evolution marketing / darwin fish design

Alarmed by the growing number of atheists among the current generation of young adults, one organization of Christians decided to sit some down for an interview to learn why they became atheists, drew conclusions, summed them up, and respectfully posted them online. Unlike many other faith groups, they legitimately wanted to understand what atheists thought and why, and what prompted their de-conversions. Problem is that they didn’t want to understand if all those atheists they interviewed had a point when discussing the improbability of an omniscient deity in their lives, ruling the universe from afar, yet being involved in the fate of every living thing. They were running a focus group to see what it would take to put those atheists back in the pews in a classic example of listening but not hearing. In their worldview, the inability of a pastor to prove that their faith is based on facts rather than tradition is the failure of a pastor since the infallibility of the religion is assumed as an unquestionable given.

The tone of the summary is almost clinical, like a psychiatrist surveying his patients and dutifully describing their pathologies to be analyzed by others. And while listing the reasons why atheists leave churches or never enter one, the piece recited a mantra declaring that Christianity is hard to understand, difficult to live up to, and teaches us to engage with the real world. As if a belief that an omniscient, omnipotent being incarnated as his own son to forgive humans for what he declared to be sins through self-sacrifice is as scientifically well proven as the structure of DNA. This is why this so-called "interfatih dialogue" is a bad idea for atheists. They’re not participants with a voice who get to express their views in a debate. They’re either patients to be studied for the future, or potential new believers yet to be swayed as far as the faithful are concerned. Yes, they might act like the nicest people in the world, but they’re not listening to you. They’re looking at you like a biologist looks at a dolphin and wondering how to teach you to do a trick…


surveillance camera array

On the one hand, I am somewhat surprised by recent revelations about exactly how much we’re being watched on the internet by the NSA. However, the big surprise for me is that they couldn’t get data form Twitter. Considering that it’s building an immense data center in Utah, and works with tech companies on a regular basis, is it really that astonishing that the agency is browsing through our communications metadata on a regular basis? We all suspected this was the case, so if anything the current furor is almost a required reaction of anger and hurt to have what we always thought was happening and didn’t really want to, actually is happening. The question is what to do now, in the PRISM-aware world. Citizens know they’re being caught up in the dragnet when they’re just going about their day, foreign companies are afraid of the NSA spying on them via the advanced cloud technology the United States sells across the globe, and China could sit back and laugh off American reports of its hacking and spying on the web as hypocrisy.

Another fun fact is that Americans are actually split on how they feel about the NSA’s snooping and a majority of 56% says that privacy is an acceptable casualty in trying to catch terrorists. It might also be telling that the split hasn’t changed much since 2006 and that it breaks down by a distinct partisan preference, with liberals and conservatives flip-flopping on the issue when the other party was in the White House. So while the press is incensed and investigative reporters are falling all over themselves to talk about PRISM, the American people are shrugging it off by party affiliation. I would expect everyone to carry on as normal because if Facebook and Google didn’t have a mass exodus of accounts, it’s very unlikely they will. Plus, the NSA isn’t reading all the e-mail in your inbox. It just has a record of you e-mailing someone at a given time and if you are in the United States, your phone number and e-mail should be crossed out in their system, until of course a secret court order grants the analysis access to request the whole e-mail.

Even the slowdown in purchases of American high tech gear is likely to be temporary because much of what we’re hearing from many other countries is an almost mandatory response to the revelations about PRISM. In reality, many of the countries buying these tech products have very extensive spy networks of their own and engage in cyber-espionage on a daily basis. It’s kettle calling the pot black, and it’s likely that the rumors of tech companies giving the NSA back door access into their servers are just not true. There’s a number of ways to supply data to the NSA and a number of ways the NSA could’ve gotten the data itself. I’m not going to speculate how in this post because a) I don’t know the agency’s exact capabilities, b) there are people from both defense contractors and military agencies reading this blog who I’d just annoy with speculating, and c) most of them are probably much worse than having the companies just play ball when a court order comes down and an incredibly powerful agency is knocking on their door.

Now, none of this means this isn’t a big deal. But what it does signal is that the country which is dominating the world in the tech field and serves as the key node in the global communications grid has been crying wolf about cyberwarfare and espionage while actively waging it. We were starting to be sure of this when Stuxnet was discovered, we suspected it even stronger when all of its ingenious siblings like Flame and Duqu floated into the spotlight, we had a good idea that the United State was publicly holding back when reports of its potential in cyberwarfare drills with allied nations started surfacing, and with PRISM, we now know it for a fact. On the one hand, it’s bad news because your privacy is now not only being compromised by bad security or very lax internal policies of web giants, but by the government as well. On the other, we know that we’re hardly defenseless in the cyber realm and will fight and spy right back. Make of these facts what you will. It’s not like we can put this genie back in its virtual bottle anyway…


approach to mars

According to Wired’s laundry list of technical and political issues with getting humans to Mars by the year 2030 or so, exploring another planet many millions of miles away won’t be Apollo 2.0 in many ways. It will be an order of magnitude more expensive per launch, require 30 months for a round trip, and needs to be financed, overseen, and executed by an international group that will include space agencies and ambitious aerospace companies with plans and launch vehicles of their own. And yet, the designs being drawn up sound remarkably like Apollo on steroids. We’re basically working with the same basic mission plans we had in the 1980s with a few workarounds for handling fuel and oxygen. Come on folks, this is another planet. It’s not just a status symbol and we don’t need to rush there just to say we went. Really, we don’t. Flag planting is great for propaganda and PR purposes, but it’s disastrous for long term exploration, which needs to be a very boring, consistent, and yes, expensive effort. We need a better plan than this.

Now, as much as this blog will support my assertion that I’m all about space exploration and will go as far as to advocate augmenting humans to travel into deep space (which led to numerous arguments with the Singularity Institute’s fellows), we don’t have to go to Mars as soon as we’re able to launch. It’s been there for 4.5 billion years. It’s not going anywhere for at least another five billion, and we owe it to ourselves to do it right. This is why instead of sending a much bigger capsule or an updated ISS for a 30 month round trip, we need to send inflatable, rotating space stations powered by small nuclear reactors. Instead of landers, we need to send self-assembling habitats. Instead of going to Mars to stick a flag into the ground, collect rocks, and do some very brief and limited experiments to look for traces of organic compounds, we need to commit to an outright colonization effort, and we need to test the basics on the Moon before we go. We won’t fulfill our dreams of roaming the stars and living on alien worlds if we don’t get this right.

Yes, it sounds downright crazy to propose something like that, especially thanks to the political climates of today. And it is. But at the risk of repeating myself, when we have trillions of banks to erase their bad bets from the books and nothing to aid the paltry budgets of space agencies or labs working on the technology of the future, the issue isn’t money. It’s priorities, vision, and will, and today’s politicians have the first one skewed, and more often than not either lack the other two, or envision our society going backwards as if this is a good thing. And we can keep right on placating ourselves by saying that we’ll at least get to roam around the solar system a bit like we did once, but that’s not how we should be exploring space. We know it’s not. if you want to really reach out into space, you go in for the long term with your eye on the spin-offs and benefits that will rain down from massive, ambitious, integrated projects that try to do what’s never been done before not by reinventing the wheel, but by attaching said wheel to a new airplane.


far future city

Ever since the New Atheists arrived on the scene, there’s be a loud, wailing siren from religious and humanities pundits decrying the idea that we could use science to explain the universe that we occupy. Generally their argument for why we can’t use reason and experiments to clear up a lot of mysteries and what makes us tick boils down to "how dare you say you can explain all this complexity and wonder in math and mechanistic descriptions?" And that’s really as far as it goes because their objection to using science to explain their pet topics in the language of formulas, statistics, and data sets is that it takes away a mystery they so desperately wanted to preserve for another sermon or tome of nebulous ponderings on the human condition. While researchers and engineers see the beauty in knowing how things work, science-phobic pontificators rush to the fainting couches, distraught that someone dare to explain their minds as sprawling networks neurons and accumulated experience alongside evolutionary mechanisms.

If you’re one of those people who needs to be a mysterious, delicate snowflake who is just way too complicated and nuanced to study, I’m sorry, but we can’t help you. Knowing how the world around us works in scientific, mechanistic language is how we build modern societies, land on a different world, send robots into deep space, and find cures for what ails us. If you refuse to see how knowing what makes the universe tick gives your existence even more meaning and a very enviable ability to modify the world to accomplish something, even to a small extent, that is your personal problem. Now, far be it from me to say that literature or religions never made profound contributions to humanity because they have. But what they couldn’t do was to find and confirm solid, experimentally proven, reliable answers to big questions about who we are and where we might be going. Science has given us a vast, complex, mysterious universe, and they’re upset that we can derive some algebra to try and explain how a few bits of it fit together?

Consider this. If you’re loudly and publicly rebelling against the scourge of "arrogant scientism" but you’ve ever tried something to find out what will happen and then repeated your experiment to confirm it, you’re a hypocrite. You relied on the scientific method to answer your question, not those nebulous "other ways of knowing." Come to think of it, what are all of these "other ways of knowing" we hear invoked so often by both a fundamentalist zealot with a mind wide shut, and a crunchy New Ager with equal zeal? Voices of an omnipotent deity? The universe telling you that we’re all connected in a creationist fantasy for left wing anti-intellectuals? That’s just your brain making shit up to put it bluntly. You can attend philosophical seminars and conventions of tweed suit-clad graybeards, huffing and puffing, and looking serious, saying "isn’t life so mysterious?" as Tim Minchin once put it, and rage against the fact that science can explain things that were once said to be off limits to mere mortals. It won’t change the fact that it’s our ability to explore, dissect, catalog, explain, and predict though science that makes us who we are.



There’s been a bit of a splash by a new study which says that meeting your spouse online could mean a longer, happier marriage, and confirms that far from being the last refuge of lonely shut-ins, online dating is now one of the top ways to meet your mate. Now, the numbers do bear this conclusion out. Out of a representative sample of 19,131 people, the researchers found that a couple that met online is 28% less likely to divorce than their offline matched counterparts, and that the happiest marriages start with a meeting in MMORPGs and on social networks. However, and you knew this was coming, the differences are statistically significant but far from huge, and there are several caveats to taking the findings too close to heart, caveats which result directly from the study’s design. Basically, they’re collecting some demographic information if a subject was married between 2005 and 2012, asking how the subject met his or her spouse, and how happy the marriage seems, then looking for any statistically notable trends to emerge.

Here’s what the data mining found. A smidgen more than a third of the subjects (35%) married a person they met online. Half of those meetings happened on a dating site, usually eHarmony or Match.com, which each claim a quarter of these dating site meetups. So if you’re looking to get into a serious relationship or get married, those sites are probably a very good bet. Likewise, a few very interesting data points jump out from the results. The more well educated and gainfully employed you are, the more likely you are to meet a serious partner online. Those who earn at least $75,000 per year and have a college education represent some 57% of relationships that started online. Oddly enough, those with graduate degrees have the lowest share of marriages to partners they met online, under 15% of the total. The data doesn’t show why, but I would be interested in figuring this out. Why is this finding so worthy of attention? Because it may have a connection to the so-called leisure inequality and tell us more about why online dating grown so much in the last decade or so. But I digress. Now, what about that marriage satisfaction?

Well, again, the numbers do show that people who married their online friends report a better marriage, especially those who met playing online games or on social networks (which could or could not include dating sites, the paper isn’t specific on this). On a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being the equivalent of "I’m ready to file for divorce this second" and 7 being "this marriage is perfect," these subjects reported an average satisfaction score of 5.72, which is pretty damn good. But if we consider the score of the most miserable married couples who met offline in a bar or through a blind date, they still post a very respectable 5.35 average. Yes, the online couples are happy and they’re happier than many other couples, but not by leaps and bounds. Could you really tell the difference between a 5.35 and a 5.72 happy when general contentment is 3.5? If we indulge in paraphrasing Futurama, these researchers are techncially correct, the best kind of correct in science. But practically, they just found close to 20,000 happy couples, a third of which just so happened to have met online and got married in a certain time range.

And that brings us to the biggest caveat with this study. Only 8% of these subjects are divorced which is both, a lot lower than the national average, and only shows the short term trend. If you look at marriages 10 years out rather than the seven for this survey, the odds of a divorce are about 30% or so. Get 20 years out and the odds increase to 48% on the high end. The sample here just hasn’t been married long enough and it’s probably a safe assumption that a lot were caught in their early phases of marriage. But the goal for getting married generally tends to be staying married for life, which means roughly half a century, going by the typical life expectancy figures. The researchers are, in a sense, catching people a mile or two into a marathon when a whole lot usually hasn’t happened yet and the biggest bumps in the road are still ahead, getting a general thumbs up from some 92% of the respondents, and splitting hairs about who gave the most enthusiastic thumbs up. True, this doesn’t mean that there’s a problem with a marriage to someone you met online and yes, maybe these couples are happier. But it’s too soon to tell.

Likewise, we should also point out that marriage rates keep on falling and the domestic partner has been slowly becoming the new spouse. After witnessing messy divorces and confronted by general antipathy for marriage from many sides, a lot of people who would’ve already tied the knot are deciding to forgo the whole affair altogether. Now, this could mean that what the survey captured is a trend of people who get married staying together longer and being happier while more and more of their peers are opting out of married life, balancing out the high divorce rate over the next decade or so, but this is just an idea after looking at the data. Marriage as we are used to it in the modern world is changing. It’s becoming less commonplace, involves those who are more financially secure, and alternative households are becoming the new norm. So in light of all these changes, maybe the better question to ask is not what makes for a happier marriage but what makes for happy long term relationships, or at least what today’s long term relationship looks like from an academic standpoint. Work in that area is only beginning…

See: Cacioppo, J., et al. (2013). Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues PNAS DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1222447110

[ photo illustration by Carlos Zangheri/flickr ]


ice forecast model

According to the stream of reports from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Arctic ice is slowly but surely disappearing. Well, slowly for us humans. On geologic time scales, it’s thawing in the blink of an eye. For this year, the extent of the ice is the sixth lowest on record, and last year, there was about half as much ice at minimum as there was between 1979 and 2000, while also being much thinner. On the other side of the world, Antarctica is not doing much better as an average of 100 cubic kilometers of ice are lost every year, despite ice sliding into the ocean from dry land seemingly increasing the reach of sea ice. Now, this prompted many denialists to distribute a talking point that while the Arctic is melting, Antarctica is gaining ice, which would be true only if you measure sea ice and forget that there’s an entire continent thawing, sending all that excess ice out to sea. It’s sort of like claiming a virgin birth by forgetting to mention that the couple isn’t married and the child’s father lives across town, visiting every other day.

But all this said, there’s the big question is how bad all this thawing is for us. Sea levels may rise between 16 and 22 feet, changing coastlines and altering climactic cycles over a century. How worried should we be? And is there any way to stop it? Well, exactly how worried you should be would depend on where you live and whether you think another century is too short of a time to move the cities back from the sea. The world is not going to flood as shown in many apocalyptic posters from environmental groups. To drown a city like that would require massive and sudden natural disasters like asteroid impacts or a magnitude 9.1 quake that triggers a monster tsunami and sends it towards a city built mostly below sea level. No city planner 30 or 70 years from now would be dealing with the same exact coastlines, and old buildings could be moved or altered to deal with the rising water. Of course, if we didn’t emit nearly as much carbon dioxide by building our economies around energy efficiency, we could just avoid all of that in the first place.

Though, just to play Devil’s advocate, there’s an interesting point that needs to be raised. New economies and infrastructures are expensive. Very expensive. And the thawing Arctic means a shorter path between Europe, Asia, and North America than the Panama Canal. Goods can get to their destinations cheaper, new fiber can be laid for a faster, more redundant internet, and a lot of oil and natural gas will be open to exploration far away from the Middle East. And while as the United States and Canada extract more and more oil from the Arctic, OPEC could just lower production to keep prices high, the political ramifications are huge and to many, worth perusing. Is potential energy independence that will let the United States disentangle itself from the Middle East and its messy affairs, while creating new jobs and cozy ties with its neighbors worth moving some big cities back from the rising seas? And do the improved economics of fast, new shipping lanes and extra fiber-optic cables just sweeten the deal to let it all melt?

Before we get carried away though, there is a downside to such strategic terraforming. Warmer climates mean more droughts in areas that are now among the world’s bread baskets, and a lot less food. In some countries, which produce far more food than they can consume or send over as aid, this isn’t a pressing issue. But in countries not producing enough, or just barely enough to get by, famines could easily reemerge because the farmlands couldn’t be moved to land that belongs to another state. For nations on good terms, there might be a deal in the making. For countries that view each other as an existential threat (like India and Pakistan), not so much. Oh and bad news for foodies. When food sources become any scarcer in a warmer world, the only viable response is doubling down on hyper-efficient factory farms that employ methods that can drive a panel of Food Network chefs up a wall. Point is that your experience with the effects of a warmer Earth may vary depending on many factors, but deciding how to manage the warming is not as cut and dry as a yes or a no, there’s an economic and geopolitical calculus involved…



Last time we took a look at what tech cynics and technophobes get wrong in their arguments, we focused on their lack of consideration for their fellow humans’ ability to exercise free will. Despite the fact that this is a huge hole in many of their arguments, there’s an even bigger problem with the dismissive stance they take towards science and technology. When they argue that we can’t feed all the hungry house all the homeless, or really prolong lifespans with technology, the facts they cite generally point not so much to technological limitations or scientific ignorance, but very convoluted social and political problems, then insist that because science and technology can’t solve them today, they likely never will, or won’t solve them adequately to consider the problem much smaller than it is today. While this argument is true, it’s also logically dishonest. You can’t fix the world’s problems with technology when the people who should be using it refuse to do so, or hijack it for their own less than noble means. No tool or piece of knowledge can help then.

As some of you might have noticed, the city in the graphic for this post in Dubai, a rich proving ground for how the cities of the near future are likely to be built. We know how to make cities of glass, steel, and concrete right out of science fiction. We know how to build the cheap, efficient housing complexes those making less than a dollar a day need to at least have secure shelter. We know how do diagnose complex diseases early enough to treat them before they’ll become dangerous, much less terminal, and our toolkits for understanding germs, viruses, and complex medical problems like cancers, are growing to become more sophisticated every day. We also have the tools and the money to apply all these solutions to the world at large. With something a little bit short of $100 billion just between Gates and Buffet pledged to fight poverty illiteracy, and disease, and when we can find $2 trillion laying around to help banks with a do-over, clearly, it’s not an issue of not having the technology, the scientific basis, or the cash. The issue is will.

Sure technological utopians have lofty ambitions and it’s valid to be skeptical of many of them, but when they vow that logistical problems can be solved with enough computing and research, they’re right more often than not. When the cynics deride these ambitions by pointing out that a lot of people don’t want to fund mass production of the necessary tools or the required science, and would much prefer to spend them on entertainment and public entitlements benefiting them directly, they’re not highlighting the problems with using technology to save the world, they’re a prime exhibit of why a technology hasn’t transformed the world of fixed a persistent problem. All too often it comes down to them saying it can’t be done, and politicians along with voters simply listening to them and deciding that no, it’s can’t be done since the critics said so, which is why it would be a waste of time to even bother. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, a social variation of Newton’s First Law: a society that insists on the status quo, sticks to the status quo unless an external event or constant pressure forces it to change.

It’s the same attitude which strangled the promising and much anticipated future of space travel and exploration, and we’re still stuck with it. Yes, not every retro-futuristic dream about space or living on other worlds was practical or even feasible and yes, we did need experts to burst our bubble before an unworkable project got off the ground. But today’s science and tech critics are going well past a healthy skepticism about bold claims and venturing into a territory in which they dismiss scientific and technological solutions to global problems for the sake of dismissing them, pointing to other ideas they dismissed in the past and doomed to being chained to the drawing board, and saying that because their relentless cynicism killed the ideas rather than refined the scopes and missions to eliminate problems with them, new ideas building on past visions must be scrapped as well. It’s even more insidious than political vetting of basic science, because vetting at least allows some projects to survive and get refined into new tools and ideas. The withering cynicism of what science and technology can do for us is like an anti-innovation WMD…



A long time ago, I shared one of my favorite jokes about philosophers. It went like this. Once, a president of a large and prestigious university was asked who were his most expensive staff to fund. "Phycisists and computer scientists," he replied without hesitation, "they always want some brand new machine that costs a fortune to build and operate, not like mathematicians who only need paper, pencils, and erasers. Or better yet, my philosophers. Those guys don’t even need the erasers!" Yes, yes, I know, I’m a philosophical phillistine, I’ve been told of this so many times that I should start some sort of contest. But my lack of reverence for the discipline is not helped by philosophers who decide to speak up for their occupation in an age of big data and powerful, new tools for scientific experimentation to propose answers to new and ever more complex real world questions. Case in point, a column by Raymond Tallis declaring that physics is broken so much so that it needs metaphysics to pull itself back together and produce real results.

Physics is a discipline near and dear to my heart because certain subsets of it can be applied to cutting edge hardware, and as someone whose primary focus is distributed computing, the area of computer science which gives us all our massive web applications, cloud storage, and parallel processing, there’s a lot of value in keeping up with the relevant underlying science. And maybe there’s already an inherent bias here when my mind starts to wonder how metaphysics will help someone build a quantum cloud or radically increase hard drive density, but the bigger problem is that Tallis doesn’t seem to have any command of the scientific issues he declares to be in dire need of graybeards in tweed suits pondering the grand mechanics of existence with little more than the p’s and q’s of propositional logic. For example, take his description of why physics has chased itself into a corner with quantum mechanics…

A better-kept secret is that at the heart of quantum mechanics is a disturbing paradox – the so-called measurement problem, arising ultimately out of the Uncertainty Principle – which apparently demonstrates that the very measurements that have established and confirmed quantum theory should be impossible. Oxford philosopher of physics David Wallace has argued that this threatens to make quantum mechanics incoherent which can be remedied only by vastly multiplying worlds.

As science bloggers love to say, this isn’t even wrong. Tallis and Wallace have mixed up three very different concepts into a grab bag of confusion. Quantum mechanics can do very, very odd things that seem to defy the normal flow of time, but there’s nothing that says we can’t know the general topology of a quantum system. The oft cited and abused Uncertainty Principle is based on the fact that certain fundamental building blocks of the universe can function as both a wave and a particle, and each state has its own set of measurements. If you try to treat the blocks as particles, you can measure the properties of the particle state. If you try to treat them as waves, you can only measure the properties of the waves. The problem is that you can’t get both at the same exact time because you have to choose which state you measure. However, what you can do is create a wave packet, where you should get a good, rough approximation of how the block behaves in both states. In other words, measurement of quantum systems is very possible.

All right, so this covers the Uncertainty Principle mixup, what about the other two concepts? The biggest problem in physics today is the lack of unification between the noisy quantum mechanics on the subatomic scale and the ordered patterns of general relativity. String theory and the very popular but nearly impossible to test many worlds theory tries to explain the effects of the basic forces that shape the universe on all scales in terms of different dimensions or leaks from other universes. So when Tallis says that it’s still 40 years and we don’t know which one is right, then piles on his misunderstanding of quantum mechanics on top of Wallace’s seeming inability to tell the difference between multiverses and string theory, he ends up with the mess above. We get a paradox where there isn’t one and scope creep from particle physics into cosmology. Not quite a ringing endorsement of philosophy in physics so far. And then Tallis makes it worse…

The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally, if only because there is no way of accounting for the fact that certain nerve impulses are supposed to be conscious (of themselves or of the world) while the overwhelming majority (physically essentially the same) are not. In short, physics does not allow for the strange fact that matter reveals itself to material objects (such as physicists).

Again, a grab bag of not even wrong is supposed to sell us on the idea that a philosopher could help where our tools are pushed to their limits. Considering that Tallis dismisses the entire idea that neuroscience as a discipline has any merit, no wonder that he proclaims that we don’t have any clue of what consciousness is from a biological perspective. The fact is that we do have lots of clues. Certain patterns of brain activity are strongly associated with a person being aware of his or her environment, being able to meaningfully interact, and store and recall information as needed. It’s hardly the full picture of course, but it’s a lot more than Tallis thinks it is. His bizarre claim that scientists consider some nerve pulses to be conscious while the majority are said not to be is downright asinine. Just about every paper on the study of the conscious mind in a peer reviewed, high quality journal refer to consciousness as a product of the entire brain.

The rest of his argument is just a meaningless, vitalist word salad. If brain activity is irrelevant to consciousness, why do healthy living people have certain paterns while those who had massive brain injuries have different ones depending on the site of injury? Why do all those basic brain wave patterns repeat again and again in test after test? Just for the fun of seeing themselves on an EEG machine’s output? And what does it mean that it’s a surprising fact that we can perceive matter around us? Once again, hardly a serious testament to the usefulness of philosophers in science because so far all we got is meaningless questions accusing scientists of being unable to solve problems that aren’t problems by using a couple of buzzwords incorrectly, haphazardly cobbling bits of pieces of different theories into an overreaching statement that initially sounds well researched, but means pretty much nothing. Well, this is at least when we don’t have Tallis outright dismissing the science without explaining what’s wrong with it…

Recent attempts to explain how the universe came out of nothing, which rely on questionable notions such as spontaneous fluctuations in a quantum vacuum, the notion of gravity as negative energy, and the inexplicable free gift of the laws of nature waiting in the wings for the moment of creation, reveal conceptual confusion beneath mathematical sophistication.

Here we get a double whammy of Tallis getting the science wrong and deciding that he doesn’t like the existing ideas because they don’t pass his smell test. He’s combining competing ideas to declare them inconsistent within a unified framework, seeingly unaware that the hypotheses he’s ridiculing aren’t complimentary by design. Yes, we don’t know how the universe was created, all we have is evidence of the Big Bang and we want to know exactly what banged and how. This is why we have competing theories about quantum fluxes, virtual particles, branes, and all sorts of other mathematical ideas created in a giant brainstorm, waiting to be tested for any hint of a real application to observable phenomena. Pop sci magazines might declare that math proved that a stray quantum particle caused the Big Bang or that we were all vomited out by some giant black hole, or are living in the event horizon of one, but in reality, that math is just one idea. So yes, Tallis is right about the confusion under the algebra, but he’s wrong about why it exists.

And here’s the bottom line. If the philosopher trying to make the case for this profession’s need for inclusion into the realms of physics and neuroscience doesn’t understand what the problems are, what the fields do, and how the fields work, why would we even want to hear how he could help? If you read his entire column, he never does explain how, but really, after all his whoppers and not even wrongs, do you care? Philosophers are useful when you want to define a process or wrap your head around where to start your research on a complex topic, like how to create an artificial intelligence. But past that, hard numbers and experiments are required to figure out the truth, otherwise, all we have are debates about semantics which at some point may well turn into questions of what it means to exist in the first place. Not to say that this last part is not a debate worth having, but it doesn’t add much to a field where we can actually measure and calculate a real answer to a real question and apply what we learn to dive even further.


enterprise vs. dreadnought

A good swath of the geek part of the internet is lit up with fury about Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s manifested on the familiar nerd hubs like Wired, Ars, and io9, especially io9, which is downright incandescent with rage about the movie’s choice of villain. Numerous calls have been made for the heads of J.J. Abrams and his crew on platters, to soothe the angry Gods of Trek, while fans of the franchise are busy offering ideas for what would’ve made the movie better, which, surprise surprise, involve following the canon of the original series and the spin-offs. But this was a given when you consider the source material and the fan base. You can’t reboot a franchise simply by continuing the story arcs already decades in the making, you can’t make an exciting movie that focuses on tedious exopolitical negotiations in the neutral zone, and you will ruffle some feathers when you try to boldly go (or go at all) where the franchise has never gone before.

For example, one of the big complaints about Abrams’ vision of Star Trek is the militarization of the Federation’s fleet. But here’s the thing. It’s a fleet of spaceships that might face adversarial life forms (like the Romulans and Klingons), the ships are armed with lasers and missiles, and a botched first encounter can turn a peaceful delegation of explorers into a military incursion. So it’s kind of hard to blame Abrams for seeing the potential of the Federation to wage war, and in dire circumstances, use ships that were once meant to explore the galaxy for force projection, as the Enterprise is used in Into Darkness. And of course there’s the commercial consideration. A sci-fi movie sells best when there’s war involved because that makes a good popcorn flick that’s going to attract big crowds. People generally struggle with peaceful meditations on life from all those little green men, and often don’t try to apply it back to the world they inhabit.

Yes, I know, Star Trek was supposed to rise above these commercial considerations but today, sci-fi is a hard sell. For studios, it’s either popcorn munching military science fiction or another rom-com because they’re a business and movies are expensive to make, especially those which require lots and lots of special effects. If you’re a die-hard Trekkie, you’re going to have to make some concessions to people who live outside your bubble and really couldn’t care about all the intricate stories to which you dedicated countless hours. Who knows, they might like the idea so much, they go back and rediscover what you saw in the source material. But if you’re going for mass audiences, something has to give and compromises have to be made. And here is where we run into the biggest complaint of them all, that Abrams was recycling deep material from the original rather than creating something completely new out of it. Unfortunately, this is an area in which every reboot director is facing a lose-lose proposition by the nature of the project.

Had Into Darkness essentially been an updated Wrath of Khan, Abrams would’ve been pilloried for simply giving the classic a coat of fresh paint, just like io9 was savaging him for using classic material and inverting it, with the writer sounding nearly apoplectic with fan rage. If the movie’s plot resembled nothing ever seen or done on Star Trek, the Trekkies would’ve been infuriated that they got their Star Trek without anything that made it like Star Trek, asking why Abrams did not make and references to the original and just borrowed the names, ships, and logos to make something completely different under the same brand name. That’s the nature of a reboot. You won’t be able to please the fans either way unless you simply continue where the last episode of their franchise left off without missing a beat, and that sort of defeats the whole idea of a reboot in the first place. Into Darkness was a fun movie, it had its moments, and it was technically very, very well executed for what it was supposed to be. And at least it has people interested in sci-fi, which is more than we could say for many past and upcoming sci-fi flicks…


future dystopia

This is not the first time Jaron Lanier gets a post on Weird Things, in fact we met him before as he quickly went off the rails in describing AI, then became more incoherent while bemoaning all social media as a dehumanizing waste, all the while trying to pick a fight with the Singularitarian version of a machine-directed utopia. Now, the former virtual reality pioneer has moved on to a book length rumination on how technology is killing the middle class by eliminating jobs. And as per his current modus operandi, he starts off with a tiny kernel of a reasonable statement, and proceeds to strap it to the Hyperbole Rocket and launch it into deep space. Is it true that a new software package or a robot might make your job obsolete? Yes, it absolutely can. But does the technology prevent you from getting a new job? No, it doesn’t because the reasons why you’re going to have trouble finding work in a globalized economy are more political than technological, and it’s short term greed, partisan bickering, and ignorance of the powers that be at fault.

Here’s an example. Lanier’s opening salvo says that when Kodak was at the height of its market domination of personal photography, it employed more than 140,000 people. Now, he says, the face of personal photography is Instagram which has only 13 employees. Therefore, jobs were lost because of technology, Q.E.D. Um, no. First and foremost, Kodak died the slow and painful death it did because it first refused to adapt to a world of digital photography, then couldn’t, as it wasted years assuming that as long as they can at least sell the tools to develop all those digital photos on glossy paper, they’ll be fine. They never even thought that paper may be useless for most of the pictures being taken today as social media and smartphones took off. Secondly, as much as tech blogs may have hyped it, Instagram was not "the new face of photography." Take away cheap, mainstream digital photography and it couldn’t exist. It was a distribution network, a network that Kodak could’ve built. But instead of innovating, it slowly withered away.

All right, so what happened to those tens of thousands of people laid off by Kodak? Well, they could find new jobs because among those laid off were managers, assistants, chemists, and IT specialists who could’ve applied their skills in other companies, doing other things, and I assure you that there aren’t 140,000 middle class workers out there who haven’t worked a day since a Kodak executive pink slipped them to meet the quarterly numbers. Eeyore would’ve been more optimistic about their future than Lanier, but then again, for optimism, Lanier would’ve needed to see technology as something more than a nefarious tool to use and abuse the populace. Where the disciples of Ray Kurzweil see immorality, sunshine rainbows, and unicorns frolicking in the meadows, he seems to see impending chaos, destruction, and socioeconomic dystopia adapted from the pages of very gloomy science fiction. And yet, Lanier plans to live with this grim future. For a fee of course. You see, in his version of if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them, he’s suggesting that if social media sites use our data to survive, they should pay us for it, and that’s how we will start solving the impending job crisis caused by these evil machines taking our place.

Certainly, while being paid to mess around on Facebook would be a great deal, the problem is that paying all of its users even pennies a day would leave the company insolvent. Social media sites simply don’t make all that much money because they fell short of the promises they give a lot of advertisers when it comes to moving product for them. All the data you submit simply won’t give them nearly as good of a picture of who you are and what you like as Lanier and so many tech pundits think it does when they fall for the company’s wild claims. In fact, predicting what a person will do based on his or her social media footprint is an exercise in warm reading. There’s plenty of detail to go on, but a lot of this detail may be useless and lead to broad conclusions or incorrect recommendations. Advertisers are not moving nearly as much product as they thought they would, people are giving them incomplete and misleading information, social media makes money but not as much as it thought it could, and now Lanier wants this struggling ecosystem to pay its users for making it profitably mediocre? Does he also have a bridge to sell us?

Yes, the world is changing. Yes, technology is doing things it’s never done before, and it’s now taking us places where we’ve never been, physically, socially, and economically. But instead of trying to figure out a way to productively deal with with the change of pace, by investing in R&D and shifting more jobs into innovation and design, while letting robots do more of the execution, people like Lanier want to take their ball and go home. The problem is that they can’t. Arguing if our sprawling data centers and powerful software needs to be scaled back and dumbed down is like protesting against the wind blowing. You can waste your oxygen telling it to slow down or go in a direction you’d personally find more acceptable, or you can raise some wind generators for an extra kilowatt hour or two to take advantage of the situation. At no point has any civilization ever grown or met a challenge by saying "no, we’re done," or demanding payment to participate in new ideas, new economies, and new social structures. Many have died and stagnated doing exactly that, which is why we shouldn’t take Lanier’s technophobic musings seriously.