Who needs civil liberties?

As someone who takes his laptop everywhere, this is chilling news about the ongoing erosion of our rights:

Federal agents may take a traveler’s laptop computer or other electronic device to an off-site location for an unspecified period of time without any suspicion of wrongdoing, as part of border search policies the Department of Homeland Security recently disclosed.

Also, officials may share copies of the laptop’s contents with other agencies and private entities for language translation, data decryption or other reasons, according to the policies, dated July 16 and issued by two DHS agencies, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

For further Orwellian perspectives, take a look at this quote:

Customs Deputy Commissioner Jayson P. Ahern said the efforts “do not infringe on Americans’ privacy.”

Information must be impounded, shackled, and waterboarded in this New Republican United States of America.

Am I still crashing IE?

I’ve been getting a volley of complaints that Pharyngula is crashing Internet Explorer. It turns out that this is a problem all over the web, and is Sitemeter’s fault. I’ve changed the code in a way that I hope will fix it — let me know if it doesn’t. (←cunning ploy there…if you’re still crashing, you may not be able to read that!)

P.S. Explorer is the worst browser available. If your computer has the resources to handle something else, switch!

It’s 42 minutes after 7

Approximately 563 minutes ago, I noticed this peculiar analysis of language use on Pharyngula that suggested that we use the phrase “N minutes”, where N is 5 or 10, with a slightly greater frequency than the web population as a whole. This made me self-conscious for a whole 18 minutes, so I thought I’d better sleep on it for about 480 minutes before taking 4 minutes to make a short post about it. Go on and read the Language Log — it’s short and will probably take you only 2 minutes to skim through it.

Now I’m thinking, because I’m an evil and devious sort, that since this is already a low frequency event where we use that phrase, we can easily muck with people’s heads while demonstrating an observer effect. From now on, everyone try to remember that whenever you reference a short estimated interval of time, and you are about to use one of the common multiples of 5, add one to it. We don’t have to do it every time, nor does everyone have to participate, but by adding a little verbal tic on top of a tic we can skew this analysis.

The experiment began 11 minutes ago. Keep it up.

What’s happening down in New Zealand?

Watch and find out next week, as the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa prepares to move the Colossal Squid live, on webcam. It’s going from its formalin soak to a new display tank. Along the way they’ll sew up a rip in the mantle, remove some eggs and check how it has preserved.

The live webcast starts at 9am NZ time on Wednesday 6 August, USA time Tuesday, 5 August, 2pm PDT, 5pm EDT and UK time Tuesday, 5 August, 10pm.

This could be a dreary mistake

I’ve agreed to another talk radio debate — this time it’s not a Christian radio station, so there’s hope of some ethical behavior on their part — on WDAY, AM 970 next Tuesday, 5 August, at 10am. We’re supposed to debate intelligent design, and my opponent is…

My opponent is…

Really, I’m embarrassed to say it…

My opponent is…

Ray Comfort.

O Lord, could you please stop making my enemies so ridiculous? It’s getting a little bit excessive.

Basics: Sonic Hedgehog

Every time I mention this developmentally significant molecule, Sonic hedgehog, I get a volley of questions about whether it is really called that, what it does, and why it keeps cropping up in articles about everything from snake fangs to mouse penises to whale fins to worm brains. The time seems appropriate to give a brief introduction to the hedgehog family of signaling molecules.

First, a brief overview of what Sonic hedgehog, or shh, is, which will also give you an idea about why it keeps coming up in these development papers. We often compare the genome to a toolbox — a collection of tools that play various roles in the construction of an organism. If I had to say what tool Sonic hedgehog is most like (keeping in mind that metaphors should not be overstretched), it would be like a tape measure. It’s going to have multiple uses: as a straightedge, as a paperweight to hold down your blueprints, as something to fence with your coworkers on a break, and even to measure distances. It will be pulled out at multiple times during a construction job, and it’s generically useful — you don’t need one tape measure to measure windows, another to measure doors, and yet another to measure countertops. Sonic hedgehog is just like that, getting whipped out multiple times for multiple uses during development, often being used where structures need to be patterned.

Let’s dig into some of the details. I’m using the 2006 review by Ingham and Placzek for most of this summary, so if you really want to get deeper into the literature, I recommend that paper as a starting point.

[Read more…]

A horrible story

You’ve probably already heard this one, since it is all over the news: a preacher, Anthony Hopkins, murdered his wife after she caught him sexually abusing their children and stuffed her in a freezer — with the daughter’s assistance. This happened four years ago and the children’s mother has been kept in the freezer in this house ever since. The pastor of Hopkins church reports that “the children were so respectful, just so easygoing”, and that they “loved their dad. They were very close to him.” Right. Rape, murder, and incest are just ordinary events in the Abrahamic family tree.

What I find disturbing about the whole story is this. Anthony Hopkins spent all this time since as an itinerant preacher, traveling about and preaching the ‘Holy Word of Jesus Christ’. His daughter moved out of his house, finally, reported what he’d done to the police, the police went into his house and opened the freezer, and then they went off to the church where he was preaching that day. What did they do then?

Police allowed Hopkins to finish his sermon before arresting him.

Wait, what? Was this an example of Christians showing respect, that they allowed a child-raping murderer continue mouthing words of love and redemption in their church, words that clearly meant nothing to this monstrous psychopath? If only he’d crumbled a cracker, perhaps then they would have been less tolerant.