frosted illuminati

If you haven’t already read Anna Merlan’s longform account of the Conspira Sea cruise, really, do yourself a favor and check it out. Like all reporters interested in off-beat stories, she jumped at the chance to see what conspiracy theorists talk about when their primary audience is other theorists, and voluntarily trapped herself aboard a yacht with them. Aside from witnessing how popular anti-vax activists have become on the conspiracy circuit and documenting the sliminess of self-pitying wannabe-martyr Andrew Wakefield, Merlan highlighted some interesting common themes about the cruise’s participants and presenters. One would expect the whole affair to be an almost church-like experience where conspiracy theorists can indulge in their favorite hobby horses without being bothered by skeptics, but as it so turns out, it’s not the case at all. In fact, the entire cruise appears to be an excuse to present days worth of what are basically just thinly veiled infomercials for documentaries, books, supplements, and judicially suicidal financial and legal advice for would-be sovereign citizens trying to get out of debt or trouble in the courts.

Aside from the amount of time devoted to anti-vaxers swearing that autism comes from needles when we have ample proof that it’s actually genetic, repeating the same old, debunked canards they’ve been chanting for years, and comparing requirements to get vaccinated to the eugenics programs of Nazi Germany, despite studies funded and designed by them finding no evidence for their own claims, what really surprised me in Merlan’s account is just how much legal, fiscal, and radical libertarian New World Order-related crackpottery dominated the discussions. Much of the advice people received from self-proclaimed experts has been massacred by the courts over countless cases as legal-sounding nonsense, and self-issued “bonds” used to pay a hefty fine for tax evasion only make the IRS and the SEC livid, something Merlan goes to very great lengths to point out for readers who may be curious about their odds of declaring themselves a citizen exempt from U.S. law. Yet on the Conspira Sea cruise, plenty of attendees seem happy, ready, and willing to buy into the libertarian version of the Prosperity Gospel to erase their debt and tap into mysterious shadow money the government has in their name from their birth.

So if you’re interested in attending a conspiracy cruise, it seems that you’ll get a few of the hits and classics with which you’re familiar in small portions, but mostly, you’re going to be pitched quack supplements made who-knows-where by who-knows-who, and given not-quite-legal tips and tricks to beating the U.S. government by an “attorney in law,” which you’re right, isn’t a real thing that exists in the legal profession, and will get you arrested, with an IRS lien against every asset you own, or both. And considering that you’re paying once to attend and then again to be scammed by a presenter who just might accost you for being an unwitting CIA plant if you show too much doubt for his or her liking, it’s kind of like a chicken paying a fox to eat it. In a way, it’s actually worse than I thought. If people gathered to kibitz about which sub-species of gray alien or tame cryptid really shot JFK or brought down the World Trade Center in international waters, then so be it. But people are getting financially and legally ruinous advice along with potentially dangerous pills, potions, and lotions. It’s one thing to be open-minded, it’s something very, very different to be so open-minded anyone can play with your mind for their selfish gain…

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looking into the universe

No one seems to be exempt from having some sort of an issue with weight nowadays, even all the matter in the universe. You see, by measuring the gravitational pull of all the galaxies, we’re able to see about how much the cosmos weighs. Of course, since the measurement is indirect, our observations don’t necessarily line up with each other and leave us with something a lot like placing a person on a scale only to see a weight roughly twice what would make sense for any human this size. For a long time, astronomers looked for any trace of missing matter and found that sometimes, it’s hiding in plain sight behind clouds of gas and dust. Still, just because you’re now able to see stars and galaxies you couldn’t see before in a region of space, doesn’t mean you can call the whole matter resolve and retire for drinks at the local pub. You still have to get data showing that the same kind of phenomena is hiding stars and galaxies everywhere, which is no trivial task. You have to keep scouring the cosmos for any sign of them to be sure.

Sometimes, though, the universe gives you a break from an unexpected source. In this case, a stray signal from an FRB, which, despite media reports to the contrary are not aliens or just an open microwave door in the telescope’s facility, but real, violent cosmic phenomena, traveled a mind-boggling 6 billion light years to get to Earth. Not only was it the first time that an FRB was pinned down to a particular galaxy, but the radio afterglow studied in unprecedented detail by a significant team of researchers all over the world showed that the missing matter we’ve inferred to exist is in fact there and the radio waves have been bouncing off of it in ways our models say they should. How can we tell? Well, we can see it in the dispersion patterns of the FRB’s signal, which were affected by traveling through the interstellar and intergalactic medium. The more it hit on its way to Earth, the more pronounced the effects which can be generalized, since at the scales involved, the universe is more or less homogeneous in density. Averaging out the matter we think is there at the density the equations say it should be based on its mass gives us a very straightforward benchmark for expected dispersion patterns, which this FRB matched.

Now, newspapers and blogs less familiar with science or unable to read scientific papers will be trumpeting that we’ve solved the mystery of dark matter, which is boring galaxies astronomers couldn’t see before. But that’s not true. That missing matter is actually just part of the 5%, or so of standard, baryonic matter the observable universe is made of. Dark matter and dark energy still make up over 95% of the universe’s mass and their existence was inferred using the same exact methods showing that the missing matter found in the FRB’s dispersion patterns needed to be there. Still, the fact that we now know that we’ve weighed the universe correctly is a huge boon to further research in astronomy and cosmology. Science is very exciting when new data overturns something we’ve long held to be true. But at the same time, we do need at least core principles of how we think the universe works to hold as firm foundations so we could capitalize on breakthroughs and have a context for them. This discovery of missing matter alongside the recent detection of gravitational waves is exactly what we needed: nature’s confirmation that as science moves forward, we’re starting to get key things about how the universe works right.

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abandoned tree house

Few things appear to be as terrifying for the American political establishment as Donald Trump doing everything we’re told a politician should not do if he wants to win an election, yet rising to become the unstoppable front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. Heading into Super Tuesday, he boasts commanding leads, and should he clean up the way polls predict he will, it will be mathematically implausible for his competition to catch up. So, despite often vastly over-inflating his wealth, four bankruptcies, vague stances that change with the weather, and a style of the debate that’s less debating and more spoiled rich kid in high school in a shouting match, this New York tabloid punchline convinced millions of Americans that he’s their hope in an ever-changing world that seems to need them, and care about them, less and less. To the media at large, they seem utterly baffling and grossly irrational, but their despair and possibly newfound appreciation for authoritarianism actually makes sense in their own context.

It’s true that our world is changing. We’re becoming more and more urbanized, small towns in many countries are being left to slowly decay, and what jobs can’t be cheaply outsourced, but won’t require specialized creative skills, are being automated so quickly that almost half of the world is facing unemployment in the next few decades if nothing changes soon. Long gone are the days when you can just get your high school diploma or GED, then go straight to work in a factory for the next 30 years, or sit a cubicle for a similar stretch of time, going to college while your company paid your tuition in exchange for more guaranteed years of your employment to get a return on its investment, while making enough to raise a family and afford for a spouse to stay at home. Most of the factories have been closed for many years and college costs soared by 200% as prices for everything are 55% higher over the last 30 years, while wages over the same time period have remained stagnant when adjusted for inflation. Now you must pay for a $30,000 degree, move to the city, and try to compete for jobs companies who’ll now expect you to be a perfect fit the second you walk in can’t wait to automate or outsource. Fun times.

Oh, and I should also mention that the expensive sheet of paper you will have to acquire to get this lovely experience firsthand is going to be worthless some 73% of the time. Yes, that’s what the typical person has to do today to make ends meet; to start with tens of thousands of dollars in non-dischargeable debt looming over his or her head, and jobs in which her or she is viewed as a disposable, temporary expense, a necessary evil really. And that brings us back to Trump and his most ardent supporters who see the results of this mess and need someone to blame, ideally someone with a foreign accent, or a darker skin color, or young and a little too vocal for their taste, which is exactly what they get from him. We’ve shown them that the system doesn’t care about them in day to day life and reduced them to really, nothing more than numbers in a spreadsheet rather than real people with real problems. Now they get to assign blame and rage against the electoral machine. They’ve been ignored and left behind. Well no more! Hear them roar as those empty government suits fall before their unstoppable, self-appointed avatar who seems to share in their formerly impotent, simmering fury at their nation being neglected.

While we shudder in terror and disgust at the notion of President Trump, voted into power after violating every rule of social decorum we thought were expected of those who are supposed to lead us, what we should be worried about is that there will be more Trumps, and that they’ll get even worse if we don’t fix our education system and provide incentives for sizeable businesses to once again invest in those who labor for them. Yes, mocking Trump’s supporters is easy and pointing out The Donald’s shortfalls is like shooting fish in a barrel with tactical nukes. It’s giving those who aren’t aghast at his antics and disgusted at what’s tricking down to us after 30 years of supply-side economics, hope that things could be better that’s hard. But if we really are that shocked that a narcissistic reality star who fancies himself the world’s finest businessman and engages in antics even a rich frat bro villain in a college movie would find in poor taste when all the spotlights are on him, has a shot at being president, that’s what we need to do. We have to pop the college bubble, create apprenticeships, abolish asinine test-driven education standards created by grossly ignorant politicians, and create every possible incentive for companies not to treat their workers as disposable. We failed to plan for the future. That’s how we got here.

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x47b takeoff

The peaceniks at Amnesty International have been worried about killer robots for a while, so as the international community convenes in Geneva to talk about weapons of the future, they once again launched a media blitz about what they see as an urgent need to ban killer robots. In the future they envision, merciless killer bots mow down soldiers and civilians alike with virtually no human intervention, kind of like in the opening scene of the Robocop remake. In an age of vast global trade empires with far too much to lose by fighting with each other use their soldiers and war machines to tackle far-flung low intensity conflicts, in military wonk parlance, where telling a civilian apart from a combatant is no easy feat, Amnesty International raises an important issue to consider. If we build robots to kill, there’s bound to be a time when they’ll make a decision in error and end someone’s life when they shouldn’t have. Who will be held responsible? Was it a bug or a feature that it killed who it did? Could we prevent similar incidents in the future?

Having seen machines take on the role of perfect bad guys in countless sci-fi tales, I can’t help but shake the feeling that a big part of the objections to autonomous armed robots comes from the innate anxiety at the idea of being killed because some lines of code ruled you a target. It’s an uneasy feeling even for someone who works with computers every day. Algorithms are way too often buggy and screw up edge cases way too easily. Programmers rushing to meet a hard deadline will sometimes cut corners to make something work, then never go back to fix it. They mean to, but as new projects start and time gets away from them, an update breaks their code and bugs emerge seemingly out of nowhere. If you ask a roomful of programmers who did this at least a few times in their careers to raise their hands, almost all of them will. And the few who did not are lying. When this is a bug in a game or a mobile app, it’s seldom a big deal. When it’s code deployed in an active war zone, it’s going to become a major problem very quickly.

Even worse, imagine bugs in the robots’ security systems. Shoddy encryption, or lack of it, was once exploited to capture live video feeds from drones on patrol. Poorly secured APIs meant to talk to the robot mid-action could be hijacked and turn the killer bot against its handlers, and as seen in pretty much every movie ever, this turn of events never has a good ending. Even good, secure APIs might not stay that way because cybersecurity is a very lopsided game in which all the cards are heavily stacked the hackers’ favor. Security experts need to execute perfectly for every patch, update, and code change to keep their machines safe. Hackers only need to take advantage of a single slip-up or bug to gain access and do their dirty work. This is why security for killer robots’ systems could never be perfect and the only thing its creators could do is make the machine extremely hard to hack with strict code, constantly updated secure connections to its base station, and include a way to quickly reset or destroy it when it does get hacked.

Still, all of this isn’t necessarily an argument against killer robots. It’s a reminder of how serious the challenges of making them are, and they better be heeded because no matter how much it may pain pacifist groups and think tanks, these weapons are coming. While they’ll inevitably kill civilians in war zones, in the mind of a general, so do flesh and blood soldiers, and if those well trained humans with all the empathy and complex reasoning skills being human entails cannot get it right all the time, what hope do robots have? Plus, to paraphrase the late General Patton, you don’t win wars by dying for your country but by making someone does for theirs’ and what better way to do that than by substituting your live troops with machinery you don’t mind losing nearly as much in combat? I’ve covered the “ideal” scenario for how all this would work back in the early days of this blog and in subsequent years, the technology to make it all possible isn’t just growing ever more advanced, it’s practically already here. It would make little sense to just throw it all away to continue to risk human lives in war zones from a military standpoint.

And here’s another thing to think about when envisioning a world where killer robots making life or death decisions dominate the battlefield. Only advanced countries could afford to build robot armies and deploy them instead of humans in conflict. Third World states would have no choice but to rely on flesh and blood soldiers, meaning that one side loses thousands of lives fighting a vast, expendable metal swarm armed with high tech weaponry able to outflank any human-held position before its defenders even have time to react. How easy would it be to start wars when soldiers no longer need to be put at risk and the other side either would not have good enough robots or must put humans on the front lines? If today all it takes to send thousand into combat saying that they volunteered and their sacrifice won’t be in vain, how quickly will future chicken hawks vote to send the killer bots to settle disputes, often in nations where only humans will be capable of fighting back, all but assuring the robots’ swift tactical victory?

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jail cell

Pretty much every documentary about jails and prisons proclaims that three out of four inmates you’ll see released on your screen will be incarcerated again within five years, often citing many possible reasons as to why. Criminal records keep them from finding legitimate work, lack of an effective rehabilitation program didn’t help their drug habits, their mental illnesses weren’t really addressed and are dooming them to vagrancy and crime, overzealous policing and sentencing that takes a disproportional toll on the poor and minorities, and so on. All of these may be good reasons why so many people studied by the Bureau of Justice Statistics end up in jail and each should be talked about and addressed to drive down recidivism. But the public at large and the politicians they elect have taken this information to mean that our justice system is not only very badly broken, but has become little more than a rotating door for 75% of American criminals, so all sorts of reforms must be promptly instituted to end the constant cycle of incarceration.

Right now, as Congress is trying to figure out how to fix today’s overburdened justice system to make sentencing guidelines saner, and keep people who don’t need to be imprisoned for minor crimes out of jail and into rehabilitation and parole programs, knowing who is in jail, why, and if they’re likely to find themselves back there, is crucial for effective, smart changes. And against this backdrop comes a study showing that the public and the government misunderstood what the data collected by the BJS actually measures and what it means for us. The BJS just wanted to know what happens to prisoners year over year. As they do that, the statistical picture skews very heavily to frequent offenders because they’re the most likely people to be caught in those samples. The analogy the study’s lead author, public policy analyst William Rhodes, likened the difference in his methodology and that of the BJS to trying to build the demographics of who is visiting shopping malls over a week rather than over a year. The longer the period studied, the more accurate gauge you have over long term trends, and the more likely you are to catalog all those people who analysis over much shorter windows of time will more than likely miss.

Looking at records spanning 15 years across the country, indexed by prisoners’ ID numbers, it became very clear that 68% of people who serve a prison sentence do not re-offend, and of all those who do, only one third will re-offend more than once. So the chronically incarcerated who become the focus of BJS reports because they keep on getting caught in the sample again and again, actually represent a little more than a tenth of all prisoners. This means that far from the revolving doors for cons which do nothing to help curb crime, American prisons are actually an effective deterrent from further offenses. That said, the fact that 32% of people who did serve a sentence are ending up back behind bars is a problem which points to the need to address the aforementioned challenges of leaving jail with few resources to get one’s life back on track. For Rhodes, this is a clear indicator that there needs to be an investment in rehabilitating those with the highest risk for return, and considering that instead of having to focus on every prisoner we actually need to work with as little as a quarter of them, that investment is manageable.

This is why statistical literacy is so important. If we didn’t assess whether the methods we have been using accurately reflect long term trends, we’d end up having to take a wrecking ball to all the jails and prisons to truly fix things. Considering how much was spent on building them, it’s a politically and economically painful proposal no one would want to back. No one willing to fix the entirety of a broken system over decades means that much needed reforms would’ve died very slow and painful deaths while more and more prisons were being built on the incorrect notion of having to keep people sentenced for longer and longer stretches of time so they don’t re-offend as the BJS predicts most of them will. Now, we can take this policy advice to focus on reforming the chronic, most dangerous offenders to keep as many of them out of jail for good as possible and rehabilitating minor ones who are only being sent to jail now because the judges and most of the public are convinced that they’ll keep going right back to crime unless they’re jailed.

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viruses render

Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of talk about using viruses to fight cancer and as the best vector for gene therapy to finally conquer diseases once thought incurable. But aside from several promising trials in the lab and in select hospitals, not much from this research has been cleared for use in real world patients. Until now, as a genetically modified herpes virus received the formal green light to help combat advanced melanoma in clinical practice. Considering how many ups and downs this technology had over the last 35 years, this is very important first step in showing that we finally know what we’re doing and the science is mature enough to treat the average Joe and Jane. Labs which may have put viral therapy on the back burner, worried that the current regulatory climate would be too conservative to ever approve their products can get back to work and ramp up their viral pipelines. And of course, millions will soon benefit from this promising new class of drugs to send more and more cases of cancer into remission.

But of course there are some limitations. The currently approved drug, T-VEC, hasn’t shown all that much life-extending potential in the lab and needs to be injected directly into the tumors. It gave patients with advanced melanoma an additional 4.4 month which was just a whisker away from desired statistical significance for the population being tested. However, since these were very advanced cases, with many likely comorbidities, and it triggered an immune response that finally saw the tumors as foreign invaders and helped control their attempts to spread. Given in concert with existing therapies, it should be very effective, and if it is, its manufacturer can seek approval for use in less advanced forms of melanoma against which it should do even better. In short, it may not be the “cure” we’ve always wanted, but it’s a very important step forward and a very encouraging sign of things to come, and widespread clinical use of viral therapies will give us new insights into how to better refine them to make them safer and more potent.

Of course we need to keep in mind that the result of all this work will not be the mythical cancer cure advertised by many quacks and snake oil peddlers. Cancer seems to have existed almost as long as multicellular life on Earth, and while some creatures found ways of coping with it, it’s still a constant threat because it’s such a complex degenerative condition affecting virtually any cell type there is in our bodies. We probably can never hope to completely eliminate it, but it’s a realistic goal to develop a wide array of treatments that quickly send it into remission, which will turn what was once a death sentence into a fight we can win more often than not. With several types of cancer that’s exactly the case with conventional treatments. Imagine how much better targeted viral therapies which could spare more healthy cells than chemotherapy and radiation will be for patients over the next decade. And while there will always be a ghost of a recurrence hanging over their head no matter how hard we try, knowing that there is a really good chance to once again beat it, may make up for nature’s insistence on turning some of our cells evil…

[ illustration by Art of the Cell ]

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head in sand

Here’s an extremely uncomfortable truth no one currently running for office in the U.S., or even remotely considering doing so ever wants to publicly admit. There are a lot of voters who really, really don’t like experts, scientists, or anyone well educated in anything other than medicine. In their eyes, any sign of intellectualism is not something to cheer or aspire to, to them it’s nothing more than pretension from someone they’re convinced thinks he or she is better than them and feels entitled to tell them what to do. At the same time, they’re extremely paranoid that they will have something valuable or important taken away from them to be given to all the undeserving moochers on lower socioeconomic rungs than they are, convinced that the American poor have already been living it up with free spending money, free food, and free world-class medical care for decades. So when a politician decides to cozy up to this constituency, his best bet is to start witch hunts against their most nightmarish moochers: government-funded scientists.

In his tenure as the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, a haven for a disturbing number of peddlers of anti-scientific twaddle, congressman Lamar Smith decided to do exactly that with his open-ended fishing expeditions into every possible aspect of scientists’ research in his quest to find some grand conspiracies to publicly squash for his science-averse, paranoid base’s delight. In his investigation of climate scientists working for NOAA, he specified absolutely no instances of misconduct he thinks occurred, only asked for ever more raw data to be provided to him, even though the data and the methods used to analyze it have been on the web for years, provided by NOAA to anyone even slightly curious. But data is not what Smith is really after, because he has no interest in the actual science. He and his donors are upset that updated data for atmospheric warming gathered from additional sources after years of looking over more and more observation stations eliminated the “pause” to which denialists cling. Since the only possibility in their minds is that the data is faked, they want evidence of fakery.

Really there’s no other way to put it. Smith wants to have private communications between the scientists funded by NOAA to create another Climategate, which denialists are still convinced is an actual scandal despite the scientists being cleared of any wrongdoing, and if he doesn’t find something badly worded when taken out of context, or something politically incorrect, he will be taking something he doesn’t understand — which is likely most of the things being discussed by climatologists — and is being paid by oil and gas lobbies to continue not understanding, way out of context and manufacture a scandal out of that. When the chairman of the science committee which decides on funding for countless basic research projects his nation needs to maintain the top spot for scientific innovation in the world thinks his job is to harass scientists he doesn’t like because his donors’ business may be adversely impacted by their findings, until some pretense to interrogate them comes up, no matter how flimsy, we have a very serious problem. While all abuses of power are bad, abuses by partisan dullards have a certain awfulness about them, as they ridicule when they seem to utterly lack the capacity to understand in the first place

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pig out ad

If there was an award for the most reputable organization with the worst track record of making scientific pronouncements to the public, needlessly scaring millions while giving militant granola types and snake oil salespeople like Mike Adams and the Food Babe ammunition to make their fear-mongering and scamming look legitimate at first glance, the IARC would win it hands down because no one else even comes close. Pretty much every other press release they issue just makes experts and doctors want to smack them upside the head, and it’s no different with their latest announcement which sent much of the internet into a state of despair. Bacon, they say, is carcinogenic, so all that sweet, sweet processed pig with which the web is in lust, increases the odds of certain gastrointestinal cancers by as much as 18% according to studies they reviewed in their capacity to rule on the strength of evidence for whether something causes cancer. With that came worldwide weeping and gnashing of teeth as countless breakfasts were ruined.

This traumatic event for bacon-lovers everywhere, this Aporkalypse as none might call it, is the result of a systematic review of studies showing that a diet high in processed meat is linked to a slight increase in certain types of bowel cancers. That by itself doesn’t necessarily seem like an alarming finding in and of itself. After all, we’ve known that for many years. What was alarming, and very much remains so, is how the IARC communicated its review of these studies and how its classification system works because it turns generally well known research about what might cause cancer into an arcane classification system for carcinogens which often misinforms much of the public. Because the group only rates the quality of evidence found by studies rather than notes the true risks posed by the studied carcinogens, according to its system, bacon seems as dangerous for you as smoking and breathing asbestos fibers while taking a nap on a bed made of uranium. But it’s not. If anything, smoking accounts for a fifth of all diagnosed cancers while a diet of red and processed meat might be linked to a sixth of that amount of diagnoses.

In other words, while cigarettes and bacon are classified the same way by the IARC, the former is much less dangerous for you than the latter, depending on your genetics and lifestyle. If you shovel a dozen strips of bacon into your mouth every morning, follow that with a bottle of beer, then smoke a pack of cigarettes every day for a decade, you’re pretty much guaranteed a very nasty form of cancer in your future. We know this because it’s been very extensively studied by multiple scientists in both animals and humans, the IARC thoroughly reviewed all the published work, and was satisfied that the methodology behind them was sound. That’s why it exists, it’s a formal peer review committee on public health policy advice about cancers. But because of the confusion around the classification system it adopted for how it feels about studies, its decisions about the real world implications of the research it reviews are incredibly confusing. Not only do we get bacon on the same list of carcinogens as smoking, but we end up with the infamous and much abused Group 2B and Group 2A, which list countless things as maybe carcinogenic.

Basically, things in these groups “possibly” or “probably” cause cancer, which means that there was some sort of study in a cell culture, or on mice, showing that the chemical in question could somehow be linked to a cancerous tumor and the IARC thought it wasn’t a terrible study. Based on how well it felt about this study and others like it, the group would assign the chemical to one of these “maybe” categories. They don’t actually mean that something possibly or probably is a carcinogen, but that some scientists presented studies that made the group question if there is some chance that a particular chemical or compound causes some form of cancer. This is how cell phones ended up Group 2B, despite there being no biologically plausible mechanisms for a cell phone to trigger cancerous tumors. Someone adjusted enough study parameters to create some hints that maybe in some cases electromagnetic radiation could be linked to one specific type of cancer, or shot enough of it at cells in a petri dish to do some damage that looks like the start of a cancerous tumor, and the IARC chose not to take too much issue with the papers.

This is how it was with bacon. In studies showing links between processed meats and cancer, a diet disproportionately high in these things was found to be the culprit. Eating anything, even an apparently evil, carcinogenic sausage or bacon strip, once in a while, won’t increase your odds of being diagnosed with a bowel cancer in any significant way. So really, the proper advice is to moderate your daily intake of both red and processed meat, which the IARC actually said. But it did so in a way that put the onus of actually determining what moderation looks like, and how to go about it to an amorphous worldwide community of doctors and medical bureaucrats. Bacon, sausages, and steak, cause cancer just like cigarettes, they tell the world without noting that a cigarette is far deadlier than a bacon strip, figure out how you want to deal with that, have your doctors and researchers, who we’ve now just informed that this is a real problem, tell you what you should do to avoid killer tumors in your tract. Gee IARC, thanks for that helping hand.

And this is where we get to the heart of the problem. The IRAC’s very confusing and convoluted pronouncements which rely on its arcane, opaque classification system gives people little in the way of useful guidance by refusing to differentiate between the levels of risk posed by exposure to confirmed carcinogens, and by listing things in two confusing “maybe” piles with weak or very inconclusive evidence behind their carcinogenic potential, they hand quacks and modern snake oil salespeople a goldmine for new outlandish claims by which they can scare people to buy the random, over-priced crap they peddle. Can you think of a bigger disservice to the public than a scientific group that just issues random lists of scary things that can kill you with virtually no real elaboration and tells you to figure out what to do about it with your doctor? How had could it be to go into a little more detail? These people are scientists. Don’t scientists love to talk about the finer details of their work? And trust me, if it’s about cancer, people will definitely listen…

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voodoo doll

In another edition of people-can-be-awful news following last week’s post about why it’s indeed best not to feed trolls, it’s time to talk about online harassment and what to do about it. It seems that some 72 social activist groups are asking the Department of Education to police what they see as harassing and hate speech on a geo-fenced messaging app, arguing that because said geo-fence includes college campuses, it’s the colleges’ job to deal with it. Well, I suppose that it must be the start of windmill tilting season somewhere and now a government agency will have to do something to appease activists with good intentions in whose minds computers are magic that with the right lines of code can make racists, sexists, and stalkers go away. Except when all of them simply reappear on another social media platform and keep being terrible people since the only thing censoring them changes is the venue on which they’ll spew their hatred or harass their victims. Of course this is to be expected because the internet is built to work like that.

Now look, I completely understand how unpleasant it is to have terrible things said about you or done to you on the web and how it affects you in real life. As a techie who lives on the web, I’ve had these sorts of things happen to me firsthand. However, the same part of me that knows full well that the internet is in fact serious business, contrary to the old joke, also understands that a genuine attempt to police it is doomed to failure. Since the communication protocols used by all software using the internet are built to be extremely dynamic and robust, there’s always a way to circumvent censorship, confuse tracking, and defeat blacklists. This is what happens when a group of scientists build a network to share classified information. Like it or not, as long as there is electricity and an internet connection, people will get online, and some of these people will be terrible. For all the great things the internet brought us, it also gave us a really good look at how many people are mediocre and hateful, in stark contrast to most techo-utopian dreams.

So keeping in mind that some denizens of the web will always be awful human beings who give exactly zero shits about anyone else or what effect their invective has on others, and that there will never be a social media platform free of them no matter how hard we try, what should their targets do about it? Well, certainly not ask a government agency to step in. With social media’s reach and influence as powerful as it is today, and the fact that it’s free to use, we’ve gotten lost in dreamy manifestos of access to Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and yes, the dreaded Yik Yak, being fundamental human rights to speak truth to power and find a supporting community. But allowing free and unlimited use of social media is not some sort of internet mandate. It’s ran by private companies, many of them not very profitable, hoping to create an ecosystem in which a few ads or add-on services will make them some money by being middlemen in your everyday interactions with your meatspace and internet friends. If we stop using these services when the users with which we’re dealing through them are being horrible us, we do real damage.

But wait a minute, isn’t not using the social media platform on which you’ve been hit with waves and waves of hate speech, harassment, and libel, just letting the trolls win? In a way, maybe. At the same time though, their victory will leave them simply talking to other trolls with whom pretty much no one wants to deal, including the company that runs the platform. If Yik Yak develops a reputation as the social app where you go to get abused, who will want to use it? And if no one wants to use it, what reason is there for the company to waste millions giving racist, misogynist, and bigoted trolls their own little social network? Consider the case of Chatroulette. Started with the intent of giving random internet users a face with a screen name and connecting them with people they’d never otherwise meet, the sheer amount of male nudity almost destroyed it. Way too many users had negative experiences and never logged on again, associating it with crude, gratuitous nudity, so much so that it’s still shorthand for being surprised by an unwelcome erect penis on cam. Even after installing filters and controls banning tens of thousands of users every day, it’s still not the site it used to be, or that its creator actually envisioned it becoming.

With that in mind, why try to compel politicians and bureaucrats to unmask and prosecute users for saying offensive things on the web, many of which will no doubt be found to be protected by their freedom of speech rights? That’s right, remember that free speech doesn’t mean freedom to say things you personally approve of, or find tolerable. Considering that hate speech is legal, having slurs or rumors about you in your feed is very unlikely to be a criminal offense. You can be far more effective by doing nothing and letting the trolls fester, their favorite social platform to abuse others become their own personal hell where other trolls, out of targets, turn on them to get their kicks. Sure, many trolls just do it for the lulz with few hard feelings towards you. Until it’s them being doxxed, or flooded with unwanted pizzas, or swatted, or seeing their nudes on a site for other trolls’ ridicule. No matter how hard you try, they won’t be any less awful to you, so let them be awful to each other until they kill the community that allows them to flourish and the company that created and maintained it, and allow their innate awfulness be their undoing.

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fable troll

Every internet community has them and many have been killed by them. They crave two things most of all: attention and a platform to broadcast whatever comes to mind, and every time they appear, you can safely bet that someone will admonish users engaging with them not to feed a troll as per the common axiom. But what if, just to propose something crazy here, maybe there are reasons to talk to them, downvote them, and otherwise show your displeasure because an appropriate amount of push back will finally solidify the message that they’re not wanted? They could either leave or give up on their trollish ways. Either way, it would be an improvement. So, following this hypothesis, a small group at a Bay Area college collected 42 million comments on huge gaming, political, and news sites with a grand total of 114 million votes spanning as many as 1.8 million unique users, to figure out once and for all if you can downvote trolls into oblivion or force them to productively contribute. Unfortunately, the answer is a pretty definitive no.

After creating an artificial neural network to gauge whether comments deserved an upvote or a downvote after using the actual discussion threads as a training set, the researchers decided to follow users’ comment histories to see how feedback from others affected them over time. They found that users who were ignored simply stopped participating, which seems quite logical. It’s simply a waste of time and effort to shout into the digital aether with no feedback. But when the computer followed the trolls, the data showed that even withering negativity had pretty much no effect on what they posted or how much. Their comments didn’t change and they did not seem to care at all about the community’s opinions of them. If they wanted to antagonize people, they kept right on doing it. We could say that not every person who provoked a flood of negativity in response is a troll, true. Some of the political sites used in the sample are extremely partisan so any deviation from the party line can provoke a dog pile. But by the same token, while not every maligned comment is trollish, most trollish comments are maligned, so the idea still holds.

With this in mind, how do we police trolls? Not feeding them does seem to be the best strategy, but considering how many of us suffer from SIWOTI syndrome — and yes, I’m not an exception to this by any stretch of the imagination since half this blog is a manifestation of it — and will not let trollish things go, it’s not always feasible. This means that shadow banning is actually by far the most effective technique to deal with problematic users. Because they won’t know they’re in their own little sandbox invisible to everyone else, their attempts to garner attention are always ignored so they get bored and leave. Of course this method isn’t foolproof, but a well designed and ran community will quickly channel even repeat offenders into the shadow banned abyss to be alone with their meanderings. In short, according to science, the best thing we can do to put a stop to trolling is to aggressively ignore them, as paradoxical as that sounds at first blush.

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