Franken. J. Archive 006 (to 07 FEB 03)

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Gene therapy and leukaemia; bugs that eat toxic waste; weird new fossil proto-bird; freeze-thaw cycles create natural Arctic art; 3-way symbiosis/arms race in ant evolution; the knuckle-headed investigation of The Skeptical Environmentalist saves Lomborg from his own petard; and other stories.

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Selected quotes

07 FEB 2003 | source Various via Arts & Letters Daily

Arts & Letters Daily, more than any other site, has been burning up my hours. It's not perfect. There's just a little too much uncritical referral to conservativism, in my opinion. But despite this little quirk, this site is like a giant global vacuum sucking up quality writing from all across the Web. The quality of the written works listed is outstanding. I have been getting steadily more depressed at the failure of Australian news outlets to grapple with difficult issues. Even "quality broadsheets" like The Age and The Australian have generally treated important debates as slanging matches between entrenched interests rather than as a contest of ideas fought with intelligence, knowledge, and (Lord forbid) flair.

So I've collected here three glorious quotes from articles linked to Arts & Letters Daily. These are only short; sometimes this strips them of their full context, but the sheer joy of reading this quality of prose keeps me coming back for more.

Paul Johnson reviews The American Revolution: A History by Gordon S. Wood in

Britain was well rid of America and went on to prosper mightily and acquire another empire. The real losers were the French, who went bankrupt; the Indians, who lost their lands; the blacks who had to endure another century of slavery; and the women, who waited even longer for the vote. But as Joe E. Brown said in Some Like It Hot, "nobody's perfect".

Edwina Currie reviews Ladies of the Bedchamber: the role of the royal mistress by Dennis Friedman in New Statesman:

[Currie prickles at Friedman's freudoanalytic explanations of why powerful men take mistresses...] What is missing here, however, is any sense of history. I don't deny Friedman's credentials as a psychiatrist; I do wonder if he has any grasp of the imperatives, and the mores, of the time. Henry "treated his wives as reproductive factories". Well, of course he did; if the first had had a dozen sons, he'd have been spared the divorce and five more weddings. But then Britain would have been more like Portugal, and the Americans might have spoken German.

Friedman may be on surer ground with more recent chaps: the ghastly Duke of Windsor called the unmaternal Wallis Simpson "Mummie" and wrote his most intimate letters to her in baby language. But there is only one explanation for a prince who, like the future Edward VII, could send his lover Alice Keppel a flag brooch that spells out the message: "Position quarterly and open. I am about to fire a Whitehead torpedo straight ahead."

He loved it. And I bet she did, too.

Andrew Berry reviews Narrow Roads of Gene Lane: The Collected Papers of W.D. Hamilton Vol. II: The Evolution of Sex by W.D. Hamilton in London Review of Books:

Early in the first volume of his collected papers, the evolutionary biologist W.D. Hamilton retells a Victorian joke. Two ladies are conversing, and one says: 'Have you heard that Mr Darwin says we are all descended from an ape?' The other replies: 'Oh, my dear - that surely cannot be true! . . . But, if it should be true, let us pray that at least it will not become generally known!'


Brilliant field biologist that he was, Hamilton was at his best when focusing not on people but on the bizarre insects he loved. In an article written for a Japanese entomological magazine entitled 'My Preferred Burial and Why', he provided both an epitaph and, characteristically, a macabre insight into the life-cycle of beetles that lay their eggs in animal corpses they have buried.

I will leave a sum in my last will for my body to be carried to Brazil and to these forests. It will be laid out in a manner secure against the possums and the vultures just as we make our chickens secure; and this great Coprophanaeus beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. No worm for me nor sordid fly, I will buzz in the dusk like a huge bumble bee. I will be many, buzz even as a swarm of motorbikes, be borne, body by flying body out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars, lofted under those beautiful and un-fused elytra which we will all hold over our backs. So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone.

Regrettably, convention (and practicalities) intervened and Hamilton was buried in the usual way in Oxfordshire.


Columbia burns

02 FEB 2003 | source Everywhere

Two nights ago, I went out into my back yard and saw space shuttle Columbia cut across the sky. With a magnitude of -1.5, it was about as bright as satellite sightings get. It was close enough to be more than a point -- more like a planet than a twinkling star, and it looked like a glowing ember from the dull red sunlight it reflected. I meant to go out again last night. There was another good transit to watch, but I didn't remember until five minutes too late and Columbia had passed by. It was on one of its last orbits before re-entry.

I knew the transit times of the shuttle those days. I did not know the crew. They were Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon -- male and female, military and civilian, white, black, subcontinental, and Israeli. I remember them as a spark sailing across the Zodiac.


Design Linguistics

29 JAN 2003 | source Nash Riscowl

Design Linguistics has been described as the most exciting new development in Intelligent Design Theory. The founder of the field, retired Brigadier General Samson P. Hetero-Smythe, gives Frankenblog an exclusive interview. By Nash Riscowl.

Nash Riscowl: You say that Design Linguistics is the "killer app" of Intelligent Design Theory.

Hetero-Smythe: That's right. You see, one of the accusations levelled at ID is that it adds nothing to our knowledge. It's not a very powerful accusation, but it seems quite persuasive to unreconstructed atheistic Darwinists. But the fact that we can apply the principles of ID to linguistics shows that it is, in fact, a powerful philosophy which can be applied to many scientific fields.

NR: You say Design Linguistics is a science, not a religious belief.

Hetero-Smythe: That's right. Many of my unreconstructed atheistic Darwinist opponents have accused me of shaping a linguistic theory out of my own religious beliefs. Just because I believe in the ultimate truthfulness of the Bible doesn't discount my scientific arguments. Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal were devout Christians. Only unreconstructed atheistic Darwinists make an issue of my religious beliefs.

NR: So it's just coincidence that you have the same religious outlook as Philip Johnson, Michael Behe, William Dembski and other ID theorists?

Hetero-Smythe: No, it's not a coincidence. Clearly only those who have accepted Jesus are capable of seeing the plain, scientific truth. If only those unreconstructed atheistic Darwinists would throw away their blinkers...

NR: But what about the Buddhists who disagree with your linguistic theory?

Hetero-Smythe: Unreconstructed atheistic Darwinists.

NR: Hindus?

Hetero-Smythe: Unreconstructed atheistic Darwinists.

NR: Christians?

Hetero-Smythe: Unreconstructed atheistic Darwinists.

NR: Christians are unreconstructed atheistic Darwinists?

Hetero-Smythe: If they weren't UADs, they'd see the plain truth. By definition, anyone who rebuffs Design Linguistics must have rejected Jesus. They may call themselves Christians, but they're not really.

NR: But you say this is a scientific theory, not a religious belief.

Hetero-Smythe: That's right. There's plenty of science to back up Design Linguistics.

NR: Like the Tower of Babel?

Hetero-Smythe: That's a deliberate exaggeration put about by unreconstructed atheistic Darwinists. I only refer in passing to the Tower of Babel. Design Linguistics never claims that the Bible should be interpreted in absolute terms. Clearly the Tower of Babel story is an allegory for an event that took place much earlier.

NR: So you don't say that the Tower of Babel story is literally true?

Hetero-Smythe: No. It is just a further sign of the deep understanding of human truth in the Bible that the ancient scholars were aware of the scientific principle thousands of years ago. It is a scientific allegory. It's no different to Einstein talking about spaceships to explain the Twin Paradox. No human has actually taken a spaceship far enough to demonstrate the Twin Paradox. It's a fable. The ancient prophets knew the principle well enough to write the parable of Babel, but they didn't have the scientific language to express it the way we like it nowadays.

NR: So when did the real Tower of Babel take place?

Hetero-Smythe: Around 30 to 40,000 years ago.

NR: What happened back then?

Hetero-Smythe: Well, if you look at what we know of humanity, it seems we all came out of Africa about 100,000 years ago. At one stage we had a bottleneck, wherein only a small number of humans survived, maybe 150,000 population max. We were nearly wiped out. Our research indicates that this might well be the "flood" that is referred to allegorically in the Bible, where only a handful of humans survived.

NR: And given the small number of humans...

Hetero-Smythe: That's right. Given there were less than 150,000 people, it is ridiculous to assume they had lots of different languages. Impossible, really. There must have been one language, possibly with a few different dialects.

NR: But today there are thousands of different languages and dozens of major language groups.

Hetero-Smythe: That's right. It defies belief to think that so many different languages could develop in a mere 30,000 years, especially when you consider that humans have always traded with each other, so each group would have been in contact with neighbouring groups, so there would have been enormous pressure to maintain common understanding. That is, the evolutionary pressure on language would have been to converge not diverge, as the unreconstructed atheistic Darwinist linguists argue.

NR: So sometime about 30,000 years ago, God actually came down to Earth and changed the brains of humans.

Hetero-Smythe: We don't like the G word. We prefer to describe Him as a Designer.

NR: A Designer with supernatural powers and an interest in human affairs?

Hetero-Smythe: Yes.

NR: But not God.

Hetero-Smythe: We don't use that word. But if it suits your personal belief system, then go ahead.

NR: So how did the Designer change human brains?

Hetero-Smythe: We don't know exactly. The science of neurology isn't sufficiently advanced to say for sure.

NR: I mean, did he rearrange neurons? Or did he just twiddle with some chemicals?

Hetero-Smythe: Something like that.

NR: How does Design Linguistics cope with language change?

Hetero-Smythe: Oh, that's no problem at all. We don't disagree with the fact that language evolves. We call this micro-evolution. There's plenty of evidence for that. But it's simply absurd to believe that entire new languages could evolve without some sort of Design.

NR: Why not?

Hetero-Smythe: Because languages are far too complex. They have extremely complex grammatical rules and vocabularies. With such strict meanings attached to each word, large-scale language evolution simply couldn't have taken place in 30,000 years. If you get even one phoneme wrong, like mistaking "cat" with "bat", then your sentence doesn't make sense anymore.

NR: But if my wife told me to feed the bat, I would assume I had misheard or her tongue had slipped, and I'd go feed the cat. Isn't language highly redundant, and a small variation easily understood?

Hetero-Smythe: Sure. Small variations, yes. Enough for micro-evolution. But not enough for major language speciation. Look at the sentence "To be or not to be." There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, and the sentence is 13 letters long. That means there are 26^13 possible letter combinations. That's 2.5 x 10^18 possible combinations. And I'm not even including punctuation or where to put the spaces. Now it's pretty obvious that in all human history, we have not written down every possible variation of the 2.5 x 10^18 combinations of 13 letters. Isn't it just amazing? I mean, doesn't that show that language has to have been constructed?

NR: Erm...

Hetero-Smythe: Well? Surely it's obvious! Language, my friend, is irreducibly complex. If you don't know what "to be" means, then the sentence makes no sense. If you don't know what "or not" means, the sentence makes no sense.

NR: The sentence never made much sense to me when I was studying Hamlet at school...

Hetero-Smythe: You cannot make sense of the sentence unless you can make sense of the individual words. But the individual words don't make a complete sentence unless they're joined up in the right order. That is, you need vocabulary to make sense of grammar, and you need grammar to make sense of vocabulary. This could not have come out of nothing.

NR: Your opponents point out that you have never had a paper published in peer-reviewed journals.

Hetero-Smythe: I submitted dozens of papers to linguistics journals, but they kept getting rejected despite their plain truth. I finally realised that the problem was that the journals were run by unreconstructed atheistic Darwinists.

NR: So you started your own journal.

Hetero-Smythe: That's right. I launched The Word two years ago. We've just published our sixth issue. It's been great. A real focal point for the field.

NR: How do you deal with peer review?

Hetero-Smythe: Oh, I review all the submissions very carefully. I only accept the very best 95%.

NR: But that's not peer review.

Hetero-Smythe: I'm a peer.

NR: But peer review is meant to be carried out by experts in the field.

Hetero-Smythe: I think you'll find everyone agrees that I am the expert on Design Linguistics.

NR: Where to from here for Design Linguistics and The Word?

Hetero-Smythe: Now that we've conclusively demonstrated the correctness of Design Linguistics, we'll be moving away from scientific work and into political advocacy. I would like Design Linguistics given equal time to all those language classes in school.

NR: Won't you have an uphill battle?

Hetero-Smythe: No. Our polling indicates that most school students would prefer to learn a simple, truthful theory that can be taught in an hour than all that complex foreign grammar that's never going to be of any use to them.

NR: Wouldn't the school boards object to replacing half their foreign language curriculum with a quasi-religious theory?

Hetero-Smythe: Say, you're not one of them unreconstructed atheistic Darwinists, are you?

(At this point the interview was terminated.)


Groundswell of satire in the US

27 JAN 2003 | source

Frankenblog promises this is not just an excuse to repeat some one-liners. Frankenblog is intrigued by the anti-war, anti-Bush, anti-Republican satire that is leaking into the mainstream, and by this I mean the US late night TV comedy/variety/chat shows. Some of the satire is directed at the anti-war movement, such as this line which apparently brought the house down for Craig Kilborn:

Kilborn: Over the weekend thousands of college students protested war with Iraq in Washington. Many of the students said they are upset with America's dependence on foreign oil. After the protest they all packed up and left in their parents' two-ton SUVs.

But there's a lot more stuff on the other side. Here are a few of the more pointed examples from the last week.

Leno: At a press conference today, Secretary of State Colin Powell said if we fight Iraq, we will not fight alone. He said we will have 100% support of every major oil company.

I had a terrible nightmare last night. I dreamt it was the year 2015. The Bush twins were president and we were just getting ready to fight Gulf War III. It was a nightmare.

As we prepare for this war with Iraq, President Bush wants to make one thing perfectly clear: This is not about oil. It's about gasoline.

France said today they may veto the use of force in Iraq. The French afraid to go to war? I can't believe that. That's unprecedented. Germany said they will not go to war against Iraq either. However, they say they would consider taking over Poland again.

Yesterday national elections were held in Cuba and there was only one candidate on the ballot there and experts are dismissing the Cuban elections as "a big farce." Well, sure, you can't be that close to Florida without something rubbing off. They’re only 90 miles away.

A lot of people celebrated Martin Luther King Day - including Trent Lott. You know, Trent Lott marched in the '60s. OK, it was with the Klan, but he was marching.

Today U.N. weapons inspectors found some empty warheads. They were sitting in Congress.

Here's something interesting - according to research, an effective cure for clinical depression is eating caviar. Eating caviar can cure clinical depression. That sounds like the Republican health-care plan, doesn't it?

Letterman: Experts are now warning us that North Korea could develop their own rapping kangaroo within a few months.

President Bush's approval ratings have taken a dip for the first time. Now down to 58 percent. Look out, because once it hits 50 - he's going to start drinking again.

North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-il has been called an under-achiever that succeeded his father. Thank God nothing like that could ever happen here!

O'Brien: According to a new government report the gap between the rich and poor has grown. President Bush said, "See my policies do work.”

Kilborn: Today the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that there will not be a "Kangaroo Jack II."

OK, so here's one that is just for the fun of it.

Letterman: Sad news. Kmart is closing down 326 stores. I’m going to miss Kmart; I love being able to buy underwear and malt liquor under one roof.


Eidolon closes

24 JAN 2003 | source Jeremy Byrne

Jeremy Byrne, the surviving editor of Eidolon, has announced its formal closure after more than two years in official "hiatus". Subscribers and contributors with material under submission will be contacted shortly.

Eidolon published my first story, and several others that ended up in recommended reading lists internationally. It was, without doubt, the most handsome small-press offering Australia has ever produced, with a high level of excellence in its fiction, criticism, and artwork. It will be sorely missed. I miss it already.

Vale, Eidolon, and a big thank you to all the editors, designers, and others who helped put Australian SF on the map.



23 JAN 2003 | source Nature and Science

Ypres! Nine days since an update. Sorry. Have been snowed under. As reparation for my neglect, please accept the following: (1)this roundup of Nature and Science stories, and (2) an archive upgrade (to be done in the next day or so).

First, a selection from Nature vol 421.

Eleven children with SCID (severe combined immunodeficiency disease, the classic "Boy in the Bubble" disease) have been treated with an experimental gene therapy in France. Last year, one of the children developed leukaemia. It was hoped that this was a one-off. But now a second child, three years old, has an almost identical leukaemia. It seems that the virus used to insert the corrective gene, does so at a site near to a gene associated with leukaemia, and although the chances of the inserted gene causing a major disruption are low, the fact is that gene is inserted into somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 of the recipient's cells. Take a small probability and apply it a lot of times and, to paraphrase Jacques Monod, you go from a chance to a certainty. Experimental treatments of SCID are being halted around the world. The shame of the matter is that it is an extremely successful treatment according to Dr Alain Fischer, the scientist responsible for the trial. Of the eleven children treated, nine have been cleared of SCID. But that includes the two with leukaemia. Not so good.

A team of German scientists reports has isolated a bacterium from heavily polluted river sludge. This bacterium thrives on dioxins and furans. It may be that this will lead to an effective biological decontaminator.

In China, paleontologists have discovered a dinosaur fossil a little like Archeopteryx, only with flight feathers on its hindlegs as well as its forelegs. It now seems likely that the proto-birds had four wings rather than two, and glided instead of flapping.

A thoughtful opinion piece by Colin Blakemore, Richard Dawkins, Denis Noble, and Michael Yudkin examines whether there can ever be a moral justification for a scientific boycott of another country. In the light of the ill-considered attempts to isolate Israeli scientists, the reflex answer would be "no, never." Our authors, however, describe conditions which should be met before a boycott could be considered. These are: "(1) The circumstances are exceptional, and the boycott is undertaken only after considered and careful scrutiny by scientists internationally, leading to an explicit judgement that it is worth abandoning the principle of universality of science on this occasion for a particular, overwhelming gain. (2) A boycott is not merely a political gesture but an action that would help to change the unacceptable behaviour of a regime. (3) Revulsion against a regime, and a belief in the necessity for exceptional measures against it, are so nearly universal that a boycott would be widely respected. (4) The proposed boycott is part of an internationally agreed programme of measures that express collective horror against a regime and are necessary to avert some foreseeable disaster."

Now we turn to Science vol 399

Shark numbers in the Northwest Atlantic have plummetted with some species losing 75% of their population in the past 15 years. Overfishing, surprise, surprise, seems to be the culprit.

Nature the artist. Freeze-thaw cycles in polar and alpine regions arrange rocks and soil into striking patterns. Circles, labyrinths, polygons and stripes have been described, and Kessler and Werner have developed a computer model that mimics the natural event.

My favourite paper for a long time. For fifty million years, the Attine ant has co-evolved with a fungus that it grows in enormous underground gardens. Now an astonishing paper reveals that this has actually been a three-way symbiosis with a specialised parasite of the fungus. Even more extraordinary, the researchers have concluded that over the past 50 million years, the parasite has occasionally switched hosts from the fungus to the ant and back again, thereby shuttling their evolutionary history between a complex three-way symbiosis and a complex three-way evolutionary "arms race."

Bjørn Lomborg's best-seller The Skeptical Environmentalist was one of the most appalling books of 2001, and Cambridge University Press ought to be ashamed of having published it. (In fact, one commentator has noted that the book was published by the social sciences division of CUP and suggested that peer reviewers from the natural science division had been deliberately diverted from assessing it; when this question was put to a senior CUP editor, he refused to comment.) Predictably, industry-friendly commentators seized on Lomborg's book as evidence that they didn't need to do any more about environmentalism. There was nothing to worry about. Equally predictably, green groups targetted Lomborg's book and subjected him to ridicule and abuse that had nothing to do with his actual arguments. Following complaints, the Danish Research Agency investigated Lomborg's book. Its Committees on Scientific Dishonesty issued a report concluding that Lomborg's book "is deemed to fall within the concept of scientific dishonesty." The Committee was quite generous to Lomborg, in that it concluded that his work could not be shown to be deliberately dishonest. Given that Lomborg has taught statistics at university level, and that the Committee concluded that he had misrepresented published statistics, this is a surprising conclusion. But we should be happy, should we not, that Lomborg's dishonesty has been exposed? No we should not. The Committee's investigation is a model of how not to investigate an important issue. The appalling methodology applied by the Committee has only given fuel to Lomborg and his supporters. More on this another time.