The Big Idea: David Quantick

Apr. 26th, 2019 12:50 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

For his novel All My Colors, author David Quantick had his protagonist do a very bad thing. No, not murder. No, not assault. Something much worse: Plagiarism! Of a sort


There was this short story. I could remember how it began and how it ended, but that was all. I forgot the name of the story and the name of the writer. I knew it was in a sci-fi anthology because that’s how I’d found it, in my local library when I was a teenager and all I read were sci-fi anthologies. I went online and I bought old sci-fi anthologies, but it wasn’t in any of them.

One day I got so frustrated by not being able to find the story that I lost my mind slightly and considered writing it myself. I talked myself out of this insane plan quite quickly – as well as being a rip-off, the story would just be a mess – but something stuck in my brain. What if someone did that for real? Wrote a story that already existed and passed it off as their own? And what if the story was more than a story, it was a classic novel, like Catch-22 or Lord Of The Rings, and somehow it had been erased from everyone’s memory?

And wouldn’t the person who wrote that book deserve to be… punished?

When you have an idea, it can go lots of different ways. This idea was not just a book idea, but it was the basis of a horror novel. I don’t know why I thought that, but it just worked that way for me. I’d never written a horror novel, but I love Stephen King and Neil Gaiman and I could see this being like Richard Bachman’s Thinner – not the same plot at all, but the same working-out of the plot. Thinner is one of the most relentless books ever written. A man upsets someone, they curse him, he gets thinner, and that’s it. The same with All My Colors. A man steals an idea, writes it, there are consequences and that’s it.

Except obviously that’s not it. I wanted to make my writer – Todd Milstead – an asshole. I thought that would be more fun, especially when bad things are happening to him, and there was something about the way he treated women in the story that was interesting as well. So the consequences of him stealing the idea – and he has an eidetic memory, so when he writes the book, he literally does that, copies it out of his asshole brain – would be fun, for me if not for him, and they would be something to do with Todd and women.

After that, the other decisions fell into place. The Bachman aspect of the book made me want to set it in the late ‘70s, like a real Bachman book, and to set it in America. In my first marriage, I’d spent a lot of time in Illinois, near DeKalb and Aurora, and I thought it would be more interesting if the book was set there, rather than New York or Los Angeles (although New York does turn up). And also I could have fun making a soundtrack.

I love American ‘70s rock, FM or AOR or whatever it’s called. The logo bands. Boston, Kansas, Styx, Toto… they somehow suited Todd, who wouldn’t be a music obsessive like me, but would do a lot of driving with the radio on, singing along to songs by bands he didn’t know the names of. And when I thought about Bat Out Of Hell, the insane vampire Springsteen anthem written by Jim Steinman and sung by Meat Loaf – it’s one of my all-time favourite albums – I had a lot of new ideas.

That said, the book could have been set almost anywhere at almost any time because the core of it – the central theme – is nothing to do with Meat Loaf, or Illinois, or even jerks, but men and women, and men being jerks to woman – and other men – and, to some extent, about creativity and writing (Todd enjoys all the trappings of being a writer but he can’t write at all). It wasn’t actually meant to be a funny book but people have seen humour in it, which is fine (I have written on TV shows like Veep and The Thick Of It) and some of it is meant to be scary, and people have also said it’s scary, which is very much fine. Mostly, though, I think it’s about making a morally wrong decision, and discovering that what you thought was going to be a dream is actually a nightmare.

Which, now I remember it, is what that short story that I could never find was about.


All My Colors: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Follow the author on Twitter.

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Posted by Ania Kunert

Word of self-braking supermarket product pram reaches Vulture Central

Finally a solution has surfaced to compensate for parents that simply refuse to say no to their little darlings: a self-braking supermarket trolley.…

(no subject)

Apr. 25th, 2019 11:40 pm
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Posted by Andrew Rilstone

I am inviting my Patreons to participate in a non-binding indicative vote about what I might do next. Why not join them?

The Pursuit Of Realism

Apr. 25th, 2019 10:06 pm
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Posted by Martin

Occasionally, I still think about writing. The last thing I thought about writing about was Red Dead Redemption 2 but it turns out Film Crit Hulk has already written my piece for me:

The pursuit of realism in video games, even when it doesn’t make the game more enjoyable, was largely built on the fever dream of young minds who wanted to completely “disappear” into a gaming world. They believed the virtual world should be just as complicated and filled with possibilities as the real world.

This approach doesn’t work in practice. The endless capacity to interact with equally endless items ends up creating endless, but meaningless, interactions. Those meaningless interactions then numb the player to the meaningful aspects of the game.

That happens because these choices don’t actually achieve the feeling of “realism” in our brains. Cooking food in a video game can take one button press or 20, but more button presses won’t fool your brain into thinking you’re actually cooking a dish. Game designers tend to confuse “complicated” with “realistic,” and our minds aren’t wired to think something is real just because it takes a long time to happen and requires many small actions on our part.

The illusion of realism is achieved when games match our expectations and move at the speed of our intentions. The most “realistic” way for me to check a drawer in a game is to quickly see what’s inside it, decide if I want it, and then either take the items or leave them as quickly as possible. That’s what we do when we look into a drawer in real life; we don’t break the task down into dozens of small movements or actions. We just look into the drawer.

And this is how games should approach the same tasks. Ease of functionality is much more “immersive” than a series of button presses and animations that mimic the real thing. Adding more button presses and steps to basic tasks takes me out of the game, in fact, because it makes me impatient as I’m forced to fuck with something that should be moving as quickly as my brain.

Meanwhile in London

Apr. 25th, 2019 03:31 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

There are massive skeletons floating over crowds of humans while Charles Darwin looks on approvingly. As he would.

Also, I have an event tonight at Forbidden Planet here in London at 6pm which you should come to if you happen to be in the area.

That is all. Tomorrow in Budapest!

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Posted by Richard Currie

Kids, you're all right

The American education system has always been the envy of Brit schoolkids – if only because it's easy to glower across the pond at their freedom to wear whatever they want from the prickly tomb of Teflon uniforms.…

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Posted by Phil Plait

So the weird interstellar asteroid/comet/MegaSnowflake/NotASpaceship 'Oumuamua is the gift that keeps on giving.

Remember 'Oumuamua? Discovered in 2017, it quickly became apparent that it was no ordinary space object; its velocity was so high it must have come from deep interstellar space. It was thought to be a comet at first (an icy body from some other solar system, since those are the easiest to dislodge and eject into space), then reclassified as an asteroid when no cometary activity was seen — that is, gas blowing off it as any ice warmed when it neared the Sun— then re-reclassified as a comet when its motion implied it was leaking material, just too weakly to directly detect.

Then some folks thought it might be a spaceship — still going with "nah" on that one — and then (and this is my favorite thing) others concluded it might be a huge porous fractal snowflake. As odd as that sounds, it actually makes sense given what we know about it.

‘Oumuamua, the first object ever seen passing through our solar system from interstellar space, is shown in this artwork to be faintly outgassing as the Sun warms its ice. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

‘Oumuamua, the first object ever seen passing through our solar system from interstellar space, is shown in this artwork to be faintly outgassing as the Sun warms its ice. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

It's still unclear where it came from or, more importantly, how many others like it might be out there. It's a little bit tough to extrapolate from a single case, but given its path and brightness, and how good our surveys are (meaning how big an object we can see at a given distance from Earth), it's possible that the galaxy is littered with as many as 1014 'Oumuamua-sized objects per cubic light year! That's a hundred trillion objects!

That's a vast number. And in a galaxy the size of ours, that means there could be — and this gives me the heebie-jeebies just to type this number out — a thousand trillion trillion 100-meter class interstellar rocks out there!

You'd think this would have some effect on the galaxy… and a pair of astronomers think it very well might. They suspect that interstellar objects like 'Oumuamua help planets like ours form.

Oh, I dig this idea.

protoplanetary disk

Artist's conception of a protoplanetary disk. Like ours when it was young, a large planet in the process of forming carves a wide gap in the disk. Credit: Karen L. Teramura, UH IfA

Stars form from huge clouds of gas and dust called molecular clouds. Clumps in the clouds collapse (perhaps disturbed by the wind of a nearby massive star or a supernova), start to spin, and flatten out into a disk. The star forms in the center of that disk, and planets form farther out in the disk itself (which we call the protoplanetary disk for obvious reasons).

But it's not that easy. Way out in the disk there are teeny tiny grains of material, microscopic bits of silicaceous (rocky) material and ice. First these stick together, slowly growing. Eventually they become millimeter sized, then centimeter, then growing into objects about 100 meters across. At that point we call them planetesimals. These then collide, stick together, and grow to become the cores of planets, which then have enough gravity to accelerate the process. They actively draw in material, and a planet is born.

From what we understand of physics, it takes a lot of time for this to happen. It doesn't take too long, maybe 10,000 years or so, to start seeing pebbles in the disk. But it takes up to millions of years to form planetesimals 100 meters across, and tens of millions of years for them to collect themselves into planetary core-sized objects.

But that's a problem. In general, protoplanetary disks tend to disperse in about ten million years! We've actually seen quite a few of these disks around other stars, and the newly born star's wind and radiation evaporates the disk pretty rapidly once the star switches on.

So, oops. How can it take several tens of millions of years to form a planet when the disk itself is gone in less time than that?

Enter 'Oumuamua. Literally.

‘Oumuamua, an asteroid from another solar system, is quite elongated and look very much like this artist’s impression of it. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

‘Oumuamua, an asteroid from another solar system, is quite elongated and look very much like this artist’s impression of it. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The astronomers' idea is that interstellar objects like 'Oumuamua kickstart this process! If space is filled with objects in the 100-meter range like our own interstellar visitor, then there should be a lot of them inside a molecular cloud. As the cloud starts to collapse the gravity of the condensing clump will help collect them, possibly increasing their density in space by thousands of times or more. Maybe millions.

That means they're in the protoplanetary disk even before the teeny grains themselves are just starting to stick together. And there are so many of them that planetary formation just skips several steps, going right to them collecting together to form planetary cores in far less time than it would take the process on its own.

Boom! If this is correct, it solves that planet formation timing problem that's been plaguing scientists for many years now.

So is it correct? Well, that's a different issue. The authors go through various scenarios that can both accelerate and hinder the process, finding that the numbers work out fairly well. But their work is an introduction to the idea, doing order-of-magnitude back-of-the-envelope type calculations. That's very important work, essentially announcing an idea so that more research can be done. This is the first step, so we'll see where this idea leads.

If it turns out to be correct, then it has some profound implications. For example, we'd owe our existence to interstellar interlopers like 'Oumuamua… and in fact may have quite a few of them literally mixed up into our star, our planet, and ourselves.

And if it's wrong, that's OK too. It's an interesting line of reasoning, and may lead to other insights. Science is all about figuring out what could be wrong about an idea and moving on from there, so this is still a good thing. I'll be very interested to see further work done on it.

The Big Idea: Meg Elison

Apr. 24th, 2019 02:56 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Today in The Big Idea, author Meg Elison delves into her latest novel The Book of Flora, and radical power of a single, very short, word.


It’s impossible to talk about the third and final book in a series without talking about the whole thing. The big idea of the third book rests squarely on the base laid by the first two, and the idea of the whole series changes as the last part is written.

The Big Idea of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife was that women are people.

The Big Idea of The Book of Etta was that ideals are difficult to maintain when they compete with survival.

The Big Idea of The Book of Flora is that every person has a body that belongs to only them.

This is another idea that strikes as radical when it should not. The characters in the Road to Nowhere series cope (as we all do) with the way other people sometimes think they have the right to define our bodies, to control them, to legislate for them, and to name them. Flora in particular is vulnerable to these desires; as a trans woman (or Horsewoman, as her culture is called in this world) she is often concerned with the way different cultures will perceive and define her. The world of this book prizes femininity but subjugates it all the same. In some places, she is regarded as powerful and valuable. In others, she is afforded the disgust reserved for people who fail to perform womanhood in the culturally correct manner.

Other characters struggle with the same problem, but in different ways. How often is the “preservation of the species” trope invoked to get people breeding in an orderly fashion in a dystopian novel? My characters are queer. Their expectations of childbirth are bloody and bleak. Their insistence on ownership over their own bodies invokes discussions of birth control, abortion, and reproductive behavior in a way that post-apocalyptic novels often treat as a settled idea. If the human race is in danger, surely people with uteruses will simply give up on the idea of self-ownership and submit to their fate as vessels! This entire subgenre takes for granted that if imperiled enough, people will accept compulsory heterosexuality and forfeit basic autonomy.

My characters stay queer and say no.

Flora says no to a lot of things. She says no to the all-women city of Shy (Chicago), despite its wealth and welcome. She says no to the people who try to talk her out of adopting her child, Connie. She says no to anyone who tries to possess her, or define her. Flora knows exactly who she is. Those of us who had to earn our identities the hard way will recognize how powerful that NO really is.

As your body belongs only to you, so too does your story. Characters in these books keep journals and decide what they want to reveal and what to keep. They decide rather to pass their story on or let it die with them. They decide whether to perform their trauma in order to be believed, or to protect themselves and go without whatever that belief might proffer. These are choices that you might face, too. These are all questions I’ve had to answer for myself, revisit my answers, and allow my understanding of myself to change based on them.

Flora is a book about choosing your story, rewriting it and making changes until you hear your own voice. It is about being in your body, being one with it and making peace with it, revising it until you recognize yourself. It is about Flora, who is better at both of those things than most people who have not faced down one apocalypse after another.

We have come to the end of the Road to Nowhere. Thank you for walking with me and reading all my big ideas, strange as they are. This final book is dedicated to all the radical queers in my life, and I am grateful and proud to have put more queer art into the world.

Rage on!


The Book of Flora: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow her on twitter.

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Posted by Phil Plait

It's hard to draw a bright line between the status of an "amateur" astronomer and a "professional" one. When I was a kid it was somewhat easier, at least in vernacular; a professional was paid to do astronomy as a career, whereas an amateur did it for the fun, the joy, and not for pay.

But that's not a great distinction, and — as so often happens, especially in astronomy it seems — trying to define something gets pretty tough near the edges. For every definition you can come up with, I can usually come up with a counterexample.

This task is near impossible now anyway. The astonishing quality of "amateur" imaging not only rivals what can be done by professionals in many ways, it easily surpasses what pros were doing just a few years ago.

I mean, c'mon, evidence abounds, but here's the latest mind-blowing proof: A stunning image of the Large Magellanic Cloud (or LMC), a dwarf companion galaxy to the Milky Way.

The Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, displayed in all its glory in a stunning 1060 hour exposure. Credit: Jean Claude Canonne, Philippe Bernhard, Didier Chaplain, Nicolas Outters, and Laurent Bourgon

The Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, displayed in all its glory in a stunning 1060 hour exposure. Credit: Jean Claude Canonne, Philippe Bernhard, Didier Chaplain, Nicolas Outters, and Laurent Bourgon


The LMC is 10° across in the sky, which is huge (20 times the width of the Moon), so it may not surprise you to find out this is a mosaic of 16 subfields, stitched together seamlessly to produce the final image. It was taken at the El Sauce Observatory in Chile, by five "amateurs" — Jean Claude Canonne, Philippe Bernhard, Didier Chaplain, Nicolas Outters, and Laurent Bourgon — who used their own (very nice) TEC 160 mm telescope hosted there. The skies in this location are very dark, so deep images like this become possible.

And by deep, I mean deep. This image is comprised of a staggering 1,060 total hours of observing taken between April 2017 and January 2019. And the original is huger than huge: It's a 200+ megapixel image weighing in at over 100 megabytes. The amount of processing it took to create this must have been enormous. They did a phenomenal job, too.

They used an interesting combination of filters. One top of the usual red, green, and blue (plus one unfiltered exposure, called a luminance frame, to get brightness information without color), they also used three filters that look at very narrowly selected colors to highlight the light emitted from hydrogen (displayed as red), oxygen (blue), and sulfur (also shown in red). That brings out the gas in space between the stars.

And the LMC is positively littered with gas clouds, some of which are actively forming stars, and some of which are leftover from stars that have since exploded. Usually, images of the LMC don't highlight these, but the narrow filters make them pop right out, showing just how many of them this diminutive galaxy has.

Some of them I recognize, like the famous Tarantula Nebula, which is one of the largest nebulae in the entire Local Group of dozens of galaxies to which the LMC (and the Milky Way belong):

The Tarantula Nebula is a sprawling gas cloud in the Large Magellanic Cloud, and one of the largest star-forming regions in the local Universe. Credit: Jean Claude Canonne, Philippe Bernhard, Didier Chaplain, Nicolas Outters, and Laurent Bourgon

The Tarantula Nebula is a sprawling gas cloud in the Large Magellanic Cloud, and one of the largest star-forming regions in the local Universe. Credit: Jean Claude Canonne, Philippe Bernhard, Didier Chaplain, Nicolas Outters, and Laurent Bourgon

Yikes. This nebula is so big and creating so many stars that astronomers think it may be in the process of birthing a globular cluster, a huge collection of hundreds of thousands of stars. Back in 1987 a massive star born in the outskirts of the nebula exploded, creating Supernova 1987A, so yeah, there's a lot going on here.

I scanned around the original image, and I have to admit I quickly got lost. Besides being an unusual filter combination highlighting nebulae, there's just so much stuff floating around the LMC that I lost my bearings rapidly. Wikipedia has an annotated (and rotated) image of the LMC that helps, but only some. The image here is so deep a lot of the features aren't on that map.

And I just kept finding so many interesting bits; assorted globular clusters, supernova remnants, stellar nurseries… look, here's a section that has a little bit of everything:

The Large Magellenic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to the Milky, host vast amounts of star-forming gas, including N11, the Bean Nebula (lower right). Credit: Jean Claude Canonne, Philippe Bernhard, Didier Chaplain, Nicolas Outters, and Laurent Bourgon

The Large Magellenic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to the Milky, host vast amounts of star-forming gas, including N11, the Bean Nebula (lower right). Credit: Jean Claude Canonne, Philippe Bernhard, Didier Chaplain, Nicolas Outters, and Laurent Bourgon

That gigantic cloud is called N11, or the Bean Nebula, and is second in size only to the Tarantula in the LMC. It's something like 1,000 light years across in total (!!) to give you a sense of scale. The trained eye can see it's busily churning away making stars; it has several cavities inside it created when the light and winds from ridiculously massive stars carves out blisters in the gas. Some of them are filled with bluish gas which is oxygen excited like it's inside a neon sign, energized by the fierce light of those massive stars.

There are several globular clusters in that frame, including NGC 1783 above center, and NGC 1818 to the left.

I could go on and on, but instead I'll let you explore; use that Wikipedia image as a guide.

But I hope you now see what I mean. If a team of "professional" astronomers made this image I would be very impressed, but the fact that it was made with a single small telescope by fiercely dedicated "amateurs" only makes it sweeter.

And it seriously blurs the line between them even more. I try not to get too hung up on labels, especially when they confuse the issue of classification, or perhaps more importantly make distinctions that aren't terribly important. In this case, I think labeling the team does both. So you know what? I think I'll just call them astronomers. Because that they most definitely are.

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Posted by Richard Currie

Commander-in-chief whined about waning e-peen – report

When the "leader of the free world" hauled Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey into the White House for a meeting yesterday, you would be forgiven for thinking they'd attempt to address the issues that have bedevilled social media of late – bots, disinformation, unsolicited DMs, Nazis...…

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Posted by Phil Plait

A few years ago I was watching a documentary of some kind or another, and they were talking about something they said was a big concern: huge amounts of methane buried beneath the Siberian permafrost that was starting to leak out. I don’t remember much about the show, except they were clearly saying this was a catastrophe waiting to happen.

I’m not a climate scientist, but I have some science background, and could see this sounded like a big problem. Since that time I’ve seen more and more about this online, and every time I hear about it it seems to be bigger, more devastating, with more breathless coverage every time.

But … is it really a problem?

To my surprise (and tentative relief), it’s not nearly as bad as these shows claimed, though some folks still play it up.

So, what does the science say?

Methane hydrate structure (left) is a cage of interconnected water molecules trapping a methane molecule inside. If exposed to heat, the methane hydrate ice burns. Credit: Beauchamp (structure), USGS (fire)

Methane hydrate structure (left) is a cage of interconnected water molecules trapping a methane molecule inside. If exposed to heat, the methane hydrate ice burns. Credit: Beauchamp (structure), USGS...

This whole thing centers on methane hydrates. It’s an interesting bit of chemistry, where, under enough pressure, water molecules combine with methane to form a weird structure that acts like a cage surrounding methane molecules, trapping them inside. It forms if you have methane under cold water at depths of about 500 meters or so.

Those conditions are not common, but do happen along continental slopes, where the continental plates meet the sea. During the last ice age sea levels were lower (the water was locked up in ice), so in many regions those slopes were grasslands. It was cold in the northern regions, tundra, but animals fed on the grass there. When they died, their bodies were preserved in the cold.

Global locations of methane hydrate deposits, almost always on continental slopes. Credit: Council of Canadian Academies (2008), based on data from Kvenvolden and Rogers (2005) / Global Carbon Project

Global locations of methane hydrate deposits, almost always on continental slopes. Credit: Council of Canadian Academies (2008), based on data from Kvenvolden and Rogers (2005) / Global Carbon Project

Eventually the glaciers retreated, sea levels rose, and water inundated those areas. Bacteria slowly ate the remains, creating methane, and under the cold water of the coasts this formed methane hydrates. These hydrates are stable as long as a) they are under the pressure of water above them, and 2) that water is cold.

There’s the problem: The waters there aren’t as cold as they once were due to global warming. We’re seeing some places releasing that methane, into the water or, in some places where we’re losing permafrost due to warming, into the air.

Here’s the problem: Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. Molecule for molecule, it’s about 25 times better at trapping heat than CO2! As methane is released in the air, it accelerates warming, and that means more methane is released, and that means it gets even warmer, and … feedback loop.

Methane bubbles up from sediment off the Virginia coastline in the US. Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 ROV Shakedown and Field Trials

Methane bubbles up from sediment off the Virginia coastline in the US. Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 ROV Shakedown and Field Trials

Now, here is where our story diverges. Some folks — like ones who run less-than-scientifically-based YouTube channels, and some TV networks who love this sort of story, like the one I saw a few years ago — say this is a massive and inevitable catastrophe, even calling these deposits “methane bombs.” We’re doomed, they say, because this feedback loop will eat itself faster and faster, and in a few years we’ll have global warming ramping up so rapidly that there’s nothing we can do.

Other folks — scientists, for example, people who have dedicated their careers to studying this — have a slightly different story. Methane release from methane hydrates is a concern, they say, but not necessarily a catastrophic one. It depends on our own actions.

You can guess where I land with this now. Psssst: science.

Peter Sinclair, who runs the Climate Crocks website, which debunks climate science denial, has a great page about this. He interviewed scientists who study this and put together a video that explains the situation really well.

The first couple of minutes show the problem, and what the catastrophists are claiming, and the rest goes into why this isn’t an “OhMyGodWe’reAllGonnaDie!” situation.

Basically, as geologist Carolyn Ruppel says, getting methane hydrates to release their gas rapidly is actually really hard; the reaction needs energy to occur, so it steals heat from its surroundings. That makes things colder, which slows the process! So it’s very hard to get a runaway reaction.

As she and climatologist James Hanson point out in the video, the real accelerator of this is our own dumping of CO2 in the air that’s warming the planet. If we can slow that down, then the waters in the arctic won’t warm as much, and there won’t be much release of the methane in the first place.

That leads to an interesting irony. More than one, in fact. My friend and climatologist Michael Mann explains in a supplementary video Sinclair posted:

So, do you see the irony?

Catastrophists in general accept the consensus that the planet is warming up and humans — us, you and me — are to blame, but then they drop the science to exaggerate the problem. That’s called cherry-picking, and it’s a no-no; you can’t just pick and choose which bits of science to believe. That’s the first irony; the catastrophists use the same sort of science denial climate science deniers sometimes employ!

The second irony is that this sort of over-amping of the climate fears actually leads to more denial! After all, if there’s nothing we can do to prevent catastrophe, well then, smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em. Burn all the fossil fuels you want, dig up more, whatever. It doesn’t matter anyway.

But it does. If we can mitigate the amount of global warming we’re causing, then the permafrost methane deposits won’t be that big a problem. But that’s only true if we take the reins and reduce our carbon footprints. If we don’t, then yeah, those methane deposits will indeed be a problem, but only because we didn’t take action.

In northern Siberia, lakes are scattered around Omulyakhskaya (top) and Khromskaya (bottom) Bays. Melting permafrost supplies water to the lakes, which are also the sites of methane release. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory / Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon

In northern Siberia, lakes are scattered around Omulyakhskaya (top) and Khromskaya (bottom) Bays. Melting permafrost supplies water to the lakes, which are also the sites of methane release. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory / Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey

So the catastrophe-mongering is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And weirdly one that plays right into the hands of climate science deniers, because, as Mann says, the fossil fuel interests can say, hey, CO2 isn’t a problem, it’s the methane, so let us grab all the fossil fuels we can!

If you worry about these methane bombs like I did years ago, then your best bet is to do what you can to get us off fossil fuel. There are lots of ways to do that as an individual if you have the means (for example, I’ve installed solar panels on my home, and over the years have done so for three homes now altogether), but there’s one way that exceeds all the others. And it’s really, really easy.


The only thing — literally, the only thing — keeping us from moving off fossil fuels rapidly is people in the fossil fuel industry purposely sowing misinformation about the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions … and the politicians who both are enthralled to them and further empower them.

Vote. It can literally save the world.

[syndicated profile] el_reg_odds_feed

Posted by Richard Currie

Residents' scheme flags up scourge of lazy dog owners

Is there anything more triumphantly British than fields strewn with dog toffee? Well, there is now: fields strewn with dog toffee with Union Jacks proudly planted in them.…

[syndicated profile] scalziwhatever_feed

Posted by John Scalzi

We’ve moved into town and are staying at the hotel we were at for our 20th anniversary, and which also happens to be reasonably well located for the meetings and meet-ups I have planned over the next couple of days. Ytterbium, this year’s Eastercon, was lovely and everyone involved was also lovely, and we could have not asked for a better time.

Remember: This Thursday at 6pm, I’ll be at Forbidden Planet in London, signing books and being visible. Come on down and see me, and maybe get a book or two signed.

And now, off to lunch with a friend.

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Posted by Ingrid Robeyns

The Dutch philosopher Marc Davidson posted the following on the closed FB-group Climate ethics research (reproduced here with Marc’s permission):

Who can help with this moral riddle? Somewhere in the near future I have to be in Venice [leaving from Amsterdam]. I can take the train for about 200 Euro, which emits 0.04 ton CO2. Or I can take the plane for about 40 Euro, which emits 0.15 ton CO2 AND spend 160 Euro on buying emissions rights from the EU ETS which will remove 8 ton CO2 emissions. What is better for the climate and what is the moral right thing to do? I really intend to spend the entire difference on compensation.

In order to facilitate the discussion, let’s call the choice to buy a train ticket “the Train Strategy”, while “the Flight Strategy” would be traveling by air and spending an additional 160 euro on buying and destroying 8 ton CO2 emission rights (that may not be entirely explicit from Marc’s description of the puzzle, but I know from conversations with him that this is what he intends).

If one were to make a simple calculation, both strategies would cost Marc the same amount of money, yet the Flight Strategy would lead to 0.15 minus 8 ton emissions hence would be equivalent to a net removal of 7.85 ton emissions, whereas the Train strategy would amount to 0.04 ton emissions.

I find this a fascinating puzzle, to which I only have a very abstract answer. My answer is this: we should choose that strategy which will, in the medium term, put us on the most ecologically sustainable path. Trying to formulate this criterion a little bit more precise: we should choose the strategy that minimizes aggregate net ecological damage over the next 1000 year. Clearly, that timespan is somewhat arbitrary and there may be a better timespan, but we shouldn’t choose as the relevant timespan the estimated remaining time that planet Earth will exist since that is either unknown or else we assume it is endless, and then we can’t compare strategies. Most importantly, it shouldn’t be a very short timespan, since it is possible that one strategy may pay off more in the very short term, but another in a somewhat longer term (at least, theoretically).

I am not sure whether, if one were to take this abstract criterion, the Train Strategy or the Flight Strategy would perform any better. There are so many unknowns, such as: would the EU ETS at some point, when it runs out of emissions rights, be put under pressure to create more?

There could also be another strategy, that would lead to the highest net emissions, yet may nevertheless score best on the abstract criterion: take the airplane, and donate 160 Euro to a political or activist group that is most effective in working towards the fastest possible structural transition to ecological sustainability, such as Extinction Rebellion which is occupying public spaces and buildings that belong to the legal or political order; or, in the Netherlands, Urgenda which is using legal means to try to force the Dutch government to do much more for climate mitigation.

On the other hand, one may wonder to what extent ‘not acting as a role model’ if one takes a plane when a train is available demoralizes fellow citizens in taking up climate action, and be used as a reason/excuse by others to doing nothing. And it could also be perceived as inconsistent behaviour, although I am not at all sure whether that is in fact the case. These motivational/behavioural effects on others would also have to be estimated, which seems extremely difficult – but from this it doesn’t follow that these effects do not exist.

Of course, someone might respond that the best option is to take the train and make a sizeable donation to an activist group or buy and destroy emissions – but that may not be in the set of financially feasible options.

So I think we may be able to formulate a general, abstract answer to the riddle, but it is likely that we lack sufficient information to know which of the different options will best meet the general answer. My gutfeeling is that 160 euro spent on civic disobedience or public protests is more effective in working towards the changes we need than destroying 8 ton emissions.

[syndicated profile] andrew_rilstone_feed

Posted by Andrew Rilstone

At least four Jesuses stand between us and the text of Mark's Gospel. 

There is Sunday School Jesus the luminous man who lives in the sky and is a friend to little children. 

There is Composite Jesus, stitched together out of the four contradictory Gospels. 

There is Folklore Jesus, who was born in a stable, liked cherries and hurt his little hand while his step-dad was teaching him woodwork. 

And there is Theological Jesus, of one being with the father, begotten not created, with two natures in hypostatic union. 

These Jesuses are not necessarily wrong or bad. But we know them so well that we see them before, or instead of, the Jesus that Mark writes about. We read a passage in which Jesus is firey or even bad-tempered; and we see a gentle Jesus of pure compassion. We read a story whose whole structure depends on a single journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, and say "They really went back and forwards between Judea and Jerusalem three times". We read a clear story in which God's spirit comes down on the man Jesus, and immediately start talking about Trinitarian formulas which weren't going to be codified for another three hundred years.

Here is a commentary I found online, talking about the Baptism of Jesus:

The earliest heretics took advantage of this statement to represent this event as the descent of the eternal Christ upon the man Jesus for personal indwelling. Later critics have adopted this view. But it need hardly be said here that such an opinion is altogether inconsistent with all that we read elsewhere of the circumstances of the Incarnation, and of the intimate and indissoluble union of the Divine and human natures in the person of the one Christ, from the time of the "overshadowing of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Highest." 

The first thing to know about the baptism story is how it can be forced to fit in with orthodox theological idea, and how people who assume that it says what it means are heretics. The second thing to know is how it can be harmonized with the other Gospels. The idea that we might read the story as a story hardly even occurs to us. 

By all means let's talk about the Jesus of the hymns and the legends; let's listen to the theologians explaining the hard bits in technical language; by all means let's think up some continuity hacks so that all the Gospels tell exactly the same story. We've been at it for seventeen hundred years; we are hardly likely to stop now.

But Mark's Gospel exists. And it is very old: older than any of the hymns or the creeds. Someone chose to write these exact words in this exact order, as opposed to some different words in a different order. Someone thought that these stories about Jesus, told in these forms, were the ones people needed to hear. And the Very Ancient Christians chose to preserve his text, and the Slightly Less Ancient Christians put them into the Bible, and the Early Modern Christians translated it into English and the Wycliffe Bible Translators are still working very hard to translate it into Ngbugu. 

So shouldn't we be at least a bit interested in what actually Mark said? 

Folk Lore Jesus, Synthetic Jesus and Theological Jesus are all defensible; even necessary. But there are also Indefensible Jesuses; Jesuses who don't so much overshadow the text as replace it. 

There is Political Jesus, the one who preached a very definite programme and who calls on us to bring about a thing called The Kingdom in our own age. The Political Jesus who agrees with my politics—the one for whom the Kingdom primarily meant the post 1945 socialist welfare state—is a lot more dangerous than the Political Jesus who preached Victorian Values and the Political Jesus who preached American exceptionalism. 

Very nearly as bad is Moral Jesus, Jesus the Good Example. If you are ever faced with a dilemma—if it ever becomes hard to see what is right and what is wrong—then whistle a merry tune, ask "What Would Jesus Do?" and everything will be okay. 

And of course, the History departments still produce Historical Jesuses by the sackful. Mark got Jesus wrong; the church fathers got Mark wrong; the modern church got the fathers wrong, but don't worry an academic in an American university can infallibly takes us back to what the True and Original Jesus really said.

Enoch Powell was quite right. (*) You can't possibly go from "Jesus supernaturally created food for 5,000 of his followers" to "Jesus would have supported my food bank policy but opposed your universal income idea." You can't get from "Jesus supernaturally healed sick people" to "Jesus would have supported the National Health Service but opposed mandatory private insurance schemes". And when faced with a hard choice—"Should I tell the truth, which will hurt a number of people unnecessarily; or tell a lie, which will trap me a series of deceptions for years to come?—then "Jesus was compassionate" is no help at all. Followers of Moral and Political Jesus general have the same morals and political beliefs as everyone else of their age and class. They are just a bit more insufferable about them.

Historical Jesus is more of a problem. I have heard too many Christians saying "Oh, you historians! You just make up whatever version of Jesus you like! The Historical Jesus industry is just a matter of looking into a mirror!" This is unfair and anti-intellectual. Your actual historian isn't in the business of making stuff up. She has a very large amount of actual historical data at her fingertips. She can't tell us if Jesus was the Messiah of Judaism. That isn't an historical question. But she can tell us a very great deal about what Jews at the time of Jesus understood the word "Messiah" to mean. (SPOILER: Lots of different things.) 

The Historians Jesus, so long as we are talking about actual Historians, I have no problem with. The bigger menace is the Historical Novelist's Jesus. 

I am not thinking mainly of Dan Brown. Dan Brown made up a lot of silly tosh in order to spin a good yarn. Spinning a good yarn is his job. I am not even thinking of things like The Last Temptation of Christ, Stand Up For Judas, or Jesus Christ Superstar all of which made selective use of the Gospel stories to create deliberately provocative works of art. Heck, I even defended Jerry Springer the Opera, up to a point. 

I am thinking much more of people like the Rev. Giles Fraser, who tells us that the Last Supper was "really" a provocative act of resistance against the Roman Empire. People like Simcha Jacobovici who asserts that the Gospels plainly state that Jesus was married to someone he calls "Mary of Magdela." The legions of well-meaning 1960s clergymen who said that Resurrection meant nothing more than "the disciples carried on trying to follow Jesus' teaching after he had died." I am thinking of Miss Govey who, who wouldn't have known what the words "radical" and "modernist" meant, but who quire happily told her class of ten-year-olds that everyone was so moved when that little boy shared his packed lunch to Jesus that all five thousand of them shared their packed lunches as well, so everybody got some. So we should share our packed lunches as well: that is the point of the story. People, in short, who have replaced the stories in the Gospels with different stories of their own. 

Maybe Jesus was a revolutionary. He might have been. Maybe the great Signs were just conjuring tricks with moral messages behind them. They could have been. Maybe the whole thing about Jesus having supernatural powers was a terrible misunderstanding and he was really just a goody-goody who wanted everyone to share their stuff. Maybe so. But that is not what Mark believed. Or, at any rate, that is not what Mark put in his Gospel. The Historical Novelist's Jesus produces a weird kind of cognitive dissonance. Intelligent people read about exorcisms and resurrections and the sky splitting open and then they say "Jesus lived such an exemplary life that after he died his followers started to use words like 'son of god' to describe him." It's a bit like watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail and coming away convinced that you've seen a fairly accurate recreation of the life of a sixth century Romano-British war-band. 


My mother loved to tell a story about a Labour Party meeting in the 1980s. It was the time when a far-left cadre, led by an activist named John Lansman, was trying to take over party machinery, much to the dismay of the moderate old guard, who regarded them as Trotskyites. (It could never happen today.) 

On one occasion, after a particularly acrimonious session, an elderly invited speaker stood up to recount some of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. 

"We have heard much tonight about what Trotsky said" he began. "I will now tell you what Trotsky said to me." 

That's what we would love to have: not what Jesus said, but what Jesus said to me.

Some time in the middle of the second century, a Christian named Papias wrote that he didn't hold with this new-fangled idea of writing the story of Jesus down. In his day, you would find some very old person who remembered someone who remembered what one of the original disciples had told them about Jesus and get them to repeat the story. "The living and abiding voice" he called it. We'd call it oral tradition.  

Eusebius (the fourth century historian) says that Papias said that some of those very old people said that Peter had told Mark what he remembered of Jesus, and that Mark had written it down. (I make that five links in the chain: from Peter to Mark to the very old people to Papias to Eusebius.) Some people have seized on this idea and said that Mark's Gospel is the memoirs of Peter, pure and simple, an old fisherman spewing out fifty-year-old memories, as close to the Original Jesus as it is possible to get. "Mark" is merely an amanuensis, scribbling down the Elder's memories with a quill and a parchment. But I find it hard to imagine that a first-person eye-witness account could ever have been presented in such a simple, colourless form. It doesn't read like a memoir; it doesn't read like a folk tale. It reads more like a liturgy or a creedal statement. A recitation. 

I have an idea.

Almost certainly it is a silly idea. Very likely someone who has done a thesis on Aramaic story telling is laughing at me right now. But it describes something of how reading the New Testament feels. To me: 

Here is my idea.

Mark is a crib sheet. 

Mark is summary of the basic stories which a story teller needs in his repertoire. 

Mark is a skeleton which subsequent evangelists are intended to flesh out. 

Mark is a structure for future reciters of the story to follow. 

When Mark, toga and sandals and all, performed his gospel to an eager audience of Christian children, sometime in the eighth decade of the first millennium, he didn't speak the exact words of "Mark's Gospel". He tried to paint a picture. He tried to make it vivid in the audience's mind. And he tried to explain what some of the harder passages meant. How did the Adversary tempt Jesus? How did Jesus respond? What was the doctrine which so amazed the people of Capernaum? How could John possibly have been so presumptuous as to try and wash away the sins of the actual Son of God? Some of the elaboration would have come from a store of folk memories and oral traditions. Some of them he would have made up on the spot. That's how story telling works.

And the compilers of the Bible knew this. And they wanted us to know it as well. So they provided us with the text of Mark—his notes, his outline. But they also provided us with a transcript of two performances based on Mark's outline.

The first performance weaves pages and pages of the most beautiful preaching into Mark's story. Everyone on earth knows about the lilies of the field and turning the other cheek. The other gives us a glimpse of Jesus' childhood, and works in the most amazing parable-stories. Everyone on earth knows the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. 

Could it be any clearer? "Here is Matthew's recitation. Read that first. Now, here is the script he was working from. Read that next. Now see what Luke did with the same material. And if you want to see just how way-out some performances can be, get a load of what John did to it. Now take it and run with and tell it your own way. That's what it's for. A living story, not a dead text." 

That's my idea. Ridiculous. 

My starting point for this essay was "What would happen if I pretended to read Mark's Gospel for the first time?" 

I assumed that I would say "Some of the stories are not as we remember them; in some cases Jesus does things which are not the kinds of things which we imagine Jesus doing. And there are some more obscure tales that we have forgotten altogether." 

Before I got to the end of the first page, I realized that my conclusion would have to be "It is not possible to read Mark's Gospel for the first time. My religious and theological and cultural assumptions about Jesus have crowded Mark's character out of the text." 

But it was always a silly question. We say that we "read" Mark; and we also say that we "read" Edgar Rice Burroughs and George Eliot and A.A Milne. But we are not really talking about the same process. Middlemarch and Jungle Tales of Tarzan are both books. A good book and a bad book perhaps, but the same kind of thing. The long novel has depth and complexity and seriousness and importance, while the short adventure story is a short adventure story. But I read Tarzan to find out what happens next; to get to know the characters; to be excited, surprised, amused and moved; to feel happy and sad; to pretend that some made up people are real people. And I read Middlemarch for pretty much the same reasons.

But the idea of "reading" Mark in the same way that I "read" Tarzan is absurd, as absurd as the man who tried to use his guitar in unarmed combat. You might have an opinion about whether disco dancing is better than ballet; but "Which is better, ballet, marmite, or nuclear physics?" doesn't even qualify as a question.

I called this introductory essay "The Book That Refused To Be Written" as a nod to Frank Morrison. I should have called it "The Book That Refused To Be Read". 

And yet, Mark exists. It is a text, made of language. I have it in front of me. I can read it. 

15,000 words. Twenty pages. 

Chapter 1, verse 1, page 963. 

"This is the Good News about Jesus Christ the Son of God..."

(*) Kindly do not take this out of context.

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Posted by Kieren McCarthy

Mastermind of armed snatch that went rather wrong is found guilty, awaits sentencing

A 26-year-old internet entrepreneur faces up to 20 years behind bars in America, and a potential $250,000 fine, after attempt to steal a really not-very-good domain name.…

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Posted by Rebecca Watson

Support more videos like this at!


Okay look, I am not tuned into pop music but let me start this video by saying I like Ariana Grande. Why? Because I’ve heard some of her songs and I’m a human being. For fucks’ sake, she made an entire music video in tribute to the great girl comedies of the early 20th century. That is art, I don’t care if you like it or not.

In case you forgot because of the multitude of similar events over the past several years, in 2017 a terrorist murdered 22 people and injured another 250 (including children) at Grande’s concert in Manchester, UK. Ariana Grande wasn’t injured but cut her tour short and flew back to her mother’s home in Florida afterwards.

That’s the kind of thing that can severely fuck you up, and sure enough, Grande has been open about having PTSD from the incident. And that’s great! The more that people are able to be honest about mental illness, the less stigma will surround people who need to get help, and so more people will be willing to seek out that help. Mental illness doesn’t make you weak or weird or any more fucked up than the rest of society.

But — and there’s always a but — recently Grande posted a photo of her brain on Instagram, comparing a scan of it to a scan of a healthy brain and a brain with PTSD. She remarked that it was hilarious and terrifying, I assume referring to the fact that her brain is all lit up, like the one with PTSD.

She wrote that she “wanted to encourage y’all to make sure you check on your brains / listen to your bodies / take care of yourselves. I love science and seeing the physical reality of what’s going on in there was incredible to me.”

Her heart is in the right place, but her brain…isn’t. Sorry, bad joke. What I’m saying is that that isn’t science. I know, I’m sorry. It looks like science! It feels like science! But it’s not. It’s pseudoscience.

Mental illness causes changes in the brain, and yes, it is possible that doctors may be able to see these changes, but right now our knowledge and technology is only at the point where we can maybe see subtle changes across large populations — it’s nowhere near the point where we can look at an individual’s brainscan and say, “Yes, these bright spots show that this person has PTSD.”

Unfortunately, that isn’t stopping quacks from saying that repeatedly and making millions of dollars doing so. One such quack is Daniel Amen, who lives in a mansion on the Pacific and rakes in about $20 million a year telling people he can diagnose and cure them with brainscans. He uses single photon emission computed tomography, or SPECT, despite the fact that it’s an outdated technology with lower resolution than fMRIs and other methods. And he claims he can differentiate between PTSD, traumatic brain injury, ADD, and other disorders with a degree of accuracy that is not only ridiculous but has yet to be replicated by anyone (difficult considering that he refuses to make his data public).

The interesting thing about all this is that even if his scans don’t actually work at diagnosing mental illnesses, Amen does seem to have found significant success in getting patients to adhere to a treatment plan, which is often a big problem in the area of mental problems. Showing a patient a photo of their brain and saying, “Here is the problem you’re experiencing,” can be extremely powerful, as Ariana Grande showed in her Instagram post. It can convince people that yes, there is something physically wrong, it can be fixed, and so they’re more likely to take the recommended drugs and to make lifestyle changes like improving diet and exercise.

When I was 9 or 10, I broke my pinky finger playing wiffle ball. Yes, I was quite the Evel Knievel. It was summertime and I was supposed to make sure my bandages didn’t get wet for the month or so my finger needed to set. I did not do that. I was constantly at the beach, in the pool, literally going tubing. I refused to change my lifestyle and so I had to go back to the doctor four or five times to redo the bandages.

It was hard enough to get me to change in that instance. Imagine how hard it would have been if I didn’t have an x-ray proving that my finger was broken. Imagine how hard it would have been if many people around me didn’t believe fingers could be broken, or that I was making up the pain.

Does that mean I think Amen and other quacks are actually doing a good thing? Because ultimately they’re validating people and encouraging them to get better? No. We can do those things without bilking them out of millions of dollars and misleading them about the science.

Another example from my life: in college I went to a doctor complaining of being nauseated all the time, of feeling like I was constantly on a roller coaster. He prescribed me heartburn medication and sent me on my way. It helped the nausea so I figured he was right.

Years later, I got a new doctor who told me I had severe anxiety, not heartburn, and he gave me a drug for it. I suddenly realized that the things I just assumed were a part of life, like lying in bed freaking out because we can never stop the heat death of the universe, were actually caused by a real disorder in my brain. I suddenly felt validated and seen by that doctor, and that helped me get to the point where I don’t literally make myself sick worrying about things I can’t control.

And the more I see other people talk about their own mental health, the better I feel and the more motivated I become to improve my lifestyle — to stay on my meds or adjust them as needed, or to go for a run, or to eat something other than Cadbury creme eggs for dinner. We can encourage better mental health by getting rid of the stigma around it, by encouraging people to talk about it, and by telling them the actual real science of neurology.

Oh and universal health care wouldn’t hurt, either. I know, I pretty much end every video with that but it’s true.

Fox in Socks

Apr. 22nd, 2019 07:31 pm
[syndicated profile] neilgaiman_feed
posted by Neil Gaiman
Back in May 2017, I agreed to read the Cheesecake Factory Menu to raise money for refugees. They had to get to $500,000. It was the idea of Sara J Benincasa, comedian, writer and activist. People started donating. We all hoped that Cheesecake Factory would come in and donate enough at the end to get us up to the total, but they didn't seem very interested. So, given that enough money had been donated to reach the intermediate goal of me reading Dr Seuss's Fox in Socks, I agreed cheerfully to read Fox in Socks.  But the question was... when?

Because almost immediately I went off to work on Good Omens. And my life was put on hold for two years.

When I came back from making Good Omens, it was top of the list of things I needed to do. Fortunately, I'd been practising for two years, or at least, reading Fox in Socks to Ash. Here you go...

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Posted by Frank Jacobs

  • Often seen as typical of rich societies, depression is actually more prevalent in poor, conflict-ridden countries
  • More than one in five Afghans is clinically depressed – a sad world record
  • But are North Koreans really the world's 'fourth least depressed' people?

Depression is a type of affluenza: one of those mental illnesses that afflict people in rich societies in particular. It's more likely to occur when the more fundamental levels that make up Maslow's pyramid of needs — food, shelter, security — are met.

Or, as your Right-wing Uncle is wont to proclaim: People in poor countries don't have the leisure to be depressed! It's part of his pessimist cultural determinism: wealth breeds weakness, poverty requires strength. Hello, civilizational collapse!

A world map of depression

Turns out Uncle Burt's bit of folk wisdom belongs in the dustbin of history. As this map shows — with some notable exceptions, granted — it's not the richest countries that suffer from the highest rates of depression, but the most violent, the poorest and the most unequal ones. Darker means more depressed.

The data comes from the study "Burden of depressive disorders" (by Ferrari et al.), published in PLoS Medicine in 2013. The study shows that just over 4 percent of the world's population is clinically depressed — but that rate varies greatly per country.

Depression, a Dutch disease?

The Top 10 goes like this:

  1. Afghanistan: 22.50%
  2. Libya: 9.27%
  3. Honduras: 9.22%
  4. Palestine: 9.01%
  5. Bahrain: 8.62%
  6. United Arab Emirates: 8.12%
  7. Netherlands: 8.03%
  8. Qatar: 7.99%
  9. Jordan: 7.73%
  10. Kuwait 7.51%

As suggested by Afghanistan's abnormally high rate of depression, decades of armed conflict and economic misery can have a devastating effect on the mental health of a population. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for Libya, Honduras, and Palestine.

A bit more puzzling is the strong representation of Middle-Eastern countries that are relatively peaceful and affluent: Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan and Kuwait. With just over 8 percent of its population clinically depressed, the Netherlands is the only European country to make the Top 10.

North Korea, even less depressed than China? 

With less than a third of that percentage, Japan is the least depressed country on Earth. Just like the Top 10 was dominated by a region (i.e. the Middle East), the Bottom 10 is anchored in East Asia, with both Koreas, Taiwan and China dominating the list.

  1. Japan: 2.46%
  2. South Korea: 2.48%
  3. Taiwan: 2.50%
  4. North Korea: 2.61%
  5. Mexico: 2.96%
  6. China: 3.02%
  7. Nepal: 3.04%
  8. Australia 3.05%
  9. United Kingdom: 3.12%
  10. Czech Republic: 3.23%

The others are Mexico (just under 3% depressed), Nepal, Australia, the U.K. (mind you, these figures predate the Brexit referendum) and the Czech Republic.

Just how depressed is the 'rich countries club'?

Where does the United States figure in all of this? This overview of the 36 member states of the OECD — the "club of rich countries" shows that its members are all over the shop: from the Netherlands (7th most depressed country worldwide) all the way to Japan (least depressed country), showing a variation of almost 5.5 percentage points.

  1. Netherlands: 8.03%
  2. Estonia: 6.75%
  3. Turkey: 6.74%
  4. Luxembourg: 6.55%
  5. Latvia: 6.21%
  6. Switzerland: 6.16%
  7. Finland: 5.98%
  8. Norway: 5.94%
  9. Denmark: 5.07%
  10. Austria: 5.01%
  11. Greece: 4.87%
  12. Germany: 4.85%
  13. Italy: 4.84%
  14. France: 4.80%
  15. Lithuania: 4.79%
  16. Sweden: 4.76%
  17. Iceland: 4.74%
  18. New Zealand: 4.65%
  19. Israel: 4.58%
  20. Slovenia: 4.52%
  21. United States: 4.45%
  22. Canada: 4.35%
  23. Spain: 4.33%
  24. Portugal: 4.32%
  25. Ireland: 4.05%
  26. Chile: 3.99%
  27. Belgium: 3.98%
  28. Poland: 3.91%
  29. Slovakia: 3.60%
  30. Hungary: 3.31%
  31. Czech Republic: 3.23%
  32. United Kingdom: 3.12%
  33. Australia: 3.05%
  34. Mexico: 2.96%
  35. South Korea: 2.48%
  36. Japan: 2.46%

With a result of 4.45 percent, the U.S. in the least depressed half of the list (if only just). In the OECD, that makes America slightly more depressed than Canada, and slightly less so than Slovenia. On the global stage, the U.S. is on virtually the same level of clinical depression as Guinea in West Africa, or as the Pacific island nation of Tonga.

One indication that these results need to be taken with pinch of salt: the fact that North Korea ranks as the fourth 'least depressed' nation on earth. Surely, a country racked by a brutal totalitarian regime (not to mention the occasional famine) is more likely to figure in the Top 10 rather than the Bottom 10?

Herding various national datasets into one global comparison is tricky. The rate of detection may vary per country, for several reasons. Higher social awareness of depression may push the number of diagnoses up. A dysfunctional health system, or a social taboo against reporting mental health issues, may keep the tally (too) low. That may explain the low score not just in North Korea, but also for example in Iraq (4.48 percent — on a par with the U.S.)

Map found here at Our World in Data.

Got a strange map? Let me know at

Strange Maps #971

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Posted by Phil Plait

Remember when you were a kid and a friend told you that gum was indigestible, and if you swallowed it the gum would stay in your stomach for seven years?

Yeah, that’s not true. OK, gum is indigestible, but it passes through you just like any other thing your body can’t tear apart and use on the molecular level.

While, this urban legend — like so many others —turns out to be false, on a galactic scale it is true. Kinda. In this case your stomach is the galaxy, and the wads of chewing gum are smaller galactic companions. Our galaxy ate them, and the undigested bits still roam the Milky Way.

OK, enough with the food analogies (as much as I want to make one about a candy bar named after our galaxy). What’s really going on?

The structure of the Milky Way: A flattened disk with spiral arms (seen face-on, left, and edge-on, right), with a central bulge, a halo, and more than 150 globular clusters. The location of the Sun about halfway out is indicated.

The structure of the Milky Way: A flattened disk with spiral arms (seen face-on, left, and edge-on, right), with a central bulge, a halo, and more than 150 globular clusters. The location of the Sun about halfway out is indicated. Credit: Left: NASA/JPL-Caltech; right: ESA; layout: ESA/ATG medialab

Our Milky Way is a spiral galaxy: A central bulge of stars with a flat disk around it, surrounded by a halo of stars stretching out for hundreds of thousands of light years. The Sun sits in that disk, about 26,000 light years from the center, putting it halfway to the edge of the disk, which is 100,000 light years in diameter.

We have a lot of companion objects orbiting us, too. Some are relatively small but decent-sized galaxies like the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, and some are even smaller and fainter dwarf galaxies. Over 160 globular clusters also orbit the galactic center, each a self-contained ball of a hundred thousand stars (and glorious through even a small telescope).

Here’s a fun fact: We used to have more. But, over its lifetime, the Milky Way has eaten quite a few of these smaller companions, growing in size each time. This can happen if the orbit of the companion takes it too close to the Milky Way, sometimes even passing right through our disk. Stars are small and very far apart, so they rarely physically collide… but the combined gravity of a hundred billion stars in the Milky Way is literally a destructive force. It can rip apart these smaller galaxies and clusters, pulling them apart like, well, chewing gum stretched between your fingers.

Sometimes the companion gets completely torn apart, its stars and gas merging with our own. Sometimes though it may have a dense core which can survive — it’s thought that many globulars clusters are in fact cores of old eaten galaxies like this, spat out of the Milky Way like indigestible gum*.

But digesting a galaxy takes time. A lot more than seven years, of course; more like hundreds of million of years or more. That means that there could be stars moving around our galaxy still on the same paths as their original galaxy or cluster. And in fact we’ve found some of these stellar streams; the Sagittarius Dwarf galaxy stream is the most well-known, but others exist.

Many others: A team of astronomers have just announced the existence of quite a few more. In a series of papers they describe how they found them and their properties, and it’s very cool.

Stars in some of the stellar streams recently discovered using Gaia data superposed on a map of the galaxy. Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC

Stars in some of the stellar streams recently discovered using Gaia data superposed on a map of the galaxy. Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC

They used Gaia, a European Space Agency satellite that, for several years now, has been mapping the positions, motions, and colors of well over a billion stars in the galaxy. Using a very sophisticated method of parsing the data, they modeled the four-dimensional orbits of the stars (three in space plus time), looking for others stars on similar paths through space. They had to account for all kinds of subtle effects (like the shape and mass distribution of stars in the Milky Way) to make sure they got this right. If they found a stream, for example, one thing they checked for was the abundances of various elements in the stars, under the assumption that if they all formed in the same globular cluster (say) they should have the same relative abundances of those elements.

In all they found over a dozen such streams popping out of the data, which is astonishing. The Milky Way is a glutton!

An interesting thing about these streams is that most of them don’t seem to have any other objects associated with them. If they come from dwarf galaxies or globular clusters, those original objects apparently are long gone. One major exception is a stream they named Fimbulthul: It is clearly coming from the massive globular cluster Omega Centauri! That’s very cool, because it’s been speculated for a long time that Omega Cen may be the leftover core of a dwarf galaxy, and so should have a stream of stars coming off it. This would seem to confirm that.

The orbits of streams of stars in Gaia data as if you are looking down on the center of the Milky Way. The scale is in kiloparsecs (1 kpc = 3,260 light years). Credit: Ibata et al.

The orbits of streams of stars in Gaia data as if you are looking down on the center of the Milky Way. The scale is in kiloparsecs (1 kpc = 3,260 light years). Credit: Ibata et al.

Also interestingly, more than half of the streams they found orbit the galaxy retrograde, in the opposite sense as the rest of the stars in the disk. Most globular clusters orbit prograde, in the same sense as stars in the disk, so what gives? The astronomers aren’t sure, but suspect it may be that it’s easier to pick stars orbiting backwards out of a crowded background of stars orbiting forwards, so those streams are easier to spot. Further refinements to their software might clear that up. But if it’s a real effect it’s telling us something about the Milky Way and the objects around it… but what, exactly isn’t known yet.

One other thing I want to mention are the names they gave the streams. Slidr, Sylgr, Ylgr, Fimulthul, Svöl, Fjörm, Gjöll, and Leiptr — all of which were discovered in a recent software upgrade which refined their search method, plus Phlegethon, discovered previously — are names of rivers in Norse mythology, rivers that existed before the world did. How apt! And a lovely thought, given how old some of these streams must be. Many of them very likely were parts of galaxies and clusters long before our Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago.

I’ve written about Gaia many times before, and how it’s revolutionizing our understanding of the galaxy — the distance to Polaris, how far away the Pleiades are, whether the iconic star Albireo is a true binary or not (spoiler alert: it isn’t), and revealing hidden structures in the Milky Way, including stellar streams. I have to admit that when I wrote that last article just a few months ago I wasn’t expecting Gaia data to reveal so many more leftover cosmic cannibal meals.

We’ve lived in this galactic neighborhood for billons of years, and finally, after all that time, we’re really starting to get to know it.

*OK, I lied; I wasn’t done with the food analogies.

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

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

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

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

Mat Bowles

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October 2015


Stuff and nonsense

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

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