America’s Mayor, everyone!

Creepy Uncle Rudy is nuts.

I’m convinced. I didn’t vote for Hunter Biden, fortunately, and think presidents shouldn’t be promoting their unqualified relatives to positions of high influence and power. That would be bad. Maybe they shouldn’t ask raving loonies to work on their re-election campaigns.

Looking forward to our brave new world of Artificial Intelligence…oh, wait

Oh dear. There’s a language processing module called GPT-3 which is really good at generating natural English text, and it was coupled to an experimental medical diagnostic program. You might be able to guess where this is going.

LeCun cites a recent experiment by the medical AI firm NABLA, which found that GPT-3 is woefully inadequate for use in a healthcare setting because writing coherent sentences isn’t the same as being able to reason or understand what it’s saying.

After testing it in a variety of medical scenarios, NABLA found that there’s a huge difference between GPT-3 being able to form coherent sentences and actually being useful.

For example…

Um, yikes?

Human language is really hard and messy, and medicine is also extremely complicated, and maybe AI isn’t quite ready for something with the multiplicative difficulty of trying to combine the two.

How about something much simpler? Like steering a robot car around a flat oval track? Sure, that sounds easy.

Now I’m scared of both robotic telemedicine and driverless cars.

Or maybe I should just combine and simplify and be terrified of software engineers.

Don’t kinkshame the spiders

Macrophiles ought to love spiders, and I know there are a lot of you out there, all frustrated because you can’t actually find a 50 foot tall woman. In fact, there are a whole lot of paraphilias that could be teased by spiders — from mild bondage fetishes to vores. If you’re a fan of Rule 34, you’ve got to start studying spiders to see how inadequate the human imagination is.

Darwin’s bark spider (Caerostris darwini) has many claims to fame: the largest webs, the strongest silk and several strategies for surviving sex. This is the only spider known to indulge in oral sex. Male spiders also go in for mate binding, a gentle form of bondage with silk that helps to reduce female aggression.

(Although, it seems to me, all spiders indulge in a kind of sex that is difficult to classify in human terms, and really, a proper Victorian gentleman would be seriously blushing at all the things his eponymous spider was up to.)

Sexual size dimorphism — where one sex is bigger than the other — is nothing too much out of the ordinary: Picture a massive male orangutan, or the bull elephant seal towering over his harem. And many insects and other terrestrial arthropods have large females, because a bigger body can produce more eggs.

Spiders, though, beat all comers: Females can be 3 to 10 times the size of males, and occasionally more. Most of these mismatched pairs are web-spinning spiders, notably orb weavers and widows. Female giant golden orb weavers (Nephila pilipes) are 10 times as long as males, for example, and a formidable 125 times heavier.

Welcome to the world of eSSD — extreme sexual size dimorphism.

You might be ready to read this gem of an article about spider sex now. Or you might want to run away screaming. Whatever floats your boat or tickles your pickle.

[Read more…]

Oh, Idaho

Growing up on the west coast of Washington state, we knew one thing about political geography: going east meant going crazy. Ellensburg, about the middle of the state, was OK but a bit off; Spokane is where the ranchers were going rabid; and Idaho…well, Idaho was falling off the edge of the world, the land of neo-Nazis and fundie churches and potatoes, and that was about it. So I’m not surprised to read that a great many loons hold high office in that state.

Several Idaho lawmakers appeared in an Idaho Freedom Foundation video published Tuesday in which they question the existence of the coronavirus pandemic and state that they will ignore any state or local emergency orders that they claim violate their rights.

The video features cameos from Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, state representatives Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton; Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley; Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls; Christy Zito, R-Hammett; Chad Christensen, R-Ammon; Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird; Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls and Heather Scott, R-Blanchard; as well as Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, and Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony, both of whom are unopposed for election to the House in November. The lawmakers’ script is a “declaration to Idaho residents and officials” that the Idaho Freedom Foundation published on its website in early October. [Note all those “R”s. Maybe I should change my name to “Myes” to avoid the taint — although some people already spell it that way]

I think the existence of the coronavirus pandemic is settled — the growing number of graves and the fact that hospitals in some states are currently overwhelmed with patients is a testimony to that. This is not a matter of constitutional law.

“The fact that a pandemic may or may not be occurring changes nothing about the meaning or intent of the state constitution in the preservation of our inalienable rights,” Hanks reads in the video.

The declaration goes on to “demand an end to the emergency orders issued by state and local government officials and the restoration of our constitutionally protected rights.”

Isn’t that special? What “inalienable rights”? The right to spread disease to anyone and everyone you want? I have some problems with people who want to point to a piece of paper and declare that it has priority over reality, or that the health and happiness of citizens in this country are somehow less important than whether you have to practice good hygiene, or whether you get to strut around with a gun, or whether you get to pasture your sheep and cows on public lands.

But then, that’s Idaho, the land of abstract privileges that must be defended at the cost of everyone else’s life.

I was talking to some students yesterday who were pessimistic about us returning to normal next year. I think they’re probably right, and yahoos like these Idahoans tell me that the plague years are just beginning.

Crunchies vs. Squishies: ask the pterosaurs

I’m not a taxonomist; early in my career I settled on the model systems approach, which meant all the nuances of systematics disappeared for me. “That’s a zebrafish” and “that’s not a zebrafish” were all the distinctions I had to make, and zebrafish were non-native and highly inbred so I didn’t have to think much about subtle variations. There was one taxonomic boundary one of my instructors forced me to recognize: Graham Hoyle had nothing but contempt for “squishies”, as he called vertebrates like fish or mice or people, and was much more focused on the “crunchies”, insects and crustaceans and molluscs. These seemed like odd ad hoc taxonomic categories to me, I and could think of lots of exceptions where “crunchies” were pretty squishy (see witchetty grubs or slugs), and “squishies” were armored and crunchy (armadillos, any one?), and besides, as a developmental biologist, they were all squishy if you caught them young enough. But OK, if you like dividing everything into two and only two categories, go ahead.

Then today I read this paper, “Dietary diversity and evolution of the earliest flying vertebrates revealed by dental microwear texture analysis”, and saw that there was at least one practical use for the distinction. What you eat affects wear patterns on your teeth, that if you eat lots of crunchy things vs. lots of squishy gooey things, you’ll have a different pattern of dental scratches, and since teeth fossilize — unlike guts — you can get an idea of what long dead animals had for dinner. Furthermore, you can compare fossil microwear textures to the textures in extant animals, where you do know what kinds of things they eat.

This is cool — so you can estimate the range of things ancient pterosaurs ate from how their teeth were worn, whether they ate lots of soft-bodied bugs like flies, or hard-shelled crustaceans, or soft-fleshed fish, by making a fine-grained inspection of their fossilized teeth and comparing them to modern reptiles.

a–c Reptile dietary guilds; a piscivore (Gavialis gangeticus; gharial), b ‘harder’ invertebrate consumer (Crocodylus acutus; American crocodile) and c omnivore (Varanus olivaceus; Grey’s monitor lizard). d–f Pterosaurs; d Istiodactylus, e Coloborhynchus (PCA number 5) and f Austriadactylus (PCA number 2). Measured areas 146 × 110 µm in size. Topographic scale in micrometres. Skull diagrams of extant reptiles and pterosaurs not to scale.

But they’re not done! Knowing the phylogenetic relationships of those pterosaurs, you can then infer evolutionary trajectories, getting an idea of how dietary preferences in species of pterosaurs shifted over time.

a Phylo-texture-dietary space of pterosaur microwear from projecting a time-calibrated, pruned tree from Lü et al.33 onto the first two PC axes of the extant reptile texture-dietary space. b Ancestral character-state reconstruction of pterosaur dietary evolution from mapping pterosaur PC 1 values onto a time-calibrated, pruned tree from Lü et al.33. To account for ontogenetic changes in diet, only the largest specimen of respective pterosaur taxa, identified by lower jaw length, were included. Pterosaur symbols same as Fig. 2. Skull diagrams of well-preserved pterosaurs not to scale (see ‘Methods’ for sources).

These results provide quantitative evidence that pterosaurs initially evolved as invertebrate consumers before expanding into piscivorous and carnivorous niches. The causes of this shift towards vertebrate-dominated diets require further investigation, but might reflect ecological interactions with other taxa that radiated through the Mesozoic. Specifically, competition with birds, which first appeared in the Upper Jurassic and diversified in the Lower Cretaceous, has been invoked to explain the decline of small-bodied pterosaurs, but this hypothesis is controversial. DMTA provides an opportunity for testing hypotheses of competitive interaction upon which resolution of this ongoing debate will depend.

In summary, our analyses provide quantitative evidence of pterosaur diets, revealing that dietary preferences ranged across consumption of invertebrates, carnivory and piscivory. This has allowed us to explicitly constrain diets for some pterosaurs, enabling more precise characterisations of pterosaurs’ roles within Mesozoic food webs and providing insight into pterosaur niche partitioning and life-histories. Our study sets a benchmark for robust interpretation of extinct reptile diets through DMTA of non-occlusal tooth surfaces and highlights the potential of the approach to enhance our understanding of ancient ecosystems.

So pterosaurs started as small bug-eaters and diversified into niches where they were consuming bigger, more diverse prey over time, which certainly sounds like a reasonable path. I don’t know that you can really assume this was a product of competition with birds — I’d want to see more info about the distribution of pterosaur species’ sizes, because expanding the morphological range doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re losing at one end of that range, but I’ll always welcome more ideas about how Mesozoic animals interacted.

First they come for Milo, now they’ve come for Amos

The alt-right just loves those yahoo edgelords who push the boundaries well beyond civilized behavior, but there are limits. Milo Yiannopoulos flamed out when started babbling about how pedophilia wasn’t really that bad; then there’s this one strange fellow who was briefly embraced by right-wingers, Amos Yee (Mythicist Milwaukee tried to bring him to their ugly conference, before they woke up to his brand of flaming). Yee was openly advocating for sex with small children, even talking about sexual acts with infants; he was quite clear that he thought children would be capable of consent even when an adult is pressuring them or lying to them about sex. People like Sargon of Akkad and Count Dankula — you know, just those names ought to clue you in that these are ridiculous clowns — were supporting him. He was just trolling, you know, which makes it OK.

But now Yee has been arrested. I guess he pushed beyond just trolling.

A blogger from Singapore who was granted asylum to stay in the U.S. faces child pornography charges, according to prosecutors.

Amos Yee appeared Friday in court in Chicago on solicitation and possession of child pornography, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. He was being held on $1 million bail.

If the 20-year-old is convicted, he could lose his asylum status. He was taken into custody Thursday at his Chicago home.

In 2016, Yee was detained at O’Hare International Airport after fleeing Singapore. His online posts mocking and criticizing the Singapore government twice landed him in jail. He was granted asylum i n September 2017.

Prosecutors alleged he exchanged messages with a 14-year-old Texas girl last year that included nude photos. He also allegedly used his now-defunct YouTube channel to advocate for pedophilia, according to prosecutors.

Goodbye, Yee. Please drag down some more of those other wingnut trolls with you.

The White House is delusional

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has just issued a press release. You only have to read as far as the first highlight to earn a rueful laugh.

Trump has ended the COVID-19 pandemic? That’s not what the informed authorities are saying.

Nationally, surveillance indicators tracking levels of SARS-CoV-2 virus circulation and associated illnesses have been increasing since September, driven primarily by activity in the Southeastern and Central parts of the country. COVID-19 related hospitalization rates and pneumonia, influenza and COVID (PIC) mortality for the most recent weeks may increase as more data are received.

The Trump administration wasn’t even able to contain the outbreak in the White House.

More personally, about 10% of my cell bio class are currently under quarantine (none diagnosed with the disease fortunately).

Has anyone out there noticed that the pandemic is over? Not me.

Bob Murray is dead!

Perhaps you recall John Oliver’s hilarious expose of the evil coal baron, Bob Murray, which prompted Murray to fling a SLAPP suit at him, that ended badly for Murray, with Mr Nutterbutter awarding him diddly.

Murray was notoriously litigious, and he had a lot to hide. He was a callous exploiter of coal miners, who opposed legislation protecting the health of his employees, even while expecting government benefits for black lung for himself.

At least that much is admitted in a tepid obituary for the old monster.

While Murray applied for black lung benefits, bankruptcy enabled his company to avoid obligations to employees diagnosed with black lung, shifting its $74.4 million liability to the federal government’s Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, according to Labor Department estimates provided to Congress.

Good riddance, Bob! Now you’re even more dead than the coal industry!