Why aren’t you moving to Minnesota?

You know we’re one of the good states, right? Look at us, being all sane and wholesome and supportive of all of our citizens.

That’s a rally for LGBTQ+ rights at our state capitol. It’s not that big, but that’s only because those rights aren’t as threatened here. In fact, our legislature just passed an important set of bills.

The Minnesota Senate Friday passed a trio of proposals aimed at legally safeguarding people who come to Minnesota for abortion and gender-affirming care and outlawing what’s called conversion therapy for minors.

The moves come as states around the country have banned or seriously limited access to abortion in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade and after 12 states – including Minnesota’s neighbors Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota – have banned gender-affirming care for minors.

We want more people to live freely right here, so come on up!

Supporters said the bill showed Minnesota would treat all people with respect and love.

“I wish that other legislatures across this country shared our values. They don’t. But guess what? If you need gender affirming care — and that is life-saving care, it’s medically necessary care. If you need it, you can come to Minnesota,” said Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul, one of the bill’s cosponsors. “If you’re scared, or you’re looking for a new place to build your family, we want you here in Minnesota. We want you to take refuge here.”

We also have a budget surplus — we went woke, and we’re thriving here.

In the first State of the State address of his second term, Gov. Tim Walz detailed his vision for how a new Democratic trifecta in charge of Minnesota government would leverage a historic budget surplus for a new “Minnesota Miracle.”

Speaking to a joint session of the Minnesota Legislature on Wednesday night, Walz highlighted many of Democrats’ priorities, including billions more in spending for schools, families and the state’s most vulnerable. The more than $17 billion in new spending Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party members have planned aims to cut child poverty by roughly 25 percent and make the state the “best place to raise a family.”

“We have the resources. We have the shared vision. And for the first time in half a century, we have the political will to get this done,” Walz said at the conclusion of his roughly 30-minute speech. “So let’s not waste this opportunity. Let’s get to work building a state we’re proud to raise our kids in.”

We also have Republicans. Every news story has to leaven the good news by bringing on some dour Republican ass who whines about how we’re not torturing trans kids enough, and how we ought to give more tax breaks instead of providing services to everyone, and praying for a Ron Desantis to come along and flay the Democrats, but ignore them. They’re in the minority.

Are you packing up yet? We want you here, every one of you. We definitely need more people to populate our universities, but everyone is welcome.

The downsides: well, it does get a little chilly up here, but probably the worst thing about Minnesota is we might get a little smug about our superiority to our benighted neighbors. When you’re One Of Us, though, that’s not so much of a problem. One of Us, One of Us, One of Us!

Tough times for education

The universities in Minnesota are divided into multiple teams. My university is part of the University of Minnesota system, which has 5 campuses — it’s the smaller subsystem, but it’s also older and wealthier, founded before Minnesota had statehood, and it’s a little bit more independent for that reason. The real giant in this state is MnSCU, the Minnesota State College and University system, which is made up of 30 colleges and 7 universities. These campuses were explicitly set up by the state to provide educational opportunities to all of its citizens. Then there are all the private colleges, about which I’ll say no more.

They’re all good institutions, operating in parallel. My oldest son attended a MnSCU college, St Cloud State University (SCSU), the middle child went to school in Wisconsin, and my youngest went to a UM school right here at UMM, so we aren’t snobs about which system is better. Unfortunately, they’re all suffering right now, with painful declines in enrollment. SCSU has been hit hard.

The student headcount at St. Cloud State has dropped from more than 18,000 in 2010 to about 10,000 last fall. But not only are the numbers dropping, the students are changing: Nearly 50% of students are part-time, about 25% are under 18 and enrolled in postsecondary classes, and about 10% are 35 and older.

There are also fewer traditional students — recent high school graduates looking for a four-year degree — than in previous decades because of declining birthrates beginning in the 1990s, changes in perception around the importance of undergraduate degrees, and more education options such as for-profit and online colleges.

Yikes. SCSU is about 10 times the size of UMM, and while we’ve suffered substantial enrollment declines, I think that SCSU has been proportionally hit even harder. Their solution: put major programs on the chopping block.

St. Cloud State University will phase out six majors and cut three dozen jobs in the wake of a looming $18.3 million deficit projected for the upcoming school year, according to leaders at the central Minnesota school.

The majors to be phased out are philosophy, theater, nuclear medicine technology, real estate and insurance at the undergraduate level, as well as marriage and family therapy at the graduate level.

23 faculty and 14 staff are being laid off! I’m feeling the pain from here, a hundred miles away. My U hasn’t done anything quite that drastic, at least not yet, but we have been letting natural attrition of faculty take its course and avoiding some important replacement hires, but that has still caused serious difficulties. We haven’t been firing people or killing majors programs, but when staffing withers away and your department has one professor left, you’ve de facto closed off a major. You’re also going to exhaust that one overworked professor, who is going to be looking for jobs elsewhere.

These are terrifying times in academia. Enrollment dropping, the pandemic was a major strike, and then, of course, Republicans whining about ‘woke’ colleges. One of the things that has made Minnesota a great place to live is an outstanding educational system — let’s not throw that away.

Araneus gemmoides left us a present last year

For the last few years, we’ve been graced with regular summertime visits by cat-faced spiders, Araneus gemmoides. They’re great big orbweavers, usually no trouble at all, although last year one of them took over our deck, stringing webs over the doors. We let her. When you’re that beautiful, you can get away with anything.

One of the reasons they’re no trouble is that they just lurk, and then when winter arrives, they die. Last year’s visitor crept up above our back door and left an egg sac in a dark corner. Here it is!

We got a step ladder to get closer, and I poked a lens right in there. The sac was partially torn open on one side (predation?), so I got a good view of the eggs inside.

Those are definitely spider eggs, but they aren’t very far along in development. It’s been chilly and snowy for the last few weeks, so it’s not surprising that they haven’t matured much. Maybe Minnesota will be kind and bring us a real spring soon?

I’ll keep you informed about this developing subject!

Starship post-mortem

After the biggest rocket in the world exploded shortly after launch, it’s time to figure out what went wrong. Mark Sumner provides the long detailed analysis, while Scott Manley gives us a video.

I’m not a space guy or engineer, but here’s my shorter summary: an important piece of the starship technology was the launch pad, or Stage 0. The rocket was so powerful that it destroyed Stage 0, sending massive lumps of concrete flying everywhere that smashed the engines. You’d think that the engineers would have been aware of these potential dangers, but someone decided they didn’t need flame diverters or water cooling jets. That someone was Elon Musk himself.

Even shorter summary: Elon Musk’s incompetence blew it up.

Now I really want to look on the bright side, so I have a suggestion. Elon Musk really likes money, so he should sell tickets for the next flight — big money tickets that only billionaires could afford. Promise them a grand party in space, with Elon Musk at the helm to show that he’s confident it’ll work. Pack it with a dozen billionaires as passengers. Then launch it. I’ll cheer the entire duration of its flight, and cheer even louder at the end.

It could be a glorious Billionaire Disposal System, but don’t call it that. Don’t want to tip them off.

What are we going to do about Missouri?

For one thing, we have to deal with the rise of Missouri Man, rival to the ubiquitous Florida Man.

On April 18, Republic Police Department officers were called to a Price Cutter to respond to a call about a robbery in which a man held an employee at gunpoint so that he would be served meat.

Larry Gene Gay, 70, of Springfield, is charged with one felony count of unlawful use of a weapon and a felony count of armed criminal action.

Court documents show that officers responded to the scene and ordered Gay to get out of his truck so they could arrest him. After he was taken into custody, an officer removed a loaded semi-automatic pistol with a bullet in the chamber from Gay’s hip holster.

In an interview, Gay said he went to Price Cutter to buy steaks. He told the “good man” who was helping him that they needed to weigh the steaks. However, the meat department was closed. Gay said at that point, he showed his gun “Just to say I’m not stealing. I need you here to help me to get a couple of these steaks. I’m not going to hurt you.”

The officer asked Gay why he thought the people in the store called police and told them he was threatening them with his gun.

“I don’t know,” Gay said in the interview. “I have no idea.”

Hand stupid people a gun, and at some point they’re going to use it to deal with some minor inconvenience. Missouri has a lot of guns, and a lot of stupid people, it’s an inevitable problem. But we could wave that away, it’s a problem with a few individuals, I’ve met a lot of good people in Missouri, and we can’t blame the whole state.

Here’s wider problem, though. Missouri is run by a gang of regressive Republicans who have been passing all kinds of ugly laws. They hate transgender kids, you know, and want to deny them good healthcare. The state Attorney General, Andrew Bailey, set up a ‘snitch line’ where random concerned citizens could submit their complaints about those danged transes and their wicked doctors who poison them all with estrogen and testosterone. It’s not clear what Bailey was going to do with those complaints…arrest everyone who was androgynous? Send out genital inspectors to check the accused? It was the usual preliminaries, I suspect, where the fascist builds a list in anticipation of the day he can send out the brownshirts.

It didn’t go as well as he’d hoped.

Bailey said his office set up the tip line for parents to submit concerns about the gender-affirming care their children received from transgender youth centers. He also issued an emergency rule severely restricting access to gender-affirming care.

PROMO, a Missouri LGBTQ advocacy organization, said Bailey “fanned the flames of hate” in issuing the emergency rule.

“The Attorney General’s claims are maliciously cherry-picked and come from unverified sources that allow him to promulgate disgusting, obstructive, and misleading information into an emergency rule,” PROMO said in a statement. “It should be clear to anyone paying attention that the real threat to Missourians is the attorney general himself.”

Social media users on TikTok, Twitter and Tumblr ensured that Bailey’s office would have plenty of evidence to sift through for the investigation, flooding the site with fake complaints and other ephemera.

When the online form first launched, it lacked a CAPTCHA, which savvy Twitter users quickly used to their advantage by using bots to spam the site. Users also employed a generator to churn out fake names and fake Missouri addresses. Others just dumped text into the complaint form, ranging from the entire script of the “Bee Movie,” to Billy May’s OxiClean sales pitch, to Walter White’s introductory monologue in “Breaking Bad.” TikTok users said they submitted the “most raunchiest fanfic from AO3” and “a saucy love story of Mario and Luigi.”

Love wins in the end, right?

But here’s my dilemma. I’m a regular tourist visiting Missouri — I go for Skepticon every summer. The question I wrestle with is…should I refuse to go again, and not contribute my travel dollars to a fascist, theocratic state? Or should I go, and contribute my travel dollars to the good kinds of Missourians who support a liberal skeptical conference? I’ve got time to resolve this internal debate since the organizers haven’t even announced a date for the event.

They could fix my problem for me by moving the whole Skepticon show north, to a progressive state (not Iowa), but that leaves the good Missourians in the lurch. I dislike these kinds of decisions. My problem would go away if Missouri would just throw the rascals out, but that isn’t going to happen this year, or maybe even in years to come.

Republicans ignore the principles of a good education — clearly, they never had one

Every time they try to hide an ugly fact of history, they look worse — they’re just compounding the problem. We’re seeing this mistake in Florida and Texas and Tennessee, where Republican legislatures cobble up laws to silence teachers and prevent them from mentioning the ghastly evils that previous legislatures have executed. It’s not going to work. It just means that the next generation is going to be confronted with the fact of American slavery, for example, and the fact that America tried to hush it up in the 2020s. Tennessee has been eager to join in the shameful displays of cowardice.

Last year, Tennessee passed one of those cookie-cutter rightwing bills banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” in higher education — the very same sort of hogwash that’s currently under a court injunction in Florida. The law, SB 623 prohibited teaching a whole bunch of very bad ideas, like the concept that “One race or sex is inherently superior or inferior to another race or sex” or the always fun “An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex” — so you can’t read about Ruby Bridges, you. The bill also prohibited “penalizing” students for not endorsing the concepts, because we all know how professors like to demand that students recite from the Maoist catechism.

(Do follow that link to the Ruby Bridges story. There is a woman in Florida named Emily Conklin who is going to be on the poster about the wicked perpetrators of bigotry, her picture right next to the Ku Klux Klan, the Southern Democrats of the 1960s, and Steve King of Iowa.)

You can tell these congressvermin know nothing about how education works — they’re of the God’s Not Dead school of projection, where they think their authoritarian vision of how to teach by law enforcement is the way we must work. For example, my genetics students have been given a bunch of papers on racist and sexist misconceptions in genetics that they’ll be summarizing in class this week…and I’ve explicitly told them that they can disagree with the papers without penalty. I can’t imagine standing up in a class and dictating how they must interpret the science. That’s not how any of this works, this is an exercise in learning how to think for themselves about the evidence.

Does that make me one of those red professors? There’s no way you can compel me to wear a bowtie.

Mighty Morphin’ Spiders

Last month, I thought I’d found a color morph in S. triangulosa: some recently caught wild spiders from Wisconsin that were almost solid black, with just a hint of the standard pattern. I figured I’d be able to do some crosses this summer and see if it was heritable.

Now I don’t need to! Look at the difference a month in the lab environment makes.

[I try not to splash spiders in your face here. You’ll have to look it up on Instagram or Patreon.]

That’s the same spider, almost a month apart. Now it looks all the other spiders I’ve got. I suspect it’s got to be something about the change in diet, from whatever they were finding in a garage to a steady diet of fruit flies and mealworms.

They were caught in Wisconsin, where they’d been living on cheese curds, brats, and La Croix, probably.

Also note that this spider has made a couple of egg sacs. The one in the top right is a half-assed mess, only a few eggs only partially wrapped in a thin skein of silk.

Tower of Spiders

We’re currently isolating all freshly laid egg sacs and tagging them with the date so that we know exactly how old the embryos are. This week I started scanning all the adult containers and setting aside those who had produced an egg sac.

It started out well: one on Sunday, one on Tuesday, one on Thursday, and I’m thinking this is perfect — a fresh batch of 30+ embryos every other day is what we can handle easily. Then then this morning, Friday, I come in and…5 new egg sacs for 21 April.

Then I realize…Thursday is quarter taps night at the Met Lounge downtown. Have they been sneaking out for a wild party night, and then coming back to the lab all primed for reproduction? That’s the only rational explanation.

I could be concerned that I’m going to be in another situation where the lab is drowning in more spiders than we know what to do with, but we’re about to switch paradigms a little bit. Next week we start plunking lots of embryos into fixative, then the week after we start doing embryo dissections and staining with propidium iodide. None of these spiders are going to live to adulthood. Sorry.