Another reason to be cranky

This week we worked out our teaching schedules for next year, and it has been determined that next Fall I will teach cell biology and a section of our writing course, and in the Spring I will teach…evolution (a new course for me) and neurobiology (a course I haven’t taught in over 5 years), which is going to be painfully intense, possibly worse than this semester. I think the anticipation of stress is contributing to my insomnia.

It will be an interesting time, at any rate. I have some of the same complaints about the current status of neuroscience that Ed Yong describes.

But you would never have been able to predict the latter from the former. No matter how thoroughly you understood the physics of feathers, you could never have predicted a murmuration of starlings without first seeing it happen. So it is with the brain. As British neuroscientist David Marr wrote in 1982, “trying to understand perception by understanding neurons is like trying to understand a bird’s flight by studying only feathers. It just cannot be done.”

Oh, man, Marr was amazing. I could just spend the whole semester trying to puzzle out his work on color perception, which is a perfect example of complex processing emerging out of simple subunits, all figured out with elegant experiments. I went through his vision book years ago, it was bewilderingly complex.

A landmark study, published last year, beautifully illustrated his point using, of all things, retro video games. Eric Jonas and Konrad Kording examined the MOS 6502 microchip, which ran classics like Donkey Kong and Space Invaders, in the style of neuroscientists. Using the approaches that are common to brain science, they wondered if they could rediscover what they already knew about the chip—how its transistors and logic gates process information, and how they run simple games. And they utterly failed.

Wait! That’s perfect! I once knew the 6502 inside and out, writing code in assembler and even eventually being able to read machine code directly. I still have some old manuals from the 1970s stashed away somewhere. I wonder if the students would appreciate signing up for a course on how brains work and then spending the semester trying to figure out how an antique 8-bit chip works by attaching an oscilloscope to pin leads?

Even when I last taught it, that was the struggle. It was easy to give them the basics of membrane biophysics — it’s all math and chemistry — but the step from that to behavior was huge. If I just teach it from top down, beginning with behavior, it’s a psychology course, which is a subject so vast that we’d never get down to the cellular level. There is no in-between yet.

I have a year to fret about it. Who needs sleep anyway?

I wish to complain

I have a sore throat. And a hacking cough. And sinuses full of phlegm. That combo means every night is a struggle to get any sleep, and tonight I’m staggering out of bed at 2am.

What it also means is that every day I’m in a foul, snarling mood, ready to punch Nazis in the face, but also so debilitated that there’s no way I could adequately carry out said punching. This is an injustice.

Minnesota has neo-Nazis!

I’ve known that for a long time — the first year I moved here, I had to deal with a chicken farmer (my source for fertilized eggs) who was proudly Nazi, served in WWII on the American side but was impressed with how clean and orderly Germany was, named his German Shepherd “Eva” after you-know-who, and presented me with a copy of Henry Ford’s The International Jew. Sweet guy.

Now, emboldened by the election of a fascist, other neo-Nazis are stepping up their game. Some of them marched into the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to guard the artworks from the socialist IWW members who were counterprotesting outside.

The Star Tribune reports a “trio” of guys “said to look like neo-Nazis” entered the museum on Saturday afternoon and headed for the third floor. According to a witness, they were there to “guard” classical European (read: white) art that happened to be placed near a protest-themed exhibit with photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. (The horror.)

Turns out the alleged neo-Nazis were the ones who could’ve used guards: Quoting the same witness, the Star Tribune says some protesters had followed the three fellows in and confronted them. Words were exchanged, and a “shoving match” ensued, with at least a few “punches thrown.” A museum spokeswoman says one among the right-wingers was “attacked,” but declined to press charges.

There was also some bozo outside throwing Nazi salutes and shouting “Heil Trump”.

Some advice: the art in the museum doesn’t need protection from socialists. Socialists tend not to be on the side of anti-cultural thuggery. That would be the Nazis. Nazis only defend art when they see an opportunity to appropriate it.

That said, however, the IWW committed a grievous faux pas. We do not punch Nazis in places where it endangers valuable works of art. Punch nazis outside. Remember that.

Obviously, Republicans have no understanding of academia at all

You’ve probably heard already that several Republican legislatures want to dictate the ideology of their universities. The American Association of University Professors has sent out this email:

Shortly after the 2016 election, the AAUP warned that we could be facing the greatest threat to academic freedom since the McCarthy period. It now appears that such a warning was not misplaced. Extremists in the administration, Congress, and several state houses have created an atmosphere in which “alternative facts” reign supreme, and which encourages the introduction of legislation that threatens the core principles of our democracy.

The latest examples of extreme legislation come from Iowa and North Carolina. In Iowa, a bill has been introduced that would prohibit the hiring of a professor or instructor at a public university or college if his or her most recent party affiliation would “cause the percentage of the faculty belonging to one political party to exceed by 10 percent” the percentage of the faculty belonging to the other dominant party.

In North Carolina, legislation (since tabled) was introduced that would require tenure-track and tenured faculty members to “reflect the ideological balance of the citizens of the state,” so that no campus “shall have a faculty ideological balance of greater or less than 2 percent of the ideological balance” of North Carolinians.

Many may rightly believe that initiatives like these cannot pass and that if passed they would be overturned immediately by the courts. However, the introduction of such legislation has a chilling effect. Moreover, implicit in these proposals is the demand that prospective and current faculty members disclose their political affiliations and personal political views as a condition of employment, which is precisely what happened during the McCarthy period.

The AAUP opposes in the strongest terms any legislation that would create an ideological or political litmus test as a qualification for employment as a faculty member at a university or college. Our commitment to academic freedom is rooted in a vision of democracy that thrives on dissent, critical inquiry, free speech, and free research. We will continue to join with other organizations to resist threats to academic freedom, legislative intrusions into higher education, and harassment of faculty.

These are stupid initiatives, and normally I’d laugh them off and suggest that no way could they actually come to pass, but then I thought there was no way our stupid candidate could come to the highest office in the country.

No ghosts, and no afterlife of any kind

Basic stuff: Brian Cox explains that there’s no physics to support the existence of ghosts, but I’ve also heard Sean Carroll explain the same idea.

Recent polls have found that 42 percent of Americans and 52 percent of people in the UK believe in ghosts – a huge percentage when you consider that no one has ever come up with irrefutable proof that they even exist.

But we might have had proof that they don’t exist all along, because as British theoretical physicist Brian Cox recently pointed out, there’s no room in the Standard Model of Physics for a substance or medium that can carry on our information after death, and yet go undetected in the Large Hadron Collider.

“If we want some sort of pattern that carries information about our living cells to persist, then we must specify precisely what medium carries that pattern, and how it interacts with the matter particles out of which our bodies are made,” Cox, from the University of Manchester, explained in a recent episode of BBC’s The Infinite Monkey Cage.

“We must, in other words, invent an extension to the Standard Model of Particle Physics that has escaped detection at the Large Hadron Collider. That’s almost inconceivable at the energy scales typical of the particle interactions in our bodies.”

I can almost hear the protests already: But that’s mere physics, the afterlife is metaphysical and supernatural and whatever other meaningless cliches they want to sputter. Read carefully. We, our bodies, are physical and bound by the laws of physics. If you want to claim there is a floofy physics-free metauniverse where your consciousness dwells, you still have to deal with the fact that there must be some kind of bridge or interface between our material forms and that etheric plane you believe must exist. There has to be an interaction, or there is no connection between my worldly identity and self and consciousness and the ghost/soul you claim is the actual me.

To put it in words the New Agers might understand, the vibrations have to resonate with my brain — and we’ve mapped all the frequencies that could do that, and we’re done, there are none left over to accommodate magic. Sorry.

There is also lots of other evidence against an afterlife, like the lack of empirical evidence, the inconsistencies of ghost stories, the necessity of mundane biology to maintain a mind, etc. The evidence for an afterlife consists entirely of wishful thinking.

It’s a mystery

I’m not surprised. Why should I be surprised? Religion does this all the time. I’m just mystified at how people let themselves be taken advantage of.

So, the Ark Park lobbied for all these tax breaks on the promise that it was going to be an economic boon to the region. They lied, of course. Right now they’re in the interesting position of claiming that attendance exceeds expectations (although the gigantic empty parking lot says otherwise) but none of the economic benefits have materialized, for anyone other than Answers in Genesis, that is.

“It’s been a great thing but it’s not brought us any money,” said Grant County Judge-Executive Steve Wood during a break from a budget meeting.

The county is teetering on bankruptcy and is trying to balance the budget. Wood said they were to the point where jobs may have to be cut. He will propose a 2% payroll tax at next week’s fiscal court meeting. He blames prior fiscal courts for the budget crisis, not the Ark. But he said the Ark had not lived up to its promise.

“I was one of those believers that once the Ark was here everything was going to come in. But it’s not done it. It’s not done it. I think the Ark’s done well and I’m glad for them on that. But it’s not done us good at all.”

It’s a “great thing” and it’s “done well”, but it had not lived up to its promise. I suspect that the Ark Park was the biggest development in the entire county, and it’s done nothing for prosperity. All that investment disappeared into a black hole of special exemptions and religious excuses, and now the county is on the edge of bankruptcy, but Wood is still making excuses for it.

If you think that’s bad, though, you should read about this church in North Carolina. Standard practice there was to beat people savagely for even minor transgressions. Smile at the wrong time, and wham, you were smashed to the ground. Teenagers were constantly howled at and abused for lustful thoughts and masturbation.

The ex-members said the violence was ever-present: Minors were taken from their parents and placed in ministers’ homes, where they were beaten and blasted and sometimes completely cut off from their families for up to a decade. Some male congregants were separated from their families and other followers for up to a year and subjected to the same brutal treatment.

Teachers in the church’s K-12 school encouraged students to beat their classmates for daydreaming, smiling and other behavior that leaders said proved they were possessed by devils.

“It wasn’t enough to yell and scream at the devils. You literally had to beat the devils out of people,” said Rick Cooper, 61, a US Navy veteran who spent more than 20 years as a congregant and raised nine children in the church.

Wait. You stayed in this vile ‘church’ for twenty years, and you sent nine children to be tortured in this hell hole?

“We were warned to keep the abuse to ourselves. If we didn’t, we knew we would be targeted. … You lived in total fear,” said Liam Guy, 29, an accountant who fled in 2015 after nearly 25 years in the church.

It took twenty-five years to figure this out? Religion is a hell of a drug.

You won’t be surprised to learn that, like the Catholic church, the place is a haven for sexual abuse cases, too.

There’s something flawed in human psychology that allows grifters to flourish in the guise of the godly. You’d think people would wake up at some point and realize that this stuff is dangerous.

Liberals are so helpful with suggestions for cheap airfare

Mike Huckabee is sneering at those Hollywood liberals at the Oscars.

Rather than slapping back, look at this…Betty Bowers gives him ideas for inexpensive flights to Europe.

I think I like her.

Oscar time tonight! I’ll skip it.

Time to consider the Academy Awards, or not. This year it’s going to be terrible, I can tell, because I think there are two phenomenal movies that absolutely deserve to win, and that we’ll be rewatching with pleasure years from now, and one picture that is total crap and will probably sweep the awards. It means that there is no way I will sit up to watch the whole thing. Besides, I’m a bit sick right now and would rather lie in bed hacking up a lung than see La La Land win.

So here, in order of my preference, are my choices.

Arrival: This is what good science fiction movies are supposed to be: thoughtful, unsettling, with ideas that will make you question what you would do. Wait, she had the child knowing exactly what would happen to her? Forget the aliens, there is a moral dilemma to consider, and there is a character who was strong enough to take the good with the bad.

Hidden Figures: This one was amazing, intense, enraging, and affirming. It makes me want to shake all those people who claim that science is apolitical and march them into the theater to watch it. I want to watch it again, and if I do, I’d probably rank it as #1 this year. And then if I watched Arrival again, I’d flip-flop.

Hell or High Water: A grim slice of Americana. Good, and I’d compare it to a previous year’s Nebraska — definitely worthy, but I’m needing my entertainment to carry a little bit of hope nowadays.

Hacksaw Ridge: Nope. Nope nope nope. Mel Gibson graphically tortures another Christ-figure for hours. He’s a master of a nasty little genre, I’ll give him that, but I’d rather not ever see another film like this one.

La La Land: It reminded me of Birdman, another movie that raked in the awards because it was about how wonderful and gifted actors are, and how much they suffer for their craft. Two hours of narcissistic wanking.

Then there are movies I haven’t seen yet. I hear great things about Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, and if half of them are true, it was actually a great year for movies. Too bad the Hollywood masturbation movie will clean up.

Lion

Manchester by the Sea

Moonlight

Fences

OK, those are my irrelevant choices — irrelevant because I have no say at all in this popularity contest. You also don’t have any say, but do go ahead and say what you think here, anyway.