Sunday, April 30, 2006

Circus of the Spineless

Circus of the Spineless #8 is up at Get Busy Livin', or Get Busy Bloggin'. My post on my pet ghost crab is among the entires, along with a lot of other neat invertebrate articles. Go check it out!

Friday, April 28, 2006

Gas Attacks.

With gas prices soaring, blame for the rising prices and what to do about it is all over the news. Most of the serious proposals floating around out there are, for the most part, incapable of working even in principle. Jacob Weisberg has a good article in Slate explaining why.

Here's something that most people don't seem to understand (nor did I until somewhat recently) about how the price of oil is determined: It's not determined by some marketing agency on Madison Avenue, nor by collusion by the big oil companies, nor even by some secret cabal of Jewish bankers who fix the price of everything else. Oil prices are determined by worldwide market of buyers and sellers. That may sound obvious, but when you realize that the price is the same everywhere, minus transportation costs, the sheer inability of the American government to do anything about it becomes clear. Armed with this knowledge, nearly all of the proposals being bandied about are downright silly. There are in fact a lot of fallacies based on this misconception, and below I'll list some of my favorites.

1. We can end our dependence on Middle Eastern oil by importing the oil from elsewhere. I saw the President or some other douchebag make this argument on the news today. The idea was that we should be getting all chummy with some country or another because doing so will allow us to get oil from them rather than from the mid-East or Russia, both of which are notoriously chaotic. Sure, those places suck, but the idea that we can avoid this issue by buying from elsewhere is just plain wrong. It doesn't matter how much oil we get directly from the mid-East because mid-East supplies account for a large fraction of worldwide supply. And the price of oil is determined by worldwide supply and demand. The actual physical location we import our oil from is irrelevant. The second mid-East supplies get disrupted, or look like they might get disrupted thanks to a bit of instability caused by, oh let say, a war, then our prices go up. This holds true even if we don't import a single drop from the mid-East. It holds true even if we don't import at all..

2. Most of our imported oil doesn't come from the mid-East, so therefore our meddling in that part of the world couldn't possibly be motivated by a desire for oil. This argument comes from those conservatives who enjoy going to war in the mid-East, but have just enough shame to admit that stealing another country's' resources is wrong. Of course, I don't think the war in Iraq was simply about oil, especially since both rising and falling prices help and hurt equally interested parties. But it would be naive to think that the undue attention we give that part of the world has nothing to do with its strategic importance as the world's oil reserve. At any rate, whether you think the war was about oil or not, the above argument is wrong for the exact same reason the first one was: The prices we pay, and the profits our domestic oil producers can reap, are directly related to what goes on in the mid-East, irrespective of how much or how little we import from that area. We could buy 100% of our oil from Canada, and if mid-East supplies get disrupted, Canadian oil prices go up. Why? Because the Canadian companies are free to sell to the highest bidder, and they'll have lots more bidders if half of the world's supply gets disrupted.

3. Don't buy gas from Exxon-Mobil, BP, Fat Joe's Truck Stop, or whatever Evil Company deserves a boycott. This one is a popular email spam. You may have had well-meaning but clueless friends actually forward it to you.
Snopes has a pretty thorough explanation of what's wrong with this claim, but if you're following along, it should be obvious by now. Gasoline, like the oil it comes from, is pretty much the same everywhere (what economists call "fungible"). And since you can buy it everywhere, the price is determined almost exclusively by aggregate supply and demand. (Yes, some stations charge a few pennies extra because they have the phat location, but notice how when the price spikes, it does so for every station at the same time? This is not because of massive collusion.) Boycotting company X doesn't actually make company X's gas worth less. And unless you're willing to quit driving altogether, it certainly doesn't make all gasoline worth less. Company X, afterall, can simply sell their gas to company Y. And then company Y sells it to you. As long as you're buying from someone, company X will do just fine.

4. Don't buy gas on May 15th or whatever other day. That'll stick it to them! Same as above, but even stupider. Again, this one circulates in email so much that Snopes has a page on it. Unless everyone agrees not to drive on that day, it can't possibly affect the demand for gas, because you'll just fill up on some other day in order to make up for your lack of fill-up on the first day. Now if everyone actually did decide not to drive on that day, it would be admirable as an exercise in learning how not to depend on the automobile as a way of life. As for gasoline consumption, by my careful calculations, it would reduce yearly demand by approximately 1/365th. Yeah, that'll show 'em.

5. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will reduce prices. This one is at least on the right track, in that it acknowledges that if you want to lower prices, you either need to decrease demand, or in this case, increase supply. The problem being, ANWR has a mean estimate of 7.7 billion barrels of oil. The world consumes about 27.7 billion barrels per year,
and this is growing by about 2% yearly. The oil in ANWR won't come out all at once of course, but will rather take decades to extract. Assuming it comes out in equal portions over a 20 year period (a low estimate), and ignoring any increase in demand, ANWR will supply about 1.4% of the world's oil. This simply not enough to have a significant impact on prices. The fallacy here is that people often pretend as if it's only American consumption that a new field has to satisfy; but prices are determined by the whole world's consumption, not just America's. The oil in ANWR is certainly worth a lot of money, and there may be good reasons for drilling it, and those reasons may well outweigh the reasons not to drill it. But the reasons most often given for drilling -- that it will lower prices at the pump and it will make the United States energy independent -- are bogus.

All that having been said, what should we do about oil prices? Putting aside the fact that the current spike is almost certainly temporary, here's a wild idea: Let the damn prices rise. As
Weisberg points out, rising prices will reduce demand, and given the large externalized costs associated with burning oil, this is a good thing. People will buy more fuel efficient vehicles and will invest more in alternative energy; there will be less smog and less greenhouse gas emssions; fewer people will die in auto accidents, and people will be less inclined to live in distant suburbs rather than around city centers with a vibrant civic life. These are all things that people who bitch about the evils of oil consumption (like me) think are good things. Yet for some reason, the easiest way to achieve them -- raising gas prices -- is something that needs to be fought against. Go figure.

Friday Animal Blogging

It's been light blogging for me lately, but there's no way I could skip FAB. Today's edition: Anoles. Anoles are smallish lizards that are very common in South Carolina, and especially in the Charleston area. Their Latin name is Anolis carolinensis, even though they range over a much broader area than the Carolinas. Unlike most of our other lizards, such as the broad head skink, whose juveniles look a lot like an anole, the anoles aren't shy. The skinks run off before I can get my camera, but the anoles practically challenge me to territorial dominance over my own yard.

I suppose there are lots of anoles in the world, but the ones I'm talking about are commonly known as either the "green anole" or the "brown anole", because -- and this is wild -- they can be either green or brown. Actually, a single animal can change colors depending on its surroundings and its mood.

Did I mention that these guys are adorable? When you get near one, if it doesn't run away, it'll give you a side-long glance like a puppy dog. They like to bob their heads and stick out their dewlaps as a display of dominance. They run up and down bushes and walls, and occasionally lunge and bite at insects. If only they were 10 feet long and had saddles on their backs, they'd be perfect.

Here are a bunch of pictures. A couple of these are from the same animal, but most are of different animals at different times (and even different years).

Below is a good example of that side-long puppy dog glance. It makes you just want to hug and squeeze them.

Okay, enough of the greens. Here are some browns:

And finally, I managed to snap the shutter right when one had his reddish dewlap out:

This kind of head-bobbing and dewlap-extending behavior is exactly what my iguana used to do, especially if he saw an image of himself (thus thinking it was a rival iguana). In fact, I'm amazed at how similar the anoles are to iguanas. Having viewed some of these images close-up, they even have all the same scales in all the same places. They are basically minature iguanas without the spikes and the attitude.

Last but not least, one with a white stripe down his back:

Monday, April 24, 2006

Why Hydrogen is Stupid.

Earth Day 2006 has come and gone, but the familiar arguments over energy and where to get it will remain. A couple of days ago, CNN carried an article about President Bush and his love of hydrogen. It's the "fuel of the future" according to the Pres. Friday night, our local PBS station featured a panel discussion about hydrogen, with panelists from various South Carolina universities and businesses. They all spoke in favor of it, without skepticism. These were highly educated professional men and women, not politicians or businessmen with obvious conflicts of interest (though I suppose that the prospect of research grants may be enticing for the university folk). Senator Lindsay Graham made a pre-recorded appearance in which he gushed over the virtues of hydrogen and announced his intention for South Carolina to become "the Detroit of Hydrogen". (Which may be prophetic, depending on which characteristic Detroit you're talking about.)

Hydrogen is the kind of thing that sounds great at first, but becomes progressively worse the more you learn about it. It is in fact a terrible idea, completely unsound both economically and environmentally. And yet we find ourselves with the government, industry, and many (most?) environmentalists calling for the coming "hydrogen economy" with complete enthusiasm, in many cases at the expense of backing more effective policies. Let me explain why this is insane.

First of all, to state what should be obvious but for most people apparently isn't, hydrogen is not a source of energy. It is at best merely a delivery mechanism for energy produced by other means. You don't find molecular hydrogen sitting around on Earth in any significant quantity, so you have to make it. And thanks to a little thing called the second law of thermodynamics, any method you use to produce hydrogen will always require more energy than you can get out of it. Hydrogen is therefore fundamentally incapable of meeting our energy demands or reducing our addiction to fossil fuels.

Speaking of fossil fuels, for the foreseeable future, that's where most of the hydrogen would be coming from. There are basically two methods of making hydrogen. The first is to reform fossil fuels, the idea being that, rather than burning hydrocarbons directly, you extract the hydrogen out and dump the resulting CO2 (which incidentally will go where all of our carbon currently goes -- into the atmosphere. Global warming is yet another problem that hydrogen promises to exacerbate rather than solve.) The problem with this is that you lose a large chunk of the energy. Using methane (CH4), aka natural gas, you lose about 30% of the energy by converting it to hydrogen. Since methane is the most hydrogen-rich fuel, the losses would be far greater if you were to use oil or coal. What exactly is to be gained by this? Natural gas can be burned to make electricity with efficiencies approaching that of hydrogen fuel cells. Converting it to hydrogen first would result in a net loss of energy. Even better, the gas can be burned directly for cooking or heating, which makes a lot more sense than converting it first into electricity.

The other method of making hydrogen is electrolysis. You stick two electrodes in water, run an electric current between them, and the water will be "cracked" into molecular hydrogen and oxygen. Obviously, you can't do this without a source of electricity. So you are basically using electricity to make hydrogen, which will then be used to make electricity. In the process, you lose somewhere between 40% and 60% of the energy, depending on your set-up. Why even bother? Just use the electricity directly and cut out the middle-man. Hydrogen does have an advantage in that it can be used as a method of storing electricity. But there are already lots of storage options (e.g. batteries, flywheels, pumping water uphill) that are far more efficient and less expensive.

And where does the electricity to make hydrogen come from? For the time being it would come mainly from coal, because that's where most of our electricity already comes from. Sadly enough, unless we get serious about alternatives, coal will be our main electricity source for the foreseeable the future. If we were to effectively switch our entire transportation sector over to coal, with at least half of the energy being wasted, it would be an environmental nightmare. That's why hydrogen advocates talk about making hydrogen using nuclear or renewables such as wind and solar. But nuclear is stalled thanks largely to environmentalist objections, and renewables are currently not cost-effective enough to capture any significant market share. Any talk of making hydrogen from these sources is foolish until such a time when they can stand on their own. And last I checked, while President Bush is pushing hydrogen, he is not pushing renewables. Even assuming that renewables come down drastically in price or that the nuclear industry experiences a rebirth (both of which I would like to see), hydrogen is not what that electricity should be used for. From an environmental standpoint, we are better off phasing out coal and letting our cars continue to burn gasoline. Only when we have a surplus of clean energy (in which case most of our air pollution and global warming problems will have been solved), then it might make sense to consider turning the surplus into hydrogen. But if and when we ever get to that point, the smartest thing to do would be to switch our auto fleet over to battery power, not hydrogen.

So the biggest problem with hydrogen is, you know, where to actually get it. It's really hard to believe that this supposed "fuel of the future" doesn't actually exist and can't be made without putting more energy into it than you get out of it. If that were the only problem with hydrogen, it would be enough to dismiss the whole thing as little more than an interesting but not particularly effective means of moving energy around. Unfortunately, things get worse.

Hydrogen has a lot of energy per unit mass, but it has very little energy per unit volume. When you hear PhDs talk about the "storage problem" on a PBS show, you get the impression that this is a little technical glitch that we'll soon work out. The reality is, the storage problem is intractable, and renders hydrogen completely useless for cars until someone invents a magical new technology that does everything short of violating the laws of physics.

As things stand today, there are two options for storing hydrogen onboard a vehicle. The first is to liquefy it and put it in a cryogenic tank. This means cooling the hydrogen down to just over absolute zero. Having something that cold on board presents all manner of technical problems. You have to have specially designed seals and pipes to keep them from cracking. And since there's no such thing as a perfect insulator, a certain percentage of the hydrogen will boil off each day, leaving you with an empty tank (and wasting precious, precious energy) if you leave your car parked for too long. Refueling presents a problem as well. I once saw a pitch for hydrogen that actually bragged about the fact that in a hydrogen economy, robots will refuel your car. To reverse a popular saying, this is not a feature, it's a bug. You don't want untrained humans getting anywhere near liquid hydrogen in case they splash a little on themselves and cause permanent tissue damage. And even after liquefying the hydrogen, it still takes up 4 times as much space as a gas tank with comparable amount of energy. But by far the worst problem with liquid hydrogen is that you waste about half of the energy during the cooling process. Whatever you had to pay for the hydrogen, whatever environmental damage was caused by its production, take that and double it. That's what you get from using liquid hydrogen.

The other method of storing hydrogen is simply to compress it as a gas. If you compress it down to about 10,000 psi, you "only" need a tank about 10 times the size of an average gas tank to get you as far. During compression, you also waste about 15% of the energy. And whatever you do, try to stay out of accidents. You really don't want a 10,000 psi tank filled with a highly combustible gas to rupture. Imagine the Hindenburg disaster concentrated into something the size of a gas tank sitting right under you.

So the storage issue really, really sucks. Because our current means of storage simply won't work, there are other, more exotic means of storing hydrogen that are on the drawing board. These include storage in the form of metal hydrides, or super absorbent materials that could hold lots of hydrogen. I won't go into detail about them, but suffice it to say that none of these purported solutions are currently feasible. And they may never be.

The storage problem unfortunately impacts every part of the so-called hydrogen economy. Being the smallest molecule in the universe means that hydrogen leaks out of anything you try to stick it in. The metal within pipelines is made brittle by the formation of metal hydrides, so you need super thick pipes that add considerably to cost and weight. This is why almost all hydrogen used for industrial purposes is produced on-site. Moving it around or trying to store it for any length of time is a major problem. And please note, the fact that hydrogen can store electricity is really the only thing it has going for it. When a technology's biggest advantage is really a disadvantage, that's not a good sign.

I'm going to leave things there for now. I could mention lots of other problems, each one damning in its own right. For example, there is the fact that PEM fuel cells are hideously expensive and don't last long. Then there is the fact that we have no infrastructure for distributing hydrogen and would need to invest hundreds of billions of dollars just get us to where we are now with gasoline. And it just keeps going. There are so many problems with hydrogen that it's hard just to remember them all. What I find both baffling and seriously disturbing is that there are a lot of people, many of them very intelligent (like our dear, sweet President), who are trying to push the hydrogen economy forward, and planning on spending a lot of tax dollars to do it. It deserves instead to be tossed on the scrap-heap of failed ideas. I hope we don't get in too deep before it becomes obvious to everyone else.

Friday, April 21, 2006

What the hell?

Wednesday's post about my successful PhD defense seems to have disappeared for no apparent reason. Those of you who congratulated me in the comments, I really appreciate it. But they seem to have vanished into the aether for reasons unknown...

Friday Animal Blogging

There are these people who study birds. They call them orno... ornitholo... bird people. There is even a popular blog run by some of them. Even still, I don't quite get it. Why birds? The lizard/snake clade is so much cooler. Some of its members can kill a man. None of those 10,000 bird species can do that. Okay, sure, the Tuang Child was killed by an eagle of some sort. But that was two and a half million years ago. What have they done for us lately?

Nevertheless, I don't like seeing an animal in distress. About a week and a half ago, I saw a juvenile specimen of common, boring dove sitting in my driveway. He was a little guy, not quite old enough to fly, who must have fallen out of the nest. And the driveway is not the safest place for a little bird to be. I was concerned that Fluffy would get him. So I brought him inside and did the only thing I knew how to do, which was to take pictures of him and put him in a shoebox.

He's a cute guy alright. Unless I use the flash and expose all of his downy baby feathers, in which case he looks like a freak:

The left side of his face had some dried blood around the eye, as if he took a punch. He must have landed on his left side when he took his first ill-fated trip out of the nest.

He warmed up after awhile (it was somewhat cold out) and began twittering in a voice that said, please feed me. So I killed a house fly (no shortage of those around) and tried to feed it to him. No dice. He wasn't taking it. It occurred to me that I had no clue what I was doing. This wasn't an all-devouring ghost crab, this animal had special dietary needs and rituals. He was going to starve if I tried to keep him and raise him myself.

So reluctantly, after I had made sure that the cat was safely sequestered, I put him back outside. I stuck him near a tree where I figured he would have some sort of shelter and cover. And what does the dumbass do? He goes wandering right back out into the middle of the driveway. Here's what's cool though: The mommy and daddy birds came right up to him and started taking care of him, apparently oblivious to the human stench that must have been all over their baby.

Mommy started doting on the little guy while Daddy did sentry duty around the perimeter. Isn't that sweet? (Although maybe I'm being sexist; I have no idea which one was Mommy and which one was Daddy.)

I stayed away thinking that maybe the parents would figure out what to do with their wayward child. Next thing I know, the landlord, who lives upstairs, who owns a gun shop and kills things for fun, was hard at work building an impromptu nest. A nest made out of a bucket. Funny thing is, it worked. He shoved the bucket into a palm tree, stuck the baby bird in it, and lo and behold, the parents took right to it.

But the next morning, disaster struck. It was a windy day, and the bucket fell. The little bird, now having survived a second fall, was apparently fine. My roommate and I put the bucket back in the tree (after I cleaned out the bird crap -- it's amazing how much of that can accumulate in under 24 hours), and this time we secured it with bungie cords. Funny thing is, now the parents wouldn't go anywhere near it. What to do? The baby bird, either because he was trying to exercise some independence or because he was desperate (or maybe he couldn't stand all the bird crap he had made), came out of the bucket and perched himself on a nearby branch.

Finally, a couple of days later, I saw one of the parents feeding him. Phew! He wasn't going to starve. As the days passed, the little bird, who was looking more like an adult each day, moved onto ever higher and more distant branches. One morning, my roommate tells me that the bird had fallen down to the ground but managed to fly his way back up into the tree. It was an awkward attempt, but he managed it. I don't believe I've seen him since. The little guy apparently made it.

I guess I'll have to admit, birds are cool afterall. At least that's what I'm thinking right now. When I have to climb up that tree to get my bucket back, I'm sure I'll think differently. In the meantime, people who come over ask why there's a bucket in the tree. You missed one heck of a party, we say.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Light Blogging...

If you're one of the five or so people who read this blog regularly, please note that I'm unlikely to be blogging anything until after Wednesday of next week. I've got highly important super-secret stuff I'm working on until then.

Friday Animal Blogging

So I open my door the other morning, and what do I see?

Whatever it is, it's sitting in the exact same spot that my glass lizard was sitting in. What is it with that spot anyway? Are there some magical reptile-attracting pheromones there or something?

This is apparently a specimen of lined skink from the genus Eumeces. It is most likely a female Broadhead Skink, Eumeces laticpes. If so, it's too bad that it wasn't a male or a juvenile, as they have far more interesting coloring. Still, she's a beaut.

As with my glass lizard, this little gal was trapped in my entryway, so I helped her out. Being shy and unwilling to perform for the camera, she dove into the grass and just kind of blended away.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Vitamin C and Cancer

Orac over at Respectful Insolence has a lengthy post about vitamin C, cancer, and Linus Pauling, the two-time Nobel prize-winning chemist who spent much of his later career peddling the dubious claim that vitamin C cures everything. Aside from my love of all things kooky, I once had a drunken argument with a close friend of mine that went on half the night about this. He was into megadosing vitamin C, and I told him, with a characteristic lack of subtlety, that he was full of shit. I later looked into the issue in depth and found that I was basically right (of course), but with a lot of "howevers" attached. The possibility does exist that megadoses of vitamin C, administered intravenously, could be an effective cancer treatment. But it is only a bare possibility without any good evidence thus far. Unfortunately, the mere fact that this possibility exists is enough for the contrarians and charlatans to cannonize Pauling as some sort of scientific martyr, given that he was scorned for his bizarre fixation with vitamin C and some of the shoddy work that went along with it. Orac explains in detail.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Wittlessly Quote-mining

Following the discovery of the fish-tetrapod intermediate Tiktaalik, the creationists seem to be in full damage control mode, making a lot of nonsensical claims that only serve to show us that no fossil evidence, no matter how compelling, could ever convince them of the reality of evolution.

Ed Brayton dissects the latest from the Discovery Institute's Johnathan Witt, which possibly breaks all records for lack of coherence. I'll leave it to Ed to put the smack-down on Witt, but I though I'd highlight something I found pretty amusing. In support of his rather bizarre claim that Tiktaalik is a transitional fossil but not really a transitional fossil, Witt quote-mines (second-hand, naturally) from paleontologist Henry Gee:

The lead-in article contains a classic Darwinian prop, an illustration of a series of fossils purporting to show a Darwinian progression from one form to a fundamentally different one. A passage from Jonathan Wells' book Icons of Evolution might have been written as a direct response to this illustration except that the book was written years before the picture (though, if you read chapter six of the book, you'll see that problems of chronology do not always hinder Darwinists in their story-telling efforts):

Henry Gee, chief science writer for Nature... [wrote:] "No fossil is buried with its birth certificate" ... and "the intervals of time that separate fossils are so huge that we cannot say anything definite about their possible connection through ancestry and descent." It's hard enough, with written records, to trace a human lineage back a few hundred years. When we have only a fragmentary fossil record, and we're dealing with millions of years -- what Gee calls "Deep Time" -- the job is effectively impossible... Gee concludes: "To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story -- amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific."

And yet the icons of evolution must be found where they can be found. As the news article in the current issue of Nature puts it, "The newly discovered fossil, Tiktaalik roseae ... might in time become as much of an evolutionary icon as the proto-bird Archaeopteryx."

Here is the illustration from the lead-in article, which Witt doesn't bother to show his audience:

Of course, no one argues that the progression of fossils in which Tiktaalik has been placed represents an actual ancestor-descendent relationship. The fact that they are presented in cladistic form (as a branch off of the main line) makes explicit the fact that Tiktaalik, for example, should not be considered the actual ancestor of Acanthostega (though it possibly is), but rather represents an earlier related form. The actual ancestor of Acanthostega probably would have looked a lot like Tiktaalik, but was most likely a different species, owing to the fact that we have only a handful of fossil specimens available out of hundreds or thousands of species that must have existed. By way of analogy, I have Irish ancestry, but digging up the grave of an ancient Irishman would not mean that I had found my literal ancestor. A distant relative to be sure, but I would have no way of knowing if he were truly my ancestor.

What paleontologists do argue is that Tiktaalik exists as a transitional form that we expect to see if tetrapods evolved from fish. In the above quote, Henry Gee's point is that it's impossible to deduce strict ancestor-descendent relationships (e.g. species A evolved directly from species B) on the basis of scant fossil evidence, which is pretty obvious when you think about it. That doesn't mean that relationships can't be established (e.g. species A is more closely related to species B than either is to species C), and it certainly doesn't say anything about a given fossil being morphologically intermediate between other groups. Witt, and by extension Jonathan Wells, are badly misrepresenting Henry Gee. Even if it weren't obvious from knowing a little about systematics, I can figure this out by consulting the words of... Henry Gee. He has become so frustrated at this persistent misrepresentation, he finally felt compelled to speak out:

That it is impossible to trace direct lineages of ancestry and descent from the fossil record should be self-evident. Ancestors must exist, of course -- but we can never attribute ancestry to any particular fossil we might find. Just try this thought experiment -- let's say you find a fossil of a hominid, an ancient member of the human family. You can recognize various attributes that suggest kinship to humanity, but you would never know whether this particular fossil represented your lineal ancestor - even if that were actually the case. The reason is that fossils are never buried with their birth certificates. Again, this is a logical constraint that must apply even if evolution were true -- which is not in doubt, because if we didn't have ancestors, then we wouldn't be here. Neither does this mean that fossils exhibiting transitional structures do not exist, nor that it is impossible to reconstruct what happened in evolution. [...]

I am a religious person and I believe in God. I find the militant atheism of some evolutionary biologists ill-reasoned and childish, and most importantly unscientific -- crucially, faith should not be subject to scientific justification. But the converse also holds true -- science should not need to be validated by the narrow dogma of faith. As such, I regard the opinions of the Discovery Institute as regressive, repressive, divisive, sectarian and probably unrepresentative of views held by people of faith generally. In addition, the use by creationists of selective, unauthorized quotations, possibly with intent to mislead the public undermines their position as self-appointed guardians of public values and morals.

I don't know about you, but the minute someone issues a public statement completely slamming me like that, I quit citing that person in support of my viewpoint. It's just a little thing I like to call honesty. If he had never said otherwise, you could at least pretend like this person's viewpoint supports yours, but when he comes out and says "no fool, you're wrong," you should probably defer to his judgment. Maybe Witt thinks he knows more about what Gee means than Gee himself does. If that's the case, Witt should have provided a little disclaimer saying, "by the way, Henry Gee disagrees with our interpretation of his words and calls us moral reprobates in the process". That would have been the intellectually honest thing to do. But nah, why let a little thing like the author get in the way of your interpretation?

It's been about four and a half years now since Gee issued that clarification, and Witt is still happily abusing his words, as if Gee never said anything. If anyone wonders why the Discovery Institute people irritate the living hell out of the scientific community, this is why.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Shameless Political Stunts, Italian Style

Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi takes his 95 year-old mother with him to the polls. Isn't that sweet? He did not take his wife.

The obvious joke here is that Silvio took his mom with him so she could tell him who to vote for. Funny thing is, he about got himself in trouble for telling her who to vote for. That is just sad.

In spite of his best efforts, Berlusconi is still expected to lose. Arrivederci, asshole.

The Italian Rapscallion

Via Crooked Timber I found this article first published in a German magazine about Italian politics, and specifically, about Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi. I don't know much about European politics in general and nothing about Italian politics, but I found the article shocking. Assuming even half of what it says is true, Berlusconi is quite probably the most corrupt politician in the West. He's Italy's richest man and owns 90% of the media. He's head of government. He has mafia connections. The Italian parliament passes bills whose only purpose is to benefit companies he owns. The shit he pulls on a routine basis would get him immediately booted from any other Europe government, to say nothing of America.

Italy has an election (tomorrow I think) and Berlusconi's contrived party, formed specifically for him, may be on the way out. The voters have no shortage of reasons (with Italy's zero percent economic growth the headliner) to get rid of him, but Italians are famous for their dolce vita, and Berlusconi has pulled so much crap that their anger has been sapped. In America, we've coined a term for that: "outrage fatigue". The article gives a familar account:

And the voters? "All of us are tired", writes Alberto Scarponi, especially of politics. Week in, week out, Berlusconi grabs attention and headlines with antics that would count as a scandal north of the Alps, so the well of agitation is pretty much dry. The trick of coming up with a new piece of impudence every day grinds down his opponents. A second trick, of denouncing all his critics as "communist" or "anti-Italian" keeps them permanently on the defensive.
Change a few words around, and you could be describing America. I sometimes wonder if Bush could one day just go walking into a McDonalds with an Uzi and start mowing people down, and the next day the media would just kind of shrug and then attack the Democrats for not having a better plan.

Still, it needs to be said, Bush and company are absolute saints compared to Berlusconi. See? It can get worse.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Friday Animal Blogging

Last Sunday, just as I was thinking about what animal to blog next, I opened the door to enjoy our first truly warm day of the year. And in the little alcove leading down into my house, I see this:

Unlike most people who have steps leading up to their house, this step leads down, so the animal was practically in the house already. Here's a close-up:

You're probably thinking, oh wow, a snake! YOU ARE WRONG. It is not a snake. It is a lizard without legs, a reptile to be sure, but not directly related to snakes. This cutie is a specimen of Ophisaurus ventralis, commonly known as the Eastern glass lizard. They have lost their legs independently of snakes, and are hence an excellent example of convergent evolution. Unlike true snakes, legless lizards have eyelids and ears. True snakes lack eyelids so they can't blink, and since they have no ears, they are completely deaf (though they can pick up vibrations through their jaw bones). Unfortunately, not knowing what this guy was at the time, I didn't think to poke at it to get it to blink. However, after I identified it, I could see from zooming in on the above picture that it does have ears, which are located just behind the eye and mouth:

They're called glass lizards because they're fragile. Believe it or not, over two-thirds of the animal consists of tail; all of the organs and other squishy stuff resides in the front third of the animal, so it can literally break into three pieces and survive just so long as the front piece gets away. This is a useful trick to fool predators, who go after the writhing tail pieces and ignore the motionless head and body.

This isn't the first time I've seen one of these guys. Either last summer or the summer before that, I saw one in the yard and got a picture of it:

I have no idea if it's the same animal. The glass lizards are shy creatures, and spend most of their time in burrows. I like to think that there are bunches of them all around the house, feasting on our burgeoning palmetto bug population, but that's probably just wishful thinking.

Anyway, the guy in my entryway was more or less trapped, so I figured I had to help him get over the stair. I picked him up and set him free in the grass, after which he went and hid under the deck, a nice dark place undoubtedly filled with juicy insects. And while he wriggled like mad, he fortunately didn't break into pieces. As for me, I didn't break into pieces either, but I'll admit that when it came to picking up a snake-like lizard with my hands, I pussed out. I wore gloves.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

More on Population

Via Eugene Volokh, I found a great post on Europe's supposed population decline from Andrew Sabl of The Reality-Based Community It contains much of the stuff that I've been saying, but is more comprehensive and focuses strictly on the European situation. One point I didn't think of previously: Europe has several times the population density of the United States. Western Europe could lose the vast majority of its populace and still be larger than the US in terms of people per square mile (or kilometer). That won't happen for a few hundred years probably, assuming that the current (negative) growth rates remain, but even if it did, why would that be a problem?

Sabl also gives an explanation for the obsession over population growth differences, which unlike my handful of speculations, isn't quite so cynical:

To measure a country's well being by its growth in population is a VERY old habit; ancient historians did it, and the Enlightenment made a fetish of it. Perhaps it even made sense when a country could only survive through producing young men for war and when low population tended to come from pestilence and famine. But I think it's a habit we should drop. Leisure, culture, and independence are normal goods. As countries prosper, their inhabitants produce more of them—and, on aggregate, fewer kids.
I think the historical explanation does have something going for it. It is only very recently that populations began their strong upward trend. Prior to about the 1600s in Europe, and much later elsewhere, populations grew very slowly if at all. Focusing on growth rates made some measure of sense, because individual tribes really did face the threat of going extinct, and for those who were able to grow, it meant they were able to successfully utilize the meager agricultural surplus available at the time. These days, however, population growth is more often a sign of poverty and other negative social conditions than of success. Whatever the case, we in the developed world aren't dealing with a meager agricultural surplus anymore. It's time we dropped the birth rate fetish.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

Yglesias gets it.

Checking out Matt Ygelsias' blog, I see he has a fertility related post in which he makes the following observation:

Instead, French economic policy can't be family friendly, according to Jonah [Goldberg], because French fertility rates are low. I'm not totally sure what that has to do with anything, and would be inclined to observe that they're back on the upswing anyway. Jonah, however, has a rebuttal to this:

Also, just to head off a rebuttal, it is true that France's fertility rate has ticked up slightly in the last few years, but it's worth noting that these changes coincided with the -- albeit slight -- liberalization of France's economy. The wonderful framily friendly policies Krugman endorses were implemented decades ago and were followed by by an enormous plunge in babymaking.

Now we're being silly. Here's the France chart and here's the America chart. Both show a giant decline in fertility between 1960 and 1980 that was part of a systemic, West-wide cultural shift and has nothing to do with the contrasting economic policies of the two countries. America's fertility rate is higher in 2005 (2.11 versus 1.89) but America's was higher in 1955 as well (3.45 versus 2.73). So, to sum up, the two countries post-1960 economic policies diverge, but both countries see a decline in fertility and Americans always had more babies than French people, so these things are probably unrelated. The long run trend is toward converging fertility rates, not diverging ones and insofar as Hispanic women in America assimilate to white American norms they will further converge.
Yglesias points out the same thing I've been pointing out: differences in fertility rates between America and Europe aren't that significant, they're both very low by historical standards, and over the last several decades, they've been converging and will most likely continue to converge. That makes drawing grand pronouncements over these differences, either as a matter of judging current policy or for making future predictions, downright silly.

One thing that gets me though: What is it with the Right's obsession over birth rates anyway? It's as if they find making babies to be the great measure of a nation, the idea that a country's virility and moral righteousness can be gauged by how often the men impregnate the women. (In which case it's strange that they don't worship Africa for its "family-friendly" birth rates.) Perhaps the Right is so caught up with the idea that ethnic identity dominates one's being, they're convinced that the future character of humanity will be determined solely by who out-breeds whom. Perhaps it's a throw-back to Social Darwinism (the only kind of Darwinism right-wingers like) whereby those who breed fastest and out-last their enemies are considered superior by definition. Hence, it's a matter of biological bragging rigthts: We're superior than those socialist Europeans because we meet the Darwinian definition of greater fitness. Whatever the cause of this obsession, it's disturbing.

One cool thing though, I now know of a great new source, Globalis, that could have saved me some effort had I known about it before.

My past demographics posts:

One Baby, Two Baby, Red Baby, Blue Baby

Abortion, Smortion.

More on Welfare and Fertility

Sampling a Piece of the PIE

I was alerted to this article by State Superintendent of Education candidate Karen Floyd in which she comes out in favor of "Intelligent Design". The article appears on the website of some organization called South Carolina Parents in Education (or SC-PIE for short). It consists of the standard Discovery Institute talking-points, and since these dishonest tropes have been debunked a hundred times over, I won't go into detail about it. I did, however, find this line interesting:

Long gone are the days when God was excluded from scientific circles. If we ignore that reality, we will only limit our children's scientific knowledge.
Putting aside the fact that scientists would be greatly surprised to hear that divine intervention was now a part of science, it's nice of her to admit that this is all about religion. That will come in handy if there's ever a court case.

What I found even more interesting was the general content of the SC-PIE featured articles, which pretty much tell me that this is an ultra-right-wing group that wants to inject Christianity (of the Pat Roberston/Jerry Falwell variety) into public schools, teach abstinence-only sex education, and, most amusingly, is utterly paranoid about homosexuality.

Here for example is an article decrying that great scourge of our society, cartoon characters who promote tolerance. This was the video that got James Dobson rightly laughed at when he claimed that it promoted the "homosexual agenda" in spite of not actually having any references to, you know, homosexuality. But hey, it does contain SpongeBob Square Pants, and he's just not manly enough to be straight.

And then there is the article titled Textbooks: Safe or not? It warns us that health textbooks might not be safe because they use the term "couples" in some places instead of "husbands and wives". Or in some cases they say "adults" in lieu of the "parents". What could this mean? It is an obvious attempt to turn your kids gay, and is thus not safe.

An article on abstinence-only sex ed talks about a graduate course which prepares teachers to teach abstinence-only sex ed. I would have thought this required little more than to say nothing about contraceptives, but apparently teachers need to know this crucial piece of information:
...and the course advances chronologically to the most recent adolescent brain research that proves the human brain does not have full cognitive ability until a person reaches about twenty-five years of age.
It's true as far as I remember; the human brain doesn't fully finish developing until about twenty-five years of age. Unfortunately, human genitalia and the human sexual drive are fully functional at a much earlier age, so it's not clear what the point of this is. Should those under twenty-five be prevented from marrying? Driving a car? Holding jobs? Going to college? Why prospective teachers should be required to know this bit of knowledge isn't explained. It would have been more useful to inform them that abstinence only sex-ed classes don't reduce teenage sexual activity, but instead serve only to discourage the use of contraceptives. But I somehow doubt that gets mentioned.

I could go on; nearly every article at the SC-PIE site is like that. Most of them end with a call to "impact public education for Christ" or something similar. The anti-evolution nonsense is just a small part of a broader assault on public education.