I, for one, welcome our midichlorian overlords


STAR WARS is really just a treatise on microbial evolution and the concept of the selfish gene. See below for more details.






So here’s the idea. The concept of midichlorians was introduced in the prequels. They are “a microscopic lifeform that reside within all living cells and communicate with the Force”. So essentially mitochondria, but powered by the Force. Han Solo has a great quote in episode IV,

Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen *anything* to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls *my* destiny. – Han Solo

But with midichlorians you now have a genetically discrete entity that is the sole communication with the powerful Force. The midichlorians want, in an evolutionary sense, to preserve and continue their lineage- they are ‘selfish’. So it stands to reason that they would have a say in what was going on with their hosts. A ‘host’ is simply a very large (relatively speaking) machine to enact the plans of the midichlorians. Of course. A kind of large biosuit for battle. So it’s amusing to think of them controlling all the battles like they’re playing video games.

Incidentally, this is not my first Star Wars inspired comic. That would be here.

Inktober 2015

Here, in one big glob, are all my contributions for inktober 2015. Inktober is an activity where you try to draw and post an ink drawing per day. Sounded fun and so I swallowed my drawing-oriented imposter syndrome and started in.

I think it’s fun since it’s much more undirected and sketch-like than what I normally do for RedPen/BlackPen (though sometimes RPBP is that sketchy too).

Day 1: Sad squid- he has a different idea of what inktober might be about


Day 2: Power chords


Day 3. Shadows of my hand holding a red pen







Day 4. Night of the PARSER!



Day 5. My attempt at drawing a plastic bag on my desk. Turns out that it’s really *hard*


Day 6. My homage to the Little Prince. Maybe he’s not so alone out there after all.

Day 7. Frickin’ laser beams. A 5 minute sketch with no real purpose.






Day 8. A throwback Thursday: drawings I did 30 years ago. Not entirely certain my artistic skills have improved all that much since then ūüôā

Day 9. The Busy-o-Meter

Day 10. Eastern Washington farm fields with weather. 2015_10_10_FarmFields

Day 11. Red/black spiral


Day 13. Inspiration!


Day 14. The new NIH biosketch format (geeky academic joke)



Day 15. Academic Halloween Costumes!


Day 19. Happy penguin!


Day 20. Silhouette of hills at sunset.


Day 21. SCIENCE!


Day 22. A tomato.


Day 23. Academic caution sign #12015_10_25_AcademicRejectionStation

Day 26. More Science Caution Signs from RedPen/BlackPen
ScienceCautionSignsScanDay 28. Finally one more Science Caution Sign, an update. I’m planning more by the way.


Day 30. Finishing up #inktober with a move to #Movember at the request of MovemberUK






I really am not in a dark mood today at all. The sun is shining, spring is springing, the world looks beautiful. I was just thinking about the way that we imagine the future now and the way we have imagined the future in the past. What sparked this was driving by this local sign and thinking about when it was probably put there.

The future, it is NOW.

The future, it is NOW.

Gentlemen: A Simple Guide To Attire

If there’s a question about whether or not to wear that shirt in the back of your closet please follow this simple guide. Please note: especially applicable if you’re going to be in front of millions or billions of people (though this really should not make a difference).

Really, it's pretty much that simple.

Really, it’s pretty much that simple.

The World Is Magical

Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

An excellent quote to be sure, but wrong. And here’s the reason: There is no meaningful difference between¬†magic and science. Stick with me for a minute.

Magic, to be useful, must operate under some rules. We may not know them (as people in the real world or as readers of fiction) but without rules magic simply wouldn’t be very interesting or useful. Gandalf figured out or was taught how to do things. Harry Potter had to go to school to learn the arts of magic. If the magic envisioned in these fictional accounts didn’t adhere to rules it would be pretty useless, right? You can imagine that there may be influences¬†from outside the magician or spell-caster (for example some source of magic that they have to return to, or something similar). And there could be stochastic influences that might render spells useless once in a while. These also are rules and principles. So magic, to be useful, must follow rules.

If you accept that magic has to follow rules (not necessarily the rules of science as currently understood, mind you) then these rules have a basis- a fundamental, underlying structure that allows them to function. And allows witches, warlocks, magicians, and whoever to access them and make use of them. If there is an underlying fundamental structure then humans, using reasonable and careful approaches, should be able to figure out these principles.

How would they do this? Well they would first make a guess about how the magic should function (a hypothesis)- that saying “exploso lignum” and moving your wand in a circle should make wood explode- then test that hypothesis- cast that spell- then evaluate the results. Did the results support the hypothesis?

So magic, as an operating principle of this or a fictional world, can be figured out by a method that is, in fact, the scientific method. Therefore, once you can apply the scientific method, the object of your study is just science. Of course, if your hypothesis isn’t supported (for example, that subjects can correctly identify¬†symbols on cards that are held by another person and not shown to them) then it isn’t magic, and it isn’t science. It isn’t anything.

Science is just a way of figuring out how the world functions. And if one of the organizing structures of a world is magic, then science would be able to figure it out. So any magic we can imagine must be just science (once the rules governing it have been figured out). Note that invoking a divine power doesn’t get around this- the divine power still has to obey rules, even if they can change those rules (how do they decide to change a rule? we should be able to figure that out).


Gandalf, the scientist.


Gravity Alternate Ending

This joke’s a SPOILER¬†(at least in part) for the movie Gravity. I liked the movie a lot, thought it was an exciting drama/survival adventure. My wife wasn’t sold:

Her: “It’s too much like that movie with Tom Hanks”

Me: “Oh sure, Apollo 13”

Her: “No‚Ķ the one with the volleyball”

Me: “Oh.”

She’s right, of course. It shares something in common with Castaway.

Anyway- here’s my idea for an alternate ending. You know, to sci-fi-it up a bit…



I’m a loser- now give me my trophy

A friend on Facebook posted a link to this blog post– a rant against the idea of giving trophies, or, well, anything really, to “losers”.

The post describes results from a poll of Americans that were asked the question:

Do you think all kids who play sports should receive a trophy for their participation, or should only the winning players be awarded trophies?

and it describes some differences in the answers by groups- with the author making very acerbic points about how¬†kids are harmed when we given them rewards even when they’re not the winners. And this discussion gets sucked in to the liberal versus conservative/capitalist versus socialist schism- that liberals aim to reward everyone despite what they accomplish or do and that conservatives would only reward those that actually achieve, the ‘winners’ (read the report on the poll this is based on). Full disclosure- I’m pretty much a liberal, though I don’t think that word means what you think it means. The post frames this as a “discussion about privilege”- but I’m not really sure that’s where it’s coming from at all.¬†The feeling of entitlement (that is to say, privilege) is indeed a problem in our society. The thrust of this post though I don’t agree with at all- that giving out trophies to kids is a significant problem, or even a symptom of the greater problem. Here’s my answering rant.

So at the most basic, rewarding kids who do not perform well with something (a trophy or a trip to the pizza place) is probably not a good idea. However, the post (and the other chatter that I’ve heard in a similar vein) is generally about this: giving trophies to losers. That is, kids that don’t win. At sports.

I was a coach for a YMCA summer soccer team. The kids were 3 and 4- and one was my son. Let me tell you from first hand experience- NO ONE WINS AT 3-4 YEAR OLD SOCCER GAMES. No one. It looks at bit like a flock of starlings that has suddenly become obsessed with a dragonfly. Often times it does not obey the boundaries of the field or heed the blow of the whistle- multiple times, louder and louder. We had clover gazing, random sit downs, running the ball the wrong direction, and seeming blindness at critical moments¬†on our team during the games. But it was a lot of fun and the kids were learning something about how to work as a team and how to play a game. Toward the end of the season we were planning our end-of-the-season pizza party (the same type that is decried in the aforementioned post) and sent out an email to the parents about buying trophies for the kids. Most parents were on board but one objected, “I don’t want my kid rewarded for nothing” (the parent caved to pressure and did buy a trophy for their kid after all though). Were the trophies necessary? Probably not. Were they welcomed by the parents? Well, really, who wants an(other) ugly wood and plastic monstrosity sitting around their kid’s room? Did the kids love them? Yes. Yes they did. Were we rewarding losers? I have absolutely no idea who ‘won’ in a traditional sense. But all the kids did well in different ways.

Yes, 3-4 yo ‘sports’ are VERY different than sports for older kids, but that’s not my point. The larger picture here is that there’s an idea that winning and losing is ‘real life’ (conservative) and rewarding losers is being all soft and smooshy and in denial about the harsh reality of the world (liberal). This is a myth- or at the very least a misunderstanding about what life is. The concept of winning and losing pretty much just pertains to games- and games, though they may teach important concepts, do not reflect the reality of life. A football game can be won. A team emerges victorious and another not so much. However, not many other things in life an be described that way. Who wins in school? Are there a limited number of ‘winners’ – valedictorians, for example? And everyone else in the graduating class- those who are not the winner, they’re losers? Well, not really. In your job do you have winners and losers? Maybe you have people who do better in their job and people who do worse- but there’s a continuum between these two ends- no one group of winners and one group of losers. And everyone gets paid. I guess in war (what sports and some other games are modeled upon) there are winners and losers- one side is triumphant, the other defeated. But I think we can all see that it’s rarely as clear as all that. Winners have battle scars and losers regroup.

So why not give kids trophies or ribbons or pizza parties when they’ve accomplished something. Hey- my team of 3 and 4 year old soccer players made it through the season. That is SOMETHING. And it was worth rewarding. And the encouragement they got from their pizza and their trophy might get them coming back to try soccer again- or not. But it won’t make them think – “oh gosh, all I did was sit on my rear and I got something for it”.

So the heart of my problem with this whole issue is that I feel that people who think trophies shouldn’t be given to “losers” (as represented by the post) are missing the point. Big time. Life is not about who you beat in small contests that are, really, inconsequential to the rest of the world. That’s not how life works. The real contests in life are those that you win against yourself, and if you set your self worth by how you beat others in contests then you are losing in life. There will always be someone better than you- someone who you didn’t beat- someone who makes you a “loser”. Rewarding kids for recognizing that the larger struggle in life is not against other people, but in how you perform yourself, is an extremely important thing to teach them. (and if you think this is all smooshy talk, think about this: it’s pretty tough to beat someone else in any kind of contest if you don’t have yourself under control first)

So don’t give kids trophies if they didn’t do anything or if they had a bad attitude. But do reward them for winning over themselves: for doing, for accomplishing, for improving, for striving, for learning- you know, all those things that losers do.


P.S. I’ve also got a question about the poll itself. I’m no pollster (proudly)¬†and not¬†even a very accomplished statistician. But the poll was of 1000 Americans giving a reported margin of error of +/- 3.7%. I’m highly suspicious of this being a representative sample of the >300 million Americans, but this seems like pretty standard polling practice. My problem with the poll comes from the fact that most of the conclusions drawn are about subpopulations- so democrats are divided between positive and negative answers at 48% and republicans are mostly opposed to the idea of giving all kids trophies at 66%. I’m pretty sure that means that the margin of error is no longer +/- 3.7%. From the poll results it looks like there are about 40% of the respondents identified with either group (so 40% democrats, 40% republicans). Doing a little math in my head that means that there are, ummm, about 400 respondents represented in each group. That would make the margin of error about +/- 7%, which makes the difference between 66% and 48% pretty much non-significant (since 66%-7%=59% and 48%+7%=55%, different, but not all that different). Now I’m probably committing some sin of hucksterism pollsterism, but I note that all the other divisions they talk about in the report divide up into smaller groups (and thus larger margins of error). Please point out where I’m going wrong here.


Unicorn lovers and pinksters unite!

Last year GoldieBlox released a few ads that I thought were great. You’re probably familiar with them (see below) but they are advertising a building kit targeted especially at girls. These kinds of products are great and much needed. The idea is to counter the years and years of placing girls in pink marketing boxes with a limited number of career-directed options (NO pink CEOs, pink scientists, pink explorers, pink astronauts). Girls WILL like pink and sparkly things. They WILL like princesses, unicorns, and small sad-eyed puppy dogslego-woman-scientist. As many will know this remains a problem- there’s lots of marketing that is still directed that way. However, there has been a recent surge in non-traditional products directed at girls: LEGO women scientists figures, building kits for girls,¬†These are simply great options and great advances and by all means they should continue to be developed, expanded, and marketed.

But back to the ad and my main point. When we push for something, we seem to have to push against something else- we draw lines to discriminate “us” from “them”. For girl power we should be pushing back against the oppressive, ingrained, male-dominated power structure that has been in place in our society for years. However, too often it seems that we push against the wrong things: those girls who love pink, who like unicorns, who wish they were princesses. You can argue about whether this is a good thing or not, but the fact is that these are girls too. This anti-pink message is too often conveyed in marketing and people’s general reactive attitudes against the traditional, including mine- in the context of saying something good: We should empower girls to achieve and not be held back– along with something not so good: not like those other girls who won’t achieve. What this kind of reactive attitude¬†is saying¬†is this:

Because you like pink you can not be an engineer. You can not be a scientist. You can not be an astronaut. Girls who like unicorns do not do that. They are less than girls that don’t like these things.

Make no mistake- I like these ads, I think they’re funny and they make me laugh. But that doesn’t change that they do so at the expense of a group of people who have nothing but potential to be squashed. These GoldieBlox ads aren’t terrible in this way- the ‘pink unicorns’ are things (toys and some cartoon on the TV), not a set of girls, but it remains that the implication is that liking pink is bad and won’t take you anywhere. Clearly liking a particular color shouldn’t have an ounce of an effect on what you will do later in life- or even what you can do now. This was pointed out to me after I posted the ad to my Facebook page, by a good friend who has girls who do like princesses. And it is an excellent point.

So, in a way, this is a limited¬†example. But it highlights a much larger problem with human nature. Humans LOVE to draw lines. Them and us, us¬†versus them. When lines are drawn around another group of people based on some set of¬†attributes (favorite color, gender, skin color, type of pants worn) then all those inside the group suddenly acquire- in your perception- a set of other attributes from that group, whether or not these are accurate and whether or not the individual you’re talking about has said attributes. We *know* things about “those sorts of people”. This is one of the very natural tendencies that we all have, we all indulge in, and we all must do our best to fight against.

Here’s the GoldieBlox ad:

Here is another ad that I think is particularly well done. It highlights how perceptions and language are important- but also demonstrates a point about the tendency of humans to group:

If you have kids try this on them. Ask them to throw ‘like a girl’ and see what they do.

We should F-ing LOVE science

There’s been a recent backlash against a certain kind of science appreciation recently. This sentiment is typified by this (actually pretty funny) comic¬†(see below) and this¬†blog post that’s against the very popular “I F***ing Love Science” website/FB page (and other similar science-themed memes and sites). Consider this as my back-back-lash against that sentiment.

Something has bugged me about this sentiment for awhile and I just put my finger on it. It’s elitism. Them against us. We should want people, LOTS of people, to love science in this way. This superficial, just loving the fun dazzling parts, not down-in-the-real-nuts-and-bolts-of-what’s-happening way. As scientists we REALLY should want people to love science in pretty much any old way they’d like to. Sure, there are real and true and troubling issues with¬†image/content attribution (I’m not talking about that here). Sure, this kind of lovin’ glosses over complicated issues and may hide the actual facts of the matter pretty deep. Sure, there’s misinformation- sometimes harmful- in some of these sound-bite science bits (see my post on the importance of not being a transmitter of misinformation). Sure, we’ve been to school for a gobzillion years and so only WE are¬†the ones that can REALLY appreciate the nuances and subtleties and implications of what’s actually being done. But really‚Ķ is the love of science exclusive to those of us in the inner circle?

Imagine you’re talking to a kid who is really excited by space exploration. Do you immediately jump on the, “it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to reach another star or planets outside our solar system”, “faster-than-light travel really might be impossible”, “statistically speaking you will never travel into space”? Do you tell them that they can’t love space exploration, because they really don’t know how it works or the details of how we currently do things? Or do you foster that sense of wonder and the curiosity to explore and discover? If they are serious they will pursue knowledge and experience, and will find out those things by themselves – or will surprise everyone by skipping the part about things being ‘impossible’.

Here’s another way to think about it. I love movies. I don’t want to make movies (well, OK, I do a little), I don’t understand the mechanics of making a movie, I don’t want to think about the day-to-day drudgery of actually being an actor/actress, famous or not (have you thought about it? It sounds positively dreadful and boring), I don’t know the economics of how studios get movies made and the distribution systems. I love movies. I appreciate the whiz-bang parts of movies. I like to be awed by movies and to sit in a dark theater and be transported by my imagination. And here’s a key point: I will pay my good, hard-earned, money to exercise my right to love movies.¬†

Just substitute architecture, automotive design, music, wine making, etc. for “movies”. Does my lack of knowledge and first-hand experience about any of those areas make me love them (or really, their products) any less? No, of course not. Does it mean that I love them differently than my counterparts who may have a lifetime (possibly pathological) relationship with them? Of course. As it should be.

And those two points are where we, as scientists MUST do better. One, we need to foster the wonder of science, not just in kids but in everyone. It’s OK if sometimes the details are wrong, or the implications are mistaken, or the deep understanding that comes with years of study. And two, we need people, lots of different kinds of people, lots of rich people, to LOVE science and to appreciate science and to have their imaginations captured by science. Because otherwise they won’t see the value in science. And they won’t PAY for science. So we should encourage people to f***ing LOVE science in whatever ways they want.

Comic from (the wonderful) Cyanide and Happiness: