Hey, look! It’s a tenure-track biology job!

The University of Minnesota, Morris biology discipline has been approved to fill a tenure track line in biology. Here’s the description:

The University of Minnesota, Morris Division of Science and Mathematics seeks an individual committed to excellence in undergraduate education, to fill a tenure-track position in biology beginning August 20, 2018.

Required/Preferred Qualifications:

Required: Applicants must hold or expect to receive a Ph.D. in molecular biology or related field by August 20, 2018. Experience and evidence of excellence in teaching and mentoring undergraduate biology students is required (graduate TA experience is acceptable.)

Preferred: Preference will be given to applicants who are able to develop and teach upper-level elective courses in their area of expertise and which complement those offered by the current biology faculty. Applicants with expertise in quantitative approaches to molecular-scale data are strongly encouraged to apply.

About the Job

Duties/Responsibilities: Teaching undergraduate biology courses including introductory biology, molecular biology with lab, electives in the applicant’s areas of expertise, and other courses that support the biology program; advising undergraduates; conducting research that could involve undergraduates and potentially in collaboration with our data sciences faculty; and sharing in the governance and advancement of the biology program, the division, and the campus.

This tenure-track position carries all of the privileges and responsibilities of University of Minnesota faculty appointments. A sound retirement plan, excellent fringe benefits and a collegial atmosphere are among the benefits that accompany the position. Appointment will be at the Assistant Professor level for those having the Ph.D. in hand and at the Instructor level for those whose Ph.D. is pending. The standard teaching load is twenty credit hours per year.

As a small university, note the teaching requirements: we need someone to help teach molecular biology, so wet lab experience is important. Molecular biology is an awfully broad category, though, so also note the buried detail: “Applicants with expertise in quantitative approaches to molecular-scale data are strongly encouraged to apply.” The magic word there is “quantitative”. We’re looking for someone who applies quantitative analysis to their work. We’re wide open to a lot of different approaches. Are you a bioinformatics person who is analyzing the evolution of specific genes? Lovely. Are you a systematist studying plant taxa with quantitative techniques? Go for it. Looking at biomechanics? We don’t do that here, but it would be cool to have it. We just hired a big data guy in computer science and statistics, so being able to work with that field is a big plus. Help us add a deeper mathematical element to undergraduate education.

Why should you apply here? We’re on the western prairies of Minnesota (no, we’re not located in Minneapolis/St Paul, so don’t think we’re a big city place) and kind of remote — if you like small town life, it’s a great place to be. Our university strongly emphasizes a quality education, personalized and supportive, so if teaching is your bag, we want to hear from you.

Shorter summary: we are looking for a biologist who likes math and teaching. Come join us!

There must be a word for making a fool of yourself to get attention

It should also start with a “K”. You may have heard that James Damore is continuing to discredit himself further with some weird musings on Twitter.

Here are some internal title names for the Klan. Still cool?


You can call yourself whatever you want. But let’s not forget that the KKK is all about terror, bigotry, and murder, and all the cool names in the world won’t change that.

Damore also has an explanation for why people join the KKK. It’s not racism. It’s not even ‘economic insecurity’. It’s because they want to be called a Klokard.

Jebus. The question is no longer about why Damore was fired from Google, it’s how did he get the job there in the first place?

Also, is he aware that there are pages and pages and pages on the web that are all about how stupid some of the names and creatures in D&D are?

I still don’t have a good word for Damore, so I’m going to have to invent one. Klaggart. Or maybe Klook.

Please. Education is not a horserace.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t use the classroom to proselytize atheism. I have a job to do, and that is to help the students learn biology, and that’s all I care about — that they graduate after a few years and understand the concepts and can apply them, and if can do that while believing in Jesus or Allah, that’s just fine.

There’s another thing I don’t do, and that is penalize them for their health or situation. You’ve got clinical depression or your grandmother died or you had a nasty break-up with your romantic friend? I’ll make what accommodations I can, because I want you to get through all of that and learn biology. That’s all I can judge you on, is your mastery of the material, but I will welcome any changes that can help you out.

But all too often I run into non-academics (and sometimes even academics) who don’t understand this basic idea, that we’re supposed to help our students learn. So someone like Margaret Wente can write drivel like “Why treat university students like fragile flowers?”

The first answer is that we don’t. We have standards that have to be met in order to pass a course, and they’re not “be free of mental health concerns” or “have a stable family life” or “be rich enough that you don’t have to work part-time”. If you have an illness that makes mastering the course material difficult for you, that doesn’t mean you get a free pass; it means you should talk to me and I’ll do what I can to give you the opportunity to learn it in spite of your handicap. My job is to make all the flowers blossom, not to make half of them wither if they need a little extra watering.

However, there are things that Wente objects to.

Today, any proper university has registered therapy dogs to cheer you up. If exams have you down, drop in for a lick and a cuddle and you’ll feel better in no time. And if you’re too depressed because of Grandma, no problem. The disability office will provide you with a private room and extra time to write your final. Your professor never even needs to know.

Today, colleges and universities are highly concerned with the mental well-being of their students. Student distress, we’re told, is at an all-time high. It’s the pressure. The competition. Social media. Career anxiety. Long commutes. Money worries. Cyberbullying.

Therapy dogs are bad? Why? I want a therapy puppy to visit when grading gets me down! I suspect students learn better when they’re less stressed. All I care about, remember, is student learning.

I have students who take their exams at our office of student learning. We have students with agoraphobia, with test anxiety, who are easily distracted, who have language issues and need extra time. Why shouldn’t they get an environment that reduces those concerns and allows them to demonstrate their knowledge better? Why does Margaret Wente think learning has to be a stress test?

Meanwhile, the definition of “disability” – originally used for physical issues – has expanded beyond recognition. Now, it includes not only learning disabilities, but all manner of mental, social and cognitive disorders – anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, PTSD and the like. These may also require special accommodation. As a consequence, universities now routinely give students extra time to write exams and finish assignments. But not all professors are happy about this. But it’s not up to them any more – it’s up to the ever-expanding disability bureaucracy.

Wait. So we should accommodate ex-military students, for instance, who’ve had an arm blown off, because that’s a visible injury, but students with bodies intact but suffering from PTSD don’t count? Why? If my university provides the resources to reduce anxiety for anxiety-prone students, why shouldn’t we take advantage of it? It’s not as if anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, or PTSD make you stupid and incapable of learning cell biology or genetics; it means there are extra hurdles for you to overcome, and hey, if we can clear away the barriers to learning, I’m all for it.

But they get extra benefits, like more time to work on an exam, and that’s not fair! It’s also not fair to be afflicted depression or migraines or PTSD. We’re not demanding that every student be equally traumatized to create a level playing field, you know. The mistake is to think of education as a game where there are winners and losers rather than an experience in which we try to make sure every single student comes out at the end with more knowledge. It’s not a competition.

Wente finds someone who shares her barbaric attitudes.

Bruce Pardy, a law professor at Queen’s University, thinks the accommodation industry has gone too far. Giving someone with mental-health problems extra time to write an exam doesn’t level the playing field, he says. It simply tilts the playing field against everybody else. As he wrote recently: “The purpose of exams and assignments is not merely to test knowledge, comprehension, and analytical ability but to do so under conditions that require poise, organization, forward planning, and grace under pressure.” He says it’s like letting someone with a limp start at the 20-metre mark in a 100-metre race. The results are meaningless.

Stop with the “playing field” bullshit already! It’s not a race. It’s not a contest. I’m not trying to determine who “wins” in my cell biology class. I do test “knowledge, comprehension, and analytical ability”, because I want the students to be prepared for the next course in the sequence, or for graduate/professional school, or the workplace.

If you want to demand grace under pressure, though, I can cover that. I’ve got students who are working two jobs to pay for college. I’ve got students from broken homes. I’ve got students who were poorly served by their high schools who are working twice as hard to catch up. If we must analogize it to a race, these are students who start 20-meters behind the other students, and Pardy is complaining that we are trying to help them get to the starting line before the starting gun. We’re still going to insist that they make it to the finish line to get credit, and we even evaluate them on their performance. To decide a priori that the person with the limp can do nothing to get around the meaninglessness of their efforts is heartless and wrong.

I have no idea who Wente is, but I’m going to guess she’s conservative, and the Canadian version of a Republican. The callous disregard for others’ situation, the lack of empathy, and the inability to imagine the utility of helping all to succeed, rather than just the “winners”, is a giveaway.

The obituary Jerry Pournelle deserves

Pournelle died earlier this month. He (and his writing partner, Larry Niven) were big, popular names back in the 70s, and long ago I read several of his long tomes. I will say this for him: he could write an engaging potboiler, where the plot kept churning along. But in every one of his books, there was a “what the hell am I reading?” moment, followed by a period of introspection in which I had to admit to myself that if I’d been paying attention, I would have noticed that there were clear hints that this regressive conclusion was exactly what he’d been building towards all along. Then I read a few more and realized that you could predict exactly how the story would proceed from the first chapter on: the solution would always be a gushing militaristic/Libertarian fantasy. So I stopped reading him.

Except for one thing: those were also the heady days of the microcomputer revolution, and I read Byte magazine every month. Pournelle had a column in there, that was apparently popular to some people, but that I found plodding, unreadable, and useless. Well, not quite unreadable: I’d hate-read him. His house, which he called Chaos Manor, was stuffed with random computer gadgets, most of which seemed to be mainly there as techno-trophies. And every month there’d be some glitch that he’d solve by calling up one of his connections in the tech industry, and they’d mail him a new gizmo, or more insufferably, some fawning gadget-freak would show up at his door and install it for him. He was a boastful poseur. I much preferred Steve Ciarcia’s columns, where he’d actually do something and explain how it worked.

Anyway, the Daily Beast summarizes Pournelle’s career — schmoozing with Gingrich, promoting the military-industrial complex, praising Reagan and Trump, his grandstanding for the impossible “Star Wars” missile defense system, and includes excerpts of some of those “what the hell am I reading?” moments. Pournelle was overtly political, but strangely, his fans always seem to assume that radical conservative militarism is a non-political stance. Underlying it all, too, was the nasty racism of the well-connected white man.

The line that connects Pournelle, Gingrich and Trump is a view that the future must be secured through aggressive force, and specifically through authoritarian institutions (governmental or non-governmental) that group together humanity’s best and prevent the rest from stifling them. The difficulty, as always, lies in identifying “the best,” and in who’s doing the identification.

At the bottom of Pournelle’s website is the quote, “Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.” It’s not attributed, but the sentiment is an old saw of the far right, going back at least to John Birch Society co-founder and segregationist Thomas J. Anderson in 1961. Today, Pournelle’s particular phrasing is most commonly attributed to white supremacist and anti-semite Richard Cotten. It’s one more indicator that Trump was far from the first to eliminate the line between right-wing thought and outright bigotry.

Most of the obits I’ve seen were pablum. I’m glad someone was willing to call out his pernicious influence.

I also read where someone called his “Chaos Manor” columns “witty”. That person needs to have their license to write retracted.

OMG! More deplatforming!

Online critics complained about the lineup at a conference. They couldn’t believe who had been taken seriously and invited to give a talk. And they managed to get the organizers to disinvite someone. Fie, you shout. For shame! What about open discussion and debate about the ideas? Unbelievable. How could they defile the principles of free speech and freedom of thought to reject Rock Star and Indiana Jones of the superfood universe?

That’s right. They disinvited David Avocado Wolfe.

Following an online backlash for hosting alternative health guru David “Avocado” Wolfe as a speaker at the annual Biohacker Summit in October, held this year in Finland, organisers announced that Wolfe has been removed from the conference lineup.

What a crime. But is it possible that some people are so unqualified, so repugnant, so wrong that they don’t deserve a speaking slot at a conference? Say it ain’t so. I was going to suggest Ken Ham as the keynote speaker of the Society for the Study of Evolution meetings next year.

What about Free Speeeeeeeeach-eeach-eeach-eeach?

We’re #7!

The US News & World Report rankings have come out, and for the 19th year in a row, my university is in the top 10 in its category of public liberal arts colleges. It’s always a weird listing: the top 4 are, as usual, military schools.

Another stand-out feature: look at the tuition costs for all of the schools. We’re half the price of our peers. (Comparisons are a little complicated, because some schools give big breaks for in-state tuition (we don’t), and wealthier schools offset tuition with bigger financial aid packages, and it doesn’t include the fact that Indian students get free tuition at UMM. But we’re a bargain.)

Bugginess lately? Should be better now.

You may have noticed that the Freethoughtblogs site has been obnoxiously flaky lately. Our brilliant part-time tech person, Alex, seems to have figure out the problem: our recent comments add-on was scanning all the comments from all our posts, which means it was working way too hard for too little effect. I had to look; Pharyngula alone has over 10,000 posts and almost a million comments, and the stupid little add-on was trawling through all of that every time it rebuilt that one menu.

It’s been fixed now. You can continue to stuff the network with comments; the software is going to ignore the ancient comments on ancient posts.

The software business sure is persnickety.

“Dia sábháil” sounds like a useful phrase, if only I knew how to pronounce it

At least this guy can just burn his shirt; what’s worse are those cases where someone gets a tattoo in a language they don’t understand, but they think “Hey, Japanese looks neat! And wise!”, so they transliterate something in English using a dictionary.

So about this shirt: it’s in Irish, sort of. Read the explanation for what he got wrong.

I’m often baffled by the number of people who seem to think that you can translate from one language to another simply by pulling the words of one language from a dictionary and plugging them into the syntax of the other. It just doesn’t work that way, friends. Repeat after me: “Languages are not codes for one another.”

That’s exactly what happened here, though. Someone either found a dictionary or searched the internet for the three words “blue,” “lives,” and “matter,” and stuck them together as if they were English. Oy. Dia sábháil (that’s Ulster Irish for “oy”).

You’ll have to read the rest. The punchline is particularly good.