Real Americans

The media is trying to figure out how Trump got elected, and one common undercurrent to this effort is finding ways to define Real Americans. Some of these efforts get mighty peculiar. Sean Davis’s criterion, for instance, is what kind of truck you drive. It’s ridiculous.

The five most popular vehicle models among Republicans, for example, are all trucks, with the ubiquitous Ford F-150 leading the way. Among Democrats, the Subaru Outback is the most popular choice. If you drive a truck, you’re probably a Republican. If you drive a Subaru, you’re probably a Democrat. Donald Trump won every single state in which the Ford F-150 is the most popular vehicle (even Pennsylvania). He won all but four of the states in which the Chevy Silverado is the most popular vehicle, including Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Hillary Clinton handily won the states where people prefer Subarus.

Which brings us to the simple question about truck ownership from John Ekdahl that drove Acela corridor progressive political journalists into a frenzy on Tuesday night: “The top 3 best selling vehicles in America are pick-ups. Question to reporters: do you personally know someone that owns one?”

Whether you drive a truck or a small car is simply a crude proxy for rural and urban. I’ve lived in that “Acela corridor”, and it would stupid to own a F-150 (although many people do), because parking is limited, on your commute you’re going to spend most of your time idling or creeping along, and they’re gas hogs. Now I live in the deepest part of rural America, and they’re still stupid, most of the time, but there are actual circumstances in which they’re useful. People here hunt and fish for recreation, and it’s impractical to use a Subaru to haul a boat, and very awkward to stuff a dead deer into one. There are also work-related reasons: when I was a young’un helping out on my uncle’s ranch, I drove a truck, too: how else do you get the hay bales out to the cattle in the far field?

I think Roy Edroso has it exactly right, though: most of the trucks you see around, especially in urban areas, were bought for symbolic reasons and as an exercise in manliness and profligate excess.

if you don’t know what it’s like to drive a truck, you ain’t a real U.S. male, sez tough guy Sean Davis of The Federalist. Davis’ angle is that “A Bunch Of Journalists Freak[ed] Out After Being Asked If They Know Anybody Who Drives A Truck.” In this case “Freak Out” means they asked, upon being questioned as to whether they owned a truck or not, what owning a truck has to do with anything. This Davis interpreted to mean that reporters are “the most cloistered and provincial class in America” and live in a “liberal media bubble.” Davis neglected to mention what sort of truck he drives, what sort of loads he hauls, or if his rig is equipped with a CB and a jaker breaker.

Actually, turns out he’s not talking about big rigs, but about Silverados and Tacomas and other such Canyoneros one sees driven by accountants and middle managers all across the fruited plain. But I suspect that is, as the saying goes, central to his point. Davis also lists a bunch of Twitter responses which he portrays as evidence of his thesis; in one of these, Jose A. DelReal says yes, he has a truck “b/c I’m from Alaska. Do any friends own one in DC or NYC? No, because they’re unnecessary here.” Davis’ response: “This person writes for Washington Post and just missed the entire point.” That point, apparently, is that in order to be unbubbled and in touch with the Real America you must have a truck, not because you need it, but because lots of Americans have them whether they actually need them to do actual hauling or not, just as many Texans wear cowboy hats whether or not they ever rode herd, or many conservatives revere the Confederate flag whether or not they ever faced the Union Army in battle.

So here’s a better spin on the difference between liberals and conservatives: liberals buy the vehicle they need that suits their purposes in a practical way, while conservatives waste money (and gas!) buying an overpriced symbol for the purpose of public posturing…virtue signaling, if you will. Which could be a sign of which would make better bureaucrats and leaders.

I drive a Honda Fit, by the way. When we were last in the market for a car, we went looking for an inexpensive, reliable vehicle for light commuting. We don’t need a Canyonero since we don’t hunt, fish, or haul firewood, and personally, I don’t feel that I have shortcomings that could be compensated for with a monster truck.

Davis wasn’t the worst, though. The NY Times ran an op-ed to explain why rural America voted for Trump. It’s because they’re such damn good virtuous people.

One recent morning, I sat near two young men at a coffee shop here whom I’ve known since they were little boys. Now about 18, they pushed away from the table, and one said: “Let’s go to work. Let the liberals sleep in.” The other nodded.

Oh. It’s not because they’re good people. It’s because they’re self-centered bigots, like those two young men.

By the way, I read that at 5am. Many of us liberals also get up early to get our work done.

They’re hard workers. As a kid, one washed dishes, took orders and swept the floor at a restaurant. Every summer, the other picked sweet corn by hand at dawn for a farm stand and for grocery stores, and then went to work all day on his parents’ farm. Now one is a welder, and the other is in his first year at a state university on an academic scholarship. They are conservative, believe in hard work, family, the military and cops, and they know that abortion and socialism are evil, that Jesus Christ is our savior, and that Donald J. Trump will be good for America.

And working hard makes them different from liberals…how? My father, a proud liberal and union member, basically worked himself to death as a mechanic, often working two jobs at a time to keep his family well. I started working when I was 12; I had a job shoveling rocks that ended up wrecking my knees. I worked my way through junior and senior high school in agricultural jobs, too, and got an academic scholarship to the state college, and wouldn’t have been able to go if I hadn’t.

I’m liberal AF. My siblings are similarly liberal, and also have had to work hard all their lives.

Back when I lived in that “Acela corridor”, I taught at an urban college, and my classes were full of first generation college kids from black families who aspired to be doctors…and they worked their asses off. They got there out of barely adequate high schools and had to play catch-up with all the kids who came there with advantages. I doubt those men and women are now Trump voters.

I know that rural, conservative kids also have to work hard — I’ve got them in my classes right now. This is a universal human condition, that we have to work to better ourselves, but it’s goddamn conservatives that try to claim it as their own, unique, special property, along with other virtues like patriotism and responsibility, while denying those virtues to others. Again, it’s not hard work that sets them apart, it’s bigotry.

It is not a good thing that those two men reflexively regard abortion and socialism as evil — they don’t know anything about either. And dare I point out that another strange property of both of those essays is that they take an exclusively male point of view? Driving big trucks and controlling women’s reproductive freedom seem to be such stereotypically masculine attitudes.

But wait! We haven’t yet met our quota of conservative bullshit! Here’s the argument that most persuaded the NY Times essayist.

“The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good,” said Mr. Watts, who was in the area to campaign for Senator Rand Paul. “We are born bad,” he said and added that children did not need to be taught to behave badly — they are born knowing how to do that.

“We teach them how to be good,” he said. “We become good by being reborn — born again.”

He continued: “Democrats believe that we are born good, that we create God, not that he created us. If we are our own God, as the Democrats say, then we need to look at something else to blame when things go wrong — not us.”

Mr. Watts talked about the 2015 movie theater shooting in Lafayette, La., in which two people were killed. Mr. Watts said that Republicans knew that the gunman was a bad man, doing a bad thing. Democrats, he added, “would look for other causes — that the man was basically good, but that it was the guns, society or some other place where the blame lies and then they will want to control the guns, or something else — not the man.” Republicans, he said, don’t need to look anywhere else for the blame.

Ah, so they’re bigots who believe in a dishonest caricature of Christianity. That makes it all better.

None of what Watts said is true. Liberals also think the theater shooter was a bad man. It’s just that, when you’ve got these mass murders popping up all over the place, it is short-sighted and unproductive to simply play whack-a-mole with them one by one — at some point you have to ask yourselves, why? What’s driving these crimes? What enables them? Can we get to the root causes and prevent these problems before they happen?

Conservatives apparently think it’s as simple as declaring one person to be bad, and then throwing up their hands and saying we can’t do anything about it. Fuck that attitude.

I’ve only touched on that godawful essay — I’m going to have to turn it over to the Rude Pundit to give it a more appropriate treatment.

It’s all bullshit. The rest of Leonard’s column is about how it seems like cities in red states are taken care of by their government, but not the rural parts of the state, where the roads need to be improved and there is a need for police and firefighters and EMTs: “To rural Americans, sometimes it seems our taxes mostly go to making city residents live better. We recognize that the truth is more complex, particularly when it comes to social programs, but it’s the perception that matters — certainly to the way most people vote.”

And there you have the reason why liberals are called “elitist.” We actually know that most of our taxes go to the Republican-run states. We aren’t fucking hypocrites who condemn government, elect people who want to shrink government, and then are pissed off when the government doesn’t offer enough services. We don’t get our news from conspiracy theorists and liars. Are there excesses on the left? Of course. We’re fuckin’ human. But when one group is inclusive of all races and religions and genders and sexual orientations and more, while the other pines for a time when white Christians ran everything, it’s pretty damn clear who the real elitists are.

What you’re calling “elitism” is just simply not being ignorant. We don’t have our heads shoved up Jesus’s ass. And when the left gets angry because of how fucking dumb some of the shit coming out of rural and red mouths is, we’re told we need to understand what they believe. No, we’re just gonna say that stupid is stupid.

You can stop explaining the white working class rural conservative Christian farming folk, hot-takers and self-justifiers. Instead, why don’t you explain liberalism to them? Why don’t you explain that jobs are drying up and communities are dying not because of abortion and same-sex marriage but because of Republican economic policies that have favored the wealthy, most of whom live in cities, including a certain president-elect they voted for who took advantage of those very policies in order to stay rich? Ultimately, though, it won’t matter. Because despite every fucking word to the contrary, the real problem is that those who voted for Trump are racist. They are sexist. They are Islamophobic. They are ignorant.

The whole thrust of these “let’s learn about the yokels” articles is to imply that there are real Americans and there are coastal elites. Sorry, motherfuckers. We’re all Americans. And if I have to suffer under your stupid, you have to hear about our smarts.

Preach it. It astounds me that the NY Times would publish a bad op-ed that purports to argue that conservatives aren’t bigots, they’re just hard working, when the whole foundation of that argument is an acceptance of conservative bigotry that liberals and urban folk (you know, those dark-skinned people) are lazy. Their thesis was a demonstration of the antithesis, which is an academic elitist way of saying they managed to fuck up their own shit.

At least the Washington Post recognizes where the real problem lies: How nostalgia for white Christian America drove so many Americans to vote for Trump. America is not white, so get used to it: citizenship is not defined by the color of your skin. And yeah, let’s dethrone Christianity, too.

If you ever wonder how such a corrupt moron could be elected…

…just look at the American voter. Here’s an exchange that took place: our Trumpkin was gloating about the repeal of Obamacare, and then announces that I’m gonna be fine because he’s insured…through the Affordable Care Act.


Oh, gob. Obamacare is the stupid nickname Republicans gave to the Affordable Care Act, you twit. You deserve every bit of suffering you get in the months to come.

All those other people who are going to suffer, don’t.

Life choices

I could not live in a warm climate — the constant low level discomfort would be intolerable. But today, after spending a half hour outside, I realized that at least I wouldn’t experience the intense, outright pain that one feels at -20°C. I guess it’s a choice between short periods of sharp physical pain vs. long periods of unpleasantness, and I choose pain over discomfort.

But I at least can sympathize a bit with people who choose otherwise. I can’t feel my hands right now, and my toes are whimpering at me.

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.

Course Design: Blocking out the course


Hola, amigos, it’s been a long time since I rapped at you, but I’ve been busy. I’ve been staring at calendars and juggling time in my head. I sort of had to gaze in horror at my spring semester schedule, and had to spend some time working on my other classes. Here’s what my weekly calendar looks like:


One thing is very nice: I’ve arranged to have Fridays wide open. That does not imply that I’ll spend every Friday in my PJs sipping Scotch — that’s when I’ll be catching up on grading and composing lectures for the coming week. But hey, it also means if anyone wants to invite me out to speak somewhere, I’ve got a 3-day weekend every week.

Other days are mostly gutted by my genetics and genetics lab courses, which will take up the bulk of my time. Those lectures are mostly already planned out and done, as I’ve taught this course every year for almost two decades now. There’s still a lot of work required there, and I have to keep that in mind when budgeting time for this course, Ecological Developmental Biology. Right away, you might spot the fresh horror involved in that class: it’s a 100 minute lecture course, twice a week, at 8am. Ack. I’ve got to be ready to go first thing those mornings, and I have to have a larger than normal block of material. Double ack: students have to be awake and alert.

So right away, I’ve decided that that’s too much for early morning attention spans. Each class is going to be broken in two, with a break in between. I’m going to bring in my tea kettle to class, and it’ll be enough time that if they want to run over to the next building and grab coffee, that’s going to be fine. Let’s be civilized about all this.

I’m also going to mix up my teaching style. I plan to give a lecture-style general overview of a topic from the textbook in the first half, recess briefly for coffee and tea, and then meet again for a more detailed, interactive discussion, using a paper from the primary literature as a nucleus for the conversation. That also sounds pleasant and civilized. There will be some exceptions to that, though.

This is the only course in developmental biology these students will have taken, so I feel some obligation to bring them up with the basics of the field. The first two weeks will be a crash course in development, hitting some key processes that they ought to understand before we dive deeper. So on my calendar I’ve blocked out the first two weeks to include short lectures in the history and philosophy of development, polarity, gastrulation, limb development, and craniofacial development. Again, brief overviews of those topics suited to early morning undergraduates, with time for discussion and interaction. Fortunately, Scott Gilbert’s Developmental Biology text is available for free on NCBI, so I can assign supplemental readings from that.

What about assessment? First day I’m going to give them 3 assignments.

  • Read Lewontin’s The Triple Helix. This is the philosophical backbone of the course, and we’ll be discussing it in class in the third week. This discussion will be driven by questions I will ask (I’m not giving answers), and I will put individuals on the spot to answer them. This will be a preview of the oral exam they’ll be taking at the midterm.

  • Each student will be assigned a week in human development, or a key organ system, and will give a 5 minute summary presentation in the third week. I’ll make available Langman’s Medical Embryology, which is the only source they’ll use. Again, this will be a warm up to a longer presentation they’ll give at the end of the term.

  • They’re going to be warned that they’ll be given half the class period in the last weeks of the semester to individually present and discuss a topic and at least one primary research paper. Start thinking and planning!

There, I’ve already wiped out a big chunk of the semester. First two weeks, a crash course in developmental biology. Third week, a group in-class oral exam on the topic of The Triple Helix, and a series of very short presentations by the students to summarize human embryology. And then I’ve blocked off the last month of the course for in-depth student presentations.

Other assessment-related assignments: in the 6th week, they’re to give me a proposal for their presentation, with a short annotated bibliography. In the 8th week, I’ll expect an outline of their presentation. There’s no time to waste, so it all starts early, and I’m going to be mean about deadlines. I know how students can procrastinate over semester long projects.

The 8th week is also set aside for one-on-one oral exams, a half-hour per student. There will be some general questions, and I’ll also give each student some customized questions, based on their project proposal. There will also be a few pointed nudges about their progress on their presentation research.

The preliminaries and assessment are covered. What about the meat of the course, structured around Gilbert’s Ecological Developmental Biology? I’ve had to make some hard choices here. I can’t teach the whole text — as it is, I’m hitting the students with a lot of reading, and I’m already expecting that I might have to cut back on a few of my plans. I also don’t want to just teach what’s in the textbook, but will be providing papers that they’ll have to read and understand and discuss in class. What that means is that I’m doing something heretical: I’m not using the lovely material on evolution and development at the end of the book, chapters 9-11. I had to cut somewhere, and I figure enough of that will seep through in my general attitude in the course. I’m also holding it in reserve: it always happens that a student or two drops the course, especially since they’ll get early feedback on their grades, and I might just be able to fit in a little at the end, if student presentations don’t eat up the whole month. I may also steer a few of those students towards the evolution material.

I can tell them in the syllabus that the assigned readings and topics will be:

Week 1: The Triple Helix
Week 4: Chapter 1, Plasticity.
Week 5: Chapter 2, Environmental Epigenetics.
Week 6: Chapter 3, Developmental Symbiosis.
Week 7: Chapter 4, Developmental Physiology.
Week 8 will be the oral exam week.
Week 9: Chapters 5 and 6, Teratogenesis and Endocrine Disruptors.
Week 10: Chapters 7 and 8, Aging and Adult diseases, and Cancer.
Then a long block of student presentations on topics that interest them.
Week 15: if students haven’t eaten up all the time in the course, Chapter 10, Developmental Regulatory Genes.

Doesn’t that sound like fun? Intense, maybe, but you can’t learn without a little pain and effort.

Who knew fjords could be so dangerous?

If you’re looking for an entertaining movie on Netflix, my wife and I just watched Bølgen (The Wave) — it looks like the Norwegians (it’s subtitled) took the standard American disaster movie, stripped out the egregious stupidity and the exaggerated catastrophes, and made a good thriller about a realistic and major problem. It seems some of those scenic, steep-sided fjords have occasional gigantic rockfalls that can cause tsunami-like walls of water to go rushing down, destroying everything in their path. No volcanoes erupting in LA, no comets plummeting towards earth, no colossal earthquake that splits the planet in half…just a terrifying local danger and people trying to cope.