Why haven’t women already realized what you can do with super-glue?

mensez

Would you like better control over your periods? Then ask a man who knows nothing of female physiology and doesn’t bother to test his solution. He’s a man, he must be right. Rebecca tears down this product for ‘feminine hygiene’, called Mensez, and which is simply a stick of glue to…glue…your vagina…shut. No, seriously. That’s how he proposes to control your periods.

I’m thinking it might be useful to men, too, who need to control explosive diarrhea. Or to shut their mouths when they’re talking too much.

Anyway, the inventor’s own brother showed up in comments to say what he thinks.

braddopps

He hasn’t tested it, but he’s put together a website with stock photos to sell it. No product, and it would be nice to say he must be marketing genius, except that calling it “men-sez”, and promoting it as “lip-stick”, with a logo that looks like a pair of testicles, kinda shoots that idea down.

Ecological Development: Getting critical

far_side_good_hands

In class last week, we continued our discussion of developmental plasticity and began to talk about epigenetics, and in particular, the underlying molecular mechanisms for epigenetic inheritance. In addition, students had to discuss papers on plasticity that they’d researched. Some of the topics covered were: sneaker males and alternative reproductive strategies; aggression in dog breeds, how much is genetic and how much is training; temperature-dependent and behavior-dependent sex determination in reptiles and fish; and physiological responses to variations in gravity (someone has put pregnant rats in a centrifuge and looked at the effects of 2 gravities on development). It was all fun stuff, and I made the students do all the work. Perfect!

This week they have another assignment. There’s a common problem in student writing about science: they tend to describe what a paper says. That makes for very boring reading, I’m sorry to say — if I just wanted to know what was in the paper, I could read it myself, after all. So this week they’ve been asked to write a critical analysis of a science paper relevant to the course. This is a routine skill that needs to be cultivated and practiced.

What’s involved? You first have to identify a key question or assertion in the paper, or even in a short section of the paper, and ask yourself if the authors have adequately defended the claim. Even if you agree with the claim, and think it’s eminently reasonable, you have to approach it as a critic and try to tear it down.

I’m going to try to lead by example, so I have given them a couple of papers to read ahead of time. One is “Novelty and Innovation in the History of Life” by Douglas Erwin, which makes an argument that should be familiar to the students, because we’ve already talked about some of the concepts. Here’s the abstract:

The history of life as documented by the fossil record encompasses evolutionary diversifications at scales ranging from the Ediacaran–Cambrian explosion of animal life and the invasion of land by vascular plants, insects and vertebrates to the diversification of flowering plants over the past 100 million years and the radiation of horses. Morphological novelty and innovation has been a recurrent theme. The architects of the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory made three claims about evolutionary novelty and innovation: first, that all diversifications in the history of life represent adaptive radiations; second, that adaptive radiations are driven principally by ecological opportunity rather than by the supply of new morphological novelties, thus the primary questions about novelty and innovation focus on their ecological and evolutionary success; and third, that the rate of morphological divergence between taxa was more rapid early in the history of a clade but slowed over time as ecological opportunities declined. These claims have strongly influenced subsequent generations of evolutionary biologists, yet over the past two decades each has been challenged by data from the fossil record, by the results of comparative phylogenetic analyses and through insights from evolutionary developmental biology. Consequently a broader view of novelty and innovation is required. An outstanding issue for future work is identifying the circumstances associated with different styles of diversification and whether their frequency has changed through the history of life.

Let’s take that apart. Erwin is saying that there are some long-held assumptions in evolutionary biology that he is going to suggest are possibly invalid. Those assumptions are:

  1. Diversity is the product of adaptive radiations;

  2. Radiations are driven by ecological opportunities; and

  3. Most morphological variants emerge early, in the process of filling open niches.

He’s going to propose alternative processes.

  1. Initially non-adaptive variants are going to generate morphological diversity;

  2. Novel forms construct the niches that they will fill; and

  3. Variation is a constant event in a lineage.

I am predisposed to like those new perspectives, and I’m also biased by the evidence we’ve discussed in class, that ecology and development are in a constant state of reciprocal feedback. But rather than reporting and describing this paper as something that reinforces my views, I need to examine it critically. Does Erwin adequately support his claims? Are there significant questions he does not address? He’s also given us a list of sources of evidence that he’ll use to challenge orthodoxy: “the fossil record, by the results of comparative phylogenetic analyses and through insights from evolutionary developmental biology”. Does he succeed?

I’m just going to consider his first point, whether it is adaptive variation that drives radiations (lesson for students: focus. Better to do one thing well than 3 things poorly). His evidence in this section comes primarily from analysis of the fossil record, which is going to raise some objections.

Erwin does not deny the existence of adaptive radiations, and wisely begins by discussing known examples. He cites the work on Galapagos finches, where we have strong evidence of morphology being shaped by adaptive necessity. He also discusses cichlids, where variations in the environment have clearly played a role in, for instance, feeding adaptations. To then argue for alternative mechanisms using the fossil record is problematic: adaptive radiations are seen in cases where you’ve got close-up, fine-grained observations of single clades, but the evidence for adaptation fades when you use a more coarse-grained, less well-sampled method?

One piece of evidence presented is basically an absence-of-evidence argument. There is a lack of evidence of character displacement in the fossil record. Character displacement is the shift in morphology away from each other from two similar species competing in an overlapping range; it ought to be seen if two populations are adapting to avoid competition.

His argument that solutions to adaptive problems can exist for milllions of years without a radiation occurring is more interesting. He points to Anolis lizards in the Caribbean that converge on similar strategies when they evolve on different islands as an indication that the potential for particular morphologies is present in the species before they find themself with fresh opportunities on a new island. The carnivore fossil record shows a limited repertoire of optimal feeding strategies, which canids exploited repeatedly. Sea urchins have been evolving to follow similar feeding patterns repeatedly, as well.

It’s a somewhat frustrating argument, though. He’s trying to show that a radiation can’t have been driven by the acquisition of an adaptation if the adaptation had existed for long periods previously without a radiation. I can see the point, but one could argue that the radiation depended on both the prior potential in the organism and ecological circumstance, which is part of his second point…which makes point #1 and point #2 codependent on one another.

I’d have to say that I wasn’t entirely satisfied that he’d supported his first conclusion to my satisfaction. It’s also the case that he’s arguing that both adaptive and non-adaptive radiations occur, meaning it’s a quantitative question of which of the two is most important under what conditions, and he hasn’t done anything to measure that balance. I don’t reject the hypothesis, but I also don’t think the work has been done to confirm it — yet. He concludes the whole paper by predicting that gene regulatory networks are characterized by stability, so morphological novelties may be based on features established outside the core GRNs, and are thus more flexible. I don’t know. That’s definitely well outside anything you could figure out with fossils, so it’s going to require a different approach.

That’s how I’m going to talk about a paper I enjoyed with my students (and you Pharyngula readers think I’m harsh with my mere movie reviews). I’m also going to discuss a second paper on epigenetics that I didn’t care much for — the heart of the paper is a painful exercise in writing about how they feel about certain definitions of epigenetics which made me snarl — but I still think it made some valid points.

That’s really the purpose of the whole exercise. Stop treating science papers as holy writ that you can’t challenge; think critically about everything, and try to find logical holes that can be plugged with better evidence. That’s how science gets better and better. These are smart students and they just need to learn that they can actually disagree with Famous Scientists.

The real challenge, too, is that my plan is to talk about these examples for maybe 15 minutes, and then put the students into groups to discuss the papers they’ll have brought with them, trying to punch holes in them. It might be fun. It might be difficult and frustrating. As mentioned, one of the annoyances of student writing is that too often they think of it as reporting, describing what’s in it rather than engaging with the ideas with their very own brain and questioning what the paper says.

Hey, maybe I shouldn’t call it “reporting” since that’s also what journalists should be doing, but too often aren’t. Reciting summaries credulously shouldn’t be what either scientists or journalists do.


Erwin DH (2015) Novelty and Innovation in the History of Life. Curr Biol 5;25(19):R930-40.

Gamergate privilege

It’s amazing what those guys get away with — it looks like the FBI was one gang of bros, while the gamergaters were a different gang of bros, and they mainly got together to high five one another and say “bitchez, amirite?” to each other. A set of heavily redacted documents from the “gamergate” file have been posted documenting how various cases. They brought in one guy for questioning about “dozens of rape, bomb, and death threats targeting women involved in the video game scene”, for instance.

The man, whose name was kept confidential by the FBI, confessed: He told the agents that he was a “tech guy,” a qualified A++ coder, who played video games a lot and lived with his parents, according to a set of documents the FBI released on its investigation into Gamergate.

He told the agents that he hung out on 4chan, the notorious online image-posting board that — according to the FBI documents — has a history of hosting child pornography. He admitted that he had mocked the women who were targets of Gamergate threats on 4chan, calling one of them “a professional victim who exaggerated the threats.”

Then the agents showed him one of those threatening emails. The man said he had created a new email account specifically for the purpose of sending threats to Gamergate targets. He “admitted to sending the threatening email,” the FBI wrote in its report, and he “understood the email ‘looked really bad.'” Crucially, he also confessed that he knew it was a crime: The man “understood that it was a federal crime to send a threatening communication to anyone and will never do it again,” the FBI wrote.

Yet despite all that — an email trail, a confession, and an admission from the suspect that he knew he was breaking the law — the FBI let him go after the suspect said it was a “joke”

It was a joke. And the FBI accepted that excuse. This is an indictment of not just the coward who was bombarding women with threats, but of our national organization for criminal investigations. The FBI has lately been doing a phenomenal job of exposing itself as corrupt and rotten.

Here’s an example of the kind of messages they were asked to address; the link contains lots more.

gamergateemail

It was just a joke…but the author left off the smiley face emoticon! If only he’d written I will write my manifesto in her spilled blood :), maybe I’d find that excuse plausible.

No, not even then. That’s a serious threat made with intent to disrupt an event with violence, and no amount of back-pedaling can soften it. Imagine if, at these various hateful Yiannopoulos talks around the country, leftists had written these kinds of email messages — would the FBI and the press been apologetic and let the angry letter-writer off the hook? Of course not.

The resurrection of the mammoth will not occur in two years

Not even in the next decade. For a good debunking of the claim of cloning a mammoth that’s in all the news, John Hawks has you covered.

When I heard the story came from George Church, I admit that I rolled my eyes and moved on. Church is a very smart guy, but he also tends to start babbling far out science fiction when he’s got an audience. As Hawks points out, he’s made 45 edits to elephant cells in a dish; that’s an awful long way from the thousands he’d need to begin to re-engineer an extinct animal, and a single cell is even further from a healthy, functioning large mammal.

If you already have a dislike of Uber…

Susan Fowler worked at Uber for a year. She wrote up the saga, and why she left.

After the first couple of weeks of training, I chose to join the team that worked on my area of expertise, and this is where things started getting weird. On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.

Oh, that sounds familiar. Open relationships are fine, but some of the people in them seem to be using it more as an excuse to harass.

Take a guess what happened after that. Go on, try.

[Read more…]

We understand the tantrums already, can we stop reinforcing them now?

grownops

Ann O’Connell is sad. She voted for Trump, and now people are judging her.

I love Meryl Streep, but you know, she robbed me of that wonderful feeling when I go to the movies to be entertained, she said. I told my husband, I said, ‘Ed, we have to be a little more flexible, or we’re going to run out of movies!’

I know your pain, Mrs. O’Connell. I can no longer enjoy Rob Schneider movies, myself. But look on the bright side: we can still hate Susan Sarandon together!

We also have the tiresome Jonathan Haidt, professional apologist for conservatives, who is very concerned about how we “react” to the actions of right-wing craptastic nincompoops.

We are in a trust spiral, said Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University. My fear is that we have reached escape velocity where the actions of each side can produce such strong reactions on the other that things will continue to escalate.

The whole article has this tone, that gosh, it’s awful how people are horrified at what the current administration is doing, and we should all just stop being upset and be nice to the Mrs. O’Connell’s of America. Conservatives are wrecking the educational system, they plan to demolish the EPA, they’ve made a goddamn racist the Attorney General, but those rude liberals are making people uncomfortable at Meryl Streep movies. The New York Times, and lots of media outlets, love these stupid little stories that let them be all charitable towards cranky old racist people who elected a cranky old incompetent racist, while at the same time chastising those horrible liberals and practicing a little veiled extortion. You better tell Mrs. O’Connell how sweet she is, or else!

Protests and righteous indignation on social media and in Hollywood may seem to liberals to be about policy and persuasion. But moderate conservatives say they are having the opposite effect, chipping away at their middle ground and pushing them closer to Mr. Trump.

Oh, fuck that noise. If ‘moderate’ conservatives think they have to vote for a bumbling buffoon who is taking a wrecking ball to our country because a hippie called them a mean name, then they weren’t so moderate to begin with, and they are making bad decisions on invalid grounds. I will not have sympathy for that, and it doesn’t matter how sternly Jonathan Haidt wags his finger at me.

These pieces are annoyingly common: we need to understand these awful people. We need to empathize with them, or they’ll keep doing the same stupid things. Unfortunately for these myths, the strategy doesn’t work. The people in the NYT story are unrepentant, would do it again, and all they’ve got is so-called moderates threatening to do it some more if they don’t get their way! I don’t believe it. This is what the regressives always do: “give me a cookie and maybe I’ll stop doing this.” Then, a minute later, “Ha ha, suckers!”

As for understanding, here’s what these stories always miss: yes, we already understand these people. We understand them all too well. Why are you whining at us? We’re not interested in trying to understand them even more, but in getting them to stop wrecking everything. That’s all.

Here’s a case in point: a very long, very thorough explainer about 4chan, lulz, Pepe the frog, anonymous, gamergate, and the rise of Trump, etc., etc., etc. We know it all already. There’s this subculture of young adults who are resentful of their circumstances (I can even sympathize with some of that resentment — they can have valid reasons for their unhappiness with those circumstances). Some may be single and living in their parent’s basement, for instance, and I know it’s tough getting a job, getting a job with prospects for advancement, finding a partner, finding a partner who actually respects you as a person, and so forth — but that does not justify erupting into ranting anti-feminism, just as the unemployment rate does not explain lashing out and electing a billionaire (reputedly) who isn’t going to do a thing to help those circumstances…but might cause others to suffer, too. We’re told over and over again about how miserable these shitlords are, and I understand, but I’m done with understanding. I want to know what to do next.

So that extremely thorough article ends with this:

However, as we have seen, the right’s anti-feminist message is one that only provides a momentary sense of relief (“you are acting powerful by retreating into video games and the internet!”) but like scratching a mosquito bite, it ultimately causes more dissatisfaction. That is to say, they only solution they can offer is, “keep retreating!” Likewise, Trump and the mocking cruel anguish he represents is not a genuine solution to the electorate’s powerlessness, but rather, simply the one closest at hand.

An adult does not freeze in mute horror when a child throws a tantrum. Nor do we generally regard such emotional outbursts as meaningless. Likewise, the left should not be paralyzed with horror by the deplorables, but rather view them of as a symptom of a larger problem, one which only the left can truly solve.

Fine. They’re spoiled children. My wife and I are familiar with kids: we raised three. And yes, when they were very young, they would occasionally have tantrums, and we would patiently (or impatiently) reprove them, and remove them from the circumstances that triggered the problem, and we gave them time and opportunity to learn and grow up, and they got better, much better, and became responsible, thoughtful, intelligent adults. Parents are familiar with these behaviors, and responsible parents can deal, and lead children to more mature responses.

The 4channers are in their 20s and 30s. Mr Medford, the guy who complains about being ‘pushed’ to vote for Trump, is a 46-year-old business owner. Mrs McConnell is 72. Or look at PewDiePie, the 27-year-old who gets paid $15 million a year to shriek on YouTube for the gratification of alt-right wanna-bes. What are we supposed to do? Give them a time-out? Tell them no, they don’t get to buy that cheap plastic toy at the supermarket check-out stand? Be patient and wait for them to grow out of this phase?

The answer so far seems to be that we’re supposed to reassure them that the mean liberals will be clucked at if we call them out, they’ll get a fawning interview with Bill Maher, and the NYT will run a reassuring feature on their sad plight. Even after they put a blundering, bush-league, racist, sexist in the most powerful position in the country.

Yeah, there’s a larger problem. The responsible Left is not going to solve it by continuing to coddle and reward stupidity, even if it is perpetrated by privileged 72 year olds having a tantrum and demanding special treatment.

Two birds, one stone

Yale is efficient. They’ve been debating whether to rename a building named after John Calhoun, the 19th century racist defender of slavery. Remember, this is the guy who said

I hold that the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding states between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good. A positive good.

One could reasonably make an argument that it is unfair to impose modern moral standards on a man dead for a hundred and sixty years, and I’d agree that yes, John C. Calhoun was a product of his time and place, the antebellum South. However it is also unfair to expect that antebellum Southern standards be respected in 21st century America — it works both ways. Yale made the right decision to rename the building after Grace Hopper.

The debate might not have gone on so long if everyone had known that the decision would also drive Geraldo Riviera to sever ties with the university.

Resigned yesterday as Associate Fellow of Calhoun College at Yale. Been an honor but intolerant insistence on political correctness is lame.

Political correctness. There’s a phrase that has become a solid tell for reactionary idiocy. I’ve never seen the words used for anything but to complain about reasonable actions by people with some degree of empathy. I imagine Riviera, if he’d lived at the time, would have called the Emancipation Proclamation a politically correct document, as if there were no moral force behind the liberation of slave and that it was just Ol’ Abe virtue signaling.

At least Yale has managed to purge two assholes at once with one action.

Yet another reason I despise Bill Maher (and Milo Yiannopoulos)

I watched the segment of Real Time with Bill Maher featuring Milo Yiannopoulos (I usually avoid the show; I am confirmed once again in my revulsion). I think the New York Times accurately summed it up:

Despite a brief flare-up of controversy that preceded it, a conversation between Milo Yiannopoulos, the incendiary right-wing author and lecturer, and Bill Maher, the comedian and host of HBO’s “Real Time,” on that program Friday night was a largely docile, chummy affair. There was little conflict or cross-examination, as both men chided the political left for avoiding or drowning out Mr. Yiannopoulos’s views rather than engaging with them.

Maher revealed his own bigotry when Yiannopoulos vaulted on to his high horse to attack transgender men and women and said that he makes no apologies for protecting women and children from men who are confused about their sexual identity in their bathrooms. I immediately call bullshit. Yiannopoulos is not on a crusade to defend women and children, he’s just a Nazi-wannabe troll. Maher apparently has a broken bullshit detector, though, because he just mutters,

That’s not unreasonable.

And then he turns to another guest, Jack Kingston, and says,

Jack, where do you stand on weirdos peeing?

Fuck you too, Bill Maher. Let’s promote the stereotype that the reason transgender people go into the bathroom is to rape people, rather than to urinate, on top of giving a hateful narcissist another platform on which to giggle out lies. I must point out that the current crisis in American politics is in part due to journalists giving air time to bigots to air their sensationalist views, and then failing to call them on it. There’s Bill Maher, doing the same thing with another hate-monger. You can’t simultaneously call giving shrieking racists, sexists, and transphobes a platform a free speech issue, and then fail to be skeptical and critical of their views.

There were two heroes on this show, though: Jeremy Scahill for refusing to show up and legitimize Yiannopoulos, and Larry Wilmore for refusing to accept Yiannopoulos’s shit. He was having none of it.

I just think it’s sad because it’s the same argument used against gay people, treating them like aliens who just wanted to fuck everything that moved and that’s why we should avoid them at all costs. There’s a difference without a distinction … It’s like when people tried to compare gays and blacks. They’re not the same thing. We share an invisibility. People didn’t see us in society and gay people hid out from society. But there were a lot of the same issues that you have to deal with when you’re marginalized.

Yiannopoulos’s response was to call being transgender a psychiatric disorder (an extraordinarily ironic argument, coming from a loudly gay man — he is aware that the same dismissal by definition has been and is being applied to gay people, right?), and assert that they (transgender people) are disproportionately involved in those sorts of sex crimes. As victims, maybe.

I’ll let Yiannopoulos have the last quote.

No, but you always invite such awful people on your show. You need to start inviting higher IQ guests.

For once, he’s right. Never invite Yiannopoulos again, for starters. Then get rid of Bill Maher. And finally, turn over the program to Larry Wilmore, who was brilliant.