Monthly Archives: January 2007

Selling Sharks a Sacrament for Shady Suck-up

Independent Online Edition > Crime

A Unification Church pastor from the United Kingdom was eager to score points with Rev. Sun Myung Moon, his cult leader. His chosen method? Illegally sell leopard shark pups, to the tune of about $1.2 million of business over 10 years. Apparently Moon thinks fishing is just the thing for his pastors to do when not peddling Moon’s other bizarre ideas. Legality is, apparently, just an optional item.

Speaking of years, the article notes that the pastor could get 8 years in jail for his part in the trade.

OK, so there’s one less ocean exploiter at large. It is a good thing for the FBI to put the kibosh on this operation. But…

Something that gets little attention is that the methods used by legitimate traders in aquarium fish can be harmful to reef environments. So even when someone does all the paperwork correctly, if they go out and use agents like Rotenone to stupefy fish, they affect far more of a reef population than the fish that they actually collect. Mechanical damage also causes long-term harm to these fragile ecosystems. We as a culture insisted upon guidelines for tuna fishing to reduce dolphin bycatch; it is about time that we paid attention to the methods of those supplying the hobbyist marine fish market as well to assure that today’s flashy tank denizens don’t come with a hidden price tag of dead and dying reef communities.

Jones, Luskin, and Text

Casey Luskin has responded to my earlier bit about his equivocation, saying he is closing the debate. Not hardly, Casey. Let’s look at his latest reply…

Response to Wesley Elsberry

Wesley Elsberry attacks me as if I implied the study applies to the entire Kitzmiller ruling.

Casey’s reasoning before was based on citing a ruling that was about a case where the entire decision was provided by the lawyers for one of the parties and signed by the judge, while the DI “study” only took into account one section. It was precisely because the DI study did *not* consider the whole decision that I found Luskin’s citation of Anderson v. Bessemer City to be inappropriate.

(And Wesley asserts that only 38% of the whole ruling was taken from the plaintiffs’ findings of fact.)

Not so much “asserted” as “demonstrated”. Casey is welcome to produce a counter-demonstration to show that the results at this page are substantially inaccurate. Go ahead, Casey; the source files I used are all linked from this page.

Continue reading

Misconstruing Evolution Sunday

Yale Daily News – Evolution Sunday not so benign

Here we have Jonathan Dudley filling in some column-inches in the Yale Daily News. Now, blathering on for a certain number of words is a time-honored tradition in print journalism. Nowadays, those bits get transferred to the Internet. And that is where the linked article comes in.

Most of it is innocuous. Where Dudley goes off into the weeds is when he tries to generate a frisson of suspense.

While Evolution Sunday may help dissipate this warring attitude, its impact on the Church may not be entirely benign. In telling congregants to embrace the theory of evolution, the event perpetuates the same herd mentality it is designed to combat. Rather than learning to transcend their peculiar subcultures and critically engage ideas themselves, Christians will learn to assimilate another opinion because an authority tells them to. It’s hard to see how this is a substantial improvement from the previous state of affairs, in which Christians were taught to accept the opposition proposition, that evolution is not true, just as uncritically.

The trick to blathering on to fill column inches is in staying within one’s field of experience. Dudley’s field of experience includes general topics in religion. However, it doesn’t include the specifics of what happens on Evolution Sunday.

One doesn’t have to speculate on how the clergy involved in Evolution Sunday approach the topic; one can read their sermons. I’ve read several myself, and so far none of those in my sample ask their congregations to take the findings of science as a given on the say-so of authority.

If Dudley wants to accuse Evolution Sunday of authority-mongering and herd-mentality-inculcating, it would be best if he didn’t simply wave his hands, but rather presented some hard evidence that his stance has any validity whatsoever.

Here’s a part of a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall of the First Christian Church of Lompoc. Notice how it is specifically not authority that gets pride of place; it is the evidence that convinces.

The problem is, there is overwhelming evidence to support evolution’s claims. There have been many challenges to aspects of the theory, but none have replaced it. The piece of evidence that I find most convincing is one that affects our daily lives. Evolution lets medical researchers use animals, like mice and chimps to test medicines that save human lives. These tests wouldn’t work if we didn’t all share some common DNA. Darwin didn’t know about DNA, but it supports his theory. So, if you like modern medicine, you’ve got to like
evolution.

I think that I will close with a selection from the sermon of Doris Westfall of the Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Charles, MO, which certainly stands opposed to acceptance of evolution by authority alone:

Perhaps what can be helpful in this argument is a good dose of humility-both on the part of scientists as well as on the part of the faithful. Both need “to recognize the limits in their way of knowing and leave room for the other.” Both need to stand in awe and wonder at the mystery of the physical creation, God’s incarnation in it and humanity’s call to be a part of it. Science and faith are not enemies of one another but allies in teaching us about creation. William King, a Lutheran pastor at a major research institution, writes of a preeminent scientist by the name of William Bragg, who was a forerunner in the field of X-ray crystallography. Dr. Bragg was asked whether science and faith were opposed to one another. “Yes, he replied, ‘but only in the sense that my thumb and forefinger are opposed to one another—between them I can grasp everything.”

The US Navy and the MMPA

For years, conservation groups and the US Navy have been involved in an intricate dance concerning the application of provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to Navy activities. The goal of the conservationists has been to get the Navy to agree to restrictions on its acitivities as the MMPA would do for any civil entity, but not press so hard that the Navy simply disengages and declares itself ungoverned by the MMPA.

An item on the MARMAM email list indicates that the dance may be over. According to Michael Jasny at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the US Navy has taken the step of issuing itself a two-year exemption from provisions of the MMPA in order to continue training using mid-frequency (2 to 10 kHz) sonar systems. I’ve requested a couple of documents from Jasny about this issue; I’ll update when I get those.

Military use of mid-frequency sonars causes morbidity and mortality in beaked whales under certain conditions. A mass stranding of beaked whales in the Bahamas in 2000 caused the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct a workshop in 2002 bringing together experts on biology and acoustics to evaluate the acoustic resonance hypothesis for this morbidity and mortality. While the acoustic resonance hypothesis was considered unlikely by us, we did broadly agree that the evidence indicated a correlation between military exercises using mid-frequency sonar and mass strandings of beaked whales. The historical record, once examined with military exercises in mind, showed concomitant beaked whale mass stranding events going back to at least 1963. What remains at issue is what, precisely, is the mechanism of the morbidity and mortality of beaked whales exposed to military mid-frequency sonar, which would allow military planners to avoid the set of circumstances that would endanger beaked whales. In the absence of knowledge about the mechanism, though, what can be done is to look at past beaked whale mass stranding events that occur in the presence of mid-frequency sonar and attempt to correlate common factors.

Or, as various groups have urged, the Navy can discontinue use of mid-frequency sonar entirely. This latter approach I speculate is the proximal cause of the US Navy deciding that it would simply remove considerations of the MMPA from its planning in the use of mid-frequency sonar.

Update: I’m looking at some of the news coverage on this topic, and I keep seeing a phrase of the sort that says that mid-frequency sonar is “harmful to whales”. This sort of statement is misleading. The harm caused by mid-frequency sonars is only definitively demonstrated to occur in beaked whales, one taxon of toothed whales, not whales in general, which is the likely reading that many will take away from the news reports. There is something very specific about the vulnerability of beaked whales to the operation of mid-frequency sonars that is not generally shared even with other, more familiar, odontocetes.

New Means of Getting About

We got ourselves a tow vehicle today. Diane has been spending a lot of her time on studying information about late-model tow vehicles to come up with the short list of suitable brands and models capable of towing our trailer when it is loaded. That meant that we were either getting a pickup truck or a 1 ton van. We decided to go with a 1 ton van, a 2005 Ford E-350 with V10 6.8L engine, 39K miles on the odometer.

As to the particulars… it is maroon. Really maroon. We plan on getting at least the roof painted white to reduce the rate at which it heats up in the summer sun. I’d be tempted to leave at least some maroon showing somewhere, as that fits with the Texas A&M colors.

It is also not a cargo van. It is a 15-passenger van with the full set of bench seats. Those, and the mount points, have got to go. We plan on having our bench seat from the old van transferred to the new one. It folds out into a bed. On the plus side, the passenger van set-up has a distribution system for blowing the AC or heater output through the van body, not just the front compartment. On the minus side, it has windows all around, which will make it hotter in the summertime. The interior outfitting also means that we don’t have the simple options for setting up hanging storage, or mount points for bungeeing down animal crates so they don’t shift on braking or turns.

Our mechanic will transfer our hitch from the old van to the new, and has the contact for the person who rigged our brake controller on the old van. We have set up a vehicle donation for the old van, and that will get towed away on Wednesday.

We did get a discount off the sale price because the two rear tires need to be replaced; the dealer was willing to do the replacement or take his cost for the tires off the bill. We decided to go ahead with the discount so that we didn’t have to travel to San Leandro from Concord another day. We think that the car needs a set of tires, too, so getting the vehicles ready for travel next week is going to take some more effort this week.

Evolutionary Paths

OK, it took me a while to notice this paper:

Evolutionary Paths Underlying Flower Color Variation in Antirrhinum
Annabel C. Whibley,1* Nicolas B. Langlade,1* Christophe Andalo,2 Andrew I. Hanna,3 Andrew Bangham,3 Christophe Thébaud,2 Enrico Coen
Science 18 August 2006:
Vol. 313. no. 5789, pp. 963 – 966
DOI: 10.1126/science.1129161

To understand evolutionary paths connecting diverse biological forms, we defined a three-dimensional genotypic space separating two flower color morphs of Antirrhinum. A hybrid zone between morphs showed a steep cline specifically at genes controlling flower color differences, indicating that these loci are under selection. Antirrhinum species with diverse floral phenotypes formed a U-shaped cloud within the genotypic space. We propose that this cloud defines an evolutionary path that allows flower color to evolve while circumventing less-adaptive regions. Hybridization between morphs located in different arms of the U-shaped path yields low-fitness genotypes, accounting for the observed steep clines at hybrid zones.

Antirrhinum is the genus of snapdragons. And the paper is all about evolvability at basis. What the research shows is that there exist high-fitness paths between magenta and yellow flower morphs in snapdragons, even though direct hybridization produces a low-fitness orange flower. What would appear to be two isolated fitness peaks in one view of a fitness landscape are actually connected in a high-fitness “cloud” when visualized in a higher dimensionality. While this may seem pretty obvious from a theoretical perspective, what this paper provides is an empirical demonstration of an instance where both the low-dimensional view of the situation argues for isolated fitness peaks and the high-dimensional view shows that there is no actual isolation and that there does exist a continuous high-fitness path linking the disparate genotypes in snapdragons in Southern Europe. So when an antievolutionist argues for “isolated peaks”, one can usefully refer them to this work and inquire as to whether the situation being discussed has been studied in sufficient detail to exclude the higher-dimensioned connectedness of high-fitness genotypes demonstrated here.

I Told You So

Ed Brayton has a post up about Alberto Gonzales’s casual denial of the Constitution of the United States. Given that Gonzales’s job is supposed to be enforcement of provisions of this document, I think it is clear that the fellow has no business filling this position, and should be turned out ASAP.

I did call this one at the time of Gonzales’s confirmation to the job.

Hovinds to be sentenced today

Hovinds to be sentenced today | PensacolaNewsJournal.com

The article notes that Kent and Jo Hovind are scheduled to be sentenced today following their felony convictions on 58 and 44 counts of tax evasion and other charges, respectively.

A federal clerk said Thursday U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers will sentence the Hovinds at 9 a.m. today.

Kent Hovind, who has remained in custody at an undisclosed location since his conviction, faces a maximum of 288 years in prison. Jo Hovind could be sentenced to up to 225 years in prison. She has remained free pending sentencing.

The maximum sentences seem unlikely. An online source indicates that convicted felon tax evaders have a median sentence of 22 months in prison, and serve a median time of 12 months in prison.

Given that there has been no apparent remorse on the part of the Hovinds, I would expect the judge to be somewhat less inclined to hand down sentences on the shy side of the median sentence. The guessing will be over in a couple more hours, I expect.

Update: The Pensacola News-Journal reports on the sentence handed down for Kent Hovind, and that Jo Hovind’s sentencing was postponed.

Pensacola evangelist Kent Hovind was sentenced Friday afternoon to 10 years in prison on charges of tax fraud.

After a lengthy sentencing hearing that last 5 1/2 hours, U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers ordered Hovind also:

— Pay $640,000 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service.

— Pay the prosecution’s court costs of $7,078.

— Serve three years parole once he is released from prison.

Hovind’s wife, Jo Hovind, also was scheduled to be sentenced. Rodgers postponed her sentencing until March 1 to allow her defense attorney an opportunity to argue possible discrepancies in sentencing guidelines.

Prior to his sentencing, a tearful Kent Hovind, also known as “Dr. Dino” asked for the court’s leniency.

“If it’s just money the IRS wants, there are thousands of people out there who will help pay the money they want so I can go back out there and preach,” Hovind said.

As various other people have noted, telling the judge that you plan to skim off the hard work and sweat of others to pay restitution is probably not the best strategy for convincing him of your sincerity in being let go to “sin no more”.

Besides which, Hovind should have no trouble with $250K of the $640K, if his “challenge” was worth anything to begin with.

The Linguist Fish — Unexpectedly Popular

Surprisingly enough, one of the special request designs appears to be the most popular item on my Evolving Designs Cafepress site. It’s the “Linguist Fish“, which is selling as a value T-shirt and on various sorts of stickers. I’ve just added a version for dark T-shirts, so everyone who thinks that black or dark T-shirts are cool can get in on this.

For background on “ghoti” as “fish”, check this page and, of course, Wikipedia.

Traveling Stuff, Part 1

We’ve decided to reduce our household belongings down to what will fit into our travel trailer and vehicles. I say “vehicles” though at the moment we only have one vehicle, our 1994 Buick 4-door sedan. Our 1997 Ford E-250 van packed it in early in the year, and we have been looking for a replacement tow vehicle.

The trailer is a 21′ Desert Fox toy hauler, bumper-pull hitch. Dry unloaded weight around 5000 lbs, fully loaded it is rated to 10,500 lbs gross vehicle weight. That gives us about two tons worth of stuff that we may be able to carry with us, a significant reduction from what we hauled in our last move.

The E-250 with its 5.4L engine could pull 7,400 lbs. It did OK with hauling the trailer with about a half-full water tank and some personal items for weekend trips. But what we are contemplating is outside that weight range. So our next vehicle is constrained by the need to pull 10,000 lbs or more.

We can get to the 10,000 lbs rating if we buy a Ford E-350 van with a 7.3L Diesel engine. Our other options are pretty much restricted to 3/4 ton or 1 ton pickup trucks. Among those, we are only considering trucks with some sort of “back seat” arrangement: extended, crew, super cab, etc. And, of course, we are only considering used vehicles, so we have to watch the miles on the odometer and condition of the vehicle closely. We don’t really see a need for 4×4 drive, since we don’t do off-road stuff, and that takes away about 500 lbs of capacity.

Current contenders are a 2001 Ford E-350 with the 7.3L Diesel engine and a 2004 Chevy Silverado 2500 HD with 6.0L gas engine. The Ford is at a dealer near our current location; the Chevy is at the dealer in San Diego from whom we bought our last van. We have some confidence in the latter, and no idea about the former dealer.

A resource that we have found useful is the Trailer Life web site, which handily compiles trailer towing guides for each year’s set of tow vehicles. Trying to compile that information ourselves was driving us nuts. A hat tip to Marc Nowell, who pointed us to Trailer Life and compiled some leads on tow vehicles for us, too.

We still need to pick our route. The direct route would be I-80 across much of the USA, including the Sierra Nevadas and the Rockies. Given the time of year, this could have delays due to snow and icy conditions on the roads. We’ll be consulting with AAA on whether we should take the long route and drop down to I-40, cross the mountains, and then go back north at some point to the east of the Rockies. That will add a couple of days to the trip if we do it that way.

More About Where I’m Headed

I’ve gotten confirmation that all the paperwork is in order, so I’m clearing things out of my office at the National Center for Science Education in preparation for a one-year leave-of-absence.

Where I am headed is Michigan State University where my new position is as a Visiting Research Associate in the Lyman Briggs School of Science where I will be working with Prof. Rob Pennock on a project looking at the evolution of intelligent behavior using the artificial life platform Avida. This project brings together a number of the topics that have interested me throughout my life: computation, evolutionary biology, and cognitive science. We’re likely to be applying some ideas from artificial neural systems, which was the topic of my master’s degree. I’m looking forward to it.

Good News Out of Kansas

FOXNews.com – Kansas Board of Education Moving Fast to Rewrite Anti-Evolution Teaching Curriculum

A new majority on the state school board is moving more quickly than anticipated to rewrite anti-evolution science standards adopted less than two years ago.

The board decided Tuesday to put the science standards on its agenda later in the day, a move that would allow the board to take a final vote next month.

Fast action is good. What will be better is if Kansas media and voters pay attention to the next set of school board elections to prevent this from happening over and over.

It’s Great to Be a Florida Gator…

Having the football team win the national championship game 41-14 is a nice bonus.

Toni called us saying that she had bet on OSU with her husband, and OSU was going down 34-14 at that point.

I had a nice chat with my dad after the game. I had to pick up bits from written accounts online, as I have no TV access here.