What happened to Scienceblogs?

Greg Laden has some answers — there are a few things he mentions that I did not know about.

Also, he’s got a list of where some of the old scienceblogs sites have moved to. I’ve pulled those urls out and put them on the blogroll on the sidebar to the left, under the category “Scienceblogs Diaspora”. Don’t forget them, the network may have vanished into the æther, but the authors are still tap-tap-tapping away!

Maybe this is what’ll kill the alt right

It seems that appealing to a sense of morality doesn’t work, but maybe capitalism will stop the Nazis. Richard Spencer and his National Policy Institute rented a venue at the University of Florida for their rally.

The check bounced.

When you’re selling to Nazis, you definitely need to get the cash up front. Also, I’d recommend a great big security deposit.

Some people deserve to be pariahs

Ken Ham is one of them. He has been invited to speak at a homeschooling conference in Calgary, because homeschooling is infested with the rot of religious bullshit (yes, I know, some homeschoolers are dedicated to teaching well, but if you’re in it because you don’t like that there sekyoolar sciencey stuff, you aren’t qualified). He knows nothing about education or science, but he pretends to in order to sell more lies, and then he gets the unwarranted respect of mobs of ignoramuses.

It should also discredit the homeschool organization, which is demonstrating no sense of discriminating judgment or respect for science standards.

Calgarian Paul Ens says he walked away from his Christian faith after reading Ham’s creationist literature and started a YouTube channel dedicated to debunking Ham’s teachings.

“As a citizen of Alberta and a father, I’m very concerned that Ken Ham is being brought in on multiple levels — primarily that he is a science denier. He denies evolution, he denies the age of the Earth,” Ens said.

He says the fact Alberta’s Home Education Association has booked Ham to speak raises questions.

“It signals to me that this homeschool group is not serious about following provincial curriculum or proper science education for their children,” he said.

I think this person has the right idea.

Yes, atheists of Calgary, get out there and protest. I think, though, that this is also the perfect opportunity to cooperate with Christians and other religious groups to protest — Ken Ham is doing a phenomenal job of tainting the entirety of Christianity, so I would hope there are a lot of mainstream religious groups who ought to be eager to distance themselves from him. This is a situation where a united front to oppose bullshit would be advantageous.

Savagery tamed

I stopped getting haircuts last year — almost exactly a year ago today. I just despaired at the horror of that last presidential election, and decided I didn’t care anymore, and I’d just let it grow. Unfortunately, long hair is a pain to take care of, and my wife was also looking askance at me, and so I finally broke down and got it chopped off yesterday. It helped that the salon I went to had a poster out front acknowledging solidarity with the LGBTQ community, so I was able to cross that threshold and get it done.

Here I am, before and after.

I don’t know…now I’m thinking I’m preferring the wild-haired old testament prophet look. Maybe it’s just that the lighting was better.

Our new theme is a clear one: RAGE

We had a pretty good election night yesterday, but I don’t want anyone to forget what should be driving you right now, and that is a righteous anger. Read Katha Pollitt about her reaction to the past year.

But the main difference is that I hate people now. Well, not all people, of course. Just people who voted for Trump. People who do their own “research” on the Internet and discover there that President Obama is a Muslim and Michelle Obama is a man. People who use the n-word and can’t even spell it right, because—have you noticed?—Trump supporters can’t spell. Well-off people who only care about lowering their taxes. People who said they couldn’t vote for Hillary because of her emails. Excuse me, sir or madam, can you explain to me what an email server even is? People who didn’t believe Trump would bring back coal or build the wall or Make America Great Again, but just wanted to blow things up. Congratulations! We are all living in the minefield you have made.

I know what you’re thinking: you are the problem, Katha, alienating Trump voters with your snobbish liberal elitism and addiction to “identity politics.” Yes, I wanted them to have health care and child care and good schools and affordable college and real sex education and access to abortion and a much higher minimum wage. And yes, I wanted the wealthy to pay more taxes to provide for it all. Obviously, this offended the pride of the stalwart, mostly white citizens of Trumplandia, possibly because a good proportion of white people would rather not have something if black people get to have it, too. As for pussy-grabbing, sheesh! Men will be men, get over yourselves, ladies. None of that is “identity politics,” though. It is just America.

You know exactly how the defenders of the status quo will respond: sit down, be nice and polite, you might annoy the regressives/alt-right, and their anger will be more defensible than yours. We’re already composing our excuses for them that will consist of blaming you.

Lindy West is also rather angry.

Just this week, Juli Briskman, a government contractor, lost her job after a photo of her flipping off the presidential motorcade went viral. Solange, Britney Spears, Sinead O’Connor, the Dixie Chicks, Rosie O’Donnell — I struggle to think of women who lost their tempers in public and didn’t face ridicule, temporary ruin, or both. And we don’t even have to be angry to be called angry. Accusations of being an “angry black woman” chased Michelle Obama throughout her tenure at the White House, despite eight years of unflappable poise (black women suffer disproportionately under this paradigm). The decades-long smearing of Hillary Clinton as an unhinged shrew culminated one year ago today when, despite maintaining a preternatural calm throughout the most brutal campaign in living memory, she lost the election to masculinity’s apoplectic id.

Like every other feminist with a public platform, I am perpetually cast as a disapproving scold. But what’s the alternative? To approve? I do not approve.

Not only are women expected to weather sexual violence, intimate partner violence, workplace discrimination, institutional subordination, the expectation of free domestic labor, the blame for our own victimization, and all the subtler, invisible cuts that undermine us daily, we are not even allowed to be angry about it.

Ah, yes. Have you ever noticed how Social Justice Warriors in general get chastised for being “disapproving scolds”? How dare we publicly criticize Nazis and misogynists, as if we think we’re better than them! Defending people who want to murder and deport people, or want the right to batter their wives, is better virtue signaling, because the anti-SJWs are so noble that they defend the free speech rights of woman-hating skinheads.

That rage will be used to excuse assault. Take the case of Aisha Walker, a woman who saw a drunk man accosting another young woman, and she chose to stand between them, a brave act. But then another man, a bystander, came to the aid…of the drunk.

A third passenger got involved, Walker wrote, telling her and the other man that they were both being stupid. When she asked him why it was stupid to stand up for a woman being harassed, he became angry.

The bystander began swearing and shouting that he would be happy to “step off the bus” to deal with her.

Walker said when she asked what that would prove, the man punched her “directly in the mouth at full force.”

He broke many of her teeth, requiring a lot of dental work. But he made his point: anger at oppression is a greater crime to these people than the oppression itself. Moral clarity is an affront to people who want the liberty to be selfish.

Open Thread on yesterday’s election

It just goes to show what you can do with a motivated electorate. There was a high voter turnout, but Democrats turned out in greater numbers than Republicans to repudiate the Trump agenda. That’s promising for the future, but we have to remember that we can’t always vote against a bad thing, we have to be just as motivated to go to the polls for a good thing, and that’s where Democrats tend to fail.

So what local things feel like a personal triumph for you? The city of Morris passed a school bond issue to get our high school repaired and maintained, something that has been neglected for too long. I think responsible maintenance of our infrastructure is a great positive thing Democrats can stand for.

I’d also like to call for better, more equal representation in local and state government. Republicans have gerrymandered and suppressed voters to set up a system where their party is stacked with white men, and our leadership does not look like our communities. Let’s change that!

More aliens!

Sometimes, I think, science fiction authors have a better idea of potential alien complexity than do biologists. Here’s an essay by Tim Pratt on alien worldbuilding that does a good job of addressing a common problem.

I knew my series needed aliens, just like it needed mysterious ancient technological artifacts, space pirates, snarky computers, and cool spaceships. Turning to the task of creating aliens right after I’d put together my (mostly) human crew made me hyperaware of the issue of culture. One thing that bothers me in some science fiction (more often cinematic and televisual than written, but often there, too) is alien monocultures. Unless you’re talking about the Borg or Cybermen or other sorts of hive-minds, it never made sense to me to have an entire species of aliens with a single culture. How many thousands of cultures are there on Earth, after all, and how many subcultures within those cultures? From differences in music, religion, recreation, art, literature, food, philosophy, sexual preferences—cultures and subcultures get so wonderfully and weirdly granular. And yet, so often when our fictional humans encounter aliens, they discover the whole species consists of noble warriors or aloof philosophers or sadistic experimenters or ruthless capitalists. Where are the pacifist Klingons who run sustainable free-range krada ranches? Where are the Wookies who like to shave their entire bodies and refuse to celebrate Life Day because it’s gone too corporate? The Volus philanthropists? The punk rock Vulcans? Sure, sometimes there’s a plot point involving some rogue weirdo outlier, but in any alien species there should plausibly be whole communities, whole cities, whole religions or sects or affinity groups, who march to the beat of a different Kintarrian Death Drum.

Yeah! Diversity is important. I think I’m going to have to grab a copy of his series.

We can predict that aliens exist, if aliens exist

I am informed that Oxford biologists have outlined what alien life would look like — I’m a bit put off by the title. One of those things that reduces the credibility of a story for me is when the editor feels the need to pump up the authority by prefixing “biologist” with the name of a prestigious university. Wouldn’t just “biologists have outlined what alien life would look like” been adequate?

I went ahead and read the source paper in the International Journal of Astrobiology, “Darwin’s Aliens”, and you know, I’m not very impressed. It claims in the abstract that “we can make specific predictions about the biological makeup of complex aliens,” but it doesn’t — it makes vague, amorphous generalities about possible aliens. Basically, it says that there would be replicators of some sort that would use natural selection, and then it announces that there would have been “major transitions” in their evolutionary history to generate complexity.

Uh, OK.

Picture an alien. If what you are picturing is a simple replicating molecule, then this ‘alien’ might not undergo natural selection. For example, it could replicate itself perfectly every time, and thus there would be no variation, and it would never improve. Or it might have such a high error rate in replication that it quickly deteriorates. If we count things like that as life, then there could be aliens that do not undergo natural selection. But if you are picturing anything more complex or purposeful than a simple molecule, then the alien you are picturing has undergone natural selection. This is the kind of prediction that theory can make. Given heredity, variation and differential success, aliens will undergo natural selection. Or, more interestingly, without those three things, aliens could not be more complicated than a replicating molecule. Given an adapted alien, one with an appearance of design or purpose, it will have undergone natural selection.

The telling phrase in there is this one:

This is the kind of prediction that theory can make. Given heredity, variation and differential success, aliens will undergo natural selection.

I agree. That’s the kind of prediction you can make. It’s kind of…broad, don’t you think?

Then they toss in their edifying zinger.

In particular, the evolution of complex life on the Earth appears to have depended upon a small number of what have been termed major evolutionary transitions in individuality. In each transition, a group of individuals that could previously replicate independently cooperate to form a new, more complex life form or higher level organism. For example, genes cooperated to form genomes, different single-celled organisms formed the eukaryotic cell, cells cooperated to form multicellular organisms, and multicellular organisms formed eusocial societies.

Who would have guessed? Complex organisms must have experienced increases in complexity in their evolutionary history.

You want another tautology?

Once again, picture an alien. If you are picturing something like unlinked replicating molecules or undifferentiated blobs of slime, then your aliens might not have undergone major transitions. But if what you are picturing has different parts with specialized functions, then your alien is likely to have undergone major transitions. What matters is not that we call them ‘major transitions’, but rather that complexity requires multiple parts of an organism striving to the same purpose, and that theory predicts that this requires restrictive conditions. Consequently, if we find complex organisms, we can make predictions about what they will be like.

If we find complex organisms, then we can predict what they will be like. You keep using that word, “predict”. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

Now we get an illustrative illustration of what an alien might look like.

Major transitions in space: ‘The Octomite’. A complex alien that comprises a hierarchy of entities, where each lower-level collection of entities has aligned evolutionary interests such that conflict is effectively eliminated. These entities engage in a division of labour, with various parts specializing on various tasks, such that the parts are mutually dependent.

Why? The authors seem to think that they can therefore predict that aliens will consist of a literal hierarchy of complexity, with literal morphological layers. I ask you, is there anything on Earth that looks like this? Then their model fails to predict any of the forms found on the one known planet with complex life, and is therefore rather pointless.

They have a summary of their method for making predictions.

When using evolutionary theory to make predictions about extraterrestrial life, it is important to avoid circularity. Our chain of argument is: (1) Extraterrestrial life will have undergone natural selection. (2) Knowing that aliens undergo natural selection, we can make further predictions about their biology, based on the theory of natural selection. In particular, we can say something about complex aliens – that they will likely have undergone major transitions. (3) Theory tells us that restrictive conditions, which eliminate conflict, are required for major transitions. (4) Consequently, complex aliens will be composed of a nested hierarchy of entities, with the conditions required to eliminate conflict at each of those levels.

I feel like I should remind you all that in their abstract, they say “we can make specific predictions about the biological makeup of complex aliens.” Those aren’t specific predictions. I don’t see how those generalities are at all useful in the task they’ve set themselves.

Also, nowhere in their model do they take into account the confounding variable of chance — it’s as if all they have to do is invoke natural selection and then the history of the species unfolds. Which it doesn’t.

Maybe that’s the point of highlighting the authors’ university — it’s supposed to make us overlook the bullshit.