Monthly Archives: August 2008

Catching Up with the Past: A PDA and Skype

The era of multi-use phones is seeing the personal digital assistant (PDA) either acquiring phone capability or phones adding PDA-like features. Count me in the ranks of the academically underfunded, though; the bleeding-edge gadgetry simply isn’t in my budget. Earlier this summer, though, I was able to score a used PDA cheap off of eBay. I got a Dell Axim x50v PDA. It was cheap because its main battery doesn’t hold much charge and its charger had a bad connection to the PDA. Once the internal back-up battery drains, the PDA won’t launch no matter how well-charged the main battery is. I got a larger-capacity main battery and a three-function cable for it (charger, USB, and VGA out). My main goal was to have a WiFi-capable PDA to check out website accessibility for mobile users. However, I recently discovered a different use: telephone via Skype.

Skype has a Pocket PC version of their voice-over-IP application. I downloaded that to my Windows laptop and ran the install; it loaded on the x50v without incident. I’ve used it for a couple of long calls so far. Diane and I never bothered to get a landline here. We rely on our cell phones instead. So anything that could help us stay within our regular minutes on the cell phone plan, or enable us to drop down to a less costly plan, is all to the good.

I’ve had one bad consequence of running Skype so far: while Skype is active, the PDA does not time-out for power-down. I put the PDA in my vest the other day, and though I had hit the power-off button, it must have gotten pressed accidentally sometime. When I pulled the PDA out and tried to turn it on, I got nothing. The battery had run down completely. Simply recharging was not enough, the x50v would not load its WiFi drivers afterward. I had to do a hard reset and reinstall applications. If I had been relying on the x50v for the usual PDA connectivity, I would have been pretty put out. So for traveling, I need to turn off and then also remember to set the lock button so it won’t turn on accidentally again.

Otherwise, the unit seems pretty decent for phone communication. A headset for listening helps. The built-in microphone is the only thing going there, though I haven’t checked to see whether it can be paired with a Bluetooth headset/microphone combination. Fortunately, the built-in microphone seems sufficiently sensitive for my purposes.

I’d like to hear from others who are using PDAs or other mobile devices with Skype, and especially about Skype features I haven’t tried yet: SkypeOut for calling standard phones, and setting a phone number via Skype for SkypeIn. I have to be budget-conscious, so I’d like to know how those work out in practice.

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McCain Picks Palin: Medium Threat to Science Education

John McCain has picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate. Palin comes with solid conservative credentials, including agreement with the Religious Right on hot-button social issues. Palin is also known to be receptive to antievolution arguments.

Back in 2006, the issue of creationism came up in the Alaska governor’s race. Palin’s responses there indicate that she has bought into the “fairness argument” from the antievolution advocates.

Palin was answering a question from the moderator near the conclusion of Wednesday night’s televised debate on KAKM Channel 7 when she said, “Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.”

[...]

In an interview Thursday, Palin said she meant only to say that discussion of alternative views should be allowed to arise in Alaska classrooms:

“I don’t think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class. It doesn’t have to be part of the curriculum.”

She added that, if elected, she would not push the state Board of Education to add such creation-based alternatives to the state’s required curriculum.

Members of the state school board, which sets minimum requirements, are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature.

“I won’t have religion as a litmus test, or anybody’s personal opinion on evolution or creationism,” Palin said.

I think this is primarily an issue of a candidate who hasn’t bothered to find out what’s going on, and who doesn’t know about the antievolution movement’s dependence upon falsehoods, misrepresentations, and underhanded strategies to pass off narrow religious views as if they were scientific information. It’s possible that if Palin were to get informed, she’d still pick the route off minimizing cognitive dissonance and stick to the “fairness” script. It’s just that there is nothing “fair” about giving lying loudmouths unearned access to schoolchildren. If they want time for their ideas in a science classroom, they should do the science first and show that their ideas stand up to the scrutiny of the scientific community. The antievolution advocacy community decided back in 1968 that deception was the basis of their further strategies, not legitimate scientific effort. Pointing out that one “side” are recidivist cheaters should put paid to vague “fairness” mumbo-jumbo, but the lesson seems to be a hard one to get across.

The Anchorage Daily News editorial by Matt Zancey said it pretty well at the time:

Creationists are entitled to their views, but they’re not entitled to air time in public school science class.

The executive branch isn’t usually much involved with setting education policy due to the local control issue in the USA, though efforts like “No Child Left Behind” do have an impact. As a high-profile politician, though, Palin would have influence as an opinion-maker. The fact that she disclaimed explicit inclusion in curricula of antievolution gunk seems to indicate that she is not a hardline adherent. I’ll take that as a somewhat hopeful sign.

I’d be happy to talk with any candidate or public servant who would like the background on what really is meant by the “fairness argument” when the antievolution advocates push it.

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New Popular Book on Marine Mammal Research

From the MarMam email list:

The following is posted as a courtesy to Dr. William E. Evans (http://www.myweebio.net; email: evans1930@sbcglobal.net), who is pleased to announce the recent release of his new book published by Pensoft Publishers

— Fifty Years of Flukes and Flippers: A Little History and Personal Adventures With Dolphins, Whales and Sea Lions- 1958-2007.

Dr. Evans, is a Professor Emeritus of the Marine Biology Department, Texas A&M University at Galveston. He is one of the first group of scientists that made up the cadre of the Navy”s Marine Mammal Program which started in the 1960s at a Naval Base in Southern California. His primary area of research during his 10 years with the US Navy program was marine mammal communication and echolocation. It resulted in the design of a special research platform for observing and recording dolphins underwater called Sea See, and the radio-telemetric study of several species. In 1976, he took on administrative duties as the Director of the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute (HSWRI), expanded his interests in management of marine mammals. In 1984, he was Presidentially Appointed and Senate-Confirmed as Chairman of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, with oversight responsibilities for the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In 1988, he was Presidentially Appointed and Senate-Confirmed as the Under Secretary of Commerce for NOAA. He retired from Federal Service in 1989, and went to Texas to become the Dean of the then Texas Maritime College at Texas A&M University at Galveston and then Director of the Texas Institute of Oceanography. He retired from Texas A&M University in 1999. Currently, he is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Notre Dame and Managing Editor of the American Midland Naturalist. Below is the summary provided by the publisher, as well as information on how to purchase the book.

This book is a combination history of some aspects of Marine Mammal Science and a narrative of a special voyage by the author into the world of marine mammals. Although the study of marine mammals has a very long history, the modern era of research did not start in any serious way until the 1950″s. That is where this story starts. There were very few marine mammals other than pinnipeds that were being maintained in a controlled captive environment. There was an attempt in the late 1930″ into the 1940 to start what later would become the start of the modern era of oceanariums. Marine Studio started in Saint Augustine Florida but had to close with the advent of World War II. At the end of the War, Marineland of Florida came to life and provided a whole new experience for the general public to view and study dolphins (primarily the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin), up close and personal. It was also the start of a new approach and interest in research to understand how these amazing mammals have adapted to the marine environment. This was the start of many opportunities to try and answer some of the questions that have intrigued scientist for centuries. Since the author”s introduction to this new endeavor started in 1956 the book focuses on the development of this fascinating field of science from that period up to the present. The story is told from his perspective as an active participant. In the 1950s, the number of full time scientists involved with study of marine mammals was in the hundreds and most them were focusing on whaling and sealing. Today there are thousands of dedicated young and older scientists working with marine mammals both in zoos and aquaria. Unfortunately few of them know much of the fascinating history of their science. It is our hope that this book will address that issue. The book can be purchased directly from the Pensoft Publisher website: http://www.pensoft.net/notes/14111.stm for 20 Euros or your usual bookseller (book retails at about 45 US $$).

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Things Promoting Road Rage: Cigarettes

Yesterday, I was driving to work and ended up behind a black Pontiac Grand Prix driven by a male driver wearing short-cut dark hair. I’ll call him Goofus. Goofus is also apparently a smoker, for as we were stopped at a light, he flicked a cigarette butt out onto the road.

I thought for a moment about the fact that this is a disgusting habit, squared. First, there is the smoking part, which if Goofus wishes to partake in well away from me and people I care about, he is welcome to the increased health risks he takes… so long as he keeps his health insurance paid up to cover his chemotherapy later. Second, there is the added habit our Goofus has acquired, that of littering. I can’t say that I noticed whether Goofus bothered to snub out his cigarette before casually flicking the end out the window, but from observation of many another Goofus driving at night, I’d say that the odds are not good that he does. A smoldering butt flicked into the middle of a multilane roadway isn’t a likely combustion source for a fire, but one flicked into a shoulder or median would be, and I have the feeling that the casual disposal routine isn’t lighting up many neurons in Goofus’s brain; there might not be all that many to spare.

Then I got to thinking about the larger population of Goofuses, their consumption habits, and the lingering, non-biodegradeable nature of many cigarette filters I’ve seen as litter, hanging on for weeks, months, or perhaps even years after the momentary nicotine high was induced in the victim. Landfills aren’t attractive and have their own problems, but I think all around those cigarette butts are much better safely snubbed out in ash trays in vehicles and then delivered into a waste receptacle rather than randomly dropped smoldering onto or off of our public roadways. Hey, Goofus, want to project a somewhat less nasty image of the smoking public? Take responsibility for all the disgusting and dangerous (taking initial flammability and later indigestible-to-wildlife properties) leftovers from it, too. The image I’m left with is akin to the child long beyond normal potty-training age in which the lessons just haven’t taken.

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Disappointing Spam

Subject: Huge tool to please your lassie

What, email about table saws? A 3-axis CNC mill? A tractor plus mowing accessory? At least a lathe, surely…

Nope, just more useless “male enhancement” spam.

Diane would have liked any of the other tool items listed.

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A Few Words for Joe Biden

Fox News wasted no time in going on the attack after Senator Joe Biden was selected as the vice presidential candidate by Barack Obama. And part of that attack concerns “intelligent design”.

Biden also used unusually strong language to ridicule those who believe in creationism or intelligent design.

“I refuse to believe the majority of people believe this malarkey!” the senior senator from Delaware exclaimed.

But less than six months earlier, CBS News conducted a poll that found a majority of Americans (51 percent) do believe that God created humans in their present form. Even larger majorities reject the theory of evolution, according to the poll.

After the HBO show ended, a reporter asked Biden whether his dismissal of a belief held dear by most Americans might come back to haunt him if his White House bid gained traction.

With characteristic bluntness, Biden shrugged and said yes.

Mr. Biden, I’m sure you will have noticed that Fox News falsely elevated your critique of the content of “intelligent design” creationism into alleged ridicule of those who believe in it. This sort of persistent misrepresentation is endemic to the antievolution movement. At any point, you can count on them to take criticism of the ideas as if it were criticism improperly aimed at the people involved. You will also find that while they raise concern over respect as an issue on criticism, they seem to forget that when making statements about others.

Then there is Fox News’ fixation on demographics, cherry-picking poll results that tell a story they like. Fox News fails to take up the issue of whether religious antievolution conjectures are actually malarkey. This seems to put them in the unenviable position of using the fallacy of argumentum ad populum as their sole basis of coming at you on this point. But they have a handicap, as they are not going to do well in trying to argue for any sort of legitimacy for religious antievolution based on its content. Popular malarkey is still malarkey, and does not deserve a privilege of remaining uncriticized.

Mr. Biden, please continue to be blunt. “Intelligent design creationism” is a narrow religious view that has no claim to status as science. Keeping such things out of our public schools helps maintain real respect for the diversity of religious views held by American citizens. The organized political effort to force narrow sectarian views into public schools is a large-scale expression of massive disrespect for the views of the rest of American citizens. Don’t let Fox News try to cow you into being apologetic for taking a principled stance on this matter.

PS: The Fox News bit elsewhere in the article about what testimony can tell us is also laughable:

“He said, ‘I have good instincts,’” said Biden, purporting to quote Bush. “I said, ‘Mr. President, your instincts aren’t good enough.’”

His Democratic audience cheered appreciatively, but a close Bush confidante told FOX News on Saturday: “That conversation never happened.”

Beyond the “he-said-she-said” problem of testimony in general, there is the obvious disrespect Fox News shows by acting as if it were obvious that it must be you, and not the anonymous Bush flack, who was mistaken about things.

Update: I’ve been checking for propagation of the Fox News embellishments, and the headsup blog takes a critical view of the article. “headsup” tracked down the transcript of the Bill Maher show where Joe Biden and Bill Sammon (author of the Fox News embellishments) appeared. There’s a stunning quote mine that “headsup” points out.

Sammon/Fox News quote mine:

On the same show, Biden claimed to have once told a colleague: “Were we not senators, I’d rip your goddamn Adam’s apple out.”

“headsup” provides the context that detonates the quote mine:

*** If you’re interested, here’s how the “goddamn Adam’s apple” quote appears in the transcript:
“I’ll give you a very quick story. My mother, God love her, very smart woman. Eighty-nine years old. Lives with me. Good health. My mother says a rosary every Sunday at Mass when we go to Mass, for her deceased brother Ambrose, who died in New Guinea, and the body was never recovered. I said to one of my senior – one of my colleagues who is a very sophisticated guy, when we got in an argument – I said, “Okay, Charlie, this is what my mother…what do you think of that” And he looked at me and said, “I think that’s quaint.” And I said, “Were you not – were we not senators, I’d rip your goddamn Adam’s apple out, because who the hell are you to look at my mother and say it’s ‘quaint’?” We have too many elites in our party who look down their nose on people of faith. The people of faith don’t want us to share their view. They just want to know we respect them. We respect them.”

So Bill Sammon/Fox News excoriates Joe Biden for not respecting people of faith, except for when Joe Biden gets all testy over others not respecting people of faith, in which case Biden’s temperament is questionable. Are we clear yet? Suggestion to Merriam-Webster: find a mug shot of Bill Sammon and use it to illustrate “demagogue” in your dictionary.

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Mexico, the Vaquita, and the USA

The vaquita is a small porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California. It is also critically endangered, with only about 150 individuals left. The Associated Press reports that Mexico is working on ways to reduce human interaction with the remaining vaquita population, primarily through programs to get fishermen to stay out of vaquita habitat, use equipment that is safer for the vaquita, or to retire or otherwise leave the fishing trade. They are putting a chunk of change into these programs, though various fishermen asked seemed to think that the Mexican government’s financial inducements were a bit lowball.

An oblique mention is made of another issue in vaquita conservation, and that would be the alteration of the habitat of the Gulf of California due to a factor beyond the control of the Mexican government: water use of the Colorado River. The vaquita has the misfortune to be in part dependent on water that could otherwise be flushing toilets in Los Angeles, and therefore usually is. The AP report is pretty bland about this, noting that the water from the Colorado River that does reach the Gulf of California carries a lot of agricultural runoff, and that changes the Gulf’s chemistry. A somewhat more basic issue is that the volume of water reaching the Gulf is far reduced from pre-irrigation and aqueduct days, and that makes for a much saltier Gulf than was the case just a hundred years ago. So we have an unstated contrast between Mexico putting a pot of money into trying to do something toward vaquita conservation, and the USA that is doing… well, probably nothing particularly effective, at least if vaquita extinction is not the goal in mind.

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Caution: Lumping Hazardous to Species Health

There are great big groupers in the Atlantic and the Pacific. They look the same, so the assumption has been that they belong to the same species.

Genetics shows, though, that the Atlantic and Pacific populations actually differ substantially genetically, and so instead of having one widely-distributed endangered species, what we have is two species, both of them critically endangered.

“In light of our new findings, the Pacific goliath grouper should be treated with separate management and conservation strategies,” said WCS researcher Dr. Rachel Graham, a co-author on the study and convener of the first International Symposium on Goliath grouper which provided the impetus for this highly collaborative study.

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A Cool Genome

Another genome has been sequenced, and this time they did Trichoplax adhaerens. This is one of the simplest of multi-cellular animals, and a phylogenetic curiousity: the phylum Placozoa contains only T. adhaerens, a species discovered in 1883 in an aquarium.

The genomic work shows shared genes between T. adhaerens and H. sapiens:

Still, humans share elements with the lowly beast that only become evident through charting its DNA. A gene index published as part of the Nature paper, titled “The Trichoplax Genome and the Nature of Placozoans,” clearly shows many large collections of genes that group together on both the Trichoplax and human chromosomes.

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Checking China Censorship

WebSitePulse has a China firewall test that gives users a way to check if a particular website is being blocked by the Chinese government. A TV news item from the Olympics noted that multiple blogging athletes had no access to their weblogs from the Olympic Village. In the cases of sponsored athletes, part of the sponsorship deal apparently was having the sponsor mentioned regularly on the weblogs during the Olympics, which would pose difficulties under the circumstances.

I’m not sure of just how thorough the Chinese censorship regime is. While several websites I manage appear to be received just fine in China, I think that if I were going there and wanted to keep updates flowing on the weblog, I would be planning ahead for the eventuality that I might not be able to get direct access while in the country. WordPress has a feature allowing it to post emailed entries, which seems like a good first resort to not seeing the blog page. One wouldn’t, of course, be able to view or moderate comments in that condition. Second would be to set up a friend to be able to post on my blog for me and email entries to them. Blocking that would require that all my outgoing email was filtered. It’s relatively easy to protect content by use of encrypted attachments, which means the next step for a censor would be either to block all my internet access — or otherwise restrain me.

Like I said, I don’t know how seriously the censorship is taken or how extensive, but I think one of the email workarounds would likely work for at least a limited amount of time. Any China internet experts care to weigh in?

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Mice Reject Human Embryonic Stem Cells; Dog Bites Man

In the “Duh” category of research, a new study from Stanford University finds that the immune response of mice targets human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). The last sentence of the SciAm report may be the most candid of the whole thing:

Leslie Silberstein, program leader for cell therapy at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, called the new findings important, but said he was not surprised to find that human ESCs were attacked in the same way as other cells.

No doubt. The useful part of the research appears to be a quantification of how long the hESCs lasted in normal mice, immune-compromised mice, and mice given immuno-suppressant drugs. hESCs lasted up to 28 days in the mice receiving immuno-suppressants. If human immune systems target foreign hESCs in the same way (a speculated but untested possibility), the researchers note that there may not be time to achieve a therapeutic benefit.

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Evolution in Culture: Nintendo

I’ve commented before about advertising showing broader acceptance of evolution in a positive light than the antievolutionists like to paint. The latest example I’ve come across is a Nintendo Wii online advertisement. It uses a cartoon version of the “March of Progress” graphic with a slogan, “Evolve Your Gaming”.

Of course, I was using the TitanTV site when the ad took over my browser, so I’m not entirely happy about finding it…

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More Depressing Ocean News

A report says that exotic Pacific red lionfish, a staple of hobbyist salt-water aquaria in the USA, are expanding across the Caribbean following an accidental release during Hurricane Andrew in south Florida.

The voracious and poisonous predators suck up reef fish at an astounding rate, destabilizing already-fragile food webs on reefs dealing with disease, pollution, and direct human pressure from fishing, boating, and diving activities.

So researchers are scrambling to figure out what will eat the menacing beauties in their new Caribbean home, experimenting with predators such as sharks, moray eels — and even humans.

Adventurous eaters describe the taste of lionfish fillets as resembling halibut. But so far, they are a tough sell. Hungry sharks typically veer abruptly when researchers try to hand-feed them a lionfish.

Blackened lionfish, anyone?

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The Self-Recognition Club Expands: Magpies

Research shows that magpies can display mirror self-recognition behavior. Mirror self-recognition is one of the few tests of behavior that is generally considered to be indicative of the presence of a critical component of consciousness, the ability to recognize oneself. Several of the magpies tested used the mirror to attempt to remove added dots of color on their feathers.

I don’t know all the member species of this club, or all the species that have failed mirror self-recognition. (It should be noted that not every individual of a species must show the behavior, so some negative tests with small numbers of test subjects may not be absolute indicators of capability.) Here are some in each category as I recall offhand, so corrections and additions are welcome:

Mirror self-recognizers (updates marked with *):

Humans (older than about 18 months)
Chimps
Bottlenose dolphins
Magpies
*Asian elephants
*Bonobos
*Orangutans
*Gorillas
*Killer whales

Negative tests of mirror self-recognition:

Cuttlefish
*Capuchin monkeys

So far, all the self-recognizers I know of happen to be vertebrates. It is interesting that not all of them are mammals, though, so any theory explaining these cognitive capabilities needs to be expansive enough to account for the different neural architecture of the avian brain.

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Dead Zones: The True Oceanic Horror Story

Scientific American has an article about dead zones, those regions of ocean bottom that become too depleted of oxygen to support many common forms of living organisms. Worldwide, the article reports that over 400 such regions have been identified. A handy graphic depicts the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and US Eastern seaboard, and what it shows comes as no surprise; the US coastline is dotted with dead zones, while they are far less common in the waters of countries with less agribusiness.

The basic issue concerns nitrogen, an element needed for robust plant growth and the basis of fertilizers used for agriculture. Nitrogen provided through fertilizers, though, does not stay put in the fields where it would work as intended. Nitrogen-rich runoff makes its way into streams and rivers, and thence to the ocean. There, it provides a boost in available resources to algae, encouraging blooms. Other microbes feast on the abundant algae and deplete the available oxygen as they do so. Mobile animals may be able to escape an incipient dead zone, but many will not, and those animals unable to travel far — or at all, as various molluscs, barnacles, and other sessile organisms cannot leave their points of attachment — will die in place when the oxygen drops below the concentration they need for basic metabolism. This triggers another round of growth, this time of anaerobic bacteria that feast on organic matter and produce toxic byproducts like hydrogen sulfide gas. The combination of low to non-existent oxygen concentration and toxic chemicals yields the dead zones that are the subject of the linked article.

Some of these dead zones are fluctuating, coming and going with seasonal variations in nitrogen inflow, currents, and temperature. But others appear to be (ironically) long-lived, as in the year-round dead zone that is the Baltic Sea. The article notes that even when nitrogen influx is terminated, enough may already be sequestered in a region that recovery may take a long time to happen, and may require large-scale alterations in currents, such as those accompanying powerful hurricanes, in order to convert a dead zone back into an area that is productive for oxygen-requiring life.

I’m saddened by the number of dead zones surrounding the state of Florida in particular. While growing up there, I became interested in science largely through appreciation of the natural history of the marine environment. While many people got their sunburns and frolicked on Bradenton Beach, I would be a mile to the south across the Longboat Key inlet snorkeling in the shallow bay waters of Beer Can Island. There were several diverse ecological regimes to be seen within a few acres of shallow-water habitat, with characteristic flora and fauna for each. High current flow and somewhat deeper water next the rocks and concrete of an old bridge piling gave a distinctly reef-like habitat with small serranid fish, mantis shrimp, and highhats. There were solitary corals and soft corals as well there. A hundred yards to the south, though, water depths of three to five feet and modest tidal fluxes yielded abundant algae (“seaweed”) with populations of blue crab, horse conch, sunray venus, pipefish, seahorses, marginella, bubble shells, and many tiny gastropod species living on the algae. Two hundred yards to the east, and the very shallow water and high temperature gave a different environment, with pink algal films over mud flats with lugworms, ceriths, and nassa snails. I’m going by memory of times long gone by, and I’m sure things have changed a lot there since I was a young man getting acquainted with a world of wonders. I’d hate to see the region devoid of multicellular animals and plants, coated in noxious slime from anaerobic microbes. But if not the particular place of my acquaintance, the map shows that many other formerly vital and productive places now must be choked off and unavailable as nurseries for the young of many familiar species. Worse than that, these places are now death traps for planktonic juveniles who happen to drop too low in the water column where the oxygen has been sucked out of the system and toxic by-products of anaerobic life have accumulated.

There’s an obvious tie-in to discussion of alternative fuels here. Biofuel initiatives will come with costs that don’t have neat entries in accounting ledgers. If we continue with using a grain crop like corn for biofuel production, we certainly cannot expect to reduce fertilizer use dramatically. Instead, we are likely to see a total increase in fertilizer use despite measures noted in the article, such as greater efficiency of crop production via genetically modified varieties. That would be because a dependence on biofuel production will require greater land utilization in order to meet fuel consumption demands. Besides that, agricultural land used for biofuel crops is not available for food crops, and we are still going to want to eat and to have surplus food for export. These issues indicate that the alternative energy discussion has to be broadened to encompass the impacts that, quite literally, lie downstream.

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FAQ: Is there a difference between “intelligent design” and “creationism”?

Over at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, there’s discussion of the theism-in-science issue. Among the questions, one popped up that lots of intelligent design creationism cheerleaders just don’t get.

HannahJ Says:
August 13, 2008 at 7:13 pm

Ed, the unstated assumption I see you making is that ID is religion. Please demonstrate that more thoroughly to me; from what I’ve read about both ID and creationism, there appears a distinction.

And I replied there:

The principle is simple enough: two things with the same content are the same thing, no matter if their labels differ. A person using an alias is not another person. And intelligent design creationism is a proper subset of the argumentation used by previous forms of creationism. The things left out of the IDC subset are simply those calculated to confuse the legal system into falsely inferring that there is some difference from the creationism that went before. It is what the SCOTUS in 1987 perceptively called a sham. The 2005 Kitzmiller decision correctly cited the 1987 decision on exactly that issue.

Would “Hannah J.” be Hannah Maxson, Casey Luskin Award winner and IDC cheerleader?

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The New Independent: Paris Hilton?

John McCain’s invocation of Paris Hilton in attacking Barack Obama has garnered a response from… Paris Hilton. With tongue firmly in cheek, Hilton takes up McCain’s snideness. She also delivers an energy policy that is at least as sensible as the sound bites delivered by the candidates themselves.

If somebody organized a McCain/Hilton debate, that would be worth buying tickets to see.

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Diamonds Aren’t Forever?

The Institute for Creation Research has a project called RATE, whose intent was to overturn radiometric absolute dating methods as evidence for an old age of the earth. One of the arguments that they made was that diamonds contain significant levels of the radioactive carbon 14 (14C) isotope, indicating that they cannot be older than about 50,000 years old, and thus point to a young age of the earth. This sort of technical wrangle is something beloved of young-earth creationists (YECs), and indeed one such person going by the handle “tripa” has commented here on another thread about the RATE diamond study.

Physicist Kirk Bertsche has responded to the RATE diamond and coal studies with an essay hosted on the American Scientific Affiliation website. Dr. Bertsche notes a number of inconvenient facts that undercut the arguments made by ICR’s advocates, including standard procedures within radiocarbon AMS work that were ignored or not followed properly, and indications from the RATE measurement results themselves whose obvious interpretation points to sample contamination. It is an elegant take-down of yet another antievolution argument whose pseudo-technical gloss is intended to impress rather than to inform.

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Nikon and DIY

Back in college, I used to take long exposures of things at night. Using my trusty Nikon F2, I could manage this two ways. There was a “T” setting on the shutter dial; if I set that and clicked the shutter release, the camera would open up and stay that way until the shutter dial was set to a different selection. Or, if I set the shutter dial to “B” for “bulb”, I could use a cable release, and the shutter would stay open so long as the cable release was depressed. A locking cable release helped handle the longer exposures.

With my digital Nikon D2Xs, things are a bit different. There is no “T” selection in the menu for manual mode. While there is a “bulb” selection, my good old cable release for the F2 has no applicability to the modern camera.

So I’ve added an electronic shutter release to my gadget bag. This is based on the Nikon MC-22 remote release. That goes from a Nikon 10-pin remote port to a set of three banana plugs.

I’m using telephone wall jacks with this. One of them I’ve added banana jacks to, so the MC-22 plugs fit right in. There’s a switch on that one to enable me to keep the “focus request” and “shutter release” functions separate or join them. Both must be closed with ground for the shutter to fire. I can hook up two separate switches to handle being able to focus and then trip the shutter, and have a rig like that with two momentary-contact normally-open switches. But that doesn’t get me to an easy way to do the long exposures. I’d have to set up something to keep the momentary-contact switch closed for that.

The other wall jack I’ve wired to a push-on, push-off switch. So with the one hooked to the MC-22 set with the switch to combine the focus request and shutter release lines, I can push-on to start a long exposure and push-off to end it.

Why telephone wall jacks, you might ask? Well, that means that I can use telephone extension cords to connect up the two jacks, so I have an electronic cable release of extremely flexible length. For travel, I’m carrying one of those retractable cables.

I tried it out with just having the camera in an unlighted room with the curtains drawn. With manual mode, I set “bulb” for the shutter speed, f/16 for the aperture and ISO 100, pressed my gizmo to “on”, and went away for a while. I didn’t time it precisely, but it was likely about a three minute exposure that I gave it. Coming back and pressing again ended the exposure, and I could review it on screen. It was not too bad for a guessed exposure. Looking at the image zoomed-in, it was apparent that Nikon’s warning about “hot” pixels on long exposures was no hyperbole. There was certainly a scattering of red, green, and blue dots through the image. I may have to look into whether anyone has come up with a filter for that kind of thing.

But at least now I can look forward to trying out some night-time exposures that go beyond the 30s limit. There’s always been some tension between what photographers want and what the limits of the tool and process can yield. I’m ready to see what I can do with the system now.

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Georgia Aquarium

Here’s photos from the trip that I, Laura, and PZ took to the Georgia Aquarium back on July 15th. They had some really nicely done displays, but the thing that sets them apart is their 6.3 mega-gallon tank and the four whale sharks they keep in it.











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