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Posted by Rebecca Watson

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Sorta transcript:

Since I started surfing a few years ago, I’ve become very interested in the lives of professional surfers. I follow them on social media so I can see awesome videos of them surfing waves, but unfortunately that means that I’m also often exposed to their personal opinions, which sucks because a lot of them are gigantic morons.

I don’t mean to single out surfers, here, because I’m sure all sports have their share of morons. But today I want to talk about Laird Hamilton, one of the best big-wave surfers in the world. And when I say “big wave” I mean “big fucking wave,” like this dude bombs down 50-foot waves like nobody’s business. It’s really impressive.

That might qualify him as a gigantic moron to some people, but for me he didn’t actually reach that status until this week, when he told TMZ that in regards to shark attacks, the “most common reason to be bitten is a woman with her period, which people don’t even think about that. If a woman has her period there’s blood in the water.”

As a woman, I’ve been blamed for lots of things, like earthquakes in Iran, rape epidemics, and the ultimate destruction of the atheist movement as we know it, but this is a new one. Let’s take a look at Laird’s factoid and see what may be wrong with it.

First of all, I was curious about the statistics. If menstruating women are the primary reason for most shark attacks, it stands to reason that they’d be bitten more often than men. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you’re a woman, I guess), of all the shark attacks we have on record spanning several centuries, nearly every one has had a male victim. Only about 6% have involved women. The number of women is growing, because sharks don’t actually think men taste better — it’s just that men are more likely to be in the water doing things that make them look like delicious seals and other things that are actually on sharks’ menus.

So only 6 out of 100 shark attacks involve women, and of those we have no data to tell us whether or not those women were menstruating at the time of the bite. But even if we assume that 100% of them were, there’s still absolutely no way that that could be, and I quote, “the most common reason to be bitten.”

All this got me wondering, though, are sharks more likely to attack a woman who is menstruating?

That’s a lie, actually. It’s something I wondered two years ago when I started surfing. I mean come on, I’m in San Francisco, where we have more Great Whites than Republicans. I’m not going in the water if there are a few days a year that make me tastier.

So I looked into it, and it turns out the answer is “probably not.” There haven’t been any double-blinded studies on this, which is pretty unfortunate and I for one would like to volunteer to hang out in a shark cage while on or off my period for the good of science. But there was a small study done in the late ‘60s that found sharks in the open ocean weren’t interested in menstrual blood (and in fact were only interested in human gut liquid, of all things). And there are loads of female divers and surfers who report being in the ocean around sharks on their period and experiencing no problems.

Women only menstruate an average of one to six tablespoons of blood over the entirety of their cycle, which means at max we’re talking about a tablespoon per day. Even if you’re in the ocean for six hours, that still only works out to less than a teaspoon of blood which, by the way, you’re probably still keeping inside your body with a menstrual cup or a tampon or a wetsuit. Sharks may be good at smelling blood, but if they’re close enough to smell less than a teaspoon of it contained inside your wetsuit, they’re close enough to already see and hear you splashing around.

To sum up, no, Laird Hamilton, menstruating women are not the primary cause of shark attacks, by any stretch of the imagination. Stick to big waves, and leave biology to the scientists.

We’re the Ones Who Wrote the End

May. 27th, 2017 04:04 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Athena’s high school graduation ceremony is today and this is the song running around in my head about it.

Big day, folks. Pictures later, perhaps.

10.5 Oxygen

May. 27th, 2017 12:44 pm
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Posted by Andrew Rilstone

Good Doctor Who stories are all very much alike. Each bad Doctor Who story is bad in its own way. 

I really don’t ask very much. I am aware that Doctor Who is a children’s TV show about a dotty old man and his little friends going to different planets and saving the world from space monsters. I am very happy to curl up with a cup of Earl Grey and a crumpet (with Marmite) and say “injecting micro clones into yourself to defeat a giant prawn, who would have thought it” or “Loch Ness monster swims up the Thames and threatens Big Ben, now there’s a thing.” Doctor Who has to work really, really hard to draw attention to its own stupidity before I stop believing in it. Very rarely have you heard me say “but that’s not what the word ‘galaxy’ even means, you bumbling old duffer.”

Spacemen and monsters, for a start. Spacemen that look a bit like Apollo spacesuits, which is what spacesuits are meant to look like. I guess there is a reason they have to be dome shaped, something to do with pressure, I shouldn’t wonder. I had a space helmet for my fourth or fifth birthday, a plastic one with a visor and a NASA sticker. I think the dome-shaped hats is probably the main reason space is exciting. A big space station, wheel shaped, that makes you think of the Blue Danube waltz and salt and vinegar crisps. There’s an aesthetic which says that space ships are all white and gleaming like a very posh kitchen owned by someone who doesn’t really like to cook; but there’s also a space aesthetic which is all bare wires and metal, like an oil rig, like the distilled essence of a machine. (The question, indeed, is about whether the doors should go shush-shush or budda-budda-budda.) And the idea of space-walking, or just being in space, with nothing between you and the stars, which is both incredibly fun and incredibly dangerous. Give us a ghoulish description of what actually happens to a person’s body in a vacuum, like watching film of surgery or seeing waxworks being tortured in the Madame Tussuad's. 

Obviously, monsters, which are frightening, but not too frightening, but not trying too hard to not be too frightening. If you can come up with something that hasn’t been done before, or not recently, that’s good too. Zombies are good. Spacemen versus zombies. Dead bodies of dead astronauts still walking around in their suits after they have suffocated trying to kill the living ones. Living space men space walking around the outside of the space station in space suits and being confronted by the space walking dead. Very good. 

The Doctor, of course: he’s what it’s really all about; and a grown up human lady to scream and get rescued (although this is the 21st century so she shouldn't scream and get rescued too much.) But she mustn’t have been with the Doctor too long. If she's hung around and got the hang of time and space and became the most impossible person in the universe and the Doctor’s girlfriend, that would stop being much fun. Better for her to be a bit wide eyed and surprised, partly because when she looks through the space ship window and says “wow this is a proper space ship” we can look through her eyes and be all wide-eyed and surprised as well, but mostly so we can shrug and say “oh, yes, the Doctor has shown us space ships before”, a bit like Piglet. But the Doctor being brilliant and the pretty lady being wide-eyed can get a bit much, so it’s even better if you can give the Doctor another friend, maybe say a bald alien man, who is a bit more cynical and on the Doctor’s wavelength and keeps telling everyone to go back to the TARDIS where it’s safe.

(Maybe the bald cynical alien man should be taken to one side and asked not to act quite so much? Maybe he could sometimes just read the line “Let’s go back to the TARDIS” without turning it into “Letttts… GO. Back tooooooooo ther TAR DIS”?) 

Now obviously we’re not kids any more so it’s probably not good enough to just have spacemen and zombies; there probably has to be some reason for it, and there probably has to be some ideas for us to think about. Some good Doctor Who stories took something ordinary and made it frightening (what if your mobile phone turned into a plastic daffodil?), but nowadays they mostly try to be a bit more subtle. Ever one of us checks his mobile phone to see how much battery he’s got left dozens of times a day, so what if that little battery marker was counting down not just your battery-life, but your actual life. Maye the spacemen have to pay for their own oxygen? Very good. How often have you heard grown ups saying “Next they are going to charge us for the air we breath?”  I feel a metaphor coming on. Doctor Who always did incorporate little moral lectures about the true nature of courage and how chess would be better if the black pawns and the white pawns fought the vampires together. 

I’d leave in the joke about workers getting together to fight “the suits”, but drop the bit about  how the Doctor rescuing the spacemen from the zombies accidentally precipitated the fall of capitalism. Grimy industrial futures where everything is ruled by The Company are just as much a Thing as space men and corridors and zombies. 

There has to be a bit where you want to hide behind the sofa only not really. Dead bodies are bit macabre: the space zombies will need to be nasty enough to be scary, but not nasty enough to be really scary. Heads lolled on one side is a good start, and we should definitely see the grown up human lady freaking out when she first sees a dead person standing up. But the properly scary stuff needs to be a bad thing happening to one of the characters and imagining that it might be happening to you. So if you’ve told us all the icky things which happen to a human body in a vacuum, you have to follow through and show us the grown up human lady being stuck in the air lock without a helmet, with ice forming on her face, mostly from her point of view, everything going blurry and fragmented. If you are not careful, that could come out a bit too nasty and scary and gripping for Doctor Who, but that’s okay, because the best bits of Doctor Who always are. 

Maybe, though, don’t go through the whole thing again and try to convince us that grown up companion lady is dead the second time, because we all know perfectly well she won’t be. 

And of course, the Doctor has to save the day in the end because he’s the Doctor and saving the day in the end is what he does. Almost the most important thing in a Good Doctor Who story is that the Doctor should suddenly understand what is going on, and make a plan to defeat the baddies, and not quite tell us what it is, but when at the last minute it works we see how clever the Doctor has been being all the way through and remember why we love him so much. It could involve using scarecrows to make the evil alien robber baron think the castle is better defended than it really is, or it could involve setting up a suicide bomb so that the space zombies can’t kill the surviving humans without blowing up their own spaceship as well. It just has to be clever and a bit mad. And not, in any way, a big red button or a giant haddock that just makes the space zombies go away by magic.

Cliff hangers are good. We don’t get as many of those as we used to in the olden days because there are less serial stories. Arcs and “big bads” are all very well, but really all they do is tantalize us about the final episode, and frankly, we've all worked out why the words “Bad Wolf” are scrawled on the secret vault already. (It has the Doctor himself locked in it. Duh!) The best cliff hangers aren’t the “how will he get out of that” kind, or the “is he going to die” kind, they are the “That changes everything” kind. The Doctor sustained a permanent damage rescuing his little friend from the vacuum? But he won’t tell her about it? Provided you don’t just cop right out next week, that’s just the kind of thing we’re looking for. 

All of which leaves us with not very much to talk about. It is a strange thing, but stories which are good to have watched are easily reviewed, and the reviewers are not much to read; while stories that are illogical, inconsistent and even ridiculous may make a good review, and take a deal of reviewing anyway. 

New Books and ARCs, 5/26/17

May. 26th, 2017 08:31 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

As we ease into a long weekend, here’s a very healthy stack of new books and ARCs that might ring your bell. Call out the ones you’re interested in down in the comments!

Summer comes to Saturn

May. 26th, 2017 12:45 pm
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Posted by Phil Plait


This week marks the advent of summer in Saturn's northern hemisphere, and with it, changes in the weather there.

The World of Tomorrow

May. 26th, 2017 12:52 pm
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I'm thinking of writing something set in the mid-21st century and asked Charlie if he had any good resources for futurism on a ~30 year time scale. And lo and behold, a guest post appeared.

Now, I'm not much of a futurist, or really any kind of futurist in the formal sense. But I like to think I can see where things might be going, so here's a brief rundown of what I'm anticipating we'll see by mid-century.

TECHNOLOGY - A fractured Internet and radically decentralized social media are the name of the game. This is the cyberpunk dystopia you were promised, but without all the messy brain surgery and skulljacks. Getting data across certain national borders will be difficult. Getting news out during a blackout might, in some countries, be worth your life. Most countries that style themselves as free may resist government control of the Internet, but it’s unlikely that they will be able to do much more than maintain zones where the old rules apply. The Great Firewall of China is going to be a popular model. Alternative national networks that are inherently biased in favor of the state might prove to be another.

Even in countries that prefer to be mostly hands-off about their networks, legislation and policy changes will be put in place to harden their population against psy-op attacks like the one that has crippled America. The dream is already dead: in 30 or 40 years we’ll see what has grown from the corpse. Drones will be ubiquitous of course, as will anti-drone technologies to clear the airspace in an emergency.

POLITICS - Expect socialism, anarchism, and other direct challenges to capitalism to make a roaring comeback in the developed world.

The Washington Consensus relied upon Washington to be a reliable broker, and the loss of faith in American leadership due to the Trump Administration will be seismic in scale. By 2050, America has vastly degraded herself from her position of supremacy in January of 2001, but she is likely to retain a cultural influence that is far out-sized compared to her paltry 460 million citizens (already in fourth place after China, India, and the EU).

The global cultural impact of a resurgent Left in the famously right-wing United States may end up being one of the signature features of the new era, if for no other reason than our cultural productions might be one of our few remaining viable exports. It might not be cinema and TV shows by then. It might be hepatic enabled VR that let’s YOU fight the strike breakers in front of the Ford Motor Company gates! Feel that Pinkerton’s skull crack under your Louisville Slugger! Oh yes, the resurgent American socialism is going to be drenched in Americana, tip to tail. (At least it will be if I have anything to say about it!)

But, of course, America will as usual be a trailing indicator.

This shift is well underway in Europe already, and with a few more decades to develop it may become a big deal, historically speaking. I haven’t seen much discussion of how this dynamic will play out in Asia. It may be in places where the economy is still developing to a Euro/American level, these appeals will be less persuasive, but I kind of doubt it. It’s going to be a major controversy everywhere. International boundaries will continue to blur but will not disappear.

WAR - Modern war is horrifying in its expense and violence. This will be ever more true, and the extreme costs of the highest end weapon systems might paradoxically make them less vital in a strategic sense. Sun Tzu identifies the highest form of strategy as learning how to win without fighting, and when a single squadron of fighters costs a sizable fraction of a country’s GDP, their incentive to get creative with how they achieve their contested objectives has never been higher. We see that with Russia’s campaign of election meddling already. This will formalize as new type of international conflict. Perhaps there will be a new word for it, or perhaps we will simply change the definition of war to “a political conflict in which one side has decided the other’s interests are immaterial and not to be considered.”

When it does come to violence, I think we will see a pattern where much of the fighting will be conducted with low to medium cost weapons systems, and a few high end bits of kit meant to act as a force multiplier. How might this look in practice? Consider an urban guerrilla outfit which manufactures its own ammunition out of smuggled raw ingredients and feeds this into their 3D printed infantry weapons. They have as many riflemen as they want, but for antitank defense they rely on foreign missiles dropped off in the night by friendly special forces helicopters.

One caveat to this: many of the world’s most powerful economies have been sheltering under the enormous US defense budget for generations. With Washington no longer reliable, that may not be the case for much longer. But 2050, we may see large standing armies with fully modern equipment in places where they haven’t been seen in generations. If that’s the case, expect the first three weeks of any major conventional war to be an absolute bloodbath…and then the guerrilla phase starts.

For a historical example, look at the Battle of the Frontiers in World War 1. A lot of illusions were shattered at enormous cost of human life, and both sides then scrambled to improvise new tactics and technologies to counter the revealed status quo. Think of that, but without the trench warfare. Imagine instead if France had been conquered, and then immediately gone into a kind of medium-high insurrection against the occupation forces instead of surrendering. Now add in the Internet, foreign meddling, long-standing internal conflicts coming to a boil, and that will be the pattern for major conventional conflict.

And if fourth generation nuclear weapons ever get off the drawing board…it’s not gonna be pretty.

ENVIRONMENT - The shift to renewables will be all but complete, and pollution cleanup technologies might be a big growth industry, pushed heavily by China, who have a real strong incentive to figure out how to pull heavy metals out of the water and soil.

Antarctica is past the point of no return. Many coastal cities have flooded. To openly be a global warming denialist in some places on Earth is to take your life in your hands. By 2050, I expect at least high profile one climate related assassination to have occurred. Carbon capture technology is one of the highest priority areas of research, and scientists are also scrambling with a way to capture the other greenhouse gasses as well. Geo-engineering initiatives have significant political clout by now. People see the problem and they want it FIXED. Animals are being sampled so they can be cloned back into being after they go extinct. In some places, eco-preservation is almost a mania. The last few stubborn hold-outs in denial are likely to be radicalized and violent by now. See above for how that’s gonna work out for them.

I don’t expect the panic reactions to the Earth visibly starting to fall apart to work. We’re gonna get several nasty surprises. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 had a plausible future history for how this argument might play out. Green cities of vertical farms, a smaller human population living in automated comfort, and a re-wilded countryside is an ideal that’s already attractive to some. It will only get more attractive as time goes on.

HEALTH - The permafrost has already begun to melt. Surprise, it’s smallpox! Or if not smallpox, some other damn thing nobody’s had to have antibodies for at any time in the past half million years. The death toll might be high, but one hopes a crash program of inoculation keeps this from being the civilization killer that some fear and others hope for. See the movie Contagion for what I’m thinking will happen. We get pandemic scares all the time (We’ve had like three just since I graduated college nine years ago) and sooner or later the bugs will get lucky. Stem cell therapy, 3-D printed organs, CRISPR, etc, are really coming into their own and helping people live longer and at a higher quality than ever before, if they have the money.

I do not expect much in the way of sci-fi flavored biotech, if only because the real problems that these technologies will be bent toward will be more subtle, but more important. Developing a new way to culture bacteria, for example, would be an obvious application of biotech that doesn’t exactly move the average heart to excitement, and yet would be as consequential as the discovery of penicillin.

Look for several medical breakthroughs of this sort in the next few decades, but be warned you may not live to see their full benefit because immortality isn’t fucking happening for people who are already alive. Who is the most enthusiastic about cheating death? Silicon Valley types who have never met a real limit in their life, that’s who. Don’t let their privileged delusions pollute your thinking. What is much more likely to happen is that upper class people will begin living much longer than has historically been the norm, but lower class people will find their life expectancy cut. Hey, remember when I said socialism was gonna make a comeback?

And that’s it. That’s my list of thoughts about where we will be by mid-century. I think there’s going to be at least one really big black swan event, and probably at least one major conventional war like the one I suggested above. What did I leave out? What did I get wrong?

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Posted by Melanie Mallon

The justification for the border wall that Donald Trump wants to build at the US-Mexico border is that the wall would reduce crime. Though it’s well established that the immigrant crime rate is much lower than that of native-born Americans, and evidence suggests that immigrant-friendly cities tend to experience a lower crime rate than other urban areas, Trump and his supporters continue to cite reducing immigrant crime as the purpose of the wall.

For example, earlier this month, the Daily Signal created a video purportedly demonstrating that the border wall in San Diego has reduced crime since it was built in 1992.

To make this point, reporter Kelsey Harkness includes a chart showing the total number of crimes in San Diego in 1989, 1996, and 2016. (Crimes included are murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny, vehicle theft, and property crime.)

San Diego Crime bar chart

The chart labels and title are apparently invisible, like all these criminal immigrants we hear are flooding across the border despite evidence to the contrary. Within the context of the video, though, the message is clear: After the wall is built, crime decreases; therefore, the wall reduced crime.

Following this logic leads us to another shocking conclusion: Since the wall was built, in 1992, cases of thyroid cancer have increased, according to the National Cancer Institute; therefore, the wall causes thyroid cancer. Makes perfect sense, right?

Thyroid cancer incidence. Source: National Cancer Institute

Similarly, the border wall in San Diego is no doubt responsible for everything from increased prices and the decline of manufacturing jobs to higher rates of autism diagnoses.

As Kevin Drum at Mother Jones has pointed out, crime has been going down throughout the US for decades, including in San Diego. That trend continued after 1992 without an increase in the rate of crime reduction in San Diego to suggest a local reason for the crime reduction beyond the national trend. And, of course, Harkness does not explain why crime started decreasing in 1989, three years before the wall was built. Perhaps an invisible prototype was built before the visible wall.

All of this, including the original chart and its rationale, is obviously ridiculous. Yet with the $21.6 billion-plus for the wall being proposed alongside enormous cuts to our social safety net, including health care, risking cancer by building a more extensive border wall is not actually that far fetched.

H/t Jamie Bernstein for sharing this chart and Drum’s article with me.

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posted by Neil Gaiman
I met Sara Benincasa eight years ago, when she interviewed me in a bathtub. (I was in the bathtub. Sara wasn't even wet.)

She's an author and comedian and the sort of person who has strange ideas and acts upon them. So when she tweeted me the other night and asked me if I would read the Cheesecake Factory Menu live, if she raised half a million dollars for the charity, I did not ask any of the obvious questions (like, why would I read the Cheesecake Factory Menu aloud? or Who would want to hear this? or even How would you ever make that much money for something so unlikely?). Instead I said I'd like the money to go to Refugees, please, and sure. ( And I added, "If you get to a million dollars, I'll also read the entirety of Fox in Socks after the Cheesecake Factory menu.")

And then Sara did something even more unlikely. She set up a page to allow people to donate at Crowdrise.com... and people started to donate. Lots of them.

It's been up a couple of days since then, and we are (as I type this) 8% of the way to the target at over $42,000. It's started to be picked up by newspapers -- here's the LA Times,  and the Boston Globe, and even the Guardian.

And I will do my own bit for it. I will put up something unique to this blog.

Probably you are thinking, will he write about his time on the Red Carpet at Cannes for HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES?

It is not that. (But here are costume designer Sandy Powell, channeling Ziggy Stardust, and star Elle Fanning eating colour-coordinated macaroons.)

Perhaps you are thinking, Will he perhaps post photographs of Gillian Anderson as Media in the next episode of American Gods incarnated as Ziggy Stardust also eating colour-coordinated macaroons?

I will not. I do not believe such photos exist. 

Instead I will put up photos of my elf-child, Ash. I will see him on Saturday, and the Cannes red carpet would have been much more fun if he had been on it.


Whether or not I get to read the Cheesecake Factory Menu in public (or Dr Seuss's tonguetwisting Fox in Socks) I will be doing a few more readings and talks this year. Tickets are going fast:

07 Jul 2017
Dallas, TX
09 Jul 2017
Washington, D.C.
10 Jul 2017
Hartford, CT       

Each of these should be links to the event -- all of them are solo me just reading and talking and answering your questions, except for the Hartford one, where I'll be interviewed by the NYPL's very own Paul Holdengraber.

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Posted by Harry

I stayed up on election night to watch the results come in (can’t wait till June 8th, that’s going to be a thriller!). I had a bad feeling about the whole thing starting the moment I walked on campus that morning, and I had pretty much resigned myself to the result by about 7.30 pm (Central). But I stayed up anyway, partly because I that’s just what I do, and partly because the first test match between England and India started at 10 pm, and I couldn’t wait to see Haseeb Hameed, whom everyone was talking about. And, indeed, you could see why they were talking about him (as Aggers said, in frustration at the England camp trying to dampen down pressure: “Are we supposed to pretend we’re not seeing what we are seeing?”; or, imagine being 19 and hearing Geoffrey describe you as “a proper opening bat”).

But the player who really shone that night was Moeen Ali, who, fortunately, was still in when I awoke the next morning. And that seemed particularly fitting to me, because he seems to be the embodiment of everything Donald Trump isn’t.

He’s a team player: in 62 innings he has played in every batting position between 2 and 10 and when interviewed never hints at irritation or even ambition; he has put enormous work into becoming England’s main spinner simply because that’s what England needs; he fields flawlessly but without a hint of showmanship; whenever the camera catches him after another bowler has taken a wicket he looks more overjoyed than when he has taken one. On his day as a batsman he is, as Geoffrey put it, splendiferous. Both he and Hameed look like throwbacks to some Golden Age of the 1930s to 1950s I had in my head growing up: I imagined Len Hutton batting exactly the way Hameed actually does bat, and I imagined Jack Hobbs and Denis Compton [1] batting exactly as Ali does—graceful but seemingly effortless. He looks no more muscular than I am and yet somehow those apparently light flicks soar into the stands. So, two startlingly unTrumplike traits—spectacular talent, and loyalty to a team. What is the third? I think about Trump every time I hear Moeen Ali being interviewed. Because either he is entirely genuine in his modesty, or he is a stunningly good actor. I’ve heard athletes deflecting glory from themselves to others, or to the team, and sometimes they even sound genuine. But yesterday, after winning Man of the Match for an innings that was, well, splendiferous (and match-winning), his remarks (quite typical for him) included “There’s loads of better players than me in the team” and “To be honest, I’ve not been batting or bowling well recently. Paul Farbrace gave me a few tips with my batting and that really helped me today.” And he means it. He finished yesterday’s interview by dedicating the win to the victims of the Manchester bombing. Imagine Trump dedicating a victory to other people.

Oh, and he and Hameed are both Muslim. I don’t know why that pleases me, and maybe it shouldn’t, but it does.

Ok, so. I’ll temporarily put aside the fact that I don’t care at all about any other sport than cricket [2]. Name me a top-flight professional athlete, male or female, who is even less like Donald Trump than Moeen is. And make your case. And just in case it is not clear, I hope you can come up with lots of contenders!

[1] I actually saw Compton in a fundraising match at a village ground when he was 60. I was too awed at the time for me to rely, now, on my judgment, but he did seem special.
[2] Not strictly true —I started following Badgers softball this season, which I find a bit worrying.

The Poverty “State of Mind”

May. 25th, 2017 10:19 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Ben Carson, our HUD Secretary of somewhat dubious expertise, recently burbled on about how he thinks that “poverty, to a large extent, is a state of mind,” a statement which earned him some well-justified push-back and which prompted several people, knowing of my general thoughts about poverty, to wonder if I had any thoughts on the matter.

My thought on poverty in the United State being a “state of mind” is that what it really is, to a rather larger extent, is a lack of access — to money, to education, to opportunities, to adequate housing, to networks of expertise and help, among many other things, and most importantly (and as often a consequence of all the others noted and more) to the margin of safety that people who are not in poverty have when any individual thing knocks them off their stride.

It’s the last of these, in my opinion, that illustrates the gormlessness of Carson’s thoughts on poverty. You can have the most can-do spirit in the world, but your state of mind doesn’t mean jack when confronted with, say, a broken-down car you can’t afford to repair, which means that you can’t get to your job, which means that the job goes out the window, putting you at risk of not being able to pay the rent (or other bills), increasing the possibility of putting your family out on the street, making it more difficult for your kids to get and maintain an education. Your “can-do” spirit doesn’t mean shit to a worn-out timing belt or transmission. Your “can-do” spirit doesn’t mean shit to the landlord who decides to raise a rent you can barely afford, because he knows he can get more from someone else. Your “can-do” spirit doesn’t mean shit to the ice outside your home you slip and fracture your arm on when you head off to your second job. Your state of mind is not telekinetic. It can’t fix things that are out of your control, and which by dint of poverty you have no immediate way of addressing. When you’re poor, so many things are out of your control.

Conversely, if you have margin, your “state of mind” matters even less — because you have the ability to address problems as they arise. It doesn’t matter what my state of mind is if my car stops working; I can afford to have it taken to the shop and fixed. My state of mind is not relevant when I crack my arm; I have good health insurance with a low deductible. My state of mind is neither here nor there to my housing situation; my mortgage is paid off. My margin is considerable and will be regardless of what state my mind is in.

Yes, you might say, but you, John Scalzi, have an industrious state of mind! Well, that’s debatable (more on that later), but even if it is true, is it more industrious than the person who works two shitty jobs because they have no other choice? Am I more industrious than, say, my mother, who cleaned people’s houses and worked on a telephone exchange while I was growing up, so that I could eat and have a roof over my head? My mother, who barely cracked a five-figure salary while I grew up, worked as hard as hell. Tell me her “state of mind” was less industrious than mine is now, and I’ll laugh my ass off at you. Tell me any number of people in the small, blue-collar town I live in, who make significantly less than I do, and who are one slip on the ice away from tumbling down the poverty hole, have a “state of mind” substantially less industrious than my own, and I’ll likely tell you to go fuck yourself.

I happen to be one of those people who went from poverty to wealth, and because I am, I can tell you where “state of mind” lies on the list of things that have mattered in getting me where I am. It is on the list, to be sure. But it’s not number one. Number one is access to opportunity, which I got when my mother — not me — decided to chance having me apply to Webb, a private boarding school that cost more than she made in a year (I was a scholarship kid), with immense resources that allowed me entree into a social stratum I might not have otherwise had access to.

Number two is a network of people — mostly teachers at first — who went out of their way to foster me and nurture my intellect and creativity when they saw it in me. Number three is luck: being in the right place at the right time more than once, whether I “deserved” the break I was getting or not. Number four is my creativity, my own innate talents, which I then had to cultivate. Number five are the breaks I got in our culture that other people, who are not me, might not have gotten. Number six would be Krissy, my wife and my partner in life, who has skills and abilities complementary to mine, which has made getting ahead easier and building out our family’s margins much simpler than if I had to do it on my own.

Number seven — not even in the top five! — I would say is my “state of mind,” my desire and determination to make something of myself. And let’s be clear: this “state of mind” has not been an “always on” thing. There have been lots of times I was perfectly happy to float, or fuck around, or be passive, because times and opportunities allowed me to be so. There have been times when I have been depressed or apathetic and not interested in doing anything, and I didn’t — but still got along just fine because of my margin of safety. There have been times I have been overwhelmed and barely able to make any decisions at all. “State of mind” is a changeable thing, and importantly can be deeply influenced by one’s own circumstances. It’s much easier to have a positive “state of mind” when you know that no one thing is likely to knock your entire life askew. It’s easier not to give in to fatalism when not everything has the potential to ruin everything else. It’s easier to not feel like nothing you do matters, when you have to ability to solve many of your problems with a simple application of money.

I have seen people with what I’m sure Carson would describe as the correct “state of mind” fail over and over again because their legs are kicked out from them in one way or another, and who never seem to make it no matter how hard they try. I’ve seen people who definitely don’t have the right “state of mind” succeed and even thrive — have seen them fail upward — because on balance other things broke their way. “State of mind” as a predictive factor of economic mobility is, bluntly, anecdotal bullshit, something to pull out of your ass while ignoring the mountains of evidence showing that economic mobility in the United States is becoming more difficult to come by. It’s not “state of mind” that’s the issue. It’s long-term systematic inequality, inequality that’s getting worse as we go along. Ignoring or eliding the latter and pinning poverty “to a large extent” on the former means you’re giving everyone and everything else that contributes to poverty in the United States — from racism to inertia to greed — a free pass.

I’m well aware that Carson has his own anecdotal rags-to-riches story, as I do; we both even have mothers who sacrificed for us so we could succeed. Good for him! I applaud him and his effort to get where he is now. But this doesn’t make his story any more than what it is, or what mine is — a single story, not necessarily easily replicated at large. Certainly my story isn’t easily replicated; not every poor kid can be given a break by a private boarding school catering to the scions of wealth and privilege. I think it’s fine if Carson or anyone else wants to lecture or opine on the poverty “state of mind.” But until and unless our country makes an effort to address all the other long-term issues surrounding poverty, Carson’s opinion on the matter is bullshit.

Control for opportunity. Control for access. Control for margin. And then come back to me about “state of mind,” as it regards poverty. I’ll be waiting, Dr. Carson.

We Queue, We Happy Queue

May. 25th, 2017 03:14 pm
[syndicated profile] culture_vulture_feed

Posted by Phil Kirby

You nip into the supermarket near the bus stop after work for a bit of last minute shopping. There’s plenty of time, no rush.
You get Wine, a Weightwatchers curry and some fizzy water – you ...
[syndicated profile] badastronomy_feed

Posted by Phil Plait

Death Star

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Star Wars, let's take a look at the Death Star and see how it stacks up against natural satellites. What you'll find is ... that's no moon.

Drug Wars

May. 25th, 2017 03:28 am
[syndicated profile] crooked_timber_feed

Posted by John Quiggin

I got a preview of Drug Wars by
Robin Feldman and Evan Frondorf
. It’s not about the War on Drugs, but about the devices used by Big Pharma to maintain the profits they earn from their intellectual property (ownership of drug patents, brand names and so on) and to stave off competition from generics. Feldman and Frondorf propose a number of reforms to the operation of the patenting system to enhance the role of generics. I’m more interested in a fundamental shift away from using intellectual property (patents and brand names) to finance pharmaceutical research.

Drug Wars covers devices like product hopping and evergreening. The idea is to make small changes to existing drugs, so that generics aren’t exact substitutes. Ideally, this enables a whole new patent (evergreening). Even if not, the change means that generic copies of the old version can’t be substituted automatically when prescriptions are filled. All of this is backed up by massive advertising directed both at consumers (this is only legal in the US and NZ) and physicians.

The cost is mainly, though not exclusively, borne by the US government and US consumers. Other developed countries like Australia bargain with the drug companies to place their product on a list that can be purchased at low cost. If the price demanded by the company is too high, there’s no subsidy and sales are usually very limited. One of the central US aims in both the US Australia Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (killed off by Trump) was to cripple the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and similar measures in other signatory countries. Less developed countries have also resisted the demands of Big Pharma to charge whatever the market will bear, with a fair degree of success.

Could this be done better. The ideal alternative would be an extension of public funding to cover drug development as well as fundamental research (which currently acts as an effective subsidy to Big Pharma). Some of this could be done on the current model of grants for research, but there could also be “prizes”, that is, payments for the successful development of drugs assessed as beneficial. Research results would be shared publicly, and products would not be patented (or, perhaps, patents would be held by the government that funded the work)

Again, ideally, all the developed countries would contribute, and share the results. But the US is large enough (around half of global sales of pharmaceuticals and half of expenditure by pharmaceutical companies) and does so badly under the existing setup, that it could probably act unilaterally.

Here are some relevant numbers, I’ve found around the place. All provisional, corrections welcomed

Looking at these numbers, I’d say that if the US government doubled the NIH budget and allocated all the money to drug development it would generate more new and useful drugs than are currently produced by Big Pharma in the US, given that a fair chunk of the $40 billion being spent is devoted either to competitive duplication in the race for new products or to non-productive activities like evergreening. Given that much of the cost of prescription drugs is ultimately borne by the government, even a 20 per cent reduction in total costs would be enough to offset the cost the government, with a big benefit left over for consumers.

[syndicated profile] crooked_timber_feed

Posted by John Holbo

A couple months ago I made fun of an ‘inspired by Steely Dan’ Apple Music playlist that seemed to be basically a random assortment of tracks by bands, all of which had covered one Steely Dan song at some point. As I put it at the time: “Also, the Mountain Goats?”

How wrong I was! Their new album, Goths, is out. It’s a glorious, slick, lounge jazz-tinged demonstration that Danliness is next to godliness, albeit not gothliness. It also sounds like Prefab Sprout circa Steve McQueen, yet another good thing. YouTube has not hoovered up the tracks yet, but here’s a nice acoustic cover of “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds” (an early release from the album that didn’t quite do it for me; but the acoustic version sounds great. John Darnielle does the deceptively-simple-counter-rhythm strumming thing, which keeps life interesting, and his voice is sweet and clear. No guitar on the album itself.) From the album, I recommend “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement”; also, “Wear Black”; also, get all your Gene Loves Jezebel nostalgia out with “Abandoned Flesh”.

Creationist Sues the Grand Canyon!

May. 24th, 2017 05:00 pm
[syndicated profile] skepchick_feed

Posted by Rebecca Watson

Support more videos like this at patreon.com/rebecca!

Sorta transcript:

Young-earth creationists are people who sincerely believe that our planet is 6,000 to 10,000 years old and that it was created as-is by the Christian god. They’re only off by about four billion five hundred thirty-nine million nine hundred ninety-four thousand years or so. So close! Keep trying, bros!

Despite the fact that they’re obviously wrong about basically everything they hold dear, young earth creationists just keep on trying. And so this month, a young earth creationist has filed a lawsuit alleging religious discrimination against the Grand Canyon. When I first saw that headline I assumed he was suing it just for existing. After all, the Grand Canyon is one of the most obvious, unavoidable signs that we live on a planet that has changed drastically over the course of billions of years. You can visit the Grand Canyon and literally see layers of rocks that range from two billion to 200 million years old, all neatly stacked up. You don’t even need to work to see it. You can take a helicopter down there and look. I did it, it was awesome.

You can see fossils, you can see ancient lava flows, you can see the impact of ice ages and you can even see the footprints of itty bitty lizards that lived millions of years ago.

So the mere existence of the Grand Canyon is, in and of itself, religious discrimination.

But the young earth creationist, a YouTube “scientician” named Andrew Snelling, is suing because he wants to take 50 or 60 rocks from the Grand Canyon to desperately try to prove that the entire thing is a lie, possibly created by Satan to test our faith. He applied for a research permit, but because that isn’t actual research, the National Parks Service said “no.” They only approve about 80 studies to take place in the Grand Canyon, and all of those are actual scientists doing actual science. So Snelling got rejected

And they were right to do so! Some people think that we should coddle young earth creationists, because denying them permits just makes them cry about censorship, and after all, science is about remaining open to new ideas. But young earth creationism isn’t new, and it can hardly even be called an “idea” at this point. It’s an old, stupid tenet held by idiots. The NPS has no obligation to let them cart off rocks and take up valuable park resources just to tilt at their windmills, just like the Hubble space telescope is under no obligation to grant time to members of the Flat Earth Society so they can do their “research” to prove that the Earth is sitting on the back of a giant turtle.

So here’s hoping that a federal judge knocks some sense into Snelling. Well, let’s be honest, that’s probably impossible at this point. So let’s just hope a judge is able to explain in simple, monosyllabic terms why Young-Earth Creationism isn’t science — it’s religion. And the National Park Service has every right to discriminate against religious crusades.

[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

In my dream last night, I was annoyed at my cats for not sufficiently appreciating the in-ground pool I had installed specifically for them.

Can you blame me? I think not.

Catching the (meteor) train

May. 20th, 2017 11:51 pm
[syndicated profile] badastronomy_feed

Posted by Phil Plait


A bright meteor can leave behind a "persistent train," a trail of vaporized interplanetary rock that can glow for many minutes. A new video shows this for an unusually brilliant fireball.

[syndicated profile] skepchick_feed

Posted by Rebecca Watson

Support more videos like this at patreon.com/rebecca!

Sorta transcript:

Hey pals, it’s time to have a little chat about net neutrality and why it’s important to you, intrepid science-loving critical thinker that you are.

Net neutrality is the idea that an Internet Service Provider (ISP) like Comcast or AT&T shouldn’t favor or discriminate against any content based on its source. In other words, Comcast shouldn’t have the ability to say to you, “Pay us an extra $10 a month or else you’re going to get buffering pauses every few minutes when you try to watch Netflix.”

Net neutrality isn’t something that is currently protected in any meaningful sense, and the current Republican US government is working hard to actually do the opposite and protect the ISPs, allowing them to discriminate all they want. And that doesn’t just mean that it would suddenly be slow for you to access a website — your ISP could block you from accessing a certain website entirely. Like, for instance, a website that is critical of that ISP.

You might think that’s not so bad, because you could always just get another ISP, right? Well unfortunately, ISPs in the US run a semi-legal monopoly. Last year, the FCC released a report showing that 30% of people don’t have any access to any ISP offering the standard 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download/3Mbps upload speed for broadband and nearly half the country only has access to one. In other words, most people have no choice when it comes to broadband.

The ISPs even basically admitted to running monopolies, like in 2015 when Time Warner attempted to merge with Comcast. When fears were raised about a monopoly, the companies pointed out that they specifically do not compete in the same markets right now, so merging wouldn’t be a problem.

So with consumers not actually having a choice, that makes it even more important for our ISPs to be held accountable with a solid net neutrality law. Unfortunately, Republican lawmakers, as usual, care more about the industry lobbyists lining their pockets than the voters who would be affected by their policies, so the FCC has proposed to throw net neutrality in the garbage under a proposal called “Restoring Internet Freedom.” I shit you not. To break that down, they’d be “restoring freedom” to large corporations to discriminate against certain websites and charge you more money for wanting to access them, or just not letting you see them at all.

ISPs are doing all they can to convince the general public that this is a good idea, or to just stop them from seeing any criticism, like when Comcast recently threatened to sue a pro-net neutrality website. THAT certainly doesn’t bode well for how they’ll handle internet traffic to websites they don’t like in the future.

And that’s why specifically you should care about this. Trashing net neutrality gives control of information over to large corporations, which is anathema to good skepticism. The public needs the freedom to be critical.

If you’d like to let the FCC know how you feel (and you should!), TechCrunch has a step-by-step guide on how to comment on their terrible proposal. I know it’s overwhelming because of how many things the US government is fucking up all at once, but this is important and it’s worth the five minutes of your time. Help fight for healthy, open discourse by fighting in favor of net neutrality.

matgb: Artwork of 19th century upper class anarchist, text: MatGB (Default)

British Liberal, house husband, school play leader and stepdad. Campaigner, atheistic feminist, amateur baker. Male.

Known to post items of interest on occasions. More likely to link to interesting stuff. Sometimes talks about stuff he's done. Occasionally posts recipes for good food. Planning to get married, at some point. Enjoying life in Yorkshire.

Likes comments. Especially likes links. Loves to know where people came from and what they were looking for. Mostly posts everything publicly. Sometimes doesn't. Hi.

Mat Bowles

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October 2015


Stuff and nonsense

I'm the Chair of the Brighouse branch of the Liberal Democrats & the membership secretary for Calderdale Lib Dems and run the web campaign for the local candidates. I have a job, a stepdaughter and a life.

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