My professors were an amusing bunch

A collection of excellent or humorous things my professors have said this semester:

General chemistry: To illustrate chemical concepts, my professor liked to give examples about both prescription and recreational drugs. This would have been amusing all on its own, but her deadpan humor and the fact that she is short and middle-aged just added an extra layer of unexpected excellence.
In one example, she used heroin as an example of… I don’t remember precisely, but it had something to do with enthalpy.
At any rate, she said this: “It’s a real problem, drug dealers putting [some dangerous substance] in heroin, here in New York. I’ve given it up completely.”

Neuroscience: We had a rotating cast of professors for this class; one would come in, do a series of lectures on a subject, and then hand off the stick to someone else. The first lecturer was all right. He insisted on drawing his lectures, despite his inability to operate a pen in a manner such that the result was elucidating and comprehensible, and was a bit of a wise guy. However, in our discussion of the importance of correct potassium and sodium concentrations in, y’know, having neurons work right, he mentioned how potassium chloride, which dissociates to form potassium ions in solution, could severely upset the chemical equilibria and cause convulsions. What was excellent, though, was that he followed it up with: “This is what we use to kill each other.” Referring to lethal injections, of course. (Professors who realize that science is not divorced from ethics and actually expound on it to a degree are some of my favorites.)

Another one from neuro: Later in the semester, we had a lecture on neurological disorders, namely schizophrenia and depression. Before delving into it, our professor prefaced his lecture with a statement on how you should never bully, harass, or laugh at people with debilitating mental diseases, for the same reason you wouldn’t laugh at someone who was born without legs. It’s not their fault and you should be kind, not cruel. With the stigma that does surround mental illness in our culture, I thought this was a wonderful preface.

Genetics: The semester’s lectures were concluded with a lecture on the genetic basis of behavior, and whether or not behavior can be predicted as arising from purely genetic phenomena. Our professor made some asides during this, all of them poignant. The first was that, though there is genetic variation across human populations, 85 to 90% of it is non-geographically distributed. Which is to say, more or less, that the overwhelming majority of genetic variance in humans is unrelated to race or ethnicity. Additionally, in studies between identical twins, only about 0.5 of behavioral variation is heritable.

Toward the end of the lecture, during which he had discussed the genetic basis of behavior and various quantitative ways it has been examined, he took a moment to mention how it is dangerous to assume that behavior can be easily described by genetics (for those of you who have taken high school biology – it is not remotely Mendelian). As an example, he brought up eugenics in the early 20th century, and how the idea that genetics predicts behavior was used to justify horrific acts, such as the forced sterilization of the mentally disabled or other “societally unwanted” people.

The kicker was this: When we discussed how the reason for the inability of genetics to predict behavior was that there were simply too many interacting genes, the professor made an aside to say that he was glad that there were many genes that affected behavior, because it’ll be much harder to use them to underscore arguments about who should be putting whom in jail.

 

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Godzilla: A tragic love story between two moth-birds

I went to see the new Godzilla movie last night with two people from my science-fiction and fantasy writing club. I didn’t go in with particularly spectacular hopes; I am not a Godzilla aficionado, and so not only was I not familiar with the genre, but I think I missed some references that might have made it more interesting. Even if I had been a monster movie fan, though, I think I would have been underwhelmed. This isn’t to say that there weren’t some truly excellent parts of the movie – it’s just that all of the excellence was mostly unintentional.

[spoilers ahead. Like, the entire movie.]

Recap:

The movie gets off to a good start. Walter White, a nuclear engineer, and his wife, a nuclear technician of some sort, go into work at a power plant in Japan, neglecting their son. There, they discover weird wave patterns on seismic readouts (that apparently don’t have time as an x-axis variable, which threw me off.) Walt’s wife goes to do something near the reactor core in a Hazmat suit. Then there is an earthquake, lots of red lights flash, and Walt’s excellent wife with an interesting and specialized job, who does something super heroic, is promptly fridged. It is disappointing, because she actually seemed like an interesting character.

Walt is very sad and does a lot of running. Meanwhile, his son is poorly evacuated from the nearby school, and watches the reactor towers collapse.

We skip ahead fifteen years, where Walt’s son is now a Marine (I think?) and is coming home after deployment. He hugs his wife and kids, and it’s pretty boring. Then he gets a call from the Japanese consulate, who tells him that his father has been arrested for trespassing in a quarantine zone. With great reluctance (“Ugh, Dad, again?), Marine Boy flies out to Japan, though not before telling his wife that “everything will be fine” or something to that extent, which is like the laziest foreshadowing ever. (No, it won’t be fine).

In Japan, Marine Boy discovers that his father is an obsessive maniac and likes to tape newspaper to his wall. I know it’s a good visual technique to have obsessive people tape information about their obsessions onto walls, but I feel like most people would just use a binder. Marine Boy gets upset with Walt for trying to find out the truth about the massive explosion that killed the love of his life before his very eyes, because it’s time to get over it. (“Also… Dad, is this meth?” Wait, wrong show).

Except instead of giving up, Walt gives an impassioned speech, and drags Marine Boy into the quarantined zone again to get some floppy disks from his old house, which was cordoned off after the reactor tower fell. There, they discover some exciting secrets, such as the fact that the quarantined zone isn’t a death site of active radiation, and also that construction paper banners are capable of surviving unharmed by fifteen years exposed to the elements. Also floppy disks and photographs. What the hell is this stuff made of?

Walt and Marine Boy try to leave the Q-zone with their new-found, spuriously described evidence, but are unfortunately apprehended by Japanese officials of some kind. They are taken in a truck to the site of the reactor tower collapse, where Marine Boy is left in a car and Walt is interrogated in a store room, albeit one that for some reason has a one-way mirror. I guess they were limited on space? Walt proceeds to shout a lot about the Thing that is Hiding in the Reactor Core, and also something about echolocation. Maybe? The monster actually didn’t use echolocation at all, but was actually communicating, so I’m not sure why that word was in there. Whatever.

At this point, the camera pans to the center of the destroyed reactor core, where a strange, gigantic structure that looks like an orange, pulsing, fulgurite is protruding ominously from the ground. For some reason the Japanese government has been watching it, not killing it, because otherwise we wouldn’t have a movie. Also, maybe they’re all biologists.

[Aside: One of my sci-fi friends is also a biology major, and after the movie we discussed how it was very disappointing when everyone was trying to kill these amazing, physiologically impossible megafauna, because just imagine the amazing things you could learn by studying them!]

At this point there’s some plot exposition, I think. It might be later, but I can’t remember so it’s going here. Basically, Ken Watanbe explains how the monster was a parasite from a time when the earth was ten times more radioactive than it is now, and evolved to eat radiation. When the monster spore was unearthed in the Philippines in the prologue, it swam to Japan and burrowed under the reactor tower to pupate or something. It’s also revealed that the weird seismic readings from the reactor collapse was the creature calling. Also, they can shoot waves of electricity and fry most technology, which seems like a completely useless adaptation for a prehistoric creature that never fought anything that used circuitry before. Like, it doesn’t even shoot lightning. It literally just disrupts technology and causes planes to crash.

[Aside: Pretty sure the earth wasn’t significantly more radioactive in the time of reptilian megafauna. Also, why would an animal that evolved to absorb radioactive material as a food source require teeth, a beak, wings, or limbs? If the earth was significantly more radioactive, then radiation was everywhere, and it would never need to go seek it out – which is the entire purpose of having a skeletal muscular system, or a nervous system at all. Nor would the huge size be remotely necessary, because if it doesn’t need to hunt or move, size has no advantage. It requires massive energy to grow that large, with negative net payoff. It could easily be a sessile, sponge-like creature and be much more metabolically efficient.

Important questions, man. By which I mean I’m way overthinking this, but you have to have fun somehow, right?]

Anyway, at this point, once Walter White is done shouting to the other interesting character, the Japanese scientist guy, the monster obviously starts waking up. The military/scientists/whoever these people are try to contain it with a cage made of wires attached to cranes, which has to be the exact least structurally sound containment system I have ever seen. Obviously, the creature rips through it like tissue paper, and is revealed to be a bird-bat-lizard-moth. Seriously, though, this is possibly the most phylogenetically confusing monster I have ever seen. Is it a dinosaur? Is it a bat? Is it an arthropod? It looks like it might have an exoskeletal system, but there is no way an open circulatory could be efficient enough to power that thing. Granted, pretty sure a closed circulatory system wouldn’t work, either. There’s just too much gravity.

Right, the movie. Uh, yeah, so then the MUTO starts fucking shit up, Marine Boy shares a tense, emotional stare with the giant monster, and Walter White falls off of a balcony and dies.

Seriously. I thought he was the main character. He was certainly the most interesting. Instead, his boring son has to take up the Main Character mantle, and does a really poor job with it.

Anyway the rest of the movie is basically monsters fucking shit up. Godzilla and the MUTO destroy Honolulu and Marine Boy saves a kid from falling off of a train. Millions of civilian casualties. (Oh yeah, Godzilla showed up at some point. I guess it is his movie). Then it’s discovered that another one of the spores from the Philippines was taken to the Americas and vivisected. Except apparently it wasn’t vivisected very well, because they threw it in a nuclear waste dump and it came back to life. And also tunneled out the side of the nuclear waste dump, which no one noticed somehow.

That MUTO is a female, and is running to meet the male MUTO, who is flying over from Japan to meet his sweetheart. Godzilla is following because he is an alpha predator and wants to eat the tasty moth-bat things. Because all of these things are casually stepping on tons of buildings because they are like at least thirty stories high, the US military wants to stop them. To do this, they are going to lure them out to sea with a nuclear warhead, and then detonate it. Which should totally be fine, because it’s not as if these things feed on radiation or anything.

Marine Boy, because he worked in explosives in the military, is put in charge of getting this bomb out to sea. He takes it on a train from somewhere to somewhere else. The train is then smashed by the MUTO (I guess the male one?), with whom Marine Boy shares another intense look before he dives off of a bridge. We should call him the Monster Whisperer. The MUTO then picks up the warhead. Marine Boy is the only one who doesn’t die, though he is very muddy.

Meanwhile, Marine Boy’s wife ships her son out of the city with another lady. Her son is almost killed when Godzilla casually walks through the Golden Gate bridge, but due to the timely action of the very competent school bus driver, the kids are saved. Well, the ones in that bus. The other buses full of evacuating children, as well as all the marines on that bridge were probably either killed on impact, or drowned. Oops.

In my favorite scene of the movie, the MUTOs now meet in the center of Frisco, and the male MUTO gives the female MUTO the warhead as a mating gift. Then they nuzzle heads. Oh my god so cute. This is when I realized that though the MUTOs are like super scary, black and grey creatures with freaky, sparking eyes and like, beaks, they’re really just giant animals oblivious to all the humans they are stepping on, blinded by their own lust and desire for procreation. They just want to start a family, man. Wow.

At this point, Marine Boy leads another mission into Frisco to retrieve the warhead. (Are they even marines? I really have no idea). Godzilla shows up, and there is an EPIC. MONSTER. BATTLE. With EPIC. MONSTER. PUNCHES. ALSO LASERS.

Also, Marine Boy discovers that the warhead has been glued to the ceiling of a cave by monster egg sacs, filled with adorable, glowing monster babies. The marines move the warhead and then Marine Boy sets all of these biologically invaluable specimens on fire.

It was at this point I realized that the US military at this point as been trying to destroy the MUTOs only with a) bullets, which are tiny pellets of metal that they are firing at a 30-storied armored creature, and b) dirty weapons, which they feed on. Did no one think to try napalm? I feel like napalm might have worked.

Anyway, Marine Boy takes the nuke to a boat. Godzilla kills the male MUTO by like, punching him, I think? Something like that. I think he punches him. Anyway, Godzilla is crushed under a falling building, which incidentally contained Marine Boy’s wife, whose sole role in this movie was to put her son on a bus and then run away a lot while the men save the day. Cute. Also, somehow she survived? Still haven’t figured that out but I guess I’m just glad she wasn’t fridged.

Godzilla appears to be out, though not before he shares a super intense look with Marine Boy. (“I did this…for you.”) I immediately wished that this had been a movie about Marine Boy and Godzilla becoming friends. I would have watched that.

Then there’s some tense stuff as the lady MUTO realizes that Marine Boy just killed all her babies, and somehow immediately realized that this tiny, pink ape was the agent of intention, indicating that not only are these amazing megafauna, but they’re pretty damn sentient, too. Wow. The fact that this movie is all about trying to kill them is actually pretty awful.

Marine Boy is just about to be crushed by one of the MUTO’s weird front appendages, but is then saved by the timely return of Godzilla, who shoots her IN THE MOUTH with a THROAT LASER BEAM and kills her. And then collapses, having saved the day.

Marine Boy passes out on the boat with the nuke, which is counting down the time until it explodes, having failed in his sole duty of disarming the dirty bomb.

Then he’s saved by a helicopter because otherwise we’d have no one left to root for except Ken Watanabe, which… would actually be perfectly okay because his character was way more interesting than Walt Jr. Wait what

Anyway then there’s the epilogue where Marine Boy is reunited with his family in a refugee camp, and the television proclaims Godzilla to be “King of Monsters – Savior of Our City”, despite the fact that Godzilla chose to fight the MUTOs IN THE MIDDLE OF FRISCO, completely leveling all but the most resilient of buildings.

Then Godzilla wakes up to the sound of cheering, and wanders back into the ocean without even eating the moth-birds that he was purportedly hunting. A hundred biologists are immediately super disappointed that they don’t get to dissect him, but they console themselves that they at least get to keep two dead specimens of the other megafauna, which should drive paleontological/evolutionary biology for the next fifty years at least.

 

Conclusions:

Favorite moments:

1) MUTO mating ritual.

2) Godzilla and Marine Boy bonding.

3) Ken Watanabe sticking it to the US military by reminding them of other times they nuked things and how well that worked out. *cough*Hiroshima*cough*

Least favorite moments:

1) When all of the interesting characters died.

2) When all of the super boring characters got all the screen time.

3) How we never get access to that one scientist’s data from dissecting that one MUTO spore. Imagine the insight. How does their metabolism work?!

Most interesting moments:

1) Everything biologically improbable about this.

2) When the movie played on 1) our primal fears of giant predators with teeth, and 2) our modern fears of the fragility of our technology and our civilization in general.

3) When Godzilla fired his mouth-beam. Seriously, awesome.

Final rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Sacrilege is not a crime

A cultural studies club at Harvard intended to host a Satanic black mass, which is basically a parody of a Catholic mass. I can’t actually find a description of what one entails, but going off of what I can find from this terribly stylish site, it probably involves ironic Devil horns.

Naturally, because people do not understand Satanists and think they eat babies, a lot of people got upset about this. There was a remarkably well-signed petition (60,000 people!) and the president of Harvard made a condemning statement calling the black mass “abhorrent”, which seems a bit extreme. Remember how they’re not actually eating babies? It’s just a parody, guys. You don’t have to go to the thing. You can sit at home, read Aquinas, and completely ignore the harmless thing a bunch of atheists and culturally sensitive people are doing for funsies.

Additionally, a bunch of Catholics got up in arms about it, because it does mock their beliefs. However, instead of leaving it alone with a, “I respect your right to practice your beliefs as long as you don’t infringe on mine (which this doesn’t)”, there was an outpouring of hate mail to the organizers, and the outcry appears to have gotten the thing canceled.

What particularly interests me is that the article cites several people who describe the Satanic activities as “sacrilege”.

But some Catholics say the “black Mass” is more sacrilegious than satirical.”

“Some Catholic bloggers had expressed outrage at the initial plans to use a consecrated host, calling it “sacreligious to the highest extent. “”

“A Harvard Divinity School professor who is also a Catholic priest said none of cultural club’s other events include the “blaspheming of Catholic sacramental practice.””

As it turns out, sacrilege is not a crime. Neither is blasphemy. They are both protected under free speech, and also, let’s get this straight: I could care less about affronting God, because I do not believe it exists. It makes no sense to make the argument that “God is displeased” to atheists. More importantly, though, sacrilege is not a crime, and if you’re not Catholic, it’s not a real thing. 

The most important thing to remember here, I think, is that Catholics are not being persecuted. (This is actually a hilarious notion, if you consider their history). Religion has overwhelming privilege in America – we actually have a National Day of Prayer, for instance, which is ridiculous and pretty constitutionally questionable. You’re not going to lose your job for being a Christian, but you might for being an atheist. Also, the second that the religious people of America get upset about something, often they can easily shut it down, like they did with the black mass. Can you imagine what would happen if Satanists tried to get a nondenominational prayer service on a campus shut down because it went against their beliefs? Shots would be fired.

To me, what this looks like is the dominant religious culture trying to shut up and repress a minority areligious group. 

 

Granted, I think it’s true that as a private organization, Harvard does have the right not to host events it disagrees with. (This might wrong since it’s also a university, but I am not legalistically well-versed). However, the administration should really think about what kind of message that’s sending. “Religious freedom for all – except if you’re not religious, then you can go screw yourself.” Cute.

[Aside: From a mythological standpoint, Satan is actually pretty excellent. For the alleged Source of All Evil, he kills about six orders of magnitude fewer people than God in the Bible (Satan kills like, five, and God kills people by the millions, which doesn’t count the people he tells his followers to kill for him). Also, his main speaking role was to give humans the knowledge of morality and the critical thinking skills necessary to defy the terrifying sky-tyrant who wanted to keep them as thoughtless children in a menagerie. For the Prince of Darkness, Satan’s really pretty unimpressive, but as a Promethian figure, he’s much more inspiring.]

[Second aside: If you’re interested, you should go read the Church of Satan’s FAQs. They might be informative. At the very least, they might be amusing, since they seem to have been tag-team written by a movie villain and by someone whose only emotion is detached bemusement.]

 

Lastly, I took issue with some of the other quotes from the article:

“”Satanic worship “is contrary to charity and goodness, and it places participants dangerously close to destructive works of evil,” spokesman Terrence Donilon said.

Yes, because celebrating free thought and critical thinking is evil. Well, of course the church would say that. (Also, the Devil isn’t a real thing, and evil is not an entity).

“”Since there is no empirical way to show that one host is consecrated while another is not—consecrated hosts do not glow in the dark—there is also no way for anyone but the organizers to know whether a host used in a black mass has been consecrated or not,” Clooney said.”

This is kind of telling. Yes, the consecrated host looks no different than the unconsecrated one: exactly like a crappy beige wafer. Weird how that works.

You know, I’ve long expressed the opinion that mass would have been drastically improved by making the Communion wafer into one of those colorful sugar wafers with the cream filling. But did anyone take my suggestion? No-o, and look what happened. Now I’m an apostate. Way to go. Catholic church, you should get on that, if only to save your congregations from the heathens.

No, I still don’t like the new pope.

The super-friendly Francis is really big on… the Devil? He is evidently bringing exorcisms back into the vogue, which strikes me as  weird and wrong. Weird, because I thought we had figured out by now that evil isn’t some grand supernatural force, but rather something that exists inside us all in the form of actions which harm others. Wrong, because demons don’t exist, and in basically any scenario in which you would perform an exorcism on a person who appears possessed, you should be taking them to a hospital because they are probably suffering from mental illness. That, or they’re fine, and you’re an idiot. This article from the Washington Post has some very choice quotes. My favorite is this one:

During the conference, the Rev. Cesar Truqui, an exorcist based in Switzerland, recounted one experience he had aboard a Swissair flight. “Two lesbians,” he said, had sat behind him on the plane. Soon afterward, he said, he felt Satan’s presence. As he silently sought to repel the evil spirit through prayer, one of the women, he said, began growling demonically and threw chocolates at his head.

Asked how he knew the woman was possessed, he said that “once you hear a Satanic growl, you never forget it. It’s like smelling Margherita pizza for the first time. It’s something you never forget.””

Apparently the servants of Satan are a) about as memorable as pizza, and b) carry out the Dark Lord’s will to throw pieces of chocolate at reverends. And are also lesbians. (So evil.) So either Lucifer is super lame, or someone is harboring some delusions of grandeur.

As for why this isn’t just lunacy in a bubble, remember that spreading belief in demons and other patently wrong things can have direct effects on people’s health, as they trust charlatans with holy water for their healthcare instead of medical professionals. Additionally belief in demons simply propagates scientific illiteracy and factual inaccuracy – which I think is one of those things that we care about, right?