The unnoticed killer

Well, this is an unexpected ploy. The flu epidemic of 1918 didn’t kill people, it was all those cases of bacterial pneumonia generated by wearing masks.

(Don’t go after Gregory, he’s being sarcastic.)

It makes one wonder. So all those medical professionals who have been wearing masks routinely for the past century must have been suffering tragic levels of mortality thanks to pneumonia, I guess? Have doctors and nurses been dropping dead at alarming rates and no one noticed until INITIALS+STRING OF NUMBERS came along?

You know what else? Now I suspect that Jason, Michael, and Ghostface didn’t actually kill anyone. It was all the masks! It makes sense now!

I’m lacking this level of delusional arrogance

I just encountered Bret Weinstein’s self-promotional blurb, and I’m kind of in awe.

Dr. Bret Weinstein has spent two decades advancing the field of evolutionary biology, earning his PhD at the University of Michigan, before teaching at The Evergreen State College for 14 years, from which he resigned his tenured position in 2017. He has developed a new Darwinian framework based on design trade-offs, and made important discoveries regarding the evolution of cancer, senescence and the adaptive significance of moral self-sacrifice.
He is currently working to uncover the evolutionary meaning of large scale patterns in human history, and seeking a game theoretically stable path forward for humanity. With his wife, Heather Heying, he co-wrote A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century, and is the host of the DarkHorse Podcast.

I couldn’t puff myself up that much. If I were to write a similar blurb, it would be:

PZ Myers earned a PhD in developmental neuroscience at the University of Oregon, and has spent the last two decades teaching at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. He has tried to popularize science and evolutionary biology with a blog, Pharyngula.

That is all. Personally, I would attach more importance to my family life, but no one outside my clan would care about that. Claiming to have advanced a scientific discipline while working at a primarily teaching university is gilding the lily. Developing a new Darwinian framework is unbelievable; I do try to keep up with the literature and haven’t seen any dramatic Weinstein model of evolution sweeping the field. The concept of evolutionary trade-offs is so old I have no idea who first proposed it — it might have been Darwin. Oh, yeah, he at least implied it, in the Origin:

“The whole organism is so tied together that when slight variations in one part occur, and are accumulated through natural selection, other parts become modified. This is a very important subject, most imperfectly understood.”

I don’t know what his important discoveries were.

He loses me at seeking a game theoretically stable path forward for humanity. That’s an epic level of pretentiousness. That’s the kind of meaningless drivel a guy desperately straining to pad his résumé to claim that while he may have been working at an undergraduate teaching university, he was actually making a grand plan for human destiny in his head, and that that should count towards his credit.

He also has a big bold label for himself.

EVOLUTIONARY THEORIST + PROFESSOR IN EXILE

It is true, he is an evolutionary theorist. It’s just that, as can be seen in that book he and his wife wrote, they are crap theories, warmed-over evolutionary psychology and panadaptationism.

As for “professor in exile”…no. He is not a professor. “Professor” is a category of employment. He was not exiled at all — he was asked to resign after alienating most of the student body with his intransigent and obvious refusal to support an exercise in civil rights, and walked away with a substantial settlement. He’s now milking the gullible with his martyrdom schtick. None of that counts as “exile”. He needs to revise that label a bit.

BAD EVOLUTIONARY THEORIST + PROFESSIONAL VICTIM

That’s better.

The smartest guys in the room

I was reading about this guy, Vitalik Buterin, who is supposed to be some super-smart crypto guy. There’s an infestation of them in the dudebro community.

Buterin comes from a long tradition of Silicon Valley special smart boys, who have had it hammered into them that domain expertise — i.e., actually knowing stuff — pales into insignificance compared to pulling ideas out of your backside by virtue of your superior intelligence and upbringing and social position.

He was taught this by other Silicon Valley special smart boys. Peter Thiel literally paid Buterin not to go to college any more, based on this theory — that one special smart boy reasoning from first principles will surely beat the accumulated experience and wisdom of mere humanity.

There are a million of these guys, and they all have long and wordy blogs.

Ooh, that’s mean. But if you’re like me, you want to know you can know how out of touch with reality they might be. Maybe they actually are really smart guys, you know. But here’s an example of thinking out of the box. Get a good grip on your jaw before it rolls under the table.

Before founding Ethereum, Buterin put considerable effort in 2013 into trying to convince investors to fund him in constructing a quantum computer. (Note that no quantum computers able to solve practical problems are verified as existing as of early 2017.) His plan was to use this quantum computer to solve computationally infeasible problems that can’t be done practically on an ordinary computer, such as reversing cryptographic hash functions.

Since he didn’t know how to build a quantum computer, his plan was to simulate one on an ordinary computer – since this apparently wouldn’t count as just running a program to solve the impossible problem. This was an idea that had long been put forward by Jordan Ash, his associate in this endeavour, who had put considerable effort into this startlingly crank mathematical notion.

How do you reveal that you know nothing about ordinary computing and nothing about quantum computing at the same time? I wonder if Peter Thiel would reward him with a big grant for this idea.

A boy’s life

You probably don’t know that there are two of us Myers boys. Well, three, actually, but the youngest is like 8 years different in age, and belongs in the “kid brother” category, so I’m not writing about him this time. Also, my mother went into labor with him while we were out at the El Rancho drive-in theater, and I never have seen the end of that movie. The movie: Children of the Damned. My parents named him Michael Myers. There were omens galore which he never managed to fulfill, a good thing I guess, and he grew up to be a decent human being and father.
My other brother is Jim, James Clayton Myers Jr. in full, and he was born a little over a year after me. I have no memories of a time without Jim around, and since we weren’t particularly rich, I shared a room with him throughout my entire childhood and youth. Jim and I were buddies, pals, partners in crime, an inseparable team, and we did almost everything together. It’s not like we were twins, though, we were clearly different: I was the morose bookworm, Jim was the redhead with the goony grin. I was the one with the black sense of humor, Jim was more the wry and dry wit, taking after our father.
We were “the boys”. My sisters were “the girls”. We were package deals; when we were farmed out to visit relatives, Jim and I were always one pair, Caryn and Tomi were another, and I can’t recall a time when I spent the night with my grandparents alone. I didn’t mind, Jim and I had a blissfully comfortable relationship. While I sometimes (often?) bickered with my sisters, never with Jim. We were collaborators, an interessengemeinschaft working our way through childhood together.
It was a good childhood, too. Some of my happiest moments have Jim at my side. There were those Friday nights we’d stay with my Uncle Ed and grandmother, Ed taking us out to buy a stack of comic books, and we’d sprawl out on the living room, swapping issues back and forth, waiting for the late night Creature Features to start. Grandma would work quietly on her crossword puzzles and bail out long before the good shows started, and while Ed professed a desire to stay up late, too, he always passed out on the sofa early. What I remember of Vincent Price and Boris Karloff was that they always shared their dialog with loud snores from the couch.
We weren’t always lounging about lazily. We had bikes. We had parents who let us roam freely. Our kingdom stretched from Southcenter to Auburn, and Federal Way to Covington. On a whim, on a Saturday or Sunday, or all summer long, we’d mount up and decide to, say, pedal to Auburn 6 miles away to get a can of cream soda. Or charge laboriously up to East Hill (we lived at the bottom of a narrow valley, so everything east and west was basically bicycle mountaineering) so we could see how fast we could go coming down. We were idiots.
Our most common trip would be going out Green River Road, which naturally enough parallels the Green River, and we’d find a likely spot and go wading. We’d collect hellgrammites, which we’d winkle out of their shell and use for bait, or we’d gather crawdads — buckets of crawdads — to bring home for a boil. Our father was appreciative of that.
We went fishing with our dad, both in the Green and on charter boats on the coast. Oddly enough, a difference between the two of us was that I always loved seafood, but Jim is a picky eater, and never touched the stuff. He also had a wobbly stomach, and would get seasick on the boats, and couldn’t bear the sight of blood. I teased him for years about the time we caught a beautiful 15 pound steelhead, Dad let me carry it back to the car, fish blood was running from the gills all over my hand, and Jim puked all over Dad’s tackle box. I didn’t appreciate then that it was really just a symptom of a gentle and empathetic soul, and that maybe I was being callous about an animal’s death.
Our last grand adventure was the summer after I graduated from high school. My parents’ present to me was to loan me the family station wagon for a week, and let me drive off and explore. Of course Jim and I went together. Why wouldn’t I want my brother to come along?
We circumnavigated one of my favorite places on Earth, the Olympic Peninsula. It was raining and gray the whole time, which was delightful. We car-camped along the Hoh River, long cool nights with fat water drops rolling off the cedar trees and smacking hard onto the car roof. 
We made the long hike from Ozette to Cape Alava and down along the coast to Sand Point and back again. It rained the whole time. The archaeological excavation was a damp gray mud pit. There was a threat of bears all along the forest walk. The coastal hike was treacherous, requiring that you keep track of the time and tides to avoid getting caught. It was exhausting for a couple of casual day-trippers. It was great! I wish we could do it again, but no, nevermore.
That trip was a hard punctuation mark on our youth. That Fall, I flew off to college. A year later, Jim joined the army for a brief stint. The fellowship was broken.
We weren’t saddened by it — I think there has been and always will be a deep trust in each other. I’m his brother. He’s my brother. I’ve always felt like we could embark on another adventure together, any time. We just put it off and put it off, and now we’re a couple of old geezers who’d probably be wheezing if we tried to ride a bike around the block, let alone do a 9 mile hike through a soggy wilderness. We were just doing some solo side quests with our life for a little while…like 40 or 50 years.
I did the predictable thing and went off on a peripatetic academic journey, married my high school sweetheart, had a few lovely children. Jim also met a girl, Karen, who was bashful and sweet as peach pie, and reminded me so much of Jim. They were a perfect match, doted on each other, and married and had 3 sweet kids, Rachael, Charlie, and Evan. They settled in Southwestern Washington state, making me jealous, living near the ocean and the legendary PNW forests.
He had to be the surprising one, though: he became a commercial fisherman! Now I feel silly for teasing him. He still doesn’t like seafood, but he was out there in the North Pacific, braving the ferocious storms, all to bring home crab for the rest of us. There’s a strength there I wasn’t aware of even after living cheek by jowl with him for almost 20 years.
He needed that strength, though. Karen acquired a nasty melanoma, requiring years of cancer treatment and surgeries. She had an arm amputated. It was a long slow struggle, but when I saw her in those last years, she was still able to laugh and she and Jim were still in a loving relationship. And then she died.
Jim was devastated. I can’t even imagine coping if I were in a similar situation.
And then, another surprise. A few years later, he found Julie, and he remarried. She was another delightful person, outgoing and full of laughter, active in her church, and devoted to Jim, and he was so grateful for her.
She had her own needs, though. She suffered from depression, and was also terrified that anything would happen to Jim. One terrible day, Jim hadn’t been feeling well, and went to the doctor to get checked out, leaving Julie at home alone. The doctor found the worst: he had prostate cancer. Before he could get home, Julie, frightened by the news and not wanting to face the loss of her husband, killed herself.
No. Not my brother. Not the people he loved. He is a good man, he lived a good life, and now, in our twilight years, he is struck by tragedy after tragedy. If I believed in a god, I would think that god has been bargaining with the devil again and is afflicting a modern day Job.
I saw Jim last year. We stayed at his house for a day, and it is a lovely place, nestled in a bit of isolated forest near Grays Harbor. His obsession is tractors, probably a bit of a more popular choice than spiders, and his hobby was clearing trails through the overgrown woods to make his plot of land more accessible. He let my granddaughter drive the tractor for a bit, and she was thrilled. He was quiet and still had his muted sense of humor about it all.
He sent me a hat, to show that we still had a lot in common.

He is the stronger of the two of us.
He is in decline from the cancer right now. He can’t walk. He’s in pain, and is receiving palliative care. His kids are taking turns taking care of him — they are good people, too — but we heard from his daughter this week that he’s too exhausted to receive visitors or answer the phone.
We had our last conversation last week. His voice was reedy and strained, but he still has all his wits about him. He said he had regrets, that he worried that he may have hurt people’s feelings with his sense of humor. I assured him that no, he was not an unkind person, and everyone knew it, witness the wonderful women who had been his partners. They knew a good man, a kind and respectful man, when they met him.
He laughed and said he was just the luckiest person in the world.
We’re reduced to texting now and then, when he feels energetic enough. I wrote to him in my formal, stilted, academic style, and I feel terrible that I can’t just say what I feel, the appreciation and regard that I have for him.

I am not demonstrative in my affections, and I’m sitting here feeling guilty because I don’t think that I ever said that I love you, not once in my entire life. I want you to know that I do, that you’ve been an important part of my life, and I can’t imagine a world without you. It’s too late to tell you how if feel, I know.
You are my oldest friend, my good brother. I wish I could see you again.

He replied this morning.

Not everything needs to be said but it’s understood

I really must stop crying now.

One must carry on

I’m dealing with some personal issues — sad news from the family — and like usual, I’m one of those assholes who buries himself in work. I’ve been up for a few hours working away at updating my lecture on introductory catabolism, all this stuff about oxidation/reduction reactions and the glycolytic pathway, as a way to avoid thinking about the stuff that really matters, and I don’t think I have enough energy to do the blogging stuff on top of everything else. My goal right now is to just give a lecture, hand out an exam, and do some lab prep, and then come home and spend a weekend in zombie mode.

I’m an expert at burying my feelings, so I’m going to work at digging deeper for a while.

Not if I bury them deep enough, Sigmund! Biochemistry makes for a pretty good shovel, too.

China can be proud

Look at that red line — China has almost doubled their life expectancy since 1960, which is a significant accomplishment.

Then look at the blue line. The US started from a more advantaged position, but we’ve still been steadily increasing survival over the years.

Except recently. See the abrupt downturn since 2020? It’s due to increased mortality from COVID. Chinese life expectancy continued its steady rise throughout this period, despite the pandemic, while we done fucked up and saw a terrible drop of life expectancy of 1.8 years. I’m closing in on the high end of the graph, and I want those 1.8 years back. With interest.

China can be proud, but we should be ashamed. Our COVID response has evaporated to nearly nothing, and I want at least twelve more good years.

Bad coach

On the one hand, kids shouldn’t have to be snitches, and I don’t like the idea of junior secret agents monitoring adults around them.

On the other hand, some adults need to be monitored, since grown-up institutions seem to look the other way when their members are continuously awful.

That was the case in a Rhode Island school, where students took it upon themselves to document the unpleasant behavior of one of their teachers.

As sixth graders, the students thought their teacher at Davisville Middle School was a creep.

They saw him leering at some girls, singling them out with pet nicknames, encouraging them to dance for him. They saw him treating boys with contempt, and sometimes cruelty.

The teacher, who was also a coach and involved with extra-curricular activities, told the students that he’d weathered parents’ complaints for nearly 30 years, and there was nothing anyone could do to him.

By seventh grade, some of the boys had started taking notes, documenting what the teacher was saying and doing, particularly to the girls, at the school.

In an exclusive interview with The Boston Globe, one of the boys described how in January 2021, he and his friends decided to start their “Pedo Database,” to track the teacher’s words and actions.

They had tried talking to adults about what they heard and saw. None of the adults listened or took them seriously, the student told the Globe. It made the boys uncomfortable to see the girls in their class struggling to deal with their teacher flirting with them.

Again, on the one hand…I had a math teacher in junior high who was exuberant, loud, overweight, and sweaty, who loved show tunes and would sometimes start belting out Ethel Merman songs in class. He was regarded with suspicion by some in the administration, and some of the students — not the ones who were any good at math, or even took his class — started an ugly whisper campaign. He treated students with respect and had high expectations for them. I thought he was just a terrific teacher, memorably enthusiastic. He got me doing geometry for fun.

Again, on the other hand…there were two coaches in high school who were abominable creeps, urging the boys to tell stories about the girls who would ‘put out’, leering at girls outside of the gym, making revolting jokes about them. They were pure misogynistic bullies. No one complained about them, most of the guys were terrified by them (or worshipped them).

I worry about a culture that targets misfits — it could go very wrong very fast. But the RI situation is different. The teacher was a creep, and the kids were later found to have been right about him.

And then, in late April 2022, the teacher was escorted out of the middle school.

Interim Superintendent Michael Waterman announced that he had placed a teacher on leave and was launching an investigation into allegations that the teacher had stalked a pre-teen girl at the middle school while he was her coach, and had been inappropriate with other girls.

The accusations were made by lawyer Timothy J. Conlon, who is representing the girl’s family and is also representing former athletes at North Kingstown High School who have accused former coach Aaron Thomas of conducting naked “fat tests” on teenage athletes.

Of course he was a coach. There are no staff more privileged at a typical American school than the coaches. It sounds like they got good evidence of directly harmful behavior by the coach, which is how this ought to work — a Discord list maintained by a bunch of students shouldn’t be definitive, except as supporting evidence that he was an obnoxious jerk.

Man, I wish my high school coaches had gotten what they deserved. But instead, my excellent math teacher was the one who lost his job — no, he didn’t do anything wrong, other than to annoy small town bigots.