This isn’t my typical Weekend Update. We’re all suffering from anxiety fatigue, outrage fatigue, bad news fatigue, and so on. So I’m not sharing any of the news stories that caught my eye after posting yesterday’s Friday Five. I’m going to post something cool and sweet and science-y that a friend brought to me attention:
This thread about a woman who is a squid scientist who put up signs in her window and set up sidewalk chalk so neighbors can ask science questions about squids and the like, and she would write answers!
Click on the tweet and read the whole thread. It’s adorable!
Danna Staff, the scientist in question, also has a blog. This is her post from which I stole the title of this update: The Best of Cephalopods, The Worst of Cephalopod.
She’s also got a book coming out this fall that you can pre-order now: Monarchs of the Sea: The Extraordinary 500-Million-Year History of Cephalopods.
During my late elementary and middle school years, because of my interest in science fiction, lots of people who weren’t very versed in the science part of sf always assumed that I believed that UFO sightings were always proof of aliens buzzing the planet. And just as more than one adult in my life felt compelled to loan me a copy of Chariots of the Gods—other books about flying saucers, alien abductions, and the like would be handed off to me when it would turn up in a pile of used books and the like. Including, yes, the one pictured above.
And the sorts of adults who would grab such a book with the intention of giving it to a kid they knew are exactly the sort who do not listen when to that kid when they try to explain that this isn’t really the same thing.
But I’m going to try to do the equivalent type of explanation about a related issue that came up in the news this week.
A whole lot of people on social media were sharing this headline: Pentagon declassifies Navy videos that purportedly show UFOs. And a lot of those people were making the same snarky comment, pointing out that since the videos show something that is unidentified, that it is incorrect to say “purportedly.” Because everyone knows that UFOs are unidentified.
That isn’t correct, for two reasons.
First, true the initialism UFO is from the phrase “unidentified flying object”, but you have to look at the entire phrase. It’s not just any unidentified thing. It is an unidentified thing which is flying, and the most common definition of flying is “the action of guiding, piloting, or travelling in an aircraft or spacecraft.” The next most common definition is “move through the air with wings or other propulsion.” In other words, it’s a loaded term. The other issue is the word object, “a material thing (that can be) seen or perceived.”
Which is one reason why the term used by scientists and aviation experts and military analyst use to describe things like those shown in the three de-classified videos is “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Because we don’t know if it’s a physical object, and we don’t know that it is actually being propelled. Some of the unidentified phenomena could be rare electromagnetic phenomena that is visible to human eyes or cameras and registers are radar and similar devices as if it is a physical thing. We really don’t know.
The other reason why using the term “purportedly show UFOs” is because not all readers interpret the collection of letters UFOs as the initialism I mentioned above. As more than one science writer I read back in the day liked to point out, a lot of enthusiasts and crackpots are convinced that the object is not unidentified at all.
But it isn’t just the crackpots and alien enthusiasts. Language isn’t logical. Human brains don’t process language like an algorithm acting on a string of numbers. I’ve pointed out in other contexts that “any sequence of one or more sounds or morphemes (intuitively recognized by native speakers as) constituting the basic units of meaningful speech used in forming a sentence or sentences in a language.” UFO isn’t just can initialism, it’s a word. Think of it that way for a moment, as if it were spelled euephoe. Words have multiple meaning, not simply one. Sometimes one meaning is much more prevalent than others, and sometimes not.
Again, lots of people think of a euephoe as a physical machine designed by someone to propel itself through the sky. And a substantial fraction of them think that it comes from another world.
Headline writers have to take into account various common meanings of words.
Other news sites used UFO in their headlines, and once you get into the article it is clear that they are using it as a synonym for unidentified aerial phenomena. Which is a legitimate choice, though one I’m less sympathetic to.
Even though I am not an enthusiast who believes that aliens from across interstellar space have been regularly visiting us, I have to acknowledge that there are people who do. But I also have to acknowledge that even among those who think anyone who believes in the possibility of life on other planets is just like the crackpots, the term UFO means a physical machine that came to Earth from somewhere else and was built by someone. So I think the headlines that used the word purported got it right.
But it’s language. So there’s never only one right way to do something.
Over at FiveThirtyEight dot Com they have this wonderful explanation in comic strip form of why mathematically modeling epidemics and pandemics is so difficult:
A Comic Strip Tour Of The Wild World Of Pandemic Modeling, by Zach Weinersmith, Maggie Koerth, Laura Bronner and Jasmine Mithani. Hat-tip to Camestros Felapton for sharing the link!
Meanwhile, there have been more than 23,000 Covid-19 deaths in the U.S.. Not that you would know it going by Trump’s press conferences, which continue to be full of absurdities, lies, threats to governors, and excuses.
This is not science fiction or a horror movie!
So, there’s an invasive hornet species that’s been spotted in my state which we would really like to get rid of: WSU scientists enlist citizens in hunt for giant, bee-killing hornet.
There’s a photo on that page of a person holding one of the dead hornets and my god, it looks scary!
And it is scary, this thing’s sting can be fatal to humans who have no allergy to bees.
The hornets love to attack honey bee hives, eat not just the adult bees, but all the larva and pupae, as well. So it’s more bad news for agriculture if this species gets established.
There’s an app you can put on your phone to report sightings of invasive species. It’s also got lots of fascinating information about the invasives and how they disrupt ecosystem. Check it out!
Let’s begin with a series of stories that are specifically relevant here in my home state of Washington.
I have occasionally written before about our local perennial anti-tax, anti-gay, anti-well-anything-decent initiative filer Tim Eyman. A man whose full-time job for a couple of decades has been running these shitty initiatives to restrict the power of the legislature to raise taxes, to make it difficult for local governments and counties to raise taxes, to stop transit projects, to repeal gay civil rights protections and so many more. He famously planned to make his official announcement of filing one anti-gay initiative dressed in a pink tutu because he somehow thought that would be funny—one of his supporters showed up with a rented Darth Vader costume and convinced him to wear that instead.
A bit over a month ago his usually operation switched gears when the Attorney General filed a lawsuit against him and one of his paid signature gathering groups for campaign finance violations including money laundering and diverting a lot of funds for Eyman’s personal use. The state elections commission had already ruled on some of his earlier campaigns that this sort of thing was frequently happening, and in a settlement of those charges some years ago, Eyman agreed to never the the treasurer of an initiative campaign or similar operation. But that apparently didn’t stop the malfeasance.
So, right after that, he sent out a whining money beg to his supporters, in which he also mentioned that he was filing for personal bankruptcy and that his wife was divorcing him. And it is mostly in the realm of that separate bankruptcy filing that he came into the news this week: Judge refuses to let Eyman back out of bankruptcy. So, when he filed for bankruptcy, his claim was that between his wife leaving him and that fundraising has become less successful (which he was blaming on the lawsuit that had just been filed—I guess his argument was that donors heard rumors of the lawsuit coming and had stopped sending in money?), plus the estimated legal fees for defending in that lawsuit, that he was going broke. He filed for Chapter 11, which allows for a reorganization and gives the bankrupt person some same in how the finances are sorted out.
The state has since asked the court to convert this to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, where all assets are liquidated and then the court decides how to parcel out to the debtors. They argued that the primary purpose of the filing was to protect his wealth from the lawsuit—in other words, to prevent any punitive action of the courts from actually, you know, punishing him. And to bolster their argument, they produced bank records showing that he is spending money and an incredible rate, among other things.
This news going public apparently is not going over well with the donors who had started sending in money for his legal defense fund. So Eyman had filed a counter motion to end the bankruptcy proceedings entirely, all but admitting that the only real point of the filing was to avoid being penalized later.
The judge didn’t let him out of the filing, but also didn’t grant the state’s request. What he did do was order that Eyman has to every month file a list of exactly what he’s spending his money on, along with an estimate of his expenses for the coming months, and that at a particular date ahead, file a budget that the court will enforce.
This comes one week after the judge in the lawsuit dealt him another blow: Tim Eyman loses in court, faces possible lifetime ban on managing political finances . The lawsuit is still in early stages. There isn’t a jury or anything, yet. But part of the process includes the state outlining the kinds of penalties they will ask the jury and the judge to consider. And one of those was a lifetime ban on having any management or control over the finances of any political campaign. Eyman countered that this would infringe on his constitution right to free speech, because the courts have ruled that political spending is a form of speech.
The judge ruled, based on Supreme Court rulings in the matter, that what the court has said that spending your own money for political reasons is protected speech, but not spending other people’s money. She also pointed out that similar lifetime bans have been handed out in various jurisdictions (such as the one forbidding him from being a treasurer of a political committee) without the courts ruling them unconstitutional. This doesn’t mean that he has been banned, it just means that it remains an option in the proceedings.
And all of this is separate from his criminal trial of stealing an office chair from a store: Watch-WA Anti Tax Zealot, Tim Eyman, Steals Office Chair from Office Supply Store- in campaign shirt. And don’t forget the follow-up: Tim Eyman films himself trying to return the chair he allegedly stole. I’m sorry, just watch the video in the first story. Tell me that was an accident! He claims that since he came back inside the store and bought other things, that he meant to tell the clerk about the chair, or that he thought he did tell the clerk. But witnesses at the scene note that he tried to decline the offer of one of the employees to carry take his heavy purchases out to his car on a handtruck, and when they wouldn’t be deterred, insisted that they stack the stuff up next to his car, then he fumbled with his keys for many minutes until the clerk went back inside.
My only regret on this story is that, since Tim is a well-to-do white guy, that he’ll only get a slap on the wrist for stealing a $70 chair.
Imagine for a minute how all of this would go down if he wasn’t white…
Now we go from anti-tax/anti-gay a-holes who troll the tax system, to another kind of troll: Online trolls hijacked a scientist’s image to attack Katie Bouman. They picked the wrong astrophysicist. So, along with the story about that image that scientists created from 5 million terrabytes of data from hundreds of telescopes around the world to finally get a look at the supermassive accretion disk around a supermassive blackhole, people were sharing images of astrophysicist Katie Bouman with the giant stack of hard drives.
A bunch of misogynist guys online started spreading the story that another scientist had done most of the work. And the put his picture and several lies into memes of their own to share. He came back at them, hard. Since these trolls are usually also anti-gay, it seems like a bit of poetic justice that the guy they tried to make into their anti-feminist hero not only wouldn’t play along, but also is openly gay. And he used the media attention to point out that we need to do more to encourage girls and women into pursuing science careers, and that his branch of study, astrophysics is especially in need of more diversity.
As both he and Bouman point out in the various stories: hundreds of scientists contributed. Many many algorithms were developed and used to pull data from the various kinds of telescopes involved. Bouman coordinated the assembly, and contributed algorithms of her own, but she never claimed to be the sole discoverer.
This kind of science takes a whole lot of people. Not just because there is a lot of data to get through, but because different people bring different perspectives, and as they interact, more interesting ideas emerge. So, we need more people in science, and we need more kinds of people in science!
And yet another kind of troll: More than half of banned books challenged for LGBTQ content – The American Library Association noted there’s a “greater number of challenges” to LGBTQ books — “especially those with transgender characters.”. Because of course they are. Dang it, why are people so scared of queer kids? Why?
Finally, I promised at least some good news, and here it is! The first official teaser for Star Wars Episode IX dropped, and it is so good! Sometimes I wish we lived in a galaxy far, far away, where evil can be defeated with courage, ingenuity, and a light sabre…
STAR WARS: EPISODE IX – THE RISE OF SKYWALKER Teaser Trailer [HD] Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
This would have gone in the science links on Friday if I had been able to find an article whose headline didn’t have misleading things in it. I know, I should have just written my own. Anyway, so the magnetic field of the planet always fluctuates and wiggles around a bit, and back in the day when a compass was always an object at least big enough to fill the palm of your hand, the amount of drift didn’t matter. But modern navigation devices (and the way we use them) require a bit more precision, so scientists map the field changes and try to build mathematical models that allow the computerized navigation aids to take the changes in the field into account. Well, things have been a bit more dicey than usual the last few years: Erratic motion of north magnetic pole forces experts to update model that aids global navigation.
So we desperately need to start updating the models more often, and also, we really need to update now because the drift has exceeded the previous model’s margin of error. Simple, right? Well: Scientists Can’t Fix Map of Earth’s Magnetic Field Thanks to the Government Shutdown –
The federal government was set to update the World Magnetic Model but had to delay it because of the shutdown.
That’s right. Cadet Bonespur’s temper tantrum is messing with global navigation systems, too.
I have been drinking coffee since I was 12 or 13 years old—in other words, for 45 years! During that time the amount and types of coffee I drink has varied. Growing up in a working class family in the central Rockies, meant that for many years the kind of coffee I drank would be sneered at by a lot of coffee afictionadoes. Cheap, canned ground coffee for the percolator, instant coffee for when you don’t have the time to make a full pot. My father and both grandfathers had the kinds of jobs where they took a lunch box and a big thermos full of coffee with them each day they went to work.
So for more than 45 years I’ve been around coffee and coffee lovers, as well as consuming a lot of coffee myself. And I have spent a good portion of those 45 years having to debunk commonly held beliefs about coffee’s affect on one’s body. I thought I had heard everything, but a couple of years ago when the topic of coffee came up in an online discussion, someone made a joke about coffee making you poop. Or, I should say, I thought they were making a joke. But I encountered it a few times again over the next few months, and then it seemed that everyone on the planet knew as an absolute certainty that coffee is a natural laxative of such power that if forces you to run to the bathroom a few minutes after finishing the cup.
This puzzled me in part because 1) I had never experienced this effect, and 2) while some of the men who drank a lot of coffee around me when I was a kid would occasionally make crude comments about how many times they had to take a piss because of the coffee (and that they didn’t want a third cup because they didn’t want to take another piss soon), no one had ever mentioned needing to take a dump. And I guarantee you that a couple of my uncles would have had some very colorful jokes based on it if they had ever observed a correlation between drinking coffee and needing to poop.
So, I did some research, and while it is easy to find a lot of web pages that promote the idea, if you restrict your reading to pages that cite medical studies, you find out that, yeah, it’s a myth. There was one study in the 1990 that seemed to show an increase in the muscle movements of the colon a few minutes after drinking coffee—but only in about 28% of the subjects. And, most medical people who commented on the study were quick to point out that the study didn’t demonstrate that this increase in activity was enough to create a laxative effect. Another study a few years later couldn’t reproduce the results with coffee alone—they only measured the increase if the person drank the coffee (either regular or decaf) along with a meal of at least 1000 calories. That would seem to indicate that maybe it isn’t the coffee that’s the issue, it’s filling up the stomach and kicking the digestive system into full gear that causes the movement further down.
Lots of people insist that drinking coffee makes them need to go. Among the many critiques raised by other researchers concerning these studies and the anecdotal evidence is people are overlooking the possibilities of both a pavlovian effect and habits. If you generally drink coffee shortly after waking up most days (because you set up the automatic coffee maker on a timer each night, for instance), and you usually eat dinner at roughly the same time each night, your body may just be ready to go by morning. The coffee is a coincidence.
As the article I linked to above also mentions, the oft repeated notion that drinking coffee, tea, and other beverages containing caffeine actually dehydrates you is also a myth. Coffee, it turns out, is not a diuretic.
I want to pause here and point out that I’ve heard the admonition against drinking coffee because it supposedly dehydrates you from nurses and other medical personnel ten times more often I hear it from anyone else. This is the reason that anytime someone starts telling me that one should eat or do this, or refrain from eating or doing that because their doctor told them that I have to fight not to roll my eyes before urging them to do some of their own research.
My favorite is that people still cite studies from the 1950s that showed a correlation between coffee drinking and heart disease (among other things). Because those original studies made two errors that created a false correlation: they didn’t control for tobacco use, and they didn’t separate data by the gender of the subject.
Turns out that back when smoking was much more prevalent than it is today, there was a high correlation between coffee use and smoking. In other words, people who drank a lot of coffee were more likely to also be heavy smokers. Once you think about the neurological properties of caffeine and nicotine, that makes sense, both substances are mood regulators. Anyway, turns out that most of the statistic correlation vanished once you accounted for the smoking.
A tiny bit of statistical correlation remained, but if you then separated the data and compared only coffee drinking men to non-coffee drinking men, and similarly only comparing coffee drinking women to non-coffee drinking women, the correlation completely vanished. Why? Well, coffee drinking men on average drink between 10-20 percent more coffee today than the average woman. Given that on average men outweigh women by a bit more than 10 percent, and the amount of caffeine one must consume to produce a given result varies by body mass, it makes sense that coffee drinking men will consume at least 10% more coffee than women. Completely separate from any lifestyle questions, it is a biological fact that merely being male increases one’s chances of developing heart disease or high blood pressure.
This is a great reminder that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation.
There have been many more recent studies that have shown there is no link between coffee consumption and coronary artery disease or stroke. That is, no link between regular coffee and those diseases. Oddly enough, people who drink a lot of decaf seem to have a slightly increased risk of certain types of coronary disease, though at this time no one knows why.
Anything that people indulge in—if it isn’t perceived as a necessity for survival—comes under a lot of scrutiny from others. There are always people who thinking you shouldn’t indulge in the activity at all, or that you shouldn’t do it more than they do, and so on. So that’s one reason coffee accumulates these misperceptions and why people repeat them indefinitely. More generally, people place a lot more weight on their own perceptions and anecdotal evidence of people who agree with them than they do to logic, statistics, and reproducability.
The science indicates that coffee doesn’t have most of the negative effects most people associate with it. So you can enjoy it guilt free. And if you’re one of those people who don’t enjoy or use it or all, that’s absolutely fine. Just stop ragging on other people for doing it. None of us are giving you grief for your oxygen habit, are we?
I really wish I’d seen this story before I did this week’s Friday Links, because it would be a great candidate for Link of the Week: The Loyal Engineers Steering NASA’s Voyager Probes Across the Universe. “As the Voyager mission is winding down, so, too, are the careers of the aging explorers who expanded our sense of home in the galaxy.” It’s bittersweet to think about: two devices built in the 70s that can only understand a programming language that has been considered obsolete for decades, billions of miles away, but parts of them are still functioning and sending their data back. It’s just a really good story. You should go read it. I’ll just point out that Voyager 1 launched just 20 days before my 17th birthday.
In much less serious news, this story (and the adorable video that accompanies it) is just funny: Gay Dads Obsess Over Baby’s First Haircut In Adorable Diaper Ad. Go, watch. Have a chuckle.
And then, in case you need some heartwarming family friendly goodness: In a Heartbeat – Animated Short Film:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
The learn more about this short film: YouTube Falls Hard for ‘In a Heartbeat,’ a Boy-Meets-Boy Story.
At least I hope that’s what’s happening. I hope that it’s merely a lot of folks still feeling giddy about the Supreme Court ruling legalizing marriage equality nationwide thinking that the big battle is won and queer people are equal, now. We won one big battle, but there’s still a long way to go. I hope, I sincerely hope, that it is not true (as some fear) that a substantial portion of the queer population doesn’t think that trans issues matter.
Because we really do seem to be letting the haters say whatever lies they want about trans people, and a lot of the media just repeats that factually incorrect information as if it is true.
Over at Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters, Alvin Erwin has been beating the drum about our complacency: ‘Lgbts want to harm children’ – the lie the community won’t kill, and Mothers of the transgender community speak out against the hateto give a couple of examples. I’ve been beginning to think he’s right, that we’ve given up on the fight because we think marriage ended everything.
So I am really happy that one of the LGBTQ rights groups has finally started to push back: GLAAD releases new resource for journalists: Debunking the “bathroom bill” myth. This isn’t enough. This is only a first step. It’s going to take much more than making a single press kit available to hold off the attack.
Especially not when Conservative Trolls Have Been Suggesting Men Go into Women’s Restrooms to Help Legislators Discriminate Against Trans People. That’s right, as a few people have gotten the word out that there are states which have explicitly allowed trans people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity for upwards of ten years, and that there has never, ever been a single instance of someone trying to use that law to go into a restroom and rape someone, the paragons of virtue have decide to manufacture some fake instances.
And make no mistake: these bills aren’t just aimed at trans people. It’s an attempt to get a wedge in to find other ways to discriminate against queer people of all kinds. If they normalize the idea (once again) that simply making some conservative people feel uncomfortable is an adequate defense to criminalize a behavior, trans people in bathrooms aren’t where they’re going to stop. Holding hands with a same sex partner in a public place makes those same people uncomfortable, after all.
The Gemini launch was the first one that was broadcast live, around the world, by satellite. So a lot of people watched the launch. And it was a great flight. Ed White (Edward H. White II) become the first person to space walk, exiting the capsule in a spacesuit with a camera. NASA only let him stay out 20 minutes (actually, they were telling the other astronaut, James A. McDivitt, to get White back in sooner, but White was trying to stay out as long as he could). White and McDivitt could communicate to each other over an intercom line that was part of the tether, but it didn’t connect with the exterior radar to the ground. On top of that, the primary communication system with the ground was having some problems (the VOX unit at McDivitt’s end didn’t correctly identify when McDivitt was talking, so it kept cutting in and out and odd times, so he had to switch to the push-to-talk mechanism).
NASA didn’t want White outside of the capsule during any of the periods when the capsule was out of range of a tracking station (we didn’t have quite as extensive a network of tracking stations around the world back then, so there were a few points in the orbit where we were out of communication with the capsule).
I’ve been a space geek at least since 1965. Probably longer, but the Gemini 4 launch is the earliest one I remember watching (and apparently drove everyone crazy talking about it for weeks after).
So, yes, I’m pretty excited about our flyby of the planet Pluto (if you’re one of those deluded people who adhere to the totally ridiculous redefinition, don’t bother arguing; a scientific definition of an class of object should depend upon the objectively measurable properties of that object only, not the presence or absence of other objects in its vicinity). I can’t wait until we start receiving the images New Horizons is taking today. We’re going to learn so much!