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Amused Muse

Inspiring dissent and debate and the love of dissonance

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Location: Surreality, Have Fun Will Travel, Past Midnight before a Workday

Master's Degree holder, telecommuting from the hot tub, proud Darwinian Dawkobot, and pirate librarian belly-dancer bohemian secret agent scribe on a mission to rescue bloggers from the wholesome clutches of the pious backstabbing girl fridays of the world.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Here's to Pluto!

UPDATED: Every amateur astronomer needs a good binocular, and here is a resource for good quality binocs at or under $100.

Also, Bill sent me a link to a very nice image of Albireo.
Dear Pluto--you "dwarf" all those gasbag planets in your quiet way. Here's to the warmest iceball in the solar system!

I went to the Wake for Pluto tonight at Joe's Garage, wrote a eulogy to Pluto (above), and hooked up with volunteers with the Minnesota Astronomical Society. No, we didn't look at Pluto through the telescope--I knew that the newly-declared dwarf would be in the wrong place in the sky, and it actually ended up being behind a brick wall--but we did see the binary star system Albireo, which is in the constellation Cygnus, and is quite pretty.

(Telescope operator to me: "Isn't that pretty?" Kristine: "Yes, but with one being blue and one yellow, wouldn't that make one a blue giant and the other a main sequence star, meaning that since the blue one looks smaller, it's actually much farther away than..." Jesus, shut up, Kristine, shut up! Look at the pretty stars and quit showing off!) ;-)

We also saw the Ring Nebula, one of my favorites and a real beauty, although through the scope it looked like a faint ball of cotton, as well as the star cluster M13 (a brighter ball of cotton). Even though they of course don't resemble the photographs in Astronomy magazine I was quite excited to see these objects "in person." (In 1986, Halley's Comet did not make a spectacular appearance, but I got to take my grandmother, who had seen the comet in 1910, to the observatory, and she was interviewed on the news! Seeing the real thing is the best experience.)

I also met Parke Kunkle and several volunteers with the Society, who promptly offered me rides to star parties and opportunities for more viewing in the city. Uh-oh, looks like I'm hooked. I'm reading Dawkins, hanging around archaeological sites, taking rocks home in my pockets once again, and now getting back into amateur observing. Yes, if I had pursued science as a career, how could I have possibly chosen between all the fields that interest me? (I probably would have ended up in some lab, brooding, and thinking, I should have become a belly dancer...)

Here's the full list of Messier Objects here. Oooh! Pretty!

Oh, yeah--there really weren't any costumes.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Extended Phenotype - Constraints on "Perfection"

Now comes the pleasurable cramming of fun-reading before the true cramming once school starts. I'm happy to say that, after initially requiring a steep learning hike, Richard Dawkins' prose has led me back to level ground. I can only hope to become as superb a writer (on anything) as Dawkins is on the mechanisms of evolution.

One of the flaws in Ann Coulter's arguments in Godless is the fact that she believes that mutations arise already labeled neutral, beneficial, or non-beneficial, as if God had willed it so. Mutations do not arise in a vacuum, however, and any mutation is potentially any of these. When one says that a mutation (or adaptation) is beneficial, this must be taken in context with the vehicle's (organism's) genetic structure, environment, the existence of predators and competitors, the potential costs of this benefit as opposed to other benefits that could have evolved instead, etc. That a mutation carries an advantage in its particular context does not mean that the resulting adaptation is perfect, or that "things came together in perfect harmony" (as I often hear people say), or that the adaptation would even be considered adequate given fewer external constraints!

"It is simply meaningless to speak of an absolute, context-free, phenotypic effect of a given gene."

6 Constraints on "Perfection," or 6 Objections to Naive Adaptationism

-Time lags--the animal observed is "out of date," built under the influence of genes selected in an earlier era under different conditions. (The "lag load")

-Historic constraints--natural selection, having no foresight, modifies existing structures for new uses, leading in many cases to an obviously suboptimal formation, which nevertheless carries an advantage over no such formation at all.

Two species can respond to the "same selective forces in slightly different ways." --Lewontin

-Available genetic variation--"No matter how strong a potential selection pressure may be, no evolution will result unless there is genetic variation for it to work on."

-Constraints of Costs and Materials--adaptive organization is a "tangle of compromises."

-Imperfections at one level due to selection at another--again, natural selection has no foresight.

-Mistakes due to environmental unpredictability or "malevolence"--adaptation to conditions is statistical in terms of success; moment-by-moment changes in an environment can trip up even the most successful animal. Moreover, manipulation of one animal by another can exploit the victims abilities, which in this context become disadvantages. The "loser" of this arms race may develop the ability to resist such manipulation; may find the manipulation beneficial to itself as well or may shape it to be such; or may actually go extinct, which does not necessarily benefit the aggressor.


Monday, August 28, 2006

Anti-Flapdoodle Superheroes Defeat the Wicked Wells

UPDATED: Taken from Chapter 15. “Wells’s screed certainly purports to be a subversive and revolutionary book that advocates “intelligent design” using freethinking arguments: the title is The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, the pages are peppered with callouts like “Books You’re Not Supposed to Read” and “Websites You’re Not Supposed to Visit”, and much verbiage is spent positioning “intelligent design” as this underdog, upstart idea that just needs a fighting chance and reasonable people willing to think forbidden thoughts to support it, thereby allowing “intelligent design” creationism to get a foothold and find its success over the inferior “Darwinism”.

“This book is not revolutionary. Wells is writing in a highly conservative fashion. Wells is not a freethinker. When Father Coyne put forward what he stated to be an inarticulate best effort to describe his feelings about God, feelings which were in keeping with the best available science but necessarily conflicted with Schöenborn’s anti-evolutionary position, Wells derided him as one who had “the arrogance to lecture a pope and a cardinal on Catholic doctrine”. Frankly, it is inconsistent of Wells to beg for open-minded thinking and posture as a revolutionary when it comes to “intelligent design” and turn right around and disagree with that person’s theology on the basis that the person was arrogant for disagreeing with a religious leader in the first place....

“Wells is not writing this book in isolation. When the creationists in Kansas tried to change the definition of science to allow in supernatural causation, only the naive would fail to recognize that those changes were at the behest of the Discovery Institute. The creationists who rejected the recommendations of experts, which includes the authors and contributers of this book, would have us return to a time where every earthquake and disease was a reason to fear God and science was practiced with no restrictions to testable claims—the Dark Ages."

“Setting aside Wells’s thinly veiled spin of “revolutionary thinking”, what is really going on is that the writer of this chapter—hard to believe it is Wells given his beliefs—takes deep issue with theologies that are not “traditional” and with any science that contradicts those preconclusions. Pseudo-Wells, in any other language, is highly conservative; he or she should have included a callout in the margins of a page in this chapter, “Thoughts You’re Not Supposed to Think” and put “Theistic Evolution” or “Any Thoughts About God, Bourne of Personal Experience with Science that Happened to Conflict With Religious Dogma, with Which I Disagree....

"At the beginning of my review, I mentioned that Catholics don’t allow Protestants to take communion. I close this chapter’s review with an important point to understand about fundamentalism. Depending on how sharply you define “Traditional Christianity”, one may exclude just about anyone. “Keeping Christianity traditional” could mean anything from shunning those who think that God used evolution as His tool to shunning those who think women should be allowed to have a leadership role in the church. But if we took this argument—pseudo-Wells’s argument—to its logical conclusion, we could conceivably roll back the clock to a time when a notion of “Traditional Christianity” included the belief that sickness was not caused by agents doctors can treat today but by demons. Pseudo-Wells, for all his pained traditionalism, might likely be considered as much of a heretic as Kenneth Miller by the “Traditional Christians” of that day, if he happened to take a Tylenol for a headache.”

Certainly writing such as this cures the headache I get from the current intelligent design hysteria. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Okay, I admit to having a split personality.

One minute I’m telling Dan, “Richard Dawkins is confused by creationism in America, but I’m not,” because I really did grow up around creationist attitudes. I debated my father about it, back when the Little Rock trial was prominent in the news.

But the next, I’ll read some re-eaten, re-regurgitated stomach-pie from Jonathan (“More hairballs to come”) Wells…

…and Charlie Brown here is screaming: “Augh! My stomach hurts! What the &*$#@*&? How the $^(&@ can anybody believe this %^$@)#? Where the %*@#$ does this %&*# come from!!! PZ, Tara, Sherm, Dawk, Eugenie, Ernst, Barb, SJ, Chris! Save us, save us!” [Lies down on pitcher mound.]

So I guess I really am confused by creationism in America. And scared and outraged by it, because I don't work in science, or regularly rub elbows with scientists, but with people who “don't believe that a dog can turn into a cat,” (yeah, well, neither do I!), people for whom I don't have instant answers.

But never fear, the Wicked Wells is no match for the folks at
Panda's Thumb.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Join the Wake for Pluto's Departure!

UPDATED: As if poor Pluto needed to be upstaged! The supernova can be located here.
From Parke Kunkle, President of the Minnesota Planetarium Society:

"Join us for a wake in honor of our dearly departed planet Pluto. It was a good planet, and although it will have new life in the ranks of dwarf planets, we'll remember it how it was in its full planetary glory.

"We'll also have a telescope on the roof to view the quarter moon. Parke may be persuaded to give a short eulogy."

Informal and impromptu
Food and drink available for purchase
Costumes not required but prize for best Pluto costume
Toasts to Pluto encouraged

Where: Joe's Garage (restaurant), Loring Park, Downtown Minneapolis.
When: Thursday, August 31, 7-9 PM
Who: All celestial bodies are welcome!

Pluto: "You're Fired!"

More junk about less chunk in solar system trunk. (Counteroffensive underway! Stay tuned)

Pluto has been demoted from "planet" to "dwarf." Well, I'm sorry, Pluto. Love ya, and it's been a great run with you over the past seventy years, but that "is it--isn't it" so-called atmosphere of yours, which is probably really just ice that may or may not vaporize at perihelion (you wanna explain your indecision to the gas giants at this table?), along with your suspiciously comet-like orbit, and your--I don't want to say this, but hell, it's what we're all thinking--insufficient size has made astronomers conclude that you just can't play caboose to that mnemonic anymore. Pluto, you'll still make a great winter night viewing object in your new category. Best of luck to you. Pluto, you're fired.

And you, Charon, I'm sorry, as Pluto's "moon," you don't even qualify as a dwarf. Charon, you're fired!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

IDiot Seeks Evo-Diva

UPDATED: This is how Dembski replies to his commenters.

Valkhorn & EJ Klone: GilDodgen got it. Apparently neither of you did. With Dennett and Dawkins hawking Darwinism and thoroughly alienating the unwashed middle, the comparison seems apt. Tiggy: If you want my technical work, go to As I indicated a long time ago, this blog is my playground. When I have a moment, I’ll be booting all three of you.

Yikes! Testy! Don't argue with Wild Bill on his playground.
Ahhh, Bill Dembski, now I know what goes on in that devious little brain of yours! Sometimes.

UPDATED: Anytime you want to see what goes on in my nasty little brain, check here. If you dare.

He thinks that "Darwinists" aren't sexy enough and should recruit another anorexic blond (not Ann Coulter this time) to market our, er, product, as if it were a fucking car. (No, I'm not linking to the Dembster. You all know where he is.)

That's right, his latest post on Uncommonly Dense calls upon us to model ourselves after Paris Hilton's latest commercial (and features a repulsive car ad of some flabby-ass dude in a string swimsuit that he oh-so-wittily says represents the advocates for sound science education).

Well, that's an enlightened view of female "participation in science," I must say. It's for sure that this wasn't written by UD's helpmeet Denyse O'Leary, whose role is apparently confined to lighting lanterns in the shed.

And to think that Dembski turned down my $1000 bet. Well, actually, he just never replied to my list of terms. But I know somebody who is totally getting a reality belly-gram in ten years, and it doesn't have to be from me. Although it would be funny if it was. (I'll be 51--holy shit! But hell, he'll be even older.)

About that bet--there's something that Dembski said to me that has made me ponder it ever since. At first I took it seriously, but now I think it was a form of reverse psychology: "Dawkins' Selfish Gene is not where you want to put your money." I took it to heart and didn't include The Selfish Gene in my demands--and I have to admit I was little scared that he actually replied to lil' ole me at all--but now I wonder if he wanted me to bet on Dawkins' theory, or if he didn't want me to? I mean, all this "advice"--was he being a nice guy to me, or a manipulative shit?

I'm not going to make Richard Dawkins the object of a bet--I find that idea distasteful, and disrespectful to a man that I have come to admire very much--but I do wonder about Dembski and his Selfish Gene fixation. He blogs a lot about it--and about Dawkins. Is he really convinced that Dawkins' thesis is headed for the trash heap, or is he scared?

As I said in my e-mail to Dembski, I don't know if he is conniving or profoundly naive. In reality, he's probably a little of both, but which where, I still can't figure out.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Extended Phenotype

It's not easy to find this book, but I managed without resorting to Amazon. However, the material isn't as difficult as this befuddled humanities nerd initially feared, although it helps to take notes. Also, instead of plowing through one chapter at a time before re-reading, after my usual habit, I now ensure that I understand each paragraph before proceding to the next. Thus, I have read sections of this book three or four times, and I'm only on chapter three.

I know, I know--many of you probably breezed through the work. But I'm largely self-taught from having read Gould, and this stuff is new to me. In addition, the question of the definition of "adaptation" is a complex one, and until recently I was still unclear about the difference between genetic drift and natural selection. There is a lot that I never learned at all.

Gould was my guide while I was young, the only atheist I knew (until a niece "came out;" several others since have) in a Christian, and largely creationist, environment. I owe much to Gould's and Sagan's writing, but it is Dawkins who requires patience of me. Compared to my journey through The Extended Phenotype I practically inhaled The Selfish Gene, and that book required re-readings as well.

So far, here is what I have absorbed (Dr. Dawkins, if you're reading this, jump in at any time and correct me!):

-There is survival value in the "packaging of life into discrete units" called "vehicles" or organisms.

-We can speak of "adaptations as being 'for the benefit of' something, but that something is best not seen as the individual organism" but the "active, germ-line replicator" which are not selected directly, but by proxy.

-A behavior pattern "can be treated like an anatomical organ."

-A species or "group" is not the unit of selection, and gene selectionism is not genetic determinism.

Regarding the defining of what constitutes an adaptation, Dawkins first takes on the concept of extreme adapationism and identifies three proposed constrants on "perfection" (or optimal function) that he finds less persuasive:

-Neutral mutations, which are changes in polypeptide structure having no effect on enzymatic activity of the protein, and thus having no phenotypic effect at all.
(Biochemical controversy: Do all gene substitutions have phenotypic effects?)
(Adaptationist controversy: Is this phenothypic effect the result of natural selection?)
Though it is possible to a phenotypic effect to be selectively neutral, beware human subjectivity in these judgements. Genetic drift plus natural selection may result in more optimal function than just the effects of natural selection alone.

-Allometry, which is the disproportionate growth of a characteristic (such as a large head in small humans and in large ants).

-Pleiotropy, which is the possession by one gene of more than one phenotypic effect.

Damn, but this is fun. I used to read about quantum mechanics for fun; this stuff is even better. The only thing that spoils it is the fact that I have so many books to get through before September, because I buy books the way most women buy clothes, and because grad school! is practically barking! down! my snorkel! and I won't have time for pleasurable reading, hanging around archaeological sites, or the writing of the continuing adventures of my anti-creationist female android.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Peak Oil Apocalypse? Over My Dead Battery!

ACTUALISE: Whoa! Visitez this great site, Amuse Bouche. And no tater tots! (Rev. BigDumbChimp inadvertently outed me as a guilty lover of those—ack!—tater tot casseroles. Fine, actionnez-moi!)

And check out the website of the newly launched Re-Discovery Institute, which has our famous Disco Boys’ panties in the potage. Vive l’indigestion! In the words of surrealist poet Benjamin Péret, our Disco boys are “stupid like sausages whose sauerkraut has already been eaten away.”
Well, I forgot to watch for Spurlock's show last Saturday; my sweetie and I were busy canning our tomatoes. Plus, I pulled out my old bean plants and overgrown chives, and planted two more beds of beans to take advantage of the amazingly long growing season this year. Damn this nice weather, anyway! It was more fun to be outside.

My parents went through the Depression and World War II (obviously, I came along quite late in my parents' lives, though I was planned), and I grew up watching my mother can food and bake from scratch. I've had a garden since age nine, and like many girls I grew up on those Little House on the Prairie books. My Dad was a sheet-metal worker and I learned how to properly handle tools from watching him (even when he wouldn't let me handle the tools--well, his "girls don't" attitude sure changed after he saw me fell a tree by myself). I consider myself very fortunate to have learned those skills and to have acquired basic, solid American values and do-it-yourself thrift. America started out as a producer of goods; now we are a consumerist culture, but we always have the choice to "opt out" of that lifestyle as much as we can, when we can.

And many people do. I am not a survivalist, nor am I a conspiracy-theory enthusiast, and I don't hold with doomsday scenarios, although I will admit that there is one right-wing survivalist blog that I visit time and again because it has great canning recipes and tips, and in-depth information on everything you never wanted to know about solar batteries, etc. Though this site approaches the conservationist perspective from an anti-government, pro-Jesus angle, I embrace them for keeping alive techniques and knowledge that we really can't afford to lose.

I am also concerned about the possible peaking of world oil production. However, I am seriously turned off by these "peak oil apocalypse" scenarios by groups who seek--like extreme religious fanatics--to ride out the coming collapse of civilization in "lifeboat communities" and that predict, with what I detect to be a certain amount of schadenfreude, violence and starvation for suburbanites who don't live up to their granola standard. ("Imagine There's No Oil: Scenes from a liberal apocalypse" by Bryant Urstadt, Harper's, Aug. 2006)

Let's face it. Apocalyptic predictions are old hat in America. But this is a liberal end-of-the-world fantasy, and I don't like it. I don't hate anyone, no matter how stubbornly I oppose them. Doomsday fantasies are a way of taking something away from other people, and of punishing those not like us or who don't share our values. Rapture nuts want to take my heathenist, atheist, "corrupt" life away from me, and I think that these "peak oil" doomsday cultists (because that's what they are) likewise want to see right-wing Republicans suffer a horrible fate. I don't want any part of it.

Another thing that bothers me is, just as with religious Rapture nutballs, this worldview is a mixture of incredibly grim, bloody violence on the one hand, and mawkish sentimentality on the other. One minute, "peak oil" end-of-earthers are talking about how the mentally ill will just have to die because no one will have time to take care of them; the next, they're having a little cutesy brainstorming session for solutions ("We can plant gardens on top of skyscrapers." "We can turn asphalt streets into forests."). Gaaaa [cough! cough!] Gag me! Yuck! Maybe these dorks should learn how to live without a dishwasher, first? (I don't have a dishwasher, either.)

It's easy to love trees at the expense of people. Now, don't get me wrong, I adore trees. I love nature. However, I consider human beings to be a part of nature, and thus do not draw a line between people, whether they are friends or not, and the natural world. And frankly, while there could be some serious repercussions from the projected decline of worldwide oil production, I do not think it's very likely that civilization will suddenly collapse--at least, I hope not. I don't want to ever become the kind of person who hopes for such a thing.

So, yes, I can my own produce from my garden, and read good canning/baking tips from any knowledgeable source, liberal or conservative. We don't have a composting toilet but we do compost our kitchen scraps. We walk, bus, or ride our bikes. I mend my socks, shop at discount or second-hand stores (I hate shopping!), belong to a co-op, pick up pennies and save them in a jar, take my lunch to work, go to the farmer's market, and cook mostly from scratch. John grows his own grapes which he makes into jelly and wine; I preserve the young leaves for dolmades. We're not doing this to be "better" than other people. We just think it makes sense; much of it is fun; and we're not rich.

But between the choice of 1) a corrupt, polluted, consumerist world in which one has the choice to rebel, and 2) a post-apocalyptic peak oil world (or to some people, paradise?) in which reality brooks no rebellion and no frivolity, I choose the former, however unsustainable, and hope instead for a relatively peaceful transition to a sustainable, cleaner, more healthy civilization. I'm not running to any "lifeboat community" which sounds exactly like some add-solar-energy-and-stir survivalist fantasy. We are responsible for each other.

In the words of one of my favorite poets: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind...

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Interesting propsition: CommentsOnID is a startup Pile-Blog which aims to counteract the aggressive comment, er, “moderation” by Dembksi, O’Leary, et al at UD and other pro-ID blogs.

I don’t know how effective this will be, but I’m willing to give it a link and a look-see.

Hat-tip to Orac and to Rev. BigDumbChimp

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

30 Days: Atheist/Christian

UPDATED: Slain preacher’s wife to get out on bond! WTF?

Oh, yeah--this is what Iran needs, more sheep!
Tonight I only caught the tail end of this intriguing episode of Morgan Spurlock's television show 30 Days, in which an atheist lived with a Christian family for 30 days. It looks like there was a lot of good communication and understanding between the guest and her Christian hosts, and a minimizing of stereotypes. I understand that 30 Days will air a marathon of its shows this Saturday; I'll check local listings to see if "Atheist/Christian" will air so that I can write a recap of the show.

In Memoriam: James Van Allen

Physicist James Van Allen, discoverer of the Van Allen radiation belts, has died at age 91.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

I Nominate the latest Kansas "Science" Standards...

...for this prestigious award, which everybody, except for apparently those wacky windbags at UD, has heard of. (What, where have these guys been? And should they be laughing? Shouldn't they be writing comments to their own posts griping, "It's not funny!" etc.?)

UPDATED: Heh, heh, at least one uncommontator at UD saw through it: “There is an irony (unless I’m mistaken) here Crandaddy, that the latest book published by the Darwin award founder seems to be angled at mocking ID.” Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner!

For my part, I didn’t mean to imply that the folks at UD have never heard of the Darwin Awards, but The Darwin Awards 4: Intelligent Design has been coming down the pike for a while. Of course it mocks I.D.!