Archives For weird things

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It’s been such a long, long time since this blog got an update, but this is all about to change. In just two short weeks, Weird Things will be officially rebooting, and we’ve got some big plans for the future. And no, this was not a royal we, because Mrs. Fish will also be writing, bringing her unique wit and insights from her experience in the world of education to the blog on a regular basis. But that’s not the only thing that’s changing. We’re leaving WordPress behind to roll out a custom content management system to serve as a platform for testing new ideas, trying new features, and serve as a springboard for potential new projects. Yes, WordPress was a great way to get started, but it always irked me as a programmer that I had to deal with a system that was given rather than the system I really wanted, and so I’m fixing this situation.

And we’re still not done. Weird Things will no longer be coming to you from a Midwest college town, but from sunny California where yours truly has joined the Silicon Beach scene, working on business intelligence and Big Data tools, fulfilling his and his spouses’ dream of living in a warm place not too far from an ocean, and where mature palm trees are found growing outside of malls and botanical gardens. Planning and carrying out this move was an enormous job and took over a year since we both had very stable jobs and were comfortably settled into our lives by that point. But something just kept nagging us, a constant feeling that something was just a little off and no matter how comfortable we were, we weren’t going to be completely happy with how things were, and neither of us are best described as willing to just settle.

After a lot of careful thought and seeing many of our friends moving out West, we’ve made the decision to join them, which is the primary reason why the blog so slowly went quiet. Now, with everything back on track, the urge to keep writing still strong, and access to more resources than ever before, this is the perfect time for Weird Things to return. We hope that you’ll mark your calendars to tune back in and join us as we bring back the weird science, critical analysis, and skepticism we’ve been delivering for years.

overcaffenated squirrel

Ok folks, I know my posting frequency this month has been atrocious and it’s been a long, slow slide down from daily analysis and opinions pieces to once to twice a week fact-checks, but if I can be bluntly honest with you, this has been a prison shower of a month so far and virtually all projects that have been planned for it ran into problems or have been going slower than they should often due to circumstances out of my control. However, I’m catching up and knocking as much of them out as I can and getting them polished and presentable to the outside world. And yes, this means more posts and more fun stuff for you to check out, discuss, or even use if you feel inclined to do so. What are these projects? Well, here are two of them for your review…

First and foremost, I’ve gone as long as possible in editing, reviewing, and beta-testing the draft of Shadow Nation, the first part of which was once posted on this blog in three blocks (one, two, three) to quite positive feedback. In fact, I still get the occasional question of when more of the book will be posted or when it will be available for sale. Well, after a couple of days and nights buried in InDesign to optimize Shadow Nation for Kindle Fire and get it as good as possible on the other Kindle devices, I’m releasing it on Amazon with a $3.99 list price. While much of what you’ll see in the previews posted here is still in the final version, there have been a few edits to these chapters, especially the first five. So if you’re interested in previewing Shadow Nation on Weird Things first, you’ll still get a pretty close peek into the book, and I’d certainly encourage you to do that, especially because I know I’d do exactly the same thing.

Now, it takes a little while for the book information to get loaded, so when the sneak peeks, the product cover, descriptions, etc., are up and running, I’ll make the official announcement with a full account of what the book is all about and why you should serious consider parting with the same amount of your hard-earned dollars for Shadow Nation as you would for a medium latte at your nearest coffee shop. Well other than the fact that the latte will be gone in minutes and the book will last you days and stay on your reader for years and hit on all the topics you’ve seen explored in depth on Weird Things, topics such as transhumanism, the future of warfare, alien contact and astrobiology, and of course, conspiracy theories and dealing with societal rifts. But more on that when the book is officially ready for download.

Secondly, if you’ve noticed a small up-tick in my posts about computer security, hacking, and the problems with how a lot of people approach security, you know I take security matters seriously and want to bash my head against the wall when I hear about terrible infosec practices giving a hacker the keys to hijack important data. So I decided to do something about several egregious security lapses and put together a tool to help enforce several of them. Its called GuardFish and it’s a library that keeps track of your application’s users, their roles, and enforces slow hashes, the use of expiring cryptographic tokens for important changes in user accounts, and allows for flexible and far more diverse security questions than most other systems. It’s certainly not a new encryption system or hashing algorithm and it’s not going to cover every security measure you’ll need to keep in mind, but it gives developers a good place to start and covers often overlooked parts of user management while encouraging you to build in security throughout your app.

GuardFish will be an open source project on GitHub for .NET as a DLL and as a web service at first, and will be given a UI shortly after. It should also be usable for Android and iOS projects in its C# .NET form with Xamarin, so there’s potential to extend its support for strong hashes and key security practices recommended by numerous experts as a good way to stop many a script kiddie from easily getting his mitts on your user data, deep into the mobile space as well. There will also be eventual support for Oracle as well as SQL Server so developers who don’t want to deal with directory services (which typically use easily crackable MD5 hashes) and giving every user the potential to access their networks, can get their apps’ security running in minutes with any of the three most frequently used database engines. It’s a little more nerdy than a book, I’m aware, but it’s a fun project with real uses and will hopefully provoke some interesting debates about basic security because too many people take it way too lightly

As you may have noticed if you tried to leave a comment, Weird Things is moving to Disqus for comment management. In keeping with my previous policies on commenting, it will allow for you to post anonymously if you so choose so there’s no need to sign up for an account. However, since so many of us now have social media accounts, I thought it would make perfect sense to allow them to be used here to extend the conversations here into related blogs and collect what other social networks are saying about Weird Things’ posts and what better way to do that than to use a massive platform already utilized by major sites? Of course as with any integration, the system needs time to process the existing 6,200+ comments and assign them to their posts. But rest assured that just because you don’t see a comment you made, it’s doesn’t mean it’s gone, it’s just being plugged into Disqus and I have backups of it just in case…

As you’ve probably noticed, Weird Things has been looking a little different since last evening, especially if you tried to read it on your smartphone or tablet where you more than likely found it a lot more readable. After a few weeks of research and careful consideration, this theme was the closest match to what I thought would work best for this blog, was the easiest to customize with a little css, and saved me the trouble of hacking up some PHP or building a blog platform from scratch and moving this blog to a new host. It also provides excellent support and layout options for mobile devices, which is a big deal as more and more readers are accessing Weird Things that way on a regular basis, and incorporates most of the things you said you wanted to see.

There won’t be any social comments or sign-ups to leave a reply on a post, the font is bigger and the right edge is left ragged to make the site more readable and easier to format, and the widgets now show recent comments so you can see what’s going on in comment threads across the blog. I’ll also try to get into the swing of Twitter again and should that go well, I’ll be adding the appropriate widget as well. All in all, I’m actually pretty excited about this update. It will make it easier for me to create more new posts, write new types of content such as how-tos, in-depth posts with more images, maybe even with some code examples in my AI posts, and you’ll get more posts and better usability out of Weird Things on your computers and mobile devices. So stay tuned for new stuff, now in a new and better format…

As said in an older post, the current formatting of this blog has locked me into a certain posting style that can be very difficult to maintain at times, and doesn’t give me the flexibility to do some of the posts I’d like because frankly, they’ll look bad. Sure, I could start scattering graphs, charts, and screenshots with little to no regard to the overall layout, but that will only make it look messy. No, I don’t have design OCD, just a little touch of CDO so the letters are in the right order. But I digress. The long and short of it is that it’s about time for a big layout change and are were two options on the table. The first is to redesign the blog myself from scratch and create either a new WordPress theme using PHP, a thought that makes me shudder, or a the much more appealing but back-end intensive process of creating a custom blog platform. The second is to buy a customizable new theme and adjust it to fit my needs. Considering that my day job and the two big projects related to Hivemind are taking a big chunck of my time, I opted for the second option which turns out to be faster and cheaper.

Now, don’t worry, I listened to your input and the currently two top choices will keep this blog linear rather than switch it over to the popular new magazine style, there won’t be any integration with social media commenting so anyone can leave comments without signing in or creating new profiles, and there will be a widget to show new comments so you can join interesting discussions on old threads. Really, at this point, the choice comes down to two factors: price and compatibility with mobile browsers. A small but growing number of readers are viewing this blog on their smartphones so how well they’ll be able to read this blog on their mobile devices is becoming a major concern, though I don’t think I’m going to give up my affection for higher resolution graphics to preserve bandwidth. If anything, as you can probably see, I’ll be using more of them. Look for the change to happen in the next few weeks, along with a couple of new Hivemind/sci-fi book related announcements…

I’m sure that long time readers noted that this blog’s been rather slow for the last few months, slower than the time before my six month hiatus. Well, the good news, or possibly bad news depending on your opinion of my writing, is that Weird Things is not going on another hiatus even though once again the schedule gods refuse to have pity on this blogger. This crunch is partly of my own design because a fair chunk of my blogging time now goes to polishing my Hivemind prototype for open-sourcing. This means that I have to rewrite its code to better comply with certain architectural standards, polish the utilities I designed to make it easier to modify for future developers since I’m going to release what amounts to an extensible starter kit, and test each approach for performance and maintainability. Even for this starter kit there will be around 250 unit tests to ensure that a modification to any of the translators, or repositories, or container factories won’t break critical functionality, so as you can probably see, there’s a good deal of work to do before it’s actually ready for prime time.

Why spend the time to do this on top of my day job and some other important life events? Partly because it’s a project on which I spent years of study and research, the vast majority of which was used to come up with the working model of Hivemind’s architecture and learn the different technologies which would be involved, trying them out in individual projects, and assembling these individual components to further refine the design. If an existing toolkit within a framework I used didn’t suffice, I wrote my own, while in the meantime making sure it was consistent with not only the end goal but the relevant science. One of the obvious benefits of experiments like this was a better insight how the tools I use in my day job work and how they can be modified to do what I want them to do. The other is that they also highlight problems and raise questions I didn’t originally consider but really need to answer. Now, after all this time and effort, I want to see it in action and make sure it works in its intended context. One can spend inordinate amounts of time building theoretical AI tools and pontificate on their applications with no end in sight, or just build them and see how well they’ll perform in the real world.

On an unrelated, but important note, I’ve also been thinking about redesigning the blog itself since it seems to have been locked into a format that doesn’t really allow me to be as flexible with posts as I like. Whether I’ll try to build my own blogging platform from scratch and add all sorts of convenient little features to it or just spring for another WordPress theme to customize, I’m not sure but if you have any ideas on the subject, please leave a comment or drop me a line with your thoughts. On the one hand, building my own platform will take plenty of time but it will let me customize everything exactly as I see fit so once it’s up and running, it will give me a lot of flexibility for future posts and for layout options. On the other, using a customized template will save both time and effort, but it won’t necessarily give me the same range of options unless I happen to find a template that I know can be extensively modified without a lot of testing or compromising its functionality. Regardless, I’ll post an update when I come up with a decision and again, I encourage you to weigh in and let me know if you have any particular thoughts on the subject. Since the choice hasn’t been made yet, I’m on the lookout for ideas and options I haven’t yet considered before setting my foot down and getting to work.

[ illustration by Marian Cerman ]

This was an unusual year for the blog to say the least. There was a six month grad-school induced hiatus as balancing work, study, research, and the blog became a Sisyphean task and led to a serious dilemma in how to prioritize my commitments. And while that meant no posts, I did check in every once in a while to make sure that everything behind the scenes was current, lest the regular updates lapse and open up an exploit that will hijack the site, and saw that even without any new posts, there were still a decent number of views. When the hiatus began, I honestly didn’t know if I would have the chance to come back, but the disappointed e-mails, a steady stream of hints that the blog should resume after my studies were done from long time readers, along with the average 1,000 to 1,100 views Weird Things received by its mere existence, convinced me that after I’d get my grades for my final projects, the blog would return. And here it is, back and ready to rebuild and as just a personal, skeptical blog with good science rather than the semi-professional effort it was until the hiatus.

Since my interests and the reasons for starting this blog haven’t changed very much, you can expect a steady stream of posts tacking astrobiology, SETI, AI and transhumanism, and space science, as well as a second look at popular science news and conspiracy theories which surface in the press. Likewise, the topic that has been so prominent for my generation in recent years, the quality and value of college education today, will still come up every now and then. Unfortunately, since the general response to burning questions about the future of higher education and research today tend to consist of listing some burning questions and acknowledging some persistent problems, then proceeding to either ignore them by urging more of the same but "better," or offering suggestions which painstakingly avoid addressing the root causes of these problems, I consider the topic to be rather underdeveloped if not outright neglected by many other science bloggers. Considering how we all seem to agree that education is the key to future prosperity, it seems only proper to tackle the subject in question every once in a while with some head on questions that need to be asked but often aren’t. But all this is best left for another time and in between more posts about skepticism, aliens, robots, and alien robots.

But there’s another big thing I want to try next year and that’s making this blog a little more interactive by giving readers the chance to play with a few ideas that would benefit greatly from crowdsourcing, primarily because they don’t just require a lot of data points to come into their own, but intelligent data points, ones chosen for a variety of reasons only humans can really understand. In fact, there’s already one in the pipeline and it has to do with one of my first posts back and it may even become a useful tool for you if you’re a social scientist. All in all, 2011 may have been a rather light year but it definitely had its ups. In just six active months we still were able to discuss the feasibility to talking to aliens, explore transhumanist ideas of AI in depth, learn about a new evolutionary approach to robotics, gaze into the abyss of pseudo-scholarly insanity, and you even got a primer on artificial neural networks and see how robots may well take over the modern world, well at least in economic terms. Just like last year I was loath to make plans for exactly what will be coming down the line for this blog, this year I’m going to be just as restrained. After all, to quote one of my professors, life in the stuff that happens between making plans. So why not just tune in and see what happens in 2012?

Admit it, you missed Weird Things. Now whether you missed me is debatable, I’m sure, but somebody has to write all the posts around here so I’m back. With much of the insanity in my schedule winding down and grad school coming to a very relaxed end over the next few weeks, it’s time to open this blog back up and keep on tackling bad science and highlighting usual and interesting research projects in biology, both of the terrestrial and astro varieties, artificial intelligence, weird physics, and whatever else manages to grab my attention. As we wind back up, expect the steady mix of skepticism and science to which you’ve once become accustomed along with an uptick in posts on computing and AI, including a couple of possible crowdsourcing experiments in swarm control and robotic artificial neural networks. But more on that later, after a few kinks get worked out and some more code gets debugged. Meanwhile, get ready to tune back in as Weird Things reboots…

Having survived the Rapture, I’m afraid I have sad news to report. Due to the demands of my work and study, with a transition to a new career and the end of my graduate program now in sight, this blog will be coming to an end. This is not a decision that I made lightly because when you spend two and a half years working with any project, much less building it from the ground up post by post, you tend to get quite attached to it and I am absolutely sure that in the first few weeks away from blogging it will require a whole lot of willpower not to log in and check up on comments and updates, much less not to try and make a new post. But all things have to come to an end sometime and Weird Things is no exception. I hope you were entertained, informed, and had fun around here, and thank you for taking the time to read my daily ramblings on all sorts of skeptical matters, physics, and the reality of transhumanism. Over its lifetime, this blog received roughly 1.5 million views, which isn’t much for the likes of Phil Plait or PZ Myers, but quite decent from a science blog built from scratch. It was a real blast to watch it grow and see it mentioned in SEED, Discovery News, and syndicated across the web.

Originally, this blog started in an unusual time in my life; when I was trying to figure out what I really wanted to do for a living, and it played a big role in my decisions as well as adding an interesting project to my resume. I started Weird Things as an experiment, prompted to at least consider it by another blogger, and quickly made it my test of everything I knew about design, promotion, and web marketing. Writing post after post and doing everything I could to encourage whatever spikes in traffic I’d receive was a time-consuming challenge and any attempts to figure out what would bring in solid, steady hits seemed to evade me for months at a time. Those of my friends who thought that blogging was as quick, simple, and fun as blog networks generally make it out to be, were quickly surprised to discover how much time it took to build a more or less professional blog. And all that time and effort paid off. It introduced me to all sorts of blogs and scientific news sites, gave me a brief chance to rent this blog to a big shot blog network (too bad it didn’t work out, but hey, things happen), and last but certainly not least, directly and indirectly got me in touch with people who I now call friends. In fact, if you’d know enough about me, you could make the argument that I’d still be single without Weird Things. That’s why the idea of putting this blog into archive mode feels like having to put down a puppy you just raised.

It was also under the influence of all the science I was reading and the scientists to whom I was talking that got me thinking about diving deeper into the tech world and doing research into machine vision and basic AI, and working as a programmer. Having to constantly dust off my math and critical thinking skills got me in the right mode, and the time I spent searching for good information to back up my stances in posts gave me the necessary patience to start asking questions and spend hour after hour immersed in relevant reading to find answers I could back with evidence. This certainly wasn’t my intent when I started writing, but that’s what two and a half years of science blogging did for me, and if I had the ability to keep working on the kind of posts I’d usually make here day in, day out, I would certainly continue doing it. However, that simply doesn’t seem like a real possibility in the foreseeable future. I still stand by all the nearly 1,200 posts written here and I’m certainly willing to accept that I made mistakes in some of them. When in the next few weeks I flip off a a few switches to make Weird Things static, I’ll feel good knowing that a lot of the posts I wrote cover enough ground to keep their relevance even years down the road, as people wander to this blog via random links and searches. And maybe someday, I’ll come back or start a different kind of blog. I will certainly make an update to let you know. But meanwhile, I want to thank you for staying tuned, and for helping make Weird Things what it was…

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I’ve been sitting on some big news for a while but today, with all of the necessary paperwork written in a bizarre eldritch language not meant for the eyes of mere mortals signed in triplicate over a pentagram drawn with the blood of a recently sacrificed virgin — the kind who devoted a lot of time to role playing games and arguing about them on message boards, not a gorgeous young lady, relax — we’re making it official. Weird Things is all set to join its partners in content at NWO Blogs, the best place for bloggers working on disseminating the propaganda and advancing the sinister machinations of the Reptoids and secret Illuminati cabals of the New World Order. We have a big year in front of us as we keep laying down the groundwork for the global takeover in December of 2012, and there’s going to be a steady stream of posts required to disinform and hypnotize the public into obediently complying with our subliminal orders. Using the prototype assembled from the plans laid out in my thesis project, the HypnoBlog initiative should really gain a lot of steam by late fall, getting us right where we want to be when it comes time to execute our schemes.

Since we’re talking about this blog’s links with NWO initiatives, it would only be fitting to acknowledge the help of the Men in Black in composing my posts about alien contact, alien invasions, and ancient astronauts, or as we generally refer to them, Monday morning, Thursday night, and the history books we stash in the hidden underground catacombs under the Library of Congress along with the DNA manipulating machines and vast tomes of extraterrestrial wisdom. I’d also like to thank Lord Draconis Zeneca of Glaxxon PharmaCOM Orbital for my posts on vaccination, posts such as this week’s discussion about vaccine refusers, requested by a higher up in the Reptoid hierarchy for which Glaxxon is a thriving front. With my busy schedule, it’s easy to skip an important topic and I certainly appreciate Lord Zeneca’s input as well as the lovely pet he sent me. I’m not quite sure what that pet is yet but it has six eyes on spiral, bony stalks, six limbs with large claws, and since it frequently belches deadly acid, it’s currently living in my dungeon until I and the significant other find out what we’re actually going to do with the horrifying thing. Last, but certainly not least, I’d also like to extend my thanks to the Illuminati appointed copyeditors who try to review every post that goes on Weird Things and offer me a wealth of tips, research materials, and advice. You guys and girls, and whatever those tentacled daemons are, are just the best, and I’m looking forward to our future work and biweekly orgies together.

Now you may ask why this is happening and how long it’s been going on if you missed the clues I’ve dropped since the beginning of last year when I wrote about the major disparity in income between skeptics and the famous promoters of woo we regularly rebuke, as well as the image chosen for my post about the variety of conspiracy theories nowadays, and my elaboration of how the military-industrial complex in the U.S. got to be the way it is today, which hinted at unspecified future need for well armed troops on the cutting edge of weapons technology. Of course I couldn’t elaborate on that, but then again, I don’t know everything on that end and it really wouldn’t be good practice to randomly guess in posts for public consumption. So what about the few posts I wrote about WikiLeaks’ aura of undeserved grandeur and Assange’s faux martyrdom, you may be wondering. Well, those were just my personal conclusions since WikiLeaks was an Illuminati operation in the first place, designed to foster chaos and mistrust in global politics, and lure certain nations to work with a shadowy cabal which would keep their secrets safe for a fee. Would love to say more because the whole plan as detailed in the handbook is actually quite ingenious and clever, but as you can probably guess, this sort of thing is kind of hush hush at the moment. Suffice it to say that bringing down well established governments is a long process and it takes a lot of subterfuge.

Speaking of global instability, it’s worth mentioning that the aftermath of the Great Recession has really been speeding it up nicely, and considering that it was just a bonus thrown in by Wall Street rather than a planned takedown like the dot com bubble, it’s actually saving us a whole lot of time and money. Thanks Bear Sterns, we owe you one. And while you’re still taking all this in, let me assure you that the switchover itself will be as seamless as it can be and you won’t have to change your bookmarks for the blog or the feed. Actually, since this domain name has a rather nice Google rank and gets a very decent amount of search traffic, we’re going to keep it as is. The only real change will happen behind the scenes as I transfer the multimedia files and the database over to the NWO server networks, and the switchover itself will be almost instant so again, no need to do anything on your end. After midnight tonight, this blog will continue as usual, so if we do everything right on our end, you will not notice anything different. Exactly as planned when negotiations for this project began. Stay tuned. The takeover won’t be televised, but it will certainly be hypno-blogged…