metal gear solid surgeon

Remember the big news that an Italian surgeon was dead set on performing a head transplant on a human received an enthusiastic volunteer? Well, that story just got really, really weird this week, and yes, there is something more bizarre than an attempt at putting one person’d head on another person’s body. According to a conspiracy theory born on reddit and investigated by several gaming sites, Dr. Canavero might actually be doing this as a marketing stunt for Metal Gear Solid 5 from Konami. Not the surgery of course, but talking about it and getting the press worked up just so game designer Hideo Kojima can unveil his latest game. Some outlets wrote about this story in their usual fashion, omitting the stake for the sizzle, and missing the fact that people actually did ask Canavero head-on — hey, you try to resist when appropriate puns write themselves — about this, and not only did he deny the rumors, but promised to sue Konami for using his likeness without authorization and use the winnings to fund his research.

Of course this lawsuit is unlikely to go anywhere because according to a Belgian site for MGS, the doctor in the game bearing an uncanny resemblance to Canavero is actually Ian Moore, a UK-born actor based in Japan, who was definitely aware of the game, and was more than likely compensated for his appearance. That Moore and Canavero look so similar that they could be mistaken for brothers, surely wouldn’t be Konami’s concern according to the courts. Likewise, according to the gamers who spotted the similarity, MGS features a plot line about a surgeon performing a head transplant on Snake, but there’s no official word on whether this is the case, just a teaser in which some fans concluded this is what they were glimpsing. Kojima, known for teasing his fans, has only doused the flames in kerosine with a tweet of headless Snake bodies widely open to interpretation, and saying that the game deals with “taboo” topics.

Here’s my guess at what may be happening. One scenario is that Kojima was very aware of the controversial surgeon and is basically trolling the living hell out of Metal Gear Solid fans with all this teasing in which he winks, nudges, but never provides any real specifics, and wanted to do that from the start. The other possibility I see is very similar to it, but in which Kojima caught the TED talk by Canavero, made the connection between something important in his game, like say the question of giving Snake a robot body or whatnot, and decided to run with it to get free viral marketing done by game reporters. Finally, he could have changed a plot point in development and if there were no head transplants in MGS, there will be now. It wouldn’t be the first time the web ceased on some coincidence, spun an elaborate conspiracy theory, and inspired some big changes. But the bottom line is that Kojima definitely knows how to market games and if even a little pop sci blog like this is talking about his latest creation, that’s just proof of his talent…

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cape verde

Despite the constant political challenges and bean counting nihilism, human spaceflight is still a routine event and no matter how much some want to relegate space exploration to robots, any way we look at it, the domain of space travel is not a human or robot proposition, but will always need to be a partnership. Ultimately, monetary considerations be damned, we want to explore and discover. It’s what made us who we are today and we’ll do it even if we have to merge with machines to do it, even if those modifications are almost inhumanly extreme, as long as they’re within the realm of plausibility. But as long as human explorers’ bodies will have organic tissues there will always be the specter of medical emergencies and the need for treatments, surgeries in extreme environments, and dealing with damage from radiation. Right now, if an astronaut is in dire need of emergency treatment the plan is to evacuate him or her and perform whatever procedures are necessary on Earth. Beyond our planet’s orbit, this will not be an option.

Considering the current plans to send humans to asteroids, back to the Moon, and eventually, towards Mars, NASA has been hard at work soliciting ideas for how to do everything from robot surgery, harness ultrasonic devices to help with treatment and diagnosis, and extreme ways of approaching treatment of radiation sickness and long term effects of elevated exposure to both cosmic rays and mutagenic solar particles. This is great news not just for space exploration, but for humanity in general, because radically new approaches to medical treatments will let us live longer and healthier lives. With surgery being a last resort replaced by high tech scanners and ultrasonic devices, lasers, and genetically engineered viruses tested through the rigors of life in radioactive vacuum of space, and what surgeries are performed meant for minimum collateral damage and rapid healing, we could treat more issues, and use far fewer antibiotics.

Imagine a world in which superbugs evolve slower, people would live longer and healthier, and we can fix conditions currently treated by a constant dose of doctors gravely nodding and back pats for enduring them. And of course, since many of these treatments would be designed for maximum effect with minimal or even nonexistent infrastructure, we could deploy them to help developed nations. But hold on, you may ask, why not help developed nations first since that’s your goal along with just better medical technology? Because helping developed nations is not the kind of simple proposition it’s often portrayed to be. It’s become a sport to castigate those who spend their wealth on humanity’s distant future instead of its poorest members and it’s an extremely safe bet to do so. But the reality of the situation is that pouring billions of dollars into unstable regimes with no accountability and perverse incentives solves little. Designing for the rigors of space frees us from the political constraints and forces us to be more creative.

When we know no help will come, ever, not just late, there will be no infrastructure other than a spacecraft around us, and failure to meet the challenge is certain death, evolutionary, halfway, compromised designs are not an option. Being able to then package the successful fruits of all that hard work and ship them into even the most remote wilderness would be huge, a massive game changer that could help billions live a better life. As bizarre as it sounds, basic research, driven purely by the need to accomplish something that by definition has to be efficient, quick, and effective in practice, not beholden to profit margins, shareholders, or patent wars may be much cheaper and exactly what we need to finally capitalize on the bleeding edge research we find being nurtured in startup and university labs today. The space program provided the case for integrated electronics and countless materials that make our modern world what it is, and it can also provide the know-how to drastically improve our lives here on Earth and in space.

[ illustration from Erik Wernquist’s Wanderers ]

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supernova flare

FRBs just can’t seem to catch a break this month. First, they were an alien signal. Then just as quickly as they were attributed to aliens because the Daily Fail decided to get creative with two out of context words and no one seemed to bother to fact check them, the bursts were called a false signal caused by microwave interference. Not just any microwave interference mind you, but the kind in which you warm up leftovers according to a widely quoted story for which, again, reporters decided that reading the actual paper is for chumps. Popular Science seems to have been the only mainstream publication to actually read the whole thing and point out that no, it’s not open microwave doors creating FRBs, but an extraterrestrial source. While the bursts seen by Parkes and mislabeled as a potential alien communication may have been coming from the kind of interference generated by a prematurely open microwave door by the media are likely just interference from cell towers or another source emitting as the same frequency, there is a batch of FRBs that came to us from as far away as 3 billion light years.

Hold on though, how are some FRBs a case of mistaken identity and others are coming all the way from intergalactic space all from the same telescope? Well, the first study deliberately took what were thought to be 11 signals deserving extra attention and processed their distribution to see if they could find any patterns that would give us a clue as to their origins. Unlike you were told by just about everyone, it probably was not aliens, or even microwaves, since there was a string correlation between signal distribution and a constant we use to sync equipment placed across the world. What exactly emitted the signals we don’t know, but it’s likely fairly humdrum communications equipment. The second study tried to figure out if they could generate a fake signal with microwave ovens, which they could, and then used the data they collected to ferret out whether the FRBs they tracked matched these control perytons.

This is where the story gets interesting. After the second team found matches between the two in terms of frequency, CNET and most others called it a day and told the world that those goofy scientists think aliens were contacting them because they couldn’t wait for their nachos to warm up, adding their inability to fact check to their inability to read an entire paper. But when taking a close look at the distributions form their perytons and genuine FRBs, the researchers found key differences pointing to the bursts coming to us from deep space. Unlike the perytons, FRBs did not have predictable clustering when all candidate signals were included in the analysis, mostly did not line up with the position of the stars in our own galaxy, and one could not match any of their control signals to such an extent that it would be impossible to mistake it for a peryton. So this means that FRBs are indeed extragalactic signals from violent cosmic events and SURONs along with exotic events like neutron star collisions and quakes, are back on the table.

Now that we have the science sorted out, I’d like to turn back to the media for just a moment to humbly ask what the hell is wrong with those who take anything the Daily Mail says and rush to publish something, anything, no matter how poorly researched, distorted, or outright full of crap it happens to be as long as they can publish it quickly enough to ride the Google Trends waves to some extra views. Yes, the media was always awful at reporting science, but this is a rather remarkable low. As mentioned above, reporters who couldn’t be bothered to read whatever the paper they’re covering said made up some alien contact theories no one entertained, said that experiments to rule out human interference with results was in fact proof that the “aliens” were microwave ovens, and proceeded to cast scientists who were just trying to study an interesting phenomenon as the lab-coat wearing version of the Keystone Kops. Your readers deserve real news, written by people who know how to research stories. They deserve better than what you throw at them without a second thought as you rush to the next SEO-dictated topic.

See: E. Petroff, et. al. (2015). Identifying the source of perytons at the Parkes radio telescope arXiv: 1504.02165v1

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icy void

Remember the anomalous Cold Spot, the bizarre, low temperature area spotted in the maps of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, or CMBR for short, the echo the Big Bang which gives us a very high level overview of the structure of our universe? Cosmologists bristled at an anomaly stretching some 1.8 billion light years and seemingly violating what we thought was a universal rule that our cosmos is isotropic and homogeneous, i.e. expanding similarly in every direction and with roughly the same density of galaxies from end to end. And so they analyzed the map using different means and some were able to rule it out as an artifact in the data. Still, the question of whether it was really there never went away because every time you figure out some way of erasing something from your data set because it seems weird, you haven’t gotten rid of it, and sure enough, it appeared yet again on Planck’s CMBR map and was now stuck for good. This left scientists with a dilemma. Why was there a cold spot so large and so cold?

Well, the answer to that is a distinct lack of galaxies which makes the Cold Spot about 20% less dense than the typical patch of the sky. This has of course given pop sci headline writers cover to call it The Great Void, a grandiose moniker which overstates the shortfalls in density for this area of the universe, and when billed as the answer to why The Cold Spot is so cold, oversells the effect it has on the background temperature in this patch of the sky. In fact, just 10% of the temperature drop can be linked back to the lack of density while the rest is still very much open to debate. To give credit where credit is due, virtually all iterations of this story did mention this somewhere along the line, but since it’s a fact that people usually read just the first half of most articles, I thought I’d put my disclaimers and conditionals in the top half of my post, rather than towards the bottom as the articles in question because my feeling is that a lot of people will be convinced that the Cold Spot mystery is solved when in fact, it actually deepened.

While you can find anything in the CMBR you want if you stare hard enough, seeing the spot in both the WMAP and Planck results shows that it’s a persistent feature, unlike Roger Penrose’s proposed echoes of past Big Bangs, a hypothesis he was never sufficiently able to explain, and evidence for which strongly depends on how you process the data. And while it’s not really the biggest structure in the known cosmos since that title belongs to a group of quasars more than twice as large if we get nitpicky, as much of the media claims, it’s still a really important feature. When combined with some other weird observations, it hints at something under the surface of our cosmological framework. If you take the so-called Dark Flow discovered several years ago, and add it to the Cold Spot, as well as galactic superclusters which challenge the cosmological principle, one of the odd but still plausible explanations that ties all of them together, is that our universe is being bumped by other universes, essentially giving us evidence of a multiverse we think should exist to explain inflation and making the Cold Spot a cosmological bruise.

Of course now the big question is how we can validate that hypothesis because we steer right into the horizon problem, which puts other universes out of our reach and any attempt to even create a census of what occupies the multiverse is fraught with problems for which we have no existing solutions. Frustratingly, if the colliding universe explanation is in fact the right one, we’ll have to hold off on giving out the Nobel Prize for it because it would remain just out of reach to our instruments, tantalizing us through anomalous patterns in the CMBR and mysterious flows hinting at bizarre mechanics just beneath the fabric of space and time we can observe, but not study in enough depth to come to a solid conclusion. Even a few years ago, we would’ve simply defaulted to Occam’s Razor and ruled what we’re seeing as artifacts from data processing, but the fact that the anomalies keep showing up pretty much rules out that explanation. Now some of our more exotic cosmological theories may well have to be put to the test.

See: Szapudi, et. al. (2015). Detection of a supervoid aligned with the cold spot of the cosmic microwave background MNRAS, 450 (1), 288-294 DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stv488

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cosmic mesh

Dark matter is a substance that makes up nearly all mass in the universe, but decades after we discovered it, all we have are indirect measurements which show us that it’s there in very large amounts, forming galactic halos, but ultimately, little else. It doesn’t seem to interact with any of the stuff that makes stars, dust, and planets, it emits or reflects no radiation, and this utter lack of interesting properties we could study leads to much wailing and gnashing of teeth on physics blogs and forums, wondering if it even exists. But there might finally be a glimmer of light in the study of dark matter because there’s now evidence that it can interact with itself and matches at least one theoretical behavior. While that doesn’t sound like much, it’s actually a pretty big deal because it narrows down the possible culprits and shows that we can design some way to catch particles exhibiting this behavior to figure out this mystery once and for all. Hopefully.

Last year, a team of researchers was examining the Bullet Cluster, which is actually two galaxy clusters undergoing a series of violent collisions, to try and detect dark matter interactions and figure out to what, if anything other than gravity, dark matter responds. The observations were not exactly conclusive, but they didn’t completely rule out dark matter particles colliding, just set a bound in which they can be expected to collide. Armed with this data, the same team tried to catch a glimpse of interacting dark matter particles in a cluster of just four galaxies, Abell 3827, hoping to get more detail how their galactic halos behave during tidal stripping events. Despite sounding like something like something one galaxy does for another to keep things interesting and relieve a little stress, it’s actually when galaxies shed stars, gas, dust, and dark matter to larger galaxies which exert powerful tidal forces on them across millions of light years.

Now, during tidal stripping, there’s a lag between matter being absorbed into a new galaxy and more matter coming in from the old galaxy because as clouds of dust and gas collide, they heat up, producing radiation, and create drag that pushes incoming material back. One inconclusive observation says it may have detected odd gamma ray flares that could be dark matter colliding during this phenomenon, but since no others have, some cosmologists concluded that it means that dark matter doesn’t interact with itself. But the team observing Abell 3827 found the tell tale signs of a significant lag in dark matter halos with a rate of interaction which fell neatly into their previous results. This means that dark matter particles are colliding, creating shockwaves and a detectable lag between absorbed and incoming clouds. In fact this lag can be up to 5,000 light years which isn’t much on a galactic scale, but definitely big enough that it’s unlikely to be just a fluke, or a random artifact in the data. Finally, we know something new about dark matter!

Of course we still don’t know what it really is, but we can now rule out a whole host of extremely exotic candidates which can’t interact with each other, and start designing detectors to seek out even more such events to confirm the observation and gather more data. With each new piece of information we tease out, we can eliminate more and more culprits until can actually design a way to capture dark matter itself. It may take decades more until we get to that point, but like a punishing, extremely difficult game can give you immense satisfaction when you finally manage to figure out the rules and advance, so can a profound and difficult to solve mystery like finding out what dark matter really is. Maybe it will be nothing groundbreaking in the end, and maybe it won’t change anything we think we know about the universe, but just the fact that we persisted, observed, experimented, theorized, and then observed some more to figure it out should make us a little more proud of our species in general for not giving up on a very difficult question.

See: Harvey, D., et al (2015). The nongravitational interactions of dark matter in colliding galaxy clusters Science, 347 (6229), 1462-1465 DOI: 10.1126/science.1261381

Massey, R., et al. (2015). The behavior of dark matter associated with bright cluster galaxies in the core of Abell 3827 MNRA, 449 (4), 3393-3406 DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stv467

[ illustration by AYM Creations / Ali Yaser ]

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ufo vector

Different people who want Hillary Clinton to win the presidency in 2016 want her to win for many different reasons. Some believe that a female president is long overdue. Others, believe that of all the presidential contenders, she is the most electable. Yet others dislike her greatly, but with some complicated political calculus arrived at the conclusion that her ability to nominate four of the future Supreme Court justices makes her the only choice that won’t plunge the country into despotic arch-conservatism. But others still couldn’t care less about any of that because such, can we say, earthly, concerns are trivial to them. You see, to them, the most important part of a potential second Clinton administration is that they’ll finally get access to all the top secret files detailing our ongoing contact with alien civilizations. You know, after the last great reveal of our apparent alien alliances failed to materialize in 2012 as predicted, I started losing hope that an alien that’s been taken to our leaders will address the world, but hot damn! Another chance!

As said many times before and will say again, there’s absolutely nothing in the laws of biology that prevents an alien species on another planet from becoming intelligent, building spacecraft when their civilization is advanced enough, and exploring the cosmos, eventually making it to a little blue planet around an otherwise unremarkable yellow sun in the galactic suburbs. In fact, if we run the numbers, it’s almost a certainty. But the odds of this happening with a species close enough to detect us over the last century or so are astronomical. Think of meeting aliens a little like winning the lottery. Someone is going to hit that jackpot, but the chances of it being you just as you really need the money are basically nonexistent. Still, our dedicated ufologists are totally and irreversibly convinced that aliens are among us, whether we’re secretly waging war with an extraterrestrial army on the dark side of the moon, exploring their artifacts on and around Mars, meeting in secret with their representatives, or some combination of the above, and nothing will possibly change their minds, nor will any disclosure be adequate enough.

Again, the government could tell the ufologists everything it knows and even admit to every top secret drone and stealth aircraft test it may have chosen to cover up as a UFO, which would be fascinating for aviation buffs and historians. But that’s not the narrative that ufologists on whose behalf organizations like the Paradigm Research Group advocates, want to hear. Nothing short of the plot of Stargate SG-1 or Doctor Who turning out to be a documentary will do. For them, speculative astrobiology has reinforced a faith instead of acting as a fact check and they’re just hoping for a confirmation that an alien empire doing business with humans in every government report with enough reactions, like Evangelical Christians patiently await The Rapture and take every war or earthquake as a sign of the impending end of time. Although I would argue that the former is much more plausible than the latter in the grand scheme of things, either is so unlikely that it’s probably a bad idea to base our lives on either belief. If you really want to find alien life and get full disclosure about alien contact, I’d point you to SETI rather than any politician…

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fish kung fu

Robots and software are steadily displacing more and more workers. We’ve known this for the last decade as automation picked up the pace and entire professions are facing obsolescence with the relentless march of the machines. But surely, there are safe, creative careers no robot would ever be able to do. Say for example, cooking. Can a machine write an original cookbook and create a step-by-step guide for another robot to perfectly replicate the recipe every time on demand? Oh, it can. Well, damn. There go line cooks at some point in the foreseeable future. Really, can any mass market job not somehow dealing with making, modifying, and maintaining our machines and software be safe from automation? Well, sadly, the answer to that question seems to be a pretty clear and resounding “no,” as we’ve started hooking up our robots to the cloud to finally free them of the computational limits that held them back from their full potential. But what does this mean for us? Do we have to build a new post-industrial society?

Over the last century or so, we’ve gotten used to a factory work model. We report to the office, the factory floor, or a work site, spend a certain amount of hours doing the job, go home, then get up in the morning and do it all over again, day after day, year after year. We based virtually all of Western society on this work cycle. Now that an end to this is in sight, we don’t know how we’re going to deal with it. Not everybody can be an artisan or an artist, and not everyone can perform a task so specialized that building robots to do it instead would be too expensive, time consuming, and cost ineffective. What happens when robots build every house and where dirt cheap RFID tags on products and cloud-based payment systems made cashiers unnecessary, and smart kiosks and shelf-stocking robots have replaced the last retail odd job?

As a professional techie, I’m writing this from a rather privileged position. Jobs like mine really can’t really go away since they’re responsible for the smarter software and hardware. There’s been a rumor about software that can write software and robots that can build other robots for years, and while we actually do have all this technology already, a steady expert hand is still a necessity, and always will be since making these things is more of an art than a science. I can also see plenty of high end businesses and professions where human to human relationships are essential holding out just fine. But my concern is best summarized as First World nations turning into country-sized versions of San Francisco, a post-industrial times city which doesn’t know how to adapt to a post-industrial future. Massive income inequalities, insanely priced and seldom available housing, and a culture that encourages class-based self-segregation.

The only ways I see out of this dire future is either unrolling a wider social safety net (a political no-no that would never survive conservative fury), or making education cost almost nothing to retrain workers on the fly (a political win-win that never gets funded). We don’t really have very much time to debate this and do nothing. This painful adjustment has been underway for more than five years now and we’ve sitting on our hands letting it happen. It’s definitely very acute on the coasts, especially here on the West Coast, but its been making a mess out of factories and suburbs of the Midwest and the South. When robots are writing cookbooks and making lobster bisque that even competition-winning chefs praise as superior to their own creations, its time to tackle this problem instead of just talking about how we’re going to talk about a solution.

[ illustration by Andre Kutscherauer ]

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police graffiti

Ignorance of the law is no excuse we’re told when we try to defend ourselves by saying that we had no idea that a law existed or worked the way it did after getting busted. But what if not even the courts actually know if you broke a law or not, or the law is just so vague or based on such erroneous ideas of what’s actually being talked about, that your punishment, if you would even be sentenced to one, is guaranteed to be more or less arbitrary? This is what an article over at the Atlantic about two cases taken on by the Supreme Court dives into, asking if there will be a decision that allows vague laws to be struck as invalid because they can’t be properly enforced and rely on the courts to do lawmakers’ jobs. Yes, it’s the courts’ job to interpret the law, but if a law is so unclear that a room full of judges can’t agree what it’s actually trying to do and how, it would require legislating form the bench, a practice which runs afoul of the Constitution’s stern insistence on separation of powers in government.

Now, the article itself deals mostly with the question of how vague is too vague for a judge to be unable to understand what the law really says, which while important in its own right, is suited a lot better to a law or poly-sci blog than a pop science and tech one, but it also bumps into poor understanding of science and technology creating vague laws intended to prevent criminals on getting off on a technicality. Specifically, in the case of McFadden v. United States, lawmakers didn’t want someone who gets caught manufacturing and selling a designer drug to admit that he indeed make and sell it, but because there’s one slight chemical difference between what’s made in his lab and the illegal substance, he’s well within the law, leaving the prosecutors pretty much no other choice but to drop the matter. So they created a law which says that a chemical substance “substantially similar” to something illegal is also, by default, illegal. Prosecutors will have legal leverage to bring a case, but chemists say they can now be charged with making an illegal drug on a whim if someone finds out he or she can use it to get high.

Think of it as the Drug War equivalent of a trial by the Food Babe. One property of a chemical, taken out of context, compared to a drug that has some similarity to the chemical in question in the eyes of the court, but instead of being flooded with angry tweets and Facebook messages from people who napped through their middle school chemistry, there’s decades of jail time to look forward to at the end of the whole thing. Scary, right? No wonder the Supreme Court does want to take another look at the law and possibly invalidate it. Making the Drug War even more expensive and filling jails with even more people would make it an even greater disaster than it has been already, especially now that you’re filling them with people who didn’t even know that they were breaking the law and the judges who put them there were more worried about how they were going to get reelected than whether the law was sound and the punishment was fair and deserved. Contrary to popular belief of angry mobs, you can get too tough on crime.

But if you think you’re not a chemist, you’re safe from this vague, predatory overreach, you are very wrong, especially if you’re in the tech field, specifically web development, if the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or the CFAA has anything to say about it. Something as innocuous as a typo in the address bar discovering a security flaw which you report right away can land you in legal hot water under its American and international permutations. It’s the same law which may well have helped drive Aaron Schwartz to suicide. And it gets even worse when a hack you find and want to disclose gives a major corporation grief. Under the CFAA, seeing data you weren’t supposed to see by design is a crime, even if you make no use of it and warn the gatekeepers that someone could see it too. Technically that data has to be involved in some commercial or financial activity to qualify as a violation of the law, but the vagueness of the act means that all online activity could fall under this designation. So as it stands, the law gives companies a legal cover to call finding their complete lack of any security a malicious, criminal activity.

And this is why so many people like me harp on the danger of letting lawyers go wild with laws, budgets, and goal-setting when it comes to science and technology. If they don’t understand a topic on which they’re legislating, or are outright antagonistic towards it, we get not just typical setbacks to basic research and underfunded labs, but we also get laws based on a very strong desire to do something, but not understanding enough about the problem to end up with good laws that actually deal with the problem in a sane and meaningful way. It’s true with chemistry, computers, and a whole host of other subjects requiring specialized knowledge we apparently feel confident that lawyers, business managers, and lifelong political operatives will be zapped with when they enter Congress. We can tell ourselves the comforting lie that surely, they would consult someone before making these laws since that’s the job, or we can look at the reality of what actually happens. Lobbyists with pre-written bills and blind ambition result in laws that we can’t interpret or properly enforce, and which criminalize things that shouldn’t be illegal.

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roving on mars

By now, we’ve all heard that Mars One is a basically a scam. Well, maybe not a scam by intent, because it seems like the people behind it really did want to do something amazing and start a genuine Martian colony, but got caught up in their own hubris and are now desperately trying to salvage whatever’s left of their original mission. They don’t want to admit defeat after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to figure out how to get to Mars, but the more they try to salvage their organization, they deeper of a hole they dig. But just because those of us who did not think this was going to work in any real capacity turned out to be right, we shouldn’t gleefully succumb to the pleasures of schadenfreude, because this failed experiment does have several important lessons for us to consider. Mars One was not going to succeed as a real colonization effort, but it was successful in starting a conversation about moving it from the world of sci-fi to real world implementations, and it showed us that people are really interested in the idea.

Certainly, we’re not going to get the majority of people in developed nations on board with a big space program dedicated to sending humans to other worlds. There are far too many would-be decision makers and politically influential blocs who are penny wise and pound asinine. They’re squirming when asked to approve $25 billion in space exploration, asking exactly who benefits, how many jobs will be created, the optics of debts, deficits, and poverty not being paid down for the sake of sending a robot to an alien environment, but will swiftly give trillions to banks whose business model is hard to distinguish from that of a professional poker player in Vegas. This is nothing new, in fact it’s been this way even when it was politically important to actually travel to other worlds, and it echoes today, when the pathologically self-absorbed decry Curiosity as an unforgivable waste of time, money, and resources because it can’t cure cancer and pay off the looming balance on their student loans. But they don’t need to decide our fate.

Mars One attracted tens of thousands of supporters because it promised something that jaded bean counters suffering either from the WIIFM disorder or the GE syndrome never could: hope for adventure. People have been working on a factory schedule for over a century and we don’t like it at all. We’ve been trying to break free of the rigid industrial structure almost since its very inception, and many of us are searching for a reprieve from the proverbial 9 to 5 to explore and broaden our horizons, just like our ancestors. What can be a better break from that daily, TPS report filled drudgery than a trip to another world, even if it is one way? Space exploration is an amazing way to channel the energies of those who always have a wandering eye, looking for a place to belong but never quite finding it, their potential wasted by our inability to direct it into a worthy, focused venture. Unfortunately, we don’t reward these pursuits enough to make it really worth many people’s while, which is why it’s so difficult to get more people to see the benefits of building new spacecraft and trying to create business models for space travel.

A sad reality I learned almost a year ago is that if you love space and want to be a part of it, it’s an expensive proposition, so much that after you finally start to cool down after a call from JPL, you have to really start weighing the benefits of a functional pay cut and dealing with the mood swings of a Congress filled with scientifically illiterate lawyers pandering to an electorate which convinced itself that you’re bilking them out of trillions to live the good life, against getting a shot at participating in something you’ve always dreamed of doing. Space exploration funded with a massive influx of private cash from the likes of Tito, Musk, or Bigelow, or outright crowdfunding, would attract more people and relieve the pressures of antagonistic overseers who have pretty much every possible incentive to punch down with you in their sights. Opening up the idea of a space program funded by enthusiasts big and small, and summoning popular support that just doesn’t get enough time in the media is something we should be actively pursuing.

Maybe we don’t use it for an overly ambitious colonization project by people who seemed way too sure of themselves and way too eager to protect their public image when they realized how many challenges they didn’t even know they had to cope with, maybe we use it for something a lot more mundane instead. Maybe we harness it for building experimental lunar outposts where we can develop the technology we need for Mars close to home. Maybe we use it to build small robotic swarms that can coordinate their actions to cover more territory, scouting for a planned human mission. Maybe we invest in the kind of medical and biological research we need to stay healthy while traveling between worlds. Or maybe we can pick and choose from all of that as an entire slate of space startups compete to create the most viable plans for concrete projects and combine them into entire missions. Mars One had a good idea, but it was too grand, with a very unrealistic timeline, and not enough know-how behind it. Why not scale this down to something more realistic and get more people involved in making things happen?

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sad calvin

Since I’ve been quiet for a long time and a whole lot of things have happened, there’s a sense that before moving forward, we might want to take a quick look back and address a few major issues that have been brewing in atheist and skeptical blogospheres. Sadly, the muddled focus for the future of organized skepticism is still as much a problem as it was over a year ago. It’s unnervingly telling that columns about JREF have been drying up and there’s still no articulated vision for where we go from debunking homeopathy and UFOs, though it would be unfair not to highlight major positives, like Orac being regularly quoted in mainstream media’s takedowns of popular quackery, and Yvette d’Entremont, aka Science Babe, being asked by Gawker to weigh in as a professional chemist on the flood of Vani Hari’s trendy, brain-dead nonsense. As for the organized atheist movements, which often participate in skeptical groups, well, they’re still more interested in turning skepticism and popular science into a left wing political movement and how to change the subject from science education to battling the ills and inequities of society.

And that’s pretty much where we left off last time, with two broad competing groups battling for what each says is the soul of skeptical and atheistic blogging. One sees science and skeptics being a means to a political end, as weapons to fight the Culture Wars with social reactionaries who are desperately trying to return us to the 1950s they imagine in their nostalgic fantasies. In the other end of the spectrum is the group which sees education as its ultimate goal, betting the farm on the idea that when you give people hope for a better world, they’ll help build it with the educational tools you provide, and that while battling social inequities is a noble goal, there will always be some social injustice, so the best we can do is confront it when it happens. I’m firmly in the second camp, personally, and as it so happens, people like me have managed to end up on the wrong side of the We Are All Already Decided doctrine of political debate. We just aren’t what the social justice contingent wants us to be: dedicated ideologues in their service.

Now, surely, you’ve heard the acronym SJW brandished on the web as a pejorative and almost immediately being proudly accepted by someone as an acknowledgment that he or she is on a mission to right society’s wrongs. Quite a few even go so far as to say that SJW is an imaginary pejorative used solely by misogynists and bigots, and that there are no “social justice warriors,” just people who support equal rights and respect for all, and those who don’t. But there is a line that can be crossed, even if you have nothing but good intentions, with which the road to Hell is often paved, to paraphrase St. Bernard of Clairvaux. There are activists who work to make sure that those being discriminated against have a voice, go to city council meetings, write op-eds in their local newspapers and in the national press, and who need our help and support. And then there are overzealous keyboard warriors fighting for the unwashed masses from the comfort of their couches, going after those who commit transgressions big, small, and even micro.

Oh you haven’t heard of microaggressions? Based on academic studies of how racism begins and propagates, the theory is based on subconscious biases coming out in everyday life. While its debatable whether these aren’t just known manifestations of racism by another name, there was little time wasted by the aforementioned keyboard warriors to cast everything around them as some sort of microaggression. Consider the following. As a Ukrainian-Russian Jew, much of my adult life was accompanied by jokes about the sturdiness of my liver, my friend Vassiliy who just so happens to be an enforcer for the Russian mob, my probable side job of selling malware to carders and identity thieves, my spy work for the KGB, and in some circles, a number of very colorful stereotype-based zingers not fit to print. And that’s just the Russian stuff. Can you even imagine the number of jokes lobbed my way when I was moving to LA? “Hey Greg, so will your work be primarily is software, or ‘hardware?'” apparently never gets old.

All of that is just good-natured ribbing, playing off on various stereotypes, many of them either negative or in a moral gray zone, right? Well, as most self-proclaimed social justice activists will rush to explain you, these are all microaggressions, intended to demean and stigmatize me, so every time you make a joke like that towards me, I should get offended and blame you for how often Russians in movies are gangsters, weirdos, malicious hackers, nefarious spies, or former commandos for hire with a moral compass pointing to the biggest wad of cash. And should you ever make such jokes in a publicly accessible platform, I’m within my rights to bring it up to then dismiss everything you have to say, and you as a person, by default. Why do you think Watson, to this day, features only the most vicious trolling she receives to address any criticism of what she says or does, and categorizes any disagreement with her or PZ Myers as hate speech by misogynistic, racist bigots? It turns their identity into an argument-ending cudgel and allows for what amounts to a get-out-of-criticism-free card with a side of self-indulgent moralism.

And really, it would be fine if this sort of thing happened when we hit a sensitive topic in one of the talks in the skeptical and pop sci community, it’s unavoidable and everyone deserves their turn at the microphone. But like most fanatics, these keyboard warriors won’t change their mind and refuse to change the subject so every issue and every problem that comes up as a topic of discussion becomes a macro or microaggression to be dissected by internet scandal and mob justice on blogs. And even when their complaints are heard, acknowledged, and met, they just can’t be met fully enough. No “yes” is enthusiastic enough, no accommodation ever sufficiently accommodating, and no “safe space” ever adequately safe. There’s no goal but to keep up the perpetual outrage and the corresponding blog traffic, and if you don’t go along with it, or even worse, dare point it out, well, they don’t have to tolerate your bigoted hate speech, so why don’t you go to your favorite neo-Nazi MRA site instead of bothering decent people.

Just to bring this all back into focus, let’s return to the We Are All Already Decided doctrine and see how detrimental it is to getting new people excited about real science and technology, then drawing them into skeptical groups. Who will want to go to meetings that shift from astrobiology and physics applied to UFO reports into social activism lectures, and who will even want to talk to skeptical groups which are lambasted for being full or women-hating bigots for what could’ve never been an adequate response to some suffered microaggression? Bombastic social justice platforms are fine when you’re starting a political group, but when your goal is to teach, inspire, and help others, creating an insular, rigid ideological squad that tolerates no dissent is every bit as bad as the politics of discrimination and exclusion we’re told to be fighting against.

When we declare that we won’t tolerate intolerance, then classify everything with which we do not immediately agree as being intolerant, we’re building coffee klatches rather than the broad skeptical movements that attract the wide following and support we desperately need when any scientifically-illiterate crank and quack with a big smile can use the web to raise vast followings ready to be fleeced, and used to harass critics into silence by sheer numbers. We can fight for both good science and for the rights of others, yes. But we have to know when to tone it down and when someone is using a moral, ethical banner to shield his or her grab for popularity, and a place at the microphone not by virtue of having something significant to contribute, but solely by using our guilt and shortcomings as fallible humans against us. And right now, it just seems better to do this whole skepticism thing without getting involved with big groups…

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