What? The giraffe didn’t get a long neck by stretching?

Next they’ll try telling us the elephant didn’t get its trunk by a crocodile tugging on it.

The genomes of okapi and giraffe have been sequenced, and the signatures of specific genetic changes that are unique to their lineage have been identified. It looks like it wasn’t an act of will after all, but the accumulation of small changes over millions of years. Surprise!

This is an interesting comparison between long-necked mammals, short-necked, related mammals, and mammals as a whole that identified a number of genes that showed evidence of selection. The idea was to find the genes associated with a specific morphological change.

Using the average pairwise synonymous substitution divergence (dS) estimates between giraffe, okapi and cattle as calibrated by the pecoran common ancestor (27.6 mya), the divergence of giraffe and okapi from a common ancestor is estimated to be 11.5 mya.

Using the average pairwise synonymous substitution divergence (dS) estimates between giraffe, okapi and cattle as calibrated by the pecoran common ancestor (27.6 mya), the divergence of giraffe and okapi from a common ancestor is estimated to be 11.5 mya.

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Skepticism will not fix its problems by denying their existence

Nature has a short news piece on the Horgan/NECSS spat. I’ve read several of the rebuttals now, and I’m not impressed: I can agree that Horgan’s talk was kind of scattershot, but let’s not go the other way and pretend that organized skepticism is a happy clappy land where all the issues are objectively evaluated and treated with the weight they deserve. There is a terrifyingly substantial number of skeptics who are rank assholes who hate anyone who introduces the concept of social justice into the organization; they are dominated by us privileged white guys, too.

Anyway, the reporter asked me to comment, and I’ve got teeny-tiny mention in the story (which is appropriate, it’s not about me), but since I sent him a longer argument, and I have a blog, I’m including it here.

Steve is correct that there has been frequent discussion about priorities. What he left out, however, is that the conclusion of such discussion has typically been to shout down anyone who argues that there are major social issues that ought to be on the skeptical slate, like war and racism, as Horgan mentions, and I would also add that feminism has been a hot-button issue. Novella is one of the more open people on these topics, so he sees a more benevolent skepticism than I do. I found the intolerance and narrowness of a great many skeptics so frustratingly oppressive, that I had to simply announce that I would have nothing more to do with the skeptical organizations, and stepped away from them as a waste of effort.

There is a fair amount of diversity in the skeptical movement. There are a substantial number of skeptics who buy into scientific racism, for instance, or are climate change denialists, or even, I’ve discovered, a few who believe in flying saucers. At least those latter people get laughed out of the movement, but the others have been dealt with by largely avoiding the topics, because they would bring on too much dissent. And when they do deal with them, they tread far more carefully than they do when addressing psychics or Bigfoot hunters.

On the other hand, Horgan commits the fallacy of relative privation. Bigfoot and chupacabra are silly topics, but as long as a significant number of people believe in them, they are part of the skeptical purview…and they also represent easy learning exercises, a kind of skepticism with training wheels. It’s just that too often, skeptics think they’re smart enough to dismiss UFOs, and then use that cockiness to also dismiss sexism or racism as equivalent. It makes for a very unpleasant environment for a lot of us.

Another concern that should have been brought up is skepticism’s treatment of women. You should definitely get a few women’s voices in your article. Karen Stollznow has had a less than happy experience with organized skepticism; Rebecca Watson has worked happily with Novella in the past, but has some general grievances with both the skeptical and atheist movements. They can tell you about another problem: that chronic harassers are tolerated and even rewarded within skepticism.

I would hope that rather than pretending all of Horgan’s objections are irrelevant, that the next meeting of NECSS makes an effort to include a few speakers who broaden the range and who gore a few dangerously sacred cows, not just the spavined beasts that make for light entertainment.

The best and the worst

Let’s start with the worst. Chuck C. Johnson did an AMA for Reddit. Read for the spectacle of fawning turdwaffles praising a racist, sexist, vile shitlord, and wonder what’s wrong with people in this country.

It’s in a pro-Trump forum, and you can tell that a certain squat-fingered orange troll doll has really given a voice to the nastiest elements in the US. You will feel despair as you witness swarms of anonymous people celebrating ignorance and hatred.

But then you can read Rachel Swirsky and feel a little better. She’s a writer who has been targeted by Theodore Beale and his minions, and they’ve once again tried to subvert the Hugo awards, in part because they are horrified that she wrote “If you were a dinosaur, my love”. I think it’s because they didn’t understand it, or at least kinda vaguely grokked that it’s a) dreamy and metaphorical, which they hate, and b) it doesn’t approve of beating up people for racist/sexist reasons, which they also hate.

So she wrote about the harassment campaign, and their hilarious ineptitude.

That’s where the Hugos come in. Since trolls gotta troll in order to justify their petty lives, they decided to troll the Hugo Awards. Want to know why? The same reason the neighborhood bully knocks over your Lego tower. They can’t figure out how to make one of their own. Using underhanded tactics, they nominated a “satire” of my work to the ballot, which the white supremacist posted on his own blog. As the publisher, he included a comment saying I should be killed. Sure, it’s phrased as a “joke.” But the dogs can hear the whistle.

Luckily, there’s a hilarious silver lining. Because he and his followers are the kind of juvenile people who assume “gay = porn” (apparently, the word “gay” causes them to compulsively think of gay sex, which must be alarming for a homophobe), they also nominated a piece of porn about a dude who has sex with dinosaurs. It’s called “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” and it’s hilarious because the story’s author, Chuck Tingle, is some sort of subversive, queer, meta-fictional performance artist. Remember when Stephen Colbert hosted the white house correspondence dinner because no one bothered to do their leg work? It’s like that.

And she’s doing something more. If she reaches a certain level of donations on her Patreon account, she’ll write a parody story of her own. She has reached that level! But you should still donate, because she’s also going to give her first month’s awards to a charity that provides health services for LGBTQ people. It’s a good cause for a good reason, and it’ll also rankle the Chuck C Johnsons and Vox Days of the world.

But also, there are other rewards at other levels.

At $400, I’ll also release a silly version of “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” about cuttlefish. Because cuttlefish are bizarre and awesome. You know it to be true.

Yes. We know. So we should all support this story.

Kill the TSA

We’re flying to Korea this weekend, and I have more than the usual amount of travel anxiety. It’s not because of the flight, or because I’ll be spending a week in a foreign country — it’s airport security that I dread. We’re hearing about 3 hour plus wait times to get through the pointless, stupid inspections, and our flight is at a terrible time, 9:30 in the morning. Subtract 3 hours from that. Subtract another hour or two because of Old Man syndrome. Then realize that if we don’t get on the plane in time, we lose lots of money that we can’t afford, perhaps suffer the stress of a chain of missed flights, and worst of all, risk missing the wedding we’re flying to.

This article about the futility of TSA isn’t helping, either. We’ve known for years that the security measures at airports are pure theater, that they’re inefficient and wasteful, and that they simply don’t work. So why do we keep doing something that makes the problems worse?

We all know why: fear. All it takes is one incident to set bureaucrats to scrambling to find something they can do to pretend that they’re reducing the threat. Take off your shoes! 3-1-1! Next thing you know, it’ll be patriotic loyalty oaths before boarding, or something ridiculously arbitrary. No zippered clothing allowed! Shave yourself bald before coming to the airport! Dance, monkey, dance!

Also, watch this.

The heart-warming Poon/Tang case

It’s actually called that. This is the case of a wedding photographer who was sued by the groom, who was a bad lawyer, and it was informative to me in a couple of ways. I did not know that the occupation of wedding photographer was so hazardous — apparently, some people are really demanding and finicky about the little details around their wedding (sometimes, it seems, more so than they are about the marriage), and they’ll go after the photographer if the pictures are not sufficiently flattering. I wouldn’t know about that; at our wedding, we had some people with polaroid cameras wandering around informally. The pictures aren’t so great, but the marriage has been wonderful.

The threatening letter from the lawyer has to be seen to be believed. Here are some excerpts:


I’ve received a few blustering extortion letters from attack-dog lawyers, but never anything as unprofessional and openly vicious as this thing — they usually try to keep the threats veiled and only vaguely unsettling. This jackhole just freely cranked it up to 11, to attempt to intimidate the photographer into settling.

But go read the whole thing. It has a happy ending with the lawyer having to go before the bar and defend himself. Some days, the bad guys lose.

Just another murder in Bangladesh

Another intellectual, a professor of English, Rezaul Karim Siddiquee, was hacked to death in Bangladesh for the crime of being an atheist. The twist here, though, is that he wasn’t an atheist at all.

But according to his daughter, Rizwana Hasin, 23, he was not an atheist.

Siddiquee participated in cultural activities and wanted to open a music school in nearby Bagmara.

“He loved music. A concept is growing in Bangladesh these days that those who are interested in music, culture, are not believers in religion,” she told CNN.

First they come for the atheists, an easy target. Then they go after the artists, the poets, the writers, the musicians, the poets because they love the world too much and are not sufficiently fanatical. Then the teachers and other educators. This is one way to change the culture to make everyone believe as you do: chop down everyone who isn’t as ignorant as you are.

The future Bangladesh of their dreams will contain only people who know how to pray and how to use a machete, nothing more.

Something in this poster reminded me of home

Except…the text is disturbing. It’s on the wrong side of the continent. Read this story of a common occurrence around Puget Sound.


Douglass Brown was 15 when he saw a giant tentacle emerge from Puget Sound.

He was in Tacoma, walking down the beach with a girl he liked. Then he looked out at the water.

“I see this arm come out of the water. It was 10, 15 feet in the air,” Brown says. “It looked like an octopus or something like that, and I just took off running.”

I can so imagine walking along the beach with my girl when I was that young, and enjoying the aquatic wildlife. Except that I can’t imagine running — that’s the part where you hold each other a little closer, and sigh romantically.

(Also, I think the “10, 15 feet” part is a gross exaggeration. “Inches,” maybe. But then, one does tend to inflate in those situations.)

Soon, I shall be rich and famous!

All I have to do is follow the formula. Julia Serano explains How to Write a “Political Correctness Run Amok” Article, and it’s very detailed. At last, I shall be published by the New York Times or some other establishment organ that loves those stories about how universities and their students have become too PC and need to sit down and shut up and respect noisy assholes with lots of money, no matter what they say.

At last, a sensible perspective on aging


The world is full of naive people who think we’re going to be immortal some day soon, in spite of all the evidence that says no (Kurzweil is a prominent example of such techno-optimism, as is Aubrey de Grey). It’s not just bad biology, it’s also bad physics, as Peter Hoffman explains. We’re all made of parts that are constantly being battered by thermal energy as an essential part of their operation, and damage accumulates until…we break down. This is unavoidable.

If this interpretation of the data is correct, then aging is a natural process that can be reduced to nanoscale thermal physics—and not a disease. Up until the 1950s the great strides made in increasing human life expectancy, were almost entirely due to the elimination of infectious diseases, a constant risk factor that is not particularly age dependent. As a result, life expectancy (median age at death) increased dramatically, but the maximum life span of humans did not change. An exponentially increasing risk eventually overwhelms any reduction in constant risk. Tinkering with constant risk is helpful, but only to a point: The constant risk is environmental (accidents, infectious disease), but much of the exponentially increasing risk is due to internal wear. Eliminating cancer or Alzheimer’s disease would improve lives, but it would not make us immortal, or even allow us to live significantly longer.

The article points out that we can accurately model mortality with only a few general parameters, and they’re rather fundamental and physics-dependent — we can tweak the biology as much as possible, but the underlying physical properties are going to be untouchable.

I would add, though, that while the mortality curves he shows are inevitable, biology can stretch and contract them, and we do have measurable variation in different species that shows that there is a kind of scaling factor to the curves in biological diversity — it’s not as if every species that lives at the same average temperature have identical life expectancies! Even within the human species, there are genetic variants that affect longevity, and clearly different life-style choices influence mortality, even though we’re every one of us ticking along at roughly the same 37°C. So please, yes, we can reduce the incidence of heart disease and cancer, and get a longer average lifespan…but even if we were to eradicate those major causes of mortality, we’re all going to get up around the century mark, and then we’re going to plummet off a cliff because of all the accumulated cellular damage and declining physiological efficiency.

By the way, one odd thing when I tried to find an illustration to accompany this post: I searched on “aging”. Almost all the photos on the web illustrate women by a huge margin. I am forced to conclude that only women suffer from the ravages of age; men simply get mature. But at least it’s one topic that women get to dominate!

Evangelical Christianity: a movement built on hypocrisy, by the worst people in the country

Samantha Bee gives a history lesson, and as always, evangelical Christianity has been on the wrong side of history, and for the worst reasons, and under the leadership of some of the most awful, terrible, horrible people. It’s also telling that they have so consistently rejected the people who espouse positive Christian values (like Carter) to support scum (like Reagan). At least nowadays they’re reduced to choosing between scum (Cruz) and scum (Trump), and they still favor the least Christian, and most bigoted choice.

I also have to note that two of the most scathing critics of modern American politics, Bee and Wilmore, are also the kind of people these conservative Christians would love to oppress.