Today was supposed to be a feeding day…

But I don’t think my spiders would be able to move. Look at Texanne here; she’s so bloated she’s not going to step out of that corner, I don’t think.

A few others are purging themselves into egg sac construction.

Anyway, I’ll check on them tomorrow, and as soon as they get active again I’ll throw them some more bugs full of ichor. The menu for Monday is mealworms.

What exactly is Trump hiding in his tax returns?

He has just asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether he should release his returns. I find this mystifying. Sure, everyone has a right to privacy — if I were asked to hand over my tax information to some random person, I’d resist on principle, but if I were given a subpoena and told to hand them over to authorities, I’d comply. I gave them to the IRS, after all.

This zealous refusal is peculiar and excessive, which makes me even more curious about what’s in there. There are two alternatives: 1) his tax returns are scrupulously honest and accurate, but he finds the truth embarrassing, so embarrassing that he would risk his reputation, low as it is, to hide them. Or 2) he lied, and they contain so much irresistible bait for investigative journalism that he fears he’ll be in legal jeopardy if they’re exposed.

I’m inclined to believe there are skeletons in there.

His defense is that a ruling against him would open the doors to all kinds of legal shenanigans against the presidency, although that’s never harmed a president before, and that he is above the law and gets to do whatever he wants while in office. That’s worrisome: he has incentive to never give up the presidency, and when he is expelled in 2020 or, dog forbid, in 2024, he’s going to fight like hell against the law.

Our greatest ally was unexpected

A decade ago, when vocal atheists were busy denouncing Christianity and other religions and furiously writing books against them, who would have thought that evangelical Christians themselves would deliver the death blow to their faith?

It’s amazing. All the values they claimed to have, that they claimed were sacred and intrinsic to their religion, casually discarded and converted to praise for a wealthy, corrupt boor. They just took everything we said was wrong with Christianity and validated it.

Unfortunately, at the same time, much of atheism decided to abandon the moral high ground and join the Christians in anti-feminism, anti-immigration, racist bullshit, so we can’t claim victory. It seems to be a general failure of humanity.

The Great Escape

Today was not a good day. My mission was to sort out the prisoners the newly emerged spiders into separate containers, and also to try to document the morphology of 4 day old Steatoda triangulosa. I started out well enough, using a small paintbrush to delicately pluck out the babies and move them, and then to snap their picture.

First problem: somehow, my scope had drifted out of whack, and the eyepieces were no longer parfocal with each other, or with the camera tube. This demanded immediate fixing, especially since the photos were coming out blurry and bad.

These were not acceptable. So I spent an hour fussing over the optics, tweaking the eyepieces, taking a bunch of photos of the tips of watchmaker forceps, etc., etc., etc., until I thought everything was nicely aligned. Then resume shifting spiders.

I was feeling pretty darned competent, deftly plucking up itty-bitty baby spiders, lifting them by their dragline to a new home, and then tossing them a few fruit flies. I got so confident that I deftly knocked over the source container, sending baby spiders flying all over the floor. Oops. Sorry, neighbors. Don’t worry, they won’t go far. I was down on my hands and knees trying to find them, but nope, they are very tiny and I’m pretty sure they made it to the Swiss border. I expect they’ll colonize the space under my benches quite nicely.

Well, that was about ten spiderlings lost in the architecture. So I decided I’d check out this large collection of egg sacs brought back from Texas. At a glance, though, I could tell they’d already all hatched out — after embryogenesis, they molt, and you can see the rumpled white sheet they’ve discarded inside, and then before they emerge, they molt again, leaving their spider-shaped cuticles behind. To be sure, I opened up the sacs and looked carefully, and nope, nothing but shed leg chitin everywhere.

No more spiderlings to deal with today. I do have some egg sacs in the adult cages that will probably hatch out in ten days or so.

Oh well. While I was down on my hands and knees, I did discover a previous escapee near the floor and baseboards. She was looking good!

I don’t know what she’s been living on, but she’s grown. I like to think my lab is a healthy, biologically rich environment, though, so it’s good news. I thought about scooping her up and putting her in the incubator, but instead decided to throw down some fruit flies. She snapped them up fast!

Don’t tell the custodian.

This has been a klutzy day, so I’m out of the lab for a bit, will focus on preparing for class tomorrow instead.

Deep Rifts have become gaping, uncrossable chasms

Krista Cox, chair of the Leadership Council of the Feminist Humanist Alliance, has a few words about what the hiring of David Silverman means. This is a good summary of the Silverman Situation–it’s a rift so deep we’re separating into different continents.

Enter the newly hired executive director of Atheist Alliance International (AAI), a global federation of atheist groups and individuals who endeavor to “make the world a safer place for atheists.” On October 11, 2019, AAI announced that it had created the new ED position and hired former American Atheists president David Silverman. A week and a half later, on his “Firebrand for Good” YouTube page, Silverman declared that we, as a culture, are post-sexism. He went on to state that the gender pay gap is fake, the glass ceiling has been smashed (because it’s “better visually” for companies to hire women now), and that since second-wave feminism won, modern feminists can stop being so angry about inconsequential nonsense.

Silverman’s comments confirmed what I feared about the nontheistic movement, and his hiring both surprised and concerned me.

Silverman’s recent anti-feminist and anti-social justice statements, as well as associations with antagonists of both movements, are legion, but I’ll limit my coverage to just a few. On September 20 he wrote he is “no longer a progressive feminist” and admitted to being “red-pilled,” a reference to a quarantined Reddit forum for Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) widely known to be anti-feminist and rife with misogyny. In a September 22 podcast episode titled “Feminist Tyranny,” Silverman asserted personally or agreed with the host (MRA-adjacent Sargon of Akkad) on a number of concerning ideas, including that women are using feminism and the #MeToo movement to “secure personal privilege” and that social justice is a “cancerous social movement” that “has to be undone.” Around the same time he did an interview with female MRA Karen Straughan and the men behind Mythcon, the conference that controversially gave platforms to several anti-social-justice atheists; he retweeted an October 11 Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Social Justice Warriors Won’t Listen, but You Should” that mocked concepts like white fragility and systemic complicity in white supremacy and misogyny; and on October 17 he shared a video suggesting that more rape allegations are false than we think (part of a video series that includes “Feminazi vs. Reality”).

“Bye regressive left,” Silverman tweeted on September 23. “I have a lot of regrets for being in your whiney culty immitation [sic] of feminism.”

A few years ago, Silverman’s supportive words for feminism and social justice convinced me to become a lifetime member of American Atheists. Can I get my money back? (Not really, AA did a good thing in giving Silverman the axe…I would be really pissed if he was still in charge there.)

This is way too familiar, though.

It’s becoming a repeated refrain: man holds himself up as a feminist; man experiences consequences for misogynistic actions; on reflection, man decides social justice warriors are the real problem.

I’d say you could kick me out of the movement if ever I become as hypocritical and repugnant as David Silverman, but it’s not much of a promise since I was de facto expelled already, years ago. I’d say “By regressive right”, except that “regressive” and “right” are synonyms, making it redundant.

Hey, you think they’ll finally let Dave into CPAC?

Bad science tries to drip its way into everything

You want to read a really good take-down of a bad science paper? Here you go. It’s a plea to Elsevier to retract a paper published in Personality and Individual Differences because…well, it’s racist garbage, frequently cited by racists who don’t understand the science but love the garbage interpretation. It really is a sign that we need better reviewers to catch this crap.

The paper is by Rushton, who polluted the scientific literature for decades, and Templer, published in 2012. It’s titled “Do pigmentation and the melanocortin system modulate aggression and sexuality in humans as they do in other animals?”, and you can tell what it’s trying to do: it’s trying to claim there is a genetic linkage between skin color and sexual behavior and violence, justifying it with an appeal to biology. It fails, because the authors don’t understand biology or genetics.

They’re advocating something called the pleiotropy hypothesis, which is the idea that every gene has multiple effects (this is true!), and that therefore every phenotype has effects that ripple across to every other phenotype (partially, probably mostly true), so that seeing one aspect of a phenotype means you can make valid predictions about other aspects of the phenotype (mostly not at all true). This allows them to abuse a study in other mammals to claim that human outcomes are identical. Here’s the key graf:

The basis of the pleiotropy hypothesis presented by Rushton and Templer hinges on a citation from Ducrest et al. (2008), which posits ‘pleiotropic effects of the melanocortins might account for the widespread covariance between melanin-based coloration and other phenotypic traits in vertebrates.’ However, Rushton and Templer misrepresent this work by extending it to humans, even though Ducrest et al. (2008) explicitly state, ‘these predictions hold only when variation in melanin-based coloration is mediated by variation in the level of the agonists at MC1R… [conversely] there should be no consistent association between melanin-based coloration and other phenotypic traits when variation in coloration is due to mutations at effectors of melanogenesis such as MC1R [as is the case in humans].’ Ducrest et al. continue, ‘variation in melanin-based coloration between human populations is primarily due to mutations at, for example, MC1R, TYR, MATP and SLC24A5 [29,30] and that human populations are therefore not expected to consistently exhibit the associations between melanin-based coloration and the physiological and behavioural traits reported in our study’ [emphasis mine]. Rushton and Templer ignore this critical passage, saying only ‘Ducrest et al. (2008) [caution that], because of genetic mutations, melanin-based coloration may not exhibit these traits consistently across human populations.’ This is misleading. The issue is not that genetic mutations will make melanin-based pleiotropy inconsistent across human populations, but that the genes responsible for skin pigmentation in humans are completely different to the genes Ducrest et al. describe.

To translate…developmental biologists and geneticists are familiar with the concept of an epistatic pathway, that is, of genes affecting the expression of other genes. So, for instance, Gene A might switch on Gene B which switches on Gene C, in an oversimplified pattern of regulation.

Nothing is ever that simple, we know. Gene A might also switch on Gene Delta and Gene Gamma — this is called pleiotropy, where one gene has multiple effects. And Gene Gamma might also activate Gene B, and Gene B might feed back on Gene A, and B might have pleiotropic effects on Gene Beta and Gene E and Gene C.

This stuff gets delightfully tangled, and is one of the reasons I love developmental biology. Everything is one big complex network of interactions.

What does this have to do with Rushton & Templer’s faulty interpretation? They looked at a study that identified mutations in a highly pleiotropic component of the pigmentation pathway — basically, they’re discussing Gene A in my cartoon — and equating that to a terminal gene in humans, equivalent to Gene C in my diagram. Human variations in skin color are mostly due to mutations in effector genes at the end of the pathway, like MC1R. It will have limited pleiotropic effects compared to genes higher up in the epistatic hierarchy, like the ones Ducrest et al. described. Worst of all, Ducrest et al. explicitly discussed how the kind of comparison Rushton & Templer would make is invalid! They had to willfully edit the conclusions to make their argument, which is more than a little dishonest.

It reminds me of another recent disclosure of a creationist paper that also misrepresented its results. This paper, published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, openly declared that it had evidence for creationism.

In the paper, Kuznetsov reportedly identified an mRNA from one vole species that blocked protein synthesis in a related vole species. That same mRNA, however, did not block translation in the original vole species or another species that was more distantly related. The finding, Kuznetsov wrote in his report, supported “the general creationist concept on the problems of the origin of boundless multitudes of different and harmonically functioning forms of life.”

I vaguely remember reading that paper and rolling my eyes at how weak and sloppy the data was — it was never taken seriously by anyone but creationists. I don’t recall the details, though, because it was published 30 years ago, and is only now being retracted, after decades of the author fabricating data and being so obvious about it that he was fired as editor of two journals in 2013. The guy had a reputation, shall we say. Yet he managed to maintain this academic facade for years.

Phillipe Rushton had similarly managed to keep up the pretense of being a serious academic for an awfully long time, right up until his death in 2012. He used his reputation to spray all kinds of fecal nonsense into the scientific literature, and that’s why you have to maintain a skeptical perspective even when reading prestigious journals.

What billionaires actually do

They wreck people’s lives. One of them, Joe Ricketts, has written a memoir in which he is actually proud of his crimes. He made his fortune exploiting deregulation of financial markets, and then he dedicated his retirement to union-busting and tearing down journalism because it wasn’t “profitable” to him.

On November 2, 2017, many journalists witnessed an especially egregious version of the same scene, when Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade and the owner of the Chicago Cubs, abruptly laid off the entire staff of Gothamist and DNAinfo, two networks of local news websites he had recently merged. He also shuttered both networks, replacing tens of thousands of articles with a letter justifying his decision. “DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure,” he wrote. “And while we made important progress toward building DNAinfo into a successful business, in the end, that progress hasn’t been sufficient to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded.”

Lies, lies, lies. Read the whole article to get the full picture: he shut it down because the journalists, who were paid a pittance especially compared to the billions he was squatting on, tried to unionize to get better working conditions and fair pay.

But even worse, that’s an indictment of short-sighted capitalism, which sees everything as a business that must make a profit. Journalism has no purpose other than to make a profit…and not a profit for the journalist, but for the fat cat who owns the newspaper. I am in a “business”, education, which is not done for some crass quantity of dollars, but to make our citizens better informed, better able to deal with the world, better people, just as journalism should be, and I’m proud of that. But you tell people like this Ricketts asshole that you’re not into skimming cash from the pockets of people who need it, but in providing a service in expectation of nothing more than reasonable compensation and a living wage, and they see you as a sucker and your work as meaningless. All they can see is dollar signs, and professions like journalism and education don’t light up their eyes.

Sadly, Ricketts will never realize what a leech he is. He has adopted an American myth as his own.

The story Ricketts tells about himself is just the latest riff on a familiar American fable, in which an unremarkable person — ideally, a white guy from Nebraska or thereabouts — achieves wealth and success by working hard, never complaining, and seizing opportunities. Even assuming this story is true as far as Ricketts is concerned, it ignores the millions of people who tried to follow the same path and failed, and by extension, the absurd randomness that dictates that a guy like Ricketts should be able to sabotage dozens of careers on a mean-spirited whim. To whatever limited extent Ricketts is representative of his upwardly mobile generation, the source of his prosperity — the deregulation of capital since the 1970s — has almost completely destroyed the prospect of upward mobility for the generations that follow. Of course, none of the Ricketts kids will have to worry about that.

The worship of billionaires has become our shittiest religion.

Every billionaire is thus more than a simple failure of policy. Every billionaire is evidence of a basic glitch in the fabric of the moral universe: their lives, and acts, ring out with the gospel that only what we call evil will be rewarded — that the selfish get to live as angels, and all good people will be damned. Challenging capitalism also means challenging its religion.

Every time I criticize these parasites, whether it’s Bezos, or Musk, or Gates, or Ricketts, I know people will crawl out of the woodwork to complain that I shouldn’t say that, because they’ve all earned their wealth, and if we remove the incentives to suck up huge amounts of money, how will we get our flying cars or our Mars colony or convenient ATMs with big fees? Don’t care. Wake up.

Did anyone see this movie?


In late October, Dennis Prager and Adam Corolla, intellectual heavyweights in the sense that their crania are denser than lead, released No Safe Spaces, an entire movie whining about how comedians can’t make gay jokes any more and how conservatives are being “cancelled” everywhere. It did not appear at any theater near me, and seemed to sink without a trace.

I did find a Fox News headline bragging about it, ‘No Safe Spaces’ sees massive box office haul, praise that was qualified by the next few words, on just 1 screen. Yeah, it was shown at one theater in Phoenix, Arizona, and presumably they bussed in a bunch of Fox News watching retirees to see it so they’d have a blockbuster weekend with a whole $45,000 in revenue. It also means most of the reviews on IMDB are good — it got 8.6 stars out of 10.

It features a lot of interviews with the usual third-rate conservative faces, like Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson, and of course the fourth-rate wackaloons, Prager and Corolla. Despite the low wattage and volunteer contributions of the “stars”, I doubt that this movie broke even. Dennis Prager might think he’s a charismatic box office draw, sitting in an easy chair and puffing on a cigar, and Corolla might imagine he’s still in his glory days of the 90s when MTV would pay him to be crude and sexist, but the sight of either of them would tell me to skip the movie, it’s not even going to be fun to mock.

It also got me thinking, though. The Right preaches the gospel of capitalism and the profit motive, yet to persuade the public that their cause is just, they rely on shadowy sugar daddies to pay for their loss-leading movies and think tanks; the Invisible Hand is constantly slapping them down and telling the world how much they suck. Meanwhile, the Left knows that few billionaires are going to prop up their propaganda, and they have to rely on popular support to defy the absence of Big Money support they can get. Isn’t this backwards? In a truly capitalist society, shouldn’t this dreck just die of starvation?