Monthly Archives: December 2016

Review: 100 Episodes of Night Vale

Welcome to NightvaleFor four years now a surreal horror story has been broadcast over the tangled nodes of the internet. The podcast Welcome to Night Vale has appeared in twice-monthly installments since June 2012, making it one of the longest running fictional podcasts around. The 100th episode has gone live, which is a good excuse to talk about it. This show has everything: Battles, intrigue, revenge, subterfuge, love, philosophical ruminations on the nature of existence, and interns.

The genius of the show is its format. It’s presented as a radio show, which makes Welcome to Night Vale one of those rarest of fictions – a second-person format that works. As a listener, you are presumably within the isolated town of Night Vale, and affected by and involved with everything that happens there. The format lets the story wander between third-person reports of events in the town and first-person commentary by Cecil, the presenter. Although eminently likable, he is an untrustworthy narrator, projecting his emotions and judgments onto whatever he is reporting. It’s fun hearing the monologues of other people in the town and getting completely different perspectives — it’s a good storytelling technique to have people present their own versions of the truth instead of a monolithic narrative agreed to by everybody. The format also allows for repeating segments, such as the existential nihilism of Traffic and the musical tones of the Weather.

Night Vale is a Poeish and Lovecraftian place, ruled by hooded figures, terrorised by glow clouds, invaded by cities hidden under the bowling alley, and generally harassed by secret government agencies. Anything that happens in an episode, no matter how throw-away a punch-line or bizarre a revelation, is maintained throughout the show. The Faceless Old Lady Who Lives In Your Home was introduced as a creepy concept, and Hiram McDaniels, a literal five-headed dragon, was a metaphor taken literally, but they ran against each other in the Mayoral election. This is what allows the show to work – from the viciousness of librarians to the completely forbidden nature of the dog park, everything is retained and becomes a normal part of the Night Vale world.

Cecil is the announcer of Night Vale Community Radio, and it is his dulcet tones which make up the majority of the podcast. The fact that his voice is so nice to listen to is a main element of the success of the podcast. The normal manner of reporting the weird phenomenon is a sublime juxtaposition, used to great effect. He also adds the main personal element to the show, particularly through his relationship with his boyfriend, delightfully revealed in wistful digressions, interviews and phone messages. A good argument could be made that the show is love story.

Like any great fiction, a lot of meaning can be read into Welcome to Night Vale. The show satirises pretty much everything, starting with the terrifying nature of our bosses. For politics there is a huge race for mayor, complete with dirty tactics and outright threats, but the votes are ignored and the winner (spoiler alert) is ultimately decided by pulses coming from Hidden Gorge. There are arbitrary rules of society that must be followed, places that are off-limits for no explained reason, constant manipulation by secretive organisations, and the peppy evil of conglomerating corporations.

All in all, Welcome to Night Vale has a peculiar aesthetic that will enchant fans of folk horror and bizarre circuses … but beyond that it is a marvelous story, that is well-constructed and superbly performed. Start from the beginning and enjoy the show. The podcast is free, with the writers and crew earning a living by touring live shows, selling related merchandise, and soliciting donations. There’s also a book out.

This is adapted from a review I wrote for Radio Monash

Anonymous Sources And Respectable Media

The use of anonymous sources is vital for the effectiveness of the fourth estate. There are plenty of situations where telling the truth can get someone into a lot of trouble (see Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning), even when it’s a truth that the general public has a right, or even a need, to know. The journalists and their editors make a judgment call on the trustworthiness of their source, and the reader needs to make a judgment on the sagacity of the journalists and editors in who they trust.

The Washington Post published a story citing anonymous sources who claimed that a secret CIA report concluded that actors linked to Russia affected the US election to help Donald Trump get elected. A lot of people dismissed this report out of hand simply because it was in the “mainstream media”, and they think that just because they misunderstood news stories in the past then the mainstream media lies.

There is a difference between “true” and “factual”. The Washington Post article is factual. It does not claim that Russia attempted to help Trump get elected, nor does it claim that the CIA thinks Russia attempted to help Trump get elected. It reports on claims by anonymous sources. The journalists and their editors obviously trust these sources, but how does the reader assess the trustworthiness of the source?

First, consider the Washington Post as a source. It relies on its reputation to conduct its business, as opposed to, for example, which relies on the patronage of the Russian government, or, which seems to rely on clickbait headlines. If the Washington Post publishes too many stories based on anonymous sources that turn out to be false, their reputation — and therefore their business — is going to take a hit, so they’re very careful not to do that.

Second, consider what the anonymous sources are saying. Is it likely to be corroborated or refuted in the future? In this case we’re talking about a government agency, which is unlikely to let a completely false report of its findings stand. Further, this sort of story tends to get investigated, and indeed senior Republicans are calling for a bipartisan investigation into the matter, so the veracity is going to be checked. The Washington Post knew that would happen, and wouldn’t have gone ahead with the story unless they were certain of vindication.

The CIA could be mistaken, of course. This sort of intelligence is a notoriously slippery beast. However, we should assume they have a basic competency at their job. Could the CIA be outright lying? Again, it’s possible, but what would they gain? They’re likely to see their powers expanded under Trump, even more than they were with the previous few presidents.

Try to remember that you have to live with uncertainty, and rejecting or accepting something based solely on whether it fits the worldview you’ve concocted isn’t a valid way to interact with reality. If it makes you feel any better, even if something does contradict with your worldview it doesn’t mean your worldview is wrong.

Jellyballing the Jellyfisheries

People eat jellyfish, and therefore people fish for jellyfish. They call the practice jellyballing — because if you get a chance to name something, you should name it something cool. Unfortunately, far more jellyfish are caught each year than previously assumed. We currently have no idea what effect this is having on the jellyfish population, or what effect overfishing jellyfish will have on the marine ecology. Considering we’re overfishing pretty much everything in the ocean, I imagine it’s not going to be good. Hakai has a short piece on this, well worth the read.

(image copyright Brocken Inaglory)

Mathematical Proof that Aliens Do Not Exist (Sorry to Burst your Bubble)

Every now and then random people in the world go bat-guana crazy about something, whether it’s about a Big Foot sighting, or believing that a trust-fund billionaire troll-bot will govern for anyone other than other billionaires, or evidence of extraterrestrials. This latter went big in 2016, moving from cow-probing theory-spinning abductees to legitimate astronomers and physicists who tried really, really hard not to sound like they were talking about E.T.

However they tried to dress it up, it was ridiculous. A star, KIC 8462852 (now known as Tabby’s Star), was showing behaviour they didn’t recognise, and the cry of “ALIENS” reverberated around the internet. Sound like a familiar argument?

In fact, the probability of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence is so tiny that there is literally no evidence compelling enough to refute the maths. I explain this here.

The Wrong View of Science

There are many forms of poor thinking, and most have been on vivid display in the past year or so. One that often gets overlooked is scientism, the “the uncritical application of scientific or quasi-scientific methods to inappropriate fields of study or investigation”. There’s a large number of people with a religious fervour for science, but aside from pithy memes the apologists can’t support their position.

I studied Scientific Practice and Communication at Monash University this semester, which did a good job at introducing second year students to the way science actually works (as opposed to the way it is promoted to work), outlining poor science and misuse of the scientific method, and problems with the modern research environment and peer-reviewed journals. Sometimes they seemed to contradict themselves, but it’s a tough line to walk. One professor described the importance of The Royal Society’s motto Nullius in Verba (Take Nobody’s Word For It), and then in the same lecture lamented that the problem with modern discourse is that now people thought it was okay to question experts. Of course, questioning is good, but it needs to be backed up with an alternative idea that is coherent, logical, and sound. Often science experts are challenged on non-scientific grounds and the competing ideas are unsound and incoherent, but it can be difficult for non-experts to distinguish which is better.

All that aside, science cannot save the world by itself, and should not be applied to questions outside of its paradigm. I wrote a longer piece arguing this point, with examples, for the university paper Lot’s Wife. Read it here.

The End of a Six-Month Anti-Hiatus

For complicated reasons involving rushed decision making and decapitated pig heads I went back to university this past semester. My plans to post my writing here collapsed after a few weeks, partly because I joined a lot of uni societies but mostly because leaving five years between finishing the prerequisites for a second-year maths course and studying the second year maths course makes the process really quite difficult. I pulled a credit though, so dropping this paid off.

Now I shall explore the peculiarities of this world and this life, through science, literature, film & TV, things written for university subjects, and general musings.