More money than sense

Take one terrible NY Times pundit who lives on an alien planet of her own, and toss her into the esoteric hothouse world of Silicon Valley, and all you’re going to get is a hot mess, a weird dive into the delusions of very rich smart people with no reality brakes to check out the truth. Maureen Dowd talks to Elon Musk and other pretentious luminaries. It’s painful if you prioritize critical thinking.

They are two of the most consequential and intriguing men in Silicon Valley who don’t live there. Hassabis, a co-founder of the mysterious London laboratory DeepMind, had come to Musk’s SpaceX rocket factory, outside Los Angeles, a few years ago. They were in the canteen, talking, as a massive rocket part traversed overhead. Musk explained that his ultimate goal at SpaceX was the most important project in the world: interplanetary colonization.

Hassabis replied that, in fact, he was working on the most important project in the world: developing artificial super-intelligence. Musk countered that this was one reason we needed to colonize Mars—so that we’ll have a bolt-hole if A.I. goes rogue and turns on humanity. Amused, Hassabis said that A.I. would simply follow humans to Mars.

In a world overpopulated with billions of people, where climate change is a looming threat, where all those people are a petri dish for cultivating new diseases, where the majority live in poverty, where in many places clean water is a struggle to find, where the most militarily powerful nation has just elected an incompetent, narcissistic clown to be in charge, two men sit down to talk. One says the most important project in the world is to put a tiny number of people on a barren rock. The other says the most important project is to create more powerful computers that can think on their own.

And then the two of them start arguing over the threat of artificial intelligences enslaving, or liberating, humanity. These intelligences don’t exist, and may not exist, and will definitely not exist in the form these smart guys are imagining. It is the grown-up, over-paid version of two children arguing over who would win in a fight, Darth Vader or Magneto? The Millenium Falcon or the Starship Enterprise? Jesus or Buddha?

And then Ray Kurzweil shows up.

Fuck me.

Dowd just parrots these absurd conversations and doesn’t offer any critical perspectives, and lord help us, the participants certainly don’t. Can we just lock them all in a well-padded room with an assortment of action figures and tell them to get to work to resolve the most important dispute in the universe, which toy is powerfulest?

Or could we at least have one skeptic in this mess to try and focus the discussions on something real?

Dumbass Douthat and the clueless conservative perspective

Good god, but the most appalling morons can find a comfortable sinecure on the opinion pages of that blithe harbor for the right-wing tropes of the bourgeois, the NY Times. The latest is some nonsense from the routinely nonsensical Ross Douthat, “Break up the liberal city”. You got the gist from the title — he’d like to somehow rip apart all those big cities, because they’re hotbeds of liberalism.

We should treat liberal cities the way liberals treat corporate monopolies — not as growth-enhancing assets, but as trusts that concentrate wealth and power and conspire against the public good. And instead of trying to make them a little more egalitarian with looser zoning rules and more affordable housing, we should make like Teddy Roosevelt and try to break them up.

Right. Because, like monopolies, big cities are artificial constructs built by violating rules of organic growth and evading regulation. Oh, wait: the opposite of that. He doesn’t seem to consider that maybe it’s not that liberals created cities, but that the diversity and richness of life within a city creates liberals. He also doesn’t have a proposal for how he’s going to disrupt this property of cities. Perhaps he’s going to model it after Mao’s down to the countryside movement? But you know how it goes: scratch a conservative, find an authoritarian.

But I have even greater contempt for his next proposal:

Which is why we’ll go further, starting with the deep-pocketed elite universities clustered around our bloated megalopolises. We’ll tax their endowments heavily, but offer exemptions for schools that expand their student bodies with satellite campuses in areas with well-below-the-median average incomes. M.I.T.-in-Flint has a certain ring to it. So does Stanford-Buffalo, or Harvard-on-the-Mississippi.

HAS THIS ASSHOLE NEVER HEARD OF LAND GRANT UNIVERSITIES? Every state has a network of them. I work in a satellite campus of the University of Minnesota; this branch is located in rural western Minnesota, 3 hours from Minneapolis. The University of Minnesota system has five branch campuses in the Twin Cities, Duluth, Crookston, Morris, and Rochester. We also have MNSCU, which grew from the old system of normal and agricultural colleges, and consists of a parallel network of 30 colleges, 7 universities, and 54 campuses (how can you have more campuses than colleges? Ridgewater College, for instance, has two campuses, one in Willmar and another in Hutchinson). There are 142 colleges in this state, counting all the private colleges, the community colleges, the tribal colleges, the vocational colleges, etc.

Where, exactly, does Harvard-on-the-Mississippi fit into this diverse ecosystem of educational institutions? What advantage would it have over, say, St Cloud State University or the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, which are all located on the banks of the Mississippi already?

I guess if you are a NY Times pundit, you never need to look at how the world actually works to criticize it. Or if you’re a Harvard graduate, like Douthat, you can’t imagine a university that isn’t Harvard.

Mister Rogers, hippie peacenik

In 1983, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired a series of anti-war episodes.

Thirty-four years ago, on five consecutive episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, two feuding sects representing Russia and the United States began stockpiling parts for bombs—at one point stripping the neighborhood’s arts funding to bankroll the build-up.

I guess I’m not too surprised that Fred Rogers would put on shows with a message promoting peace and criticizing building up for war. What does surprise me, though, is that they were yanked from circulation afterwards.

The episodes were pulled from syndication and future releases. While production stills reappeared over the years, and a poor-quality, five-minute clip wound up on YouTube recently, the individual episodes themselves were never surfaced again.

I wonder who complained? I wonder who at PBS listened to those complaints? It’s a disturbing kind of low profile censorship. Now, suddenly, a couple of those episodes have appeared on YouTube in a weirdly timely release. I watched one of them — it was kind of sweet to see a children’s show I haven’t watched in probably 25 years, and it reminded me of what a nice guy Rogers was — and it really is rather explicit. The King has drafted everyone to make bombs, on a kids’ show, in response to the fear that a different puppet was making bombs, and is stripping the kingdom’s economy to the point where they can’t buy record players for the schools.

It’s a fine message. It tells us that there has been some subtle propaganda going on for decades, though, that this was policed off the air.

There was a #pizzagate rally today?

YouTube loon David Seaman apparently organized a rally in Washington DC to mobilize people to fight against a nonexistent pedophilia ring run out of a nonexistent basement at a pizza parlor. A “couple dozen” people showed up, but about the only coverage it’s getting is a few comments on Twitter.

This is a nonsensical story that has only gained a relatively small number of advocates, but the few are fanatical.

I’m so sorry for those poor kids. Not the imaginary ones kidnapped by a pizza parlor, but those three kids stuck with parents with a bizarre obsession.

We’re not done yet

The crappy Republican version of health care went down in flames (yay!), but don’t get cocky, kids. We’re not done. The Republicans still control everything, and they’ve got less flashy, less public, sneakier plans to destroy everything you hold dear.

Like science.

Lamar Smith is still chair of house science committee, which is a ridiculous state of affairs in itself, and he spoke openly about his plans at a Heartland Institute conference — that’s right, the Heartland Institute, that far right source of outrageous denialism and lies. If that’s the “heart” of our “land”, then this land is in the terminal stages of congestive heart failure.

Here’s what he had to say, though:

Next week we’re going to have a hearing on our favorite subject of climate change and also on the scientific method, which has been repeatedly ignored by the so-called self-professed climate scientists, Smith told the Heartland Institute’s 12th annual conference on climate change in Washington, D.C.

Wait, what? A Texas Republican politician is accusing scientists of not giving him the result he wants because they ignore the scientific method, and he’s going to have a hearing on the scientific method? Does he think he can pass a law to change how science works? Yes, he does. He’s also going to juggle the terminology to undermine meaning, shamelessly.

Emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump, Smith appears increasingly comfortable dismissing those who disagree with his stance on any number of issues under the purview of his science committee, from climate research to the use of peer review in assessing research results and grant proposals. And one key element in his strategy appears to be relabeling common terms in hopes of shaping public dialogue.

He wants to somehow exert political influence on what research gets funded.

Smith also signaled that he plans to turn up the volume on his criticism of federally funded research that doesn’t fit his definition of “sound science.” In particular, he expressed support for writing legislation that would punish scientific journals that publish research that doesn’t fit standards of peer review crafted by Smith and the committee (although he didn’t say how that would be accomplished).

It is definitely the case that science has been and always will be influenced by politics and culture, but legislators, who clearly are not elected for their scientific acumen, are isolated from specific control — they own the purse-strings, but disbursement is handled by peer review, by the community of scientists themselves. When politicians meddle, they usually just end up exposing their own ignorance: see also Democrat William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award, which was usually a great embarrassment, or Republican Sarah Palin’s stupid remarks about fruit flies. Just on general principle, keep these yahoos away from stuff they don’t understand.

Oh, and look, he’s using the phrase sound science. I haven’t heard that one in a while. For a long time, it’s been an easily spotted tell that you’re dealing with a crank.

When used by scientists it means robustly supported science, confirmed by multiple peer-reviewed studies. When used in politics (generally by wingnuts) it means ideologically sound science, i.e. a euphemism for industry-funded pseudoscientific bullshit.

Smith is quite the happy vulture as he looks forward to feasting on the corpses of our natural resources and our scientific establishment.

In fact, as Smith told one audience member who worried that Trump might renege on some to his campaign promises, the sky’s the limit when it comes to dismantling the past 8 years of environmental regulations.

“I think the president has ushered in a permanent change in the political climate,” Smith asserted. “And by that I mean I think he’ll keep his promises and that he’ll do exactly what he said. You’re seeing that in his appointments, like Scott Pruitt at EPA, for example. So … I don’t think you’ll have any disappointment on any of those issues.”

The wreckers are still in charge, and we all have a long fight ahead of us.

Great British TV

This admission is going to cost me readers, but you know I don’t shy away from controversy. Here is the terrible truth: I am not a fan of Dr Who. It’s OK, I don’t instantly turn it off if an episode comes on, but I don’t trouble myself to keep up with the series.

But that could change. I stumbled across this phenomenal episode that I’m going to share with you all.

What season was Rowan Atkinson the Doctor? I could watch more of that.

Friday Cephalopod: Did you ever wonder…?

What it’s like to be an octopus? This review of Peter Godfrey Smith’s book, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, captures perfectly why I’ve been fascinated by them — they’re the closest thing to aliens we’ve got.


Unlike cetaceans – whose sentience it is possible to imagine, partly because they demonstrate our mammalian connections so vividly and physically – cephalopods are entirely unlike us. “If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over,” says Godfrey-Smith. “This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” The fact that they have eight legs, three hearts, and blue-green blood allies them more with The Simpsons’ gloopy extra-terrestrials than anything earthly.