A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘news

[META] Some blogroll additions

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Two links are being added.

  • To the news section, I’m adding the Canadian news website National Observer, which has interesting longer articles analyzing Canadian events. Of their recent articles, I would recommend Lorimer Shenher’s “LGBTQ officers need to pick the right target”, which argues that LGBTQ police officers should step back and consider the import of the police, as an organization, to many queer people.
  • To the blog section, I’m adding Strange Company, a great blog that assembles links of interesting and odd things around the world, in the past and present, and takes the occasional longer look at particular events. This link, examining the history of one Reverend Griffiths who was something of a ghostbuster in 19th century Wales, is a good example of the latter category of post.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 6, 2017 at 2:00 pm

[META] More blogroll and news links

The start of a new year is a good time to add links to my blogroll, bloggish and otherwise.


Written by Randy McDonald

January 2, 2017 at 4:45 pm

[LINK] “Donald Trump, the First President of Our Post-Literate Age”

I wonder if Joe Wiesenthal’s Bloomberg View essay is unduly unkind to traditional oral cultures. Honesty has almost always been praised, after all.

[A]ll this focus on fake Facebook news obscures a much bigger story about the way social media — the endless public opining and sharing of information — is reshaping politics. Even if you’ve never given much thought to its meaning, you’ve probably heard someone say “the medium is the message,” the famous dictum of media theorist Marshall McLuhan.

But what does that mean, and what does it mean specifically for the 2016 election? A possible answer can be found in the work of Walter J. Ong, a Jesuit priest and a former student of McLuhan’s at St. Louis University. In his most famous work, “Orality and Literacy,” Ong examined how the invention of reading and writing fundamentally changed human consciousness. He argued that the written word wasn’t just an extension of the spoken word, but something that opened up new ways of thinking — something that created a whole new world.

The easiest way to grasp the difference between the written world and the oral world is that in the latter, there’s no way to look up anything. Before the invention of writing, knowledge existed in the present tense between two or more people; when information was forgotten, it disappeared forever. That state of affairs created a special need for ideas that were easily memorized and repeatable (so, in a way, they could go viral). The immediacy of the oral world did not favor complicated, abstract ideas that need to be thought through. Instead, it elevated individuals who passed along memorable stories, wisdom and good news.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 2, 2016 at 6:15 pm

[LINK] “A Wikipedian Explains How Wikipedia Stays Reliable in the Fake News”

Vice‘s Mike Pearl interviews Wikipedia editor Victor Grigas to examine Wikipedia’s strategies for exposing fraud.

VICE: How’d you get into writing about fake news?
Victor Grigas: Chicago stuff is what I write about, and I had all these friends who were like, “This is bullshit, man!” when Trump got elected. And I was like, “Send your [protest] photos in!” I had one friend who did, and I uploaded them. [So] I’m pretty happy with where [Wikipedia’s articles about Trump protests have] gone. But in the process of researching it, if you type in “Trump protests,” you’ll find these fake news articles that say there were people paid, and it’s crazy! If you actually read the fake news articles, they’ll cite this one YouTube video of a dash cam camera driving in Chicago past a bunch of buses. So it’s like, “Oh, because these buses are here, they’ve bused in protesters from everywhere!”

Is that claim backed up by any sources Wikipedia considers reliable?
It’s total nonsense with no basis whatsoever! But they’re writing this to feed whatever beast. I don’t know if they’re writing it just to make money, or if there’s a political incentive. I have no fucking clue, but it’s obviously not reliable. But for some reason it’s coming up near the top of my Google searches, which is really infuriating. So I want to make sure that when people read about these things, they know they’re not there.

Does the existence of this fake news merit its own inclusion in well-sourced articles?
At the bottom of the page about the protests, there’s one or two lines about [fake news]. And I got into a little bit of an editing conflict about that because I tried using the fake news site as a source about the fake news. They deleted what I wrote, and I think the line was “awful reference!” and it got deleted right away, automatically without reading or trying to understand what I was trying to do about it.

So when veteran Wikipedia editors aren’t around, what happens when an article shows up based on fake news?
There’s a lot of policing that happens on Wikipedia, which people see as a real barrier to entry to get started, because there’s a huge learning curve. One of the aspects of that learning curve is what you’re allowed to write, basically. And it takes a little bit of patience to figure out how to make it work. So one of the things that happens is you start editing and stuff gets deleted like that.

What kind of stuff do you mean?
If you start [sourcing] like a blog, or a personal site, or something like that, it’s gonna bite the dust real fast. People are gonna take it out, and they’re gonna point you to the reason why they took it out, usually.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 2, 2016 at 6:00 pm

[NEWS] Some Friday links

  • Bloomberg notes the recent challenge to one-family rule in Gabon, looks at Russia’s new Internet firewall, examines the Syrian Kurds’ withdrawal beyond the Euphrates, and reports on near-record migration into the United Kingdom.
  • Bloomberg View talks about inequality in China, looks at continuing disputes over Second World War history in Poland and Ukraine, and examines the things Texas and California have in common.
  • CBC reports on the impending release of a report on foreign workers, looks at the integration problems of Syrian refugees re: housing, and reports on Canada’s interest in more immigration from China.
  • The Inter Press Service notes how drought is hurting cocoa farmers in Cameroon.
  • MacLean’s looks at how some in the Conservative Party have not moved past same-sex marriage, describes how the new British Columbia tax on foreign buyers of real estate is deterring Chinese, and reports on the catastrophic potential of carbon release from melting permafrost.
  • National Geographic notes how the young generation sees Pluto and its classification history.
  • The National Post describes how design fans want the CBC to release its 1974 standards manual, and looks at controversy over a study claiming extensive support in mosques for extremist literature.
  • Wired has photos from the uninhabited cities of China, and describes the new prominence of the alt right.

[NEWS] Some more links about Proxima Centauri b

The European Southern Observatory provided this artist’s impression of the surface of Proxima b. “The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image to the upper-right of Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface.”


Proxima Centauri b has continued to excite over the weekend. The MacLean’s article “Why everyone is excited about an exoplanet named Proxima b”, by Amanda Shendrake, points out the apparent import for a layman’s audience.

Just because an exoplanet is in a star’s habitable zone, however, does not mean it can host life. It simply means that if the exoplanet featured a similar atmosphere and surface pressure as the Earth, the planet could sustain liquid water. Unfortunately, we know nothing about Proxima b’s atmosphere.

For an exoplanet to be potentially habitable, scientists consider more than just whether or not it can host water. The star around which the exoplanet orbits needs to be of a particular type—one that burns long enough to allow life a chance to evolve, and emits appropriate amounts of ultraviolet radiation.

Additionally, the exoplanet must have significant similarities to Earth. The Earth Similarity Index (ESI) is a way to measure this likeness, and it places objects on a scale of zero to one, where one is Earth itself. The closer to 1.0, the more similar the exoplanet is to our home. The measurement takes into account radius, density, escape velocity, and surface temperature.

No other planets in our solar system are Earth-like; however, in addition to being the nearest of the 44 potentially habitable exoplanets we’ve found, Proxima b also has the highest ESI.

(Nice infographics, too.)

At Scientific American, Elizabeth Tasker’s blog post “Yes, We’ve Discovered a Planet Orbiting the Nearest Star but…” notes the many, many caveats around identifying Proxima Centauri b as Earth-like. Sarah Scoles’ Wired article “Y’all Need to Chill About Proxima Centauri b” explores the same territory, and makes an argument as to the underlying motivation for this identification of worlds as potentially Earth-like.

[I]t’s not an Earth twin, no matter what the headlines say, and neither are any other planets scientists have found. Hot Jupiters may be cool; planets that rain glass may be a hit at parties; “Super-Earth” may be fun to say. And getting the full census of exoplanets is valuable. But most scientists, Messeri has found, really just want to find another Earth. Research priorities reflect that. The Kepler Space Telescope, which has discovered more planets than any other enterprise, was “specifically designed to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover dozens of Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone,” according to NASA.

The search for an “Earth Twin” is the quest for a platonic ideal, says Messeri. “It allows us to imagine Earth at its best, Earth as we want to imagine it, Earth that isn’t hampered by climate change or war or disease,” she says.

In other words, Earth as we’ve never known it and never will. If scientists found a twin planet, Pure Earth would become, in our minds, a real place that still exists, somewhere out there.

But we haven’t discovered that place. And we might not ever. On a quest for the perfect partner, you usually find someone who’s pretty cool but yells at you when they’re hungry, or hates your mom. After you sign on to the perfect job, you discover that you’re supposed to wash everyone’s coffee mugs. In that way, finding Proxima Centauri b while searching for Pure Earth is just like every human quest for perfection.

“What we’ve actually found is something more real,” says Messeri, “and less ideal.”

Joseph Dussault at the Christian Science Monitor notes in “Do we need to change the way we talk about potentially habitable planets?” that the language used to describe these worlds may need to be altered, for lay audiences at least. Universe Today’s Matt Williams notes that Earth-like means something that is not a duplicate of Tahiti.

[F]inding a planet that is greater in size and mass than Earth, but significantly less than that of a gas giant, does not mean it is terrestrial. In fact, some scientists have recommended that the term “mini-Neptune” be used to describe planets that are more massive than Earth, but not necessarily composed of silicate minerals and metals.

And estimates of size and mass are not exactly metrics for determining whether or not a planet is “habitable”. This term is especially sticky when it comes to exoplanets. When scientists attach this word to extra-solar planets like Proxima b, Gliese 667 Cc, Kepler-452b, they are generally referring to the fact that the planet exists within its parent star’s “habitable zone” (aka. Goldilocks zone).

This term describes the region around a star where a planet will experience average surface temperatures that allow for liquid water to exist on its surface. For those planets that orbit too close to their star, they will experience intense heat that transforms surface waster into hydrogen and oxygen – the former escaping into space, the latter combining with carbon to form CO².

This is what scientists believe happened to Venus, where thick clouds of CO² and water vapor triggered a runaway greenhouse effect. This turned Venus from a world that once had oceans into the hellish environment we know today, where temperatures are hot enough to melt lead, atmospheric density if off the charts, and sulfuric acid rains from its thick clouds.

For planets that orbit beyond a star’s habitable zone, water ice will become frozen solid, and the only liquid water will likely be found in underground reservoirs (this is the case on Mars). As such, finding planets that are just right in terms of average surface temperature is intrinsic to the “low-hanging fruit” approach of searching for life in our Universe.

Even so, the optimism expressed by Bloomberg View’s Faye Flam in “What the New Planet Says About Life in the Universe” is something I would like to cling to. Proxima b’s ideal, or at least worlds like this ideal, might be perfectly suited for life.

Studying this planet could reveal something important about the timeline of life in the universe, and whether we earthlings are early to the party. That’s because stars like Proxima Centauri are the future of the universe. Called red dwarfs, these make up the majority of stars in the galaxy, and they live about 1,000 times as long as our sun.

In a paper made public last month, Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb looked at the cosmic implications of life surrounding red dwarfs. Loeb calculated that if life is just as likely to form around these stars as sun-like ones, then the vast majority of life in the universe has yet to be born, and we earthlings are not just early, he said, but “premature.”

That’s because scientists believe eventually, all the raw materials for star formation will be used up and all the stars will die, leaving a dark universe of dust and black holes. For most of the trillions of years stretching between now and cosmic darkness, red dwarfs will be the only game in town.

The papers at arXiV at least allow for hope. Why not encourage it?

Written by Randy McDonald

August 28, 2016 at 10:29 pm

[NEWS] Some links about the discovery of Proxima Centauri b

The first confirmation I had of the discovery of Proxima Centauri b came from James Nicoll, who shared the European Southern Observatory’s announcement that the Pale Red Dot search program bore spectacular fruit.

Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, Jennifer Ouellette at Gizmodo, and Franck Marchis at the Planetary Society Blog provided among the first blogged reactions I saw on my Facebook feed. Marchis’ summary of what led to the discovery deserves reproduction.

We now know of 3,374 exoplanets, an enormously large number, given that we discovered the first one only in 1995. Like the cartographers of the seventeenth century, who slowly build a map of our world, astronomers are drawing a map of our galactic neighborhood. We think we have a good handle on the location of nearby stars—that is, ones that are less than 50 light-years away. We know their distance, size, temperature, and if they are multiple systems or single stars, for example; but ultimately what we would really like to add to this 3D map of the galaxy are the planets in orbit around these stars.

The Pale Red Dot group was particularly interested in finding planets around Proxima Centauri, the star closest to the Sun. Proxima Centauri is only 4.25 light-years away, so it’s in our cosmic backyard. Because of its small mass, it’s too faint to be seen with the naked eye, and was discovered only in 1915. At the end of the 1990s, astronomers tried to detect potential large planets in orbit around this star using the radial-velocity method and came back empty-handed.

In the article published today in Nature, a group of modern astronomers reported on what they learned by using two high-precision radial-velocity instruments: HARPS at the 3.6m telescope of La Silla and UVES at the VLT 8m class telescope, both part of the European Southern Observatory. Several of these observations were done as part of other programs that took place between 2000 and 2016, but from January 2016 to March 2016, the team collected what we call high-cadence data, a fancy way to state that the star was observed once per night to increase its chance of detecting a tiny variation in its motion (about a meter per second, or the speed of a human walking) that might be caused by the presence of a small planet.

This ambitious program has paid off beyond our wildest dreams in that we have now unambiguously detected a planet with a minimum mass 1.3 times that of Earth orbiting the star right in the middle of the goldilocks zone (0.05 AU). I am not a specialist in radial-velocity measurement, but this detection seems quite convincing in that it has a false-alarm probability of less than 0.1% and uses a careful comparison of star activity (done by using additional small telescopes during the survey) that are known to mimic the signal of a planet. That is a very significant new data point to add in our cosmic map.

This world, Marchis notes, is not necessarily an Earth analog. Its tidal locking to Proxima aside, as is Proxima Centauri’s nature as a very active flare star, we know only basic data about Proxima Centauri b: “The planet’s MINIMUM mass is 1.3 Earths because we don’t really know the orientation of the orbital plane with respect to the observer. (The radial-velocity method provides a measurement of m sin i, with i being the inclination of the system with respect to us.) Assuming random orientations of orbital planes, we have a 90% probability that the true mass is less than 2.3 times the minimum mass, so 3 Earths. In short, this could be a super-Earth or something more exotic, like a baby-Neptune.”

Even so, this is huge. The nearest star to our own hosts a potentially Earth-like world? The Dragon’s Gaze was quick to link to the discovery paper, but it was when I saw the news appear on Joe. My. God. that I knew this was big.

Centauri Dreams’ Paul Gilster reacted at length, going back to Proxima’s first appearance in science fiction in 1935 and noting the many potential issues with Proxima Centauri b being truly habitable.

We have a long way to go before knowing whether a planet around a red dwarf like this can truly be habitable. Tidal locking is always an issue because a planet this close to its host (Proxima Centauri b is on an 11.2-day orbit) is probably going to have one side fixed facing the star, the other in permanent night. There are papers arguing, however, that tidal lock does not prevent a stable atmosphere with global circulation and heat distribution from occurring.

And what about Proxima’s magnetic field? The average global magnetic flux is high compared to the Sun’s (600±150 Gauss vs. the Sun’s 1 G). Couple this with flare activity and there are scenarios where a planet gradually has its atmosphere stripped away. A strong planetary magnetic field could, however, prevent this erosion. Nor would X-rays (400 times the flux the Earth receives) necessarily destroy the planet’s ability to keep an atmosphere.

And then there’s the matter of the planet’s origins, and how that could affect what is found there. From the paper:

…forming Proxima b from in-situ disk material is implausible because disk models for small stars would contain less than 1 M Earth of solids within the central AU. Instead, either 1) the planet migrated in via type I migration, 2) planetary embryos migrated in and coalesced at the current planet’s orbit, or 3) pebbles/small planetesimals migrated via aerodynamic drag and later coagulated into a larger body. While migrated planets and embryos originating beyond the ice-line would be volatile rich, pebble migration would produce much drier worlds.

Discover‘s blogs provided good coverage, D-Brief looking up the Alpha Centauri system’s more notable appearances in science fiction and Crux summing up the data.

The question of habitability has been coming up. The Pale Red Dot team engaged in a Reddit AMA about their discovery, while co-discover Ignas Ribisi analyses the potential for habitability, and liquid water, at length. (Much depends on how this world is tidally locked, it turns out.) In a charming poetic analysis, Sean Raymond also examines the question of how the planet is in synchronous orbit with its sun. Gizmodo, meanwhile, published an article suggesting that Proxima’s flares need not pose a challenge for life on Proxima b, that the phenomenon of biofluorescence–briefly, using proteins to absorb high-energy light and retransmit it in less harmful forms–could well be present.

New Scientist has an enlightening article that, among other things, looks at the background to the planet’s discovery and hints at more.

Astronomers will still want to turn their scopes towards Proxima Centauri – to confirm that the planet is real, and avoid a repeat of an earlier embarrassment. Despite initial excitement, the claimed discovery in 2012 of a planet orbiting neighbouring Alpha Centauri B now looks to have been a mistake.

[Mikko] Tuomi and his colleagues have done everything they can to avoid that happening again. He first saw signs of Proxima b in 2013, when looking at data taken by the Very Large Telescope at Paranal Observatory in Chile between 2003 and 2009. “I spent weeks trying to make the signal go away, trying to show that it was caused by the star’s activity or pure measurement noise rather than a planet,” he says. But the team became increasingly convinced.

To confirm the find, the group examined data from other telescopes and in January this year began the Pale Red Dot campaign, using another instrument in Chile – the HARPS planet-searcher at the La Silla Observatory. The observations lasted 60 nights, but the team was confident of a discovery after just 10 nights of data, says Tuomi. “It was as predicted by the previous observations. We knew this was going to become a year to remember for exoplanet science.”

“I think this is a very solid thing,” says Snellen. “For me personally, this is the scientific discovery of the year, maybe of the decade.”

The team also saw signs of a second potential planet around Proxima Centauri, a super-Earth with an orbit of between 60 and 500 days. If such an outer planet exists, it might be possible to observe it, says Tuomi.

What can be said but that we need–want–so much more data? What is Proxima Centauri b actually like? Could it be Earth-like? Are there oceans, life?

I, and the Earth, await more.