Tag Archives: science

Marketing snake oil doesn’t mean you’re cleverer than your customers

Helaine Olen looks at the career of Glenn W. Turner, who popularized the phrase “fake it until you make it.” Great advice if you need a shot of confidence — but not so much if you’re scamming your customers, which Olen argues has become increasingly prevalent since the 1980s began to exult that “greed is good”: “As we transitioned from a society that manufactured things to one whose products were intangible, reality was increasingly in the eye of the beholder — or the pitchman.”

That kind of thinking could explain bald-faced lies such as Keebler claiming a cookie made with high fructose corn syrup has no high-fructose corn syrup, but it’s often bigger in scope than that kind of old-school snake oil. Case in point, the way the Sackler’s opioid empire relentlessly pushed oxycontin and willfully pretended they were helping people in pain, not catering to millions of addicts. More recently, some doctors made bank by prescribing ivermectin to treat covid; now that fear of covid is, however unreasonably, fading (it’s still killing a lot of people), they’ve discovered it’s also wonderful for treating the flu.

Or Marc Tessier-Levigne, now Stanford University president. In his former life as a Genentech executive he authored a paper that proclaimed a breakthrough in identifying the genetic roots of Alzheimer’s. The Stanford Daily reports the research was bogus.

Or consider the NYT is willing to write about Sam Bankman-Fried, crypto conman, and discuss how lots of people in the Bahamas like him.

Part of the problem is that snake oil is horribly easy to sell. It’s not just mountebank doctors selling fake cures to gullible targets; J.P. Morgan gave $175 million for access to a company’s non-existent client email lists. Charlie Javice founded the company, Frank, which supposedly helped five million students at 6,000 colleges negotiate the financial-aid maze. That shouldn’t have passed the smell test given there aren’t that many colleges that receive financial aid. Yet it did.

One of the commenters on this LGM post suggested that both Javice and Elizabeth Holmes benefited from the same classism that creates the glass floor: they come from white, upper-class backgrounds which meant they grew up learning to present themselves as someone you can trust to run a business (see Pedigree for more discussion of this). Much like British traitor Kim Philby, they could present themselves as the “right sort” which goes a long way to ensuring success. Lest you think I’m singling out women, you can say the same about Jared Kushner’s undistinguished business career.

I’m reminded of one prominent economist — I can’t remember which one — who lobbied hard to loosen the restrictions in the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated banks’ commercial and investment branches. When the government loosened regulations banks promptly started making very unwise decisions. Said economist insisted that had never occurred to him. That was idiotic. As I’ve quoted before, “The only security which we can have that men will be honest, is to make it their interest to be honest; and the best defence which we can have against their being knaves, is to make it terrible to them to be knaves.” Or as someone put it in comments here, ” without regulation there are often zero adults in the room.” Maybe J.P. Morgan was no different from any victim of the big con: they thought they saw a chance for a big, big score and turned off their brain.

I’ll end with an other quote from the same thread about the nature of business, that Henry Ford and the other automotive pioneers “may have been scumbags but they were actually interested in making and selling cars. The people who want to be in the business world for the sake of being in the business world are suspect in every possible way: there is literally nothing anchoring them but greed.

To use two modern examples Steve Jobs was AFAICT a piece of shit, but he really did have a vision about the future of computing and some of his attention was actually spent trying to accomplish that vision. Elon Musk doesn’t actually care about electric cars, as can be seen by decision after decision he’s made to do what he wants (play edgelord on the Twits, for example) rather than devote R&D money to Tesla.”



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Dinosaurs, Elon Musk, belief in science and other science/tech topics

Were dinosaurs warmblooded or coldblooded? It’s both!

Reptiles are more social than we imagine, perhaps even falling in love.

It’s hard to get reproducible results in social science experiments, but that’s not always a sign the research is wrong.

“The Hyperloop, a concept Mr. Musk revived based on a proposal from the 1970s, calls for moving passengers through vacuum tubes at around 700 miles an hour. Despite an influx of investor interest, no commercial system has ever been constructed.” — from a Wall Street Journal article on Boring, Elon Musk’s tunnel-building, which the article concludes deals mostly in vaporware.

NYT looks at how OnX, an app that maps the boundaries of public and private land, has led to disputes over land access and property rights.

” “Believing in science” — in an appropriately nuanced and sociologically skeptical rather than naively credulous way — is in fact a left wing position in this country at this time. Anti-science pig ignorance and bigotry is in fact a right wing position in this country at this time.”

Here’s a weird bit of bad science: a couple of fundamentalists ranting that drinking beer is bad because it makes men effeminate.

How the consensus that tech platforms shouldn’t be liable for what users post shattered in the 21st century.

DNA testing makes it possible to breed more dangerous, harder-to-handle bulls for the rodeo, the New York Times says: “The improvement in bulls presents a challenge to riders, who are produced the old-fashioned way.”

“It’s actually impossible to buy the same bra I had in high school for the same price. It’s simply more expensive to produce now than it was then.” — a look at why everything from printers to lingerie has become more inferior, more disposable.

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by Jack Kirby, Bernard Bailey and John Romita; all rights remain with current holders.

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No, I don’t think AI will make writers obsolete

Last month Mark Chadbourne, a British journalist, posted on FB (I have no idea if it’s public or not0 to announce “the latest AI is on the brink of making writers obsolete.” It can already “produce passable non-fiction books, blog posts and journalism. It’s very close – perhaps only months away – from making the more formulaic genres – thrillers, romance, some others.” Sure, the fiction won’t be very good but most readers don’t give two figs for quality: as publishers can cut out the middleman and sell AI fiction super-cheap, the computers will inevitably push writers into the trash-heap of history along with the buggy-whip makers.

As I said in the comments on FB, I have an automatic suspicion about Amazing New Breakthroughs in tech because they so often become vaporware. Even assuming it happens, Chadbourne packs a lot of bullshit into his statements. If software (not really AI as I understand it) can write “passable” journalistic prose — well, Chadbourne, as a journalist himself, should know that’s only half the battle. Is the AI going to sit in government meetings and sift out the stuff that needs to be written up? Will it go to an accident site or a crime scene and describe the setting or the ruins left by the fire? No, readers may not care if the prose isn’t Tom Wolfe class, but they will want descriptions, not just a short police report (trust me. If it bleeds, people read).

How about interviews? This might be doable: I have a list of standardized questions when interviewing local musicians or artists, and I’ve done some interviews by email, even though that’s not ideal. But can an AI follow-up if the interview goes in an unexpected direction (“I play the trumpet because my grandmother was a groupie for the Tijuana Brass.”)? And some interviews simply have to be in person or at least by phone: is a computer going to handle those? Will a grieving spouse (I’ve interviewed a couple) want to talk to a machine. Chadbourne really should know better.

The assumption that readers don’t care about quality does a lot of work too. If Chadbourne means that most readers do not care about award-winning literary fiction or beautifully polished prose, yeah, he’s probably right. But that’s not the same as saying they have no standards. My tastes as a teenager were mass-market — Perry Mason novels, Conan — but I could tell that Lin Carter and L Sprague deCamp did much worse Conan stories than Robert E. Howard. Bad enough they convinced me Conan was boring.Likewise, while readers may not think much about writing quality when reading the newspaper, that’s not to say it doesn’t influence them to keep reading where a dull story might not. With a sensational murder sure, you might get away with dull prose because everyone’s curious; city government needs to be written as well as possible to grab eyeballs (how well did it work? I don’t know).

My friend Gail Z. Martin had another excellent point on FB (I couldn’t find it to link to it): the market Chadbourne is prophesying (which Fritz Leiber foresaw in his excellent Silver Eggheads) already exists. Kindle Unlimited has unleashed tons of cheap fiction on the world, and yes, some of it is formulaic. Gail’s readers haven’t gone away and even new writers such as my friend Tracy Deonn can find an audience. I’ve bought a number of books from the Kindle store because they were cheap or free; that doesn’t stop me buying others at higher price. So Chadbourne’s theory has already been tested and found wanting.

That’s not to say all that free stuff doesn’t have an effect, particularly on minor writers such as myself. But Gail’s right, it’s hardly going to shove us onto the dust-heap of history.

I also wonder about the extensive evidence AI often duplicates the biases of its creators or learns from what’s already online. What if a journalism AI notices that black-on-white crime draws the biggest hits and concludes it should prioritize those stories over black-on-black or white-on-anyone crimes? It could easily fuel the stereotypes of black violence so common in our society. Or what if studying tons of fiction leads the software to conclude men should be the characters, women should orbit around men and POC should be sidekicks or supporting characters? That’s not going to work out well.

#SFWApro. Covers by Curt Swan, Frank Frazetta and I don’t know the third; all rights to images remain with current owners.

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Assorted links about science and tech

Some of these links are from last year, but they’re still interesting. Accompanied, as usual, by random comics illustrations.

In one of those “identical resumes/different gender” experiments, women were hired for STEM faculty positions twice as often as men of equal ability. As noted at the link this is not a real world experiment — nobody involved was real or actually hired — and even a slight superiority on the male side made it a slam dunk (despite shrieks online that it’s about women being picked over more qualified men).

“When AI gets attention for recovering lost works of art, it makes the technology sound a lot less scary than when it garners headlines for creating deep fakes that falsify politicians’ speech or for using facial recognition for authoritarian surveillance.” — from an article arguing that AIs researching art history are mostly just PR for the technology.

The kunga of Mesopotamia is the oldest human-created hybrid we know of, a mix of Syrian wild ass and donkey.

How game-theory AI is transforming high-stakes poker.

It’s been said that while fully automated cars are 90 percent of the way to perfection, the last 10 percent is nightmarishly hard. Case in point.

If you’re unvaccinated and catch Covid, CDC guidelines say you’re a priority for life-saving treatment ahead of other pulmonary issues.

Aww, gee, it seems right-wingers on right-wing social media are having trouble attracting followers.

What effect will massive mergers in the gaming industry have on the market?

The female “pudenda” derives from a Latin word for “shame.” Medicine is going to retire the word.

There are also a boatload of female body parts named for men.

If the Earn It Act imposes legal liability on hosting companies for posts harming children, will it also kill encryption?

There are only a few hundred Stradivarious violins. A digital project hopes to preserve their sound before time takes its toll.

“Throughout the pandemic, each time a public safety measure arrives on the scene, some experts fret that the masses will simply use the newfound sense of security as license to behave recklessly, canceling out or even reversing any benefits of the safety measure.” — On the dubious arguments that reducing danger makes the risk greater.

#SFWApro. Covers by Murphy Anderson, Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Mort Meskin and Jack Binder

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Technology and science, with some covers mixed in

Spyware became common in schools during the first year of the pandemic. It isn’t going away now.

“The main challenge is the lack of human imagination; our inability to see a different future because we’re staring down this dystopian path of pandemic, climate change, biodiversity loss” A look at the imagineers who think they can turn deserts green. We’ll need them as North Carolina and other parts of the world may be killing off our forests.

The abandoned oil wells of Texas, and the havoc they wreak.

Abuses of Roma DNA.

And how should we research ancient DNA?

Is seagrass a potential new superfood?

Another reminder that pre-crime software isn’t free of human bias — it builds on it. See here. And here.

When we kill off a significant number of animals, species suffer from a loss of cultural knowledge.

“The world became smaller, simply because we had the horse.”

Some inner voices are more unusual than others.

Releasing millions of honeybees into the wild is not the solution to the decline in pollinators.

Climate change is real — and it’s happening in our gardens.

#SFWApro. Covers by Kelly Freas, unknown, Curt Swan and Swan again. All rights to images remain with current holders.


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Science and tech links

Is the military ignoring an easy tech solution to soldiers dying in friendly fire?

Crocodiles may look like ancient relics of the pre-mammal ages, but they’ve evolved a lot and they’re still evolving.

The challenges of telling a skeleton’s race.Hobby Lobby’s museum has had to give back most of its exhibits because of dubious provenance (in fairness, they’re hardly the only museum with that issue).

The great Cretaceous extinction is more complicated than just the legendary meteor wiping everything out.Lab grown meat is supposed to be the coming thing. But it’s nowhere near financially feasible yet.

A study finds that a single bitcoin transaction creates the equivalent electronic waste to tossing two iPhones in the trash.

#SFWApro. Covers by Ed Hannigan, Nicholas Peter Cardy and Jack Kirby

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Mostly depressing stuff about global warming, plus other science links

“At its worst, net zero by 2050 is a device for shunting responsibility across both time and space. Those in power today seek to pass their liabilities to those in power tomorrow. Every industry seeks to pass the buck to another industry. ” — a Guardian columnist on how our current goals for fighting global warming fall short.

As the world heats up, air conditioning becomes more vital, but it also makes the problems worse. What are the alternatives?

Air-travel contributes to global warming too. Here are the big problems they need to solve.

Global warming and other factors have put the Komodo dragon on the endangered list. There are dangers for vanilla and avocado crops, too.

The world’s largest carbon-capture machine has gone live.

Floating wind turbines could be a great clean energy source, but there are obstacles to overcome first.

“Black cemeteries are now at a disproportionate risk of being lost, some before they have even been officially found.”

The U.S. Army is looking to a cyborg future and worried movies will bias us against cyborgs.

To tighten its grip on the people, the Russian government is deploying its own internet.

Millionaire Julia Davies is helping acres of British farmland go back to nature.

How a rare New Zealand parrot may have removed harmful mutations from its gene pool.

Environmental activism around the world leads to activists being murdered.

“You do pi because everyone else has been doing pi.” — an article on whether there’s any point to calculating pi out to the trillions of digits.

Dogs are amazing — even as covid detectors. I’m sure Plushie could handle it.

What we’re still learning about the asteroid that ended the dinosaur age.

The technical and ethical challenges to resurrecting the woolly mammoth.

The California condor population has gone from 22 to more than 500.

#SFWApro. Comics cover by Mike Sekowsky, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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Links about UFOs, nature and science

A physicist argues we shouldn’t try to contact alien life — who knows what the reaction will be (see, for example, Battleship)? And if some astrophysicist or amateur scientist makes contact, what’s to stop them presenting themselves as speaking for the human race?

A journalist argues that we should accept UFOs are real, physical things (as opposed to “real but just a trick of the light”), though not necessarily spaceships.

Here’s a lost of America’s more prominent UFO sightings. And some naval aviators say they see them every day. A fair number of officials in DC are believers, or at least interested enough to push for investigations. But a recent documentary claims the evidence for UFOs is just a government psy-op. A federal report comes to no definite conclusions about UFOs, but does suggest they are physical  objects. But both skeptics and believers agree that talking about it openly is a good thing.

Some scientists say the art of creating crop circles is worthy of serious study, but the UFO association makes that hard.

Are conflicts over “trash fish” surrogates for conflicts over Native American rights?

Speaking of right, here’s how race, oyster fishing and pollution intersect.

Argentinian developers turned wetlands into an upscale gated community. The capybara are fighting back.

The power of seaweed to fight global warming.

Dubai promised to plan one million trees. The reality is less impressive.

Is it sustainable farming if nobody can afford the food?

San Francisco International Airport is saving a snake from extinction.

Beavers have returned to Scotland.

I’ve written before about the problems of relying on algorithms to make judgment calls (also see here). The AP says ShotSpotter software, designed to identify and locate gunshots, is another example: not always accurate, the company won’t let anyone analyze its programs and the techs are willing to rewrite reports if police say the gunshot happened somewhere else.

Well, that’s just the best new (he said sarcastically). The first responders of 9/11 may be slipping into dementia at a much accelerated rate due to the chemicals they were exposed to. But until there’s hard confirmation via research, the responders’ health fund won’t cover it.

#SFWApro. Cover by Gene Colan (t) and Curt Swan (b). All rights to images remain with current holders.


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Links about science and tech, plus some paperback covers

When coming up with new ideas or solutions we think of adding features and increasing complexity — not enough about simplifying.

The wheelie suitcase is such a great idea, but gender stereotypes — men don’t need no stinking wheels and women will always have a man handy to do the lifting — meant it took decades to become a thing.

I’ve never seen Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser, but it’s still startling to realize global warming could destroy it this century.

Last month I reviewed Weapons of Math Destruction, about how relying on AIs doesn’t make us rise above human failings. Here’s one example, how reliance on AI to parcel out funding for the sick took away needed care. This article, however, argues that broader fears of AI taking over are wildly incorrect.

In a related topic, companies and government officials say electronic visit-verification apps prevent fraud and waste in government funded homecare programs. Instead they just make it harder to get paid.

Microbes could produce 10 times the food as plants, at little environmental cost.

Anti-vxxers are continuing to spread anti-science.

Social science: why are competitors on The Price is Right game show worse than the last century’s players?

“There’s a bias in our culture towards assuming that the written word is by definition enduring. We quote remarks made centuries ago often because someone wrote them down – and kept the copies safe. But in digital form, the written word is little more than a projection of light onto a screen.” — the BBC on the problem of lost digital information.

Hospital are making increasing use of medical chatbots. The article looks at what they can and can’t do.

Anthony Bourdain wasn’t alive to participate in a new documentary about him. Bourdain’s wife isn’t happy the director’s solutin was to deepfake his voice.

As the sixth great extinction continues, a UN plan proposes to cut the extinction rate by a factor of 10.

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by Charles Binger, Robert Abbett, Ed Veligursky and Earle Bergey. All rights to images remain with current holder.

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Einstein’s brain (and some science links)

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” — Stephen Jay Gould. I don’t have anything to add to that quote, but I thought it was a good start to another post of science-related links and SF covers

Vox suggests robots taking our jobs are less of a problem than robots and AI making work worse.Plans to help the bison by building the world’s longest wildlife bridge.

The fossil fuels industry allegedly saw the problems of global warming and rising waters years ago — and lied about it.Dogs protecting penguins. I know it’s not exactly science, but it’s so cute.Jungle cities of ancient cultures were more successful than we think.

#SFWApro. Covers by Murphy Anderson, Gil Kane, Kane again and Roy Krenkel

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