Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Draw Columbo the Mammoth

Two years ago, I made a special trip to visit a mammoth excavation outside Yakima, WA. The mammoth was discovered by a construction crew putting the finishing touches on a road to the home of Doug, and Bronwyn Mayo. The Mayos have been civic-minded enough to allow Central Washington University to keep the site as a teaching site. Every summer, CWU professors bring a group of paleontology students over to work on the site for eight weeks and give tours to interested tourists (like me). Besides just letting the University take over their driveway for two months out of the year, the Mayos take an active part in educating the public and have their own website.

2009 winning entry by Kayla Dexter

If you know any budding nature artists, this is their chance to get involved. The Mayos are sponsoring a draw the mammoth contest for K-12 students. The deadline is July 30, 2010 and the winner gets $25 and a Wenas Mammoth t-shirt, which is way cooler than any dinosaur shirt. The details are here. I'll be putting up a reminder closer to the deadline.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


The Open Laboratory 2009: The Best in Science Writing on Blogs was released today. I'm excited that one of my mammoth pieces was chosen for inclusion. The story of the Adams Mammoth is something that will be included in my book, so this essay is a sort of sneak peek at things to come. You can read the original version of the piece here or here.

Friday, February 19, 2010


The day after a domestic terrorist kamikaze-ed his small plane into the windows of the IRS offices in Austin, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty tells the CPAC crowd that they should "smash the window out of big government in this country."

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Nothing could possibly go wrong with this

As part of its budget for the next year, Darpa is investing $6 million into a project called BioDesign, with the goal of eliminating "the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement." The plan would assemble the latest bio-tech knowledge to come up with living, breathing creatures that are genetically engineered to "produce the intended biological effect." Darpa wants the organisms to be fortified with molecules that bolster cell resistance to death, so that the lab-monsters can "ultimately be programmed to live indefinitely."

Of course, Darpa’s got to prevent the super-species from being swayed to do enemy work — so they’ll encode loyalty right into DNA, by developing genetically programmed locks to create “tamper proof” cells. Plus, the synthetic organism will be traceable, using some kind of DNA manipulation, “similar to a serial number on a handgun.” And if that doesn’t work, don’t worry. In case Darpa’s plan somehow goes horribly awry, they’re also tossing in a last-resort, genetically-coded kill switch...

More from ScienceOnline2010

Janet Stemwedel has a nice post giving some further thoughts on Eric's and my presentation "An Open History of Science." It's encouraging to hear that she's still thinking about the presentation almost a month later. Her post arrived just in time for me. I was getting to the point in my after-event neuroses where I was beginning to have serious self-doubts: Was trying to do history at a science conference a bad idea? Did I embarass myself in front of all those smart people? Will I ever be able to show my face at that conference again? The answers, at least as far as I can tell from a sample of one, are "no," "not during that part of the conference,*" and "probably."

Dr. Free-Ride mentions the important questions that lie at the place where her field (philosophy of science) intersects with history of science. Who does science? Where is science done? What is the purpose of sharing scientific information? Is science democratizing force, or a closed practice? While philosophy of science deals with the actual state of things and their implications for the larger society and for the future of scientific practice and that society, history of science deals with how that state of affairs came to be. It should be obvious that any societal construct--and "science" is a societal construct--is merely one point on a moving arc of its own history. However, the same processes that divided science into the separate disciplines we know, pulled history away from science and put it in a different pidgeon-hole. For over a century, certain activities of human endeavor were designated "historical" and others were deemed not historical. Occasional histories of scientific things have been written over the years--modern physics, the impact of disease and weather on history--but the idea the science, as a general enterprise,has a history is soething that has only recently gained acceptance.

I'd better stop here. I've already said "societal construct;" if I go any further I'll be forced to say "paradigm" or "text" and, at that point, all of the science people will run screaming from the room leaving only a few humanities and social science nerds who will begin talking about how the white, patriarchal power structure forces heteronormative strictures on the disempowered. And it just goes downhill from there.

* There was that business in the bar, but I don't think anyone involved wants to mention it, so I'm safe on that.

Why Sarah Palin will never be president

Mark Halperin was on teevee this morning giving reasons why Sarah Palin will never be president. His three are:
  1. One is that Republican elites behind her back think she’d be horrible for the party.
  2. Two is, she’s not appealing to anybody but a narrow slice of American life and she’s heading more and more in that direction based on her rhetoric.
  3. And finally and I think it’s best for the country. She has no ideas. She stands for nothing specific.

I'd like to add three more to that list:
  1. She's dumber than a sack of rocks.
  2. Sacks of rocks: they're smarter than Sarah Palin.
  3. If Sarah Palin and a sack of rocks were on Final Jeapoardy together, the sack of rocks would win.

I'm sure you have some of your own to add to the list.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Surviving the new ice age

On the news and on the internets I keep hearing that the whole, entire world is being buried under that greatest snowfall in the history of the universe, ever!! The Virginia Republican Prty is taking this opportunity to say climate change is a myth--or possibly a conspiracy--and urges voters to call their congressmen "and tell them how much global warming you get this weekend." Okay.

Dear Jim,
It was sixty degrees and sunny today, so I put on my sandals and worked the yard. I built up a good sweat so I made some nice cold limeade after I was done.

I'm always happy to do my bit for the GOP.

Friday, February 05, 2010

A world gone mad: our sexist allies edition

This is my day to be pissed at everyone.

After a week of conservatives behaving badly, we are presented with the first signs that the Democratic majority will once again roll over and play dead. After pushing the Congress to pass a health bill before the August break--a deadline that was sabotaged by Democrat Max Baucus delaying the vote and the Democratic leadership letting him; after pushing the congress to pass a health bill before the Christmas break--a deadline that was missed because Democrat Ben Nelson and erstwhile Democrat Joe Lieberman delayed the vote and the Democratic leadership let them; after all that, President Obama says "we should take our time" on the final health care bill. What a disappointment. Now we have one of the most influential liberal bloggers using sexism to take cheap shots at someone who deserves cheap shots party because of his sexual harassment.

Clarence Thomas, who has never had a problem with conservatives denouncing the courts for "judicial activism," now feels that liberals and weak kneed Democrats "border on being irresponsible" for criticising his campaign finance decision. I'm never against taking cheap shots at Thomas, and, on this issue, he and the conservative majority on the court deserve every kind of shot we can take--cheap, reasoned, or satirical. But what kind of shot does John Amato, the usually dependable founder og Chooks and Liars choose to take? He goes for gynophobic name calling.
Clarice can't handle it critiques when they come from the left. [Amato's italics]

Get it? The worst thing you can say about a man is to call him a woman.

What is going one here? Liberals are supposed to be on the side of feminism. Liberal men are supposed to be sensitive to issues of demonization and discrimination. Liberals are not supposed to engage in sexist this crap. Would Amato use racist stereotypes (say, bug-eyed and rubber-lipped cartoons from the start of the last century) to poke at Thomas? Of course not. So why does he think this is acceptable? Amato should be ashamed.

Anyone who calls themselves a liberal and chuckles at that should be ashamed. This is not acceptable. Calling Ann Coulter a man is not acceptable. Acting like the worst, bigoted conservative thugs is not acceptable. If liberals are pro-feminism and anti-discrimination, they should act that way, dammit.

I need a drink.

More conservatives behaving badly

Aside from Sen. Shelby's (R-AL) disgusing obstruction and partisanship, the last twentyfor hours have had a bumper crop of conservatives behaving badly.

Let's start with the Tea Party convention. Despite heavy criticism from within and without the movement, the high ticket and astroturfed convention opened last night. Tom Tancredo, the vociferousy anti-immigrant former congressman and failed presidential candidate opened the show with a call to return to one of the pillars of Jim Crow.
Because we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country. People who cannot even spell the word "vote," or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House. Name is Barack Hussein Obama.

Of course, if Tancredo had a modicum of civics literacy, he would understand the racist history of literacy poll testing. Maybe he does know it and doesn't care. He also seeems blissfully unaware of the fact that as you go up the scale of edication, voters become more liberal. Among the Teabaggers, this idea was recieved with loud applause.

This morning, the general sessions opened without flags, without an opening prayer, and with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Anywhere but Wasilla
Sarah Palin is dealing with criticism for taking over $100,000 to speak at the Tea Party convention by saying she will donate the money to her PAC. What is the PAC going to do with the money? They are going to buy thousands of copies of Palin's book, thus laundering part of the money and returning it to her. This little ploy also makes sure she stays at the top of the best-seller list and looks influential as she plans her future political career.

Washington, DC
After denouncing stimulus funds as "fiscal child abuse," warning that the funds would lead to "a thing called slavery," and trying to get his state to refuse the funds, Gov. Mark Sanford (R) of South Carolina is in Washington demanding more funds.

His Mom and Dad's basement
ACORN stalker and accused phone tapper, James O'Keefe, Has an extensive history of race baiting and pallin' around with white supremists. Now that has come to light, his supporters are running for cover and making excuses (it's a conspiracy by the liberal media elite).

Washington, again
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the ranking member on the House Budget Committee just released a budget plan that is probably a rough draft of the counter budget the Republican Party will release next month. The plan calls for big cuts in Social Security and privatizing what's left. It calls for the phase out of Medicare. It fails to balance the budget in his lifetime.

Baton Rouge
It's been over a year since I demanded Bobby Jindal produce proof of his citizenship. He still maintains a studied and guilty silence.

It's been a target rich environment this week and I'm sure you have your own favorites to add. Go for it.

This man needs to be publicly shamed

One Senator has decided to bring the entire confirmation process to a halt in order to secure more pork for his state. According to Congress Daily, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) has "placed a blanket hold on all executive nominations on the Senate calendar in an effort to win concessions from the Obama administration and Pentagon." Every judge, under secretary, and the top intelligence officers at state and Homeland Security will be indefinitely delayed because of the balckmail of one obstructionist senator.

In 2005, when it was Democrats threatening to filibuster a few judges who they honestly had problems with, Shelby was one of the Republicans who was apoplectic and threatened to get rid of filibuster altogether.
I do not think that any of us want to operate in an environment where federal judicial nominees must receive 60 votes in order to be confirmed. To that end I firmly support changing the Senate rules to require that a simple majority be necessary to confirm all judicial nominees, thus ending the continuous filibuster of them.

Inaction on these nominees is a disservice to the American people.

Far too many of the President’s nominees were never afforded an up or down vote, because several Democrats chose to block the process for political gain.

A Senate hold does not actually have the power to stop a nomination or bill from proceeding to a vote. It is nothing more than a Senator's notice that they will to filibuster the action if the Seante leadership try to bring it to a vote. However, over the last few decades, it has gained the unofficial power to stop Senate business. All that is required to overcome a hold is for the Senate leadership to call the holding Senator's bluff.

Naturally, Shelby's disgusting bahavior has been matched by gutlessness on the part of the Democrats. Shelby wasn't even present in the Senate today to announce his hold. A confused Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced it on his behalf:
He is not able to be here at the moment to state his position. Maybe we can in discussions with him make some progress on these sooner rather than later. but for the moment I'm constrained to object on his behalf.

At that point Harry reid could have called Shelby's bluff and gone ahead wit the sceduled vote. Instead, he caved in before the threat of a filibuster by someone who wasn't even there to make the filibuster. On days like this I'm ashamed to be a Democrat.

The Republican's hypocricy--their one rule for us and a different rule for the Democrats attitude--has nowhere been more on display than on the issue of filibuster and confirmations. Shelby wasn't alone in 2005 in denouncing the use of filibuster during confirmation hearings. In that year, Shelby's fellow Republican Senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions, argued on the floor of the Senate that the use of filibuster for judicial nominees was Unconstitutional. The Republican majority leader, Bill Frist, threatened to abolish the filibuster by using what the press came to call "the nuclear option," but which most Republicans preferred to call "the constitutional option." At that time, Joe Lieberman brokered a deal whereby fourteen Senators, seven Republicans and seven Democrats (Lieberman was then a Democrat), pledged to vote for cloture on judicial nominations. The Gang of Fouteen deal essentially ended filibuster for judical nominations without ending filibuster for other business.

Where are the Republicans members of the Gang of Fouteen now? Four are still in the Seanate: Olympia Snowe, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Susan Collins. Will Lieberman and his four buddies vote for cloture to overcome Shelby's holds, at least on judicial nominees. If judicial nominees deserve an up or down vote, why not those in positions relating to national security or the war on terrorism? If the Democratic leadership isn't willing to explore abolishing or limiting filibuster, will they at least occasionally call the Republicans' bluff and make them filibuster?

It's time to call our Senators and demand (politely) that they resist Shelby's shabby attempt at blackmail. While we're at it, we should call Shelby's office and let him know how shameful his actions are. Finally, we should call Lieberman and the remaining Republican Gang of Fouteen members and demand they live up to their 2005 principles.

Addenda Just in case you think it's an exaggeration to say Shelby's blackmail is motivated by pork, here is the full text of the statement issued by his office (he didn't have the guts to announce it in person and allow reporters to question him). The key part is this:
Sen. Shelby has placed holds on several pending nominees due to unaddressed national security concerns. Among his concerns is that nearly 10 years after the U.S. Air Force announced plans to replace the aging tanker fleet, we still do not have a transparent and fair acquisition process to move forward. The Department of Defense must recognize that the draft Request for Proposal needs to be significantly and substantively changed. Sen. Shelby is also deeply concerned that the Administration will not release the funds already appropriated to the FBI to build the Terrorist Explosives Devices Analytical Center. This decision impedes the U.S. military, the intelligence community, and federal law enforcement personnel in their missions to exploit and analyze intelligence information critical to fighting terrorism and ensuring American security worldwide.

The tanker in question will presumably be built by Northrop/EADS in Mobile, Alabama. The FBI improvised explosive device testing lab would presumably be built at the Redstone Arsenal outside Birmingham. If his true concern is that Those two projects are not going forward, then let's do them. We can build the tankers at Boeing's plants in true blue Seattle and the explosives lab in even deeper blue Rhode Island. If his concern is truly national security and not pork, he should be happy to withdraw his holds and vote for such a deal.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Things that go bump in the night

Rocks in space have been banging into each other as long as there have been rocks in space. We've seen a comet crash into a planet (Shumacker-Levy 9 into Jupiter), we've seen comets fly into the sun, and we've seen meteorites fall to Earth. All of these involve small objects--comets and meteors--interacting with large ones--planets and the sun. But we've never seen two small objects banging into each other*. Till now.

Last week, on January 25 and 29, the mighty and majestic Hubble Space Telescope took pictures of a comet-like object called P/2010 A2. The X like lines coming off the comet (detail) are unlike anything ever seen and are believed to be the debris from a tiny asteroid hitting P/2010 A2.

Space is a very big empty place, but it is also a very violent place. It is only very recently that we have had tools like the Hubble Space Telescope that allow to see some of that violence. Every crash and bang (silent bang, of course) that we can see adds to our knowledge of how the universe works.

* We do have images of a projectile fired from the Deep Impact satellite hitting comet 9P/Tempel 1. But that was a controlled, man-made impact. This is the first natural event we have caught, and therefore much cooler.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Myth busting

Twice today, I have put a pot of water on the stove and watched it until it boiled. I need to try other pots and other stoves to have a scientifically valid sample, but so far the indications are that a watched pot can boil.

Oh No!!

The Antarctic polar bears are extinct. Now maybe they'll take global warming seriously.