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Friday, 12 February 2021

Tony Stark's QAnon connection


If you had a Tardis and you went back two thousand years and showed the druids some examples of modern technology, I bet you they wouldn’t be impressed. They’d look at wi-fi and jet engines and antibiotics and electricity and then they’d tell you why their Mystic Meg explanation of the universe was the only true one.

You don’t even need a time machine. These people are all around us nowadays. The Earth is flat. Vaccines cause autism (and/or implant microchips). 5G causes cancer (and/or covid-19). The climate isn’t heating up. Democrats eat babies on their pizzas. The moon landings were faked. 9-11 was a government hoax. Used to be that this kind of thing was limited to a few crazies, but the internet seems to have woken up a strain of hyper-gullibility. A friend of mine was told by a publican who believes covid-19 doesn’t exist that “scepticism is good”. And so it is. But only if you can tell scepticism from cussed denialism.

Why do people snap up these myths? There are two parts to the answer. The first explains why they are looking for myths to believe. If you ask people who convert to a religion later in life (and who therefore haven’t been conditioned early on to accept it without question), the most common reason they give for converting is: “Modern life was getting me down. Everything seemed so complex. But then I discovered this faith and it makes everything simple.”

Now, your first response if you’re a real sceptic would be: “Why should a complex system have an easy answer?” People lap up an easy answer because it makes them feel safer, and their need to feel safe overrides the issue of whether the easy answer is likely to be right.

Then there’s the question of amour-propre. A lot of people who buy into conspiracy theories are not dumb, but they’re self-educated and therefore only half-educated. They’ve never been trained in logical thought, never learned to spot fallacies. They have a vested interest, in fact, in not even wanting to spot fallacies.

Here’s why: if you feel left behind, accepting a logic-defying belief puts you on a level playing field with better educated people because if logic and evidence count for nothing then experts have no advantage. When you accept the conspiracy you gain self-respect. You think you’re special. You can sneer at the “sheeple” who accept science and reason. Those idiots with their qualifications and their degrees -- you know better from "the university of life" and a few hours trawling the internet.

The internet fuels this nonsense because it’s a junk store of unfiltered claims and mislabelled data. Demented conspiracy theorists trawl through it, apply a sort of green-ink, back-bedroom, halfwit parody of expert analysis, and suddenly you have them “proving” that President Biden doesn’t have access to Air Force One or that the coronavirus genome contains a human DNA sequence.

OK, so that’s why these people are susceptible to conspiracies and where they’re getting their “information”. But why these particular myths?


I got the answer to that the other night while I was watching Iron Man 2. If you haven’t seen it – well, watch Iron Man 1 instead (and don’t for the love of reason watch Iron Man 3), but here’s the recap. Tony Stark is dying of palladium toxicity. “I’ve tried every element to power my arc reactor,” he says, “but none of them works. I need a new element.” The arc reactor keeps his heart beating, you see, so no getting rid of that.

The problem of the new element wouldn’t really be its structure, of course. There aren’t a lot of puzzles when all you’re putting together are protons and neutrons. It’s how you’d synthesize it that would be tricky. But that’s fine. Give that a pass. It’s sci-fi. The point is how Tony learns the structure of the new element, like so:

See, his dad, Howard Stark, figured it all out back in the ‘70s but didn’t have the technology to synthesize it. He left Tony a home movie in which he says, “You can do it.” He doesn’t say what the element is. He doesn’t draw a diagram or tell Tony about a file where he could look it up. It’s a gnomic hint at a deep secret. At this point the conspiracy theorist in all of us sits up.

Tony goes to his old office. There he sees the model of the Stark Expo park that his dad was standing in front of in that movie. He takes it home, randomly removes lots of buildings, and then realizes that the remaining buildings, if thought of as protons and neutrons, look like a superheavy but stable atomic nucleus. The new element!

But hang on. If his dad had figured out arc reactor tech fifty years ago, why didn’t he publish? He was a weirdly secretive guy? OK then, but this is really important and it could die with him. So why would he hide the info in a cardboard model of an expo park, and make a sly hint about it on a home movie – and just hope neither would get chucked away? He could have tattooed the nuclear structure on baby Tony’s bottom, for heaven’s sake. Or just left him a Read This file.

It’s storytelling, that’s why. Offered a trail of breadcrumbs, moviegoers don’t ask, “What’s this trail of crumbs doing here? Who put it there? Why did they?” Instead they go, “Ooh, a trail of crumbs. Better follow it.”

And that’s how conspiracies work. They weave a story. Their audience: the poor saps who feel left out by a world where you have to apply reason, keep thinking, and continually update your theories. Offer them a conspiracy with the shape of a story, however simplistic, and they’re Pavlov-conditioned to jump through the hoop you’ve held out for them and feel they’ve done something really smart.

Just as you can defend yourself from demagogues by learning to spot the tricks of rhetoric, you can defend yourself against conspiracy-peddlers by knowing the techniques used by storytellers. The same twists, reveals, and reversals that a writer uses to pull you into a story can also be employed to snare you in a dangerous delusion. The world is complicated; get over it. Simplistic answers are often wrong. But you have a brain that’s more complex than any other structure that we know of in the universe. Use it. Don’t be the druids they’re looking for.

97 comments:

  1. By a strange coincidence (or is it a coincidence?) a couple of months ago I wrote a rant about conspiracy theories for a music fanzine I contribute to. I came to a similar conclusion about how conspiracy theorists, while advocating scepticism, are in fact in hock to faith above all (Faith Over Reason, as the band of one of the former contributors to said fanzine had it). Like you, I also identified part of the appeal as being aesthetic. This was because I explored my own enjoyment of conspiracy theories, tracing it back to The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail. But while my appreciation of conspiracies theories was on an aesthetic level, I didn't get seduced by it; in fact, part of the appeal of something like The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail was on a puzzle level, identifying the exact point when it hopped from actual research to bonkers storytelling, and the techniques the authors used to disguise the transition.

    I foolishly missed the most important part you identify: namely that conspiracy theories enable people to delude themselves about their own abilities -- which of course explains the Trump-Conspiracy Theory connection perfectly.

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    1. Ah, The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail! The work of French ultranationalists that gave us both Gabriel Knight 3 (Yay!) and the Da Vinci Code (Boo!)

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    2. But I'm confused. Where do the Infinity Stones come in?

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    3. Steve, I'm not convinced that Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln were French ultranationalists. One of them co-wrote the Doctor Who Yeti stories, after all.

      Dave, if you'd been following the story, you would be familiar with Pierre De Lin, the reclusive current master of the Prieuré de Sion, who only outwardly appears to run a garage in Espéraza, a mere 5 km from Rennes-le-Château, with a sign on the door saying 'Fini'.

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    4. And every time he snaps his fingers...

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  3. Just discovered that it is possible to edit a comment, but it involves deleting your post. Ah well.

    I forgot to mention that my experience of the COVID-deniers is closer than 'a publican who spoke to a friend', in that a member of my gaming group here in Japan, who went back to the US and took up a position in the Department of Commerce, and who I considered an intelligent and thoughtful person, was nevertheless emailing me at year-end about this stuff, and why we should believe Ivor Cummins rather than people who actually study pandemics. That was when the 'faith' element of the delusion hit me forcibly in the chops.

    I also came to the conclusion that if these conspiracy theorists put their mind to it, they ought to be able to work out that conspiracy theories are disseminated by the people who are actually conspiring (in plain sight, most of the time) to enrich themselves by politically emasculating and impoverishing the people of the world. Why would they encourage conspiracy theories? In order to discredit the whole notion of scepticism and putting reasonable checks on unbridled power, of course! There are times when I think this is the only explanation for the obvious idiocy of stuff like QAnon (I'm a little more sceptical the rest of the time, of course).

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    1. The earliest purposive manufacture of a conspiracy theory, if we discount the world's religions, is probably the tobacco industry's efforts to reshape the incontrovertible evidence that smoking greatly increases the risk of serious illness as "who are these scientists who want to stop granny enjoying a fag?" I call it the "cui bonehead" argument, as useful idiots are more eager to embrace the ad hominem, reasoning that they feel inferior to experts and therefore experts must be plotting to keep them down.

      Some conspiracies can only have been designed with expert help. For instance, in the early days of covid testing there was a claim going around on social media. It cited a paper in a medical journal, highlighted a nucleotide sequence used in the testing process, then directed the reader (those breadcrumbs again) to the human genome. "This sequence is human DNA!" it said. And so it was; the sequence in question wasn't part of the coronavirus but the primer used when transcribing it from RNA in order to replicate and then test for it. But that misinformation could only have been cooked up by somebody who knows how transcription and primers and testing really work, and who could see that it would be exploitably confusing to a layman and attractive as a conspiracy meme.

      I have a close relative who subscribes to conspiracy theories. Not just one; he seems to accept the whole grab-bag of them. He's smart but not educated, and it's possible to talk sensibly with him in the room for an hour or two, and then he'll suddenly roll out some new mad idea. I think it might be like the disruptive (often cleverly disruptive) kid at the back of the class. He knows that clowning around isn't going to help his education, but he figures that he's getting left behind on that score anyway and that the teacher and the smart kids don't have any counter to his disruption. And it gets him attention. People are more concerned with status than with truth.

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    2. I sympathise with that disruptive clown, and may have been him myself.

      An interesting point, though, is the extent to which the conspiracy is actually believed in. With von Daniken, Holy Blood etc, I generally assumed that most readers knew it was bollocks, but suspended their disbelief to enjoy a good yarn. HBHG being sold as non-fiction was an essentially aesthetic judgement -- which cost them when they tried to sue Dan Brown for plagiarism -- akin to the 'This is a true story' message at the beginning of Fargo.

      I guess the problem is that when you make truth a matter of aesthetics, you're opening the flood gates. I do wonder what proportion of the QAnon etc nutters really do believe it on all levels.

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    3. I actually wonder that about religion. Do people genuinely believe that some bloke rocked up one day and said, "I've got all the answers to the universe," and they accept that. Or do most of them, as Camus put it, believe that they believe? I discovered Churchward's Mu books in the library when I was about 12, and I devoured the whole series, but I could tell they were fiction in the shape of nonfiction, and can be enjoyed on that basis. It seems that in the head of true believers there's a missing switch, so that everything gets put into the same category of reality. Alan Moore puts it well: "Do I believe in fairies? Well, I believe in absolutely every creature that the human imagination has ever thrown up, in an ontological sense, in that the idea of fairies exists, and I believe that fairies are the idea of fairies, just as I believe that gods are the idea of gods, that these things exist in a world of ideas in which they are completely real."

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    4. I think with religion, there is a level of 'automatic belief', certainly in those who, like me, were brought up in the church. If the people around you believe, and you are not given any specific reason to doubt, then you go on believing because it is the easiest course. Until and unless you run into something which makes you doubt, at which point you conduct an internal battle of reason over faith (encouraging this is part of the technique for weaning people off cults, I seem to recall: it has to be done by the person themselves to be effective. They must persuade themselves, rather than be persuaded by an outside agency).

      Later life converts to religion are subtly different, I suggest, because they, like the conspiracy theorists, have made a conscious decision to adopt a world view, presumably for what they regard as its benefits. The extent to which they actually believe... I suspect there's a spectrum. When I was in the sixth form a bunch of guys I knew suddenly started going to a local evangelical chapel. I think they believed more in the possibility of 'pulling girls' than they did the message of Jesus. But at the other extreme there are converts who are way more wholehearted in their belief than even 'automatic' me was as a nipper.

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    5. Michael Shermer talked about that spectrum of belief in a recent podcast, citing the guy who stormed off to that Washington pizzeria with an assault rifle. If people who say they believe the QAnon stuff *genuinely* believed it, wouldn't they all do that? And wouldn't a genuinely religious person behave completely differently? They don't, which makes me suspect that a small proportion actually believe that everything written in Bible/Koran/whatever is a true and accurate guide to life, and the rest park that belief in an unexamined box. Otherwise they'd all be demanding a flogging for those who wear garments of mixed fabrics and wanting thieves to have their hands cut off because God said so.

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    6. My schoolmates driven into the arms of the Lord by Lust (it didn't last long, of course) have reminded me of this idea. Even when I was a kid, I think I was aware of this spectrum, because it was clear to me that a lot of the people at church were less committed, in belief terms, than my parents. And it isn't as simple as believing the Bible uncritically. That's a loopy Fundamentalist trait. When asked about the fundamentals of his teaching, Jesus didn't spout all the Old testament bollocks, he phrased a pretty clear moral imperative: love thy neighbour as thyself . And for the hard of thinking, he went on to point out that 'neighbour' means everyone, however 'Other' you may feel them to be.

      So I always felt that people basically adhered to the superficial, unthinking rules approach as a means of distracting themselves from the religion's moral imperative. And none more so than America's 'Moral Majority' (I guess they've stopped calling themselves that, as it is so obvious they are neither).

      So there's an interpretative dimension there too. As the 6th January insurrectionists demonstrated, they are basically afraid of the consequences of their actions. Fear, surely, is one of the biggest drivers of this sort of thinking. 'Why are you arresting us? You should be arresting BLM!' they shrieked. As with the jihadis, there is a relatively small proportion that is whacked out enough to actually put the extreme beliefs into action. And there is also a small proportion who deliberately manipulate these people without getting their own hands dirty.

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    7. If I believed Jesus was God (and leaving aside all the questions I'd have about why God should have any influence over my ethics) then I'd live my life very differently. The fact that the C of E used to be described as "the Tory Party at prayer" demonstrates there's very little genuine Christianity among the rank-&-file.

      On the spectrum of belief, Deeyah Khan's film about meeting with white supremacists is interesting. She asked some of the ordinary good ole boy types what they thought of her, being the only woman and the only non-white person on their march. "Oh, well, you're OK because you're a friend," they said. Their hearts weren't really in the madness, they just wanted a group to belong to. Like the CU at college only sort-of nasty rather than sort-of nice. The leaders of the group were very different. They hated Khan and could barely tolerate being in the same room as her.

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  4. I saw a stand-up comic on YouTube, who had his own idea on how to argue with conspiracy theorists. Outcrazy them. “The moon landing was faked.” “Huh huh, you think the moon is real?” “Obama was born in Kenya.” “You know he’s a ghost, right?”

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    1. That used to be my approach (and I will click my fingers and cite Pierre de Lin Fini as evidence), but it worries me a little. Is it not highly likely that the elusive "Q" is actually just, as we say round these parts, extracting the urine? Doesn't prevent the dangerous consequences.

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    2. I once made a 12 year old conspiracy theorist (I was tutoring her science!) Who thought the Moon landing was faked briefly reexamine her belief by asking curious questions. It went a bit like this:
      Her: The Moon land king was faked because I saw a photo of the flag waving in the wind.
      Me: Why did the Moon landing people fake it on a windy day?
      Her: They weren't outside, they were inside.
      Me: Then where did the wind come from?
      Her: They sensed fans.
      Me: But if they knew there's no air on the Moon, why were they using fans?
      Her: They were just fake, ok?

      I then tried another approach.
      Me: Where did you see this photo?
      Her: Google images.
      Me: I saw a Google image of Obama's birth certificate. It said he was born in Kenya, so he shouldn't have been president.
      Her: Well that's not true.

      I had a moment where she realised a contradiction, but she quickly glossed over it. Like Socrates, no one will thank me for that approach.

      I think I will try crazier ideas next time.

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    3. Also: she saw a *photo* of it moving? Photos don't move...

      You could try showing her this site, but I'm afraid it's probably too late. If somebody reaches the age of 12 and is susceptible to that kind of nonsense, their chance of pulling themselves around and starting to think rationally is getting pretty slim :-(

      https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/space-stargazing/space-exploration/moon-landing-conspiracy-theories-debunked

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    4. Tim Harford has a recent piece on how to address these conspiracy beliefs (they're beliefs rather than theories). The first rule: "Don't lead with the facts." Unfortunately, people who don't like hearing facts will never shake off conspiracy beliefs. You might coax them out of one delusion, but they won't become rationalists. The best you can hope for is that they will now believe the truth without evidence instead of believing lies without evidence.

      Tim's other claim is: "We are all vulnerable to believing things that aren't true." I don't accept that. It's fashionable to fit everything these days into a mindset where there's no right and wrong, everybody's delusional in their own way, and so on. No. Some people are twits and some people are not. If we make it controversial to point that out then our civilization really has no chance.

      https://timharford.com/2021/02/were-living-in-a-golden-age-of-ignorance/

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  5. This is brilliant.

    My heart warms at the idea of how wonderfully ordered believing in many conspiracies must be. Nothing truly bad happens on its own, as all societal obstacles are planned. People and groups act rationally at all times, only do so with arcane outside influence. Your problem is caused by a person (or a group of people) that are truly evil, where you are divinely appointed to stop them.

    It would be comforting to believe in that world. It's like a lullaby for the mind. You are the hero with a thousand faces but your boon happens on Facebook.

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    1. It's amazing, isn't it, Josh? When these guys say there's a secret plot to bring about world government, end war, reduce global warming, and roll out international development of health, education and agriculture, I just wish we of the pro-science "elite" were really that powerful!

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    2. I once heard that some people would rather believe in an evil God than believe that there was no God. It makes bad things have a reason.

      It is also good to believe that you're the hero. Everyone wants to think that they're Luke Skywalker, while in actual fact they are probably someone having a drink in the canyons (and I count myself in that group).

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    3. I could accept the concept of a god or gods, in the sense of intelligences that created the universe. I'm agnostic to the idea, and it depends anyway what we mean by "the universe", but there's no way I can see to disprove it.

      Where I draw the line is when somebody says, "There's this guy who God spoke to hundreds of years ago and he explained what we should eat and who we can have sex with and stuff." That's where the hypothetical but possible premise veers off into "Howard Stark made a theme park in the shape of an atomic nucleus" territory.

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  6. Excellent post! I especially enjoyed the analysis of Iron Man 2 from a conspiracy theory perspective. I recall finding that part of the movie to be odd as well. While it was certainly entertaining, to this day I still don't understand why Stark Sr. didn't properly document his discovery.

    However, I do wish to point out a concerning theme namely the exclusive view on conspiracy theories held by members of the Republican Party. Conspiracy theories are not a monoply of the Republicans. Here in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area there are plenty of die-hard democrats who refuse to vaccinate their children and swear by "alternative" and non-western medicine.

    And as a fellow reader of Skeptic Magazine, I'm sure you would agree that the insistence many democrats have that "science, math, and logic are Western contructs designed to support the white patriarchy" is also a consipiracy theory.

    I could go on as there is so much more to the Woke agenda (not to mention the populist agenda on the right).

    The point is, I suggest that you do a disservice to your readers by only exposing the QAnon conspiracy theorists without pulling back the curtain on the leftist conspiracy theorests as well.

    A true skeptic is not beholden to anything or anyone other than the truth.

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    1. Totally agree with you that the truth is what counts, not party affiliation or what we might like to believe. I certainly wouldn't claim that there are no conspiracy theories of the left -- I just cited QAnon because it's the one that wins the gold for nuttiness. But those anti-vaxxers are just as dangerous, and I'll be having another of my little potshots at cancel culture here shortly.

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    2. My take on "cancel culture" is that you have the right to free speech. You do not, however, have the right to freedom from consequences for your free speech. You, Dave have the right to tell me that the asshole who attacked the Capital on Jan 6 were Antifa in disguise. But I also have the right to tell you that you're nuts and I'm not sending you any more of my money to help you subsidize your nutballery. You might call me mean or say that I'm cancelling you, but I also have freedom of choice. And freedom of association. Gina Carano is currently chewing on the sticky end of that wicket. She chose to Tweet a bunch of stupid, hateful crap. So Disney chose to fire her. That's not cancelling. That's just consequences.

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    3. My concern about cancel culture is the trial-by-mob aspect, which must always have been around but is amplified by the internet. Woody Allen, for example, I believe is vanishingly unlikely to have committed the crime that Mia Farrow accused him of, yet I continually meet people who have bought into it (I suspect often for political and/or anti-semitic reasons) and reject not only the man's views but all of his works. I also separate what I think of the person from what I think of their work, but that's a discussion for another post.

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  7. Well said, Grymlorde. And let's not forget the preposterously anti-scientific mass delusion known as "transgenderism", in which the most basic, observable biological reality is discounted. To me, this issue is the Phrenology of the 21st century. And like phrenology, transgenderism cloaks its nonsense under a veneer of scientific (or vaguely scientific) thought or "studies".

    I'll also bring up another point: It's fine to rely on science, but many people who insist that we do, really end up treating science like a lunch buffet: insist on Science for some issues, but ignore the science when it's inconvenient to their own worldview. Take the issue of genetically modified food. The Science is overwhelmingly clear: GMO food is completely safe. But this is the point where many people with a fetish for "Science" suddenly turn into conspiracy theorists. "Those studies are doctored! Monsanto paid off the scientists!" Etc. Etc. This unscientific attitude is not only restricted to individuals, but also includes EU countries and others who claim to follow science.

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    1. Speaking as an erstwhile scientist, I have no problem with GM food myself. In fact, anyone who does should eat grass instead of wheat!

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    2. Would you say, then, that the precautionary principle is not good science?

      For example, that in the face of a new virus which appears to transmit rapidly and which can be fatal, we should not lock down, because we do not yet have conclusive evidence for the precise level of danger?

      I remember long ago, the joke about Bill Gates boasting that if the automobile industry was as dynamic and innovative as the computing sector, we would be driving $25 cars that got 1000 miles to the gallon. The punchline is 'Yeah, but they'd crash twice a day'. In other words, you balance your risk-taking with the potential severity of the consequences.

      In any case, the GMO argument is not primarily an argument about the science, it is an argument about the economics, the modern equivalent of the seizure of the commons by landowners.

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    3. Not for nothing Gaetano Abbondanza but assuming that you are male, you are by definition "transgender." All human fetuses begin as females within the wombs. When the appropriate hormones kick in, that's when they "transition" to being male. I am not a scientist. I have not made any big study of transgenderism. However, I have seen picture of babies with Anencephaly (AKA born without parts of their head and skull). So the idea that stuff can go wrong in terms of the female-to-male birth development is far from difficult for me to believe.

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    4. That reminds me of a documentary I saw a while back, John, about a woman who discovered she was chromosomally male (ie XY, not XX) but whose body was immune to the effects of testosterone. So she had developed to look female (and a very attractive one, as a matter of irrelevant fact) except that she lacked a womb. And that's just the simplest of all the ways that male/female development can get mixed up.

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    5. I try to keep quiet on the transgender issue, seeing what has happened to J K Rowling. But 'the most basic, observable biological reality is discounted' is a rather problematic statement (and 'problematic' is probably my least favourite word). An old friend of mine is now a woman. That, to me, is the most basic, observable reality. Biology is only part of that reality, but as pointed out by johntfs and Dave, biology is the study of a highly complex set of systems which include various permutations. Given that, assuming it follows a rigid binary pattern does not seem, to me, like good scientific practice.

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    6. I can't honestly say I give gender a lot of thought. I don't go around thinking, "I'm a man," I just think, "I'm a person." And I think of everybody else likewise, most of the time. It seems to be becoming, like race, a topic that people are far more exercised over than they were twenty years ago.

      That said, I assume Gaetano was thinking in particular about kids in their early teens deciding they need hormone therapy to change gender. Adults can do what they like, but our society assumes children are not competent to make certain decisions (whether to have sex, for example) so I can see there's a discussion to be had. Probably well beyond the bounds of my expertise. I'm happy to talk about black holes, folklore, history and politics, but in the gnarly field of human emotion I'm Data rather than Troi. Also I don't want to get Rowlinged, obviously.

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    7. To continue an old gag then, I'm Lore.

      The irony is that I do agree that there are enormous problems with the "child transition industry" that has arisen. But my point is that adopting reductionist interpretations of the science doesn't help tackle those problems.

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    8. For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

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    9. To Paul, the argument about GMO is couched in terms of health, not economics, although you’ve probably gotten to the root of the real objection. At any rate, the precautionary principle, as you put it, no longer comes into play in the case of GMO, given the science, except as a tool of obstruction.

      Johntiff, I’m aware that a small number of people are born with genetic defects, but most if not all self-identified transgender do not fall in this category. To claim that I as a male am transgender based on in vitro development is to engage in pointless sophistry which completely ignores the definition of transgender as it is actually used and understood today.

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    10. I just came across this interesting point on GMO from a review of Bill Gates' new book:

      "His longstanding commitment to public health and the alleviation of poverty led him to oppose flaky green causes like Europe’s unscientific bans on genetically modified organisms. In a moving chapter, he notes that Africa’s poor have yet to enjoy the benefits of the first 'green revolution' in agricultural science, which from the 1960s boosted farming yields and saved a billion people in Asia from starvation; they desperately need more such innovations in crop science and fertilisers."

      https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2021/02/15/bill-gates-has-a-plan-to-save-the-world

      Meanwhile, in the dreamland of Q adherents, Bill Gates is secretly controlling us all with microchips. It's not just that they're wrong (though they are) but the narrative they've chosen to believe is also less interesting than the reality.

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    11. Exactly so, Dave. Anti-GMO is a fashionable but anti-scientific response among many self styled greens that would doom many people in the third world to starvation. Many environmentalists have a romantic attachment to “nature” which is peculiarly unscientific and, at its core, misanthropic.

      On a related note: An “environmentalist” who opposes fossil fuels AND nuclear power, AND natural gas extraction, should not be taken seriously.

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    12. An 'environmentalist' who does not oppose all three is not an environmentalist. (One reason why I wouldn't describe myself as an environmentalist.)

      So why not just say that you don't take environmentalists seriously?

      Incidentally I observe as much faith at play in the certainty of GMO's absolute safety, as I do in the certainty of its danger. And the presence of that faith does not evaporate simply by hurling the words 'anti-scientific' or 'unscientific'.

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    13. I was especially dismayed to learn there is considerable opposition to fusion research among Green voters in Europe. Fusion would provide cheap, clean, safe energy to sustain Western civilization and allow the rest of the world to level up without sending the climate into meltdown. What narrative is making those voters believe there's something to be feared?

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    14. Oh, please don't use 'level up'! In English, it means to make a surface the same level. In Japanese English, it means to go up a level. It's painful to me to see wasei Eigo infecting the English of people who should know better!

      What's wrong with the standard English 'catch up'?

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    15. I'm afraid a generation raised on CRPGs is going to inflict this sort of thing on us. I believe even our dear prime minister, who as we know delights in classical language, has been heard to chortle "achievement unlocked" when discussing Uganda with a new female acquaintance. (Sorry, probably TMI.)

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    16. "So why not just say that you don't take environmentalists seriously?"

      This is not environmentalism vs anti-environmentalism. Rather, its smart vs dumb environmentalism. Modern society cannot be powered by only using renewables. If energy was a three-course dinner, then renewables would be a condiment. Not even a side dish, mind you. A condiment. They have their place, but are limited.

      As I'm sure you know, renewables still need backup generators for when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine.

      As I'm sure you know, one of the main ingredients in batteries is cobalt, a deep-earth metal that is mined primarily in Africa. This mining leads to a whole host of environmental and human rights abuses.

      Anyone who really believes we are in a "climate emergency" (as opposed to a more generalized warming) would be crying for a transition to nuclear as quickly as possible.

      California, where I live, preens about it's progressive environmentalism. Instead of drilling for oil off of our own coast, we import it from the Middle East. This increases the price for consumers (energy poverty is a real thing), poses a national security risk (those countries probably don't align with enlightened western interests) AND contribute to global warming by releasing tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. So, it's a lose-lose-lose. Bad for the people, bad for the environment, and bad for national security. Trying to run the world economy strictly on renewables would have terrible consequences for people AND the environment.

      Do you see? Smart vs. Dumb Environmentalism. Many self described "environmentalists" used the salad bar approach that I described. Science is great when it supports what you like, but not so great when it doesn't. Your own hesitancy about GMO demonstrates the fact in yourself.

      But the good news, Paul, is that you write very interesting gamebooks.

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    17. I fail to see how hesitation is inherently unscientific. Unless, that is, we consider science to be a faith, couched in black-and-white revelations. But your post is full of the complexities that science deals with far better than faith-based solutions, so you can't be advocating that, right?

      Still, well done for painting me as a Luddite, like all those celebrated Luddites of yesteryear: Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Thomas Picketty. I have no hesitance about GMO 'safety' in the narrow terms you imply. My hesitance is mainly in economic terms -- though of course we all know that Monsanto in 2021 is immeasurably more to be trusted than Philip Morris in 1971 -- but if we are raising some of the science, there is a hesitation about the unknown effects of genetic drift, and more significantly, monoculture, on the extremely complex system of agriculture, and particularly populations of pollinators.

      But I guess it's easy to be sanguine about monoculture when you're sitting there in sunny California, gorging yourself on almonds and enjoying the plentiful supplies of fresh clean water which gush down every street. (It isn't just GMO-derived monoculture I 'hesitate' about.)

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    18. "I fail to see how hesitation is inherently unscientific".

      That's a great line. Should I suggest it to the anti-vaccine crowd? I'm sure they can spout objections and couch them in vaguely scientific terms, the same game you enjoy.

      California almonds are delicious, by the way. I'd recommend them with a nice cool glass of Pinot Grigio and some olive tapenade.

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  8. Last month I created charts for determing The Actual Type of Soldiers in The Army of A Character that has A Castle in Uttaku and the personnel on his ships, but shortly after using it to determine my characters something went wrong and I lost the only copy

    All in all a big shame. What do you think of my Characters Soldiers and the personnel on his ships?

    A 538 Strong Army made up of the following

    Professional soldiers

    110 very heavy Archers, 110 medium Swordsmen, 110 heavy Crossbowmen, 63 light Knights and 31 very Heavy Scouts

    Troops that aren't professionals

    110 combat trained Servants and my combat trained personal maker of arms and armour

    Advisors

    My combat trained personal Wizard, my combat trained personal Priest and The combat trained Steward who is in charge when I’m not their

    On my Ships

    All my ships have 70 Crew, 30 Marines, 30 Gunners operating 15 Spear Launchers, 13 Officers, 1 Pilot, 1 Navigator, 1 Cook, 1 Priest, 1 Doctor and the 2nd in command who is in command when I’m not onboard

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    1. I don't know much about the composition of ancient- or medieval-era armies. Maybe Jamie will chip in on this one. But I would suggest that light scouts are a lot more use than heavy ones.

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    2. Maybe heavy scouts are deployed against overweight enemies?

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  9. I've been very bored today and as I know Books 1 to 7 inside out I've chosen to spend most of it increasing both my Shards and Mithrals so that they'd both worth many millions and they're 3 lowest digits are 000

    This is with my best ever character, who now has 106,543,000 Shards and 52,888,000 Mithrals

    I managed to do all of it via gambling, Trading, my Golden Hair and selling free Faery Mead in The Forest of Despair in Book 2. What do you think?

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    1. What are planning to buy with all that cash? Ships in every harbor? Homes in every city? How many Celestium Wands do you need?

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  10. I have an in-law who denies evolution (and speciation), denies climate change, and denies covid19 as serious (follows the Ivor Cummins herd immunity idea), and probably other things we've never talked about. He's deeply religious.

    The article is right in that he's smart but poorly educated, and that he can become expert enough with a bit of reading to make his opinions valid.

    The things I've noticed are that he chooses sides that make the least demand on him, minimising his personal responsibility, and allowing anger at the mainstream media and the authorities.

    When challenged about c19 with specifics from, say, BBC More or Less, he would ignore it and say that Ivor Cummins had given him the facts he needed.

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    1. My father used to say there are some people whose attitude seems to be: "My mind is made up, don't bother me with the facts."

      It's curious that Cummins is an engineer, as I've come across several engineers who have some quite cranky beliefs. The most notable was Eric Laithwaite, a distinguished British electrical engineer who late in his career made himself a laughing stock with his notion that gyroscopes create anti-gravity. A little maths is a dangerous thing... On the other hand, that's anecdotal, and my father (see above) was also an electrical engineer, and he had no truck with pseudoscience.

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    2. Although Cummins bills himself as an 'engineer', I thought he made his money on crank diets? Which kind of explains everything, really.

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    3. Haha my Dad used to jokingly parody that kind of behaviour by saying “now don’t cloud the issue with LOGIC and FACTS!”

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    4. That's dads for you. They could joke about it back then. Nowadays it's getting a bit too close to home!

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  11. As usual, interesting stuff and food for thought.

    Some of the conspiracy theories might have a basis in reality, or a seed of truth to them. It's the taking it a stage further that is the problem for me.
    Satanic cults? How about The Hellfire Club as it appeared in West Wycombe all the way back in the 18th century with VIPs [including government officials and members of the Royal Family I believe?] indulging in heavy drinking and sexual orgies down in the caves burrowed into the hill beneath a church? They were dressing up as monks and mocking religion in an abbey. Compromising documents were burned in the end so we'll not know the full truth. Having said this, let's not go too far and say they were practising human sacrifice and drinking blood, but can we be sure that all of those present thought of it as nothing but a bit of merry-making?

    And [KEY POINT by me trying to be Devil's Advocate] if that was going on THEN, is it going on NOW?

    You see where this is headed?

    Anti-Vaxxers. I direct you to the appalling thalidomide scandal. Do you know what caused 'Gulf War Syndrome'? I don't. Was it all the injections they gave the troops? Has there been an investigation into it? In general, many people can feel rather ill straight after a jab. And when i was young there was a scare that the whooping cough jab was 'giving children brain damage'. (I suspect what happens is that children who are sadly fated to be autistic begin showing autistic behaviours round about the time of the jab or a bit later and parents, looking for an explanation, look at what has happened to the child recently and conclude it was the MMR that caused it).

    International paedophile groups? For sure we know that child sexual exploitation goes on and that international travel is sometimes involved. Did NO-ONE know about Epstein? Look in whose circles he moved. Can we conclude anything from that? What was going on in children's homes in the UK in the 70's, 80's 90's? Saville at the BBC? 'Sir' Cyril Smith the Liberal MP and paedophile whose activities were known about, weren't they? There's the abuse of children in Hollywood like Corey Haim, and what was going on in the Catholic Church as priests were moved about rather than dealt with. Grooming gangs in the UK. In all these cases who knew what and when and why did they say nothing? I do not have the answers to those questions so prefer to wait rather than speculate wildly. BUT in those blank spaces, some people WILL fill in the blanks. And they'll not always trust the official versions and reports either because things DO sometimes get covered up or made to go away for whatever reason.

    I notice 'Deep State' is right up there on that chart you attached. I do rather believe that for want of a better term a 'Deep State' in Egypt acted against the Muslim Brotherhood after they won the elections and conspired to topple Morsi. It's also clearly the case that Erdogan was nearly toppled by state insiders in a coup.
    And so is it utterly ridiculous that certain elements within democracies like ours could be working to 'manage' or 'steer' ministers or even presidents? I think some of this went on in America in Trump's time, to be honest both within their civil service and within the Republican Party itself. Cheer that on if you will, but acknowledge it as a thing that happened or at the least might well have happened. Does that make me a deep stater and top tier maniac? Be honest with me Dave!

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    1. Have you read Jon Ronson's book Them, Adam? The last chapter in particular gives a hint of what was probably really going on with groups like the Hellfire Club, ie larking about that others blow up out of proportion. (Full disclosure: I belonged to one of several revived Hellfire Clubs in my youth. We indulged in no subterranean orgies, more's the pity.)

      But, sure, just because conspiracy theories are mostly idiotic doesn't mean no conspiracies are real. Michael Shermer cites a few in a recent podcast, including Watergate. That's why David Grimes did some work on estimating what it would take to keep a conspiracy secret. Most real-life ones are incompetent (the attempt to stop Erdogan, for example) and/or get revealed because human beings can't helping blabbing. Trump was stuffing people personally loyal to him into key positions, but that was in plain view. Every lobbyist is in a sense conspiring to promote the faction they represent. That's why Washington, Madison, Hamilton, et al were so opposed to political parties. (Hamilton called them "the most fatal disease" of democracy.)

      Your point about people filling in the blank spaces is a really interesting one. That's how the human mind works and most of the time it's a feature, not a bug. Absent sure evidence, it's good to have a working hypothesis or even a guess to go on. Hence we used to think the Earth was the centre of a tiny universe, and creation myths focussed on how the Earth got made. Then we discovered we went around the sun, and that was a new blank for religions to fill. Ah, but then we discovered we were just one speck in a huge galaxy -- and the religions hurried to fill the new big blank space. But, oops, then it turned out that the smudge we called Andromeda was a whole other galaxy and only one of trillions. Science has a methodology for filling the blanks; faith just makes something up.

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    2. Thanks for your reply,

      I haven't read the Ronson book, but do have a biography of the Dashwood family [written by a Dashwood himself no less] lying around the house somewhere which I have been meaning to get round to reading for ages. No doubt there will be family stories passed down in there, and now things are at such a distance in time I expect a few salacious but exaggerated stories cant do any harm and might drum up a bit of tourist interest. So I'll be careful to look out for that.

      Your last point re religion. It's the 'God of Gaps' having to find a role in a universe where the gaps are getting smaller and smaller and sometimes winking out of existence.

      The things discussed already about 'faith' are interesting to me too. I think that's definitely a part of it. Like being in a cult, sometimes it's a desire to be in on secret knowledge and be aware of the 'hidden hand' directing things.
      Also I have noticed there is a strong desire to find the ill in someone one hates for political or religious reasons. This morphs into a wish to see them done down, (heretics and infidels that they are!) and can lead people to have faith in some odd or extreme things. Donald Trump as Russian asset? Donald Trump as multiple sex attacker and man paying prostitutes to do odd and shall we say unhygienic acts in a hotel? Did you read about that in the 'Steele dossier'? What has actually been proven?
      Echoing what is said elsewhere here, for some time now I have been hearing frankly unbelievable theories coming out of the mouths of clever and for the most part sensible people. And it is a faith [political for the most part] which I think is behind it.


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    3. As with so many Trump things, it's out in the open that Trump has been an 'asset' to Russia. The implication that he is knowingly an agent of Russia, acting for Putin, is indeed the sort of projection you are describing. But there's no shortage of evidence of him being a multiple sex attacker: not least his own gleeful confession. 'What has actually been proven?' You mean in a court of law? Well, there are plenty of reasons why Trump has not been found guilty of sex crimes in a court that do not require any far-fetched conspiracy at all.

      One characteristic of Trump that he himself explained early on is that so long as you come up with extremely lurid conspiracy-theory style accusations against your opponent, you can get away with outrageous behaviour yourself.

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    4. That's it Paul, I was talking about the idea that he was acting knowingly as their agent. A plant, or taking their money. An idea his campaign working alongside Putin hand in glove. The fact that he seems to have been working to 'normalise' relations with Russia and calm the tension - I remember the same thing happening under Obama with the 'reset button' meeting with Labrov in 2009. As you say, an 'asset', or a help to another country is one thing. But to construe that as being under their power or partisan in their favour is another. I dont consider Obama an asset of Islamic fundamentalists, even though aid including weaponry found its way into the hands of religious extremists in Syria.

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    5. We might have taken a different view if Obama had consistently failed to voice any criticism of Islamic leaders, of course.

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    6. It’s not just nature which abhors a vacuum so too do gossipers and conspiracy theorists!

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    7. I think he criticised Putin for his actions in Syria, backing Assad and using chemical weapons? And the US military struck Russian-backed forces in Syria itself? Also there was the nerve gas attack in the UK when he expelled more Russian ‘diplomats’ from his country than others did. Any other examples?

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    8. I was thinking specifically of his silence over Putin's violation of human rights and state gangsterism like the attack on Alexei Navalny. But we don't need to buy into the notion of Trump as a Russian asset to explain that. We know that Trump was generally slow to criticize autocrats, had no discernable moral code, and believed in mob politics (appointing family members, insisting on personal loyalty, offering favours to foreign leaders, etc). Did Putin know about business dealings in Russia that Trump denied? Maybe we'll find out if Trump's financial records are ever revealed. Or might it simply have been pride (consistent with Trump's prickly personality) in that, knowing the Russians had tried to influence the 2016 election in his favour, he didn't want them under scrutiny? None of these scenarios requires him to actually be a stooge of Putin, certainly.

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  12. Thanks Paul. I'll properly look into what you said there and think on it. I'd assumed that some [all?] of those allegations were in the same vein and to the same end as that dossier and therefore were part of what I perceived as a hurricane of disinformation put out by the Dems. That dossier was too lurid to be true in places, wasn't it? I had also thought that since nothing came of any of it, they were false or embellished. Anyway like I said, I'll get more clued-up on it now.
    At a tangent to this, straight away I see this on wikipedia:

    A year after the election, and after the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations and subsequent Me Too movement, 86 percent of Clinton voters found the allegations credible, while only six percent of Trump voters did.

    Which is interesting in of itself.

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    1. US politics is more polarized now that it has been since the 1930s. In fact it now shows more of the characteristics of faith than of reasoned priorities. I don't think this augurs well for the future:

      https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2021/02/12/joe-bidens-approval-ratings-are-more-polarised-than-donald-trumps

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  13. Great article. Wasn't the reason Papa Stark didn't document because he was as drunk as a lord most of the time?

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    1. A fondness for a tipple ran in the family, I hear. At the very least I think Howie could've taken a Sharpie and scrawled, "Plan for new element. Don't throw this away!" on the back of the board.

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  14. Just wanted to say: I read this post a couple days ago. When my kids insisted on watching Iron Man 2 last night, I had it firmly planted in my brain. Thanks for giving me something else to think about besides the mindless (if fun) popcorn violence.
    ; )

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    1. Just steer well clear of Iron Man 3, JB. Trust me on this one.

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    2. Btw, the story in IM2 might be ropey, but I give it a pass for Tony's rapid suiting-up on the Monaco racetrack. One of my favourite 30 seconds of cinema, that, because it's the perfect evocation of the original Ditko comic with the drama turned up to 11:

      https://images.saymedia-content.com/.image/c_limit%2Ccs_srgb%2Cq_auto:good%2Cw_620/MTc2NDUyMDE0Mjk1OTUxMzIy/steve-ditkos-other-creations.webp

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  15. It's worth reading this piece by Ian Leslie on how discussions online turn into assertions of identity, though I disagree with him about those who don't subscribe to anti-vaxx: "Our desire to be associated with mainstream views on medicine is also a way of signalling who we are." Actually I don't care a hoot about signalling who I am; I just want to be vaccinated so as not to catch covid-19.

    https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/16/how-to-have-better-arguments-social-media-politics-conflict

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  16. As a meta observation do you find it interesting as to which of your blog posts “blow up” with lots of comments back those that don’t. Is there a consistent theme? It would seem people feel more passionate about political and social phenomena than about what’s happening in the wondrous imaginary worlds you create... I guess that’s reassuring :-)

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    1. I was pondering that just last night, Nigel. My conclusion was a little less optimistic than yours -- it might just be that if you mention the MCU in a post it gets shared more on social media!

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  17. I suppose I should refrain from mentioning then, for fear of getting lynched by the Marvel Fan Club, that I’m not overly fond of the superhero genre. What real challenges does someone as powerful as Superman/Thor/the Hulk truly face? Where’s the drama and risk? Of course it then just leads to an absurd upping of the stakes - a sort of super villain arms race...with ever more ridiculously powerful foes that can destroy half the universe with a snap of the fingers... I’d much rather watch a drastically more low powered version of conflict. (Although I must confess to really enjoying “The Boys” tv series on Amazon Prime despite it being about super heroes... maybe because it was more gritty, dark and hilariously irreverent to some of the super hero tropes)...

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    1. I'd say that's exactly why Marvel has the edge over DC, or used to back in the Silver Age when I became a fan. Most of the Marvel heroes weren't overpowered -- witness Spider-Man's famous struggle to lift a piece of fallen machinery that Supes could flick away with his little finger. And Stan Lee's Marvel characters came burdened with emotional problems that all the superpowers in the world couldn't solve.

      I was never a big fan of the ultra-powered characters like Thor and the Hulk. I preferred Spidey and DD. That's one reason I don't share the general adulation of the Captain Marvel movie. She's just Superman without the Kryptonite. Characters like that are always boring. But then, she came after the Silver Age; the original Kree Captain Marvel wasn't nearly so mighty.

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    2. The current Hulk book (Immortal Hulk) is on my pull list, Nigel.

      It documents very well just what challenges someone as powerful as the Hulk can face.

      It's really ramped up the horror element and is a must-read.

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    3. Jamie lent me World War Hulk years ago, but it didn't grab me. Strangely enough, though, I never much liked Captain America back when I collected Marvel Comics, but those are among my favourite MCU titles. That might just be because the movie Cap is such a New Deal Democrat.

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  18. I once saw a very lazy conspiracy theory video. Some guy was saying that the probe orbiting Saturn was going to set off a juke there and turn it into a mini Sun taht would create a solar wind that would destroy most life in the surface of the Earth whilst the elites live in underground bases. While hearing this, I thought the second sun thing sounded familiar. Then inrealised he was borrowing from the plot of 2010: Odyssey 2 by Arthur C. Clarke. As if reading my mind, he then said that Arthur C. Clarke (whonwas dead at the time) knew of this plot and wrote it as a book because the secret elites have rules where they have to telegraph their plans but do it as fiction so that no one will know.

    I looked at the NASA website and they were actually going to crash their probe into Saturn in the near future to the time of release (in the summer of 2007), but they didn't in the end. So he had done some research.

    Or maybe he was just stealing the plot for his own conspiracy theory for fun and profit.

    I'm going with the second option until Saturn explodes.

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    1. Now you've got me thinking what it would take to get Saturn fusing, Stuart :-)

      Actually, can I start with Jupiter instead? It's easier to get there, it's more massive, and if the aim is to wipe out life on Earth then it's nearer. Though even if this Jupiter-sun was as bright as the actual Sun we'd still only get 6.5% as much radiation from it here on Earth. Nope, sorry, the guy's conspiracy theory isn't even on Marvel movie level. It's more of a DC plotline.

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  19. Also also, was this story necessary? Howard could have said something like 'Element 118 should work, but we don't have a big enough particle accelerator." Then instead of stealing some lame model, Tony could have donned a super big drilling iron man suit and dug out a tunnel long enough to build a particle accelerator and then use it to synthesize the element. That could have been more accurate AND more cinematic.

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    1. Just for the record, I do know that we have synthesized element 118 bybourdelfs. I picked that one because it is actually more stable (relatively) compared to the other new ones.

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    2. Actually, that's another thing. Why does Tony demolish his house using muscle power alone, when he's as rich as Elon Musk, he owns a huge research & manufacturing facility which is (incredibly) just off the PCH, and if he really wants to knock a wall down he could do it in seconds with his armour on?

      I gather there's some talk about a stable group of elements around atomic weight 300, though that probably corresponds in modern theory terms to the angels on the head of a pin discussion.

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  20. I was in a pub quiz about 25 years ago. One of the questions was, what is the maximum break in Snooker? Having just won a snooker competition (I don't like to talk about it), I felt reasonably well informed to put, it's actually 155, but the commonly held belief (and therefore probable answer) is 147. We ended up finishing second by a point, behind the same team that had not given us a point for the snooker question. I queried this with the compere. The compere knew nothing about snooker, so suggested I try to explain my "theory" to the captain of the opposite team. My initial probing question was "do you know anything about snooker?", to which the reply was emphatically, yes. At exactly the same point I commenced the explanation, the other person started shaking their head emphatically. The compere nullified the question and announced a tie. I didn't know whether to be elated or furious.

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  21. How nuts are these conspiracy believers? They're this nuts:
    https://news.yahoo.com/fake-snow-conspiracy-theory-claims-151311284.html

    Future generations will look back aghast at the sheer gleeful ignorance on show here.

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    1. Ahem... on snow here. After hearing my six year old son calling my wife "a bossy boiler" a few hours ago, the possibilities are endless.

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    2. "A bossy boiler", eh? Well, he's in trouble. I hope that's not an expression he heard you using, Andy.

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    3. No comment. The Fifth Amendment. Sniggering doesn't help. Some or all of the above apply, Dave.

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    4. No doubt it's not good parenting, but I almost piss myself at everything he says.

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    5. Btw Andy, here's something that I think will make your weekend:

      https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08XL9QHTG

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    6. Excellent! It certainly has, Dave. Have you read them yet? I thought the first book was right up there with the best of John's work. The covers are highly distinctive and I like them a lot, if they happen to be yours. Good timing as well, as I'm at half time with the Farouk books and having now read everything else I've ran out of John's material. Oh well, all good things must come to an end, I suppose. :(

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    7. Today's pearler was calling mummy "Mumbly bum" by the way.

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