Welcome to Green Comet

These free novels, Creative Commons licensed Green Comet, and its sequels Parasite Puppeteers and The Francesians, tell an expansive story of love and adventure on an inhabited comet. To learn more about the trilogy, and for samples, visit the Welcome Page. To download the books, visit the downloads page.

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It’s Never Aliens

UFO-self-made-Meersburg-Stefan-Xp-cc-by-sa-640

Credit Stefan Xp – CC-BY-SA – Self-made UFO over Meersburg

It was a good year for aliens. Whether it was the fluctuations in the brightness of Tabby’s star, the oddly shaped interstellar visitor that passed through the Solar System, or a spate of sightings of UFOs, aliens received a lot of nominations. As always with the advocates of alien visitations, they want us to prove that it isn’t aliens. They say, “How do you know it isn’t? Can you prove it isn’t?” They always get that backwards, don’t they?

From the Scientific American article:

What do a strangely fading faraway star, an oddly shaped interstellar interloper in the solar system and a curious spate of UFO sightings by members of the U.S. military all have in common?

Far from being close-minded killjoys, most scientists in the “never aliens” camp desperately want to be convinced otherwise. Their default skeptical stance is a prophylactic against the wiles of wishful thinking …

Finding aliens—or coming up empty in our searches—has profound implications for our own ultimate cosmic fate.

UFO detections have remained marginal for decades; they’ve just gone from being blurry shapes on film cameras to blurry shapes on the digital infrared sensors of fighter jet gun cameras. This, in spite of the fact that the world’s total imaging capacity has expanded by several orders of magnitude in the past 20 years.

Hypothetical aliens with advanced technology could do that, of course. But then you have to ask why they would choose to remain marginally undetectable rather than just being undetectable.

Read the original article at Scientific American.

via It’s Never Aliens–until It Is – Scientific American

It was a good year for alien hunters, but not good enough. They still haven’t come up with solid proof that their beliefs are true. I guess that’s why they keep asking us to prove that they aren’t, even though that’s the wrong way ’round.

rjb

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Why Are Women Accused of Witchcraft

Why are women accused of witchcraft? Study in rural China gives clue

File 20180108 83563 8u4ver.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Rural China sheds light on the role of witchcraft in society.

Republished with permission from The Conversation.

Ruth Mace, Author provided

Ruth Mace, UCL

From medieval witch hunts in Europe to contemporary “witch doctors” in Tanzania, belief in witchcraft has existed across human societies throughout history. Anthropologists have long been fascinated by the phenomenon, but have struggled to study it with quantitative methods – our understanding of how and why it arises is therefore poor.

But a study we conducted of one Chinese region provided an opportunity to test the most common hypothesis – that witchcraft accusations act as punishment for those who do not cooperate with local norms. According to this theory, witch tags mark supposedly untrustworthy individuals and encourage others to conform out of fear of being labelled. However, some empirical studies have shown that witch labelling instead undermines trust and social cohesion in a society.

Our study is based on 800 households in five villages in south-western China. We examined the social behaviour of those who were labelled with a “witch” tag, and compared it with those who were not. The work, published in Nature Human Behaviour, was the basis of a long-term collaboration between scientists from University College London, the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Lanzhou University.

To determine the social networks and cooperation between households, we conducted house-to-house surveys, asking who had children, marriages and partnerships with whom. We also collected data on gift-giving, and on working groups on farms during harvest and planting seasons to see who was helping other households with their farming. All these measures gave rise to four social networks between households based on kinship, reproductive partners, gifts exchanged or farm work.

Magic poison

While in the area, we were occasionally warned not to eat in certain households, as women there were believed to be supernatural “poison givers”. The label they used – “zhu” or “zhubo” – is sometimes also translated as “witch”. It was common knowledge which homes were so labelled and we were surprised to find it accounted for 13% of the households.

The tag was one of the strongest predictors of assortment on social networks. Those from tagged households rarely had children or partnerships with those from untagged households, nor did they exchange gifts or work on each others’ farms very often. However, tagged households were helping each other and reproducing with each other, which mitigated the costs of exclusion from mainstream social networks.

We also played an “economic game” in the villages, where each person was given a small sum of money and asked to donate any proportion of it they wished to the village (to be divided among all the players). We found no evidence that those tagged as “witches” were any less cooperative in this game than any others.

In fact, we found that labelled households were very similar to other households, except the tagged households were more likely to be headed by women and were actually slightly wealthier than average.

We also discovered that the process of acquiring the label was opaque. Even victims often did not know who had started a rumour about them, they may just begin to notice others avoiding them. Some sources report such tags running in the family, with daughters inheriting the status from their mothers. Hence the origin of the slur could have occurred long ago.

Interpreting the results

Anthropologists who believe that the fear of loss of reputation (by witch labelling or other reasons) can be a huge driver of cooperation in the wider community often back their arguments with laboratory experiments using economic games. Such experiments also show that those who punish transgressors can gain reputational benefits themselves.

However real world examples of this are hard to come by. Most studies of witchcraft are not quantitative and do not examine social networks as we have done. While this study suggests there is no evidence that those labelled with this harmful tag were uncooperative, it does not fully explain why such accusations stick in some cases and not in others.

Our conclusion is that witch accusation has evolved from competition between households. Labelling may have become a way for people to get ahead of their rivals and gain a competitive advantage in reproduction or resources. However, the sources of competition may be different in different cases.

Giant Buddha Statue of Leshan, Sichuan, China.
Ariel Steiner/wikipedia, CC BY-SA

There are other explanations that may apply too. All around the world conceptions of witchcraft share many common features. For example, middle aged women are the most common victims, and accusations of poisoning are frequently involved. But there are also many differences. Another idea for the origins of witchcraft denunciations is that they are common when patriarchal institutions are trying to establish dominance over matriarchal ones. This could possibly also apply in this case as Buddhism, the most common religion in the area, is more male-dominated whereas the traditional social structure in the region is “matrilineal”, where descent is usually traced through the female line.

A patriarchal dimension to witchcraft accusations could also explain the prevalence of women as victims both in traditional societies, and even in modern contexts that can resemble “witch hunts”, such as online bullying specifically targeting women.

The ConversationThe more research we do, the closer we can get to understanding and tackling the mechanisms behind these practices that can be devastating for women across the world.

Ruth Mace, Professor of Anthropology, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The Free Speech of Fools

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Photo: StockSnap. CC0/Public Domain license.

I’ve posted on free speech and freedom of expression before here on Green Comet. I talked about how people confused the right to free speech with the right to freedom from criticism for what they say. Some people think that their right to freedom of expression means that they get to say whatever they want and no one can challenge them on it. But there is another way that the idea of freedom is perverted: when it is used to justify hate speech and bigotry. This article on The Seattle Star does a good job of looking at that.

Over the past year, the far right has held a number of “free speech” rallies that are, in reality, testing grounds for how many people they can publicly assemble and launch violent attacks on people …

It really shouldn’t be that hard to tell the difference between free speech, as in the fundamental democratic right; and free speech, as in the amoral, we’ll-attack-whoever-we-want manifesto of the far right.

We’re living in a time when actual free speech rights are as precarious as ever–consider, for example, the autocrat in the White House who orders professional football team owners to fire players who take a knee during the National Anthem. Or the FBI targeting supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement as dangerous “extremists.”

We look back on the foolish things people have allowed to happen in the past and shake our heads. “How could they not see?” we ask. Who will be shaking their heads at our foolishness?

via The Free Speech of Fools – The Seattle Star

rjb

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Pronoun is Shutting Down

One of my distributors is going out of business. Pronoun was an ebook publishing site that took submissions from authors and put them up on retail publishing sites for them. It was one of the efforts I joined in their alpha and beta phases to help them get going. The others are Unglue.it, OpenBooks and BitTorrent Bundles. Unglue.it is still going strong. The other two, while still there, have dwindled to the point that their life signs are almost undetectable.

One of the options for readers is gone. At this point I don’t know whether I will submit the books to another distributor. It’s a way to get them in front of more eyeballs, which would be good, but I don’t know if it’s worth the effort.

Farewell to Pronoun. It was a good try, but I guess it didn’t work out for them.

rjb

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Top Ten Posts of 2017

Credit Marjaree Mason Center – CC-BY-SA

Here are the ten most viewed posts of 2017, not including permanent site components such as the home page, Downloads, Welcome, etc. Once again it seems I’ve become the Internet gateway for people wondering about spanking their wives.


1. Spanking for Love

What is it with spanking? This post has just over twice as many views as the second one.


2. Bipedal – The Savanna Theory

The interest in this continues. It spikes at the same times each year. School assignments?


3. Ants in the Devil’s Garden

After a big drop-off from #2, people seem to love these orchardist ants.


4. Bipedal – The Aquatic Ape Theory

The curve flattens from here on down. This one is probably spillover from #2.


5. Altocumulus Castellanus

The only Cloud of the Day in the top ten. That surprises me. And I wonder why this one in particular.


6. Collective Nouns

A perennial favorite, and a favorite of mine. Murders and murmurations.


7. Most Unpleasant Sounds

This one also surprises me. A quirky little list.


8. 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just point them at this and not have to deal with them over and over?


9. Milankovitch Cycles – Obliquity

The only top ten post that I actually wrote this year. Part of a demanding series.


10. Microsculpture – The Insect Portraits of Levon Biss

Oh, good. I’m glad the list includes a tribute to beauty and hard work.

So, that was 2017. What are the odds that spanking will be #1 again in 2018?

rjb

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FactChecking Science Claims in 2017


FactCheck is a website that checks claims made by politicians and others to see if they hold up under scrutiny. In this era of fake news and other lies, they help us to see what’s true and what isn’t.

In our roundup of 2016 claims, we hypothesized that SciCheck would have no dearth of false and misleading claims to cover in 2017. That proved true.

Oddly, the politicians and other liars don’t seem to be changing their behavior. They continue to say whatever they want regardless of whether it’s going to be publicly exposed as false. I guess that’s because the people who are inclined to believe them will do so even when their mendacity is clearly demonstrated.

For instance:

In July, Rep. Lamar Smith, the chairman of the House science committee, said climate change “alarmists” ignore the “positive impacts” of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, including increasing food production and quality. But the net effect of higher CO2 levels on agriculture is likely negative, especially in the future.

In February, Trump claimed there’s been a “tremendous” increase in autism in children in the United States. There has been a large increase in the reported cases of autism. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the increase is due to a broadening of autism’s definition and greater efforts in diagnosis, in addition to some actual increase in the number of individuals who have the disorder.

In May, Obama falsely said that Let’s Move, a project of former First Lady Michelle Obama, “helped bring down America’s obesity rates for our youngest kids for the first time in 30 years.” Research shows the obesity rate for 2- to 5-year-olds has been decreasing since 2004 – way before the Let’s Move project began.

We might continue to be accosted by people trying to spin the facts, but we have FactCheck and others watching out for us now. Look at the rest of their best of 2017.

via FactChecking Science Claims in 2017 – FactCheck.org

rjb

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Books Now in MOBI

After a very patient education by my friends on MobileRead, I have decided to make the books available in the mobi format. Contrary to my expectations, given its association with the Amazon Kindle, the mobi format has been freed, along with associated software. From Wikipedia:

Mobipocket SA is a French company incorporated in March 2000 that created the .mobi e-book file format and produces the Mobipocket Reader software for mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDA) and desktop operating systems.

The Mobipocket software package is free and consists of various publishing and reading tools for PDAs, smartphones, mobile phones, the e-readers Kindle and iLiad, and applications on devices using Symbian, Windows, Palm OS, Java ME and Psion.

This is a great relief to me because I no longer have to rely on external sources to provide Kindle users with copies of my books. I don’t have a Kindle, but I understand that they are able to use files encoded in the mobi format, so they aren’t completely tied to the Amazon book store. Now my readers who only have a Kindle ereader can get their copy with the least fuss possible.

I think that covers all the major formats now, for both the ebooks and the audiobooks.

rjb

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Audiobooks Now in MP3

MP3 file structure – CC-BY GFDL – If you want to read this tap for larger

When I started recording readings of these books, I chose to offer them in OGG Vorbis format because it’s a free and open standard. That meant there would be no encumberances on the audio files due to patents or any kind of imaginary property (IP.) That’s important to me. I have licensed my novels with Creative Commons enhancements to their copyright, to ensure their freedom. They are not weighted down with digital restrictions management (DRM) because I want readers and listeners to be able to enjoy my books without having to restrict themselves to any single device or place. I use Free Software to write the books, and to convert them to useful formats, which are also free and open. I use Free Software to produce the audio recordings, and I use open standards to present them. For the audio, that meant OGG Vorbis, the best choice for the lossy compression needed to make the file sizes reasonable for downloading. At the time, the more popular format, MP3, wasn’t free or open. It was locked in a proprietary web of patents. I couldn’t insult my listeners by offering them something like that. It’s possible that this choice has meant fewer downloads of the readings because many people only recognize MP3 and might be unwilling to download something with a strange name like OGG. I was willing to take that risk because freedom and openness are important to me.

Vorbis trademark – Credit xiph.org – CC-BY

Lately the patents on the MP3 format have run out. Well, as far as I can tell. There were a mess of them held by a mess of people and organizations and I don’t have the training or experience to sort that all out myself. I rely on other sources for that, and they’re all saying that, once the patents finally ran out in the US, MP3 became an open standard. They hedged a little on that, apparently unwilling to commit themselves fully in the face of the the, uh, complexities of IP. I was hesitant too, but I decided to take the plunge and accept MP3 as an open standard. This meant that I could finally offer people the readings in a format that they recognized. This is good because, even though all modern operating systems and devices should be able to handle OGG, it sometimes requires the extra step of installing some necessary software to do so. People don’t like extra steps. After paying, sometimes quite a lot, for their operating systems and devices, they shouldn’t have to take extra steps to get them to handle a simple open standard like OGG. That’s annoying, and now I can finally make it a little less annoying for them by offering my audiobooks in MP3 format.

Public Domain

You’ll find them on the downloads page. Along with the direct links to the OGG Vorbis-encoded files hosted at the Internet Archive, there are now links to MP3-encoded versions. Don’t hesitate. Download them now.-)

rjb

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Cirrus Homogenitus

Credit Craig Sunter – CC-BY

Cloud of the Day – Cirrus Homogenitus

In the past, meteorologists refused to include human-made phenomena in their classifications of cloud types. Yes, they said, the steam and smoke coming out of our smokestacks can appear like clouds or fog, but they’re not really. While weather observers might observe reduced visibility and even attribute it in part to our activities, there was no place for them on the reporting forms. If they were going to mention smog or condensation trails, it would be in the comments only. In the case of condensation trails, they became abbreviated in common language as “contrails.” On the reporting forms they appeared in the comments section as “COTRA.”

Credit Acabashi – CC-BY-SA

Now, with the updating this year of the International Cloud Atlas, hosted by the World Meteorological Organization, as reported on the Green Comet blog, a number of new cloud types have been included. I’ve already reported on asperitas, volutus and flumen, which are natural cloud types that have been included in this edition of the Atlas. Today I present another inclusion, this time a cloud type that results from human activity: cirrus homogenitus. Literally, cirrus made by humans. Condensation trails can now come out of the comments and take their rightful place in the form proper.

Credit Adam Jones Ph.D – CC-BY-SA

Cirrus homogenitus is the new name for contrails that have persisted for at least ten minutes. It comes in the one type only, with no sub-types or varieties. That’s because contrails are usually quite ephemeral and either disappear or change rapidly.

Credit Blue Stahli Luan – CC-BY

Cirrus homogenitus are like other cirrus clouds in that they don’t result in any precipitation or other weather. Unlike cirrus, they can’t even be credited with foretelling the approach of a weather system. They’re just the result of an airplane flying in the stratosphere, portending nothing more than its arrival, hopefully at its destination.

rjb

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The Plainsrunner

Credit: finetooth- CC-BY-SA

The writing is continuing to go well. I got two chapters done last week and I made a good start on chapter four today. Sometimes when I think about a story I wonder how there could ever be enough to put in between the beginning and the end to make a whole book. Then as I write, ideas pop up about where this is going to lead the character and what she’s going to have to do to get there, and I wonder if I’m going to be able to keep it down to a reasonable size. I’ve learned to not worry about having enough to write about. Once I put my characters in motion, it’s more a matter of keeping them from taking the story away from me. I keep reminding myself that I’ve alloted only 80,000 words for this one, so discipline is the key. For myself and for my adventurous characters.

So far, though, I haven’t tripped over the idea for the next novel. No worries. That doesn’t usually happen until about halfway through the current one.

rjb

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