Thursday, September 27, 2007

Variation Under Domestication

From having gone back and read my entry on the beginning of The Origin of Species, I appear to be writing a high-school book report. I don't know if that's the flavor that I'm looking for, so this time, I'll see if I can't come up with something a little more engaging.

In reading the first Chapter of Origin of Species, Variation Under Domestication, I found myself stopping and re-reading sections of the text over and over. This was due to several factors acting in concert. Among them is the slightly archaic language that is being used. Shakespeare it isn't, but it's certainly not the way in which modern writers communicate, and this is the only text from this particular time period that I've actually read, and Darwin is English, rather than American.

But the most interesting part of the book thus far has been Darwin's tendency to speculate. In a day and age in which DNA and genetics are commonplace, it's sometimes jarring to realize that people in Darwin's time weren't aware of this, leaving him ignorant of things that any modern high-school biology student would be able to tell you. (I expect that Mr. Darwin would be a holy terror in the present time, running around gathering DNA samples from anything that would stand still long enough.) The science of biology has advanced a lot in the approximately 150 years since the Sixth Edition of The Origin of Species was published, and I find myself having to remind myself that while Darwin was clearly a very smart and observant man, he wasn't a stand-in for Nostradamus, and couldn't see into the future. Therefore, my unconscious expectation that Darwin will always prove more knowledgeable about this subject than I am is very much misplaced. In fact, it's easy to forget that I'm reading this to understand Darwin and his book (and the contexts around them), not the theory of Evolution itself, which has progressed far beyond Darwin's original ideas.

An entire section of the chapter is devoted to pigeons, as Mr. Darwin had spent some time keeping and breeding them. An interesting tidbit that can be gleaned from this section is that the world is still crawling with Englishmen - Darwin's countrymen in India and Persia favoring him with bird pelts from those lands. Again, it's only to be expected, but I suspect that at some point in the future, people would find it strange to recall the presence of large numbers of American soldiers in Japan and Germany, regardless of whether or not their history books informed them that these places were once occupied, and then home to military bases. Darwin goes into a good amount of detail about the differences between the various breeds of domesticated pigeons, with which I was completely unacquainted. I had heard of carrier pigeons, but that was about it. Short-faced tumblers were something completely beyond my knowledge.

There is an interesting point raised in the overall discussion of pigeons - namely that many pigeon breeders would not begin to credit the idea that all of the various breeds of birds could have had a single common ancestor species, sometime in the distant past. I suppose its the same thing with modern dogs. One doesn't look at a toy breed, like a Bichon Frisé, and a massive working dog, like a Great Dane, and immediately come to the conclusion that both of these animals share a common parent. Darwin takes on a chiding tone here - if naturalists are willing to credit disparate breeds of animals as having a common parent species, animal breeders shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the idea, he says.

This caution is especially interesting in light of the fact that the next section of the chapter deals with mankind's efforts to alter the characteristics of animals through selective breeding. Good breeders have an almost magical ability to effect changes in successive generations of animals, and Darwin holds their abilities in very high regard. Darwin concludes the first chapter by discussing the ways in which people both purposefully and accidentally enhance or degrade certain characteristics of animals, and the particular circumstances that make it easier to do so. The next chapter deals with Variation Under Nature.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Thanks For Playing!

So, a few days ago, I noted that the Barack Obama campaign had established a presence on LinkedIn, and was using the Answers feature of the site as means of reaching out to people. I read the question they posed, and submitted an answer. Well, lo and behold, they replied. It was basically a form letter with my name at the top - there was nothing in the response that indicated that they'd read my answer, and it was signed by a pair of campaign staffers, but it was more than I was expecting to see. But there's still no spark, no connection. Okay, so they sent out a nice little form letter - I suspect that everyone got one. (Makes sense, no?) I'd be interested to see if any of the material from the answers pops up in campaign speeches down the road (but that would require me to read all of the answers, and know which points weren't already on the campaign's radar), but I don't feel any closer to the campaign, or (perhaps more importantly) any more inclined to write a check or to vote for him, than I did the day before the question appeared.

America In Blue

Uncle Sam is a two-part graphic novel that I discovered back in the nineties, when I first became enamored of all things Alex Ross. His incredible artwork had burst onto the scene, out of nowhere, and many comics lovers couldn't get enough of him. With this book, he turned his incredible paintings away from superheroics and towards a politicized history of the United States of America. The artwork is really something else, and if you've never seen his work, you may want to look it up. After the artwork, its best feature is that its a remarkably digestible introduction to the American brand of Liberalism, the sort that styles itself as Progressive.

Like most things, it is not perfect. Depending on your point of view, the number and severity of flaws varies wildly, but never truly drops to zero on either axis. But its single greatest flaw is not actually with the work itself, but the context in which it resides. It is, quite simply, a single work, and suffers for want of companionship. Uncle Sam is not a neutral and unbiased view of American history and the place of the United States in the world. It paints a somewhat dystopian vision of the United States, showing a myopic and self-righteous nation, blindfolded to the lessons of history by arrogance, stupidity and a shadowy malignancy. There are no solutions, only a vague hope in a Liberal dawn that will somehow show Americans the way forward, to an ideal that has so far been paid lip service, but never realized.

As a lesson, of both history and morals, it falls short. While not strictly revisionist, it is very selective. (To a certain degree, this is to be expected. After all, you can't exhaustively cover two hundred years of history in a little more than one hundred pages. But the events selected were clearly chosen with a partisan agenda in mind.) Its one-sided and self-reinforcing message does little to enlighten the serious student, and the lack of context (quotes are not footnoted) makes follow-up research more difficult than it needs to be. The stereotypical Conservative reader may be expected to see a cherry-picking of American history, selected anecdotes designed to demonstrate the need for a Liberal takeover of Government for the Good of the Masses. The Jingoist can be predicted to see an unwarranted criticism of American institutions and the public that borders on the treasonous. But as a political lesson, it's excellent, and that's where the lack of a Rightist companion volume is the most glaring. If you knew nothing of American politics before reading this, you'd have, in a nutshell, the basics of American Liberal/Progressive thought, and their case for a protective, nurturing Statism - the main function of which would be to basically ensure the flowering of a Socially Just Republic, with Liberty and Justice for All, ensured by a benevolent government.

It's an assumption that's unlikely to ever be borne out by the reality of the situation, were it actually to come to pass, but that's what ideals are all about, no? Which is why a Conservative volume would be welcome. Not as an answer, but as a compliment. The flip side of the coin, that presents the opposite ideal, and the selective vision of history that supports it. I've asked around, in comic-book circles, if such a volume exists, but have yet to find one. I'm hoping that someone gets around to one.

Monday, September 24, 2007

In the Beginning...

This is the first installment of The Origin of Species weblog. I'm using the English sixth edition, originally published in 1859. Presumably, this is the final edition, but I don't know the publication history, so there may be later ones.

The book opens with an explanation of the various English and other language editions, and a listing of the changes that were made since the fifth edition.

But The Origin of Species really starts with a Historical Sketch. At the time Darwin is writing, scientific thought is changing, and the time when "[...] the great majority of naturalists believed that species were immutable productions, and had been separately created" is coming to an end. It's useful to remember that The Origin of Species is a refinement of ideas that already existed, and not an invention, and the Historical Sketch presents 34 different authors "[...] who believe in the modification of species, or at least disbelieve in separate acts of creation [...]." Here I came to an unanticipated problem. Mr. Darwin reads French, and clearly expects his audience to do so, as well. While German authors, such as one Dr. Schaaffhuasen, are quoted in English, French authors are quoted in their native tongue, which I do not read. (It's entirely possible to transcribe the passages into Babelfish or some other translator; and if there comes a point where a passage that is crucial to understanding the text is rendered in French, that is exactly what I will do.) In any event, Darwin spends a little over a dozen pages laying out for the reader about six decades of scholarly thought as concerns the descent and modification of species, leading right up to what was then the present time, and so there are authors on his list whose work is contemporaneous with earlier editions of The Origin of Species. By the end of this, it's pretty clear that naturalism and zoology are beginning to embrace the idea that animals and plants change over time, and that if if Darwin hadn't risen to prominence with his ideas, someone else would have.

Following the Historical Sketch is the Introduction, another short section of the volume, wherein Darwin explains some of the history behind his conclusions, and the decision to publish his work. He describes The Origin of Species as an Abstract, defined in Merriam-Webster Online as, in part: "something that summarizes or concentrates the essentials of a larger thing or several things." Darwin expresses a desire to publish all of his manuscripts, realizing that the facts that he puts forth can be used to support "[...] conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived."

"A fair result," he goes on to say, "can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this is here impossible." (It may be worth noting at this point that The Origin of Species is over six hundred and fifty pages long. I doubt that I have the endurance to read the sort of exhaustive treatment of the subject that Darwin might have had in mind.)

It is not enough, Darwin tells us, to understand that species have descended from other species, rather than being independently created. It is also important to understand HOW the many species of living things were modified. It is clear to him that not all such changes in species can be explained by external factors such as climate or diet, and that factors such as habit or the volition of the lifeform itself aren't even worth considering. Understanding that the variations in domesticated animals could be of great help in understanding the variation in wild animals, Darwin tells us that the first chapter of the book is devoted to the study of Variation under Domestication. From there, he proceeds to give short descriptions of the topics and subjects of the following chapters.

The Introduction ends with an admission that human knowledge of the details surrounding many plants and animals is likely to be incomplete for some time into the future, if not perpetuity. Darwin tells us that he now rejects what he, and many other naturalists once held to be fact - that species were both independently created and immutable. Instead, species descended from other species and varieties share a single parent species. Natural Selection is simply the most important of the various means of modification that ave brought this about. With Chapter One, he will start making this case.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Terror Quotes

"MIT coed with fake bomb 'art' arrested


BOSTON -- Troopers arrested an MIT student at gunpoint Friday after she walked into Logan International Airport wearing a computer circuit board and wiring on her sweatshirt. Authorities call it a fake bomb; she called it art."
It appears that someone at the Associated Press also calls it a fake bomb. The scare quotes imply that the headline writer agrees with the authorities, and doubts that the breadboard and LED setup that Star Simpson was wearing was intended for what she claims it was; namely a way to stand out from the crowd during career day. With any high-profile case, such as this one, the Court of Public Opinion is going to render a verdict; likely before the criminal justice system gets around to it. But the media shouldn't be acting as a witness for the prosecution. The use of scare quotes is completely inappropriate here, in no small part because the words fake bomb are left unquoted. If you've seen a picture of the item in question, it doesn't really look much like an explosive device, although I can understand how it might be mistaken for one. Personally, I find calling it a fake bomb much more of a stretch than calling it artistic. Mainly because, especially in the context of a hoax, a fake is designed to fool people into thinking that it is something that it isn't. I have serious doubts that someone smart enough to get into MIT couldn't come up with a more immediately convincing simulacrum of an explosive device. (Good Morning America seemed to agree. Their crawl this morning stated that Simpson was wearing a "fake explosives belt under her clothing," which pointed to a much more deliberate act of hoaxing.)

At the bottom of it all appears to be an unwillingness on the part of the authorities to simply lay it on the line and say that they're adopting a stance that tolerates numerous false positives, even flimsy ones, rather than risk any false negatives. It's a trade-off, and it's not necessarily an illegitimate trade-off at that. But false positives create an impression of incompetence that the authorities are keen to avoid - mainly because it undermines their authority. So what we end up with are dubious claims of hoaxes and muttered implications of bad faith on the part of the people detained. It's disingenuous, and unnecessary. And the tendency of the media establishment to subtly go along with them doesn't serve the interests of the public. And encouraging the public to prejudge events through leading headlines doesn't help matters.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


A lot has been made of a University of Florida student who police stunned with a Taser when he started grandstanding at a John Kerry town hall meeting. The 64 million dollar question has been: "Were Andrew Meyer's free speech rights trampled by jackbooted government goons?"

I've come to the conclusion that maybe a different question should be front and center: "Why is it that free speech issues only come up when someone's perceived as being critical of someone in government?" Had Meyer been pestering Bruce Boxleitner at Comicon or something, this would have "simply" been an issue of the police over-reacting. And it should still be that here.

And why not call a spade a spade? Six police officers and a stun gun is a little much to deal with one college student - especially one as scrawny as Meyer. Unless he was packing some Underdog Super Energy Pills somewhere, they shouldn't have needed a whole squad of people to handle him. Treat this as you would any other over-the-top police response to a minor incident. If you're of the opinion that this method wouldn't put a stop to such episodes, then that's a problem all it's own. A sanction that doesn't have any demonstrable deterrent power is basically a waste of everyone's time.

Part of the issue is the pervasive opinion that "the government" acts secretly, and in bad faith. So no-one is ever "officially" arrested or hassled for saying things that the government doesn't like. Instead, they're charged with trespassing, disturbing the peace, or unlawful use of a cucumber. They may or may not be beaten up or zapped during apprehension, depending on the zeal of the chosen goon squad, just who they were dumb enough to make angry at them and how good an example they'll make. So the response is always to the perceived attack on criticism. But maybe a more WYSIWYG approach to these sorts of events will do a better job of limiting their occurrence.

The Generation Trap

A Washington couple had two vehicles that they own seized by the local Regional Drug Task Force, after their then 24 year-old son was arrested four times in as many months with drugs and money in his possession. The couple appealed the forfeiture of their cars, to the county Superior Court, and lost, and then went on to the Washington State Court of Appeals, where they lost again. News stories are normally designed to be brief, and the Seattle Times piece was no exception. Not feeling that I understood enough about what was being decided to have an intelligent understanding of the case, I hopped over to the court's website, and looked up the actual opinion.

The lawyer for the parents, in typical fashion, makes the loss out to be a government-demanded erosion of the privacy rights of children. "[... I]f you have a son or daughter that you suspect may be involved in drugs, you better start snooping around and following them around. If you let them drive your car, you may very well lose your car." In practice, as is usually the case, the situation is not quite that dire, but it does put people in an uncomfortable position, as they can't afford to give their loved ones the benefit of the doubt, once their suspicions are aroused. While they are not obligated to jump to the conclusion that their children are guilty right off the bat, they are (in effect) required to conduct "an inquiry a reasonable person would have conducted under the circumstances," which doesn't leave much room for parental sentiment. I expect that it's difficult for many parents to reach a point of reasonable certainty one way or another, completely unclouded by a desire to have their children be innocent of wrongdoing.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Size Matters

When you see the wind turbines, off in the distance, gently spinning in the wind, you realize: Wow. Those things are big.

When you're next to a tractor-trailer, hauling fan blades, and you see, up close, how massive they really are, you realize: Damn. Those things are humongous.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ask the Voters

Yesterday, "Senator Barack Obama" asked the members of a question: "How can the next president better help small business and entrepreneurs thrive?" (I put the Senator's name in quotes because you know and I know, that more than likely, it was one of Senator Obama's aides, rather than the Senator himself, who posed the question, and that it will aides and campaign staffers who read the answers - if anyone reads them at all.)

The question has generated a lot of buzz. For a while, there were more than 100 new answers every hour, and as of now, more than 1,400 people have weighed in. Many of them, it seems, are free-marketeers - reducing the taxes that small businesses have to pay, relaxing or eliminating regulations, and exempting them from family leave and other employee-support programs were common responses. There are other ideas, just enough to make you wonder why you don't see more of them.

Senator Obama's campaign seems to be the only one with a real presence on LinkedIn. There are a couple of other current presidential candidates who have public profiles I was able to find (Dennis Kucinich and Mike Huckabee), but most are absent, keeping their profiles private, or otherwise can't be located. But, this being politics, the other candidates are certainly watching this, and if Senator Obama is able to use LinkedIn to build a network of potential voters (and perhaps more importantly, potential donors), other campaigns will move to establish a presence there. But I would be surprised if at least one of the leading Republican candidates doesn't show up in the next several weeks to few months. As noted, many of the people who answered the Senator's question seemed to be right-leaning in their politics (one even called for an end to abortions in his answer), so I'd expect that the GOP would see LinkedIn's membership as trending more their way, and would want to make contact.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Origin of Species

By Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle For Life. By Charles Darwin, M.A., LL.D., F.R.S.

Blogging the Bible on Slate was a brilliant idea, and one worth repeating. So I decided to take a crack at Darwin's The Origin of Species. At the bottom of it all, the reason is the Culture Wars. I've wandered into way more than my share of in-person and online conversations where Darwin specifically is the topic of discussion. My favorite is when a bank teller claimed that Darwin said his ideas depended on no form of life smaller than a single cell existing, so the discovery of bacteria and viruses invalidates his ideas about Evolution.

But in every conversation everyone involved admitted to never having seen page 1. All of their information was second-hand. So, I'm going to correct that, at least from my own standpoint. Starting in a couple of weeks, I'm going to go all the way through The Origin of Species, cover to cover. (And, of course, weblog about it.) Let's see what we learn...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


"No one wants to call [Petraeus] a liar on national TV," noted one Democratic senator, who spoke on the condition on anonymity. "The expectation is that the outside groups will do this for us."

(This is a great D.C. Profile in Courage moment: An anonymous senator, quoted about a supposedly "independent" outside groups that will have to deliver tough shots that Democrats won't take publicly about an increasingly unpopular war.)

David Postman. "Postman on Politics: Is this David Petreaus' war?" The Seattle Times, 10 September 2007
Being something of a cynic, and a tired one at that, I commonly chalk up the lack of political backbone in the United States not the fact that everyone in government is a member of the club, but to the fact that we as the public don't reward honesty and candor, even when we say the stakes are high. If Mister Postman's anonymous Senator thought that calling Petraeus "a liar on national TV" would help him in the polls, you couldn't have stopped him with wild horses - at least, so goes my reasoning. But I think that honesty and candor are laudable traits and should be rewarded - so why don't I write letters to legislators, praising them when they do well, and castigating them when they do poorly? Or just to let them know what I, as a constituent and a voter, expect them to do for me this week? Of course, I realize that my writing a letter isn't going to change anything. But ten thousand, or a hundred thousand, or a million letters probably would.

It's because I allowed myself to think of myself as being the only voice in the wilderness, rather than potentially being the straw that broke the camel's back. If there is going to be a revolution within politics, we're going to have to drive it, from the bottom up, and that means participation - not because we think that we're going to do something as individuals, but because we're tired of being one of the people that allowed the triumph of evil through our own inaction. Politicians aren't hatched from eggs - they're members of the public, like us. So political courage must come FROM us, and not be something that we expect someone to exhibit FOR us.

419 Forever

Dear Aaron,

My name is Barr, Muhammad Jeffery Charles, I am a legal practitioner with Wong Tong Law Firm in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I saw your contact and profile i decided that you could cooperate with me in this proposition.I have a client who was deceased in March 12, 2004, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.I am contacting you because you have the same surname as my deceased client and i felt that you could help me in the distribution of funding that were left in my deceased client's bank account.

This funds is closed to be declared UN-serviceable by the bank as there were no indicated next of kin or next of beneficiary of the funding in the bank account.

The bank had issued to me a notification to contact the next of kin of my deceased client for either to re-activate the bank account or to make claim of beneficiary of the funding in the bank account, with a month surcharge of 6% to be deducted as an Escrow safe keeping fee of the bank account,so as to avoid the indefinite closure of the bank account.

My proposition to you is to seek your consent, and to present your kind self as the next-of-kin and beneficiary of my deceased client, since you have the same last name with him.

This means that the proceeds of his bank account would be paid to you as his next of kin or the legitimate beneficiary. When the proceeds in his bank account are paid to you, we would share the proceeds on a mutually agreed-upon percentage of 60% to me and 40% to your kind self.

All the legal documents to back up your claim as my client's next-of-kin would be provided by me. The most important thing I would need is your honest cooperation in this proposition.This would be done under a legitimate arrangement that would protect you from any breach of the law.

If this business proposition offends your moral and ethic values, do accept my sincere apology. Please contact me at once if you are interested by replying the mail and ignore it if you are not.

Best regards,

Muhammad Jeffery Charles Esq.

Wow. This made my day on SO many levels. I know that I've made this point before, so I'm not going to harp on it again now, but do these guys REALLY expect to find someone so dim as to fall for this?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

That's Strange?

While it's not Earth-shattering news, the story of Jane Balogh and her dog, Duncan M. McDonald has been floating around here for a few months now. A little over a year ago, Balogh registered the dog to vote in the state of Washington "by putting her telephone bill in the dog's name and using that as identification when she mailed the form to election officials." Her point was that she believed that recent changes to voting laws made it much easier than it should have been for people to register to vote, as one needed no proof whatsoever that one was actually eligible to vote. And with most of Washington turning to an exclusively vote-by-mail system, you don't have to actually go to a polling place and show any other identification. In Ms. Balogh's opinion, it's a system that's just asking for voter fraud. (I'm not sure that I disagree with her on this point.) So she set out to demonstrate to elections officials just how easy it was. Ms. Balogh never actually committed voter fraud - she voided out the ballots that had been sent to her dog, signing them with Duncan's paw print, and she readily fessed up when elections officials called to inquire. She pled "Not Guilty" to a charge of "Making a False or Misleading Statement to a Public Servant," a charge that many felt was designed to make an example of someone who'd so easily embarrassed an elections system that's already been under fire for years, and the charges are being dropped in return for 10 hours of community service, a $250.00 fine (Wanna bet that there are people volunteering to pay it for her?), and staying out of trouble with the law for a year. Case closed. Now the local media aren't the only ones who picked up the story. The Associated Press wrote a piece on it for distribution, which was reprinted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. (Aside: Why does the P-I run the AP versions of local stories that they've already reported, sometimes quite extensively?) It was listed in the "mypi" bar in the "ap: odd news" section, and its URL is: ""

Okay. So... why is this odd? This doesn't strike me as being one of the "wacky and offbeat" stories that you'd expect to be labeled as "Odd." I've never understood how this determination is made, and I've come to believe that it sometimes trivializes important stories. Ms. Balogh set out to prove that the only thing that prevents illegal voter registration is personal honesty - and as far as I'm concerned, she's done that. That seems a little more serious than women mowing laws in bikinis, or a retiree squabbling with a subdivision over the fake palm trees in his backyard.

I'm also somewhat impressed that we haven't seen some sort of organized, high-profile Republican or otherwise conservative push to make changes. After all, the political Right has been raising Cain over voter fraud up one side and down the other, to the point that many have speculated that the scandal over the firing of United States Attorneys was predicated on failures to more aggressively pursue alleged Democratic cheating. But when a clear example of a sloppily written registration law practically falls into their laps out of a clear blue sky, nothing...

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Can I Get a Do-Over?

If there is anything else as reliable as death and taxes, it's that politics is strange. Senator Larry Craig (R - Idaho) seems to be trying to pull out of his nose dive before impact, and is now hinting that he might undo his announced resignation from the Senate, and fight to overturn his guilty plea to a disorderly conduct charge in Minnesota. Given my understanding of this hullabaloo, there's the idea in the public that Senator Craig's actions up until this point indicate that he could very well be a closet homosexual. Therefore there could be some value in seeking to shed that label by fighting, either until victory, or until the bitter end. Personally, I don't think that it will work. It's going to take a lot more than that (say, divine intervention) to get people to give up that idea - in large part because so many people want to believe it - and one would think that someone with the savvy to be elected to the United States Senate would be bright enough to understand that. Senator Arlen Specter's (R - Pennsylvania) comments notwithstanding, it's unlikely that at this point even an acquittal in a jury trail would "exonerate" Senator Craig. After all, remember how well that worked for O. J. Simpson. The legal system can say whatever it wants, but the Court of Public Opinion has already handed down a verdict, and the best that Senator Craig can really hope for is to have been considered to have "beaten the rap." Which, of course, won't do much to placate Senate Republicans, who are trying desperately to burnish their collective reputation as the 2008 election cycle grinds on.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Killer Kernels

Just in case you were inclined to forget that anything that actually tastes good is bad for you (when eaten by the double-handsful), it looks like researchers in Denver may have found a man who may have damaged his lungs from being: "a heavy, daily consumer of butter-flavored microwave popcorn."

In other news, several Denver residents were trampled to death by personal-injury lawyers beating a path to the researchers' door.