Maybe it would have been more popular if they called it “Hate Speech Week”

Truth in advertising and all that, you know.

Milo Yiannopoulos, desperate to gather together the tattered shreds of his relevance, announced this past summer that there would be a “four day extravaganza” on the Berkeley campus that he called “Free Speech Week”. There was a preliminary list of potential speakers, including Ann Coulter, Charles Murray, James Damore, Mike Cernovich, Stephen Bannon, etc., which indicated that they were planning a total shit-show of horrible people, which certainly would test the limits of free speech. It turned out, though, they hadn’t bothered to ask most of those people, and the prospective speakers were a bit surprised to learn of it. Milo claimed to have $12 million in backing.

But the funny thing is, it doesn’t seem to be happening. It’ll still fill the need to feed the conservative persecution complex if it all falls apart, but it looks like they weren’t even seriously trying.

From the get-go, however, there have been various problems and unanswered questions, starting with the student group that was actually supposed to host “Free Speech Week.” This group, called the Berkeley Patriot, didn’t exist at all before July. Its site has five blog posts, its Facebook page shows no signs of real community and its Twitter account has 16 followers and no tweets. Both the blog and the Facebook page were started on Aug. 25 — shortly after Yiannopoulos announced he was working with this group to stage a major event on the Berkeley campus.

Despite being a tiny organization with no visible history, Berkeley Patriot had a huge ask: It not only wanted to hold events in the usual rooms offered at no charge for student events, but also wanted to rent Zellerbach Hall and Wheeler Auditorium, two of the largest venues on campus. The former of those, for instance, seats around 2,000 people and is mostly used for concerts and major performing arts events. According to the university, Berkeley Patriot was given three deadlines — Aug. 18, Aug. 25 and, finally, Sept. 15 — to sign a contract and pay the $65,000 rental fee for the two auditoriums. The students failed to do that.

Huh. Imagine that.

There is a problem lurking here with the student groups. Students get a real deal on these events: students can book any room on campus, complete with audio-visual gear, seating appropriate for 20 students to 400 students (we’re a small college, so we don’t have those 2000 seat auditoriums) at no charge. What it means is that a conservative with lots of cash can astro-turf a “student group” into existence by finding one or a few compliant students and getting them to host what is essentially a non-student event that is nominally student driven. It’s possible because universities are diverse, and there will always be far right wing students in attendance to provide an entry point. The Morris North Star, the ghastly ultra-right student paper that was here at my university for a couple of years, was a case in point: there was no organic drive to support it, it was managed by just a few students, and it got external money thrown at it…and it fell apart as soon as a few students graduated and the money bags didn’t get delivered anymore.

Milo Yiannopoulos, by the way, is a college dropout who has no connection at all to Berkeley. He’s the very definition of an outside agitator taking advantage of loopholes in college administration.

But it turns out that they — Milo and the students — were either incompetent or had a sneakier plan in mind. They aren’t going to have an official room or rooms or building for this event, so instead, they’re inviting random mobs of the kind of people who want to hear Coulter or Cernovich to show up and march around the campus. He’s nurturing this narrative that they were unjustly denied official space by Berkeley to fuel resentment. His little gang of neo-Nazis will wander around, being nasty, and when Berkeley rightfully cracks down on them, he’ll howl about persecution.

The alt-right thrives on the idea that it is being oppressed by violent leftists, a narrative that was in danger of dying out after a white supremacist killed a peaceful counter-protester and injured many others with a terrorist-style attack in Charlottesville. With his Berkeley event, Yiannopoulos has created and nurtured an atmosphere of right-wing grievance and anger — and now his gathering will happen outside, on the streets, with maximum opportunity for violent clashes between right-wing racists and counter-protesters. You might almost think that was how he designed it.

As if disrupting the work of the university is something Nazis should be allowed to do.

Nature did not intend that you put those colors there!

Oh, my. Some researchers have discovered that pigments in tattoo inks can, over the years, wander out of the tattoo into places like lymph nodes. They have not, however, identified any danger or harm from this phenomenon. All I can muster is a weary, “So?”. This shouldn’t be at all surprising.

Next up: scientists will discover that the skin texture under your tattoo will change with age, that the shape of your body can distort the shape of your tattoos, and most horrifyingly, that people with tattoos have pigmented inks permanently discoloring their skin!

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.

I’m sure that went over well

Donald Trump spoke at the UN, and threatened to murder 25 million people if he doesn’t get his way.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday vowed to “totally destroy” North Korea unless Pyongyang backs down from its nuclear challenge, mocking North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a “rocket man” on a suicide mission.

Benjamin Netanyahu liked it.

It is well past time to depose this madman.

The courage of Gwyneth Paltrow

I can hardly believe how brave she is. Would you believe she actually sells psychic vampire repellent?

If it were me, I’d be afraid to stock something that would repel or destroy me, and I sure wouldn’t be selling it to people, not even for an outrageous $30 for 100ml, who might spritz me with it. Especially not when it’s been infused with such dangerous things as moonlight and reiki.

The psychic vampire repellent may not be FDA evaluated, but who cares when it has sonically tuned water, moonlight, love, reiki, and gem elixirs which is totally not left over water from a rock polisher. It must be very potent as there is a double dose of reiki. I’m not sure how they get all that reiki in the bottle because reiki isn’t an object but no conversation needed here because ancient gem elixir physics, duh! One should spray it around one’s face to “safeguard” one’s aura and “banish bad vibes (and shield you from the people who may be causing them).” I mean that’s some potent, women empowering health shit right there, you know? Just don’t empower it into your lungs.

I’m assuming that Psychic Vampires are real, because no way would Gwyneth sell a fake remedy to a fake problem. That would be, like, a double-fake. Which confuses me, because wouldn’t a double-fake mean it’s real?

Also, it’s obvious that Gwyneth herself is a psychic vampire. She’s leeching the minds out of people.

The rest of the story…

Everywhere I turn the last day or two, someone is posting that spectacular video of a Nazi getting punched in Seattle — and really getting walloped, ending up flattened and unmoving on the sidewalk. The puncher knew what he was doing.

I approve of Nazi-punching. I know, it’s violent action, but when you’re dealing with people advocating for genocide, a little ramping up of the response is appropriate and necessary. Not whip-out-a-gun-&-shoot escalation, not run-’em-over-with-a-car execution, which is what they have done, but we can’t avoid a sock-’em-in-the-jaw response to fighting words and extreme provocation. And yes, I think it’s fair to regard parading about in Nazi gear is extreme provocation.

The Stranger also has more background on the incident.

  • Obviously, the man is wearing an armband with a Nazi swastika on it, on public transportation,
    in Ballard and center city. He’s spoiling for a confrontation.

  • He harassed a black man on the bus.

  • He was wandering around, yelling at random people — it was characterized as “Alex Jones” style yelling.

  • Other people were alarmed enough that they called the police.

  • He threw a banana at someone and called them an ape.

  • When the police arrived, nothing was done because the Nazi would not press charges, nor would anyone else complain.

It’s fair to say he was trying to provoke a reaction. He got one. I’m actually a little more troubled by this than I am by the punching:

When the man in the armband began to recover, he rolled over onto his hands and knees and reached up to someone for help, but “nobody wanted to help him,” Duff said. Soon, police officers patrolling the area arrived to the scene and the crowd dispersed.

“Everyone was so joyous,” Duff said. “It was like a bonding for the community.”

No. Don’t be joyous. Punching Nazis is an unpleasant, necessary action, not something to celebrate and bond over. Let’s take this seriously: we have a genuine problem with a subset of the citizenry advocating for racism and normalizing deportation and mass murder, and we have to take a range of actions, most of them political and social, against them…and sometimes that may involve physically subduing them. Let’s not do it because it’s fun. Do it because we want to suppress violence.

Also, boy do I miss Seattle. I need an excuse to get back there and recharge…but unfortunately it’s not going to fit into my travel plans for a while.

Jesus H. Christ!

This is painful to watch, so I’ll summarize it and spare you.

Ron Wyatt, biblical fantasist extraordinaire, claims to have found dried blood in the rocks below the place where Jesus was crucified. He took it to an Israeli lab where they reconstituted it, and then cultured it in a growth medium, and discovered that the blood was still alive. A miracle! Especially since if you took some old rock scrapings and threw them in growth medium you probably would get something to grow…it just wouldn’t be human cells.

Then, further, they looked at it under a microscope and counted the chromosomes. How, I don’t know; you can’t see chromosomes with a light microscope unless you squash the cells undergoing mitosis and stain them, which would require killing Jesus’ cells.

But they counted them anyway, miraculously, I guess. They discovered that Jesus’ cells — we have now leapt straight into the assumption that this is actually blood from a named person 2000 years ago — contained 24 chromosomes. Twenty three from Mary, which gave him his human form, and a Y chromosome from Jehovah to make him male. So the old joke is right: the “H” in his name is for “Haploid”. Also, he’s aneuploid.

Of course, it’s a bit odd. Old guy comes into the lab with some flaky red stuff scraped off a rock; lab technicians accept that it’s two millennia old human blood. They cultivate it on growth medium and get some cells, and they still accept his claim that these are human. They magically count chromosomes in these cells, and they have a non-human number; they still assume it’s human, and even that it is from a specific human. None of this makes any sense.

After that revelation, the video goes on and on about another old evangelical Christian chestnut: there is a molecule called laminin that is vaguely cross-shaped, which is somehow supposed to imply that we’re held together by Jesus. Only (?) problem is this guy spells and pronounces it “liminin”.

We are compelled to accept the inevitable truth. Jesus was haploid, and he was from New Zealand.

The only other possible explanation is that Ron Wyatt is a liar, and these gullible Christians are mind-bogglingly stupid. But that can’t possibly be.

Support Skepticon now

If you’ve been paying attention to the Skepticon blog, you’d know that they’ve been trickling out announcements about their speaker roster. It’s looking good so far! At least this is one conference I know isn’t going to screw it up with a bunch of alt-right jerks.

You can register for the con right now! Be prepared to open your wallet and pay…nothing. It’s free, except for that sometimes painful business of traveling to Springfield, Missouri. If you’re feeling flush, do donate so those less prosperous can experience the event.

I’m going! I’ll see you late in the evening of 10 November, and all weekend long!

Building a sex is harder than most people imagine

Now will you believe me? I keep saying that sex and sex determination are far more complex than just whether you have the right chromosomes or the right hormones or the right gonads, and now here’s a lovely diagram that illustrates some of the steps in sex determination.

The biology is set up to favor driving an individual to one side or the other, but there are so many detours that can be taken en route that it is ridiculous to ignore all the people who end up following a more unique path.