The Friedman Singularity

Years ago, I imagine that the management of the New York Times met to work out criteria for who would write the opinion columns in the paper. They walked in with one iron-clad commitment: they believed in “balance”, you couldn’t just bring on writers of reason and evidence, because that would be unfair to the right wing. They also tut-tutted the awkwardness of strong language and vigorously supported opinions, so they needed to find a middle ground. They decided that the way to fill their quota of conservative voices was to simply hire deeply stupid people.

And this is how Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, and Ross Douthat got their sinecures on the pages of the prestigious (but losing its luster) New York Times.

I think David Brooks is the worst of them, but then every time I read anything by Friedman I feel like changing my mind. This doesn’t happen often, though, because Friedman makes me vomit out of my eyesockets, which is generally incompatible with being able to read further.

Matt Taibbi has a stronger constitution than I do, apparently, and reviews Friedman’s latest metastatic column, I mean “book”, Thank You for Being Late. He is very unkind. Not unkind enough, but he gets close to what we need.

We will remember Friedman for interviewing 76 percent of the world’s taxi drivers, for predicting “the next six months will be critical” on 14 occasions over two and a half years (birthing the neologism, “the Friedman unit”), and for his unmatched, God-given ability to write nonsensical metaphors, like his classic “rule of holes”: “When you’re in one, stop digging. When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.”

Friedman’s great anti-gift is his ability to use many words when only a few are necessary. He became famous as a newspaper columnist for taking simple one-sentence observations like, “Wow, everyone has a cell phone these days,” and blowing them out into furious 850-word trash-fires of mismatched imagery and circular argument.

Yeah, that’s our man Tom. Terrible writer, inane pseudo-philosopher, the most predictably unimaginative source of idiotic “ideas” on the NY Times roster. I have no idea why he’s still employed. There must have been some kind of blood pact signed at the meeting I imagined, or perhaps they closed the deal with an orgy and Friedman has recordings.

Taibbi singled out one example of Friedmanesque unprofundity: this graph, intended to illustrate his claim that we’re being overwhelmed by our own technology.


Bad timing. I’ve been grading lab reports lately, so I’m particularly sensitive to abominations like that. Label your axes! What are the units? Are “adaptibility” and “technology” even measurable in the same way and with the same units? Hey, the ordinate is “rate of change” — do you actually intend to argue that human adaptability, for instance, is increasing? Where’s your evidence? And then I draw big red slashes through the whole thing and tell the student that this is unacceptable, you get a 0 for this assignment, go back and rewrite it.

No, really, this is disgraceful. It’s an obvious attempt to pretend that a subjective claim is factually objective by falsely casting it in the form of a quantitative measurement. You don’t get to do that.

And then it gets worse. Friedman draws a second version of the graph, with his suggestion for how we can correct this mismatch between adaptability and technology.


Hey, my metaphor of vomiting out of my eye sockets no longer looks so hyperbolic, does it?

So the Friedman solution for our current production of excess technology beyond our capacity to absorb (a problem that he hasn’t actually shown to exist) is to build a time machine, go into an undefined moment in the past, and make people “learn faster”. He’s written a whole book about an undemonstrated problem, illustrated it with a bogus graph, and solved it by drawing a line on the graph that shows he doesn’t understand his own illustration, and that requires multiple amazing technological feats to accomplish…in a book that complains about the rapidity of our technological advances.

I know what this means. He’s trying to get a raise from the NY Times by feeding them more of what they hired him for.

Do we really want to encourage people to rewrite Christmas carols?

They’re already so tiresome, the world doesn’t need an excuse to play Christmas carols more. I already cringe when I step into any store.

But OK, just one. As we all know, “Baby it’s cold outside” is one of the rapiest songs ever, so how about killing those lyrics? So Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski did. Here’s the new version.

I really can’t stay/Baby I’m fine with that
I’ve got to go away/Baby I’m cool with that
This evening has been/Been hoping you get home safe
So very nice/I’m glad you had a real good time
My mother will start to worry/Call her so she knows that you’re coming
Father will be pacing the floor/Better get your car a-humming
So really I’d better scurry/No rush.
Should I use the front or back door?/Which one are you pulling towards more?
The neighbors might think/That you’re a real nice girl
What is this drink?/Pomegranate La Croix
I wish I knew how/Maybe I can help you out
To break this spell/I don’t know what you’re talking about
I ought to say no, no, no/you reserve the right to say no
At least I’m gonna say that I tried/you reserve the right to say no
I really can’t stay/…Well you don’t have to
Baby it’s cold outside
I’ve got to get home/Do you know how to get there from here
Say, where is my coat/I’ll go and grab it my dear
You’ve really been grand/We’ll have to do this again
Yes I agree/How ’bout the Cheesecake Factory?
We’re bound to be talking tomorrow/Text me at your earliest convenience
At least I have been getting that vibe/Unless I catch pneumonia and die
I’ll be on my way/Thanks for the great night

I still don’t want to listen to it every day, but stripping out the consent overrides makes it a little better.

Next, kill Jesus from all those other old chestnuts. “Chestnuts”, damn. Now I’m thinking of that other Christmas favorite that starts off with a line about chestnuts…the problem with most of these songs isn’t actually the lyrics, it’s the frequency.

CNN reports a miracle: concrete doesn’t burn!

It’s amazing. The fires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee have killed people and destroyed wooden homes, but our delightfully insightful and evidence based media found a concrete statue of Jesus that survived while the house around it turned to ash. Praise the lord!


Hang on a moment — it looks like the foundation of the house also survived the blaze. Praise cinderblock, the one true god!

Can we test whether CNN’s broadcasting studios will survive an inferno next?

News from the homeland

Minnesota is a fairly liberal state, but Washington, especially western Washington, is where I’m from and where my heart is*. It’s good to see that Seattle is maintaining a tradition of liberal empiricism: they raised the minimum wage there a few years ago, against conservative howling that it would destroy the local economy. They’ve now acquired enough data to test that prediction, and guess what? The conservatives were full of it.

The unemployment rate in the city of Seattle – the tip of the spear when it comes to minimum wage experiments – has now hit a new cycle low of 3.4%, as the city continues to thrive. I’m not sure what else there is to say at this point. The doomsayers were wrong. The sky has not fallen. The restaurant business, by all accounts, is booming (in fact, probably reaching a saturation point when one looks at eateries per capita). I think it’s safe to say we’ve got enough data – over almost two years now – to declare that Seattle has not suffered adverse consequences from its increases in the minimum wage, and has certainly not experienced the dire effects foretold by the anti-min wage crowd.

Not that evidence matters to that group. Nor, unfortunately, to very many voters in the homeland.

It seems that Grays Harbor county (where my brother and his wife live…hi, Jim and Julie!) went Trump in this last election. They’ll get their just reward, though.

It turns out Grays Harbor County is one of the places in our state that the dreaded Obamacare has been propping up the most. This issue got barely any attention in the election — though I bet it will now.

A few years ago, 19 percent of the people there had no health coverage, one of the higher uninsured rates in the state. Today, only 9 percent remain uninsured. Almost all of that improvement is because Obamacare provided Medicaid coverage, for free or nearly free, for more than 8,000 Grays Harbor adults.

An incredible one in five Grays Harbor adults signed up for it. That’s a sign-up rate more than double King County’s.

Yet the county that’s relying on it just voted for the candidate who vowed to get rid of it.

You can’t blame my family for that, though. They all voted for Clinton. In fact, I’m one of those lucky people who would have been perfectly happy to get together with family over Thanksgiving, because they’re all raving socialists who would have voted fervently for unions and better minimum wages and supporting education and all that pinko stuff. I think our only arguments would have been over exactly how wonderful Bernie is.

*Don’t bother hunting for my phylactery, it’s well-hidden and guarded by vicious octopods.

The Fermi paradox is only interesting for the assumptions it exposes

The Fermi paradox is neither a problem nor a paradox, so it’s always baffling to me when it’s brought up. It’s like those annoying trolley problems: they’re stupid and unrealistic and pointless, except that they make you think about your assumptions. It’s only when people focus on the minute details of the question, rather than thinking about what the answer says about yourself, that you want to yell at people to shut up, they’re missing the point.

The Fermi ‘paradox’ was only fascinating to the physicists and engineers who were sitting around wondering about how they were going to get into space and explore strange new worlds because they assumed those strange new worlds were populated with other physicists and engineers who were thinking the same thing. In a rational world, they would have simply said, “Oh, my assumption must be wrong, let’s move on.” But no, instead they started inventing excuses for the absence of aliens, instead now assuming that there must be hordes of frustrated scientists and engineers out there who are pinin’ to visit Earth, but are stymied by the speed of light or their predilection for building nuclear weapons first and exterminating themselves or that they’re using some super-duper communications technology we haven’t invented yet. All their rationalizations seem grossly anthropocentric.

As a biologist, we have a collection of assumptions, too, only our assumptions all seem to default to making the absence of aliens an entirely ordinary conclusion. Life is probably common in the universe — all it seems to require is redox chemistry (universal, obviously), proton gradients as an energy source, which can be easily generated in lots of ways, and time, which the universe has lots of. We don’t expect a multiplicity of engineers, because they’re not common even here on earth. We tend to expect bacteria-like and algae-like organisms, because those are ubiquitous here. But we’re unsurprised that they aren’t hailing us, because we similarly do not expect an algal population in Australia to launch a transcontinental probe, land it on my desk, and slither out to plant a flag and claim it in the name of their colony.

My assumptions could be wrong, but because they’re grounded in known science, I don’t expect them to be. To me, the Fermi paradox is simply confirmation of a reasonable inference.

Where this gets troublesome, though, is that some creationists use it as confirmation of what they think is a reasonable inference — that life exists nowhere else in the universe, but is the product of a unique creation event here on Earth.

In a sense, Christian presumptions and its claim of historicity for biblical miracles is more consistent with what should be happening given the premises of evolutionary science. A complex and powerful Godhead with anthropomorphic habits, dimension-jumping beings doing God’s bidding or working against it, frequent interventions in history accompanied by bizarre occurrences in nature—isn’t this what we’d expect in a universe given all the oddities of physics in the context of evolutionary randomness?

I’d grant the guy one thing: the absence of aliens is an observation compatible with the hypothesis that life only exists on one planet, ours. However, he’s wrong that we should accept the possibility that any outlandish scenario could occur in the history of the universe — there are natural laws that seem to be pretty consistent in their operation, which is going to constrain the range of possiblities — and he is even more wrong when he suggests that one particular bizarre scenario that just happens to coincide with his religious preconceptions ought to be “expected”. He really reaches to turn his mythology into a science-fiction story.

So, given the sheer magnitude of theoretical possibilities granted by known science, to say nothing of the unknown science waiting to be discovered, what is really so random and strange about, say, an alien being flooding the earth in order to destroy a genetic perversion of humanity bent on destroying the original species this same alien had crafted?

The answer, of course, is “nothing.” Yet, we suspect Dawkins et. al. would grant any alien scenario so long as it doesn’t involve a tri-conscious being making periodic manifestations among ancient Semitic peoples about 3,000 years ago, which in a rather singular case used as its avatar a first-century personage born in the days when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

I have to raise two objections to his fantasy.

  1. When Richard Dawkins and others suggest that they are open to the idea of aliens having intervened in the history of life, that acceptance is general — they are not inventing a convoluted, contrived series of events — and contingent on evidence for such an intervention being found. Are there phenomena we don’t understand yet? Yes. Could they have been important in the origin of life? Sure, but you have to be specific about the mechanism you are arguing for, and provide good evidence that it happened.

  2. Your scenario must be compatible with all of the reliable, available evidence. There was no global flood in the history of humanity, so a model that depends on a significant event that has already been falsified is garbage. We also know that humanity had a founder population much larger than 8 people, and that the young earth creationist timeline is incompatible with physics and geology and paleontology and even recorded human history.

Another revealing thing about this article: it purports to complain about science’s interpretation of the Fermi paradox, but it doesn’t cite any science — instead, the only sources the guy mentions are science fiction, and even at that he doesn’t mention any SF books, but only SF and horror movies.

I guess this should be no surprise, that someone who mangles logic and misunderstands a hypothesis doesn’t read any books (except, maybe the Bible) and definitely doesn’t read any real science. He doesn’t seem to recognize irony or projection, either.

Meanwhile, the aliens arising from the imagination of modern science fiction, because they have no affiliation whatsoever with the evidence at hand, have a little more than the whiff of blind faith associated with them. Unlike say, Christian faith, where powerful objective evidence creates an ongoing intellectual crisis calling one to abandon subjective thinking, blind faith in something lacking any objective basis leaves only the subject’s imagination as the focus of query.

If that was intentional, it’s kind of funny — “powerful objective evidence” for Christianity? Hah. I fear he’s being serious, though.

Watching the legal sausage getting made

You may know that Freethoughtblogs, The Orbit, and Skepticon have taken on a lawyer to defend us against a lawsuit for over two million dollars by Richard Carrier. Weirdly, this suit was filed in Ohio, where none of the targets live, and where most of the conflicts did not occur, and our lawyer’s first tactic is to file for a change of venue. This is a public filing, so you can read it yourself (pdf).


Maybe this is your idea of entertainment.

Try telling Ray Comfort that

He won’t get it, because like a heck of a lot of people, he doesn’t understand systematics at all. We will continue to try, though. Here’s a simple introduction to a basic concept in cladistic taxonomy:

One of the central tenets of modern taxonomy is that every group has to include, by definition, all of the groups that evolve from it. So rats did not stop being mammals when the rodent group branched off the evolutionary tree. Every branch on the tree of life is considered to be a member of all its parent branches.

This means, for example, there can be no definition of fish that does not include everything that evolved from fish. Following this logic you could argue that as amphibians evolved from fish, amphibians are fish. Mammals evolved from animals that evolved from amphibians, so mammals are fish. We are fish. While every biologist knows this conundrum, and that there is no biological definition for what most people consider “fish”, they decide not to worry about it because it’s helpful to think about living swimming “fish” as a group. Taxonomy is useful and makes a lot of sense, until it doesn’t.

There are other ways to classify organisms — we could do it by what color they are, or what they eat — but the one method that works coherently is to group them by line of descent.

A sudden craving for Froot Loops

While I made my brief and entirely unpleasant visit to Breitbart to read that dishonest Delingpole article, they flashed a big ad in my face telling me to BOYCOTT KELLOGG’S — apparently because the company yanked their ads from Breitbart’s big Nazi hate site. And to do that, they showed me a screen full of the products I’m supposed to avoid.


I’m honestly not much of a breakfast cereal eater, but next time I’m at the store I’m picking some of those up. Very effective advertising, Breitbart!

Kellogg’s: the cereal of healthy Nazi-smashers everywhere!

The righties get their scientific misinformation from Breitbart, the Daily Mail, the Drudge Report, and James Delingpole

This is what we’ve come to already.

The house science committee, chaired by Republican Lamar Smith, is citing an article in Breitbart written by James Fucking Delingpole. It’s a story built on a collection of lies first published in The Daily Mail.

The Washington post calls it “dubious and deceptive”, and has published an article rejecting the claims, Earth’s temperature has not plunged at record clip and nationwide record cold not coming. The scientists I know are dumbfounded.

I actually read Delingpole’s article, and even though I’m not a climatologist, I could see how thickly the bullshit was being slathered. Here’s the kind of nonsense he’s slinging.

This is why there is such an ideological divide regarding climate change between those on the left and those on the right. The lefties get their climate information from unreliable fake news sites like Buzzfeed.

Wrong. This lefty gets his climate information from published, peer-reviewed science.