Archive for October, 2012

Staniford Gives Drum a Pep-Talk on Not Giving in to Despair in the Face of Climate Change

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

The other day my man-crush Kevin Drum made a depressed and frustrated-sounding post (Is it time to start adapting to climate change?) in which he basically framed the climate change issue as an either/or choice between working for mitigation to prevent catastrophic warming (which, as he points out, is looking increasingly like a vain pursuit), and pursuing adaptation and geoengineering.

I immediately reacted, at least in my head, with “um, it’s not an either/or question. We have to pursue mitigation, and continue to pursue mitigation, because ultimately that’s the difference between a livable planet and a non-livable planet. And we have to do adaptation, both because a significant amount of warming is already locked in, and because local adaptation efforts represent a path that can take us beyond the current toxic information environment on climate. And finally, geoengineering is something to explore, sure, but that exploration needs to be done in a way that’s mindful of its costs and limitations, not as a way of trying to punt responsibility for solving the problem into a vague and largely ignored future.”

But I’m all about obsessing over The Lizzie Bennet Diaries these days (irony noted, yeah), so I didn’t actually respond to Drum’s post. Thankfully, my other man-crush, Stuart Staniford, was up to the job: Avoiding defeatism on climate change. He starts with the following chart, and gets more and more awesome from there:

The whole post is a must-read for anyone who cares about climate change, and is despairing in the way that Kevin Drum is. Yes, from a certain perspective the problem of climate change is super hard. But like any super-hard problem, you solve it one manageable piece at a time. And even if you can’t see all the steps ahead, you can see well enough to know what needs doing now. So do that. If thinking about the whole job makes you want to curl into a ball and give up, well, I guess you’d better not spend quite so much time thinking about the difficulties inherent in the whole job. Just do the piece in front you. Once you’ve dealt with that, you can move on to the next piece.

Fact Checking the Hurricane Sandy Photos

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

If you haven’t seen it, definitely check out this cool piece of fact-checking of some of the photos allegedly of Hurricane Sandy that have been floating around: Sorting the Real Sandy Photos From the Fakes.

I especially liked this one:

Dunham’s Obama Ad

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Reminding me why I’m really looking forward to season 2 of Girls, Lena Dunham made this ad for Barack Obama:

Also, Mary Elizabeth Williams has fun commentary on conservatives’ response: Conservatives flip out over Lena Dunham Obama ad.

Lana Wachowski’s HRC Speech

Friday, October 26th, 2012

If you missed it, you really must watch the speech Lana Wachowski gave in accepting the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award:

I realize this was linked to by Xeni at Boing Boing already, which would normally be a disqualifying factor for me posting here these days, but:

1. I posted it before she did, at least at my tumblr, and

2. It’s too awesome not to post.

What I’ve Been Up to Lately

Friday, October 26th, 2012

If you’ve wondered about the relative dearth of posts around here lately, it’s mostly because I’ve been in the throes of a schoolgirl infatuation with Tumblr. So if you’re desperate for more of my deathless prose (yeah, I thought that’d be a stretch), you can see what’s at (Except right now, because at the moment Tumblr is down, dammit. This may not be unrelated to the sudden spurt of queued up items suddenly being posted here.)

Holland on ‘Nate Silver Truthers’

Friday, October 26th, 2012

From Joshua Holland at Alternet: Republicans Desperate to Spin Romney as the Front-Runner Are Becoming ‘Nate Silver Truthers’. The T pretty much SIA, but the details are still pretty fun.

Kloor: More on How GMO Fear is the Climate Denial of the Left

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Another in a continuing series of posts by Keith Kloor on the similarities between science denialism by those on the right (who deny the scientific consensus on climate change) and the left (who deny the scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified foods): A tale of two sciences.

Watson on Skeptic Sexism

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Rebecca Watson has been at the center of the ickiness surrounding the misogynistic behavior of some in the skeptics’ community. She summarizes in this article in Slate: It Stands to Reason, Skeptics Can Be Sexist Too.

I know that this article will only rile up the sexist skeptics. I’ll hear about how I’m a slut who deserves whatever I get, about how I’m a liar who made everything up, about how I’ve overreacted, and about how I should just ignore the trolls and they’ll go away. I’ve written this article anyway, because I strongly believe that the goals of skeptics are good ones, like strengthening science education, protecting consumers, and deepening our knowledge of human psychology. Those goals will never be met if we continue to fester as a middling subculture that not only ignores social issues but is actively antagonistic toward progressive thought.

Sam Harris on Alexander’s ‘I Visited Heaven’ Claim

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

Again with the people who have actual expertise weighing in on credulous fairy tales: This must be heaven.

Bill McKibbon Wants to Pick a Fight

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

You know the scene in Braveheart, after William Wallace has made his awesome horseback speech to rally the troops at the Battle of Stirling? And he has that quick confab with Stephen and Hamish and the gang (“Be yourselves”) and then as he’s about to ride off, Stephen asks him where he’s going. And William says, “I’m going to pick a fight.”

Bill McKibbon is about to do that, launching a nationwide tour to talk about the numbers from his terrifying new math article in Rolling Stone, and channel the resulting outrage in the direction of a divestment campaign aimed at fossil fuel companies.

Wen Stephenson in Grist talked with McKibbon about what he’s up to: Cue the math: McKibben’s roadshow takes aim at Big Oil.

So can divestment, I asked, be an effective strategy? Can it generate enough economic leverage to make a difference?

“I think it’s a way to a get a fight started,” Bill said without hesitation, “and to get people in important places talking actively about the culpability of the fossil fuel industry for the trouble that we’re in. And once that talk starts, I think it does start imposing a certain kind of economic pressure. Their high stock price is entirely justified by the thought that they’re going to get all their reserves out of the ground. And I think we’ve already made an argument that it shouldn’t be a legitimate thing to be doing.”

In other words, as in South Africa, as with Big Tobacco, there’s economic leverage in the moral case?


Waldron on Armstrong’s Fall

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Travis Waldron sums up some of the ambivalence I’ve been wrestling with myself in the wake of the doping chickens coming home to roost: The Complicated Tragedy Of Lance Armstrong.

So is Lance Armstrong a fraud, a cheat, and a villain, the worst example of how the quest to win at all costs can distort our priorities? Or is Lance Armstrong a friend, an inspiration, and a hero, the best example of how success can be used to change the world around us. Can’t he be both?

I think it’s wrong to focus just on Armstrong. He was arguably a victim here too. But not in the responsibility-free way that one might think I’m saying.

Sigh. It’s complicated.

Bodyform Responds to Facebook Commenter Richard Neill

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Chen on Violentacrez

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

I finally got around to reading Adrian Chen’s post on Gawker that revealed the identity of the Violentacrez user on reddit: The man behind the troll. It was kind of interesting, though also a little disturbing, and not just because Violentacrez himself is a little disturbing.

I was struck by this comment from Chen’s post:

In real life, Brutsch is an unabashedly creepy old man with seven cats and two dogs and a disabled wife and a teenage son about to join the Marines. He was all of that online, too – only he was famous for it.

I think this struck me because lately I’ve been confronted by the reality that I’ve become older than most of the people I interact with online. (I am, in fact, a year older than Violentacrez.) As someone who was an early adopter of the Internet, I’ve survived to a time when it is largely populated by people a lot younger than I am. Occasionally, when real-life details spill into online interaction, this confronts me with the uncomfortable fact that online, at least, I’ve become old.

In real life, I interact with people of many different ages, including some younger than me, some approximately my own age, and some older than me. In terms of outward signs of age, I’ve been pretty fortunate: staying nerdishly indoors over much of my life and using lots of sunscreen means my skin’s in okay shape. I’ve got a full head of hair (going gray, it’s true). I’m working on a spare tire, but am otherwise in okay shape. My outward appearance is youthful enough that I occasionally get joking “Dorian Gray” comments from friends and acquaintances. So I’ve got that going for me.

But online, none of that counts. And as soon as age comes up, I’m basically left with two choices: Closet myself. Or provoke an involuntary, “whoa. dude, you’re old.”

This was brought into focus recently by my getting more involved on Tumblr, which is a neat place for sharing obsessive fandoms (of which I have a few, as readers of this site will already be aware). But it’s also a corner of the online world characterized by lots of self-disclosure and sharing of angsty feels by (mostly) young (frequently) female users, among whom a 50-year-old guy tends to stand out.

Quoting from an “ask” my lies user on Tumblr recently received:

gr4ci3p00 asked: hi you’re the oldest person i know on tumblr

Yeah, I’m the oldest person I know on tumblr, too. It’s a weird feeling.

A few weeks ago I saw this thing come through my tumblr dashboard (can’t find it now, dammit). It was a survey thingy, where it asked people to repost and add a | character in the row next to their age. And the ages went from, like, I don’t remember, 12 or 13 on up, and there was this cool-looking distribution of rows of | characters, starting off with just 1, and then getting fatter with more and more respondents, with the biggest part of the curve being around age 17 or 18 (I think), and then it tapered off, and there were no | characters at all toward the bottom of the graph. And the bottom entry, at which there had been no respondents for several rows, was “26+”.

Ouch. That hit home. What am I doing here?

I guess, given the degree of privilege I enjoy as a straight white male technocratic Californian making good money, it shouldn’t be a big deal to have to deal with a little irrational prejudice. But for the record: 50 is not old, at least not from my side of that birthday, and 50 and male and hanging out online with a bunch of fellow LBD nerds who happen to be younger and more female than me is not inherently creepy. It’s just a thing.

Drum on the Romney’s Continued Willingness to Lie about His Tax Plan

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Kevin Drum: Lies, Damn Lies, and Mitt Romney’s Tax Plan.

We all struggle trying to explain why Mitt Romney’s tax plan is….inconsistent with reality. Here’s another crack at unpacking the basics behind the famous TPC study that originally made this point. It’s actually pretty simple:

[snip basic arithmetic]

Needless to say, Romney knows all this. The guy ran Bain Capital for years. If there’s anything he knows his way around, it’s a spreadsheet. So is it fair to say flat-out that he’s lying about his tax plan? I guess reasonable people can disagree, but I’d say it is. There really aren’t any reasonable assumptions under which his plan can work, and he obviously knows it. But he keeps saying it anyway. If that’s not a lie, what is?

I’m not sure I see any way around the “L” word here. It’s a knowing falsehood, spoken with the hope of deceiving. shcb? You’ve been pretty limber in the past at construing things I call “lies” as being some other sort of thing notquiteactuallyalie. Is there a better word for what Romney’s doing here?

Novella on Alexander’s Proof of Heaven

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

It’s easy to be superstitious, to believe in mysterious forces beyond our ken that shape the reality we live in. Because there are mysterious forces beyond our ken, and they do shape the reality we live in. But the difference between superstition and actual knowledge is that with actual knowledge, there’s objective evidence that supports the belief. With superstition, it’s just what we want to believe, for whatever reason, bolstered by confirmation bias.

I’ve given up a fair amount of superstitious belief over the last several years, and it makes me kind of a Debbie Downer in discussions involving mystical belief, especially discussions with people I care about. So I mostly don’t discuss those things. Which is an easy course of action for me to adopt, since I’m an off-the-charts introvert whose go-to response in pretty much any social situation that carries a hint of potential conflict is a stony silence. (Or what appears from the outside to be stony. From my perspective, it’s just silence. I guess stones, if they could speak, might have the same complaint.)

Anyway, what I actually wanted to talk about was a recent noteworthy bit of wishful credulity by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander in Newsweek, Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife. Alexander was in a coma for 7 days after contracting meningitis. After recovering, he came to believe that he’d experienced a cloud-like realm, a sense of universal love, and another being with whom he conversed, and that he had done so (this part is key) while his higher brain functions were clinically, demonstrably inactive.

Letting the air out of this story is (who else?) neuroscientist, noted skeptic, and man-crush Steven Novella: Proof of Heaven?

While his experience is certainly interesting, his entire premise is flimsily based on a single word in the above paragraph – “while.” He assumes that the experiences he remembers after waking from the coma occurred while his cortex was completely inactive. He does not even seem aware of the fact that he is making that assumption or that it is the central premise of his claim, as he does not address it in his article.

Of course his brain did not go instantly from completely inactive to normal or near normal waking consciousness. That transition must have taken at least hours, if not a day or more. During that time his neurological exam would not have changed significantly, if at all. The coma exam looks mainly at basic brainstem function and reflexes, and can only dimly examine cortical function (through response to pain) and cannot examine higher cortical functions at all. His recovery would have become apparent, then, when his brain recovered sufficiently for him to show signs of consciousness.

Alexander claims there is no scientific explanation for his experiences, but I just gave one. They occurred while his brain function was either on the way down or on the way back up, or both, not while there was little to no brain activity.

It’s not that the world isn’t mysterious. It is. It’s just that our desire to explain the things we don’t understand needs to be grounded in some sort of epistemological framework, one that takes into account things like the well-documented, easily reproducible fact that a human brain, deprived of oxygen or otherwise taken outside the relatively narrow constraints within which it likes to operate, quickly becomes an unreliable narrator.

Friedersdorf: Why I Won’t Vote for Obama

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic: Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama.

To hell with them both.

Sometimes a policy is so reckless or immoral that supporting its backer as “the lesser of two evils” is unacceptable. If enough people start refusing to support any candidate who needlessly terrorizes innocents, perpetrates radical assaults on civil liberties, goes to war without Congress, or persecutes whistleblowers, among other misdeeds, post-9/11 excesses will be reined in.

If not?

So long as voters let the bipartisan consensus on these questions stand, we keep going farther down this road, America having been successfully provoked by Osama bin Laden into abandoning our values.