August 21, 2010

Great moments in mycology (not)

Every so often, and especially after a good rain, the Spousal Unit gets the urge to go mushroom hunting.

This usually involves an inter-species search party of which Arpad is a prominent member.

He is a bit of a big lumbering ox, which sometimes means bad news for the specimens.

But he's cute.

August 20, 2010

The language of extremism

Carthage, by John Mallord William Turner (1755-1851).

We interrupt Goat Rope's regularly scheduled programming to share this quote from Alberto Manguel's book A Reader on Reading. It seems to be a good description of the right wing noise machine these days:

Almost everything around us encourages us not to think, to be content with commonplaces, with dogmatic language that divides the world neatly into black and white, good and evil, them and us. This is the language of extremism, sprouting up everywhere these days, reminding us that it has not disappeared. To the difficulties of reflecting on paradoxes and open questions, on contradictions and chaotic order, we respond with the age-old cry of Cato the Censor in the Roman Senate, "Carthago delenda est!" "Carthage must be destroyed!"--the other civilization must not be tolerated, dialogue must be avoided, rule must be imposed by exclusion or annihilation. This is the cry of dozens of contemporary leaders. This is a language that pretends to communicate but, under several guises, simply bullies; it expects no answer except obedient silence...

NO NECESSARY CONNECTION (BUT THERE MIGHT BE). Here's Frank Rich taking on the Manhattan mosque hysteria and its likely effects, which aren't good.



NOT A SURE THING. For a long time, home ownership was seen as a way to build wealth. Anymore, not so much.

FOOD REVOLUTION. Here are some possible ingredients.


God, wasps and caterpillars

I wouldn't want to be the green guy. That wasp has the unsportsmanlike habit if laying eggs in live caterpillars so they'll have a nice warm meal when they wake up.

Charles Darwin's Origin of Species kicked off a battle between science and religion that is still raging. Darwin's own religious views went through quite an evolution of their own from moderate Anglicanism to agnosticism.

Ironically, it wasn't so much his theory of natural selection that killed his religion as much as the difficulty of reconciling the idea of a benevolent God with suffering.

As he put it in a letter to American biologist Asa Gray,

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.– I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I [should] wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonid√¶ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

The problem of theodicy, or reconciling the justice of God in a world full of suffering, is an ancient one. It was probably old when the Book of Job was written. And it hasn't been neatly resolved since Darwin's day.

SPEAKING OF SUFFERING, here are some stale excusing for not dealing with the kind caused by unemployment.

WHICH, BY THE WAY isn't looking real good right now.

YOU ALREADY KNEW THIS, but poverty is bad for your health.



August 19, 2010

Doesn't everbody do barnacles?

One of the things that makes Charles Darwin admirable as a scientist was his ability to do detailed grunt work as well construct groundbreaking big picture theories. He also belonged to the last generation of gentleman naturalists, i.e. non-academic private individuals of some means doing scientific work in their Victorian homes.

As a prime example of detailed grunt work, Darwin spent fully eight years engaged with a study of barnacles, eventually producing four large volumes on the subject. I get bored just thinking about it.

The barnacle business was such an accepted part of the growing Darwin household that his children came to believe that every adult male did the same in his spare time. There is a great anecdote that his son Francis once asked his friend, "Where does your father do his barnacles?

A WAY OUT? Here's an op-ed by a friend of mine on the economic mess and how to get out of it.

COUNTRY LIVING. This item about country living in the New Yorker seemed familiar to me.

SOFT STYLE. Score another therapeutic point for tai chi.

ZOMBIE ANTS, ANYONE? This is just plain weird.


August 18, 2010

A reluctant revolutionary

Like some of history's best revolutionaries, Charles Darwin was a reluctant one. He disliked controversy and delayed publishing his main ideas for years until he was nudged into action when the younger scientist Alfred Russel Wallace came up independently with the idea of natural selection.

Although he was ignorant of contemporary developments in the science of heredity-- such as the experiments of Gregor Mendel--and grasped for an explanation of its mechanism, his key ideas of natural selection have stood the test of time. His later work on the similarity of emotions in humans and animals was also ahead of its time and has received significant backup from studies of human and animal brains as well as behavior.

It's another discouraging sign of the times that many Americans deny evolution, which is regarded by scientists as the unifying theory of biology. These are often the same people who deny the science of climate change. I could probably think of any number of snarky Darwinian comments about that but will spare the Gentle Reader.

JUST FINES. Massey Energy led the coal industry in fines and citations in the last quarter, the Charleston Gazette reports.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? Progressive billionaire George Soros' hedge fund just increased its ownership of Massey stock to 2.2 million shares.

MEDICINE CABINET BLUES. It looks like El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia is the most medicated in the country.

OUR FAMILY TREE. Mitochondrial DNA research suggests a common mother for humanity around 200,000 years ago.



August 17, 2010

A good gig

I have always been a big Darwin fan. I've been both fascinated by his big ideas and his personal life and habits. He had a lot of things going for him, starting with luck. As Cervantes said, "To be lucky in the beginning is everything."

How many people in life get the chance for a perfect job right out of school? The budding natural historian (as people interested in life science were then called) was a reluctant clergyman-to-be on completing his studies. He was saved from a life as a minor character in a Jane Austen novel by an offer to travel around the world as a scientist on H.M.S. Beagle on a five year voyage.

It was the mother of good gigs.

He then had the tenacity and persistence to work methodically through his specimens, observations and ideas for years to come as he developed his theory of natural selection. He could go micro as well as macro, not only pondering the evolution of all life but getting down to the nitty gritty studying humble creatures like barnacles and earthworms.

He was also a devoted family man, truly in love with his wife Emma and a doting father to his children. The kids even got into the act. There are delightful anecdotes about his children playing musical instruments to the earthworms to see whether they responded to such stimuli (they didn't as far as anyone could tell).

More on this to come.

ONE, TWO, MANY HERBERT HOOVERS. Job losses at the state and local level are threatening the economic recovery.

FALSE CHOICES. Dealing with the joblessness crisis will require overcoming deficit mania--at least until the economy improves..

WHACKADOODLE NATION. Here's a look at the top 10 conspiracy theories on the far right.

OFF THE HOOK. Here's what happens when a group of scientists go unplugged in the wilderness to study the effect of technology on the brain.


August 16, 2010

That's us in the spot light

Back in the proverbial day, it was a big deal--and usually a bad one--for West Virginia to get any attention in the national media. Usually that happened during one of those recurring periods when the nation "rediscovered" Appalachia.

Now it's a common occurrence for us to be in the national spotlight. There may be several reasons for this, including the following:

*The world is, if not flat, at least smaller;

*Political margins are smaller now as well so that even small states can tip the balance;

*West Virginia and other places in Appalachia are, in my grandmother's words, right smack dab in the middle of major issues like climate change and energy; and

*You couldn't make up the **** that happens here.

I'm thinking maybe the last is the biggie.

BY WAY OF EXAMPLE, here's the New York Times on one of many coal controversies going on.

COOL RANT. Here's Ken Ward in Coal Tattoo taking on one of the legion of climate change science deniers.

HERE WE GO AGAIN. Krugman is not amused by the latest attacks on Social Security.

RETHINKING THE ECONOMY. Here are 10 suggestions.