The evolution of watches

 evolution  Comments Off on The evolution of watches
Oct 292007
PZ Myers is one the internet’s most sarcastic and unapologetic atheists, and occasionally this leads him to say things I find extremely disagreeable. His lightning-rod status, however, means that he occasionally picks up some very interesting stuff from the interwebs. By this I do not mean his regular e-mails from the religious fringe, but instead the stuff he finds in support of evolution. As a case in point, this post where he gets an interesting video in which watches are evolved in silico from random parts. You should go check it out; it will take about 10 minutes for an entertaining explanation. Particularly note the way that the evolution plays out—relatively stable forms persist for huge numbers of generations and then rapidly change into completely different forms. Apply this knowledge the next time someone trots out the “no transitional fossils” argument.

Also, RIP Arthur Kornberg, Nobel Prize winner and great biochemist. Despite his gifts, his own research might be his secondary contribution, as his biological and scientific progeny may prove the greater. They already include another Nobelist. As scientists, we are always tempted to see our own work as being of paramount importance, but the training we give to our students and the spirit of enquiry we impart to our children are truly our greatest gift. Any scientist who neglects these aspects of his or her legacy is a failure, no matter how many splashy publications decorate his or her CV.

Playing it safe

 books, homosexuality  Comments Off on Playing it safe
Oct 242007
Is it really such a big deal that Dumbledore was crushing on young Gellert back in the heady, free-loving days before the war? Does it really change anything about the books? Heck, does it even change anything about the fans’ perceptions of the books? Rowling commented, “God, the fanfiction,” but that just shows she’s never heard of rule 34. The body of fanfiction based on the Potter novels is so vast as to be beyond the comprehension of any sane man, and at least a quarter of it is probably porn. Rowling, imaginative as she may be, could not possibly conceive of anything that fanfic writers have not already turned into treacly, overwrought prose riddled with misspellings, atrocious grammar, and cell-phone language.

I don’t doubt that this will add more fuel to the fire of fundamentalists already out to burn the books for daring to mention witchcraft and to promote tolerance. And I have already been subjected to a diatribe accusing Rowling of using this to “drum up publicity” for the books, which is patently ridiculous. For one thing, Harry Potter has so thoroughly permeated popular culture that it is almost certainly impossible to publicize it further. For another, J.K. Rowling is already wealthier than the Queen of England. If your personal wealth overmasters that of a family that spent centuries sucking dry the marrow-bones of indigenous peoples then you hardly need the extra publicity a gay controversy will give you.

Even in the context of the books, this is a minor fact. It fills out the story of Dumbledore’s fascination with Gellert, but this is hardly necessary as the books themselves give a strong account of his feelings. It casts an interesting light on his relationships with Snape and Harry, but it doesn’t really make any more sense of them. While it might be interesting for the fans to know that Rowling thought of Dumbledore as gay, knowing this doesn’t really add much to the depth of the story.

I’ve even seen some comments saying that it was brave of Rowling to admit that Dumbledore was gay. Well, it fits her books’ themes of tolerance. But “brave”? For admitting that a secondary character was gay months after the final volume of her series wrung its billions from the best-seller list? Not a chance. “Brave” would apply if Harry had secretly crushed on Oliver Wood, gotten beaten up for glancing one too many times at the other blokes in the Quidditch showers, and shyly asked Ron to be his date at the Yule Ball. But Rowling never took such chances.

For all that can be praised about the Potter books, it’s important to realize that Rowling always played them perfectly safe. The teenage romance was chaste and hardly emotional. The abuses Harry suffered in his adoptive home were never of a kind that truly threatened his well-being. Neither Harry nor any of his friends was ever truly tempted by evil. She rarely played with ambiguity — with very few exceptions, Harry’s foes were completely unhinged monsters or obstinately ignorant to the point of irrationality (or, like Umbridge, both). Neither Harry nor the reader was ever remotely tempted to take their side. I’m not criticizing her for this — were I lucky enough to be in her position I might take the same approach. But let’s not make the Potter novels into something they’re not. And let’s not give Rowling’s pronouncements about them more than the momentary notice they’re due.

Oct 182007
I won’t give the disgusting old bastard the benefit of a link; even leading the modest readership of this blog to his vile comments is too much a service to them. You’ll probably find them on your own before too long. I don’t want to apply clearly fallacious reasoning to the man’s own abominable beliefs, but please, when you read his dismissals of Rosalind Franklin as an autistic harpy, remember that the man is an ill-informed racist pig.

There are heroes in the world of structural biology, but Watson is no longer one of them, if ever he was. Crick at least had a chance to make his voice heard so that history will always know his side of the story. I pity poor Rosalind Franklin, who will probably be lost to the future because of Watson’s endless denigration of her personality and work.

In other news, I seem to finally have made the fold feature work.

Policy and the law of prudence

 environment  Comments Off on Policy and the law of prudence
Oct 152007
The one thing I find most infuriating in debates about anthropogenic warming is the inevitable point in the conversation when the denialist states that we shouldn’t do anything because we aren’t really sure that humans cause global warming. If you point out to him that the vast majority of scientists believe the evidence supports this conclusion, he will either point out that scientists 30 years ago were wrong about something relating to climate (the “global cooling” gambit), or that people have been wrong about things before (“everyone believed the earth was flat”). Both these points are irrelevant: forecasting technology has improved vastly, and it was not scientists who believed the earth was flat (most educated people knew it to be a sphere), but backwards hicks like himself. But there’s a more important point to be made: when it comes to policy decisions, it doesn’t matter whether we cause global warming or not.

In the first case, most of the things we need to do about climate change are just plain good ideas, whether the earth is warming or not. We need more efficient ways to grow and transport our food. We need to end our dependence on the finite resource of fossil fuels. We need to make our cities better filters of their own pollution. We need better water management. We need to end suburban sprawl. We need to control the global population of human beings. It doesn’t matter whether our planet is warming, cooling, or staying the same: almost all mitigation policies make sense in any context. For policymakers to sit on their hands and ignore these steps is inexcusable, regardless of their belief in anthropogenic warming.

When it comes to emissions caps, however, the typical denialist will draw his line in the sand. Why ruin the economy if we aren’t sure that warming is our fault? Leaving aside the fact that economic forecasts are at least as unreliable as climactic ones (and therefore just as bad a reason to make decisions), there is a very good reason to alter our policies to eliminate emissions of all kinds. This is the law of prudence: If you don’t know how it works, don’t mess with it, especially if you’re stuck with it.

You don’t try to jack around in the engine before you board your passenger flight to Miami. You don’t screw with the wheels before you get into a roller coaster. Why not? Because you don’t know how it works, and once you get on that thing you can’t get off. The same principle applies here. We’re stuck on this planet; we can’t leave and start over. If we ruin it, we will all die. Thus, if you truly believe that our best scientists really don’t know enough about this planet to say how its climate system works, then your only rational choice is to minimize our impact on that system.

Denialists love to argue that we’re uncertain about climate change as if ignorance is a reason for inaction, but this does not follow. Inaction is a decision, and it is the wrong decision to make when faced with uncertainty. When ignorant of an essential system’s mechanics, we do not want to damage it, and that means not screwing with it. The reduction of all forms of pollution (including carbon) as rapidly as possible is the best decision we can make if we’re unsure of what’s going on with our environment. If, as is the case, we suspect or believe that our actions are outright harmful, then elimination of emissions is the only reasonable option.

You’ll hear the uncertainty argument again; in fact, you’ve probably already heard it once today if you’ve had a discussion about Gore’s Nobel Prize or the environment generally. Uncertainty is always used as an justification for inaction, but it actually supports the opposite.

For Blog Action Day

The new Nobelity

 environment, politics  Comments Off on The new Nobelity
Oct 122007
I try not to pay too much attention to the Nobel Prizes, because the recipients are usually either boring, obvious choices or stupid ones. This time around, most fell into the former category. The choice of Capecchi, Evans, and Smithies for their development of the genomic knockout mouse was as unassailable as it was inevitable, and Fert and Grünberg’s award for giant magnetoresistance shared both those properties. Gerhard Ertl‘s work, which probably sounds dull or obvious to the layman, is in fact of staggering significance, and his prize too was richly deserved, if not particularly exciting to read about. I can’t recall ever having read anything by Doris Lessing, but this is true of most Nobel Literature Prize winners. I have always been confused by the idea of awarding a literary achievement prize to anyone who is still alive, anyway (more on that in another post, perhaps). Some have complained about her award, but the controversy on this prize is muted, especially compared to the storm that broke with today’s announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize. No doubt you’ve heard that the prize was given to Al Gore, just days after a British judge debunked his film, which reflects poorly on our media. In fact, Gore was a co-recipient with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the judge, though he found that the film advocated a viewpoint and contained nine errors (most of them insignificant or understandable), did not dispute its central message. These facts are related, and understanding that relationship is, I think, essential.

The finding that An Inconvenient Truth advocates a viewpoint is unsurprising, because Al Gore is unapologetically an advocate for controlling anthropogenic warming. He is not a scientist, but a man who uses science (sometimes disputed science) to send a message. The Peace Prize has been awarded to advocates before, and justly so. Indeed, it would be completely unreasonable to award it to someone who was not some kind of advocate — gazing at your navel and saying “Apartheid is bad” does not qualify you for any kind of award, while getting thrown in prison for trying to end it arguably does.

On these grounds it would be inappropriate to give the Prize to the IPCC on its own. The IPCC is a scientific organization, and advocacy or even the appearance of advocacy would significantly undermine its mission. Gore and his allies make use of the IPCC’s findings, and indeed without the weight of the IPCC consensus their fight against anthropogenic warming would go the same way as the awakening that followed the publication of Silent Spring. Gore is a strong, visible advocate, the sort of person or organization that deserves the prize, but though the IPCC did all the hard work, it is not an advocate, and would be practically invisible without the help of Gore and his friends. Without the scientists, the advocacy would be ignored, and without the advocates the scientists would be ignored. As such, if a Peace Prize is to be given for the fight against warming, both must be honored. That is what the committee did.

Was it justified to give a Peace Prize for this? At first blush, it might not seem that warming has all that much to do with peace. Of course this isn’t particularly relevant — the Peace Prize has been awarded in the past for innovative banking approaches, service to the poor, and agricultural research. But if you want to be a stickler nonetheless, you should know that the effects of anthropogenic warming are likely to be a significant threat to security in this century, and perhaps the largest threat. If you think I’m not a credible witness on this point, perhaps you will listen to Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, Adm. Frank Bowman, Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell Jr., V. Adm. Paul G. Gaffney II, Gen. Paul J. Kern, Adm. T. Joseph Lopez, Adm. Donald Pilling, Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, V. Adm. Richard H. Truly, Gen. Charles F. Wald, and Gen. Anthony C. Zinni. If you don’t want to read their report detailing the security threat to the United States from warming, I’ll give you the short version.

Climate change will cause agricultural disaster and population displacements in some of the most unstable places in this world. Rising sea levels will push millions of refugees out of Bangladesh. Changing rainfall/snowfall patterns will cause water shortages in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and these droughts will be accompanied by famine and disease. The cruel fact is that the countries hardest hit by global warming will probably be those least capable of mitigating its effects. The natural result of this tumult will be resource wars, including the possibility of wars involving nuclear powers such as India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and China. Famine, disease, and war will displace millions in these regions, leading to increased competition for resources in more habitable regions and an increasing strain of immigrants in nations where the effects of climate change have not been so dire.

In my own view, it is likely that societies facing this degree of resource scarcity will fracture along ethnic or tribal lines, leading to repeated incidents of genocide much like that we have seen in Darfur. Hopefully the situation will not advance to the point of nuclear war, but it is entirely possible that unhinged tribalists in unstable countries like Pakistan will decide that if they cannot have the resources, nobody can. Unchecked, global warming may well lead to war and an era of genocide unlike anything the world has yet known, including the unthinkable prospect of a second nuclear war. Only this time, the victim will be able to return fire in kind.

Was this the committee’s justification? I couldn’t tell you. It probably contributed, but it’s equally fair to say that they were likely motivated by a political desire to tweak the Bush administration. It’s fair to say that Bush deserved it, as his attitude towards the problem has been abominably stupid. More broadly, they may have meant the endorsement to help silence global warming deniers, though at this point the outright denial of warming is so far to the fringe that it will likely have no effect among stalwarts. At this point the essential debate concerns the policies that ought be adopted in light of the warming trend — in my view, the committee’s action will add weight to the IPCC recommendations. The choice is still rightfully controversial, but it isn’t outrageous or improper. They’ve made worse decisions.

The Gore-IPCC Peace Prize will be widely discussed for some time, and it is to be hoped that by awarding this prize the committee will encourage new efforts on greenhouse gas reduction and climate change mitigation. But the committee has tried to use the prize in such a way before, without success.