Add “flaming death” to “environmental degradation”

I’m just curious — did anyone else hear about the big pipeline explosion near Winnipeg? I’m sure that if you lived in southern Manitoba, where thousands were without heat for their homes in January, knew all about it. But I didn’t see much in the news about this terrifying event.


There may be a reason for that. Pipeline explosions aren’t that unusual or newsworthy, I guess.

Carl Weimer, executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust, a non-profit watchdog organization, says that, on average, there is “a significant incident — somewhere — about every other day. And someone ends up in the hospital or dead about every nine or ten days.” This begs the question: are pipelines carrying shale gas different in their explosive potential than other pipelines?

“There isn’t any database that allows you to get at that,” says Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety expert and consultant of 40 years’ experience. “If it’s a steel pipeline and it has enough gas in it under enough pressure, it can leak or rupture.” Many pipelines, says Kuprewicz, aren’t bound by any safety regulations, and even when they are, enforcement can often be lax. Where regulations exist, he continues, corporate compliance is uneven. “Some companies comply with and exceed regulations, others don’t.  If I want to find out about what’s going on, I may [have to] get additional information via subpoena.”

The United States has gone fracking mad — Obama even made a point of mentioning that we’ve become a net oil exporter in his state of the union address, without bothering to say how that happened — but we ought to be concerned. It’s easy to ignore the fact that parts of North Dakota and Canada are being shredded and poisoned and torn apart because nobody lives there (well, nearly: low population density rural areas are fair game for exploitation, because biomes don’t sue), but then they run poorly regulated and maintained pipelines straight to our homes.

Another thing that raises my hackles: they’ve taken to naming these pipelines with words to inspire reverence among the rubes. “Keystone” is sort of neutral, but the article above talks about one called “Constitution”. Are you against the Constitution? What kind of ‘Murican are you? I expect any day now to discover a pipeline proposal called “God & Family” or, let’s go straight to the heart of the matter, the “Jesus Loves America and Hates Terrorists Pipeline”.

How Mormons deal with poverty

It’s very Republican. Uintah Elementary School had a bunch of deadbeat kids who weren’t paying their lunch money, so something must be done. And it must be done in the worst, most callous and insensitive way. So they snatched the lunches away from kids after serving them.

Jason Olsen, a Salt Lake City District spokesman, said the district’s child-nutrition department became aware that Uintah had a large number of students who owed money for lunches.

As a result, the child-nutrition manager visited the school and decided to withhold lunches to deal with the issue, he said.

But cafeteria workers weren’t able to see which children owed money until they had already received lunches, Olsen explained.

The workers then took those lunches from the students and threw them away, he said, because once food is served to one student it can’t be served to another.

Brilliant. Utterly brilliant. Not one penny was saved, and the children still went hungry. You would think that at some point someone would have said that this plan makes no sense at all — especially in Morridor, where everyone pays such fervent lip service to the importance of charity — but as we all know, punishing the poor is an American hobby.

It really isn’t just a Mormon thing. Congress just passed a farm bill that cuts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Not only does it not increase funding for the program to meet growing demand, it will cut it by nearly $9 billion over 10 years. Put in more tangible terms, 850,000 low-income households will take huge hits to their ability to afford food, according to Bread for the World president David Beckmann, and the average family in need will lose around $90 per month.

That’s right, congress finally managed to pass a bill by accommodating the Batshit Republican Faction and slapping the poor around some more. And our Simpering Democratic Collaborationists have flopped to the ground and praised it as a triumph.

Biblical slavery was such a lovely and tolerant experience

The clueless goons at AiG are confident about the outcome of Ken Ham’s debate with Bill Nye, claiming that the scientific facts of the Bible will win the day. Of course, you have to understand that what creationists call “fact” and what rational people call fact are rather different things. For example, when confronted with the Biblical support for slavery, here’s what they have to say:

What do you mean by slavery? Biblical slavery (servitude) was much different from what most people today think of as slavery (e.g., what some Europeans and Americans shamefully did with some African peoples, which is a recent example of forced slavery in the Western world).

Slavery (servitude) in the Bible was when someone was overextended in debt and could not pay it off. They would sell themselves into slavery for a seven-year term to pay off that debt to a wealthier person. During that time, they were given room and board, were paid a small wage that they could put into savings, and were taught a vocation. Then when they came out of this seven-year servitude, they could enter the culture with means and a profession.

Oh, really? That was only sometimes true, and then, only for the men, and only if they are Hebrews. Read Exodus 21.

2 “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. 3 If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.

5 “But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ 6 then his master must take him before the judges.[a] He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.

7 “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. 8 If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself,[b] he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.

This idea that slaves were all happy Hebrews who were going through the ancient equivalent of bankruptcy court is amusing, but atypical. Where did many slaves come from? It’s just a real shame if you happen to be a woman, or for instance, a Midianite, because you were spoils of war. Read your bible, Numbers 31.

7 They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man. 8 Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba—the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. 9 The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. 10 They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. 11 They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, 12 and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.

13 Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.

15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

I am not so confident of the outcome of this debate. You can see what the liars at Answers in Genesis will do; not even the words of their Holy Bible are safe, but will be twisted and misrepresented to produce a false picture of their claims. I do wish these loons who so enthusiastically endorse the “literal interpretation” of their Bible would actually acknowledge what it says. If you’re going to claim that the Earth is less than ten thousand years old because you are forced by logic and consistency to accept every word of the Bible, then you must also accept that your daughters are your possessions to be bought and sold into slavery, and that the rape and genocide of foreigners is God’s will.

Just say it, “Anti-Christ!”

A spokesperson for the American Patriarchy Association has a few revealing words about Obama.

Responding to a caller who warned that “there’s a black cloud over our national capital” that is bringing down America, Rios said that there is a “spiritual” element to the political battle: “I do think what we’re facing here is otherworldly, there is a supernatural power to this president that I can’t—that I think most of us have picked up, those of us who believe in God and believe that there are other forces at work here, but we don’t know what God’s mind is on this.”

To be fair, she could be trying to imply that he is a Magical Negro who is going to bring wisdom to America…but somehow, I don’t think so.

My own position on the matter is that Obama is a human politician.

Speaking at the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota

I do sometimes get out and spend some time with the little branch campuses of my university. On 5 February, at 3:30 in 335 Borlaug Hall, I’ll be talking about…

How can you change the culture if you won’t join the conversation? Science and social media

The values of scientists often poorly align with some of the values of the wider culture, and even within science, we often see generational clashes, where established scientists conflict with a younger cohort. The battleground where ideas are fighting it out right now is on the internet. I’ll be discussing both intra-scientific concerns, such as the struggle against sexism, and the external concerns we ought to be having over the public perception of science and the concerted efforts to provide a welcoming environment for creationists, climate change denialists, and fear of GMOs in the public and in the halls of power.

It’s all about putting science in a wider social context, and how the tools we use to do that are social media. I won’t be telling everyone that they must use them, but that they shouldn’t fear them and that they need to have some respect for even seemingly trivial media, like Twitter. The conversation changes how we think and what we are aware of, and is far more influential than we realize.

Funny Looking Rock found on Mars!

When last we heard from Rhawn Joseph, he was playing with photoshop and trying to sell off his online journal, the Journal of Cosmology. The Journal of Cosmology has been plugging away, claiming to have found bacteria in meteorites and then diatoms in meteorites — give them a blurry, vague photo of some shapeless blob, and they’ll claim it looks just like something biological on Earth. Either that, or they’ll photoshop my head on to it.

Rhawn Joseph’s latest struggle: he’s suing NASA for suppressing evidence of life on Mars. His evidence is this pair of photos taken by the Mars Opportunity rover, 12 days apart, and released by NASA.


Look! There’s a rock in the later picture that wasn’t there earlier! How did it get there? NASA’s explanations were first, speculation that it could be a meteorite, but now they seem to think that it was most likely flicked by the rover itself, as it was making a turn. That sounds reasonable to me.

But not to Rhawn Joseph! We’re missing the most obvious “fact” of all, that what appeared in the later photo was no rock at all, but a mushroom. He demands that NASA investigate thoroughly, using the power of a legal writ.


How can you doubt it? He has since published his results in a “scientific journal” — his own online website — complete with side-by-side photos of the Martian Funny-Looking-Rock and earthly apothecia.


The “mysterious” bowl-like structure which appeared on Mars does not resemble a rock or a meteor, but a lichen fungus which on Earth is known as “Apothecia.” A magnification of the structure Sol 3540 reveals the presence of numerous “paraphyses” which are spore producing organs of Apothecium. On Earth Apothecia are commonly observed on rocks, tree limbs, or growing on the ground next to open road. Related species are known by a variety of names, such as Eastern Speckled Shield Lichen (Punctellia Bolliana). The term “shield lichen” is applied to a variety of foliose lichens. An important characteristic is their bowl-shaped growth with brown inner surfaces. These bowl shaped structures are “apothecia” and appear basically identical to the “mystery” structure depicted in Sol 3540 but which NASA wishes the public to believe is a rock or meteor which suddenly sprouted on this slab of Martian real estate.

In case you missed the similarity, here’s a photo of the Mars FLR with big red arrows and bold text pointing to the “paraphyses” — you know, just in case the visual similarity might not be as strong as Joseph claims.


Joseph says that if you “magnify” the image the similarities to the paraphyses of apothecia are even more apparent, which is kind of amusing: you can’t magnify the raw pixel data. All the information you get is right there. You can make it larger, but that’s not at all the same as increasing resolution.

I have used all the powers bestowed upon me with my Ph.D. to squint even harder than Rhawn Joseph at that rock, and I’m sorry, it’s a rock. It’s not a fungus or a lichen or a Happy Meal toy or Rhawn Joseph’s lost marbles, and if you look at the raw image rather than one that Joseph has pseudocolored to tint it green, it doesn’t look particularly biological.

Also, NASA already seems quite happy to investigate further.

Mr Squyres said scientists believe the rock, named "Pinnacle Island," got there when the aging rover did a pirouette turn in the dusty Martian soil and knocked loose a chunk of bedrock that rolled a short distance downhill.

"We think that in the process of that wheel moving across the ground, we kind of flicked it, kind of tiddly winked it out of the ground and it moved to the location where we see it," Mr Squyres said.

Still, scientists have not found the divet the rock would have left behind. They think it is hidden beneath one of the rover’s solar arrays.

The Opportunity team plans to manuever the robotic vehicle around a bit more to see if they can find the spot from which the rock emerged.

As to why it is such an unusual color [it’s a darker red than the surface], Mr Squyres said it may be that humans are witnessing a surface that has not been exposed in a very, very long time.

"It appears that it may have flipped itself upside down," he said.

"If that is the case, what we are seeing is we are seeing the surface, the underside of a rock, that hasn’t seen the Martian atmosphere for perhaps billions of years."

Already, an analysis of the rock with the Opportunity’s spectrometer has shown a "strange composition, different from anything we have seen before," he told reporters.

The rock has a lot of sulphur, along with very high concentrations of manganese and magnesium.

"We are still working this out. We are making measurements right now. This is an ongoing story of discovery," he said.

Ah, but I think you see the real problem: NASA has used data from other instruments on the rover to come to a conclusion that differs from Rhawn Joseph’s far-fetched speculation of Martian mushrooms.

The State Of The Union, filtered through Charles Pierce

This is a bad week for me, encumbered with a lot of search committee work, a genetics exam, and agonizing distractions like Chris Hedges. Also, I hear the speech was really long. So I’ve completely skipped it, and instead trust Charles Pierce’s digest. I guess it was competent, had a few moments of clarity and passion, and neatly avoided some of the more unpleasant aspects of the Obama presidency, like drone strikes, the growing police state and violations of privacy, and pipelines exploding to my north. As was expected.

Actually, I thought the most interesting fact of the whole evening of political hoo-ha was the number 4. The Republicans put up four loons to reply to the president’s remarks. Not one unified front, but four.

I don’t need to listen to them to see the signs that the Republican party is breaking apart right now.