Letting others speak for me

James Wolcott:

Inside, a NY editorial titled ‘Nuts!’ begins with a little historical lesson explaining the cover line.

“It may be the most famous one-word sentence in American military history, and it’s time to dust it off after yesterday’s pronouncement from Osama bin Laden: ‘Nuts!’ That’s how Brigadier Gen. Anthony McAuliffe responded to the Nazis when asked to surrender the town of Bastogne on December 19, 1944. Outnumbered and surrounded by Panzer tanks, McAuliffe gave his one word response to a courier.”

Did you see the problem with this Victor Davis Hanson-ing? The United States isn’t surrounded by superior forces, we’re the world’s military superpower, the one with the tanks and the “imperial grunts,” and Bin Laden is a single individual holed up somewhere along the outlaw border, yet the NY Sun would have us believe we’re the scrappy underdog with the never-say-die attitude.

The Editors quote George Orwell:

One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting. The P.S.U.C. militiamen whom I knew in the line, the Communists from the International Brigade whom I met from time to time, never called me a Trotskyist or a traitor; they left that kind of thing to the journalists in the rear. The people who wrote pamphlets against us and vilified us in the newspapers all remained safe at home, or at worst in the newspaper offices of Valencia, hundreds of miles from the bullets and the mud. And apart from the libels of the inter-party feud, all the usual war-stuff, the tub-thumping, the heroics, the vilification of the enemy—all these were done, as usual, by people who were not fighting and who in many cases would have run a hundred miles sooner than fight. […] Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hole in him.

Molly Ivins:

I’d like to make it clear to the people who run the Democratic Party that I will not support Hillary Clinton for president.

Enough. Enough triangulation, calculation and equivocation. Enough clever straddling, enough not offending anyone This is not a Dick Morris election. Sen. Clinton is apparently incapable of taking a clear stand on the war in Iraq, and that alone is enough to disqualify her. Her failure to speak out on Terri Schiavo, not to mention that gross pandering on flag-burning, are just contemptible little dodges.

The recent death of Gene McCarthy reminded me of a lesson I spent a long, long time unlearning, so now I have to re-learn it. It’s about political courage and heroes, and when a country is desperate for leadership. There are times when regular politics will not do, and this is one of those times. There are times a country is so tired of bull that only the truth can provide relief.

Hiya, Leonardo!

Ah, so that’s what this scienceblogs.com thing is all about: we’re a Vehicle for Upscale Ads. It feels a bit strange to be viewed as a “vehicle”. I see this as more of a virus, with the corporate world as the host vehicle, and I’m exploiting them in order to get fast free network hosting.

So that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. This simplistic characterization of you readers, though, is a bit disturbing.

The research has identified about 20 million Americans, 7 percent of the population, who are labeled in the study as “Leonardos,” named after da Vinci for their avid, Renaissance-style interest in science as well as subjects like art and politics.

Leonardos are mostly male, in their 30’s and middle to upper class, said Eliza Esquivel, a planner at JWT New York who is working with Ms. Cortizo on the study.

Yeesh. I think of my readers as much more diverse than that, and I hope I never end up pandering to a narrow demographic.

It’s very weird to read about this particular endeavor filtered through the eyes of business drones—it has no relationship at all to how I think about it. Fortunately, I am isolated from the business end of all this, and don’t worry—if some 30 year old guy in a business suit with an MBA tries to tell me what content to put here, I’ll be gone.

I suppose it would also make sense if our goal was to kill EVERYONE

I was challenged to address a moral dilemma brought up by Kevin Drum.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we had pretty good intelligence telling us that a bunch of al-Qaeda leaders were in the house we bombed. And let’s also assume that we did indeed kill al-Masri and several other major al-Qaeda leaders. Finally, let’s assume that the 18 civilians killed in the attack were genuinely innocent bystanders with no connection to terrorists.

Question: Under those assumptions, was the attack justified? I think the answer is pretty plainly yes, but I’d sure like to see the liberal blogosphere discuss it. And for those who answer no, I’m curious: under what circumstances would such an attack be justified.

The attack was not justified, under any circumstances. I don’t understand how anyone can answer “pretty plainly yes.”

OK, actually, maybe I can. If the objective of the war is to mete out harsh justice to a select, well defined group of individuals, then yes, go for it. It’ll bring the war closer to an end. It seems a rather primitive view of war as an agent of almost Biblical retribution, though, and I don’t think civilized states should engage in it. I’m surprised that that is how Kevin Drum sees the conduct of the war.

Alternatively, if the objective of the war is to pacify a region in strife and bring its population into the ranks of the community of nations, treating its innocent population as targets is counterproductive. On purely utilitarian grounds, it seems idiotic to me. People will not forget that America rode roughshod over their relatives, friends, and neighbors to simply exterminate their enemies.

Tristero berates me for taking hokum seriously.

A rising starlet in evo-devo


Nematostella, the starlet anemone, is a nifty new model system for evo-devo work that I’ve mentioned a few times before—in articles on “Bilateral symmetry in a sea anemone” and “A complex regulatory network in a diploblast”—and now I see that there is a website dedicated to the starlet anemone and a genomics database, StellaBase. It’s taking off!

I want in!

Maybe the right wingers will be interested in expanding this UCLA program to pay student Quislings.

A fledgling alumni group headed by a former campus Republican leader is offering students payments of up to $100 per class to provide information on instructors who are “abusive, one-sided or off-topic” in advocating political ideologies.

The year-old Bruin Alumni Assn. says its “Exposing UCLA’s Radical Professors” initiative takes aim at faculty “actively proselytizing their extreme views in the classroom, whether or not the commentary is relevant to the class topic.” Although the group says it is concerned about radical professors of any political stripe, it has named an initial “Dirty 30” of teachers it identifies with left-wing or liberal causes.

I’m liberal, a partisan Democrat, and I’m also outspoken as a flaming godless atheist—a perfect target for their partisan hackwork.

I’d like to turn myself in. I’d be happy to surrender copies of my lecture notes and make tape recordings of every class for that $100 bounty. The money would come in handy (I’m sitting in the orthodontist’s office waiting for my daughter’s appointment to end…boy, would $100 help.)

Jones said he has lined up one student who, for $100 a class session, has agreed to provide tapes, detailed lecture notes and materials with what the group considers inappropriate opinion. He would not name the student or the professor whose class will be monitored. Jones characterized the work as non-commercial news gathering and advocacy that does not violate university policy.

Holy crap! It isn’t per term—it’s per class hour! I’m in class for 7 hours and 45 minutes per week, for 15 weeks per term. That would be $23,250 a year! Feeding the persecution fantasies of the wingers could be a rather lucrative occupation.

Two legged goats and developmental variation



Variation is common, and often lingers in places where it is unexpected. The drawing to the left is from West-Eberhard’s Developmental Plasticity and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and illustrates six common variations in the branching pattern of the aortic arch in humans. These are differences that have no known significance to our lives, and aren’t even visible except in the hopefully rare situations in which a surgeon opens our chests.

This is the kind of phenomenon in which I’ve become increasingly interested. I work with a model system, the zebrafish, and supposedly one of the things we model systems people pursue is the ideal of a consistent organism, in which the variables are reduced to a minimum. Variation is noise that interferes with our perception of common underlying mechanisms. I’ve been thinking more and more that variation is actually a significant phenomenon that tells us something about where the real constraints in the system are. It is also, of course, the raw material for evolution.

Unfortunately, variation is also relatively difficult to study.

[Read more…]

I’m redundant-who needs a blogger?


There’s a lovely article in this week’s Nature documenting a transitional stage in tetrapod evolution (you know, those forms the creationists like to say don’t exist), and a) Nature provides a publicly accessible review of the finding, and b) the primary author is already a weblogger! Perhaps there will come a day when I’m obsolete and willl just have to turn my hand to blogging about what I had for lunch.

For an extra super-duper dose of delicious comeuppance, though, take a look at this thread on the Panda’s Thumb. I wrote about Panderichthys, and a creationist (“Ghost of Paley”) comes along to mangle the phylogeny and make wild negative assertions about the validity of interpretations of fossils based on work from the Ahlberg lab…when Martin Brazeau of the Ahlberg lab and author of this new paper shows up to straighten him out.

And for my next trick, let me introduce you to Marshall McLuhan

Brazeau MD, Ahlberg PE (2006) Tetrapod-like middle ear architecture in a Devonian fish. Nature 439:318-321.