YouTube needs fixin’

One of the big problems with YouTube is that science channels that criticize creationists are often shut down — they are targeted by votebots that lower their ratings, and there are plenty of people who file frivolous notifications of DMCA violations that lead to whole channels being shut down until the case is fought out. This is not good — the system is hair-trigger sensitive to complaints, but does nothing to filter out the noise of unwarranted claims made solely to silence people.

A science regular on YouTube, Andromeda’s Wake, has put up a short video requesting more confrontation with Google/YouTube on the issue of DMCA abuse. The problem has been brought to the attention of Google developers, and there is a petition demanding censorship reform. You should sign it!

(Hmmm…I wonder if this approach would work to get Seed to fix the broken comment registration system here…)

Minnesota Product Highlight


Oooh, baby. That’s a Nu-Life Communion Host Dispenser, equipped with a rapid reload system for fast wafer loading and quad-rotator technology that allows up to 400 wafers to be fired without reloading. If you need to shovel Jesus into people’s mouths at a high rate of speed, this is the gadget for you. And you can get it in gold, silver, or white.


Or maybe you’d prefer the Communalabra Germ-Free Communion Host Dispensing System, which is only available in gold, but does have accessories: a Host Tube Quick-n-Easy Re-fill & Re-load System, and embroidered carrying cases and covers.

And look at this: they’re both made in Minnesota! I’m so proud. Unfortunately, right now the two companies are tied up in a lawsuit. When they get it cleared up, though, I’m going to have to let them know that I’m available at reasonable rates for celebrity endorsements.

They better act fast, though. I might just throw my endorsement to this automatic disc shooter. Imagine how much fun church will be if all the communion celebrants could just stay in their pews while the priest whips this colorful beauty out and starts winging wafers through the air. Combine it with a super-soaker loaded with wine, and mass becomes a party for everyone…even flyin’ Jesus!


Just in case you’re looking

It turns out that there are a few simple rules to follow when submitting your computer dating form.

Around 42 per cent of messages which included the word “atheist” achieved replies, significantly higher than the average response rate of 32 per cent.

References to “Christian”, “Jewish” and “Muslim” boosted a message’s success rate only marginally, while mentioning “god” in a first approach actually discouraged people from replying.

So just maybe, being godless will increase your fitness in this next generation. Although, given the growing reputation of Christianity, it might just be a matter of distancing yourself from labels that are associated with obsessive kookiness.

Microsoft owns bioinformatics?

I hope not, but they have filed one of those ridiculously broad, sweeping patents that covers a big chunk of basic techniques in the field:

The patent, filed by Microsoft researcher Steve Ozer in July 2007 and recently discovered by a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin, claims ownership of several common phylogenetic methods. At its most basic, however, it seems to patent identifying any evolutionary relationship from sequences: “receiving a plurality of sequences across a plurality of species [and] mapping at least a portion of the plurality of sequences to an evolutionary tree.” 

The patent hasn’t been approved, and there’s a good chance it won’t be…but keep an eye on that evil empire in Washington state.

AT&T vs. 4chan

Imagine a titanic battle. No, not T. rex vs. a killer whale, but something more alarming, like T. rex vs. a massive bacterial infection. Which side do you think will win?

Something similar is going on right now. AT&T, the T. rex of the story, is going after 4chan, the infamous nest of /b/tards and fierce crackers and hackers, an unstoppable plague of corruption. AT&T is doomed if they continue.

AT&T has been sneakily trying to silence 4chan by quietly dropping access requests to the site by users on their network. I am not a great fan of 4chan (actually, I tremble in fear at even mentioning them, so I have to respect them—I’d rather piss off the Catholic Church than 4chan), but in this case I have to be on their side without reservation. AT&T is violating net neutrality and trying to censor voices on the web…and even if they succeeded in completely silencing one site on the web, the net is fluid, and they’ll just emerge elsewhere. With a grudge and a cause.

An update direct from 4chan:

For the past three weeks, 4chan has been under a constant DDoS attack.
We were able to filter this specific type of attack in a fashion that
was more or less transparent to the end user.

Unfortunately, as an unintended consequence of the method used, some
Internet users received errant traffic from one of our network
switches. A handful happened to be AT&T customers.

In response, AT&T filtered all traffic to and from our
IPs (which serve /b/ & /r9k/) for their entire network, instead of only
the affected customers. AT&T did not contact us prior to implementing
the block. Here is their statement regarding the matter.

In the end, this wasn’t a sinister act of censorship, but rather a bit
of a mistake and a poorly executed, disproportionate response on AT&T’s
part. Whoever pulled the trigger on blackholing the site probably
didn’t anticipate [nor intend] the consequences of doing so.

We’re glad to see this short-lived debacle has prompted renewed
interest and debate over net neutrality and internet censorship?two
very important issues that don’t get nearly enough attention?so
perhaps this was all just a blessing in disguise.

Aside from that, I’ll also add that there is some big news due later
this week. Keep an eye on the News page, Twitter, and global message
for updates.

Singularly silly singularity

Since I had the effrontery to critize futurism and especially Ray Kurzweil, here’s a repost of something I wrote on the subject a while back…and I’ll expand on it at the end.


Kevin Drum picks at Kurzweil—a very good thing, I think—and expresses bafflement at this graph (another version is here, but it’s no better):


(Another try: here’s a cleaner scan of the chart.)

You see, Kurzweil is predicting that the accelerating pace of technological development is going to lead to a revolutionary event called the Singularity in our lifetimes. Drum has extended his graph (the pink areas) to show that, if it were correct, these changes ought to be occurring at a still faster rate now…something we aren’t seeing. There’s something wrong in this.

I peered at that graph myself, and the flaws go even deeper. It’s bogus through and through.

Kurzweil cheats. The most obvious flaw is the way he lumps multiple events together as one to keep the distribution linear. For example, one “event” is “Genus Homo, Homo erectus, specialized stone tools”, and another is “Printing, experimental method” and “Writing, wheel”. If those were treated as separate events, they would have inserted major downward deflections in his chart a million years ago, and about 500 to a few thousand years ago.

The biology is fudged, too. Other “events” are “Class Mammalia“, “Superfamily Hominoidea“, “Family Hominidae“, the species “Homo sapiens“, and the subspecies “Homo sapiens sapiens“. Think about it. If the formation of a species, let alone a subspecies, is a major event about a million years ago, why isn’t each species back to the Cambrian awarded equivalent significance? Because it wouldn’t fit his line, of course. As he goes back farther in time, he’s using larger and larger artificial taxonomic distinctions to inflate the time between taxa.

It’s also simplifying the complex. “Spoken language” is treated as a discrete event, one little dot with a specific point of origin, as if it just poofed into existence. However, it was almost certainly a long-drawn-out, gradual process stretched out over hundreds of thousands of years. Primates communicate with vocalizations; why not smear that “spoken language” point into a fuzzy blur stretching back another million years or so?

Here’s another problem: cows. If you’re going to use basic biology as milestones in the countdown to singularity, we can find similar taxonomic divisions in the cow lineage, so they were tracking along with us primates all through the first few billion years of this chart. Were they on course to the Singularity? Are they still? If not, why has the cow curve flattened out, and doesn’t that suggest that the continued linearity of the human curve is not an ineluctable trend? This objection also applies to every single species on the planet—ants, monkeys, and banana plants all exhibit a “trend” if you look backwards on it (a phenomenon Gould called “retrospective coronation”), and you can even pretend it is an accelerating trend if you gin it up by using larger and larger taxonomic divisions the farther back you go.

Even the technologies are selectively presented. Don’t the Oldowan, Acheulian, and Mousterian stone tool technologies represent major advances? Why isn’t the Levallois flake in the chart as a major event, comparable to agriculture or the Industrial Revolution? Copper and iron smelting? How about hygiene or vaccination?

I’ll tell you why. Because not only is the chart an artificial and perhaps even conscious attempt to fit the data to a predetermined conclusion, but what it actually represents is the proximity of the familiar. We are much more aware of innovations in our current time and environment, and the farther back we look, the blurrier the distinctions get. We may think it’s a grand step forward to have these fancy cell phones that don’t tie you to a cord coming from the wall, but there was also a time when people thought it was radical to be using this new bow & arrow thingie, instead of the good ol’ atlatl. We just lump that prior event into a “flinging pointy things” category and don’t think much of it. When Kurzweil reifies biases that way, he gets garbage, like this graph, out.

Now I do think that human culture has allowed and encouraged greater rates of change than are possible without active, intelligent engagement—but this techno-mystical crap is just kookery, plain and simple, and the rationale is disgracefully bad. One thing I will say for Kurzweil, though, is that he seems to be a first-rate bullshit artist.

I don’t think he’ll be sending me a copy of his book to review.

I got one thing wrong in my original article: he did send me a copy of his book, The Singularity is Near! I even read it. It was horrible.

Most of it was exactly like the example above: Kurzweil tosses a bunch of things into a graph, shows a curve that goes upward, and gets all misty-eyed and spiritual over our Bold Future. Some places it’s OK, when he’s actually looking at something measurable, like processor speed over time. In other places, where he puts bacteria and monkeys on the Y-axis and pontificates about the future of evolution, it’s absurd. I am completely baffled by Kurzweil’s popularity, and in particular the respect he gets in some circles, since his claims simply do not hold up to even casually critical examination.

I actually am optimistic about technological progress, and I think some of the things he talks about (nanotechnology, AI, etc.) will come to pass. But I do not believe in the Singularity at all.

Nanotech is overhyped, though. They seem to be aspiring to build little machines that do exactly what bacteria and viruses do right now…and don’t seem to appreciate the compromises and restrictions that are a natural consequence of multifunctional systems. I also don’t believe in the gray goo nightmare scenario: we’re already surrounded by a cloud of miniscule replicating machines that want to break our bodies down into their constituent molecules. We seem to cope, usually.

I think we will develop amazing new technologies, and they will affect human evolution, but it will be nothing like what Kurzweil imagines. We have already experienced a ‘singularity’ — the combination of agriculture, urbanization, and literacy transformed our species, but did not result in a speciation event, nor did it have quite the abrupt change an Iron Age Kurzweil might have predicted. Probably the most radical evolutionary changes would be found in our immune systems as we adapted to new diets and pathogens, but people are still people, and we can find cultures living a neolithic life style and an information age lifestyle, and they can still communicate and even interbreed. Maybe this information age will have as dramatic and as important an effect on humanity as the invention of writing, but even if it does, don’t expect a nerd rapture to come of it. Just more cool stuff, and a bigger, shinier, fancier playground for humanity to gambol about in.

Let’s see NASA change

Darksyde has an interesting post up about the future of NASA. We’ve got a new president coming who has promised change — let’s see if one of the changes he will make is to kick the space program out of its rut. I don’t know if he can promise more money to every science program we’ve got, but he could at least put effective, principled administrators in place who will use their budgets more appropriately.

We do have a list of Obama’s promises on science and technology. They do include more investment in the space program, as well as opening up stem cell research, more money for science education, and lots of green energy research. We now have to wait and see if and how he fulfills them.

The Twitter Threat!!!

I’m afraid I just can’t take this seriously. Army intelligence analysts are concerned that terrorists might tweet each other. Or text each other. Or put Islamic wallpapers on their cell phones. Oooh.

Yes, they could. So? We’re living in a world where communications technologies are advancing rapidly and where people can talk to each other constantly over long distances. This is a neutral technology; bad guys can use it, and so can good guys, and so can boring ordinary people who just want to chat about the weather.

Latest threat: Air. Terrorists could use this medium to respire and fuel oxidative phosphorylation, providing extra physical energy to allow them to carry out strenuous evil activities. Plus, it keeps them alive. American anti-terrorist organizations must be made aware of the nefarious purposes to which oxygen can be applied.

Get thee behind me, Satan!

I have been tempted many times by that over-expensive sexy slab of technology called the iPhone, so I don’t need Seed adding to the temptation with a list of science apps for the iPhone.

Fortunately, the strongest argument against the iPhone for me right now is that it’s closed and only supports one carrier…who does not offer good service in the wilderness of western Minnesota. If ever they opened the gadget up, though, or if ATT built a cell phone tower in my neighborhood, I’d have to rely on my wife’s ability to slap and shackle me to prevent wasteful spending.*

*Which is, obviously, a reason to hope for more flexible service plans even if I never buy one.