Guest Book Review: Framing Innocence

Once I completed the previous book review, I dropped the authors a courtesy note to make them aware of it. This led to some correspondence, with the result that Matt Young, a professor of physics at the Colorado School of Mines and the author of several works, has offered a book review of his own. I am happy to host him as a guest reviewer, and while I have not yet read this book myself, I have more than a passing interest in the matter. In legal action regarding potential child pornography and abuse, the justification of “protecting the children” is frequently an emotional response, and may not take into consideration the traumatic and damaging nature of actions like protective custody, which can be invoked well before evidence is even presented. This has questionable merit for cases where guilt is well established, and is reprehensible when innocence prevails. Harming children (and adults) to save children, sometimes from absolutely nothing, is an action that requires critical examination.

So herewith, Matt Young’s review of Framing Innocence: A Mother’s Photographs, a Prosecutor’s Zeal, and a Small Town’s Response by Lynn Powell:

This is a book that should never have been written, because it details a prosecution that should never have been brought. Very briefly, Cynthia Stewart took photographs of her 8-year-old daughter washing herself in the bathtub and was prosecuted for obscenity.

I played a bit part in the drama — having inadvertently inspired the title of the chapter “Rorschach” — and I read the book not so much with interest as with growing consternation. For the first two-thirds or so, the book reads a bit like a novel, but then it unfortunately becomes anticlimactic, as you desperately want something dramatic to happen. Life is rarely like art, however, and the author was stuck with nasty facts. Very nasty facts.

The main character in the book is Cynthia Stewart, who is described as an aging hippie and who also appears both naïve and uncommonly stubborn (though some would call it principled). The best advice she got, which was unfortunately correct, was not to expect justice from justice system; she did not get it. Indeed, she and her family probably would have been bankrupted but for $40,000 in contributions.

The most interesting character in some ways is the guardian ad litem, the official appointed to look out for the interests of Stewart’s daughter. This woman looked for all the world like a right-wing anti-pornography crusading lunatic, but her commitment to truth and fairness far exceeded her anti-pornography zeal: she took one look at the photographs and pronounced them perfectly innocent. She did everything she could to protect not only Stewart’s daughter, but also Stewart herself.

The same cannot be said of the prosecutor, Greg White. White is somewhat difficult to get a handle on, partly because he refused to be interviewed for the book on what appeared to me to be a pretext. Nevertheless, he initiated a prosecution that the city attorney had declined and at least briefly subpoenaed an 8-year-old to testify against her mother. I thought at first that he had finally recognized that the prosecution was, at best, ill-advised but was too obstinate to back down. Later, though, he seemed genuinely bewildered that court-ordered counseling had not changed Stewart’s mind about the photographs. I do not know which was worse, but I came away with the feeling that the only perverts in this case were in the prosecutor’s office. White went on to become a US attorney and now is a federal magistrate.

I can think of several reasons why the photographs were not published in the book, some good, some bad. They were probably destroyed, but I do not recall the author actually saying so (and the book has no index, in my estimation, a cardinal sin for a nonfiction book). I think, however, that the reaction of the guardian ad litem and almost everyone who actually saw the photographs is convincing evidence that Stewart and her family were, well, framed by overzealous prosecutors. And, as the book details, she was by no means the only one. Let us hope this book provides an object lesson to all future zealots.

* * *

Once again, thanks to Matt Young for this guest review and the book image.

Pharyngula: Too little, too late

I debated for a while about actually posting this, because it strikes me almost as a selective rant that wouldn’t appeal to many others, but then I realized that the background message is something most skeptics should probably be aware of.

Over at Pharyngula a few days ago, PZ Myers tasked his numerous and active followers to help select who, among the frequent commenters he sees, should be added to his Dungeon, the list of people blocked and unable to comment – the point being, his commenters often include regulars who troll, derail, or disrupt threads. Among the suggestions he was receiving were a few people who opined that his comments section had become fairly insular and unwelcoming to new contributors overall, and I chimed in with agreement, following up (after being urged by one to actually contribute) with the reasons I had for seeing it this way.

It didn’t go well at all, and I was both labeled a “concern troll” and excoriated for displaying assumptive attitudes, something I felt I was fairly clear about not having. You are welcome to examine this if you like, since I post there (and elsewhere) as “Just Al,” and the replies to me are usually designated as such. I quoted whoever I was responding to as I went, but there are still 266 comments to pick through. What the experience told me personally was not only that I was correct in my evaluation of the comments section, but that they were not terribly open to a difference of opinion, much less constructive criticism.

The amusing part came a couple of days later, when Myers admitted that he was testing his commenters, having noticed the behavior himself. He had included a stipulation that the nominations include a self-evaluation of the person doing the suggesting, as a subtle means of getting commenters to examine their own behavior. It doesn’t appear he was impressed with the results. (I admit that I did not evaluate myself, partially because I do not contribute too often to Pharyngula – the comments reach ridiculous numbers in very short periods of time – and because I had nominated no one myself, for the same reason; basically, I wasn’t familiar enough with specific names to single them out.) How this whole exercise actually went over with the Pharynguloids I cannot say, because after my fun experience I simply gave up on reading their input.

Okay, that’s the back story; now the part that, to me at least, has more bearing. Pharyngula appeals to outspoken atheists, critical-thinkers, and similar personalities, because that’s what PZ Myers displays. He’s unapologetic about his views, but makes a good case at the same time. However, it appears that no small number of people feel that being outspoken about the same topics means they’re being smart, which hardly follows. Moreover, free-thinkers (another phrase I don’t like but have nothing to replace it with here) sometimes get the attitude that this brilliance from possessing the same opinion means they do not have to communicate with the peons that hold differing opinions – or that when they do, they’re justified in copping an attitude.

This is a common enough trait, seen throughout the internet anyplace where groups of people with the same interest gather, whether it be in sports cars, gaming, conspiracy theorists, pet psychics – whatever. There often becomes a distinctive “us” and “them,” with little grey area. I have posted about this twice, so obviously I have issues with it. The disturbing part about finding this on Pharyngula is that it is supposed to support critical examination, and the very concept of free-thinking relies on being open minded. Forums such as his should be prominent examples, rather than just another select clique. Worse, if anyone really feels that things like atheism or critical-thinking should be more accepted within society, they have to demonstrate why they’re beneficial, and what they can do. If you’re trying to sell the idea of giving weight to all evidence, you have to be open to that evidence first, and open to those with a different viewpoint.

I have no doubt that Myers is a pretty good example of this – he’s certainly displayed it numerous times in debates, discussions, and interviews. Perhaps, however, this isn’t as prominent in his blog posts, where he targets the extreme examples of religious abuse, bigotry, and warped thinking. And while he admits that he only skims his readers’ comments, how unaware was he of their slide away from unbiased thinking and into self-congratulation? Of all people, did he forget that this is a standard facet of churches, and even cults?

Further, he may even have supported this, admittedly subtly. There are few blogs where the owner not only has a distinct following, but recognizes it and addresses them by a specific name, creating an “in group.” It continues with Myers’ encouragements of “Pharyngulation:” linking to an online poll with the express purpose of overwhelming it; and with his “Order of the Molly” awards for commenters who exemplify… well, it’s not clear what they exemplify, except perhaps outspokenness. There really isn’t a definition of what the title, proudly displayed by many Pharynguloids, says about the winner, and the selection process is by nomination within the group. There is something to be said when someone can both win this award and nearly get banned, and it’s apparently happened twice now.

Finally, there’s the return of Phil Plait’s infamous advice. Many people, me included, didn’t agree, but in some cases people took it as a challenge to go exactly in the opposite direction – again, this is polarized thinking, not terribly useful. Myers himself addresses this only semi-effectively; while encouraging forceful and merciless responses, he manages to inject some caveats about doing so with good arguments. This is a bit backwards, as far as I’m concerned: emphasis should always be on the argument, and forcefulness is a tool, only a tool, for specific circumstances.

The point is, even among atheists, free-thinkers, critical-thinkers, and so on, there are good and bad examples, and human traits still remain human traits. But it isn’t enough to declare yourself among some group of special brains, and certainly not an excuse to stop engaging them or get egotistical about it. This goes for any select group of people, regardless. But it’s most especially disturbing, even embarrassing, to see something like this coming from people who proudly consider themselves open-minded. It’s not a title, it’s a practice. You don’t pass a test to be considered such – you have to demonstrate it every time. The moment you stop, you aren’t. It’s that simple. And if you feel you’re doing just fine because you’re among people who won’t correct you, you’ve failed – you correct yourself. Peer support is for the weak.

It is also wielded impartially. Even if you know a commenter or poster from long association and are largely in agreement, this isn’t an excuse to let them slide when you disagree, most especially when it’s a topic you openly address with someone you don’t know. If your standpoint on an issue is based on careful deliberation, then presumably it doesn’t change based on who disagrees with it, does it? That’s certainly one of the messages that critical-thinking carries, and even names as a specific fallacy: “Appeal from Authority,” the practice of assuming that someone is so highly regarded they cannot be wrong. We shouldn’t actually need to create a subset of this fallacy called, “Appeal from My Homeys,” should we?

I came close to removing Pharyngula from my blogroll over this. Not as an act of spite, and it was even the perception of this that actually stayed my hand. However, I maintain that short list over there as my recommendations of both interesting posters and good approaches to thinking, and while Pharyngula remains, because Myers’ posts still demonstrate it, his commenters have become just another chanting rally, which is worthless.

Frustrations, part five

Now that the season for such things is effectively over, I can admit to myself that I didn’t get what I was after this year, and go with what I have so far.

The Sphingidae is one of the more interesting families of moth. While not as big or impressive as Luna moths, they have a very finely developed protective camouflage, which is exhibited not only in coloration, but in body size and habits as well. At top, a Hummingbird Moth, also known as a Common Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) displays the traits that make it so special: it looks almost exactly like a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird when feeding, even possessing a tuft of body hairs at the end of the abdomen that resembles the spread tailfeathers of a hummingbird. The illusion is also assisted by the largely transparent nature of the wings, which helps them become a blur during flight, much like a hummingbird with its much faster wingbeats. And like a hummingbird, they move rapidly from flower to flower, with only brief pauses at each. Thus the frustration part, since they barely hover long enough to achieve focus, and are pretty careful to avoid close approaches.

Their cousin, the Bumblebee Moth, or Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) instead mimics a bumblebee, which makes it possess a different biological trait, too. Both moths are often considered examples of convergent evolution, where the coloration of the moths developed alongside the coloration of the species they resemble, in order to mimic the other species and avoid their own natural predators. In the case of the Bumblebee Moth, however, it can also be called Batesian mimicry, which means a species that develops the aposematic (warning) coloration of a dangerous species while lacking the actual defense of such species. Birds that would feast on the tasty moth avoid it because they mistake it for a bumblebee, which are known as, to use the technical term, “owie hurties.”

Of course, we can’t see the various species change over time, and it’s rather difficult to determine if, for instance, the avoidance of those bright warning colors is instinctual or learned – mostly, it is considered learned. Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True has a post regarding this development within a species. The reasoning goes, bird attempts to eat bumblebee, wasp, monarch butterfly, has bad time (stings them, tastes yucky, et cetera.) Bird learns things that look like that are bad, remembers it from then on. Therefore, even if one example of the species is injured or killed, it still performs a protective function for the species overall. This kind of sacrificial species defense can also be seen in honeybees, whose barbed stingers will lodge in whatever animal they sting and get torn out, killing the individual bee yet probably driving off the predator who would destroy the hive or queen. It is also seen in bioluminescent dinoflagellates (cool video there, though apparently a bit inaccurate – cuttlefish are not found in Puerto Rico where the video is implied to have been taken.) A key factor in the process of developing defensive mechanisms is that the species is very distinctly different in appearance from a species with no defense, so the predator can tell them apart easily and thus learning to recognize them has a purpose.

In order for this to work for our bumblebee mimic, among others, there has to be more of the dangerous species than the mimic, so that the predator is far more likely to encounter the dangerous species first, and learn to avoid that coloration, rather than the tasty moth first and learn nothing. So the population of the mimic species can actually start to lose all benefit of this evolved trait if their numbers get too high in comparison to the species they mimic. They cannot expand outside of the area where that species is found, either, lest they encounter predators that haven’t learned their lesson.

Here, I got lucky enough to catch both the moth, and the bumblebee it mimics, alongside one another so you can see the comparison. The difference seems obvious, but think about how often you can see a bumblebee this close as it goes about its business – that’s what you rely on us nature photographers for ;-). But there’s another difference that actually makes Bumblebee Moths easy to spot, even from a distance, and it’s shown right here: the moths do not land when feeding, but continue hovering. The bees themselves always land on the flower. The pointed head of the moth, versus the broad black-eyed head of the bee, is also easy to see.

While these photos serve well enough to illustrate this post, they’re not up to my usual standards, and won’t interest an editor. So, they’re one of many subjects I’ll be watching for when the spring rolls around again. To nature photographers, there’s nothing like seeing a cool subject but being unable to get sharp, compelling images of it to make you get semi-obsessive.

Book Review: Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails)

First off, a small admission: This book jumped ahead in my review lineup because I won it as a prize in a photo competition held by Panda’s Thumb. I feel I owe it to them ;-)

Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails), by Matt Young and Paul K. Strode, was written in response to a determined movement solely by religious organizations to discredit a fundamental tenet of science and biology: evolution. Or to be more specific, the theory of descent with modification by natural selection. And that is the only place where resistance comes from. There are only a tiny percentage of biologists that question the theory at all, and absolutely none that I have determined that somehow do not work religion into the discussion.

This by itself bears some examination, since there is little religious effort put into discrediting geology, cosmology, thermodynamics, or history, all of which present us with hard evidence that scripture is wildly inaccurate. There seems to be something about evolution, most especially human evolution, that really annoys the hell out of many religious folk, so much so that it requires obvious and coordinated efforts to demean.

As Strode and Young demonstrate, however, there isn’t a rational argument against evolution at all. Science has a very distinct method of ensuring accuracy, and this does sometimes mean that theories are refined as we get better information – refinement, however, is not the same as eradicating or replacing, and the fundamental aspect of descent with modification not only has not changed in the time since it was proposed, it has actually been strengthened by this new information, so much so that no one who understands it seriously questions it in the slightest. Religious arguments often involve the idea that science changes, as opposed to (supposedly) perpetual scripture, but this should actually be expected. Humans are not perfect nor omniscient, so our knowledge base will naturally grow, and the ability to change and correct ourselves is how progress is defined. It is similar, in many ways, to a murder mystery, but in real life there is rarely a j’accuse that wraps everything up; instead, we have only the weight of the evidence to go on, and given enough evidence, one is left with the difficult proposal of explaining how any other conclusion could result in the, literally, hundreds of thousands of clues we have.

Young and Strode lay out the case, building on it with each successive chapter, taking the time to establish why there is so much support for this mere theory (and of course, debunking the hoary old “it’s just a theory” meme as they do so.) Each chapter deals with a different aspect of the discussion in detail, simultaneously showing both the support for evolution and the weaknesses behind the opposing arguments. I feel obligated to point out that this is not an anti-religion or atheist book (leave that to me,) but deals solely with evolution. To their credit, they not only say they are not addressing religion as a whole, but feature two religious authors with their own discussion against the inerrancy of scripture, perhaps the biggest issue brought up in opposition to evolution. Strode and Young are conscientious enough to differentiate “creationism” from “religion,” and deal only with that which tries to dismiss or deride evolution.

Initially, I had some misgivings about this book based on the title, since I felt that the target audience, those who feel evolution is untrue, would specifically avoid the book because of it. Not far into the book, however, I corrected that: it’s aimed more at those who have to debate this issue themselves, such as educators, and alternately for those who have heard arguments in both directions and want a better understanding. To that end, it provides an excellent example of building the case. It shows the functional attributes of the scientific method, specifics pertaining to Darwin’s original theory and the later refinements from genetics, the flaws of the opposing arguments and the nature of pseudoscience, and even includes essay questions at the end of every chapter – these are not aimed at reviewing the material, but to encourage the application of the thought processes towards deeper understanding. While the material within the book is accessible to any adult, or even young-adult, the questions reflect college-level exercises intended to evaluate content rather than regurgitate it. It could almost serve as a textbook, though it would be hard to justify a course with the goal of trashing an approach, even one as untenable as creationism. There are those who will not be reached by the material, to be sure, but this book isn’t targeted at blind faith; it is instead aimed at those willing to discuss issues and weigh evidence fairly and openly.

In a few places I found some points that could have borne greater detail or support, since I recognize the kind of opportunities creationists look for to drive some doubt into the discussion. These were outweighed by the detailed examples in opposition to the common arguments, examples such as the unintelligent design of the human knee, and the differences between morphological (appearance-based) and molecular (gene-based) phylogenetic trees, better known as “family trees.” One gets a necessary glimpse into the incredibly involved world of biology, and is reminded that evolution isn’t some casual talking point, but remains wrapped inescapably within a body of knowledge that simply wouldn’t work at all without it. It’s easy to say, “the vast majority of scientists accept evolution,” but another to show that decades of research and medical understanding would be totally dysfunctional in its absence. One cannot simply make up a detailed theory and have tens of thousands of scientists working in the field never realize it, and this book provides some recognition of such a ludicrous idea. Without once, I should add, coming out and saying how ludicrous such ideas are.

For the individual interested in understanding more about evolution itself, this book provides a basis, but lacks the detail that it should have for that goal. Since it is not aimed at that, but rather at those engaged in the debate between evolution and creationist/religious arguments, it serves its purpose well, and includes copious notes and a complete glossary and index. The science teacher who gets too many of those “challenging” questions their students have been primed by their churches to ask would be well served to keep this handy – initially, I was going to say, “well out of sight in a drawer,” but then considered that having it out in the open provides more chances for students to thumb through it on their own.

The book is also useful to those who accept evolution with little reserve, but find themselves ill-equipped to debate it effectively. It not only deals directly with the evolution/creation issues, but also with some of the more common fallacies and misleading approaches that invariably crop up, and prepares the reader well for the creationist who resorts to switching tactics when their first arguments fail. In this way, it is more valuable than simply knowing evolution well, since many of the arguments deal with unrelated subjects like probability and cosmology, also addressed by Young and Strode. Subtly, this is damning by itself, since it becomes clear that creationists rely heavily on the misrepresentation of science in as many areas as possible. It is hard to believe that so many “innocent” misunderstandings could exist, and continue to exist – and of course, they don’t. The fact that such a book needed to be written shows us that religion, contrary to the assertions of many, is not about providing answers.

*      *      *

When I took the photo for my last book review, I discovered that too few people noticed the inclusion of a vague human shape in the dark background that I had taken pains to capture, so I went for a more obvious thematic setting when composing the accompanying photo.


One of the best things about this is, we have grandstand seats to see this in person, every one of us, just by ducking out from under our roofs when the weather is clear. We are surrounded by something so stunning, so overwhelming, and all we have to do is be aware of it. There are no word games to play, no philosophy to explain it, no greater understanding to be sought. Just the knowledge of the distance, the time, and maybe even the energy that it takes is all that is needed.

There are photons pouring down right now, ending a trip longer than we’ve been human. Catch them, collect that energy, start that tiny chain reaction from your optic cells into your brain, and tell me that’s not the coolest thing ever.

Have fun.

Thanks to PZ Myers at Pharyngula for this one.

Odd memories, part three

When people think of animal shelters, they mostly think of cats and dogs, whether it be cute little puppies and kittens or mangy unwanted crossbreeds, but the fact is, shelters see a large variety of animals, even when the bulk is still cats and dogs. Case in point: my little buddy above.

The shelter I worked for a few years back had night deposit cages, actual locking kennel cages accessible from the outside, with food and water and heated from inside, that allowed people to drop off found (“stray”) or owned but no longer wanted (“surrender”) animals after normal operating hours. They were asked to fill out a form detailing either the location where the animal was found, or the circumstances of its surrender, but you can imagine how that goes. So one morning after a rather cold fall night, we found this gal (I believe) in one of the cages, with no other information.

When I say the cages were heated, this is relative – furred animals would be okay, but reptiles requiring a much higher base temperature of roughly 30º c (85º f) were not going to be happy. So when we discovered the iguana, she was in a state of torpor and very cold, with minimal response. She was medium-sized for a Green Iguana (Iguana iguana, no, seriously,) roughly 30cm (12 in) in body length not counting the tail, which doubled that. Iguanas can get up to 1.5 m (5 ft) in length overall, which would have made my next action a bit harder. To warm her up, she got tucked against my chest inside my winter jacket with a warmed bag of Lactated Ringers solution serving as a hot water bottle, and there she stayed for half the day as I worked at my desk, sweating like a pig. Meanwhile, since I was inexperienced in iguana care, I contacted Triangle Iguana Rescue nearby, whose volunteer kindly provided me with critical care information should I be successful in getting the poor thing past the very dangerous condition she was in.

By early afternoon, the iguana was responding to the warmth and started moving about alertly, so I transferred her into a cage in my office (where I worked as administrator) and set up a heat lamp. Initially, she was semi-force-fed baby food, because her system probably wasn’t up to full digestive power, and in a few days she was convinced to eat on her own. Iguanas are actually fairly high-maintenance pets, since they require specific temperatures and UV levels, and a diet of fresh prepared vegetables and fruit with vitamin supplements – you cannot feed them on any commercially available food pellets and expect them to be healthy. Her muted color might actually have been testimony to such a poor diet before. I remember getting razzed by other staffmembers regarding the amount of time I spent preparing her food, but frankly, if you’re going to do it, do it right.

We did eventually find an adoptive home for her, after interviewing the new parent fairly rigorously, again coached by Triangle Iguana Rescue. While they could have simply taken her off our hands, they were loaded themselves, and this does not appear to have changed since then. The exotic animal pet trade is a problematic and frustrating one to many animal advocates, including most animal shelters. Too many people get pets based on their “cool factor,” uniqueness, fad appeal, and other similar reasons, never realizing that such pets are rarely adapted to domestic life and require much more care than dogs and cats. When the novelty fades, the animal gets discarded – sometimes to overloaded volunteer organizations, sometimes to night deposit boxes (to be fair, I cannot vouch that this simply wasn’t a found escapee that someone kindly turned in, but there’s no way of knowing either.) Iguanas, like virtually all reptiles and amphibians, have little personality to speak of and do not warm up to their owners, do tricks, or learn to use a specific potty spot – they simply lack the brainpower, and the best that can be said is that they have particular temperaments. Improperly handled, they can be dangerous, but even in the best of conditions, a significant cage space must be devoted to them – picture “aviary” rather than “cage” in this case, since they need room to climb, higher temperatures than most households prefer, specific spectrum UV lighting, very high humidity, and nice cleanable surfaces.

So if you’re considering some kind of exotic pet, think carefully, and do your research. Don’t let yourself get carried away by the appearance, the novelty, or impulses, and get informed about their health and care requirements – it’s cruel to subject your pet to improper diet or living conditions, and the non-profit organizations that see all of the castoff animals after the novelty fades really don’t need to pick up after you. In all seriousness the exotic pet trade should be eradicated entirely, because it serves no purpose (and there are more than enough cats and dogs already seeking homes.)

Because of this experience, naturally when the next four iguanas came into the shelter over a period of time, they all got to stay in my office. A couple were monsters, close to maximum size, but the first was the little girl above, who even shows faint traces of greenish-yellow baby food on her snout in the photo, taken a few days after her arrival (as well as some dark patches from rubbing against the less-than-ideal cage we had available.) Not many people can say they wrote monthly reports with an iguana stuffed in their armpit, so you know that goes right to the top of my résumé.

Go us!

I’ll apologize in advance, this may come off more like a rant than a thought-provoking piece, but it’s been stewing in my little brain for a while now and I’ve never seen anyone address it, so I shall leap valiantly into the breach. But sports are really damn stupid.

Mind you, I’m not referring to a friendly game of tennis, or really, anything where people get some exercise and aren’t driven by some goal to be superior. I’m talking about the multi-billion dollar industry where couch potatoes shout meaningless slogans at ridiculously overpaid athletes and obsess over what corporate-owned logo can lay claim to a title for a few months. Seriously, can somebody explain this to me?

Don’t try telling me it’s entertainment. They don’t hire color commentators to drone on endlessly about personal bests and garbage trivia because the viewers are wrapped up in the action. Though I will admit it can be fun to watch Dave Madden scribbling away madly with his magic onscreen pen, but that’s mostly because I’ve never seen any child play with any toy as fervently as he does. I keep waiting for little monster doodles to spring up and eat players he doesn’t like…

Just think about this for a second (not Madden, I mean sports in general.) What is the purpose to it all? What does it provide to us? Why do human beings find this so compelling?

Let’s face it, we have some aggressive, tribalistic tendencies – this is almost certainly an artifact of survival traits we needed a few centuries ago. Then, we had strong ties to our village or nomadic tribe, partially as protection against marauding neighbors – and, let’s be honest, also to provide a strong marauding force itself – and partially to reap the benefits of cooperative hunting, farming, and food storage. There were obvious benefits to this. Our species developed it (however far back along the way) because it worked far better than not having it, and thus outcompeted those who lacked it. Then, it was a good thing, and kept the tribes cohesive, kept the mutual protection and benefit thing happening. Now, though we no longer need it, but still have this drive, this “us against them” concept (which fits tightly with the dichotomous thinking trait that I wrote about a while back.)

Sports rivalry is a way of expressing that. Lacking a specific way of applying to the protection and advancement of a home village, which provided mutual benefit, this drive grounds itself in other areas, often getting referred to as “male-bonding” (not that this applies in all situations) but mostly having to do with competition and involving no small amount of emotional expression. This vague feeling that we should be engaging in certain behavior then gets justified within whatever method we choose to express it.

I have lived in several different places over the years, and by dint of expanding some arbitrary demarcation, I could say my “home team” was any of a dozen or more choices – despite the fact that I have participated in nothing even remotely related to any of them. Like virtually all sports fans, I know absolutely no one connected in any way with the games. I was not born in any city that is displayed within a team name. I have not contributed to their welfare, their training, their equipment or facilities. At best, I have at some particular point in time been in some stadium somewhere adding one voice to the cacophony creating a hearing hazard (no, I actually haven’t, but I’m playing the part of a sports fan for a moment, before I rag on them again.) At times I will shout at my TV, or stick a cheap plastic flag onto my vehicle. There’s a persistent rumor that Napoleon failed at Waterloo because the English armada had giant foam hands to wave defiantly. That kind of thing can turn the most stalwart heart, let me tell you.

I did, at one point in time, internally argue that sports were a safe outlet for the aggressive competitiveness we have built into us, especially males. Better to hash it out on a playing field than a battlefield, right? But now I think this is a flawed way of looking at it. First off, it can hardly be said that wars, violence, or conflict tapered off in any way once organized sports became popular. People certainly aren’t ready to accept the idea of being on the losing side, which is why awarded titles last only a season. For a fun exercise, imagine changing the rules so that one team wins for life. Wouldn’t the reaction to that be a great thing to watch? More entertaining that the games themselves, I’ll wager (five to one odds, place your bets.) Even so, is sublimating this aggression really working? Sure, we have soccer riots, but that’s nothing compared to the, um… weren’t there just standard riots on the streets every week or so before sports?

Actually, looking at the effect, it would seem that allowing and encouraging a response to innate tribalism is far worse than recognizing it and downplaying it. Encouraging it only legitimizes it. No one seems to think that they’re being primitive (or at least, that this is a bad thing) when engaging in sports rivalry. You’ll hear lots of excuses for it, lots of justifications, but do they stand up at all? How often do you wonder about the idea of paying someone else to physically ruin their body – or to try and ruin someone else’s? How useful is it to have a significant percentage of the country contribute income towards a completely vapid pursuit? How come the sports figures in colleges receive so much recognition while the PhDs generally struggle for decades for adequate grant money? You know, I think it was a major leap forward when Crick and Watson opened the door for so much medical and biological advancement – I couldn’t care less what Namath and Jordan did. Am I a mutant?

And if you aren’t sure who Crick and Watson are, but know Namath and Jordan, there’s a serious problem here. Can anyone argue against education? Is there a downside to it? But the salaries of educators is pretty pathetic, and school budgets have been slashed with the recent economic hand-wringing. Sports figures, however, aren’t struggling. It should make you wonder…

Here’s another aspect of that tribal/home team/cooperative society concept. Way back when, it worked to protect our food or even provide it, and to protect the other members of our tribe/village. But now, there’s no real benefit, is there? The winning team does not bring back the food, or prevent the food we have from disappearing. Sports, as a replacement for this drive, is like chewing gum: they don’t really accomplish anything except acting as a pacifier. At best, we can say some of the exorbitant amounts of money that sink into it comes back into the economy, especially if you sell steroids, expensive sports cars, and big ugly rings. Reagan would be proud of that trickle, I’m sure. Overall, however, it’s simply giving select individuals (players and owners) vast sums of money to jump and run and throw, or even just to supervise jumping and running and throwing.

I would probably be cool with the idea of two countries settling their differences on a playing field instead of in combat. It tends to be a lot less costly in every way. Then, maybe, displaying a little Calvin mourning over a dead number 3 on your pickup truck would have more meaningful social commentary. But again, there’s the whole behavior of the fans to consider. They can’t handle questionable calls from referees – they sure as shit can’t handle losing some economic advantage with grace. It’s the aggressive competition that’s the issue, not whether there is an adequate way of expressing it. In fact, fervent nationalism is a way of expressing it. There’s obviously a problem with believing that “My country is Number One!” is better than, “Maybe there’s some room for improvement.”

Innate drives do not mean they are useful, or unavoidable. Our social and economic structure, the idea of worldwide communication and travel, the ability to kill large numbers of people easily, came about very abruptly in evolutionary terms, within a handful of generations. There has not actually been time to breed out tribalism, even though it has little use anymore, and obvious disadvantages. We’re not trapped by this, however. Our sex drive has much the same provenance, and is widely controlled – our rational minds can easily override the instinctual or emotional, provided we recognize it and make the effort. Realize that just a couple of hundred years ago ritualized murder, in the form of dueling, was actually legal and supported by society, slavery even more recently. The fact that these are abhorrent to us now is great evidence for the power of rational thought.

The message needs to be clear, too. Competition does indeed have many benefits, to both the individual and the culture – as long as it’s competition with a positive result, and not merely for self-indulgence. Sports are a great way to maintain physical fitness, when practiced regularly – but not if you’re paying someone else to do it. Personal bests are great motivators – but only if they’re for something useful.

How long are televised sports events? Two hours? Three? How much does it cost to get into a game? Wait, how much?! Damn. Do you have that satellite dish primarily for sports? And that’s what per year?

Get up. Go outside. Do something, learn something, teach something. Don’t think of “goal” in terms of a little object going through some defined point in space. Think of it in terms of personal improvement. Then go out and score.

Have fun!

Just because, part three

Sometimes, you just have to.

(Yes, I know “Frank” is actually a female – it just didn’t have the same impact…)

Two can play that game

While I had been planning to put this post up soon, Dr. Jerry Coyne over at Why Evolution Is True beat me to it with his own post about snakes, but his includes some great video, including a stunning sequence of an egg-eating snake! I hate it when someone on my blogroll to the right upstages me, even before I actually post! Although he’s a university professor and author, so I suppose that has privileges…

For some unknown reason, I have seen surprisingly few snakes this year, which is annoying to someone that likes snakes as much as I do. My property, which plays host to as many different animals as it does (including some resident treefrogs in a potted plant,) does not seem to cater to snakes. Now just a few days ago, as we get late into the season and the days are starting to get chilly, I glanced down at the base of a tree at The Girlfriend’s house and spotted a short length of bicycle chain, or at least that was the immediate impression, soon replaced with one of recognition at the pattern of a young Black Rat Snake.

Black Rat Snakes (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta,) despite their scientific name, are very common throughout the eastern United States, and one of the largest you’re likely to encounter, at times reaching over two meters (six feet.) They’re great tree climbers, great everything climbers, and can even be found nesting in attics. As adults, they resemble little more than black garden hoses, having the same diameter and often seen “discarded” casually in the grass. Their white undersides aren’t usually apparent unless you pick them up, which is easier to do than you might imagine, since they are typically fairly docile.

The pattern of the young differentiates greatly. Their patchwork pattern of black spots on a medium-pale grey base makes many people think they are entirely unrelated, not helped by the size they are for their early years. This pattern helps them remain camouflaged while they are at this vulnerable size, since it blends very well against tree bark and in shady patches. And like many snakes, they usually become motionless when danger threatens, opting to avoid attracting attention rather than bolting for cover, which is what allowed me to capture this one.

Their diet consists of just about everything, including the namesake rats. But they also eat birds, eggs, and even other snakes if the pickings are slim. They’re constrictors, with a completely harmless bite, and their tiny teeth are good only for holding prey. Even if you manage to get one to bite you, you’ll display little more than tiny pinpricks of blood, not an honorable wound at all for intrepid Crocodile Hunters. I have used perfectly wild Black Rat Snakes for educational talks, because they are so easy to handle, but do not recommend retaining any wild animal as a pet. Not simply because they don’t belong and have drives to be outdoors rather than a small cage, but also because of the damage that can be done to them by poor diet and improper housing.

In the right conditions, the adults can be seen to retain vestiges of the patterns they had as young-uns, between their scales, but you typically have to look hard to see this at all. This example, of one roughly 1.5 meters (5 ft,) shows the pattern in bright sunlight, right there in the middle, as it heads straight up a tree. You might think they do this slowly, but you’d be amazed – they can scale a vertical rough surface at the same speed as their casual gate gait [cripes] on the ground (I suppose it’s improper to use “gategait” on something with no legs, but you know what I mean.)

In spring and fall, they can be seen in early mornings on the roads, or occasionally sidewalks. As “cold-blooded” (ectothermic) animals, they get heat from their environment, but when the nights are cold this makes them a bit sluggish. Since they often hunt at night, this can pose a problem to digestion, so they drape their wonderfully solar-absorbent bodies in areas to capture the maximum amount of warmth when the sun rises – unfortunately, this leads to many of the encounters they have with humans, in which they rarely come out unscathed. It’s a shame, since they’re simply doing their own thing and fitting in nice and snugly with the ecosystem.

I’ve encountered Black Rat Snakes rather suddenly on a large number of occasions, sometimes in surprisingly close quarters. Doing animal rescue work years ago meant (as one of the people who had no qualms about snake handling) that I got many of the snake calls, and have removed them from attics, downspouts, front lawns, schools, and once the sidewalk in front of the public transit garage – where it had kept half the staff clustered inside against the glass door as it digested its bird meal. A few tried bluff displays, one actually struck – again, big deal. They honestly can’t do any damage. Mostly, they retreat, and in situations where they’re out in the open and suspect they’re in view, they can pull backwards with glacial slowness, hardly appearing to move at all, so as not to attract attention if they haven’t yet been noticed. Many species of animal, humans included, can miss the obvious simply because it’s not moving – I’ve spotted a Black Rat Snake hanging out of a downspout on a porch, a few meters behind someone I was conversing with. They might have missed it entirely had I not pointed it out.

Like many snakes, they have a warning display when agitated, which is vibrating their tail madly – rattlesnakes only have a handy noisemaker, but they’re not the only ones to do this. When the tail encounters dry leaves the sound is fantastic, but even on a smooth surface the buzzing is neat. Coupled with a writhing coiled motion (see one of Dr. Coyne’s videos linked above,) it looks very ominous, but the threat from snakes in North America is way over-emphasized. Telling the venomous species apart is fairly easy – it simply means you have to look close at markings and memorize them. Even without this effort, leaving them be works fine; pushing them off with a broom, if they’re in a hazardous area, is usually sufficient. No snake can eat a human, so they only want to be left alone – you’re the threat, not them. The phobia many people have over snakes is a human failing, not the snakes’ fault, and no, it is not inherent or instinctual, it’s usually conditioned by culture. Get over it. Snakes are all around us, and by a large margin not even remotely dangerous. Get this: I actively hunt out snakes, know how to spot them and how to handle them, and still haven’t had an encounter with a venomous species in the wild, save for rescue calls (which were notoriously uneventful.)

Yes, I’ve heard the stories of people being pursued aggressively by venomous snakes, just like I’ve heard the stories of people curing their illnesses with crystals or homeopathic remedies. They’re the same level of total bullshit. The people who have to capture and handle these same venomous snakes as a matter of routine will tell you how unfounded the stories of aggression are. It’s all defense at provocation, nothing more.

My little buddy here, despite displaying a defensive coiled-and-ready-to-strike posture (when I did not have the camera handy,) never even attempted to strike, and was easy to handle. The pic below gives a fairly good indication of size. The Girlfriend, who really doesn’t like snakes, even thought it was cute.

This is not satire

That’s the frightening thing: it really isn’t satire, since it’s far too accurate. We’ve had a long run of stupendously ignorant politicians recently, and it’s really shameful.

I don’t do much about politics, because I really don’t have the patience for it. This is one of my vices; while I spend no small amount of time promoting critical thinking and the idea of not fooling yourself, I really can’t stand actually finding out how phenomenally stupid many people are, so I avoid the subject. But here’s a thought: maybe we can institute a simple law, where no one can hold public office until they can pass a standard high school GED test. Is that too much of a bare minimum competence standard? Hell, it should be much higher, but right now let’s set the bar realistically. I’d hate to see too many politicians out of work, because McDonalds only needs so many drive-through attendants…

Thanks to the Bad Astronomer for this video.