Thursday, 25 August 2016

What could train company owner Richard Branson possibly have to gain by attacking pro-nationalisation Jeremy Corbyn?

Holly Baxter in The Independent

Watching the absurdity that is TrainGate unfold last night, I couldn’t help but feel that this was a real David and Goliath moment. Isn’t it nice when a billionaire tax-avoiding business magnate with a knighthood takes on a cruel and calculating powerhouse like Labour’s autocratically-minded leader of the opposition and wins? Isn’t it heartening to see the mainstream media take Richard Branson’s side for once, rather than deferring to the statements of a political figure who probably has lots to gain financially from the renationalisation of the railways? After all, it’s not like Branson, the owner of a private company that operates trains, would be affected by things like that. So I think we can all agree that, at the very least, his motives are pure and driven by a rigorous pursuit of objective justice and truth. As for Corbyn, who knows what devious schemes he could have up his sleeve once he’s allowed to hand control of some public transport back to the taxpayer? Isn’t that how Nazi Germany started?

As a born-and-bred Geordie who moved to London for university and stayed for work, I’ve taken the same Newcastle-bound train from London that Jeremy Corbyn sat on the floor of more times than I could count. In case anyone’s actually interested, I can categorically state that it was a lot more pleasant affair when East Coast Trains – the last nationalised arm of British railways – was running the show. The first thing that happened when it was sold off to Virgin was that prices went up and the loyalty scheme which allowed you to accrue points and use them to buy future journeys was stopped (it was replaced with a Nectar Points collaboration and a scheme that encourages you to collect Flying Club miles – two laughable air miles per £1 spent – which, you guessed it, can only be used on Virgin Atlantic planes).

Virgin might have released a press release (yes, for real) about Jeremy Corbyn’s journey this week, claiming that he’d find brilliantly cheap rail fares on their trains in future if he booked in advance, but the £120 return ticket to Durham that I bought weeks in advance for a friend’s wedding this weekend isn’t an anomaly. London to Durham is a journey of two and a half hours. The ridiculous fact that £90 is the cheapest I’ve ever seen a return ticket for it since Virgin took over speaks for itself.

Whether Corbyn sat on the floor to make a point, or because he didn’t look properly in all of the coaches for free seats, or because there were a couple of seats dotted about but he needed a few together for his team is immaterial to me. I’ve spent more than one Christmas Eve sitting curled up inside the luggage rack on the four-hour slow service back to my hometown because even the corridors are too packed to fit into, and I’ve paid extortionate amounts for the privilege. I know what Virgin Trains’ service on the east coast lines are like, even at their least crowded and their very best. A chirpy press release is, of course, going to talk up the “excellent offerings” available from London to Newcastle – but those people have never tried to eat one of their microwaved paninis or operate their on-board wifi, which, to put it kindly, exists more in the conceptual than the physical plane.

Privatised railways are a win for big businesses for obvious reasons: you can’t operate more than one train on one part of a railway line at one time; it’s not like selling a number of competing products together in a shop. Since new lines are hardly ever built, all a business really has to do is have enough money to buy up a monopoly on people’s journeys through whichever part of Britain it chooses. Then – hey presto! – guaranteed sky-high prices with the potential to increase exponentially, since your customer base has very little choice in the matter but to pay up or not travel at all. It’s a naturally uncompetitive business, which makes it a very good candidate for nationalisation and a very good profit-maker for companies with their eyes on the prize. Rail ticket prices, after all, go up like clockwork every year.

Astounded as I am by the fact that people have leapt on what is essentially one of the most boring political stories to have ever hit the headlines, I do support Corbyn’s policy of rail nationalisation in theory. Whether he sat on the floor and announced to camera that ram-packed trains are “a problem that many passengers face every day” as a publicity stunt or after only a half-hearted poke around for seats doesn’t concern me; the simple fact is that the statement is true.

What does concern me, however, is the way in which a discussion about one man sitting on the floor of a packed train has escalated into something which people are now referring to as TrainGate by anti-Corbyn factions, as if accidentally walking past a couple of unreserved seats on a train is genuinely comparable to one of modern America’s most controversial political scandals. I know this has been said a lot in the last few weeks, but really, Labour, have you lost your mind?

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

How tricksters make you see what they want you to see

By David Robson in the BBC

 Could you be fooled into “seeing” something that doesn’t exist?

Matthew Tompkins, a magician-turned-psychologist at the University of Oxford, has been investigating the ways that tricksters implant thoughts in people’s minds. With a masterful sleight of hand, he can make a poker chip disappear right in front of your eyes, or conjure a crayon out of thin air.

And finally, let’s watch the “phantom vanish trick”, which was the focus of his latest experiment:
What did he tuck into his fist? A red ball? A handkerchief?

Although interesting in themselves, the first three videos are really a warm-up for this more ambitious illusion, in which Tompkins tries to plant an image in the participant’s minds using the power of suggestion alone.

Around a third of his participants believed they had seen Tompkins take an object from the pot and tuck it into his hand – only to make it disappear later on. In fact, his fingers were always empty, but his clever pantomiming created an illusion of a real, visible object.

How is that possible? Psychologists have long known that the brain acts like an expert art restorer, touching up the rough images hitting our retina according to context and expectation. This “top-down processing” allows us to build a clear picture from the barest of details (such as this famous picture of the “Dalmatian in the snow”). It’s the reason we can make out a face in the dark, for instance. But occasionally, the brain may fill in too many of the gaps, allowing expectation to warp a picture so that it no longer reflects reality. In some ways, we really do see what we want to see.
This “top-down processing” is reflected in measures of brain activity, and it could easily explain the phantom vanish trick. The warm-up videos, the direction of his gaze, and his deft hand gestures all primed the participants’ brains to see the object between his fingers, and for some participants, this expectation overrode the reality in front of their eyes.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Sex on campus isn't what you think: what 101 student journals taught me

Lisa Wade in The Guardian

Moments before it happened, Cassidy, Jimena and Declan were sitting in the girls’ shared dorm room, casually chatting about what the cafeteria might be offering for dinner that night. They were just two weeks into their first year of college and looking forward to heading down to the meal hall – when suddenly Declan leaned over, grabbed the waist of Cassidy’s jeans, and pulled her crotch toward his face, proclaiming: “Dinner’s right here!”

Sitting on her lofted bunk bed, Jimena froze. Across the small room, Cassidy squealed with laughter, fell back onto her bed and helped Declan strip off her clothes. “What is happening!?” Jimena cried as Declan pushed his cargo shorts down and jumped under the covers with her roommate. “Sex is happening!” Cassidy said. It was four o’clock in the afternoon.

Cassidy and Declan proceeded to have sex, and Jimena turned to face her computer. When I asked her why she didn’t flee the room, she explained: “I was in shock.” Staying was strangely easier than leaving, she said, because the latter would have required her to turn her body toward the couple, climb out of her bunk, gather her stuff, and find the door, all with her eyes open. So, she waited it out, focusing on a television show played on her laptop in front of her, and catching reflected glimpses of Declan’s bobbing buttocks on her screen. That was the first time Cassidy had sex in front of her. By the third, she’d learned to read the signs and get out before it was too late.

'What is happening!?' Jimena cried. 'Sex is happening!' Cassidy said.

Cassidy and Jimena give us an idea of just how diverse college students’ attitudes toward sex can be. Jimena, a conservative, deeply religious child, was raised by her Nicaraguan immigrant parents to value modesty. Her parents told her, and she strongly believed, that “sex is a serious matter” and that bodies should be “respected, exalted, prized”. Though she didn’t intend to save her virginity for her wedding night, she couldn’t imagine anyone having sex in the absence of love.

Cassidy, an extroverted blond, grew up in a stuffy, mostly white, suburban neighborhood. She was eager to grasp the new freedoms that college offered and didn’t hesitate. On the day that she moved into their dorm, she narrated her Tinder chats aloud to Jimena as she looked to find a fellow student to hook up with. Later that evening she had sex with a match in his room, then went home and told Jimena everything. Jimena was “astounded” but, as would soon become clear, Cassidy was just warming up.

The cloisters at New College Oxford. Photograph: Alamy

Students like Cassidy have been hypervisible in news coverage of hookup culture, giving the impression that most college students are sexually adventurous. For years we’ve debated whether this is good or bad, only to discover, much to our surprise, that students aren’t having as much sex as we thought. In fact, they report the same number of sexual partners as their parents did at their age and are even more likely than previous generations to be what one set of scholars grimly refers to as “sexually inactive”.

One conclusion is to think that campus hookup culture is a myth, a tantalizing, panic-inducing, ultimately untrue story. But to think this is to fundamentally misunderstand what hookup culture really is. It can’t be measured in sexual activity – whether high or low – because it’s not a behavior, it’s an ethos, an atmosphere, a milieu. A hookup culture is an environment that idealizes and promotes casual sexual encounters over other kinds, regardless of what students actually want or are doing. And it isn’t a myth at all.

I followed 101 students as part of the research for my book American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus. I invited students at two liberal arts schools to submit journals each week for a full semester, in which they wrote as much or as little as they liked about sex and romance on campus. The documents they submitted – varyingly rants, whispered gossip, critical analyses, protracted tales or simple streams of consciousness – came to over 1,500 single-spaced pages and exceeded a million words. To protect students’ confidentiality, I don’t use their real names or reveal the colleges they attend.

My read of these journals revealed four main categories of students. Cassidy and Declan were “enthusiasts”, students who enjoyed casual sex unequivocally. This 14% genuinely enjoyed hooking up and research suggests that they thrive. Jimena was as “abstainer”, one of the 34% who voluntary opted out in their first year. Another 8% abstained because they were in monogamous relationships. The remaining 45% were “dabblers”, students who were ambivalent about casual sex but succumbed to temptation, peer pressure or a sense of inevitability. Other more systematic quantitative research produces similar percentages.

These numbers show that students can opt out of hooking up, and many do. But my research makes clear that they can’t opt out of hookup culture. Whatever choice they make, it’s made meaningful in relationship to the culture. To participate gleefully, for example, is to be its standard bearer, even while being a numerical minority. To voluntarily abstain or commit to a monogamous relationship is to accept marginalization, to be seen as socially irrelevant and possibly sexually repressed. And to dabble is a way for students to bargain with hookup culture, accepting its terms in the hopes that it will deliver something they want.

Burke, for example, was a dabbler. He was strongly relationship-oriented, but his peers seemed to shun traditional dating. “It’s harder to ask someone out than it is to ask someone to go back to your room after fifteen minutes of chatting,” he observed wryly. He resisted hooking up, but “close quarters” made it “extremely easy” to occasionally fall into bed with people, especially when drunk. He always hoped his hookups would turn into something more – which is how most relationships form in hookup culture – but they never did.

‘To think that campus hookup culture is a myth … is to fundamentally misunderstand what hookup culture really is.’ Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Wren dabbled, too. She identified as pansexual and had been hoping for a “queer haven” in college, but instead found it to be “quietly oppressive”. Her peers weren’t overtly homophobic and in classrooms they eagerly theorized queer sex, but at parties they “reverted back into gendered codes” and “masculine bullshit”. So she hooked up a little, but not as much as she would have liked.

My abstainers simply decided not to hook up at all. Some of these, like Jimena, were opposed to casual sex no matter the context, but most just weren’t interested in “hot”, “meaningless” sexual encounters. Sex in hookup culture isn’t just casual, it’s aggressively slapdash, excluding not just love, but also fondness and sometimes even basic courtesy.

Hookup culture prevails, even though it serves only a minority of students, because cultures don’t reflect what is, but a specific group’s vision of what should be. The students who are most likely to qualify as enthusiasts are also more likelythan other kinds of students to be affluent, able-bodied, white, conventionally attractive, heterosexual and male. These students know – whether consciously or not – that they can afford to take risks, protected by everything from social status to their parents’ pocketbooks.

Students who don’t carry these privileges, especially when they are disadvantaged in many different ways at once, are often pushed or pulled out of hooking up. One of my African American students, Jaslene, stated bluntly that hooking up isn’t “for black people”, referring specifically to a white standard of beauty for women that disadvantaged women like her in the erotic marketplace. She felt pushed out. Others pulled away. “Some of us with serious financial aid and grants,” said one of my students with an athletic scholarship, “tend to avoid high-risk situations”.

Hookup culture, then, isn’t what the majority of students want, it’s the privileging of the sexual lifestyle most strongly endorsed by those with the most power on campus, the same people we see privileged in every other part of American life. These students, as one Latina observed, “exude dominance”. On the quad, they’re boisterous and engage in loud greetings. They sunbathe and play catch on the green at the first sign of spring. At games, they paint their faces and sing fight songs. They use the campus as their playground. Their bodies – most often slim, athletic and well-dressed – convey an assured calm; they move among their peers with confidence and authority. Online, social media is saturated with their chatter and late night snapshots.

On big party nights, they fill residence halls with activity. Students who don’t party, who have no interest in hooking up, can’t help but know they’re there. “You can hear every conversation occurring in the hallway even with your door closed,” one of my abstainers reported. For hours she would listen to the “click-clacking of high heels” and exchanged reassurances of “Shut up! You look hot!” Eventually there would be a reprieve, but revelers always return drunker and louder.

The morning after, college cafeterias ring with a ritual retelling of the night before. Students who have nothing to contribute to these conversations are excluded just by virtue of having nothing to say. They perhaps eat at other tables, but the raised voices that come with excitement carry. At the gym, in classes, and at the library, flirtations lay the groundwork for the coming weekend. Hookup culture reaches into every corner of campus.

The conspicuousness of hookup culture’s most enthusiastic proponents makes it seem as if everyone is hooking up all the time. In one study students guessed that their peers were doing it 50 times a year, 25 times what the numbers actually show. In another, young men figured that 80% of college guys were having sex any given weekend. They would have been closer to the truth if they were guessing the percentage of men who’d ever had sex.


College students aren’t living up to their reputation and hookup culture is part of why. It offers only one kind of sexual experiment, a sexually hot, emotionally cold encounter that suits only a minority of students well. Those who dabble in it often find that their experiences are as mixed as their feelings. One-in-three students say that their sexual encounters have been “traumatic” or “very difficult to handle”. Almost two dozen studies have documented feelings of sexual regret,frustration, disappointment, distress and inadequacy. Many students decide, if hookups are their only option, they’d rather not have sex at all.

We’ve discovered that hookup culture isn’t the cause for concern that some once felt it was, but neither is it the utopia that others hoped. If the goal is to enable young people to learn about and share their sexualities in ways that help them grow to be healthy adults (if they want to explore at all), we’re not there yet. But the more we understand about hookup culture, the closer we’ll be able to get.

Why scientists are losing the fight to communicate science to the public

Richard P Grant in The Guardian

A video did the rounds a couple of years ago, of some self-styled “skeptic” disagreeing – robustly, shall we say – with an anti-vaxxer. The speaker was roundly cheered by everyone sharing the video – he sure put that idiot in their place!

Scientists love to argue. Cutting through bullshit and getting to the truth of the matter is pretty much the job description. So it’s not really surprising scientists and science supporters frequently take on those who dabble in homeopathy, or deny anthropogenic climate change, or who oppose vaccinations or genetically modified food.

It makes sense. You’ve got a population that is – on the whole – not scientifically literate, and you want to persuade them that they should be doing a and b (but not c) so that they/you/their children can have a better life.

Brian Cox was at it last week, performing a “smackdown” on a climate change denier on the ABC’s Q&A discussion program. He brought graphs! Knockout blow.

Q&A smackdown: Brian Cox brings graphs to grapple with Malcolm Roberts

And yet … it leaves me cold. Is this really what science communication is about? Is this informing, changing minds, winning people over to a better, brighter future?

I doubt it somehow.

There are a couple of things here. And I don’t think it’s as simple as people rejecting science.

First, people don’t like being told what to do. This is part of what Michael Gove was driving at when he said people had had enough of experts. We rely on doctors and nurses to make us better, and on financial planners to help us invest. We expect scientists to research new cures for disease, or simply to find out how things work. We expect the government to try to do the best for most of the people most of the time, and weather forecasters to at least tell us what today was like even if they struggle with tomorrow.

But when these experts tell us how to live our lives – or even worse, what to think – something rebels. Especially when there is even the merest whiff of controversy or uncertainty. Back in your box, we say, and stick to what you’re good at.

We saw it in the recent referendum, we saw it when Dame Sally Davies said wine makes her think of breast cancer, and we saw it back in the late 1990s when the government of the time told people – who honestly, really wanted to do the best for their children – to shut up, stop asking questions and take the damn triple vaccine.

Which brings us to the second thing.

On the whole, I don’t think people who object to vaccines or GMOs are at heart anti-science. Some are, for sure, and these are the dangerous ones. But most people simply want to know that someone is listening, that someone is taking their worries seriously; that someone cares for them.

It’s more about who we are and our relationships than about what is right or true.

This is why, when you bring data to a TV show, you run the risk of appearing supercilious and judgemental. Even – especially – if you’re actually right.
People want to feel wanted and loved. That there is someone who will listen to them. To feel part of a family.

The physicist Sabine Hossenfelder gets this. Between contracts one time, she set up a “talk to a physicist” service. Fifty dollars gets you 20 minutes with a quantum physicist … who will listen to whatever crazy idea you have, and help you understand a little more about the world.

How many science communicators do you know who will take the time to listen to their audience? Who are willing to step outside their cosy little bubble and make an effort to reach people where they are, where they are confused and hurting; where they need?

Atul Gawande says scientists should assert “the true facts of good science” and expose the “bad science tactics that are being used to mislead people”. But that’s only part of the story, and is closing the barn door too late.

Because the charlatans have already recognised the need, and have built the communities that people crave. Tellingly, Gawande refers to the ‘scientific community’; and he’s absolutely right, there. Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever? We are exclusive, we are a gang, we are family.

That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.

It’s tribalism.