The Pipwick Papers

I love this mangled Darth Vader mask so much

It’s a grey day today, perfect for my afternoon plans – holing up with a bunch of friends for pen and paper exploits and food – but before I deal with bags of dice and disconsolate dragons here are a few of the fruits of this week’s reading.

These are not the Sunday Papers:

  • David Wolman’s “Who Killed Mellory Manning?” over on Medium investigates the role of pollen analysis in a murder investigation in New Zealand. It’s something I was already familiar with as a branch of forensics thanks to watching far too much crime drama but the specifics of this case made for interesting reading and I value that the chief investigator wanted to disprove the idea of valuing some lives less than others.
  • The BBC has this writeup of the research from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem into how octopuses use their arms when they move around.
  • How octopuses control and move their soft bodies is of interest to engineers who aim to design biologically inspired robots.

    “People want to build soft robots for medical purposes and rescue operations,” said Dr Guy Levy, one of the researchers involved in the project.

    Such soft-bodied, octopus-inspired arms would not be limited by fixed joints, he explained. This could be useful to access narrow, difficult to reach spaces – perhaps getting help to people trapped at the scene of a collapsed building.

  • This one might be a bit inside baseball but I was interested to read Hamilton Nolan talking about some of Gawker Media’s staff deciding to unionise:
  • The online media industry makes real money. It’s now possible to find a career in this industry, rather than just a fleeting job. An organized work force is part of growing up. I fully expect that Gawker Media will emerge from this experience stronger than it has ever been.

  • Gone Girl: An Interview With An American Girl In ISIS has Ellie Hall from BuzzFeed taking an in-depth look at the story of Hoda, a girl from Alabama who left for Syria in November last year in order to live under the Islamic State
  • “I believe she been brainwashed,” Mohammed said, when first asked about his youngest daughter. “She’s not that kind of girl. They brainwashed her.”

    “Everyone’s parents or family members says that about those who have come here,” Hoda said of her father’s accusation. “To that I say, ‘Fear Allah, fear Allah with what you accuse us of.’”

    Amy Merrick in the New Yorker writes about Designing For Disability – there’s not a big change to document here, but it’s a good piece for pointing out fashion’s reticence when it comes to bodies which don’t fit the industry’s “aspirational” model, the demand for better designs – form tends to get forgotten in the face of function – and the psychological impact such designs could have.

    Many of [Alicia Contreras’ clients learning how to use canes] have foregone traditional canes and have turned instead to hiking sticks. Unlike a cane, a hiking stick lends the impression of vigorousness, as if the person carrying it to the grocery store is merely warming up for a weekend trek. “They were proud of them,” Contreras said. “They felt like, ‘I am active, I am safe.’”


    1. Stellar Duck says:

      I’m thrilled to read that they’re organizing!

      I’ll never understand the disdain towards unions some people have. I recently moved countries from Denmark to someplace else and the difference in job security is staggering. Half the shit in my contract would never fly back home and the pay is a joke.

      So, I for one salute those people. Unions are the best means of fighting back against the employers. And yes, it’s a fight. That’s the issue: some people don’t want to see that the job market is a struggle. The employer is never, ever your friend. His or her interests are diametrically opposing yours.

      • Jenks says:

        There are plenty of reasons to be anti-union, especially public sector unions. To say “I’ll never understand the disdain towards unions” just means you’ve never bothered trying to understand.

        • Stellar Duck says:

          I’ve certainly read enough libertarian and other right wing screeds about how terrible organised labour is and how everyone should be at the mercy of the employer to understand that it’s a fundamental disagreement about how one views labour and what class one sympathizes with.

          • wyrm4701 says:

            Don’t write off all union criticism to the column of a particular ideology. Like any organization, unions are susceptible to corruption. That said, it’s interesting to note how different media responses are to the notion of a corrupt union to that of a corrupt corporation.

            • Stellar Duck says:

              I don’t know about the States but in Denmark at least, I don’t know about the potential corruptness of unions. I mean, do the higher up get good pay? Sure. They’re the people in charge of the collective bargaining and stuff so the members generally accept higher pay for the leaders. That’s not corruption though.

              Are people suggesting that the unions are in cahoots with the employers then? That’d be a serious issue for sure! I just don’t see it advanced often.

              The main charge levelled at unions in Denmark is that they’re wishy washy and not really needed any longer. They’ve gotten the labour market to a point where people don’t think they need them. So they leave and go it on their own. So right now the employers are doing what they can to dismantle a lot of stuff while complacent consumers don’t realise they’re getting screwed over.

              I’ll admit to some amount of schadenfreude when they come crawling back after having been dicked over by the boss and can’t afford to run a suit themselves.

              Unions are always needed and the fact that they are fallible is a weird counter argument I find. Of course they are. They’re made of people.

            • pepperfez says:

              I think the spectre of corruption in US unions is used as a political tool like in-person elections fraud, in that it’s a threat that would justify extreme measure if it were widespread and is almost entirely nonexistent.

          • Matt_W says:

            I’m a god-hating, patchouli-scented, baby-composting, tree-hugging liberal and was a vociferous defender of public sector unions until I had kids in public schools. I can say definitively that the aims of the teacher’s union do not coincide with the needs of children or parents; they align, as you might expect, with the needs of teachers over against those other stakeholders. Teachers want higher pay and gold-plated benefits. OK, but they also want iron-clad protections of teachers with dismal educational records, they want rules that value seniority at the expense of new teachers, they want district money to go to teacher salaries instead of nurses, librarians, counselors, janitors and other support staff, and (this is my biggest beef) they want fewer classroom hours, with teaching hours sacrificed to teacher continuing education and parent-teacher contact. (Functions that, when I was a tyke, occurred outside of normal working hours both so kids got the instructional hours they need and so parents didn’t have to take time off work.) Teachers don’t show up to our PTA meetings, except to advocate for their own negotiations with the district. There is no question that my kids have fewer instructional hours in the classroom (and fewer extra-classroom enrichment activities like music and gym and art) than I did. There are 350,000 parents in our district who have to figure out childcare for the once-a-week half-day the district mandates so that 7,000 teachers can do continuing education (which in practice means they go home early once a week.) It’s not hard to understand where some resentment starts to come from for these employees who supposedly are there to serve the public interest.

            • Consumatopia says:

              Not a teacher myself, but some of my relatives are. Don’t know what things are like in your district, but here’s how they are in my state.

              Teachers got paid a lot less in the past, but they were willing to put up with that because they were promised much nicer pay/benefits in the future. I bet there are a lot of teachers who would have preferred a more meritocratic system in the first place, but there’s a path dependence issue here–teachers who worked their whole lives at lower seniority feel betrayed if someone proposes to break those promises just as they start to benefit. Also, because our schools are run and funded at the local level, teachers want protection from losing their job just because administrators are incompetent or school boards find a political ax to grind. Furthermore, there’s never been a good solution of how to comparatively evaluate teachers with very different classes. Some classes are much easier to teach than others.

              You can say that teacher should just suck it up and accept at-will firing”for the kids”, but in the long run if you take away job security/seniority, you’ll have to expect young starting teachers to start demanding a lot more money or else they’ll start careers in a different field. And if America really wanted to solve problems for the kids, they would start with addressing inequality. It’s a lot easier to prove that poor school performance is caused by poverty than it is by bad teaching.

              Continuing education and paperwork burdens are much higher today than they were when I was a student, probably when you were a student as well. Kids also spend a lot more time taking standardized tests. I strongly suspect that a significant portion of the problem with schools today is the accumulated cruft of previous “reform” efforts. (In fact, I think insofar as the profession of teaching is to blame for educational failures, I wouldn’t blame the teachers in the field so much as education departments in academia. They’ve acquired reputations even among practicing teachers I know for useless faddism, perhaps as chronic victims of the Hawthorne effect.)

              I’m not saying that the schools today or the unions are without problems. But building more charter schools and requiring more high-stakes testing isn’t necessarily making things better.

            • Matt_W says:

              “building more charter schools and requiring more high-stakes testing isn’t necessarily making things better.”

              I don’t advocate for either of these solutions. I don’t even care all too much about teacher evaluation. (Provided the school honors my request to pull my child from a classroom if I judge it necessary.) I even totally get the union’s objectives; it really is advocating for the needs and desired of its members, just like it should. I just would like the district to respond as eagerly to parents’ concerns as it does to those of the union, I’d like the union to have some give with regard to funding and instructional hours, and I’d like the schools and individual teachers to put more effort into communicating with parents.

          • Aetylus says:

            The fundamental issue with the unions is the same as with any significant organisation wielding a level of power. One of their primary motivations very quickly becomes maintaining that power. In that sense the unions suffer from all of the same problems as corporations, lobbyists, religions etc… their main focus shifted decades ago from looking after workers to looking after the unions, and there is a very big difference between those things.

            About the only thing you might say that makes the present day incarnations of the unions any better than the corporations they oppose is that at least some of the people the unions represent might be incapable of advocating for themselves without the unions support… whereas the corporate lobbyists are generally backing some of the most capable people around.

            The fact that most developed counties (with the important and notable exception of the US) now have good labour protection laws has further narrowed the unions’ focus. In effect they don’t have any serious battles left to fight for the ‘common man’ (though they could probably do more to support the ‘common woman’) in the west… but I don’t see them throwing their weight behind improved worker rights in developing nations (except where it is a way to force jobs back into the hands of union members).

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          phuzz says:

          From what I’ve read, it does seem that unions in the US seem to have more than their fair share of arseholes, and in some cases deserve the bad reputation they have over there.
          Here in the UK they’re generally more helpful, unless you’re an employer looking to exploit your workforce, and then you can always find non-unionised workers.

    2. Mungrul says:

      Hatred of unions seems to be a very US-centric thing, where they have become associated with organised crime.
      This is convenient for companies, as it allows them more control over their workforce.

      • Fomorian1988 says:

        There’s also their disgust over minimum wage workers, like McDonald’s employees.

        I wonder if this is the side-effect of the whole ‘”American dream” concept.

      • Zenicetus says:

        It’s more complicated here in the USA than links to organized crime (which aren’t really that common). We’ve become so deeply divided and entrenched in our politics, that any mention of unions means “commie liberal Democrat” to anyone listening to Fox News, regardless of the merits and drawbacks of unions.

        Unions aren’t always perfect, either. A good example is Teacher’s Unions in public schools, which make it very difficult to fire a bad teacher. Instead, they just get shuffled around to different schools. As a liberal commie Democrat, I’m generally in favor of unions. But I’ve seen the downside with what happens in schools, and that can make even a supporter somewhat skeptical at times.

        • pepperfez says:

          And while it sucks that unions can protect shitty employees, management routinely protects shitty administrators, and they don’t even have to pay dues for the privilege.

        • Frank says:

          Yeah, I am also a American commie lefty, but unions are the one plank of the Democrat platform I’ve never been on board with. I think a lot of it comes from American ideals of individualism. Here are my various beefs:

          (1) Yes, they can protect bad workers and they use Last-In-First-Out, biased against new blood.

          (2) They get a cut of everyone’s pay, but frequently do nothing for them when they’re actually needed. An acquaintance of my has had a serious and legitimate beef with management, but can make no headway through her public-sector union. The people she interacts with from the union want to be helpful, but the bureaucracy is such that they cannot. And the union leadership is cozy with administration. Effectively, the union is just a leech that is there to make labor feel like their concerns are heard.

          (3) I associate unions with professional organizations that introduce “licensing” at the state level purely to reduce entry into their professions. As someone trained in economics, I view this practice as vile. Politicians will always fall for it, because it is a great way of organizing votes.

          (4) The whole organized-crime thing is just a side-effect of making the group more important than the individual. I don’t think it is common these days, but eh, certainly not a plus.

          • Stellar Duck says:

            Honestly, it sounds like the main issue is that you have shit unions.

          • monstermagnet says:

            As a union member (IAMAW) I wouldn’t say unions are biased against new blood, rather that your seniority counts for something. Whether that’s pick of jobs, more vacation, workforce reduction, etc., everyone knows their place and they know that if they stick around they’ll be eligible for those benefits too. As far as representation goes, seniority shouldn’t have any bearing whatsoever. I recognize that unions have gotten a bad rap for corruption, but I don’t believe that makes them useless or unneeded.

            • Aetylus says:

              I think many people, myself included, would consider valuing an individual based on time-of-service rather than personal merit a Bad Thing.

            • pepperfez says:

              If the choices are “length of service” and “arbitrary decisions of management,” though, “length of service” begins to look much better.

        • Dances to Podcasts says:

          Someone once said that the reason Russia’s form of capitalism is so corrupt and generally dreadful is because during the Cold War the propaganda taught people that that’s what capitalism was all about. So when they got capitalism, that’s the capitalism they built.

          Sometimes I suspect it’s the same with the US and unions.

      • tauntegdiher says:

        i don’t think u understand the US much.

        or reallly working union jobs in the US.
        cuz unions really are the source of ridicule once you’ve done that.

        so basically, fuck off, ya limey git.

      • tauntegdiher says:

        work is life.

        what are you talking about?
        cute is cute but it’s not very cute.

        fuck off.

    3. xfstef says:

      was… that …. R… … Revan ?

      • Fomorian1988 says:

        Nope, the Sith’s name is apparently Kalo Ren.

      • Distec says:

        He might as well be! I’m cool with it, since he’s probably one of the better exports from Star Wars media outside of the films.

      • James says:

        I suspect Revan was a ‘strong influence’ *wink wink* on the design of this new villain.

        I for one am pleased.

    4. Jackablade says:

      I suspect they’re going to wind up with the same problem we have in film effects and games – it’s far too easy to hire new, skilled undemanding workers and not have to put up with union demands. Gawker is going to have even bigger problems because while they have a few more developed articles, most of their content isn’t a great deal more than “here is a thing that I found on the internet” that anyone with some competent writing skills could do.

      It’d be good to see them succeed – it’d be a useful example of how other digital medias could deal with this situation, but I think they’re unlikely to get very far.

      • pepperfez says:

        That seems like the obvious problem. My speculation is that by now individual writers have sufficient followings to be difficult to replace, and also enough personal capital to feel a little safe in testing that. Here’s hoping they got it right.

        • Cederic says:

          This part of the rationale sends big warning flags up the mast for me:

          We would like to ensure everyone receives a salary that is fair for their time at the company and the work they do.

          No, time at a company is not a valid basis for determining pay. The work that someone does can be, but unions like to label all work as equal and fight against meritocracy.

          Hopefully it’ll work out for them. Hopefully people will still be able to work there without having to join the union too.

          • pepperfez says:

            Meritocracy isn’t how wages are apportioned anywhere, union or no. There’s always an irreducibly arbitrary standard at work, so unions are just trying to make that arbitrary standard a little less slanted towards the interests of owners.

    5. Gpig says:

      I just can’t get over how horrifying it would be seeing a rescue octopus squirming it’s way into your cramped space. Robot octopuses trying to squeeze into enclosed spaces to help out trapped humans sounds like the end of the Matrix.
      I hope they build it so they can stroke people to calm them down. You’re crying in a collapsed building, barely able to breath with everything on top of you, when you hear movement. Slowly a tentacle slips in and gently wipes a tear from your face.

    6. Snargelfargen says:

      It’s great to see the ISIS Buzzfeed article has been edited with commentary from the girl itself. Commentary from the western participants in the Syrian war has been seriously lacking in the press, even while they continue to publish more and more articles about young people leaving to join ISIS.

      On a related note, at least in Denmark, the number of people leaving to join ISIS and other armed groups in Syria has fallen sharply over the past year and a half. It looks as though the falling fortunes of ISIS, and horror stories from returning volunteers has done more to prevent young people from joining the cause than anything the government has done. Not that you would know it from the mainstream media, which is still fixated on playing back soundbites from the most radical imam’s they can find.

    7. eggy toast says:

      If I wanted to click gawker and buzzfeed links I would have a facebook and be friends with stupid people!

      • Stellar Duck says:

        Then why not simply not click them instead of making this comment?

        • pepperfez says:

          Perhaps, if the peons who actually read such drivel realize that they’ve earned the scorn of a truly thoughtful and discerning anonymous rando, they will reflect upon their uncultured news habits and repent.

          • wyrm4701 says:

            I certainly respond positively to the confidence inherent in thoughtless bile spat indiscriminately.

          • Stellar Duck says:

            True. This gentlesir has blown my mind in this comment thread and others. Never will I click a Gawker link again.

            Or alternately, he’s just a really spiteful person?

          • eggy toast says:


        • RARARA says:

          He obviously doesn’t know Buzzfeed is the secretly smart cheerleader who pretends to be dumb just to be popular.

          • eggy toast says:

            LOL link a Cracked video to defend Buzzfeed.

            Next try linking to a pot, defending a kettle against the charge of blackness.

      • James says:

        Based on the last few days of your comments I give you a 6/10, would be mildy miffed again.

    8. Josh W says:

      That new star wars looks star wars-y, although stormtroopers seem to be slightly more like ducks now.