Friday 22 January, 2021

Easy Riding

Quote of the Day

”Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

  • H.L. Mencken

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Antonio Salieri | Piano Concerto in C (1773)


Salieri has always had a bad press, especially after Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. But this is pretty good. Worth leaving it to play over breakfast.

Long Read of the Day

Why Do We Assume Extraterrestrials Might Want to Visit Us?

The controversial astronomer Avi Loeb thinks that any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial beings wouldn’t find us any more interesting than we find ants.

Our sun formed at the tail end of the star formation history of the universe. Most stars are billions of years older than ours. So much older, in fact that many sunlike stars have already consumed their nuclear fuel and cooled off to a compact Earth-size remnant known as a white dwarf. We also learned recently that of order half of all sunlike stars host an Earth-size planet in their habitable zone, allowing for liquid water and for the chemistry of life.

Since the dice of life were rolled in billions of other locations within the Milky Way under similar conditions to those on Earth, life as we know it is likely common. If that is indeed the case, some intelligent species may well be billions of years ahead of us in their technological development. When weighing the risks involved in interactions with less-developed cultures such as ours, these advanced civilizations may choose to refrain from contact. The silence implied by Fermi’s paradox (“Where is everybody?”) may mean that we are not the most attention-worthy cookies in the jar.

Hang on: ants are very interesting. Just ask E.O. Wilson.

But I digress. Loeb is a distinguished astronomer who has acquired a certain notoriety by arguing that a strange object (now called ‘Oumuamua’) travelling at 200,000 mph that was detected by a big telescope designed to hunt for “near-Earth objects — mostly asteroids which travel at an average velocity of 40,000 mph — was actually the handiwork of an alien civilisation. It seems that most of his professional peers are very annoyed by this, especially since he has doubled down on his theory in a new book,  Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth that comes out on February 4. Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker has an interesting essay on the controversy.

I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I am tempted to buy the book nonetheless. The only problem is that there are only 24 hours in our terrestrial day. Sigh.

I Am a Disappointed Biden Voter Who Was Told He’d Immediately Implement Communist Rule

From Chandler Dean

I consider myself to be a high-information voter. I follow a variety of sources — FOX News, One America News Network, Newsmax, the Epoch Times, Dan Bongino’s Parler feed, and whatever I overhear construction workers talking about on my morning commute.

Throughout the 2020 election cycle, I kept getting told the same thing: “Joe Biden wants to defund the police,” “Joe Biden is a socialist.” “Joe Biden loves Antifa,” “Joe Biden wants to take the money from defunding the police and equally distribute it among all Antifa members.”

When I heard those accusations, as an active member of a Brooklyn-based Marxist commune, I thought, Finally! So I proudly cast my vote for the Biden-Harris ticket, kicked back, and waited for our kleptocratic capitalist system to instantly crumble upon his inauguration.

And then?

My friend just got an invoice for next month’s rent in her mailbox — so, evidently, landlords still exist. The means of production at my office job? Noticeably un-seized. And don’t get me started on all the scarcity I still see out there. There’s an abundance of scarcity.

I tried to forward my water bill to the White House with the memo “incurring charges for natural resources is theft?” but no one has gotten back to me. Now, if that’s because the White House employees have collectively bargained that they don’t need to respond to my letters, I will retract that particular complaint…

Why cats love catnip

Lovely piece of research

The researchers hypothesized that when felines in the wild rub on catnip or silver vine, they’re essentially applying an insect repellant.

They first showed cats can transfer the chemical to their skin, and then conducted a live mosquito challenge—similar to when people’s arms are used to evaluate insect repellants. They put the nepetalactol-treated heads of sedated cats into chambers full of mosquitoes and counted how many landed on them—it was about half the number that landed on feline heads treated with a neutral substance, they report today in Science Advances.

Most scientists and pet owners assumed the only reason that cats roll around in catnip was for the euphoric experience, Miyazaki says. “Our findings suggest instead that rolling is rather a functional behavior.”

I’ve communicated these findings to our two cats. They seem unimpressed.

Facebook Has Referred Trump’s Suspension to Its Oversight Board. Now What?

Evelyn Douek, writing on Lawfare

On Jan. 7, the day after the riot in the U.S. Capitol, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the “indefinite” suspension of Donald Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. It remained unclear whether Trump would be banned from the platforms forever: Zuckerberg wrote at the time that Facebook would block Trump at least until the inauguration, “until the peaceful transition of power is complete.” Since then, the ultimate fate of Trump’s accounts has hinged, more or less, on how the Facebook CEO happened to feel whenever he got around to considering whether the decision should be permanent.

But now, the decision is now out of Zuckerberg’s hands. Facebook has referred the suspension to the Facebook Oversight Board: an external court-like institution that Facebook set up to review its “most difficult and significant content decisions” and that, under its bylaws, has the power to issue binding decisions on the platform. The board now has more power over the former president’s future ability to communicate with a large part of his base than either Zuckerberg or Trump himself.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Board take it on, and what they make of it if they do.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Bernie Sanders Reacts to Inauguration Mittens Memes. The Vermont senator told reporters on Thursday that the viral photo of him from President Joe Biden’s Inauguration the day prior “makes people aware that we make good mittens in Vermont.” Link
  • The Complete List of Trump’s Twitter Insults (2015-2021). Link
  • Alphabet shuts down Internet balloon company. Like most balloons, it eventually burst. Still, it was worth a try. Link

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