Things I read recently that I found interesting

Welcome to the occasional link round-up. Here are some things I read recently that I found interesting.

Aberfan: The mistake that cost a village its children– On the anniversary of the tragedy, survivors, rescuers and families tell their stories.

“I’m not looking for a new England”: On the Limitations of Radical Nationalism (Kojo Koram)- How nationalism cannot be reclaimed, and a better model.

A post-Brexit spike in homophobic hate crime? It’s a part of ‘taking back control’ (James Butler)- The increased violence is a feature, not a bug.

Gender stereotypes have made us horrible at recognizing autism in women and girls (Matthew Rosza)- A useful introduction into gender and autism.

Porn Didn’t Ruin Your Sex Life. Sorry. (Kitty Stryker)- A porn performer explores what actually ruins sex lives (tl;dr it’s men).

Men’s Silent Consent Of Rape Culture (Shane Thomas)- I don’t usually recommend stuff about rape culture written by men. This is a very welcome exception.

Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy (Lola Phoenix)- These points are all SO important, and currently poly/non mono people should read and take note, too.

And finally, it was Ursula Le Guin’s 87th birthday. Did you know that as well as being an awesome SFF writer, she loves cats, and writes blogs about her cat? And from her cat’s point of view? And there’s loads of pictures of her cat, too? Here’s Le Guin’s Annals of Pard.

In defence of the Ptolemaic Model (sort of)

Continuing with my fascination with using historical astronomy to discuss problems in science, today I will be looking at how science can believe silly things for a really long time, before finally everything clicks into place.

From antiquity until the late 16th century, the dominant belief was that everything went round the Earth. The Sun, the moon, the stars, the planets, all of it was whizzing round a completely static Earth, that doesn’t even spin on its axis. Oh, and everything zooming around the Earth is made out of a special substance called aether, embedded in spheres which are also made out of aether.

Now, this might all sound rather ridiculous to our 21st century ears, but 500 years ago, this was not just what the uneducated peasants believed, but what the key scientific thinkers of the time would have used as a theoretical basis for everything astronomical. And the reason for this was because the Ptolemaic Model worked.

The way we’re usually taught the story went is that everyone believed bullshit for a long time, and the church was to blame for this, and when Copernicus came along with his model, it was only the Catholic church that really got in the way of it being immediately widely adopted, by virtue of doing shit like locking up Galileo.

However, this is only partially true, and it definitely wasn’t as linear as that.

The Ptolemaic Model seems absurd from our perspective, because it goes to almost comical backflips to explain observable phenomena which can easily be covered by “it all goes round the Sun in kind of elliptical orbits, duh.” For example, planets sometimes appear to switch direction, and start moving “backwards” across the sky (this is known as retrograde). This is pretty easy to explain if you grok that everything is moving round the Sun at different distances: we’re overtaking them, or they’re overtaking us. However, if you whack the Earth in the middle, like we did for millennia, this requires things to be moving in small circles in their bigger circle around the Earth. I want to try and explain this better, but to be quite honest, I’ve tried and tried to get my head around epicycles, equants and deferents, and I can’t. Basically, lots of circles are moving around in a really fiddly fashion.

However, here’s the thing: it worked. It worked really well at accurately predicting where everything would be in the sky. It worked so well that it took over a century from Copernicus’s publication for a heliocentric model to become dominant, because for most of what they were doing, using the old model worked just as well, and this was, after all, the model that the scientists of the day had learned from their own training.

Firstly, critiques of the Ptolemaic Model existed pretty much from the time Ptolemy’s model was developed. From pagans in Carthage proposing that Venus and Mercury went round the Sun, to the Islamic scientist ibn Al-Hatham who literally wrote a text titled Doubts on Ptolemy, there were always, well, doubts on Ptolemy. However, observations that contradicted the Ptolemaic Model were usually explained away in terms of a model which was still geocentric.

When Copernicus published his theory, the most influential astronomer of the time, Tycho Brahe, acknowledged that Ptolemy had a lot of problems, but also acknowledged that Copernicus had a whole bunch of problems, too. He therefore created the Tychonic system, which agreed with Copernicus that the Earth rotates, and the planets go round the Sun… but that the Earth is stationary and the Sun goes round the Earth. Again, with our modern sensibilities, this sounds on a par with Hollow Earther beliefs, but at the time it was quite neat, explaining many of the observations which had put holes in the Ptolemaic Model. It remained reasonably popular as a theory for another century or so, peacefully coexisting with the Copernican model, and indeed being really good for astronomers who didn’t want to get persecuted by the Vatican, and only fell out of favour when the weight of observations meant that the Earth had to be in motion around the Sun. This, by the way, was in the 18th century.

Oh, and while we’re at it, the Ptolemaic Model is still used these days for certain applications. Ever been to a planetarium? Their projectors are built with the innards resembling the Ptolemaic Model, with little circles moving round bigger circles. For an ancient theory, it was surprisingly robust.

So why did the notion that the Earth is the centre of everything persist so long? Mostly, it just made common sense. After all, it’s not like we feel the Earth moving around, when we look up at the night sky, it certainly looks like we’re in spheres within spheres. And, of course, it really does flatter our egos to think we’re the most important special snowflakes, rather than some insignificant little specks on a pale blue dot at the arse end of nowhere. It went mostly unquestioned for a long time because it was a strong theory which just so happened to also fall in with social constructs about our own significance.

Geocentric models were pretty decent, but they were also, at the end of the day, wrong.

It’s worth remembering the hardiness of the Ptolemaic Model when we look at other scientific theories which are taken for granted at present. I bang these drums a lot, but, say, for example, differences between men and women. Or, in fact, the existence of two biological sexes. Just because smart people believed in it since antiquity, doesn’t necessarily make it right.


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Dear NSPCC, please don’t debate child abuse

Content note: this post discusses child abuse and transphobia, mentions suicide

Update October 13th: They have cancelled the debate

I’ve sent a copy of this letter to NSPCC Press Office Please feel free to send similar emails.

Dear NSPCC Press Office,

I was very concerned to see a tweet from you on 11th October, advertising a “debate” between Sarah Ditum and Kellie Maloney on transgender children.

I was under the impression that NSPCC stood against all forms of child abuse. Why, then, are you holding a debate which will essentially equate to, “is it all right to abuse some children?”

One of your speakers, Sarah Ditum, is an apologist for abuse of transgender children. In late 2014, the world was horrified as a trans teenage girl was abused into suicide by her parents. Ditum expressed empathy with the parents, rather than the young girl who was abused to death. I am highly concerned that you think it appropriate to host a debate where one of the speakers empathises with child abusers, and I strongly suspect you would not decide to debate any other forms of child abuse while platforming somebody who empathises with abuse.

There are also concerns about your other speaker, Kellie Maloney, who is a domestic abuser. I know the NSPCC as an organisation are concerned about children being exposed to domestic abuse, you’ve got a whole web page on it. I can only assume you went with Maloney because no other trans person was willing to share a platform with somebody whose sympathies lie with parents who abuse a trans child to death.

I’m asking you, NSPCC, to please, please rethink this debate. Do you really want the NSPCC brand to become synonymous with debating whether certain forms of child abuse are all right?

Please cancel this debate.


I received a reply. It feels very form-lettery and does not address my specific concerns?

Dear Zoe

Thank you for taking the time to contact us with your comments.

Children and young people are increasingly raising concerns about transgenderism and gender dysphoria. Issues that are of concern to children are of concern to us.

The NSPCC hosts a series of regular debates on matters that affect children and around current and sometimes controversial child protection issues.

The NSPCC’s role is to chair the debate. It is simply providing a platform for the issue to be discussed and awareness of it raised. It is not taking a view either way.

We chose speakers who are pertinent to the debate. Both are known to the media, have spoken publicly about their views on transgender, and have differing opinions which will enable a good discussion. They do not represent the views of the NSPCC.



Sadly, no answer as to whether they usually like to have a speaker in favour of child abuse, or not, but having googled their previous events, they don’t usually invite someone who reckons everyone’s being a bit mean to people who abused their child to death. There’s also no answer as to whether or not they think it’s acceptable to debate whether a bit of child abuse is all right. I’m a little surprised the NSPCC claims to have no view on whether or not child abuse is acceptable.

Absolutely unacceptable, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be donating to the NSPCC now they’ve become the sort of charity that thinks that abuse of vulnerable children is a topic for a fun little debate.

Further update, as of 6pm: Kellie Maloney has now pulled out, meaning the NSPCC’s “debate” is now literally just the bigot.

Further update, October 13th: They have cancelled the debate, and sorted out their language.


Things I read recently that I found interesting

It’s link roundup time!

Bad science misled millions with chronic fatigue syndrome. Here’s how we fought back (Julie Rehmeyer)- If you have ME/CFS, you’ll know that exercise and therapy probably don’t help you. This is because the science was nonsense.

Why Neuroscientists Need to Study the Crow (Grigori Guitchounts)- Crows are excellent beasties, capable of complex cognition, but this shakes up everything we think we know about cognition, because they lack a neocortex.

Why we have to take white working class people’s fears seriously (Jacinta Nandi)- On the misconception of working class people coming from the media and political class.

The Luke Cage Syllabus: A Breakdown of All the Black Literature Featured in Netflix’s Luke Cage (Tara Betts)- Enjoyed the series? What do you mean you haven’t watched it yet, go and watch it right now, and come back in 13 hours to read all of these book recommendations.

Jess Phillips targeting marginalised women proves it’s her own career she puts first (Stephanie Farnsworth)- Why this brand of feminism needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Why I Find Safe Sex With Men Much More Difficult Than With Women (Andre Shakti)- I related to this too damn hard.

And finally, have a cuddle puddle of big cats.

Stand Up To Racism: Stand Up To Rape Culture

The SWP are still going, and this event is the same shit with a different stink. Don’t let this party of rape apologists undertake this recruitment exercise. I’ve signed this letter, and share it here for information.

Media Diversified

An earlier version of this open letter was initially addressed to several of the headline speakers, it has since been adapted since many have now cancelled their plans to attend.

We, the undersigned, want all planned speakers and delegates to withdraw their attendance from Stand Up to Racism’s conference on 8 October. We ask because the speakers will share the bill with Weyman Bennett, Stand Up To Racism’s co-convenor and a central committee member of the Socialist Workers’ Party.

This must include refusing to lend any support to the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) either directly, or indirectly through its front organisations including “Unite Against Fascism”, “Unite the Resistance”, “Stand up to UKIP” and “Stand Up To Racism”.

We call on people to do this because the SWP’s well documented failing of two women members who accused the then central committee member of the SWP, known as

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Shockingly bad science journalism in the Guardian

Content note: this post discusses mental illness, mentions self harm, suicide and sexual violence

It’s been a while since I’ve considered the Guardian a decent source of news, but sometimes things get egregious. Yesterday, an article entitled “Mental illness soars among young women in England – survey” was put out, and their reporting… wasn’t very good.

A study was released finding that young women aged 16-24 are at very high risk for mental illness, with more than a quarter of the group experiencing a condition, and almost 20% screening positive for PTSD symptoms. This has all risen since 2007: not just for young women, but across genders and age groups. What, according to the Guardian’s heavy focus of the article, is to blame?

Social media, apparently.

The Guardian’s reporting focuses heavily on how social media is to blame, selectively quoting researchers mentioning social media to the extent that I would love to see what questions they were asked (my personal favourite: “There are some studies that have found those who spend time on the internet or using social media are more likely to [experience] depression, but correlation doesn’t imply causality.”)

Then there’s the case study telling her story of her experience with PTSD and triggers. She talks a lot about film and TV, and the stress of university, and yet somehow her case study is titled “Social media makes it harder to tune out things that are traumatic”. She mentions it briefly in the last paragraph–while still mostly focusing on film and TV!

Now, the reason the Guardian’s twisting of this survey for their own ends is so particularly problematic is the importance of the research. You can download the whole report here, or read a summary here.

It’s quite a well-done survey, a very robust look at mental illness in England, and laying groups who are most at risk. You know me, and how quibbly I can get about published research. This one is actually good. However, it’s worth noting something they didn’t measure in the survey: social media use. This means, of course, it’s absolutely impossible to draw conclusions from the data about social media and mental illness from this research. The survey authors mention that their young cohort is the first to come of age in the social media age, which is true to a certain extent, although I am in an older cohort and came of age in a world where I constantly chatted to friends online, whether I knew them in the meatspace or not. Again, it would be nice if they’d consistently measured online behaviour across studies.

I’ll quote one of the other key research findings here, because again it’s crucial and if you read the Guardian you’d never know about them.

Most mental disorders were more common in people living alone, in poor physical health, and not employed. Claimants of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), a benefit aimed at those unable to work due to poor health or disability, experienced particularly high rates of all the disorders assessed.

So. Let’s speculate with the results then. What else happened between 2007 and 2014 that might have had a negative impact on people, especially those who are on disability benefits.

I’ll give you a clue. It happened quite soon after 2007, and the young cohort would have come of age into this, as well as more people using Facebook.

One more clue: it rhymes with wobal winancial wisis wand wausterity.

These are young people who have grown into a world with no prospects, with a hugely gendered impact. Of course, once again, it’s just speculation, but it’s slightly more robust speculation than the Guardian’s because they measured benefit receipt and employment status.

As women, a lot of us would have chorused “no shit, Sherlock” upon seeing the results, and seeing how gendered the results are. We deal with more, and it’s even worse if we’re poor.

The Guardian has a bit of a hateboner for social media, and, unfortunately, this has completely blurred its analysis and reporting of what is an important survey that actually found some interesting trends over time, as well as a bleak snapshot of the current realities.

A twitter rant about sleep, capitalism and Jeremy Corbyn

Today, I am mostly furious about a particular capitalist value: lack of sleep. So I made some twitter threads.

Firstly, about Jeremy Corbyn and leaders. Worth noting, as an addendum, that Margaret Thatcher bragged about sleeping 4 hours a night and Definitely Never Made A Bad Decision Ever. Also, Hitler, who used stimulants to stay awake.

Secondly, about disability and accessibility.

The public health double standard: smoking, drinking, eating sugar, etc are frowned upon, and people who do some of these things are deprived medical treatment. Why is it, then, that an equally dangerous health behaviour–willing sleep deprivation–is considered all right… if not actively valued and encouraged? (and, certainly, medical professionals are subjected to hugely dangerous sleep disruption)

Gender and getting up early

What do I envisage? As a transitional demand, I’d like “That’s too early for me” to be a valid and accepted reason not to attend work engagements. I’d like for homeworking and flexible hours to be the norm, and if sleep disruption is necessary for a job, for “danger money” to be paid: we are, after all, ruining our health. And, ultimately, I’d like for work as we understand it under capitalism to be abolished, but I get that that one’s a big ask, and I’d be all right with the other two demands being implemented within my lifetime.


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