to legalize same-sex marriage.

Dunne, who describes himself as a Christian and a Democrat, is seeking $9.75 million in damages and wants a jury to prohibit the Board of Bar Examiners from considering the question in his passage of the exam and to order it removed from all future exams.

“There’s a different forum for that contemporary issue to be discussed, and it’s inappropriate to be on a professional licensing examination,” Dunne told the Herald. “You don’t see questions about partial-birth abortion or abortion on there.”

I might be wrong, but a bar exam is about showing that you have sufficient understanding of the law to become a lawyer. So, in so much the contemporary issues are law-related, they should be reflected in the "professional licensing examination".

If you are against the laws, that's very fine, and you're free to work on getting them changed. However, it doesn't change the fact that they are the current laws, and you are supposed to know and understand them to become a lawyer. If you find it impossible to do so, then law is the wrong field for you, much like becoming a butcher is probably a bad choice for a vegetarian.

The worst part is that the question that he was asked, wasn't actually about the special status that homosexuals have in Mass. compared to other states. The article included it.

“Yesterday, Jane got drunk and hit (her spouse) Mary with a baseball bat, breaking Mary’s leg, when she learned that Mary was having an affair with Lisa,” the bar exam question stated. “As a result, Mary decided to end her marriage with Jane in order to live in her house with Philip, Charles and Lisa. What are the rights of Mary and Jane?”

Notice something? It doesn't matter if it was a homosexual couple or a mixed gender couple. But to Stephen Dunne it was a litmus test to weed out people like him. In a sense he is right, but only insofar that all questions in the test are litmus tests to weed out people like him - people who are incompetent and unsuited to practice law. It looks like it worked in this case.

Oh, and I am looking forward to hearing all the right-wings decrying this frivolous lawsuit. There haven't been such a clear-cut example of one in quite a few years.

Zuzu has more over at Majikthise

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Group of rare monkeys found in Vietnam

Via ScienceDaily, we get the good news that "[a] team of scientists from WWF and Conservation International (CI) has discovered the world’s largest known population of grey-shanked doucs (Pygathrix cinerea)".

This is great news, since the grey-shanked doucs are among the most endangered primates, and the discovery of the group, adds a significant number of individuals to those already known.

Recent surveys in Que Phuoc Commune in Quang Nam Province recorded at least 116 animals (the number of individuals observed), with an estimated population of over 180 individuals. To date, only a small part of the area has been surveyed, meaning significantly more doucs may live in the adjacent forest.

Primates in Vietnam are generally endangered, so it's critical that preservation work is done, to ensure the survival of these. Hopefully it's not too late for the grey-shanked doucs, and the like.

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Blatant link-whoring

But for a serious reason.

ERV pointed out in the comments to my last post, that Dembski is trying to Google-bomb pro-science, though in a slightly more sophisticated way than normal.

Are you pro-science enough?
William Dembski

In my previous post, I cited a Miami Herald article that refers to “The National Center for Science Education, a pro-science watchdog group.” For the real pro-science watchdog group, check out the following links:


That’s right. I own those domain names and they all refer back here. Let me encourage all contributors to this blog to use these domain names in referring to UD when they email Darwinists."

Now, if these links are only used in e-mails, there won't be any problems, but if they are also used on the internet, it might mean that they will become prominent in Google searches. This can be avoided by linking to other sites (for example this blog, but it could also be The Panda's Thumb or NCSE) with the text pro-science.

It would be horrible if people got the impression that UD has anything to do with science.

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Lazy linking

Just a few links to things I've found interesting lately

National Geographic has a video with a humpback whale feeding frenzy (video embedded in page).

Laelaps has a blogpost about how some birds have picked up the filthy habit of smoking, but in a different way: Birds pick up a good smoking habit

Going back in time, I thought it might be a good idea to link to PZ Myers' old, but brilliant post The proper reverence due those who have gone before (the original post at his old blog-location can be found here).

The reason why I link to that post, is to say to all the people who criticize PZ for his "militant" atheism, that if such writing is considered militant, then I'll take militant any day of the week.
Other noteworthy atheist posts by PZ are:
The Wall: A Sunday morning story
Planet of the Hats

The always brilliant Lauren has a post up reflecting on how her life relates to a book reviewed by Bitch, Ph.D. - Promises I Can Keep: Elaborating On An Old Review

Abbie, over at ERV, has started an index to common creationist claims about ERVs

Foxy has written a nice post about evolving hardware over at Tyler and Foxy's Scientific and Mathematical Adventure Land (formerly Greedy, Greedy Algorithms)

Sara, at Sara Speaking, has two posts about racism in Avenue Q
everyone’s a little bit racist and christmas eve

Tara writes about the perils of the bikini wax

Ben Goldacre needs our help to keep his great site, Bad Science, running - read more here

A good post about framing by T. Ryan Gregory (via ERV). If you don't know what framing is, or haven't followed the debate, don't worry, the post will be sufficient.

Jill has a post up about the newest unspeakable vileness of the so called pro-life movement. Hello Birmingham

Via Pandagon, If Iran Were America (And We Were Iran): A Timeline


Friday, July 06, 2007

An example of how a moderate Christian can help

Like many other atheists, I consider many moderate Christians as part of the problem, since they are too respectful of fundamentalist beliefs. Now, I see that there is one moderate Christian who is writing a book addressing the very problems with fundamentalist belief.

Jesus for the Non-Religious

This is not, as the title suggests, a theological riposte to the hugely popular God-denying books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Rather, as Spong, a retired bishop, explains in the prologue, it tries to answer the 21st-century questions: "Is it possible, Jesus, that we Christians are the villains who killed you? Smothered you underneath literal Bibles, dated creeds, irrelevant doctrines and dying structures?"

This book embraces modern science and all the controversial contemporary theological history and tries to reach beyond that and discover a Jesus that is "the source of life, the source of love, the ground of being, a doorway into the mystery of holiness".

Of course, any book that has as its goal to "discover" Jesus doesn't embrace modern science, but the book goes against the concept of an inerrant Bible, which is a major roadblock to teaching proper science.

The author also seems to address the problems with the New Testament accounts of Jesus' life, and make clear that they are impossible, and certainly shouldn't be understod literately. That of course leads me to wonder what keeps the author to believe in a divine God and his son? (a check of his wikipedia entry indicates that he doesn't believe in a divine son of God)

Anyway, I welcome the voices of more moderate Christians who speak out against fundamentalism, and reject giving crazy ideas any undeserved respect. Something we see all too rarely. The author of the book, John Shelby Spong seems to have been at it for a while though, with noticable less success at changing the US debate than the current bunch of atheist books. Maybe his time has come, now that the public discurse has changed in the US?

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

New example of the problem solving skills of Orang-utans

Orang-utans reach new level in water study

A great ape has been shown to use water as a tool for the first time, in the latest demonstration of their remarkable problem-solving skills.

The discovery was made when orang-utans took part in a pioneering experiment that was inspired by the ancient Aesop's fable in which a thirsty crow tossed stones into a pitcher to raise the level and drink the otherwise inaccessible water.

The experiment in Germany, described today in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, details how one group of orang-utans had sufficient mental insight to "invent" the use of water as a tool to obtain a tasty treat.

Isn't that cool?
There is more in the Telegraph article, which also has a link to a video.

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The Freedom of Information Act turns 41

Yesterday, on the 4th of July, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) turned 41 years old.

On tha occation, Wired had an online article about the act

Bittersweet Sunshine: Four Decades of FOIA Wins and Losses

U.S. government documents used to be considered secret unless individual agencies decided to release them.

But on July 4, 1966, that presumption was inverted when the Freedom of Information Act was signed into law, declaring that in a government of, by and for the people, government records must be released to the public upon request, unless those records meet a handful of defined exemptions.

Over the last four decades, FOIA (pronounced "foy-ya") has become one of the most important laws creating openness and transparency in government. It's a key tool for journalists and nonprofit groups investigating the workings of the federal government.

It has been used to reveal the FBI's Vietnam-era surveillance of American dissidents, CIA drug experiments on American citizens, and government inspectors turning a blind eye to the sale of contaminated meat, among many other things.

But as a just-released report from the National Security Archive showed, bureaucracies still resist the law's openness imperative. They will ignore requests, take decades to process them or redact embarrassing information. A bill that would penalize agencies for foot-dragging was set to be voted on earlier this year by the full Senate, but was stalled by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), who put a secret hold on the bill. There will be no progress until he removes the hold.

Despite these obstacles, persistent reporters and public-interest organizations have been able to crack the veil of secrecy that bureaucrats and politicians use to hide their motivations and machinations.

In honor of the law's 41st birthday, Wired News presents five of the best technology-focused FOIA wins and five that are still outstanding.

Openness and transparency is important to create true democracies, and avoid nepotism, corruption and outright power abuse. Go read the cases that Wired included.

One of the outstanding cases, Warrantless Wiretapping Documents, might get closer to and end though. Electronic Frontier Foundation sends out a newsmail about what is happening on the electronic freedom front, and the latest mail included the following:

It's Official: Senate Committee Issues Subpoenas for Key
NSA Spying Docs

After voting to authorize subpoenas for information on the
NSA spying program last week, the Senate Judiciary
Committee has now officially issued them.

Read the rest of it here

Note: This is a repost of an earlier post, in which someone had left some nasty spam-javascript in the comments. A comment I couldn't delete for some reason. If this happens again, I guess I will have to turn comment moderation on. *sigh*

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Europe's role in today's astronomy

ScienceDaily has an article about the subject of Europe's role in astronomy today.

Europe Plays Lead Role In New Age Of Astronomical Discovery

Astronomy is entering a new golden age of discovery led by breakthroughs in telescopes and instruments making them capable of observing distant events early in the life of the universe. There is now great optimism that one of the fundamental questions of cosmology, the origin of galaxies, will be resolved within the next decade or sooner. But the technology involved is expensive, for instruments have to be highly sensitive and some of the observation needs to take place from space beyond the interference of the earth's atmosphere, so an international effort is involved.

Europe is playing a key role in this global programme with three new instruments, including the €1 billion Herschel Space Observatory (HSO), and the European Science Foundation (ESF) has been helping to coordinate the effort by bringing many of the principle users of these facilities together at an international conference. Delegates included leading specialists in all aspects of galaxy and star formation.

Europe has always had a strong tradition for involvement in astronomy (many of the early pioneers were European after all), but it's good to see that Europe still keeps on investing money in such research.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Non-Muslim religious terrorism

In a comment to one of my posts, Jesse asks

I need a little help, if you could. It's not necessarily blog-related, so I'll bury it back here. I'm getting into the standard "Not all muslims are suicide bombers, nor is there anything to suggest that Islam is inherently more violently inclined than Christianity, yadda, yadda, yadda...

Any chance that you can provide me with links or examples of non-muslim religiously motivated violence (preferably the more recent the better. The person I'm arguing with seems to think that christianity has evolved past this point. Though that would seem to argue that Islam may also.) I'd prefer to counter with recent events suggesting that we're not so much beyond. Any help would be appreciated.

This is a sort of argument that I've frequently run into, and I think it is quite important to point out that religious fanatics of all sorts do terrorist acts. The willingness to commit atrocities in the name of the cause, is part of the mental make-up of fanatics.

Now, there is no doubt that the biggest terrorist acts in recent years have been committed by Islamic fanatics, but there have been numerous terrorist acts and attempts of terrorism that can be laid at the feet of non-Muslims.

In Northern Ireland there have been a large number of terrorist acts committed by Christians of both the Protestant and Catholic branches. These terrorist acts have spilled over into both England (especially London) and Ireland. For example, the Provisional IRA detonated bombs in London as late as 1996, and the Real IRA did the same as late as march 2001.

While some might argue that these attacks are based upon nationalism, the truth is that the conflict is entirely religious in nature, and the nationalism is an offspring of this religious conflict.

Already there we can dismiss the claims of Christians are not violently inclined if they feel threatened. However, given the question was raised by an American, it's probably not a bad idea to mention the more, to Americans, homegrown terrorists. The Christians targeting abortion clinics.

In the US being working in a clinic that provides abortions is not without its dangers. You will often be targeted by demonstrations and insults on a daily basis, but you will also run the risk of becoming the target of much more deadly attacks.

Most of the successful attacks are arson, but bombs and physical attacks also happens. Just couple of months ago, a man was arrested for attempting to detonate a bomb at a Texas abortion clinic.

There is also the Christian identity movement, which is allied to the Patriot movement. Not all militias in the Patriot movement belongs to the Christian Identity movement, but all militias in the Christian Identity movement supports the Patriot movement. Christian Identity adherents have been involved in numerous crimes, most notoriously was The Order, whose goal was to overthrow the US government, who they thought were ruled by a cabal of Jews. This antisemitism was partly religiously motivated.

Now, some people will argue that abortion clinic bombers and Christian Identity followers are fringe groups of Christians that don't represent Christianity.
However, to claim that, is to misunderstand the nature of terrorists. Terrorism is only used when people feel they are fighting an asymmetrical battle. This explains why the Catholics in Northern Ireland used terrorism more than the Protestants, who were allied with the British troops, and why terrorism actually decreased when the British troops left Nothern Ireland.
The examples of Christian terrorism in the US mentioned here, were done by Christian extremists. However, there US is a Christian nation by the large, so it would not make sense for the less extremist Christians to take up terrorism. Instead Christians in the US (and other Christian-dominated countries) can use the political process to force their ideas through. However, the extremists' willingness to take up violence, shows what can happen if the mainstream Christians in the US feel that they are oppressed. This can also be seen in India, where there are several Christian terrorist groups (see Wikipedia list linked below).

Islamic terrorists are on the other hand often in a situation where they are fighting an asymmetrical war against a more powerful enemy. Also, it's often unclear how religiously motivated they really are - it can be argued that the terrorism committed by Palestinian, Chechen, Afghanistan, and Iraqi groups are nationalistic in nature, and is only considered to be religiously motivated because they are fighting against forces from different religions. Especially in Chechnya, the religious differences are only used as a rally cry to gain support from foreign groups.

Wikipedia has a decent list of terrorist groups, which shows that while the majority of terrorist groups currently are Islamic, there are many that's not. I don't agree on their classification of the Northern Irish groups as nationalistic, since the nationalism there is based upon religion, but these are probably the official grouping by the US and EU.

For an article related to this subject, I came across this Washington Post article about Eric Robert Rudolph: Is Terrorism Tied To Christian Sect?

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