grumpy cat

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

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

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

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

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Whenever I write a post about why you can’t just plug a human brain or a map of it into a future computer and expect to get a working mind as a result, two criticisms inevitably get sent to both my inbox and via social media. The first says that I’m simply not giving enough credit to a future computer science lab because the complexity of a task hasn’t stopped us before and it certainly won’t stop us again. The second points to a computer simulation, such as the recent successful attempt to recreate a second of human brain activity, and say it’s proof that all we need is just a little more computing oomph before we can create a digital replica of the human brain. The first criticism is a red herring because it claims that laying out how many proponents of this idea are severely underestimating the size and scope of the problem is the equivalent of saying that it’s simply too hard to do, while the actual argument is that brains don’t work like computers, and to make computers work more like brains can only get you so far. The second criticism, however, deserves a more in-depth explanation because it’s based on a very hard to spot mistake…

You see, we can simulate how neurons work fairly accurately based on what we know about all the chemical reactions and electrical pulses in their immediate environment. We can even link a lot of them together and see how they’ll react to virtual environments to test our theories of the basic mechanics of the human brain and generate new questions to answer in the lab. But this isn’t the same thing as emulating the human brain. If you read carefully, the one second model didn’t actually consider how the brain is structured or wired. It was a brute force test to see just how much power it should take for a typical modern computer architecture to model the human brain. And even if we provide a detailed connectome map, we’ll just have a simulated snapshot frozen in time, giving us mathematical descriptions of how electrical pulses travel. We could use that to identify interesting features and network topologies, but we can’t run it forward, change it in response to new stimuli at random, and expect that a virtual mind resembling that of the test subject whose brain was used would suddenly come to life and communicate with us.

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desert road

Just in case you’ve been taking a year-long vacation from the news, the state of California is as dry as the bleached bone in a Western’s foreshadowing of a long, slow death in the desert. The last time it rained in LA was almost three months ago. The time before that? Sometime in April, maybe? Coming from the often rainy, lousy with thunderstorms Central Ohio, rain is an exciting event now. This is especially true as the Sierra Nevada snowpack is the lowest it’s been in 500 years and the drought is the worst in over 1,200 years. Of course looking at what’s going on all over the American Southwest and in Alaska, where native towns are being flooded a little more every year and the permafrost is starting to thaw, you could point to global warming. With much of the last decade and a half breaking records for warmest year ever and the hottest summer in recorded history just coming to a close, it seems like a reasonable conclusion. But if that’s really just too establishment for you, you can join the Alex Jones crowd in blaming chemtrails and the shady government agencies behind it diverting rain from the Southwest to do… something.

Unlike the right wing’s favorite conspiracy theory that global warming in a hoax to impose some sort of communist New World Order led by the UN, the idea that the government is in charge of weather lacks even the smallest kernel of plausibility behind it. It’s one of those rare ideas that’s not even wrong because it’s based on a profound lack of understanding of basic physics. Cloud seeding is a real thing and it’s been tried. But it’s effect is the exact opposite of what Jones and his acolytes have been claiming. It actually induces rain from clouds that just need a push to let loose with a torrent of precipitation and has been employed in experiments to try and divert the paths of hurricanes and increase rainfall for crop irrigation. Its track record is very uneven, it’s a very debatable notion that it has any measurable effect and every paper arguing that it could do all sorts of amazing things has so far been proven wrong in the real world. Weather systems on our planet are just far too energetic for a little dusting of silver compounds to dramatically affect them, and way too turbulent to be predictable enough for real geoengineering applications.

Even more importantly, chemtrails, a bugaboo of conspiracy theorists who don’t know how very simple water vapor forms contrails in the wake of jet engines, are completely unusable for cloud seeding. As mentioned before, silver compounds is what researchers would use and seeding is not going to produce any sort of wispy contrail. In fact, it would be invisible to your naked eye. If you want clouds to accept foreign materials, you have to release a very fine mist of them so the wind keeps them aloft and lets them mix into the cloud. Jets of them would simply dissipate into a kind of snow scattered by the winds, and eventually fall back to Earth as pollution. And it gets even worse when HAARP gets dragged into the picture. How exactly a nuclear launch detector and sensor array meant to study the ionosphere changes the weather has never actually been explained, but just like Yosemite Sam, they don’t know how it’s done it but they know it’s done it and nothing is going to convince them otherwise. It looks weird and most of what it does is held to be classified, therefore, it’s fair game to be and do anything in a pet conspiracy theory.

Adding the final cherry on top of this insipid mess are the many contradictory motives for those nefarious powers that be to do any sort of weather manipulation. In one breath they’re trying to control the planet’s resources under a military junta, in another they’re trying to slow down and reverse global warming, in a third they’re following some sort of master plan only they have full access to but it apparently involves seemingly random droughts and storms. Why, why, oh why, in the name of Cthulhu’s mouth tentacle polish, must the concept of pumping trillions of tons of greenhouse gases warming the atmosphere and exacerbating climate extremes by altering our typical weather patterns be met with cries of malevolent government weather manipulation that seem ripped straight out of comic books? Is it so the conspiracy theorists can think they’re plain smarter than everyone else? I know Jones’ and Mike Adams’ motivation in all this, cashing in on another conspiracy since neither haven’t met one with which they weren’t immediately in lust as the cash from advertisers and viewers comes pouring in, but what about those who won’t make even a penny on this hysteria? Why does weather, of all things, get them so worked up?

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hazy mars

NASA’s recent big announcement, leaked before it was publicly made, is really quite interesting and offers the strongest evidence yet that Mars does have liquid water that might host life. Odd gullies and wet-looking streaks around the planet’s equator have been scrutinized for years, but after finally managing to get a spectroscope close enough to study them, the data confirms the tell tale signs of extremely salty liquid water, practically a brine, being responsible for these wet streaks on the Martian surface. No matter how they formed, their chemical signatures require a non-trivial amount of liquid to be present throughout the process, and this discovery means that something dynamic is happening under the surface where living things could be safe from a UV bombardment that has seemingly sterilized the surface. This means the next probe we send is going to be looking for alien microbes in Martian caves and will be planned and built post haste now that we know where to look and have the strongest indication yet of possible life, right?

Well, maybe not. One of the big catches is that while we now know there’s liquid water on Mars and that it has a visible effect on the surrounding environment, we don’t know in what form it is, and whether there are sub-surface aquifers or it’s a side-effect of another process. Without any direct signs of persistent water we don’t actually have a great indication for potential life. And as the water that does exist must be briny to avoid freezing solid right away, it’s full of alien salts, a few of which are actually extremely poisonous to life as we know it. Perchlorate has been found before in massive quantities and we know that whatever oceans Mars once had contained it, so while it may be possible that extremophile bacteria evolved to cope with it in the water and later on survived ever-increasing concentrations as the seas boiled, then froze away, it’s significantly lowering the number and variety of possible organisms we might find. And we can’t rule out the grim possibility that it completely snuffed out life because perchlorate salts break down organic compounds that would’ve been by far the most likely building blocks for Martian microbes.

Another thing to consider is that while Mars could well have large cave networks, giving several alien ecosystems a chance to hide from the windstorms and radiation on the surface, without a source of nutrients and neutral solvents, those organisms couldn’t survive. We don’t know if any of these nutrient sources exist, and whether anything underground could purify Martian brine of its toxic salts, which could prevent more complex life from evolving in what would have been an otherwise safe and stable environment. We would have to figure out what organisms could feed and reproduce in environments rich in the chemicals found on the red planet, and devise a way to explore Martian caves with restrictions imposed on us by the size and power of the robots we can actually launch and operate in mind. Digging to find an existing cave is out of the question, we’d have to find an entrance into one. Likewise, the robots we send would require a degree of independent thought most machines currently don’t have because they would have a very hard time communicating with mission control through the many tons of Martian rock and sand.

Compare the missions that would be required to find a microscopic extremophile colony cluster on Mars with the promise of missions to Europa and Enceladus with vast, warm, salty oceans a lot like ours and offering the chance for complex living things to evolve, and it seems that while looking for signs of life on the red planet would be interesting, the payoff isn’t that great. Again, this is not to rule out that there’s life on Mars, but given the abundance of chemicals we’re very confident are poisonous to every organism with even remotely recognizable chemistry, there is the chance that Mars is no longer a habitable world for anything we would readily identify as an unambiguously living thing. And that’s kind of sad to consider because for the last 200 years, a great deal of scientific literature fixated on Mars having advanced intelligent life which built vast canal systems for global irrigation and erected large cities much the same way we tend to do. If after all that hoping we find out that Mars is now a dead world, emotionally, that would hurt. But that’s science for you. Often times the reality isn’t what you wanted it to be, and with in the very long running hunt for life on red planet it seems that its past was rosier than its present…

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blue planet

For just a moment, let’s pretend that we solve the controversial legal issues that surround how and if we’ll mine asteroids in the near future, and have managed to expand our way into space faring cyborgs with warp drives capable of shuttling us from solar system to solar system in an acceptable amount of time. Over thousand of years, we’d have visited countless planets in our post-scarcity futuristic pseudo-utopia, and those with the means might ask themselves what if it would be a good investment to buy an entire world. You know, much the same way people buy expensive houses and private islands today. How much would something like that run a tycoon in the far future? Obviously it would have to be some insane amount of galactic credits. Several asteroids we’d like to main are worth tens of trillions of dollars in today’s cash. Typical, smallish, rocky planets like ours are ten orders of magnitude larger or so, and with fewer easy to access resources due to their molten innards, they should cost tens of septillions of dollars, right?

Seems a little simplistic, don’t you think? Remember that when you’re out shopping for an alien planet, you’re already living in a post-scarcity world with 3D printers ready to create your cities, infrastructures, and anything else you need at a moment’s notice. And settling on other worlds would mean that you have to be extremely self-sufficient, needing nothing more than access to interstellar communication networks and able to easily live off the land with your portable power supplies which allowed you to cross the vast distances between solar systems. That means not that much mining is going to get done on your new world, and the lack of demand means lower prices. What good is a million tons of gold if no one wants it or needs it? And if no one needs it, no one should be charging you for it, especially when you’re just going to extract the little bit of resources you need as you need them on your own. With resource values now out of the price, what exactly would influence how much a planet is worth? What the previous owners left?

Well, it may just come down to the same three most important things in real estate prices back on our boring little home world: location, location, and location. How close is the planet you will buy to hubs of civilization? Can you invite people on vacations, or safaris in alien jungles, or get scientists to excavate the ruins of a long gone extraterrestrial civilization? Does your new world offer some sort of gateway to other star systems, the last place to refuel and patch up a ship in the next few months or years of travel? Are there pretty views of the Milky Way in the night sky, and magnificent oceans you can explore? Those are likely to be things by which a species that can travel to other worlds will judge how much a planet is worth, rather than the value of what’s there to be mined or otherwise extracted. Still, considering how many people there will be when we’re spread across the stars and how many of them will be doing something akin to a normal job today since all the machinery they will depend on won’t maintain itself, it’s likely that planets will be a super-luxury item for the future top 0.1% who own the rights and blueprints to all of the technology making space exploration on an interstellar scale possible as an investment…

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heisenberg artisans ad

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

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

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

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

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

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dsi space harvester

Despite several startups eager to set out into deep space and mine asteroids just like in a sci-fi movie but with fewer people and more robots, the sad fact is that extracting resources from the objects over our heads is technically illegal. No matter how much you’d like to and how much a few people insist, you cannot own land on the Moon, or Mars, or any other celestial body in any legitimate capacity. But as noted many times before on this blog, its virtually an inevitability that one day, this restriction in the Outer Space Treaty will fall and our extraterrestrial colonies won’t be shy about wanting to self-govern, although probably not as quickly as some people imagine that would happen. Realizing this, in a rare act of forward thinking, Congress has been working on an exemption allowing individuals and private companies to claim territory on asteroids and other worlds if they can legitimately travel there on their own: the Space Act of 2015. But sadly, while it sits in committee, there are legal scholars who doubt that it would actually work.

Here’s the big problem. One of the reasons why the treaty specified that no one could lay claim on extraterrestrial bodies has little to do with the egalitarian altruism nations felt towards space. It was actually a preemptive maneuver against military installations in orbit and beyond, which both the United States and the USSR were actively considering during the Cold War. They were basically trying to deny each other higher ground for massive nuclear launches that would open the door to movie-worthy scenarios like secretly launching a government to a lunar base, trying to fight a nuclear war on Earth, then allow the planet to recover before returning and rebuilding the nation. Allowing private entities to be exempt from this restriction raises the specter of some shady spies and military contractors doing clandestine preparations for an attack, or setting up the infrastructure for orbital and deep space force projection, so Russia and China will balk.

Without their public approval, there’s the legal argument that the United States is violating a key provision of the treaty, which also governs the rules for nuclear testing used for a saber-rattling exercise in just how much the superpowers and their proxies were committed to the strategy of mutually assured destruction. And you probably won’t be surprised to hear that was a lot, to the point of possibly building doomsday machines. Should the Outer Space Treaty’s future become in doubt, there’s a non-trivial chance that the Cold War will come roaring back, albeit it would be a three-way contest between the major space-faring global powers who haven’t much liked one another for generations now. Figuring out how to get everyone on board is crucial because we all now know that we simply cannot keep the treaty the way it is for humanity to actually start to colonize space, but that we also cannot just openly challenge the status quo without potentially dire geopolitical consequences waiting for us on the other side of that legal gauntlet.

Sadly, it seems that human space exploration began as a military affair and would run as such until the Moon landing, and will now begin to creep back into a military-driven mode as nations able to claim extraterrestrial territory and resources seek to enforce that claim with weapons at the ready, relying on intimidation and the same MAD tactics they have for the past 70 years as they expand into the solar system. But that said, there is the remote possibility that seeing how much there is for the taking, the U.S., Russia, and China will let greed win over pride and bitter memories, and make trade agreements to invest in each others’ space mining companies. This seems like a very optimistic scenario, I know, but this is pretty much the only way I see any sort of cooperation on amending the Outer Space Treaty happening in the foreseeable future. For a large enough sum of cash, even the most complicated frenemy relationship could find a way to peacefully avoid flash points. And we just might get our wish to expand into space just like most futurists half a century ago dreamed we finally would, as a very welcome byproduct…

[ illistration by DSI: Deep Space Industries ]

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little smartphone

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

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

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

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

[ illustration by Eric Motang ]

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When you’re in business for yourself, or are a part owner of a venture, nothing sounds sweeter than being told that your business is profitable. What you don’t want to hear is that your artificial manipulation of supply for short term gain is actually profiteering, because people who relied on your product get angry. And if you’re a small pharmaceutical company, you wouldn’t like it when those people get angry. This is currently the case with Turin Pharmaceuticals, which owns what was once an accessible treatment for a dangerous parasitic infection in developing nations. Not content with selling it for a mere $13.50 per pill, its new owner, a hedge fund manager who has been investigated for campaigning the FDA to stymie companies whose stocks he was shorting, and fired from another drug maker for borderline embezzlement, jacked the price up by 5,500% to an absurd $750 per pill. Bizarrely though, reports from the field say that he’s not getting that kind of money and is delivering a lot of doses at no charge and at close to original prices.

But he’s not the only one that’s trying to profiteer from relatively rarely used drugs. Other small pharma companies like Rodelis, Valeant, and CorePharma have drastically increased prices for their old, but in demand medications. It’s become an entirely new business model. Instead of a new treatment superior to older drugs, their companies are being bought, prices for medication long paid off and covered by insurance plans are being doubled, tripled, and more, and when a reporter, customer, or a government agency asks why the sudden rate hike, they’re told it’s for funding R&D without anything in the pipeline to show as benefiting form the new cash. Yes, the process of making a new drug is very complex and expensive, which is why many companies in need of a steady pipeline of them to survive will do all sorts of unethical and questionable things to get them approved and sold; testing against placebos rather than a current standard, paying for fake journal articles, and even promoting off label uses for them, even though it’s illegal. But at least for all their glaring flaws in generating sales, these companies do have new drugs.

We should encourage competition among businesses to develop new ideas in medical care, it’s better for us as both customers and patients when we have choices and companies have really strong incentives to innovate. But the key word here is innovation, and just jacking up the prices of old drugs to bring in more cash is not innovating in any other way than sarcastically when we try to inject a little gallows humor into the conversation. And this isn’t even a good strategy. The PR is awful and the companies either look like Dickensian villains, or cave and ship the drugs to where they’re needed free of charge or for the typical rate. Competitors can easily undercut the newly overpriced drugs with something generic or better. Doctors balk and either negotiate new discounts to knock the price back down to what it was, or refuse to buy and go to competitors to make sure the treatment is covered. On top of that, with no new drugs and existing ones sold at the same price or given away to the needy, investors don’t get their money’s worth anyway. It’s just another example of how trying to hold medicine hostage in an advanced economy with very string regulations is a game one can’t win. And for their own good, really shouldn’t want to…

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thieving ufo

Over the weekend, my post about Nick Redfern’s theory of alien genetic engineering was given an unflattering write-up by news editors for The Anomalist, an alt-media franchise which, not all that surprisingly, published five of Redfern’s books. Like most unflattering write-ups of this kind, he centered on two of the standard cliches of paranormal writers defending themselves from a scientific criticism. The first is that their critic, whoever it is, didn’t engage with the arguments so there’s really no need to counter-argue. The second, is that whatever criticism was gives was a mere “copypasta” from derisively mocked and official sources in scare quotes, because science is apparently only interesting, relevant, or reliable when it provides an exploitable mystery for a paranormal outlet to explore. What annoys me isn’t so much being disagreed with — in pop sci blogging — it’s par for the course, but the lazy, snide, protecting-our-investment derision.

Really, when someone tells you that you didn’t engage with unnamed points, accuses of giving out your own theories when you’ve introduced none, and being a mouthpiece of some sort of a disinformation campaign for merely using detailed scientific sources, the only conclusion you’re going to make is that you hit a nerve and someone wants to preemptively dismiss you. Writing any real counterpoints would’ve just given me more targets and treating me with any respect is going to give their readers the impression that my criticism may be legitimate. That’s a textbook strategy pseudoscientists and paranormalists employ in self-defense against all skeptics: deride and evade. Like some fish puff out their chests to make themselves look bigger, those affected by a skeptical missive act as if defending their ideas to doubters is somehow beneath them and hide behind a wall of sound bites from eager followers who want their worldviews affirmed…

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