AI-generated garbage videos

Another way that AI is hurting us: it’s being used to generate science spam that is flooding YouTube. Kyle Hill points out that they’ve SEO’d their way to the top of video recommendations by, for instance, putting Elon Musk or Joe Rogan or Michio Kaku on the thumbnail (we’re already in dubious “science” territory), and then when you click on it you get this text-to-speech robotic voice reading what sounds like ChatGPT generated word salad accompanied by random images. It’s terrible stuff designed to trawl up bottom-of-the-barrel undiscriminating eyeballs.

I haven’t encountered much of this stuff myself, I think because I don’t click on the kind of videos he shows. It does highlight one of the many problems with the ‘algorithms’ used by social media, because the spammers will always find a way to exploit the system.

Hey, that’s Bill Nye!

Did you know that before he hit it big with a kids’ science show, he was in a small comedy group local to the Seattle region? Here he is, playing a cop in Ballard. If you don’t know, Ballard is a suburb north of Seattle that is infested with people of Scandinavian ancestry.

I think science communicators can greatly benefit from a background in theater or similar performing (which I totally lack, I know, you’ve noticed). So don’t be shy about engaging with any audience on any topic!

The sad little #seriousacademic

By now, probably everyone has read that strange moan of anxiety about social media titled “I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer” — or at least, if you’re an academic who enjoys a good eye-roll over someone with a massive 2×4 rammed up his butt, you’ve read it. It’s the one where an anonymous young Ph.D. student whines about people on Twitter or taking selfies or using instagram or writing blogs…in an anonymous blog post. They make a lot of silly complaints about people using hashtags at conferences and how the powers-that-be keep telling them how important their social media presence is to their career (which is really weird: my experience has been that administrators dread the fact that professors are speaking publicly about their experiences at their institution, and would love to be able to bottle that genie back up). There has been a flood of rebuttals to the fundamental wrongness of the “serious academic”, and I’ll just mention The Tattooed Professor, Meny Snoweballes, and Dean Burnett as good examples.

I want to take a different tack. I feel for this person.

It’s a really tough time to be a starting academic — it’s always a tough time. We get so many demands. Publish. Publish lots. Write grants. Write many grants, because almost all of them will be rejected. Teach. Every course is a challenge, and some of us have to teach multiple courses per term. Serve on committees. Attend meetings. Review papers. Dance, monkey, dance, or you’ll never get an academic job (you probably won’t anyway), you’ll never get tenure, you’ll never get promoted.

And then all those voluble assholes on the internet are adding pressure to tweet or write blogs or get out of the lab and talk to the public? Oh, hell no. Let me just fill up my lab notebook with numbers and gel photos and data, and pay me to do that. I’m running as fast as I can to just keep up without throwing these damned social obligations on my back.

I sympathize. Really, I do. There are lots of things I don’t like about my job (die, committee meetings, die), but I’m obligated to do them, so I do them. No matter what your job, there are always inevitable requirements to occasionally shovel out the stables. Academia in particular is rife with an excess of expectations, and everyone knows it.

But the first thing I have to point out is that social media isn’t one of them. You won’t get tenure for your Twitter activity, and in fact there is an academic bias against outreach and social activity and public engagement. “Serious academic’s” bleat is less an act of rebellion than a performative act of solidarity with staid traditional academics. It’s a person looking in terror at the chaos and uncertainty ahead of them in academia, and picking what they think is the side of the establishment…and they aren’t even certain that that is the right side to pick, witness the fact that their essay is anonymous.

But the most important thing I have to say is that they’re doing it wrong. They’re focusing on the obstacles and forgetting about the purpose. Nobody goes into academia for a love of grant writing and committee meetings. We don’t even go into it over the thrilling prospect of tweeting to a conference hashtag.

We go into it for the joy of the discipline. Remember that?

Personally, I signed on to this life because of some great experiences in science. I was lucky and was employed in a lot of extracurricular science stuff through college, and it was that that was more influential than my classes, I’m sad to say. I was doing animal care and assisting in animal surgeries in the department of physiology and biophysics — lowering electrodes into a living brain was enthralling. I worked with Johnny Palka on fly pupae, watching nerves grow into the developing wing. I did mouse brain histology in the psychology department with Geoff Clarke. I was Golgi staining fetal tissue with Jenny Lund and counting dendritic spines. These were the events that convinced me that I wanted to do more.

I went off to graduate school with Chuck Kimmel and discovered zebrafish embryos. Do you people even know how beautiful an embryo is? Exploring how cells behave in the complex environment of the organism is what kept me going.

Very serious academics

Very serious academics

I did a post-doc with Mike Bastiani and saw that grasshopper embryos are just as beautiful.

Then my first job at Temple University, where I had teaching obligations for the first time, showed me that I really enjoyed teaching. So I’ve followed that star, too. It all works. At every step, pursue the joy, while never forgetting to also do the duties. Some people don’t enjoy the teaching, so they focus more on the research. Some people, believe it or not, have a talent for management, so they move into administration, or into running large labs.

And some people write books. Or make videos. Or compose music or poetry about esoteric subjects. Or write blogs. It’s all good. You don’t have to do it all. You just have to always keep your attention focused on what brings you to your bliss.

Don’t let other people tell you what you must do with your life, and avoid the temptation to lecture others on what is the one, true, proper way to be an academic. If you find deep satisfaction in grinding out data, do it. If you enjoy teaching, do it. If you enjoy communicating to the public about that weird stuff you’re doing, do it.

I feel sad for “Serious Academic”. So young, and so certain of the one true path for all. He reminds me of someone.

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

Try being the “Joyful Academic” for a while. It can be hard, especially in the current climate, but if nothing else, being true to yourself is more rewarding than trying to be true to someone else’s ideal.

Online Gender Workshop: Innumeracy

Online Gender Workshop, as ever, is brought to you by your friendly, neighborhood Crip Dyke.

A new and interesting series of posts directly related to gender should commence later today. And, yes, I’m aware that life came along inconveniently and too-long delayed my promised gender-sudoku post. That, too, will come, but not immediately.

Here I just want to point out of bit of innumeracy that bugs me. Why innumeracy in the online gender workshop? Ultimately for the same reason as the sudoku-gender connection: the biggest problems caused by our gender systems are with

  1. The compulsory nature of the system, and
  2. The poor thinking we humans do both implementing and reflecting on the system.

Any general improvement in critical thinking among the various peoples of the world should be of use in correcting #2, at least over time. And so I can be a bit of a martinet on the issue of carefully and critically thinking for oneself.

[Read more…]

#cvg2015: Electric boogaloo

We’re up all bright and shiny this morning, after partying until 1am last night with celebrities: Amanda Marcotte and Rachel Swirsky stopped by, along with milling hordes of people who burned through our party supplies a little faster (OK, a lot faster) than we expected. We’re making a grocery store run this morning.

Then at 12:30, we’re showing people how to do a simple alcohol extraction of DNA from fresh fruit. At 3:30, I’m off to the Edina room to answer science questions.

Working scientists take time away from their undersea labs and volcano lairs to answer your science questions! Panelists: PZ Myers, Gwen “Bug Girl” Pearson, Steven Theiss, Rachael Acks, Raychelle Burks

At 5, it’s Science vs. Religion in Dystopia, in Atrium 4.

Authors like Philip Pullman, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien have often pitted religion against science, blatantly or through symbolism. How do these authors tilt their respective playing fields? How do their dystopian portrayals of the “other side” compare? Panelists: PZ Myers, Heina Dadabhoy, Emily Finke, Jairus Durnett, Cassandra Phoenix

Then, at 8pm, the party begins once again! I missed you there last night, I hope you can make it now.

#cvg2015: The beginninging

Today is the opening day of Convergence. Yesterday, we got all our stuff moved in, today we get it organized and pretty.

What I’m doing today: this afternoon at 2 Mary and I will be in the Sandbox showing kids how to identify bones in owl pellets. It will be disgusting and fun.

At 5pm in Plaza 1 I’ll be on a panel that is optimistic: “Technology won’t destroy us.”

Paranoid predictions about the technological downfall of mankind abound in media, but technology has also made human lives immeasurably better. We’ll talk about more realistic portrayals of tech, science, and human improvement. Panelists: Renate Fiora, PZ Myers, Heina Dadabhoy, Dan Berliner, Jason Thibeault

I’ll do my best to bring everyone down.

Then at 8pm, we open our party room (228) to the world. We’ll be there until 1am, talking and drinking and shaking our fists at god or whatever it is we atheists do.

Come on out!

Space left me feeling cold and empty


I’m a fan of the Science Museum of Minnesota, and I’m out here touring the place today, but their latest theme, Space, did not satisfy. Maybe it’s just me, but I think the space program has lost its way — if it ever had a good direction in the first place — and the exhibits just confirmed it for me.

Gadgetheads will enjoy the exhibits. It’s gosh-wow engineering all the way through. The Omni Theater movie is called Journey to Space, narrated by Patrick Stewart, and you’ll get your fill of thundering rumbly lift-offs and a dome-shaped screen filled with flame and smoke. The space shuttle is glorified, we are given many grandiose promises about the next generation, the Orion spacecraft, and we get to watch a few of the hundreds of astronauts who’ve been to the International Space Station gamboling about.

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I am full up on science — we had a long day of zebrafish-inspired talks (also sticklebacks! And Amia!), and I am dazzled with how far the science has progressed since my antique days as a graduate student. I’m also impressed with the legacy my graduate advisor has created — great labs live forever.

The science part is done. Tomorrow it’s an all day party at the Kimmel farm. I’ll be home sometime around 5, so if anyone in Eugene wants to get together in the evening (in addition to the meetup on Sunday morning), I’ll probably be hanging about the Valley River Inn bar.

Online Gender Workshop: Teaching Gender Attribution for Skeptics and Scientists

Online Gender Workshop, as ever, is brought to you by your friendly, neighborhood Crip Dyke.

In a recent thread, Okidemia posed a question that many parents have these days: When and how should I teach my child/ren about trans* folk?

Okidemia framed it this way:

…kids have not been told about transpeople yet, because we don’t know any. Thus an important educationnal question:
at what age would you* speak about it to kids? (certainly, you* should begin before they meet psychologically transgendering acquaintances –as opposed to biologically transitioning which certainly happens later in life.

One of the reasons this question seems so confounding is that, like many confounding questions, it is the wrong question. [Read more…]