Sunday, March 30, 2008

Kristof's editorial

Kristof wrote an editorial in the Sunday Times this week: "With a Few More Brains..."

I don't actually disagree with anything he's saying, I generally like Kristof and agree with things he writes. He raises awareness of issues that are sometimes beyond the scope of day-to-day news coverage.

The only thing I don't like about this article is that I think I wrote a similar one for the Spectrum about eight years ago, right before (or maybe right after) slightly less than half of this country went slightly crazy and elected our current idiot-in-chief. (Well, you know, "elected" is a strong word to use, but we're not going to go there right now.) It wasn't as erudite or well-read as Kristof's, to be sure, and times have definitely changed at least a little, but I wrote an editorial piece my senior year about how anti-intellectualism was making our nation a laughingstock and was going to send us all to hell in a handbasket. Or something like that. (I believed Al Gore back then, before it was fashionable.) I think it was part of my "revenge of the nerds" phase, in which I was extremely excited that they'd let a geek like me write opinion pieces for the paper.

Unfortunately, I can't actually link to that article, because the Spectrum site apparently went to hell in 2003, then the paper was renamed, and I can't access the Hawkeye site either. So you'll have to believe me on this one. But I was lamenting Americans believing in UFOs over Darwin way before you, Kristof! [Former Spectrum writers... can anyone back me up on this? Or did I imagine this whole thing?]

Until proven otherwise, I'll just believe I'm an uncited source for his article. Is that ok with everyone? Cool.

Oh, and I think Kristof's reference to Darwin at the end of his article, although well-intentioned, shows something of a misunderstanding of how evolution works. He says,
The dumbing-down of discourse has been particularly striking since the 1970s. Think of the devolution of the emblematic conservative voice from William Buckley to Bill O’Reilly. It’s enough to make one doubt Darwin.
The trouble with that, of course, is that he's saying things have gone from good to bad. Well, that's not how evolution works. Evolution supports whatever works best at a particular time, and unfortunately for us that appears to be O'Reilly. He is suited to the TV niche better than Buckley. Natural selection doesn't have value judgements. As I mentioned in my post about fish with knees, evolution works with what it has to make the best solution available, not the best of all possible solutions to a particular problem.

Anyway, this is geeking out and getting off topic. Never mind what percentage of people do or don't accept evolution; it's alarming that we're even using the word "believe" to describe a scientific phenomenon.

As of today, I'll try renouncing my belief in gravity. We'll see what happens.

What scientific theory do you choose to believe or not believe? I look forward to seeing your comments.

Friday, March 28, 2008


Save Our Seals!

It's late March, which means it's time for a different kind of madness...

Canada's seals are once again in danger of being brutally clubbed to death

Yesterday I said I was in favor of some hunting of deer in NJ. Things that I am decidedly not in favor of include brutal, medieval hunting techniques; killing baby animals just a few weeks old; and skinning animals while they're still alive -- all to benefit the fur industry. Seal hunting is a far cry from the forest management/subsistence hunting of white-tailed deer.

So if you think this:
is cuter than this:then YOU have a responsibility to spread the word about this shameful hunt. If you eat fish, boycott Canadian seafood. (More information on the other end of the links about how, where, and why.) Tell everyone you know about seal hunting. This slaughter serves no purpose beyond indulging the "fashionable" elite in their desire for sealskin clothing. Haven't we moved beyond that? Blood on the ice will never be fashionable.

Please note: They're really not kidding about the graphic images in the video. May cause the following: tears, revulsion, anger, compassion, dismay, renewed desire to bring about change, loss of appetite for Canadian seafood.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Vegans, strippers, and feminism

There are a lot of vegans in Portland, OR. Some of them are strippers. Some of them are strip club patrons. Fortunately, someone finely attuned to their needs created an all-vegan strip joint.

Just what we needed...

On stage, you won't catch these ladies wrapped in fur. Or feather boas. Or leather shoes, wool scarves (I don't know what role wool has in striptease, but it's forbidden too), or silk not-much-of-anything. Everything on stage was made without cruelty to animals. You can't get a steak, but you can get a soy taco platter. You might be able to get a Caesar salad, but there won't be egg or anchovies in the dressing.

I'm not going to rehash everything in the article here, since I kind of agree with everyone a little bit in the article. Feminists can be a little too uptight about strippers, while vegans can be a little too willing to show off naked women for publicity. I do think that some of the criticisms of PETA are a little unfair; the very first model for the "Ink, not Mink" campaign was actually Dennis Rodman, who I'm pretty sure is not a woman.

But, I just want to add... I do have a problem with blind following of the vegan ideal, without thought to the consequences. PETA is an animal-rights organization, so that's their thing, and that's fine, but they unilaterally oppose all hunting, all leather, and all use of animal products.

What if hunting is necessary, as it is in NJ? We have too many deer here and although I personally don't find hunting to be the right decision for me, I support people who hunt and eat the white-tailed deer that are threatening our forest ecosystems. I don't like the idea of sport hunting, but it saddens me that PETA paints all hunters with the same blood-red brush.

What about pleather? Is pleather actually better? I used to think so. Then I started thinking about where that pleather comes from. Answer: Probably petroleum. Most plastics do. And where are those pleather pants/shoes/I don't want to know going to end up when you're done with them? Probably a dump, where they will sit. And wait. And wait. Plastics take a long time to break down. Leather obviously doesn't decay quickly, especially since we treat it with additional chemicals, but my instinct tells me that it will break down before the pleather does.

You won't catch me in a mink coat any time soon, but I do have a leather couch. Maybe that means I'm not a feminist? Or that I am? I don't know.

TV as an agent of good

Aliza says it best, so I'm going to just quote her on this one:
Dear Friends and Family,

TV's can be agents of destruction or agents of change. PBS reminds us of the power of television...

1. Beginning tonight at 10 PM EST and airing on three more nights on PBS will be a very important series about disparities in health in the US called Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?

I highly recommend watching as much of the series as possible to help understand one of the most important issues affecting the US today, which is the focus of much of my graduate studies. It is wonderful that PBS will be providing a forum for these issues...
See below for more info. Please spread the word and feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.

2. As a PBS side note- the EXCELLENT documentary King Corn, which many of you may have seen already, will also be airing on PBS in April...check local listings.
This documentary film basically encompasses the other half of my current studies, and provides a humor-filled look at the the nature of modern agriculture and its effects on our food system and health.

So make good use of your TV -- or your friend's TV, if you don't have one-- and check out these wonderful documentaries!


Television Watch: PBS to Air Series on Health Inequalities

What: Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?

When: Thursdays at 10 p.m., March 27, April 3, 10, and 17 (check local listings, since dates and times may vary.)

Starting March 27, PBS will air a four-hour documentary series (with eight episodes) on health disparities in the U.S. and the role that income inequality plays in health and well-being. The series offers a broad look at the harm to health from income inequality, racism, and neglected communities.

The series focuses on a wide range of health disparities, including the prevalence of diabetes, heart disease, and asthma in some communities. There are a number of important points demonstrating the damage from the inability to access a healthy diet. For example:

Episode 5, Place Matters, looks at disinvestment in urban neighborhoods and the resulting impact on health. This can range from the lack of safe playgrounds in which children can play or exercise to the lack of healthy fo
ods in communities.

Episode 4, Bad Sugar, looks at the links between income and chronic diseases like diabetes. It further demonstrates the links among hunger, poverty, and obesity, and the impact of limited income on health.

Episode 8, Not Just a Paycheck, looks at the impact of unemployment and job insecurity on health.

To learn more about the series, visit the Web site where you will find preview clips, information on the episodes, and discussion tips.

I'm a conduit!

Young People: Way Better than CNN

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

More salmon news

Apparently, southern hemisphere salmon aren't doing any better than northern. This time, though, it's farmed salmon in Chile that are poorly. Of course, farmed salmon in general isn't sustainable... they're carnivores, and it takes four to six pounds of other fish to raise a pound of salmon. Where does that fish come from? I don't really know. But it's coming from somewhere in the deep blue sea, and the seas are becoming more and more empty. Plus, farmed salmon in areas where salmon normally live can intermingle with wild populations, spreading both diseases and genetic material and contaminating the wild fish. When it comes to salmon, wild caught is still the best. Oh, and did I mention that these (in the article) are Atlantic Salmon? That are being farmed in Chile? Where they don't belong in the first place? And that some of them are escaping and eating the native sea life? Yeah. Bad situation all around.

By the way, the article specifically mentions Costco and Safeway as retailers that sell Chilean salmon. Don't buy it, and let them know why!

My neologism

I'm definitely not a vegangelical. That sweet little neologism is a recent addition to the Urban Dictionary, but I am not one of the ranks of that holier-than-thou crowd. I'm happy to say I don't know too many vegangelicals, actually. The vegans I know are a modest bunch, for the most part.

But I realized that I do have a higher calling, even if it isn't being a vegangelical. I encourage everyone I know to read the good book I follow, to live their lives by a simple mantra, and to bring mindfulness to everything. (Especially eating.)

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm a Pollangelical.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. (All the rest is commentary.)


Because "flicker" isn't just a web site...

It's spring! I saw a cherry tree juuuust starting to bloom today (a little early maybe?), just a few blossoms opening, but more importantly -- BIRDS! Today walking in the park, I saw two brown-headed cowbirds, a white-breasted nuthatch, a flicker, a large number of juncos, and some sort of little warbler thing with a song that sounded like it was mumbling to itself. (Didn't have binoculars, so no ID on that one.) Plus the usual assortment of cardinals, blue jays, and a mockingbird singing high in a tree. This is one of the best times of year for birding, since there are loads of birds around (migrants passing through, summer residents just coming up from South America, plus our year-rounders), they're all full of hormones and singing like crazy, and there aren't any leaves yet to get in the way! It's like they want us to go birding.

Anyway, you'll have noticed if you clicked any of the bird names above that they all lead to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cornell has one of the finest websites I've seen for IDing birds, but they also have a citizen science program called eBird that allows you to register any bird that you see. It's a great way to get involved in birding and science research, even if neither is particularly your thing. Every data point they gather is valuable -- no sighting is insignificant! So if you see something neat and manage to identify it, send it in!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Short and Sweet

I admit it. I read the message boards on the Discovery Institute web site on occasion. I like to see who's there, who's posting what, and what their latest nonsense says. Sometimes people get so caught up in the argument that it can be difficult to figure out what they're asking, or saying, or referencing. Currently, Expelled is the hot topic, but I'll come to that in another post when I have more time.

Anyway, I found this great article on Natural History Mag's web site. It gives a short statement by each of three prominent ID nutjobs (Behe, Dembski, and Wells) and rebuttals by three prominent real scientists (Miller, Pennock, and Scott). There's also a short article at the end summarizing how this whole thing isn't actually about science at all, it's about religion and politics. (Shocking.) It's a quick read and really lays out the major problems with the arguments of the intelligent design crew. Have fun.

Do fish have knees?

Well, some of them do. We have knees, and since you could call us fish, then some fish have knees.

I was thinking about fish and knees while walking in the park this afternoon. It's a beautiful day in New Jersey -- clear blue skies, plenty of sunshine -- so I went for a walk. Towards the end, though, my knees started to hurt. I don't have good knees. I have unhappy knees. However, my unhappy knees made me think about why we have the knees that we have in the first place, and that reminded me of a great article I just read recently. This article, which was the cover story in Natural History Magazine in February, is by Neil Shubin, a prominent paleontologist whose greatest hit is Tiktaalik, a recently-discovered early tetrapod.

Along with addressing things like hiccups and hernias, Dr. Shubin briefly discusses the reason we have knees, namely, it was the best we could do with what our fish ancestors gave us. Incidentally, I think bad knees might be sufficient proof to stop the whole intelligent design crew in its tracks; unless we are to assume that our designer was not only intelligent but malicious, why would we have knees built the way they are, easily damaged and held together by little more than a few strips of connective tissue?

But hey, maybe that's just because I have bad knees.

I also love observing, as I walk, that without thinking about it at all, I swing my arms in a characteristically tetrapod way -- that is, the right arm goes forward when I step with the left. Whenever I think about that, I a) fall over, because I immediately get my brain involved in a central pattern generator, which is bad and b) think about videos of coelacanths. Unfortunately, I can't find one to post right now... maybe later. But they too swing their fins in an opposing pattern like that.

Anyway, read Dr. Shubin's article, it's really interesting! I'm thinking about reading his book over the summer when I have more time to think about vertebrates again.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Passover is a month away...

... but I had to post these incredibly/disturbingly cute (?!?) gefilte fish anyway.

I don't even eat them, but that's just so adorable. How springy! (Much like a piece of gefilte fish.)

Eiffel Tower to Receive Hat?

Oh, no. I don't think so.

Eiffel Tower to Temporarily Alter Silhouette

Seriously, Paris? Alleged capital of fashion and art, home of haute couture, creator of fashion words like décolletage, chapeau, and eau de toilette? Don't put a hat on the Eiffel Tower, s'il vous plaît. You are not Seattle.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Daily Coyote

One of my favorite blogs of late has been The Daily Coyote, and not just because we use the same Blogger template. Charlie, the coyote portion of "daily coyote", is a beautiful creature, and Shreve Stockton's mesmerizing photographs of him are works of art. I've been reading for a few months and watching Charlie go from tiny pup to sleek young adult has been a treat. I confess, I've almost abandoned Cute Overload... no fat kitties or hand-holding otters can compare with one gorgeous little coyote.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Chinook Salmon

I recently read No Way Home, a book about migration as an endangered phenomenon. I was partially reading it to get ideas about how my thesis (on dragonfly migration) plays into the larger concepts of conservation and ecology and partially reading it because it's the sort of book I would read on my own anyway. Dragonflies are only part of the story; a large part of the book talks about salmon migration and what we humans have done to interfere with it. (A lot, in case you didn't know.)

Anyway, here's a little more information about it: Chinook Salmon Vanish Without a Trace.

So... definitely a good idea to start double-checking where your salmon comes from for the next few years. Stocks are low in many areas. Here is the Monterey Bay Aquarium page on salmon. Their guide to sustainable seafood is one of the best resources for fish lovers who don't want the oceans to be empty, although this page doesn't seem to reflect this latest update on Pacific salmon.

Barack Obama's Speech

Full prepared text of speech.

Please let this man be our next president.


The boy who sued Jesus.

School Board to Pay in Jesus Prayer Suit
Struggling to Squelch an Internet Rumor

I emailed these articles to a few people when they first came out a few weeks ago, but it's worth putting them up again, I think. I found the juxtaposition of these two articles bizarre and interesting. (When they were first published, they were right next to each other on the Education section home page.) On the one hand, people (on the Internet) are ready to spring into action against what they see as a slight against Jews, even if it's a complete falsehood and based on assumptions of the "backwardness" of Kentuckians. On the other hand, people actually don't like the Jews in some places, because we hate Jesus, apparently. (And in the backwards state of... Delaware?) So I guess the national spirit is, "We don't like the Jews, but at least they're better than those Muslim types." Alarming.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

"It's not their habitat, it's just where they hunt for food."

A Party of Four at a Foraging Spot

Here is a NY Times article about a proposed development in the Long Island Pine Barrens. Pine barrens are areas dominated by sandy soils, fire-resistant pine trees, and, both here in New Jersey and on Long Island, some interesting flora and fauna that are sometimes endemic to the habitat. Pine barrens were long viewed as useless and are targets of development; they are an endangered habitat, in some ways. Conservation efforts are starting to target pine barrens, but most people still view them as... well, barren.

My favorite quote from the article comes from Richard Cardinale. “It’s not their habitat,” he said. “It’s the area where they forage for food in winter months." Oh? Pray tell, Mr. Cardinale, how do you define a habitat? Where exactly would you like the owls to go to look for food, the supermarket?

By the way, anyone who knows why we need a ski slope on Long Island is welcome to fill me in. I wasn't aware we had a need. Yikes. I hope this project is completely halted on account of salamanders and owls, but I'm not optimistic.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Welcome to my blog.

Welcome to the Holophusicon. Strange name, you might say. It means "all of nature" in Greek, at least according to eighteenth-century museum owners. It referred specifically to Lever's natural history museum, but I use it as the name of my blog in the sense more of a curiosity cabinet. You can read more about the original museum here.

My interests are diverse, but my main purpose in starting a blog was to collect the things that I frequently email to people in one place. I also hope to initiate/host a dialog in the comments section about the articles and other things I post. Food, education, and ecology are the big topics on my mind, but I'm always thinking about everything; I might post on modern art, politics, semicolon use, or even occasionally my upcoming wedding (June 09).

Thanks for visiting, and enjoy my curiosity cabinet!