Monday, February 23, 2009

Post with the Most on Tom Paine's Ghost

The above scene is one of ten panels that adorn the double doors to the octagonal building known as the baptistry in the center of Florence, Italy. In 1401 a competition was held among the sculptors of the day for the privilege of creating these doors. Doors Michelangelo would later dub the "gates of paradise." The use of point perspective and heightened human realism marked the end of the dark ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. As we emerge from eight years of darkness perhaps a competition in the context of New Media can facilitate the evolution of our communication.

Tom Paine's Ghost is excited to announce the first annual TPG Composition Competition.

A $100 cash prize will be awarded for the most aesthetically powerful multi-media blog post.

Post content is limited only by the bounds of imagination. Keep in mind Tom Paine's Ghost was founded amidst a battle to defend freedom of the press and we hope to echo that theme throughout our pages.

Submissions will be selected and judged on the basis of four criteria:

1. Clarity
2. Originality
3. Integration (at least three forms of media must be utilized, images, text, movies, audio, etc.)
4. Power (the post's ability to motivate readers to action).

Submissions will be accepted until April 2, 2009. Submit entries by email to Tom Paine's Ghost. Please submit HTML for your post within the body of the e-mail. If you would like to submit a link to your own blog please write a three to four sentence primer to be published on TPG along with your link. Selected submissions will be posted here at TPG and voted on by our panel of citizen judges. The winner will be announced on April 22, 2009 and will be notified by email. Whether this is your first post or your one thousandth all submissions will be reviewed.

Cheers to revolution via evolution!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Jihad against junk food

I have been waiting for a hero in the US to stand and fight for more healthful food in schools. Whenever I engage in conversation on this topic the archetype of Jamie Oliver and his "feed me better" campaign in Brittan comes up. Read his manifesto where he outlines a strategy for putting fresh local ingredients into the cafeteria. Talk about people powered media, Mr. Oliver encourages children to use their cell phone cameras to take pictures of the their school lunches and post them on his site. Internal checks to ensure the reform is happening on the ground. This could happen in the US, but living in the breadbasket of the world we have some of the largest food production lobbies on the planet. Look what we are up against.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

ARRA signed at Museum of Nature and Science

Today the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is signed at the museum of nature and science in Denver. Appropriate it is that this recently blue state host such a moment. The text of the ARRA is available here for your pursuing pleasure and is overwhelming in its breadth and depth. It addresses the economic downturn with the following list of priorities. I have no memory of a single piece of legislation attempting to fund so many programs simultaneously.

(1) To preserve and create jobs and promote economic recovery.
(2) To assist those most impacted by the recession.
(3) To provide investments needed to increase economic efficiency by spurring technological advances in science and health.
(4) To invest in transportation, environmental protection, and other infrastructure that will provide long-term economic benefits.
(5) To stabilize State and local government budgets, in order to minimize and avoid reductions in essential services and counterproductive state and local tax increases.

With start-up companies like AVA Solar making their home in the sun-soaked state it is no wonder the road to renewal begins in the mile high city. To read more about what the stimulus bill actually does for jump starting clean energy, environmental projects, and scientific research click here. This article clearly breaks down the planned $60 billion set aside for green initiatives within ARRA into understandable bits.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The President Gives Props to Darwin

The President of the United States pauses and reflects on the bicentennial birthday of Charles Darwin while extolling the virtues of our 16th president on his own 200th birthday. Obama's aspiration to "renew the commitment to science, innovation, and discovery" can only be realized if the people take up the task. When we the people belie this aspiration by worrying about our personal assets we doom ourselves to failure. As we pass through the selective bottleneck of financial regress may we see the spark of curiosity grow into the "fires of genius" that lay within us all.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Killer Viking Ninja Hornets

Who said science is boring? While reading the following excerpts from this book review visions of Viking raiders with ninja swords lopping off the heads of defenseless villagers swirled through my head. The book is entitled "Why evolution is True" by Jerry Coyne.

Coyne’s chapter on “The Engine of Evolution” begins with a splendidly macabre example. Giant Japanese hornets raid the nests of honeybees to feed their larvae. A single hornet scout discovers a beehive and marks it “for doom” with a sort of chemical black spot.

"Alerted by the mark, the scout’s nestmates descend on the spot, a group of twenty or thirty hornets arrayed against a colony of up to 30,000 honeybees. But it’s no contest. Wading into the hive with jaws slashing, the hornets decapitate the bees one by one. With each hornet making heads roll at a rate of forty per minute, the battle is over in a few hours: every bee is dead, and body parts litter the hive. Then the hornets stock their larder."

Coyne’s purpose in telling the story is to contrast the terrible fate of European bees, introduced into Japan, with native Japanese bees that have had time to evolve a defence.

"And their defense is stunning – another marvel of adaptive behavior. When the hornet scout first arrives at the hive, the honeybees near the entrance rush into the hive, calling nestmates to arms while luring the hornet inside. In the meantime, hundreds of worker bees assemble inside the entrance. Once the hornet is inside, it is mobbed and covered by a tight ball of bees. Vibrating their abdomens, the bees quickly raise the temperature inside the ball to about 117 degrees Fahrenheit. In twenty minutes the hornet scout is cooked to death, and – usually – the nest is saved."

Coyne adds that the bees can survive the high temperature, but it is another insight of the “gene’s eye view” that this would not be necessary in order for natural selection to favour the adaptation. Worker bees are sterile: their genes survive, not in the workers themselves but as copies in the bodies of the minority of hive members destined for reproduction. If the workers in the centre of the ball were cooked alongside the hornet, it would be well worth the sacrifice. Copies of their genes “for cooking” live on.

I wonder if there is room in Valhalla for boiled Japanese hornets.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Darwin/Lincoln Coincidence

Two hundred years ago today the men pictured above simultaneously drew their first breaths. The serendipity of their shared bicentennial is enhanced by the recent ascent of the current U.S. President to his post. Like the uncanny coincidental death of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson today's anniversary serves to give thinking minds a pause. A pause to reflect on the balance between CHANCE and WILL. When we think about the birth of Lincoln and Darwin we know this coincidence was purely a product of chance. There was no conscious connection between Lincoln's mother Nancy and Darwin's mother Susannah during the winter of 1809. There was however a strong conscious connection between Adams and Jefferson who had been in regular correspondence as they laid in their deathbeds. Both Adams and Jefferson were ill prior to the day of their mutual death but somehow willed themselves to survive to see the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the great experiment. Similarly Lincoln and Darwin both spent large parts of their lives fighting chance itself. Through the power of intellect they lead and changed the flow of ideas through written and spoken word.

Even more perplexing than a shared birth is the relationship between the social effects originating from this pair. Lincoln's visage stirs up thoughts of equality and emancipation, while Darwin's life's work drives home the fact that all organisms are engaged in a struggle for existence and do not begin life with equal footing. This does indeed include man. So here we see the dichotomy between equality before the law and inequality before nature.

I would like to make it clear that I think it self evident that the preservation of equality before the law is paramount for a sustainable democracy. It would take volumes to address here the complex attitudes of the public towards the idea of social Darwinism but it is easy to summarize an average public opinion regarding one massive case in which an attempt was made to apply social Darwinism to a population by a governing body. That summary is "evil." The specter of EUGENICS and Nazi death camps haunts and pervades the collective memory. The idea that man can judge the worthiness of a human life repulses the senses. But even now the beginnings of a rift in the genetic constitution of humanity is beginning with a whisper in the esoteric and often-times inaccessible language of clinical genetics.

Here I present the most pertinent and contemporary application of the ideas of Lincoln and Darwin. The practice of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis or PGD gives a prospective mother the ability to choose genetic characteristics she wishes to eliminate from here offspring. Simply put, multiple embryos are fertilized, tested, and the one free of the undesirable gene (like breast or colon cancer predisposition) is selected for implantation and a human that has been selected based on genetic constitution is born. This is not something that is 50 or 100 years away it is happening now. Before I lose readers that say "no no no that is horrible. It should be banned" it should be known that this technique is not ubiquitous and is not currently being used for genes like eye color or obesity, but is mostly used for the colo-rectal and breast cancer genes.

If you had a decision to remove something from your life that gave you a 50:50 chance of getting cancer at age 40 would you remove it? Maybe not but it is not unethical to want to do that and parents with children that are a product of PGD should not be condemned for their decision. They are using science to protect their children and that is something all people should have the right to do. The major ethical concern here is access. Right now there is no federal regulation surrounding PGD and as a result insurance companies can deny PGD to parents. If this trend continues there will be a genetic difference between families that have the money to pay for the procedure (>$10,000) and those that do not. A world where a genetic rift mirrors the financial rift in society is not a world where equality reigns. May this day be a day to contemplate and compose legislation guaranteeing the right of all families to protect their children, not just those that can afford the cost.

Subsequently I would like to share some of the highlights from the web regarding both Lincoln and Darwin. Doris Kearns Goodwin articulates the philosophy of life after death through memorable acts and words in the following video. This forms the basis for the title "Tom Paine's Ghost" for I do not believe and en ectoplasmic glowing form of Thomas Paine floating in the aether, but I do believe that his pen keeps his spirit alive past death.

I am currently reading the Origin of Species in honor of the Bicentennial of Darwin's birth and I have to say it takes a while to dig into. The first 40 pages are dedicated to a rather dry topic - pigeons. Specifically the un-natural process of pigeon breeding which is controlled by man. The first breath of literary gravity did not come for me until page 76 when Darwin describes the adaptations of some particular organisms.

"How have all those exquisite adaptations of one part of the organisation to another part, and to the conditions of life, and of one distinct organic being to another being, been perfected? We see these beautiful co-adaptations most plainly in the woodpecker and mistletoe; and only a little less plainly in the humblest parasite which clings to the hairs of a quadruped or feathers of a bird; in the structure of the beetle which dives through the water; in the plumed seed which is wafted by the gentlest breeze; in short, we see beautiful adaptations everywhere and in every part of the organic world."

One of the most thorough blogs dedicated to discussion of everything Darwin is the Rough Guide to Evolution. This week's highlights include a rap by Baba complete with Richard Dawkins voice over riffs.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Wall Street Greed

Recently, a figure equivalent to just over 2.5% of the massive economic bailout was paid out in bonuses to many of the executives largely responsible for the current economic crisis (story in New York Times). That's not a kick to the shin of the US taxpayer, it's more like a kick to the head with a steal-toed boot and then spitting in your face! I received the following email from the MoveOn organization and wanted to share it.

Dear MoveOn member,

On Friday, Sen. Claire McCaskill took to the Senate floor and gave voice to the anger that Americans are feeling about the excesses of Wall Street.

Wall Street executives just paid themselves $18.4 billion in bonuses last month, at the very same time taxpayers were cleaning up the economic messes created by Wall Street. Here's just a small part of what Sen. McCaskill had to say:

"We must have our financial institutions survive, but not with a culture that thinks it's okay to kick the taxpayer in the shins while they drink champagne and fly in fancy jets. It doesn't work. Not in the United States of America."

Sen. McCaskill isn't the only one speaking up. President Obama called the bonuses "shameful" and "the height of irresponsibility." And a bill that would put limits on executive pay has already passed the House. A huge public outcry will put them over the edge. Can you sign this petition to Congress, urging them to act now to rein in Wall Street greed?

If you like apple pie, then go sign the petition and perhaps consider joining the MoveOn organization.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Information Revolution

The following video is found on I want my This web site is dedicated to preserving the Rocky Mountain News, a paper that's been a Denver staple for 150 years and is on the verge of collapse.

The speed of information flow has increased in such an exponential fashion over the past three decades that I do not know what to tell people who make their living pressing ink to paper. It comes down to the ink and paper infrastructure rapidly going extinct. Like the fossil fuel infrastructure this arcane system will go the way of the dodo eventually. This does not mean the end of journalism however. With droves of citizen reporters we are entering an age of unprecedented interconnectedness. In the process we are tearing down the fiscal walls that were so long maintained by the information gatekeepers. The fear is that the quality of reporting will plummet without full time people devoted to investigating newsworthy stories. This is understandable, but this shift to people-powered media is the final verdict on over 50 years of media giants squandering their massive public exposure on cheap advertising and dumbed-down content. Along with print journalism, broadcast journalists are also facing the selective bottleneck of transition. But from the ashes of the fallen newspapers a gleaning meritocracy may rise, where credit will be given only where it is due and consciousness is raised at the speed of light.

As we collectively move beyond the age of corporate media may we heed the words of Edward R. Murrow and prevent a relapse of his already fulfilled prophecy told 51 years ago.

P.S. As a consequence of writing this piece I happened to stumble on this clip of young Marlon Brando playing the conga drums during and interview with Edward R. Murrow. No wonder McCarthy called these guys commies. More power to 'em.