Dear Trump* administration: please stop enabling these comics

SNL started the same year I began college. It’s practically medieval. It’s had some substantial ups, and lots of ghastly downs. Isn’t it about time it died? (no, please, don’t say the same of me yet). But then a collection of clowns take over the government and suddenly it’s inspired into absolute brilliance.

That’s just amazing. Sean Spicer is just a walking, talking target — he’s never going to recover what little reputation he had. And Betsy DeVos is such an airheaded jebusite, if I wasn’t hoping more that her nomination craters, I’d be looking forward to Kate McKinnon’s future roles playing her.

But please, don’t. As much as I like them and think they are wonderfully talented, I’d like to see McCarthy and McKinnon unemployed.

My mood

OK, @ZachWeiner, you are not helping. This comic is too perfect a reflection of my mood right now, and it’s not funny.

If you’re going to do comics that aren’t funny, they should at least be reassuring and non-challenging and merchandisable, like Garfield. When someone buys a Garfield plushy, they are making a clear statement to the world that their soul is dead inside, that they are a bundle of reflexes marching through the world making superficial decisions. What would an SMBC plushy say about me? That my soul is dead inside too, but at least I know it, and I have found a symbol for my pain?

Come to think of it, there may be a huge marketing opportunity here, for a niche that promises to grow exponentially in the weeks to come.

It’s Flyday

I don’t have any classes today, so I catch up on my custodial work. That means I’m going to spend a few hours scrubbing fly bottles: bottles caked with medium the consistency of slimy oatmeal, full of maggots, with dead flies scattered around like raisins.

May not have an appetite tonight.

Ah, the glamor of the scientific life…

This must have been the “triumph” the papers are talking about

I remember Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to rescue hostages in Iran. It was a disaster from start to finish.

With the Iran Hostage Crisis stretching into its sixth month and all diplomatic appeals to the Iranian government ending in failure, President Jimmy Carter ordered the military mission as a last ditch attempt to save the hostages. During the operation, three of eight helicopters failed, crippling the crucial airborne plans. The mission was then canceled at the staging area in Iran, but during the withdrawal one of the retreating helicopters collided with one of six C-130 transport planes, killing eight soldiers and injuring five. The next day, a somber Jimmy Carter gave a press conference in which he took full responsibility for the tragedy. The hostages were not released for another 270 days.

Note that Carter took responsibility for the failure, because that was the kind of guy he is. The screw-up in the rescue mission is one of multiple factors that contributed to his defeat by Ronald Reagan.

Compare and contrast with Trump’s recent gung-ho attack on terrorists (maybe) in Yemen.

As it turned out, almost everything that could go wrong did. And on Wednesday, Mr. Trump flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to be present as the body of the American commando killed in the raid was returned home, the first military death on the new commander in chief’s watch.

The death of Chief Petty Officer William Owens came after a chain of mishaps and misjudgments that plunged the elite commandos into a ferocious 50-minute firefight that also left three others wounded and a $75 million aircraft deliberately destroyed. There are allegations — which the Pentagon acknowledged on Wednesday night are most likely correct — that the mission also killed several civilians, including some children. The dead include, by the account of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Qaeda leader who was killed in a targeted drone strike in 2011.

Did Trump take responsibility for the failure? Of course not. That’s not the kind of guy he is.

Mr. Trump on Sunday hailed his first counterterrorism operation as a success, claiming the commandos captured important intelligence that will assist the U.S. in preventing terrorism against its citizens and people around the world. A statement by the military’s Central Command on Wednesday night that acknowledged the likelihood of civilian casualties also said that the recovered materials had provided some initial information helpful to counterterrorism analysts. The statement did not provide details.

Carter paid a political price for his blunder. Trump won’t — he’s already spinning it into a victory.

At least Carter’s mistake didn’t murder any little girls.

The cranky old man is also yelling at Australia

I don’t get it. Now Trump is antagonizing Australia.

It should have been one of the most congenial calls for the new commander in chief — a conversation with the leader of Australia, one of America’s staunchest allies, at the end of a triumphant week.

Instead, President Trump blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a refu­gee agreement and boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win, according to senior U.S. officials briefed on the Saturday exchange. Then, 25 minutes into what was expected to be an hour-long call, Trump abruptly ended it.

At one point Trump informed Turnbull that he had spoken with four other world leaders that day — including Russian President Vladi­mir Putin — and that “This was the worst call by far.”

Another thing I don’t get: “triumphant week”. Who is having a triumphant week? Trump? Because all I see is a floundering asshole lashing out everywhere he can in the face of his unpopularity.

This lunatic and his administration are destabilizing our relationships with the rest of the world, and picking fights with our friends, acting like a belligerent drunk.

“Triumphant”. Fuck.

That isn’t diplomacy

It’s madness. Trump blustered at president Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico.

The phone call between the leaders was intended to patch things up between the new president and his ally. The two have had a series of public spats over Trump’s determination to have Mexico pay for the planned border wall, something Mexico steadfastly refuses to agree to.

You have a bunch of bad hombres down there, Trump told Pena Nieto, according to the excerpt seen by the AP. You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.

No, Mexico isn’t going to pay for your stupid, ineffective, idiotic wall. They’re not as dumb as Trump voters. Trump is basically asking Mexico to pay for his ridiculous campaign promises that demonized their entire country.

Trump is threatening to use our military in an invasion of Mexico to extort billions of dollars out of them. How is this not criminal? Why aren’t officials of both parties sending representatives to drag this guy out of the oval office and begin impeachment proceedings right now?

He’s also threatening to begin a trade war with Mexico, imposing a 20% tax on imports. This action would be catastrophic for the economy of both countries; even if it did us no harm, does he think devastating the economy of Mexico would reduce illegal immigration? Does he seriously believe that wrecking Mexico, as we did to Iraq, would be advantageous to us? Is he so delusional that he could possibly believe invading Mexico would improve support for Republicans by Hispanic Americans?

I’ve always felt that Mexico was our friend, our trading partner, a valued part of our North American community. I cannot believe that we would rough them up with our military just because an incompetent tyrant here wants a symbolic victory for his dumbass supporters, but apparently that’s what the Republicans want to allow.

Not enough hours in the day


Yikes. I have been buried in work — we’ve just begun a week of interviews for job candidates, and I’m on the search committee, so I’ve been tied up all last night, all day today, and this evening. And what time hasn’t been occupied in service work has been involved in preparing for tomorrow’s ecological development class.

The big project tomorrow is a critical analysis of Richard Lewontin’s The Triple Helix. It’s a short book, but it’s packed to the gills with concepts they may not have encountered before…and most importantly, concepts they may not have questioned before. So I had to put together a framework for discussion. I’ll let you read it, too, although it’s not going to be very useful unless you’ve read the book as well.

The book is only 3 meaty chapters long with a concluding summary. I’m trying to provoke some arguments with these questions.

I. Gene and Organism

Lewontin complains about metaphors: what’s wrong with the DNA as blueprint metaphor?

We have a bias in our language. The word “development” implies an “unrolling” of a program. Is that a good explanation of the process?

We talked about preformation vs epigenesis on the first day. I told you that preformation is an untenable explanation, but Lewontin argues that preformation has won. How?

He explains that there is a deep difference between transformational vs variational change. Explain.

Brenner, p10: he claimed that with the complete sequence of DNA, he could compute the organism. What’s wrong with that statement?

Similarly, Gilbert, p11: with the genomic sequence, we will know what it means to be human. Do you believe it.

He gives several examples of complicating “transformations”:
p19: Explain phototropism, geotropism
p21: What are norms of reaction

Contrast fig 1.8 (p 29), Jensen’s IQ model, with 1.6 (p25), Drosophila viability as a function of temperature. What’s the obvious flaw with Jensen’s hypotheses?

Leads up to fig 1.10 — what are all these different theoretical patterns? Can you explain what each one means?

II. Organism and Environment

Adaptation and fitness…what are they? What’s wrong with the idea of an organism “fitting” to an environment?

p44: “Adaptive explanations have both a forward and a backward form”. Explain what he means.

What’s the problem with these modes of explanation? See discussion of Orians & Pearson results for an explanation.

p47: “the organism is the object of evolutionary forces”. Is this reasonable?

Lewontin says the concept of construction best captures the process of evolution. Explain.

He objects to the search for life on Mars for what reasons? (not that he thinks we shouldn’t look, but that he thinks the methods are wrong)

p54: “If one wants to know what the environment of an organism is, one must ask the organism.” How did he arrive at that conclusion?

p57-58: Explain Van Valen’s “Red Queen hypothesis”. Why is it somehow different from what Lewontin proposes?

p68: “Save the Environment!” But “the environment” does not exist to be saved. Is Lewontin a (shock, horror) an anti-environmentalist? What is the point he is making in his conclusion?

III. Parts and Wholes, Causes and Effects

A critique of the analytical, reductionist examination of the organism as a machine. This is generally how we teach biology; Lewontin argues that much of it is invalid. How would you alternatively expect biology to be taught?

p74: What are the current failures of that analytic approach? (with the understanding that that approach might still succeed, with enough time and data).

p77: What is the problem of the development of the human chin? What is the “error of arbitrary aggregation”?

p81: “Only a quasi-religious commitment to the belief that everything in the world has a purpose would lead us to provide a functional explanation for fingerprint ridges or eyebrows or patches of hair on men’s chests.” Does finding a functional explanation for any of those things invalidate the criticism? Why or why not?

Explain Tables 3.1 and 3.2. What do they tell us about the relationship between fitness and genetics when more than one gene is involved?

p90: When you see the variation in ceratopsian horns, how do you personally try to explain it? What is your default explanation?

p96: What are the “acute problems” in genetics? How much of it is a genuine problem with the scientific approach vs. attempts to shoehorn our explanations into simplistic causal models?

Lewontin gets political in the last page of this section, blaming environmental problems on “an anarchic scheme of production that was developed by industrial capitalism and adopted by industrial socialism”. What do you think?

IV. Directions in the study of biology

Lewontin admits that he’s been negative and strongly critical in the earlier parts of the text, so he has a brief epilogue in which he tries to advocate for some positive directions we can take. What are some ideas you might have?

It’s entirely possible we’ll only get two or three questions in, if we get argumentative, and that’s OK!