Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Strange Website

Here is a site that I became aware of when the editor took issue with some comments I made about DDT and the Junk Science site on my local science blog, Dangerous Ideas.

The site editor claims:

"Our unique collection of editors and scientific advisers maintain an ongoing intellectual dialogue with leading thinkers in many areas, including biology, physics, space science, oceanography, nuclear energy, and ancient epigraphy. Original studies by the controversial economist Lyndon LaRouche have challenged the epistemological foundations of the von Neumann and Wiener-Shannon information theory, and located physical science as a branch of physical economy. In science policy areas, we have challenged sacred cows, from the theory of global warming to the linear threshold concept of radiation."

Lyndon LaRouche? Now having a bit of a Romantic streak, I do like rooting for the maverick but I find LaRouche incomprehensible and always did. I remember patiently listening to one of campaign speeches on the tube and going "say what?" Some times I get obscure, but LaRouche is really beyond obscure all the time.

What is curious is that he seems to have attracted a following as described in these Washington Post articles. I am sure they only present one side but they are fascinating reads.

According to the first Washington Post report:

"LaRouche, who expresses loathing for timid conformists, wears belligerence like a badge. He and his supporters accuse perceived enemies of slander, crimes, plots and perversions. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda had nothing to do with the September 11, 2001, attacks, LaRouche says. Elements within the U.S. military launched the attacks as an attempted coup. Defense Undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz was one of the conspirators, LaRouche claims, along with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and the Israeli army."

What is it that attracts people to these sorts of convoluted conspiracy theories, be it this one or any one of the many that propagate through the web? Strangely enough I don't like to completely dismiss these LaRouche sites any more than I completely dismiss creationist sites. There is a certain sense that they can ground us be making us revisit how we think know what we think we know (See, I told you I could be obscure if you didn't follow that).

That's perhaps a good thing especially for the young, but also for any one from time to time. After all, much of our conventional wisdom does turn out to be as Douglas Adams might say were he alive - almost completely unlike what is really going on. Most of us though don't get too hung up on these sorts of epistemological issues and go about with our little rules of thumb about how things work.

So what gives? Am I just, well, obtuse? Maybe its just the virus I have been fighting.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Full Moon

Somnolescent, you beside me it seem
A spot of light fingers your sleeping form
Which leaves me just a moment of unwarm
Till captured in a spell of lucid dream
Where nothing astounds me about that stream
Of light angelic and well by you born
And me from this time never to be torn.
But I awake surprised by that bright gleam,
As I watch you, light spilling on your breast.
I know you will soon stir from your visions,
Those darkling dreams that share your sleeping room.
So I turn around to face my lucent guest
Whose lupine light streams with such precision
And with such milk moon glow, my love illume.

This is supposed to be a sonnet and though I have never written a sonnet before, decided that this week's Totally Optional Prompt to write a sonnet looked like a good chance to stretch myself a bit.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Crow

You killed the white bird, not I.
Left her feathers scattered,
Head bit off discarded, body akimbo.
You killed her, not I
The crow shouting ALL ALL ALL.

I know what is and Dumbo's
Feather is just that- and you
And I are just that, say I over the ice shards
That break on the shore over my shouting

I leave you to your despair if you wish,
Dear hawk, for you killed the white bird,
Not I sing I ALL ALL ALL!
Not I the unstoppable crow,
Not I sing I.

Commentary: The poem stems from an image in Daniel Dennett's book Freedom Evolves where Dennett uses the image of a crow telling people that all the myths they believe in are just that. Also the other week my son and I spooked a hawk that had just killed a white sea gull near the shore of a local lake. The poor hawk was then hounded by crows as commonly happens.

Conservatives and Evolution

Lest you are one of those people who think that belief in evolution is restricted to the "liberal elite", what ever that is, then I would urge you to take a gander at Darwinian Conservatism, the newest blog on my blogroll.

I don't agree with everything there of course, but Larry Arnhart is one conservative who is out there tackling the demons from the Discovery Institute. See for instance:

and response to questions from the DI's John West:

Also see this interesting exchange:

Essentialism and abortion

At the Journal World in Lawrence there has been a lively discussion of abortion-actually lots of name calling so discussion is used very loosely and over at Dangerous Ideas I attempted to bring some rationality to the discussion. But not too many people on either side of the abortion issue seem interested in rational arguments that cannot be encapsulated in a short sentence with consisting solely of 3 letter words one of which must be an expletive.

Some one did finally ask me when I thought an embryo or fetus becomes human. Here is my response:

"If you mean identifiably human as opposed to some other animal then even
the egg and sperm are human. Do you mean developing as a unique entity
potentially capable of developing into an adult? That would be the formation of
the zygote. Do you mean sufficient development of the nervous system to feel
pain? That is later at some stage of fetal development. Or do you mean
sufficient cognitive development to be aware of self? Exactly what are
you asking?

Maybe you are asking the wrong question. To illustrate consider another
one of my infamous thought experiments. Consider a mother whose life would be in
serious peril if she did not abort her potential offspring at different
developmental stages. Would the mother be more likely to put her life at risk
for a zygote or a 4 week old fetus, an 8 week old fetus? A 21 week old fetus? A
bet the mother's calculus would change the closer and closer the fetus is to
full term.

A mother would probably not risk her life for the zygote as readily as when
the fetus was close to term. According to my Church's teaching the zygote
is fully human but would even the best Catholic mother risk her life for a
zygote? For her child yes, but for a zygote?"

By the way the discussion was sparked by a Cal Thomas article on Roe v. Wade. See the article and associated discussion here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Around the Cryosphere

Today I was looking for information related to changes in the Arctic sea ice and found the National Snow and Ice Data Center, (NSIDC) - yes there is such a thing- run out of the University of Colorado. There is even a word for the snow and ice and glaciers that make up the frozen water part of this planet-the cryosphere. Seems like a minor environmental niche until you think about the important role that ice plays not only in the energy budget of the Earth by altering the reflectivity of the planet, but also ecologically.

The NSIDC has a great series of graphics related to sea ice and glaciers. For instance, here are two shots of Muir Glacier from the same vantage point, one taken in 1941 and the second taken in 2004. The difference is quite sobering though I am sure those people who don't think we need to be concerned about climate change can put a positive spin on all the vegetation present in 2004. Of course not all glaciers are melting. Climate change is much more complex than we sometime think.

There is lots of information about the polar regions including some features, quite new to me. For instance, in the Antarctic, there are structures called megadunes. These features are so large that a person on the surface doesn't really notice them, and it is only with satellite imagery that they can be properly visualized. How they form is not clear, but they seem to be made by the winds carving into the ice rather than by wind deposited snow.

I don't think anyone is seriously thinking that the cryosphere will disappear completely. Also, the movie Waterworld may be a great story but it is just that-were all the ice to melt the Earth would not end up completely covered in water. Even during the warmest part of the Creataceous period roughly 90 million years ago, there is evidence of extensive glaciation. But the best available models predict rapid loss of the arctic sea ice as discussed in this post from RealClimate.

In fact, during the late 1960's and early 1970's the concern among some scientists was that we might soon enter another ice age. Global warming skeptics are fond of pointing this out. There were several reasons for thinking this might be plausible. First it was thought that statistically we have been in a relatively long interglacial period so the thought was maybe we are just due for a period of cooling. This was re-enforced by a short term cooling trend that began in the 1940's. Next, some scientists thought that the effects of dust and soot in the air, might counteract the warming due to the excess carbon dioxide produced by human activity.

Global warming skeptics often conveniently ignore the fact the issue wasn't the reality of human induced global warming, but that other factors might counteract it. New Scientist has an article discussing the global cooling idea that meshes well with what I remember of these debates, ongoing when I was an undergraduate.

Curiously the cooling idea has been been advanced again by some scientists who hypothesize that global warming might have the paradoxical effect of cooling the climate in Europe. The basic idea is that fresh water added to the North Atlantic would stop the flow of heat via ocean currents to Europe. However, scientists are still debating this possibility and improved understanding of ocean currents heat transfer in the ocean suggests that this cooling will not happen.

So the ice is melting. But we must be careful not to ascribe all that melting to human activity. For example, a recent report,summarized in Science Daily, suggests that at least some of the melting of the Greenland ice cap might be due to heat from inside the Earth. There is a Lawrence Kansas connection since one of the scientists involved, Timothy Leftwich from Oregon State University, is a post doc associated with a consortium called CRESIS, the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets. KU is the lead institution for the consortium.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

National Delurking Week...

Allegedly this week Jan 8-12 is National Delurking Week and over at Paper Napkin are some neat images that you can post to your blog. They look appropriate for all year use. So check them out over there after you delurk. My favorite is to the left. And the best way to delurk here is to scrounge around the blog and find something that strikes you one way or another, check out my tags and find something to comment on. Oh and when you leave, visit one of the fine blogs on my blog roll and do the same thing.

Tip of the antennae to John over at Blogmeridian.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

God Created in the Laboratory?

OK actually the Flying Spaghetti Monster and it was created in a kitchen. But check this out. I wonder if Pastafarians would consider the construction of noodley likenesses to be OK. Are there noodley iconoclasts ready to riot in the streets of Ithaca NY?

Could this be proof of the omega point getting closer and closer? A foreshadowing of what's to come when the whole universe is created in the eye of the FSM looking backward through time.

All hail the FSM!

Source: via techorati

Poor Person

Some poor soul from Great Bend Indiana did the following Google search: "Paul Decelles" theology. I think he was looking for things such as this:

Instead he blundered into my site and found

Strangely enough I have been confused with the other Paul Decelles (there is actually a third one in Vermont and yet another one who is an architect), and while I do have a theological bent, I suspect my theology and religious life is quite different from the other Paul Decelles's out there. Or are those differences just superficial? Maybe my reader will come back after reading our respective screeds and render an opinion.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Carnival of the Liberals is up!

Carnival of the Liberals is up at Greenbelt and deserves a look for some really good liberal blogging. Even conservatives and junior high students might enjoy it. Somehow the editor saw fit to include my post about Disney World but hey... no one's perfect.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Such a handsome plant

Brazilian pepper

This is a plant picture I took last month at Disney World. At first I thought the plant was some sort of viburnum, but while catching up with Jenn Forman-Orth's wonderful Invasive Species Web log, found this post showing a plant called Brazilian pepper, considered to be a highly invasive introduced species in Florida. So I sent the picture off to several plant identification groups on flickr and the ID came back... Schinus terebinthifolius AKA Brazilian Pepper or Christmas Berry.

According to the University of Florida's Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, this species is from South America and has been aggressively colonizing a wide range of habitats in South Florida, replacing native plants. As so many other plants, Brazilian Pepper was introduced as an ornamental. The orange berries are attractive to birds and mammals and this combined with a high germination rate under a range of conditions appears to be the main factor in it's spread.

You might think that invasive species are just a major problem in places such as Florida but Kansas has it's own collection of problem introduced species. The USDA's list of Kansas invasive plants alone has 35 species on it and the list is very incomplete. Some of these species such as musk thistle are obvious pests, but others such as Russian Olive, Japanese Honeysuckle, Tree of Heaven and certain types of St. Johns wort are less well known invasives.

An example of a potentially invasive ornamental, one that I have in my garden, is "Zebra grass", Miscanthus sinensis. This plant isn't in the same league as Kudzu but it is a plant to watch according to the Global Invasive Species Database.

So think carefully before you buy that ornamental. Get the scientific name and find out if it is an invasive species-not all invasive species are officially banned so you can't rely on the plant being environmentally friendly just because it is at your local nursery.

If you want a particular type of plant, often there are native or a least non invasive alternatives. One useful source for alternatives from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens also has tips on garden design and gardening for wildlife. Another useful site is the Global Invasive Species Database, mentioned earlier. This is a good site because it will clue you in to potential problems, such as zebra grass so you can do a little prevention. Also check out the Invasive Species Weblog for quick updates. Of course our local extension agents can help you as well.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Susan Stanton: One Year Later.

You may remember the controversy in Largo Florida about a city manager who decided to transition from Steve to Susan on the job. As a result she lost her job and hasn't much been in the news lately so what has happened to Susan? The St. Petersburg Times just ran a story about her and it is a bit sad and heartening at the same time. Plus Susan has managed to generate new controversy, this time within the transgender community itself.

The upshot is that she is still looking for a job and lots of her former friends have shunned her. Yup, you sure learn who your friends are when you decide to transition-that's what my transsexual friends tell me. You really really need to be very financially and with a strong network of friends to make transitioning work.

She is quoted as saying:

"People assume I'm making tons of money, traveling around speaking. But the truth is: I need help. I'm starting to approach people I know in the area, which I never thought I'd be doing."

Later in the article observes that people who have known her for 20 years won't speak to her, including some of her own family: not at all unusual for those who decide to transition.

On the plus side she appears to have won acceptance from her son. even if he still calls her Dad. That's OK.

So what's the new controversy? In the same article, Susan is quoted as saying that she's different from other transgendered people..."like I'm seeing a bunch of men in dresses." Further on she discusses ENDA-that's the proposed federal legislation to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. This last year the sponsors toyed with the idea of adding gender expression to ENDA. This was ultimately rejected.

She says:

"The biggest issue against the federal legislation is that politicians think the ladies' rooms will be invaded by guys in drag," Susan says, "instead of someone like me."

This of course has led to her being attacked as not being supportive of trans rights and the GLBT portion of the noosphere has quickly reacted, generally negatively. Representative is this quote from Becky's Blog:

"In addition, I’m more than a bit puzzled by her reaction. Susan Stanton worked in government and the political arena for almost a decade and a half at minimum. Did she really expect acclaim or acceptance of the views attributed to her in this article from members of a community as violently persecuted on as Transgender-Americans? Did she really expect support and sympathy from a community of people who have been being legally denied employment, housing, basic social services, contact with children and other loved ones, and even simple human respect for who we are and how live our lives as a matter of course throughout history in most areas of this country? If she did, then it’s clear to me that while she may understand how to live and function on a daily basis as a woman, she still doesn’t have any real understanding of what it means to be a transgender person, and particularly a transwoman, in the United States of America in 2008."

Apparently Susan has been overwhelmed with critical e-mail about the comments in the article and she has responded with a message to the TS community on her website. She writes:

"Contrary to the St. Petersburg Times article, I do not see members of the transgender community as “men wearing dresses.” However, I do feel there is a fundamental misunderstanding by the general public that being transgender is simply a matter of men wanting to “dress up as women.”"

Unfortunately, here she definitely is right about common public perception. I don't think her comments are going to mollify the transgender activists. Plus her comments do nothing to educate the public about ENDA and I am not sure the criticism she is receiving is going to help passage of a gender expression inclusive ENDA either. It's too bad Susan had gotten thrust into a role she really didn't want and maybe wasn't equipped for.

Here is a sampling of other reactions:

Related posts on The force that through...

Friday, January 04, 2008

One Little Flower

Still cold here in Kansas today. Fortunately I have plants in bloom including several orchids, an adopted cyclamen and this little Euphorbia:


I wanted to start out with

"So much depends"

but it has been done before.

Gender in Second Life

There is an interesting discussion on the economics of gender in online games over at Story Geek, another new blog to my blogroll. Since I am not a gamer I was not aware of the difference between Second Life and MMORPGs. Apparently in most other virtual universe systems you cannot switch your gender easily. In contrast, Second Life is very flexible.

This leads has led to an underground economic system for sale of avatars on e-bay for example, something that does not exist for Second Life. But in Second Life female clothing is much more varied and expensive than male clothing. Of course doesn't this parallel clothing in real life?

One nice thing about Second Life is that I can find female shoes that fit!

Totally Optional Prompts

I would like to welcome Totally Optional Prompts to my Blog Roll. "Prompts" is a poetry blog similar in format to Poetry Thursday which I miss. As Poetry Thursday, "Prompts" provides a weekly prompt which is of course optional. So check it out and be sure I will be participating!

A New Day in American Politics: NOT!

So the results for Iowa are in and Mike Huckabee who expects his guitar playing to give him some general credibility has won the Republican caucus. He proclaims a "new day in American Politics." Doesn't look like a new day in politics to me. All we are getting is pandering to the religious right. At least Huckabee is authentic, which is more than we can say for Bush. But authenticity is worth nothing is you are clueless about the real world.

What are we to make of someone who in the early 1990's wanted to isolate people with HIV. Maybe he can claim he changed his mind, but when Huckabee made that statement we knew enough about the HIV virus and it's transmission to know that isolation would be counter-productive. What are we to make about a global warming skeptic? We have had one of those in the White House for the past 8 years, thank you. What about some one who doesn't believe in evolution and thinks that creationism should be taught along with evolution? That to me is a good sign that he doesn't understand science any more than Dr. Dino and the hucksters at the so called Creation Museum. It does matter Mr. Huckabee what you think about evolution!

If Mr. Huckabee is evidence for a new day in American Politics heaven help us! Seems like if he gets in, it's another 8 more years of deer in the headlights.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Have You Changed Your Mind?

One of my favorite online reads is Edge which bills itself as representing the third culture. The third culture refers to those intellectuals who bridge the sciences and the humanities, what C.P. Snow referred to as the "Two Cultures". One feature of Edge is a series of contributed response to some important question of the year. This year's question is "What have you changed your mind about?" and the responses are quite fascinating. At least the scientist's responses should put to rest the notion often bandied about by non scientists that scientists are inflexible and dogmatic.

Here are some mind changers worth checking out:

Paul Davies used to be a committed Platonist. About time he came around to my type of thinking.

Lera Boroditsky has decided that language can change our sensory perceptions after her experimental data contradicted her original and long held belief.

William Calvin has changed his mind about global warming after visiting Greenland.

Roger Bingham has given up evolutionary psychology..or at least what had been the prevailing notion of how the human mind worked.

Finally on a pessimistic note but he may be right, Lee Silver concludes that in contrast with what intellectuals like to often believe:

" While its mode of expression may change over cultures and time, irrationality and mysticism seem to be an integral part of normal human nature, even among highly educated people. No matter what scientific and technological advances are made in the future, I now doubt that supernatural beliefs will ever be eradicated from the human species."

What have I changed my mind about? Over time I have gradually shifted my belief in the balance of nature, now believing that the biological world consists of populations opportunistically evolving and that the balance of nature, like design, is an illusion.

What other mind changers are out there? How have your beliefs changed?

Risk in Second Life

In Real Life I tend to be pretty risk adverse when it comes to physical danger and usually exhibit a modicum of common sense about such things. Now why is it that people have such a magnified sense of risk when it comes to words and images which from my way of thinking are much less harmful than the risk that people take in their every day life?

Consider the case of a poster on a Second Life education list who wants to have his student's Second Life activities in a public setting but is concerned about the risk of encountering offensive images and behaviors. The examples he uses are an Avatar that curses you when you bump it during teleportation and penises prominently displayed on the wall of a Second Life structure.

Well here is my response:


Perhaps, even in a Federally funded project people need to take some responsibility for their own risk management. Now as you, I certainly don't want people to constantly encounter things that might be offensive to them. Also I agree strongly in the need to make the material accessible to people with disabilities. But if you want your activities to be public and have fun, well there is a risk in that-just as going on a field trip or a conference in RL.

Even those folks who are easily offended by seeing penises outside of their normal context, presumably have some understanding that they have some risk of exposure to such things in the real world. Presumably, they also understand that in a diverse society it makes no sense to avoid contact with the outer world because of an occasional penis.

An example...were I to take students on a field trip or concert here in Kansas, they might encounter a certain minister who has signs with all sorts of stuff on them that is much more offensive to Kansans than a few penises on a wall. Would I be responsible for someone's offense at this? Common sense says no. In a free society, don't people have to take some burden to develop an ability to handle things they don't like that they might encounter in real world situations? Why should SL be any different?

Besides, SL regions are labeled GP and mature. You don't want penises- stay out of the mature regions. If your group wants a good SL experience, give them a list of recommended sites and let them do their own "risk" management.

Paul (Simone/Simeon Gateaux)"

Part of the problem may be that people don't really understand what Second Life is. If I were to do my training or conferencing entirely locally then a user would be perfectly in line to take real offense at penises on a wall and hold me as the educator to a higher level of responsibility. But SL is not that sort of controlled environment and its easy to forget that and think that since the images are coming through your computer that the whole thing is like a closed stand alone program. SL is not that.

I guess because of the way I grew up I took to heart the saying "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." Of course we all know words can hurt, as can images, but people need to learn some perspective about these sorts of risks. Being hurt by words, or images, is not quite the same thing as being offended by them.