Archive for September 21st, 2006|Daily archive page

The Face on Mars – Now in 3D!

ESA just released new (3D) photos of Cydonia.

Just thought you’d like to know.

One Move and the Owl Gets It

It’s for posts like this that force me to read Wonkette every day. I’m still giggling.

Destroying Old Woodsy Owl Costumes – Guidelines

1. Incinerate the complete costume with the oversight of an official USDA Forest Service law enforcement officer*.

2. The entire Woodsy Owl costume including each of the separate pieces is to be destroyed beyond recognition.

* If you do not have access to an official USDA Forest Service law enforcement representative, arrangements will be made for dealing with your costume by contacting the USDA-FS Washington Office at:

Woodsy Owl
C/o National Symbols Program

Favorite quote?

Jesus, what do they think people are going to do with an old Woodsy Owl costume, use it in a porn video? (Actually, that would be awesome ….)  [My emphisis]

Just so you know what Wonkette is talking about, I present 

Furries. This subculture has been much maligned, mocked, and misunderstood. The first image people seem to get are people going at it in animal costumes… [Probably Definitely NSFW]

Maligned, mocked, and misunderstood they may be, but at least they don’t try to burn Woodsy the Owl costumes.

“I voted for torture” – Lynn Westmoreland

David Shraub  over at The Moderate Voice is quickly becoming my heads up person for finding boneheaded comments from elected officials. The latest comes from Lynn Westmoreland who was quoted saying “I voted for torture.”

From the Ledger Enquirer comes

The vote he referred to came last year on an amendment reaffirming the United States’ commitment to the U.N. Convention Against Torture. The measure passed the House 415-8, with Westmoreland among those opposing it. The U.N. convention defines torture as intentionally inflicting “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” to obtain information or a confession.

Westmoreland said that definition is too vague and that he believes intelligence professionals deserve more flexibility.

We’ll just accept the fact that “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” is about as clear as treaty texts get. But Westmoreland tries to cuddle up to the White House by adopting the new ‘vague language’ and ‘more flexibility for intelligence officials’ taking points for a vote made last year. I wonder if the congressional record shows him using those talking points back then?

He managed to continue stuffing his foot in his mouth by saying:

“I think they should use the methods necessary to get the information from the people who know the information,” he said. “We’re fighting people that don’t wear a uniform. They’re not from a country. They’re not a recognized military. So I don’t know that the Geneva Convention even covers them.”

Let me get this right. If you’re not recognized military, it’ll be OK to torture you? Does this mean that if you, say, grab someone in an airport or on the border of a foreign country, cart them off to who knows where, torture interrogate them, you can then say – “not military, not our problem?”  Is that the take-home lesson here Mr. Congressman?

And even if THAT were acceptable, real professionals know that any intelligence acquired using torture is likely to lead at best to unreliable and at worst to misleading information. Could it be that the only people really interested in torturing these individuals for information (not fun and photo albums) seem to be based in Washington, not Iraq or Afghanistan?

Finally, were THAT argument discounted, there remains the reason for the measure in the first place. To keep enemies from having a reason for doing this to American service people and citizens. Obviously Mr Westmoreland doesn’t feel America needs to be morally accountable for its actions. Perhaps because Mr. Westmoreland abandoned his morals long ago.

I wonder if he is at least tortured by his conscience?

Critiquing the News: New Fossil Find Foul-ups

The LA Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post all reported the new find of Australopithecus afarensis fossils yesterday. Since I’m not qualified to say much about the fossils themselves, I thought I’d critique how I felt the stories were presented and what I would have found important. Perhaps the most informative if slightly misleading lede came from John Noble Wilford in the NYT who started with:

If the fossil Lucy, the most famous woman from out of the deep human past, had a child, it might have looked a lot like the bundle of skull and bones uncovered by scientists digging in the badlands of Ethiopia.

Thee paleontologists who are announcing the discovery in the journal Nature today said the 3.3-million-year-old fossils were of the earliest well-preserved child ever found in the human lineage. It was estimated to be about 3 years old at death, probably female and a member of the Australopithecus afarensis species, the same as Lucy’s.

First, a rundown of the science I got from the articles.

The fossils were originally found in Ethiopia in the year 2000. Scientists have been working on them ever since with the results are just now being published in Nature. These are both the oldest fossils of a child hominid as well as being the most complete individual specimen of Australopithecus afarensis. The rare fact that the fossils come from a child gives key insights into the development of the species.

Perhaps the most interesting results show that while the shoulders most resembled those of a young gorilla, the legs were already adapted for walking upright. A fossilized bone from the throat, the hyoid, appears more ape-like than human indicating that the child probably sounded more like a chimp than a child. Finally, though studies on adult afarensis skulls show a comparatively slow brain development, the child’s brain size was comparable to the that of a chimp of equal age.

[If you work in this area, please leave a comment telling me what I got right (or wrong) on the science. And perhaps more importantly, why are you reading this?]

Now I’d like to make a couple of comments about the stories themselves.

First off what was wrong with the lede in the NYT? I feel that an uneducated reader (or those who are quote mining) might conclude that Lucy and the new fossil (named Selam or ‘peace’ in several Ethiopian languages) were contemporaries. This is patently wrong. Not only are the fossils dated about 150.000 years apart [WP], but both were found in completely different areas in Ethiopia [LAT]. I predict that is going to cause grief for evolution supporters forever.

After complaining about the lede in the NYT, I should probably even things out by finding something wrong with the other two articles. I give the worst slant award to the LA Times with the article starting:

No one knows how her body found its way into the stream or how long her distraught parents may have searched the shallows for the missing 3-year-old.

And ending with the dramatic note:

Did she stumble foraging among the reeds and drown? Was she escaping a predator or caught by swift flood currents?

Of this, her bones reveal nothing. Death came suddenly. Burial in the sand was almost as quick. She was lost for eons and then found.

Can’t you hear the sound of the 24-hour news service intro-music now. Child lost – film at 11 .

No criticism would really be complete without picking on the worst soundbite as related in the Washington Post.

“Before this, you didn’t know if it was like you might have the arm of a Danny DeVito and the leg of a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” [Rick] Potts [of the Smithsonian Institution] said.

Great, now the ID-iots will claim that scientists think we descended from DeVito and Abdul-Jabbar.

Perhaps more disturbing are the inconsistencies between the articles.

Only the LA times seems clear on the time it took to recover (3 field seasons) and clean (5 years) the fossils. The NYT gives a general idea of 5 years and the Washington Post seems to have calculated an average by mentioning 4 years.

Perhaps worse is how this find is placed in relationship to the other discoveries of hominid child remains. The WP tries for the young earth creationist award by claiming the oldest child fossils to be from 60,000 year old Neanderthals. The LA Times felt it unnecessary to pin down an age letting readers ‘do the math’ by dating Selam to 3.3 million years and claiming she was 3 million years older than comparable fossils. (There is no mention of Neanderthals.) Clearest on this point was the NYT pinpointing the type (Neanderthal), the age (less then 300,000 years) and the location (Syria) of the oldest previously recovered fossils.

Why is all this important? Because even though scientists would prefer otherwise, how science is presented is just as (or perhaps more) important as the science itself. The contradictions in these articles caused both by bad science writing and perhaps ambiguous press releases, is just grist for the creationists mill. We have to get this stuff right the first time every time.

Or maybe we should just be glad that the fossils were found and that the foul-ups were most likely journalistic and not scientific.