21 April 2006

Earth Day Concerns

Today, there was an Earth Day fair on campus. I had a little time during lunch, and wandered on through. Strangely, I found myself becoming more and more annoyed as I moved through the displays. It took me a while to figure out exactly why. It was the lack of topicality of some of the displays.

Before I go on, I want to make it clear that most of the displays were both relevant and interesting. A couple looked at things like sustainable agriculture and aquaculture. There was a display, including a portable processing unit, from the local biodiesel group. Another highlighted low cost and relatively high efficiency solar cells, suitable and affordable for home use. For me, those are exactly the kinds of display that are exactly what Earth Day should be used to highlight.

But then there were the other displays. There were a couple wandering around in what I thought was a display of a sadomasochistic relationship, before I figured out that it was just a recreation of Abu Ghraib. He was wearing the black suit and hood, and she was passing out fliers demanding the trial of Bush et al for crimes against humanity. Our local communist was there, with lots of copies of Revolutionary Worker. Another few people, somewhat more moderate than the first pair, were circulating with a petition demanding Rumsfeld's resignation. Another group was working the immigration issue. Those were the types of display that annoyed me.

It's not that I don't think that those are views that are entitled to be displayed. Hell, I agree with some of them. It's just that they aren't Earth Day issues.

The planet is too important to politicize in any way, and it is certainly too important to make it a partisan issue. Addressing the problems that are facing the planet is going to need to involve everyone. We need to involve more people, with a wider range of views, in the solution to the problem. Linking Earth Day, the environment, and environmental issues to a wide array of unrelated (not to mention controversial) positions is not going to accomplish it. Instead, it risks painting the environment as another purely liberal issue, alienating those we most desperately need to convince.

Friday Random Ten, the Pau Hana edition

My own department here at the University of Hawaii might not make the top ten graduate school lists, but there are still plenty of good reasons to go here. One of them is our Friday afternoon Pau Hana. Getting together out on our building's lanai for beers, pupus, and conversation gives us something to look forward to at the end of the week.

This week, my iPod seems to be looking forward to Beers as much as I am.

1: On A White Sandy Beach Of Hawai'i
Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

2: Sitting On the Dock of the Bay
Otis Reading

3: Real Good Looking Boy
The Who

4: Can You Picture That?
Dr. Teeth And The Electric Mayhem Band

5: Bubble Toes
Jack Johnson

6: Blues Traveler
The Hook

7: Man On The Moon

8: It's 5 O'Clock Somewhere
Jimmy Buffett

9: I Can See Clearly Now
Jimmy Cliff

10: Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

20 April 2006

National Priorities

It's that time of the year again - the military needs more money if they are going to keep fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. This time, the pricetag is in the vicinity of 100 billion dollars.

$100,000,000,000 is a lot higher than any of the previous emergency bills, in large part because the administration had been doing its best to hide the true costs of the war by putting off equipment repairs. The war has gone on for long enough now that further delay has become impossible, according to the Washington Post article linked above:
[Army Chief of Staff GEN] Schoomaker said as much at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in February, when he remarked that a "bow wave" of costs "pushed forward from previous years" is now cresting.

Pushing back the costs was dishonest, but that's nothing we haven't come to expect from this administration, and that's not actually my biggest complaint about the size of my bill. What pisses me off is the pork.

That's right, the congress has decided to use the military emergency spending bill to fund projects in their district that are completely unrelated to the war. In what is probably the most glaring example, Mississippi's two Republican senators added a $700 million earmark to the bill. The earmark will fund relocating a rail line that was just rebuilt after Katrina (for $250 million) away from the coast, making the casino developers happy:
The real impetus appears to be economic. For more than half a dozen years, Mississippi officials, development planners and tourism authorities have dreamed of the complex restructuring of Mississippi's coastal transportation system that Lott and Cochran now want to set in motion. Under the plan, the CSX line -- which runs a few blocks off the coast line -- would be scrapped. CSX would move its freight traffic to existing tracks to the north owned by rival Norfolk Southern.

Then U.S. 90, a wide federal highway that hugs Mississippi's beaches, would be rebuilt along the CSX rail bed. The route of the federal thoroughfare would be turned into a smaller, manicured "beach boulevard" through cities such as Biloxi, where visitors could "spend more time strolling among the casinos and taking in the views," as the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal put it.
What a sense of priority. Getting an unsightly rail line away from the tourists is very important. Actually giving the people in the military enough of a pay raise to match the inflation rate this year: not so important.

19 April 2006

Full Sleeze Ahead!

According to the Washington Post, a very interesting television add is being run in the Ohio 6th. The commercial is an attack add, calling candidate Bob Carr, "too far left to work with Republicans in Washington," and characterizing him as a, "liberal Democrat." The add is paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee.

OK, so far there's nothing surprising about this, right? After all, you'd hardly expect the Republicans to run an add supporting a Democrat in a congressional election. That's true enough, but here's the kicker: Carr isn't the Democratic candidate for the district. At least not yet. He has to win the primary first.

A Republican attack add against the Democratic candidate in the general election is an attempt to hurt that candidate. A Republican attack add against a Democrat running in a primary is an endorsement. (Unless, of course, you think that Democratic voters are looking for a candidate who isn't a liberal, and who wants to work with Republicans.)

The NRCC is running the attack adds in an attempt to get themselves a nice, weak candidate to run against in the fall:
If Carr wins, there is no reason to suppose that he will be a formidable candidate in this open district, being vacated as incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland runs for governor. Carr once ran a hapless campaign, as a Republican, in Michigan. He lost that race in 1996 to Rep. Bart Stupak (D) by 71 percent to 27 percent.
Gotta love it. It's not even may yet, and the Republicans are already doing their best to run a nice, dirty, dishonest campaign.

18 April 2006

Show Up.

How involved in politics should scientists be? What factors are important when it comes to making that decision?

For some of us, the answer to that comes fairly easily. One or two of us managed to evade the stereotype of the scientist-of-the-future, and caught the involvement bug because we were popular enough to win a role in student government early in our lives. A few of us were caught in a different stereotype - the children of the flower children - and have never known what it is like to not be involved in political causes. A bunch of scientists are just plain incapable of keeping their noses out of anything they bump into, whether it directly involves science or not.

The decision is harder for others. There are a few scientists who really do have an ivory tower mindset, and actively try to avoid anything that smacks of politics. Many put so many hours into their science that they don't have any to spare for politics. More are apathetic to politics, or disillusioned, or simply unaware of the issues.

Both the involved and uninvolved should read a new article in PLoS Biology. The article, "Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology," provides both reasons to get more involved in the political process and some hints as to where the efforts of scientists might most effectively be focused.

The article, written by Liza Gross, focuses on the work of Dr. Jon Miller, who has spent decades studying the public perception of science. Some of what he has to say is depressing (if not terrifying). Some of his message raises the possibility that there is still hope. All of it is worth reading.

The key point made in the article is this:
"The era of nonpartisan science is gone."

That's a fairly bold statement, but it is true.

As the article points out:
It's not that Americans are rejecting science per se, Miller maintains, but longstanding conflicts between personal religious beliefs and selected life-science issues has been exploited to an unprecedented degree by the right-wing fundamentalist faction of the Republican Party. In the 1990s, the state Republican platforms in Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Missouri, and Texas all included demands for teaching creation science. Such platforms wouldn't pass muster in the election, Miller says, but in the activist-dominated primaries, they drive out moderate Republicans, making evolution a political litmus test. Come November, the Republican candidate represents a fundamentalist agenda without making it an explicit part of the campaign. Last year, Miller points out, former Senator John Danforth, a moderate Missouri Republican, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece that for the first time in American history a political party has become an arm of a religious organization. The United States is the only country in the world where a political party has taken a position on evolution.
So what is a scientist do do? Miller has a suggestion that might come as a shock to some. If you don't like the way that the fundamentalists treat science, then get involved:
The era of nonpartisan science is gone, says Miller, who urges scientists and science educators to learn the rules of this new game and get behind moderate Republicans as well as Democrats to protect the practice and teaching of sound science. Given the partisan attack on evolution and stem-cell research, he thinks scientists need to learn more about how the political process works. They need to be willing to run for the school board, write $500 or even $5,000 checks to support moderate candidates, and defeat Christian right-wing candidates. “Scientists need to become involved in partisan politics and to oppose candidates who reject evolution or attack scientific research,” he says. “It takes time, money, and paying attention to the issues.”
For most scientists, both time and money are limiting resources, but that is a hurdle that must be overcome. In politics, the decisions are made by those who show up. If we want things to change, we need to get involved.

Not everyone has money to donate to a political campaign. Time, on the other hand, is something else. We might not have as much of it as we want (or need), but we always have some. Running for the school board takes a lot of time. Speaking during the public comment period of a school board meeting takes a lot less. Writing your congresscritter takes even less - in fact, you could have written one in less than the time it's taken you to read this. You might not be able to do much, but there's no excuse for doing nothing. It's time to show up.

A Brief Pop Gen Primal Scream

Right about now, at the tail end of a long and painful homework assignment, I have a strong urge to take my population genetics textbook and give the next person who tries to tell me that there's no math in evolution a good whack upside the head.

And any time that a single individual represents more than half of an organism's great-great-grandmothers, you should be allowed to just list "too high" as the inbreeding coefficient, and to hell with figuring all the possible routes through the pedigree.

17 April 2006

Sally Jacobsen, the Northern Kentucky University professor who decided that her emotions should dictate what speech is allowable on campus, has been removed from her teaching duties and will retire at the end of the semester.

Interestingly, however, she is apparently still refusing to confirm or deny whether or not she was personally involved in destroying the display. The entire incident was an absolute disgrace, but that's the part that pisses me off the most. This self-righteous fool has the strength of her convictions right up to the point when it looks like serious consequences are pending - and not an inch further.

16 April 2006

The Real Enemy in the War on Christian Holidays

It occurs to me that Bill O'Reilly and other members of the paranoid right have managed to totally miss the boat when it comes to figuring out who is responsible for the whole overblown "War on Christian Holidays" thing. They've focused their venom against the ACLU and anyone else who wants the religious message kept out of any governmental acknowledgment of the holiday. The people who just want to be able to celebrate Christmas and Easter as secular holidays aren't the ones that they should blame. They should, if they are going to be angry at anyone, focus their wrath against those who actually made it possible to celebrate Christmas and Easter as something other than a religious event.

Look, I've read the Bible, and there's nothing in there about a really, really fat guy trying to squeeze down a skinny little chimney with a massive sack of cheap, plastic toys. The only mention of rabbits that I can think of isn't in the New Testament - it's way back in the food laws section of Leviticus. In that passage, the rabbit is not identified as a distributor of painted eggs; it's misidentified as an animal that "chews the cud" (it's chewing something, folks, but it ain't cud).

If the Christian Right wants to get angry at anyone about the secularization of Christian holidays, it should be the people who secularized them in the first place. Those fine folks who make the cards at Hallmark come to mind. Mattel Toys probably bears some of the blame for the whole secular Christmas thing, along with Toys'R'Us. If you're looking for a specific target for Easter blame, maybe you should complain about the folks who make the Cadbury Cream Eggs, or those disgusting little Peeps.