New Books and ARCs, 2/22/19

Feb. 22nd, 2019 10:23 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Got a big stack of new books and ARCs this week for you to peruse and consider. What here looks like something you’d enjoy? Tell us all in the comments!

Follow Up Oscar Predictions, 2019

Feb. 22nd, 2019 08:29 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

When the Oscar nominations came out this year, I did my first-pass guesses as to who and what would take the statuettes home, and noted I would follow-up closer to time, because things change. And this year, yow, did they — A Star Is Born, the film I suspected would take the win, appears to have faded considerably in the last few weeks as it was passed over again and again by the various other awards ceremonies. At the same time, no one film has emerged as a frontrunner in any of the run-up awards.

Which means: Surprise! No one knows anything, least of all me. So for this year, I’m officially announcing that I don’t have much confidence in my predictions — use for your home Oscar pool at your own risk. That said, here are my best guesses as to who will in this Sunday:

Best Picture: I think Roma has the best chance, as everyone at least seems to like it, a lot of people love it, and at least a few think it’s stunning. For an award that is decided by instant runoff, that should be enough to get it over the line. It’s possible Green Book will come up from the outside, but if it does, expect a lot of post-ceremony kvetching about it. Maybe A Star is Born will still pull it out? But it really does feel as if its star has fallen.

Best Director: Still think it’s Alfonso Cuarón, although at this point the only director I’d say I’m absolutely sure won’t take it is Adam McKay. I’d personally give it to Spike Lee both because the film merits it and as a career award, but then again no one’s letting me vote (I think Lee still has a chance at an Oscar, however, in the screenplay category, screenplay often being the consolation Oscar for directors).

Best Actress: Still think this is Glenn Close, although outside shots from Olivia Colman and Melissa McCarthy (who I didn’t think had a chance when the noms came out) are still possible. Honestly, though, I don’t know why anyone would deny Close at this point.

Best Actor: Everyone seems to think Rami Malek has it, while my own previous guess (Willem Dafoe) doesn’t seem to be part of anyone’s conversation. At this point, unless Bradley Cooper makes a surprise comeback, I think everyone is probably right.

Best Supporting Actress: Buzz seems to be on Regina King, although I think Amy Adams still has a chance. Either is perfectly deserving.

Best Supporting Actor: Star’s fade means that the sure bet I thought existed in Sam Elliott may not be that great of a bet, and people seem to think Mahershala Ali might get his second Oscar in two years. As may be, but I’m not going to throw the towel in on Elliott yet. I think he might surprise folks. We’ll see!

Prelude to galactic catastrophe

Feb. 22nd, 2019 09:00 am
[syndicated profile] badastronomy_feed

Posted by Phil Plait

Here's a fun thing about galaxies: Sometimes they collide.

It's hard to imagine such a colossal event, a cataclysm on a scale a million trillion kilometers across. When it happens, the gravity of each galaxy grapples with the other, distorting their shapes, drawing out tens-of-thousands-of-light-years-long streamers of gas and stars, stretching toward each others like the yearning of a lover's arms.

If the galaxies pass each other closely, especially on a fairly curved path, the streamers from one galaxy can wrap around the other, more like the tentacles of a mythical giant squid around a ship full of hapless sailors. Eventually they fall back to each other and merge, becoming one chaotically turbulent larger galaxy, which can take hundreds of millions of years to settle back down.

But to all this there is a prelude, a ramping up to the main event, a precursor of approach and catastrophic potential. It can look calm, even peaceful, but inevitability awaits.

Much as it awaits for NGC 6769 and NGC 6770, two cosmic lovers possibly on their way to embrace.

NGC 6769 (right) and 6770 (left) are two spiral galaxies on their way to a massive collision. Credit: NASA/ESA/ESO/Judy Schmidt

NGC 6769 (right) and 6770 (left) are two spiral galaxies on their way to a massive collision. Credit: NASA/ESA/ESO/Judy Schmidt

Holy. WOW.

That ridiculously spectacular photo was taken using Hubble, part of what's called a "snapshot survey": short exposures of lots of big bright colliding galaxies, meant to pave the way for much deeper images taken using future telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope. This image was taken in a single filter (centered on orange light). So how does it have color? Astronomy image processor extraordinaire Judy Schmidt, who put together this incredible photo, used an earlier color image taken by the massive 8.2-meter Very Large Telescope in Chile as a guide, layering them in Photoshop and doing some other tricks to create what you see. So the colors you see here aren't 100% accurate or true, but should be pretty close to reality.

After recovering from picking my jaw off the floor when I first saw this image, I started looking at it more carefully. Both galaxies appear very close, as if the collision is well underway… but neither looks all that distorted. NGC 6770 does seem to be more impacted, with that straight streamer pointing toward NGC 6769 (heavily blue, meaning star formation is going on there; a usual sign of a collision), and its spiral pattern just a bit off, but NGC 6769 looks just fine. That makes me suspect strongly that perspective is playing a role here; one of these galaxies is slightly farther from us than the other, so they only look to be right next to each other. I think they're close, but not as close as the image implies.

Interestingly, NGC 6770 also has that dark bifurcated streak right across it. That is clearly a trail of dust — teeny grains of silicates and carbon that pollute galaxies — in front of it, seen in silhouette. The direction is weird though; if it came from NGC 6769 I'd expect it to point at least a little bit toward it. Suspicious, I looked around for a wider-angle shot, and coincidentally found the VLT image Schmidt used to color the Hubble shot:

NGC 6769 (right) and NGC 6770 (left) are joined by a third galaxy, NGC 6771 (lower left) in this image taken by the Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO

NGC 6769 (right) and NGC 6770 (left) are joined by a third galaxy, NGC 6771 (lower left) in this image taken by the Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO

Ha! There's a third galaxy, NGC 6771, to the lower left, and the streamer points right at it. I wonder if it passed by NGC 6770 some time ago, a near-miss we see long after the fact. The main body of NGC 6771 is a little weird, distorted itself, which fits that scenario.

Interestingly, I looked up the distances to all three galaxies and found a mystery. We determine the distances to galaxies by their redshift, how much the wavelength of their light (which determines color) is stretched out by the Doppler shift. Both NGC 6769 and 6770 have very similar redshifts, but that of NGC 6771 is higher by a tad. If I translate that into distance, the two upper galaxies are about 175 million light years from us, but NGC 6771 is 10 million light years farther away or more!

That doesn't make sense; that's way too far in the background to have had a near encounter (for scale, these galaxies are something less than 100,000 light years across). Then I laughed to myself: We measure redshift via velocity, as if the galaxies are being swept away by the expansion of the Universe itself. But galaxies can have velocities relative to each other as they move around, what we call "peculiar velocities". If NGC 6771 got close to NGC 6770, it could have been flung away at high speed in the direction away from us. On Earth we measure its velocity as higher, but only part of that is redshift. Some part of it is true velocity as it got slingshot around! If that's correct, it got whipped around to the tune of a few hundred kilometers per second, a considerable (but not unprecedented) amount.

Think on that a moment: An entire galaxy — billion of stars, huge clouds of gas and dust — got tossed around by another galaxy, accelerated to hundreds of times faster than a rifle bullet.

Galactic collisions are terrifying in their displays of power.

A wider-angle view shows the presence of a fourth galaxy, IC 4842 (upper left), close to NGC 6769, 6770 and 6771. Credit: NED/IPAC/Caltech

A wider-angle view shows the presence of a fourth galaxy, IC 4842 (upper left), close to NGC 6769, 6770 and 6771. Credit: NED/IPAC/Caltech

Interestingly, there's a fourth galaxy (called IC 4842) lurking not too far away, and it has a similar redshift as well. It may be part of this small group too.

I didn't find too many scientific papers about this group, though one I did find confirmed my own conclusion that NGC 6770 looks more distorted than the other (note that in that paper the pair is called VV 304; there are lots of different names for the same objects in astronomy, depending on what catalog you prefer).

So it really does look like, while they've danced a bit in the past, the big event still lies ahead for these two. I don't how close they'll pass, at what speed, or what their eventual fate will be. Perhaps they're moving too quickly past each other to merge, and they'll just rip each other up a bit and move on. Perhaps they're moving more laconically, destined to physically collide and merge, as so many other galaxies have in cosmic history.

I hope that, when JWST comes online, we'll get a better idea of what the future holds for these two, some day tens or hundreds of millions of years from now. No matter what it is, though, the one thing I guarantee is that the view from here will be stunningly beautiful.

My thanks to Judy Schmidt for tweeting about this gorgeous image and talking to me about her process of creating it.

[syndicated profile] el_reg_odds_feed

Posted by Paul Kunert

'The perils of wrist-based motion sensors'

Ah the perils of a connected society were evidenced once again this week when some techies we know took on a pimply faced, smartwatch clad youth as an apprentice.…

[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

Just posted a Twitter thread I want to save here for posterity, and also for those of you who don’t bother with that particular service. It involves people complaining about me!

1. So, one of my favorite Hot Takes on Scalzi is the one that goes “I *used* to like Scalzi, but then he went and got all SJW-y” as if this were a new and surprising (and, for me, opportunistic) turn after years of, I don’t know, modest silent neutrality. Well, here’s the thing…

2. I have literally been online for a quarter of a century — my first USENET post was in ’94, and my blog has been up since 1998. I have been spouting off my opinions ALL THAT TIME. I have an electron trail longer than some of these dudes have been ALIVE.

3. And before THAT, I was spouting opinions in print! I was a nationally syndicated newspaper opinion columnist for several years. I have a paper trail that goes along with the electron trail, dating back to ’91 (or ’87, if you want to count my college paper, which, why not?).

4. In all that time, my politics have been — surprise! — pretty much in same area they are now. A few things I’ve moved left on, a few things I have moved right on (no, really), but by and large I’ve been (for the US) mostly-leftish in a petit bourgeois sort of way.

5. And this is checkable because — again — I have a wide and vast trail of my opinions and verbiage going back literal decades. Try it for yourself! It’s all there, somewhere, if you want to bother. Incompleteness will not be a problem for any future biographers of mine.

6. So, when some dude complains that I somehow “went all SJW-y,” the question I’d ask them is: since when? Because I pretty much guarantee you whatever date they pull out of their ass, I can show I was saying largely what I’m saying now well before then. None of this is new.

7. What IS different, perhaps, is that — don’t laugh — I have slightly more humility now, in that I’m willing to accept I don’t know everything, I’m willing to accept that sometimes I show my ass, and I’m willing to at least try to make amends when I do my ass-showing.

8. But otherwise, yeah, this is me, and this has pretty much always been me, as long as I’ve been writing in public. If you think I’ve “gone SJW” it’s because YOU weren’t paying attention before. Which is fine! You don’t have to know my life story. But the issue is you, not me.

9. The thing is, after 25 years online and three decades writing publicly, I’m not going to stop having opinions in public. If this fact bothers you, mute/block me on social media and don’t buy my work. It’s fine, and I don’t need or want your patronage. Read other folks!

10. Just don’t pretend that who I am is something new, or manufactured for sales or cookies. This is me. My track record is long and clear. I’ve been this way for a long time, and will probably be for a while yet. It’s not a surprise, or at least shouldn’t be. Welcome to me.


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Posted by Rebecca Watson

Support more videos like this at!


Reddit is a haven for “men’s rights activists,” incels, and general he-man woman-haters, though you can curate your feed to mostly avoid that these days, if you stick to the better subreddits and, you know, don’t read the comments. But if you just keep the default front page, you might be surprised at how often misogynist talking points show up. This week, I noticed a bit of MRA propaganda that hit the top of the default subreddit r/pics and I wanted to talk about it, because this is how false information spreads these days. It seems innocuous enough, and even sweet and worthy of sharing, but it’s a lie. It’s actually several lies, efficiently packed into one photo of one sign with one sentence on it.

Here it is: a photo of a man holding a sign that says, “every week 21 fathers take their own life due to child access issues :(“. This is the sort of thing you hear often amongst men who claim to be advocating for “men’s rights” and “father’s rights,” so let’s talk about it.

First of all, let’s dispense with the idea that 21 fathers commit suicide because of “child access issues,” or for any other reason. This figure comes from a blurb uttered by Steve Dickson at a political event in September of 2017. Dickson is a member of the One Nation party, which is a white nationalist party in Australia that is mostly concerned with stopping immigration and “anti-white” bias. Dickson himself is a bit notorious for claiming that Queensland schools were “having little kids in grade four at school, young girls being taught by teachers how to masturbate, how to strap on dildos.” He apologized later but stood by his “dildo” comment. Sure, Steve.

So yeah, at that same event where he claimed that little girls in fourth grade were learning how to strap on dildos, he also announced that “there are up to 21 fathers killing themselves every week in (Australia).” He gave no citation for this, and no one has ever been able to find one, just like his comment about little girls learning how to use strap-ons. The context for the made-up suicide statistic is that he was defending One Nation’s policy of allowing a father to have access to their children even when the mother has received an order of protection because the father has threatened her with violence.

Dickson lost his bid for that seat, but he’s still the leader of the One Nation party in Queensland.

Even though Dickson had absolutely no reason to give that figure of 21 fathers killing themselves, The Conversation tried their best to break down the actual stats and found that in 2016 there were an average of 41 male suicides in Australia each week, but there is no data on how many of those were fathers who weren’t allowed to see their children. It simply doesn’t exist since it’s not collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

We have a bit more data in the United States, where, like in Australia, we do have a problem with men (in general) committing suicide — particularly middle aged men. And research shows that divorced men are particularly at risk of suicide, as well as at risk of many other illnesses due in part to them no longer taking care of themselves by going to the doctor or eating well. The depression can be a very real problem, and researchers suspect that it can be exacerbated by bitterness not just toward their ex-spouse but also toward “the system.”

And that’s what this viral photo is: bitterness toward “the system” that supposedly keeps men away from their children.

But does the system keep men away from their children? The research says absolutely not, at least here in the United States. More than half the time, fathers don’t even ask for custody. When they do, the cases that end up in court are vanishingly small: only about 5% of all custody cases are decided by a court. And in those cases, the gender of the parent isn’t significant according to research like an in-depth meta-analysis from 2013, which found that the most important factors in gaining custody were mental stability, criminal history, and financial resources. They did find that in some cases fathers (but not mothers) were less likely to get sole custody if they were poor, but mothers (and not fathers) were less likely to get custody if they had ever been hospitalized for a psychiatric condition.

One of their most interesting findings was that “the rates of maternal custody decreased and the rates of paternal sole custody increased” after the courts made their final decision. In fact, mothers who refused to work with the fathers on custody prior to going to court were more likely to have their custody revoked.

So to conclude, most fathers don’t want custody, and when they do pursue custody to the point that it ends up in court, they stand a very good chance of getting it, especially if the mother tried to keep the child away from the father.

So no, 21 fathers do not kill themselves each week over “child access issues,” and in general there are no child access issues exclusive to fathers. When a relationship ends, there’s a chance for it to be destructive to either gender, and mothers and fathers can end up without the custody arrangement they want.

Like many of the things I debunk here, this image makes life worse for people in a number of ways. Most notably, it is false information that feeds into the very thing that research shows us does lead to male suicide after a divorce: bitterness at “the system.” Men need to know that “the system” isn’t out to get them. Is it perfect? Obviously not — men shouldn’t be denied custody based on their financial holdings, just as women shouldn’t be denied custody based on past mental health problems. But the key is to work within the system we have to better it, and to let depressed people know that there is hope.

If you’re depressed and considering suicide, please know that there is another way. There is always another way. In the US you can call 1-800-273-8255 any time of day and talk to someone who cares.

And for god’s sake, don’t believe everything you see on Reddit.

The post Do 21 Fathers Commit Suicide Each Week Over Custody Issues? appeared first on Skepchick.

The Big Idea: Howard Andrew Jones

Feb. 21st, 2019 05:14 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

In today’s Big Idea, Howard Andrew Jones muses on the nature of heroism, and what it means for his latest novel, For the Killing of Kings.


I think a lot of us are inspired by heroism before we really know what it is. I still remember tuning into an original Star Trek re-run for the first time when I was five years old. Before long I saw Kirk and Spock stand against a horde of angry miners after they discovered that the creature everyone thought a murderous monster was simply defending its young from genocide. Those two faced their own prejudices and changed their minds when exposed to new information, then risked their lives to see the just thing done.

I wanted to be like THOSE guys. Episode after episode, even if they didn’t always have the right answer, even if they sometimes made mistakes, they struggled to do the right thing when there might be no reward but death. They risked everything for their friends, their allies, and those who had no voice.

Of course, at five, I didn’t quite get the weighty stuff, I just liked the adventure of it all. And I sure loved swashbuckling, probably because I imprinted on The Four Musketeers when I caught it in the theatre at about the same time. It may seem worlds away from Star Trek, but that movie and its predecessor, The Three Musketeers (which I caught later) were similar to my favorite TV show in the way that its characters stood as one against their foes.

Nowadays, when fame seems easily acquired by looking good, possessing a lot of money, or shouting loudly, heroism can be taken for granted, or seen as quaint: often the most celebrated modern figures are those who get away with things they probably shouldn’t, or those who act the most outrageously entitled. These are cynical times, I get it, and sometimes it seems that facts and truth are dead (along with irony) and that heroes are just people whose dark sides haven’t been scooped yet.

But I don’t think I’m alone in remaining fascinated with heroes, and wishing we heard more about them. Heroism can supersede our cultural wars because it isn’t about defending a narrow set of beliefs dictated by a few who want to stay in power. It isn’t defined by ideology, but by the selflessness of those who protect others. Above all, heroism stands in stark contrast with selfishness, that most common of evils that creeps into a person or a society too self-indulgent to keep it at bay.

Now that I look back on all my touchstones, both those early ones and later discoveries, like the accounts of brave soldiers and civilians in the Second World War, I’m not at all surprised that I’ve ended up writing about heroes. For the Killing of Kings takes the perspective of a corps of veteran soldiers as they stumble into a conspiracy that may lead all the way to the throne. Truths have been twisted, facts invented, and the less powerful silenced and ignored. When two of these warriors, sworn to lay down their lives to defend the realm, ask the wrong questions, they’re framed for murder, declared traitors, and are forced to flee for their lives, their own friends in deadly pursuit.

Over the ensuing pages their bonds strengthen as they best terrible dangers and cross terrifying lands. They have to make agonizing choices and risk everything both to learn the truth and to seek a just future for all. In short, sacrifices must be made. Sometimes, because of their actions, they discover allies where others would see only enemies. And because I loved the weird world building and the layers within layers I discovered in The Chronicles of Amber (a major inspiration for this series) they see plenty of peculiar sites and uncover multiple secrets.

Of course good heroes need good villains, but given that I want the unveiling mysteries of this book to be one of its draws, the real villains and their plans probably ought to remain hidden here – although I think the back cover mentions that an enemy invasion is taking place just as Elenai and Kyrkenall begin their journey into the shifting lands. The greatest heroes need the biggest challenges to rise above.

I love characters swathed in gray as much as the next guy, from Conan to Corwin of Amber to the Gray Mouser, and yet somehow I keep ending up writing about heroes. I just seemed programmed that way. I have an honest love of adventure stories, and I surely hope my fiction amuses and even thrills readers. But if my words can provide solace and, dare I hope, inspiration for someone to stand tall in the face of adversity, and to take right action when wrongs are being committed, why, that will be a pretty grand thing.


For the Killing of Kings: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Books A Million|iBooks

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Facebook, or Twitter.

[syndicated profile] badastronomy_feed

Posted by Phil Plait

Neptune is the farthest major planet from the Sun, and difficult to study. Even though it's big, about 50,000 kilometers in diameter, it's just so far away that details can be lacking. Heck, even going there, like we did with Voyager 2 in 1989, didn't solve all its mysteries.

But it did provide clues for a big mystery that cropped up later: What's the deal with Neptune's dinky moon Hippocamp?

It is a tiny moon, just 35 km wide, and it was discovered by accident! Like the other three big planets in the outer solar system, Neptune has rings, or more accurately ring arcs, like pieces of rings. In 2013, astronomer Mark Showalter was looking for such arcs in Hubble images taken in the mid-2000s, and used clever software that remapped the images so that the rapidly moving arcs would appear stationary, so they could be easily compared in different images.

Just because, he decided to apply that same software to objects outside the rings, orbiting more slowly, and Hippocamp popped out in the images. It's a cool story, which I wrote about at the time.

Hubble image of Neptune (from 2009) inset to scale with an image of its much fainter moons and rings. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute)

Hubble image of Neptune (from 2009) inset to scale with an image of its much fainter moons and rings. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute)

Hippocamp is so small and dim that Voyager didn't even see when it flew past the giant planet 30 years ago (to be fair, Voyager wasn't looking carefully for moons that far out), and barely shows up in the Hubble shots. But it didn't take long before something really odd turned up: When astronomers calculated its orbital characteristics, they found its orbit lies just 12,000 km inside the orbit of Proteus, a much bigger moon shaped like a round(ish) potato 400 km or so across.

That's a problem, because Neptune's system of moons is a mess, and was once much messier. A moon forming where Hippocamp is now shouldn't be able to exist there.

Here's where things get really cool: Hippocamp may have been born when a comet whacked Proteus hard, and the debris then came back together to form Hippocamp!

Let's wind the clock back, oh, say, a few billion years. Neptune probably formed with a system of moons; most planets do. But then disaster stuck: A huge ice-and-rock object from the outer solar system wandered too close to Neptune. Somehow — different ideas abound — this large body got captured into orbit around Neptune. We now call this object Triton, and it's Neptune's biggest moon by far at 2,700 km in diameter.

A mosaic of Neptune’s moon Triton created from Voyager 2 images during a flyby in 1989.  Note the black streaks near the bottom; evidence of geyser-like eruptions and wind. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

A mosaic of Neptune’s moon Triton created from Voyager 2 images during a flyby in 1989.  Note the black streaks near the bottom; evidence of geyser-like eruptions and wind. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

The big clues that Triton was a captured moon instead of forming with Neptune is that 1) its orbit is tilted with respect to Neptune's equator (big moons that close in should orbit aligned with their planet's equator), and b) its orbit is retrograde, backwards when compared to the other moons (and Neptune's spin). Moons that form with their planets should have prograde orbits, moving in the same direction as their planet's spin (in general, that spin is counterclockwise as seen looking down from the north). Triton is so big that if it formed with Neptune it must have moved prograde. Since it doesn't, it must not have formed with it, so therefore it must be captured.

This event caused chaos in the Neptune system. Triton's orbit was likely initially highly elliptical, and became more circular with time as it interacted gravitationally with Neptune. The physics is a bit complicated, but the gravity of Triton raises tides in Neptune, and that causes Triton's orbit to shrink and become more circular over time (usually tides cause moons to move outward, but that's only for prograde moons like our own Moon; Trtion is retrograde so the physics works the other way, and it moves inward).

The orbits and sizes of Neptune’s moons, including its ring arcs. The orbits of Proteus and Hippocamp are extremely close. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

The orbits and sizes of Neptune’s moons, including its ring arcs. The orbits of Proteus and Hippocamp are extremely close. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

As Triton settled down it would've thrown the inner moons of Neptune into disarray. These moons were so disturbed in their orbits they would've smashed into each other, creating a huge ring of debris around Neptune. Over time that coalesced into smaller moons which orbited Neptune close in, inside the rings.

But this tale of destruction isn't quite done. There are lots of icy bodies out there past Neptune, in a region we called the Kuiper Belt, and they can impact those smaller moons. It's likely they've been whacked and recoalesced over and again since they initially formed billions of years ago.

The only moon to survive this maelstrom was Proteus. It's the outermost and largest of the inner moons. Due to the same gravitational dance that moves Triton inward toward Neptune, Proteus (being prograde) is moving away from Neptune.

But — and this is the big but ­— Proteus is outside the orbit of Hippocamp now. That outward migration of Proteus would've moved it right through Hippocamp's orbit, and that should've caused Hippocamp either to collide with Proteus and be destroyed, fall into Neptune and be destroyed, or be ejected from the system altogether. No matter how you slice it, Hippocamp shouldn't be where it is! What's it doing there?

The astronomers studying this came up with a solution: Sometime after Triton became a moon of Neptune, a Kuiper Belt object came in and whacked Proteus. This blew off a huge amount of debris, and this stuff coalesced to form Hippocampus orbiting Neptune inside the orbit of Proteus. Being so small, Hippocampus can't migrate outwards (it doesn't raise big enough tides on Neptune), so it wound up staying inside the orbit of Proteus, and that's the way things remain today.

I have to say that must've been one heck of an impact on Proteus that so much debris would make a moon over 30 km across. That would leave quite a crater…

An image of Neptune’s moon Proteus, taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. The huge crater Pharos can be seen to the upper right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kevin M. Gill

An image of Neptune’s moon Proteus, taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. The huge crater Pharos can be seen to the upper right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kevin M. Gill

… which we think we see! During the 1989 pass by Voyager 2, it took an image of Proteus that shows a monstrous crater named Pharos, and it's a whopping 230 km wide! Had the impact been much harder it would've shattered the moon. As it was, the debris blown off would've been very impressive. Big enough to form a whole other moon, in fact. Hippocamp.

That's so cool! I love it when a story hangs together like this. Everything works out logically, even when it starts with a weird fact that doesn't fit.

And I can't leave this without mentioning something. By practices enacted by the International Astronomical Union, moons of Neptune must be based on Greek mythological beings associated with water or Poseidon. Triton was the messenger of the sea (and son of Poseidon), for example. Proteus was also a son of Poseidon in many myths, but also one who could change his shape at will (possibly tied to the idea that the sea conditions can change very rapidly).

That certainly fits with what we know! Those moons have changed shape many times, including Proteus, and the latter certainly did when Pharos formed. That's a fun little coincidence.

Incidentally Hippocamp is a sea monster that's the upper half of a horse and the lower half of a fish. That's harder to fit with modern knowledge of the moon itself (it's too small to discern its shape even with Hubble). But it's still neat.

I find all this amazing. We used to think the solar system pretty much looks now like it always did, but in recent years we've figured out that it really, really doesn't. Moons move to and fro, planets migrate inward and outward from the Sun, and giant impacts not only reshape these bodies but spawn new ones. It's only over our short lifespans that things seem stable. On the long scale, the solar system is as dynamic and tempestuous as the sea.

The Historovox Complex

Feb. 20th, 2019 07:48 pm
[syndicated profile] crooked_timber_feed

Posted by Corey Robin

I’ve got a new gig at New York Magazine, where I’ll be a regular contributor, writing on politics and other matters. Here, in my first post, I tackle “the Historovox” (my wife Laura came up with the phrase), that complex of journalism and academic research that we increasingly see at places like VoxFiveThirtyEight, and elsewhere. Long story, short: while I firmly believe in academics writing for the public sphere—Crooked Timber remains the Gold Standard as far as I’m concerned—there are better and worse ways to do it. This should be a topic of interest to lots of folks around here, and I’m grateful to Henry for offering his initial thoughts on the matter to me, though in retrospect I wish I had incorporated one of his points.

Here are some excerpts:

There’s a bad synergy at work in the Historovox — as I call this complex of scholars and journalists — between the short-termism of the news cycle and the longue durée-ism of the academy. Short-term interests and partisan concerns still drive reporting and commentary. But where the day’s news once would have been narrated as a series of events, the Historovox brings together those events in a pseudo-academic frame that treats them as symptoms of deeper patterns and long-term developments. Unconstrained by the protocols of academe or journalism, but drawing on the authority of the first for the sake of the second, the Historovox skims histories of the New Deal or rifles through abstracts of meta-analysis found in JSTOR to push whatever the latest line happens to be.

When academic knowledge is on tap for the media, the result is not a fusion of the best of academia and the best of journalism but the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, we get the whiplash of superficial commentary: For two years, America was on the verge of authoritarianism; now it’s not. On the other hand, we get the determinism that haunts so much academic knowledge. When the contingencies of a day’s news cycle are overlaid with the laws of social science or whatever ancient formation is trending in the precincts of academic historiography, the political world can come to seem more static than it is. Toss in the partisan agendas of the media and academia, and the effects are as dizzying as they are deadening: a news cycle that’s said to reflect the universal laws of the political universe where the laws of the political universe change with every news cycle.

The job of the scholar is not to offer her expertise to fit the needs of the pundit class. It’s to call those needs into question, not to provide different answers to the same questions but to raise the questions that aren’t being asked.

Everyone knows and cites Orwell’s famous adage: “To see what is front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Less cited is what follows: “One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.” To see what’s right in front of one’s nose doesn’t mean seeing without ideology. It means keeping track of how we think and have thought about things, being mindful of what was once on the table and what has disappeared from view. It means avoiding the gods of the present.

The job of the scholar, in other words, is to resist the tyranny of the now. That requires something different than knowledge of the past; indeed, historians have proven all too useful to the Historovox, which is constantly looking for academic warrants to say what its denizens always and already believe. No, the job of the scholar is to recall and retrieve what the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin described as “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present.” The task is not to provide useful knowledge to the present; it is to insist on, to keep a record of, the most seemingly useless counter-knowledge from the past — for the sake of an as-yet-to-be imagined future.

The whole thing is here.

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Posted by Richard Speed

Another cock and balls story

An Australian pilot has earned his coveted Register wings by telling the world how boring flying can be through the medium of flight trackers.…

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Posted by Phil Plait

When I got up this morning, it was about -11° C outside with a weak breeze blowing a very light snow. It was a typical Colorado winter dawn, and before I went out to feed the animals I donned multiple layers, thick gloves, and a balaclava to keep my delicate nose from being turned to ice and chafed away.

But I should count myself lucky. What I was experiencing as a low temperature for the day would've been the high on Mars. And on top of everything I wore, I'd also need a heavy oxygen tank and pressure suit, or else my nose freezing solid would've been the least of my worries.

I know this because the NASA Mars InSight lander is now broadcasting daily weather updates!

Your weather update, straight from Mars, courtesy NASA’s Mars InSight lander. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Your weather update, straight from Mars, courtesy NASA’s Mars InSight lander. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

InSight touched down on the Red Planet on November 26, 2018, in a flat area called Elysium Planitia, near the equator. Its mission is to probe the Martian interior, and it's loaded with instruments to do just that, including a seismometer (that was just deployed on the surface a couple of weeks ago), a thermal probe to see how heat moves through the crust, and various other detectors that will give scientists back here on Earth a good look at what's going on inside Mars.

It can also monitor what’s what on the surface, too. It's equipped with a pair of wind and temperature sensors on its deck, exposed to the Martian environment, as well as an air pressure sensor inside the lander itself.

The locations of the temperature, wind, and air pressure sensors on Mars InSight. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The locations of the temperature, wind, and air pressure sensors on Mars InSight. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The data are sent back to Earth, allowing techs at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to create the Daily Weather Report for Mars, a public site with all the info you need to plan your Martian picnic in Elysium (my advice: don't).

So yes, while the low for me earlier today was in the negative teens, around the same time that was the high for Elysium Planitia. The low there was a soul-freezing -95°C. That's cold enough to freeze carbon dioxide right out of the air! On Mars, it can snow water ice, but also dry ice. Don't catch those flakes on your tongue.

Not that you'd want to open your mouth on Mars. The pressure at InSight's landing spot has been averaging around 720 Pascals — about 0.7% of the air pressure at Earth sea level. That's enough to tear the breath out of your lungs, so you should probably keep your pressure suit sealed up tight. That makes for a crappy picnic, but better than freezing solid after you suffocate.

Landing sites for various NASA Mars missions, including InSight (right), located in Elysium Planitia near the equator.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Landing sites for various NASA Mars missions, including InSight (right), located in Elysium Planitia near the equator.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In better weather news, at least the wind won't be a problem. The wind speeds around InSight are variable, maxing out around 50 kilometers per hour. In a reverse of the temperature and pressure, that would be terrible picnic weather on Earth — it's a moderate gale — but the low air pressure on Mars reduces that to a barely noticeable whisper. The force you'd feel is reduced by a factor of about 150 due to the thin air: That's enough to pick up some of the very fine-grained rusty dust pervasive to Mars, but it won't blow your picnic blanket away or your napkins into your potato salad*. Still, keep your eyes open for dust devils.

I really like that this weather report is being created for the public. I imagine teachers can use it in the classroom as a project for students; they can learn about Mars, investigate how things change day to day, and even learn how to graph data. There's lots of room for creativity in its uses.

Dressing for the weather on Earth is a little different than for Mars, because this would be considered a warm spring day. The indigenous fauna seem friendly, though. Credit: Phil Plait

Dressing for the weather on Earth is a little different than for Mars, because this would be considered a warm spring day. The indigenous fauna seem friendly, though. Credit: Phil Plait

Plus it's just cool. As beautiful as Colorado winters are, I know that around the end of February I get a wee bit tired of the season and start looking forward to the equinox. Having the conditions on Mars at my fingertips gives me some perspective, and makes me less likely to grumble at my own local situation

*I hear Mark Watney has a good recipe.

No it won’t.

The UK takes a step toward tyranny

Feb. 20th, 2019 08:44 am
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Posted by Chris Bertram

The UK Home Secretary, Sayid Javid, has decided to revoke the citizenship of Shamima Begum, who notoriously travelled to Syria at the age of fifteen with two companions and married an ISIS fighter. She is now in a Syrian refugee camp, has now given birth to a child and was reportedly keen on returning to the UK. Begum has given interviews saying that she regrets nothing and that she wasn’t “fazed” by seen the severed heads of those murdered by Daesh. Not an appealing character, but, given that she was groomed as a child by a criminal gang, one who might have been seen as a victim in other circumstances.

The UK government has given itself the power to deprive people of citizenship where this is “conducive to the public good” but the law up to now had been that they had to be satisfied that the person would not be rendered stateless. After all, as we know, if citizenship is the right to have right, statelessness is a condition of near rightlessness. In the present case, they seem to be claiming that a person born in the UK who acquired British nationality at birth can be deprived of citizenship because she is entitled to Bangladeshi nationality through her mother. Shamima Begum has never been to Bangladesh and has no connection to the country. Though her case involves terrorism the UK has also begun to use citizenship deprivation in cases involving “serious criminality”, a vague category that is capable of being defined downwards (as it was when Javid spoke about a group of people recently deported to Jamaica).

Millions of people born in the UK and holding British nationality currently have “access to” another citizenship. It may be Irish citizenship (the entire nationalist population of Northern Ireland!). It may be Israeli citizenship through the law of return. It may be the citizenship of some country in Britain’s former empire, such as Bangladesh. The new expansions of citizenship deprivation theoretically expose all of them to the possibility of exile and banishment to another country should they be convicted of serious crime. The immigration regime has long been one where the rule of law is muted, where due process is little more than what the government says it is, and where means of appeal and assertion of rights are limited. By bringing millions of people into the ambit of such a regime, you render them exposed to a system of arbitrary punishment decided upon by a minister. There are two ways to look at this: either millions of ordinary people are subject to tyranny, or they would never do that to ordinary white people, only to those with a “funny tinge”. Either way lies an appalling vista.

Update: I’ve written a longer blog (and with improved legal information) at the London Review of Books blog.

Forgotten Books, Remembered (For Now)

Feb. 19th, 2019 08:51 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

I suppose it was inevitable: I discovered a that I am listed as a contributor to a book that I was not aware existed. It’s a 2009 book from the National Geographic Society called The Backyard Guide to the Night Sky, credited to Howard Schneider, and for which I am listed as contributing essays. And when it was brought to my attention, I was all, “I did what now?” I had no memory of contributing to this book at all.

Mind you, I don’t think the National Geographic Society was trying to pull a fast one. The far more likely explanation is that I did contributed to the book and then, over the course of a decade, I had simply forgotten anything about it. And indeed, that was the explanation — a quick look through my email archives from the time unearthed not only the correspondence trail between me an an editor at NatGeo, but also the essays in question, about constellations, telescopes and UFOs (and all the things that are not them).

These essays were a throwback to a time where I was writing a lot more non-fiction than I do now, and also taking freelance writing assignments from folks for quick pieces on, well, just about anything. It wasn’t entirely out of my remit to write articles on astronomy, since by that time I had written an entire book on the subject and it had even gone into a second printing. Which may be why I don’t remember too much about these pieces; I could pretty much write them without effort.

In any event it’s nice to have this book back in my memory banks. Amazon informs me that there is a second edition of the book coming out in exactly a month; it has a new primary author, who has no doubt updated the book from stem to stern. I wonder if what I contributed will make the cut ten years on. I guess we’ll find out. And now I wonder what other books are out there that I’ve forgotten I was a part of.

The Big Idea: Tina LeCount Myers

Feb. 19th, 2019 02:41 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

In today’s Big Idea, author Tina LeCount Myers discovers that in writing Dreams of the Dark Sky, her conscious was writing one thing, and her unconscious writing something entirely different — and yet, it all came together in the same story. Here’s how.


Conscious Me: I wrote a story about invasive vs. native human-like species in a volatile environment.

Unconscious Me: Actually, I wrote a story about fate and free will, where I used my characters to work out my own existential uncertainty about these concepts.

Conscious Me: What do you mean? The story is about how humans and elves fail to coexist and the ramifications of their wars.

Unconscious Me: Perhaps on one level. But if you look deeper, you’ll see that both humans and elves must come to their own understanding of agency.

Whereupon, Conscious Me pauses, thinking, then appropriates what was unconscious, feeling self-satisfied with the deeper meaning it has come up with. Then, in a moment of insight, Conscious Me suggests: Really, Dreams of the Dark Sky is Freaks and Geeks meets Excalibur—the John Boorman Excalibur.

And both parts of me are right, except maybe for the John Boorman reference, which feels a little conceited and hyper-masculine even for the Conscious Me.

I started writing The Legacy of the Heavens trilogy with the idea to write a fantasy story with science at the foundation of the worldbuilding. Dark matter disguised as magic. Multiverses and string theory cloaked as portal realms in arctic Scandinavia. Evolutionary biology to posit the existence of sequentially hermaphroditic elves. But what I discovered was an even more profound interest in what makes us human, even if we are elves.

On the surface, Dreams of the Dark Sky, the second book in the trilogy, is about two human-like species struggling to coexist in a volatile arctic environment. But at its heart, the story is more concerned with how the two main characters, Dárja and Marnej, experience the complex love between parent and child, yearn to belong in their respective communities, and struggle to take control over their lives. They reflect the deep-seated, human questions that I have about my own life: my relationship with my parents, my sense of belonging—or not, and, most importantly, my conflicted experience with the concepts of fate and free will.

I have suffered the resentment of fate, where I must live with a decision over which I have no control. I have struggled with the paralysis of free will, where I am unable to make the “right choice”. I have no definitive answer on which is better or worse. So when Marnej, who is half-human and half-elf, asks, “Was I always meant to end up here? Or did circumstance and my own action bring me here?” it is me asking that same question of my own life. And when Kalek, the elf-healer, answers, “I do not believe the gods choose our actions. They may set the course of events, but it is we who decide what direction to go in,” it is my own unwitting compromise.

Dreams of the Dark Sky is about the aftermath of a struggle between humans (invasive species) and elves (native species). But it is also about the tension between conscious and unconscious choice and what that interplay reveals about not only the characters, but also the writer, and hopefully the reader as well.


Dreams of the Dark Sky: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound |Powell’s
Visit the author’s site. Visit her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.


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Posted by Phil Plait

A little over a week ago, I showed y'all a pretty cool image: The Chinese Space Agency's lunar lander and rover, Chang'e-4 and Yutu-2, as seen from orbit by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

In that image, LRO's orbit put it about 330 kilometers east of the lander (plus dozens of kilometers up above the surface), so it had to tilt way over to the side to see it, and the resulting shot was taken at a pretty steep oblique angle. Because it was so far away, even LRO's powerful cameras couldn't see the hardware as much more than a teeny dot.

However, as LRO circles the Moon, the territory it sees changes — I'll explain in a sec, because that's really cool — and therefore so does its distance from the lander. That earlier image was taken on January 30, 2019. A couple of days, on February 1, LRO passed directly above Chang'e-4 and Yutu-2, sliding over the landing site at an altitude of 82 kilometers.

That changes things a lot. Here's what LRO saw when it looked straight down on the Chinese hardware:

The Chinese rover and lander Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2, seen by NASA’s Lunar Reconniassance Orbiter on Feb. 1, 2019. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

The Chinese rover and lander Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2, seen by NASA’s Lunar Reconniassance Orbiter on Feb. 1, 2019. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Ah, that's better.

Although you can't see fine details — 82 klicks is still a fair hike — the lander appears much bigger, spanning several pixels. At that height, each LRO pixel is about 0.85 meters in size (about the size of a standard push lawnmower; it's hard to think of analogies that are easy to grasp sometimes!), and the lander is roughly a couple of meters across (I actually can't find good numbers for this, so if anyone knows let me know!). The rover is smaller, about 1.5 meters by 1 x 1, and can be seen to the upper left of the lander. It was just under 30 meters from the lander when this image was taken.

I have to once again note how amazing it is that we can get these sorts of shots. The lunar landscape is vast, and doesn't have the same sort of landmarks we have on Earth. This area of the Moon's far side has craters ranging in size from too small to see to many thousands of meters across. There are rocks, and mounds, and hummocky hills, and, well … that's about it. If you're not familiar with the terrain* then it's easy to get hopelessly lost.

Don't believe me? I went to the LRO blog and downloaded the gigantic full-resolution mosaic LRO took as it passed over the Chang'e-4 site and poked around trying to find the lander … then laughed when I saw the LRO folks had already highlighted the site by putting a square around it. If they hadn't done that, I never would have found it.

Here's the image with the landing site outlined. I cropped the close-up from above to match the square and inserted it into the shot:

Context image showing the Chinese lander and rover Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 on the lunar surface. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Context image showing the Chinese lander and rover Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 on the lunar surface. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Yeah, see what I mean? And it's even worse: I shrank the original high-res image by a factor of five to make this image. The original has even more detail, making it that much harder to find an individual speck. That strip shows a region of the Moon about 8.5 kilometers wide, and before I cropped it was about 50 kilometers in length. Imagine finding something a few meters across in all that!

Now, there are some tricks. For one thing we already knew where the lander was, so that shrank the region of interest considerably. But there's something else, too: shadows.

Note the shadowing on the craters. Because the Sun is coming from the upper right of the image, the craters are shadowed at the top right and lit at the bottom left. But now look at the lander: It's bright on top, and shadowed on the bottom! That makes it stand out more easily amongst the craters. Otherwise, yikes. Good luck finding it.

The Chinese lander Chang’e-4 as seen by the rover Yutu-2. Credit: CSNA

The Chinese lander Chang’e-4 as seen by the rover Yutu-2. Credit: CSNA

So why does the angle change between LRO and Chang'e-4? It's because of the orbit. When a satellite orbits a world, it's orbiting the center of that world. All it cares about is the gravity it feels, and that comes from the mass of the object it's orbiting. It doesn't care if the object is rotating or not.

The plane of that orbit is pretty much fixed in space. So if it's, say, due north/south with respect to the Moon, it'll stay that way. If the Moon didn't spin, LRO would pass over the exact same spots on the Moon over and over again. But the Moon does spin, about once per month, so every orbit LRO passes over different spots as the Moon rotates beneath it. The actual math is a bit complicated because the LRO orbit is influenced by lots of other factors, but in the end what this means is that over time LRO passes over the entire surface Moon, one swath at a time.

That's why it was over to one side of Chang'e-4 in late January, then directly over it in early February. By now, LRO is far to the west of that site, and it'll be a while before the Moon spins enough to put the Chinese site under LRO's direct gaze once again. By then the lighting will have changed, too, so the shadows will be different as well. It should be interesting in a few weeks to see the new images of it!

I'll note that LRO makes mineralogical maps of the Moon as well, so this helps the science, putting the measurements taken by the lander and rover into broader geologic context, much as the image itself does. That's why we send different missions to other worlds; they each do their own thing, but when you add them together you get more then just the sum of their parts.

You get to understand a world. I think that's very much worth the effort.

*I use that word loosely, since it's based on the word terra, for Earth. But lunain looks weird.

[Correction, Feb. 19, 2019: I originally wrote that LRO passed over Chang'e-4 on Feb. 7.]

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Posted by Richard Currie

And it's still a better love story than Twilight

Conundrum. You're working on a burning trash pile of a '90s TV show and need some spooky, mysterious language to lorem ipsum into a book of supposedly occult nature. Which tongue has a suitable enough clusterfuck of vowels to make the prop look like it's about to summon Yog-Sothoth?…

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Posted by Rebecca Watson

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What would happen if all the mosquitos in the world suddenly disappeared? The loss of any species is generally considered a bad thing for the planet, but in that case I’ve seen actual biologists sort of shrugging their shoulders and admitting that maybe we’d all be better off. Fuck those needle-nosed assholes.

But the same isn’t true for all insects. If all the insects disappeared, we’d be pretty well screwed. Arthropods, which include insects, spiders, millipedes — I mean, all the things we usually just think of as “bugs,” plus crustaceans, which I personally think of as “sea bugs” — make up a tremendous and important segment of our environment. I’m reminded of the (apocryphal) story of the biologist J.B.S. Haldane who was asked what his study had taught him about the nature of God, to which he replied, “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

Of all the species we know about in the world insects alone count for 80%, and biologists believe that there are millions more we have yet to discover. Millions! There are about 10 quintillion insects alive right now, as I’m speaking. YIKES. So yeah, if all of those disappeared, a lot of small animals like frogs and birds would go hungry and die, and then a lot of larger mammals would go hungry and die, and a lot of plants would no longer be pollinated, and, well, you get the idea.

So it’s a pretty big deal that a new global review on the state of insects has come out this week and it’s fucking grim. Francisco Sanchez-Bayo at the University of Sydney analyzed more than 70 long-term studies on the biodiversity of insect species worldwide and found that about 40% of all of them are on the decline, population-wise, with about 30% of them headed straight for extinction. Sachez-Bayo points out that some areas of the world are seeing such a steep decline that within 10 years there may be no insects in those regions at all.

That’s terrifying, but it’s not necessarily the last word on the issue. My friend, talented entomologist Gwen Pierson, aka BugGirl, broke it down pretty well on Twitter:

??Will all insects go extinct? Heavens no!

??Will a some insect species go extinct, or decline a lot? Already happening.

??Will some insect species increase, and become more common/spread across the globe? Already happening.

And she directs people to the Entomological Society of America, who point out that fact about how there are millions of species we haven’t even identified yet, so we don’t even know the extent of this problem. Those unknown species might be doing the same thing, declining, or they may be increasing.

But the fact that the percentage of insects we can see are almost all declining, and other biologists are seeing a corresponding decline in the populations of birds who subsist on insects…that’s a big worry. So what do we do?

As I talked about with the bees, there’s no one reason why we’re seeing such a dramatic decline in insect populations. One huge problem is climate change — yep, just like with the bees, and with the forest fires, and pretty much every other pressing environmental problem we’re having right now. It touches everything, and it’s probably the reason why we’re all going to die, to be honest.

But that’s mostly in places like Puerto Rico, where an increase in cyclones led to an increase in deforestation, which led to a lack of habitat for insects. In other places, like Europe and the US, the problem is more directly humans: pesticides, and lawns. Yes, lawns. If you have a lawn, you have to get rid of it. GET RID OF IT. Seriously.

I’m loathe to make individuals feel bad about their choices when the much larger problem comes from corporations and politicians making much, much, much worse decisions that have a much much much larger impact. But this is a thing that you can help with: keeping a lawn is generally just a waste of resources (especially here in California where we have significant issues with water access) and worse (in this circumstance) it removes native plants that are part of the habitat for local insects. Those plants evolved along with those insects, so they can support more of those insects than the invasive plants in your garden can. And if your yard is just grass, well, it may as well be a parking lot because nicely mown grass does jack shit for insects

One study found that grass is actually the US’s single largest irrigated crop in surface area, even more so than corn. Of course that includes things like golf courses, and I’m sorry if you enjoy golf but those things are a ridiculous waste of space that also takes away native habitats. That’s right, golf has a significant carbon imprint, even before you take into account the private jet that carries Donald Trump from DC to Florida and back every weekend.

So yeah, it may not be the end of the world (yet), but our insects aren’t doing so well, and if they keep declining, things are going to get bad. If you want to help, and if you’re one of the lucky few to actually have a yard, consider burning it down. Well, not literally, that could be dangerous. Get that boring grass out of there and learn about the plants that are native to your area. Your yard will look way cooler, and you’ll be providing a home to the millions of individuals who are working hard to keep our entire food chain in good order.

The post Insects are Disappearing! Here’s How We Stop It appeared first on Skepchick.

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Posted by Holly Brockwell

A few years back, someone worked out how to transport mattresses more easily (vacuum-packed and rolled up in a box), and suddenly a bazillion online mattress companies sprang up out of nowhere.

Casper, Eve, Otty, Simba — they all seemed to have the same 100-night money-back guarantee, similar ads, and no differentiators beyond a signature colour they’d each chosen.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t much fancy the prospect of paying hundreds of pounds to find out if a bed was any good, and half suspected they were all selling the same white-label mattress with a brand name slapped on top.

I tried a double Casper mattress for a few months, and didn’t especially like it. So when Otty offered me the chance to try theirs instead, I took my chance to see if it really is all the same product.

Spoiler: it’s not.

The 100-night trial

It sounds like a medieval ritual to win a princess’s hand in marriage, but the 100-night trial is a fixture of online mattress companies. Basically, you plump for the mattress, and if after 100 nights (three-and-a-bit months) you hate it, they’ll take it back.

Obviously, it’s designed to ease you into what is otherwise a massive, scary purchase. Given how few of us bother to return a pair of shoes, which is small and lightweight and doesn’t have to be hauled out of your bed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the companies are counting on a little bit of laziness too.

When you’ve just moved in and can’t find the bedding

I’ve had my Otty mattress for just over 100 nights now, and I’m ready to call it. Here’s what I think.

The delivery

The Otty mattress arrives like a plastic-covered pancake rolled up in a box. Mine was delivered by an appealingly-named company called Keen & Able, who kept me really well updated on when exactly it would arrive. They also helped me get it to the right room.

From there, you undo the box, and use the included handy cutting tool to slice open the plastic wrapping (note: this is at least as satisfying as sliding your open scissors through wrapping paper. You know what I’m talking about). Then, you leave it in place on your bed to expand.

At first, it smells a bit weird, and you shouldn’t faceplant it until it’s had at least a few hours to breathe. If it looks thin at this point, it’s because it’s been vacuum packed and needs to inflate itself, like a loaf of fresh bread rising in the oven (there are a lot of bread comparisons in this review. Never write when hungry).

Once it’s expanded to its full size (up to 24 hours, but you can get on it any time after 2 hours), feel free to throw yourself face-down on it. I did, several times.

The mattress

The Otty hybrid mattress costs £499 for a double, which is what I have. That seems like a lot of money to me, mostly because I’m a freelancer renting in London and consider £4.99 a lot for a pint. Like most people, the brand of mattress I’ve mostly had up to now is Landlord’s Choice, otherwise known as “what is the cheapest thing I can buy without actively infesting my buy-to-let flat with bedbugs?”

However, I’m also aware that a brand new double can be had from Ikea for a fair bit less (for instance, we have this one in Zack’s bedroom, and it’s pretty comfy for £120). So, what’s the difference?

Well, most of the cheaper mattresses are full of springs. That’s not in itself a bad thing, but when there are two of you on a mattress, a bed of springs can bow down with the weight and create a ravine in the middle that you both fall into (called ‘roll together’). That’s why people pay more for ‘pocket sprung’ mattresses, where each spring has its own little fabric den and isn’t influenced by the others.

Moose tests the springiness

Also, springs vary a lot in quality. Some of them are fine, some will stick through the fabric and poke you in the ribs within a couple of years (or months). You’re also meant to flip them over or turn them round every six months or so, to try and wear them out evenly rather than just where you sleep. I used to be a hotel chambermaid, and believe me, trying to do this on your own is even worse for your spine than a bad mattress.

The Otty mattress is a hybrid, which means it has both springs (the good, pocket kind) and foam. The springs are apparently 5x the size of other brands’ springs, which is a weird metric to get competitive about but I’m guessing it’s considered a good thing since it’s prominently mentioned in the mattress bumf.

On top of the springs is a layer of reflex foam, and on top of that is a layer of memory foam infused with cooling gel. The springs are there for back and joint support, and the foam is for comfort.

I reckon my bum dips way further down than that

The mattress equates to a firmness rating of 7.5 out of 10, which makes it medium-firm. My Casper mattress was rated 6, and I definitely prefer the Otty in terms of support and soothing joint pain (thanks, fibromyalgia).

The cooling gel, however, is somewhat wasted on me. It’s one of the big selling points of the mattress, and I know scientifically a lot of people find a cooler environment helps them sleep better. But not me. I’ve got half a thyroid and Raynaud’s syndrome, so I’m permanently freezing and have my electric blanket on every single day, even in the summer.

You can still use an Otty mattress with an electric blanket, thankfully, because I’d have died by now if not. Despite my need for warmth, the cooling gel isn’t a complete waste — it also helps the mattress not to retain too much heat and get really sweaty, which is apparently a thing with memory foam (grim).

The pillows

Otty also makes two types of pillow: the Deluxe and the Adjustable. I have two of the Deluxe pillows, and Otty often does offers where you can get two of them free with your mattress purchase.

The pillows are pleasingly firm and rectangular: they look beautifully neat and tidy on your bed.

However, they’re a bit too high for my liking (obviously you only use one: both at once would be way too far off the mattress!), and they don’t quite fit into my pillowcases (although the covers are washable).

While I haven’t replaced my standard pillow for laying down on, I have found the perfect use for the Otty pillows: as backrests against the headboard or wall while you’re sitting up in bed reading. They are perfect for this, and have made my nighttime reading sessions much comfier.

Is the Otty mattress nice to lay on?

Comfort-wise, the hybrid mattress is superb. Whether it’s just me, me and the cat, or me and Zack and the cat in my bed, it stays level and doesn’t bunch up or cause canyons. It doesn’t get too hot, even with my old-lady electric blanket on, and the cover comes off easily for machine washing.

Because of the (soft but supportive) foam layer at the top, you don’t ever have to flip it over, although it is useful to rotate it 180 degrees every six months or so. That feature was a big relief to me: I hate flipping mattresses. (Otty also recommends you rotate it every month for the first few, but effort).

It’s a thick, good-quality mattress to lie on, and can quite happily handle things like you putting all your weight on one knee — doing that on an old Landlord’s Choice mattress once snapped the bed slats, because the mattress was about the thickness of a slice of Tesco Value toast.

I’ve slept on hotel mattresses and very pricey Dreams jobbies that were considerably less comfortable than this. It’s a reliable all-round choice for people who need something that’ll take the strain off their joints, let them sink into a deep, comfy sleep, and feel like they’re floating on a strangely supportive cloud. If you like your bedroom cool, even better.

Gadgette’s verdict

At the end of my 100-night trial, would I return the Otty mattress? Absolutely not. I knew I wouldn’t from night 1, when I slept so well that my lungs were tired from breathing so deeply the next day (that’s how I know when I’ve been dead to the world).

The Otty hybrid mattress feels like a freshly baked loaf: warm, soft, and with just the right amount of springback when you squeeze it.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Sleep through the 100-night trial yourself, and you can take £10 off with the code GADGETTE10.

Let me know what you think when you wake up.

The post Otty mattress review: like sleeping on a fresh loaf of bread appeared first on Gadgette.

Portrait of Athena, February 2019

Feb. 18th, 2019 03:08 pm
[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

She came home for the weekend so I was able to grab a few photos of her. This one turned out pretty well.

Still writing that thing, so back to it.

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


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I'm the Chair of the Brighouse branch of the Liberal Democrats.

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