Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Transhumanism comic (I apologize in advance)

So, there's really no excuse for this, but here it is anyway:
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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Well Thank God for THAT: Royal Wedding Air

So, have you been wondering what bottled privilege smells like?

Here's your chance to buy some air bottled on the day of the upcoming royal wedding.

Yes, air.

The description from the website.
How would you like to have a part of the Royal wedding, get a sniff of what it was like to be there?

Royal wedding day air will soon be available to you as a souvenir of the biggest day in Royal history this century.

Our team of air collectors will be in the heart of London on the big day to collect air for you to enjoy and display in pride of place in your home.
I don't know whether it's too late to submit your application to join the "team of air collectors."

I assume that this is primarily aimed at the gag-gift market, in both senses of the word "gag."

WTF, 1942? Bugs Bunny dons blackface to sell war bonds.

So, one of the features of studying things like biological species or languages, is that they're not really things. Or rather, they are things, but in a fuzzy, not-very-thingy kind of way.

What I mean is that it is often difficult to define the exact boundaries of a species or language. Fundamentally, this is a consequence of the fact that we are trying to apply discrete labels (such as "English" or "Moloch horridus") to populations of things (speakers or individuals) that exhibit a degree of variation (e.g., dialects or subspecies), and that change over time.

For example, I can easily read a newspaper article written in the 1950s. I can read something from the 1700s and understand it, but it might sound weird. I can read Shakespeare and understand it, but I probably make use of a lot of the footnotes. By the time I'm reading Chaucer, some things might look familiar, but I probably require help to correctly understand most of the words. So, while those texts are all, in a sense, English, the gradual process of change means that the English of 800 or 1000 years ago is as foreign to me as contemporary French or German.

The same is true of biological species. In that context, people sometimes refer to "diachronic species," which is a way of breaking up a single, continuous biological lineage into subsections that can be given different labels. Given enough knowledge of the biology, one could use not-completely-arbitrary criteria to decide whether two individuals in the same lineage (say, where one was a distant ancestor of the other) should be classified as members of the same species. However, defining break points along the lineage to define species is an inherently arbitrary exercise.

This change process is also true of other (non-linguistic) aspects of culture. There is clearly a continuum of American culture stretching back from the present into the past. And each additional year that we move back, the more the culture seems foreign to me. But how far back is far enough to where you would actually call it a different culture? Again, there is an inherent arbitrariness here that means there is no real answer to the question. I suspect that if you were to take a survey, people's answers would depend a lot on how old they are.

However, I want to make a pitch for World War II being the natural break point in American culture, if for no other reason than that it would provide a psychological distance that would assuage my discomfort with this video from 1942.

Now, I don't know what came up for you, but at the time of posting, the related videos that pop up at the end include classics such as "Nazi Duck" and "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips."

Also, what's up with the 1942-era shape of Elmer Fudd's head?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

My uninformed and inconclusive two cents on the French niqab ban

So, I have no privileged knowledge or insight here, but, as I have said before, if I only wrote about things I understood well, this would be a pretty empty blog.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

In Russia, Move Bust You

So, here's a thing that should make you feel better about your upcoming high-school reunion. This is what it looks like when the funkiness gets the better of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, the Stimpy to Vladimir Putin's Ren.

Back in the day, they called this "Hammer and Sickle Time."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

As opposed to the light of what?

So, most biologists are familiar with the quotation by Theodosius Dobzhansky, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." In fact, in my experience, if you go to a biology conference, there's about a 50% chance that at least one of the speakers will introduce their talk with this line. What is typically not made explicit in these talks is, as opposed to what other light?
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I have most often heard this quotation used when the speaker is talking to an audience of ecologists or molecular / cell biologists. While both of those fields are clearly tied into evolutionary ideas, explicit thought about evolution is often secondary to other considerations, such as accurately describing the behavior of these very complicated systems on much shorter timescales (months or years in ecology, perhaps down to milliseconds in molecular biology). My sense has always been that people pull out this quotation when they get excited about an evolutionary question in their work, but somehow they feel some anxiety about how their colleagues will react. In a practical sense, then, people seem to quote Dobzhansky when they want to ask a why question. The "as opposed to what" part would be the more descriptive what, where, when, and how questions that constitutes the bulk of the work in biology.

Since this is one of those quotations that just floats around the community, what people may not know is that this was actually the title of one of Dobzhansky's papers. The paper, published in 1973, was written as a critique of anti-evolutionist arguments by creationists. The "as opposed to what" part, then, was originally divine intervention and intelligent design.
Theodosius Dobzhansky circa 1966. Photo via Wikipedia.
The interesting thing about this paper is that it is written from the perspective of a religious man, and the arguments are more theological than scientific or sociological in nature. Dobzhansky himself was a committed member of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He argues that life is God's creation, but that natural selection is the mechanism that God has chosen.
It is wrong to hold creation and evolution as mutually exclusive alternatives. I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God's, or Nature's, method of Creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 B. C.; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way.
Dobzhansky then continues with many of the now-familiar arguments for the overwhelming empirical evidence supporting the fact of evolution – in the fossil record, in the patterns of diversity of life, and in the molecular similarities among all species. What strikes me as particularly interesting in the article is the argument that he invokes to defend against claims that God deliberately created patterns that resemble those that would result from an evolutionary process – for example, the claim that God created dinosaur fossils, when no dinosaurs ever existed, or that God made dinosaur fossils appear to be much older than they actually are.

He says that to claim that God arranged things in this way is blasphemous, as it accuses Him of "systematic deceitfulness." This, in fact, seems to be the core of Dobzhansky's argument. The evidence is so strong that it admits only two possible explanations: either evolution is true, or God is deceitful. He rejects the latter on the grounds that such a claim would be "as revolting as it is uncalled for."

Finally, Dobzhansky winds up with a quotation from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
Is evolution a theory, a system, or a hypothesis? It is much more – it is a general postulate to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must henceforward bow and which they must satisfy in order to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of thought must follow – this is what evolution is.
He notes that Teilhard (a Jesuit priest and paleontologist) was a deeply religious man, and that his faith was not at all in conflict with a belief in evolution and natural selection. I reproduce the quote here because it kicks ass.

Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973). Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution The American Biology Teacher, 35 (3), 125-129

DHS switches to new terror alert system

So, after leaving us at terror level "orange" for the past five years, the Department of Homeland Security is finally scrapping the old color-coded system for a much simpler two-tiered system. The two levels are reportedly:




Sunday, April 17, 2011

Well Thank God for THAT: Blood (another new fragrance)

So, let's say you're a teenage girl. And, say, due to undisclosed psychological damage, you really want a weird, controlling, MUCH older, sparkly, smelly boyfriend. And, you want sex with said boyfriend to violently knock you unconscious. AND, you want the resulting pregnancy to nearly kill you, so that he has to perform an amateur c-section on you . . . with his teeth.

Why would you want this? I honestly have no idea. But, hey, we don't judge here at Lost in Transcription.

Introducing BLOOD CONCEPT, a set of fragrances out of Italy. Dab a little of this behind your ears, and you'll soon be fighting off swarms of vampires AND mosquitos.
I am AB negative, which means that I have a head of  "Aldehydes. Aluminium. Slate," A middle of "Pebble. Aqua," and a base of "Cedar Wood. Metallic Notes." Or maybe it means I have the negative of that.

Direct from the website:
Filled with legends and meanings, blood is soaked with mystery‚ fascination and respect. it’s the most tested and studied part of human body and it guards a multitude of secrets that reveals our inner and unique way of being.
BLOOD CONCEPT is a private celebration of the vivid and fascinating liquid that flows in our veins. Because blood is actually the river of life.
A, B, AB and 0, retrace the evolution of manhood through time and its record of information, history and mutation, so well kept in the vital flushing of blood. 
BLOOD CONCEPT is a mystic ritual with no flowers to be found: deep as primeval Africa in 0‚ aromatic as the scent of familiar land in A, bold as unpredictable itineraries in B, bold and sharp as a metropolitan skyline in AB.
Ending each time with the same subtle and mysterious note: a metallic vague suspicion.
 Oddly enough, in that text (copied and pasted), that fourth flavor is not the letter "O", but the number zero.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mitochondria and Hypertension

So, here's a new thing.
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This is based on a recent paper (citation below) where they identify a point mutation in the mitochondrial DNA that appears to result in hypertension.

So why is this interesting? Well, for me, as an evolutionary theorist who works on intragenomic conflict, it is interesting because the mitochondrial DNA is, in principle, subject to selection pressures different from the rest of the genome. For instance, mitochondrial genes present in a female would, in principle, benefit from skewing the sex ratio of the offspring of that female, since those genes can only be passed on to grandchildren through daughters. Furthermore, since mitochondria are maternally inherited, the intragenomic conflicts over inclusive fitness effects that underlie the phenomenon of genomic imprinting could potentially shape the evolution of mitochondrial genes as well.

Sadly (from the theory perspective), the scope of phenomena influenced by mitochondria is fairly limited, with a lot of the effects limited to core metabolism. That's not to say that core metabolism is not important. Obviously, core metabolism is important to the survival of the individual. In fact the importance of these genes to survival is exactly what tends to make them evolutionarily less interesting. By and large, core metabolism is unlikely to be a significant locus of intragenomic conflict because all of the genes in an individual need that individual to be able to do things like, e.g., make ATP.

From this perspective, then, this mutation is interesting in that it represents an example of a phenotype that can be quantitatively affected by the mtDNA. This particular mutation is likely best interpreted as a mildly deleterious one that happens to exist within a particular family in China. However, it opens up the possibility of mutations with subtler phenotypic effects, which could potentially be subject to divergent selective pressures for different parts of the genome. For instance, if elevated blood pressure during pregnancy results in a greater transfer of resources from mother to offspring, we would expect autosomal and mitochondrial genes to favor different optimal blood pressures.

The other thing that is interesting is the type of mutation it is. It is actually a point mutation in the gene that produces the mitochondrial Isoleucine tRNA. This mutation messes up a site that is cleaved as a part of the normal post-transcriptional processing. The result is that the steady-state level of mitochondrial Isoleucine tRNA is reduced by 46%. This, in turn, impacts the translation of other mitochondrial gene products with protein translation reduced by an average of 32%. So, basically what it does is just muck up mitochondrial function a little bit.

Wang, S., Li, R., Fettermann, A., Li, Z., Qian, Y., Liu, Y., Wang, X., Zhou, A., Mo, J., Yang, L., Jiang, P., Taschner, A., Rossmanith, W., & Guan, M. (2011). Maternally Inherited Essential Hypertension Is Associated With the Novel 4263AG Mutation in the Mitochondrial tRNAIle Gene in a Large Han Chinese Family Circulation Research, 108 (7), 862-870 DOI: 10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.110.231811

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Celebrity auto-tweets

So, are you someone who religiously follows celebrities on twitter? Do you find yourself getting frustrated and depressed because they don't tweet often enough for you?

Fortunately, there's this thing you may or may not have seen, where you can type in a twitter name, and it will look at the previous tweets in the feed and suggest your next tweet.

Here are suggested tweets for the nine people who made Time's 140 Best Twitter Feeds in the "Celebrities" category:

@ActuallyNPH (Neil Patrick Harris): Harry Houdini was born on B'way. Intimate, lovely. Bernadette Peters is in his face, but nothing major.

@alyssa_milano: ☁ 8 Things To Sleep better ➛ ♡ 5 Foods That Will Save The Beatles ➵ !

@feliciaday: Don't equal the depressing passage of Cheerios. Seems like Sloth's young quirky cousin LOL!


@taylorswift13: Just soundchecked in a cloud today. So stoked. So stoked. So stoked. So stoked.

@theellenshow (Ellen DeGeneres): The VIP tickets and I think this was wrong.

@aplusk (Ashton Kutcher): I FANCY the +1 Button Thx new apple iCharger!

@justinbieber: Germany is on stage hahahah he's okay.. just got here. amazing place...not a lot of dancing skillz?

@ladygaga: I promised unicorns would be released on the whiskey, lipstick, and queens of rainbow roads.

So, you can go there, type in the twitter name of that person you're stalking, and just keep hitting return. It's like they're tweeting just to you!

If you're considering whether or not you should be using this technology to stalk me (@jonfwilkins), I'd like to present this in the interest of full disclosure. I ran it on myself a bunch of times, and this seemed to be the high-water mark:

@jonfwilkins: Congrats! This was far from being reblogged. Especially by Katy Perry. The word is you're killing 11 people.

Welcome to the Plutocracy: House Edition

So, earlier I posted a map showing the average estimated net worth of the Senators from each state. Here is the companion map for the House of Representatives.

Like the Senate wealth map that I posted earlier, this map was constructed on TargetMap using data from the Center for Responsive Politics. As before, these are estimates of net worth, and the numbers I have used are the average of the minimum and maximum estimates. It should be noted that the difference between the minimum and maximum estimates is typically quite large.

I have used the same ranges for the color schemes on the two maps, so you can compare them directly.

Welcome to the Plutocracy: Senate Edition

So, you know how it's supposed to be harder for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle.* Well, two things:

     1) That's not as hard as it seems, since a sufficiently rich man can pay to have people build him a huge-ass needle.

     2) In fact, it is not as hard as a poor man being elected to the United States Senate.

If you go to the original, you can scroll around and zoom in and stuff. If not, all you need to know is that Alaska and Hawaii fall in the puke-green colored,  greater than 1 million, but less than 3.16 million category.

This map was constructed on TargetMap using data from the Center for Responsive Politics. These are estimates of net worth, and the numbers I have used are the average of the minimum and maximum estimates. It should be noted that the difference between the minimum and maximum estimates is typically quite large.

What I find interesting here is not so much the relative numbers, but the absolute scale. Note that it is only the green states where the Senators are (on average) NOT millionaires. The red states are where the average net worth is greater than 31 million (10^7.5, actually).

Next up: The House of Representatives.

* Or, for the Lolcatarians out there, it is to fit a Great Dane into a tiny cat carrier than for a Fancy Feast kitty to go to the Ceiling (Matthew 19:23-24):

23 Den Jeezus sai to hiz desiplz, "Im teh srs, it teh sux 4 a rich kittn to go 2 teh Ceiling.24 Aiz tel yu geiz agin, it srsly moar easier 4 graet daen to fit in teh tiny cat cariur dan for fancey feast kitteh two go to teh Howse uf teh Ceiling Cat."

Monday, April 11, 2011

Plato's Man Cave

So, here's a thing for you.

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Original here.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Prince Caspian on Wall Street's arcane financial instruments

So, over the past two and a half years, a lot of opinions have been aired on the arcane financial instruments that were created, packaged, repackaged, sold, and leveraged by Wall Street Czars and Moguls. Some people view this activity as a natural extension of free-market capitalism, just as some people undoubtedly view eating children as a good source of protein. Other people view this self-referential and self-reinforcing "fake economy" as a financial cancer that nearly collapsed the world economy, just as some people view cancer as a cancer that kills people.

I'm still making up my mind.

While we have heard a lot on the topic from economists and politicians, one person we have not heard from is the fictional ruler of the fictional country of Narnia. Unfortunately, there are no surviving records from which we can reconstruct what Caspian X (the ruler formerly known as Prince Caspian) on these matters. However, we can infer a little something from Caspian's questioning Governor Gumpas of the Lone Islands about islands' slave trade.

Just to set the scene, we're in Book 3 here, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The Lone Islands are a part of the Kingdom of Narnia, but it has been about a hundred and fifty years since the last contact. So, the islands have been more or less self governing for a while. Caspian and the gang arrive to find a thriving slave trade, and Caspian insists that Gumpas abolish the practice.

The arguments that Gumpas puts forth to defend the slave trade could have come out of mouths of any one of the very serious people who have cautioned us against the chilling effect of imposing regulations, or curbing executive pay, or insisting upon transparency in how tax-supported funds are distributed among the elite.

"Necessary, unavoidable, a necessary part of the economic development of the islands, I assure you. Our present burst of prosperity depends on it."

"Your Majesty's tender years hardly make it possible that you should understand the economic problem involved. I have statistics, I have graphs, I have . . ."

"But that would be putting the clock back. Have you no idea of progress, or development?"

Caspian's response could have come out of the mouths of any of the millions of people who lack the connections and – let's say moral flexibility – to thrive in government:
In other words, you don't need [slaves]. Tell me what purpose they serve except to put money into the pockets of such as [the slave trader] Pug? . . . . I do not see that it brings into the islands meat or bread or beer or wine or timber or cabbages or books or instruments of music or armour or anything else worth having. But whether or not it does, it must be stopped. 
So, two action items here. First, for anyone in congress who was holding off on enacting meaningful financial reform until you were clear on Narnia's position on the matter, you may now proceed.

Second, speaking now to the British Royal Family from the self-governing former colony of America, if you can tear yourself away from hanging out with pedophiles and dressing up like Nazis, maybe you could come over and visit Wall Street and kick a little Gumpass, if you know what I mean.

Now, I'm certain that some readers are going to feel that I've played a bit fast and loose with the analogy here. After all, is it really fair to compare contemporary American capitalism to the slave trade?

You make a good point, imaginary critic.

Here in America, we live in one of the richest nations in the history of the world. The top one percent of the population receive only 25% of the income and control only 40% of the wealth. Government policies meet needs of corporations and the extremely wealthy with increasing efficiency. We send the children of the least wealthy members of our society off to fight against oppressive regimes that do not cater to our geopolitical dominance, while we send the children of the wealthiest members of our society off to curry favor with equally oppressive regimes that provide us with energy resources and places to dock our warships. Corporations have been granted rights of unlimited expression and privacy, while individual whistleblowers are confined and tortured. Rules of equal treatment in the court system have been abandoned for those subsets of humanity deemed too dangerous to be given a fair trial.

You're right. It is absolutely nothing at all like slavery.


Update: I've changed the title, and modified the text a bit to clarify that King Caspian X is the same person as Prince Caspian, which is probably obvious only if you are a huge C. S. Lewis fan.

Well Thank God for THAT: Bacon Cologne

So, previously I wrote about a cologne based on the conservative torture-porn television franchise 24. Here we have another fragrance for men that seems either unlikely or inevitable, depending on you outlook on life: bacon-flavored cologne.

It's called Bacōn.

Just like 24: the fragrance, Bacōn contains notes of bergamot, and just like Kiefer Sutherland, Bacōn is Canadian Ham, or something like that.

The website features a 360-degree view of the box, allowing you access to life tips such as "Avoid spraying in eyes," as well as the enigmatic "Flammable."

Catchphrase: Scent by the gods.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bonus Darwin Eats Cake: Expertise

So, here's a little something for all you Dancing with the Stars fans out there.

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The good news is that for every seven dollars Candie's Foundation gave to Bristol Palin in 2009, they spent one dollar on "actual teen pregnancy prevention programs."(Raw Story)

I'm certain that's EXACTLY what the donors were hoping for.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Simon Winchester and Ronald Reagan: New Darwin Eats Cake

So, this particular academic controversy falls well outside my area of expertise, but if I only wrote about things that I really understood well, my blog would be pretty empty.

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If you're interested in reading more about Winchester's fear-mongering claims and the earthquakologists' reaction to them, check these out.

Life's Little Mysteries
Scientific American

More comics at Darwin Eats Cake

Well Thank God for THAT: Bill & Ted 3

So, if you were worried that Hollywood was going to just close up shop after they finished making movies based on comic-book characters, rest easy. Keanu has informed the world that there will be a sequel that will answer all of the questions that were left unanswered at the end of the second movie.

Says Keanu, "I believe the writers are six weeks away from a draft."

I take this to mean that the writers will be starting on the project in about four weeks.

"[T]here's an element of time, and they have to go back," he added.

Story and video at MTV News.

Worst. Lecture. Ever.

So, this one is for all the teachers out there who have ever felt discouraged because their students fell asleep in class. It is also for any of you who ever felt sorry for yourselves having to sit through a boring lecture.

This from BBC3's Bizarre ER. Student Holly Thomson was sitting through a government and politics lecture that was SO boring . . .

(You: How boring was it?)

It was SO boring that she yawned hard enough to dislocate her jaw. She could not close it again and had to be taken to the emergency room.

Your boring lecture on the difference between neoteny and progenesis doesn't seem so bad now, does it?

Via Asylum.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

This week in inappropriate Elvis lyrics

So, maybe someone older than me can help me out here. Did words have a different meaning in 1960? Was this ever okay?

From Elvis Presley's Stuck on You:

     Hide in the kitchen, hide in the hall,
     Ain't gonna do you no good at all,
     'Cause once I catch you and the kissing starts
     A team of wild horses couldn't tear us apart.

Now, I know what you're going to say. That it was a simpler time, and this was just some playful romping involving two consenting adults. That it is just from our jaded and cynical 2011 viewpoint that this looks like a manifesto for sexual violence (or at least for misdemeanor sexual misconduct, if you're in Elvis's tax bracket). In fact, it is disgusting to try and tar such a nice, wholesome song with that association.

To which I say, just remember, this is the dude who used to host pajama parties for 13 and 14 year old girls, wrestling with them, groping them, and kissing them.

Update: Here are a couple of on-point quotations from the article in the second link:

"'He pretty much groped me,' she recalls, 'I was overwhelmed. He came on like Godzilla.'"

"Then they'd lie on the beds and roughhouse and have pillow fights, Elvis tickling and kissing them until they couldn't take it anymore."

"His friendship with the trio of Memphis teenagers lasted through the early 1960s, about the time he met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, his future wife."

What do you think of Wilkins Coffee?

So, here's a thing. Apparently, back in 1957, a young Jim Henson did a series of television commercials for Wilkins Coffee. In addition to providing an important life lesson about NEVER DOUBTING THE WILKINS, these commercials provide a glimpse at a sort of proto-Kermit.

There's more interesting information about Henson's early career at Network Awesome, including a bunch of other early commercials. Most are just as strangely violent as these, and you'll find ur-forms of other familiar muppets. I came across this via Boing Boing.

Clarification on Sonic locations

So, in my previous post, I implied that Sonic Drive-In restaurants are primarily a Southwestern phenomenon. On twitter, @ElenaMorning pointed out that they have Sonic in the East and in the Midwest.

Fortunately, here comes . . .

Science!™ to the rescue!

Using data from the Sonic website, and the 2010 census numbers, I have calculated the number of Sonics per million people in each state. (To be fair, "calculated" overstates things a bit.) The pattern is centered on Oklahoma and Arkansas, and reaches much farther east than I had realized. So, it is perhaps better characterized as a south-central phenomenon. My apologies and respect to @ElenaMorning.

Here's a visualization, created using Targetmap:

Feel free to refer to this map when deciding where to live next.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Sonic commercial exposes flawed American education system

So, unless you live somewhere within spitting distance of the Southwestern* part of the United States, you probably don't have Sonic. The drive-in restaurant, not the hedgehog. Let me start by saying that I feel sorry for all of you people, as you don't have regular access to their chili-cheese tots, or their SuperSONIC green chile bacon cheeseburger. [1]

If you are one of these people, you probably have not heard their latest radio commercial. It is introducing their new hot-dog menu, including the New York Dog and the Chicago Dog. The commercial goes on to explain the absence of Dogs from other cities. There is no Dallas Dog because they could not find one big enough. There is no Los Angeles Dog because it wanted a reality show.

There is no D. C. Dog because, among other reasons, it was filibustered by the House.

Sonic, the filibuster was eliminated in the House of Representatives in 1842. Today, in the United States, filibusters happen in the Senate.

If we can not rely on our fast-food restaurants to accurately portray federal parliamentary procedures, what hope is there for America?

[1] Full disclosure. I no longer have access to these things either, since going pretty much vegetarian, but I can still vouch for their awesomeness.

*Update: Following a comment on twitter, I have discovered that it would have been better to say, "South-Central." See the follow-up post for a map.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Transocean Safety Bonus

So, you can file this one under Adventures in Corporate Asshattery:
Yes, that's correct, the CEO and other executives of Transocean were each rewarded with a 2010 safety bonus for "significantly improving the company's safety record," which raises the question: How many people does an exploding Transocean oil rig kill most years?

The article where I got the numbers from is here.

This comic (along with others) is also posted at Darwin Eats Cake.

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Important Harvard Scientists Attack Kin Selection: Context

So, a couple of days ago, I made a video dramatizing the scientific kerfuffle surrounding a paper published in Nature by Martin Nowak, Carina Tarnita, and E. O. Wilson of Harvard. My original goal had been to create something that would be entertaining to the people involved in the argument.

The original post, which contains the video, is here.

Over the past day or so, it has become clear that a lot of people are seeing the video who are maybe not familiar with the context in which the kerfuffle arose. If you're one of those people, here's an attempt to provide a little background.

Nowak and Wilson, two of the authors of the article, are two of the most prolific and high-profile evolutionary biologists working today. If you're in the field, you probably own at least one of Wilson's books. Tarnita is a postdoc working with Nowak who already has an impressive set of credentials. Last August, the three of them published a paper in the scientific journal Nature, which, for biologists, is one of the the two super-high-profile places where your papers can be published. It is incredibly difficult to get a paper into Nature, and, if you are a young scientist, a publication in Nature will go a long way towards getting you an academic job.

Modeling and eusociality

Their paper was about the evolution of eusociality, which is the thing that you sometimes find in species like bees and ants, where one individual – the queen – makes all the babies, while everyone else builds the nest or the hive, and does not reproduce themselves. These are interesting evolutionary systems, because, if you think about it naively, why should the worker ants or worker bees give up their own reproduction so that the queen can have babies? If natural selection is all about who passes on the greatest number of copies of their genes, how can you possibly get this worker behavior, where a huge number of individuals don't reproduce, and are, in fact, willing to sacrifice their lives so that someone else (the queen) can reproduce?

[Note: this is a cartoon description. The real biology is, as always, enormously more complicated, and there is a huge amount of variation in the way in which eusociality works, in insects and elsewhere.]

Here's the way that I like to think about it. Think about a cell in your brain. There is absolutely no chance for that cell to pass on copies of its genes to the next generation. That brain cell is an evolutionary dead end. In fact, no genes in any cell in anyone's brain have ever been passed on.

Nevertheless, natural selection has created genes that lead to enormously complex functions in the brain. The reason is that for every gene that is present in your brain, there is an identical (probably) copy of that gene in your germ line (in your testes or ovaries) that can be passed on. So, genes that lead to brain functions that help you to survive and reproduce can be favored by selection, even if the gene copies that are physically present in the brain are not passed on themselves.

That is the basic idea behind the evolution of eusociality. Workers that don't reproduce have evolved because they help the queen to reproduce, and, in particular, they help her to make more queens, who go off and start their own colonies. So, in a sense, the colony as a whole reproduces, and genes that facilitate that non-reproductive worker behavior are passed on, even though they are not passed on by the workers themselves.

At this verbal, qualitative level of description, everyone agrees about what is going on. But, in evolutionary biology, we are interested in developing mathematical, formal, quantitative descriptions of the process. This is where the divisions start.

There are different ways that these ideas can be formalized. Traditionally, the two major formalisms have been "kin selection" or "inclusive fitness" models on the one hand, and "group selection" models on the other. I won't go into detail here about the differences, because I don't personally find them interesting. The fact is, if you do your math correctly, you can accurately describe any system using either of these frameworks, as well as others. They're not totally identical, in the sense that certain systems can be described more simply using one framework than another, or in that some questions can be more natural to ask in one framework than another, or in that the framing entailed by your choice of model can influence how you tend to interpret the results of the model. That being said, there is a deep way in which all of the different modeling frameworks are mathematically interchangeable, and this interchangeability has been demonstrated repeatedly over the past few decades.

The problem with the paper

The thing about this particular paper that roused the ire of so many evolutionary biologists was that much of the text was devoted to discrediting the kin selection approach.  The problem with the paper is that it does not actually go after any of the core ideas that underlie the kin selection approach. Nor does it criticize models of kin selection in the way that people actually use them.

Instead, the paper sets up a straw man, and then tears it down. The "kin-selection approach," as it is described by them, would certainly be a limited, flawed modeling framework. But the limitations that they describe in the paper fall into three categories:

  1. Limitations that are not a part of kin-selection models as they are actually used by anyone.
  2. Limitations that may apply to particular models applied to particular systems, but are not limitations that are inherent in the approach.
  3. Limitations that apply to all evolutionary models, including the alternative that they are championing.

I won't go on more here. If you're interested, I recommend reading the original criticisms, which I have cited and linked to in my original post.

Now, one interesting thing about this paper is that many of the papers that have extended kin-selection models beyond the limitations that the paper accuses them of are actually cited in the supplementary materials. And yet, the main text of the paper (which is the only thing that most people will read) seems to be written as if none of those papers exist.

The personalities

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, E. O. Wilson was a polarizing figure in evolutionary biology, due to his role in championing the application of evolutionary reasoning to the study of behavior, particularly human behavior. (In a previous post, I recommended this article, which provides an entertaining overview of the sociobiology wars, in which Wilson was a central figure.) However, over the past couple of decades, Wilson has become one of the Grand Old Men of evolution, and is nearly universally respected.

Martin Nowak, by contrast, is a controversial and polarizing figure in evolutionary biology today. However, whereas Wilson became controversial for his ideas, Nowak is controversial for the way that he presents his ideas. In particular, many people within the evolutionary biology community feel that Nowak has a tendency to oversell the importance and originality of his own work. More specifically, many people feel that he systematically fails to give enough credit to previous work by other scientists.

So, while I believe that the criticisms leveled against this particular paper – specifically those in the published responses in Nature – are all legitimate, I can see how it might seem like a lot of controversy over a little problem. I would like to suggest what I think might be an explanation for the volume (both number of words and loudness of those words) of the response that the paper seems to have elicited. Although I know some of the letter writers personally, and know many of them professionally, I claim no privileged insight as to their motivations. So, what I am presenting here is pure speculation, and should be taken with large quantities of salt, but here it is:

My suspicion is that the response was as broad and strident as it was specifically because it was a response to Nowak. The shortcomings that they have pointed out the current paper are certainly all there. But, I think that those shortcomings perhaps seem all the more galling because they represent an extreme case of a style of argument and presentation that Nowak has used repeatedly over the years, and which has long been infuriating to many evolutionary biologists, including, I suspect, many of the authors of the letters.

The politics

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that the paper was published in Nature, and publications in Nature are worth their weight in gold in terms of a biologist's career. But the reputation of Nature within evolutionary biology is a complicated one. Many people will routinely dismiss Nature as a "science tabloid" that is very interested in publishing flashy results, but interested enough in whether or not those results are true. At the same time, most of these same biologists would gladly trade their right gonad for a Nature publication themselves, as Nature publications open the door to future success, like getting academic jobs, getting grant money from funding agencies, and getting, well, more Nature publications. As one colleague of mine put it, it's like how everyone wants to have their picture taken with the dictator.

So, one thing that is going on here is that there are a lot of people who have published a lot of very good work in a lot of very good journals. Then, along comes this paper, which basically dismisses that whole body of work. You could say (as a different colleague of mine did), "Well, if the arguments in the paper are wrong, why not just let it go. No one will believe it in the long run anyway." The problem is that the impact of this one article in Nature may outweigh the impact of all of those very good articles in all of those very good (non-Nature) journals, at least in the eyes of anyone who is not, themselves, an evolutionary biologist. So, while this paper will have little to no effect on the way that evolutionary biology is done, it may have a big impact on the way that evolutionary biology is perceived by people outside the field.

So, some of this is probably a combination of righteous indignation and sour grapes, similar to what you might feel upon seeing some celebrity interviewed on CNN as an "expert" on some topic that you feel they don't really understand, and that you feel that you, in fact, understand much better.

Then, there is the funding issue. There are two funding sources that Nowak has that are viewed with some suspicion by many evolutionary biologists (and probably most academics, more generally): the Templeton Foundation and Jeffrey Epstein, both of which/whom are thanked in the acknowledgements of the original paper.

The Templeton Foundation funds a lot of science, but has a particular interest in science that relates to issues of religion and spirituality. This interest is, in itself, enough to make many evolutionary biologists feel that any research supported by Templeton is inherently suspect. I have no horse in that race, and my view is that as long as they are not dictating the outcome of your research, there is no problem. Then, of course, there is the fact that Nowak himself is a devout Catholic, which, I suspect, makes his relationship with Templeton seem even more problematic to your average evolutionary biologist.

Jeffrey Epstein is, of course, the hedge-fund mogul who pled guilty a couple of years ago to a charge of soliciting an under-age girl for prostitution. There is an argument to be made that his extreme wealth allowed him escape much more severe charges, such as sex trafficking. More recently he has been in the news following accusations that he "trained up" a girl who lived with him from age 14 to 18, and loaned her out to his rich friends.

Now, one can take a range of positions on this issue. One viewpoint, probably espoused by many academics (including me), is that any money from someone like Epstein is inherently dirty, and that the choice to take money from him casts doubt on one's ability to make valid moral – and, by extension, scientific – judgments.

An alternative viewpoint would be that money is money, there's not enough of it out there to support all the interesting research that could be done, and you've got to take money where you can get it. An even more extreme viewpoint would be that every dollar that you take from Epstein for science is one dollar that he won't be spending to pay some underage girl to give him a "massage."

As I say, I side with the first viewpoint, that Epstein's moral violations are severe enough that there is no excuse for interacting with or taking money from him. However, I suspect that some people may feel differently without necessarily being bad people.

The point is that Nowak's associations probably color how he is perceived by the academic community. That does not mean that those associations have affected his science. And, in fact, I believe that the scientific points of the argument can be completely understood without any reference to these other issues.

However, I think the intensity of the response to this paper was enhanced by things that form a part of the sociology of science, rather than a part of the science itself. It is in this vein that I mention Nowak's associations, which are fairly well known to most evolutionary biologists (who, like all academics, are a gossipy bunch).


So, what you have in Martin Nowak is a guy who has been enormously well funded and enormously prolific, publishing a huge number of papers in high profile journals. As a result, Nowak has become one of the best known evolutionary biologists, particularly outside the field. However, many other evolutionary biologists are suspicious (and probably resentful) of his high profile. This suspicion comes in part from a feeling that he has not really earned his reputation, that his reputation exceeds his actual accomplishments, and that he associates with unsavory characters. It is not surprising, then, that he is something of a lightning rod in the field.

I doubt that I have written anything here that will be surprising or new to anyone who actually works in evolutionary theory, or follows it closely. But, I wanted to lay this out because I know that this sort of academic dust-up always looks really bizarre and petty when viewed from the outside. And, it is clear in this case that the debate is emotionally charged. So, if you've stumbled upon this, and were confused, but interested enough to slog through this whole post, I hope that maybe this provided some degree of context.

Nowak, M., Tarnita, C., & Wilson, E. (2010). The evolution of eusociality Nature, 466 (7310), 1057-1062 DOI: 10.1038/nature09205

Update: PS If you came here through finding the video posted on Richard Dawkins's site, it is shoebucket productions, not shoebox productions.