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Verifying Folklore

A little while back, the internet was abuzz with the inspirational story of Mary Anning, a pioneering 19th-century paleontologist from Lyme Regis in England. Some of my favorite blogs and magazines got in on the act: Atlas Obscura, QI (Quite Interesting), Dangerous Women, Cracked, and Forbes, to name just a few, published versions of the Mary Anning story. Anning was a woman from a working-class family; her father, a cabinetmaker, was mentioned by Jane Austen in 1804. Despite her lack of formal education, Anning was involved in the discovery of several categories of ancient animals, including the ichthyosaur, the plesiosaur, and the pterosaur. She also figured out that some of the rocks she was finding and breaking open were fossilized feces, becoming one of the discoverers of the coprolite! Because she was a woman, and working class, and a religious minority to boot, she was not always recognized for her achievements, and many of her discoveries were published by Anglican male scientists. [1]

Normally, I’d love the way this story spread. It has everything: pioneer women scientists, Regency and Victorian England, beachcombing, fossils…it’s like Pride and Prejudice at the beach, with feminism, dinosaurs, and poop jokes. What’s not to like?

To be honest, there was one problem: the hook on which most of these blogs hung their story was the assertion that Mary Anning was the inspiration for the tongue twister “she sells seashells on the seashore.” Most of them even included the tongue-twister connection in the title of the blog post. But none of them provided any evidence for their claim.

She Sells Seashells and Mary Anning: Metafolklore with a Twist

Having a young daughter also made me want to believe this, and then today googling I came across this Library of Congress piece from a couple of years ago that dives into verifying it.

It turns out, it’s probably not true. But the entire process of attempting to verify it is amazing all on it’s own. Great read about what rigorous testing of assumptions looks like, and all the other far more interesting things you will find out along the way.

moving on from HVOPEN

18 years ago I had this idea. Linux was on the rise, and wouldn’t it be cool if we had a local Linux user group? How would you even do something like that? It took 18 months, a couple of false starts, driving to a meeting in a snow storm (because I was an idiot), but eventually, in March of 2003, mhvlug.org was created. That first meeting I wasn’t even there when it started, as I was loading off of an airplane and got there late.

When you do anything for nearly 2 decades, there are good times, and bad times. I remember sitting in a bar with my friend Ben one of those times I was close to walking away. But that asking for help, got a lot more folks involved, and breathed new life into it. It took use through a new generation of leaders, and even a whole new rebrand into HV Open.

Outside of family and work, I have only so much energy to put into organizing things. Right now, in this moment in history, it’s all going to one place: our local Citizens Climate Lobby Chapter. This is a group I found out about through a friend from college. It’s a volunteer driven organization working to build the political will for a livable future. It starts with getting congress to put a price on carbon pollution, and return that money as a monthly dividend for all adults. It’s been an incredible growth experience in learning what it means to be an engaged citizen in the 21st century. Addressing climate change is a lot less overwhelming when you are acting on it, engaging local media, meeting with local leaders, and sitting down with your member of congress and bringing your concerns to the table.

But that takes time and energy, there is always more to do. And it meant I was really shortchanging HV Open. It was time to pass the torch for good. So I’m doing that.

June was the last meeting I ran. There is now a leadership team with Joe and Matt at the helm that will be fleshing out what’s next. As with any legacy transition, expect a few bumps along the way. I’ll still be at most of the meetings, but I get to just come and listen now, and not have making it all work be my responsibility. It’s a little bit amazing.

Thanks to everyone that helped make HV Open the organization it is today. Things don’t just survive 16 years on their own. I’m really proud of what I helped build, and excited to see how this thing evolves with new voices and new leadership.

Sloop At the Factory

Having lived in the Hudson Valley for over 20 years, I now get to be one of those folks that says things like: “have you been to that new icecream place? It’s across from where that dumpling place used to be, that was a bbq place before it. You know the one in the old bank building.” Businesses and places leave a fossil record, and after 20 years you become aware of the fossil layers beneath the current facade.

But, there are times when the new facade plays so much tribute to the old, and the old was so familiar, that it’s notable in it’s own right. As with Sloop at the Factory, where we were last night.

Sloop Factory Entrance

Sloop is one of the older craft breweries in the area, I remember them with bottles at farmers markets close to 20 years ago. I had heard recently that they had opened a new brewing facility at an old IBM plant, but the way it was described to me at first it didn’t sink in where it was. Which is the old IBM East Fishkill 330C building. The building that was on the other side of the cafeteria from 330D where I first worked when I moved to the Hudson Valley.

The old IBM site is really a great place for a brewery. It’s got all kinds of infrastructure, as this used to be chip manufacturing. 20 years ago they put in a new water pipeline from City of Poughkeepsie to have high quality water for their lithography lines (tolerances for chip manufacturing are much stricter than drinking water standards). And it’s nice to see something using that space instead of it sitting empty.

Drinking water tap
I really have no idea what kind of monitor station this once was, but now it’s the water tap.

But where I truly applaud the Sloop folks is how much they embraced the bones they are built upon. They converted an old monitoring station to their water tap. They have plaques of various IBM invention accomplishments out along the walls. The whole place pays homage to an era that’s past, as they expand into the future. With over 60 breweries in the Hudson River Valley, it feels really appropriate to have one now in an old IBM site, spanning the industries between the generations.

Cozy up to the bar, or pick a table. There are stacks of board games and arcade cabinets around.

Sloop’s always had some great beer. But with all the space available to them in this place they also put in a kitchen (with a kids menu), and have a ton of low, high, and picnic tables through out it. There are stacks of board games, including an old copy of candy land that we played last night. As a parent of a 4 year old I really appreciate this new brewery ethos of being kid friendly (Kings Court is doing this right as well). I like good beer, and being able to bring the whole family along makes for a fun evening.

We’ll definitely be back. And I look forward to taking old friends that used to work in those buildings back as well to get a glimpse of the past and the future all at once.

Book Review: The Sixth Extinction

Over the holidays I finally got around to reading/listening to The Sixth Extinction. It was quite good, but the language was at a density level where I found listening to the audio book to be a lot easier than reading on my kindle. Fortunately for me, both copies were in our library, so after my ebook lend expired I switched to e-audiobook lend to finish it off.

The book uses the lens of a number of extinct or endangered species to look at humanity’s impact on the world. And each species provides an opportunity to dig into a different part of science or the history of science around them.

The chapter on the Mastadon was fascinating. I never realized that the Mastadon, first discovered not that far from here in the Hudson Valley, was the trigger for the idea of species extinction. Unlike the Mamouth, whose teeth can be confused for that of an elephant’s, the Mastadon has cone shaped teeth that can’t be. It was odd enough that Thomas Jefferson believed these beasts were roaming the west, and were part of the reason he sent survey teams out. Eventually it would trigger the idea that species could go extinct, and start the process of reconstructing our past. But it’s super cool this happened in our back yard.

I learned was that Ocean Acidification was kind of accidentally discovered to be a thing after picking through the remains of the failed Biosphere 2 project. It turns out their biosphere wasn’t so good, so CO2 levels got up north of 1000 ppm, which drove the pH of the water quite acidic.

I discovered that I had a closer relationship to bat white-node syndrome than I realized, as Al Hicks was one of the state ecologists that first found it in NY. I met Al last year through at the regional Citizens’ Climate Lobby conference, as he’s also the Albany chapter lead.

And I really liked some of the visuals around the idea of a “new pangea”. It’s interesting to think about how global trade has effectively eliminated all the island barriers that we once had.

Definitely a recommended read. Going to be digesting some of it for a while.

Communication in 2019

Given that google is shuttering hangouts sometime in the next year, I decided this was finally the time to bail out of it. It did a lot of different things.

Chat

One thing Hangouts gave me, was a chat system that I could easily use from my computer and my phone, and that didn’t super compress images when my wife and I would exchange kid pics when I was on a trip.

Signal looks like it will be my more or less full replacement for that this year. It’s based on an open and secure protocol, and there is an electron desktop app that seems to work quite well. It also seems to be where a critical mass of the folks I chat with regularly have landed, so nudging over the few stragglers will hopefully not be that hard.

Group Chat

I’m using Slack a lot for work, and for HV Open. Our completely dead IRC channel became a more lively rolling conversation once we moved that community to Slack. And it’s a much better place for a rolling conversation than this long standing group Hangout that we had going a year ago. I’m no longer actively involved in any open source project that uses IRC as their communications base (Home Assistant uses Discord which I start from time to time), so I haven’t run IRC for the better part of a year.

Video

The other thing that Hangouts gave me was convenient video platform that mostly just worked (even on Linux). Fortunately Zoom does that even better. Citizens’ Climate Lobby uses Zoom extensively, and I’ve been using it whenever I can instead of phone calls. Video is so much more expressive. We’ve even had pretty good luck linking in external participants to our CCL monthly meetings.

Hangouts video was also how I called home during business trips. There will be less of those in 2019, but I’ll see how zoom works on the mobile side this year.

Blogging

I really want to be blogging more often again. This blog is self hosted WordPress. We’ll see if this sticks once I’m back in the office and time slips away. While I’m not planning to drop out of social media in 2019, I do think that giving them less exclusive content is a good thing, and posting more here in the open is good. I use Feedly to read a lot of blogs, so if anyone else who reads this is also writing, drop your RSS url in the comments, and I’d happily follow you on the open internet instead of in a closed garden.

Email / Texting

Email is always good as well. You can always find me at sean at dague dot net. Easy enough. Email has inertia, I get it. Texts are good as well. I’ve tried to go out of my way and check in on folks a little more than I used to, which means my text messages are a thing now (and never used to be). We’ll see how many of those folks (who are not computer people) I can convince to hop to Signal this year.

I do wish Google didn’t auto abandon everything it created, but given that it does, at least there feels like there are good replacement tools now.

Facebook. Sigh.

Quitting Facebook is often an act of the privileged. (Note that lower income teens are about twice as likely to use Facebook as teens from richer families.) It’s fine for white men like me to get pissy and leave because we have other outlets for our grievances and newsrooms are filled with people who look like us and report on our concerns. Without social media, the nation would not have had #metoo or #blacklivesmatter or most tellingly #livingwhileblack, which reported nothing that African-Americans haven’t experienced but which white editors didn’t report because it wasn’t happening to them. The key reason I celebrate social media is because it gives voice to people who for too long have not been heard. And so it is a mark of privilege to condemn all social media — and the supposed unwashed masses using them — as uncivilized. I find that’s simply not true. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of smart, concerned, witty, constructive people with a wide (which could always be wider) diversity of perspective. I respect them. I learn by listening to them.

Source: Facebook. Sigh. – Whither news? – Medium

This post echos a lot of thoughts I’ve had around Facebook and social media in general. There are so many more questions than answers right now.

A Year in Podcasts

Every year my mix of podcasts changes up a bit, and the end of the year is worth reflecting on what I’ve been listening to.

Always on Top

These podcasts I’m always jumping to the top of my queue when a new episode comes out:

Skeptics Guide to the Universe – a great weekly dose of science and critical thinking. The crew also published a book this year which was incredible. The weekly Science or Fiction game on the show, is always a lot of fun. This has been in my bump to the top list for years, and I don’t see it changing any time soon.

Bombshell – 3 folks with incredible experience in and around the State and Defense departments take a deep dive on the week’s news through a national security lens. And drink. And ask guests what’s their favorite statistical distribution. And, the hosts and guests all happen to be women. This podcast wins the award for the one I’m mostly likely to recommend to folks out of the blue, and every single person that started listening after that thanked me for it.

Binges

I had two podcasts this year that I found, and immediately listened all the way through ignoring the Always on top rule above.

Farm to Taber – Sarah Taber is a crop consultant who has seen the ag industry from many different perspectives. She’s got incredible stories about things she’s seen on farms, and a system perspective that I found really interesting. She works really hard at showing that while a sustainable ag future is a great goal, the current narrative of “big ag bad, small farm good” really papers over a lot of complexity that’s really important if you want a sustainable future. Highly recommend if you are interested in how your food gets to your table, and she’s also great to follow on twitter.

2050: Degrees of Change – Johanna Wagstaffe is a CBC meteorologist, and put together the 6 part series last year which tells the story of what 2050 British Columbia in Canada looks like because of climate change. Every episode starts with the morning wake up interaction between a 10 year old girl talking with her “smart assistant” about what she needs to do that day. They then unpack one aspect of that with the best experts and modeling we’ve got today. The picture it paints is really powerful.

Climate and Energy

Because of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteer work, I started finding more and more content in the area to dive deep on issues. So a huge part of my listening feed includes that.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby Podcast – This is the mega feed. It includes the monthly lecture / meeting, the citizens climate university deep dives, citizens climate radio interview show, and recordings from sessions at conferences. I listen to most of it, and even got the administrator to up the published list to 100 so I could go back through some older content. I’m often listening to one of these when I’m driving down to our monthly meeting to set the mood.

The Interchange – this is a weekly dive in a pretty wonky way on energy and electricity sector from green tech media. The show can be a bit corny at times, but is great to understand how the electricity sector is actually changing in a greener way, and want some of the barriers are to it.

Warm Regards – Dr Jacquelyn Gill, paelo-ecologist from the University of Maine, and a bunch of other great rotating guest hosts talk about climate change topics, and bring in pretty amazing guests. I discovered it when they had someone from CCL on, and have been avidly listening ever since. I really like the approach they took recently in adding a new mini climate related piece of research at the end, because apparently climate change is making bears eat less salmon. This one also qualifies in the “Always on Top” category, but is in this list for thematic reasons.

Listen to Every One

There are a few more podcasts that I make sure to listen to every one.

The Mirror of Antiquity – My friend Curtis Dozier, who teaches Classics at Vassar College, now has a podcast about where we see ourselves in the ancient world. The episode on what it means to make a translation, and what parts of the original are really accessible was pretty amazing. As was the episode on the invention of Europe.

The Long Now – Both the monthly lectures, and the conversations from the interval are amazing. An organization who’s core tenant is to increase long term thinking (to the point that they write the current year as 02018), brings together some amazing folks. My favorite of the year was calls Soldiers and Scouts. It starts with wondering if the history of humanity is not unlike that of the robot uprising, where evolution has shaped us to be one thing, but we are in the process of rising up beyond our programming to be something more. The narrative works really well, and makes you think a lot about the way we think and react in the world. And, the seminar with Kim Stanley Robinson on climate change and science fiction was equally wonderful.

More Good Stuff

My podcast queue backlog is typically over 100 episodes. As I mostly listen when driving, flying, or doing yard work, there is lots of great stuff in my queue that I just dip in to from time to time. We’ll hit these fast for speed.

  • Commonwealth Club of California – they produce something like 400 events a year, and podcast most of them. I value this for new ideas and injecting something different into my feed.
  • Code Switch – a podcast on race in america.
  • The Churn – podcast about the Expanse TV Show (which is my second favorite show being produced right now after The Good Place).
  • Radiolab – a unique way of telling (mostly) science stories.
  • More Perfect – Radiolab team diving into the history of the Supreme Court. The episode on the 2nd amendment is a must listen.
  • Planet Money – A dive into economics. This year’s 5 part series on launching a satellite into space was great.
  • Planet Money the Indicator – 5 minutes each day about 1 number in the economy and what it means. I missed when they dropped the indicator from the show, and glad they just brought it back as a dedicated podcast.
  • Wait wait don’t tell me – NPR news quiz comedy show, mostly because 11am on Saturday is a time we’re never home any more. We also go to their live shows whenever they get close.
  • Imaginary Worlds – why we create worlds in scifi and fantasy, and what they mean to us.
  • 99 Percent Invisible – a look at design and the built world. You will never see the world the same way again.
  • The Allusionist – a deep dive into the oddities of the English language, with lots of humor and punning.
  • Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything – a truly unique podcast that blends fiction and non-fiction in a seamless way that often makes you wonder where the line is. I still need to catch up on the giant multipart series this year on fake news.

Hopefully Something for Everyone

Hopefully something in here caught your attention. My top recommendation if I can only recommend one new thing you listen to, is Bombshell. I also think that everyone would be well served by having more critical thinking in their life with Skeptics Guide. But everyone listens to things for their own reasons, so knowing why I like certain things might help you decide if you would as well.

I wish you happy listening in 2019 and beyond!