Monthly Archives: February 2013

On being a left wing pinko socialist


Amazon.My left-wing, pro-union friends would be amused to hear me called a “leftie.” They generally think of me as right as Steven Harper. The only difference to them, I suppose, is my unwillingness to sell Canada to the highest corporate bidder (Chinese or American…). My right-wing friends think I’m somewhere between Karl Marx and the late Jack Layton.

I’ve always thought of myself as a “political agnostic.” Probably due to years in the media where cynicism about politicians and politicians is rife. I pursue humanist goals,* not party goals. I simply have no faith in party politics.

I don’t see this as a refusal to take sides, merely a refusal to be drawn into the herd mentality of party politics. I take sides over issues, not over ideologies (which are akin to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin). Sometimes I side with the government; other times with the opposition. It depends on how I understand the issue, and on my conscience, not what colour of party card I own.

Party politics are to social reality what creationism or astrology are to science. Parties do not give us, nor have they ever given us, a foolproof guide for economic, social or cultural pathfinding. All party platforms are fundamentally flawed because they always devolve down to being soapboxes for the party leader’s personal agendas. And as Lord Acton wrote,

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

I like municipal politics because they are, at least in small centres like Collingwood, free of the partisan squabbles we see at provincial and federal levels (barring, of course, a recent term). Party politics and municipal governance are a toxic, self-destructive mix that distracts councils from the real, local issues into shadowboxing over irrelevant ones.

Like most Canadians, I hover somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. Centrist, but not personally bound to any party. I can’t think of any party that has a platform I completely endorse, or one that has a platform I entirely reject. There are good and bad in all.**

Not only that, but policies and platforms shift over time. The Conservative policies under Diefenbaker were very different party than those under Harper, for example. The NDP of Broadbent and the NDP under Mulcair are different animals.

Question authority

Blind allegiance to party ends up being blind allegiance to the leader and his or her personal agendas. Political wisdom means you have to question authority, and challenge bad ideas. In party politics, that’s not allowed.

When I vote it is on how the candidates respond to questions, debate issues and appear to think on their feet – not how well they spout the party line. I try to judge political figures as individuals, not by their platform. I expect them to be credible, honest, logical, intelligent, and not ideological. I won’t vote for anyone who doesn’t have an open, questing and nimble mind (although sometimes the choice of local candidate isn’t always among intellectual giants…).

I am more concerned about what is promised for the greater good; what policies and legislation will benefit local residents, Ontarians or Canadians most, rather than which will best reinforce the party line.

To me party politics is a lot like religion: too much blind faith, not enough skepticism or secularism. Blind adherence to a platform is what has led Americans into their current quagmire. Far, far too many ideologues on both sides. It makes it impossible to accomplish anything in the US without an overwhelming majority.***

All that being said, Canada is a moderately socialist country in that we translate European humanist values into policy and law: we have general (but far from universal) health care, a modest welfare and social assistance system (despite Steven’s attempts to relegate the poor to workhouses…), a common educational system, a legal support system, a national broadcaster (despite Steven’s efforts to muzzle it), collective bargaining (also under siege) and we still have a modicum of control over our banks and (less so) corporations. These institutions and policies make up the core values of being a Canadian. Any attack on them is an attack on our identity, so I will always side with those who defend them.

~~~~~

* More properly, secular humanism, which Wikipedia notes, “…posits that human beings are capable of being ethical and moral without religion or a god. It does not, however, assume that humans are either inherently evil or innately good, nor does it present humans as being superior to nature. Rather, the humanist life stance emphasizes the unique responsibility facing humanity and the ethical consequences of human decisions.” I would also call it Buddhist politics: “The Buddhist approach to political power is the moralization and the responsible use of public power.The Buddha discussed the importance and the prerequisites of a good government. He showed how the country could become corrupt, degenerate and unhappy when the head of the government becomes corrupt and unjust. He spoke against corruption and how a government should act based on humanitarian principles.” However, my approach to Buddhism is very secular and not religious; more along the lines of Batchelor and Flanagan.

** Well, perhaps the Tea Party can be excused from that statement, because I can’t think of a single good, logical, humanist thing in their platform.
A shining example of the good-and-bad paired in a party policy is the Ontario Liberals’ policy on green energy. The thrust is good (alternative energy is basically a good cause), but the implementation – including the lack of municipal input into the process – has been bad and very contentious. I really like Tim Hudak’s Ontario PC promise to reform the “alphabet soup” of redundant, interfering and excessive government agencies, but his promise to scrap existing green energy deals is economically foolish and counterproductive. Good and bad in both parties’ platforms.

*** From a Canadian point of view, the two US parties are both right wing; one (the Democrats) is just less right than the other. To label the Democrats “left-wing” let alone “socialist” shows a misunderstanding of the terminology. It is better to use alternative terms that relate to policies or proposed legislation such as pro-people (Democrat) versus pro-corporation (Republican), pro-middle-class (Dem) vs pro-rich (Rep), pro-gun-control (Dem) vs pro-weapons-manufacturers (Rep) and so on, when describing the differences.
The parties are also split along religious lines (the Republicans put much greater stock in promoting into law a particular subset of fundamentalist Christian values). I personally don’t like the Republican platform or most of its representatives because I am adamant about the separation of church and state.
Republican policies, too, are clearly aimed at benefitting the rich and the corporations rather than the American people and that offends my humanist views.
Many of the GOP members are, frankly, as smart as a bag of nails. So are some of the Democrats, but not nearly as many. I respect intelligence, not blind faith. So yes, I tend to side with the Democrats more than the Republicans because they make more sense and show they care more about the people they represent.

Albert and the Lion


Book of Albert poemsA recent comment on Facebook – “You just can’t resist poking the bear…”* made me remember a poem by Marriott Edgar that I enjoyed as a child in the 1950s: Albert and the Lion. I actually first heard it orally – we had a collection of old 78s and a wind-up gramophone in the basement. Among the musical treasures were several monologues by Stanley Holloway who read this and several other poems about Young Albert, accompanied by a piano that accented his words.

There was a book, too, probably brought from England by my father when he came over in the late 1940s. It had this and several other poems by Marriott. It was published in the 1930s and had great illustrations.I found the cover online at another blogger’s site. The poems were funny, but also darkly comic, like this one:

I’ll tell of the Battle of Hastings,
As happened in days long gone by,
When Duke William became King of England,
And ‘Arold got shot in the eye.

Albert and the 'eadsman
Or this one about the headsman and the ghost of Anne Boleyn:

The ‘Eadsman chased Jane round the grass patch
They saw his axe flash in the moon
And seeing as poor lass were ‘eadless
They wondered what what next he would prune.

He suddenly caught sight of Albert
As midnight was on its last chime
As he lifted his axe, father murmered
‘We’ll get the insurance this time.’

Boy's Own AnnualI may still have a copy of Edgar’s wonderful book in my own collection. Not sure what became of it, but it was well-read even when I first found it. I remember it well. remember the feel of it, how the pages smelled, how it folded in my hands as I sat on the couch and read it. It had the English price on the cover, which was a number very odd to a boy raised in Canada. Just added to the magic.

My father had brought an odd assortment of books with him, including several Boys’ Own Annuals, some dating from the early 1900s. I read them, too, in that basement, while 78 rpm records played. I still have a couple of those Boy’s Own books, upstairs. We used to get parcels at Christmas with Beano and other British comics in them. But I always went back to the Albert poems.

I can still hear Holloway’s Lancashire voice intoning the words as I read them in the book. “Sam, Sam, pick oop tha moosket, Sam,” said Holloway, dryly. My father was from the north, outside Manchester, and probably didn’t find the accent funny or his odd grammar mysterious, but I delighted in it and loved to imitate it.

I loved those recordings. I listened to them over and over and I can still remember many verses and lines. And of course many of these are on YouTube today. Wonderful memories… here’s what I used to hear. Imagine an eight-year-old strutting, pretending to be the characters, making faces like the bemused parents, frowning like the dour magistrate, poking his imaginary stick at the lion:

Here’s the poem itself. The verses that came to mind are in bold:

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh-air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was their Albert
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
‘E’d a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
The finest that Woolworth’s could sell.

They didn’t think much to the ocean
The waves, they was fiddlin’ and small
There was no wrecks… nobody drownded
‘Fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.

So, seeking for further amusement
They paid and went into the zoo
Where they’d lions and tigers and cam-els
And old ale and sandwiches too.

There were one great big lion called Wallace
His nose were all covered with scars
He lay in a som-no-lent posture
With the side of his face to the bars.

Now Albert had heard about lions
How they were ferocious and wild
And to see Wallace lying so peaceful
Well… it didn’t seem right to the child.

So straight ‘way the brave little feller
Not showing a morsel of fear
Took ‘is stick with the’orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
And pushed it in Wallace’s ear!

You could see that the lion didn’t like it
For giving a kind of a roll
He pulled Albert inside the cage with ‘im
And swallowed the little lad… whole!

Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence
And didn’t know what to do next
Said, “Mother! Yon lions ‘et Albert”
And Mother said “Eeh, I am vexed!”

So Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Quite rightly, when all’s said and done
Complained to the Animal Keeper
That the lion had eaten their son.

The keeper was quite nice about it
He said, “What a nasty mishap
Are you sure that it’s your lad he’s eaten?”
Pa said, “Am I sure? There’s his cap!”

So the manager had to be sent for
He came and he said, “What’s to do?”
Pa said, “Yon lion’s ‘eaten our Albert
And ‘im in his Sunday clothes, too.”

Then Mother said, “Right’s right, young feller
I think it’s a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert
And after we’ve paid to come in!”

The manager wanted no trouble
He took out his purse right away
And said, “How much to settle the matter?”
And Pa said “What do you usually pay?”

But Mother had turned a bit awkward
When she thought where her Albert had gone
She said, “No! someone’s got to be summonsed”
So that were decided upon.

Round they went to the Police Station
In front of a Magistrate chap
They told ‘im what happened to Albert
And proved it by showing his cap.

The Magistrate gave his o-pinion
That no-one was really to blame
He said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms
Would have further sons to their name.

At that Mother got proper blazing
“And thank you, sir, kindly,” said she
“What waste all our lives raising children
To feed ruddy lions? Not me!”

~~~~~

Memory’s like that.  Sometimes the oddest things happen. I spent a pleasant morning finding this stuff.

Albert and the Lion
* The comment was not related to the poem, by the way, but rather ab irato; critical comments by another blogger about what I write here.

ID’s deep roots in creationism


Fundamentalist folliesProponents of creationism often try to deny that “intelligent” design (ID) is merely creationism wrapped in a fake lab coat to make it look like it’s pals with science. It isn’t. They’re not buddies, didn’t go to school together, and don’t ‘like’ each others Facebook pages.

ID is merely a tawdry, paper-thin attempt to hoodwink the gullible who can’t see past the plastic pocket protector that there’s a bible in the pocket. In part this is because the popular notion of what a theory is has devolved into a synonym for guess or an unproven assumption. But that’s not the scientific meaning of the word: “…a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science… Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge.” Scientific method

ID is not even a hypothesis: it’s a statement of faith and its pseudo-scientific arguments have been well-debunked on better sites than this (i.e. Skeptico). It starts with belief and looks for ways to prove it, rejecting anything that counters that preconceived theology.
creationism masquerading as ID

The National Center of Science Education defines ID this way:

“Intelligent Design” creationism (IDC) is a successor to the “creation science” movement, which dates back to the 1960s. The IDC movement began in the middle 1980s as an antievolution movement which could include young earth, old earth, and progressive creationists; theistic evolutionists, however, were not welcome. The movement increased in popularity in the 1990s with the publication of books by law professor Phillip Johnson and the founding in 1996 of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (now the Center for Science and Culture.) The term “intelligent design” was adopted as a replacement for “creation science,” which was ruled to represent a particular religious belief in the Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987.
IDC proponents usually avoid explicit references to God, attempting to present a veneer of secular scientific inquiry. IDC proponents introduced some new phrases into anti-evolution rhetoric, such as “irreducible complexity” (Michael Behe: Darwin’s Black Box, 1996) and “specified complexity” (William Dembski: The Design Inference, 1998), but the basic principles behind these phrases have long histories in creationist attacks on evolution. Underlying both of these concepts, and foundational to IDC itself, is an early 19th century British theological view, the “argument from design.”

Despite angry denials from creationist supporters that ID is not the same, and instead ID is a form of scientific research, that’s balderdash. It’s the “wedge” strategy- the ID movement’s published methods for inserting their religious content into the secular world.
Creationist bingo

All they’ve done is use cut-n-paste to replace terms like creationism in their documents with scientific-sounding phrases like “intelligent” design. They haven’t changed the core religious nature of their argument. Common Sense Atheism documents this as a clumsy, but failed attempt to mislead the reader:

…consider how the term “intelligent design” was born. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that “creation science” could not be taught in public schools because it advances a particular religion. That same year, a Creationist textbook called Of Pandas and People had been published using terms like “creationism” over 150 times. But after the defeat of Creationism in court, the editors replaced every instance of “creationism” with “intelligent design” and every instance of “creationists” with “design proponents.” In one case, part of the original term, “creationists,” was left behind by the editing process, rendering “cdesign proponentsists”… That the editors merely replaced “creationism” with the new term “intelligent design” is abundantly obvious when one compares various drafts of Of Pandas and People (originally called Biology and Creation)…

ID supporters universally identify the need for a “designer” as the mechanic behind the curtain, and all say it’s their own particular Christian deity. Wikipedia notes:

Intelligent design (ID) is a form of creationism promulgated by the Discovery Institute, a politically conservative think tank. The Institute defines it as the proposition that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” It is a contemporary adaptation of the traditional teleological argument for the existence of God, presented by its advocates as “an evidence-based scientific theory about life’s origins” rather than “a religious-based idea”. All the leading proponents of intelligent design are associated with the Discovery Institute and believe the designer to be the Christian deity.

A designer, logically, has to be a deity* but why only this particular one? I have yet to run across a single ID proponent who will say that designer is Shiva. Or Kali. Or Moloch. Or Ra. Or Odin. Or Zeus. Why not each one working as a team (because there’s no God in team)? All of the hundreds of other deities (thousands?) in world mythologies and religions are ignored and just one is elected as the only possible designer: the hairy thunderer of the New Testament. Not only are non-Christians excluded from ID, but so are Catholics. Only fundamentalist literalist Christians need apply.

Creationism poster

As Wikipedia also notes:

Scientific acceptance of Intelligent Design would require redefining science to allow supernatural explanations of observed phenomena, an approach its proponents describe as theistic realism or theistic science.

In other words, yes kids, Santa Claus really does put those presents under the Xmas trees of good children every year, millions of them simultaneously, all over the world, delivered from a sleigh that travels faster than light and, while seemingly small, actually has an infinite storage capacity. Never mind those wrapped boxes you found at the back of the closet last week. Those aren’t proof of another, more logical explanation of how the presents arrive. Belief is more important than observation, so don’t question our explanation. We’ll tell you what you need to know.
Creationist continuum
As noted in another article on the NSCE website:

Following creationist tradition, IDC proponents accept natural selection but deny that mutation and natural selection are adequate to explain the evolution of one kind to another, such as chordates from echinoderms or humans and chimps from a common ancestor. The emergence of major anatomical body types and the origin of life, to choose just two examples popular among IDC followers, are phenomena supposedly too complex to be explained naturally; thus, IDC demands that a role be left for the intelligent designer — God.

About.com sums it up very well:

Intelligent Design is, like all other creationist movements, more about politics and religion than about science. Where Intelligent Design differs is that it was originally and deliberately conceived in explicitly political terms whereas earlier creationist movements tended to acquire political goals and principles over time. This is very important to understand because it reveals as false the pretensions of Intelligent Design apologists that they are involved in a scientific enterprise.

The US judicial system recognized the similarity between the two, as well (see this article). Judge Jones noted in the Dover School case:

ID uses the same, or exceedingly similar arguments as were posited in support of creationism. One significant difference is that the words “God,” “creationism,” and “Genesis” have been systematically purged from ID explanations, and replaced by an unnamed “designer.”
Demonstrative charts introduced through Dr. [Barbara] Forrest show parallel arguments relating to the rejection of naturalism, evolution’s threat to culture and society, “abrupt appearance” implying divine creation, the exploitation of the same alleged gaps in the fossil record, the alleged inability of science to explain complex biological information like DNA, as well as the theme that proponents of each version of creationism merely aim to teach a scientific alternative to evolution to show its “strengths and weaknesses,” and to alert students to a supposed “controversy” in the scientific community. In addition, creationists made the same argument that the complexity of the bacterial flagellum supported creationism as Professors Behe and Minnich now make for ID.

ID cartoon
Talkreason.org has many good articles critiquing ID, but this one is particularly good because it deconstructs a description from the “Discovery Institute” (the political and religious organization that developed and promotes ID, and spreads the wedge):

Right away we are told that ID is a program conducted by “scientists, philosophers, and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature.” Basically this is an admission that their program is not about gathering data and allowing the evidence to lead them wherever it may, but rather a mission to find evidence which supports a predetermined conclusion — that being that an intelligent agent created everything. In this way, the ID “researcher” confines himself to analysis of only those findings which he may have use for as a buttress for the conclusion he has already arrived at. It goes without saying that this is not science. To presuppose automatically the existence of a (perhaps supernatural) designer is to preclude real, thoughtful, scientific research in accordance with the scientific method, since science deals only with observable, measurable, phenomena.

You can’t research an act of god. Any god. What happens when you find something you can’t fully explain or understand? IDers would assign it to “the designer” then move on. Scientists would investigate further to try and provide an answer that doesn’t involve a supernatural cause. They would look to see what existing laws, theories or hypotheses are related and whether they apply. They would test, then retest, and test again until something made sense, long after IDers had shrugged their shoulders and given up looking.
ID trial arguments
ID is, like the notion of the flat earth, based not on observation, research and experimentation, but simply on blind faith.
Intelligent geography
Why would ID deserve any more research that, say, phrenology? ID has already decided the answer, so anything scientists find that explains outside that answer will be rejected by the IDers. They already start by rejecting science – evolution, cosmology, biology.
Common Sense Atheism does allow that creationism and ID are, semantically, different terms (although joined at the hip by their theological basis):

Here’s how I like to think of Creationism and Intelligent Design. I tend to use “Creationism” to refer to theories informed by the Bible or Christian (or Muslim) theology. For example, a theory including a 6,000 year old Earth is obviously Creationism.
In contrast, I tend to use “Intelligent Design” to refer to modern attempts at natural theology, which are not dependent on scripture or doctrine. The method of natural theology is to make an inference from observations of public, natural evidence to the existence of some kind of Designer or First Cause. This method does not allow you to assume any properties at all about the Designer that cannot be inferred from the observations of public, natural evidence… Remember, “intelligent design” and “creationism” are just words. They mean whatever we say they mean.

I agree, but I prefer to call it “ID creationism” so that the concept is not mis-identified by those who are not aware of the historical or political origins of the ID movement, and somehow mistakenly think that ID is actually something scientific.It isn’t. It’s claptrap masquerading as an “alternative” to science. Why should we pretend otherwise?

Watch Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial on PBS. See more from NOVA.

~~~~~
* Clearly the whole argument fails if you don’t believe in this or any other deity. If it wasn’t Ganesh who made the world and all the cute bunnies and squirrels, then I ain’t buying it… but you don’t have to be an atheist to believe in evolution: a modest education, and an open mind are all you need.

Maybe some people are just dense…


Not a tin foil hat...Story in today’s Science Daily: Why Some People Don’t Learn Well: EEG Shows Insufficient Processing of Information to Be Learned. While you might initially want to say “because they’re stupid,” (or Republicans), the authors reach a different conclusion. It may be that some people just don’t process information efficiently:

…the main problem is not that learning processes are inefficient per se, but that the brain insufficiently processes the information to be learned.

Which made me think…. it’s like eating. If you don’t chew your food sufficiently, it doesn’t get digested as well. I know a lot of people who don’t chew their data very well and get intellectual gas after every PowerPoint presentation… but perhaps it’s the way that data is presented (infographics and data visualization can really change the way people absorb content). Maybe if we presented the data differently we wouldn’t be subject to so much online wind…

But what about multitasking? Do people who multitask lose the ability to learn because their sensory attention is flitting about all over the place? I multitask all the time. Is it a bad proposition? Does multitasking actually make you stupid? Scary thought. Consider that we all do it – driving is a multitasking experience with several tons of metal at your disposal.

I guess it all depends on your alpha waves. The higher your alpha activity is, the researchers suggest, the better you learn (reminder: find a way to check own alpha wave activity):

A high level of alpha activity counts as a marker of the readiness of the brain to exploit new incoming information. Conversely, a strong decrease of alpha activity during sensory stimulation counts as an indicator that the brain processes stimuli particularly efficiently. The results, therefore, suggest that perception-based learning is highly dependent on how accessible the sensory information is. The alpha activity, as a marker of constantly changing brain states, modulates this accessibility.

So maybe you need to kick yourself under the table while learning in order to digest the intellectual gruel better? Well, not everyone. Some folks just don’t learn very well to start with. It’s genetic:

How well we learn depends on genetic aspects, the individual brain anatomy, and, not least, on attention.

And maybe it’s cultural or social. Are those kids with the TV-fed attention span of a gnat slow learners as a result? And if so, can kicking them under the table help get their flitty little brains into gear? Maybe. Even if it doesn’t I know some parents who will enjoy the kicking anyway. But some of those kids learn very well in other areas (like spatial mapping for first-person shooter games).

In the experiment, patients received mild electrical stimulation for 30 minutes before engaging on a learning experience. Then they were put through the learning gauntlet. It seemed to helped most of them learn better. But the experimenters also found that:

The higher the alpha activity before the passive training, the better the people learned. In addition, the more the alpha activity decreased during passive training, the more easily they learned.

Which suggests to me that the ones already disposed towards learning (alpha highs, better attention span) start with an advantage, and the 30-minute sensory interlude acted like a meditation session; calming and slowing down the alphas and providing focus. Gee, Buddhists have know that for a couple of millenia.

It doesn’t explain, however, why some folks can apply critical thinking (i.e. skepticism, analysis, logic) to what they learn and others are so gullible they consume claptrap like creationism, homeopathy and phrenology without question. All learning is not equal. Like the Kalama Sutra (the Buddhist doctrine on free inquiry) says:

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.

This is the motto of my own life: in essence, question everything. Don’t accept blindly. Don’t believe blindly. I would never have become one of Hoffer’s “true believers.”

Learning (and retaining) also may have something to do with the way we’re taught. According to this post on Psychotactics.com, we only retain a portion of what we learn based on both how it is presented and how it it is used:

To summarize the numbers (which sometimes get cited differently) learners retain approximately:
90% of what they learn when they teach someone else/use immediately.
75% of what they learn when they practice what they learned.
50% of what they learn when engaged in a group discussion.
30% of what they learn when they see a demonstration.
20% of what they learn from audio-visual.
10% of what they learn when they’ve learned from reading.
5% of what they learn when they’ve learned from lecture.

As a voracious reader, I’d have to challenge that statistic, at least from my own experience. I like to think I retain a lot from what I read (mostly nonfiction).

So what do you need to do to retain what you’ve learned? Here’s the author’s advice:

So how do you avoid losing 90% of what you’ve learned?
Well, do what I do. I learn something. I write it down in a mindmap. I talk to my wife or clients about the concept. I write an article about it. I do an audio. And so it goes. A simple concept is never just learned. It needs to be discussed, talked, written, felt etc. (I wrote this article, ten minutes after reading these statistics online).

In other words, share it, debate it, challenge it. Good advice.* That’s often what I do here: I read something, then dissect it as I write about it in this blog. I read my posts to my wife, who then challenges me, corrects me and reinforces me. Or sometimes tells me I’m full of codswallop… but that never stopped me from writing about it.

So now it’s off to eBay to look for an alpha-wave monitor…

~~~~~

* Okay, he also says (read his post for the details):

The next time you pick up a book or watch a video, remember this .
Listening or reading something is just listening or reading.
It’s not real learning.
Real learning comes from making mistakes.
And mistakes come from implementation.
And that’s how you retain 90% of everything you learn.

I would like to debate with him about his conclusions.

Or maybe doomsday just postponed…


A story in Science Daily today talks about the effect that antibiotics used in animals has had on humans. Or rather, on antibiotic-resistant bacteria which are dangerous to humans.

The increasing production and use of antibiotics, about half of which is used in animal production, is mirrored by the growing number of antibiotic resistance genes, or ARGs, effectively reducing antibiotics’ ability to fend off diseases — in animals and humans.

Now this is hardly news. Concerns over unchecked use of antibiotics in farm animals have been raised for decades. The antibiotics have been working their way through the system and back into the environment where they came back to haunt us. As noted in this story,

Waters polluted by the ordure of pigs, poultry, or cattle represent a reservoir of antibiotic resistance genes, both known and potentially novel. These resistance genes can be spread among different bacterial species by bacteriophage, bacteria-infecting viruses, according to a paper in the October Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.
“We found great quantities of bacteriophages carrying different antibiotic resistance genes in waters with fecal pollution from pigs, cattle, and poultry,” says Maite Muniesa of the University of Barcelona, Spain, an author on the study. “We demonstrated that the genes carried by the phages were able to generate resistance to a given antibiotic when introduced into other bacteria in laboratory conditions,” says Muniesa.

The Animal Health Institute assures us antibiotics are necessary to keep us safe:

Because antibiotic resistance is a public health concern, several layers of protection have been put in place to ensure that animal antibiotics do not affect public health.

But our concerns isn’t as great here as it is with one of our primary food suppliers: China. As Science Daily reports:

A study in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that China — the world’s largest producer and consumer of antibiotics — and many other countries don’t monitor the powerful medicine’s usage or impact on the environment.
On Chinese commercial pig farms, researchers found 149 unique ARGs, some at levels 192 to 28,000 times higher than the control samples…

Pretty scary. Environment Canada has commented on how antibiotics and other drugs fed to animals get into the environment:

The primary contaminants associated with manure include nitrate and ammonia, coliform bacteria, phosphorus, endocrine disrupters and other animal pharmaceuticals. Both the land use and waste management practices commonly employed on farms throughout Canada have impaired the quality of water resources on a regional basis (Rudolph et al. 1998). In a recent survey of farm drinking wells in Ontario, approximately one well in three was found to contain at least one contaminant commonly associated with agricultural activities, including nitrate or bacteria…

The risk is that these antibiotic-resistant microbes spread easily and rapidly, sharing their AR genes with other microbes:

Daily exposure to antibiotics, such as those in animal feed, allows microbes carrying ARGs to thrive. In some cases, these antibiotic resistant genes become highly mobile, meaning they can be transferred to other bacteria that can cause illness in humans. This is a big concern because the infections they cause can’t be treated with antibiotics.
ARGs can reach the general population through food crops, drinking water and interactions with farm workers. Because of this undesirable cycle, ARGs pose a potential global risk to human health and should be classified as pollutants, said Tiedje, an MSU AgBioResearch scientist.

The genes concentrate in sewage treatment plants, which become reservoirs of them, says this story:

Water discharged into lakes and rivers from municipal sewage treatment plants may contain significant concentrations of the genes that make bacteria antibiotic-resistant. That’s the conclusion of a new study on a sewage treatment plant on Lake Superior in the Duluth, Minn., harbor that appears in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Timothy M. LaPara and colleagues explain that antibiotic-resistant bacteria — a major problem in medicine today — are abundant in the sewage that enters municipal wastewater treatment plants. Treatment is intended to kill the bacteria, and it removes many of the bacterial genes that cause antibiotic resistance. However, genes or bacteria may be released in effluent from the plant. In an effort to determine the importance of municipal sewage treatment plants as sources of antibiotic resistance genes, the scientists studied releases of those genes at the Duluth facility.

These genes can be transferred to humans and affect our health. A 2010 story in Science Daily noted one growing impact on human health:

Genes that make bacteria resistant to antibiotics can be transferred between humans and other animals, say researchers writing in this month’s issue of the Journal of Medical Microbiology. The findings will help health experts to assess how using antibiotics in food-producing animals can affect the treatment of common human infections.
Scientists from the Carol Yu Centre for Infection at the University of Hong Kong examined Escherichia coli bacteria responsible for causing human urinary tract infections (UTIs) and bacteria in faecal samples from humans and food-producing animals. They found an identical gene for antibiotic resistance was present in all the samples in similar proportions and locations, suggesting that the gene is likely to be transferred between bacteria residing in different hosts.
The gene, called aacC2, encodes resistance to a commonly-used antibiotic gentamicin and was found in approximately 80% of human and animal samples. What is more, this gene was found on sections of DNA that are known to swap between different bacterial populations. Both these factors, combined with the identical gene sequences led the researchers to suggest that aacC2 can transfer between separate populations of bacteria that colonise different species.
E. coli is responsible for 75-95% of human urinary tract infections. Surveys in recent years have shown that antibiotic resistance in this bacterium is increasing, making infections increasingly difficult to treat.

This seems to be a bigger problem for women than for men, according to this 2010 story:

Chicken sold in supermarkets, restaurants and other outlets may place young women at risk of urinary tract infections (UTI), McGill researcher Amee Manges has discovered. Samples taken in the Montreal area between 2005 and 2007, in collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada and the University of Guelph, provide strong new evidence that E. coli (Escherichia coli) bacteria originating from these food sources can cause common urinary tract infections.

As Greatist notes in this piece, the use of antibiotics in livestock is increasing rapidly:

…the use of antibiotics in livestock may be expanding at a greater rate than the meat industry itself. While the American Meat Institute reported a 0.2 percent increase in meat and poultry production in 2011 compared to 2010, antibiotic consumption jumped 2 percent over the same time period — suggesting meat production might be relying more heavily on antibiotics. All told, the livestock industry now uses nearly four-fifths of the antibiotics administered in the U.S.

Pew research graphic

The graphic reveals that human antibiotic use has leveled off at below eight billion pounds a year. Meanwhile, meat and poultry farms have been using up record numbers of the stuff each year — reaching a new high of almost 29.9 billion pounds in 2011.

About 80% of all the antibiotics produced in the USA are being fed to animals.
The widespread antibiotic use isn’t just harming us. It’s harming our entire environment. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are showing up in soil, according to this story:

A team of scientists in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands are reporting disturbing evidence that soil microbes have become progressively more resistant to antibiotics over the last 60 years. Surprisingly, this trend continues despite apparent more stringent rules on use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, and improved sewage treatment technology that broadly improves water quality in surrounding environments.

There is a lot more to write and research here, but I’ll leave this here for now with this quote from a story in The Guardian last fall:

The overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture and medicine is putting human lives at unnecessary risk and driving up medical costs, according to a group of group of 150 scientists that includes a former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)… a growing body of research supported the conclusion that overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is fueling a health crisis. One statement cited a study which estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections cost $20bn annually to hospitals alone.

So doomsday may yet be waiting in the wings… or in the soil, the water, and on our dinner plates.

Doomsday averted (again)


Asteroid 2014 DA14Seventeen thousand miles. Seems like a long way, but it’s less than one tenth the distance from here to the moon, and it’s within the satellite belt. In cosmic terms, it’s frighteningly close. Consider that the Sun is 93 million miles way, and it affects everything on this planet.*

It’s still a miss, though. Asteroid DA14 will race by Earth at 27,700 kPH, February 15. But it won’t hit us. Whew.

You might be able to see it, if you know where to look. You’ll have to be fast, though – it will move VERY quickly across the sky. And you’ll need at least binoculars – even at 13 storeys tall, it won’t be visible to the naked eye.

Wikipedia tells us this chunk of rock called 2012 DA14 is

…a near-Earth asteroid with an estimated diameter of about 45 meters (148 ft) and an estimated mass of about 130,000 metric tons

Some sites say it is 62m wide, but it probably is irregular in size, thus the difference. Even so, 45m is BIG if it hits us; big enough to wipe out a small city. The 1908 Tunguska event was caused by an object also less than 100m and it levelled several hundred square miles of forest. Were it to enter the atmosphere, it could also become an aerial blast like Tungsuka.

Space.com notes:

Asteroid 2012 DA14’s close encounter is also a record-breaking celestial event… An object this large only passes this close to the Earth about once every 40 years, and likely only hits the planet once every 1,200 years…The asteroid will not only pass between Earth and the moon’s orbit, but also fly lower than the ring of geosynchronous communications, weather and navigation satellites that fly high above the planet. Asteroid 2012 DA14 will be 5,000 miles (8,046 km) closer to Earth than those satellites during the flyby.

Pretty close. But a long way from the ISS, which orbits between 330 and 410 kms above the surface.

Read about what an asteroid is here – you’ll also get an interesting comment on challenges to some cosmological ideas about how these bodies formed. If you haven’t been following the recent announcements, several companies have declared their interest in mining these asteroids. The Edmonton Journal noted earlier this month:

It may sound more like science fiction than imminent reality, but two U.S. companies have been outlining plans to harvest asteroids for mineral wealth in what they hope will be a 21st century equivalent of gold and oil rushes.
They intend to deploy small satellites to prospect asteroids, then effectively lasso them, transporting them into Earth’s orbit to harvest precious metals and liquids.
The newest entrant to the fast-developing asteroid mining world is Deep Space Industries, which has just unveiled ambitious plans to send prospecting spacecraft in two years’ time and begin extraction by 2020.
“It is exciting to be present at the beginning of the second space age, led by commercial businesses,” David Gump, Deep Space’s chief executive, told The Sunday Telegraph.

Anyway, it’s not the apocalypse, Friday, but it is an exciting moment for science and might be a seminal moment for space commerce.

~~~~~

 

* It isn’t a UFO from your favourite imaginary planet, sorry to spoil that for you. It’s a lifeless chunk of rock. Get over it.

Sound and fury, signifying nothing


Creationists, not local bloggers...There’s a truly great moment in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, when Macbeth voices his last, and perhaps most moving, soliloquy about the fleetingness of life, and the meaning of what we do on this mortal coil. Life is devoid of meaning, he says, and our days are as short as a candle’f brief flame. The ignorant march onward, regardless:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. What does that remind you of? (And I don’t mean in the local blogosphere. I’m talking about the real world.*)

It makes me think of the ongoing attempts by a group of right-wing, anti-science fundamentalists to force the teaching of mythology and superstition in US public schools instead of scientific fact. And, of course, they are always Republicans (what is it with them and creationism?) voicing that idiot’s tale.

Recently, Huffington Post reported on an attempt to both pave the way for creationism in public schools, and deny climate change science (taking responsibility for human activity’s impact on the planet is verboten among Republicans):

A Republican bill that would have paved the way for creationism to be taught in Colorado schools as well as encouraged teachers to deny the science of climate change was killed in committee on Monday, as expected.

What I have always found ironic is that the Republican fundamentalist views are eerily (and frighteningly) similar to the Taliban’s, just with a change in name for the particular Hairy Thunderer they worship. In fact, creationism is rearing its ugly head in even moderate Muslim countries like Turkey with similar arguments.

The Huffpost goes on to note that this has been a bad year for critical thinking in the USA:

…creationism legislation has been on the rise nationally in the last year, with Tennessee passing a bill similar to Kruse’s proposal, and several other states also proposing (though failing to pass) bills to teach creationism. Louisiana passed a “truth in education” bill in 2008. Earlier this year, former New Hampshire state Rep. Jerry Bergevin (R-Manchester) suggested that the teaching of evolution led to the Columbine massacre and the rise of the Nazi Party. Bergevin left office Wednesday after losing a bid for a second term. New Hampshire lawmakers overrode Gov. John Lynch’s (D) veto earlier this year of a bill that would allow parents to object to any part of the school curriculum and allow the teaching of an alternate curriculum.
A recent report found that students in Texas’ public schools are still learning that the Bible provides scientific evidence that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that astronauts have discovered “a day missing in space in elapsed time” that affirms biblical stories of the sun standing still and moving backwards, and that the United States was founded as a Christian nation based on biblical Christian principles.

So much codswallop in so few lines. Obviously Texas teachers use a different definition for “scientific evidence” than the rest of their nation. In fact, it’s different from the rest of the world. But it’s not surprising:

…according to a 2012 Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans believe God created humans within the last 10,000 years. Only 15 percent of Americans believed God played no part in human evolution while 32 percent believed that humans had evolved, but that God played a part in that process.

So who is the chair of the Texas Board of Ed? A creationist who worries that the schools aren’t forcing more claptrap down the throats of students. The Dallas Observer ran a story with the headline, The Texas Board of Ed Chair is Upset Schools Aren’t Teaching Evolution “Alternatives”. The article included this quote from the chair, Barbara Cargill, (a Republican, of course) made to a Senate Education Committee:

“Our intent, as far as theories with the [curriculum standards], was to teach all sides of scientific explanations … But when I went on [to the CSCOPE website] last night, I couldn’t see anything that might be seen as another side to the theory of evolution,” she says, according to TFN’s transcript and brief video clip. “Every link, every lesson, every everything, you know, was taught as ‘this is how the origin of life happened, this is what the fossil record proves,’ and all that’s fine, but that’s only one side.”

Duh! There is no other scientific explanation to evolution. Just like there isn’t a scientific alternative for gravity, the speed of light, relativity, quantum physics and chaos theory. One side? You can’t have two sides of fact. Creationism isn’t a theory: it’s a fairy tale, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

In modern science, the term “theory” refers to scientific theories, a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science. Such theories are described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support (“verify”) or empirically contradict (“falsify”) it. Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge, in contrast to more common uses of the word “theory” that imply that something is unproven or speculative (which is better defined by the word ‘hypothesis’). Scientific theories are also distinguished from hypotheses, which are individual empirically testable conjectures, and scientific laws, which are descriptive accounts of how nature will behave under certain conditions.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, according to the Washington Monthly, another republican is trying to foist fantasy on students from elementary to college level. In the Riverfront Times, it notes:

Missouri Representative Rick Brattin, a Republican, has introduced a bill that would mandate schools across the state give “equal treatment” to the theory of evolution and so-called “intelligent design,” which is similar to creationism. Why? “I’m a science enthusiast,” he tells Daily RFT. “I’m a huge science buff.” He’s not, however, much of a Darwin fan.

He’s a fan of science, but not the scientists? He’s so much a science fan that he rejects one of the core tenets of biology in favour of the superstitious, pseudoscience twaddle called “intelligent” design.**

Brattin tells the paper he’s not just another creationist (really!) trying to force the state to teach his religious claptrap:

But his bill has nothing to do with religion, Brattin says. In fact — it is the opponents who are being religious in their stubborn support of evolution.

Nothing to do with religion? Snort. And calling scientists and teachers who support evolution as being “religious” is a canard. Or rather, a logical fallacy.

The good news in this depressing tale of medieval thinking comes in a small story in the Vail Daily, that noted,

Young adults have taken a dramatic leap from faith. These youthful Americans reject the religious right’s bossy, sanctimonious spirit.

Like Pontius Pilate, a third of adults under 30 have washed their hands evangelical politics.

They avoid religious affiliation whatsoever, reports the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life. Pew polls indicate these religiously unaffiliated “overwhelmingly think the religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”

The religious right’s political power peaked in the 2004 presidential election.

I don’t agree with that last sentence. I seen little proof that the fundamentalists – the American Taliban – have receded. The last Back in 2002, Slate predicted the “end of creationism” as a political force:

Intelligent design, as defined by its advocates, means nothing. This is the way creationism ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Hasn’t happened yet. I see the GOP pushing more mindless religious ideologues like Paul Broun into the spotlight to spout their own ridiculously embarrassing sound and fury:

During the 2012 campaign, Broun was most notable in a video segment that went viral when he gave a presentation in front of a wall mounted with a dozen deer heads and complained that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory were all “lies from the pit of hell.” Broun is on the House Committee of Science, Space and Technology.

As of Feb. 1, four US states were considering anti-science bills to force teaching creationism in their schools (Colorado’s bill was subsequently defeated, as noted above). But the real keynote in the story is towards the end:

A June 2012 Gallup poll asked some 1,000 Americans nationwide about their thoughts on the origin of human life. The survey revealed that 46 percent of Americans believe God created human beings. Numerous creation science advocates continue to hope that the Intelligent Design theory will make its way into US public schools, though they have not been very successful so far.

With such a high percentage of people who believe in pseudoscience rather than science, it will be difficult to change the current trend towards increasing the mass stupidity. Americans clearly don’t wish to be the pioneers of science, space exploration and medicine in the future.

I think we’ve still got a long way to go before we see the end of this particular idiot’s tale. I see little to hope for in American politics when wingnuts like the anti-science child of privilege, Paul Ryan, gets nominated for vice president. Maybe the new generation of American voters will change that, but I won’t hold my breath waiting.

~~~~~

* Okay, creationists are delusional and don’t really partake in the real world any more than some local bloggers. But they act on a larger stage and have real influence. Creationists join their NRA-gun-toting wingnuts as foolosophers (my comment on the fools of the gun debate is here).

** “Intelligent” design isn’t. It’s lipstick on the creationist pig (or more properly, a lab coat…). But like wearing a stethoscope around your neck won’t make anyone a doctor, calling superstition “science” won’t make it so, either.

Doonesbury cartoon