Link Extra: Climate Change Special

It’s not every day that a news article gives me a panic attack. Last week, I found that special piece that sent me reeling on the tube. Perhaps you’ve read it: the New York Magazine article about the effects of unstopped (unstoppable?) climate change. The author, David Wallace-Wells, argues that when the planet heats up by 6 degrees, it will basically be a Mad Max situation with less food, more violence, total inability to go outside in the tropics, and even more severe weather:

In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations. The strongest hurricanes will come more often, and we’ll have to invent new categories with which to describe them; tornadoes will grow longer and wider and strike much more frequently, and hail rocks will quadruple in size.

Reading this article, I felt a similar state of heart-in-my-throat horror to two years ago, when the New Yorker article about a potential devastating Pacific tsunami was published. That feeling was appropriately summarized by internet wonder Mallory Ortberg of the Toast (RIP), interspersing quotes about the disastrous consequences with emotional pleas and very appropriate pearl-clutching. Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 19.54.51

I read the article many times, listening to Florence and the Machine’s “What the Water Gave Me” on repeat. I was in a state of shock, and Mallory helped me through it. I wasn’t alone in my fear. Plus, we could move everyone away from the Pacific coast, right? Not this time, pals. This time the whole world’s in trouble. There’s no Captain Planet to come in and fight the bad guys, because there aren’t really bad guys – it’s us and our decisions, and the capitalist need for economic growth.

… in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, a growing number of historians studying what they call “fossil capitalism” have begun to suggest that the entire history of swift economic growth, which began somewhat suddenly in the 18th century, is not the result of innovation or trade or the dynamics of global capitalism but simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power — a onetime injection of new “value” into a system that had previously been characterized by global subsistence living. Before fossil fuels, nobody lived better than their parents or grandparents or ancestors from 500 years before, except in the immediate aftermath of a great plague like the Black Death, which allowed the lucky survivors to gobble up the resources liberated by mass graves.

I can’t handle it. As much as I want to know the horrors our future will bring, I struggled to finish the article. It’s all the apocalyptic scenarios in one. My friends made a facebook chat so we can find each other and skill-share. I’m responsible for foraging, but will the same plants even grow? I only know wild ones, and precious little about farming. In the grocery store, I wondered who had ever thought cultivating peaches was a good idea – so difficult to transport and a total waste considering the caloric value. My mind turned to medicine. What happens when the antibiotics run out and all we have left are antibiotic-resistant bacteria? What happens when our IUDs expire? What happens when… you can’t let someone suffering from anxiety read this stuff. I woke up early, in the middle of a dream that the rising water took my passport.

Then salvation came in the form of a follow-up piece: it’s not as bad as NYM makes it out to be! Apparently climate scientists have taken to twitter to explain that the situation described by Wallace-Wells is overly disastrous.

But what are the odds? That’s the crucial question. In light of current energy trends and the Paris climate agreement, it seems more likely at present that human society will slowly bend its emissions curve downward, missing targets set by climate scientists (and blowing by 2 degrees Celsius of warming) but not hitting these worst-case scenarios, either.

So. Whew. A little bit. I can stop panicking now, right? The Paris climate agreement (which the US has backed out of) ensures we won’t warm 6 degrees, right? Maybe there are some steps I can tale to personally limit my carbon footprint?

This article gives some helpful tips to continue my Captain Planet-ing. Have one less child (I’ve got none! tick), don’t own a car (tick!), avoid one trans-Atlantic flight (as long as the UK doesn’t deport me, sure!). I already feel much better. There’s not much I can do as an individual. Worrying about whether to cut out the greasy bit of the pizza box so I can recycle the rest is not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. On the other hand, I still feel awful and personally responsible for the increased temperatures and future wars whenever I don’t bring my spork to a take-away. I mean, at least my six years of being vegetarian has saved 4,920 kilograms of carbon.

Next, this article from QZ supports the decision I made last year to stop buying consumer items by stating that even buying “ethical” goods doesn’t make a difference, because that item still had to be produced and shipped and packaged. (See further: there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.)

The problem is that even though we want to make the right choices, it’s often too little, too late. For example, friends are always asking me where to take their old clothes so that they are either effectively recycled or make it into the hands of people who need them. My answer? It doesn’t matter where you take them: It will always end up in the exact same overloaded waste stream, which may or may not eventually dump it in Haiti. This isn’t your fault for trying to do the right thing: It’s the fault of the relentless trend cycle of fast fashion, which is flooding the secondhand market with a glut of clothes that Americans don’t want at any price.

It also brings up the fact that the sustainability movement is privileged and elitist, as quality “ethical” goods are too expensive for the average consumer, which goes back to Terry Pratchett’s $50 boot argument. If you can afford it, make sure the things you buy now are quality, and then stop buying them; instead of going shopping, lobby for change, and instead of spending $20 on a t-shirt, donate it to a charity of your choice.

My friend Elinor responded to this by writing an article on ethical food consumption, which is still something I struggle with:

She ignores the pivotal role of food — which we cannot simply consume less of. She ignores the fact that one of the biggest solutions to climate change comes down to individual food consumption choices. She doesn’t mention that one of the “structural incentives” that keeps some companies with unsustainable business models in business, is the fact that their consumers don’t give a shit. Or we do give a shit, but when we’re standing in the supermarket aisle trying to make a snap decision about what to eat for dinner whilst speaking on the phone to a friend about our holiday plans, good intentions do not translate into conscious decisions.

I have this problem daily. Do I spend £1 more on organic canned chickpeas when I don’t know what “organic” means here? Do I avoid the packaging waste by getting dry chickpeas by the kilo in my reusable shopping bag, which will require an additional shopping trip, a day to soak, and the risk that my housemates will throw them out before I get around to cooking them? I often just give up and buy the 50p can, but at least I go for the dented can nobody else will buy. This article directs readers to a further list of climate actions, 17 of which have to do with food, particularly food waste. She stresses that “the fact that the world is in a mess doesn’t make it more difficult to tidy your bedroom, and tidying your bedroom doesn’t really stop you from cleaning up the world.” Change starts at home, and it’s good to set an example. My friend Amy has inspired me to carry my own tupperware and bring my own mug to cafes. I hope my refusal to drink water from disposable plastic bottles inspires someone else. I’ve overcome my phone anxiety to call politicians. Small steps will make small changes; a (slightly nonsensical) Malian proverb says “little by little, the bird builds its nest”.* As individuals we must believe in our collective power to make a bigger difference. Let’s be slightly less doomsday about it: we can’t focus on cutting the grease stain from the pizza box when we’re curled up in the corner panicking.

 

*Thanks to my friend Jonathan for this.

Later update: having watched the new Game of Thrones season opener, I noted the Archmaester’s warning, summarised thus by AV Club:

The Archmaester tries to convince Sam that this is just another threat to the realm in a long list of threats, and that none of the past ones have truly brought the apocalypse some predicted: however, the whole point of this story is that this is no normal winter, and “Dragonstone” successfully makes clear that everyone but Jon Snow has a long way to go before they realize there is more at stake than the Iron Throne.

True that.

 

 

June 23 Link Roundup

I’ve been talking about this article a lot recently – it details the rise of the passport as the source of one’s identity, replacing the actual embodied self.

In 1923, a Danish man traveling in Germany reportedly had to regrow his mustache before border officials would permit him to return home. When clean-shaven, he did not resemble the photograph in his passport, a document that had only recently become essential for travel across national boundaries.

A sub-roundup of AIs naming things. Turns out AI is very good at naming guinea pigs but very bad at naming paint colors.  AI is also fantastically inept at punning, discussed in this puntastic interview with the author of a book on the competitive punning community. Looking forward to reading this one!

Joe: Twitter lately is like a sadness gauntlet filled with clowns and Nazis, and the light at the end of it is your house on fire. So yeah, it’s pretty much the opposite of a pun competition.

(7/1 Update: AIs are terrible at inspirational posters!)

All you wanted to know about the vaginal microbiome. I mean, I have many more questions.

I was previously unsure of the ethics of market shorting. This article has not made me less sure. Is it a crime, or is it just skeezy? Is activist shorting less skeezy because it exposes more corruption, or more skeezy because it exposes corruption for personal gain? I’m not even sure what ethical framework I should use to analyze it.

UChicago news: the adorable scav team STTR-BBOY recreated the iconic scene of the snake-iguana chase from Planet Earth II in the library stacks, site of the infamous 2007 scav video (since deleted) “Trapped in Crerar”, a parody of R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet”. That library is really a quality filming location.

May 19 Link Roundup

This family kept a slave. Read the entire account – it’s horrifying. (For more on complex caregiver-child relationships, read this.)

Lola never got that allowance. She asked my parents about it in a roundabout way a couple of years into our life in America. Her mother had fallen ill (with what I would later learn was dysentery), and her family couldn’t afford the medicine she needed. “Pwede ba?” she said to my parents. Is it possible? Mom let out a sigh. “How could you even ask?,” Dad responded in Tagalog. “You see how hard up we are. Don’t you have any shame?”

How do painkillers find what hurts?

Here’s an interesting discussion on addressing instructors by their formal titles. In high school we called our teachers Mr./Ms. Lastname, but in college most of my professors didn’t seem bothered. I’ve always preferred students to call me by my first name, but I also like to cultivate an atmosphere of openness and not feel like I’m always quizzing them (plus, I use the title Mx, which just confuses things). I wonder if I’m downplaying my status as instructor? Also, British students call teachers Miss, which sounds so infantile to me as an adult.

Good points about bike lanes. I am all for more bike lanes on busy roads, and ensuring that those bike lanes DO NOT also function as parking spots or pavements (I’m looking right at you, Kentish Town), but on small roads they feel less safe because cars think they can overtake in too small a space.

For those of you unaware (and that is an increasingly higher percentage of people I know), I used to participate in the world’s largest scavenger hunt. It covers 4 days, the list can be up to 20 pages, and participants are frequently found wandering around in a state of confused exhaustion wearing ridiculous costumes and muttering seemingly nonsensical verses that are, in fact, bizarre list items. I have roasted a lamb on a homemade spit and stuffed it with a chicken and a Cornish hen, had a book signed by Jane Goodall while dressed as a video game character (complete with arrow above my head), and raced to absorb the water in a kiddie pool wearing a suit of armor made of sponges. Here’s this year’s list.

I’m doing my viva (thesis defence) Monday at 3pm GMT. Send whatever scientifically-valid good vibes you can in my general direction!

April 14 Link Roundup

T. rex had many nerve endings in its snout, which palaeontologists argue indicates that they nuzzled before mating like modern crocodiles. The article has one of the best titles – “Tyrannosaurus rex was a sensitive lover.” It anthropomorphizes and makes grandiose assumptions!

Researchers argue that footbinding was not solely aesthetic, but economically important as it kept young girls housebound and thus entrenched in domestic tasks and production.

Here’s a handy guide to surviving the next pandemic! Good luck, all. I’ll see you at Svalbard.

More on the Monty Hall Problem, also known as “what’s behind door #3?” Basically, we are so tied to our interpretation of the mathematics behind it that we can’t be swayed by the correct probability of winning.

Hannah Rose Woods explains why there aren’t many women on University Challenge. I competed on Eggheads a few years ago, and I am still convinced that our team was picked at auditions because of our diversity (two women, and two non-white team members); the rest of the teams auditioning alongside us were uniformly white, male, and mostly 25-40.

The British Museum used to keep a posse of cats! They were used for rat- and mouse-catching. I imagine though they solved one conservation problem, they created a host of others…

This week there was a rave on the Bakerloo line (I wasn’t there)!

Last week I won a contest and got to see the European premiere of the first episode of American Gods. The series is based on my favorite book, and I am so eager for the rest of the episodes! Here are some pictures of me with Yetide Badaki, who plays Bilquis (fantastically), and a buffalo.

April 7 Link Roundup

First, three stories about robots:

  1. A child believes a water boiler is a robot; talks to and hugs it (she, for one, welcomes her new overlords)
  2. A researcher created a neural network that produces horrifying and hilarious menu items such as Completely Meat Chocolate Pie
  3. An engineer built and married a robot in a ceremony that was not legally binding

Here’s a fascinating article on how research bias shows up in data.

I love learning about diseases that doctors don’t believe in because they’re don’t have an apparent physical cause; nevertheless, they are no less real to the sufferers than any more easily diagnosable condition. Delusional parasitosis is one of these, and many cases are brought to entomologists.

In 20 years, Syria will be the Bosnia of today. Defectors and escapees report that hospitals are the sites of mass torture.  CN: torture.

Documents signed by senior government and security officials acknowledged the upsurge in deaths, at times complaining that the bodies were building up.

“It’s impossible to interrogate, torture and kill tens of thousands of detainees without a system in place,” said Scott Gilmore, a staff attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability. “Before the revolution, the regime was not generating thousands of dead bodies. Then all of a sudden it was. So what did you do with them?”

Waking surgery is now a thing. I… I don’t know if I could do it.

This article about ancient cannibalism has some problems… two of which are sample size and the binary of nutritional vs social. But it is a handy guide to “average” caloric values for various body parts.

When asked whether he thought his friends and colleagues would show up to his next dinner party after reading about his latest paper, Dr. Cole said yes. But he added that he’d most likely just serve vegetables.

Finally, your NSFW of the week: an 18th-century illustrated guide to sex positions, using characters from classic mythology. Follow it up with biological anthropologist Agustin Fuentes’ brief piece on human sexuality.

March 31 Link Roundup

The double standard that saved Obamacare – apparently people only pay attention when straight cis white men are affected, with historical examples.

Magazines like Cosmopolitan and Ladies Home Journal ran articles by men telling women to pop pills to make their depression evaporate. Women hosted dinner parties where they plopped Miltown in their martinis, and Cartier jewelers sold a bracelet that doubled as a holder for a Miltown pill.

Another essay on what happens to the last member of a species, with pondering on the nature of being. Read it in concert with Elizabeth Kolbert’s Recall of the Wild.

Having your children sleep alone is strongly associated with capitalism, suburbia, and excessive space. I’ve often advocated sleeping separately to friends who find themselves in couples with incompatible sleep habits, but this is only because we spend 30-odd years learning how we best sleep individually. Perhaps if we grew up sleeping communally we wouldn’t have so many problems – I wonder how strongly our idea of individual circadian rhythms is influenced by this.

A fascinating story of a hand transplant. (CN: lots of privilege.) I recently attended a lecture by Ross Reynolds, a researcher exploring the aesthetics of prosthetics; I wonder why Koch and his doctor, Kobi Azari, decided to go down the transplant route instead of prosthetics as he did for his leg.

March 24 Link Roundup

Are chins what make us human? I’m a fan of spandrels; I like to remind people that evolution isn’t perfect, it’s “meh, guess this works long enough to keep you breeding.” Or, as my colleague Ella Al-Shamahi remarks in her comedy, “the chin is the penis of the face.”

Maybe it’s about sex, then? Men typically have bigger chins than women, and stronger chins are often equated with attractiveness. Perhaps the chin is a sexual ornament, the human equivalent of a stag’s antlers or a peacock’s tail.

Here are some ancient Chinese sex toys. Thanks, internet! (The link is SFW depending on where you work.)

Another article on underground psychedelic therapy in the US, mostly focusing on MDMA. I attended a lecture recently on “The LSD Psychotherapists”, presenting first-person perspectives from therapists working legally within the EU, showing promising responses for a variety of conditions.

“Sometimes the medicine can stabilize someone in a difficult situation. Sometimes it stirs up madness, so they can process that. Some people feel rejuvenated and ready to go back into their lives, but other people feel frazzled, spent, fragmented. I’ve had a few people say, ‘That shattered who I thought I was.’ ”

John Hawks has some criticism about the Neanderthal oral microbiome study, including potential contamination, “sloppy genome assembly”, and unmapped genomes of possible food species.

Pregnant asylum seekers in the UK are often sent letters demanding payment, making them too afraid of deportation to seek prenatal care. This is illegal. If you know/work with anyone seeking asylum, refer them to this document.

March 17 Link Roundup

Neanderthals and humans may have been making out! OK, maybe not, but they share bacteria from the oral microbiome that can be transferred through food sharing, parental care, and kissing. This could be more evidence that Neanderthals and humans could have fallen in love, but considering that not very many cultures kiss romantically, possibly not!

Your computer’s not safe. Your smartphone’s not safe. Your TV’s not safe. Protect your devices from hacking and snooping!

The documents published by WikiLeaks disclosed that a tool called Weeping Angel puts the target TV in a “fake off” mode. Then, with the owner believing the TV is turned off, the set secretly records conversations in the room and sends them over the internet to a C.I.A. server computer.

Here’s a good retrospective on Jose Mujica, Uruguay’s dream president who didn’t accomplish what his voters wanted. It really muses on how stuff doesn’t get done in politics, and the dangers of hope.

One of my teaching colleagues is an expert in trash in modern fiction. Read the interview about her recent book here. Oh, the chats we’ve had about garbology!

So these avant-gardists and descendants of the avant-garde deploy waste in a sustained attack on consumerism, the stultifying nature of the nine-to-five day, social inequality, and ecological devastation… Often, it’s framed in a reproachful way, as exemplified by the famous scene in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1986), when Jack Gladney gazes upon a used tampon stuffed in a banana peel and asks: ‘[Is] this the dark underside of consumer consciousness?’

I’d love to read this book about cephalopod intelligence. There was a great study a few years ago testing octopus puzzle-solving abilities. The octopodes were given a set of nested Perspex puzzle boxes with a prey animal in the center. Two octopodes opened all three puzzle boxes to get to the prey; the third opened the outer two boxes but couldn’t solve the innermost box, so crushed it until it snapped.

octo

An octopus near Madagascar. Photograph: Gabriel Barathieu; image courtesy The Guardian.

The Whanganui River in New Zealand has been granted the same rights as a human, since the the Maori view it as an ancestor. This means that anyone mistreating the river can be prosecuted as if they had harmed a person.

 

March 3 Link Roundup

There is no evidence that stents work, yet doctors keep installing them. The article brings up one of my favorite studies, which compares outcomes of real knee surgery to sham knee surgery. Surprise! The outcomes are the same – the idea that the knee has been repaired works just as well as actually scraping at the cartilage, showing wither the power of the mind or the ineffectiveness of the surgical technique.

Are you worried about internet privacy, but don’t know how to set up a secure email? This article explains it all. Perhaps you’ll sit back in your chair, reeling with the sudden realization that any number of individuals can know where you live and work and who you talk to. Have fun! Encrypt your life now!

Research into rescuers in genocide situations shows interesting psychological traits.

“We looked and we only saw brothers here. You could not think about killing this person, because he was a brother, someone who would have rescued you too, if you needed help.”

On a lighter note, here’s an excerpt from a biography of David Bowie on how he came out.

Finally, check out these 18 turkeys circling round a dead cat in what appears to be (but isn’t, because anthropomorphizing) a bizarre ritual.

January 27 Link Roundup

I was wondering where the Doomsday Clock had been – it’s just been set to 2 1/2 minutes to midnight. It hadn’t been reset since 2012. (The article is from 2015.)

While the Bulletin fretted over Ebola terrorism, the everyday scourges of tuberculosis, AIDS, malaria, and infant diarrhea were killing hundreds of times as many people. Doomsday theorizing gets infectious disease threats backwards: it’s not the genetically modified bugs hatching from high-tech labs that should worry us, but old-fashioned germs that thrive in poverty, underdevelopment, and failed states.

In a related blast from the past (seriously, no pun intended), the August 1946 issue of The New Yorker chronicles the entire day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in minute detail, told through interviews with a few civilians. Riveting and horrifying.

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff, whose work kept me studying linguistics longer than was necessary for my degree, has written a great post about conceptual metaphors used in contemporary politics, explaining how politics is always moral, the Strict Father vs  Nurturant Parent metaphors of government, and why we should argue from our own framework rather than negate the other side’s argument on their terms. Written in November, it has been followed up with an interview in Salon.

Columbia University has produced an extensive report detailing its connection to and profits from slavery. The NYT and Atlantic have coverage, and the full research project is available here. It includes the story of Joe, a slave owned by George Washington’s stepson as a student.

NASA has made all of their research available FREE.