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Review 70: Bad Astronomy


Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait

What do you think you know about astronomy? For example, what causes us to have seasons? If you said that it’s our distance from the sun – sorry, you’re wrong. Or how about why the sky is blue? If you think it’s that the sky reflects the sea, nope. Wrong again. Or perhaps you think that the moon’s tidal effect makes people crazy, or that an egg can only stand on end if it’s the Vernal Equinox or that an alignment of the planets will cause a terrible buildup of gravity that will kill us all!

All wrong. But you would not be alone. For a society as technologically advance as ours (and if you’re reading this, then chances are good that you live in a technologically advanced society), the general public has a big problem with science. People see it as being too hard to understand, or too removed from their daily lives. Politicians bemoan the fact that American schoolchildren are falling behind in science, but science funding is almost always on the list of cuts that can be made to save money. We love technology, but hate science, and that is a path to certain doom.

Of all the sciences, though, astronomy is perhaps the worst understood. A lot of people still confuse it with astrology, which is probably a huge part of the problem right there. For millennia, we have thought about the planets and stars as celestial things, unknown and unknowable by such base creatures as ourselves. It’s only in the last hundred years or so that we’ve been able to rapidly improve our understanding of the universe, and popular knowledge hasn’t caught up with that yet.

And so bad misconceptions of astronomy persist in the public imagination.

Fortunately, we have people like Phil Plait to set the record straight, and that is indeed what he does in this book.

While there are many educators out there who believe that a wrong idea, once implanted, is impossible to eradicate, Plait sees it as a teachable opportunity. Take, for example, the commonly held belief that on the Vernal Equinox – and only on the Vernal Equinox – you can balance an egg on its end. Many people believe this, and it’s an experiment that’s carried out in classrooms around the country every March. Teachers tell their students, and the local news media tell their viewers, but no one stops to ask Why. Why would this day, of all the days in the year, be so special? More importantly, how can we test that assertion?

Fortunately, that’s within the powers of any thinking individual, and it should be the first thing teachers do once they’ve finished having fun balancing eggs: try and do it again the next day. If you can balance an egg on April 3rd, or May 22nd or August 30th, or September 4th or any other day of the year, then you have successfully proven the Equinox Egg Hypothesis wrong. Congratulations! You’re doing science!!

Or perhaps you’ve heard the story that you can see stars from the bottom of a well, or a tall smokestack. This is because, the idea goes, the restricted amount of light will not wash out the stars so much, giving you a chance to do some daytime astronomy. Well, there’s an easy way to test this one too, if you have an old factory or something of that nature nearby. What you’ll discover is that no matter how much you try to restrict your view of the sky, it’ll still be washed out and you won’t see any stars at all.

One more good one that a lot of people believe – the moon is larger in the sky when it’s near the horizon than when it’s at its zenith. Again, this is something that’s very easy to test. Go out as the full moon is rising, looming large in the sky, and hold up an object at arm’s length – a pencil is usually recommended. Make a note of the moon’s apparent size as compared to the eraser. Then go out again when the moon is high in the sky and repeat your observation. The moon appears to be the same size, no matter how it may look to you.

Of course, there’s a lot of science into why these things are the way they are. The chicken egg thing is because there’s no singular force that is only acting on chicken eggs and only doing so on one day of the year (which is not even universally regarded as the first day of spring). As for the inability to see stars in the daytime, that’s because our pesky atmosphere scatters a lot of the light coming from the sun, so light appears to come from everywhere in the sky. The only thing you’re likely to see in a blue sky is the moon, and MAYBE Venus, if you’re really sharp-eyed and lucky.

The Moon Illusion is not well-understood, actually. It’s probably not the brain comparing the moon with objects on the horizon – the effect works at sea, too. It’s probably a combination of competing psychological effects that deal with distance, none of which can accurately deal with how far away the moon is.

Regardless, all of these things are easily testable by anyone. The problem is that so few people take that extra time to actually test them, or even think that they should.

There are some myths and misconceptions that take a little more expertise to explain, such as why tides and eclipses happen, how seasons occur and why the moon goes through phases. But these explanations aren’t very difficult and are well within the understanding of any intelligent adult. Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths that are stubborn, entrenched into the heads of people everywhere and very hard to get out. Not the least of these are the beliefs that UFOs are alien spacecraft and that we never went to the Moon.

Interestingly enough, both of these rest on the same basic problem: we can’t rely on our own brains to accurately interpret the data that we see. Plait recounts a story where he was mesmerized by some strange lights in the night sky while watching a 3 AM shuttle launch. They seemed to hover in place, making strange noises, and it wasn’t until they got much closer that he was able to see them for what they were: a group of ducks that were reflecting spotlights off their feathers.

Our brains believe things, and interpret the observations to fit those beliefs. So when the dust on the moon doesn’t behave the way we expect dust to behave, some people believe that to be evidence of fraud, rather than the natural behavior of dust on the moon. We are creatures of story, which is why we like conspiracy theories and astrology. We want the world to make a kind of narrative sense, so often the first explanation we come up with is a story that sounds good. Unfortunately, just because the story sounds good, that doesn’t make it true.

He also takes a swipe at bad movie science, but in a good-natured manner. Even he admits that movies are more likely to favor story over science, but there are some common errors that make it into so many science fiction films – sound in space, people dodging lasers, deadly asteroid fields – these things may be dramatically interesting, but they’re all bad science. And while it would be annoying and pedantic to pick out every example of how the rules are bent for sci-fi (“Please. Why would the aliens come all the way to Earth to steal water when it exists in abundance out in the Kuiper Belt? I scoff at your attempt!”), they do offer an excellent opportunity to teach people about how science works.

One of the things I’ve always liked about Plait is his obvious enthusiasm for not just astronomy but for science in general. Here we have this excellent system to cut through the lies our brains tell us and get closer to knowing what’s actually going on. Science forces us to question our assumptions, look at things from many points of view, and arrive at a conclusion that best describes the phenomenon we’re observing. When Plait talks about science, he is not condescending or dry or super-intellectual, the way so many people imagine scientists to be. He’s excited that he gets to use this amazing tool for understanding the universe, and he wants other people to use it.

If you’re an astronomy buff, like myself, you probably won’t learn much new information from this book. But hopefully you’ll be re-invigorated to go out there and look at the world through a scientific, skeptical eye, and you’ll be willing to confront these misconceptions when next you come across them. Even better, you might start thinking about what else you think you know, and how you can go about testing it.

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“If a little kid ever asks you just why the sky is blue, you look him or her right in the eye and say, ‘It’s because of quantum effects involving Rayleigh scattering combined with a lack of violet photon receptors in our retinae.'”
– Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy
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Phil Plait on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy on Amazon.com
The Bad Astronomy Blog

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Filed under astronomy, education, media, nonfiction, Phil Plait, pseudoscience, science, skepticism

Review 39: It’s Not News, It’s FARK

It’s Not News, It’s FARK: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap as News by Drew Curtis

You all know FARK.com, right? What? You’ve never heard of it? I’m honestly and truly shocked – unless, of course, you’ve been away from the internet for the last ten years, in which case you may be forgiven. For the rest of you – SHAME!

FARK is a news aggregator website, though it differs from others in that it’s entirely moderated. People submit stories that they think are interesting, add what they hope is a funny tag line or title, and see if it’ll be green-lit to make the front page. Over the years, as FARK’s audience has grown to make it one of the most influential websites out there, FARK has become a kind of go-to site for news and commentary, though probably not the erudite, level-headed commentary we all might want.

Whether site creator Drew Curtis intended it or not, FARK has become a de facto source of news for many people on the internet who are looking not so much for the top stories of the day, but for all the strange, cool, heroic and Florida-centered news that CNN claims to have too much dignity to run. Over its decade-long history, Curtis has seen thousands upon thousands of articles, moderated countless threads about the day’s news and, therefore, believes he has a pretty good idea of how the mass media works.

In this book, Curtis uses his experience as a professional newshound to look at the trends in mass media, attempting to identify the reasons why there’s so much irrelevant crap out there. We all know what he’s talking about – the helicopter shots of motorcades, the Missing White Women, the shark attacks, internet predators and the top ten lists of household products that could kill you and your family. We’ve all seen this and asked, “Why are they bothering with this crap?”

According to this book, there’s two big reasons: the endless, 24-hour news cycle and sheer human laziness.

There is only so much Real News in any given day, Curtis believes, and I agree with him. The question, of course, is “What is ‘real news,'” and rather than try to determine what real news is, Curtis decides to explain what real news isn’t. As for the rest, we’ll know it when we see it.

Of the many ways that the mass media tries to fill time and space, Curtis points out seven major ones, my favorite being Media Fearmongering. I suppose I like this because it’s just so obvious and so easy. Examples include the current hype over where to relocate the world-devouring supervillains from Guantanamo, the perennial articles about how hidden earthquake faults could kill us all, and the airplane crash stories. The recent crash of Air France 447 is an excellent example.

While it is certainly a terrible thing that the plane went down, and important to the families and friends of those who died on the plane, is it really a topic the needs a week of international coverage? 228 people died in that crash, and while it’s not really fair to weigh one death against another, it is estimated that that many people die in car accidents every two and a half days in the United States. The same goes for suicides in Japan. So why does the media go nuts for a plane crash, but not for unsafe driving or suicide? My guess is that a plane crash is more spectacular, more mysterious and more likely to get people’s attention. Reporting on the actual number of auto-related fatalities would hit too close to home. What’s more, a plane crash story probably writes itself. Change a few names and numbers, and the reporting on one crash looks pretty much like every other. That combination of spectacle and sloth makes plane crashes a godsend for reporters and editors with time to fill.

Fearmongering in the media isn’t harmless either. Last year, in the run-up to the activation of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, there were a lot of articles about whether or not the LHC would destroy the world. Rather than do some investigating, ask some experts and report back that it wouldn’t, the media decided to teach the controversy. Matching another of Curtis’ bad news categories, they gave Equal Time to Nutjobs who claimed that the work at the LHC would destroy the world. Rather than debunk the nutjobs, they played it for all it was worth, claiming that there actually was a controversy over the LHC, when in fact no such controversy existed.

One of the effects of this was the suicide of a girl in India, who believed in the end-of-the-world scenarios. She was sixteen years old, and the news convinced her that she and everyone she loved was going to die. Can we hold the mass media directly responsible for this girl’s death? Only if we can hold them responsible for the other deaths their fearmongering has caused – and here I’m thinking of the “controversy” over whether vaccines cause autism. They don’t, but it’s more fun for people like Oprah Winfrey to pretend they do. And so kids die.

My other favorite Not News is Media Fatigue – what happens when the media eats itself. With twenty-four hours a day to fill, but without twenty-four hours of news to fill it, the competition for breaking news is incredibly fierce. The first network to report on a big story will basically own that story, and the other networks have to scramble to catch up. In that writhing, twisting nest of vipers, it’s sometimes very hard for anyone to stop reporting on a story that has basically run its course – thus, media fatigue. Curtis has broken it down into five simple steps:

1. News breaks
2. Issue retractions
3. Talk it to death
4. Can’t… stop… talking
5. Has The Media Gone Too Far?

By the time they stop focusing on the story and start talking about themselves, you can be pretty sure that you’re seeing the end of it. Examples of Media Fatigue abound, and Curtis uses Dick Cheney’s shooting spree and Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction as examples. Really, neither of these events were news of any import. Hunting accidents happen all the time, and Jackson’s boob-flash was so quick and so low-def that most viewers didn’t know they had seen it until they were told they had (and probably didn’t know they should be outraged until there were told they should be). But both stories generated media storms that didn’t blow out until way past their expiration dates.

The point is that while the concept of news on demand is good, the execution of it has been terrible. With networks talking about health care reform in the same breath as whether or not David Letterman made an inappropriate joke, it’s hard for the audience to know what they should read and what they should ignore. While the news providers’ position has always been ‘We leave it up to the readers to judge what’s important and what isn’t,” that flies in the face of what we all know about human nature: people can be really, really dumb. People don’t have the time or the inclination to read every story, judge it on its merits and sort the wheat from the chaff, and to pretend otherwise reveals either a profound misunderstanding of human nature or a level of cynicism that makes me look like Pollyanna.

While it may seem all patriarchal, I think we do need someone to draw the line and say what is news and what isn’t. I don’t know who, or how, but someone should do it if only so that we can have a news source that we can trust to give us what we need to know. Put the Britney and Elvis stories in the tabloids – if we buy those, we know what we’re getting – and leave the real news alone.

The book is a good, quick read, and while it’s clear that Curtis may not have the academic or professional qualifications to be a media analyst, he has whatever the internet equivalent of “street smarts” is. He’s snarky and cynical, in the mold of so many people whose job it is to sit back and observe society. You can only run a news-based site for so long without noticing some patterns. He also includes some of the stories featured on FARK and select comments from users, which are usually entertaining.

While Curtis believes that there may be a way to fix the media, he doesn’t believe it’ll ever be done. As a fellow cynic, I have to agree – it would be far too much work and cost far too many advertising dollars to whip things into shape. The current system, from the point of view of the media outlets, works, and there’s no point in tinkering with it. Perhaps the much-prophesied Death of the Newspapers will help some – the local news outlet can be resurrected by a kind of local bloggers’ co-op or somesuch. I’m sure there are people out there who follow the journalistic tradition of wanting to tell people what’s going on. Unfortunately, those aren’t the people that the media wants right now.

So give it a read, and keep your eyes open. When you see a story about something like “sexting” or whether Tom Cruise drinks puppy blood for breakfast, ask yourself – is this news, or is it just FARK?

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“The real answer to Has The Media Gone Too Far? is yes, it goddamn very well has.”
– Drew Curtis, It’s Not News, it’s FARK
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FARK.com
It’s Not News, It’s FARK on Wikipedia
Drew Curtis on Wikipedia
It’s Not News, It’s FARK on Amazon.com
FARK on Wikipedia

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Filed under analysis, Drew Curtis, internet, media, news

Review 38: Transmetropolitan


Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

There are times I look around me and think, “I love living in the future.” I mean think about all that we have – even the simplest phones can call anywhere in the world, and the higher end ones are basically backup brains. Surgery that used to require horrible invasion can now be done with a fraction of the time and the pain. We can cure diseases that a century ago would have been thought of as afflictions by God. Our transportation networks have grown to a point where there is practically nowhere on Earth that cannot be reached in twenty-four hours, and advances in communication have provided us with more information than our ancestors could have hoped to see in their (briefer) lifetimes.

We live in an age of wonders, when you really think about it.

Leave it to Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, then, to show us what living in the future really means.

Transmetropolitan is set in the far, far future – so far ahead that even they don’t know what year it is. It’s set a in future that can do anything – cure any disease, bring people back from the dead, synthesize consumer goods from blocks of inert matter…. You can turn yourself into a dolphin for a day or into a sentient dust cloud for the rest of eternity. It’s a future that defies imagination.

And yet, it is very similar to now. The same problems, the same mistakes and the same short-sightedness that plague us will be around in the future, no matter how good the technology is. Despite being able to have anything you want, there is still greed. Despite being able to reassemble matter on an atomic level, there is still hunger and homelessness. Despite the human form becoming malleable in a thousand different ways, there is still discrimination. This perfect future has a flaw, and like so many perfect things, its flaw is its people.

Our guide to this future is Spider Jerusalem, a celebrated journalist whose love of the truth eclipses his hate of the world he lives in, and he’s determined to set the City straight, even if it kills him. He’s an analogue of Hunter S. Thompson, with a little H.L. Mencken thrown in for balance, and he’s the most awesome character to grace comics in a long time.

Spider is angry because he has to come back to The City, the nameless hypertropolis that both sustains him and drives him mad. He looks around and sees the ugliness under the shiny plastic shell of society and is instantly furious that no one has done anything about it yet. What’s more, it’s time to vote for President again, and this time it looks like it’s a race between an incumbent so horrible that he was nicknamed The Beast and an utterly amoral snake called The Smiler, who wants to be President just because that’s what he wants. Spider Jerusalem, whether he wants it or not, holds the keys to power for both of these men, and even his high moral sense isn’t able to tell him which of the two villains should get it.

Keen observers of 20th century history will see a lot reflected in this series, deliberately and clearly, and Spider is Ellis’ avatar His word is beyond dispute and his decisions are beyond question, which is why Warren Ellis is a kind of internet cult figure these days. He created a character that was a brash loudmouth who could scream the things that we’re all thinking, but someone with whom we feel an almost immediate and unshakable sympathy. He’s enough to make me want to be a journalist.

The future of Transmetropolitan is a place where Ellis was able to tell us everything that had been bugging him, from the hyper-escalation of technology to corrupt government to social apathy. The first few issues, before the real meat of the story kicks in, are “soapbox” issues, where Ellis rails against everything that’s going wrong in our time by making it so much worse in the future. My favorite of these, of course, is the religion issue (#6, God Riding Shotgun) where Spider crashes – and trashes – a convention for new religions. Alien Love Gardeners, the Church of Cobain, and the Church of Release, where trepanation can be practiced as an act of evangelism are excellent examples.

Eventually the story settles down with the arrival of the Presidential Election and Spider’s determination to bring down The Smiler no matter what it costs him.

The writing in this story is fantastic, of course, as we would expect nothing less from Warren Ellis. Spider is utterly, completely foul-mouthed, so don’t let your children read it unless you want them to shock sailors. But there are touching moments and angry tirades and passionate speeches that dig right into your heart, and whether you love Spider or hate him, you know he’s speaking from the core of his soul.

The art, too, is outstanding. It takes great skill to make such ugliness look beautiful, but Darick Robertson certainly has it. The City is a living, breathing place, and it has all of the beauty and horror of a living organism, if you look closely enough. Robertson can render gleaming cityscapes alongside the hollow eyes of child prostitutes with equal care and detail. While you read, be sure to look, because every panel is worth looking at.

Transmetropolitan is a story about truth, really. Or if we want to be specific, The Truth. Spider believes in The Truth, no matter who it hurts, and his mission as a journalist is to discover and promulgate the truth. Whether it’s the truth about the alien-human hybrid prostitutes delivered to the presidential suite or the truth about a level of poverty in the City that would shame a third-world nation, Spider’s aim is to show people what their world looks like and force them to take action. Unfortunately, he’s fighting an uphill battle.

You see, much like in our world, people don’t actually like truth. It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant, especially because there’s a very good chance that the truth could implicate us in some pretty horrible situations. What’s worse, there are countless situations where you can have contradictory situations and explanations, and yet both can be considered “true.” That’s the unfortunate difference between fiction and real life.

Still, I would appreciate Spider Jerusalem today. In this world of instant news, where something that’s an hour old is “old news” and where opinion is put side-by-side with fact as if there were some kind of controversy, we need someone to stand for the truth. Someone who doesn’t care about what people think of him or the consequences of her quest for herself. Someone fearless enough to push as far as he can and then push farther. Someone to stand up and say, “This is what is true.”

We may not listen to this person. In fact, given the way things are going right now, we may even come to hate the one who tells us how we are responsible for the world in which we live. But we need him nonetheless, and if Spider Jerusalem can inspire even a few of us to look at our societies and ourselves with a critical, unblinking, bloodshot eye, then perhaps his spirit lives, even if he doesn’t.

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These are the new streets of this city. Where the New Scum try to live. You and me. And here in these streets are the things that we want: sex and birth, votes and traits, money and guilt. Television and teddy bears. But all we’ve actually got is each other. You decide what that means.
– Spider Jerusalem, Transmetropolitan
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Transmetropolitan on Wikipedia
Warren Ellis on Wikipedia
Darick Robertson on Wikipedia
Warren Ellis’ homepage
Darick Robertson’s homepage
Transmetropolitan on Wikiquote
Transmetropolitan on Amazon.com

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Filed under Darick Robertson, DC Comics, futurism, graphic novel, humor, media, politics, science fiction, technology, totalitarianism, Warren Ellis