Yay, brilliant UMM students!

We’ve only had our HHMI undergraduate research program in action for a year, and we’re already seeing success: one of our students has landed a prestigious summer research position.

Ellie Hofer ’15, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is one of only a few students nationwide selected for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). EXROP provides outstanding summer research experiences to bright, motivated undergraduate students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences.

We like getting rid of our students by kicking them upwards.

Glad you couldn’t make it

I just got back from our Cafe Scientifique meeting, and it was a fabulous success: attendance was over 60 (which is why I’m glad you couldn’t make it — it was standing room only as it was) and we had a good representative sampling of the Morris community.


I don’t know what the secret of drawing everyone in was. We did make much flashier signs this month, but also the topic might have been it: Carrie Eberle from the USDA lab in town gave a talk on foraging crops for bees that hit the sweet spot in appealing to farmers, gardeners, science people, and everyone who likes honey. And it was a very good talk.

“The New Atheists as Secular Fundamentalists”

My delightful evening of fun and intellectual stimulation continues shortly, with a guest lecture on my campus from Chris Hedges, who threatens to berate atheists with his typical ignorance. I’m hoping for full-bore hand-waving purple-faced screaming, but otherwise, it’s going to be a failure of a night.

I’ll try to live-blog it, if he says anything interesting.

His introduction is all about his Harvard Divinity School professor’s experiences in Nazi Germany, and how Christianity was coopted by fascists, which led to his book, Christian Fascists, and his concern with the origins of totalitarianism. He also talks about how megachurches absorb people into the fold, and the nonsense at the Creation Museum.

Then he debated Harris and Hitchens. He was upset and angry at how Dawkins and Dennett and Harris and Hitchens replicated the authority structures of the Christian Right. What?

7:45. Suddenly we’re talking about genocide in Serbia. Where’s the connection to the atheists?

Now he says that like like the Christian Right, atheists can only argue against a caricature of religion: they haven’t studied theology! They have gods of reason and science. And this meme stuff is an example of the misuse of science, reflecting the desire of atheists to engineer ideas, and control the way people think.

He really doesn’t like Sam Harris, quoting him on torture and nuking Islamists. I know this would surprise Hedges, but there are an awful lot of atheists who dislike Harris’s ideas, too.

But no: both atheists and the Christian Right embrace the dehumanization of Muslims. We do? I keep hearing things that I reject, being told that this is what I believe to be a New Atheist.

Weird. Now we’re being told of the bizarre practices of Christian Right anti-abortion activists. What drives people into these movements is despair. Relevance? I don’t know. It seems he doesn’t have enough horrible stories about totalitarian atheists so he has to drag in tales of the religious to tar us with their sins.

The New Atheists misuse Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. It’s not a theory about politics or culture, and Dawkins and EO Wilson abuse it to make false claims about society. What? The Dawkins who has said that selection is an inappropriate ideal for human behavior? Freakish. And now he has brought up Social Darwinism. He’s sounding a bit like the loons at the Discovery Institute.

The New Atheists believe that evolution is linear and directed towards a goal and that we believe in using it to justify genocide.

Religion is not irrational, but it is non-rational. Jebus, Hedges, focus. Make an argument and back it up. This is rambling nonsense.

8:05. My brain hurts. This is stupid. Now he’s chewing out science for fracking and global warming and pollution, and blames it on the corporate state. Fine. Do atheists align with the corporate state? Does any of this have anything to do with his thesis?

New Atheists see evil as something outside themselves that must be eradicated and that evil is largely Muslim.

Fundamentalists readily embrace violence, just like Sam Harris, therefore atheists are fundamentalists. How can I possibly defeat such lucid logic?

8:15. I don’t much like Sam Harris. Harris rather detests me. It’s getting a bit old hearing some horrible thing Harris said being pinned on atheists, including me, as a class…by a guy who’s berating atheists for demonizing groups of people.

We seem to be closing with some babble about transcendance and the struggle with the irrational and the need for the sacred, whatever the hell that is. And we get to the heart of his problem: atheists are knocking down his cherished presumptions, and replacing then with squalid monuments to ourselves…which is a form of idolatry.

8:20. He’s blathering incoherently through the Q&anp;A now. This talk has been such a mess of misconceptions and rambling nonsense that I can’t even think of a question. It’s the same feeling I get when I’m at a creationist talk: it’s wrong from word one, so where do you start?

There were two places where Hedges totally lost me with his bullshit false equivalencies. Well, more than two — but these were the big ones.

  • Just as the Christian fascists abuse the bible, the atheists abuse evolution. Dawkins argues for a linear, progressive, utopian version of evolution. Total crap. Dawkins has been quite clear that natural selection is a “clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel” process, and not at all desirable as a model for human relations. Hedges argument relied entirely on misrepresenting what atheist evolutionists have said.

  • Christian fascists have totalitarian authority structures, just like the New Atheists. I just wanted to ask, what authority structures in atheism? He spent a lot of time railing against Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris; one of those three is dead, and the other two are single individuals who’ve written books. I remember attending a Hitchens lecture in which he presented his odious anti-Muslim views, and the audience booed him. These guys are not our rulers. Hedges has simply inflated his animus against a few individuals into a broad brush characterization of every atheist.

It was infuriating.

Gonna hunker down in the blizzard bunker

Highly accurate predictive photo of what Morris will look like tomorrow.

Highly accurate predictive photo of what Morris will look like tomorrow.

Another annoying weather prediction: we’re getting a big ol’ blizzard tomorrow!

For those unfamiliar with weather patterns in the upper midwestern plains, we don’t get a lot of snow, but what we do get stays with us all winter long. Right now, the ground is covered everywhere with about a foot of very dry, powdery white stuff, and tomorrow we’re probably not going to get a lot of new snow. Instead, we get extreme cold and high winds that are going to…rearrange… our snow all day long, throwing it up into the air into a fluffy white haze.

We’re going to be homebound. I made a trip to the liquor store. It’s the only thing you can do.

The polar vortex isn’t dead yet

Oh, great. We had some remarkably cold weather earlier this month thanks to the break-up of the polar vortex, and now it’s predicted that it’s coming back.

…during the third and fourth weeks of January, some changes will take place. The high amplitude pattern is forecast to get more extreme. The polar vortex will move farther south and get stronger. The pattern will gradually change the current mixture of Pacific and Arctic air in the Canada Prairies and the North Central U.S. to all Arctic air. The air will get significantly colder over the Canada Prairies and the much of the eastern half of the nation as a result.

Isn’t this pretty?


I live right under the first “E” in “EXTREME COLD”.

Poor put-upon wingnut flings silly accusations

Last semester, I wrote about our vile, racist, ‘alternative’ campus newspaper, the North Star. I seem to have annoyed its editor, John Geiger, who slipped a complaining letter (pdf) under my door last night. In it, he comically accuses me of stealing their November print run (his evidence? The distribution locations smelled like chloroform and other sciency things.), and ploddingly goes through his calculations of how much it was worth, adding things like 20% interest and a 40% “charity tax”, to demand that I immediately pay him $4,017.

Ho hum. Right wing humor.

I suggest that he chalk it all up to the White Man’s Burden that afflicts him so, and just hit up the far right dink-tanks that subsidize these awful papers all across the country. Forward the letter to the Koch brothers, I’m sure they’d respond with sympathy and cash.

From me, though, he demands checks, cash, paypal, debit, credit, bitcoin, appreciating assets (such as real-estate or valuable time-pieces), and tangible assets (like gold and silver). I don’t see eye-rolls or mocking laughter on the list, so I guess he’s out of luck.

Artisanal Toast?

Apparently, there’s an emerging food fad for toast arising in the wealthy burbclaves of Silicon Valley, and the linked story traces it back to one woman and a couple of small cafes. It’s an interesting story, and also rather encouraging — the woman uses her cafes to help manage her mental illness.

But the story is wrong. There are plenty of places with great toast.

Come on out to Morris, Minnesota. Go for breakfast at Don’s Cafe. The toast there is legendary.

They’re baaack…

I just got back from the town grocery store, which was packed with students — classes start again tomorrow, so I guess they’re stocking up for the semester. About half of them had their parents with them, which was totes adorbs. It wasn’t that long ago I was that parent.

But no more! My kids are expected to save up their pennies now so that in a few years they can handle the bills for adult diapers that they’ll be getting from my retirement home.

Emma’s tragic story

It’s really, really cold out there. Here in Morris, we’re deep in the deep freeze, in a place where exposed flesh only stings for a little while before the skin goes novocaine numb and you begin to worry that ice crystals are killing your dermis; where I live across the street from my office and I look out at the dead grey white world in the morning and wonder whether it’s worth it to hazard the walk. The only thing that gets me moving is that I’ve programmed our furnace to drop the temperature in the house during the day, when supposedly none of us are here anyway, as a cost-cutting measure — so I scuttle from a cold house through a brief bit of deadly freezing frigidity to reach a little oasis of warmth. And then I don’t want to come home again.

The house takes a while to warm up, usually not until it’s time for me to go to bed…and then my poor suffering wife has to deal with a body verging on hypothermia.

So anyway, to put it all in perspective, this morning I had to run some errands around town, and no way was I walking in this cold. I drove. Five blocks downtown, another five blocks to the edge of town and the local pharmacy, something I’d normally take care of on foot. While I was out, I happened to see our local free weekly for senior citizens (no, I don’t normally read it!) and I saw a front page story on a little local history that caught my eye: Emma’s tragic story. It’s about the only black person living in the area, over 140 years ago, a 12-year-old girl named Emma.

In its infancy, Glenwood was a village of homely wooden buildings scattered between mud paths near the east end of Lake Whipple (now called Lake Minnewaska) in the newly organized county of Pope. Census data reveals barely 200 people living in town when two men arrived from the south in 1870 – the affluent Mr. James B. Peabody and his associate, Mr. Robinson. They built a hotel called the Fountain House Hotel. By running a pipe from the town spring, Peabody and Robinson were able to erect a fountain in the front yard (thus the name Fountain House).

More interesting than the fountain, perhaps, was the fact that Peabody and his wife brought with them a child of about 12, referred to in documents at the Pope County Historical Society as “the little slave girl.” She was, the census declares, the only “colored” person in the county. Known as Emma Ferris (or Ross or Peabody), the youngster was “require to work very hard” for only room and board.

Very hard, and with little reward, only punishment: there was something called a “blacksnake whip” and stabbings in the palm with needles. Her only friend was another servant at the hotel, Ingeborg, who went home for Christmas in 1871.

Then, after a severe beating, Emma decided to run away and find Ingebord at her family farm, 5 miles away, on December 23, 1871.

Did I tell you how cold it gets around here in December? Like knives in the wind, with the ground sucking all the heat of your body and snow in wicked drifts.

Read the whole thing. But the word “tragic” in the title tells you it’s not going to have a happy ending.