Some links: 35

The occasion of Nature‘s publication of 15 Evolutionary Gems, synopses of recent research from its pages that deepens our understanding of the process of evolution, prompted some pruning and dusting of my bookmark files. So here let us take note of

The papers summarized in the Nature document examine evidence collected by field observation, at the molecular level in the lab, and from the fossil record. Of particular note to “no transitional forms” deniers is the discussion of newly-described specimens found in China.

In the 1980s, deposits from the early Cretaceous period (about 125 million years ago) in the Liaoning Province in northern China vindicated these speculations in the most dramatic fashion, with discoveries of primitive birds in abundance — alongside dinosaurs with feathers, and feather-like plumage. Starting with the discovery of the small theropod Sinosauropteryx by Pei-ji Chen from China’s Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology and his colleagues, a variety of feather-clad forms have been found. Many of these feathered dinosaurs could not possibly have flown, showing that feathers first evolved for reasons other than flight, possibly for sexual display or thermal insulation, for instance. In 2008, Fucheng Zhang and his colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing announced the bizarre creature Epidexipteryx, a small dinosaur clad in downy plumage, and sporting four long plumes from its tail. Palaeontologists are now beginning to think that their speculations weren’t nearly wild enough, and that feathers were indeed quite common in dinosaurs.

The discovery of feathered dinosaurs not only vindicated the idea of transitional forms, but also showed that evolution has a way of coming up with a dazzling variety of solutions when we had no idea that there were even problems. Flight could have been no more than an additional opportunity that presented itself to creatures already clothed in feathers.

On the record

In the latest of the don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-in-the-ass entries, Frank Rich assesses the George W. Bush legacy:

… [Karl] Rove has repeated a stunt he first fed to the press two years ago: he is once again claiming that he and Bush have an annual book-reading contest, with Bush chalking up as many as 95 books a year, by authors as hifalutin as Camus. This hagiographic portrait of Bush the Egghead might be easier to buy were the former national security official Richard Clarke not quoted in the new Vanity Fair saying that both Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, had instructed him early on to keep his memos short because the president is “not a big reader.”

Another, far more elaborate example of legacy spin can be downloaded from the White House Web site: a booklet recounting “highlights” of the administration’s “accomplishments and results.” With big type, much white space, children’s-book-like trivia boxes titled “Did You Know?” and lots of color photos of the Bushes posing with blacks and troops, its 52 pages require a reading level closer to My Pet Goat than The Stranger.

Although Rich’s assessment of the vocabulary in the document is a bit extreme, it is indeed rather picture-heavy and dominated by bullet points. I think it’s peculiar that the administration wants to take credit for the ridiculous Medicare Part D prescription drug program. At least the authors don’t have the balls to make any claims about George Bush’s dedication to preserving scientific intergrity.

A choice

The Economist endorses Barack Obama for President:

There is no getting around the fact that Mr Obama’s résumé is thin for the world’s biggest job. But the exceptionally assured way in which he has run his campaign is a considerable comfort. It is not just that he has more than held his own against Mr McCain in the debates. A man who started with no money and few supporters has out-thought, out-organised and outfought the two mightiest machines in American politics—the Clintons and the conservative right.

Blog Action Day 2008

As a small contribution to Blog Action Day, this year concerned with the problem of poverty, some notes on books from my library, all three worth the read. Each one, in its own way, puts a personal, human face on the abstraction of poverty.

The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (1997), by David Simon and Edward Burns
I reviewed this book in 1999. It is a fascinating, horrifying report on the drug culture of today’s inner city, specifically the streets of West Baltimore in 1993. Co-author Simon, creator of TV’s The Wire, got his start as a reporter and his journalism informed the TV series Homicide: Life on the Street). Reading this book was like watching a train wreck. It is a shock to find tender photographic portraits of the key figures at the center of the volume. You know in the bones of your head that it its inevitable that some of these people will die by the end of the book.
The Working Poor: Invisible in America (2004), by David K. Shipler
Shipler casts a wider net, interviewing working class citizens from cities and small towns, from D.C. to Los Angeles, from New Hampshire to North Carolina, who are just scraping by. He focuses on what has succeeded in our efforts to job-train the poor into the mainstream of productive work, and what has failed.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, (1941/1988) by James Agee (text) and Walker Evans (photographs)
The controversial, seminal book, now back in print. A forerunner of the narrator-involved New Journalism. Agee’s expressive, polemical, romantic, rambling prose pictures of the lives of sharecroppers in the rural South during the Depression, as powerful as they are, nevertheless are outdone by Evans’s quietly eloquent photographs. Evans and Agee recognize in these lives of grinding dirt and drudgery a serious dignity.

Blog Action Day

14 questions

Top marks to the Obama campaign for responding thoughtfully to the 14-item battery of questions asked by Sciencedebate 2008.

12. Scientific Integrity. Many government scientists report political interference in their job. Is it acceptable for elected officials to hold back or alter scientific reports if they conflict with their own views, and how will you balance scientific information with politics and personal beliefs in your decision-making?

Scientific and technological information is of growing importance to a range of issues. I believe such information must be expert and uncolored by ideology.

I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best- available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees….

In addition I will:

• Appoint individuals with strong science and technology backgrounds and unquestioned reputations for integrity and objectivity to the growing number of senior management positions where decisions must incorporate science and technology advice. These positions will be filled promptly with ethical, highly qualified individuals on a non-partisan basis;

• Establish the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will lead an interagency effort on best-in-class technologies, sharing of best practices, and safeguarding of our networks;

• Strengthen the role of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) by appointing experts who are charged to provide independent advice on critical issues of science and technology. The PCAST will once again be advisory to the president; and

• Restore the science integrity of government and restore transparency of decision- making by issuing an Executive Order establishing clear guidelines for the review and release of government publications, guaranteeing that results are released in a timely manner and not distorted by the ideological biases of political appointees. I will strengthen protection for “whistle blowers” who report abuses of these processes.

Here’s hoping the McCain organization decides to take science and technology issues equally seriously, but I’m skeptical: the Obama responses have been posted for more than a week.


Amy Harmon profiles David Campbell, a contributor to new Florida state science education standards.

“Faith is not based on science,” Mr. Campbell said [to his class of 10th-grade biology students]. “And science is not based on faith. I don’t expect you to ‘believe’ the scientific explanation of evolution that we’re going to talk about over the next few weeks.”

“But I do,” he added, “expect you to understand it.”


Oh, my: in a leader published just prior to the most recent bad news about the Environmental Protecton Agency ignoring good science (splitting the difference on ozone standards), a leader for Nature makes a modest proposal:

In a rational world, [Administator Stephen] Johnson would resign in favour of someone who could at least feign an interest in the environment. Alas, it seems that he will probably stay on until January 2009, refusing waivers, fighting lawsuits and further depressing employees’ morale. In the meantime, we can only offer those employees a fantasy: the White House doesn’t want the agency to do anything, so shut it down until next January. Take some fully paid sabbatical time to relax, and prepare for a return to the old-fashioned protecting of the environment that so many of you joined the agency for.

A more perfect union

Taking as his text the Preamble to the Constitution, and quoting the Gospels and William Faulkner, Barack Obama delivers a moving, thoughtful, and genuinely inspiring speech on race relations.

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.

A charge to keep

Via Sometimes they just write themselves. As blogged by Scott Horton, George Bush’s favored painting, which to him looks like a Methodist evangelist riding into country to spread the good word, was originally made by W.H.D. Koerner to illustrate a Saturday Evening Post short story about a smooth-talking horse thief.

Bush has consistently exhibited what psychologists call the “Tolstoy syndrome.” That is, he is completely convinced he knows what things are, so he shuts down all avenues of inquiry about them and disregards the information that is offered to him. This is the hallmark of a tragically bad executive. But in this case, it couldn’t be more precious. The president of the United States has identified closely with a man he sees as a mythic, heroic figure. But in fact he’s a wily criminal one step out in front of justice.

Sciencedebate 2008

The world is a really, really complicated contraption, replete with moving parts that can malfunction at any time. You can make a pretty good case that the United States President, along with his science and technology advisers, is in a position of trust, responsible in part for keeping that contraption going. That’s why I support this week’s call for a debate among presidential candidates on technology and science issues. The open letter to the candidates has been signed by Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve, Steven Pinker of Harvard, and other notables. I don’t begrudge the candidates their sniping at one another over minor points of religious doctrine, as for instance, the Romney-Huckabee flap about Satan’s paternity (link via Wired). But people, please, let’s have a forum for the issues that affect our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren, living right here on earth.