Oh, it’s ironic union-busting

Chris Smalls has been organizing workers at an Amazon facility in Staten Island. His goal has been to get the company to provide better safety protections.

“Amazon would rather fire workers than face up to its total failure to do what it should to keep us, our families, and our communities safe,” said Smalls.

“I am outraged and disappointed, but I’m not shocked. As usual, Amazon would rather sweep a problem under the rug than act to keep workers and working communities safe. Today, I stood with my co-workers because conditions at JFK8 are legitimately dangerous for workers and the public. Amazon thinks this might shut me up, but I’m going to keep speaking up. My colleagues in New York and all around the country are going to keep speaking up. We won’t stop until Amazon provides real protections for our health and safety and clarity for everybody about what it is doing to keep people safe in the middle of the worst pandemic of our lifetimes,” he added.

Multiple workers have recently contracted the coronavirus, and they were justifiably increasingly concerned that the pandemic was going to sweep through the facility. Amazon’s explanation for why Smalls was fired was charmingly Orwellian.

Amazon (AMZN) confirmed the firing Monday night, telling CNN Business in a statement that the employee, Christian Smalls, was supposed to be under quarantine.

“Mr. Smalls was found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14 days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world,” said Amazon spokesperson Kristen Kish. “Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite today, March 30, putting the teams at risk.”

The richest man in the world is going to find a way to use the pandemic to oppress workers further and get richer, isn’t he?

How not to celebrate the Trans Day of Visibility

This is the day we’re supposed to increase awareness of discrimination against trans people, and I guess you could say that Governor Brad Little of Idaho is doing his part by increasing discrimination against trans people by publicly signing into law some discriminatory bills.

One measure, House Bill 500, is aimed at restricting transgender youth’s participation in sports. The other measure, House Bill 509, is aimed at banning transgender people from changing the gender marker on the their birth certificate.

Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the signing of the legislation is “unacceptable, and a gross misuse of taxpayer funds and trust.”

“Idaho is leading the way in anti-transgender discrimination, and at a time when life is hard enough for everyone, Idaho’s elected leaders will be remembered for working to make their transgender residents’ lives even harder,” David said. “Shame on Gov. Little and the legislators who championed these heinous pieces of legislation.”

That’s not how you’re supposed to celebrate this day. It does make it obvious that Idaho is actively discriminating, though, so I guess that does spread the message.


HB 500, dubbed the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,” requires college and public schools sports teams to be designed as male, female and co-ed — and any female athletic team “shall not be open to students of the male sex.”

In the event of a dispute, a student may be required to produce a physician’s statement to affirm her biological sex based on reproductive anatomy, normal endogenously produced levels of testosterone and an analysis of the student’s genetic makeup. That would effectively ban transgender athletes from participating in sports.

I am professionally a biologist, and Lord but I hate that phrase “biological sex”. What does it mean? Can you contrast it with “non-biological sex”? Right there in the criteria are multiple kinds of evidence…what do you do when reproductive anatomy says one thing, while chromosomes say another? Why do we discount what brain and behavior says?

Shame on Brad Little and whatever repulsive little puritanical Christian lobbyists pushed this bill through.


It’s become a joke that physicists think they understand all ‘lesser’ fields of science than the people with actual training. Now we lesser beings have a beautiful example to point at and laugh.

An Australian astrophysicist, stuck at home by the pandemic, decided to try and build a device to help with the coronavirus — a gadget that would signal when your hands moved close to your face. I have to admit that that does sound like something a physicist would be capable of doing, but everything went wrong. He somehow thought putting magnets in his nose would be helpful.

Reardon said he placed two magnets inside his nostrils, and two on the outside. When he removed the magnets from the outside of his nose, the two inside stuck together. Unfortunately, the researcher then attempted to use his remaining magnets to remove them.

“At this point, my partner who works at a hospital was laughing at me,” he said. “I was trying to pull them out but there is a ridge at the bottom of my nose you can’t get past.

“After struggling for 20 minutes, I decided to Google the problem and found an article about an 11-year-old boy who had the same problem. The solution in that was more magnets. To put on the outside to offset the pull from the ones inside.

“As I was pulling downwards to try and remove the magnets, they clipped on to each other and I lost my grip. And those two magnets ended up in my left nostril while the other one was in my right. At this point I ran out of magnets.”

Before attending the hospital, Reardon attempted to use pliers to pull them out, but they became magnetised by the magnets inside his nose.

“Every time I brought the pliers close to my nose, my entire nose would shift towards the pliers and then the pliers would stick to the magnet,” he said. “It was a little bit painful at this point.

It’s terribly unfortunate that he ran out of magnets. If only he’d had a few more this story could have gone on even longer!

Lawyers and self-importance go together like a slime & maggot sandwich

This New Yorker interview with “legal scholar Richard Epstein” is one of the most amazing exhibitions of arrogance I’ve read lately…and I’m living in the age of Donald Trump. Epstein earlier wrote an essay for his home base, the right-wing think tank the Hoover Institution, in which he predicted that the coronavirus pandemic was over-exaggerated, that it would peak with about 500 deaths and then fade away. His work was widely cited by conservatives, claiming that it showed that the cure was worse than the disease. His estimate was passed within a week, and the death toll is still rising. He’s wrong, definitively, and his prediction was quickly falsified. But he’s still defending it!

Most galling, his defense is that his prediction is supported by evolutionary theory. I know a little bit about evolution, so that was a startling claim. He’s a lawyer, not a biologist. He tries to explain his justification in this interview, and it turns out to be built on wishful thinking and faulty beliefs in how evolution works.

Here’s why he thinks the pandemic wouldn’t be as bad as the experts say.

But then adaptation starts to set in. And, in my view, adaptation is a co-evolutionary process in which things change, not only in human behavior but also change in genetic viral behavior.

OK, sure, humans are evolving, the virus is evolving, but how does that support the notion that the virus will kill 500 and not 100,000 people? There’s a leap there that emerges murkily.

…as the virus becomes more apparent, adaptive responses long before government gets involved become clear.

Wait, so his argument is that the virus will adapt to become relatively harmless before any public health work can take effect? I seem to recall that this viral adaptation to become weaker didn’t happen with, say, polio. He’s making assumptions about the rate of change.

Well, what happens is it’s an evolutionary tendency.

Also assumptions about a “tendency”. How does this work? He explains that. It’s jaw-droppingly stupid.

So the mechanism is you start with people, some of whom have a very strong version of the virus, and some of whom have a very weak version of the virus. If the strong-version-of-the-virus people are in contact with other people before they die, it will pass on. But, if it turns out that you slow the time of interaction down, either in an individual case or in the aggregate, these people are more likely to die before they could transfer the virus off to everybody else.

So his idea of why slow-the-spread works is not that it gives health services time to treat severe cases, it’s that he imagines there is this substantial variation in lethality of the virus, and that isolation allows people carrying strong strains to die, eliminating those variants, giving weak strains a selective edge. This ruthless Darwinian winnowing of viral strains will occur over the course of a few weeks.

He’s postulating a hyper-evolutionary acceleration; it’s very similar to the arguments of creationists who think all the vast amount of variation in species emerged from a few kinds preserved from the Flood 4000 years ago. Good evolutionary biology does not treat selection as a god-like force that instantly generates an optimal solution — we’re entirely aware of the limitations and how fast it can potentially work. We can use math. Epstein’s mechanism might work…over a few hundred thousand generations, which I suspect is even slower than our dilatory president’s response to the crisis.

And you’re not an epidemiologist, correct?

No, I’m trained in all of these things. I’ve done a lot of work in these particular areas. And one of the things that is most annoying about this debate is you see all sorts of people putting up expertise on these subjects, but they won’t let anybody question their particular judgment.

No, he’s not trained in those particular areas. He’s a lawyer. They work contrary to how scientists work. Lawyers start with the conclusion that they want to reach, and then select evidence that fits that conclusion.

That comment is particularly ironic because it applies spectacularly well to him. He’s claiming expertise he doesn’t have. You know, as I said, I actually do have some training in evolutionary biology, but I understand the limitations of what I know. I understand general principles and basic rules, but I also know that there are domains of specialization, like epidemiology, that I know very little about. I wouldn’t try to trump an epidemiologist’s detailed understanding of pandemics with my general knowledge of evolution of fish and spiders and cephalopods. Yet here’s Epstein, asserting that his legal training qualifies him to know better than epidemiologists.

I also wouldn’t declare that my knowledge of biology means I know better than Epstein how the law works.

What I’m doing here is nothing exotic. I’m taking standard Darwinian economics—standard economic-evolutionary theory out of Darwin—and applying it to this particular case.

There is actually a field of Darwinian economics. It’s mostly a bunch of economists who are smart enough to know that biologists have built up a lot of theory about how evolutionary biology works, and they’re trying to apply biological principles to economics. That’s not what Epstein is doing. He’s trying to jigger his fantasy Libertarian notions of economics to fit biology, and throwing a snit because biology is not obliging.

Oh yes, a snit. The following exchange is a stunning demonstration of how thin-skinned Richard Epstein is.

I was just asking about—

I’m saying what I think to be the truth. I mean, I just find it incredible—

I know, but these are scientific issues here.

You know nothing about the subject but are so confident that you’re going to say that I’m a crackpot.

No. Richard—

That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? That’s what you’re saying?

I’m not saying anything of the sort.

Admit to it. You’re saying I’m a crackpot.

I’m not saying anything of the—

Well, what am I then? I’m an amateur? You’re the great scholar on this?

No, no. I’m not a great scholar on this.

Tell me what you think about the quality of the work!

O.K. I’m going to tell you. I think the fact that I am not a great scholar on this and I’m able to find these flaws or these holes in what you wrote is a sign that maybe you should’ve thought harder before writing it.

What it shows is that you are a complete intellectual amateur. Period.

O.K. Can I ask you one more question?

You just don’t know anything about anything. You’re a journalist. Would you like to compare your résumé to mine?

Wow. Like, wow. I’m speechless. A bit touchy, isn’t he?

Richard Epstein, you are an amateur and a crackpot, and also arrogant and ignorant. I hope this interview follows you for the rest of your days and demolishes your credibility in all scholarly things.

I may have made a small mistake

In my struggle to get my classes back on track as quickly as possible after spring break, I wanted to get everyone thinking and focused again, so…

  • In my intro class, I assigned a set of homework problems, due on 30 March.
  • In my intro class, I gave a take-home exam on Friday, due on 30 March.
  • In my genetics class, I assigned a set of homework problems, due on 30 March.
  • In my genetics class, I gave a take-home exam on Friday, due on 30 March.

They were supposed to send them to me by email.

Today, you may notice, is 30 March.

I opened my inbox this morning, and recoiled in horror. So many of my students were industrious and on the ball and possibly bored out of their minds, so they got everything done early. There are others who are still working on them, so I expect even more to trickle in during the course of the day.

The next exams are staggered a bit, at least, but I should have done that this time. The shock of the sudden isolation event just put everything in sync.