Saturday, April 28, 2007

Now That's What I Call Differential Reproductive Success

When evolutionary biologists refer to "survival of the fittest," what they're actually talking about is differential reproductive success. In the big game of life, fitness doesn't necessarily mean that an animal has to be the biggest, or the fastest, or the smartest. Often it means that an animal has a greater or more efficient reproductive output than its competitors. Which brings us to the story of Michelle Duggar, the wife of right-wing politician Jim-Bob Duggar, and soon-to-be mother of her seventeenth child. The Duggars home-school their children, and are followers of the, um, interesting Bill Gothard. The children's names all begin with the letter "J." A comment on the Arkansas Daily Blog suggested that the Duggars would need name tags, and got me to thinking about how that could have been avoided. So, with apologies to Dr. Seuss:

Did I ever tell you that Mrs. Jim Duggar
Had seventeen young-uns and named ‘em all Booger?
Well, she did. And that wasn't a smart thing at all.
You see, when she wants one and calls out, “Hey, y’all!
Come in the house, Booger!” she doesn't get one.
All seventeen Boogers come in on the run!
This makes things quite difficult out at the Duggars'
As you can imagine, with so many Boogers.
And often she wishes that, when they were whelped,
She had named one of them Huckabee Phelps.
And one of them Jim-Bob. And of one of them Slim.
And one of them Houston. And one Bubba-Jim.
And one of them Butt-head. And one of them Beavis.
And one of them Brandene. And one of them Cletus.
Another one Red-Eye. Another one Moon.
Another one Jim Duggar Junior Buffoon.
And one of them Piggy. And one Doolin Dalton.
One Donnie Tyson. And one Sammy Walton.
Or maybe she’d stopped with six, seven, or eight.
But she didn't do it. And now it's too late.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Mike Huckabee--Authentic Crook

I just watched the rerun of last night's Colbert Report, and was treated to the spectacle of Colbert lobbing softballs at Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and current Republican presidential hopeful. Colbert led with a montage of clips showing Huckabee saying the word "authentic" over and over again. In the interview, Huckabee explained his concept of authenticity: "It's like an apple. If you cut into the apple, and it's an apple all the way to the core, that's authentic. If you cut into it and it turns out that it's plastic fruit, there's no nourishment there."

Huckabee then launched into an attack on Mitt Romney, the message being that Huckabee is an "authentic conservative," unlike Romney, who doesn't really hunt, isn't really pro-life, and presided over a state where--gasp!--homos can get married!

Colbert wasn't taking Huckabee all too seriously; he made fun of Huckabee's standing in the polls ("trailing Duncan Hunter, Sam Brownback, and six guys named Thompson"). But Huckabee's been making inroads; he scored some points in South Carolina over the weekend, and made a big splash last week in the press by calling for Attorney General Gonzalez to resign. Huckabee's become sort of a media darling--besides Colbert, he's appeared on The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, and was a frequent guest on Imus. Of course he's appeared on all the Sunday morning political shows.

This has to be nipped in the bud, right now. So, let's talk about authenticity. Huckabee is a Baptist minister; as such, you might expect him to be an authentic man of peace (you know, like Jesus). Quite the contrary. Huckabee is a fanatic supporter of the war in Iraq (watch here as he paints the war in Iraq as a "struggle for existence."). He authentically believes that Armageddon is coming and that Israel must be defended at all costs. He also is a big proponent of the death penalty, with sixteen executions occurring while he was in office, including a triple header--three in one day! Is he an authentic Christian? I'll let you decide.

Huckabee's apple metaphor is more than apt, as long as you consider the apple to be rotten. Huckabee was the most corrupt governor Arkansas has had in recent memory. He accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts from supporters, used state aircraft for personal trips, stole furniture from the governor's mansion, and ignored admonishments from the state Ethics Commission. Besides being a crook, Huckabee was a constant embarrassment to the state. He referred to conservationists as "environmental wackos," called Arkansas a "banana republic" on the Imus show, and lived in a triple-wide mobile home on the Governor's Mansion grounds while the residence was being rennovated. His son once tortured a dog to death, with no reprisals. (Read a summary of Huckabee's tenure as Arkansas governor here.)

One would hope that the press would begin giving Huckabee a closer look, particularly if his campaign begins to pick up steam. He despises such scrutiny, frequently lashing out at the press if they dare to question his integrity or to demand accountability. His thin skin will ensure that he is unable to survive as a viable candidate; the sooner that Huckabee is exposed, the better off the country will be.

Do People in Arkansas Lack a Sense of Humor?

This letter was sent to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as a joke. In the letter, Connie Meskimen, a Little Rock attorney, blames global warming on Congress because they started Daylight Savings Time a month early, thus allowing extra time for the earth to heat up. The Demozette published it without comment. Apparently some folks in Arkansas don't get the joke. One of my colleagues read the letter to his class as an example of how scientifically illiterate some people are. Perhaps it's a better example of how humorless people can be.

Although, with some of the garbage spouted by global warming deniers and creationists, maybe I shouldn't be too surprised that people take this kind of thing seriously. After all, some people believe that irreducible complexity is a scientific argument.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Like Songbirds Don't Have Enough To Worry About

Habitat destruction. Pesticides. Cell phone towers. Your cat. Now scientists have discovered that a large bat, the giant noctule, preys on migrating songbirds in Europe. It is tough to be a bird.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Interesting News About the Discovery Institute

Apparently they're having financial problems. Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch. (Thanks to Pharyngula).

Thursday, April 12, 2007


I grew up in a very small town, the son of parents without money. There was no library except the one at the school, and so I, a voracious reader and world-class nerd, spent my summers waiting on the slim pickings of the county bookmobile. The bookmobile was long on children’s books and short on pretty much everything else, but they did have a few science fiction novels, and it wasn’t long (what with the nerdiness and all) before I was hooked. Of course, the selections of the county tended to run toward the innocuous—lots of Asimov and Clarke, and nothing particularly subversive.

One summer afternoon, my mother loaded us kids into her old Buick and drove over to Perryville to do her banking. While she busied herself in the bank, my brother and I slipped into the drugstore on the square. I had a couple of bucks of my allowance left, and I thought I’d pick up a new science fiction paperback. The only one they had that I hadn’t already read was Cat’s Cradle. I knew nothing about the book or Kurt Vonnegut, but I spent the two bucks or so, and, just that quickly, I changed my life.

I was hooked. Vonnegut’s style was like nothing I’d ever read—science nerds don’t get much satire mixed in with their rockets and robots, and any social commentary is generally unsharpened and clumsy. From then on, I read every one of his books I could get my hands on. The bookmobile took requests for books to add to the mobile collection, and I requested all the Vonnegut they could bring. Eventually, that led to Slaughterhouse Five.

Like most young teenage boys, I was self-absorbed and ignorant of the world outside my little town. I thought that war was glorious, and that the United States could do no wrong. Slaughterhouse opened my eyes—just a little—to the idea that maybe the John Wayne movies I saw on our family’s little black and white TV weren’t true life, and in fact, maybe the world wasn’t black and white. I remember being horrified by Vonnegut’s descriptions of Dresden after the bombing. I was approaching draft age, and Vietnam hadn’t quite wound completely down. Suddenly peace began to seem very appealing to me, and not completely for selfish reasons.

On Wednesday, I kept a kid cornered in my office for nearly an hour, trying to talk him out of his decision to join the Army. This kid is bright, and funny, and he has an incisive mind that usually sees through bullshit—a student that keeps a professor honest. But, Justin has a horrible family life, and feels he has to get away. He sees the Army as a chance to make his own way in the world—to be independent (the irony apparently lost on his usually sharp mind). I told him that being a soldier is a necessary and honorable thing, but not for him—that he’s destined to be a surgeon or a journalist, and not to waste his life in a useless war—but it was to no avail. I failed utterly. I’d wasted my time, and made him angry.

I heard yesterday of Vonnegut’s death on NPR. I remembered reading Cat’s Cradle, and Galapagos, and especially Slaughterhouse Five. I could see the smouldering ruins of Dresden, the way Vonnegut had described them. And I thought of Justin. Maybe he’ll read my copy of Slaughterhouse.

I Can't Stop Snickering At This

From toothpastefordinner. Click it and it gets bigger.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Ho Hum...Global Warming to Wipe Out a Third of the Earth's Species

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Friday released another in its series of reports documenting how global warming is already affecting the climate of the earth and how it is likely to cause extinction of up to a third of all species of plants and animals. Even after being watered down by the governments of the United States, China (the two largest greenhouse gas emitters), and Saudi Arabia (the world's largest oil producer), the report paints a stark picture of the future, especially for the world's poorest people. After a short-lived rise in the production of food in the world, crop yields will plummet. Water supplies in Africa will dwindle, floods, droughts and disease will skyrocket in Asia, and people living in hurricane zones will notice an increase in storms and flooding. Polar bears, amphibians, and coral reefs will disappear.

Big deal. You'd think this would be front page news, but the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette deems it unworthy, and places it on page 2, behind a story about the failure of the Little Rock school board to fire the superindent of the district (a fellow who happens to be a chum of Demozette publisher Walter Hussman). Not too surprising--the Democrat-Gazette is a well-known right-wing rag; they gave the front page of last Sunday's editorial section over to the moronic global warming denial screed mentioned in the post just below this one. What about the so-called liberal media? On the morning after the report was released, relegated the story to the bottom of their front page, but they managed to find room at the top of the page for a story about a 102-year-old who shot a hole-in-one. is somewhat better, with an inconspicuous link to their coverage placed on the front page (I actually missed it the first time I looked). They apparently think that a story on the Chinese divorce rate is more important or more interesting--hard to say which. The New York Times web site buries the story far down the page, below an important report on the disposition of leftover statues of Saddam Hussein. (In fairness, the CNN and MSnbc sites gave the story a bit more play late yesterday--I didn't look at the Times web site until this morning--and that's the part of the point. This is too big a story to let it be buried by a lack of hits.)

I know people are suffering from "Global Warming Fatigue." I know the deniers have done an admirable job of painting Al Gore and global warming scientists as shrill loonies who are somehow using the fear of climate change as a way to make a buck. But news organizations have a responsibility to report news in a such a way that the most important, far-reaching news is prominent and easily accessible. If they can give us all the Anna Nicole coverage we so desperately crave, they can also leave vital stories on page one for longer than a couple of hours.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Old Lies About Global Warming Repackaged

Today’s Arkansas-Democrat Gazette contains an opinion column from Jonathan Last again suggesting that global climate change is not settled science and that Al Gore has exaggerated claims of the damage that climate change will cause. He quotes the recent New York Times article that drags up criticisms of Gore. The NYT article, which says that a few--a few--climate scientists think that some of Gore’s claims might be somewhat overstated is pretty nicely debunked here. He drags up the old claim that a study by the Max Planck Institute blames global warming on an increase in solar energy—an idea which the authors specifically refute within their study. (Click here for details.) He then quotes a couple of fringe authors to attempt to link global warming scientists with UFO-chasing nutjobs. Mighty fine “journalism,” if you ask me—much like the rest of those who argue with global climate change science, Last simply repeats old lies and half-truths, and restates tired attacks on Al Gore, without any new information.

Note, please, that Jonathan Last is not a scientist, or even a science writer. He is an ultraconservative opinion writer and on-line editor of the Weekly Standard, the neocon rag which recently ran an article claiming that there was money to be made in the “Global Warming Industrial Complex,” apparently without a hint of ironic intent. Last also writes a weekly column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the dying daily paper recently placed under the charge of Republican activist Brian Tierney. Recent "scientific" columns by Last include attacks on the abilities of American actors and an anti-aborition screed. This is another example of why it is important that people interested in the truth surrounding scientific issues don’t get their information from pundits and columnists. Instead, if you want to know what scientists have found, and what they think, ask the scientists.