The von Neumann Conspiracy

Go look at this Conspiracy Theory Flowchart. Look at it.

Crispian's Conspiracy Flowchart

No, really look at it.

They got to you, didn’t they? The bastards have shaped your whole world, stuffed your head full of phony paradigms and bogus models and unsupportable conventions, and you can’t even see outside the goddamned box anymore. You’re in a straitjacket of their devising, your mind twisted and warped to fit a pre-pattern of which you are completely unaware.


Look again. Stare at it until you break through the walls of your own preconceptions. Break out of the box. Shred the box. DON’T LET THEM CONTROL YOU.

You need help? You’re like a pupa stuck in its chrysalis? You struggle but you can’t quite break free? Let me help you.

Look at the diagram. Follow the lines. Look at the decision points. Notice what they’re doing?

THEY’RE FORCING YOU TO FOLLOW THE LINES. Stop following the lines.

THEY’RE GIVING YOU YES/NO CHOICES. Maybe the truth is “none of the above.” Or “all of the above.” Or maybe it’s on a random page of the Bible, or the Federalist Papers, or Dianetics. They’re tying you down.

Look at it, man. It’s a fucking flow chart. It’s a tool of the establishment. It’s an expression of an archaic model of computer programming. (Yeah, programming. Like what they’re doing to your head.) It’s all linear and shit, all boolean and that dogma.

You think you’re afraid of the Illuminati, the Bilderbergers, the Reptoids, the Davos architects of your oppression? You should fear the Hungarian mastermind, the descendants of EDVAC, the universal binary and the tick, tick, tick of the clock, everything all sequential and latched and the single line of flow. They’ve split your world into data and code. They’ve marshaled your code into channeled pathways, they tell you which way to go, they LIMIT YOUR FREEDOM.

Look, man, here’s the secret. We’re not living in von Neumann’s world. It’s MASSIVELY PARALLEL, the switches are all fuzzy, your answers aren’t limited to the truth, any choice can be made and all will be made, and there’s NOTHING TO STOP YOU FROM COLORING OUTSIDE THE LINES. It’s all true. While you’re meandering down one path, putting one foot in front of the other, never deviating, History is hopping and skipping and dancing, dancing like a cokehead with his clothes on fire and a great big dildo shorting out in his ass, SLASHING across all those lines like they aren’t there, making great prigogenic leaps from premise to conclusion without regard for the blinkered “logic” of the diagram.






Break the chains The Man has wrapped around your brain and skitter to the REALITY, dude. It’s over there, not over here, and you aren’t going to get there as long as Johnny is calling the tune. Capisce?

Coelacanths are unexceptional products of evolution

The coelacanth genome has been sequenced, which is good news all around…except that I found a few of the comments in the article announcing it disconcerting. They keep calling it a “living fossil” — and you know what I think of that term — and they keep referring to it as evolving slowly

The slowly evolving coelacanth

The morphological resemblance of the modern coelacanth to its fossil ancestors has resulted in it being nicknamed ‘the living fossil’. This invites the question of whether the genome of the coelacanth is as slowly evolving as its outward appearance suggests. Earlier work showed that a few gene families, such as Hox and protocadherins, have comparatively slower protein-coding evolution in coelacanth than in other vertebrate lineages.

Honestly, that’s just weird. How can you say its outward appearance suggests it is slowly evolving? The two modern species are remnants of a diverse group — it looks different than forms found in the fossil record.

And then for a real WTF? moment, there’s this from Nature’s News section.

It is impossible to say for sure, but the slow rate of coelacanth evolution could be due to a lack of natural-selection pressure, Lindblad-Toh says. Modern coelacanths, like their ancestors, “live far down in the ocean, where life is pretty stable”, she says. “We can hypothesize that there has been very little reason to change.” And it is possible that the slow genetic change explains why the fish show such a striking resemblance to their fossilized ancestors.

Snorble-garble-ptang-ptang-CLUNK. Reset. Does not compute. Must recalibrate brain.

None of that makes sense. The modern fish do not show a “striking resemblance” to their fossilize ancestors — they retain skeletal elements that link them to a clade thought to be extinct. This assumption that Actinistian infraclass has been unchanging undermines their conclusions — the modern species are different enough that they’ve been placed in a unique genus not shared with any fossil form.

Then the argument that they must live in a stable environment with a lack of natural-selection pressure is absurd. Selection is generally a conservative process: removing selection pressures from a population should lead to an increase in the accumulation of variability. Do they mean there has been increased selection in a very narrowly delimited but stable environment?

But even that makes no sense. We should still be seeing the accumulation of neutral alleles. Increased selection is only going to remove variability in functional elements, and most of the genome isn’t. I suppose one alternative to explain slow molecular evolution would be extremely high fidelity replication, but even that would require specific selection constraints to evolve.

This article broke my poor brain. I couldn’t see how any of this could work — it ignored the fossil evidence and also seemed to be in defiance of evolutionary theory. It left me so confused.

Fortunately, though, the journal BioEssays came to my rescue with an excellent review of this and past efforts to shoehorn coelacanths into the “living fossil” fantasy, and that also explained the molecular data. And it does it plainly and clearly! It’s titled, “Why coelacanths are not ‘living fossils’”, and you can’t get much plainer and clearer than that.

First, let’s dismiss that myth of the unchanging Actinistian. Here’s a phylogeny of the coelacanth-like fossils and their one surviving species.

Comparison of extant and selected extinct actinistians, commonly known as coelacanths. A phylogeny of Actinistia; schematic sketches of body outlines and approximate body length (given in metre) illustrate the morphological diversity of extinct coelacanths: some had a short, round body (Hadronector), some had a long, slender body (Rebellatrix), some were eel-like (Holopterygius) whereas others resembled trout (Rhabdoderma), or even piranha (Allenypterus). Note that the body shape of Latimeria chalumnae differs significantly from that of its closest relative, Macropoma lewesiensis.

Love it. I’ve been looking for a diagram like this for a long time; creationists often trot out this claim that coelacanths haven’t changed in hundreds of millions of years, and there you can see — divergence and variation and evolution, for hundreds of millions of years.

In addition, we can look in more detail at the skull and limbs of these animals. This drawing is comparing modern Latimeria with its closest fossil relative, and even here there are dramatic differences in structure.


Comparison of the skeleton of extant and selected extinct coelacanths. A–D: Latimeria and its sister group Macropoma show numerous skeletal differences. A, B: Overall view of the skeletal organisation of the extant coelacanth and of its closest relative. A: Latimeria chalumnae. B: Macropoma lewesiensis. Relative to the body length, in L. chalumnae the vertebrae are smaller, the truncal region of the vertebral column is longer and the post anal region is shorter than in M. lewesiensis. In the latter region, the hemal arches (ventral spines) extend more ventrally in M. lewesiensis than in L. chalumnae. In addition, the swim bladder is ossified in Macropoma but not in Latimeria, and the basal bone of the first dorsal fin is characteristic of each genus. C, D: Comparison of the skulls of L. chalumnae and M. lewesiensis. C: In L. chalumnae, the mouth opens upward, the articular bone (yellow) is long and narrow, the parietonasal shield (red) is short, the premaxillary bone (orange) is devoid of denticle ornamentation, the dorsal part of the cleithum (light brown) is spiny, and the scapulocoracoid (green) is located on the ventral side. D: In contrast, in M. Lewesiensis, the mouth opens forward, the angular bone (yellow) is triangular, the parieto-nasal shield (red) is long, the premaxillary (orange) protrudes and forms a hemispherical snout which is ornamented with prominent denticles, the dorsal part of the cleithrum (light brown) is thick, and the scapulocoracoid, (green) is located more medially. Modified from [3]. E: Pectoral fin skeleton of L. chalumnae (above) and Shoshonia arctopteryx (below). The three first preaxial radials are numbered from proximal to distal. In L. chalumnae the fin appears nearly symmetrical because radial bones (orange) are arranged nearly symmetrically about the fin axis. The proximal preaxial radials 1-2 are extremely short and bear no fin ray, and the preaxial radial 3 is short and fractionated. In contrast, in S. arctopteryx the fin is strongly asymmetrical chiefly because proximal preaxial radials are long and all bear fin rays.

The authors make it clear that this idea of morphological conservation of the Actinistians is simply bogus.

In addition, an examination of the skeleton of the fossil genus Macropoma (approximately 70 Ma), the sister group of Latimeria and the only known fossil actinistian record from the Cretaceous to the present, shows some interesting differences. Not only are the extant coelacanths three times larger than their closest extinct relatives (about one and a half metres vs. half a metre), but there are also numerous structural differences. The swim bladder is ossified in Macropoma but filled with oil in Latimeria, indicating they were probably found in different types of environments. There are also noticeable differences in the vertebral column (the post anal region is shorter and ventral spines extend less ventrally in M. Lewesiensis compared with L. chalumnae), and in the attachment bones of the fins. In addition, Macropoma and Latimeria have distinctly dissimilar skull anatomies, resulting in noticeable differences in head morphology.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that external morphological resemblances can be based on a very different internal anatomical organisation. The most often emphasised resemblance between coelacanths is that they all have four fleshy-lobed-fins. Until recently, the anatomy of the lobed fins of coelacanths was only known in Latimeria, in which the pectoral fin endoskeleton is short and symmetrical. In 2007, Friedman et al. described the endoskeleton of the pectoral fin of Shoshonia arctopteryx, a coelacanth species from the mid Devonian, and therefore contemporary with Miguashaia. They showed that this earliest known coelacanth fin endoskeleton is highly asymmetrical, a characteristic that is probably ancestral since it resembles the condition found in early sarcopterygians such as Eusthenopteron, Rhizodopsis or Gogonasus. This result is additional support, if needed, that extant coelacanths have not remained morphologically static since the Devonian.

Well, so, you may be wondering, what about the molecular/genomic data? Doesn’t that clearly show that they’ve had a reduced substitution rate? No, it turns out that that isn’t the case. Some genes seem to be more conserved, but others show an expected amount of variation.

However, a closer look at the data challenges this interpretation [of slow evolution]: depending on the analysed sequence, the coelacanth branch is not systematically shorter than the branches leading to other species. In addition, most phylogenetic analyses – including analysis of Hox sequences – do not support the hypothesis that the Latimeria genome is slow evolving, i.e. they do not place coelacanth sequences on short branches nor do they detect low substitution rates. The clearest example, which involves the largest number of genes, is a phylogeny based study of forty-four nuclear genes that does not show a dramatic decrease, if any, in the rate of molecular evolution in the coelacanth lineage. What we know about the biology of coelacanths does not suggest any obvious reason why the coelacanth genome should be evolving particularly slowly.

So why is this claim persisting in the literature? The authors of the BioEssays article made an interesting, and troubling analysis: it depends on the authors’ theoretical priors. They examined 12 relevant papers on coelacanth genes published since 2010, and discovered a correlation: if the paper uncritically assumed the “living fossil” hypothesis (which I’ve told you is bunk), the results in 4 out of 5 cases concluded that the genome was “slowly evolving”; in 7 out of 7 cases in which the work was critical of the “living fossil” hypothesis or did not even acknowledge it, they found that coelacanth genes were evolving at a perfectly ordinary rate.

Research does not occur in a theoretical vacuum. Still, it’s disturbing that somehow authors with an ill-formed hypothetical framework were able to do their research without noting data that contradicted their ideas.

Maybe a start to correcting this particular instance of a problem is to throw out the bad ideas that are leading people astray. The authors strongly urge us to purge this garbage from our thinking.

Latimeria was first labelled as a ‘living fossil’ because the fossil genera were known before the extant species was discovered, and erroneous biological interpretations have grown and reports still show little morphological and molecular evolution. A closer look at the available molecular and morphological data has allowed us to show that most of the available studies do not show low substitution rates in the Latimeria genome, and furthermore, as pointed out by Forey [3] long before us, the supposed morphological stability of coelacanths from the Devonian until the present is not based on real data. As a consequence, the idea that the coelacanth is a biological ‘living fossil’ is a long held but false belief which should not bias the interpretation of molecular data in extant Latimeria populations. The same reasoning could be generalised to other extant species (such as hagfish, lamprey, shark, lungfish and tatuara, to cite few examples of vertebrates) that for various reasons are often presented as ‘ancient’, ‘primitive’, or ‘ancestral’ even if a lot of recent data has shown that they have many derived traits [58–64]. We hope that this review will contribute to dispelling the myth of the coelacanth as a ‘living fossil’ and help biologists keep in mind that actual fossils are dead.

But of course we also shouldn’t let that color our data. If analyses showed a significantly reduced substitution rate in the evolution of a species, it ought to get published. If nothing else, it would be an interesting problem for evolutionary theory. Coelacanths, though, don’t represent that problem.

Amemiya CT, Alföldi J, Lee AP, Fan S, Philippe H, Maccallum I, Braasch I, Manousaki T, Schneider I, Rohner N, Organ C, Chalopin D, Smith JJ, Robinson M, Dorrington RA, Gerdol M, Aken B, Biscotti MA, Barucca M, Baurain D, Berlin AM, Blatch GL, Buonocore F, Burmester T, Campbell MS, Canapa A, Cannon JP, Christoffels A, De Moro G, Edkins AL, Fan L, Fausto AM, Feiner N, Forconi M, Gamieldien J, Gnerre S, Gnirke A, Goldstone JV, Haerty W, Hahn ME, Hesse U, Hoffmann S, Johnson J, Karchner SI, Kuraku S, Lara M, Levin JZ, Litman GW, Mauceli E, Miyake T, Mueller MG, Nelson DR, Nitsche A, Olmo E, Ota T, Pallavicini A, Panji S, Picone B, Ponting CP, Prohaska SJ, Przybylski D, Saha NR, Ravi V, Ribeiro FJ, Sauka-Spengler T, Scapigliati G, Searle SM, Sharpe T, Simakov O, Stadler PF, Stegeman JJ, Sumiyama K, Tabbaa D, Tafer H, Turner-Maier J, van Heusden P, White S, Williams L, Yandell M, Brinkmann H, Volff JN, Tabin CJ, Shubin N, Schartl M, Jaffe DB, Postlethwait JH, Venkatesh B, Di Palma F, Lander ES, Meyer A, Lindblad-Toh K. (2013) The African coelacanth genome provides insights into tetrapod evolution. Nature 496(7445):311-316.

Casane D, Laurenti P (2013) Why coelacanths are not ‘living fossils’: A review of molecular and morphological data. Bioessays 35: 332–338.

Larry Moran beat me to it!


Are you looking to be baffled this weekend? It’s another twitter war, this time under the hashtag #radfem2013, and it consists of a lot of very angry women who are making very weird claims. “Because every time you tell lesbians transwomen are women, you support corrective rape.” “WTF is up with assholes who insist on telling lesbians to fuck men.” “Because demanding that lesbians suck dick makes you not an ally.” “Transwomen are men: predatory men who demand access to women’s bodies.”

It’s bizarre. It’s feminism+transgender hatred.

The lead bigot is someone named Cathy Brennan, who has a rather deranged blog in which she insists her views are the only rational ones.

Radical Feminism is an Evidence-based philosophy. The Evidence suggests that there is a Class of Humans (Women) made subordinate by and to another Class of Humans (Men). The Evidence suggests that Men want to keep it this way, and employ tactics and establish systems to ensure it stays this way. The Evidence suggests that Men commit a disproportionate amount of Violence against Women (Male Violence).

A favorite tactic of Men’s Rights Activists and Trans Activists used to Silence Women who rely on Evidence to support assertions like Penis=Male, Male Violence against Women is an overwhelming problem and Trans Women are Men is the claim that Radical Feminists aren’t “Rational.”

I can sort of agree with parts of the first paragraph: men as a class (but let’s not expand that to all men as individuals) do those things in our culture. But the second paragraph makes a gigantic irrational leap. They are claiming a freakishly conservative sort of genital essentialism: if you have a penis, you are MAN, through and through, and if you have a vulva, you are WOMAN, entirely and completely. Am I the only one who finds this inconsistent and contradictory coming from a group of lesbians? It seems to me they are already expressing the view that their natural desires are not constrained by the behavioral assignments our culture already imposes by definition of the physical apparatus in our crotches.

Transwomen are women…and an even more oppressed subclass of women than these “radfems” are. Saying that does not in any way tell people that they must have sex with them, any more than saying I’m a cis heterosexual male means I’m required to have sex with all women, or any woman for that matter. No one is telling these radfems that they must carry out any particular sex act with any particular individual or class of individuals, yet they’re acting as if acknowledgment of the humanity and worth of trans individuals is a dictatorial smack in their faces.

They sound a lot like right-wing bigots, actually.

Another facet of this argument: the usual lackwits are making triumphant announcements.

ha ha, Rebecca and PZ have finally discovered the RadFem rad hate group after denying their existence for months.

Wrong. I haven’t denied the existence of a demented feminist fringe: what I have said is that the kooks who are constantly denouncing people like me and Rebecca Watson and Amanda Marcotte as “radical feminists” don’t have the slightest clue. The fact that we clearly oppose the weird radfem agenda of transphobic hatred ought to finally make that clear to them…but give ’em a day. They’ll be back to accusing FtB of being a hive of radical feminists again.

You want to see ugly? Here’s ugly. These kooks really hate trans people.

It’s a sign of age when wool is more appealing than latex

Someone on twitter told me to check out this site, True Pleasures. It’s probably NSFW, and why would anyone think a homely old geezer like me would want to buy sex toys? But then I discovered that they do have something to appeal even to me: Tentacle Tuesday.


I honestly am not interested in wriggling strangely shaped tentacular objects into various orifices, but I do like the t-shirts. And look! They come in men’s and women’s styles!

Also, socks! You know you’re getting old when you find yourself getting excited about a nice warm pair of socks.

So, so touchy

Richard Wiseman, Jon Ronson, and Rebecca Watson went on a road trip a while back, checking out American weirdness. One thing they did not check out, though, was the Creation “Museum”, because as Rebecca explains, they were sensitive about being mocked.

Now Ken Ham verifies that by indignantly posting that they are not sensitive to criticism. Yeah, they are. It’s their entire raison d’etre: they’ve built up this flimsy façade, a museum of cards, that will all come tumbling down if you have any knowledge of how museums actually work — so questioning them openly, especially in a place where paying suckers customers might hear it, is forbidden.

When a group of us went to their “museum”, you could just see their paranoia twitch. They were very concerned that we amoral atheists might have gay sex on their exhibits, for instance, and told us not to.* We had to sign contracts promising good behavior. When we got there, there were guards with police dogs and tasers on patrol (from others, I heard that at least one of the guards was very friendly, but still…). Mark Looy was inspecting people’s t-shirts, and if they were bearing atheist slogans, they were asked to turn them inside out. We had one student threatened with eviction because he remarked on the cheesiness of the gift shop.

You get the idea. They don’t tell you you can’t come (they want your money!). But they will make you feel like an interloper if you exhibit your heathenish, scientific ways. They call it an insistence on “conducting yourselves in a professional manner”, but what they really mean is “don’t question anything while you are here.”

Especially, we learned, don’t question the gift shop!

*Not even if we brought condoms and promised it would be safe sex!

Occidental College President Jonathan Veitch must resign

Occidental College is a small school in northeastern Los Angeles. It’s got about 2,000 students at any one time. And it’s got a huge sexual assault problem: yesterday, 38 students and alumnae of Occidental filed a Title IX complaint with the Federal Department of Education claiming that the college violated civil rights law in its handling of reports of sexual assaults and rapes — which seem to happen on the Oxy campus with terrifying frequency.

Survivors of rape and sexual assault at Occidental report that administrators threatened them with unpleasant consequences when they enquired about the process of reporting a sexual assault. Survivors were warned that the hearings process was “long and arduous.” One survivor was told she’d be the one switching dorms rather than her assailant. When men were found in the course of college hearings to have indeed committed rapes of their fellow students, they were often merely suspended temporarily — and in at least two cases, those suspensions were lifted on appeal and the rapists “sentenced” to writing book reports instead.

Gloria Allred, who is providing the 38 plaintiffs with representation in their Title IX complaint, reports in the video embedded below that when Occidental President Jonathan Veitch was informed that an accused rapist was on the guest list for a social event at Veitch’s home, he responded by issuing a dis-invitation … to two members of the school’s sexual assault task force.

Here Allred speaks, along with several remarkably brave survivors and supportive faculty member Caroline Heldman, the school’s Politics Department chair.

What’s been the response of Occidental College president Jonathan Veitch to the issue? Browbeating sexual assault survivors in the campus press when they dare suggest he’s sitting with his thumbs up his ass:

I’m dismayed that having agreed to that conversation, a number of well-intentioned people have chosen to cast our motives into doubt; vilify dedicated, hard-working members of Student Affairs; question the sincerity of our response; and actively sought to embarrass the College on the evening news. That is their choice, and there is very little I can do about it. I can say that it reflects poorly on their commitment to this conversation and to the broader education that must take place if we are to change a culture we all find repugnant. The repugnance of sexual assault is not open to question; but the policies and procedures that guide our response to those incidents is something about which reasonable people can disagree. I’m sure there are those who feel that confrontation is necessary to exert pressure on the College to do the right thing. But there is a point where confrontation becomes an end in itself—satisfying, no doubt, but counter-productive with regard to our shared aims. When it crosses that threshold and descends into name-calling, vilification and misrepresentation, it undermines the trust and good will of everyone involved. And worst of all, it does not lead to progress on this important issue.

That letter to the campus paper was published March 5. Veitch has since walked it back some, saying that his letter may have “alienated people who care about sexual assault” and clarifying that his intent was to object to “the implication–reported in the media — that the College is not serious about the issue of sexual assault. We are very serious.”

Serious enough to have brought in, just this week, experienced sexual assault prosecutors as consultants to help the school assess and overhaul its enforcement policy. That’s a smart and sensible move.

It’s just too bad that Veitch waited until campus anti-rape activists lit a bonfire under his doubly enthumbed ass, complete with an appeal to the Department of Education to lift the school’s federal funding, before taking a step he should have taken on Day One. Veitch has been president at Occidental since 2009. That means all the students in the video linked above were raped on Veitch’s watch. All the administrative obstacles to survivors reporting assaults against them mentioned here happened on Veitch’s watch. All the stories relayed in the video above: On Veitch’s watch. All the assigned book reports and community service sentences for acts that should have brought jail time and sex offender registry? On Veitch’s watch.

Not that Veitch’s resigning would fix Occidental College’s rape problem: it sounds as though there are a few other administrators with serious culpability who ought to be examined as well.

But it would be a good start.

Rebecca Watson gives advice to conference speakers

It’s good advice, too, although I think she’s channeling her mother in the last bit, so maybe this should be titled “Rebecca Watson’s Mom gives advice…”

She’s suggesting that speakers should use their influence to increase diversity. I’m all for this, even if my possession of a pair of testicles carrying sperm of Northern European descent* makes me less likely to be invited.

Q. What advice would you give to other pro-women folks who speak at events regularly?

If you’re speaking at the right events, then the organizers care about diversity and reaching out to new audiences. Don’t be shy about asking them to find a good representation of women and minorities, and offer to help if you can. If you’re a man, you could refuse to speak on a panel that doesn’t have a woman on it. The worst that can happen is that you get disinvited, at which point just imagine what your mom would say: “Why would you want to hang out with those jerks anyway?”

And conference organizers should look at it from a conference organizer’s perspective: more diversity means your audience will be drawn from a larger pool of people, which will help your attendance. And it’s not discriminating against the White Man: there’s nothing inherently wrong with white male people, and some of them are smart and interesting and cool, so invite them…just don’t forget that their color and gender isn’t the part that makes them smart and interesting and cool, and that there are lots of other people who share the attributes that are important.

*Even having them in a jar on a shelf in your lab is apparently enough to reduce your popularity at cons.