Monday, December 1, 2008

Interesting word for today: metagnathous

According to Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th edition, the definition of metagnathous is the following:

"metagnathous (adj): 1 having the points of the beak crossed, as in the crossbills 2 having larvae that feed by chewing and adults that feed by sucking, as in butterflies and moths"

Yet again, the roots are Greek: meta- (between, among, along with) and -gnathous (having a jaw). Words that share meta- as a root include (among many others) metaphysics, metamorphosis, metagenesis, metacarpal, metabolism, and metagalaxy. -gnathous is a bit more obscure, but Agnatha (a class--or superclass, depending on who you ask--of animals, comprising the jawless fishes), gnathite, and gnathic are some of them. I suspect that words like gnashing and gnaw are also related, but I can't confirm that with my dictionary.

Efficiency and food security

The Corpus Callosum has an interesting post up about the relationship between efficiency and food security. The main premise is that efficiency, as measured by "the market" or by standard economics (i.e., number of X per dollar spent) is probably not the best way to measure the effectiveness of a food supply system.

This seems to me to be a primary problem in allowing the market to "work." The fundamental assumption in that view is that monetary cost is exactly equal to total cost of a product/widget/service. But, of course, companies can externalize most of their non-monetary costs (some would say the real costs--such as environmental destruction, poverty, poor health, insecurity, etc). So the model's fundamental assumption is flawed: monetary cost is much less than actual total cost.

Eventually, people will realize that it makes a lot more sense to have a lot of (fully employed and tax-paying) small farmers growing a variety of foods using a minimum of (non-renewable) resources than to have a couple of (tax-avoiding, outsourcing) big companies growing one kind of (resource-intensive) food. I hope I'm around to see it--because if it doesn't happen soon, I suspect that the people who end up in that world will have lived through a lot of really bad conditions in order to get there.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Effective measures

I just heard on the radio that Citigroup is cutting thousands of jobs and is taking other steps to cut costs to help it survive.

My question: How much are they cutting the pay and bonuses of the top managers? I find it completely unacceptable that top managers routinely talk about "the good of the company" but aren't willing to forgo their bonuses or seven-figure salaries to make things better. They're perfectly willing to cut other people's pay, but heaven forbid they should not get a bonus!

And don't even get me started on using bailout money to give bonuses so that people won't leave and go to other companies.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A friendly note to car makers

When advertising your giant gas guzzlers, please don't use the phrase fuel-efficient to describe vehicles that get less than 30 mpg on the highway. News flash: 23 mpg highway is not fuel efficient. Just because it's better mileage than other gas guzzlers doesn't mean it's fuel efficient. It just means its more fuel efficient than other gas guzzlers.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Clearly, this is a hysterical LOLcat

Yes, I admit, I enjoy the LOLcats. Especially this one. I'm actually finding myself looking for reasons to use it!

funny pictures of cats with captions
more animals

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Read this review! (And then read the book!)

GrrlScientist has a great review of one of my favorite nonfiction books (it even makes my list at the bottom of this blog), Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, by Taras Grescoe. Unfortunately, she beat me to it; I was planning to write a review of it, too. Hers is good enough that I don't think I have to. Guess I'll pick another one of my favorites, instead.

Go! Read the review! Then read the book. And most importantly, act on it!

UPDATE: There's an interview with Taras Grescoe over at oceana. Read it here. (If that link dies or shows up as subscriber only, you can also read an excerpt of the interview here.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Photos that won the election

PDN (Photo District News) has put together the top five photos that their staffers think helped President-Elect Obama win the election. Check it out.

(Thanks to Greg Laden for the link.)

I think my favorite of the bunch is one that didn't actually make the top five: The photo of then-Senator Obama with his feet up on the table, showing the holes in the soles of his shoes. I wonder how long he wore those shoes before those holes got there? I'm inclined to say that they were not new shoes...I mean, it's not like candidates are putting serious miles on their shoes. Yes, they travel a lot--but they drive. Or fly. Or train. And once they get there, they stand. Not activities likely to put quarter-sized holes in good-quality dress shoes. My guess is they're the same shoes he's been wearing for a while. (I understand completely--it's almost impossible to get me to give up a comfortable pair of dress shoes. Do you know how hard it is to find comfortable flats?) I don't know, something about that kind of makes me respect him a bit more. I mean, he's obviously not hurting for money--but he's wearing worn-out shoes.

Of course, it's possible the shot was totally staged, and all of his shoes are brand new. It's also possible that he thinks those shoes are good luck, or that they're his "lounging around calling staffers and reading briefs" shoes (in which case, I suppose he should get used to wearing them...), or something. But maybe, just this once, I'll be optimistic. :)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Expected, this was!

So, in case you're living in a dark hole somewhere (in which case you probably aren't reading this anyway), Barak Obama (I guess spell check programs will have to start including his name now...) has won the presidency. And not just won. He WON. By a very large margin.

To me, the most impressive thing isn't the victory itself, but the fact that several devoutly Republican states--Indiana, Florida (somewhat), and Virginia spring to mind--went for Obama. I think that speaks to effective outreach.

Now we just have to hope it actually works...

Monday, October 27, 2008

Big government = bad?

McCain is making a lot of statements lately condemning the Democrats' desire for so-called "big government." While I agree that unnecessary bureaucracy is inefficient and wasteful and should be avoided, I'm still not quite sure why "big government" is such a horrible thing. Who else is going to control the country, if not the government? Recent events have shown that business leaders are completely incapable of suborning their own greed for the greater good. That's the JOB of the government, for crying out loud.

And aren't the Republicans the ones pushing all the wiretapping programs and the Patriot Act and all that? What is that, if not big government? (Oh, right. Those are REPUBLICAN programs that will protect us from evil people who want to destroy us. Big government is fine as long as they control it and are using it to spy on us. But as soon as we want to use government to keep people from going broke, or to make sure everyone can afford to see a doctor when they're sick--watch out! Socialism on the way!)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Friday, October 10, 2008


Check out this letter that was sent around a community in Virginia. Apparently, voting for a black man for President is racist, and the only way to prove you're not racist is...that's for the white guy!

So, according to this reasoning, the best way to support gay rights is to support man-woman-only marriage.

I really just don't have enough illogic to be able to figure this out.

(Thanks to Ed Brayton at Dispatches for the link.)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Rant but good

Check out GumbyTheCat's discussion of what's wrong with American politics. I don't have a big long critique of this one, mainly because I agree with pretty much all of it.

If I get time, I may write a longer discussion--but right now I have to get to work. (Argh.)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Response to an open letter

GumbyTheCat recently wrote an open letter to creationists. Here it is.

While I enjoyed it and thought it was almost completely valid, I do have an argument to two of his points: first, that creationists know that the stuff they spout is lies (i.e., that they're deliberately lying); and second, that their blind faith will ultimately push more and more people toward reason.

I take argument with the first point because, as far as I've seen, most creationists/intelligent design proponents do actually believe what they are saying. They truly do--for them, it's not a matter of ignoring evidence, it's a matter of faith. They truly believe that fossils were put there by god to test our faith. They truly believe that the Bible is the literal word of god. They're not saying these things knowing that they are lying (which is Gumby's assertion); they really do believe that they know The Truth, and that they have to spread that truth or they (and those they don't spread the truth to) will go to hell. Of course, that doesn't mean that there aren't some creationists who don't have doubts. But as odious as the tactics and belief system are to me, I don't agree with the "fundamentalist/evangelical-Christian-as-conspirator" theory: I really think that most of them think that they're doing this "for our own good." (I.e., I don't think they're deliberately spouting what they know to be lies in order to brainwash people so they can take over and rule the world and oppress everyone else. They really think things would be better if everyone had blind faith in the big G. As I said, I don't agree with that belief--but I don't think they're doing what they're doing with evil intentions.)

My second argument with Gumby's letter is the premise that continued spouting of creationist dogma will turn more people toward reason. As much as it pains me to admit it, I think the vast majority of people (okay, perhaps I should say Americans, since I don't know a lot about the cultures of other countries or parts of the world) actually don't want to learn more. Science (and a scientific understanding of the world) is hard work. It takes time and effort to really understand what we know, think we know, don't know, and don't know we don't know--and fundamentally, people are lazy. They're not curious about the world; they don't want to think about it or have to try to work things out in their own minds. That is the appeal of blind faith religions: they make all the decisions for you--and even better, they tell you that following those decisions will guarantee you happiness after you die. All you have to do is stop thinking. I can see how that would appeal to a lot of people. And certainly, the creationist explanation of where we came from is a lot easier to understand (and much more appealing to human vanity) than is the scientific explanation. I mean, really, all you have to do is read one book--instead of thousands upon thousands of research articles. Is it any wonder so many people choose that belief? And because a fundamental tenet of that faith is acceptance of what the authority figures tell you, if those authority figures (who don't have any more scientific understanding) tell you that there's no evidence for evolution, or that all the evidence is made up/incorrect/circular, then you believe it (because if you don't, you'll go to hell).

Maybe I'm just feeling pessimistic this morning. But I think that the sheep-like tendencies of people to follow the easy path are not going to just go away if we allow creationists to keep spewing anti-science. I think most of those people truly don't know how (or don't want) to think for themselves...and the only way to combat that is to teach them how to think for themselves, and give them an incentive to do so.

As for how to do that...Well, that's the real question, and I'm not sure I know the whole answer. Certainly part of it has to be better outreach and science education. But part of it also has to be a culture shift. Intellectualism, reason, and critical thinking have to be accepted as positive traits, instead of as "elitist" and overbearing. I have a few ideas about how to fix science education. But I have no clue how to change a culture. Any ideas?

(hat tip to John Wilkins over at Evolving Thoughts for the link)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Usage tip: conflate vs. confuse

I've seen a lot of misuses of the word conflate lately. Many folks seem to be using it as a cooler-sounding synonym for confuse, as in "don't conflate political ambition with political knowledge."

I have to quote Inigo here: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." (The Princess Bride)

According to my trusty Merriam-Webster (11th edition), this is the definition of conflate:

"conflate (vt): to combine or mix (two variant readings into a single text, etc.)"

And here's the definition of confuse:

"confuse (vt): 1) to mix up; jumble together; put into disorder 2) to mix up mentally; specif. a) to bewilder, perplex b) to embarrass; disconcert c) to fail to distinguish between; mistake the identity of"
(both definitions from p. 306)

Notice the subtle (or not so subtle?) difference here. Confuse means just what everyone thinks it means. If you confuse A with B, it means you don't know the difference between them, or you think they're the same thing. Conflate, on the other hand, doesn't mean what one might expect. If you conflate A with B, it means you combine them and come up with something that's related to both, but different from either.

If you're trying to say that someone has mistaken X for Y, then you need to say that the person has confused X and Y. Use conflate only when you mean that someone has taken multiple (slightly different) statements and combined them into one.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nice cream!

For those of you who haven't heard, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) recently sent a letter to Ben & Jerry (yes, that Ben & Jerry). Their position is, apparently, that B&J should start making ice cream with human breast milk, instead of with cow's milk.

Don't get me wrong--I'm all for the ethical treatment of animals. I don't like factory farming, and I don't think treating heifers with rBGH is a good idea. I won't eat veal, I try to eat "happy meat", etc., etc. I was once even a PETA member. But I do think it's possible to take a good idea too far (which is why I am no longer a PETA member). Breast milk ice cream? Because, apparently, there's a huge surplus of human breast milk out there?

The Straight Dope Message Board has a rather amusing take on it. They asked their contributors to come up with Ben & Jerry-worthy names for human milk ice cream. There are some clever folks over there. Check it out.

My personal favorites? Butterscotch Nipple, Thanks for the Mammaries, and Titty Fruitti.

(hat tip to Orac over at Respectful Insolence)

Sandy and the House Centipede

I had an amusing interlude this morning. I was in the kitchen getting a glass of water and I looked in on Sandy (my dog). She was curled up in a little brown Ball-O-Sandy on the Purple Chair, which is her usual status at 6:45 in the morning. Just as I was going over to tell her how cute she is, she suddenly leapt off the chair, dashed across the room, and pounced with alacrity on a spot on the baseboard. Just before she landed, I spotted what looked like a small freight train scooting across the moulding. "Ah-ha!" I thought to myself, "It's a million-legged bug!" (That's the scientific name. The more commonly used name is "house centipede" or—if you want to be really dull--Scutigera coleoptrata.)

Sandy has a great passion for catching and mauling all manner of arthropods (an activity we encourage, given that we share our house with a large number of them), so needless to say she was ecstatic to see one with more than twice the usual number of legs. She grabbed it, munched for a minute, and spat it out (this is her usual method—if they're still moving after that, they're still fun, so she goes after them again). The poor million-legged bug was lying on the floor, twitching, covered in dog spit and (thanks to the dog spit's adhesive qualities) dog hair. I expected Sandy to jump back in and give it the coup de grace. However, Sandy had discovered that, in addition to having way more legs than the typical cockroach, centipedes also have way more venom. In case you were wondering, a dog that has been bitten in the mouth by a house centipede looks remarkably like a dog with peanut butter stuck on the roof of its mouth, although with slightly more lip-curling. To save Sandy from further issues (she sometimes lets her excitement about creepy-crawlies overcome her basic good sense), I threw the centipede outside.

After doing some research, I learned that a centipede bite is rarely any worse than a bee sting. (Sandy didn't even yelp when it bit her, and she certainly seems to have recovered—although I think the belly rub probably helped.) I also found out that house centipedes eat cockroaches and other unpleasantness—thereby also discovering why Sandy tried to eat it (aside from the obvious "fun" factor): she was eliminating the competition!

So, I learned that house centipedes (aside from being really eww-y) are good to have in your house, if you can keep them away from the dog. Sandy also learned something: avoid crawlies with too many legs. (Although somehow I doubt she'll remember that in the heat of the moment next time.)

Here is a picture of Sandy:

And here is a picture of a house centipede:

(image of house centipede from Horror Wallpaper; images not to scale)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Even if...

There is a great deal written out there about the problems with Intelligent Design's "arguments" that supposedly "refute" the theory of evolution. I won't go into them here (although I may in the future), but suffice it to say, they pretty much all fall into one or more of the following categories:
  • misinterpretation (either deliberate or out of ignorance) of legitimate scientific data;
  • quotes and/or data taken completely out of context and tortured into implying something other than what they actually imply;
  • self-contradictions (or contradictions of other arguments made by the same person or organization);
  • fallacies of logic;
  • applications of valid scientific theory and/or concepts to things they have no business being applied to; and
  • outright lies.
However, as a thought experiment, suppose for a moment that every single argument made by Intelligent Design proponents were completely scientifically accurate. Suppose, if you will, that the theory of evolution really were as full of holes and problems as they'd like us to believe.

Even if that were true...Intelligent Design STILL would not be a valid scientific theory, and it STILL would not belong in science classrooms.

One point that I don't think is made often enough in the "debate" between Intelligent Design proponents and real scientists is this: proving one theory false is not equivalent to proving another theory true. (Not that you can prove a theory. But you know what I mean.)

They'd like us to believe that, if they can "prove" that the theory of evolution is invalid, scientists will magically just accept Intelligent Design. Allow me to use an analogy to illustrate how silly this argument is.

Imagine a really big party. Hundreds of people in a really big room, all milling around. Suddenly, a gunshot rings out, and someone falls down dead. Further suppose that there are security cameras in this room that catch the whole thing on tape. You can see the shooter's face--can even see the color of her eyes. What's more, there are 15 eyewitnesses that claim to have seen her shoot the victim. The gun has her fingerprints on it and is ballistically matched to the bullet in the victim. There is gunpowder residue all over her hands. And, she has a motive.

In court, the defense tries to get the shooter off by arguing against the validity of all of the evidence. Then, in the closing statement, the defense council says the following:
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the evidence clearly does not show that my client shot the victim. Therefore, it must have been the doorman who shot the victim."

How likely do you think it is that the jury would convict the doorman, just because it couldn't possibly have been the defendant who shot the victim?

Disproof of one theory does not equal proof of another theory. A scientific theory is based on evidence. If there's no evidence to support it--and especially if there's no possible way to collect evidence to support it--then it cannot be a valid scientific theory!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

If Intelligent Design really were science...

Imagine the state of scientific endeavor if real science followed the same rules as Intelligent Design.

When Oersted observed a compass needle moving when the compass was placed near a current-carrying wire, he would have said, "How interesting! Our current understanding of nature can't explain that. A supernatural Directing Agent must be causing the compass needle to move. Since I can't ever know how the Directing Agent works, I guess there's no way for me to figure out why the compass needle is moving. I guess I'll go study something else."

When Rutherford observed alpha particles bouncing straight back from a sheet of gold foil (an event, to paraphrase him, as unexpected as if he had fired a bullet at a tissue and it had bounced), he would have said "Fascinating! Our current atomic model can't explain this. There must be a supernatural Directing Agent causing it. Maybe I'll move to Hawaii and retire."

When scientists first had enough data to see that most earthquakes and volcanoes occur in specific regions, rather than being scattered randomly over Earth's surface, they would have said, "Hmm...thermal contraction shouldn't produce patterns like those. They're much too complex. It must be a supernatural Directing Agent doing it. Well, I guess we can stop looking for another explanation now! Let's have a beer!" (They were, after all, geologists.)

When Mendel observed that pea plant characteristics don't always breed true, he would have said, "Goodness! That's unexpected. Our current understanding of of heredity can't explain that. Must be God's work. I guess I'll start eating spinach, instead."

Intelligent Design isn't just not science. It stifles inquiry. It's--dare I say it?--designed to keep people from asking questions.

And for the record, "God did it" is not a valid scientific explanation.

Interesting word for today: thanatocoenosis

According to the American Geological Institute's Glossary of Geology, 4th edition, the definition of thanatocoenosis is the following:

"thanatocoenosis (n): a) a set of fossils brought together after death by sedimentary processes, rather than by virtue of having originally lived there collectively; b)...all the fossils present at a particular place in a sediment" [note: I trimmed some of the definition a bit]

The word comes from the Greek thanatos ("death") and koinos ("general" or "common").

Thanatocoenosis shares a root with thanatology (the study of death), thanatophobia (the fear of death), and thanatopsis (a view or thought about death).

This was also another word I considered as a title for this blog, but rejected because it's hard to spell...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

1000 words

One of my favorite lazy-Saturday-afternoon-with-a-book book series is Lillian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who.... In one of them (I can't remember which), she makes reference to an activity that the main character's English teacher used to have him do: pick a topic from a dictionary or encyclopedia and write 1000 words on that topic.

I think this is a pretty cool idea, and an interesting way to practice writing without going back over the same topics over and over again.

So, I am going to try to start doing that. I will post the results here. We'll see how it goes! With any luck, I'll learn some interesting things, and you'll get more interesting posts.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Interesting word for today: catachresis

According to Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th edition, the definition of catachresis is the following:

"catachresis (n): incorrect use of a word or words, as by misapplication of terminology or by strained or mixed metaphor" (p. 229)

The roots of the word are (what else?) Greek, from kata, which means "against" or "down," and chresthai, which means "to use."

Other words using the prefix cata in a similar way include cataclysm, catabolism, cataclastic, catacomb, catadromous, and catafalque. (Perhaps some of those will become words of the day later on...)

On a side note, I almost called this blog Catachresis...but decided that naming my blog after something I wish to avoid might not be the wisest of ideas.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Usage tip: like vs. such as

Both like and such as are commonly used to compare two (or more) things. However, if you wish to write clearly and unambiguously, it's important to understand the distinction between the two.

When used to compare two or more things, the word like essentially means "similar to" or "in the manner of." In contrast, such as essentially means "for example."

Therefore, the following two sentences have different meanings:

Carnivores like wolves generally have large, sharp teeth.
Carnivores such as wolves generally have large, sharp teeth.

The first means that most carnivores that are similar to wolves have large, sharp teeth. It implies that carnivores that are not similar to wolves--say, for example, sharks--do not have large, sharp teeth.

The second sentence tells us that a wolf is an example of a carnivore, and that most carnivores--including wolves, and including sharks--have large, sharp teeth.

The insertion of a comma can affect meaning, too. A "like XXX" phrase enclosed in commas generally means you're making an explicit match or link between two things. In essence, you are equating the two. For example:

Seals, like dolphins, are mammals.

This sentence is using dolphins as a referent and stating that seals are similar to dolphins in the specific way described in the sentence (i.e., they are both mammals). In a sentence of this form, the noun after like is generally assumed to be more familiar to the reader than is the subject of the sentence. (I.e., this sentence suggests that the writer expects the reader to be more familiar with dolphins than with seals.) This sentence is correct as written. Replacing like with such as in this case would make the sentence incorrect, because a dolphin is not a type of seal. If we wanted to use such as in this sentence, we'd have to change dolphins to a type of seal (e.g., "Seals, such as the Weddell seal, are mammals.").

Unless you want to make that explicit link between the two things, you generally want a "such as XXX" phrase inside your commas. For example:

Some actors, like Jonathan Frakes, are quite tall.

There's nothing really wrong with this sentence, if you are trying to get across that Jonathan Frakes is quite tall, and that some actors resemble him in being quite tall. But if you were trying to give Jonathan Frakes as an example of a tall actor, rather than as the definition of a tall person, then you would use such as:

Some actors, such as Jonathan Frakes, are quite tall.

(This sentence would also work with including instead of such as, but I won't go there right now.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Boring First Post

Yes, boring--I have several ideas for posts, but haven't had the time to think them through. But as my blog looks incredibly weird without any posts at all, I wanted to put at least one up--just to see how it looks.

More to come later. I hope to use this blog to review books I've read; talk about interesting topics in science, grammar, and education; and generally write about anything else that strikes my fancy.