Friday Cephalopod: TRAITOR!

I am horrified by this article by Daniel Engber — remember that name — that denies that amazingness of cephalopods. I thought everyone loved them, but no, there is apparently a backlash of contrariness beginning.

For 10 years, I subscribed to this very point of view, forgoing any dish with octopus on account of the animal’s half a billion neurons, its sophisticated behavioral repertoire, and its apparent capacity for learning. How could one go on eating something so remarkable?

But, reader, I’m no longer having it. Or rather, I should say that in the past few years I’ve been having it every way I can: raw on sushi rice, braised with black olives, grilled with garlic and a pinch of Spanish paprika, etc. You see, as the cult of octopus intelligence has taken on adherents, I’ve begun to have my doubts. A slimy, brainy, eight-armed sea snail has been rebranded, uncritically and all at once, as the soulful “genius of the ocean.” But are Inky, Otto, and their ilk really what they seem—or could it be that we’re the suckers in this story?

<gasp> Everyone. Point and hiss at the heretic. Shun him.

Some of his arguments…OK, I will admit they do have smaller brains, they don’t exhibit the degree of abstract thought we might expect of a complex intelligent creature, and there are brainier aquatic organisms, like cetaceans. But still, this is a bad argument:

Hochner and his colleagues made several big discoveries, among them how the octopus controls the nearly infinite degrees of freedom in its arms. In short, it simplifies the task and does its best to dumb things down. Instead of waving all those arms around willy-nilly, the octopus falls back on a narrow set of “motor primitives.” When it reaches to a piece of food, for example, it aims the base of its arm in the right direction and then elongates and unfurls along its length. When it needs to bring an object to its mouth, it bends its arm in three specific places. And when the octopus crawls along the ocean floor, it works its arms like worms: One or two will shorten up, sucker to the ground, and then push off, always with the same amount of force.

From a scientific point of view, these facts are very interesting: They tell us how the octopus evolved to handle its outrageous anatomical complexity. But from the octopuses-are-amazing point of view—the perspective that might inspire you to get octopus tattoos, buy octopus best-sellers, or watch octopus-related content on TV—these facts seem a little sad. Sure, it makes a lot of sense for the octopus to use simple motor programs to control its arms instead of calculating every bend and twist of eight muscular hydrostats. But wouldn’t it be a little more impressive—wouldn’t it be cooler—if the octopus really did those calculations?

All right. Go outside with a ball right now, and throw it to someone. This is actually an interesting problem in geometry and physics, yet people who know no math and no theoretical physics have no problem doing this at all. Wouldn’t it be cooler if humans really did those calculations?

This is a non-argument. Simplifying cognitive tasks is exactly what even the brainiest creature routinely does. Would we be more impressed if it did tasks in the most computationally intensive way, with the most difficult, intricate calculations, or should we be more impressed with its efficiency?

Engber almost makes up for his heresy with his conclusion. Almost.

The modern octopus stands not for terror, exploitation, and expansion, but for amazement and delight.

We know that cephalopods can change their colors in an instant, or even flip their boneless bodies inside out. Now we’ve inverted octopuses for ourselves. We say that we’re enchanted by their shifty, frisky otherness, but I think it’s more apt to say that we’re the victims of that quality—that we’re beguiled by their talent for disguise. Yesterday we peered into the main and thought we’d found a ruthless, suffocating tyrant. Today, we see a charming rascal. Who knows what sort of animal we’ll think we’ve come across tomorrow. The mollusk of a thousand faces appears at different times in different ways, as a monster or a genius or perhaps a bag of slime. Maybe that’s the secret at the heart of its phylogeny: We may be on the hunt for greater meanings, but the octopus evolved to get away.

OK, so I won’t sic the Kraken on him just yet. Yet. But I’ve got my eyes on you, Engber. Terror and exploitation aren’t entirely off the menu, you know. Especially if you keep photoshopping bogus “eat me” signs onto my friends.

The joy of raising children

I just ran across this video, and I was outraged. It’s totally fake. It is so wrong.

She has hidden herself in the pantry to stuff herself with snack foods. I could empathize with her plight, but I was just saying to myself, “Where’s the vodka? The whisky? The tequila? This is a bullshit response.”

But maybe that’s what the video for a Truth Bomb Dad would look like. No tiaras. We replace them with alcohol.

Shameless plug

If you need a laugh next week, and you live near Bellingham, there’s an opportunity:

By the time Wed., March 7 rolls around, you’ll have gone a few days without mirthful medicine, so make plans to attend the inaugural “Menace on the Mic” Standup Comedy Night night starting at 9pm at Menace Brewing, 2529 Meridian St. The 21-and-older event will feature a few of the aforementioned comedians and others, including Charlie Myers, Matt Benoit, Timmy Riney, James Miller, and Ryan Cuddihy. If you need a beer or three to help with your healing, drink up. More info: http://www.menace-industries.com

That fellow with his name correctly spelled in there is my nephew, who has apparently decided that a career in academia, for instance, is too full of frustration, heartbreak, and struggle, and is taking the easy path of trying to make it in standup comedy. At least it’s a job with beer.

Don’t need no history, social studies, art, music, foreign languages, and communications!

Unbelievable.

So history, social studies, art, music, foreign languages, and communications are all “fat”, total wastes of time.

If you’re like me, you have no idea who Bryan Caplan is, so you’ll have to look him up on Wikipedia (see? It is useful). There you’ll learn that he is an economist, a field that I notice is not on his list of useless ideas, coincidentally. But you will also discover this revelation.

After having long shed a youthful infatuation with the works of Russian American writer Ayn Rand and her philosophical system of Objectivism, in 2004 Caplan wrote in his essay ‘An Intellectual Biography’, “I rejected Christianity because I determined that it was, to be blunt, idiotic. I rejected Objectivism and Austrianism, in contrast, as mixtures of deep truths and unfortunate mistakes. Let me begin with the deep truths. The Objectivists were right to insist that reality is objective, human reason able to grasp it, and scepticism without merit. They correctly hold that humans have free will, morality is objective, and the pursuit of self-interest typically morally right.”

Oh. A godless Randian. Is anyone surprised?

I guess I can kiss my wikipedia page goodbye

Another of the casualties of the various schisms within skepticism and atheism speaks out. Hayley Stevens has long been exasperated with movement skepticism, and she explains why.

Nothing is ever going to change because Skepticism has several large problems that it will fail to ever address effectively:

  1. the movement often allows irrational people to be elevated to positions of power from which they’re almost untouchable when it comes to criticism
  2. the skeptic movement is full of creepy men who don’t know how to behave appropriately around other people and they won’t go away.
  3. the skeptic movement is full of the kind of people who support these bad people unquestioningly.
  4. the skeptic movement is full of echo-chambers in which specific versions of truth are created and from which any information that counters this is shot down and, sometimes, even censored.

That first problem is a common one in new institutions. The skill set to be a good charismatic public representative rarely involves the skill set that is required to be a good, fair manager. Most college professors, myself included, would be totally incompetent in the role of university chancellor…but academia at least has a career path through administration that leads to better training in administrative roles. If you’re a skeptic/atheist who writes a best-selling book, presto, you’re the head of a foundation. That’s often a recipe for catastrophe.

Her second point is true of everything. I can’t single out skepticism for that at all…although the habit of these movements in promoting people well above their competence means the creepy guys get power and never learn to restrain themselves.

The third point…oh, boy is that true. Take a look at the promotional materials for far too many cons and presentations: all any impresario has to do is make a poster with the name of one of the handful of popular speakers in a gigantic bold font, with the date, time, and place below, and the audience will appear. They don’t even care what he (note: they’re all “he”) will say, what the purpose of the talk is about, what issues will be discussed. It doesn’t even need a title anymore. Lesser beings within the movement still have to announce a subject for their talks, but we’ve built a movement around personalities rather than ideas lately.

As for the fourth point, Stevens expands on it herself.

That final point is why I started this article by mentioning Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia — the self-appointed information masters of Wikipedia who operate from within a private internet forum and seem to focus on two things:

  1. working exhaustively to edit paranormal/supernatural related articles
  2. working exhaustively to edit the Wikipedia profiles of Skeptic celebrities, including people who are terrible people and criminals.

It is my opinion that their brand of skepticism is not the good kind. Recently, the Centre for Inquiry (CFI) appointed the head of the ‘Guerrilla Skepticism’ group, Susan Gerbic, as a Fellow which shocked me for a number of reasons. Firstly, because I don’t think Gerbic and her team of editors are very good champions of the skeptic movement. Secondly, when Dr Karen Stollznow spoke out about her experiences of harassment at the hands of a colleague at CFI, Gerbic’s son wore a t-shirt which stated he was on the “team” of the accused, to a lecture that Stollznow was delivering at an event. Secondly, it was Gerbic who added the photo to Wikipedia of Harriett Hall wearing an anti-skepchick t-shirt at TAM.

It’s a good thing to have motivated people monitoring Wikipedia for supernatural nonsense, demanding some empirical rigor in articles. I approve of that. I’m not at all keen on the idea of a group of people who feel it is their mission in life to scrub all the blemishes off of their favorite skeptic celebrities, or worse, to slant articles to favor their preferred regressive skeptics.

For example, the “team” Gerbic’s son favored was “Team Radford” — there was quite a conflict within the movement over Radford’s contemptible behavior towards Karen Stollznow, and his lawsuit to silence her. He’s also been a denialist of the existence of the influence of stereotyping of the sexes, and a champion of the most trivial claims of evolutionary psychology.

But take a look at Radford’s wikipedia page. It’s huge. Every minor accomplishment is a triumph.

Did you know he “solved the mystery of the ‘Santa Fe Courthouse Ghost'”? He debunked the White Witch of Rose Hall! He’s also the world’s foremost expert on the Chupacabra. Yay. These feats of ‘brilliance’ are described at tedious length.

That he’s a serial harasser, that he once posted photos of himself in bed with a woman so he could leverage a lawsuit, that he pressured that woman to surrender and settle a suit in his favor by threatening to hound her through her pregnancy and labor, that he threatened to sue me unless I released evidence of a conspiracy (I did!), that he threatened to sue Rebecca Watson, that he belittles rape statistics, that thinks girls have a biological preference for pink, that he likes to bully four-year-old girls (and loses) — none of that is anywhere in his Wikipedia page. The guy is a toxic mess, but his wiki entry has been buffed to a high gloss.

That kind of willful blindness is one reason I am so over the skeptic movement.

It’s great that we have a dedicated group of watchmen keeping an eye on wikipedia to prevent supernatural crap from leaking in, but who watches the watchmen? They’ve got some strong biases, but they don’t have the discipline to prevent that from dribbling in.

Waffles with toxic syrup served

In case you’ve been wondering how Sam Harris and Matt Dillahunty dealt with the absence of their compadre, Lawrence Krauss, at their talk last week, we have a partial recording. They spent 15 minutes explaining that they weren’t going to talk about it, and saying how important the #metoo movement is while doing their damnedest to imply that we have to watch out because bitches lie.

I’ve been sitting on it for a while because when Harris babbles out that bullshit about how people are equating Weinstein and Ansari in “literally the same sentence” my brain became congested with boiling blood and rendered me unable to act. Fortunately, Thomas Smith says exactly what I think of the whole shambles. Go listen to that.

Aron Ra vs. Kent Hovind, tonight

Tonight, at 7pm EST, Aron Ra is going to engage Kent Hovind on this YouTube channel.

I’ll probably tune in, but here’s a hint for future debates: tell me what the question is. This is two personalities clashing in public, and that’s all I know. Without a good sharp question, I know exactly what Hovind is going to do — it’s going to be a smarmy Gish Gallop with Hovind skittering all over the place, and Aron marching along behind, stomping out lies as fast as he can, and both will declare victory at the end.

It would also be good to have a forceful moderator who shuts down either side if they start drifting off topic…but if we don’t have a solid topic ahead of time, they won’t be able to do that.

The Ark Park and Creation “Museum” are raising their admission prices

They were overpriced to begin with, but they’re raising adult ticket prices by a few bucks anyway. That’s not what they emphasize, of course. They’ve got two marketing tactics.

One is that they’ve lowered prices a bit for young people…but at the same time, they’ve gotten rid of group discounts. I suspect it looks good on paper, but the busloads of kids from the nearby vacation bible school will probably be paying the same amount or more. Still, Quiverful Families will praise the Lord for this change.

The other tactic is laughable. They compare their prices to Disney World. Oh, sure, they’re comparable — in one, you enter a big wooden box which contains fake animals in more wooden boxes with Sunday School lessons on the walls, and in the other…well, does Disney World have papier mache models of dinosaurs, and do they sell postcards and plaques explaining that incest was OK in the Bible? No? Then no contest. And look, the lines are shorter at Answers in Genesis!

Disney’s parks and AiG’s attractions are, in a sense, competing for a family’s time for vacation, offering the best possible quality in all they and we do. However, you can spend many hours waiting in long lines for short rides at amusement parks. At our Ark and museum, however, you can easily spend a full day or two at each location, experiencing edu-tainment all day and rarely standing in a long line.

Watch this silly video of kids discovering that they get to go to Disneyland, and imagine replacing the words “Disneyland” with “AiG’s edu-tainment attractions”. I don’t think they’d get quite the same reaction.

They’d probably rather go to summer school.

Least surprising discrimination lawsuit ever

You will not be shocked to learn that Alex Jones is an asshole in the workplace, too.

Rob Jacobson, a former video editor who worked for the site for 13 years, alleges his co-workers and managers called him “The Jewish Individual” and “The Resident Jew,” and that Jones regularly humiliated and belittled him. As the Mail reports, “The abuse got so bad that one member of staff photo shopped Jacobson’s face on to the image of an Orthodox Jew under the words ‘THE JEWISH INDIVIDUAL DEMANDS YOUR HOT TOPICS’ and printed it out for all to see.” Jacobson, who was eventually fired, is planning to sue Jones for discrimination, harassment, and unfair dismissal, in addition to his EEOC complaint.

Meanwhile, Ashley Beckford, a former production assistant for InfoWars‘s parent company, Free Speech Systems, alleges Jones “often spent his time shirtless, and endlessly leering…at female employees and guests,” which created a “disgusting, hostile environment” that openly encouraged his staff to make inappropriate comments towards women. According to the EEOC statement from Beckford, who is African American, Jones made unwanted sexual advances and allegedly groped her while commenting, “Who wouldn’t want to have a black wife?”

Now if only we could also sue capitalism for setting up a system where a man needs a job that requires him to be humiliated for 13 years.

A study in hiding truth behind a lie

Steven Pinker’s latest book — which I have no interest in ever reading, despite the fact that it’s getting reviewed all over the place — contains some interesting exercises in glossing over ugly truths.

You know, in everything I’ve ever read on the Tuskegee syphilis study — and there are lots of books and papers on the subject — no one ever suggested that the doctors infected the patients with syphilis. They didn’t need to. The truth was damned horrifying. The doctors in that study intentionally neglected to treat a treatable disease, allowing it to run its terrible course, just to see what would happen. They also failed to give the patients the information that would allow them to elect to go to a different doctor for treatment, because that would have defeated their purpose of watching spirochetes eat the brains of black people.

There is nothing forgivable in the facts of the story. Scientists watched human beings suffer and die to sate their sick curiosity and to get a few publications. It did not generate new knowledge, because we already had lots of information on the course of the disease. The information did not prevent harm to anyone, because we had an effective treatment already.

But hey, let’s put a happy spin on it! At least they didn’t intentionally infect anyone with the disease. There, it doesn’t sound as awful now, does it? It could have been so much worse! We can take this approach to everything. Sure, the US bombed villages in Viet Nam with napalm and Agent Orange and high explosives, but at least we didn’t nuke them. See how good and progressive we are? Oh, yeah, we may have prisoners held without due process in Gitmo, and we may have tortured them a little bit, but at least we didn’t infect them with syphilis or shoot them out of cannons or throw them into vats of acid. We could have, but because we didn’t, you need to respect our restraint and our growing humanity.