Happy Darwin Day!

February 12, 2009 on 2:20 am | In culture, people, science | 2 Comments

Charles Darwin

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the British naturalist whose publication in 1859 of On the Origin of Species laid the foundation for virtually all subsequent discoveries in biology.  He did for the Western world’s understanding of life what Galileo did for our understanding of the heavens, and what Newton did for our understanding of physical forces.  Each year on February 12, those who appreciate the magnitude of Darwin’s contribution to human knowledge celebrate Darwin Day in his honor.  You are probably aware also that today is Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday as well.  Yes, Darwin and Lincoln were born on the exact same day in 1809.  And Abraham Lincoln founded the United States National Academy of Science! There seems to be no shortage of scientific significance today.

This year is not only Darwin’s bicentennial, but also the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.  It’s also the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of a telescope, and the 400th anniversary of the publication of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova (which described his first two Laws of Planetary Motion). Wow! These coinciding anniversaries are among a number of reasons that a grassroots coalition called COPUS has established 2009 as a national Year of Science (YoS).  YoS 2009 is a national, yearlong celebration and campaign aimed at getting scientists out of the laboratory from time to time and into the public spotlight to share their research and raise public awareness and enthusiasm for science.  Both amateur and  professional scientists and science educators can get involved, and I intend to do my part by writing more actively this year and by beginning to apply to graduate schools.  Here’s hoping that the latter turns into a lifelong, professional involvement on my part…

Today, you can do your part by refreshing your knowledge of evolution by natural selection in this brief synopsis at DarwinDay.net.  If that’s all elementary to you, then challenge yourself by reading some evolutionary news at Science Daily.  And lastly, I’ll be celebrating a belated Darwin Day with friends when I fly back to Baltimore tomorrow night, most likely at Joe² restaurant & bar on North Avenue and Howard Street.  Leave a comment if you want to join me.  Let’s raise a glass to evolution!

Edit:  Also, check out this essay by Susan Jacoby in today’s Washington Post. It’s an excellent commentary on Darwin’s lasting impact.

Okefenokee dokey

February 11, 2009 on 1:00 am | In culture, people, science, travel | No Comments

The internet bandwidth at my hotel here in Georgia is having its own little recession.  So, I don’t really have the patience to research and write a good entry tonight.  I’m in Waycross for work through Friday, and I hope to catch a glimpse of some gators at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge while I’m here!

I’m looking into ways of boosting readership, since a limited audience is the main reason I don’t write prolifically.  On the other hand, I’m less likely to post pointless drivel than I would someplace like Livejournal.  I’m looking at crossposting plugins, and I will probably find a way to publish my new posts via email to willing friends and colleagues.

Hopefully they’ll have the broadband fixed tomorrow and I’ll be able to get something of substance up here.  I’m considering a few good stories as topics.  In the meantime, I hope you’re preparing for the most important Darwin Day in your lifetime – this Thursday, February 12, is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday! Check out the Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin! page at the Year Of Science 2009 website for lots of perspective on Darwin’s impact as viewed from his bicentennial.  To find Darwin Day events near you, check out DarwinDay.net!

What The Future Holds

December 24, 2008 on 4:01 pm | In people, science | No Comments

I’ve been more than a little slack the past few months in updating Survival Machine.  But the impending new year brings with it the potential for resolutions, and I expect to make plenty of those.  In the short term, I need to upgrade WordPress to 2.7.  I also need to finish the lecture series I’ve been listening to, Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, 2nd Edition by Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky.  It’s a great refresher course considering all the neurobio knowledge I once gained and haven’t needed to exercise since.  I expect to have both of those done by the time New Years’ Day rolls around, and I expect to hit the ground running in 2009.

Meanwhile, I’ll share something with you that I expect you’ll enjoy.  Nearly a year ago, when Suvival Machine was all fresh and new, I linked to Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog and his entry about the Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2007.  Bad Astronomy has since moved to the Discover Magazine blogs site, and true to form, Phil has done it again.  Here you are: The Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2008.  Enjoy.

My favorite of the top ten for 2008, spiral galaxy NGC 7331:

NGC 7331

On Victory…

November 6, 2008 on 6:58 pm | In culture, people, politics | No Comments

I spent Tuesday in Philadelphia, “getting out the vote”.  I place that term in quotes because almost every person I spoke with had already voted.  Among the hundreds of doors I knocked on, I did not encounter a single registered voter that was choosing not to vote.  This kind of widespread enthusiasm is the reason that American voters chose Barack Obama over John McCain by a margin of over 7.7 million votes.  And it’s a testament to the inspirational power of President-Elect Obama.  There were college students and professors partying in the streets here in my Baltimore neighborhood—16 of them were even arrested for disorderly conduct!  Let’s see another president draw that kind of response after winning an election!  I am very happy to have played a part in a truly uplifting moment in American history.  Even with the economy in the toilet, this is the most hopeful I’ve ever felt about this country, and I dare even say it’s brightened my outlook for mankind in general.  President Barack Hussein Obama.  I like the sound of that.

Edit: It turns out that the one person stunned by a police taser gun at the Charles Village celebration was actually a McCain supporter who was just trying to get back to his apartment. Way to go, Baltimore City Police Department!

On Election Day eve

November 3, 2008 on 9:53 pm | In culture, people, politics | No Comments

I’ve been busy lately with Obama/Biden campaign activities.  Somewhat.  To be honest, I’ve also been feeling disorangized and  not quite sure what I want to write about in this blog.  I am hoping that when the election is over, I’ll be able to make myself unplug a bit from the news cycle and get back to science reporting.  I’ll be voting tomorrow morning, and then carpooling to the Philadelphia metro area for the democratic Get Out The Vote operation.  In addition to Obama/Biden, I’m also watching the senate races in Minnesota and North Carolina closely.  Why? Regarding Minnesota, I read Al Franken’s book Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot when I was in high school, and the notion of him infurating conservatives in congress as he struts down the halls of the US Capitol brings glee to my heart.  And for North Carolina, I’m mainly hoping to see Sen. Elizabeth Dole lose her seat after running this despicable ad that implies atheists are bad people.  And I hope the door hits her in the ass on the way out.

Bill Ayers Is A Good Person

October 7, 2008 on 12:20 pm | In culture, ethics, people, politics | No Comments

Since Barack Obama doesn’t know him well, and since I’ve clearly endorsed Barack Obama for president, I’d like to take a quick moment to make a distinction between my own view of Bill Ayers and Senator Obama’s. Senator Obama is of course running for the highest elected office in the United States, so political reality necessitates that he strongly condemn Ayers’ actions during the late 1960s and early 1970s (and he has). I, on the other hand, feel that Ayers is being demonized unfairly. If I were trying to win the presidency, I probably wouldn’t say that. But most of America is still stuck in the violence-numb state of slumber that Ayers and the Weathermen were protesting with their bombs. It’s crucially important to tell or remind people that the Weather Underground bombings never killed anyone except Weather Underground activists (by accident). Right-wing critics have tried to blame several contemporaneous fatal bombings, for which no responsibility was ever claimed, on the Weather Underground. But after the accident that killed several Weathermen in a Greenwich Village townhouse on March 6, 1970, no one was killed by any Weather Underground-claimed bombings. The acts of property destruction occurred mostly at night, or with warning given to evacuate the area, or both. The intended aim of the Weather Underground was to wake America up to the genocide it was inflicting in southeast Asia.

In the course of this election cycle, Obama’s critics have frequently e-mailed this article about Ayers’ memoir, which coincidentally was published in the New York Times on September 11, 2001. Read it, but be sure also to read Ayer’s letter to the New York Times of September 15, 2001, in which he corrects the record on his disposition toward explosives and terrorism—and repudiates the 9/11 attacks for the depraved acts of intolerance and hatred that they were. And if you’re not familiar with the Weather Underground, the Wikipedia entry about it is a good place to start.

Without belaboring the point, I’d just like to say that I believe the actions of the Weather Underground were called for by the urgency of their era, and that Bill Ayers should be recognized as a courageous activist who took extensive personal risks to make a stand against terror and genocide. He is neither a murderer nor a terrorist, but he is a great American.

The First Presidential Debate: Barack Obama v. John McCain (Live Blog!)

September 26, 2008 on 7:55 pm | In people, politics | No Comments

Here we go – the debate party has started at my house; there’s about 15 or so Obama supporters gathered at my apartment and squeezed into my living room watching PBS and waiting for the debate to start. Beer is plentiful, the mood is excited and hopeful, and we’re having a great time. The debate should start in 5 minutes if it happens on time.


The debate is underway – some good questions from Jim Lehrer, and the candidates’ responses have been rather low key thus far. Lehrer is trying to inject a note of levity and get the candidates to address each other directly. Obama has been directing his responses toward McCain. McCain on the other hand, seems like he’s not willing to look Obama in the eye even while addressing him. He keeps looking at Jim Lehrer. So far it’s all been about the economy. No real foreign policy questions yet. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when it goes there…


We’re on to actual foreign policy so far. And, at this point, we’re all very pleased with how well Obama is doing. He’s scoring some direct hits and coming off as passionate, clear-headed, and perceptive. He just threw a really good punch directly at McCain, referencing the “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” song that McCain once sang (paraphrasing the Beach Boys). Awesome. Now McCain is on to some sad war stories. Oh, brother – cry me a river.


Wrap-up: I didn’t post any more updates to this live blog during the actual debate, but now that the party’s wrapped up and I’ve had time to clean my apartment, I can say this much: Obama won the debate. And that’s more than just my opinon. Now I’m looking forward to Thursday night’s debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, which is sure to be a circus of laughs. And don’t fret, Survival Machine readers, because I intend to get back to making relatively regular posts this week, and I’ll lay off the politics (unless something spectacular happens). Stay tuned…

Live-blogging the Presidential Debate Tonight

September 26, 2008 on 8:08 am | In people, politics | No Comments

I realize I’ve been missing in action for a while, and I have reasons (some good, some lame) for that. I’ll cover what’s been happening in science in the next few days. But first, tonight is the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. I realize it may be cancelled or postponed, but I am hosting a debate watch party at my apartment and I intend to live-blog the debate on Survival Machine tonight. Watch for a new post followed by live updates to that post starting at around 8:45 PM Eastern Daylight Time tonight. This should be interesting, to say the least! See you tonight…

As the world burns…

August 29, 2008 on 8:27 pm | In culture, humor, people, travel | No Comments

For the moment, I’m sitting next to Celeste on a dust-covered couch – one of many in this covered pavilion at the center of Black Rock City, Nevada. Lots of whimsy,  nonsense, dust storms, and the American Dream are alive and well here in this god-forsaken desert. Somehow I found wi-fi access and am taking this brief moment to let you know that our gang is healthy and having fun, and we’ll be back to Maryland faster than you can sing a commercial jingle.

A little while ago, on the walk here, we heard someone reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas over a P.A., for anyone within earshot to enjoy. Tonight, we’re going hippie fishing. If you’ve never heard of it, just know that it involves fishing line, a glowstick, and confused ravers in the dark.

The icons of economic recession… tattoos?

July 30, 2008 on 11:39 pm | In culture, humor, people | No Comments

I know there are still, and probably always will be, fuddy-duddies out there.  But I couldn’t help wondering whether the Washington Post was joking when they recently posted the op-ed Ink-Stained Wretchedness by Colonel Sanders-impersonator¹ Richard Cohen.  This is just a quick ‘WTF?’ entry… thanks to Aaron for pointing it out.

…the tattoos of today are not minor affairs or miniatures placed on the body where only an intimate or an internist would see them. Today’s are gargantuan, inevitably tacky, gauche and ugly. They bear little relationship to the skin that they’re on. They don’t represent an indelible experience or membership in some sort of group but an assertion that today’s whim will be tomorrow’s joy. After all, a tattoo cannot be easily removed. It takes a laser — and some cash.

Are we supposed to believe that Colonel—ahem—Mister Cohen gets to know the people wearing the art well enough to determine what their relationship to it truly is?  Is he an adept translator of Hebrew, Chinese, or Sanskrit (what Cohen calls “Hindi”) characters?  I suspect not.  And I sorely doubt that he gets to see the “minor affair” tattoos on the bodies of many “intimates” in person these days—so how does he know whether they are still popular? And let’s get this out of the way: watching porn does not provide our intrepid cultural anthropologist with a representative cross-section of today’s youth.

Is the Washington Post required to keep publishing this guy’s column?  Do newspapers have some kind of secret tenure system I’m not privy to?  For disclosure’s sake, I do have three tattoos, all of which are visual (at least in warm climate) to the general public.  And this fuddy-duddy did just call me a loser:

The tattoo is the battle flag of today in its war with tomorrow. It is carried by sure losers.

But, in his very next sentence, he continues:

About 40 percent of younger Americans (26 to 40) have tattoos.

What a grim vision of the future Mr. Cohen has.  I hope he can take some comfort in the likelihood that he probably won’t be around to witness much more of it.

¹ I think Brooks Wackerman does a better job.

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