Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Happy Fastnacht Day 2017

You may call today something else like Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, but if you grew up in the same part of Pennsylvania as me, it's definitely Fastnacht Day (pronounced foss-not*). Fastnachts are more or less a potato based donut. They're a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition** (meaning it was originally a German tradition) to use up all the fat and sugar and before starting the Lenten fast. We even got them in school lunches when I was in elementary school (and I'd suspect they still do). Well, I don't do the traditional fast anymore, but I definitely keep up with a tradition of making good food. Like years past, my daughter and I woke up super early this morning to get started on making the fastnachts, and the two of us and my wife each took a bunch of fastnachts with us to share at work / school.

If you want to try making them yourself, it's not too late. Just stop on the way home from work to buy the ingredients you'll need, and make a batch. Here's the recipe my family uses:

Fastnacht Recipe

And just because, here are a couple pictures from when we made them this morning. Since we were running a little late, everybody was grabbing fastnachts to take with them before they were all done, so I didn't get a picture this year of the entire completed double batch.

Alex Cutting the Fastnachts Frying Up the Fastnachts

And to give an idea of how popular fastnachts are in that part of Pennsylvania, here are a few articles from local newspapers up that way, along with the Wikipedia entry.

So go get yourself a fastnact today. If you're not near Pennsylvania Dutch country and don't feel like making them yourself, at least go buy yourself a cake donut as a decent approximation.


*The original German is a bit different. In fact, a German coworker said they were called fasnachtküchle where he was from in Germany, but I couldn't pronounce it. Though I have other German friends from a different part of Germany, and they'd never heard of the tradition. So I guess it's regional in Germany, too.

**Just to be clear, Pennsylvania Dutch is not synonymous with Amish and Mennonite. Granted, the Amish and Mennonites still stick to Pennsylvania Dutch traditions the strongest, especially in still speaking the language, but there were/are lots of other Pennsylvania Dutch people.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Friday Trump & Politics Roundup - 11

Donald TrumpThis is my semi-regular feature to post links to articles about Donald Trump along with excerpts from those articles. Trump has the potential to cause so much damage to our country and the world that it's every citizen's responsibility to keep pressure on him and our other elected officials to try to minimize the damage. To read previous entries in this series and other Trump related posts, check out my Trump archives.

Thankfully, things are slowing down a bit for now. After Trump's flurry of executive orders and other actions when he first took office, he now seems to be facing the fact that Washington just doesn't move quickly (CNN - Trump's promises hit Washington reality in first month). That doesn't mean that this past week was without incident, as the links and excerpts below make clear.


New York Times - Dismal Voucher Results Surprise Researchers as DeVos Era Begins

"The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education was a signal moment for the school choice movement. For the first time, the nation's highest education official is someone fully committed to making school vouchers and other market-oriented policies the centerpiece of education reform. / But even as school choice is poised to go national, a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling -- the worst in the history of the field, researchers say." ... "Three consecutive reports, each studying one of the largest new state voucher programs, found that vouchers hurt student learning." ... "The new evidence on vouchers does not seem to have deterred the Trump administration, which has proposed a new $20 billion voucher program. Secretary DeVos's enthusiasm for vouchers, which have been the primary focus of her philanthropic spending and advocacy, appears to be undiminished."


The Daily Beast - New Trump Administration Order Lets States Bully Transgender Students

"This evening, after days of speculation--sparked by a Monday evening Washington Blade report and further fueled by a Tuesday statement from Press Secretary Sean Spicer that the president considers the ongoing bathroom debate to be a "states' rights issue"--the Departments of Education and Justice issued a joint letter rescinding the Obama administration's 2016 guidance on transgender students." ... "What this means concretely is that individual states and schools could still find themselves on the receiving end of Title IX lawsuits. / But the new Trump administration letter sends the message that states and schools can require transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding to their birth-assigned gender without necessarily being penalized by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division or immediately risking the loss of federal funding. / In other words, the federal government has effectively declared open season on transgender kids--and the many states that sued the Obama administration over the 2016 guidance could follow suit." ... "The U.S. Transgender Survey found that almost a third of transgender people had 'limited the amount they ate and drank to avoid using the restroom in the past year.' Eight percent said they had developed a urinary tract infection or a kidney-related health problem due to restroom avoidance. / And one 2016 study of transgender people who had attended college--published last year in the Journal of Homosexuality--found that 'denial of access to [bathrooms and campus housing] had a significant relationship to suicidality, even after controlling for interpersonal victimization.' Transgender youth already think about and attempt suicide at astronomically high rates, although individual risk tellingly tends to decrease with social support."


Al Jazeera Op-ed - Donald Trump's presidential diplomacy deal? Trump is treating the US as a business venture and replacing the 'art of diplomacy' with the 'art of the deal'.

"Most world leaders are having a hard time adapting to Donald Trump's foreign policy style. None of his seemingly capricious decisions fit within the staid models of diplomatic consistency or the genteel practice of back-channel advance signalling to key partners that change may be coming." ... "Given the size of Trump's ego and his need to continuously be in the centre of an adoring spotlight, it is highly unlikely that he will back away from his self-conceived role as toughest negotiator on the global stage. / The very real risk is that he will continue confusing the 'art of the deal' with the 'art of diplomacy'. / As both George W Bush and Barack Obama learned the hard way, remedying unintended foreign policy missteps is far more complicated and expensive than refinancing a hotel redevelopment. / Until Trump figures this out, presidential diplomacy risks being like one of his failed business ventures - lots of expensive show with little underlying substance that leaves a trail of broken businesses and suppliers in its wake. / The added danger now is that stakes have risen exponentially, meaning that his failures could very well lay waste to whole countries, including possibly his own."


CNN - FBI refused White House request to knock down recent Trump-Russia stories

"The FBI rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump's associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign, multiple US officials briefed on the matter tell CNN." ... "The direct communications between the White House and the FBI were unusual because of decade-old restrictions on such contacts. Such a request from the White House is a violation of procedures that limit communications with the FBI on pending investigations."


Politico - Cabinet picks clash with White House over hiring: The Trump administration's Cabinet picks are finding themselves in a staffing tug-of-war with White House aides.

"The White House's deep involvement in hiring decisions across the government is frustrating some of President Donald Trump's Cabinet secretaries, spurring early tussles between the president's advisers and leaders of federal agencies. / White House officials have sometimes rejected candidates who have previously criticized the president -- even if they boast sterling credentials or have the endorsement of top Republicans. And they've often imposed their choices on agencies, according to more than a dozen people inside and close to the administration." ... "So far, Trump has nominated fewer than three dozen of the 550 most important Senate-confirmed jobs, according to an analysis by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that advised Trump officials during the presidential transition. / Top officials at the Defense and Homeland Security departments have disagreed with White House aides over potential deputy hires and political appointees, administration and government officials say. Some candidates dropped out of the bid for national security adviser because Trump's team appeared reluctant to let them pick their own people, sources say."


Vox - Trump had 2 chances to calm fears of rising anti-Semitism in America. He chose neither

"President Donald Trump could have used his bully pulpit this week to reassure Jews who are fearful of rising anti-Semitism in America. He took two chances for targeted messaging to talk, instead, about himself. / At two press conferences this week, reporters raised sober questions about Jewish safety in America and the rise of anti-Semitism over the course of the election and beyond. Both were opportunities for a statement of firm condemnation against acts of violence and a moment of empathy: a presidential reassuring hand and an outstretched arm. Both times the questions were deflected, and rerouted, leaving the Jewish community reeling." ... "The reason so many Jews are asking questions about anti-Semitism is that, following the increasingly worrisome rhetoric, associations, and bedfellows of the campaign, there has been a rise in terrifying anti-Semitic incidents since the year began. In January, 60 bomb threats were called in to some 48 Jewish community centers (JCCs) across North America. 'I've been in the business for 20-plus years, and this is unprecedented,' Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Secure Community Network, told CNN. 'It's more methodical than meets the eye.' "

Related:
CNN - Trump condemns anti-Semitism but can't stop questions about his motives
Chicago Tribune - Jewish group again cites anti-Semitism from Trump administration


Nature - US Republican idea for tax on carbon makes climate sense

"A group of senior US Republicans has proposed an entirely sensible climate policy: put a substantial and steadily rising tax on carbon, and then send the proceeds back to citizens to offset the economic pain of higher energy prices. It is dubbed a conservative solution for climate change and, if implemented properly, could represent just that. Unfortunately, these stalwart conservatives -- led by the likes of James Baker, who served as secretary of state under president George H. W. Bush, and Henry Paulson, who headed the Treasury under George W. Bush -- hark from another era. The Republicans who currently control both chambers of the US Congress and the White House are dismissive of, if not openly hostile towards, climate policy -- be it conservative, sensible or any other kind." ... "White House officials were less enthusiastic in their statements to the press, and there is no indication that the proposal is going anywhere anytime soon."

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Website Update - Mexico Photos Online

When I posted my Bonaire Photos, I said that I had a few more vacations to catch up on. Well, I just finished up with the first one of those overdue trips:

Mexico 2015 Photos

We went down to the Yucatan peninsula for a week, to go snorkeling with whale sharks at Holbox Island, scuba diving in Cozumel, and to see Chichén Itzá while staying at Playa del Carmen. It was a great trip. Here's a sampling of just a few of the pictures. Follow that link to see them all, and in high resolution.

Mexico Photo 1
 
Mexico Photo 2
 
Mexico Photo 3
 
Mexico Photo 4

I am trying something a little different with the photo page this time, and may update the rest of my photo pages if I like the way it works out. Previously, I've used a JavaScript to automatically resize the photos if they were too big to fit in the browser window. It was in keeping with the liquid layout I'd always liked in the past. However, with the proliferation of smart phones and browsing on the small screen, that JavaScript interferes with the two fingered zooming so many people have become accustomed to. So, I'm trying a fixed layout this time. If you're browsing on a computer, your screen should be plenty big to view the photos. And if you're browsing on a smart phone, you should be able to zoom in or out without any issues.

Of course, I updated the Photos page to add a link to the Mexico photos. I've still got a few more trips to catch up on.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday Trump & Politics Roundup - 10

Donald TrumpThis is my semi-regular feature to post links to articles about Donald Trump along with excerpts from those articles. Trump has the potential to cause so much damage to our country and the world that it's every citizen's responsibility to keep pressure on him and our other elected officials to try to minimize the damage. To read previous entries in this series and other Trump related posts, check out my Trump archives.

I find myself varying between opposite extremes in my reaction to Trump so far. On the one hand, he's doing / attempting to do really bad things - conflicts of interest and his refusal to put his businesses in a blind trust, breaking anti-nepotism laws, breaking the emoluments clause of the Constitution, the immigration ban, his horrible cabinet appointments and obvious cronyism ... well, everything I've been calling attention to in these posts. But then, I see him behave like he did in his press conference, and I'm tempted to believe he's so incompetent that he's not going to be able to accomplish anything. Then I go and read articles about how nobody took Hitler seriously until it was too late (like this one - Early Warnings: How American Journalists Reported the Rise of Hitler), and I'm back to being worried again (just to be clear - I don't think Trump is the next Hitler, but there are some unsettling parallels in tactics. More info: Salon - Donald Trump: Not exactly Hitler! But his "Nazi Germany" comments conceal a dark parallel pattern and The Independent - Donald Trump using Adolf Hitler's 'Mein Kampf' playbook, says world expert on Nazi leader).

Anyway, here are this week's articles.


Vox - Why Trump just killed a rule restricting coal companies from dumping waste in streams

"On Thursday, President Trump signed the bill, which means the stream protection rule is now dead. Coal companies will have a freer hand in dumping mining debris in streams. / Killing this regulation won't exactly fulfill Trump's goal of reversing the coal industry's decline; that decline has more to do with cheap natural gas than anything else. Instead, Republicans are mostly focusing on this rule because they can. Because the stream protection rule wasn't finished until very late in 2016, it's much, much easier to kill than most of the other Obama-era rules around coal pollution. It was a ready target, so long as the GOP acted fast." ... "In the end, environmentalists weren't thrilled with the rule -- many groups didn't think it went far enough to restrict the dumping of debris, and they don't believe coal companies can restore damaged streams fully to their prior state after mining. But on balance, they thought the rule an improvement over the status quo. An outside analysis suggested the rule would improve water quality in 262 miles of streams throughout Appalachia."

Related: Vox - Want to see why Trump will struggle to save the coal industry? Look at Michigan.


Vox - Fact-checking Trump's claim that he has no business ties to Russia

"Trump has a long history of trying to do business in Russia, but despite many efforts and plenty of boasting and angling, he hasn't managed to land a single major real estate deal there. / But that's only part of the picture. He has partnered with Russian financiers on major projects elsewhere around the world. Russian investors have been instrumental in helping him cope with all the credit problems he has thanks to his serial bankruptcies. And a number of Trump's former and current advisers have had financial ties to Russia."


Raw Story - Trump just gave a weapons-grade crazy press conference -- here are the 7 most insane moments

"President Donald Trump held a press conference today in which he once again boasted about his November election win and attacked the mainstream media for producing 'fake news.' / But beyond the usual boasting and bashing, the president made several jaw-dropping statements that were surprising even by his standards. Below, we'll go over the seven craziest moments at today's press conference." ... "1.Trump says that while the leaks coming out of his administration are real, the news stories being written about them are still fake news." ... "2.Trump falsely claims that his electoral college victory this past November was the biggest since Ronald Reagan's." ... "3.Trump said he was fine with WikiLeaks because it never leaked classified information." ... "4.Trump dismisses GOP town hall protesters because most of them are Democrats." ... "5.Trump insists that the alternative to getting along with Russia could be 'nuclear holocaust.' " ... "6.Trump shouts down a Jewish reporter who asked him about rising anti-Semitism." ... "7.Trump asked a black reporter to help him set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus."


Japan Times - Japan's interpreters struggle to make sense of 'Trumpese'

"As political leaders in Japan pay close attention to how U.S. President Donald Trump will go in office, so, too, are interpreters who have had a nightmarish experience translating his disjointed speeches." ... " 'He is so overconfident and yet so logically unconvincing that my interpreter friends and I often joke that if we translated his words as they are, we would end up making ourselves sound stupid,' Tsuruta, who is also a professor of interpreting and translation studies at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said in a recent interview.


N.Y. Times Op-ed - When the Fire Comes

"What will you do when terrorists attack, or U.S. friction with some foreign power turns into a military confrontation? I don't mean in your personal life, where you should keep calm and carry on. I mean politically. Think about it carefully: The fate of the republic may depend on your answer." ... "We're only three weeks into the Trump administration, but it's already clear that any hopes that Mr. Trump and those around him would be even slightly ennobled by the responsibilities of office were foolish. Every day brings further evidence that this is a man who completely conflates the national interest with his personal self-interest, and who has surrounded himself with people who see it the same way. And each day also brings further evidence of his lack of respect for democratic values." ... "In the end, I fear, it's going to rest on the people -- on whether enough Americans are willing to take a public stand. We can't handle another post-9/11-style suspension of doubt about the man in charge; if that happens, America as we know it will soon be gone."


The Atlantic - How to Build an Autocracy: The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here's the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.

[I'm pulling out a lot of quotes from this one. I really recommend reading the whole thing.]

"No society, not even one as rich and fortunate as the United States has been, is guaranteed a successful future. When early Americans wrote things like "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," they did not do so to provide bromides for future bumper stickers. They lived in a world in which authoritarian rule was the norm, in which rulers habitually claimed the powers and assets of the state as their own personal property."

"What has happened in Hungary since 2010 offers an example--and a blueprint for would-be strongmen. Hungary is a member state of the European Union and a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights. It has elections and uncensored internet. Yet Hungary is ceasing to be a free country."

"Outside the Islamic world, the 21st century is not an era of ideology. The grand utopian visions of the 19th century have passed out of fashion. The nightmare totalitarian projects of the 20th have been overthrown or have disintegrated, leaving behind only outdated remnants: North Korea, Cuba. What is spreading today is repressive kleptocracy, led by rulers motivated by greed rather than by the deranged idealism of Hitler or Stalin or Mao. Such rulers rely less on terror and more on rule-twisting, the manipulation of information, and the co-optation of elites."

"Donald Trump, however, represents something much more radical. A president who plausibly owes his office at least in part to a clandestine intervention by a hostile foreign intelligence service? Who uses the bully pulpit to target individual critics? Who creates blind trusts that are not blind, invites his children to commingle private and public business, and somehow gets the unhappy members of his own political party either to endorse his choices or shrug them off? If this were happening in Honduras, we'd know what to call it. It's happening here instead, and so we are baffled."

" 'Populist-fueled democratic backsliding is difficult to counter,' wrote the political scientists Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz late last year. 'Because it is subtle and incremental, there is no single moment that triggers widespread resistance or creates a focal point around which an opposition can coalesce ... Piecemeal democratic erosion, therefore, typically provokes only fragmented resistance.' Their observation was rooted in the experiences of countries ranging from the Philippines to Hungary. It could apply here too."

"If citizens learn that success in business or in public service depends on the favor of the president and his ruling clique, then it's not only American politics that will change. The economy will be corrupted too, and with it the larger culture. A culture that has accepted that graft is the norm, that rules don't matter as much as relationships with those in power, and that people can be punished for speech and acts that remain theoretically legal--such a culture is not easily reoriented back to constitutionalism, freedom, and public integrity."

"By all early indications, the Trump presidency will corrode public integrity and the rule of law--and also do untold damage to American global leadership, the Western alliance, and democratic norms around the world. The damage has already begun, and it will not be soon or easily undone. Yet exactly how much damage is allowed to be done is an open question--the most important near-term question in American politics. It is also an intensely personal one, for its answer will be determined by the answer to another question: What will you do? And you? And you?"

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Understanding Evolution - Balancing Selection Pressures, Or Why All Features Are Tradeoffs

Gazelle & Cheetah DioramaTo celebrate Darwin Day, I'm going to recycle a recent Quora answer about evolution. Somebody had asked, Why would a gene that makes a gazelle slightly faster, but still much slower than a cheetah be favored by evolution?. Here's my answer.

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Because everything in life is a trade-off, and cheetah attacks aren't a gazelle's only concern.

Running faster comes at a cost. In particular, it means bigger or stronger muscles to be able to propel yourself faster. Bigger muscles take more food to grow, and more food to maintain. So, the fastest gazelle is also the most likely to starve in times of scarcity. And it's also putting more of it's food resources into those muscles instead of reproduction and/or nurturing young, and may end up not having as many offspring / surviving offspring as a slightly slower gazelle.

And gazelles have other predators besides cheetahs. One in particular is so efficient that it doesn't really matter how fast a gazelle runs - our bullets are faster. And which animals do trophy hunters target? The biggest and most impressive. It's already been documented that trophy hunting has led to bighorn sheep having horns that aren't so big (Phys.org - Intense trophy hunting leads to artificial evolution in horn size in bighorn sheep), and that size limits in fishing has led to smaller fish (Phys.org - Intensive fishing leads to smaller fish). I don't know if gazelles have been studied in this manner, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if human hunting had strong selection pressures on their sizes.

There's this whole complex network of selection pressures acting on gazelles (and all other organisms). Evolution has to balance (metaphorically since evolution isn't conscious) an organism's strategies to dealing with these pressures, and can't focus on optimizing completely for one selection pressure if it means compromising too much on other ones. So, cheetah attacks are one pressure on gazelles, and this particular pressure pushes gazelles to be faster. So, evolution pushes them to be fast enough to greatly lower their likelihood of being caught by a cheetah. But going even faster would only reduce that risk slightly, and at the cost of hurting the gazelles chances of survival/reproduction in other ways. So, gazelles are fast enough, and there's no reason to waste their limited food resources on even bigger muscles, when they could be using those resources for other activities, or even just being smaller so that they don't need as much food.

---

If you want to look at it another way, it's like wondering why everybody doesn't have a Ferrari. Sure, Ferraris are fast, but they're also expensive, use a lot of gas, and have many compromises that make them less than practical everyday drivers. Evolution could make gazelles faster, but only by compromising them in other ways.

---

To add one more thing - the reason gazelles just have to be reasonably fast, but not as fast as or faster than a cheetah, has to do with the way attacks actually play out in real life. As Brian Dean pointed out in his answer, it's not like a track race, where the fastest organism is the winner. Cheetah's are only sprinters, with limited stamina. Gazelles are keeping a lookout for cheetahs already, trying to make sure the cheetahs don't get too close. The usual result is that the cheetahs can only get so close before starting their sprint, meaning the gazelles have a head start. The gazelle only needs to be fast enough that it can avoid the cheetah until the cheetah gives up, which is still pretty fast, but a good deal less fast than a cheetah. And an extra few miles an hour on the gazelle's top speed is a sizable percentage difference in how much more time it has to evade the cheetah.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Happy Darwin Day 2017

I'm cheating. This is mostly copied from last year with just a few updates.

Darwin's BirthdayToday is Darwin Day, the 208th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. To quote one of my previous Darwin Day posts, Charles Darwin was "the man who presented evolution in such a way and with sufficient evidence that it became obvious that it was the explanation for how life developed on this planet. Others had ideas of transmutation before Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace even came up with a theory of natural selection very similar to Darwin's at around the same time, so it's apparent that humanity would have eventually recognized how evolution works. But Darwin's genius in presenting all the evidence for evolution in the way he did certainly gave the field a huge head start."

If you want to see if there's anything specific going on in your neck of the woods, you can check out the list of events at DarwinDay.org, or my recent post. I couldn't find anything for Wichita Falls again this year. And I never did watch Inherit the Wind last year, so maybe I'll be able to talk my family into it this year.

To celebrate Darwin Day on this site, I'm going to provide links to a few of my previous entries. This first set of links is entirely to entries specifically relevant to Darwin or written just for Darwin Day.

And while I write way too much about evolution to list all of my evolution entries, here are a few highlights since the previous Darwin Day:

Friday, February 10, 2017

Upcoming Darwin Day Events

Darwin's BirthdayFebruary 12th is Darwin Day. Many organizations are planning events for this weekend to celebrate. You can check DarwinDay.org for events close to you. Here are a few from across Texas and Oklahoma (well, at least the ones you can still make it to - there were some events earlier this week).


Austin, TX - Center for Inquiry: Darwin Day 2017
Feb 11, 12pm - 5pm

DarwinDay.org Details
Official Event Page
Facebook Page

"FREE event to celebrate the 208th anniversary of Darwin's birth. There will be something for everyone--fun learning activities for children and teens, fascinating lectures and trivia contest for adults, and professional development credit for teachers."


Tyler, TX - Darwin Day Tyler 2017
Feb 10, 5pm - 7pm
Feb 11, 10am - 4pm

DarwinDay.org Details
Official Event Page
Art & Seek Details

"This year's Darwin Day celebration features four main events: two different public science lectures, evolutionary themed video screenings, and a teacher development workshop. There will also be other events for students of all ages at the Discovery Science Place, the University of Texas at Tyler, and Tyler Junior College.

All events are free of charge!"


Nagadoches, TX - Darwin Day at SFA
Feb 10, 1pm

DarwinDay.org Details
Press Release

"The Stephen F. Austin State University Department of Biology will host its second annual Darwin Day program. The program will include a seminar by Dr. Charles Pence, assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies at Louisiana State University. Pence's seminar is titled 'Evolution and Chance: From Darwin to the Pioneers of Statistics in Biology.' "


San Antonio, TX - Trinity University: Panel Discussion on Darwin, Gender, and Race
Feb 15, 5pm - 6.30pm

DarwinDay.org Details

"In celebration of Charles Darwin's 208th birthday join us for a discussion on Darwin, Gender, and Race. Four Trinity professors will provide a panel discussion of Darwin's views on gender and race, the current scientific views on race, and the contributions of minorities and women to evolutionary theory. Following brief introductory comments, the panel will open up for questions from the audience. Also be sure to check out the exhibit at the Coates Library, Third Floor: Who's studying evolution these days? A look at modern scientists; Feb. 8-15."


Norman, OK - Norman Naturalism Group: Darwin Day! Potluck and Speaker: The EVOLUTION of Religion
Feb 12, 5pm - 9pm

DarwinDay.org Details
Official Event Page

"The Norman naturalism Group celebrates Darwin Day 2017 with a pot-luck dinner and speaker. The topic is "The Evolution of Religion". Pull out your best recipe and get ready for some more good eating and good talking."


Friday Trump & Politics Roundup - 9

Donald TrumpThis is my semi-regular feature to post links to articles about Donald Trump along with excerpts from those articles. Trump has the potential to cause so much damage to our country and the world that it's every citizen's responsibility to keep pressure on him and our other elected officials to try to minimize the damage. To read previous entries in this series and other Trump related posts, check out my Trump archives.

I'm slightly expanding the content of this series to include actions by other political figures, not just Trump.


Vox - How to stop an autocracy: The danger isn't that Trump will build an autocracy. It's that congressional Republicans will let him.

"Trump has shown himself unconcerned with the norms of American democracy. He routinely proclaims elections rigged, facts false, the media crooked, and his opponents corrupt. During the campaign, he flouted basic traditions of transparency and threatened to jail his opponent. His tendencies toward nepotism, crony capitalism, and vengeance unnerve. His oft-stated admiration for authoritarians in other countries -- including, but not limited to, Vladimir Putin -- speaks to his yearning for power. / Amid all that, David Frum's Atlantic cover story, "How to Build an Autocracy," is a chilling read. "We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered," he writes. The argument works because its component parts are so plausible. Frum does not imagine a coup or a crisis. He does not lean on the deus ex machina of a terrorist attack or a failed assassination attempt. The picture he paints is not one in which everything is different, but one in which everything is the same. / He imagines a Trumpian autocracy built upon the most ordinary of foundations: a growing economy, a cynical public, a cowed media, a self-interested business community, and a compliant Republican Party. The picture resonates because it combines two forces many sense at work -- Trump's will to power and the fecklessness of the institutions meant to stop him -- into one future everyone fears: autocracy in America." ... "Donald Trump is a paper tiger. But the US Congress is a tiger that we pretend is made of paper. It is, at this point, taken for granted that congressional Republicans will protect their co-partisan at any cost. It is, at this point, expected that they will confirm Trump's unqualified nominees, ignore his obvious conflicts of interest, overlook his dangerous comments, and rationalize his worst behavior. / That expectation -- and the cowardice it permits -- is the real danger to American democracy."


N.Y. Times - Supreme Court Nominee Calls Trump's Attacks on Judiciary 'Demoralizing'

"Mr. Trump escalated his public feud with the courts over his immigration order, saying that he had found a federal appeals court hearing on his executive order Tuesday night 'disgraceful,' and that the judges had failed to grasp concepts even 'a bad high school student would understand.' / The comments were a remarkable show of disdain by a sitting president for an independent judiciary..." ... "Mr. Trump's invective toward judges is a jarring break from a tradition observed by presidents of both parties. Presidents have usually tried to refrain from even appearing to intervene in court cases that concern them or their policies, or from impugning the jurists charged with deciding them, according to judges and legal experts from across the political spectrum." ... " 'It's not illegal, it's not a violation of the law to do these things, but it's bad policy because it raises questions about the independence of the courts, and it raises questions about the judicial system as a whole when the president says this,' said Peter Wallison, who served as White House counsel to President Ronald Reagan."


Vox - It sure looks like Kellyanne Conway just broke federal ethics rules

"The Nordstrom saga has now crossed the line from a somewhat vague conflict of interest (Trump seemed like he was defending his daughter, but his company, the Trump Organization, also owns the Ivanka Trump brand) to a seemingly more clear-cut violation of federal ethics rules. / Federal employees in the executive branch, including Conway, aren't allowed to 'endorse any product, service or enterprise.' / The rules are strict, and even cover things like writing book blurbs for authors the federal employees admire. (Not allowed.) When The Revenant, a novel written by Michael Punke, Obama's ambassador to the World Trade Organization, was made into an Oscar-nominated movie, Punke couldn't even talk about the film because to do so might violate federal conflict of interest rules."


Vox - Betsy DeVos can change education in America without doing a thing

"Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos narrowly squeaked through the Senate on Monday, winning confirmation by a vote of 51 to 50 after Vice President Mike Pence weighed in to break the tie. / DeVos is the most controversial education secretary ever. She was confirmed with fewer votes than any Cabinet secretary in history. If Democrats hadn't abolished the filibuster on executive branch nominees in 2013, DeVos's opposition would have relegated her to the heap of Cabinet might-have-beens." ... "DeVos was not the candidate Trump would have picked if bipartisan consensus were a goal. She has no experience running a public school system or state university or shaping statewide education policy. Her signature issue, school vouchers, isn't particularly popular, and even some conservatives from rural states are skeptical of it because rural areas typically have few choices besides the local public school. She was guaranteed well-funded, well-organized opposition from teachers unions, who see vouchers as siphoning money away from public schools and into private hands. "


Vox - A congressman challenged CNN to name more than 2 white terrorist attacks. It's not that hard.

"The argument that this was a one-off incident is just false. These attacks have popped up time and time again throughout the West. It's not just the Quebec mosque attack that occurred last month or the 2015 Charleston mass shooting at a black church. They have occurred so frequently that Ben Mathis-Lilley managed to compile a list of 32 fatal white extremist attacks since Timothy McVeigh carried out the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, including attacks by Ku Klux Klan leader Frazier Glenn Miller in 2014, neo-Nazi Keith Luke in 2009, and white supremacist James von Brunn in 2009. (And it doesn't even include attacks outside the US, like the 2011 Norway attacks by far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik.)

And the statistics, in fact, show that right-wing extremist attacks, often carried out by white supremacists and nationalists, have typically killed more Americans in most years than Muslim jihadist terrorist attacks since 9/11."

Terrorism Deaths in USA since 9/11


VOA News - Analysts Weigh In on Trump's Call to Repeal Johnson Amendment

" 'The theory of tax exemption for a broad range of organizations in the U.S. is that they have a public function, that they serve the good of the community at large,' said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty watchdog group. 'And religious institutions have been included within that range of good, non-governmental agencies that are deserving of a tax exemption.' / Many of these groups rely heavily on donations from private individuals and foundations. Being designated 'tax-exempt' by the IRS lends them legitimacy, increasing the confidence of would-be donors, who are allowed to deduct contributions to tax-exempt groups from their annual tax returns." ... "As the law stands now, individuals may not deduct from their tax returns any donations to politicians or political campaign groups. If the Johnson Amendment were repealed, though, it would open a new loophole in the law, encouraging individuals to make political contributions through religious groups and realizing tax benefits for doing so. / And that brings up another issue, says Lynn, financial transparency. Churches, he explains, are the only tax-exempt nonprofits that are not required to disclose their finances to the IRS, the public or even their donors. / 'So if the Johnson Amendment goes, I would argue that dark, hidden money will come into the political system through the churches,' Lynn said. 'They'd become, essentially, money-laundering operations and would never have to disclose the sources or amounts.' "

Related: Washington Post - The potential effects of repealing the Johnson Amendment


Nature - Trump immigration ban upends international work on disease

"Diseases don't respect borders, laws or walls. And efforts to combat them rely on networks of scientists to detect outbreaks early, understand how the diseases operate and then intervene. Researchers say that President Donald Trump's travel ban challenges that process, putting the United States at risk." ... "Public health is just one beneficiary of cross-border partnerships. Some policy analysts say scientific collaboration improves national security. If countries can respond to crises ranging from Ebola outbreaks to nuclear spills on their own, Americans are at less risk, says Hotez. Apolitical science partnerships make for good diplomacy, he adds."

Friday, February 3, 2017

Friday Trump Roundup - 8

Donald TrumpThis is my semi-regular feature to post links to articles about Donald Trump along with excerpts from those articles. Trump has the potential to cause so much damage to our country and the world that it's every citizen's responsibility to keep pressure on him and our other elected officials to try to minimize the damage. To read previous entries in this series and other Trump related posts, check out my Trump archives.

This is going to be a very difficult and dangerous four years. Trump's only been in office two weeks, and he's already outdone himself in horrible actions and executive orders. But the problem is, he keeps committing all these bad deeds so rapidly, that his previous misdeeds fade into the background. Remember his conflicts of interest and his refusal to put his businesses in a blind trust, or breaking anit-nepotism laws by appointing his son-in-law as a senior advisor, or breaking the emolumnets clause of the Constitution? Yeah - all huge problems that should be sources of public outcry at the least, and possible impeachment for blatantly flouting the law and the Constitution. But he just creates new controversies, and those previous controversies get forgotten.

Don't forget his past crimes and misdeeds, but his latest actions can't go unmentioned, either. Here are this week's links.


Slate - The Commander Stumbles: Trump's first executive orders will make it harder to vanquish ISIS.

"After President Trump signed an executive order on Saturday giving the Joint Chiefs of Staff 30 days to devise a plan for destroying ISIS, I emailed several senior U.S. military officers--some active duty, some retired, all with combat experience in our recent wars--and asked them what sort of plan the chiefs should submit. / One of the officers, a general, wrote back, 'They might begin by telling him to lift this stupid and heinous visa ban.' / The remark highlights a big problem not just with Trump's scattershot orders but also with his tenure so far as commander in chief: He doesn't seem to understand the political nature of war or the strategic consequences of politics."

Related: Scientific American Guest Blog - Why the Trump Immigration Ban Is Bad for the U.S. and Bad for the World


Scientific American Blogs - Is Trump Driving Recruits to ISIS?

"Is Donald Trump effectively acting as an ISIS recruiting sergeant? The research we and other social psychologists have conducted in recent years suggests that the answer is probably yes." ... "Trump's Executive Order is even more harmful than most overreactions. It is not even a response to some outrage. And it gives especially strong ammunition to those in ISIS and other groups who argue that Americans see Muslims as their enemy and hence act as the enemy of Muslims. Moqtada al-Sadr, a leader of the anti-American insurgency in Iraq, responded immediately to Trump's ban by arguing that Americans be thrown out of his country. Renad Mansour, a Middle East expert at Chatham House points out in TIME that Sadr and others can now say to those Muslim moderates who challenged their "apocalyptic ideology of hatred" (to reprise the words of McCain and Graham): "I told you so."" ... "In short, Donald Trump needs enemies to validate his worldview as much as ISIS needs an American enemy to validate theirs. As long as Trump's provocative actions make him an effective recruiting sergeant to his own cause, we cannot expect him to stop doing things that make him an equally effective recruiting sergeant for ISIS."


Nature - Trump agenda threatens US legacy of science diplomacy

"A newly minted leader with no experience governing at home or establishing policy abroad now oversees the United States' vast diplomatic enterprise. US President Donald Trump has a deep bench of scientific and technical expertise to tap across multiple government agencies -- but it is not clear that he will use it." ... "Science diplomats are watching warily to see whether the volatile new president will draw on the best available evidence when setting foreign policy. So far, his isolationist tendencies are winning: Trump is reportedly considering whether to pull the United States back from international organizations such as the United Nations." ... "Trump has said that he supports high-tech businesses and investments that would keep the United States a global leader. But if he withdraws the country from the worldwide stage, other nations may soon surpass it in scientific and technical innovation, says Colón."


Engadget - Who is Jerry Falwell Jr. and why is he reforming higher education?

"Donald Trump has already earned his reputation of nominating candidates for his cabinet-level positions who face stiff opposition from the science and tech community. ... On Tuesday, Trump continued this streak by tapping Jerry Falwell Jr. to head up a presidential task force charged with suggesting reforms for the Department of Education." ... "Falwell is apparently not too big on the sciences, at least as they have conventionally been taught. That is, science courses at Liberty University take the Bible to be a historically accurate document rather than a collection of parables. Falwell's input could have a debilitating effect on the direction of higher education..." ... "He is clearly not a fan of the LGBTQ+ movement, if his school's draconian student code of conduct is any indication. 'Sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural born woman are not permissible,' the code reads. Nor is Falwell Jr. a proponent of sexual education. Liberty University's publication, the Liberty Champion, has repeatedly argued against the need for sexual education for both middle and grade school children. Rather than educate kids, the publication instead promotes an abstinence-only stance."


The Atlantic - A Clarifying Moment in American History

"For the community of conservative thinkers and experts, and more importantly, conservative politicians, this is a testing time. Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it." ... "There was nothing unanticipated in this first disturbing week of the Trump administration. It will not get better. Americans should therefore steel themselves, and hold their representatives to account. Those in a position to take a stand should do so, and those who are not should lay the groundwork for a better day. There is nothing great about the America that Trump thinks he is going to make; but in the end, it is the greatness of America that will stop him."


Washington Post - No 'G'day, mate': On call with Australian prime minister, Trump badgers and brags

"It should have been one of the most congenial calls for the new commander in chief -- a conversation with the leader of Australia, one of America's staunchest allies, at the end of a triumphant week. / Instead, President Trump blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a refu­gee agreement and boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win, according to senior U.S. officials briefed on the Saturday exchange. Then, 25 minutes into what was expected to be an hour-long call, Trump abruptly ended it." ... "Trump told Peña Nieto in last Friday's call, according to the Associated Press, which said it reviewed a transcript of part of the conversation, 'You have a bunch of bad hombres down there. You aren't doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn't, so I just might send them down to take care of it.' "


Reuters - Exclusive: Trump to focus counter-extremism program solely on Islam - sources

"The Trump administration wants to revamp and rename a U.S. government program designed to counter all violent ideologies so that it focuses solely on Islamist extremism, five people briefed on the matter told Reuters. / The program, 'Countering Violent Extremism,' or CVE, would be changed to 'Countering Islamic Extremism' or 'Countering Radical Islamic Extremism,' the sources said, and would no longer target groups such as white supremacists who have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States."


Yahoo News - CIA head was 'blindsided' by waterboarding memo

"CIA director Mike Pompeo was 'blindsided' by a draft executive order that could open the door for American intelligence agencies to resume waterboarding and other 'enhanced interrogation techniques' at newly reopened CIA 'black site' prisons overseas, according to a source familiar with conversations he has had about the document. / Trump, in an interview with ABC News anchor David Muir released Wednesday night, indicated he is in fact considering reinstating waterboarding because he believes it 'absolutely' works."


Updated 2017-02-03: Added last article

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Texas State Board of Education Takes a Small Step Backwards on Science Education

TEA LogoAs described in the Austin American Statesman article, Texas education board approves curriculum that challenges evolution, the Texas State Board of Education has approved some troubling language for the state science standards.

If you want to see for yourself the full standards, you can find them here. Here are the four subject to the current controversy:

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A) in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student;

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(G) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.

(9) Science concepts. The student knows the significance of various molecules involved in metabolic processes and energy conversions that occur in living organisms. The student is expected to:

(D) analyze and evaluate the evidence regarding formation of simple organic molecules and their organization into long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.

You can read a detailed discussion in a report put out by the Texas Freedom Network, Texas Science Curriculum Standards: Recommendations for Dealing with Pedagogical and Scientific Problems (pdf).


The Bad

Yes, the motivation behind these standards really is to promote creationism / cast doubt on evolution. Here are a few excerpts from that TFN report regarding the motivation behind three of these:

[Regarding 7 B] In a final appeal to preserve his proposal, McLeroy stated that the purpose of his standard was to argue against: "...the idea that all life is descended from a common ancestor by the unguided natural processes."
[Regarding 7 G] During the board debate, McLeroy explained that this standard: "...questions the two key parts of the great claim of evolution, which is [sic] common ancestry by unguided natural processes."
[Regarding 9 D] During board debate, Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, explained that the new standard was "basically an origin of life amendment," referencing public testimony provided previously by Ide Trotter, a well-known promoter of intelligent design."

And the history of the first one, 3A, makes it clear that this was compromise language regarding the strengths and weaknesses gambit so popular among creationists.

Moreover, the Board had actually formed an expert committee to review the standards and make recommendations on improving them, and the committee recommended removing these four particular items because "they were vague, redundant or would require too much time to teach" (quoting the Stateseman article). So, the Board is going against the advice of experts to push standards that were originally motivated by anti-science positions.


The Good

The standards aren't actually that bad. All of them could be handled by textbook publishers and teachers strictly keeping to real science, and not injecting any creationism or other pseudoscience. Let's look at them again on a case by case basis.

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A) in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student;

Well, it says specifically 'all sides of scientific evidence'. Creationism is manifestly not science, so this shouldn't be a backdoor for creationism. As far as real science, this is a little overwhelming for a high school biology class. I mean, all sides of the scientific evidence supporting evolution in general could be an entire class unto itself. Even 150 years ago, in The Origin of Species, Darwin had an entire tome full of evidence for evolution, and the evidence has only grown stronger and more abundant since.

Granted, there are different 'sides' within current evolutionary biology - the relative influence of genetic drift vs. natural selection, how much of the genome is truly junk DNA vs. possible other functions, etc. So, teachers could delve into these current topics, but it seems a bit of a deep dive for high school biology.

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;

Well, if you're sticking to real science, this is simply a discussion of gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium, and perhaps some background on taphonomy and taphonomic biases in the fossil record. And that's all a decent discussion to have, showing students the evidence in support of both gradualism and punctuated equilibrium. In fact, there's evidence for both, so it's probably not an either/or discussion, but rather how they represent opposite extremes regarding the rates of speciation, and what might drive the different rates of change. Although like I said above, this is getting pretty in depth for a high school biology class.

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(G) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.

Well, yes, cells are complex. I remember learning about that back when I was in high school, and making a model stuffed full of organelles. And if you really want to get into the origins of the complexity, symbiogenesis is one of the topics to discuss in the origin of eukaryotes. And there's an entire field of study for abiogenesis, concerning how life first arose. But again, this might be more detailed than most people expect from high school biology.

(9) Science concepts. The student knows the significance of various molecules involved in metabolic processes and energy conversions that occur in living organisms. The student is expected to:

(D) analyze and evaluate the evidence regarding formation of simple organic molecules and their organization into long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.

Lots of good stuff to discuss here, as well. I'm sure that teachers would at a minimum bring up the Miller-Urey experiment, as well as other more recent experiments that used different conditions thought to be more representative of the early earth. Teachers could start discussions on the RNA World. And of course, there's that whole field of abiogenesis that I already linked to. But like I said for each of the other questionable standards, and like the expert committee said, this is getting awfully detailed for a high school biology class that has to cover all the other standards and curriculum.

---

So, it's troubling that these standards were motivated by creationist misunderstandings of science, and that the Board members went against the recommendations of experts regarding the standards. But at least the letter of the standards isn't horrible, and textbook publishers and teachers can stick to real science. I just hope teachers with creationist sympathies don't use these standards as an excuse to teach junk science.


Updated 2017-02-03: Made numerous small changes

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