Archives For politics

microtree in glass

How about we run through a few basic statistics about our effects on the world around us? Over the last hundred years or so, we paved nearly 11.2 million miles of roads, built 845,000 dams to divert over a third of all rivers on the planet, consumed over a billion gallons of water, generated and then used 142,000 Terrawatt hours of electricity, and belched 33 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The only things that impact Earth more than human industrialization are supervolcanic eruptions and massive asteroid impacts, which is why environmentalists have been thinking about a bold plan to somehow mark half the planet as conservation areas. While you might think that there’s no place where humans can’t thrive, the fact of the matter is that an amazingly large percentage of Earth isn’t extremely welcoming to humans or practical to settle in the long run. We are still tropical creatures who like mild, warm climates and want access to the world’s oceans, which is why 44% of us live in coastal areas rather than deserts and tundras. As well adapted to this planet as we are, we’re really not as spread out as we often think we are.

Even more interestingly, we’re converging more and more into megacities like Shanghai, Tokyo, Mumbai, New York, and Los Angeles. More than half the global population now calls cities home and the trend is very likely to continue in a post-industrial economy where efficiency is king, and geographic hubs for many professions are still very important. What’s more is that the new trend towards automated vertical farming, which reduces costs, water use, and eliminates the need for pesticides, would also free up millions and millions of acres of land currently used for growing all of our crops. Sure, not all farming can be done indoors and livestock raised for consumption will either still need to be raised the old-fashioned way, or we’d need to create synthetic meat that’s palatable to most people. We may never live in cities contained within skyscrapers for maximum efficiency, but there are a lot of demographic projections saying that 80% of us will be living way closer together on average than we do today, in massive, sprawling cities, and we’re making the necessary preparations already. So while at first glance, it may seem odd to abandon half of all land to become a nature preserve, maybe, just maybe, it will be possible in some 35 years…


When you’re doing studies on controversial and explosive subjects, or even discussing them, a significant uptick in criticism isn’t just expected, it’s practically guaranteed. And few topics have been as politically charged as the legal frameworks around consensual sex, particularly when it comes to colleges. Citing a study which claimed to have found that 1 in 5 women in college will be sexually assaulted, activists have raised a steady drumbeat about the need for heavy hands when it comes to dealing with sex in the courtroom and their proposed methods are not without worried critics. Not only are people worried that some of the proposed laws will be applied with little forethought, creating crimes out of whole cloth, as happened in North Carolina in a bizarre case that has legal experts baffled about the utter lack of prosecutorial discretion, but they are extremely uncomfortable seeing universities using Title IX to turn themselves into police, judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to matters that should be handled by law enforcement. A common joke in comment sections wonders if we’ll soon need to sign contracts before sex.

Against this highly charged background, the AAU released a study of 150,000 students to get a more clear picture of the problem, which was predictably both quickly praised and ridiculed. On the one side, activists pointed to its finding that as many as 1 in 4 women in colleges had some sort of unwanted sexual advances come their way and focused on a statistic that between 59% to 64% of women didn’t think what happened was serious enough to report, or felt that anyone would do something about it as a glaring admission that law enforcement and colleges are just not pulling their weight in cases of sexual misconduct on campus. On the flip side, critics tried to poke holes in the survey’s methodology and extremely low response rates, and their expansive definition of what constitutes sexual assault, which they say clouds the picture, and significantly exaggerates the number and severity of incidents. A more nuanced critique of these viewpoints to the survey by Emily Yoffe, one of the few writers who really know how social research works, even argued that it’s not feasible to paint a clear picture of a complex topic with surveys.

Oddly, one of the things that the critics of the study seem to have missed is that the authors not only acknowledge the limitations being pointed out, but proactively call them out as problems to be studied in more depth and don’t pretend that their report is the definitive last word on what’s going on when college students have sex. They’re rather alarmed that only 19% of the 780,000 students offered to take the survey responded, that the colleges surveyed aren’t a good cross-section of colleges across the nation, and point out that the higher rate of response at selected colleges correlates strongly with more reports of sexual misconduct. This means that less than two thirds of the students they expected to respond filled out the survey, and that those who did were more likely to be victims of sexual assault or harassment than in an ideally representative study. But they don’t seem to be concerned about their broad definitions of sexual misconduct, however, which include everything from forced intercourse, to groping, to kissing while deciding if the subject wanted to have sex or not, which seems like a rather wide net to cast here.

While unwanted intimate contact is always an issue, we do have to at least try and deal with the question of severity of the offense and something that doesn’t necessarily escalate to sex being done while you’re still deciding if you want to have sex with a person doesn’t seem like it should count on par with being drunkenly pawed. And it doesn’t look like the students think otherwise, as noted by the near two thirds majority across the sample size saying that they didn’t feel that what happened merited intervention from a third party. By the standard of the survey, the great majority of us who went to college parties will have at least a few stories of something the AAU survey will qualify as sexual assault, both men and women, and that’s a problem. Muddying the question with a very wide net of what constitutes sexual misconduct means that we simply can’t get a clear answer of how many people are being victimized and how so we can step in to help them, and fix whatever issues exist in college administrations and for law enforcement for them to get justice without over-policing and overly aggressive activism encouraging misleading and downright libelous narratives, as it did in the retracted Rolling Stone story about UVA.

So with all these limitations and issues, did the study find anything concrete? Actually, yes. The numbers basically show that if you’re a college student drinking at parties or bars nearby, your odds of being groped, taken advantage of, or worse, at least once, are between 13% and 23%, and the situation is most dire for freshmen and sophomores, especially women. While the AAU did survey men, it didn’t ask the question of whether they were, as it’s called in legalise, “made to penetrate” and focused only on whether they were penetrated themselves. It’s seems like a really nitpicky point to make, but there are people arguing that it omits numerous cases of rape because there is no statistic for it. And if there’s no statistic for the AAU to collect, we can’t state for a fact how bad the problem is for both genders. This is not a case of who has it worse, but a matter of getting the true sense of the problem. As evidenced by another AAU finding, those in greatest danger overall are actually transgendered students so the issue isn’t cut and dry when it comes to who needs the most help, and the most resources to prevent and cope with being a frequent target of unwanted sexual attention, especially when alcohol is somehow involved.

All this is very much in line with previous surveys on the subject, which found the unsurprisingly strong correlation between heavy drinking and sexual assault, and that students struggling with gender identity are disproportionately victimized. Sadly, many warnings about binge drinking on campus in the context of preventing sexual assault are far too often met with ireful accusations of victim blaming, and colleges seem unwilling to crack down on underage drinking so much so that police reports paint their campuses as dens of sin, debauchery, and crime. Meanwhile, as the parties continue, the definition of sexual assault keeps expanding, and activists keep steady media mentions of an escalating crisis. And so it seems that the AUU report’s main findings will be ignored as we’re not allowed to address binge drinking, or rethink how we define what really constitutes sexual misconduct and who should address it for fear of being smeared as careless and cruel apologists for rape. That’s what happens when activism overshadows the data. What numbers and facts are collected just become another political football to toss around.

heisenberg artisans ad

Almost 200 years ago, British economist William Forster Lloyd was writing about the overuse of common goods and coined the term tragedy of the commons. When people act solely in a very self-interested way with no regard for others, certain scenarios end up making the public worse off and scrambling to figure out why a little selfishness or greed got them in such trouble. Over this past week, one such scenario was perfectly illustrated by the hedge fund manager with an exceedingly colorful history of caring about only what’s best for him at an exact moment, and at the expense of anyone in the way of him making another dollar, as he tried to profiteer from an obscure generic drug with a predatory rate hike. And while Shkreli’s attitude and a social media presence that exudes the vibe of a stereotypical entitled bro who thinks he’s beyond all criticism because he has money made him a poster boy for small pharma profiteering, he is far from the only one doing it. In fact, mini-monopolies are hiking up the price of many rare drugs.

From a cold, logical, game theory standpoint, what these executives are doing makes sense. If you own a monopoly on something necessary, you should try and find the maximum price it will garner because your job is to maximize profits and company valuations. Should the market get upset and push back, you lower the price, as Shkreli was forced to do. Eventually, you’ll find the price point at which you’re making more money while your customers are content. It’s really the same approach as in ultimatum games studied by psychologists. Your best bet is to accept any amount greater than zero when offered to split a fixed sum of cash because no matter how the money is split, you still left the experiment with more than you started. It’s the cornerstone of all game theory variants employed to explain and drive stock and commodities markets. The idea that something should be fair is irrelevant, the only things that matter are numbers, supply, and demand. Small pharma execs were using this logic when deciding on their price hikes, seeing a price increase as simply an opening salvo in a negotiations process with the market.

But humans don’t work that way. Even our closest evolutionary cousins will rebel when they find themselves unfairly treated and reject overly generous rewards not to seem too greedy. We act no differently is similar experiments adapted for our minds, and close to three in four of us don’t only reject unfair deals, but will use the rules of the experiment to make sure those who tried to slight us won’t get anything either. In other words, game theory is for machines, not us. We will much rather undermine those unfair to us than settle for whatever crumbs they leave us, even though in theory, those crumbs are more than we had. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s all perfectly logical. Just like apes, we’re social creatures and so we evolved knowing how to keep our tribes together and in order. Even newborns and little children seem to be wired to be both cooperative and friendly, though of course, this varies from child to child. We don’t like extreme inequality or tolerate being treated unfairly, and by rebelling against those who we feel are just pilfering our resources and mistreating us we keep some sense of societal balance. Unlike that tired, old creationist talking point, for us, evolution favored an innate desire to get along.

When pundits on financial news channels grouse that people are unfairly attacking businesses just trying to make a profit in a capitalistic system, they profoundly misunderstand that it’s not a matter of whether the business is making a lot of money or not, it’s how the business does it. If the main source of income is the best and most popular smartphone ever made, we won’t care how much it makes and what its profit margin is because it’s a product that’s needed, improves our lives, and can be foregone if it’s too expensive. If someone makes millions with a pet sitting company, we also won’t care because it’s a service that helps people and their companions in times of need. But if your main source of profit is off the backs of the sick and the poor, then no argument is good enough to defend your practice. We don’t care about your market share and your need to make a return on an investment. You are gouging a common resource and as far as millions of years of evolution tell our brains, you are an awful person who must be somehow punished. It’s a healthy biological imperative for us, and in fact, those who lack it are diagnosed with a pathology called sociopathy whose only natural social order results in kleptocracies.

Really then, it’s little wonder that the world’s failed states would also have the highest inequality and the most violence. Look who gets to be in charge in those places. In Africa, that’s dictators who live in wealth and luxury, protected by armed guards paid for by aid money they steal and proceeds from illegal trade. In Central Asia, it’s warlords who may or may not wear uniforms of their nations’ armed forces along with an official rank, and who are often famous for corruption, keeping sex slaves, and systematically embezzling their subordinates’ already meager pay. It’s what happens when no one even tries to mitigate the tragedy of the commons and a wealthy or violent enough sociopath gets his way enough times. Not letting someone have a monopoly on life saving drugs, or make billions from gouging the sick and the elderly is not “socialism,” or the complaints of “moochers,” but our brains rebelling at the unfairness they see and trying to bring the inequalities down to something more fair. The markets assume we’re horrible people with a very flexible moral compass, an to an extent, we certainly can be. But we also do have a built-in sense of fairness, and thankfully, we use it against those whose greed shut down theirs.

astronaut on mars

Astrobiologist Jacob Haqq-Misra likes to ask questions about our future in space. If you’ve been following this blog for a long time and the name seems familiar, it’s because you’ve read a take on a paper regarding the Fermi Paradox he co-authored. But this time, instead of looking at the dynamics of an alien civilization in the near future, he turned his eye towards ours by asking if it would be beneficial for astronauts we will one day send to Mars to create their own government and legally become extraterrestrial citizens from the start. At its heart, it’s not a really outlandish notion at all, and in fact, I’ve previously argued that it’s inevitable that deep space exploration is going to splinter humanity into independent, autonomous territories. Even further, unless we’ve been able to build warp drives to travel faster than light and abuse some quantum shenanigans to break the laws of physics and communicate instantaneously, colonists on far off worlds would eventually become not just different cultures and nations, but different species altogether.

However, the time scales for that are thousands to hundreds of thousands of years, while plans for an independent Mars advanced by Haqq-Misra are on the order of decades. And that’s very problematic because the first Martian colonies are not going to be self-sustaining. While they’re claiming their independence, they’re being bankrolled and logistically supported by Earth until a time when they can become fully self-sufficient. Obviously that’s the goal, to travel light and live off the land once you get there, but laying the basic infrastructure for making that happen in an alien wilderness where no terrestrial life can exist on its own requires a lot of initial buildup. And under three out of the five main provisions of what I’m calling the Haqq-Misra Mars Charter, the relationship between the colonists and Earth will be parasitic at best, violating international laws on similar matters, and ultimately restricting the colony’s growth and future prospects.

For example, under the charter, every piece of technology sent to Mars is now Martian property in perpetuity and cannot be taken back. What if this technology is software updated by a steady internet connection used for communication between the two worlds as NASA is planning? Will some Martian patent trolls start suing Earthly companies for not handing over the rights to their digital assets? Not only that, but if a Martian pays for this software, he or she is in violation of a trade prohibition between the planets. That’s right, no commerce would be allowed, and neither would input on scientific research that the Martians feel infringes on their right to run their world as they see fit. In other words, Earth is expected to shell out cash, send free technology, write a lot of free software stuck in legal limbo, and keep its opinions to itself. This does not sound like setting up a new civilization as much as it sounds like enabling a freeloader. Any even remotely plausible Martian colony will have to pay its own way in technology and research that should be traded with Earth on an open market. That’s the only way they’ll be independent quickly.

And of course there’s the provision that no human may lay claim on Martian territory. However, should the colonies lack a sufficiently strong armed forces, their ability to enforce this provision would be pretty much nonexistent. Sovereign territory takes force projection to stay that way so what this provision would be doing is creating an incentive for military buildup in space as soon as we set foot on Mars. Considering that the top three space powers which will be capable of a human landing on another world in the foreseeable future currently have strained relations, it is not something to take lightly. Runaway military buildup gave us space travel in the first place. It can change the world again just as quickly. And I can assure you that no nation in the world will be just fine with heavily armed extraterrestrial freeloaders with whom they can’t engage using a lot of resources these countries have to provide on a regular basis to keep them going. There’s not going to be a war for Martian independence that Haqq-Misra wants to avoid, but there may be one of Martian annexation. And probably a fairly short war at that when the troops land.

Now, all that said, after a century of colonies, terraforming attempts, and several generations of colonists who know Mars as their home, I can definitely see the planet turning independent. It’s going to have the self-sufficiency, economy, and culture to do so, and that culture isn’t going to be created ex nihlo, as Haqq-Misra is hoping to force by declaring astronauts Martians with the first step on alien soil. They will be speaking with Earth daily, many will identify with their nations of origin and their cultures, and it’s all going to take a long time to gel together into something a future researcher can call uniquely Martian. And what it will ultimately mean to be a Martian will be shaped by two-way interactions with those on Earth, not by forced isolation which could give megalomaniacs a chance to create a nation they could subjugate, or utopians a chance to build an alien commune with the consequences that would entail, while people who could help give a group of critics a means to be heard, are legally required to stay out of the way. But the bottom line is that we need to learn to thrive on Mars and spend a great deal of time there before even thinking of making it its own autonomous territory. It will happen, just not anytime soon.


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.