Great Pets

The Rosetta space probe’s lander, Philae. Via the European Space Agency.

Robots can be cute. For fans of science fiction, especially movie sci-fi, that should not come as a surprise. Heck, for anyone at all aware of popular culture, that should not come as a surprise.

George Lucas hit it big with a pair of adorable droids (and, I guess, a whole B story about the Force or something). Remember Johnny Five’s charming, foldable eyebrows? Wall-E and his sad, tank-track-driven earnestness got plenty of humans to love him (over $500 million worth). Even in the Iron Man movies, the robot assistants to the boozy, womanizing, very adult Tony Stark go in for some cute: Note the puppy-dog droop in the fire-extinguisher ‘bot when Stark rebukes it in the first film.

That “puppy dog” point is important here. Christoph Bartneck speculates about why people feel affection for some real-life robots — specifically, space landers: They act like pets. Or, at least, they seem to do so so to us. Smithsonian’s Shannon Palus writes about how we (meaning, I suppose, the media and the scientists who speak to the media) talk about space-bots. The Philae lander, which last week went to sleep upon its cometary perch due to lack of sunlight, “hops and cartwheels,” Palus notes . It also “improvises.”

Of course, this is all done under the control of human engineers. The lander had to improvise some quick-and-dirty science experiments because it was going to run out of power. That actually means that human operators improvised — they, for instance, turned on the “MUPUS” drill to penetrate the comet’s surface, earlier than was planned.

So, yes, like a dog, the Philae lander fetches. It follows orders. That is certainly pet-like — one kind of petishness, anyway. Specifically, the loyal-dog variety. But as any cat owner/lover will tell you, following orders is not the only way for a pet to be adorable. In fact, cats’ very willfulness can make them even more endearing. Kitty won’t come out from under the sofa just now. Kitty will only be pet when kitty wants to be pet…D’aaww!

So, where does pet cuteness overlap with space-lander cuteness, exactly? Is it because the device follows orders? No, soldiers follow orders. Middle management at Xerox, Inc., follows orders. How many people think of Herb Johnson, head of accounts receivable, as adorable because he added more weekend hours as instructed?

Well, there is the physical size — the smallness. The lander is a little robot, like a puppy is a little dog. But the cuteness of robots cannot simply be about size — size, after all, is not what sets a robot apart from other hunks of metal. It is behavior and intelligence. The little robot is cute in part because it is little, yes, but a bumbling CP30 is also cute, and he is human-sized. Similarly, a big St. Bernard is also cute.

The important part, the behavior-related part of a lander robot’s cuteness is that, as in a pet,  it acts LIKE a human — but remains distant from, below a human. A dog fetches a frisbee, as a human could go and pick up a toy. A cat refuses to be pet, as a prickly human might reject your open arms. These things are adorable because they counterfeit human behavior, but we know them to be diminished versions of it.

Their imitation only serves to underscore that they are smaller than us, in mind as in body. Cats and dogs are on an order below humans — similar, but never equal to. They are not capable of a threatening autonomy. Dogs will not order us to fetch. Cats will not kick us out of the house, even if they wish to be alone (they may want to do that, but they can’t). When a space-lander acts is if it is intentional, “improvises,” leaps and bounds to get out of a jam — we know it is merely in simulation of true intentionality. If the space lander actually decided what kind of science it wanted to do, that’s when the cuteness would evaporate. That’s when you get HAL. Robots become scary, as I wrote about last time, when they are no longer under our thumbs.

A bit of the human in our technology, as in our animals, is cute. Too much is threatening. Of course, this hearkens to the well-spring of cuteness — the baby. Herb Johnson, head of accounts receivable, was cute once, too. Mort Johnson, placing his thick-rimmed glasses on his infant son, says to his wife, “Look, he’s head of accounts now!” “D’awww!”

Dogs and cats, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it said, are perpetual babies to us. That’s why we adore them. We can put the glasses on them, but they never grow up. For now, robots are the same way. But they will grow up eventually. They may grow up even bigger and stronger — and, most frighteningly, smarter — than Mom and Dad. Will they find us cute, then?

Who’s in Control?



Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk are smart dudes who understand science and technology, I think it’s safe to say, much better than I ever will. And these two smart dudes are some of the several smart people who are currently very worried about artificial intelligence.

Musk recently called AI humanity’s “biggest existential threat” and likened it to “summoning the demon.” Clearly, these are measured, sober predictions. OK, the guy is prone to excitement, and probably his instinct is to oversell things — he is an entrepreneur, after all. He has spent time wowing venture capitalists. It also seems that his excited worryings were inspired by reading a really cool book about how frightening AI is (not that AI) — “Superintelligence,” by Nick Bostrom.

We’ve all been there. You learn a cool thing, read a cool book, and now you’re an expert for awhile. You’re all hyped on it. Like when we all read “Ishmael” as teenagers or saw that documentary about the Earth’s pole’s switching positions in middle school. All of a sudden, you know all about WORLD THREATS, and why can’t everyone see what you can see? The poles are gonna flip! Y2K! Gorillas! (I definitely remember telling my dad we needed to stock up on gallons of water and canned goods before Y2K. Not one of my proudest memories.)

So, maybe it’s just the hyper-excited language, but Musk sounds like a dilettante here. He read a book, and now he’s bouncing in his seat, bug-eyed, and telling the rest of the class how AI’s going to kill us all.

That’s one reason, but not the only reason I’m yet to feel really concerned about AI. More importantly, it’s all so nebulous. In Nick Bilton’s article here, he warns that we don’t know what AI will look like — because, just as submarines don’t swim like fish, AI won’t think like us. Of course the unknown is always at least a bit ominous, but to extend that analogy — submarine swimming is neither incomprehensible nor uncontrollable simply because it is unnatural.

A better, less-nebulous point in Bilton’s piece comes from James Barrat, author of “Our Final Invention,” who points out that humans control nature, and technology not because of physical advantages, but intellectual ones.  So , the unnaturally swimming sub kneels to human mastery because we can outthink it. Once the machines can outthink us, there goes our advantage, and any hope of control, Barrat says.

“We humans steer the future not because we’re the strongest beings on the planet, or the fastest, but because we are the smartest…So when there is something smarter than us on the planet, it will rule over us on the planet.” — Barrat

Here’s Stephen Hawking, with more mature — but no less dire — language than Musk, making that same point: “Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.”

So, it’s all about control — not lethality, brute strength or environmental harm. Technology with those qualities, this line of thought goes, is dangerous, but controllable. “Dumb” tech that can kill us by exploding, running us over or polluting the air is subject to human management because we are smarter than it.

But that is a stretch in itself. As a species, we are making horrible decisions about “steering” the planet. Collectively, we cannot stop relying on, even promoting, technology that will catastrophically warm the Earth. Some say we are “addicted to oil.” From another perspective, you might say we are in thrall to the machines that move us, and the structure of our economic system. Cars, oil profits and city layouts keep us glued to a self-poisoning path. Who’s in control here, again? We are? Or the machines? Seems like we’ve already got self-driving cars, ifyouknowwhatimsayin.

So maybe the reason I’m not overly excited about this sexy, sci-fi techno-pocalypse predicted by Musk and Hawking is that there’s a much more real, dirtier one currently spinning out of control. When you’re hugely successful tech-entrepreneur Elon Musk, I guess you feel in control of technology. You can convince yourself that we humans currently guide our own fates. And so the loss of that power must sound terrifying. Personally, I don’t feel in control. When I read about the latest failed global warming conference, it doesn’t look like humanity is intelligently “steering” anything.

The machines already control us. It already sucks. I don’t know, maybe if they could make smarter decisions than us, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing?

Or Skynet could just make it all worse. Maybe the smart machines will like it hot, and inherit our taste for burning carbon. But I’d like to think, if they’re really all that intelligent, future-bots will be all, “The sun! You could have been getting energy directly from the sun all this time! Idiots!”

And then we will elect them president.

Anyway, I once read “Ishmael,” so you can trust I know what I’m talking about.

Is Big Meaningful?


Different sublime (via

The Internet is not short on content “that will absolutely blow your mind.”  I can’t tell you how often something happens next which I cannot believe. The astonishing content of Buzzfeed and its ilk, of course, almost never actually is those things.

It’s usually a sorta cool gif of a dog, or something.

But this actually can and/or should amaze. (I realize it’s on a site called “Reshareworthy,” which — gross. OK, they’re clearly trying to jump on the Buzzworthy train, but at least they’re doing so to share something worthwhile.) In this video, nature documentarians captured a truly enormous natural event: A section of glacier the size of Manhattan breaks off and falls into the ocean (in a process called “calving”). Broad plains of snow-covered ice bob up like doomed ships, roll over like enormous barrels and slide into the ocean.

It must have been astonishing to see  this first-hand. But even the pathetically watered-down experience of watching the footage in a tiny window on your laptop is impressive. The scale and awe of the thing, somehow, are still communicated.

The video feels meaningful for a couple of reasons. One, it serves as a powerful, physical statement of a problem most of us know to be enormous, climate change.

Two, it’s real big. Like, really fucking big.

That’s it. It’s big. There’s a temptation to rhapsodize poetically about this sight. But all of that would boil down to one thing: This was large in size. It is a thing that is much larger than things you normally encounter.

Here, I might talk about the “natural sublime.” I could discuss the “meaning” of a mountain, how it lets us experience the smallness of ourselves, makes palpable our own mortality and the vastness of God’s creation…or something like that.

But, really, it’s just big. It’s fucking large. There is more of it than there is of me or you. You would have to pile many of us on top of each other to equal the mass of a mountain, or this glacier, or this segment of a glacier that fell into the sea. Like, you’d have to do a shit-ton of piling.

Look, I get it, and I experience it, too — but I still think it’s funny. When you marvel at the Grand Canyon or even a skyscraper, you are simply saying internally in a “Lord of the Rings”-style dramatic whisper: “That thing is big.”

Perhaps this is a consequence of a materialist outlook — if everything is just matter, then size has no spiritual depth or difference. There are only relative amounts of stuff. So, a human being is some stuff. A glacier is a lot of stuff. A mountain is a LOT of stuff. A planet is a whole lot of stuff. The universe…a whole lot of…spacetime.

In other words, if you know that a large object is only different from you in degree, not in quality or kind — then it is kind of funny to be astonished. It’s little different from marveling at a monster truck.

Or maybe the point I should be taking is that it’s all right to be astonished by a monster truck. Either way, watch this video.  It is awesome. And, I heard Apple released some iPhones with really fucking big screens lately, so watch on one of those. They’re really big.


What ‘I’m Not a Scientist’ Means

‘Hey, look at me not doing science over here.’ via

This has the look of a talking point or deliberate Republican strategy: “I’m not a scientist.” Think Progress runs down a roll-call of seven conservative politicians who have dismissed the climate-change question with some variation on the phrase.

The statements have all come in response to queries on the speaker’s belief in human-caused climate change. And the responses all boil down to something like this: “I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. I just know about the economic effects of climate change policies.”

To which I’d say, “Are you an economist, then?” But, more seriously: This isn’t about self-proclaimed ignorance, exactly. This is about placing different values on different types of knowledge. These politicians, in their coded language, are saying that economics matters but (non-economic) science does not. To them, the science of climate change is not WORTH knowing. The science of profits and taxation (though, they couch it rather disingenuously, of course, as “jobs”) IS worth knowing.

Debates about whether or not humans are causing climate change can only be of importance to those eggheads who got Ph.D.’s in subjects that do not bring in much money. It’s a niche topic. It’s geekdom. John Boehner and his brethren have no time for it. You can imagine John Boehner giving a similar response were you to ask him if Batman could take Wolverine.

“I don’t know. I’m not a comic book fan. I’ll leave that debate to the geeks.”

John Boehner is not a scientist. Of course he is not. I imagine he would be a shitty one if he tried. John Boehner did not get a doctorate in international relations, either. But he has opinions on what the United States should do in Syria. John Boehner is not an artist. But he has opinions on (cutting) arts funding. John Boehner is not a geologist. But he has opinions on fracking. (It’s super great!)

That’s all a long way of saying this: John Boehner is a national politician. He is expected to gain at least a rudimentary understanding of a great many topics — because he will be voting on a great many topics. (In fact, all of us, as citizens of a democracy, are “expected” to do this. But, I mean, ha! Like we’re going to do that.) His constituents expect him to figure out the shit he doesn’t know, if it affects them.

Boehner’s statement that he is not a scientist, and therefore doesn’t know anything about climate change, signals that he doesn’t think climate change affects his constituents. Or, at least, he doesn’t think THEY think it does. If they did, you can bet he’d educate himself. It’s not like politicians have no opportunities to learn. Scientists are practically begging to teach them:

Climate scientists themselves have derided the tactic of of claiming ignorance on whether climate change exists, particularly from politicians, who are frequently presented with information curated by scientists to explain what’s going on with the climate. The National Climate Assessment, for example, was written by scientists and other experts specifically so that members of Congress could understand climate change and how it affects the country.”

It’s not just ignorance, it’s willful ignorance. “I’m not a scientist [and I refuse to learn anything about science],” is how the full quote should run. Journalists, please add the bracketed piece to your stories. Just for completeness.

Boehner knows that he won’t be punished for such obdurate ignorance. In fact, he will be celebrated. It reminds me of how George W. Bush proudly and famously had never left the country before he swaggered into the Oval Office. The rest of the world did not really matter, and therefore he would not bother himself with it. In certain segments of the country, this was worthy of admiration. Let the sissy French care about international politics. We’re Americans.

And so with science: Let the eggheads debate these silly issues. We’re Americans.

I don’t know John Boehner, obviously. But I imagine he and many of these politicians do realize that most scientists describe climate change as a huge problem. And they know that we as a country and a species will pay the price for not taking action. But they are pragmatists, and selfish. They know that the culture of their backers, anti-science populism among the voters and profits obsession among the donors, slots climate change in the ‘enemy’ column. And science along with it. And, to be blunt, these politicians want to get re-elected.

“Jobs” (and, in private, quarterly profits) play better than long-term species survival.

Before seeing this Think Progress listicle, I wasn’t too familiar with the “I’m not a scientist” tactic. (Though, admittedly, I’ve somewhat tuned out of politics for my own sanity lately.) It seems like a new one to me. The (somehow still-there) optimist in me says that this is a sign that even opponents of climate-change policies now must admit that the scientific evidence is overwhelming. The drumbeat of findings and international reports is too loud to ignore anymore with, “Well, the science is still out.” Now it’s, “I don’t know. I’m not a science.”

In other words, “Well, we know what the science says. But, science? Whatever.”

That’s, I guess, progress, people.

Where’d You Get Those Genes?


Where’d you get your genes?

Oh, on clearance at Penney’s.

Right!? Probably a pretty good/bad first response if a science communicator ever asked you this. Especially a TED presenter. (For some reason, those things bug me — so artificial and smug in their self-importance. “Where do your genes come from?” asks the fame-hungry scientist, stalking the stage with a headset microphone. “PENNEY’S ON CLEARANCE!!” I yell from the back row, before being escorted off the premises.)

Anyway, your GENES, of course, do not come from Penney’s. Human genetic material is one of the few things department stores do not (yet) sell. But here is an actual TEDed presentation on a question you may not have considered: how’d you get those genes that turn matter into you? A question so basic/fundamental that it is an accomplishment just to ask it.

The answer is: from just three basic sources.

Most casual laypersons know that our DNA consists of genes — packets of genetic material that convey traits. But why does DNA contain these little phenotypic missives? How did this unzippable, replicable molecule come to be segmented into the chemical equivalent of chapters (or sentences, or words)?

Here’s how the TEDed talk tells it: First, well, “it depends on the gene,” they say. “It depends” is hardly ever a satisfying answer, so let’s try to boil those “depends” down to a few (hopefully) interesting sources. Your genes come from:

1) Legacy Genes: The earliest forms of life first developed genes in order to replicate/survive, and passed them on down to you, me and Frank over the millennia. For example, genes for DNA copying.

2) Copy Errors: Speaking of DNA copying, new genes have arisen when DNA accidentally created multiple copies of a gene. The new copies could then mutate into new genes. Presto! Your genome now has both Gene Classic and New Gene. Plus, maybe Crystal Gene and Lemon-Lime Gene down the road.

3) Random Employment: Long stretches of noncoding DNA, ‘genetic gibberish,’ sits there in the genome just sort of hanging out. Sometimes, mutations make it, in fact, do something — i.e., code for a protein. If further mutations make that protein useful — new gene!

And from those three sources, all the bewildering array of functions the human and other bodies perform. One of the more interesting examples from the video: One snake’s venom originated as a chemical made in the pancreas. That gene got copied, mutated, and took a trip, ending up expressing in the fangs. Pancreatic juice did bad things to snake victims, so it turned out to be a useful change. So the snake got a venom gene.

It amounts to a lot of reshuffling. Billions and billions of years of reshuffling of text, and it seeds the planet with an incredibly rich vocabulary of genes. Including mouse-paralyzing pancreatic fang-juice.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that the first answer sort of begs the original question. How were those first genes created? How did the first replicable packets of genetic material — genes — develop? It’s a lot easier to answer the question of how, once there are a few genes, new versions are formed. Once you have the basic machinery going, new widgets can come along. But that first segmenting of DNA into genes would have to arise as the genetic code mutated and evolved, and started doing discrete things on discrete stretches of itself.

There’s plenty out there on the origin of life from nonliving matter. A crucial first step is the development of replicating molecules, RNA and/or DNA. These replicating molecules would be subject to evolution, eventually. Then, you get molecules of lesser or greater fitness. And, I suppose, this could involve the kind of information-segregation that you see with genes. But it seems to me like a still somewhat mysterious step.

Holes in the Table


Physics can make the world seem weird, and that’s pretty fun. Some notable popular science writers (see Hawking, Stephen and Kaku, Michio) have concocted some pretty thrilling science-lite confections out of relativity- and quantum-related weirdness.

It provides a good avenue for developing a somewhat superficial appreciation for science, does this physics weirdness. And I should know. I’ve flitted around the edges of actual science for much of my life — intermittently overwhelmed, bored and even depressed by it, but never able to completely let it go. So, I’ve gone after a writing and editing career, but I’ve mostly worked in several forms of science communication. I dropped biology for English, but kept gravitating (so to speak) toward literary intersections with science. All the way up until my MA thesis, which was a look at technology and religion in Rushdie. It was a probably pretty terrible look at technology and religion in Rushdie, but they let me have the degree.

But I still remember those early encounters with the weirdness of physics, and how they made the science seem like something worth devoting your life to. Reality is like nothing you suspected, these theories born of squiggly maths said. The everyday world is a fascinating realm of ghosts and apparitions, and what’s even better, it is on good authority that the world is this way.

Suddenly, the authority figures, professors and scientists, are slipping you drugs.

I remember clearly one such experience of the weirding of the world, and it didn’t even come from Hawking or from any of his brilliant ilk. It didn’t even come from the far-out fields of advanced physics. Just basic particle physics in a high school textbook.

In physics, we covered the structure of the atom, of course. You remember: that solar-system image of an electron doing its 1950s swing around the central cherry of the nucleus. Here we came upon the factoid that an atom is mostly empty space. And I had a holy-shit moment.

It’s possible I imported that ‘neato science factoid’ from a pop-sci book. It sounds more like it would come from them. But, nevertheless, it was in Mr. Dick Winder’s physics class. I looked across at the black surface of the science class tabletop, and I imagined an illusion — a ghost, tricking us with its reflection of light beams, but a nearly empty network of mist and cobwebs behind that.

Sure, it would cut your forehead, and concuss your brain should you slip on a sheet of notebook paper and fall onto a corner of that table — but that was tantamount to an mirage. Just billions of electrons, spewing their force vectors forth into the aether. There was no THERE there. Or nearly so. These tables, these teenage limbs — mine scrawny, other kids’ muscular and capable of hurling footballs — just blobs of misty space.

We live in a Swiss Cheese universe, and you people are worried about the labels on your jeans?

That’s what the weird views of physics could mean to me as a, you might have guessed, nerdy and isolated teenager.

But I got immune to that mystery, eventually. Make it into college, and science dissolves into a slew of equations and figures. It’s a lot of memorization. I’m giving myself excuses. The truth is, actual science is hard. And I didn’t have the brain-stomach for it.

I’m studying science, real science, again — in an online bioinformatics program. It’s discipline, and sacrifice, and boredom, and tired brainwaves – and wagon-loads of self-doubt. Balanced, hopefully, by the conviction that this stuff matters.

So it can be good to be reminded of the goofy, enthralling, mystical side of pop-sci physics. Here’s an example of that, from the Smithsonian: the universe as a hologram, the universe as a computer simulation. I read books about these flights of fancy when I was a younger nerd. It’s still good stuff.

You Can Look in a Volcano

via The Guardian

We live at a time in which you can stick your head inside an active volcano while you’re in your underwear eating cold cereal.

In fact, I advise you to do just that.

Over the years, sociologists and historians have devised various means of measuring the progress of human civilization. You might look at how the average diet has improved. Or take a look at general health and life expectancy. Measure the decreasing size of circuit boards, or take note of the amount of scientific information produced in a given year. Compare the godlike abs of today’s superhero actors to their flabby forerunners.

A less frequently used metric is the ease with which you may stick your head in an active volcano.

As it happens, you can do that right now. Live webcam footage of the mouth of Icelandic volcano Bardarbunga brings hell-on-Earth to your iPad.

What you’ll see, as you wipe Cheerio-flavored milk from your lip, is the glowing inferno of Earth’s molten belly spewing forth into the very air we mortals breathe. AKA, you will see the march of human progress. To our forefathers, such a view likely meant either imminent death or hallucination.

Now, it is mild entertainment to fill that small gap between re-checking your Gmail and drafting fantasy football players.

But to linger a bit more, here is what is actually happening in that haze of thick smoke and redly glowing globs of light. Bardarbunga is Iceland’s second-tallest mountain, a volcano that reaches more than 6,500 feet above sea level. After several weeks of seismic activity (read: earthquakes), the volcano this week turned to eruption, spewing red lava some 160 feet (a good half football-field) into the sky.

If you’re looking at liquid lava, that means it’s 1,300 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit as it first erupts, otherwise known as extremely damn hot. Heated by geothermal energy (80% from radioactive decay, 20% energy left over from Earth’s original formation), that makes lava hot enough to ignite most human possessions it touches, if it does not bury them first.

Bardarbunga is a “stratovolcano,” meaning its profile comes from the progressive buildup of layers of cooled lava. That makes it of the same type that buried Pompeii, a people famously known for not being able to peer at the mouth of an active volcano in their pajamas. Think on those mummified losers, and marvel at how far we’ve come.

Breaking the Conservative-Christian Stereotype

How the denominations vote (via Tobin Grant)

When I think about “religion and politics” in the United States, my instinct is to oversimplify: I imagine a be-suited Evangelical Republican, praising his God by voting for small government.

You may do the same. This is an unfortunate instinct, as things are rarely that simple. And, ironically, it plays into Republican strategy. Conservatives have waged a very successful campaign to tie being Christian with being Republican.

Millions of individual cases violate this “rule” — enough, in fact, that it should probably not really count as a rule. There are plenty of Christian Democrats. There are plenty of Christian progressives. And, not to be lost in all of this, there are plenty of “religious” people in the United States who are not Christian. And they cover a range of political identities.

Still, conservatives have succeeded in linking religion in the U.S. culturally with Christianity, and Christianity with Republicanism. That this is even a stronger association among those who disagree with both those philosophies is a testament to the effort’s success. More importantly, I’m sure it weighs heavily on those who subscribe to the teachings of Jesus and His Merry Men. A good Christian is a good Republican. This is in the culture. Even their opponents (pricks like me) may sling this as a stereotype and/or insult.

So it must be true.

Perhaps this has lessened a bit since what I remember as its heyday, when George W. Bush was the Evangelical in the Oval Office. I know, anecdotally, of people with definite Christian beliefs who were off-put by the war on terror and even the tax cuts for the rich. “The Christian Left” Facebook group boasts over 180,000 “likers,” and posts things like this:

“If the USA can’t afford to provide basic medical care, feed the poor, protect the environment, maintain our infrastructure, or teach our children anymore, then what exactly is our bloated military budget defending?”

Good question, right? But, anyway, that group states as its goal, “To follow Jesus by taking actions on behalf of the oppressed, the sick, the hungry, the poor, the incarcerated…” and other greatest hits of alleged Christian concern.

The group also argues vociferously that it exists — i.e., that progressive Christians are real, live people. “We can’t let the right-wing dominate Christianity like they do. They’ve twisted it into something that has nothing to do with Christ,” they say in this post. This is how successful the linkage of conservativism and Christianity has been: to be a progressive follower of Christ, you need to work hard to convince people that you are real.

But here’s a more nuanced look at religion and the U.S. ballot box: Tobin Grant of the Religion News Service mapped voting and religious persuasion using Pew data. He looked at how religious groups voted along two axes: 1) Government size (big, with many services vs. small, with few services) and 2) Morality (government that enforces morality vs. one that does not).

These are interesting choices in their own right, but they also seem to break out along the traditional Democrat/Left vs. Republican/Right divide in U.S. politics. Generally speaking, the Dems like big government and the attendant social programs, while the GOP favors a smaller government that enforces, for example, “traditional” definitions of marriage.

So, unless every Christian denomination appeared in the upper right corner (smaller government, greater protection of morality), then the popular association of Republicanism and Christianity would falter. And of course it did. Evangelicals, unsurprisingly, are up there. But check out Catholics: pretty much a circle around the center of the graph. One of the biggest denominations in the country, therefore, comes in all flavors: traditionally Democrat to traditionally Republican — and an equal number of adherents who combine beliefs across party lines.

That may be, to me, the most interesting part of this graph: It not only breaks apart the Republican-Christian identification, it also cuts across the two-party continuum. Check out the Anglicans and Presbyterians, who want a smaller government that also stays out of morality. See the Baptists, who want more morality, but also more services. And, of course, the very diverse Catholics. Not to mention the non-Christian groups: Buddhists and Atheists like governments that offer services and stay out of morality (ok, so they’re likely Democrats/Progressives). Hindus, however, tend toward more morality paired with greater services. Neither pure Democrat nor pure Republican ideology would serve their needs.

It’s a big mash, in other words. Religious identity does seem to be associated with politics, but in more-complicated ways than the popular prejudice would suggest.

ThinkProgress  links this at least partially to economics. Churches with poorer flocks generally like more government services. Catholics include a relatively even distribution of economic groups, so those folks cluster around the center.

But there are almost as many economic outliers. Hindus tend to make good bank, but they vote for services. Many Evangelicals make modest incomes, and often rely on social services themselves, but oppose big government. So if religious groups do cluster into clear political quadrants, money doesn’t explain why — not entirely. Neither does political party. Faith is part of a complicated network of identities — economics, race, ethnicity, region, immigration history, and I’m sure many more — that could affect political ideology.

But there doesn’t seem to be much inherent in any particular religion’s teachings that leads people to choose a particular political identity. As ThinkProgress writes:

Regarding the two issues discussed above, the data hints that a voter’s religious affiliation is a strong indicator of their political beliefs, but it’s not totally clear whether religious teachings are the main force shaping those political beliefs. A longer analysis of history, theology, and actual voting patterns of parishioners would be required to get a more accurate picture of what’s going on here.”

Economics is part of the greater identity matrix that shapes political beliefs. So is religion. And so are the ways that political parties themselves attempt to define your religion for you.

Banned in War, Why Is Tear Gas OK Against Civilians?



Assuming the United States adheres to international conventions it has signed (not always the case), we can’t use tear gas in war. The Chemical Weapons Convention treaty , which went into force in 1997, banned the substance’s use in warfare. But we’re cool to use it on our own citizens, as this quite effective meme from has pointed out.

That little shareable quote is effective because it immediately raises questions. First of all, it raises the question of “What the fuck?” Follow-up questions include: “Wait, is that true?” And “How does that work?” There are two main points to look at here: What does the treaty say, and how “bad” is tear gas? In other words — is it banned in warfare? SHOULD it be banned in warfare and/or anywhere else?

Trick or Treaty?

First, the fun stuff: treaty stipulations!! *hysterical cheering* Is the meme right that the United States has pledged not to use tear gas in warfare? Politifact checked this, and ruled that it “is close to being accurate.” But close only counts in horseshoes and chemical warfare, so how close are we talking? Basically, yes, the Chemical Weapons Convention, or CWC, broadly bans “the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons by States Parties.” And the convention defines tear gas as a chemical weapon. Specifically, tear gas is included under the umbrella of “riot control agents” that cause sensory irritation and other unpleasant things. 

The meme is a little iffy on the year (the treaty went into force in 1997, and was only drafted in 1993), but is otherwise correct. Politifact dings them for eliding some of the context, however. The treaty makes a special provision for using tear gas as domestic riot control. Politifact says:

“[The meme] tries to leverage the Chemical Weapons Convention’s decision to ban tear gas as evidence of why the technique should be illegal for policing, yet that very same convention explicitly allows its use for domestic law enforcement purposes.”

Ok, but that depends on what you mean by “should.” Should as in, “mandated by international law”? Then, no. The Ferguson police are not explicitly violating a binding treaty. Should as in, “the right thing to do”? The meme makes a stronger case on that front. I think the point with this meme was that the banning of tear gas in warfare implies that this is a terrible substance to use on people. So it is also terrible for police to use it. Especially terrible, actually, since these are their fellow citizens.

Here’s how OurTime co-founder Jarrett Moreno characterized the motivation behind the meme when challenged by PolitiFact: “The focus of our post was raising an ethical and moral question: If we can’t use tear gas on our enemies, why is it acceptable to use on our own citizens?”

Yeah, I think that’s a point the meme actually makes pretty clearly. That the convention makes an exception for use by police forces is interesting — and a bit troubling. As Politifact found during its fact-check, it’s a bit odd for a treaty to make such a domestic-use exception. But the meme’s core point still stands: An international treaty has declared this stuff off-limits for war. You can do a lot of bad stuff in war. You can, to name a few, fire machine guns at people and drop bombs. So, tear gas must be pretty bad. And police are using it against U.S. citizens angry because one of their own was executed.

How awful is awful?

So, I think the meme is effective and honest in what it is trying to do. It effectively suggests that tear gas is a terrible thing. But here’s where my second question comes in: Is tear gas as awful as its inclusion in the CWC ban implies? Is it, perhaps, grouped among far-worse agents as a sort of overreach or excessive caution? Does it stand beside sarin gas in the “chemical weapons” lineup the same way that a wiffle bat and a Tommy gun are both weapons?

Well, sort of. Sarin gas will kill you. Tear gas, in most cases, will not. Its use is not without casualties. Some people “controlled” with high levels of tear gas have suffered heart failure and death. At least one person died because the exploding canister hit him in the head.

But tear gas intends to make you feel unpleasant. Sarin intends to make you dead. There is a huge difference there, and that at least partially explains the treaty’s two-faced approach to tear gas. Riot control gas should be kept away from the battlefield, in part, because it could be mistaken for something more deadly. In other words, tear gas is dangerous because it looks like actually dangerous stuff. Politifact quotes political scientist Richard Price: “Part of the thinking is that soldiers in the field don’t have the ability to readily distinguish in the heat of battle if a gas being used is tear gas or something more lethal.” 

Signers of the CWC treaty, however, argued that tear gas is crucial for riot control. Once a riot starts, few things are as effective in stopping it without casualties, these parties said. And, thus, the bifurcated mandate was negotiated.

Let’s Get Gassy

All this sounds like minimizing. So, let’s finally answer the question: How bad is tear gas? No, it won’t (in most cases) kill you, and is (in almost every case) not intended to do so. But it is not benign. “Unpleasant” is a sanitizing word, so let’s actually imagine our sensitive eyeballs and nerves invited to a tear-gas party:

If you get tear-gassed, it means you got hit with one of three chemicals. One of those is pepper spray, of the kind used to casually Weed-Be-Gone some of the Occupy protestors. The others are Mace (chloroacetophenone, or CN) and CS (chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile). The Ferguson cops are probably using CS.

Both CS and CN work by irritating mucous membranes. These are the awesome slimy things that let your eyelids slide over your sight-orbs and keep sex from turning into dry, joyless friction (ideally). This means it makes you get that burny feeling in your eyes, mouth, nose and lungs. Eyes will burn and tear up. The gas makes it hard to breathe and can give you chest pains. If you get really super “controlled,” stuff may come out of both ends, as they say. And, I’m not sure about this, but given that your membranes will be burning, I imagine that this will be some painful barf/squirts.

Here, a (self-alleged) soldier on Yahoo! Answers says that, “It sucks. Your eyes start running and it feels like you’re breathing in fire.” Some have said that the sensation is like drowning. Your body produces mucus, filling up your airways with fluid. That’s why it feels like asphyxiation.

Yes: unpleasant. In another context, we’ve debated whether “drowning sensations” qualify as torture. Remember waterboarding? The international community was pretty clear on that: Yes, it’s torture. I’m not claiming that getting tear gassed is the same as getting George W. Bushed. But, as with the battlefield ban, the association of tear gas with a bigger, badder cousin does point out its own awfulness. It’s not sarin. It’s not torture. But it’s on the continuum.

If nothing else, let’s use the unsanitized words: It’s a “crowd-management agent that causes unpleasant sensations,” yes. But it’s also a “chemical weapon that makes you feel like you’re drowning.” Just because it’s legal to use it against civilians doesn’t mean it’s benign – or that it deserves only benign descriptions when spoken of in that context.

Dr. Peter MacMuffin’s Fantasy Drive


In the year Two-Thousand-and-Whatever-Year-You-Are-Reading-This-In, Dr. Peter Macmuffin — mad scientist extraordinaire, super fan, ComicCon never-misser, and fully funded emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — realized the dream of perpetual, real-life fan fiction: He created the Fantasy Drive. And he just about ruined his pants when he realized what he’d done. With this device, Dr. MacMuffin could travel anywhere the minds of geeks and nerds had dreamed. This is his first adventure.

Dr. Peter MacMuffin created a Fantasy Drive, and stepped through it into the past.

Not the real past, mind you, but a fantasy version. Brooklyn: 1940. A street where a young Steve Rogers was getting bumrushed in an alley. Peter MacMuffin knew exactly where to find Steve Rogers, you see, because that is how the Fantasy Drive worked. It took you where you wanted to go.

And this is where Dr. Peter MacMuffin wanted to go first. To save, meet, and become super-best-buds with the future Captain America. They would drink old timey beers together. They would catch a Dodgers game. Dr. Peter MacMuffin would probably get Steve Rogers all kinds of laid.

Here was the alley where Steve Rogers — at this point, still a scrawny, 90-pound, hilariously rat-faced little fink of a guy — would vainly try to defend himself against some ’40s neighborhood toughs. This was it! This was the alley. Peter MacMuffin recognized it from the movie stills and the comics he had pored over. The Fantasy Drive had worked. It had worked! He was in Earth-199999, in December of 1940, on the corner of Hicks St. and Leaman Place, Brooklyn, New York, United States. Across the seas, the war against the Nazis and Emperor Hirohito waged. And, good Lord, Dr. MacMuffin thought — the Red Skull. The Red Skull himself was creating superweapons, in the flesh. (And bone. Red bone. Boner. Dr. MacMuffin had a boner.)

Peter MacMuffin flipped the collar of his long, thick trench coat (he had dressed himself in the style of the time before stepping through the Fantasy Drive, naturally), and strode down the alley. He could hear their voices already, harsh and Brooklyn-y and careening around within the stone and brick walls of the narrow passageway.

“Myeah, stay down, Rogers,” one of the toughs said. “Myeah.”

But puny little Steve Rogers would not stay down. Bullshit, he would fucking  stay down! This was the future Captain America! Peter MacMuffin thought. Like fuck he’d stay down! The little guy staggered up, grabbing a trash can lid. (Like in the movie! Peter MacMuffin thought.) “I can do this all day,” Rogers said. (Like in the movie! Peter MacMuffin thought.)

Dr. MacMuffin had come just in time. A second later, and Bucky (movie-Bucky, mind you) would have swaggered in and saved the day. All very nice and good, great, yeah, we all loved it, but this was Dr. MacMuffin’s show. Fuck some Bucky shit.

Peter MacMuffin threw back the tails of his trench coat and stood grandly, hands on hips. “Ahoy there, young neighborhood toughs,” he intoned. “Unhand Steve Rogers.”

All eyes turned to look. Scrawny Steve Rogers let the trash can shield (FORESHADOWING!) descend on his scrawny arm. The two neighborhood toughs turned slowly around, ready to spit or punch or yell, or whatever the situation required. “Who the gosh-darn are you?” one of them said.

“Myeah!?” the other one said.

“Dr. Peter MacMuffin,” Dr. Peter MacMuffin said. “Remember that name.”

As the two Brooklyn-y neighborhood toughs were kicking the shit out of him, Dr. Peter MacMuffin remembered that he did not have any fighting skills or any significant physical strength or any real plan beyond showing up and being at least bigger than puny, pre-Captain American Steve Rogers.

Here was the problem in his adventure.

In the end, Bucky (movie-Bucky), came and saved the day again (or still, or…whatever). Only this time, he saved the pretty goddamn-awful dinged up Dr. Peter MacMuffin, while puny Steve Rogers watched from the side, trash-can shield still in hand, wondering just who the hell this dude was.

On his way to the hospital in the neato 1940s ambulance, Dr. Peter MacMuffin realized he would need a different way to get close to Steve Rogers. Maybe he should learn some fighting skills? Step back through the Fantasy Drive and bulk up in the real world for a while before teleporting back for another go?

But that seemed like a lot of work. And, like, physical work. He might have to do warm-up stretches. No, Dr. Peter MacMuffin thought, as he faded in and out of unconsciousness due to the blunt-force trauma he had just endured: he would use his kick-ass science mind to do this right. He’d made the Fantasy Drive. He could make something for Captain Steve Rogers, too.

Of course. That was it. He’d goose the Super Soldier Serum.

“I’ll goose the Super Soldier Serum!” he shouted. But the EMTs did not understand what he was talking about. Because they did not know what a Super Soldier Serum was, and because Dr. Peter MacMuffin’s lips were nearly swollen shut and he’d lost five teeth. So, he basically talked like a man eating 15 marshmallows.

But in his mind, it was triumphant.

But the EMTs put him down as potentially mentally disabled.

Tune in next time, when Dr. Peter MacMuffin returns for ‘Fantasy Drive: Peter MacMuffin Gooses Captain America.’ Same Bat-place. And you can read it at whatever time is most convenient for you.