Donald Trump’s War on Science

Lawrence M. Krauss, writing for The New Yorker:

In a 1946 essay, George Orwell wrote that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” It’s not just that we’re easily misled. It’s that, by “impudently twisting the facts,” we can convince ourselves of “things which we know to be untrue.” A whole society, he wrote, can deceive itself “for an indefinite time,” and the only check on that mass delusion is that “sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality.” Science is one source of that solid reality. The Trump Administration seems determined to keep it at bay, and the consequences for society and the environment will be profound.

I’ve been purposely avoiding posting too many Trump-as-Armageddon articles. Contrary to the belief of some, I think those of us who are skeptical of what he plans to do as President should wait until a. he’s actually the President and; b. he starts to do some of these horrible things. Pitching a fit beforehand runs the risk of Chicken Little syndrome setting in.

That being said, this piece scared the shit out of me. And it should scare the shit out of you, too. And it passes the sniff test—these are the people he really has tapped, and these are the things they really have done and claim to believe.

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Love the Fig

Ben Crair, writing for The New Yorker’s Elements blog:

All kinds of critters, not only humans, frequent fig trees, but the plants owe their existence to what may be evolution’s most intimate partnership between two species. Because a fig is actually a ball of flowers, it requires pollination, but because the flowers are sealed, not just any bug can crawl inside. That task belongs to a minuscule insect known as the fig wasp, whose life cycle is intertwined with the fig’s. Mother wasps lay their eggs in an unripe fig. After their offspring hatch and mature, the males mate and then chew a tunnel to the surface, dying when their task is complete. The females follow and take flight, riding the winds until they smell another fig tree. (One species of wasp, in Africa, travels ten times farther than any other known pollinator.) When the insects discover the right specimen, they go inside and deposit the pollen from their birthplace. Then the females lay new eggs, and the cycle begins again. For the wasp mother, however, devotion to the fig plant soon turns tragic. A fig’s entranceway is booby-trapped to destroy her wings, so that she can never visit another plant. When you eat a dried fig, you’re probably chewing fig-wasp mummies, too.

You have no idea how much you never knew about the fig.

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A Guy Trained a Machine To "Watch" Blade Runner. Then Things Got Seriously Sci-Fi.

Aja Romano, writing for Vox:

Just a routine example of copyright infringement, right? Not exactly. Warner Bros. had just made a fascinating mistake. Some of the Blade Runner footage — which Warner has since reinstated — wasn't actually Blade Runner footage. Or, rather, it was, but not in any form the world had ever seen.

Instead, it was part of a unique machine-learned encoding project, one that had attempted to reconstruct the classic Philip K. Dick android fable from a pile of disassembled data.

In other words: Warner had just DMCA'd an artificial reconstruction of a film about artificial intelligence being indistinguishable from humans, because it couldn't distinguish between the simulation and the real thing.

I don't understand—couldn't they have picked like, Home Alone? Why Blade Runner, of all the movies for this specific project? Oh, I see:

In other words, using Blade Runner had a deeply symbolic meaning relative to a project involving artificial recreation. "I felt like the first ever film remade by a neural network had to be Blade Runner," Broad told Vox.

Mark this one down in the event that it's the beginning of the end.

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Primitive Technology

Giri Nathan, writing for Adequate Man:

There is a man in Australia who goes out into the bushland of Far North Queensland to live out his caveman fantasies. The practice is called primitive technology, which he describes as “a hobby where you make things in the wild completely from scratch using no modern tools or materials.” Lest the vagueness of “things” mislead you into thinking he’s building tire swings and humble tree forts, just play his videos and know that my dude is building functional weapons and livable huts, chronicled in his wordless, tightly edited, hypnotic tutorials.

I have one rule for this guy's videos—never start them before bed. You will wind up staying up much later than you planned. Please make sure you watch the one I included above. Don't balk at the run-time; you won't even notice the time going by, I promise.

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Donald Trump Wants to Build a Seawall to Protect His Golf Course from Climate Change

Seth Weintraub, writing for Electrek:

As far as presidential candidates are concerned, it’s hard to find one with scarier implications for the planet than Donald Trump. As Politico points out, the presumptive Republican Presidential Candidate has called global warming “a total hoax,” “BS” and “pseudoscience.”

But that’s just the candidate trying to win the Republican endorsement for president. As a businessman with properties on the coasts, Trump takes a decidedly different tack.

As far as galling hypocrisy goes, this is par for the course (pun intended) for the presumptive Republican nominee for president. But the bigger takeaway here is that, for better and for worse, this is the circumstance under which climate change will inevitably come to be dealt with.

When it starts affecting the business interests of rich white men.

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Afterlives: My Mother’s Breast Cancer, and My Own

Kate Bolick, writing for The New Yorker:

When I was in college, I asked my mother if she believed in an afterlife, and she said no. This didn’t surprise me—she’d finished Catholic school an atheist—but it bothered me. I reasoned with her: “None of us can say for certain there’s no life after death because we’re still alive,” and, “What if there is an afterlife and, by refusing to believe in it, you lose your right to send signs from beyond the grave?” and, “How about this: let’s just agree to agree that there is an afterlife, and if there is, when one of us dies, we can send signs, and if there isn’t that’s that. But at least we’ll have the option.” She laughed and said no, thank you.

A year later, after her cancer had reëmerged and killed her more swiftly than we’d ever thought possible, I thought of this conversation often, and was annoyed. Thanks for leaving me alone in this cold, echoing void, Mom. Would it have hurt her to humor me? To at least be on the lookout for signs from beyond would have been a comfort. I envied people who deluded themselves by visiting mediums or psychics, and I bridled at those who said my mother was “watching over” me. Maybe other mothers did such a thing, but not mine.

I promise you that this piece isn't nearly as negative as the above excerpt makes it seem. I just didn't want to spoil anything.

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N.F.L.’s Flawed Concussion Research and Ties to Tobacco Industry

Alan Schwarz, Walt Bogdanich, and Jacqueline Williams, writing for The New York Times:

The National Football League was on the clock.

With several of its marquee players retiring early after a cascade of frightening concussions, the league formed a committee in 1994 that would ultimately issue a succession of research papers playing down the danger of head injuries. Amid criticism of the committee’s work, physicians brought in later to continue the research said the papers had relied on faulty analysis.

Now, an investigation by The New York Times has found that the N.F.L.’s concussion research was far more flawed than previously known.

This is such a damning report that the NFL had a point-by-point statement ready to go to try and limit the damage, which The New York Times has already responded to. It seems impossible, but at some point in the next decade, I think we're going to see a paradigm shift in the American sports landscape. Football will eventually go away if it doesn't adapt.

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The End of Facts

Jill Lepore, writing for The New Yorker:

A “fact” is, etymologically, an act or a deed. It came to mean something established as true only after the Church effectively abolished trial by ordeal in 1215, the year that King John pledged, in Magna Carta, “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned . . . save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” In England, the abolition of trial by ordeal led to the adoption of trial by jury for criminal cases. This required a new doctrine of evidence and a new method of inquiry, and led to what the historian Barbara Shapiro has called “the culture of fact”: the idea that an observed or witnessed act or thing—the substance, the matter, of fact—is the basis of truth and the only kind of evidence that’s admissible not only in court but also in other realms where truth is arbitrated. Between the thirteenth century and the nineteenth, the fact spread from law outward to science, history, and journalism.

This piece made me think of a line in the Stephanie Vaughn short story Dog Heaven:

She believed, like the adults in my family, that a fact was something solid and useful, like a penknife you could put in your pocket in case of emergency.

There has never been more things that are true than at this point in time. It's a gift and a curse.

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“What I do keeps the wolf from the door.”

Karl Ove Knausgaard, writing for The New York Times Magazine:

Marsh brought out the stimulator again. This time it was turned up to 8 before there was a reaction, and Dashi said, “Face.”

Marsh waved me over.

“See this? This little spot here. That’s the center for facial movement. We have to leave that in peace.”

Were all the expressions the human face could make supposed to originate in this little spot? All the joy, all the grief, all the light and all the darkness that filled a face in the course of a life, was it all traceable to this? The quivering lower lip before tears begin to flow, the eyes narrowing in anger, the sudden cracking up into laughter?

Marsh continued working with the two instruments. Using the sucker, he pried and pushed and shoved continuously, while he used the other tool in between, with no trace of hesitation, without stopping and, seemingly, without thinking.

He brought out the electric stimulator again. This time he pushed it toward the bottom of the hole.

“This should be the face again,” he said.

“Nothing,” Dashi said.

“Nothing?”

Dashi shook his head, and Marsh went on working.

Every adjective I know to describe something intelligent and beautiful and profound and surgically precise would fail to adequately capture how strongly this piece, by my new favorite writer, embodies all of those qualities. If you like reading about science, this is a must-read. If you like having the human condition displayed in front of your eyes, this is a must-read. Fuck all of that—this is a must-read.

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