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21 Jun 00:00

Sun Bug

by xkcd

Sun Bug

How many fireflies would it take to match the brightness of the Sun?

Luke Doty

Not that many! I mean, it's definitely one of those gigantic numbers with lots of zeroes, but in the grand scheme of things, there aren't as many zeroes as you might expect.

Our first question: Where does firefly light even come from?

Fireflies may look like they're full of glow-in-the-dark goo, but the light they give off actually comes from a thin layer on their surface.[1]You can see some diagrams of the organs here and here. Lots of insects have glowing surface patches, and some of those patches have been studied carefully to calculate their brightness. A 1928 paper on beetles called "headlight bugs"[2]Such a great name. found that their glowing patches, which were a little over a square millimeter in area, emitted about 0.0006 lumens of light. Fireflies have luminous organs (bright patches) that are about the same size as those of headlight bugs,[3]See this paper on some common American fireflies. and their organs tend to have a similar peak brightness per area, so this figure is a good guess for the brightness of a firefly's lantern.

Firefly lights aren't "always-on." They blink on and off, with patterns that vary from species to species and situation to situation. These flashes carry information, some of which you can decode using this delightful chart.[4]You can also use LEDs to mess with firefly patterns, which feels strangely invasive.

To get the brightest light, let's assume we're using a species with a mostly-on duty cycle—like a headlight bug. How does its 0.0006-lumen light output compare to the Sun?

The Sun's brightness is \( 3.8\times10^{28} \) lumens, so by simple division, it would take \( 3\times10^{31} \) of those fireflies to emit the same amount of light. That's a surprisingly small number; adult fireflies weigh about 20 milligrams, which means \( 3\times10^{31} \) fireflies would only weigh about a third as much as Jupiter and 1/3000th as much as the Sun.

In other words, per pound, fireflies are brighter than the Sun. Even though bioluminescence is millions of times less efficient than the Sun's fusion-powered glow, the Sun can't afford to be as bright because it has to last billions of times longer.[5]If you like Fermi problems—and silly equations—there's an interesting route you can take to this answer without doing any research on fireflies or the Sun at all. Instead, you can just plug this equation into Wolfram|Alpha: (5 billion years / (4 hours/day * 3 months)) / (1% * (speed of light)^2 / (3200 calories/pound)).

Let's walk through it: The first half—the numerator—is a guess for the ratio between how long the Sun has to keep glowing compared to how long a firefly does. I took a wild guess that fireflies have to light up for a few hours each night for one summer, while the Sun has to last another five billion years. The second half—the denominator—is a guess as to the ratio between the stored energy in a pound of firefly vs a pound of star. Nuclear fusion converts about 1% of the input matter to energy, so from E=mc2, the stored energy is c2 kg/kg, whereas animal matter (say, butter) is about 3,200 food calories per pound. The result should tell us the ratio between a firefly's brightness per pound and the Sun's. And the answer we get says that the fireflies are a few thousand times brighter—which is roughly what we got from working through it the other way!

It's true that we got lucky with some of our guesses, but since we made errors in both directions, they tended to cancel out. This kind of thing works more often than it seems like it should!

But wait! A mass of fireflies that big would run into problems. Besides the obvious problems with gathering that many animals in one place, the fireflies would block each others' light. The inner fireflies would be hidden behind the outer ones, and the total brightness would be limited.[6]But the light from the core fireflies wouldn't just vanish. After bouncing around a few times, it would be absorbed by neighboring fireflies, which would get warmer. This is sort of like how radiation makes its way out of the Sun's core—but in the case of the fireflies, they'd die from the heat before the process got very far.

Since the only light that matters is the light at the surface, we could imagine arranging the fireflies in a hollow sphere, with their lanterns pointing outward. Or, to make thing simpler, we could imagine a single giant firefly. How big would it need to be?

Since we know our firefly will need to give off about \( 3\times10^{31} \) times as much light as a normal firefly, it will need a glowing patch \( 3\times10^{31} \) times larger. Since surface area is proportional to length squared, our firefly will have a body length \( \sqrt{3\times10^{31}}=5\times10^{15} \) times longer than a normal firefly, which would make it about the size of the Solar System.

Since mass is proportional to length cubed, our firefly would weigh \( \left( 3\times10^{31}\right)^{\tfrac{3}{2}}=1.6\times10^{47} \) times as much as a normal firefly, which works out to about half as much as the entire Milky Way galaxy.

Such a firefly would immediately collapse under its own weight and become a black hole. In fact, given the distribution of galaxies in our universe, there's an upper limit to how large black holes can grow, and this firefly would be bigger than that limit. That means our firefly would become the largest black hole in the universe. It would give off a lot of light as it devoured our galaxy, and then, eventually, it would give off none at all.

Black holes last a long time, but they eventually evaporate through Hawking radiation. When the black hole era of our universe comes to an end, black holes will evaporate one by one, with the smallest evaporating faster. Since our firefly's black hole would be the largest one in the universe, it would be the last to evaporate—a final outpost of irregularity in a universe fading toward heat death.

We should probably add that to the identification chart, just in case.

29 Mar 14:00

An Interview with Steve Silberman, Author of NeuroTribes

by Emily Brooks

"As a society, it’s time we woke up from our collective illusion that autism is a puzzle that’s going to be solved by a medical breakthrough that’s perpetually just around the corner. Autistic people have been here for millennia, but it’s only in the last few years that we’ve been able to see them clearly. Now we have the opportunity to focus our resources on giving them what they need."

Read more An Interview with Steve Silberman, Author of NeuroTribes at The Toast.

16 Aug 13:35

Fabulous Animals

by Kelly Conaboy
30 Jul 11:36

Prescriptivism and terrorism

by Mark Liberman

What ran instead was the strip from 7/27/2002:

For some discussion of the topic, see Josh Zuckerman, "Comic Strip Pulled Over ISIS Reference", NCAC blog 7/28/2016, and Christine Rousselle, "'Pearls Before Swine' Cartoon Mocking NSA Wiretapping Censored", Townhall 7/28/2016.
The cartoonist's Facebook post on the topic is here.

03 Aug 01:54


by Victor Mair

On reddit, under the title "German gift card makers have a precarious grasp of the English language":

The comments on reddit are instructive:

These are actually (reasonably) common German phrases translated literally ie word-for-word into English while still using (to a certain extent) German grammar.

The 'precarious grasp of English' is quite deliberate and quite funny.

'Nur die Harten kommen in den Garten'

'Niemand kann mir das Wasser reichen'

'Butter bei die Fische'

'Hör auf mit der Rumeierei'

Which means that they expect their (German) customers' grasp of English to be so good that they actually understand the joke and find the "bad English" funny. That's the opposite of "precarious grasp".

Here are back translations into German with English explanations:

'Nur die Harten kommen in den Garten'

This is pushing someone to do better; Only the strong go further/ no pain, no gain

'Niemand kann mir das Wasser reichen'

Cannot be equalled; can't hold a candle to me.

'Butter bei die Fische'

This is a silly north German phrase which has no English translation (even the German is wrong). Roughly it means; get to the point, speak clearly.

'Hör auf mit der Rumeierei'

This also isn't particularly common, but can be used to say 'Stop messing about, make a decision'

And here are the German originals rendered more directly into English:

'Nur die Harten kommen in den Garten'

Only the strong will have success

'Niemand kann mir das Wasser reichen'

No one can reach me.

'Butter bei die Fische'

Come on, start allready. Get going.

'Hör auf mit der Rumeierei'

Get it straight.

Another set of English translations:

'Nur die Harten kommen in den Garten'

Only the strong survive.

'Niemand kann mir das Wasser reichen'

No one can beat me (at this particular thing)

'Butter bei die Fische'

Do it right away. (Heard it was used as a way to say: either you pay it right away or I'm not selling you this)

'Hör auf mit der Rumeierei'

Quit fucking around

Some of the reddit commenters point out that "bei" in the third saying is ungrammatical and should be "zum", while others tell us "bei" sounds better as it "rolls off the tongue", and anyway that's just the way they say it in North German dialect.

[h.t. Tim Leonard]

09 Aug 15:28

Rules for Bugs

by Kelly Conaboy
28 Jul 18:01

Eliza: You were jealous of me? But you're the most beautiful, smartest, perfect girl in the world.

Eliza: You were jealous of me? But you're the most beautiful, smartest, perfect girl in the world.
Angelica: Well you're right about all those things. But for some reason when I meet boys they act as if I'm going to do something horrible to them.
23 Jul 16:17

The Egalitarian Appreciation of Strine in Microcosm

by Victor Mair

[This is a guest post by Matthew Robertson]

The 'Today' Interview With Oporto Robbery Heroes

In the United States, regional accents often carry with them negative stereotypes about class, status, intelligence, and more, making Southern versus Northern accents markers of division.

In Australia, it's largely the opposite. Regional vernacular and a broad accent (known as "Strine") is instead a unifier. Australia is, of course, much more culturally homogeneous than the United States — but the cross-class appreciation of the country's own manner of speech is another instance of a deeply entrenched ethos of egalitarianism. The comity and innocent enjoyment of all Australians with their own uneducated, unsophisticated working classes is clear in films like The Castle, or shows like Kath & Kim, among many others.

And it's also presented in microcosm in this video, an interview on the Australian morning program "Today," uploaded early this year.

In it, the well-loved impish breakfast show host, Karl Stefanovic, interviews two Australians, Cane and James, who recently foiled a robbery at an Oporto (Australia's premier Portuguese-style chicken burger fast food restaurant) in Queensland.

When asked what happened, James says in one breath:

“We’d been down at Options Tavern at a stubbies and singlets party, and got dropped off by a mate up the road, and started to walk down the servo to get some noodles and went to jump over a sign on the way, and slipped over and busted my plugga.”

Strine guide:
stubbies – very short, tight cotton shorts, beloved of bricklayers, builders, and other Aussie men
servo – gas station
plugga – thongs or flip-flops (so named because the top component "plugs in" to the foam sole; the term is used primarily in Queensland.)

He's asked to continue the tale:

“I was pretty concerned about me blowout I had, and looked up and saw a white Commodore pull up, two blokes with shirts around their faces, and yeah…sort of thought something was a bit suss. So, better go check it out."

Strine guide:
blowout – typically used for the sudden loss of pressure in a car tire or similar
bloke – male
suss – suspicious

James is asked to continue:

"Umm, grabbed the key out the ignition while they were inside the Oportos, yeah, then, yeah, I dunno, it sorta just unfolded from there. There was no plan; it was just go with it and see what happened."

The robbers hightailed it once they realized their getaway vehicle was forfeit. There's a highly amusing joke about the gym and Jim Beam, Facebook antics, and the busting of a plugga.

On the latter point, James mentions that new pluggas are kindly being provided by his fishing team, "The Mootdangas."

Stefanovic, unable to resist the opportunity for transgressive humor, makes a show of crooking his ear and asks: "What was the name of that team?" Tracy Grimshaw can see what's coming, and grimaces.

"The team moot, Team Mootdanga," James says.

Strine guide:
moot – vagina, pronounced like foot with an 'm'
danga – a small piece of dried excrement stuck to the anal hair of a sheep.
Pronounced 'dang-ah.' Shearer's slang. Also spelled 'danger.'

Everyone on the program bursts out laughing at this obviously risque, not to say disgusting image.

"It doesn't get any better!" Stefanovic declares. "Righto folks, that's our show for the year!"

Amidst all the giggling, James is asked where he works. "Mate, I work at Hinterland Mowers down at Narang."

James' final words on his stopping the robbery are: "Just had to be done. Sort out the right from the wrong." His friend Cane echoes him: "Bloody oath."

[Thanks to Geoff Wade]

05 May 21:15

Now Is Not The Time, Donald Trump

by Silvia Killingsworth

I sent my aunt, Tía Irma, Donald Trump’s taco bowl tweet:

Happy #CincoDeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 5, 2016

This is what she had to say:

RE tweet from the twit- No está el tiempo para chifletes, ni la gente para aguantarlos. (one of Tata’s favorite sayings)

The word “chifletes” means an annoying high-pitched whistle, and translates to batty or crazy ideas, so the saying goes: “Now is neither the time for batshit ideas, nor for people to put up with them.”

My grandfather, Jesus García González (above, far left, known to us as Tata), first came to the U.S. seventy-three years ago, in the second year of the Bracero Program, a joint program of the State Department, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Justice (through the I.N.S.) to admit migrant laborers from Mexico. Tía Irma wrote:

Tata first arrived in California in 1943. In Mexico he had been buying and selling “bracero passes.” The process of applying and receiving a pass was so long that many applicants changed their minds buy time the passes were granted. Tata bought the passes and sold them to newcomers to the city for a quick transaction. One such pass was about to expire at the end of April so Tata use the pass to come to California (under another name). He once described the train ride to northern Ca and one job in Corning where he bunked in a boarding house with a cook from Oklahoma. He traveled from town to town following the harvest.
He picked fruit and harvested almonds. He often mentioned places like Red Bluff, Tipton and being told that if California was invaded he would have to defend the women and children. He once told a story of visiting a POW camp and striking up a conversation with a prisoner who asked for tobacco.
Eventually he came to Pasadena area where there were many citrus packing warehouses surrounded by orange groves. He worked in the fields during the day in Pasadena and washing dishes in a restaurant at night — -where he first met Mama — around 1947.

I cannot imagine that my grandfather ever ate a deep-fried tortilla, molded into a bowl and dumped full of ground beef, shredded iceberg, and grated cheese preserved with powdered cellulose. But I could be wrong! I’m just glad he made it here and had my mother so that I could be brought into a world where Donald Trump could run for President of the United States of America and I could exchange emails with my family about it. Tía Irma added:

Oh I also recall that Tata told me that the request for farm workers was also answered by American men, but they did not last even one day as farm work was much to hard. I did not believe him until one day in 1990’s I overhear several older men describing how they had enlisted in the 1940’s the day after walking off the fields.

Donald Trump wants to build a wall to keep people like my grandfather out of this country so he can eat his taco bowls in peace. But who does he think picked all the lettuces?

Photo: Gonzalez Family

Now Is Not The Time, Donald Trump was originally published in The Hairpin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


Read the responses to this story on Medium.

19 Jul 10:43


by Mo


Source: Facebook. No citation because irony.

28 Jun 19:24

The Olympics Are Still Struggling To Define Gender

by Christie Aschwanden

What is gender? It might sound like the kind of question that college students debate in a liberal arts class.22 But for the International Olympic Committee, it’s a practical question that demands a hard and fast answer. As at previous Olympic Games, athletes competing in Rio de Janeiro will be segregated into women’s events and men’s events, and that means the IOC needs a way to sort women from men.

New IOC guidelines issued in November allow athletes who have transitioned to another gender to compete without sex reassignment surgery. The rules allow athletes who’d previously identified as female to compete in the male category without restriction, because they would not gain an advantage from their previous gender. Those who transition from male to female, on the other hand, must meet several requirements. The athlete must declare a female identity, and this identity cannot change for at least four years. The athlete must also document that her total serum testosterone levels have remained below a certain limit for a minimum of 12 months before competing, and these levels must remain under the threshold as long as she’s competing.

The Olympic committee’s decision is a “huge step forward for everybody in the [transgender] community,” Caitlyn Jenner told me last week. “You can still have your old parts, which I think is very forward thinking.” Jenner is a trans woman who won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics when she was Bruce Jenner, and she’s keeping the anatomical details of her own transition private. The public “is obsessed with — do you have it, or don’t have it?” she said, but “a trans person’s body parts is nobody’s business.”

It wasn’t long ago that sporting officials considered every female athlete’s parts to be their business. Up until the late 1960s, sporting officials used a sex verification process that required female competitors to parade, in the nude, in front of a panel of female judges. As horrible as these “nude parades” were, they were done in pursuit of a noble purpose — fair play.

People who go through male puberty are taller, have bigger bones and develop greater muscle mass than those who go through female puberty, said William Briner, a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Uniondale, New York, during a session on transgender athletes at the American College of Sports Medicine meeting in early June. Men also have more red blood cells than women, and their hearts and lungs are bigger too. Some of these advantages are irreversible, Briner said, even if testosterone levels are cut. “Insofar as there is an ‘athleticism gene,’” it’s the gene on the Y chromosome that signals the development of testes and the production of testosterone, writes David Epstein in his book, “The Sports Gene.”

These differences give men a distinct advantage over women, and they’re the reason that sport is segregated by gender. Which is all fine and great until it comes time to sort women from men.

The nude parades that women were once subjected to weren’t just humiliating. They were also problematic, because about 1 in 1,500 to 1 in 2,000 people are born with atypical genitalia. At the 1968 Olympics, anatomical checks were replaced with chromosome tests, and only athletes with XX sex chromosomes among their 23 chromosome pairs (so-called 46,XX females) could compete in female competitions. It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but once again, the method ran into trouble, because some people are born with anatomical features that don’t match their chromosomes.

For example, María José Martínez-Patiño, a Spanish national champion hurdler, learned via a chromosome test that despite her life-long identification as a female, she actually had a 46,XY karyotype. Genetically she was male, but she was also born with an insensitivity to testosterone, which led her to develop as a female. The testosterone in her body didn’t give her an edge, because her body was incapable of responding to it. When her story leaked to the press, “I was expelled from our athletes’ residence, my sports scholarship was revoked, and my running times were erased from my country’s athletics records,” she wrote in the Lancet. “I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I lost friends, my fiancé, hope, and energy.” With almost nothing left to lose, she fought her disqualification. “I knew that I was a woman, and that my genetic difference gave me no unfair physical advantage,” she wrote. “I could hardly pretend to be a man; I have breasts and a vagina. I never cheated.”

The chromosome test ended Martínez-Patiño’s career. But her case drew attention to the issue, and the chromosome tests were discontinued for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, although women deemed suspicious could still be subjected to a battery of testing. That’s what happened to Caster Semenya, a South African 800-meter runner who endured a highly publicized and humiliating ordeal in which her gender was questioned, and she was reportedly advised to undergo therapy to cut her serum testosterone levels.

In 2011, after the Semenya controversy, the IAAF instituted new definitions for determining eligibility for women’s sport. Female athletes who had functional testosterone (in other words, not just high testosterone levels, but also functioning receptors that allowed their bodies to respond to the hormone) above a threshold number were not eligible to compete unless they did something to reduce their testosterone below the threshold. In 2012, the IOC adopted similar rules. The testosterone threshold was set at 10 nmol/L, a number arrived at by taking the average numbers from a sampling of female athletes with polycystic ovarian syndrome (a condition associated with elevated testosterone levels) and adding five standard deviations to it, in hopes of ensuring that it would only flag dopers and women with hyperandrogenism.

Not everyone agreed with the new rules. “The transgender community is split over the question of whether to use T or to use gender identity for eligibility for women’s sport,” said Joanna Harper in a Q&A with sport scientist Ross Tucker. Harper is an athlete, scientist and transgender woman who took part in the 2015 IOC consensus meeting that led to the group’s new guidelines on transgender and hyperandrogenism. “Many intersex activists thought it was wrong to force women to alter their bodies to compete in sports,” she told Tucker.

Harper supports a testosterone limit (she wrote that her running times fell markedly after she started hormone therapy), but the case for disqualifying athletes based on their hormone profiles isn’t straightforward. During his talk at the ACSM session on transgender athletes, Jonathan Reeser of Marshfield Clinic showed a Far Side cartoon depicting a shifty-eyed school kid opening up his coat to reveal a hidden brain. The caption: “Midway through the exam, Allen pulls out a bigger brain.” The implication is that Allen is pulling out this extra brain to get an unfair advantage. “But what if he wasn’t trying to cheat?” Reeser asked. “What if Allen just happened to have an ancillary brain? Would that be fair or not?”

A recent decision by the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) implies that it is fair for athletes to use their natural-born advantages, at least if these advantages fall within a certain range. The ruling granted Dutee Chand, a sprinter from India, the go-ahead to compete, for the time being, anyway, without altering her hormones.

After some of her teammates questioned her gender, Chand was tested, found to have naturally elevated levels of testosterone and ruled ineligible to compete. She fought the ruling, and the Court of Arbitration of Sport issued a decision in her favor, saying that the IOC had not shown that the degree of Chand’s advantage was more significant than the advantages athletes might derive from other natural physical characteristics.

The CAS decision essentially gives track and field’s governing body, the IAAF, two years to come back with science that supports the 10 nmol/L limit. If they can’t provide evidence that women with natural testosterone levels exceeding 10 nmol/L have an unfair edge, then the limit will be scrapped.

Although such a move wouldn’t immediately change anything for trans women, since they are subject to separate rules, it could potentially pave the way for them to challenge the hormone limits they face as well.

I asked Jenner whether hormones were a reasonable standard and if it was fair for her to compete as a female. “I have seen no indication to this point that trans people, male or female, have any advantage whatsoever at that level,” she said. “There’s no trans person out there, male to female, that’s out there dominating. It just doesn’t happen.” The idea that men would transition to women just to win competitions is just “a big N-O, no,” she said.

Despite Jenner’s certainty, these issues remain unsettled and are almost sure to make news in Rio, where Semenya is expected to vie for the gold medal. If Semenya wins the 800m in Rio, “I think we’re going to be seeing another public reaction to her accomplishments,” predicted Myron Genel, a Yale pediatric endocrinologist, during his talk at ACSM.

The testosterone limits that CAS suspended were already much higher than the average woman’s, and if the IOC comes back and successfully argues that elevated testosterone levels confer an unfair advantage, there’s still the question of where to put the cutoff. Wherever that threshold might land, there will also remain the question of whether the same standards should be set for male-to-female trans athletes whose levels are set with hormone therapy in the first place.

At stake is a delicate balance between protecting the integrity of women’s sport while also honoring the rights of intersex and transgender athletes, who already face discrimination and marginalization.

This was an edition of Strength in Numbers, my column exploring the science of sports and athleticism. Got feedback, suggestions or a news tip? Email me, leave suggestions in the comments section or tweet to me @CragCrest.

15 Jul 19:51

A Woody Allen Mystery

by Kelly Conaboy

I love a mystery on a warm summer day.

Photo: Barney Moss/Flickr

There are big mysteries, and then there are small mysteries. Each presents the thrill of a mystery, and you have to admit: the thrill of a mystery is very intriguing. I would like to present you with a big one.

Woody Allen, an unsavory character and film director, has directed a new film about a café that allegedly isn’t his worst. The café movie premiered in New York City earlier this week, and, as you may have heard, the earth opened beneath the crowd gathered to celebrate its release. Very sad. As the fissure widened, consuming Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, and several others, the ground said, in a big voice: “This is for being involved in a Woody Allen movie in 2016.” The ground was opening and closing as if it were a mouth that was chomping on all those guys. Like I said, very sad. But that’s not the mystery. This is the mystery:

Page Six reports that private EMTs were on hand at the premiere. Why? A good question, and, thankfully, a question Page Six got to the bottom of.

— Or did it?

Page Six quotes one attendee as saying, about the reason EMTs were on hand at the premiere:

“It might be because this crowd is really old.”

An incredible guess that I love, however, Page Six also quotes an event rep who had this to say about the reason EMTs were on hand at the premiere:

“Amazon’s head of security requires that [EMTs] be on-site for all events [with] over 200 people. The crowd definitely wasn’t ‘older.’”

Mmhm. Yeah right. But interesting.

So, which is it then? Were EMTs on hand because the crowd at the café movie was old and maybe they were gonna die or collapse, or were they on hand because even though the crowd at the café movie definitely wasn’t older, for sure, they were probably young or just normal, it’s just a thing that’s something about Amazon 200?

It’s a Hollywood mystery and, indeed, Hollywood mysteries are some of the most intriguing to explore.

Of course we’ll never know the answer for sure, but please touch your screen to vote for the theory you believe to be closest to the truth:

  • Old
  • Amazon

Haha. OK. Thank you.

A Woody Allen Mystery was originally published in The Hairpin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


Read the responses to this story on Medium.

13 Jul 14:44

A Woman Steps Out onto the Glass Cliff: Theresa May to Lead the UK

by Lisa Wade, PhD

At the end of last month, just after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, a commentator at the lauded US News and World Report claimed that the “general consensus” was that the vote was a “veritable dumpster fire.” Since then, most citizens of the EU, many Americans, and lots of UK citizens, including many who voted to leave, seem to think that this was a terrible decision, sending the UK into treacherous political and economic territory.

The Prime Minister agreed to step down and, rather quickly, two women rose to the top of the replacement pool. Yesterday Theresa May was the lone contender left standing and today she was sworn in.


Is it a coincidence that a woman is about to step into the top leadership position after the Brexit?

Research suggests that it’s not. In contexts as wide-ranging as the funeral business, music festivals, political elections, the military, and law firms, studies have found a tendency for women to be promoted in times of crisis. As a result, women are given jobs that have a higher risk of failure — like, for example, cleaning up a dumpster fire.  It’s called the “glass cliff,” an invisible hazard that harms women’s likelihood of success. One study found that, because of this phenomenon, the average tenure of a female CEO is only about 60% as long as that of the average male CEO.

As one Democratic National Committee chair once said: “The only time to run a woman is when things look so bad that your only chance is to do something dramatic.” Maybe doing “something dramatic” is why so many women are promoted during times of crisis, but the evidence suggests that another reason is because men protect other men from having to take precarious positions. This was the experience of one female Marine Corps officer:

It’s the good old boys network. The guys helping each other out and we don’t have the women helping each other out because there are not enough of us around. The good old boys network put the guys they want to get promoted in certain jobs to make them stand out, look good.

If women are disproportionately promoted during times of crisis, then they will fail more often than their male counterparts. And they do. It will be interesting to watch whether May can clean up this dumpster fire and, if she can’t, what her legacy will be.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

(View original at

13 Jul 16:02

Madison: [answering the phone] Hey, babe.

Madison: [answering the phone] Hey, babe.
Jefferson: We hate Hamilton now. Get on board or the sexting stops.
Madison: Hamilton’s a son of a bitch!
13 Jul 18:01

"I can’t condone treason, I’m an unelected official!"

“I can’t condone treason, I’m an unelected official!”

- King George III
16 May 11:00

Everybody Is Constipated, Nobody Is Constipated

by Maggie Koerth-Baker

"Since at least the Renaissance, Western cultures have fretted about their own bowels while looking back to an imagined past where mankind pooped in peace and harmony."


Illustration by Anna Kovecses

Shit happens, except when it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, we get worried. Over the centuries, constipation has gone by many delicate euphemisms, but the problem itself refuses to budge.

The Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest books in the world, promoted a theory of disease that begins with toxic, undigested food poisoning the body from the gut outward. Doctors no longer believe that, but we’re still worried about constipation. Even though most people who feel constipated never seek a doctor’s opinion on it, it still accounts for 8 million physician visits every year in the United States. The connections between the Ebers Papyrus and the modern health care industry are about culture as much as they are about the gut. Constipation is a social disease. It exists in your head and your heart, as well as in your colon.

To get a sense of what it means for constipation to be cultural, look no further than current estimations of the prevalence of constipation in the public. There are an awful lot of people who feel like they are constipated even though their doctors disagree. The rate of constipation in North America could be anywhere from 2 percent to 27 percent, according to a systematic review of the literature published in 2004. But the studies with the highest estimates tend to collect the data from patients’ self-reports, said Dr. Peter Higgins, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan and an author of that review paper. “If you look at physician discharge billing codes, it’s more like 1.2 percent to 4 percent,” he told me.

It’s the first day of this week’s series on gut science. We’ve also made a video about what poop can tell us about our health, and there’s more to come later in the week.

Unlike constipation, poop is purely biological. What you eat reaches your colon in a couple of hours but can take up to a week to make it out the other end. In the meantime, your colon is absorbing liquid, sucking up whatever nutrients it can as it uses muscle contractions to push along the stuff it can’t use.

That stuff is made up almost entirely of water — 75 percent. Of the rest, most is bacteria, dead and alive, plus indigestible fiber and other parts of food your body couldn’t break down during digestion. You will poop whether you eat or not, Higgins told me. “People are surprised by that. Your stomach secretes fluid every day, your pancreas secretes a large amount of fluid every day, your small bowel secretes fluid; you secrete in the neighborhood of 10 liters of fluid into your gut and then reabsorb most of that in the process of dissolving, emulsifying, grinding and reabsorbing nutrients,” he said.

White 7.2 9.3
Hispanic 7.5 8.6
Black 5.6 6.9
How often Americans poop

White and Hispanic samples from Texas in 1995, black sample from North Carolina in 1987

Source: Digestive diseases and Sciences

Given that the secretion is happening constantly and you are (hopefully) eating every day, your rate of pooping should be reasonably regular. Studies suggest that almost everybody poops at least a couple of times a week (though what’s “normal” varies quite a bit from person to person). Because normal is a spectrum, though, it’s difficult to define precisely where normal pooping ends and constipation begins.

Doctors use diagnostic criteria for constipation, where patients have to experience two or more of six symptoms:

  1. Straining during at least 25 percent of defecations
  2. Lumpy or hard stools in at least 25 percent of defecations
  3. Sensation of incomplete evacuation in at least 25 percent of defecations
  4. Sense of obstruction in at least 25 percent of defecations
  5. Manual maneuvers needed to facilitate at least 25 percent of defecations
  6. Fewer than three defecations per week

But you can see how even that detailed guide is pretty imprecise. Have you ever paid enough attention to your poops to know what is happening 25 percent of the time versus, say, 15 percent? That’s why, when patients come in and tell Higgins that they are constipated, his first question is, “What do you mean by that?”

Every 2 days or less 7.5%
Once a day 54.9
1-2 times per day 34.2
>2 times per day 3.4
How often Dutch men poop

Source: American Journal of Epidemiology, 2010

That imprecision matters because it gets in the way of our understanding something pretty basic: How has constipation changed over time? If even the highly quantified world of modern medicine isn’t super clear on this point, it’s safe to say that our knowledge of the constipation of the Ancients is even worse.

But here is something we do know: Since at least the Renaissance, Western cultures have fretted about their own bowels while looking back to an imagined past where mankind pooped in peace and harmony. According to James Whorton, professor emeritus of medical history and ethics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, modern life has long been considered the ultimate cause of constipation. Take, for instance, a bit of doggerel poetry from mid-1600s England:

And for to make us emulate,
The good old Father doth relate
The vigour of our Ancestors,
Whose shiting far exceeded ours.

Whorton documented that poem in “Inner Hygiene,” his book on the history of constipation in Western popular culture. More than just nostalgia, though, the belief that modern lifestyles caused constipation was viewed as a medical emergency, on the scale of what we think of the obesity epidemic today, Whorton told me.

That’s because constipation was, itself, a theory of disease. The ideas documented in the Ebers Papyrus, which dates to the 16th century B.C., persisted all the way through the 1930s, in the guise of “autointoxication” — accidental self-poisoning that begins in the bowels. Constipation, then, could literally cause any disease, from cancer to schizophrenia. And this emphasis on constipation as the cause of all disease got stronger in the late 19th century, after scientists began to understand the germ theory of disease, Whorton said. Suddenly, there was a scientific explanation for what everybody already thought to be true. Bacteria lived in your poop. Bacteria caused disease. Clearly, the longer your poop sat in your body, the more at risk you were of getting sick.

<2 times per week 1.0%
3-4 times per week 8.0
5-7 times per week 76.8
>1 to <3 times per day 11.8
3 times per day 1.8
>3 times per day 0.8
How often Londoners poop

Source: British Medical Journal, 1965

You can see this fear at play in the over-the-counter medications sold during the 19th and early 20th centuries. There isn’t an organized database of patent medicines. Even if there were, it would be difficult to cleanly categorize what each medication was “for” because they were frequently sold with multiple cure-all claims. But “a majority were laxatives of one kind or another,” said Edward Shorter, professor of history of medicine and psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Advertisements for these medicines called constipation “the monarch of all diseases,” claimed it was the “shortest road to old age, wrinkles and decay” and promised that “a clean colon is more important than a clean face.” A major feature of this time period was the idea that laxatives should be taken preventatively, not just as a treatment for existing constipation. After all, if constipation caused disease, you’d be better off if you never had it. People were encouraged to give their children daily doses of laxatives, such as castor oil. (A fun bit of history to ask your grandparents about at the next family holiday party!)

Eventually, Shorter said, the medical field lost interest in constipation as a source of disease and became more concerned about issues such as inflammation. But constipation, and the fears that surrounded it, are still important because of how they presaged pervasive popular ideas about health. Take, for instance, current beliefs about the dangers of modernity and the supposed inherently healthier lives of people who lived in the past or who live today under “more primitive” conditions. That idea existed long before the first human entered a CrossFit gym.

<2 times per week 8.3%
3-5 times per week 40.8
1 time per day 41.7
2-3 times per day 8.1
>4 times per day 1.1
How often Korean college students poop

Source: International Journal of Nursing Studies, 2005

One of the people who bought into that hypothesis was Denis Burkitt, an Irishman who worked as a surgeon and Christian missionary in Uganda in the 1950s and ’60s and who is kind of the patron saint of bran muffins as health food. Burkitt became convinced that the people he treated in Uganda were much healthier than those in the United States and Europe and that the cause of their health was dietary fiber (and the healthy poops said fiber facilitated). Diseases of modernity, from varicose veins to cancer, could be attributed to a lack of fiber, Burkitt believed. And he promoted diets that were more fibrous and more “ancestral” as a cure-all. Far from being written off as a quack, Burkitt was a respected scholar who has a lymphoma named after him. He’s the primary reason doctors began recommending bran-heavy, high-fiber diets in the 1970s — and still do, even though, today, there’s little evidence that either bran or fiber has an impact on health. (Although they will, probably, make you less constipated.)

And patients are still concerned about the state of their poops, even if doctors are less so, Higgins told me. Look at the advertising for probiotics, he said. “They use code words like ‘good health’ or ‘good gut.’ They make these vague cultural references about regularity. They’re doing a dog whistle for the kind of 19th-century view of how your bowel should function.”

On the plus side, though, Higgins said that modern, over-the-counter laxatives aren’t really dangerous. You’d have to work very hard to hurt yourself with something like milk of magnesia or Activia yogurt. So there isn’t much of a downside to that disconnect between the frequency of constipation that patients report and the frequency reported by doctors. “You probably have perceptions of what’s normal that you’ve inherited from your parents or grandparents — perceptions that aren’t medical,” he said. “But if you’re happier with daily bowel movements instead of every other day, well, great. That’s fine.”

07 Jul 16:12

On Having to Find the Words

by Kelly Conaboy

“Am I going to write about murdered black people forever?”

“I can continue to vote and go to protests and sign petitions and donate money and get in arguments with racist white people. And I can write. I can write again and again for as long as the this nation piles up black bodies. But when you’ve just watched a man bleed to death after a routine traffic stop while a child sits in the back seat, it sure as hell doesn’t feel like much.”

Over at Jezebel, read Kara Brown on having to write this again, and again, and again.

On Having to Find the Words was originally published in The Hairpin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


Read the responses to this story on Medium.

25 Jun 13:41

Upping our insult game

by Mark Liberman

Carmen Fought observes that "Fellow citizens, we have to up our insult game. The Scots are making us look like wankers. ‪#‎mangledapricothellbeast‬".

Certainly the Scots have taught us a wide variety of new words and insult phrases in response to Donald Trump's tweet about Brexit.

And so on…

Given Mr. Trump's role in pushing the envelope of American political insults, many will consider this to be karmic justice. It's getting picked up on the back streets of the internet, and may have some of the same impact on his future that "lyin' Ted" and "liddle Marco" had on the careers of his previous opponents.

There were also apparently some more subtle forms of communication associated with his trip:

26 Jun 11:47

Sunday favorites

by Fred Clark
"Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil."
17 Jun 16:11

Britain is Better Than This

by Alex Wilcock

Hate. Racism. Now murder.

This cannot stand. Whether you’re In or Out, there are values the great, decent majority of British people agree on.

We’ve all got to take responsibility now. Because Britain is better than this, and we can’t just leave it to somebody else.

Last night I was so appalled, so upset and so angry that I just recorded what I felt.

  • What the campaign’s turned into – and why they’re not “all the same.”

  • Racism and very different experiences I remember from growing up.

  • How I contrast Nigel Farage with my Mum.

  • How very British is immigration.

  • Why it’s incredible that people pretend that Britain of all countries can’t cope with coming together with other nations.

  • How disgusted I am by the bullies and cowards who are dragging Britain back to bigotry.

  • And most of all, out of all the hate and dividing people and screams of “Traitors”, knowing that for decent people on both sides of the vote that this is not the Britain we want.

Britain is better than this.

Please listen to my appeal and those of so many other people. And let your voice be heard too. Because it’s gone way too far to sit back, shake your head, and just hope someone else does something.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

16 Jun 19:01

Sisterhood of the Traveling Safe Spaces

by Julia Carpenter

Where women gather online

Photo: Stefan Schmitz/Flickr

There are a couple rules to follow when you’re a woman online: don’t take the comments (or the mentions) (or the reblogs) personally; block liberally; and find a safe space. But in an Internet where every woman can find her own version of sisterhood — or, barring that, start her own — a jaded eye knows no “safe space” can ever stay “safe” for long.

“Safe space” has itself become something of a buzzword, online and off. The definition is amorphous, just like many of these spaces themselves. “Private” and “safe” mean very different things online, even as most are used interchangeably. “Private,” of course means requiring an application or a password to access; “safe” can apply to any platform, group, site or game that allows users to, at least for a little while, drop that same jaded eye that we’ve been taught to bring to all Internet interactions. They overlap, too: “Private” can be “safe,” and vice versa — but not always. At least, never for long.

A few weeks ago, Caitlin Dewey at The Washington Post recently asked, “How do you stop online harassment? Try banning the men.” I’ve been a member of this women-only secret Facebook group for years — they call it “The Girl Mob.” Hundreds of hip women share links to jobs, cashew milk recipes and body-positive photos of Marilyn Monroe in a bikini. My friend added me, and she had only been added a few weeks prior. She was recommended by another friend of a friend of a cool woman who just said, “you need this,” by way of explanation. These closed groups have become a magnet for women craving community on the Internet; an invitation feels like an embrace. But protecting that feeling of inclusion can itself be almost impossible — do you password-protect your shared Tumblr? Do you set rules for your Facebook group? Do you set an expiration date on your own community, to preserve its initial sense of openness?

When I asked women to share their early Internet “safe spaces,” dozens responded to my inquiry talking about how Neopets, AOL chatrooms, fan fiction Tumblrs, X-Files LISTSERVs, LiveJournal communities and more introduced them to comfort on the Internet. Most of these sites were beloved exactly for that same dual sense of security and inclusion members loved — and when that sense was lost, from time or toxicity or something else, the woman who made them moved on to another new place.

“Binders Full of Women Writers” is a Facebook group created just two years ago, where women writers created a community where they could share writing, freelance rates, sexism horror stories and more. But of course, secret clubs on the Internet don’t stay secret forever. Last year, Melody Kramer published a list of “every hidden journalism-related group” she could find. Not without consequence:

My first online community was, the proto-feminist, zine-like website that hosted web comics about masturbation, advice columns about veganism and forums that dealt in topics ranging from the openly political to the frankly embarrassing. was the web 1.0est of the web 1.0s — and its commenting system hummed with activity. As one NYMag commenter remembered: “I AM that twenty-something who will clutch her pearls in fond reminiscence of It was such a positive, inclusive place to be a female on the internet when a lot of other choices didn’t exist yet.”

Rebecca Odes and Esther Drill lauched in May of 1996. They were graduate students in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, experimenting with new media and online ‘zine culture. “I would say now community is the part of the site that I feel proudest of in some ways because that fulfilled a need — girls being able to talk about those things directly with other girls felt really revolutionary to me,” Odes said. “It’s the part of the site that still feels like it’s fulfilling the mission that we started.” The original founders have all moved on (to other websites, book deals and more grown-up Internet endeavors), but every so often, they hear, “No way! I loved that site!” Drill told me. “It had a particular moment in time that was special. it was the beginning of the web,” she said. “It was the beginning of something else.”

There have been iterations of that “something else” since. Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie handed the website keys to teen girls themselves — and the resulting essays, comics and other creations are smart, enlightening and relatively troll-free. Jezebel fueled a movement for callback culture that’s given hundreds of women (and Kinja commenters) voice in media that was previously nonexistent. Lenny Letter has channeled this same energy into an email newsletter community that thrives on open discussion of politics, birth control and vivid voices from hundreds of writers and subscribers.

But for me, nothing has quite replicated the feel of raw girl power, that rush of sharing your own story in the forum, that feeling of co-ownership — and maybe that’s because it was still such a new thing to be a woman on the Internet. In the early days, there was a “newness” to speaking up. You could throw out a question — any question! About boys, or bodies, or politics! — and you’d get an answer. Frequently, a nice answer. It felt like magic. This feeling of camaraderie felt protective, yeah, and also secretive, like I had my own clandestine crew that would dust me with a sparkling womanliness whenever I needed it most. I learned that I could grow into myself and my interests, but I could also be someone else online. It was a place to try on new identities and opinions, risk-free (at the time).

For Cates Holderness, that same space was a Sailor Moon role-playing chat room. She played as a teen, trying on the identity of Sailor Uranus — sassy, dark-haired character with a cool car and (even cooler) a girlfriend. Holderness role-played alongside teens and adults alike — she remembers it as “a judgment-free zone” where she could explore her own sexuality and her interests in anime, manga and other “nerd” culture. “Middle school and high school are horrible times of people’s lives and you feel just isolated and you’re awkward and you’re uncomfortable,” she said. “I think everyone feels that way — but if your interests are not what popular interests are, you can feel even more isolated. For me it was more of a way of connecting.”

In October 2014, Amber Discko created Femsplain, an online publishing platform for women to share personal stories. Femsplain’s private Facebook group and Slack community require permission to join — that’s Discko’s strategy to foster an open conversation within the group. The Facebook group is designed for Femsplain contributors only, hence the privacy. “You can’t control one person, let alone a thousand people,” Discko said. “You don’t know what people are saying offline or who they’re talking to about something. So that’s why something says it’s private or safe — these are just words. Nothing is completely protected.”

As a child, Discko felt secure because of the community she found in her online gaming group, Rose Online: The Guild. Her family moved around, but games were something of a constant, and the guild felt like her sanctuary. But once she began using a voice service to talk to other members, everything changed — all of a sudden the other players knew that she was a girl. “I would be on this voice service talking to my guild members and playing the game with them and that was my safety until I started getting harassed on those games. ‘Oh, you must be, like, this ugly — ‘ I would get all of that,” she said. Some years later, another member of the guild stole a nude photo Discko kept on her computer and shared it with other players. “That was the scarring moment to make me not play games,” she said. “Which was really bad because that’s what made me so happy and got me a lot through my childhood.”

Holderness eventually noticed other people leaving the Sailor Moon room for messaging boards, chat rooms and “new” technology (“new” for the early 2000s, that is). “I transitioned to different communities as I went to high school, but I never grew out of wanting to connect with online community,” she said. “It’s something I still think is really important, as our online identities become just as important as our IRL identities.” For me, moving on from my community at wasn’t a choice as much as it was a thing that just happened.

The site changed management in the early aughts, when I was still a guRL-dependent tween. With new management (from the same company that ran the infamous Delia’s catalogue) the design, content and tone changed from angsty riot grrrl zine to vapid, Bustle-type blog. I looked around for the other gurls I’d chatted and advised and queried. Once the site updated and the community vanished, those ladies left for Facebook groups, Google groups like Tech Lady Mafia and comments boards on Jezebel and The Toast (RIP). A new age of social media was dawning, so maybe this would have happened anyway — but the transition was difficult; I felt the need for something new push me into a land of notifications and friend requests and comment sections.

The original gang of gURL girls had abandoned the online forum for other things, but as I spoke to more and more women who remembered the original site, many admitted that much of their Internet community-hopping was fueled by a need to find somewhere out there like gURL. Somewhere dedicated to free and easy conversation about taboo topics. Somewhere where outsiders could feel like insiders, at least for a little while.

My own Girl Mob promised to never turn on itself — at least in the beginning. Despite the “free love” openness designated in its posted manifesto and its initial dedication to “ask anything!” conversation, the group has seen several conflicts, from microaggressions to member sparring matches. And it got big; membership grew from a few hundred women to more than four thousand. Guidelines and restrictions are an inevitability any time you agree to captain one of these things.

Those other places didn’t have to think as carefully about how to set fences around this community; partially because they didn’t have to. And partially because we didn’t have Gamergate back then, or the Fappening, or any of these other ever-present threats to digital sisterhood. But mostly: these things are not forever. Sailor Moon chat rooms weren’t built with an eye to 2016. They instead serve a purpose for a period of time; and then, like the Room of Requirement, they vanish when they’re not needed. There is an in-the-know inclusivity from being invited to a private space, but it comes with a catch: it won’t last forever. In the nature of all communities throughout Internet history — exclusive or not — they erode, and they transform.

And people leave. My friend who added me to Girl Mob recalls drifting away when she didn’t need the group anymore. “I saw posts talking about reverse racism as a legitimate thing,” she said. “Or they were critical of feminism in a really hard-headed way. And I was like ‘This isn’t really my posse anymore.’” She was invited to another online community instead: a much-smaller band of rogue Girl Mobbers had started their own closed Facebook group, called “The Not Girl Mob.” This smaller community set up very stringent rules: they allowed all kinds of conversation (including sex toy swaps and “sexy photo” posts), but they also kept all personal information private. Most importantly, they capped the number of members permitted.

Oh yeah, because that’s the other rule of being a person online: everything disappears, and don’t be surprised when it does. It’s the agreement we all signed the moment we created AIM usernames, even if we didn’t know it. AIM gave way to Gchat, which gave way to Slack, which gives way to something else entirely. Something we can’t predict yet — and if we can’t predict it, we can’t fence it or privatize it, or in any way protect it.

And in the meantime, fences make neighbors — whether they’re any good is a different story.

Julia Carpenter is a writer and tumblrite living in Washington, D.C.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Safe Spaces was originally published in The Hairpin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


Read the responses to this story on Medium.

01 Jun 09:43

Making Sense of Names

by So long as it's words

This is our first guest post (because Hannah and Kate are apparently useless at updating this much-loved blog and we need help), brought to you by linguistic clever-clogs and punster supreme, James Chetwood.

One of my favourite episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the one with the Jimmy Jab Games – a multi-event workplace procrastination competition, featuring challenges such as the Monster Mouth Bagel Toss.

The Jimmy Jabs were invented by Jake Peralta and are named after the President of Iran, Armen Jimmy Jab:

Or, as Rosa points out, Ahmadinejad:

But it doesn’t matter, because the most important thing is that they’re going to play the Jimmy Jabs, and they’re all psyched!

So Jake got the name wrong. But the fact the Jimmy Jabs are still called the Jimmy Jabs, even though the person they’re named after isn’t called Jimmy Jab, doesn’t matter, because names don’t really have any meaning, do they? Well, actually, I think they might – at least in some ways.

I’m doing a PhD in History, and for the last two-and-a-bit years I’ve been looking at names: finding, listing, counting and (in theory) analysing names. About 15,000 of them.[1] Linguists generally think that names have no meaning, or no ‘sense’, because they don’t explain anything about the people who bear them. But, the more I look at names, the more it seems to me that names do have meaning.

Unlike other nouns, names only refer to one person or thing, and nothing else. With normal nouns, I can talk about a particular dog, cat or boat, but I can also talk about the class of things that are dogs, cats and boats, because there’s something about all dogs, cats and boats that make them dog-like, cat-like and boat-like. I take part in this kind of exchange every day:

Other person: Fucking hell mate, control your fucking dog will you?
Me: Sorry mate. But that’s what dogs are like. He’s just trying to play. Chill out.

But this doesn’t work for names, because there’s nothing about a James, a Hannah or a Kate that makes them more or less like any other James, Hannah or Kate. Each James is unique, as is each Hannah and each Kate.

So names are just labels we use to refer to specific people and can’t be used in any general sense. At least that’s the theory. But then there’s When Harry Met Sally:

Harry: With whom?
Sally: What?
Harry: With whom did you have this great sex?
Sally: I’m not gonna tell you that!
Harry: Fine, don’t tell me
Sally:…Shel Gordon
Harry: Shel? Sheldon? No. No, you did not have great sex with Sheldon.
Sally: I did too!
Harry: No you didn’t. A Sheldon can do your income taxes. If you need a root canal, Sheldon’s your man. But humpin’ and pumpin’ is not Sheldon’s strong suit. It’s the name: ‘Do it to me Sheldon! You’re an animal, Sheldon! Ride me big…Sheldon’. It doesn’t work.

Like it or not, names have meaning (sorry Sheldon). In this case it’s associative meaning.[2] We know from prior experience what sort of person we expect a Sheldon to be. We associate people called Sheldon with certain attributes. Whether we’re right or wrong is another matter, but we do this all the time. And we’re often right, because names can tell us a lot about the people who bear them.

The accuracy with which someone’s name can determine their proficiency at humpin’ and pumpin’ is, admittedly, fairly low. But names are usually pretty good at telling us other things, including where someone is from, how old they are, who their family is and whether they’re a man or a woman.

Untitled Untitled2 Untitled3

This episode from Flight of the Conchords is funny (I think) because of the games it plays with Keitha’s name. It wouldn’t be funny if we didn’t know that Keith was a popular name in Australia, that people often name their children after their parents, or that female names in English often end in ‘A’.[3]

Because we know what type of people are called Keith, what type of people aren’t, and how names work in general, we’re able to make jokes about them. If names were completely meaningless, we wouldn’t be able to do this.

If Professor Richard Coates read what I’ve just written (he won’t, he’s basically the biggest name in, well, names, and has much better things to do), he’d probably say:

It’s amazing that arguments of this type persist, and they can only persist because we equivocate what counts as meaning. If these ‘mean’, they do not do so in a logically secure way. If I call my daughter Archibald, it’s hard luck on her, but I have committed no sin against logic or semantics, and it will be her name.[4]

Firstly, if ‘meaning’ something relies on doing so in a logically secure way, I’ve probably never said anything of any meaning in my life. Secondly, we actually do use words all the time that have meaning beyond pure semantic content. The way we say things – the specific words we use and the tone we say them in – all add nuance to, or even completely change the meaning of, what we are saying. The meaning of all language, at the end of the day, is about more more than semantic content.[5]

But I’d also question the idea that we have a free choice about what we name our children. This isn’t true – not really anyway. Our choices are dictated, or at least restricted, by the customs and fashions of the communities and societies we live in. This is one of the reasons names are actually really quite bad at doing what we assume they’re for: distinguishing people from one another. If that was what names were supposed to do, why would so many people have the same name?

Theoretically, we could use any random collection of speech sounds to create unique names. But we don’t. Usually we select them from a list of pre-existing names, most of which are used by thousands of other people. This list of names is an onomasticon (a mental dictionary of names), which is the name equivalent of a lexicon (a mental dictionary of words).

Like a lexicon, the names that appear in a person’s onomasticon depend on a number of things, including the language they speak and the experiences they’ve had in their lives. Every onomasticon is different, varying from place to place, community to community and generation to generation (as well as person to person). And, just like a lexicon, there might be hundreds, even thousands, of names that we’re aware of, but have never come across in our everyday lives, nor would ever consider giving to our own child.

The main determining factor of the names in someone’s onomasticon is where they’re from – the family, community and society in which they live. Each community has a set of names that are known and deemed acceptable by the other people within it. Depending on the place and period they live in, and the type and size of community, the number of acceptable names will vary, as will the degree to which people can deviate from the norm without being thought badly of.

Sometimes people want to make sure their child fits in, so may choose safe, traditional names. Some people want their child (and perhaps them by proxy) to stand out more than others – for example, the kind of people who would choose to call their child Saint.


Today, people often want to balance the need for their child to have a name that is both individual and traditional. They want a name that makes their child stand out and fit in at the same time. This is why we see so many ‘old fashioned’ names re-popularising. Perversely, in trying to strike this balance, people often alight on the same name for no apparent reason, causing previously unpopular names become popular. (Here’s looking at you, Amelia.)

And, while the ‘naming communities’ we are a part of today are larger, both in terms of the number of people and the number of names, than was the case a few hundred years ago, we are still occasionally flummoxed by unfamiliar names.

Jake doesn’t recognise the name Ahmadinejad because it’s not in his onomasticon – it’s not a name that’s present in his naming community. It isn’t that the sounds in the name, or even the spelling of it, are particularly difficult. It’s just that he doesn’t know it, so it’s difficult to recognise and remember. That’s why he transforms it in his mind into something that makes more sense to him.[6]

Richard Coates can call his daughter Archibald if he wants, and he might not be breaking any rules of logic or semantics by doing it. But the very act of doing so would be an overt flouting of the naming customs within his naming community. He may not care – but his daughter might not thank him when she’s older.[7]

So, even if it’s true that names don’t have logical semantic meaning, they do mean things to people, and they do contain meaning of some kind. Not all Richards will have exactly the same attributes. But there’s a pretty good chance that 20 people called Richard are going to have more in common with each other than they are with 20 people called Abdul or 20 people called Stéphanie. And, ultimately, whether he likes it or not, if you need a root canal, Sheldon’s your man.


James Chetwood is a PhD student in the Sheffield University History Department. His research is into naming patterns in medieval England. He spends too much of his time thinking about what makes a name a name, and why it’s OK to call a dog Molly but not Gary.

[1] The names I’m looking at are from medieval England, between around 850 and 1350.

[2] I also think names can contain semantic meaning, but I’m saving that in case I get asked to write another blog.

[3] If you haven’t seen it, check out this clip and this clip.

[4] This isn’t just me imagining what Richard Coates would say, he actually says it on page 435 of this article: ‘A Strictly Millian Approach to the Definition of Proper Names’, in Mind and Language, 24 (2009), pp. 433-44.

[5] We can say the same ‘thing’ in a multitude of different ways and we can make the same words mean a multitude of different things.

[6] Anyone who’s watched Paul Merson on Soccer Saturday will have witnessed Jake-style nominative creativity on a regular basis.

[7] In many countries there are actually strict rules about what you can and can’t name your child, particularly Iceland, which has a zero-tolerance ‘no Harriets’ policy.

06 Jun 18:01

i'll keep my plans close to my pecs

06 Jun 22:01

Burr: We should probably exchange numbers.

Burr: We should probably exchange numbers.
Angelica: Okay, I’m a 10, you’re a 4.
10 Jun 17:58

The love organ of many names

by Geoffrey K. Pullum

Very gender-essentialist of them to talk as if all penis-havers are men, but otherwise good. :)

British comedian Richard Herring is theauthor of a 2003 book entitled Talking Cock: A Celebration of Man and his Manhood, so he naturally seized upon the republicization opportunity provided by the recent story of the world's first successful penis transplant. He made it the topic of his weekly humor column in The Metro, the trashy free newspaper that I sometimes reluctantly peruse in my constant search for linguistic developments that might be of interest to Language Log readers.

In a bravura display of diversity of lexical choice, Herring contrived to use a different euphemism for the anatomical organ every time he could find an excuse for mentioning it, which, believe me, was a lot. And he left me pondering a serious lexicographical question: just how many euphemisms are there for the appendage in question?

[Unusually, this post is restricted to adult males. Please click "Read the rest of this entry" to confirm that you are male and over 18.]

OK, penis owners, let's get down to lexicographical business. Putting together all the terms Herring used in his article ("the pink lighthouse that wants to draw you onto its rocks", to name but one) with a few others that appear in the Amazon summary paragraph of his book or the See Inside This Book preview thereof, and adding yet others that I recall from high school, or from such sources as Beyond the Fringe sketches decades ago (recall Peter Cook in the persona of a judge describing a witness with great distaste as "a self-confessed player of the pink oboe"), I found it fairly easy to compile a list of 40 different euphemistic alternants of penis, varying slightly in their tastelessness. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

1 bald-headed mouse
2 Bob Johnson
3 chimney cleaner
4 cock
5 dick
6 ding-a-ling
7 dong
8 flesh torpedo
9 flute of love
10 Frankenwiener
11 fuckstick
12 gut stick
13 John Thomas
14 knob
15 Kojak's moneybox
16 little chap
17 love rocket
18 luncheon-meat truncheon
19 male member
20 manhood
21 nut cannon
22 one-eyed trouser snake
23 percy
24 pink lighthouse
25 pink oboe
26 porridge gun
27 prick
28 pud
29 pyjama python
30 schlong
31 schmuck
32 skin chimney
33 skin flute
34 tool
35 tummy banana
36 wang
37 whanger
38 willy
39 winkie
40 yoghurt gun

It looks to me like penis might be the most euphemized word in all of English. And it has crossed my mind to wonder whether adult male Language Log readers (for whom I leave comments open below)… might know of any more that have been attested (rather than just invented right now on the fly [no pun intended])?

[Update: You will discover from the comments below that my invitation to contribute further names elicits an utterly overwhelming response, a full two orders of magnitude larger than I had expected, plus several fairly serious studies of the topic. —GKP]

10 Jun 21:39


by (Jen)

I’ve been sitting on this for weeks now but at last it is public: today’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List names me among the many others recognised for their work.

So from today I’m Jen Yockney MBE, which is one of the weirdest things I could imagine.

The Honour is for my extensive volunteering work with the bisexual community and on wider LGBT issues over the past couple of decades, whether with BCN, BiPhoria, Bisexual History Project, the Bisexuality Report, Bi Life, Bisexual Action, LGBT+LD, lobbying of ministers and GEO, or other things that just now I’ve forgotten.

When I saw the full citation for my activities – and all unpaid – it did come as a bit of a frightener.  By doing at least something every month for such a long time it adds up and by now I have done quite a bit.

In the 80s I was a teenager, following the progress of Clause 28 in the broadsheets but still in the closet about gender and sexuality both to others and myself.

I started to come out and get engaged in community organising and LGBT politics in the 90s, with student groups and the like. I found that they were very LG in their LGBT, with bi people, voices and experiences silenced and sidelined. This meant seeking out bi and trans spaces: at that point my activism could have gone either way, but the bi spaces I found were perversely more inclusive of gender diversity than the trans spaces.  Don’t take that as meaning either that bi spaces were perfect – they definitely weren’t! – or that trans spaces were all dire: it’s just the balance of comfort between the two, then, for me.

Over time I came to be involved in different projects.  Publishing magazines and pamphlets and lobbying local and national government and LGBT organisations can be removed from ordinary lived experience so I’m glad to also have BiPhoria keeping me - I think and hope - grounded in the day-to-day challenges of bisexual life for ordinary bi people.

The high points have included the first full-colour issue of BCN, the huge scale of the two Manchester BiCons, and being the first representative from a bisexual community project to be invited to the annual 10 Downing Street LGBT reception.  And now, of course, today.

Thank you.
12 Jun 18:25

36 Hours, Four Violent Men, and One American Ideology

by Lisa Wade, PhD

America woke up this weekend to the news of the deadliest civilian mass shooting in the nation’s history. The senseless tragedy will undoubtedly evoke anger, sadness and helplessness.

In the meantime, many will forget to think and talk about Stanford swimmer Brock Turner’s crime and his “summer vacation” jail sentence: three months for the vile sexual assault of an unconscious woman.

As a sociologist, I was struck not by the abrupt shift to a new moral crisis, but by the continuity. Sociologists look for the bigger picture, and in my mind, Mateen’s crime didn’t displace Turner’s. Yet the media simply replaced one outrage with another, moving our attention away from Stanford and toward Orlando, as if these two crimes were unrelated. They’re not.

Status, masculinity and sexual assault

Brock Turner was an all-American boy: a white, Division I swimmer at one of the nation’s top universities. What he did to his victim was arguably all-American, too, confirmed by decades of research tying rape to a sense of male superiority and entitlement.

I study sex on campus, where sexual violence is perpetrated disproportionately by “high-status” men – fraternity men and certain male athletes in particular. These men are more likely than other men to endorse the sexual double standard, believing that they are justified in praising sexually active men, while condemning and even abusing women who are less sexually active.

They are also more likely to promote homophobia, hypermasculinity and male dominance; tolerate violent and sexist jokes; endorse misogynistic attitudes and behaviors; and endorse false beliefs about rape. Accordingly, athletes are responsible for an outsized number of sexual assaults on campus, and women who attend fraternity parties are significantly more likely to be assaulted than those who attend other parties with alcohol and those who don’t go to parties at all.

Status, masculinity and violent homophobia

Omar Mateen’s crime is related to this strand of masculinity. Mateen’s father told the media that his son had previously been angered by the sight of two men kissing, and reports claim that he was a “regular” at the Pulse nightclub and was known to use a gay hookup app.

Anti-gay hate crimes, like violence against women (Mateen also reportedly beat his ex-wife), are tied closely to rigid and hierarchical ideas about masculinity that depend on differentiating “real” men from women as well as gay and bisexual men. Men who experience homoerotic feelings themselves sometimes erupt into especially aggressive homophobia.

As the sociologist Michael Kimmel has argued, while we talk ad infinitum about guns, mental illness and, in this case, Islamic identity, we miss the strongest unifying factor: these mass murderers are men, almost to the last one. In his book Guyland,” Kimmel argues that as many boys grow into men, “they learn that they are entitled to feel like a real man, and that they have the right to annihilate anyone who challenges that sense of entitlement.”

He means “annihilate” literally.

We now know that many boys who descend on their schools with guns are motivated by fears that they are perceived as homosexual and that attacking suspected or known homosexuals is a way for boys to demonstrate heterosexuality to their peers.

It makes sense to me, as a woman, that men would fear gay men because such men threaten to put other men under the same sexually objectifying, predatory, always potentially threatening gaze that most women learn to live with as a matter of course. Being looked at by a gay man threatens to turn any man into a figurative woman: subordinate, weak, penetrable. That can be threatening enough to a man invested in masculinity, but discovering that he enjoys being the object of other men’s desires – being put in the position of a woman – could stoke both internalized and externalized homophobia even further.

Meanwhile, gay men, by their very existence, challenge male dominance by undermining the link between maleness and the sexual domination of women. It’s possible that Mateen, enraged by his inability to stop men from kissing in public and struggling with self-hatred, took it upon himself to annihilate the people who dared pierce the illusion that manhood and the righteous sexual domination of women naturally go hand-in-hand.

The common denominator

Mass shootings, frighteningly, appear to have become a part of our American cultural vernacular, a shared way for certain men to protest threats to their entitlement and defend the hierarchy their identities depend on. As the sociologists Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober wrote last year for the website Feminist Reflections:

This type of rampage violence happens more in the United States of America than anywhere else… Gun control is a significant part of the problem. But, gun control is only a partial explanation for mass shootings in the United States. Mass shootings are also almost universally committed by men. So, this is not just an American problem; it’s a problem related to American masculinity and to the ways American men use guns.

Some members of the media and candidates for higher office will focus exclusively on Mateen’s Afghan parents. But he – just like Brock Turner – was born, raised and made a man right here in America. While it appears that he had (possibly aspirational) links to ISIS, it in no way undermines his American-ness. This was terrorism, yes, but it was domestic terrorism: of, by and aimed at Americans.

I don’t want to force us all to keep Turner in the news (though I imagine that he and his father are breathing a perverse sigh of relief right now). I want to remind us to keep the generalities in mind even as we mourn the particulars.

Sociologists are pattern seekers. This problem is bigger than Brock Turner and Omar Mateen. It’s Kevin James Loibl, who sought out and killed the singer Christina Grimmie the night before the massacre at Pulse. It’s James Wesley Howell, who was caught with explosives on his way to the Los Angeles Pride Parade later that morning. It’s the grotesque list of men who used guns to defend their sense of superiority that I collected and documented last summer.

The problem is men’s investment in masculinity itself. It offers rewards only because at least some people agree that it makes a person better than someone else. That sense of superiority is, arguably, why men like Turner feel entitled to violating an unconscious woman’s body and why ones like Mateen will defend it with murderous rampages, even if it means destroying themselves in the process. And unless something changes, there will be another sickening crisis to turn to, and another sinking sense of familiarity.

Cross-posted at The Conversation, New Republic, Special Broadcasting Company (SBS)United Press InternationalNewsweek Japan (in Japanese), and Femidea (in Korean).

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and Gender, a textbook. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

(View original at

07 Jun 19:44

This Is Not About You, BuzzFeed

by Silvia Killingsworth

Social lift is just that—social.

Photo: Tech in Asia/Flickr.

Last week, BuzzFeed ran a post that reproduced in full a letter written by a rape victim to her attacker. The letter is, as the headline says, powerful. Over the weekend, my social feeds were flooded with comments like “if you read one thing, it should be this,” or “required reading,” or “this is extremely important.” I agree with all of those things! I read the letter and shared it and I think every man, woman, and child should be exposed to the uncomfortable truths that come with having a body and sometimes not having control of it.

By last night, it was apparent the BuzzFeed post had gone hugely viral. In an era of “the dress” and “the watermelon,” this will now be known as “the letter,” and it will henceforth be shorthand for an order of magnitude on the web traffic Richter scale. Already people are commenting on the piece’s tremendous “social lift” (greater than 7.9x!!). The letter, which was provided to BuzzFeed News, had also been available for almost twenty-four hours on Santa Clara County’s government website before BuzzFeed posted it. Undoubtedly, it wouldn’t have made as much of an impact had Katie J.M. Baker, who has been toiling away on this depressing beat for a very long time, not been employed at the Most Important Site Of Our Time.

This moment is a long time coming, to Ben Smith’s great credit: he and Shani Hilton built a strong, fast, and far-flung news team that now approaches the Associated Press and Reuters in getting to big, groundbreaking stories first and often. BuzzFeed has built a megaphone, by which the letter was amplified. I get what Smith and others are saying: they are proud to be part of the institution that helped broadcast an important story.

Except it wasn’t a story. This was not an American dialect quiz or a feat of months of reporting. It was a victim’s impact statement. It’s great that millions of people have read the letter, which was also read aloud on the air in full by CNN anchor Ashleigh Banfield. It took up twenty-three minutes of air time, about the equivalent of three segments, or half her broadcast:

Saying, “Look how many shares this story has” is interesting, to a point. There will always be a post-mortem; data scientists and the Nieman Lab will do the autopsy. But those numbers are usually celebrated and discussed internally. And they only give us a small part of the story. Seven, eight, nine million views? That sounds like a lot, but compared to what? Zero views? They should be way higher, frankly, and in this particular case, attaching a brand name to those reads or shares or sets of eyeballs reached is crass. But claim credit they will, and you can bet they’ll make money, too. But is it really that bad to tout your social reach if you use your money and powers to spread Big, Important Stories—isn’t that what journalism is all about? Don’t hate the player, hate the game [cue Janet Malcolm quote]. But worst of all, associating it in our minds with the latest viral sensation only reminds us how BuzzFeed celebrated that one:

Of course, the letter is not anything like the dress, though both are squarely within BuzzFeed’s territory: social news and entertainment. Are you not entertained? Is Brock “Two Mugshots” Turner—a young, white, privileged male athlete—not the perfect villain for 2016? But the only person who owns this story is the letter writer, and the only share that matters is the one she decided to make with the judge and the courtroom on June 2. That she took it to BuzzFeed the following day is her own prerogative, and I support that too:

Besides, the thing to share today is the secondhand aggregation of comments from the two Swedish men who caught the attacker, lest a woman remain the hero for too long.

This Is Not About You, BuzzFeed was originally published in The Hairpin on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


Read the responses to this story on Medium.

07 Jun 22:01

I'm taking this horse by the reins making red coats redder with wine stains

06 Jun 16:00

Women Who Are Dating Peacocks In Western Art History

by Mallory Ortberg


"I think it would be best if you go after all, Jeremy. Perhaps we can talk later, if you're able to stop saying such hurtful things."

Read more Women Who Are Dating Peacocks In Western Art History at The Toast.