Cui bono? It sure isn’t educators or students

Every day, I walk into work conscious that all of my students are building up colossal amounts of debt for the opportunity to be here. What stings is that I was in their position over 40 years ago, and I acquired negligible amounts of debt for a similar learning experience. Am I teaching ten times or fifty times better than my professors at the University of Washington in the 1970s? No, I am not.

I might also ask, am I getting paid ten times or fifty times more than those professors? No. So where is all that money going? Mainly into the hands of bankers and politicians who have set up the system to be a honey trap for young people, who have spent the last several decades growing fat on the money siphoned out of student’s pockets, or who have been starving universities of the revenue they need to operate, transferring costs from the states to the taxpayers. Student loans are a criminal enterprise run by corrupt parasites.

This episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight was infuriating, beginning with the battery of Fox News assholes sneering at education to the Republican representative piously declaiming that everyone should be obligated to pay back their loans…when Rep. Roger Williams took out a $1.43 million PPP loan at the start of the pandemic, which he did not pay back. I am infuriated on behalf of the current generation of students who are getting thoroughly screwed over by the conservatives and capitalists who are controlling their lives.

College should be free. It is one of the primary obligations of the state to educate its citizens, and instead, they’ve turned education into a profit-making enterprise.

More of the same old creationist junk

A new movie has come out!

Look at that ad — for a moment, I thought someone was finally going to make Jim Pinkoski’s vision real. I’d like to see a movie about T. rex battling foolish ancient Hebrews in a cataclysmic rainstorm.

Unfortunately, then I watched the trailer. The narrator sounds bored. It seems to be a set of CGI segments spliced together, retelling bits of the book of Genesis as if they’re historical. Now I’m bored, too.

This is the work of a guy named Dan Biddle, who runs an organization called Genesis Apologetics. They basically parrot whatever the Institute for Creation Research or Answers in Genesis says. I am amused that they say they will avoid “fringe” evidence provided by other creationist organizations.

Our ministry provides practical and easy-to-understand web, video, and written products for pastors, parents, and students. The materials provided will be those that are “core” to the Creationist position, which are generally held in agreement with leading creation ministries, such as and We generally avoid “fringe” evidences that are controversial between these and other Creationist associations.

If you’re eager to see this movie, it’s only available in theaters today and tomorrow, at venues that aren’t specified (do you think the theatrical release is only to allow it to qualify for an Academy Award? We’ll find out next year.) If you miss it, don’t panic, I’m sure it will be playing in church basements for years to come, and I think they usually dump their cheap crap to YouTube for free.

Nominally flawless

Apparently, I am in perfect health, a veritable Greek god, perfect in every way. Except…I had to point out to my doctor that I have these terrible flare-ups of joint problems. Just the week before my physical, I had been painfully crippled by inflammation of my Achilles tendon — suddenly, with no warning or precipitating injury, my ankle was swelling up in all kinds of strange lumps and bulges, and I was scarcely able to walk.

This hits me fairly often, I can count on being incapacitated at least once a semester with this nonsense (note that, as a professor, “incapacitated” means still having to hobble in and teach, no matter how much physical agony I’m experiencing.)

This was not a good thing. It’s not what I would call healthy at all.

I complain every time I visit the doctor, but it’s one of those things that will fade away with equal suddenness, so it’s hard to treat. At this last physical, I pushed a little harder, and the doctor decided that we need to do more to get a diagnosis. I went into the blood lab and yielded a quart or two so they can carry out more extensive tests.

All week now, new test results have dribbled into my mailbox. All the usual stuff, like blood pressure, cholesterol levels, a full metabolism panel, etc., etc., etc. are in the perfect range. Uric acid, serum creatine, etc., all good. Thyroid hormones, 5×5. Because I’ve been out in the wilderness more during the summers, they tested for Lyme disease, West Nile, and a whole suite of exotic tick-borne antigens…nope.

If you just go by the numbers, I am like unto Apollo, beautiful and flawless. I don’t think anyone will be sculpting my form, though, and I’m going to remember this when the field season starts up again and my knee swells up like a balloon, again.

(I’ve got it good, though, compared to my daughter Skatje who dislocated her knee on a skiing trip a few weeks ago. Her imminent fate is “Left knee MPFL reconstruction and tibial tubercle osteotomy, open reduction internal fixation of osteochondral fragment from patella dislocation,” in doctorese. It could be worse.)

It almost makes me believe in karma

There were two tragic deaths in Fresno a few days ago.

Jason Phillips, the other half of the Proud Boys associated January 6th Capitol rioter duo called Oreo Express, is dead after drinking and driving for Saint Patrick’s Day and crashing a Tesla. He and his passenger, who also died, weren’t wearing seatbelts.

The details from the news:

Two Fresno men who died in a crash involving a Tesla were identified Tuesday by the Fresno County Corner’s Office.

Jason Phillips, 24, who officers said they believed to have been the driver, and Chase McCutcheon, 32, were in a Tesla Model 3 about 1:45 a.m. Monday when the vehicle collided with more than one guardrail, the coroner’s office said.

The California Highway Patrol said the fatal crash happened on Copper Avenue as the Tesla headed west approaching a shift in the road near Willow Avenue.

The driver failed to traverse the shifting road at “a high rate of speed” and hit the curb, a guardrail and a street sign before the Tesla overturned, CHP said.

The car continued into another curb and guardrail, CHP said.
Neither Phillips nor McCutcheon were wearing seatbelts and were ejected during the crash, CHP said. Both were pronounced dead at the scene.

Let’s see…driving drunk at excessive speed with no seatbelts? I don’t believe in karma, but I do believe that humans can be incredibly stupid.

Apparently, the Tesla did not catch fire.

The Kushner Plan

There is chaos in Gaza — people are starving, they’re being bombed and shot, and the US has so far been disgustingly passive about it all. We need positive ideas and new tactics to change the situation, so let’s get advice from…Donald Trump’s son-in-law? I admit, Jared Kushner is looking at Israel through a different lens.

His remarks at Harvard gave a hint of the kind of Middle East policy that could be pursued in the event that Trump returns to the White House, including a search for a normalisation deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Gaza’s waterfront property could be very valuable … if people would focus on building up livelihoods, Kushner told his interviewer, the faculty chair of the Middle East Initiative, Prof Tarek Masoud. Kushner also lamented all the money that had gone into the territory’s tunnel network and munitions instead of education and innovation.

It’s a little bit of an unfortunate situation there, but from Israel’s perspective I would do my best to move the people out and then clean it up, Kushner said. But I don’t think that Israel has stated that they don’t want the people to move back there afterwards.

Masoud replied that there was “a lot to talk about there”.

Jesus. Exactly what you’d expect from a developer and slumlord — every piece of land is a property to be seized and exploited. Gaza is a chunk of ocean front without casinos and high rise hotels, let’s fix it!

He doesn’t seem to have put much thought into the people who live there. You know, the ones who had other things to do with their money than pay out exorbitant rents to a landlord.

Kushner also said he thinks Israel should move civilians from Gaza to the Negev desert in southern Israel.

He said that if he were in charge of Israel his number one priority would be getting civilians out of the southern city of Rafah, and that with diplomacy it could be possible to get them into Egypt.

But in addition to that, I would just bulldoze something in the Negev, I would try to move people in there, he said. I think that’s a better option, so you can go in and finish the job.

He reiterated the point a little later, saying: I do think right now opening up the Negev, creating a secure area there, moving the civilians out, and then going in and finishing the job would be the right move.

Finish the job? Finish what job? The extermination of the Palestinians? Sure, just bulldoze a patch of desert and move them there. This is insane.

I’m sitting in Miami Beach right now, Kushner said. And I’m looking at the situation and I’m thinking: what would I do if I was there?

I’m thinking: why the hell was Jared Fucking Kushner, that incompetent hack, invited to Harvard to opine on Israel?

Endocrine disruptors — you’re soaking in them

A human embryo at the 4th week of development is just a tiny bean with a length measured in millimeters, but at this time all kinds of remarkable features are starting to develop. This week in class I talked about urogenital development, which involves forming an array of incredibly delicate, thin tubes from a structure called the urogenital ridge, a thickening of an embryonic membrane which will eventually form a succession of kidneys, the pronephros, mesonephros, and metanephros, only the last persisting into adulthood. The key feature for the story I was telling, though, is that they formed something called the mesonephric duct, and then the paramesonephric duct which parallels it. Another name for the mesonephric duct is the Wolffian duct, and the paramesonephric duct is called the Müllerian duct (personally, I don’t care for the self-serving names given to critical bits of the developing embryo by 19th century men, but it’s what still persists in the embryo. So it goes.)

Both of these ducts are associated with the bipotential or indifferent gonad. There are no sexual differences in embryos this young.

The sex differences emerge later, in response to differential signals. The Müllerian ducts degenerate in males, while the Wolffian ducts persist. In females, the Müllerian ducts persist, while the Wolffian ducts fade away. The bipotential gonad associates with the remaining duct and differentiates into testes or ovaries.

I’ll refrain from delving deeper into the details. My point is that these minuscule ducts and tissues form very early, and are going to expand to form critical, elaborate structures necessary for human fertility. They’re fragile. You really don’t want to perturb the signals and processes going on in a one month old embryo, especially since you may not see the consequences for 15 or 20 years.

In 1941, pharmaceutical companies started to market a synthetic drug with properties similar to estrogen, called diethylstilbesterol, or DES. It wasn’t patented, so anyone could make and sell it, and they pushed it hard to pregnant women. There was weak evidence that it could help sustain pregnancies in women with low progesterone levels, so sure, let’s market it as “routine prophylaxis in ALL pregnancies.” About 4 million pregnant women took this stuff at the suggestion of their doctors, between 1941 and 1971, when it was finally banned.

Think about that. This was an endocrine disruptor, term that wasn’t invented until the 1990s, but everyone knew then that it would have some kind of effect, since it was a functional analog of estrogen. So they gave it to pregnant women, and by that means delivered a potent hormonal signal to their embryos at a time when they were carefully assembling those delicate little tubes. Worse, they knew that high doses given to mice and hamsters caused mammary, cervical, vaginal, and uterine cancers in adult females, and that adult males developed lung cancers, which ought to have set off all kinds of alarm bells. Any tissue that was sensitive to estrogen could be provoked to turn cancerous with DES.

Just for dessert, it was determined in 1953 that DES did nothing to maintain at risk pregnancies. They continued to prescribe the stuff. Just in case, you know.

For additional profit, they also marketed it as a growth hormone for livestock. That continued until it was eventually banned for that purpose in 1979.

Here’s the structure of this potent little molecule.

A is DES; B is estrogen; C is BPA, the common, heavily used plasticizer that we now know is an endocrine disruptor.

You might be wondering what happened to those 4 million women who took the drug. They were fine! Humans and other primates seem to be more resistant to the carcinogenic effects of DES, and they were taking much lower doses than those poor rodents in testing labs who were given massive doses of the drug.

And what about the millions of boomer babies who were doped with it in utero? Again, mostly fine — this is the thing about endocrine disruptors, they tend not to have the gross teratogenic effects we associate with chemicals that cause significant birth defects, like thalidomide. They’re more subtle. They perturb the balance of internal organ systems, and in this case, cause problems in the physiology of reproductive organs, which may lead to fertility issues or some kinds of cancers. I emphasize may because I know DES-exposed people who have had children and are cancer-free; it’s more a matter of letting their gynecologists know to keep an eye on potential warning signs.

But it can go very wrong.

DES is still used in experimental studies because it’s such an interesting molecule. Regular readers probably know about the importance of Hox genes; these are genes expressed along the body axis in pretty much all animals that defined anterior-posterior structures. The same genes also get re-expressed to define the proximal-distal axis of the tetrapod limb. They seem to be a handy-dandy molecular tool for establishing tissue identities along a line.

Here’s another instance of Hox genes defining position on an organ: they’re re-expressed in the Müllerian ducts, which become the fallopian tubes of adult women.

Hoxa9 is expressed throughout the oviduct, Hoxa13 in only the cervix, and Hoxa11 and Hoxa10 in between, forming a kind of positional coding system. This is really neat! I like finding examples of molecular recycling in the evolution of developing systems.

What isn’t so neat is that DES downregulates Hoxa10 by inhibiting an important signaling molecule, Wnt7a, creating coding ambiguities in the structure of that delicate little tube. That leads to poor cell specification and disorganized tissue, erasing what should be clear, sharp boundaries in the organ, which may then be expressed in dysplasias, increasing the odds of cancer.

As if that weren’t enough, we don’t really know what perturbing these signaling pathways does to other developing organs, like the brain. Also, DES affects methylation/demethylation of the genome, so it may have transgenerational effects — pregnant women who took DES may have messed up their children, but there is some evidence (weak, I think) that it also affects their grandchildren.

But wait! It’s banned, so we shouldn’t have to worry about it anymore! That’s partly true, but look at the diagram of the molecules above. Estrogen and DES share similarities to another molecule, bisphenol A, a ubiquitous plasticizer used to make plastic materials less brittle. BPA is found in your food packaging. It lines the interior of aluminum cans. Any plastic you have that is at all flexible has been treated with plasticizers, like BPA or phthalates. It’s leaching into your food and your general environment, and it does not go away. The US has banned its use in baby bottles and baby formula packaging, but not from all your snack food packages and your phones.

If you’re of a certain age, you might recall those commercials for a dishwashing detergent that announced, “you’re soaking in it!“, as if that meant the stuff must be safe. We ought to be aware that capitalist industries have us all soaking in a gentle bath of toxic chemicals right now, and it’s not safe.

The end is here! Again!

Spring break is over. I’m heading back to the classroom this morning.

What makes it all sting a little more than usual is that my restful week off was really just a brief interruption in the middle of the semester. I’m only half way through! I should be glad of the reprieve, but today I have to deal with the stress of resuming where I left off.

Oh well. I also spent the last couple of days setting up all of my classes. I’m all ready to go with a lecture on endocrine disruptors, specifically DES and BPA, which at least are interesting. I’ve got so much material here that I’m going to be talking about endocrine disruptors for the next two weeks.