Category Archives: Science

The Outrage Economy

It just so happened that two books I put on hold at the library ages ago (Team Human and How To Do Nothing) became available at the same time and were about mostly the same thing: the attention economy, why it is very bad for us, and how we need to reconnect with each other and with the physical world around us to lessen its grip. I read them both over a couple of days, and came away with two things:

1. How To Do Nothing is way better than Team Human, if you’re interested but don’t have time for both.

2. It isn’t really an “Attention Economy”

Attention focuses on the gentlest-sounding name for the resource they’re exploiting, but that’s kind of like calling a diamond mine part of the “jewelry economy.” Yes, a lot of the diamonds will end up in jewelry; but that is a pretty dishonest description of a dirty, stressful, dangerous, and often deadly operation that digs rocks up out of the ground for further processing.

What is it they’re digging out of the human psyche to refine into Attention, or Engagement?

It’s outrage: anger, fear, and disgust.

And our social media feeds use algorithms that put content most likely to create that reaction right at the top, because that’s what gets the most likes, shares, and comments. In Team Human, for example, Rushkoff shares how social media algorithms have learned to put photos of our exes having fun on the tops of our feeds because it gets the most “engagement” (i.e. encourages FB stalking). Our social media companies profit from upsetting us.


Personality Psychology Backgrounder on Emotions & Political Convictions

The connection between feelings and political orientation is a two-way street, and fear, anger and disgust play a huge role.

In the five-factor (or OCEAN) personality model, “openness to new experiences” is highly predictive of political orientation, with those scoring low more likely to be strongly conservative, and those scoring high more likely to be highly progressive. This correlation has a lot to do with fear, anger and disgust: those who are low in openness have stronger fear/anger/disgust reactions to all stimuli, particularly novel stimuli, so “what’s new” triggers a “this is dangerous, threatening, probably gross and contaminated” reaction: people who are shown to be more sensitive to these emotions (say, a stronger disgust reaction to a picture of a dead animal) are  more likely to be conservative. Anything from gay marriage to working mothers to a zero-carbon economy is new, and triggers anger and disgust and a visceral, knee-jerk, “NO.”

But while the sensitivity to these emotions predicts political orientation, you can also push someone to embrace more conservative political positions by causing feelings of anger, disgust, and fear: if you tell experiment participants to use the washroom before a test measuring political beliefs, for example, and one group gets a nice clean washroom to use and the other group gets a dirty one, the one who gets the dirty bathroom will endorse more conservative (and punitive) policies.


So, if you were to hazard a guess about the specific dangers of a social media business model that primes people to feel outraged all the time, what might it be?

Seems like it would push people to adopt more conservative positions over time.

And isn’t that what we’re seeing–on social media and in other areas of our lives? More outrage, and a general shift to the right among a lot of the population: Proud Boys, Yellow Vests, Jordan Fucking Peterson, increasing sentiment against immigrants and refugees, more hate crimes?

Yeah, it’s speculative, but the science that there is backs me up.

The hard thing is figuring out what to do about it. Successive waves of people trying to “get off Facebook” or “get off Twitter” hardly make a dent, because as awful and predatory as the business model is, that’s where many of the critical conversations of our time are taking place. People aren’t really watching TV news anymore, which isn’t a conversation anyway; and if they are, they’re likelier to be watching the hellspawn propaganda shows than they used to be. Traditional news media are scrambling to keep any kind of viable business model with the “share the post first get the facts later” model that’s so successful for social media and so disastrous for our democracies: we need a free, accountable press that delivers reliable and well-considered news to our citizens, but increasingly, if newspapers try to actually do that, they get eaten for lunch by propagandistic competitors. And as a result, our politicians are often having to respond, not to what actually happened, but how it was portrayed on FaceBook and Twitter memes.

I have my own approach, which I call FaceBook Hygeine:

1. If you don’t have time to read the whole article, you don’t have time to comment on it.

2. If you don’t have time to fact-check–the article, the story, the photo, the meme–you don’t have time to share.

The first because the people who write news headlines are not the same as the people who write news articles, and often, the actual article is a whole lot less inflammatory and salacious than the headline–because the headline is meant to suck you in. But if it doesn’t manage to, at least it can get you to “engage” by making you so mad you can’t help but speak your mind … about a completely misinformed or counter-factual claim made in a headline that isn’t connected to the content of the article.

And the second because, given how dysfunctional and competitive news media is nowadays, even something appearing in a news article isn’t necessarily true. And of course memes and photos we all know are routinely faked. Even videos now can be faked.

Checking the basic facts of a piece rarely takes more than five minutes, and if you open a new browser tab to google it in, you won’t be helping to train FB or Twitter algorithms in what gets your goat.

This helps so much. It really does. It’s not the systems overhaul that we need to clean up our social media messes, but it keeps my own pages tidy and defensible without bowing out of political speech.

If you are, by the way, interested in knowing more about how and why political parties are targeting their ads to you specifically, you can try using this FB Chrome/Firefox extension: whotargetsme.


A Tiny Aside On Timothy Morton’s Environmental Philosophy, Just Because

“Commodity fetishism isn’t about just the alienation of humans, but the alienation of any entity whatsoever from its sensuous qualities, as we just saw. Production, as in the writing of a brilliant poem, is the thing you can’t help doing, your species-being. This is exactly how it can be exploited. It just happens anyway, so that the capitalist can dip a bucket into its flow to extract labor time from it and homogenize it. The capitalist exploits this fact, the non-chosen, non-‘imaginative’ part of me that I don’t have to plan, the fact that I’m a being like a silkworm. Which is precisely why my labour can be equated with the productivity of the soil–both are conveniently spontaneous bits of ‘nature’ that capitalism can turn into blank screens for value computation.” (Humankind, p. 60) (emphasis mine)

Let’s extend this thought experiment a little bit:

If humans can’t help but be productive, can’t help but make and create; and if capitalists then skim that off from us to create the value they profit by–which seems reasonable to me, and true–then what of emotions?

We can’t help but feel. Joy and sorrow and grief and humour and fear and anger and confusion and curiosity bubble out of us 24/7; feelings permeate us all the time, and form the basis of our rationality, our values, and our choices.

And if someone can fertilize that and nurture it with ideas (true or not) until we are boiling over with the kinds of feelings that keep us glued to our screens and our feeds; if someone can then use our feelings to get us to help fertilize our friends and families and acquaintances, to get more feelings out of them until we are all brimming over, like one farmer who plants their field with GMO seeds that spread on the wind until everyone’s growing GMO crops whether they wanted to or not; particularly the darker feelings like anger and fear and disgust and outrage because they are so compelling and contagious…

…and if they can build a business model that profits off it …

…what then?

Isn’t that social media?

Isn’t that what FaceBook and Twitter have done? Aren’t they profiting off our rage?

Wouldn’t this, and the algorithms they’ve built, encourage them to allow and even encourage any outrageous message, no matter how far from the truth, so long as it gets someone to hit the “share” button and yell “this pisses me off!” to their 500 friends?


I don’t know about you, but the thought that social media has effectively turned my brain into the equivalent of a newly-broken field, to be seeded with anger and fear, fertilized with constantly enraging news whether real or fake, and then “likes” and “shares” harvested for their profit at my expense–this makes me feel ill. Our increasing polarization, the steady erosion of community and compassion, the proliferation of “alternative facts” and misinformation: all of these are accepted as externalized business costs of new and unregulated industries.

And the whole business model is built on profiting from the manipulation of our most intimate and interior experiences: our values and feelings.

George Orwell comes up a lot these days, and for many valid horrifying reasons; but the ending of 1984 was in retrospect too generous by far. In 1984, if you don’t remember, the protagonist fell in love and conspired against the government, both illegal; but was convinced that so long as he still loved his girlfriend the ending could not be too bad. And he believed that nothing could change his feelings for her.

Facts, at any rate, could not be kept hidden. They could be tracked down by inquiry, they could be squeezed out of you by torture. But if the object was not to stay alive but to stay human, what difference did it ultimately make? They could not alter your feelings, for that matter you could not alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable.

In 1984, it took torture to make him despise her.

In 2019, it takes algorithms to make us hate each other–and not even for something as large as propping up a totalitarian regime–just  a fatter bonus for a FaceBook executive. (Which isn’t to say that a lot of the alt-right neo-nazi crap isn’t totally hateful and doesn’t deserve it–but we hardly need lies to fan those flames higher; the reality is bad enough.)

We need systemic answers to this; as much as I rely on my Facebook Hygiene, we can’t simply expect billions of people to spontaneously and consistently restrain themselves; this is why we regulate casinos and driving speeds. What those regulations might be, I’m not well versed enough in this to say.

What I can say in the meantime is: BE CAREFUL. When you click, like, share, or comment, you train the algorithms in what to show you, and they won’t care if it’s harmful or enraging or a lie. All they care is how much time you spend on it and how likely you are to spread it around.  Anger is a necessary fuel for change, but it can also burn people out, and without a goal it can push people to the right.

Group Think: When Two Heads are Worse than One (Science and Sewing, in one post at last!)

It’s my untested belief that expertise in any technical field will result in a near-total loss of respect for journalism.

I know it did for me. The more I learned about climate change, the biodiversity crisis, environmental regulations, and renewable energy, the more I realized that newspaper articles reflected reality only by chance, in passing. More often, an ill-equipped person with good writing skills and no critical thinking ability would write a piece far outside of their education and background by interviewing a bunch of people who claimed to be experts, without evaluating their credentials. We get climate change pieces giving equal weight to well-respected international climate experts and oil-funded PR hacks, pieces on renewable energy with well-reasoned arguments by scientists quoting the best available information and fruit-loop arguments by naturopaths who wouldn’t recognize a herz if it came up and hit them on the head.

And you end up with a voting public almost completely muddled on key issues because they’ve come to the completely totally 100% incontrovertibly WRONG conclusion that there are two sides.

Of course people are entitled to their opinions. I am legally well within my rights to believe that Mars is peopled by winged skeletons who worship Lily Allen. But the legal right to hold an opinion is not the same, and can’t be the same, as the attitude that reality is then required to bend to accommodate that opinion. No matter what I believe, Mars is in fact NOT peopled by winged skeletons who worship Lily Allen, or by anything at all. The experts are right and I am just plain wrong. (Or I would be, if I held that opinion.)

This set of science experiments sheds some light on the psychology of our inherent tendency to give equal weight to two contrary opinions, even when one comes from an expert and the other does not. Fortunately, for those of you who have no intention of purchasing the article for the low-low price of $10, you can also read this fun summation in the Washington Post.

This went on for 256 intervals, so the two individuals got to know each other quite well — and to know one another’s accuracy and skill quite well. Thus, if one member of the group was better than the other, both would pretty clearly notice. And a rational decision, you might think, would be for the less accurate group member to begin to favor the views of the more accurate one — and for the accurate one to favor his or her own assessments.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, report the study authors, “the worse members of each dyad underweighted their partner’s opinion (i.e., assigned less weight to their partner’s opinion than recommended by the optimal model), whereas the better members of each dyad overweighted their partner’s opinion.” Or to put it more bluntly, individuals tended to act “as if they were as good or as bad as their partner” — even when they quite obviously weren’t.

The researchers tried several variations on the experiment, and this “equality bias” didn’t go away. In one case, a “running score” reminded both members of the pair who was faring better (and who worse) at identifying the target — just in case it wasn’t obvious enough already. In another case, the task became much more difficult for one group member than the other, leading to a bigger gap in scores — accentuating differences in performance. And finally, in a third variant, actual money was offered for getting it right.

None of this did away with the “equality bias.”

The research psychologists attribute this to our need to belong to groups and get along with people. It seems that need outweighs any practical consideration, a good deal of the time, including when money is on the line. Fascinating, right? People who are right and know they’re right defer to people they know are wrong in order to get along and maintain group dynamics, even when it costs them to do so.

When it comes to climate change, this is a serious problem.

Aside: Climate change is a real thing that is really happening and is a complete and total catastrophe. There is no debate on this point in any credible scientific circle. If you think that there is, I’m so sorry, but you’ve been had.

/aside

We end up not moving forward with policy solutions because we keep acting like the actual experts and the paid non-expert hacks share some kind of equivalence when they patently don’t.

But–and I’m sure I’m not the only person thinking this–it’s present in every community, including the SBC.

Ah! See? I told you I’d come around to it.

People act as if the opinions and contributions of experts and amateurs are equivalent when they are not.

Thankfully, the fates of human civilization and a minimum of 30% of animal and plant species do not rest on this fact. The worst that happens in most cases is that a person walks around for a good long time in a garment that looks like utter shit and feels really fabulous about it. On a scale of worldwide catastrophe, it doesn’t even rank.

On the other hand, as this science makes pretty clear, an entire generation of sewers are being educated largely by internet celebrities who are too incompetent even to understand how incompetent they are. It’s not a catastrophe, no, but it is a crying shame. And as predicted by the social psychologists, if anyone ever speaks up to point out that some of them are experts and other are, well … not …, they are pilloried as Mean Girls, jelluz haterz, and bullies.

Aside 2: Yep, I count myself in the group of people sometimes wandering happily about in a garment that on later reflection was not up to snuff. It happens. We’re all human. I won’t melt if someone points it out, though tact is always preferred. It doesn’t count as “bravery” to “put yourself out there” if you feel entitled to nothing but praise; and if you’re going to present your work in public you need to be prepared for public criticism.

/aside

So it’s not the end of the world, no, but it’s a detriment to all of us. The people getting the money, in many cases, haven’t earned it; the people with valuable skills to share don’t have the platform to do so; we keep acting as if everyone’s equal when they’re not to be Nice and keep everyone happy, even though not everyone is happy; there are entire boiling lava rivers of resentment and bitterness flowing right under all the green meadows we’re so happily skipping over (in our badly-pressed culottes and boxy tops with peter pan collars, no less). It’s weird. Can’t we, as an online culture, agree that it’s not a violation of the Geneva Convention if someone points out that a hem is crooked or a print isn’t matched? Does it matter if it’s not “nice”? Don’t we all benefit from increased honesty and openness? Do any of us actually expect to be perfect, or need to be treated as if we are perfect in order to function day to day? If you really don’t want people to point out how you fucked up, is it so much to ask that you acknowledge it yourself, then? Hey look at this horrible side seam–I really fucked up!

That went off on a bit of a tangent. Pardon me. Let’s drag it back on track:

The Equality Bias! It makes everything worse while we smile and pretend nothing’s wrong. Fight it!

Don’t. Be. Nice.*

It’s such a truism that people have made fun of us for it, at least twice.

So this ancient article finally made its way through the blogosphere to roll across my FB feed this morning, and you’ve probably seen it already, but I’m going to share it with you anyway:

Psychologists Find That Nice People are More Likely to Hurt You (from io9.com)

People who are agreeable are also more likely to make destructive choices, if they think doing so will help them conform to social expectations. That’s the finding of psychologists, who suggest that disagreeable, ornery people may be more helpful than we think.

Being me, I followed the link back through other, earlier reports, including Psychology Today:

Are Polite People More Violent and Destructive?

Now a new study using a variation of Milgram’s experiments shows that people with more agreeable, conscientious personalities are more likely to make harmful choices. In these new obedience experiments, people with more social graces were the ones who complied with the experimenter’s wishes and delivered electric shocks they believed could harm an innocent person. By contrast, people with more contrarian, less agreeable personalities were more likely to refuse to hurt other people when told to do so.

If this is a complete shock to you, there are two possibilities:

  1. You are not Canadian. Canadians have a reputation for being “so nice!” and polite to the point of utter pointlessness. But if you are Canadian, you will know that it is entirely possible to be a very Nice, extremely Polite Asshole. It’s a national speciality. You smile and nod a lot, say sorry, please and thank you every third word, and treat people like crap while claiming to do it all for them because you care so much. It’s effective, if you’re looking for a strategy that lets you get away with murder for a long time.
  2. You are Canadian but are not possessed of critical thinking skills. Sorry.

But let’s keep working our way back to the original research:

Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm

Say, are you in the holiday spirit right now? All in a warm and fuzzy glow over peace on earth and the essential goodness of people? Right. Then get yourself a drink or a xanax, or stop reading until you’re in a less rosy frame of mind, because the Milgram experiments show a pretty grim side to human nature.

Extra-super-duper-short version:

The reportage of Hannah Arrendt on the Nazi war crimes trials, and her observations on the “banality of evil,” got Stanley Milgram wondering about what would make a person do something they knew was wrong and would kill people.

In his original experiment, participants were asked to deliver what they were told were potentially lethal electric shocks to someone else (who they were told was another participant, but was actually an actor) if they answered questions wrong. The actor was instructed to answer most of the questions wrong, and would then begin to scream convincingly as the “shocks” became stronger, and beg the person to stop. Eventually the actor would stop responding, simulating death.

Everyone in the original experiment (where the actor was in another room, and the participant could hear but not see him) went all the way to delivering severe shocks. No one stopped delivering shocks before 300 volts. (And 26/40 went all the way to maximum.)

Almost everyone delivered potentially lethal shocks to an innocent person because someone in a white coat told them to.

The experiment yielded two findings that were surprising. The first finding concerns the sheer strength of obedient tendencies manifested in this situation. Subjects have learned from childhood that it is a fundamental breach of moral conduct to hurt another person against his will. Yet, 26 subjects abandon this tenet in following the instructions of an authority who has no special powers to enforce his commands. To disobey would bring no material loss to the subject; no punishment would ensue. It is clear from the remarks and outward behavior of many participants that in punishing the victim they are often acting against their own values. Subjects often expressed deep disapproval of shocking a man in the face of his objections, and others denounced it as stupid and senseless. Yet the majority complied with the experimental commands.

In fact, it was so close to universal that in order to get usable data, they had to alter the experiment–bring the actor into the room, close enough to touch the participant, with the participant required to grab the actor’s hand and force it onto a plate to deliver the shock, before enough of the participants would refuse to continue that they could properly analyze the data.**

I won’t blame you if you need to stop, breathe deeply, get some chocolate and alcohol, and continue after a short break.

In this recent update to the Milgram experiments, they replicated the original structure in the format of a game show. The white-coated authority figure of the original was replaced with a broadcaster on a stage with a microphone, but the rest of it–questions, electric shocks, actor pretending to be shocked to death–remained the same. What the researchers did was look at both the personality traits and political leanings of the obedient vs. the disobedient.

I’m finding it hard to write this. Do you find it hard to read?

As with Milgram’s original experiments, the majority of participants shocked the actor to death, with the twist that all it took was a person on a stage with a microphone. That’s some pretty flimsy authority by which to murder someone, but it was sufficient for approximately 80% of the research subjects.

As expected, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness predicted the intensity of electric shocks administered to the victim. Second, we showed that disobedience was influenced by political orientation, with left-wing political ideology being associated with decreased obedience. Third, we showed that women who were willing to participate in rebellious political activities such as going on strike or occupying a factory administered lower shocks.

In other words:

  • Nice, reliable people delivered the strongest electric shocks.
  • People with strong-right wing values delivered the strongest electric shocks.
  • Women with a history of participating in left-wing activism delivered lower electric shocks. (There was no significant difference for men re: whether or not they had a history of political activism.)

There was NO relationship to emotional sensitivity. An emotionally highly sensitive person with low conformity values would not deliver the shocks. A very nice, very reliable person with low sensitivity would.

This is a subject I’ve written about many times over the years. Nice is not GOOD. Nice can be a good thing in some contexts, but it is not inherently good. Nice is a social strategy. GOOD is good, and good requires bravery–the willingness to be unpopular, to stand out, to do things other people don’t approve of, to take flack, to speak the truth when no one else is saying it. Highly sensitive people are just as capable of this as anyone else. Don’t blame your thin skin or weak stomach. If you can’t speak up, stand out, or take a risk of being unpopular for an opinion or point of view in the society we have right now–the safest one for dissent in the history of humanity, where the strongest penalty you’ll receive for most disagreement is an upset stomach and some broken weekend plans–you may be Nice, but mostly, you’re a coward.

It’s agreeable, conscientious people–nice, rule-following people–who merrily followed an authority figure down the path to murdering an innocent person, for no reason or reward at all. So if you take pride in how nice you are, how popular, etc., and like to upbraid people who are less conventional, who won’t go along to get along, who are NEGATIVE, heaven forbid, or CRITICIZE, or aren’t NICE–maybe entertain the idea that it’s those people who will risk their necks one day by sticking them out for you.

~~~~~
*Yes, that’s a needlessly provocative attention-seeking headline. Go ahead and be nice. Just don’t get it mixed up with being good, and don’t use it as an excuse for being a coward.

**Yes, I’ve heard the criticisms of the Milgram experiments. What they don’t explain to my satisfaction is how often the results have been replicated around the world since the 1960s. Sorry. Human beings are not a noble race, and blind obedience to authority and social convention is surely behind some of our worst atrocities.

Another thing to feel guilty about.

Via Treehugger: Say! Did you know that laundering your synthetic clothing may be contributing to ocean pollution?

Apparently studies have found that washing releases up to 1900 microfibres from each piece of synthetic clothing per wash. These bits of plastic are too small to be removed by conventional filtres and water treatment, so the plastic washes out to sea, where it (along with microbeads) contributes to a serious ocean pollution problem.

This strikes me as one of those rare pieces of environmental news that has direct relevance to home sewers. While I prefer natural fibres myself, sometimes they’re just not available locally at a price that is reasonable. And sometimes they’re plain not available locally. I searched high and low for stretch cotton twill for my recent Jasmine pants, but in the end the only stretch twill I could find had a substantial poly content.

I’m in general opposed to lifestyle-scale solutions for global-scale problems, so I’m not going to tell you what kind of fabric you should buy. As the article itself notes, given how much sheddable synthetic clothing is already in circulation, that likely wouldn’t address the problem anyway, and what we really need are better filtration systems (though this raises the question of what to do with all those bits of plastic that would be flushed out of our domestic sewage systems).

Still, as home sewers, we have managed to create (or at least increase) a reasonable supply or organic and local fabrics; maybe, if there were enough demand, less easily shed synthetics would be created and sold.

In the meantime, this may be another good argument for laundering clothing less frequently. In addition to the waste of water and electricity and the pollution of water from soaps and detergents, we’re plasticizing the oceans. Fantastic. So how about we only wash our clothes when they’re dirty?

Review: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural HistoryI may have mentioned that 2013 was a steamroller of a year, and that Hibernation 2014 was basically me burying my head in the sands of sewing until I felt like I could look at the world again. After about nine months of denial, I thought I might be ready to test the waters of environmental catastrophe again–and I was right!

Have no fear. We are still mostly sewing here. But also, I read a book about one of the Ends of the World, and I survived, and I think I can even write about it.  So I will.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with all of Elizabeth Kolbert’s writing, it is beautifully written, compelling, meticulously researched, well structured, and absolutely terrifying.

The Sixth Extinction (which is happening now–you can be forgiven for not knowing that, since it is so abysmally reported on) is the tale of the many and varied ways humans are causing this latest mass extinction event. They’re all here: prehistorical and modern-day overhunting; transmission of invasive species; habitat fragmentation; climate change; ocean acidification. In keeping with the evidence, though very much against the preferences of human psychology, the book ends on a despairing note. While humans do expend a great deal of energy in identifying and saving particular endangered species when they are particularly beautiful or otherwise beloved, that is in no way up to the scale of what’s required, and it is very difficult to see how this could be turned around.

From page 214: “‘As a brief aside,’ he went on, ‘I read this news story the other day. A place called the Vermont Center for Ecostudies has set up this Web site. People can take a photo of any and all organisms in Vermont and get them registered on this site. If I had read that a few years ago, I would have laughed. I would have said, “You’re going to have people sending in a picture of a pine tree?” And now, after what’s happened with the little browns [bats], I just wish they had done it earlier.” (This after a chapter describing the collapse of bat populations from White Nose Syndrome, and bat researchers revisiting former caves where bats numbered in the hundreds of thousands, now not able to find any, walking through the empty caverns on a carpet of bat carcasses.)

I wish everyone would read this, or at least become more informed about it; not because there’s anything we can do by becoming more informed (there almost certainly isn’t:  many, and likely most, species will simply cease to exist). But because an event of this significance and caused by us deserves to be marked and mourned while it is happening. A biotic Holocaust is underway all around us, every day, species and families of species being shoved into gas ovens as fast as we can manage it; and outside, we celebrate sporting victories and royal babies and new gizmos to buy. I can think of no more severe condemnation of human nature.

That's a toad, eh?
That’s a toad, eh? Look at those itty bitty fingers!

Frances and I like to catch baby toads in the spring. They are itty-bitty, and they hatch en masse, so if you go to the right place at the right time of year, you will find dozens or hundreds of housefly-sized frogs springing all over the place like rubbery crickets. They’re adorable, and fairly easy to catch, and most children are entranced at the sight of these tiny little froggy things. You can have one perched on a fingernail.

According to The Sixth Extinction, this may not last. Amphibians are the most endangered class of animals globally, right now, due to chytrid fungus, spread from the use of the African Clawed Frog as an early pregnancy test, as well as habitat loss and fragmentation, water quality issues, climate change, etc. Over thirty per cent of amphibian species are at risk of extinction today, and the extinction rate for amphibians right now is 211 times the background rate as a conservative estimate. These are animals that have survived every mass extinction event since before the dinosaurs, but they may not survive us.

When I’m not sewing, or embroidering, or reading (or working or cleaning the house or making dinner or whatever), sometimes I do papercrafting. Not scrapbooking, per se, but it could be altered books or altered photos or painting  or calligraphy or some kind of multimedia project. When I was feeling particularly down about environmental issues last year (occupational hazard when you work in the environmental field), I made this.

PhotoScan-1

At the time I thought I was exaggerating.

But apparently not.

And now maybe we need even more happy sewing talk than before.

View all my reviews

Be Polarizing

For those of you who’ve read and loved Learning to Love Criticism (and for those of you who haven’t, until just now), here’s a related idea: learning to love being hated, by at least some people some of the time: The Curse of Meh.

It is a simple mathematical reality that there are two ways of getting an average rating — either most people give you an average rating, or some people rate you really high and others rate you really low, yielding a cumulative middle ground. In mathematics, this concept is known as variance — the more spread out a set of numbers, the greater the variance.

What Rudder and his team found was that not all averages are created equal in terms of actual romantic opportunities — greater variance means greater opportunity. Based on the data on heterosexual females, women who were rated average overall but arrived there via polarizing rankings — lots of 1’s, lots of 5’s — got exponentially more messages (“the precursor to outcomes like in-depth conversations, the exchange of contact information, and eventually in-person meetings”) than women whom most men rated a 3.

Cool, eh? But what about those of you who aren’t interested in dating sites?

Indeed, the implications extend far beyond online dating and touch on the broader trap of public opinion. To play to public opinion or seek to please everyone is to aim at precisely that uncontested average, the undisputed and indisputable 3, obtaining which is a matter of being extra-ordinary rather than extraordinary. As soon as you aspire to be truly extraordinary, you begin aiming for those extremes of opinion, the coveted 5’s, and implicitly invite the opposite extremes, the burning 1’s — you make a tacit contract to be polarizing and must bear that cross.

The bitter irony of the human experience is that while most of us celebrate nonconformity, we tend to conform even in our nonconformity. In order to succeed in a mass-market business — perhaps the ultimate enterprise of catering to popular opinion — we’re encouraged to be “ambiverts,” smack in the middle of the introversion-extraversion spectrum.

I’m just going to repeat my favourite bit, there:

As soon as you aspire to be truly extraordinary, you begin aiming for those extremes of opinion, the coveted 5’s, and implicitly invite the opposite extremes, the burning 1’s–you make a tacit contract to be polarizing and must bear that cross.

Wow. I love that. And if you take a moment to think about any business, organization, cause, or person who has sincered and insanely devoted fans, it’s true, isn’t it, that they all have troves of haters as well?

I like data, and most of the time I prefer to come to my conclusions after careful consideration of all the evidence, giving it plenty of time to percolate. This time, hats to the wind: after one read of a pop-psychology internet piece whose references I have not reviewed, I’ll aim to be polarizing. Because, what fun!

Fireflies!

The Royal Botanical Gardens is an extra treat for those of us who live nearby; it has the gardens, yes, but also many kilometres of hiking trails through nature preserves and active nature education programs for artists, adults, kids and families. Naturally Frances has been a constant attender of the daycamps since we moved here a few years back. This past weekend we took advantage of the other programs and attended their Fun with Fireflies evening.

The RBG staff started with a presentation on fireflies (fun fact #1: fireflies aren’t flies. They’re beetles) a few games outside while waiting for the sun to set; then we set off on a short walk to the shore to see if we could find any fireflies, bug nets in hand.

Did we ever. There were hundreds of them, twinkling in the trees like a fair city. Frances didn’t manage to net any, but I did get one exceptionally blurry photograph.

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Besides stalking fireflies in the woods in the dark, which was pretty fun, I loved learning about their deceitfulness. No, really. They use their flashing butts to talk to each other and find mates of their own species, as you probably already knew. But females will also use the flashing patterns of females of other species to lure in those males, and then eat them (yes, fireflies can be cannibalistic). And, in a lovely mind-bending twist, the males will sometimes use the flashing pattners of females of other species who are pretending to be his species in order to convince the males of their own species that they are in imminent danger of being eaten, to frighten them away, so they can have the territory and the females to themselves. Amazing.

Fireflies are declining in numbers and becoming endangered, due likely to light pollution (hard to talk to each other when they are being washed out by streetlights everywhere) and habitat loss. If you’d like to learn about how you can help them, or about the different species of fireflies, check out firefly.org. You can even contribute your firefly sightings to help scientists further their research into these important and beautiful insects.

Failing Better is Still Failing

Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner released the annual update report on provincial progress on greenhouse gas emissions.

The good news is, we are not failing as badly as we were. Our greenhouse gas emissions are falling provincially, largely due to decommissioning coal electricity plants.

GreenhouseGasEmissions_Prov_EN

The bad news is, we are still failing. We are still above our 2014 target of 166 Mt, and considerably above the 2020 target of 150 Mt, with no clear plan in place for how we intend to bridge that gap. In fact, the ECO is predicting that GHG emissions will rise as the nuclear plants are refurbished and the electricity demand gap is met by natural gas. As well, while we have done an excellent, back-patting-worthy job of reducing emissions over the past approximately 10 years, forecasts past 2020 predict a rise in GHG emissions to 190 Mt by 2030.

You can practically hear the poor guy banging his head on his desk in frustration in the report.

It’s brief and well-written, so I’d encourage everyone to take a look and see where we are, and where we’re headed. A few key points:

  • Road transportation, and particularly private vehicles, are the largest source of emissions in the province (58 & 45 Mt respectively). In order to meet GHG targets, we must fund public transit, including the Big Move proposed by Metrolinx. I’ll add this, though it shouldn’t need to be said: Nothing is free, and we’ll either pay for this now through increased transit funding or later through climate change adaptation costs, and any half-qualified economist will tell you that the future costs of dealing with climate change make that $470/household/year Big Move projection (already offset by congestion savings of $1600/household/year) look like a fruit fly on an elephant. Just get over it, and pay up.
  • Industry emits 49.6 Mt. Ontario has been putting out policy papers on establishing an Ontario cap-and-trade system to bring that number down and put a price on carbon for four years now. It is time to move beyond policy papers, and actually put something into action.
  • Buildings emit 31.7 Mt–a high number, but one that has remained about the same while the total number of buildings continues to rise. The ECO attributes this to the 2006 Ontario Building Code, which explicitly considers greenhouse gas emissions, making it one of “the most progressive in North America.”

To put it in context:

per_capita_emissions

Ontario produces fewer Mt/person than most Canadian provinces–which is good, but in a global context still makes this one of the most wasteful places to live. And our emissions are on the right track. We are one of the few provinces who have had declining emissions, which is great. But boy, are we ever still producing a lot of greenhouse gases.

We are one of the few provinces who have had declining emissions, which is great. But boy, are we ever still producing a lot of greenhouse gases.

The atmosphere refuses to be pragmatic. It’s a geological and chemical process that will react to inputs, regardless of how desirable the outcomes are or how politically feasible the solutions may be. It will not negotiate with us. Or in other words, while we are improving, and that’s good, we are still failing by a wide margin. We can and we should do better.

Monarch Caterpillar

A Monarch

Taken this past weekend at a friend’s cottage, walking in the woods, where a bunch of largeish monarch caterpillars are fattening themselves up on milkweed in preparation for metamorphosis. Look at the size of that thing!

Also, they’re soft, if you’ve never tried petting one. Velvety.

Given that it’s august and the monarch migration to Mexico begins in late August each year, this caterpillar will fly south thousands of miles after its metamorphosis is complete. No one knows how the migratory route is transferred from one generation to the next.

Milkweed plants are poisonous, and monarch caterpillars become poisonous from eating them–an advantage they retain after transforming into butterflies. This explains why monarch caterpillars have such bold colouring compared to the larvae of other species, which tend to be camoflauged. And while most adult monarchs will live for four or five weeks, those who reach maturity in the migration period can live for eight or nine months and won’t reach sexual maturity or breed until after the wintering period in Mexico.

This Hinterland Who’s Who page has some great basic information about monarchs. Evolution has done some amazing things with life on this planet, eh? There is no other insect species in the world thought to have this multi-generational migration pattern.

Regardless, kids love caterpillars. If you find a large stand of milkweed plants right about now, you stand a good chance of finding some, or maybe even a chrysalis or two. Or head to Point Pelee National Park in September to see the peak migration first-hand.

Song Sparrows

No, it’s not the most dramatic or exciting bird. It’s not endangered, it doesn’t have an exciting life history, and climate change may make it a more frequent visitor for those of us on the northern boundaries of its wintering range. But it is adorable and it does have a lovely song, which you can listen to at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site.

Pretty, no?

This one is trolling for dates down at the pond near Newtonbrook Creek in the East Don Parkland. He let me get pretty close before heading into the underbrush.

The song sparrow varies quite a bit in appearance and size across its considerable range, but remains brown and streaky with a whitish underside and often a brown mark in the centre of its chest. Its song, too, varies from place to place, and can be used to distinguish not only identity but also family (since the songs are learned, and adult song sparrows tend to nest where they learned their songs as chicks). Male song sparrows recognize the songs of their neighbours and sing differently to birds they know than birds they don’t. They like to eat weed seeds and insects, so be glad if you’ve got some around–they’re eating what you want to get rid of.

Male song sparrows vary their response to other male song sparrows depending on their intent: early in the season, when they are trying to establish and defend a territory, they will respond to another male with the identical song (“type match”), but later in the season when they’re feeling a bit more confident they will instead reply with a different song shared by the neighbouring sparrow (“repertoire matching”). That’s pretty sophisticated behaviour for a passerine. Not to mention a much more pleasing way of dealing with territoriality than the horn-honking and fist-shaking common to our species. Apparently the female song sparrows agree; they prefer male song sparrows with larger repertoires, and not for any shallow status-seeking reasons, oh no: male song sparrows with larger repertoires are able to communicate better with their neighbours!

And they say we can learn nothing from the animals.

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My heartfelt apologies to any dedicated ornithologists in the audience for my blatant anthropomorphism. The temptation was too great.