Cheap toy failures

The other day, when I was doing some online shopping, an ad popped up for a clip-on microscope for my phone. I thought, “I’m a professional microscopist! I should have a microscope I can carry around in my pocket!” and on a whim, I ordered it. It was only $8, so what the hey.

My dream has not yet been accomplished, I’m sad to report.


First sign of trouble: It claims 60-100x magnification, and looking inside, there’s a cheap plasticky looking lens set well back inside — it’s got maybe a 30mm focal length. Nope, that’s not going to work. I haven’t even tried it yet and I’m doubtful.

Next step is to attach it to your phone, which is really, really easy, using a big clip to clamp it to the camera lens. Except that the clamp is not very solid, and your phone is going to be hanging off to the side. It won’t stay clamped for long. You also just have to eyeball the positioning, since there’s nothing to lock it in alignment with the phone camera lens. Aligning it is a constant struggle. The clamp can’t even hold the phone in place, it certainly won’t hold it in alignment. If you’re lucky enough to get a picture, be prepared for uncontrollable wobbly vignetting.

The next problem: there are a couple of crude, hard to work knobs on the side. One is for magnification: forget it. Set it to the lowest mag, “60x”, and just leave it there. The other is the focus knob, which is also clumsy and hard to turn. Now imagine juggling a loosely held phone clipped to the side of this thing, you’re trying to hold it steady because any wobble will shift the camera lens away from the “microscope”, and you’ll understand that this is a frustrating exercise in imppossibly precise coordination.

So I got it together, pulled out a couple of prepared, stained slides of chick embryo sections, about the easiest targets possible, and tried to take a picture. Nooooope. I briefly saw a few images wander by, afflicted with ghastly spherical and chromatic aberration, but if I moved a finger to click a picture, they’d wander off again. I thought briefly about making it work with a couple of ringstands and some clamps, but realized that the agglomeration would be bigger than my dissecting scope and produce crappier pictures, so there was no point.

Caveat emptor. You get what you pay for. Sometimes less than what you pay for.

I’ve peeked in on both sides now

Marcus has a long post on hacker mythology — I don’t have his depth of experience on it, but I’ve had a little exposure.

Back in the 80s/90s, I was on the edge of hacker culture. I was cracking games, I was doing a little phone phreaking, I was poking around in that culture, reading the magazines and trying stuff out. My general impression: “This is easy.” A little knowledge about computers — an epiphenomenological sort of knowledge — was easily amplified into some success in breaking into things. I talked with “hackers” online, and was unimpressed. They could talk a good game, but they didn’t understand much. Their primary skill was in bragging.

Then I got a job as a systems manager for an academic unit, working with VAXen for a lot of scientists who just saw them as tools to get a job done, and they needed someone to take care of keeping everything running smoothly. I worked at that for a couple of years. General impression: “This is hard.” You had to dig deep to understand how to prevent harm to the system. Those were big complex operating systems, and you knew all it took was one of those idiots I used to be reading about some hole in one of many subsystems to take advantage, so you had to read everything and keep up with all those DECtapes that came rolling around with technical issues.

I pretty much lost all respect for so-called “hackers” fast, and have never seen the virtue of hiring hackers to improve security. You don’t hire people who know how to smash things with hammers to enhance the security of locks — they don’t know anything you don’t.

r/K selection theory does not justify racism

Last night I was entertaining myself by reading a few of the angry rants I’m always being sent, and a couple of them led me to a simultaneously familiar and disconcertingly off bit of territory — it was people proudly using Science as a warrant for bigotry. It was weird because they were using terms I knew and that were legitimately part of a scientific discipline, but they were using them in ways that were crazy inappropriate and that revealed they actually didn’t understand the science. There are a surprising number of people who are babbling about r/K selection theory on the internet.

r/K selection theory gets its name from a simplified equation that tries to quantify how quickly a population’s size can change. It reduces the number of parameters that affect the rate of change in population size, N, to just two: r, the maximum growth rate, and K (for carrying capacity), the maximum number of individuals the environment can sustain. It leads to this appealingly trivial equation:

dN/dt = rN(1-N/K)

That seems to fit, intuitively. When you colonize a new environment and your population size is very far from the carrying capacity, your best bet is to be weedy and breed like rabbits…and if two species are in competition, the one that will fill up the environment first is the one that can pump out babies the fastest. If you’re in a stable environment that’s at capacity, r becomes less important — there’s nothing new to exploit, population size isn’t going to change much anymore, so K becomes the dominant factor in defining your population limits. So if you’re a dandelion or a sea urchin, spew out great clouds of cheap zygotes, 99.99% of which will die, but you’ll be able to grab a foothold in any new patch of sea floor or suburban yard that opens up. If you’re an elephant or a blue whale, there are never going to be very many of you in the world, so it’s better to invest more in infant care, so that, while you don’t have many of them, your babies are more likely to survive.

The nice thing about r/K theory was that it was so danged simple…and that was one of the reasons it has long slipped out of favor. Its predictive power was weak, because it went too far and reduced populations to too few parameters. Biology is complex, and species have many more strategies for optimizing their success than just how fast they can make babies. This is not my field, but I saw r/K theory decline rapidly in popularity: in the 70s and 80s, when I took and first started teaching introductory biology courses, it was all over the textbooks; and then it slowly faded away. It was replaced with more complex and more accurate demographic models, and a broader study of life history evolution (you want more, you can read about it in Ecology (pdf), again, well outside my field). I rarely encounter the term any more.

Except in one place.

Racist tirades on the internet!

Go ahead and look for yourself. Google “r k selection” and see what comes up. Among the Wikipedia references and a scattering of course pages (which do get it right), I see triumphant declarations from right wingers and MRAs that r/K selection theory proves that they are right. r/K Selection Theory Ends All Political Debate, they announce; all you need to know is a little bit of biology and you can destroy all those liberals. Except the ones that are biologically literate, that is. Would you believe that they are seriously claiming that black people are more like echinoderms and white people are more like elephants, and that being K-selected is superior to being r-selected? Of course you would, because you know they’re stupid. They’re even abusing the theory to claim that different political/religious systems are driven by their misinterpretations of a biological theory.

While Christianity is far more ‘K’ selected than say Marxism, it’s still more ‘r’ selected than the pre-Christian European social orders. An exception to this would be the Roman empire which was based on a pagan belief system, but through its expansion and conquest it gradually became increasingly ‘r’ selected from things like the abundance of sex slaves they kept. This eventually turned into all out sexual degeneracy practiced by many Romans, but especially the elites.

You can’t do that, I splutter. Setting aside the bad history there, the r and K parameters are a simplified (too simplified) abstraction for a lot of biological properties that affect population growth. r is the same in all of those groups; human pairs can pop out roughly one baby a year, but most don’t. K is dependent on the environment as well as the biology of the organism. Because there are multiple factors affecting it, you can’t look at just the number of babies produced and announce that a population is r or K selected; the same organisms with the same r values will grow at different rates in different situations, which is what that r/K formula says. If I put a pair of rabbits on an island with a lot of food, they’ll reproduce rapidly; if I put a similar pair on an island with little food, they’ll reproduce more slowly. This does not imply that there are different r values in the two sets of rabbits.

They do a lot of this kind of misinterpretation and failure to grasp the basic concept. It’s driven by the fact that they also have a peculiar set of value judgements. r is bad, so you take every human characteristic you dislike and assign them to the r strategy. K is good, so all virtues get lumped under that category. This is not biology. Those parameters are abstractions, not descriptions of ethical qualities. K is not synonymous with courage, and r is not the same as promiscuity. You can’t just reify these abstractions to declare that “Person X is like a cowardly little rabbit, therefore he is r-selected, which is a sciencey term, therefore Science has just put the stamp of absolute truth on my assessment.” You can’t do that.

You especially can’t do that because r and K are properties of a species and an environment. But they happily apply them to individuals and categories of individuals. For instance, did you know that some women are r-selected, and others are K-selected? It makes no sense, but it’s all over the place.

With an r-strategy, the quality of the mate isn’t very important; you just spread your genes far and wide. With a k-strategy, you select the fittest mate and monopolize their womb/sperm.

These differing strategies result in differing behaviors and attitudes. A heavy r-woman is a mega-slut (having sex in her teens). She’s bitchy and masculine in her behavior. She’s interested in style over substance (think Jersey Shore skanks).

A heavy k-woman has very few sexual partners over her lifetime. She is feminine and agreeable. She is interested in a long-term, stable relationship with a man of substance.

Wait, wait. So masculine behavior is associated with women being r-selected? Not so fast. It turns out that sometimes not being masculine enough is an r value.

The white (k-selected) population built this country, despite any revisionist history to the contrary, and it is systematically being destroyed, not just by minorities, but by women, and pussy ass men inevitably r-selected by their general lack of aggression/decisiveness. Does this not sound like the modus operandi of r-selection?

I get so confused reading this stuff. Here’s an example of failing to understand what r is, inappropriately applying it to individuals, and being self-contradictory.

*** Feminism is r-type

“In r-type populations, females exhibit more male traits, such as increased size, aggression, and competitiveness. In this milieu, this is an effective aspect of an r-strategy, as r-females need to both provide for their offspring, and fend off threats, due to male abandonment.

It is interesting that modern feminism, so often associated with the left, exhibits a denigrating view of the rewards offered by offspring rearing, an embrace of sexual liberation for women (ie promiscuity), a denigrating view of men which would facilitate short-term mating relationships, as well as an increased drive to compete aggressively alongside males, in traditionally male endeavors.”

You can’t do that. You can’t declare that feminists, who are biologically human, are r-selected, while misogynists, who are also biologically of the same species, are K-selected. This is simply rank nonsense.

But further, this same article defines the r strategy as having lots of offspring. But talk to a feminist: they are all about limiting and controlling reproduction, having fewer children or none, and pursuing other roles in society beyond just making babies. By their own deeply flawed definition, feminism is K-type. But apparently the attributes of these parameters vary depending on sex…which makes no fucking sense at all. They argue that r/K selection theory is an incredibly powerful paradigm, capable of flaying a liberal’s mind faster than any other concept on the planet. I think they’ve confused stupefaction at the demonstration of egregious idiocy by the ‘conservative’ with “flaying”.

Oh, we’re not done with the inconsistencies. Did you know that Homosexuality is a dishonorable mating strategy? On some days, homosexuality is biological futility, doomed to die out as they fail to reproduce, and on others, well, we have to fit this into the r/K paradigm somehow, and r is bad remember, so they’re somehow using this to breed rapidly.

This example finally provides an evolutionary justification for homosexuality. Mimicking a female gives the Anticompetitive cuttlefish access to females, which he would otherwise never acquire. Likewise, almost all human fags are bisexual, and many men become gay only after failing with women. Being gay permits the occasional “experimental” bang with a girlfriend. Hence the K male’s aversion to fags and fag hags.

I don’t even…

Here’s another blatant attempt to coopt science to defend their bigotry. Hatred for liberals is genetic, they say.

“…Competitors who evolved to revile those who violated the Competitive strategy. These groups would easily dominate such a group competition. Individuals that were imbued with a fierce contempt for cowardice, a hatred for selfishness, and aversions towards such behaviors as interference in free competitions between men, opportunistic advantage taking, rule breaking, sexual sneaking and disloyalty to the group would form, and function within, successful groups unusually well.”

In other words, homophobia is not latent homosexuality, it is a rational genetic strategy. As is hating hippies.

You know, none of that follows. It doesn’t even make logical sense, even if one accepts the false premises underlying it.

This bogosity is incredibly popular among the ignorant, however. Would you believe liberals and conservatives can be explained by r/K theory?

For humans, it would be advantageous to be able to switch from one mode to the other as the situation demands. A microbiologist over at thinks that humans do just that. There is evidence, he says, for bit of programming in our brains that triggers a transition from “r” to “K” mode, based on environmental cues. In a 30-page scientific manuscript titled “Modern Political Thought in the Context of Evolutionary Psychology” posted at his website, he makes his case that left-wingers (i.e., American-style liberals) are acting in r-selection mode, while right-wingers (i.e., American-style conservatives) are acting in K-selection mode.

Oh, god. Look at the formula at the top of this article. There is already a switch in that oversimplificat that triggers changes in rates of population growth: it’s N. You don’t have to invent brain programming to do it.

I don’t even understand how, when all you’ve got in the formula is a reproduction rate, you can leap to the conclusion that conservatives are K-selected and liberals are r-selected. Again, it is totally inappropriate to mangle the theory this way, but who makes more babies? Rural Mormon conservatives or upwardly mobile urban feminists?

Note also the entanglement of evolutionary psychology here. This is another common theme: our conservative, exploitive, bigoted perspective is supported by evolutionary psychology and ecology, and therefore it is true. Never mind that EP is a collection of ad hoc myths calculated to justify inequities, and that they have to lie about ecology to twist it to fit their preconceptions.

We can’t just blame this behavior on stupid people engaging in circular arguments to excuse their biases, however. These ridiculous appropriations of an old theory in ecology have also been ripped off by racist cranks and published in the academic literature. J. Philippe Rushton, anyone?

This article discusses the r/K theory of Social Biology and how it relates to humans. The symbols r and K originate in the mathematics of population biology and refer to 2 ends of a continuum in which a compensatory exchange occurs between gamete production (the r-strategy) and longevity (the K-strategy). Both across and within species, r and K strategists differ in a suite of correlated characteristics. Humans are the most K of all. K’s supposedly have a longer gestation period, a higher birthweight, a more delayed sexual maturation, a lower sex drive, and a longer life. Studies providing evidence for the expected covariation among K attributes are presented. Additional evidence for r/K theory comes from the comparison of human population known to differ in gamete production. The pattern of racial differences observed to occur in sexual behavior has also been found to exist on numerous other indices of K. For instance, there are racial differences in brain size, intelligence, and maturation rate, among others. The findings suggest that, on the average, Mongoloids are more K than Caucasoids, who in turn, are more K than Negroids. Recently conducted studies have extended the data in favor of r/K theory, and further research is currently underway, including whether r/K attributes underlie individual and social class differences in health and longevity.

Aaargh, the stupid, it burns. Let’s use some archaic racial classifications, try to update it with some hot new sciencey lingo (this paper was published in 1988, when the r/K stuff was on the wane…but it’s not as if a guy who peddles 19th century racial “science” is going to be very current), and then pretend we’re actually doing research to measure population-specific variation in r values. This is typical Rushton, trying to bullshit his audience with false claims of a scientific foundation for his prejudices.

But it’s an amazingly popular strategem. This is lying with science on a par with what creationists do, and it’s everywhere in the most unpleasantly odious communities on the internet: racists, misogynists, and crank conservatives, all the people who have recently won bigly in the political arena. We should be afraid. And we need to fight back more against pseudo-science.

Friday Cephalopod: Well, now I’ve lost my appetite

Sometimes, you just don’t want to know about the lifestyles of the tentacled.

The vampire squid lurks in the eternal midnight of the deep sea and a cloak-like web stretches between its eight arms. When threatened, it turns inside out, exposing rows of finger-like projections, called cirri. Vampire squid eat mostly “marine snow”—a mixture of dead bodies, poop, and snot. The soft cirri help the animal transfer food to its mouth, seen here in the center of the frame.

Uh, yum?

Another sign of doom: the climate change denial of Rex Tillerson

I’ve seen moderate Democrats actually say that Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, seems reasonable, especially compared to the crew of ratfucking incompetents he’s packing into the rest of his administration. It’s not true. He’s as bad as the rest of them, and what we’re seeing is a gradual acclimation to the new politics of corruption and ignorance.

He’s a former ExxonMobil CEO. Do you think he’s going to lead our country’s work to resist climate change? No, he is not.

After more than six hours of testimony, Tillerson backtracked even further, telling senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) that though the evidence of a changing climate was clear, the cause wasn’t. “The science behind the clear connection (to human activity) is not conclusive,” Tillerson said, an assertion as false as the scientific consensus is clear.

He’s just flatly wrong, in defiance of the scientific evidence. That ought to be enough to scuttle his nomination, but you know it won’t be.

He knows what his mission is. It’s to undermine funding and support for initiatives that might hurt the profits of the coal and oil industries.

Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), who believes government money currently spent fighting climate change could be “better spent” elsewhere, pushed Tillerson to commit to abandoning US funding for anti-climate change initiatives. Specifically, Barrasso opposes support for the Green Climate Fund, an international program set up to help developing nations deal with the effects of climate change. The US under Obama has pledged $3 billion.

“In consultation with the president, my expectation is that we are going to look at these things from the bottom up in terms of funds we’ve committed toward this effort,” Tillerson said.

Even in his non-answer, it’s clear Tillerson was open to dropping such funding. Instead, he opined on the power of electricity to lift people out of poverty. A noble aspiration, perhaps, but one that would provide little consolation to communities ravaged by climate change now and in the future. In today’s hearing, Tillerson may not have out-and-out denied the existence of human-caused climate change or the need for the US to help combat it. But his tepidness on global warming betrayed one clear fact: if confirmed, the US will no longer lead on climate change. It will be at the table, sure, but as a difficult guest, not the host.

This is where we’re at. We are the Soviet Union of 70 years ago, when the science of genetics was rejected for ideological reasons. The comparison to Trofim Lysenko’s career is obvious; just substitute climate science for genetics, Tillerson for Lysenko, and the whole damn Republican party for Stalin.

By 1948, scientific dissent from Lysenko’s theories had been outlawed in the Soviet Union, even though the vast majority of Soviet biologists, with increasing (if surreptitious) access to Western publications, knew that those theories were nonsense. The theory that human-induced climate change is not real is likewise nonsense. It is a theory that is only held by those who do not wish to face facts. Those facts, such as record atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and inexorably increasing global temperatures, speak for themselves. We are already in a situation where the 1.5C temperature increase that was the center of the Paris agreement seems to be an absurdly optimistic goal. It is almost sure to be exceeded, although we don’t know where, and we don’t know when.

This uncertainty has been taken as an opportunity by today’s climate change Lysenkoists. Like the cigarette manufacturers who refused to accept the increasingly obvious link between smoking and lung cancer in the 1960s and 1970s, the new Lysenkoists will grab on to any expression of uncertainty to justify their self-interested beliefs. They include, but are not limited to, the representatives of the fossil fuel industry and their political allies. Their pernicious influence is not just confined to the U.S. In my own country of Australia, for example, the Government has been lobbying strongly for more Chinese purchases of coal, and is also about to advance a loan of $Aus 1 billion for the establishment of a giant new coal mine near the already-threatened Great Barrier Reef.

Every person on Trump’s team is a shill for a fraud. Don’t be fooled. Every one of them is purest poison, not just to America’s future, but to the whole of humanity.

Another one down!

Today was Genetics day, the other big class I’m teaching this term. Syllabus done! Lab supplies ordered! Now I’m just going to work on redoing my introductory lecture (I’m completely revamping that to set the students up for some of the upcoming complexity.)

The Autism Peril

The latest media frenzy is over reports that Russia had compromising information about Trump’s sexual practices and other sad, bitter, pathetic obsessions. I don’t care. The Trump name is already so thoroughly soiled that the fact that the allegations are entirely plausible tells us all we need to know about the dignity and gravitas the man brings to the office. He has pissed all over our country’s reputation and has already been long known for his pettiness, his cheesiness, and his total lack of class, so it really doesn’t do any more damage to the Trump brand than everything else he has done. In a pissing contest between his crassness and his bedroom habits, the fact that there is a pissing contest at all means he has already lost.

But here’s a different name that is being flushed down the toilet: Kennedy. I grew up when the Kennedy name was almost magical: it was Camelot, it was glamorous liberalism, it was tragedy. And now Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is doing his best to make it synonymous with crankery and quackery and incompetence. Good job, scion of a the John & Robert Kennedy political dynasty!

Anyway, RFK Jr met with Trump — which was troubling enough, especially after Trump had met with Andrew Wakefield as well — and came away with the startling announcement that he was going to chair a commission on vaccination safety and scientific integrity. He is not qualified! His head is packed full of pseudoscientific nonsense on this subject, so we need a stronger word…he is anti-qualified. This is as criminally antithetical to the goal of such a committed as appointing Myron Ebell to head the EPA. It’s a clear signal that Trump intends to wreck preventative medicine in the USA.

Of course, this immediately provoked a sewer overflow of criticism on social media, and we already know how responsive our fickle president-elect is to the noise there, and Trump walked that claim right back. No, RFK Jr will not lead a commission on vaccine safety, but one on autism.

Vaccines, autism, same topic, right? We can tell what kind of bullshit the two of them were slinging in that convo by the fact that they link those two together, when we know from the science that there is no connection between vaccines and autism. We know that Trump is dead wrong on this subject, but he has brought it up repeatedly over the years, and you just know he’s itching to push lies into the science.

Remember when Trump said this in the debates?

I’m totally in favor of vaccines — but I want smaller doses over a longer time.

You are not a doctor, Donald Trump. Neither is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. It was doctors who worked out a vaccine schedule, using empirical data to optimize as best they can. Contrary to your conspiracy theories, doctors also have no vested interest in inducing autism. I can’t even imagine what convoluted reasoning you would invoke in order to invent a connection, but I’m sure you’ve got some stupid, flimsy excuse that won’t hold up under any rational inspection.

But just read Orac’s commentary — he rips the routine nonsense promoted by anti-vaccine ideologues apart. It’s actually easy. What always impresses me is the lack of rigor and the unimaginative repetitiveness of the anti-science advocates. Like creationists, the anti-vaxxers have a limited litany of tropes they repeat endlessly, which makes it easy but dead dreary to shoot them down…but with the awareness that they’ll just ignore the rebuttals and repeat the same ol’ same ol’ all over again.

One more thing I have to mention, though: one part of the anti-vaxxer litany is to deplore the rising tide of terrible, damaged people as a consequence of the autism epidemic. The problem with that, of course, is that it treats autistic people as garbage, and as a plague that must be ended. I know autistic people. You know autistic people. Some of you are autistic. It’s a different way of thinking that can (but doesn’t always) conflict with expected social norms. You might just as well howl in protest at the rise of people who think scientifically, or artistically, or are glibly sociable, or are atheists. What are you going to do, go on a campaign to eradicate poets? I wouldn’t put it past these people who are so quick to demonize others who don’t fit their mold.

Adapt or die. Autistic people are first and foremost people, and if they are increasing in numbers, we need to consider helping society to accommodate itself to them. We can see through the coded language and dog whistles to your true desired solution: you despise and want to eliminate our children.

Whatever happened to Boyan Slat’s test?

Slat was the wunderkind who came up with an idea, using floating booms, to clear the oceans of floating plastic waste. He was mocked by all the scientists who actually knew something about the problem, but hey, this is science. Empirical results trump all. He ran a trial last summer, and if his scheme worked, you know we should all be writing apologies.

He tried a small scale (2 million euros!) test, in a patch of the sea that was calmer and more temperate than the Pacific, where he ultimately hoped to clear up the great Pacific garbage patch. Guess what?

It didn’t work, as expected. It was broken up after 2 months and didn’t collect any garbage.

Man, it sure would have been nice to have to write that apology.