MythCon Ain’t Over – Part Two

[CONTENT WARNING: Mythicist Milwaukee. Also, you’ll want to read part one first]

Before we get too far in, let’s sketch out a few hypotheses.

If you’re arguing that MythCon was a fluke, you’re arguing that the majority of people within the atheist/skeptic movement oppose giving problematic YouTube atheists/skeptics a platform. This would imply that people who opposed said YouTubers would be valued within the community, and you’d expect a net increase in their value on Patreon. If the majority of Patrons for these YouTubers were from the greater majority, you’d expect to see a drop in value as they took the stage and a net decrease in their Patreons. This is probably incorrect; as pointed out last time, the Patrons of someone likely agree with their views already. They are taking the stage, sometimes for the first time, and presenting their views to a fresh audience. Existing Patrons should see value in that and reward them, while we should also expect some new Patrons to arrive if they like what they see, also boosting the Patreon account’s bottom line. [Read more…]

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.

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?

The Total Package

Mano Singham and PZ Myers aren’t that interested in eclipses. I’m sort of the opposite, as a group of us drove 13 hours to reach totality, arriving only an hour and a half before the eclipse started… and departing for the return trip fifteen minutes after totality ended. Why the heck would anyone go to such extreme lengths for a few minutes of darkness?

The Corona

The solar corona is the hottest part of the sun we can see, far hotter than the surface, and we don’t know why that is. Despite being so hot, the corona is also very diffuse and thus the cooler chromosphere blasts out far more light than it does. This means you can’t see it if any part of the sun is visible, and the physics of choronographs means they block off significantly more of the corona than the Moon does during an eclipse.

While that’s all very nice and intellectual, there’s also something satisfying about looking up in the sky and seeing what looks like Albert Einstein being consumed by a black hole.

An image of the corona from "the Camera for Photographing Eclipse Photographic Collection."Mercury

The planet Mercury is likely the last visible-eye planet discovered. Because it clings so tightly to it, you need to blot out the Sun by exploiting sunsets and sunrises, and even then you need a view close to the horizon and the planet in a certain orientation. A solar eclipse accomplishes the same, only during the middle of the day. I’m not convinced I actually saw Mercury yesterday, as it was faint and appeared in the wrong spot too close to the sun, but oh well.

Sunsets on Every Horizon

I can verify this actually happens. The physics is pretty simple: the Moon’s shadow occupies a finite area. If you’re perfectly centred under it, every horizon is in the direction of a patch of earth which has at least some sunlight falling on it. That sunlight bounces back up into or scatters through the atmosphere, producing something that looks like a sunset. It is wicked cool!

Watching The Shadow

The shadow of the Moon is quite fuzzy, so if you’re expecting to see a sharp line you’ll be disappointed. The best view is definitely from space, though an airplane will do in a pinch; on Earth, I could spot the Eastern horizon getting gradually lighter even as we were in totality.

Shadow Bands

As NASA puts it, “Shadow bands are thin wavy lines of alternating light and dark that can be seen moving and undulating in parallel on plain-coloured surfaces immediately before and after a total solar eclipse.” Scientists aren’t entirely sure what they are, but the best guess is atmospheric cells warping light in a similar way to stellar flicker. They aren’t guaranteed to show up, but I insisted on laying out a white blanket to make them more visible. We missed seeing them as totality was approaching, but as the Sun started peeking back I strongly suggested everyone stare at the blanket. And we saw them!

A Chill In The Air

The Sun radiates a lot of heat our way, which is absorbed and scattered by the ground and atmosphere. Take away that source, and you’re just left with the radiation from said ground and atmosphere as it cools down. This is at its strongest during totality, and collectively we could feel the atmosphere was notably chillier just after the eclipse than it was in the lead up. I’m estimating the difference was about 5-10C.

People Losing Their Shit

My photos of the eclipse were pretty lousy, as I didn’t have any money to invest in the proper gear. Derek Muller of Vertasium was much luckier, but his video is more notable for the audio; he, and everyone around him, were losing their minds as they reached totality. You don’t get that from a partial solar eclipse.

Don’t listen to Singham or Myers. Total solar eclipses are the coolest, and if one happens to fall near you I recommend you take full advantage.