Archive for: January, 2007

How fast can evolution work?

Jan 25 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

There's been a bit of talk about "Evolutionary Speed Limits" over at the Intelligent Design weblog Uncommon Descent. Most of the discussion involves "Haldane's Dilemma." This concept is rooted in an article written by the noted evolutionary geneticist J. B. S Haldane in 1957. There's a lot of math involved, and you can see it over at the Wikipedia page I linked above. The bottom line, for those not interested in the math, is this: according to Haldane's calculations, a species cannot reasonably fix beneficial mutations (a particular mutation becomes "fixed" when it is present in all of the population) at a rate any faster than 1 mutation per 300 generations.

A number of anti-evolutionists have taken this as evidence against evolution. If, they argue, genetic changes can only be fixed at a rate of 1 per 300 generations, how can evolution possibly explain the differences between species like humans and chimps, where not nearly enough generations have passed to account for the number of differences that we observe. There are a number of problems with using Haldane's calculations in this way, and in this post I'm going to look at one of those - the one that I think is the most important. For clarity, I should probably make sure that I am very explicit about what, exactly, the problem is before I start, so here it is:

Using Haldane's 1 substitution per 300 generations as a speed limit for all evolution is wrong because Haldane's calculations and concerns only apply under certain very specific circumstances.

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ATA and children

Jan 23 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Jake Young has a link up to a story about a family's recent misadventure on AirTran Airways. Apparently, they were removed from their flight because, after more than 15 minutes, their 3-year-old was still pitching a temper tantrum and refusing to stay seated:

The Kuleszas said they told a flight attendant they had paid for their daughter's seat, but asked whether she could sit in her mother's lap. The request was denied.

Which is what had to happen. It's not safe for older children to sit on laps during takeoff or landing. Actually, it's not safe for younger children, either, but that's another issue.

She was removed because "she was climbing under the seat and hitting the parents and wouldn't get in her seat" during boarding, Graham-Weaver said.

Having to deal with obnoxious children during flight is bad, but that's just a part of any transit option that doesn't involve a private vehicle. Having your flight delayed because someone's spoiled brat won't sit down, on the other hand, is something totally different. There's no reason for more than 100 people to be delayed by a single screaming toddler. Kicking them off was the right call. Here's where the airline screwed it up:

The Orlando-based carrier reimbursed the family $595.80, the cost of the three tickets, and the Kuleszas flew home the next day.

They also were offered three roundtrip tickets anywhere the airline flies, Graham-Weaver said.

Those two fools did not need anything that even looked like an apology, much less a refund. What they needed - badly - were parenting lessons.

7 responses so far

The "Tax Cuts For Healthcare" "plan" screws the poor more than I thought:

Jan 23 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

I made a fairly large error when I wrote my previous article on the health care "plan" that Bush will announce during the State of the Union Address later today. When I did my back-of-the-envelope calculations of the tax breaks that different people would receive under the plan, I missed an important consideration. When I initially read the press release, I thought that everyone would get the $15,000 income deduction. I wasn't reading carefully enough.

In reality, only those who have health insurance will get any sort of tax break. This means that unless the uninsured poor can scrape together enough money to come up with health insurance - and the tax break will cover less than half of the White House's optimistic estimate of that cost - they will get absolutely nothing. The tax breaks, under this so-called plan, will go only to those who can afford to buy health care coverage.

If "health insurance" is defined loosely enough, this could create a fairly major loophole. In the highly unlikely event that this plan goes anywhere, I foresee a sudden growth in the number of "insurance companies" offering cheap "health insurance" plans that provide minimal coverage and have massively high deductibles. This might technically decrease the number of uninsured, but it will probably result in an increase in the number of underinsured.

Unsurprisingly, Bush is proposing an ideologically-based approach to a problem that needs a reality-based solution.

2 responses so far

The President's Plan to help the uninsured: tax cuts for the rich

Jan 23 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

In his State of the Union Address tonight, Bush will announce a new "plan" to address the need for more affordable health care insurance. After reading the White House "Fact Sheet" on the plan, a phrase quickly jumps to mind - "dead on arrival." That one is quickly joined by others - "smoking crack," "bloody stupid," "give me a break," and "what mentally defective chimpanzee came up with this one?"

The funniest thing about this particular proposal is exactly how stereotypically Bush it really is. Stripped down to its bearest essentials, there are two parts to this health care plan. One part consists of taking federal money and giving it to the states to spend. The second part consists of - wait for it - tax cuts. Seriously. No, I'm not kidding. He really wants to address the health care affordability problem by cutting taxes.

I suspect that some of the other Sciencebloggers with more of a health care background than I have will weigh in on this matter later on, but there are a few flaws with this particular proposal that even a non-expert like myself can spot.

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More on greenhouse gas caps

Jan 22 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Earlier today, I noted that an unusual alliance consisting of representatives from both heavy industry and the environmental movement has released a report calling for mandatory action on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The list of participating industries is impressive, particularly since all of them are directly tied in one way or another to GHGs - this isn't a case of non-polluters making suggestions to polluters; these are companies who will absolutely be affected by the legislation that they are proposing. Ordinarily, I would be extraordinarily skeptical about any proposal to fight climate change that GE, DuPont, BP, and Caterpillar were all supporting, but they are joined in this proposal by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense, and other non-governmental bodies that are not normally found on the same side of any argument as some of the participating companies (WalMart just issued a press release in support of the proposal, increasing the "strange bedfellows factor" a bit). Most importantly, the proposal appears at first glance to be reasonable and realistic, and if there are loopholes they are not readily apparent.

So why the shift? Why are industrial giants working with environmental groups on a proposal that will increase federal regulation, and that will cost them money in the short term? Why are representatives of Big Business proposing mandatory carbon emissions caps the day before a State of the Union Address when Bush shows every indication that he will continue to oppose such actions? Is someone drugging the CEOs? Is this a sign of rapidly approaching armageddon? Have the Illuminati finally come out into the open, or are we looking at something even more sinister?

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A new call for greenhouse gas caps

Jan 22 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

The United States Climate Action Partnership has just released a report calling for mandatory greenhouse gas emission cap legislation and suggesting a specific set of mechanisms for achieving cuts in the near future. There are a number of noteworthy items in the report, but the most remarkable thing is who wrote this report.

The United States Climate Action Partnership (US-CAP) is a coalition of groups that includes both major corporations and major non-governmental organizations. On the corporate side, the group includes Alcoa, BP America, Caterpillar, Duke Energy, DuPont, FPL Group, General Electric, Lehman Brothers, PG&E, and PNM Resources. On the non-governmental organization side, members include Environmental Defense, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pew Center on Global Climate Change, and World Resources Institute. You don't see those two sets of groups on the same sides of environmental issues very often - hell, I can't remember ever seeing them on the same side before.

So why the new alliance? I'll get into that more a bit later, but what it comes down to is this: at this point, anyone with a brain who takes the time to look at the data can see that if things keep going as they have been, the planet is in big trouble - and it's the kind of big trouble that is Bad For Business. Say what you like about the CEOs of major industries, but they're not a group noted for lack of intellect. It is clear that caps are needed, and it is clear that they will happen someday. By moving on the issue now, businesses will gain the ability to know the rules that they will be playing under, and that will help them more in the long term.

Meanwhile, Bush is expected to continue to oppose mandatory action on greenhouse gasses. This could get interesting in a hurry.

One response so far

The Unholy Wars Continue

Jan 18 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

It looks like we here at Scienceblogs are not done talking about Dawkins and The God Delusion just yet. The latest skirmish, which I am about to plunge into, started with a post on Pharyngula, which was responded to at Stranger Fruit. The Stranger Fruit article, in turn, just received a counter-response at EvolutionBlog. The disagreement (this time) is over the relevance of expertise in discussions about the existance (or lack thereof) of a god or gods. PZ and Jason don't think that any sort of special expertise is needed to discuss the question of whether or not there is/are god/s. (They also doubt that it is possible for anyone to have expertise in this particular subject area.) John Lynch, on the other hand, thinks that it's a good idea to be knowledgeable in the topic area if you are going to jump into the debate.

As is often the case, my own view seems to fall somewhere between the two positions that are already out there.

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9 responses so far

Why astroturf disclosure legislation is needed:

Jan 18 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

In a post earlier today, I discussed a case where an astroturf group is attempting to stir up popular objection to a clause in a bill before the Senate that mandates disclosure of this type of lobbying activity. In a comment to a post over at Bora's blog, MattXIV raises a point that requires a more detailed response than I could make in a comment there:

The point of restricting direct lobbying of congress is to prevent quid-pro-quos being worked out between lobbyist and congresspeople. I don't see how attempts to influence the views of individuals independent of direct lobbying of congress would raise the same possibilities of corruption by officials. It seems like an effort to increase the relative importance of direct lobbying, and hence the opportunities to solicit campaign contributions that congress has. If some group is going to spend money trying to get policy changed, I'd rather they did it via a PR campaign to convince people to write letters to the editor than by buying expensive lunches (and maybe some under the table extras) for congresscritters.

The anti-astroturfing portion of the legislation does little to address the possibility of people influencing legislation by buying congresscritters. What it does do is ensure that Congress (and the public) can find out who is spending large sums of money in an attempt to influence legislation. It's a needed piece of legislation, mostly because of the grossly dishonest way that many of these groups operate.

Here's a hypothetical example of how it works:

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8 responses so far

Someone's Trying to Play Us

Jan 18 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Via Bora, I found a somewhat alarming article. Apparently, it's being claimed, the Lobbying reform law currently in the senate will require bloggers (among other people) to register and file quarterly reports with congress or face possible jail time, "the same as the big K Street lobbyists." Calling it "the most expansive intrusion on First Amendment rights ever," the article in question hopes to stir a grassroots swell of oposition to this particular portion of the law.

Being a blogger, this naturally caught my interest, so I went and looked at the law. Then at the source of the article. It would seem that someone - a right-wing activist named Richard A. Viguerie, to be specific - is trying to play bloggers. Here's the real story:

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3 responses so far

Dog + Cat = Lion + Calf

Jan 18 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Over at the "ID is nothing but science, we really mean it" Uncommon Dissent blog, there's an interesting little biblical discussion going on right now. In this case, DaveScot's remarkable response to a comment on the After the Bar Closes discussion board does an amazing job at evoking that Ghostbusters kind of feel.

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13 responses so far

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