Where Have You Been?

Thomas Smith released a podcast episode about his time at MythCon. I have few nitpicks about it; the bit where he chastised people for calling the organizers “Nazis” because it didn’t help him came across as tone policing and a touch self-absorbed, and I was chuffed he didn’t mention Monette Richards when he listed off people who’d been right about what would happen. But that needs to be weighed against the rest of what he said on that podcast, and in particular an honest-to-goodness ultimatum he issued to Mythicist Milwaukee: change and disavow your problematic board members, or he’ll do everything he can to discourage people from their events. Never thought I’d hear something like that from him.

The kudos and love he’s getting right now are deserved. His performance at MythCon was the best anyone could hope for, based on the few scraps I’m seeing. And yet, those kudos come with a bitter taste. Steve Shives beat me to the reason why, and Smith himself has suggested he agrees with Shives, so in some sense what follows is redundant. But it’s a point that needs emphasis and repetition until it fully sinks in. [Read more…]

Just Checking In

As I’ve mentioned, the last month has been rough on me. The part of it all that would have had the greatest emotional impact has come and went quickly, fortunately… and surprisingly, didn’t land with a heavy blow. Part of that comes from seeing it as a possibility for months, but part of it comes from relying heavily on my favourite coping mechanism: work. More specifically, absorb myself in rich, intellectually-challenging work with a difficulty level slightly higher than I’m used to.

And hooooo boy, is that coping mechanism handy when I’m facing an unusually heavy workload. I just spent a good hour or so laying out the messages passed between a complex distributed system, and I feel like most people do after a day at the spa. Maybe better, in fact, as the glow isn’t coming from tired muscles but from an inner peace and contentment. I’m back to running on a sleep deficit, but even though I’ve barely imbibed any tea my mind feels perfectly caffeinated. All may not be right in the world, but my little slice of it is slowly being righted.

This has an unfortunate side-effect, alas. I don’t blog like most people, in fact I pretty much do the opposite of how a blog is best run. I don’t build readership by posting small little updates or links on a regular schedule, while carefully pruning my comment section; no, I tend to go for big stories on an irregular schedule, and don’t actively engage in my comment section. Unfortunately, the bits of my brain best suited for those big stories are currently swimming in proofs and system design, and loving every moment of it. Blogging the way I want to means unplugging from something I love, something keeping me sane, and even though I also love writing blog posts it’s tough to switch.

Ordinarily, I’d just put the blog in park and repost old writing and blogging. I’m just over half-way through Proof of God, and I have a few other long philosophic works on atheism that I’d love to get out there. I’ve also got a decent back-catalogue of work to shift over from Sinmantyx. But there’s also old business that I don’t want to drop on the floor: I want to weigh in on the CFI Calgary controversy, I haven’t finished with that Google memo, I have a great Boghossian post rattling in my head, and there’s still this mess to deal with. So given the choice, I’d rather devote my time to getting those written up than repackaging existing work. It means more delays, but such is life.

Besides, a hard drive died on the computer storing my main copy of Proof of God. Time for one of my patented once-a-decade OS reinstalls.

Above the Drama

Apologies for the radio silence, I’ve had a rotten few weeks. Before I put the blog in “park” for a few months, though, I want to weigh in on a local controversy. That’s still brewing behind the scenes unfortunately, so the silence shall continue, but I do have a less-local controversy to discuss in the meantime.

I’m withdrawing my name, my speech, my presence, and my participation from the 2017 Mythinformation Conference.
I’m trying to discern what good might have come from the controversy surrounding MythCon. So far, the only positive is that the furor has revealed a clearer portrait of people, attitudes, arguments, and the already-frayed atheist movement.
You’ve heard of the Mythinformation thing, no doubt. Aron Ra had already pulled out (Lilandra Ra has the deets), and now Seth Andrews is vacating the premises.

I’m pro-Feminism. I’m pro-Black Lives Matter. I’m pro-Humanism. I’m pro-humanity. I’m also interested in engaging with those who respectfully disagree on the critical issues of our age, as long as those agents are operating in good faith, with respect for all, and a desire to work together not merely to win, but to see the best ideas win. The YouTubers in question don’t even come close to that mark. […]

I wrote MythCon with a formal request that it issue an apology to Sargon, Shoe and Armored for the trouble, and then withdraw their invitations to speak, giving those open slots to better, more reasonable, and more compelling names like Ron Miscavige. (I’d have also supported the inclusion of “dissenting” activists who had better reputations and a track record of better behavior.) MythCon politely declined.

Props to Seth Andrews for doing this, I think it’s the right call given how the organizers of MythCon have behaved.

And, yet …

I recently spoke with my wife about all of this. She knows how much I love people, how much I genuinely want to make the right decisions, and how hard I’ve worked to ensure that The Thinking Atheist and my own reputation stay above the drama, the fray, the internet gutters, and the social media flame wars. I haven’t always succeeded, but it’s something I have always strived for.

“Above the drama?” That’s impossible if you want to accomplish any sort of social justice, regressives always kick up drama to defend or excuse themselves. I mean, haven’t all we had this tattooed onto our eyeballs by now?

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

If you’re “above the drama” on social justice issues, you oppose social justice. Not as openly as someone who plots to commit violence, true, but this subconscious and unintentional opposition acts like rain on a mountain.

Extreme voices like Dan Arel – who broadcasts from his latest residence in the town of Oblivion – gleefully poured gasoline on every spark, going so far as to call the hotel with alarmist tales of possible disaster. (Remember that this is the same guy who thinks we should punch Nazis, and that all police officers are terrorists. We can move on, folks. Nothing to see here.)

Punching NAZIS?!?! THIS makes Dan Arel an extremist? Heaven forfend Andrews gets his hand on any video games, which delight in doing much more than punching Nazis. They’re kinda the universal villain, if you haven’t noticed. Arel’s actual views on Nazi-punching are very well argued

Nazism is an ideology based on white supremacy and the eradication, through genocide, of nonwhites (and many others).

A Christian, for example, can believe an atheist is evil for not believing in their god and punch them. Their action, however, is unfounded. They punched an atheist based on an appeal to their emotions.

We know Nazism is evil. We know their goals, we know where their ideology leads. If you punch a Nazi, especially if you’re one of those marginalized and threatened by their ideology, you’re acting in self-defense. Even if you’re a white person punching a Nazi, you’re acting in the defense of others.

So the slippery slope analogy fails immediately here.

… and as for the police as terrorists, I gotta wonder if Andrews has ever heard of “the talk,” or what black parents say to their kids about the police. Or how they discourage their kids from calling the police, for fear of what will happen to them. Or black people in the USA are less likely to call 911 after hearing of police violence against another black person. To some people in the US, police officers are a source of terror. Hence, calling them terrorists is less radical than it first appears.

Look, Seth Andrews, don’t get me wrong: I’m glad you’ve withdrawn from MythCon, it was the right thing to do. But seriously, your support of Black Lives Matter and humanism is badly undercut by your ignorance of social justice. Quit blindly playing the Golden Mean Fallacy card and learn something, dammit.

Model Failure

This may be hard to believe, but I’m not about to talk about Bayesian modeling nor CompSci. Nope, I got dragged into an argument over implicit bias with a science-loving “skeptic,” and a few people mobbed me over the “model minority.”

Asian-Americans, like Jews, are indeed a problem for the “social-justice” brigade. I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well — even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites? Asian-Americans, for example, have been subject to some of the most brutal oppression, racial hatred, and open discrimination over the years. In the late 19th century, as most worked in hard labor, they were subject to lynchings and violence across the American West and laws that prohibited their employment. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S. in 1924. Japanese-American citizens were forced into internment camps during the Second World War, and subjected to hideous, racist propaganda after Pearl Harbor. Yet, today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives?

What gives is simple demographics. Take it away, Jeff Guo of the Washington Post: [Read more…]

Fake Hate, Frequentism, and False Balance

This article from Kiara Alfonseca of ProPublica got me thinking.

Fake hate crimes have a huge impact despite their rarity, said Ryan Lenz, senior investigative writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Project. “There aren’t many people claiming fake hate crimes, but when they do, they make massive headlines,” he said. It takes just one fake report, Lenz said, “to undermine the legitimacy of other hate crimes.”

My lizard brain could see the logic in this: learning one incident was a hoax opened up the possibility that others were hoaxes too, which was comforting if I thought that world was fundamentally moral. But with a half-second more thought, that view seemed ridiculous: if we go from a 0% hoax rate to 11% in our sample, we’ve still got good reason to think the hoax rate is low.

With a bit more thought, I realized I had enough knowledge of probability to determine who was right.

[Read more…]

This Rings A Bell

Heavyweight tech investor and FDA-critic Peter Thiel is among conservative funders and American researchers backing an offshore herpes vaccine trial that blatantly flouts US safety regulations, according to a Monday report by Kaiser Health News.

The vaccine—a live but weakened herpes virus—was first tested in a 17-person trial on the Caribbean Island of St. Kitts without federal oversight or the standard human safety requirement of an institutional review board (IRB) approval. Biomedical researchers and experts have sharply rebuked the lack of safety oversight and slammed the poor quality of the data collected, which has been rejected from scientific publication. However, investors and those running the trial say it is a direct challenge to what they see as innovation-stifling regulations by the Food and Drug Administration.

It was around that point in Beth Mole’s article for Ars Technica that I got a sense of deja-vu. A quick Google search confirmed it was more than a feeling:

Biomedical research, then, promises vast increases in life, health, and flourishing. Just imagine how much happier you would be if a prematurely deceased loved one were alive, or a debilitated one were vigorous — and multiply that good by several billion, in perpetuity. Given this potential bonanza, the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.

Get out of the way.

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.” Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future.

That was an ill-informed opinion of Steven Pinker from two years ago. I took it to task back then, but I wonder if Pinker has changed his mind in the intervening years. I checked his Twitter feed, and came away empty. Stick a pin in that one, it may become interesting.

Activist Self-Protection

The hosts of Feminist Killjoys outdid themselves with their latest episode, when they interviewed a member of “Redneck Revolt,” an AntiFa group. The conversation was pretty one-sided and animated, but you get a great summary of what they do.

00:08:13,760 –> 00:08:50,120
… we were asked by anarchist people of color to go and defend Justice Park. Our mission in Charlottesville was purely defensive. We never moved – and I want to make this really clear, and I hope this message gets out – we never moved beyond a very fixed perimeter. We were highly disciplined, we had a clear mission: keep people safe, keep the state and the Nazis out of the park. [We were] successful, partially because 1) we were asked to be there, so we knew who had our back and who wanted us there and 2) we knew what was to our front, the state and the Nazis.

00:08:50,120 –> 00:09:31,040
We never mixed into the larger protest, and there’s been some discussion, I think, out in the internet world that “yeah, we’re just wandering around with guns.” I mean, we’re not operators – this isn’t SEAL team 6 cosplay. We kept our muzzles down, and we wanted to project the force and power that not only our group possesses, but what we knew was streaming behind us and through us: as AntiFa columns, groups of Quakers marched- BLM folks moved- queer liberation activists… all these people move through our line to go and face down white supremacy.

00:09:31,040 –> 00:09:41,780
White supremacists came to face us, but we were in complete concert with the people that were deploying other tactics, and that again is an enormous power that really can’t be underestimated.

I can’t find flaw in the tactics; when white supremacists are willing to murder and terrorize to get their way, and the police aren’t keeping the peace, this is precisely what you need. The interviewee also dropped an interesting citation.

00:20:05,330 –> 00:20:38,250
People should go read “This Non-Violence Stuff Will Get You Killed.” Great, amazing book about how weapons provided a militant armed self-defense backbone to the civil rights movement. It sweeps away the whitewashed narrative of Martin Luther King, and describes an entire interior world of African American and allied folks willingness – and sometimes actual use – of firearms to preserve the sanctity and lives of the people dedicated to that struggle.

I’m not that surprised to find guns mixed with social justice movements. The police and FBI have not been kind to activists, and in some cases have been infiltrated by white supremacists. Some sort of self-defense against state violence is sensible in those circumstances.

But what did surprise me was how common guns were.

Visiting Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, journalist William Worthy almost sat on a loaded pistol. “Just for self-defense,” King assured him. It was not the only weapon King kept for such a purpose; one of his advisors remembered the reverend’s Montgomery, Alabama, home as “an arsenal.”

MLK Jr? Armed to the teeth? I’ve gotta pick up that book.


[HJH 2017-09-29] Speaking of which, Politically Reactive also interviewed Mark Bray about AntiFa. The more I hear about it, the more I believe that Anonymous isn’t that original.

A Portrait of Cowardice

If you want to bury something, conventional wisdom says to release it on a Friday.

Josh: Any stories we have to give the press that we’re not wild about, we give all in a lump on Friday.
Donna: Why do you do it in a lump?
Josh: Instead of one at a time?
Donna: I’d think you’d want to spread them out.
Josh: They’ve got X column inches to fill, right? They’re going to fill them no matter what.
Donna: Yes.
Josh: So if we give them one story, that story’s X column inches.
Donna: And if we give them five stories …
Josh: They’re a fifth the size.
Donna: Why do you do it on Friday?
Josh: Because no one reads the paper on Saturday.

Dunno if you heard, but there’s also a giant hurricane heading towards Texas.

If it does not lose significant strength, the system will come ashore as the fiercest hurricane to hit the U.S. in 13 years and the strongest to strike Texas since 1961’s Hurricane Carla, the most powerful Texas hurricane on record. Aside from the winds of 130 mph (201 km/h) and storm surges up to 12 feet (4 metres), Harvey was expected to drop prodigious amounts of rain – up to 3 feet. The resulting flooding, one expert said, could be “the depths of which we’ve never seen.” […]

“In terms of economic impact, Harvey will probably be on par with Hurricane Katrina,” said University of Miami senior hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. “The Houston area and Corpus Christi are going to be a mess for a long time.”

On top of all that, this is Texas. A lot of people are blowing off the hurricane’s severity or refusing to leave their places for fear of looting. Border patrol is leaving their checkpoints open, so any immigrants that flee for their lives might be rewarded with a deportation. The situation is so bad, one mayor asked people to write their name and social number on their arms, so their bodies could be identified later.

Anyone dumping major news stories on the Friday evening that Hurricane Harvey hits is a craven coward, exploiting other people’s deaths to distract from their own bad press.

In a resignation letter, published Friday night by The Federalist and confirmed by POLITICO, [Sebastian] Gorka cited “forces” that do not support President Donald Trump’s “MAGA promise” as those that drove him out of the White House.

But a White House official indicated in a statement that Gorka had been forced out: “Sebastian Gorka did not resign, but I can confirm he no longer works at the White House,” the official said.


President Donald Trump has formally signed a presidential memo directing the Pentagon to ban transgender people from joining the US military, following through on a policy he announced on Twitter back in July.

The presidential memo, issued late Friday evening, directs the secretaries of defense and homeland security (which oversees the US Coast Guard) to put forward a plan to implement the new policy by February 21, 2018.


President Trump on Friday pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio — a move that keeps one of his staunchest political allies out of jail and will likely cheer his conservative base, which supports both men’s hard-line views on illegal immigration. […]

Trump’s pardon came late on a Friday night, at a time when much of the country was focused on a Category 4 hurricane bearing down on Texas. The reaction among advocates and Democrats was swift.

“President Trump is a coward. He waited until a Friday evening, as a hurricane hits, to pardon a racist ex-sheriff,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who represents Phoenix. “Trump should at least have the decency to explain to the American public why he is undermining our justice system.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) also accused the president of “using the cover of the storm to pardon a man who violated a court’s order.”

Let’s focus in on that last one. While the US president has wide latitude to pardon anyone he wants, with little or no restriction, there are formal guidelines for how they should go about it. The US Department of Justice needs to investigate the situation, perhaps even dragging in the FBI; the conviction has to be in Federal court; there should be a five year waiting period between the conviction and the pardon; the person requesting the pardon must state their reasons and show remorse; and while it isn’t in the link above, the original ideal behind the pardon was to promote national unity in the face of a crisis.

Only one of those was fulfilled. Trump did not involve the Department of Justice; Arpaio has not even been sentenced yet, nor has he shown remorse; and Arpaio is a horribly racist officer who humiliated convicts and violated basic human rights. Pardoning him sends a signal that other officers are free to flaunt the law so long as they kiss Trump’s ass, making a mockery of the law and dividing the country. By extending it to crimes Arpaio hasn’t been convicted of, Trump may make a powerful tool even more so. By telegraphing his intentions at a political rally, Trump’s turned the pardon into a political tool instead of an act of mercy.

When Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, his popularity took one of the largest hits recorded. By cowardly hiding the pardon amid a dump of other news, while Texans are dying from a natural disaster, Trump must be hoping that he’ll avoid the same fate as Ford.

Alas, the “Friday news dump” doesn’t work. Trump’s popularity won’t tumble as much as Ford’s, mainly because it’s already near the floor and can’t fall as far, but I’d be shocked if he doesn’t take a minor hit at minimum. No, this will instead add to the rising tensions between Trump and Congress, and there’s a small chance it’ll be enough to finally convince Republicans to impeach his ass.

Tracing Trolls

We hear a lot about the Kremlin’s hacking exploits (speaking of which, get acquainted with Rinat Akhmetshin), but less about their social media game. Sensitive documents cannot damage public perception if they don’t wind up getting publicity; the DNCC emails didn’t make much of a splash when they were first posted on “DCLeaks,” but made a tremendous splash when they landed on WikiLeaks.

The Kremlin has “troll factories” to do that dirty work, but how do you spot their handiwork? Salty Current points to a great Twitter thread on just that topic.

A pattern you may have noticed: many bot and troll accounts have usernames that end in 8 random digits.

I searched through two recent datasets (propagators of #FireMcMaster and #UniteTheRight hashtags) and found 824 such accounts.

Searching their followers for similarly named accounts, and subsequently their followers’ followers yielded 63099 accounts.

Here’s the follower network formed by those 63099 accounts. Larger circle = more accounts with the 8-digit numbers among its followers.

All very troll-like, but not evidence of a Kremlin op, right?

Let’s look at the largest node in the network, DavidJo52951945. This account’s been around for a while – since early 2013, 136K tweets.

Here’s an interesting observation – David is posting 8 AM – 8 PM every day, Moscow time. Almost like it’s his job or something.

What’s he tweeting about? This figure illustrates the volume of DavidJo52951945’s tweets mentioning various topics over the years.

A history of what "DavidJo52951945" has been Twetting about over the last four years. UKIP, Brexit, and migrants dominate.The messaging is very interesting. Let’s go back to 2013, check out DavidJo52951945’s tweets about Ukraine: #TrumpRussia

Several Tweets from "DavidJo52951945" about Ukraine. They have a heavy pro-Kremlin bias.So four years ago, this Twitter account tweeted on Moscow time and was heavily biased towards the Kremlin; four years later, it’s pumping out pro-Trump propaganda that also benefits the Kremlin. If this is a false-flag op, it began two years before Trump announced he was running for US president. Highly unlikely.

Also, if you think this is just a problem for US Republicans, I’ve got another Twitter thread for you.

Everyone knows about Putin’s alt-right pro-Trump trolls. He’s using left-wing anti-Trump trolls too. Exhibit A: meet @MarcusC22973194 /2

Marcus grabbed a great handle, NotMyPresident. Looking like the perfect #Resistance liberal, he’s amassed 16,500 followers in 9 months /4

Marcus is getting to be a big deal. With a Klout score of 70, he’s more influential than @SallyQYates (58) @renato_mariotti (63)… /7

Marcus is as influential as @AngrierWHStaff (70) & @DavidPriess (70) & close to & gaining on @CarlBernstein (71) & @TheRickWilson (72). /9

So how can we tell Marcus is a Russian troll? We can tell by his profile, how much he tweets, where he tweets from, when he tweets,… /12

his problems with English, how he can’t keep his cover story straight, how he plagiarizes others, the threats he makes, the bizarre… /13

things he says, how he’s too good to be true & how he pushes Kremlin propaganda. /14

The timing of Marcus’ tweets is consistent with someone working paid shifts at a Russian troll factory. archive.fo/s40DH /20

Marcus claims to be American but constantly uses British spellings revealing he didn’t learn to speak in the US writing things like… /35

behaviour colour glamour honour humour labour neighbour rumour saviour archive.is/vVk6s, and also things like… /36

Instead of calling the USSR premier “Khrushchev” like Americans would, Marcus uses “Chrustjev” like a Russian. archive.is/m3xJD /48

Russian trolls have strict quotas – they need to post 100+ times/day. This hard when you’re English not great. /69

So trolls steal other ppl’s work & pass it off as their own. Marcus does this faster than a cop hands out tickets on the 31st. /70

And so on. It’s excellent detective work, and shows the Kremlin is trying to infiltrate US left-wing politics as well. Compare and contrast this with a typical 4chan op, and you see the handiwork is quite different: the command of English is better; the Twitter handles don’t have eight numeric digits appended; the heavy use of picture memes; and of course, planning the entire thing on a public message board that many people monitor.

It isn’t that hard, once you know what to do. So why not take a boo at what the Kremlin is currently peddling, and roll up your sleeves too?