Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

For your Halloween viewing pleasure

Here's a little scooby snack for you. Ruh-roh!

And they might have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for those darn kids.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Grow Up, Don't Dress Up

Perhaps I'm overly cranky after two weeks which have been busy enough at work that I've been virtually unable to blog, but it strikes me as particularly foolish that a number of people around the office building were so crestfallen at the idea of missing out on a chance to wear their Halloween costumes to work that they decided to dress up on the 30th. Somehow it seems doubly pathetic when this is combined with a fear of actually looking too un-ordinary, and the reveller thus shows up wearing medical scrubs and a stethoscope to your desk job so you can be "in costume" without looking weird.

I was starting to think we had an invasion of doctors and nurses there were so many people in colorful scrubs, until I saw some brave (or foolish -- you pick) soul parading about in black robes, pointed hat, and carrying a broomstick. (Alternatively, maybe that's just the product manager everyone has been calling La Bruja.)

I'm down on moving holidays at the best of times, but a bunch of people in their 30s and 40s being so attached to the idea of wearing costumes to work that they spontaneously move it just strikes me as pathetic.



Here, by popular demand, is a photo of Anonymous, chroniclers of the kings of Hungary. Sorry about the quality of the picture -- I stood on a kitchen chair and took a shot of it in its frame. But you can still see that the tip of his pen has been rubbed golden from all the visitors who touch it to bring themselves a bit of Anonymous's vast literary success.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Historical importance, indeed

This one is for Christopher, whose memories of the cathedral in Cologne prompted me to tell my own anecdote about our visit there.

Darwin and I visited Cologne in the spring of 1999. Our train trip into Germany was an ordeal by non-reservation -- after tooling about laid-back Austria and Italy, no one had told us that the Germans would reserve every seat on the train. We squeezed in the corridor (along with everyone else who didn't reserve) and spent all night trying to melt into the wall to let a group of drunk Americans tromp back and forth to the lavatory. A memorable, if not comfortable, ride.

The press had lightened by the time we were approaching Cologne. Finally able to sit down in a compartment, we glued ourselves to the window, thrilled by the sight of the spires that suggested an end to our journey. But as the miles of fields stretched onward and the spires loomed ever larger and larger, our impatience to be there paled before the realization of the massive scale of the dom. The fact that we could see it meant not that we were close, but that it was mind-bogglingly, humblingly huge.

In the paved plaza before the cathedral, we strolled about amidst the other tourists, feeling dwarfish. And then, we saw it. At our feet was stone, almost indistinguishable from every other stone in the plaza, except that it was engraved. In English. We reached for the camera.

The photographic proof of this is now matted and framed in the kitchen. Every day we see it, in the triple frame between the statue of Anonymous from Budapest and the fountain from the same plaza. And almost every day we wonder: What does it mean? Who put it there? And why didn't he know whether or not it was a place of historical importance? Was he implying that one day it would be a place of historical importance? That at this moment it was a place of historical importance and he just didn't know it yet?

The one who laid the stone was a careful man, hedging his bets. He allows that historical importance might spring from, yea, this very moment, and yet he does not assume that the moment is already historical. He leaves a monument in case one day history will come back to vindicate his cautious assessment of its possible progress. And yet he leaves no name, so he will not be blamed if history proves to be a bitch and fails to provide that place with any import.

Here's some interesting history on the Cologne cathedral as well as a fascinating historical image.

The official cathedral website -- the English page, I think. There's a 3o minute documentary which one can watch in English with lots of great history and pictures.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Not exactly...

We had a long hard week last week, and the coming one doesn't look to be any lighter. Working late, meetings, dentist appointments, checkups, the baby's toe turning black (his own fault) -- lots going on here. But still, it isn't exactly brain surgery.

Thank you, thank you, CMinor, for introducing us to Mitchell and Webb.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Elitist Bumper Sticker

Waiting to be made: "Non cogitas, ergo non es."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When the Two Become One

I always find myself a bit surprised when people find it hard to tell my and MrsDarwin's writing apart. After all, I never have this problem. And we so often measure others by ourselves, even when we have little right to expect similarity.

If it doesn't seem revoltingly naval-gazing to ask:

1) Do you find Darwin and MrsDarwin posts hard to tell apart some or all of the time?
2) Does it seem to you natural or odd for spouses to seem hard to tell apart in print?

And if it does seem revoltingly naval gazing... Well, sorry. It's Tuesday and I'm already talking about it having been a long week at work. All I can say is:

Monday, October 19, 2009

Listen up, hep cats

Heard this on the radio and was transfixed: Take Five played by a string quartet.

For comparison, here's Dave Brubeck playing his original version. Four guys in suits and skinny ties, as cool as all get out.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Coming up next on Nick: fallacies!

I know there are a lot of things to watch out for in what passes for kid's TV programming these days, but never did it cross my mind that commercials on Nickelodeon would be actively promoting formal logical fallacies. And yet: catching a minute of daytime TV at a location that was not my home, I viewed this Time Warner commercial with my eyebrow creeping higher and higher.

"Here's something DirectTV won't tell you: they hate puppies.

FACT: They charge you every month for HD service.
FACT: Time Warner Cable HD is free. Saves you what could be hundreds of dollars.
FACT: You could spend those hundred dollars on, like, a mountain of dog food.
FACT: Puppies love dog food.

THEREFORE: DirectTV hates puppies.

Who hates puppies?"

Whoa. Whoa. The toddlers are watching! Next thing you know, the three-year-old is going to be coming into your bedroom early Saturday morning, spouting off false syllogisms. Some things are worse than language and violence.

Bollywood Bleg

Here's a Friday entertainment post to see how diverse in movie taste our readership is.

MrsDarwin and I recently attempted a foray into Hindi film. I have a certain interest in Indian culture, working with so many Indians at work, and we'd seen several Indian-made or themed movies made with a mainstream, English-speaking audience in mind. (Monsoon Wedding, Bride and Prejudice, We'd seen the epic Lagaan -- nearly four hours about love, colonialism, and cricket.

However, the other night we mis-stepped badly while sitting up late with NetFlix instant play -- striking out with both the crossover Bollywood/Hollywood:

Which was simply flat, and a bit too much like an Indian-Canadian remake of Pretty Woman as a musical.

And then with the Hindi movie Race:

Which featured eye candy, music video style songs with even less relation to the plot than usual, and a plot whose swerves went far beyond hair-pin. It had a certain rogue-ish charm, but we remain mildly flummoxed by why we watched the whole thing.

So, clearly looking at the capsule summaries on NetFlix (and the number of stars from user reviews, which all seem to range from 3-4 anyway) is not the way to select quality movies. Do we have anyone out there who is familiar with Bollywood cinema and can recommend a top five or ten favorites? (I think we're looking more for the romantic comedy musical genre, than the seemingly endless number of hopeless epic historical love-story musicals -- a surprising number between Indians and Pakistanis. One can only be hopeless and epic so much of the time.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Very Bad Argument Against Capital Punishment

As an aside in an otherwise unrelated talk, I heard a priest say the other day, "How can there be any logic in capital punishment? How can you teach people to respect life by threatening to kill them?"

Regardless of what one thinks about the legitimacy of capital punishment, this is a bad argument. Throughout history, legitimate authority has used the threat of legally sanctioned violence (punishment) to prevent people from committing crimes, and it does indeed work pretty well. Not only that, but there's an example from everyday life that most people have direct experience with: Telling young children that biting, kicking, scratching, hair pulling, kicking, hitting and any other physical attacks I haven't thought of at the moment will be met with a spanking actually works very well. Indeed, at the ages of 3-8 when children are capable of more-or-less controlling their actions but have very limited ability to empathize with others (especially others who are making them angry) it's often pretty much the only effective manner of preventing intra-sibling fights getting nasty.

And contrary to the similar claim that "you can't teach someone not to hit by threatening to hit them", many of us in fact learned that hitting was not an acceptable means of self expression by this very means, and in turn have taught our offspring the same way.

Like it or not, we experience codified punishments handed down by a recognized authority as different from ad hoc violence used to vent one's personal feelings of the moment. And while threat of punishment alone will not serve to make people actually value life or eschew violence, it is pretty effective at preventing the proscribed behavior.

Other arguments against capital punishment (whether practical or moral) are compelling to one extent or another, but this one should honestly be dropped. It just doesn't ring true.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Bi-Partisanship Fallacy

There's a school of thought which greatly admires "bi-partisan" approaches to solving political problems. The idea of representatives and senators putting aside their differences to "reach across the aisle" and work together seems admirably, if only because our social training all points towards the importance of compromise in order to get along with others.

However, I'd like to question whether there are often pieces of legislation which are genuinely bi-partisan.

Some legislation is essentially non-partisan. Instituting a national alert system to help track down kidnapped children, for instance, is hardly something which has a major political faction aligned against it.

In other cases, there's legislation which applies to factions within each party -- a result of the fact that our two major political parties include sub-factions which disagree with each other on major issues. For instance, "bi-partisan" immigration reform might draw support both from the business faction within the GOP and the pro-immigration faction within the Democratic Party, while being opposed by labor focused Democrats and immigration focused Republicans.

Often, though, a supposedly bi-partisan bill is actually a bill which is very much of one political philosophy or the other, but which is for some reason able to draw enough support from the most "moderate" members of the other party, sometimes by watering down its provisions.

For instance, on the current health care legislation, the bill itself is pretty clearly a bill coming from a Democratic Party mindset. It rests on the four pillars of guaranteed issue, individual insurance mandate, community rating and subsidies for those who can't afford their own coverage. Once the idea of a "public option" (which had been a sop of sorts to those on the left who would much rather have seen a single payer plan) was dropped, there's really not much else that can be done within the context of the bill's structure to make it less expensive or more amenable to a conservative approach. The changes which have been made in the name of bi-partisanship (reducing fines for ignoring the mandate and not having insurance, etc.) don't really make the structure any more attractive to conservatives, but do make it less likely to work if liberals are actually correct that such a system could work. (Rather than being a dud as it's been in Massachusetts.)

Similarly, in the fight over the stimulus package -- the "bi-partisan" solution offered to bridge between those who thought there should be a massive spending-based stimulus and those who didn't was, "How about if we make it a little less massive." But really, if your two positions are, "We need to have a massive spending-based stimulus" and "We don't need any stimulus, and the debt will hurt the country" saying "We'll spend 700B instead of 1T" isn't really a compromise between those two positions.

To the extent that the two parties really do represent different political philosophies, bi-partisan solutions are in fact pretty rare. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, since if two governing philosophies suggest two different solutions based on differing ideas of what works -- something situated halfway in between (or a half-gutted implementation of one party's idea) is less likely to be satisfactory than either extreme.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Outsourcing Maternity

If you thought the modern world couldn't get any more messed-up in its understanding of reproduction and the family, you need turn no further than the WSJ weekend section, and a feature article on people hiring surrogate mothers from India to bring their children to term.
According to Hrishikesh Pai, a Mumbai-based in-vitro fertilization specialist and vice-president of the Indian Society for Assisted Reproduction, India now has about 350 facilities that offer surrogacy as a part of a broader array of infertility-treatment services, triple the number in 2005. Last year, Dr. Pai says, about 1,000 pregnancy attempts using surrogates were made at these clinics. This year, he estimates the figure will jump to 1,500, with about a third of those made on behalf of parents from outside India who hired surrogates.

Rudy Rupak, president of PlanetHospital, a California-based medical-tourism company, says that in the first eight months of this year he sent 600 couples or single parents overseas for surrogacy, nearly three times the number in 2008 and up from just 33 in 2007. All of the clients this year went to India except seven who chose Panama. Most were from the U.S.; the rest came from Europe, the Middle East and Asia, mostly Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan.

Mr. Rupak says that because of growing demand from his clients for eggs from Caucasian women, he's started to fly donors to India from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where he has connections with clinics. The first woman arrived last month. A PlanetHospital package that includes an Indian egg donor costs $32,500, excluding transportation and hotel expenses for the intended parent or parents to travel to India. A package with eggs from a Georgian donor costs an extra $5,000.
For the Indian surrogates themselves, it's an experience often fraught with emotional conflict. In most cases, the egg comes either from the woman who wants to become a mother but can't carry a child, or from an egg donor. The egg is then fertilized with sperm from the intended father, or a sperm donor, and implanted in the womb of a surrogate who bears the child. Sometimes, no money changes hands, particularly when a friend or relative acts as the surrogate. Alternatively, it's a commercial transaction, which is almost always the case in India for would-be parents from overseas.
Still, it's a way to raise money in sometimes desperate circumstances. Take Sudha, a 25-year-old mother of two who now works as a maid in Chennai earning $20 a month. She owes moneylenders about $2,700, borrowed to pay bribes to secure a government job as a streetsweeper, which never materialized. A neighbor told her she could earn about $2,000 at a local clinic by bearing a child for an infertile couple. She gave birth in July 2008 -- and is haunted by the memory. "Whenever I have free time and I lie down, I think about the child. I pray that the child is safe and happy and is taken care of well."

Sudha, who like other surrogates asked that only her first name be used, has reduced her debt to about $600, but the family still struggles to eat. One solution, her husband Umat says, is for Sudha to act as a surrogate again. But he adds that he "won't force her if she says no."

For other women, like 29-year-old Lakshmi, a pregnant surrogate in Chennai who already has an 11-year-old daughter, a 12-year-old son, an alcoholic husband and a $4,000 debt, having someone else's child sounded like a better option than her other plan: selling a kidney. A doctor advised her that with a single kidney left, "I might live for a shorter time. I have a daughter. I have to get her married...I prefer" to be a surrogate, she says.

Some middle-class Indian women, too, are becoming surrogates. In Bangalore, a cash-strapped high-school-educated wife, who earns about $20 a month selling Oriflame brand cosmetics, waits for a call from a local clinic that she has been chosen as a surrogate. Her husband, an office manager, owes more than $30,000, borrowed to start a company that faltered, and the couple can't repay the loan.
[emphasis added]

As human beings, we're meant to reproduce via sex -- and children are meant to be raised by their parents. Our instincts continue to reflect that, even if culture and money convince individuals to act some other way. So it's hardly surprising that the women in India who are pushed into offering themselves as surrogates feel like they've lost a child, and suffer accordingly. The problem is that the people in America and elsewhere in the developed world who are seeking to "have a child" this way don't seem to recognize that trying to pursue their wishes this way is hurting the birth mother of "their" child -- and arguably the child as well in the long run.

Why do people seek these services?
Michael Bergen and Michael Aki, a gay American couple who got married in 2004 and work as graphic designers in Massachusetts, decided to try surrogacy in India after they waited unsucessfully for three years to adopt a child in the U.S. To hire a surrogate, "we looked at Panama and the Ukraine," recalls 39-year-old Mr. Bergen. "But India had better infrastructure, more high-tech facilities and the healthier lifestyle. (Most women) don't smoke, they don't drink and they don't do drugs."
With travel costs, Mr. Bergen estimates the couple spent about $60,000 in all, including compensation of $10,000 for each surrogate. That's roughly half what he thinks the total cost would have been in the U.S.

For others, money is no object. Last year, a former U.S. investment banker in her early 40s, who asked that her name not be used, spent $128,000 to reach her goal. She approached a dozen fertility clinics in India for help. Despite her age, she and her husband wanted to try with her eggs. In the initial attempt, a doctor implanted several embryos in two separate surrogate mothers. That failed. In the second round, the doctor relied on three surrogates. Still no pregnancy. In the third round, he repeated the procedure with two additional surrogates. Bingo. The seventh surrogate gave birth to healthy twin girls.

It's the kind of determination that Rhonda and Gerry Wile understand. She's a 39-year-old blond registered nurse. He's a hefty 43-year-old fireman. Originally from Canada, they married in 2000 and resettled in Mesa, Arizona, three years ago.

The couple started trying to conceive in mid-2005. After several months, Ms. Wile consulted a specialist who found a problem: She has two small wombs instead of a single one. Two months later, though, she was thrilled to find out she was pregnant. But she soon learned the fetus had no heartbeat, and she had to undergo a drug-induced abortion.

Next the couple tried artificial insemination. It failed. They started to consider other options. They ruled out adoption, discouraged by the red tape. A doctor, meanwhile, had recommended surrogacy, and Ms. Wile saw a TV program about surrogacy in India on "Oprah" in October 2007. The Wiles then trawled the Internet for information. In January 2008 they settled on Surrogacy India, a newly established private Mumbai clinic. They liked the quick response to their questions and the clinic's policy of encouraging surrogates to move into designated quarters with their families during the pregnancy, rather than splitting them apart.

"It's been hard for me, being a woman," Ms. Wile said during a trip to India last April. "I've always believed that part of my job as a woman is to have a child." For her, surrogacy seemed as close as she could get to creating a child. The price was also right. "We didn't want to go broke" and "bring a child into the world bankrupt," she added.

The Wiles figured it would cost them between $50,000 and $80,000 for each attempt if they had used a surrogate in the U.S. By comparison, they spent a total of about $50,000 on three attempts in India, including travel expenses for four round trips to India, $550 for the baby's birth and a few days' hospital stay and $5,625 paid to a woman they call "KT," who carried their son.
In October, the Wiles selected an Indian egg donor over the Internet using the clinic's Web site. Then they picked out a new surrogate, KT, a married woman with the Indian equivalent of a seventh-grade education who has two small boys of her own. In her profile, KT described herself as having a "supporting nature" and listed her motivation for becoming a surrogate as "financial, to educate (my) kids."
A month or so before the birth, they finished the nursery in their Mesa home and held a baby shower. Mr. Wile bought the baby a set of golf clubs. Despite the ultrasound, they didn't know whether they would be bringing home a boy or girl; to discourage the selective abortion of girls, Indian law prohibits disclosure of a fetus's gender.

Mr. Wile says: "We've had a very good experience with surrogacy and we're definitely going try it again." They will have to find yet another surrogate, though. Mr. Wile says KT declined to carry a second baby for them.

Part of the problem here is people who want to have children in situations that don't naturally result in children: Same sex couples. People who are too old to conceive and carry to term naturally.

Their pain at not being able to have their own children may be real, but this, "I should be able to have whatever I want," attitude towards childbearing -- turning children into a consumer commodity -- only moves the pain to someone else, and makes it worse.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pride and Prejudice Night Fever

For your weekend cultural edification, I present a meditation on class and disco:

[Language warning]

With many thanks to CMinor.

Or if all that is far too high class and British for you, you can always turn to the madcap antics of Auto-Tune The News:

Friday, October 09, 2009

They Like The Look of This Fellow

Though I'd disagree with his conclusion that this is in any way "a bold step" (it strikes me rather as a silly but rather conformist step, if you think about the sort of circles the Nobel committee moves in) I think this BBC commentator gets things pretty much right in saying "Obama gets reward for world view":
In awarding President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian committee is honouring his intentions more than his achievements.

After all he has been in office only just over eight months and he will presumably hope to serve eight years, so it is very early in his term to get this award.

The committee does not make any secret of its approach. It states that he is being given the prize "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples."

This is of course an implied criticism of former US president George W Bush and the neo-conservatives, who were often accused of trying to change the world in their image.
It's tempting, of course, to point out that Obama doesn't deserve the award because he hasn't achieved anything, and plenty of people are asking, "For what?" But really, I think it's questionable that even the Nobel committee thinks President Obama has achieved much of anything yet. Rather, he's the sort of person they like to see as president of the United States, and so (even though he'd only been in office for ten days as of the nomination deadline this year) he was nominated and selected in order to express approval for the simple fact that someone with his worldview is now president of the US.

Now, if Obama were to be deeply classy, he'd decline the prize saying that he doesn't want to be awarded a prize when he doesn't believe that he's yet achieved what he should in the world. He would then get the recognition of being selected, but the even greater recognition for being realistic about where he currently is in his presidency. I'm not holding my breath, but if he does I'll be impressed.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Ardi: Looking at the Latest Missing Link

Virtually everyone with any access to news last week probably heard about Ardi, a 4.4 million year old skeleton of a human ancestor found in Ethiopia. However, given the tendency of the mainstream media to cover every ancient primate discovery as "Scientists discover 'missing link' which 'changes everything'" those who don't track these things can easily become confused, or even rather suspicious of the whole thing.

So, what is Ardi, and why is this discovery a big deal?

Ardi is a 45% complete skeleton of a female individual from the hominin species Ardipithecus ramidus. This is not a new species: we've known about Ardipithecus ramidus since a small number of bones from a member of the species was found in 1992 and formally described and named in 1994. Living about 4.4 million years ago, Ardipithecus ramidus is also not the oldest human ancestor known or a common ancestor between humans and our apparent closest genetic living relatives, the chimps. However, the excitement about Ardi (found along with less complete remains of a number of other Ardipithecus ramidus individuals and also fossil evidence about the plants and animals present in their environment) is not just hype. It is a very important find. Here's why:

Very Complete, Very Old
Invariably, Ardi has been compared to the other famous hominid find, Lucy who made headlines back in the 70s. However, Ardi is both more complete than Lucy and also over a million years older. Lucy was a 40% complete skeleton, about 3.2 million years old, belonging to the species Australopithecus afarensis.

We have a few fossil finds from hominid species which are older than Ardi, but we don't know nearly as much about these species because the finds are much more fragmentary. Sahelanthropus tschadensis lived 6-7 million years ago, but the only fossils found so far of it are a partial skull. Orrorin tugenensis lived 6 million years ago, but all we have is a leg bone and a few fragments. So while basically all we know about these earlier species is that we have a few scraps of bone from a creature that looks to be a hominid and doesn't belong to any other known species, we now have a very clear idea of what Ardipithecus ramidus looked like, and thus what hominids living 4.4 million years ago were like.

A Missing Link
Is Ardi a "missing link"? Well, she (and the other remains found in the same place -- much more partial remains of 35 other individuals) is certainly a missing link in the sense that these fossils provide us with a lot of fascinating information about a certain stage in hominid evolution. But there is no single "missing link" in the hominid ancestry chain. Fossils of primates in general are so rare that piecing together the more distant periods of human ancestry is very, very hard. While the charts we see in books and articles suggest seamless lines of descent, the actual evidence we have is often quite fragmentary, and even the links of the chain that we do have are often only partial. One stage or even a whole species may be represented by only a partial skull or most of a leg -- enough to tell it's different from known species, but not enough to have a very complete picture of the species. The below chart (excuse my poor freehand drawing skills) shows the problem, and why there's often dispute among biologists as to where the actual branches are, and whether we're descendants or cousins of some hominid species.

What is often referred to as "the missing link" is the hope of finding a species which appears to be a direct ancestor of both modern chimps and modern humans. Ardipithecus ramidus is not such a link, and indeed, some researchers are suggesting that Ardi points to that common ancestor being more ancient that previously believed.

What Ardi Tells Us
One of the most interesting things about Ardi is what she seems to indicate about human/chimp divergence. It had been widely assumed at one point that the common ancestor between humans and primates probably looked a lot like a chimp. Our DNA shows that we're closely related to chimps, and because we often have difficulty not thinking about evolution in terms of "progress" (especially when we're talking about ourselves) it's natural to think of chimps as the "ancient" form and to talk about "humans evolving from chimps".

Lucy knocked a bit of a hole in this thinking back in the 70s by showing that upright posture went back to Australopithecus afarensis 3+ million years ago, putting to rest the already crumbling idea that hominids prior to Homo erectus had been "knuckle draggers".

Now we have Ardi, who despite having a big toe that would have allowed her to grip things thing her feet, has a pelvis and legs which are clearly adapted to walking upright 4.4 million years ago. Even the leg bones we have from Orrorin tugenensis 6 million years ago appear to suggest a bi-pedal posture (though it's harder to know from such incomplete remains). So with Ardi's well preserved skeleton for confirmation, it's starting to look very much like human ancestors have been bipedal for a very long time. Large brains and other adaptations are later, but it would appear that it may have been the chimps and gorillas who developed adaptations for arboreal life, and in the process shifted to walking on all fours and putting weight on the knuckles of their hands -- rather than these being features that our ancestors shed.

Ardi did have proportionally much longer arms than more modern human ancestors, and her fingers were long for gripping branches. Her feet could still grip better than ours can (though not as well as modern great apes). Her brain was about the same size as that of a chimp, and she stood about four feet tall (the height of my seven-year-old.) But while she probably did not possess any of the traits that we see as uniquely human (language, higher consciousness, reason, complex tool-making, etc.) she looked less "like an ape" than expectations would have been in the past.

For more detailed information, the following are interesting links:

At long last, meet Ardipithecus ramidus

Ardipithecus: We Meet At Last

And if you really want the mother lode, the journal Science (which put out a special issue with all the original research papers on Ardi) has taken the unprecedented step of making all of the papers available on their site if you fill out a free registration. The Science Magazine Ardipithecus site is here.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

I'm Sorry, Mom

It's come full circle. Tonight one of my own children looked at a delicious plate of homemade macaroni and cheese and said, "Ewww. I like the kind in a box from the store better."

It was only the slightest consolation that in response to being told, "But you always liked macaroni and cheese," the young miscreant revised somewhat more politely, "But I do not prefer it, Father. I do not prefer it at all."

What exactly is the magic of that bright orange powder for the young?

If making macaroni and cheese from scratch sounds daunting, be assured that it is not. It's easy to make the sauce in the time it takes the water to boil and the noodles to cook. Here's the sauce recipe:

In a glass bowl, melt three tablespoons of butter in the microwave.

When it's fully melted, stir in three tablespoons of flour. Grind in pepper. Add half a teaspoon of salt or so (I never measure, so can't swear) and a few dashes of paprika (or cayenne pepper if you want some extra kick) and stir it all up. Microwave for another 30 seconds.

Add three cups milk. Mix and microwave for 1:30 increments, stirring at the end of each round, until it begins to thicken. This will take 6-9 minutes total. While it's doing that, grate one pound of cheddar (preferably sharp or extra sharp.)

When the sauce has got a bit thick and sauce-like, add in the grated cheese in 3-2 rounds, stirring in between. No need to microwave further. Taste and add salt, pepper or Tabasco if desired.

Pour over the drained noodles, or else pour the drained noodles into the sauce, and stir.

There you have it. Great, home-made macaroni. Only according to six and seven-year-olds everywhere, it's not as good as the housebrand stuff from the box. For adults on the other hand, it's delicious.

Outrageously Anti-Abortion

Sometimes it's all in the phrasing. The other day I read a mention of the annual Red Mass celebrated in Washington DC which quoted Justice Ginsburg's explanation of why she no longer attends (though Justice Breyer, also Jewish, does). The quote in full:
"Before every session, there's a Red Mass," Ginsburg said. "And the justices get invitations from the cardinal to attend that. And a good number of the justices show up every year. I went one year, and I will never go again, because this sermon was outrageously anti-abortion."

Outrageously anti-abortion. Well.

[Necessary disclaimer: Yes, I'm aware that pro-life advocates sometimes express themselves so vehemently as to shroud the truth from those who might be persuadable. However, I don't picture Archbishop Wuerl as being such a person. ]

Monday, October 05, 2009

Death of Autotune?

TJR sent this to us a while ago, and by the miracle of random clickage on youtube, we found it again this evening. Enjoy?

"Okay, that was... painful..."

John Mackey on Capitalism and Running a Business

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey attracted quite a bit of ire a few months back when he wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal in which he advocated that Obama and the congress consider an approach to health care reform similar to the health benefits which Whole Foods provides its employees (centered around high deductible coverage and health savings accounts.) Within days, several progressive sites were calling for boycotts of Whole Foods, seeing Mackey as giving aid to anti-Obama forces. Mackey himself is somewhat bemused by the firestorm his editorial caused.
"President Obama called for constructive suggestions for health-care reform," he explains. "I took him at his word." Mr. Mackey continues: "It just seems to me there are some fundamental reforms that we've adopted at Whole Foods that would make health care much more affordable for the uninsured."
Though he's not gunning to cause any more controversies, Mackey has an interesting weekend interview in the Journal where he talks, among other things, about his philosophy regarding capitalism and business, and how it's changed over the years since he founded Whole Foods with $45,000 in friends and family-raised seed funding in 1978.
"Before I started my business, my political philosophy was that business is evil and government is good. I think I just breathed it in with the culture. Businesses, they're selfish because they're trying to make money."

At age 25, John Mackey was mugged by reality. "Once you start meeting a payroll you have a little different attitude about those things." This insight explains why he thinks it's a shame that so few elected officials have ever run a business. "Most are lawyers," he says, which is why Washington treats companies like cash dispensers.

Mr. Mackey's latest crusade involves traveling to college campuses across the country, trying to persuade young people that business, profits and capitalism aren't forces of evil. He calls his concept "conscious capitalism."

What is that? "It means that business has the potential to have a deeper purpose. I mean, Whole Foods has a deeper purpose," he says, now sounding very much like a philosopher. "Most of the companies I most admire in the world I think have a deeper purpose." He continues, "I've met a lot of successful entrepreneurs. They all started their businesses not to maximize shareholder value or money but because they were pursuing a dream."

Mr. Mackey tells me he is trying to save capitalism: "I think that business has a noble purpose. It's not that there's anything wrong with making money. It's one of the important things that business contributes to society. But it's not the sole reason that businesses exist."

What does he mean by a "noble purpose"? "It means that just like every other profession, business serves society. They produce goods and services that make people's lives better. Doctors heal the sick. Teachers educate people. Architects design buildings. Lawyers promote justice. Whole Foods puts food on people's tables and we improve people's health."

Then he adds: "And we provide jobs. And we provide capital through profits that spur improvements in the world. And we're good citizens in our communities, and we take our citizenship very seriously at Whole Foods."

I ask Mr. Mackey why he doesn't collect a paycheck. "I'm an owner. I have the exact same motivation any shareholder would have in the Whole Foods Market because I'm not drawing a salary from the company. How much money does anybody need?" More to the point, he says, "If the business prospers, I prosper. If the business struggles, I struggle. It's good for morale." He hastens to add that "I'm not saying anybody else should do what I do."

Well, that's not exactly true. Mr. Mackey has been vocal in his opposition to recent CEO salaries. "I do think that it's the responsibility of the leadership of an organization to constrain itself for the good of the organization. If you look at the history of business in America, CEOs used to have much more constraint in compensation and it's gone up tremendously in the last 30 years."
emphasis added
Working in an area of business (pricing) which management traditionally turns to when trying to eke more revenues or profits out of a business that is not doing as well as they'd like, the bolded point is something of which I'm particularly aware. Tools such as pricing can be used to optimize a business, but (contrary to the belief of some executives) you cannot make people want something they don't want simply by pricing it right -- or indeed by any of the other "marketing magic" available in business's bag of tricks. At the end of the day, the way to have a sustainable, successful business is to provide people with something they need or want. While making a profit in a business is a primary reason for its existence (just our for any working person their paycheck is a primary reason why they show up) the only way to make profits achievable is to provide something that others value. And while it's possible to do this while caring only about the profits (or the paycheck) you're generally going to be most successful at it if what you really care about is providing that service profits are simply the way you measure your success.

When businesses (or individuals) start thinking about how to make profits without thinking about how to provide people with something they will actually value, they usually are undercutting their ability to do either in the long term.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Supertyphoons and the chaos of charity

Please keep the people of the Phillipines in your prayers as they brace for another "supertyphoon" this weekend. And keep reading Sancta Sanctis for news from the ground and beautiful reflections on the often-frustrating but always sanctifying nature of charity in the face of great disasters.
Then there are the plastic bottles and plastic bags. The floods were inevitable: after nine hours of heavy rain, plus overflow from three different dams, there was just too much water. Yet we can't deny that litter--a great deal of it plastic designed to be disposable--has clogged up much of the city's drainage system.

(Then again, a part of me wonders: The city has a drainage system??? I find I am no longer as inclined to blame litter--or the litterbugs--for clogged pipes. There are other ways to ruin a city.)

Not that there's any way to get around plastic. The material is as lightweight as it is durable. Imagine the same thousands of gallons of donated water in glass bottles, how much more care would have to be taken with them, and how much heavier they would be. Imagine stuffing a hodgepodge of groceries into paper bags, knotting them closed, and piling them in a corner on the floor. Glass would break and paper would be vulnerable to the damp. Plastic may not be pretty, but it is practical. Say what you like against it, but it passes the Charity Test: whatever is not against us, is with us.

The task we have now is to figure out how to live with it.

Comfort for miscarriage

Thanks to Rich Leonardi for pointing me to this column by Fr. Rob Waller about miscarriage:
No words can take away the pain of miscarriage, although faith and time can lessen it. Some parents find the words of St. Bernard of Clairveuax helpful. He wrote to a couple that had a miscarriage. In response to their question, “What is going to happen to my child? The child didn’t get baptized,” St. Bernard said, “Your faith spoke for this child. Baptism for this child was only delayed by time. Your faith suffices. The waters of your womb — were they not the waters of life for this child? Look at your tears. Are they not like the waters of baptism? Do not fear this. God’s ability to love is greater than our fears. Surrender everything to God.”
Our own miscarriage was four years and two children ago, but it's still comforting to read St. Bernard's words.

Friday, October 02, 2009

A Grete Loathesome Vampyre

Gentils all, yt doth give me grete pleasure to note that Geoffry Chaucer doth blog once more. Geoff hath been occupied of late, as haue many a wyffe and damsel, with the readinge of the teenage sparklie vampyre romaunce, the Vespers series.
The oonly thyng that semeth to plese Philippa thes dayes are thos large bookes of teenage sparklie vampyre romaunce, so ich decyded to reade oon of them.

And knowe ye what, lordinges? Yt was actuallie pretty decent.

Sure, the prose kynd of maketh Dives et Pauper look lyk George Orwelle, but the storie pulleth me yn. Yt maketh me feele lyk Ich am XVtene agayne and “Just Lyk Hevene” hath come upon the radio. Once a goth, alweys a goth (Ich am talkinge to you, Spain).

In this fyne book of sparklie vampyres, Bella Cygne moveth from Essex to Yorkshyre to lyve with her fathir, who ys a sheriff and escheator. At a scole ful of recentlie coyned stereotypes, she witnesseth the fayre skyn and fashion-sprede slow-mocioun hotenesse of the Cu Chulainn clan, the which have all eaten long ago of the magical Irisshe Salmon of Really Good Hair (oon byte of this magical salmon and ye shal have good hair for evir). Aftir Bella doth see the hottest of the clan, Edward, stop a wagon wyth hys bare handes, fight off twentie churles, and brood so much he did make Angel look lyk Mister Rogeres, she doth realise that the Cu Chulainns are vampyres. But they are good vampyres, who drinke wyne. Ther is considerablie moore sexual tensioun than in Piers Plowman.
Geoff stoppeth not at Vespers, but proceedeth to rede Compline and Matins. Ich haue muchel curiosity as to the title of book quatre of the series. Is it yclept Prime, or doth Dame Meyers cut straight to the chase and give thys book the nomination Sext?

Forsooth, it almost maketh me desire to rede of this sparklie book Vespers. Almost.

Also: Geoffrey Chaucer giveth thanks for the complimentes of hys good rederes, but is much put out by an interrupcioun from a jakke-asse yclept Quanje Weste.