Ad wars a-comin’

Freethoughtblogs is a small content provider on the web: we openly and unabashedly serve a tiny niche of the available market (if you think atheism in general is a big thing, you need to get some perspective. Religious sects get a bigger slice of the pie, and heck, automotive makers are YUUUUUGE. There are many niches that totally dwarf us). And yet even us little people have infrastructure needs — gone are the days when I could just plug in some CMS widgets on my lab computer and have my site run in the background. We had to buy a dedicated server and have it hosted, with monthly fees, and with a tech person who has to keep it all running reliably, deal with those DOS attacks, etc. It all costs money, real cash.

So we’re dependent on some kind of revenue stream, and that comes from…ads. I hate the ads. You hate the ads. I would love to have some alternative means of covering our maintenance costs, but I haven’t seen a good strategy yet. I suppose we could go the route of public broadcasting, and yell at you every month to pledge to your local freethought blog network, but I think that would be about as unpleasant as the ads, and would also require us to work at fundraising. Most of us aren’t here for the money, you know, and playing pitchman is deeply uninteresting.

So this story fills me with trepidation: the big guns — Apple, Google, and Facebook — are warring over ads and adblocking, and guess who’ll be collateral damage?

But taking money and attention away from the web means that the pace of web innovation will slow to a crawl. Innovation tends to follow the money, after all! And asking most small- to medium-sized sites to weather that change without dramatic consequences is utterly foolish. Just look at the number of small sites that have shut down this year: GigaOm. The Dissolve. Casey Johnston wrote a great piece for The Awl about ad blockers, in which The Awl’s publisher noted that “seventy-five to eighty-five percent” of the site’s ads could be blocked. What happens to a small company when you take away 75 to 85 percent of its revenue opportunities in the name of user experience? Who’s going to make all that content we love so much, and what will it look like if it only makes money on proprietary platforms?

There are other things that aren’t discussed. Google is the master dominator of ads on the web — most of our ads are served up by Google. And Google isn’t the benign impartial deliverer of ad content that you might think. They have RULES. Show a hint of nudity in a photo on one of our pages, and someone can report it (we have no shortage of assholes looking to report such things) and Google will just shut down ads for our entire network. We’ve had long weeks with zero revenue because of bullshit like that.

Further, ad providers are not well-behaved. There is a constant competition for the people providing us with ads to inject sneaky code — it’s not enough to display your wares decorously in the space provided. They have to pop up, or pop under, or slide onto the screen, or switch on autoplay video so some shill can babble at you, and we all fucking hate that, and we turn on our adblockers. People come to a web site for the content, and if some goddamn cable company uses that as an excuse to dominate the screen with a dancing floating singing window, it defeats the purpose of going to the site. This whole ad-blocking conflict is an example of the tragedy of commons.

And we’re mostly helpless. We sign a contract, we dedicate a chunk of our page real estate to the ads, and our ad host gives us a little piece of code that fetches ads from some servers somewhere else, and we willingly place that parasitic sucker on our site, for the money. The money that we need to have a site at all.

The near future isn’t going to be fun.

Harassment by FOIA


Kevin Folta, a critic of the Food Babe, has been sent a list of demands for his email correspondence under the Freedom Of Information Act. I’m all in favor of transparency, and I can see where FOIA requests can be used to uncover conspiracy or expose intent, but this is a case where Folta has been outspoken and up-front: he thinks Vani Hari is a quack. You don’t need a shadowy paymaster and ulterior motives to explain why a scientist would publicly explain that someone said something that is scientifically wrong.

I also don’t need to rifle through her correspondence to figure out why she’s making these demands, nor does Kevin Folta.

This is all pretty simple. Vani Hari is a self-consumed amateur that is determined to discredit her critics. Why? She sits atop a multi-million dollar empire of corporate slander and internet sales. Why would she possibly exploit expensive public records requests to delve into the emails of a professor dedicated to public education?

Because he teaches facts, and more facts translate to fewer profits for Vani.

So instead of meeting him head-on about the science in a visible and public space, she uses a public records request to sneak a peek through his private correspondence in the hopes of… not sure what.

I’ve been there. I’ve gotten a few FOIA requests myself, and every time they’ve been trivial and pointless, and I wonder what the heck they expect to find. Receipts from George Soros sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to my PayPal account? Spirit commands from Saul Alinsky? Private confessions that the pseudoscience I’m critiquing is valid, but I have to publicly deride it, or the Little People will acquire the Vast Power only I should have at my fingertips?

I think part of it is vanity. They want evidence that the scientist is sitting there seething and writing frantic screeds to all of their friends talking about the quack. In that sense I’ve always shattered the ego of the FOIA pests: typically I’ve only found small handfuls of email that meet their search criteria, and most of the results are accidental.

Vani Hari wants all of Folta’s email that mentions the word “Babe”. It’s not a term I use much, but I checked my email: I’ve got 9 messages that use the word. A grand total of 1 is about Food Babe (someone sent me a link to a parody…there was no money involved, darn it).

I think I missed a good critique of evolutionary psychology

I must have been taking a nap a couple of years ago. I just found this interesting discussion of EP by a psychologist, and I agree very much with it.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that the human mind works much like the body… that it is an information-processing system, with pre-specified psychological programs (or environmentally-triggered ones), adapted much like the rest of the body, to meet specific problems in our evolutionary past. Others, including myself, disagree with this definition of the human mind. While I would certainly agree that evolution had a profound role in shaping lower-level modular systems, including autonomic nervous system responses, reflex arcs, immune systems, complex motor control, systems related to sexual arousal, and so on, it does not make sense for us to assume that our more complex social behaviors were shaped in the same way, or that they would even depend on lower-level domain-specific systems that evolutionary psychologists so frequently assume to be the ‘ultimate’ causes of behavior. Neurobiologists Panksepp and Panksepp point out that while evolutionary psychologists may interpret psychological data in a way to fit with their preferred theory, the philosophical assumptions that are the foundation of that theory are not at all consistent with what we know about human neurophysiology.

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Friday Cephalopod: This is not a mammalian eye and brain

This is an octopus eye:


This is an octopus brain:


I have to point this out because the creationist Eric Metaxas said a remarkable thing:

But the octopus isn’t the only such miracle. “Convergent evolution” is all over nature, from powered flight evolving three times to each continent having its own version of the anteater. Think about that. As one delightfully un-self-conscious “Science Today” cover put it, convergent evolution is “nature discover[ing] the same design over and over.” Well, good for nature!

But as Luskin argues, there’s a better explanation for a tentacled mollusk having a mammal’s brain and human eyes. And that explanation is common design by an intelligent Engineer. And like all good engineers, this this one reused some of His best designs.

Umm, the octopus has a retina with the photoreceptors on the inner face, unlike mammalian retinae that have the photoreceptors on the side away from the light. The octopus has no blind spot, and the axons of the eye emerge all over the back of the eye; mammalian axons have to traverse the inside of the eye and exit at a spot with no photoreceptors. The visual receptors of the octopus use the rhabodmeric transduction pathway, and mammalian photoreceptors use the ciliary pathway.

What kind of ignoramus would suggest that the octopus has human-like eyes?

Maybe the kind with a small central ganglion wrapped around their esophagus? Nah, that’s an insult to molluscs.

Longer and wronger

I quite annoyed one of the authors of that “Kill All The Predators argument, who butted heads with me on Twitter and told me I had to go read this longer essay by Jeff McMahan which would address all my objections, because philosophers all seem to think that if they can babble long enough, they’ll ultimately be persuasive. Spoiler alert: it just made the problems with their idea wordier.

In particular, I was told to read section 3 and 4, which deal with objections to their argument. So I’ll just address that bit here, because I think their defense is dead with the second sentence.

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I am horrified at what goes on in philosophy departments, personally


A couple of vegetarian philosophers with no knowledge of biology are alarmed…no, horrified at what’s going on out there in the wilderness.

The animal welfare conversation has generally centered on human-caused animal suffering and human-caused animal deaths. But we’re not the only ones who hunt and kill. It is true (and terrible) that an estimated 20 billion chickens were born into captivity in 2013 alone, many of whom live in terrible conditions in factory farms. But there are estimated 60 billion land birds and over 100 billion land mammals living in the wild. Who is working to alleviate their suffering? As the philosopher Jeff McMahan writes: “Wherever there is animal life, predators are stalking, chasing, capturing, killing, and devouring their prey. Agonized suffering and violent death are ubiquitous and continuous.”

They have a solution to this problem, though. We should humanely execute all predators. It’s the most ethical solution!

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