The pandemic is not over, stop acting like it is

I’m seeing a lot of slack in my little town: I’m vaccinated, but I still wear a mask in public and shy away from getting within 2 meters of anyone, but apparently a lot of the locals think the pandemic is over and have stopped bothering. It doesn’t help that we have idiots everywhere who claim without evidence that masks and vaccines are bad things that violate their rights.

So look at this ninny virtue-signaling to his fellow ignorati.

Just wear the mask, guy.

And then there’s the new conspiracy theory going around: getting vaccinated turns you into a plague rat.

A conspiracy ripping through the anti-vax world may finally drive some anti-maskers to do the unthinkable: wear a mask and keep their distance.

The conspiracy—which comes in several shapes and sizes—more or less says the vaccinated will “shed” certain proteins onto the unvaccinated who will then suffer adverse effects. The main worry is the “shedding” will cause irregular menstruation, infertility, and miscarriages. The entirely baseless idea is a key cog in a larger conspiracy that COVID-19 was a ploy to depopulate the world, and the vaccine is what will cull the masses.

Experts say the conspiracy is born from a fundamental misunderstanding of how vaccines work.

There has to be a limit to the absurdity, doesn’t there? First they bumble about claiming that a disease that has killed a half million people in the US doesn’t exist, and now they’re claiming that a disease that doesn’t exist and can’t exist is going to make everyone sterile. And they’re led by pseudo-intellectuals who have figured out that anything that causes fear will make them rich and famous.

There’s this guy named Jay Bhattacharya, whose claim to fame is that he is one of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, that infantile libertarian whine that we ought to ignore all of epidemiology so that people will start spending money at businesses again. Back in January, he wrote this:

This is rather like Elon Musk claiming we’d have “zero new cases” by April…of 2020. Why does anyone listen to these wankers?

Do read this great debunking of Bhattacharya, but I think this is the most appropriate dismissal of his (and Musk’s) claims:

Twenty-five million cases and a quarter million dead is a pretty strong argument that you should just ignore these evil people…or arrest them.

Fundraising, stories, and a new video

It’s true, we’re still digging out from under our legal debt and begging for donations. Check out our Fundraising page! There’s new stuff there!

Also, very importantly, Kris Wager is matching donations, up to a thousand dollars total. This is the perfect time to kick in a little bit to our our paypal account.

My contribution this time is a video about a science paper — a case study of an XY woman who gave birth to a child.

You can read the original paper right here, or a transcript of my remarks below the fold.

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That reminds me…

I’m home alone, and in addition to taking care of the evil cat, I have a mealworm colony in the dining room. Mary set it up and usually feeds them — it’s not a big deal, just throw a slice of apple in there every once in a while — and I just scoop up a handful every few weeks to feed the spiders.

We do not have 10,000 mealworms. I’d have to be raising a thousand spiders for that to make sense. But I can dream!

(We do not have guests over for dining now…pandemic, you know. If we did, we might move the colony to another room, even though they are quite quiet and well-behaved.)

Who is Max Hodak?

And why does he say such stupid things?

To answer the first question: he’s a guy with a bachelor’s degree in engineering who developed some software to help colleges find “identify the next generation of high performers” which got bought up by some bigger company, making him relatively rich. Then he hooked up with Elon Musk (Warning! Danger!) to move to Silicon Valley and run Neuralink, despite having no qualifications in biology or neuroscience. He’s a wealthy techbro who has been promoted way above what his competence and experience should allow.

Wait, I think I just answered my second question, too.

New question: why does anyone pay any attention to him? Like me right now for instance?

Because he’s one of the new generation of hucksters whose sole claim to fame is grossly exaggerated promises, and also it helps that he’s associated himself with the crown prince of hucksterdom, Elon Musk. That gets him write-ups in the press, and then we all have to rebut his nonsense, which makes him more of a sensation, which leads to more press, where he gets to spew more nonsense. I don’t know how to get out of this cycle.

I don’t think Twitter helps, either. It enables these bozos to make quick blipverts to promote their idiocy even more. Hodak’s latest was to make this claim:

The co-founder of Elon Musk’s company Neuralink tweeted on Saturday that the startup has the technological advances and savvy to create its own “Jurassic Park.”

“We could probably build Jurassic Park if we wanted to,” Max Hodak tweeted Saturday. “Wouldn’t be genetically authentic dinosaurs but [shrugging emoji]. maybe 15 years of breeding + engineering to get super exotic novel species.”

Pure clickbaity bullshit. No they couldn’t, nor would anyone want them to. Hodak doesn’t even have the expertise to make such a claim, but that’s not going to stop a huckster!

We’re not even close to achieving such a thing, and Musk’s or Hodak’s company doesn’t have the tools to even start. It’s complete, arrogant hype.

Let’s break it down into a simpler problem. Let’s say tigers go extinct (unfortunately, it could happen in our lifetime). Super-rich uber-capitalist gets the fever and decides he’s going to reconstruct the species using “breeding + engineering” to modify house cats, and he gives himself 15 years to do it before his attention span flits off to something equally silly. Can they do it?

No. Maybe someday, but not in 15 years, and that’s a case where we have complete genomic information. Just to mention one obstacle, tigers have a generation time of 8 years. Even assuming the first couple of generations have breeding times of a year, like a housecat, that gives you virtually no time to work out the bugs in your production model. But worse, we don’t have any idea what all the genes that differentiate a housecat from a tiger are! We’re going to need a few decades of work to figure that out, which admittedly, would be an interesting research program, but doing it with the goal of making a tiger would be unproductive, especially given that we don’t seem to be able to keep the existing tiger population alive.

And that’s the easy problem, compared to resurrecting dinosaurs. The only templates we have for the dinosaur genome have been extensively modified by over 70 million years of drift and selection, and we don’t know what genes were lost or gained, or what their role in the complex outcome of “dinosaur” might be. It would be lovely to find out, but it’s not the accomplished fact Hodak thinks it is.

Also, “Jurassic Park” is fiction, based on a bad novel written by a hack writer of thrillers. I read it when it first came out, as an undergrad who was waffling between an oceanography and biology major, and it’s one of the first novels I recall ripping up and throwing in the trash because the science was so bad. It’s kind of a shame that it got rescued by CGI and movies.

As for the Neuralink connection, which I’ve written about a couple of times, that’s also bad science. The plan is to build a brain-machine interface, so you can just think at a computer and have your brilliance manifest in code, or control a fighter plane even faster. Here, though, is their great accomplishment:

Launched in 2017, Neuralink works on creating brain-computer interfaces with the hopes to one day help those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, paralysis and spinal cord injuries, among others.

In August 2020, Musk debuted Gertrude, a pig that Neuralink had implanted a small computer chip in its brain. The chip was planted near the part of the brain that controls its snout, so as Gertrude ate, a computer showed waves and spikes being emitted from the chip, monitoring Gertrude’s neural response.

Uh, right. My first year in grad school we repeated a classic experiment, placing hook electrodes on a cricket’s cercal nerve, and recording the pattern of “waves and spikes” as the insect processed sensory information. It was cool — you could see differences when you touched or moved the cerci, or with blowing on them from different directions, and this is just more of the same, only they’ve got it on a chip rather than the boxy little pre-amps and clumsy oscilloscopes we used. Congratulations. They’re catching up with JZ Young, who was doing recordings of neural activity 70 years ago.

One other difference: Young and that generation of neurophysiologists were working on organisms acutely — the animals were dead after the experiment was over. Are you willing to have a chip inserted in your motor cortex so you can play video games better?

The most biting sentence in the article is this one.

Hodak didn’t further explain what technology Neuralink could use to engineer the long-extinct dinosaurs.

Exactly. Hodak is talking out of ignorance, nothing more. Don’t listen to him.

On top of pandemic woes, emerging technologies force me to revise my courses!

I am not an immunologist by any stretch, but I do teach a bit of basic immunology in my cell biology course every year — you know, just the basic concepts of immunological memory and core proteins and the innate and adaptive immune system, that kind of thing. I’d heard about the idea of mRNA vaccines, but if you’d asked me last year, I would have said that’s far too speculative for a course that was just an overview, I can’t possibly wedge such a tenuous proposal into the class, and why should I? It has no real world utility yet. Well, next year I’ll have to start wedging. Here’s an article that describes the importance of mRNA vaccines.

…mRNA’s story likely will not end with COVID-19: Its potential stretches far beyond this pandemic. This year, a team at Yale patented a similar RNA-based technology to vaccinate against malaria, perhaps the world’s most devastating disease. Because mRNA is so easy to edit, Pfizer says that it is planning to use it against seasonal flu, which mutates constantly and kills hundreds of thousands of people around the world every year. The company that partnered with Pfizer last year, BioNTech, is developing individualized therapies that would create on-demand proteins associated with specific tumors to teach the body to fight off advanced cancer. In mouse trials, synthetic-mRNA therapies have been shown to slow and reverse the effects of multiple sclerosis. “I’m fully convinced now even more than before that mRNA can be broadly transformational,” Özlem Türeci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, told me. “In principle, everything you can do with protein can be substituted by mRNA.”

In principle is the billion-dollar asterisk. mRNA’s promise ranges from the expensive-yet-experimental to the glorious-yet-speculative. But the past year was a reminder that scientific progress may happen suddenly, after long periods of gestation. “This has been a coming-out party for mRNA, for sure,” says John Mascola, the director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “In the world of science, RNA technology could be the biggest story of the year. We didn’t know if it worked. And now we do.”

At least the article does a lot of the work for me, organizing the history of the technology and explaining its strengths and weaknesses. Maybe I can just assign it as reading in the class, because I just checked the latest edition of our textbook, which seems to come out with a new edition every year, and there isn’t a whisper of a hint of a suggestion of this use for mRNA. That’s how fast this technology has emerged.

The last time this happened was when CRISPR/Cas appeared on the scene — 3 or 4 years ago I had to start including a segment on that in my course, because it was starting to appear in students’ senior seminars, and had such obvious research applications. But there was negligible clinical use, and none of my students had used or been the subject of CRISPR/Cas. Now this fall I expect every single one of my students to show up having been injected with an mRNA vaccine, so I’d better get it into the curriculum.

I do appreciate that the article also comes right out and explains that mRNA vaccines aren’t a miracle cure for everything.

“This is not a magic bullet, and it’s not perfect for everything,” Pfizer’s Dormitzer told me. His partners at BioNTech concurred. “I do not claim that mRNA is the holy grail for everything,” Türeci said. “We are going to find that there are diseases where mRNA is surprisingly successful and diseases where it’s not. We have to prove it for each and every infectious disease, one by one.”

It also makes it clear that this isn’t the product of a single genius making a breakthrough.

The triumph of mRNA, from backwater research to breakthrough technology, is not a hero’s journey, but a heroes’ journey. Without Katalin Karikó’s grueling efforts to make mRNA technology work, the world would have no Moderna or BioNTech. Without government funding and philanthropy, both companies might have gone bankrupt before their 2020 vaccines. Without the failures in HIV-vaccine research forcing scientists to trailblaze in strange new fields, we might still be in the dark about how to make the technology work. Without an international team of scientists unlocking the secrets of the coronavirus’s spike protein several years ago, we might not have known enough about this pathogen to design a vaccine to defeat it last year. mRNA technology was born of many seeds.

The one thing it’s missing is the growing awareness that the missing ingredient here isn’t technological, it’s sociological. The absurd opposition to vaccines in some quarters isn’t based on evidence or reason, it’s a phenomenon of irrational brains. I’ll resist the temptation to wedge a whole course on sociology or psychology into my biology class — that’s why I’m at a liberal arts college, because the students should be studying that with real experts in a different building on campus.

I’ve been in grading hell all day

But I finally finished the exam for introductory biology. There were two huge problems.

  1. Never again will I give a take-home multiple choice exam. I thought I was being generous: 16 multiple choice questions, one multi-part essay question, and I even gave them a form to fill in. Somehow, many of them didn’t follow the instructions. A form with a space to put in A, B, C, or D for the answer? Nope. Many wrote out answers. What I thought would be an easy grading exercise turned into a nightmare. If I were to do it again, I’d be extremely obvious and specific in how to answer.
  2. Scores were abysmal, but that’s on me. I didn’t spend enough time going over the problems…so now I have to backtrack and cover the material again and give them some more exercises to try out.

Now I have to collapse in a soggy heap. Tomorrow it begins again with an exam from my second course.

Playing with my camera

Today’s spider time was a bit abbreviated, because my day is jam-packed with stuff scheduled on top of stuff, so I only had a brief moment in the lab. I decided to tinker a bit with a camera lens I’ve been neglecting, the Laowa 25mm f2.8 Ultra Macro 2.5-5.0x. This is a strange little lens with a lot of potential, but I have struggled with it before. It’s just so different from my other lenses, with different properties, and I think I’ll have to invest some serious effort to master. Today was not that effort. I shot a few quick photos before I had to refocus on today’s classes.

Spiders are the ideal models for macrophotography, because the ones I have are so calm and stable. This little lady was practically immobile for the entire half hour I spent playing with lights and backgrounds and moving in close for pictures.

One thing I discovered is that the Laowa is surprisingly good at collecting light. My first photos were at f/2.8, an exposure of 1/500, and they were all washed out. I kept reducing the exposure and closing off the aperture, and still got usable photos. So it’s got that going for it. On the other hand, the depth of focus is still pretty shallow and I had to stick the lens right in the spider’s face to get it in view, and one thing I like in a lens is a forgiving working distance. Fortunately, this spider was imperturbable.

Anyway, I played for a bit. The one on the left is shot at f/16, the other two at f/2.8. I’m not straining for light in any of them, which is nice. All are at 2.5x, I’ll have to try the 5x option next and see how that goes.

I have a mostly free day tomorrow! I’ll have to practice some more, and maybe do some comparisons with the Tokina Macro 100 F2.8 D, which is currently my favorite lens for field work. I don’t think the Laowa can replace it, but might make a good choice for the lab.

Now…on to classes and grading!

Lab time, and a whatsis

Yesterday, Mary startled a jumping spider which had been hiding under a mysterious small object. That object was also attached to the wall of our house by strands of spider silk. Is it an egg sac? I put it under the microscope, and no, it is not.

It is something tiny, about 2mm long, and botanical. I know nothing of botany. It is not a spider thing, which is enough for me.

While I was in the lab anyway, I tended to the spiders, who are all doing fine. Here’s one just relaxing in a spider-like way.

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Good news, everybody! Beelzebub has come to town!

Mary kicked me out of the house this afternoon — she told me to get some exercise, I’ve been moping around the house too much, she said, or at least, implied — so I went for a walk with my camera. I discovered…

Yay! Lots of flies on the ground, on the trees on the walls (not so much flying, though, it’s pretty windy today). Beelzebub has arrived! And you know what that means, boys and girls?

The Lord’s holy angels, his minions of righteousness, the noble spiders, will be arriving soon to smite them! Praise the Arachnida! Can I get an “AMEN!”?