John Cleese on The Daily Show

McConnelling

Oh gods I found this funny.

I was watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart this morning, which started off with a depressing look at Fox News’ vilification of poor people. Then, after the ad break, came this little gem about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In case you’re not aware, McConnell is the quintessential Old White Republican Arsehole. He’s repeatedly tried to get the Affordable Healthcare Act repealed, he’s opposed every gun control attempt, and described shutting down Guantanamo Bay as releasing ‘murderers’ into the US.
And he’s the 10th wealthiest senator, with a personal fortune of over US$9 million.

So making fun of him is extremely entertaining.

Here’s the clip from the Daily Show today. It’s brilliant. :-D

And possibly my favourite #McConnelling so far is this one:

The Future of Skepticism: More. Positive. Stuff.

Over the weekend I had the joy of attending the Australian Skeptics National Convention in Canberra. Let me just say this: it was FANTASTIC. Skeptic conventions, Skepticamps and other such events are always terrific fun to attend because it’s always great to be with friends and like-minded people. But when a convention is as well put together as this one was – around a common theme, with a diverse range of engaging speakers, in an environment of spirited collegiality – it really does motivate and inspire.

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Dr. Paul Willis talking at the Australian Skeptics National Convention 2013.
Image: Ruth Ellison

The last speaker on the program was the inimitable Dr. Paul Willis. Former host of ABC’s splendid Catalyst program and now director at RIAus, Paul is a charming, genial man with a razer-sharp intellect and a love of puns. And his thoughts on where skepticism is going, which he shared in his talk, are spot on with what I’ve been thinking recently. He boiled it down to three key points:

  • More. We need to be doing more. There’s an entire internet out there waiting for us to get out there and fill it with good information. And if we don’t, the quacks and the woo-pedlars will.
  • Positive. We need to show that we’re not a bunch of nay-saying curmudgeons. Let’s give positive feedback to the people and organisations that are doing fantastic stuff. When Catalyst does a terrific show like the Chiropractic episode, we need to be congratulating them and thanking them. Get our voices heard and we’ll see more of the good stuff.
  • Stuff. We need to expand the range of what we do. If you don’t have a blog, start one. If you’re not on social media, get involved. If you don’t do a podcast, or a vodcast, why not think about it. Comment on blog posts. Comment on Old Media sites like newspapers and TV shows. Submit complaints to the TGA on dodgy websites. Join the Guerilla Skepticism team and write some Wikipedia articles. And take advantage of some of the tools being developed like rbutr, Web of Trust and Fishbarrel.

Have a listen to Paul’s talk here:

Steltzner vs Fox: Curiosity Comes Cheap

Today I stumbled across this cute little meme:

Shepard Smith vs Adam Steltzner

So I shared it, and before long was asked: did this actually happen?

I didn’t know, so I looked around. As best as I can tell, no it didn’t happen exactly like that. It wasn’t quite the ‘gotcha’ moment. But the interviewer did definitely have a “dude, why bother?” attitude. Rather than send you off to give Murdoch some money, I’ve uploaded the clip here:

So while it’s not exactly true, I think the meme does make a good point. As I’ve said before, space exploration and astronomy is far cheaper than people realise. Yes, Curiosity cost $2.5 billion, but that was spread over eight years. A few months before Curiosity landed, London hosted the Olympic games at a cost of US$14.46 billion. And as I’ve shown before, the US military is planning on spending $US1.1 trillion dollars over the next 5 years on 2,443 F-35 warplanes to finally defeat the Soviet threat. [Correction: As artio pointed out in the comments, that should read “US1.1 trillion over the next 50 years”. Woops.]

Don’t get me wrong – I think asking about the money involved in science is a valid question and one that definitely needs to be asked. But such funding needs to be held in context. Casey Dreier over at The Planetary Society spells it out far better than I could. Essentially, the question is not “why are we spending so much money on space exploration?” but instead “why are we spending so little?”

Meanwhile, In America

Safe to say that since the election, Australia’s going to poo. We no longer have a Science ministry but we have a Minister for Sport. The Communications Minister has sacked asked the Board of NBN Co to resign. The Climate Change Commission has been dismantled, a same-sex marriage law is being challenged, and perhaps most worrying of all a cloud of secrecy is descending on the Drown Them All In Indonesia Turn Back The Boats plan.

But in America, where things have been poo for some time, they may be getting… um… pooer.

You might have heard of Obamacare. It’s actually the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act but it’s Obama’s idea and Republicans hate that so they call it Obamacare. Anyway, it’s a federal law that represents a massive overhaul of America’s healthcare system.

Like most good things, the Republicans oppose it. They’ve tried 42 times to repeal it, and failed. It’s been passed into law (after Obama won re-election with it as his main platform) and comes into effect on 1 October 2013. Under the law, insurance companies will not be allowed to discriminate based on pre-existing conditions. Significantly more people will be insured, especially amongst the poor. And it’ll lower the government deficit and reduce government spending on Medicare. Good things, mostly.

Although it’s not perfect – Dan Savage described it as ‘the lesser of two evils’ on the Colbert Report. (If you clicked that link, stop looking at his amazing biceps and please ignore that I just linked to an arsehole’s blog. I didn’t want to but it had the relevant transcript.)

WARNING: The next paragraph contains the rudest of all rude words. I feel it is used entirely justifiably, but if it offends you please just replace it with “George Pell” in your head, because he is also one. 

The Koch brothers are evil cunts. Having inherited an oil fortune of an estimated $100 billion, they have ‘funded’ numerous climate change denying ‘scientists’, supported the Tea Party movement and fought Obamacare wherever possible. Their most recent effort – a scaremongering ad campaign – is, frankly, disgusting. It’s the most insane, duplicitous, vile thing I’ve seen in a long time. Watch:

Is that not awful?

And as for ‘don’t let the government play doctor’ – remember it’s always Republicans who want to introduce mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds. It’s always the Conservatives that want to control women’s uteri. It’s always the right-wing that wants the housewives doing the ironing.

Keep Real Journalism Alive

Jonothan HolmesAfter five years in the host’s chair, Jonathan Holmes is leaving Media Watch. It would be easy to assume that after documenting the scandals, the mistakes, the ineptitude and often the downright sleazy antics of media organisations he’d have nothing but contempt for the way ‘journalism’ is conducted in Australia. From the Sunday Telegraph’s fake Pauline Hanson nudes to The Australian’s continued War on Climate Change, to anything the Herald Sun has ever published, it’s hard to think that the nation’s premier media critic could have anything nice to say about the media. But Holmes finished his final program not with admonishment but with praise, and an appeal. “Media Watch regularly shows you the worst”, he notes, “but the best, I still believe, is worth paying for.”

So my parting plea is this: whatever your politics, or your preferences, and even if you’ve never bought a newspaper, start subscribing to at least one media website: whether it’s the Herald Sun or New Matilda, Crikey or the Sydney Morning Herald, old media or new, pay just a little to keep real journalism alive.

- Jonathan Holmes, Media Watch, 1 July 2013.

My first reaction was of surprise and vehement disagreement. I have always believed that pay-walls are a stupid idea – as long as someone is willing to report the news for free (be it an advertising-supported or government-funded institution, a blogger or even social-media) then only fools will pay for it. And these days there is always someone else who will report the news for free. News organisations have never had anything close to this kind of competition. Take any news story on any given day – as an example, I’ll use the racist abuse aimed at Australia’s first Muslim frontbencher Ed Husic – and have a look at how many sources Google News has. Currently there are 208 online news sites that are reporting the very same story. And they’re reporting the very same facts and the very same quotes.

So why pay when I can get it for free, right? But, if I’m honest, that’s a bit naive. Sure, it applies to basic reporting – the What, Where and When of journalism. And it even applies to analysis – the How, Why and ‘So What’. In short, the mostly-public goings on in the world are by definition widely available to anyone and everyone. But the point Holmes makes, and I agree with him, is that investigative journalism costs money and carries great risk. Investigative journalism is undercover work. It’s ‘Deep Throat’ style car-park meetings with whistle-blowers, it’s digging through trash-cans to find shredded documents, it’s doggedly pursuing leads that may take weeks, month or even years before the story breaks. Investigative journalism is expensive.

The work they do requires time, and money, and the willingness to risk huge costs incurred fighting battles in the courts.

- Jonathan Holmes, Media Watch, 1 July 2013.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the only way to fund investigative journalism is through pay-walls. Far from it – there are a range of funding-models available to all news organisations. The first that springs to mind is advertising. But unfortunately online advertising is weak tea – another victim of the range of online sources. The same amount of advertising money is now being spread not just on the few big Australian newspapers, TV networks and radio stations, but also the international news sites, the smaller independent news sites, and, well, all the other websites in general. The King’s Tribune highlights the difficulties facing smaller news organisations wanting a slice of the ad-revenue pie: “We’re too small to attract big advertisers and too big to get the small ones.”

Nor can we expect the government-funded organisations to be the sole bastions of investigative journalism. The ABC and SBS are terrific institutions and their fierce independence is to be lauded. But their belts are already tight, and ‘more money to the ABC’ is not a catch-cry we hear very often from policy makers. They do their part, and perhaps punch above their weight in many regards, but they simply don’t have the resources or funding to be the lone providers of investigative journalism. And nor should they. It’s not healthy for a democracy to have the only institutions that keep a check on government, funded by the government. Like them or loath them, independent news organisations are vital.

So I’ve decided to take Jonathan’s advice and “pay just a little to keep real journalism alive”. I’m looking into various outlets to see who’s worthy of my coin. Crikey came highly recommended when I asked on Twitter.

And of course The Conversation is an exemplary site which clearly puts accuracy and ethics ahead of speed and populism. And while it’s free (getting most of it’s funding from universities and some government programs) it does accept donations.

Walter Cronkite

The Moon. Let’s Go Back.

Image

Last night I snapped this photo of the moon. I’m delighted to say that I wasn’t the only one: Lots of people around the world were taking some great photos. And while the moon is absolutely gorgeous, part of me is sad, angry and frustrated that we haven’t been back since 1972.

Twelve human beings have set foot on that grey lump of rock. Twelve. There’s 7 billion of us alive, it’s only a three-day journey to another world – another frontier – and we’ve only sent twelve of us. And none of them since 1972.

Since 1972 we’ve sent people as far as the Hubble Space Telescope – 578 km above the Earth. At its closest point, the moon is about 362,570 km from Earth. We’ve gone nowhere near it for more than 40 years.

There’s no reason why we can’t go back, of course. We still have all the technology, the engineering knowledge, the expertise to do it. If anything, we have better technology now than we did 41 years ago. And there’s plenty we still have to learn about the moon! We don’t really have a good understanding of how it was formed, or why it seems to have two very different halves. The Apollo landings were all on the near side to us – for obvious logistical reasons. We have very sketchy information about the far side. And perhaps the best reason of all: water! At least three separate instruments on two different space probes have detected signs of sub-surface water. And where there’s water

But the science we can learn from manned lunar missions doesn’t just stop with understanding the moon. Like Mars, the moon is a hostile environment which makes it ideal for testing planetary exploration technologies. If we are ever to build a colony on Mars, it makes sense to start on the moon first: it’s a three day trip if anything goes wrong, and you don’t have to wait months for a launch window. And the moon would be a perfect stopover for further space exploration. Launch from Earth, refuel on the moon, then launch again to your next destination. And if there turns out to be a lot of sub-surface water there, that can be easily broken up with solar-cells into breathable oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel.

It’s not a question of money, it’s a question of will. Political and societal will. The US government is currently planning to buy 2,443 brand new Joint Strike Fighter F-35 warplanes at a cost of $1.1 trillion over the next five years. The United States spends six times more money on the military than China, the next biggest spender. Yet NASA’s budget is continually being slashed, especially in planetary sciences. NASA’s budget over the last five years came to around $85 billion. If you’re having a hard time picturing how much more important the US Congress thinks fighter planes are over space exploration, I made a little graph:

NASA vs F-35
Source: Reuters / Wikipedia

Our future is in space.

There can be no question about that – we are explorers. Our history as a species is one of exploration and development. To quote Sam Seaborn from The West Wing, “we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.” Of course, if our natural inclination to explore isn’t enough to get us off this planet there’s a good chance the ravages of over-population and climate change will.

We should be preparing for that. We should be back on the moon doing science, and building a Moon-base. But we’re not. We’re stagnating.

I’ll finish with one of my heroes, Neil deGrasse Tyson, explaining ‘the case for space’ much better than I ever could.