Who needs facts when you can litigate?

Posted by tigerhawkvok on May 02, 2010 16:57 in politics , news , anti-science , climate

Well, hello blog. Long time no see.

So, I ran behind on TT's, decided to queue them, and as the queue got longer it got harder to catch up, so I'm going to call the missing weeks of Tetrapod posts a lost cause, and just try to restart (eg, don't expect a backlog).

Not to say that there hasn't been plenty to write *about*. Most of the notable interesting things have been political/legal in nature the past month rather than scientific, but that's not to say there hasn't been plenty of science knocking around.

Now, Virginia is happy to blur those lines, and just pull an insane political stunt involving science. The peice of work Ken Cuccinelli has decided that Virginia will probe Michael Mann, chief climate researcher at the University of Virginia, for fraud. Yep, disagree with climate change? Use taxpayer money to screw with a researcher! Now, Mann already was under an ethics investigation for the whole so-called climategate, and was exonerated (also brought up by AGW deniers). He also uses the CRU emails as a basis to bring suit to the EPA, saying "Faulty climate data must be corrected". Never mind two investigations in Britain also found the allegations were bunk (links for first investigation, second investigation).

Little things like facts or taxpayer money be damned, Ken Cuccinelli will litigate everything he doesn't like. Or otherwise work to change it. Like covering up a Roman goddess's breast in the Virginia state seal (seal on LA Times). Yeaaah.

LHC at 7 TeV!

Posted by tigerhawkvok on March 30, 2010 05:26 in physics , news , public science

So, I should be asleep. Or posting one of the FOUR Tuesday Tetrapods due today (Plans include Python molurus bivittatus, Pelecanus onocrotalus, Gypaetus barbatus, and Xenopus laevis. I've had them lined up for weeks, but haven't had a chance to complete them). But instead, I have to mention that the Large Hadron Collider just had its first collisions, minutes ago. The beams were at 7 TeV

7 TeV is an odd unit that needs perspective for the non-physicists in the crowd. So, consider, according to Wikipedia, that a flying mosquito has about .2 microjoules (µJ) in kinetic energy. A 7 TeV beam has protons that each have about .6 µJ (3.5 TeV in each direction).

That is to say, each proton has a kinetic energy similar to 3 flying mosquitos. If you were capable of feeling a single proton hitting you, that one lone proton would definitely be noticeable. For the record, a mosquito has about 1021 protons.

Physics is freaking awesome.

(Oh, by the way? World? Totally not destroyed.)

While we're at it ...

Posted by tigerhawkvok on March 15, 2010 23:06 in politics , religion

Well, if I'm going to post on a controversial topic, I might as well go all-out. So, why would it bother anyone who-marries-who? Really? Does it affect you, somehow? In other words, what's wrong with gay marriage?

For a while I thought that perhaps civil unions would be good enough. But really, I wasn't satisfied with it unless the civil unions were exactly as good as a marriage in all but name. But, in that case, it *is* a marraige, and you're just calling it something different. And who was I to get all worked up and deny something to anyone based over semantics? It's plain silly.

I don't really care what another person is doing in their love life. So far as I'm concerned, polygamy/polyandry/polyamory is fair game, too. It was for thousands of years, anyway, so you can't even make a historical argument against it. If marraige really needed a definition, I'd define it as a civil/legal union between >1 consenting adults.

Yes, that rules out bestiality. Don't bring it up.

Fun point: if you're straight, a gay person of your own sex removes competition from the pool. There are now two fewer people going after the opposite sex! And you have that tiny bitty fraction better chance. (Yes, I realize things don't work like this. I still think it's a funny idea.)

I suppose I'm in the camp of "live and let live". If we don't, how are we any different than Islamic fundamentalists? (Hint: I don't think any brand theistic fundamentalism is different from any other, including Islamic)

Repeat after me: HCR does NOT fund abortion

Posted by tigerhawkvok on March 15, 2010 19:53 in politics , religion , news , medicine

There is talk on the news (well, at least making headlines in Google News) about the bill funding abortion. Well, it doesn't. It is on page 2072 of the Senate bill. To quote PoliticsDaily,

But does the Senate reform bill finance abortion insurance coverage? The answer is no, and it is there in the bill, on page 2072: "If a qualified plan provides [abortion] coverage...the issuer of the plan shall not use any amount attributable to [health reform's government-funding mechanisms] for purposes of paying for such services." As Slate's Timothy Noah put it, "That seems pretty straightforward. No government funding for abortions."

But lets run with it for a moment. Assume it does fund abortion. So what? Objection to public funding for abortion runs along the lines of "I don't like it, I disagree, therefore I should not have to pay for it. It kills people". That's like saying "I object to Karl Rove. I disagree with him vehemently. He is responsible for the death of troops and civilians in the Middle East. Therefore, I refuse to pay taxes, since they fund services he uses." Neither argument really makes sense.

I don't really want to get into the abortion debate. All it does is lead to flame wars. I happen to feel that identical twins wreck about 90% of the arguments against abortion as a single argument, and being pro-choice detracts nothing from the other argument, merely leaves an option open to whoever wants it. Sigh.

Tuesday Tetrapod: Orcinus orca

Posted by tigerhawkvok on March 02, 2010 23:56 in tuesday tetrapod

Now, let's take a turn to the water, and have a Tuesday Tetrapod on Orcinus orca, or the Orca ("Killer Whale").

O. orca

O. orca. Photo CC-BY-NC-ND by Flickr user SteveWhis.

One of the few common extant animals referred to by its specific name, orcas are the second most widely distributed mammal on the planet, after humans. Specifically:

O. orca

Orcas CC-BY-ND by Christopher DiNottia

Although killer whales occur worldwide, densities increase by 1-2 orders of magnitude between the tropics and the highest-sampled latitudes in the Arctic and Antarctic (Forney and Wade 2006). Killer whales tend to be more common along continental margins; however, there is some variation in this general pattern that appears linked to ocean productivity. Killer whales appear to be less common in western boundary currents, such as the Gulf Stream or the Kuroshio than in more productive eastern boundary currents, such as the California Current. Known areas of locally higher density often coincide with greater oceanographic productivity (e.g. off Argentina).

O. orca is technically a type of dolphin, a member of delphinidae, and possibly a complex of up to five species (but probably a combination of species, subspecies, and races). Currently, they are grouped as "populations" of transients, residents, and offshore, primarily differentiated by diet and behaviours with minor morphological differences.

Orcas are large, and commonly seen in water shows. They age at a rate similar to humans, with sexual maturity reached around 15 for females, and reaching up to 90 in age.

The orca is IUCN "data deficient", due to possible specific/subspecific splits and that certain populations are experiencing a 30% population drop over 30 years, while others maintain a stable population.

There is a gigantic repository of information on Orcas available — it is a Wikipedia featured article and many other resources are available online.

Tuesday Tetrapod: Taricha rivularis

Posted by tigerhawkvok on March 02, 2010 17:42 in tuesday tetrapod

For last week's Tuesday Tetrapod, we look at Taricha rivularus, or the Red-Bellied newt:

T. rivularis

T. rivularis, terrestrial stage

T. rivularis is a plethodontid salamander, which, like other members of the subfamily Pleurodelinae, are sometimes called "newts". They transition to a smooth-skinned morph during their aquatic/breeding stage.

Like many other salamandrids, when stressed they can excrete a whitish neurotoxin on their skin, tetrodotoxin (TTX) which is very potent and can kill an adult human.

T. rivularis is IUCN "Least Concern" and can be found in northern california. The photographed specimen was found in Medecino county.

You can see more photos at CaliforniaHerps.

Secular Reasoning

Posted by tigerhawkvok on February 27, 2010 16:51 in General , religion

Just a quick entry. I realize I missed the TT again (even though I have the animal picked out for this past week and next week!) so next week will be another double-feature. However, I wanted to address the New York Times opinion article "Are There Secular Reasons?".

The premise of the article is that, following an argument from a Harvard law professor, there are no inherently secular reasons to perform an action, because, "there is no way, says Smith, to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like 'what are we supposed to do?' and 'at the behest of who or what are we to do it?'". Now, there are a few problems with this statement, essentially the premise of the article, which render the entire point, well, moot.

First, the question posed by Smith assumes that there is or should be an overarching, inherent, mandated, or otherwise external "reason" for everything, when in fact there is no reason to assume such a thing for anything. You are not "supposed" to do anything, nor must it be at something's behest. The only reason to assume you are "supposed" to do something is if you assume there is a pre-defined goal or end point which is validated for external or unassailable reasons.

Yes, that was a verbose way of saying "he's assuming a deity or deities exist and operating based on that assumption". OK, but let's say that you want a goal to exist. Is there a secular goal you can define that could serve what the theo-heads assume one requires for being "good"? (I neglect here the obvious argument that analyses that assumption) Well, yes. A secular worldview acknowledges that, basically, what you have is all you have, or, in other words, live life for life. A corallary to this is since your life today is all you or anyone will ever get, the kindest, most humanitarian thing to do is simply to try to maximize quality of life for this and future generations.

Basically, secular humanism.

I do wish theo-heads would stop being so fixated on shoving their deities on everyone.

It's official: WSJ and Guardian UK anti-science shills

Posted by tigerhawkvok on February 22, 2010 18:23 in General , anti-science , public science , internet

This is just a friendly public service announcement — ignore any science (which is usually actually "science") from the Wall Street Journal and the Guardian. They are both pretty uniform in being united against climate change (the broader issue, not even just anthropogenesis), with ocassional alt-med quackery and such. I'd nail them on evolution coverage but for now I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they're just subject to the media's usual poor coverage of the subject.

If you'd like some pretty good, easily-accessible sources on climate change, check out:

  • "Tamino" is a researcher who works with the climate data, and frequently posts statistical breakdowns and debunkings of common claims. While the debunkings aren't instantly findable, they're quite thorough when you find them.
  • Skeptical Science has a list of frequently used arguments with knockdowns, citing peer-reviewed papers.
  • RealClimate is a site run by various climatologists.
  • "How to Talk to a Climate 'Skeptic'": A large number of articles sorted by class of argument and then by subargument.

So, yeah. WSJ? "Scientist says X" is meaningless unless it is peer-reviewed, and even more meaningless when they're not climatologists, and a "maverick" flying in the face of the consensus is not actually privvy to any special data. Also, stop saying "scientists" like it's a magical-catch-all phrase, or I'm going to have to start calling non-scientists "humanitists". A physical anthropologist or chemist has no special, extra-noteworthy climate position.

Ask yourself — what reasonable evidence do you need to demonstrate that climate change is happening? Will you honestly admit that you would be willing to change your position when you are confronted with that evidence? I have done some models of generic planetary temperatures, so I know many of the influences; I further, perhaps six years ago, as uncertain as to the anthropogenic nature of the argument. Soon after, I saw a long-term solar data analysis which removed the only reasonable alternative candidate from the equation. Further evidence keeps building to support anthropogenic climate change. You also have to look globally, and not just at the United States (which many of us in the US are prone to do). I don' think there is any evidence short of the catastrophic that will convince those of the Guardian or WSJ.

For various other topics, just ask and I'll put some links up when I get a request. Seems like the end of this post got slightly off-topic, huh?

Bill Gates on Nuclear Power and Energy

Posted by tigerhawkvok on February 19, 2010 02:25 in General , misc science , energy


Man, the embed code on that was funky ... hopefully I extracted the actual video feed properly.

Fun fact? Bill Gates implies he likes fast reactors. Maybe integral fast reactors?

Tuesday Tetrapod: Diomedea exulans

Posted by tigerhawkvok on February 16, 2010 18:43 in tuesday tetrapod

Covering tetrapods is amusing. I want to try for some sort of balance, but there isn't one — about 55% of my entries should be birds, 20% amphibians, 15% non-avian sauropsids, and 10% mammals. I should keep that in mind as I continue to post, and particularly put up more amphibians. That being said, let's work on that 15%, and bring forth Diomedea exulans, or the Wandering Albatross.

D. exulans

D. exulans. Picture by Flickr user AngrySunBird (full)

A procellariiform (tube-nose) water bird, like other albatrosses (diomedeidae), they have characteristically stiff wings they use to "dyanimcally soar", utilizing winds close to the surface of the sea. Procellariiformes are almost exclusively pelagic, with an uncharacteristically good sense of smell for avians. D. exulans are among the largest birds in the world, with definitively the longest wingspan. Average wingspans run 2.5-3.5 m, with largest verified reports running to 3.7 m and questionable sources reporting as much as 5.3 m wingspans. Other adaptations include the ability to excrete excess salt from glands in their nasal passage

D. exulans on the water

Picture CC-BY-NC-SA by Flickr user Arthur Chapman (full)

D. exulans is a distinctive bird with a characteristic beak shape, and mostly white except for black-tipped wings, with some black along the trailing wing feathers as adults.

Like other procellariiformes, D. exulans is long-lived and has a distinctive breeding behaviour. They typically lay only one egg per two years, maintaining a monogamous, lifelong relationship with one other bird. Their breeding population is restricted to three primary sites, with 20% on South Georgia, 40% on Crozet and Kerguelen islands, and 40% on Prince Edwards Islands. This behaviour leaves them particularly vulnerable to cats and rats introduced onto these islands by humans, which cause large problems for eggs and chicks. Particularly on Kerguelen, some breeding colonies have had complete breeding failure due to cats. As a k-selected species, they are sensitive to this sort of predation, with reproduction not occuring until individuals are 11-15 years of age.

D. exulans in flight

Picture CC-BY-NC by Flickr user marj k (full)

During the year, D. exulans is widely distributed, essentially cosmopolitian between 28deg-60deg in the southern oceans. Their wide distribution and their diet of cephalopods, fish, and crustaceans means they are strongly affected by longline fishing used to catch tuna and Chilean Sea Bass. The birds are prone to drowning after becoming ensnareed in the hooks along the lines. A survey in 2007 indicated about half of the chicks on Bird Island have ingested fishing hooks.

They are rated IUCN "vulnerable", with a >30% population decline over the past three generations. Efforts are underway by some fisheries to reduce albatross bycatch.

Tuesday Tetrapod: Priodontes maximus

Posted by tigerhawkvok on February 16, 2010 17:46 in tuesday tetrapod

Well, in this belated TT, let's throw another xenarthran into the fray, with Priodontes maximus, or the Giant Armadillo:

P. maximus

P. maximus. Image (C) Getty Images/Discovery Channel and not locally hosted.

All extant armadillos, including P. maximus, are members of Dasypodidae, which lie on a different branch than the extinct, massive, glyptodonts. P. maximus isn't quite as weird as other armadillos (which, among other things, give birth to four monozygotic young - ie, indentical quadruplets). P. maximus is fairly large, weighing about 30 kg and averaging 89 cm in length. While primarily formicivorous, they will sometimes also eat small rodents.

The armor on dasypodids are keratinized dermal scutes, with varying degrees of flexibility across the clade. Only the genus Tolypeutes has the capacity to actually role into a ball for defense, otherwise just rely on their armor for protection in conjuction with flight.

Native to South America (particularly north-central SA), Priodontes maximus is rated IUCN "Vulnerable" with a decreasing population. Population decline has been estimated at >= 30% in the past 24 years, exacerbating its naturally sparse population.

In an odd aside, IE can't get a break — if you're viewing the IUCN site in IE8, it may not display properly.

Fossilized Melanosomes and Extinct Dinosaur Colors

Posted by tigerhawkvok on February 14, 2010 16:24 in dinosaurs , evolution , research , paleontology


I may have fallen off the face of the planet, but it doesn't mean science stopped going. So, beginning with a bit of admittedly old news — we've determined the color of a few coelurosaurian theropod dinosaurs' plumage. It's the subject of a few papers that came out in Science and Nature two weeks ago (DOIs 10.1126/science.1186290,10.1038/nature08740, summary: 10.1126/science.327.5965.508). The trick, it turns out, was to use a scanning electron microscope (SEM) to look at the microstucture of the preserved melanosomes in the feathers.

Figure 2, DOI 10.1038/nature08740

a, Optical photograph. b, Strongly aligned, closely spaced, eumelanosomes preserved as solid bodies. c, Mouldic (that is, preserved as moulds) eumelanosomes (at arrow) a short distance above a layer in which the eumelanosomes are preserved as aligned solid bodies. d, Area (at arrow) comprising more widely spaced mouldic phaeomelanosomes surrounded by less distinct, aligned eumelanosomes (top of image). e, Gradational boundary between areas dominated by eumelanosomes (longer arrows) and phaeomelanosomes (shorter arrows), both preserved as solid bodies. Scale bars: a, 50 mm; b—e, 2 µm.

If you can work your way through this paragraph, you can also see why this discovery is not just a novelty, but scientifically interesting (I don't think I can phrase it better):

Integumentary filaments occur both in non-avian theropods that possessed true pennaceous feathers (for example, Caudipteryx) and in those in which the latter are absent, such as Sinosauropteryx, Sinornithosaurus and Beipiaosaurus. The report of superficially similar unbranched filaments in the ornithischian dinosaurs Psittacosaurus and Tianyulong suggests that such structures might be common to all dinosaurs. Many investigators have accepted that these various filamentous to feather-like structures are epidermal in origin and represent feathers; others have disputed this view, arguing, for example, that in the theropod dinosaur Sinosauropteryx they represent degraded dermal collagen fibres, part of the original strengthening materials of the animal's skin. Resolving this fundamental difference in interpretation is important for our understanding of the biology of the taxa in which they occur, but also has wider implications; if epidermal in origin, these structures will inform models of the evolutionary origin of modern feather and the timing of steps in the acquisition of this evolutionary novelty.

Wikified for your convenience

Figure 4, DOI 10.1126/science.1186290

Anchiornis huxleyi, as rendered in Li et al..

Well, it turns out that the preserved microfeatures of the integument on Sinosauropteryx and Sinornithosaurus bear strong resemblance to modern microstructures in feathers known as melanosomes, which are responsible for giving color to feathers. Further, they are located inside the preserved feathers in physical locations analogous to those in living dinosaurs (ie, birds). The Nature paper thus conclusively demonstrates that they are epidermal features of the animals, ie, not degraded bits of skin, collagen, and scales that merely resemble feathers. As a fun fact, it showed that the animals they looked at had black, white, and russet feather colorations, and even color variations along single feathers and colored crests. The Science report suggests that Sinosauropteryx even had banding along its' tail.

Figure 5, DOI 10.1126/science.1186290

Cladogram of feather coloration, from Li et al..

In side-news related to the series of dino discoveries, the discovery of an early alvarezsauroid pretty much once and for all deflated the arguments of Alan Feeduccia. He had essentially resorted to temporal arguments (i.e., Archaeopteryx was older than the oldest found non-avian eumaniraptoran dinosaur) to state that Aves must have had a seperate, basal archosaurian/avesuchian ancestory, not nested within Dinosauria. Goodbye, so-called "temporal paradox". Now I just need to get people to stop saying the K-Pg event wiped out dinosaurs, and get them to insert non-avian in there. Remember, encourage evolutionary/cladistic thinking whenever you can!

Zhang, F., Kearns, S., Orr, P., Benton, M., Zhou, Z., Johnson, D., Xu, X., & Wang, X. (2010). Fossilized melanosomes and the colour of Cretaceous dinosaurs and birds Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature08740

Religion in the Classroom and the Slippery Slope

Posted by tigerhawkvok on February 14, 2010 15:33 in evolution , religion , anti-science , misc science , public science , creationists

Reading an article like the New York Times' recent one on textbooks and religion in the US has the magical ability to just make me so angry. The article itself is mostly neutral, but it brings up Don McLeroy, a dentist in Texas who has remarkable influence over science and history taught to children for the large majority of states. A history-denying activist moron er, "Young Earth Creationist" of the activist stripe, he has said

"Everything that had a beginning we can say had a cause," he tells his class of fourth-graders at Grace Bible Church. "And now science definitely says that the universe had a beginning. Therefore, the universe had to have a cause. And that cause is God."

Citation: Statesman.com

OK, normally, this would just be infuriating as he'd be a nutter on a school board that approves books for a state. But, seeing as Texas is the second largest textbook market in the US, and California is broke, it means this man essentially shapes the education of the rest of the country. To quote the Times,

And James Kracht, a professor at Texas A&M's college of education and a longtime player in the state's textbook process, told me flatly, "Texas governs 46 or 47 states."

As (admittedly) excessively vitriolic PZ Myers and other "strong" "New Atheists" can be, this is the sort of thing that makes me feel their position has merit. Evolution is not under controversy in any way in the scientific or educational community. Filth like McLeroy or David Barton are liars. The "Discovery Institute" are religious shills operating under an agenda to drive science out of the public arena and move to a religious educational system via the "Wedge Document".

Stories like this should inspire activism in freethinkers. Stories like this make it hard to reach a mutually agreeable arrangement in deference to the idea of non-overlapping magisteria (which, incidentally, I find highly problematic besides; a highly flawed concept with arguments similar to those Dawkins makes) — because if you give an inch, fools like Don McLeroy will try to take a mile.

Stewart, Obama, and the GOP

Posted by tigerhawkvok on February 02, 2010 14:44 in politics

As always, Jon Stewart is hilarious while informative. Some choice clips from Obama's friday evisceration of the more absurd talking points on the right.


For the non-partisan fact checking side of things, you can see factcheck's analysis of the State of the Union and Politifact's quick analysis of the above GOP retreat Q&A (and here's factcheck's). Let it not be said I don't try to give both sides a fair shake ...

On the iPad

Posted by tigerhawkvok on January 27, 2010 15:28 in computers

Some quotes for you, to give you what I'm feeling.

It's a gimped tablet computer.

Like the internet? Well you don't get to use all of it. No flash (flash is terrible, but you miss a ton of the internet without it)

Okay I'll just listen to internet radio while doing some emailing and facebook-ing. No multitasking.

I want to draw on it. No stylus

Okay I'll just type up some notes on it during class. No keyboard. Onscreen keyboard works well for your thumbs on a phone size device - for full regular typing with no tactile feedback? No.

Okay I'll just load pictures from my digital camera on it and use it as a big gorgeous portable display device. NO SD FUCKING SLOT. NO USB SLOT. WHAT THE FUCK.

$500 fucking dollars. HALF a thousand dollars.

Via Ars Comments

Image (C) Engadget (thus hotlinked via my usual policy)

And am I missing something or does this not do handwriting recognition? You know, like the Windows Tablet PC software has since 2002?

The eBook reader stuff is another example of Apple mimicking real life objects unnecessarily. Creating a "library" page that looks like a real bookshelf and a book interface that visually resembles a book does not make this "easier to use" or "nicer." It makes it unprofessional looking, actually. Childish.

And don't get me started on the superiority of eInk over any screen display. It's no contest unless you're trying to fast track to bad vision.

Via Paul's supersite blog

  • There's no multitasking at all. It's a real disappointment. All this power and very little you can do with it at once. No multitasking means no streaming Pandora when you're working in Pages... you can figure it out. It's a real setback for this device.
  • The ebook implementation is about as close as you can get to reading without a stack of bound paper in your hand. The visual stuff really helps flesh out the experience. It may be just for show, but it counts here. Comment: Still not E-Ink. If the software is good it might be better than a standard PC, but really?
  • No camera. None, nada. Zip. No video conferencing here folks. Hell, it doesn't have an SMS app!
  • It's running iPhone OS 3.2.
  • The keyboard is good, not great. Not quite as responsive as it looked in the demos.
  • No Flash confirmed. So Hulu is out for you, folks!

Via Engadget

My god, am I underwhelmed by the iPad. This is as inessential a product as I've ever seen, but beyond that, it has some absolutely backbreaking failures that will make me judge anyone who buys one.

Via Gizmodo

And here I was thinking if it was implemented well I might eventually upgrade my netbook to one. Hah. I probably wouldn't even have a post on this if it wasn't for years and years of rumors to come out with, well, this.

For more on the underwhelming: PC World, CBS, Newsweek, ZDNet informal poll, Lifehacker informal poll. When David Pogue has little good to say, and even tries to spin backlighting as good, you know something is wrong.

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