The TSA: Security theater?

The premise of this video, from the show “Adam ruins everything” is that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is worthless for two reasons: it hasn’t yet stopped any terrorist attacks by discovering weapons or explosives, and, by making public its methods and what has been confiscated, simply encourages terrorists to come up with new methods.

I agree that the TSA’s procedures are inefficient and intrusive, and I’ve objected several times to being groped in my nether parts. And of course there are other ways to improve security, including beefing up the presence of armed air marshals on flights.

But consider this: if you think the TSA is pure “security theater”, do you think we should do away with screening entirely, as was the case 15 years ago? If we did that, the terrorists wouldn’t need to come up with new methods; they’d simply carry on their guns and bombs. And air marshals aren’t very effective against bombs. Perhaps the TSA hasn’t stopped a terrorist incident already in play, but surely it’s prevented some from being conceived. Imagine what would happen if there were no screening!

Saying that the TSA is useless because it hasn’t stopped terrorism is like saying that the police are useless because we still have crime. Perhaps there are some readers who think that we should dispense with screening entirely, and deep-six this “security theater.” If so, weigh in below and justify your ideas.

h/t: Kieran

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Today I’m featuring photos by our most regular regular, Stephen Barnard of Idaho. His notes are indented:

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) looking at Deets [the border collie]:


Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis). The was a large wolf across the creek in the field this morning and
Deets was going nuts.


European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). These introduced birds are harmful to native cavity-nesting birds and are considered pests, but they’re beautiful in their winter plumage.


Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) doing a fall dance. Unlike the spring dance, this isn’t (I think) an overt mating ritual. They’re feeling frisky before the migration. Maybe it’s a bonding or dominance ritual. They’ll be gone at the next cold snap.


Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii). They’ve become abundant since we removed the feral cats.


A ruby- crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula): Pretty cute, I think. These are tiny birds, always moving, hard to shoot. This one was hunting insects in a Russian Olive tree (Elaeagnus angustifolia). [JAC: This is a contender for the cutest bird ever!]


Lagniappe: A Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) grooming, making himself attractive to the ladies.


Stephen labeled this one “black-billed magpie” (Pica hudsonia), but there’s other wildlife there, too:

Black billed magpie


Friday: Hili dialogue

Well, today’s my last full day in Dobrzyn, and I’ll be sad to leave. This is a warm haven for secular writing and discussion (see the dedication of Faith versus Fact below), and besides the wonderful hospitality of Andrzej and Malgorzata, which includes daily pies, there’s also The Furry Princess of Poland, who sat purring on my lap this morning.

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 9.48.36 AM

Tomorrow through Tuesday, posting will be light as I head to Sweden and then Atlanta, but I hope that Grania, Greg, and Matthew can fill in (Matthew promises a post on the new finding that the descendants of some hominins who left Africa migrated back, contributing genes to the African gene pool). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili ponders the mystery of biological altruism:

A: Who is an altruist?
Hili: A human who never forgets about the cat.


In Polish:
Ja: Kto to jest altruista?
Hili: To człowiek, który nigdy nie zapomina o kocie.

And the scientist shall lie down with the d*g; and a little cat shall lead them

Everyone in bed

The Pope performs a miracle!

Well, it looks like one. And if this is real, he needs only one more before he can canonize himself!

h/t: Taskin

San Francisco’s last gun shop closes; Ben Carson puts metatarsals in mouth again

If we’re to reduce gun violence in America, which I think is ineluctably connected to the easy availability of guns, it will have to be a bottom-up phenomenon. We can’t count on the Supreme Court, which has construed the Second Amendment as allowing a “right” for private citizens to own guns, nor can we count on initiatives from the federal government, whose legislators are under the thumb of the National Rifle Association. No, we have to develop an anti-gun sentiment among the people, and, given that half of Americans think gun rights are more important than gun control (see recent Pew survey here), and that view is growing, I’m not optimistic:


But at least in some more liberal places, there are ways to control guns through stringent regulation. One of them is San Francisco, where High Bridge Arms, the last gun shop in the city, is closing. Why? Because of stringent regulations, both real and impending, as well as restrictions on the sale of ammunition. As the Associated Press notes,

. . . the breaking point came this summer when a local politician proposed a law that would require High Bridge Arms to video record every gun sale and submit a weekly report of ammunition sales to the police. If passed, the law would join several local gun control ordinances on the books in a city still scarred by the 1993 murder of eight in a downtown high-rise and the 1978 assassination of Mayor George Moscone and gay rights activist Harvey Milk.

. . . In the end, [store manager Steve] Alcairo said, he and the High Bridge Arms owner tired of the continued opposition and mountains of paperwork required by the San Francisco Police Department, state Department of Justice and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

and, from Fox News (whose headline for this item is “Surrender”):

Past regulations have required the shop to bar ads and displays from its windows and install cameras and barriers around its exterior. The shop has 17 cameras as it is, and turns video over to police on request, he said.

“This time, it’s the idea of filming our customers taking delivery of items after they already completed waiting periods,” Alcairo said. “We feel this is a tactic designed to discourage customers from coming to us.

The only reason such regulations exist is because the San Francisco City Council sees a connection between gun control and gun violence. The City Supervisor, Mark Farrell, asked the city’s district attorney to draft the camel’s-back legislation because “easy access to guns and ammunition continue to contribute to senseless violent crime here in San Francisco and across the country.”

Of course San Francisco is hardly representative of the U.S. as a whole, but it does show the way forward. Given strong enough public sentiment against lax gun laws, cities can draft constitutional legislation restricting guns and ammunition stringently enough to reduce the availability of firearms. And it can happen on a national level: the history of gun control in Britain, for instance, shows that more and more laws can take a society once ridden with firearms down to one in which guns are rare. There is, for example, no “right” in the UK that allows guns for self-defense. (One must give a valid reason for wanting to own a gun.) Besides banning all automatic and most semiautomatic weapons, as well nearly all handguns, the following is permitted (with strict licensing):

All other rifles and their ammunition are permitted with no limits as to magazine size, to include: target shooting, hunting, and historic and muzzle-loading weapons, as well as long barrelled breachloading pistols with a specific overall length, but not for self-defence; however if a home-owner is threatened they may be used in self-defence, so long as the force is reasonable.

(There are strict laws against illegal possession of ammunition as well.)

And of course gun violence is far rarer per capita in the UK than in the US.

Meanwhile, Ben Carson continues to utter the Republican mantra; here’s a snippet from his public Facebook page:

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 1.07.24 PM

The striking phrase is, of course, “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” But the “right to arm ourselves” produces a lot of bullet holes, and how can one even compare the mental devastation of seeing a bullet-riddled body (especially if you knew the person) with the “devastation” of contemplation a revoked Second Amendment?

How many tragedies will it take before Americans realize that yes, people do kill people, but they often use guns, and those guns help people kill more people than they could with, say, knives or arrows. Will we have to become a Wild West, with all Americans toting a pistol strapped to their waist, before we try to ratchet down the folly that is gun ownership in the U.S.?

Obama apologizes for airstrike on Doctors Without Borders hospital, DWB demands independent investigation

According to the New York Times, President Obama has apologized for last Saturday’s airstrike at the Doctors Without Borders (DWB) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The death toll has risen to nearly two dozen, including both doctors and patients.  We now know two things: the attack on the hospital was ordered and carried out by American forces—via an AC-130 gunship, which truly is a death machine (see below)—and that DWB insists that it provided the GPS coordinates of the hospital to both Afghan and U.S. forces. This puts the rest to rumors that the Taliban or some other insurgent force pretended that they were Afghan government forces and gave the coordinates to the U.S. as a propaganda tactic.

Here’s the gunship in action; this is what the DWB hospital endured (and I’m amazed anyone survived):

Obama’s apology wasn’t well received by DWB:

But five days after an American AC-130 gunship devastated the medical facility, Mr. Obama’s personal expression of regret in a telephone call from the Oval Office appeared to do little to satisfy the leader of the doctors group, who issued a terse statement saying the president’s apology had been “received.”

Dr. Joanne Liu, the international president of Doctors Without Borders, repeated her demand for an independent investigation led by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to “establish what happened in Kunduz, how it happened, and why it happened.”

The deliberate bombing of hospitals is a war crime under the Geneva Convention. I seriously doubt whether U.S. forces did this deliberately. No matter how much you demonize the U.S., there was nothing to be gained, and a lot to lose, by going after such a hospital. Rather, it’s a cock-up; one of the many instances of “collateral damage’ (aka, the side effect of killing innocent civilians) that the U.S. has inflicted in its futile war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

Sadly, we don’t see this same level of outrage against this “collateral damage” as when that damage involved not a hospital and an international team of doctors, but Afghan civilians. But lives are lives, no matter whose body lives them, and, if any good is to come out of this incident, it’s time we realized this, and time that we calculated whether this war is accomplishing anything.

The war in Afghanistan is now the longest war in the history of the U.S., and it’s been unsuccessful. We haven’t quashed the Taliban, innocents continue to be massacred, and we’re propping up a weak Afghan military and a corrupt Afghan government. While slowing the decline in American troops in the country, President Obama has vowed to bring the American presence to an end by January of next year—the time he leaves office.  What will happen then?

I think we know. As in Vietnam, we’ll declare victory and get the hell out. Some readers have commented that we must keep fighting there, for the alternative—the Taliban overrunning the country—is odious. Yes it is, but the only alternative to withdrawal is a full-on American assault of the country involving thousands of troops, which is even more unthinkable. The slow attrition of our troops now, with the consequent loss of both American lives and innocent civilians, is not a good compromise.

It’s time to admit that we’ve lost this war. Obama’s plan is no plan, but a military dog-and-pony show. Let us leave the country, make what reparations we can, and stop adding blood to our hands.  How sad, though, that it takes the loss of non-Afghan lives to make us realize such a thing.

Writer Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus wins Nobel Prize for literature

The Nobel Prizes I follow most closely are those in biology (“Physiology or Medicine”) and literature. This year’s literature prize was just announced, and it went to Svetlana Alexievich, a writer from Belarus born in 1948. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of her, but the Nobel Committee cited her for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. She is only the 14th woman to win the literature award out of 111 awarded since 1901.

Wikipedia notes this:

Her books are described as a literary chronicle of the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet person. Her most notable works in English translation are about first-hand accounts from the war in Afghanistan (Zinky Boys) and a highly praised oral history of the Chernobyl disaster (Voices from Chernobyl). She describes the theme of her works this way:

“If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath. An eternal dialog of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions – Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man.”

There’s always speculation about the Prize, with most Anglophones touting other Anglophones. The Guardian lists some possible contenders (but the Manila Times guessed correctly):

Alexievich, Haruki Murakami of Japan, Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, Ireland’s John Banville and American writers Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth were among those with the shortest odds from bookmakers to win the 2015 prize. Other names raised as possible winners were Romania’s Mircea Cărtărescu, Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber), Italy’s Umberto Eco, Somalia’s Nuruddin Farah or Nigeria’s Ben Okri.

But kudos to Alexievich, and I hope to become acquainted with her (translated) works. Those readers familiar with that work are invited to weigh in below.


Svetlana Alexievich

Readers’ wildlife photographs

It is a fact universally acknowledged that most of the photographs that readers send me are of birds. There are millions of birders out there, but why so few “snailers” or “froggers”? I suppose it’s because birds are beautiful, colorful, and abundant. Their beauty is certainly on tap in these photos sent by reader Damon Williford, who lives in southern Texas.

And readers, bring out your wildlife photos, for the tank is growing quite empty! Damon’s notes are indented:

The Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus), which has declined in parts of its range, is still relatively abundant in southern Texas (I’m not sure what the juvenile in the photo was trying to accomplish).

Loggerhead Shrike (Lanisu ludovicianus)_Kingsville_2015-06-20

The Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) is another grassland species that has declined, mostly due to habitat loss. But, like the Loggerhead Shrike, it’s still fairly common in South Texas, especially during wet years. Bobwhites have become one of my favorite birds, partly because it was the focus of 2 of my dissertation chapters.

Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus)_Riviera_2015-05-03

The Plain Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula), the only member of Cracidae native to the U.S., is still restricted to the 3 southernmost counties in Texas. The chachalaca is considered a game bird in Texas, and attempts have been made to introduce it into other counties but these have failed.

Plain Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula)_Estero Llano Grande SP_2015-02-14

I’ve included some photos of Reddish Egrets (Egretta rufescens) from previous years, showing both color morphs. [JAC: The first three photos below are of this species.]

Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) dark_Corpus Christi_2014-05-10_2

Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) dark_Corpus Christi_2014-05-10_3

JAC: These color morphs are quite distinct; I had trouble believing it was the same species! Wikipedia says this about the morphs:

The sexes are similar, but there are two color morphs. The adult dark morph has a slate blue body and reddish head and neck with shaggy plumes. The adult white morph has completely white body plumage. Young birds have a brown body, head, and neck. During mating, the males plumage stands out in a ruff on its head, neck and back.

I’m sure there has been some speculation about these distinct forms. Their lack of intermediates (or so I gather) suggests a single gene is responsible, but if there’s any adaptive significance to this polymorphism (presence of distinct forms in a population), I don’t know what it is. Perhaps some readers can enlighten us.

Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) white_Portland_2010-04-23

The last photo shows juvenile Wood Storks (Mycteria americana). Wood Storks wander northward into Texas after the breeding season ends in Mexico. There hasn’t been a confirmed case of Wood Storks nesting in Texas since 1960.

Wood Storks (Mycteria americana)_Bishop_2014-08-06

Lecture music

by Matthew Cobb

I was reading the Times Higher Education this morning, and my attention was drawn to a set of articles about how to deal with sullen students. One suggestion, from Tara Brabazon, caught my eye as I had a 10 o’clock lecture this morning. I tw**ted:

Colleagues from around the world goaded me into accepting the challenge, so after much thought I decided to project this tw**et, to the sound of Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ (1977), which seemed appropriate for a lecture about speciation and natural selection.

The students seemed amused, though the effect was not as dramatic as Professor Brabazon seems to have found:

One of my students replied, quite understandably:

Whether the students were really oriented into a learning experience as a result, only time will tell.

I invite readers to comment below with a) examples of lecturers exciting and awakening students with music or *shudder* mime, and b) suitably amusing/interesting music that could be used to preface a lecture on a particular topic. So, for example, my next lecture in this series is on Fitness. What should I play before it? Non-biological lecture topics are welcome in the comments, too!


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