Monthly Archives: April 2007

The Fair Use Thing

Shelley Batts wrote a blog post recently and used a figure from the scientific paper she was discussing to illustrate her arguments. Then Shelley received a cease-and-desist type notice. The blogosphere went wild, and the publisher basically told Shelley to forget about the cease-and-desist notice.

There is a joker in the deck when dealing with “fair use” and copyrighted materials: The Digital Millenium Copyright Act doesn’t have an explicit “fair use” exception. The letter of the law will allow a copyright holder under DMCA to press for statutory damages upon infringement, and those aren’t cheap.

So, while getting copyright holders to come to a “gentleman’s agreement” that what science bloggers generally do with copyrighted materials should be given a pass is a good thing, the real battle lies elsewhere.

Copyright protection has gone far beyond a reasonable period for creators to benefit from control of their work. The big push behind the ever-expanding time periods for coverage has been the juggernaut of big business, specifically the media corporations whose holdings might otherwise start becoming public domain. As it stands, A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” is not yet in the public domain in the USA, but will be in 20 years or so, if the copyright age is not further extended in the interim. Corporate authorship of works gets protection for a whopping 95 years currently.

The same corporate interests that have pushed so relentlessly to keep materials from entering the public domain have also pushed for ever more draconian penalties to be applied to infringement of copyright and unprecedented controls and veto power over emerging technologies. Just come up to speed on the sorry history of what media interests have done to make DVD and other digital storage technology friendly to their interests, like arguing for the ability to remotely — and permanently — disable equipment that a copyright holder believes may have been used to infinge a copyright. The club-like nature of acts like the DMCA, with no provision for “fair use”, demonstrates just how far things have gone.

Countering the out-of-control copyright vulture culture isn’t going to be solved with a little pressure on publishers of scientific papers. The extent and duration of copyright protection needs to be balanced by the need to protect free expression, which includes expression about works that are still under copyright protection. Right now, things are way out of balance. Does “Winnie-the-Pooh”, published in 1922, need to be kept from the public domain until 2027? I don’t think so. Like Project Gutenberg has been saying since the mid 1990s, “Free Winnie!”.

Dry Rot, Not Arson: The National Park Service and Science

I have a post up at the Panda’s Thumb by that title. The National Park Service may not have explicitly told its rangers and docents not to divulge the age of features in the Grand Canyon, but they do have policy guidelines that assert the use of creationism to demonstrate accurate knowledge of park features and review policies for books sold in NPS-affiliated bookstores that are supposed to only pass titles whose content is accurate, even though they continue to sell anti-science titles like Tom Vail’s “Grand Canyon: A Different View” and Vine DeLoria, Jr.’s “Red Earth, White Lies”. Check it out.

Death Without Notice: Marine Mammals and Aquaculture

A press release from the Living Oceans Society offers video and photographic evidence of three species of marine mammals killed in anti-predator nets at a salmon farm in British Columbia. The salmon farm apparently is only required to report dead marine mammals that they shoot themselves, and they further disputed that there ever was a Steller’s sea lion that died in their nets. Living Oceans notes that the video evidence demonstrates that even self-report would be unreliable from these sources.

This is a problem. Management of protected marine species depends upon good information concerning losses in populations, so having unreliable data or incomplete data is in some ways worse than no data at all. At least with no data there is no temptation to rely upon a non-existent number as if it had some meaning for your analysis. Famously, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) accepted as true the log books from Soviet whaling factory ships, when after the Soviet government collapsed it was revealed that the ships kept two sets of log books, one for the IWC showing them taking whales in approved waters and numbers of the correct gender, and the actual log books that reported that the ships were really whaling in waters where whales calved and taking whatever animals came in range.

We know what worked for the US tuna industry, which was the addition of a NMFS observer to crews on tuna ships as an independent check on the veracity of reports concerning bycatch. It also resulted in a chunk of the US tuna industry moving its registration to foreign countries to evade that requirement. (Although the primary reason for the registry shift wasn’t the fact of observers being placed on ships per se, but rather that the NMFS observer pool included females, and the tuna ship crews weren’t having any of that.)

Pretty much any change that really makes a difference to the reporting of marine mammal bycatch in aquaculture — and its reduction — is going to make aquaculture more expensive. The Living Oceans Society is pushing for self-contained aquaculture facilities that will eliminate any interaction with marine mammals. It is obviously easier and cheaper to produce aquaculture when you simply net off an existing chunk of ocean and don’t have any sort of water system of your own to deal with. But at a minimum, government bodies charged with the oversight of marine mammal populations need to take action to assure that they are getting good information about interactions with aquaculture.

Software Upgrade, Interface Down

I’ve upgraded this weblog to the latest WordPress release. That, unfortunately, seems to have broken my theme. I’ll see what I can do about that. In the meantime, the default theme at least works.

Update: I’ve downloaded the latest revision of the Shaded Grey theme and am working on customizing it again.

Also, I’ve updated the Baywing site and my photography blog as well. At least, I have current software running. Maybe one day I’ll get time to post to them, too.

Early Warning Sign of Educational System Collapse

I can hardly think of a more explicit statement that an educational system has abdicated its responsibility to produce an informed citizenry than the following quote from this story from Casper, Wyoming:

“I am very pleased with the openness of the evolution panelists and their willingness to discuss other ideas,” Wallace said. “In the play ‘Inherit the Wind,’ the creationists are looked at as ignorant…but not here.”

I’m willing to discuss creationist evolution denial, all right; I’ve spent long enough studying it and talking about it. What I’m not prepared to do is recognize it as a legitime scientific concept without sufficient empirical work that convinces the scientific community, or as a legitime field of intellectual inquiry. It is a form of error, one unfortunately embraced and promulgated despite its manifest failings. Its transmogrification from “creation science” to “intelligent design” in 1987 most clearly shows the morally corrosive nature of this error as the entire pretense of “ID” was demonstrably nothing more than a dodge to get around an inconvenient Supreme Court ruling. Lying about what you are up to is not a value that Christians should accept.

The Clergy Letter Project nailed it when they said,

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.

‘Hi, my name is Kent Hovind, and this is my appeal.’

Local briefs | Local News |

The Pensacola News Journal reports that an appeal by Kent and Jo Hovind was denied by Judge Casey Rodgers. Jo Hovind’s sentencing will proceed.

Carrie Sager provided a haiku,

Appeal: Rejected!
He shouldn’t have started it,
“Hi, I’m Kent Hovind…”

Kent Hovind’s “dissertation” starts off that way. An appeal written in the way Hovind wrote his dissertation would be expected to fail to cut any ice at any level of legal jurisprudence.

From China, With Love

Spiking theorized in pet deaths – Los Angeles Times

Chinese rice and wheat protein exports used in some recalled pet foods were artificially boosted with the addition of melamine, a known cause of kidney failure. The Chinese businesses involved aren’t answering questions and it is unclear that the Chinese government is going to do anything about it.

The single quote from the article that got my interest was:

The Chinese government has said that the contaminated wheat gluten was not meant for pet foods and therefore was not its regulatory responsibility.

What the heck did the Chinese government think that the contaminated wheat gluten was for, if not food of some sort?

Dealing with China seems to give us a trip back in time to those heady days of the late 19th century, when commercial interests made their profit in whatever way they could, without pesky interference in the form of government regulations. In particular, there was a reason that the USA enacted the Food and Drug Act, which was the clear and present danger of bad health outcomes from contaminated foods or drugs.

Adulteration and misbranding of foods and drugs had long been a fixture in the American cultural landscape, though the egregiousness of the problems seemed to have increased by the late 19th century (or at least they became more identifiable). By this time science had advanced significantly in its ability to detect this sort of fraud. Also, legitimate manufacturers were becoming more concerned that their trade would be undermined by purveyors of deceitful goods. Quinine-containing cinchona bark powder could be made less therapeutically effective–and much more profitable–by cutting it with just about anything, alum and clay masked poor wheat flour and thus netted a heftier return for the unethical company, and sufferers of any number of serious or self-limited diseases were relieved only of their finances by vendors of worthless nostrums. Even the so-called ethical drug firms were guilty of this practice.


As a pet food manufacturer in the linked story says, they’ll be avoiding Chinese suppliers in the future, or subjecting such sources to much closer scrutiny.

Live, On Stage, AG Gonzales!

US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, after rehearsing his lines on a grueling practice schedule over the past week, took his show to the Senate Thursday. Let’s just say that he received a critical reception. His comment that he practiced for every hearing immediately brought him questions in return concerning his responses to earlier questions, where his answers were at variance with the stance he is taking now.

The late Molly Ivins had a wonderful description of another aspect of Gonzales’s performance, originating in her description of Congressional hearings into the Iran/Contra affair: Republican Forgetful Syndrome. Jon Stewart said that a count of ‘I don’t recall’s from Gonzales was over forty — before lunch.

Many have already noted the essential disconnect between Gonzales’s testimony that he was completely out to lunch so far as paying attention to meetings he attended and his absolute confidence in saying that he was sure that nothing improper happened. You can’t simultaneously claim ignorance to evade responsibility for a poor decision while offering a firm opinion concerning the conduct of Justice Department adminstrative people in the same breath. The Senate committee, thankfully, also found Gonzales’s performance in this regard unbelievable.

This is just pitiful. I recommend a very short run for this show.

Virginia Tech Massacre

Two shooting incidents on Monday at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia have left over thirty victims dead and a number of wounded. The earlier incident appeared to be eesentially a domestic dispute taken to a fatal ending, with two people killed in a dormitory. The second incident had a well-prepared shooter methodically killing people in two or more classrooms in another building on campus, taking such precautions as chaining doors shut behind him. The shooter in the second incident eventually shot himself before police could confront him.

There is going to be all sorts of discussion of this event in the days ahead, with various talking points applied. Antievolution groups are already claiming the event could be due to a decline in morals because of acceptance of evolution. But that’s not of immediate interest to me.

My talking point here is that aberrant behaviors, such as that seen in the shootings at VT, fit quite well into studies of behavior and stress coupled with an appreciation of large population sizes. We know that dense populations increase stress on individuals. We know that large populations have numerically more people who fall into extremes of distributions. Combine those two pieces of information and you have increased stress on some people who were already way out of the normal concerning aggressive tendencies as a potential source of spectacular headlines. Trying to decrease stress is at least a broachable topic: you can engage people on the subject and perhaps even have some discussion. Discussing human population size, though, is not a topic some people want to have discussed. The two issues are linked, though, since the mere fact of high population density is associated with higher levels of stress. It’s not so simple as saying that decreasing total population would help, since people don’t distribute themselves uniformly. You would have to address some other issues, like why urbanization is still a key component of our economic operating model, in order to get at lowering the population density at places where that density is currently highest. This is still uncomfortable territory. It calls into question our continuing fascination with convenience and near-complete abandonment of planning in favor of just letting things develop.

So just keep this idea in the back of your mind as the commentary on the VT massacre progresses. Try classifying suggested policy changes into categories of those that somehow address and stress and population density considerations, and those that suggest things that are orthogonal to those considerations. I think that you might see a pattern there.

Wildlife and Sad Endings – A red-tailed hawk who made the academy his home for 15 years has been killed by a car

The column linked above talks about the untimely demise of Uther, a male red-tailed hawk who had lived at the military academy at West Point for 15 years. Uther apparently was taking advantage of a roadkill squirrel carcass when he himself was hit by a car. Although he was taken to a vet’s office, he died of his injuries.

When it comes to wildlife to which humans have interacted, the historical data shows that sad endings are the rule, not the exception. From Gavin Maxwell’s companion otter, shot by a peripatetic minister with a thing for blasting anything that moved with his trusty shotgun, to the unnamed and unrecognized masses of displaced wildlife that die because of habitat loss, it seems that exposure to humans is at the root of much non-human nasty, brutish, and short living. We applaud the adaptiveness of “Pale Male”, the Central Park red-tailed, and the various peregrine falcons that have taken up residence in our cities to prey upon the excess pigeon population that naturally follows urbanization. Less often do we note the abruptly shortened lives of others, like Harris’s hawks in Tucson, Arizona, whose average lifespan on entering the big city is a couple of years because of the risk of electrocution on the power poles in use there. Living around and among humans is dangerous work for wildlife.

In general, even when you think you are doing some particular bit of wildlife a favor, there is much potential for bad endings. Even most wildlife reintroduction projects, which have taken into account many of the common problems with putting human-reared animals back into the wild, often find themselves essentially feeding the predators in the reintroduction site rather than appreciably raising the numbers of the target population. One project trying to reintroduce Attwater’s prairie chickens in Texas had what they called “Black Monday”, when in the morning they released about thirty birds, and by the next day there were only a few left alive.

This is an issue that I think about from time to time concerning our falconry birds. How should a falconry bird die, after all? One can hope for an aged bird, long too weak to fly to prey effectively, simply dozing off on a perch and not waking up again. But what one is likely to get is a bird that succumbs to an illness (given West Nile virus and bird flu as exotic newcomer diseases to supplement aspergillosis, parasites, and other maladies), get shot by a gun hunter, gets trapped by a leg-hold trap, gets zapped on a power pole, gets lost in the field, or otherwise meets with an end unforeseen and unwanted. As a passage-trapped bird, our birds at least have some inherent distrust of humans to guide them if they get separated from us. That may sound odd, but the fact is that our best hope for recovering our birds if we get separated from them in the field is enhanced if they don’t immediately seek out the nearest humans and try to get acquainted with them. Most people simply aren’t prepared to trust that an apparently wild bird of prey coming near them is not a threat.

What I try to keep in mind against the likely onset of sad outcomes is, in the case of our falconry birds, the memory of the time that we have been able to spend as a cooperative team hunting in the field. We try to take care that we aren’t taking some huge risk each time we do go out, but there is no way to pursue falconry without some element of risk. This is just part of what falconry, and life, are about.

Reader Question: Getting Started in Falconry

I got a question from a young reader asking about how one gets into falconry. This is the text of my response:

To get a falconry permit, you should contact your state’s wildlife department. This is usually the same branch that handles hunting and fishing permits. What you want is an information packet on falconry permits. This should include the federal and state regulations concerning falconry and instructions on how to apply for a permit. It should also include a list of permitted falconers in your state. You will need to find a falconer with a general or master permit who is willing to sponsor you through a two-year apprenticeship. You will have to pass a 100 question multiple choice test. Almost everything that you need to know is covered by the regulations on the one hand and the information you can learn by studying Beebe and Webster’s “North American Falconry and Hunting Hawks”. I recommend tracking down and buying the 2nd edition of this book. Expect to pay about $80 for it. You will also need various equipment items and a mews and/or weathering area for your bird; these will be inspected before you will be issued your apprentice falconry permit.

Falconry requires a significant commitment of time to the care and training of the bird. This will be between one and several hours every day. Neglect of the bird will make it highly likely that at the next opportunity, it will simply fly off and not return. Training of falconry birds has been accomplished for centuries using what we recognize today as positive reinforcement. Punishment in training again makes it likely that the bird will not return. You will need to provide a whole-food diet for the bird. They cannot be maintained in good health using processed meats. Hunting involves being able to dispatch caught prey items in the field and learning how to prepare them for storage if the bird is not simply fed on the prey in the field.

You should also be prepared for the lows as well as the highs of falconry. There are many opportunities for losing a bird, and depending on how attached you become to particular birds, this can be quite painful emotionally. Birds get lost; telemetry equipment can help with this, but is pricey. Birds can be the victims of wild predators; golden eagles can easily catch and kill most hawks, and owls are noted as opportunistic killers of falconry birds of all sorts. An insecure mew can expose your bird to risk from domestic predators like dogs and cats, or to wandering wild predators like raccoons, opossums, or coyotes. In the field, one is usually at the risk of having gun hunters mistake your bird for a prey animal. A proportion of falconry birds are killed every year when they cross electrical lines; this often can occur where there are exposed power transformers mounted high on poles, but is possible on almost any power pole with an exposed wire. Bad equipment can doom a bird if it breaks a leash but flies off with jesses and swivel forming a loop that almost certainly will catch on some branch or projection. Birds trapped from the wild may already have a high parasite load and succumb to that if not caught. In general, birds mask symptoms of disease until the disease is far advanced and they do not have the strength to keep up a pretense of health, which means that close monitoring of your bird for slight signs of problems is a skill that you will need to develop, as well as contacts including veterinarians with skill and experience in dealing with raptors.

If all of that has not put you off, then do follow up with your state government to get started toward your falconry permit.

Good luck and good hunting,

Right Outcome, Wrong Reason

Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton lays out the reasons why it is likely that Attorney General of the United States Alberto Gonzales is on his way out of office.

I still don’t know why we in this country tolerated the appointment of someone who in any way condoned, much less worked hard to justify, torture. That he would be forced from office for practicing politics instead underscores the fact that in the war on terror, we lost: we took up the means of terror and joined the moral cesspool of those we originally spoke of opposing. Whether Iraq emerges as a stable secular state or not is not part of the victory conditions for that war; when we took up a moral imperative as our justification we entered what should be seen as a court of equity, and it is how we conducted ourselves that makes the difference on whether we can claim victory or not. Even if the terrorists were somehow able to eradicate the entire USA, had we but maintained our commitment to our principles of justice, that would have been victory on the moral battlefield we selected. Instead, we have cheapened ourselves by choosing morally repugnant means of acting in this “war”, at every turn we chose cheapness and expediency as our guiding principles, discounting human dignity and justice. I include myself in this; I spoke up here about torture before, but did little else. I contributed to our failure by not doing more to impress upon my elected representatives just how strongly I felt about this topic. Complacency is complicity here, folks. Gitmo is my fault, and Abu Ghraib, and all the lives disrupted because we don’t bother to presume innocence anymore, because I knew that our leadership was going down the wrong path and I didn’t do more to stop it.

Are ID Creationism Advocates Afraid to Acknowledge Past Debates?

The Discovery Institute’s big guns, John West and Bruce Chapman, had an opinion piece published in the Dallas Morning News,
“Are the Darwinists afraid to debate us?” They were complaining about Southern Methodist University faculty who objected to SMU providing facilities for a DI dog-and-pony show promoting “intelligent design” there. The DI’s approach to this was simple: turn it into a media opportunity by inviting one or a few SMU faculty to “debate” ID at the dog-and-pony show. The SMU faculty were, needless to say, less than enthusiastic about doing any such thing. Enter West and Chapman cashing in on the media attention by hyping the “Darwinists are afraid to debate us” angle.

Apparently, West and Chapman don’t want to acknowledge what happened when I debated DI CSC Fellow Ray Bohlin at SMU last year. As one commenter here put it,

Saw your talk Tuesday night. You were great. I was the lady with the NCSE Reports. I’ve taught HS biology (with evolution) for nearly 28 years. I hate to be “superior sounding” but was that the best ID can do? With his credentials I would have thought he would have been able to do more than cry about how poor ID gets excluded all the time. I was really disappointed. With as much money as they spend on publication one would think they could spare a little for research. After all one good evidential experiment would be enough to get private donors to fund even more. But come to think of it Micheal Behe was once asked if he had the money to fund research what would he do and he said he would fund other people’s research. Makes me wonder if the reason he said that was because he didn’t have a clue how to intelligently design an experiment to demonstrate intelligent design. Hard to do when you can’t even prove the “designer” exists. Glad there are people out there doing what you do. Thanks. MH

I recall an episode of “Taxi” where Andy Kauffman’s character got upset, eventually trotting out the concept of “blotnik”: he would simply declare the incident (Alex sleeping with Latka’s mother) never to have happened. The DI, it seems, firmly believes in “blotnik”. This follows a pattern: where ID advocates don’t do so well, it is treated as never having happened. Same thing with the June 17, 2001 debates at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where William Dembski, Michael Behe, and Warren Nord were matched up with me, Ken Miller, and Genie Scott. You can get the video of a chunk of that online. I call it “ID’s Black Sunday”; it certainly seems to have been pitched into the memory hole so far as the ID advocates are concerned.

And, of course, KvD… the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case is a debate venue that the DI would rather have you forget ever happened. They had their chance to show the world, under oath, that they had what it took to be worth two minutes in the science curriculum of high school biology, and demonstrated definitively that two minutes was way too much time to spend on them. Three out of five of the experts in the case affiliated with the DI withdrew; Bruce Chapman last year said in an interview that he asked them to do that. How is it that a guy who wanted to restrict an “exchange of ideas” in a Pennsylvania courtroom in 2005 can criticize people who don’t care to participate in a DI circus today without immediately being called a hypocrite and sent home with an invitation to fold up his op-ed piece until it is all sharp corners?

ID is not a legitimate branch of intellectual inquiry. It began in the deception of “Of Pandas and People” and ended in the “breathtaking inanity” of the Dover case. Doctors don’t have to respond to demands from snake-oil salesmen to “debate”.

The real issues are that ID represents a narrow sectarian religious viewpoint, not science, and that science classrooms should have the information that is accountable, that is, that has a record of success in the scientific literature. Evolutionary biology has a voluminous record in science, with both experiments and observational studies
testing hypotheses, with development of ideas where erroneous ideas have demonstrably been culled, and with application of ideas that improve our lives every day in medicine, agriculture, and even engineering disciplines. Evolutionary biology has convinced the scientific community in the only “debate” that matters.

What Do You Think About Egg Donation?

My niece, JoAnne Robin, is doing a project for an honors project at the University of South Florida. She chose to conduct a survey on views concerning human egg donation. She is a few survey respondents shy of her target number of responses. Give her a hand by going to her online survey and answering the questions there.

Take the advice about not revealing personal information seriously, though; the SurveyMonkey site this is at seems to have pre-loaded the fields in the survey with someone’s response.

Pope Benedict: Theistic Evolutionist

Pope Benedict publishes book on creation and evolution

This news article reports on a topic that tugs at antievolutionist heartstrings: would the Pope, leader of the Catholic church, throw in with them, joining them in the “intelligent design” big tent? The answer, at least according to this news report, is No. Pope Benedict is reported to adopt theistic evolution, the idea that God’s method of creation is what science has discovered concerning evolutionary biology. And we know from William Dembski that “intelligent design theorists” are no friends of theistic evolution.

Of course, Pope Benedict also argues against atheism premised on the findings of science, taking that as a philosophical stance that is beyond the ability of science to decide upon.