Wednesday, December 20, 2006

In Memory of Carl Sagan

Ten years ago, we lost one of our greatest champions of science. Carl Sagan helped the rest of us understand our place in the world, helped show us the exquisite beauty of the universe in all of its grand splendor. He captivated our imagination and sparked our curiosity, while ever reminding us to exercise a healthy skepticism and respect for the truth.

Above is a picture of the place where Carl spent all 62 years of his life, a pale blue dot called Earth, as viewed from the Voyager 1 probe near the edge of our solar system, 6 billion miles away.

To read what others have to say about the man, check out (or, better, participate) the Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-thon.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Book Passage Meme

I'm indulging toomanytribbles this fun little meme thing.

The idea is this. You pick up the nearest book, blog the title and author, turn to page 123, skip to the fifth sentence and transcribe the next three.

You're also supposed to tap 3 other people to do the same.

The book is What Ifs? Of American History, edited by Robert Cowley. I received it as a Christmas present last year and, I have to admit, I haven't gotten around to reading it yet. Page 123 is an essay written by Thomas Fleming called The Northwest Conspiracy.

The sentences:

But Johnson declined to cooperate.

Next 3:
On May 9, the War Department ordered the executions without further delay. By this time, with Morton's help, an appeal had been submitted to the federal district court in Indianapolis.
Arrangements were made to forward it swiftly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

OK, that's pretty lousy as I can't offer any illumination on to what it means. So let me pick the next closest book.

It is The Third Culture, edited by John Brockman.

I think they're so wrapped up in their gene-centered world that they have an incomplete ontology of biological nature.

Next 3:
George Williams was the one who bean taking evolution out of the passive mode and making it active. The translation of this is that organisms are out there competing, and although it looks like they're competing for food, they're competing for the opportunity to leave genes behind. At the reproductive-biology level, it's a good description of nature.

This is Niles Eldredge making a rather benign statement about George Williams and one of his contributions to evolutionary biology. It is sandwiched in between other sentences which criticize Williams, Dawkins and the other "ultra-Darwinists" who predominate the field today, for their heavily emphasis on genes, and their insistence that everything in evolution can be explained and understood on the genetic level. Eldredge claims that their extreme "reductionist" point of view the excludes a lot of consideration of higher levels of biological nature (individual organisms, species, etc.) as well as lower levels (like protein chemistry), which may play an equally important role in evolution.

I really don't have anybody to tap to participate in the meme who I think would be very interested, unfortunately. Except maybe Zithy, maybe mystyang.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Political Interference and Censorship in Science

A few days ago I read news of the Union of Concerned Scientists' protest against political interference in science and today I was confronted with news that reinforced my belief that their objections are well-founded. Recently the Bush Administration has tightened the publishing rules that scientists working at the U.S. Geological Survey are subject to.
    "The new requirements state that the USGS's communications office must be "alerted about information products containing high-visibility topics or topics of a policy-sensitive nature."


    The changes amount to an overhaul of commonly accepted procedures for all scientists, not just those in government, based on anonymous peer reviews. In that process, scientists critique each other's findings to determine whether they deserve to be published.

    From now on, USGS supervisors will demand to see the comments of outside peer reviewers' as well any exchanges between the scientists who are seeking to publish their findings and the reviewers. "
When people like myself say that this administration is hostile to science, this is exactly the sort of thing that we're talking about. This is important because we have scientists working in government for a good reason. On matters concerning the environment and public health, as well as other issues, understanding the facts of a situation is crucial to setting good, effective policy.

By intentionally limiting one important manner in which scientific progress and understanding is achieved for the sake of "harmonizing" the product of government research with various political positions (something that certain officials deny, but which is clearly the case if you read between the lines of their doublespeak) then as a rational person, you're forced to conclude that the only thing that can result is public policy that ignores the scientific evidence or is based on scientific evidence that has been doctored to reach certain predetermined conclusions.

Pretty clearly, this is going to result in bad policy, or at very least will stifle and delay the implementation of good policy.

This, as much as anything demonstrates the chilling cleverness that forces within and without the U.S. government are displaying in their ability to subvert the American people to get them to blindly support bad decision-making. The scientific process is corrupted, ironically, in the name of supposedly improving the accountability of their scientists. The quality of education received by students is compromised in the name of teaching children "both sides" of the evolution "debate". We let them get away with it because they're pretty good at coming up with arguments that sound OK on the face of it to your average person who lacks a fundamental understanding of science and the scientific process.

I haven't mentioned a lot of specific examples illustrating exactly how such interference is such a bad thing, because for one thing, I think it should be obvious, but for another, because there are so many different examples, that it's difficult to choose.

But to just pick one that relates a little to what I was talking about in my last journal entry about American agriculture, there is this instance of a scientist working for the USDA who complains that he was prohibited from publicizing the results of his research, which concerned the dangers of airborne bacteria resulting from farm waste. There is no good reason to suppress research on such a subject unless the administration fears what the information might do to people's perception of current agricultural policy. This is not the action of a government that is acting on behalf of the people, it is the action of a government acting on behalf of powerful special interests.

And that is what we call "corruption".

Saturday, December 16, 2006


This is response to a journal post by theggreen1's on OkCupid, where he basically asks, "What's the deal with vegetarians? Don't they know we have incisors for a reason? Since virtually all life sustains itself from the death of another creature, the vegetarian 'holier than thou' attitude is completely asinine." I am paraphrasing, but that is the general thrust of it.

This was my response.

For many vegetarians it is not necessarily so much a matter of trying to reduce the net amount of death in the world as it is trying to reduce the amount of animal suffering that results from their eating habits, or because they want to dampen their negative impact on the environment.

The majority of animals raised for eating in the U.S. live out most of their lives in an industrial CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations), which is about as miserable a "habitats" that you can imagine for these animals, and don't even remotely reflect the animal's natural environment. It's standard procedure, for example, for animals to have their beaks or tails clipped to prevent them from maiming their neighbor animals when they go stir-crazy.

In some cases (particularly in the case of cows), their diet consists of food that they would never touch in nature. Ruminants like cows normally subsist entirely on grass ... in CAFOs, they are fed copious amounts of corn mixed in with their grass, supplemented by various animal fats and heaping quantities of antibiotics (a great way to breed super-germs), because without them and other medical care, their stomachs would explode (well, maybe not quite that dramatic, but with more or less the same consequences).

The other possible motive for adopting a vegetarian lifestyle that I mentioned has to do with sustainability. Growing a monoculture of corn on an industrial farm/plantation just to feed it to animals is hugely inefficient in terms of calories netted vs. calories spent. It's not even a particularly efficient way to produce protein. Add to that these farms and CAFOs tend to pollute the air, consume and pollute the local water supply and rely heavily on the burning of fossil fuel and it is pretty clear that this is ecologically not a very sound way of doing things and will ultimate spell some problems. Eating "lower on the food chain" as vegetarians do alleviates some of these issues.

I'm not a vegetarian myself, so I'm not trying to convert you or anything. I'm just explaining why vegetarians eat the way they do even though nature obviously has "intended" us to function as omnivores. We are well adapted to eating a variety of food and doing so benefits us nutritionally, under normal, or perhaps "natural" circumstances. The additive-laden fast food diet of your average American is no more "natural" than vegetarianism and is almost certainly no more healthy.

If you're wondering where I'm getting all of this, most it comes from the fact that I've recently read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. It is a most illuminating book if you're interested in understanding how the food you have come to ingest got to your dinner plate, though most people may feel better off not reading it unless they're willing to go to some lengths to make changes to their diet.

Normally movie reviews aren't really my bag, but that's OK because this isn't so much a film critique as much as it is the issuance of a Code Orange "High" Terrible Movie Alert.

Horrible acting, horrible pacing, horrible direction, horrible effects and production values, and a script that absolute butchers what is one of the best fantasy novels of the past decade or more. On Metacritic it's got a rating of 40/100, which is far too kind.

Do not see the movie if you've read the book, because you will be sorely disappointed. Do not watch the movie if you think you may read the books, because it would only taint the experience.

Just a heads up.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Return of Leaded Gasoline?

According to this blurb, the Bush administration is considering doing away with health standards against cutting gas with lead.

"The Environmental Protection Agency said this week that revoking those standards might be justified "given the significantly changed circumstances since lead was listed in 1976" as an air pollutant, claiming that concentrations of lead in the air have dropped more than 90 percent in the past 2 1/2 decades."

So let me see if I can follow the chain of reasoning here:
  • Fact: High concentrations of lead in the air is recognized as a serious health concern.
  • Action: Laws and regulations are passed aiming to remove lead from the air.
  • Fact: The amount of lead in the air decreases dramatically.
  • Conclusion: Laws aimed at reducing concentrations of lead in the air should be removed.

It befuddles me how anyone could think this makes any sort of sense or is in the best interests of the citizens of the country who are basically being asked to breathe poison, because that's what is in the financial interest of certain industries.

Of course, this wouldn't be the first instance of the administration effectively castrating the intent of the Clean Air Act, by ending investigations facilities suspected in violating the law or expanding on loopholes in the law.

People should understand that this isn't just a global warming issue or something that only concerns tree-hugging hippies. I can understand how people might be able to convince themselves that global warming is not a man-made issue, but what I don't understand is how people can accept breathing air that is laced with toxins that are a well known source of several cancers and respiratory diseases, as something that is OK.

It is frustrating that people don't realize that environmentalism isn't (or at least, doesn't have to be) about sacrificing humanity or civilization in favor of endangered birds or a few acres of rain forest. It can be about living in such a way that we have a sustainable ecosystem that will be capable of supporting humans and human civilization for the decades and centuries to come. It can be about wanting to breathe air, drink water, and eat food that isn't loaded with dangerous chemicals.

You don't have to prescribe to the belief that we're on the brink of a The Day After Tomorrow-type catastrophe or the conviction that humans are less important than other animals to understand that there are powerful forces at work, lobbying the representatives (who are supposed to be representing you) who don't give half a shit about your quality of life and certainly don't give half a shit about the quality of life that will be experienced by future generations.

So please, when you hear news like this, don't just shrug your shoulders and figure that it doesn't matter. Find out where your representatives stand on the issue and if they stand against you, make your displeasure known.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The inaugural blog post.

I created this blog a while back, but never could find the motivation to post it. Since then I joined the dating site OkCupid, which relatively recently added a blogging function and offering ready and convenient access to several other people's blogs for me to comment on. I gradually went from commenting to blogging myself.

The problem with that site's blogging system is that ... it's pretty weak. It's buggy with a counter-intuitive interface and various other limitations and problems that I know your dedicated blogging site could never manage to survive with.

Hence, the move. To jump-start this blog, I'll include links to things I have previously written in my Cupid journal.

Checks and Balances? Rights? Who needs 'em? - Sept. 14th 2006
This entry relates to the National Security Surveillance Act, a bill which would grant agencies increased authorization to surveill with less oversight, that would be voted on by a unanimous consent motion that would leave no record of who voted for or against the bill.

Your tax dollars at work. - Sept. 18th 2006
Pertains to the Children and Media Research and Advancement Act (CAMRA) which charges the CDC with conducting a study on the impact of video games and other media depictions of violence on children.

Cheney admits that we're torturing detainees.
- Oct. 26th 2006
Vice President Dick Cheney admits that we're using a cruel interrogation technique known as "waterboarding" in an attempt to extract information from detainees.

Bush makes it easier to declare martial law.
- Oct. 28th 2006
President Bush somewhat covertly signs the John Warner Defense Authorization Act into law, eliminating some of the restrictions on an executive's ability to declare martial law.

A sad story of death and torture in Iraq.
- Nov. 2nd 2006
It is revealed that one of the first female casualties in Iraq, Alyssa Peterson, actually had committed suicide, following objections to the way her unit was treating prisoners and the manner in which they were being interrogated.

The "think of the children" mentality gone mad.
- Nov. 3rd 2006
A school bus driver is fired for giving President Bush the finger as his motorcade drives by.

Political telemarketing and deception. - Nov. 6th 2006
Just before the mid-term elections, the Republican Congressional Committee sent automated, pre-recorded calls out to households in several districts which give the initial impression that a Democratic candidate is calling them, violating campaign law that states that the caller must honestly identify themselves at the beginning of the call. If the person answering hangs up, the call is repeated, sometimes several times. Voters are lead to believe the Democratic candidate are making these incredibly irritating calls.

- Nov. 10th 2006
Various stories exemplifying self-censorship on the part of the media, where truth and accuracy are sacrificed to present a more sanitized story, as well as an instance of how copyright law is being used to demolish free use, making uncensored versions of these self-censored stories less available to the public.

Is separation of church and state important?
- Dec. 6th 2006
A lengthy reply to a couple other OkCupid bloggers regarding this question. I also wasted a lot of time writing follow-up comments in Lonewulf447's journal that diverged somewhat from the original topic to questions about evolution and scientific skepticism (or skepticism of science).

Religion, science and morality.
- Dec. 12th 2006
My transcript of a speech Sam Harris made at the Beyond Belief 2006 conference held by The Science Network concerning the titular subjects.

From this you can probably get a pretty good idea of what my political leanings are. My cupid blog also contains some non-political thoughts as well.