June 2010 Archives

Today, Evolution 2010 concluded with a star-studded banquet, and I managed to catch a picture with Dr. Jerry Coyne at the end of the dinner.

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It’s a surprise: Evolution: E&O Issue for Genie

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The new issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach, now online and with a few of the articles free (the rest are behind an accursed paywall), is dedicated to Genie Scott, who will soon be on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon on the annual trip that I have never made. It’s a surprise, and I wish I could see her face. From Niles and Greg Eldredge’s Editorial:

Which brings us to our second happy task of this editorial: our pride and pleasure in presenting a (Surprise!) Special Issue in honor of Eugenie Scott, Founding Director of the National Center for Science Education (and a founding member of our own editorial board!). Genie and her organization have long been in the front of the line helping to ensure quality science education in the United States by developing resources–and by standing by beleaguered teachers whenever creationists threaten the integrity of science education in communities everywhere. This terrific issue, edited by Glenn Branch, NCSE’s Deputy Director, tells the tale of Genie and her multifaceted career–a “must-read” for all of us who value quality science education in the United States. Thank you, Genie–you are wonderful!

Yes, she is.

Via Greg Laden.

Machu Picchu

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Machu Picchu, Peru, 2005.

Below is a lightly annotated index to 74 77 posts on the Freshwater affair in the Mt. Vernon School District, most by me along with a few from PvM in the period before the hearing started. I think I got them all; if I missed any please let me know in the comments.

There are four main sections in the chronological index, the sections corresponding to posts before the administrative hearing began and the three parts of the hearing–the Board’s Case in Chief, Freshwater’s Defense, and the Board’s Rebuttal.

The list is below the fold. For those keeping score, my posts in the list run to just over 136,000 140,000 total words.

William Dembski in 2002 wrote

Building a design curriculum is educational in the broadest sense. It includes not just textbooks, but everything from research monographs for professors and graduate students to coloring books for preschoolers [emphasis added].

Mr. Dembski has apparently got his wish, though it would be a stretch to say that The Intelligent Design Coloring Book is (a) written for preschoolers or (b) quite what Mr. Dembski had in mind.

In the Zone

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Y’all may remember the last world-famous person I hung out with. I’m currently hobnobbing it with many famous people at the Evolution meeting in Portland. Today I got to meet in person a regular contributor to our site:

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Sweet, huh!

If you are at the conference and want your picture with me, just track down Reed Cartwright. He’s giving a talk Monday morning.

I just received a letter from Michael Zimmerman, addressed to “Members and Friends of The Clergy Letter Project.” The gist of the letter is that Evolution Weekend will be 11-13 February 2011 and will once again provide religious congregations the opportunity to discuss evolution and how it can be accommodated into their worldview. In addition, congregations are encouraged to discuss “the many environmental threats to the health of both natural and human communities.” The relevant part of Professor Zimmerman’s letter follows.

Freshwater: Verrrry interesting

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(With apologies to Arte Johnson.)

A focus of attention in questioning at various times in the administrative hearing has been on 15 affidavits that Freshwater says were prepared in May 2008 as part of his “comprehensive response” to the allegations brought against him during the investigation. Now the provenance–in particular the time of preparation–of those affidavits is at issue. Questions have been raised because in spite of purportedly preparing the affidavits to be used as a comprehensive response in the investigation, in testimony it has been apparent that neither Freshwater nor his attorney ever told anyone of their existence in the spring of 2008 when the affair was being investigated. Moreover, Hamilton has failed to produce his billing records for that period in response to a court order because, he says, he lost his laptop computer in the Flood to a water leak. According to his testimony, Freshwater (already being advised by Hamilton as well as by David Daubenmire) sat passively with the affidavits, waiting for someone to conduct a second interview with him. Now, neither Hamilton nor Daubenmire are passive individuals, so that’s just a tad hard to swallow. The first that I recall that we heard about the affidavits was in Freshwater’s direct testimony in the presentation of his defense in early December 2008. Prior to that I recall no mention of them and find nothing in my earlier notes about them.

Judge Gregory Frost, who is presiding in federal district court over Doe v. Mount Vernon Board of Education (where the only remaining defendant is Freshwater), issued a very interesting order (pdf) yesterday morning, June 24, 2010. In the order Frost granted a request made by the Dennis family’s attorney, Douglas Mansfield, to get access to R. Kelly Hamilton’s billing records for the period surrounding the time when Freshwater and Hamilton were supposedly putting together the 15 affidavits to be used in Freshwater’s second interview with the HR OnCall investigators, the interview that in the end didn’t occur.

How can Mansfield get access to them when they were supposedly destroyed? Simple: another law firm, Britton, Smith, Peters and Kalail, L.P.A., the firm that represented the Board of Education on behalf of the insurance company in the Dennis suit, has them.

Read on for more info and some speculation

ICR hits a snag

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Via Phil Plait

The Institute for Creation Research, which in 2007 moved from California to Texas, has been seeking accreditation in Texas to award a Master’s degree in science education. In 2008 the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board denied ICR’s request for accreditation, and ICR brought federal suit. The National Center for Science Education now reports that ICR’s request to temporarily award the degree while seeking permanent accreditation has been turned down by the court.

ICR’s graduate school is currently accredited by TRACS, the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, which IIRC was originally founded by a group including Henry Morris, also the founder of ICR, to provide a cloak of faux respectability for institutions like ICR. As NCSE notes, TRACS

… requires candidate institutions to affirm a list of Biblical Foundations, including “the divine work of non-evolutionary creation including persons in God’s image.”

See here for more (pdf), especially pp20ff on “Biblical Foundations”. TRACS is not recognized by Texas as an accrediting agency.

In the ruling denying ICR temporary permission to award the degree, the court wrote

“It appears that although the Court has twice required Plaintiff to re-plead and set forth a short and plain statement of the relief requested, Plaintiff is entirely unable to file a complaint which is not overly verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering, and full of irrelevant information” (p. 12).

Kind of like most of their stuff, hm? It puts me in mind of R. Kelly Hamilton’s style in the Freshwater hearing: Toss everything into the pot and hope that something is edible.

Freshwater: Hearing testimony ends!

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After 21 calendar months, 39 (by one count) actual days of sessions, and over $700,000 in expenses and still counting, the administrative hearing on the termination of John Freshwater finished taking testimony today. We fell a day short of the length of the Kitzmiller v. Dover ASD trial but we may yet exceed its $1M total cost–the $700K doesn’t include Freshwater’s legal costs and there’s still a goodly amount of attorney work yet to do before it’s over.

Today concluded the Board’s rebuttal case. The sole witness was Steve Short, Superintendent of the Mt. Vernon City Schools. However, the day couldn’t start without one last attempt to stir up a pseudo-controversy by R. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney. Before the hearing started this morning he asked the referee to close the hearing to the public on the grounds that some unidentified person was surreptitiously recording the proceedings in violation of the referee’s order (from October, 2008) against electronic recording. The referee declined to do so, contenting himself with reiterating the earlier prohibition.

More below the fold

Early indications of bipedalism in A. afarensis

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While we’re waiting to see if one of our paleo people will post at greater length on this, I will call attention to Case Western Reserve University’s Center for Human Origins’ material on the recent publication of a report on a very early specimen of Australopithecus afarensis. It shows evidence of bipedalism as early as 3.6 mya. The specimen is dubbed “Kadanuumuu,” or “big man” in Afar, the language of the region of Ethiopia in which it was found, because it is from a male over 5 feet tall. That contrasts with Lucy, a female only about 3.5 feet tall from 3.2 mya. The skeletal remains overlap Lucy’s considerably with the exception of cranial and dental material which is missing from Kadanuumuu. The work was recently published in PNAS.

Other coverage from the National Science Foundation and from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (one of the founding partners in Case’s Center for Human Origins).

A bit more on Haeckel

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Stenocercus crassicaudatus

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Photograph by David Fletcher.

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Stenocercus crassicaudatus – spiny whorltail iguana, Machu Picchu, Peru.

Haeckel had a point

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My colleague Paul Strode wrote a very clear and concise explanation of Ernst Haeckel’s “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” law for our book Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails). In Chapter 11, Strode explains that Haeckel was wrong in thinking that embryos resemble the ancestral adult forms; rather, early embryos resemble the embryos of ancestral forms. In other words, Haeckel was on to something, but he didn’t get it quite right. Strode explains further, “Recapitulation nevertheless provides helpful insight into evolutionary relationships and ancestry,” and argues that von Baer’s law is closer to the truth. Chapter 11 follows:

Like Napoleon on Saint Helena, good ol’ Casey Luskin is re-fighting old lost battles again (one, two)…

Former NCSE staff member Matzke co-writes that complaints about the use of Haeckel’s drawings is a “manufactured scandal.” 277 Not only are textbooks using inaccurate drawings, but they are using them to illustrate points that are highly disputed by leading embryologists. The earliest stages of vertebrate embryos are quite different and the existence of the cherry-picked conserved stage often portrayed in textbooks as evidence for common ancestry is being called into question.

To say the least, students who are taught that the earliest stages of vertebrate embryos are highly similar, without being told of significant embryological evidence that challenges that view and the very existence of the conserved developmental stage portrayed in many textbooks, are not being adequately informed about the evidence regarding evolution.

Hmm. First, Haeckel didn’t ignore the differences in embryos in the earliest period just after fertilization (differences which are visually significant but mostly fairly trivial, due to the different amounts of yolk in different vertebrate eggs) – in fact, Haeckel himself prominently diagrammed them, as I showed here back in 2006. Whoops! And such diagrams are standard in any book which gives a thorough treatment of vertebrate development, although this may not include the most absolutely introductory general biology texts.

Second, Luskin makes it out as if it’s me and NCSE against developmental biology experts like Michael Richardson (whom he quotes), and as if we ignored the textbooks that did have the classic Haeckel’s embryo drawings. But (as I find out when I go back to the 2006 article which Luskin quotes) actually, no, Richardson’s on our side, and we counted the textbooks that had the drawings – taking the numbers directly from Jonathan Wells, no less! Not good enough for Luskin.

For those who actually want to be fair-minded about it, it’s pretty clear that what happened was that in the mid-1990s, as happens every few decades, a scientist (here, Michael Richardson) discovered the real, but moderate, problems with Haeckel’s embryo drawings. This led to some some guns going off half-cocked in the media and in popular works (e.g. by Gould), and this is the stuff which Luskin cites. In the meantime, the originator of the latest wave, Richardson, learned some more about the complex history of the drawings and the even more complex history of claims and counterclaims about “scandal” by creationists – from Haeckel’s day to today – and published an updated version of his assessment. We quote the updated version, and Luskin quotes the more heated early reactions, pretending (despite knowing better) that the later assessments don’t exist. Oh well.

Freshwater: Movement toward a settlement?

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Recall that John Freshwater brought a federal suit against a slew of defendants ranging from the Dennis family through various and sundry school officials to 16 unnamed John and Jane Does. There’s a hint that settlement talks are underway, the hint coming in the form of a request for a gag order signed by attorneys for all the parties to the suit (except the John and Jane Does, who presumably don’t know they’re parties to the suit). The relevant docs are here on NCSE’s site.

In other news, R. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney in the administrative hearing and in the federal suit mentioned above (but not the federal suit against Freshwater), has filed a request for reconsideration of the sanctions imposed on him by the federal judge for failing to comply with an order to compel that dealt with shortcomings in Hamilton’s and Freshwater’s response to discovery requests. The documents are here. The request for reconsideration includes pictures of the split pipe that drowned his laptop computer (Attachment 1) and a picture of the nail (Attachment 6) that Hamilton claims flattened his tire(s) so he couldn’t make it to a hearing in the federal court on the original motion for sanctions. (There’s no picture of the dog that ate his homework.)

There’s one priceless line in Hamilton’s affidavit attached to the request:

Affiant [Hamilton] states as it relates to any of John Freshwater’s testimony that John Freshwater can only testify to what he knows or remembers. Affiant attests that communicating with John Freshwater can be challenging or even frustrating and a questioner must ask John Freshwater very precise questions and give John Freshwater time to think about his answer. (Attachment 7, pages 3-4)

Client, meet bus.

Steve Katt

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Last month we mentioned that Get Fuzzy was discussing the wisdom of Steves. Well it is still going on.

Verry Funny.

Evolution Book Chapters from NCSE

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Via Daniel Florien at Unreasonable Faith.

NCSE has made available (with appropriate permissions) pdfs of a bunch of book chapters well worth reading on their own. They are from:

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin Of Species: A Graphic Adaptation by Michael Keller

The Tangled Bank by Carl Zimmer

Evolution, Second Edition By Douglas J. Futuyma

Evidence of Evolution by Susan Middleton and Mary Ellen Hannibal

Evolution: The story of life by Douglas Palmer

Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton

Rapture Ready! by Daniel Radosh

Evolution vs. Creationism, 2nd edition by Eugenie C. Scott

In defense of Mary Midgley

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Via Wilkins’ blog I found the discussions (by PZ and The Unpublishable Philosopher) of Mary Midgley’s latest. I posted a comment at the UP’s blog, but it won’t come up until approved.

Note that this is not an attempt to spoon-feed completely from scratch the entirety of Mary Midgley’s philosophy to everyone who has got it into their heads that Midgley is a soft-headed (simply ludicrous if you know anything about Midgley – e.g. she has been called “One of the sharpest critical pens in the West”), theism-friendly (she is a long-time atheist), anti-Darwinian (she was one of the earliest and strongest voices for bringing Darwin into philosophy in a serious way), post-modernist (actually a very old-fashioned rationalist scientific liberal) nincompoop. If you want to talk sense about Midgley, please go read Beast and Man and The Ethical Primate and then we’ll talk.

That said, here is my 2 cents replying to UP (and somewhat to PZ), in an attempt to give people a quick sense of the kind of thing Midgley is trying to get people – particularly New Atheists – to think about, when it comes to religion.

Zantedeschia elliottiana

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Photograph by Tom Harnish.

Lily by Kate Lister.

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Zantedeschia elliottiana – yellow or golden arum lily.

The photographer, Tom Harnish, writes that Zantedeschia is often misnamed Calla: “Zantedeschia is a different genus than Calla – not a small distinction if you consider that dogs and cats are two different genera (Canidae and Felidae). Imagine going into a pet store and seeing signs over the puppies that indicate they’re cats? Oddly, most garden shops label these flowers calla (even cala) lilies, and that’s what most people call them. Zantedeschia, shown here, are from tropical Africa, and should not be confused with the smaller white calla that grows in bogs of northern Europe, Asia, and North America.”

Freshwater: The Board’s rebuttal case

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The Board’s rebuttal is an opportunity for its attorney to call witnesses to address claims made in the defense’s presentation of its case. David Millstone, the Board’s attorney, called eight witnesses for the rebuttal, four expert witnesses, three lay witnesses, and Superintendent Short. The expert witnesses addressed various claims the defense made regarding both technical matters (e.g., the match of handwriting on documents, the authenticity of emails, the meaning of “bias” in the academic content standards, and the ancestry of “critical analysis of evolution” in intelligent design creationism) while the lay witnesses addressed various fact claims (e.g., whether Freshwater himself contacted FCA speakers, and the display of religious items in Freshwater’s classroom). Superintendent Short will testify on the next (and last!) date, June 22.

More below the fold

Freshwater: The defense rests

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The final defense witness in the administrative hearing on the termination of John Freshwater was Steve Hughes, a local attorney and former member of the Board of Education who was on the Board during the 2007-2008 academic year when the Freshwater affair blew up. He was defeated for re-election in 2009. After Hughes’ testimony the Board began its rebuttal case, which I’ll cover in another post over the weekend.

Forewarning: It is going to be difficult to write about Hughes’ testimony with a tolerably low level of snark. As you will read, in January 2010, after he was off the Board of Education, he gossiped with Freshwater at length about Board deliberations, about his speculation on which way one Board member would vote on the Freshwater matter, about his opinion of the Board’s attorney, David Millstone, and even apparently about a legally confidential employment settlement made with a former administrator several years ago. And he’s a practicing attorney! After hearing his testimony I wouldn’t hire him to search a title, say nothing of represent me in anything more serious.

Added in edit: I just realized that at the time Hughes was gossiping with Freshwater–January 2010–the Board of which he had until recently been a member was also a defendant in a federal suit brought by Freshwater in June 2009 while Hughes was on the Board!

More below the fold

A widely publicised paper published on May 7th 2010 announced that a first draft of the Neandertal genome from three individuals - 4 billion base pairs - had been sequenced (Green et al. 2010: A draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome). This was about two thirds of the entire Neanderthal genome. Even more sensationally, their findings seem to show convincingly that Neanderthals interbred with humans and that non-African modern humans contain between 1% and 4% of Neanderthal genes. Because Asians as well as Europeans have these Neanderthal genes, the researchers believe the most likely explanation is that the interbreeding occurred in the Middle East when modern humans first left Africa between 60,000 and 80,000 years ago, and before they expanded into the rest of the world.

A couple of weeks earlier, on April 20th, Nature had published an online article about results presented at a scientific conference by a group from New Mexico, but not yet released in the scientific literature (Dalton 2010: Neanderthals may have interbred with humans). Unlike the Green et al. paper, these researchers did not sequence Neanderthal genes directly and compare them with those of modern humans. Instead, they tried to explain the patterns of variation in gene sequences found in modern humans, and found that the patterns seemed to show humans had interbred with an archaic species at two different periods: around 60,000 years ago in the Middle East, and about 45,000 years ago in eastern Asia. The first of these periods would match up well with the time and place at which Green et al. claim human/Neanderthal interbreeding occurred. The second period might be showing that some humans bred with a late population of H. erectus or H. heidelbergensis in Asia.

The recent discovery of the “X woman” in southern Siberia might also be relevant here (Krause et al. 2010). This fossil, about 30,000-50,000 years old, was an insignificant-looking finger bone whose mitochondrial DNA was not only very different from any modern human, but even more different from humans than Neandertals are. Although we don’t know what its owner looked like or even what species it belonged to, it is striking evidence that some very genetically unusual people were living in Asia at about the same timeframe that the New Mexico group believes some archaic genes found their way into the human population.

Freshwater: Freshwater’s testimony ends

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Monday and Tuesday, June 7 and 8, saw Freshwater finish presenting his case and the Board begin its rebuttal. I’ll summarize the former here and the other defense witness and the Board’s rebuttal witnesses in another post. One note: While there were hopes the hearing would conclude on Tuesday we didn’t make it, and one more day, June 22, is scheduled to hear the one remaining witness for the rebuttal, Superintendent Steve Short.

Freshwater recross examination (continued)

You will recall that the hearing on Friday, June 4, ended in some confusion as the Board’s attorney, David Millstone, introduced an exhibit which was an affidavit Freshwater signed for the federal trial. R. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney, immediately advised Freshwater to answer no questions about it, citing the gag order issued by the federal court.

More below the fold

Photography contest, II

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Kodak Bantam 828, Kodak Signet 35 (l. to r.). The Kodachrome 64 is a mild anachronism.

This post announces the second (annual? Beginning to look that way) Panda’s Thumb photography contest. The winner(s) will receive a great deal of satisfaction and possibly a book.

Syrphidae

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Photograph by Greg Goebel.

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Syrphidae – hover fly or flower fly, Loveland, Colorado.

Can any reader identify this fly – that is, provide the correct binomial name (genus and species)?

Jonathan Sarfati, a particularly silly creationist, is quite thrilled — he's crowing about how he has caught Richard Dawkins in a fundamental error. The eye did not evolve, says Sarfati, because it is perfectly designed for its function, and Dawkins' suggestion that there might be something imperfect about it is wrong, wrong, wrong. He quotes Dawkins on the eye.

Freshwater: Board members, and the black bag

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Thursday and Friday, June 3 and 4, were trials to attend. In a hot stuffy room with R. Kelly Hamilton doing his plodding and scatter-shot questioning of Ian Watson, former Board President, in direct examination and later Freshwater in redirect, it was hard for the gallery to even stay awake, say nothing of pay attention. The referee again reiterated his hope that we would finish on Tuesday, June 8, but a last minute glitch at 4:30 p.m. on Friday may have put sand in that gear.

I’ll cover both days in this post, which sees us through Ian Watson’s testimony and back to Freshwater’s testimony, which has been in sporadic progress for six months. The latter has some stuff about another former Board member, Steve Hughes.

tl;dr warning: 4,200 words.

All Jews are cousins

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Not first cousins, perhaps, but fourth or fifth cousins, according to recent articles in Newsweek and the LA Times. In addition, it appears that the myth of The Thirteenth Tribe may have finally been put to rest.

Freshwater: A Teaser

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I won’t be able to write up the Thursday and Friday hearings for a while, but I have to report this weird occurrence today.

A strange thing happened at the end of the Freshwater hearing today. The Board’s attorney, David Millstone, was in recross of Freshwater. He introduced a document, Employer’s Exhibit 99, a single sheet of paper with text on both sides and a letterhead I couldn’t read from where I was. Freshwater’s attorney, R. Kelly Hamilton, immediately interjected that in light of the gag order recently issued by the federal court hearing the civil suit against Freshwater, he would advise Freshwater to answer no questions at all about the Exhibit. After some discussion, the referee, who had not read the gag order yet, decided that before he would rule on whether Freshwater would be allowed (or required) to testify concerning the Exhibit he would have to read the gag order and that Freshwater would have to consult his new attorneys. Recall that the first two attorneys retained by the insurance company successfully petitioned to withdraw a month ago and two new ones were retained a couple of weeks ago. So it was left at that until Freshwater could consult his new attorneys. Since it was 4:30 pm no more testimony was taken today.

After the palaver was done and the hearing was adjourned for the day, I approached the referee and asked if was legal for me to read Employer’s Exhibit 99. He looked at me and said, “I don’t know if it’s legal or illegal, but if you read it you may be into deeper waters than you can get out of.” I decided for the moment not to read it.

But I REALLY wonder what it is!

Freshwater: Hearing and Federal Court news

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There was action today in both the administrative hearing on John Freshwater’s termination and in the federal court hearing the civil suit against Freshwater brought by the Dennis family. I’ll briefly summarize both here–time constraints and other commitments will not allow me to write 5,000 well-chosen words tonight.

More below the fold

Lean back in your chair, fold your hands on your stomach, close your eyes, and smile. Now try to think of some incident that really made you furious. Probably you can’t do it, unless you erase that smile and frown. Alternatively, knot your fists, frown, and try to imagine an incident that made you extremely happy. You will probably start to smile or else not maintain the image.

Or try this: Think of a high-pitched beeeeeeep. You will probably feel your vocal cords contract to match the pitch. Now think of a low pitched BEEEEEEEP, and your vocal chords will relax to match that pitch.

These are examples of what the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls the somatic (bodily) response – in possibly oversimplified terms, you cannot feel an emotion unless, as Damasio says, you can literally feel it, if not in your gut, then in your body.

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