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Monday, February 12, 2018

Fastnacht Day 2018

I'm actually remembering to make this post the day before Fastnach Day this year, as a reminder for people to stop at the grocery store on the way home to pick up what they'll need to make fastnachts tomorrow morning.

Now, there's a good chance you don't know what fastnachts are. Since I'm lazy and have already written about fastnachts before, I'm just going to straight up copy my post from last year (well, with a handful of tiny edits).

You may call Fastnacht Day something else like Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, but if you grew up in the same part of Pennsylvania as me, it's definitely Fastnacht Day (pronounced foss-not*). Fastnachts are more or less a potato based donut. They're a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition** (meaning it was originally a German tradition) to use up all the fat and sugar and before starting the Lenten fast. We even got them in school lunches when I was in elementary school (and I'd suspect they still do). Well, I don't do the traditional fast anymore, but I definitely keep up with a tradition of making good food.

If you want to try making them yourself, just stop on the way home from work to buy the ingredients you'll need (because I'm guessing you don't keep buttermilk in the fridge), and make a batch. Here's the recipe my family uses:

Here are a couple pictures from when my daughter and I made them last year (we had to wake up pretty early). Since we were running a little late, everybody was grabbing fastnachts to take with them before they were all done, so I didn't get a picture of the entire completed double batch.

Alex Cutting the Fastnachts Frying Up the Fastnachts

And to give an idea of how popular fastnachts are in that part of Pennsylvania, here are a few articles from local newspapers up that way, along with the Wikipedia entry.

So go get yourself a fastnact tomorrow. If you're not near Pennsylvania Dutch country and don't feel like making them yourself, at least go buy yourself a cake donut and pretend it's a fastnacht.


*The original German is a bit different. In fact, a German coworker said they were called fasnachtk├╝chle where he was from in Germany, but I couldn't pronounce it. Though I have other German friends from a different part of Germany, and they'd never heard of the tradition. So I guess it's regional in Germany, too.

**Just to be clear, Pennsylvania Dutch is not synonymous with Amish and Mennonite. Granted, the Amish and Mennonites still stick to Pennsylvania Dutch traditions the strongest, especially in still speaking the language, but there were/are lots of other Pennsylvania Dutch people.

One More Darwin Day Link

Ape Skeletons

I just came across this article by Scott Solomon, so I thought I'd pass it on:

If you recall, Scott wrote the recent book, Future Humans, so he's in a good position to discuss recent human evolution. Go see what he had to say for Darwin Day.

Image Source: Houston Chronicle

Happy Darwin Day 2018

Darwin's BirthdayToday is Darwin Day, the 209th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. To reuse the same thing I've written for a few years now (origianlly here), Charles Darwin was "the man who presented evolution in such a way and with sufficient evidence that it became obvious that it was the explanation for how life developed on this planet. Others had ideas of transmutation before Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace even came up with a theory of natural selection very similar to Darwin's at around the same time, so it's apparent that humanity would have eventually recognized how evolution works. But Darwin's genius in presenting all the evidence for evolution in the way he did certainly gave the field a huge head start."

Although Darwin Day this year isn't getting anywhere the same attention as the bicentennial of Darwin's birth a few years ago, there are still Darwin Day events at various locations. If you want to see if there's anything near you, you can check out the list of events at DarwinDay.org. (I checked there and local calendars, but couldn't find anything for today in Wichita Falls.)

To celebrate Darwin Day on this site, I just posted a new entry today giving a concrete example of speciation:

Since the last Darwin Day, I've also created a section on this site highlighting some of my better writings on evolution, as a starting point for people who may not understand it very well. There are actually several entries there that are new since Darwin Day last year, so go check it out.

And here are a couple more entries I've written about Darwin that are appropriate for today.

Finally, here are links to external sites with good information about Darwin and evolution. The first is brand new this year, the next two are from the bicentennial celebration a few years ago, and the last is just a classic that's been around for years.

  • Oxford University Press - Darwin Day 2018 A great collection of links to articles and resources about Darwin.
  • Nature's Darwin 200 The prestigious journal has put together a collection of articles, editorials, news stories, and various other essays and features that have to do with evolution in general or Darwin in particular.
  • American Museum of Natural History's Darwin page Yet another good collection of information. This is from the exhibit that ran in the museum from 2005 to 2006.
  • The TalkOrigins Archive Has a bit more focus on the creation/evolution controversy rather than just straight science, and hasn't really had too many recent updates, but it is still very, very informative.

Evolution in Action - The Ongoing Speciation Event of Apple Maggot Flies

This entry is part of a collection on Understanding Evolution. For other entries in this collection, follow that link.


Apple Maggot FlyA little while ago, I came across a question on Quora, When gorillas and humans split from their common ancestor was there a 'new' individual of each new species born at that time?. Since other people had already discussed human evolution specifically, I decided to go with a more concrete example of an ongoing speciation event happening before our very eyes. Here's that answer, slightly edited.

---

I'm going to give a concrete example - apple maggot flies. A few hundred years ago, there were no apple maggot flies, because there were no apples in the Americas. Apples weren't brought to the Americas until the 17th century. Now, there were obviously other types of trees and fruits in the Americas before that, and different types of insects that fed on them. One type of fruit bearing tree was the hawthorne, which was fed upon by hawthorne flies. You can probably see where this is heading.

Once Europeans brought apple trees to the Americas, there was a whole new potential food source for these flies. Some time in the early 1800s, some hawthorne flies began eating apples. They were still the same species as their relatives that ate hawthornes, without any drastic differences. They just had a few mutations that made them preferentially seek out apples as opposed to hawthornes. If anyone had put them in close contact with flies that still ate hawthornes, they wouldn't have had any trouble breeding.

Well, as the years went by, the flies that preferred apples began to get more and more distant from their hawthorne eating relatives. For one, since they were physically on apple trees more often than hawthornes, they mated more often with other apple eating flies. And since apples ripen earlier than hawthornes, the apple eating flies timed their emergence from their pupae to occur earlier in the year, introducing a separation in time, as well (obviously, this timing was based on genetic mutations, not conscious choice by the flies). Since each group of flies was more likely to mate with flies that ate the same type of fruit, any mutations that were appearing in the two different groups were more likely to remain in that particular group, and not be shared with the other group. So, the populations of apple maggot flies and hawthorne flies have been growing more genetically distinct.

Today, they are still classified as the same species, because flies from one group can still mate with flies from the other group to produce fertile offspring. But those hybrid offspring are less likely to survive because they'll have a mix of genetics from their parents, making them less specialized for eating either hawthornes or apples. The hybrids aren't completely doomed to dying without mating themselves, but because their chances are lower than non-hybrids, it further reduces the the gene flow between the two populations. If things continue as they are, these two populations will probably end up becoming two distinct species.

That's how speciation occurs. It's not something that occurs over a single generation. It's a process that takes many generations to complete. And the two incipient species are initially very similar. It's only many, many generations later, once each lineage has had a chance to evolve independently, that the two species start to show bigger differences.

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To answer the original Quora question regarding human evolution, millions of years ago when a certain population of apes gave rise to two different lineages - one that would eventually give rise to gorillas, and the other that would eventually give rise to chimps, bonobos, and us, it would have occurred in much the same way. At first there were two populations that were still the same species but just separated somehow. Once separated, they acquired unique mutations in each lineage. Eventually, many generations later, they were two distinct populations that could no longer interbreed - two separate, but closely related and very similar species. Only that speciation event would have taken longer than the current ongoing hawthorne/apple maggot fly event, because generations in apes are much longer than those of fruit flies.

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More Info:

Image Source: Wikipedia


Want to learn more about evolution? Find more at Understanding Evolution

Friday, February 9, 2018

Response to Email - The New Lord's Prayer

Praying HandsI recently received the type of chain email that I couldn't resist responding to. It was titled "new Lord's prayer....awesome", but it was really a play on Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, not the Lord's Prayer. At any rate, it was all about how students supposedly aren't allowed to express themselves religiously in schools any more (and for good measure it threw in some of the sinful things they are allowed to do).

Just to give a taste, here is the first stanza of the poem. The full email can be found below the fold.

Now I sit me down in school
Where praying is against the rule
For this great nation under God
Finds mention of Him very odd

This poem simply doesn't reflect the law. Here's an article from the Washington Post explaining the issues:
Can students pray in public schools? Can teachers say 'Merry Christmas'? What's allowed -- and what's forbidden.

For something more official, here's the guidance from the U.S. Department of Education:
Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools

In fact, here's a short excerpt from the DoE page:

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires public school officials to be neutral in their treatment of religion, showing neither favoritism toward nor hostility against religious expression such as prayer. Accordingly, the First Amendment forbids religious activity that is sponsored by the government but protects religious activity that is initiated by private individuals, and the line between government-sponsored and privately initiated religious expression is vital to a proper understanding of the First Amendment's scope. As the Court has explained in several cases, "there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect."

In shorter terms, teachers, principals, and other government employees can't push religion while on the clock and representing the government (though they're free to do so on their own time), while students are perfectly free to exercise their religious rights, including praying or reading the Bible.

Invariably, there will be isolated incidents of schools not understanding the law and restricting students' rights, but these are usually curtailed pretty quickly. Multiple examples can be found on the ACLU's website. It's just that cases of government employees overstepping the law by improperly endorsing religion are far more common than government employees overstepping the law by restricting the free practice of religion.
ACLU Defense of Religious Practice and Expression in Public Schools

I'd also note that events like See You at the Pole are not rare. You can go to their Facebook page to see photos of students from all across the country gathering to pray on school campuses. Here are some photos specifically from Old High here in Wichita Falls. And here's a photo from my high school Alma mater up in 'liberal' Maryland. And on a personal level, at all of the high school graduations I've been to in recent years for nieces, nephews, family friends, and my daughter, there's always been at least one student speech religious in nature or including a prayer.

Finally, here's an open letter from an evangelical Christian as food for thought (on World Net Daily of all places), Why I'm Against Pre-Game Prayers. Basically, he was in a community where Buddhism was the predominant religion, so a Buddhist prayer was recited at the Friday night high school football game. It gave him a completely different perspective on what it's like to not be part of the majority religion when prayers are offered at public school events.

Image Source: Wikimedia


Versions of this poem have actually been in circulation for quite a while, going back to Xerox-lore in the days before email. You can find a lot of this history and different variations of the poem on Snopes. There are also variations on the introductory text, as can be seen in other responses to the email, such as The author of this poem gets an F-minus and Popular Misconceptions about Prayer in Public Schools.

Here is the body of the email forward I received personally. I've fixed a few carriage return issues just so it flows better, but left any other typos. Most importantly, I took it out of the Papyrus font that somebody had decided to use for the chain mail. Why is it that the types of people who invent these chain mails also decide to format them in crappy fonts?

The Lord's Prayer is not allowed in most
U.S. Public schools any more.
A kid in Minnesota wrote the following
NEW School Prayer:-

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Now I sit me down in school
Where praying is against the rule
For this great nation under God
Finds mention of Him very odd

If scripture now the class recites,
It violates the Bill of Rights.
And anytime my head I bow
Becomes a Federal matter now

Our hair can be purple, orange or green,
That's no offense; it's a freedom scene.
The law is specific, the law is precise.
Prayers spoken aloud are a serious vice

For praying in a public hall
Might offend someone with no faith at all.
In silence alone we must meditate,
God's name is prohibited by the State.

We're allowed to cuss and dress like freaks,
And pierce our noses, tongues and cheeks.
They've outlawed guns, but FIRST the Bible.
To quote the Good Book makes me liable.

We can elect a pregnant Senior Queen,
And the 'unwed daddy,' our Senior King.
It's 'inappropriate' to teach right from wrong.
We're taught that such 'judgments' do not belong.

We can get our condoms and birth controls,
Study witchcraft, vampires and totem poles.
But the Ten Commandments are not allowed,
No word of God must reach this crowd..

It's scary here I must confess,
When chaos reigns the school's a mess.
So, Lord, this silent plea I make:
Should I be shot; My soul please take!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Friday Trump & Politics Roundup - 21

Donald TrumpThis is my semi-regular feature to post links to articles about Donald Trump along with excerpts from those articles. Trump has the potential to cause so much damage to our country and the world that it's every citizen's responsibility to keep pressure on him and our other elected officials to try to minimize the damage. To read previous entries in this series and other Trump related posts, check out my Trump archives.

It's been a little while since I've done one of these posts because, quite frankly, it's so damned disheartening. Every time I review politics and see all the damage being done to the United States, I get depressed and worried for the future. And today, as in literally just an hour or two ago, we see a corrupt President trying very hard to discredit the very agency that could investigate him. And it's working. Republican trust in the FBI is down 22 points since 2015 (source).

Here's a good article discussing Trump's feud with the FBI, followed by a scary excerpt.

"Unprecedented": 9 historians on why Trump's war with the FBI is so stunning

Yes, the independence of the FBI is under siege. Bringing an independent judiciary and investigative branch under the domination of the executive is one of the first moves of regimes that do not respect the rule of law. Pinochet's Chile. Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union. Putin's Russia.

The rationale is simple. Besides the military, the judiciary and law enforcement branches are the most powerful in a state. Control and politicization of that wing allows the ruler to criminalize his opponents, to label them enemies of the state, when in fact those so-called enemies are really defenders of a more viable, democratic nation. That is why they are a threat.


One of the scariest things is actually a few months old by now, summed up succinctly in the headline itself:

Washington Post - In a new poll, half of Republicans say they would support postponing the 2020 election if Trump proposed it

Half of Republicans would actually support postponing an election if Donald Trump called for it. That is absolutely outrageous. That is exactly the type of thing the despots and dictators do, and here in the United States of America, we have half of the members of the party in power supporting such a gross violation of democratic principles.


Here's another article to do nothing to reassure you, also followed with a few excerpts:

Vox - How democracies die, explained: The problems in American democracy run far deeper than Trump.

Demagogues and authoritarians do not destroy democracies. It's established political parties, and the choices they make when faced with demagogues and authoritarians, that decide whether democracies survive.

"2017 was the best year for conservatives in the 30 years that I've been here," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week. "The best year on all fronts. And a lot of people were shocked because we didn't know what we were getting with Donald Trump."

The best year on all fronts. Think about that for a moment. If you want to know why congressional Republicans are opening an assault on the FBI in order to protect Trump, it can be found in that comment. This was a year in which Trump undermined the press, fired the director of the FBI, cozied up to Russia, baselessly alleged he was wiretapped, threatened to jail his political opponents, publicly humiliated his attorney general for recusing himself from an investigation, repeatedly claimed massive voter fraud against him, appointed a raft of unqualified and occasionally ridiculous candidates to key positions, mishandled the aftermath of the Puerto Rico hurricane, and threatened to use antitrust and libel laws against his enemies.

And yet McConnell surveyed the tax cuts he passed and the regulations he repealed and called this not a mixed year for his political movement, not a good year for his political movement, but the best year he'd ever seen.

How Democracies Die contains quite a bit about Trump, but it is largely what we already know: Trump has authoritarian instincts -- indeed, he checks every box on a test of authoritarian leaders -- but thus far, he has lacked the discipline and the institutional capacity to upend American democracy.
What if, instead of a louche, undisciplined, boorish, and insulting demagogue, Trump were a smooth, calculating, strategic, and disciplined demagogue? What if it were not Trump who had won the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, but John Kelly -- a four-star general who shares many of Trump's cultural grievances and his xenophobic intuitions but could wrap himself in the flag, in the rhetoric of patriotism, in the dangers that lurk beyond our borders?

Indeed, if I had to rank the most unsettling moments of the past year, high on my list would be press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders's rejoinder to a journalist who asked about a baldfaced lie Kelly had told. "If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that's something highly inappropriate," she said. That is how democracies die.


I just finished reading a young adult historical novel, The Devil in Vienna. It was about a Jewish girl's experience in Vienna around the time Hitler was coming to power, based largely on the author's own experiences. And no, things are nowhere near that bad, yet, and hopefully won't ever be, but the parallels are deeply disturbing - extreme patriotism, nearly religious reverence for the flag, scapegoating a minority group, the authoritarian leader discrediting and interfering with legitimate government agencies, the cult of personality around that leader. When you see the direction our country is headed, and look at what has happened in history when other countries have gone down that path, it will make you very, very scared for the possible future of the U.S. Let's just hope the Democrats do well in the next election.

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