The beginnings of a wonderful horror story

Who knew? That stupid article about how to interrupt a woman wearing headphones has real legs, and is stirring up a lot of irritable snarling all over the place. One of the most interesting kinds of responses, though, is the horror story. This reaction by Alexandra Petri is beautiful, and sent chills down my spine.

You can talk to anyone, you tell yourself.
It is only a woman, you tell yourself.
But you know that it is not.
Women were something different.
Your comrade made the awful mistake of talking to the Woman Who Is Reading A Book On The Subway. You watched it happen.
He made her look up from the book and her basilisk eyes fell on him, unblinking, and he melted.
You still remember the screams.
They were so horrible that the city lay awake for days trying to forget them.

Yesterday half your comrades were ordered to shout “Smile!” at the Woman Who Is Walking.
And the woman did. Too wide.
So wide that her mouth engulfed the street and became a vast cavern.
Six of your friends were devoured.
You could hear the unladylike slurping sounds from blocks away as you beat a hasty retreat between the Scylla of the Woman Who Has Put Her Bag Next To Her On A Bar Stool and the Charybdis of the Woman Who Is Just Jogging.
You did not attempt to speak to either of them.
They passed you.
You were left unscathed.

You are about to talk to the Woman in Headphones.
My God, I pity you.
You are close now. Almost in range.
Before The Woman and behind her the ground is littered with shoes and hats and pick-up manuals and AXE body spray.
She sits patiently gnawing on a thigh bone.
You do not think she is single or looking.
You cannot make out the words she is listening to.

You know how this will go.
You know what the headphones mean.
You know what will happen when you ask her to remove the headphones.

Read the whole thing. It’s bone-chilling beauty. Like women, apparently.

If a quill pen was good enough for Thomas Jefferson, it ought to be good enough for 300 million people in a 21st century nation

Here’s another holdover from the founding fathers: not only do we have a constitutional amendment based on 18th century concepts of firearms, but we’re only allowed to keep track of them with record-keeping practically straight out of colonial America. Our country’s gun registry is a lot of pieces of paper in cardboard boxes, and thanks to the gun lobby, we aren’t allowed to computerize the information.

“It’s a shoestring budget,” says Charlie, who runs the center. “It’s not 10,000 agents and a big sophisticated place. It’s a bunch of friggin’ boxes. All half-ass records. We have about 50 ATF employees. And all the rest are basically the ladies. The ladies that live in West Virginia—and they got a job. There’s a huge amount of labor being put into looking through microfilm.”

I want to ask about the microfilm—microfilm?—but it’s hard to get a word in. He’s already gone three rounds on the whiteboard, scribbling, erasing, illustrating some of the finer points of gun tracing, of which there are many, in large part due to the limitations imposed upon this place. For example, no computer. The National Tracing Center is not allowed to have centralized computer data.

“That’s the big no-no,” says Charlie.

That’s been a federal law, thanks to the NRA, since 1986: No searchable database of America’s gun owners. So people here have to use paper, sort through enormous stacks of forms and record books that gun stores are required to keep and to eventually turn over to the feds when requested. It’s kind of like a library in the old days—but without the card catalog. They can use pictures of paper, like microfilm (they recently got the go-ahead to convert the microfilm to PDFs), as long as the pictures of paper are not searchable. You have to flip through and read. No searching by gun owner. No searching by name.

Thanks, NRA!

Support a criminal!

James Croft is looking for assistance to cope with his own life choices.

  • He chose to be a humanist.

  • He chose to speak out loudly about that.

  • He chose to join a protest against police brutality in St Louis.

  • He chose to try and record an instance of police beating a protester.

  • He chose to get arrested…oh, wait, no. He didn’t choose. The police chose to arrest him for daring to document their actions.

And now he’s e-begging to get money to cover his court costs and support his criminal lifestyle. Do you want to encourage that sort of thing? Then yes, you should give him cold hard cash and make yourself a co-conspirator, an accomplice, no less.

Wait, you can actually destroy someone on the interwebs?

Do you find yourself deeply annoyed by those headlines on Facebook and social media sites that declare that this politician or that scientist DESTROYED their opponent in a debate? It never happens. I’ve been in debates where the consensus is that I ‘won’, or was most informative, or was most difficult to refute, but the opposition usually has some rationalization to salvage their position. You can’t literally ANNIHILATE someone with an argument.

Or can you?

Neil deGrasse Tyson was accused of belittling a 9 year old girl who asked him a question, and one of those conservative talk-radio blowhards, Neal Larsen, made a big deal out of how awful Tyson was. Unfortunately for Larsen, his information came from one of those even more annoying “satirical” news sites (which is another of my pet peeves — I block people who cite those abominations). Larsen was loudly ridiculed for his gullibility.

And then…a miracle! Larsen didn’t give up his radio show, but he has resigned from writing a newspaper column over the exposure.

Larson acknowledged the error in his final op-ed, adding that he apologized to deGrasse Tyson for his mistake. But he also complained about the amount of attention his failed attack received.

“For those in the national spotlight, this is probably old hat, but I wasn’t equipped to handle the influx, logistically or emotionally,” Larson wrote. “If anyone had sent a kind word or more gentle and constructive criticism, I apologize because I probably missed it in the onslaught of hate.”

Aww, poor man. If only someone had given him a cookie, he might have been inspired to soldier on and produce even more bullshit like this, below:

However, Larson will continue broadcasting his radio show. Daily Kos pointed out that he has used it to argue, among other things, that Donald Trump is suited for the presidency because of his “alpha-male” personality, and that the choice of mascot for Washington D.C.’s NFL team is better than “a screaming Black Lives Matter activist, or a finger-snapping drag queen.”

Still, Tyson did manage to shut down a little bit of vileness. Larsen is still babbling on the radio, but he’s not poisoning newspapers anymore, which is a bit of progress.

So maybe Tyson didn’t DESTROY him, but I think we can at least say he was DECIMATED.

An awful lot of speculation on very little data

Over the last several days, I’ve seen a lot of excitement about a particular result of the SETI search. Scientists observed a signal from the direction of a star called HD 164595, which is about the size of our sun, and “only” 95 light years away. It’s also known to have a non-Earth-like planet in orbit around it; maybe there are some nice rocky planets in the habitable zone, as well?

In case you were curious, here’s the “message”:

Strong signal from the direction of HD 164595. “Raw” record of the signal together with expected shape of the signal for point-like source in the position of HD 164595. Credit: Bursov et al.

Strong signal from the direction of HD 164595. “Raw” record of the signal together with expected shape of the signal for point-like source in the position of HD 164595. Credit: Bursov et al.

It was a burst of energy significantly larger than the fuzzy noise seen in their usual observations. It happened once. It’s also a lot of energy to abruptly emerge from the neighborhood of a star, and that’s interesting in itself. The scientists involved are recommending that we keep an eye on that star — and I agree that we might learn something from that.

But it’s not likely to be an alien civilization trying to talk to us. That ought to be at the bottom of everyone’s list of possibilities. Even Seth Shostak has nothing but sensible interpretations.

This is a bit of a puzzling story, as the Russians found this signal a year ago or so, but just didn’t let others know. That’s not good policy, as what you really want is confirmation at another telescope, but… Is it real? The signal may be real, but I suspect it’s not ET. There are other possibilities for a wide-band signal such as this, and they’re caused by natural sources (or even terrestrial interference).

I just did a quick calculation of how much wattage they’d need to wield from 94 light-years (I think that’s the distance) in order to produce the apparently received signal, and that would be a big utility bill, even if they were directing the transmission (as opposed to broadcasting equally in all directions).

What I find odd is all the sites talking about inferring Kardashev levels from the size of the burst. The Kardashev scale is a science-fictiony estimate of the amount of energy available to a civilization: we’re at Kardashev 0; it would take a Kardashev 1 civilization able to tap energy sources equivalent to the entire amount of energy falling on their planet from their star to send a signal aimed directly at us; and it would take a Kardashev 2 civilization to produce an expanding sphere of signal nonspecifically propagating in all directions.

It seems to me that that is all an argument against this being communication from aliens. That one little blip took a greater amount of energy than our entire society can produce. It’s reasonable to argue that a more advanced civilization could have access to even more energy, but then you’d have to argue that super-advanced highly technological aliens then used their vast power to send one uninformative short blat of power outward. This would only make sense if the planet were inhabited by an entire species of privileged frat-boy types who thought it hilarious to fart at the universe.

That isn’t interesting. I’d be more enthusiastic if this were a novel natural phenomenon.

Never trust John Hagee with a secret

He’ll just babble the secret out everywhere and ruin it. He has revealed that the Anti-Christ will make himself known to the world on 30 August 2016. Way to ruin the surprise, guy.

(Warning: what follows is a half hour of stark raving madness. I only lasted 4 minutes.)

Welp, I was going to keep everyone on edge until 11:59 tonight, but I guess I might as well ‘fess up.

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The canonical Nice Guy

Can you stand one more story of men behaving badly today? I promise to stop after this one, but it’s just so classically awful–a nice guy loses it when he’s turned down for a date.

tried being nice. From the time I wrote a MyTake honoring what I love most about women to when I defended older women from the misogynistic charge that they are worthless. I even wrote a letter to my future daughters, because I loved women and delighted in the fantasy of someday raising women of my own as a father. But now things have changed, and changed badly they have.

To those who have been following my recent escapades at work, this is the update you asked for.

Upon receiving my “Yes” and her phone number, I called the girl in question and tried to plan an official date. Not only did she reject me, which is strange after initially expressing interest and volitionally giving me her phone number of her own choice, but she told all of my coworkers that I stole her number off of Facebook and have been stalking her, and that I am a creeper.

She was a lying cunt, simply put, and has completely jeopardized my status in the workplace.

That’s only the beginning. The rest of the monster article is just JRICHARDS1996 raging about evil women who are nothing but whores and how he prefers a conniving prostitute to those wicked females and how he used to be such a nice guy but never again because women are so bad. And he leaves us with a final threat.

As it is, I will never approach another woman again. That nice guy that was once inside of me is completely dead. Dead, and you killed him. You crucified him. You nailed him to the Cross.

Show of hands–how many women reading this are now grieving at the loss of this Nice Guy from the dating pool?

How many of you think it would be appropriate to scoop something out of the cat box and hand it to him, saying “Here’s a cookie”?

Jesus,no. You have to read another article by this guy: In Honor of Femininity: The 5 Things I Love Most About Women. It begins…

I have been accused of sexism and misogyny multiple times by females on this website. And even though those claims could not be further from the truth, I thought it would be in good taste to vindicate myself by composing a tribute to femininity. That is, a celebration of what it means to be a woman. So in honor of femininity, I have taken the liberty of listing the five things that I love most about women.

You can guess what follows. Just to spare you, the five things are:

  • They are Cute. Like, when they paint their toenails or bake cakes.

  • They are Sexy. “Have you seen just how sexy the female form is buck naked?”

  • They are Selfless. They take care of children and clean house for us!

  • They are Nurturing. “Even the most attractive, classiest ones still have a soft spot for crying losers such as myself, and are there to provide comfort.”

  • They are Emotionally Receptive. “Whether it is consoling a man on the verge of a suicide or expressing some little bit of kindness to an addict at rock bottom who needs to feel loved even if by a random stranger, women are capable of understanding emotion and doing what needs to be done.”

To put the W(t)F in awful, the whole thing is illustrated with half-naked pinup pictures.

You’re doing it wrong

Times Higher Education has another of those tedious articles in which some learned academic harumphs that you should not use social media. This one is kind of interesting, though, because his reasons why you should not tell us a heck of a lot about about Gabriel Egan.

How many friends have you got, and how many people do you know? If you use social media such as Facebook and Twitter you can probably quantify these things quite readily, but the answers will be wildly inaccurate as we all routinely overestimate these things.

What is more, the answers will be irrelevant to your work as an academic. We are all quite naturally obsessed with what our friends and acquaintances think of us and we crave evidence of the esteem in which we are held.

In return for feeding our desire for evidence of how we are doing in our social interactions – our narcissistic craving for others’ approval – first Facebook and then a group of other social media corporations persuaded half of humankind to give up their most intimate personal details.

So Gabriel Egan thinks people engage in conversations on social media to run up the score, to get a quantitative tally of how many friends you have? Is that how he thinks?

Gabe, Gabe, Gabe. I know there are some people who think that way, carefully counting their twitter follows and facebook likes, but the people who are really good at social media are using it as a channel for communication and self-expression. They are not keeping score. If you are, and especially if you think that’s the whole reason for using social media (or publishing papers or getting grants), you’re doing it all wrong, and your reasoning about it is invalid.

How to Talk to a Woman Who is Wearing Headphones


Dan Bacon is oblivious. He’s written this longish article explaining how to get a woman to stop what she is doing and pay attention to a man, and never once stops to think about what the woman might want. He seems to think that if he’s cute and ingratiating enough, someone will like to be interrupted.

I have a shorter article explaining How to Talk to a Woman Who is Wearing Headphones, and here it is.


That’s all. Have some respect and understand that other people aren’t necessarily all about you, you narcissistic dork.

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The fountain of youth must meet some reasonable expectations

There are two interacting factors I expect of a good scientific explanation. One is empirical evidence, obviously — everyone knows that. You don’t get to sit back in your easy chair and make up ‘evidence’, and it’s unsatisfactory science if you don’t actually have any data to back it up.


But there’s another piece that’s hinted at in the cartoon: theory. Without theory, you can’t have evidence; you have a miscellany of disconnected observations that don’t get you anywhere. You need to be able to answer the question “what did you see?”, but you also need to answer “why did you go looking for it?” and “how do you interpret what you saw?” Having an expectation that all of those basic questions ought to be answerable before you accept an idea means, unfortunately, that I have to reject a lot of entirely desirable ideas.

I’d like a fountain of youth, for instance, or at least a pill that would slow down the effects of aging, but that doesn’t imply that I get to have one. There’s a hot new company, Elysium Health, selling a pill called Basis, which is supposed to keep you young longer.

I recently received in the mail a small cardboard box, solidly constructed and colored a subtle metallic gray, from the future. ELYSIUM HEALTH was printed on it in white sans-serif capital letters. Inside, a smaller crisp white box, banded in blue and imprinted with a letterpress E, described its contents as “a daily health product designed to optimize and support your most critical metabolic systems,” including “DNA repair,” “Cellular detoxification,” “Energy production,” and “Protein function.” Within was an elegant pillbox containing 60 capsules. The technical language obscured an arresting truth: Basis, which I had ordered online without a prescription, paying $60 for a month’s supply, was either the most sophisticated fountain-of-youth scam ever to come to market or the first fountain-of-youth pill ever to work.

That is such a hopelessly naive article. That last choice is silly: it’s a scam. The author has no reason to believe any of the claims on that box, except that they sound sciencey. Well, maybe they sound sciencey to a layperson: they all sound like crap to me. “DNA repair,” “Energy production,” and “Protein function” are all routine cellular functions, and I don’t even know how you can “optimize” stuff that has 4 billion years of evolution behind it with a pill, but maybe they have a theory to suggest a strategy? We’ll see. As for “Cellular detoxification,” good gob, that’s a pseudoscientific buzzword — haven’t you learned yet that when someone sells you a detox plan, they’re peddling the purest quackery?

That’s the opening paragraph. So when I read further, I’m going to be looking for two things: I want to see a plausible explanation for how this pill works, and I want to see evidence. It’s entirely possible to have a phenomenon that works that they don’t understand — data trumps theory — but I still will want to see a tentative explanation for what they see.

Sadly, though, the evidence for the effectiveness of the pill seems to be largely built around random anecdotes.

Others who’d taken Basis before me had described effects including fingernail growth, hair growth, skin smoothness, crazy dreams, increased stamina, better sleep, and more energy. Once I began taking it, I did feel an almost jittery uptick in mojo for a few days, and I slept more soundly as well. Then those effects seemed to recede, and there were also mornings where I felt a little out of it. If these were placebo effects, they were weird ones, because they didn’t make me feel better, only different.

There doesn’t seem to be any clinical evidence that this particular pill does anything. In fact, in another telling move, the company has skipped all that horrible FDA approval stuff by marketing it as a dietary supplement. Basically, they’re announcing that they can’t demonstrate any substantial effects, so they’ve chosen a marketing strategy that allows them to claim vaguely beneficial effects without the onus of actually providing any evidence for them.

So what about a theory? Here it is.

Scientists have recognized since the 1930s that calorie-restricted diets extend life in mammals (we evolved, the thinking goes, to withstand periods of famine, downshifting our metabolism in order to defer reproduction until we were again in a time of plenty). Guarente was one of the first to discover a single gene with a linchpin role in the process: in his case, a class of molecules called sirtuins. Now, aging science is in a growth spurt, with an accelerating race to develop compounds that target such master genes. The idea, and the premise of Basis, is that certain compounds might trick our bodies into thinking they’re starving (thereby extending our lives) without our having to feel hungry.

Uh-oh. There is a substantial literature on caloric restriction improving longevity; I haven’t been dazzled by any of it, since a lot of it is on model systems (and as someone who works on a model system, I can tell you that there is a lot of weirdness there), and the effects have been modest and variable. But caloric restriction has real physiological effects, unsurprisingly, and I’m seeing it touted as a treatment for everything from aging to Alzheimers to cancer. It all seems to be wobbling about in the world of straining for good p values, though, rather than the practical world of actually being robustly effective. But hey, we should keep studying it — maybe we’ll find some clear answers. We haven’t yet. We certainly haven’t found a recipe for reliable outcomes.

Sirtuins are also cool and interesting. These are proteins that regulate cellular pathways…a lot of different pathways. Saying that sirtuins play a role in aging-related metabolic pathways is literally true and wonderfully broad and ambiguous. They also seem to be an important mediator in the pathways stimulated by resveratrol, for instance, so hooray, there is a link between one vaguely beneficial pathway and another vaguely beneficial pathway! What do you mean, if you multiply weak statistical effects by other weak statistical effects, you don’t get stronger statistics?

So the theory behind this pill that has no evidence that holds up in clinical trials is that they are going to activate an enzyme that has multiple roles, but a few of those roles seem to be associated with weak effects on aging in some studies, so upregulating those pathways has to be good for you, right?

I don’t know. Here’s an old computer control panel with lots of switches.


Somewhere on that box is a switch that, if you flip it on, turns on the whole machine, which is good. Therefore, if there are a lot of switches, it’ll work better if you flip them all to the up position. I don’t even know why they bother with switches at all — wouldn’t it be more efficient to get rid of them all and put everything in a permanent ‘on’ state? Science!

Another bothersome phenomenon: the company’s advisory board is packed with 6 Nobelists. This is more marketing than science; there is no reason to think that having a Nobel prize makes one universally wise, but it does persuade the rubes. Then there’s the disturbing phenomenon of people getting committed to believe in something for the sake of that belief, and their reputation, while not actually being convinced intellectually.

Then again, all these people are financially and reputationally incentivized to believe in Basis. Even Nelsen acknowledged he could be experiencing a placebo effect. I asked other scientists, outside Elysium’s orbit, whether they take the pill. Olshansky told me he takes nothing: He tries to exercise daily and watch what he eats. Kennedy, likewise, takes nothing: “I said I’m going to wait till I’m 50 before I start taking anything. I run, I try to keep my caloric level down, I manage stress.” Kaeberlein takes nothing but says he’s “getting more and more tempted to take rapamycin in a low dose.” Sinclair, who now co-directs a Glenn-funded center at Harvard, still takes resveratrol every day and also takes an NAD booster (he has his own biotech company, currently in stealth mode, focused on that booster).

I have to say, though, these guys are actually saying smart things. Moderation, sensible diet, reasonable exercise, managing stress — these seem to be effective ways to limit the effects of aging. If you’re doing those, you don’t need a magic pill. And if you’re doing those things while taking the pill, the magic pill will look even better.

But if you’re not living healthily, you might want a magic pill that that gives the benefits of a healthy life style. Which means that Elysium Health, like all the quack nostrum peddlers, is going to make money. That’s all that matters, right?