I’ve got to buy a Roku now?

They seem to be nifty little devices, and now I have one more reason to get one.

American Atheists announced Wednesday that it has set Tuesday, July 29, 2014, as the official date for the launch of Atheist TV, the world’s first television channel dedicated to atheist content, on Roku. The national atheist nonprofit will host a launch party that night in Manhattan to celebrate.

“The launch of Atheist TV is history in the making,” said American Atheists President David Silverman. “There are hundreds of TV channels dedicated to religious programming, but nothing like this has ever existed before for atheists, and yet the demand is overwhelming. For the first time, atheist video content—from firebrand speeches, to stand-up comedy, to documentaries, to real science-based educational programming, and more—is now available to atheists worldwide, on the air and all in one place. Atheist TV brings consistent, quality, superstition-free programming for children and adults, on the air and on-demand, right from your regular television. This is an idea whose time has come and we’re celebrating.”

The invitation-only launch party will take place from 6-8 pm ET at the Union Square Penthouse venue in Manhattan. Well-known TV producers and personalities, atheist activists and public speakers, video content producers for the channel, and Atheist TV and American Atheists sponsors and donors will be in attendance. The celebration and launch will feature a speech by President David Silverman and a countdown to the first broadcast at 7 pm, at which time a welcome video starring several well-known atheists and science educators will air.

The channel, which provides both an on-air streaming schedule and video-on-demand, is available worldwide for free via Roku, a small device that connects to the back of a television, similar to a cable box. The on-air live streaming portion will also be viewable free on the channel’s website. See http://www.atheists.tv for more information.

Correcting the bad reporting

I complained about the credulous media coverage of the so-called landmark success at the Turing test yesterday. That was the first flush of press release regurgitation; fortunately, there’s been a strong rebound of sensible journalism now. Gary Marcus talks about failing the Turing test, Scott Aaronson has a chat with Eugene Goostman, and Mike Masnick really rips it a new one.

Oh, and the biggest red flag of all. The event was organized by Kevin Warwick at Reading University. If you’ve spent any time at all in the tech world, you should automatically have red flags raised around that name. Warwick is somewhat infamous for his ridiculous claims to the press, which gullible reporters repeat without question. He’s been doing it for decades. All the way back in 2000, we were writing about all the ridiculous press he got for claiming to be the world’s first "cyborg" for implanting a chip in his arm. There was even a — since taken down — Kevin Warwick Watch website that mocked and categorized all of his media appearances in which gullible reporters simply repeated all of his nutty claims. Warwick had gone quiet for a while, but back in 2010, we wrote about how his lab was getting bogus press for claiming to have "the first human infected with a computer virus." The Register has rightly referred to Warwick as both "Captain Cyborg" and a "media strumpet" and has long been chronicling his escapades in exaggerating bogus stories about the intersection of humans and computers for many, many years.

This is what has happened to journalism: the competent get fired to make room for cheap hacks who can disgorge press releases without thinking, and the qualified experts have to follow along behind, sweeping up the crap.

Media fails to pass the Turing test

I don’t get it — there are news reports everywhere credulously claiming that the Turing Test has been successfully passed, and they are all saying exactly the same thing: that over 30% of the judges couldn’t tell that a program called Eugene Goostman wasn’t a 13 year old boy from Odessa with limited language skills. We’re not hearing much about the judges, though: the most common thing to report is that one of them was actor Robert Llewellyn, who played robot Kryten in the sci-fi comedy TV series Red Dwarf.

Instead of parroting press releases, it seems to me that the actual result should be reported as a minority of poorly qualified judges in a single media-driven event were trivially fooled by a clumsy chatbot with a background story to excuse its bad grammar and flighty behavior into thinking they were talking to a real person. It’s not so much a validation of the capabilities of an AI as it is an indictment of the superficiality of this test, as implemented.

Or, if an editor really wanted a short, punchy, sensationalist title, they have permission to steal mine.

We don’t yet have transcripts of the conversation, but the text of a 2012 test of the same program are available. They are painfully unimpressive.

Albert Einstein was not your prophet

This photo has been making the rounds for a while — it’s garbage, Snopes suggests that there is no corroboration for the quote, and the commenters agreeing with the sentiment are idiots. Who are using technology to talk about it.


I look at that bottom photo and see five women interacting intensely with a larger circle of human beings than just that one little clump right there — and they could very well be talking to people world-wide. I see technology as an enabler and enhancer of communication.

I look at the top photo and see an authoritarian jerk behind it, who thinks putting their words into the mouth of a famous scientist lends their opinion greater authority. It doesn’t. It’s also kind of unfair to poor old Albert.

What are we going to do about Amazon?

I was reading a summary of Amazon’s bullying of Hachette — basically, Amazon used it’s near-monopoly power to shut out an independent publisher — and that, on top of it’s labor practices, tells me I need to find a way out of the Amazon trap before they become a full monopoly.

But here’s the catch: I live out in the boondocks. The nearest bookstore is a 50 minute drive away. I am addicted to the Kindle app — I can use my iPad to click on a title and get it zapped into my hands in 30 seconds, like magic. So I went searching to see if any other bookseller has similar functionality. Barnes & Noble has an app that will let you search their inventory and find a nearby store (I looked. Two hours away.) Powell’s is even worse: it assumes you will show up at their door in Portland, Oregon, and their app provides an interactive map to help you find your way around their store.

These are not useful for me.

Does Amazon already have an effective monopoly on e-books? To rebuke Amazon, am I going to get off my e-book addiction and start reading those old-fashioned things with ink and paper again?

What’s causing the boom in atheism?

It is only appropriate that now, while I’m at Skep-Tech 2, we should get an article about the influence of technology on religion. It seems to be primarily corrosive.

Back in 1990, about 8 percent of the U.S. population had no religious preference. By 2010, this percentage had more than doubled to 18 percent. That’s a difference of about 25 million people, all of whom have somehow lost their religion.


(By the way, I’m not a fan of graphs that mislead by having different scales: the percent change in the adoption of the internet is far, far greater than the percent change in the adoption of atheism — this chart illustrates a similarity in timing, only.)

A computer scientist, Allen Downey, has dissected these trends to identify the major components affecting religiosity, and has narrowed it down to three big ones: upbringing, education, and access to the internet.

He finds that the biggest influence on religious affiliation is religious upbringing—people who are brought up in a religion are more likely to be affiliated to that religion later.

However, the number of people with a religious upbringing has dropped since 1990. It’s easy to imagine how this inevitably leads to a fall in the number who are religious later in life. In fact, Downey’s analysis shows that this is an important factor. However, it cannot account for all of the fall or anywhere near it. In fact, that data indicates that it only explains about 25 percent of the drop.

He goes on to show that college-level education also correlates with the drop. Once it again, it’s easy to imagine how contact with a wider group of people at college might contribute to a loss of religion.

Since the 1980s, the fraction of people receiving college level education has increased from 17.4 percent to 27.2 percent in the 2000s. So it’s not surprising that this is reflected in the drop in numbers claiming religious affiliation today. But although the correlation is statistically significant, it can only account for about 5 percent of the drop, so some other factor must also be involved.

That’s where the Internet comes in.  In the 1980s, Internet use was essentially zero, but in 2010, 53 percent of the population spent two hours per week online and 25 percent surfed for more than 7 hours.

This increase closely matches the decrease in religious affiliation. In fact, Downey calculates that it can account for about 25 percent of the drop.

That’s a fascinating result. It implies that since 1990, the increase in Internet use has had as powerful an influence on religious affiliation as the drop in religious upbringing.

I think there’s more to the story than this, though. The internet is too big and messy to be simplistically causal: there are also a great many sites dedicated to reinforcing the lies of religion, obviously, and there are Chrisians and Moslems who use the internet as a tool for evangelism and tribe-building. A more interesting question would be about how people use the internet. I don’t think a person’s faith would be challenged by the internet alone, but only if they use the internet to explore and compare conflicting views.

My future tattoo

I, for one, welcome our glorious future of ubiquitous computing. Researchers have come up with a temporary tattoo that functions as a computer, complete with processing power, data storage, and wireless data reception and transmission. Also, drugs.

The researchers constructed the device by layering a package of stretchable nanomaterials — sensors that detect temperature and motion, resistive RAM for data storage, microheaters and drugs — onto a material that mimics the softness and flexibility of the skin. The result was a sticky patch containing a device roughly 4 centimetres long, 2 cm wide and 0.003 millimetres thick, says study co-author Nanshu Lu, a mechanical engineer at the University of Texas in Austin.

They’re not talking about recreational drugs (but maybe in a future update!), but that the purpose of this device is continuous physiological monitoring and delivery of therapeutic drugs in response, so a specific and very useful initial goal.

Give it a few years, though, and forget the iPhone and iWatch and iWhatever — I just my hands and forearms covered with fancy circuitry that does cool stuff.

Unfortunately, the article mentions one serious limitation: we’re waiting for the development of a thin, flexible battery to power all this gadgetry. Once that’s all worked out, though, it’ll be a wonderful fashion accessory to go with my transparent cranium.