Jul 22 2019

Conspiracies Are For the Birds

Let me just start by saying – I don’t believe for a second that this one is real. I think it’s something between absurdist performance art, trolling, and marketing. But it does raise the question about the ultimate effects of such things, and therefore the ethics.

There is an online faux movement called, “Birds Aren’t Real.” It is a fake conspiracy theory someone made up in order to make fun of other conspiracy theories, and perhaps sell T-shirts. The idea is that sometime in the 1970s the US government killed all the birds in North America and replaced them with identical drones in order to spy on its citizens. Of course this makes no sense on multiple levels. Why would they bother to kill all the birds, rather than just mix their drones in with the natural ones? Why hasn’t anyone captured or found one of these drones? And of course, the technology to pull this off is at least a century off, so how did the CIA (or whoever) pull this off 40 years ago?

The absurdity of this conspiracy theory is a feature, not a bug. The question is – why did someone bother? I can certainly see the fun in doing so. Read the website, it’s transparent (in my opinion) mockery. There are various theories as to what’s behind the movement, and what the true motivation is for those who created and who promote it. The cynical view is that they are just trying to sell merchandise by creating a brand. It may work. Others believe they are skeptics trying to expose the gullibility of conspiracy theorists. Or it may have all simply been a joke, or some version of trolling. It may be all of these things.

The question is – will the birds aren’t real meme take on a life of its own? This question has lead to perhaps the least likely theory, that this is all an elaborate social psychological experiment testing the limits of human gullibility. This theory, however, is really just another fake conspiracy theory, which starts the cycle of speculation all over again.

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Jul 19 2019

Electronic Skin

This is another entry in my informal series on interfacing machines and the human brain. Yesterday I wrote about Neuralink, which is a project to develop electrodes to interface with the brain itself. Today I write about another incremental advance – in the July 17th issue of Science Robotics, researchers published, “A neuro-inspired artificial peripheral nervous system for scalable electronic skins.”

This seems to be a serious advance in the architecture of artificial skin.

“We demonstrate prototype arrays of up to 240 artificial mechanoreceptors that transmitted events asynchronously at a constant latency of 1 ms while maintaining an ultra-high temporal precision of <60 ns, thus resolving fine spatiotemporal features necessary for rapid tactile perception. Our platform requires only a single electrical conductor for signal propagation, realizing sensor arrays that are dynamically reconfigurable and robust to damage.”

This configuration is more scalable than the current designs, which “are currently interfaced via time-divisional multiple access (TDMA), where individual sensors are sampled sequentially and periodically to reconstruct a two-dimensional (2D) map of pressure distribution.” As the number of sensors increases, with this design, the delay in signal processing gets greater. The new design does not suffer that limitation.

Biological skin evolved to have a host of desirable features. It is soft, has a variable number of sensors as needed, and yet is robust, still operates with minor damage, and is self-repairing. Artificial skin would be optimal if it shared all these features. This new eskin gets us closer to this ideal.

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Jul 18 2019

Neuralink To Begin Human Trials

I’m still trying to figure out if Elon Musk is a mad genius or a supervillain. Perhaps that’s a false dichotomy. Seriously, I do like his approach – he has billions of dollars laying around, so he decides that we need some specific technology in order to build the future, and he builds a company dedicated to developing that technology. Wherever he sees holes, he tries to fill them.

SpaceX has been, in my opinion, his most dramatic success. He has pioneered the technology of reusable rockets, and anyone who has seen one of his falcon rockets landing vertically has to be impressed. Tesla cars are impressive as well, but from what I understand he still has to make the company profitable. I’m still skeptical about the hyperloop, but at least he’s trying. It all depends on how cheap he can make tunneling, and the real innovation may be in his Boring company.

Not all of his companies involve travel. He also wants to change humans, in order to ultimately keep up with the AI he thinks we will inevitably create. In 2017 he tweeted, “If you’re not concerned about AI safety, you should be. Vastly more risk than North Korea,” along with a picture declaring, “In the end, the machines will win.” The existential threat of AI is a separate question.

Now for most people, if you are worried about AI you talk about it with your friends and colleagues. Perhaps you have a blog where you can share your concerns with the world. But if you are Elon Musk you can start a 100 million dollar company designed to thwart the perceived threat. So that’s what he did.

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Jul 16 2019

Multi-Level Marketing Is Still a Scam

Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) companies are inherently, in my opinion, exploitative. The MLM model is that the sales force is hierarchical – you are hired by someone who takes a cut of what you earn. You, in turn, can make money by recruiting your own sellers, who each pay you a cut of what they earn, and what everyone below them earns. In other words – it’s a pyramid scheme.

A raw pyramid scheme is just a transfer of money – I give you $10, and recruit five people to give me $10, and so on. Everyone makes money, except for those who get stuck at the bottom of the pyramid. Pyramid schemes are generally illegal because only the people at the top really make money. The math of the situation guarantees that even in a few generations the pyramid will burn itself out. (1-5-25-125-625-3,125-15,625-78,125-390,625-1,953,125-9,765,625-48,828,125-244,140,625) In 13 levels you get close to the entire population of the US, in 2 more, close to the population of the Earth.

An MLM is basically a pyramid scheme in which a product is used as cover for the transfer of money. Sellers need to buy product from the company, which they may use themselves but are also meant to sell. Some MLMs require a minimum purchase each month, whether you sell it or not. In this way also the salespeople are also customers. It amazes me that this is at all legal. Most states and the federal government regulate MLMs rather than outlaw them completely For example, sellers need to demonstrate that they make most of their income from actually selling products, not just getting paid by those under them. Certain practices, such as requiring a minimum product purchase, can be outlawed as well.

The numbers tell the story. An analysis by the FTC found that 100% of the 350 MLMs they looked at were top heavy, meaning that the vast majority of the profit went to the very top promoters, while everyone else lost money. A staggering 99% of those involved lost money. In fact, it’s worse than a no-product straight pyramid scheme, in which 90% of participants lose money. There, of course, will be exceptions – that seller who is 2-3 standard deviations from the mean, who was in the perfect situation, or just has exceptional business and marketing skills. They make money, and then they become the poster child for that MLM. If they can do it, you can do it.

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Jul 15 2019

Clouds and Climate Change

A paper is making the rounds on climate denial sites that claims to debunk human-caused climate change in a single stroke. Predictably, the paper does nothing of the sort, but it does raise a complex issue regarding climate change that is worth reviewing. But first let’s get to the paper itself.

The paper, by J. Kauppinen and P. Malmi, is a pre-publication paper on the Arxiv. This means it is not peer-reviewed. Their central claim, from the abstract:

In this paper we will prove that GCM-models used in IPCC report AR5 fail to calculate the influences of the low cloud cover changes on the global temperature.

Right in the first sentence is a huge red flag – claiming to be able to “prove” that the IPCC report is false. That’s a bold claim, and suggests a less than rigorous intellectual approach. They also claim to rebuke a rather robust conclusion built on many lines of evidence with a single line of evidence – the single stroke approach. This is also a huge red flag.

The claim is built around one major line of reasoning, that if you compare low cloud cover with changes in global temperatures, you see a strong correlation. In fact, the authors argue, you can explain most of global warming as resulting from a decrease in low cloud cover, leaving almost nothing left for anthropogenic forcing. There is a great deal wrong with this claim. The site ClimateFeedback has helpfully curated much of the response from climate scientists, who eviscerate the Kauppinen paper, and I will give you a summary of their summary.

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Jul 09 2019

More Bad News For Vitamin Pushers

Vitamins are, by actual definition, essential nutrients for humans. They are substances we need but cannot make ourselves from other nutrients, and therefore must consume. Each of the vitamins have a disease resulting from a deficiency of that vitamin. For some there may also be negative health effects from having an insufficiency (less than optimal levels, but not low enough to cause a deficiency state). This is why you should eat your vegetables, and have an overall well-rounded diet – to make sure you get enough of all the vitamins and other needed nutrients.

But of course if there is a way to exploit a fact to make money, someone will do it. In this case an entire industry has emerged to make money by convincing the public they need to take vitamin pills, the more the better. In 2017 the supplement industry in the US reached $36.1 billion a year. Unfortunately, the path to better health is not so simple, and the science simply does not support the vitamin industry hype.

Yet another meta-analysis was just published again demonstrating that routine supplementation is mostly worthless, and may even be harmful. This one is focusing on vascular outcomes, but since heart disease is the #1 killer, and stroke the #3 killer, vascular risk has a major impact on life expectancy. In 2018 I wrote about a meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. This study found:

  • Multivitamins, vitamins D, C, A, B6, E, calcium, β-carotene, zinc, iron, magnesium, and selenium had no benefit or harm for vascular disease or all-cause mortality.
  • Folic acid and B-complex (Folic acid, B6 and B12) reduced stroke risk
  • Antioxidants and niacin increased all-cause mortality.

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Jul 08 2019

Cancer Quackery on YouTube

Many outlets are covering the story of Mari Lopez, a YouTuber who claimed, along with her niece, Liz Johnson, that a raw vegan diet cured her breast cancer. Johnson recently updated the videos with a notice that Mari Lopez died of cancer in December 2017. She has refused, however, to take down the videos.

The story, unfortunately, is a common one. When people are diagnosed with cancer it is understandably a psychological shock. They face not only the grim possibility of their death, but also the prospect of surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy – none of which are pleasant. It is a life-altering event. It also makes people vulnerable – in that situation, who wouldn’t want an escape hatch, a way to get back to their normal life? That is what cancer quackery offers – forget surgery and chemotherapy, just engage in this mild intervention, like a diet change, and your cancer will be gone.

Those who get lured in by this siren song experience one of several possibilities. First, many may still undergo some initial treatment, such as surgery, to treat the cancer, but then refuse adjunctive therapy like chemotherapy or radiation. Some of those patients may, in fact, be cured by the surgery. Often the purpose of the chemotherapy is to reduce the risk of recurrence. Others may forgo any science-based treatment.

Following the initial diagnosis, with or without some intervention, there is what we call the honeymoon period. In this phase the cancer may be relatively asymptomatic. This is especially true if it was discovered because of some screening test, like an X-ray or blood test, and not because it had already become symptomatic. This period can last for months and even years, depending on the stage and type of cancer. This is the phase where those who pursued some form of cancer quackery convince themselves that they are cured. They will also tend to credit the alternative treatment with their cure, even if they received surgery or some other standard treatment.

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Jul 04 2019


Today is the Fourth of July. First, I want to say happy birthday to my two brothers, Bob and Joe, fraternal twins who were born on the 4th. But also happy birthday to America. The 4th is always a good time to reflect on what the American experiment in constitutional democracy really means.

I tend to look at it this way – process is more important than outcome. This is true in the same way it is true for science and critical thinking. Science is a system of valid methods used to build an empirical model of reality. In science, using proper methods is what counts, not the outcome of the experiment. When you put the outcome first, and then use whatever methods necessary to generate the desired outcome, that’s pseudoscience.

In the same way we have a system of government that puts the rule of law, with the Constitution being the highest law, above any particular outcome. It is supposed to be a peaceful and fair method of determining things like law, justice, rights, and the expenditure of common resources. It is valid in that it derives from the people with fair and even representation. Obviously the system is not perfect, partly because people are not perfect, but also because running a country with over 300 million people is horrifically complicated and must, by necessity, involve numerous trade-offs.

But the idea of the Constitution is that we have a system, and if everyone follows the system then at least there are checks and balances, there is a system for correction of error, people have a way to make their will felt, and the whole thing grinds messily on. A friend of mine recently observed, however, that what really has surprised and even frightened him over the last two years is the realization that the whole system is much more of a gentleman’s agreement than he ever imagined. I tend to agree.

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Jul 02 2019

Making Mini-Brains from Stem Cells

A new report details the progress scientists have made in developing brain organoids from stem cells. They use human embryonic stem cells to culture neurons – brain cells. Lead author, Hideya Sakaguchi, describes the process:

“The team cultured the organoids for 70-100 days, dissociated them into single cells and then disseminated them into another culture dish. The disseminated cells created neuronal networks in a self-organized manner.”

Just by culturing individual neurons together, they spontaneously formed networks and some three-dimensional tissue structure, forming into layers similar to the layers seen in human cortex. Further, the networks of neurons demonstrated some coordinated firing. There was both spontaneous individual cell activity, as well as synchronized activity within networks of cells.

The result is not a brain, which is why it is called an organoid (often referred to as a mini-brain, but this is less technically accurate). What this demonstrates is the inherent properties of human brain neurons to spontaneously form tissue structure and to from neural networks that are functional. The cells are essentially trying to self-organize into a brain. They cannot fully do this, however, because there is a huge piece missing – sensory input and the feedback from output.

A human brain, even an infant brain, contains more information by orders of magnitude than is contained in all the genes that are involved in neurological function. The genes are not a blue print for a brain. Rather, the genes are a set of instructions, of behaviors, that if followed allow for the development of a fully formed brain. But that development requires more information – information from the rest of the body. This process continues after birth as babies develop their vision, hearing ability to move, eventually to walk, socialization, and language. If deprived of stimulation in these areas, the relevant part of the brain will not develop.

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Jul 01 2019

Privacy in the Age of AI

How strong is the password you use for your e-mail account? When was the last time you changed it? Your e-mail is the gateway to pretty much the rest of your security – someone who has captured your e-mail can use it to reset many of your other passwords. Yet, the top 10 passwords that people use are: “123456, 123456789, qwerty, password, 111111, 12345678, abc123, 1234567, password1, and 12345.” There are several reasons for this, but one is that people will generally trade security for convenience.

In addition to this, network security experts don’t always appreciate this fact or its implications. I was in a meeting at work about this topic, and the IT guys actually stated that their password policy is – use a hard alphanumeric, don’t write it down anywhere, use a different password for every login, and change it every 30 days. This is literally impossible for the vast majority of the population. People will just shrug at these silly recommendations, and use “123456.” A better recommendation, meeting people half-way, is to use a password which consists of three independent words that are each memorable to you but someone else would not easily guess.

We are quickly moving beyond the age of passwords, however. Biometrics may save us from our own laziness, at least in part, because they key into something unique about ourselves. They are a biological key that we carry with us. This is partly why hackers are moving toward social engineering rather than hacking software or hardware to breech security. People are the weak link – you can still count on people’s inherent laziness.

The same is true of privacy – people will sacrifice a certain amount of privacy for convenience. Sometimes we have no choice. If we want to live and do business in the modern world, we have to put some of ourselves out there. (Unless you want to “live of the grid.”) If you want to get on a plane, you have to let someone rifle through your things, and may even have to submit to a whole body scan. So while we are individually willing to trade security for convenience, we are collectively willing to trade privacy for security.

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