February 29, 2008

Archibald finalists

A much livelier bunch of finalists this year than I can remember for quite some years, although the Archibald wouldn't be the Archibald without a few ridiculous clangers.

Hey, no naked people (unless I blinked and missed some), which is refreshing.

Look out for the "Packer's Prize", which was won for a striking portrait of Neil Finn.

Too many notables to mention, but the portrait of film critique David Stratton, while not one of the better efforts, it's nicely snirtle inducing.

Archibald finalists slideshow ....

Church humor

Via the wondrous Kathy.
Blessed be us all.

Duck Friday

February 28, 2008


Edinburgh University physicists said they had been trying to confirm the Standard Model Theory to explain the behavior of all matter and energy - an experiment that would lead to the secret of life.

Their $30M computer, capable of a trillion calculations a second, finally spat the dummy - after eight years, the big box was stumped.

The physicists had failed to incorporate the law of gravity into their little experiment.

Star light, star bright

Swirls of gas and dust reside in this ethereal-looking region of star formation seen by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. This majestic view, located in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), reveals a region where low-mass, infant stars and their much more massive stellar neighbors reside. A shroud of blue haze gently lingers amid the stars.

Known as LH 95, this is just one of the hundreds of star-forming systems, called associations, located in the LMC some 160,000 light-years distant. Earlier ground-based observations of such systems had only allowed astronomers to study the bright blue giant stars present in these regions. With Hubble's resolution, the low-mass stars can now be analyzed, which will allow for a more accurate calculation of their ages and masses.

C/O NASA - Image of the Day

With thanks to Hubble

February 27, 2008

Wednesday Wisdom

I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.

EB White

February 25, 2008

They will inheret the earth

Total cost at chemist: $34.05.

Hand sales assistant $50 note.

Dig in purse for five cent coin.

Sales assistant has already punched-through the $50, with the resulting change automatically calculated.

She graciously accepts my addition of the coin.

Stares befuddled at the cash register.

Dives under the counter for a calculator.

Spends a good two minutes punching numbers into calculator.

Finally provides me with correct change - $16.

Spends another minute writing very seriously on my receipt and her copy.

Hand written amendments on receipt:

- $50 crossed out and replaced with $50.05
- $15.95 crossed out and replaced with $16

No. She was not young. Around thirty-ish.

One of these days, her generation will be running planet Earth, not to mention explorations beyond Earth.

Days like this I wish I had my very own deity.

I would have said a little prayer.

Or two.

Nadda nadda

Ralph Nader, he of the sour grapes and party-pooper fame, today announced a fresh meaningless shit-fight for the White House, "eight years after earning the acid hatred of Democrats for dividing the anti-Republican camp in a razor-thin vote".

Ralph and his ego denied that they were running as a "spoiler" duo who could hand the presidency to Republican John McCain.

In a cheesy and clumsy grab for the cheap t-shirt market, Ralph declared:

"Dissent is the mother of assent, and in that context I have decided to run for president"

Meanwhile, rather than being stoked that anyone had read them, Hillary is mighty insulted and teary-eyed that people would dare pick on her poor-wittle proposed policies:

"Pundits had detected a hint of farewell in Senator Clinton's closing remarks at a debate with Senator Obama on Thursday. But the New York senator came out firing yesterday, declaring "shame" on her rival for attacking her healthcare and trade policies."

Instead of this bilge, Ralph is offering the "prospect of a competitive discourse over major areas of public policy".

The first contestant to submit the correct meaning of "competitive discourse", along with three illuminating examples, will win a cheap t-shirt with the slogan: "Dissent is the mother of assent and the metaphorically challenged".

New York Times ...

February 22, 2008

Boo hiss

A 2005 report on the "pending" rental property crisis has just come to light. The Howard government sat on it and stifled all requests for access. The country thanks you Johnny. Really. Especially renters.

An Italian judge has been sentenced to a year in jail for refusing to sit in a court with a crucifix on the wall. He's going to jail for believing courts should be neutral and secular.

Recent earthquakes in Israel have been blamed on Israel's parliament acceptance of gays, including permitting gays to adopt children. One expert opined that a cost effective way of averting earthquake damage would be to stop "passing legislation on how to encourage homosexual activity in the state of Israel".

Big-boned Kirstie Alley may have lost her contract with Jenny Craig, but she isn't done with fat yet. Alley is going to develop and pilot her own weight-loss brand. You go ggiirrrlll.

Duck Friday

February 20, 2008

Tatty tid-bits

A bewildered and amused, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard says a poll naming her as Australia's second sexiest woman is "very unusual".

The rest of the country was distraught and appalled and said the poll result is "a pile of dog-shit".

In international news, Jennifer Lopez and husband Marc Anthony will receive a "record" $US6 million ($AU6.5 million) for the first pictures of their twins, or their newly minted "dueling narcissists", as they'll henceforth be known to you and me.

The pictures of the babies will be shared by People and OK! magazines.

Until proven otherwise, I'm assuming that the two mag's will get one baby a piece, and will have a bitch-slap fight over who gets the pics of which spawn of Satan.

OK! magazine will print the pictures in their 15 international editions and are, apparently. beside themselves with excitement.

A spokesperson for the OK! magazine said: "It is fantastic for these international markets, and especially important with the immense strength the exclusive will bring to the new launch of OK! Spain."

The share price of all international markets plummeted overnight and at least 300 Spaniards have been trampled to death as millions attempt to leave the country on foot.

Plans for feeding the entire third world for the next two years have been put on hold until J-Lo and her obscenely proliferate addition to the spawntourage have been paid for a couple of photoshoped digital pictures, following their exit from the womb.

On a much happier note, Paris Hilton has reportedly been banned from the Oscars.

The hotel heiress - whose latest movie The Hottie and the Nottie grossed just $9,000 at the US box office in its opening weekend - was devastated after being told she couldn't attend the event.

A source said: "She cried hot, salty tears when she was banned from the Oscars. She's desperate to be taken seriously as an actress and hoped she would be able to network with film executives."

Hot? Salty? Tears?

Hey, wasn't that how we all reacted to One Night in Paris?

Ooops. Sorry. That was: "cold", "bitter", "snorts".

Paris had even splashed out £2 million on a designer dress for the ceremony at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.

Sure she did ("snort"). Because two million in British pounds is around four million in Australian money, and for those sort of dollars she could buy one frock, Buckingham Palace, 86 new chihuahuas and a nose job.

(I said nose job!)

Paris is now considering going to one of the many after-show parties but may have to wear a disguise.

A source added to Britain's Daily Star newspaper: "She's tempted to go to the parties afterwards but might wear her trademark wig to save her dignity."

We all know that attending parties in disguise, because you're not invited, not welcome and you're the Ebola of celebutards, is extraordinarily dignified.

Wednesday Wisdom

The most likely way the world will be destroyed, most experts agree, is by accident. That's where we come in; we're computer professionals. We cause accidents.

Nathaniel Borenstein

February 17, 2008

Late, but still not alarmed

Sooo, you know how the year gets away, right from the very first of January, right? Well, that's my excuse. I'm a very busy woman, with many important and slothful goals to fulfill and random KPIs to live down to.

Either that, or I've already written about this and I've forgotten. In fact, I think I might have. In which case: I'm a very forgetful woman, with many important and slothful goals to fulfill and random KPIs to live down to, and this is a new depth, so I'll get a half year bonus come blog-performance-review time in June.

Either way, this is from The New York Times, published on January 01 (yeah, yeah, of this year). I thought it was good. I like the concept of availability entrepreneurs and availability cascades. Yes I do. Perhaps you will too.

"You’re in for very bad weather. In 2008, your television will bring you image after frightening image of natural havoc linked to global warming. You will be told that such bizarre weather must be a sign of dangerous climate change — and that these images are a mere preview of what’s in store unless we act quickly to cool the planet.

Unfortunately, I can’t be more specific. I don’t know if disaster will come by flood or drought, hurricane or blizzard, fire or ice. Nor do I have any idea how much the planet will warm this year or what that means for your local forecast. Long-term climate models cannot explain short-term weather.

But there’s bound to be some weird weather somewhere, and we will react like the sailors in the Book of Jonah. When a storm hit their ship, they didn’t ascribe it to a seasonal weather pattern. They quickly identified the cause (Jonah’s sinfulness) and agreed to an appropriate policy response (throw Jonah overboard).

Today’s interpreters of the weather are what social scientists call availability entrepreneurs: the activists, journalists and publicity-savvy scientists who selectively monitor the globe looking for newsworthy evidence of a new form of sinfulness, burning fossil fuels.

A year ago, British meteorologists made headlines predicting that the buildup of greenhouse gases would help make 2007 the hottest year on record. At year’s end, even though the British scientists reported the global temperature average was not a new record — it was actually lower than any year since 2001 the BBC confidently proclaimed, “2007 Data Confirms Warming Trend.”

When the Arctic sea ice last year hit the lowest level ever recorded by satellites, it was big news and heralded as a sign that the whole planet was warming. When the Antarctic sea ice last year reached the highest level ever recorded by satellites, it was pretty much ignored. A large part of Antarctica has been cooling recently, but most coverage of that continent has focused on one small part that has warmed.

The most charitable excuse for this bias in weather divination is that the entrepreneurs are trying to offset another bias.

When judging risks, we often go wrong by using what’s called the availability heuristic: we gauge a danger according to how many examples of it are readily available in our minds. Thus we overestimate the odds of dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash because we’ve seen such dramatic deaths so often on television; we underestimate the risks of dying from a stroke because we don’t have so many vivid images readily available.

Slow warming doesn’t make for memorable images on television or in people’s minds, so activists, journalists and scientists have looked to hurricanes, wild fires and starving polar bears instead. They have used these images to start an “availability cascade,” a term coined by Timur Kuran, professor of economics and political science at Duke University, and Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

The availability cascade is a self-perpetuating process: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and more fear.

“Many people concerned about climate change,” Dr. Sunstein says, “want to create an availability cascade by fixing an incident in people’s minds. Hurricane Katrina is just an early example; there will be others. I don’t doubt that climate change is real and that it presents a serious threat, but there’s a danger that any ‘consensus’ on particular events or specific findings is, in part, a cascade.”

Once a cascade is under way, it becomes tough to sort out risks because experts become reluctant to dispute the popular wisdom, and are ignored if they do. Now that the melting Arctic has become the symbol of global warming, there’s not much interest in hearing other explanations of why the ice is melting — or why the globe’s other pole isn’t melting, too.

[A] paper in Nature concluded that global warming has a minimal effect on hurricanes. It was published in December — by coincidence, the same week that Mr. Gore received his Nobel Peace Prize.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Gore didn’t dwell on the complexities of the hurricane debate. Nor, in his roundup of the 2007 weather, did he mention how calm the hurricane season had been. Instead, he alluded somewhat mysteriously to “stronger storms in the Atlantic and Pacific,” and focused on other kinds of disasters, like “massive droughts” and “massive flooding.”

“In the last few months,” Mr. Gore said, “it has been harder and harder to misinterpret the signs that our world is spinning out of kilter.”

But he was being too modest.

Thanks to availability entrepreneurs like him, misinterpreting the weather is getting easier and easier."

In 2008, 100% chance of alarm - The New York Times

The world did not end

Despite predictions that the world would come to an end, amongst other dire warnings, the fight for women's suffrage was won in Victoria 100 years ago.

Remember the lovely Darlene? Well, she's still over at that group-bloggy place, and she has a post about the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage - here ...

Darlene quotes from some Queensland history on the matter:
"If they get the franchise, they will be saying to their husbands, “Look here, I am going to a meeting. You can stop home and mind the children”…That is how the women’s franchise will work. By and by there will be no children at all."
Yep, having to go and vote once every three years sure cuts down on the availability of one's time to do superfluous stuff like meeting members of the opposite gender, engaging in afternoon teas, or waddling around pregnant.

Sorry to spoil the party

John Lyons starts off oddly, with an absurdly cheesy assumption, one so difficult to sustain that we have to put it down to his eagerness to please by joining the herd in attempting to inculcate the general populace into believing the ridiculous.
"It was, by any measure, a remarkable week in the life of this nation. Whether you agreed or not with the apology, it was one of those moments for which you'll probably remember where you were and who you were with."


In truth, there are few such moments in life, stemming from public events, for some generations there are no such moments. For the unfortunate, there are more such moments in life, stemming from private events. The split seconds that can change the world, or change forever an uneventful existence, cannot be simulated, cannot be appropriated, cannot be foisted onto people.

For anyone wondering: I was at work, doing something of a work-like nature, I was in my little work-place desk pod that I share with Steve. Many days later I still haven't heard or seen the "sorry" speech on radio or television. A day after the event I got around to reading Rudd's short, insipid speech online. I write this now, because I won't remember next week, or next year, or next decade.

Still, I forgive Lyons his silliness, I indulge his urber-hype, purely because that rest of what he writes alludes to, quiet gently, I would suggest, the bitter and ugly truth that the "sorry" symbolism has momentarily papered over.

"There seemed a sense that the country had grown up somewhat by purging itself of some of the demons of the past. There seemed a national sigh of relief.

But for me the glow only lasted 11 hours - I was brought back to reality that evening when I attended an event that provided a very serious reality check.

It was a dinner hosted by Quadrant magazine whose guest speaker was a 46-year-old private citizen called Mal Brough. He'd been, of course, the minister for Indigenous Affairs in the Howard government.

"Tonight there will be children who will be subjected to unspeakable acts; who will see their parents or relatives with whatever form of substance abuse; who will actually live in the most deprived and depraved circumstances; who will put their heads down on concrete floors not having bathed for days, if not weeks; with lice and scabies; who will get rat bites tonight. All in Australia, all at a time when we are celebrating in our nation's capital a new beginning."...

At times on Wednesday night it could have been Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson speaking. Pearson supported the intervention last year when he said: "The people who are nay-saying are people whose children sleep safely at night." ...

"I don't need an academic in Melbourne or Sydney to tell us that we are seeing languages wiped out," he said. "We are seeing people wiped out. Let's get that right and maybe the culture will live on.

"How can it be in a country where it is against the law in every state and territory not to have your children at school every day without a reason that we allow thousands of children - not only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, but there are a lot of them - never to see the inside of a school room?"

What was so shocking was the detail of the lives of Aboriginal children. ...

Recently, in one community, there were 300 rat bites on children. "There was a fight between two community organisations that had the rat baits about who would pay to have them put out."

And dental students wanted to go to Aurukun to fix teeth but the Queensland police told them it was too dangerous.

But then came the most horrible statistic. In one town in Western Australia which had 90 males, 15 had been charged with child sex offences.

The permit system, which he began to abolish and which the Rudd Government wants to bring back, was "apartheid". It prevented media access.

NT police had said permits stopped "baddies" coming in; "well why then do 45 of our 45 Aboriginal communities have sexual predators in them?"

Because state governments had not spent sufficiently on teachers "if a child doesn't turn up to school that's not such a bad thing because we don't need another classroom.

"When we're actually saying to a child 'you don't have to start learning English until you are seven, eight or nine years of age' then we're really saying 'you don't have a part in the rest of Australia'." ...

"They think of indigenous people living in central Australia or in Arnhem Land or anywhere in the top end as somehow living a lifestyle of a noble savage, living off the land ... the reality is these people are dying of diabetes because of an inadequate diet, they are dying of malnutrition because their parents don't feed them adequately, they have diseases which have been eradicated everywhere else." ...

Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine had argued against welfare dependency, Brough said. "If you keep handing money over which is used for all the wrong things: $15,000 in the pot for a game of cards where children don't get fed for 24 hours."

Land rights, he said, were often used as a reason conditions could not be improved.

"Since when do land rights come ahead of human rights? Since when does a child born with alcohol foetal syndrome have an affinity with the land? Since when does such a child have the capacity to pass on an oral history when they don't understand what's going on because their minds are messed up from before birth." ...

Kevin Rudd, he said, needed to be wary of "the service providers". "No one should underestimate how much is at stake in the power bases, the political bases and the financial bases when you upset the apple cart."

Brough asked: why had so many people not made more noise over the past 20 years, including Labor's member for the NT, Warren Snowdon. "Are these people deaf, dumb and blind? Why is it that ATSIC didn't rail against this stuff?

"Ladies and gentlemen, today, they said, was a historic day. It will be a historic day if in 30 years time we're making another apology because we didn't have the gumption to face up to the facts of our demons."

Sorry to spoil the party, The Weekend Australian ...

More likely, in another fifty years time someone will have to say sorry on behalf of the swollen generation for not "stealing" several generations of woebegotten, neglected, uneducated and chronically abused Aboriginal children. But perhaps not. Given their life expectancy, perhaps their won't be enough alive for anyone to bother apologizing.

February 16, 2008

Kev's brain bank

In April, 1000 of our best and brainiest will gather in Canberra to give Kevin a dozen or so good ideas for the next 10 years. That's barely one worthy idea for each year, but hey, entire years currently go by with nary an idea of any kind passing through, or by, a pollie, so lets not be too finicky.

The 20/20 summit line-up might include *celebrities* such as Cate Blanchett, Collette Dinnigan and the designers from the Sass & Bide label.

Ooh, aah: I see lots of Koda-color moments from this summit already.

It would be great fun if Cate gets a guernsey, what with her touting of three minute showers and her view that Australia should abandon its alliance with the US.

While we might end up with no allies, if Cate gets her way, at least Dinnigan and Sass & Bide will make sure that we're all dreadfully well dressed. That'll keep us safe. No one will dare pick on an entire nation of the well coiffed and the sartorially splendid.

February 15, 2008

February 14, 2008

Not catchy, but awfully true

Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock. - Ben Hecht

Steve Salerno might not have the alliterative talents of Jeremy Justus (come on people, Jeremy is worth the admission price, purely for his titles), but despite a deficit of creativity and pizazz in his title writing, Steve does an inarguably elegant job of explaining why news is no better, and no more, than bubble gum for the ears and eyes, just like all of the other informational crap that we all consume and discard.

Think that a trash-mag and the nightly news have nothing in common? You know they do. You know it in you small throbbing cynical heart that they are spawn of the same devil.

If you've ever questioned whether or not the puerile "journalism versus blogs" *debate* truly is spurious claptrap, anencephalous blustering, and palavering posturing, then the answer lies here.

This is why *self-described [computer] bloggers* are just as legitimate, just as entitled to prattle, just as good - perhaps better - at pushing an unashamed barrow, equally prone to accidental truths, or monumental idiocies, as any news reporter or journalist ever will be, and, very often, providers of a far superior source of scurrilous nonsense and day-to-day ticky-tocky.

(Edited extract)

How broadcast journalism is flawed in such a fundamental way that its utility as a tool for informing viewers is almost nil.

by Steve Salerno

It is the measure of the media's obsession with its "pedophiles run amok!" story line that so many of us are on a first-name basis with the victims: Polly, Amber, JonBenet, Danielle, Elizabeth, Samantha. And now there is Madeleine. Clearly these crimes were and are horrific, and nothing here is intended to diminish the parents' loss. But something else has been lost in the bargain as journalists tirelessly stoke fear of strangers, segueing from nightly-news segments about cyber-stalkers and "the rapist in your neighborhood" to prime-time reality series like Dateline's "To Catch a Predator." That "something else" is reality.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in a given year there are about 88,000 documented cases of sexual abuse among juveniles. In the roughly 17,500 cases involving children between ages 6 and 11, strangers are the perpetrators just 5 percent of the time — and just 3 percentof the time when the victim is under age 6. (Further, more than a third of such molesters are themselves juveniles, who may not be true "predators" so much as confused or unruly teens.) Overall, the odds that one of America's 48 million children under age 12 will encounter an adult pedophile at the local park are startlingly remote. The Child Molestation Research & Prevention Institute puts it like so: "Right now, 90 percent of our efforts go toward protecting our children from strangers, when what we need to do is to focus 90 percent of our efforts toward protecting children from the abusers who are not strangers." That's a diplomatic way of phrasing the uncomfortable but factually supported truth: that if your child is not molested in your own home — by you, your significant other, or someone else you invited in — chances are your child will never be molested anywhere. Media coverage has precisely inverted both the reality and the risk of child sexual assault. Along the way, it has also inverted the gender of the most tragic victims: Despite the unending parade of young female faces on TV, boys are more likely than girls to be killed in the course of such abuse.

Sadly, we're mistaken. To argue that a decided sloppiness has crept into journalism or that the media have been "hijacked by [insert least favorite political agenda]" badly misses the real point; it suggests that all we need to do to fix things is filter out the gratuitous political spin or rig the ship to run a bit tighter. In truth, today's system of news delivery is an enterprise whose procedures, protocols, and underlying assumptions all but guarantee that it cannot succeed at its self described mission. Broadcast journalism in particular is flawed in such a fundamental way that its utility as a tool for illuminating life, let alone interpreting it, is almost nil.

We watch the news to "see what's going on in the world." But there's a hitch right off the bat. In its classic conception, newsworthiness is built on a foundation of anomaly: man-bites-dog, to use the hackneyed j school example. The significance of this cannot be overstated. It means that, by definition, journalism in its most basic form deals with what life is not.

Thus, journalism as currently practiced delivers two contradictory messages: that what it puts before you (a) is newsworthy (under the old man bites dog standard), but also (b) captures the zeitgeist. ("You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world," gloat all news radio stations across the country.) The news media cannot simultaneously deliver both. In practice, they fail at both. By painting life in terms of its oddities, journalism yields not a snapshot of your world, but something closer to a photographic negative.

Even when journalism isn't plainly capsizing reality, it's furnishing information that varies between immaterial and misleading. For all its cinema-verité panache, embedded reporting, as exemplified in Iraq and in Nightline's recent series on "the forgotten war" in Afghanistan, shows only what's going on in the immediate vicinity of the embedded journalist. It's not all that useful for yielding an overarching sense of the progress of a war, and might easily be counterproductive: To interpret such field reporting as a valid microcosm is the equivalent of standing in a spot where it's raining and assuming it's raining everywhere.

Journalism's paradoxes and problems come to a head in the concept of newsmagazination, pioneered on 60 Minutes and later the staple tactic of such popular clones as Dateline, 48 Hours, and 20/20. One of the more intellectually dishonest phenomena of recent vintage, newsmagazination presents the viewer with a circumstantial stew whipped up from:

  • a handful of compelling sound-bites culled from anecdotal sources,
  • public-opinion polls (which tell us nothing except what people think is true),
  • statistics that have no real evidentiary weight and/or scant relevance to the point they're being used to "prove,"
  • crushing logical flaws such as post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning,
  • faulty or, at best, unproven "expert" assumptions, or other "conventional wisdom" that has never been seriously examined,
  • a proprietary knowledge of people's inner thoughts or motives (as when a White House correspondent discounts a president's actual statements in order to reveal to us that president's "true agenda"), etc.

One underlying factor here is that journalists either don't understand the difference between random data and genuine statistical proof, or they find that distinction inconvenient for their larger purpose: to make news dramatic and accessible. The media need a story line — a coherent narrative, ideally with an identifiable hero and villain. As Tom Brokaw once put it, perhaps revealing more than he intended, "It's all storytelling, you know. That's what journalism is about." The mainstream news business is so unaccustomed to dealing with issues at any level of complexity and nuance that they're wont to oversimplify their story to the point of caricature.

[That] doesn't stop journalists from finding patterns in happenstance. Take lightning. It kills with an eerie predictability: about 66 Americans every year. Now, lightning could kill those 66 people more or less evenly all spring and summer, or it could, in theory, kill the lot of them on one really scary Sunday in May. But the scary Sunday in May wouldn't necessarily mean we're going to have a year in which lightning kills 79,000 people. (No more than if it killed a half-dozen people named Johanssen on that Sunday would it mean that lightning is suddenly targeting Swedes.) Yet you can bet that if any half-dozen people are killed by lightning one Sunday, you'll soon see a special report along the lines of, LIGHTNING: IS IT OUT TO GET US? We've seen this propensity on display with shark attacks, meningitis, last year's rash of amusement-park fatalities, and any number of other "random event clusters" that occur for no reason anyone can explain.

Journalists overreact to events that fall well within the laws of probability. They treat the fact that something happened as if we never before had any reason to think it could happen — as if it were a brand-new risk with previously unforeseen causation.

The problem for society is that giving headline prominence to meaningless or marginal events exalts those events to the status of conventional wisdom. "Reporting confers legitimacy and relevance," writes Russell Frank, Professor of Journalism Ethics at Penn State University. "When a newspaper puts a certain story on page one or a newscast puts it at or near the top of a 22 minute program, it is saying to its audience, in no uncertain terms, that 'this story is important.'" The self-fulfilling nature of all this should be clear: News organizations decide what's important, spin it to their liking, cover it ad nauseam, then describe it — without irony — as "the 800-pound gorilla" or "the issue that just won't go away." This is not unlike network commercials promoting sit-coms and dramas that "everyone is talking about" in the hopes of getting people to watch shows that apparently no one is talking about.

This truism was not lost on the late David Brinkley, who, towards the end of his life, observed, "The one function that TV news performs very well is that when there is no news, we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were."

On June 9, 2005, as part of its ongoing series of "Security Updates," CNN airs a special report titled "Keeping Milk Safe." Over shots of adorable first-graders sipping from their pint cartons, CNN tells viewers that the farm-to-shelf supply chain is vulnerable at every point, beginning with the cow; with great drama, the report emphasizes the terrifying consequences such tampering could have. Nowhere does CNN mention that in the history of the milk industry, no incident of supply-chain tampering has ever been confirmed, due to terrorism or anything else.

[Hurricane] Floyd caused a fair amount of damage when it finally hit on Thursday: 57 deaths and an estimated $6 billion in property loss. But here's where things get curious. By the time Floyd blew in, media interest clearly had ebbed. On television at least, coverage of the aftermath was dispatched in a day or so, with occasional backward glances occupying a few moments of air time in subsequent newscasts.

Bottom line, the coverage of Floyd before it was a real story dwarfed the coverage given the storm once it became a story. Evidently the conjured image of tidal waves crashing on shore was more titillating to news producers than film of real life homeowners swabbing brownish muck out of their basements.

Today's newspeople have substantially improved on one of the timeless axioms of their craft: "If it bleeds, it leads." They prefer the mere prospect of bad news to most other kinds of news that did occur.

The result is journalism as Stephen King might do it: the dogged selling of the cataclysm 'round the corner, complete with stage lighting and scenes fictionalized for dramatic purposes. Sure, the camera loves suspense.

But … is suspense news? Is it really news that someone thinks a hurricane might kill thousands? It might kill no one, either, which is historically closer to the truth. Honest journalism would wait to see what the storm does, then report it.

Nowhere are these foibles more noticeable — or more of a threat to journalistic integrity — than when they coalesce into a cause: so-called "advocacy" or "social" journalism.

To begin with, there are legitimate questions about whether journalism should even have causes. Does the journalist alone know what's objectively, abstractly good or evil? What deserves supporting or reforming? The moment journalists claim license to cover events sympathetically or cynically, we confront the problem of what to cover sympathetically or cynically, where to draw such lines and — above all — who gets to draw them. There are very few issues that unite the whole of mankind. Regardless, as Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism told USA Today, "News outlets have found they can create more … identity by creating franchise brands around issues or around a point of view."

In his thinking and methodology, today's journalist resembles the homicide cop who, having settled on a suspect, begins collecting evidence specifically against that suspect, dismissing information that counters his newfound theory of the crime. Too many journalists think in terms of buttressing a preconceived argument or fleshing out a sense of narrative gained very early in their research. This mindset is formalized in journalism's highest award: the Pulitzer Prize. Traditionally, stories deemed worthy of Pulitzer consideration have revealed the dark (and, often as not, statistically insignificant) underbelly of American life. In 2007 the Pulitzer for "public-service journalism" went to The Wall Street Journal, for its "creative and comprehensive probe into backdated stock options for business executives…" The Journal reported on "possible" violations then under investigation at 120 companies. There are 2764 listed companies on the New York Stock Exchange; NASDAQ adds another 3200. Not to dismiss the sincerity and diligence of the Journal's work, but what's the final takeaway here? That 120 companies (0.02 percent) "possibly" cheated? Or that — so far as anyone knows — at least 5844 others didn't?

Food for thought: Every time I fly, I'm amazed that these huge, winged machines get off the ground, stay off the ground, and don't return to ground until they're supposed to. Think about the failure rate of commonplace products: Light bulbs burn out. Fan belts snap. Refrigerators stop refrigerating. But planes don't crash. Actuarially speaking, they simply don't. The entire process of commercial flight and the systems that support it is remarkable. Do you fully understand it? I don't. I'm sure lots of people don't. Still, you won't win a Pulitzer for a piece that sheds light on the myriad "little miracles" that conspire to produce aviation's normalcy, stability and success. You'd be laughed out of today's newsrooms for even proposing such a piece (unless you were doing it as the kind of feel-good feature that editors like to give audiences as gifts for the holidays). Have a flight go down, however — one flight, one time — and have a reporter find some overworked ATC operator or other aberration that may have caused the disaster, and voila! You're in Pulitzer territory for writing about something that — essentially — never happens.

The world we're "given" has an indisputable impact on how Americans see and live their lives. (How many other events are set in motion by the "truths" people infer from the news?) Here we enter the realm of iatrogenic reporting: provable harms that didn't exist until journalism itself got involved.

Figuratively speaking, we end up drowning in the tides of a hurricane that never makes shore.

I give you, herewith, a capsule summary your world, and in far less than 22 minutes:

  • The current employment rate is 95.3 percent.
  • Out of 300 million Americans, roughly 299.999954 million were not murdered today.
  • Day after day, some 35,000 commercial flights traverse our skies without incident.
  • The vast majority of college students who got drunk last weekend did not rape anyone, or kill themselves or anyone else in a DUI or hazing incident. On Monday, they got up and went to class, bleary-eyed but otherwise okay.

It is not being a Pollyanna to state such facts, because they are facts.

Next time you watch the news, keep in mind that what you're most often seeing is trivia framed as Truth.

Or as British humorist/philosopher G.K. Chesteron whimsically put it some decades ago:

"Journalism consists in saying 'Lord Jones is dead' to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive."

From The Skeptics Society email newsletter

Sorry not a big hit

"In one online poll 36 per cent were in favour of the apology and 64 per cent against, while another had the number at 44 in favour to 56 opposed. "It shows that the average Australian in the street is not in favour of what our leaders are doing ..."
Radio callers outraged: I'm disgusted, says one ...

(I thought all radio callers said that, about everything.)

Well, I guess we've peaked in terms of unification and warm fuzzy feelings. Hope it was good for you.

Turns out that symbolism is a bust.

February 13, 2008


Eight million Americans admit to sending themselves gifts on Valentine's Day, according to an "Ipsos Insight" poll. (Yeah, I dunno what an "ipsos" is either.)

One in five men make the fatal mistake of agreeing to the "let's not exchange gifts" thing, and than taking it seriously.

Which likely explains the six million (to date, and still counting, I presume) people who have broken up on Valentine's Day.

Hugs and kisses to everyone on Valentine's Day, no matter how many toes you have, or whether you are of our Ike or not, you are someone, and that's the best thing to be - since you can be no other.

Old love, new love, looking for love, avoiding love, whatever, don't send yourself a cheesy gift, just think happy sun-shiny thoughts and produce an inner glow of contentment for waking up in the morning, saying an audible "yes" - all the rest is sugar.


Wednesday Wisdom

The very purpose of existence is to reconcile the glowing opinion we have of ourselves with the appalling things that other people think about us.

Quentin Crisp

February 10, 2008

Piss Stance - with Jeremy Justus

Forget the unusually *wide stance* (well, don't forget it entirely, it comes in handy for lulls in conversation), we're going to delve into the much neglected area of private parts in public places (yes, yes: those private parts).

Remember Jeremy? Of course you do!

We visited the alliteratively talented Jeremy Justus early last year, and came to a whole new appreciation of floating meta-signifiers when we plunged into his "Surveillance, Paranoia, and Abjection: The Ideological Underpinnings of Waste Management in the EPA's Measuring Recycling Guidelines and Don DeLillo's Underworld."

Where garbage and literature meet ...


Ah, yes!

Before we get too deep into the realms of private parts, we must also offer thanks to Jeremy for bringing
to our attention the (alleged) description used by Stephen King when speaking of academics: "Dickheads on auto-stroke." (Tee hee, tee hee.)

Now, without further ado, let's tackle the topic of men pissing in public, or rather, Jeremy will, on our behalf:

Piss Stance: Private Parts in Public Places: An Analysis of the Men's Room and Gender Control - Jeremy C. Justus, Studies in Popular Culture, 28.3, April 2006

I know what you're thinking: "how could this possibly be important to my everyday life", 'ey?

Try telling that to one Edward Aldridge, a 47 year old New Zealander, who recently found himself on assault charges.

If only the victim had read Piss Stance, Mr Aldridge might not have been forced into the awkward situation of having to pummel him over blatant breaches of urinal etiquette.

Mr Aldridge punched his victim after he used the urinal next to him in a pub in Christchurch. The breach was compounded when the victim had the further gumption to speak to the defendant, while peeing, we pressume. As defense council put it: "he was effectively smirking. The defendant was outraged".

As would we all have been, non?

There are three simple rules for the men's public toilet, which males with the most limited capability should be able to master, even New Zealanders:
1) Do not stand directly next to another man at another urinal. There should be a "buffer zone" of at least one urinal on either side of the user.

2) Do not look at another user during urination, and, if possible, keep conversation to an absolute minimum. Staring directly, and blankly, forward at the wall is the common preference.

[Umm, not exactly a guy practice limited to peeing-time. I have worked with men who are paid to do exactly this, in the public space of the office - ed.]
3) If you shake if more than twice, you're playing with it.
[I have also worked with men who are paid to do exactly this, in the public space of the office - ed.]
There are exceptions to each of these simple rules, for which you will need to read Jeremy's article.

On point (3) Jeremy expands:
"shaking it more than twice does not constitute masturbation, nonetheless men are taught to avoid even simulated public masturbation in the context of the male restroom".
Which is great, really, and probably explains why so many young men save their simulated masturbation displays for every other public place you can name - anywhere other than the men's toilets.

[As a quick sidebar, and as I know that the manly men amongst you will be carefully examining the two helpful diagrams in Jeremy's article, I will point out that Jeremy has noted that there was a formatting error on page 65: the arrow should be pointing at the "O" indicating the fourth urinal from the left.]

It sounds altogether more grand than it smells when Jeremy writes:
"I will refer to the public men's room as both a theatre and an arena to indicate the public restroom's role as both a stage that demands a performance and a space that elicits competition."
Of even greater import though, is Jeremy's discovery that men can, in fact, and contrary to all evidence or results of previous research, do more than one thing at at time:
"I will focus on the urinal - a urninary wast receptacle that affords a man the opportunity to do exactly what he has been designed to do: to stand and pee at the same time."
Bang goes one myth.

As delightful and admirable is Jeremy's abiding academic interest in pissing and private parts, not to mention his valuable contribution to all matters surveillance-related, one is left in the lurch when it comes to the ladies room.

The most readily identifiable commonality is the etiquette of distance: not using a cubicle immediately next to one that is already occupied, and, ideally, the one furthest from any that are already occupied. As with the men's restrooms, so too, one would expect that this would be an embedded etiquette of the ladies loo's. However, it is breached with such tedious regularity that I'm flummoxed as to what has gone wrong in the socialization of women and female performance when it comes to pissing and public places.

The ladies loo is an entirely different world to the male domain, and one is left wondering if any such construct, involving gendered behavior or behavioral surveillance could ever be applied to the public habits of the opposite gender.

Sitting in Siberia: Women's Woes in the Water Woom

(via the lovely Kathy, via an email doing the rounds)

When you have to visit a public bathroom, you usually find a line of women, so you smile politely and take your place. Once it's your turn, you check for feet under the stall doors. Every stall is occupied.

Finally, a door opens and you dash in, nearly knocking down the woman leaving the stall.
You get in to find the door won't latch. It doesn't matter, the wait has been so long you are about to wet your pants! The dispenser for the modern 'seat covers' (invented by someone's Mom, no doubt) is handy, but empty. You would hang your purse on the door hook, if there was one, but there isn't - so you carefully, but quickly drape it around your neck, (Mom would turn over in her grave if you put it on the floor
! ), yank down your pants, and assume ' The Stance.'

In this position your aging, toneless thigh muscles begin to shake. You'd love to sit down, but you certainly hadn't taken time to wipe the seat or lay toilet paper on it, so you hold 'The Stance.'

To take your mind off your trembling thighs, you reach for what you discover to be the empty toilet paper dispenser. In your mind, you can hear your mother's voice saying, 'Honey, if you had tried to clean the seat, you would have know there was no toilet paper!' Your thighs shake more.

You remember the tiny tissue that you blew your nose on yesterday - the one that's still in your purse. (Oh yeah, the purse around your neck, that now, you have to hold up trying not to strangle yourself at the same time). That would have to do. You crumple it in the puffiest way possible. It's still smaller than your thumbnail.

Someone pushes your door open because the latch doesn't work. The door hits your purse, which is hanging around your neck in front of your chest, and you and your purse topple backward against the tank of the toilet. 'Occupied!' you scream, as you reach for the door, dropping your precious, tiny, crumpled tissue in a puddle on the floor, lose your footing altogether, and slide down directly onto the toilet seat. It is wet of course. You bolt up, knowing all too well that it's too late. Your bare bottom has made contact with every imaginable germ and life form on the uncovered seat because you never laid down toilet paper - not that there was any, even if you had taken time to try. You know that your mother would be utterly appalled if she knew, because, you're certain her bare bottom never touched a public toilet seat because, frankly, dear, 'You just don't know what kind of diseases you could get.'

By this time, the automatic sensor on the back of the toilet is so confused that it flushes, propelling a stream of water like a fire hose against the inside of the bowl that sprays a fine mist of water that covers your butt and runs down your legs and into your shoes. The flush somehow sucks everything down with such force that you grab onto the empty toilet paper dispenser for fear of being dragged in too.

At this point, you give up. You're soaked by the spewing water and the wet toilet seat. You're exhausted. You try to wipe with a gum wrapper you found in your pocket and then slink out inconspicuously to the sinks.

You can't figure out how to operate the faucets with the automatic sensors, so you wipe your hands with spit and a dry paper towel and walk past the line of women still waiting.

You are no longer able to smile politely to them. A kind soul at the very end of the line points out a piece of toilet paper trailing from your shoe. (Where was that when you needed it??) You yank the paper from your shoe, plunk it in the woman's hand and tell her warmly, 'Here, you just might need this.'

As you exit, you spot your hubby, who has long since entered, used, and left the men's restroom. Annoyed, he asks, 'What took you so long, and why is your purse hanging around your neck?'

This finally explains to the men what really does take us so long. It also answers their other commonly asked questions about why women go to the restroom in pairs. It's so the other gal can hold the door, hang onto your purse and hand you Kleenex under the door.
While I can't claim to have experienced any, and certainly not all, of the above scenario, it has a passing hint of familiarity.

What would Jeremy Justus make of it?

Surveillance and gender performance in the ladies loo is in dire need of an academic eye, and dare I suggest it, urgent need of academic guidance. And that's not something I would ordinarily inflict on anyone.

February 9, 2008

Ripping the fabric of the universe

Not quite the Rudd Rapture, but awfully close.

Russian mathematicians claim that time travel is almost a heartbeat way, well, if you have a very slow heartbeat. Three months away, to be almost precise.

Our Russian friends believe that a scientific nuclear experiment to be carried out in underground tunnels in Geneva in May this year could create a rift in the fabric of the universe.

The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) is going all gung-ho on a little "atom smashing", with the aim of recreating the conditions in the first billionth of a second after the Big Bang.

This is making Irina Arefeva and Ifor Volovich, of Moscow's Steklow Mathematical Institute a little nervous.

The energy produced by forcing tiny particles to collide at close to the speed of light could open the door to visitors from the future.

According to Einstein's general theory of relativity, any large amounts of matter or energy will distort the space and time that surrounds it.

If the energy or mass s large enough, so the theory goes, time can be distorted so much that it folds back on itself, creating a wormhole, or time tunnel between the present and the future. (Yes, yes, you've seen the telly show too, right?)

But Dr Brian Cox has already scoffed and scuttled the ripping of the universe's fabric, pointing out that cosmic ray collisions in the upper atmosphere are more energetic than anything we can produce on Earth, and they've been occurring for five billion years without any time travelers turning up and demanding a welcome party.

The other little complication is that Einstein's laws of physics suggest that time travel is only possible into the past, to the point when the first time machine is invented.

Which doesn't sound nearly as much fun as popping into the future for a bit.

I already know what the past looks like, I was there.

Biofuels are even worse

Trade-offs, trade-offs.

I keep saying it, and it keeps being true.

You know my view from many previous ramblings: there is no such thing as a fungible solution to any of our environmental *problems*, or *climate change* (of the alleged anthropomorphic kind), or energy sources.

No surprise to me to read that the latest research indicates that many anticipated biofuels will actually exacerbate global warming.

"Almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing these “green” fuels are taken into account, two studies being published Thursday [last week] have concluded.

The benefits of biofuels have come under increasing attack in recent months, as scientists took a closer look at the global environmental cost of their production. These latest studies, published in the prestigious journal Science, are likely to add to the controversy.

These studies for the first time take a detailed, comprehensive look at the emissions effects of the huge amount of natural land that is being converted to cropland globally to support biofuels development.

The destruction of natural ecosystems — whether rain forest in the tropics or grasslands in South America — not only releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when they are burned and plowed, but also deprives the planet of natural sponges to absorb carbon emissions. Cropland also absorbs far less carbon than the rain forests or even scrubland that it replaces.

Together the two studies offer sweeping conclusions: It does not matter if it is rain forest or scrubland that is cleared, the greenhouse gas contribution is significant. More important, they discovered that, taken globally, the production of almost all biofuels resulted, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, in new lands being cleared, either for food or fuel.

“When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially,” said Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University. “Previously there’s been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of prior analysis.”

The clearance of grassland releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas that would be saved by the fuel made annually on that land, said Joseph Fargione, lead author of the second paper, and a scientist at the Nature Conservancy. “So for the next 93 years you’re making climate change worse, just at the time when we need to be bringing down carbon emissions.”

But even with such restrictions in place, Dr. Searchinger’s study shows, the purchase of biofuels in Europe and the United States leads indirectly to the destruction of natural habitats far afield.

Increasingly, that elsewhere, Dr. Fargione said, is Brazil, on land that was previously forest or savanna. “Brazilian farmers are planting more of the world’s soybeans — and they’re deforesting the Amazon to do it,” he said.

International environmental groups, including the United Nations, responded cautiously to the studies, saying that biofuels could still be useful. “We don’t want a total public backlash that would prevent us from getting the potential benefits.”

Right, particularly if there are none. Public backlashes should be saved for, ummm, important stuff, like, err, arhh, the stuffing of fluffy dolphins.

"Dr. Searchinger said the only possible exception he could see for now was sugar cane grown in Brazil, which take relatively little energy to grow and is readily refined into fuel. He added that governments should quickly turn their attention to developing biofuels that did not require cropping, such as those from agricultural waste products.

The comparison with fossil fuels is going to be adverse for virtually all biofuels on cropland.”

Of course, "industry groups, like the Renewable Fuels Association, immediately attacked the new studies as “simplistic,” failing “to put the issue into context.”

I'd call the new studies "realistic" and long overdue.

[Declaration of bias: you know how much I love it when scientists agree with me.]

New York Times
- Biofuels deemed a greenhouse threat ...

Expect “sorry” to lack lyricism

Prime Minister Kev has been busy writing a “sorry” speech, with his very own digits.

As noted in a newspaper during the week (The Age, I think – sorry, forgot to keep it), Rudd doesn’t have a speech writer, he’s a “do-it-yourself” kinda guy, which is nice for him, but excruciating for the rest of us, and explains the coma inducing victory ramblings that Rudd delivered on election night late last year.

When Paul Keating delivered his 1992 landmark speech about indigenous dispossession, the erudite Don Watson had poured poetry and passion onto the page. Keating and Watson made a magnificent team.

Rudd, an obsessively controlling team of one, who “doesn't appear to have a lyrical bone in his body”, is writing what will become one of the most historically significant speeches heard from our Federal Parliament, and for that he should say sorry, to all of us.

Play time

Hear and view this beary cute story here ...

February 6, 2008

Wednesday Wisdom

A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.

Carl Reiner

February 3, 2008

It's his fault

Some guy (or gal) from 8000 years ago is responsible for the spread blue-eyed people, predominantly in Europe.

Most people in the world are dark haired and dark eyed. Dark hair and brown eyes are the natural default for humans.

(Yeah, sorry guys, all those *natural* blondes aren't.)

Blue eyes are freakishly unnatural. Apparently every blue eyed person in the world can be traced to a single ancestor, who carried a single mutation, and lived in eastern Europe 8000 years ago. The mutation is in a gene called OCA2, which turns off the mechanism that produces brown melanin pigment.

Originally we all had brown eyes.

Peace through scratching

What you've always suspected is true: if more men had a good back scratching more often, there would be fewer wars.

Science has proven that scratching temporarily shuts off brain areas linked to unpleasant feelings and memories.

Scratching reduces activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex, areas that are linked with pain aversion and memory. The more intensely a person scratches, the less activity there is in those areas of the brain.

Get to it: give someone you care about a good scratching.

Of course, if you run into a politician, consider whether or not they require additional scratching - many already suffer significant memory problems, and may, in fact, be getting more than the requisite dose of scratching.

February 2, 2008

Sun shiny day

The sun, in ultraviolet light. The colors reveal temperatures, from 1.8 million (blue) to 3.6 million (red) degrees Fahrenheit.

A new solar cycle has begun - "Solar Cycle 24".

Solar activity waxes and wanes in 11-year cycles. The start of a new cycle means that the frequency of solar storms and other activity should start to pick up. The new cycle won't reach "Solar Max" until 2011 or 2012.

The sun, an ordinary middle-aged yellow dwarf star, is about 93 million miles (150 million km) form Earth. Notwithstanding its ordinary and middle-aged status, the sun is the biggest babe in our speck of the universe, accounting for more than 99 percent of our solar system's total mass.

More than a million Earths could fit inside the sun, which has a diameter of 865,000 miles (1.4 million km).

The sun has been burning for 4.6 billion years and has a life expectancy of nine or ten billion. In another four or five billion, our yellow dwarf will expand into a hot red giant. Then it will contract into a white dwarf, smaller than it is now. Finally, when all its thermal energy is spent, it will become a cold black dwarf.

The sun is made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium. About 70 percent of its mass is hydrogen. Another 28 percent is helium. The rest consists of elements like carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. The sun's core process is a nuclear fusion reaction in which hydrogen atoms fuse to produce helium atoms.

Temperatures on the surface of the sun regularly reach 3.6 million degrees Fahrenheit (2 million degrees Celsius). The corona - the outer surface - extends millions of miles into space.

Beneath the corona is the chromosphere (from the Greek word chromos, or "color"). It has a reddish tint, and it's far cooler than the corona--thousands of degrees hot instead of millions. In fact, scientists still don't understand why the corona is so hot. From Earth, we can't see the chromosphere, or the corona, except during a solar eclipse.

The chomosphere is several thousand miles deep. The next layer, the photosphere, is only a few hundred miles thick. Here, the temperature is a comparatively cool 10,000 degrees F (5,500 degrees C), and energy is given off as visible light. The photosphere is the part of the sun we ordinarily see from Earth. Some call it the sun's "surface," because beneath it, the sun's gases are thick enough to be opaque. Above it, they are transparent.

Beneath the photosphere, is the sun's interior, which has three layers. First is the convective zone, where the temperature heats up again to around 3.6 million degrees F (2 million degrees C). Here, energy circulates in large cells. This part of the sun is a bit like a pot of boiling water, only with hot plasma bubbling up toward the surface.

Further in is the radiative zone. It's as hot as 12.6 million degrees F here (7 million degrees C), and energy radiates out from the sun's core at the speed of light. Still, this deep, the sun is so dense that each photon of energy may bounce from particle to particle for a million years before reaching the convective zone.

Finally at the sun's core, the temperature burns at 27 million degrees F (15 million degrees C). The pressure is 250 billion times that of Earth, so great that hydrogen atoms fuse to form helium atoms. Every second, 700 million tons of hydrogen become 695 million tons of helium, with the extra 5 million tons released as energy.

Only one half of one-billionth of the sun's energy will travel to the Earth's surface, which is enough to sustain life on our planet. Sunlight makes the 93-million-mile trip in around eight and a half minutes.

Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, on average, just about 36 million miles (58 million km) away.

Mercury is super hot (and super cold). So close to the sun, the temperature can top 800 degrees Fahrenheit (425 degrees C). But Mercury is not the hottest planet. Venus's thick atmosphere makes it more hellish. And the mercury on Mercury can dip to near -300 degrees Fahrenheit (-185 degrees C) in some spots. There may even be ice frozen in the deep dark parts of craters near Mercury's north pole.

Mercury is the smallest planet in the solar system. The place is only about a third the size of the Earth. Of course, Pluto is even smaller than Mercury, but the International Astronomical Union (IAU) demoted Pluto from planet status.