A squid less poll

The catmeister has sent his minions to wreck a poll, and wreck it wrongly. Look at this malformed question:

Do You Prefer:

Adorable Pictures of Babies? 4%
Adorable Pictures of Puppies? 27%
Adorable Pictures of Kittens? 47%
All of the Above 13%
None of the Above 6%

I ask you…WHERE ARE THE SQUID? Given the absence of a correct answer, clearly the only acceptable reply is “none of the above”. Teach them a lesson, please. For great justice!

Melbourne Day Two

The day is off to an awful start. Internet access in the hotel is only intermittent, and it’s only occasionally that I can get on; and then this morning my laptop plays prima donna and dies, repeatedly, with ugly lock-ups and horribly slow performance. I may be restricted to blogging by iPad all weekend, which is slower and clumsier.

The day will get better. Mary has plans for us. We’re going out to see the sights this morning and afternoon, so she’s totally in charge. She keeps talking about flowers and trees and birds, though, and not a word about Cephalopoda or Insecta, so it might be a little weird. I’ll try to cope.

Then, 4:00 to 6ish, any pharyngula people in the vicinity ought to converge on the South Wharf Hilton Bah for some ‘Strine beeah. The Global Atheist Convention commences at 6:15 with a cocktail party, and then…chaos reigns!

Why I am an atheist – Ashley Bell

This isn’t so much about why I am an atheist so much as when I recognized that I was one. In the 70s, the public schools in Richmond VA had become such inner-city honor-culture shit holes that my parents, aware of my general timid nature, decided to send me to a cheap Catholic school instead. My experience there, despite bullying by peers was actually kind of pleasant. The nuns were the full-on types regarding their habits and convent life, but were of that odd variety that probably emerged after Vatican II was put into place. Guitar masses, Kum-ba-ya, warm fuzzies=good, cold pricklies=bad and all that. On nice days we had classes outside. The math program was especially good, and there was no in-school time dedicated to Catholic doctrine or any other Xtian doctrine to speak of. I imagine there must have been a morning prayer but those kinds of banal memories are the first to get washed away as we get older. There was, however, mandatory mass on Tuesdays and Thursdays which I kind of liked since they were held in a beautiful church next to and affiliated with the church that Patrick Henry ostensibly gave his “give me liberty” speech. ( Oh, and George Washington slept here too…I’m just sayin’). And there was the ritual and the mediaeval sounding call and response largely sung in Latin. All very exotic and entirely new to me.

But tender souls beg for beatings just by existing, so of course there were bullies, two in particular that gave me such regular grief that I actually kept a little notebook that mapped out where and when I shouldn’t be at any given place and time in order to avoid “the boot” as it were. The thing is, they were terrified of the main priest who presided over the church and the school, and most of that anxiety centered on the mandatory monthly confessions that all the Catholic kids were required to make. Although required for the Catholic kids, it was “optional” (could it have even been allowed? I couldn’t take communion for instance) for non-Catholics. I remember the first non-threatening thing those boys said to me was along the lines of “you’re lucky you don’t have to go to confession.” I said it didn’t seem that bad, so, in a change of tactic, instead of threatening me, they dared me to go to confession, and there would be a five dollar bill at the end of it if I did.

The anonymous side of the confessional was like you would imagine. However, there was also an option to sit with the priest face to face, and I’m sure this is what I was being paid to do. So I did it. He was a nice enough guy. I remember him asking if I was Catholic (he must have smelled my Methodist blood), and me saying no and him asking why I had come. I told him I was just curious and then he asked if there was anything I wanted to confess. I told him I had hit my sister and talked back to my parents (neither of which I had done), then conveniently skipped the part about my recent discovery of the joys of masturbation (I was 12).So, long story short; The bullies actually paid up and then quit bothering me after that. I remember thinking ‘what were they so afraid of’, followed by a quick and completely uninteresting realization that it was all crap. I also realized at that moment that I had never believed any of it in the first place. I had just never really thought about it.

There was also a time when I was 6, when I prayed to god that my runaway basset hound would come home. I remember even then feeling like I was simply hedging my bets. Might as well? You know?…Shows what a crock Pascal’s wager is…Cross your fingers behind your back…Even a kid can do it!…right.

Ashley Bell

Adding dinosaurs always makes research sexier

Sometimes, following the path scientific results take as they enter more mass media awareness really is like a game of telephone — you can scarcely recognize the original work in the final summary that ends up in the news media. And sometimes, you find that the scientists contributed to the ghastly mess.

Take a look at this silly story, “Could ‘Advanced’ Dinosaurs Rule Other Planets?”, illustrated with a picture of a T. rex stalking the landscape.

New scientific research raises the possibility that advanced versions of T. rex and other dinosaurs — monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans — may be the life forms that evolved on other planets in the universe.

Yeah. Right. I’d like to know what kind of research is finding intelligent dinosaurs on other planets. All you have to do, though, is read beyond the first paragraph to discover that this is from an article published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, that it is entirely about the chirality of prebiotic chemistry, and that its primary speculation is that the predominance of left-handed, or L amino acids, in our biochemistry is a consequence of a bias in the delivery of extraterrestrial amino acids to Earth…that biology expanded on a bias in the handedness of the raw materials at the beginning of life.

This work answers some of the questions in the general idea that the unusual amino acids delivered to Earth by the Murchison meteorite and related ones could have led to the dominance of L amino acids and D sugars on early Earth that would permit life to start.

OK, it’s a kind of fundamental chemistry. I didn’t dig too deeply into the science, mainly because I was terribly put off by the abominable English in the paper. Try to make sense of that sentence above; it’s an abomination, a muddle that confuses a modern instance, the Murchison meteorite, with ancient sources, and also is a general tangle of referents. Don’t chemists have to take a writing course somewhere in their careers?

But the main point to notice is that it’s not about dinosaurs. It can’t be about dinosaurs. It has zero relevance to dinosaurs. But then, the author flippantly tosses in some patent nonsense about dinosaurs in his last paragraph.

An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D amino acids and L sugars, depending on the chirality of circular polarized light in that sector of the universe or whatever other process operated to favor the L α-methyl amino acids in the meteorites that have landed on Earth. Such life forms could well be advanced version of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them.

Clumsy English again, but worse, it’s stupid biology. Animal-like creatures that might evolve on other worlds will not be and cannot be dinosaurs. There is no reason to imagine that a saurian-mammalian transition is anything but a particular quirk of our particular planet’s evolutionary history — it is not a universal. This is nothing but badly written nonsense.

It is published in JACS in their “just accepted” category, which means the science has passed peer-review, but hasn’t been edited or formatted or proofed by the author. I hope that stupid paragraph gets cut; I also hope someone competent at writing in the English language takes it apart.

But the author ought to be a bit embarrassed at his ignorance of biology, and Science Daily ought to be ashamed about taking an idiotic paragraph and turning it into sensationalistic garbage.

Although, you know, if you want to make your scientific research newsworthy, all you’ve got to do is toss in some babble about extraterrestrial super-intelligent T. rexes, and it will get lots of attention. Maybe you think it isn’t relevant to your research, maybe you do psychology or statistics or bioinformatics or epidemiology or ethology…it doesn’t matter. Throw it in anyway. That’s what happened in this paper, after all.

(Also on Sb)

I don’t even understand the connections

Jessica Ahlquist got a nasty, threatening letter. Here’s what really bugs me about it: threats are common, and Jessica clearly pissed off a lot of Christians by insisting that a public school not promote religion … but this letter is full of sexual slander and rape threats. WHY? This is not a sexual issue. She’s a minor; the last thing you should be talking about is having sex with her.

So I’m just curious, misogynist scumbags of the world. When a woman cuts you off in traffic, or annoys you by taking too long at the grocery check out line, or any of a multitude of other trivial offenses, does that somehow immediately convert the offender into a prostitute, does it justify rape, and do you think any man would similarly be transformed into a sex worker who can be violently attacked?

I’m just trying to wrap my mind around how those people think.

We have arrived!

We are nicely situated in our lovely hotel room in the Melbourne Hilton. Yay, showers! After 15 hours on an airplane, we need them.

There is no rest for the weary traveler, however. We’re charging out on the town shortly to visit the Melbourne Museum — if you’re interested, we’re meeting in the Hilton lobby around 1:30, or otherwise look for the flashing angry eyes of the mob of atheists at the museum at 2.

Breathless adventures await!

Stir crazy

I have nothing to say except that I’ve been traveling since 10:30 Tuesday morning, I’m still in a big metal bird in the sky, and I want to get out. Now. But I guess I’ll wait until we land in Melbourne…in a few more hours. Gaaaaaaah.

Why I am an atheist – Fernando Santagata

I’m an atheist because it is natural to be so.

In every time, people who were not subjected to irrational fears and intelligent enough to be free from social conditioning were atheists.
That has been true for a very long time: the first documented atheists were Greek philosophers about 2500 years ago.
Through time, when social conditions let life be bearable, people have found they don’t need a god to fear or invoke in battle.

So, let’s say everyone is being born an atheist, and so he/she remains as long as no one makes his/her life miserable by terrorizing her/him.

Fernando Santagata