davegodfrey: Marvin: ...and me with a terrible pain in all the diodes down my left hand side... (Marvin)
I've written about Brewdog before- they make rather nice beers, many of which are ridiculously strong, and don't particularly appeal to me for that reason- but they're a good example of the kind of craft brewery that's been thriving, and have very definitely got their marketing strategy right. Grab headlines with limited edition runs of "the world's strongest beer" (well, its really a freeze-distilled spirit, but who's counting), and back this up with a range of rather more sensible quality beers. Good for them. They've recently opened a bar down in Camden, and very nice it is too- it sells pretty much the whole of their range, and I ought to visit again.

As a relatively small concern with a handful of pubs you wouldn't think that the big pubco's would be that scared of them would you? After all, Diageo make Guinness which sells something like 1.5 billion pints a year worldwide. Brewdog's total output is about six hundred times less. They own seven pubs. Diageo own, well probably none actually, I don't think they have a subsidiary pubco, although I'm sure they used to- but then again they don't need to- their products are available in almost every bar in the UK. Talisker, Gordon's, Pimm's, Jose Cuervo, they have their fingers in a lot of pies.

So do they really have anything to fear from Brewdog? Really?

Seems like they do. At the British Institute of Innkeeping Scotland Awards, Brewdog had heard through the grapevine, that they might do rather well in a particular category.- Bar Operator of the Year- voted for by an independent panel. Sadly they didn't win. Oh well, these things happen, better luck next time and all that..

However, the winners refused to accept the award. Because someone had already engraved "Brewdog" on it.

Um...

Turns out that some Diageo reps strongarmed the BII into changing the winner at the last minute, stating that they'd refuse to sponsor the awards ever again if Brewdog won.

You may as well go here and read Brewdog's account of the evening, and the aftermath. I don't have much more to add other than "Jesus Christ!"

I'm not sure what explanation there is for Diageo's admitted "serious misjudgement". I don't know what was being served at the dinner, but not even Brewdog advise drinking a bottle of Tactical Nuclear Penguin in one go.

davegodfrey: South Park Me. (Default)
This time round they've created a 32% beer. Yes you read that right. 32%. There's no yeast that will let you brew that strong, so they freeze it, decant it and refreeze it until it gets to the desired percentage. Its conditioned in two different types of cask, and the manufacturers themselves suggest it should be drunk like whisky. Its basically the beer version of the Apple brandy that farmers Didn't Make At All for their friends and family.

Being Brewdog it has a very silly name "Tactical Nuclear Penguin". And to forestall claims of ruining the world with binge drinking a 330ml bottle will cost £30. 500 are being made. I've said before that they're attention seeking, and I think this proves it, but I think I'm warming to the cheeky buggers.

Jack Law from Alcohol Focus Scotland is not amused "We want to know why a brewer would produce a beer almost as strong as whisky." For exactly the same reason as I covered my computer in sticky-backed plastic, that people first began to make brandy, and that people climb mountains. To see if they could. As whisky starts off not unlike beer why not try making a spirit from actual beer?
davegodfrey: South Park Me. (Default)
Today is the 11th Annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. "This day was created as a time to grieve trans and gender non-conforming people killed over the past year because of fear and hatred. It also serves as a time to raise awareness about violence against trans folks."

I, like Andrew Hickey (who is a much better writer than me, and who's careful thought-provoking post prompted this ill=thought-out rant) am a White Straight Male, living in a world where being a White Straight Male is considered normal, and anything else is worth less. Well, frankly, bollocks to that. Humanity is a glorious rainbow of variety, and the sooner we come to accept this the better. The people who murder other people based on how the gender they present are no better than those who murdered based on skin colour, religious beliefs or any of the other petty xenophobic reasons we've been using to murder each other since humanity fell out of the trees.

Is it really so hard to treat people with common decency?

I really don't have anything particularly constructive to say. I'm not involved in the Transgender movement, nor I suspect would I be particularly helpful. All I have to offer is undirected anger and despair at yet another example of humanity's inhumanity. Its a start I suppose.

Still they've got CERN up and running again. Hopefully when they actually start doing proper experiments they'll turn the world inside out and we won't have to worry anymore. That'll be nice.
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davegodfrey: Coelacanth (Science)
Further from my last post I mentioned a fossil whale most of you may never have heard of until this morning. Maiacetus inuus "Inuus' Mother Whale", named for the Roman god of fecundity, and important features of the holotype, which I will come to.

The whale comes from Pakistan, known for some time now as an important place for whale evolution, the earliest whales (placed in a family called the Protcetidae) are known from here- previous finds include Ambulocetus natans the "Swimming walking whale", Pakicetus, originally known only from a skull, and now known to be a rather wolf-like animal, (rather than the seal-like creature it was previously reconstructed as), in total 15 genera and 16 species are known ranging from South Asia and Africa into North America.

Unlike later archaeocetes like Basilosaurus and Dorudon, Maiacetus and its relatives had strong back legs fused to the vertebral column. While strongly adapted to water they would have been able to move around on land, probably quite comfortably. Looking at the skeletal reconstructions I'm most strongly reminded of a cross between an otter and a crocodile. The limbs are strong, the snout long and narrow. The tail and limbs are strong, indicating that the animal probably swam rather like a modern otter. A 2.6m otter with a face full of teeth. Not as cute as the ones at the zoo then.

The animal shows some degree of sexual dimorphism. The second specimen is 12% bigger than the other, and has notably larger canine teeth. This specimen is also one of the most complete protocetes known, and clearly shows the "double-pulley" ankle that shows whales are actually artiodactyls (the "Even-Hoofed Ungulates", like cows, pigs and sheep). Molecular data shows their closest living relatives are the hippos.

But I've been skirting round the main reason why this species is so fascinating, and why the bloggers have been picking up on it- The holotype is a pregnant female. This is important for several reasons- its the first time a fossil whale has been found with a preserved fetus, and more importantly the fetus is lying head first in the birth canal.

We know that this is indeed a fetus and not the remains of her last meal because as the Phil Gingerich points out:

"Protocetids had shearing molars used to slice and chew their prey. The skull of the fetal skeleton could not have survived such mastication and be as well preserved as it is.

Because of their strong hind legs protocetes have been suggested as having given birth on land, but this fossil conclusively proves it. If Maiacetus had tried to give birth underwater junior would have drowned immediately. Later whales like Dorudon and Basilosaurus had to give birth to their young tail-first. Their legs are tiny and could never support their weight on land.

Another "missing link" found.

And if this wasn't awesome enough Gingerich PD, et al. (2009) New Protocetid Whale from the Middle Eocene of Pakistan: Birth on Land, Precocial Development, and Sexual Dimorphism. PLoS ONE 4(2): e4366 is freely available online at PLoS One

ETA: New Scientist has a nice gallery showing the various stages of whale evolution, including Pakicetus, Ambulocetus and co.
davegodfrey: Flying Spaghetti Monster : Touched by his noodly appendage (FSM)
I'm coming to this about a week after its pretty much played itself out in the blogosphere it seems. So no change there then. I've finally got round to hearing Reverend Joseph Lowery's benediction at Obama's inauguration. Quite why the BBC dropped it from the end of their coverage on iPlayer I don't know.



Cue lots of white people are clutching their pearls in horror and having attacks of the vapours. Just look at some of the comments on the Sun Times' transcript. Try not to read too many its just painful. Even supposedly liberal-minded people who say they voted for Obama are going frothing mad over this:

"Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen."

Stereo Zeitgeist was also intrigued by the lines and its a story worth repeating. I could have sworn I'd heard those lines before. Turns out I probably have.They're based on a song by the early 20th Century blues singer Big Bill Broonzy. "Get Back (Black, Brown and White Blues)". A song recorded in 1951 documenting Broonzy and other's experiences of racism, where blacks who could pass for white were very much better at getting and keeping jobs.

"I went to an employment office,
I got a number and I got in line,
They called everybody's number,
but they never did call mine.

They said, "If you was white, you'd be alright,
if you was brown, stick around,
but as you's black, oh, brother, get back, get back, get back."


The website devoted to Big Bill Broonzy notes that in turn these lines are part of black oral culture describing internalised racism.

"Internalized racism ensures that the values encapsulated in this vernacular
rhyme serve as an insidious, self-fulfilling prophecy:

If you're white, you're right.
If you're yellow, you're mellow.
If you're brown, stay down [sometimes changed to 'stick around']
But if you're black, stay back."


Brenda Dixon Gottschild: Dancing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era (New York, Palgrave, 2000; p. 135)

White people have a history of ignoring what is right. There are individuals who don't, but as a group? Jesus we're awful. Segregation no longer exists, but that didn't end racism did it now? America quite clearly still has problems with issues of race- black people are vastly overrepresented in the prison population for instance, and Native Americans have all kinds of health problems largely related to their social status. The rich white people who run Western countries have grudgingly handed over freedoms and civil rights to minority groups. If it wasn't for people like Lowery, Mandela, and Luther King it would be an awful lot worse. It isn't exactly peachy now is it? Frankly to everyone complaining about Lowery's choice of words. Shush. You're only making yourself look stupid.

Anyway shall we end on a song? )
davegodfrey: South Park Me. (Default)
I went top the pub to wave a colleague off to another job and I come back to this.

No. Not the presidential inauguration. (Tho' I hope Obama and his team does a better job than GW- then again he can't be much worse. surely? surely?)

Nope. It was the news via Pharyngula that Sylvia Olona of the Presbyterian Health Services Rio Rancho Family Health Center in New Mexico removes her patients IUDs. Without their consent.

"Everyone in the office always laughs and tells me I pull these out on purpose because I am against them, but it's not true, they accidentally come out when I tug."

Now I don't know much about IUDs, but I'd assume that they don't just "accidentally come out when I tug". Or indeed, that in order to adjust one that much tugging is involved. She's being sued for removing one without consent. And it isn't the first time. Until now I didn't know entirely how IUDs worked. (I'd been told that it was an anti-implantation technique- which, it turns out, is wrong). But I'm not a nurse. I'm not expected to know exactly how individual methods of contraception work as part of my day-to-day job. This woman's career is based on the fact that she has this kind of information at her fingertips. And she's this ignorant of her own specialism? And uses her ignorance to determine the course of other women's lives?

If these allegations are true this woman should lose her licence. If half the allegations are true she should be struck off.

If Obama does nothing else in his first 100 days, I'll be glad if he removes the "provider conscience rule" that means people like this can ride roughshod over someone else because their personal (and clearly ill-informed) beliefs somehow trump someone else's decisions about their own body. The most frightening thing is that this kind of crap is already affecting people.
davegodfrey: Marvin: ...and me with a terrible pain in all the diodes down my left hand side... (Marvin)
Goodbye Tony Hart. Thank-you for inspiring a love of art. Thank-you for your enthusiasm, slow, measured demonstrations of basic and important techniques- even when the piece itself took a few minutes, the was none of the brash over-excitement of other programmes.

You were the first art teacher I had, though I still can't draw people properly!
davegodfrey: South Park Me. (Default)
I do love Stephen Green sometimes. His latest shtick is to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority about the "There's probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life" advert London buses. Of course if he hadn't started jumping up and down and stamping his little feet virtually no-one outside London or the prominent atheist internet communities would know.

If he didn't exist I think the atheists would have to invent him. His campaign against Jerry Springer The Opera got the laws against Blasphemous Libel overturned, though with the introduction of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act in 2006 its death was on the cards anyway. Incidentally Green's private prosecution was dismissed by the High Court on the grounds that it was impossible under the acts governing theatres and broadcasters to be charged with blasphemy.

I shouldn't be surprised that people like Green don't understand that being told we're bad people for not agreeing with him annoys us. Clearly by his logic feminists should keep quite about all the adverts that portray women's bodies as dirty things to be ashamed of. (Actually Green probably thinks women's bodies are dirty things to be ashamed of.)

What's annoying too, is the Christians who like to think of themselves as moderates, and the concern trolling atheists and agnostics (Clifford Longley as quoted by Andrew Brown for instance) "Ooh no, we can't upset the religious people". To which the only response I can think of is bollocks. Insulting for no reason? Yeah, I'm not a fan of that. I've been guilty of it myself, and it just makes you look stupid.

There are however times when its perfectly justified. Osama Bin Laden and Fred Phelps (to take the most extreme examples) clearly have some warped ideas about what their religions should be. I'm sure they have (and in the case of Christianity know) bits of their holy books that back up their ideas, but there are plenty of other parts that contradict this, and big lumps that are just plain ignored. After all Christians women don't make blood sacrifices after their periods any more. (They don't do they? Or is it like that secret evolutionist ritual where they show us all the Precambrian rabbits?)

Sometimes it would be really nice if it didn't feel like it was just the humanists and the "outspoken atheists" getting up and telling the religious extremists that they're mental. And Christians, what is it with the persecution complex? Guys you took over the Roman Empire, and have been in charge of Western Civilisation ever since. You haven't been able to cry "Oppression" in 1800 years, except when you've been oppressing each other.

I'm going to stop here before I turn into Marcus Brigstocke without the gags.
davegodfrey: South Park Me. (Default)
You probably all know that Darth Ratzi's claiming that the LBGTQs an equal threat to the planet as the destruction of the rainforest. Its all the fault of "gender theory". Which according to him "lead towards the definitive emancipation of man from creation and the creator". Sounds like a good idea to me given the kind of creator he seems to believe in. I'm still not sure how the homosexuals are going to destroy mankind. Possibly in the same way that they'll destroy marriage by um. Er. Being able to visit each other in hospital, and avoiding higher levels of inheritance tax.

But at least he doesn't seem to condone the charges of heresy against Galileo. I'm actually mildly surpised that he's been pinned down on this pressing topical question.

Also. This Christmas I'm going to need an new irony meter. An Italian priest, Father Botino, in Northern Italy has been criticised for telling kids that Father Christmas doesn't exist, "he never intended to hurt anyone but it was his duty to distinguish reality of Jesus from a story that was fable just like Cinderella or Snow White".

Fortunately a group of real terrorists have been found guilty. There are some experiments I don't like. I'm not sure I support a lot of the medical tests on chimps and other "higher" primates. But I also recognise that curing AIDS, learning how embryological development works, and all the other things that people do experiments on are important, and worthwhile. And they're only done when there isn't an alternative. You can't do everything in a computer or a petri dish. Biological systems are just too complex.

If it wasn't for animal testing an awful lot of people would be dead. Including most of these "activists".
davegodfrey: Marvin: ...and me with a terrible pain in all the diodes down my left hand side... (Marvin)
Like everyone else I grew up on the work of Smallfilms. Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine, Nogging the Nog, and my personal favourite, the Clangers.



Thank-you Oliver Postgate, for all you have done.

It lives!

Nov. 8th, 2008 12:10 am
davegodfrey: South Park Me. (Default)
I was hoping to liveblog the US election (or at least a couple of hours of the coverage- Simon Schama being erudite, Christopher Hitchens being belligerant about Elizabeth Dole, that sort of thing). As it is the only comment I shall make on the election is this:

YES!!!! It feels like 1997 all over again. I just hope the optimism is justified this time round...

Unfortunately last Tuesday the 'puter died on me in a fairly dramatic way that I couldn't fix by reinstalling windows. The chap down the road told me it was probably the hard drive and hed sort everything out. Lovely I think, no worries.

Except the motherboard is dead. And the power supply is on its last legs.

So I've basically had to buy a new 'puter. £250 on hardware gets me an Intel Dual Core thing, 2GB of ram, a graphics card (ATI HD3450 512MB for those that must know), another hard drive, a board to put it all on, and a PSU to run it. And on top of that I had to give Bill Bloody Gates some cash to get an operating system to run everything, as I'm assured the old HP bundled stuff won't work. Still the optical drives, the big HDD and the case are still compatible.

Anyway I think this bugger deserves a name. I called the last one Deep Thought, for obvious reasons, but I can't think of a name for this one. Bear in mind its basically had its heart ripped out and replaced, and now has two brains I'm sure you can think of something suitable. Over to you O f'list of mine...
davegodfrey: Coelacanth (Science)
As previously mentioned Nature published on a couple of transitional flatfishes. The National Geographic uses this as a chance to take a dig at the Discovery Institute. Casey Luskin (a lawyer, not a biologist) is outraged I tell you, outraged that the NG suggests that Intelligent Design is really creationism. No dear, it is. The reason you refuse to answer questions about the nature of the designer is that as soon as you did you'd be outed as a bunch of Creationists who won't even answer questions about how old you think the Earth is.

In fairness to Luskin the NG doesn't actually quote anyone who identifies themselves as cdesign proponentsists. However Luskin then goes off on one about how the NG says that sudden evolutionary changes are inconsistent with gradualistic evolution, but are what we see in the fossil record. Unfortunately the debates between Punctuated Equilibria and more gradualistic interpretations of evolution are rather more involved than either NG or Luskin seem to realise. What often happens when an evolutionary novelty appears is that you get a rapid radiation of all sorts of interesting organisms doing different things, and eventually things settle down, and some lineages die out. The spottiness of the fossil record, and the discontinuities of sediment deposition being what they are, for us to see gradualistic change you need rather rare circumstances and lots of fossils. Trilobites are a good example, showing both "Punc Eq" and gradualistic changes.

Of course this ignores the "one man's gradualism is another man's Punc Eq"- neontologists would say that 60,000 years is a very long time, but a palaeontologist might not see a gap twice as long as this in a stratigraphic column. Then there's Dawkins' argument that Gould wasn't actually saying anything new (there are passages in Darwin's work pointing out that rates of evolution are not constant).

Luskin then goes on to criticise the actual paper itself. Unfortunately I'm not sure he's read it. (I have, its really rather good- if short, and generally very clear.) Heteronectes and Amphistium are transitional. The eyes are not on the same side of the head as in modern derived forms, but the whole head is asymmetric. Some modern flatfish have one eye on the "top" of the skull and one in the usual place. So we have a transition. "Normal" fish-->Heteronectes/Amphistium (asymmetric skulls)-->Spiny Turbot (one eye on top)-->Derived flatfish.

There are derived flatfish that are contemporaries of these two genera. Luskin (and predictably the conventional creationists) then use a variant of the "why are there still monkeys" non-argument, and Luskin proposes his own hypothesis, that the two genera are actually going the other way, and are derived from normal flatfish. The little cladogram that Friedman includes in the paper immediately disproves that one. In fact if he'd found that these fishes nested deep within the flatfishes it would be bigger news, because it would mean that we really don't understand flatfish evolution- rather than the fact that we had a fairly good idea what must have happened, but didn't have the fossils to demonstrate it.

The paper finally mentions that:
"The sudden appearance of anatomically modern pleuronectiform groups in the Palaeogene period matches the pattern repeated by many acanthomorph clades. Inferring interrelationships between higher groups in this explosive radiation has proved difficult, and an unresolved bush persists."
This is of course seized on by Luskin as an admission that the evidence for evolution is weak, and Friedman has overstated his case. Er no it isn't. Its pointing out that while we now have a nice little evolutionary sequence for one particular group of fishes, there are still unresolved questions about fish evolution. What these fossils have not revealed (yet) is how the flatfishes fit within this wider group of fishes. The Tree of life page for the Percomorpha (the group in question) shows what Friedman means by a bush. Everything is mushed together what is called a "polytomy", and it isn't at all clear what the relationships between the various groups are.
davegodfrey: South Park Me. (Default)
Up until now flatfish have been been a bit of a problem. They're very weird, going through a metamorphosis so that both eyes end up on the same side of the head. The patterns of development are well understood, (though not at a genetic level) but their early evolution is not well understood. The lack of intermediate fossils has lead to workers such as Goldschmidt proposing "hopeful monsters" and others, like St. George Jackson Mivart doubting natural selection.

However Matt Friedman, a doctoral student in Chicago, has found the first fossils illustrating this change. Matt found the fossils in a drawer of indeterminate fish remains in Vienna, and re-examined two species of a similar genus Amphistium. Matt Freidman prepared the rediscovered specimen, recognised it as a new genus and species, Heteronectes chaneti, and has a paper in Nature for his trouble.

The three species show incomplete migration of the eyes, having one on each side of the head, but displaced, and the skulls are clearly asymmetric, rather than distorted during fossilisation as had been thought. Another fact indicating the primitive nature of these fishes is that Amphistium is known from several specimens, and they are both left and right-handed, a character seen in the primitive living Psettodes (Spiny Turbots), but not in the more derived forms.

Another feature from the point of view of evolution is that these animals were clearly successful predators, as stomach contents are known from one specimen, so the intermediate condition was clearly not maladaptive as creationists like to suggest these things are.

Incidentally Friedman seems to be making a career out of re-examining neglected and ignored specimens. I met him at SVPCA last year, when he presented a talk on the "Cretaceous Swordfish" "Protosphyraena" gladius, which turns out not to be a Protosphyraena at all, but a something else entirely, and is closely related to the giant filter-feeder Leedsichthys.
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davegodfrey: South Park Me. (Dave Godfrey)
Dr Henry Morgentaler, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust, and emigrated to Canada has been awarded the Order of Canada for his work as an abortion rights campaigner. He opened his first clinic in 1969, at a time when abortions were illegal, and performed thousands of procedures. He was arrested, jailed for several months and his Toronto clinic was firebombed. As late as 1987 a woman seeking abortion in Canada had to appeal to a three-doctor committee. The Supreme Court struck this down as unconstitutional in 1988.

Unsurprisingly the pro-lifers and the Catholic clergy are not happy. Father Lucien Larré has become the first person to return theirs in protest. Larré might be trying to return his before its taken away however. In 1992 he was placed on trial for physically abusing children in his care (he later received a pardon and does not have a criminal record.) More recently in 2006 he was suspended from the British Colombia College of Psychiatrists, and in 2007 the A.B.C. Supreme Court upheld this ruling stating that "that there are serious public protection concerns and an immediate risk to the public" if he continued to practice. Subsequently, Madonna House, a Catholic lay community has also returned the medal awarded to its founder.

Not everyone on the pro-life side feels the same way. Rabbi Emeritus Erwin Schild, who is opposed to abortions unless the life of the mother is threatened, said “I'm very proud of my Order of Canada and certainly I see no reason at all [to believe] that it is denigrated in any way by sharing it with Dr. Henry Morgentaler.”

Tip o' the hat to Pharyngula
davegodfrey: Coelacanth (Science)
Some of you may have seen this paper at PLoS ONE. Its a rather nifty piece of work by Darren Naish and Mark Witton (who's very nice drawings accompany the article itself, and the various newspaper reports.)

Basically a group of pterosaurs called Azdarchids have always been a bit of a problem for palaeontologists working out their lifestyle. They're huge, with 10m wingspans, 2-3m jaws, and "it could look a giraffe in the eye". Originally suggested to be variously scavengers, "dip feeders" (like albatrosses), and mud probers, but they don't have the right sort of beak for any of those. Along with every other bloody pterosaur they've been suggested as a "skim feeder"- but no pterosaur is nearly as specialised as Rhychops the skimmer.

Naish and Witton therefore reconstruct them as stork-like predators. The fossils are mostly found in terrestrial deposits, and their footprints indicate their feet aren't adapted for wading (another popular hypothesis)

Yet again coverage is varied. The best place is of course the paper itself, freely avaliable online. Or you can read Darren's blog about it. I wouldn't bother too much about the rest of the media though. 

  
ETA: The Economist, another short article, and nothing wrong here either. States the research showed that they "were more like giant storks. Rather than skimming the sea, they plucked their prey from the ground." Better than the Sun article, but frankly not that much. Again, shorter seems to be better.
davegodfrey: Flying Spaghetti Monster : Touched by his noodly appendage (FSM)
Remember Michael Medved? The chap who thought that slavery "wasn't so bad" and that the Native Americans weren't the victims of genocide?

He's at it again folks. This time, America is awesome because of its DNA. According to Peter C. Whybrow "immigrants to the United States and their descendents seemed to possess a distinctive makeup of their “dopamine receptor system – the pathway in the brain that figures centrally in boldness and novelty seeking.”" John D. Gartner adds that the laissez-faire capitalism with minimal or ineffectual governmental controls "sustains the influence of immigrant genetics."

On its own this is stupid. It's a classic example of when evolutionary psychology runs away with itself and gets it completely wrong. I don't know exactly how a particular version of your dopamine receptors controls preferring to move to a different continent to dying of famine, but I'm fairly sure the psychiatrists (or does he mean psychologists?) don't either. But this is Medved. The stupid doesn't stop there.

"The idea of a distinctive, unifying, risk-taking American DNA might also help to explain our most persistent and painful racial divide – between the progeny of every immigrant nationality that chose to come here, and the one significant group that exercised no choice in making their journey to the U.S."

Now I wonder which group he's talking about here? But its not all doom and gloom. There have been 3 million immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean to help mitigate the effect of the descendants of all those unselected people. Dare I mention the problems involving Native Americans? And what of the issues facing the Hispanics? A good proportion of their ancestors came from Spain, so its not as if they should be lacking in the "immigrant gene".

Medved's point, when he finally gets to it in the last paragraph, is that imposing a European-style welfare state "not only contradicts our proudest political and economic traditions, but the new revelations about American DNA suggest that such ill-starred schemes may go against our very nature."

Yeah. Because society is genetic. The Inca's? Predisposed to ridiculous amounts of polygamy, human sacrifice, and not using the wheel.

ETA: (Hat tip to Pharyngula again. Some of the comments are worth reading too. (Cue lots of people [including Americans] pointing out that by this logic Canada, India and New Zealand shouldn't have welfare states, or the alternative hypothesis- America is full of cowards who didn't want to stay and sort out their problems so legged it.)
davegodfrey: Cyberman: The Future is Shiny (Shiny)
Reason no. 472 not to shop at Tesco's. Padded bras for seven-year-olds.

I'm going to have to stop reading Feministing, its bad for my blood pressure. ;)
davegodfrey: Flying Spaghetti Monster : Touched by his noodly appendage (FSM)
Via [profile] maureenlycaon
Michael Medved. I've never heard of him until now. Frankly I wish I hadn't. He was a film critic. Now he blogs. Its nauseating. Sadlyno has an article on a recent entry, dissecting it far more eleoquently than I can. Basically Medved says that slavery wasn't that bad because:

1. SLAVERY WAS AN ANCIENT AND UNIVERSAL INSTITUTION, NOT A DISTINCTIVELY AMERICAN INNOVATION.

So the greeks did it. So what? And France and the UK had banned it on home soil before the founding of the US anyway.

2. SLAVERY EXISTED ONLY BRIEFLY, AND IN LIMITED LOCALES, IN THE HISTORY OF THE REPUBLIC – INVOLVING ONLY A TINY PERCENTAGE OF THE ANCESTORS OF TODAY’S AMERICANS.

In the history of the republic perhaps. In the history of the colonies? Rather longer I venture. And the majority of African-Americans have slaves as their ancestors. 

3. THOUGH BRUTAL, SLAVERY WASN’T GENOCIDAL: LIVE SLAVES WERE VALUABLE BUT DEAD CAPTIVES BROUGHT NO PROFIT.

Er? One of the commenters on SadlyNo points to this painting, "The Slave Ship" by JMW Turner. Says it all really. And as slaves were cargo the traders could claim on the insurance. Profitsss all  round.

"Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of these voyages involves the fact that no slave traders wanted to see this level of deadly suffering: they benefited only from delivering (and selling) live slaves, not from tossing corpses into the ocean."

WHAT?!!!!!????????!!!???!?!?!?! Did I just mention the insurance? Did you look at the pretty picture?

(Sadly No interrupts their blog for puppies. I suggest you look at Ugly Overload. They have cute centipedes.)

4. IT’S NOT TRUE THAT THE U.S. BECAME A WEALTHY NATION THROUGH THE ABUSE OF SLAVE LABOR: THE MOST PROSPEROUS STATES IN THE COUNTRY WERE THOSE THAT FIRST FREED THEIR SLAVES.

Actually the slave owning states were one of the most wealthy at the time beacuse of the Triangle Trade. And the ones that freed their slaves were industrialised. Places producing raw materials tend not to be massively wealthy anyway.

5. WHILE AMERICA DESERVES NO UNIQUE BLAME FOR THE EXISTENCE OF SLAVERY, THE UNITED STATES MERITS SPECIAL CREDIT FOR ITS RAPID ABOLITION.

Except that the US needed a civil war before slavery could be stopped, and the UK didn't, over 30 years earlier. Plenty of other places had banned slavery long before the US did it. (But at least they did it before Saudi Arabia in 1960! So that's all right then.)

6. THERE IS NO REASON TO BELIEVE THAT TODAY’S AFRICAN-AMERICANS WOULD BE BETTER OFF IF THEIR ANCESTORS HAD REMAINED BEHIND IN AFRICA. 

True. But their ancestors being transported would have. Slavery is wrong. Just because 200 years down the line your descendants have a walkman and nice shoes doesn't make it right here and now (or there and then.)

Then again it turns out the the man has form. After all the Native Americans weren't the victims of genocide.

Best of all Pharyngula notes that Medved is now a fellow of the Discovery Institute! Are they trying to discredit themselves? Its almost as if we don't need to bother any more.
davegodfrey: Coelacanth (Science)

Oh dear. What starts off as a musing on a small part of Wagner, rapidly turns into a discussion of evolution. Jerry Fordor (who?) wants to know why pigs don't have wings. He doesn't like natural selection. Which is a pity because while adaptationism is sometimes taken too far it still works and is still the most important driving force in nature.

Fodor doesn't like evolutionary psychology much. Fair enough, I'm not too keen on its excesses (like the recent non-study suggesting that girls prefer pink and boys blue). However it is not unreasonable to suppose that our behavioural patterns evolved in response to living on the savannah. As the majority of humans don't live in hunter-gather groups it isn't much of a stretch to suggest that some of the problems we have with modern life are because the behavioural modules that worked then don't work now.

Fodor distinguishes the two parts of "Darwinism", phylogeny and natural selection. (You can always tell if the essayist is going to get it badly wrong when they use the term "Darwinism" to describe modern evolutionary theory. I'd like to see a ban on the word outside of its historical context.) He then introduces the idea that adaptationism cannot explain everything, bringing up Sephen Jay Gould's analogy of the spandrels of San Marco. A spandrel is a triangular space which you get in the corners of arches when they are supporting a dome. They are often highly decorative.  If you support a dome with arches you automatically get spandrels. Similarly in biology there is debate about how significant natural selection is in producing a particular phenotype. Some people, like Larry Moran and the late Stephen Jay Gould see a greater role for mechanisms other than natural selection. Others such as Richard Dawkins and Simon Conway Morris don't think these ideas are useful. Nobody contends that natural selection is the be-all and end-all.

Except it seems Mr Fodor. Fodor also doesn't like the fact that artificial selection is a good analogy for natural selection because nature isn't conscious. 

               "How could a studied decision to breed for one trait or another be ‘the very same thing’ as the adventitious culling of a population?" 

Fodor asks. Well, because NS doesn't necessarily proceed by culling. All you need is for the organisms with that trait to have a couple more children in order for the trait to spread. As far as evolution is concerned having no kids is the same as being dead. Fodor has got rather too wrapped up in the "survival of the fittest" analogy to see that it isn't always like this.

              "The crucial test is whether one’s pet theory can distinguish between selection for trait A and selection for trait B when A and B are coextensive: were polar bears selected for being white or for matching their environment? Search me; and search any kind of adaptationism I’ve heard of. Nor am I holding my breath till one comes along."

Um, polar bears live in a predominately white environment. If they didn't maybe they wouldn't be white? Why bears might be white in a non-white environment is an interesting question however. (But not relevant to Fodor's thesis).

Fodor seems to think that evolutionary development is a far more important part of evolution than natural selection is, discussing why pigs don't have wings, and correctly surmising that they are constrained by their embryology. There's nowhere to grow them without radically redesigning the tetrapod body-plan. Organisms have all sorts of constraints placed upon them by their biology, and it makes it very interesting to see how they solve particular problems, or failed to develop particular solutions. Bats pterosaurs and birds sacrificed a pair of limbs to fly. Insects used a different solution and still retain all their original legs.

However this harks back to the old orthogenetic arguments of biologists like Cope, and others Wiliam Patten wrote that "Natural Selection cannot create it can only sift". Natural selection plus mutation can do all sorts of things.

The traits we see are the result of pre-existing constraints, fiddly bits that come along for the ride and are kept because they aren't harmful, all mediated through natural selection. If an evolutionary spandrel was harmful it wouldn't hang around very long. One of the most important parts of evolution is "stabilising selection"- keeping things the same because they work, and penalising deviations from the norm because they don't. This works in artificial selection too.

So, in all a mixed bag. It had the potential to be a good essay, but as so often happens the "Darwinism in crisis!!" angle has been massively overplayed, and Fodor seems to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in his realisation that things are a littl emore ocmplex than they appear at first.

davegodfrey: Flying Spaghetti Monster : Touched by his noodly appendage (FSM)
Via Pharyngula and the Telegraph.

A  Dutch evangelical Christian TV channel Evangelische Omroep (EO, Evangelical Broadcasting) has been translating and editing Attenborough's Life of Mammals. The translations have removed all reference to speciation, evolution, and timescales involving millions of years.

"Instead of saying "70 million years ago, something happens," they say "a very long time ago something happens". They also omit paragraphs such as: "This is inherited from my warm-blooded ancestors,"" Sir David told the Telegraph. "I would much rather they kept to the letter, as far as that is possible, of what I said."

The spoken English is replaced by a Dutch soundtrack, and judicious edits are made. The final epsiode about apes and humans was not screened at all. Unfortunately BBC Worldwide's policy is that if edits are under 5 minutes per hour then they don't get involved. Petitions have been organised and letters of complaint sent to the Director General, the head of the BBC Natural History Unit and Sir David, who is not a happy bunny:

"I am entirely on the side of the biologist in Utrecht," said Sir David. "The BBC should take steps to make sure that the minuteness of the meanings are maintained."

If I wasn't a peaceful man I'd be organising a mob with pitchforks and flaming torches and heading to the EO offices. Messing with the work of the man who has probably inspired more scientists than anyone else since Alexander von Humbolt is just not cricket.

ETA:  Attenborough's reply to the letter has a nice line in understatement.

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