Minor Thoughts from me to you

New golden age for science fiction in China →

Rachel Cheung writes about the Chinese sci-fi scene, for the South China Morning Post.

It’s not the first golden age of sci-fi in China, though. Wang Yao says that was between 1978 and 1983 during reforms initiated by late Deng Xiaoping. “It was thought that science fiction could cultivate a scientific spirit, and the authorities assigned authors to write books in the genre,” says Wang.

More than 30 years later, the new golden age is very different but also being supported by the government. In its science and technology progress plan, published last year, the State Council cited a need to improve the population’s scientific literacy. Policies include the establishment of national science fiction awards and international sci-fi festivals.

Although investors are eyeing sci-fi’s entertainment industry potential, the literature itself is not so highly valued. “The payment writers receive for fiction writing is very small. I also write for fashion magazines, which pay a lot more,” says Regina Wang. Since it is impossible to make ends meet writing sci-fi, most authors do it simply as a hobby.

… ​> Although the Hugo Awards have brought global attention to the Chinese sci-fi scene, as an industry it still has a long way to go.

“Unlike Western countries, we do not have a long tradition of a cultural and creative industry,” says Wang Yao. There are only about 100 writers, publishers and filmmakers in the Chinese sci-fi industry, compared with more than 4,000 sci-fi writers in the United States, she adds.

​That's a surprising discrepancy to me, especially given the overall population advantage that China has over the United States. That, combined with the government sponsorship of both "golden ages" of Chinese science fiction, makes me wonder how much staying power the genre has in Chinese culture. SF is great at shining a light on society, but only if it's coming from a place of genuine enthusiasm and grass roots support.

This entry was tagged. China Science Fiction

Did a Voter ID Law Really Cost Clinton a Victory in Wisconsin? →

It's not easy to say, but recent reports suggesting that Voter ID lost Wisconsin for Mrs. Clinton are overstating the evidence. So says Slate anyway, and they're not noted for being Republican shills.

But the Nation headline doesn’t say it all—not even close, as a number of political scientists and polling experts were quick to point out.

One of the first to arrive on the scene with a big bucket of cold water was Eitan Hersh, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University who has studied the effect of voter ID laws.

No offense, but this is something that is going to be shared hundreds of times and does not meet acceptable evidence standards. https://t.co/4M3ipqiaWg

— Eitan Hersh (@eitanhersh) May 9, 2017

The most glaring problem with the report and how it’s being interpreted, Hersh told me by phone, is that the firm behind the analysis decided to operate at a surface level when it almost certainly had the data and expertise to dig much deeper. “Civis presents itself as a very sophisticated analytics shop,” Hersh said, “and yet the analysis they’re offering here is rather blunt.”

The group relied largely on state-by-state and county-by-county comparisons to reach its conclusions, but it could have—and Hersh maintains, should have—conducted a more granular analysis. Civis could have isolated communities that straddle the border between two states, for instance, or even used a comprehensive voter file to compare similar individuals that do and don’t live in states with new voter ID laws. Doing either would have allowed Civis to eliminate variables that may have ultimately skewed its findings. “It’s very weird to do an analysis the way they did when they presumably had a better way to do it,” Hersh said. “That’s a red flag that jumps out right away.”

Civis says it mostly limited itself to publicly available information so that its analysis was repeatable; Hersh counters that repeating a flawed analysis will just lead to the same flawed results. As the New York TimesNate Cohn pointed out on Twitter, and as Hersh echoed in his conversation with me, the absence of a detailed voter file-based analysis of the impact of voter ID laws—by Civis or anyone else for that matter—is in itself telling at this point. “I would in no way argue that these [voter ID] laws have no effect, but what we’ve found is that it’s a relatively small one,” Hersh said. Making things more complicated, he added, is that the effect of a voter ID law can be difficult to separate from that of other non-ID-based measures that disenfranchise the same types of people. “It’s just very unlikely that these voter ID laws by themselves would translate into the effect of 200,000 voters,” Hersh said.

Richard Hasen, an occasional Slate contributor and a professor of law and political science at the University of California–Irvine, voiced similar concerns about the Civis findings on his blog, pointing to a New York Times story published in the weeks after the election. Reporting from Milwaukee in late November, Times national correspondent Sabrina Tavernise cited Wisconsin’s voter ID law as one potential reason why turnout was down in the city’s poor and black neighborhoods. Tavernise, though, ultimately found a bounty of anecdotal evidence that black voters were simply far less excited to vote for Clinton in 2016 than they were to pull the lever for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Here again it is difficult to offer a single explanation for depressed voter turnout: If a black man in Milwaukee decides it’s not worth jumping through hoops to cast a ballot, do we explain that by citing voter enthusiasm, the ID law, or both?

Why Everything We Know About Salt May Be Wrong →

Gina Kolata reports on new salt research, for the New York Times.

The salt equation taught to doctors for more than 200 years is not hard to understand.

The body relies on this essential mineral for a variety of functions, including blood pressure and the transmission of nerve impulses. Sodium levels in the blood must be carefully maintained.

If you eat a lot of salt — sodium chloride — you will become thirsty and drink water, diluting your blood enough to maintain the proper concentration of sodium. Ultimately you will excrete much of the excess salt and water in urine.

The theory is intuitive and simple. And it may be completely wrong.

New studies of Russian cosmonauts, held in isolation to simulate space travel, show that eating more salt made them less thirsty but somehow hungrier. Subsequent experiments found that mice burned more calories when they got more salt, eating 25 percent more just to maintain their weight.

The research, published recently in two dense papers in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, contradicts much of the conventional wisdom about how the body handles salt and suggests that high levels may play a role in weight loss.

​It's amazing to me how little we definitely know about diet and nutrition. There is a lot of folk wisdom out there, but so little proof based on rigorous research and testing.

This entry was tagged. Food Research

Reading Idea: Invisible Planets

Invisible Planets

Invisible Planets
by Ken Liu
$11.99 on Kindle

What I've been reading - Marginal REVOLUTION

  1. Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu.  A strong collection, with two stories by Cixin Liu.  Here is a new article on Chinese science fiction.

Tyler Cowen's recommendations are always worth considering. And this one is a two-fer, as they say: it's science fiction and it's genuinely a glimpse into another culture.

Reading Idea: The Berlin Project

The Berlin Project

The Berlin Project
by Gregory Benford
$7.99 on Kindle

I know Gregory Benford as a writer of top-notch, hard science fiction. He's also an astrophysicist. And now he's written an alternate history of the development of the atom bomb. This book is self-recommending. On John Scalzi's site, he described the book and what prompted him to write it.

The Big Idea: Gregory Benford

I got the idea for this novel when I was working on nuclear matters as a postdoc for Edward Teller. Then decades later, heard it from the guy who was at its center, and who became my father in law, Karl Cohen. All that came together when I decided to go back to writing novels in 2012.

The year 1967 seems so distant now. I was finishing my PhD thesis in theoretical physics when two of my thesis advisors took me aside and said that, just to be safe, I should apply for two postdoc positions, not just one. It was that long ago. I turned down UC Berkeley, a professorship at Royal Holloway College, London (which had read a published paper and wanted someone in that area; I’d never heard of them).

So I decided to work with Teller. In the course of many calculations and conversations, he told me of a turning point in World War Two that few knew. I heard it later from Karl Cohen:

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the effect on the US atomic program (Manhattan Project) was a one-year delay. The US Army was preoccupied with the new war in the Pacific; they failed to appoint a person to head the Manhattan Project with enough power.  In 1941 the people in charge favored Urey’s centrifuge approach to producing the fuel instead of gaseous diffusion. 

By 1942, General Groves was in and Urey was out of favor.  Building the gaseous diffusion plant took longer than expected, and the result was a one-year delay in the project. The delay meant that the target changed away from Germany. The object of dropping an A-bomb over Germany was to prevent an invasion.

How many more concentration camp victims would have survived if the war had ended one year earlier?  For one, Anne Frank. Most CC victims succumbed eventually to the rugged conditions… The difference between 1944 and 1945 as the end of the war is probably quite significant in terms of lives.

The central context for this novel came from the protagonist I chose to follow through it, Karl Cohen. I also folded in my experience of living in the US occupation of Germany in 1955-57, where my father commanded combat units.

Karl’s words made me think, because in the last year of war, whole societies collapsed. A million died each month, the Soviet Union captured many countries into subjugation, and the devastation of the Axis powers took decades to repair.

Reading Idea: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
$11.99 on Kindle

I heard about this book on an episode of The Cato Daily Podcast. I've roughly transparaphrased the description that Kimberly Hurd Hale and Caleb Brown gave during the episode.

WARNING: Their description is filled with spoilers, so don't read it if you would like to just read the book.

The Politics of Perfection: Technology and Creation in Literature and Film

The book describes children at Hailsham, which is a boarding school, but not really a boarding school. It's gradually revealed that the wonderful education they are receiving at Hailsham is just a cover for the very dark destiny that awaits them.

The story is set in the late 1990's, in Britain. The premise is that following World War 2, rather than the breakthroughs in nuclear power that we experienced, there were breakthroughs in medicine. We figured out a way to clone human beings and use their organs to, essentially, cure cancer, cure heart disease, and all of the other great, mass killers of our society. We can use the clone organs to cure them. This means that ordinary human beings no longer have to fear cancer, or heart disease, or liver disease. They no longer have to worry that their family members will die prematurely from these things. The society is willing to accept this program of breeding and raising and slaughtering clones in exchange for longer, healthier life.

It's told from the point of view of one of the clone children. It's not a story of revolution. It's a story of her growing up, having friends, falling in love, and reconciling herself to the fact that she will die before she reaches middle age. She will donate her organs, one at a time, in a very cruel manner. She will spend her last years caring for her fellow clones, as they make these organ donations. She will have to watch her friends be slaughtered by this bureaucratic system. It has been solely responsible for her creation and education and has controlled every aspect of her life, to the point where she does not resist it. None of the clones resist it. They accept their fate and show no indication that they would be able or willing to escape their destiny. They think that that is what they were bred to do and, really, there's very little indicating that they find it morally objectionable.

Never Let Me Go examines it from the point of view of a society that wants these organs desperately but also seemingly recognizes that it is a serious inhumane, unethical thing that they are doing. Then you get Hailsham, you get the idea that if we educate these clones in a classical sense, give them a classical education where they read the great novels, learn about philosophy, spend most of their time doing art, then, somehow, what we're doing to them is more humane. They're given names. It's recognized that they have human drives, that they benefit somehow from these educations.

Reading Idea: God: A Biography

God: A Biography

God: A Biography
by Jack Miles
$14.99 on Kindle

Adam recommended this one to me, while we were discussing religion on our podcast. I've already added it to my short list for the year.

Reacquainted: 4: Like a Jenga Game

A man who won the Pulitzer Prize, Jack Miles, wrote a book called God: A Biography and a second book called Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. God: A Biography won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 1996. What he does is almost the opposite of what Dr. Robert Alter does. Whereas Dr. Alter finds the storytelling in the books of the Bible, Jack Miles takes the books of the Bible and finds the story.

Unburdened by the need to keep rigidly stuck to theological principles, he tries to read the whole Bible with a fresh set of eyes and write the story of God as a literary character. If God is a literary character and the Bible is His story, what does He go through? What is His character arc? Can you form a coherent one? Jack Miles does. It's a really enjoyable read.

Updating My Rating System

After writing about the awfulness of numeric rating systems, it only made sense to update my own personal rating system. With a star system, I feel compelled to rate on artistic merit rather than on personal enjoyment. After all, a numerical score should have an objective reality behind it. But sometimes I have a hard time judging artistic merit and I spend a lot of time ruminating over the "correct" rating.

What I really want is just a way to give a personal review and recommendation: did I enjoy this or not? Switching to a binary thumbs up / down system gives me the freedom to rate on my personal enjoyment and not worry as much about artistic merit. So, thumbs it is.

I am going to cheat a bit and add a second thumb for overall enthusiasm. One thumb means that the rating applies just to me and whether or not I enjoyed something. The second thumb means that I think the enjoyment (or distaste) should be universal and that I'm proactively recommending for or against something.

  • 👍 I liked it
  • 👎 I didn't like it.
  • 👍👍 You should read it.
  • 👎👎 No one should read it.

Since I'll still post book reviews over on Goodreads, I'll need to map my ratings to Goodreads' star ratings. That breaks down like this. (Basically, the wishy-washy three star review is out.)

  • 👍👍 = ★★★★★
  • 👍 = ★★★★
  • 👎 = ★★
  • 👎👎 = ★

This entry was tagged. Review

The Awfulness of Numeric Rating Systems

Caroline O'Donovan wrote at Buzz Feed about why the existing rating systems are awful.

“The rating system works like this: You start off as a five-star driver,” Don, a San Francisco Lyft driver told BuzzFeed News. “If you drop below a 4.6, then your career becomes a question. Uber or Lyft will reach out to you and let you know that you are on review probation. And if you continue to drop, then you're going to lose your job. They'll deactivate you."

But ratings are nonetheless a stressor for some drivers. Julian, who drives for both Uber and Lyft in San Francisco, said maintaining a good rating can be difficult because customers don’t really understand them. "They think that 3 is okay, and a 4 is like a B, and 5 is exceptional," he told BuzzFeed News. "Well, if you got a 4 every time, you’d be terminated. You have to maintain a 4.7, so anything less than a 5 is not okay.”

​> …

This sort of rating anxiety extends well beyond Uber and Lyft. “The rating system is terrible,” said Ken Davis, a former Postmates courier, who noted that under the company's five-star rating system couriers who fall below 4.7 for more than 30 days are suspended. Said Joshua, another Postmates courier, “I really don’t think customers understand the impact their ratings have on us."

​> …

Wendy and her son Brian, visiting San Francisco from Indiana and using Uber for their first time, were surprised to hear that most drivers consider four stars to be a bad rating. “I would have thought 5 is excellent, and 4 is good,” Wendy said. That revelation was equally shocking to Elnaz, a longtime Uber user visiting San Francisco from LA. “Four stars sucks," she said, incredulous. "Really?"

“Customers don't understand the impact ratings have on couriers at all,” said a former Postmates community manager, who requested anonymity while discussing her previous employer. “A customer might rate a delivery three stars, assuming that three stars is fine. Several three-star ratings could bring a courier’s rating down significantly, especially if they’re new. It could even get the courier fired.”

​The biggest problem is that no two people have the same definition of what each of the ratings means.

Lyft says that five stars means “awesome,” four means “Ok, could be better,” and three means “below average.” But for Uber, five stars is “excellent,” four is “good,” and three is “OK.”

To that point, Goodreads has the following rating system:

  • ★: Did not like it
  • ★★: it was ok
  • ★★★: liked it
  • ★★★★: really liked it
  • ★★★★★: it was amazing

But few people actually use that scale to rate their books. In fact, many people start or end their Goodreads reviews with a discussion of their own personal rating system. I'm guilty of this myself.

It's even worse than that. People give ratings differently from how they actually use ratings. When it comes to giving ratings, people are nuanced critics. Take hotel stays. We'll knock off a star for a room that's a little dingy or a shower that doesn't have the right water pressure. We'll give it back for friendly staff and a hot breakfast. The result is a 3.7 rating that we think accurately represents our "mostly good with a few minor downsides" experience at the hotel.

Given our own nuanced ratings, how many of us even bother to read star ratings with a similarly nuanced eye? We only want to stay at five star establishments. We'll consider a four star hotel, but anything lower than that makes us inherently suspicious. We know how we rate businesses and we know that an average rating of 5 should be impossible to achieve, if everyone rates like we ourselves do. But we read ratings with a highly critical eye anyway and hotels are reduced to begging for high ratings because anything less is the kiss of death.

O'Donovan recounts an anecdote that I find telling.​

John Gruber, publisher of Daring Fireball, is among those who believe that five-star rating systems don’t produce particularly useful data, and that generally speaking, binary systems are better. “There’s no universal agreement as to what the different stars mean,” Gruber told BuzzFeed News. “But everybody knows what thumbs-up, thumbs-down means.”

A few years ago, during a trip to Orlando, Gruber had an experience that made him realize how this confusion over what the stars mean can impact individuals in ways customers don’t realize. After taking a ride in an Uber that had an overpoweringly strong smell of air freshener, Gruber gave the driver a four-star rating. The next day, he got a call from an Uber employee asking him to explain what the driver had done wrong.

“I was like, Holy shit!” Gruber said. “The guy was nice, I wish I hadn’t done this.”

When I read this, everything suddenly clarified. Exact, specific, nuanced ratings aren't useful to consumers. I only care about one thing: would you stay here again or would you avoid it? When I'm thinking back on my own stays, maybe the water pressure was too low, but if the overall experience was good then I'll book another room at the same hotel on my next trip. The crucial question really just boils down to: would I stay here again and would you recommend it to me. Everything else is just details.

Jason Snell came to the same conclusion, writing One for the thumbs.

Say you’re Netflix, which has allowed its users to apply five-star ratings to movies since its inception. Netflix offered user ratings because it’s always been focused on improving its own recommendation engine, so that it can look at your tastes and suggest other movies you might like—and use your ratings to feed the recommendation engine of viewers who share your tastes, too.

At some point, Netflix must have looked at its data and realized that their five-star rating system wasn’t really improving its recommendations. It was just adding noise. Does knowing that one user gave a movie four stars while another one gave it five stars really provide more information? The answer is clearly no, because Netflix eliminated star ratings and now only seeks a thumbs up or a thumbs down, just like YouTube did in 2009. In the end, you can obsess over whether a movie deserves three or four of your precious personal stars, but Netflix doesn’t care. It just wants to know if you liked the movie or not, because that’s all that really matters.

Take it from Gene Siskel, via that same Roger Ebert piece:

Gene Siskel boiled it down: “What’s the first thing people ask you? Should I see this movie? They don’t want a speech on the director’s career. Thumbs up—yes. Thumbs down—no.”

Or as John Gruber succinctly put it, star ratings are garbage—“thumbs-up/thumbs-down is the way to go—everyone agrees what those mean.”

I think a numeric rating system only makes sense for purely personal use. For instance, in family meal planning. My family uses a 4-star system for rating meals. After trying each recipe, we ask our daughters to rate it using this four point scale.

  • ★ Never make this again.
  • ★★ I didn't care for it but I'll eat it without a tantrum if you do make it again.
  • ★★★ Make this a part of our standard list of meals.
  • ★★★★ Make this every week.

It helps that it's a simple system. But the main reason is it works is that everyone in the family knows the definition and uses it in a consistent way. When my wife plans the meals, we include some recipes rated 3 or 4. The 2-star recipes may get used sparingly, if one family member happens to love them, since the rest are willing to tolerate them. The 1-star recipes are kept around purely as a reminder of what not to make. It works, but it's a system that would break down entirely if we tried to share our recipe database with another family.

I would be happy to see numeric rating systems disappear entirely from public websites and apps. Let's stick to a simple recommended / not recommended binary choice for everything that we're not personally curating for our own personal use.

This entry was tagged. Review News

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 fails to meet Groot expectations →

I'm glad I'm not the only curmudgeon that failed to enjoy the new Guardians movie. The Globe and Mail also panned it.

After the original earned $770-million (U.S.) worldwide – all without boasting a name-brand star or much built-in affection for a talking tree named Groot – a sequel was inevitable. But it didn't have to be this sequel, which swaps out amusement for arrogance, delight for disdain.

At least a dozen times, for instance, this new movie laughs at its own jokes – literally. The characters of Drax (an alien warrior) and Rocket (the aforementioned talking raccoon) regularly deploy punchlines or watch ones whiz by, and then cackle for what seems like minutes on end. (Some choice jokes pivot around the size of one character's turds and another's urgent need to urinate.) There is even a running bit about the fine art of winking at your audience. And if that is not enough to hammer home Guardians' particular brand of misplaced confidence, then the filmmakers hope snippets of seventies' AM radio pop will inject a sly bit of nostalgic levity into the proceedings. See, we're just here for a good time, not a long time – why else would Looking Glass, Electric Light Orchestra and Cheap Trick be blasting on the soundtrack?

It is tittering, unrestrained filmmaking at its most self-indulgent – high, as it were, on its own supply.

This cinematic smugness touches everything, all while clinging to the law of diminishing returns. The plot, for starters, is a weak facsimile of the 2014 film, solely designed to connect set-pieces that rehash best-loved moments from the original. Wasn't, say, that first prison-escape scene so funny and unexpected? Well, maybe you'll also like a new escape sequence that triples the body count while erasing the number of laughs and adding Jay and the Americans' 1964 hit Come a Little Bit Closer to the soundtrack, for no reason in particular? Oh, remember when hundreds of Xandarian space ships converged to battle Ronan's warship back in the first movie? That was mighty cool, so why not revisit that here but with an even larger fleet of space ships? Did you enjoy the Vin Diesel-voiced Groot? Good, because now he's a cute widdle Baby Groot, voiced by what sounds like Diesel on helium, and present in nearly every other frame.

Look, I like Groot. But that's a fair bit of criticism. Dude was everywhere, almost as though someone were thinking of the potential for moving massive amounts of Baby Groot action figures and dolls over the next couple of months.

Review: 👎 to *Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2*

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

My rating: 👎
Watched on: 6 May 2017

I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy so much that I bought the Blu-Ray and enjoy rewatching it with my daughters. We all love the soundtrack and enjoy listening to it when we're out driving around. I've been looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2 ever since I heard there was going to be a sequel.

Now the sequel is out, I've seen it, and I'm disappointed. I was primarily looking for two things: a fun soundtrack and a fun movie. I don't feel like I got either.

The soundtrack was pretty bland. None of the songs stuck in my head and, aside from the in-movie conversation about Brandy, I couldn't actually tell you what any of them were. Maybe it's because I'm mostly oblivious to songs from the 80's. Or maybe the song selection was bad. Either way, this isn't a soundtrack that I feel a need to listen to again.

The movie itself tried too hard. Gunn wanted to recreate the fun of the first movie, but I think he mostly failed. Between overly clever sequences, boring emotional journeys, and humor that wasn't funny, the movie fell flat.

The opening fight sequence with Baby Groot was clever, but I've seen the "fight happens in the background while the viewpoint character is unaware" gimmick before, in other movies. That set the tone for the rest of the movie as most things felt like something that I'd seen before in other places. For instance: the remotely piloted ships that The Sovereign used — piloted by gamer teens — came straight from Ender's Game. The Sovereign's genetic engineering and general demeanor came from Lois McMaster Bujold's Cetagandan Empire, which I wouldn't have minded had the script included any kind of a nod in that direction other than ripping off the idea.

For the rest, I found the overarching story to be banal. Of course the second movie has to be about how the gang that appeared to have gelled at the end of the first movie is really falling apart and becoming experts at in-fighting. After the fun of seeing everyone come together at the end of the first movie, I really wanted a movie where we got to enjoy the cast working together for a full story, not one where we have to wonder why the cast doesn't seem to like each other as much as we do.

And about those personal journeys that everyone went on during the story. Was it really necessary for everyone to go on an emotional journey? Sure, Starlord has father issues. Apparently, so do Rocket, Yondue, Mantis, Gamora, and Nebula. In addition, Gamora and Nebula have a whole sister frenemy thing going on. It's all both too much and too little. Too much because it's a bit overwhelming keeping up with who has their mope on for which reason. And too little because every character's emotional space gets cramped by the need to make room for every other character's emotional baggage.

Finally, humor. I really enjoyed the humor in the first movie. I didn't enjoy the humor in this movie. Between the turd jokes and the non-stop penis references, it seemed to be aimed at an audience of boys, somewhere between kindergarten and 8th grade. No thanks.

I was mostly bored by the on-screen hijinks, I wasn't laughing, and I didn't leave the theater humming the songs from the soundtrack. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2 was a rollicking disappointment. Better luck next time guys.

The myth of the eight-hour sleep →

For the past several months, I've had trouble sleeping the entire way through the night. I fall asleep easily and sleep well until sometime between 2–4am. Then I wake up and can't fall back to sleep until about 90 minutes later. I've been thinking there's something wrong with me. There's not. I'm just reverting to medieval sleep patterns.

In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks.

His book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, published four years later, unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern - in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer's Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.

Much like the experience of Wehr's subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep.

"It's not just the number of references - it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge," Ekirch says.

During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.

And these hours weren't entirely solitary - people often chatted to bed-fellows or had sex.

A doctor's manual from 16th Century France even advised couples that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day's labour but "after the first sleep", when "they have more enjoyment" and "do it better".

​And this isn't just a difference between older humans and more modern humans.

In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month.

It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.

My problem — waking up and being unable to fall back to sleep right away ​— even has a name: sleep maintenance insomnia.

Today, most people seem to have adapted quite well to the eight-hour sleep, but Ekirch believes many sleeping problems may have roots in the human body's natural preference for segmented sleep as well as the ubiquity of artificial light.

This could be the root of a condition called sleep maintenance insomnia, where people wake during the night and have trouble getting back to sleep, he suggests.

The condition first appears in literature at the end of the 19th Century, at the same time as accounts of segmented sleep disappear.

"For most of evolution we slept a certain way," says sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs. "Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology."

​Maybe I should try sleeping from 8pm–midnight, reading or working on a project from midnight–2am and then sleeping again from 2–6am. It might just be good scientific practice.

Getting Reacquainted

[Adam & Joe at age 10

Twenty-three years ago, I was 10 years old, living in Norfolk, VA. My family worshipped at Norfolk Garden Baptist Church and I participated in the Awana program on Sunday nights, as a Pioneer.

Sometime during that year, I met Adam Volle. His family worshipped at a different church but chose to come to our church on Sunday nights, for our Awana program. We both memorized Bible verses quickly and became friends through our memorization contests and our shared love of Star Wars. We hung out at Awana each Sunday evening and at at his house during the summer.

Twenty years ago, Adam left Virginia. He spent time living in Mississippi and Colorado. I continued living in Virginia. He went to Shorter College. I went to the University of Pittsburgh. We both got married. I moved to Wisconsin and he spent time living in Georgia, Louisiana, and South Korea.

Over the years, we kept in loose contact with each other using AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). We IMed enough to have a vague idea of what we were each up to, but not enough to stay in close contact. During our college and immediate post-college years, we even managed to collaborate on a blog together.

As technology changed, our methods of staying in touch changed too. AIM died but we replaced it with a mix of email, Twitter, and iMessage to stay connected. Now Adam is back in the States, ready to begin another chapter of his life. We've been apart for 20 years and have decided that now is the time to get reacquainted and keep in closer contact. We're both fans of podcasting and are both narcissistic enough to think that other people might be interested in our stories. A podcast seemed like the logical next step.

We're getting Reacquainted through a series of podcast conversations. We've already talked about our time together, our respective high school experiences, and how our religious beliefs have changed. We'll be talking about how we met our wives, what careers we're each pursuing, and how our experiences have affected our political beliefs.

We're having a lot of fun together. Won't you join us as we get Reacquainted?

Adam & Joe now

Some Precaution on Pence’s Precautionary Principles →

On the subject of Vice-President Pence's unwillingness to be alone with women other than his wife, I think Sarah Skwire makes a very good point.

It’s a cliché, but a true one, to note that the real work of many professions gets done at the bar or on quick lunches or dinner grabbed with a colleague, outside the formal constraints of official meetings. When that cliché is true, and to the extent that it is true, precautions like Pence’s, that cut women out from that kind of social interaction, also cut them off from at least one route to success.

Sauce for the Goose

I wonder, then, whether Pence and others who guard themselves in this way would consider extending their prohibitions on such private meetings with opposite gender colleagues to colleagues of the same gender. In other words, if Mike Pence won’t allow himself to meet with female colleagues for a casual private dinner or drink, then perhaps he should consider disallowing interactions like that with male colleagues as well.

I think, at a minimum, that considering that possibility will tell us a lot. If your immediate reaction to that suggestion is to think that it would be unfairly restrictive to men to tell them not to go golfing alone with the Vice President, or join him for an impromptu cheeseburger, or take advantage of a quick trip on a private jet in order to get to know him better and pitch him a few ideas…then maybe that policy is even more unfair when it is applied only to women.

If it is unreasonable to think that a woman’s career is damaged because the VP won’t meet with her privately, then it is unreasonable to think a man’s career would be damaged for the same reason. If it is not unreasonable to think that such restrictions damage a woman’s career, then Pence owes it to his female colleagues and constituents to ensure that their male counterparts don’t have better access to him than they do.

It is, at least, worth thinking about seriously.

The man who challenged Beethoven to a musical duel →

What a great story.

The contest between Beethoven and Steibelt

As the challenger, Steibelt was to play first. He walked to the piano, tossing a piece of his own music on the side, and played. Steibelt was renowned for conjuring up a "storm" on the piano, and this he did to great effect, the "thunder" growling in the bass.

He rose to great applause, and all eyes turned to Beethoven, who took a deep breath, slowly exhaled, and reluctantly - to the collective relief of everyone present - trudged to the piano.

Beethoven's turn to play

When he got there he picked up the piece of music Steibelt had tossed on the side, looked at it, showed it the audience ..... and turned it upside down!

He sat at the piano and played the four notes in the opening bar of Steibelt's music. He began to vary them, embellish them ..... improvise on them.

He played on, imitated a Steibelt "storm", unpicked Steibelt's playing and put it together again, parodied it and mocked it.

Steibelt makes a dramatic exit…

Steibelt, realising he was not only being comprehensively outplayed but humiliated, strode out of the room. Prince Lobkowitz hurried after him, returning a few moments later to say Steibelt had said he would never again set foot in Vienna as long as Beethoven lived there.

Beethoven lived in Vienna for the rest of his life, and Steibelt kept his promise - he never returned.

This entry was tagged. History

It Took the Washing Machine A Long Time to Catch On →

Fascinating.

Today I learned that the washing machine is more than 250 years old.

After reading the lead article in this morning's Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, I briefly thought it was exactly 250 years old. This purported Feb. 23 anniversary is being celebrated all over the German news media this week, but it can't be right, given that there's a full copy online of the book in which German pastor and professor Jacob Christian Schaeffer made his invention known, and it's dated Oct. 16, 1766.

Not only that, but Schaeffer also writes in the book's foreword that he got the idea from a magazine article about an English washing machine that some guy in Copenhagen had successfully reconstructed.

​And yet…

It was only with the invention of the electric washing machine by Alva Fisher in Chicago in 1907 that something dramatically better than the washboard came along, and even then it took decades more for the machines to become cheap and reliable enough to change how people cleaned their clothes (and of course in much of the world, washboards still rule). In the U.S., according to a 2013 paper by Benjamin Bridgman of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the big gains in household productivity enabled by the washing machine, dishwasher and other such devices occurred between about 1948 and 1977.

This entry was tagged. History Innovation

Lawsuit filed over Wisconsin law banning 'illegal' Irish butter →

A state law that makes it illegal to sell a popular Irish butter in Wisconsin is unconstitutional and deprives consumers of their rights, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in Ozaukee County court.

The public advocacy group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty brought the suit against the state on behalf of five clients, four of them consumers and one a Grafton food store.

Good. Very good. And why was this necessary?

"Wisconsin’s current protectionist law requires butter that is bought and sold to be labeled by the government. This archaic labeling regime prevents very popular butter such as Kerrygold from being enjoyed by Wisconsin residents," the group said in a news release.

A state law with roots in the 1953 margarine scare requires all butter sold in Wisconsin to be tested and graded by state-approved experts.

As a butter made and packaged in Ireland, Kerrygold is not inspected in the United States, making it illegal to sell under the state law.

Lest you think this is a worthwhile regulation, Wisconsin is the only state in the nation with a law like this. It's a purely protectionist measure, to make the Wisconsin dairy industry happy.

Review: Hidden Figures [★★★★★]

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures
by Margot Lee Shetterly

My rating: ★★★★★
Read From: 22 January 2017 - 24 January 2017
Goal: Non-Fiction

I loved reading this book. I enjoyed it on multiple levels. I'd heard that the story involved the African-American women scientists, who helped NASA send men into orbit. I was surprised to learn that all of them worked in Hampton, VA.

I grew up next door to Hampton, in Norfolk, VA. I'm not used to reading about my hometown in books. It was a very pleasant surprise to read about my hometown in this book. I'm woefully ignorant of the history of the area, so I'd never known that Hampton had played such a pivotal role in the development of flight.

The women worked for an organization called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) — a precursor to NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). I was fascinated to learn about the role that NACA played in the development of airplane technology, discovering the science behind many of the airplane features that we take for granted today.

I also learned something about airplane designations. For instance, we've all heard of the B-29 bomber or the P-51 Mustang. I hadn't realized that the "B-" and "P-" designations had specific meanings. Shetterly explains.

Like Darwin’s finches, the mechanical birds had begun to differentiate themselves, branching into distinct species adapted for success in particular environments. Their designations reflected their use: fighters—also called pursuit planes—were assigned letters F or P: for example, the Chance Vought F4U Corsair or the North American P-51 Mustang. The letter C identified a cargo plane like the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, built to transport military goods and troops and, eventually, commercial passengers. B was for bomber, like the mammoth and perfectly named B-29 Superfortress. And X identified an experimental plane still under development, designed for the purpose of research and testing. Planes lost their X designation—the B-29 was the direct descendant of the XB-29—once they went into production.

I was also struck by the love that these woman had for science and mathematics. They were truly doing these jobs because they loved the work and the mathematics behind the work. I don't think it would be inaccurate to call them math nerds and I love reading about the contributions that nerds have made to our world.

Finally, I was struck by the racism that Shetterly revealed. I'd known that Virginia had a racist past. I wasn't aware of just how committed to that racism Virginia had been and just how adamantly they fought for it.

The racism could be casual, such as the incident that Mary Jackson experienced, at the predominantly white East Side section of NACA.

Her morning at the East Side job proceeded without incident—until nature called. “Can you direct me to the bathroom?” Mary asked the white women. They responded to Mary with giggles. How would they know where to find her bathroom? The nearest bathroom was unmarked, which meant it was available to any of the white women and off-limits to the black women. There were certainly colored bathrooms on the East Side, but with most black professionals concentrated on the West Side, and fewer new buildings on the East Side, Mary might need a map to find them.

And the racism could be very deliberate, entrenched, and vindictive. For instance, one Virginia school system took extreme measures to avoid integrating their schools.

In Prince Edward County, however, segregationists would not be moved: they defunded the entire county school system, including R. R. Moton in Farmville, rather than integrate.

… Prince Edward’s schools would remain closed from 1959 through 1964, five long and bitter years. Many of the affected children, known as the “Lost Generation,” never made up the missing grades of education. Virginia, a state with one of the highest concentrations of scientific talent in the world, led the nation in denying education to its youth.

… Commenting on the situation in 1963, United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy said, “The only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.”

Definitely, it was offensive. But, ultimately, Southern racism was incredibly stupid and shortsighted.

Foreigners who traveled to the United States often experienced the caste system firsthand. In 1947, a Mississippi hotel denied service to the Haitian secretary of agriculture, who had come to the state to attend an international conference. The same year, a restaurant in the South banned Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi’s personal doctor from its premises because of his dark skin. Diplomats traveling from New York to Washington along Route 40 were often rejected if they stopped for a meal at restaurants in Maryland. The humiliations, so commonplace in the United States that they barely raised eyebrows, much less the interest of the press, were the talk of the town in the envoys’ home countries. Headlines like “Untouchability Banished in India: Worshipped in America,” which appeared in a Bombay newspaper in 1951, mortified the US diplomatic corps. Through its inability to solve its racial problems, the United States handed the Soviet Union one of the most effective propaganda weapons in their arsenal.

… Newly independent countries around the world, eager for alliances that would support their emerging identities and set them on the path to long-term prosperity, were confronted with a version of the same question black Americans had asked during World War II. Why would a black or brown nation stake its future on America’s model of democracy when within its own borders the United States enforced discrimination and savagery against people who looked just like them?

I came away from this book with great admiration for these black women as well as an even greater contempt for the racists that dominated the South during this time period.

I was also struck by Shetterly's epilogue. She wants to give these women their due, not by showing how extraordinary they were but by showing how normal they were. They were extraordinary because they were black, female nerds who had to fight to fit in, but they were also very normal because they were nerds who just wanted a chance to fit in and do what nerds everywhere do — geek out about the science.

For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies.

… By recognizing the full complement of extraordinary ordinary women who have contributed to the success of NASA, we can change our understanding of their abilities from the exception to the rule. Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences; it was to fit in because of their talent.

I enjoyed reading about these women and I'll recommend this book to anyone that asks for a recommendation of what to read.

GOP Defectors Have Received Thousands From Teachers Union →

The two Republicans who broke ranks with their party and announced they would vote against education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos have received thousands of dollars from the nation's largest teachers union.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) and Susan Collins (R., Maine) have each benefited from contributions from the National Education Association. Collins received $2,000 from the union in 2002 and 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Murkowski, meanwhile, has received $23,500.

Is this an example of a special interest buying legislators or of legislators being responsive to public opinion? Careful — I'll hold you to your answer the next time that there's a vote involving a lobbying group and legislators that have received donations from that lobbying group.

Reading Idea: Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology
by Neil Gaiman
$12.99 on Kindle

Growing up, somewhere around the age of 10, I was a huge fan of Norse mythology and read several different versions and retellings. I'm also a big Neil Gaiman fan. So, really, all Goodreads had to do was send me an email letting me know that Neil Gaiman had written a novelization of the Norse mythology. Sold. It was, as they say, self recommending.

I'll give you the Goodreads blurb anyway, just in case you're not already as excited as I am.

Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman fashions primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds; delves into the exploits of the deities, dwarves, and giants; and culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and the rebirth of a new time and people. Gaiman stays true to the myths while vividly reincarnating Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, the son of giants, a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator. From Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerges the gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to dupe others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.