Thanks, everyone!

In the first 24 hours of our fundraising campaign, we’re almost 3/4 of the way to our conservative goal of $20,000. When we hit that, though, don’t stop! We set a goal to cover our current expenses, but we know more will be coming along, depending on how far Carrier wants to take his foolish suit.

It’s sad, too, because he has to be spending at least as much money on his lawyer, all for an unattainable award (he won’t be able to squeeze $2 million out of us; we’re operating on a shoestring as it is), on a journey that, win or lose, is doing a heck of a lot of damage to his reputation.

National Day of Patriotic Devotion??!? For what?

What the ever-loving fuck? Donald Trump has proclaimed that 20 January 2017, his inauguration day, is a National Day of Patriotic Devotion.

A new national pride stirs the American soul and inspires the American heart. We are one people, united by a common destiny and a shared purpose.

Freedom is the birthright of all Americans, and to preserve that freedom we must maintain faith in our sacred values and heritage.

Our Constitution is written on parchment, but it lives in the hearts of the American people. There is no freedom where the people do not believe in it; no law where the people do not follow it; and no peace where the people do not pray for it. There are no greater people than the American citizenry, and as long as we believe in ourselves, and our country, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim January 20, 2017, as National Day of Patriotic Devotion, in order to strengthen our bonds to each other and to our country — and to renew the duties of Government to the people.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twentieth day of January, in the year of our Lord two thousand seventeen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-first.

That is totally clownshoes. It’s an utterly bonkers declaration. He’s saying that one day, 3 days ago, is retroactively a day we were supposed to be patriotically devoted? He decided this for us all on his inauguration day, but didn’t bother to tell us?

We are ruled by a goofy, pompous narcissist with delusions of grandeur. It’s an embarrassment.

Oh, well. It’s a harmlessly ridiculous act that does nothing but make Trump look ridiculous. It’s not as if he signed anything that would kill people…oh, fuck.

Say, hi, Mike Pence, you evil old asshole. Now you’re exporting ignorance around the world.

The ban, which was first implemented by Ronald Reagan in 1984 and has been enforced by all Republican administrations since then, has been called the “global gag rule” because it prevents medical professionals and aid workers whose work is supported by U.S. grants from even talking about termination as an option for women with unwanted pregnancies. The rule forces international aid agencies to make a tough choice: Either reject American funds and continue to give women accurate information about their reproductive health options, or accept American funds and deny women information about abortions they may desperately need.

This is nuts. That Women’s March was not enough: instead of peacefully demonstrating, they should have stormed the White House doors to tar and feather these patriarch wanna-bes.

Your word for the day

You should know this word, it’ll be useful in years to come.

claque |klak|
1 a group of sycophantic followers: the president was surrounded by a claque of scheming bureaucrats.
2 a group of people hired to applaud (or heckle) a performer or public speaker.
mid 19th century: French, from claquer ‘to clap.’ The practice of paying members of an audience for their support originated at the Paris opera.

Note that this is different from clique, which is “a small group of people, with shared interests or other features in common, who spend time together and do not readily allow others to join them.” While it is mildly pejorative, we all have our little cliques; very few of us are dishonest enough to pay for a claque.


Y’all know we’re getting sued by Richard Carrier because we thought a woman who accused him of harassment ought to be listened to, and because we had the temerity to question his use of professional meetings as open meat markets, right? We need your help now. He’s demanding over $2 million dollars for damages to his professional reputation (trust us, we know: you can be accused of all kinds of dubious ethical problems and still have a thriving career on the atheist lecture circuit*, unfortunately, so this is kind of a weird complaint), and we’ve had to throw tens of thousands of dollars at a lawyer to defend ourselves.

None of us are exactly wealthy, so this is unsupportable, and we are reaching out to our readers for assistance, with a GoFundMe site for donations.

This lawsuit has all the hallmarks of a SLAPP suit — a lawsuit filed to stifle legitimate criticism and commentary. The named defendants are Skepticon, The Orbit, and Freethought Blogs – as well as individuals Lauren Lane, the lead organizer of Skepticon; Stephanie Zvan, a blogger for The Orbit; PZ Myers, a blogger for Freethought Blogs; and Amy Frank-Skiba, who publicly posted her first-hand allegations against Carrier.

We need your help to keep our voices alive. All the defendants are represented by the same attorney, First Amendment lawyer Marc Randazza. Randazza is providing his services at a significant discount, but we are not asking him to work for free. Plus, there are thousands of dollars in “costs” for the case that don’t include legal bills, and there is no way to discount those. In order to continue fighting this lawsuit, we, the defendants of this case, have put together this campaign to raise money to defray our costs, some of which is outstanding. Donations will be used only for this case. In the event that the funds raised exceed our legal bills, they will be donated to Planned Parenthood .

I’ve been fortunate in the past that the loons who’ve threatened to sue me have tended to collapse at the prospect of defending their absurdities, and their already compromised reputations, in court. This one is sufficiently self-righteous that he’s continued on, to the point where we really need to bring in a professional to fight for us, and a good lawyer is not cheap. Every penny will be deeply appreciated.

*Sadly, the one thing that can cut short your career in atheism is criticizing harassers. Deep down, it’s all very tribal and the one thing you must never do is challenge authority.

What do we know about the Jedi religion, anyway?


Sarah Jeong highlights a gigantic plot hole in Star Wars, and now that she’s brought it up I can’t stop figuratively kicking myself for not noticing it myself — my excuse is that I avoided thinking about the prequels as much as possible, so it’s unsurprising that a lot would slide by, but this problem is so huge even that isn’t a good reason. The short summary:

At the end of Episode III, Anakin gets three limbs chopped off and then falls into hot lava. He lives.

His wife has babies, under medical supervision. She dies.

Whoa, that’s right. In this incredibly advanced science fiction civilization, they have “bacta tanks” that can heal massive damage, they have amazing knowledge of the nervous system to the point that they can build neurally controlled prosthetics that are indistinguishable from the biological version, but somehow a Space Princess with access to the resources of an entire planet doesn’t even get an ultrasound to determine that she’s carrying twins. This makes no sense. They clearly must have the technology; they have life form scanners and the ability to clone people, which implies a deep knowledge about reproductive biology.

Which means they must choose to reject the use of common, trivial technology to benefit women’s reproductive health.

What could cause people to reject the use of simple medical procedures to save lives? One thing that I can think of: religion. That says a lot about the “hokey religion” of the Jedi; apparently there’s something profoundly evil imbedded within it that suppresses the use of technology and information to benefit the health of women, as if everything in a woman’s reproductive system is forbidden (to be fair, maybe they’re just as prudish about men’s crotches, and perhaps millions of men are dying of untreated testicular cancer in the galactic federation). Now I have to wonder, though — if there is such a strong prohibition against technology approaching women’s nethers, does the Star Wars universe have vibrators?

These are proscriptions even more sweeping than those of the real Catholic church, and suggests that maybe there’s a reason the Empire is so successful in recruiting immense numbers of minions. There’s the cloning thing, which suggests that maybe the secular empire was at least a little bit less squeamish and definitely better informed about baby-making than the Rebellion. Maybe they were also fighting against a repressive religion, the Jedi, that was spreading its toxic, repressive ways throughout the galaxy. I could see how that would inspire military action against the peaceful, meditative religion that still manages to somehow field fleets that make nearly miraculous victories. Perhaps the Jedi are the Islamists of that age…and maybe “Jedi” is a corruption of “Jihadi”.

It also puts the destruction of Alderaan by the Death Star comprehensible. That might be the Star Wars equivalent of nuking Mecca — which does not justify it, of course. But then that makes the Empire analogous to the United States of America, where the people who abhor the weird foreign mystery religion can blithely talk about torture and nuclear weapons and continuous bombardment of populations.

I think I’m going to have to detest both sides now.

The first week of Ecological Developmental biology


We’re off to a slow start in my brand new course, largely because I’m in the awkward phase of trying to catch everyone up on the basics before we plunge into the deeper waters, but also because the 8am scheduling is not good for inspiring interaction. Maybe it wasn’t the best decision to begin with a crash course in introductory concepts in developmental biology, because it’s encouraging the students to think that I’m going to do nothing but pour knowledge into their brains, but I’m at a loss to know how to get right into the primary literature without making sure they’re comfortable with the terminology and ideas of the discipline first.

The theme of the first week really was fundamental: polarity. How does a single-celled zygote figure out which end goes up? The students had to read a few chapters from the Gilbert developmental biology text (which is free online, at least in the 6th edition, which is good enough for a quick summary), specifically the chapter on anterior/posterior polarity (which is almost entirely about Drosophila, I added a fair number of examples from Ciona and echinoderms), and the chapter on the organizer in amphibians. That covered a good range, from an organism in which the orientation is pre-specified by maternal RNA (flies) to a case where it’s determined by an environmental interaction — the sperm entry point followed by a cortical rotation reaction (frogs). I also added a bit about mammals, where the decision by the blastula cells to form inner cell mass vs. extra-embryonic membranes is basically a chance event, biased by location in the cluster of early cells.

In all of the examples, though, the key point is that the decisions are not determined exclusively genetically, whatever that would mean, but are contingent on interactions between genes and cytoplasm, which also has structure and pattern, and that that structure may also be influenced by the external environment.

It was fun and familiar to me, but again I’m concerned that when I do most of the work, I’m encouraging passivity in the students. That role is continuing this week, when I give them the stories of neural tube and limb development, as examples of later organ systems that rely on complex interactions. The third week, though, I completely turn the tables on them: they’ve got some reading assignments for that week, and have to do short presentations in class. I’m just going to sit back and ask questions, and hope I don’t get bleary-eyed silence in response.

In my notes for what to do next time I teach this course:

  • Lobby for a better course time. 8am is too damn early for young men and women, even if it is just fine for us oldsters who don’t sleep as much and get up early anyway.

  • This section is a prime candidate for a flipped classroom approach — I could make some short videos ahead of time that they need to watch in their homes, with an accompanying set of questions that they’ll have to discuss in class. The problem there is that in-class responsiveness is one of their weaknesses right now.

  • Later in the course we’ll be trying some different pedagogical approaches: watch for what works best with this group, and maybe revise our crash course section to use that.

Stop tolerating the intolerable

I had a terrible thought yesterday. I was born during the Eisenhower administration, but I don’t remember it; I do recall Kennedy and the 60s, and Nixon, and the march through ever worsening presidents. Now we have Trump, and I realized that, at my age, he could be my last president, especially since Trump is going to gut the health system during a period I may need it most. This span of time representing the agonizing death of American idealism, decline of liberalism, and collapse into corruption has played out as the background of my life.

That’s depressing. History is not going to remember me, but I managed to live through a terrible period that will be remembered, unpleasantly. It would be nice to go out on a note of optimism, but that’s probably not going to happen.

Unless y’all get cracking on that revolution, that is.

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