Hello darkness my old friend

I learned something from our students. We have these introductory classes for incoming students, and one of them, led by Keith Brugger, was in part about measuring light pollution. So they went out and around Morris, using a meter to measure how dark the skies were in the evening. This is not something I knew anything about, but this week I learned about the Bortle Scale, which I suspect astronomers are already totally familiar with.

I’ve seen the Milky Way vividly outside of town (not in town, unfortunately), so I’d have guessed there are some places nearby that are around a 3 or lower — when we’ve wanted to check out interesting phenomena like the aurora or meteors we go just a few kilometers outside of town for good viewing. This survey produced a map of dark skies for us that suggest some changes.

Morris is roughly at the intersection of Highway 59, which runs north-south, and Highway 28, which runs east-west. I’m used to driving 28, which is the route towards the big cities of eastern Minnesota, so we’ve often scurried out to a spot on 28 east of town to do our skywatching.

According to this map, though, we’d be better off driving south on 59, where it gets even darker. That makes sense — 28 has a small amount of road traffic, and there are itty-bitty farming towns scattered along it, while 59 north leads to Alexandria, has some farms with surprisingly bright lights around the buildings, and also leads to some big wind farms. There’s nothing south on 59. I’ve rarely driven that way, because it’s just empty for a long distance. So now I know where to go during the next meteor shower.

Hey, astronomers, you know this is a good place to live for your ilk! Come on out and stay a while!

Although there is a downside — if you come out with a telescope and go to the darkest regions on the map in the winter months, you’ll also find that it may be -20°C with a wind howling across the open fields.

Someone was peeking around in my dreams last night

However, the transmission was garbled. What is that 8-legged abomination on the left, with antennae and three tagma? Such a thing would never manifest itself in my dreams.

My bedtime reading lately has been Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which can partly be blamed for my dreams. It’s a fantasy novel, the usual quest to defeat the evil big bad with a party of a priest, a fighter, a rogue, etc. with one significant twist: they recruit (that is, force) a giant spider to join the team, after magically making it sort of a human/spider hybrid so they can talk to it. It’s entertaining. It’s got spiders in it, so of course it’s fun.

Highly on-brand for a billionaire

The Bloomberg campaign claims to have discontinued this practice, but they were using prison labor to make campaign calls.

Former New York City mayor and multibillionaire Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg used prison labor to make campaign calls. Through a third-party vendor, the Mike Bloomberg 2020 campaign contracted New Jersey-based call center company ProCom, which runs calls centers in New Jersey and Oklahoma. Two of the call centers in Oklahoma are operated out of state prisons. In at least one of the two prisons, incarcerated people were contracted to make calls on behalf of the Bloomberg campaign.

Sweet! It’s good to be in Minnesota, where we’ll be mostly ignored throughout the campaign season, but it must be reassuring to Iowans to know that some of the election noise they get dunned with is produced by slave labor.

Oh, not quite slavery: the prisoners get paid, sort of.

John Scallan, a ProCom co-founder, said his company pays the Oklahoma minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, which then pays the incarcerated people working in the call centers. The Department of Corrections website lists the maximum monthly wage for the incarcerated at $20 dollars a month, but another policy document says there is a maximum pay of $27.09 per month.

When asked if their total monthly earnings are capped at these levels, Scallan said incarcerated people who work for ProCom make far higher wages. “I can tell you unequivocally that is not us,” Scallan said. “Some of them are making that much every day.”

Let’s do the math. $7.25 an hour is $58 per day; if they work them 4 weeks per month, that would be about $1100 dollars per month, which isn’t much of a wage. But the prisons cap their earnings and skim off most of the money. In the worst case of limiting them to $20/month, the prison is making $1080 off their labor. In the best case, where they’re getting paid $27/day, the prison gets about half their earnings.

I wonder if there is some kind of profit motive driving mass incarceration in the United States? Nah, couldn’t be. That would be evil. This Republican, for instance, wouldn’t be evil, would he?

A Xmas pinup #lovespiders

I checked on my colony this morning — no news to report. However, Trillian was just being herself, hanging out all relaxed in her web, legs spread out, and so I had to snap a picture.

Spiders do have personalities. Trillian is a casual exhibitionist, happy to sprawl out in her web, while, for instance, Mary Jane is shy and timid, tending to huddle in a corner. Trillian wins on photogenicity, that’s for sure.

Steatoda triangulosa

Bah, humbug

What Christmas Eve? My wife and I are two old people abandoned by their children. Alaric has a movie date for Christmas, so he’s not going to visit. Connlann is in far-off Texas with Ji and their toddler, Knut; he can’t get away. Skatje is in Boulder, Colorado with Kyle and Iliana, and they’re not coming, either. This is the fate of all parents, that their kids grow up and move away and no longer have time for them. It doesn’t help that in my childhood, the big extended family all lived near the grandparents, and we were used to gigantic noisy family get-togethers over the holidays. My kids have all dispersed to distant places, and frigid isolated Morris is not exactly an attractive vacation spot.

That reminds me — I better call my mother. If you’ve got ’em, you should call any beloved relatives, too.

(It’s OK, they shouldn’t feel guilty. We’re proud to have independent, self-sufficient children.)

Does this man look like a terrorist to you?

No? A nebbish in glasses and a suit, especially a white nebbish, doesn’t fit your picture of a terrorist? Adjust your search image. That’s Matt Shea, an elected Republican representative from Washington state whose activities have been investigated in a report with this alarming conclusion.

Based on evidence obtained in this investigation, it is more probable than not that Representative Shea is likely to plan, direct and engage in additional future conflicts that could carry with them significant risk of bloodshed and loss of life. It is the professional opinion of the Investigators, that on a more probable than not basis, Representative Shea presents a present and growing threat of risk to others through political violence.

That conclusion was reached not by criticizing his badthink, but by looking at what he has actually done. We’re talking about more than just openly despising the federal government (I’m guilty of that one), but also actively conspiring with violent organizations, such as various militia groups.

He also used his position in the government to obtain and leak information about police responses to those terrorists to the terrorists. He’s also a Christian theocrat, of course: “Representative Shea unveiled the Biblical Basis for War that offered his view of God’s authorization for war. [At] the same meeting Representative Shea distributed the Restoration document which was his blueprint for rebuilding after the fall of the US Government.” The Biblical_Basis_for_War is, naturally, abortion, homosexuals, and those goddamned Commies.

The Seattle Times is calling for his expulsion from the legislature. I’m sure that will persuade his constituents in Spokane. For those not familiar with Washington state politics, the west side of the state, and especially Seattle, is the relatively wealthy, democratic, populous and urban side, while Spokane and the eastern side in general are rural, sparsely populated, agricultural, and very conservative; for sure, there are knees jerking hard in sagebrush country, and a recommendation from the Seattle Times will be reflexively opposed. Coincidentally, Shea also sponsors the idea of splitting the state in two, with a new state called Liberty formed from the most impoverished region in the state, but where Christian Dominionism could flourish.

One note of hope, though, is that it is Republican officials from the eastern side of the state who are begging that he be stripped of power. I guess there are limits to what kind of violent lunacy even Republicans will accept.

For the rest of us, absorb this important lesson. That bland doughboy at the top of this page is the real face of domestic terrorism.


I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for the 2019 Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog. Wait no more!

One thing (at least) mystifies me. Williams-Sonoma is supposed to be marketing all this high-end, “classy,” useless stuff at an extravagant price, so why is there all this kitschy Star Wars junk for sale? This cheesy plastic Stormtrooper Toaster for $49.95 just screams that the owner is someone with no taste at all.

Even the stuff that is all crystal and chrome and plaid is an announcement that someone is low-class sucker, for that matter.

Rest in peace, Mr Studly

I am currently running into the same problem I encountered last year: male spiders are weak and fragile, and I’m running low on studs. I’ve been shuffling one eager male from cage to cage to service the females, who are all going strong, but there’s a serious lack of depth in the roster. Yesterday, I left this male (males don’t get names, sorry to say) with Rio, a young P. tepidariorum who was barely larger than he was, after two weeks of at least attempted ardor with a sequential collection of lovely ladies.

This morning…

…he was dead.

He was not cocooned and sucked dry, so I don’t suspect Rio of murdering him. He was suspended from a drag line in the very center of the cage, curled up and looking cocky, but motionless. I’m going to list “amorous exhaustion” as the cause of death on his death certificate.

I don’t usually name the males — he was previously in a tube with the label “P. tep ♂” — but in his honor, I posthumously name him Mr. Studly.

A science writer who doesn’t understand the difference between binary and bimodal

Tom Chivers has dipped a tentative, timid toe into the arguments about trans issues to declare that of course biological sex exists, a statement I find utterly baffling. “Biological” sex? Is there some other kind? I look forward to hearing stories about abiological sex, or artificial sex, or machine sex. It’s very silly — next thing you know, the TERFs are going to start ranting about an equally silly term like “biological woman”, as if the non-biological women are running around made of plastic and aluminum. Uh-oh, I guess they already are. That’s another one I don’t get. Are they just sticking “biological” onto terms that they want to dignify with a sciencey label, contrary to what actual biologists say?

I’m still trying to wrap my head around “biological sex”. Is non-biological sex what you get when you stuff a Hitachi magic wand into a Fleshlight? Biology doesn’t have much to do with that.

Anyway, what triggered Timid Tom was a comment by a British politician, Jo Swinson (sorry, I’m American, I know nothing about politicians in the UK):

Swinson, on Radio 4’s Today programme, was asked by Justin Webb whether she believes that “biological sex exists”. She replied: “Not on a binary, from what I’ve read. I’m not going to pretend that I’m an expert in the subject but I don’t think that things are as binary as are often presented.”

That’s about as coherent and sensible a response as you can make to a silly question. She’s not going to pretend to be an expert, but she translates an absurdity into something as close to reality as she can, and answers that. She is correct. Sex is not binary. It’s a complicated mess of a subject with all kinds of variations.

Tentative Tom disagrees. He waffles about with a comparison to Pluto? Which used to be a planet? But “planet” was redefined so it isn’t anymore? Which he uses to somehow make an argument that objects in space are either planets or not-planets, a true binary, as long as you use the Correct Definition™, and that the fact that some objects are ambiguous does not affect the fact that Jupiter really is a planet.


I don’t see how arguing that there are artificial definitions that partition a continuum of object sizes supports his claim of unambiguous definitive binary states, but this is apparently Tom being Tom.

Then he launches into a discuss of intersex individuals, conceding that there are human intermediates in sexual differentiation.

With sex, just as with the concepts of “planet” or “species”, there do exist ambiguous cases. The intermediate cases in human sex are usually known as “intersex” people. There are various ways in which one can be intersex: the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA)’s FAQ site mentions genital ambiguity, such as girls with very large clitorises or boys with very small penises, or scrotums that have divided to form labia-like structures; external genitals that appear female, but with male-typical anatomy inside; chromosomal abnormalities, such as mosaicism, when some cells are XX and others XY, or having three sex chromosomes such as XXY; or having standard male XY chromosomes but a body that is insensitive to the androgenic hormones such as testosterone, which tell the embryo to start becoming male.

You’re losing me, Tom. These are all people exhibiting variation in sex-related traits. Are you trying to argue that these do not demonstrate that sex is nonbinary? They seem to me to show a clear range in the phenomena.

But then he says something that makes all clear. He doesn’t understand the difference between bimodal and binary distributions! Something can exhibit a bimodal distribution yet not be binary, so telling me that a phenomenon is bimodal does not imply that it’s binary.

…that doesn’t mean that sex doesn’t exist “on a binary”. If you did a graph, plotting human beings by height, you will see two clear peaks on that graph — average male height and average female height. If you plot weight, it would be even clearer. Foot size, hip-to-waist ratio. There would be significant overlap between men and women, but there would be very clear differences.

That’s a really good example. You’ve probably seen that kind of curves plotted to illustrate the differences in height of the different sexes. The trick is that they usually segregate the data into two categories first, and then plot two curves. Oh, look: two peaks!

Except for one little problem. He says if you “plot human beings by height”, then you will see “two clear peaks.” Let’s try that, without first biasing the interpretation.

Ooops, without the color coding, that looks like a bit of a smear; maybe with the right statistical analysis, you could extract a bimodal distribution out of that, but it would be pretty much impossible to turn that into a binary distribution.

Other small problems with these data is that height varies in history and geographic location. The average height of men 150 years ago was equivalent to the average height of women today; South Asian men tend to be shorter than American women. Were all those workers in the industrial revolution women, as are the majority of people in South Asia? Belgians are significantly taller than the French…are they more manly?

This is not to claim that biological differences are non-existent — individual traits do vary significantly between sexes. Even height! This kind of growth curve is really interesting.

It’s almost as if exposure to differing hormone concentrations at puberty elicits a differing pattern of growth, an observation that isn’t at all surprising to all those biologists who will tell you that there is a spectrum of variation that tends to be biased by sex, but still insist that sex is not binary.

But you still wouldn’t argue that a solution to the terrible transgender bathroom problem is that all you have to do is put a stick across the restroom door 170cm from the floor with a sign that says “You must be shorter than this to enter”. That wouldn’t work at all. My wife would have to use the men’s room, and Tom Cruise would have to use the ladies’. So why is Tom Chivers using this argument?

I think Timorous Tom is well aware that this won’t work, so he unslings a fresh battery of “facts.”

And those are not really sexual characteristics. If you were to plot, say, volume of mammary tissue, or number of ovaries, or number of sperm cells produced, you would see a far, far clearer picture of two enormous spikes with almost no overlap at all. Sex is about as binary as any biological or natural classification gets. It’s certainly a lot more binary than planetary status, and we’re happy to teach kids that Mercury is a planet but Pluto isn’t. There is a twilight, but it’s tiny compared to the size of day and night.

Whoa. I think if you plotted the volume of mammary tissue it most definitely produce a non-binary distribution within women and within men, and there would be overlap. You wouldn’t see two enormous spikes, you’d see two rounded mounds, which would remind me of something, I can’t quite think what. Similarly, if you plotted sperm counts, there’d be a broad distribution, admittedly floored at near zero for many women and some men, so there’d be a strong, tall rod at 0 and a rounded hemisphere subsequently. But again, it’s a poor way to distinguish men and women. I can’t quite see the bathroom police cupping breasts or getting a sperm sample before allowing you to enter.

It also brings up another problem: there are so darned many traits with differential expression. Trembling Tom brings them up one at a time to try to make the case that everything is binary, and he’s failing at even that, but what about the combos? A person is short, has large breasts, a Y chromosome, and a sperm count of 0; man or woman? Another person is tall, is flat-chested, had a hysterectomy, and identifies as a woman; will you tell her no? We don’t just have a graded distribution, we have combinatorial variation.

Oh, and he also trots out that familiar excuse, that it’s a tiny minority. So what? You don’t get to ignore their existence, and they still wreck your imaginary binary distribution.

But wait, one more absurdity from poor Torn Tom.

Male suspects in domestic homicides outnumbered female ones by more than seven to one in England and Wales from 2016 to 2018. Men — male-bodied people — are simply much more violent than women, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise.

No one is pretending otherwise, it’s a disgraceful statistic. But why? That’s a real concern — is it something about masculine nature, or is it something about masculine roles in our society? Also, is it binary? Are all males violent, and all women passive victims? Tom — honest question here, I’m just trying to discern your sex — how often do you beat your wife? If the majority of men are not violent, doesn’t this make violence a poor criterion? We’re only going to allow you to use this public restroom if you present a copy of your arrest record for domestic violence.

It should also go without saying that transgender women are by far the victims of violence. I guess that makes them Biological Women™ by definition, then.