Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Just in Time for Christmas...

The Pope has released another in a series of misguided statements about gender and sexual orientation, this time attacking gender theory.


See also:

It isn't at all clear to me what the Pope means by gender theory. If he means that gender is entirely a social construct a la post modernism then he is quite correct from my biological perspective. But I think he means to reenforce the standard gender binary.He says for instance:

"It is not "out-of-date metaphysics" to "speak of human nature as 'man' or woman'"

Well, yes it is outdated metaphysics because his statement is based on the assumption that there is some sort of metaphysical essence that distinguishes us from other animals and that this essence is somehow reflected in the gender binary. What is sad is that the Pope has lots of good things to say on many levels about the dignity of people-including in this address- but saying good things but based on faulty medival premises ultimately does more harm than good.

That said, the Pope is rightfully concerned about human nature and its manipulation: He notes (quoted from Asia Times) that:

“We should re-read the encyclical Humanae Vitae starting from such a perspective. In it Pope Paul VI’s intention was to defend love against a utilitarian view of sexuality, the future against the exclusive claim of the present, and man’s nature against its manipulation.”

and here he is a on target just as he is generally on target when it comes to issues of human dignity. But it seems he clings to outmoded typological thinking because it provides clear rules whose descendent, by the way, is the 1960's slogan "If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem". We are moral animals, and moral animals capable of looking beyond the short term-taking an ethical progression outward from ourselves and immediate familiy to all of creation and taking it forwards in time to contemplate what we want our species to become.

Just because the Pope's essentialist assumption is flawed doesn't make his concerns any less valid-but again some of his conclusions, drawn from wrong premises (that creation implies an essential nature) can lead to great harm, something I really don't think he really intends inspite of his bullheadness about gender and sexual identity.

I really don't think he means for me to feel less than human because I don't fit his notions of male and female very well. He probably thinks a bit like Rick Warren who said well gee I have gay friends, I have been to gay people's houses. The essentalist stance leads to a debasing of human dignity, there very things that the Pope and Warren claim to be defending.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

See naked mole rats here!

See naked mole rats here!
Originally uploaded by pdecell
...at Disney's Animal Kingdom over Thanksgiving. Nice exhibit except they really don't explain why these mammals are so interesting. What makes them so interesting is that they are the most like social insects of any mammal. See...


Of course maybe the Disney folks would have to then explain why social insects are so important in the tropics in terms of the functioning of tropical ecosystems and how social insect biomass dwarfs that of the charismatic animals they have in Animal KIngdom.

Then they would have to explain why it is that you have to really hunt to even see an ant at any of the theme parks.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Conservative Contradiction

According to Think Progress, Mike Huckabee and other conservatives has come up with an intriguing argument against gay marriage. It seems that Gays haven't suffered enough! Huckabee is quoted as claiming that he is all for gay rights but gay marriage would redefine an institution.

Here's the exchange between Huckabee and Joy Behar ABC's show "The View"

"People who are homosexuals should have every right in terms of their civil rights, to be employed, to do anything they want. But that’s not really the issue. I know you talked about it and I think you got into it a little bit early on. But when we’re talking about a redefinition of an institution, that’s different than individual civil rights.

BEHAR: Well, segregation was an institution, too, in a way. It was right there on the books.

HUCKABEE: But here is the difference. Bull Connor was hosing people down in the streets of Alabama. John Lewis got his skull cracked on the Selma bridge."

Watch it here:

Now the argument does make an odd sort of sense until you remember that these very conservatives are the ones who have exploited Southern White fears about race, support states rights as opposed to civil rights, and basically have dragged their feet on every major piece of civil rights legislation. Remember the Equal Rights Amendment?

Besides, some people deserve more civil rights because they have suffered more? That doesn't sound to me like a good conservative position. But, hey, what do I know? I'm a liberal.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Imagine those uppity gays...

Just who do they think they are...wanting the same rights as everyone else.

Wanda pretty much sums up my feelings.

I think what has people confused is that there is 'marriage' as contract and 'marriage' as a sacramental union. The two are not the same. So let the state deal with marriage as contract open to all and those who want the sacramental union (Holy Matrimony) look to their churches. Hmmm that's the way it is supposed to work now and as the courts are beginning to realize, it doesn't for part of our population.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Great Time for Genetics

This is a great time to be involved in genetics because there is so much change happening in all areas of genetics from real basic stuff such as the nature of the gene to how genes figure into evolution.

There is a great series of articles in the New York Times science section that you ought to look at to get some sense of the excitement today in genetics.

The first article by Carl Zimmer looks at the genome, all the DNA found in our chromosomes. The article focuses not so much on the classical protein coding genes that every one thinks about the rather the 99% of the DNA in our cells, that is not well understood. The article also delves in to what do we mean by a gene any way? The concept started with Mendel who not knowing about DNA called genes factors. During most of the 20th century we taught that genes code for proteins but now we understand that genes are a lot weirder than the cut and dry protein coding segments of DNA we thought they were.

The next article by Andrew Pollack looks at RNA and the many roles of this molecule in genetics. We used to think that there were three types of RNA, ribosomal, transcript and messenger but now we understand that there are other types of RNA that are involved in the regulation of genes and their expression. Some of these RNA’s may revolutionize the way we treat certain diseases.

The next article in the series by Benedict Carey looks at new hypothesis about mental illness which says that certain types of mental illness might result in the conflict of genes from a person’s parents.

The notion that genes may be in conflict with one another may seem odd, but here is an example. We know that there are genetic elements that make extra copies of themselves in the genome or bias the results of meiosis so that more of them get passed on to the offspring even at the expense of the fitness of the individual organism. It turns out that in response to these sorts of “selfish elements”, other genes suppress the activity of the “selfish genes” . Gene conflict also plays out in the male parent’s vs the female parent’s genes during development and the article discusses an interesting example of that.

The notion of gene conflict in an evolutionary sense is well established for certain type of genes but if this idea is true it would mean that certain types of mental illness are not so much due to what genes you have but which genes “win” the gene conflict and are expressed.

These articles may seem quite different but they all have a couple of common threads. First of all they illustrate the dynamic nature of science and how scientists rather than wanting to defend simplistic views of science are constantly challenging established science as new empirical evidence becomes available. Second these articles each in their own way get at the limitations of basic concepts and levels of analysis used in science. In the first article, the gene concept, which started out with a gene as an indivisible factor like a bead on a string, has morphed into a series of somewhat different concepts to the point where you can’t always tell where one gene begins and another end.

The second article lays waste to the idea that everything in the cell is controlled somehow by the DNA working with proteins. RNA’s also are involved in determining which genes are expressed and which are not. So here our original understanding of RNA again has been altered due to some very interesting discoveries, some of which were quite accidental.

The 3rd article takes the role of genes in mental illness and for that matter lots of other situations a step beyond what genes are present as being important, but to a view point that within an individual genes may be in “conflict”, so our notions of genotype (typically defined as the specific combination of genes an individual has) turn out to be way too simplified. Not only that the notion of gene conflict introduces a whole shadow world with in an individual organism so that the individual become like a house divided…divided by an evolutionary conflict between the organism’s own genes.

So check these articles out and let me know what you think.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Grokking the Election Results

I am somewhat of a political junkie and I stayed up way too late Tuesday and into Wednesday morning. What really kept me up was not the speeches, which were great but the New York Times online. The NYTimes has a great interative map feature where you can look not only state by state, but also county by county as to which candidate Obama or McCain won. You can also see whether or not the county became more or less Democratic or Republican and zoom out to get a sense of what happened nationwide.

The map is at http://elections.nytimes.com/2008/results/president/map.html.

For instance, here is the Kansas results for 2008. Not very interesting since Kansas is typically a red state. The two main blue counties were Douglas home to the University of Kansas (and yours truly) and Wyanodotte County where Kansas City Kansas is. The third county that Obama carried-Crawford is very rural but home to Pittsburgh State University.

But you can get a sense of what happened this election compared to 2004 when you look at the change in voting pattern between 2004-2008.

The blue regions on this map are counties that have gone more Democratic in 2008 compared to 2004. So even in many heavily Repubican regions of the state Democrats improved their margins compared to 2004. This suggests either that Obama's strategy of running a nationwide campaign was over all what he needed to win or that the country's economic condition really turned people off to the Republicans. By the way the Republican margin statewide was 56% 41% for the Republicans this year compared to 62-46 in 2004.

Let's step back and look at the whole nation in terms of county results.

Here blue represents those counties that went Democratic, red those counties that went Republican. Clearly Obama and the Democrats did really well in the traditional urban areas. In fact Obama and the Democrats swept New England so completely that there are no Republicans in the House any where in the whole New England region. That is quite a change from the days when New England was a center for the moderate wing of the Republican party.

Looking at the change map, we see a very interesting pattern:

The deeper the blue the more Democratic the county became since 2004. Notice that country as a whole became more Democratic except for parts of the South East- loosely within what we might call Appalachia. These are probably the least racially diverse areas in the country. At least when I was in Georgia, some some of these counties had no or few non-white families.

But you can say the same for lots of other areas in the country as well...for instance Idaho and Utah, and yet those areas also tended to go more Democratic.

I know some commentators have argued that there are long term demographic trends coming into play; perhaps the populations in these areas are older- the young people that Obama tended to attract may have left these areas. But younger people have also left Western Kansas as well so I don't think that can be the whole explanation for what I call the Appalachian effect.

Now some commentators (often the same ones talking about demograpics) are talking about the coming dominance of the Democratic party. I say not so fast. First of all we have been through this before. For example, the 1964 election was the first election that I engaged in even though I was 13. Since my parents were Republican I supported Goldwater. And after he got trounced by Johnson, the press was full of articles writing the Republican Party off.

Also look at this county by county map from 2000:

It is really only different from the 2008 map in small details. The conclusion I draw is that our country is still deeply divided politically. That should give both parties pause.

Also if you look at the change map between 2008 the 1992 election when Bill Clinton won, the county map suggests that most counties have become more Republican than they were in in 1992! Granted this may be to an aging and less racially diverse population in these counties. The Democrats are really going to have to deliver in order to win over the country as a whole. Do they really want to leave 9/10ths of the land area in this country red?

The Republicans are going to have to figure out how to recast their message and maybe go through some realignment to gain back lost ground in the middle of the political spectrum. Does it make sense for them to play to their base and ignore the middle? Do they really want the country to be so divided geographically? Granted, rural states do have proportionally more clout than urban states and that allowed the election of President Bush, but unless they come to the middle they will be struck with an ever shrinking base as demographic trends toward racial and ethnic diversity become even more pronounced.

The Republicans will have do some soul searching and figure out how to get their message to the middle. Barry Goldwater said something to the effect that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and I think some conservatives today interpret liberty in a very odd sense way out of whack with what Goldwater really meant. Extremism after all does not win elections in this country whether from the left or the right.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Oh No! Karl Rove and I Agree????

Well at least on that Obama is heading for a landslide. We both came up with the prediction for the electoral college and which states each candidate is going to win.

338 Obama and 200 McCain.

See this report from CNN about Rove:

Of course we both used the same highly sophisticated stochastic jack knife enriched estimating procedures on huge arrays of linked Apple iPods to arrive at our projections.

Rove would probably also agree with me here when I say:

"Vote! Vote early and often..unless your voting for the other guy. Then only vote once.

Mendel's Garden Is Up Again!

Check out the latest edition at Evolgen!


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

This shouldn't come up, but it has.

You would think that today in America a person's sexual orientation wouldn't be an issue in an election any more than whether or not a person is married, single or divorced. But in one Kansas Board of Education race apparently partisans have not gotten the message. Seems that Kathy Martin and her supporters are trying to make an issue of the fact that her opponent, Christopher Renner is openly gay.

According to this article in the Hutchinson News Online, Martin's supporters argue that this is a valid issue, as voters have the right to know everything about a candidate. Carolyn Simms, a Martin supporter says

"...that voters should also be given all the information possible about the candidates they'll be choosing from."

Really, now. Maybe I should hire a private detective to see what juicy non election related things are in Mrs. Martin's background. Of course I really don't have to do that since Mrs. Martin has embarrassed herself enough as one of the gang of six that spent thousands of dollars on sham evolution hearings a couple of years ago and was a supporter of a completely unqualified Board of Education Commissioner who ended up resigning.

So hello Mrs. Martin! This is the 21st century. We don't fight about whether the Earth is only 6,000 years old or so anymore and we don't care about a person's sexual orientation as a job issue. How laughable this would seem except that there are still folks out there who are blissfully unaware that time has moved on. Mrs. Martin you are so 19th century!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Funny things people search for...

A recent visitor to this blog, stumbled here looking for "poster assignment to teach asexual reproduction". Personally I have no desire to learn how to reproduce asexually. But hey that's just me. As for the searcher he or she got this link:


I don't think that is what he or she wanted-but maybe.

Sumac Lit From Behind

sumac lit from behind

Even if sumac were red in the Spring
It would not be as beautiful as now
Where the deer sleep in their forms.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Colin Powell says why the best:

"...And I come to the conclusion that because of his ability to inspire, because of the inclusive nature of his campaign, because he is reaching out all across America, because of who he is and his rhetorical abilities — and you have to take that into account — as well as his substance — he has both style and substance, he has met the standard of being a successful president, being an exceptional president."

Watch the video:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sometimes it's all about "marketing"

I am no fan of fights as any one who knows me understands. But I must confess to watching Fight Club on TV. Jurassic Fight Club on the History Channel that is. If you are not in the loop Jurassic fight club pits big predators from the past against each other using fossil evidence to create what the creators think are plausible scenarios, say between a giant megashark and an early whale-OK so the program strays a bit from the Jurassic.

Some of the scenarios are a bit implausible and anthropomorphic (There isn't a fancy word to describe the attribution of the thought process of 25 year old males who wear grimy backwards baseball caps into fancy restaurant to other organisms) but the program gives a really nice introduction to how scientists make inferences from the fossil record and the tools they use.

So I recommend this series if you are curious about just what scientists can learn from the fossil record-it turns out to be much more than you might think. For instance it is quite possible to match up teeth marks with teeth much like human forensic experts match knife blades to cuts in flesh or bone and I just hate to bust the bubble of any young earth creationist types the evidence does NOT suggest that T. rex was ever a vegetarian.

The fight approach to organism interactions and evolution goes back at least to the 19th century to Darwin and the early evolutionists who viewed evolution and natural selection often in terms of competition-much of this was probably as much due to Darwin's early adherents as much to Darwin. Be that as it may, the metaphor still holds sway in the popular psyche even if scientists have a much more sophisticated understanding of how evolution operates including the ability of evolution to lead to cooperative behavior and even the moral sense displayed by humans in some of our finer moments.

At any rate I was reminded of the marketing aspect of all this by a headline on the BBC website today that screams out:

Two of the UK's worst aquatic invasive species are set to meet.

Scientists believe that the ranges of the plague-carrying non-native crayfish and the fierce Chinese mitten crab are beginning to overlap.

Well of course I had to check this out..plague carrying crayfish and fierce Chinese mitten crab. Wow! And the article even has a picture of both the beasties in fight mode and a video about these alien thugs preparing to meet. While the plague of course is not the Black Plague but rather a disease that infects native crayfish in Britain, the BBC coverage does correctly highlight the threat posed by these two species. And the question about what will happen when these non native species to Britain meet is an important one. So I guess that I can't really fault the hype involved in getting people to read about science.

Hey it even worked for me and I don't even own a baseball cap, grimy or not.

The Crayfish mitten crab video complete with menacing music is here:

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Fox News is Whining again...

The folks over at Fox News are carrying on about a supposed injustice done to Sara Palin by Newsweek Magazine. Seems that the latest cover shows a close up of the Governor's face. Exposure on the Cover of Time or Newsweek is usually considered to be a good thing. But the commentators over at Fox report that the photo is unflattering allegedly because it was not touched up. See  Cover Girl

Of course the Republican News Network..I mean Fox ought to know all about retouching photos. According to Media Matters, Fox has done a little retouching of it's own on several of it's opponents with very unflattering results. Well as Fox might say: "you decide":

Actual and Fox Retouched photos from Media Matters:

Somehow I don't think this is the type of touch up job Fox had in mind for Governor Palin. 

See also this article from the NYTimes.

I can't find a good image of Newsweek's cover but here is a link to Newsweek's coverstory about Palin.

Reading the article leads me to wonder if all the whining about the cover is designed to distract people from reading the article which asks:

Are there many politically attuned people in America now who can honestly say the same thing of Sarah Palin? That they can effortlessly envision President Palin in the Oval Office, ready on day one to manage a market meltdown or a terror attack? Whether one agrees or disagrees with his politics, there is no arguing that McCain is qualified to be president of the United States. But there is plenty of argument about Palin's qualifications. Why should we apply a different standard to the vice president who would stand to succeed him?

Why indeed. Personally while I am a registered Democrat and a liberal, I confess that I was actually willing to "kick the tires" and give Senator McCain a chance to convince me-and this in spite of the the fact that he seems to have abandoned his natural pragmatic non-ideological approach to politics. But his choice of the glib, naive Palin-a book censoring creationist to boot- closed out McCaine as a serious candidate in my mind. Too bad because I really do sympathize with McCain's professed desire to shake things up. Palin was just the wrong way to do it.

Meanwhile, Senator Obama has proven an able campaigner-clearly quite capable of doing the top job. And while Biden doesn't have Palin's energy he is a scrapper and far and away more qualified than Palin.

For the record I was a Richardson supporter.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Monday, September 01, 2008

A Bug Date

Two assassin bugs doing what they do best-namely combining dinner with a little love making. The female is on the bottom. Here they are feeding on a caterpillar larvae (Datana , Notodontidae) and the black head of the larva is just below the male's head. It is not at all clear if one one is eating, or maybe I should say drinking, or if they are sharing. I am not sure what bug etiquette is for these situations.

Reduviid Dating: Dinner and Drinks

Click on the picture to go to my Flickr stream.

For more context see this post:


and the flickr discussion of this photo:


Sunday, August 31, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For...

The other week I was bemoaning the fact that I had very few monarch butterfly larvae on my milkweed plants. I had only seen one and I figured that was it. Yesterday, I found one of my milkweeds pretty much stripped of leaves-not decimated because that would imply only one of 10 leaves eaten. Looking more closely I found 9 or 10 fat monarch larvae some of whom were really desperate acting and chomping down on the flowers.

larva eating flower

Well so now I have this superfluity of monarch larvae destroying their food source!

OK...today I was mowing the lawn
, something that should have been done yesterday, when I noticed several branches on my ornamental cherry, which I had just planted this spring were stripped by these cute larvae. I am not sure what kind they are, and have a request for ran ID out in some of the insect forums I am on. Maybe some reader here knows about these guys.

W can not tell a lie...

I probably should spray, but I'm betting they pretty much grown so I don't think they will strip the whole tree. But they are making a good attempt at it as you can see here.

sawfly larvae having a group feed

Unlike the monarch larvae, these guys live in groups-vicious packs actually. When they are disturbed they have a characteristic pose: both front and read ends up. Kind of the insect equivalent of the Yoga exercise known as the bow.

sawfly larvae disturbed

There are, by the way, lots of group living larvae and here is an excellent overview with plenty of pictures. Unfortunately my "pack" is not shown.

At this rate I will never get my yard work done!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Xylocopa Busted!

I've blogged on these wonderful carpenter bees before, but I never tire of taking shots of them. The other day I caught some in the act! Stealing nectar that is.

If you look closely at the head of the bee you can see it is biting the flower near the tubular base, the calyx. They do this to get the nectar that's in the base.

Here is another shot of a carpenter bee doing a bit of stealing:

So people often have this notion of bees and flowers being in one happy little mutualistic relationship- the reality is always more complex! In fact perhaps that leads to a good rule of thumb -

Truth is generally more complex than what we believe.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama and McCain on Science

Several people have asked for my take on the two Presidential tickets with respect to their attitudes toward science. So here goes.

From my perspective, there are good things and bad things about both candidates and science. Looking at the official web sites, Obama appears to have the better fleshed out positions and there are some important differences.

McCain seems more supportive of the idea that we need to consider nuclear power as part of our new energy mix, a stand I actually support given the new safer reactor designs that are available. Obama’s position on nuclear power is less clear.

McCain’s position on the space program is more similar to mine since I believe that a strong space program including a manned component along with robotics is vital to our long-term security and technological innovation.

Obama has been openly skeptical of NASA’s current direction and it is not clear to me that he has the same enthusiasm for the Space program that McCain has.


But see this article from SpaceRef:


where the Obama campaign has fleshed out a detailed set of proposals. So maybe my initial impression is misplaced.

Obama seems more committed to increasing government support for science and science education than does McCain at least according to this article:


Of course what will happen when campaign promises meet economic and political reality is not at all clear.

The article has a good comparison between the two candidates stand on other science related issues.

With respect to global warming (I mean climate change) their positions are similar on the surface. However Obama seems less willing to rely just on free market forces to respond without targeted government investment in development of new technologies.

Both candidates support a so called cap and trade system for trading carbon credits but Obama seems to be arguing that if we are not careful the system will end up benefiting oil and coal producers.

Obama is more enamored with use of biofuels such as ethanol than I might like. Indeed he has the endorsement of the American Corn Grower's Association:


McCain sometimes seems to be positioning himself as a bit like William Proxmire whose “Golden Fleece” awards were meant to expose government boondoggles but from time to time merely exposed Proxmire’s ignorance or unwillingness to find out why scientists do some of the seemingly crazy studies they do.

This McCain tendency was highlighted when he poked fun a study of DNA in bears, not understanding that these sorts of genetic studies are useful for understanding the biology of bears and managing bear populations. Maybe this is just be an expression of McCain’s maverick streak, but it could play out in bad science policy.



My unease about McCain is heightened now that we have the VP choices. Biden is known as a strong science advocate who supports embryonic stem cell research.

See these links from The Scientists and Engineer’s For America (SEA) web site about Biden:



See also this analysis from Scientific American:


According to the Scientific American analysis, Biden is less enamored with clean coal technology than Obama saying we ought to export it to China given that countries rapid building of coal fired plants.

Biden’s attitude toward the space program is hard to assess. One tidbit from the blog Science Politics is Obama's plan to resurrect the National Space council which is chaired by the Vice President. This could raise the visibility of science in an Obama administration.


Palin’s views on science are less clear but she supports teaching creationism or at least letting it come up in discussions about evolution.


At least she seems to recognize that climate change is real and we need to respond to it. Of course she’s from Alaska where the effects of human activity on climate are pretty hard to deny. I suspect that she would not support embryonic stem cell research given her anti choice stance.

Biden has made his feeling about intelligent design and creationism quite clear. According to the SEA article Biden is quoted as saying about intelligent design and creationism:

“"This is reversible, man. This is reversible. We don't have to go down this road. I refuse to believe the majority of people believe this malarkey!”

By the way McCain believes in evolution:


He is quoted as saying:

“'I think Americans should be exposed to every point of view,' he said. 'I happen to believe in evolution. ... I respect those who think the world was created in seven days. Should it be taught as a science class? Probably not.”

Obama is more forthright:

"Evolution is more grounded in my experience than angels."


One refreshing thing is that both McCain and Obama have pledged to avoid the politicization of Science that has plagued the current administration. See this link for details:


See also


So there you have it, my take on what the two tickets are saying about science and technology. Both tickets have to be an improvement over the current administration at least at the very top, though I am disturbed about what McCain’s VP choice suggests about his real attitudes toward science.

For more on the candidate’s science positions see these links fro the American Association for the Advancement of Science:





and this link from Physics Today:


On balance I believe Obama has the better fleshed out positions and seems more likely to support science aggressively. I am bothered by McCain's Proxmire like dismissal of science he doesn't understand as evidenced by his bear DNA comments, and his running mate's misconceptions about science are equally disturbing.

So just based on science policy, this admittedly liberal geek is giving Obama the nod.

Well there goes McCain...

I see that John McCain has picked Alaska's governor Palin as his running mate. Intriguing choice since McCain likes to position himself as a maverick. But science wise the choice is a bit flaky, Palin seems to have bought into the beguiling argument that schools should teach both creationism and evolution. She is quoted here in the Anchorage Daily News:

"Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both."

Later on in the same interview she did back track a bit and qualified her remarks saying:

"I don't think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class. It doesn't have to be part of the curriculum."

Of course the state Republican platform according to the same article says that:

"We support giving Creation Science equal representation with other theories of the origin of life. If evolution is taught, it should be presented as only a theory."

And that merely echos the common misunderstanding people have about the meaning of the word theory in science.

Clearly though regardless of what she thinks about creationism and its cheap suit version intelligent design, she doesn't understand much about science. Too bad because I honestly felt this was an election where I could "kick the tires" to choose between two great tickets. But John McCain certainly hasn't helped himself here among moderates and certainly hasn't boosted my opinion of his science policy. If he wanted to go the conservative evangelical route he should picked Huckabee.

To give Palin her due she doesn't seem to have the sort of skepticsm about climate change that one might expect. But then again considering how rapidly Arctic climate regimes are being altered by global warming, she probably wouldn't be able to survive politically unless she supported programs to help her state cope with warming.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Getting to be fall

Dead Cicada Killer

The wasps are dying after the rush
Mad to fill nest with prey and eggs.
They lie curled on the bricks
Embraced by death and drying in the sun.
Black and white they terrorized deans
and students around the door by Strong Hall.
People complained; wasps were sprayed
Impatiently for them to die.
But the wasps frayed wings said
Death was coming anyway.
And as for fear of stings,
I have only known one person
To be stung and that be me
Reaching into a net, my hand
Closing over the wasp and getting
One quick jab of summer.
Then the pain was gone,
The wasp free to die, her young feeding
On cicadas, asleep from their stings,
Her young slowly turning
Into next summer.

Commentary-the poem came to me the other day when I found a dead cicada killer on the side walk at my campus. For some reason I just thought.."hmmmm getting to be fall" and the rest fell into place. Cicada killers are big wasps that dig burrows, hunt and sting a cicada, stuff it into the burrow and lay , I believe, one egg on the paralyzed cicada. Next summer the young wasps emerge.

These are big wasps maybe a third longer than the image as it probably appears online and people really do get terrorized by them. But the wasp is merely intent on hunting and they do not sting unless you do something stupid as I did.

Unlike honey bees, the sting and associated gland does not pull out so when they sting a person, the pain is intense but brief. In fact the pain is a lot less than either a honey bee sting or a hornet sting- a lot less.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Where's the Food?

Me in Second Life as Velociraptor:

Where's the food?

See my Second Life Biology blog for more details.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

It's really hard...

It's really hard
to take a picture of a praying mantis with a cell phone...

when the insect...

is trying to grab your phone.

A New Second Life Blog...mine that is.

This Spring I will be on Sabbatical, doing some Second Life projects for our introductory biology courses. As part of the plan, I am to document my activities in a blog. That blog has been set up with the not very original name of Second Life Biology(http://www.slbiology.blogspot.com/) where my avatar Simone will be your main host. So at least some of my Second Life coverage will be shifted there, especially the more geeky aspects of Second Life issues including minutiae of scripting and various other sorts of geek attacks.

All right so it is Biden...

OK it's not Bayh but Joe Biden. Probably a good choice that complements Obama's perceived weaknesses in foreign policy. Oh yes I did get the text message but some smuck spoiled the surprise for most people by posting Obama's choice to the web.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Strip Tease Act?

With all the hype about Obama's possible VP choice, some commentators are going a bit overboard. Consider this quote from Fred Barbash's Politico column on Yahoo:

"A weeks-long strip tease, ending with a naked Joe Biden or Evan Bayh—or some other safe but unsexy choice—might prove deflating."

um yes, deflating indeed.

P.S. and yes I am signed up to get the text message. Now do I keep my cell phone on all night so I can get the message even at 3AM? Do I risk...deflation?

Update! a local TV station is claiming to have seen Obama Bayh bumper stickers and is reporting this on on their news. http://www.kmbc.com/politics/17267009/detail.html#-

Thursday, August 21, 2008

***Warning Second Life Geek Attack**

Alan Levine over at his blog NMS Campus Observer, posted a way to get your in world Second Life profile as a web page(more or less). This would be useful if you wanted to display your profile to people that do not have the Second Life Client or don't want to load it.

He discusses a way to hunt up the appropriate URL by poking around in Second Life. He writes:

"Where does that link come from? I pondered. Obviously, the last part is some sort of asset ID, like each avatar has the equivalent of a texture’s database ID. I poked around URLs at world.secondlife.com many of which return XML data, and my hunch is the search engine that you use in world is XML based.

So I went in to Second Life, poked around my profile, all of the bizarre advanced settings looking for this magical string that might identify CDB Barkley via URL."

And this is really cool. I was intrigued and decided to play with this. And I will illustrate with my profile (Simone Gateaux). Go to www.secondlife.com and put an avatar's name in the search window in the upper right hand corner of the SL home page:

A new search window will open with a drop down menu. From there select SL People and run the search. Here are the results for my avatar, Simone Gateaux:

The first link that appears works like a SLurl and clicking it launches the SL client just like a SLurl. For those non geeks who are completely lost, the SLurl is a web link that loads the SL map and opens it to a specific location to which you can teleport if you have the Second Life Client.

The second link opens up the same sort of modified web version of the avatar's SL profile that is used in the actual Second Life client. So here is mine:

Grab off the page's url from your browser, for instance for me the link is


and you have it!

Thanks Alan for the interesting problem and solution!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Death of a Colleague

Last week one of my colleagues died and yesterday there was a memorial celebration for her at the School. Her name was Betty Bullock and she was in our sociology department. Betty was a wonderful person and I had just started to get to know her when she took ill. We were planning a learning community between biology and sociology and we were working on how to frame the materials in a way that showed the connections between these fields. To us the connections were obvious, all about relationships and function and evolution at all levels whether we were talking about molecules, cells, the communities of sometimes distantly related cells, that make up multicellular organisms, or the communities of communities that make up the ecosphere.

I will miss Betty not only for the small connection we had built before she got sick but also for the lost chance to build our learning community, Betty and I. Nothing will be that community but I know what to do and what she would want too. Keep on going and make a community for biology and sociology and so yesterday I went to another friend, in sociology, who knew about what Betty and I were planning. Are you interested? Can we do this? Let's talk. It will not be the same learning community and we will have to start from scratch, but we both know Betty will be with us.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Science Friday in Second Life!

I am not much of an online chatter. I've tried chat rooms for instance and found them too confusing for my addled brain and in Second Life I have been to openings and parties and found them difficult to handle. But then I am sort of a solitary type whether in first or second life.

But I decided to look for some SL event Friday when I was spending a ton of time in SL rather than working on my Syllabuses (or should that be Syllabi?). So I decided to visit Science Friday, which if you are a listener, you know Sci Fri is streamed in to SL and to the Science Friday site and during which the host of Science Friday is in World.

And I was pleasantly surprised at how wonderful the communal experience of listening in SL with a group was compared to just listening on the radio.

The avatars actually chatted (mainly texting) during the program's audio stream. I should point out that the host Ira Flatow was in World but not his guests. What I found though was that first of all the chat was surprisingly on topic. Second of all, though I did not contribute a whole lot, the chat in parallel with listening to the audio stream really forced me to pay closer attention to the broadcast than I otherwise might have. And this is in spite of the texting going on constantly during the broadcast.

Granted, the audience appeared to be really interested in the topics, but it would be interesting to test listener retention of material when just listening while in SL versus having real time messaging and social interaction while the material is being presented.

Here are some shots of the session from my Flickr stream:

Science Friday in Second Life

This shows the audience..thank god for camera controls so that even though I was sitting in the audience I could effectively look at the audience including myself.

And next a shot of the Ira's avatar...

Science Friday in Second Life

Now if only I could get an autograph.

If you are a Second Life member and have SL on your machine the Science Friday Site SLurl is

Not much to see in the Science Friday sim itself but right near by is all kinds of neat science stuff so explore around! More on some of the new science stuff later...

To get you started visit Science School at http://slurl.com/secondlife/Science%20School/128/128/2

Friday, August 08, 2008

Japanese Beetles in Kansas

Last week my wife and I went to Big Cedar near Branson and I was surprised to see Japanese beetles all over the plantings. This insect is a major pest back East because it will eat just about any garden plant and loves roses.

Japanese Beetle

Since I have not seen this beetle in Lawrence, I decided to see what's known about its distribution in Kansas. It turns out there is a very nice data base called NAPIS, the National Agricultural Pest Information System. or “Pest Tracker”. Looking up Japanese beetle gives an information link with pictures of the sort of damage the grubs can do to lawns, tips for controlling the insect. They don't mention what we used to do when I was young namely pick the beetles off and plop them in jar of rubbing alcohol.

Alas there doesn't seem to be any quick fixes, but that is typical for most pest species. Instead the suggested approach outlined here is an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach. IPM involves monitoring larval and adult populations, cultural practices and yes judicial use of appropriate pesticides and where practical biological control with pathogens that attack the grubs. For the Japanese beetle there are several biological control options including parasitic roundworms, bacteria such as Bt which you can buy locally, and milky spore.

The other thing to check is the distribution map on Pest Tracker. Fortunately this map has just been updated for the Japanese Beetle. Check out the full sized map on the Pest Tracker site.

Notice the beetle is widespread in the East and it appears to be moving into Kansas. In Douglas County, it has been found in surveys but is not widespread. There is one hot area of infestation, namely Wichita and the Kansas Department of Agriculture blames infested nursery stock for this.

So look at the beetle picture carefully. The beetle is easy to identify by the white markings on the side of the abdomen, the greenish metallic thorax and orange wing covers. If you see it collect one for verification, contact the local extension bureau for advice and don't bring uninspected plant material from another area into Kansas.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Visting Here in Second Life:

Torley Linden is known for his quirky but always useful Second Life tutorials and now he has gotten his own island called Here..so tonight Simone went over to have a look.

An Easter Scene

An Easter Scene.

Playing in the Melon Patch

Playing in the Melon Patch.

Should I Kiss the Frog?

Should I kiss the frog?


Simone meditating. Torley does bill himself as the Resident Enlightenment Manager of Second Life.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Some Petty Sniping

Tonight I was prowling around the web and stumbled across the American Council on Science and Health's website (http://www.acsh.org/) which is a non profit that describes itself as:

“...a consumer education consortium concerned with issues related to food, nutrition, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, lifestyle, the environment and health.”

Their basic viewpoint seems to be don't sweat the small stuff in terms of health risks but keep focused on the big stuff and that is reflected in their risk assessment website (http://riskometer.org/index.html) which indeed is lot's of fun.

What caught my eye is a bit of sniping going on in the science policy advocacy world. On the main ACSH page is a link CSPI vs ASCH (http://www.acsh.org/about/pageID.86/default.asp). CSPI is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (http://www.cspinet.org/new/index.html). It turns out that CSPI attacked the credibility of ACSH in a press release. The press release deals with a very important problem in evaluating credibility science reporting, especially alleged scientific information put out by advocacy groups- namely who do these groups really represent?

Here is what CSPI says about ACSH in its news release(http://www.cspinet.org/integrity/press/200407071.html):

“...news accounts often fail to identify the funding sources of ostensibly independent nonprofit organizations that are quoted on health and medical issues. For instance, a real group called the American Council on Science and Health is largely funded by chemical, food, and agribusiness companies and is widely quoted downplaying various risks to public health or discrediting studies indicating risks to health. In the pages of The New York Times it is sometimes blandly cited as a "science advocacy group," a "private health education group," or a "group that describes itself as 400 doctors and scientists who release position statements on science and the environment." Elsewhere, the Times more helpfully has described the group as a "consumer foundation in Manhattan that is in part financed by industry," or as a group that is "financed in part by the food industry. “

Well ACSH of course fired back:

“ACSH has a long history of going where the science takes us, even when that science is counter to the interest of its funders.

For instance, ACSH regularly criticizes industries who are guilty of

· making unscientific and overstated health claims
· promoting dangerous natural supplements
· failing to tell the truth about scientific issues, as in the case of industry's failure to defend the safety of genetically modified foods.

Of course, we are known for pointing out the dangers of tobacco in all its forms: Smoking is the #1 public health threat in the world (you wouldn't know this from listening to CSPI). But it's not just tobacco. ACSH regularly criticizes all of those responsible for distorting the truth about important public health issues -- including those who demonize specific foods as causes of obesity, a favorite tactic of CSPI.”


And ACSH then goes on to note:

“We encourage reporters and the public to consider sources of bias beyond corporate funding alone. For instance, from which foundations does CSPI gets its money? Do reporters ask about their project-specific funding from left-wing foundations whose stated goals are to increase governmental regulation and take away choices from consumers?”

Of course if ASCH were so concerned about this maybe they ought to take the lead and be more transparent in how they report their funding sources on their web site. About all I can find in terms of funding from their annual report (http://www.acsh.org/docLib/20070313_2007AR_final.pdf) is that ASCH received about 2,879 million dollars in revenue, 2,470 of which comes from funders as opposed to memberships and sales. It might be nice to have a better idea who those funders are.

How about CSPI? CSPI has a full page devoted to its funding sources (http://www.cspinet.org/about/funding.html) and states:

“CSPI is primarily funded by the 900,000 subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter and individual donors. Private foundation grants make up approximately 5% to 10% of CSPI's annual revenue of $17 million. Nutrition Action Healthletter accepts no advertising, and CSPI accepts no corporate funds or government grants. CSPI's audited financial statements and its IRS Form 990, both of which conform to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles established by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, are available for inspection. CSPI also maintains a strict conflict of interest policy for its staff and board members. CSPI extends its sincere gratitude to those foundations and to the thousands of individuals who provide support for its advocacy programs. “

The list of foundations hardly seems to be left wing, so I wish ASCH would have been more specific about which organizations have a goal of increasing government regulation. Clearly these two organizations ASCH and CSPI have different political slants, different funding sources and play to very different audiences. I wish reporters ask more questions about funding sources, but advocacy groups of all stripes ought to take the lead and be open about where they get their funding. Personally I believe ASCH when it claims to be relatively independent of their funding sources, and CSPI implicitly makes the same claim, and they are probably correct in doing so.

But from my perspective neither organization ought to be engaged in the sort of over the top sniping of the other and stick to the important health issues at hand. So a pox on both their houses.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a real person who receives no funding from industry or wacko private foundations on the left or the right and I occasionally eat hot dogs, foods with trans fats and enjoy taking risks by eating genetically modified corn and using a cell phone though I rarely use pesticides and believe the case for global warming is pretty solid. Oh yes, I I'm pretty liberal and a registered Democrat.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Now it's showers!

Conservatives-OK to be fair-religious conservatives, have gotten a new hot button issue, namely the recent spate of laws protecting transgendered people from discrimination. True to form, these conservatives have been raising the specter of men in women's rest rooms or as this article notes-men in showers.

Geesh-first of all someone who is not planning on SRS (Sexual reassignment surgery), such as a non op TS, is not going to go into a public shower. They don't want to call attention to themselves. Likewise in terms of rest rooms, if a male to female TG needs to use the rest room, she is going to use the one that will call the least attention to herself, which unless she is totally unable to pass, is going to be the ladies room.

The opponents of non discrimination laws aims at TG's are in part exploiting what my fellow blogger, Larry Arnhart, might call the yuk factor, that in a sense comes from our evolutionary history and informs many of our moral decisions in spite of our attempts at rationalizing morality. I think most of us who identify as transgendered understand the yuk factor issue whether we want to admit it or not and that plays into our desire to just blend in and be left alone.

But the opponents are also playing upon stereotypes and fear. Consider this comment from a site called Americans for Truth referring to a Colorado proposal:

"anyone–regardless of their biological identity–will be welcome in the men’s or ladies’ room, including cross-dressers, men who self-identify as women, women who self-identify as men, and people who haven’t made up their minds. To make matters worse, Colorado defines “public accommodations” as everything from malls, restaurants, and schools to small and even home businesses. The other side says this is about discrimination. But the chance of offending a few people hardly justifies putting everyone else at risk, which is exactly what SB 200 does."

The site then goes on to mention the potential use of this law by sexual predators:

"For every transvestite who takes advantage of this law, there are a dozen sexual predators who will see this as a chance to put women and children into a vulnerable situation."

Really? Let's get real. Are there sexual predators out there? Sure, but I don't think anti discrimination laws are going to help them in any significant way. After all we do have laws against lewd behavior.

Consider, if I might be so indelicate, when you go into a rest room do you ever really see people displaying their genitals? Even in the men's room where the possibility is likely, because of the nature of the plumbing, such displays would typically be considered lewd. Of course, maybe my rest room experience is atypical, but I don't think so. People tend to be fairly private about rest room activities-whether through some innate or cultural imperative, I don't know. So I am not really concerned about the sexual predator issue.

And I do understand the fear. After all, the other night en femme in Kansas City at a meeting I had one of the men at the meeting escort me to my car just as the women did. There really are predators out there. Only most of them aren't in the ladies room.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Speaking of sex education...

...or at least the bee part. Yesterday I went to Prairie Park in Lawrence for some picture taking. But it was so humid I lasted about two hours. Probably going out at noon was not the best idea. The worst part was not the heat but just keeping the sweat away long enough to focus. At any rate this is a nice shot of a female bumble bee top and her male suitor.

Bombus suitor

Originally they were coupled and I will leave it to the reader's anthropomorphic imagination to guess what she might be thinking or "saying"-aside from maybe "buzz off."

A motivational poster of Richard Dawkins

A Flickr and Second Life contact recently put together this wonderful poster for Richard Dawkins. Me thinks Dawkins would love it!

Sex ed problem to be solved in Kansas!

It's easy according to Alan Detrich who is running for a spot on the State Board of Education:

"When you teach children that they are apes, they will reproduce like apes," he wrote in a questionnaire. "Stop teaching evolution, and the sex ed issue will take care of itself."




Now do I file this under humor?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

So here we go again...

Here we go again in Kansas, haggling about evolution. In the mean time evolution keeps on happening and in unexpected ways. For example, you may be familiar with the infectious cancer that is threatening the Tasmanian Devil (AKA Taz) with extinction. This cancer is spread when the Devils bite each other's faces during mating leading to spread of cancer cells from animal to animal.

The infectious cancer cells are genetically identical and their spread is believed to be made possible because inbreeding has led to a loss of genetic diversity so that the animal's immune systems are not able to recognize the foreign cancer cells.

See this link for background.

In an interesting twist, natural selection seems to be operating, at least in the short run, to favor precocious sexual activity and breeding. According to the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this is the first time where an infectious disease has been shown to bring about these sorts of life history changes in mammals.

Often times natural selection favors the spread of genes conferring increased resistance to a disease so the scientist's findings are some what surprising.

The other interesting thing is that even though genetic diversity in the Tasmanian Devil has apparently been reduced by genetic drift there is still enough genetic diversity for natural selection to lead to a rapid shift in the timing of reproduction.

Presumably the scientists will now follow up with research looking at the sorts of genes that are involved and try to related the life history changes they see to genetics. Might there also be long term responses in other aspects of the animal's behavior and physiology driven by natural selection?

Aside from it's implication for the survival of the Tasmanian Devil as a species, this research may provide insight into the ability of endangered species to evolutionarily adapt to rapid environmental changes be they due to disease or to human activity.

Meanwhile back in Kansas...sigh.

Cross posted with Dangerous Ideas.

Nota Bene:

Here is a very balanced discussion of the PNAS paper over at Not Rocket Science. Note in particular this comment:

"Jones clarifies that so far, all she has found is a physical response. Rather than reflecting genetic evolution, the changes in the devil's life cycle over such a short time span is almost certainly due to "phenotypic plasticity" - the ability of an organism to change its body and its behaviour to match its environment, without changing its genes."

So while there is clearly selective pressure for early reproduction, the immediate response of the population may be a physiological adaptation rather than a longer term evolutionary adaptation.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A matter of survival

There is an in depth article about Larry King, the "gay" Junior High student who was killed by a classmate last year. The article raises a number of issues about gender and sexual identity. One thing the article notes is that the age at which young people come out is decreasing and is now 13 years with the parents finding out a year later.

I am not surprised at this given the more liberal and tolerant attitudes our society is supposed to have. The problem is that this tolerance is not uniform; lots of kids are very insecure about their sexuality and gender identity and as the article notes schools are not well equipped to handle these sorts of issues even when teachers and administrators have the best of intentions.

The article notes:

"What you might call "the shrinking closet" is arguably a major factor in Larry's death. Even as homosexuality has become more accepted, the prospect of being openly gay in middle school raises a troubling set of issues. Kids may want to express who they are, but they are playing grown-up without fully knowing what that means."

I am not going to try to second guess the school and parents on this one, but one thing GLBT kids need to learn at a young age is how to survive and that means being discrete. In my own experience, kids figure out who's different very early on anyway and in my day that meant a fair amount of bullying. So you learn to hide or "cover", to find a safe niche and bide your time. For me that meant a lot of time alone, being one of the smart kids knowing that some day I will be able to go to college, be an adult and then be able to do what I want. Of course that was a naive hope, but it at least kept me alive, though not entirely free of bullying. Kids after all, do know who is different.

I knew I was different and I knew who else was as well. For Larry, and for Brandon the kid who killed him, the system failed all the way around and it shouldn't have failed. Larry has become the poster boy for the need for tolerance; yeah tolerance is a great ideal and its great that queer kids have a vocabulary to express how they feel about themselves, vocabulary and concepts we didn't have in the 50's and 60's. In my day, the bullies had chains and knives, today they and confused kids of all sorts have guns. In my day kids had good old face to face gossip, today kids have "social networks" which can destroy a kid's standing with his or her peers instantly and deliver threats.

So I think it is a bit unfair of the article to blame the "shrinking closet" for Larry's death. On all levels kids are pushed into adult roles with out the skills to handle adult considerations. It's easy-blame the gay vice principle-blame the "shrinking closet" that empowers queer kids today when the problem really is much broader. Kids are not taught how to cope with bullies be they armed with guns, computers or use sexuality as a weapon.

Parents don't seem to be any more understanding of their kids today than in my generation. If the article is any indication, things are worse today. Survive, just get through, because if you do, things will get better.

"Larry's life was hard from the beginning. His biological mother was a drug user; his father wasn't in the picture. When Greg and Dawn King took him in at age 2, the family was told he wasn't being fed regularly."

"Like Larry, Brandon had his share of troubles. His parents, Kendra and Bill McInerney, had a difficult, tempestuous relationship. In 1993, Kendra alleged that Bill pointed a .45 handgun at her during a drunken evening and shot her in the arm, according to court records. She and Bill split in 2000, when Brandon was 6. One September morning, a fight broke out after Kendra accused her husband of stealing the ADHD medication prescribed to one of her older sons from her first marriage."

Larry had a hard road to travel. The article pegs him as gay but who knows if he was gay, or perhaps transgendered. Who really knows what path he would have chosen. Knowing you are different doesn't easily translate into understanding how you are different or what to do about it.

So don't use Larry as a poster person for a cause unless the cause is fixing a system that fails to help kids cope. Anti bullying efforts help. Straight-Gay alliances, yup go for it; greater tolerance of sexual and gender related issues, sure, go for it. What about Brandon? He needed help too. The tolerance message had not gotten to him, nor had any one taught him how to cope with Larry's behavior toward him.

The sad thing is this whole mess is going to to get litigated in the courts and used by all sorts of people with political agendas and there will be a whole bunch of people projecting their issues onto this case. I admit it is real tempting to do, projecting my desire for tolerance and acceptance of queer youth. But it was hard enough for someone such as myself to cope and I had psychic resources and support that Larry and Brandon did not have. What about them?

Maybe the best immediate message, the message I got which was survive, just get through it, and things will get better. Not politically correct advice for queer youth or any youth. After all, part of us wants kids to make the sorts of brave decisions we didn't always make when we were young. Come out, take a stand. We do want to help kids explore their identity. But I also want kids to able to survive and cope; maybe "just get through it things will get better" ought to be a part of what we do. Meantime we can clean up our own adult world so that things really will be better.

Other Links:



Here's a sad story of how attempts to deal with bullying can get derailed politically. Tip of the antennae to Pam's House Blend for this one.