politics science

Leland Yee Supports Shark Extinction

I’ve never mentioned it here, but I’ve always had a thing for sharks. There’s just a certain something about them that I’ve always been attracted to. Their basic shape is so perfectly suited to their environment that its remained fairly constant for tens of millions of years. Their senses, behaviors, their massive variety, hell, even the fact that some of the few fish that have live births (as opposed to laying eggs) are sharks is just cool!

As you might gather, I find the practice of finning sharks for shark fin soup to be absolutely reprehensible. For those who don’t know or can’t be bothered to click the link, finning is the practice of “fishing” where sharks are caught and, while still alive, have their fins cut off and are then thrown overboard where the shark then suffocates and dies. This is only because shark meat isn’t nearly as valuable as the fins, so according to supply and demand, the limited space on board the fishing vessel is saved for the most valuable product.

While many countries regulate shark finning and have banned the practice of throwing the sharks overboard, these regulations are rarely, if ever, enforced. Most fishing vessels arrive in port with a far higher fin to carcass ratio than the laws allow, but no one cares. This may not seem that important, but last year, over 70 million sharks were killed for their fins.

Today (14 Feb., 2011), two California legislators have proposed a statewide ban on the sale of shark fins. Finning is already illegal in the US, as are imports of fins without the rest of the carcass. Despite that, shark fin soup is still readily available and there is a lucrative black market for fins. Banning the final product ends that and should have a major impact on the overall market.

However, CA state Senator Leland Yee has decided that this proposed law is an attack on Chinese culture and cuisine.

“I am very concerned with the plight of many shark species and the illegal shark fining trade.  That is why I support the federal law that bans the practice of killing sharks only for their fins and I would support state legislation to strengthen it.  I would also support legislation to create greater penalties for and enforcement of illegally killing sharks or selling any product from an endangered species.  

However, the proposed state law to ban all shark fins from consumption – regardless of species or how they were fished or harvested – is the wrong approach and an unfair attack on Asian culture and cuisine.   Some sharks are well-populated and many can and should be sustainably fished. 

Unfortunately, this proposal is just the latest assault on Asian cultural cuisine.  Last week, we had to fight a proposal at the California Fish and Game Commission that would have banned frog and turtle consumption.  I had to pass legislation last year just to allow for the production of Asian rice noodles, and similar bills were needed to allow for Korean rice cakes.  There have also been previous efforts to end live food markets, roasted duck, and several other cultural staples.

Rather than launch just another attack on Asian American culture, the proponents of the ban on shark fin soup should work with us to strengthen conservation efforts.”

Statement from Yee’s office

To which I call bullshit. No one is calling on a ban of Chinese culture. No one is calling for the state to come in and close Chinese restaurants. The fact is that current conservation efforts have failed. 20 species of shark are on the Endangered Species list, tens of millions of top-level predators with a low reproductive rate are being removed from the ecosystem every year and the sale of fin soup is booming.

This isn’t about anything other than preventing the extinction of amazing animals that have been on this plant since before the dinosaurs. No species can withstand the immense pressure that overfishing places on it. We are causing this, so its up to us to stop before its too late. The fact that Leland Yee would immediately turn this straightforward conservation law into a racist attack by the government on a vulnerable minority says a lot about him.

* It should be noted that the bill was proposed by Assemblymen Paul Fong, who is of Chinese decent, and Jared Huffman, a native of Macau.

Yee’s opposition to a shark fin soup ban has nothing to with Chinese culture, nor with defending people against racism. It has everything to do with the businesses who give him money worried that they’re going to lose a profitable item. That is the kind of politician that Leland Yee is. He doesn’t give a shit about the environment, he’s in the pocket of monied special interests and is willing to disguise that by using ugly race politics.

** It should also be noted that Yee was behind California’s unconstitutional video game ban that was similar to bans that other states had enacted and which were all later struck down by the courts. Yee’s bill, when it was struck down, cost the state $324,000 in legal fees to the ESRB, in addition to its own costs.

personal politics science stoopid

Invading Ideas

When I was going through my Twitter feed this morning, i happened across this: Extinction & invasive species are PART of nature. Things change. Why r we obsessed with freezing current ecology? and this: “Survival of the Fittest” means that, unfortunately, that some of our favorites will be pushed out. It’s not “Survival of the Cutest.” and this: Every species u see now pushed another species out. And those pushed out the ones before them. No such thing as “original” or “native.”

I responded with some rather insultingly rude comments @scottsigler Natural invasions occur at a fraction of the rate of human caused invasions. Its not freezing ecology, its protecting diversity and @scottsigler You seriously need to bone up on your populations genetics. The shit you said was stupid. As is laughably incorrect. Its rather hypocritical of me to call someone else out for saying talking shit without backing up my own. Invasive species occur all over the planet, in all manner of ecosystems. My experience, as well as the article in question, is mainly marine, so most of my examples will be as well.

The problem is not so much with the assertion that natural invasions don’t happen, or that extinction isn’t a part of life. Its with the complete disregard for the very real damage that invasions do to local and regional ecologies and the disregard for the differences in the rate between natural invasions and those caused by human activity. I’m going to consider the kelp species mentioned in the article. Assuming that no one reading this has ever seen a giant kelp species in the flesh or know anything about their life cycle, it goes something like this. Kelp, as an algae, reproduces via sporulation. Unlike plants, which have tissues analogous to animals, all kelp cells are effectively the same and all produce spores. I have personally forced kelp to sporulate in the lab and collected from seven blades, enough spores to change the consistency of 1L of seawater into something more like syrup. That’s a concentration high enough that it needs to go through several dilutions in order to be at a low enough concentration to be useful for the experiment we were conducting, about 1E12 spores/mL. If I can generate that many spores from seven blades in 20 minutes, imagine how many spores an entire kelp forest releases during a season.


Kelp spores


Sand dollar larvae. Most broadcast spawners have larvae about this size.

Now consider how tiny kelp spores are, at the micrometer scale. In order for a Japanese kelp to invade California, especially to the point where it can out-compete native species, these spores must cross the Pacific Ocean by riding natural currents, which run through the Arctic Circle and then down the California coast with the cold California current. Any such invasion would likely start north and work its way south, with the currents. Now consider, instead of some space spores managing to survive that trip, a container ship sitting in a Japanese port. Well, it doesn’t just sit there. As containers are being loaded, the ship is loading its ballast tanks with a few hundred tons of coastal seawater, which is filled with not only kelp spores, but a host of other algae species, fish, crab, mollusk and echinoderm larvae. This ship will then cross the Pacific in the best time possible. These ships are required by US maritime law to stop mid-ocean and cycle their ballast tanks, but rarely do, as the fines for failure to comply with the law are less than the cost of stopping. Thus, when the ship reaches port its ballast tanks will be full of all sorts of foreign beasties who are ready and often at the perfect stage in their life cycle to colonize.

This can be problematic for local ecosystems, especially when low level members of the food chain get out-competed by invaders. Not only can food stocks radically change, but things like seagrass height can prevent birds from nesting, an invading clam that reaches the adult stage a week before native species and consumes resources, a marauding crab that rampages through the tidal zone, and on and on. I can also safely assume that no one reading this has ever inspected a cargo ship’s ballast tanks, or even boarded or been close to one. You really have to personally experience it to internalize the scale.

Besides the havoc that such invaders can wreak on native ecosystems, but they can cause massive economic devastation as well. Fisheries can be wiped out, mussels can clog outflow pipes of power plants, clams can bore into mudflats and massively increase erosion, threatening all sorts of human communities and commercial facilities.

As for the Survival of the Fittest comment, that’s social Darwinist bullshit. That’s not a scientific concept or something that’s ever brought up in scientific literature. Natural selection is cruel and impartial, but works on populations in entire ecosystems. It also works at a particular rate, usually called evolutionary time (like how geological processes function at geological time). That’s kind of why they’re called ecosystems, since they are functional systems. If you start introducing massive disruptions into any system, it will collapse. That’s not natural selection, any more than climate change is a natural process. The fact is that there was no massive invasive species problem before the advent of fast trans-oceanic shipping. The only major cause of species invasion before that was deliberate human introductions. Unless anyone thinks that rabbits just happened to pop up out of nowhere in the Australian outback. Or that most of the lust Hawaiian vegetation that we all like is invasive, and happened to show up after European colonists showed up (which was after Polynesian colonists showed up). I could go on, but the fact is that natural invasions are so rare and mild that they can be absorbed by the ecosystem with minimal disruption.

Next, there’s this comment: Every species u see now pushed another species out. And those pushed out the ones before them. No such thing as “original” or “native.”Wrong. There are plenty of examples of empty niches being filled in by opportunistic species. Classic example: early mammals didn’t exactly wipe out the dinosaurs by themselves, now did they? I don’t know what Scott meant by original, since that’s not a word we use in the context that he was using. There is, however, such a thing as a native species. What constitutes a native species is even defined scientifically. All one has to do is look it up.

@pcharing there is no “permanently disasterous” in nature. One species’ apocolypse is another’s gateway to dominance of the open niche.I think the dinosaurs and trilobites would disagree with you. An apocalypse tends to effect more than one species at a time, and extinction, at least in nature, doesn’t just happen. Again, we’re dealing with systems with lots and lots of interdependencies. For example, it would really suck for us if phytoplankton stopped fixing nitrogen and the atmosphere turned into poison.

@niltiac afraid that isn’t true, as proven by the FIVE mass extinctions in Earth’s history. 5, yet life flourishes, including all u see now.Life that tended to be quite dissimilar to that which preceded it. Sure, it all has DNA, but the first life forms in this planet (who dominated far longer than any eukaryote) thrived in what was an alien planet with a toxic atmosphere. Its lucky for us that they fouled their nest by filling the atmosphere with a toxic, caustic gas that eventually drove them off the face of the Earth. Sounds familiar, yes? Except oxygen gas, at atmospheric pressure, isn’t toxic to life forms like us. What makes you think that we could survive the next mass extinction? Maybe we should be less blasé about it.

@j0ni “balance” is a myth. Extinction is the rule. There was no balance before us, there us none now. Equilibriums are temporary in nature.Yes, there is no such thing as a perfect equilibrium in nature, and yes, its a model. Yes, given enough time, everything is temporary, even the universe. But, statistically, its an accurate model that predicts how ecosystems function. If you’re going to dismiss an accepted biological model with decades of support, please offer some evidence to back up your claims. Creationism is a myth, equilibrium is science. The difference? One is supported by observation, correct predictions, and cold, hard math, the other, not so much.

@CJWellman Most “native” Galapaos species are “invasive” from long B4 man arrived. Native state is barren. When did “native state” start?Its hardly invasive to colonize a barren rock with lots of empty niches. If you don’t think there’s a difference, go ask an indigenous person, anywhere in the world, what he thinks of being colonized, then go ask a Martian what he thinks of us sending all those probes and planning to colonize Mars. Oh, wait, there’s no life on Mars. There’s no indigenous life to get pushed out. When did the native state start? When life started growing there are formed an ecosystem. Barren is the state of there being no life, no ecosystem. Native state requires life.

@j0ni “Fatalism?” Please. Life goes on. Just not this snapshot of life. Good luck stopping time, nature and evolution.Look at Mars. The conditions for life existed there once, but no longer. Think that can’t happen here? Besides, there’s no such thing as a snapshot of life. Life is always in motion, always evolving, us included.

@DomonicMongello so if species arrives on Galapagos from wind or ocean currents, that’s okay, but on ship (from man), that’s not?Again, its a matter of scale and time. You can’t honestly compare wind-borne seeds landing on islands to the Dutch bringing coffee to Java. If you really don’t understand the difference between the mechanisms, then there’s not much I can say to convince you otherwise.

@j0ni show me one example of equilibrium, “balance,” that did not replace a previous state of “balance.” Ergo, balance is temporary at best.
@j0ni no straw man. U say “balance” is observable phenomenon. I ask for permanent example in nature of your statement. Do u have one?
There’s no such thing as a permanent ecosystem. Anyone who would suggest such a thing is ignorant of how they work. However, that doesn’t mean that equilibrium doesn’t exist, or that ecosystems can’t persist for periods of time longer than the existence of human civilization.

All ecosystems function in a state of equilibrium, or else they collapse, extinctions occur, opportunists move in, and a new equilibrium is formed. Equilibrium in environmental biology is not some biblical harmony. All it means is that conditions are stable enough for biological niches to be filled, allowing the native organisms to go through their life cycles. Every single organism depends on a stable and functional ecosystem in equilibrium to thrive. That includes us. We require far more equilibrium and stability than most species. Our food supply is dangerously homogenous, depending on only a few species for our staples. Imagine a virus that attacks grain spreading around the planet, wiping out wheat, rice and corn. Think about just how tenuous our food supply really is, especially when you also consider the havoc that we’re wreaking on the atmosphere, the water supply, the soil. Look at the food you have in your house, think about where it came from, and then tell me, with a straight face, that equilibrium isn’t real or that its doesn’t matter.

Scott challenged me to point out what was laughably incorrect. At the very least, the vast difference between natural aquatic invasions and ballast tank discharge fits the bill. I could stand to be more polite in the future, but I can’t make any promises.

MS Office science stoopid

Office 2k8 is teh Suck

Originally, I was planning on writing this screed lambasting teh suck that is Office 2008. Its not that I’ve changed my mind since the idea came to me, its just that I’ve had a week to calm down. In my line of work, which is of the scientific persuasion, we deal with lots of data. In an average experiment, we’ll have around 90-100 test subjects that give us double that number in useful data points, plus metadata. Yes, metadata in meatspace. And of course, we use Excel to handle all that.

Our main template has 15 tabs to separate out all the stuff that we need to keep track of. Scientific excel sheets are a big reason why I can justify running multiple monitors. Anyway, we usually have fewer than nine categories, like so:


This usually works pretty well, even when its filled:


The graphs that these generate are usually fairly readable, but its was a real PITA for experiment #664, which had 11 categories instead of the usual nine. Adding those categories required a lot of manual editing of complex formulas that really should be called incantations. That took me a little over an hour and way too much coffee. Then when I tried to get my charts to look like this:


I was introduced to the steaming turd that is Excel 08. In order to get those last two bars to look like the others required eight edits, plus one to change the scale. That’s nine edits, per graph, of which there are four.

Not a problem, you say? Well, that’s because you’ve clearly never had to make any change in an Excel 08 graph. The problem is that Excel crashed every single time I made an edit. For the math impaired, that’s 36 crashes. Once Excel crashed, I could make my edit, but when I got to the next one, FATALITY! The real bitch of it is, I had to make the edit, then when I hit the OK button, it would crash. So I actually ended up making 72 edits, only half of which kept.

I don’t particularly enjoy wasting my time, especially on something as stupid as that. Office 04 didn’t do that, but when I downgraded from 08, it picked up the habit somewhere. I guess if I reinstall OS X, I could use Office 04 and it would work properly, but fuck that! Office 2008 is so poorly written that it can barely handle basic functionality. Office 2007 works well. So well in fact that I’ll actually boot Windows to use it. But it still doesn’t play nice with the Mac versions, and since my lab is all Mac, that’s that.

All I want is an office suite that works and works well. iWork is nice, but doesn’t (yet) do all of the stuff that I need it to. Microsoft really needs to get their shit together before someone one-ups them. Office is a bitch to use, but is still the only suite with all of the features I need. As soon as I can get my hands on a suite that meets my needs, I’ll drop Office so fast, it’ll make Ballmer’s hair grow back.

BTW, I used the full sized images to show the real scale of what I had to deal with.