Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Can you be pro-life and an organ donor?

There's a thread over at IlliniPundit about the recent stem cell breakthrough. In it, one commenter spouts the usual pro-life and anti-stem-cell line "We must not take life to save life." It's the same mentality that you get from pro-lifers about abortion, namely the valuable part of a person is that he is "alive." They never seem to explain under what definition of "life" a zygote is alive but the sperm and ovum are not.

That kind of belief system, however, isn't consistent with permitting organ donations for organs like the heart. Such transplants can come from people that are brain-dead. But I'm not even sure that the position that a person can even be brain-dead is compatible with the extreme pro-life position.

A brain-dead person is still, at the cellular level, alive. With the exception of breathing, many of the normal bodily functions are going on. His heart still beats; his hair still grows; his body is still warm. A blastocyst is alive only in this sense.

I'm of the opinion that brain activity isn't just the most important thing about a person, it's the only thing that's valuable. It's what makes the difference between living tissue and a person. Cut my arm off, and no one will argue that I'm less of a person; pick up my severed arm and no one will argue that it is in any way a person. So there must be something other than being alive at the cellular level that defines the important part of a person's existence.

I just don't see how anyone who's thought it through can claim these two positions are anything other than logically inconsistent. I guess it's that "logically" part that's tripping me up. The pro-life, "an embryo is equivalent to a full grown human being" position isn't a logical argument; it's an emotional one. It has emotional resonance and it soundbites really well.

I'm sure many people will disagree with me and that's fine. Just give me a usable definition of "alive" that applies to a zygote but not a brain-dead person. For bonus points, give me a meaningful definition of "person" that applies to a zygote but not a puppy.

UPDATE: To respond to Glock21's question "At what point are we a human being or person?" I'd like to hand that one off to The Frontal Cortex:

Both political extremes are wrong. A zygote isn't a baby, and a third-trimester fetus isn't a zygote. If cellular biology knows anything, it's that life is a gradient. Our consciousness slowly accumulates. There is no magic spark when an egg starts dividing and differentiating. It's just DNA doing it's thing. Of course, let those cells divide for long enough, and you'll end up with something pretty miraculous. Deciding at what point the miracle begins - at what point that bundle of cells accumulates a "soul" or "mind" or "brain" - is, of course, the really difficult part. But other countries - like Britain, where abortion is an issue debated by doctors, not grandstanding Parliamentarians - show us that this question can be answered in a methodical and rational manner.

I have to say that the obsession and fascination with a fertilized egg because it's apparently "whole" or "complete" is odd. Really, the only difference between separated gametes and a zygote is that the DNA has come together. Big deal. You can have tons of unique DNA in a test tube and it's not a person. DNA isn't even alive. And looking closely at the biology just makes the soundbite even more invalid. From The Island of Doubt:

...there is no "moment of conception."

For starters, the process of fertilization take a measurable amount of time. First the living sperm and living egg membranes fuse, then the egg completes the second stage of meiotic division -- the process that produces a haploid gamete with only half the DNA of a non-sex cell. Then the sperm loses its tail and the energy factory known as the mitochondria. Then the nuclear material from egg and sperm fuse, a process that again takes time. DNA must be wrangled and manipulated until new diploid chromosomes are ready for the next steps. It doesn't happen all at once...

Furthermore, it's only going to get worse. The better the temporal and spatial resolution of our technology,which is improving with each passing day, the more detail and complexity emerges in the reproductive cycle.

So I ask again: when exactly does in this process does one become a "human being" whose destruction is tantamount to murder? Where precisely is this moral boundary of which Mr. Bush speaks?

I understand that to admit to the fact that there is no boundary, that life is continuum, opens a lot of uncomfortable doors for those who like their ethical architecture to be straight and narrow. Sorry, but that's ... life.

I think a lot of the arguing here happens because a segment of the population is very uncomfortable with greyness. Black or white. Good or evil. You're either with us or against us. By framing the discussion in these terms, there isn't any measured or critical analysis or discussion. But it does make things oh so morally uncomplicated.

UPDATE II: Fig pointed out that this post disappeared from the site. When I wrote the above update, I accidentally saved it as a draft, rather than publishing it to the site. Sorry.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Whedon vs. Blue Sun Media, Inc.

The Hollywood writer's strike continues. David has a couple of good posts up about it. Go. Read.

I just saw this today, but a couple of weeks ago, Joss Whedon wrote a response to a NY Times article on the strike. The Times article shamefully framed the writer's strike as something other than a "real" strike. A real strike involves working people, while those writers are just "working" people. As usual, Joss shows exactly why the pen is mightier than the sword (and why a pencil makes for a stake substitute when you're in a pinch):

Reporters are funny people. At least, some of the New York Times reporters are. Their story on the strike was the most dispiriting and inaccurate that I read. But it also contained one of my favorite phrases of the month.

"All the trappings of a union protest were there… …But instead of hard hats and work boots, those at the barricades wore arty glasses and fancy scarves."

Oh my God. Arty glasses and fancy scarves. That is so cute! My head is aflame with images of writers in ruffled collars, silk pantaloons and ribbons upon their buckled shoes. A towering powdered wig upon David Fury’s head, and Drew Goddard in his yellow stockings (cross-gartered, needless to say). Such popinjays, we! The entire writers’ guild as Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Delicious.

Except this is exactly the problem. The easiest tactic is for people to paint writers as namby pamby arty scarfy posers, because it’s what most people think even when we’re not striking. Writing is largely not considered work. Art in general is not considered work. Work is a thing you physically labor at, or at the very least, hate. Art is fun. (And Hollywood writers are overpaid, scarf-wearing dainties.) It’s an easy argument to make. And a hard one to dispute...

"The trappings of a union protest..." You see how that works? Since we aren’t real workers, this isn’t a real union issue. (We’re just a guild!) And that’s where all my ‘what is a writer’ rambling becomes important. Because this IS a union issue, one that will affect not just artists but every member of a community that could find itself at the mercy of a machine that absolutely and unhesitatingly would dismantle every union, remove every benefit, turn every worker into a cowed wage-slave in the singular pursuit of profit. (There is a machine. Its program is ‘profit’. This is not a myth.) This is about a fair wage for our work. No different than any other union. The teamsters have recognized the importance of this strike, for which I’m deeply grateful. Hopefully the Times will too.

Studios! Settle already! Give the writers the pittance they are asking for so people like Joss can get back to writing and I can get back to complaining that you haven't given Joss another series.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Can we get some intelligence in the design of the News-Gazette?

I rarely poke my head in at the News Gazette blogs, because they're usually fairly inane. About a week ago Rhonda Robinson blogged "Expelled: No intelligence Allowed - new movie, old debate", which is more disappointing than her usual conservative, self-pitying blather. What's unusual about this column is that the density of logical fallacies is so high is threatens to distort the flow of cars on I-74 due to its graviational pull.

Intelligent design creationists spout the same claims over and over. They used the same tired old arguments so often, that you can actually refer to them by number. The Index to Creationist Claims categorizes and indexes the standard creationist claims, distortions, and half-truths in a nice, tidy list for reference. Here I'll point out Robinson's fallacious arguments:

  1. CA202: Evolution has not been proven. Robinson writes, "Why is a 150 year old unproven theory accepted as fact..", when in fact, evolution *has* been proven, in so far as science "proves" things. This leads us directly to the next one:
  2. CA201. Evolution is only a theory. This can only be attributable to Robinson's ignorance of what constitutes a theory. Perhaps it's unfair to expect her to be familiar with such things, but it's she that has chosen to pontificate on science and it is she that is talking out of her ass.
  3. CA002.1. Evolution leads to social Darwinism. Robinson quotes Ben Stein's blog about his upcoming creationist movie, "Darwinism, perhaps mixed with Imperialism, gave us Social Darwinism..." As the ICC points out, this is just the "is vs. ought" logical fallacy. Even if evolution leads inexorably to Social Darwinism (which it doesn't), that wouldn't mean evolution was false. Science tells us the way the world is, not the way the world ought to be.
  4. CA005. Evolution is racist. Robinson/Stein continue: "[Social Darwinism is] a form of racism so vicious..." Ironically, Social Darwinism started in 1944, over 50 years after Darwin died and 85 years after the publication of The Origin of Species. So, was evolution valid for the period in between?
  5. CA006.1. Hitler based his views on Darwinism. Robinson/Stein write, "[Social Darwinism] countenanced the Holocaust against the Jews and mass murder of many other groups..." Again, no. The evil of the Holocaust requires no more scientific theory than the selective breeding of livestock practiced by farmers for centuries. Hitler also referred to the Jews as bacteria that needed to be eradicated and cancer that needed to be excised. Shall we next accuse modern medicine of being racist and anti-Semitic?
  6. CB910. No new species have been observed. Robinson/Stein continue, "Despite the fact that no one has ever been able to prove the creation of a single distinct species by Darwinist means..." Except for the fact that multiple new speciation events have been observed in insects, birds, fish, and mammals.
  7. CB090. Evolution is baseless without a theory of abiogenesis. Still quoting Stein, Robinson writes, "Darwinism also has not one meaningful word to say on the origins of organic life..." Evolution isn't about the origin of life on this planet. It's about the change in the characteristics of the individual species. Abiogenesis, or the origin of life, is more speculative than evolution, but that doesn't mean it's impervious to science, either. I'm not sure why Stein feels necessary to wonder about the origins of "organic" life. Does he know about silicon-based lifeforms that I'm unaware of?

That's one creationist claim every 70 words or so in this blog post. That's pretty impressive for 500 words.

What I find the most irritating is the continual put-upon tone she takes in the posting. She asks "Are we still free to disagree about the meaning of life?" and why creationism is "not allowed to be heard." She even goes so far as to ask "Are we still free to disagree about the meaning of life without fear of persecution?"

Seriously, persecution? Rhonda, get down off the cross, we could use the wood. You can complain about persecution when creationists stop making a mint peddling books to the ignorant.

Robinson whines, "This is about science, and the freedom of ideas." Science isn't really about ideas. That's philosophy. Science is about evidence, and creationsists have none.

Hopefully, creationists will someday come up with some arguments that they haven't been parroting for decades, ignoring the evidence mounting against them. Until then, I'm just bored.

(Oh, and The Squire is still around. He stops by the comments and pretty much gives Robinson a good blog-lashing. Get back to blogging, you slacker.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A blog post for Mom

If you ever get to Santa Fe, you really should get to Cafe Pasqual's. It's this really good, very original restaurant on the Plaza.

One of the few podcasts I listen to on a (semi-) regular basis is The Splendid Table. A couple of weeks ago, the show did an interview with Katharine Kagel, the creator and owner of Pasqual's. If you don't subscribe, you can listen to that edition of TST here. The interview starts at 13:30

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Pissed at PetSmart

I kind of got fed up with the fake driftwood I had in the aquarium the other day. It had gotten covered in algae and was just sitting there like, well, like a rock. So I pulled it out, but that left a large open space right in the center of the aquarium that needed filling.

I was unfaithful to Sailfin, my pretty kick-ass local fish shop, and went to PetSmart. I had heard from David that they had introduced a new line of aquarium plants.

Selling plants in tubes like that is a bit weird, but they all seemed to be in pretty good condition and I could get a good close-up look at each one. They are all Top Fin brand, which I think is PetSmart's store brand. The problem was that the tubes identified the plant, but not much else. They said they were "aquarium & terrarium" plants, but not how big the plants got, where they should be put in the tank, and most importantly, what the light requirements were (which is important in an aquarium).

They had no plants in the size I was looking for that I'd heard of, so I picked up a tube each of Ophiopogon japonicus ("Kyoto grass") and Selaginella willdenowii ("Peacock fern"). No particular reason, I just liked the look of them.

After getting them home and planting the both of them, I decided to look them up on the web. Imagine my surprise when I found out neither of them is an aquatic plant! They both need to grow emersed and will eventually die when fully submersed. The Selaginella died about two weeks later and the Ophiopogon is starting to yellow and lose leaves. So I'm pretty ticked that I was sold a product unsuitable for the purpose for which it was advertised and sold.

Serves me right for not going to Sailfin.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Bring out the GIMP!

I realize that pretty much anyone who's anyone has a copy of Photoshop they bring out to do any heavy image editing. I also realize that no one would ever have an less-than-legal copy of the $650 program. At least no one I know. And certainly not me.

But if you're tired of deciding between your image editing program and, say, the mortgage payment, you should check out GIMP. For just about everything, it is a drop-in replacement for Photoshop. It is also open-source and free. The latest 2.4 version is nicely integrated into the OS (previous versions looked a little odd). There's even a Windows installer (sorry, you Mac people will have to figure it out on your own).

There might be a bit of a learning curve, but there's good documentation. Just about anything you can do in Photoshop, you can do in GIMP.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Where are we going and why am I in this handbasket?

If you're ever tired of LOLCats (though, who could ever be tired of cute kitties?), you might want to check out LOLTheist. It's sacrelicious!

George Bush speaks French

Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars, I find Bruce Fein's editorial in the Washington Times, comparing Bush to Robespierre of the French Revolution. I found these two quotes from Robespierre interesting:

No liberty for the enemies of liberty.

That's the sort of attitude that brought us things like Gitmo, extraordinary rendition, and warrantless searches.

The second is:

We must not let foreign enemies use the forums of liberty to destroy liberty itself.

Just try and tell me that's not another way of saying "The Constitution is not a suicide pact," another recent Republican mantra.

The rest of the editorial, demanding the return of habeus corpus is worth a read. He points out that only 5 percent of Gitmo detainees were captured by American forces. The rest were captured by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance, with little protection against wrongful detention. This is one of the fliers distributed in Afghanistan:

Get wealth and power beyond your dreams. ... You can receive millions of dollars helping the anti-Taliban forces catch al Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life. Pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Celebrate! Go blow somethng up!

Today is November 5. So:

Remember, remember
the fifth of November
The gunpowder, treason, and plot.
I know of no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Now, go watch V is for Vendetta. Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

History in the making?

I'll be the first to say that I don't really know anything about the politics in Pakistan, but I look at the news coming out of Pakistan and can only wonder if we're watching the death of a democracy. They're a nuclear power, have been what seems to be the edge of war with India over Kashmir for forever, and Osama bin Laden is most likely hiding out in the mountains there. Speaking of bin Laden, according to Wikipedia, his approval rating his higher than Musharraf's in Pakistan.

So when the President facing legal challenges to his re-election suspends the Constitution, arrests political opponents and lawyers, and requires judges to swear an oath of allegiance to him, it seems like kinda a big deal.

But nothing like that could ever happen here, right? Right?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Just how crazy is crazy?

I've been hanging out a bit over at Illinipundit, which is populated mostly by conservatives, many of which I strongly disagree with and a few I only somewhat disagree with. I don't think that's entirely a bad thing. Gordy, who I don't really see eye to eye with on most of what he says, seems genuinely interested in having a civil debate and an actual discussion of issues, not just shouting back and forth. When others pipe up, I usually just shake my head and think, "How can people actually believe this stuff?"

That being said, sometimes it's good to be reminded that even the craziest of crazies over there isn't actually, you know, crazy. No, these people are really crazy:

Halloween is an appropriate time to learn that a "Grand Druid Council" of 13 "Witches" control the Illuminati, and meets eight times annually on the "Witches' Sabbaths" (incl. Halloween) when millions of occult practitioners engage in orgies, which for some may involve human sacrifice... Todd says rock and roll music is designed to cast a demonic spell on the listener. I know this sounds farfetched but I urge you to listen to Todd's presentation "Witchcraft of Rock and Roll" in the multimedia section here. He says the Illuminati started Jesus Rock to control the message.

That's from "'Rothschilds Rule w/Druid Witches' Said Defector". But that's not all:

When we consider how many Americans are "habitually" under the "spell" of pharmaceuticals- I mean to the point of changing habits and personalities- we should shudder... How did it get that way? Who benefits? I think that this is beyond money, though money be the root of all kinds of evil; I think that there is a spirit of deception at work in the pharmaceutical industry. I think that it threatens the very strength, the very essence of our nation. I believe it threatens and hinders freedom of conscience and the eternity of our fellow man.

(From Magic Modern Wonder Drugs.) Every time you pop a Prozac, baby Jesus cries. Act now, and we'll send you this bucket of crazy, absolutely FREE:

NBC's resurrection of this 1970's [Bionic Woman] series about a mutant [sic] is timely since Sommers' ordeal is a metaphor for what the Rockefeller Foundation did to her unwary sisters.

As result, women are increasingly confused, lost and desperate. Nature designed them to sacrifice for husband and children and to be cherished in return. But elite social engineers taught them that devotion to their loved ones is "oppression." They would have to compete with men and have careers. The elite's ultimate goal is to eliminate the nuclear family as a means of controlling humanity, also the purpose of the "war of terror..."

A woman is a means to an end: home, family, companionship, life skills, emotional intimacy and security.

That would be from "The Bionic Woman: Does she Menstruate?"

These people are serious. And there's lots more. It's not just one kook running the site; I counted at least five authors at first glance. You couldn't come up this much crazy if you put all of Arkham Asylum in a blender.

(Hat tip to Dispatches from the Culture Wars.)

Friday, November 02, 2007

Because we just don't have enough months

I discovered from soyisthenewblack that this is NoBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month. I guess NBPM was less pronouncable. Trying to make a blog post every day for a month is an interesting idea. I don't know if it will just make me blog more, or if my blogging will suffer in quality. We shall see.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Contraception, continued: A graph

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchContinuing from my previous blog entry, Does the Pill encourage teenage sex? No., here is the graph showing the cumulative age at first coitus for students that had received and had not received comprehensive sex ed and contraception

The original graph is in black and white and my annotations are in color. If I'm reading this graph correctly, the median age for the entry into sexual activity is about 14.5 for the group without the program, and lightly over 15 for the group with the program. So we can conclude that the program caused about an 0.8 year delay in becoming sexually active.

Furthermore, at the median age for sexual activity for the non-program group (where 50% of them had begun sexual activity), only 35% of the program group was having sex. So we can see that exposure to sexual education and the availability of contraception clearly causes a delay in sexual activity in teenagers.

The Zabin study is from 1986, probably before AIDS prevention programs and condom awareness were in full swing. So the contraception methods uses were probably primarily the pill. In fact, the study goes on to look at pill usage specifically. They also found that, even though girls were likely to postpone sexual activity to a later age, they were more likely to be using the pill when they did start sexual activity.

Dr. Fig was kind enough to send me a big, honking list of references from PubMed. I'll try to go through some of those soon.


  • Zabin, L. S., M. B. Hirsch, E. A. Smith, R. Streett, and J. B. Hardy. "Evaluation of a Pregnancy Prevention Program for Urban Teenagers." Family Planning Perspectives 18. 119 (1986).