Cling to the dream

I’m one of Rachel Swirsky’s patrons on Patreon, so I get to read all these little stories, and you don’t. One of her latest is November, 2016 — One Dozen Counterfactuals for the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections, which consists of 12 alternate histories for how the past year could have turned out. I’m going to mention just one:

9. During the nomination stage, both Warren and Biden tossed their hats into the ring along with Sanders’ and Clinton’s. Exciting debates about how best to move forward with progressive policy led to a renaissance in thought. Intellectuals, activists, and community leaders were invited to lead vigorous discussion. Some – like Noam Chomsky – became candidates themselves. The ultimate winner’s name has been lost to history, as they insisted on giving collective credit to the movement which transformed the American political landscape into a pony-strewn rainbow meadow.

I think I’ll just lie back and pretend that one really happened, because the reality is too dystopian and vile.

Just for a little while, though. Because we have to wake up soon and fight back.

Even us sacrilegious jerks have limits

I got drawn into a Twitter conversation, because I am apparently the living manifestation of sacrilege. I actually wouldn’t object to my apotheosis as the god of god-hating, but even in that job, there are rules.

It started off with Madhusudan Katti objecting to an act of sacrilege by Jenniffer Lawrence.

The story of the Lawrence Heresy:

How do you define “sacred?” One simple answer: it’s something you keep your butt off. Jennifer Lawrence got that memo, but decided to disregard it. In a recent interview she recalls her “butt-scratchin’” on sacred rocks while shooting Hunger Games in Hawai’i. They were, to her mind, a useful tool to relieve her of itchiness.

In the comments, which she made on a recent episode of the BBC’s Graham Norton Show this week, she says: “There were … sacred … rocks — I dunno, they were ancestors, who knows — they were sacred.” She goes on to say: “You’re not supposed to sit on them, because you’re not supposed to expose your genitalia to them”. But she did. “I, however, was in a wetsuit for this whole shoot – oh my god, they were so good for butt itching!”

She knew this was a gross cultural breach – that much is clear – but Lawrence decided to go ahead and desecrate the rocks anyway.

Razib Khan seems to think this is an example of a double standard — people defended my act of sacrilege, so how can they find Jennifer Lawrence’s act offensive?

Katti notes some differences: Are you punching up or punching down? Are you disrespecting a whole culture or criticizing an intrusion of one culture into another?

Long story short, Katti’s right. I wouldn’t do that. I said over and over again during the whole Catholic wafer episode that what I was protesting was 1) the assumption that the Catholic church gets to control what I or anyone does in our private, secular spaces, and 2) the historically toxic influence of religion as a whole and Catholicism in particular on people around the world. Trashing a communion wafer turned out to be a surprisingly effective way of highlighting those problems without violating anyone’s rights or committing violence, and most of the effectiveness came not from my trivial act, but the exaggerated outrage from Catholics. It became quite clear that many people did want to control my beliefs in my home, and were willing to threaten violence to do it.

Catholics are free to practice and believe whatever they want in their spaces. Aside from finding their beliefs silly, I’m not going to outlaw communion or blow up churches (although I would like to tax them) or show up at church to disrupt their ceremonies. I will point out the sacred Catholic practice of sheltering pedophiles, of denying birth control to people, of buying up hospitals and then imposing arbitrary Catholic rules on medical practice, of just generally trying to tell non-Catholics how to live, are all examples of using their wealth and power to oppress others.

I find the idea of sacred stones rather silly, too. But I don’t find the native people of Hawaii to be silly, and do find them lacking in harmful intent. There’s nothing I (or Jennifer Lawrence) have to protest, even symbolically, about native Hawaiian culture; if anything, we have amends to make for our great big Western European butts rolling over and largely crushing their people, and wiping our butts further on little things they ask us to let them have is simply condescending, cruel, and wrong. If you go to someone’s house and they ask you to not sit in Grandpa’s favorite chair, do you then make it a point to reject their request and insist on taking that chair and only that chair for your entire visit?

Sure, if it’s a great and comfy chair buy one just like it for your house, and then you can complain if they try to reserve your sacred chair for their grandfather. But otherwise, show a little courtesy. It doesn’t do you any harm. Especially if you’re a hugely overpaid fabulous actor getting millions of dollars to play-act on a Hawaiian beach, and who can afford to buy their own non-sacred custom-designed butt-scratcher and hire a poor Hawaiian to haul it up and down the beach at your convenience. It’s just petty and rude to go out of your way to ‘defile’ a shared public resource simply because you can.

I am mighty!

I have heroically completed a small mountain of grading today. It is DONE. Only an optional final exam remains next Thursday (of course it is on a Thursday), but otherwise, I can stand atop this awesome pile of exams and lab reports and thump my chest and howl.

Except…and oh, how this rankles…five (5!) students forgot to write their names on the lab final exam — they must have been stressed out. Which means there are 5 gaping holes in my grade book, which means that, although these papers have been officially graded, I am unable to make the final step of actually entering them into the spreadsheet. There are holes in the grid. They pain me. Maybe I could randomly assign an unclaimed exam score to each student? Or average them together and give each one the average? Or just insert zeroes in there! Or (RAND*MaxScore)! Or (RAND*-MaxScore)! Anything to heal these wounds!

And the papers…they just squat there on my desk, frustrating ciphers demonstrating some knowledge of laboratory techniques, but unattached to any useful human. Maybe I should put my cat’s name there.

A cat that could carry out unit conversions and make up lab solutions and analyze spectrophotometer readings would be kind of useful.

The simulation hypothesis is a bad argument

Maki Naro and Matthew Francis make an interesting argument against the simulation hypothesis, the idea that we’re all constructs living in a super-duper computer program. I don’t believe in that nonsense at all, but I don’t know that I find his argument particularly persuasive: it rests largely on the idea that the simulation hypothesis implies that undesirable consequences must be the product of intent.


Then I look at the crude simulations we currently produce, like, say, Call of Duty, and I’d have to argue that yeah, if we were the creators of a universal simulator, it would be a shithole universe full of helpless innocents and murderous villains, all intended to be targets of a small number of privileged a-holes with superpowers, and I think that is kind of in alignment with what we see in this world.

I’d also worry about where that argument would lead: to the idea that obviously the wealthy and well-off are the player characters for whom the world was made, while being poor and sick and helpless clearly marks one as an NPC, with no real agency and only the simulated appearance of being a ‘real’ person.

What I find the more useful argument is to go back to the beginning of Naro’s comic, where he quotes Elon Musk:


That is the wrong question. He asserts The odds we’re in base reality is one in billions. Instead we should ask, “what simulated ass did you pull those odds out of?”, because he’s got no rational justification for that claim. We could just as well claim that since we can imagine billions of gods, the odds that we evolved by way of natural mechanisms, rather than some divine fiat, is one in billions. It’s simply faulty reasoning. The responsibility does not lie on me to show why his fantasy is false, it’s on him and Nick Bostrom to demonstrate some actual evidence that it is true.

Then, of course, there’s some babbling about how if the simulation hypothesis is true, we should look for glitches in the matrix, little examples deep inside physics where we detect violations of natural law. This is exactly backwards. First you find observations that don’t fit predictions from existing theory, then you develop alternative theories to accommodate those observations — you don’t first invent an unfounded hypothesis and demand expensive, difficult, unlikely-to-succeed experiments to justify it. Especially since the simulation hypothesis is infinitely flexible and can be contorted to fit any observation made. Is there anything the promoters of this bullshit can imagine that would disprove their hypothesis? That’s what they ought to be discussing, rather than how they can twist quantum physics to support their model.

Then there’s this:


While being completely unable to imagine any test of their idea, and building it entirely on a framework of speculation, they still lock themselves into a bogus binary: civilizations will either be able to simulate a universe, or they’ll go extinct. Seriously, dude? You’re living in a non-extinct civilization that can’t simulate a universe, and you can’t imagine any other alternatives?

I also have to point out that all civilizations and species will ultimately go extinct, so this argument is basically between an inevitable and unavoidable (if undesirable) outcome, and accepting your personal, idiosyncratic, weird notion. No problem.

“You should hope that I’m right, because either we’re going to build a chrysalis made of the skins of kitty cats and puppy dogs and metamorphose into angelic beings of pure light, or you’re going to die someday.” I don’t like it, but we’re all going to die someday, and going on a rampage and slaughtering kittens and puppies is not a logical alternative at all.

One thing Naro’s comic does illustrate well, though, is the elitist psychology of tech billionaires.

I get email

Oh, joy. It’s a proof-of-god email.

I have proof that there is a God. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I think you are a good person who is confused. I worry for your salvation. I think the fact that as humans we share the same biology proves there’s a God. Think about it, there are racist, sexist and bigots, all who miss this point. But to God he gave us the same biology.

There is a saying “you think your shit don’t stink?” But to God everyones shit stinks. Which is the point, that were all equal in his eyes. That’s why he made humans shit and he added humor by making shit stink.

I call this your shit stinks theory proof of God. If there was no God than the queen of England wouldn’t shit. People of high status wouldn’t shit, and they would be categorically better that the rest of the shitters. Yet god made all living things shit for the most part. This is the clue he gave us of his existence. Yet people keep missing this part. If your Indian you shit, if your white you shit, if you’re an attractive woman you shit, if you’re a conservative you shit and if you’re a billionaire you shit. No matter what class of person you are your shit stink.

This can’t be a coincidence. Theologians are to polite to say this. It’s not politically correct. I know this is proof of God. I think once you think about this you will see the light Mr Myers and give yourself to Jesus. Please let me know if you convert to Christianity as a result of this proof.

I didn’t.

Alternative observation: plants don’t shit. Therefore, all the flowers are independent, godless, evolved entities.

Alternative explanation: shitting is a consequence of having a digestive tract, that is, being a particular kind of heterotroph, and the production of waste material is a necessary consequence of inefficiencies in the digestion of consumed material. We are all descendants of creatures with digestive tracts, which sufficiently explains the shared attribute without invoking supernatural entities.

Further observation: this approach will not work on the kind of person who will consider your joke seriously and dissect it dispassionately. Especially not on a day on which he is kind of grouchy.

Which is every day.

It’s Horrible Thursday again

The good news: it’s the last Horrible Thursday of the semester!

The bad news: it’s particularly horrible. On top of the usual day-long load, add 5 hours of phone interview work.

The worse news: looking ahead to next semester, it seems I’ll get another Horrible Thursday, with a Horrible Tuesday, too.

So that you share my mood, here is the 2016 Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog.

C-sections haven’t been shown to change human evolution

Everyone and their mother is sending me this story today: C-sections May Be Changing the Course of Evolution.

Rates of caesarean section are increasing in countries like the U.S. and the U.K. and a new study suggests that more and more women need the surgery because of their narrow pelvis size — a trait that evolution would, in theory, have weeded out.

For the paper, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers used data from the World Health Organization and other large birth studies and determined that cases where the baby is too big for the birth canal — a.k.a. obstructed birth — have increased from about 30 per 1,000 in the 1960 to 36 per 1,000 today.

I say the paper doesn’t show a causal relationship.

Has the rise in C-sections affected human evolution? This scientist predicts yes.

Human ingenuity increasingly allows us to fight back against “natural selection” and, in effect, influence the path of our own evolution.

Take Cesarean sections, the procedure in which babies are born via surgical incision rather than through the mother’s birth canal. Some form of the procedure has been around for hundreds of years, but only in the past few decades has it become commonplace.

In the US, C-sections now account for 30 percent of all births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But back in 1970, that figure was around 5 percent. So while C-sections have only been widely available to mothers for just a couple of generations, already scientists are speculating that the procedure is affecting human evolution.

This scientist says probably not.

The paper itself argues for obstetric selection in humans.

Compared with other primates, human childbirth is difficult because the fetus is large relative to the maternal pelvic canal. It is a long-standing evolutionary puzzle why the pelvis has not evolved to be wider, thus reducing the risk of obstructed labor. We present a mathematical model that explains the high rates of fetopelvic disproportion by the discrepancy between a wide symmetric phenotype distribution and an asymmetric, “cliff-edged” fitness function. Only weak selection for a large newborn, a narrow pelvis, or both is necessary to account for the high incidence of fetopelvic disproportion. Because the regular use of Caesarean sections has reduced maternal mortality, the model predicts an evolutionary response of fetal or maternal dimensions, increasing the rates of fetopelvic disproportion.

Nah, not buying it.

Actually, they do do what they say: they present a mathematical model of how a disparity between head size and pelvic canal size could hypothetically lead to a selection effect, given a particular frequency of disproportion. They don’t actually measure or observe anything, though. They pull together a number of factors, like the heritability of pelvic and head size, and estimates of the frequency of serious birthing difficulties, etc., all of which show a wide range of reported values, and then put together an abstract series of calculations to show that hey, this could potentially have an effect. That’s it. Don’t panic. We’re not looking at an imminent future of bulbous-headed babies and pencil-hipped women because we’ve removed an important constraint on selection.

Without criticizing their calculations, I have to point out that their assumptions (which to their credit they do note) are faulty. You can’t assume from the frequency of Caesarian sections that there is an equivalent frequency of pelvic diameter – fetal head size disparity. C-sections are an extremely indirect measure of that parameter, one that is prone to all kinds of irrelevant noise…I mean, cultural influences.

Here, for instance, is the frequency of c-sections by country.


Do you think Turkey and Mexico have huge numbers of giant-skulled babies straining to burst out of their slender-boned mommas? Or that in Sweden and the Netherlands they have more pin-headed babies that slip lightly from their mothers’ gargantuan hips?

Or maybe, just maybe, some significant number of c-sections are unnecessary surgeries, and the differences represent nothing but different biases in medical practice? (However, if your doctor advises that you need one, don’t let this fact dissuade you. You might be one of the people who really, really needs a c-section.)

The World Health Organization has reported that in many countries, c-sections are done at an excessive rate, and that above a certain level, c-sections do not reduce negative effects.

Several studies have shown an inverse association between CS rates and maternal and infant mortality at population level in low income countries where large sectors of the population lack access to basic obstetric care. On the other hand, CS rates above a certain limit have not shown additional benefit for the mother or the baby, and some studies have even shown that high CS rates could be linked to negative consequences in maternal and child heath.

Bearing in mind that in 1985 the World Health Organization (WHO) stated: “There is no justification for any region to have CS rates higher than 10-15%”, we set out to update previous published estimates of CS rates worldwide, and calculate the additional number of CS that would be necessary in those countries with low national rates as well as the number of CS in excess in countries in which CS is overused.

This means that c-section frequency is a really bad proxy for a selection pressure. Note also that the United States’ c-section rate is well above the reasonable frequency. That 25% increase in the rate here probably does not represent any significant change in the degree of selection going on.

The math is nice, but it’s poorly rooted in any real biological phenomenon. Although it turns out that making predictions about evolving babies is a good way to get oodles of press.

One nice thing about being a target of hate

I sometimes find myself in very good company.

Jessica Valenti, Lindy West, and…me? Gosh, thanks. I’m flattered.

Also, while it’s not really personal, the Daily Stormer wants to murder people like me. They’ve provided a helpful list for Trump’s right-wing death squads to kill, including:

  1. Lying journalists (where “lying” is defined as opposing Right-Wing Death Squads, I guess)
  2. Political opponents
  3. Human rights activists
  4. Legal immigrants
  5. Liberal university professors (that’s me!)
  6. Filthy sluts (basically, any woman who has sex)
  7. Artists and musicians

Strangely, this list isn’t tagged as “satire”. Instead, it’s got this odd note at the end.

Editor’s note: This is in no way a call for violence or murder. This is a policy position paper in the form of a listicle. The Daily Stormer is opposed to violence, and simply supports the practical implementation of innovative policies which will lead to a great America.

Oh. They’re opposed to violence, it’s just that as a matter of policy they want me executed by roving squads of extra-judicial politically-motivated assassins. Got it. That makes it all better.

But hey, it’s gratifying be classed as an enemy of the oppressive state along with artists and human rights activists and women and all those other decent people. I’ll take it. I wouldn’t want to be a member of a class that had the approval of the Daily Stormer, after all.