There was a #pizzagate rally today?

YouTube loon David Seaman apparently organized a rally in Washington DC to mobilize people to fight against a nonexistent pedophilia ring run out of a nonexistent basement at a pizza parlor. A “couple dozen” people showed up, but about the only coverage it’s getting is a few comments on Twitter.

This is a nonsensical story that has only gained a relatively small number of advocates, but the few are fanatical.

I’m so sorry for those poor kids. Not the imaginary ones kidnapped by a pizza parlor, but those three kids stuck with parents with a bizarre obsession.

We’re not done yet

The crappy Republican version of health care went down in flames (yay!), but don’t get cocky, kids. We’re not done. The Republicans still control everything, and they’ve got less flashy, less public, sneakier plans to destroy everything you hold dear.

Like science.

Lamar Smith is still chair of house science committee, which is a ridiculous state of affairs in itself, and he spoke openly about his plans at a Heartland Institute conference — that’s right, the Heartland Institute, that far right source of outrageous denialism and lies. If that’s the “heart” of our “land”, then this land is in the terminal stages of congestive heart failure.

Here’s what he had to say, though:

Next week we’re going to have a hearing on our favorite subject of climate change and also on the scientific method, which has been repeatedly ignored by the so-called self-professed climate scientists, Smith told the Heartland Institute’s 12th annual conference on climate change in Washington, D.C.

Wait, what? A Texas Republican politician is accusing scientists of not giving him the result he wants because they ignore the scientific method, and he’s going to have a hearing on the scientific method? Does he think he can pass a law to change how science works? Yes, he does. He’s also going to juggle the terminology to undermine meaning, shamelessly.

Emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump, Smith appears increasingly comfortable dismissing those who disagree with his stance on any number of issues under the purview of his science committee, from climate research to the use of peer review in assessing research results and grant proposals. And one key element in his strategy appears to be relabeling common terms in hopes of shaping public dialogue.

He wants to somehow exert political influence on what research gets funded.

Smith also signaled that he plans to turn up the volume on his criticism of federally funded research that doesn’t fit his definition of “sound science.” In particular, he expressed support for writing legislation that would punish scientific journals that publish research that doesn’t fit standards of peer review crafted by Smith and the committee (although he didn’t say how that would be accomplished).

It is definitely the case that science has been and always will be influenced by politics and culture, but legislators, who clearly are not elected for their scientific acumen, are isolated from specific control — they own the purse-strings, but disbursement is handled by peer review, by the community of scientists themselves. When politicians meddle, they usually just end up exposing their own ignorance: see also Democrat William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award, which was usually a great embarrassment, or Republican Sarah Palin’s stupid remarks about fruit flies. Just on general principle, keep these yahoos away from stuff they don’t understand.

Oh, and look, he’s using the phrase sound science. I haven’t heard that one in a while. For a long time, it’s been an easily spotted tell that you’re dealing with a crank.

When used by scientists it means robustly supported science, confirmed by multiple peer-reviewed studies. When used in politics (generally by wingnuts) it means ideologically sound science, i.e. a euphemism for industry-funded pseudoscientific bullshit.

Smith is quite the happy vulture as he looks forward to feasting on the corpses of our natural resources and our scientific establishment.

In fact, as Smith told one audience member who worried that Trump might renege on some to his campaign promises, the sky’s the limit when it comes to dismantling the past 8 years of environmental regulations.

“I think the president has ushered in a permanent change in the political climate,” Smith asserted. “And by that I mean I think he’ll keep his promises and that he’ll do exactly what he said. You’re seeing that in his appointments, like Scott Pruitt at EPA, for example. So … I don’t think you’ll have any disappointment on any of those issues.”

The wreckers are still in charge, and we all have a long fight ahead of us.

Great British TV

This admission is going to cost me readers, but you know I don’t shy away from controversy. Here is the terrible truth: I am not a fan of Dr Who. It’s OK, I don’t instantly turn it off if an episode comes on, but I don’t trouble myself to keep up with the series.

But that could change. I stumbled across this phenomenal episode that I’m going to share with you all.

What season was Rowan Atkinson the Doctor? I could watch more of that.

Friday Cephalopod: Did you ever wonder…?

What it’s like to be an octopus? This review of Peter Godfrey Smith’s book, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, captures perfectly why I’ve been fascinated by them — they’re the closest thing to aliens we’ve got.

octopushunter

Unlike cetaceans – whose sentience it is possible to imagine, partly because they demonstrate our mammalian connections so vividly and physically – cephalopods are entirely unlike us. “If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over,” says Godfrey-Smith. “This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” The fact that they have eight legs, three hearts, and blue-green blood allies them more with The Simpsons’ gloopy extra-terrestrials than anything earthly.

They don’t even see a problem

Our vice president obliviously tweeted this out of his tweeter yesterday.

I truly wonder what he was thinking. Did he take a look at this photo and actually think “this is a proud moment for our administration, show it off to the world”? Did he notice, does he even care how this looks?

That’s not America in that room, but they’re deciding the fate of health care for all Americans.

Worst hike ever

I’ve hiked hazardous routes along the Washington coast — it’s a beautiful place with these gorgeous crescent beaches separated by spectacular rocky headlands — and before you set out you have to heed all the warnings. If you get caught on those headlands when the tide comes in, you may have to choose between going straight up a jagged, overhanging cliff or swimming out to sea in a swirl of complex currents. There are also bears.

I don’t think I’d want to hike the Broomway in England, though.

broomway

For one, at low tide, it’s a long gray mudflat. It’s not exactly scenic.

For another, the destination of your walk is a place called “Foulness Island”. This is not a name that would have been chosen by any tourism board. Saying you live on Foulness Island conjures up images of surly, decrepit villains hiding out in hovels and scheming bitterly to murder visitors and steal their shoes to enable escape. It sounds like a place infested with ticks and anthrax.

It’s worse. It’s deadly.

Depending on the time of year, you have a window of three to four hours to explore the Broomway before the tide returns. Unlike other tidal flats where the water gently rises, the speed of the incoming tide is described as faster than a person can run. Even worse, the rising waters interact with outflow from the nearby Crouch and Roach rivers to create deadly hidden whirlpools.

Nearly every site I’ve visited warns that no matter how good a swimmer you are, if you’re caught on the Broomway when the tide comes in, you’re likely to perish.

Still interested in taking a jaunt down the Broomway? You’ll first need permission from Britain’s Ministry of Defence. The military took over much of Foulness Island in the early 20th century for artillery exercises and still controls access. Adding to the path’s notoriety are large signs near the entrance warning “Do not approach or touch any object or debris as it may explode and kill you.”

In case you’re wondering, it’s the first week after Spring break, and I was already fantasizing about exotic island getaways, and this was one of the places that turned up in my google search. I think I need to come up with better search terms. Or erase my contaminating search history somehow.

That’s half the story

Jim Sterling has an excellent essay on the recent exposure of certain youtubers for their ugly remarks, which has led to quite a bit of furor as they gasp in shock that anyone would call them out on this, let alone cause them a loss of income, while a muddling mob roars in support or protest. He makes the very good point that if you’re making tens of thousands, or even millions of dollars, playing games on the internet, then you must be the focus of a lot of attention, and you should be aware that people will notice you and sometimes criticize you. I can assure you that being public and opinionated does not mean you get parades of flowers and that everyone loves you.

He points out that the naiveté of these youtubers is silly, and also that trying to defend them by arguing that it’s simply because people have different views does not work — it forgets that communication is a two-way street, and if Famous Rich Youtuber gets to say offensive things as their right, then their audience also gets to express their criticisms.

“Sometimes people are gonna say things you don’t like,” explained Boogie in his video. “People are gonna have ideas and opinions that you don’t enjoy.”

This is true and it works both ways. One opinion and idea that several big YouTubers don’t enjoy right now is that YouTubers are relevant enough to make headlines and become international controversies. One opinion and idea that several big YouTubers don’t enjoy right now is that, no, you can’t share your racist beliefs and expect nobody to argue back.

The Internet has warped the idea of “free speech” to mean “speech without consequence” and that’s simply not what it is.

But one thing Sterling does not get into, at least in this essay, is that these aren’t just “words”, they’re ideas, and ideas have meanings and most importantly, can be wrong. It would be lovely to pretend that they’re just lexical strings, and Person A has emitted a string that provokes a different string from Person B, but both A and B are actively translating those strings into meaning, and may also translate them further into actions. We too often excuse those meanings by saying “it’s just their opinion,” but sometimes those opinions can be looked up in the truth table of reality, and that function returns a value of FALSE (Or NaN, or ERROR, or SYSTEM FAILURE, or CODE RED: MISSILES HAVE BEEN LAUNCHED.)

One response is to wag our fingers and announce that they’ve lost our eyeballs and our revenue — a purely personal and singular punishment by neglect. But sometimes that isn’t enough. When someone declares that they think all gingers ought to be lined up and shot, yes, you should turn away and shun them. But what if they have a mob of thousands at their back who all agree about the ginger exterminations? You’ve left the group, but there are still all the others who are working together and coordinating and praising the initial head eliminationist. You aren’t going to slow them down a bit.

Here’s another problem: sometimes, maybe, in addition to being wrong and stupid on some things, the person is brilliant on others. We don’t have a way to chop up the mosaic of attributes of a person and dispose of the nasty bits and keep the good parts. Now what?

For example, I think Dave Chappelle is an amazing comedian — talented and revolutionary. I have loved the guy’s routines in the past, and you can see that he’s intelligent and insightful.

He’s also…problematic, a word that is also problematically over-used. Here’s a story of Chapelle in a comedy club that praises his skills but also highlights his difficulties.

But the truth is that Chappelle’s set was riddled with transphobia, homophobia, and a bit about the Ray Rice incident that changed the energy in the room in a tangible way. He talked about seeing a drunk “transvestite” at a party, mocked her, and complained about having his pronouns corrected when he referred to her as “he”. He maintained that he should be able to use whatever pronouns he wanted. He called her a man in a dress. This bit was not really a joke, just a strange, awkward story, but people laughed. It was pure, absolute, unabashed transphobia, and it broke my fucking heart.

He then started talking about “the gays”, essentially saying that he doesn’t understand why they need a whole parade because everybody has freaky sex. He compared his foot fetish and the negative reactions and judgment he’s gotten from people for it to being gay. Don’t get me wrong – the personal stuff about his foot fucking was VERY funny. But comparing his sexual proclivities to the experience of gay people was also, ultimately, problematic and misguided. I was sitting there in the front row, laughing at his jokes but simultaneously confused and upset by where some of them were coming from, and why he felt the need to talk about being mugged by a man who he “knew” was gay from the way he walked. It was the most conflicted I’ve ever felt about comedy.

That was written in 2014.

Now he has a new comedy special on Netflix, and I have been strongly tempted to watch it — it’ll probably make me laugh throughout — but I’ve also heard that it is problematic in exactly the same way as that comedy set from 2½ years ago. There will be hilarious bits, and there will be parts that are just plain wrong and that hurt people. People are murdered for being gay or transgender, and since Chapelle is neither, he comes across as trivializing the pain of others. It kinda rips the humor out of the routine.

So I’m doing the minimal response. I’m choosing not to watch it. The ratings for his show will decline by a few thousandths of a percent.

But I also wonder if there isn’t something more that should be done. If Chappelle had been strongly chastised in 2014, maybe his 2017 special would be better. Maybe we’re doing harm to Chappelle by not loudly correcting him when he is so terribly wrong.

Because let’s make no bones about it, Chappelle is just as wrong and damaging about gay and transgender people as those youtubers are wrong and damaging about race. It’s also more than just insensitivity — these are views that do real harm to human beings.