Sunday, December 30, 2007

By Request

One of the regular readers of this blog (her name rhymes with "Flipparchia") has requested cat photos. If you're opposed to cat blogging, please look below for the more familiar rants. This white guy is Howie. He's about six months old. He's very affectionate and insanely playful. He loves all the other cats. He doesn't understand the meaning of the word "fear." Or the word "no."

This handsome gray fellow is Norman. Norm is easy-going, friendly, and seldom gets into trouble. Norman, too, loves everybody, but he especially loves Mrs. Archaeopteryx. He's happiest lying in her lap, snuggling with her and nipping at her nose. Although he's huge, Norm has a oddly high-pitched voice (maybe it has to do with his "operation.")

This is Clovis. Clovis may well be the smartest cat alive. She knows how to open every closet and cabinet, including the one where the cat treats are stored. Although she has no interest in eating all the treats, she doesn't mind opening up the cabinet so the rest of the herd can have their way with them. Clovis thinks it's fun to open drawers and loudly remove all the contents, especially when people are trying to sleep in the same room. Clovis only gets along well with Norman. She tolerates Howie, and picks on Pearl.

This fuzzball is Pearl. At age seven, Pearl is Senior Cat in our household, but doesn't take the title all that seriously. She doesn't much care for the other cats, but will tolerate Norm and Howie. Like all our cats, Pearl was somebody else's throw-away. She showed up on my porch one Sunday morning while I was in graduate school, I opened the door, and she made herself at home. She didn't have white whiskers until we got the other cats.

Turns out there is a line between being contented pet owners and crazy cat people. That line is the line between three and four cats. If you have a cat, and are thinking about getting another one, that may be okay. If you have three, and have that thought, think again.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ron Paul--Creationist Nutcase

Being right on one issue--the war--doesn't make Ron Paul much more palatable as a candidate than any of the rest of the Republicans. He's in favor of dropping out of the UN, eliminating the Department of Education, ending Social Security as we know it, destroying the EPA (counting on the free-market to protect the environment), and dismantling the FDA. To top it off, Paul has outed himself as a creationist.

He says he doesn't believe that the presidency should be "decided on a scientific matter." Of course not. He's a Republican.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Huckabee Has The Mark Of The Beast

This blog is not really meant to be "All Huckabee, All The Time," but this is too delicious to pass up. The Beast has named Huckabee one of the "fifty most loathsome people of 2008." Here's their complaint against Huckabee:
Charges: What's worse, a calculating politician pretending to be a devout Christian, or a genuine heartland preacher who didn't come from no monkey? Huckabee is both -- a Southern Baptist who rejects Darwin, wants to give everyone a gun and thinks people with AIDS should be quarantined, and a seedy, corrupt politician who's never seen a payoff so low he won't stoop to pick it up. Democrats see Huckabee as easily defeated in a general election, but they shouldn't be so sure -- Smooth talking preachers tend to do well in this country. Huckabee is well-spoken, kind-faced, and the opposite of wordly -- he's Obama for hicks.

Exhibit A: "I got into politics because I knew government didn't have the real answers, that the real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives... I hope we answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ."

Huckabee only managed a 47th-place finish on this list, well behind his competitors Rudy Guiliani, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton. I can only assume the folks at The Beast just don't know the Huckster well enough yet. Let's hope that they don't get the opportunity to get to know him better.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Huckabee the Hypocrite

While lieutenant governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee was paid by a political action committee called Action America. At the time, he refused to say who the donors to Action America were, mendaciously claiming that doing so would violate federal law. Now we find that the main contributor to the fund was R. J. Reynolds. That's right--Mr. Health turns out to be a tobacco company stooge. Recent polls show Huckabee winning in Iowa; respondents say they like his "honesty." I guess that word means something different to Iowa evangelicals than it does to everyone else in the world.

Newsweek has the story (the relevant parts are on page 7). Thanks to the Arkansas Times for the heads-up.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Hey, Look Over There!

Joe Klein doesn't always get everything right, but he hits one out of the park in this week's Time. Klein writes of how immigration has become the most contentious issue of the 2008 presidential race. Some of the presidential candidates--Huckabee and Clinton--are surprised at the ferocity with which they are assailed by members of the public about "open borders as the issue that will destroy this country." Others, notably Mitt Romney, are demagoguing immigration for all it's worth.

Klein rightly points out that immigrants are not a real problem, but that the fury against them seems to be a symptom of the faltering economy (at least, it's faltering if you happen not to be rich). People like Romney and Tom Tancredo are fanning the flames of immigrant hatred, apparently forgetting the lessons of the last century, and the one before that. It's easy to blame immigrants for the loss of jobs, and loss of security, and everything else that's wrong with this country. Immigration serves to distract the public eye from a war that continues to destroy the economy, and from the administration and their masters in the giant corporations that use the war to drain the country of every last dollar that they can. "Hey, look over there!" they cry. "That Mexican hotel maid is stealing your wallet!" Meanwhile, they're literally loading pallet-loads of cash into airplanes and flying it off into oblivion.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Company He Keeps

Mike Huckabee continues to gain support in polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Florida, with some polls putting him in a dead heat for first place. Apparently, people are impressed by Huckabee’s quick wit and his “nice guy” fa├žade. Several liberal and moderate commentators have proclaimed Huckabee the most acceptable candidate among the Republicans. (It should be noted—that’s not saying much.)

But just how “acceptable” is Huckabee? Perhaps we could judge Huckabee by the celebrity endorsements he has garnered. Huckabee was endorsed by professional wrestler “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Flair is known for his borderline racist, over-the-top character in the WWE, but, although he’s had brushes with the law, Flair is probably reasonably harmless. Huckabee might accept his endorsement just for the kitsch value.

Among the first to endorse the Huckster was Ted Nugent. The draft-dodging chicken hawk is a homophobic racist who threatened on stage to kill Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. This is the kind of person who thinks it’s a good idea for Huckabee to be president.

Huckabee didn’t solicit Nugent’s support, and as far as I can tell, hasn’t exactly embraced the endorsement, although he’s made no effort to distance himself from Nugent. The same can’t be said for his endorsement by Chuck Norris. Norris, best known for his martial arts movies and his horrible TV show Walker, Texas Ranger, not only has endorsed Huckabee, but was featured in Huckabee’s first TV ad. The ad was a take-off on the Chuck Norris Joke meme that has fostered dozens of websites; it ridicules Norris’ tough-guy image. What’s the harm? Norris is able to poke fun at himself, as is Huckabee. Isn’t this an indication that he (Huckabee, not Norris) would make a great president?

Norris is not just a harmless TV karate guy. He is a columnist for WorldNetDaily, the goofy wing-nut website that makes Fox News look like the New York Times. Recent articles on WorldNetDaily include a shocking expose on a mall train that takes kids to Victoria’s Secret, and a report on a sheriff fighting against the liberal war on Christmas, and ads that offer a 23-cent cure for heart disease and (for five bucks) a video that proves that Darwinism lead to the Holocaust. Norris himself is responsible for articles proclaiming America a Christian nation and that the Bible should be taught in public schools. In other words, Norris is a true right-wing nut case.

Maybe we could overlook Huckabee’s association with Norris as a fun, funny way to garner attention—maybe Huck doesn’t believe all that crazy shit on the WorldNetDaily site. But it’s more difficult to ignore Huckabee’s latest endorsement. Jerry Falwell, Jr. (son of that Jerry Falwell) said that Huckabee was his choice, and would have been his father’s choice. This endorsement from beyond the grave should be the most disturbing to rational folks. Falwell Sr. once stated, “The idea that religion and politics don't mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country,” and "AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals....AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals." He also famously claimed that one of the Teletubbies was gay and that the 9/11 attacks were God’s retribution for lesbians and feminists in America. If we can believe the younger Falwell, the man who made these pronouncements thought that Huckabee would make a dandy president.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I Don't Particularly Heart Huckabee

My newest anti-Huckabee rant has just been published in Quiblit, a new on-line magazine. I couldn't be more proud. I think.

Also, don't miss Max Brantley's takedown of the Huckster on Salon.

Monday, November 5, 2007

No Comment

My friend Hipparchia has a new blog, War Without Comment. Horrible videos. Horrible photos. Go look. Not too much at one time.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Drowning in Self-Righteousness

In perhaps the worst ever editorial in a newspaper that specializes in awful editorials, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette endorses torture, and chastises us for questioning the torturers. Then, to flesh things out, they place the editorial next to an excreable editorial cartoon that illustrates that, yeah, waterboarding may be bad, but at least it's not beheading.

So, you read it in the Demozette: Torture's great, our leaders are wonderful, and the end justifies the means.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

UAMS to Southeast Arkansas: You Suck!

Toothpaste For Dinner
Yesterday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page was fairly brimming over with indignation over the state law that requires the University of Arkansas medical school to admit at least 27 students from each of the state's congressional districts. Meredith Oakley, for example, calls it "incredible." She reports on the concerns of state legislators such as Jim Hill who asked at a Legislative Council meeting whether it was possible that a C student from one district could beat out an A student from another. He was assured by the UAMS Director of Admissions, Tom South, that "That is correct."

This is blatantly disingenuous on the part of South. Dean of the College of Medicine Debra Fiser assured a Democrat-Gazette reporter that no unqualified applicants were being admitted to the UAMS program. Oakley insinuates that the law requiring somewhat even distribution of applicants is racially based, and agreed with Hill when he said he didn't want "D-students operating on me." Of course, there's no way that D students would be placed ahead of A students from another district. The worst-case scenario is that a borderline student from one district might move ahead of a slightly more qualified student from another district.

But, you might say, even that is grossly unfair. And you might be right, if medical school admissions were determined only by MCAT scores and GPA. Of course, that isn't remotely true. Medical school applicants are subject to a completely arbitrary interview process. I was formerly on the pre-med committee at the university where I work, and met with Mr. South and his staff and pre-med advisors from other colleges. At this meeting, we were told that the interviews were conducted by instructors and other doctors at UAMS. Voluntary training for the interview procedure was available for these doctors, but many of them were unable or unwilling to undergo such training. As a result, prospective applicants were not subject to consistent questioning. Students might be rejected by an interviewer who didn't think a person of their race, or religion, or gender would make a good doctor.

If Mr. South and his fellow administrators at UAMS are so concerned that the most qualified students aren't being admitted, perhaps they should do away with this arbitrary interview scheme. But doing away with such a scheme would make it impossible to admit those lesser qualified students who might have connections--you know, a rich daddy who might be willing to make a large donation to UAMS, or a state senator with a B-student son or nephew. It turns out that students from the Delta are much less likely to have a rich relative or a state representative who's a family friend. If we're going to make everything completely level, we should make everything completely level.

There is no evidence that UAMS is producing substandard doctors, or that deserving students are being forced out of state to get their M.D. It would be very simple for Mr. South to release the test scores of those who were accepted and denied admission, and to tell which congressional district they were from, without disclosing their personal information. If there truly is a problem, and the law actually needs to be changed, this baseline information is essential. Otherwise, this whole affair smacks of a cheap power grab for the UAMS Admissions Board at the expense of the Delta.

(Cartoon stolen from

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Lord Abandons the Rockies

Earlier in the playoff season, I ended a post with the sentence "Go Rockies!" It was before I had seen this article. Apparently the Rockies built their team around people who had professed their acceptance of Jesus Christ as their personal savior.

There's nothing wrong with attempting to sign players of good character; any business would be crazy not to want upstanding employees, simply as a way to increase profits. However, some players spoke of feeling that they were not accepted if they weren't part of a "God Squad." Former Rockies player Mark Sweeney told USA Today: "They have a great group of guys over there but I've never been in a clubhouse where Christianity is the main purpose. You wonder if some people are going along with it just to keep their jobs."

General Manager Dan O'Dowd has said that the Lord has had a hand in the Rockies' improbable run to the World Series. Maybe he needs to rethink that attitude, because if he's right, it appears that the Lord has abandoned the Rockies. Perhaps He is more interested in tolerance. Or perhaps the Red Sox fans prayed harder.

(Thanks to Wordster over at Faith-Based for the heads-up.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Go Ahead and Tase Me, Bro

The University of Florida campus police were cleared for their tasering of Andrew Meyer in the famous "Don't Tase Me, Bro" case. Of course they were. Police are always justified in using excessive force on citizens. Police can do whatever they want, whenever they want. This is the age of the Patriot Act and Alberto Gonzales. Don't forget it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Pharyngula Mutating Genre Meme

Hipparchia has tagged me for The Pharyngula mutating genre meme. I saw this on Pharyngula and tried to ignore it, but one ignores Hipparchia at one's own peril. I'd hate to be the object of one of the wonky, withering posts on her excellent blog. Crooks, liars, and insurance company executives have been known to commit seppuki after reading her take-downs. I'd certainly have no chance. So, since this post is at least partly about survival:

There are a set of questions below that are all of the form, “The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is…”. Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:

You can leave them exactly as is.
You can delete any one question.
You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change “The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is…” to “The best time travel novel in Westerns is…”, or “The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is…”, or “The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is…”.
You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form “The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is…”.
You must have at least one question in your set, or you’ve gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you’re not viable.
Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the blog you got them from, to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.

My pedigree:
My great-great-great-great-great-grandparent is Pharyngula.
My great-great-great-great-grandparent is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.
My great-great-great-grandparent is Flying Trilobite.
My great-great-grandparent is A Blog Around the Clock.
My great-grandparent is archy.
My grandparent is Why Now?
My parent is Over the Cliff, Onto the Rocks.

My version of the questions:
The best end-of-the-world novel in SF/Fantasy is: Lucifer's Hammer by Niven and Pournelle.
The best “bad” movie in scientific dystopias is: Tank Girl.
The best sexy song in pop is: “Brass In Pocket” by the Pretenders.
The best alt-country album in country music is: Fight Songs by Old 97s.

To keep the meme alive, I'm passing it along to:
Aaron at Nobody in Particular, because he's becoming an expert on Darwin.
Sona at Sona Says, because she's always thinking about random stuff.
Saint Gasoline at Saint Gasoline, because he's evolution minded, and something of a trouble-maker, so he should enjoy this.
and Catnapping at The Odd Neighbor, because she's so freaking awesome, and should pass those awesome genes along to the next generation.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Critical Ass

One of the benefits of writing a blog, as opposed to writing a newspaper column, is that if you have nothing to say, there’s no editor yelling at you about deadlines or column-inches. If you’ve got nothing to say, you just don’t post. Newspaper columnists have to stare down that blank computer screen and put something together, even without inspiration.

Maybe we could be generous and assume that’s what happened with Philip Martin’s Critical Mass column in today’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. But Martin’s famous in these parts for his pretentious bombast, and this column, a critique of Steve Earle’s new album Washington Square Serenade, reaches new lows for inflated bullshit.

Martin begins by telling us how stupid we are for trying to figure out who the greatest American songwriter is—then spends two interminable paragraphs discussing exactly that (he actually mentions Kanye West and Jerome Kern in the same breath). Of course he mentions a couple of people that you’ve never heard of (okay, maybe you’ve heard of Dan Bern, the greatest American songwriter, but I had to read his tiny little Wikipedia entry to find out who he is).

Then he spends the rest of the review telling us how much he really likes Steve Earle, even though Earle’s a jerk, and how you couldn’t blame him for being an ass at that one show that one time, and how he likes this album, even though it’s really just a throwaway, a space-filler that Earle slapped together so he could cash a paycheck. Obviously, Earle’s too happy to produce an album with just the right amount of artist-y angst to make it really worth a listen, as far as Martin is concerned.

The worst part of the review is Martin’s attack on Earle for writing about being in New York, when he hasn’t been living there long. Martin writes, without a hint of irony:
Frankly, Steve, I’m kind of glad the Bowery is now Nolita, because I’ve been on the Bowery when it was the Bowery. While I’ll agree with the implication that its a shame that CBGB had to go, an electro-gilded talking blues about how the city just ain’t what it used to be seems a little awkward coming from a newly arrived Nashville Cat. Just sayin ’ it doesn’t seem all that well thought out.
Hey, Philip! You forgot! You write for the ARKANSAS FUCKING DEMOCRAT! You know—the second-best newspaper in a one-paper town? How can you write for the same newspaper as Wally Hall and still look like the biggest boob on the staff? How can you badmouth Earle for playing the New Yorker while he’s in New York, while you’re doing the same damn thing from your couch in Little Rock?

At one point, Martin writes, “I like Steve Earle, even though I think he’s always secretly campaigning to be well thought of by a certain type of New York intellectual, the kind who listens to Huddie Leadbetter and The Pogues.” Are you certain, there, Phil? Maybe he’s trying to trying to attract those Little Rock intellectuals who listen to Dan Olney and Jay-Z. Or maybe not.

For the record--Washington Square Serenade is not Steve Earle’s best work. That’d be Trancendental Blues. But it’s still an excellent album. See, Philip? How hard was that?

Saturday, October 6, 2007

So Much For That

I never really felt right about rooting for the Cubs anyway. And when I told them I hoped the Cubs won, all my friends looked at me like I'd lost my mind.

Go Rockies!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

There'll Be Some Changes Made

All six of my regular readers have probably noticed a slowdown in the pithy drivel for which Transitional Fossil has gained great fame. Mrs. Archaeopteryx and I are moving into a home in the town where I work--until now, we've maintained two residences, one in Little Rock, and a small place near the university where I teach, a hundred miles away. We'll be living together for the first time since I began graduate school, eleven years ago. The move is cutting down on the time I have available for bloviation, and Mrs. A. assures me I'll be unpacking our collective possessions (mostly books) for weeks to come. In the meantime, enjoy these pictures of our new home. We're quite happy with it; it feels like we're moving into a state park.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Very Difficult Confession

I have something to tell you. Something of which I'm very ashamed. Something that, if they knew it, would make my closest friends shake their heads in horror and disbelief.

I'm rooting for the Cubs to win the World Series.

Shocking. I know. I've been a Cardinals fan my whole life. As such, I'm sworn to hate the Cubs with every last fiber of my being. I'm supposed to gloat every time someone mentions Lou Brock. I'm obligated to grin from ear to ear each time the tape of Steve Bartman's miraculous catch is replayed.

But the Cardinals are out of the playoffs this year, and it's not really the Cubs' fault. The Cards made a miraculous late run to get within one game of first place, then fell apart, losing nine in a row. I have to pick another team to root for in the playoffs. Would that be the Yankees? The Red Sox? Please. The Mets? You've gotta be kidding me.

No, it's time. I figure that maybe if the Cubs win, we can quit hearing about the Curse of the Billygoat, and maybe they'll lose their reputation as a team of lovable losers, and just revert back to being losers. Plus, as a Cards fan, I owe the Cubs a little something for how they responded on June 22, 2002. I guess Zambrano's not as bad as some; I have to admit that his antics would certainly be acceptable if he were winning games for the Cards instead of regularly beating their brains in. And it's really impossible to dislike Derrek Lee. So, I'll be pulling for them to win this year.

Just this once.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Evil, Sinister Ducks

As an ornithologist, I generally love all birds, but this video is making me rethink my position on ducks.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Your Government at Work

Try to watch this without getting sick to your stomach.
(Longer version available here). Thanks to Thy Goddess for the heads-up.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Wow! Transitional Fossil Featured in Time Magazine!

Okay, not specifically. Not by name. But Time columnist John Cloud did mention the "legion of bloggers" who have attacked Larry Craig and other Republicans for their hypocrisy in figting against equality for gays while secretly being gay themselves. Cloud says that what we're seeing in these "family values" Republicans is not hypocrisy, but weakness. Why can't it be both? Cloud is willing to forgive Craig for his weakness, and recognize as human his cognitive dissonance.

Perhaps we should forgive Craig and the other hypocritical Republicans for their "weakness." But we shouldn't forget that whatever we call it--cognitive dissonance, weakness, hypocrisy, political expediency--the result has been to deny equal rights for American citizens, and that is unforgivable.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

What Larry Craig's Doing With His Free Time

He's writing a travel tips blog! (Thanks to Goddess for the link.)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Jokes Just Write Themselves

Toothpaste For Dinner
NASA has announced that the October 23 launch of Space Shuttle Discovery will carry Luke Skywalker's lightsaber into orbit. The lightsaber was turned over to NASA by a guy in a wookie outfit, and was accompanied on its flight to Houston by a gang of nerds dressed in Star Wars constumes. This is the point where I'd normally post a 10-paragraph diatribe about what a waste of time and money the manned space program is, but, by golly, it turns out that NASA has finally figured out a purpose for the shuttle mission--to help sell special edition DVDs. (From what I could tell, the main scientific purpose of the last shuttle flight was to get the shuttle back to earth without it completly falling apart.) It might be a good idea to turn the space program over to Industrial Light and Magic--they could build much better special effects, and they generally are able to turn a profit. (Cartoon courtesy of

Monday, September 3, 2007

Whither the Ivory-Bill?

Today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette includes a front-page article on the continuing search for the ivory-billed woodpecker in the Big Woods area of east-central Arkansas. Several sightings of a lone male woodpecker were made in 2004 and 2005, including a lucky video recording by David Luneau (the video is contained within a report here). Since then, researchers from the ornithology labs at Cornell have led the search for more of the birds, without much success.

The article quotes ivory-bill expert Jerome Jackson, who has built himself quite a reputation as a skeptic where the bird is concerned. Jackson authored an article in The Auk, the premier ornithological journal in the country, in which he attacked Luneau's video and the work of the other scientists who observed the Arkansas ivory-bill (he called the sightings "faith-based ornithology"). In the Democrat-Gazette article, Jackson is quoted as saying "no highly trained ornithologists have seen the bird." This may be construed as an attack on Luneau, who is an engineer, and not a biologist. My own undergraduate training in biology was at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and when I took the Ornithology class there, Luneau was a classmate of mine. I can vouch for his abilities in spotting birds; he is as proficient an amateur ornithologist as I've met.

But Jackson's point is that Luneau is not a trained ornithologist--let's give the devil his due and assume that Jackson's point is justified. What about the sightings by Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison, who are trained ornithologists? Both Jackson and Katherine Marks, the Democrat-Gazette reporter, completely ignore recent sightings of the ivory-bill in Florida by Geoff Hill of Auburn University. Hill and two graduate students have made repeated sightings of the bird in the Florida Panhandle. Hill is a world-renowned, highly trained ornithologist who has dozens of peer-reviewed publications to his credit. He has authored technical books and popular articles, and has acted as the academic mentor to several graduate students. Hill's credentials are above reproach. I know Geoff Hill myself, and I can attest that he is the best field birder I've ever had the pleasure to be around. Hill and his students have seen the ivory-bill several times in Florida, and have recorded sounds made by ivory-bills on dozens of occasions.

It's hard to understand why Jackson is such a skeptic where the ivory-billed woodpecker is concerned. Perhaps he is miffed that he wasn't included on the research team for the sightings in Arkansas or Florida. Jackson spent much his career searching for the ivory bill (see here and here). Gallagher and his crew have written a point-by-point response to Jackson's criticisms. Evidence for their original sightings in Arkansas is strong. Although the evidence for a thriving population of ivory-billed woodpeckers at the Cache River site is not good, the observations from 2004 and 2005 indicate the presence of a population somewhere--probably in the White River Wildlife Refuge just to the south of the original sightings.

UPDATE--Cotinis points out (in the comments) that Gallagher and Harrison are not ornithologists. However, both are long-time birders with woodpecker experience. Cotinis also mentions a Dr. Melinda LaBranche who has seen the woodpecker in Arkansas. Also, the Arkansas Times has a brand-new update on recent sightings in Arkansas.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Craig's Picture Should Be Next to the Definition of "Hypocrite."

In the last couple of days, I’ve read arguments by otherwise seemingly reasonable people that Larry Craig is not guilty of hypocrisy, and that we should somehow feel sorry for him. The argument goes like this: Larry Craig opposed gay marriage because he thought it was bad for society, despite the fact that he himself liked to partake in a little gayness from time to time (he just couldn’t resist the temptation). Instead of vilifying Craig for his hypocrisy, we should be celebrating him as a hero—he fought against his own nasty urges and his own self-interests to protect society from the evil that is one homo being faithful to another. We can only decry Craig as a hypocrite if he were to vote against gay marriage, then immediately go somewhere and gay-marry. We can’t attack his hypocrisy on gays in the military unless he joins the Army, then tells someone he is gay afterwards. In fact, we should feel sorry for Craig, since his career as a gay-rights opponent has been ruined by his nearly inadverdent gay activity.

Here are the first two definitions of hypocrite, from

1. a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, esp. a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.
2. a person who feigns some desirable or publicly approved attitude, esp. one whose private life, opinions, or statements belie his or her public statements.

Please explain to me how Craig doesn’t meet both of these definitions.

No one has ever made a cogent argument based on anything other than religious belief as to why gays should be denied the right to marry. In fact, I have yet to read any fact-based argument, anywhere, which explains why homosexuality is harmful to society. Politicians pretending that denying gays the right to marry somehow “protects” marriage are disingenuous at best, and flat-out pandering at worst.

As Americans, every one of us should be interested in protecting the rights of every other American. Denial of rights of any American based on religious belief is an extremely dangerous precedent.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Evolution of Mike Huckabee

During a Republican presidential debate in May, Mike Huckabee raised his hand when asked by the moderator which candidates did not believe in evolution. Huckabee's been deflecting flak about that hand-raise ever since. Most recently, Huckabee appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher, where Maher asked him about evolution. As he had several times since the May debate, Huckabee seemed to back-pedal, and to embrace a form of theistic evolution. Besides, Huckabee said, the question was "utterly silly," since he was running for president and not for eighth-grade science teacher (he's made this claim before). However, unlike Wolf Blitzer during a June debate, Maher called Huckabee on this:
Why shouldn't it be part of a political discussion? If someone believes that the earth is 6000 years old, when every scientist in the world tells us it's billions of years old, why shouldn't I take that into account when I'm assessing the rationality of someone I'm going to put into the highest office in the land?
Huckabee had no cogent answer; he said that the point was that "we don't know."

Why not give Huckabee the benefit of the doubt? Perhaps he really does believe in theistic evolution--the idea that evolution occurred, but that it is controlled by God. As Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times likes to point out, Huckabee is adept at running from his record. He's distanced himself from reasonable tax increases he supported as governor, and disowned the one or two good programs that he ought to be claiming. Why should anyone believe that his recent open-mindedness about evolution is anything but pandering to the moderates who may see Huckabee as an alternative to the less-than-inspiring Republican front-runners? Note that Huckabee made his concessions on the Bill Maher show, and on New Hampshire Public Radio. He's not exactly going to offend the conservative Republican base in either of those arenas.

No, much like Sam Brownback, Huckabee has realized--or had someone point out to him--that sane, educated people don't doubt the theory of evolution. Even though he's denied it throughout his career, at least allowing for the possibility of evolution might make him appear reasonable enough to be palatable to thinking Republicans. There will be plenty of time to insert creationism into school curricula after he's president. Don't think he would? How about this quote:
I think that the state ought to give students exposure to all points of view. And I would hope that that would be all points of view and not only evolution. I think that they also should be given exposure to the theories not only of evolution but to the basis of those who believe in creationism …
Why in heaven's name should we believe that Huckabee has changed his ideas on creationism? (You can read more about Huckabee's record on teaching creationism in the schools in an excellent Arkansas Times article here.)

Methinks the Larry Doth Protest Too Much

The cliche is that homophobia is a symptom of repressed homosexual urges. Lately, the Republican Party is living the cliche. Senator Larry Craig, R-Idaho, was arrested in a Minneapolis men's room for "disorderly conduct." According to the arresting officer, Craig made several gestures that the officer recognized as signals used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct.

Craig has repeatedly voted against gay rights measures in the Senate, and has gotten high marks from "family values" groups. On his website, Craig says, "I...still believe the appropriate definition of marriage is a union between one man and one woman." His website doesn't really say what is defined by bathroom-stall shenanigans.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Philosophy Dressed Up as Science

There seems to be a relationship between right-wing politics and ignorance about science. Here, Tom Bethell in the conservative tabloid The American Spectator displays a complete lack of understanding of basic evolutionary theory (or willfully obfuscates evolutionary science for political reasons). Bethell is a journalist who feels that he has the expertise to declare that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, that global warming is a lie, and that evolution is "best seen as a 19th Century philosphy--materialism--dressed up as science."

In his article, Bethell derides evolution in part because it can be used in "support of any cause whatsoever." Indeed this is true. It is also true that Christianity, which is the opposite of evolution in Mr. Bethell's estimation, has been used to justify war, slavery, genocide, rape, and any number of crimes against humanity. Bethell would be horrified--and rightly so--if I claimed that Christianity is to blame for every evil perpetrated by its adherents. His invocation of misuse of evolutionary theory is a non sequitur.

Bethell's treatise is loaded with such non sequiturs, along with misconceptions and fabrications about evolutionary theory. The most egregious:
The underlying problem is that a key Darwinian term is not defined. Darwinism supposedly explains how organisms become more "fit," or better adapted to their environment. But fitness is not and cannot be defined except in terms of existence. If an animal exists, it is "fit" (otherwise it wouldn't exist). It is not possible to specify all the useful parts of that animal in order to give an exhaustive causal account of fitness. If an organism possesses features that appear on the surface to be inconvenient-such as the peacock's tail or the top-heavy antlers of a stag-the existence of stags and peacocks proves that these animals are in fact fit. So the Darwinian theory is not falsifiable by any observation. It "explains" everything, and therefore nothing. It barely qualifies as a scientific theory for that reason.
This same tripe has been trotted out in creationist arguments before. It might be convincing if it were correct, but unfortunately for Bethell, it isn't the least bit true. Scientists don't define fitness as a quality or trait that allows an organism to be successful--such a quality is an adaptation. Fitness has a precise definition: the ability of an organism to get its genes into the next generation. Such an ability can be quantified and measured. Adaptations may contribute to fitness, but they're not the same thing. (Wikipedia has a pretty decent explanation of fitness.)

It's not surprising that Bethell doesn't understand the difference between adaptation and fitness; it's clear from his writing he doesn't understand the difference between science and religion. He claims that Intelligent Design is "informed" by science, and if by that he means that it uses scientific words to dress up pseudo-scientfic mumbo-jumbo, then I guess it is. So is astrology. Bethell toes the company line on Intelligent Design "theory":
Intelligent design is...aggressive and therefore potentially dangerous. It says to the Darwinians: "You don't have the evidence to support your claims. Your lab results and fossils don't support your theory. Organisms are way too complex to have arisen by chance. Take all the time you want, it won't be enough. Even though we don't know how it happened, these critters must have been designed somehow."
Bethell is right--the IDers are aggressive. Their idea is also dangerous, since it threatens the teaching of real science in public schools. ID makes provocative claims about evolution, but they're easily shown to be baseless--fossils don't support evolutionary theory? Such a thing would be said only by someone who's never looked at a fossil. Complexity as an argument against evolution is nothing more than an argument from incredulity: "I don't believe anything so complex could possibly evolve." Intelligent design is indeed a philosophy dressed up as science. Here is another part of the intelligent design movement that Bethell gets right: They "don't know how it happened." That's the difference between IDers and evolutionary biologists. We do know how it happened.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Colbert Gives Huckabee an Opposable Thumbs Up

Mike Huckabee was on The Colbert Report again last night, this time trying to capitalize on his over-hyped second-place showing in the Iowa straw poll. (The whole segment from the Colbert Report is available here.) Huckabee was smart enough to try to play the whole thing for laughs. Colbert, for his part, made it clear just how seriously he takes Huckabee:
In one of the republican debates, sir, the candidates were asked, if they did not believe in evolution, to raise their hand. Now you raised your hand. Did you raise your hand to indicate you did not believe in evolution, or were you raising your hand simply to show off your opposable thumb?
Sooner or later, you'd think it would occur to potential guests that no matter how good a sport they are, Colbert's going to call them on their stupidity.

Again, it's important that people look past Huckabee's seemingly pleasant demeanor and understand the crooked politician that's lurking behind the smile. Huckabee fervently supports the Iraq war. As governor of Arkansas, he was anti-environment and pro-death penalty, he accepted huge amounts of gifts from supporters, ignored the state Ethics Commission, flew the Arkansas Highway Department airplane around to political events and book signings, embarrassed the state on numerous occasions, and then punished reporters for asking him about his misdeeds. Yeah, Huckabee's a laugh riot.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Ender, a resident of my little corner of cyberspace, has started a new blog here. I'm damned if I can figure out what it's about, but the date involved (1-18-08) is my birthday. Perhaps Ender's planning a surprise party for me?

Friday, August 10, 2007

We Get Letters

Last month, I wrote a post about the release of Earl Washington, Jr. from Virginia's death row. Washington was coerced into confessing to a murder that another man, Kenneth Tinsley, committed. DNA evidence exonerated Washington and implicated Tinsley, who pled guilty to the murder earlier this year. My original post said:
The Commonwealth of Virginia this week attempted to right a wrong, and declared Earl Washington, Jr. innocent of a rape and murder that DNA evidence determined that he didn't commit. Even though this evidence was uncovered six years ago--and another man was convicted of the crimes--a special prosecutor in the case insisted for years that Washington was still a suspect. That's right--the prosecutor, James Camblos, would rather see an innocent man convicted than admit that he had erred in the case. (This might have something to do with the fact that Camblos once acted as a defense attorney for the real killer, Kenneth Tinsley). At one point, Washington was only days away from execution for a crime he didn't commit.
Today, a reader who calls himself Factchecker commented on my original post:
This would be a chilling story if our transitional fossil had bothered to check his facts and make sure what he was reporting was accurate. James Camblos was not the original prosecutor of Earl Washington. As a matter of fact Mr. Camblos wasn't even a prosecutor when Mr. Washington was errouneously convicted in Culpeper (not Albemarle where Mr. Camblos is the chief prosecutor). When the case was returned to Culpeper after Mr. Washington was released, Mr. Camblos was selected to special prosecute any potential retrial. It quickly became evident that the real suspect was Mr. Tinsley, a man that Mr. Camblos had defended when he worked as a defense attorney before his election to Commonwealth's Attorney. For Mr. Camblos to continue the investigation and prosecution would have been an ethical violation, so he appointed his deputy (Richard Moore) who then went on to successfully prosecute Mr. Tinsley. The only reason Mr. Camblos could not come out and declare Mr. Washington's innocence and Mr. Tinsley's guilt was his ethical obligation due to a conflict of interest from his previous job defending Mr. Tinsley on an unrelated matter. To have done otherwise could have resulted in disciplinary action against Mr. Camblos. I would suggest that next time you decide to besmirch a public official, that you at least check your facts before writing inflammatory rhetoric. This type of behavior is exactly why bloggers get a bad rap. If you are going to pretend to be a journalist, at least act like one.
First, I don't believe I've ever claimed to be a journalist; I merely comment on news items from other sources, and in this case, the sources were clearly linked. My original post does say that Mr Camblos was a special prosecutor, but incorrectly implies that the original error was committed by Camblos. This is not true--the original prosecutor on the case was John Bennett. I apologize for the inaccuracy, and I'll amend the original blog post to reflect the facts.

But Factchecker's comment prompted me to dig a little further into the matter. Again, I have no special knowledge of this case; I'm not a journalist--just a guy with a computer with access to Google. Here's an excerpt from an article from the Newport News Daily Press (summary here on the Daily Press site, complete article here):
Tinsley, who remains in prison on the rape conviction, is considered a suspect, said James L. Camblos III, an Albemarle County prosecutor who was appointed in August to review the case for state police. But so is Washington, he said this week, noting that he couldn't rule out that the two may have worked together. "There are a lot of crimes that are committed by more than one person, but you get physical evidence from only one of them," Camblos said.

Washington's lawyers dispute Camblos' theory of two attackers - before she died, Williams said she was attacked by a lone black man with a beard, according to police records.

Hall also criticized how state police were reviewing the case. Camblos once represented Tinsley as he appealed his rape conviction in 1985. When asked about his history with Tinsley, the prosecutor said he had no memory of it. Camblos removed himself from the case anyway, handing it over to his deputy, Richard Moore, this past week.
The date on the story is March 18, 2004, four years after Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore pardoned Washington. Indeed, as Factchecker states, Camblos stepped down from the case, but only after Washington's attorneys filed a suit to have him removed. Factchecker would have us believe that Camblos knew that Tinsley was the murderer, and was doing his duty as a defense lawyer by not proclaiming Washington's innocence; if that were so, it seems to me that a simple "No comment," would have been sufficient, and not a fabricated theory of how Washington might have been involved. But let us assume that Camblos, and Bennett, and all the police involved in Washington's trial and near-execution were acting in good faith. In that case, mistakes were made, and an innocent, but not very smart, man confessed to a crime he didn't commit. He was days away from execution.

And that was exactly my original point.

Cat Salvage

The picture to the left is Howard. The only thing that keeps him from being a true albino is the amber color of his eyes. Howard showed up on the porch of my weekday residence. I tried to convince him that he didn't belong to me, that I already had three cats and no more room, but after a day or two, he convinced me that maybe I belonged to him. When I headed to my regular home, a 90-mile car trip, Howie slept in my lap, waking up a time or two to put his forepaws on my chest and nuzzle my nose. His mere presence caused a ruckus at my house--my wife was delighted, my resident cats somewhat less so. The next day, we went to the vet. I was already attached to the little guy, and nearly made myself sick waiting for the results of his feline leukemia and FIV tests. Fortunately for Howard (and my other cats) the tests were negative. It's been a couple of days, and Howie's incredibly friendly demeanor has won over the other cats.

That demeanor has made me pretty angry, too. Howie was obviously not a feral cat. Somebody dumped this kitten. Had he not appeared on my porch, he would have starved, or been run over, or killed by a dog, or a hawk, or another cat. Had he survived, he would have fathered countless unwanted kittens, killed innumerable birds, lizards, and rodents, and spread diseases to other feral cats, pets, and even to people. Dumping unwanted pets is irresponsible--and loathsome.

It's pretty easy to say you're against ditching animals, I guess. But I'm doing my part to solve the problem (and Hipparchia is doing hers). Animal shelters are full of cats and dogs that need homes. Who doesn't have room for one more?

Friday, August 3, 2007

Colbert 1, Behe 0

Stephen Colbert is not a fundamentalist zealot--he just plays one on TV. He's also not an economist, or a politician, or a scientist, but he has the ability to look right through specious arguments of these people and skewer them to humourous effect on basic cable television. His victim last night was Michael Behe, the grand poobah of the Intelligent Design movement. Behe was on Colbert's show plugging his new book, which better minds than mine have already torn to shreds (here and here, for instance). Behe's a jovial sort, and he seemed relaxed and in his element; after all, Colbert had said twice that all he wished to do was agree with Behe that God had created the universe in its present form. Behe apparently has never seen the Colbert Report. He launched into his tired (and repeatedly discredited) mousetrap analogy--that even a simple mousetrap is useless if one of its parts is removed, and so is an example of irreducible complexity.

Colbert is not an athiest--he famously teaches a Sunday School class at his church--but he's also not a fool. When Behe stated that dismantling a mousetrap would leave only a wire, a spring, and a block of wood, Colbert gave exactly the right response: "And of course we know, none of those things is even remotely useful." This gets right to the heart of the problem with irreducible complexity. Even if it is true (and it usually isn't) that some complex structure or metabolic pathway won't work without all its components, it doesn't mean that those components are useless in and of themselves. For instance, one of the favorite targets of the ID crowd is the bacterial flagellum, a structure seemingly so complex that it can't possibly work without all the parts. However, recent study indicates that parts of the flagellum are identical to mechanisms used by some bacteria to attack others. In other words, the flagellum was put together out of parts of other mechanisms being used for unrelated purposes. It should be obvious to any idiot that the individual parts of a mousetrap have other uses. It was obvious to Colbert; it wasn't obvious to Behe.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Close Encounters of the Blurred Kind

NASA is calling "troubling" reports that some astronauts on the space shuttle were allowed to fly while drunk. According to NASA's own report:
Several senior flight surgeons expressed their belief that their medical opinions regarding astronaut fitness for duty, flight safety and mission accomplishment were not valued by leadership other than to validate that all (medical) systems were “go” for on-time mission completion. Instances were described where major crew medical or behavioral problems were identified to astronaut leadership and the medical advice was disregarded. This disregard was described as “demoralizing” to the point where they said they are less likely to report concerns of performance decrement. Crew members raised concerns regarding substandard astronaut task performance which were similarly disregarded.
Troubling? I'll say. Including the cost of the shuttle itself, each launch costs 1.3 billion dollars. That's some pretty expensive equipment to be turning over to people in no shape to operate it. How could NASA flight controllers allow drunken astronauts into space? Forgetting the danger to the shuttle, how are besotted astronauts supposed to carry out their scientific mission?

I guess they realize there is no scientific mission. It's not that NASA doesn't do some good science--it's just that all the good science is done by unmanned space probes and earthbound scientists. The manned mission is a taxpayer-financed corporate welfare system that allows over-testosteroned space jockeys and love-crazed borderline-personalitied Alex Forrests to play Star Trek--and not the Captain Picard Star Trek with the good special effects, but the Captain Kirk Star Trek with the cheesy sets and rubbery-faced aliens. What are we getting for our billions of dollars? According to NASA, we're getting space age golf clubs and new generation toy airplanes. In other words, it just doesn't matter if the shuttle astronauts are drunker than Barney Gumble.

NPR quoted one NASA official as claiming that the agency's oversight functions failed because of NASA's "can-do" spirit. That's right--they couldn't let a little thing like a drunken astronaut stand in the way of colonizing the planets and exploring the asteroid belt. Apparently, the people running the manned space program at NASA are as much a part of the reality-based world as their current boss.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Latest From the Discovery Institute

Apparently someone over at the Discovery Institute has decided to clean up their web page a bit. Click here for a pretty concise summary of their thoughts on a recent talk by P.Z. Meyers of Pharyngula.

Friday, July 20, 2007

No, Really. Let's Go Ahead And Rush to Judgment.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has been indicted on federal conspiracy charges related to a dogfighting ring in Virginia. Vick will also likely face state charges. Dogfighting is a heinously inhumane practice (Hipparchia, from whom I stole the picture at left, links to a video report). No person with an ounce of humanity could defend dogfighting with a straight face.

So, the NFL has to disassociate themselves from Vick posthaste, right? Not so fast, according to ESPN columnist Mike Sando. Sando entreats us to let the legal wrangling run its course. The NFL, he says, has to "protect its long-term interests" by allowing Vick simply to sit out, just in case. According to Sando:
...a civil society can't let emotions interfere with due process. No matter how repulsive the charges, no matter how much we love our pets, no matter how bad the indictment makes Vick appear, it's unfair to judge without weighing the evidence.
This is ESPN folks. They've excoriated Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire for alleged steroid use, even though neither of them has been indicted for any crime. Why, then, should Vick be accorded the full protection of "innocent until proven guilty?" The difference is the victim. In the case of Bonds and McGwire, the perceived victim is "the integrity of the sport." In the case of Vick, the victims are just a bunch of dogs. Not nearly as important as 2,474 yards of total offense, right?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

New York Times Reports the Non-Existence of Souls

Perhaps I should have sold my soul before the market tanked. Maybe I could still get something for it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

He Calls His Knife "Hoyle's Jetliner"

A man in Australia stabbed a Scottish tourist, apparently angry over the victim's belief in evolution. Perhaps I'll be a little more polite when arguing with creationists.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Whoops. Our Bad.

The Commonwealth of Virginia this week attempted to right a wrong, and declared Earl Washington, Jr. innocent of a rape and murder that DNA evidence determined that he didn't commit. Even though this evidence was uncovered six years ago--and another man was convicted of the crimes--a special prosecutor in the case insisted for years that Washington was still a suspect. That's right--the prosecutor, James Camblos, would rather see an innocent man convicted than admit that he had erred in the case. (This might have something to do with the fact that Camblos once acted as a defense attorney for the real killer, Kenneth Tinsley). At one point, Washington was only days away from execution for a crime he didn't commit. [NOTE--James Camblos was not the original prosecutor in this case, as is implied by my post. Instead, John Bennett was the trial prosecutor in the Washington case. My apologies. Please see the note from Factchecker in the comments section below for another view on the case, as well as my later post here.]

This guy wasn't so lucky. Cameron Todd Willingham was excecuted in Texas in 2004 for setting a fire that killed his children, when forensics techniques available at the time of his trial would have demonstrated that the fire was not an arson, had anyone paid attention to them. One of the original investigators of the fire said at the time of the execution, "At the time of the Corsicana fire, we were still testifying to things that aren't accurate today. They were true then, but they aren't now." What is true now is that Willingham is dead. Texas Governor Rick Perry was presented with the new information, but decided to go ahead and off Willingham anyway.

Since 1973, at least 120 people have been released from death row after being exonerated. Capital punishment has been demonstrated to be arbitary, racist, expensive, and ineffective as a deterrent. How many innocent persons must fall victim to overzealous prosecutors and publicity-hungry politicians before we finally condemn this barbaric practice?

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Book Review--Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon

In the hottest part of the summer of 1985, the future Mrs. Archaeopteryx and I loaded our camping gear into my ’78 Ford Fairmont (no air conditioning) and drove to the Grand Canyon on a journey that would have made Chevy Chase proud. The trip included a busted alternator, a night spent in the parking lot of the high school in Checotah, Oklahoma, an encounter with a friendly but incompetent police officer, a trip to the auto repair shop at Grand Canyon National Park, and finally a hike to Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the Canyon, where I got in an argument with an snippy ranger named Lorne. The hike to the bottom of the Canyon, a nine-mile walk, took 11 hours. By the time we reached a shade-free series of switchbacks suggestively named “The Devil’s Corkscrew,” temperatures had reached 100 degrees. Like many first-time hikers in the canyon, we didn’t carry enough water or food. By the time we made it to the last part of the hike—two miles or so of thick sand alongside the Colorado River—we were completely exhausted and near heatstroke. We collapsed into a cool creek near the campground, then set up our tent. We slept fitfully in the heat—thanks Lorne—then got up about 4 a.m. to begin the return hike. The hike up the canyon wall took only eight hours. Because we started earlier, we avoided much of the heat, but each step we took came with increased altitude, and as we neared the top, we had to stop every 100 yards or so to catch our breath. We were unprepared for the heat and altitude of the Grand Canyon, and it was a wonder we didn’t have to be evacuated out by the National Park Service.

Last month I accompanied a group of students to the Grand Canyon. While shopping in the bookstore at the North Rim, I happened across a book titled Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon. I flipped through the pages, and was hooked. The book is a discussion of every recorded death that has occurred in and around the Canyon since Americans began visiting in the 1800s. There are lists of every careless slip, every fall from a rubber raft, every heat-assisted heart attack, and every forlorn leap from a mile-high ledge. The book includes chapters on falls, heatstroke, flash floods, rafting accidents, plane crashes, freak accidents, suicide, and murder.

Here is the story of a priest who led two teenaged boys into the crazy heat of the canyon, and fell to his death; one of his charges died of heatstroke, but the second boy miraculously survived. A few pages later is the story of United Flight 718, which strayed a bit from its flight plan so its passengers could have a better view of the canyon; unfortunately, the pilot of TWA Flight 2 had the same idea at the same time. All 128 people aboard both planes died, and it took many days of dangerous canyon-climbing to retrieve their remains. One cocky fellow, admonished by his son to be careful, told him “you have to take some chances in this life,” then stepped into an unsupported snow bank and fell 500 feet to his death. Three members of the first expedition of John Wesley Powell—the one-armed explorer who first mapped the Canyon—split off from the group, and climbed the canyon walls, only to be met and murdered by Mormon settlers.

It becomes clear early into the book that the main killer of visitors to the Grand Canyon is stupidity. This fact was not lost on me as I recalled the hike that my wife and I made 22 years ago. Our story was very much like that of many of the victims recounted in the book—we were stupid, but unlike the folks in the book, we were lucky. Hikers in the canyon underestimate the effects of heat. They wander off maintained trails. They ignore posted signs warning of the vicious currents in the Colorado River. Tourists climb over guardrails, and roughhouse on the edge of a 5,000-foot deep abyss. River rafters fail to properly scout rapids, or ride through whitewater without life vests. The canyon is not forgiving of carelessness.

The authors—Michael Ghiglieri and Thomas Myers—are experienced river runners and hikers who ostensibly use the stories in the book to analyze the fatalities for common threads. They claim to be—and try to be—respectful of those who have died, but occasionally it becomes difficult for them to hide their astonishment at people who skip along retaining walls before plunging to their deaths, or at a fellow who is struck by lightning and survives while a bystander dies, or the unfortunate soul who is crushed by a falling mule. Their analysis is fruitless except to demonstrate that the depth of human stupidity is greater than that of the canyon. The book is generally well-written except for the last chapter, a rant against personal injury lawyers whom the authors apparently think are ruining the Grand Canyon by forcing the Park Service to install guard rails on every rim and trail. This goofy—and baseless—diatribe feels as if it was added at the behest of editors to give the book a purpose beyond rubbernecking, but gawking at disastrous missteps is what this book is about. That, and being glad that my wife and I aren’t in the index.

Just Like the College Where I Work

From the brilliant Toothpaste for Dinner

Saturday, June 30, 2007

I Laughed. I Cried. I Laughed Again. I Got Sick.

Thanks to tiponeill (one of my favorite posters over at Faith-Based) for the link.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Endangered Law

The bald eagle was removed yesterday from the "threatened" list created under the Endangered Species Act. The eagle is the best example of how well the ESA has worked; populations of eagles in the lower 48 increased from 417 breeding pairs in 1963 to nearly 10,000 today.

Delisting of the eagle has been somewhat controversial. Environmentalists are concerned that removal of the eagle from the ESA list will enable developers to gobble up eagle habitat (one of the byproducts of the ESA is that protection of habitat of listed species also provides protection for unlisted species). Of course this is part of the reasoning used by the Bush Administration for delisting. Dubya's nature-hating bunch has missed no opportunity to undermine, dodge, or weaken the act. When that isn't practical, they simply change, ignore, or even supress the science behind the act, often with disastrous results. New listings under the act have dwindled to almost none, and every new listing since the beginning of the current administration has been the result of citizen action, rather than a response to government research.

The recovery of the eagle is a cause for celebration. It is also a signal to environmentalists that the Endangered Species Act works, and needs to be protected from the worst government in the nation's convservation history.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Gone to the Canyonlands

I'm leaving in the morning to take a group of students to the Canyonlands region of Arizona and Utah. I'll be back in about 10 days.

Michael Chertoff Tries to Ruin My Day

When I look back over my life, which has been pretty good overall, I sometimes think of days that stand out above the rest. Every great once in a while, I’ve been lucky enough to experience a day that was spectacularly good, from start to finish. One of those days took place at a tiny patch of thorn forest on the Rio Grande River, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in extreme southern Texas.

Before I was a biologist, I began watching birds, and I read about the spectacular birding in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. In March of 1991, Mrs. Archaeopteryx and I loaded our binoculars and field guides in our Jeep and headed for Brownsville. Along the way, we saw whooping cranes at Aransas Refuge, and shorebirds at Laguna Atascosa. We visited the Brownsville City Dump to see Mexican (now Tamaulipas) crows, and stopped at a chicken farm to look for crested caracaras at the place where the farmer tossed his dead chickens (we refer to this spot as the “dead chicken ranch”). In Brownsville, we saw buff-bellied hummingbirds at the Sabal Palm Grove sanctuary. But the highlight of the trip was Santa Ana.

We arrived at the refuge early in the morning. Before we got out of the parking lot, we were racking up “life birds” (birdwatchers tend to keep score—any bird you’ve never seen before is a life bird), and as we walked around the pathways of the refuge it became difficult to keep up with all the new birds. We were seeing birds that we didn’t even know existed. Ever heard of a fulvous whistling-duck? We saw some. Least grebe? They were common. Olive sparrows, green kingfishers, tropical kingbirds, and black-bellied whistling ducks all hid in the underbrush or around the impoundments.

We had planned on spending a couple of hours at the refuge, but ended up spending the entire day. At one point, after we had decided to skip lunch to keep birding, I tried to take a picture of a great kiskadee (a type of large, colorful flycatcher, pictured above) who kept teasing me by flitting to the exact opposite side of the bush where he was perched. While I leaned out over the side of the impoundment where the bush was located, my wife pointed out the swarm of ants crawling on my shoe. “Weren’t there signs warning about fire ants?” she asked. The ants were biting me, but it didn’t seem to hurt much. “If these are fire ants,” I said, “they’re overrated.” I’d find out later that night, in our hotel room, that it sometimes takes a while for the “fire” part of the name to be appropriate.

At one impoundment, we watched while a more experienced birder attempted to lure a king rail out of the cattails by making a loud clicking sound. As we waited, other folks came up the trail and excitedly told us about a young jacana who was walking across the lily pads at a nearby pond. Jacanas are gangly-looking shorebirds that are common in Central America, but rare farther north, and we were very lucky to see it.

As we hiked around the refuge trails, we got caught in a sudden downpour, and we raced ahead to a photo blind to take shelter. On the other side of the blind was a feeding station, set up to attract birds out into the open for tourists to see, and we saw exotic-looking green jays and funny little inca doves gobbling up the seeds and cracked corn. After the rain passed, we were determined to finish hiking every trail in the refuge. Unfortunately, the rain turned the trails to mud, and every step we took recoated our sneakers with six or eight inches of sticky, black goo. It grew extremely hot and humid, but we pressed on. Around us, plain chachalacas, odd birds that looked like a cross between a turkey and a hawk, laughed their raucous call at us; we had seen a couple skulking through the underbrush before, but now there seemed to be thousands of them, incessantly mocking us and our slow, muddy progress. Finally we made it back to our car, exhausted, soaked, muddy, hungry, ant- and mosquito-bitten, and maybe as exhilarated as either of us had ever been. We've been back to the refuge several times, and we've always had a great day, but never one as spectacular as our first trip.

What made me think about this fantastic day was a news item I heard today on NPR. As part of its solution to the immigration "crisis" (the ongoing distraction from more important things), the federal government has decided to build a 20-foot tall wall at intermittent points along the Rio Grande in south Texas, apparently including a section through the middle of the Santa Ana refuge. Despite the fact that no one in south Texas wants the wall, that no one believes that the wall will keep illegal aliens out, and that no one knows what the wall will do to the Texas economy or environment, the Department of Homeland Security is going ahead with the building. Biologists at the refuge are worried about the effects the wall will have on the last remaining population of endangered ocelots in the United States. Unfortunately for the ocelots, Michael Chertoff apparently thinks that this wall is important to keep the nation safe from landscapers and nannies (meanwhile, as Letterman likes to say, no word yet on Osama bin Laden).

Thursday, June 14, 2007


This is not news to those of us who pay attention to this sort of thing. Numbers of some of the most common birds are dropping precipitously. Northern bobwhites were quite common in the part of Arkansas where I grew up 40 years ago--now they're rare. What's causing the decline? Habitat destruction, introduced species, pesticides, overharvesting--the usual suspects. Because they're ground nesters, bobwhites may be particulary susceptible to fire ant invasion.

Bobwhites are cheery birds; their perky little whistle was one of my favorite sounds when I was a child. When he was a teenager, my dad raised bobwhites to sell, but grew attached to them, and wasn't able to sell them for their intended use, training bird dogs. Had he lived to see it, he would have been proud of the fact that I studied bobwhites for my master's degree.

Lots of places in Arkansas look like good habitat for these quail, but most often, they're conspicuous by their absence.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

With Friends Like These

Here's someone jumping to Mike Huckabee's defense with regard to his belief in creationism. My favorite part is this:
But was that flood a mythical story or historical fact? Some say it's a myth because an account of it appeared in civilizations all over the world. They assert that the tale of the ark, the animals and the flood was such a dramatic story, everyone must have copied off each other...For example, Australian Aborigines, who were rather isolated and not known for their Christian beliefs, have an account of a flood...In Babylon, the story is also remarkably similar, but in their version the boat was a cube seven stories high. Now, I'm not exactly a nautical expert, but it seems to me that that a cube isn't the best design for a floating vessel...
Let's see...are you using the flood myths of other cultures as proof that the flood actually happened, then making fun of the other stories? Oh, the irony. This woman mentions every ridiculous talking point of Young-Earth Creationism, all of which are refuted here, and ends with the astonishing claim that Lucy, the famous austrolopithicine fossil specimen, was a chimp. Huckabee has already established that he doesn't understand the meaning of the word "primate," and apparently his allies also aren't primatologists.

"Exotic" Isn't Always a Good Thing.

The bird in the picture next to this post is a common myna (Acridotheres tristis), a native of southeastern Asia. The picture was taken by me on a Marine Biology field trip. Unfortunately, the trip wasn't to India, but to Florida--I snapped the picture in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Homestead. Florida cities have more birds than do many. Among the most common birds I saw were mynas, collared doves, rock pigeons, starlings, monk parakeets, cattle egrets, house sparrows, and house finches. If you know anything about birds, you know that not one of those species is native to Florida. In fact, Florida has had reports of nearly 200 species of exotic birds. Many of them are known only from a sighting or two, but others, including all of those listed above, have established breeding populations in Florida. Many of these birds are escaped pets--or worse, pets that have been released into the wild by owners tired of caring for them.

So what? Why should we care if a new bird or two is introduced into an area? Exotic birds compete with native birds for food and nesting space. For example, many authorities blame the decline in populations of native bluebirds on the fact that starlings and house sparrows outcompete them for the best nesting sites. Non-native birds may carry infections to which native birds lack any immunity. Non-native birds (such as parakeets and mynas) may act as agricultural pests. If they hybridize with native birds, non-native birds may dilute the gene pool of native birds.

The problem of introduced exotic species receives less attention than some other environmental maladies, but it has the potential to cause great harm to natural ecosystems, and to human activities. Everyone has heard stories of the problems caused by zebra mussels, fire ants, tiger mosquitoes, and killer bees; stories of more bizarre exotics (such as monitor lizards, pythons, and monkeys) are less well known. Despite this, people still seem to ignore the exotic pet trade. Apparently folks in Louisiana are all excited about the possibility of selling red-eared sliders as pets, even though there is the possibility of the turtles carrying salmonella, the turtles don't live very long in captivity (they have the potential to live 40 years in the wild), and no one has determined just what increased pet trade will do to the wild populations. No one seems to be worried about the effects released turtles might have in areas outside their natural range.

Here's the deal: We already have dogs and cats, and they do enough damage to the environment. There is absolutely no need for people to have more exotic pets. This isn't about the "rights" of pet owners--you DO NOT have the right to put your local ecosystem at risk. If you need a pet, shelters are full of cats and dogs that need you, too. Do everyone a favor--pass on the baby alligator. Skip the boa constrictor. Leave the parrots where they belong.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Huckabee's Not a Primate? What, Then?

During the Republican presidential debate last night, Mike Huckabee was asked to clarify his position on evolution (CNN account of the question here). Huckabee didn't like being asked:
"It's interesting that that question would even be asked of somebody running for president," Huckabee said. "I'm not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book. I'm asking for the opportunity to be president of the United States."
Huckabee is showing the same whiny, thin-skinned lack of candor he displayed as governor of Arkansas. (He once cut off contact with the Arkansas Times because they refused to quit asking him tough ethical questions.) But guess what, Mike? You're running for President of the United States. If Bill Clinton could be asked about using a cigar for a sex toy, nothing is off limits--especially not this.

Huckabee answered the question by first seeming to endorse a form of theistic evolution, and if he'd stopped there he might have been okay. But then he defiantly embraced a literalist interpretation of the Bible, although he waffled on whether creation actually took only six days or not. He said, "If anybody wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it." Apparently Huck doesn't understand the definition of the word "primate." Then he compared himself to Martin Luther, and finally complained about having to defend his beliefs on science, as if he didn't understand the importantace of his viewpoint.

So, let me lay it out for you, Mike: If you can't discern between fact (evolution) and fiction (the Biblical account of creation), whether it's due to stupidity, intellectual laziness, or bull-headedness, then you'll probably also have trouble discerning between Sunni and Shiite, or between Iraq and Al Queda. And we've already seen what a disaster that can be. So you're not qualified to be president OR to write eighth grade science texts (Messers Tancredo, Brownback, McCain, and Romney please take note).