Crowd-funding Robert Heinlein

Sep. 26th, 2017 08:22 pm
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Posted by Henry

Farah Mendlesohn, a long time friend of Crooked Timber, writes:

I had to withdraw my book on Heinlein from the original publisher due to length. As I explored other options it became clear that no academic publisher could take it without substantial cuts, and no one who read it, could suggest any. In addition, the length would have pushed up the price for an academic publisher beyond what people could afford. Unbound, a crowdsourcing press, have agreed to take the book and have been able to price it at £12 for the ebook and £35 for the hard back.

The crowd-funding site is here. I’ve read and loved two of Farah’s previous books on f/sf (and have been contemplating a reply to her analysis of Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Wall for several years) – I’ve no doubt this is going to be great.

(no subject)

Sep. 26th, 2017 08:25 pm
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Posted by Andrew Rilstone

people of a certain age might remember that episode of Grange Hill where Pogo got the cane for running a "homework service" i.e doing school work that other kids could pass of as their own and charging them money for it. 

the headmistress described it as a "thoroughly nasty business".

you may not ply your trade in the boys toilets or behind the cycle sheds, and you may demand fifty quid a time rather than a bag of sweets from the tuck shop, but if you make your living writing university style essays and selling them to students to pass off as their own, then you're still engaged in a thoroughly nasty business. 

so if you work for one of these disgusting companies can you please stop using the comments section of my blog to swindle gullible and dishonest people out of their cash. 

it really isn't any more convincing if you say "Gee [Andrew] I am a big fan of [Doctor Who] although I have never watched it and I really like what you say about it" before the "come and look at my website" part. 

i can't call in the deputy head to whack across the knuckles but I can systematically delete all your nasty little messages. 
[syndicated profile] skepchick_feed

Posted by Rebecca Watson

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

Transcript:

Good news! A billionaire gave $200 million to a public university to set up a new college! Bad news! It’s a college for baloney!

Henry Samueli founded a now-huge semiconductor maker, and he and his family think homeopathy is real. As a reminder, homeopathy is based on a few key beliefs, and I’m not making this up:

  1. Diluting something makes it stronger
  2. Water can remember things that were in it, even when those things are no longer in it.
  3. “Like cures like.”

This means if you’re dying of mercury poisoning, you should take more mercury. And to make it even better, you should put a tiny amount in water and then dilute it to the point that there’s no mercury left in it at all. Now drink the water. There, you’re cured.

Homeopathy is maybe one of the all-time stupidest beliefs. It’s not even like “naturopathy” where you consume actual things that might have (unproven, unregulated) active ingredients. It’s just nothing. It’s literally just water.

So Henry Samueli’s wife Susan once went to France and caught a cold and instead of just dealing with it because there is no cure, she took the homeopathic remedy aconite. She got better, and ever since she’s been on the anti-real-medicine train.

Now they’ve given millions to UC Irvine, a public university, to set up a school for baloney….I mean “alternative medicine.” It’ll be called the “College of Health Sciences,” misusing at least three words in a four-word name, which is really pretty impressive.

I read about all this in a positively glowing article in the LA Times, which didn’t seek out a single voice to disagree with the idea that a college of baloney is a brilliant idea. The LA Times didn’t even consult the LA Times of six months ago, where they reported on another woman who took aconite as a remedy. That woman was hospitalized for weeks and then she died, because aconite is a poison. Susan’s aconite product must have been real homeopathy, meaning that it was just sugar water and there wasn’t actually any aconite in it at all. Otherwise, instead of getting better naturally from her cold she also would have fucking died, and then nobody would be giving millions of dollars to a public university to spread dangerous baloney.

I’m not saying I wish Susan Samueli had died — but I do wish she would have been slightly less gullible, because now our tax dollars will be hard at work making a whole lot more people gullible.

The post UC Irvine Gets $200 Million to Teach Homeopathy appeared first on Skepchick.

Anthem Sprinting

Sep. 26th, 2017 01:45 pm
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Posted by Henry

Tyler Cowen on American reverence for the Star Spangled Banner:

At a rally on Friday and on Twitter since, we have seen President Trump taking pokes at NFL players who do not show what he considers sufficient respect for the national anthem, namely by kneeling in protest during the song (is it so bad to kneel in public on a Sunday?). On the other side, some NASCAR team owners have threatened to fire drivers and crew members who don’t show proper respect during the anthem. Such disputes won’t improve the quality of either our sports or our politics. We live in a country where very often the concession stands don’t stop operating during the anthem, nor do fans stop walking through the concourse. We’re fooling ourselves to think that current practices are really showing respect for the nation or its military.

This reminds me of one of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, “The Anthem Sprinters,” based on his experiences in Ireland while working on John Huston’s Moby-Dick. The story isn’t available online (though brief summaries can be found here and elsewhere, but the plot is straightforward enough, concerning an American visitor’s discovery of a peculiar national sport. Since there was a requirement after all cinema performances that the Irish national anthem, a peculiarly lugubrious number called “The Soldier’s Song,” be played, and since Dublin cinema goers were more enthusiastic about getting to the pub to get a round or two in before closing time than about demonstrating their fidelity to the national ideal, they used to rush towards the exits in a class of a race, to avoid having to stay and stand through the rendition. Bradbury’s suggestion that this was transformed from a disorganized herd-like stampede into an actual sport is probably poetic exaggeration, but I don’t doubt that the underlying practice existed.

I’m sure that I’m not the only imported American to find the required sincerity of American nationalism a bit disorienting – it’s not what I grew up with in a country where even the greenest of 32 counties Republicanism was shot through with ambiguities. It’s not just a right wing thing either (the Pledge of Allegiance having been famously written by a socialist). Nor did I realize until the recent controversy that one of the verses of the “Star Spangled Banner” apparently looks forward to the death of American slaves freed by the British who fought in their regiment. A little more ambiguity and anthem-dashing might be no bad thing.

Pitch black planet

Sep. 25th, 2017 07:48 pm
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Posted by Phil Plait

Over a thousand light-years from Earth, there is a decidedly odd planet. It orbits the star WASP-12 — named so because it was the 12th star found to have a planet by the Wide Angle Search for Planets consortium. The star is somewhat more massive and hotter than our own Sun, and the planet is called WASP-12b, as is the convention.

This is no planet like we have in our own solar system. The closest analogue would be Jupiter; WASP-12b is about 40% more massive. But a funny thing was discovered immediately upon its discovery: It’s much larger than Jupiter, almost twice its diameter. That is very peculiar. When planets get to be around the mass of Jupiter, an odd quirk of physics called degeneracy kicks in, which changes how the material inside the planet behaves under pressure. When you add mass to such a planet, it actually gets smaller, not larger.

So, why is WASP-12b more massive than Jupiter, and larger? Because it’s hot. Really hot. It orbits its star a mere 3 million kilometers above its surface, far closer even than Mercury orbits our Sun! Its proximity means the planet is broiled by the star, and may have a temperature of 2300° Celsius (almost 4200° F) at its cloud tops. That heat puffs up the outer atmosphere, making the planet larger than you’d expect for its mass.

And now astronomers have discovered something else that’s bizarre about the planet: It’s dark. Like really unusually so. Most planets reflect quite a bit of light that falls on them from their star; for example, Earth is about 40% reflective (in astronomer lingo this is what we’d call an albedo of 0.4). However, new observations of WASP-12b show it reflects a mere 6% of the light that hits it (an albedo of 0.06), roughly the same albedo as asphalt. And that’s an upper limit! It might even be darker.

This was discovered in a clever set of observations using the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) — a camera on board the Hubble Space Telescope that can break light up into separate colors and analyze it. In a sense, it spreads the light out like a rainbow, but a rainbow with hundreds or thousands of colors. By examining the resulting spectrum, we can learn a lot about the object giving off that light.

WASP-12b lends itself well to this type of camera. That’s because, due to a favorable geometry, we see it orbiting its star edge-on from Earth. That means, once every orbit, it passes directly in front of its star, blocking a fraction of the light. But that also means that, half an orbit later, it passes directly behind its star. Most of the time during its orbit, we see the light from the planet and the star together, but, for that short time while it’s eclipsed, we see only the light from the star.

The star is bright enough that seeing the dip in light when the planet blocks it isn’t too hard. But the planet is faint — literally a billion or so times fainter — so seeing the light from the system drop when the planet is in eclipse is extremely difficult. However, STIS is quite an amazing machine, and is capable of making this observation*.

The observations were made right before, during, and after an eclipse. Right as the planet slips behind the star, the light should drop, and then it should come back up when the eclipse is over. And what they found was ... nothing. As in, the amount of light they saw in every color was fairly steady, when it should have dropped a bit. The only explanation is that the planet is absorbing nearly all the star’s light that falls on it, reflecting almost none. It’s dark.

spectrum of WASP-12b

 

This plot shows how deep the eclipse was (vertical axis, measured in parts per million) versus color (horizontal; 300 nanometers is blue and 550 is yellow). The observations are very flat and nearly 0 within the uncertainty bars, meaning essentially no light was reflected by the planet. The grey line would be what’s expected for a planet with haze, and the blue line for one without clouds. The red line is for a planet simply glowing under its own heat. Credit:...

That’s interesting right away. A couple of previous observations made of the planet indicated that it might not have any clouds in it (not water clouds as on Earth — at those temperatures, water gets ripped apart into its individual hydrogen and oxygen atoms — but some other material that can condense in the upper atmosphere), or it might have an atmosphere of aluminum oxide haze. However, either of these two cases would show a change not only in brightness during the eclipse, but also in color (for example, clouds in the planet’s atmosphere would reflect more blue light, so the spectrum would show a bigger drop in blue light than red if the clouds were there). Yet neither of those two models fits the STIS spectra. Instead, it’s more likely WASP-12b has an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium. Those gases absorb all the light coming from the star, which is why it’s so dark.

Another interesting thing: The planet orbits so close to its star that it should be tidally locked to it; that is, spin once for every time it orbits (this happens naturally over time when any object closely orbits another, like our own Moon). That means one side always faces the star, and the other faces away. When it’s about to be eclipsed, we only see the day side of the planet (it’s on the other side of the star from us, so we see it fully illuminated), where it’s very hot. But temperatures on the night side may be much lower, by as much as 1000°C. That means different chemistry can occur there, and there may yet be water vapor and other materials that can condense to form clouds. We just don’t see them in this observation because they’re on the other side of the planet.

What an odd place.

 

And there’s yet one more thing. The press release for this news says the planet is “pitch black,” which is fair enough. But by that they mean the planet is dark, non-reflective. This doesn’t refer to the actual color of the planet, just the brightness! My friend Kiki Sanford (who runs the wonderful This Week in Science podcast) asked me about this, and makes a good point: At 2300° C, the planet should actually glow under its own heat.

She’s right. Anything above a temperature of absolute zero emits light, and the warmer it is, the higher energy the light is. At WASP-12b’s temperature, it should peak in the infrared, just outside what our eyes can see. But that’s just where it would emit the most light; it still should emit some light in visible colors. It does, but not much. The STIS spectra are consistent with it being very slightly red, which is what I’d expect for such an object, but they’re not conclusive.

Still, that’s a funny thing to think about: It’s emitting its own light, faintly, but at the same time it’s so absorbent it reflects almost none from the star. If it had a reflectivity like Earth it would look far brighter due to reflected starlight than from its own internal heat.

So, if you were floating next to it, would you see it? Almost certainly yes. Unless it reflects absolutely no light at all, it’s so close to the star that a lot of light is falling on it, so even if the albedo is, say, 0.01 (and it’s hard to see how anything could be that dark), it would still reflect enough light to see.

So, “pitch black” is an accurate term, but a little misleading. It’s not black per se. It’s reddish, but it’s dark.

Hmmm. “Dark planet” is actually a rather more foreboding term, isn’t it? I like it better. It’s cooler (though not literally).

And it’s weird. The only other exoplanet we’ve been able to observe via reflected light is HD189733b (which, like WASP-12b, is a hot near-Jupiter-mass planet), but it’s far cooler and tends to reflect light better in the blue. This means its atmosphere must be very different from WASP-12b’s.

We’ve observed two planets like these in this way, and they’re very different. That’s exciting: It means that “hot Jupiters” are diverse, and that, in turn, means that every one we observe will tell us something important. Studying exoplanets in this way is a very new science; we’ve only just started here. I can’t wait to see what else we’ll discover!

* If I sound like I’m bragging, why, yes, I am: I was on the team that built STIS and I helped calibrate before and after launch. Despite that, it works very well.  

UPDATE (Sep. 26, 2017 at 18:30 UTC): Exoplanet astronomer Dave Kipping alerted me that as it happens, a darker exoplanet is known: TrES-2b. And he should know: He's the lead author on the paper about it!

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Artwork depicting WASP-12b orbiting its star. NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)
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Posted by John Scalzi

My Big Idea schedule says I was supposed to run the Big Idea for Fran Wilde’s Horizon today, but I already ran it last week. Which means that I screwed up, because today is the release day. So: If you missed the Big Idea when I posted it early, here it is today. Also, congrats to Fran for the release of her third book!

Also, a small public service message: Hey, if you ever want to just see Big Idea posts, there’s a way to do that: Use the BigIdeaAuthors.com URL. It works! Try it!

Also, also: I’m sending out my final batch of October Big Idea slots today. If you sent me a request for October and have not yet heard from me, check your email accounts. If you haven’t heard from me by the end of the day, I’m all slotted out.


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Posted by John Scalzi

There was thread over at Metafilter this week talking about book sales and author earnings, including a link to a study that purported to chart author earnings, based on sales at Amazon.  I have to admit I had a bit of a giggle over it. Not because it was attempting to guess author incomes, which is fine, but because the methodology for estimating those earnings came almost entirely from trying to estimate sales of the authors’ books on Amazon, and extrapolating income from there.

Here’s the thing: For non-self-published authors, the correlation between annual book sales and annual “earnings” as a writer can be fairly low. As in, sometimes there is no correlation at all.

Confusing? Think how we feel!

But let me explain.

So, I’m a writer who works primarily with a “Big Five” publisher (Tor Books, which is part of Macmillan). For each of my books, I’m given an advance, which in my case is paid in four separate installments — when I sign the contract, when I turn in the manuscript and it’s accepted, when the book is published in hardcover and when the book is published in paperback. This is fairly typical for most writers working with a “traditional” publisher.

Once the advance is disbursed, my publisher owes me nothing until and unless my book “earns out” — which is to say, the amount I nominally earn for the sale of each unit (usually between 10% and 15% of each hardcover, and 25% of the net for eBook) exceeds cumulatively the amount I was offered for the advance. Once that happens, my publisher owes me for each book sold, and that amount is then usually disbursed semiannually…

usually. There could be other complicating factors, such as if the royalties of the books are “basketed” (meaning the contract was for two or more books, and the royalties are not disbursed until the advance amount for every book in the “basket” is earned out), or if some percentage of the royalties are held back as a “reserve against returns” (meaning that some books listed as sold/distributed are actually returned, so the publisher holds back royalties for a payment period to compensate).

Bear in mind that most publishers try to offer as an advance a sum of money they think the book will earn, either over the first year in hardcover, or across the entire sales run of the work. Which means that if the publisher has guessed correctly, it will never have to shell out royalties. Sometimes they guess poorly, which means either they paid too much for an advance or not enough; in the latter case, that’s when the royalty checks come (please note that even if a publisher pays “too much” and the advance isn’t earned out, it doesn’t mean the book wasn’t profitable for the publisher — their bottom line is not necessarily heavily correlated to the author’s advance — nor does the author have to pay it back).

So what does this all mean? Well, it means that for a non-self-pubbed author, often none of their annual earnings from a book are directly related to how many of those books sell in a year (or any other specified time frame). In fact, depending on how the advance is paid out, three-quarters or more (even all!) of the author’s earnings from a book are disbursed before the book has sold a single unit.

Like so:

Book is contracted: 40% of the advance (“signing installment”) goes to the author. Books sold to date: 0.

Book is turned in and accepted: 20% of the advance (“delivery and acceptance installment”) goes to the author. Books sold to date: 0

Book is published in hardcover: 20% of the advance (“hardcover installment”) goes to the author. Books sold to date: 0 (there may be pre-orders, but the sales don’t usually start being counted until this time).

Book is published in paperback: Final 20% of the advance goes to author. Books sold to date: Hopefully some! But even if the number is zero, the final installment gets paid out (if so few books are sold that the publisher foregoes the paperback release, there’s still usually the contractual obligation to pay out).

Note these advances can be paid out over more than one year — I once got a final installment for an advance roughly six years after I got the first installment (it was a complicated situation). Likewise, once the book starts selling, it can be years — if at all — before the author starts earning royalties, and even then, thanks to the reserve against returns, what the author gets in those semi-annual royalty checks is not 1:1 with sales for the period the check covers (note: this sometimes works to the benefit of the author). Also note: Those semi-annual checks? Often cover a period of time located in the previous fiscal or calendar year.

All of which is to say: For a “traditionally published” author, at almost no point do what an author’s yearly earnings for a book directly correspond to how the book is selling in that particular year.

(Is this bad? No, but it needs paying attention to. Authors tend to love advances because they’re not directly tied to sales — it’s money up front that doesn’t have to be immediately recouped and can help tide the author over during the writing and the wait for publication. But it also means, again, that it can be years — if at all — before money from royalties comes your way. Authors need to be aware of that.)

To move the discussion to me directly for a moment, if someone tried to guess my annual earnings based on my yearly unit sales on Amazon (or via Bookscan, or anywhere else for that matter), they would be likely be, well, wildly wrong. At any moment I have several books at various stages of advance disbursement — some contracted, some completed but not published, some published in hardcover and some published in paperback — a few all paid out in advances but not earned out, and several earned out and paying royalties.

Add to that audio sales (another set of advances and royalties) and foreign sales (yet another) and ancillary income like film/tv options (which are not tied to sales at all, but sales help get things optioned) and so on. Also note that not all my sales provide royalties at the same rate — a lot will depend on format and how many were previously sold (if they are in print or physical audio), unit price (if they are eBook or audio files), and on other various bits that are in contracts but not necessarily disclosed to the wide world. Oh, and don’t forget my short fiction and non-fiction!

Basically, my yearly earnings as an author are a delightful mess. I’m glad I have an accountant and an agent and a very smart life partner to help me stay on top of them. These earnings have almost nothing to do with unit sales in any calendar year, and more to the point, never have, even when I was a newbie book writer with a single book contract to my name. I signed my first book contract in 1999; since then I have yet to have a year when my earnings from being an author approach anything like a 1:1 parity with my book sales in that same year.

Does this matter? Well, it matters if you are, for example, trying to extrapolate what “traditionally published authors” make based on their annual sales, and are then comparing those “earnings” to the earnings of self-published authors. It’s ignoring that these are entirely different distribution systems which have implications for annual earnings. I don’t think one is particularly better than the other, but a direct comparison will give you poor results. Note also that’s true going the other way — applying “traditional publishing” income models to self-published authors will very likely tell you incorrect things about how they’re doing economically in any one year.

(And as a further note: Do likewise be aware of the caveats for anyone trying to extrapolate self-pub/indie annual author earnings from Amazon as well. It misses direct sales, which for authors who ply the convention circuits can be significant, and also may not fully incorporate how Amazon deals with payments in its subscription models, which are handled rather differently than actual sales, and which (unless it’s changed very recently) come from a pre-determined pot of payment rather than a straight percentage of sales. Hey, it’s complicated! Almost as complicated as the “traditional” model.)

Here’s one thing I suspect is true: It’s possible to make money (sometimes a lot of it) as a traditionally published author, or as an self-published/indie author — or as both, either in turn or simultaneously, since, as it happens, there’s no deep ideological chasm between the two, and generally speaking an author can do one or the other depending on their project needs, or their own (likewise, it’s possible to make almost no money either way, too. Alas). It’s not an either-or proposition.

But yes: Here is a grain of salt. Please apply it to anyone who tells you they know how much any author (traditional or self-pub/indie, but especially traditional) is earning in any year, based on Amazon sales, even if they’re  limiting it to Amazon sales. They’re just guessing, and you have no idea how far off their guesses are. And neither, I strongly suspect, do they. Only the actual authors know, and most of the time, they’re not telling.


[syndicated profile] badastronomy_feed

Posted by Phil Plait

If I ask you to close your eyes and picture an asteroid, you’ll probably think of a gray, battered, vaguely spherical object with lots of craters.

If I ask you now to picture a comet, you’ll probably think of a bright fuzzy thing with a long, diffuse tail.

However, nature cares not for your arbitrary distinction between cosmic objects! Sometimes, we find things that straddle the line between two different categories. And oh, my, does 300163 (2006 VW139) push every boundary we have for such things.

This object was discovered in 2006 by Spacewatch, a program dedicated to finding small objects in the solar system. It orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, in what’s called the main asteroid belt. The orbit was determined to be fairly elliptical, which is unusual for an asteroid but not too shocking.

The orbit of the weird binary asteroid/comet 2006 VW139, also called 288P. Its position is shown for Nov. 6, 2016, when it was at perihelion, closest to the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL

The orbit of the weird binary asteroid/comet 2006 VW139, also called 288P. Its position is shown for Nov. 6, 2016, when it was at perihelion, closest to the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL

 

Then things got weird. In 2011, observations using Pan-STARRS revealed VW139 was surrounded by a halo of dust, and had trails of dust streaming out away from it. Sometimes asteroids get these haloes if they suffer a collision with another asteroid and material gets blown out. But observations over the course of a month showed no change in the halo’s brightness — you’d expect stuff blasted out by a collision to expand and fade over a few days. This meant the object was continuously producing dust, blowing it off the surface.

That makes it more like a comet: While asteroids are nearly all rock and/or metal, comets are rock and various ices (like frozen water, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide). So it was then reclassified as a main belt comet and given the second name of P/2006 VW139 (as well as, confusingly, 288P, which is how most press releases refer to it, but from here on out I’ll just call VW139).

But now the plot has thickened again. Observations using the Hubble Space Telescope in late 2016 (when the object was closest both to Earth and the Sun) revealed yet another surprise: VW139 is binary!

 

Instead of being a single object, it’s actually two large chunks orbiting each other. Even with Hubble, these were tough observations, and it’s hard to constrain the physical characteristics of the two chunks and their mutual orbit around each other. But it’s likely each chunk is on the order of a kilometer or so across. Models of their motion can’t pin down the orbital period, but the model solutions tend to fall into three different groups of 103, 135, and 175 days (meaning one of these is likely the correct period, but it’s not clear which one).

The orbit of the two chunks around each other is likely highly elliptical, meaning it’s not even close to being a circle. Ellipses are in part defined their semi-major axes, the distance from the center of the orbit to the most distant part. For VW139, this distance is likely to be between 70 and 140 kilometers, which is yet another oddity.

Why? Well, we’ve discovered lots of binary asteroids, but in most cases, the two components are very different sizes, and the orbits are much smaller compared to the size of the objects (that is, the two bodies orbit pretty tightly) and not nearly so elliptical. The mutual orbit of the chunks in VW139 is a hundred or so times the size of the chunks themselves, which is very wide.

Images of the comet P/2006 VW139 using Hubble show it to be a binary pair of objects.Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Agarwal (Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research)

Images of the comet P/2006 VW139 using Hubble show it to be a binary pair of objects.Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Agarwal (Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research)

 

So, what is this thing, and how did it form? Well, a big clue is that it seems to be most active when it’s closer to the Sun in its orbit. That is a strong indicator that it has water ice in it, and as it warms up that turns directly into a gas (this is called sublimation). Using physical models of how the dust reflects light, astronomers think that this first releases pieces of rock the size of gravel, but over time, finer-grained material lifts off as well. Eventually, as VW139 moves away from the Sun, the activity drops, and some of the dust settles back down, to be released the next time the comet warms up (it has an orbit about 2.6 years long).

Interestingly, surface ice on an object like this cannot exist for long at this distance from the Sun, certainly not for billions of years. So it’s likely that some relatively recent event — perhaps just a few thousand years ago — split a large object in two, forming the binary. It may have been a collision, but another possibility is that the single object got spun up by outside forces (sunlight can actually do this via a process called the YORP effect) and the centrifugal force broke it apart. Either way, freshly revealed ice would then sublimate and blow outward, and this can contribute to separating the two chunks into their current wide spacing.

I do so love stories like this. When I was a kid, asteroids were asteroids and comets were comets. Then x`we started seeing objects on that border between them, dead comets that look like asteroids and asteroids that blew off material like comets. It was hard to accept at first, but now we see that there is an even finer degree of resolution in this spectrum, likely with objects all along the line between the two ends. Nature was telling us not to be so rigid in our beliefs, engendering a wider view by scientists, a willingness to accept that not everything in life is either one thing or the other.

I find that transformative, and wonderful. It makes life so much more diverse and interesting!

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Images of the comet P/2006 VW139 using Hubble show it to be a binary pair of objects.Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Agarwal (Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research)

Of Penguins and Power

Sep. 25th, 2017 11:35 am
[syndicated profile] crooked_timber_feed

Posted by Yochai Benkler

In Why Coase’s Penguin didn’t fly, Henry follows up his response to Cory’s Walkaway by claiming that peer production failed, and arguing that the reason I failed to predict its failure is that I ignored the role of power in my analysis.

Tl;dr: evidence on the success/failure of peer production is much less clear than that, but is not my issue here.  Coase’s Penguin and Sharing Nicely were pieces aimed to be internal to mainstream economics to establish the feasibility of social sharing and cooperation as a major modality of production within certain technological conditions; conditions that obtain now.  It was not a claim about the necessary success of such practices.  Those two economist-oriented papers were embedded in a line of work that put power and struggle over whether this feasible set of practices would in fact come to pass at the center of my analysis.  Power in social relations, and how it shapes and is shaped by battles over technical (open/closed), institutional (commons/property), ideological (cooperation/competition//homo economicus/homo socialis), and organizational (peer production & social production vs. hierarchies/markets) systems has been the central subject of my work.  The detailed support for this claim is unfortunately highly self-referential, trying to keep myself honest that I am not merely engaged in ex-post self-justification.  Apologies.

The premise of the argument, that commons based peer production has failed (the Penguin “didn’t fly”) is empirically problematic.  Extensive case studies collected by the P2P Foundation, the European P2P Value project, the research communities collected around terms like constructed cultural commons, wealth of the commons, collective intelligence,  the breathtaking amount of work on Wikipedia and FOSS in computer supported cooperative work and HCI, as well as efforts to measure the economic value of Digital Dark Matter, offers plenty of evidence.  What didn’t happen is expansion of peer production into the role of critical infrastructure far beyond FOSS and Wikipedia—the failure of Diaspora being the standard story.  I acknowledged that challenge in Practical Anarchism: Peer Mutualism, Market Power, and the Fallible State, where I wrote:

The real utopias I observe here are perfect on neither dimension. Internally, hierarchy and power reappear, to some extent and in some projects, although they are quite different than the hierarchy of government or corporate organization. Externally, there are some spectacular successes, some failures to thrive, and many ambiguous successes. In all, present experience supports neither triumphalism nor defeatism in the utopian project. Peer models do work, and they do provide a degree of freedom in the capabilities they provide. But there is no inexorable path to greater freedom through voluntary open collaboration.

That’s still where I think we stand empirically.  But that’s not what moved me to write a response.

Henry’s core criticism is that I failed to predict the rise of powerful market actors controlling information, knowledge, and cultural production (Read Google, Facebook, Amazon…) due to the fact that I bought too completely into Coase’s new institutionalist framework.

“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.”

[paraphrasing to shorten: Coase’s insight, that when market transactions costs are high and intra-organizational costs lower, activities will be organized within firms (hierarchies) and as market transactions costs are lower while organizational costs are higher (e.g. larger firms & more efficient markets), activities will migrate to markets,] “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.”

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.”

“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.”

To compound this criticism, Henry emphasizes that I made this same argument in Wealth of Networks and still hold to it (citing a current paper in Strategic Organization).

I first introduced the term “peer production” a few months before I completed the first draft of Coase’s Penguin, in a 2001 piece in the Communications of the ACM entitled “The Battle Over the Institutional Ecosystem in the Digital Environment.”  I concluded that essay with the words: “We are in the midst of a pitched battle over the spoils of the transformation to a digitally networked environment and the information economy. Stakeholders from the older economy are using legislation, judicial opinions, and international treaties to retain the old structure of organizing production so they continue to control the empires they’ve built or inherited. Copyright law and other intellectual property, broadcast law, spectrum-management policy, and e-commerce law are all being warped to fit the size of the hierarchical organizations of yesteryear. In the process, they are stifling the evolution of the distributed, peer-based models of information production and exchange.”

Power, and how technology intersects with institutions to shape it, was always the central theme of my analysis.  My job talk, which I gave at several law schools in 1995-1996, resulted in a publication in Telecommunications Policy in 1998 entitled Communications infrastructure regulation and the distribution of control over content.  I opened the theoretical framework section with: “The confluence of three lines of theoretical writing: the political economy of communications, institutional economics, and the economics of path dependency, suggests a feedback effect among technology, institutional framework, and organizational adaptations, that produces a historically contingent, but robust, distribution of power over the knowledge environment of a society. Different societies, introducing the same technology at different times and within different institutional parameters, are likely to experience different social distributions of the capacity to affect information flows.” The rest of the paper describes an interaction and lock-in process whereby battles over control, played out in technological design, regulation, and organizational strategy result in more or less concentrated control over information and knowledge production, and offers examples from then-live, still-critical debates over spectrum commons (now 5G transition) and common carriage of last mile Internet access infrastructure (now net neutrality). 

This framework was an application to communications policy of a framework I had earlier developed to property law, focused on a re-interpretation of the Homestead Act of 1862 as an effort by labor advocates in the 1840s and 1850 to use the public domain (the West) to decommodify land and labor, and how it failed.  The central point of Distributive Liberty: A Relational Model of Freedom, Coercion, and Property Law  was that market relations were expressions of power relations structured by institutional choices around control of productive resources.  I turned to studying the Internet after that piece precisely because I realized that it was the space in which power over resources, the means of production, and the freedom to use them was being fought for the coming decades.  And that is, after all, precisely what Cory’s novel is about.

This basic commitment to studying how legal and regulatory choices, primarily around commons vs property, as well as internal design of other institutional mechanisms that shaped control of the information environment by shaping power in markets was my whole focus in the years before Coase’s Penguin:  Overcoming Agoraphobia: Building the Commons of the Digitally Networked Environment (1998) (the history of radio regulation as jostling by powerful businesses to control the industry at the expense of amateurs and smaller stations replicated in the choice between spectrum auctions and spectrum commons), The Commons as a Neglected Factor of Information Policy (1998), Intellectual Property and the Organization of Information Production (1999), Free as the Air to Common Use: First Amendment Constraints on Enclosure of the Public Domain (1999) (which attacked the constitutionality of the DMCA and DRM, and explained how the new enclosure movement and in particular DRM shifted power to centralized, commercial producers), and From Consumers to Users: Shifting the Deeper Structures of Regulation Towards Sustainable Commons and User Access (2000).  All these papers were about battles, from early radio to unlicensed wireless, patents and copyrights to DRM (and other papers I wrote during the same period on EULA enforcement, data exclusivity, etc.), waged by powerful market actors to shape the institutional and organizational environment of markets to allow them to extract higher rents and exclude competitors, both market and non-market.

In Wealth of Networks, right in the introduction about the role of technology in human affairs, I say:

Different technologies make different kinds of human action and interaction easier or harder to perform. All other things being equal, things that are easier to do are more likely to be done, and things that are harder to do are less likely to be done. All other things are never equal. That is why technological determinism in the strict sense—if you have technology “t,” you should expect social structure or relation “s” to emerge—is false. Ocean navigation had a different adoption and use when introduced in states whose land empire ambitions were effectively countered by strong neighbors—like Spain and Portugal—than in nations that were focused on building a vast inland empire, like China. Print had different effects on literacy in countries where religion encouraged individual reading—like Prussia, Scotland, England, and New England—than where religion discouraged individual, unmediated interaction with texts, like France and Spain. This form of understanding the role of technology is adopted here. Neither deterministic nor wholly malleable, technology sets some parameters of individual and social action. It can make some actions, relationships, organizations, and institutions easier to pursue, and others harder. In a challenging environment—be the challenges natural or human—it can make some behaviors obsolete by increasing the efficacy of directly competitive strategies. However, within the realm of the feasible—uses not rendered impossible by the adoption or rejection of a technology—different patterns of adoption and use can result in very different social relations that emerge around a technology. Unless these patterns are in competition, or unless even in competition they are not catastrophically less effective at meeting the challenges, different societies can persist with different patterns of use over long periods. It is the feasibility of long-term sustainability of different patterns of use that makes this book relevant to policy, not purely to theory. The same technologies of networked computers can be adopted in very different patterns. There is no guarantee that networked information technology will lead to the improvements in innovation, freedom, and justice that I suggest are possible. That is a choice we face as a society. The way we develop will, in significant measure, depend on choices we make in the next decade or so (pp. 17-18).

The entire part three of the book is a catalog of policy and political debates and battles that we were engaged in at the time precisely over whether powerful market actors would succeed in bending the technological-economic ecosystem to their interest or not.  Again, from the introduction:

If the transformation I describe as possible occurs, it will lead to substantial redistribution of power and money from the twentieth-century industrial producers of information, culture, and communications—like Hollywood, the recording industry, and perhaps the broadcasters and some of the telecommunications services giants—to a combination of widely diffuse populations around the globe, and the market actors that will build the tools that make this population better able to produce its own information environment rather than buying it ready-made. None of the industrial giants of yore are taking this reallocation lying down. The technology will not overcome their resistance through an insurmountable progressive impulse. The reorganization of production and the advances it can bring in freedom and justice will emerge, therefore, only as a result of social and political action aimed at protecting the new social patterns from the incumbents’ assaults. It is precisely to develop an understanding of what is at stake and why it is worth fighting for that I write this book. I offer no reassurances, however, that any of this will in fact come to pass. (p. 23)

My primary mistake in my work fifteen years ago, and even ten, was not ignoring the role of power in shaping market patterns, but in understating the extent to which the new “market actors who will build the tools that make this population better able…” will themselves become the new incumbent market actors who will shape the environment to increase and lock-in their power.  That is certainly a mistake in reading the landscape of power grabs, and I have tried to correct over the intervening years, most recently by offering a map of what has developed in the past decade in my 2016 Daedalus piece Degrees of Freedom, Dimensions of Power, whose abstract reads:

The original Internet design combined technical, organizational, and cultural characteristics that decentralized power along diverse dimensions. Decentralized institutional, technical, and market power maximized freedom to operate and innovate at the expense of control. Market developments have introduced new points of control. Mobile and cloud computing, the Internet of Things, fiber transition, big data, surveillance, and behavioral marketing introduce new control points and dimensions of power into the Internet as a social-cultural-economic platform. Unlike in the Internet’s first generation, companies and governments are well aware of the significance of design choices, and are jostling to acquire power over, and appropriate value from, networked activity. If we are to preserve the democratic and creative promise of the Internet, we must continuously diagnose control points as they emerge and devise mechanisms of recreating diversity of constraint and degrees of freedom in the network to work around these forms of reconcentrated power.
 

Others who have worked on peer production, most explicitly and comprehensively Vasilis Kostakis and Michel Bauwens identified that threat and theorized it in detail.  Mayo Fuster Morell early saw the difference between firm-hosted and community hosted peer production, and how they differed fundamentally on the power dimension.  And many others identified and criticized the specific threats of the newly-emerging powerful actors before I did, not in the context of peer production: pretty much everyone who worked on privacy, a topic that was long a blind spot for me; Introna and Nissenbaum on the politics of search engines in 2000; Niva Elkin Koren and Michael Birnhack The Invisible Handshake in 2003 on the emerging alliance between these new companies and the rising security state were very early, and later Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Googleization of Everything.

Coase’s Penguin, and like it Sharing Nicely in 2004, were efforts to develop a fully internal-to-the-economics-profession account of peer production and sharing.  The effort to speak across disciplines, and in particular to develop a case for a given proposition fully within the mainstream of the then-very-much-still “queen of the social sciences,” required selection and translation. 

When I started working on this in 2000, the idea that it was even possible for a large collection of individuals to coordinate and achieve effective outcomes without price signals or hierarchy was practically inadmissible in that discipline.  Early efforts were focused very heavily on software specifically, and what made it special to allow FOSS to develop.  I saw that as a mistake, and developed a framework that, even taking all the standard assumptions of mainstream economics (and Coase by then was as mainstream as it gets), peer production (and sharing) was possible, and likely more efficient and innovative under certain conditions—which happen to obtain now.  I combined transactions costs theory, advances in the empirical study of prosocial motivation, and information economics to provide a reasonably good explanation of why peer production could emerge now, and why sharing of certain classes of goods could emerge now.  But, as I wrote in Sharing Nicely, “Technology does not determine the level of sharing. But it does set threshold constraints on the effective domain of sharing as a modality of economic production.” 

These papers indeed did not integrate the power and political economy with the internal-to-economics arguments because they were written as building blocks, and specifically as building blocks that could be accepted even by those who would reject a power analysis but accept a mainstream economics argument.  But, as I tried to show earlier, once I integrated these building blocks into Wealth of Networks, I certainly did identify the attractive patterns as a possibility space that would be a battlefield over the distribution of power, and would only be won through the persistent application of political mobilization around the politics of technology and technological adoption.

And let’s not forget this all started as a comment on Cory’s Walkaway.   Anyone who reads that book as a story that does not put power at the heart of the question of whether technology will turn to a utopian or dystopian future, power in its most raw sense of violent enforcement of property rights by owners against potential users, can’t possibly have read the same book I did.  And he just wrote no less eloquently about the way power relations shape technology which locks in power in the very real life context of DRM in browsers.

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Posted by Zack Fox, Chief Screen-Watcher

On top of helping my feeble child-self understand the basics of Roman numerals, the Final Fantasy games of the 90s and 00s are about 80% responsible for getting me hooked on video games, fantasy (final or otherwise), swords, and the angsty dramatics of stylish teens (the other 20% is a mixture of Zelda and emotional repression).

Now, I’m not looking to get into a “which Final Fantasy is best?” debate here – too many lives have already been lost to ever look that heart of darkness in the eye again. And, frankly, it’s not even something I can answer. I always assume I think it’s 7 but then 4, 6, 8, 9, and 10 all pile in and it’s only a matter of time before I’ve thought-fucked myself into oblivion.

Ultimately, it’s pretty much whichever one I looked at most recently, which at the moment just so happens to be Final Fantasy IX following its very lovely re-release on PS4 (and, incidentally, learning that IX wasn’t Onety-Ten or negative-9 was a particularly challenging chapter in my Roman Numerals for Idiot Children lessons).

So to celebrate its release and to give me an excuse to replay it for the XXXVI time, here are 9 reasons why Final Fantasy IX is better than the rest. Probably.

1. The music

Final Fantasy during the age of composer Nobuo Uematsu remains a universal high point in artistic expression, human or otherwise. To say he’s a master is as redundant as the exercise bike I bought on Gumtree. Uematsu is to music what I am to unfulfilled potential – frequently staggering, always impressive, and emotionally stirring. And he’s right at the top of his peerless game across FFIX.

Go listen to The Place I’ll Return to Someday, Vivi’s Theme, Dark City Treno, and Not Alone and learn how to feel, you filthy animals. It’s on Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon – no excuses.

2. The characters

Via

Zidane, Garnet, Vivi, Steiner, Freya, Quina, Eiko, and Amarant. FFIX’s main cast is, hands down, the strongest across the entire series (okay, Amarant can get in the bin – he’s cool and everything but utterly pointless). They all have distinct personalities and are all intensely likeable and memorable. In what other Final Fantasy game – actually, scratch that: in what other anything is that true? I mean, Scrubs came pretty close, but then it shotgunned itself in the abdomen with Med School – goddamit, ABC!

Kuja represents a high point in videogame villainy (and androgyny, those hips don’t lie) supported by the excellent Thorn, Zorne, and elephant/hippo/Queen Victoria caricature that still nobly haunts me to this day — Queen Brahne.

via GIPHY

Also, Zidane has a tail. Does Cloud have a tail? Or Squall? OR YOU? Didn’t think so, sit down.

3. The design

Via

After the dreary, neo-futuristic “gritty realism” of FFVII and FFVIII (which on the PS1 looked like an orgasm of pain, polygons, and poor resolution) FFIX was a welcome reprieve. All those colours! And the sheer beauty of its world and town design are still an absolute joy to behold.

The cable cars and high-tech wizardry of Lindblum, the gothic, rain-soaked brutality of Burmercia, the ostentatious grandiosity of Alexandria – every place had its own character and story to tell. It was a world you couldn’t wait to sink your teeth into and tear apart like the unthinking night-beast you hide deep inside, all supported by beautifully realised art direction. It’s the series’ best depiction of the “futuristic past” trope and proof that it can be done well and doesn’t have to be a the lazy check-out option. That’s right I’m looking at you, most other RPGs.

4. The gameplay

Via

I can hear the “Well, actually”s from here. At its core FFIX is the same as most other RPGs in that it uses a turn-based battle system where enemies patiently wait for their turn to stab each other in the face like gentlemen queuing for the crumpets stall at a golf game (disclaimer: I don’t know what gentlemen do. Or how golf works). It uses the ATB (active time battle) system of previous Final Fantasy titles and, if anything, is a pretty clunky example of it, but everything else is on point.

First of all – 4 party members should be drafted into the Bill of Rights or something (I assume we have one of those, otherwise let’s go for a pinky-swear). It’s just better, giving enough room to craft a balanced, kick-ass team and to even rotate in other party members if needed without doing a Scrubs and shotgunning your team in the collective abdomen (disclaimer: I have unresolved issues with Scrubs).

Also, FFIX’s ability/equipment system is excellent, refining the materia system of FFVII while stripping back the Lovecraftian mind-fuck horrorshow of FFVIII’s junction system into something fit for human consumption. It hit the Goldilocks ratio of giving you enough options to feel like you were in control without being overwhelming, something no Final Fantasy game has managed since (except FFXII maybe).

5. The story

Via

Don’t worry, we’re not heading into spoiler territory here – though if you haven’t played this game yet please immediately lock yourself in a dark room, count your sins, and don’t re-emerge into our enlightened world until you’ve completed it.

What I will say however is that I adore FFIX’s story – not just as a Final Fantasy or videogame story, but because it’s a solid example of how stories should be told, full stop. From your inauspicious beginnings as a member of a thieving theatre troupe (that, in itself, being inspiration enough for a Netflix series that I would watch immediately) to the escalation to intercontinental, and then interdimensional war, it’s a story that keeps you constantly on your toes and hungry for more. Like Nandos when it’s busy and the next dish they hand out just has to be yours… right?

6. It’s bright and cheerful…

Via

I mentioned it earlier, but I can’t overstate how fresh FFIX feels in comparison to its predecessors. Characters laugh and joke, even when faced with danger and death, like when a forest called Evil Forest is – plot twist – evil and literally turns itself to stone in its efforts to megakill you.

Gaia is a world you’d actually want to visit – it’s a place where hippo-people challenge strangers to foot races in the street, where skipping children run underground playing-card cabals, where frogs can be president (though I guess we’ve given that a real-life go now). Simply put: FFIX is a Final Fantasy game that tries and succeeds in putting a smile on your face – how often can you say that? Because if you’re thinking about Tidus’s laughing scene in FFX then you can get straight in the bin.

7. …But it’s also dark as shit

Via This isn’t a joke, it’s official artwork.

I mean, holy crap does this game go into some pretty deep, dark places. And I’m from South Wales; I know gestating pits of the deepest, darkest, human misery when I see them.

We’ve got existential reflection, slavery, pathological narcissism, actual genocide, enough orphan issues to send Batman to a therapist, and not forgetting the frequent scenes of utterly devastating warfare. I mean, this is a game where a tiny cat-thing lives with a giant chicken in an adorable cylindrical forest that you can use to go treasure hunting before going to a literal giant chicken utopia in the sky where they all hang out happy as shit in some sort of magical spa – so when it turns around and is all like “DEATH IS INEVITABLE, YOU’RE A TOOL IN THE MACHINE”… it hurts. A lot.

8. The minigames

Via

If I stopped to think about the collective number of hours I’ve sunk into FFIX’s minigames and sidequests I’d probably never stop crying from the shame of it all. They’re. Just. Too. Good.

You’ve got Chocobo Hot-and-Cold, the aforementioned giant chicken treasure hunting minigame that’s possibly the most fun thing I’ve done literally ever. Then there’s Quina’s frog-hunting minigame, a distraction that’s as enjoyable as it is existentially haunting. Not forgetting Tetra Master of course, a card game so addictive it makes Blackjack look like cold porridge on a Tuesday morning. Or how about the Treno Auction House, a gateway drug for genuine gambling problems if I’ve ever seen one, but damn fun. Or the skipping game? Or the running game? Or the game where you travel around the world tracking down friendly animals and force-feeding them precious stones like a thief with a cosmically fucked-up sense of irony? So many good games, so little time – may the gods bless my aching thumbs.

9. Vivi

Via

SPOILER, SPOILERS, SPOILERS. Here be actual spoilers. Though again, if you haven’t played the game yet I direct you back to my advice in point 5.

Yeah okay, we’ve already talked about the characters and the story but if you thought I was going to write a 2000 word article on FFIX and not put Vivi up on the pedestal where he belongs then you were majestically wrong.

Vivi. Man, I still can’t even. How great is he? The greatest, that’s how great. Greater than what we deserve. He even died for our sins. Because yeah, Vivi dies, guys. Vivi dies. I completely missed this the first time I played the game as an idiot child. But he totally dies. He’s very much the moral compass of the game despite being all of 9 years old. He’s even the narrator – did you notice that? That’s how intrinsic he is to your entire experience.

He’s the sweet kid that we come to love like our own family. Precocious, friendly, theatre-loving, and a total badass black mage; a master of magic. He literally only wants to help others. He spends the whole game trying to work out who he is, who his family is, where’s he’s from… and discovers that he was a prototype build for a new generation of weaponised black mage slaves who he’s forced to fight and kill again and again throughout the story. He’s a 9 year old kid who finally finds somebody like him, a village of black mages that escaped captivity, only to be immediately told that he has a limited lifespan, like food in your fridge, and one day he’ll just… stop. Not die exactly, because he was never alive, but he will cease to be. And soon. And you know what Vivi does? He grows a spine and gets on with the job, saving his friends, bitchslapping Zidane when he finds he’s also a manufactured war slave (goddamn, FFIX) and goes all emo for a minute, fighting to save a world that so cruelly made him and callously cast him out again. All because he loves his friends and wants to make things better. And then finally, with Vivi’s help, the good guys win… and sometime later, he dies. Offscreen. Leaving only a letter he wrote for his friends for us to say goodbye. My heart, it hurts.

He can also summon a literal meteor from the sky. What a motherfucking champion.

Via

Joking aside, Vivi really is the pinnacle of character creation and not just in videogames. His story sticks with me as vividly today as did way back in the heady days of the year 2000.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have something in my eye…

Final Fantasy IX is available to download now on the PlayStation Store for your PS4.

The post 9 Reasons Final Fantasy IX is the best appeared first on Gadgette.

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Posted by robinince

I don’t read newspapers much, so I am terribly out of touch with things that will be forgotten by next Tuesday. It is part of my anger management. I am fully aware that a newspaper’s prime job is to make you paranoid, confused and righteous before luring you into a reader’s offer for canvas trousers.
Today, I picked up the Observer because there was a piece about The Naked Ape and an article about Bruce Chatwin, who I have never read but know I should and probably pretended I had sometime in the early nineties. My lack of knowledge about Bruce Chatwin makes me just the person to present a BBC TV show about him it seems. Not reading newspapers, I was unaware that BBC’s Front Row was coming to television and that a Radio Time interview with it’s new presenters had caused a minor rumpus. I was made aware of this by David Mitchell’s column in defence of his brother in law, Giles Coren. On first reading, it seems that this new BBC enterprise will take as much care and consideration with the arts as they now take with their news coverage, increasingly a post modern jape put on like a footlights review by former Oxford PPE graduates.
It seems that the presenters of the show were more than a little offhand when it came to theatre, rejecting the quality of the seats, the proximity of the toilets and the fact that some plays take a while. These are all common complaints with some truth to them, but it seems that if your first reaction to “what do you think of theatre” is “the legroom is less than adequate”, then you don’t have much interest. If my primary opinion on the Tate Modern is the disappointment in their gluten free Bakewell tart, I might not really be paying enough attention to the walls.
Mitchell worries that the show off community who reacted with umbrage are being disingenuous, wouldn’t they, like him, far prefer to be watched than watching? But the hosts of this show are watchers and tasters by trade, so I am not sure that has much of a point. As a show off, I would also disagree that we are all not too keen on watching others. When I took some time off my own showing off, I tried to go and see as much theatre as I could and on no occasion did I think, “it should be me up there.” During the Edinburgh Fringe, performers like Michael Legge try to see as many other shows as possible.
Mitchell sees nothing wrong in these three presenters not being much interested in theatre, but aren’t there some people out there who can look at a camera without squinting and say words without spinach on their teeth who really are fascinated with the arts? It is not about it being an expert, just being interested and it being at least some part of your life. I am not a scientist, but I present a science programme. Much of my life is reading about science and meeting scientists, even when it has nothing to do with making a programme and there is no hourly rate.
This reminds me of the difference between Barry Norman and Claudia Winkleman, Barry Norman was a film enthusiast, Claudia Winkleman liked films a bit. If I am reading someone on film, I like to imagine they have seen Robocop and Stalker. Reading the Radio Times interview it smacks of the fear that to like things that may in anyway be considered high brow or challenging is pretentious. I still believe people are not as dumb as a lot of TV people would like them to be. Doing my rambling, jumpy uppy downy show about art, the conversations I have with people at the bar afterwards are invigorating. At Northampton I was chatting to people from lots of backgrounds and some as young as sixteen and I don’t think any of them are people imagined by the managers of demographics.
I don’t care whether those at the helm are experts or keen amateurs, but I want to believe that it is more than just a job. I am a crazed idealist. There are so many presenters, and not enough enthusiasts. I suppose this is yet another Gove-ian of anti-expertise.

I am talking excitably on art, love, science and death across the UK – Salford, Nottingham, Hull, Winchester, York…details HERE

I would also like to make it clear that none of the above should be seen as a personal attack I hope.


Out For the Weekend

Sep. 23rd, 2017 03:54 pm

New Books and ARCs, 9/22/17

Sep. 22nd, 2017 06:52 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Just in time for the weekend, a new batch of books and ARCs at the Scalzi Compound for you to peruse. Which would you want to give a place in your own “to be read” stack? Tell us in the comments.


0.5 seconds in the Sun

Sep. 17th, 2017 08:24 pm
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Posted by Phil Plait

It’s funny — in astronomy, you wouldn’t think split-second timing would be all that critical for getting a good shot of some cosmic object. After all, the galaxies, stars, planets, and more have been around for billions of years. What’s the hurry?

But then, you have to remember that not everything is just sitting out there waiting for the shutter to snap. Some things are moving pretty rapidly, and if they’re close enough to us then the difference between getting a nice shot and a fantastic one can take less than a second.

Here, I can show you. Check this out!

ISS transiting the Sun between two huge sunspot groups. Credit: Dani Caxete

ISS transits the Sun between two huge sunspot groups. Credit: Dani Caxete

That is the Sun (duh), taken by Spanish astrophotographer Dani Caxete. He took this on September 5, 2017. At the time, those two big sunspots groups were visible (called Active Regions 12673 and 12674, the former of which flared several times just days later) — in fact, they were big enough to be spotted with no optical aid; I saw them myself using my eclipse glasses left over from August.

But that’s not all that’s in the shot. Look again: Between the active regions is a decidedly more artificial spot:

Close-up of the ISS transiting the Sun between two huge sunspot groups. Credit: Dani Caxete

Close-up of the ISS transiting the Sun between two huge sunspot groups. Credit: Dani Caxete

 

Yup, Caxete caught the International Space Station as it transited the Sun! The ISS is orbiting the Earth at about 8 kilometers per second at a height above ground of just over 400 km (about 500 km from Caxete, who was in Madrid when he took the shot due to his angle). At that speed and distance, it takes very roughly a half a second to cross the face of the Sun.

To capture it, you can’t rely on tripping the shutter at the right time; it’s better to take video, and then select the frames that show the ISS. This image shows one such frame. Caxete made a nice little video showing his travel across the city, the equipment-setting-up, and then getting the shot:

 

Coooool. I like his ‘scope, too; it’s a Long Perng 80 mm f/6.8 refractor with a Lunt Solar Systems Herschel wedge (which filters the sunlight down to acceptable levels), and a Nikon D610 camera. There’s no substitute for good optics!

As Dani told me, he has something of “an obsession with the ISS.” He took this shot as well:

ISS transits the Moon

ISS transits the Moon. Credit: Dani Caxete

 

Nice. And he has lots of other such images he’s taken (including one I featured on the blog back in 2011, though the ISS had a visitor that day), and I suggest you scroll through them, because they’re very pretty.

Getting a shot like this takes some planning, too. The sky is big, and you have to be at the right spot at the right time to catch the ISS moving across a target like the Sun or Moon. Happily, software packages like CalSky (which is what Caxete uses) make that a lot easier; you give it a location and it can calculate what’s visible in the sky and where, including the Sun, Moon, planets, asteroids, and satellites (including potential transits near your location). It’s not too hard to use and fun to play with, so give it a try.

Not that getting a shot like this is easy. But with all this lovely tech we have handy, it’s a lot easier than it used to be. Still, it takes a lot of experience and perseverance … and a deep love of the chase. I don’t mind a chase myself, given the right circumstances (I traveled to Wyoming for the eclipse last month, after all), but in this case, I’m just glad experts like Caxete and others are willing to drop everything, even for just a short while, to provide the rest of us with such lovely images.

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Posted by John Scalzi

And being an “Audible Deal of the Day” means you get to spend very little to get the book — in this case something like $3. The deal as far as I know is limited to the US and maybe Canada, and it’s only for today. So if you want it at this price, you need to jump on it. It’s perfect for the folks who love audiobooks, or for the folks who have never tried audiobooks but would be willing to give them a chance at a low price point, or for the folks who simply want Wil Wheaton to read to them in those dulcet tones of his.

Here’s the link to the audiobook. Enjoy!


The First Sunset of Fall, 2017

Sep. 22nd, 2017 12:19 am
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Posted by John Scalzi

Featuring an Amish gentleman on a recumbent bicycle. As all the best first sunsets of fall do.

So long, summer. You did all right.


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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