Archives For politics

infosec

Imagine that every time you had to buy a lock to your house, you had to send a key to some far off government office which could use it to enter your house at any time. Whoever it sent would not be required to have a warrant, or may have obtained one in a secret procedure you’d have no right to challenge, or even talk about with others, and can make copies of anything you own, liable to be used against you in whatever investigations sent him there. And what if a greedy or desperate government clerk in charge of people’s keys sells them to gangs of thieves who now have access to your house, or mandated that all locks should be easy to pick for agents since a key sent in by a person could be fake or misplaced? Sounds like the plot of a dystopian novel in which a dictator tries to consolidate newly found power, doesn’t it? And when questioned, could you not see this despot justifying such overreach by claiming it was your protection and it would only be used for catching and convicting the worst sort of violent and perverted criminals?

Well, a similar situation is currently happening in the tech world as governments demand that a system designed to keep your private data secure from prying eyes comes with a backdoor for spooks and cops. The data about your comings and goings, your searches for directions, your medical data, your browsing habits, your credit card information and sensitive passwords, they want it all to be accessible at the click of a button to stop all manner of evildoers. Just listen to a passionate plea from a New York District Attorney designed to make you think that encryption is only for the criminally malevolent mastermind trying to escape well-deserved justice…

This defendant’s appreciation of the safety that the iOS 8 operating system afforded him is surely shared by […] defendants in every jurisdiction in America charged with all manner of crimes, including rape, kidnapping, robbery, promotion of child pornography, larceny, and presumably by those interested in committing acts of terrorism. Criminal defendants across the nation are the principal beneficiaries of iOS 8, and the safety of all American communities is imperiled by it.

Wow, terrorists, pedophiles, rapists, kidnappers, and more, all in one sentence. If he only found some way to work in illegal immigrants, we could have won a game of Paranoia Bingo. Notably missing from his list of principal beneficiaries of better encryption, however, are those trying to keep their banking and credit card information safe from the very defendants he’s so very keen on prosecuting. Who, by the way, vastly outnumber the defendants for whom having some sort of an encryption defeating backdoor would be a huge boon for committing more crimes. If your primary goal is to stop crime, you should not be asking for a technical solution which would very quickly become the primary means of committing more of it. Computers will not understand the difference between a spy trying to catch a terrorist sleeper cell and a carder trying to get some magnetic strip data for a shopping spree with someone else’s money. A backdoor that will work for the former, will work exactly the same way for the latter, and no amount of scaremongering, special pleading, and threats from the technically illiterate will ever change that fact.

If you’ve never been out with a large group of teachers, and I don’t mean five or six of them, I’m talking about 30 or 40 people, a word of caution. Teachers can drink so much that sailors would caution them to slow down and maybe have some water instead. The wildest parties that yours truly has ever witnessed were teachers’ nights where the people who have to deal with some of the worst local bureaucrats and your kids, put even the rowdiest frat boys to shame. But why do teachers need to let loose so badly on a regular basis? Well, it’s mostly thanks to standardized testing, which is ruining their profession and their students’ learning potential. How? Well, let me hand it over to John Oliver’s model monologue on the subject, vetted by all the teachers I know, and confirmed to be absolutely, spectacularly dead on when it comes to this painful subject…

To sum it up, standardized tests are given far too much, they’re written very poorly and with no sense of how to ask age appropriate, or sometimes even sane questions, graded by a random group of people recruited on classified sites according to a senseless standard, are pushed by clueless politicians and their appointees, and exist primarily for the benefit of testing companies, because they sure as hell haven’t improved education one iota. In fact, they did the opposite. If you ever dealt with anything in the world of education or academia, you’ll hear that if you teach your students well enough, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t pass a standardized test that’s supposedly measuring their educational milestones, or why you should focus on teaching to the test in the first place. But that only works when the tests are sane and appropriate, and you are not tying numerically impossible and ridiculous benchmarks to both student grade and teachers’ pay. When you peer inside the process, it quickly becomes apparent that the politicians and the test makers haven’t the faintest clue what they’re doing and when you point our their abject and borderline malicious incompetence, they resort to political invective about teachers’ unions.

To her the politicians tell it, the tests are fine, the benchmarks are fine, it’s those dang teachers who won’t get with the program because [insert list of imaginary teacher pay and benefits you’ll see on right wing shock jock blogs here]. But you see, most teachers care and most of them do want to help the kids. However, as those on the front lines, they see that the current tactics are not working and that in many other places in the world currently outperforming Americans on all sorts of educational benchmarks, standardized testing is nowhere near as prevalent. Why? The schools in other educationally high achieving countries get better funding, teachers get not just better education, but better pay and more autonomy because they just spent six years learning how to develop minds and are hired and treated as professionals, and the schools track pupils into possible career paths of interest early to give them a jump start on their future. The notable exceptions are Asian schools where students live and die by the test, but even there, there are far, far fewer than some 130 tests over the course of 14 years we currently have in the U.S.

So how exactly are students around the world doing better? Partly, many live in countries where schools have strict national standards and more equal funding across the board, the population is more homogeneous, and income inequality is less pronounced. This is important because the biggest achievement gap in education often boils down to poverty. And sometimes there’s good old fashioned cheating involved. Chinese students who are supposedly doing far better than all of their American counterparts are actually hand picked to be the only ones who count towards the country’s score on international achievement tests. While the rest of the countries taking the test count pretty much everyone, China insists on grading only its best and brightest. If the U.S. pulled the same trick, it would dominate the rankings since American students account for close to a third of the top performers on such tests. However, the problem still remains that for all the testing that was supposed to help identify and fix gaps, all we’ve successfully done is hand over tens of billions of dollars to testing companies because the average student is still performing at an exceedingly mediocre level that has now fallen on colleges to fix with an expensive remedial circuit of classes that nobody actually wants to teach, much less teaches well.

And there are even more bad news there as standardized tests are ruining even that as well. It may be disheartening to hear that after finally making it through the testing gauntlet before you finally get to college, you need to take yet another set of standardized tests to see if you need a few remedial classes. It gets worse when you’re told that you do in fact need them because the tests you took have the predictive power of a coin flip regarding your performance. Yet again, a test written by companies for a profit with little clue what to actually test points to a problem we’ll need to fix and when it does, politicians demand even more testing, more money, more classes, and oceans upon oceans of useless data. The more conspiratorially minded might even call the No Child Left Behind Act a stealthy giveaway to testing companies, but in reality it’s a symptom of a political culture in which a politician is supposed to be an expert in everything and have the appropriate media-friendly solution to every problem. Instead of actually parsing the issues, the lawmakers demand improvement and accountability, then help pass laws requiring both with no clue how to implement them. In come lobbyists who sell them a fanciful bill of goods with which non-experts can’t argue, while the experts who can, lack the political pull to be heard.

As a result, the current American education system stretching almost into graduate school, is a product of the blindly ambitious leading the powerful but ignorant, pulled to the side by a snake oil salesman or two who sense that they can make money on the whole thing, all while telling us that they only want to help. But let’s be honest. Yes, the politicians at the top want to help as do those below them, I’m sure. However, the testing companies only give a damn about quarterly returns and profit margins, and because those politicians who want to help have no background in education, or have been out of it for so long they only have the faintest recollections of what it means to teach someone, are often clueless, they easily let profiteers sway them to pursue not the right course of action, but the one most profitable for the companies hiring the lobbyists. It’s a vicious circle. Ignorance breeds more ignorance because it doesn’t know any better. And as it runs schools into the ground, neither will the students whose formative educational years have basically been reduced to little more than filling in little bubbles with a number two pencil…

exposed brain

For those of you who haven’t read my post about social activism in the skeptical movement, or don’t remember it, I would recommend a quick refresher before proceeding. One of the biggest reasons why a pop sci blogger would be concerned with this topic is because such debates are spilling into college campuses at an alarming rate, and colleges is where we’re supposed to be, at least in theory, minting future scientists and public intellectuals. How ready and willing they’re going to be to challenge their minds, hear contradictory ideas, and tackle tough questions many find painful to discuss or that have no easy answers, will shape how and even if they’ll have any tangible impact on the world around them. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t want to censor, discourage, or outright antagonize social justice activists, I want college students to hear what a passionate activist has to say about a topic. What I will advocate against, however, is making all of college so safe emotionally and potentially physically, that it borders on the absurd.

Here’s a prime example of this. In a bid to respond to the scandals surrounding colleges’ role in their students’ sex lives one university is seriously mulling imposing a ban on women entering a fraternity between 10 pm and 3 am. Sororities objected of course, and with good reason. You’ll never solve a problem by restricting people’s freedom of choice and movement and it’s such an amazingly tone-deaf and dehumanizing idea to think that it’s fine to basically punish women just to avoid bad PR instead of dealing with widespread binge drinking which contributes to most of the cases they’d like to avoid at all costs. But that’s how bureaucrats think. If drunken fraternity hookups cased trouble, let’s just ban events where such situations occur. Easy fix and no need to dig deeper, right? Wrong. It’s just one more a clear signal that colleges are dropping the ball and failing their students, morally and educationally. How exactly is a topic for several upcoming posts, but think of this as a taste of how college administrators “problem-solve.”

paper crowd

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk lets you assign menial, yet attention-intensive tasks to actual human beings, despite the name’s ambiguity, and those humans want to be paid consistently and a fair fee for their efforts. This is why in March of last year, they launched the Dynamo platformwhich allows them to warn each other of bad clients who were stingy or unreasonable. The brainchild of Stanford PhD student Niloufar Salehi, who wanted to study digital labor rights, it came about in large part due to many of those stingy, unfair clients being academics. With small budgets for surveys and preparing complex machine learning algorithms, researchers were often paying an insultingly token sum to the workers they recruited, something Dynamo argues hurts the quality of their research by limiting their labor pool to the truly desperate and ill-qualified in its rules and guidelines for ethical academic requests for inquiring researchers looking for assistance.

It’s hard to know what’s worse, the fact that we give so little funding to researchers they have to rely on strangers willing to work for scraps, or that academics are fine with the notion of paying the equivalent of prison odd job wages to their remote assistants. Part of the problem is that the issues are interdependent. Many academics can’t afford to pay more and still meet their targets for sufficient survey responses or machine learning algorithms’ training set sizes. Turkers most qualified for the job can’t afford to accept less than 10 cents a minute, which doesn’t sound like much, until you realize that 15,000 units of work taking half an hour come out to $45,000 or so, a hefty chunk of many grad students’ budgets. Something’s gotta give and without more money from universities and states, which is highly unlikely, academics will either keep underpaying the crowds they recruit, or end up doing less ambitious research, if not less research in general…

life cycle

Despite what many readers might think, the only reason why the politics I advocate on this blog come across as fairly liberal is because nowadays, ideas like better education funding or public competitions for worthwhile government contracts to improve our infrastructure or advance the scientific and engineering engine of an advanced economy are now considered lefty goals. Not too long ago, all these things were being promoted by Republican politicians as answers for the future in which automation and globalization were devouring jobs, but now it’s the liberals ready to at least talk about doing both, particularly about making public colleges free by closing some corporate loopholes which allow huge corporate behemoths to avoid paying billions. If just like these companies say, we need more and better education for their future employees, let them put some skin in the game and put up the required $30 billion per year out of the $2 trillion that sits in overseas bank accounts, or has been deducted from their taxable income.

Now we don’t have to get punitive and I’m sure we can work out some deal by which American companies doing business overseas get to claim taxes paid to the countries in which they have been doing business as a deduction, or even some sort of massive tax holiday to encourage a major asset migration. Better still, we could even let companies get deductions and tax credits if they directly invest in colleges as they’re moving their money over. The point is that with literally trillions involved, surely 1.5% of that could make it to colleges. We’re basically insisting on every student going to college in order for them to get gainful employment, why then make college an expensive, life-hindering proposition? We’ve given students 12 years of free schooling and now we’re going to make them pay through the nose to get a job that keeps them worrying about an extremely toxic, non-dischargeable debt? That’s just asinine and transparently predatory.

While I’m sure college loan companies will protest all of this bitterly because public colleges are no longer going to be a steady income source, it’s hard to feel sorry for them, much like it’s not easy to have compassion for a loan shark losing his business to a new community bank. And a even though a few million dollars from them can definitely bolster a campaign, the ire of future voters who remember you as the politico who voted to keep them trapped in debt they had very little choice but to take, is going to matter a lot more come election time. So there is momentum behind this issue, and as the college loan bubble expands, expect the issue to get raised again and again. Free public colleges won’t happen overnight, but there’s way too much pressure not to do something to make them easily accessible. It’s really the only way to move our otherwise battered and deeply unequal economy towards sanity. But there is a big catch.

Before we even consider making public colleges a free service for high school students with the grades and skills, we need to have a conversation about what the successful college education should look like and how proper accreditation should work. If we don’t, we risk giving away that hard-won cash to institutions what will waste it on ads, put little towards education, pocket most of the remaining funds, and do a massive disservice to their students over the long run. We can already make a huge step towards free public colleges by shutting down for-profits, which leach billions of dollars from the government and spend close to four times as much on branding and marketing than they do on actual education, which shows when their students pay tuition on par with Ivy League schools, but have a 22% graduation rate and an 18.7% loan default rate for the two thirds of their students who have to take on loans to be able to attend.

We also need to figure out what gainful employment looks like. Again, we do understand that it should be a job that can pay the bills and gainful employment rules caught the aforementioned for-profits counting working part time at a fast food place as gainful employment to avoid fines and legal actions. But traditional colleges have similar problems, with half of their grads ending up underemployed and in debt. A lack of debt would definitely help already, but if we are going to be paying for their education, we need to make sure it actually leads somewhere. This would also mean ending the now decade-long issue of companies and colleges talking right past each other on what should constitute a proper degree program by agreeing on a set of standards by which degrees should be judged. Making college education free is a great idea, but there is so much potential for it to go wrong that we can’t simply insist on free colleges, we need to design better college educations and then fund the best and most viable programs. Anything less is a politically suicidal and economically non-viable misuse of $30 billion per year…

robot kiss

When you grow up in a religiously conservative household and discover that you’re gay, there’s often a lot of pressure for you to change your ways because many conservatives either cannot cope with the idea that homosexuality is not just a choice people make on a whim, or if they can manage to accept the science, refuse to see it as anything other than a defect to be cured. And as a result, numerous conservative communities have established infamous pray-away-the-gay camps and pseudoscientific “treatment centers” which promise that a few years of behavioral or cognitive or talk therapy will let patients overcome their gay urges. Both these practices have an abysmal rate of success, and while the former is often immune from lawsuits thanks to religious exemptions, the latter can be sued, which is what the Southern Poverty Law Center is doing on behalf of one such group’s former patients, alleging consumer fraud. Since you can’t cure a gay person, anyone claiming to be able to do so for a fee is in fact breaking the law. Knowing that it can’t win on the science, the group’s lawyers are going for the following red herring…

“I support the right of an adult to seek help from a licensed professional and to live their life as they choose and not as the SPLC says that they have to,” said Maggie Gallagher, the founding board chairwoman of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, which is defending JONAH. For certain gay people, “their identity in their religious faith is more important to them than their putative sexual identity, and that’s a choice that people are entitled to make.”

Which is all well and good, except that the SPLC is arguing, correctly in my view, that the group in question, JONAH, founded by Orthodox Jews in New York, isn’t so much helping gay men or women who come to it because they’re terrified of the next time an urge to have sex with same sex partners will hit, they are under pressure to do so from their communities. In a twisted way, what Gallagher is saying is correct, for certain gay people being a part of their community is so important that they’re willing to forsake their sexuality to stay in it. But she’s also admitting that staying in some communities can only happen through conformity, forcing people who might be happy being gay into an existential crisis in which they have to make tough choices they should not have to make. Then, these distressed souls come to JONAH or organizations like it where a councilor with dubious credentials spouts pseudoscientific claptrap at them, fails to make all but a handful of patients stop being gay, and puts the blame on them for the failure.

This is very much the typical alt med/faith healing model, claim to perform miracles, fail since all of biology is against the treatment, something well known to the experts, and then, when failure inevitably rears its ugly head, accuse the patient of not trying hard enough for the miracle he or she has been promised to happen. It’s fraud plain and simple, and we have laws against it. The patients’ consent or willingness to attend JONAH sessions is irrelevant as far as most consumer protection laws are concerned and, in another strike against Gallagher’s defense, the issue is if the councilors at JONAH were selling a false bill of goods, because if they did, the courts should find for the SPLC’s clients. Of course JONAH claims that gay conversion therapy actually works because they can find instances of people switching their sexuality and can summon someone who considers himself ex-gay to testify that hey, this gay-no-more therapy thing is legit…

Doyle, who considers himself a former homosexual, is now married with children. He was a sensitive child, he said, and he had trouble bonding with his father. He was later abused by an older female cousin, and “that caused me have a disdain toward women…”

“When I resolved those issues in my early 20s, my same-sex attractions really went away,” he said. “I realized that for some people, this wasn’t simply just something that they had to accept, they could actually work through these issues if they wanted to and go on to live a heterosexual life. I don’t have disdain for the LGBT community, I chose a different path.”

For those of you wondering about the science part of all this, here it comes. Doyle’s abuse is of course highly regrettable, but to argue that it turned him gay until he dealt with the trauma does not fit in with the scientific literature on this exact topic. Victims of sexual abuse can exhibit a lot of contradictory behaviors. Some become asexual, afraid of having any urges or any contact in any way, shape, or form to prevent future abuse. Others can become hypersexual, initiating as many of their future sexual encounters as possible, and constantly looking for new chances for sex with either a committed partner or a stranger, staying in charge of their sex lives. The main goal for these seemingly paradoxical responses to the same kind of trauma is staying in control. Post-abuse asexuality and hypersexuality are really just two ways to accomplish that. In Doyle’s case, he may well have seen women as predators and wanted to stay away from them sexually not to get abused again, also as a form of maintaining control of his sex life.

Problem is that Doyle apparently wasn’t attracted to other men throughout his life without some traumatic event, unlike the SPLC’s clients who just realized they were gay when they hit puberty and simply weren’t attracted to women. Therefore, his case is just not applicable here. Likewise, human sexuality is a very complicated thing which depends on environmental triggers, genetics, behavioral modeling, and a whole host of other factors. For some, sexual orientation is a pretty fluid thing and they could switch from homosexuality, to bisexuality, then to heterosexuality over the course of their lives. For others, orientation is extremely rigid. For others still, there is a brief experimentation phase. My bet is that people who claim to be successfully freed from same sex attraction either had a fluid sexuality, or were caught in their experimentation phase, diagnosed as gay, then credited their natural stabilization on the sexuality spectrum with age to the pray or talk-away-the-gay efforts to the delight of their religious communities. Why do I say that? There is zero evidence of people who never had heterosexual urges being successfully “cured.”

Herein lies the whole reason why we should not be judging people by their sexuality. People do not fit into binary right/wrong, straight/gay categories with which religious zealots are obsessed to the point of driving themselves into a tizzy over non-existent crises of morality. That’s just not how nature works. Roughly a third of all men and half of all women admit to having some forms of same sex attraction, and while women are more likely to act on them, more than 90% of both genders stay heterosexual. Telling someone not to act on urges they statistically wren’t going to anyway, or with whch they were only going to experiment once or twice isn’t “curing patients of unwanted homosexual urges,” but just letting nature take its course, and to make money off of this from people desperate to stop being who they are to win back their friends and family is not just fraudulent, it’s unethical and predatory. And what about people who at a loss to pin down a precise sexual orientation and gender preference, who will always exist along the middle of the sexual spectrum? Organizations like JONAH can only mislead and harm them.

And here’s a really great thing about this particular lawsuit. The court taking up the case will not be entertaining “expert” witnesses who plan to give scientifically debunked pseudoscience from many decades ago, and we’ll get a full accounting of the methods these organizations use and public explanations of why they do not, cannot, and will not work on the vast majority of patients sent to them to change something far outside of their control. The only humane thing to do with people who are confused or troubled by their sexual orientation is to listen to them, find what’s really troubling them about it, and help them come to terms with who they are, not what you, or their family, or their friends, or their religious figureheads want them to be. It won’t always be all sunshine and roses at the other end of the process, there might be some serious issues to deal with, but the point is that it’s no one’s place to “fix” you to a particular stereotype. Your decisions regarding your sexuality have to be your own and take who you really are into account.

rainbow flag splash

Last year, a study conducted by poly sci grad student Michael LaCour showed that just a simple conversation with a canvasser who talked to people about marriage equality and then identified as gay, was enough to sway minds towards the acceptance of same sex marriage. This was an odd result because people don’t tend to change their views on things like homosexuality after a brief conversation with a stranger, no matter how polite the stranger was. However, the data in the paper was very convincing and it may have been entirely possible that the people surveyed didn’t think about marriage equality and meeting a gay person who didn’t fit the toxic stereotype propagated by the far right, wanted to seem supportive to meet social expectations, or might’ve even been swayed off the fence towards equality. After all, the data was there, and it looked so convincing and perfect. In fact it looked a little too perfect, particularly when it came to just how many people seemed open to talking to strangers who randomly showed up at their doors, and how inhumanly consistent their voiced opinions have been over time. It was just… off.

When doing a social sciences experiment, the biggest stumbling block is the response rate and how small it usually is. Back in my undergrad days, I remember freezing my tail end off trying to gather some responses for a survey on urban development in the middle of an Ohio winter and collecting just ten useful responses in three hours. But LaCour was armed with money and was able to pay up to $100 for each respondent’s time unlike me, so he was able to enroll 10,000 or so people with a 12% response rate. Which is a problem because his budget would have had to have been over $1 million, which was a lot more than he had, and a 12% rate on the first try will not happen. Attempts to replicate it yielded less than a 1% response rate even when there was money involved. Slowly but surely, as another researcher and his suspicious colleagues looked deeper, signs of fraud mounted until the conclusion was inescapable. The data was a sham. Its stability and integrity looked so fantastically sound because no study was actually done.

New York Magazine has the details on how exactly the study came undone, and some parts of the story, held up in the comments as supposed proof of universities’ supposed grand Marxist-homosexual conspiracy to turn education into anti-capitalist and pro-gay propaganda as one is bound to expect, actually shine a light into why it took so long for the fraud to be discovered. It’s easy to just declare that researchers didn’t look at the study too closely because they wanted it to be true, that finding some empirical proof that sitting a homophobe down with a well dressed and successful gay person for half an hour would solve social ills was so tempting to accept, no one wanted to question it. Easy, but wrong. If you’ve ever spent time with academics or tried to become one in grad school, you’d know that the reason why it took exceptional tenacity to track down and expose LaCour’s fraud is because scientists, by in large, are no longer paid to check, review, and replicate others’ work. Their incentive is to generate new papers and secure grants to pay for their labs and administrators’ often outrageous salaries, and that’s it.

Scientists have always lived by the paradigm of “publish or perish,” the idea that if you publish a constant stream of quality work in good journals, your career continues, and once you stop, you are no longer relevant or necessary, and should quit. But nowadays, the pressure to publish to get tenure and secure grants is so strong that the number of papers on which you have a byline more or less seals your future. Forget doing five or six good papers a year, no one really cares how good they were unless they’re Nobel Prize worthy, you’re now expected to have a hundred publications or more when you’re being considered for tenure. Quality has lost to quantity. It’s a one of the big reasons why I decided not to pursue a PhD despite having the grades and more than enough desire to do research. When my only incentives would be to churn out volume and try to hit up DARPA or the USAF for grant money against another 800 voices as loud and every bit as desperate to keep their jobs as mine, how could I possibly focus on quality and do bigger and more ambitious projects based on my own work and current literature?

And this is not limited to engineering and hard sciences. Social science has the same problems as well. Peer review is done on a volunteer basis, papers can coast through without any critical oversight, fraud can go unnoticed and fester for years, and all academic administrators want to do is to keep pushing scientists to churn out more papers at a faster and faster rate. Scientists are moving so quickly, they’re breaking things and should they decide to slow down and fix one of the things that’s been broken, they get denied tenure and tossed aside. Likewise, whose who bring in attention and money, and whose research gets into top tier journals no matter how, get a lot of political pull, and fact checking their research not only interferes with the designated job of cranking out new papers in bulk, it also draws ire from the star scientists in question and their benefactors in the administration, which can cost the fact checkers’ their careers. You could not build a better environment to bury fraud than today’s research institutions unless you started to normalize bribes and political lobbyists commissioning studies to back their agendas.

So scientists didn’t check LaCour’s work not because they wanted to root for gay marriage with all their hearts as they were brainwashed by some radical leftist cabal in the 1960s, they didn’t check his work because their employers give them every possible incentive not to unless they’ll stumble into it when working with the same exact questions, which is actually what happened in Broockman’s case when he stumbled on evidence of fraud. And what makes this case so very, very harmful is that I doubt that LaCour is such a staunch supporter of gay rights to commit the fraud he has in the name of marriage and social equality. He just wanted to secure his job and did it by any means he thought necessary. Did he give any thought how his dishonesty impacts the world outside of academia? Unlikely. How one’s work affects the people outside one’s ivory tower is very important, especially nowadays when scientists are seen as odd, not quite human creatures isolated from everyday reality by an alarming majority of those exposed to their work, and who will be faulted for their colleagues’ shortcomings or dishonesty en masse.

Now, scientists are well aware of the problem I’ve been detailing, and there is a lot of talk about some sort of post-publication peer review, or even making peer review compensated work, not just something done by volunteers in their spare time with the express purpose of weeding out bad papers and fraud. But that’s like trying to cure cancer by treating just the metastatic tumors rather than with aggressive ressection and chemotherapy. Instead of measuring the volume of papers a scientist has published, we need to develop metrics for quality. How many labs found the same results? How much new research sprang from these findings based not only on direct citation count, but citations of research which cite the original work? We need to reward not the ability to write a lot of papers but ambition, scale, and accuracy. When scientists know that a big project and a lot of follow up work confirming their results is the only way to get tenure, they will be very hesitant to pull off brazen frauds since thorough peer review is now one of the scientists’ most important tasks, rather than an afterthought in the hunt for more bylines…

buried skull

When the world momentarily became a better place through bin Laden’s removal from it, there was an instant surge of “deathers,” conspiracy theorists convinced that there was no raid or the whole thing was a sham, weaving a New World Order tale for every possible scenario. Indulged by the media looking for views and bursting comment sections, they went quiet after al Qaeda’s generals themselves confirmed that indeed, their leader was dead and gone. Or, at least, quiet in the public eye. But now there’s a new bin Laden conspiracy theory in town from a legendary investigative reporter who says that the raid in Pakistan was indeed a sham, and instead of the intelligence community tracking down a terrorist mastermind and dispatching special operators to take him out in a daring raid, the CIA and SOCOM was just doing Pakistan’s dirty work while stuffing someone’s wallet to the tune of $25 million. In trying to answer the very real mystery of how Pakistan could allow the most wanted man on earth to set up shop next to their West Point, he ended up with a tall tale that belongs on InfoWars rather than in a real newspaper.

Many technicalities of Hersh’s story have already been picked apart by numerous writers, so I’ll limit myself to solely the showstoppers here. First off is the idea that Pakistan not only knew bin Laden was hiding out next to their top military facility, they put him there under house arrest for future use as a pawn in negotiations with the U.S. about military aid. This actually makes sense because the ISI is the kind of organization that would think that this would be a great idea, but it quickly stops making it when you realize that they would’ve held him for five years. A deal could have been made within months if not weeks because terrorists do not age like fine wine and art. Bin Laden was worth even more when al Qaeda affiliates were raising hell in Iraq and he hadn’t yet become a far off leader writing vague strategy memos. To sit on an asset like this when the Bush Administration would’ve surely paid handsomely for his head would be asinine.

The second problem is the claim that the ISI went along with a greedy informant who waltzed in from the street and asked American diplomats for the bounty on bin Laden’s head. Whether he went rogue or sent by the intelligence agency guarding bin Laden, why would Pakistan follow? Every passionate rebuttal of a Hersh debunking rests on the idea that the ISI wouldn’t give up a man who many Pakistanis actually see as a hero, including some fundamentalist higher ups in the so-called Pakistani deep state, the shadowy cabal of generals, tycoons, and politicians who hold real power in the country. Then why would they help Americans execute a raid? Why allow them to even get close to bin Laden rather than hide him or just discredit the informant? Which one is it? Pakistan wanted to trade bin Laden for cash and guns, or protect him as a hero? The two are mutually exclusive. Did the ISI suddenly decide that after holding on to him through the years of violence and turmoil on their borders and within he just wasn’t worth it?

But changing their mind about bin Laden’s upkeep has to be eliminated as an option due to the third big problem with Hersh’s tale, the idea that Saudi Arabia paid to house him in Pakistan. It’s only a slightly less ridiculous proposition than the idea that it was the Americans who footed the bill because anyone who knows anything about bin Laden is aware that the House of Saud was very interested in having him killed. Suggesting otherwise falls into the “well, Arabs are all more or less the same, right?” category of geopolitical reasoning. Saudis didn’t mind him too much as long as he picked fights with Americans, but they drew the line at attacking their kingdom. All of his Saudi benefactors and friends were actually dealing with him illegally because his citizenship was revoked and his assets frozen after he tried to orchestrate a revolt against the royal family for allowing American bases on Saudi soil. Why would the House of Saud ever pay to imprison someone they wanted dead and blamed for terrorist attacks on hotels and oil refineries?

While it’s true that Saudi Arabia funds terrorists around the world, the fuller, darker story, is that this is how they deal with homegrown homicidal extremists; they simply export them to a distant land, fighting wars that don’t need to be fought funded by countries that don’t want to fight them but know that the minute they stop giving their bloodthirsty maniacs something to do, they’ll be handling a domestic crisis of epic proportions. So why didn’t Pakistan adopt the strategy which would’ve made them look either cunning or completely un-involved and sent bin Laden off into some distant province of Afghanistan to die or get killed if they wanted to get rid of him? It’s so much more likely that there were ISI people aware of his presence, who saw him as a hero and didn’t want him to die, and simply kept their mouths shut, directing suspicious minds to look for him elsewhere. Then, when they woke up one morning to find that a SEAL team killed him, that was the end of that as far as they were concerned. They did their best to protect him, but they lacked the virtually unlimited resources of a superpower with a globe spanning military.

As said before, there are dozens of little details that give us reason to doubt pretty much every other word that Hersh wrote and relying on all anonymous sources makes his story pretty much impossible to verify. If you believe that special operators refer to what they do as “murder” and throw bodies of long sought foes out of choppers for no reason, that the House of Saud won’t just off their enemies, that it somehow benefited either Saudi Arabia or Pakistan to keep the old terrorist alive while his minions wreaked havoc across the region, and that despite photos of an honest to goodness firefight and wreckage at the compound, the SEALs actually just walked in, shot an already almost dead man in a wheelchair to later dump his body mid-flight, and left, you probably won’t agree with a single critique of Hersh’s “expose.” And you’ll likely resort to the oft repeated defense of his writing: “you’re just asking questions about why they did something, not showing that Hersh is wrong!” But actually I am. People can be illogical, but generally, when we come to politics on the world stage, people follow their best interests and all my questions really ask is why none of their players he invokes, other than the U.S., acted in their best interests.

Finally, here’s the most important detail to consider. Hersh had two explosive reports that gave him his legendary reputation, the story on the My Lai massacre, and the investigation into how prisoners were being abused at Abu Grahib. Much of the rest of his journalistic career, though, was spent trying to find a contrarian narrative that would give him a second My Lai bombshell, and he relied on con men, cranks, and dictators with every incentive to lie to him as his primary sources, either regurgitating conspiracy theories, or inventing a new one on the spot when he felt he needed to up the ante. And that’s the sad truth about him. He started as an investigative journalist looking for the truth, then having gotten a taste of success, became a pundit with his expected narrative. Much like Glenn Beck will see a communist conspiracy in everything and in every current event Alex Jones finds the Illuminati, Hersh will keep telling you that America is a bumbling, barely competent empire with outsize ambitions. The truth is that America does use plenty of military and financial muscle to maintain its global hegemony, but every country plays the same game as well. But that truth is messy, too messy for Hersh. He wants a villain, a very big and easy target for our outrage so he can pull in enough attention to justify his fee…

tower of babel

Humans can sure take up a lot of space. Not literally mind you, if you stacked humans in pods just big enough to accommodate the average person and raise them 50 units high, the entire global population would comfortably fit within the Bronx metro area, with 23 square kilometers left over. For those curious, yes, I actually did the math. I know, I’m a nerd. But like all abstract calculations, this is technically correct but very much irrelevant since we don’t live in pods with a few inches of wiggle room in every direction, we like to have our space. This is why even a high density megacity can take up as much as 7,000 square miles. Start adding in suburbs, exhurbs and other bordering towns that seem to merge with our biggest cities, farms that feed the many millions living in this area, and you end up with vast swaths of space dedicated to perpetuating countless humans with the substantial environmental costs that entails. So what if, asked many architects over the years, we were to consolidate entire cities in massive skyscrapers?

Now the idea is sound if your first priority is efficient allocation of resources. While no huge city could be perfectly efficient, on average, any megacity could concentrate resources and shorten supply chains. This can mean less waste, more productivity, and more economic activity. But if we take it one step further and start structuring them around giant, self-contained skyscrapers, we can wring out many of the current remaining inefficiencies in resource allocation. A vertical farm in each skyscraper would double as green space and the perfect place for producing a lot of staple crops that instead of being delivered across a country are delivered to a different floor which saves a lot on infrastructure costs. From a utopian perspective, embracing growing your own crops in a vertical community garden inside a giant building that also has apartments, bars and nightclubs, movie theaters, schools, and offices could return many millions of square miles back to nature should every city in the world make that leap. But would that ever happen?

Today, such a transition would be politically dead on arrival and technically hard to execute. It’s not for a lack of ideas though; within the last 30 years there have been no shortage of plans to build these cities in a skyscraper including Sky City 1000, Shimizu TRY Pyramid, and just a few weeks ago, Sand Sky City. But just because there are plans doesn’t mean there’s enough raw materials to actually build these projects or money to afford them. Between buying all the land required to pour the foundations, or in the case of Sand Sky City, establish robust routes to get materials to a job site in the middle of nowhere, even getting started comes with a price tag few governments could afford, and those that could, probably have many other uses for the money, ones that will be much more popular with their constituents. Speaking of which, how do you get people to live in these skyscrapers in numbers that make them economically viable? 

One rather popular conspiracy theory here in the United States is that extreme urban planning proposals like this are really the machinations of an evil cabal trying to enslave humanity for an amazingly wide array of sinister purposes, so there go millions of potential residents. Plus, how many people would be fine with giving up their privacy, living with over a million others not just around them, but in the same building at any given time? Just like flying cars look great from a purely utilitarian, utopian point of view, the reality of actually creating them is fraught with many problems that will take a long time to address. Maybe at some point in the far future, with more globalized economies and massive changes in culture, buildings housing an entire city could be viable, and by then we’re bound to have plans for hundreds of them. But we’re not going to get them anytime soon. They simply cost too much, require too much, and unlikely to provide the kind of return on investment we’d need to make them worthwhile. At least for now…

future highway

As I said before, we really want the Musks and Gates of the world to keep investing exactly the way they’re investing now and we want to keep on encouraging their choices through every tax credit, rebate, and whatever other enticement we can think of. Then we need to take that cash and start pouring it into the sciences and education. Why? Because the biggest reasons those knocked out of the job market by machines and outsourcing will not be able to find new, steady work are a) one-way globalization by nations happily trading goods and services, but severely restricting the flow of labor, and b) lack of skills for new careers and the prohibitively high price tag of acquiring relevant credentials. The former is very, very hard to solve because it’s asking certain countries to put the good of the world above their self-interest, which is political suicide for their leaders. The latter, on the other hand, is something we can take on quickly.

Right now, the typical new degree requires about $18,000 not including books, fees, and living expenses for the next three to four years. And by the time you graduate, your job may already be made obsolete by a new app or maxed out by existing candidates. You’ll also have trouble with getting enough experience in your new chosen field for employers and end up having to work an unpaid internship position just to put something on your resume. Oh and your student debt could only be dismissed by an act of Congress or an alien invasion, and given the current political climate, I would bet cash money on the aliens. Although I’m sure Sally May would keep their employees hounding debtors even while buildings around them are being mowed down by the invaders’ lasers until the bitter end, knowing how they typically operate…

This is an asinine state of affairs. We need something closer to formally accredited certification programs and really, really consider making the college degree optional again for fields which honestly don’t involve specialized knowledge requiring years of theoretical study. If we sponsor enough universities to offer them for affordable sums and actually do job training programs with major companies, we’d be giving millions of people displaced by machines new chances in life. There are trade schools and community college programs that try to fulfill this function already, but there aren’t enough, too many are just predatory scams, and too many HR departments will scoff at these credentials when they see them on a candidate’s resume. We need to tackle this as directly as possible because even management experts consider the way companies hire to be often broken and completely illogical, often indicating a management problem.

We also need to take our education system seriously, easing up on standardized testing across the board and setting our sights on helping students discover what they really want to do in life as they’re getting their general education, providing chances for real world experiences in their fields of choice. When they can see what their lives would actually entail if they choose to follow their dreams, they’ll make better choices about how to peruse them rather than play education poker with a college which views them as customers receiving a product for which they borrow many to pay and expect a bang for their buck, not students to be educated so they can acquire a career by employing the theoretical framework their professors give them.

The common thread in all this is of course lowering the financial and time commitment bars for getting to work and learning new skills as they are needed by the marketplace by getting rid of nonsensical requirements that don’t actually help students or adults looking to make a change. Not only would it help them immeasurably, but they could give them a chance to explore their potential, try more new things in life, and live up to their aspirations without sticker shock. Yes, we could try to create some sort of minimum national income for all citizens as some suggest, but other than the many social questions this idea raises, questions we’re obviously not ready and willing to answer, passively reacting to a decline in jobs and income growth for the 99% by widening the social safety net and hoping that we can change things by doing exactly what got us into this mess in the first place, this approach would kill the potential of millions.

Today we’re snuffing out engineers, writers, doctors, and designers by under-educating them the first 12 years of their schooling, bilking them the next four, and subjecting their resumes to death by a thousand keywords and buzzwords. Just giving them some money while placing all their goals even further out of reach isn’t going to do any good whatsoever. What we need is a lot more moon shots, crazy inventions, and government aided competitions for solutions to our big problems; big picture thinking that asks “what about tomorrow?” rather than “how do I make a buck today?” We got into this mess by taking the easy way, by assuming things won’t change. More of the same solutions to our problems, like Piketty’s wealth tax, or standardized testing, or more lopsided free trade deals, or pouring our money into another bubble, won’t get us out. We need to rethink our priorities and focus on investing in a new post-industrial world where basics like education, wealth, and jobs, aren’t just zero-sum games.