Shared posts

11 Oct 17:00

Refugee Blues, by W.H. Auden

08 Oct 19:00

Astronomy Picture of the Day Caption or Harlequin Novel?

by Lilly Warren

Other quizzes can be found here.

1. A Starry Night in Brazil
2. Before Sunrise
3. Night of a Thousand Stars

Read more Astronomy Picture of the Day Caption or Harlequin Novel? at The Toast.

07 Oct 00:24

Gender bending

by Victor Mair

There's a guy with brown hair who has worked as a checkout person at a store I go to regularly.  He's been there for about five years.  Of the 20 or so checkout persons at the store, all of the others except one are female, mostly between 18 and 25.

Over the course of the last year or so, I noticed that this fellow became increasingly girllike.  Finally, last week when I went to the store, there was a new checkout girl with straight, long blonde hair.  It turned out that I was next in line to go to her counter.  She was wearing a name tag that said "Karen".  I really didn't know this person, but when she spoke to me I realized it was that guy, though his / her (–> their) voice was much higher, and manner even more feminine than before, and he / she (–> they) was (–> were) wearing a skirt.  I really didn't know what to do or say.  My overall reaction was to accept her as a new hire.

I sent the above note to some friends.  David Moser, who lives in Beijing, responded:

My daughter went to a summer arts program at a university in Boston last summer.  She has been basically raised in Beijing, so this was the first time she had been in an American university environment.  She told me that the first time all the summer students met up, the coordinator said to them, "Okay, let's go around the room, and everyone introduce yourself and tell us your preferred gender pronoun."  Preferred gender pronoun?  My daughter had never heard of this, but she soon figured it out.  This is the new standard introduction etiquette at American gatherings like this.

I also saw a video of a PRC Chinese student who, in her first week at another American university, encountered the same request for "preferred gender pronoun."  She responded by saying "My name is Sharon Wu, and I have no idea what my preferred gender pronoun is."  Of course, she was expressing linguistic non-comprehension, not gender identity uncertainty.  But the reaction of the other American students was a supportive:  "Oh, that's okay, many of us are not sure either, still trying to decide, you don't have to come up with one right now," etc.

It seems that we are in the midst of a profound cultural shift, one that requires considerable adjustments on the part of practically everyone in society.

[N.B.:  all names in this post have been changed or otherwise anonymized]

01 Sep 17:00

The Problem With Trillian: Hitchhiker’s Guide and Me

by Jess Zimmerman

Late last month, British actress Susan Sheridan died of cancer at the age of 68. Sheridan was an accomplished voice artist, but for me (and, it seems, for a lot of news writers), her defining work was in the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio show. Sheridan played Tricia McMillan, known as Trillian (because, according to writer Douglas Adams, “it was a nickname that also sounded like an alien name”) – one of two surviving humans on the show, who is also an astrophysicist and the girlfriend of Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox. After Sheridan's obituary was published, my friend Louise tweeted at me to ask if I'd written anything about Trillian. I hadn't, I answered, but oh gosh did I have thoughts.

This turned out to be true, but incomplete. I did have thoughts about Trillian, a character who the Guardian notes was “not especially well written” but to whom Sheridan's interpretation gave “an intelligence and likeability that removed any suggestion of her being a token space bimbo.” But I didn't have a lot of feelings about her. I was sorry to hear about Sheridan's passing because she was comparatively young and enormously talented, and because I am a human who's capable of empathy, but not specifically because she was the voice of a character I loved. My feelings about Trillian were as they always have been: fairly indifferent. The one woman in my favorite sci-fi series of all time, and I just didn't really care. What, I wondered, the hell?

Read more The Problem With Trillian: Hitchhiker’s Guide and Me at The Toast.

02 Oct 16:11

The US Census and the social construction of race

by Lisa Wade, PhD

Flashback Friday.

Social and biological scientists agree that race and ethnicity are social constructions, not biological categories.  The US government, nonetheless, has an official position on what categories are “real.”  You can find them on the Census (source):


These categories, however real they may seem, are actually the product of a long process. Over time, the official US racial categories have changed in response to politics, economics, conflict, and more. Here’s some highlights.

In the year of the first Census, 1790, the race question looked very different than it does today:

Free white males
Free white females
All other free persons (included Native Americans who paid taxes and free blacks)
And slaves

By 1870 slavery is illegal and the government was newly concerned with keeping track of two new kinds of people: “mulattos” (or people with both black and white ancestors) and Indians:

Indian (Native Americans)

Between 1850 and 1870 6.5 million Europeans had immigrated and 60,000 Chinese.  Chinese and Japanese were added for the 1880 Census.

By 1890, the U.S. government with obsessed with race-mixing.  The race question looked like this:

Black (3/4th or more “black blood”)
Mulatto (3/8th to 5/8th “black blood”)
Quadroons (1/4th “black blood”)
Octoroons (1/8th or any trace of “black blood”)

This year was the only year to include such fine-tuned mixed-race categories, however, because it turned out it wasn’t easy to figure out how to categorize people.

In the next 50 years, the government added and deleted racial categories. There were 10 in 1930 (including “Mexican” and “Hindu”) and 11 in 1940 (introducing “Hawaiian” and “Part Hawaiian”).  In 1970, they added the “origin of descent” question that we still see today.  So people are first asked whether they are “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish” and then asked to choose a race.

You might immediately think, “But what do these words even mean?”  And you’d be right to ask.  “Spanish” refers to Spain; “Latino” refers to Latin America; and “Hispanic” is a totally made up word that was originally designed to mean “people who speak Spanish.”

Part of the reason we have the “Hispanic” ethnicity question is because Mexican Americans fought for it.  They thought it would be advantageous to be categorized as “white” and, so, they fought for an ethnicity category instead of a racial one.

Funny story:  The US once included “South American” as a category in the “origin of descent” question.  That year, over a million residents southern U.S. states, like Alabama and Mississippi checked that box.

2000 was the first year that respondents were allowed to choose more than one race. They considered a couple other changes for that year, but decided against them. Native Hawaiians had been agitating to be considered Native Americans in order to get access to the rights and resources that the US government has promised Native Americans on the mainland. The government considered it for 2000, but decided “no.” And whether or not Arab American should be considered a unique race or an ethnicity was also discussed for that year. They decided to continue to instruct such individuals to choose “white.”

The changing categories in the Census show us that racial and ethnic categories are political categories. They are chosen by government officials who are responding not to biological realities, but to immigration, war, prejudice, and social movements.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

(View original at

01 Oct 14:51

What, if anything, do Catholics have in common?

by Lisa Wade, PhD

One of the major contributions of political scientist Benedict Anderson is the idea of an “imagined community”: a large group of people connected not through interaction, but by the idea that they are part of a meaningful group. In his book on the idea, he wrote:

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet… it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. I suppose the idea might apply as well to religions.

Last week was a special week for American Catholics. The Pope’s visit to the U.S. was energizing, arguably intensifying the connection Catholics feel to their religion and, by extension, each other. But what, really, do Catholics have in common?

I don’t know, but agreement on what is sinful is not one of them. A Pew Research Center survey of Catholics reveals, instead, quite a lot of disagreement. Some Catholics don’t believe in the concept of sin at all and the remaining don’t always agree on what is sinful.


According to the results of the survey, for example, there is considerable disagreement as to whether abortion, homosexual behavior, hoarding wealth, divorce, unmarried cohabitation, and harming the environment are sinful. Moreover, plenty do not ascribe to some aspects of Catholic doctrine: only 17% of Catholics, for example, think that using contraception is sinful.

So, what does it mean to be Catholic?

Anderson might argue that they are simply an imagined community: a group of strangers with widely divergent views and life circumstances who feel the same despite all the reasons to feel different.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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30 Sep 18:00

P.G. Wodehouse On The Dangers Of Literature

by Mallory Ortberg

I had got as far as this in thinking the thing out when that "Types of Ethical Theory" caught my eye. I opened it, and I give you my honest word this was what hit me:

Of the two antithetic terms in the Greek philosophy one only was real and self-subsisting; and that one was Ideal Thought as opposed to that which it has to penetrate and mould. The other, corresponding to our Nature, was in itself phenomenal, unreal, without any permanent footing, having no predicates that held true for two moments together, in short, redeemed from negation only by including indwelling realities appearing through.

Well – I mean to say – what? And Nietzsche, from all accounts, a lot worse than that!


Rodney Spelvin was in for another attack of poetry...He had once been a poet, and a very virulent one, too; the sort of man who would produce a slim volume of verse bound in squash mauve leather at the drop of a hat, mostly on the subject of sunsets and pixies.

Read more P.G. Wodehouse On The Dangers Of Literature at The Toast.

08 Sep 17:00

Ways In Which Spock Has Attempted To Disguise His Ears

by Nicole Cliffe
22 Sep 17:20

The Symbol Can be an S with THREE Lines Through It, Something Really Next Level

by Dave

By now you’ve probably heard of Martin Shkreli, a hedge fund parasite who decided to take some time off from contributing nothing to the human race to instead actively interfere with it. He bought the rights to a drug used by AIDS patients and infants and overnight increased its price from $13.50 to $750 per pill.

His smugly proud face has been all over social media with people denouncing him despite this being exactly the sort of Capitalism we regularly admire and reward. Dude got paid, what’s your problem? He certainly doesn’t have any problem with it; he’s just making money like you’re supposed to. This isn’t some kind of bastardization of the free market, it is the free market. It’s how it works. You don’t like it, make your own cure for toxoplasmosis, or just buy an existing one, like he did, since “creating” something is for losers.

Here’s what I think we should do. Let’s set up a sort of alternative economy for these guys. We’ll let them battle it out between each other over who has the most Superbucks, Ultradollars, and Paraquatloos while leaving the economy that the rest of us have to actually live with alone. They can figure out how many of their moneys will buy a flying yacht or whatever it is these people spend their vast-yet-insufficient fortunes on and let us go on buying food, houses, and medicine as though they aren’t meaningless items only good for making very wealthy people even more wealthy.

Let’s face it: if you have millions or billions of normal dollars and still aren’t happy, then clearly you need to switch to the better, harder, more luxe economy. An economy built just for ultra-achievers like you. You got a lot of dollars? Big deal, I have dollars, and I’m drinking Stop and Shop brand green tea out of a mug with a 1993 calendar printed on it. But you know what I don’t have? Hypercoins. Not a single one. You financial alchemists aren’t grabbing up 2007 Honda Civics, so why the hell are you also settling for the same kind of money that serfs like me have access to?

Quit paddling around in the kiddy pool, Shkreli. Nobody cares if you bat .750 in little league. Get rid of those too-common dollars and set your sights on Jumbocash. That’s where the real power and prestige is.

11 Sep 18:00

All Your Faves Are Evil

by Alexandra Molotkow

Art Garfunkel is an 8,000-year-old vampire with a surprisingly boring childhood

Keith Richards ate cockroaches to freak out his kids

Pete Seeger axe-murdered a family in Utah before he was famous

The Kinks’ iconic boots were made out of human skin

Billy Joel filled all his maracas with fingernails

Elvis Costello keeps a giant ball of hair stolen from each of his conquests

Paul McCartney dosed school kids with heroin “for a larf”

Phil Collins collects the jerky of endangered animals

Bruce Springsteen named his dog Hey just to fuck with its head

Prince relaxes in a pit of snakes

Elton John is secretly an Ogre

14 Sep 10:51

New discovery in English historical lexicography

by Geoffrey K. Pullum

A retired lecturer in medieval history, Dr Paul Booth, has discovered a reference in a 1310 court record to a man named Roger Fuckebythenavele, and he believes it really does mean that the man was known as Roger Fuck-By-The-Navel, the surname (possibly a nickname given by enemies) actually meaning "fuck via the belly button", so this may be the earliest known use of the verb fuck in its sexual sense.

I'm sorry: I know that this is Language Log and you're expecting me to say something witty or revealing about this, but I'm sort of speechless. I think what I'd better do is give you the link to the Daily Mail write-up of this story, and you can make of it what you will.

I will say just one thing about it: after telling you roughly what I just told you in the first paragraph, the Daily Mail wanders off into some random remarks about the swearword sense of fuck, where it doesn't mean "copulate" at all, it just conventionally implicates that the speaker is annoyed or in some other heightened emotional state and wishes to signal that. It drifts from there into other miscellaneous facts about cursing, frequency of swearing, social class and swearing… In short, the Daily Mail (definitely one of the trashiest of the right-wing tabloid newspapers in the UK) doesn't know what the fuck it is talking about.

For those who are truly interesting in antedating of word occurrences (not really a hobby of mine), I guess you're now looking for an occurrence of fuck meaning "copulate" dated 1309 or earlier. Good luck.

22 Sep 11:22

The larger pattern of truthiness

by Fred Clark

Backwards B Watch” is the title of Josh Marshall’s post linking to this story from Texas. The reference there is to a story you may remember from back in 2008 involving an innocent person brutally attacked by an angry mob of Obama supporters near Pittsburgh just weeks before the presidential election. The attackers had savagely carved the letter B — for “Barack,” apparently — in their victim’s face.

BackwardsB2That story was hyped by the Drudge Report and by Fox News, but quickly fell apart when it turned out that none of it was true. There was no angry mob of Obama-supporting savages and there was no attack. The “victim” who reported the attack was not a victim — and she admitted the whole thing was a hoax after police were unable to find any corroboration for her story in security video. Police were initially suspicious of her claims, in part, because the B cut into her cheek was backwards — the result of doing that to herself while looking in a mirror.

The fact that a disturbed individual (she was later sentenced to court-ordered psychiatric counseling) would concoct such a story was dismaying, but not nearly as dismaying or revealing as the fact that millions of others were willing, able and eager to believe such a tale. Even more troubling is the way that such hoaxes take on a seeming-reality for many of those who first believed them. After their initial disappointment when this story was thoroughly and conclusively proven a hoax, the fall-back position for many of the Drudge-readers and Fox-viewers who wanted it to be true was to say that, OK, while this particular story was false, it still was believable because it fits with a larger pattern of such incidents, and that larger pattern is true.

That this supposed larger pattern consists entirely of similar hoaxes doesn’t diminish their faith in the truthiness of this larger pattern.

It’s a bit like the way that some older white people handle their encounters with many individual black people. Despite clinging to a host of fears and prejudices about “those people” as a whole, they can be warmly and genuinely friendly with most of the individuals they meet. (Thus, as they’re sure to remind you, they can truthfully say that they have “many black friends.”) They simply classify each of these individuals as “one of the good ones” — a rare and notable exception to the larger pattern. And it never seems to occur to them that every individual they’ve ever gotten to know was similarly “exceptional” — that all of the evidence contradicts the existence of this larger pattern, and none of that evidence confirms it.

I suspect we’ll see this same pattern repeated with this latest hoax: “Cops: Texas Man Vandalized His Own Truck, Blamed It On Black Lives Matter.”

A disabled veteran told Whitney, Texas, police on Sept. 8 that his pickup truck was vandalized by Black Lives Matter activists. As a result, he raised almost $6,000 from the public for repairs, according to a report from Dallas-Fort Worth television station KDFW.

But footage from the television station’s initial report told police a different story. On Friday police arrested Scott Lattin on suspicion of making a false police report.

Lattin told police that his truck, which he had painted with “Police Lives Matter,” was spray painted with “Black Lives Matter” and “Fuck Your Flag, Your Family, Your Feelings, Your Faith.”

Lattin eventually admitted to damaging the truck himself, for insurance reasons.

Once again, there was no attack carried out by a faceless mob of savage black people. And there was no faceless mob of savage black people.

But once again, there was an eager audience for the hoax — an audience once again disappointed to learn that none of it was true. They had initially embraced the story because, to them, it sounded like just the sort of thing they were sure that roving mobs of faceless savage black people would be likely to do.

And even though this particular story turned out to be a hoax, they remain convinced that it was believable because it fit the larger pattern of black criminality — a pattern attested to by scores of similar, equally credible stories.

But there’s another dynamic at work here — another even more preposterous form of doublethink that converts such hoaxes into evidence of the larger pattern. It’s a weird leap of illogic, a clumsy form of defensive self-deception, yet it seems to work for those who want or need to make it work. It goes like this:

1. Savagely attacking someone and carving letters into their face is a horrible thing to do.

2. Yes, perhaps that was just a lie in this particular case, but ask yourself: What’s worse? Lying? Or brutally attacking someone and carving letters into their face? Clearly, the brutal, face-carving attack is far graver and more serious an offense than merely telling a fib.

3. So why are you more upset about one little lie than about the brutal attack? Have you no sense of proportion?

That may seem too absurd to be anything that anyone could really do, let alone really be convinced was convincing. But they do, and they are. Right now. Millions of people are arguing exactly that — to others, but even more so to themselves.

Simply replace “attacking someone and carving letters into their face” with Carly Fiorina’s tear-jerking fantasy: “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”

We are being told that it shouldn’t matter to us that Fiorina’s story has been debunked as a complete fabrication because what’s more important is the “larger pattern.” And we are being told that nitpicking about one little falsehood shows that we’ve lost our larger sense of persepective, because who cares about one little lie compared to the horrific evil of chopping up babies to sell their body parts?




23 Sep 21:40


by Fred Clark

I’ll go with this one first: “Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.”

Hall of Fame catcher Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra died Tuesday at the age of 90 and today millions of us are saddened. And smiling. We have to smile because thinking about Yogi, or talking about him, tends to make people smile. Quoting him always does.

Screen shot 2015-09-23 at 5.13.50 PM

“We smile when we see him,” Pauline Kael wrote of Cary Grant, “it makes us happy just to look at him.” The same is true for the guy to his right in this photo.

You can read those quotes everywhere today — and just try doing so without smiling. As his childhood friend Joe Garagiola said, Yogi “put words together in ways nobody else would ever do.” They weren’t misstatements or malapropisms — if he used the wrong word, he somehow managed to turn it into the right one, producing an almanac’s worth of skewed koans:

• “Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.”

• “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

• “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”

• “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

• “You can observe a lot by watching.”

• “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

Of course, “I really didn’t say everything I said,” Berra explained, “Then again, I might have said ‘em, you never know.”

Those are all funny, but they’re not wrong. Yogi Berra was, among other things, a wise man — one of the smartest to ever don the tools of ignorance.

He was also a spectacularly good baseball player — one of the greatest all-around catchers to ever play the game, a three-time American League MVP, and a vital piece of a New York Yankees dynasty that held a near monopoly on World Series championships.

Yes, he was a … Yankee — for all but one year as a player. But, like Casey Stengel, he finished his career across town, with the Mets, later returning to manage that team to an improbable World Series run that came within a game of bringing my favorite team its second championship. And so, like Casey Stengel, Yogi is one of those rare figures who was completely beloved by the entire city.

He didn’t look like a Yankee. Yankees look like DiMaggio or Jeter — handsome and regal in their pinstripes, princes of the city who glitter as they walk. Berra was 5-foot-7, a fire hydrant with broad shoulders, broader ears, and an even broader grin. (“I looked like this when I was young, and I still do.”) He had what movies from his time liked to call an “ugly mug,” but it was an appealing mug, and a contagious smile. It was a great face. He earned that face.

Oh, and he was also a World War II veteran — a Navy gunner’s mate on board the USS Bayfield during the invasion of Normandy on D-Day two years after his first season in professional baseball, during which he once drove in 23 runs in a double-header for the Norfolk Tars.

And then there’s this. Yogi Berra was born in 1925 and he was a lifelong Catholic. (He met Pope John XXIII during a trip to Italy. “Hello, Yogi,” the pope said. And he replied, “Hello, Pope.”) But in his later years, Yogi leant his voice and the platform of his Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center to promote greater respect and opportunity for LGBT athletes. It might seem surprising that someone of his age and religion would take such a step when so many others from his tradition and his generation seem frightened or bewildered by such changes. But it wasn’t at all surprising when that someone was Yogi Berra. That was just Yogi being Yogi.

So today I’m sad. But I’m still smiling.

24 Sep 01:30


11 Sep 15:00

Movie Spoilers: A List

by Amy Collier

Amy Collier's previous work for The Toast can be found here.

E.T. doesn't give in to Scientology.

The teens of Clueless were alive the whole time.

The New Yorkers of Do the Right Thing do not surrender to Mussolini's tyranny.

None of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park get into college.

Sophie chooses not to run for office. She's got enough going on.

In Waiting to Exhale, Savannah finally exhales and thus cheats death once again.

Mary Poppins didn't murder anyone.

Read more Movie Spoilers: A List at The Toast.

17 Sep 14:00

Women Trying To Say “No” Politely In Western Art History

by Mallory Ortberg


we don't have to be
always so much of touching
we could just touch one hand, or none, for a while
touching's fun but you know what else is fun? not touching


you are SUCH a good kisser
it's like i don't even have to give you any kissing tips
but i wonder, just from being curious
what kissing would be like if you weren't holding my entire throat
like i think it might be really sexy if we tried it
like how i'm not holding your throat at all so you're just breathing through it normally
like that, but you do it to me
i think it'd be hot

Read more Women Trying To Say “No” Politely In Western Art History at The Toast.

17 Sep 18:00

Erotica Written By An Alien Pretending Not To Be Horrified By The Human Body

by Mallory Ortberg

Parts one and two.

"The latter inserted fluid into the former; some of which was absorbed into the softer tissues and membranes, the remainder left to seep back into the open air."

"One of them allowed a set of fingers, nails and all, to enter its most vulnerable hollow."

"The integrity of both cavities was breached."

"The larger of the two thoroughly excavated the other."

Read more Erotica Written By An Alien Pretending Not To Be Horrified By The Human Body at The Toast.

18 Sep 15:00

Questions Your Local Librarian Will Not Be Answering for You

by Natalie LaRocque

I love being a librarian. Every day is different, and I enjoy helping people with their plans and projects. But with the job also comes a number of questions I cannot answer, or would simply prefer not to get. While you might imagine you can ask your local librarian anything, there may be times when they simply won’t have a ready response for you. 

Here is just a sampling of the strange questions my colleagues and I have fielded at our local library:

Do you happen to have a baby picture of Andrew Jackson?

What's the weather going to be like in Nashville five months from today?

Does this look infected to you?

EMERGENCY: Do you know a recipe for eggplant parmesan?  

Why did you get rid of all of the books on Christianity?

Where do you keep your adult films?

Are you single?

Read more Questions Your Local Librarian Will Not Be Answering for You at The Toast.

11 Sep 03:26

No shitting here

by Victor Mair

Sign outside an apartment in Taipei:

Posted on imgur by Jverne

The Chinese says:

Sài lín liáng, bùyào luàn diū gǒu dàbiàn 賽林涼, 不要亂丟狗大便
("contest grove cool, don't toss your dog poop here")

The first three characters make no sense in Mandarin.  You have to read them in Taiwanese, and they don't mean "please".

saílíniâ 賽林涼
("shit your mother" — one of the most insulting phrases in Taiwanese)

[h.t. Michael Carr; thanks to Michael Cannings, Grace Wu, Melvin Lee, Sophie Wei, and Chia-hui Lu]

14 Sep 01:00


18 Sep 00:00

Proton Earth, Electron Moon

by xkcd

Proton Earth, Electron Moon

What if the Earth were made entirely of protons, and the Moon were made entirely of electrons?

—Noah Williams

This is, by far, the most destructive What-If scenario to date.

You might imagine an electron Moon orbiting a proton Earth, sort of like a gigantic hydrogen atom. On one level, it makes a kind of sense; after all, electrons orbit protons, and moons orbit planets. In fact, a planetary model of the atom was briefly popular (although it turned out not to be very useful for understanding atoms.[1]This model was (mostly) obsolete by the 1920s, but lived on in an elaborate foam-and-pipe-cleaner diorama I made in 6th grade science class.)

If you put two electrons together, they try to fly apart. Electrons are negatively charged, and the force of repulsion from this charge is about 20 orders of magnitude stronger than the force of gravity pulling them together.

If you put 1052 electrons together—to build a Moon—they push each other apart really hard. In fact, they push each other apart so hard, each electron would be shoved away with an unbelievable amount of energy.

It turns out that, for the proton Earth and electron Moon in Noah's scenario, the planetary model is even more wrong than usual. The Moon wouldn't orbit the Earth because they'd barely have a chance to influence each other;[2]I interpreted the question to mean that the Moon was replaced with a sphere of electrons the size and mass of the Moon, and ditto for the Earth. There are other interpretations, but practically speaking the end result is the same. the forces trying to blow each one apart would be far more powerful than any attractive force between the two.

If we ignore general relativity for a moment—we'll come back to it—we can calculate that the energy from these electrons all pushing on each other would be enough to accelerate all of them outward at near the speed of light.[3]But not past it; we're ignoring general relativity, but not special relativity. Accelerating particles to those speeds isn't unusual; a desktop particle accelerator can accelerate electrons to a reasonable fraction of the speed of light. But the electrons in Noah's Moon would each be carrying much, much more energy than those in a normal accelerator—orders of magnitude more than the Planck energy, which is itself many orders of magnitude larger than the energies we can reach in our largest accelerators. In other words, Noah's question takes us pretty far outside normal physics, into the highly theoretical realm of things like quantum gravity and string theory.

So I contacted Dr. Cindy Keeler, a string theorist with the Niels Bohr Institute. I explained Noah's scenario, and she was kind enough to offer some thoughts.

Dr. Keeler agreed that we shouldn't rely on any calculations that involve putting that much energy in each electron, since it's so far beyond what we're able to test in our accelerators. "I don't trust anything with energy per particle over the Planck scale. The most energy we've really observed is in cosmic rays; more than LHC by circa 106, I think, but still not close to the Planck energy. Being a string theorist, I'm tempted to say something stringy would happen—but the truth is we just don't know."

Luckily, that's not the end of the story. Remember how we're ignoring general relativity? Well, this is one of the very, very rare situations where bringing in general relativity makes a problem easier to solve.

There's a huge amount of potential energy in this scenario—the energy that we imagined would blast all these electrons apart. That energy warps space and time just like mass does.[4]If we let the energy blast the electrons apart at near the speed of light, we'd see that energy actually take the form of mass, as the electrons gained mass relativistically. That is, until something stringy happened. The amount of energy in our electron Moon, it turns out, is about equal to the total mass and energy of the entire visible universe.

An entire universe worth of mass-energy—concentrated into the space of our (relatively small) Moon—would warp space-time so strongly that it would overpower even the repulsion of those 1052 electrons.

Dr. Keeler's diagnosis: "Yup, black hole." But this is no an ordinary black hole; it's a black hole with a lot of electric charge.[5]The proton Earth, which would also be part of this black hole, would reduce the charge, but since an Earth-mass of protons has much less charge than a Moon-mass of electrons, it doesn't affect the result much. And for that, you need a different set of equations—rather than the standard Schwarzschild equations, you need the Reissner–Nordström ones.

In a sense, the Reissner-Nordström equations compare the outward force of the charge to the inward pull of gravity. If the outward push from the charge is large enough, it's possible the event horizon surrounding the black hole can disappear completely. That would leave behind an infinitely-dense object from which light can escape—a naked singularity.

Once you have a naked singularity, physics starts breaking down in very big ways. Quantum mechanics and general relativity give absurd answers, and they're not even the same absurd answers. Some people have argued that the laws of physics don't allow that kind of situation to arise. As Dr. Keeler put it, "Nobody likes a naked singularity."

In the case of an electron Moon, the energy from all those electrons pushing on each other is so large that the gravitational pull wins, and our singularity would form a normal black hole. At least, "normal" in some sense; it would be a black hole as massive as the observable universe.[6]A black hole with the mass of the observable universe would have a radius of 13.8 billion light-years, and the universe is 13.8 billion years old, which has led some people to say "the Universe is a black hole!" (It's not.)

Would this black hole cause the universe to collapse? Hard to say. The answer depends on what the deal with dark energy is, and nobody knows what the deal with dark energy is.

But for now, at least, nearby galaxies would be safe. Since the gravitational influence of the black hole can only expand outward at the speed of light, much of the universe around us would remain blissfully unaware of our ridiculous electron experiment.

04 Sep 10:11

Day 5354: DOCTOR WHO: Over the Moon

by Millennium Dome

"A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals," as, well, Agent K puts it in "Men in Black"!

Thomas Hobbes put it a little less pithily but made substantively the same point when he wrote his potboiler on human nature: "Leviathan".

And if you think Seventeenth Century philosophy is an unlikely starting point for an episode of Doctor Who, remember there's a very literal "Leviathan" Moon Dragon here.

A Leviathan, yesterday

So I'm going to start at the point where Clara asks the Earth to vote on whether or not to, as the episode title has it, kill the Moon.

To my mind that is where the heart of what this moral dilemma is about stands. It's not just about the rights and wrongs of killing, or of killing a baby, or the one life versus many billions. It's about how we make choices like that.

I'm not dismissing those dilemmas. They are important choices. And the episode is driving you to taking sides on each of them.

And frankly it's almost impossible to overlook the "abortion" metaphor. Although in a way I suspect that writer Peter Harness probably did; it's very much there to be read into the text – it's a choice made by women whether to kill a baby that might threaten their way of life or even survival – but that really doesn't seem to be the point that he's making.

The point that Hobbes and K are making – to go back to that – is that asked to make a decision en masse people default to the self-interested choice. Individual acts of kindness and charity happen, of course they do; but look at the outcomes and you must admit that most people will do the least they have to or ask what's in it for me? It's the thinking behind the "Prisoner's Dilemma". It's why we have sayings like "no good deed goes unpunished". It's why referendums are actually a pretty bad way to make decisions. It's why we have Tory governments for that matter.

What accounts for the difference – individuals kind; groups selfish – is information and accountability.

Random people in a large group are unlikely to have expertise in a specific subject, and almost certainly not the time or inclination to spend resources getting themselves informed. So they will make simplistic decisions based on gut instinct and the limited information they have available which is usually "how will this affect me".

At the same time, no one is going to ask them to justify the choice that they have made. We see this time and again in post-election polling: more people say they voted for the winning side than actually did. Or in some cases more people say they voted for the "good" party than actually did.

We have a couple of ways of dealing with this.

One of them is capitalism. Utopian systems such as Communism require every individual to know and understand their place in relationship to the system so that they will not overuse resources, and will appreciate say what the "needs" of others are in order to fulfil the "to each according to their needs" part. Capitalism gets around that by not requiring people to be angels. "Market forces" just means setting the self-interest of one group to cancel out the self-interest of another group and achieve an overall fairness. (Even then a true market requires "perfect" information – otherwise one side can take advantage of, say, insider trading – and since "perfect" information is impossible we have an unstable system where one side usually has disproportionate power, which is why at the very least we need regulations to rebalance the equation, and in the longer term something else altogether. The strengths and failings of liberal capitalism being really a longer essay for another time.)

But the main one is representative democracy: We chose the kind of people we want to make decisions – conservative or progressive, liberal or authoritarian – and expect them to go and get themselves informed on the subject and then make the decision for us.

Hobbes is not a fan of representative democracy, which he largely sees as swapping a large rabble for a smaller one. He favours a monarch, someone in whom the maximum information can be focussed and who has the maximum accountability (which suggests Hobbes knew very little about actual monarchs).

We see this reflected in "Kill the Moon". (Yes, back to the Doctor Who episode.)

Yes, of course it's unbelievable that every single light on Earth would go out. We like to believe that ordinary people would be better than that. And people make excuses, say it's governments or Mr Burns-esque power company bosses making the decisions. Or protest that only a narrow arc of the Earth actually gets a vote (typically it's Western Europe, continent of privilege that makes it.) That isn't the point. Earth here is Hobbes's Leviathan, the people's choice being nasty brutish and short-sighted. (And yes, Leviathan is where that joke about the Sontarans comes from; you probably know that.)

Clara is the person who has most information – not only because she is on the scene but through her experiences from travelling with the Doctor. And she is also the most accountable person, if only to the Doctor. Or to Courtney, her one witness from "real life". But perhaps even more so to herself, because she’s in a position where she can’t just say ‘well I couldn’t make a difference’.

These factors combine to make Clara the right person to make the right decision. The monarch.

And the monarch having made the right decision, the people flourish (the Doctor's vision of mankind's future unfolding across space and to the ends of time).

If you still think this isn't the point, then Courtney – arguably the person with the second best information – is, the Doctor tells us, implausibly going to become President i.e. secular monarch.

What fascinates me – and for me makes the Doctor a real Liberal hero in this episode – is that he denies Hobbes and choses to absent himself from the role of monarch.

When Clara lashes out at the Doctor at the end, she has every right to be furious. Her best friend has just abandoned her to what seemed to her the most painful choice –

This isn't a difficult choice. Difficult choices – and that's not always a politician's excuse for doing the wrong but expedient thing – are when there are only lose/lose options.

The threat to Earth is largely hypothetical. (We are told about flooding that has happened.) But if the baby turns out to be a threat, there are other things that can be done.

Killing the baby Moon Dragon really is just choosing the easy thing over the right thing.

[This week, this could so easily be a metaphor about refugees.]

Clara knows this. She knows what is right. But everything seemed to be telling her that doing the right thing had too high a cost, possibly the whole of the Earth. And when she needed him to support her, to be there, to hold her hand, the Doctor was gone.

But she's also dead wrong.

He knows that he is absolutely the wrong person to make this choice.

He's made this choice before. At the end of the Time War. First time around he got it wrong (or – retcon – he spent nearly three regenerations thinking he got it wrong). When he ended the Time War, he chose to take away everybody's choices.

And in Doctor Who, from pretty much the beginning on, taking away people's choices, whether by possession, mind control or extermination, has been directly equated with evil.

So if he makes it for us now, he's doing the same thing over again, ending everyone else's choices.

He knows that the right choice here is "don't kill the baby". But if he tells Clara that… if he tells her what to choose… he's "killing the baby", where "the baby" is humanity's nascent moral standing in the Universe.

This is why the Time Lords have a policy of non-interference. This is what the Prime Directive really means. DO NOT BE THE DALEKS.

This episode divides people, not – it seems to me – in the way "The Caretaker" seems to have done, which is on the question of quality, but in whether they side with Clara or the Doctor in response to his actions in leaving her to make the choice, or whether they think Clara was right to "overrule" that vote.

There is also a bit of division between those who get the screaming ab-dabs at the use abuse of science and those who get as far as Moon Dragon and shrug. For all that it is dressed up as a piece of hard sci-fi, it's actually a whopping great metaphor. In some ways it's up to the viewer whether you take that to mean the Moon Dragon is a metaphor for Leviathan, or for the unborn child, or for an Engorgio ad Absurdum of the Brothers Karamazov dictum:

"Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last. Imagine that you are doing this but that it is essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny order to found that edifice on its unavenged tears. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?"

Cards on the table, I think this is one of the very best episodes of Doctor Who. Ever.

It looks gorgeous, as usual – the use of Lanzarote as a moonscape is inspired, and the effects are outstanding: the CG space shuttle crash, the spider-germs, the Moon Dragon itself. It's proper Hinchcliffe scary with real monsters – probably the series' best spiders yet. There are some lovely references, particularly to "The Ark in Space", from the use of the yoyo for gravity testing and mention of the Bennet oscillator to it being an Earth-space-satellite horror with an inspiring speech about the nobility of human nature! (Even if it shoots the continuity of "The Moonbase" into little pieces.)

And the acting is total quality throughout. Yes even Ellis George's Courtney who is supposed to be that annoying – a very Earthly child. Hermione Norris – "Spooks'" Roz Myers – as bitter, cynical, disappointed, let down by humanity abandoning space travel Lundvik, who still rediscovers wonder at the end. Lovely to see Tony Osoba again too. But especially Jenna Coleman who has transformed as Clara from the previous year's cypher into someone confident, bossy, caring, flawed, terrified, angry and totally human. And of course Peter Capaldi, as the Doctor. Impossible and alien. And liberal and right.

That speech of the Doctor's at the end, played with a sense of wonder as though this is a gift from the Universe to him for trusting Clara to get it right, is one of the great speeches of "Doctor Who", up there with "Indomitable" and "Do I have that right?" both of which are clearly influences on this episode. It was so good that, just weeks later, we had it quoted at our wedding:

"In the mid Twenty-First Century, humankind starts creeping off into the stars, spreads its way through the galaxy to the very edges of the Universe. And it endures ’til the end of time. And it does all that because one day in the year 2044, when it had stopped thinking about going to the stars, something occurred that make it look up, not down. It looked out there into the blackness and it saw something beautiful, something – wonderful, that for once it didn't want to destroy. And in that one moment, the whole course of history was changed."

Look up not down. See the wonder not the blackness. Discover; don't destroy. Make the right choice.

Above all "Kill the Moon" makes you think. It's clever and challenging and if you get into an argument about it, all the better.

This is what Doctor Who is for.

Next Time Throw Momma from the Train! If "Kill the Moon" is flying the flag for Doctor Who's "rad" tradition, next time things get about as "trad" as they can go. Period drama! Oak panelling! Living Mummy! Gothic futurism collides with sci-fi horror monster mash! Look out Janet Henfrey, time for another death-by-undead! There's a "Mummy on the Orient Express"!
03 Sep 16:00

What In The Hell Animal Is This, Please

by Mallory Ortberg

As you know, I spend an immoderate amount of time trawling Wikimedia Commons for old-timey paintings what I can crack jokes on, so I've seen my fair share of imperfectly-rendered animals, but this one here has taken the majority of my cakes.

what animal

Read more What In The Hell Animal Is This, Please at The Toast.

02 Sep 17:09

Hacked emails suggest that Sony’s fear of the NFL shaped its narrative about concussions in football

by Jay Livingston, PhD

In a previous post, I wrote about a University of Illinois football coach forcing injured players to go out on the field even at the risk of turning those injuries into lifelong debilitating and career-ending injuries. The coach and the athletic director both stayed on script and insisted that they put the health and well-being of the scholar athletes “above all else.” Right.

My point was that blaming individuals was a distraction and that the view of players as “disposable bodies” (as one player tweeted) was part of a system rather than the moral failings of individuals.

But systems don’t make for good stories. It’s so much easier to think in terms of individuals and morality, not organizations and outcomes. We want good guys and bad guys, crime and punishment. That’s true in the legal system. Convicting individuals who commit their crimes as individuals or in small groups is fairly easy. Convicting corporations or individuals acting as part of a corporation is very difficult.

That preference for stories is especially strong in movies. In that earlier post, I said that the U of Illinois case had some parallels with the NFL and its reaction to the problem of concussions. I didn’t realize that Sony pictures had made a movie about that very topic (title – “Concussion”), scheduled for release in a few months.

Hacked e-mails show that Sony, fearful of lawsuits from the NFL, wanted to shift the emphasis from the organization to the individual.

Sony executives; the director, Peter Landesman; and representatives of Mr. Smith discussed how to avoid antagonizing the N.F.L. by altering the script and marketing the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league…

Hannah Minghella, a top [Sony] executive, suggested that “rather than portray the N.F.L. as one corrupt organization can we identify the individuals within the N.F.L. who were guilty of denying/covering up the truth.” [source: New York Times]

I don’t know what the movie will be like, but the trailer clearly puts the focus on one man – Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith. He’s the good guy.

Will the film show as clearly how the campaign to obscure and deny the truth about concussions was a necessary and almost inevitable part of the NFL? Or will it give us a few bad guys – greedy, ruthless, scheming NFL bigwigs – and the corollary that if only those positions had been staffed by good guys, none of this would have happened?

The NFL, when asked to comment on the movie, went to the same playbook of cliches that the Illinois coach and athletic director used.

We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety. We have no higher priority.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

(View original at

01 Sep 18:15

Edgar Allan Poe, Probably

by Mallory Ortberg

The Fall Of The House Of Usher

RODERICK: Somehow I knew we had buried Madeline alive
NARRATOR: Wait, really?
RODERICK: I've been hearing her scratching at the walls of her coffin for days
NARRATOR: Should we go get her, or dig her up, or...?
read me that dragon story again

Read more Edgar Allan Poe, Probably at The Toast.

01 Sep 14:00

The Best Comments On The Internet Are On Alternate History YouTube Video Channels

by Mallory Ortberg

One of the best parts of YouTube (and one that is closely related to "Hour-and-a-half-long documentaries about Atlantis" YouTube) is Alternate History YouTube, and the best part of that is, of course, "What If Carthage Had Won The Punic War" YouTube. The incredibly low stakes, the deeply specific knowledge of battle tactics and contemporary weaponry, and the macho angst unite to create a perfect environment for madness to flourish.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 4.41.20 PM

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 4.44.28 PM

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 4.40.59 PM

Read more The Best Comments On The Internet Are On Alternate History YouTube Video Channels at The Toast.

31 Aug 17:00

Aunt Acid: Advice for Dealing with People You Can’t Stand

by Aunt Acid

Dear Aunt Acid,

I'm an undergraduate woman participating in a summer math research program. My project team consists of me and two other students, both men. Both of them curse constantly and casually. As long as they're just swearing, it doesn't bother me enough to make it worth bringing up, but I do object to their misogynistic language -- "what a little bitch," "don't be such a pussy," and so on. (Whether or not these words can be "reclaimed," that's definitely not what's going on here.)

Today Bob held out his hand, gimme-five style, and said, "Here, touch me." When Dave reached out, Bob jerked his hand away and said, "Just kidding, FAGGOT!" They clearly don't think any of this is a big deal, and I don't know how to call them out without them thinking that I'm an angry feminist. (I am an angry feminist, of course, but I've found it's easier to get men to behave if they don't know this.) What should I say?



The world is full of injustices and cruelties over which we have no power. We can yell at Republican primary debates on TV, at international news coverage, at local news coverage, at street construction, at August weather; we can go all Howard Beale and stick our heads out the window and scream, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” So often it seems like farting on a subway platform: No one will notice and nothing will change.

Every once in a while, though, life presents you with a problem you can solve. Not just that: a problem you can yell at, where yelling might actually make a difference.

Read more Aunt Acid: Advice for Dealing with People You Can’t Stand at The Toast.

31 Aug 18:00

A Poirot Novel Where No One Is Murdered And He Gets To Eat Everything He Wanted Without Interruption

by Mallory Ortberg

I am a person who, like Hercule Poirot, prefers comfort and regular meals to menacing ex-girlfriends and sinister train conductors. It is my belief that Agatha Christie's beloved detective series, while excellent, would have been vastly improved had the bit with the murders been edited out and readers been left with 200 pages of Poirot sitting down to elegant, well-arranged little meals with tidy cutlery arrangements and delightful little dessert carts

Presented without further comment:

Hercule Poirot in
Dinner On The Train

Chapter One: Tiny Cut-Crystal Glasses Of Crème de Menthe

Read more A Poirot Novel Where No One Is Murdered And He Gets To Eat Everything He Wanted Without Interruption at The Toast.

30 Aug 12:17

Oliver Sacks has left the building

by vaughanbell

CC Licensed Photo from Wikipedia. Click for source.Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has died at the age of 82.

It’s hard to fully comprehend the enormous impact of Oliver Sacks on the public’s understanding of the brain, its disorders and our diversity as humans.

Sacks wrote what he called ‘romantic science’. Not romantic in the sense of romantic love, but romantic in the sense of the romantic poets, who used narrative to describe the subtleties of human nature, often in contrast to the enlightenment values of quantification and rationalism.

In this light, romantic science would seem to be a contradiction, but Sacks used narrative and science not as opponents, but as complementary partners to illustrate new forms of human nature that many found hard to see: in people with brain injury, in alterations or differences in experience and behaviour, or in seemingly minor changes in perception that had striking implications.

Sacks was not the originator of this form of writing, nor did he claim to be. He drew his inspiration from the great neuropsychologist Alexander Luria but while Luria’s cases were known to a select group of specialists, Sacks wrote for the general public, and opened up neurology to the everyday world.

Despite Sacks’s popularity now, he had a slow start, with his first book Migraine not raising much interest either with his medical colleagues or the reading public. Not least, perhaps, because compared to his later works, it struggled to throw off some of the technical writing habits of academic medicine.

It wasn’t until his 1973 book Awakenings that he became recognised both as a remarkable writer and a remarkable neurologist, as the book recounted his experience with seemingly paralysed patients from the 1920s encephalitis lethargica epidemic and their remarkable awakening and gradual decline during a period of treatment with L-DOPA.

The book was scientifically important, humanely written, but most importantly, beautiful, as he captured his relationship with the many patients who experienced both a physical and a psychological awakening after being neurologically trapped for decades.

It was made into a now rarely seen documentary for Yorkshire Television which was eventually picked up by Hollywood and made into the movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

But it was The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat that became his signature book. It was a series of case studies, that wouldn’t seem particularly unusual to most neurologists, but which astounded the general public.

A sailor whose amnesia leads him to think he is constantly living in 1945, a woman who loses her ability to know where her limbs are, and a man with agnosia who despite normal vision can’t recognise objects and so mistook his wife’s head for a hat.

His follow-up book An Anthropologist on Mars continued in a similar vein and made for equally gripping reading.

Not all his books were great writing, however. The Island of the Colorblind was slow and technical while Sacks’s account of how his damaged leg, A Leg to Stand On, included conclusions about the nature of illness that were more abstract than most could relate to.

But his later books saw a remarkable flowering of diverse interest and mature writing. Music, imagery, hallucinations and their astounding relationship with the brain and experience were the basis of three books that showed Sacks at his best.

And slowly during these later books, we got glimpses of the man himself. He revealed in Hallucinations that he had taken hallucinogens in his younger years and that the case of medical student Stephen D in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – who developed a remarkable sense of smell after a night on speed, cocaine, and PCP – was, in fact, an autobiographical account.

His final book, On the Move, was the most honest, as he revealed he was gay, shy, and in his younger years, devastatingly handsome but somewhat troubled. A long way from the typical portrayal of the grey-bearded, kind but eccentric neurologist.

On a personal note, I have a particular debt of thanks to Dr Sacks. When I was an uninspired psychology undergraduate, I was handed a copy of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat which immediately convinced me to become a neuropsychologist.

Years later, I went to see him talk in London following the publication of Musicophilia. I took along my original copy of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, hoping to surprise him with the news that he was responsible for my career in brain science.

As the talk started, the host mentioned that ‘it was likely that many of us became neuroscientists because we read Oliver Sacks when we started out’. To my secret disappointment, about half the lecture hall vigorously nodded in response.

The reality is that Sacks’s role in my career was neither surprising nor particularly special. He inspired a generation of neuroscientists to see brain science as a gateway to our common humanity and humanity as central to the scientific study of the brain.

Link to The New York Times obituary for Oliver Sacks.

28 Aug 17:00

My Favorite Thing From The Old Internet

by Alexandra Molotkow

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 10.31.40 AM

One of my favorite Web sites on the World Wide Web is this moving, Tripod-hosted shrine to Henry Fonda whose intensity builds steadily from one painstakingly uploaded JPEG to the next. It has the dynamic tension of a symphony.

The Movie Pal loves Henry Fonda. Do you? (Trick question, you don’t have to.)