Archives For technology

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…

grumpy cat

Some days I read stories about machine learning being deployed to fight crime, exoskeletons to help the paralyzed walk again, or supercomputers modeling new spacecraft, and feel very lucky to be in my current profession. Computers changed the world, and the discipline behind making these computers work is based around the egalitarian concept of tinkering. You need electricity and a little bit of money to get started, true, but the path from wanting to build something useful to doing it has never been more straightforward or shorter. Anyone with enough dedication can make something from scratch, even without formal training, though it’s highly recommended for those who want to become professionals. And then, other days I read about things like Peeple, the app that lets you review other humans, currently valued at $7.6 million, and groan that what people like me do is both helping the world while slowly ruining it by letting awful ideas like this spawn into existence with little effort. Because there’s no way this can possibly end well…

Just consider that out of a hundred people who read something online, just one might respond, or somehow interact with the content. People are not going to go through the effort of creating usernames, passwords, and e-mail or social media verification unless they are really motivated to do so. And when are people most motivated? When they’re upset or are expecting a reward in return for their trouble. Consider that when a business is in the news for an ugly misdeed, its pretty much a given that the first thing to happen to them will be angry torrents of one-star Yelp reviews which the admins of the have to clean up. It’s not going to be any different with people, and whereas businesses are just legal entities that can be re-branded or ran by someone new which would give them the benefit of the doubt, a person is a person, and reviews about him or her will be around for years, no matter whether this person turned a new leaf, or the reviews for past bad behavior are actually legitimate complaints, a misunderstanding, or just malicious, and it’s likely that negativity will quickly trump whatever positive feedback the apps encourage.

As an example, take last year’s flash in the smartphone app pan Lulu, which allowed women to rate men as sexual partners. Negative reviews vastly outnumbered the positive ones, and while the app’s goal may have been helping women to avoid selfish partners and bad dates, it turned into a place for women to complain about men they didn’t like. I’m sure that the same exact app made for men to rate women would have the same results. For Peeple to really be any different would require human beings to fundamentally change how they interact with each other. And to add to the unpleasantness of dealing with judgmental, demanding, and hypersensitive people in the real world, all their unfiltered, nasty remarks now have a megaphone and are searchable by future romantic partners, landlords, and employers who have only these strangers’ opinions as their introduction to you. Have the creators of Peeple or Lulu thought whether it would be better for all of us if someone could type in a name and in an instant see our sexual history, a laundry list of opinions and complaints about us by friends and strangers alike on top of everything that already was made public about our lives through social media, or the potential for abuse?

We live at a time when revenge porn and social media turned leaked sex tapes and nudes into quaint mishaps and you have to develop a strategy to deal with your most intimate details in an enormous data dumpof millions of others’ most intimated details and fantasies. Isn’t that a sign that we’ve taken this social media thing far enough? When banks are mulling the idea of giving you loans based on your friends’ social media profiles, and employers are poking around your tweets and Instagram pictures, do you need to give malicious hackers or exploitative friends an additional way to take advantage of you? Even worse, just think about the fact that a third of all reviews on the web are likely to be fake and imagine a future where you have to buy a positive review bundle to offset nastiness said about you on Peeple, or make up a small horde of really, really satisfied and vocal sexual partners on a Lulu follow-up, which would be inevitable when a people rating app catches on. The bottom line is that apps that let you rate people like products are a textbook example of why being able to do something doesn’t mean you should, without a second thought about the potential consequences of what you’re unleashing on the world.

little smartphone

Every few years, we seem to get paroxysms of warnings about how our smartphones are going to give us cancer one day. Despite being grounded in junk science, they cause a stir because a few people with the right credentials claiming that something they we every day is killing us is a good way to get a lot of attention very quickly. And with large contingents of people all too ready and willing to believe that a few cells in a lab are a good proxy for the human body, and that Big TelCo is just the next Big Tobacco in waiting, the City of Berkley accomplished a feat of quixotic justice that San Francisco and the state of Maine once failed to secure, and is trying to force all stores that sell phones within the city’s limits to carry a vague, scary warning about cell phones emitting radiation and implying that users may be at risk of something malignant if they don’t go through their phone’s manual to find a safe way to use it while shielding their fragile bodies. No scientific work dealing with in vivo studies says this, but hey, there’s pandering to be done so a little something like, say, the medical community disagreeing with you should’t get in the way.

Really, it’s not often that siding with a large industry trade group, such as CTIA, which fought in court to stop the mandate, is the scientifically correct thing to do. Usually trade groups will jump on a junk science bandwagon if it benefits them in a heartbeat and twist facts to suit the desires for higher profit, as in the case of the anti-GMO lobby for example. But in this rare case, CITA’s objections really did have the science on their side and it would’ve been a way more interesting case if science was actually invoked. Despite having the ability to prove that the City of Berkley was simply ascribing to Luddism and anti-scientific fallacies to cast cell phones as evil, cancer-emitting boxes of death, the modern equivalents to a pack of cigarettes in the 1950s, it decided to argue that the mandate just violated their members’ free speech rights. Please join me for a minute of facepalming at this legal equivalent of snatching a defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s yet another example why court decisions should be inadmissible in debates about science.

But hold on, you might say, what’s so bad about the City of Berkley only giving its citizens what they wanted? After all, shouldn’t people be free to make their own informed decisions and this disclaimer only gives them the tools to make up their minds after considering both sides? Well, yes, that would be the case in a scientifically hyperliterate utopia, or when there’s a real debate about an issue in the scientific community. But there’s a reason why we don’t slap labels on the astronomy books sold at Barnes and Noble warning readers that it contains descriptions of the theory of heliocentrism and features multiple references to the Big Bang, or on a medical book to warn readers that it does not consider the theory of the four humors and miasmas alongside germ theory. There are no current scientific debates about whether the universe is static, or the Earth orbits the sun, or that microorganisms invading our bodies are the origin of disease. Why would we want to give the public erroneous information because a special interest group really, really wanted to shout its ill-informed ideas no matter what the experts actually told them?

Make no mistake, this is not about a really lefty anti-establishment city defying corporate villains in court as a victory for the little guy, as the Luddite lobby spins it. It’s not about helping a public at risk make up its own mind on a case by case basis. This is about promoting misinformation a small but vocal group of technophobes believes to be true in order to similarly scare others and using the city to do the dirty legal work. This time they managed to get lucky because the trade group defending the science abdicated its responsibility to wander off into the tenuous lands of free speech where factual standards are non-existent unless you’re lying to damage careers or imply that someone innocent committed a crime while obviously knowing he or she didn’t. All of the labeling and warning the anti-science activists really want aren’t giving people some sort of valuable information they desperately need, but about putting their propaganda right in front of their faces through court-assisted arm twisting, which is why we shouldn’t so much be laughing and joking about them, but actively pointing out what they are and publicly opposing them.

[ illustration by Eric Motang ]

android mind

For those who are convinced that one day we can upload our minds to a computer and emulate the artificial immortality of Ultron in the finest traditions of comic book science, there’s a number of planned experiments which claim to have the potential to digitally reanimate brains from very thorough maps of neuron connections. They’re based on Ray Kurzweil’s theory of the mind; we are simply the sum total of our neural network in the brain and if we can capture it, we can build a viable digital analog that should think, act, and sound like us. Basically, the general plot of last year’s Johnny Depp flop Transcendence wasn’t built around something a room of studio writers dreamed up over a very productive lunch, but on a very real idea which some people are taking seriously enough to use it to plan the fate of their bodies and minds after death. Those who are dying are now finding some comfort in the idea that they can be brought back to life should any of these experiments succeed, and reunite with the loved ones who they’re leaving behind.

In both industry and academia, it can be really easy to forget that the bleeding edge technology you study and promote can have a very real effect on very real people’s lives. Cancer patients, those with debilitating injuries that will drastically shorten their lives, and people whose genetics conspired to make their bodies fail them, are starting to make decisions based on the promises spread by the media on behalf of self-styled tech prophets. For years, I’ve been writing a lot of posts and articles explaining exactly why many of these promises are poorly formed ideas that lack the requisite understanding of the problem they claim to understand how to solve. And it is still very much the case, as neuroscientist Michael Hendricks felt compelled to detail for MIT in response to the New York Times feature on whole brain emulation. His argument is a solid one, based on an actual attempt to emulate a brain we understand inside and out in an organism we have mapped from its skin down to the individual codon, the humble nematode worm.

Essentially, Hendricks says that to digitally emulate the brain of a nematode, we need to realize that its mind still has thousands of constant, ongoing chemical reactions in addition to the flows of electrical pulses through its neurons. We don’t know how to model them and the exact effect they have on the worm’s cognition, and even with the entire immaculately accurate connectome at hand, he’s still missing a great deal of information on how to start emulating its brain. But why should we have all the information, you ask, can’t we just build a proper artificial neural network reflecting the nematode connectome and fire it up? After all, if we know how the information will navigate its brain and what all the neurons do, couldn’t we have something up and running? To add on to Hendricks’ argument that the structure of the brain itself is only a part of what makes individuals who they are and how they work, allow me to add that this is simply not how a digital neural network is supposed to function, despite being constantly compared to our neurons.

Artificial neural networks are mechanisms to implement a mathematical formula for learning an unfamiliar task in the language of propositional logic. In essence, you define the problem space and the expected outcomes, then allow the network to weigh the inputs and guess its way to an acceptable solution. You can say that’s how our brains work too, but you’d be wrong. There are parts of our brain that deal with high level logic, like the prefrontal cortex which helps you make decisions about what to do in certain situations, that is, deal with executive functions. But unlike artificial neural networks, there are countless chemical reactions involved, reactions which warp how the information is being processed. Being hungry, sleepy, tired, aroused, sick, happy, and so on, and so forth, can make the same set of connections produce different outputs from very similar inputs. Ever had an experience of being asked to help a friend with something until one day, you got fed up that you were being constantly pestered for help, started a fight, and ended the friendship? Humans do that. Social animals can do that. Computers never could.

You see, your connectome doesn’t implement propositional calculus, it’s a constantly changing infrastructure for exchanging basic functionality, deeply affected by training, injury, your overall health, your memories, and the complex flow of neurotransmitters floating between neurons. If you bring me a connectome, even for a tiny nematode, and told me to set up an artificial neural network that captures these relationships, I’m sure it would be possible to draw up something in a bit of custom code, but what exactly would the result be? How do I encode plasticity? How do we define each neuron’s statistical weight if we’re missing the chemical reactions affecting it? Is there a variation in the neurotransmitters we’d have to simulate as well, and if so, what would it be and to which neurotransmitters will it apply? It’s like trying to rebuild a city with only the road map, no buildings, people, cars, trucks, and businesses included, then expecting artificial traffic patterns to recreate all the dynamics of the city the road map of which you digitized, with pretty much no room for entropy because it could easily break down the simulation over time. You will both be running the neural network and training it, something it’s really not meant to do.

The bottom line here is that synthetic minds, even once capable of hot-swapping newly trained networks in place of existing ones, are not going to be the same as organic ones. What a great deal of transhumanists refuse to accept is that the substrate in which computing — and they will define what the mind does as computing — is being done, is actually quite important because it allows the information to flow at different rates and in different ways than another substrate. We can put something from a connectome into a computer, but what comes out will not be what we put into it, it will be something new, something different because we put in just a part of it into a machine and naively expected the code to make up for all the gaps. And that’s for a best case scenario with a nematode and 302 neurons. Humans have 86 billion. Even if we don’t need the majority of these neurons to be emulated, the point is that whatever problems you’ll have with a virtual nematode brain, they will be more than nine orders of magnitude worse in virtual human ones, as added size and complexity create new problems. In short, whole brain emulation as a means for digital immortality may work in comic books, but definitely not in the real world.

roaring hulk

Since the dawn of the web, there have been shock jocks and people on a quest to see who can post the most extreme content without crossing the line into depraved criminality. Then, with an enormous wave of social media companies, and our ever-expanding access to broadband and fast mobile networks, the distance between saying and doing something very regrettable, and a massive backlash that can go global, has never been shorter. An ill-thought out tweet could be devastating to one’s life and career, and we’re still all getting used to this scary reality, making a lot of mistakes along the way. Every bad decision, questionable blog post, and tone-deaf article zooms around the world within minutes to one of the online media’s most reliable sources of all those sweet, juicy, ad price hiking page views: the outraged response. Just consider last year’s meteoric rise of the outrage click, with a fresh, new scandal for each and every day, and should we consider non-celebrities and the world outside current events, many more beyond that.

This year, the outrage machine isn’t slowing down one bit. If anything, it’s picked up steam as a vast array of popular blogs and news sites are ready to pounce on every Twitter war and every botched interview and social media post. But as the rage keeps on coming, there’s a slow, sure trickle of think pieces asking if we’re ever going to get tired of it and if it’s the result of opening a digital Pandora’s Box. After all, once you give people a diet of nothing but outrage, they should, in theory, become largely immune to it, right? We have the same issue when it comes to caring and empathizing with something that leaves a large number of victims in its wake, a well known and thoroughly studied phenomenon known as the scope-severity paradox. It comes down to a limit on how many things we can process at once and how much emotion we can invest in each and every case brought to our attention. Our empathetic and and cognitive abilities start fading quickly when we’re overwhelmed, so logically, someday, we’ll get completely outraged out.

In fact, it would really be interesting to see and compare the traffic from popular outrage articles and social media posts over the last few years to chart the duration and size of each fury spike. There are publicly available tools for researchers regarding Twitter and Facebook activity, but a glimpse at that data alone wouldn’t tell the full story. We’d need closely kept traffic data from all the major media sources with more than a million views a day, including comment counts, likes, shares, and links, as well as additional controls for small cliques in debates inflating comments, regular outrageaholics, and whether the pieces are one-offs, or the entire outlet traffics in solely outrage and scandal. Only then will we actually have a clue as to whether the internet will in fact get sick of the steady drumbeat of the outrage machine. At the same time, I think we can make several predictions as to what we’re likely to find because while the speed and medium are new to us, how we collect and sometimes manufacture outrage for the public is rather old hat.

First off, it’s unlikely that internet outrage will ever be dethroned as a key in building traffic since we sure love to form angry mobs and it’s simply too easy to throw some red meat to such mobs just waiting to form. Likewise, it should be noted that among this outrage, there are instances of actual, brutal, noteworthy injustice that must be swiftly, vocally, and publicly addressed to make things right again. As bizarre as it sounds, sometimes an angry mob can actually do some good and contribute to fixing a problem. If anything, we do want the Outrage Machine around for the instances where we can use its power for good rather than evil, chaos, and PC wars. Secondly, people are going to participate in whipping up media outrage and escalating it it because they’ll want to be part of an angry mob, and nowadays, they don’t even have to physically grab nearby torches and pitchforks. Tweets and Facebook posts will more than suffice. With this barrier to a virtual riot as low as a click, many will find it hard to resist from basking in moral superiority.

Finally, let’s just admit that there are writers whose very bread and butter now relies on getting involved in some sort of scandal, so their outrage will get posted and promoted day in, day out, hoping that one or two of their pieces of outrage clickbait go viral and get them the page views, attention, and vitriolic feedback they need to keep their careers going. If online outrage starts to die down as a genre, it’s going to be a very slow death with periodic spasms that make it seem as if it had risen from death once again. It’s too easy to generate it, too easy to escalate it, way too easy to let it consume you, and it feeds the urge of many to seeing others in a situation that gives them a chance to gloat and compare themselves favorably to the disgraced schmucks. At the same time, there is a very real danger that constant outrage will ruin our connection to how our much less dramatic world really works, and lose incidents where public outrage is almost a required civic duty among the trivial and inconsequential. And that would be sad indeed.

running from monster

Much like the dudebro after getting turned down by a woman at a party immediately strides to a new target until he finally finds someone willing to entertain him, and should he strike out every time, he’ll start blaming women’s studies classes for his failures, the online ad industry has tried railing against ad blockers which have taken click-through rates to abysmal new lows. But there is a good reason why they’ve become so popular. For one, much like a prototypical ladies’ man playing the numbers game, online advertisers have over-saturated sites so much so, that many web surfers find sites loading much slower and harder to navigate. Stuffing ads into every pixel, modal, and lined up for accidental clicks have made the web a worse place and actually trained web surfers to immediately avoid them. But online ads have become an annoying waste of not just time and bandwidth, they’ve mutated into a way for hackers to infest your computers.

An in-depth story from the UK tech tabloid explains something that security experts have seen a lot in recent years, using interactive ads to load malware onto computers. The idea is usually to load an object that can run a program into your browser’s sandbox, then use an exploit to break out into the system itself, establish a connection to a command and control server, and load the malicious files. And because so many interactive ads are so poorly programmed and bloated in the first place, and the industry is desperate for volume to make up for the microscopic margins, there are no security or quality audits of what gets displayed to you when you visit a page. With no such audit system in sight, your best bet to avoid being infected is to download and enable a decent ad blocker. Which just goes to show that online advertising has taken abject failures to a whole new level when its services aren’t simply ignored, but have to be actively avoided…

[ illustration by Vitaly Alexius ]

cleaning the sea

Unless you live under a rock on an alien planet, you probably know all about the massive hacks which successfully revealed every digital asset used to run Ashley Madison, the much maligned, famous dating site for cheating spouses. And you probably also know of several very vocal and visible morality crusaders in the U.S. and Europe, who have been outed as long term members paying hundreds of dollars to guarantee having affairs. A top notch cybersecurity reporter with trusted sources in the web’s seedy underbelly, Brian Krebs, has already found evidence that an enterprising group of extortionists used the leaked data to blackmail some of the users in spear phishing campaigns, demanding bitcoins to keep their affairs quiet. Although one does wonder how effective this scam would be if the data is already easy to access and a concerned spouse could just do a search for familiar e-mail and physical addresses to find a match. Seems like an attempt to scare someone to reflexively hand over some hush money. But I digress a bit…

While it’s pretty hard to gather too much sympathy for people who cheated on their spouses or advocate for their privacy, even if every users’ situation may be different, and many more than likely did not actually meet anyone, whatever we may feel towards them shouldn’t obscure the very real problem with so much of our lives playing out on the web. We need to work past all of the moral outrage and schadenfreude and come to grips with the realization that we’re using a number of sites to do things with which we can be blackmailed. Sure, those who wanted to get laid behind their spouses’ backs have something to be ashamed of and issues to work though, but consider the previous big adult site hack, that of casual sex site Adult FriendFinder. Sure, a few users were definitely cheating on their spouses, most of the users were swingers, or simply looking for a hookup on a site that seemed large and recognizable enough to work for them to get some of their basic urges met, well outside the prying eyes of today’s societal moralists.

It’s one thing when you’re busted for trying to cheat or cheating, but when you’re either in open marriage arrangements, or are single and just want casual sex and get the same vultures with blackmail threats in your inbox for being an adult with a sex drive, shouldn’t that be different? If you use the web for anything less tame than reading the news and surfing social media sites, a dark cloud should not hang over your head with every hack. And sadly, there’s not much that’s possible to do to prevent large hacks like this. From sloppy coding, to outdated certificates, to a server that hasn’t been updated in months, there are simply too many vectors for an attack, so when you’re a large target, the surface area you have to keep secure forever is immense, while hackers need only one point of entry, once to do a lot of damage. Your best hope is just to not be interesting enough to warrant anyone’s attention to avoid being blackmailed, but given how many cybercriminals are out there, if your email is on a list, you’re a viable target anyway.

That leaves us with the question of what to do when the next embarrassing, adult-oriented hack comes. Note the “when,” not an if because there will be another one. The simple, but very likely unsatisfactory answer is to just own up to whatever may be found about your sex life and figure out how to deal with it if it’s something you’ve tried to keep under wraps but can’t. We can’t hide our preferences in the closet anymore because social media is everywhere and everybody has been using dating sites, mainstream or adult, leaving a lot of digital fingerprints. Maybe the new trend of opening up about sex in casual conversation is actually a good thing here. I’m certainly not talking about adding a favorite sexual position to your Facebook profile’s likes section, or an album of you with your favorite sex toys to Instagram, but more about not shying from any adult topics of interest to you. Because after all, why should you? You’re an adult, adults have needs, and they more often than not have the money, mobility, and chances to get them fulfilled.

In short, you are likeliest to have a leak blow over when people who know you see the hackers as leering perverts and bullies, not you as a hypocrite on a crusade against the immorality of a crumbling society, which is actually tamer than it’s been in over a century. If we learn anything from the shameful outings of pious moralists and user profile leaks from hookup sites, it should be that not being able to talk about your sex life like an adult or have a clear and constant lines of communication with your partners is what creates truly awful problems, and if you don’t own up to your wants and needs, and use the web, a hacker will do it for you at some point. And it may sound paradoxical, but it seems that instead of helping anonymity and leading double lives as some really hoped, the web, thanks to the rise of social media, is actually forcing our public personalities to match our private ones. It’s going to be a long transition, but one that seems to be pretty much inevitable because its driver is unprecedented and isn’t going to go away…


Many writers are not exactly great at doing their jobs. Now, I don’t expect them to do an original investigation in every blog post and article composed only of quotes from primary sources, with self-gathered raw data available for download, because with today’s deadlines and lack of living wage retainers, that’s simply impossible. But what I would like to see is getting a media mention which doesn’t call me a journalist, because that’s not what I actually do, something apparent for anyone who clicks the link to my quick bio page. Even worse than being too lazy to follow just a single link to get an accurate idea of who is being quoted however, is when writers have a really obvious agenda that they buttress with a wall of anecdotal evidence hidden behind a journalistic facade of confidential sources with altered names and ages. And this is the case with a massive story that left Tinder apoplectic since it accused the company of outright destroying dating.

Contributing editor Nancy Jo Sales obviously wanted to tell a story of how young people use an amoral piece of technology to do away with anything resembling normal human relationships in order to satisfy their lustful urges, and dammit she was going to tell that story. In order to get a convenience sample to prove her hypothesis, she hit up popular bars in NYC, a college town in the Midwest, and an undisclosed location in Delaware about which we’re told nothing further. A properly unsympathetic cast of characters to present the anecdotes she needed is assembled throughout the story, young men and women she could not have painted any more unlikeable than she already had, and the entire tale of the soul-sucking technology is in effect narrated by their alternating boasting about how many people they’ve slept with and whining about all of the “meh” to lousy sex. All of it, we’re told, is powered by Tinder and wouldn’t happen otherwise.

Over thousands of words we’re educated on a strategy to hook up with as many as 100 sexual partners per year from lumbersexual dudebros, and complaints about brutally sexual IMs from women who say they’re tired of being wanted only for their bodies, yet hook up with men whose performance they disparage to each other at a moment’s notice. Oh how they try to find a true, devoted, monogamous soulmate and spend their nights bettering themselves instead of having mindless sex with strangers, but that wicked siren call of Tinder beckons them so. Much like the kids who don’t want to do their boring, overwhelming homework blame social media for all their procrastinating tendencies, these 20-somethings are trying to justify the fact that when you are old enough to drink, can hold down a job, and aren’t outright repulsive, you’re probably going to have lots of mindless sex when the opportunity presents itself. They’re doing nothing that’s out of the ordinary or wrong, yet a judgmental reporter with an agenda sitting across from them will push them until they’re justifying their own libidos, knowing they’ll be ridiculed in the media.

But aside from the technophobic, old-fogeyish condescension of the article, seemingly inspired by Evgeny Morozov’s typical tropes, and a cast of characters that couldn’t be more unpleasant, some of the worst problems lay with the utter disregard for science and statistics. Sales was at least vaguely aware that her anecdotes about 20-somethings barely having enough time to get showered and put in a day at work or in class before hopping back into someone’s bed were in direct conflict with studies showing that the “hookup culture” she decries is actually an extreme outlier rather than the norm, and she does try to confront the disconnect. But instead of using a different study or directly engaging with the findings, she merely handwaves them away with an evasive quip that all studies are open to interpretation. Well, how is this study open to different interpretations when the data speaks loud and clear? What exactly should we be interpreting in a different way and on what basis? Sales’ appeal is basically journalist-speak for “please ignore studies that undermine my agenda, trying to sell a story here people, move along, okay?” After more anecdotes, she does try to inject some scientific support for her assertions by quoting the problematic conclusions in the book Sex at Dawn and implicating Tinder in enabling them.

Again, this is very typical of agenda-driven journalism because in Christopher Ryan, one of the book’s authors, she found a willing ally who would tell her that humans are naturally wired to be sexually insatiable and have as many partners as possible, and that Tinder basically made the formerly inefficient process of acquiring a large roster of sexual partners more efficient. What it means for society is that Millenials are leveraging the technology to sexually gorge. Like all bite sized pseudoscience, it sounds logical and thoroughly researched at first blush, but with even a cursory glance beyond the word salad shows that it’s not true. Not only did we already see that far from gorging, Millenials are actually on a sexual diet, but Ryan’s book is really controversial because it’s really another agenda-driven work, rejected from scholarly publication for this very reason. Actual sex researchers find it filled with problematic assertions and say it only gets one thing right. Humans are not monogamous for life. From that data point, Ryan and his co-author go off on their own merry way while most academics say that we’re serial monogamists.

Of course this isn’t an ironclad conclusion, human sexuality is very malleable and there are lots of people who just like having lots of sex with different partners, dedicated polyamorists, and a periodic one-mate-for-life type of person. But in general, as we can see by the stats, people like to be in relationships with one other partner and most of their exploration is within the context of these relationships, even if it includes bringing in other people. When a said relationship ends, a new one is sought out. So what Sales did was find a sexual type that best matched her pre-sold narrative and reached out to an author with suspect credentials in the field in which he claims to be an expert for the purposes of selling his book, who quickly backed her up in spite of plenty of evidence to the contrary, evidence she has no choice but to evade to keep telling her story with whiny, annoying NYC hipsters whose adventures on Tinder get them lots of very lousy sex with equally unpleasant partners. No wonder Tinder’s PR reps were furious. At worst, they are being accused of destroying society, at best, all of their users are being painted in a terrible light.

Here’s the bottom line on this. You cannot judge what technology is doing to society when what you’re being told about it comes from a writer who decided what story she wants to tell before it gets written, backed up with trendy pseudoscience, and runs contrary to every large study that we have on the subject. In reality, Tinder is having absolutely no effect outside a small group of people who used MySpace, OkCupid, Plenty of Fish, and outright sex and swinger sites with the same exact results they now use Tinder. The only thing the mobile app did is made it easier for them to hook up on the go, when they’re sitting in a bar or at home, bored. They want sex, they now just care about finding a warm body, and then, justifying that to a reporter with excuses we expect from teenagers who want to play video games instead of doing homework and tell us all that video games are rarely fun and the only reason they play is because the games are there. But this otherwise terrible example of journalism did teach me something. If you’re single on the prowl and find yourself in NYC, Tinder is probably not your best bet for a fun hookup.

low poly factory

Today’s startup founders can be a wacky bunch, often set on turning personal problems into a company with a massive valuation to repeat the success of Uber and Airbnb, or to some extent, the trajectory of Soylent, the love-it-or-hate-it food substitute invented by Rob Rhinehart to sate his need for calories while avoiding cooking. Personally, as a programmer who will far too often forget to eat when working away on some complicated piece of code, I find the concept a more scientific take on earlier efforts in meal replacements, and would be willing to try it for breakfast and lunch when I’m in the office. However, unlike its predecessors, Soylent is actually meant as a substitute for food in general because Rhinehart seems to take some of his ideas way too far, starting off with a sound notion, then running with it way after it crosses the line into mania. Just consider his meme-worthy ode to sustainability waiting to become a manifesto for hipsters who grew tired of sipping PBR and knitting in bars, and are just waiting for their next obsession…

As mentioned earlier, the basic idea is sound. We waste too much energy and much of it is still coming from fossil fuels instead of clean renewable sources. Coal and oil are dirty, and burning them fills the air with harmful particles. Replacing them soon should be right up there on the list of priorities for anyone with an eye on the future, and in the meantime we can all do our part by putting up solar panels where it will make sense, wiring up more wind farms, switching to smart, energy-efficient appliances which can use big data to better manage the flow of electricity, and seriously considering LEDs for lighting. Technology for eco-friendly homes exists and its prices will keep falling as it becomes more and more common. Even in places where people proudly proclaim their disdain for the science of climate change, renewables are heavily favored. If that was the extent of Rhinehart’s commitment to hepling the environment, that would be great, but as the introduction hopefully made obvious, he goes off the rails with gems like this…

First, I never cook. I am all for self reliance but repeating the same labor over and over for the sake of existence is the realm of robots. I utilize soylent only at home and go out to eat when craving company or flavor. This eliminates a panoply of expensive tools and rotting ingredients I would need to spend an unconscionable amount of time sourcing, preparing, and cleaning. It also gives me an incentive to explore the city’s fine restaurants and ask friends out to eat.

If you’re cooking the same thing over and over, so much so that you might as well consider the process to be robotic, you’re doing it wrong. Rhinehart doesn’t like cooking, doesn’t know what to do in the kitchen, and can’t imagine why he should bother, therefore, he concludes, kitchens are just a waste of time an energy and dismantled his, vividly comparing it to a torture chamber filled with knives and electronic monsters growling at the hapless humans who try to tame them long enough to extract some sustenance to go on living for another day. If it sounds like a pitch for his product, well, it is. But keep in mind that this is exactly why he invented Soylent. He’s not just trying to pour his slurry down your throat, he’s completely genuine in his disdain for cooking and food in general. Which is fine, I suppose, we’re all entitled to our opinion about what should go in our mouths. The problem comes when he frames it from an environmental angle.

Soylent is mass produced in industrial quantities and shipped around the world. The footprint of this production and delivery is not at all trivial. Vast quantities of water and fuel are used around the clock to keep making it and moving it around into consumers’ hands, and this is before we’ll start adding the footprint of the supply chain necessary to ship enough raw ingredients to keep the factory churning out more Soylent. Same goes for restaurants. Rhinehart may not cook, but he sure goes out to eat, meaning that restaurants have to spend said unconscionable amounts of time sourcing, preparing, and cleaning with the aforementioned panoply of expensive tools. I could play Devil’s advocate and say that one kitchen making food for hundreds of people is far more efficient than hundreds of them making food for one to four people at a time, but whether the savings per person really add up to anything serious is a big question since restaurants far too seldom hesitate to just toss anything not visually appealing or done right in the trash.

But rather than consider whether the waste generated by a professional kitchen and one in our homes may cancel each other out, or consider a study on how efficiently restaurants distribute food between customers vs. home chefs where the question of leftovers may tilt the field to our humble dwellings, Rhinehart decides to give us a peek into how he sees grocery stores. Spoiler alert, it sounds like an omitted level of Hell from Dante’s Inferno, probably in the City of Dis…

I have not set foot in a grocery store in years. Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears. Grocery shopping is a multisensory living nightmare. There are services that would make someone else do it for me but I cannot in good conscience force a fellow soul through this gauntlet. […] I buy my staple food online like a civilized person.

Aside from the histrionic description and the implication that my desire to actually see the food I will later consume apparently makes me a feral savage, we see Rhinehart again make the leap to advocating a third party distributing his needs more efficiently. On its face, the idea makes a modicum of sense, however, it fails to consider that a delivery truck will optimize a route among its customers, not necessarily in the most efficient way for the environment and fuel usage, and that goes double for where Rhinehart and I live: LA. Traffic jams on the 101 and the 405 waste immense quantities of gas for minimal gain. Meanwhile, when I go to the grocery store, I simply pick the nearest one and arrive by back roads with few stoplights and no traffic. So believe it or not, just going to the closest grocery store may be more efficient in midsize to bigger cities than ordering your staples online, relying on the delivery service to find the optimal fuel economy for dropping off the goods. But hold on folks, it gets even worse when it comes to his clothes…

I enjoy doing laundry about as much as doing dishes. I get my clothing custom made in China for prices you would not believe and have new ones regularly shipped to me… [I]t takes less water to make my clothes than it would to wash them, and I donate my used garments. The overwhelming majority of clothing that Americans buy is made overseas anyways. I just buy direct. And container ships are amazingly efficient.

While he does acknowledge that container ships do go through immense amounts of fuel in the part of this excerpt left out for brevity, he still thinks he makes less of an ecological footprint with buying new clothes instead of doing laundry, clothes that mind you, are made from a petroleum derivative he praises as being more efficient than natural fabrics like cotton. This is his common theme; instead of doing things himself, he outsources his ecological footprint to others and then credits himself with expanding less stress on the environment. The only place where he is really doing the planet any favors is in his house, with solar panels and LED lighting. Otherwise, what he’s actually doing can best be described as eco-outsourcing. Restaurants, delivery trucks, the army of Uber drivers, buses, container ships, and factories that meet all of his needs are eating the environmental costs of his consumption. If we ignore them, Rhinehart’s eco-minimalism is a good faith effort in sustainability. But when we take them into account as we should, it becomes an exercise in strenuously patting oneself on the back for delegating much of life to others.

blood bag

Generally, when skeptics or popular science writers talk about medicine and money, it’s to ward off something one could call an argument ad-shillium, or rejecting scientific studies outright with declarations that anyone who sticks up for doctors and pharmaceutical companies over the hot and trendy snake oil salesperson of the month must be a paid shill. Shilling certainly happens in both the real world and online, but when one’s argument rests in basic science, money is not a topic relevant to the conversation. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not important when new ideas come along and gain some serious traction. Case in point, Theranos, a company which a lot of people rightly suspect can shake up healthcare in the United States by offering dozens of blood using just a drop of blood at your corner pharmacy, is facing a barrage of questions as to how exactly its tests work and seems to be unwilling to tell anyone about their lab on a chip.

Ordinarily, this is where an experienced skeptic would look for signs of quackery. Useless tests, pseudoscientifc mumbo-jumbo on the website, avoidance of the FDA, and special pleading for the enigmatic technology which offers vague benefits that don’t run afoul of the agency’s rules for the same of pharmaceuticals and medical devices. But that’s not the case with Theranos. In fact, the company recently got a nod from the FDA to continue its work and is seeking approval of its technology and testing methods, and scientists who have tried to parse how it can test for so many things with so little blood say that it’s more than likely upgrading old technology into a new, compact toolkit. There’s no voodoo or snake oil here, just good old fashioned science and faster, better computers and machinery. Furthermore, the fees for each test are posted openly, and they’re a lot less than what’s offered by its competitors, whose pricing is opaque at best.

So if there’s nothing amiss at Theranos, why all the secrecy? Well, after many millions spent on research, development, and testing, the company wants to expand significantly and if it shares how it does what it does with the world, especially if it’s just an overhaul of existing methodology with better machinery, its competitors can quickly catch up and limit its growth. I’m sure it’s also trying to avoid getting patent trolled and bogged down in expensive litigation, more than likely of the frivolous, made to line lawyers’ pockets variety, since there’s no shortage of people with an abandoned medical testing device patent from which a troll can manufacture an infringement or two and file in East Texas. Perhaps this is unfair to scientists, and to some degree patients who may want a second opinion after Theranos’ tests show something alarming, but this is the result of setting up a healthcare system with opaque pricing and strict regulation, and legal minefields in the technology world through easy to obtain and vaguely worded frivolous patents.