Indiana … ?

Excerpt from the transcript of the meeting in which George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan conceived Raiders of the Lost Ark (extensive highlights here, full text PDF here):

Kasdan — Do you have a name for this person?

Lucas — I do for our leader.

Spielberg — I hate this, but go ahead.

Lucas — Indiana Smith. It has to be unique. It’s a character. Very Americana square. He was born in Indiana.

Via BoingBoing.

My new album

It’s the joke Dave Barry ran into the ground – just about any random word or phrase makes a convincing band name – but it was still entertaining to do it.

I’m thinking Danger Zone probably sounds suspiciously like U2.

Meme instructions follow:
1) Your album cover is the third image on this page. 2) Your band name is the article title at the top of this page. 3) Your album title is the last 4 or 5 words from the last quote on this page. [I’ve changed the Flickr link to bring up only images licensed under Creative Commons.]

Via Bill Corbett, who is, apparently, starting a cover band called “Burgess.”

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Parasites like their hosts clustered

ResearchBlogging.orgIn epidemiology the importance of ecological and evolutionary processes comes into sharp relief: questions about the networks of interactions between species in a community, or about the evolution of parasite specificity, virulence, and contagiousness have immediate implications for human health, as well as in animal husbandry and conservation. One of the most basic of these questions is, what determines the community of parasites that infect a species? One answer is in this month’s issue of The American Naturalist, where a neat meta-analysis shows that the size of mammals’ home ranges shapes the number of parasite species they attract [$-a].

A tapeworm parasitic worm
Photo by pinkcigarette.

For mammals, we already know that parasite communities are shaped by the host’s body size, geographical range, and population density. In this new study, Bordes et al. propose another factor: the host’s home range, the area that a single individual occupies. There are two major ways that home range might shape the diversity of parasites infecting host. Greater home range could mean that the host encounters a broader array of habitats, and opportunities for infection, so that home range and parasite diversity are positively correlated. Alternatively, hosts with smaller home ranges effectively live at higher density, which should create more opportunities for parasite transmission between hosts, generating a negative correlation between home range and parasite diversity.

Bordes et al. test these hypotheses by collecting published studies of the number of parasitic worm (helminth) species infecting mammals, and then performing regressions (corrected for phylogenetic relationships between host species) of parasite species richness on a variety of possible causal factors, including home range. They find that host home range is a stronger predictor of parasite species diversity than host body size, and that home range is negatively correlated with parasite diversity.

In a way, then, this result confirms the importance of host density in host-parasite interactions. But it’s not an obvious outcome – it is intuitive that more densely populated hosts should be more susceptible to parasitism in general, but not that they should also be attacked by a wider array of parasites. Maybe dense host populations are more productive habitat to parasites, so that there’s ecological “space” to support a greater diversity of parasites. Or maybe these dynamics are a result of the specific biology of helminth parasites, many of which have different hosts for different parts of their life cycle.


F. Bordes, S. Morand, D.A. Kelt, D.H. Van Vuren (2009). Home range and parasite diversity in mammals The American Naturalist, 173 (4), 467-74 DOI: 10.1086/597227

Open access on the line: H.R.801

A bill presently under consideration by the House Judiciary Committee would end the National Institutes of Health open access policy – which requires NIH-funded research to be made freely available to the public 12 months after publication – and ban other federal funding agencies from enacting similar measures.

This is, of course, primarily for the benefit of scientific publishers, who rely on subscription and online access fees as a major source of income. But it means that taxpayer-funded research would be inaccessible to members of the public who don’t benefit from institutional subscriptions. How we fund scientific publishing in the Internet Age is a tricky question – but legal fiat is not a good way to negotiate that question. Contact your representatives, and tell them to vote “no” on H.R. 801.

Via OpenCongress. See also coverage on Greg Laden’s blog.

Big tent atheism?

In a guest post on BoingBoing, Paul Spinrad proposes big tent atheism as an alternative to the absolutism of “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who, he argues, may not be more interested in asserting their own superiority than making a convincing case:

Any successful new belief system must appreciate the beauty of what it’s replacing and strive for backwards-compatibility. If Matthew 1:1-16 hadn’t explained how Jesus’ lineage fulfills the prophecy in Isaiah 1:1-5, it wouldn’t have gotten where it is today.

So I put it to declared atheists– the ones who fly the flag about it, not the ones who are quiet or closeted: Do you think that most of humanity is A) hopeless and doomed to kill each other because of their stupid religious beliefs, or B) capable of coming to and benefiting from your views?

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On overreacting

Crime is on the rise in Bathsheba Monk’s Allentown, PA, neighborhood. So, as she recounts in the New York Times Magazine, she got herself a gun.

Then finally I picked out a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, “the gun I started with,” the clerk said. I handed him my driver’s license and filled out the paperwork. He left us to run my license number through a criminal-records system called QuickCheck. Two minutes later I was qualified and, between gun and ammo, $762 poorer.

Photo by xtylerclub.

The brief story arc is sadly conventional. Rumors, then first-hand accounts of burglary spark rising fear in the household; Monk conquers her (very minimal) reservations with a trip to the firing range and finally makes the purchase. But it’s remarkable for what it leaves out: any consideration of efficacy.

How does owning a gun prevent a burglary? It doesn’t. Potential burglars cannot smell a gun secreted in the bedside table, and bypass the house because of it. At best, a gun can only make a burglary unpleasant for the burglar once he’s in the house – and then only if the homeowner is (1) at home, (2) lucky enough to catch the burglar off guard, (3) a good shot. Against this incremental gain in “security” – the ability to retaliate violently in the event of a home invasion – are the increased risk to children in a gun-owning household, and the chance that the gun itself could be stolen. Which – though they may be minuscule – are not mentioned, much less weighed.

So Monk’s piece is a snapshot of a sadly American line of reasoning, or rather lack thereof: a Pavlovian resort to arms in the face of fear. Monk hasn’t bought herself security so much as a deadly security blanket.

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