15 April 2006


The current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Peter Pace, had some interesting things to say in defense of Rumsfeld recently:
"As far as Pete Pace is concerned, this country is exceptionally well-served by the man standing on my left," General Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon. "Nobody, nobody works harder than he does to take care of the P.F.C.'s and lance corporals and lieutenants and the captains. He does his homework. He works weekends, he works nights.

"People can question my judgment or his judgment," he continued, "but they should never question the dedication, the patriotism and the work ethic of Secretary Rumsfeld."
That's almost a non-denial denial. To the best of my knowledge, none of the recent criticisms of Rumsfeld have involved his dedication, patriotism, or work ethic. In fact, I have little doubt that he is dedicated to something, works very hard, and considers himself to be a patriot. I think he's unbelievably stubborn, irresponsibly unwilling to face the possibility that he might be wrong, and mindnumbingly incompetent. Oh, and I definitely question his judgment, too.

14 April 2006

Free Speech 101

Here's a quick lesson in how freedom of expression works:

Everyone get's to make their opinions known. That means everyone. Including people who have views that you don't like. Your right to freedom of speech does not include the right to keep other people from expressing their opinions.

A professor of Literature and Language has demonstrated a criminal lack of understanding in this regard - and I do mean criminal. According to several sources, including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Prof. Sally Jacobsen led a group of students from one of her graduate-level classes in destroying a display of 400 crosses that had been set up on the school grounds by an anti-abortion group:
"I did, outside of class during the break, invite students to express their freedom-of-speech rights to destroy the display if they wished to," Jacobsen said.

Asked whether she participated in pulling up the crosses, the professor said, "I have no comment."
The professor may not have wanted to comment on whether or not she participated, but there is a picture of her participating available on the campus paper's website. Apparently, she encouraged and participated in this act of censorship and vandalism because she didn't like the way the display made her feel:
She said she was infuriated by the display, which she saw as intimidating and a "slap in the face" to women who might be making "the agonizing and very private decision to have an abortion.

Jacobsen said it originally wasn't clear who had placed the crosses on campus.

She said that could make it appear that NKU endorsed the message.

Pulling up the crosses was similar to citizens taking down Nazi displays on Fountain Square, she said.

"Any violence perpetrated against that silly display was minor compared to how I felt when I saw it. Some of my students felt the same way, just outraged," Jacobsen said.
Wow. What an amazingly arrogant, obnoxious, and self-righteous piece of work she is.

For the record, the student group that erected the display had, as Jacobsen could easily have discovered had she bothered to ask, obtained the school's permission. And I strongly suspect that she's nowhere near as concerned about the appearance of NKU endorsing the message when it's one she approves of.

Personally, I think that the anti-abortion group's position on abortion is wrong. I've seen plenty of anti-abortion displays, including graveyard-type displays like the ones in question, and I really dislike them. If I had the power to pick and choose what opinions are allowed to be expressed, I definitely wouldn't allow those. And that's exactly why I shouldn't be given that power - and why nobody should have it.

Fortunately for Northern Kentucky University, their president has a much better grasp on what freedom of speech means than that idiot that they are, at least for the moment, employing:
"I am very disappointed that this happened," Votruba said. "At a university, the opposing views should be able to bump up against each other. Responding with pamphlets or speeches would have allowed the power of ideas to compete."
I'm an extrordinarily big fan of the tenure system, and a huge fan of academic freedom. In this case, however, neither should provide enough of a shield to protect that clueless idiot's job. Actually, neither should provide any shield at all. Like freedom of speech, academic freedom only works when it protects all parties. It certainly does not extend to including the right to suppress any offensive view anywhere on campus. Professor Jacobsen at the very least inspired, and almost certainly participated in, an action that violated the free speech rights of the anti-abortion group, was antithetical to the basic principles of academic freedom. Along the way, she appears to have committed at least criminal destruction of private property, and possibly theft.

The university has promised to take action against anyone involved in the incident, and I hope they stand by their word on that. In addition, the anti-abortion group has decided to press criminal charges against those involved. Good for them. This professor needs to learn that others have the right to their own opinions, even when they differ from her own. She also seems to need a refresher course in actions and their consequences.

(Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars)

Aplications of Evolution 4 - Migration and Sex

In recent years, the costs associated with genetic studies have dropped dramatically. That isn't much of a surprise. When the two main tools used in modern genetic studies, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and DNA sequencing, were first developed, they were extrordinarily labor intensive. Initially, PCR required the scientist to spend hours and hours moving the samples from one water bath to another. DNA sequencing required the researcher to determine the order of bands on a gel by eye - determining a single sequence could easily take a whole day. Later, methods were developed to automate these processes, and they became much less labor intensive. Instead, they were simply very, very expensive.

Fortunately, technology tends to become cheaper over time, and this has proven to be as true for molecular genetics as it was for CDs and DVDs. In recent years, the costs have dropped dramatically. This means that using genetic techniques has now become feasible for many more researchers, and that they are being used to address many more questions. In many cases, the addition of genetic tools to a study has led to some amazing and sometimes unexpected results.

One interesting example just appeared in the "online early" section of papers for Molecular Ecology. (This means that the paper has been reviewed and accepted by the journal, and will appear in print in a future issue.) In this paper, a group of wildlife biologists used both radio-tracking and genetic techniques to look the effect of the Ventura Freeway on the Los Angeles area populations of bobcats and coyotes. The authors examined two types of data: they looked at the movement of individual animals that had been captured and radio collared, and they looked at the genetic structure of the populations. What they found is that many animals migrate from one side of the freeway to the other, but that few of the migrants are reproductively successful.

The authors used three study locations. Two were on the north side of the freeway, but separated from each other by a major secondary road. The second was south of the freeway, across from the northeastern site. This experimental setup let the authors compare the effect of the freeway to the effect of the secondary road. Over the seven years of the study, they radio collared and tracked 110 coyotes and 87 bobcats. Genetic samples were collected from all of the animals they captured.

The radio collar data allowed the researchers to see where the animals were moving. This technique has been around for a while, and is still used today. They found that only a small percentage (4.5% of coyotes; 11.5% of bobcats) of the animals they studied were observed to cross the freeway. A much larger percentage (~50%) of the animals crossed major secondary roads.

OK, there's nothing surprising about that. Anyone whose ever watched Wile E Coyote and the Roadrunner square off can tell you that coyotes and highways aren't a real good mix. The bigger the road, the bigger the problem for the animal. That makes sense. However, the road is not an absolute barrier to the migration, and it only takes about one migrant per generation to keep populations from drifting apart, so it looks like the highway won't significantly fragment the bobcat and coyote populations. That's good news, because a fragmented population is usually at a greater risk of extinction than an intact one.

If the radio collar data does a good job at predicting the migration rate, the genetic data should show that there aren't big differences between the animals at the three study sites. To examine this, the authors used a series of statistical tests to determine whether the individuals sampled should best be considered to be a single population, or separate populations. They found that the coyotes grouped into two distinct subpopulations, and that the bobcats grouped into three. A second series of tests was used to determine how distinct the populations were from each other. This demonstrated that there were statistically significant differences between the populations. These results indicate that there is a very low level of migration between the populations.

So what's going on here? The radio collar data seems to point to a much higher migration rate than the genetic data demonstrates. What could cause such a difference?

It all comes down to that perennially popular topic - sex. It looks like physical migration across the freeway is relatively common. The genetic data actually supported this, too. Some individuals with the genetic signature of the south of the freeway populations were found north of the freeway, and vice versa, indicating that there are migrants. The reason that the populations show so much genetic divergence in the face of all that migration is simple: the migrants aren't reproductively successful. Their genes aren't winding up in the gene pool, and from a genetic perspective any migrant that doesn't reproduce doesn't count.

This is one of those experiments that screams to be repeated. If the pattern is real and holds true for a wide range of taxa, it implies that populations might be more easily separated than suspected, which might, in turn, imply that evolutionary divergence is also even easier than suspected. Even if the findings only apply for territorial animals such as bobcats and coyotes, they might require substantial changes in how those species are managed.

12 April 2006

Faith-Based Problems

The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune has an article that does a really good job at illustrating the pitfalls involved when it comes to using faith-based programs to provide social services.

Apparently, a conservative Lutheran church that was receiving money from their local county to provide hot lunches and other services to disabled and vulnerable adults turned away a potential client because the client was a post-surgery male to female transexual. The county, as a result, will no longer refer clients to the church program, and the church is now loosing money.

In this case, funding the faith-based group led to a lose-lose situation. The county needs to find (and fund) other resources to take up the slack, and the church program is now running with a massive deficit. There are really no winners here.

Something that is worth noting is that this situation illustrates how the first ammendment protects religion from the government. When a church takes money from the government, the government gains leverage over that church. Strings can be attached to the funding, and the funding can be cut if the church is unwilling to subordinate its beliefs to those of the government.

The government, on the other hand, cannot fund organizations that are not willing to provide services to everyone that the government believes is entitled to those services. If a transexual is entitled to government services, then the government has an obligation to provide those services. The government should not have to select the contractor that is the best religious fit for the client - that forces government employees to make religious decisions, and it makes the whole process less efficient.

This does not mean that religious groups should not be able to receive money to fund social service programs. That's been going on for much, much longer than Bush's faith-based initiatives thing. What it means is that any religious group that wishes to receive funding has to take the funding with the strings attached, and provide services without regard to how well the client fits their worldview.

The organization that I used to work for, Bronx Jewish Community Council, has provided a number of government funded services to the poor and elderly for decades now. They can receive the government funding because they do not discriminate. Clients are accepted based only on two factors: the need of the client, and the availability of the services. Nothing else matters. I used to joke around about being a token goy on the staff, but the hiring is actually totally nondiscriminatory (with the possible exception of an off-the-books insanity requirement). The only concession that the government made to the religious sponsorship of the agency was permitting the agency to close on jewish holidays - but only if the agency was open on an equal number of secular holidays.

Those types of government funded religious programs do good work, and have been around for ages. Providing money to those groups is not what the "faith-based" funding initiatives are about. Those involve funding groups who are unwilling, for religious reasons, to meet the non-discrimination standards expected of the government. That's an end run around the Constitution.

(Minor editorializing here: the most legally appropriate action the county could have taken under the circumstances would have been to pull all funding and clients from that church. The county claims that they did not do so because they were concerned about the possible effects on the clients already enrolled. I'm usually a hardliner on separation of church and state issues, but in this case I think the county made the right call. I've done a little work in social services in the past, and disruption can have big effects, particularly on seniors.)

(Additional editorializing: Jesus ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, but those schmucks won't feed a transexual. That's real Christian of them, isn't it.)

Hat tip: PZ Myers

Carnival Blogging

The latest issues of three good blog carnivals are up online, and all are worth looking at.

Tangled Bank #51 is available over at Discovering Biology in a Digital World.

The Magic School Bus hosts the 62nd edition of the Carnival of Education.

The 10th Carnival of the Liberals is up over at Pharyngula.

There are more than enough really good posts linked here to blow the hell out of productivity for the day. Enjoy.

11 April 2006

Yet more desperation at the DI

In the latest misaimed blast from the Whine and Cheese Division of the Discovery Institute, Michael Francisco expresses shock and dismay at the idea that people would actually claim that Intelligent Design and creationism are the same thing:
Finally, during the debate over [Kentucky Governor] Fletcher’s school board nominees, one House member argued they should "send a message that we are not a state that will fall prey to intelligent design, which is nothing more than creationism.” This argument merely repeats the common misconception that intelligent design and creationism are the same.
With all the effort that those dedicated Discovery Institute folks have put into trying to convince people that ID really isn't creationism, what could possibly make people think that it is?

In this case, they should probably blame the Governor of Kentucky himself. He seems to think that creationism and ID are somehow connected, and he hasn't been shy about stating that belief in public.

From his January, 2006 State of the State speech:
Our founding fathers recognized that we were endowed with this right by our creator.

So I ask, what is wrong with teaching “intelligent design” in our schools. Under KERA, our school districts have that freedom and I encourage them to do so.

This is not a question about faith or religion. It’s about self-evident truth.
And then there's that letter that he sent to the Kentucky Academy of Sciences, in response to their rejection of Intelligent Design:
My educational background provided me with thorough understanding of science [sic] and the theory of evolution. Our nation, however, was founded on self-evident truths. Among these truths are inalienable rights" endowed by their Creator." From my perspective, it is not a matter of faith, or religion, or theory. It is similar to basic self-evident objective truths that are the basis of knowledge.
Later in that same letter, Fletcher says that, "Since 1970, state law specifically allows public schools to teach "creationism" in conjunction with the theory of evolution," indicating that he both thinks this is appropriate, and that he has no comprehension of the fact that such laws have already been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The Discovery Institute can complain all they want about people mistakenly thinking that Intelligent Design is another form of creationism. We've heard them say this before, but reality has contradicted the cdesign proponentsists once too often for anyone reasonable to believe them.

A mildly ironic picture

Catshark found and posted this picture the other day. The statue wound up where it was as the result of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, but the final position of the statue is just slightly ironic.

The subject of the statue is Louis Agassiz, a noted 19th century biologist and geologist. And creationist.

Am I a liberal?

The election season is starting to heat up. Scandals rock DC on what seems like a daily basis. The public is split, at least according to the polls, on many major issues. We are heading toward a political (and probably historical) crossroad. Now is the time for people to stand up for what they believe, and to help move the country in the right direction.

But where do I stand? Sometimes I have a hard time figuring that out.

I think of myself as a moderate, but whenever I take one of those online political spectrum tests, it tells me that I am a liberal. One of them even called me a socialist. I just don't get it. Why aren't my views middle of the road?

I believe that it is better to let a guilty man walk free than to incarcerate someone who is innocent, and that our legal system should err in that direction whenever possible. I believe that privacy is essential if a country is to truly be free, and that the convenience of law enforcement should come in second when weighed against privacy rights. I also believe that people who commit crimes should be held responsible for their actions, and that prison sentences should be considered to be a punishment for those actions, not just as an opportunity to rehabilitate the offender.

I believe that parents, not the government, are the best judge of what children should be exposed to on television and the internet, and that parents have both the right and the responsibility to oversee what their children watch and where they surf.

I believe that both religion and the government are better off when they are rigidly separated from each other.

I believe that the right to bear arms implies a responsibility to use them appropriately and safely, and that the government should be able to link the responsibility with the right.

I believe that all Americans should have an equal opportunity to succeed. I believe that the best route toward this ideal involves education, and that it is in everyone's best interests to have the government fully fund education for everyone here.

I do not believe that my ancestors would have wanted to lock the doors of Ellis Island behind them.

I believe that having a strong military is in the best interests of our country. I do not believe that our leaders have always used the military appropriately.

I believe that decisions about the economy and the environment should be made, as much as possible, from the perspective of our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I do not believe that they should be made based on the next election cycle, much less the next news cycle.

I do not believe that there are many politicians in Washington who are capable of thinking past the next news cycle. I think that is a bad thing.

I do not believe that spreading American ideals around the world is a bad idea. I do believe that it should be done by example. It certainly should not be done at the point of a gun.

I believe that corporations will act in the best interests of their shareholders whenever possible. I do not believe that the best interests of the shareholders will always correspond to the best interests of the environment, the economy, or the country. The government should, when necessary, stand up against the corporations to protect the rights of citizens.

I believe that if the health of our economy depends on a having certain unemployment rate, then we do have a responsibility to help the unemployed. We also need to recognize that unemployment isn't completely random, and that some people will be more likely to be laid off than others. We need to do what we can to give them a better chance to stay employed.

I do not believe that any of the things I've said are unreasonable or illogical, and I don't know why they make me "liberal." Personally, I think "common sense" is a much more accurate description.

But if "liberal" really is the best word to describe those beliefs, than I am proud to be a liberal.

10 April 2006

Iran, the Bomb, and the White House

PZ Myers weighed in yesterday with his opinions on the recent news articles about our delusional executive branch planning possible attacks on Iran. My own take is slightly different.

PZ, as I understand it, is opposed to attacking Iran. The reasons that he provides are definitely sound:
When I say I don't want war in the Middle East, that includes pre-emptive strikes that would kill huge numbers of innocents, shatter and destabilize yet another country, and inflame the hatred against my country, as well as against Israel.
I have a hard time arguing against that. He's probably right - any attack against Iran will probably have all those consequences, and more.

At the same time, Iranian President Ahmadinejad is one of the people in this world I'd least like to see with nuclear weapons. (Jerry Falwell would scare me a little less, and Pat Robertson would scare me a lot more.) I worry about the consequences of bombing Iraq. And I wonder if the long-term consequences of not doing it aren't going to be even worse.

Given the long-term instability from the religious fanatics running Iraq, I think that erring on the side of caution in this case probably involves leaning toward taking action if there is reasonable evidence that they are trying to develop nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, there is a problem with that whole "reasonable evidence" thing.

Determining if there is reasonable evidence that Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons (as opposed to power applications) requires us to trust the administration. Again. After we've already been burnt once.

I'm pretty sure that the case is stronger this time, but I have to admit that I thought that some of the evidence for weapons in Iraq was strong right after Colin Powell's presentation to the UN, too. The fact is that after the last few years, I have no trust left in what the administration says.

It'd sure be nice if that whole "boy who cried wolf" thing was just a story.

The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, My Foot, and My Mouth

Here's the latest update in the continuing saga of UT Professor Eric Pianka, and the articles from the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise.

I got up early this morning, and made several phone calls to try and get to the bottom of why all mention of Pianka had been expunged from the paper. Bottom line: big misunderstanding, and the articles are now back online. It had absolutely nothing to do with the paper trying to dodge responsibility for its actions, or the paper not standing behind the articles, or any of the other possibilities that I had thought were likely. It appears that I didn't have the full story, and jumped to some conclusions in the earlier articles that were not entirely justified.

Here's the details on how I figured this out, for those interested in checking my work:

The first call I made was to the Gazette Enterprise. There, I spoke with the managing editor of the paper, Mr. Christopher Lykins. When I told him that I was calling regarding the Pianka matter, he informed me that all decisions about that were now "being made by the home office," and that his paper no longer had "any jurisdiction" over those decisions.

That fired up my curiosity a little more. Andrea Bottaro and Reed Cartwright (of The Pandas' Thumb) were both kind enough to track down the ownership of the paper, and provide me with some contact information for the "home office." The Gazette-Enterprise, it turns out, is owned by a company called "Southern Newspapers Incorporated," which owns a number of small papers in the south. The staff at the office then referred me to Mr. Bill Cornwell, publisher of the Brazosport Facts, as a corporate contact.

All of this led me to believe that I was getting a very polite runaround, but that belief was quickly shattered when Mr. Cornwell returned my call. He was actually quite surprised to hear that the articles were not available online. Apparently, the company had directed that the transcript and the audio recording from the speech be removed because both were at least partially incomplete. That was apparently misunderstood, with the result being that all of the materials were removed. He has since gotten back in touch with the Gazette-Enterprise, and the articles are now back online.

My impression that the Gazette-Enterprise was trying to hide from their responsibility was wrong. This will serve as a lesson to me to make sure that I do my research more thoroughly before posting in the future.

As a final note, I think that this whole affair should be the topic of more than just blog articles. If anything, it could serve as an exemplar of both the advantages and disadvantages that are present in the new relationship between blogs and the more traditional media sources. It also provides some valuable insights into the way that fast-breaking stories can be used and misused by various factions for political gain, and how those factions can actually shape the story as it breaks. I'll probably post more on this over the next few days, and I'm also working on an article for print publication (assuming I can find someone to publish it).