The Conundrum

The three topics I most want to talk about – my research, teaching, and grad school – are the three topics I can’t talk about.

I can’t talk about my research because part of my data comes from public databases, which means it would be easy for other scientists to scoop me if I even explain what general questions I’m investigating.

I can’t talk about teaching because of student confidentiality. I also don’t want my students to read me critiquing certain aspects of the class, which will cause a nightmare for the people running the class. And I don’t want my students to take it personally when I lament the holes in their education that should have been filled back in middle school if our education system wasn’t so terrible.

And I can’t discuss how I currently feel about grad school out of fear of the social repercussions. I don’t want my personal situation or feelings to be seen as airing dirty laundry or universal statements about my department or field. I don’t want to be labeled as a problem before graduation, let alone tenure.

Even writing this makes me feel uneasy, because I don’t want anyone to think people are purposefully silencing me or telling me what I can or can’t write. No one has confronted me. I’m just scared of the hidden social consequences within academia.

I can wait 8 years to get tenure, right? Well, I’d have to find those increasingly rare post docs and faculty positions first, so maybe I won’t have to wait so long since I’ll have been pushed out of academia by the horrible job market alone.

Sigh.

Happy Darwin Day!

It’s my annual excuse to post my favorite Darwin related image:

Unfortunately I don’t have time to write up a substantial Darwin-themed post… ironically because I’ve been working on a group presentation for my Philosophy of the Genome class on the eclipse of Darwinism and the following modern evolutionary synthesis.

Are any of you taking part in Darwin Day celebrations?

Indiana high schoolers want to ban gays from prom

It seems like not much has changed since I was an Indiana high school student:

A team of Valley high schoolers and parents rally for a separate prom that bans gays.

NBC 2′s Paige Preusse reports how Sullivan High School says there’s nothing legally they can do to allow it… several students and parents are taking matters into their own hands.

Several parents, students, and others who believe gays should be banned from the Sullivan High School prom met Sunday at the Sullivan First Christian Church.

“We don’t agree with it and it’s offensive to us,” said Diana Medley.

Their idea is to create their own separate…traditional prom. Students say there are several others from their high school who agree, but are afraid to take a stand.

“If we can get a good prom then we can convince more people to come and follow what they believe,” said student Kynon Johnson.

And now they want everyone to know where they stand.

“We want to make the public see that we love the homosexuals, but we don’t think it’s right nor should it be accepted,” said a local student.

We love you…but you’re offensive, wrong, and shouldn’t be accepted. Um, that’s kind of the antithesis of love, guys.

Diana Medley is a special education teacher in town. She doesn’t believe anyone is born gay.

“I believe that it was life circumstances and they chose to be that way; God created everyone equal,” said Medley.

“Homosexual students come to me with their problems, and I don’t agree with them, but I care about them. It’s the same thing with my special needs kids, I think God puts everyone in our lives for a reason,” said Madley.

“‘So the same goes for gays? Do you think they have a purpose in life?’ No I honestly don’t. Sorry, but I don’t. I don’t understand it. A gay person isn’t going to come up and make some change unless it’s to realize that it was a choice and they’re choosing God,” said Medley.

Your gay students have no purpose in life? That’s how you “care” about someone? This is how you talk about your students who are coming to you for fucking help? I can only hope that she’s not pushing her “you must choose God” bullshit on the special ed students trapped in her classroom.

Several local pastors support the separate prom movement.

“Christians have always been prepared for a fight. Jesus gave us armor for the front, not the back; we’re not running anymore,” said Bill Phegley with Carlisle Church.

Are you fucking kidding me? This is all about how the poor little Christians are being persecuted when you’re the ones banning LGBT students?!

If the thought of a girl dancing with a girl or a guy dancing with a guy unnerves you that much, that’s you’re fucking problem. Don’t go to prom. You don’t get to ban people because they give you the willies because we have separation of church and state in this country, which means you can keep your stupid fucking ass-backwards delusions to yourself and not force it on your fellow students.

Yeah, I’m mad. This pisses me off more than usual. You know why? Because I spent my high school years desperately defending my LGBT friends. When I overheard people saying “that’s gay” as an insult or calling someone a fag, I was the first to step in and tell them that it was offensive and unacceptable. When I was standing in lunch line and people would be talking about how disgusting my lesbian friends were, oblivious that I was friends with those ‘fucking dykes,” you know what I did? I spoke up. I told them they were fucking bigots and if they had a problem with my friends, they had a problem with me. And they shrunk into silenced fear in front of me, only to spread rumors that I was obviously a lesbian throughout the whole school. As if that would insult me.

When my lesbian friend wanted to start a Gay Straight Alliance to combat the constant bullying she faced from other students, I was the VP so I could do everything to help her organize. And she needed all the help she could get, since no one else wanted to help her. No teachers would be the adviser for the club because it was career suicide. The principal wouldn’t allow us to be an official group because we were “non-academic” and if he let us in, he’d have to let in other non-academic clubs like a “Nazi group” (his example). This was despite the fact that my high school already had plenty of non-academic clubs.

When my friend’s mom threatened to sue their asses off since what they were doing was blatantly illegal, the principal eased off…a little. He let us meet in a side room of the library, but wouldn’t let us be an official club. He let us put up flyers advertising our meetings, but the flyers couldn’t contain the words “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” “GLBT,” “sex,” or “sexual orientation” because they were “inappropriate for high school students.” When we came to our meetings, most of the time the librarians purposefully locked us out so we wouldn’t be able to meet. When we complained, nothing happened. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, on the other hand, got plenty of meeting space and was allowed to freely advertise throughout the school despite technically being “unofficial.”

And when prom rolled around, they wouldn’t sell my friend and her girlfriend a couple’s ticket because those were only for “real couples” – aka a boy and a girl – because they didn’t want two female friends buddying up to just get a discounted rate. Instead they would have to buy more expensive individual tickets if they wanted to go, and would not get any of the couple ticket benefits (a balloon with your names on it, a couple photo, and basic fucking dignity).

Instead they told the school to go fuck themselves and went to a Star Wars convention, where they were accepted and had a blast.

My lesbian friends were the lucky ones. They were able to be out because they had supportive parents, and also because lesbianism is often more accepted. Especially when you happen to be really attractive lesbians, so all the bigoted straight dudes in the school can sexually objectify you instead of only bullying you. But my gay male friends? They were all hidden in the closet, and terrified at being outed. They might have been out to a couple close friends, but I found so many of my classmates coming out once they had escaped to college. It made me sadder. If I had known what those people were feeling in high school, I would have been an ally to them too.

And you know why I’m still so angry? Because even though I graduated 7 years ago, and even though students have been desperately trying to form a GSA every one of those years, they are still being stonewalled by the school administration. There’s still no GSA and students are still constantly bullied because of their sexual orientation. And this is in a town that’s part of the “liberal” part of Indiana.

And the Christian students are the ones who are being persecuted?

Why did I do all of these things? Why did I care so passionately about gay rights even though it didn’t personally affect me? Not because my parents “brainwashed” me to support gay rights or subscribe to some liberal agenda. We never discussed the topic, honestly. My parents just taught me to be a person who is kind to others. That’s all.

It saddens me that these Christian students have been taught to hate instead.

I’ve figured out why the Vatican hoards its wealth!

St. Peter’s Basilica is not actually named that because of its architecture, but for the Basilisk living beneath it! Lore tells of Basilisks converting various substances into gold, which explains the Vatican’s enormous wealth!! It also explains why they’re so reluctant to give the wealth away, because the evil Basilisk will turn the Pope into stone as revenge!!!! Quick, we need to find a wizard and a goblin forged blade!!!!!!!!!!!!

Wait. I think I’m crossing my mythologies. Catholics don’t believe in silly things like Basilisks or goblins. They believe in crackers that magically turn into flesh and people rising from the dead. My bad, it’s all so confusing. I blame the NyQuil.

How about we sell the Vatican instead?

I have a feeling Catholics won’t like my solution to their monetary problems. But you see, times are tough. The LA Archdiocese alone has lost $660 million to those pesky victims of child rape. This is their solution:

The non-profit Guidance in Giving lists the Los Angeles-area Catholic Church among its “diocesan accounts” and says it is exploring a campaign to raise $200 million for the diocese to meet “a variety of needs,” including “priests’ retirement, seminarian education, Catholic schools, Catholic Charities and parish needs.”

The archdiocese did not respond to NBC queries in time for publication, but a church spokesman acknowledged the possible campaign to the Los Angeles Times, which first reported it.

In 2007, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to a $660 million settlement with 562 victims of abuse by priests and other church personnel. According to the Times, financial reports show that the church remains $80 million in debt.

Yes, a $200 million fundraiser. Presumably these funds would be donated from Catholic constituents, who obviously have no better way to spend their money than giving it to a church that’s been covering up hundreds of cases of child rape by priests. Food? Clothing? Housing? Education? Meh, what’s more important than avoiding the threat eternal damnation in a lake of fire?

Not coercive at all, nope.

But here’s an idea. Instead of relying on poor and middle class Catholics to save your child-molesting ass, why not get help from the head honcho? The Vatican’s worth is somewhere between 10 and 15 billion dollars. To save the Los Angeles diocese, the Vatican would have to sell a couple pieces from their mind bogglingly enormous art collection or maybe melt down a couple of the solid gold objects that are just lying around St. Peter’s Basilica.

Oddly enough, the Vatican seems more interested in hoarding its wealth than sharing it. They’ve previously been exempt from about a billion dollars of taxes annually, though that might soon change. And if you’ve ever been to the Vatican, seeing the wealth is amazing. I was lucky enough to visit Rome when I was 12, after visiting my aging Greek relatives in Athens for the first time. When I went to the Vatican with my parents, my main reactions were:

  1. Huh, the Sistine Chapel is smaller than I expected.
  2. Why do I have to wear a stupid dress when the guys get to wear pants?
  3. This is beautiful, but do they really need this much money when there are homeless people begging for food right outside the doors?

I must be missing something.

Pokébiology 101: “Evolution” and the enigma of Eevee

PokebiologySmall

(Click here for the introductory post to Pokébiology 101)

You know I had to start my Pokébiology 101 series with the most famously scientifically inaccurate part of Pokémon: evolution.

In the Pokémon world, “evolution” means something different from what you might have learned in your biology classes. …Well, what you should have learned in your biology classes, assuming the religious right failed to push their agenda into your science classroom. Pokémon evolution is when a Pokémon transforms into a different looking creature once some criterion is met. Most often this means reaching a certain level (levels increase as you gain experience, experience comes from participating in battles). Some Pokémon evolve under weirder circumstances like being exposed to a particular item, being traded to another player, reaching a certain level of happiness, and so on.

For example, a Bulbasaur evolves into an Ivysaur at level 16, and an Ivysaur evolves into a Venusaur at level 32.

BulbasaurEvolution

This is not evolution. This is metamorphosis.

What’s the difference? Why are Pokémon actually metamorphosing, and not evolving? They both imply some sort of change is taking place, which is why the terms are so easily confused. But there’s a major difference in when and where that change happens:

  • Metamorphosis is the change in body structure of an individual that happens conspicuously and abruptly during their lifetime. The most common real world example is a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. This is exactly what happens in the Pokémon world. Well, instead of forming a cocoon, Pokémon flash a bright light and make cheery beeping noises…but I’m going to chalk that up to the games being from the point of view of a ten year old with an overactive imagination. Wee, shiny!
  • Evolution is the change in heritable characteristics of a population over successive generations. A characteristic is heritable if it is genetic, and thus will get passed on from parent to offspring, and from that offspring to its offspring, and so on. The key here is that this change happens over many generations and affects the whole population.

What would be a hypothetical example of actual evolution in the Pokémon world? Let’s say we’ve stumbled upon a population of Venusaurs in some jungle untouched by Pokémon trainers. Most  Venusaurs have pink flowers, but a rare individual has a gold flower because of a mutation. In case you’re wondering, this alternative color scheme exists in-game and is known as a “shiny,” and shiny Pokémon are incredibly rare. Like, “I’ve probably played 1000 cumulative hours of Pokémon games and I only found one shiny Sentret a decade ago” rare.

shinyven1

Now, let’s say that shiny Venusaur is very successful in producing a lot of baby Bulbasaurs for whatever reason. Maybe gold flowers attract more prey, so shiny Venusaur is well fed and can have more babies (directional selection). Maybe other Venusaurs find the rare gold flower extra sexy, so shiny Venusaur has more mates and thus more babies (sexual selection). Maybe it’s all due to random chance and shiny Venusaur just gets lucky (genetic drift). When that generation of Bulbasaurs grows up, the new generation of Venusaurs might look something like this:

shinyven2

If we’re still around to observe this population many generations later, it may look like this:

shinyven3

The shiny trait has now become “fixed” in the population – that is, every individual now has the gold flower. Now the population of Venusaurs looks different than it used to – and that is evolution! If this population is isolated from other Venusaurs and continues to evolve novel traits, one day this population might be so different that it can’t even mate with other Venusaurs anymore. And that, folks, is when you have a new species.

But back to metamorphosis. The common caterpillar example is linear: a caterpillar makes a cocoon and becomes a butterfly. But not all Pokémon have a set fate. I give you the most enigmatic example, Eevee.

eevee-evolutions

Eevee is special in the world of Pokémon because it has the largest number of ways it can evolve depending on your actions. Want a Flareon? Give Eevee a Fire Stone. Espeon? Make Eevee very happy and level up during the morning or day. Leafeon? Level up while near a mossy rock.

It seems like this couldn’t possibly exist within the confines of our natural world, right? How does an Eevee have the ability to metamorphose into such different creatures just from what its exposed to in the environment? How can a Vaporeon, Jolteon, Flareon, Espeon, Umbreon, Glaceon, and Leafeon all have the same genome as their starting Eevee, but such different traits?

Not to erode Eevee’s specialness, but this happens right here on Earth.

This is known as polyphenism: when multiple discrete phenotypes (a set of observable characteristics) can come from the same genetic background because of differences in the environment. The most common example is different castes in bees. You may know that within a hive, one female gets to be the queen bee, and the other females are worker bees. A queen bee is made by feeding a larvae what’s known as “royal jelly,” which contains chemicals that alter the larvae’s development. If that larvae has a twin sister that didn’t get a special meal, sis will grow up to be a worker. They’re genetically identical, but very different thanks to their environment.

The only thing distinguishing bees from Eevees are the number of choices in development.

eeveebee2

In which I speculate on what would happen if you gave a bee a Fire Stone or Macho Brace.

It will forever irritate me that the game designers chose the term “evolution” instead of a totally accurate, also cool-sounding alternative word. My best guess is that “Bulbasaur is metamorphosing” took up too many pixels, so “evolving” won out. Sadly, this kind of sloppy terminology can cause a lot of misconceptions about what evolution really means. But hopefully now that you’ve learned some Pokébiology, you’re less confused.

EvolveMankey

 

So confused.

Obama caves to religious pressure on birth control debate

Atheist feminist rage activated:

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said the proposal would guarantee free coverage of birth control “while respecting religious concerns.”

Churches and religious organizations that object to providing birth control coverage on religious grounds would not have to pay for it.

Under the proposal, female employees could get free birth control coverage through a separate plan that would be provided by a health insurer. The institution objecting to the coverage would not pay for the contraceptives. The costs would instead be paid by the insurance company, with the possibility of recouping the costs through lower health care expenses resulting in part from fewer births.

Sigh.

Look, I know that in the grand scheme of things, women will still receive their free birth control even if their employers decide its their prerogative to force their religious beliefs on their employees. At least the Obama administration hasn’t completely fucked over women in this situation.

But it’s the principle of the matter. Religious organizations should not receive special privileges from the government since that explicitly violates the first amendment. These religious organizations love to cry that they’re the ones defended by the first amendment, but that’s false. If you’re religious and your health insurance covers birth control, no one is forcing you to use that birth control. If an employer doesn’t want their employees using birth control, tough shit. You don’t get to enforce your religious beliefs on others.

The only reason this is even a debate is because Catholics make up a substantial part of the US population so they’re able to cause a bigger stink. If a Jehovah’s Witness employer wanted to ban all of their employees from ever receiving blood transfusions, would Obama have caved? If a Muslim employer decides you can’t spend any of your paycheck on pork products, would that have been okay? Religious organizations should have to pay for birth control coverage just like every other organization instead of receiving special privileges. Instead, religious organizations threw a temper tantrum and Obama responded by buying them metaphorical ice cream.