Sunday, December 31, 2006

Pareidolia and Friends

Recently, I briefly discussed the word pareidolia, the seeing of sacred images in the mundane. John over at Blog Meridian has picked up on this and has a wonderful post enlarging this concept, even relating it to the Hitchcock movie, Vertigo. It turns out that there are a whole series of related words such as apophenia,the seeing of connections between meaningless data and synchronicity used by Carl Jung to refer to "temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events."

Pareidolia is a recent coinage but the phenomenon is quite well known. I had several encounters with pareidolia during Pope John Paul's 1993 visit to Denver during which I was in the Papal choir. Here is an entry from my journal for 8/15/2003. We were at the Mother Cabrini shrine in the mountains just outside of Denver:

"We met an interesting fellow from Chicago who had a set of allegedly miraculous
photographs that he had collected. Some of them show a crucifix in a cemetery
and each picture has a strange lighting effect. One for instance shows a beam of
light shooting from the out stretched hand of Christ. Quite frankly most look
like aberrations caused by light shining through the lens at a particular angle.
It strikes me as odd that the machine could record these miraculous images by
chance but the person taking the picture was not aware of them... "

Here is a link to similar sorts of pictures.

"There were several images seemed not so easily explained. One showed a
seemingly solid image of a robed woman floating in the air. It didn't look like
a deliberate fake but all these strike me as looking too hard for
miracles...Maybe I should be the Pope's Devil's advocate on these matters."

Since we were at a holy place some of the other people there began reporting odd things. One of my fellow characters reported a vision related to looking at the sun through slitted eyes. He reported that:

"the sun seemed to resemble a fragmenting host (that is a communion host of
course) with the upper part complete but the lower part shattering in fragments
which seemed to increase and not get any smaller..."

The rest of his description was quite psychedelic and I can see how the crowd at Fatima could undergo some sort of mass hallucination that is described as the Miracle of the Sun. Other people were claiming that their crosses were turning to gold, or that they were smelling roses when none were around, this of course being a favorite sort of miracle associated with saints-though usually it is the dead body smelling of roses or flowers. I think there is something in us that actually likes to suspend judgment; quite frankly I felt the same sort of excitement that I did when I as a young teenager playing with a ouch board.

John mentions that pareidolia can be auditory as well. I am not sure if this qualifies, but here a related sort of phenomenon happened to Richard Dawkins when he was young. He tells about this in his recent book, The God Delusion:

"Once as a child I heard a ghost; a male voice murmuring, as if in recitation or
prayer. I could almost but not quite make out the words, which seemed to have a
serious, solemn I got closer it grew louder and then it suddenly
'flipped' inside my head. I was now close enough to discern what it really was.
The wind, gusting through the keyhole, was creating sounds..." (Dawkins pp

Dawkins discusses this as part of his argument against the proof for God based on personal experience since the human brain has very powerful simulation and modeling capabilities.

He concludes in the following way:

"If you've had such an experience, you may find yourself believing firmly that
it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it,
especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful
workings." (Dawkins p 92)

By real Dawkins means related to something else other than your own brain's modeling efforts. After all, certainly the experience can subjectively real or in the case of synchronicity, the connection imbued with subjective meaning.

I had a good example of this when I was an undergraduate. I was standing outside the cooperative where I was living at Cornell, a place called Watermargin , and I was talking with some of the other residents about insects-specifically the green lacewing. I think I was telling them that lacewings were predators which they are, and I happened to raise my left hand's index finger just in time for a green lacewing to actually land on it. Of course everyone went oooh and ahhh though perhaps their wonder had been heightened by concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinal in their blood streams.

I suspect my audience and I would have still had a certain wonderful sense of surprise at this event. It seems that we find it rewarding emotionally to use our brain's simulation software whether we are aware of it or not. We love optical illusions, including ambiguous pictures such as those of in symbolist art, or in the works of M.C. Escher. As poets we often practice found poetry and use juxtaposition of words and images as inspiration for writing. As scientists we are constantly, as Dawkins did, spotting possible connections and filtering them through the scientific method to assess their meaning in the external world.

I ran across a very interesting example just this morning reading Steven Jay Gould's book of essays, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. In his essay, "The Titular Bishop of Titiopolis," about Nicolaus Steno, often considered the founder of modern geology, there is a little gem about an agate in which could be seen "Christ on the cross with all the proper accoutrements, including a sun on the favored right side and a moon on the despised left." Gould's point was that as long as all odd things in rock were lumped together, fossils as well as these occasional accidental images could be lumped together as due to the plastic power in the rocks themselves and there would be no science of paleontology today.

What Steno, according to Gould, did was to classify objects in rock into those that were formed before the rock itself(e.g. fossils) and those that were formed after the rock (e.g. intrusions, veins, agate etc) that might "by accident resemble some abstract form or design." Steno's arguments and classification scheme for objects embedded in rocks enabled naturalists to understand that sedimentary rocks were 'created' after the fossils in them has solidified. Marine fossils high in the mountains must have 'solidified' before the sedimentary rock that surrounds them. The implication is that the Earth has a history, that things were not as some might argue created in place and that it is possible to infer a good deal about the Earth's history by careful inference. This powerful notion came about, according to Gould by Steno's reclassification of objects found in rocks into two groups in a way that had not been carefully done before. So from Steno we get to Lyell and from Lyell we get to Darwin and the intimate evolutionary connections among all the world's organisms that modern biology so rightfully celebrates.

Thus, whether in poetry or science, we use the powerful pattern recognition systems embodied in pareidolia and we relish making meaningful connections and sorting out ambiguity. I find it odd and tragic that some people can't seem to do that. They are so literal they cannot accept the power of metaphor in sacred text, or so hung up on the notion of intentional design that when confronted with the illusion of design they retreat from empiricism much like what Dawkins might have done had he been a little more frightened and impressionable.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Prehistoric Monsters?

Pretty embarrassing to be hosting the Circus of the Spineless this month without any spineless blog entries of my own, but fortunately my local grocery store came to the rescue. We were grocery shopping last night and perusing the post Christmas close outs when what to my wondering eyes should appear but this little kit from the Smithsonian Institute.

The box screams:

"Prehistoric Sea Monsters"

"Watch living fossils from the dinosaur age grow before your eyes."

"Hatch and grow amazing Triops again and again"

Well, sounds a bit like sea monkeys to me if you are familiar with those so naturally I was a bit skeptical. It turns out that these Triops are pretty neat. The Wikipedia entry for Triops says that this genus of Crustacea includes species that appear to be unchanged since the Triassic about 220 million years I guess that does put them in the living fossil category.

Image credit:
Photograph taken by Dominik Tomaszewski from

It's not clear from the instructions which Triops species is in the Kit, presumably it is Triops cancriformis or T. longicautatus. Hopefully I can find out for sure. They are not sea monsters, but instead live in small fresh water temporary pools, unlike "Sea monkeys" which live in briney water such as the great salt lake. Both Triops and Sea Monkey's are in the class Branchiopoda which also includes fairy shrimp, a familiar resident of temporary fresh water pools here in the Midwest.

At any rate, my plan is to hold off setting them up until I start my Spring semester and have my general biology students follow them through their life cycle with me. I've done this before with "Sea Monkeys" as a way of providing something concrete to unify the semester and I will blog on them periodically.

Other links:
Pictures and movies of Triops:

A Triops fansite:

An introduction to the Branchiopoda:

and if you have never had Sea Monkeys before: the Official Sea Monkey site!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Circus of the Spineless #16

Merry Christmas or as PZ Myers might rather say: "Merry Cephmas." His Cephmas cookie is to the left used with his kind permission.

At the Annotated Budak, Marcus Ng starts us off with a couple of nice bee pictures right up my alley including a huge Xylocopa latipes.

Many of my readers know that my masthead features a Xylocopa virginica, impressive enough in flight but I would love to see X. latipes in action!
He has a nice stingless bee photo as well.

Speaking of Hymenoptera, Karen from Rurality blog submits some pictures of mud dauber nests, I am not sure which one this is. She found these on a tree trunk, and notes that she normally finds them on manmade structures.

As an etymological aside, down South she calls them dirt dobbers, rather than mud daubers which is, as she notes, a more familiar term for our Northern readers. Not to digress but my wife plays bingo with her mom and bingo players often use ink filled bottles with a sponge top to mark the squares on their cards, and these are called (at least here in Kansas) "dabbers" but pronounced 'dawber' as I would pronounce 'dauber'.

Yet another insect post from "A DC Birding Blog" this time of an Eye elator. Too bad the specimen was dead because this is another really impressive insect in life.

Some last moment insect entries include a Syrphid fly from Jennifer Orth, and a couple from Bev at Burning Silo:

Springtails everywhere

and Photographing the Dobsonfly

We rented Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man's Chest over Christmas and of course the star of the movie as far as I was concerned was the the giant squid. So from Craig at Deep Sea News comes a comes a link to a video of a giant squid, a young female, only 24 feet long. .

PZ Myers, of course, also has a lengthy thread related to this video at Pharyngula. By the way, I guess this PZ Myer's Babe in a Manger (**eg**):

If Kraken aren't enough excitement for you, Craig also has a couple of entries about carnivorous sponges:

The video is not the best quality and the best stuff is toward the end, but it does show the sponges in context. What seems to be a very confused slug provides a little mystery in this amusing entry from snailstales:

Is it true that a dead slug tells no tales?

PZ Myer's submission this month introduces us to the higher levels of animal phylogeny: He introduces us to the lophotrochozoa, an assemblage of animals including mollusks and annelids along with some wonderfully obscure and interesting creatures such as the Acanthocephala. One of the commenters, by the way, posted a link to this tree of life based on ribosomal RNA sequence comparisons.
This can be printed out in a large format for your wall or where ever.

Finally a couple of crustacean entries. First up from Jennifer Orth's Invasive species weblog is a report of a newly reported invasive shrimp species in the Great Lakes. This is the 183rd invasive species known to have entered the great lakes:

She provides a link to a paper by Ricciardi and Rasmussen who discuss some of the characteristics shared by invasive aquatic species and how various sorts information of might be used to predict which species are likely to invade the great lakes. The shrimp happens to be from the same Black Sea area from which the Zebra Mussel originated.

The last crustacean entry is my own, quite fortuitous entry about PREHISTORIC SEA MONSTERS, actually a Branchiopod called Triops being marketed by the Smithsonian Institute in little rearing kit similar to those for "Sea Monkeys".
I was not familiar with these critters and plan to rear them out this spring at school. If you are looking for a possible gift for a child or child like adult for next Christmas, these kits may be available in your area on closeout.

Enjoy December's spineless offerings. The upcoming schedule for the Circus can be found at the Circus's home page.

The submission rules are at:

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Kansas Guild of Bloggers Holiday Edition

Now that Christmas is over and I have roused myself from my turkey induced stupor, it's time for another edition of the KGB.

First up is a post with a new vocabulary word for me from the Angry Astronomer, Jon Voisey. The word is pareidolia and it refers to the seeing sacred images in mundane things-seeing the Virgin Mary in cheese sandwiches, that sort of thing.

Jon observes that:

"... the Church doesn't even acknowledge such false idols. Instead, the church encourages its followers 'to see the face of Christ in the homeless, the poor, the destitute and the immigrant.' My, wouldn't it be nice if its followers actually lived up to such ideals?"

Update! there is no "h" in "Jon". Also he has posted elsewhere on his blog about pareidolia.

Of course that's what this season is all about, ya think? Just to remind us, Bruce Alderman at It Seems to Me has some good commentary on the Christmas story was conveyed by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. He notes that what we think of as the Christmas story is based on these two stories which we have mashed together. Bruce notes:

"Remarkably, the two gospels share almost no details in common, other than the miraculous conception and the birth in Bethlehem. What I want to do in this two-part post is to look at each birth narrative on its own, because I think they each have things to tell us, and sometimes the details can get lost when we try to conflate the two stories."

Lots of posts about travel and place. Blogmeridian has gone south to Austin, the City of Armadillos. I guess he is not aware that Armadillos are heading north, even up to Illinois and of course Southern Kansas. So maybe if he looks John can get his Armadillo fix and stew if he prefers right here while he is walking along the river with Scruffy. Not everyone has gotten to travel, She (AKA California Girl) finds herself in a funk being stuck alone for Christmas, but at least she's posting more recently...this is good. Over at Happy in Bag there is a nice post about those limestone hitching posts that are common in the older parts of Lawrence, less so in Kansas City where Happy is. He's even uncovered a museum dedicated to limestone hitching posts, the Post Rock Museum, right here in Kansas!

Joel Mathis has a couple of posts about radio and his new favorite station 96.5, here and here. Of course not all of the commenters agree with his choice. Personally it's NPR or nothing over here, but we respect Joel's choice of radio.

Over here we love scones but have never made them...but I can't wait to try Lady Gunn's recipe for cranberry cream scones. Rather than food, EMAWKC, has a lump of coal for us, or rather for those people on the East Coast who are upset at building coal fired power plants in Kansas. Speaking of resources and Kansas, Josh reminds us that Kansas is the world's major producer of helium.

"Helium is extracted from natural gas wells, and the first major terrestrial supply of helium was found in Kansas in 1905. An oil well in Dexter, Kansas produced a gas plume that didn't burn. KU chemists took samples of the plume back for analysis, and determined that it was 12% helium. In 1907, Ernest Rutherford and Thomas Royds determined that the helium nucleus is the alpha particle."

I've been pretty quiet aside from grousing about Senator Brownback (see also the WE Blog), but I was intrigued at all the coverage Komodo dragons have gotten over the holiday-I guess because of the headlines about virgin births in these lizards and you might check out my post about that here. Oh and that reminds me of the latest Phill Kline adventure as discussed by J.D. over at Evolution next step where he has some advice for conservatives.

Finally, getting back to Christmas, both Gwynne at the Shallow End posts on those inflatable Christmas displays in her post Christmas Cheese. Oh and I went over to the Prince of Thrift to see what tips he had for getting out of Christmas debt, but found that Brownback has upset his ambition to have a complete collection of campaign pins from every Kansan who ran for president or vice president. He shouldn't be too hard on himself and would be pleased to know that I did not use my credit card once this Christmas.

Next week's KGB will be at Blog Meridian. Remember, if you are not in KGB, and are a Kansas related blogger just go on over to and look for the kgb map in the right hand column and join!

Put yourself on the kgb's Frapper map while you are there.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Leaping Lizards.

Must be the time of year but the finding of Komodo Dragon females that are able to produce young from unfertilized eggs has really caught on as explained in this article from the Independent:

Some articles have referred to what's going on as virgin birth but who really knows if the lizard was a virgin or not? Oh different use of the word. See for instance:

In humans, were this sort of reproduction to happen, the offspring would be female since the sex chromosomes are different size wise in males which typically have one X and Y chromosome. In Lizards apparently it is the female that has two different sex chromosomes.

So if the female produces a zygote by parthenogenesis the resulting offspring will be male according to the article. The Komodo uses a so called WZ sex determination system. WZ zygote develop into females, WW zygotes into males and ZZ zygotes are inviable. No females are produced by the parthenogenic Komodo lizards because the form of parthenogensis used involves a duplication of the female lizard's chromosomes in the gamete. So the diploid "zygotes" are either WW or inviable ZZ.

There are other parthenogenic lizards, the best known being some whiptail lizards such as the ones described here:

In these lizards the offspring are all female. This is apparently because in these lizards, in contrast to the Komodo dragon, the females have two identical chromosomes size wise, the lizard equivalent of the 'XX' chromosomes of human females. See

Modi and Crews. Current Opinion in Genetics & Development 2005, 15:660–665

These lizards exhibit pseudocopulatory behavior where one female will mount another. Here is a movie from David Crew's website:

One lizard takes the male role the other the female role. This behavior has the effect of stimulating both lizards to ovulate.

As for humans and the Virgin Birth of Christ, it seems you have 4 choices:

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Brownback relents on Neff Nomination

Senator Brownback has realized he went too far in blocking Janet Neff's nomination to the Federal Bench.

Most telling is the opposition from other conservatives such as Charles Reid to Brownback's stance:

First of all, people go to parties for all sorts of reasons,” Professor Fried
said, and how one would rule on a case should not be inferred from that private
activity. Further, he said, "It would be inappropriate for the judge to
recuse herself from any such case because it is a judge’s duty to sit on cases"
unless there is a clear conflict of interest. There would be a genuine conflict
of interest, he said, if the judge had a financial interest in a case’s result
or had been associated with one of the parties in the case.

“For her to agree to any such restriction in this case would be wrong...”

Somehow I don't think we have seen the end of Senator Brownback's attempts to exploit LGBT people. After all he says of gay marriage, that this is "a big hot buttion issue".

Monday, December 18, 2006

Random Tidbits...

Well not quite random. I have been trying to get more information of the Indian athlete, Santhi Soundararajan, who failed her gender test. It isn't clear how she could pass one time but not another time, but at least the BBC was respectful:

In contrast, Sports Illustrated's "coverage" reads as if it was written by a dude in a backwards baseball cap...hmmmm no wait... it probably was.

The SI article, titled "Dude looks like a Lady" at least had the little tidbit that the test failure had something to do with her chromosome count and that she has not had SRS. Exactly what is going on here isn't clear, but SI's coverage certainly belongs in the stone age.

Speaking of which, BBC also has an article about the new Answers in Genesis Creationist Museum opening up this Spring near Cincinnati.

Observes the BBC reporter:

"Despite adopting the structure and technology of the most extravagant science museum, it remains that none of it is remotely plausible without first accepting Genesis. Without taking that leap and rejecting centuries of scientific reasoning, it all resembles just another Disney-style magic kingdom."

Sounds like a hoot- right up there with the flying saucer museum in Roswell NM.

At least when people go to the Magic Kingdom they know it's fiction.

It is curious that employees of the museum have to sign an article of faith saying that they believe the Earth was created in 7 days. Maybe the Bush administration can take a page from this, in its efforts to slant the data on global warming and other politically sensitive science. Over 10,000 scientists have signed on to a petition protesting the Bush administration's politicalization of science. To be fair I suspect the Bush administration isn't the only administration to do this sort of thing, but certainly no other has gotten scientists so energized in opposition to its policies.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

One Dobson is one too many...

The religious right ought to stop even trying to talk about science. The latest example is the recent James Dobson column in Time attempting to argue that Gays cannot be good parents. Dobson uses the public's interest in the Mary Cheney pregnancy to go on a rant about the alleged unfitness of gays as parents:

"With all due respect to Cheney and her partner, Heather Poe, the majority of more than 30 years of social-science evidence indicates that children do best on every measure of well-being when raised by their married mother and father. That is not to say Cheney and Poe will not love their child. But love alone is not enough to guarantee healthy growth and development.... ",9171,1568485,00.html

He then goes on to cite several social scientists to buttress his claims. Well the scientists have struck back accusing Dobson of distorting their work. As reported by Truth Wins Out one of the scientists, Carol Gilligan said in a letter to Dobson:

"there is nothing in my research that would lead you to draw the stated conclusions you did in the Time article. My work in no way suggests same-gender families are harmful to children or canÂ’t raise these children to be as healthy and well adjusted as those brought up in traditional households.

I trust that this will be the last time my work is cited by Focus on the Family."

The other scientist quoted by Dobson, Kyle Pruett accused Dobson of Cherry picking his research and goes on to say:

"You cherry-picked a phrase to shore up highly (in my view) discriminatory purposes. This practice is condemned in real science, common though it may be in pseudo-science circles. There is nothing in my longitudinal research or any of my writings to support such conclusions. On page 134 of the book you cite in your piece, I wrote, 'What we do know is that there is no reason for concern about the development or psychological competence of children living with gay fathers. It is love that binds relationships, not sex.' "

See also:

Media Matters has done an extensive report on the misuse of science by Dobson and notes that Pruett in particular has repeatedly accused people of distorting his work to advance their own agenda. Indeed according to Media matters Pruett was even listed as a supporter of the recent amendment to ban "gay marriage" in Oregon, of which Pruett says:

"I was quite surprised, even dumbfounded, to see my name listed as if it were a scientific support or consultant to this amendment. ... It couldn't be further than either my personal or professional position."


In the Oregonian article a conservative political director, Tim Nashif, appears to back petal, conceding that same sex couples and other sorts of families ought to be supported but then he goes right back to his distortions of Pruett's work!

This sort of strategy-tell a lie often enough and maybe the people will believe it- is wearing a bit thin. Maybe the religious right ought to just be honest about the source of their views that gay marriage is wrong- and while we are at it-that the earth is only 6,000 years old- because that's what they think the Bible says is true.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Great Gift Idea...or NOT!

Taking a break from grading exams, what do I find in the noosphere but a gift idea, Help Mom There are Liberals under my Bed! To get an idea of the plot go to this link from the New Republic online:

Here is the New Republic's partial synopsis of the plot:

"Two grade-school brothers set out to earn money for a new swing set by opening a lemonade stand. But, when the aspiring entrepreneurs dream one night about "a very strange place called Liberaland," the story shifts into satire-saturated adult fare, as a series of "dastardly Liberals" pop up to meddle in the venture. A Ted Kennedy look-alike ("Mayor Leach") demands half the boys' take in taxes, a Hillary Clinton-inspired "Congresswoman Clunkton" makes them cut the sugar in their product and give out broccoli with each glass, and an "lclu" lawyer replaces their picture of Jesus with that of a big toe."

I think you get the idea. Needless to say since I don't keep my liberals UNDER the bed I will not be buying this book.

But if you want, you can go to the author's website at:

Supposedly liberals are furious (according to a PR release and PR releases are of course ALWAYS reliable) about this book and it's companion book titled Help Mom Hollywood's in my Hamper, but I suspect most liberals are chortling about this book. We do have a sense of humor after all.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Great Response to Brownback...

is at the Liberal Faith Development Blog in the form of a letter that Steve Caldwell sent to the Senator:

I particularly like:

"Judge Neff was taking part in a religious ceremony that is grounded in the United Church of Christ's understanding of God, Jesus, and the Bible.

Article VI of the US Constitution states that " ... no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States" and your criticism of Judge Neff's religious beliefs would be a religious test."

Great Letter Steve!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Men in elementary school teaching

There is a nice article in today's Lawrence Journal World about the lack of male teachers at the elementary school level.

The article notes that the number of male elementary school teachers has actually fallen from 18% to 9% and that the over all percentage of teachers who are male at all levels of pre college teaching is at a 40 year low.

At the secondary level, men tend to go into science and math, fields where good female role models are needed as well. The article quotes Marc Mahlios, the chairman of the KU School of Ed's Department of Curriculum and Teaching (Tip of the antennae to j.d for correcting an earlier version of this post):

"Men gravitate toward teaching at the university and secondary levels because the environment is more academic, he said. In contrast, the environment is more nurturing at the elementary level...For many males, the environment is decidedly more feminine than masculine... And I think that'’s a very real issue."

Can't males be nuturing as well? One of the commenters observes:

"My suspicion is that even if there were more men graduating with a background in grade school teaching, they would be screened out when it came time to selection following interviewing. They may get the interview but in these days and times they're not going to be picked for the job. Now if they're the "girly men" Arnold referred to, there might be the rare exception or three."

...screened out by the way by a so called (in the commenter's mind) old gal network.

Other commenters noted that it may well be the low pay keeping males out of the field but I think this commenter makes an important point:

"My college experience turned me away from education. I started out wanting to teach secondary sciences like physics and chemistry. The School of Ed. routinely spoke of bringing more men into the teaching profession. However, their actions proved to be just the opposite. When it came to classroom observations and student teaching opportunities, I was assigned to physical education classes every time. It turns out that I was not alone, as many of the other guys I spoke with complained of the same situation."

Yup..Since I have no interest in sports that turned me off as well. I was very fortunate to have strong male and female role models: great science teachers in my home town of Pittsfield MA such as George Hamilton, Roger Brown and Anne Nesbit; a great history teacher Mr. Hebert; great art teachers such as Morris Bennett, Mrs. Flynn in English, non academic role models including a wonderful choral director George Nesbit; Thom Smith of the Berkshire museum; George Miller, my first boss.

These were strong role models, not because they were male or female, but because they cared about people and also had high expectations. They encouraged all of us to excel and gender just was not an issue with these folks. A person like me, could just as easily been lost in the cracks. The point is we need strong role models of all sorts so that no one regardless of gender or gender identity is lost.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sam Brownback Strikes Again!

Senator Brownback has been blocking the confirmation of Janet Neff to the Federal Bench because she attended a lesbian committment ceremony. Well, I guess because he doesn't want to be seen as bigoted, he wants to strike a bargin, according to the Lawrence Journal World. He will let the nomination go through if she recuses herself from any cases involving same sex unions.

Brownback is concerned that her attendence of this ceremony will bias her in cases involving same sex marriages. Why should this be any more of an impediment than Justice Scalia being a Roman Catholic? Is there something about her experience that is likely to make her less able to render fair judgements than any other judge might?

This is a real poison pill, something Senators know a lot about. If she accepts the deal she maybe seen as unprincipled-just interested in the job. If she rejects the deal she will be perhaps painted as some as biased in just the way that Brownback claims, plus she is party to setting up even more absurd litmus tests for judges.

Neff was, by the way, nominated as part of a compromise between Senate Democrats and the Administration. The Washington Post notes that Brownback's hold on Neff has led to retaliation on the part of Democrats who have put holds on the other two more conservative nominees in the compromise.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Is this the new approach to ministry for LGBT people

A couple of articles via the Dignity Yahoo group:

First up we have this article on the American Bishop's recent letter (document) on the pastoral care of LGBT folks:

The article has an interview with a Father John Harvey from Courage, one of the ministries mentioned favorably in the Bishop's letter.

Father Harvey makes the following interesting statements:

"From all the psychological studies of homosexuality, there is no scientific evidence that you are born with the homosexual tendency. There is no evidence. In the future it might be that someone proves scientifically that some people are born as homosexuals, I doubt such would happen, but it might happen.

In the present state of scientific knowledge, however, this is no evidence that homosexuality is a condition, that it is passed down through a particular homosexual gene or is caused by a certain hormone. From what we know today, the main factors leading to a homosexual tendency all have to do with environment: family environment, school environment, adolescent environment.

This is only partly correct in the sense that there is no gene "for homosexuality". But homosexuality is clearly tied both to genetics and environment. The most recent literature on this complex topic is here:

Next what we gays supposed to make of this statement:

" Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, founder of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), in Encino, California, says it best when he says that there are no homosexuals, just heterosexuals with a homosexual tendency. "

Ah so if there is a problem...just define it away. Sounds like a great strategy but lets see how well it works here:

"There are no religious people just atheists with a religious tendency."

"There are no Protestants, just Catholics with a Protestant tendency"

Why is this logic correct for gays but wrong in my other two examples?

By the way here is more on Dr. Nicolosi and his travails:

Note that one of the therapies suggested by a NARTH associate for transgendered children presented by a NARTH associate is:

"that gender variant children should be sent to school in opposite-sex clothing so they can be "ridiculed" into conforming."

To be fair it doesn't look like this is a position of NARTH as a whole, for instance:

"Educators also have a duty to stop teasing and ridicule of children who do not conform to gender norms. Resources to educate teachers, lesson plans, and strategies for dealing with teasing need to be created and provided to teachers in Catholic schools, CCD programs, and other institutions."

More details on Berger's alleged advocacy of teasing and ridicule is at:

Ex gay watch noes that Berger's comments have been quietly removed from the NARTH website.

Unfortunately the rest of this document, which I have blogged on before, is full of errors and half truths about the nature of homosexuality and transgenderism, couched as such documents often are, with innocent sounding rhetoric.

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Some Mornings the World is Great

...even without caffeine. Consider these interesting articles:

Here is a news report from 2004
about an organism(?) that has some of the characteristics of viruses and cells. It's hard enough sometimes to distinguish between something that is alive and not alive, but now comes an organism called mimivirus that really gums things up because like regular viruses it seems to not carry out metabolism, and yet it has a number of the universal genes characteristic of cells. Also it has both DNA and RNA, along with some of the machinery for protein synthesis.

I found that report while reading this article about a computer simulation of a real virus called the tobacco mosaic virus.

The simulation is designed to test our understanding of how virus particles interact with their environment and attach to cells.

And in turn I got to that story from reading about llama antibodies which actually are missing some parts common to most other organisms:

These simpler antibodies are useful because they can easily be manipulated to produce molecules that can serve as biosensors to detect chemical and biological attacks. What I like about this story is that it is a good reminder of the serendipity of science. The scientists who first studied llama antibodies certainly did not study them with an eye to making biosensors, but rather from a basic science point of view-just curiosity. A lot of science is like that-scientists asking basic questions about how something works. Often these discoveries are accidental and only later does someone make the connection to a possible application.

In other science I am really interested that Russia wants to join the United States in its effort to return to the moon even if it is mainly by providing technology to us:

You might think, technology? Are we not the world's technology leaders? In many areas yes, but the Soviets produced a very reliable system of space transport without the complexity of the shuttle and I think we can learn a lot from their engineering approach.

People often think that nature is all about competition, but scientists know that nature has stunning examples of cooperation such as the one reported here

involving two species of fish the moray eel and the grouper that cooperate when hunting. The actual cooperation appears to be learned according to the article, but the issue is not so clear cut.

Not all the science news this morning is great. It is sobering to realize that the Ebola virus is killing many of the the world's remaining wild Gorillas

The authors note that the virus combined with poaching may be enough to cause Gorillas to go extinct. It would be sad if this important link to our evolutionary past and a wonderful creature would be lost, another victim of the current mass extinction event triggered by human activity.

Finally another article on the relationship between HIV and malaria points out that these two diseases reinforce each other in Africa.

HIV renders people more susceptible to malaria and malaria infection increases the load, or number of virus particles, in the bloodstream of persons with both diseases. This increases the potential for spread of the HIV virus. Plus, HIV infection makes people more likely to get infected by the malaria parasite.

Bad news in the short run, but good news because now we really understand that we need a broad scale attack on both these killers if Africa is going to develop economically.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Circus of the Spineless #15 up at Words and Pictures, so fly or swim or creep on over and take a look. Spineless #16 will he here at the end of the month.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Kicking an 82 year old Evangelical Ex President?

I have always felt that Jimmy Carter was a much better president than we deserved. He was a straight shooter who was not afraid to take an unpopular stand. Yet his gentle manner and an unfortunate tendency to micromanage got him into trouble. Dave Johnson over at Smirking Chimp takes a look at the Carter legacy and asks if at least some of Carter's poor reputation doesn't come from the Right's, what is now being called the Denial Industry.

I don't think he makes a good case for this, but the article is worth a look for what it says about Carter.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Call for Submissions-Circus of the Spineless #16

December's Circus of the Spineless (#16)will be here at the force, so if you blog on various sorts of invertebrates from insects to slugs to Tardigrades, and yes sea urchins and Acanthocephelans, creep on over to the Circus's submission page and send in your spineless blogging! If you want, you can also send submssions to me ( pdecell 'at' sunflower 'dot' com) Make sure you read the submission rules first.

The most recent Circus is at the Neurophilosopher's Web Log and it is going to be a hard act to follow. Spineless #15 should shortly be up at the Circus of the Spineless homepage.

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Mendel's Garden #9 Gene-gle Bells Edition

Take your sleigh on over to Salamander Candy and check out the finest in Genetics Blogging in the Gene-gle Bells Edition of Mendel's Garden! (Image courtesy of the Hive over at Salamander Candy)

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Brrrrrr.....welcome to Kansas and the kgb!

I love the changing seasons and only in Kansas can we go from butterflies

to ice

in one week. The first picture is from November 24 at Clinton Lake. Yes that is a butterfly-the ragged wings indicate that it is old, not a recently emerged. The second picture is actually from the ice storm we had in early 2001, since I did not get any good snow shots during this weekend's storm.

Carolyn over at A Prairie View played hooky on Friday but did manage to get some nice pictures of the snow. At BitterSweetLife, Ariel shows that the urban landscape gets transformed by the snow. Happy in Bag has a really shot just as the snow is starting to fall on the plaza. KS cowboy down in South Central Kansas has a bit of misguided longing for the old days.

John over at Argghhhh! blogs on the proposed test for new citizens and wonders how many high school graduates would pass...hmmmm.

Emawkc, over at Three O'Clock in the Morning (the REAL one) has been decorating his house and also has a fine meditation on free will and the meaning of life. He also sends this clever though some might say, irreverent, picture. Somehow this very short poem by j.d (not to be confused with h.d.) seems appropriate here.

John B. has an interesting series of posts on collage students(no that's not a typo) and I am struck by how similar the problems he faces in the humanities are to the ones I face in the sciences with college students. He writes:

"What my students appear to lack, more than intelligence, are two things: a) a sense of curiosity: the desire to seek out information about what they bump into in their reading, their listening, their looking around them; and b) excellence borne of caring--that is, the sense that what interests them will interest someone else and thus is worth the trouble of expressing clearly and with attention to detail in writing."

Reminds me of the comment I made to a student to goad him in to a modicum of interest in an online search exercise that if he didn't change his attitude he was going to end up as road kill on the information superhighway.

Some political blogging did happen this week: Josh over at Thoughts from Kansas and yours truly both note Justice Scalia's jaw dropping comments about Global warming. I also supply some supporting links to global warming related issues. Cold weather in Kansas gets us thinking a bit more about saving energy and there is an interesting thread at Thoughts from Kansas on using compact fluorescent bulbs.

Brings up a point. We have been experimenting with LED Christmas lights. They are cool to the touch and seem to last a long time. The color is very nice, but more intense and pure compared to regular Christmas bulbs. In fact I have a strand up over my fire place that has been going since last Christmas. They are much more expensive than regular bulbs so I wouldn't plan on replacing all your lights at once-plus new ones are coming out all the time.

Next Monday the kgb will be at Blog Meridian unless we hear otherwise.

You blog about Kansas and don't belong???? Well simply go to:

Put yourself on the kgb's Frapper map while you are there and send your submissions to kgb via the kgb's submission page. Don't make us come and find you!

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