Thinkery Episode 4: Murdered By Pretty Much Everything

the-day-the-earth-stood-stillEpisode 4 of my ridiculous podcast with Brian Hogg, Thinkery, is up! Here’s Brian’s writeup:

In this episode, Paul’s computer broke, forcing him to use something non-magical! Brian had an actual reasonable conversation in YouTube comments! CS Lewis is an unconvincing hack and Christian Apologetics are embarrassingly bad! We’re somewhere on the atheist scale! What IS knowledge, anyway? When we meet aliens for the first time, will they want to murder us, or sell us Amway? What’s the culture of heaven, and will you eventually be able to have sex with everyone?

Come get it at the website or on iTunes, or your podcatcher of choice.


Thinkery Episode 3: Sad Superman is Awesome

The latest episode of my podcast with Brian Hogg, Thinkery, is out! (Here’s my introductory post explaining, sort of, the show.) Here’s Brian’s writeup:

It’s another episode of the show THEY don’t want you to hear! In this episode we talk about Rick Perry’s electoral desperation, our grand plans to monetize the empire that this show obviously already is, how the idea that everyone should be inclusive is actually exclusionary, why if you don’t do your job you should be fired, and how most of the people who watched Man of Steel must have done so with their eyes closed and their ears plugged.


I’m Special to CNN

Last week, a contact of mine at CNN asked me to write an op-ed for the website on the recent Gallup poll showing an uptick in the number of Americans who would be okay with voting for an atheist for president (now at 58%). I was delighted to be asked, and not a little bit surprised. It had to be somewhat hastily written, but the response to the piece has been great, so here’s a chunk of it:

The conventional wisdom has long held that despite the constitutional guarantee of “no religious test” for public office, there could be no greater albatross for a would-be officeholder than to be identified as an atheist. …

[But] nonbelievers have finally moved up a rung. Now claiming the space at the bottom of this particular barrel are socialists, with half of all voters ruling them out entirely. Sen. Bernie Sanders will have his work cut out for him. …

When asked why Americans were so reluctant to back an atheist presidential candidate, the late Christopher Hitchens would say that there was a time before Ronald Reagan when no one thought a divorced, B-movie actor could be elected president, but such a candidate had to run to test the question.

So, before we can allow these poll numbers to fill the nonreligious with either hope or dread for our political prospects, we have to run the experiment.

We’ve seen a tiny smattering of atheist candidates and elected officials in the past handful of years, but we need to see more, and at a much higher and more visible level. The more atheist candidates run for office, whether they win or not, the more their atheism stops seeming to voters like an oddity or a novelty.

You can of course read the whole thing here. My favorite bit? The byline, of course, where it says I’m “special to CNN.” Aw, CNN, you’re special to me, too. Regardless of Don Lemon.

And a small bit of Paul-trivia: When I was an intern at ABC News’ Political Unit, David Chalian, Teddy Davis, and Ed O’Keefe were my supervisors and colleagues (each of whom I like and respect very much). Today, they’re all at CNN. Maybe I should intern for them again!

Demonizing the Point of View of a Delicate Snowflake

Photo credit: ImageLink / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Rod Dreher, who fears gay equality at a visceral level, is very upset about a lesbian couple in Canada who demanded a refund on their purchase from a jeweler when they discovered that said jeweler was displaying anti-gay signage in their shop. The jewelers acquiesced, and it’s all just too much for Dreher. It’s the end of all things.

You understand, of course, that this is not about getting equal treatment. The lesbian couple received that. This is about demonizing a point of view, and driving those who hold it out of the public square. Just so we’re clear about that.

Yes, let’s be clear about that. Happily, part of free expression is that it is entirely okay to demonize a point of view. (Better to demonize a point of view than a person or a group of people, right?) For example, I think Rod Dreher’s point of view is backward, paranoid, exclusionary, and archaic. I’m happy to demonize his point of view, because I think it’s a very, very bad one.

He goes on (and on and on):

I bought some olive oil not long ago at a tiny grocery store owned by an Arab Muslim immigrant. If I find out that the merchant supports ISIS, am I entitled to declare my jug of olive oil tainted, and demand a refund?


Is a fundamentalist Christian permitted to send her osso buco back to the kitchen if she discovers that homosexual hands cooked it? Of course not.

Oh but yes! Yes they are. That’s the free market. Consumers can reject the goods and services they’ve been provided. That doesn’t mean they always get their way, of course. The proprietors of these businesses are themselves free to say, “Get bent, you got what you paid for, now leave me alone,” and the matter can be settled however it needs to be between adults, between customer and business. Individual consumers are not public businesses, and can spend their money, and demand it back, as they like (again, “demand” doesn’t always mean “get”).  That means a group of individuals can also decide to use their economic power for political ends and refrain from patronizing a business run by those whose ideas they find abysmal. (Dreher calls this “the mob” because he doesn’t agree with them, but I’d bet Christians who do the same in any parallel circumstance would be exercising their religious freedom.) The businesses themselves are public, and have to play by public rules. You sell to everybody, or you stop selling.

And let’s be clear about this sign that offended these women. It wasn’t a refrigerator magnet in a corner somewhere with some flowery Christian message. It’s a big, honking sign that says in bold, charred letters, “THE SANCTITY OF MARRIAGE IS UNDER ATTACK” on a flame-orange background, right at eye-level for all to see, plain as day. It’s a declaration of hostility, an expression of overt enmity.

It’s not a mere “opinion” about musical tastes or tax policy, it’s a proud expression of bigotry. It is an idea that should be demonized.

Dreher’s title for his post is “Heads LGBTs Win, Tails Christians Lose,” implying that this is an unfair state of things, that the game is rigged (and that it should be 50-50?). But the “Christians” in his headline-scenario should lose! It’s not unfair, it’s just that Dreher-approved “Christians” (the ones afraid of gay people) are, in fact, losing. We win. Good.

As for Dreher, a man who’s so bizarrely terrified of gay people (if he were Russian he would consider voting for Putin for his “[defense] of traditional Christian moral standards”) it’s laughable that he refers to others as “delicate snowflakes.” I mean look at this from another post:

…the greatest threat to religious freedom in our present moment: the advance of gay rights. …  it is impossible to talk meaningfully about the politics of religious liberty without discussing the pink elephant in the room.

He’s just about the most precious, fragile, feathery little ice crystal adrift in the whole cosmic flurry. It can’t be long before he just melts away.

Let’s Build Our Own Gods and Hope They Like Us: Reservations about Transhumanism

"My fellow Americans..."
Transhumanist philosopher Zoltan Istvan is “running for president.” No, he’s not a supervillain, but good-god-DAMN that’s a good supervillain name. Seriously, he’s not a crank, and he knows he won’t win. And I respect the transhumanist movement even if I’m not all the way on board. Here’s part of his platform:

I’ve only focused on one thing through it all—the same thing I’ve focused on with all my work for much of the last decade: I don’t want to die.

He’s already speaking my language! Tell me more.

Like most transhumanists, it’s not that I’m afraid of death…

Oh. Well, I am. Very much so. But please continue:

…but I emphatically believe being alive is a miracle. Out of two billion planets that might have life in the universe, human beings managed to evolve, survive, and thrive on Planet Earth—enough so the species will probably reach the singularity in a half century’s time and literally become superhuman.

This is where I run into problems with transhumanism in general. I think all things being equal, I could with very few reservations plaster the label onto myself: I feel very strongly about investment in technology directed specifically to the common good, and I believe that as the only creatures we know of who can contemplate our place in the universe, we have an obligation to overcome our burdensome meat sacks and aspire to become something more. And I love this part of his platform:

We want to close economic inequality by establishing a universal basic income and also make education free to everyone at all levels, including college and preschool. We want to reimagine the American Dream, one where robots take our jobs, but we live a life of leisure, exploration, and anything we want on the back of the fruits of 21st Century progress.

But this business about being “literal” superhumans within 50 years is an issue for me. Transhumanists espouse what they call an “optimism” about the future that sounds to me a lot like magical prophecy. Here’s Istvan again:

[T]ranshumanists … want to create an artificial superintelligence that can teach us to fix all the environmental problems humans have caused.

He might as well say he wants to ask space aliens to come and solve our problems with replicator technology, or he wants to pray to the angels to sweep away all our pollution with their fiery swords. This is not a plan.

Too often, when I hear the transhumanists look to the future, it sounds too much like they want us to build our own gods and then hope (fingers crossed!) that they, who are intentionally superior to us, will want us to somehow merge with them.

Look, no one wants an Immortal Robot Body™ more than me. Death scares me shitless, and the idea of transcending it is, I think, a highly worthwhile goal. But this sounds like something else. This sounds like an attempt to create gods where none exist. It’s becoming a cargo cult even though we know exactly where the cargo is coming from.

Sally Field, Phil Hartman, and Everyone’s Jesus

My wife Jessica dug up this old SNL clip today, and I love it.

Let me tell you why I love it.

First, Sally Field commits. This is not some half-baked celebrity-host cue-card phone-in. She becomes this Jesus-loving woman entirely. It’s just grand.

Second, Phil Hartman is the perfect Jesus. Not because he “looks the part” or anything, it’s that he manages to pull off the perfect blank-slate-Jesus. There is no figure in fiction or fact who comes with more cultural baggage than Jesus Christ, and yet somehow Hartman manages to fulfill both the theological/cultural expectations of the character, without inserting any unnecessary commentary on Jesus or Christianity. He’s not the South Park Jesus, or some hypocrite Jesus. He’s just Jesus, writ-large.

Third, the sketch isn’t based on being mean or snarky. It takes a stock character, the Jesus-obsessed mom and lends it a funny twist, but never turns her into a fool or a jerk. There is a love for the character despite her flaws.

Here Come the Apologetics from “Some” Mars One Candidates

The true believers of Mars One have begun to respond to the criticism the program is facing, most specifically from the excellent investigative work of Elmo Keep, whose pieces I have now cited twice on this blog. Yesterday, I wrote about how Keep’s reporting reveals that Mars One is beginning to look less like a noble scientific enterprise, and more like a profit-seeking rapture cult.
Today, I am directed to a rebuttal piece that is part group-response from Mars One candidates, and part personal response from candidate Oscar Mathews Correa. I’ll get into a few of its specifics in a bit, but it’s more or less what you’d expect, an attempt to correct or put in context the problems that Keep’s reporting has raised.

Now, to be entirely clear, I should say that the first part of the article is allegedly by a group of Mars One candidates, as no names are given. Rather, it is attributed to, literally, “Some Mars100 Facebook Candidates.” So right off the bat we’re in sketchy territory, as no specific person is willing to put their name to it (other than Correa, I assume).

The very first problem with this piece is that it calls Keep’s criticisms a “conspiracy theory” right in the title, when in fact it’s the opposite. Keep implies no conspiracy, there are no wheels-within-wheels nor powerful, shadowy entities pulling any strings. If there were, the program would be more successful. But one could certainly infer (as I do) a scam. It is more accurate to say that the rebuttal’s authors are perceiving a conspiracy against them, when of course none exists.

Let’s cover some of the points made by “Some Mars100 Facebook Candidates” in the first part of the article. This will by no means be exhaustive, but touch on some of the points that stood out to me. In Keep’s latest article, former candidate Joseph Roche says that Mars One’s training and expertise requirements fall well below those required of NASA astronauts. To which the “Some” respond:

The Mars One project is very different to a typical NASA mission, and therefore has very different requirements for its astronaut candidates. The Mars One candidates would be primarily colonists, not pilots. It is likely that course corrections and landing procedures will be automated — for uncrewed as well as crewed spacecraft.

There will be 10 years of training between selection and launch, which absolutely does compare to NASA’s level and depth of training. This training might cover emergency manual control of spacecraft if applicable.

“It is likely that…” and “This training might cover…” – why don’t they know? A program designed to send colonists to Mars for the rest of their lives doesn’t know what it will train them for? Or is it that the “Some” haven’t been told? Why not?

Keep reports that the alleged primary source of funding (which would have to be enormous since we’re talking about colonists on freaking Mars), supposedly a TV production company, bailed on the program. The “Some” say all is well, because:

The primary source of finance is to be an investment firm in the first stages of the mission (leading up to and including the first manned mission). The documentary and live broadcast aspects of the project are expected to bring in revenue at later stages of the project. Mars One is in talks with both an investment firm and a new production company to take over the documentary aspect of the project. Collaboration with Endemol [the original production company] was reportedly ended as they were unable to reach an agreement over the terms of the contract.

Which investment firm? What firm on Earth is willing to be the primary source of billions of dollars for this vague project? And it is vague, even in how the “Some” describe it. Funds are always “expected,” and Mars One is always “in talks” (remember the “meetings” from my Underpants Gnomes post). It’s all a lot of promised milestones, none of which have been reached, and by their own admission, at least one has fallen through. Why is this all so murky?

That’s my overall impression of the rebuttal from the “Some”: It’s airy and hangs its assertions on “talks” and expectations, with little to nothing that is solid, decided, or in place.

Moving on to the second half of the piece, we have Correa’s personal response (which is itself apparently an extract from another article somewhere else). Like the “Some” response, it doesn’t begin well either:

That rascally Elmo Keep is at it again.

“Rascally”? Yeah, I’m really ready to take this person seriously. Note, too, that Correa refers to Elmo Keep as “Elmo” and not by her surname, as through they’re buddies.

Correa, overall, seems to believe that the bad impression now being given by Mars One is the result of some “missteps in public relations,” not to any problems with the facts of the program.

He plays a cheap emotional trick early in his response by putting a lot of emphasis on the early medical screenings undergone by candidates, as though this made up for the thin application and paltry interview process, and drops in that the medical screenings “surprisingly revealed some candidates with cancer, potentially saving their lives.” You see? Mars One is already saving lives! Just with its application process! Only a monster could object to saving people’s lives from cancer.

Correa seems to me to be fixated on the supposed agendas of various parties rather than the legitimate criticisms of the program. He writes:

For example, in one televised interview done in the Miami broadcast area (en Español), a NASA engineer attempted to refute some MarsOne mission plan elements by saying we would never get to Mars until we could land 40 metric tons on the surface. This is not true. Yet he receives airtime because he works at NASA, and of course they have their nascent “Mars missions begin on the ISS” agenda to promote.

Ah ha! You see! It’s a conspiracy by NASA who want to stop the Mars One mission from succeeding, because what they really want to make sure humans get to Mars the NASA way.

And yes, he receives airtime because he works at NASA. Because he actually has a chance of knowing what he’s talking about. He might actually bring facts, expertise, and experience to the discussion.

Unlike, well, “Some.”

I wonder if we’ll see more of this. This particular article isn’t egregious, but it smacks of defensiveness, released to fill the dead air coming from the Mars One organization, and its lack of substance only increases my already-deep skepticism of the project. More worrying is how it reads like religious apologetics. They believe it will all work out, because it’s been promised. And the promised land itself, Mars, beckons so strongly, and feels to them to be so close.

I hope too many people don’t get screwed too badly.

Mars One is Amway-Meets-Heaven’s Gate

In November I wrote about an investigative piece by Elmo Keep on the Mars One initiative, which is supposed to be screening candidates for a one-way mission to Mars in the next decade. Go read that post to get caught up. (And read all of Keep’s original article, which is amazing.)
In my post, I compared Mars One to the Underpants Gnomes of South Park:

So to sum that up in Underpants Gnome terms:

  1. Hold meetings.
  2. Get feedback from meetings.
  3. ???
  4. Send humans to Mars.

In other words, Keep’s reporting showed that at best, Mars One is a well-intentioned idea, as I put it, built like a house of cards. At worst, it’s a weird and cynical scam, the goal of which is unclear.

Alas, I think the needle may be tilting strongly toward the latter.

Keep is back with a follow-up piece, in which she profiles Mars One candidate (and top-100 “finalist”) Dr. Joseph Roche. What he reveals is that Mars One is less of an Underpants Gnome project, and more of a for-profit cult. From Keep’s piece:

“When you join the ‘Mars One Community,’ which happens automatically if you applied as a candidate, they start giving you points,” Roche explained to me in an email. “You get points for getting through each round of the selection process (but just an arbitrary number of points, not anything to do with ranking), and then the only way to get more points is to buy merchandise from Mars One or to donate money to them.”

“Community members” can redeem points by purchasing merchandise like T-shirts, hoodies, and posters, as well as through gifts and donations: The group also solicits larger investment from its supporters. Others have been encouraged to help the group make financial gains on flurries of media interest. In February, finalists received a list of “tips and tricks” for dealing with press requests, which included this: “If you are offered payment for an interview then feel free to accept it. We do kindly ask for you to donate 75% of your profit to Mars One.”

It’s disgusting, isn’t it? Get people to sign up to be “chosen” for a mythology-worthy (and mythical) voyage to martyr themselves for science and the human race and whatnot, and thereby pressure them to pay into draping themselves in the brand, and funneling their own money back to the project. The candidates, one presumes, really want to be chosen for the mission, to be seen as enthusiastic, committed, and worthy, so they buy into the “points” system as a way to show their devotion. It sounds like Amway meets Heaven’s Gate, or a short-term Scientology. It’s a snake oil rapture story dressed up as noble science.

And as Keep points out, the mainstream media coverage of Mars One has been almost entirely uncritical. How can it be that there’s been only one journalist who’s bothered to do more than be awestruck by the project’s audacity?

Religion often promises immortality and, at its worst, preys upon people’s need to feel a part of something greater than themselves, all for the enrichment and empowerment of those pulling the strings. Mars One thinks it found a way to do that without the need for a deity, without an invisible heaven. Instead, it just pinpointed Paradise as the dusty red planet 140,000,000 miles away, and held out its collection plate.

Apple and the Heresy of Control

In an episode of the podcast Clockwise this week, the panel offered their opinions as to what Apple as a company should be wary of that might threaten its titanic dominance of the consumer tech space. The answers were fine, mostly dealing with how Apple needed to be careful about letting too many things die on the vine, or letting hubris cloud its ability to maintain its level of quality. But I couldn’t help but feel like the distillation of the responses could be summed up as, “Apple might get too awesome.” Maybe that’s unfair, but that’s what I took away from it.
What is it like for a religious fundamentalist who walks away from the ultra-conservative wing of their sect, but still retains a more liberal form of their former belief, say, becoming a “progressive Christian” or a reform or secular Jew, perhaps? Not to overplay the metaphor, but that’s sort of how I’ve felt in recent months.

While my “religious” devotion to Apple and “The Steve” has always been tongue-in-cheek, it was amusing (to me at least) because it was based on the truth. Though not a fundamentalist, per se, I was definitely an Evangelical. The products and services and overall decisions of other competing companies struck me as, most of the time, misguided and bizarre.

Today, I carry a big-ass Android phone, I’ve taken more advantage of the services offered by Google, and slowly I’ve come to recognize shortcomings in Apple I’d never really acknowledged, or that are themselves new. I’ve also started recognizing the good and often brilliant things being done by other companies in other areas.

With a little bit of distance, it’s clear that the hubris some fear might overtake Apple is not imagined, but a present reality. Read how Tim Cook dismissed the Android Wear smartwatch space in favor of Apple’s as-yet-unreleased product. He didn’t simply assert his product’s superiority (which of course he is supposed to do), he mocked the very idea of their existence, as though these rather well-regarded products are jokes, and that Apple’s watch will be of such a high caliber as to change the world to the same degree the Mac or the iPhone did.

Come on, Tim. It’s a watch that lets a phone project some of its software over to it. I’m sure it’s going to be lovely and novel and fun, but it’s not a world-changer. And from what’s been shown so far, it’s not even materially different from a Moto 360.

Or take Jony Ive’s utter dismissal of Motorola’s decision to allow customers to configure the look of their phone before it’s shipped to them. Yes, Apple makes gorgeous hardware, probably the best-designed overall, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best for everybody, or that people shouldn’t want to have more input into the look of a device they’re spending hundreds of dollars on, and will spend hundreds of hours using. It’s fine to say your idea is better, but it’s another thing to characterize all ideas that didn’t happen to come from you as junk.

From this same Clockwise episode (which I feel compelled to say I really like overall, though less so now that it’s becomes so Apple-centric after Jason Snell’s departure from IDG), in discussing an apparent controversy over privacy regarding speech recognition in Samsung TVs, one panelist actually defended Samsung as not actually having done any wrong in this case, which was good, but also prefaced her defense with, “as much as it pains me to say this.” Why? Why would it “pain” you to clear up a technological misunderstanding?

Because Samsung competes directly with Apple.

(Okay, and Samsung is kind of run, by all accounts, by a bunch of sketchy creeps. Gotta grant that.)

I would still recommend iPhones and other Apple products to most general consumers. (There’s as yet no way I’m using anything other than a Mac as my computer.) This is because Apple’s philosophy of making as many of the decisions as possible for the user is a good one for the general public. Most people don’t want to have to think about any of the stuff going on behind the glass of their screens, and nor should they. For them, Apple is most often the best way to go. But it’s not universal, and for those who want a little more control, there are other options, and those options are plentiful, and these days, really damn good. The iPhone 6 is probably the phone on the market best suited for the most people, but the Galaxy Note 4 is probably the best phone overall in terms of all it offers and all it can do.

And when I talk about control, I’m not talking about a geeky level of control (“I can make it run Linux” or whatever). I’m talking about some basic level of control over how you share a link or where you store a document or photo, or how you want to secure your lock screen. Apple hides almost all of this from the user, and for very good reason, but I think more users than is generally presumed would like a little more ability to make a few choices themselves. And those people shouldn’t be mocked for thinking differently.

I don’t think this segment of the phone-buying population is a majority by any stretch of the imagination, though. And I think Android and Windows Phone and any other mobile system would do well to aspire to get closer to Apple’s way of keeping things simple, and make their systems as easy to use out of the box as possible. Have a degree of choice and control available, but make it optional. Android is getting there, but it’s not there yet.

But whether it ever does get there is beside the point. I guess I’m simply weary of a pose that I used to strike myself, in which it is taken on faith that while Apple may make mistakes, even their screw-ups are somehow morally superior to the best of what anyone else had to offer. There exists an attitude that no matter what Apple does wrong, there’s nowhere else to go, and to use another company’s products or services is a kind of heresy, somehow personally tainting. I’m glad to say I’m very much over that. But it also means I need to abandon a few of my once-favorite podcasts.


Related: “Shaking Off Some of the Apple Fussiness”