Monday, April 30, 2012

About that Dan Savage video

Apparently, Dan Savage gave a speech in which he called some rationalizations given by Christians against homosexuality "bullshit". And now a bunch of right-wing Christianists are calling foul and persecution and are foaming at the teeth for revenge against Savage. So what, exactly, did he say to get their knickers all in a bunch?

Christina (over at WWJTD) gives a transcript:
The Bible, we’ll just talk about the Bible for a second ah. People often point out that they can’t help it – they can’t help with the anti-gay bullying, because it says right there in Leviticus, it says right there in Timothy, it says right there in Romans, that being gay is wrong.

We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people. [applause]

The same way, the same way we have learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation. [applause] We ignore bullshit in the Bible about all sorts of things. The Bible is a radically pro-slavery document. Slave owners waved Bibles over their heads during the Civil War and justified it. The shortest book in the New Testament is a letter from Paul to a Christian slave owner about owning his Christian slave. And Paul doesn’t say “Christians don’t own people.” Paul talks about how Christians own people.

We ignore what the Bible says about slavery, because the Bible got slavery wrong. Tim — ah, Sam Harris, in A Letter To A Christian Nation, points out that the Bible got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong. Slavery! What’re the odds that the Bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong? 100% percent.

The Bible says that if your daughter’s not a virgin on her wedding night – if a woman isn’t a virgin on her wedding night, she shall be dragged to her father’s doorstep and stoned to death. Callista Gingrich lives. [applause] And there is no effort to amend state constitutions to make it legal to stone women to death on their wedding night if they’re not virgins. At least not yet. We don’t know where the GOP is going these days. [audience laughs]

People are dying because people can’t clear this one last hurdle. They can’t get past this one last thing in the Bible about homosexuality, um.

One other thing I wanna talk about is — [chuckles] — so, you can tell the Bible guys in the hall that they can come back now, because I’m done beating up the Bible. [applause]

It’s funny, as someone who’s on the receiving end of beatings that are justified by the Bible, how pansy-assed some people react when you push back. [applause]

I apologize if I hurt anyone’s feelings, but I have a right to defend myself. And to point out the hypocrisy of people who justify anti-gay bigotry by pointing to the Bible, and insisting we must live by the code of Leviticus on this one issue and no other.

So... yeah... I don't see too many Christians choosing to follow most (let alone all) of the laws in the Bible. When was the last time when you saw the daughters of preachers being stoned to death for "being a whore" (which means any woman who has sex with someone not her husband - even if she doesn't prostitute herself - which means that it can include adultery, incest, or rape, and it can also be socially expanded to mean any woman not with her husband - since one doesn't know what she might be doing with her lady parts). If you take this definition and add to it the a gender-neutral reading of Matthew 5:28, then any woman who thinks about having sex with a man who is not her husband (even if he will become her husband) is a whore. Not so nice... Still, Leviticus 21:9 requires the stoning of priests' daughters who are whores. A priest's son that sleeps around? Not such a big problem...

Did your local priest get married to a woman who had premarital sex or a woman who had been divorced? Ooops! That's against Leviticus 21:7, which says, "Priests may not marry a woman defiled by prostitution, and they may not marry a woman who is divorced from her husband, for the priests are set apart as holy to their God.")

We also don't see a whole lot of the "don't wear clothes made from more than one fabric" law being followed (and I don't hear of much news of picketing and boycotts of Red Lobster or Long John Silvers over their sale of shellfish to God-fearing Christians). I also don't see a lot of priests staying away from the dead body at a funeral, which they are supposed to do (Leviticus 21:11): "He must not defile himself by going near a dead body. He may not make himself ceremonially unclean even for his father or mother." And the presence (and persistence) of barbers and hair salons is in complete violation (or willful ignorance) of Leviticus 19:27's command of, "Never shave the hair on your foreheads, and never cut the edges of your beard."

Ergo, we understand as true Savage's comment of "The same way, the same way we have learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation. We ignore bullshit in the Bible about all sorts of things."

But is the Bible a pro-slavery document? I mean, that's a pretty harsh statement to make. There are even apologists who say that the whole letter from Paul about slavery - which Savage cites - wasn't actually about holding people in bondage, but a metaphor about how we should act in the face of God. Or just utter denial that it had anything to do with justifying the American practice of slavery. Yeah... they're just wrong.

So we also know the following statement to be true: "The shortest book in the New Testament is a letter from Paul to a Christian slave owner about owning his Christian slave. And Paul doesn’t say “Christians don’t own people.” Paul talks about how Christians own people. We ignore what the Bible says about slavery, because the Bible got slavery wrong."

The rest of Savage's argument flows rather logically (although not in mincing steps) from the premises that he laid out:
  1. There are many laws in the Bible, and we don't follow most of them, and that's okay.
  2. The Bible was wrong about slavery, even though it is in the Bible in many places.
  3. If the Bible was so grossly wrong about slavery, the chances that it is right about homosexuality - or that we should follow that specific one rule out of all the ones we choose to ignore - is vanishingly small.
  4. [Implied conclusion] Don't justify your hatred of homosexuality with the Bible.
  5. Don't get your knickers in a bunch on having your bullshit called out for what it is.
As a logical argument, the above points do make sense, but - as a purely logical argument - I would say that it misses the emotional clout that accompanies the logical flow, and it comes from the accusations from the religious right's focus on the word "bullshit." This frenetic and fanatical (heh) focus on the term "bullshit" as opposed to the argumentation Savage presents tells me that it's not a logical counter argument that the religious right are presenting, but rather an emotional one. From whence the emotional outrage? I propose that it's due to a conflation of religion and identity, and any attack against Christianity is an attack upon Christians (or the specific believer in particular). However, this is a logical failure, as demonstrated by QualiaSoup (the most pertinent part is from 10:00 through to the end, but the whole video is pretty good and relatively related to the topic above):

Transcript of 10:00 to the end:
It’s when we stake our egos, hopes, or identities on specific claims that we create needless problems, because anything that then threatens the claim also threatens us. The burden of proof becomes threatening, because having to justify the claim risks discovering that we can’t do so. In this way, our ability to assess the claim becomes fatally undermined by a personal need for it to be true whether or not it has valid support. If, on the other hand, we commit ourselves, not to specific claims, but to refining knowledge, we can watch claims gather support or collapse, without the burden of proof posing any personal threat. Meeting a burden of proof isn’t always easy, but without this mechanism, without people volunteering, “Here’s my new idea and the evidence to support it,” our education would be at a standstill. Fortunately, a long history of genuine contributors to education haven’t been so unforthcoming. Supernatural claim-makers who think they are somehow exempt from the standards that are applied to other claim-makers are mistaken and, in an increasingly educated world, their special pleading will only see them being left behind in the darkness of past ignorance, where many of their claims originated. Extraordinary claims have an inescapable burden of proof. When those who make extraordinary claims don’t – for whatever reason – take their burden of proof seriously, they relieve us of the burden of taking their claim seriously.
It is with the understanding that religious claims of truth are often tightly tied with identity that the closing statement by Andrew Sullivan about the reaction to Savage's video - Using logic - as Dan also did - always wins in civil rights struggles. In the end. - might not actually turn out to be true. At least not until the interpretation of religious belief to similarly ignore scripture (or to change the inherent meaning in the words) comes about.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Science!: [Dutch Women's] Brains on Porn

I was watching the SciShow YouTube channel, and there was one video called "Your Brain on Porn". It's mostly about other science-related things in the news, and has no explicit images or words (other than "porn"), so it's effectively SFW:

The description of the porn study that was conducted was interesting, since the video only reported upon the effects in the visual cortex, and not in any other parts of the brain. The paper (subs req'd) found (in the abstract):
The strong de-activation during watching high-intensity erotic film might represent compensation for the increased blood supply in the brain regions involved in sexual arousal, also because high-intensity erotic movies do not require precise scanning of the visual field, because the impact is clear to the observer.
Now, it's possible that this is a partial presentation of results. After all, why not use the results of other brain areas to write more papers? The research team can just say that they were analyzing the different data from the various brain regions separately. So, it will be interesting (although I'm unlikely to personally follow up) to see if, indeed, there was "compensation for the increased blood supply in the brain regions involved in sexual arousal" or if it was something else. Also, it would be interesting to see if there was a difference in the response with men. (Who, knows, but perhaps there already is such a study.)

Anyway, it's important to note that the liking or disliking of something is not the same as the amount of visual cortex use that the activity uses. Also, not paying attention to something is also not the same thing as using less of the visual cortex. It is possible, for example, to absolutely hate nature documentaries (which used significantly more of the visual cortex). It's also possible to not pay much attention to the nature documentary (while still using significantly more of the visual cortex than watching the porn).

I wonder, though, what if there was porn that was filmed in a highly visually rich environment that didn't focus exclusively on the subjects, but also on the setting. How would the brain scan results of the visual cortex differ from the straight-up nature documentary?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Friday, April 27, 2012

Spring cycling

IMG_2726Last Sunday - Earth Day - I cycled up to Hudson Mills Metro Park and trundled about over there. On the way up, I went through Dexter, and I found that the re-building from the tornado is going apace. Also, the stream bank restoration along the mouth of Mill Creek (thanks to the removal of the dam and replacement of the bridge a few years ago).

I think that in a few years, the boardwalk along the bank will look really quite cool. Perhaps, too, this pathway will be a spur to the B2B trail, and it could - eventually - be connected to Hudson Mills MetroPark, too... and then up to the Lakelands Trail State Park. That would make it really easy to trail ride from Ann Arbor to Pinkney to Whitmore Lake and then back south to Ann Arbor.

But looking at this, photo, that's going to be at least a few years out. Right now it's just dirt and a partial boardwalk. Hopefully there won't be a lot of invasive species that take over the banks. We'll see, though...

I also took the following photo of a river-stone house, which is somewhat typical of the traditional building method of the region. (Hey, if you don't have ought but riverstone, then you gotta make do.)

The spring weather was still a little cool, good for not getting overheated. At the beginning of the filming of the video, I thought that it would be probably be cool if I got a helmet camera. It would make the filming of such videos a lot less dangerous.

Oh, and I also saw a turquoise frog... Strange looking frog...
... not at all what I was thinking would be in Michigan.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Do scientists have humor?


Brian Malow:

Norm Goldblatt:

Merle Kessler:

Tim Lee:

Okay... some aren't as funny as others, but they're still kinda fun to watch. (Some more fun than others.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why do I bike (part 42)

I think that perhaps Andrew Sullivan is thinking about taking up bicycling. He is - after all - writing many blurb posts about the subject of what makes people ride bikes?

In his latest blurb, he points to evidence that it's the number of bike lanes, and not so much about the weather:
Indeed, depending on how you judge what makes a city best for cycling, it’s often the colder ones that win out: Frozen Minneapolis is one of the best biking cities, thanks to well-built infrastructure and a bike share system. Rainy Portland continues to have the largest percentage of its population commuting by bike, a fact that should continue to shame city managers whose polities stay pleasant all year round.
I've got to agree with this block quote from GOOD.IS; I much prefer biking in colder weather than in hot. Not only do you get to work without all the sweat (or less sweaty at least), but you also build up a good amount of heat. I have even I had to stop to take off my jacket in -10C degree (or colder) weather because I was sweating (and I didn't want the sweat to freeze). However, once that jacket was off, the low temperatures helped keep me cool and sweat-free for the rest of the trip.

Oh, yeah: also the bike lanes that exist in Ann Arbor (at least along the section of city that I cycle along) really make the trip a lot less daunting than on similarly busy roads that don't have them. I shudder when I think about people who actually cycle on Washtenaw Ave...

And Sullivan draws the good link between needing bike lanes to increase cycling in a city with the future need for more bike lanes:
By 2050, we’re going to see 3-4 times more global passenger mobility and we’re going to have to accommodate the transport needs of more than 9 billion citizens. Mass urbanization presents an amazing opportunity to get more people cycling: 30% of urban trips are less than 3km (1.86 miles) and more than half of all trips are less than 5km (3.1 miles).
Personally, I'd not like to see all that population growth get into cars, try to find parking in the same downtown areas, and try to all get going on the roads. It will need a major re-think about how we - as a society - approach transportation. Perhaps those of us living in the United States will come to understand that not everyone can rationally (nor should anyone really feel obligated to) drive several tens of miles in one direction to get to work. Maybe - as we get evermore crowded - we will come to recognize that this individual car ownership thing isn't really all that it's cracked up to be ... and that it's okay.

Until that time, though, I'll be saving money that would otherwise go to buying gas (~$1,000/year), car insurance (~$750/year), registration (~$100), maintenance (~$500/year) -- assuming that it's a 2007 Ford Focus (just pulling a car out of the air which happens to be the same as this car-ownership assessment) -- and parking (~$200/year). At those numbers, with the savings, I can buy a new fully-kitted-out bicycle ever year. (And that's assuming that I own the car, and I'm not also making interest payments on the sucker.) In contrast, over the last year, I normally spend $300-$400/year on maintaining my bike (this last year I also spent about $800 for a complete replace and rebuilt of my rear wheel, including a new internal hub).

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I can't post scheduled posts on Blogger!

It seems that the upgrade for Blogger meant that no one can schedule posts (or at least many people can't).

If you're having problems with having your scheduled posts automatically uploading, then go to this discussion thread and add your deets.

Four (European) historical misconceptions

A little while ago, I posted the CPG Grey video about 8 misconceptions about animals. He's done another misconceptions video: this one about 5 misconceptions about (European) history. How many did you already know?

I knew four. (Vikings, Godiva, Vomitorium, and Columbus.)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Name of Earth

Ever wonder why we call a planet that is mostly covered with water "earth" and not "water"? Why do humans call it so many different names? Any other etymological questions about "Earth"? Well, Treehugger just did a story about the reasons why.
There's something a bit ironic about the fact that the most fundamental common ground between every human being on the planet is, well, the planet we share--yet nearly every language has its own name for it and a reason why it's such. In English, of course, our planet is Earth--but it's terra in Portuguese, dünya in Turkish, aarde in Dutch. Just imagine the cosmic comedy that would ensue if some interstellar traveler ever stopped on our planet to get directions.

But as diverse as these names are, they all reflect an older worldview--a time before anyone knew our planet was just a fertile sphere floating in the vast darkness of space.To better understand how our planet was regarded historically, it's important to remember that the world was generally regarded as merely the 'setting' of existence and not so much a specific place. In fact, the word 'world' itself didn't originally connote the planet at all, but rather the 'state of human existence'. Germanic in origin, 'world' is a fusion of two now obsolete words translating literally to "age of man."

Read the rest here.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Happy Earth Day

Today is Earth Day. If you are reading this message on your computer or smartphone (and you're inside), stop and do something positive for our continued existence on this planet. If you are reading this message on your smartphone (and you are already outside), then put down your phone and enjoy - as best you can - the out-of-doors while you try to do something positive for our continued existence on this planet.

And now I shall follow my advice.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A part of me wants this bike trailer...

When I first had my bike put together, I had thought that I wanted to have a cargo-bike, or at least a sturdy bike that would do all the things that I would want from a bike-as-sole-mode-of-transportation. Therefore, I got the one that I currently own. It's a good bike - don't get me wrong - but it suffers from a major weight problem, due (in no small part) to the study design. Ah well: it's my own fault, I suppose. Still, a part of me thinks that I might change the bike racks for a bike trailer, and I've been looking at several fro some time now. None of them really make me want to go: yes! So I guess that it's just mental spit-balling at this point.

Well, there's another bike trailer that is catching my eye, and for completely different reasons: the Midget Bushtrekka:

Just what a part of me thinks about when I am thinking, "trailer." What's so special about this trailer is that (discounting whatever you might be thinking due to the colors on the bike) it is a camping trailer for bikes!
It's got all the things that one person would need to go camping, including a single-person tent. Still, seeing as the amount of camping that I've done out in Michigan has been.... none, I don't really see me using this contraption, so at least I know that I won't be spending the $900.00 on the thing. Still, it looks like it would be fun (provided I actually did camp). And it couldn't get too heavy, since there's not a huge amount of space to put things.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Warmer weather means more pollen

Just another reason to despise increased CO2 levels and increased warming: pollen. New research has tracked the increase in pollen count in Europe as under controlled CO2 conditions as well as tracking warmer weather patterns. From PhysOrg:
Lab experiments and a small number of open-air studies have shown that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air can boost plant growth and subsequently pollen production. Warmer temperatures and invasive species are also leading to longer pollen seasons.
So, I guess that it will be a warm and hay-fevery world. And then we'll die from/as a result of fungal disease. Yay?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

It's pronounced "car-tah-hey-nuh", folks

What with the Secret Service sex scandal in Colombia, there are many American newscasters who are on the air, trying to correctly pronounce the name of the city: Cartagena.

Some of them - annoyingly - pronounce it "Car-tah-hen-ya"... but there isn't any "ñ" in the name. (Nope, not even on the Spanish page.) It's the "ñ" that gives the "-nya" sound in the mispronunciation of Cartagena. The correct pronunciation of the city is: "Car-tah-hey-nuh" (or [kartaˈxena]).

(It's about as annoying as Americans saying "Ed-in-burg" and "Ed-in-bore-oh". )

Adviser or advisor?

Since waaaay back in the days of WordPerfect 5.0 (!), I've wanted to spell the word as "advisor", but the spell checker always highlighted it as a problem, giving me the response of "adviser". Okay, I would change it, but my fingers would always want to type it with an "o". I didn't have any problem with spelling other -er nouns (lawyer, philosopher, farmer, etc.), and I didn't have problems with spelling -or nouns either (doctor, professor, elector, etc.). So why did I want to spell advisor incorrectly?

Was it something that I had read as a child? Was it that I had always wrote it that way on paper, and my teachers didn't correct me? I mean, I don't pronounce -or endings differently than I pronounce -er endings, so it can't be an issue of mental pronunciation, so what was it?

Over the years, I realized that many other people spell it the same way as I was wont to: "advisor", and I knew that they would likely get the same result from MSWord the squiggly red misspelling underline, exactly like I was getting:

It was a problem that stuck with me until - on April 16, 2012 - I decided to go to my source of "spelling preference trend": google n-gram, and looked at the change in occurrence - in American English from my birth year of 1977 to 2000 - of "advisor" (blue line) vs "adviser" (red line):

Well, that explains it: although "adviser" is historically accepted version (peaking in the 1930s), "advisor" has been making continued upward progress since it came on the scene in the 1860s, and only recently surpassing the historical preference. In British English, the trend is a little different, through, with "adviser" still being highly dominant. However, the Brits also spell -or words with an -our, and many -er words as -re. ("Thanks", though, to American spelling hegemony, these are also changing, with even the British spelling of aluminium dipping to the American spelling.)


Interestingly, MSWord has finally seemed to acquiesce in the 2007 and 2010 version: no longer is "advisor" given the squiggly red misspelling underline; both the -er and the -or spellings are now valid. Regardless of the continued dominance of "adviser" in British English, MSWord seem to have allowed both spellings to be correct in the English-United Kingdom setting...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


A little stop motion loveliness for a Wednesday morning.

Luminaris, a short film in stop-motion by Juan Pablo Zaramella.

(See the behind-the-scenes)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Still in line to be a record year for tornadoes

Back in March, I made the following observation:
As of March 20st, the number of tornadoes in the US reached 285, which is almost tied for the most tornadoes on record by NOAA. (As a contrast, in a year that is at the 50th percentile, we wouldn't reach 285 tornadoes until roughly the end of April.) When looked at through the light of all the record temperatures, it's not too surprising that so many tornadoes are happening, but it's also very little consolation that warmer temperatures means better times.
The warm weather is basically still happening - although not at the record-breaking pace set in March. Still, though, the pattern of having a lot of tornadoes is also continuing, and - as of April 16, 2012 - we are 462 tornadoes (compared against the maximum value of 480). That's a figure that - on a median year - wouldn't be reached until mid-May. Therefore, we're still accumulating more tornadoes. Just for reference, the median yearly number of tornadoes (Jan 1 - Dec 31) is 1297. That value is - on the maximum year - recorded on roughly July 1st, and - so far - our trajectory is looking to hit 1300 around Independence Day...

It's weird weather. It's here, and we have to live with it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Boston Marathon Day

Forty-five years ago today, this happened:

If you don't know the meaning behind these iconic photos, read on. From ESPN:
Forty-five years ago, Switzer ran the race for the first time and tried to keep a low profile. When officials noticed a woman in the race, they launched an ugly attack -- which today is one of the most famous moments in the race's 115-year history -- to get her off the course.

Switzer, at the time a 19-year-old journalism major at Syracuse University, simply loved running. She had trained for months, even completing a 30-miler, to be sure she could finish. She and her coach, Arnie Briggs, had checked to see whether there were any rules prohibiting women from entering. There weren't; in those days, the idea of women running the 26.2-mile distance was so foreign, the rulebook made no mention of them. So she entered the race using her initials, K.V. Switzer, as was her habit, and was issued No. 261.

Switzer, her boyfriend, Tom Miller, and Briggs were two miles into the marathon when officials tried to evict her from the course. Their tactics were terrifying. In a rage, race director Jock Semple came lunging at her. He got his hands on her shoulders and screamed "Give me those numbers and get the hell out of my race!" The wild look in his eyes still haunts Switzer. "Seeing that face scared the s--- out of me," she said.

In the coming years, Switzer graduated from Syracuse, married Miller (and later divorced him), earned a master's degree and returned to run in Boston when women were officially welcomed in 1972, the same year Title IX became law. Over the next decade, Switzer made good on the promise she forged to herself during the late miles of the 1967 Boston Marathon, to create running opportunities for women.

The 1967 Boston skirmish helped put women runners on the map, but it was Switzer's years of legwork afterward that led the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to add a women's marathon to the Games' program.
Read more about Katherine Switzer at ESPN

To all the women who are running at Boston today, and all the women running in marathons, half-marathons, 10ks, and 5ks around the world and calendar, good luck! Whoever thought that women wouldn't be physically capable of running long distances have - thankfully - been proven absolutely, totally, irrevocably wrong. (I imagine that the increased presence of women in such grueling events has also lead to changing how we have thought about early humans and pre-human capabilities, but I don't have proof of that.)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Music genres

This Commisioned comic is funny, and one more reason why I have just stopped trying to keep ahead of the music. If this is the first step down the road to being a grumpy old man, then I'm okay with it. At least for now.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Just when we thought that it couldn't get worse...

... it likely will. According to a new study from Nature:
we're already heading for huge fungal damage to vital crops and ecosystems over the coming decades. If we don't do more to stop these diseases' spread, their impact could be devastating.
Awww... shoooooot.... So we'll have massive economic impacts due to the widespread death of crops. Could it get any worse? Well...
But the threat has gained a new urgency lately, and crops aren't the only thing at risk. More and more of these killer fungi are appearing, and they're increasingly attacking animals.
Emerging fungal epidemics already account for 72 per cent of extinctions from disease – more than bacteria and viruses put together. For instance, amphibians are being wiped out at an unprecedented rate by a deadly chytrid fungus that's been spread by the global animal trade; at least 500 species are thought to be at risk. Likewise, bats are being struck down by so-called White Nose Syndrome, which has spread all over North America since it was first spotted in 2006.
Yeah, but bats are icky and amphibians do what for us? I mean, it can't be that bad for humans, right?
In many cases there are direct consequences for humans. For example, bats eat insects that would otherwise attack crops; studies suggest White Nose Syndrome could end up costing farmers some $3.7 billion a year. But even organisms that aren't obviously useful to us will have unpleasant consequences somewhere down the line if they disappear.

"Ultimately you can't separate ecosystem health from human health – eventually, these birds will come home to roost," Fisher says, adding that the less diverse ecosystems become, the less they can stand up to sudden changes.
Oh yeah... it's an ecosystem that we live in. So, does that mean that we're also causing this to happen to everything (including us)? Yes, yes we are:
Fungal diseases are even making climate change worse; scientists estimate that the trees they've killed or damaged would otherwise have absorbed 230-580 megatonnes of CO2 – around 0.07 per cent of the total in the atmosphere.
And what's the solution for attempting to halt a kingdom of species that we know relatively little about, that can swap out parts of their genomes with other species in order to better adapt, that are almost impossible to get rid of once they've become established? Well, prevention's about the only thing that is likely to work:
Fisher says we need to start taking biosecurity far more seriously – cutting down the amount of living material we transport around the world, quarantining what we do transport far more rigorously, and doing more to stop the illegal trade in plants and animals. Eventually, breakthroughs in genetic diagnostic technology may make it possible to screen plants and animals for fungus or spores. But in the meantime, we need to do more to prevent outbreaks, and move quickly to control those that do happen before they get out of hand.
Of course, I'm sure that lots of people who want to increase world capital or develop markets are just going to be so behind this idea. Like I said: "Just when we thought that it couldn't get worse, it likely will."

Story from PhysOrg

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Kindle in Spanish

So, one of the great and fun things about the Kindle is that I can read almost any book on the go. And now I can buy books in Spanish via There are over 30,000 Spanish-language titles, including the translations of some of my favorite authors. (What a fun way to learn more of a language than to read - hopefully good - translations of your favorite author!)

Currently, there is one hitch with the search function: the search bar is set for searching the entire Kindle store, not just the Spanish language titles (or even to have a preference for the Spanish language titles). To get around this, select a genre from the left, and then you'll be searching within the Spanish language Kindle catalog for that genre.

Today, I will start in on Dioses Menores:
Y ahora consideremos el caso de la tortuga y el águila.

La Tortuga es una criatura terrestre. No se puede vivir más cerca del suelo (sin estar debajo de él). Su horizonte no va más allá de unos centímetros. La velocidad que puede alcanzar es la que necesitas para perseguir y abatir a una lechuga. La Tortuga ha sobrevivido mientras el resto de la evolución pasaba junto a ella y la dejaba atrás ya que, básicamente, era demasiado complicada de comer y no representaba una amenaza para nadie.

Y después tenemos al águila. Una criatura del aire y las Alturas, cuyo horizonte se extiende hasta el límite del mundo. Ojos lo bastante agudos para detector los movimientos de un animalito de voz chillona a medio kilómetro de distancia. Toda poder, toda control. La muerte súbita que llega volando. Uñas lo bastante afiladas para desayunarse cualquier cosa que sea más pequeña que ella y obtener, como mínimo, un desayuno rápido de cualquier cosa que sea mayor.

Y el águila pasará horas posada en un risco escrutando los reinos del mundo hasta detector algún movimiento lejano, y en ese momento de pronto se concentrará, concentrará, concentrará en el pequeño caparazón que se mece entre los arbustos allá abajo en al desierto. Y entonces el águila se lanzará desde lo alto del risco…

Y un minute después la Tortuga descubre que el mundo se está alejando de ella. Y ve el mundo por primera vez, ya no a unos centímetros del suelo sino a docientos metros, qué gran amiga tengo en el águila.

Y entonces el águila la suelta.

Y casi siempre la tortuga se precipita hacia su muerte. Todo el mundo sabe por qué la tortuga hace esto. La gravedad es una costumbre a la que cuesta mucho renunciar. Nadie sabe por qué el águila hace esto. No cabe duda de que hay un buen almuerzo en una tortuga pero, teniendo en cuenta el esfuerzo que require, la verdad es que hay un almuerzo mucho major en prácticamente cualquier otra cosa. Lo que ocurre es, simplemente, que las águilas disfrutan atormentando a las tortugas.

Pero el águila, por supuesto, no es consciente de que está tomando parte en una forma muy tosca de selección natural.

Algún día una tortuga aprenderá a volar.

Could 'advanced' dinosaurs rule other planets?

This is the title of a short article at PhysOrg. What it basically starts with is:
New scientific research raises the possibility that advanced versions of T. rex and other dinosaurs — monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans — may be the life forms that evolved on other planets in the universe. "We would be better off not meeting them," concludes the study, which appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
The evolutionary biology courses that I took (waaaaay back in biology class) tell us the short answer: No, 'advanced' dinosaurs couldn't rule other planets. (Sorry to all those pulp sci-fi novels from the '50s.)

Longer answer: they may be LIKE dinosaurs (and might even appear roughly like what we might call a dinosaur), but not like the dinosaurs that we think we know.

Longer-still answer: it is next to impossible that conditions exist to create Earth-like dinosaurs on a different planet, since it would require that conditions exist to select for the organisms that led ultimately to dinosaurs. This isn't a StarTrek-like universe in which various species' DNA are - strangely and paradoxically - compatible with each other.

In other words, given an ecosystem, it is possible (over time) for creatures to evolve to have physiques that are best suited to their environments (both physical and biological). It is not surprising, therefore, that javalinas look like pigs: they fill a similar niche as pigs in the Old World. It's not odd that there were dog-like marsupials, as well as (in prehistory) saber-toothed tigers that were marsupials and placentals, filling similar niches, looking relatively similar, but living in very different epochs (the Miocene and the Pleistocene, respectively).

... but why is this being reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society? Well, the paper is not actually about dinosaurs:
n the report, noted scientist Ronald Breslow, Ph.D., discusses the century-old mystery of why the building blocks of terrestrial amino acids (which make up proteins), sugars, and the genetic materials DNA and RNA exist mainly in one orientation or shape. There are two possible orientations, left and right, which mirror each other in the same way as hands. This is known as "chirality." In order for life to arise, proteins, for instance, must contain only one chiral form of amino acids, left or right. With the exception of a few bacteria, amino acids in all life on Earth have the left-handed orientation. Most sugars have a right-handed orientation. How did that so-called homochirality, the predominance of one chiral form, happen?

Breslow describes evidence supporting the idea that the unusual amino acids carried to a lifeless Earth by meteorites about 4 billion years ago set the pattern for normal amino acids with the L-geometry, the kind in terrestial proteins, and how those could lead to D-sugars of the kind in DNA.
So, it is possible, therefore, that such amino acids also landed elsewhere, and it is possible that these amino acids also went through the process leading to multi-cellular life, and it is possible that this multi-cellular life produced ecosystems that gave rise to things that look kind of like dinosaurs.

... or something.

(I think that the connection to dinosaurs is really tenuous; more like a "hey, our research has some relevance" statement, because talking about possibly advanced dinosaurs is far more interesting to a general audience than talking about left-handed vs. right-handed amino acid orientations and the origins of said amino acids.)

... and what PZ Myers said (with much better focus and snark).

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Cycling to work

 I can understand the desire to drive as quickly as you can to get somewhere. However, there are situations in which driving as fast as you can is impractical (and which can end up with the driver getting extremely frustrated for being unable to travel continuously at speed). One of these is driving in a city.

Although not a huge city, Ann Arbor's traffic pattern changes in three ways from where I live (just west of town) to where I work (at the University of Michigan's central campus):
  1. 45mph, little traffic (almost always moving at speed), 1 stop/2 miles
  2. 30mph, moderate traffic (usually getting up to speed limit), 1 stop/1 mile
  3. 25mph, moderate traffic (usually flowing at <25mph), 1 stop/block
In stage 1, drivers are cruising easily... until they reach the edge of town (stage 2), marked by a stop light that usually catches about 4 or 5 cars during my morning commute. The drivers are not done thinking about driving casually, however, usually speeding to the next stop light, and then the next. When the drivers reach the town center, they have either calmed down or are really annoyed and the latter group drive like they are at a drag race: pealing out of each stop, only to be forced to stop one or two blocks down the way.

As a cyclist, I cannot hope to keep up (let alone pass) the drivers going at 45mph (or more) in stage 1. However, thanks to the timing of traffic signals, my average speed of 15mph means that I'm often able to play traffic hopscotch with many drivers through stage 2 and definitely so in stage 3. I think, though, that this merely makes those annoyed drivers even more annoyed. When I see one of these guys, I try to let them have the road, but it's not always an option in the more-narrow streets of the city (that also have street-parked cars lining them).

A while ago, I did a back-of-the-envelope style of driving time vs. cycling time assessment of my commute, and noted that - on average - it is actually a little faster for me to cycle in to work than it would be to drive, park, and walk, and much of that is due to the traffic being slowed by signals in town.

When I drove, I tried to learn if there was a traffic light pattern, one that would consistently allow me to have an overall higher average driving speed (even though I might not have a top speed). I found that east-bound on Washington, one could drive most of the distance from Ashley to State at 15mph and not have to stop; east-bound on Huron, one could drive almost all the way from Maple to State at 30mph and not have to stop; north-bound on Division, one could drive from Packard through to the Broadway Bridge at 30mph and not have to stop; etc. It annoyed me, however, to note that few other drivers actually figured this timing out, and I would pass them - again and again - at a slightly slower speed as they sped (time and again) to the next waiting red light. Traffic light hopscotch isn't only a bike and car game, I suppose.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lakes & Oceans: How little we know

The wonderful webcomic, xkcd, shows yet another insightful piece of information (or information about lack of information), this time about lakes and oceans:

Monday, April 09, 2012

Cool April

So far, April has been relatively cool - definitely so compared with last month. For me, though, this is not a hardship: the weeds aren't coming up as quickly as they could be, and the ride into work isn't as sweaty as it could be. Still, having experienced 80-degree days in March, the normal temperatures of April - in the mid-50s - seem strange.

Still, April is nowhere near done yet - it's not even a third of the way through - and so who knows what's going to happen with the temperatures.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

An Easter/Passover-related Video

Okay, so it's not directly related to either Easter or Passover, but more on the topic of what is Judaism and how did Christianity arise. Still, without Judaism, no Passover, and without Judaism, no Christianity, and without Christianity, no Easter. Therefore, it is related. Weakly.

In which John Green teaches you the history of Christianity, from the beginnings of Judaism and the development of monotheism, right up to Paul and how Christianity stormed the Roman Empire in just a few hundred years. Along the way, John will cover Abram/Abraham, the Covenant, the Roman Occupation of Judea, and the birth, life, death and legacy of Jesus of Nazareth. No flame wars! Let's keep the commentary civil.
(BTW, if you are interested in that non-standard historical civilization of the Mongols, there is a t-shirt available.)

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Another fun false cognate: Miura

We know that - sometimes - alcohol takes the name of where it originated. That's where we get the name Champagne (and the legal battles over its use). It's where we get the name Sapporo, and Milwaukee's Best.

This week, a friend of mine posted a photo with a large bottle that had the name "MIURA" emblazoned prominently on its label.

Not this Miura.
Not this Miura.
Not this Miura.
But this Miura, which gave us this Miura (and this Miura, too).

Ahh... another example of false cognates between languages. Interestingly, due to the analogous manner in which the languages combine sounds to make words, both Japanese and Spanish have a LOT of words that sound almost identical to each other (and are transliterated effectively the same). True, the likelihood that a homophone exists in both languages goes down precipitously as the number of syllables increases, but there are many two and three syllable words between Japanese and Spanish that sound the same... but mean very different things. (For example, there's a bit of "folk sociology" that says that one reason why Christianity had a hard time being spread in Japan was that it's Latin word for god, "Deus", sounded a lot like something else - click on the sound icon in the Japanese to hear the word.) That's what you get when you have basically the same vowel sounds between two languages (only 5 vowel sounds, each pronounced effectively the same way between Spanish and Japanese), the same effective range of combining those sounds with consonants, and a near requirement in both languages to always pair a consonant with a vowel.

Previous entry exploring some false cognates between Spanish and English as well as Spanish and Japanese here.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Well, I'd end up superstitious, too!

Superstitions take over behaviour because our brains try and repeat whatever actions precede success, even if we cannot see how they have had their influence. Faced with the choice of figuring out how the world works and calculating the best outcome (which is the sensible rational thing to do), or repeating whatever you did last time before something good happened, we are far more likely to choose the latter. ... This explains why having personal rituals is a normal part of being human. It is part of our inheritance as intelligent animals, a strategy that works in the long-term, even though it clearly does not make sense for every individual act.

Stafford Via The Dish.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Dalek meditation for humans

So THIS is what the Daleks have been up to!

I feel much better already!

But maybe someone should let the Daleks know that cassette tapes aren't in use very much anymore - so much so that the term has been removed from the OED. (Maybe that's what is causing the scratchy voice.)

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Problems with caricature

Sullivan does a lot of nice writing, and this is another example of why I like his style and choice of topics:
It has long befuddled me - the way so many on the right view him not with disagreement or discernment, but with contempt. Contempt is a strong word; and it is built on some notion of his illegitimacy as president. They called Clinton illegitimate as well, of course, because of his plurality victory in 1992 (he never quite made it to 50 percent of the vote in 1996 either). But Obama? A clear electoral victory by a black candidate after one of the most brilliant underdog campaigns in our lifetimes. I suppose the right's view that racism no longer exists in America defuses the racial barrier. But it's telling, is it not, that very, very few Republicans have hailed the election of a bi-racial man as president, if only to celebrate the progress this country has made.
It's true, too. I've written about how so many people in the US - primarily among the right wing - disapprove of being biracial (as if that is something that you can choose to be as an individual), and how it's odd that the GOP - who called for everyone to respect the office of the president during the George W. Bush years - is now effectively demanding that Obama respect the office of the President (that is, when they aren't trying to show him off as some sort of caricature). And Sullivan goes on to make some good observations.
Instead [of fear or suspicion] we have contempt. A president who can be shouted at during a State of the Union address; a president whose birth certificate, readily available, is still questioned; a president who is regarded by an unthinkable chunk of Republicans as a Muslim; a president who allegedly cannot speak a full sentence without a TelePrompter; or, in Glenn Reynolds' immortal words, "a racist hatemonger."
This isn't some mere caricature of what some people on the political right in America think about President Obama. Do a Google search for "President Obama is" and the first option that pops up is "President Obama is a muslim". As former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said (quite reasonably and with an aplomb that has been lacking in much of the "debate" over the President's practiced religion) a number of years ago, "... but the right question is, 'but what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim?'"

That "right question", though, seems to have been lost in the "discussion" among the right wing, and it is now often brought up by people during Q&A sessions with the GOP presidential candidates. Back in 2008, McCain slapped down the notion that Obama was a Muslim; an obvious attempt at painting him as some sort of "other"; some "foreigner", and therefore illegitimate. Powell did the same thing that year. However, the attacks continued, and it has become a truism among many right-wing voters that Obama is a Muslim, and not only that, but being a Muslim is somehow wrong and makes Obama an illegitimate president. (Which is, itself, wrong in the extreme.) This point of Obama being a secret Muslim is unfortunately coming at a time when there is increasing Islamophobia, regardless of the fact that Islamic extremism in the United States has actually significantly diminished since 9/11/2001. But let's move on with more highlights from Sullivan's post:
Every now and again, they tip their hand in further weirdness. One of the more Kinsley-esque moments in contemporary Washington is the spectacle of every liberal in the town now bemoaning judicial activism, and every conservative celebrating the courts as a vital part of our constitutional system. Why, it's enough to make someone a little jaded. In that vein, comes one Michael Walsh who just had a conniption about the president's attack on the Supreme Court yesterday.
Sure, GOP members are allowed to point out when they perceive judicial "activism", but when a Democrat does it (let alone the President), then it's wrong? Hrm... When judges rule in favor of the GOP's activist base on gun rights or religious liberties, then it's the judiciary acting nobly, but when they rule against the GOP's activist base on civil liberties, then they are "unelected officials" or "activist judges" who are "overthrowing the will of the people". But when Democrats do the same thing? Well, I can understand why someone doesn't like to have their idea stolen, even less so when it's used against them, but seriously, you'd think that they'd have thicker skin than this. Still, evidence shows: nay.

Sullivan notes that a lot of the basis for these Republican attacks stem from (and are aimed at) undermining the authority of the President; that the whole thing that happened in 2008 was somehow a sham; that this President isn't actually meant to be there; that the win was a fix; that the GOP was defrauded; etc.:
Walsh is clearly implying that the election of 2008 was "fixed" or "rigged." And when you think about it, this has to be the case, or else their contempt for Obama would have to be leavened by at least some respect for one of the most brilliant underdog presidential campaigns in modern times. But not even that. Not even in the killing of Osama bin Laden could they give him any credit.

Is this rank racism, pure partisanship, class resentment, or some toxic combination of them all?

UPDATE (April 4, 2012): Sullivant posts some response-emails to his post.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Animating Western painting

This is such an awesome visual concept:

This one, too, is amazing (if mildly disconcerting):

Monday, April 02, 2012

Canada to get rid of their penny

Later this year, Canada is going to get rid of their penny. As inflation happens, and as the price of metals also rise, the penny is becoming less and less economically viable:
The penny coin, loved by some but an annoyance to many, will be withdrawn from circulation this year because it costs too much to make and is a pecuniary pest.

“The penny is a currency without any currency in Canada,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said Thursday.

Ottawa said the penny retained only one twentieth of its original purchasing power. It costs 1.6 Canadian cents to produce each one cent coin and stamping out the penny will save around C$11 million ($11 million) a year.
They are worth almost nothing, they are cumbersome and they cost the government at least $130-million per year to keep in circulation. Most vending machines do not accept them and bartenders sneer at the sight of them – yet the Mint is still busy pumping out 25 pennies per Canadian per year – at a cost of 1.5 cents apiece. “If a coin has such low purchasing power that consumers refuse it, throw it away or horde it without worrying about putting it back into the distribution system, it would seem logical to stop producing it,” reads a 2007 report by Desjardins urging the penny’s demise. The senate joined in with an anti-penny report in 2010. “It is a piece of currency, quite frankly, that lacks currency,” said Senator Irving Gerstein at the time (the joke is popular; during Thursday’s budget announcement Mr. Flaherty said “the penny is a currency without any currency.”)
The YouTuber C.G.P. Grey made a video a short while ago called "Death to Pennies", and while the depiction is of the United States, the general principle holds for Canada (and for many developed nations).

So, what will you be able to look forward to in Canada? Perhaps it will be like in the much of the world, where the price of the product is the price that you pay; no sales tax added at the cash register. Nah. That would be too convenient (and likely massively difficult to actually manage, considering how sales taxes and VATs are fundamentally different beasts, and changing from one to another - while seeming beneficial to the populace - will likely create massive strife in politics, but that's another story). Instead, there will be rounding. Just in case you can't read the graphic, this is the gist:
  • $0.98 to $1.02 = $1.00
  • $1.03 to $1.07 = $1.05
  • $1.08 to $1.12 = $1.10
(Yes, I extended the ranges to make it clear as to what I'm doing.) This means that, on average, the net cost of goods will be the same after the removal of the penny.

Of, the rounding is only valid if you are working with a cash economy. If you are, however, using a personal cheque or an electronic payment, then the pennies still exist (at least for now):
Non-cash payments such as checks, credit and debit cards will continue to be settled to the cent.
That's the benefit, of course, of using non-physical payment. In fact prices are already rounded to the nearest smallest-monetary-unit, even though they might be listed otherwise. (Here, think of gas prices, where the price may be $4.019. What's the $0.009 got to do with the price? After all, the price is effectively $4.02, but it gets rounded up at the point of sale.) Getting rid of pennies merely means that - instead of having 100 pennies in a dollar, you'll have 20 nickles in a dollar, although the loss of the nickle is in the works, too:
Soon enough. Nickels are already relatively useless – and like all coins they’re dropping in value each year. New Zealand phased out its one-cent coin in the 1980s and then its five-cent coin in 2009. It’s a strategy Desjardins strongly recommends, since eliminating more than one coin at a time could cause unneeded confusion and economic damage. Once the penny is successfully gone, “the federal government should consider, a few years later, the relevance of removing the five-cent coin,” stated Desjardins in 2007.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Animation collab by Salvador Dali and Walt Disney

A finally-completed animation collab between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney seems to be a fitting thing to post for April Fool's Day.