Gaia 2019

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter 2019


'Big Brother' really listening to you, as its Big Sister Alexa!  A married couple in Portland, Oregon joked that their Amazon Alexa might be listening in to their private conversations. However the joke ended when it transpired it was true: an employee of the husband phoned saying that he had received audio files of recordings from inside the couple's house.  Apparently what happened was that during the conversation, one of the couple said a key word and this started a string of inadvertent commands that resulted in the couple's conversation being recorded and sent to one of the contacts in the husband's contacts' database. The thing is why did not the couple hear Alexa query the commands? Well apparently Alexa's voice is quiet and if the couple were otherwise occupied a little distance away, deep in conversation, they may not have heard Alexa.  So, once again George Orwell is right.  (Further detail here.)

Stan Lee has died in cyberspace.  'Big Brother' really listening to you, as is its Big Sister Siri!  The news flashed briefly last summer that Stan lee had died!  Actually, he had not.  It happened like this.  A young US genre buff had a shock when he asked Siri how old Marvel legend Lee is only to be told that he had just died on 2nd July (2018). The young lad was the son of a columnist and so inevitably the news spread.  The false news came about because Siri – the Apple company proto artificial intelligence – drew upon standard sources and in this case it included Wikipedia. Alas, Siri does not do fact checking and so did not spot that a troll “&beer&love” had maliciously altered Wikipedia's page on Stan Lee: apparently this was for fun.  It looks like simple proto-AIs may amplify fake news.
          Of course, sadly in November (2018) we really did lose Stan but at least Stan had what few of us ever get: a chance to see how some react on the news of our own purported demise.

Do SF authors have hot streaks in their careers?  Yes, if a new study of the careers of artists, film directors and scientists is anything to go by.  Lu Liu and colleagues (from Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, and Pennsylvania State University, both in the US) looked at the careers of artists (n = 3,480), directors (n = 6,233) and scientists (n = 20,040).  They were testing what is called the 'Matthew effect' whereby victories bring reputation and recognition that can translate into tangible assets, which in turn help to bring future victories. This school of thought supports the existence of a hot streak in a career, which is also consistent with literature in the field of innovation showing that peak performance clusters in time.  The researchers found that that, across all three areas of work, hit works within a career show a high degree of temporal regularity, with each career being characterised by bursts of high-impact works.  The 'Victories' here were quantified by the researchers for each career. For scientists it was their research papers 10-year citation impact factor. For film directors it was their IMDB score. For artists it was the auction prices of their works.  This data was then subject to statistical analysis.  It seems that the Matthew effect has a certain validity across all these areas of work and so may also be true for SF authors.  However as SF 'academics' don't work much with raw data, it is unlikely we will find out soon.  (See Lu Liu et al, 2018, Hot streaks in artistic, cultural, and scientific careers. Nature vol. 559, pp396-399.)

Talks /speeches/ academic papers that last longer are boring: interesting talks are short!  Have you ever been to a panel at an SF convention or symposium when one person dominates? They think they are being interesting but are they?  Robert Ewers of Imperial College London decided to put it to the test at a symposium where 50 speakers were scheduled to give 12 minute talks (presumably with 3 minutes handover so making 15 minute slots).  With each talk, he decided after 4 minutes whether it was interesting or boring and at the talk's end recorded its time.  He found that the 34 interesting talks lasted on average a punctual 11 minutes and 42 seconds.  The 16 boring ones dragged on for 13 minutes and 12 seconds: a statistically more than 99% significant result.  Boring talkers do actually go on and on and on.  He concludes that to avoid banality, speakers should: introduce their key points early on; focus solely on the relevant information; avoid repetition and minutiae as well as passing off obvious common knowledge as fresh insight.  This might be something that con-goers and programme organisers might share (see opening sentence link).  (Ewers R. M. (2018) Correspondence: Boring speakers talk for longer. Nature, vol. 561, p464.)

Lest we forget, 2018 was the year China banned Winnie the Pooh.  Actually Pooh was banned first in 2014 when the bear with little brain became a recognised symbol of Chinese dissent.  Apparently, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping was compared to A. A. Milne's bear back in 2013 with a picture of Xi walking with President Barack Obama was online posted alongside a picture of Pooh walking next to Tigger. People took to it.  In 2014, a picture of Xi shaking hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mirrored with a picture of Pooh with Eeyore.  So, could this be the reason why China has banned the new live action film Christopher Robin?  Well, Gaia hates to puncture a good story, but irrespective of the Pooh symbolism, China does have a policy of only releasing a quota of foreign films a year: the quota was 34 in 2018. So on numbers alone it would have been unlikely that the film would have made it into China's cinemas.  What did get through was: Skyscraper, Mission Impossible: Fallout, and Ant-Man and The Wasp.  So there you go, tiddley pom.

Gender equality questions are a minefield, but now a mobile/cell app game has illuminated one difference in navigation ability between the seχes.  Gender issues are a mine field not least because some have socio-economic/political agendas and so muddle societal inequalities with biological differences: humans are a seχually dimorphic species.  However if we can leave our personal socio-political baggage behind we can begin to coolly examine issues.
          One gender difference that's a fairly popular meme is that women are not as good at map-reading compared to men.  What a team of neuroscientists and psychologists has now done is to develop a navigation game played on a mobile (cell) phone with players' results sent back to the researchers.  Some 2.5 million took part across the world and of these 558,143 provided enough data (including age and gender) for analysis. This is a fairly reasonable and meaningful a sample.
          They found that there were differences and that men did indeed perform better than women.  But that is not all.  Both men and women from wealthier countries had better navigation skills than their counterparts from poorer nations.  Also the difference between men and women was a little less in wealthier as well as more gender-equal countries: the difference was greater in poorer as well as nations with less genderequality.
          This research is not just of interest to those seeking to understand the human condition, it has practical implications for both cross-cultural studies and diagnostic clinical trials using cognitive testing such as for diagnosing Alzheimer's. (See Coutrot, A., Silva, R. & Manley, E. et al (2018) Global determinants of navigation ability. Current Biology vol. 28, p1–6.)

Amazon has reportedly developed a sexist AI.  The artificial intelligence (AI) was fed the job applications accrued from over a decade.  Apparently the AI 'taught itself' that male applicants were preferable over female applicants.  The idea was that the AI would generate a shortlist from a large number of applicants.  More on this from

Pseudoscience has moved from the fringe to mainstream at the 106th Indian Science Congress.  At it some remarkable claims were made.  These included that: an old Hindu text prooves that stem cell research was discovered in India thousands of years ago and that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were both wrong so gravitational waves should be renamed 'Narendra Modi Waves'.  One G. Nageshwar Rao, vice chancellor of Andhra University, said that a demon king from the Hindu epic, Ramayana, had 24 types of aircraft and a network of landing strips in modern day Sri Lanka.  The 106th Indian Science Congress was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  PM Modi is, some say, responsible for this rise in pseudoscience. These pseudoscience claims usually have their seeds in an imagined, glorious Hindu past and are made to bolster religious nationalism for political gain.  Naturally, many scientists at the Indian Science Congress are (rightly) appalled.

The 2018 Darwin Awards top two.  Named in honour of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, the Darwin Awards commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it.  Eight made it to the shortlist of which just two attracted over 750 votes.
          Running up was the sexagenarian, Abu Hamam, 62, who was examining his personal weapon at home when he inadvertently discharged it into his own face!  Abu was a founding member of Hamas in Gaza. One would assume that a senior member of Hamas knows how to handle a gun--yet Abu's incautious "personal weapons inspection" was unexpectedly inept.
          Winning the 2018 Darwins with the most votes (860) for removing themselves from the gene pool was 19 year old Karmic Valentine Schadenfreude.  He and his soon-to-be-ex girlfriend were walking along the beautiful Havel River, quarrelling. Unable to win his conversational point, the frustrated man suddenly shoved the woman into the icy river, jumping in to push her under again and again!  But she could swim. He could not...  She swam safely to land and quickly recovered from hypothermia. He sank and lost consciousness in the 2°C waters and subsequently died.  According to the Award's rules, usually no Darwin Award is granted when an innocent bystander is injured. In this case the Darwin Award administrators made a rare exception because the woman fully recovered (and is perforce better off without this misogynistic madman who arguably got his karmic desserts).
          Further information at

NASA lets eqal opportunities down as two female astronauts prevented from going on a space walk.  The shock news came a month before we posted this year's Gaia column and came from the International Space Station.  It would have been the first two-women space walk.  However it transpired that there were not two space suits the size of the women on the space station for them to use!  Besides which, they'd have had to change the cut and design as it would not do for two women to go out wearing similar outfits...

Which brings us neatly on to our never-changing end-of-Gaia column regular… And finally, just missing last year's Gaia column…

The 2018 Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year shortlist and winner have been announced. The 2018 shortlist (for 2017 titles) consisted of:-
Are Gay Men More Accurate in Detecting Deceits? by Hoe-Chi Angel Au
Call of Nature: The Secret Life of Dung by Richard Jones
Equine Dry Needling by Cornelia Klarholz & Andrea Schachinger
Jesus on Gardening by David Muskett
Joy of Waterboiling by Paul Oberschneider
          And the winner… Joy of Waterboiling by Paul Oberschneider.  The book is a German one and so this makes it the first time the Diagram Prize has been won by a non-English book even though the title is in English.

You can check out Gaia's previous Diagram Prize news reported in earlier Gaia columns includes that from: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006.

See you in 2020 with more sciencey frivolity.

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