Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Dog days

I've always felt like I grok dog behavior better than I grok human behavior.

I can't tell you the number of times I've looked at something my fellow humans have done and thought, "Who does that?"  Or, more to the point, "What the hell is wrong with you?"  Whereas with dogs, I usually (1) can tell from their body language what they're thinking and feeling, and (2) understand why they did what they did.

Even when they are aggressive, bite or attack people, their behavior is almost always consistent and explainable -- and predictable if you can read dog body language.

Angie Johnston, a Ph.D. candidate who works at the Canine Cognition Center at Yale University, agrees.  Her doctoral research has to do with the human/dog bond, and using facial and body language cues to understand what dogs are thinking.  She's working with Kathy Shae, of the Paws-n-Effect Canine Training Center, to work with and observe dogs interacting with strangers, their owners, and each other, in an effort to parse the mysteries of the canine personality.

"People love their dogs and want to know what they’re thinking, but we can’t ask them," Johnston said.  "The only way we can find out what they’re thinking is by getting these different studies to try to get inside their head."

Her studies and those of her colleagues have found that dogs release oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and love, when they're with their owners.  "When you see the same hormone released in dogs and families that are released in humans and infants, it suggests that some really similar things are going on," she said.  "So, I think dogs do love us...  It’s something dogs have developed and as they have lived with us, it has grown into true love."

Shae highlighted the uniqueness of the human/canine bond.  "It’s intuitive for them, it’s nonverbal and it’s empathetic in its purest sense," she said.  "Historically, humans and dogs have been partnered for tens of thousands of years, and of the 20,000-plus species on the Earth, dogs and humans have had a unique relationship...  There’s some connection there that’s incredibly, incredibly deep.  I think we’ve lost empathy and they’ve gained empathy in an evolutionary sense, and that’s why we’re partnered."

The fact that this study, which is still incomplete and has not yet been published, was the subject of a news story this week is timely.  In the last couple of weeks, my wife and I have been perusing the listings over at PetFinder, a wonderful service that acts as a clearinghouse for animals who are available for adoption at various shelters in your area.  We met some dogs who were clearly wrong for completely prosaic reasons -- a couple of boisterous puppies who played a little too roughly for our sweet, gray-around-the-muzzle coonhound Lena, for example.  There was one tragic pit bull mix, gorgeous, but so afraid of people that he couldn't be trusted not to bite -- we had to meet him through a chain link fence, and even then he snarled and snapped at us.

Most interesting was a beautiful, blue-eyed cattle dog mix who wasn't aggressive at all, but just -- disconnected, uninterested in interacting with us.  Out on a leash, he was focused on smelling everything in our path (not that unusual), but there was something about his body language that was off.  He paid no attention at all to either of us, not just in the sense of obeying commands (that stuff can be taught), but as far as any curiosity about us.  My doggie intuition said, "No, he's not going to work out well."

Then we met a big, loping black lab/Akita mix.

He was, we were told, a little shy, especially around men.  They let him out into the meet-and-greet room, and he walked right up to me and gave me a big lick in the face.  The trainer's eyebrows went up.

"Or maybe not so much," he said.

Then we brought in Lena, so she and Big Black Dog could see if they liked each other.  They did the obligatory mutual butt sniff, and both tails started wagging.  Second box checked off.

Best of all, he was clearly focused on us, and very curious about these two strangers who were leading him around.  It didn't take us long to come to a decision.  There was something about him that just clicked.  My second sense about dogs said, "He's the one."

So without further ado, allow me to introduce:  Guinness.


We've had him for less than 24 hours, and already he's played a rollicking game of chase in the back yard with Lena (she's been in a positive depressive state since her buddy, our adorable rescue mutt Grendel, died a couple of months ago; this is the happiest I've seen her since that happened).  He's chased squeaky tennis balls 17,839 times across the living room floor (and counting).  He's already learning a few commands -- we're signing him up for obedience training soon, and hoping that brain-wise, he's inherited more from his Akita ancestry than his black lab.  He is a little skittish, still -- the shelter manager didn't give us details about his past (probably a good thing) but just said he "wasn't treated very well" by his former owners.  He startles if you reach for him suddenly, but that's another thing I can tell he'll learn to get past with some love, affection, and a safe warm home.

So I think my doggie intuition has chalked up another win.  He's a good 'un, as my grandma used to say.

But now I need to go, because he just walked into my office with a squeaky tennis ball.  Some things take priority, you know?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Great balls of ice

A famous skit from the early days of Saturday Night Live had a stereotypical married couple (played by Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner) arguing over whether a particular product was a floor wax or a dessert topping.  After a moment, Chevy Chase steps in and says, "No need to argue!  New Shimmer is a floor wax and a dessert topping."

The couple gives the camera a big smile.  "Tastes great!" one of them says, and the other adds, "And look at that shine!"

I thought about New Shimmer a couple of days ago when my younger son, who has a fantastic eye for wacko ideas, found a claim online that resolves the Flat Earth/Oblate Spheroid Earth controversy by saying no need to argue... it's both flat and a sphere.

How can that be, you might be asking?  That's certainly what I asked.  I mean, the whole raison d'ĂȘtre of the Flerfs (as I have come to call the Flat Earthers) is that the Earth is a flat disc with no curvature whatsoever, in many iterations bounded by an ice wall that the rest of us call the continent of Antarctica (and which the Flerfs apparently believe is what keeps the ocean from pouring off the edge).

But no, says this new claim.  The reason that the Earth looks flat to the Flerfs is that we are only living on a tiny bit of it, and a tiny bit of a sphere looks, for all intents and purposes, flat.  But in reality, we're on a sphere -- just a much larger sphere than any of us, including the astronomers, realize.

If you're having a hard time picturing this, so was I, until Nathan sent me a diagram.  So without further ado, I unveil to you the latest version of the Flat Earth Theory:

The Great Ice Ball Earth Theory.


That, my friends, is one huge ball of ice.  But it all makes sense, they say -- don't get all technical on us and claim that such a huge planet would have an enormous gravitational pull, comparable at least to Jupiter's -- because, as the diagram clearly tells you, the ice ball is "possibly hollow."

And I realize that the inset in the lower left hand corner is probably too small for you to see clearly, so allow me to elaborate.  The Earth, it claims, might be just one of many "ponds" in the ice ball.  So this could account for all sorts of things, like UFOs, which wouldn't have to cross interstellar space, they'd just have to sail around the ice ball until they found a hospitable looking "pond."

And given that this is upstate New York in February, it has actually looked a bit like we're sitting on a giant ice ball lately.  So maybe there's something to this after all.

In either case, I suppose this ends the Flat Earth/Oblate Spheroid Earth argument.  It's kind of a shame, because there were parts of it I was rather enjoying.


In any case, that's the latest from FlerfLand.  Now y'all will have to excuse me, because I'm gonna go get a bowl of ice cream.  I sure hope I have some floor wax left.  It's just not the same without it.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The necessity of dissent

As soon as I saw that the students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, had gained national attention for their outspoken and articulate statements on changing gun laws, I was waiting for the backlash to start,

Maybe I'm cynical.  A more optimistic person might have thought that people would say, "I'm glad these kids are getting involved and being vocal, even if I don't necessarily agree with what they're saying.  This kind of participation is what democracy is all about!"

A more optimistic person would have been wrong.

First there's Lucian Wintrich over at Gateway Pundit, a wildly pro-Trump site that despite its established "white Christians first" agenda was granted White House credentials over respected members of the mainstream media.  Wintrich noted that one of the students, David Hogg, was the son of a man who works for the FBI.  From there, he says, there's only one possible conclusion:
Hogg appears to have been coached on anti-Trump lines...  He seems articulate and highly skilled at setting a new anti-Conservative/anti-Trump narrative behind the recent school shooting...  Allow me to point out that this type of rapid media play is rare and, only comes from well-trained political operatives and MSM commentators...  Why would the child of an FBI agent be used as a pawn for anti-Trump rhetoric and anti-gun legislation?  Because the FBI is only looking to curb YOUR Constitutional rights and INCREASE their power.  We’ve seen similar moves by them many times over.  This is just another disgusting example of it.
The next to chime in was none other than Alex Jones, who under Trump has somehow recovered enough credibility to continue his blithering every day over at InfoWars.  Jones went even further than Wintrich, saying that the massacre itself was the fault of the Democrats:
Wow, we said the perfect false flag would be a white nationalist attacking a multicultural school as a way to make the leftists all look like victims and bring in gun control and a war on America’s recovery.  And now right on time what we’ve been warning of, their main card, the thing we said was imminent, appears with all the evidence.
But it wasn't just dubiously sane members of the far-right media that weighed in.  The latest to slam the survivors of the shooting was former Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia, who in an interview on CNN called the students "stooges for left-wing groups who have an agenda."

Alisyn Camerota, who was interviewing Kingston, responded in astonishment, "Jack, I’m sorry. I have to correct you.  I was down there.  I talked to these kids.  These kids were wildly motivated."  But Kingston refused to back down.  The day after the interview, he tweeted about the planned rallies for gun law reform: "O really?  'Students' are planning a nationwide rally?  Not left wing gun control activists using 17yr kids in the wake of a horrible tragedy?"

So let me get this straight.  Kids this age are allowed to use guns.  Only a year older, and they're not only allowed to purchase guns, they're allowed to vote, not to mention join the military and risk their safety and lives to protect this country.  But at the same time, no way could a young adult have a valid and well-thought-out reason for holding a belief.  If they disagree with the party line, it can't be because of a strongly-held and justified opinion.  And no way in hell should they be organizing a rally or speaking to media to make those opinions known.

If they're doing any of that, they must have been brainwashed, and are being used by the leftists for their own malignant purposes.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Speaking of responses, I have a great many of them, of which calling the likes of Wintrich, Jones, and Kingston a trio of goddamn hypocrites is the most succinct, and probably also the most printable.  But I'll add one more directed at them, and that's this: you better get out of the way, because these teenagers will not be silenced.  Your type has for years railed at teens as being unmotivated, lazy, and uninterested in participating in government.  I hope this shows you how wrong you are -- and perhaps, that your ignorant scorn has given these young people a voice that otherwise they might not have found.

To the teenagers themselves, I have a lot more to say.

Don't let the anger, doubt, and ridicule coming from people like this discourage you.  Any time you speak up, you will find that there are ones who will want to rob you of your right to express yourself, who will slander you and dismiss your opinions as worthless.  Speaking up is risky, but it's absolutely critical, and you will find that weathering the impotent fury of those who would deny you your voice will, in the long haul, be empowering.

To quote union leader Nicholas Klein, "First, they ignore you.  Then they ridicule you.  Then they fight you.  Then you win."

So don't give up.  You have started something, something big, and you have captured national attention, including the attention of people who disagree with you.  This is a good thing.  Speaking out can be scary, and there will be times you will regret doing it, feel that you haven't accomplished anything, that the odds against you are too great.  But there are a lot of people standing behind you who will happily add their voices to yours.

As American activist Maggie Kuhn put it: "Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes.  When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say."

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Social media and social isolation

One of the reasons we have science is that our intuition is so often wrong.

We're misled by dozens of things, from simple failures of our perceptual or processing apparatus, to our preconceived notions and cognitive biases, to falling prey to others who want us to think a certain way.  Science gives us a way around all of that; its understanding relies on data and evidence.  What we thought beforehand, what someone else told us -- none of that matters.

Now, I'm not saying that science has no biases.  There is no endeavor that is completely bias-free.  However, if you want to find a way to the truth, based on the current best knowledge we have, science is the only game in town.

This comes up because of a paper released last week in the Journal of Information, Communication, Society that addresses a commonly-held belief, especially amongst those who are (like myself), "of a certain age;" that social media and the ubiquity of cellphones and other internet-connective devices are going to result in a generation of young adults who don't know how to interact with each other in person -- or, perhaps, who simply don't want to.

Note that this belief is usually founded on nothing but annoyance.  Looking around a bus stop or a doctor's waiting room, and seeing all the faces glued to their Smart Phones, it's easy to imagine that it might be true.  After all, it seems kind of logical, doesn't it?  You stare at your phone rather than connecting to the people around you.  Of course that's going to isolate you, right?

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So Jeffrey A. Hall, Michael W. Kearney, and Chong Xing, of the University of Kansas Department of Communication Studies, decided to test that supposition, and their results appeared last week in the paper "Two Tests of Social Displacement Through Social Media Use."  And the results were unequivocal; frequent social media use had no effect whatsoever on social isolation in teenagers.  Those who were already isolated stayed isolated; those who were already connected stayed connected.  The authors write:
[We present] two tests of the hypothesis that social media use decreases social interaction, leading to decreased well-being.  Study 1 used the Longitudinal Study of American Youth (N = 2774), which is a national probability sample of Generation X, to test displacement over a three-year time period.  Latent change scores were used to test associations among social media adoption in 2009, social media use in 2011, direct contact frequency across years, in relation to change in well-being.  Although social media adoption in 2009 predicted less social contact in 2011, increased social media use between 2009 and 2011 positively predicted well-being.  Study 2 used experience sampling with a combined community and undergraduate sample (N = 116).  Participants reported on their social interactions and passive social media use (i.e., excluding chat via social media) five times a day over five days.  Results indicate that social media use at prior times of day was not associated with future social interaction with close others or with future face-to-face interaction.  Passive social media use at prior times predicted lower future well-being only when alone at prior times.  Neither study supported the social displacement hypothesis.
But... but... our intuition on this seemed so logical, didn't it?  On the other hand, when I think back on my own misspent youth, my memory tells me otherwise.  I was painfully shy, and to say I had no social life in high school is an understatement of colossal proportions.  This was long before the days of Smart Phones and Facebook (hell, my students think it was long before the days of Gutenberg and the Printing Press).  I can therefore guarantee that my own social isolation had nothing to do with social media, because it didn't exist.  And my guess is that if there had been social media, at least it would have given me some way of interacting, other than my preferred method of getting beaten up in the gym locker room.

Jeffrey Hall, who co-authored the study, elaborated on its results.  "It was not the case at all that social media adoption or use had a consistent effect on their direct social interactions with people," Hall said.  "What was interesting was that, during a time of really rapid adoption of social media, and really powerful changes in use, you didn’t see sudden declines in people’s direct social contact.  If the social-displacement theory is correct, people should get out less and make fewer of those phone calls, and that just wasn’t the case."

In fact, the use of social media didn't even affect who they chose to socialize with.  "What we found was that people’s use of social media had no relationship to who they were talking to later that day and what medium they were using to talk to people later that day," Hall said.  "Social media users were not experiencing social displacement.  If they used social media earlier in the day, they were not more likely to be alone later.  It’s also not the case that because they were using social media now, they were not interacting face to face later. …  It doesn’t seem that, either within the same time period or projecting the future, that social media use indicates people not having close relationship partners in face-to-face or telephone conversation."

So science here gives us a chance to challenge our preconceived notions, and in this case finds that our tendency to rant about "kids these days" and "it wasn't like that back in my day" turns out to be false.  The sad postscript, however, is that I don't expect this to change anyone's attitudes.  It's like the study, released last year, that not only does spanking not work to change a child's behavior, it's associated with a host of mental problems later in life, including depression, suicide risk, and drug abuse.

After that study came out -- and it is one of several studies that have reached this conclusion -- there was an outpouring of outrage on social media that "the liberals are trying to stop us from disciplining our kids" and "kids these days are disrespectful and lazy, and wouldn't be that way if they were spanked for it" and (most often) "I was spanked all the time as a kid, and I turned out fine."  Which proves that you can have controlled scientific studies out the wazoo, and it won't stop people from falling back on anecdote and personal experience and what they already believed.

Which is kind of distressing, now that I come to think of it.

Anyhow.  If I can get one person to stop and reconsider what they think, and perhaps base their understanding on hard evidence, I'll have done my job.  Now, y'all will have to excuse me, because it's been a while since I've checked Facebook.  You never know what might have happened in my absence.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Tragedy and inaction

So we here in the United States are watching the funerals of seventeen more innocent children and adults, mown down by an angry white-rights extremist, and already the jockeying is beginning either to (1) claim that this has nothing to do with guns, or (2) use the tragedy to gain political capital.

I don't intend to get deeply into the first, because anyone with the sense God gave gravel can see that the outcome would have been different had Nikolas Cruz, a young man who was investigated a year and a half ago on the suspicion of being a danger to himself and others, and who was the subject of an FBI tip a month ago, not had carte blanche for buying an AR-15.

I've made the point before, but it bears mention again.  No one is coming for your hunting rifles.  No one wants to prevent you from owning a handgun to defend your home.  This is about limiting access to semi-automatic rifles whose sole purpose, aside from target practice, is killing lots of people in a short amount of time.  This is about dethroning the NRA as the de facto God of Patriotic Americans.

That hasn't stopped this kind of bullshit, originally from the site Robertson Family Values, from making the rounds of social media:


Notwithstanding the point that I question the brains of anyone who treats the yahoos over at Duck Dynasty as if they were founts of eternal wisdom, if you really can't see the difference between the guns in the photograph and an AR-15, you're part of the problem.

But this brings me to my second point, which is that the ground hasn't even settled over the graves of the murdered, and already people are scrambling to use this tragedy to drive home whatever they already claimed.  The shooter was quickly identified as a white supremacist, and the radical group Republic of Florida has admitted that he trained with them -- and pictures surfaced of him wearing a "Make America Great Again" cap.  Of course, you can't link the two, people said.  In fact, because of Cruz's last name, I saw the response more than once that "he wasn't white, he was Hispanic."  Never mind the fact that he seemed to loathe all minorities, including Hispanics.  One of Cruz's former classmates, Josh Charo, said, "He would always talk about how he felt whites were a bit higher than everyone.  He’d be like, 'My people are over here industrializing the world and starting new things, while your people [meaning blacks and Latinos] are just taking up space.'"

But the racists weren't the only ones to weigh in.  Conservative commentator Tomi Lahren jumped into the fray, claiming that if we were just more religious, everything would be hunky-dory:
Evil will always be in this world.  And evil people will always find evil ways to do evil things.  The solution isn’t to start stripping away rights.  What we ought to do is make it easier for law enforcement to engage and evaluate individuals who exhibit warning signs, like making graphic threats online, or posting disturbing images.  You know, thoughts and prayers might seem laughable to some of you.  But maybe, just maybe, more Jesus, more God, more prayer and more compassion is what we are missing.
Neglecting, of course, that her idol Donald Trump signed a bill revoking an Obama-era rule that makes it harder for people with a history of violent mental illness to purchase a gun.  So the "thoughts and prayers" offered after every single mass murder are as empty as always, and Tomi Lahren is a goddamn hypocrite.

The hypocrisy didn't end with the commentators.  House Speaker Paul Ryan, in a move that was tone deaf to the point of being barely believable, had a fundraiser in Florida the day after the shooting.  (Yes, I know it was planned in advance.  Yes, I still think it was amazingly tone deaf to go through with it.)  A woman at the fundraiser confronted him about what he intended to do about gun violence.  His response:
This is not the time to jump to some conclusion not knowing the full facts.  We've got a lot more information we need to know...  This is one of those moments where we just need to step back and count our blessings.  We need to think less about taking sides and fighting each other politically and just pulling together.  This House and the whole country stands with the Parkland community.
I.e., more "thoughts and prayers," and otherwise, you can expect him to do fuck-all.

But of course, this wouldn't be complete without a commentary from the Emperor of Tone Deafness, Donald Trump himself, who tweeted yesterday morning, "Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter.  This is not acceptable.  They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign — there is no collusion."

So to Trump, the murder of seventeen people in a high school -- like everything else in the world -- is about him and his image.

The one thing that gives me hope about all of this is the response of the survivors.  In an impassioned response to Trump's use of a meeting with law enforcement in Parkland after the shooting as a grinning, thumbs-up photo-op, Emma Gonzales, a student at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, where the shooting occurred, said:
Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seated funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have ever been done to prevent this, we call BS.  They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence.  We call BS.  They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun.  We call BS.  They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars.  We call BS.  No, they say that no laws could have been able to prevent the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred.  We call BS.
Another survivor, Cameron Kasky, wrote:
We can't ignore the issues of gun control that this tragedy raises.  And so, I'm asking -- no, demanding -- we take action now. 
Why?  Because at the end of the day, the students at my school felt one shared experience -- our politicians abandoned us by failing to keep guns out of schools. 
But this time, my classmates and I are going to hold them to account.  This time we are going to pressure them to take action.  This time we are going to force them to spend more energy protecting human lives than unborn fetuses.
In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Kasky said:
Everything I’ve heard where we can’t do anything and it’s out of our hands and it’s inevitable, I think that’s a facade that the GOP is putting up.  After every shooting the NRA sends a memo saying ‘send your thoughts and prayers.’  This is the only country where this kind of thing happens...  There is a segment of this society that will shrug this off and send their thoughts and prayers but march for hours over a rainbow wedding cake.
Kasky added, "This is something that can be stopped and will be stopped."

It's sad that seventeen-year-olds are having to step up and take action because the fifty-year-olds are so much in the pockets of lobbyists that they'll jettison their responsibility and sacrifice their integrity rather than lose money.  But at least the teenagers are stepping up.

Which should worry the hell out of the likes of Paul Ryan and Donald Trump.  Because in a year or two, these kids will be voting.

And you better believe they're not going to forget this.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Nuclear spy lizards

Sometimes it's reassuring to know that the wackos aren't confined to the United States, although I will admit up front that we seem to have way more than our fair share of them.

My reason for saying this is a story about a government official in Iran who has apparently been doing sit-ups underneath parked cars.  His name is Hassan Firouzabadi, and he is a retired ophthalmologist who is currently Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  Firouzabadi was being questioned by the press about the death of Kavous Seyed-Emami, who had been head of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation.  The official story was that Seyed-Emami had committed suicide in prison after being picked up by the police in January on charges of espionage.

Seyed-Emami's arrest and death are certainly suspicious.  The Wildlife Heritage Foundation has connections to Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American businessman whose wealth predates the Iranian Revolution and who is therefore suspected of being anti-government.  The powers-that-be, however, say that Seyed-Emami killed himself because he was guilty and was afraid of punishment.

"This person was one of the accused," said Tehran's chief prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabidi, "and given that he knew there were many revelations against him and that he himself had made confessions, unfortunately he committed suicide in prison."

Tragic, and almost certainly further evidence of the Iranian government's determination to squelch dissent, but otherwise not far out of daily business for the Middle East.  But there's another top Iranian official who was a little more forthcoming.  Seyed-Emami was not just an ordinary dissenter, nor even an ordinary espionage agent.

He was a spy who used trained lizards to detect uranium deposits and nuclear missile sites, and then passed along the information to the Israelis.

Look at those beady eyes.  Would you trust this guy?  I didn't think so. [Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This statement came, in all seriousness, from the aforementioned Hassan Firouzabadi, Senior Military Adviser to the Ayatollah.  What Seyed-Emami was doing was using the natural ability lizards have to "attract atomic waves" (whatever the fuck those are), with evil intent:
In their possessions were a variety of reptile desert species like lizards, chameleons…  We found out that their skin attracts atomic waves and that they were nuclear spies who wanted to find out where inside the Islamic Republic of Iran we have uranium mines and where we are engaged in atomic activities.
Needless to say, this is idiotic.  Lizards respond to being around highly radioactive materials pretty much like any other life form does, namely by dying.  If you're trying to find out where the radioactive stuff is, there's an easier way.

It's called a "Geiger counter."

But facts seldom matter to people like Firouzabadi, who sounds like he should find some like-minded souls over at InfoWars, Before It's News, and the Flat Earth Society.  As far as Seyed-Emami, my guess is that he was tortured while in jail -- it seems pretty common practice in Iran -- and under that kind of duress, confessed to whatever they were asking of him.

Secret Agent Radioactivity-Detecting SuperLizards?  Yes, sir, absolutely.  I train them.  Now please unhook the jumper cables from my nipples.

To the rest of us, though, this is more evidence that getting into a high position in government does not necessarily mean you're smart, or even in contact with reality.  As for Firouzabadi, sounds like he'd be best off if someone patted him on the back, said, "There, there," and sent him off to resume picking at the straps of his straitjacket with his teeth.

Of course, I can say that.  I'm safely over here in the United States.  On the other hand, this is the home of Alex Jones, David Icke, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Donald Trump.  So maybe I shouldn't act so superior after all.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Worm brains

New from the "Haven't These People Ever Watched Horror Movies?" department, we have: some scientists in Austria who have uploaded the brain of a worm into a computer.

The research was done at the Technische UniversitĂ€t Wien (Vienna Technical University), and was done by computer engineers Mathias Lechner, Ramin Hasani, and Radu Grosu.  The worm was Caenorhabditis elegans, well known to researchers in developmental biology as the favorite species for research into how cell specialization unfolds.  The brain of C. elegans only has three hundred neurons, and the connections between them (synapses) are well understood, so what Lechner et al. did was to render the worm's brain as a circuit diagram, and emulated that circuit in a piece of software.

Within short order, they found that they were on to something pretty amazing.  Because the program could learn.  The task was simple -- given a model of a pole balanced on its end, the program had to figure out how to keep the pole upright if its top was moved (by sliding the base until it was upright again).  But it figured out how to do it, and most astonishingly, without having to be shown.

"With the help of reinforcement learning, a method also known as 'learning based on experiment and reward'," Lechner said, "the artificial reflex network was trained and optimized on the computer."  Co-author Grosu added, "The result is a controller, which can solve a standard technology problem – stabilizing a pole, balanced on its tip.  But no human being has written even one line of code for this controller, it just emerged by training a biological nerve system."

Caenorhabditis elegans.  Not one of the big thinkers of the Animal Kingdom.

Of course, this opens up about a million questions.  Once this software has all the bugs worked out, does it then qualify as a life-form?  Most people, faced with this question, say, "Of course not."  I know this because we discuss the possibility of artificial intelligence in my neuroscience class, and when I suggest that a computerized intelligence would be alive, most students respond with a vehement negative.  (Oddly, they are much quicker to accept that a machine could be intelligent than that a machine could classify as alive, and are usually unable to articulate exactly why they feel that way.)

Another, and deeper, question is to what extent this type of trick could be scaled up.  Not that it would be easy; there's a hell of a difference between the three hundred neurons in the brain of C. elegans and the estimated one hundred billion in the human brain.  Because, after all, you not only have to consider the number of neurons, but the number of their potential connections -- a quantity that, after playing around with some estimates, I have concluded is "really freakin' huge."  I'm no computer scientist -- heaven knows, most days I'm doing well to remember where the "on" switch is -- but the thought crosses my mind to wonder if emulating such a complex system in a computer is even theoretically possible.

Whatever the upper limit is, the feat is pretty astonishing.  The authors write:
Through natural evolution, nervous systems of organisms formed near-optimal structures to express behavior.  Here, we propose an effective way to create control agents, by re-purposing the function of biological neural circuit models, to govern similar real world applications.  We model the tap-withdrawal (TW) neural circuit of the nematode, C. elegans, a circuit responsible for the worm’s reflexive response to external mechanical touch stimulations, and learn its synaptic and neural parameters as a policy for controlling the inverted pendulum problem.  For reconfiguration of the purpose of the TW neural circuit, we manipulate a search-based reinforcement learning.  We show that our neural policy performs as well as existing traditional control theory and machine learning approaches. 
A video demonstration of the performance can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-Ia5IVyff8&feature=youtu.be
So while I don't think we're going to be seeing Commander Data joining Starfleet any time soon, this could well be the first step toward machine intelligence.  This is simultaneously thrilling and scary.  Like I said in my opening sentence, all you have to do is watch bad 1960s horror movies to find out how often the super-intelligent robots went berserk and started killing everyone, beginning with the scientists who had created them (usually after said scientists said, "Stand back!  I know how to control it!").  On the other hand, even if the robots do take over, they can't fuck things up much worse than they already are.

So upon reflection, I think I'll welcome our Computerized Worm Overlords.  Even if they never get around to doing much other than keeping poles standing upright, they'll still be ahead of the yahoos who are currently running the country.