Sociology is hard

Jun. 23rd, 2017 10:02 pm
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Posted by PZ Myers

I’m constantly spammed by the Weatherspoon Institute, one of those right-wing think tanks that is, as part of its mission, adamantly opposed to homosexuality, marriage equality, etc., and they’re notorious for having funded and guided the infamous Regnerus study that claimed that children raised by gay parents were at greater risk for all kinds of social ills.

It’s not my favorite organization. I didn’t personally subscribe to their newsletter, it’s just one of many that people who don’t like me sign me up for, thinking I’ll be horrified and offended by it, when actually I find it interestingly bad and sometimes browse to find weird stuff. Message to people who do that kind of thing: it doesn’t work. Would you believe that seeing the hate some people have for gay and lesbian people makes me sympathize with the homosexual population more?

Anyway, a recent newsletter highlighted this article, Why are so many lesbians getting pregnant?. I thought that was actually an interesting question. I’d like to know! It was also an interesting read because so much of it was discombobulating — that author would make some statement, I’d actually agree with it (or not), but then he’d make some mental leap in interpreting it that left me baffled. Like this claim at the very beginning:

One’s sexual orientation is supposed to be locked in and unchangeable, like sex, race, or ethnicity.

It is? Who says? Keep in mind this article is talking about teenagers and sex; I suspect sexual orientation has a fair bit of flexibility, at least if you’re not brought up in a family or peer group that imposes severe costs on deviation from expected behaviors. I can believe that there are distinct biases in individual preferences from an early age, but that they’re also shaped by experience. Witherspoonians seem to be trying to argue that their critics are complete gender absolutists, while they are open-minded about the fluidity of sexual response, probably because they’re the kind of people who want to promote a “gay cure”. I think. There are many hidden premises in this article that I don’t share.

Then the very next sentence confuses me.

But high pregnancy rates among lesbians confound that narrative.

Why does it confuse the narrative? Does the author think sexual orientation and pregnancy are in lockstep? That lesbians should be incapable of pregnancy? That pregnancy is always a matter of choice and preference? So many assumptions implied by that little sentence.

But then he’s going to deploy logic. Too often this is a dangerous sign, as it proves to be in this case, that the author doesn’t understand logic, except to know it’s a good thing.

It makes for an illogical syllogism.

Premise A: Lesbians are sexually attracted to women only.

Premise B: Women cannot impregnate women.

Conclusion: Lesbians have higher pregnancy rates than non-lesbian women.

It’s contrary to all reason, but it’s true. Lesbians have significantly higher pregnancy rates than their heterosexual peers.

Hang on there, guy. You’ve somehow linked “sexual attraction” and “pregnancy rates” as if one is a logical consequence of the other. You know they obviously aren’t, right?

This smacks of the common argument that evolution implies that homosexuality cannot exist, because gay people would be unable to breed or spread their gay genes, except that it’s in reverse. It’s got the same logical flaw, though, the assumption that sexual orientation, a product of the brain, is inflexibly linked to biological reproduction, a product of the gonads.

The logic is also flawed by sloppy definitions all around. What is a “lesbian”? Is it any woman who prefers the company of other women? A woman who only ever has sex with other women? Does a lesbian who is raped immediately stop being a lesbian? And how about defining “woman”? He seems to think of women as a pair of functioning ovaries, but again with the disconnect between gonads and brains — what about women who have functioning testes?

(We will pause for a moment to give those, even those of a liberal bent, who seem to be incapable of dissociating minds from genitalia, time to wipe up the saliva they just spluttered all over their computers.)

Are you back now? OK. Another thing about that syllogism — we can rework it in lots of different ways. Another interpretation might be that teenage women who get pregnant develop an aversion to men that makes lesbianism a much more appealing label. Or that this should be a discussion about unwanted pregnancies, rather than sexual orientation, and it’s mangling causally unrelated issues to routinely associate desire with reproduction.

I’m trying to puzzle out what point the author is trying to make, though. There are interesting observations in here, but they seem to avoid testing alternative interpretations.

Multiple studies with samples drawn from various nations find that sexual-minority youth aged fourteen to nineteen have pregnancy rates two to seven times greater than their heterosexual peers. Their pregnancy rates continue to rise, even though the overall teen pregnancy rate is declining in the United States.

So I actually read the paper cited to support the “two to seven times” data. Seems kosher. But the important point is glossed over by our Witherspoonian.

Over half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended – that is, they are mistimed (occurring earlier than the woman wanted) or unwanted (not wanted at any time). In addition to derailing life plans, these pregnancies are commonly linked to a variety of negative health and well-being indicators for women and their children, including lower levels of prenatal care and breastfeeding; and higher levels of premature delivery, low birth weight, child abuse, intimate partner violence, and maternal depression and anxiety (accounting for background characteristics).

Over half of all pregnancies are unintended or unwanted — that is for all women of all ages. It’s almost certainly much higher for teen pregnancies. This sounds like the basis for arguing for a greater expansion of abortion rights and sex education than it is for some peculiar conservative reaction against homosexuality. It also makes a complete hash of those fallacious arguments that certain sexual behaviors are “natural” or “right” for human beings — a heck of a lot of heterosexual behaviors seem to be undesirable and unpleasant for at least one of the people involved.

But wait until you see his conclusion.

Lesbianism and gayness are more different than they are similar in very fundamental ways. The gay male is more likely to stay in one lane for life, even while his sexual desire is generally more aggressive and he seeks greater diversity in partners than do women. However, judging by the pregnancy-risk data, younger men who identify as homosexual appear to be much more fluid in their actions than has been previously assumed. Does this mean that male same-sex attraction is more developmental than it is fixed? We don’t know.

But it’s a question worth researching. This has important policy implications for today. When we establish certain rights and accessibilities based on one’s sexual orientation and identity—and thus the punishment and severe public shaming of those who violate them—we are operating on ground that is more subjective than many would like us to believe.

I say hold on to your horses for that first paragraph: it assumes considerable uniformity in how gays and lesbians behave, erases a lot of individual preferences, and ignores the contributions of a culture that generally condemns all homosexual behavior. Those aren’t necessarily human universals, but rather a consequence of complex interactions between society and psychology.

But then that last bit that I highlighted — I agree 100%! We should not restrict rights to individuals on the basis of sexual identity. Gay and lesbian couples should have all of the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples, without question.

But here is where I get hopelessly confused. The author of that commendable statement is Glenn Stanton, who works for…Focus on the Family Patriarchy. GLAAD has a page of quotes from Stanton. He opposes same sex marriage because it not only redefines marriage wholesale for everyone, but it actually deconstructs humanity itself. I don’t know how he reconciles that with his view above that using sexual orientation to establish rights is inherently subjective.

But even worse, he said “it was shameful, manipulative, and not good parenting for two dads to allow their daughter to make a video defending her family”. So non-traditional families don’t even have the right to defend their choices?

And of course he’s a fundamentalist/evangelical Christian.

All sexual sin is wrong because it fails to mirror the Trinitarian image, but homosexuality does more than fail. It’s a particularly evil lie of Satan because he knows that it overthrows the very image of the Trinitarian God in creation, revealed in the union of male and female.

I now have the feeling that I’m missing some secret coded message in that admirable final sentence from his article, because it doesn’t jibe at all with his ideological stance elsewhere, the position of his organization, or the typical sectarian views of his Christian cult.

I’m confused so much now, because I’m a biologist and this sociology/psychology stuff is so dang complicated and messy and hard. But at least one thing I got out of it was one useful datum I can bring up when people make that stupid “homosexuality can’t evolve” argument.

[syndicated profile] feministing_feed

Posted by bailoun

On Sunday, June 18, near the end of the holy month of Ramadan, Nabra Hassanen was brutally murdered. 

She was 17 years old, black, and wore a headscarf. She was bludgeoned with a baseball bat by 22-year-old Darwin Martinez Torres, who then kidnapped her in his car, killed her, and dumped her body in a pond.

According to the Fairfax County Police Department, Nabra and her large group of friends were walking back from a fast food restaurant to the mosque at about 3:40 A.M., prior to the start of the day’s fast. Torres “came upon the teens while he was driving,” and quarreled with a teenage boy on a bike. He then caught up with the group in a nearby parking lot, got out of his car with a baseball bat, and began to chase as the teens ran. Torres was able to catch Nabra, who fell behind.

Nabra was female, black, and visibly Muslim. She and the girls in her group were dressed in long abayas and headscarves. Yet the police department released a statement the day after, saying that they had not found any evidence to consider this a hate crime:

“There is nothing to indicate at this point this tragic case was a hate crime. No evidence has been uncovered that shows this murder was motivated by race or religion. It appears the suspect became so enraged over the traffic dispute it escalated into deadly violence…”

Police Chief Edwin Roessler Jr. said police have “absolutely no evidence” that her killing was motivated by hate.

Responses on Twitter to the police department’s characterization of Nabra’s murder as a “road rage” incident were varied. Most of them were angry.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council of American-Islamic Relations, told CNN, “[T]here are not always overt statements of bias made during the crime. But we firmly believe that many of these crimes would not have occurred at all if the victims were not perceived as being Muslim.”

*  *  *

In February 2015, three young Muslims were killed in North Carolina. Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha were newly married, and Yusor’s younger sister Razan often came over to stay with the couple at their home. The two women both observed hijab.

Craig Hicks, a neighbor, harassed them continuously in the weeks leading up to the killings. Yusor’s father later said she had told him, “Daddy, I think it is because of the way we look and the way we dress.”

On the day of the murders, Hicks sprayed Deah with bullets, shot the sisters execution-style in the head, and shot Deah once more before he left. The Chapel Hill Police Department stated that the crime was motivated by “an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.”

*  *  *

I am a young Muslim woman, and I wear hijab. I live in New York City, among people from every conceivable walk of life; but I harbor no illusion that my identities do not make me more vulnerable to attack.

I pin my headscarf tightly, so that it can’t easily be ripped off.

I throw in a few words of English when I speak Arabic, so that I am not kicked off a plane.

I stand back from the yellow subway platform edge, so that I am not pushed onto the train tracks, or into an oncoming train.

Muslims are increasingly likely to be targeted by hate crimes, with the latest FBI hate crime statistics showing an increase of 67% between 2014 and 2015. More recently, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has reported a sharp acceleration in Islamophobic incidents after Trump’s November election.

But Muslim women in particular – who can often be more easily identified by their clothing – are even more recognizable targets. Their very presence in public spaces, as both women and visibly Muslim people, places them at a doubly heightened risk of discrimination and violence. In Nabra’s case, she faced a risk that was triply heightened: she was also black.

On May 26, a man killed two people and injured a third on a train in Portland, after they confronted him for shouting racist and anti-Muslim slurs at two teenage girls. One of the girls was black. The other was Muslim, and wore a hijab.

*  *  *

In the early morning of June 21, a 24-year-old man reportedly set Nabra’s memorial on fire. He was arrested and charged with “attending or kindling bonfires.” Sergeant Anna Rose explained, “[T]he memorial did not appear to be specifically targeted.”

The police report did not list hate bias as a possible motivation.

[syndicated profile] badastronomy_feed

Posted by Phil Plait

Chad Cowan is a storm chaser, and takes astonishing photographs and video of the magnificent weather systems we get here in the middle of the United States.

In late June of 2016, he took time-lapse footage of a supercell forming and growing over Nebraska. It's stunning. Watch:

 

Storm chaser Chad Cowan shot this time-lapse video of a supercell forming and merging with another huge storm system behind it.

 

So what's going on here? The details can be quite complicated — we're talking fluid hydrodynamics here, which is fiendishly complex— but conditions have to be just right for this sort of storm to form.

The video starts with cumulonimbus clouds, the big, puffy, cauliflower clouds that occur when warm, water-laden air rises (called convection). As it does the water condenses to form the visible cloud, and the various updrafts punch upward to form the numerous bumps and bulges.

Then an important event occurs: Underneath the cloud base, the wind shears. This is when a layer of air is moving faster or slower than a layer next to or beneath it. If a layer of air above another is moving faster, it can start a slow horizontal roll or cylinder of air, like a barrel rolling on the ground. But there are also strong updrafts, air moving upward. This can lift one end of the horizontal roll and make it vertical, generating a huge, rotating wall cloud. You can see that under the main part of the cloud.

That's called a mesocyclone, and the whole system is called a supercell. In this case, it's what's called a "low precipitation" or "dry" supercell, because there's not much rainfall from it. Sometimes these dissipate, but not this time: In Cowan's video it merged with another line of storms you can see behind it and to the left, and strengthened.

The intense aquamarine color is not uncommon in these storms, and the exact cause is still unknown. It's likely due to the presence of hail, with red light getting absorbed by the ice so that more green and blue lights gets to us. But it's not clear that's all that's going on.

I've seen a few big systems similar to this, though a very well-organized rotating mesocyclonic wall cloud is still on my "to see" list. They tend to form farther east of where I live; it helps to have wide plains so the wind shear can get picked up by those updrafts. In a sense I'm glad; while weather like this is mind-blowing to see, it's also extremely dangerous to be in.

I asked my friend Marshall Shepherd —who happens to be a meteorologist and in fact was president of the American Meteorological Society in 2013 — about the video, and his thoughts mirrored my own:

The beauty of this storm merger masks the inherent danger it also brings. One of our biggest challenges in meteorology is to developing an observational and modeling understanding of all the physical processes happening at this scale. Such understanding will move the needle further in possibly predicting tornadoes ...

It's sometimes easy to forget, while watching the spellbinding beauty of these systems, how dangerous they can be. This one was reported to spawn a tornado after the merger, but all by themselves the high winds, lightning and torrential rain are threatening enough. Understanding these storms is critical to life in the U.S. Midwest, and I'm glad scientists like Marshall dedicate their careers to doing so.

Tip o' the lens cap to Maksim Kakitsev. You can follow Chad's work on Vimeo, Facebook, and Twitter.

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Krugman looks at Trumpcare

Jun. 23rd, 2017 02:53 pm
[syndicated profile] pharyngula_feed

Posted by PZ Myers

Krugman calculates who should favor this bill.

So, is this bill good for you? Yes, if you meet the following criteria:

1.Your income is more than $200,000 a year
2.You have a job that comes with good health insurance
3.You can’t imagine any circumstances under which you lose that job or income
4.You don’t have any family members or friends who don’t meet those criteria
5.You have zero empathy for anyone else

Let’s see. Do I qualify?

  1. Nope. Not even close.

  2. Yes! Except, of course, that I work in education, which the Trump administration wants to destroy.

  3. Nope. I’ll definitely lose this job inside a decade, when I retire. Or, to look on the bright side, when I die.

  4. Nope. Three kids who are just starting early adulthood.

  5. No, although I suppose I could work on it. I’ve already lost all empathy for Trump voters.

I guess I should be 80% against the bill by those criteria. It’s more like 800%, though.

But we do know the script the Republicans are following.

The set of people who can check all these boxes is not a winning political coalition. But Republican leaders believe that their voters are tribal enough, sufficiently walled off from information, that they’ll ignore the attack on their lives and keep voting R – indeed, that as they lose health care, get hit with crushing out-of-pocket bills, see their friends and neighbors face ruin, they’ll blame it on Democrats.

I wish I were sure that this belief was false.

[syndicated profile] improbable_research_feed

Posted by Marc Abrahams

To know whether a watermelons is ripe — before cutting into the melon — is a dream brought to exciting levels by generations of scientists, building on the wisdom and wishfulness of their ancestors. Here are three of the juicier studies published in recent times.

Acoustical Watermelon Study (1998)

Study on acoustic characteristics of the watermelon,” M.S. Kim, D. S. Choi, Y. H. Lee, and Y. K. Cho,  Journal of the Korean Society for Agriculture, 1998.

Acoustical Watermelon Study (2002)

Numerical analysis on acoustic impulse response for watermelon,” Yong Sul Kim, Dong Hoon Yang, Young Jae Choi, Tas Joo Bae, Chul Ho So, and Yun Ho Lee, Proceedings of the Korean Society for Nondestructive Testing Spring Meeting 2002. The authors report: “As we analyzed impact pulse signal and extracted featured parameters concerned with evaluation of its ripeness, we found the plausibility of progress on nondestructive evaluation of ripeness and adoption of numerical analysis on acoustic impulse response.”

Acoustical Watermelon Study (2015)

Nondestructive determination of watermelon flesh firmness by frequency response,” Rouzbeh Abbaszadeh, Ali Rajabipour, Yibin Ying, Mojtaba Delshad, Mohammad J. Mahjoob, and Hojjat Ahmadi, LWT-Food Science and Technology, vol. 60, no. 1, 2015, pp. 637-640. The authors, at Tehran University, report:

“The identification of watermelon ripeness from its appearance such as size or skin colour is very difficult. The common subjective method is usually based on the sound produced by a slap. This method is prone to human factor errors; it may be a good way only for people with much experience. This idea led researchers to study acoustic methods…. The main objective of the present work is to study the potential of laser Doppler vibrometery and vibration spectra for evaluation of watermelon firmness….

“Briefly, laser beam from the LDV device is directed to the upper surface of the sample and the vibrations are measured from the Doppler shift of the reflected beam frequency due to the motion of the surface. Amplitude and phase shift between the mentioned signals were extracted for the entire frequency range using fast Fourier transform applied to the response and the excitation signals…. [This nondestructive determination of watermelon flesh firmness by frequency response proved to be] accurate and fast.”

[syndicated profile] pharyngula_feed

Posted by PZ Myers

Suddenly, all these videos of the Philando Castile shooting are being released after the murder cop got acquitted. This latest one is heartbreaking: it’s video of Castile’s fiancé, handcuffed (WHY? What did she do wrong, besides sit next to an innocent man getting violently slaughtered by a cop?), while her daughter tries to deal with the situation.

Mom, please stop cussing and screaming ’cause I don’t want you to get shooted.

In the earlier video, I noticed how both adults in the car reflexively used “sir” in just about every sentence to the asshole cop — I don’t think they wanted to get shooted either. Our police departments are relying on fear to cow the population, and it shows.

[syndicated profile] pharyngula_feed

Posted by PZ Myers

Bill Cosby is out, and of course he has a plan for his life: to lecture young men on how to avoid getting caught.

Bill Cosby will organize a series of town hall meetings to help educate young people about problems their misbehavior could create, a spokesman for Cosby said Thursday.
Cosby is eager to get back to work following a deadlocked jury and mistrial in his sexual assault trial, spokesman Andrew Wyatt told Birmingham, Alabama, TV station WBRC.

“We’ll talk to young people. Because this is bigger than Bill Cosby. You know, this, this issue can affect any young person, especially young athletes of today,” Wyatt said. “And they need to know what they’re facing when they’re hanging out and partying, when they’re doing certain things they shouldn’t be doing.

This is exactly what the rapist has been doing for years.

Lecturing isn’t new for Cosby. In recent years, the comedian and actor became known for scolding fellow African-Americans for poor grammar, sloppy dress and not valuing education, critiques that drew fire from some as elitist.

He’s just going to add one more item to his repertoire: how to use a date-rape drug with sophistication.

[syndicated profile] pharyngula_feed

Posted by PZ Myers

Those were the days, when Republicans tried to scuttle health care reform by claiming it would be heartless, cruel, bureaucratic, and would kill your grandma. That was their official stance everywhere, that they were paragons of kindness who were concerned about the liberty of citizens, while Democrats were going to callously ration your health care.

At least that pretense has been exposed. The new Republican ‘health care’ plan that isn’t (it’s actually a massive tax cut for rich fuckers that will move money out of the pockets of the poor) has finally been revealed. It features little details like lifetime limits on medical support that the insurance companies love, that doctors and hospitals hate, and that has triggered more protests from disabled people and those with chronic conditions, leading to optics like this: protesters in wheelchairs being hauled away by the police.

This is a bill that is ruthless to the disabled and poor, and, I would add as I look at the ticking clock bringing me closer to retirement, guts Medicaid, so it also hurts old people. Apparently, I’m supposed to trust that my kids will be rich and support me in my dotage.

Obamacare was flawed because it was a compromise bill. But Trumpcare is flawed because it was written by rich motherfuckers who want to intentionally harm the poor, the elderly, the sick, the needy, or, as they prefer to regard them, the undeserving. There is a fairly straightforward solution to the problem of creating a just society:

In the case of healthcare, the answer to this conundrum is simple: fund the healthcare system not through premiums or deductibles, but instead through progressive taxes, such that nobody is liable to pay more for healthcare than they can afford.

Of course, if you are trying not to reduce inequality, but to exacerbate it, this makes little sense: better to bleed Medicaid, transfuse the cash into the pockets of the rich, and call the whole bloodsucking endeavor an exercise in “freedom.”

Republicans are the party of inequality. At least there are no death panels, though, because they’ve decided that they’ll just let everyone who isn’t rich die, no review needed.

Interesting Links for 23-06-2017

Jun. 23rd, 2017 12:00 pm
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I’ll never understand the pride people take in saying, “I was born and bred here” or the use of the same phrase to defend one’s perceived superiority or deservingness of housing, health care or other basic human rights.

I mean, what did you, yourself, actually do to influence where you were born or bred? Unless you were a particularly ambitious embryo, the answer is “nothing”. Sure, your parents might have made some kind of effort to select your place of birth. Maybe they strove to move to better housing in a neighbourhood with better services and schools. Maybe they’re even immigrants, like my dad, and they struggled long and hard to learn their fourth language in order to integrate into their adopted country. But you? You didn’t do anything. Why are you so proud of that? Think of the things you've accomplished in your life. Isn't it far more fitting and fulfilling to be proud of those?

And why the obsession with asserting the superiority of a single identity over the others? “I’m English first and then British.” Pro-tip: Most of the rest of the world considers both of those to be synonymous with “ex-colonialist imperialist arsehole” so it doesn’t really matter which one you choose. ^.^

Here is a list of the geographically-linked identities that I consider myself able to lay claim to. I’m proud of some and not others.

  • American
  • British
  • European
  • Hawai’ian
  • Filipino
  • Olympian
  • Seattleite
  • Angeleno
  • San Diegan
  • Londoner
  • Brummie (this is a new one; still feels a little odd)


Today, I think I’m proudest of being European. I earned that identity and that passport, and I’m still very pissed off that some people want to take it away.

Today is also, weirdly, simultaneously:

  • the anniversary of Brexit, aka the Colossal Waste of Time and Money Foisted Upon Us by a Generation That Tore Down Decades of Painstakingly Won Goodwill with Our Neighbours and Won’t Live to Experience the Disastrous Consequences, Thanks a Lot, Dickheads.

    And

  • International Women in Engineering Day


So, to close this post, here is a peaceful photo of a woman doing some engineering.

Scientist at work

The Blood is the Life for 23-06-2017

Jun. 23rd, 2017 11:00 am
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Definitely not standing: Jo Swinson, Jamie Stone, Layla Moran, Tom Brake, Tim Farron, Alistair Carmichael, Norman Lamb
Probably not standing: Stephen Lloyd, Wera Hobhouse, Christine Jardine
Probably standing: Ed Davey
Definitely standing: Vince Cable

You'll note that Norman Lamb has moved from probably standing to definitely not standing. He announced this with rather petulant article in the Grauniad, in which (among other things) he proclaimed the Lib Dems' second referendum policy as toxic. Now I agree, it is toxic. "First we'll negotiate brexit, then we'll set up a referendum, then we'll campaign against the deal we ourselves negotiated!" is an utterly ridiculous policy. The problem is, it was only in the sodding manifesto due to the insistence of people on the rump brexity wing of the party, of which Norman Lamb is definitely one. This was as far as the rest of the party, who just wanted "we will stop brexit" to be the manifesto position, could be dragged. Policy making by committee often comes up with soggy centrist compromises, and often that's a good thing and satisfies most people, but sometimes it's patently rubbish. This time was the latter. What I don't get is Captain Brexit blaming the rest of the party for it. Well, I do. He'd like us to embrace brexit. And that is not going to happen.

Anyway, the rest of the article sticks the boot in to members in various other ways, and alludes to, but doesn't actually acknowledge, the problems autistic people have with the idea of Norman as a leader, and frankly, just makes me glad he's not standing. At least he has the self-knowledge to know he's not right to lead the party as it currently is, even if he declares it in a rather Skinnerian way.

Principal Skinner asks a pertinent question

So the only likely runner at this point undeclared is Ed Davey. And there will be siren idiots voices whispering in his ear, saying:
Don't stand, Ed. Leadership elections are expensive, Ed. They are divisive and set party members up against each other, ed. It'd be easier all round just to crown Vince, Ed. You don't want the hassle, Ed. The party doesn't want the hassle, Ed. Lets just have a coronation, Ed.
To which I say, pish, tosh, bunkum, bollocks, and bullshit.

Yes, leadership elections are divisive, and do set members up against each other, and sometimes even cause resentments. Do you know what's even more divisive, and causes even more resentments? Not letting Lib Dems have democracy. Not letting us scrutinise each candidate and come to a decision on merit. Not having hustings at which we can put questions to candidates and examine their views and records and promises. Imposing a leader on us without us having a say. I can guarantee you that while a leadership election might be divisive, it's nowhere near as divisive as a coronation.

Now, Ed Davey told one of the BBC politics correspondents (I think Norman Smith) the other day that he would declare whether or not he was standing "on Thursday or Friday". He didn't declare yesterday. I'm hoping he declares he's standing today.

And if you'd told me last month I'd be crossing my fingers for Ed Davey to run in a leadership election, I'd have thought you insane in the membrane, crazy insane, got no brain. Just goes to show what a funny old world it is...
[syndicated profile] improbable_research_feed

Posted by Marc Abrahams

A new test of the old idea that apparently having a head at your rear might save your life, if you are a butterfly:

Two-headed butterfly vs. mantis: do false antennae matter?Tania G. López-Palafox and Carlos R. Cordero, PeerJ, vol. 5, 2017, e3493. The authors, at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, report:

“The colour patterns and morphological peculiarities of the hindwings of several butterfly species result in the appearance of a head at the rear end of the insect’s body…. We explored the role of hindwing tails (presumably mimicking antennae) in predator deception in the ‘‘false head’’ butterfly Callophrys xami. We exposed butterflies with intact wings and with hindwing tails experimentally ablated to female mantises (Stagmomantis limbata)…. [Our study indicates] that at least some aspects of the ‘false head’’ help C. xami survive some mantis attacks, supporting the notion that they are adaptations against predators.”

[syndicated profile] improbable_research_feed

Posted by Marc Abrahams

Mahadevan, who won an Ig Nobel Physics Prize in 2007 for studying how/why wrinkled sheets become wrinkled, has a new study out about how/why bird eggs become bird-egg shaped. The study, by Mahadevan and several collaborators, is:

Avian Egg Shape: Form, Function, and Evolution,” Mary Caswell Stoddard, Ee Hou Yong, Derya Akkaynak, Catherine Sheard, Joseph A. Tobias, and L. Mahadevan, Science, vol. 356, no. 6344, June 23, 2017, pp. 1249-1254. Here’s a bit of detail from it:

Ed Yong, writing in The Atlantic, savors the new paper:

Think about an egg and you’ll probably conjure up an ellipse that’s slightly fatter at one end—the classic chicken egg. But chickens are outliers. Hummingbirds lay eggs that look like Tic Tacs, owls lay nigh-perfect spheres, and sandpipers lay almost conical eggs that end in a rounded point. After analyzing hundreds of species, Stoddard showed that the most common shape—exemplified by an unremarkable songbird called the graceful prinia—is more pointed than a chicken’s.

“We mapped egg shapes like astronomers map stars,” Stoddard says. “And our concept of an egg is on the periphery of egg shapes.”

Beyond displacing chickens as the Platonic ideal of egg-dom, Stoddard’s data also helped her to solve a mystery that scientists have debated for centuries: Why exactly are eggs shaped the way they are?…

To solve it, Stoddard teamed up with L. Mahadevan, a biophysicist at Harvard University who has studied “how leaves ripple, how tendrils coil, and how the brain folds, among other things.” He realized that all eggs could be described according to two simple characteristics—how asymmetric they are, and how elliptical they are. Measure these traits, and you can plot every bird egg on a simple graph. They did that for the eggs of 1,400 bird species, whose measurements Stoddard extracted from almost 50,000 photos…

The Los Angeles Times report about this includes an appraisal by Charles Deeming, who himself was awarded a 2002 Ig Nobel Biology Prize for co-authoring the study “Courtship Behaviour of Ostriches Towards Humans Under Farming Conditions in Britain.” The LA Times writes:

Charles Deeming, an ecologist who studies bird reproduction at the University of Lincoln in England and who was not involved in the study, said that pelvis shape, in particular, could be critical in determining egg shape. With further research, he said, scientists may be able to narrow down a more specific link between bird anatomy and egg shape.

nanila: wrong side of the mirror (me: wrong side of the mirror)
[personal profile] nanila
I have been outrageously busy at work this week and I don't have the brain to string these together into a proper narrative. My apologies. So: Have a series of happy photos from the past week or so.

20170617_171856
[Keiki with freshly dug potatoes in his fist, ready to deposit them in one of the two white bowls in front of him.]

We ate our first potato harvest tonight. Yum!

+6 )

Lothian Transport are awesome

Jun. 22nd, 2017 09:11 pm
andrewducker: (Default)
[personal profile] andrewducker
At 2:06pm on Sunday I posted my feature request for the Lothian Transport app.

At 3:14pm the following afternoon I received an email saying
Sorry, street names and localities should have been added to the search screen before now. I’ve sent an update to the Google Play store just now so you should have an update available in the next few hours.
and about 45 minutes later my phone automatically updated to the latest version and I could see this:


I emailed back saying that this was awesome, but wondering why one of them just said "Edinburgh", and got this in response:
Unfortunately sometimes we can’t control what we get back from Google’s Places API. If Google decides that a place doesn’t need to have more than the town/city listed, then that’s all we get I’m afraid. We also mix in Foursquare and Google Geocoding data where appropriate as well.

It helps to include a bit more in your search, such as ‘Morrisons Granton’ or ‘Morrisons Ferry Road' rather than just ‘Morrisons’. The more you type in, the more accurate the results. It also takes into account your current location – typing in ‘Morrisons’ while you’re near Hyvots Bank will give you results geared towards South/West Edinburgh rather than North/East Edinburgh.

As to your other point (distance to search result) - at the moment, showing distance isn’t possible. We use Google Places to match search queries: that service is great because you can type in anything - ‘Morrisons’, ‘Tesco’, ‘pizza in Leith’ etc. and it comes back with accurate results. However, it doesn’t give the app the location of each place. Instead it gives the app a ‘Place ID’ - once you’ve tapped on a search result, the app sends the Place ID to Google which sends back the exact coordinate of the search result. If that changes in the future, we’ll be sure to include distance as part of the search result.


Which was a fascinating look at how their systems work in the background.

If only more places were so responsive to users taking an interest.
[syndicated profile] badastronomy_feed

Posted by Phil Plait

Astronomers have just announced the discovery of a pretty unusual binary system: A white dwarf and a brown dwarf orbiting each other. That's pretty rare, so as cool as that is — and I'll explain why in a sec — even better is how ridiculously close together they orbit: They're separated by a mere 310,000 kilometers, closer than the Moon is to the Earth! And that means they move around each other fast: The intense gravity of the white dwarf tosses the brown dwarf around it at a speed in excess of 100 kilometers per second. That's rapid enough that they make a complete pass around each other every 71 minutes! Yes, minutes.

Yegads.

There are a few really nifty things about this system, so let's take a closer look. But not too close, because you'll get fried. Let me explain.

First, the white dwarf: It's called WD 1202-024, and it was first discovered in a survey of the sky in 2006. At 2700 light-years from Earth, it's pretty faint; the faintest star you can see with your naked eye is 150,000 times brighter!

Like all white dwarfs, it's the remains of a star that was once much like the Sun but ran out of usable hydrogen fuel in its core. It takes billions of years for a star to get to that point, but in this case WD 1202 reached this stage not too long ago, just 50 million years or so in the past. Normally, when a star like that is all by its lonesome, it responds to losing its fuel by expanding its outer layers, swelling to enormous size and cooling down. We call that a red giant. Over time, the outer layers of the star get blown away, exposing the hot core to space. This core is small (around the size of the Earth) and terribly hot, shining a painful white. That's a white dwarf (and you can find out lots more about them in my episode of Crash Course Astronomy about them).

WD 1202

[WD1202-024 just looks like a white dwarf sitting out there in space, alone and dim. But it harbors a surprising secret. Credit: Rappaport et al., SDSS]

But WD 1202 is different. In this new study, the astronomers discovered it's a variable star, changing its brightness in regular, predictable cycles that take a little over an hour. It slowly and subtly brightens and dims, then, for a few minutes each cycle, the light from the star drops precipitously. That's pretty unusual behavior for a white dwarf, and the astronomers quickly figured out what's going: WD 1202 isn't all by its lonesome. It has a companion: a brown dwarf.

Although the names are similar, they couldn't be more different. Brown dwarfs are objects that are too massive to be planets, but not massive enough to ignite fusion in their cores and become proper stars*. In this case, WD 1202's brown dwarf companion has a mass of about 6.6% of the Sun, which is definitely too low for fusion. It's about 67 times Jupiter's mass, so it's way beefier than a planet, too.

Even though it's far more massive than Jupiter, it's not much bigger (brown dwarfs are weird that way; their cores are very dense and take on odd properties, such that as you add mass to them they actually shrink). But it's still much larger then WD 1202, probably 4 or 5 times wider.

And that's why the brightness of the system changes. Get this: The subtle variations are caused by the brown dwarf itself as it goes around the smaller dwarf. We're seeing its phases!

[The WD 1202-024 light curve is caused by the phases we see of the brown dwarf orbiting the white dwarf, plus a bonus eclipse. Credit: Rappaport, et al. / Bishop's University]

This is just like the Moon, where we see it go through its phase of new (when we only see the dark half), first quarter, full (when we see it fully lit by the Sun), then last quarter, then new again.

But in the case of the brown dwarf we're seeing phases, not because it's reflecting light from WD 1202, but because it's heated to incandescence by it!

The white dwarf is small, but it's furiously hot, about 22,400° C. The side of the brown dwarf facing the white dwarf is heated to glowing. When it's on the other side of the WD 1202 from us we see it full. A quarter of an orbit (about 69 minutes) later it's half full, then another quarter of an orbit after that the unlit side is facing us, so the system is dimmer. After that we start to see the lit side again until it's full, and the cycle repeats.

But there's more. Because the brown dwarf is so much bigger, when it's "new" it actually gets in the way of the white dwarf and blocks its light from us. That's why the brightness drops so much every 71 minutes!

WD 1202 light curve

[The light curve of the binary (the change in brightness over time). The red line is a model that includes the phases of the brown dwarf and the eclipse; the black line is the observations (exposure times are about 30 minutes, so the eclipse isn't seen), and the blue line is the model mathematically fit to the observations (including the exposure time fuzzing out the eclipse). Credit: Rappaport et al. / Bishop's University]

I love just this part of the story. That brown dwarf is far too faint and close to WD 1202 to see it separately, but we can infer its existence because of its phases even though it's 27 quadrillion kilometers away. How about that?

But there's more, and it's also wondrous. Get this: The brown dwarf was, for quite some time, literally inside WD 1202!

Let's rewind the clock back to when WD 1202 was a regular star, about to run out of hydrogen fuel in its core. Back then, the brown dwarf was farther out, probably something like 50 million kilometers out (or half the distance from the Earth to the Sun), well separated.

But then WD 1202 expanded into a red giant. These kinds of stars get really big, easily spanning a hundred million kilometers across, sometimes more than twice that. That's bigger than the orbital distance of the brown dwarf, so when the primary expanded, it engulfed the brown dwarf.

Yet it persisted. That's because when it expands, the density of the gas in the red giant's outer layers dropped hugely. The lower density is what saved the brown dwarf from destruction. It would've been heated a lot by the star around it, and the drag from plowing through the material would have shrunk its orbit. As it got closer it would have orbited faster than the red giant rotated, too, so the companion acted like an egg beater, stirring up the primaries outer layers.

That can give the gas so much energy that they are expelled even more rapidly. When this violent period in the binary's life was over, what was left was the white dwarf with the companion brown dwarf in its tight orbit. Judging from what we know about the physics of such events, and the temperature of the white dwarf (they cool over time, giving us a measure of their age) this happened about 50 million years ago.

That's seriously cool. And yet there's one more thing.

[Artist's drawing of the RS Ophiuchi system, a similar one to what WD 1202 will be like in a couple of hundred million years. Credit: David Hardy & PPARC]

The gravity of the white dwarf is impressive. When you squeeze half the mass of the Sun into a ball about twice the size of the Earth, it's phenomenally dense. The surface gravity is tens of thousands times stronger than Earth's. If you stood on its surface, you'd weigh thousands of tons. Oof.

As it happens, the brown dwarf is orbiting so close to WD 1202 that its gravity is felt very strongly indeed. Over time, even now, the brown dwarf is slowly spiraling in, getting closer to the white dwarf as they emit gravitational radiation (for more about that, read this article about gravitational waves). The astronomers who observed the system calculate that in about 250 million years, the brown dwarf will get so close to the primary that the white dwarf's gravity will start to draw material off the companion!

This material will pile up on the white dwarf and get squeezed excruciatingly hard by the intense gravity. When there's enough, it will undergo sudden and catastrophic hydrogen fusion, exploding literally like a thermonuclear bomb. This explosion is very energetic, and the system will dramatically flare in brightness. Then it will fade as the material blown off cools and blows away … and then the cycle will star again.

This kind of object is called a cataclysmic variable, or CV, and we know of quite a few. We also know of a few pre-CV systems, but this one has the shortest period of any known, which means it's the closest we know of that will become a proper CV in the future.

So, as amazing as this system's history is, and is now, its future will still hold plenty of wonder. As long as you stand a bit back from it. Cataclysmic variable are given that name for a very good reason.

This is one of those science stories where I dig every piece of it. It's got quite a bit of the stuff I love: stellar evolution, weird objects, cool geometry, and it ends quite literally with a bang.

The Universe is a pretty interesting and astonishing place, if you look at it carefully enough.

*Some people call them "failed stars", which is a term I don't like, for two reasons: They aren't stars at all, they're their own class of object; and why call them that when you could be more positive and call them really overachieving planets?

[N.B.: In the title of this post, I refer to the brown dwarf as a star. As I describe in the text, technically it isn't. But in a title I have to be brief, and if I said, "... one of the components..." it would read oddly, and distract from the main point. I struggled with this, to be honest, trying to figure out a good way to say this while still be being accurate. It was surprisingly difficult (note that I never refer to this as a "binary star" in the text, but instead call it a system or a binary system). Being scrupulously accurate in terminology can make things harder on the reader sometimes, and in this case I decided to ease up on the pedantry to allow an easier understanding. If you agree or disagree, I'd be curious to hear your opinion. There's probably an interesting article all by istelf on this topic!]

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