150 Years of On The Origin of Species

November 24, 2009 on 12:13 am | In biology, culture, politics, science, travel | No Comments

150 years ago today, on November 24, 1959, the most important book in the history of biology was published.  Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species was, and still is, the foundation upon which all of modern biology rests, with its myriad applications in medicine, ecology, philosophy, and beyond.  I’ve sort of let blogging take a back seat now that I’m busy with school in the evenings and working to get my foot in the door of the academic world, so even at the momentous anniversary I will probably be content to just remind everyone how important biological science is, and ask that you consider making a charitable donation to an organization that supports scientific research and/or education.  Perhaps there’s a cancer research foundation whose work saved the life of a loved one, or a college scholarship fund that helps low-income students in your community pursue higher education in biology.  I am personally a fan of the National Center for Science Education, which is constantly waging the legal battles to protect our public school science cirricula from an ongoing, organized assault by creationist groups who seek to replace the discipline of biology with their dishonest and ignorant religious agenda. You can contribute to NCSE here.  Lastly, I’ll mention that the National Science Foundation has put together an excellent resource in celebration of the Origin of Species anniversary, which can be found here.  I highly recommend checking it out!

I’m leaving on a business trip to Dubai on Saturday, which will be my first real adventure outside of the United States (except for the 51st state, aka Canada)*.  I hope to have some cool pictures and stories to share from the UAE next week, so stay tuned.

* Just kidding, ay? I love you, Canucks.

On Obama’s health care reform speech

September 10, 2009 on 9:40 am | In culture, ethics, health, politics | 6 Comments

Last night, President Barack Obama delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress with a boldness and clarity that I think has been lacking since the end of his campaign.  His address laid out his proposals for health care reform in clear, concise language. He clobbered the atrocious lies and distortions that have been spread in the media lately as well as the anti-reform ideologues that started them. He also achieved the important goal of framing health care reform as a moral issue, and as a fundamental economic security issue:

“Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem. Nothing else even comes close.”
                                            -President Barack Obama

The address was also masterful political theater, clearly crafted to assert the President’s authority before the assembled chambers of Congress on the issue which may define his presidency.  Even reform opponents played their part in the spectacle: at a moment in his speech when Obama clearly asserted that his health care proposals would explicitly exclude coverage for undocumented immigrants, the traditionally quiet decorum of the event was punctuated by South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, who loudly shouted “You lie!” at the president. President Obama could not have illustrated the vapid thoughtlessness of health care reform’s enemies any better than that.

Now, while I certainly found much to commend in the president’s speech, it wasn’t all rainbows and whiskey.  As a progressive who favors a single-payer health care system, I can’t say that I agree with all of President Obama’s proposals.  In particular, I feel that private, for-profit health insurance companies represent a fundamental conflict of interest between investors’ expectation of profit and patients’ need for medical care.  Obama is pushing for new laws that will limit insurance companies’ strategies to maximize their profit, which appears to be a nuanced, measured compromise — but in practice, it will be the federal government that bears the burden of enforcing these laws, and that means it will take time for insurance companies to comply with the new laws. We can nearly rest assured that their compliance will be grudging and constantly in search of loopholes. Put simply, the new laws Obama proposed would not fully resolve that fundamental conflict of interest.  I realize that Obama’s proposals are a political and practical solution rather than an ideal one, and I encourage everyone to support any legislation that accomplishes the goals he set.  My criticism is only meant to serve as a reminder that the fight for equity, fairness, compassion, and justice in the U.S. health system will not end with the passage of health care reform. I think that Bad Astronomer Phil Plait expressed a similar point regarding Obama’s education speech on Tuesday very well, and with all due tribute, I will repost the image here that he used to do so:

“It is time for us to lead once again”

April 28, 2009 on 2:41 am | In biology, epidemiology, ethics, fauna, health, humor, people, politics, science | 2 Comments

I regret having just set a personal record for the longest period of time between posts.  But let’s forget about that right now, because today there are a couple BIG events to talk about.

Swine flu: Having very recently mutated to allow human/human transmission, it has already spread around the globe, leading to fears of a global pandemic.  To be fair, I think the mainstream news media have been doing more to fan the flames of fear (while sanctimoniously denying any intent to do so) than the flu itself.  As of this evening early Tuesday morning, only 40 50 cases had been reported inside the United States, and not a single fatality. CDC laboratory tests thus far indicates that the infection responds well to antiviral drugs such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza), which are being stockpiled in a number of states.  Maryland has already opened a swine flu command center right in my home city of Baltimore, in anticipation of likely infections occurring in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area.  CDC lab tests have also indicated that the other two FDA-approved antiviral drugs for flu, amantadine (Symmetrel) and rimantadine (Flumadine), are ineffective against the swine flu.  Both oseltamivir and zanamivir are neuraminidase inhibitors, which work by blocking the action of the viral neuraminidase protein.  This is the protein on the surface of influenza viruses that allows it to be released from the host cell in the process known as “budding.”  Amantadine and rimantadine are both M2 protein inhibitors, drugs whose mechanism of action involves blocking the ion channel that removes a virion’s coating and releases its genetic content into the cytoplasm of the host cell.  It is worth noting that poultry farmers in China used amantadine to guard againt the H5N1 avian flu in chickens, an ill-advised practice (H. sapiens as an agent of natural selection!) that has led to the abundance of influenza strains resistant to amantadine.

It’s too early yet to tell whether the swine-flu fatalities in Mexico will be seen here in the United States or elsewhere around the world, but we probably won’t have to wait very long to find out.  As the eccentric chaotician Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, “life finds a way” – we had better work hard to ensure that it’s human life that finds a way this time.  If you’re wondering what you can do, look at this guide on the US Department of Health and Human Services’ PandemicFlu.gov website.  And, of course, you can follow the CDC’s swine flu updates on Twitter.

In that vein, I lastly want to commend President Barack Obama, who, speaking today before the National Academy of Sciences, made a remarkable (and badly needed) commitment to the advancement of American science. After describing how the current swine flu emergency should remind us of the necessity of science, and among many breaks for applause, Obama said:

I believe it is not in our character, the American character, to follow.  It’s our character to lead.  And it is time for us to lead once again.  So I’m here today to set this goal:  We will devote more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development.  We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science.

That’s why I campaigned for this guy. Let’s all make sure we hold him to this promise.

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…

Atheist Soldier Sues The DoD, and The Evolution of Compassion

July 8, 2008 on 8:26 am | In culture, ethics, politics | 6 Comments

This April, The New York Times reported the case of U.S. Army Specialist Jeremy Hall, a soldier who started a chapter of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and subsequently had to be removed from Iraq due to numerous threats from his fellow soldiers.  Now, I’m not exactly surprised by this.  I’d expect the military to be drooling with evangelicals, of course.  And I could probably cynically overlook verbal harassment of an atheist in the armed forces, just because I expect that sort of bullshit from indoctrinated meat-heads.  But physical threats?  That really is beyond the pale.  Now, Spc. Hall is suing the Department of Defense and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld for failing to protect his freedom from religious persecution as protected by the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution.  You go boy.

Seriously, this is not the sort of reputation the military should want, given that non-religious Americans are the largest (non) religious group after Christians.  They have enough trouble recruiting as it is!  This is just another example, sadly, of Christians thinking the world revolves around them.  It’s bad enough that brave men and women who are devoted to the service of their country were blithely thrown into harm’s way in Iraq by a callous and evangelically-motivated administration… but non-religious soldiers’ lives are threatened by their loving, Christian comrades-in-arms as well?  What a disgusting blemish on our armed forces.  I hope Spc. Hall wins his lawsuit and the DoD cracks down on prosyletizing by officers.

Axelrod, Robert: The Evolution of Cooperation I haven’t posted anything in a while, have I?  Still, life marches on.  I got some paperwork done that’s been taking forever (to put it mildly).  I also was inspired by the news I wrote about in my previous post, and decided to read Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Compassion.  This book tells the story of his experiment: a computer tournament in the early 1980s that pitted programs submitted by game theorists from various academic disciplines (as well as an 11 year old computer prodigy) in the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game (a classic thought experiment).  It’s quite interesting, and you can expect me to write a more in-depth review when I’ve finished it.

P.S. – I would love to get some comments on my posts.  If you’re reading this, any feedback will be appreciated.  It’s hard to talk myself into posting when it feels like no one is reading! I’d really like to get this blog fired up.

What would a Barack Obama administration do for science?

June 9, 2008 on 2:29 am | In culture, health, people, politics, science | No Comments

So I was (again) reading over Barack Obama’s campaign press release about his plans to promote scientific research and education, and there’s a lot to like in there. Obama is aggressively in support of expanding federally funded embryonic stem cell research. So much has been said about that topic that I am not going to go into it right now, but to be clear: that’s a 180 degree reversal from the Bush administration policy on stem cell research. I also had not been aware already that Obama helped write and was an original cosponsor of the Minority Health Improvement and Health Disparity Elimination Act, which hopefully will become law after the current criminal administration is sent packing. The whole text of the bill is in the last link, but the Obama press release describes it thus:

The bill puts new emphasis on disparity research by reporting health care data by race and ethnicity, as well as socioeconomic status and health literacy. The legislation outlines mechanisms to conduct educational outreach to minorities, increase diversity among health care professionals, and improve the delivery of health care to minorities.

If we’re going to have national health care, this sort of thing is critical and taxpayers should actually be demanding it! Preventative medicine is always cheaper than treating ailments and disease, and the potential benefits of a healthy population go far beyond the lower cost of health care (increased economic productivity, decreased poverty, decreased crime, decreased drug abuse, the list is endless).

What really turns me on the most about Obama’s priorities, though, was this part of the document:

Improve and Prioritize Science Assessments: Assessments should reflect the range of knowledge and skills students should acquire. Science assessments need to do more than test facts and concepts. They need to use a range of measures to test inquiry and higher order thinking skills including inference, logic, data analysis and interpretation, forming questions, and communication. High-performing states like Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, use an assessment that calls for students to design and conduct investigations, analyze and present data, write up and defend results. Barack Obama will work with governors and educators to ensure that state assessments measure these skills.

I cannot overemphasize how crucial that is! American science education is fast becoming a joke on the international level. With rare exceptions, I was not taught how to use inference, logic, or data analysis in the public high school system, and I went to a half-decent public high school—ten years ago! Most inner-city and some rural schools are far worse. Prioritizing how to think over what to think is the key to producing bright, engaged, and enthusiastic students who actually get what science is all about and are well prepared to hit the ground running when they find the field of science that really inspires them. After I finish graduate school, to the extent possible, I’d like to be involved in changing American science education. One dream I have is to work for Eugenie Scott and the National Center For Science Education, which does great work defending public school curricula against religious zealots who try to force intelligent design into the science classroom. I donated $10 to them to offset the damage done when I bought a ticket to Ben Stein’s disgusting crock-umentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. If you ever doubt the sniveling academic dishonesty of I.D. proponents, watch that film (download a pirated copy off the internet, please) and read how well the good people who made ExpelledExposed.com eviscerate just about every claim the film makes.

So, having veered just a bit off topic for a moment there, I’ll try to bring this back to the Obama science plan and wrap it up. From what I’ve read, I am cautiously optimistic that a Barack Obama administration would be a very science-friendly one. I think he doesn’t go quite far enough in emphasizing the need for interdisciplinary physical, chemical, and biological systems research. He also needs to use that generic science document better to tie into other large issues that are addressed elsewhere on the campaign website, and which I haven’t yet had time to peruse. I hope to post in the near future my thoughts on Obama’s proposed energy and environmental policies, and his position on NASA (as well as contrasting these with those of John McCain). For the rest of tonight, though, I would be glad just to get enough sleep so as not to be a total zombie at work tomorrow. I haven’t quit my day job yet; the blogging doesn’t have me rolling in benjamins yet like I hoped it would ;-)

For now, I’ll leave you with this video from a few weeks ago when my favorite artist and role model Dr. Greg Graffin was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism by the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy. It’s got him playing a few acoustic Bad Religion songs as well as talking about the award and why he prefers the label “naturalist” versus “atheist.” Wish I could have been there for this!

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