Monthly Archives: April 2008

The trouble with eating things with claws

… is that they can get you even after you’ve killed them! If you need another reason to stay away from eating chicken-feet, check out this photo: they might be kinda hard to swallow!


Note, however, that this is not a case of a bird trying to fight its way out of they hawk’s gullet – more an accident when you try to swallow sharp objects that can rupture your crop and burst through your skin! This poor little Sharp-shinned Hawk had properly killed the small bird it was trying to eat, but appears to have bitten off more than it could swallow, resulting in a rather bizarre death. Can we nominate this hawk for a Darwin Award?

[From Dead Hawk’s Last Meal Claws Partway Out]

A breath of reasonable fresh air after a stiflingly pious week

After the week we’ve had in these parts with assorted god-botherers turning up to sell snake-oil throughout town, it was so refreshing to catch this interview with the author of “The Age of American Unreason”:

I’m impressed with how well she kept pace with Colbert! Must have something to do with that elitist reason thing she touts…

A more substantial discussion about biology and theology on campus today

At least I expect it to be more substantial than the other stuff that’s been going on around here lately. The last lecture of the Ethics Center’s spring seminar series will be by Ted Peters, a theologian who has published extensively on the connections between science and religion and ethics.

In today’s lecture “The Stem Cell Controversy: Who is Fighting Whom About What?” Peters will discuss religious and ethical issues that arise in the context of debates about stem cell research and biotechnology. This talk will be based in part on Peters’ recent book, The Stem Cell Debate.

The lecture will be at noon in the Alice Peters Auditorium at the University Business Center.

Ted Peters is Professor of Systematic Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. His recent books include: Science, Theology, and Ethics, Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom and the forthcoming Sacred Cells?: Why Christians Should Support Stem Cell Research. Peters also serves on the Scientific and Medical Accountability Standards Working Group for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

Andrew Fiala reminds me to add that Peters will also be meeting with students in the philosophy club from 2-3 in USU 311, where he will lead an informal and general discussion of religious studies, theology, science, free will and determinism, and whatever else students want to talk about. Faculty and students are welcome to attend.

And students, if you attend, consider submitting your impressions/reflections on the talk and the general topic of stem cell ethics for this class blog.

But how many Steves are on your list, Dr. Patton?

That was one of the questions I was going to ask Dr. Don Patton at the much ballyhooed lecture today on “what is creation science” which turned out to be something of a damp squib. And I’m not just saying that because I didn’t get to ask it or any of my other questions – there were so many students’ hands up that I didn’t get my turn, which was great to see! I was promised at the end by one of the mike-wranglers that I would get the first question at tomorrow’s lecture – but, meh, I didn’t see much today to draw me back for more. I hope some of you students who did ask those great questions chime in here so we can talk about it, because you sure didn’t get much of an answer from Patton, did you? I’ll try to address some things more specifically in detail soon – am too tired to deal with it right now and I have a field trip early tomorrow morning, so let me just give a quick summary of the lecture for now. Those of you who attended the lecture, and can’t wait to get some real answers, go play here and see if you can find all the main arguments on display today. And read why John Wilkins thinks such talks can, on the whole, be good for evolution education… I hope he is right!

Despite all the promise of a dialog on science made to us (in public and private) by the promoters of this event, what we saw was a typical presentation (from what I’ve read of such talks) with the following not-unexpected ingredients:

  • repeated mischaracterizations of science and of evolution
  • plenty of arguments-by-analogy
  • a great big pile of selectively mined quotes from eminent evolutionary biologists
  • arguments from popularity including results from public opinion polls to show how creationism is “winning” despite the efforts of us evilutionists
  • lists of “hundreds of scientists” who support creationism (which raised the question I never got the chance to ask, about how many Steves)
  • a defense of Patton’s academic credentials (which is an irrelevant issue if you ask me, but more on this later; and Scott Hatfield has more on that and on his talk radio appearance during the first half of this lecture)
  • when questioned by students, a fine display of slipperiness to smoothly evade probing questions, including rapid re-definition of terms just used, “not-blaming” the poor student because “this is what you’ve been told”, complete refusal to address any alternative creationist hypotheses, yet declaring the unspecified creationism as the winner because Gould at some point somewhere said some argument about evolution was dead, etc., etc…!!
  • And, of course, absolutely no actual data on anything other than the polls despite repeated proclamations that we were gathered to examine evidence!!

Like I said – meh! – I have better things to do tomorrow evening, including a choice of two other presentations that should be much more educational: on Earth Day by Dr. Chris Pluhar of our EES Dept., and on the ethics of stem cells and genetics by Dr. Andy Fiala, Director of the Ethics Center here @ CSUF. I don’t have the links handy, so I will add them tomorrow sometime – or look out for flyers in the Science building.

And speaking of flyers, there was a miraculous appearance of the Great FSM in the lecture hall, and even a “ramen” was heard from a questioner! Unfortunately, I got there just seconds before the talk started, and the FSM disapparated sometime during the second segment of the lecture (leaving me in agony wondering why I had been left behind!) so I couldn’t take a picture. I hope someone else did, and if so I will try obtain a copy for posting here!

Celebrate the earth locally this weekend

adriennelay.jpgWith Earth Day coming up (in its 38th year) next week, we have two interesting options for celebrating it tomorrow (funny how weekends cause these temporal rearrangements!):

  1. The Fresno Cohousing folks, who are getting ever closer to completing construction on their complex of green homes, are inviting us all to celebrate Earth Day this weekend with the “greenest neighborhood in Fresno”! Several of my colleagues here are part of this co-housing group, and I am intrigued about the possibilities. Here’s a flyer with details – check it out!
  2. The Intermountain Nursery is also celebrating Earth Day tomorrow at their Sierra foothills location with several local artists playing music on the creek, some hands-on classes, and a seed ball booth for children! That last part, of course, draws our children – and we wouldn’t mind getting out of the city for a few hours either. So it looks like this is where we are going!

What are you doing for Earth Day this year?

Who needs Google if you can DIY maps?


I’ve been trying to read up on cartography again, what with the Fresno Bird Count now in progress, for which my friends at NiJeL are helping me put together a nice map interface to display results. Here I am, still excited about being able to make a simple google mashup, when I come across this:

Google Maps is an impressive application. It’s fast, responsive, and nicely rendered, and it exposes a ton of functionality via its well-documented and well-understood API. Why on earth wouldn’t you outsource this bit of functionality to Google?

Ask yourself this question: why would you, as a website developer who controls all aspects of your site, from typography to layout, to color palette to photography, to UI functionality, allow a big, alien blob to be plopped down in the middle of your otherwise meticulously designed application? Think about it. You accept whatever colors, fonts, and map layers Google chooses for their map tiles. Sure, you try to rein it back in with custom markers and overlays, but at the root, the core component—the map itself—is out of your hands.

The result is Google Maps fatigue. We’ve all experienced it. It manifests not only when we yawn at YAGMM (Yet Another Google Maps Mashup), because there are high-quality web apps deploying the Google Maps API seamlessly and with great success. Despite this, and despite the fact that Google itself continues to refine and improve the base application, the fatigue remains. It’s the effect of seeing the same elements over and over again across the web. As web developers, we live with constraints, so to a certain extent, the Google Maps API is similar to Verdana and Georgia—they’re common components we know will work well. But if it were possible and practical to make a substitution, wouldn’t you do so?

Intrigued? Interested in doing your own maps? You might want to check out the rest of the article on how to take control of your maps. Some pretty nifty information there, but in the midst of this busy semester, I sure am glad NiJeL’s got my back when it comes to mapping our data! They tell me that they do something similar to what’s described in this article, but with some different open-source software choices.

Teach the controversy? Not Ben Stein’s way

So concludes this LA Times feature which actually tries to get two alternative perspectives on Ben Stein’s movie Expelled (opening today at least according to all the previews on the telly, although I’m not sure even this turkey will open in Fresno at the same time as elsewhere) but fails! Not surprisingly, both Michael Shermer (well known skeptic) and Greg Lukianoff (lawyer on a mission to defend individual rights in education) end up panning the movie, although Lukianoff feels compelled to end his piece by appealing to Ben Stein for help:

We could use some high-profile help here, Ben. With your power and influence you really could help bring a missing dose of liberty back to campuses. But if you only care about ID education, I suspect that you will only be preaching to people who already agree with you.

Really? Why would Lukianoff want to seek help from someone who failed to convince even him (a champion of other students’ rights cases) that there is any there there when it comes to intelligent design? A has-been “celebrity” whose latest film, though marketed as this big controversial challenge to the scientific establishment, fails to raise the dust even in the middle of this dust-up involving someone as sympathetic as Lukianoff? Given the spate of bad reviews this documentary is getting, the prospects don’t look too good for Ben’s profile, nor his “power and influence”. So one has to wonder how things are going to turn out for Lukianoff if he still wants to appeal for Ben’s help! Just seems odd… but what do I know?

BTW, Michael Shermer is coming to Fresno this evening for another dustup on our campus – a debate with that towering intellect among religious conservatives, Dinesh D’souza, on the little matter of “Does God Exist?“. Should be fun, and I hope Shermer is up to the task of maintaining the bar on D’Souza as high as this guy set it last year:

and in part 2:

If he wants to pick up that gauntlet (in addition to the debate), Shermer surely has a big task on his hands, no?

Oh how I hate storks…

… and even more, those who would expose the scientific conspiracy that I thought had successfully Expelled the Stork Theorists from the ranks of reproductive academia! Now what? Do I have to start digging up the old Storkology books buried behind the Biology dept. greenhouse? I guess I better start rewriting the syllabus for my upcoming fall Birds and Reptiles course too while I’m at it. Gimme a break with all this academic freedom, would you now?

Sigh!! Watch and weep, my fellow Astorkist conspirators…

And once you’re done wiping your tears, go read the comments thread on this video on YouTube (just click on the above video to get to it). Seriously!

Darwin Online: Browse Darwin’s Papers

The Darwin Online project has now made all of Darwin’s papers from the Cambridge University Library, including drafts of chapters from “On the Origin of Species” available to the public online! They have images of the original writing including all his scribbling in margins, and transcriptions to make them readable. For example, it has this page from one of his notebooks, which induced shivers in my spine when I was able to actually see it (in the cellulose, so to speak) a couple of years ago when we visited the Darwin Exhibit at AMNH: