The epigenetics miracle?

Jerry Coyne is mildly incensed — once again, there’s a lot of recent hype about epigenetics, and he doesn’t believe it’s at all revolutionary. Well, I’ve written about epigenetics before, I think it’s an extremely important subject central to our understanding of development, and…I agree with him completely. It’s important, we ought to spend more time discussing it in our classes, but it’s all about the process of gene expression, not about radically changing our concepts of evolution. I like to argue that what multigenerational epigenetic effects do is blur out or modulate the effects of genetic change over time, and it might mask out or highlight allelic variation, but ultimately, it’s all about the underlying genetic differences.

Coyne mentions one journalist who claims that new discoveries in epigenetics would “make Darwin swoon,” which is a bizarre standard. Darwin knew next-to-nothing about genetics — he had his own weird version of Lamarckian inheritance — and wasn’t even equipped to imagine molecular biology, so yes, just about anything in this field would dazzle him. My freshman introductory biology course would blow Charles Darwin away — he’d have to struggle to keep up with the products of American public education.

(Also on Sb)

Quacks everywhere

David Colquhoun has posted an excellent series of posts on the Steiner Waldorf schools, 19th century crackpottery that persists even now, by hiding their fundamentally pseudoscientific basis under a fog of fancy invented terms. He discusses their goofy philosophy of anthroposophistry, their devious efforts to get state funding, and their unfortunate but unsurprising history of racism. It’s wild and crazy stuff, and it’s been sidling under the radar for a while.

What initially drew me to DC’s site was his article on quackery in retreat: the University of Westminster has discarded some of their previous offerings in naturopathy. There is still a fair amount of junk in their curriculum, but there’s hope that those are waning too.

I needed that bit of solace, because my university’s official listserve sent me a wonderful offer earlier this week.

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Episode CCXLVII: Marry gaily

The Minnesota Atheists’ talk radio show this morning (9am Central) is all about gay marriage — we have a discrimination law suit working its way up the ladder in this state, trying to reverse the official homophobic policies around here. I think we should just bring in Jamie Kilstein to tour the state and explain the situation to everyone. That’ll straighten everyone out. No, wait, what’s the opposited of straighten? Kink everyone up?

(This video is NSFW, at all.)

(Last edition of TET)

Anti-Caturday post

I vividly recall the first time I encountered a cicada killer, the amazing huge solitary wasp. I was in eighth grade; I was bumming about in our backyard, not doing much of anything, when I heard this loud clattering buzz overhead, looked up, and saw this giant beast slowly cruising towards our apple tree. It looked like something that ought to be accompanied by Flight of the Valkyries, an armored predatory monster determinedly homing in on its helpless prey. It disappeared into the foliage and then reappeared a moment later carrying a cicada that looked to be twice its size, and it landed on a branch overhead and started chomping. I could hear its jaws cracking open the bug from the ground. It just shredded its meal — and it wasn’t tidy, either. Bits of dead cicada came fluttering down around me. I was frantically looking about the yard for something I could use as a club in case it turned its dead glittering eyes on me.

And ever since that day it has been my dream to grow up and become a Sphecius wasp, a cold, brutal killer capable of rending my enemies into shattered fragments with heedless indifference, inspiring terror in all who behold me. Until now. A new species of wasp has been discovered in the fierce jungles of Indonesia.

Behold the dreaded killer of Sulawesi.

The male measures about two-and-a-half-inches long, Kimsey said. “Its jaws are so large that they wrap up either side of the head when closed. When the jaws are open they are actually longer than the male’s front legs. I don’t know how it can walk.”

Its jaws are longer than its legs. Awesome. I’m in love.

(via Bug Girl)

(Also on Sb)

The Perry Principles

I’m willing to give Rick Perry credit for one thing: he’s very clear on his objectives as a politician, even if those goals are batshit insane. He’s even published a list of priorities for a Perry presidency. These are actually seven reasons to retire him to some patch of parched desert in Texas and leave him to mummify.

He really hates “activist judges”, that catch-all phrase for judges that make decisions conservatives don’t like. His solution? Bog our congress down in appointment hearings that the Republicans will blindly block.

1. Abolish lifetime tenure for federal judges by amending Article III, Section I of the Constitution.

Also, hey, let’s gut the Supreme Court and give all of its powers to congress! Where precedent can be ignored and the crony capitalists can both make the laws and interpret them!

2. Congress should have the power to override Supreme Court decisions with a two-thirds vote.

Meanwhile, let’s bankrupt the federal government and remove its major source of revenue. We don’t need no central government, after all, just let the states each do it their own way. So why is Perry running for president again?

3. Scrap the federal income tax by repealing the Sixteenth Amendment.

The senate is not elitist enough. Let’s just appoint ‘em all — and just think, the starving government can make a little money by selling those appointments to corporate citizens. Senator Monsanto, Senator Boeing, anyone?

4. End the direct election of senators by repealing the Seventeenth Amendment.

In addition to abolishing all income tax revenue (see #3), Perry will require the government to balance its budget every year. $0 in, $0 out. Easy.

5. Require the federal government to balance its budget every year.

It’s not enough that he plans to tear up the established political structure of the entire country, and destroy the federal government…he then wants to turn around and use that gutted national government to compel all the states to obey his medieval social agenda. Consistency isn’t his strong suit, nor is compassion. So, high on his list of priorities we find…slap the gays down.

6. The federal Constitution should define marriage as between one man and one woman in all 50 states.

And after those gays are shut up, let’s get to work on the wimmin. No abortions! Ever!

7. Abortion should be made illegal throughout the country.

And this deranged conservative maniac is being treated as a serious candidate by the media? Madness rules.

The world is upside down in Kentucky

In a weird reversal of the normal state of affairs, the Democratic governor of Kentucky has long been pushing support for Ken Ham’s ridiculous Ark Park…and now his Republican challenger, David Williams, has come out opposing it. Even more interestingly, he argues that the feasibility study was bogus, and that it simply won’t get built. Of course, Ken Ham isn’t happy with that.

Unfortunately, Williams is far behind in the polls, and isn’t expected to succeed in his bid.

Or rather, fortunately. My brain would melt into a puddle that flowed out my ears if I lived in a country where the crazy social conservatives were the pro-science party, while the social progressives were all NewAgey dingleberries who promoted bad science. It sort of saves my sanity that the Republicans tend to be so unremittingly evil on all fronts that the sickly performance of the Democrats doesn’t cause me any major dilemmas. Just constant despair.

(Also on Sb)

“love getting and staying naked”!

It’s almost getting to be a law of human nature, this event is becoming so common.

Meet Representative Phil Hinkle of Indiana. He’s a Republican. He’s strongly against gay marriage — he has voted to make it illegal.

And…you know exactly where this is going, don’t you? Every single one of you out there, even if you haven’t seen it in the news already, are sitting there, nodding your head, rolling your eyes, confident that you already know what this is about.

You’re making me feel totally superfluous, you know? Why should I even bother writing this up, when you know-it-alls can see it coming from a thousand miles away? Dammit, you’re making me feel useless.

Try to at least pretend to be surprised, OK? Just humor me.

Rep. Hinkle tried to score a rent-boy for an evening out on the town this past weekend.

Put on your shock-horror faces for just a minute, please.

OK, now you can stop putting on the act. Yeah, Hinkle browsed Craigslist for young men, found a good-looking fellow with his shirt off, and sent him an email.

“Cannot be a long time sugar daddy,” the email reads, “but can for tonight. Would you be interested in keeping me company for a while tonight?”

The email offers “to make it worth (your) while” in cash, and offers a personal description: “I am an in shape married professional, 5’8″, fit 170 lbs, and love getting and staying naked.”

Apparently, the price of a rent-boy in Indianapolis is $80, plus a $60 tip if he does a good job, plus giving him your blackberry and iPad in a desperate attempt to keep him quiet afterwards. This is good to know in case I ever turn into a homophobic Republican and rent-boy rentals become obligatory.

By the way, I’m a healthy married professional, 5’10”, 195 lbs (and shrinking), and I don’t mind being naked in the privacy of my home, but I tend not to flaunt it, and don’t regard it as a major selling point. Do I need to put these data on my business card? Or is it only relevant if I’m a Republican?

Spam advice

The Dennis Markuze story has made it to Ars Technica. I am much relieved to have that pest gone from my mailbox, but I was thinking about one point everybody is missing: the human brain seems to have an edge over computers.

I just checked, and the FtB site has accumulated about 2100 spam hits which none of you have seen, but which were automatically intercepted by the software (you aren’t missing much: somebody really wants to sell you shoes, lots of shoes). Markuze was hitting me on email and twitter for more than that, and the thing was, those all got past the filters I’ve got in place. So one obsessed crazy man with minimal technical skill and nothing but persistence outperforms all the spambots out there, at least on the scale of individuals, if not in breadth of attack.

Spammers might want to think about that. Instead of writing a new generation of software to circumvent our filters, maybe they should recruit social misfits with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and write software that amplifies their efforts. You can blame me if they take my advice.

(Also on Sb)