porn starlet

PornHub has a grand vision, a vision of a man and a woman having sex on camera just as they reach the edge of space and feel the grasp of our planet’s gravity loosen for half an hour. It’s a vision that’s been proposed to the only company that may have been willing to do it in 2008 and was promptly shot down, but PornHub was undeterred and started a crowdfunding campaign to bring zero gravity porn to the horny masses. Considering the challenges of sex without the help of gravity would be extremely amusing to watch, and if humans want to live in space, we’ll need to learn how to have sex on a spacecraft, I have no doubt this vision will be brought to life. Just not for PornHub, and not right now. No one is sending passengers into suborbital space and it’s simply not practical for the first commercial passengers to be a porn crew since no one from the crew will want to invest time in blocking, timing, and the necessary rehearsals. Just getting a few tourists floating around the cabin at the Karman line is going to be difficult enough as it is.

Now, a few dozen flights in, when the mechanics of the flights are settled and the crews can get more ambitious with their missions, this idea can actually work. Of course the problem for even the most accomplished and capable porn star would be the difficulty of getting an erection after the redistribution of fluids in zero gravity, and trying to actually maintain a position for cinematic intercourse when the slightest push will send them bouncing around the cabin. And there a lots of questions about how the money shot would be executed as well as whether 30 minutes can be enough to get a decent video, or whether multiple flights would be required. Perhaps they’d be interested in hiring Zero G to wrap their heads around the necessary blocking and physical limitations. None of these challenges are insurmountable, mind you, and they could actually do science a solid and perform research that would never be funded otherwise.

But again, this is a little premature. (Make your own jokes, I refuse.) We need to get people into suborbital space reliably in the first place, and then to orbital hotels where they could shoot just about anything and everything they’d want. Don’t get me wrong PornHub, although I know your porn business is your own real concern in this, you’re actually helping humanity in the long run, and your efforts to shoot naked people putting things into their own or others’ bodies could one day help start a family on the Moon or Mars. And really, your only problem here is being five to ten years ahead of your time. Though maybe you can also make your pitch a little less obvious as to its commercial value and a put in some things regarding advancing human understanding of sex beyond our planet, really sell it as an experiment, get in depth interviews with some blow by blow, and thrust by thrust commentary, and really advertise them when you try this again in probably six years or so when we have this whole commercial suborbital flight figured out.

[ illustration: porn starlet Ariana Marie ]

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alpha centauri bb

Carbon is a great element for kick-starting life thanks to its uncanny ability to form reactive, but still stable molecules perfect for creating proteins, amino acids, and even the backbone of DNA and RNA, or their functional equivalents. And yet, according to those who argue that the reason we exist is that the universe is somehow fine-tuned for us, or that life exists as a random, one in a trillion chance, it shouldn’t even be here. You see, when the first stars started fusing hydrogen into helium-4 deep in their searing cores, the resulting helium atoms should have combined into beryllium-8 which decays so quickly that there should have been virtually no chance for another helium atom to combine with it to form carbon-12, which accounts for 98.9% of all carbon in the known universe and makes life possible. According to astronomer Fred Hoyle, whose misuse of the anthropic principle has been used to justify many an anti-evolutionary screed, since carbon based life exists, there must be a mechanism by which this beryllium bottleneck is resolved and the clue to this mechanism must lie in the conditions under which the star fuses helium.

You see, when atoms fuse into a new element, the newly formed nucleus has to be at one of its natural, stable energy levels, otherwise the combination of the protons’ and neutrons’ energies, as well as the energy of their kinetic motion will prevent the fusion. Hoyle’s insight was than any new carbon atom must have had a resonance with the process by which a beryllium and helium atom would combine, which would exert just enough energy to slow down the decay rate for the reaction with a passing helium-4 atom to happen, so the natural energy level of the result would sustain a stable carbon-12 nucleus. Imagine rolling magnetic spheres down a hill, and as these magnets roll, they collide. Some will hit each other with just enough energy to keep rolling as a single unit and absorb new spheres they run into, others combine, then break apart, or just roll on their own. The angle, the force of impact, and the speed and masses of the spheres all have to be right for them to join, and when they do, they’ll have to stay that way long enough to settle down. This is quantum resonance in a nutshell, and it’s what made carbon-12 possible.

But while this is all well and good, especially for us carbon based lifeforms, where does Hoyle’s discovery leave us in regards to the question of whether the universe was fine-tuned for life? If we assume that only carbon based life is possible, and that the only life that could exist is what exists today, the argument makes sense. However those assumptions don’t. Even if there was no quantum resonance between helium-4, beryllium-8, and carbon-12 in the earliest stars from which the first atoms of organic molecules were spawned, the first stars were massive and it’s a reasonable guess that when they went supernova, they would have created carbon, silicon, and metals like aluminium and titanium. All four elements can be useful in creating molecules which can form the chemical backbones of living organisms. In fact, it’s entirely possible that we could one day find alien life based on silicon and that in some corner of the galaxy there are microbes with genomes wound around a titanium scaffold. Life does not have to exist as we know it, and only as we know it. We didn’t have to exist either, it’s just lucky for us that we did.

When creationists try to come up with the probability that life exactly the way we understand, or have at least observed to exist, came out the way it has, against all other probabilities, they are bound to get ridiculous odds against us being here. But what they’re really doing is calculating a probability of a reaction for reaction, mutation for mutation, event for event, repeat of the entire history of life on Earth, all 4 billion years of it, based on the self-absorbed and faulty assumption that because we’re here, there must a reason why that’s the case. The idea that there’s no real predisposition towards modern humans evolving in North Africa, or that life could exist if there’s no abundant carbon-12 to help bind its molecules is just something they cannot accept because the notion that our universe created us by accident and we can be gone in the blink of a cosmic eye to be replaced by something unlike ourselves in every way, is just too scary for them. They simply don’t know how to deal with not feeling like they are somehow special or that nature isn’t really interested in whether they exist or not, just like it hadn’t for at least 13.8 billion years…

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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…

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happy alarm

In a quote frequently attributed to John Lennon a boy was asked what he wanted to be wanted to be when he grew up and he replied that he wanted to be happy. He was then told that he did not understand the question, to which he retorted that the person asking him didn’t understand life. And he’s right, we all want to be happy. That’s especially true at work, where most of us will spend nearly a third of our waking hours and we’ll deal with countless stresses big and small on a daily basis, seemingly for nothing more than a paycheck. Work should be interesting, give us some sense of worth and purpose, but 70% of all workers are apathetic about, or outright hate their jobs, which clearly means whatever your bosses are doing to make you happy simply isn’t working. Though I’m sort of making a big assumption that your bosses are even trying to make you happy, much less care that you exist, or that they need to worry about whether you like the job they have you doing. And that, objectively, is perhaps the most worrisome part of it all…

You see, social scientists and doctors have long figured out what makes you happy, why it is in the interest of every company’s bottom line to keep employees happy, and how your perpetual case of the Mondays could be eliminated, or at least severely reduced. Most American workers, as we can see from the statistics, are dealing with the stress of being at a job they dislike, which increases their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that hardens arteries and increases the odds of having a heart attack. If they’re not there yet, the prolonged stress also causes a host of very unpleasant issues like irregular sleep, disordered eating, anxiety, and depression. In fact, close to a quarter of the American workforce is depressed, which is estimated to cost over $23 billion per year in lost productivity. We also know exactly why people hate their jobs, and unlike many business owners think, it has nothing to do with employees being greedy and lazy, it’s usually a terrible management policy, and feeling as if they’re utterly disposable and irrelevant.

People who are unemployed for a year or more are almost as likely to be depressed as working stiffs and their odds of being diagnosed with depression go up by nearly 2% for every time they double their time out of work. So while a bad job can make people miserable, not having one is every bit as bad if not worse. And these are just the numbers for one year of unemployment, so what lies beyond that could be far scarier since every trend shows mental health suffers without work or purpose, and physical health quickly deteriorates as well. This leaves us stuck in an odd dilemma. We know that people need to, and want to work, and we know full well that when they hate their jobs, their performance lags, as does their health, forming a vicious cycle of bad work and disengagement contributing to poor health, worse work, and more disaffection on the job. It seems obvious that something should be done to address this, for the last 15 years, there has been no change in the stats. Why? The short answer? Terrible management.

One of this blog’s earliest posts explored experiments in which scientists confirmed that often, a group chooses a leader based on little more than bravado, overlooking the results. In follow-up experiments, we even saw mathematical evidence that companies would be better off randomly assigning their managers instead of promoting them the way they do now. Managers also tend to think they’re a lot better than they actually are, while in reality, half the workforce put in a two week notice specifically because of their bosses, and despite often giving themselves very high praise, managers are almost as disengaged as their employees, with 65% of them simply going through the motions of another day. Go back to the most frequent reasons why people are not happy at work. Half of them are about being micromanaged, left in the dark, and treated like a disposable widget rather than a person. They’re primed to see themselves are less valuable, if not useless, and we know that negative priming leads to terrible performance. Tell people they should just be lucky you don’t fire them, and you’ve effectively set them up for failure.

Think about your own worst bosses. They never hesitated to tell you that you were wrong, or to look down on you, or watch over your shoulder because they had no trust in you and turned any inevitable slip-up or small error, even if you immediately caught and corrected it, into some new justification for watching you like a hawk, right? Or if not, did they simply never talk to you about anything, merely dropped off more work and expected you to be done silently? Combine those daily putdowns with a constant threat of being outsourced simply to save a dollar, being shoved to an open office where you have no personal space or privacy and have constant distractions, on top of a lack of any career progression path in sight, and tell me that’s a job even those who live to work would find engaging. As many organizations grow, managers disassociate from the people they are managing, seeing them as little more than numbers on a spreadsheet because that’s what they are in their daily list of things to do. This breeds disengagement, which breeds frustration, and which causes talented employees to run away for greener pastures.

Keeping one’s employees happy should not be one of those HBR think pieces that makes your executive team “ooh” and “ahh” in a meeting where you run through PowerPoint slides showing how much money you’re losing to turnover, depression, and bad management. It should be the top priority of middle managers and supervisors because happy employees work harder, show loyalty and dedication, and help recruit more good talent. Yes, spending on benefits like catered lunches, or gym memberships, or better healthcare, or easy access to daycare, or flexible time off policies sounds exorbitant, I know, and many businesses can’t afford all of that. But showing employees that you care, that you listen to them, and treating them with respect pays off as the engaged employees become more productive and dedicated. In a knowledge economy there’s no excuse for the employee-employer relationship be much like one between a master and the indentured servant. It should be a business partnership with benefits for both parties extending well beyond “here’s your paycheck, now get to work.” The science says so, and besides, when you’re a manager, isn’t keeping employees motivated and productive your top priority?

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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…

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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.

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facebook like

Adrian Chen is somewhat of an expert on controversial social media content. After all, his most popular story was a damning expose of a forum moderator who posted all sorts of controversial and questionable content on reddit. But after sifting through the deepest and darkest dungeons of reddit and finding leaked content guidelines for Facebook moderators overseas, Chen finally got a shot at the big leagues and went to Russia to track down the HQ of the infamous army of internet trolls operated by the country’s intelligence services. The results weren’t pretty. While it seemed like a productive trip confirming much of what many of us already know, he fell for one of the oldest scams in the book and was used in a fake news article claiming that he was a CIA operative who was recruiting neo-Nazis to encourage anti-Russian protests. Which in Russia is about the moral equivalent of recruiting the pedophiles from NAMBLA to lobby states to change their age of consent laws. In case that wasn’t clear, they really, really hate neo-Nazis.

This is really par for the course when it comes to dealing with today’s Russian media which has been feeding its citizens a steady diet of conspiracy theories. The people who tricked Chen are the same people who use David Icke as a political science expert and interview him while he’s going on and on about American-driven New World Order-style machinations to quickly cut the cameras and microphones before he can go on to point the finger to a group of alien lizards in change of the planet. Just like the Soviet propagandists of the previous generation, they give it their all to make life outside of Russia seem downright hellish for the average person, and paint the world as being mostly aligned against Russia simply for the sake of keeping a former grand superpower down so they can easily steal nuclear weapons, vast oil and gas reserves, and lure impressionable, young, highly educated youth overseas with empty promises of wealth, luxury, and non-stop parties after work. I can’t tell you when it started, but I can tell you that is began in the Russian part of the web as Chen accurately describes, and gotten exponentially worse.

However, Russia is not unique is doing this. It may perhaps be one of the best troll factories out there, but it’s far from the only one. You can probably safely assume that a third of pretty much everything you see on the web is fake, created by trolls, paid shills, or click-farm workers whose job it is to add fake Facebook likes and Twitter followers for corporations, think tanks, and even political candidates. With the anonymity of the internet comes freedom, but with that freedom is the understanding that it can be abused to present lies and facilitate frauds on a massive scale, and since many people still don’t take internet seriously enough, one can get away with lying or scamming for cash with no real consequence. Ban fake accounts or trolls? Others will pop up in seconds. It’s like trying to slay a hydra that can also regrow its heart. All you can really do when it comes to dealing with the fake web is to stay on alert, always double check what you see, and don’t be shy about checking accounts for something that looks or feels wrong. You might not be able to catch every troll and fraud every time, but you’ll weed out the vast majority who want to recruit you to support a fraudulent cause, or trick you into spreading their lies…

[ illustration by Aaron Wood ]

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robot barkeep

Many jokes or satirical pieces are funny precisely because they have a nugget of truth in them, something we can all at least understand if not relate to. This is why a satirical piece about the opening of a new McDonald’s staffed solely by robots due to the management’s concern about campaigns to increase minimum wage to $15 per hour, fooled enough readers to merit its swift entry on Snopes. I can’t blame those who were fooled. After all, we do have the technology and as the Snopes entry points out, there are numerous McDonald’s locations in several European countries boasting high minimum wages where customers order using touchscreens instead of talking to cashiers. Bumping up minimum wages, especially as it’s happening in several rather expensive West Coast cities, could certainly be an impetus for replacing humans with machines the same way it’s being done in numerous other professions. Today, we can shrug at the satire and lament the fact that machines are now advanced enough to make some people obsolete in the job market. But give it some time and this may well be a real report in the news.

One of the sad things about this kind of automation is not that it’s not happening because there aren’t robots capable enough to take over for humans being built. There are. In a structured and organized environment like a grocery store or a restaurant, with a finite number of pathways for machines to navigate, well known and understood obstacles, and clearly marked destinations, I would see no problem with robotic waiters summed by touchscreen or shelf stocking bots today other than their price tag. That’s right. Humans are doing certain types of work because it’s just cheaper to have them do it instead of machines. I really don’t think that $15 an hour wages can make these robots economically viable, much less cheaper, for many businesses over the next five years, but past that is anyone’s guess with economies of scale kicking in, the bugs shaken out, the quality improving, and the prices dropping. So it may be best to take that article not so much as satire, but as a warning. Another big wave of automation is coming and we need to be thinking about how to deal with it, not just debate it to death or oppose it with dogmas.

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rainbow flag splash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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not simba

You would think that with the advent of ubiquitous internet access across much of the world, we should have done away with many popular urban legends, misconceptions, and outright lies for fun and profit that appeared long ago and were summarily debunked. But sadly, since we gave everyone with internet access the ability to post something to it, many of these misconceptions, myths, and fabrications are still around and going strong, things like the myth that Einstein had once flunked math made up by Ripley’s (he was actually always a math whiz), or that spinach is full of iron made possible by someone not knowing how decimal places work (it’s actually about as good of a source of iron as watermelon), and many others I’m sure you can recall after this little prompt. In this spirit, David McCandless of Information Is Beautiful, who inspired a popular post on exactly how many nukes it will take to end civilization as we know it, created a brief and handy infographic of 52 of the world’s most popular misconceptions and why they’re wrong.

While it’s an interesting exercise in just how much common knowledge is so mistaken, it doesn’t answer the question of why these myths still persist. And there really isn’t one common answer, especially when it comes to religious beliefs and pop history. Sometimes people just won’t look for themselves because they place too much trust in someone’s retelling of a story. Sometimes they’re just too lazy to check the facts. But sometimes they just desperately want to believe the myth they do and will rationalize away any explanation for why it may be wrong. For any skeptic that last reason for the propagation of myths and legends is the hardest to fight because they’re dealing with people who are putting up an active resistance to the facts, so much so that they’ll believe the very opposite of what’s actually happening to avoid having to change their beliefs in the way the world must work. And as skeptics, we have an obligation to object when such willful obstinacy turns into harmful agendas affecting people’s health and legal rights…

[ ullustration by Tsao ]

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