Thursday, June 22nd, 2017 01:25 pm

Hi: I'm back. And a regular commenter asked me an interesting question anent the state of current US/UK politics: how much money can you make by crying fire in a crowded theatre?

Note that "crowded theatre" and "crying fire" are not to be taken literally; rather, it's a question about how much money you can make by manipulating social media to drive public opinion.

I'm going to start with the money markets: hedge funds bet big on Brexit, because they predicted that in event of a "leave" vote going through, shares in the FTSE 100 would underperform by 20%: so they shorted the entire market. However, it's a bet that, by and large, they lost money on. Rather than the FTSE 100 dropping 20%, Sterling dropped 20% and the shares continued to trade at much the same level (in the now-debased currency). Oops. Notably, billionaire Peter Hargreaves, who donated £3.2M to the Leave campaign, managed to lose on the order of £400M (warning: DM over-simplification alert—the market didn't tank, his portfolio lost value). Still, as bets go, it's a good if obvious example of crying fire in a crowded theatre for pleasure and profit: put £3.2M into sending 15 million letters to voters urging them to vote one way, aiming to profit to the tune of hundreds of millions.

Another fairly obvious example is the investment by the current Russian leadership in cyberwar ops against the perceived-as-more-competent candidate in the last US presidential election. Regardless of her other characteristics, Clinton was experienced in foreign affairs and no friend of Russia's. Russia today is primarily an oil and gas exporter, with the world's second largest (official) reserves after Saudi Arabia, and the current leadership can't help but be aware that they're vulnerable to some of the same factors that brought down the USSR —notably vulnerability to externally induced commodity price fluctuations. Clinton could have continued the transition to renewables that the Obama administration began, and applied the decreased US dependency on fossil fuel as an economic weapon against Russia (by depressing global oil prices): she had to be defeated at all costs. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is full of fossil fuel connections. Oil, gas, and coal companies contributed heavily to Trump's campaign, to his inauguration, and in federal lobbying since then, with predictable results.

Anyway, those are the two big recent examples; investors pushing Brexit propaganda not because they think leaving the EU would be good for the UK but in the pursuit of short-term profit: and big fossil fuel interests (national-level actors like Russia/Gazprom and corporate actors like Koch Industries) seeking a fossil-fuel-friendly policy environment by buying targeted political campaigning and deploying cyberwar techniques against politicians perceived as being less receptive to their desire for profit.

Aside from these two examples, and also leaving aside the Grenfell Tower disaster (latest: inflammable cladding may have been used on up to 600 other high-rise apartment buildings in the UK; replacing that is going to cost billions), what other examples can you think of where you can profit by crying fire in a crowded theatre?

Wednesday, June 21st, 2017 05:00 am

Star cluster Westerlund 1 is home to some of the largest and most massive stars known. Star cluster Westerlund 1 is home to some of the largest and most massive stars known.

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017 02:39 pm
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham
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title: "Reader Reviews" - originally published 6/19/2017

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Sunday, June 18th, 2017 04:02 am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham
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title: "Perfect" - originally published 6/16/2017

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Friday, June 16th, 2017 06:39 pm
posted by Neil Gaiman
I read James' Vance's work before I met the man. He was a playwright who had discovered comics and  wrote a graphic novel called KINGS IN DISGUISE, set in the great depression. I loved it. Powerful, moving and smart. Years later, when I was creating a line of comics for Tekno Comics, I asked James to write "Mr Hero", because I suspected that someone who could go so deep could also do funny and light and sweet, and he could. We became friends.

James met another friend of mine, who was writing Tekno Comics: Kate Worley. They fell in love, they had two children together.

Then Kate got cancer. I posted their appeal 13 years ago. (This is a beautiful letter from Jim to this blog in 2005, asking people to stop sending money, following Kate's death. It gives you the measure of the man.)

Jim died of cancer on June the 5th, leaving a wife and three children (two Autistic, one with Chronic Fatigue  Immune Disfunction).

Here's his obituary in the Tulsa World.

Go and read all about Jim and Kate and their lives and children at If you're someone who was touched by their work, or by their friendship, please donate, even if it's a few dollars.  I did.

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Thursday, June 15th, 2017 11:10 am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham
Click on the title below to read the comic
title: "Modern Romance" - originally published 6/14/2017

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Tuesday, June 13th, 2017 07:08 pm

I am off to Dortmund is a bit over than 12 hours.

Meanwhile, "Dark State" is coming soooooon ... click on the cover below to read an excerpt:

(You can now pre-order the US hardback and the UK trade paperback.)

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017 11:26 am

Sorry about the quiet around here. I'm stuck dealing with a couple of parallel deadlines, and I'm about to take a week out for U-Con in Dortmund, the Eurocon (next weekend).

Meanwhile the UK has just gone through another surreal eruption of politics—and it's too early to say that it's over.

To recap quickly:

Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap general election to try and expand her death-grip on parliament. Starting with a 24% lead in the opinion polls, and facing an opposition in disarray led by a guy who can best be described as resembling your tweed jacket wearing Geography teacher, she managed to totally mess up her campaign and came within a whisker (about 3000 votes, nationally) of losing to Labour; as it is, she's lost her majority in Parliament, had to go to the Northern Irish Handmaid's Tale Party for a Confidence and Supply arrangement, has pissed off numerous factions within her own party by so doing, and had to go hat-in-hand to the 1922 Committee to apologize. Nor is it over yet: the Queen's Speech has been delayed (presumably while she works out what bits of red meat she can throw the DUP to keep their votes), and Brexit negotiations are due to start in earnest in the next few weeks (which is my personal betting for when the wheels come off her little blue wagon, and the engine catches fire, the fuel tank explodes, and it all goes Horribly Wrong as civil war breaks out between the Hard Brexit lunatic fringe and the realists in the Conservative party who don't want to be out of power for a generation). Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn delivered the biggest swing to Labour since 1945, his rebellious right-wing Blairite back-benchers are publicly recanting and swearing allegiance, and everybody woke up blinking to discover that (a) the 18-24 demographic turn out to vote in large numbers and vote overwhelmingly for socialist policies if you run a manifesto that doesn't prioritize the interests of pensioners, and (b) the UK still has a broad base of support for honest left-wing policies. Oh, and Labour is now leading the Conservative party by 5% in post-election polling and Corbyn (who started out with a huge credibility gap) is now polling as a more trustworthy Prime Ministerial figure than May. (Greg: shut up.)

(Scotland is a side-show in a Westminster election. The SNP retained 59% of the Westminster seats sent down from Scotland; this looks like a huge drop from their previous record 94%, but the 94% was a high water mark reached in 2015 in the wake of Labour's disastrous self-destruction and a backlash against the Independence referendum result. This time around Labour managed to staunch the bleeding, and the Conservatives under Ruth Davidson—a charismatic and effective leader—made in-roads in former Liberal Democrat territory, aided by a huge influx of campaigning funds from the national (UK) level party. Main side-effect: the SNP are back-pedaling on demands for a new independence referendum ... at least until they see which way the fallout plume from Brexit is drifting.)

Meanwhile, the DUP deal opens some interesting questions about foreign intelligence services meddling in democratic elections—and not the usual ones (about Russia); this time Saudi money funnelled into support for Brexit via the DUP is a bone of contention. (There are also allegations about Saudi money backing opposition to Scottish independence.) Issues of electoral spending crimes aside (and in the UK it is a criminal offense to spend money from undeclared sources on your election campaign, or to exceed strict spending limits), what does Saudi Arabia have in common with Russia? Large oil and gas exports, obviously! If one asks why Russia might want to promote Brexit and destabilize the EU there are a range of possible answers, but with Saudi military intelligence there are only two: to push fossil fuel exports, and (a long way behind) mutual back-scratching with the folks who sell them the missiles and jet fighters they're pointing at their regional rivals.

Final note: the DUP are violently homophobic (and opposed to abortion, which is illegal under all circumstances in Northern Ireland: it's a dead issue elsewhere in the UK, wheresupport for abortion on demand is over 80%). They have 10 MPs to bring to Theresa May's side of the table. But there are rather more out LGBT Conservative MPs, and Ruth Davidson has a cohort of 14 Scottish Conservative MPs under her authority (and she is very out indeed). The DUP are pro-Brexit but oppose a hard land border with the Republic of Ireland. This has huge implications for Brexit because the Republic is a euro-zone EU member state and currently part of a customs union with the UK. If the hardline Brexiteers push for the UK to leave the European customs union, they'll implicitly rupture the agreement with the DUP. (They'd also trash the Good Friday agreement, but that's such a horrendous can of worms it justifies an entire separate blog post; indeed, so does the cash for ash scandal that has currently cost Northern Ireland it's government, thanks to DUP corruption and incompetence. But I'm not a local and I don't feel competent to do the subject justice. Let's just say Martin McGuinness died at almost the worst possible time for Northern Irish politics and move swiftly on.)

If the DUP try to meddle in UK LGBT politics again they may piss off the Scottish, LGBT, or both divisions within the Conservative party enough to wreck the agreement. And this is before we get into the fault line between the Brexit fanatics like Michael Gove and the Brexit realists. It would be incredibly rash to predict the imminent downfall of this government ... but I'd be astonished if it lasts out the next five years, and quite surprised if it makes it through the next twelve months.

Oh, and finally-finally: Donald Trump has noticed that All Is Not Well in the kingdom, and has chickened out of his proposed state visit out of fear of demonstrations. Then the election happened and Downing Street and the White House denied that there was going to be a delay. Watch this one: it's going to run. Because of course he's wildly popular over here and there couldn't possibly be any scenes like this.

Monday, June 12th, 2017 07:30 am
Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham
Click on the title below to read the comic
title: "The Date" - originally published 6/9/2017

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