[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

As part of my continuing effort to justify the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription I have, I’ve been playing with my Audition audio software and learning how to use it. Today I learned how to make a multitrack file! Go me. I also played with the various filters in the software to distort and shape sounds.

All of which is to say I recorded a song today and it is very very noisy indeed. It’s “Here Comes the Rain Again,” which is my favorite song from the Eurythmics. Here it is (and no, it’s not actually nine minutes long, I don’t know why the media player says that. It’s, like, five):

Yes, that’s me singing. No, Annie Lennox doesn’t have a thing to worry about.

In case you’re curious, every noise on that track either comes out of me, or out of an acoustic tenor guitar. Audio filters are fun! Let’s just say I let my Thurston out to play, and if you get that reference, congratulations, you’re old too.

No, I’m not giving up my day job. Relax. But I do enjoy playing with sounds. This is fun for me.

In any event: Enjoy the noise.

Blacklight Sunset

Jul. 22nd, 2017 12:44 pm
[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

Because sometimes it’s fun to play with Photoshop’s sliders and see what you come up with. This is what happens (in part) when you push the “dehaze” slider all the way to the right. The real sunset didn’t look like this (it looked like this), but I think it might be cool to live on a planet where the sunset did look like that, every once in a while.

Enjoy the weekend, folks.

Can we get to 350 ppm? Yes we can

Jul. 22nd, 2017 06:43 am
[syndicated profile] crooked_timber_feed

Posted by John Quiggin

There’s been a fair bit of buzz about an article in New York Magazine with an apocalyptic picture of climate change over the next century. I’ll for a more complete response later. But as it happens, I was already preparing a much more optimistic view, arguing that, at least in the absence of political disasters such as a long-running Trump presidency, the world is likely to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations around 450 parts per million by 2050, and reduce that to 350 ppm by 2100.

On current models, stabilization at 450ppm gives us a 67 per cent chance of holding the long term increase in global temperatures below 2 degrees. Warming of 2 degrees would not be cataclysmic for humanity as a whole but it would be a disaster for many people and also for vulnerable ecosystems such as coral reefs. That’s why 350.org wants to reduce concentrations to 350 ppm from current levels above 400 ppm. Is that even possible? In my view, the answer is Yes.

I’ll start with the 2050 target. From the Australian Climate Change Authority, of which I was a Member until recently, here’s a set of emissions trajectories consistent with a 67 per cent probability of limiting warming to 2 degrees.

[syndicated profile] robinince_feed

Posted by robinince

Eddie Izzard once advised me that I should not have an airing cupboard. He had come round to my flat to play Escape from Colditz. He won. He told me an airing cupboard was a level of luxury too great and no creativity could come from warm or even dry towels. It was damp towels and uncomfortable knee hinges that led to him creating the “cats drilling for oil” routine.
He didn’t tell me to open a blog post with a name drop, but he might have done.
I no longer have an airing cupboard, I don’t know if it has helped.
One piece of advice I have never followed is “why don’t you actually write a show as opposed to dicking about on stage hoping to find one”…until now.
Carl Cooper, the non malfunctioning HAL of the comedy circuit since 1990, a former brilliant ice cream salesman turned brilliant radio producer suggested I actually wrote a show for Edinburgh this year. Ever contrary, I have tried to write two instead.
I have never really written stand up. I have always had lots of notebooks, postcards and till receipts with non-sequiturs and half words on them, and then they turn into something or other, and the most effective something or others stick.
I have written screenplays, pilots and routines for other comedians, but when it has come to my spitty little exclamations, I have shied away from it.
Maybe I think it could cause a “loss of authenticity” or maybe I’m just lazy.
Over the last couple of days, I have written an 8000 word script for one show (and there is more to add) and I have another script to write for the second show.
It is interesting to see a different sort of joke appear when staring soberly at a blank page rather than in the heightened state of lunacy and paranoia that happens on stage.
The intense staring of others is very different to the solipsistic staring of writing alone.
I had almost escaped from the clutches of Carl’s demand, but with two weeks to go and no more previews or stage time, I decided I would have to create some sort of monologue. I will now pace around the garden, reciting like my swearing and clumsy analysis of the world was The Revenger’s Tragedy.
I wonder if Michael Legge could kneel in my prompt box on the first night?
I have been surprised how many comedians write scripts.
I remember standing at the side of the stage and seeing the open notebook of a comic.
It seemed that he started the day with a pun, then tried to ring that subject dry by writing out every thought in his head until he found the joke he wanted. When you are writing on a specific subject, it can be useful to put whatever the first joke that comes to mind down on the paper or screen. It gives you something to fight against, the fear that the grotesque clichéd tangle is the best you can come up with acts as a spur.
I remember admiring Tim Vine’s tenacity when we did a few gigs together so long ago that we had hair. Every morning, he would wake up and think and rethink a pun involving some bare knees, a desert crossing and a tandem. He never did find the joke he was looking for, but by god, he tried.
George Carlin wrote meticulously and then toured methodically to perfect his HBO specials. Greg Proops told me of a night where George Carlin, halfway through his set, pulled out a piece of paper and said, “I haven’t memorised this bit yet, hope you don’t mind me doing it.”
Then, despite the lack of illusion of spontaneity and the fact he was reading it from a bit of paper, he delivered it so perfectly that it made no difference whatsoever.
Yet, despite his genius and years in the comedy business, Carlin still knew he needed to get tour constantly to ensure he had found the right words and the right delivery.
At least by putting it on the page I know what my shows are about, one is about art, the other is about delusions, narrow boats, dog erections, the universe as simulation, Kurt Vonnegut, entropy and ghosts.
I am intrigued to see how writing a show for the first time in a writerly way changes things, hopefully the damp towels helped.

My two shows are here and here.

Eyes Down...

Jul. 21st, 2017 09:55 pm
[syndicated profile] andrew_rilstone_feed

Posted by Andrew Rilstone

...removing any traces of the slave trade from Bristol might require half the city to be pulled down, and not just the plaques of signs with Colston's name on it....
Nigel Currie

Until recently, until a lot of publicity was given by the Bristol Post to a very small but vociferous minority of mainly non-Bristolians, the majority was not even aware of Colston's link to slavery...
C Stephens

All these do-gooders who want to change the name of the Colston Hall should be more concerned what is happening in Bristol an other cities regarding girls that are groomed for prostitution and are usually under 18 years of age.
Wendy Fryer

If the name of Colston Hall has to change, the suggestion to change it to the "Corstan Hall" [after Jean Corstan MP] is a good one...It has absolutely no connection with the salve trade, so should not offend thsoe minority groups who are trying to change it, whilst happily living here in this great city. These people should shut up or move somewhere else
P Collins

What a great idea...to suggest naming one of the new trains after Edward Colston. What a great way to remember a truly great Bristolian who, ok, was linked with the slave trade, but...
Mr G Briggs

New Books and ARCs, 7/21/17

Jul. 21st, 2017 08:53 pm
[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

As we ease on into another summer weekend, here are the new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound this week. What do you like here? Share your feelings in the comments!

[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

Here’s Sugar curling up with a good book, in this case the ARC of Don’t Live For Your Obituary, my upcoming collection of essays about writing and the writing life, which comes out in December from Subterranean Press. And you can win it! Here’s how:

Tell me in the comments which Beatles song I am thinking of right now.

That’s it!

The person who correctly guesses which Beatles song I am thinking of wins. In the case where more than one person correctly guesses, I will number the correct guesses in order of appearance and then use a random number generator to select the winner among them.

“Beatles song” in this case means a song recorded by the Beatles, and includes both original songs by the band, and the cover songs they recorded. Solo work does not count. Here’s a list of songs recorded by the Beatles, if you need it. The song I’m thinking of is on it.

Guess only one song. Posts with more than one guess will have only the first song considered. Posts not related to guessing a song will be deleted. Also, only one post per person — additional posts will be deleted.

This contest is open to everyone everywhere in the world, and runs until the comments here automatically shut off (which will be around 3:50pm Eastern time, Sunday, July 23rd). When you post a comment, leave a legit email address in the “email” field so I can contact you. I’ll also announce the winner here on Monday, July 24. I’ll mail the ARC to you, signed (and personalized, if so requested).

Kitten not included.

Also remember you can pre-order the hardcover edition of Obit from Subterranean Press. This is a signed, limited edition — there are only 1,000 being made — and they’ve already had a healthy number of pre-orders. So don’t wait if you want one.

Now: Guess which Beatles song I am thinking of! And good luck!

Agent to the Stars, 20 Years On

Jul. 21st, 2017 06:10 pm
[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

So, on July 21, 1997, which was a Monday, I posted the following on the alt.society.generation-x newsgroup:

Thought y’all might like to know. I’m happy, pleased, tired.

96,098 words, cranked out in a little under three months, working
mostly on weekends, grinding out 5,000 words at a sitting.

Learned two things:

a) I *can* carry a story over such a long stretch;

b) like most things on the planet, thinking about doing it is a lot
worse than simply sitting down and doing it. The writing wasn’t hard
to do, you just need to plant ass in seat and go from there.

I did find it helped not to make my first novel a gut-wrenching
personal story, if you know what I mean. Instead I just tried to write
the sort of science fiction story I would like to read. It was fun.

Now I go in to tinker and fine tune. Will soon have it ready for beta
testing. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

That novel? Agent to the Stars. Which means that today is the 20th anniversary of me being a novelist. Being a published novelist would have to wait — I date that to January 1, 2005, the official publication date of Old Man’s War — but in terms of having written a full, complete (and as it eventually turned out, publishable) novel: Today’s the day.

I’ve recounted the story of Agent before but it’s fun to tell, because I think it’s a nice antidote to the “I just had to share the story I’d been dreaming of my whole life” angle first novels often take. The gist of the story was that my 10-year high school reunion was on the horizon, and having been “the writer dude” in my class, I knew I would be asked if I had ever gotten around to writing a novel, and I wanted to be able to say “yes.” Also, I was then in my late 20s and it was time to find out whether I could actually write one or not.

Having decided I was going to write one, I decided to make it easy for myself, mostly by not trying to do all things at once. The goal was simply: Write a novel-length story. The story itself was going to be pretty simple and not personally consequential; it wasn’t going to be a thinly-disguised roman a clef, or something with a serious and/or personal theme. It would involve Hollywood in some way, because I had spent years as a film critic and knew that world well enough to write about it. And as for genre, I was most familiar with mystery/crime fiction and science fiction/fantasy, so I flipped a coin to decide which to do. It come up heads, so science fiction it was, and the story I had for that was: Aliens come and decide to get Hollywood representation.

(I don’t remember the story I was thinking for the mystery version. I’m sure death was involved. And for those about to say “well, you didn’t have to stick with science fiction for your second book,” that’s technically correct, but once I’d written one science fiction novel, I knew I could write science fiction. It was easier to stick with what I knew. And anyway I write murder mysteries now — Lock In and the upcoming Head On. They also happen to be science fiction.)

I remember the writing of Agent being pretty easy, in no small part, I’m sure, because of everything noted above — it wasn’t meant to be weighty or serious or even good, merely novel-length. When I finished it, I do remember thinking something along the lines of “Huh. That wasn’t so bad. Maybe I should have done this earlier.” In the fullness of time, I’ve realized that I probably couldn’t have done it any earlier, I wasn’t focused enough and it helped me to have some sort of external motivation, in this case, my high school reunion.

Once finished, I asked two friends and co-workers at America Online to read the book: Regan Avery and Stephen Bennett, both of whom I knew loved science fiction, and both of whom I knew I could trust to tell me if what I’d written was crap. They both gave it a thumbs up. Then I showed it to Krissy, my wife, who was apprehensive about reading it, since if she hated it she would have to tell me, and would still have to be married to me afterward. When she finished it, the first thing she said to me about it was “Thank Christ it’s good.” Domestic felicity lived for another day.

And then, having written it… I did nothing with it for two years. Because, again, it wasn’t written for any other reason than to see if I could write a novel. It was practice. People other than Regan and Stephen and Krissy finally saw it in 1999 when I decided that the then brand-new Scalzi.com site could use some content, so I put it up here as a “shareware” novel, meaning that if people liked it they could send me a dollar for it through the mail. And people did! Which was nice.

It was finally physically published in 2005, when Bill Schafer of Subterranean Press published a limited hardcover edition. I was jazzed about that, since I wanted a version of the book I could put on my shelf. The cover was done by Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik, who among other things knew of the book because I was one of Penny Arcade’s very first advertisers way back in the day, advertising the Web version of the book (those guys have done okay since then). Then came the Tor paperback edition, and the various foreign editions, and the audiobook, and here we are today.

When I wrote the novel, of course, I had no idea that writing it was the first step toward where I am now. I was working at America Online — and enjoying it! It was a cool place to be in the 90s! — and to the extent I thought I would be writing novels at all, I thought that they would be sideline to my overall writing career, rather than (as it turned out) the main thrust of it. This should be your first indication that science fiction writers in fact cannot predict the future with any accuracy.

I’m very fond of Agent, and think it reads pretty well. I’m also aware that it’s first effort, and also because it was written to be in present time in the 90s, just about out of time in terms of feeling at all contemporary (there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remaining, to pick just one obvious example in the book). At this point I suggest people consider it as part of an alternate history which branched off from our timeline in 1998 or thereabouts. Occasionally it gets talked about for being picked for TV/film. If that ever happens, expect some extensive plot revisions. Otherwise, it is what it is.

One thing I do like about Agent is that I still have people tell me that it’s their favorite of mine. I like that because I think it’s nice to know that even this very early effort, done simply for the purpose of finding out if I could write a novel, does what I think a novel should: Entertains people and makes them glad they spent their time with it.

I’m also happy it’s the novel that told me I could do this thing, this novel-writing thing, and that I listened to it. The last couple of decades have turned out pretty well for me. I’m excited to see where things go from here.

[syndicated profile] charlie_stross_diary_feed


I learned this from Robin Hobb, though I'm pretty sure she didn't realize that she was teaching it to me at the time: there is no extra credit in science fiction. 

By which I mean, one of the things that I do, that other writers do, that people in various other fields probably do too (though I don't have direct experience of that) is that we make extra work for ourselves because of... I don't know, acculturation probably that if we JUST WORK HARDER and are teacher's pets and volunteer for extra labor that somehow we'll get better outcomes. This is superstition, really--because publishing is an enormously unpredictable and random business where quality is not always rewarded, and a lot of things can go wrong. And like anybody who makes their living off a capricious and dangerous environment (actors, fishermen) writers are prone to superstitions as a means of expressing agency in situations where we're honestly pretty helpless. (Nobody controls the hive-mind of the readership. Oh, if only we did.)

Now, by extra credit, please note that I don't mean the things that I consider part of baseline professionalism in a writer: turning in a manuscript that is as clean and artistically accomplished as possible, as expediently as possible, and working with your editor to polish and promote the resulting book. What I mean is raising those bars to unsupportable levels, such as: "I will turn in a completely clean manuscript so that the copyeditor has nothing to do!" and "I have a series of simple edits here, which I will resolve be rewriting the entire book, because then my editor will be more impressed with me."

Spoiler: The copyeditor will have stuff to do, because part of her job is making sure that if you break house style you're doing it on purpose. Also, your editor will probably be a little nonplussed, and possibly sneak a pull out of the bottle of Scotch in her bottom drawer, because you've just made a lot more work for her.

Other manifestations include: "I must write forty guest blog posts today!" and "I must write at least twenty pages every single day to validate my carbon footprint!"

(That latter one is the one I tend to fall prey to, for the record.)

I see it a lot among women writers especially, probably because we feel like we constantly have to validate our right to be in a space that is only intermittently welcoming, but it's certainly not a gender-specific problem. 

And the thing is... it just isn't so. You don't have to do a pile of extra credit work. It doesn't help, and might in fact be detrimental--to your health, your sanity, and eventually your career. It's possible to out-produce your readership's appetite; it's possible to out-produce the publishing slots available to you; it's possible to fuss yourself so much over tiny details that don't actually matter that you add years to your production schedule and die broke in a gutter, or talk yourself out of finishing the book entirely.

They're never perfect. They're just as good as you can get them, in the limited time available, and then they're done and you learned something and the next one can be better, you hope.

And nobody's going to bump your 4.0 up to a 4.2 because you did a bunch of homework you didn't actually need to do to get the finished product as good as possible, and also out the door.

Amazing Spider-Man #22

Jul. 21st, 2017 05:53 pm
[syndicated profile] andrew_rilstone_feed

Posted by Andrew Rilstone

Preeeeeeesenting…the Clown, and his Masters of Menace!

The former Circus of Crime

Supporting Cast: 
Liz Allan, Flash Thompson, Betty Brant, J. Jonah Jameson, Aunt May (one panel only) + Mrs Van Der Twilliger and a chorus of police, doctors, schoolkids and art-lovers. 

This is the first time Spider-Man fails to appear on the cover of his own comic; it won’t happen again till issue #58. (Issues #63 and #72 have symbolic covers in which only the villain and the spider-signal feature; issue #79 has Peter Parker in peril) 

The splash page is purely symbolic (we never see the Masters of Menace in a circus ring, and Spider-Man certainly doesn’t see the Ringmaster walking out on them.) The cover is more or less an enlargement of the first panel of the first page. 

In Duel With Daredevil the Circus of Crime appeared to consist of Samson, a strong man; two trapeze artists (unnamed) and a human cannonball (also unnamed). There are also figures on stilts, a figure in an “Arabian nights” costume, a bald uni-cyclist, and at least two clowns. (When the Ringmaster first appeared in Hulk #3, he had a clown, a cave-man, a midget human cannonball, and a grotesque with a long neck working for him.) The Clown and Princess Python appear here for the first time: but in a classic piece of Stan Lee "backfilling" everyone takes it for granted that they were in the team which Spider-Man defeated a few issues back.

p2 “In a sleazy hotel room in a shabby hotel, some sneaky sinners are startled by the sight of a sparkling spider-signal.” Lee doesn’t generally go in for this level of alliteration. (The Batman TV show, which loved it, is still a year in the future.)

p2With my little gizmo secretly stuck to his fedora… Obviously, the Ringmaster wears a top hat, not a fedora. It isn’t immediately clear why Parker gets this wrong. It’s an incredibly weak joke.

P4 “Some of these new biochemical discoveries of Dr Henry Pym are awfully interesting.” Dr Pym is, of course Gi/Ant Man. Why Peter Parker is reading his research in a high school science class is unclear. (There doesn't seem to be a teacher in the room, so maybe this is some kind of private study period?) 

p9 “Those crummy rat finks! I got them all together! Taught them all they know!” It is a good thing the Ringmaster literally recites his soliloquies out loud, so people hanging by the window can find out what is going on. 

“One things for sure! I’m not Tuesday Weld” Tuesday Weld was a child actor turned adult Broadway star. Interestingly enough, she had guest starred in two episodes of an entirely forgotten circus-themed TV drama/soap “The Greatest Show on Earth.” 

p9 He’s probably…using my old hideout…the warehouse where we stores all our circus equipment….on west 22nd Street.” West 22nd Street is between Grenwich Village and Times Square, in the Chelsea theater district, a by-no-means unlikely place to be storing circus gear. 

p11Boy! Didn’t any of you ever hear of the Good Neighbor Policy” The Good Neighbor Policy refers primarily to Roosevelt’s foreign policy towards South America in the 1930s. Again, this joke makes much more sense if Stan Lee, rather than Peter Parker, is making it. 

p17 “Before they can take it on the lam…”  i.e before they can run away with the loot. 

Peter Parker’s financial situation: Peter sells pictures to the Bugle for the first time since issue #19. Jameson says the pictures of the Circus of Crime being arrested are “wizard” and “front page stuff” so Peter probably takes $2,000, leaving $4,000 in the cookie jar.

I think Spider-Man fans may want to shout at me this month; because having been quite rude about the generally well-regarded Scorpion story, I am going to give a cautious thumbs up to the frequently overlooked second appearance of the Circus of Crime. 

It's a heist story -- specifically, a thieves-fall-out tale. A number of plot lines lead our hero on a moderately merry dance. The Circus of Crime are out of jail (after 6 months); Spider-Man tracks them down to their hotel room and intimidates them with his Spider-signal. (Unusually for Ditko, the cover is simply an embiggerment of the first frame of the story.) During the confrontation, he cleverly slips a spider-tracer into the band of the Ringmaster’s hypnotic hat. But after he has gone, the circus troupe turn against the Ringmaster, who has after all landed them in prison twice before, and kick him out of the band. The team, now led by the Clown, decide to rob an art gallery as their first solo gig. The Clown distracts everyone with his juggling unicycle act, while the rest of the gang make off with the paintings. But wouldn't you know it! The art exhibition they chose to rob is the one being sponsored by J. Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle -- they end up putting J.J.J. in hospital. 

The Clown doesn't do a great deal in the story -- Princess Python is the central baddie -- but he is a splendidly sinister Ditko creation, all painted on sad face and frown, who idly juggles and unicycles while planning daring crimes. 

Of course, when Spider-Man tries to track them down, his spider-tracer leads him to the hide-out of the Ringmaster, who is no longer part of the band. But Spider-Man hypnotizes the Ringmaster with his own hat and finds out where the gang is hiding out. Princess Python offers to turn the other members of the gang over to the police, and share the loot with Spider-Man. The Clown, realizing he’s going to be double-crossed, takes the paintings himself and makes off with them; only to intercepted by the Ringmaster, who decides he's going to have the artwork -- but he in turn has been trailed by the police. 

The story is structured as a sequence of two to three pages scenes, only a minority of which involve fighting: the robbery (page 5-7); Spidey tracks down the Ringmaster (page 7-9); Spidey fights the Clown, Cannonball and the acrobats (pages 11 - 13 and 15); Princess Python tries to seduce Spidey (page 16 - 17) ; Spidey's big fight with the python (page 18).  This makes for a very pacy read. By Stan Lee’s criteria, there is little “action” in the comic — no single extended fight. But more happens on each page, both in terms of plot movement and in terms of physical action than in many a 12 page battle sequence.

No-one would accuse Silver Age Marvel of having been a hotbed of feminism; but Amazing Spider-Man isn't usually the worst culprit. (Early Fantastic Four can be genuinely uncomfortable to read because of its casual sexism.) But the relationship between Spider-Man and Princess Python is downright weird. When the Princess initially tries to seduce him, Spidey remains as acerbic as ever: 

"Why don’t you and I team up? We could make beautiful music together!"
"Sorry ma’am. I happen to be tone deaf."

But when she confronts him physically we get this kind of thing: 

Spidey: "What can I do now? I can’t fight a female. I can’t use force against her…"
Princess: "My only chance is to take advantage of being female…"
Spidey: "I don’t want to have to get rough with a female…"

It's almost like Stan Lee himself feels uncomfortable with the idea of a lady baddie and keeps drawing attention to it. The very word "female" sounds clumsy, coming from someone who normally calls women "gals" or "chicks". (Note that at the beginning of the story, Betty admitted that she was a "foolish, jealous, female"). But the taboo against male on female fight scenes seems to have been taken out of all proportion. As far as it goes, it is sensible to bring up schoolboys  — who, by hypothesis, fight each other all the time to establish status — to think that it is not manly to start a fight with a woman, or with a smaller man, or with anyone wearing glasses. And you wouldn’t stage man vs woman wrestling bouts or prize fights for the same reason you don't have mixed tennis tournaments —  there is too much disparity in strength and stamina for the fight to be fair or interesting. But it seems that this playground honour code has been turned into an unbreakable moral principal. Is it really the case than a male can never hit a female? What does a male police officer do if a female criminal is resisting arrest? Don't male soldiers ever have to confront female warriors on the other side? What does a gentleman do if a lady hits him first? 

It will be a long time before Spider-Man has to confront this dilemma again: he doesn't have another female opponent until Medusa (#62) and the Black Widow (#86). 

There is a strong sense that this issue is trying to create a new, post-triptych format in which characters have comic foibles rather than personalities. When J.J.J threatens to fire Peter Parker (a freelancer) no-one even bother to pretend they think he means it. When he learns that Betty has kept a vigil by his hospital bed he exclaims “Too lazy to go to work, eh!” and Betty smiles ”He’s as nasty as ever — so I know he’s all right now!” The issue before last Jameson was paying masked supervillains to murder Spider-Man: now he is a Perry White style comic foil whose bark is worse than his bite. Similarly, Peter and Betty are repeatedly shown together during the art heist, giving the impression that they are now a couple in the way that Lois and Clark are. The final page, with Peter saying “Oh no! The painting have been recovered! We’ll have to look at them again!” and the three of them marching off together feels very much like the end of situation comedy. 

Which is far from being a criticism. If the Amazing Spider-Man is to continue as a monthly comic, it can't be in a state of permanent crisis: there needs to be a comfortable status quo which can be disrupted and reestablished each month.

This is a perfectly adequate story, with tons of plot movement, some dead ends, and some minor twists. Lee and Ditko could carry on giving us this kind of thing almost indefinitely. But three issues on from The End of Spider-Man, and there is still no real sense of direction for the new, self-confident Peter Parker.

[syndicated profile] badastronomy_feed

Posted by Phil Plait

Oh, I love stories like this: “Citizen scientists” —people who are not necessarily trained scientists but are enthusiastic and eager to take part in scientific research— have discovered a brown dwarf near the Sun. They examined data taken by an orbiting observatory and found the little beastie right at the edge of the telescope’s detection capabilities.

OK, first: Simply put, a brown dwarf is an object that is in between the mass of a planet and a star. That’s really too simply put; we’re talking about a rich and diverse class of objects, every bit as varied and interesting as planets and stars themselves (for that reason, I think it’s unfair to call them “failed stars,” as some do; they are their own thing, and fascinating in their own right). You can find out a lot about them by watching my brown dwarf episode of Crash Course Astronomy:

Being warmish, brown dwarfs tend to emit most of their light in the infrared part of the spectrum, outside the color range our eyes can see. But we can build detectors that are sensitive to infrared, attach them to telescopes, launch them into space, and sweep the sky to see what’s out there.

Astronomers have done this, many times, including with the wonderful Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, for several years starting in 2010. It looked in four different wavelengths (colors) of IR light, creating a vast catalog of objects in the sky — over three-quarters of a billion of them.

A lot of those objects were brown dwarfs. They were found in two ways: Either by their colors (they tend to emit light at a specific IR color, making them stand out in WISE images) or by their motion. Brown dwarfs are extremely faint, so we only see ones that are relatively nearby the Sun (like, out to 100 light-years away or so). Because they’re close, their motion in space as they orbit the galaxy means we can see them move over time … it’s just like nearby trees seem to whiz past you when you’re in a car, when more distant object appear to move more slowly. Finding moving brown dwarfs is hard; they’re faint and look little more than blips in the images. This makes automating the search difficult (computers are easy to fool). But the human eye is good at seeing such things! And such a task doesn’t need a lot of training, either.

star sizes to scale

Size comparison of a normal star like the Sun, a red dwarf, a brown dwarf, and Jupiter. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

That’s why the folks at Zooniverse decided to take this on. This is a group of astronomers and researchers who figured out that non-scientists can not only participate in scientific research but also give a meaningful contribution to it as well. They collect data in the public domain (quite a bit of astronomical data) and present them in such a way that people can analyze them through simple tasks. For example, Galaxy Zoo asks people to identify spiral galaxies and determine whether the arms open clockwise or counterclockwise. Simple, fun, and oddly addictive, in fact. I’ve identified hundreds of galaxies myself there, and they’ve published quite a few papers on the results.

They did a similar project with the WISE images. Called Back Yard Worlds, it blinks four images from WISE observations taken of the same part of the sky at different times. The images have been processed a bit, subtracting one from another, so that fixed objects like stars and galaxies are suppressed, hopefully leaving behind moving targets. Your task: Look for the things that change. It’s not easy; I just tried it and there are lots of things that can fool the eye. But if enough people look at enough images, things turn up.

brown dwarf animation

Animation showing the very subtle motion of WISEA J110125.95+540052.8 in the four WISE images. Credit: NASA / WISE

And something did: On February 1, 2017, less than a week after the launch of Back Yard Worlds, a user spotted what looked like a slowly moving object. It appears as a “dipole,” a shifting spot of black and white due to the way the images were subtracted from one another. Two days later, another user spotted it, then three more not too much after that.

Clearly, the object was real. At this point, professional astronomers used NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility, a 3-meter telescope in Hawaii, to observe the object, and they quickly determined it was indeed a brown dwarf.

It has been dubbed WISEA J110125.95+540052.8 (after its coordinates in the sky), and it’s about 110 light-years away. Not much is known about it except that it has a spectral type of T5.5, meaning it’s an intermediate mass and cool brown dwarf (with a temperature of very roughly 650-1250°C, much cooler than the Sun).

Brown dwarf before and after

Two WISE observations (each composed of several images added together) taken five years apart show the motion of the brown dwarf. Credit: Kuchner et al.

This is exciting for many reasons. For one, finding a single brown dwarf in the data implies that there are more to be discovered; the researchers estimate that more than a hundred previously undiscovered brown dwarfs should be hiding in the WISE data, waiting to be found. A half dozen or so of them may be Y dwarfs, the very coolest kind seen: Some are no warmer than room temperature!

Another reason is that I love that the public gets a chance to get their feet wet with real data. This isn’t some simulation, or some overly simplified homework assignment. This is real science, with real data, that could have a real impact. And in this case, it did, and will continue to do so. It’s wonderful that non-scientists, laypeople, can have the chance to participate in that.

And finally, there’s the potential of this. There is a lot of data out there. Did you know that all Hubble data older than one year is available through an archive? It’s not like you can just grab it and discover strange, new worlds —unlike Zooniverse, CosmoQuest, and other citizen science projects, there’s a huge overhead and learning curve with Hubble data— but there are thousands upon thousands of images and spectra just waiting to be analyzed, far more than the scientists who took them could ever hope to process.

And that’s just Hubble. Cassini, the Mars rovers, Juno … there are dozens of observatories and spacecraft with data just sitting there. What treasures lie within? What discoveries patiently await us? What new kinds of objects, old objects behaving in new ways, new phenomena, have already been captured by these eyes on the sky … biding their time until human eyes gaze upon it?

This idea is thrilling. The whole Universe is out there, and you can be a part of unveiling it.

Tip o’ the dew shield to Astrobites.


Logo Format

Light Logo

Listicle Format

No Markers

Featured Post


Article Type


Is News

Breaking News


Standout Article

Image icon wise_0855_bd_art.jpg

Hide Related Posts & Comments


Listicle Display Type


Show the Media Gallery title

Video Hero Autoplay

Show on Hero

Hero Image

Why Coase’s Penguin didn’t fly *

Jul. 21st, 2017 03:04 pm
[syndicated profile] crooked_timber_feed

Posted by Henry

This is a belated response to Cory’s post on Coase, Benkler and politics, and as such a class of a coda to the Walkaway seminar. It’s also a piece that I’ve been thinking about in outline for a long, long time, in part because of disagreements with Yochai Benkler (who I’ve learned and still learn a ton from, but whom I would like to see address concrete power relations more solidly).

As I said in my own contribution to the seminar, Cory’s arguments in this book are a kind of culmination of what I’ve called BoingBoing socialism – a set of broad ideas exploiting the notion that there is some valuable crossover between the politics of the left and the politics of Silicon Valley. Hence the aim of this post: not to deride that argument, nor to embrace it, but to think more specifically about its possibility conditions.

Yochai’s Penguin

As Cory emphasizes in his response piece, Yochai Benkler’s article, Coase’s Penguin is one of the touchstones of his understanding of politics.

It’s been 15 years since Benkler made the connection between “commons-based peer-production” and Coase. Networked tools—wikis, source/version control, crawlers, searchbots, collaborative filters (and more advanced machine-learning cousins), containers, VMs, and others—provide a cauldron for all the stone soup the networked world cares to cook. Any of us can throw our contribution into the pot, and possibly improve the soup, and if the soup is not improved, we can always ctrl-Z revert it back to an earlier state. If we disagree about what belongs in the soup, we can fork the soup (or, I suppose, spoon it) and you can have your soup and I can have my soup and we don’t have to agree what goes in the soup.

The Coasean Internet is how we make OSes and encyclopedias with the kind of hierarchy we once deployed to oversee bake-sales or small town councils. These hierarchies aren’t nothing—indeed, they can be intense focii of bickering that can escalate to blood feuds (Kim Stanley Robinson has many special geniuses—Belle!—but the thing he does most wonderfully is elevate these fights to the same status as rayguns and other dramatic rubbish). But they’re still small potatoes compared to the palace intrigue of running an armed forces or a national government.

This is genuinely futuristic. The snarling, often dysfunctional world of Wikipedia edit wars and holy wars over free software vs open source are a much smaller hierarchical/institutional price to pay for getting projects on the scale of OSes and encylopediae than the institutions they are displacing. …

As a Coasean tale, Walkaway is one of the battleground between the technological, Promethean left—which has promised to lift peasants up to the material comfort of lords—and the de-growth green left, which promises to bring lords down to the level of the peasants in the name of saving the planet.


This isn’t a novel about 3D printing our way out of scarcity, it’s a novel about the pointy end of the abundance triangle—coordination, the least science fictional corner—stretching out into an impossible isosceles, whose other corners (manufacturing and desire) whirl in great arcs on that elongated tip. … These intermediate states are only in our grasp if we can overcome self-serving bullshit: beliefs in the venality of our fellow humans (which justify our lack of care for their plight and our lack of generosity to help them out of it). … This is (in my view) a Utopian vision. It supposes that the Bohemian projects that even the most buttoned-down societies allow at their margins can breed real discontent and nurture and sustain it into something that genuinely challenges its host.

In short, Walkaway is a novel about coordination. And it borrows substantially from a particular vision of coordination – that vision set out in Yochai Benkler’s classic article (and related book, which was the subject of another Crooked Timber seminar back in the day). Benkler envisioned an Internet where the costs of decentralized production had fallen massively. This meant that new forms of decentralized “peer production” could emerge, and challenge both traditional markets and traditional firm hierarchies. Benkler championed open source software, and forms of knowledge production such as Wikipedia as the avatars of a new model.

Benkler still defends a version of this argument today. However, I think it’s fair to say that the Internet that we see today is not the Internet that Benkler envisaged. Benkler and Nick Carr quasi-famously had a wager as to whether decentralized forms of coordination would win out on the Internet over centralized sites. There was dispute over who won that wager – but if Facebook really represents a ‘win’ for decentralized coordination, then it’s fair to say that decentralized coordination didn’t turn out as attractive as advertised.

There are plenty of reasons why we see the Internet we have today, rather than one dominated by Wikipedia-style decentralized collectives. One reason is that largely-passive-participation-plus-surveillance-plus-ads turned out to be a more attractive business model than the active participation approach that Benkler favored (he worried about whether people would participate enough or not, but it turned out that participation wasn’t the problem). The second was the standard political economy problem of who got the surplus – it turned out that (a) many of the benefits from standard platforms went to the platform designers, and (b) that they had both the incentive and ability to shape their platforms so as to extract more of the surplus over time (one could still argue, as John Q. has in the past, that the consumer surplus generated by Google dwarfs its profits, but that’s an argument for another day). But I want to focus on a third reason why things went wrong – that Benkler borrows his argument from Coase, and hence is vulnerable to a basic flaw in Coase’s way of understanding the world.

Benkler, Coase and efficiency

Ronald Coase (whom I met once – he was terrifyingly sharp, even in his 90s) was one of the founders of the new institutional economics. Accordingly, he viewed the world like an economist – in terms of efficiencies (generated by private actors) and the inefficiencies generated by government regulations. While he often complained about the way that his famous Theorem was taken up (he thought that the transaction costs were the interesting thing, rather than the solutions that could be generated if they were absent), the starting proposition of his philosophy was that market actors can by and large reach efficient outcomes if only they are left alone to do so.

This is one of the features of his theory of the firm. Coase wanted to explain why we saw firms at all, given the benefits of market exchange. Why did we need miniature hierarchies with bosses and subordinates, if we could just buy and sell our services on markets instead?

His answer was transaction costs. Some transactions are too messy or awkward to be easily handled by putting out to the marketplace. Those are the transactions that are handled in-house through hierarchy. Other transactions, which are more straightforward, can be contracted for with outside providers, through market processes. Finally (although he doesn’t really discuss this) the balance can change over time, as new technologies emerge that make transactions more or less easy to carry out through hierarchy or markets.

This is a powerful insight, which provided a platform for the work of Oliver Williamson and many other organizational economists, as well as Benkler. Yet it has buried within it a crucial assumption – that change is driven by efficiencies. An entrepreneur is going to expand her firm exactly up to that point (given a variety of external parameters) where it is barely efficient to work through hierarchy rather than market processes. Past that, the entrepreneur will just rely on markets instead.

Benkler buys into this argument, suggesting that his new mode of decentralized organization too will expand or contract in given areas of activity, depending on its relative efficiency to markets or hierarchy. Where markets are more efficient than Wikipedia style systems, people will turn to markets. Where hierarchy is more efficient they will turn to hierarchy. Nonetheless, Benkler argues that a variety of factors (including the burgeoning of the Internet) might lead us to believe that decentralized production is rapidly becoming more efficient than competing modes such as markets and hierarchies, across a significant spectrum of activities. Thus, we may expect to see a lot more decentralized production happening as the technology continues to develop.

if we posit the existence of such a third option it is relatively easy to adapt the transactions cost theory of the firm and the comparative institutional cost theory of property to include it. We would say that when the cost of organizing an activity on a peered basis is lower than the cost of using the market, and the cost of peering is lower than the cost of hierarchical organization, then peer production will emerge.

Efficiency and production

As already discussed, this didn’t happen. But it also highlights an important problem which isn’t really discussed by Coase, and hence is not discussed by Benkler – power. Power relationships often explain who gets what, and which forms of organization are taken up, and which fall by the wayside. In general, forms of production that are (a) more efficient, but (b) inconvenient or unprofitable for powerful actors, are probably not going to be taken up, since those powerful actors will block them. Yet if one starts from an efficiency perspective, it is very hard to build power relations in, since one believes that change in practices and institutions is not driven by power relations but by efficiency.

Here – as a few readers will recognize, I’m riffing on Jack Knight’s (in my view fundamentally unanswerable) objection to Coase-style ways of thinking about the world. Jack points out that if you are an economist, as Coase is, you really ought start from the assumption that individuals are self interested. If self interested actors have the power to block changes that would hurt their self interest, they are going to do so. Therefore, the kinds of efficiency driven processes of change that Coase (and Benkler) talk about are only going to happen under very unusual conditions.

Knight (in a 1995 chapter in Explaining Social Institutions which I assign every time I teach graduate students about institutions) provides a nice account of how this works. He proposes that we can think of institutional change (such as, perhaps, the growth of decentralized forms of production) as a so-called ‘mixed motive coordination’ or ‘battle of the sexes’ game (below is a very heavily simplified version of his arguments).

In such games, two actors face mixed incentives. On the one hand, they want to coordinate on an equilibrium. On the other, each would prefer that they both coordinate on a particular equilibrium rather than the other. Take as an example, two (deliberately non-gender specific) individuals in a relationship, Pat and Alex. They are deciding whether they should both go to the movies, or take a walk through the woods. Pat would prefer to go to the movies. Alex would prefer to walk through the woods. But both would prefer to be together doing a shared activity, rather than being on their own.

This can be represented as a 2×2 bargaining game (the left number is the payoff for Pat, and the right number the payoff for Alex). As one can see, Pat is very happy if they choose the movie, while Alex is only moderately so. The converse is true for the walk in the woods. But both really hate the situation in which they fail to coordinate.

This very simple model captures a wide variety of social relationships in which (a) we want to coordinate (it sucks being in one of the non-coordination cells), but (b) we have differing preferences over what we should coordinate on.

Knight’s argument is that we can introduce power into this relationship by thinking about the breakdown values – the payoffs in the cells where coordination breaks down. Look at this slightly modified version of the first game.

In the first game, the breakdown values were symmetric (both Pat and Alex suffered equally). In this game, the breakdown values are asymmetric. Pat suffers a lot less than Alex when they fail to coordinate. Knight argues that differences in breakdown values are a good index of the options that actors have in the case of failure, and hence a good index of power. If Pat cares a lot less about being with Alex than Alex does about Pat (say, Pat has other options for a date) then Pat isn’t going to be nearly as badly hurt if they can’t coordinate. Furthermore, Pat is in a great bargaining position, and can tell Alex credibly that they are going to the movies or else not spending time together, since both of them know that Alex will be a lot more hurt if they end up apart than Pat will.

This is a very simple model, but it arguably represents many social relationships. One business can extract much better terms from another if it is the only customer (or supplier) for a service. Peasants reportedly did much better in relations with lords after the Black Death since there were fewer of them, and lords had less opportunity to play them off each other. Very often, breakdown values depend on exit options. The more exit options you have, the less likely you are to be badly hurt if coordination fails. And the more exit options you have, the better able you are to bargain, so that you end up at the outcome that you prefer, rather than the outcome that the other party prefers.

What this means, if you take it seriously, is that Coaseian coordination is a special case of bargaining. Broadly speaking, Coaseian processes will lead to efficient outcomes only under very specific circumstances – when the actors have symmetrical breakdown values, as in the first game, so that neither of them is able to prevail over the other. More simply put, the Coase transaction cost account of how efficient institutions emerge will only work when all actors are more or less equally powerful. Under these conditions, it is perfectly alright to assume as Coase (and Benkler by extension) do, that efficiency considerations rather than power relations will drive change. In contrast, where there are significant differences of power, actors will converge on the institutions that reflect the preferences of powerful actors, even if those institutions are not the most efficient possible.

Imagine, say, that Pat and Alex aren’t lovers – they are boss and employee in a city where jobs are scarce. Here, as in the second game, Pat will have more bargaining power than Alex, since Pat can always find another employee, while Alex will have a hard time finding another job. Finally, imagine that they are bargaining over workplace processes, where one process would be relatively inefficient, but provide Pat as boss with high profits, and the other would be relatively efficient, while providing Pat with less profits. Pat – as boss in a hard labor market – is likely to be able to push successfully for the less efficient process that provides more benefits.

Now imagine that there are multitudes of Pats and multitudes of Alexes – multitudes of bosses with many exit options and workers with few – within a given economy. Over time, we may expect that Alexes will learn that it is best to take whatever deal the Pats are offering, since they will otherwise lose their job. A set of mutually reinforcing expectations will arise about how the workplace will be organized, which may not be the most efficient way to organize the workplace, but which will be self-reinforcing, since it suits the Pats pretty nicely, and the Alexes know that they will be fired if they object. This set of mutually reinforcing expectations is an informal institution – a rule that everyone adheres to. To take another example – imagine that Pat is white and Alex is African-American in the pre-Civil Rights Deep South. There are a multitude of informal rules (say that Alex has to step off the sidewalk when Pat approaches), some of which are trivial, some serious, but which in general profoundly disadvantage Alex. These informal rules can be very sticky, even when they are economically inefficient, because they reflect a set of heavily asymmetric power relations.

This has notable implications for Benkler’s bet with Carr. It helps explain some (but not all) of what has happened over the last fifteen years. Some actors have developed market power, because, for example, it is hard for customers or users to do without their platforms (say: Facebook, or Google), and their platforms are self-sustaining because of returns to scale, network effects or similar. They have been able to take advantage of that power to make deals with their customers, users and others that wring enormous advantage from them. If you don’t want to use Facebook (I don’t), you have to cut yourself off from a swathe of social relations. Nor can you really bargain as an individual with Facebook over the conditions of your relationship – you accept their Terms of Service, or you don’t use their service. Thus, we see business models that have some aspects of decentralization, but where the actual control is not decentralized, but instead focused on the owners of the platform, who can effectively set the rules under which others operate.

Bargaining, Coase and politics

So what does this mean for BoingBoing socialism? It suggests that it has to go radical if it is to work. When Cory (or others) argue that the “Bohemian projects that even the most buttoned-down societies allow at their margins can breed real discontent and nurture and sustain it into something that genuinely challenges its host,” they may be right. But the challenge will only occur under quite particular conditions. Specifically, they will only work when power relations are such that new institutional forms cannot readily be squashed by powerful actors who don’t see them as being in their interest. They will only be attractive from a left-utopian perspective when the inequalities that they themselves represent and perpetuate are better than the inequalities they are replacing.

That’s why, in my own essay on Walkaway, I focused so much on exit. Exit has two valuable components. First, it can sometimes provide a solution in itself. If you want to make something different than what others are doing, and can simply walk away from existing practices to roll your own, then you will obviously have a much easier time in experimenting. Second, it can enhance voice. If you have the possibility of exit (a la Hirschman – but also Knight’s games set out above), and people care about you staying, then you have a credible threat that you can use to get people to pay attention to what you say, and perhaps make the changes that you want them to make.

There are, of course, other forms of power that can be exercised than exit – but it is the one that Doctorow’s novel emphasizes, as its title indicates. The crucial point is that if one is to build a quasi-utopian society along the lines that Doctorow suggests (or, at a pinch, a better society than the one we have now), it (a) has to rest on far more egalitarian power relations, and (b) has to be built in contention with a body of actors who have quite a lot of power and mostly like things the way they are already.

This isn’t a claim that I think that Cory would at all object to, although I’d still push him to talk more explicitly about how we need boring everyday politics as well as technology to fix inequality. It does, however, suggest that there’s a sharp political difference between people who are genuinely committed to baseline egalitarianism (and are prepared to push politically for this) and people who think that some kind of better world will emerge from technology if we just leave it alone. This distinction is muted (or even buried) by arguments such as Benkler’s, which focus on efficiency rather than power relations as the major factor explaining why new institutional forms emerge. But (as per my arguments above), I think it’s central. Over a decade ago, Doug Henwood talked (in another book that we ran a seminar on – this is a theme) about the relationship between technological rhetoric and actual power:

while this book has been rather unfriendly to New Economy dogma, it’s still worth examining its utopian bits. Arising in the midst of what looked like a period of unrestrained capitalist triumphalism, New Economy discourse expressed hopes for something rather different from our predominant economic reality. In a time of massive wealth polarization, it talked about the democratization of ownership. In a time of mass overwork, it dreamt of meaningful, enjoyable work, self-management and flattened hierarchies. In what seemed like a profoundly conservative time, it appropriated language of revolution … Amidst a vast speedup of the social factory’s assembly line, it evoked fantasies of abundance. And amidst aggressive attempts to privatize information, tighten up intellectual property restrictions, and put a meter on almost everything but the air, it stoked hopes for global linkages. ‘Information wants to be free,’ the saying goes, but not as long as AOL Time Warner has its say.

But why did The System’s publicists need the utopian story? If all challenges to capitalism were dead, why did we hear so much about democratization and the overturning of hierarchy? Evidently, the message has appeal, even in conservative times.

Fine. If a little hierarchy-overturning economic democratization is such a good thing, then why not more? As Jack Kemp once said in a very different context, if you’re going to go for it, you should really go for it.

In short – we need to distinguish between the rhetorical claims that technological change will bring openness along with it, and the (far more sustainable) claim that technology will probably only have openness enhancing benefits in a world where we are already dealing with the underlying power relations. The best recent account of this perspective that I’ve seen comes from Astra Taylor in The People’s Platform.

openness alone does not provide the blueprint for a more equitable social order, in part because the ‘freedom’ promoted by the tech community almost always turns out to be of the Darwinian variety. Openness in this context is ultimately about promoting competition, not protecting equality in any traditional sense; it has little to say about entrenched systems of economic privilege, labor rights, fairness, or economic redistribution. Despite enthusiastic commentators and their hosannas to democratization, inequality is not exclusive to closed systems. Networks reflect and exacerbate imbalances of power as much as they improve them.

If BoingBoing socialism is ever going to approximate actual socialism (by which I mean egalitarian social democracy), these are the problems it has to deal with.

  • Yes – I know that penguins don’t fly. That’s part of the joke.

Come work in Zurich

Jul. 21st, 2017 01:18 pm
[syndicated profile] crooked_timber_feed

Posted by Eszter Hargittai

Last week, I shared a bit about what my work day looks like. Want to come be a colleague? My department, the Institute for Mass Communication and Media Research at the University of Zurich, has two open positions. Applications are due soon, rather out-of-sync with the usual US job market time line for this field, so I’m trying to spread the word. If you know of academics for whom these positions may be of interest, please share the info with them. One is a tenure-track assistant professor position in political communication, the other is an open-rank position in media politics/media policy. Knowledge of German is not required although an openness to learn it is. I teach all of my classes in English. Starting my fourth year I may be asked to do some of my teaching in German. It’s a great work environment and it’s a wonderful city!

[syndicated profile] robinince_feed

Posted by robinince

Are there some topics you shouldn’t joke about or that you shouldn’t want to joke about? is suicide one of them?

A couple of years ago, I was talking to an ex-headteacher in a hotel bar after a gig. There were a few us around the table, as well as a stranger on a business trip who was lonely so joined in the drinking and olive eating. As I lent in to pick up my beer, the ex-headteacher grabbed my arm and said, “you comedians need to do more routines about suicide.”
In a matter of fact manner, she told me that her daughter had killed herself and she believed that it would help if talk of suicide did not seem such a taboo. As George Carlin probably said (I remember him saying it, but can find no trace of it), “stand up is a low art, but it’s a potent art.”
As I haven’t created much new stand up for a couple of years, I decided I should try to honour the ex-headteacher’s request. It is not easy.
How do I approach this subject tactfully, stupidly, insightfully and/or pointlessly?
Should I try to perform stand up about this at all?
George Carlin was there before me in 2005 show. Straight after his routine on cornholing, he asks, “do you realise that right this second, right now, somewhere around the world, some guy is getting ready to kill himself…do you ever stop to think about this stuff? I do. It’s fun. It’s interesting and it’s true.” He then spends five minutes approaching the subject with the dark, facetious nihilism that marked out his later HBO specials.
It’s an approach that won’t suit me. I don’t have the gravitas.
Where do I start?
Do I talk about the first time that I thought about suicide when I was nine years old, brought on by a fear of rabies from endlessly repeated, paranoia fuelling public information films and an episode of Terry Nation’s Survivors?
Do I talk about the story I was told about why suicide was made a sin by the church?
Apparently, it was nothing to do with Judas Iscariot and everything to do with life being so pustule and plague ridden and bloody awful that the priests worried their serfs would just kill themselves as a shortcut to heaven rather than go through the relentless rickets and burial of young loved ones.
Do I talk about poor Lupe Velez whose tragic suicide was retold by Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon. According to Anger, feeling her career was ebbing, she decided to drink her favourite wine, eat her favourite chilli con carné and then take some pills and lie on her ornate bed, her chihuahuas resting at her feet. She would be found like a serene god. Sadly, the combination of pills, wine and carné led to an upset stomach. She went to vomit, then slid in her vomit, cracked he head and was found splayed, dead and in disarray. I have since (today) found out this story is a myth. Obviously, the bleak laughs of this guillotine humour sells more books.
One friend who was depressed and had suicidal thoughts for weeks was persuaded against taking action when a friend said, “but you’d look so silly.”

One of the most peculiar and haunting sounds I have heard was the scream of a mother as her teenage child through themselves in front of a train. I was on the train at the time so was not aware of the cause of this alien noise. Remarkably, the child’s leap was perfectly timed for him to land under the train and survive unscathed. Hopefully this drive that led to him leaping is no longer with him now.
People on platforms say it is a selfish act, others tell me that it is a loss of self that leads to killing yourself. Some people are unable to imagine their worth or those who preferred a world with them rather than without.
I have been careful to speak to therapists who have dealt with suicidal people.
One told me darkly, “a suicide note is a positive thing, that person has started to talk, unfortunately, they have started too late.”
Another advised me, “I tend to feel you can be as dark as you need to be as long as everyone can hear you’re coming from the right place” and reminded me to avoid mawkishness and sentimentality.
I read Al Alvarez’s The Savage God, a study of suicide. He was a friend of Sylvia Plath and writes of how they would talk of suicide. Both tried to kill themselves, Alvarez survived his attempt.
It worries me that this might mean talking about it is not as useful as I hoped.
I tried something at a preview last night, it might just have been silly, silly and true. Maybe silly is enough to open up communication.
I might fail.
I might be told it is not worth the attempt.
I never thought it would be easy, but I think I’d prefer to try and write about this rather than cornholing.

Here is CALM, a charity that specifically aims to aid young men, The Samaritans and MIND in case you want to find out more on these issues or wish to contact someone.

Some sort of routine about this may or may not end up in this Edinburgh show at Stand 2. I am interested to know what you think.

A while back, on a day where I was heavily delayed on a train due to a suicide, I wrote this


Jul. 20th, 2017 07:28 pm
[syndicated profile] culture_vulture_feed

Posted by Neil Mudd

With two hundred artists and bands poised to descend on Humber Street in Hull for its annual one-day festival, organiser MARK PAGE talks to NEIL MUDD about community spirit, mental health and Bon Jovi tribute acts.
[syndicated profile] crooked_timber_feed

Posted by Corey Robin

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French leftist leader who I was hoping would beat Macron in the last election (as Chris knows, I’m really not a fan of Macron), sullies himself with this comment about French collaboration with the Holocaust. Responding to Macron’s speech in which Macron said France needed to take responsibility for its role in the roundup and extermination of the Jews (long a touchy subject in France), Mélenchon succumbs to the worst nationalist impulses to defend the honor of the French people.

Never, at any moment, did the French choose murder and anti-Semitic criminality. Those who were not Jewish were not all, and as French people, guilty of the crime that was carried out at the time! On the contrary, through its resistance, its fight against the [German] invader and through the reestablishment of the republic when the [Germans] were driven out of the territory, the French people, the French people proved which side they were actually on.

There’s an argument to be had (and one could see why in republican France some would want it to be had) about the relationship of the people to a collaborationist government under foreign occupation. Had Mélenchon simply said, look, the French people were divided, it’s hard to generalize, many collaborated, some resisted, Vichy wasn’t the official representative of the French people, let’s have a more textured understanding of history—that would be one thing. But that’s not simply what he says. (I’m not a reader of French, so I’m relying on the translations here. I’m also an outsider to French politics, and by no means an expert on all the local nuances and subtleties of this engagement. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.) He goes further. With that last line in particular, he does more than try to remove the stain of collective guilt. He tries to claim collective innocence: what the Resistance did, that was France. What Vichy did, that wasn’t France. That was those evil ministers, forever betraying the French nation and the French people, who proved by the actions of the resisters who they really are.

Not only is what Mélenchon said an offense against the historical record, but it evinces all the worst features of nationalism that I loathe: the special pleading, the knee-jerk impulse to defend one’s own (with the implicit acknowledgment that the Jews aren’t thought of as one’s own), the retrograde identity politics (one might say the original form of identity politics), the offshoring of evil (though in this regard, Mélenchon ties himself in knots, saying, according to that Haaretz report, that Vichy wasn’t really France; France was off in London), the tribalism and groupiness. Even worse, this desire to assert and insist upon the purity of one’s group: deep down, we’re really good, it was those evil politicians, who weren’t really French in their hearts, who did the bad things. That kind of thinking is just the flip side of Bush-style axis of evil talk. The left should defend collectives, yes, but for God’s sake, let them be collectives based on justice rather than purity, and let them be collectives other than the French—or any other—nation.

This whole episode brings me back to a moment more than 25 years ago.

It was after my first year in grad school. I was spending the summer in Freiburg, learning German. At the language school where I was studying, I made a group of friends from Italy, France, Britain, and elsewhere. One guy, Pascal, and I really hit it off. He was from France, the south of France I think, and a hardcore leftist. Super sweet guy, with a German girlfriend named Claudia. I really liked them both.

One night, around the end of the summer, Pascal and Claudia had me over to dinner. They lived pretty far outside of the city, in the country. It was a lovely evening. We all spoke German (our one common language), with Claudia gently helping Pascal and me along when we needed help. There was a lot of wine.

Toward the end of the evening, the topic turned to French politics. Mitterrand in particular. This must have been some time around his second term as President. I don’t remember what prompted this, but at some point in the discussion, through my wine-sodden haze, I heard Pascal hissing that Mitterrand was a Jew. Everything bad that Mitterrand did—and Pascal really hated Mitterrand, from the left—was because Mitterrand was a Jew. It was a tirade: Jew this, Jew that. I think Pascal even began slipping into French: Juif, Juif.

(Mitterrand, incidentally, also liked to pull this line that France wasn’t responsible for the roundup of the Jews, that it was this alien, un-French presence called Vichy that did that.)

After a few minutes of this, I gathered myself, and said, as calm and composed as I could be (why is it so hard to assert one’s dignity in these situations?): Mitterrand is not a Jew, but I am.

It was a terrible moment: a wonderful summer’s friendship, across the barriers of language and nation, poisoned by this sudden extrusion of anti-Semitism. From the left.

I said I wanted to leave. They drove me home (as I said, we were way out of town). Claudia, the German, was scandalized by what her boyfriend, the Frenchman, had said and told him so. She couldn’t stop apologizing to me, up until the minute I got out of the car. He just drove, silently. That was the last I ever saw of them.

I’ve traveled a lot, have lived abroad, and have been friends with people from all across the globe. I’ve been involved in all kinds of anti-Zionist politics here in the US, with Jews, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, and atheists. But it’s only been among Europeans—I talked about my experiences in Britain here—that I’ve ever felt someone look at me and see: Jew Jew Jew.

The Jewish Question has always been, for me, a European question.

[syndicated profile] badastronomy_feed

Posted by Phil Plait

Just over two years ago, the New Horizons spacecraft provided humanity with its first close-up photos of Pluto in history.

These images changed the way we see the icy world forever. What we learned was staggering. It has vast, smooth regions on its surface indicating they’re geologically young; mountains as tall as the Rockies but made entirely of water ice; strong implications of liquid water under its surface despite the bone-shattering cold temperatures on the surface.

The close encounter lasted only a few hours, because you have a choice: Get to Pluto in less than a lifetime, or spend more time there. Pluto is so far away that even New Horizons, barreling across the solar system at 14 kilometers every second, still took nearly a decade to get there. It was traveling so rapidly that the visit was short.


But, despite the rapid flyby, there’s an advantage to moving faster than a speeding bullet: There are other targets out there in the inky depths of the outer solar system, and if you plan things right, you might just get to see them, too.

Even before the Pluto encounter, astronomers started trolling that region of space to look for another suitable target. They found one: 2014 MU69, an icy chunk of debris likely at most 20-40 kilometers across. It orbits far, far past Neptune, 6.5 billion kilometers from the Sun. It’s part of the Kuiper Belt, a ragtag collection of material left over from the formation of the solar system itself. If you don’t count Pluto (and I do), the first Kuiper Belt Object seen was only in 1992, and we now know of thousands.

But they’re so far away and so small that it’s hard to know what they’re like in detail. And that’s why MU69 is so important. New Horizons will show it to us up close for the first time.

The plan is for the spacecraft to fly within 10,000 km of MU69 on January 1, 2019. Maybe closer. But, to do that, we need to know more about it. How big is it? What shape is it? Is there anything else around it that could interfere with the flyby, like moons, rings, or debris?

These things are difficult to determine, but astronomers got a big clue this week due to geometry. In this case, the stars literally aligned.

Well, the Earth, MU69, and a star aligned. On July 17, 2017, from certain points on Earth, MU69 appeared to pass directly in front of a faint star. Astronomers call this kind of event an occultation, and when it happens, the star’s light is blocked, and it seems to momentarily disappear! In a sense, in this case, we’re in the shadow of MU69.

The occultation provides critical information: Because we know how fast MU69 is moving across the sky, the length of time the star blinks out tells us the width of MU69.

But there’s more. If you observe the occultation from different locations, you see different parts of MU69 passing in front of the star. If it’s a perfect sphere, then some locations will see a shorter occultation because the star cuts a chord behind it, not the full diameter. In fact, the shape itself can be determined by how long the occultation lasts at different positions on Earth.

map of occultation

Map showing the path of the shadow of 2014 MU69 across the Earth. Credit: SwRI

So New Horizons scientists dispatched telescopes to South America, where the shadow of MU69 was determined to fall across the Earth. In all, a couple of dozen small (40 cm) ‘scopes were deployed, equipped with cameras to record the event.

And … they caught it! At least five telescopes saw the star blink out. That, too, is very useful: If a ‘scope didn’t see it, then that provides an upper limit to the size of MU69 as well. The entire occultation lasted less than two seconds, too, so timing and location were everything here.

animation of occultation

Animation of the star blinking out as MU69 passed in front of it. This is actual data from the event; the time between frames is 0.2 seconds. Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Emily Lakdawalla


The data are still being processed, and we should have some numbers soon. I’ll note that there were two predicted occultations of two different stars before July 17, but nothing was seen. That means MU69 is probably smaller than previously thought, which, in turn, means it might be more reflective — if we know the distance and how bright it is, then its size depends on how shiny it is. A darker object would have to be bigger to look brighter, so even this non-detection tells us more about it.

My friend and super-solar-system-science communicator Emily Lakdawalla has more about the efforts to record this event. She also wrote a nice piece on what we knew about MU69 from a couple of years back, too.

I can’t stress enough just how difficult this sort of event is to plan! MU69 was only discovered in 2014 using Hubble images. It has a visual magnitude of 27 — that means the faintest star you can see with your unaided eye is 250 million times brighter! Then, using those images, the team had to calculate an orbit for it, and do so with such precision that they could extrapolate where it would be over the next year or two and see if it would pass in front of any stars. Then they had to plan the logistics of all that travel, coordinating the mission and making sure the data were recorded. Yet, as difficult as all that was, they were able to do it so well and with such accurate timing that several of the telescopes did in fact see the star blink out.

Mind you, MU69 is far, far too faint to even see with the telescopes used. So the astronomers had to keep taking data and hope.

And it paid off. Now, armed with more data, they’ll be able to plan the upcoming encounter with a little more confidence. As for what we’ll actually see when New Horizons gets to MU69, well, no one really knows.

If we did, it wouldn’t be exploration now, would it? But in less than 17 months, we’ll find out.


Logo Format

Light Logo

Listicle Format

No Markers

Featured Post


Article Type


Is News

Breaking News


Standout Article

Image icon newhorizons_mu69_artwork.jpg

Hide Related Posts & Comments


Listicle Display Type


Show the Media Gallery title

Video Hero Autoplay

Show on Hero

Hero Image

The Big Idea: Nat Segaloff

Jul. 20th, 2017 01:34 pm
[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

When biographer and historian Nat Segaloff sat down to interview science fiction Grand Master Harlan Ellison for his new book A Lit Fuse, he knew that he was in for a challenge. What surprised him about the process was how much it wasn’t just about Ellison, but also about him.


How do you write something new about someone everybody thinks they already know? A writer who is famous for putting so much of his life into his stories that his fans feel that even his most bizarre work is autobiographical? That was the unspoken challenge in late 2013 when I agreed to write Harlan Ellison’s biography, an adventure that is just now seeing daylight with the publican of A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison.

I wrote the book because Harlan wouldn’t. He came close in 2008 when he announced he would write Working Without a Net for “a major publisher,” but he never did. Maybe he figured he’d said enough in his 1700 short stories, essays, and articles he’s published over the last 60 years. It wasn’t as if he was afraid of the truth; he always said he never lies about himself because that way nobody can hold anything against him. That was my challenge.

When we shook hands and I became his biographer, I also became the only person he ever gave permission to quote from his work and take a tour of his life. What I really wanted to do, though, was to explore his mind. What I didn’t expect was that, as I examined his creative process, I would also bare my own.

When you sit down with someone for a conversation, it’s fun; when you sit down with someone for an interview, it’s serious. Harlan has been interviewed countless times and he has always been in control. This time, I was. I had to get him to say stuff that was new, and I had to go beyond where others had stopped.

A Harlan Ellison interview is a performance. He will be quotable, precise, vague, and outrageous. He takes no prisoners. He will run and fetch a comic book, figurine, photograph, or book to illustrate a point, all of which breaks the mood. My job was to get him to sit still and not be “Harlan Ellison” but simply Harlan.

Harlan is one of the few speculative fiction writers (along with Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and a handful of others) who became public figures. Part of this stemmed from the quality of his work but much of it was created by his being, as I kept finding in the clippings, ““fractious,” “famously litigious,” and “argumentative.” Indeed, most of the stories I found during my research could be divided into two categories: “What a wild man Harlan is” and “I alone escaped to tell thee.”

Balderdash. What I discovered was a man who takes his craft seriously and fiercely defends others who labor in the field of words. An attack on them was an attack on him, and an attack on him was not to be deflected but returned in kind. “I don’t mind if you think I’m stupid,” he told one antagonist, “it’s just that I resent it when you talk to me as if I’m stupid.”

Even though I had final cut, I ran whole sections past him to get his reaction. He never flinched. In fact, he challenged me to go deeper. It was almost as if – and don’t take this the wrong way – I was Clarice Starling and he was Hannibal Lecter — the more I asked of Harlan, the more I had to give of myself. Both of us put our blood in the book even though I am the author.


A Lit Fuse: Amazon|NESFA Press


Getting Lucky With College Costs

Jul. 19th, 2017 07:02 pm
[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

The bill for Athena’s fall semester at Miami University arrived a couple of days ago, and we paid it, and I have some various thoughts about that I want to share.

When I went to college, 30 years ago now, I couldn’t pay for it. I did what the majority of people did then and do now — I cobbled together various sorts of funding from multiple sources. A scholarship here, a Pell grant there, a work study job and loans — and still it wasn’t quite enough when one of my funding sources fumbled the ball pretty badly and I had to ask my grandfather for help (which to be clear, he was happy to provide, with the only provision being that I would write him a letter a month, a request very much in my wheelhouse). I graduated with a fair amount of student debt, rather more than the average amount back in 1991, which was around $8,200. I think I was around 30 when we paid it off.

I don’t regret my college debt — I’m of the opinion that my education was worth what I paid for it and then some — but at the time I didn’t really like having the anxiety of wondering how it was all going to be paid for, and my education being contingent on outside financial forces, over which I had no control. I was lucky I was able to find ways to cover it all. I was also lucky that I got a good job right out of college (in 1991, during a recession), and was always financially solvent afterward. That college debt never became a drag or a worry, as it easily could have been, and which it did become for a number of my friends.

I don’t think scrambling for money or paying down college debt added anything beneficial to my life, however. As much as certain people might make a fetish of having to struggle in one way or another for one’s education, and that struggle having a value in itself, I’m not especially convinced that the current American manner of “struggle” — pricing college education at excessive rates and then requiring students and family to take on significant amounts of debt, effectively transferring decades of capital from the poor, working and middle classes to banks and their (generally wealthy) shareholders — is really such a great way to do that, especially since wages in general have stagnated over the last 40 years, the same period of time in which college tuition costs have skyrocketed, consistently above the rate of inflation. Worrying about college funding and paying off college debt isn’t character-building in any real sense. It’s opportunity cost, time wasted that might be productively spent doing something else educationally or financially beneficial.

So: I don’t regret my college debt, but I don’t think it was something that added value, either, to my education or my life. All things being equal, I suspect I would have been better off not having to worry whether I had enough funding for college any particular quarter, or being able to take the monthly post-collegiate debt payment and use it for something else, including investment. Not just me, of course; I don’t think anyone, students or parents (or colleges, for that matter), benefits from the current patchwork method of college funding, or the decade-long (or longer) hangover of college debt service.

We always assumed Athena would go to college; very early on we began saving and investing with the specific goal of funding her education. Along the way we caught the break of my writing career taking off, which meant the account intended for her education plumped out substantially. By the time it was the moment for Athena to decide where to go to college, we were in the fortunate position of being able to pay for it — all of it — wherever it was she decided to go. So, to go back to the initial paragraph, when that first Miami University bill came up, we were able to cut that check and send it off. No muss, no fuss. We’ll be able to do the same for the other college bills over the next four years.

Which is great for us! And not bad for Athena, who will end her college experience debt-free in a world where the average US student with college debt in 2016 was in the hole for $37,000, with that number only likely to go up from here. But let’s also look at everything that had to happen in order for us to get to that point: We saved early, which was smart of us, but we also had the wherewithal to save, which meant we got lucky that Krissy and I both had work, that in her case her gig included health insurance for all of us and that in my case I was in constant demand as a freelance writer, which, I assure you, is not always the case. We got lucky that the books took off as they did; the odds on that were not great. We were lucky that no one of us got seriously or chronically ill, or that other family crises depleted savings. Athena is an only child; that’s not necessarily lucky, but it definitely was a factor when it came to paying for college. We only have to do this once.

All of which is to say that Athena will be getting out of college debt-free partly because we planned early but mostly because of factors that we had only some control over, and over which she had almost none. She didn’t choose her parents or her circumstances; she got what she got. And in this case, she got lucky.

That’s fine for her. But it’s not a very useful strategy for paying for college. “Get lucky picking your parents” should not be the determining factor for whether you leave college debt-free, leave with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, or can’t afford to go to college at all. Every single one of those circumstances can have a substantial effect on how the rest of one’s economic life will go — and how the economic life of how one’s children will go. There’s a reason why in the United States, home of the “American Dream,” it’s actually pretty difficult to move up the social ladder. Yes, I did it, but I also don’t pretend I didn’t get lucky — a lot — or that my path is easily repeatable. Take it from someone who is living the American Dream: It stays only a dream for most of those dreaming of it.

I’m proud that we can pay for our daughter’s college education. I’m also well aware how many things had to break our way to be at this point, which just as easily could have gone another way. It would be better to live in a world where luck, one way or another, is not a salient, determinative factor for whether one can afford college, or whether one can graduate from college without debt. In fact, that world does exist; just not here in the US. College tuition in most developed countries is substantially less than it is here, including being basically free in places like Germany and France. We could do that here, for state schools at least, if we decided we wanted to.

But we don’t. I know we have our reasons. I just don’t think those reasons are very good.

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

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags

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.

Here's the legal text:
Printed by Dreamwidth LLC, Maryland, USA. Published and promoted by Mat Bowles (Liberal Democrat) of Brighouse, West Yorkshire.

Popular Topics

Designed by

Powered by Dreamwidth Studios
Page generated Jul. 23rd, 2017 04:45 am