King of the (Prehistoric) Seas–Mosasaur

I’ve been dragging my heels with these prehistoric creature posts, but with “Jurassic World” just around the corner, I decided to get off my buns and post about one of my all time favorites: mosasaurs.

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Shamu’s got NOTHING on this sh*t!

Mosasaurs ruled the oceans of the Cretaceous Period of the Mesozoic Era of Earth’s history, biting sharks in half while T-Rex was doing the same with anatosaurs.  A close relative of modern-day monitor lizards and snakes (more on this in a minute) mosasaurs were the dominant marine predators for the last 20 million years of the Dinosaur Age, an age where the seas included plesiosaurs and Ginsu sharks–25 foot long ancestors of the great white and named for the Ginsu knife.  Evolving from small lizards that lived in swamps and lakes to avoid dinosaurs, and later made the transition to oceans, mosasaurs ruled their environment with a number of different weapons, not least of which was their size, which ranged from roughly the size of a Labrador, to the 60 foot long Mosasaurus.

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You can always count on Suicidal Size-Comparison Alan to make things real

But what did such titanic beasts even feed on?  Luckily for mosasaurs, everything during this time was just too big.  Sea birds as tall as a man, carnivorous fish the size of motor boats, sea turtle that dwarfed life-rafts, and of course the sharks and plesiosaurs I mentioned earlier, mosasaurs had their pick of what to eat.  Mosasaurs tracked their prey with two keen weapons, the first of which were pressure sensors in their snouts.  Like modern day crocodiles and Cretaceous Era Spinosaurus (the star of Jurassic Park III) mosasaurs had pockets of nervous tissue in their snouts that allowed them to detect the pressure waves made by all swimming creatures.  Their second weapon was a forked tongue that, like those of their modern snake and monitor lizard cousins, could be used to track scents, even underwater.

We can make the assumption that mosasaurs had these forked tongues by looking at their modern relatives, and we certainly know who those are.  By looking at the skeletons of mosasaurs, as well as soft tissue imprints–which show small, triangular scales like those of snakes–we can see the similarities they possess to snakes and monitors.  Not just that, but the lower jaw of a mosasaur was double-hinged, just like those of modern snakes, which mean that they could move their bottom jaws forward-and-back as well as up-and-down.  You’d think that meat hook teeth and Satan’s own mandibles would be enough, but mosasaurs also possessed a second set of teeth in the upper jaw which would hold prey, as well as shred it to pieces, as it used its double-hinged snappers to drag up to four feet of flesh down its gullet at a time.  Pay attention to the inside of the mosasaur’s jaws in the Jurassic World trailer and you’ll see those devilish teeth yourself.

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“Well, hello there killer-shark-lizard!”

I mentioned soft tissue deposits, which, as you may be aware, rarely fossilize.  Well, remains in Harrana, Jordan (which was underwater at the time) were so well preserved that scientists were able to study the softer, squishier bits that don’t often survive millions of years of being buried in the dirt.  This is how they know what the mosasaurs’ scales were like, how they know that the organs were arranged much like those of modern whales, and how they know that mosasaur had a tail like a shark’s.  This design being in modern sharks and fish is no accident, it optimizes how much water is displaced with each stroke from the tail, allowing more efficiency for a swimming creature.  While things are more ambiguous for the smaller species, larger specimens like the Mosasaurus itself were unlikely to pursue prey long distances.  Like modern great whites, they likely patrolled populous waters until they found a good spot before laying in wait for something to swim too close, tagging their chosen prey with a great burst of power.

With the depletion in fish stalks that occurred after the KT Event–otherwise known as the meteor-based bitch slap that rebooted life on planet Earth–larger predators simply couldn’t continue; they simply couldn’t survive on the smaller fish left behind.  The implications that it took an event of cosmic proportions to send these beasts into extinction speaks volumes of their rule.  Even had dinosaurs died out and left the mosasaurs alive, the world would be much different; there would be no whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals or sea lions or walruses for one thing.  They wouldn’t be able to compete, mammals simply couldn’t take to the seas, which raises more implications about man’s place in a world like this.  Even if we evolved at all, we wouldn’t be able to conquer the globe like we have today.  Fishing would be too dangerous an enterprise with 60-foot sea beasts patrolling the best places, early man would not have been able to travel as far afield across the oceans in rafts and small boats.  Much of our current success is a result of our ability to harness the resources of the oceans, the domain of the mosasaurs.

Steven Pinker – Our monthly meeting on April 28, 2015

Steven PInker’s well regarded book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is considered an excellent read, but at 800 pages, clearly not a quick one. Fortunately for us, Steven is not only an excellent writer, but also an excellent speaker. In the video below he quickly gives us an overview of the massive book, hitting all the high spots and providing an easy to follow description of where his research led him and where things may continue to head. Here is his presentation at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in March in Minneapolis.

Pinker describes this as the most peaceful age in human history and provides a broad array of evidence in support of this claim. He ends with a description of the primary factors behind the dramatic decline in violence across the planet. In short, they include: empathy, self-control, the “moral sense,” and reason. Note the absence of religion. While religion is discussed in some detail in his book, getting to key points and arguments, Pinker clearly feels that he has no need for the “god hypothesis”.

A Matter of Grave Concern

A couple of days ago in my ethics class, the topic of children’s rights came up.  I asked if parents have absolute power over their kids, or if children have rights which the state should, when necessary, intervene to protect.  As an example, I pointed out that some parents don’t believe in blood transfusions, and would rather let their children die.  This, of course, tends to be on religious grounds, with Jehovah’s Witnesses being the primary offenders.  Well, it turned out that one of my female students happens to be a JW, and I think she mentioned previously that she is pregnant, but that may or may not be the case.  At any rate, she stated that she does not believe in transfusions, and would not allow her child to have one.  Class ended, but at our next session, other students wanted to pick up the discussion.  I am cognizant of the fact that in my official capacity, I am a “state actor,” and have to be careful how I respond to matters of religion (this is NOT to say that I respect silly beliefs, but that I respect limitations placed on my by the first amendment).  So I tried the Socratic approach — asking her where her beliefs come from.  Well, the bible, of course.  But how do you know which parts of the bible to follow — doesn’t the bible say that women should cover their hair?  Well, some parts of the bible have been superceded.  How do you know which ones?  Well, of course, the Watchtower society makes that decision.

About this time, one of the more naive students asked her what biblical passage prohibits blood transfusions (and it really doesn’t anyway — the biblical authors knew nothing about blood transfusion or other modern medical procedures).  She looked up the passage, and the little naif immediately said, “Oh, I guess I can respect that!”

RESPECT it?  How does one respect delusional nonsense that can, and has, led to the death of a child?  This idea that we have to respect religious nonsense has got to go.  It is one thing to respect a person’s humanity, but not all ideas are the same.  Some are just not respectable.  If the JW student in question lost a child because she refused it a blood transfusion, I don’t know if she would be guilty of murder because it was not out of malice, but certainly of manslaughter or something similar.  As for the jerks at the Watchtower Society, they should spend the rest of their lives in jail for the harm they have wrought.  This isn’t merely hypothetical: children have actually died because they were refused blood transfusions.  I say “they were refused” because as minors, they cannot make such decisions for themselves, and this is clearly a case where parents are so dangerously delusional they are in no position to speak for their children.

If an adult wishes to be a fool, let her.  But the idea that she can force her deadly nonsense on her helpless child is outrageous.

Calling all Poets

Hello everyone.  If there is anyone who likes to compose secular philosophical or scientific themed poetry, here’s an opportunity for you.  The English philosopher and blogger Jonathan MS Pearce (who is also an occasional contributor to this blog) is looking for submissions; check out the details here: http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/2015/04/16/another-call-for-atheist-humanist-philosophical-and-scientific-poetry/

By the way, Pearce’s blog, “A Tippling Philosopher” which is on the Skeptic Ink network, is one of my favorites, and I encourage anyone, whether poetically inclined or not, to check it out.

Noli Timere Messorem

On March 12th, 2015, the world lost a true master of the written word with the death of Sir Terrence Pratchett, known simply as Terry Pratchett, at the age of 66 after his battle with Alzheimer’s.  Britain’s best-selling author behind JK Rowling–and if Harry Potter is your only real competition, then you deserve all the fame you can get–Pratchett is best known for his Discworld series, a long-running series of comedic novels starring many different characters from beloved long-runners such as Commander Sam Vimes and the young witch Tiffany Aching, to one-off but no less well-written characters like the orc Mr. Nutt.

Pratchett was a risk taker, he wasted no time in utilizing computers for his writing as soon as they became available, and was one of the first authors to use the internet to actively communicate with his fans.  And unlike many other fantasy novelists, he was not afraid to shake up the status quo, as evidenced by his last novel, Raising Steam, which introduced the steam engine and locomotive to his swords-and-sorcery fantasy realm.

In 2007, Pratchett was misdiagnosed as having had a stroke, and was later properly diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, specifically posterior cortical atrophy, which causes areas in the back of the brain to shrink and shrivel.  This “embuggerance” as he called it did nothing to reduce his zest for life and he kept writing and playing video games, proclaiming he had time for “at least a few books yet” and asking his fans not to offer help, though he joked that he would accept offers from “very high-end experts in brain chemistry.”  In his final years, he dictated his words to his assistant, or to voice-recognition software, as he had found it too difficult to write himself.  In 2008, after learning that Alzheimer’s research earns about 3% of the funding received by cancer research, he donated $1,000,000 to help find a cure, and his loyal fans launched “Match It for Pratchett,” raising another $1,000,000.

Pratchett received knighthood and was appointed an Officer of the British Empire for services to literature, was the British Book Award’s “Fantasy and Science Fiction Author of the Year” for 1994, won the British Science Fiction Award for his novel Pyramids and a Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel for Making Money.  He received nine honorary doctorates for his contribution to Public Service, a Carnegie Award in 2001 for The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, Night Watch (currently being converted into a TV series by his daughter) received the Prometheus Award for best libertarian novel, three of the four Tiffany Aching books received the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book.  Going Postal was shortlisted for a Hugo, but Pratchett recused himself as the stress world mar his enjoyment of Worldcon.  I Shall Wear Midnight, the fourth of the Tiffany Aching novels, won the 2010 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.

He was a pretty freaking good author is what I’m trying to say here!

Pratchett is survived by his wife Lyn Purves and daughter Rhianna Pratchett, herself an award-winning videogame writer.  Rhianna is currently working hard at turning Night Watch into a television series and The Wee Free Men, the first of the Tiffany Aching novels, into a feature film.  His novels, cunning social commentaries disguised as genre fiction, are timeless and taught many lessons, not least of which was to not fear Death, who appeared as a minor character in almost every novel Pratchett ever wrote.  And so, let me quote again from the Pratchett Coat of Arms “Noli Timere Messorem,” or in English “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”

And from the official Terry Pratchett twitter account:

“AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.

Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

The End.”

FFRF repeats its request to the Elkington Middle School

As most of you know, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote to the Grand Rapids School District in response to our notification that a poster advertising a “prayer time” in a classroom at the Elkington Middle School was on display in the hallway of the school. The poster identified a teacher and a classroom where the meeting would be held prior to the start of classes every Monday morning. Since the poster did not note that the meeting was neither sponsored or endorsed by the school district, it represented a church/state violation. It was also not clear that the teacher didn’t not actively participate or direct the meeting and this would further suggest a church/state violation. The School District had an attorney from the Twin Cities respond to FFRF and assure them that the poster would be corrected and that the teacher had no active role in the group.

A few weeks later at our monthly meeting, we learned that the poster was still on display with only a piece of paper tapped over the teacher’s name and none of the other requested changes. A photo of the poster was available and I forwarded this along with the other information suggesting the prayer meeting was still presenting a church/state problem. The FFRF attorney who had written the original letter to the School District has now sent a follow up letter noting that promised changes had not been made. He also noted that the School District’s mention of the Equal Access Act (EAA) raised further concerns since the EAA only applies to secondary schools and in Minnesota only the grades 7 through 12 are deemed secondary. Since the Middle School has children in the 5th and 6th grades, he asked for assurances that children of that age were not directly involved in the group as organizers or directors of the group. They would not be considered covered by the EAA.

We are now awaiting a second response from the School District and I will post that response as soon as we get it from FFRF. The failure of the School District to make sure that they were in compliance with the law suggests that they are not taking the problem seriously and may not have informed the teacher about his proper role and the limitations placed on teachers acting on religious beliefs while at the school and acting as an agent of the government.

Stay tuned.

Taking RFRA to its logical conclusion

From Daily Kos, we have an example of a Christian business man determining what sign he wants to put on the door or window of his shop so that he can freely exercise his religion in the operation of his business. Please note that there is no mention of LGBT discrimination in his notice. So he is not going to discriminate against gays so that’s not what the RFRA is about. He’s just going to follow his bible and demonstrate that he is an equal opportunity bigot against just about anyone.

They Had it Coming

Most readers of this blog follow current events very closely, and are therefore aware of the shit storm Governor Mike Pence of Indiana unleashed for himself.  Since most of us are aware, I will not rehash all the details, but it is clear that Indiana’s so-called “religious freedom restoration act” was designed to give legal sanction to anti-LGBT bigotry.  But attitudes in this country have changed, and Pence and others who supported the law are deservedly catching hell.  The RFRA in Indiana is not about religious freedom, it is about allowing conservative Christians to legally discriminate.  It is interesting that Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas was prepared to sign a similar bill in his state, but balked when the CEO of Wal-Mart (among many others) voiced opposition to the bill. Finally, big business is using its power to promote the general welfare.

At any rate, I am posting this simply to provide a venue for anyone who might want to discuss the Indiana law or any related issues.  What does everyone think?

AronRa – Our monthly meeting on March 24, 2015

The Unholy Trinity Tour features Seth Andrews (from The Thinking Atheist podcast), Matt Dillahunty (from The Atheist Experience TV show) and AronRa (YouTube resource on evolution and science education). We had seen Matt’s talk on faith last month and seen Seth give a presentation way back in July. This month it was Aron’s turn.

Aron and his wife have been fierce advocates for good education in Texas, a real battleground over teaching creationism and distorting history (ex. removing Thomas Jefferson from history textbooks because of his state/church separation blasphemy). Since Texas is such a large state, book publishers frequently use the requirements for Texas as the standard for their books across the country. If Texas was a place supporting decent education, this would be fine. Unfortunately, Texas is a true backwater. On a regular basis, fundamentalists and right-wing nuts try to alter the book standards to insert creationist nonsense and history that ain’t real history. Aron regularly testifies in front of the Board of Education to prevent this stuff. Here is a presentation in which he demonstrates his fierce and informed stance.

AronRa is now a frequent presenter and debate participant. His intimidating looks are for real (he rides a big Harley) and he won’t back down when it comes to teaching our children properly. He and the rest of the gang are currently on a tour in Australia. I will be watching for videos of their talks once the tour is over.