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Is a good science talk really a bad science talk?

Engagement, suspense, and dramatic denouement; I wish someone had told me the importance of these at the beginning of my career, instead of leaving me to discover it half way through

The Grumpy Geophysicist

One of the mantras drilled into the heads of graduate students as they prepare their oral meeting presentations is “tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.”  The point being to make sure that the audience knows what you think is important.  And at a meeting, this can be pretty significant as folks wander in and out of a room or are distracted.  That first part tells them what they should really look for (and it helps to remind the student what they are emphasizing), the last is to reaffirm that the desired goal was in fact met.

But this is probably a lousy format for a colloquium talk and even lousier for a public talk.  Think of the storytellers out there and how their stories go.  Does Hans Christian Anderson tell you what happens to the Little Mermaid…

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I just informed on myself to The Professor Watchlist. My US teaching colleagues, consider doing likewise

trumpI just took action with the American Association of University Professors and if you are a  Professor at a US University I think you should too. Read the rest of this entry

FBI’s Comey admits there never was any new evidence against Hillary

fbiletterSo there never was any new evidence against Hillary (nor old evidence worth discussing either); and meantime hundreds of thousands have voted.

Meantime, we STILL haven’t seen Trump’s tax returns

Trump campaign using false flag “Hillary” ads, tweets to suppress, mislead, demotivate

This is new. We know about simple intimidation, lying about voter eligibility, and Republican State administrations making it physically difficult for people in Democratic-leaning areas to cast their vote.

What is new is the production of false flag “Hillary” material, lying in order to put people off voting, or to make them imagine that they have voted when they haven’t. There is the scandal of the “Vote by text” ads; of course you can do no such thing, and if you do what the ad says you will end up not voting at all. Even more contemptible are the ads, hashtag #StopThePot, targeted at marijuana supporters, that pretend to be approved by Hillary, and in memorable soundbites completely mis-state her position.

How anyone with any decency can continue to support a campaign that uses such tactics is beyond me.

The “Vote by text” scam:

The fake ad scam:

Natural selection in our species during the last two millennia

Evolution science in action

Why Evolution Is True

A question I’m always asked in popular lectures on evolution is this: “Are humans still evolving?” The answer I give is “Yes, but we have good evidence for such evolution in only a handful of traits: evolution of earlier reproductive maturity in females, later menopause, and selection for reduced blood pressure and a few other traits related to heart disease.” That is based on longitudinal studies of human health over decades, observing changes in these traits and presumed estimates of the genetic basis of their variation.

Now, however, we can, by DNA sequencing, look at DNA directly, and with some fancy statistical footwork, get an idea of which genes have changed in frequency so fast that they must have been due to positive natural selection. That’s the subject of a new paper in Science by Yair Field et al. (reference and free download below).  The authors conclude that several…

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Trump boasts of genetic superiority, German blood

I have great genes and all that stuff, which I’m a believer in

All men are created equal – that’s not true. When you connect two race horses, you usually end up with a fast horse. Secretariat doesn’t produce slow horses. I have a certain gene. I’m a gene believer. Do you believe in the gene thing? I mean I do. I have great genes and all that stuff, which I’m a believer in.

I have like a very very high aptitude

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US absentee election registration made easy: tell US expat friends

trumpI don’t think this man wants you or your friends to see this: absentee voting in US election is easy now, even for expats. My own absentee ballot just arrived by email. I can return it on line as well. I needed social security number, and address of last US voter registration: details at

Spread the word

[Problem now solved?] For truth’s sake, pro or anti Corbyn, please complain to the BBC

CorbynUpdate, 11 p.m.: good news. The running headline now says “High Court rules Jeremy Corbyn has right to remain in Labour leadership contest without nominations from MPs.” This is accurate. Thanks to all who complained. It may have made a difference – we will never know.

Pro- or anti-Corbyn, or just interested in truth, please complain to the BBC. The running News Channel headline at 6 pm reads “Jeremy Corbyn welcomes stay High Court decision to throw out the bid to overturn his automatic inclusion in the Party’s leadership ballot DESPITE LACKING THE REQUIRED SUPPORT OF HIS MPs.” (emphasis added). The whole point is that under the rules, such support is not required, and this is spelt OwenSmithout in the court judgement itself, fairly reported on the BBC News website. I cannot believe that the BBC political staff are unaware of this. It is easy to complain on line; link here.

The challenger, Owen Smith, welcomed the Court’s decision.

7 p.m: not only do we still have this running headline (it persisted throughout the evening, but Laura Kuenssberg has just told us that the High Court had made its decision on the basis of the ruling of Labour’s National Executive Committee, whereas the website report makes it clear that he decided on the basis of the unambiguous meaning of the rules.

What do I think of Corbyn myself? I feel very strongly both ways. I admire his principles, ability to energise the base, and the bulk of his policies which his challenger is now scrambling to adopt. On the other hand, I would prefer the Party to be led by someone less ready to accept Brexit as a done deal, and was surprised at Corbyn’s decision to continue in post despite losing the confidence of so many of his own MPs. I have been utterly disgusted at the factual distortions coming, mainly, from the Blairite wing of the parliamentary party, whose rabid opposition to Corbyn from the outset was a disgrace. The outcome of the contest is bound to leave many disappointed, but I continue to hope that it will be generally accepted, so that Labour can get on with its job. And that is something that matters to all of us.

Corbyn image from The Spectator. Owen Smith image from BBC website

The REAL problem with Melania Trump’s speech


First, the fun stuff. Direct comparison of what she said,and what Michelle Obama had said eight years earlier, according to the BBC, which provides both text and overlapping videorecordings:

Trump: My parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise; that you treat people with respect.

Obama: And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.

Trump: And we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow, because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.

Obama: and pass them on to the next generations. Because we want our children, and all children in this nation, to know that the only limit to the height of your achievement is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.

Let’s notice the words that got dropped: that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them. … Because we want our children, and all children in this nation …

Is there a message here?

Meanwhile, the BBC tells us, “Mr Trump himself described her speech as ‘absolutely incredible’.” I concur.

But that’s not the real problem.

Nor does the problem here lie in the huge gap, in both speeches, between the promise of unlimited opportunity and the brutal realities of economic and social inequality.

The real problem is that when the people of the world’s most  powerful nation are preparing to elect its most powerful executive,  we have speeches like this in the first place. It may well be that Michelle Obama wrote her own speech; surely no one over the age of 10 imagines that Melania Trump wrote hers. Nor does either speech address, even tangentially, the massive responsibilities that fall upon a US President. And yet, as far as the delegates in Cleveland were concerned, and millions of supportive viewers, the speech was a triumph. For a time, at least. It was helped them believe in a kinder, gentler Donald Trump, simultaneously Strong enough to Protect Us, but humane enough to want to offer limitless opportunities to America’s children.

And we tolerate such speeches, and seriously debate their merits, even though we know that (in Melania Trump’s case, at least) they were concocted by a cabal of policy strategists and admen simply in order to produce a particular kind of emotional response.

The real problem, in other words, is the divorce of politics from reality.

Epictetus on suicide: the open door policy

Let me commend Massimo Pigliucci’s “How to be a stoic” series, from which this is reblogged, to all of my friends who choose to ponder what it is to live well. One excerpt will give the flavour: “I love the image of life as a festival, to be enjoyed, but also from which one eventually has to take leave, either when the party comes to a natural end, or when the circumstances are such that the occasion is no longer worth one’s time and effort.”

How to Be a Stoic

Epictetus“And what does it matter to you by what way you descend to Hades? All roads are equal. But, if you want to hear the truth, the one that a tyrant sends you along is shorter. No tyrant ever took six months to cut someone’s throat, but a fatal fever often lasts a year.”

So says Epictetus in Discourses II.6.17-19, while discussing the kind of death that one does not choose, but is imposed by external events. (The reference to Hades is a concession to then popular culture of the time, since the Stoics did not believe in an afterlife.) Because death is a (dispreferred) “indifferent,” Epictetus is arguing that it doesn’t matter, really, deeply, how one dies. What makes us fearful of the event is the (inaccurate) judgment that it is a bad thing that one’s consciousness cease existing.

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