A Place Farther than The Universe

Since we’re all shut-ins now, I’m going to start posting video that I’ve enjoyed* in case you are looking for something better than reruns of shows that are out-of-production because of COVID.

A Place Farther Than The Universe” is about four high school girls who, improbably, all have different reasons for wanting to travel to Antarctica. And, in a glare of media attention, they somehow manage to pull it off.

Here’s a better review than I could write (starting about 30 seconds in)

Here’s about five minutes of scenes from the series (a few spoilers!) showcasing drama and visual style.

And here’s the whole first episode on YouTube. To find the rest of them, you’ll have to go to CrunchyRoll, the streaming service that co-produced the series.

  • *When I say “things I’ve enjoyed” keep in mind that I am a sentimental old fool. I don’t like violent or sadistic content. I love musical and visually beautiful work with emotional substance. I have a very high tolerance for absurdity or even silliness. Charming stories about kids growing up, Disney movies, science, history, magical ponies reprising Star Trek, and other geeky content is likely to be featured. People with taste similar to mine may find it useful.
  • If that isn’t your shot glass of tequila, please go on your own timeline and post stuff YOU like! Because somebody with taste similar to yours may also be looking and you can help them out.

Place Farther Than The Universe banner
Picture inserted so something will appear in social media posts

Damrell’s Fire

In case you are ever tempted to believe that rich people are perforce wise

John Stanhope Damrell was the fire chief of Boston, Massachusetts, and didn’t just fight fire; he studied it. He had a passion for saving lives and property. But this story is only partly about him; it’s also about his bosses.

In 1871 when fire swept through Chicago, Illinois, killing about three hundred people, destroying seventeen thousand, five hundred buildings, Damrell wanted to know why. He had a hunch that Boston embodied similar risks.

Traveling with an assistant he toured the ashes of Chicago. He interviewed people, made notes, took measurements. Then he went back to Boston to write his report.

Comparing Chicago to Boston, he found disturbing parallels. His recommendations included bigger water pipes, flow capacity, pumping and ladder engines, certain streets wider, and improvements in building standards. He didn’t want Boston to suffer Chicago’s fate. Yes, he said, it will cost money, but Chicago’s losses exceeded $222 million dollars (four and a half billion dollars in today’s money). And Boston had all the same vulnerabilities as Chicago.

At the time, Boston was led by a group of wealthy men known as the “Brahmans”. Captains of industry, finance, and commerce, they heard Damrell’s report and… rejected it. They just couldn’t see how any of those expensive proposals would make a difference. They basically told him to ‘stick to fighting fires’.

Then in November of 1871, fire started in a six-story building in Boston’s business district. The epic, heroic story of how Damrell and his men fought that fire to a standstill, limiting its reach to 700 buildings and a handful of fatalities, could be a summer blockbuster.

“Chief Engineer John Damrell was in command at the fire, but his attention was frequently interrupted by city officials seeking meetings to discuss strategy and the political impact of the fire.”

Boston after 1872 fire

You would think the Brahmans would give Damrell an award. Well, not so much “award” as “hauled into an inquiry and made to account for why he let that fire happen and do so much damage”. By 1874 Damrell was pushed out, forced into retirement.

But he didn’t exactly retire; he went on to found the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the driving force behind the first US national fire code. He is the reason US cities stopped burning to the ground in the early 20th century.

The “Brahmans”? Well they went on being rich and respected and in-charge. But eventually even Boston had to adopt an updated fire code in spite of them.

NOTES:

The Truth may not set you free, but it can slow down a pandemic

Coronavirus.
Coronavirus, Image source: CDC

Ever wonder why it was called “The Spanish Flu”? It didn’t start in Spain, after all. But back in 1917 – 1918, the US and European governments were trying to keep it secret. Only the Spanish told the truth, so it got named after them. Even so, it turns out they did the right thing. And now we are facing a serious new threat: the Coronavirus.

A pandemic is no time to engage in propaganda. It is a very good time to look at specifics, without flinching. Here are some specifics, and all the links below are to actual subject experts, or credible, research-based resources, to learn more:

Coronavirus is roughly as deadly as the 1918 flu; about one fatality in 31. Those are terrible odds, and that’s even with modern medicine on our side.

60% Alcohol hand sanitizer is effective, but only if you use it correctly with the same hand-rubbing technique that you use for thorough hand-washing. See page 2 of this WHO guide: Hand Hygiene: Why, How, and When. Also check out this graphic of common hand washing results.

When washing hands, plain soap and water is effective on most viruses including Coronavirus. Follow the WHO guide in the previous paragraph for technique.

Touch less stuff, or touch stuff less. Operate public touch-screens with your knuckle. Ditto for elevator buttons, phone buttons, credit-card readers, etc. Open door handles with the heel of your hand, not your fingertips. (I started doing this last trick because of arthritis, but now I can say I’m ‘using best practices’!)

Avoid touching your face if you can (this is hard for people with allergies*) and sanitize your hands more often if you can’t.

Adopt non-contact or limited-contact greetings. A fist-bump, a little bow, or even a nod + smile are far preferable to the disease-hand-off we call a “handshake”.

Maintain 2-meter social distance. This is the length of an adult llama, or a broom extended at arm’s length.

Bane wearing mask
This mask would help others to maintain social distance from you

UPDATE: Wear a mask. Consensus has emerged that in public, procedure masks or makeshift masks (as opposed to specialized N95 surgical masks) ARE helpful.

Gloves are not that helpful, at least not if you use them like some kind of magic talisman. Unsafe touching habits contaminate gloves just like anything else. Can be helpful if a skin-protection part of frequent sanitizing. This is just common sense, really.

Use disinfecting wipes on surfaces. Read the directions. The Coronavirus can last on surfaces up to 9 days but it’s pretty easy to kill. Be sure to include your own surfaces; your cell phone, laptop, doorknobs, office phones, light switches, public staplers, etc. Big, low-touch surfaces you can skip.

Cough into your elbow, not your hand. Coughing and sneezing releases tiny droplets that can carry the virus, linger in the air, or come to rest on surfaces. Keep your distance from others when you are sick. Stay home if you can, work at your desk if you can’t. Skip meetings. Now is the perfect time to indulge your anti-social tendencies.

NOTES:

  • This post will be updated and edited as new information comes in or readers suggest sources and clarifications. Last updated on 28 March, 2020. Please discuss this post on Twitter and Facebook.
  • “Not touching your face” is hard for people with allergies, people with anxiety disorders, and people socialized in ordinary society where we stroke our chins, rub our eyes, etc. There’s a lot to un-learn.
  • Trump is ignoring the lessons of the 1918 Flu pandemic that killed millions, historian says. The Washington Post interviewed John M. Barry, author of “The Great Influenza: the epic story of the deadliest plague in history”. Barry said things were made much worse by the government trying to “raise morale” and prevent bad news.
  • Countries that insist on commoditizing medical care, making it available only to those who can pay, will pay a terrible price. Ditto for countries that don’t have paid medical leave for all workers. People who can’t see a doctor, won’t. People who can’t take time off from work, won’t. Rich people feeling safe should think about who made their lunches; we truly are all in this together.

2020 Democratic Primary Notes

This is where I’m keeping notes on the Democratic candidates. These are MY subjective impressions of each candidate, and will be updated right up until the candidate is chosen. If you want basic facts, check out this quick review on AlJazeera. Or the Wikipedia article linked in each section. You can discuss this post on Twitter if you like, or on Facebook.

I would love to see
her in the
Oval Office

Elizabeth Warren is my favorite choice. She has a distinguished career as a US senator, strong experience and academic cred, is a fact-based planner and has shown she is able to update her thinking as new information comes in. Wall-street types are absolutely terrified of her. Which is surprising because she is cool with rich people… but c’mon nobody needs a ninth yacht that has its own yacht inside it, and she has a plan for that. She is 100 percent onboard with GLBTQ rights. She gets that climate change will make every other issue irrelevant. She is more interested in the right outcome than in her getting credit for it. I wish she weren’t so old but she seems to be in good health. And yes, that matters. (Dropped out of the race on 05 March.)

Yeah, OK.

Bernie Sanders I can live with I guess, though his fans are awfully close to being a cult of personality. He’s been in the Senate for a long time, has a great number of amendments through, wants to spend tax money on Americans and not on an ever-growing war culture, and is brave enough to wear the label “Democratic Socialist” with pride, which is no small thing. This basically means that he understands the corrosive effect income inequality has on society, and he seems to understand about climate change as well. He has also had a heart attack, and while he seems vigorous, the survival statistics even for people who aren’t president are sobering. Would he actually be effective as president? Damned if I know. Really I’d love to have him stay on as a Senator.

C’mon, Joe, go
play golf with
Barack or
something.

Joe Biden, I mean Jesus Christ, Joe, we were willing to let it go and just remember you as Barack Obama’s goofy sidekick but then you had to go and run for president like YOU are the inescapable leader we all need? You were a primary architect of “welfare reform” and of mass incarceration, which is racist as hell. You’re beloved by oligarchs. You have repeatedly lied about being involved in the civil rights movement. You have a long history of treating women and girls in a way that causes your supporters to say; “Well, that’s just Joe being Joe, you gotta understand…” Well no I don’t gotta understand, Joe, get with the current goddamn century. Also, what the hell is a “record player”?

OK, now that I’ve said all that, here’s a perspective on Joe Biden from Laurie Goff, that (unsurprisingly) had not occurred to me. Please read, because it explains something I had no other hope of understanding.

I mean, seriously,
NO.

Michael Bloomberg I have been aware of just as long as I have been aware of Donald Trump (about 30 years) and I dislike him only slightly less than trump. Which is to say; I don’t think he’s an active Russian asset like Trump, but they score about the same in the “Racist sexual-harassing old white oligarch who will let you have a better life only if you don’t mess with billionaires” test. He has tried to distance himself from “Stop And Frisk” but after all the lives it ruined, I don’t think an apology is going to cut it. If he becomes the candidate it would prove everything the Bernie fans have been saying about the Democratic party. Voting for him would be an act of weeping desperation on my part; we have MUCH better candidates. UPDATE: Well he’s dropped out, which is good. But he’s endorsed Biden. Which is bad and what I’d expect of him.

Pete Buttigieg was the mayor of Insert Town Name Here, and not everyone agrees that he did a great job. He has served in the US military and seems like a basically decent guy. Some people are concerned about him being gay but really can’t we move past that? I mean, gay people can be boring too if that’s what they’re worried about. But he is very likable and definitely a smart guy. I think he’ll go far in the long run. He dropped out of the race on 01 March though, endorsing Joe Biden.

Amy Klobuchar I really don’t know much about, so I’m reading up on her. She was a corporate lawyer, became a US Senator where she was very effective at passing legislation. And let’s face it, that means she made compromises that Democratic purists are gonna hold against her. She can apparently be a real jerk to her employees, but on the plus side she was the one who got Brett Kavenaugh to get all weepy and defensive about how much he likes beer and how he never raped anybody as far as he can remember. She has dropped out of the race, endorsing Joe Biden.

Tulsi Gabbard has a really interesting history. An American Samoan, she is the only Hindu in the race, has military experience, has convincingly changed positions on gay marriage, supports Medicare for all, and as a 4-term Congresswoman is co-author of a bill to end ‘presidential wars’ (I like that last part a lot) and… well that’s about all I know about her. But even that is enough to get her in the “interesting” category.

Tom Steyer – I really know little about. He has dropped out of the race. Didn’t seem like a bad guy, but again, I don’t know him very well.

Welcoming 2020 I guess

(NOTE: you can skip all the downer stuff if you like, and go straight to my happy wishes for you in bold text at the end.)

The last decade has been pretty good to me personally. I mean, I almost died a couple times (OK three times) but you know, it’s like striking a student’s worst test scores before averaging the grade. Seen that way, I’m holding up fine.

This was the decade my country slid off the road and began rolling down a steep hill through the brush toward fascism. Lot of people trying to grab the wheel and maybe hit something soft but the outcome is still in doubt.

This was the decade my planet really began to show the symptoms of global warming. I mean, California was on fire, and Australia is really on fire, and Greenland ice melting is getting ahead of the worst-case scenario, and on 24 December Antarctica melted more ice than any summer day ever, and Northern permafrost is losing its perm while belching methane, and multiple countries have elected climate deniers but hey, at least ordinary people are finally getting the message. Often by running for their lives.

My mother isn’t doing very well. She’s in her 90’s and had an awful stroke which (thanks to immediate medical attention) she rallied from, but now she’s headed into the memory unit. My brother and his wife are her heroic primary caregivers and both of them have medical connections so she is receiving great care. But in my last conversation with her I realized all the rest of our conversations will only be about happy things even if they are not real things. If there were any questions to answer or issues to resolve, they’re somewhere in the Gulf now.

Wait, you’re still here? Wow. I got nothin’ but props for you for hanging in there.

Sorry, man, I shouldn’t be a downer like that. I mean, we’re both riding six sextillion tonnes of metal and rock, completing another orbit around that fusion reactor in space. We’re in this together.

So here’s the thing: we have this invisible spot marked off in our orbit, and when we pass it some guy’s gonna make a ball fall down or something and we’re on track for the next round. And there’ll be fireworks.

(They already HAD fireworks in Sidney – how’s that for irony?)

Here’s the important part 🙂

Anyway, here is my sincere hope for you and yours: I hope New Years’ comes next year and you can ask yourself just one question:

“What the hell was I worried about? Everything turned out fine!”

Gonna leave this post up for a week, then take it down. Have a great year!

(NOTE: I don’t care about that argument on when a decade “really” begins.)

Prepping for a historic campaign of lies

I have bad news for you: the 2020 campaign season is ramping up.

In the past this has meant candidates saying stuff that was a bit exaggerated with the occasional whopper. But now it means literal troll farms spreading outright lies, which will be amplified by cable news, and even candidates. The apparent goal seems to be to undermine the very concept of truth, with so much “fake news” that the phrase will be applied to all news.

There are fact-checking sites, but the trolls have done their work so effectively that fact sites are constantly accused of bias. Use them, but be prepared for monkeys screaming “Fake News!”

To make matters worse, new technology called “DeepFake” can create videos of people saying things they never said. That’s going to make fact-checking even harder. What to do?

Here’s my tool kit. These are practical things I do to try stay in the orbit of reality:

  • Don’t watch TV news. Once upon a time, TV networks spent 23 hours preparing for a one-hour program. They weren’t perfect, but they took their work very seriously. Now teams of talking heads sit in front of a camera, reacting to stuff. This goes on all day and night. If you had a fire hose that sprayed bullshit, it would be cable news. Avoiding it will reduce factual pollution in your head.
  • Read books on factual topics that aren’t specifically related to current news events. As Mark Twain may have said; “History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes”. So reading history will help you spot patterns. And the physical world does indeed repeat itself, so invest some serious time in science and math. That way, when someone makes a claim that seems… improbable, it will stand out.
  • Think in terms of probability. The Mark Twain quote above can’t be confirmed, so it’s better to say he “may have” said it. This is a way of keeping an open mind without letting your brains fall out. Is a quote or action consistent with what you know about a person? Then OK, sure, maybe, until it’s confirmed, which means “high probability”. Not consistent? Then probably not. Probability as a proportionate output of consistency, which still leaves room for stuff you never saw coming.
  • Follow experts on social media. There are people you can follow today who are real experts in the actual field of study in question. Engineers, system designers, historians, specialist doctors, epidemiologists, geologists, climate scientists, space scientists, physicists… the important thing is that they are experts in a specific field.
  • And media people who refer to expertise. For example Bill Nye, a science guy, is a licensed engineer with more authority in engineering than other topics. But when he talks about gender expression or climate science, he consciously lines up with specialist science in those fields. Another example would be Greta Thunberg, whose message repeated like a warning buoy reads: “Don’t listen to me, listen to the science.”
  • Follow people who are not like you in some way. You can learn more in one day about the effects of gender law by following a transgender artist than you could in a year of watching cable news. This principle works in reverse, too; you would learn very little about Islam from your Christian legislator.
  • Realize that where you are is not the whole world. Is the weather nice where you are? Good. Is your community in good shape? That’s great. How’s the rest of the world? For that matter, how’s the rest of your state?
  • Watch out for bots and trolls online. Learn to recognize accounts that fit the profile of a bot farm account. This is a major industry now, with outputs on both sides of the major ideological divide. Their goal is confusion and discord. Check your followers list. When you spot one, block, don’t engage.
  • Watch out for logical fallacies. So an immigrant committed a crime, and people with an ax to grind are all over the news with it? Stop to ask yourself what that means for immigrants generally. (Spoiler alert: not much.)
  • Check things out, confirm, verify, measure, get out your calculator. Don’t stop with the first thing in print that confirms what you thought. Especially when someone makes a surprising claim that isn’t consistent with what you know. Dig, look up, open books, sit down and do some math. Pay attention to orders of magnitude. When you find out you made a mistake, don’t double-down; edit your post with an explicit correction.
Judge Claude Frollo from Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame
This fucking guy

Finally, dial back the concept of absolute Truth. For practical purposes you can absolutely depend on the laws of thermodynamics, for instance, but when you get to talking about anything metaphysical, not so much. When someone’s going on about what God intended, ask how they know.

If you ask a scientist how they know something, they’ll start talking about experimental methodology, data collection, statistical techniques, and correlation with other fields of inquiry. And the conclusions they draw are “highly likely” or “an interesting result, calling for more study” but almost never claimed to be absolute Truth.

I won’t lie; this is exhausting work. Spend more time educating yourself than you do engaging online. And give your mind a break; get some rest, enjoy a fantasy story, do something pointless but fun.

NOTES:

Tom Scott’s 59-minute video about social media, lies and propaganda is well worth your time:

You will find disinformation on both sides of the ideological divide, but both sides are not the same.

The economic choice we make

Ever since Ayn Rand injected the American mind with her economic prion disease, we’ve been moving ever further into neoliberal economics. And somehow, with the certainty of religious faith, it has been sold as both constructive and inevitable. But.

Economists, union leaders, environmental leaders, and others have been shouting from the rooftops that nothing about neoliberal economics makes sense for anyone but the super-rich. The rest of us are just along for the ride into an ever-more destructive future. They have not gotten far; by equating wealth with credibility, our society has set itself up to hear only the words of the very rich.

All right, then. Listen to this rich guy: