There goes the neighborhood — the FLDS is trying to move in

The Jeffs family is moving into Minnesota. Warren Jeffs is still in prison, but his brother is buying land up in the northern part of the state, an hour’s drive from Canada.

A leader of a notorious religious group that preaches polygamy and marriages involving children has relocated to Minnesota and is buying land.

Records obtained by KARE 11 show that a company in which Seth S. Jeffs is a “Managing Member” recently purchased 40 acres in a remote area near the Superior National Forest west of Grand Marais.

“If past behavior is indicative of future behavior, they would bring people to start a religious colony,” said Alan Mortensen, a Utah attorney who thinks Jeffs may have moved to Minnesota to avoid a lawsuit alleging that he allowed and witnessed the ritualistic rape of a young girl.

Mortensen has filed a civil lawsuit in Utah accusing Seth Jeffs and other leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) of participating in “religious sexual rituals with underage girls” involving Seth’s brother Warren Jeffs, the group’s so-called Prophet.

Jeffs also has a house in Bloomington. Let’s hope the lawsuit that has been served on him convinces him that he can’t hide out here.

I spent a day with…students!

It was strange. I’ve got to get used to this again. Today was another day for registering incoming first-year students, so I was guiding newbies through the process and making sure they were taking the right courses (for biology majors, it’s easy: take general chemistry. We can fix just about any other omission in your schedule in this first year, but if you don’t take that chemistry prerequisite for just about everything else in the curriculum, you’re screwed.) Once the required courses were set up, we wedge in a few other things, and voila, they’re on track. Then we let them toddle on home until August.

I also spent some time with the spiders, since I’ve finally got a male. I encouraged a mating, but he was shy, so I had to leave them overnight together, with a swarm of fruit flies, which I hope will dissuade her from munching on her lover. I’ll be in tomorrow morning, hoping I don’t find a corpse in the bridal bower.

Female salamander gang invades local turf to steal chromosomes!

Local scientist featured on Science Friday! Our newest addition to the biology discipline, Rob Denton, appeared on SciFri for his work on unisexual salamanders. This species only has females — they don’t need male chromosomes to reproduce. However, they do need sperm to initiate development, so they wander about the ponds picking up sperm from alien species to trigger their own egg cells.

Their other cool trick is that, although they don’t need that sperm’s chromosome content to make babies, they will sometimes incorporate a few chromosomes from alien species on top of their own, so that maybe they can acquire a few locally adapted genes. It’s cool stuff, but watch the video to get the full story.

If you want to learn more, check out the Denton lab website, or pester @RD_Denton. He’s got nothing better to do other than run his summer research and work hard to earn tenure, so ask him questions!


My wife and I are getting serious about this spider hunting business. We lit some torches and delved deep into our basement. I went as a dwarven fighter, she was an elven enchantress. It was terrifying.

You must understand that several years ago, when we still had teenagers at home, our basement was a hotspot for carousing. Many were the XBox battles waged in that space, the nights were full of shouts and gunfire and raucusness, and many Cheetos were consumed there. Then our offspring departed, and it fell silent and abandoned. We stripped out much of the furniture, removed carpeting, cleaned it all out, and it did fall into darkness and neglect. We braved the first level today.

The cobwebs are impressive and dense, and they were decorated with the shriveled corpses of many pholcids, and also the long-drained bodies of pill bugs, centipedes, and millipedes. We sought out any theridiidae, but they were absent. It was like a tomb.

Everything was covered thickly with webbing though, like the electrical system. Look closely, and you might see a pholcid embracing the grey box — it’s dead. I nudged it, it didn’t move (live pholcids will start gyrating in their webs if disturbed). One has to wonder what it is guarding.

I looked into the crawlspace. That was too awful to contemplate, too infested with webbing everywhere. No one has entered that cavern in decades, so we retreated. I think we’ll have to go up a few levels before we dare plunge into that nightmare.

We retreated further and turned the corner to escape when we saw…

[Read more…]

Meandering about spiders

I went for my morning stroll this morning, checking out spider haunts. My garage is still destitute, with nothing but dead husks and cobwebs. I walked over to the science building, and checked a few places that I knew were crannies where cobwebs and insect parts and spider poop could usually be found — nothing! They were shiny clean! I guess our magnificent custodial staff had been scrubbing unusually thoroughly for commencement. I’ve still got my lab spiders looking sleek and plump, but they’re all female, and I’m desperate for male spider juice right now.

I consoled myself by making my final travel details to the American Arachnological Society meeting next month. I’ll get my spider fix one way or another.

I like the label “charismatic minifauna”

Then I was reading a This American Life episode about spinelessness. It’s about the vertebrate bias in research publications and funding. Malcolm Rosenthal is deploring the fact that invertebrates are relatively neglected.

Our findings can be summarized in two major points:

First: The warm-blooded vertebrate skew was intense. Almost 85 percent of described species are arthropods, but more than 70 percent of publications were on vertebrates. Birds and mammals alone accounted for well over 50 percent of publications, despite representing less than 2 percent of all animal species.

Second: In a world where citations are used to measure impact, publishing on understudied systems comes at a cost to the researcher. Publications on vertebrates received more citations on average than arthropod papers. They were also far more likely to be “blockbuster” publications with more than 100 citations.

He’s right. You can’t deny that there is a strong bias at work. Back in the early days of zebrafish work, we often made the argument that these are honorary invertebrates when we were talking to other developmental biologists, because they do have a lot of the advantages of model systems in that group, but in our grant proposals we turned around and emphasized that these were true vertebrates, and that they had the virtues of relevance to research in human health and disease. We did our best to straddle that line.

And while Rosenthal’s evidence is true, I think he’s missing the real distinction. This bias is a consequence of a fundamental difference between basic and applied research. Basic research is all the stuff he and I love, where we just care about how the world in all of its richness works. Applied research has a focus on science that helps us, the human species, and because we’re such selfish assholes, that’s where the lion’s share of the moolah goes. Look at the names of the big funding agencies: the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute. That’s where you apply if you want to make a case for research that contributes to our understanding of human health and disease. You can apply for research grants to study, for instance, zebrafish, or even insects, but you’re going to have to link it with some relevance to Homo sapiens.

You want to study some other organism, because it is interesting in and of itself, and might tell you something fundamental about biology? You apply to the National Science Foundation.

The budget for NIH is $37 billion. The budget for NSF is $7.8 billion. Enough said. Even if you convince the agency to fund your research on some fascinating, little known organism, some jerk in the legislature is going to proxmire you and whine about wasting money on bugs. If you avoid the spotlight, you’re still going to that family reunion this summer where Uncle Dork is going to sneer at you and wonder what the hell you do for a living.

I agree that there should be more support for more diversity in topics in science, and I really want to see more support for basic science, but that’s going to require a huge shift in science priorities. I’m all for a National Spider Institute that is well-funded by congress, though.

Mythcon devolved

Jesus fucking christ. There’s going to be a conference in August, on ENDING RACISM, VIOLENCE AND AUTHORITARIANISM. Sounds good, right? You should take a look at the list of speakers. Rarely have I seen such a wretched hive of scum and villainy. These are the people who promote racism, violence, and authoritarianism.

The Great Migration: A discussion on digital and physical immigration
Moderated by: Stephen Knight

Panelists include:
Lauren Chen, aka Roaming Millennial
Claire Lehmann
Daisy Cousens
Tara Devlin

12:25 PM – 1:25 PM
NSFW: How Prohibition Amplifies Problems
Moderated by: Melissa Chen

Panelists include:
Aydin Paladin
Karen Straughan
Brittany Simon
Meghan Murphy

1:30 PM – 2:30 PM
Demonetized: What Role Should Corporate America Play in Activism?
Moderated by: Bill Ottman

Panelists include:
Rucka Rucka Ali
Josephine Mathias
Jeff Waldorf
Graham Elwood

3:20 PM – 4:20 PM
Nuance, Context and the Future of Comedy Online
Moderated by: Stephen Knight

Panelists include:
Gregory Fluhrer, aka Armoured Skeptic
Mark Meechan, aka Count Dankula
Blaire White
Hunter Avallone

4:25 PM – 5:25 PM
Changing Minds: How to Admit When You’re Wrong
Moderated by: Lauren Chen, aka Roaming Millennial

Panelists include:
Tim Pool
Melissa Chen
Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad
June aka Shoe0nHead

5:30 PM – 6:00 PM
Ending Racism, Violence and Authoritarianism
Moderated by: Bill Ottman

Panelists include:
David Pakman (via Minds Gatherings)
Tim Pool

That assemblage bears some resemblance to another event we saw last year — the Mythicist Milwaukee crap. And sure enough, when you dig down, you discover one of the backers is an organization called Mythinformed. Fuck that noise.

I know of too many of the names on this list, and the ones I don’t know are going to be tarred by the association. What an ugly collection.

I wish someone had told me 15 years ago that this is where skepticism and atheism were going to end up.

Why was Betsy DeVos awarded an honorary degree from an HBCU in the first place?

DeVos was awarded an honorary doctorate by Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black college. The students were not happy.

Graduating students booed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she spoke here Wednesday at Bethune-Cookman University’s commencement, and many turned their backs to protest her appearance at the historically black school.

There are lots of reasons to despise DeVos. I would have turned my back on her if she’d appeared at our commencement. She’s an ignorant billionaire who inherited a fortune made with multi-level marketing scams, and she is not at all competent to head an educational organization. Her agenda is to advance her privileges, by wrecking the educational system for others with promotions of vouchers and “school choice”, diluting general education for all by maintaining a hierarchy of schools with varying degrees of institutional support. That’s what had the students riled. She made a few ignorant comments about HBCUs.

“HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” DeVos said in the statement, released Monday night in advance of Trump’s planned signing of an executive order giving the schools more clout. “They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”

No. HBCUs were the product of segregation and discrimination. They were formed because black people were excluded from predominantly white institutions of higher education. It wasn’t a matter of choice at all, but necessity due to racism. Now they’ve cultivated pride and a sense of place and aren’t going away. But don’t pretend the impetus to build them was choice; you might as well pretend African-Americans got here because their ancestors chose to take a cruise.

There was a lot of anger in that room.

Her speech was the typical pious crap we get from the people with power addressing the little people.

The natural instinct is to join in the chorus of conflict, to make your voice louder, your point bigger and your position stronger. But we will not solve the significant and real problems our country faces if we cannot bring ourselves to embrace a mind-set of grace. We must first listen, then speak — with humility — to genuinely hear the perspectives of those with whom we don’t immediately or instinctively agree

Don’t make noise. Be nice. Be humble. LISTEN TO ME, THE RICH WHITE LADY. I can make your lives even worse.

Sometimes, the people given power over an HBCU (or any university, for that matter) are more attuned to the desires of the wealthy donor class than to the needs of the community they serve. The president of Bethune-Cookman, Edison Jackson, mirrors exactly what DeVos said.

Jackson wrote in a letter to the campus community that a willingness to engage with varying viewpoints is a hallmark of higher education. “I am of the belief that it does not benefit our students to suppress voices that we disagree with or to limit students to only those perspectives that are broadly sanctioned by a specific community,” he wrote. “If our students are robbed of the opportunity to experience and interact with views that may be different from their own, then they will be tremendously less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship.”

That’s patronizing and insulting. I suspect those students, who are graduates of 4 years of good education already, are entirely familiar with the condescending apologetics of the rich, and don’t need to hear one more white billionaire explain to them how to be better servants to a system that enriches the haves and keeps the have-nots quiet, respectful, and accommodating.

Policy and romance? How can I not support her?

This was charming enough.

But even better…Elizabeth Warren actually called her, and talked about a plan!

The best kinds of plan always involve raising taxes on billionaires.

I’m getting a little worried. My wife is still fiercely favoring Bernie Sanders, while I keep on warming to Elizabeth Warren. I may have to worry about my marriage if this continues.

Nah, no worries. The DNC will stack the deck for that schlemiel Biden, and we’ll find marital harmony in hating him together while we both end up voting for him. Then, of course, we’ll be comrades in the revolution that follows.