Yankee brainlessness

The craven tools in congress can’t get up the nerve to increase gun control so our kids won’t be as likely to be shot in school, but that just creates opportunity for capitalists. You can now buy bulletproof backpacks.

Lined with ballistic material that can stop a 9mm bullet travelling at 400 metres per second, the backpack is only one of a clutch of new products making their way into US schools in the wake of Newtown school massacre. As gun control legislation grinds to halt in Washington, a growing number of parents and teachers are taking matters into their own hands.

The Denver company that supplied Jaliyah’s rucksack, Elite Sterling Security, has sold over 300 in the last two months and received inquiries from some 2,000 families across the US. It is also in discussion with more than a dozen schools in Colorado about equipping them with ballistic safety vests, a scaled-down version of military uniforms designed to hang in classroom cupboards for children to wear in an emergency.

Parents “taking matters into their own hands” in the most selfish and stupid way imaginable. If only that effort could be focused on getting assault rifles out of the hands of self-righteous assholes…but there is no money for Elite Sterling Security in improving actual security, but there’s a lot in increasing fear.

Is this some kind of test for creeps?

I watched this ad for a new service unbelievingly. Who at Virgin America thought this was a good idea?

Maybe it’s a kind of psychological test — a kind of video gom jabbar. If you’re watching it and thinking that this is a wonderful idea for all involved — the men get to be generous and charming, the women get free alcohol and compliments — then you’re an animal. If you watch it and are appalled at the attempt to use access to unwilling, trapped women as an enticement to use his commercial airline, you pass the humanity test.

If you don’t see it yet, read this account of a woman who was harrassed on a flight without Richard Branson’s facilitation. Are you getting a little closer to humanity yet?

If not, one more thought. Watch the video. Imagine yourself buying a ticket to get access to hot chicks on the flight. Imagine all the hot chicks watching this same video, and immediately rebooking their flights to a different airline. Imagine boarding the flight to discover it’s entirely occupied by leering lechers who are peering around the cabin looking for the available women.

I know I don’t want to be on that flight. I’m not going to be on that flight. Virgin America won’t be getting my business.

It’s another exam day!

I’ve been terrible about updating everyone about my class the last few weeks — we’re coming up on the end of the semester, so I’ve been going a little bit mad. We’ve been focusing on vertebrate development lately, and right now we’ve got a few dozen fertilized chicken eggs sitting in an incubator and developing embryos. Maybe. It is always a real pain to get these things delivered to remote Morris, Minnesota — I delayed this part of the lab to the very end of the semester, hoping the sun would emerge and warm the hemisphere enough that when UPS took their sweet time getting them to me, they wouldn’t freeze in the back of the truck. As usual, though, next day delivery turned into two day delivery, and we haven’t seen Spring yet. So we’ll soon know whether they survived their harrowing journey through the frigid Northlands, and if they haven’t, I’ll have to throw up my hands and cry.

Or I could torture my students to ease my frustration. Yeah, that’s the ticket. So it’s exam day.

Developmental Biology Exam #3

This is a take-home exam. You are free and even encouraged to discuss these questions with your fellow students, but please write your answers independently — I want to hear your voice in your essays. Also note that you are UMM students, and so I have the highest expectations for the quality of your writing, and I will be grading you on grammar and spelling and clarity of expression as well as the content of your essays and your understanding of the concepts.

Answer two of the following three questions, 500-1000 words each. Do not retype the questions into your essay; if I can’t tell which one you’re answering from the story you’re telling, you’re doing it wrong. Include a word count in the top right corner of each of the two essays, and your name in the top left corner of each page. This assignment is due in class on Monday, and there will be a penalty for late submissions.

Question 1: One of Sarah Palin’s notorious gaffes was her dismissal of “fruit fly research” — she thought it was absurd that the government actually funded science on flies. How would you explain to a congressman that basic research is important? I’m going to put two constraints on your answer: 1) It has to be comprehensible to Michele Bachmann, and 2) don’t take the shortcut of promising that which you may not deliver. That is, no “maybe it will cure cancer!” claims, but focus instead on why we should appreciate deeper knowledge of biology.

Question 2: There is an interesting tension in evo devo: on the one hand, we like to talk about the universality of molecular mechanisms, but on the other hand, we’re also very interested in the differences, both in phenotype and genetics. This is an old debate in evolutionary theory, too, so it’s not unique to development, but how do you reconcile unity and diversity simultaneously?

Question 3: When I told you about axis specification in Drosophila, the story was relatively straightforward: maternal factors switch on a chain of zygotic genes that set up the pattern. When I told you about the same process in vertebrates, though, I didn’t give you the same level of detail—I gave you buckets of transcription factors and said they had various roles. Dig deeper. Pick ONE of these vertebrate dorsalizing factors out of the bucket and tell me more about it: noggin, chordin, frizbee, goosecoid, pintallavis.

A weekend in Romania

The IHEU General Assembly is taking place in Bucharest the weekend of 26th May, and I’ll be going. I have to think about what I’m going to talk about…

Hmmm…here’s some inspiration.

In Romania the theory of evolution was taken out from the biology classes for several years, and it was reintroduced only as a result of strong pressure from the civil society and the international organizations. But the situation is not much better in the present. The creationism is taught at school from the very beginning of school, in each year, through the religion class; in the same time, the evolution of species is first mentioned in the biology class only in the eighth grade. As a result, 74% of the Romanian pupils consider that creationism is right and only 14% have this opinion about evolution.

Given that the theme is “Education, Science and Human Rights”, I might be able to come up with something to say.

The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree

There’s another Hovind! And he’s an idiot, too! I’m no fan of genetic determinism, but man, when every person I know saddled with the name Hovind is a bible-thumping twit, I begin to have doubts.

The new Hovind is Chad. He’s a preacher, of course, and he likes to turn complex subjects into simple-minded Bible verses, of course, and he’s making videos to promote his nonsense, of course. His thing is Godonomics. You guessed it, the Bible tells you everything you need to know about economics. And his god is a free market capitalist, of course.

I watched a couple of his introductory videos. It’s the usual schtick: selective use of Bible verses with his own interpretations that allow him to twist it into his desired conclusion. We’re apparently supposed to recognize that “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn” is a deep insight into modern economics, if only we’d see it.

I was also amused…hey, is he using a felt board to make his arguments? I haven’t seen one of those since Sunday school. Imagine Glenn Beck (who praises “Godonomics”, as does Mike Huckabee) using a felt board to put up his frantic diagrammatic scenarios. That’s this Hovind.

I looked, but I couldn’t see if Chad is fond of the kind of economic advice that put Kent in jail.

I have to disagree with Jerry Coyne

Ball State University has a crap course on their curriculum: they have a crank professor, Eric Hedin, who is pushing religion and creationism in the guise of an astronomy course. It’s bad science and bad teaching, and I think Coyne has adequately document the abysmal quality of the material. It’s all religious apologetics and intelligent design creationism. I’m not going to disagree with that at all, and Ball State ought to be acutely embarrassed.

Unfortunately, this part of Coyne’s disagreement is invalid.

This has to stop, for Hedin’s course, and the University’s defense of it, violate the separation of church and state mandated by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (“freedom of religion”) and which has been so interpreted by the courts. It’s religion taught as science in a public university, and it’s not only wrong but illegal.  I have tried approaching the University administration, and have been rebuffed.

This will now go to the lawyers.

No, sorry, not right — academic freedom is the issue here, and professors have to have the right to teach unpopular, controversial issues, even from an ignorant perspective. The first amendment does not apply; this is not a course students are required to take, and it’s at a university, which students are not required to attend. It’s completely different from a public primary or secondary school. A bad course is an ethical problem, not a legal one. It’s also an issue that the university has to handle internally.

This kind of thing happens. I’ve known of a couple of cases where faculty go ’round the bend and start flaking out in the classroom, and there’s not much you can do, except what Ball State seems to be doing. Put the person into low level service courses where they have to teach students something basic, like algebra, where their weird views can’t do much harm. Or give them some non-majors elective where they aren’t going to have much influence. I notice in Hedin’s courses that he’s only teaching low level courses and honors/interdisciplinary courses. It looks like maybe the department is doing their best to isolate a problem.

Another option is to take this history into consideration in tenure decisions. Hedin is an assistant professor, and so is probably untenured — the department may be avoiding confrontation until it gets dealt with decisively in Hedin’s tenure year.

If you’ve got a tenured professor who has gone weird on you, it’s a bigger problem…then you’ve got damage that needs to be routed around. Check out Michael Behe’s class schedule at Lehigh, for instance. It looks to me like they’ve carefully placed him only in courses where his ignorance about evolution won’t hurt too much. Are we going to sue Lehigh to get him fired? That won’t work, and is also an insult to a department that is doing their best with a bit of deadwood.

I think it’s very unwise for an atheist professor to pursue legal action against another professor for their religious views. That’s a two-edged sword, and if a university were to cave to public pressure to fire a professor for unpopular views, you know who’d be next.

Now it is possible that the whole physics department at Ball State is full of credulous nitwits who are trying to build a theological perspective into their curriculum. That will be corrected in two ways: they’re going to have a more difficult time hiring good faculty, and as the reputation of their department spreads, they’re going to have a more difficult time recruiting good students. Rot expands, you know. It’s not a good thing to encourage.

But it’s probably premature to threaten a department with legal action for having one dingbat assistant professor.

(via Larry Moran)

I’d watch it

But only to laugh at it. Some new pseudoscientific ‘documentary’ has been released this week, titled Sirius, which apparently has everything in it: conspiracy theories galore, ancient astronauts, zero point energy, pyramids, UFOs, antigravity, war, top secret government agencies, and aliens. One alien at least; the big feature proving the existence of aliens from outer space is dessicated, tiny little corpse of an “alien” found in the Atacama desert.

I saw that and knew immediately what it was. It’s human. It’s simply a mummified fetus, in which the plates of the skull (still quite distinct) have collapsed on themselves as the flesh dried out.

Here are a few shots of the obvious.

"Alien" mummy from Chile

"Alien" mummy from Chile

Apparently, the UFOlogists are all surprised now because they had a lab run some simple tests, and they returned the information that it was human — and an indigenous Chilean native, at that. Whoop-te-doo. Anyone other than a deluded fanatic could see that by just looking at the sad little thing.

I did find out one useful bit of information, though: a site with a skeptical summary of all the purported alien corpses that have turned up over the years, from shaved monkeys to deformed children to fake alien mannequins. I have to say that I rather liked the Siberian alien made out of bread crumbs and chicken skin. There’s some real artistic talent there.