Posts

Showing posts from 2016

Bah Humbug!

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It's two weeks until Christmas, give or take. I could only tell this from a calendar; from my perspective, it's been Christmas since about November. There are things I enjoy about this. I enjoy ambling through the city centre and smiling up at the decorations. I enjoy making fun of the huge, rather unsettling Santa who watches over Albert Square. I enjoy carolling in the freezing cold, strangely enough. I enjoy going round the markets with friends or my partner and picking out nice gifts.


What I really don't enjoy is the pressure surrounding Christmas. There's so much pressure to make Christmas magical; to get everyone the perfect gifts, to cook the perfect traditional meal, to be a perfect happy family, and what usually ends up happening is not knowing what gifts to get, being thoroughly sick of turkey by the end of the month and sniping at each other. And alcohol. So much alcohol.

In my family, Christmas was like any other day and I chilled out on celebrating Hanukka…

"native Britons are bloody stupid" and other shenanigans

Hey! Don't shoot the messenger. Don't shoot Lord Kerr either, since he's the one who said it.

The media is in a tizzy because Lord Kerr called native Britons stupid when defending immigration. I have some poorly organised thoughts about this.

Firstly, Lord Kerr was a diplomat before becoming a life peer. He knows exactly how much shit he's stirring up. Why he's doing this I don't know, but his comments are apparently so inflammatory to the right that Stormfront's cryfest (no links, fascists deserve to be deprived of oxygen) was one of the top results when I googled this. Maybe he's hoping that they get too distracted circlejerking over how racist he is to white people. That's the best-case scenario.

Secondly, I'm actually pretty upset about his comments. Of course I'm angry at xenophobic Brits. Of course I'm even more irritated when they're stupid into the bargain. But he punched down at a lot of the more marginalised people in Briti…

Redemption

I think redemption as a concept is underrated.

I mean, sure, there are these people who will try and sell you redemption if you follow their book, or pay them enough money, or have someone else treat you as their pity porn. Perhaps that's why redemption is overlooked. Perhaps it's just that we live in a society which exalts violence and vengeance. (Seriously - our justice system is based on retribution, most narratives in fiction involve overcoming an obstacle with murder, and we are encouraged to support armies.)

The main argument against redemption seems to be "but this person had other chances" or "but this means that this person gets off scot free".

I'll admit that I don't have good counterarguments. I have blunt statements and a belief system.

Many people have many, many opportunities through life. Some are easier to achieve than others; some are almost impossible. People will make mistakes. People will actively do malicious things. You are one…

Some thoughts about antisemitism and narratives

Now that America is divided over whether to elect a reasonably competent establishment candidate or a creepy orange fascist, the media have stopped pretending they ever gave a shit about antisemitism; instead, they're pretending they give a shit about the US.

I didn't get to do this before on account of having a massive workload, but a lot of the reactions to the antisemitism shitstorm upset me massively. Many of them were pure denial: "I've never seen antisemitism in my community, so it must not exist." Many of them were denial mixed with tokenism: "I'm going to weaponise Jews who don't see antisemitism and use them as a tool to conveniently ignore people who disagree with me." Many fell back on the old chestnut that "anti-Zionism isn't antisemitism." (It isn't, but blathering about "Zionist control of the media" or "Zionists did 9/11" is very clearly an antisemitic dogwhistle. Regurgitating antisemitic rhe…

Data is Wondrous

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I don't know where to begin with this, but I'll try: I am weirdly passionate about graphs. The idea that you can order numbers in space and time, and make them make lines and curves that tell you things, is simple - you're probably used to making graphs (and possibly heartily sick of them). It's so simple that I think we forget how powerful graphs are, that they take millions of experiences and put them in a form we can understand more intuitively.

I'm going to put forward a proposal that will probably make most of you groan in frustration: graphs should inspire people.

Okay, when I write it that way, that just sounds confusing. Inspirational quotes are one thing, but what the hell is an inspirational graph?!

I can't really answer my own question, unfortunately, except to say that an inspirational graph moves you on an emotional level. It reminds you of something beyond the graph, or makes you feel like you had an epiphany, or gives you some quiet satisfaction.

Some reflections on econophysics and the way it's perceived

Neoclassical economics is failing. I would go so far as to say that this is no longer controversial; its flaws have been known about for many decades now. Many, many fields have sprung from this failure - I would say that this is an extremely good thing.

Some readers might wonder why I'm writing about economics at all. Importantly, I'm not an economist and have no formal training in the subject - I'm a vaguely interested party. I'm about as qualified as the pub bore (or most politicians) to tell you about the efficacy of various models; the difference is that I know I'm out of my depth. I am going to be discussing the perception of one particular field within economics, based on my experience with related fields.

A more general concern is: why talk about the economy at all? Everyone talks about the economy. Everyone else is fed up of hearing about the economy, fed up of hearing about why the economy means that the rich have to get richer and the poor have to get po…

Twitter polls annoy me

Obligatory disclaimer: I'm not a statistician or a sociologist. My qualifications come from being a physics undergraduate, where I live and breathe error analysis in the lab, and also from reading around the subject. Finally, I use Twitter far too much; it's really just morbid fascination at this point. Oh well.

Last year, Twitter introduced polls as a thing you can add to your tweets. This was more likely than not done to poke Twitter into being vaguely profitable, since it's stagnant as hell.

Unfortunately, polls are only as good as the people making them and Twitter is a wretched hive. There have been some really good polls not used as polls - for example, a wacky choose-your-own-adventure romp which started with swiping left or right on a famous politician's Tinder profile - but Sturgeon's Law applies and most polls are...well...crappy.

"Why are Twitter polls so bad?" you might ask. Turns out that addressing the how instead of the why is far more usef…

An actual fucking X

Overall, I like situated criticism - the idea that being a part of X group gives you a lived experience inaccessible to those outside X, and makes you more qualified to speak on X than someone who doesn't know anything about it. I think it's a good thing. I think historically lived experience has been discredited as subjective and thus not worthy of attention.

However, I don't like certain ways it's used. Namely, I really, really do not like the fact that it can make someone into a token.

For example, let's say that I'm the only woman in a room full of men (a really common situation for me, because of my area of study). Let's also say that I'm the only woman in a room full of men talking about feminism (this has happened). At some point, one of them will get nervous and ask "as a woman, what do you think?".

As a woman, here's what I think: Think for yourselves. You're grown adults. You can deal with criticism from another grown adult. …

Happy Bi Visibility Day!

Happy Bi Visibility Day, everyone! It's the one day in the year when us bisexuals can finally be seen with the naked eye!

Okay, I'm done being corny - but I'm really glad we have a day to be visible, since we're often ignored or told we're somehow "wrong" by more people than I care to list. (I am angry that basically anyone under the LGBTQIAP+ umbrella who isn't cis L or G is ignored or marginalised.)

(I will be using LGBTQIAP+, even though it's not exhaustive, because other acronyms such as MOGAI [Marginalised Orientations, Genders and Intersex] and GSRM [Gender, Sexual and Romantic Minorities] are less well-known, and LGBTQQIP2SA is long. I personally do not have extremely strong feelings about any of the acronyms, as they're all a bit "eh". I feel like I have now covered most or all of the bases. Sorry if you are now knee-deep in discourse, but I feel like to a certain extent this is required or at the very least extremely common …

On solving problems from the inside

When I was a little girl, one of my favourite novels was a slim volume called The Great Good Thing. It tells the story of a spirited princess, Sylvie, who lives in a storybook kingdom - a literal storybook kingdom, since she's a fairytale character. Not content with living inside the book's margins, her courage and resourcefulness allow her to save her story.

One section always stuck in my mind. Towards the end of the book, Sylvie is facing something she really, really doesn't want to do. She has no idea if her plan will work, and if it fails, everyone dies. A kindly maths teacher, who has advised her through most of the second half of the novel, tells her that "you can't solve a problem from the inside" - that is, you have to look outwards, even if it's uncomfortable.

Although I haven't touched the book since I was in single digits, and I find it really corny now, that line always stuck with me - and probably even influenced my attitude to problem-so…

Why everyone should listen to a cappella music at least once

I have a problem with musical imagery. Music is always playing in my head - so I put on more music to drown it out. I also get bored reasonably easily and keep looking for new music to listen to.

I whacked on some early music - Renaissance and Baroque stuff - because I hadn't listened to it in a while and I genuinely like it. (Yes, I'm pretentious. Complexity is my thing and early music offers plenty of it.)

I haven't done any choral singing since July, so hearing a cappella music was something of a shock - like being slapped in the face with colour. I forgot how much I missed it.

Unless you're into certain types of music, you're unlikely to come across much a cappella music, or even care that much. I think people should care more.

Firstly, a cappella music emphasises the voice far more than usual. When you sing a cappella, you have no instruments to help keep you in time or on pitch, or to "mask" your voice. You just haveyou, and maybe an audible echo. T…

I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that

Recently I went on a rant about how slating the eeeeevil Big Pharma without acknowledging that some people need medication to function fucks over disabled people.

(For the people in the back, if the evil drugs from evil Big Pharma didn't exist, a hell of a lot more people would be dead. I hate a lot of drug companies' practices. I also acknowledge that illness is a real thing, and that medication can work even if development and marketing of drugs is done in a hugely troubling way, because I am not comfortable writing off millions of people's lives.)

What I find grating is that several of the people who complain about how mental illness isn't real have...absolutely zero experience with mental illness, either as living with one or as having any kind of medical training. This is unsurprising; the less experience people have with a subject, the worse they are at appraising their own competence.

They tend to assume that treatment for a mental illness is always medication o…

How to complain (and be happy)

The US and the UK share a lot of things - language, food and so on. One thing we don't seem to share is culture - or rather, a certain aspect of culture.

I have never spent significant periods of time in the US, so my only exposure to American culture is through their media: publications, TV, movies and American people posting on social media. As such I acknowledge that I have a very limited and fragmented view of US culture.

One thing does strike me: American people are much more focused on positivity in the sense of being generally upbeat and smiley. In fact, Americans pioneered the new thought movement (a precursor to the belief that you can influence the world with your thoughts) and a lot of the self-help genre as we know it today.

In particular, the US is focused on being positive by avoiding anything or anyone deemed "negative". As in "no negative thoughts allowed", "complaining is bad for you", and so on. Thankfully, it seems to be getting bet…

What would you tell yourself going into first year?

Well.

It's the day before freshers' week starts, which means that uni marketing has gotten slightly ridiculous (not sure why...we're all already signed up to be screwed out of money...maybe this is to make us feel better...). One question popping up over shiny social media is "what advice would you give to your first-year self?".

I screwed up a lot in first year. Hey, at least I've not screwed up too badly this year; true, that's mostly because I haven't actually started it yet, but I'm trying to feel more positive about myself. As such, I feel qualified to give first-year me a lot of (hopefully useful) advice. And if any first years come across this, I really hope this helps!

0: Keep an eye on your physical and mental health and seek help immediately if you feel unwell.
This is 0th on the list because it's the most important. You will have many, many chances to do well at basically everything. The thing with a body or a psyche is that you only…

This is why we can't have nice things

I'd like to think that I have principles: a desire to seek out truth; a desire to help others; focus on freedom of thought and expression; and questioning of authority. While they've attracted me to broadly being left of our predominantly conservative societies, they've also landed me in trouble.

I'm attracted to science because it's possibly the most effective way of knowing that we have. Unlike any other way of knowing, it is self-correcting over time - not always easily or well, but it gets there. And it shows us wonders.

For me, one of those wonders is a vast improvement in comfort and quality of life. People regularly live to seventy or eighty nowadays. Many more diseases are now survivable; vaccination has restricted many diseases around the world. We even managed to eradicate smallpox.

Learning about science and keeping up with the news has also made me painfully aware that none of this is guaranteed. Antibiotic resistance is on the rise; antivaxx rhetoric h…

Not a Token

Content note: talking about depression, suicide and other such fun things - no gruesome details but if it upsets you then don't read this

I don't know how to talk about this, but I feel like I have to talk about it: mentally ill people are caught in a shitty situation.

The most immediately identifiable problem is the environment. Despite many, many shiny campaigns over the years, mental illness is still stigmatised; the people actually reached by the campaigns aren't necessarily the people who enforce that stigma. Families, who should be supportive, often...well, aren't.

This is compounded by lack of access to information. I'm not sure what it's like in other countries, but when I was growing up in the UK very little information about mental illness was provided to young people. It took me three years and two suicide attempts to realise that I might have to go to a doctor about this. (Yes. Really.)

The combination of stigma and not being provided with informat…

Physics and Physicists: The Difference Between Ghosts And Dark Matter

Physics and Physicists: The Difference Between Ghosts And Dark Matter



Excellent little post on not making stupid comparisons.

Star arrangement that hid for a decade spotted at galaxy’s heart

Star arrangement that hid for a decade spotted at galaxy’s heart: A dense cluster of stars orbiting the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way has played hide-and-seek with astronomers for years – now we've finally seen it

September

It's halfway through September and I'm currently sitting through a thunderstorm.

Life kind of didn't like me this summer, between not studying abroad, having to scramble to find a place to live, having a mini-breakdown and damaging friendships.

And no holiday. Because I was too overworked. Yay.

But it's September! And I've got a new flat all to myself! And I've prepped for the new academic year! (Just. I have a lot of work and I'm pretty scared.)

I saw a friend from uni today, since we hadn't met up all summer. We caught up on old times, videogames and such lofty academic questions (!) as what happens if a black hole and a white hole merge. He reminded me of how much I would have missed everyone if I had gone abroad. How much I've missed Manchester and university life.

Now I'm drinking tea, listening to Beck, and supposed to be preparing for a phone interview tomorrow...but I keep getting distracted because I'm so damn happy. Because things …

Stoic Hat

Stoicism is the new black. Or maybe only in the circles I frequent.

I have a friend, who I have known for years now, who extols the virtues of Stoicism to me. My partner, who has been with me for four years now, enjoins me to stoically endure whenever we're out for a long walk and my feet start to tire (personally, I'm a fan of finding the easiest solution). And of course, I used to study Latin. It's pretty much impossible to study Golden and Silver Age texts without coming across Stoicism.

Despite all this, I'm still not completely sold on it. Partly it's because I've got a physicist's brain; I'm just too lazy to endure hardships. I will if I have to, but my mind's set on finding ways around them. This is basically the entire reason I enjoy coding - I'm not enough of a Stoic to do something by hand when I could automate it in the most elegant way possible. (And coding and Stoicism don't mix, I find - at least, not without plenty of cursing.…

3 Questions: Anna Frebel on searching for the oldest stars

3 Questions: Anna Frebel on searching for the oldest stars: New book details astronomers’ hunt for clues to the early universe.


...ok, so it's an older book now, but it's still really good - Frebel has a real gift for analogies.

no.

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I'm putting this here because I don't feel like I have anywhere much to put them and I need to put something somewhere.

There are two strands to my thoughts:

I need to say no more often
I waste too much of my life trying to appease people, so very much of it. I can't keep doing that. It upsets me and makes me anxious, and it makes me resent people. I need to stop worrying so much about getting the blessing of others and start worrying more about what my emotions are telling me I can and can't handle.

I know this sounds very selfish. It is very selfish. But trying not to be selfish is wearing me very thin.

I want to go to a place where I can't be found
This is very close to saying no. As an introvert, feeling like I constantly have to meet people's expectations all of the time is overwhelming. Social media - which used to be my escape - is making it worse, because it comes with the expectation that anyone can contact you all of the time.

I am so very, very tired …

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of...

...Gravitational waves?!

Yes, you read that right. The universe is alive - or should be - with the sound of gravitational waves.

I'm very late to the party, but the LIGO Scientific Collaboration have released a video of the "chirp" black holes make as they spiral in towards each other and merge. A low rumbling quickens and quickens until it becomes a high whoop, the sound of two black holes crashing into each other (this crashing is technically known as a merger). For a brief moment the black holes are bright enough to outshine all the stars in the universe.

It's a beautiful moment. It's beautiful to be living in an age where we can hear these things. It's beautiful to be able to detect these events within months of each other.

The universe is alive with sound and light in ways we are privileged to see today.

Q&A: Rainer Weiss on LIGO’s origins

Q&A: Rainer Weiss on LIGO’s origins: MIT physicist developed the concept for LIGO as a teaching exercise.



Not been updating because I have a 2700-word article to write and I'm trying to be on a break, but this is fascinating!

Everyone's a Snowflake

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Yes, that means you too.

In recent years, it has become common to accuse your opponent (or some arbitrary group of people) of being a special snowflake, that is, of being invested in the idea that they're special without having to prove it to anyone. This usually goes along with a diatribe about how special snowflakes are easily offended, and about how this is a bad thing, proof of their spiritual weakness, and so on for another poorly typed Facebook comment, or supposedly witty thinkpiece (much like this one - hurrah for self-deprecation!), or something of the sort.

I happen to think these comments make about as much sense as doing this:
But why? After all, aren't young people very easily offended these days?

Let me speak. As an entitled, whiny millennial, I'm below the median age for most developed countries. To put this in plainer English: most people are older than me.

The stereotype of the whiny millennial is often conflated with the stereotype of the social justice w…

Numbers Matter

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We live in a dark age.

It is an age where truth doesn't matter and where learning is dismissed as elitism, a world where people latch onto the words of demagogues who promise them authenticity in a world which has none. It is an age - yet another age - where we persecute groups for political power and prestige.

We are on the edge of something terrible and unspoken.

I am an optimist. I believe we can pull ourselves back from this edge, if we have radical political overhaul and evidence-based policy. For the latter part at least, we will need numbers.

In the age where people have had enough of experts, it's going to be difficult to get people to trust numbers. In many ways, mathematical manipulation represents everything popularly presented as elitism: mathematics is abstruse and frequently inscrutable to those who haven't spent several years studying its ways. Arguments made from mathematics are dry and emotionally unavailable. Economics (and crashing the economy) is based …