13 May 2006

A killer is a killer is a killer

Over at Uncommon Descent, DaveScot is once again angry with Kevin Padian. This time, it is because Padian dared to suggest that the only thing separating suicide bombers from the murders of abortion doctors is that one commits suicide and the other doesn't. DaveScot apparently thinks that murdering someone because of your religious views is somehow more acceptable, or at least less heinous, if you have a specific target in mind than it is if you are indiscriminate in your attack:
Suicide bombers kill/wound as many as possible, they don’t know who the victims are, they don’t care whether the victims have done anything wrong (perceived or real), and in their indiscrete targeting even kill people of their own creed.

Conversely, in the United States there have been only two abortion doctors murdered (AFAIK) and in both cases the murderer knew exactly who he was killing, perceived the target as a serial murderer of innocent children, and didn’t kill anyone else.
I could point out that DaveScot neglects some facts while attempting to excuse homicidal lunatics. He fails to mention that several other doctors were saved only by poor aim. He also conveniently forgets the whole Eric Rudolph episode - Rudolph, you will recall, killed an off-duty cop and severely wounded a nurse in a clinic bombing in Alabama. DaveScot is so eager to distinguish between the homicidal fanatics who share his faith and those that do not that he failed to mention any of that.

Ultimately, though, those points are really not all that relevant to the basic point that Padian was making (and that DaveScot was objecting to. His point was simply that suicide bombers are motivated by something different than the depression that is more typically implicated in suicide. Rather than being victims of an illness, the bombers are motivated, as are the murders of abortion providers by a belief that their action is righteous, and will be seen by God as such. In that, the suicide bombers are equivalent to homicidal anti-abortionists. (Please note that I am not describing all opponents of abortion as homicidal. Most are not.)

If DaveScot wishes to draw some type of distinction between homicidal Christian abortion opponents and homicidal Islamic suicide bombers, I suppose that he can. It is certainly true that there have been fewer killers of abortion providers than there are suicide bombers, and that the suicide bombers kill more people per incident. In my mind, though, those are distinctions that lack any substantive difference - Dante's Hell might have had many levels, but nobody consigned to hell was suffering anything less than eternal torment. Similarly, it might be possible to fit the different killers with different descriptions, but ultimately a killer is a killer.

12 May 2006

Googling terms.

Via Stochastic (Seed Magazine's in-house blog), we find that those dedicated purveyors of all things Intelligent Design over at Telic Thoughts have decided to compare the volume for the Google searches of "Intelligent Design" and "Darwinism". They're all happy about the results and the trend, but they forgot one thing: most (sane) people don't usually refer to evolution as "Darwinism." For a more reality-based view of the trends, take a look at this one. And by all means, look at the regional popularity of the terms.

11 May 2006

Wiretaps, investigations, and Yiddish

Back when I was in high school, I was an intern in the branch of the New York City Mayor's Office that handles telephone complaints. It was an interesting job, and I learned a lot. A great deal of this education was provided by a Hasidic Jew named Isaac, who worked at the desk right in front of me. He was a master at the fine art of subtly penetrating the obtuse workings of the city bureaucracy. He didn't use those skills too much - he found the frontal assault to be much more fun - but he knew them and taught them well. Besides the practical politics, he also taught me a little Yiddish - just enough to let me swear proficiently.

One of the very first words that I picked up from him was 'chutzpah.' He used the word to describe the qualities that I would need to exhibit if I was to have any hope of accomplishing anything in New York City Government. When I asked him what the word meant, he had to stop and think for a minute or two. Chutzpah, he said, is a one-word description of a fairly complex personality trait, and that there was no word in English that adequately captured the concept. I asked him if he could describe the trait, and he paused again for a second or two of thought. "OK, I tell you what chutzpah is. Chutzpah... you take a dump on your neighbor's doorstep, then ask to borrow his toilet paper, you got chutzpah."

That was a while ago - back during the Dinkins administration. If I asked him the same question today, he'd have a much easier time describing the concept. All he'd have to do is show me this Washington Post Article.

It seems that, in what has to be the most absolutely amazing exhibition of pure brazenness ever demonstrated, the "Justice" Department has managed to shut down an internal investigation into whether or not some of their lawyers might have committed ethical violations while involved in the President's Warrentless Wiretapping program. The reason that the investigation ground to a halt? The investigators were refused the security clearances that they needed to look into the matter because the actual details of the program are extremely sensitive national security information, and restricted to the smallest possible group, so the investigators didn't have - wait for it - "need to know." Without the details of the program, they were unable to determine if their lawyers committed any ethics violations, and the investigation has now been closed.

Gotta love it.

If the Democrats were smart - meaning that the rest of this post is a wishful fantasy - they'd make oversight an issue in this year's elections. This congress has been completely derelict in their responsibility to watch the actions of the executive branch, so the president has been allowed to do pretty much whatever he damn well pleases. That should end. Congress doesn't just have the right to do oversight, they've got a responsibility to do it, and they've been absolutely remiss when it comes to meeting that responsibility. Democrats should be campaigning on that issue, and they should be doing it heavily. It might be a national issue, not a local one, but Congresscritters have obligations to more than just their district. They also have responsibilities to the nation. If they don't want to carry them out, they should be encouraged by their employers to find other work.

10 May 2006

The Land of the Endangered.

The State of Hawaii is one of the smaller states in the Union. According to Wikipedia, we're 43rd out of 50 in size, 42nd in population, and, at 3000km from the nearest continent, we're as isloated as you can get. We may be small and out of the way, but there's a lot that we have. We've got a great climate - we're the only state that's entirely in the tropics. Being in the middle of the ocean helps there, too, since all that water helps to moderate the climate even more. It also gives us some really great beaches, world-class surf spots, and truly excellent snorkling and diving.

There's something else that being isolated does for us. It's the reason that we're the endangered species capital of the United States. We're so far out in the middle of the ocean that it is very difficult for new species to get here. The few that have made it have become the founders for evolutionary radiations, resulting in the origin of thousands of species unique to Hawaii. These species have been hit hard as a result of human actions. One in four species (329/1312) on the United States endangered species list is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands.

Yesterday, the list of endangered species in Hawaii got longer. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service added eleven species of Drosphila to the endangered species list, with one more species being listed as threatened. Each of the twelve species is found on only on a single island.

For those of you not familiar with the Hawaiian Drosophila, let me provide a quick intro. The genus Drosophila is best known because of Drosophila melanogaster, the legendary "fruit fly" that geneticists and students of biology have worked with for decades. ("Fruit fly" is in quotes because Drosophila are not actually fruit flies, but I'll refrain [for now] from descending to the depths of dorkdom necessary to go into detail on the difference. For now, suffice it to say that the distinction is at least semi-important to people who work with the group in the field.)

As I was saying, D. melanogaster is the best known member of the group, but it is far from the only one. There are literally thousands of species in the genus. Almost a quarter of them are found only in the Hawaiian Islands. The twelve flies being listed are members of a group of the Hawaiian Drosophila known as the picture-wings. (Pictures of two picture wings, one of which [D. heteroneura] is one of the newly-listed species, can be found in an earlier post here.) Each of the listed species has a range restricted to a single island. Most of them will only breed on a small number of plant species (1-3). They are extremely rare - surveys in their habitat areas don't turn up more than a couple of flies. Listing these species as endangered, under the circumstances, is such a complete no brainer that it's a wonder that it only took five years of work and a lawsuit to get it done.

But here's the kicker - the only thing that really distinguishes these twelve picture wings from the other hundred or so in the group is that they are a bit more rare. The vast majority of the group are limited to one island, and the vast majority are limited to a small number of plants. It's possible to catch a few more during surveys, but the difference isn't really all that much - none of these insects are what anyone would consider to be common.

It gets even better. The picture wings, ironically enough, haven't been the focus of this attention because they are the rarest of the Hawaiian Drosophilids. They've gotten the attention because they're the best studied group. The truth is, we don't actually even know how many species there are for sure. Entirely new species have been described within the last few years, and it is quite probable that there are more to be found.

Described species or not, formally listed or not, there are a lot of species in Hawaii that are very rare and at risk of extinction. Listing these twelve species is good, especially since the lawsuit settlement also mandates that critical habitat be designated for these species. It's good, but it's hardly enough. Unless we want to lose biodiversity faster than we can discover and describe it, we need to do far more to protect the native Hawaiian species. And, of course, we need to put more time, effort, and money into studying our ecosystems while we still have them.

09 May 2006

Lack of updates apology

Sorry for the recent lack of updates here. I was sick as a dog for a good chunk of last week, and have family in town. It's also the end of the semester, so grades are coming due and I still have a load of grading to do. Updates will probably remain a bit sporadic for the next day or two, but should get back to normal after that.

Oh, and there may be some changes to the blog in the next week or two.