Apr 16 2014

“Coming Out Atheist” is coming out now

Greta Christina’s new book, “Coming Out Atheist”, is now available. Get yourself a copy!

I’m hoping there will be some at the American Atheists convention this weekend in Salt Lake City. I’ll be speaking there, Greta will be speaking there (as will Sikivu, Matt, and Maryam) so I should be able to track one down, right? And get it signed?

And everyone else is going too, I presume? I’ll see you all in Salt Lake City, I arrive tomorrow afternoon!

(Warning: I’m doing one of my science talks. Don’t get too bored.)

Apr 16 2014

As promised, Fox News is whining about me

I told you some guy called me for an interview about the horrible crime committed on the UMM campus: the presumed ‘theft’ of some free newspapers from a conservative organization. They say I now advocate censorship of conservative student newspaper, which is a fine twist on the affair.

Their description of the newspaper was particularly enlightening about Fox dishonesty.

That particular edition included a satire on affirmative action. The professor said the paper was mocking minority students.

Not quite accurate. I pointed out that their mockery crossed a rather nasty line; it had gone beyond mere ‘satire’ into the realm of advocating racism. It included direct accusations that faculty and administrators were racist because they endorsed affirmative action and were committed to correcting historical injustices. And this was the final straw for me, that it included:

…a crime scene photo of Trayvon Martin’s dead face, with the caption Trayvon Martin, victim of racism and fascism, and what does [administrator] have to say about it? Nothing. Not a single thing.

And with that, they have crossed a line. Free speech is one thing, making light of murder and claiming that our chancellor of student affairs excuses it is another. Using dead black boys to “satirize” equality is contemptible. I would advocate the disposal of their flyers if the Ku Klux Klan started papering our campus, and likewise, the North Star has worn out its welcome and must go. Treat their scattered papers as hate-filled trash and dispose of it appropriately.

If Todd Starnes thinks old-fashioned race-baiting, libel against faculty and staff, flaunting the face of murdered black people to intimidate and horrify students, and lying about crimes is merely an implicit part of the conservative agenda, then yes, I advocate kicking such behavior off campus altogether. But then, I guess that’s what conservativism has become nowadays.

We had an incident a while back in which racist signs were posted in one of the dorms; there was no question but that they were disposed of and an effort made to discover who was responsible. The North Star newspaper is simply the fancier version of those crudities, and should be removed from campus in the same way; and we already, in this case, know who was responsible.

Two other points: I can find old copies of the North Star in the science building hallways, still — copies from several months ago. The University Register, which is the official campus paper, gets routinely cleaned up each week — I don’t think I’d be able to find a copy of last week’s paper anywhere. I question whether this ‘theft’ even occurred, and wonder whether this is just a publicity stunt for self-martyred Breitbart wanna-bes; I also wonder whether their threats are inhibiting people from doing standard clean up around campus.

Finally, just a hint to the North Star: if you have to slap a great big warning on every issue and just about every page that your newspaper may contain satire, you aren’t doing satire right.

Apr 15 2014

I’ve never crashed an Estonian poll before

Kas toetate sooneutraalset kooseluseadust?

Jah 51.58%
Ei 47.3%
Puudub arvamus 1.12%

You know what to do.

(Oh, you want a hint? “Do you support gender-neutral cohabitation law?” Jah, yes; Ei, No: Puudub arvamus, no opinion. You’ll have to figure out your opinion on your own. Hääleta!)

Apr 15 2014

Here’s something else oppressing Ken Ham

He hates Tiktaalik. He hates it so much he even has a hard time spelling its name correctly.

Tikaalik is again being popularized through the new PBS series "Your Inner Fish.” it’s really a desperate con job on the part of evolutionists who can’t defend their evolutionary fictional story.

He actually surprises me a little bit: one of his arguments that it can’t possibly be a transitional form is that it is only a fossil. That’s one I hadn’t heard before. So extinct species can’t be evidence for evolution anymore, because only living species count?

Because it belongs to the group of lobe finned fishes (like Coelacanth /lung fish), and is only found as a fossil, the secularists force their evolutionary worldview onto this fossil in their desperate need to try to convince the world they have found a transitional form (when in reality such transitional forms should be abundant both fossilized and living).

I have heard creationists tell me, though, that extant forms can’t be ancestral (obviously), therefore living examples of intermediate forms can’t be used as evidence for evolution, either. That leads to perfect, irrefutable arguments for creationists.

Evilutionist: “The shared expression of Sonic Hedgehog and it’s homologous role in limb development in the limbs of different forms is evidence of common desc…”

Creationist: Doesn’t count. It’s alive. Are you trying to pretend that modern limbs are ancestral forms? God clearly created it that way.

Evilutionist: “OK, here’s Tiktaalik with limbs that exhibit a bony core of homologous…”

Creationist: Doesn’t count. It’s dead. Transitional forms have to be living creatures.

Evilutionist: <stunned into silence by the stupidity>

Seriously, reading anything by Ken Ham is discombobulating.

They claim that Tiktaalik is the link between fish and “terrestrial tetrapods”—four legged animals that walk on land. Tiktaalik’s discoverer Neil Shubin even calls his big fish a “fishapod” to emphasize his belief that it is a transitional form. (Most people hearing about Tiktaalik even think it had limbs, but it didn’t—it just had fins, like fish do. Having a special kind of fins with bones in them—as lobe-finned fish do—did not mean they were legs or limbs.)

Having a special kind of fins with bones in them…but, but, but — that’s what makes them transitional. They have a combination of characteristics of the fins of fish and the limbs of tetrapods, being neither quite one of the other. Once again, we enter the realm of Catch-22.


Evilutionist: “Here’s the Tiktaalik limb. It’s got these internal bones, unlike a fish fin, that are similar in organization to our limb bones…”

Creationist: Then it’s a land animal. Case closed.

Evilutionist: “But it wasn’t strong enough or anatomically capable of actually walking on land, and it’s got traces of membranous fins…”

Creationist: Then it’s a fish. Case closed. It’s got to be one or the other, because transitional forms don’t exist, therefore I say it’s all fish.

Evilutionist: <wondering why she is wasting time with this idiot>

It wouldn’t be a Ken Ham rationalization if it didn’t drag out his usual claim that both the evilutionist and the creationist are using the same data, and only differ in the worldview they use to interpret it.

All this talk about Tiktaalik is also a reminder that the battle is not ultimately about evidence–Liz Mitchell and the evolutionists are looking at the same fossil. It’s not the fossil that’s different–it’s the worldview one has (and the starting point it is built from–God’s Word or man’s word) the determines how one interprets this fossil in regard to the past. But looking at the fossil, one can see it won’t directly fit into an evolutionary worldview–but it does fit directly into a worldview based on the Bible, as it is a particular type of fish for which we have similar types of living examples (e.g. Coelacanth ).

But we aren’t using the same data. The scientist is using the totality of the data, looking at both similarities and differences, to try and account for its place in history and biology. The creationist, as Ham has just clearly demonstrated, handwaves away all the unique characters of the fossil to claim it’s just like a coelacanth or a lungfish — he is explicitly ignoring any datum that contradicts his presupposition that it must be just another fish.

And then to take it that extra step further, and argue that his naive vision of what Tiktaalik was, stripped of all of its significant and unique characters, is somehow evidence for creationism that contradicts its clear evolutionary niche…

Evilutionist: “Holy crap…you’re an idiot, Creationist. Go away.”

Apr 15 2014

Ken Ham gets his wish

Poor ol’ Ken has been feeling oppressed lately — there was that Noah movie (unbiblical!) and this Cosmos series (godless!), and it was so unfair. Where was the Cosmos show that gave equal time to the one true Biblical story of the universe?

He gets his wish at last. Here it is, Creationist Cosmos.

I hope he’s satisfied now.

Apr 15 2014

Science conspires to make me feel really old now

Virginia Hughes tells us about techniques to look inside the zebrafish brain. The gang at HHMI are using two photon imaging and clever image analysis to get very clear, sharp images of fluorescent neurons.

Oy, that’s pretty. This old codger did some of that stuff, many years ago, but you know what we had to do? Point injections of tracer dyes, followed by serial sectioning and reconstruction. Early on we use injections of horseradish peroxidase into, for instance, the muscle, so that neurons in transit through the lesion site would pick up the enzyme…and then we’d have to fix and process the animals with a series of reagents to visualize the stuff. Then you’d have to section the animal — I think I spent most of my graduate years hunched over either a vibratome or an ultramicrotome. This technique was hit-or-miss, so you’d only get a subset of neurons labeled, and you’d have to do it over and over hundreds or thousands of times to get a good sampling. Later we started using lineage tracer dyes like rhodamine dextran, and later still lipophilic dyes like Di-I, to get fluorescent images that allowed us to skip the tedium of sectioning, but it was still haphazard labeling. If you tried to label everything, you got a glowing blob with no ability to sort out the fibers and cells.

And even then, we used early generation intensified cameras to pick it up! Imagine those grainy images from the night-vision cameras CNN would use during the Gulf War, all stored on VHS tapes. That’s what we had. None of these lasers and all digital storage at high resolution, and computers that automatically optically scan through to produce a 3D image.

It’s like seeing a few years of your work reproduced in an afternoon by some cocky young whippersnapper with a fancy machine, all a bit John Henry.

Being really close to the work sometimes helps, though. Hughes recites a number, that there are 300,000 neurons in the zebrafish brain. I did some of that work, too — I did counts of cells in the spinal cord, which involved doing many sections and counting and measuring cells in each, to get an estimate of average cell volume, and then measuring the dimensions of the organ in question, so you could calculate the number of cells present. I did the spinal cord measurements: there were about 100,000 cells in there. That number is an overestimate of the number of neurons, though, because I know that many of the cells I was counting were neuroblasts and glia and other oddments, and we didn’t have a robust way of distinguishing neuronal elements from others.

Give me a two-photon scope, a big computer, and a collection of molecular probes for various cell types, though, and I’d be happy to re-analyze that data. It would probably take a few days. OK, and a few months of learning how to use the complicated new toys.

Apr 15 2014

Know any philatelic homophobes?

You can blow their minds now. The US has released a commemorative stamp honoring Harvey Milk, which is a great step forward.

But we’ve been totally eclipsed by Finland, which has just created Tom of Finland stamps.

I have to say, though, that Tom of Finland makes me vaguely uncomfortable — not because of the open homosexuality, but because his drawings of men are so objectifying and sexually idealized, and I know that I can not, have not, do not, and never will look anything like them. They are the masculinized version of the airbrushed/photoshopped women’s magazine cover, and I can see how if these kinds of men were as ubiquitous as the plasticized-sexified images of women in advertising, I might feel a bit intimidated.

Apr 15 2014

What will you do with a biology Ph.D.?

This chart of the distribution of the biology workforce is a bit complicated, but somehow dismaying and reassuring at the same time.

As it points out, over half of all biology grad students hope for that tenure-track research position, but only a small fraction will get it. That’s the depressing part. But at the same time, it shows all the alternative career paths: getting a biology Ph.D. does not doom you to becoming a drunken hobo, and not getting a tenure-track position is not a mark of failure.

It’s also a little misleading. “Current non-tenure track academic positions” ought to be relabeled “Serfdom”.

Apr 15 2014

That’s a terrible chart

I wish I’d had this a few weeks ago, when I was telling students how not to present their data. This is a chart illustrating the effects of stand-your-ground-laws on murder in Florida.


I glanced at that and thought, “Whoa, surprise: the stand-your-ground-laws had a pretty dramatic effect in reducing murder. I did not expect that at all.”

And then I was a bit disappointed: “But they really should have set the Y axis at zero. It’s a bit misleading and magnifies the apparent effect, otherwise.”

And then I did a double-take: “They inverted the freaking Y axis!”

That’s right. It doesn’t show a decline, it shows a dramatic spike in murder after the law was passed. The text in the article actually says that clearly, but the chart was actively selling the opposite message. They’ve since added a corrected chart that actually makes the point clearly, instead of obscuring it.


I took away two points. It’s really easy to lie with graphics, and shouldn’t any evidence-based legal system recognize the consequences of passing a bad law and correct itself?

More from a data visualization expert.

Apr 14 2014

Not another lawsuit!

Yet another case of a litigation happy bozo harassing one of our own. This time, it’s a narcissistic neo-Nazi suing Ed Brayton.

Isn’t this fun?

If you’re able to help at all, he has a fundraiser in place. This is yet another silly suit, so it’s going to be open-and-shut, but it’s still a pain in the butt.

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