Shared posts

07 Dec 07:00

Astronomy's New Ice Age

One of the world’s strangest astronomical observatories, based on a cubic kilometre of Antarctic ice, has opened a new window on the universe.
03 Dec 06:04

Comedian Aamer Rahman on "Reverse Racism"

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino


"I could be a reverse racist if I wanted to. All I'd need would be a time machine, and what I'd do is get in my time machine and go back in time to before Europe colonized the world and I'd convince the leaders of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America to invade and occupy Europe, steal their land and resources… In that time I'd make sure I'd set up systems that privileged black and brown people at every conceivable social, political and economic opportunity…"

3 Comments
03 Dec 05:51

Here’s To The Fangirls

by feministaspie

Here’s to the fangirls.

Because fandom isn’t really an exclusive club which is entered only on the permission of other fans. And even if it were, what business does anyone else have to exclude you?

Because being a fan is about liking something. Not knowledge, or ability to afford merch or go to conventions, or whether or not you happened to be born long enough ago to remember the beginning. You just have to like the thing. That’s it.

Because female fans, especially teenage girls, are policed at every turn. But how many comics haven’t you read? How much trivia are you not yet aware of? People will try and trip you up.

They’ll assume you’re straight, and then they’ll assume you only like the thing because you like some attractive man that’s involved. Like everything a woman thinks revolves around men. Like it’s not possible to simultaneously like a fandom and be attracted to a person anyway. It’s usually only ever heterosexual women’s attraction to men that’s used to literally try and kick them out of the fandom. For instance, I didn’t see or hear a single remark from a teenage girl (or anyone) that Peter Capaldi was too old to be the Doctor,  but the Internet was full of people attacking teenage girls for this allegedly predominant opinion.

They’ll tell you that you’ve just jumped on a bandwagon,  you’re too late, if you weren’t there right at the beginning, you shouldn’t be there at all. Astoundingly, Whovians under 50 exist. They’re everywhere. If you’re reading this on the day it was written, that means you’re online today and THAT means you’ve probably already heard from several. Not many fandoms can claim to have existed for that long, so it’s probably not a fair example.  But still,  again,  why does it matter when you started?  You’re here now, and nobody can take that away from you.

You’ve probably heard “Are you really a fan or are you just wearing the T-shirt?” “Are you really a fan or are you just pretending?” And some of you will even be pop-quizzed on the fandom. Again, people will look to catch you out. People will presume you’re fake, something they would never presume of a man or boy.

For what? What do people gain from this, other than shutting women up and keeping them out?

And it’s often coupled with remarks about boybands and other fandoms dominated by teenage girls. These fandoms are constantly mocked and ridiculed. The “Tumblr-speak” often used by teenage girls online is mocked and ridiculed. Teenage girls in general are mocked and ridiculed. For being girls. “Fangirl” has almost become an insult.

Sadly, this fan-policing and general fangirl-hate can often come from other female fans trying to prove their own worthiness, trying to gain entry to this exclusive club by distancing themselves from this hated group; it’s for the same reasons that “you’re not like other girls” is seen as a compliment. “Not like other girls” is synonymous with “an actual human being”, and clearly there’s something massively wrong there. I get it, I’ve been there, but instead of competing for male approval the way we’ve been taught to, how about we challenge the rhetoric that’s led to this competition and elitism in the first place?

So here’s to the fangirls.

Whether you’re spending today being excited about the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special,  the One Direction livestream, or anything else in between.

With every “I CAN’T” and “MY FEELS” and “I SHIP IT”, you are finally making your presence known and inescapable.

Better yet, you can challenge the bullshit “feminists v fandoms” rhetoric by fighting for representation and respect from within the fandom.

And don’t you ever, ever, ever let yourself believe that you’re somehow not a worthy fan. Because you are.

Fangirls rock.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to dash to an appointment with the Doctor…


Tagged: doctor who, fake geek girls, fandoms, fangirls, feminism, geek sexism, misogyny, one direction, save the day, sexism
03 Dec 05:50

FAQs On Groundrules for Polyamorous Relationships

I regularly get asked variations on a theme of So, this poly thing, how does it work, then...? by people with prurient-yet-hopeful expressions on their faces. I suppose that because it's not (yet) a mainstream way of arranging things people are naturally curious. People are always curious about unusual things, as most minority groups find out to their frustration. I suspect it's also because most people can see the positives* but haven't really considered the negatives. The assumption from many people appears to be that because I'm both bi and poly, that means I will do anything to anyone with not a thought for the consequences. I'm kind of hoping to put that myth to rest with this post.

The problem with giving people a primer is that I can only do it for my relationships; everyone who does poly does it slightly differently. Poly is, at the end of the day, all about maximising freedom while minimising pain for all concerned, so every poly relationship starts with a negotiation of what each person involved is happy to do and not do.

Actually, my personal rules for poly relationships are remarkably similar to the ones I had for monogamous relationships in the dim and distant, and they are all there for a reason. So I am writing this post because I am procrastinating several more important things I find myself in my brother's house in Solihull with the afternoon free and no real capability to do anything else. It might get long...

Why Do I need rules anyway?

I'm a Liberal, right? Rules are things for authoritatarians, right? Well, no. I have rules because, especially with my mental health issues, reduction of the potential for drama is an inherently good thing. I have broken most of these rules at one time or another** and a break in the rules always leads to emotional ructions sooner or later. Sometimes - rarely - it's worth it. Most times it isn't. Going all starry-eyed over a new squeeze is a wonderful and heady experience. But letting that make me relax the rules always leads to consequences for me, usually for other people, and generally it would all have been avoidable if I'd been sensible.

Sensible is not something I am good at, but that's another reason for having hard and fast rules. And of course, if I DO break a rule normally the consequences of that will remind me of why the rule was there in the first place...

The Rules
  1. Proactive Honesty. Honesty is rule number one as far as I am concerned, and not just in the narrow sense of if you get caught doing something bad, fess up. I call it proactive honesty because you need to tell people things as soon as they come up. This is because in poly it's not just two people's feelings you need to consider, it's however many people are in the relationship, plus however many people are in relationships with them, etc. If you upset partner A, and A has another partner B who has to pick up the pieces, and then B goes moaning to their other partner C about what a shit you are for upsetting A... One little white lie or failure to pass on information in a timely fashion can have knock on effects for a lot of people.

    My belief about proactive honesty is that it applies to any relationship with anyone, but it's utterly vital in poly: if you can't be honest with someone about how you feel about them (whether that's good or bad) or if they have hurt you or if you have news they need to know but you don't want to tell them it's impossible to have an effective relationship. Multiply that by however many relationships are involved in a poly set-up and you have the potential for enormous amounts of drama, pain, and heartache for lots and lots of people.

    Personally, I apply this rule to things like letting people down gently as well. If you tell someone you're not looking for a relationship with anyone else right now when what you mean is you're not interested in a relationship with them, for an example I witnessed recently, you're only going to end up causing more hurt than if you'd just been honest.

  2. Informed enthusiastic consent. I toyed with the idea of not putting this one in because it should be bloody obvious, but to some people it apparently isn't. Everybody involved has to be giving informed enthusiatic consent, not just to sexual stuff, but to every part of the relationship. It's one of the reasons why honesty is so important. You can't give informed enthusiastic consent to X if you haven't been told about Y.

  3. Safety First. Safe sex is important. We all know this. But again, it's multiplied in it's importance in poly. If you have a drunken hookup and pick up the clap, you're not just hurting yourself, you're potentially infecting your other partners, and their other partners, and THEIR other partners... etc. One needs to bear in mind also that condoms are not a failsafe, too. Get tested regularly, just to be sure. I have one former partner who is only a former partner precisely because of his inability to stick to this rule***

  4. Consider the consequences. Another one that applies to any relationship IMHO: don't agree to anything with anyone without stopping first for at least a nanosecond to consider if it might cause a problem further down the line. Once you have considered the consequences, I'm not saying don't do it, but you need to be aware that your actions affect more than just you. Again, in poly, this is multiplied by however many people you are connected to in the web of relationships. This can be the simplest thing, such as checking your diary before agreeing to a date with partner X to see you haven't already booked in with partner Y that day****; or it can be more complex (for example: "if I start seeing this person will they cause problems with my existing relationships?"). Wherever a decision lies on the scale of seriousness, whereas in a monogamous relationship you only need to consider the feelings of yourself and your partner, in poly you need to bear in mind the feelings of a lot more people.

  5. Not without permission 1. I don't start seeing anyone new without consulting my existing partners first. I loathe the primary/secondary/etc terminology for reasons too complex to go into here, but for logistical reasons in this rule I do only mean "primary" partners rather than on/off long distance people like the Duracell Bunny. If anyone else ever approaches the level of seriousness of relationship I have with Mat and James, I'll consult them first too.

  6. Not without permission 2. If a potential partner is already in a relationship I won't do anything, not even holding hands, without permission from their existing partner IN PERSON. Oh yeah, I spoke to my boyfriend and he's fine with it is not good enough for obvious reasons, but I prefer to do it face to face rather than over the phone/email as well. It's easier to be sure they mean it that way.

  7. Don't screw the Crew. Never, ever, ever have a sexual relationship with anyone you have to work with - and I apply this is the broadest sense of work too. This is the rule I have most trouble sticking to*****, but that's also why I know it's important. NRE is a wonderful thing, but once it wears off and you decide that actually you're not madly in love with your colleague, all the little rankles that come with a relationship dying have the potential to fuck up an entire office/business/political party. It's really not worth it. Usually.

    Also, as well as not starting relationships with people you work with, don't get someone you're in a relationship with a job at your workplace. The mechanics might be different, but the potential for drama is exactly the same.

Isn't this all a bit complicated?

Well yes. Yes it is. But human relationships are complicated, and poly ones exponentially more so. If you have rules to make negiotiating the trials of relationships easier it means that everyone involved can spend more time doing the fun stuff than worrying about problems. And the fun stuff in poly is absolutely worth it.

Poly is not for everyone, I freely accept that, but where the potential for hurt and drama is obviously multiplied by involving more people, so is the potential for good stuff too. There are more people to have fun with in good times and more people to help out in bad times. For me, it's absolutely worth it. YMM, as they say, V.



*yes, yes, lots of shagging. But also lots of people to snuggle and have mutual support systems with

**some of them very recently -_-"

***I also have people primed to keep an eye on me if I have beer when he's around because despite his irresponsibility and stunted emotional growth I am still incredibly attracted to him -_-"

****and, you know, USING your diary/google calendar/outlook/whatever is a GOOD PLAN (totally not aiming this at anyone in particular at all) (although, you know, I'm bad for this too)

*****quit it with the hollow laughter at the back there. QUIT IT.


comment count unavailable comments
03 Dec 05:49

One Last Time

by Lawrence
The proposition: that all Doctor Who is ridiculous, hackneyed, and saa-aad...

...unless you're interested in the time in which it was made. Every story ever told, every work of culture ever cultured, has to be judged in the context of its era: Our Thing goes further. A narrative spread across decades, stealing from the rest of human creation by its very nature, magpie-collecting from all of history and from all the storytelling devices we've used to make sense of that history. Watch virtually any other television made in 1963, and you're looking at something that only makes sense if you're first-generation Homo '60s, something you can mock for its scenery-flat cowboys or its egregious use of the word "transistor". Watch the very earliest Doctor Who, and you're watching something about 1963 as much as something that happened to be made there. The ability of the TARDIS to step outside the here-and-now means that every episode is a commentary on its own place in time.

Now we've arrived at the great jubilee, every blogger and broadsheet is listing its Ten Best Stories, or Best Stories of Each Doctor, or All Stories Ranked According to Personal Prejudice. But the final verdict has to be this: Doctor Who has bound itself into every year in which it's been made. I couldn't care about "An Unearthly Child" without being curious about early '60s radiophonics and early '60s war-baby thinking. I couldn't care about "Carnival of Monsters" without taking an interest in '50s SF literature, and the way it affected the people who wrote for TV twenty years later. I couldn't care about "Weng-Chiang" without wondering how the Hammer-gothic tradition shaped British pop-culture in the years that followed. I cculdn't care about "Caves of Androzani" unless I cared about I, Claudius as well, though admittedly that's a bit of a weird one on my part.

Which is why the need to rank and review Doctor Who stories, usually according to spurious rules of sci-fi telly devised years after those stories were made, is a curse on all of us. Lists have always been our downfall. Consider Doctor Who as a mass of TV-making, ethic-defining principles hurtling forwards in time, smacking against the what-we-now-call-tropes of every age and making fabulous, unpredictable shrapnel. Endless pages of About Time - by myself and Tat Wood, and you can often see the bloodstains on the pages where we're ripped chunks out of each other - were wasted in arguing about whether we liked any given story. But the internet is already made of reviews, and besides, Doctor Who covers so much territory that none of us will ever agree with anybody else re: what it really "is". I can only say what I think it is...

...it's like nothing else on Earth. Nobody else in 1963 was making anything that looked like "The Daleks". Nobody else in 1982 was making anything that told the same kind of story as "Kinda". Nobody else in 2005 was making anything that resembled "Rose" at all.

So there it is. All Doctor Who is ridiculous, hackneyed, and saa-aad - let's say it, unwatchable - unless you're primed to understand its place in history. This is, and will be, just as true of the present series as it was of the past: future generations, should they be able to neuro-experience their complete set of iPsych engrams before complete global meltdown, won't be able to appreciate the Matt Smith era unless they also appreciate superhero movies, the cinema version of Harry Potter, XBox-age video gaming, or the early twenty-first-century version of slash-fic. I don't appreciate any of these things, which is why I find it unwatchable now, and also why I hate the modern world. Natch.

But am I right...? Yes, of course I am! Don't be silly. The ad for "The Day of the Doctor" looks as if it should have "not actual game footage" at the bottom of the screen. I'm also entirely wrong, according to people who were eleven-ish in the early '70s and think Doctor Who is all about alien invasion stories, or people who were born just after "Survival" and have no problem with that f***ing fez.

I have nothing else to say, but I don't want "fez" to be the last word.

03 Dec 05:46

Comics: An Imaginary Pursuit

by Illogical Volume

The Comics Journal Website is composed of a number of phantasmagorical pages, some of them ordered as blog posts, others as columns or interviews or features, all of them dedicated to an art of uncertain value.

Wars have been fought over the best way to define this paper-thin phenomenon, many of them on previous incarnation of the Comics Journal site.  On quiet Sunday afternoons in the early 2000s gangs of rabid comics scholars could often be found tossing verbal molotovs back and forth: are comics sequential art, made compelling by the gaps between images, or is any attempt to define a medium based on what it *doesn’t* contain doomed to folly?  Does this alleged art form have its roots in ancient tapestry or arcane graffiti?  Are stories that strain to make childhood fantasies relevant for adult consumers really that much worse than stories that are at pains to distance themselves from the same fantasies?

Which is to say: Do you prefer Dan Clowes or the Sex-Men?

Mickey Maus or Krazy Kat?

You could catch many notions while trawling the endlessly, depthless sea of these online arguments, but no matter how long and hard you toiled you would be hard pressed to find a convincing definition of comics that didn’t fall back on the tautological – no one knows what comics are, but everyone trusts that they will know them when they see them.

On 30/08/2013 a comment was posted on The Comics Journal website that came close to explaining the joke:

First off, the word “muslim” is never implied. Second, the terrorists aren’t real. They are cartoons based loosely on the fact that there are people on this planet who will kill you because you don’t believe in their imaginary god. Again, they are CARTOONS. It’s complete fantasy. So, your last line about “justification for the depiction of terrorists” really makes no sense. Are you a censor? Depiction of what exactly? They aren’t real to begin with. The key phrase in your ridiculously reactionary statement is “having not read it”.

Indie cartoonist Jason Karns there, responding to a question about whether or not his small press comic Fukitor was as “insanely racist” as it looked.  Here we see Karns displaying a sort of thinking that transcends Keats’ “negative capability”, tending instead towards a sort of unfathomable emptiness – the ability to hold a jumble of seemingly contradictory ideas in one’s head without grasping the implications of any of them.

And what sort of work does such an ability lead to?

Work that looks a little bit like this, apparently:

If you break Karns’ argument down to its basic elements, the nature of the great comics scam starts to become clear:

  • Since the visual language of comics, so called, cannot communicate meaning on its own, the above illustration cannot be racist because the “people” depicted in it are not adequately labelled as such.
  • The people who aren’t depicted in this panel exist out there in the world, and their abominable behaviour justifies the sort of unpleasant depiction that Karns has failed to provide here.
  • Except that because they are(n’t) depicted in Karns’ comic these characters cannot relate to anything beyond themselves.  They are “CARTOONS”, which means that these all-caps figments are official friends of Gandalf, and as such as real as your prospects of living a meaningful life.
  • To claim to recognise anything from the world in a comic is to raise suspicions that you want to prevent the object in question from being allowed to exist – perhaps because the copy poses some sort of existential threat to the original.

Compelling as all of the above is, it’s only when Karns’ says that the key phrase in the comment he’s responding to is “having not read it” that this careful observer felt assured in his findings.  You see, the truth is that no one has read Fukitor because it does not exist in a form that can be read.  Sure, you can exchange money for a physical object that announces itself to be “Fukitor”, and if you want to pretend to see a “gung-ho, over-the-top gi-joe thing” within then you’ll find plenty of people who’re willing to play along with you, but you’ll be living a lie together all the same.

I’m not denouncing Karns as a snake oil salesman though: to face the truth is to acknowledge that there’s a tradition of make-believe supporting Karns’ behavior, a strange game that most people give up before puberty hits.   The name of the game is comics, and the rules are as easy to understand as they are to lose yourself to: all you have to do is look at collection of squiggles on a page, decorated with the occasional bubble of meaningful text, and pretend to see a story in there.  Once you’ve grasped this it’s easy to explain how Karns’ comic can depict people who exist without referring to reality, or how it can be both tongue-in-cheek and serious at the same time as per Frank Santoro.   You thought Karns’ head was empty, but in the end  he was just straining to articulate the inexplicable blankness of his calling.

Looking at the Fukinator excerpts available on the Comics Journal website with this knowledge in mind, it’s clear that Karns was right, that nothing is being depicted in the comic that the reader has not brought with them to the chaos.

And so, here we have a picture of The Emperor of Ice Cream rising:

Followed by an illustration of The Six of Seven triumphant:

And a 3D diagram explaining the inner workings of Doctor Spock’s left bollock:

The more astute amongst you will have noticed the real danger presented by comics and interpretations thereof.   This threat was hinted at in Karns’ proclamations, but its clearest expression came through in the sheer persistence of his defenders.

Wading into the river of this argument after Karns himself had been washed away by it, Darryl Ayo and David Brothers both made valiant efforts to explain how images like these serve the (racist, sexist) status quo rater than subverting it in any meaningful way.  The fact that their eloquence was met with yet more idiotic honking might seem to suggest that whiteboys are still too damn comfy to get out of the stupid chair, but a more charitable view of Team Karns’ behaviour might reveal the raw panic behind these responses.   To find something from the world in a comic is to beg the question, “If this thing I’m looking at is really just a jumble of lines on a page, is the version of it I know from the world really any different?  Can it really exist?”   Hence, to read about race in a comic by Benjamin Marra is to find oneself in danger of question the reality of black pain, and to read a comic panel depicting  caricatured Arabs is to consign the subjects of these distortions to the same level of reality as martians.  Perhaps martians were real too once, until they were used in one to many comics, who can say?

In the face of this threat, the idiocy of certain Comics Journal becomes easier to understand – after all, who knows what would happen if these guys ever recognised themselves in the mirror -  as do the constant unprompted references to censorship.  In the face of this pernicious threat to life as we know it, this brutalising abuse of the human imagination, censorship is the only sane response.

Ban the comics.  All of them.  Now.  Before we see too much in there and do even more irreparable damage to the world we live in.

Share on FacebookShare on Facebook

03 Dec 05:31

Exoplanet Neighborhood

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood!
03 Dec 05:20

Sunday favorites

by Fred Clark

Carl Sagan, in Pale Blue Dot

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

03 Dec 05:12

Today is the feast day of St. Mark Twain

by Fred Clark

To celebrate Mark Twain’s birthday, here again is my favorite bit from Huckleberry Finn. This is, in my opinion, the greatest conversion narrative in American literature:

I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was, and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie — and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie — I found that out.

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter — and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather, right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking — thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” — and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

03 Dec 05:03

Moon Bibles

by noreply@blogger.com (John Higgs)
This story appeared in The Times earlier in the week (many thanks to Steve Moore for sending me the clipping).

Microfilm moon bibles! What a wonderful snapshot of that brief moment in history when we were both an analogue civilisation, and also going into space.

But the story raises a number of questions. Every ounce in weight was precious to the Apollo programme, so taking books on microfilm appears sensible at first. Until, that is, you remember that there was no way a bulky microfilm reader would have been on board. Whatever reason they took those Bibles to the moon, it was not to read them. Their journey into space was for symbolic reasons, not practical ones.

Then there's the fact that they took 100 of them, as if the astronauts were intending to convert The Clangers.

Clangers: Not Yet Christian.
The answer, of course, is money. Those microfilm moon bibles can fetch over $10,000 a pop in auctions, so taking 100 will have made someone a nice little windfall.

But look again at what really happened - the proximity of the moon granted these old Iron Age texts an extra quality - they gained value. That is magical thinking. Money itself is magical thinking, as certain pieces of green paper are deemed to have value which other pieces of green paper do not, provided they have been blessed by the wizards at the Federal Reserve (as Robert Anton Wilson used to put it.)

So the Apollo Prayer League were using the power of the moon to take an old form of magic (sacred texts) and convert them into a more modern form of magic (dollars). That's an occult act, in anyone's book, and one performed for personal gain rather than the greater good.

Who knew that Christians were that ideologically flexible?


03 Dec 04:40

What scared H. P. Lovecraft

by Charlie Stross

(No, not unicorns.)

H. P. Lovecraft was born in August 1890 and died in March 1937. (And I have just experienced a queasy moment of realization: that I am now older than he was when he died.) He's remembered to this day mostly as an author of disturbing and fantastic fiction, and as the spark that ignited an entire sub-genre of horror, in which many other authors work (myself included).

But what exactly was it that fuelled his deep sense of paranoia and dread at the scale of the cosmos, and made his work so memorable?

I have a hypothesis.

We know that Lovecraft was fascinated by astronomy as a boy; and the formative years for this interest would have been approximately 1895-1910.

A trip to the McCormick Museum at the University of Virginia's online history of photographic astronomy may shed some light on Lovecraft's view of the cosmos. Prior to the development of photographic processes, astronomy was limited to what the human eye could see, with or without magnification. But from the 1840s onwards astronomers began to experiment with Daguerreotypes and later with improved photographic processes. By use of long exposure times, and telescopes on mobile platforms that kept the instruments aimed at the same point in the heavens despite the Earth's rotation, it was possible to gather far more photons than a merely human eye could sense, over a longer period of time, from fainter objects. During the 1880s the use of silver bromide emulsions revolutionized the field of photographic astronomy, and permitted the first photographic sky surveys.

(Incidentally, there's a lot more on the history of photographic astronomy and astronometry here—it's well worth a browse.)

Prior to the 1890s, our conception of the universe was very different from the cosmology we are familiar with today.

We measure the Apparent magnitude of an object to classify stars by how bright they appear to the naked eye, using a system dating to antiquity but formalized in the 1850s. (The higher the number, the fainter the object: anything with an apparent magnitude higher than roughly 6.5 is not visible to the naked eye.) There are roughly 5000 stars in the skies that are visible with the naked eye, and a scant double-handful of visible galaxies. Individual stars in other galaxies are not visible to the naked eye, and so these objects were commonly known as "spiral nebulae", to distinguish them from other non-stellar objects (which today are known to be gas and dust clouds). When we add telescopic assistance, many more stars are visible: there are about a third of a million above apparent magnitude 10.0.

So the universe into which H. P. Lovecraft was born consisted of the Milky Way, containing perhaps a million stars, and some irritating unidentifiable nebulous things.

But there's more! Remember that in 1890 we didn't know how the sun generated heat and light, or how old it was. Perhaps the best-remembered theory of the time was Lord Kelvin's paper from 1862: "the sun is now an incandescent liquid mass, radiating away heat, either primitively created in his substance, or, what seems far more probable, generated by the falling in of meteors in past times, with no sensible compensation by a continuance of meteoric action." Working backwards from this assumption, Lord Kelvin derived an estimate of the maximum age of the sun:

We may, therefore, accept, as a lowest estimate for the sun's initial heat, 10,000,000 times a year's supply at the present rate, but 50,000,000 or 100,000,000 as possible, in consequence of the sun's greater density in his central parts.

The considerations adduced above, in this paper, regarding the sun's possible specific heat, rate of cooling, and superficial temperature, render it probable that he must have been very sensibly warmer one million years ago than now; and, consequently, if he has existed as a luminary for ten or twenty million years, he must have radiated away considerably more than the corresponding number of times the present yearly amount of loss.

It seems, therefore, on the whole most probable that the sun has not illuminated the earth for 100,000,000 years, and almost certain that he has not done so for 500,000,000 years. As for the future, we may say, with equal certainty, that inhabitants of the earth can not continue to enjoy the light and heat essential to their life for many million years longer unless sources now unknown to us are prepared in the great storehouse of creation.

Remember, if you will, that the discovery of radioactivity did not take place until 1896. Lord Kelvin's speculation was based on the rigorously understood physics of the Newtonian era; working with the best information available, he placed the age of the sun at most likely less than 100 million years (and definitely less than 500 million).

So: the universe H. P. Lovecraft was born into consisted of a single galaxy containing about a million stars, and our own star was less than 100 million years old.

The universe Lovecraft died in was very different.

The first attempts at using parallax to determine the distance of stars and other astronomical objects from photographs took place in the 1890s. Instruments for comparing photographic plates taken at different times during the Earth's orbit around the sun were developed over the next couple of decades, and studies soon expanded from measurements of distance to proper motion and spectral analysis. At the same time, larger and larger mirrors were becoming available for reflector telescopes, aiding the observation of increasingly distant (and faint) objects. During the second decade of the 20th century, Edwin Hubble pushed back the distance scale of the observable universe to a dizzying extent. By studying Cepheid variables, a type of star characterised by its highly predictable variable luminosity (making them a useful standard candle), and comparing the brightness of Cepheid variables visible in "spiral nebulae" to nearer Cepheids whose distance could be calculated by parallax observation, Hubble was able to prove that the spiral nebulae were located far outside the milky way. Next, during the 1920s, Hubble used spectroscopic observation and distance estimates based on Cepheid variables to establish that more distant galaxies were receding faster, determining the Hubble constant—the rate at which the observable universe is expanding.

Finally, during the early decades of the 20th century it became obvious that the sun's radiation was powered not by gravitational collapse but by some other nuclear-related energy source. The precise mechanism was not determined until the 1940s, but in 1920 Arthur Eddington proposed that the fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium was a likely candidate; subsequently the detailed theory of stellar nucleosynthesis emerged to support this hypothesis.

Today, in 2013, we live in the Milky Way galaxy; it is believed to contain between 100 billion and 500 billion stars. The Milky Way is part of a local group of over fifty galaxies, but the observable universe is believed to contain 100-200 billion galaxies (and possibly a lot more). Finally, detailed observations have determined that our universe is 13.8 billion years old.

At the time of Lovecraft's death in 1937, the universe was considerably smaller—but it was still vastly larger than it had been at the time of his birth; with over a hundred million stars in our own galaxy, and many tens or hundreds of millions of other galaxies estimated, and the upper limit on the sun's age raised to five billion years, the universe had expanded by two orders of magnitude in age and nine orders of magnitude in size (as measured by the number of stars) during Lovecraft's life. That's eleven orders of magnitude in just over four decades.

Let's look for a modern metaphor:

The cosmos expanded during Lovecraft's life at a rate comparable to the rate of expansion of available data storage during my life. I was born in late 1964. In 1973, the total manufactured fixed disk storage capacity in the United States was on the order of 100Gb. 40 years later, it's really hard to buy hard disks that small; hard disk storage currently costs on the order of 4 cents per gigabyte, giving our 1973 USA's installed hard disk capacity a value of around $5.

I am going to take it as so glaringly obvious that our computers' power has grown exponentially since 1973 that I'm not going to bother with figures, other than to note that my mobile phone in 2013 has over a thousand times the processing power, storage/memory bandwidth, and storage capacity of a Cray-1 supercomputer from 1976 (price: $8.86 million, in 1976 dollars—$36.46M in today's money.

Forty years of Moore's law and its cousins have given us an inflating, exponentiating bubble in computing power that compares eerily to the forty year marathon of cosmological discoveries that informed Lovecraft's later weltanshauung, as expressed through fictions such as "At the Mountains of Madness" (1931), "The Color out of Space" (1927) and "The Whisperer in Darkness" (1931).

I believe that Lovecraft's sense of cosmological dread emerged from the exponential expansion and recomplication of the universe he lived in—it eerily prefigures the appeal of today's singularitarian fiction, which depends for its dizzying affect on a similar exponential growth curve. Lovecraft interpreted the expansion of his universe as a thing of horror, a changing cosmic scale factor that ground humanity down into insignificance. Not all writers from his period took this approach; to many, the expanded universe was a playground of joyous imagination. Today, singularitarian fiction is frequently aspirational, a literature of transcendence (with theological taproots linking it to the early Russian cosmists). But the inversion of a sense of wonder is a sense of dread. Which leaves me asking, where is the singularitarian Lovecraft?

03 Dec 04:33

Me, my selfie and I

by stavvers

The latest thing which we’re meant to discuss if it is or isn’t feminist is selfies: those little pictures we take of ourselves. Most of us fell somewhere between “Yes, I’m a feminist and I take selfies” and “Meh”, but in the spirit of media-friendly debate and clickbait, some awful stuff had to be shat out and published.

Jezebel stepped up for publishing the worst. I can’t say I’m surprised, since they’ve managed to be godawful in the past on other issues, most notably with their massive race problem, which interacted with them defending and enabling an abuse perpetrator. This article isn’t as bad as those things, but it’s still so awful I won’t link to it. It’s called “Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help.” For reals. And its argument falls into two strands: “women aren’t saying anything in pictures of themselves” (?!) and “it’s just a way of getting validation from other people” (????!!!!!)

Here’s a picture of my face while I was reading it:

Snapshot_20131122_1

 

You might not think it, since I decided to stick a big picture of my horrorshock face in the middle of this post, but I’m terrified of having my photo taken. When it comes up, I am filled with bubbling anxiety and almost end up on the brink of tears. I don’t have any current photo ID because I hate the idea so much, and I have often ended up disappearing when among friends and the camera comes out.

It started some years ago. I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say it involved a man, coercion, a camera and my naked body. Since then, I haven’t exactly had the association of cameras with male control of me broken. I often encounter cameras in my interactions with the police: they photograph and film me and people like me to keep us in line. It’s a threat, the way police hold the cameras: we are watching you, and we will attack you and say you deserved it all along. This method of using cameras has since filtered down to the kind of misogynist who likes to do the cops’ work for them, and will photograph and film those who call them out on their behaviour in an attempt to intimidate.

To me, someone taking my photo is therefore intrinsically linked with patriarchal control. Whether it’s sexual or behavioural control, it is an attempt to mould me into something that men want me to be: the quiet woman, the sexual object. They use the camera to position me into whichever roles they would prefer me to occupy.

It’s different with selfies. With selfies, I have complete control over my own image.

I suppose I started taking selfies when I realised there were some things that words couldn’t articulate well, and what I needed to say was best said with my face and body. When putting a webcam or a front-facing camera in front of me, I can see exactly what I look like, and make sure, before taking the snap that I look how I want to look and I am communicating what I want to communicate.

And that’s why I take selfies. Because it’s me presenting myself to the world in the way I want to be presented.

I am not filtered through a male lens into what these shutterbug Pygmalions want to see. It’s just me and my message.

 


03 Dec 03:22

A Just-Born Japanese Island and A Heat Map of a Penguin

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

Here are photos of a volcanic eruption creating a brand new 660-foot Japanese island (they haven't named it, because sometimes islands like this disappear). Here is a group of penguins on a heat map. The internet giveth, and the internet taketh away. [Salon/PS]

0 Comments
03 Dec 03:18

In Four Years, Man Arrested 62 Times For Trespassing (In The Convenience Store Where He Works)

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

Via the Miami Herald, a hideous tale of institutional privilege:

Earl Sampson has been stopped and questioned by Miami Gardens police 258 times in four years. He’s been searched more than 100 times. And arrested and jailed 56 times.

Despite his long rap sheet, Sampson, 28, has never been convicted of anything more serious than possession of marijuana.

Miami Gardens police have arrested Sampson 62 times for one offense: trespassing. Almost every citation was issued at the same place: the 207 Quickstop, a convenience store on 207th Street in Miami Gardens. But Sampson isn’t loitering. He works as a clerk at the Quickstop.

258 times in four years. 258 times in four years. 62 arrests for trespassing in his own workplace. Alex Saleh, the Quickstop's owner, installed a video camera in his store in 2012 and has since amassed quite a bit of evidence against the area police, who have been going so far as to file falsified arrest reports. (Saleh himself was once run down by six squad cars for a bad tag light, and cited for three infractions, including "bald tires.") Burn it all down! [Miami Herald]

15 Comments
27 Nov 10:00

The Jaguar

The Jaguar

27 Nov 09:53

#980; In which Injuries are Internal

by David Malki !

by definition if something is 'not a problem' then it is also 'not fixable'. which is, uh, what I was afraid of all along

22 Nov 10:28

The Neuroscience of Everyday Life

by Neuroskeptic

I am sitting reading a book. After a while, I get up and make a cup of coffee.

why_coffee

I’ve been thinking about this scenario lately as I’ve pondered ‘what remains to be discovered’ in our understanding the brain.

By this I mean, what (if anything) prevents neuroscience from at least sketching out an explanation for all of human behaviour?

A complete explanation of any given behaviour – such as my reading a particular book – would be impossible, as it would require detailed knowledge of all my brain activity.

But neuroscience could sketch an account of some stages of the reading. We have models for how my motor cortex and cerebellum might coordinate my fingers to turn the pages of my book. Other models try to make sense of the recognition of the letters by my visual cortex.

This is what I mean by ‘beginning to account for’. We have theories that are not wholly speculative. While we don’t yet have the whole story of motor control or visual perception, we have made a start.

Yet I’m not sure that we can even begin to explain: why did I stop what I was doing, get up, and make coffee at that particular time?

The puzzle, it seems, does not lie in my actual choice to make some coffee (as opposed to not making it.) We could sketch an explanation for how, once the mental image (memory) of coffee ‘crossed my mind’, that image set off  dopamine firing (i.e. I like coffee), and this dopamine, acting on corticostriatal circuits, selected the action of making coffee over the less promising alternatives.

But why did that mental image of coffee cross my mind in the first place? And why did it do so just then, not thirty seconds before or afterwards?

There’s a gulf, a blank space just at the moment of ‘spontaneity’ where, not in response to any stimulus but ‘just because’, the idea of coffee entered the equation.

I am not suggesting, by the way, that this cannot be explained by neuroscience because it’s “free will” or otherwise inexplicable. I believe there must be a neurobiological explanation, but I don’t know of any good candidates yet.

Do I have some idea-generator, some inner schemer, constantly throwing up suggestions to see if they set off some dopamine? As far as I know, no-one has tried to locate such a generator in the brain, or to explain how it works. Is it a distinct module, or just a product of random noise or deterministic chaos in the relevant pathways?

Alternatively, maybe the idea of coffee wasn’t really autochthonous. It might have been triggered by some stimulus. Perhaps, in my memory, coffee is associated with books; as I read, page by page, the reminders accumulated, until I was reminded of (thought of) coffee?

On this view, we can begin to account for every step but at the cost of making me a slave to my environment. This seems unlikely, not least because in dreams, the most fantastic ideas cross my mind even though my sensory stimuli are minimal.

If I can dream of new ideas, surely I can have them when awake too – but then that puzzling generator reappears. Tricky.

The post The Neuroscience of Everyday Life appeared first on Neuroskeptic.

22 Nov 09:37

CGCATTCCG TTTCGCGAAGAT AGCGCGAACGGCGAACGC

by Ed Yong

A brief tribute to a great and influential scientist. I’ll explain later.

[Update: Okay, let me explain. That is a DNA sequence. Every set of three letters codes for an amino acid, and each amino acid is denoted by a letter. So CGC encodes arginine, which is denoted by an R. If you read along the sequence and translate it in this way, it spells out "RIP FRED SANGER". Fred Sanger was an incredible scientist who developed ways of sequencing DNA and proteins (which are strings of amino acids). He revolutionised biology and medicine, won two Nobel prizes, and died earlier this week. This was the most fitting tribute I could think of.]

22 Nov 09:20

Loneliest Human

by xkcd

Loneliest Human

What is the furthest one human being has ever been from every other living person? Were they lonely?

Bryan J. McCarter

It's hard to know for sure!

The most likely suspects are the six Apollo command module pilots who stayed in lunar orbit during a Moon landing: Mike Collins, Dick Gordon, Stu Roosa, Al Worden, Ken Mattingly, and Ron Evans.

Each of these astronauts stayed alone in the command module while two other astronauts landed on the Moon. At the highest point in their orbit, they were about 3,585 kilometers from their fellow astronauts.

You'd think astronauts would have a lock on this category, but it's not so cut-and-dry. There are a few other candidates who come pretty close!

Polynesians

It's hard to get 3,585 kilometers[1]Because of the curve of the Earth, you actually have to go 3,619 kilometers across the surface to qualify. from a permanently inhabited place. The Polynesians, who were the first humans to spread across the Pacific, might have managed it, but this would have required a lone sailor to travel awfully far ahead of everyone else. It may have happened—perhaps by accident, when someone was carried far from their group by a storm—but we're unlikely to ever know for sure.

Once the Pacific was colonized, it got a lot harder to find regions of the Earth's surface where someone could achieve 3,585 kilometer isolation. Now that the Antarctic continent has a permanent population of researchers, it's almost certainly impossible.

Antarctic explorers

During the period of Antarctic exploration, a few people have come close to beating the astronauts, and it's possible one of them actually holds the record. One person who came very close was Robert Scott.

Robert Falcon Scott was a British explorer who met a tragic end. Scott's expedition reached the South Pole in 1911, only to discover that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten him there by several months. The dejected Scott and his companions began their trek back to the coast, but they all died while crossing the Ross Ice Shelf.

The last surviving expedition member would have been, briefly, one of the most isolated people on Earth.[2]Amundsen's expedition had left the continent by then. However, he (whoever he was) was still within 3,585 kilometers of a number of humans, including some other Antarctic explorer outposts as well as the Māori on Rakiura (Stewart Island) in New Zealand.

There are plenty of other candidates. Pierre François Péron, a French sailor, says he was marooned on Île Amsterdam in the southern Indian Ocean. If so, he came close to beating the astronauts, but he wasn't quite far enough from Mauritius, southwestern Australia, or the edge of Madagascar to qualify.

We'll probably never know for sure. It's possible that some shipwrecked 18th-century sailor drifting in a lifeboat in the Southern Ocean holds the title of most isolated human. However, until some clear piece of historic evidence pops up, I think the six Apollo astronauts have a pretty good claim.

Which brings us to the second part of Bryan's question: Were they lonely?

Loneliness

After returning to Earth, Apollo 11 command module pilot Mike Collins said he did not feel at all lonely. He wrote about the experience in his book Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys:

Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface ... I don't mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon.
I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.

Al Worden, the Apollo 15 command module pilot, even enjoyed the experience:[3]BBC Future interview with Al Wolden (April 2, 2013)

There's a thing about being alone and there's a thing about being lonely, and they're two different things. I was alone but I was not lonely. My background was as a fighter pilot in the air force, then as a test pilot–and that was mostly in fighter airplanes–so I was very used to being by myself. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn't have to talk to Dave and Jim any more ... On the backside of the Moon, I didn't even have to talk to Houston and that was the best part of the flight.

Introverts understand; the loneliest human in history was just happy to have a few minutes of peace and quiet.

22 Nov 08:57

Kid Flash The Super Creep: The Problem With ‘Funny Harassment’

by Annalee

Content Warning: this post discusses sexual harassment, stalking, and sexual assault.

Kid Flash

Kid Flash

I’ve recently been introduced to Young Justice, a superhero cartoon featuring beloved sidekicks of the Justice League. It started in 2010 and wrapped up earlier this year. I’m a big fan of superhero cartoons, having grown up on the DC Animated Universe. So Young Justice is right up my alley.

But if Kid Flash doesn’t have a drastic character adjustment pretty soon, I’m giving up on the show.

Kid Flash, AKA Wally West, is one of the founding members of the Justice League’s covert junior team. As soon as he meets teammate Miss Martian, he starts hitting on her. She brushes him off.

And so begins a campaign of sexual harassment that, seven episodes in, shows no sign of ending soon. It’s annoying enough to watch as a viewer, because harassment isn’t funny, but what it says about this world and the morals of these alleged ‘heroes’ is pretty gross.

Aside from Robin making fun of Kid Flash with no apparent concern for Miss Martian’s personhood, no one has called him out. Neither Robin nor team leader Aqualad has pulled him aside and said “Bro. She’s not interested. Quit being a creep.” The adult members of the Justice League don’t seem concerned, either–though given how the adult Flash behaves, it’d not hard to work out where young Wally picked up his views on women.

So Miss Martian has to put up with not just killer robots and evil monsters, but also with an incessant campaign of sexual harassment. On top of that, she has to rely on a team that clearly doesn’t have her back. They’d rather laugh about Kid Flash’s behavior than tell him to knock it off.

As far as the show is concerned, this situation is funny. We’re meant to laugh at Wally and his pathetic antics, rather than empathize with how awkward and uncomfortable his harassment makes things for Miss Martian.

If it were just this one obnoxious character on one show, it’d be an ignorant joke in terrible taste. But Kid Flash is part of a larger pattern[1] of pop culture heroes portraying sexual harassment as funny or endearing.

Miss Martian

Miss Martian

This stuff matters–not just because it’s an annoying trope that alienates harassment and assault survivors, but because it leads to real people getting harassed and assaulted in the real world. It perpetuates the idea that harassment is normal courting behavior, and that “no” actually means “keep asking me until I change my fickle girly mind and fall madly in love with you.” Some folks who’ve been raised on a steady diet of this trope have it so bad that they take anger and contempt as signs that their victim secretly likes them back.

A guy who assaulted me went on to subject me to this kind of ‘funny’ harassment. He was a friend of my brother’s and a member of a social club I was very heavily involved in, so I had no good way to avoid him.

Among other obnoxious behavior, he was constantly calling me ‘babe.’ Every single time he did it, I told him to knock it off. I tried patiently explaining that I found it demeaning. I tried yelling. I tried getting up and leaving the room. I tried flipping him off and calling him sexist.

He kept right on doing it.

One day he told me he did it because the main character in his favorite book did it.

I bet the romantic interest in that book told the main character to quit calling her ‘babe,’ too. I’ll bet she was a Strong Female Character who Didn’t Put Up With Nonsense.

And I’ll bet by the end of the book, his campaign of harassment had changed her fickle, girly mind and she’d fallen madly in love with him, thus completing his hero narrative of the good guy getting the girl.

They guy who assaulted me? His campaign of harassment didn’t end that way.

It ended with him assaulting me a second time.

Since I grew up watching cartoons, I’m used to superheroes telling me about seat-belts, recycling, stranger danger, staying away from guns, and not trying superheroics at home. Would it have killed Young Justice to have a member of the Justice League take young Wally aside and tell him that heroes treat women with respect?

Or, better yet, they could have just not included ‘funny harassment’ at all, because harassment isn’t funny, and Miss Martian is supposed to be there to fight bad guys, not to teach socially-awkward boy geniuses like Wally how to behave around women.


[1] TV Tropes has several pages full of examples, including:

  1. [CW: Harassment, stalking] “The Dogged Nice Guy”
  2. [CW: Harassment, stalking, misogyny]: “Defrosting the Ice Queen”
  3. [CW: harassment, stalking]: “Belligerent Sexual Tension”
  4. [CW: Stalking]: “Stalking is love”
21 Nov 23:19

What David Cameron can learn from schoolgirls and soccer moms

by The Heresiarch
David Cameron comes in for a lot of criticism from libertarian and sex-positive types for his morally conservative attitude to internet porn, as shown in his determination to force IP companies to introduce opt-in smut filters. But perhaps he just doesn't have either the time or the inclination to do his own research, and is reliant on what campaigners tell him, or what he reads in the Daily Mail. If so, then he can scarcely be blamed for assuming that the entirety of "mainstream porn" is violent and misogynistic, encourages adolescent boys to hate women and abuse their girlfriends and irreperably corrupts the minds of young children who innocently go looking for pictures of kittens.

After all, it's common knowledge that in the age of the internet porn is pretty grim stuff. Even self-declared feminist pornographers proclaim as much, even while selling their own dream of a sex-positive, eco-friendly, non-exploitative alternative. Indeed, the essential violence and misogyny of the "mainstream" is as much an item of faith among "alternative" pornographers as it is for anti-porn campaigners such as Gail Dines, who has described online erotica as "a never-ending universe of ravaged anuses, distended vaginas and semen-smeared faces".

Not only does the alternative producers' business model depend upon the existence of an unspeakable mainstream (rather as the censors' does also) so does their self-identity - now buttressed by a global network of arty porn festivals and feminist award ceremonies. The existence of easy-access, free and often pirated porn is the common enemy of both professional porn producers and moralists, it must be said, so the confluence of interest in damning "mainstream porn" isn't surprising.

It's also common knowledge that only boys and men want to watch porn anyway. Even in households without children, Our Dave promises, "husbands will have to have a difficult conversation with their wives about accessing porn at home". Because all women everywhere are horrified by the very idea of sexually explicit material - and men, meanwhile, are so ashamed by it they will acquiesce in default filters that in the way of things will end up blocking a great many sites that aren't remotely pornographic anyway. So that's OK then.

Is there any actual research, as opposed to anecdote, about what "mainstream porn" really looks like? It's not difficult to do, after all - at least, not until the Cameron Cordon arrives some time next year. Here's some, conducted by three women at New Brunswick University in Canada, led by graduate student Sarah Vannier and her supervisor Professor Lucia O’Sullivan. Recently unveiled by Vannier at a science and sexuality conference in San Diego, it has a catchy title - Schoolgirls and Soccer Moms: A Content Analysis of Free "Teen" and "MILF" Online Pornography. Ironically, the content of this content analysis is not free, but if the abstract is accurate it does what it says on the tin.

Vannier's research interests include oral sex among teenagers and sexual compliance in committed relationships ("I’m pretty sure I picked one of the most interesting careers out there", she says.) She has also written a sex advice column for her student newspaper - in which she notes that "although watching porn for research sounds like a ton of fun, it does get boring after a while". Concentrating on free sites not only makes for low research costs (though was the research possible on the university's own computers, I wonder?) it's also the most useful place to start, given that they account for the vast majority of porn consumption.

And as the abstract says in somewhat self-contradictory terms, "viewing free online pornographic videos has increasingly become a common behavior among young people, although little is known about the content of these videos." Presumably the content of the videos is not little known to the many who view them. But you get the point - little is known officially and publicly (or in academic journals) about the content of the videos.

And perhaps (though perhaps not) little is known to the politicians making decisions about internet filtering about the content of these videos. It's an area where admitting ignorance is a positive asset to a politician or a pundit, where claiming to know what you're talking about might be held against you. "I've never seen the stuff myself, but I've heard it's revolting" is the safest line to take publicly. I suspect that several politicians who may find themselves having "difficult conversations" at home next year know more than they will ever say. But since coming out in opposition to the porn filter is as much as admission of guilt, that will have to remain in the realm of conjecture.

So short of informing yourself by actually visiting these sites, which no-one in their right mind would ever do, you'll have to rely on Sarah Vannier's research. And so, without further ado:

The current study analyzed the content of two popular female-age-based types of free, online pornography (teen and MILF) and examined nuances in the portrayal of gender and access to power in relation to the age of the female actor. A total of 100 videos were selected from 10 popular Web sites, and their content was coded using independent raters.

The focus of the research, then, was not only on the content of the videos but on the underlying socio-political message. Were these "popular" genres characterised principally by violence and perversion? Were the women involved portrayed as the degraded playthings of insatiable male lust? Not entirely:

Vaginal intercourse and fellatio were the most frequently depicted sexual acts. The use of sex toys, paraphilias, cuddling, and condom use were rare, as were depictions of coercion.

Control of the pace and direction of sexual activity was typically shared by the male and female actors. Moreover, there were no gender differences in initiation of sexual activity, use of persuasion, portrayals of sexual experience, or in professional status. However, female actors in MILF videos were portrayed as more agentic and were more likely to initiate sexual activity, control the pace of sexual activity, and have a higher professional status.

(My italics)

So there you have it. Older female performers were "more likely to initiate sexual activity" but even in "teen" videos the women aren't entirely or even predominantly passive. There were "no gender differences". This is of course strikingly at variance with the almost universal assumptions about the content of mainstream porn, even those articulated by alternative and feminist pornographers. So contrary are these findings to the accepted wisdom I'd be amazed if they were taken seriously or used to inform the public debate. Nevertheless, I suspect the research will come as little surprise to the majority of people who actually watch the stuff.

Truly, online porn exists in a parallel universe


© 2013 Heresy Corner, all rights reserved.
21 Nov 22:58

Over Half of All Anti-LGBT Homicide Victims in 2012 Were Transgender Women

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

"According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 53.8 percent of anti-LGBT homicide victims in 2012 were transgender women, the majority of whom were people of color. In 2011, the percentage of transgender women in this statistic was substantially lower: 40 percent. For transgender women, it doesn’t get better, apparently. We experience most of the violence with none of the visibility. We are the dead and we are the forgotten. In the face of a world that erases us, remembering this violence is more than just an obligation—it is an act of resistance." [Jacobin]

0 Comments
21 Nov 22:57

Some Important Star Stuff

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

From ThisIsColossal, "If you were to look up in the sky and locate the constellation Pegasus, this entire cluster of stars is located inside of it." NASA's photo blog, probably my favorite website, adds some space poetry: "Stars, like bees, swarm around the center of bright globular cluster M15." This photo was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and spans about 120 light years, and in the center of the picture, there is a "rare type of black hole"!

Then, over at the Atlantic, we've got a number for the total stars in the observable universe: a septillion. "That's 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars." Only about 5,000 of those are visible from Earth, which means that only about 2,500 are visible from any one fixed position under ideal circumstances, which means it's Magic School Bus time.

Image via NASA.

3 Comments
21 Nov 22:44

Dame of what?

by Shaun Usher


Novelist Doris Lessing passed away yesterday, aged 94, following an impressive career during which she wrote, most notably, The Golden Notebook, won numerous awards for her work, and never minced her words. In 2007, when informed by reporters outside her home that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, she famously reacted with an endearing indifference that has since been replayed by thousands. Indeed, she later called winning the award a "bloody disaster." 15 years before that, in 1992, she was offered the chance to become a Dame—an opportunity Lessing, who was brought up in Southern Rhodesia, rejected with the letter below, sent to then-Prime Minister John Major's Principal Private Secretary, Alex Allan.

(Source: University of East Anglia; Image: Doris Lessing, via.)

24th November, 1992

Dear Alex Allan,

I am sorry I did not reply earlier, but I was in the States.

Thank you for offering me this honour: I am very pleased. But for some time now I have been wondering, "But where is this British Empire?" Surely, there isn't one. And now I see that I am not the only one saying the same.

There is something ruritannical about honours given in the name of a non-existent Empire.

And there is another thing. When young I did my best to undo that bit of the British Empire I found myself in: that is, old Southern Rhodesia.

And surely there is something unlikeable about a person, when old, accepting honours from a institution she attacked when young?

And yet...how pleasant to be a dame! I would adore it. Dame of what?

Dame of Britain? Dame of the British Islands? Dame of the British Commonwealth? Dame of ....? Never mind.

Please forgive my churlishness. I am sorry, I really am.

Yours sincerely,

Doris Lessing


RSS Feed proudly sponsored by TinyLetter, a simple newsletter service for people with something to say.
21 Nov 22:21

Get These White Boys Out My Children's Books

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

At the Huffington Post, Soraya Chemaly asks:

How many people would never consider buying Anne of Green Gables or Island of the Blue Dolphins for their 10-year old boy, but don't pause before giving a daughter Treasure Island or Enders Game? Books featuring girls are, for the most part, understood to be books for girls. Which is interesting as well because, in addition to there not being enough, books featuring girls as protagonists are disproportionately among the most frequently banned children's books. In a recent Buzzfeed list of 15 commonly banned books for kids, almost half were about girls. Girls who do things apparently scare a lot of people.

Over the last 100 years, this is how the numbers shake out:

  • 57% of children's books published each year have male protagonists, versus 31% female.
  • In popular children's books featuring animated animals, 100% of them have male characters, but only 33% have female characters.
  • The average number of books featuring male characters in the title of the book is 36.5% versus 17.5% for female characters.

Also, the diversity problem is significantly worse when it comes to ethnicity:

Of an estimated 5,000 books released in 2012, only 3.3% featured African-Americans; 2.1% featured Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders; 1.5% featured Latinos; and only 0.6% featured Native Americans. God forbid you have the audacity to be a girl of color and expect to see yourself as cherished by our culture.

Shout out to all the "girls of color" out there who, like me, just walked around being like "CHERISH ME, NERDS." [HuffPo]

74 Comments
21 Nov 21:18

#s28pink

by noreply@blogger.com (Jen)
Remember when Labour decided 5 more years of kids growing up under section 28 was worth it for a slightly easier ride from the Daily Mail?

It's not the story Labour-leaning groups are giving us on the tenth anniversary of the abolition of Section 28, but the infamous clause has at its inception and abolition two of the moments that kept me from being a member of the Labour party even at the height of Labour popularity in the mid to late 90s.

Section 28 made homosexuality a thought crime, a terrible but brilliant move that it would be nice to think was only possible off the back of HIV hysteria. A splendidly vague law that could be argued to prevent anything homophobes in positions of power wanted to stop happening, it was used to block information for schoolkids and bar newspapers appearing in libraries.  In those pre-interweb days, it helped isolate a generation of queers just as homophobic myth and hate was at a crescendo.

In the late 80s when the Conservatives unveiled Section 28, Labour's instinct was to tack with the popular mood and support its introduction.  In those early days of the bill, only the Lib Dems opposed it - at a time when the party was in such a mess it couldn't even agree on its own name. Much credit to those people inside the Labour party who managed to turn that around over time, but the kneejerk response of the reds went the wrong way. Popularity or all people equal before the law? Labour jumped one way, the SocialLiberalDemocraticExpialidocious party the other.



Come 1997, the country was in the mood for change and deep down we all knew this time the Tories were on their way out. The Lib Dem manifesto included repeal of Clause 28 among other equality commitments. Remember, back then you could be fired from your job or turned down for employment for being bi or gay. We had a discriminatory age of consent to keep gay men in their place and tell bi men that their mixed-sex relationships were more legitimate. Adoption, fostering, partnership recognition, so many things that are 'normal' now were a world away.

Labour didn't include repeal of Section 28 in their manifesto.  In the great tension of "what is right to do" versus "what will upset the Sun and the Daily Mail", they decided that keeping the tabloids on side was more important than the impact on isolated queers, including lots of LGBT and cishetero children growing up in schools that wouldn't give them the support they needed when they had questions about their sexual orientation or were being bullied because they were perceived as gay.

So when Blair got his landslide, Section 28 wasn't in the Labour manifesto. That meant repeal had to wait until the 2001-2005 parliament because the House of Lords, packed with prejudiced peers angry at their imminent removal from the House under Lords reform, unsurprisingly blocked repeal.

As Labour shadow ministers trumpet the great repeal of the Tories' Section 28 today, remember: their party actively chose to keep it in place for another parliamentary term, chose to keep it damaging schoolkids for another four or five years, for the sake of a couple of cheap headlines.

My crudest Anglo-Saxon lacks adequate words.
21 Nov 20:44

Renisha McBride's Shooter Charged With Second-Degree Murder

by Jia Tolentino
by Jia Tolentino

After intense local agitation and a national media outcry, 54-year-old Ted Wafer has finally been charged for shooting Renisha McBride. From Michigan Radio:

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announced today that the man who shot 19-year-old Renisha McBride on his front porch in the early morning hours of November 2nd will be charged with murder in the second degree, manslaughter, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Second degree murder is non-premeditated murder. It can carry a sentence in Michigan of up to life in prison.

Details of the night are still being withheld, but a few things seem to be clear. Renisha McBride got into a car accident shortly before 1 AM, when a 911 call reported a vehicle hitting a parked car, and a woman leaving on foot. She appeared, accurately, to be intoxicated, a fact which is now grossly taking precedence in some headlines.

McBride returned to her car before 1:30, then left before 1:40, when a police cruiser arrived on the scene to find the car abandoned. The accident took place approximately six blocks from Ted Wafer's house. Early reports pinpoint the time of her shooting around 2:30. Her autopsy pins her death at around 2:45. Police initially told McBride's family that her body was "dumped" elsewhere. Apparently, police are now stating that McBride was killed around 4 and found on Wafer's porch.

There was no evidence of forced entry. According to Worthy's statement, McBride, an unarmed 19-year-old girl, was shot through a locked door. Wafer states that his shotgun went off "accidentally," but he definitely shot her in the face. Below is the post-4 AM 911 call between a dispatcher and a police officer, in which they report a man calling in to say that he shot someone on his porch, and then hanging up. They have to call Wafer back in order to find out the details.

It's encouraging news that prosecutor Worthy has charged Wafer, as Michigan is a Stand Your Ground state and the current attorney general is a Republican who many suspect would sit on the case. Within this context, it seems especially important that police turn over more information than they seem to be willing to; three years ago, Worthy backed away from a similar case because of lack of information.

Talking to Democracy Now, local activist Dawud Walid explains. "We had a Michigan imam who was killed about three years ago by the FBI. He was shot 20 times, African American by the name of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah. Kym Worthy, she refused to go forward and investigate that case, because the FBI refused to turn over certain information that Prosecutor Worthy wanted, which then it got kicked up—the case got kicked up to the Michigan attorney general at the time, former one, Mike Cox, who’s a Republican, who acquitted and found no wrongdoing by the FBI."

At the Nation, Michal Denzel Smith writes, "We have been here before. Our history becomes our present so often it becomes difficult to distinguish the two. Politicians and cable news hosts and the naïvely colorblind ask us to forget, most of the country obliges, and black people, again, are left to piece together the fragments of history, suffering, rage, and pain so that we may have hope for something better."

11 Comments
21 Nov 20:39

Wearable science! Made thanks to popular demand, our third...



Wearable science! Made thanks to popular demand, our third t-shirt is on sale until Sunday for just $14! That’s a $6 discount on knowledge.

21 Nov 20:38

RIP to This Old Clam

by Emma Carmichael
by Emma Carmichael

"And what killed Ming the clam? Scientists trying to work out how old he was, that's what. They found out by killing him."

-A moment of silence today for Ming, the 507-year-old clam killed by science six years ago. Who knows the things that old clam saw?

7 Comments
21 Nov 20:19

To Protect Battered Women, You Have To Protect Their Pets

Holly

This is so true. Someone I know is in this situation right now. It might sound stupid to put yourself at risk for a cat, but when your world's turned upside down and you're trying to get away very suddenly from the person once closest to you, it's nice to have a familiar face around, even if it is a pet's.

Only three percent of shelters nationwide can accommodate domestic animals, and many refuse to leave them behind.