Oscar time tonight! I’ll skip it.

Time to consider the Academy Awards, or not. This year it’s going to be terrible, I can tell, because I think there are two phenomenal movies that absolutely deserve to win, and that we’ll be rewatching with pleasure years from now, and one picture that is total crap and will probably sweep the awards. It means that there is no way I will sit up to watch the whole thing. Besides, I’m a bit sick right now and would rather lie in bed hacking up a lung than see La La Land win.

So here, in order of my preference, are my choices.

Arrival: This is what good science fiction movies are supposed to be: thoughtful, unsettling, with ideas that will make you question what you would do. Wait, she had the child knowing exactly what would happen to her? Forget the aliens, there is a moral dilemma to consider, and there is a character who was strong enough to take the good with the bad.

Hidden Figures: This one was amazing, intense, enraging, and affirming. It makes me want to shake all those people who claim that science is apolitical and march them into the theater to watch it. I want to watch it again, and if I do, I’d probably rank it as #1 this year. And then if I watched Arrival again, I’d flip-flop.

Hell or High Water: A grim slice of Americana. Good, and I’d compare it to a previous year’s Nebraska — definitely worthy, but I’m needing my entertainment to carry a little bit of hope nowadays.

Hacksaw Ridge: Nope. Nope nope nope. Mel Gibson graphically tortures another Christ-figure for hours. He’s a master of a nasty little genre, I’ll give him that, but I’d rather not ever see another film like this one.

La La Land: It reminded me of Birdman, another movie that raked in the awards because it was about how wonderful and gifted actors are, and how much they suffer for their craft. Two hours of narcissistic wanking.

Then there are movies I haven’t seen yet. I hear great things about Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, and if half of them are true, it was actually a great year for movies. Too bad the Hollywood masturbation movie will clean up.


Manchester by the Sea



OK, those are my irrelevant choices — irrelevant because I have no say at all in this popularity contest. You also don’t have any say, but do go ahead and say what you think here, anyway.

The word for the day is “inured”

I think Larry Moran has just discovered Michio Kaku. All those years on talk.origins must have toughened his hide, because he seems really unperturbed about the idiocy and ignorance pouring out of Kaku’s mouth. The only thing worse than Kaku here is the stupidity in the YouTube comments…but that goes without saying.

Who needs knowledge when being sublimely confident is regarded as a perfectly acceptable substitute?

Sorry, Australia: #DontCryWolfe

He’s leaping from our shores to yours: David Avocado Wolf is going to visit Australia! If you only read what he writes about himself, you might think this is a good idea.

David Wolfe, who refers to himself as the rock star and Indiana Jones of the superfoods and longevity universe and boasts the world’s top CEOs, ambassadors, celebrities, athletes, artists, and the real superheroes of this planet — mums — all look to David for expert advice in health, beauty, herbalism, nutrition, and chocolate. He incorrectly states on his website that a growing body of evidence indicates that vaccines are not safe and that they can injure, permanently maim, or even kill you or a family member. There is no such body of evidence.

Of course, if you ask anyone else, he’s a flaming nutbar.

His claims…include that chocolate is an octave of sun energy, mushrooms are extraterrestrial, and… gravity ain’t no thang.

Or a fraud.

David is a con artist. He preys on anti-sciencers by using pseudo-intelligent word salad. He is fantastic at combining a string of words together that sounds intelligible, however when you actually examine them, they’re nonsensical.

His only talent seems to be gaming facebook.

A purveyor of myths and miracle products, David “Avocado” Wolfe fuels the decline of critical thinking, convinces people they can prevent or cure real ailments with ineffective supplements, and demonizes life-saving vaccines and cancer treatments, all by growing his massive social media following with clever internet memes.

But there is a sucker born every minute, and a predator who preys on the stupid is going to thrive.

Owner of Jing Organics Adam Kingsley said he did not care about the concerns of people and hoped David Wolfe would spread the anti-vaccine message.

“I’m anti-vaccine, I’m publicly open about that, just because stuff is peer reviewed doesn’t mean it’s true. David Wolfe is a world health expert,” Mr Kingsley said.

David Wolfe calls himself a nutritionist, believes the world is flat and claims gravity is a hoax.

Mr Kingsley claimed vaccines cause autism because he is in the health industry, (he makes saukraut and fermented foods and sell organic products) and he speak to mothers whose children have autism.

World Health Expert, hah. He’s a phony. Australia is actually letting him into the country to lie to its citizens? Tsk.

We used to think the internet could be self-policing, too

Back in the old days, the internet was full of kooks: there was the timecube guy, and Archimedes Plutonium, and Robert McElwaine (UN-altered REPRODUCTION and DISSEMINATION of this IMPORTANT information is ENCOURAGED), and the Velikovskiites, and a host of other strange folk, and that was fine. The weirdos spiced things up, and besides, their followings consisted mostly of people laughing at them. The most troubling thing now is not that there are oddballs, but that there are huge mobs of people following and agreeing with them, and amplifying their message to an absurd degree. Alex Jones would have been a classic Usenet crank, for instance, ridiculed and mocked, but now? He’s raking in the dough and is advising the president.

A Buzzfeed article pins much of the blame for that on one outlet, YouTube.

The entire contemporary conspiracy-industrial complex of internet investigation and social media promulgation, which has become a defining feature of media and politics in the Trump era, would be a very small fraction of itself without YouTube. Yes, the site most people associate with “Gangnam Style,” pirated music, and compilations of dachshunds sneezing is also the central content engine of the unruliest segments of the ascendant right-wing internet, and sometimes its enabler.

To wit, the conspiracy-news internet’s biggest stars, some of whom now enjoy New Yorker profiles and presidential influence, largely live on YouTube — some of them on the site’s news channel. Infowars — whose founder and host, Alex Jones, claims Sandy Hook didn’t happen, Michelle Obama is a man, and 9/11 was an inside job — broadcasts to 2 million subscribers on YouTube. So does Michael “Gorilla Mindset” Cernovich. So too do a whole genre of lesser-known but still wildly popular YouTubers, people like Seaman and Stefan Molyneux (an Irishman closely associated with the popular “Truth About” format). As do a related breed of prolific political-correctness watchdogs like Paul Joseph Watson and Sargon of Akkad (real name: Carl Benjamin), whose videos focus on the supposed hypocrisies of modern liberal culture and the ways they leave Western democracy open to a hostile Islamic takeover. As do a related group of conspiratorial white-identity vloggers like Red Ice TV, which regularly hosts neo-Nazis in its videos.

We’ve long known how awful YouTube commenters are — in general, comment threads there are a nightmare of alt-right freaks, indignant misogynists, racists, and fanatical consumers of niche media. There is virtually no accountability in YouTube comments, and it has become another outpost of the 4chan mentality. And further, as mentioned above, flaming lunatics thrive as media personalities on it, because they gladly affirm prejudice and bigotry and often, bizarre Libertarian views. I’d heard of several of the people mentioned, but had never encountered one, Davd Seaman, who is featured in the article, so I had to look him up.

I watched one video by Seaman.


I could take no more. Here it is:

Seaman is a prominent #pizzagate conspiracy theorist — you know, the unbelievable, batshit stupid idea that there is a secret child molestation conspiracy ring run by major Democratic figures out of a basement lair in a specific pizza parlor that has no basement. These are the kinds of guys who wax wroth at the outrage of innocent, imaginary (they can never name any of the victims) children being sexually abused, while simultaneously insisting that the Sandy Hook murders were a false flag operation, and all the innocent, named children were actors.

In the above video, Seaman also goes on and on about Bitcoin and gold-based currencies. None of what he says is backed up by reason or evidence, but only by his stridently held opinions. He has a following, though: take a look at the comments on the Buzzfeed article. They are eye-opening. There are lots of angry people who are convinced that Alex Jones and David Seaman are telling the Truth.

In a world full of clowns, Bozo is king, and it looks like YouTube is the media of choice for gullible fools.

Oh, I forgot! One thing he claimed, bizarrely, was that the recent announcement about possible habitable planets was a distraction to keep people from hammering John Podesta about his imaginary pedophilia. It wasn’t just NASA conspiring to snow us all, he said there was also the recent discovery of an alien artifact in Antarctica.

Say what? Did you hear anything about an alien artifact. I hadn’t. The only thing I could find was an unbelievable crackpot story about Visit to Antarctica Confirms Discovery of Flash Frozen Alien Civilization. No, this wasn’t news. No, it isn’t distracting anyone. Apparently, we’re at the stage where cranks are complaining about other cranks stealing their thunder.

I agree with Mano and Nina

I have not been happy with the DNC, and haven’t been for years. It’s been a captive of the neo-liberal wing of the party, and is too corporatist and too conservative to win elections any more. And now there’s argument over who should run the show, either Tom Perez, the choice of the Obama/Clinton faction, or Keith Ellison, favored by the more progressive Sanders wing. They had a debate this week, but I did not pay attention — I know who I’d like to see in charge.

Ellison is black and Muslim, and as Mano points out, he’s been getting some rather bigoted push-back. Personally, I don’t care that he’s Muslim — if he weren’t, they’d be promoting a Christian, and I really don’t see a difference between the two. What matters to me is who is backing the candidates, and I’m a bit tired of billionaires dictating policy. So I’m with Mano, I’d rather see that connection broken with Ellison.

So when we say, correctly, that the Republican party is beholden to the wealthy, we should remember that the current ruling segment of the Democratic party is equally beholden. They just have different billionaires to please.

This is why the control of the Democratic party has to be wrested away from the Obama-Clinton neoliberal faction that has run the party into the ground by making it Republican-lite, and put in the hands of the Sanders faction.

I also like what Nina Turner has to say.

I am supporting Congressman Ellison. If the DNC doesn’t elect him, I’m not so sure the party is serious about changing. Because the party structure itself has to regain its integrity. That is what’s so biting about what happened in 2016. Not just that Senator Sanders was not treated fairly, but that the structure that is the Democratic Party lost integrity.

We have to acknowledge that. Berniecrats deserve an apology. The sins must be confessed and whoever is the next leader must say very clearly that what happened to Senator Sanders in the primary will never happen to anybody again, whether they’re running for Dog Catcher or President of the United States. That the DNC, by its own bylaws, will be neutral in a primary. That no bodies, no fingers, no thumbs will be placed on the scale. There needs to be a healing within the Democratic Party.

We have to go and get the people who were not necessarily diehard Democrats but who started to believe because of the candidacy of Senator Sanders. But in order to get them, the Party must show it learned its lesson. And that the leadership will change and that every person who works for the DNC understands very clearly what their role is. The D should matter. It shouldn’t just be some letter or symbol that automatically gets you elected.

We lost our way in 2016 and we lost the election because of it. Let’s face it: we’ve been losing statewide and legislative elections since 2009. It’s not just about the President but the State Senators and State Reps and Governors and Secretaries of State and auditors and Attorneys General. And we have to stop talking about off-year elections. There’s no such thing. Every single year there is an important election and we need people to come out and vote, and to run and to care. And we need elected officials to do what is necessary to change the lives of the people who elected them. They need to stop whispering sweet nothings into voters’ ears every time it’s time to run, but then are nowhere to be found when it’s time to put up.

The pattern established with Bill Clinton has to be broken. It’s not working, especially not when people are finding little to distinguish between generic Democrats and generic Republicans (the current crop of R’s are anything but generic, though — they are exceptionally Republican).

And of course, Tom Perez is now chair of the DNC.

Juggling flies, fish, and students all week long


Time for another reflection on my mundane week of teaching. I know this is unexciting, but I’m trying to be self-aware about what I’m doing in the class.

I’ve already summarized some of what I did this week: we explored the meaning of “epigenetics”, and I made a big push to get them to think critically about the papers we’re reading. They’re supposed to be developing a topic they’ll explore independently, so I’ve had them doing library work to find a line of research they find interesting, and master the skill of extracting the key questions the work is trying to address. I’ve got a small stack of short papers that I’m going to read this weekend and we’ll see how well they can do that.

We also discussed symbiotic interactions in development, and next week the topic is other environmental effects. They are getting much, much better at opening up and talking at the miserable hour of 8am.

The other regular highlight of my week is FlyDay, when I have to scrub dead maggots and pupae out of fly bottles. I had to postpone FlyDay this week! Yesterday I was scheduled to meet with students and parents visiting the university to confirm their plans to attend, and I was all spiffed up in a nice suit, which isn’t the best thing to wear when one is flicking bits of chitin and gooey medium around. I went in early this morning to scrub bottles and get them cooking in the autoclave.

By the way, at that student meeting I was the official biology representative, and although biology is currently the largest major on campus, almost no one stopped by to talk to me. It might have been my terrifying glare, or my sciencey reek, but no: it was because there was a separate table for the pre-professional programs (pre-med, pre-vet, pre-dental, etc.). This is a minor peeve of mine: this is not 19th century England. You do not graduate from your public school education and go straight into medical school — no, here in 21st century America you get a broad-based undergraduate education first, and then you apply to med school. You should be thinking about your liberal arts education first, and in a couple of years we’ll start coaching you on how to get into those professional programs.

Oh, well. They ignore me now, but I know that I’ll get my claws on most of them soon — they’ll want all those bio classes to prep them for the MCATs.

I should mention that I am teaching another course beyond ecological development — I’m teaching a lab course on transmission genetics. They’ve been doing crosses with flies all semester long, and we’re getting to an interesting point.

The first half semester we’re doing a mapping cross, using recombination to estimate the distances between a couple of genes on the X chromosome. We’re using flies that are mutant for eye color (white, w), wing length (miniature, m), and bristle morphology (forked, f), and I’ve also got a few groups mapping body color (yellow, y), wing veins (crossveinless, cv) and forked, f; the latter are doing a pilot test to see if I want to add that cross to our regular repertoire.

The way this works is that they are given wild type and triple mutant flies. I first have them raise a new generation of the purebred stock, simply to get a little practice in sexing flies and basic skills in growing them. So they first do these crosses:

♀w m f/w m f x ♂w m f/Y

which produces bottles full of homozygous white-eyed, miniature-winged, forked-bristled flies, and

♀w+ m+ f+/w+ m+ f+ x ♂w+ m+ f+/Y

which produces bottles full of homozygous wild type flies.

Then I have them do a reciprocal cross of flies from the two bottles. These are X-linked traits, so it matters which strain is the mother and which the father, and I want them to see that. That is, they cross wild type females to triple mutant males, like so:

♀w+ m+ f+/w+ m+ f+ x ♂w m f/Y,

which produces progeny that are all wild type, both male and female (they all inherit the dominant wild type allele at all loci from their mothers). After they’ve scored the flies from this cross, we dispose of them all and don’t think any further about them.

They also cross mutant females to wild type males, like this:

♀w m f/w m f x ♂w+ m+ f+/Y.

That has the useful result that all the sons inherit w m f from their mother and a Y chromosome from their father, so they all express the mutant phenotype. The daughters, however, are all heterozygous, inheriting the mutant alleles from their mother and a wild type chromosome from their father, so their genotype is:

♀w m f/w+ m+ f+

Now the fun begins. Meiotic recombination in those flies will rearrange the +’s and -‘s in those chromosomes with a frequency dependent on their distance from one another — you’ll get less recombination between genes that are close to one another.

This week, they completed the reciprocal cross and got their heterozygous females and mutant males. Yay! That worked. They are now setting up a test cross to assess recombination frequencies.

I just want to say that I think I planned everything perfectly. That test cross will be ready to score next week, which is the week before spring break, which means we’ll have the data for all the calculations before they leave, and when they get back, I’ll be able to lead them through all the theory. It also means I’ll be able to purge a lot of fly bottles and get them scrubbed up over the break (you can tell already that I have glamorous plans for my short vacation). Trust me, though, this is good — there have been semesters where, due to student error, the flies haven’t been ready, and then my spring break is spent maintaining 120 bottles of student flies.

It also means we can launch into the next experiment as soon as they get back: we’re going to do a complementation cross between two eye color mutants, brown eye (bw) and scarlet eye (st). If I’ve got this one all timed out correctly, we’ll be getting F2 results of crosses between heterozygotes for both loci a week before the end of classes.

Now you know. I choreograph fly sex for my convenience.

Next up, I have to choreograph my schedule. It turns out I have been summoned to Howard Hughes headquarters on 8 March and 18 April, which punch big holes in my planned lessons, and which I hadn’t accounted for in my syllabi. I’m going to have to juggle lectures and exams and rearrange the order of various things in a big way this coming week.

Where did these people go to college?

These remarks by Betsy DeVos at CPAC are revealing. It sounds like she, and the cheering crowds, have no idea what college is actually like.

The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.

Those are lies. What we want, at real universities, is for our students to question everything intelligently. I just gave my class an assignment to critically analyze a paper — to read it specifically with a mind to finding flaws and developing arguments and tests to evaluate its validity. That’s standard practice.

DeVos attended Calvin College. I’d really like to know what classes she took that failed to give her an education.

Historical zebrafish!

Way back in the dim, distant past, before YouTube and publicly accessible digital media, two of my friends, Don Kane, now at Western Michigan University, and Rolf Karlstrom, now at Amherst, made a video of zebrafish development. This was in 1992. It was on VHS tape. (If you don’t know what that is, ask your grandparents).

Then in 1996, a whole issue of Development was dedicated to zebrafish development and genetics, and they translated that tape into modern technology: a flip book. The top right corner of the issue featured one frame of the video, so you could flip through it and see a nice little timelapse. Like this:

Isn’t that quaint?

Sadly, I have not been able to find a copy of the flip book transported to the convenient medium of youtube (maybe I can find my copy of the file and upload it, but that thing was over 20 freaking years ago, so it may take me a while to excavate it), but at least there’s a version available via facebook, as facebook reminded me today.

I routinely make better videos than that one now, but it’s because I’ve got hi-res digital video cameras and fancy software — just remember that historical flip book was made off of VHS tape and edited by hand frame by frame. It’s really a vast improvement over the prior version, which was chiseled on slabs of sandstone and mounted in a row, so you had to run past them very fast to get the animation effect.

Also, the subject didn’t get much reward or glory, and probably ended up going down a drain in Eugene, Oregon.

Welcome to the American Police State

This is bad. This is really bad. American customs is now taking it upon themselves to make moral judgments on visitors to this country.

André says he was planning to visit his boyfriend, who was working in New Orleans. But when he was going through Customs preclearance at Vancouver airport last October, he was selected for secondary inspection, where an officer took his phone, computer and other possessions, and demanded the passwords for his devices.

“I didn’t know what to do. I was scared, so I gave them the password and then I sat there for at least an hour or two. I missed my flight,” André says. “He came back and just started grilling me. ‘Is this your email?’ and it was an email attached to a Craigslist account for sex ads. He asked me, ‘Is this your account on Scruff? Is this you on BBRT?’ I was like, ‘Yes, this is me.’”

Holy crap. They’re demanding passwords and browsing through the contents of your phone now? What ever happened to any right to privacy? I’m flying to DC in a few weeks. I think. I’m not giving them access to anything, so maybe I won’t be.

André made it through on that flight, after being humiliated and grilled and missing one connection, but on a second trip, he thought he’d be clever and delete those ‘incriminating’ apps from his phone. Two lessons here: they had recorded his passwords and had them ready to use next time he showed up, and nope, deleting stuff from your phone doesn’t work.

“They went through my computer. They were looking through Word documents,” André says. “I had nude photos of myself on my phone, and they were questioning who this person was. It was really humiliating and embarrassing.”

“They said, ‘Next time you come through, don’t have a cleared phone,’ and that was it. I wasn’t let through. He said I’m a suspected escort. You can’t really argue with them because you’re trapped,” he says.

“Don’t have a cleared phone.” Jesus fucking christ. I despised the TSA already, but this is criminal, fascist, and simply vile.