Thursday, May 31, 2007

A thoughful atheist's blog.

For a bit of civilized refreshment and dare I say, pleasure, my readers might enjoy visiting Gay Species. I stumbled across this blog totally by accident and the best way to describe this blog is that it is classical without being typological.

Here are some links to interesting posts at Gay Species to get you started:

The blogger, D. Steven Heersink, notes that his mentors are:
Aristotle, Epicurus, Hume, Smith, Darwin, Popper. Hayek, Searle, and Solomon.

I'd like to get all of them together for dinner.

Brownback on evolution

Senator Brownback clarified his position on evolution today in the New York Times. At first his remarks seem reasonably to echo the position of the Roman Catholic Church on evolution. Yet he reveals himself to be a creationist with little more understanding of science than those who believe humans and Tyrannosaurus rex lived peacefully together before the Fall.

For example, he reasonably says that Faith and scientific reasoning can't be contradictory:

"The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the
nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with
spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal
with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the
spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God."

And he is absolutely correct when he asserts that how "these theories"-presumably evolutionary theories- affect our understanding of the "human person" is a fundamental question.

But read more closely and Brownback is unmasked as a creationist-not even a theistic evolutionist. First, he repeats the creationist line about the distinction believing in microevolution (evolution with in a species). For example he says:

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

Notice how he not only rejects the concept of evolution of new species but also conflates any belief in evolution of new species from preexisting species with materialism.

So rather than striking a reasonable accommodation between faith and science, Brownback reveals himself to be an extremist wedded to the same sorts of fundamentalist rhetoric, that rejects the power of science to help us understand our humble place in the universe.

Update! Pat Hayes over at Red State Rabble has also posted about Brownback here.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Sex in humans: It's a delicate balance.

For years we have been taught that during human development the default sex was female and an individual with a copy of the SRY gene would develop into a male. There is an interesting interview with Eric Vilain from the University of California in this month's Scientific American. Dr. Vilain's work has updated this simplistic notion and his work has implications that go beyond genetics.

Dr. Vilain studies intersex individuals. He got interested in this topic as a medical student in Paris. He was assigned to the pediatrics unit and was shocked at how doctors made decisions about gender assignment for children with ambiguous genitalia.

His lab has discovered that sex and perhaps gender seem to involve a balancing act between different sets of genes. On the one hand is the SRY gene. Balancing that appear to be a series of what he calls "anti male genes", for instance the WNT4 gene that he calls female specific. Indeed this gene appears to inhibit male hormone production by females. WNT4 and other sorts of genes may also prove to be not just "anti-male" but be required for proper ovarian development, but this still needs to be demonstrated.

Vilain's work has implications for the politics and handling of gender related issues. From the transgender perspective this work is interesting because it provides an approach that might help explain gender identity 'disorders' at least in some situations. After all the SRY gene appears to be expressed in the brain. Might the same hold true for some of these other genes related to gonadal development? Might gender identity and behavior be as much about genetics as about social construction?

Indeed in another interview Dr. Vilain has this to say about gender identity:

"This is really the big enigma and to me it's also the most important aspect of
sex determination to understand because I believe out of all the definitions of
sex, gender is the most important. In fact it's how people feel that is
important, regardless of what they look like, of what their levels of hormones
are, or what their face or genitalia look like. It's what they feel within

For the intersex community, his work has led to proposals to replace much of the nomenclature related to intersex individuals. In Vilain's view, the term 'intersex' is too vague and he would replace it with the term 'disorders of sexual development (DSD)'. Some in the intersex community support these sorts of changes because it would enable them to get medical treatment. Others think that the new nomeclature pathologizes what they view as 'normal variants.' Vilain responds:

"We can play with words like that, but for practical purposes these "normal
variants" have a lot of health risks that require lots of visits to the doctor
for a bunch of issues that intersex patients have: fertility issues, cancer
issues (the testis inside the body can increase the risk of cancer), sexual
health issues. So if you're to start going to the doctor a lot for your
condition, you can call it a normal variant, but that's not really useful.
You're calling it a normal variant for political purposes."

Yet the intersex community is not abandoning the term intersex, but using it in the sense of an idenity rahter than a set of medical conditions. Sherri Morris makes this point quite clear in the ISNA blog:

"It would be a mistake to advocate that “intersex” be replaced with “DSD” within
such community, in the same way that people with a variety of different
conditions identify themselves using terms which may vary from the terms
employed by their health care providers. For example, instead of using a
diagnosis such as “achondroplasia,” many individuals with such conditions have
banded together using the term “Little People” because it reflects their
history, culture, and real-life experience."

So we see how genetics research affects more than just medical knowledge; it affects how we view ourselves at some very fundamental levels. For the subtle conflict and balance among the genes in the human organism is reflected in the complex nuances involved in even the most basic aspects of our identity, laying waste to the simplistic notions of male and female clung to by so many in our society.

Other Links:

Brian K. Jordan, Jennifer H.-C. Shen,Robert Olaso, Holly A. Ingraham, and Eric Vilain Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003 September 16; 100(19): 10866–10871.

Intersex Society of North America

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Creation Science Museum in NY Times

There is an interesting review in the NY Times of Ken Hamm's Creation Museum. It has lots of pictures and evaluates the museum mainly from the perspective of a museum visitor rather than evaluating the science.

From the article:

"For the skeptic the wonder is at a strange universe shaped by elaborate
arguments, strong convictions and intermittent invocations of scientific
principle. For the believer, it seems, this museum provides a kind of relief:
Finally the world is being shown as it really is, without the distortions of
secularism and natural selection."

Sounds like fun. But overlay that with this study from Science which looks at the origin of resistance to science. The author's note that resistance to science comes when science conflicts with "common sense" and ideologies passed down by trusted sources. In this an article from Edge, the authors Paul Bloom and Deena Weisberg elaborate on their Science study. They note:

"...the developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in
children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive
expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific
claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is
a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by
people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy... in the United States, these
intuitive beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by
trusted religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains
where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest."

Trust then has an important role in social learning. Thus, Bloom and Weisberg recommend that the best way for scientists to overcome resistance to science education is to work to convince the public that science in general is trust worthy. From my role as a teacher this suggests the need to give students at all levels the chance to do some sort of science and see for themselves the power of science to help us understand the universe.

Other Links:

Creation Museum Website
Why Do People Resist Science?

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Changing my design...

Trying a new layout and it may take a few days to get the design the way I want it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Blogging for the Pandemic

There's a new blog in town at least for the next five weeks: The Pandemic Flu Leadership Blog. It is sponsored by Health and Human Services to promote discussion about preparations for a possible flu pandemic.

Read the first post, Why care? Why Prepare? by Pierre Omidyar just in case you have forgotten how serious the threat from a flu pandemic is.

"At the national and international level, there is a lot of work to do, and much of it has been underway for quite some time. But the important thing is "..." no matter what gets done at a global level, hospitals and health care may not be there for us when we need it."

Therefore, families and neighborhoods will be on their own during a severe pandemic. If the pandemic is mild, communities could provide some support, but hospitals may still be overwhelmed. (Just look at hospitals during a mild seasonal flu season: most beds are full as it is.)

Interesting experiment. If it works maybe the government will do this sort of blog summit when they have other policy decisions to make-going to war for example. **eg**

Tip of the Antennae to DemfromCT at The Next Hurrah.

Update: Just as viruses often pick new genes via recombination so here's another site worth checking out: Pandemic Flu Information (PFI).

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Anti-evolutionist may lead National Education Group

Yes it's true. According to The Lawrence Journal World in this story , Kenneth Willard (corrected), who was part of the conservative majority who questioned evolution, is unopposed in his bid to be president of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Willard says that his disagreement with Darwin has nothing to do with the association's work. And personally if I felt that Willard could be impartial and genuinely interested in education, OK.

But remember, he is part of the same group that wasted thousands of tax payer dollars, not to mention thousands of man hours, on sham evolution hearings in 2005. And he voted for a poorly qualified candidate, Bob Corkins, to be Commissioner of Education in Kansas.

The chickens in the hen house might just as well elect a fox as leader.

Here's another article about this controversy from the NY Times. (Tip of the antennae to Mousie Cat for this link. See Mousie's take on Willard here.)

Update 8:21. See this entry from Josh over at Thoughts from Kansas which fills in more details about the Corkin incident.

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Rachel Carson: Voices from the Margins...

The University of Kansas is holding a special event examining the controversy surrounding Rachel Carson, called Voices from the Margins. This will be June 7 at 6:30 pm at the Spencer Museum of Art.

"Please join us for an exploration of the change and controversy ignited by biologist Rachel Carson (1907-1964), author of Silent Spring (1962). The film, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, originally broadcast as part of the award-winning PBS history series “American Experience,” chronicles reactions to Carson’s views and efforts to discredit her work."

I will be covering this since I have a special interest in Rachel Carson.

Update: Here's another Rachel Carson post on her upcoming 100th birthday. (Tip of the antennae to Rebecca over at Pocahontis County Fare for this post.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Crocodile Hunter Lives!

Going on a hike with my son, Norman, is bound to be entertaining and usually involves snakes. But here is what he said about this presumed black rat snake he found on Sunday at the Baker wetlands:

"Something is wrong with this snake...

it's not biting me! "

Update: Norman says the snake is an Eastern racer. Thanks Norman for correcting your Dad.

Clearly Steve Irwin lives.

The KGB ..."That's a mighty big frog!" edition

This frog is so big I had to use a wide angle lens to take this picture. Don't believe me? Well it is a bullfrog. And he's here to croak about the latest edition of the Kansas Guild of Bloggers. So grab your water proof lap top and hop on over to the best of Kansas blogging!

Bitter Sweet Life is a blog with an interesting theological bent and this post "God doesn't Hate You" illustrates that quite nicely. Also on a religious theme, Lyn over at Bloggin' Outloud tackles the tension between art and religion while Pat over at Red State rabble notes that Kansas has not joined the list of states with Creation Science museums.

By the way if you take offense at some religious post or sacrilegious art, or some one's stance on global warming you might pour your anger out in your blog. That will put you in contention for emwakc's Angry Blogger Award. Bigsibling thinks that is whining and crying over alleged censorship at Myspace in a post titled
MySpace enrages wussies.

At least 'the D' is happy. He found a fellow blogger at work. And made the best purchase ever! See for yourself.

John over at Blogmeridian always has something interesting to say. This week he continues his Stretch of River series with a post that rambles from red wing black birds and other fauna seen on his walks, to the taxonomy of shopping carts to a meditation on the "Origin of Order at Key West" by Wallace Stevens. It all makes sense as I hope you will see for yourself.

Joel Mathis has been a bit quiet lately. But he has good reason. He's the convergence editor at the Lawrence Journal World. He's been busy with 24 Hours in Lawrence. This event used citizens to document 24 hours in Lawrence on a typical day...which was Thursday, May 10. By the way the first installment of 24 hours is on the Lawrence Journal World's website and I recommend checking it out. Great photos.

Some of us, Josh, John B., myself and Kelly in Kansas are academic types. Kelly has just returned from a sabbatical energized with new resolve. Kelly also has a piece on evaluating students. Slackers take note: you will NOT get an A just for just meeting the course requirements.

The Prince of Thrift at Becoming and Staying Dept Free has a dilemma: "Paper or plastic?". Not as easy a choice as the average reader might think. While on the environment, Happy in Bag is not so happy with this rain garden he stumbled upon in Kansas City. In case you don't know, the rain garden idea is to set up little wetland areas in yards to try to reduce run off in urban areas such as Kansas City. Maybe my frog could help with the mosquitoes!

Checking quickly on a few of my favorite non KGB Kansas Blogs, looks like Jon Voisey, the Angry Astronomer has angered the folks at the Discovery Institute. Maybe he should nominate them for the Angry Blogger award. And according to Mousie Cat, Phil Kline is getting his you know what all in a bunch over Paul Morrison's investigation of an area church.

As emwakc might say..."Chill Dude". Of course if that doesn't work, just jump in the pond and cool off like my frogs, big and small.

Next week's KGB will be at Blogmeridian.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Kansas Guild of Bloggers.....real soon now.

The Kansas Guild of Bloggers is coming real soon now that the semester is over. So watch for the "That's a mighty big frog edition" of the KGB coming to a pond near you. So submit your best entries to the KGB carnival site or e-mail me at pdecell at by tomorrow (Tuesday) evening 6pm Kansas time.

By the way this is a little'll see the big frog tomorrow night.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Dark Forces in Second Life?

Dark forces are gathering in Second Life, at least according to this article in the Sydney Morning Herald. Britain's Fraud Advisory Council wants real world financial regulations extended to virtual worlds such as Second Life claiming that terrorists could use Second Life's virtual economy to transfer money. And virtual gambling in Second Life has apparently gotten the attention of the United States Government which is concerned about violations of online gambling laws. Online betting on the horses is legal so I wonder if betting on virtual horse races is OK.

Other Links:

UK Panel Urges Real-Life Treatment for Virtual Cash.
Second Life Crime.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007


You Are An INFJ

The Protector
You live your life with integrity, originality, vision, and creativity.Independent and stubborn, you rarely stray from your vision - no matter what it is.You are an excellent listener, with almost infinite patience.You have complex, deep feelings, and you take great care to express them.
You would make a great photographer, alternative medicine guru, or teacher.

Hmmmm infinite patience. Maybe as long as I am not driving. Now where did I put those idiot seeking sidewinder missiles?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The 700 Club weather forecast

Creation science weather forecasting?

A Couple of Gender Items...

I have been following the Steve/Susan Stanton story out of Florida. Steve Stanton was fired as city manager of Largo Florida for wanting to transition from male to female. There is a very sensitive report in the Saint Petersburg Times about the transition from Steve to Susan. This shows a good balance of the good things about transitioning and at the same time some of the costs that have to be born by the person and his or her family. The article has a very nice picture of Susan. I hope they continue to follow this story and I wish Susan well.

Another transition in the news, one with a more positive outcome employment wise is that of sports writer, Mike Penner of the LA Times who is transitioning to Christine Daniels. This is well covered in Newsweek here. Newsweek also has a wonderful article titled "Rethinking Gender" along with links to other articles as part of a series on gender. You might also enjoy Christine's blog, Woman in Progress at the LA Times website.

This article asks:

"What is gender anyway? It is certainly more than the physical details of what's between our legs. History and science suggest that gender is more subtle and more complicated than anatomy. (It's separate from sexual orientation, too, which determines which sex we're attracted to.) Gender helps us organize the world into two boxes, his and hers, and gives us a way of quickly sizing up every person we see on the street. "Gender is a way of making the world secure," says feminist scholar Judith Butler, a rhetoric professor at University of California, Berkeley."

Yes, gender helps make the world secure. It's not strictly a social construct, but as the article goes on to explain probably a mix of social and biological factors. For most people gender identity goes along with biological sex. And even those such as Christine or Susan, want to fit in what for them is the right box, hence the desire for transitioning.

We police gender so carefully-maybe its our primate love of displays and our gender markers are often some what silly. For instance, I saw a set of boy and girl medallions in a catalog. Stare and stare at them I could not see the difference between them for about five minutes. The girl medallion had a pink ribbon while the boy medallion had a white ribbon. Geeesh!

Now don't get me wrong-I am not advocating an end to gender-just an end to the bizarre social policing of gender that infects our society. Let people sort themselves along the gender spectrum. Probably most people will end up the same, but those who don't fit our gender notions will have a much easier time of things.

On a personal note, the Kansas City area transgender community lost a key supporter in Fran Martin who died of cancer last week. She was a friend, courageous advocate and tireless worker. Fran helped many area people, myself included, sort out gender identity issues. She never condemned or judged. She is missed.

Other links:

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Hummingbird in flight

Last summer I got very frustrated trying to get reasonable pictures of hummingbirds. Yesterday I was all set to open my front door when I noticed a female Ruby Throated humming bird at my now empty winter bird feeder, about 3 foot away from the door. She was apparently attracted to the red. So I ran quickly got my camera and telephoto and got these shots through the glass panel along side the door.

She never did come back to the feeder but instead repeatedly visited my Siberian Iris as shown in this picture.

Here are a few blow ups from some of the other pictures.

I took these photos using the setting on my Camera for subjects in motion rather than the standard macro setting that I tried last year. The shutter speed was 1/1600 of a second.

The Commute from Lawrence: 7:00 am to 8:30

Thursday May 10, 2007 7:30am.

We don't all work in Lawrence.
My wife and I both commute, she to Topeka and I to Overland Park from our townhouse near 1600 County Road. She leaves first at a few minutes before 7 since she has to get gas and stop for a bite to eat. No one can miss her pumpkin color Ford Probe.

I still have 30 minutes to kill so go back inside to get the news on the computer and start checking my e-mail from work. At 7:15 the phone rings. It's my wife complaining that I didn't tell her gas at the Quick Trip is $3.09 a gallon. Last night gas was $2.89 a gallon.

The price of gas is a bigger issue for her for two reasons. First, she drives all the way to her job at a Topeka hospital, about 35 miles from our house. I have it easier since my job, as a professor at Johnson County Community College 30 miles away, is a straight drive down K-10. I bought my townhouse on the far East side of Lawrence before we knew where my wife was going to end up working. Next, I have a secret weapon for commuting: the K-10 Connector.

Seven thirty comes and it's time to leave. The morning started foggy but by 7:30 the fog has burnt off and the day looks to be bright and sunny. This picture looks east toward 1600 County Road, which leads to K-10.

Our street is at the far east side of Prairie Park neighborhood. Right now our street is the only significant development on the east side of 1600 County Road, also called O'Connell road, but more is slated. Plus the City is proposing to connect 31st Street to O'Connell. We wonder what that will do to traffic on the County Road. Now traffic is light, but the City has already installed a traffic circle south of our intersection. I call it "le gateau" or "the cake."

I drive north on O'Connell to East 25th Terrace. The north side of 25th Street Terrace has a new development of mixed single family and townhouses. Traffic on 25th Street leading to Haskell has been increasing but I prefer to go North on Harper to K-10, known in Lawrence as 23rd Street.

Traffic is already heavy in both directions on 23rd Street and I turn west toward the Haskell Campus and my secret commuter weapon. My house is about 2 miles from Haskell. So I probably ought to walk to the bus but I haven't found a good path. Traffic on Haskell is very heavy in the morning. Walking or biking along 23rd Street is not my idea of a fun thing to do either.

I arrive at Haskell and wait in the parking lot on the North side of the Haskell Stadium with the other commuters. This is a few minutes of quiet time to listen to the news on KANU, Lawrence's public radio station. The report is about the Sudan and how some in the Sudan have this notion that if every one has a gun reason will prevail To me that sounds a bit like the rationale for concealed carry. Soon the K-10 Connector arrives and we board.

The K-10 Connector costs $2.50 each way between Lawrence and Overland Park. But I buy a pass of 10 only rides for $15.00. That's a pretty good rate at current gas prices, since my Subaru gets about 25 miles to the gallon. That means it costs me about $6.00 a day to drive myself. Actually the difference is not that much since I had been car pooling with another professor. Both of us now ride the Connector.

Normally there are four to six staff members from JCCC along with students going to both KU's Edwards Campus and JCCC. Today the bus has about 30 riders. So it is pretty full.

Heading east to Overland Park we encounter the fog again. But we are lucky-no accidents to slow us up. The bus proceeds to I-434 and takes the Quivera exit to JCCC where about 10 of us get off.

The students have their classes and I will be meeting my 11:00 Genetics class for the last time this semester. But it is now 8:30. Time for coffee and then attack the stacks of grading awaiting me in my office.

Tips and Information:

A report on commuters from the Lawrence Journal World.

The K-10 Connector is sponsored by a group of cooperating agencies. including the City of Lawrence and Johnson County Transit, which provides the service. More information and a schedule can be found here.

For those unfamiliar with my part of Lawrence, here is a map.

Update 5/22/2007...I've added the following piece written as part of an assignment for the Citizen Journalism Academy for "24 Hours":

Of course the 24 hour event happened on what had to be the least interesting day of the week. Nothing planned except for grading and meeting my last class. The assignment presented another problem. Since I am a professor at Johnson County Community College it was hard to pick a slice of the day where I would be in Lawrence which is a) family rated; b) doesn't involve me eating or gardening or c) doesn't involve me grading papers, the big task for the day. The day in other words shaped up about as exciting as watching slugs feed on my tomato plants. OK maybe not that exciting.Hence my documenting my commute. Maybe there would be an accident to report...a minor one.

Sometimes commuters are looked down upon in Lawrence. People seem to have this idea that we spend our money in the cities we work in such as Overland Park or Kansas City. OK... I am going to spend my one hour lunch break or fight with rush hour traffic to buy stuff at Johnson County malls? Get Real!

Besides, commuting takes about two hours out of my day. That means when my wife and I get home from our commutes we often are too pooped to cook. That means eating out. So we pump more money into the Lawrence economy. I mean, how many other people can walk into the local Mongolian barbecue and find their table already set up with the correct drinks because the waiter spied you pulling into the parking lot? Now that's engagement in the local community!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Thundering Herds at the Kaw

Lawrence has been lucky this Spring. I was curious how the Kaw compares to it's 1993 level. So I wandered down to the 6th Street bridge. The first shot looks toward the power plant on the south side of the river.

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A mid stream shot (below) showing the water rushing over the dam. I can feel the water vibrating through the bridge.

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Looking toward the levee on the river's north side (below). Doesn't look like the Kaw is going to flood here. But see this afternoon report from the Lawrence Journal World.

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By the way there are a couple of interesting reports on National Public Radio about the Greensburg Kansas tornado. Governor Sebelius assess the clean up effort and the performance of FEMA. She alleges that a lack of equipment due to diversion to the Iraq war is hindering the clean up effort.

The second report is about a state representative who survived Greensburg in a tub, but who almost lost his neighbor and her baby. I hope we go a long long time before the next E-F5 tornado.

The Light of Doom

At the bottom of my street sit two large metal panels. These control a couple of pumps connected to the storm drain system. The smaller panel with the red light controls the original pump. The city added the larger one last year since the smaller one overflowed into people's basements. We refer to the red light as the "Light of doom" because when this light was flashing our neighbor was likely to have a flooded basement.

The light has been dark
, all year until this morning. The flashing light means that the amount of run off exceeds the capacity of the system. The city dispatches a large pump truck with a huge nozzle to remove water and debris from a chamber below the control panels. Bill, the worker shown in yellow, told me that the city has between 30 and 40 of these small pumps. Unfortunately, the noise of the pump truck was too much for any sort of serious interview. But just for this one pump there were three City trucks and five workers.

So I left them to their jobs, knowing that the crew had many more Lights of Doom to visit.

Tip: The City of Lawrence's web site has a section devoted to storm drainage issues at

The Frequently Asked Questions page at this site provides information about residential and business storm drainage utility fees and handling different drainage related situations.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Conservatives split over Darwin

Often times conservatives are portrayed as being anti evolution. But an article in today's NY Times, notes a growing split among conservatives. Some conservatives take the intelligent design/ creationist approach, that evolution negates God and thus undermines the fundamental rationale for human rights and morality.

Other conservatives argue that evolutionary thinking is consistent with conservative thought. For instance conservatives and evolutionary biologists, according to this argument, both believe that humans are imperfect. Social systems have evolved and such systems evolved from the ground up "have more wisdom than rationally planned reforms". This argument reminds me of the free market idea that individuals making their own decisions make for more efficient markets then centrally planned systems.

From my way of thinking there are flaws in both approaches. The intelligent design/creationist argument is flawed because they present no scientifically credible alternative to evolution. Unless of course you consider the Creation Science Museum credible. The flaw in the second approach is Hume's Guillotine. Hume argued that you cannot argue what ought to be from what is. This means for instance, that just because other animals behave in a certain way that means we can behave the same way. Or just because a certain institution has operated the same way for hundreds of years doesn't mean that it is relevant today.

David Hume (Scottish National Portrait Gallery)

My approach is a bit more pragmatic. First I believe that the bottom up approach that evolution takes suggests that markets ought to generally be free. This also applies to most other sorts of freedom of choice issues. Yet we also know that evolution is blind and that there are issues that need a rational look ahead approach to certain key problems facing us as a civilization and species.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

The Secrets of a Bug Person Exposed!

John over at Blogmeridian has been asking for volunteers to be interviewed. So never knowing what questions John can come up with, I volunteered. So what follows are John's questions and my responses. By the way, as part of this meme...I am supposed to interview a blogger. So if you want to expose your secrets to the world by responding to five questions from me, now's your chance.

1) So. Like, you study, like, bugs?? Why?

I study bugs because they are easy to find and yet show such great diversity in terms of the sorts of adaptations they have evolved to the environment. Ultimately my interest is really in evolution and if you want to study evolution insects are great for this. Indeed our understanding of evolution has been deepened by investigations into insects ranging from fruit flies to honeybees. Many fundamental areas of genetics such as chromosome structure, the arrangement of genes on a chromosome, and the evolution of natural populations were and are studied using insects. Even Gregor Mendel, famous for his pea work, did breeding experiments with honeybees.

Insects are fascinating to look at under the microscope so there is the aesthetic aspect to insects as well. On the other hand I am not much of insect collector so while I appreciate the beauty of insects, I only collect those specimens needed for identification.

2) What is your favorite insect from a scholarly standpoint? And from an aesthetic or philosophical or other aspect? Please explain why.

I have a real soft spot for social insects, especially ants. First of all ants are highly social and I have always been interested in group behavior and the evolution of what is sometimes referred to as 'altruistic behavior', that is behavior that reduces an individual organism's immediate reproductive success but increases the reproductive success of other members of the group. So I got interested in the whole area of what sometimes is called sociobiology.

Also, I have always been fascinated by what today are called emergent properties. This refers to properties that arise because of how the parts of a system interact with each other. An individual ant is basically analogous to a little automaton and yet from the limited learning ability that ants have, along with group interactions complex colony behaviors arise.

This appeals to me because I am philosophically somewhat of a communitarian in that I believe that I as an individual have larger social and civic responsibilities-that probably comes form my Catholic upbringing. At the same time I am very individualistic and so in ants I see how individual decisions can work from the bottom up to affect change-what to environmentalists is captured by the slogan "Think globally. Act locally."

3) What are the three best pieces of advice you've ever received?

Tough one since I am not really good at listening to and following advice. From my father, I would say "Be constructive". I wasn't always sure what he meant when I was growing up. I just figured it was one of those things parents say to distract adolescents from thinking about sex. But I think he meant to do something to enrich your own life and that of others. He's dead so I can't really ask him.

When I was at my first real job, my boss advised me to tackle big projects by starting in the middle and I think that has served me well when I have bothered to remember that advice.

The third bit of advice I would have to say- breathe from the abdomen and don't slouch. That is from my voice teacher when I was taking private vocal lessons at KU. Combine that with St. Augustine's aphorism about "those who sing pray twice" and you have a pretty powerful way of living.

4) What is something you wish more people knew or understood about you?

Which do I pick? I think a big reason I blog is to answer the very question you pose. So many people think of scientists as being always rational and empirical, but the scientific approach is just one way of placing one's self in relation to other people. I have a strong mystical side, and I know at least some other scientists have this as well, even if they are atheists. One scientific friend of mine who professes to be an atheist told me that he doesn't like organized religion(including my own faith) because it gets in the way of spirituality.

My tendency growing up was to keep my feelings and identity tightly inside. I learned that expressing the way I felt about myself and viewed the world would get me into trouble with my peers and for that matter, some of my teachers. I wish I could get people to understand the deep conflict I have about my gender identity, something I have learned to accept as part of what I am. Many people just can't wrap their minds around this sort of thing and it's relegated to some sort of confusion or some sort of odd perversion-perhaps another thing to not tell political opponents were I to run for political office. I don't make a big deal of this in my every day life, but I don't hide it either.

5) Keeping in mind the response to Mitt Romney's choice of Favorite Book, imagine that you are running for political office and someone asks you what your favorite book is. What is a favorite book of yours that you will be sure not to mention?

Actually I had to look this one up and rest assured, Battlefield Earth is not it. I am familiar with L.Ron's Scientology writings since for some weird reason Scientology was big at Cornell among some of my friends. There was even the Cornell equivalent of the "Sea Org". Now don't get me wrong, Scientology was not really big at Cornell-I must merely have hung out with a crowd that became temporarily insane. They must have been really insane since Hubbard's Scientology books are about as logical as George Bush's rationale for invading Iraq. So I have avoided Hubbard's Science Fiction.

I can think of lots of favorite books I would be sure NOT to mention were I running for political office. I would not mention Sex Changes by Pat Califia which I think is a fascinating look at the evolution and politics of the transgender movement. I might not mention, since Romney opened up the science fiction genre to reporter's scrutiny, my love of Samuel Delaney's Dahlgren. There are some scenes in there that would really get the opposition researchers all hot and bothered. I might not mention that my favorite book in the Bible is The Song of Solomon, which almost didn't make it into the canon for reasons that are pretty obvious.

There. That wasn't so painful. So if you are a blogger and want me to ask equally penetrating but different questions of you, just respond here or drop me a note. And thanks John for the questions. Here are links to some other folks John has interviewed and the questions John was asked and his answers can be found here.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The KGB: May Day Edition

Grass growing season is in full spring in Kansas. So I can't resist starting with this brief comment and photo from Gwynne at the Shallow End.

Joel Mathis spent a Saturday blogging around Downtown Lawrence including one of our favorite Saturday morning activities-the Farmer's market. I missed this Saturday but as will be revealed later, I was at the ocean.

The shooting at the Ward Parkway mall was on people's minds, so soon after Virginia Tech and Happy in Bag reports that several close friends had a brush with the violence at the mall. Of course after each tragedy of this sort people naturally ask how these shootings can be avoided. emawkc discusses one common reaction from Hip Suburban White Guy: Round up the Guns.

Of course violence of the more sectarian sort is widespread as Ladygunn reminds us. Maybe this sort of violence is best met by strong secular democracy as Bill Moyers believes as reported by my cat blogger over at Evolving in Kansas.

Politics reminds me to check out Pat Hayes at Red State Rabble who has been following the progress made in selecting a new education commissioner. Also in Kansas politics pundits have been discussing the possibility of having a full time legislature. Emawkc has a short but sweet answer.

I will end this edition with our current kgb hosts. John B at Blog Meridian has had a really interesting series of posts on American aesthetics. His latest effort should resonate with Midwesterners as it does with me as a transplant from New England. John B has been asking for volunteers to be interviewed and Josh at Thoughts from Kansas gave a thoughtful set of responses to John's questions.

Finally, why did I miss the Farmer's Market? Because I was in north Kansas and southern Nebraska taking a walk along the edge of the sea-the Cretaceous Sea that is. I start in a tropical rainforest and end up in the open ocean exploring a bed of clams, all within 200 miles of Lawrence.

OK NOW really finally, I have the privilege of being part of the Lawrence Journal World's Citizen Journalism Academy run with the William Allen White School of Journalism at KU. For five Monday evenings I get to work with lots of talented local people both the professionals such Joel Mathis, as well as the rest of the Citizen Journalists.

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