Dear Leader

Have you seen the mural painted inside the children’s detention center, the former Walmart that is being used to house young immigrants?

Dear Leader. Glorious Leader. Maximum Leader.

Nice to know he’s taking credit for his inhumanity. I notice they also put a portrait of Obama on a wall in there, but no one is fooled — this is a Republican action.

And what the heck is that, with that strange choice of an inappropriate quote?

Jurassic Park is fiction, someone tell Jack Horner

Jack Horner has an ambitious goal. He wants to reverse-engineer birds to recreate dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs could potentially walk among us in real life soon as the paleontologist who inspired the original Jurassic Park movie has announced a research project to bring the extinct creatures back to life. Dr. Jack Horner says scientists are only 5 to 10 years away from genetically engineering dinosaurs into existence.

Yeah, I know. He’s been puttering about with this for years, using every incremental change in bird genetics engineered in a lab as confirmation of his project’s feasibility. It’s interesting developmental biology. It’s not going to get him to his goal.

Horner cited a 2015 study as his “proof of concept,” noting that scientists at Harvard and Yale were able to trick a bird’s head into changing into a dinosaur snout.

“Basically what we do is we go into an embryo that’s just beginning to form, and use some genetic markers to sort of identify when certain genes turn on and when they turn off,” he said.. “And by determining when certain genes turn on, we can sort of figure out how a tail begins to develop. And we want to fix that gene so it doesn t stop the tail from growing.”

And there’s the problem: “that gene”. There isn’t a “that gene” — there is a whole ensemble of interacting genes that work together, and it’s simply not going to be doable in 5-10 years. There will be small changes in the desired direction, but every one of those new changes will have a ripple effect on a dozen or more other genes, and each of them will have to be tweaked to adjust their response, but then each of those will have downstream effects on a dozen other genes.

It’s not impossible, since evolution obviously shaped every species, but evolution is a massive project in parallel processing, with large population numbers and thousands of generations. We don’t know enough to be able to go in and in one grand experiment change all the relevant genes in exactly the right way, with foreknowledge of their interactions, to do what he wants in such a short time.

Also, evolution had an easier job in one sense: it doesn’t work towards a specific goal, but simply takes whatever it gets and accepts it if it survives. There was no intent to take a dinosaur species 150+ million years ago and sculpt it into a chicken, specifically. He’s not going to get a dinosaur — he’s going to get a weird-ass mutant chicken — and it’s going to take a lot more time, effort, and money than he naively expects.

Why does Jordan Peterson hate education?

Sheesh. Jordan Peterson came out with a video in collaboration with the awful PragerU, and it’s basically an anti-education screed, relying on misrepresenting universities, students, postmodernism, Marxism, and all the things he hates uncomprehendingly. So I responded to it.

I include my sorta script down below, but I’m not sure how comprehensible it’ll be, since the video is just me commenting on still frames from the PragerU BS. You’ll probably find ContraPoints on Peterson’s incoherence more enlightening.

[Read more…]

Breaking down the barriers

Science magazine has just summarized this massive report on sexual harassment in the sciences. Really, it’s a big file that will cost you $59 if you order it as a book, but it’s offered as a free PDF by National Academies Press, so you have no excuse for not getting it, but the short summary is appreciated.

The report, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, noted that many surveys fail to rigorously evaluate sexual harassment. It used data from large surveys done at two major research universities—the University of Texas system and the Pennsylvania State University system—to describe kinds of sexual harassment directed at students by faculty and staff. The most common was “sexist hostility,” such as demeaning jokes or comments that women are not smart enough to succeed in science, reported by 25% of female engineering students and 50% of female medical students in the Texas system. The incidence of female students experiencing unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion was lower, ranging in both Texas and Pennsylvania between 2% and 5% for the former and about 1% for the latter. But the report declares that a hostile environment—even if it consists “more of putdowns than come-ons,” as Johnson puts it—makes unwanted sexual attention and coercion more likely.

The report says women in science, engineering, or medicine who are harassed may abandon leadership opportunities to dodge perpetrators, leave their institutions, or leave science altogether. It also highlights the ineffectiveness of ubiquitous, online sexual harassment training and notes what is likely massive underreporting of sexual harassment by women who justifiably fear retaliation. To retain the talents of women in science, the authors write, will require true cultural change rather than “symbolic compliance” with civil rights laws.

I have a prediction: there are going to be people who are only going to see the 1% number and are going to argue that because it’s so low, sexual harassment isn’t a problem. Except that’s the number for actual sexual coercion of female students, and would you go into a field where there’s a 1% chance you’ll be raped or your advisor was going to pressure you for sex? The key numbers are that between a quarter and a half of all women students are going to face sexist discouragement, and that’s a huge pressure to turn away and turn off qualified prospective scientists. It has to be called out and ended.

Also note that those numbers are affected by a serious problem with underreporting.

Read this Twitter thread by Jennifer Raff on her experience as an undergraduate looking for advice on grad school, and being actively discouraged by a faculty member. It’s the opposite of what I experienced in a similar situation. The only difference I can see is that her undergrad GPA was a bit higher than mine, and she’s a woman.

Quoted for truth

From The Seattle 500 Women Scientists:

Despite the popular myth of the lone-wolf genius scientist, science is an inherently social, collaborative endeavor. Intensive scientific training involves close collaboration with a senior advisor. Most scientists can trace their “academic genealogy” through generations linked by formative relationships. Scientific papers typically include many authors who work together to form something greater than the sum of its parts. Conferences and workshops where scientists mingle are petri dishes of new ideas and partnerships—they are nurseries and laboratories for future scientific communities. Scientific progress depends directly on the ability of scientists to discuss, argue, collaborate, and build upon on the knowledge of others.

Yes! I tell my students this: I explain to them that they have to work in teams in lab because that’s the only way they’ll ever succeed in this career.

I don’t know whether I’ve been doing something right, or something wrong

It’s sinking in that I’m never going to be rich. I was just reading about Shane Smith and Vice, and how he built a company that’s nominally worth billions with nothing but chutzpah…oh, and lies and exploitation.

While Vice’s soaring valuation had changed Smith’s life, there was little evidence among its employees that they were working at a company more valuable than the New York Times. Smith had proudly boasted in the past that Vice was “a sweatshop for trustafarians” who could afford to work for little pay, and in 2014, it was still a place where an employee could find herself taking care of a more senior colleague who was wasted after a Vice party and be worried she wouldn’t have enough money in her bank account to give the cabbie cash to clean up any vomit. A senior manager once joked that the company’s hiring strategy had a “22 Rule”: “Hire 22-year-olds, pay them $22,000, and work them 22 hours a day.”

And then I read about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s barfalicious wealth.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter and son-in-law, brought in at least $82 million in outside income while serving as senior White House advisers during 2017, according to financial disclosure forms released Monday.

OK, feeling better now. I’m not rich, but apparently you have to be terrible, horrible, conscienceless scumbags to become rich in America.

Brain in a bucket: or, when hype meets ethics

Dr Nenad Sestan has a technique to recover some functioning neurons from dead brains. He’s been collecting decapitated pig heads from slaughterhouses and hooking them up to perfusion pumps and running an oxygenated saline (plus other secret ingredients) through them, and then doing physiological assays on the brain tissue, finding that significant numbers of the neurons are still viable and show signs of cellular activity.

There was no evidence that the disembodied pig brains regained consciousness. However, in what Sestan termed a “mind-boggling” and “unexpected” result, billions of individual cells in the brains were found to be healthy and capable of normal activity.

This work has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, so take that “billions” number with a grain of salt. Even if accurate, and I don’t think there’s any way he could have accurately gotten a good count, it still means that only a small percentage of the cells in the brain retained any capacity to function. It is mostly dead, and ignoring the Princess Bride reference, mostly dead is completely dead. The integrated whole is non-functional. The pig is not thinking, not dreaming, not awaiting the kiss from its true love to awaken. It is unresponsive. It is an ex-pig.

Sestan now says the organs produce a flat brain wave equivalent to a comatose state, although the tissue itself “looks surprisingly great” and, once it’s dissected, the cells produce normal-seeming patterns.

The lack of wider electrical activity could be irreversible if it is due to damage and cell death. The pigs’ brains were attached to the BrainEx device roughly four hours after the animals were decapitated.

Put that four hours in context. If your brain is deprived of oxygen for four minutes, irreversible damage begins. After about six minutes, you are dead and typically beyond resuscitation. Within that window between the onset of damage and death, the functional network of the brain begins to break down, and victims have an increasing chance of being reduced to a comatose vegetable.

Those pig brains were deprived of all oxygen and nutrients for 240 minutes. “Comatose” is a generous assessment of their state. You’ve no longer got a brain, you’ve got a scattering of individual cells that no longer work together, but haven’t quite gotten the message that they’re supposed to decay, or haven’t yet been chewed up by bacteria or the wash of lytic enzymes released by their definitely dead neighbors.

This is not a surprising result. No one expects that there is an instant of death in which every cell ruptures their membranes and disintegrates into a liquid acellular mass. It takes time for a mass of meat to break down completely. It is a slight surprise that they can salvage useful single cells after hours of breakdown, but only slightly.

Is this a useful observation? Yes. It would be nice to have another source of neurons for laboratory work that doesn’t require maintaining a colony of animals that you have to personally kill to extract the very freshest cells. You can also use this surviving subset to trace functional activity, which is apparently the goal of the research. It’s going to have new problems, though: how do you interpret the cellular activity of a neuron that has been hypoxic for four hours? Is it actually comparable to newly isolated or cultured cells? The Sestan lab has a lot of work ahead of them. It’s also likely to be extendable to animals other than pigs: human brains donated to research might provide a pool of living cells for physiological work.

But realistically, this is more like discovering that you can go down to the local junkyard and find an unbroken passenger side front window for a 1998 Toyota Corolla that you can use to replace the one someone broke on your car, or a replacement starter motor for your Jeep Cherokee. It does not mean that we can expect a zombie car uprising as the whole junkyard starts up and rushes to clog up the nearest freeway.

Unfortunately, it is also priming unrealistic and irrelevant ethical dilemmas.

The one type of research he thinks may call for quick action to set up rules of the road is Sestan’s unpublished brain preservation technique (which the Nature editorial did not discuss). “If people want to keep human brains alive post mortem, that is a more pressing and realistic problem,” says Hyman. “Given that it is possible with a pig brain, there should be guidelines for human tissue.”

It is not a pressing or realistic problem. What is described as a concern is not possible with a pig brain — I have to say it again, those are dead, non-functional, unsalvageable brains, although a tiny fraction of the cells might have some utility for research. Still, it could become a legitimate ethical issue, so I can see where the responsible ethicist will set up guidelines before it becomes a problem.

Imagine a situation where a patient is dying of organ failure, but their brain is still healthy. If we could decapitate them, hook them up within seconds to the pumps and fluids that Sestan pioneers, keeping their brain intact and undamaged and healthy in a nice little vat, should we? Given that there is no known technique for reconnecting such a brain, it might be greater torment than allowing them to die — would you want to spend decades in a sensory deprivation tank, just for the sake of living? That’ll be a fun one for the bioethicists to wrestle with.

But this technique is not currently anywhere close to raising this problem.

What I see as a greater problem is this annoying essentialism. It’s HUMAN, it’s a HUMAN brain, therefore we need to regard it with the same requirement of respect we accord to HUMAN BEINGS. There is a difference between an adjective and a noun. It is human tissue, yes, but it has none of the properties essential to a good definition of a sapient human being (which we don’t have in most people’s heads: they’ll talk about 46 chromosomes, or parentage, or attributes of the human body like having one head and two arms and two legs, which are all pretty much irrelevant to personhood, I would think), so people freak out over human organoids, little blobs of brain tissue around a millimeter across in a dish, or over chimeras, small subpopulations of human cells in an animal host.

As far as I’m concerned, the Sestan experiment has been grossly overhyped, although it has real potential, and the ethical gasps are actually in response to an imaginary situation, rather than anything that has happened yet.

Lest anyone think I said anything the ethicists don’t already know, I should include this bit from one of them:

Hyman…thinks most of the scenarios are exaggerated or unlikely. It’s hardly possible a tiny brain organoid will feel or think anything, he says.

Played like a chump

I have to hand it to David Brin as a soothsayer: Brin predicted what would happen in the ‘negotiations’ between Trump and Kim Jong Un. North Korea would offer a token reduction in some nuclear facilities, which they don’t need anymore, and would ask for a reduction in sanctions and most importantly, a reduction in conventional arms.

For reasons of both economic and personal survival, Kim desperately needs a smaller army.

In contrast, nuclear weapons – once you have them – are cheap to hold, to hide and to maintain.

Kim’s current dilemma has only one solution, then. Keep enough nukes to deter any adventurous notions on our side… and hold onto those artillery tubes threatening Seoul… then entice both South Koreans and Americans to shout hosannahs over a “deal” to slash their own forces below the DMZ. Forces they can easily afford and that pose them zero risk.

Let’s be clear: any conventional draw-down is Kim’s chief aim, his win-win.

So what did this “historic meeting” actually accomplish?

North Korea is shutting down one engine testing site, and they’re going to return some American remains from the Korean War. These are token gestures. Trump did leave the current sanctions in place.

What is North Korea gaining? A reduction in military activity in South Korea.

Trump announced that he will order an end to regular “war games” that the United States conducts with ally South Korea, a reference to annual joint military exercises that are an irritant to North Korea.

Trump called the exercises “very provocative” and “inappropriate” in light of the optimistic opening he sees with North Korea. Ending the exercises would also save money, Trump said.

The United States has conducted such exercises for decades as a symbol of unity with Seoul and previously rejected North Korean complaints as illegitimate. Ending the games would be a significant political benefit for Kim, but Trump insisted he did not give up leverage.

He completely blindsided the South Koreans on that one.

So North Korea got what they wanted out of the meeting, and Trump got nothing of substance. Kim Jong Un also got one other thing: fluffed by America. Trump was silent on human rights abuses, and even said this:

Well, we’ve given him, I don’t wanna talk about it specifically, but we’ve given him, he’s going to be happy. His country does love him. His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor. They’re gonna put it together, and I think they’re going to end up with a very strong country, and a country which has people — that they’re so hard working, so industrious.

His people are slaves in a giant cage, who will be executed if they don’t show fervor. Trump has given Kim Jong Un a massive PR victory that he can use to quell any rebelliousness: America says you’re happy. America is going to stop even practicing opposition. America isn’t going to help you.

Isn’t it interesting how Trump can go from snarling at Canada and alienating the democratically elected leaders of allied nations, and then scurry off and express his warm appreciation of tyrants and dictators?

Bill Donohue, ghoul

Oh god. Bill Donohue weighs in on Anthony Bourdain’s suicide.

If Anthony Bourdain had been a religious man, would he have killed himself? Probably not. The celebrity chef was found dead today in his hotel room in Strasbourg, France.

As I have recounted in my book, The Catholic Advantage: How Health, Happiness, and Heaven Await the Faithful, there is an inverse relationship between religiosity and suicide: those who are regular churchgoers have a much lower rate of suicide than atheists like Bourdain.

Nice of him to use the opportunity of the man’s death to plug his book.

You know, though, I think he’s sort of right: if you’re told over and over again from childhood on that suicide, in addition to ending your life and bringing grief to loved ones, will only lead to even greater misery as you’re tortured for eternity, I can see where it might dissuade some potential suicides. So let’s take it as a given that you can reduce the suicide rate by being indoctrinated in the Catholic faith (there’s data!) with the side effect that you are increasing fear and guilt to achieve your end. Would it be worth it?

If you could save Bourdain by erasing part of his character, do you think he would have chosen it? He had the opportunity, after all — his father was Catholic.

Would reducing the suicide rate be worthwhile if, instead, we increased the rate of child rape?

I’ll just leave this here.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has reached a $210 million settlement agreement with 450 victims of clergy sexual abuse as part of a bankruptcy reorganization, officials announced Thursday.

At $210,290,724, it is estimated to be the second-largest payout by the Catholic church in the U.S., according to the Associated Press. It comes after nearly four years of bankruptcy proceedings and negotiations.

Before you ask…

The largest clergy abuse related settlement to date was reached in 2007 by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which paid 508 victims $660 million.

That’s almost a thousand children in just two cases, raped with the collusion of the Catholic church. Is that a fair price to pay? For anything?

Who wants to do a live chat about abortion on Saturday?

I thought the chat yesterday was productive and fun, and it was really good to share the screen with someone who would bring in new questions, and I’d like to do something along those same lines next weekend. I’m thinking I’d have some similar prepared remarks for the first half hour or so, followed by a free-for-all conversation.

My topic for this next event will be “A developmental biologist’s perspective on abortion”, but don’t you hate it when some dude starts hectoring the wimmin on the right way to think about their bodies? If I’m going to do this, I damn well give equal time to someone who could get or could have gotten pregnant, to give their perspective. I don’t mean someone who thinks abortions are Satan’s t-shirt gun — I’m not setting up a debate — but someone who can complement my abstract view with something more personal.

If you’re interested, email me and we can arrange it.

P.S. If you’ve never had a uterus or ovaries and think you have an informed take on the subject, I’ll consider including you, too — make your case in the email. But I will not have a panel of guys arguing on this subject.