News from the prairie

MPR talked about Morris today! A sign of the future in Morris: Cows + solar panels + fast electric car charger. We crave this kind of fame.

Today, the university community is celebrating the arrival of the only fast electric vehicle charger for more than 100 miles around. And later this spring, a 30-kilowatt solar array will be installed in an adjacent cow pasture, sending clean power to the charger.

It’s a big deal for electric vehicle ownership in western Minnesota: It can take days to charge an electric car at home from a regular electric outlet. Before now, the nearest fast charger was 120 miles away in Monticello.

Also, this:

“It’s sort of a wasteland beyond Monticello, and there’s nothing west of us,” said Eric Buchanan, a renewable energy researcher at the center.

(Monticello is a bit more than a 100 miles east of us; the Dakotas are west.)

So now you know. We are an oasis of electricity in the center of great empty wasteland, devoid of anything. OK, there is a bit of truth to that, except we do have far more corn and soybeans than you’d see in a Mad Max-style wasteland.

Which side was Michigan on in the Civil War?

There’s an ongoing protest at a Michigan high school, with Confederate flag waving students irate about an incident in which a black student ripped a traitor’s flag off of a white student’s truck. Now there are dozens of trucks cruising the school with their silly little flags.

I had to ask myself, “Wait a minute, Michigan is as far north as Minnesota, isn’t it? Were they a rebel state, too?” That’s rhetorical, by the way. I looked it up, even though I didn’t need to.

Michigan made a substantial contribution to the Union during the American Civil War. While the state itself was far removed from the combat theaters of the war, Michigan supplied a large number of troops and several generals, including George Armstrong Custer. When, at the beginning of the war, Michigan was asked to supply no more than four regiments, Governor Austin Blair sent seven.

Didn’t these kids learn any history in their high school?

Myers [NO RELATION] said the flag represented “a country boy thing” to him and his friends, and he told a reporter the symbol has been “part of American history” since the founding of the U.S.

“We’re flying the flag because of injustice,” Myers said. “It looks cool in the mirror,” he said.

No, apparently they did not.

I guess flying a flag representing slavery is actually “because of injustice”, just not the way they understand it.

Maybe we should take the train

Wow, the pilot on Southwest 1380 was remarkably professional and effective in dealing with an in-flight emergency.

Watch the first part of the video for the praise for Tammy Jo Shults, but then get horrified at the end, when it mentions that there was a similar incident in 2016, when an engine fan blade snapped. At that time, the engine manufacturers recommended ultrasound inspection of all turbine fans to spot invisible cracks in the blades.

Southwest Airlines ‘resisted’. The excuse in the video? “The airline business is a profit-making business.” Yeah, capitalism.

Apparently, other airlines also resisted. I’d like to know who, because we’re about to book some flights to visit family, and I’d rather not experience exploding engines or getting sucked out through a window. Southwest is off the list.

Your stereotypes are not helpful

Fascinating. My daughter is a graduate student in computer science at the University of Colorado. I wonder if Colorado is just like Maryland, where the TA handbook has different advice depending on your sex?

Advice to male TAs, in summary: Take charge and pay special attention to your male students, and watch out for the female students, who may be trying to get into your pants for a better grade.

Advice to female TAs, in summary: Be patient and friendly with students, and face it, people aren’t going to regard you as a professional in your career anyway.

Both sets of advice look terrible.

I don’t think my daughter is the type to put up with much nonsense, and she’s got more professional experience than any of her students, or many of her peers. Maybe UMD ought to rethink the message they’re sending here?

Fortunately, UMD recognizes the problem and has deleted the advice.


I was reading this article with a provocative title: Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic?. It set my alarm bells ringing from the title onward.

Look at those authors! So many, yet the paper itself is so empty of data. Most I don’t know. Steele I’ve heard of — he was promoting neo-Lamarckism in the 1980s, and thinks the Cambrian explosion was caused by retroviruses squirting new complex genes into the ancestors of all animals. Brig Klyce I’ve bumped into a few times on the internet…he’s a panspermia fanatic. Milton Wainwright is the guy who used an EM to look for odd blobs and declared they are evidence of alien life. The Wallis’s were part of a time that announced that diatoms came from outer space. Oh, and Chandra Wickramasinghe…yes, we have crossed paths multiple times. He published a lot in the Journal of Cosmology, with an editor, Rhawn Joseph, who really, really doesn’t like me.

Wickramasinghe has been making bank on this nonsensical idea that genes for complex intelligent life have periodically rained down on the Earth from outer space. There is no evidence for it, and no reason to invoke this random phenomenon to explain biology — we have random phenomena enough, thank you very much, and none of them have the extreme weirdness of the space virus explanation.

I guess I have heard of quite a few of the authors! And it’s a most unsavory stew of notorious crackpots.

Let’s take a look at the abstract for this gem of a paper, shall we?

We review the salient evidence consistent with or predicted by the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe (H-W) thesis of Cometary (Cosmic) Biology. Much of this physical and biological evidence is multifactorial. One particular focus are the recent studies which date the emergence of the complex retroviruses of vertebrate lines at or just before the Cambrian Explosion of ~500 Ma. Such viruses are known to be plausibly associated with major evolutionary genomic processes. We believe this coincidence is not fortuitous but is consistent with a key prediction of H-W theory whereby major extinction-diversification evolutionary boundaries coincide with virus-bearing cometary-bolide bombardment events. A second focus is the remarkable evolution of intelligent complexity (Cephalopods) culminating in the emergence of the Octopus. A third focus concerns the micro-organism fossil evidence contained within meteorites as well as the detection in the upper atmosphere of apparent incoming life-bearing particles from space. In our view the totality of the multifactorial data and critical analyses assembled by Fred Hoyle, Chandra Wickramasinghe and their many colleagues since the 1960s leads to a very plausible conclusion — life may have been seeded here on Earth by life-bearing comets as soon as conditions on Earth allowed it to flourish (about or just before 4.1 Billion years ago); and living organisms such as space-resistant and space-hardy bacteria, viruses, more complex eukaryotic cells, fertilised ova and seeds have been continuously delivered ever since to Earth so being one important driver of further terrestrial evolution which has resulted in considerable genetic diversity and which has led to the emergence of mankind.

It’s a moderately long paper, because it’s really easy to layer on thick coats of bullshit when you don’t care about the quality of the evidence. So I’m just going to look at — can you guess? — his second focus, “the remarkable evolution of intelligent complexity (Cephalopods) culminating in the emergence of the Octopus”.

It’s garbage.

There are novelties in cephalopod evolution, and I’ve written about them before. In particular, cephalopods carry out a significant amount of gene editing, that is, they use enzymes to modify a few of the bases in RNA before it is translated into protein. This is not a shocking surprise — it’s not a universal modification of every RNA, but it has been observed in phyla all across the animal kingdom — although some gullible sources claim it is a violation of the central dogma (they’re wrong). But the key thing is that it’s not unique to cephalopods, lots of organisms have the enzymes, so you can’t use it as evidence for the claim that gene editing came from outer space.

In particular, there is no reasonable justification for this claim:

Thus the possibility that cryopreserved Squid and/or Octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted (below) as that would be a parsimonious cosmic explanation for the Octopus’ sudden emergence on Earth ca. 270 million years ago. Indeed this principle applies to the sudden appearance in the fossil record of pretty well all major life forms, covered in the prescient concept of “punctuated equilibrium” by Eldridge and Gould advanced in the early 1970s (1972, 1977); and see the conceptual cartoon of Fig. 6. Therefore, similar living features like this “as if the genes were derived from some type of pre-existence” (Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, 1981) apply to many other biological ensembles when closely examined. One little known yet cogent example is the response and resistance of the eye structures of the Drosophila fruit fly to normally lethally damaging UV radiation at 2537 Å, given that this wavelength does not penetrate the ozone layer and is thus not evident as a Darwinian selective factor at the surface of the Earth (Lutz and Grisewood, 1934) and see Hoyle and Wickramasinghe (1981, p.12e13). Many of these “unearthly” properties of organisms can be plausibly explained if we admit the enlarged cosmic biosphere that is indicated by modern astronomical research e discoveries of exoplanets already discussed. The average distance between habitable planets in our galaxy now to be reckoned in light years e typically 5 light years (Wickramasinghe et al., 2012). Virion/gene exchanges thus appear to be inevitable over such short cosmic distances. The many features of biology that are not optimised to local conditions on the Earth may be readily understood in this wider perspective.

We’ve gone from a few viral genes raining down on Earth and getting incorporated into life, to frozen squid eggs drifting from Alpha Centauri to Earth in icy meteors and somehow crashing into our oceans and surviving to populate the seas. I don’t think the authors understand the word “parsimonious”. If this were true, cephalopods would represent an entirely novel lineage, and more than having a few molecular novelties, they would be completely unrelated to any other animal lineage on the planet. They would not be related to other molluscs. They would not be protostomes. They would not be eukaryotes. They would be totally alien.

The authors even seem to be superficially conscious of this problem. Here is the “conceptual cartoon of Fig. 6”.

This diagram is what you get when you pretend that lineages are made solely of apomorphies, or the derived traits that distinguish each species from other organisms, and close your eyes to the plesiomorphies, or shared similarities. A phylogenetic tree is not “forced”, it is produced by identifying shared traits. The octopus has molecular similarities to snails, and the two together have similarities to other invertebrates, and all of them have shared attributes with all animals. You don’t get to just ignore all that! This is equivalent to saying that octopuses have tentacles, therefore octopuses are from outer space, completely neglecting the fact that octopuses have homologous genes linking them to insects and sea cucumbers and people.

To back up the remarkable assertion that cephalopods fell from space, they present no evidence, other than a flurry of citations of … N. Chandra Wickramasinghe. It’s an embarrassingly masturbatory display. Wickramasinghe and his associates have been churning out these useless, garbage papers for decades, and now they use the volume of shit he has produced as evidence that his shit is valid. He occasionally sprinkles in references to other authors, which he gets wrong: Stephen J. Gould would not recognize figure 6 as an accurate representation of punctuated equilibrium. This is not how science is supposed to work. It’s simply fraudulent.

Wickramasinghe used to be associated with Cardiff University — they fired him and closed his astrobiology ‘department’, which turns out to have been a bit of a Potemkin village anyway. It was run entirely by Wickramasinghe as a part-time employee, and the entirety of the staff were “honorary”, unpaid volunteers.

“It was only costing them between £14,000 and £15,000 (about $24,000) a year to retain me as a part time director of the centre.

“All the other staff, totaling about 12, is honorary research fellows and associates who were not costing the university anything at all. They have brought a huge amount of credit to Cardiff University and so it amazed me that the university would discontinue their support for astrobiology. “What they did to me is a travesty of normal university practice and I still don’t understand the motive. I can’t believe for a moment that they are strapped for £15,000 a year to maintain a centre that has, for good or bad, a very high profile internationally. “We continue to make headlines in various things that we do. Some of our work remains controversial but it is in the nature of science to promote controversy as long as it is intelligent controversy. That’s within the rules of the game. If people agree 100 per cent what they’re doing then science becomes a bit insubstantial. “I just fail to understand why they do this. It could be ageism because, at 71, I’m over the retirement age by a couple of years, but I’ve been around for years and have published many papers. I was Sir Fred Hoyle’s longest-running collaborator from the time I was a student at Cambridge.”

Cardiff claims the closure was entirely due to budgetary reasons, but I rather suspect that, contrary to Wickramasinghe’s claim, his slack work and low standards of evidence have frequently brought discredit to the university.

Don’t cry for Chandra, though. He was snapped up by the University of Buckingham to form a “centre for astrobiology”. I think that might mean he was allowed to host a webpage on their site, because he’s never had a real research unit, and I doubt that he’s been given the funds for one now.

But yeah, if you see his name on anything, or apparently any of the names in that long list of articles, you’ve found a treasure trove of pseudoscience.

Omniology fails to check Snopes

Ah, yes…the familiar “There were giants in the Earth in those days” spiel. I’m always surprised at how credulous creationists are.

You may be wondering where you can see the bones of the 12 meter tall man, like this fellow:

The answer is…find someone good with Photoshop. Also, be ignorant of the square-cube law. You could also try watching the recent HBO documentary about Andre the Giant, who was ‘only’ 7 feet tall and suffered terribly from the difficulties of joints that couldn’t cope with the weight.

By the way, the image seems to come from the Mt Blanco Creation Museum and Journal of Omniology, the less well-known creation ‘museum’ in Texas. It’s one I’d like to visit someday, because the owner, Joe Taylor, seems wackier than most, but it’s got a history of financial woes and was up and down for years. He doesn’t seem to be quite as venal as Ken Ham, but he is pretty cranky.

Have you ever wondered why the #MeToo movement hasn’t caught up with Michael Shermer?

I can tell you why: it’s because he bullies people, is litigious, and does his best to make life miserable for anyone who squeaks. I publicized a woman’s first person account of how he took advantage of her at a conference — she was terrified that he’d go after her and he did — and he responded by encouraging conference organizers to blackball me, and threw a lawsuit at me (he later backed down, since it was just going to be a parade of witnesses describing his deplorable behavior).

That turns out to be a common reaction on his part.

Shermer spoke at a west coast college lately, and one faculty member objected, sharing articles others had written about his behavior to the college’s in-house e-mail list. Shermer went ballistic. He sent a long, angry email to the professor; had another person who writes for his magazine contact them; made legal threats; defamed them (confirmed by a lawyer); sent multiple aggressive emails to the campus email list; blustered as he does, and eventually backed down on his threats of a lawsuit, after compelling my correspondent to hire a lawyer to deal with all the sabre-rattling. A portion of their email to me:

Shermer was a recent campus speaker at my college and after I shared articles about the allegations against him, I received legal threats from him (among other things in a 10 paragraph long email), intimidation from someone that writes for his magazine, I had to retain a lawyer, all while my college administration knew it all has been happening and stayed quiet (and then sent a late night email saying “let’s not get distracted…” after the campus faculty and staff generated a 8k gofundme account so I could afford a lawyer, but I’ve digressed…). This Saturday Shermer sent his second all-campus horrible email defaming me for the second time and said even though he has a “really good case against me” (he doesn’t) he’s decided to not sue me (when really his lawyers probably told him there is no case after my lawyer responded twice). There’s a million more details that I’m leaving out for now.

Now doesn’t that sound familiar? It’s what he did to me, except, at least, he didn’t spam my campus email server with his diatribes. This is how he always reacts, rushing to silence others’ free speech.

Somehow, though, those alt-right/right wing crusaders for “FREE SPEECH” never get around to criticizing their libertarian hero. I don’t know why, other than that it’s entirely clear that they’re actually interested in suppressing some free speech…just not their own. Another email from my correspondent:

I guess he’s shut down now, as he sent a second letter to my campus (that was sent all campus for the second time by a problematic adjunct faculty member who is acting like Shermer’s lap dog), but what bugs me is he gets to do this over and over again to people. He sent me two cease desists from his attorneys. Luckily my attorney shut it down both times. I knew he had no case from her go, as all I did was share articles written years ago with my campus.

His first letter that went all-campus (literally everyone I work with!) was 10 paragraphs of vitriol where he threatened to have a restraining order against me and his wife was going to be on “the look out for me”. He defamed me in it (actually defamed me, as confirmed by my lawyer).

Why does Scientific American employ such an asshole? As you know best, he’s been accused of this stuff multiple times by multiple people and even had a title ix investigation on him at Chapman….and he’s uses heavy handed letters to silence people. I was hoping someone would write an article about his tactics. Is that not interesting in the wake of the me too movement to see how people like him operate to silence people? Perhaps you have grown tired of him, but maybe you know someone in your circle that wants to pursue this further? After living through his reign of bullshit of a month, there’s a level of Justice I haven’t felt by him getting the last word on my campus AGAIN with his nonsense with “I’ve decided not to sue.” (When he had no case).

I’ve also read some of the responses of his defenders on campus. Some are shocked and regretful — they’ve been using his articles in classes for years and never heard about any of this (Why haven’t they? Because Shermer launches lawyers at anyone who mentions it). Others flat out lied, saying that all of the accusations against him had been formally debunked. That is flatly untrue.

My correspondent was willing to publicly identify themselves, and it was my decision to keep them anonymous for now — although, at least, there’s enough information in this post that Shermer could figure out who his accuser is. Maybe. It could be there are so many of them he can’t be sure. But they did ask that I include one additional comment — they aren’t going to back down from his bullying behavior.

These horrible attacks by Shermer are intentionally hurtful and you can add mine to the voices objecting to this treatment.

I also have to repeat their question. Why does Scientific American employ such an asshole? It’s not as if he’s even producing competent articles, as has been noted yet again recently.