Photo of the day

This is a really cool gallery of photos from Wired of what our solar system actually looks like.  As so many space photos are super-enhanced.  Still pretty, pretty cool.

PHOTOS OF SPACE are everywhere online. Their beauty is dazzling, showing a universe awash in color and light. But if you’re a skeptic, you’ve likely wondered whether it all truly looks like that in real life.

Michael Benson tries his best to show you in his exhibition Otherworlds: Visions of Our Solar System. The artist took data from NASA and ESA missions to make 77 images of everything from Pluto to Europa that approximate true color as much as humanly possible. The work spans five decades of space exploration, and presents a realistic, flyby tour of the universe. “I feel like if these places are so alien to our direct experiences anyway, then they should be colored the way they would be seen,” he says.

Benson, 53, was fascinated with space while growing up, but became truly obsessed when the Internet came along. In the late 1990s, he logged onto an early modem and spent hours perusing pictures of Jupiter that Galileo sent down. By the early 2000s he started making composite space photos, and is now renowned for his work—director Terrence Malick even enlisted his help for the space scenes in Tree of Life. In Otherworlds, Benson tries his best to create images that represent what a moon or planet might actually look like if you could peer at it out a spaceship window.


Jupiter and Ganymede, the planet’s largest moon. Cassini, January 10, 2001. NASA/JPL/Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures, courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Quick hits (part II)

1) Sean Illing on how Republican efforts to “flood the zone” with lies and information are so effective:

No matter how President Trump’s impeachment trial plays out in the Senate, one thing is certain: Despite the incontrovertible facts at the center of the story, the process will change very few minds.

Regardless of how clear a case Democrats make, it seems likely that a majority of voters will remain confused and unsure about the details of Trump’s transgressions. No single version of the truth will be accepted.

This is a serious problem for our democratic culture. No amount of evidence, on virtually any topic, is likely to move public opinion one way or the other. We can attribute some of this to rank partisanship — some people simply refuse to acknowledge inconvenient facts about their own side.

But there’s another, equally vexing problem. We live in a media ecosystem that overwhelms people with information. Some of that information is accurate, some of it is bogus, and much of it is intentionally misleading. The result is a polity that has increasingly given up on finding out the truth. As Sabrina Tavernise and Aidan Gardiner put it in a New York Times piece, “people are numb and disoriented, struggling to discern what is real in a sea of slant, fake, and fact.” This is partly why an earth-shattering historical event like a president’s impeachment has done very little to move public opinion.

The core challenge we’re facing today is information saturation and a hackable media system. If you follow politics at all, you know how exhausting the environment is. The sheer volume of content, the dizzying number of narratives and counternarratives, and the pace of the news cycle are too much for anyone to process.

One response to this situation is to walk away and tune everything out. After all, it takes real effort to comb through the bullshit, and most people have busy lives and limited bandwidth. Another reaction is to retreat into tribal allegiances. There’s Team Liberal and Team Conservative, and pretty much everyone knows which side they’re on. So you stick to the places that feed you the information you most want to hear.

2) OMG Susan Collins is just the worst.  Why anybody would take her seriously and treat her as anything other than a complete hack at this point is beyond me:

Former prosecutor Mimi Rocah tells me, “Senator Collins is either ignorant and uninformed because she doesn’t understand or know that a federal court only just released the Parnas docs or she is just making up excuses because the documents are so damning. Either one is unacceptable and the real question she should be asking is why Trump was trying to hide them.”

3) Would you be at all surprised if I told you that Mississippi had modern day debtors prisons?  NPR:

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It all started with an unlikely tip – a woman living in state prison in Mississippi was also working at McDonald’s and not voluntarily. That tip led Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu, reporters at Mississippi Today, into a 14-month investigation of the state’s restitution centers. They compare the facilities to modern-day debtors’ prisons, and the people kept their working off fines and other debts rarely know how long they’ll have to stay, says Anna Wolfe.

ANNA WOLFE: The correction department doesn’t provide inmates with their debt balance. So it’s very hard for them to figure out how much they’re earning towards their debts and where their money is going.

CORNISH: People like Dixie D’Angelo. She worked four different jobs, trying to pay down more than $5,000 she owed for damaging a friend’s car.

DIXIE D’ANGELO: I got so depressed yesterday when I was looking at that because I got two checks. And, I mean, it’s not even – it’s, like, 900 and something dollars for two checks, and I’ve been here six weeks.

WOLFE: This is Anna. All the while, as they’re working, the department of corrections is taking out room and board and transportation off the top, and they are given very little documentation of where their money is going. Additionally, you know, they’re there to pay victims, but most of their earnings are going to pay court fees and criminal fines.

4) A couple of old school Republicans make the case for a carbon tax.  It’s a good case.  A friend shared it on FB saying, “I just don’t understand why so many conservatives oppose carbon pricing.”  My response: yes you do.

5) This “how to be a better white person” at the Root seemed pretty good.  Or maybe I think that because by the standards here, I’m a pretty decent white person.

6) I’m actually very much in favor of body positivity.  Love your body and who you are.  Really.  But, please, Vox, don’t pretend there’s not a clear relationship between being substantially overweight and being less healthy.

Michaels’s comments about Lizzo’s weight reflect a widespread belief: that all fat people face serious health risks purely because of their weight. This view is bolstered by a lot of research showing that there are health risks associated with carrying “excess” weight — including heart disease, some forms of cancer, and, yes, diabetes.

But that is not the end of the story, and research on the connection between weight and health is more complicated than it seems. While body mass index (BMI), the most common measurement used to assess if a person is a healthy weight, is correlated with metabolic health in population studies, there are many people with a “normal” BMI with cardiovascular and metabolic issues, while many in the “overweight” and “obese” range are metabolically healthy. Furthermore, the causal mechanisms linking obesity to chronic illnesses aren’t always well understood. For example, the psychological distress that can result from being overweight or obese in a society in which it is stigmatized can cause inflammation and negative long-term health effects.

Moreover, a number of scholars have argued that both the medical community and society put too much emphasis on the effects of weight on health, obscuring the importance of numerous other factors, such as blood pressure, blood lipid levels, and aerobic fitness, that together paint a more informative picture of a person’s health than BMI alone.

I mean all that– and it’s all true– to obscure the fact that overweight people are statistically more likely to suffer from all sorts of negative health consequences.  The give-away is the strawman, “that all fat people [emphasis mine] face serious health risks purely because of their weight.  Is it so hard?  1) Don’t shame people for being overweight.   Really.  2) Admit that most people would be healthier if not overweight.

7) With year’s Oscar controversy on race/gender, I think David Sims has a good take, ”

When the 2020 Oscar nominations were announced yesterday, Little Women earned a spot in the Best Picture category and collected nods for Ronan, Pugh, and Gerwig’s screenplay. But its recognition, which came without a Best Director nod, was still a tier below the biggest favorites of the night, including Joker, The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and 1917—movies, some of them superb, about men and violence. For decades, those kinds of films have dominated the ceremony: Long dramas about weighty issues, biopics of celebrities, or narratives about moviemaking, with a dearth of genre movies, domestic narratives, and stories told by women and people of color…

Many of those snubbed movies didn’t fit the idea of “prestige” that has defined Oscar narratives for generations. This blinkered notion is what encourages studios to release certain films during awards season, which tends to run from October to December, and to spend millions of dollars on “for your consideration” campaigns. It’s what helps influential precursor awards such as the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs pick certain films for nominations, anointing them as favorites and nudging Academy voters toward them. The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood were two of my favorite films of the year, and got 20 nominations between them. But these stories of masculinity and brutality—burnished by their filmmakers’ legacies—shouldn’t be the types of works most celebrated by Oscar voters year after year.

Academy members themselves have the power to expand what kinds of movies are considered Oscar contenders. One step would be to reject the preemptive hand-waving doled out to so many acclaimed films, many of them artsier or smaller-scale, that supposedly will never play with Oscar voters for little reason other than tradition.

8) I quite enjoyed this on the lack of an anti-alcohol movement.  I hardly drink because 1) I really don’t like the taste of most all alcohol; 2) it’s a lot of empty calories; 3) because of my natural personality (low anxiety, low inhibition) I really don’t get all that much benefit; 4) I sure don’t like to spend money on it for the preceding reasons.  But, I really don’t judge those who are regular partakers (though, I could really live without even middle-aged people clearly somehow thinking it makes them “cool” to drink).  Anyway, Olga Khazan:

Occasionally, Elizabeth Bruenig unleashes a tweet for which she knows she’s sure to get dragged: She admits that she doesn’t drink.

Bruenig, a columnist at The New York Times with a sizable social-media following, told me that it usually begins with her tweeting something mildly inflammatory and totally unrelated to alcohol—e.g., The Star Wars prequels are actually good. Someone will accuse her of being drunk. She, in turn, will clarify that she doesn’t drink, and that she’s never been drunk. Inevitably, people will criticize her. You’re really missing out, they might say. Why would you deny yourself?

As Bruenig sees it, however, there’s more to be gained than lost in abstaining. In fact, she supports stronger restrictions on alcohol sales. Alcohol’s effects on crime and violence, in her view, are cause to reconsider some cities’ and states’ permissive attitudes toward things such as open-container laws and where alcohol can be sold.

Breunig’s outlook harks back to a time when there was a robust public discussion about the role of alcohol in society. Today, warnings about the devil drink will win you few friends. Sure, it’s fine if you want to join Alcoholics Anonymous or cut back on drinking to help yourself, and people are happy to tell you not to drink and drive. But Americans tend to reject general anti-alcohol advocacy with a vociferousness typically reserved for IRS auditors and after-period double-spacers. Pushing for, say, higher alcohol taxes gets you treated like an uptight school marm. Or worse, a neo-prohibitionist…

Americans would be justified in treating alcohol with the same wariness they have toward other drugs. Beyond how it tastes and feels, there’s very little good to say about the health impacts of booze. The idea that a glass or two of red wine a day is healthy is now considered dubious. At best, slight heart-health benefits are associated with moderate drinking, and most health experts say you shouldn’t start drinking for the health benefits if you don’t drink already. As one major study recently put it, “Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none.”

Alcohol’s byproducts wreak havoc on the cells, raising the risk of liver disease, heart failure, dementia, seven types of cancer, and fetal alcohol syndrome. Just this month, researchers reported that the number of alcohol-related deaths in the United States more than doubled in two decades, going up to 73,000 in 2017. As the journalist Stephanie Mencimer wrote in a 2018 Mother Jones article, alcohol-related breast cancer kills more than twice as many American women as drunk drivers do. Many people drink to relax, but it turns out that booze isn’t even very good at that. It seems to have a boomerang effect on anxiety, soothing it at first but bringing it roaring back later.

Despite these grim statistics, Americans embrace and encourage drinking far more than they do similar vices.

9) Also, one of the links led me to this 4+ year old piece on breast cancer (a subject I’ve always found particularly interesting) and the problems with mammography.  This figure was particularly compelling:

10) This was really, really interesting, “Air Pollution, Evolution, and the Fate of Billions of Humans
It’s not just a modern problem. Airborne toxins are so pernicious that they may have shaped our DNA over millions of years.”

Our ancestors were bedeviled by airborne toxins even as bipedal apes walking the African savanna, argued Benjamin Trumble, a biologist at Arizona State University, and Caleb Finch of the University of Southern California, in the December issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology.

Our forebears evolved defenses against these pollutants, the scientists propose. Today, those adaptations may provide protection, albeit limited, against tobacco smoke and other airborne threats.

But our evolutionary legacy may also be a burden, Dr. Trumble and Dr. Finch speculated. Some genetic adaptations may have increased our vulnerability to diseases linked to air pollution.

It is “a really creative, interesting contribution to evolutionary medicine,” said Molly Fox, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the new study.

The story begins about seven million years ago. Africa at the time was gradually growing more arid. The Sahara emerged in northern Africa, while grasslands opened up in eastern and southern Africa.

The ancestors of chimpanzees and gorillas remained in the retreating forests, but our ancient relatives adapted to the new environments. They evolved into a tall, slender frame well suited to walking and running long distances.

Dr. Finch and Dr. Trumble believe that early humans faced another challenge that has gone largely overlooked: the air.

Periodically, the savanna would have experienced heavy dust storms from the Sahara, and our distant ancestors may have risked harm to their lungs from breathing in the silica-rich particles.

“When the dust is up, we’re going to see more pulmonary problems,” Dr. Finch said. Even today, Greek researchers have found that when Sahara winds reach their country, patients surge into hospitals with respiratory complaints

Later, our ancestors added to airborne threats by mastering fire. As they lingered near hearths to cook food, stay warm or keep away from insects, they breathed in smoke. Once early humans began building shelters, the environment became more harmful to their lungs.

“Most traditional people live in a highly smoky environment,” Dr. Finch said. “I think it has been a fact of human living for us even before our species.”

Smoke created a new evolutionary pressure, he and Dr. Trumble believe. Humans evolved powerful liver enzymes, for example, to break down toxins passing into the bloodstream from the lungs.

11) The problem with the reporting and this study, “Run a First Marathon, and Your Arteries May Look 4 Years Younger: Training for and finishing a marathon can leave arteries more flexible, healthy and biologically younger than before” is that going from basically no exercise to becoming a regular runner is obviously going to have substantial health benefits.  Almost surely those benefits come from efforts well short of actually training for a marathon.

12) Cool experiments show how parrots can exhibit selfless behavior.

In a clear-walled laboratory compartment, an African grey parrot faced a heap of metal washers. A human waited nearby with her hand outstretched. If the washers were given to the human, she would hand back delicious walnuts — but the parrot couldn’t reach her. It could reach its neighboring parrot, though, whose compartment had an opening.

The parrot started picking up washers in its beak and passing them to its neighbor. At least one of them would get some walnuts today.

“They were quite intrinsically motivated to help another,” said Désirée Brucks, a cognitive biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany.

13) Loved this collection of readers’ takes on “life-changing” books.  I really enjoyed a number of these myself.  Cormac McCarthy’s The Road stands out for me from among these.

14) Some very cool infographics with this, “You Are Unvaccinated and Got Sick. These Are Your Odds.”

15) “You were never really here” got great reviews, but I ended up being pretty disappointed.  Struck me as like one of those Man Booker literary award winners that all the critics love, but are no fun to actually read.  Justin Chang’s positive review gets to why:

Some narrative details have been altered from the book, but the plot is largely beside the point.

Ummm, no.  Never going to go for a movie where the plot is beside the point.

16) Damn, is the whole GOP just a protection racket for Trump now?  Even the judges?  Slate, “Trump Judges Are Playing Keep-Away With His Tax Returns and Other Financial Records”

On Tuesday, Judge Trevor McFadden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a surprising order further delaying any potential release of President Donald Trump’s tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee. McFadden, who was appointed by Trump to the federal bench, has had that committee’s subpoena of Trump’s tax returns before his court since July and has yet to issue a ruling. In Tuesday’s order, the judge continued to delay, putting the proceedings on hold until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decides a completely separate matter. The tax returns case—which has nothing to do with the ongoing impeachment inquiry of Trump—is now on hold until the circuit court rules on the House’s subpoena of testimony for former White House counsel Don McGahn in the impeachment inquiry. Because these cases have few similarities, it is difficult to understand McFadden’s latest order as anything other than an effort to delay the release of Trump’s tax returns for as long as possible. Coupled with D.C. Circuit Judge Neomi Rao’s effort to block a subpoena of Trump’s financial records in the Mazars USA case, this is another instance of one of Trump’s appointees to the federal bench taking a position that could undermine Congress’ ability to access critical information about this president’s finances.

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