@pzmyers, scientist, swings at @DeepakChopra, non-scientist. Home runs ensue.

Deepak “not actually a scientist, really, anymore, anyway, in any way that actually matters” Chopra has felt the burn of being accused of ignoramity by Valerie Strauss and has been unable to resist the temptation to confirm to all & sundry that the allegation was indeed valid and richly deserved. In a recent post, actual evolutionary biologist PZ Myers highlights the myriad ways in which Chopra reveals his trademark oblivious, foot-shooting smugnorance. Now, I’ll leave the erstwhile reader to enjoy that post on their own, but a particular phrase of Chopra’s – ironically, part of a screed designed specifically to convince people how un-ignorant he is about evolution –  jumped at me and demanded my attention:

“…as a species we have leapt ahead far faster than random mutations can account for.”

I love – just love – how this new-age anthroponarcissist flatly asserts that we’ve evolved too fast, as if we’ve broken some law of thermodynamics (another branch of science I’ll lay fat stacks that Chopra hasn’t Clue One about). First: no, we haven’t (and citations, please, regarding how fast we should be evolving and how you went about determining that value). Second: it’s akin to asserting that human culture has leaped ahead far faster than Bronze Age technology can account for. Third: it sounds uncomfortably like nu-Creationist Stephen Meyer murdering both information theory and palaeontology in order to attribute the diversification of ancient life known as the Cambrian explosion to divine tinkering (“it’s too fast, therefore Genesis!”). Pro-tip, Deepak: when responding to accusations that you deny or simply don’t understand evolution, the first thing you might want to do is avoid sounding like a bloody creationist.

And of course, the assertion is simply bollocks. To use a non-biological analogy: once a particular kind of technological leap is made, technologies based on that leap will advance at a rate far faster than technology had – and could have – advanced previously. It happened with metals – to the point that two major human epochs are named after them – and take the original fuel, transport, mining and manufacturing game-changer: steam power. Once steam (and the associated metallurgical technology) was shown in the mid-17th century to be able to drive pistons and pulleys, with immensely broad applications, it was perhaps a generation or two before it had created an entirely new and entirely global coal-based economy which changed the world forever (and continues to do so – in ways we’re fast beginning to realise aren’t all that great). Ditto the internal combustion engine, powered flight and electronics: somebody watching the Wrights at Kittyhawk in 1911 could well have been watching Armstrong at Tranquility Base on their TV in 1969 – and in between have witnessed the birth of commercial air travel, air combat, the rise and fall of the zeppelin, nuclear weapons, the jet engine, the very first satellites, then people, in space and the breaking of the sound barrier. And I’m sure many of us who do a lot of reading on glowing screens are quite familiar with how much more complex, powerful, adaptable and indispensable the humble PC and its associates and offshoots have become, well within living memory.

Just as with artificial technology, in evolution all it takes is a particular leap at the right time and of the right sort to catalyse all sorts of new leaps in the original direction and associated leaps in any other direction that’s both possible and not a detriment to a population. Progress begets progress, whether pursued actively by humans or left to its own devices in a completely unguided and natural arena. Fortuitous evolutionary leaps don’t breach any supposed biological “laws” any more than do exponential technological advances; proto-humanity’s skip during the divergence from the human/chimp common ancestor gave us a little cerebral edge which, through countless generations of selection, mutation and other evolutionary mechanisms, turned out to be a boon in so many ways it’s scarcely quantifiable. Yet despite the hard-won knowledge of our genetic lottery-win and the subsequent consolidation and expansion of our riches, Chopra apparently wants to give the credit to some ill-defined phantom, presumably of his own devising, because science hasn’t yet demonstrated, to his unreasonable standard, that minds are processes undertaken by brains (it scarcely needs to be said that Chopra himself has done exactly diddly-bugger-all to demonstrate the validity of any of his notions, besides two-fisted verbal wankery and petulant broadsides at actual scientists). You have to wonder, given his “too fast” hypothesis, if Chopra has any particular beefs with the aforementioned Cambrian explosion – after all, it was an unprecedented event of speciation and diversification, about which creationists (and Intelligent Design creationists) have been voicing similar (and similarly ridiculous) “too fast!” objections for many years. Or perhaps Chopra would simply not care too much about some odd-looking shelly critters crawling and swimming about the ocean primeval a half-billion years ago – I didn’t call him an “anthroponarcissist” for nothing, after all, and there’s no real fodder for his fantabulations in fossils. You also have to wonder if, after Chopra’s “too fast” comment, the creationists might try and claim his words as credible – although, if they have any idea the low esteem Chopra in which is held by most scientists, they might not want to touch him with a barge pole. Then again, being creationists, they’re not above grasping desperately at straws when it comes to claiming the words of perceived scientific authorities as supportive of their particular brand of pseudoscience.

Regardless of whether creationists glom onto his verbal missteps as manna from Heaven, Chopra’s objections and attempted defences are easily revealed as facile, ignorant and childish; if he had a shred of integrity he’d be ashamed by his behaviour and would cease pontificating on subjects on which he has no expertise. But having no idea and no shame has never stopped his thoughtless yawping before; we should have no doubt that this self-styled maverick and ever-preening diva will take any further criticism as proof that he’s onto something. He might well, yet again, compare himself to Galileo and, yet again, neglect to realise that Galileo was right and could damn well prove it.

My final wonderment about this self-aggrandising charlatan is this, possums: will he ever return those spectacles to Dame Edna?

#GMO fear-mongering: let’s all try to not to do it, okes? Via the #senapath @ksenapathy

Oh yay! Time to wade into the GMO debate! Via FB.

Originally posted to Kavin Senapathy’s page was this:

Senapath: Just wondering, who’s reason, who’s evidence, and who’s scientific method you would be referring to. I seem to remember if you followed the corporate reason, evidence, and scientific methods of the time, these products would be safe and effective…….DDT, PCBs, Agent Orange, and recombinant bovine somatotropin, to name a few. Today, if I purchase most any food item, the law requires that all ingredients be labeled, sensible right! Just label GMO’s, end of story……It seems to me, you and the corporations have decided to take us out of the equation, and by proxy, make decisions individuals should be able to make on their own. How would labeling GMO ingredients affect you in any negative way, clearly you would prefer to eat these products, so with labeling you could feel secure in knowing what you are getting. And for me, I would be able to avoid what I do not want……A winner for us both…….

Of course, I felt compelled to respond:

Dear Ross

Labelling “GM ingredients” would (and I would say already does) confuse people unnecessarily. How would you write in your ingredients list that the wheat flour used in your hot dog rolls had had inserted or activated, at point XYZ in its genome, gene/gene complex ABC? People barely know what half the things on ingredients lists are already – and as fearmongers like Food Babe have demonstrated, people are already easily scared of many of them for no good reason beyond their syllable count or their presence in other materials (which is often misunderstood or misrepresented). Even if you didn’t describe the GM process used in the product in question, just putting a “GMO inside” sticker on it would be just as confusing (and fear-inducing). Either way, people would be confused and scared for no reason, and no better informed.

The point is that genetic modification is nothing to be feared. People get all paranoid about “animal genes in corn” and talk about GMOs like campfire horror stories, but first: that’s an unfounded exaggeration and second: every mouthful you eat is already a mix of countless millions of genes and DNA fragments from the living or formerly-living things you’re consuming. Recombinant DNA techniques, aka “splicing” (to name just one), are a re-ordering of the DNA molecule which leaves the chemical structure of the molecule unchanged. RDNA and DNA are chemically identical and are processed by the body in the same way.

But if you’re truly worried about animal genes in your vegetables, maybe you should step away from that ham sandwich or that bolognese sauce. Facetiousness aside, if you’re vego/vegan or simply object to the presence of animal genes in vegetable matter, please consider the facts that 1) a pig gene does not equal pork and 2) animals and non-animals already share a great many genes due to the common ancestry of all living organisms (as I write this, you and I are 50% banana). RDNA techniques are often little more than “swtiching on” an extant gene or gene complex within a food organism, or simply substituting the identical gene or gene complex from another organism to achieve a desired result. Either way, its impact on you, once consumed, is nil.

Please note that no DNA in any food you consume is incorporated into your own genome in any way. Processing foods denatures DNA, as does any cooking process, and the digestive process is entirely about breaking food down at the molecular level into proteins, fats, sugars and other nutrients. Even when you eat raw, living food straight off the vine, your digestive process quickly dismantles any DNA once the cells of the fruit/vegetable are breached. Some DNA fragments may remain in your system, but this is true of all you consume, and none of the DNA leftovers have any effect. They’re waste and are treated as such.

Finally, conflating GMOs with DDT and Agent Orange is grossly inappropriate. It mightn’t have been the intention, but far too many people are all too happy to do so overtly. There’s already far too much hyperbole and fearmongering regarding GM food and I think it’s encumbent on all of us who are prepared to discuss the subject honestly not to contribute to it.

IPA: “be like Gough.” Me: don’t make me lough. #auspol

It’s been reported that among the items on the IPA’s “to-do” list, handed to Head Boy Abbott on his first day at Big School, was an exhortation to emulate the bold, uncompromising vision of Gough Whitlam, the PM who did more in his single term to create the nation we know today than any other, before or since, and who more or less weaponised  bloody-minded determination. 

I would humbly suggest that the fundamental differences between the two are too stark to be reconciled and that the IPA must surely have been huffing nitrous to think Tony could walk that particular walk, or even do a passable impression of the talk. 

Gough had a vision, based in humanism and social justice, which he followed through and largely realised, conservative obstructionism be damned. He had a litany of simple but radical ideas; their single unifying concept was to improve the lives of all Australians. He pursued it with an enviable vigour that sustained him through his cooked-up dismissal and well into his later years.

Abbott, however, had a shopping list from self-interested arch-capitalist science-denialists, little more than half of which he’s filled. Many of his wins have been to simply de-fund or destroy social or scientific programs or initiatives that conflict with his masters’ dogmatic ideologies (many victims of the LNP razor gang had their roots in the Whitlam era); all he’s actually built off his own bat is a less fair, more frightened society while destroying what little trust we had left in our representatives after Labor’s obsessive factionalists handed him the election.

No, Abbott’s no Whitlam-style radical pursuing a bold reform agenda, caution being thrown to the wind. He’s a toadying throwback – an errand boy for anyone with a large enough bank account to get a seat at the table. His vision – or what passes for it – is prescribed to him by others; it is to enable greater profiteering, less accountability and greater access to to government for the billionaires who already dictate conservative policy. 

Abbott’s legacy will not be one of a bold vision for the future, but of a shortsighted smash & grab: a ram-raid where Abbott broke down the door and his overseers filled their pockets and strolled away. 

#LoveWins – Australian Christian Lobby needs to DEAL

Dear Australian Christian Lobby
Regarding your recent Facebook posts of the usual “defence of marriage” kind:
Equality for our friends in America is its own reward – as justice always is – and bodes very well for the future of LGBT people in Australia. After all, we’re not going to have a front bench packed with conservative religious scolds and finger-waggers forever, and equality might even be achieved during their administration, despite their best efforts (which won’t stop them claiming credit for it down the track). 
In the meantime, watching assorted religious authoritarians, fundamentalists and button-down sexual throwbacks freak out and implode is icing on the rainbow cake. Keep swimming against the tide, keep prophesying doom and gloom, keep ignoring the happiness and joy and tangible benefits brought to countries that have removed obstacles to equality – and we’ll keep laughing at your impotent rage. 
However, despite my (and many others’) schadenfreude at watching homophobes the world over gnash their teeth and rend their garments, I hold a small hope that many of you will realise that equality is actually no threat to you, your faith, your marriages, your children, your society or your country, in any way, shape or form, and that you will embrace it as the net gain for human happiness that it is. And I hope for your sake that that realisation will come before history demonstrates with great clarity just how far on the wrong side of history you’ve strayed. 
To those of you intractable in your hatred or fear of those unlike yourselves, those who will never relinquish their claim to privileged and superior status based on your sexuality, as unchosen as that of LGBT people, those who cling to ancient spells to protect you from demons of your own invention: you can go to hell. Or, more accurately, you can stay in the hell of your own foolish fears and shameful hatred.

Movie Corner: Grave of The Fireflies. [h/t/ @TheAVClub]

“Grave of The Fireflies” was beautiful, poignant and explored the effects of war on civilians in a way I’d never seen before. It is an important pacifist film; ironically though, it destroyed me.

Watch it only once. Do not watch it alone. Do not watch it if you’re uncomfortable with sobbing uncontrollably in front of loved ones. Do not show to children, EVER (you – you monster!). Do not recommend that others watch it unless you provide them with the previous caveats, otherwise you will lose those people as friends. This film is as harrowing as it is unforgettable, and they will hold you personally responsible for what it does to them.

Remember that bit in the animated “Animal Farm” where Boxer…is sent away?
Remember that bit in “Neverending Story” where Artax…got stuck in the swamp?
Remember that bit in “Watership Down” where the rabbits…were nothing like the ones in Beatrix Potter stories?

This movie is literally four hundred billion times more sad than all of those things combined and is much longer. Watch with extreme caution. Perhaps from within a little fort made of couch cushions and Kleenex boxes.

Or perhaps not at all. I watched this film not knowing what to expect. “Ooh, Studio Ghibli!” I said. “This will be interesting,” I said, like a damned fool, not imagining for a nanosecond that a cartoon, of all things, could possibly betray me so cold-heartedly. I will never watch this amazing, gorgeous, dispiriting film again. Men in my family have a history of heart trouble, you see.

Nonetheless, I award this film five stars. Five heartbroken little stars, endlessly weeping their twinkly tears into the cold vacuum of an unthinking, uncaring universe.

Pictured: the least harrowing frame from “Fireflies”

Reminder of this film’s existence provided by The AV Club

#gamergate et al., may you quickly become a bad memory (H/T @steve_shives)

Via the facebooks (where this post is doubled) I found an interesting article re hysterical MRAs, #gamergate trolls, pickup artists and angry douches on the web in general. Takeaway message: they’re not angry “nerds” lashing out. They’re just arseholes. The linked article’s a whole four months old (!) but is still accurate in large part.

Money quote:

“These anonymous men aren’t underdogs who have been unfairly excluded from pop culture due to their dense interest in quirky topics. They’re antisocial hatemongers, and one way or another, they will be left behind.”

That’s the thing – the key difference between the comic/gaming/fantasy/scifi/etc fans I’m familiar with (and am) and petulant little online anonymous arse-parrots who want to wreck other people’s shit: “nerds” don’t give a mouldy turd if they’re shut out of “popular culture”. They have their own culture and they didn’t – don’t – actually care if it’s popular. Occasionally you’ll encounter people who prefer it that way – indeed, there may well be a small number of uber-hardcore fans who appear (or just are) utterly unwelcoming to noobs (such people are culturally ubiquitous though, not just limited to niche pursuits), but by and large it’s my experience that fans of so-called “nerd” culture love sharing their love with new fans. After all, what’s so wrong with having more people to share your favourite stuff with?

When I started high school in 1989 I’d come from a tiny primary school (four kids in my final year!) in a little rural bubble. Like most others in my demographic I’d read as many comics as living miles from the nearest newsagent would allow, grown up on ’80s TV and I had a decent C-64 library to while away the hours, but the guys I quickly formed friendships with expanded my cultural horizons in ways I’ll always be grateful for. Library sessions of D&D, Tolkien-worship, C-64 game swapping (and occasional pirating – hopefully the statute of limitations on that little misdemeanour has expired) hours poring over 2000AD comics, endless discussions of hypothetical T-800/Jason Voorhees death-matches, equally endless bong-fuelled Zeppelin-soundtracked SNES/Mega Drive marathons, all leading to later obsessions with Asimov, Iain M Banks, death metal, prog-rock, PC gaming, Terry Goodkind – the things I still love and pursue are in large part thanks to the guys I made friends with at school (and soon afterwards), and whose deep love for their favourite things was both infectious and freely shared.

Again, that’s the key difference between guys who just love comics/gaming/etc and the troll-hordes online. The anonymous wannabe stormtroopers of gamergate and the various other misogynist sub-cultures online simply don’t want to share and they don’t play well with others. And there’s no love in what they do; only a desire to protect what they perceive as their kingdoms against encroachment by the unworthy, based on a mistaken belief that others want to take them away or (especially in the case of the hordes attacking women in gaming) dumb them down or dilute all the fun out of them in the service of social justice (the latest four-letter word among the manchildren, it’s synonymous with “political correctness gone mad”).

So, to those standing on their ramparts (or, more appropriately, hiding in their keeps and sending endless poison-pen missives) and waxing loathsome about how Feminazis or social justice warriors or Beta males are going to ruin their cultures, whether online or meatspace: good. I hope they do. Your cultures, as they stand, are opposed to equality and to inclusiveness and, crucially, are not based on love for what you do. They’re toxic, jealous and far more more cliquish than any adolescent gang I ever encountered in high school. The people in the cultures I’ve long identified with – the movie and music obsessives, lifelong gamers (33 years and counting), fantasy and comic fans, the lovers of all things science-fiction (and science fact) – know very well that the more, the merrier.

This picture better illustrates both my point and that of the linked article. Maybe I should've just posted it with the caption

This picture better illustrates both my point and that of the linked article. Maybe I should’ve just posted it with the caption “OMG THIS”

A Picture’s Literally Worth A Thousand Literal Words #1000words

Recently I asked my FB friends to send me a picture and promised them 1000 words. A friend hit me with this:

iCandyI said: okay, not normally the kind of picture you’ll find in my library, but – CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.

This is what ensued:

I, Chud

Chud looked in the mirror. It had finally arrived after 24 weeks and it fit like a glove. It looked better than Chud could ever have hoped; even the clearly photoshopped catalogue pictures hadn’t done justice to the chiselled abs, neatly carved biceps and overall “slab of beef” vibe his new body gave off in person. If Chud could’ve smiled, he would have had a manic grin from ear to ear. And after waiting so long, it was now time…to test it.
First things first, thought Chud, and took a step toward the mirror. Hmm, nicely balanced. Good takeoff and landing. Intuitive controls. Now, a step backward – nice. Easy to get the hang of. Time for something a little more challenging – a ninety-degree turn to the right, perhaps. Again, piece of cake. Chud had downloaded the user interface app at the time of purchase so as to familiarise himself with the controls; after 24 weeks studying them and using the practice modules, moving around for real already felt like second nature. He was ready for a challenge. He grabbed his runners.
As Chud pounded the pavement, intending to do at least a mile before stopping, he noticed something unusual. Not about himself, but about the other people on the street. They all seemed very interested in him, some to the point of staring. As he progressed on his run, he took more notice of the people he passed and of the people who passed him – the staring not only continued unabated but he now noticed something else behind it. At first he thought people were admiring the contours and angles of his body, as he’d initially hoped, but the way people were looking at him – intensely, a bit sideways, a little too wide-eyed to be the simple ogling of his dreams, glancing away when he attempted to meet their gaze – gave him pause. It was like they were wary, even afraid. Chud wondered what they could be afraid of, what they could possibly fear from him. He stopped running. The young couple who’d been walking towards him from the other end of the street also stopped. They froze briefly, as if deciding what to do, then turned at right angles and started to cross the street. They didn’t see the truck.
Chud saw it in all its dusty, engrimed glory and motioned towards them, intending to shout a warning, but even if he’d managed to do so he wouldn’t have been heard over the truck’s blaring horn and screeching tyres. Chud sprinted across the street, well aware of the damage he might suffer, and aimed for the couple. As he shoved them out of the path of the truck with his outstretched arm he felt a glancing blow on his opposite shoulder. His phone, still in his hand from when he was taking selfies of his new body, tumbled from his grasp and hit the pavement. It shut down. So did Chud.
Chud awoke, suddenly. Someone wearing a surgical mask was staring into his face. In his peripheral vision Chud could see his body, lying on a bed. His body had a badly bruised shoulder and other abrasions down one side. The bed itself was strange. No sheets. Just stark, cold, polished metal with what looked like a drainage hole at one end. That’s not actually a bed, is it, thought Chud. This is a morgue! They think I’m dead! This guy’s not a doctor – he’s going to cut my new rig up! Chud realised he had to get the attention of the coroner. He started to make every noise he could think of – singing, whistling, even making desperate beeping noises. The coroner glanced over at Chud with a slightly annoyed expression on his face. Chud kept making noises. The coroner semi-stomped over to Chud, picked him up from the tray, put a finger on his face and said “How do I make you shut up?”
“Oh, thank Christ you can hear me,” Chud sighed with great relief.
“Jesus, have I answered a call here? Hey, whoever you are, you’re on speaker. Speak up!”
“No, I’m here,” said Chud. “You’ve picked me up!”
“I know I picked up,” said the coroner, “I’m talking to you! Who is this?”
“No, I mean literally. You have literally picked me up.”
“You’re not making any sense here…”
“I’m not on the other end of the phone,” explained Chud, “I am the sodding phone!”
“Pull the other one. I don’t have time for this –“ at this point, Chud set off his camera flash. “Woah! Did I do that?” asked the coroner.
“No, that was me. That was – again, quite literally – ME.”
“How can you be a phone? Is this some hidden camera shit? Am I being pranked? Simon? SIMON! Are you screwing with me?” the coroner was shouting towards the door.
“No prank, doc. Seriously now, I need to know if my body will be okay.”
“Look, whoever you are and wherever you are, your – that – body is pretty much kaput. Didn’t even have a pulse when it got wheeled in here an hour ago. It’s missing a head, you know.”
“Eh?” Chud was indignant. “I’m it’s head, thanks very much!”
“Now you’re truly yanking it. I’m no spring chicken anymore but I’m not some demento. Even these new vat-grown bodies need heads.”
“Yeah, me. I. Am. Its. Head.” If there was a way to speak in bold type, Chud got pretty close.
“The hell? How does that even work?”
“There’s an app for that.”
Chud activated the user interface and booted up his body. After a quick diagnostic and a damage report, the brand-new, still-under-warranty iCandy 9000 sat up then stood shakily on its feet. “There,” Chud said, “good to go.”
“You need a doctor.”
“Nope. I need a Genius Bar.”
The coroner watched as the headless yet perfectly sculpted body made its way gingerly toward the door, one arm extended and holding its smartphone.
Chud was going to be alright.