The Final Commercial Frontier?

by Tracy R. Walsh

Rachel Riederer is skeptical of space-mining ventures:

These new companies talk about space in a way that sounds unfamiliar to the civilian ear accustomed to the reverent tone of planetarium field trips; rather than the vastness of space, the companies emphasize its accessibility. Moon Express calls the moon “the eighth continent.” Planetary Resources wants to “bring the solar system into humanity’s sphere of influence.” Experiencing awe is fun. It’s even more fun to imagine a world of outer-space abundance in which we don’t have to worry about fossil fuels and everyone can afford a platinum case for their iPhone. And there is great potential for resource extraction in space, though these ventures will carry great upfront costs and plenty of uncertainty about whether they will actually come to fruition. Many deadlines and timeline estimates are fast approaching or have passed already.

What’s misleading about these projects isn’t that they’re subject to budget problems and delays, but that they come couched in overblown rhetoric about their potential to radically alter human life, to do away with the notion of scarcity and deliver us to a future of plenty and peace. It’s a pattern that has become familiar in Silicon Valley: develop a plan for a business that will do something cool and make a lot of money, but describe it instead as something that will change the world.

Previous Dish on extraplanetary resource exploitation here, here, here, and here.

The Invention Of The Brazilian Aardvark

by Tracy R. Walsh


Eric Randall shares the story of a high-schooler whose joking edit to Wikipedia became an established truth:

In July of 2008, Dylan Breves, then a 17-year-old student from New York City, made a mundane edit to a Wikipedia entry on the coati. The coati, a member of the raccoon family, is “also known as … a Brazilian aardvark,” Breves wrote. He did not cite a source for this nickname, and with good reason: he had invented it. …

About a year later, Breves searched online for the phrase “Brazilian aardvark.” Not only was his edit still on Wikipedia, but his search brought up hundreds of other Web sites about coatis. References to the so-called “Brazilian aardvark” have since appeared in the Independent, the Daily Mail, and even in a book published by the University of Chicago. Breves’s role in all this seems clear: a Google search for “Brazilian aardvark” will return no mentions before Breves made the edit, in July, 2008. The claim that the coati is known as a Brazilian aardvark still remains on its Wikipedia entry, only now it cites a 2010 article in the Telegraph as evidence.

This kind of feedback loop – wherein an error that appears on Wikipedia then trickles to sources that Wikipedia considers authoritative, which are in turn used as evidence for the original falsehood—is a documented phenomenon. There’s even a Wikipedia article describing it.

(Photo of a baby South American coati by Alex Proimos)

The Golden Age Of Maps

by Tracy R. Walsh

According to Susan Schulten, it was WWII:

More Americans came into contact with maps during the Second World War than in any 4968629562_68b489d8a5_zprevious moment in American history. From the elaborate and innovative inserts in the National Geographic to the schematic and tactical pictures in newspapers, maps were everywhere. On September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, and by the end of the day a map of Europe could not be bought anywhere in the United States. In fact, Rand McNally reported selling more maps and atlases of the European theaters in the first two weeks of September than in all the years since the armistice of 1918. Two years later, the attack on Pearl Harbor again sparked a demand for maps. Two of the largest commercial mapmakers reported their largest sales to date in 1941, and by early 1942 Newsweek had named Washington, D.C. “a city of maps,” one where “it is now considered a faux pas to be caught without your Pacific arena.”

(Map from Port of Seattle Victory Book, 1944, via Seattle Municipal Archives)

Moon Storage Unit

by Tracy R. Walsh

A plan to send a “library of cultural and biological records” to our lunar companion – where, as Paul Marks calmly explains, “they would be preserved in case Earth suffers a pandemic plague, nuclear holocaust, or lethal asteroid strike” – is apparently in the works. Sacred texts would be the first in line:

The Torah on the Moon project, based in Tel Aviv, Israel, has been courting private firms to deliver a handwritten Jewish scroll, the Sefer Torah, to the lunar surface. If they succeed, later flights will carry Hindu scriptures called the Vedas and the ancient Chinese philosophical work, the I-Ching. Each document will be housed in a space-ready capsule designed to protect it from harsh radiation and temperature changes on the moon for at least 10,000 years. “This is an incredible, beautiful project,” says group founder Paul Aouizerate, an entrepreneur and inventor. “These three texts are among Earth’s most ancient documents, created over 3,000 years ago. They are significant to billions of people.”

But not everyone’s behind the idea:

“The Sefer Torah has unique symbolic value and is nowadays the most sacred object in Judaism,” says Nicholas de Lange, a researcher in Jewish and Hebrew studies at the University of Cambridge. “Such an object is supposed to be treated with extreme respect and care. I find it hard to believe that shooting it into space can fall under this heading.”

How To Make Money In Porn

by Tracy R. Walsh

File lawsuits:

Having found a niche in the crowded world of online pornography, still had tens of thousands of fans shelling out money for its movies. Quietly, the Fields were also making some extra money in another way: by becoming the biggest filer of copyright-infringement lawsuits in the nation. In the past year, their company Malibu Media LLC has filed more than 1,300 copyright-infringement lawsuits – more of these cases than anyone else, accounting for a third of all US copyright litigation during that time, according to the federal-litigation database Pacer – against people that they accuse of stealing their films on the Internet.

Today, they average more than three suits a day, and defendants have included elderly women, a former lieutenant governor, and countless others. “Please be advised that I am ninety years old and have no idea how to download anything,” one defendant wrote in a letter, filed in a Florida court. Nearly every case settles on confidential terms, according to a review of dozens of court records. Malibu Media’s attorney, Keith Lipscomb, said that most defendants settle by paying between about $2,000 and $30,000. The income earned by all the suits represents less than five per cent of Malibu Media’s profits, Lipscomb said.

Tweeting Grief

by Tracy R. Walsh


Sarah Cashmore considers the perils of mourning via social media:

[A] colleague of mine at University of Toronto recently completed a study where she investigated whether online grieving has implications for the bereaved or the memory of the loved one. They found that certain features of Facebook’s platform can actually create an environment of competition among mourners. This leads to the concern that users could inadvertently negatively affect the memory of their loved one, which I think is very important. …

I think the issue of using social media to bereave a friend points to a problem that goes for any cultural institution: as soon as you institutionalize a way of doing something, you open a possibility for responses to become artificial very quickly. For this reason, I don’t think there should be one way of bereaving a friend online. I think the lesson to be learned here is that the Internet needs to be open, and that we need to stay free to create our own spaces and new ways of communicating, on our own terms.

Tamara Kneese looks into one novel way people are managing their legacies online:

Today, multiple companies provide QR codes that attach to physical headstones and link family members and friends, but also random graveyard visitors, to memorial websites or other information about the deceased. Children can now learn all about the grandfather they never met while visiting his gravesite. In fifty or even one hundred years, so the idea goes, people will be able to scan QR codes with their devices and learn more about the people buried in a cemetery.

(Photo: The grave marker of Michael S. Hart, “inventor of the e-book, founder of Project Gutenberg, very dear friend, still digital from beyond.” By Flickr user Benjamin sTone)

The Positive Side Of Discrimination

by Tracy R. Walsh

Amanda Hess takes note of a new meta-analysis indicating that most prejudice is not due to hostility toward others, “but rather simple preferences for people like ourselves”:

In a review of five decades of psychological research, [the study’s authors] found that while most researchers defined prejudice as an expression of hostility, the more pervasive form of bigotry in the United States comes from people who favor, admire, and trust people of their own race, gender, age, religion, or parenting status. Even people who share our birthdays can catch a break. That means that – to take just one example – sexist bias isn’t largely perpetuated by people who hate women. It’s furthered by men who just particularly like other men.

For Hess, the study suggests why discrimination remains such an intractable problem:

We’re not asking the powerful to stop hating; we’re asking them to cede some of their power to others. If the powerful are required to extend their networks to offer jobs to people who aren’t like them, that means that they can’t keep hiring their friends (or people who they feel have the educational pedigree and family background to one day become their friends). … Housing and employment discrimination against minorities isn’t just a case of some people missing out on the opportunities they deserve, but also of white people getting opportunities that they don’t.

Burning Problems

by Tracy R. Walsh


According to Brian Mockenhaupt, decades of aggressive fire-fighting efforts have left the West more prone to blazes than before:

During [the Great Depression], the Forest Service decided that every wildfire in the country should be put out by the morning after it was reported. The country had the manpower to try. This new approach coincided with the onset of several cool, wet decades, which aided the effort: forests weren’t as dry, so they grew more and didn’t burn as often. Smoke jumpers joined the fight, first parachuting into a fire in 1940, and after World War II their ranks swelled with veterans who had made combat jumps across Europe. After the war ended, firefighters also had surplus military trucks and bulldozers at their disposal, and by the mid-’50s they were using helicopters and retired military airplanes to drop water and flame retardant on fires. …

It seemed like a great success story:

Americans were fighting fire, just as they had fought their military enemies, and they were winning. But when wildfires don’t burn regularly, fuels simply accumulate, and bigger fires become inevitable—something policy makers took decades to recognize. “What they didn’t see at the time,” says Don Falk, a forest-and-fire ecologist at the University of Arizona, “is that fire is inevitable. You can defer it, but it’s a pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later scenario. There’s no fire-free scenario.” We’re paying for that blindness now. Across the West, enormous swaths of forest and shrubland are loaded with decades’ worth of built-up fuel.

Plumer passes along the above chart:

Costs are going up partly because the wildfires themselves are getting bigger. But it’s also a function of the fact that more and more people are living in fire-prone areas. In Colorado, for example, some 250,000 new residents have settled into the fire-prone “red zone” over the past two decades. … Right now, Congress gives agencies like the US Forest Service a budget for fire suppression that’s based on the average cost of wildfires over the previous 10 years. Of course, if wildfires are getting bigger over time, that’s going to create constant shortfalls.

Giving Schools An Education In Sexism

by Tracy R. Walsh

Florida’s second-largest school district is under fire for giving teachers of single-sex classes pedagogical tips along the lines of “Girls are not as good at abstract thinking, so they should learn with the help of real-life connections.” Amanda Marcotte rolls her eyes:

The complaint quotes directly from the District’s Single Gender Education Legal and Educational Rationale Brief, and includes such gems as, “Boys tend to prefer non-fiction over fiction. Boys like to read descriptions of real events or illustrated accounts of the way things work, like spaceships, bombs, or volcanoes.” What about girls? “Story problems are a good way to teach algebra to girls. Putting the question in story format makes it easier for girls to understand, and more interesting as well,” the district brief says, adding, “With boys, you can stimulate their interest by focusing on the properties of numbers per se.”

Proponents of single-sex education may claim to be all about maximizing children’s potential, but this ACLU complaint suggests the opposite – that the real result is stifling any children who dare buck gender stereotypes. A girl who wants to be a computer programmer, a girl who’s a budding athlete, a boy who wants to write poetry, or a young man who wants to be a psychologist are all entering a classroom that is hostile to their talents and ambitions. Even if the ACLU of Florida can’t get the schools to stop, hopefully they can educate parents about the dangers of these kinds of classrooms and encourage them to yank their kids out.

Dana Liebelson considers the broader issue of single-sex education:

Gender-based educational programs are not unique to Florida. The ACLU has filed complaints against school districts in other states, including West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Idaho. The National Association for Single Sex Public Education, which supports these kinds of programs, notes, “We understand that some girls would rather play football rather than play with Barbies,” and “girls in single-sex educational settings are more likely to take classes in math, science, and information technology.” Sherwin, from the ACLU, says she doesn’t see anything wrong with single-sex schools that don’t use different teaching methods for boys and girls. But she adds, “Whenever you make sex the most salient category for grouping children, it certainly sends a message about sex difference.”

I wish I could say this story surprised me, but health classes at my public high school were filled with sexual stereotyping. One hapless gym teacher explained to my sophomore class that women, as born gatherers, were “programmed” – I remember the word distinctly – to browse endlessly for shoes at the mall, while, men, as natural hunters, would shoot straight to the electronics store. (This being South Jersey, all analogies were mall analogies).

I hope today’s teachers are more enlightened than they were in the early aughts, but that school’s website still hosts materials like this:

Screen Shot 2014-05-21 at 10.11.25 PM

A school doesn’t have to be single-sex to be sexist.

The Punishing 18th Century

by Tracy R. Walsh

Reviewing Leo Damrosch’s Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, James Ward considers the misanthropic writer as a product of his times:

This [biography’s] dual perspective helps avoid a pathologizing mode, something which is very easy to slip into when writing about Swift: if some features of the life look unusually mordant or morbid by our standards, they were not out of place in that world. A Modest Proposal’s baby-eating humor still has the capacity to shock, but in the week of its publication, one Dublin shop made a window display of a mummified corpse to attract passers-by, likening the skin’s texture to a freshly-baked cake of puff pastry. On a similarly gruesome note, Damrosch informs us that the original of the Tale’s flayed woman may have been the desiccated corpse of a convict displayed under glass in the library of Trinity College during the time Swift studied there. When its face was eaten by rats, a new one was duly peeled from another more recently executed body and mounted on the faceless cadaver. We tend to think of grotesque fascination with bodily degradation and its public display as peculiarly Swiftian, but perhaps he just used the materials that came to hand around him. He seems to have been an early adopter of the mantras of modern creative writing – “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell” – and they led him to some interesting places.