Archive for the ‘Science: we’ll fuck you up’ Category

Loch Lurker

April 18, 2014 - 10:19 pm 6 Comments

Dear world,

The Daily Mail and the Loch Ness Monster Fan Club are not credible reporters of whether an aquatic Rorschach blot is a hundred-foot animal. While large animals previously unknown to Western science CAN still be found (though they are generally not remotely unknown by local populations that don’t give a shit about Western science), they are not found in oligotrophic freshwater lakes with frequent surface traffic in the middle of heavily populated-by-Westerners countries. The idea that Loch Ness is inhabited by a breeding population of marine reptiles or similar animals is only somewhat more likely than the idea that New York City is inhabited by pterosaurs.

Oh John Ringo… Honey… No.

October 17, 2013 - 3:03 pm 18 Comments

Via Tam, an essay by John Ringo (of modern-day pulp science fiction fame) on, apparently, the coming zombie apocalypse and how it’s apparently going to be precipitated by bitter geeky men with kitchen-table biochemistry kits engineering homemade viruses to turn women (specifically blonde women with big tits) into their sex slaves. If you wish to read for context you should probably read the whole thing. As Ringo tends to be, it’s pretty highly readable.

When I read it initially I was pretty sure this was a troll, and an entertaining one, but I am assured by others he is either serious or may as well be as the distinction is without meaningful difference. The basic premise is pretty sound- the idea that biochemistry and nanotechnology are advancing to the point where homemade and tailor-designed superbugs may well represent a serious threat, one that is more likely to come from the bored, antisocial, and too intelligent for everyone else’s good individual rather than from state-sponsored or radical religious or political entities.

The problem with the article is where he goes with it next. Excerpted, at some length:

The general trend will go like this. Professor Doktor Herr Apocalyptica will invent a virus that can do something to humans. (Well, in fact, it does it to rats. But humans just happen to have the same brain chemistry.) Not just kill them, do something to them. It may, for example, combining the fields of neurology, psychology and virology, cure depression. No more need for Aderol or NoDepressol or whatever. Your neurology is now reset to perfect normal. There will be others that can do other things. Make you smarter, more socially able, less nervous, shy, crowd phobic, what have you. Make you need almost no sleep. (I’d love that one.)

Then some grad student trying to get their masters or doctorate will create a new virus (as many will be created because when you have a breakthrough like that it creates all sorts of easy, for values of easy, graduate projects) that, just for a laugh, makes any girl who is infected fall in love (or at least lust although love is possible as well.) with him. If you DON’T think a biology geek won’t write that one, you don’t understand male bio geeks.

How does that work? you ask, sceptically.

One proven aspect of male/female sexual interaction, especially (at least so far) for women, is pheromones. All people emit them and they have various effects most of which researchers are still trying to sort out. The geek identifies his specific suite of ‘love’ (lust because they are alot more about reproduction than permanence) pheromones. Then writes a virus that does a series of actions. First it only affects women. (He can, of course, narrow this down if he’s good enough. Only ‘hot’ babes for values of ‘hot.’ And I’m assuming, possibly a bad assumption, that the grad student is a he.) Second it does a series of things. It rewrites them to ‘like’ his pheromones. When sensing his pheromones their libido is enhanced. If he’s smart, their capacity for long-term critical decisionmaking is degraded (as it is in males by sexual cues.) If he really wants to fuck with them (not just…) it triggers massive release of oxytocin and vassopressin (look them up.)

So when a woman gets a whiff of the guy, they can’t get enough. They act like twilight fans seeing a sparkly vampire. Sex must occur and they must have him FOR ALL TIME.

OK. There’s more explanation of how this scenario is meant to work, with a lot more background detail of genetics research*, but given that arguing with a science fiction author about the plausibility and accuracy of future technology is like arguing with an impressionist painter about color fidelity, it’s not really worth picking at. The big, glaring, plaid elephant in the living room here is pheromones, whose use in this piece really demand a Morbo.


The only aspect of human pheromone research that is “proven” is that they have been proven to affect the vomeronasal organ in humans (but not the olfactory tissues- we really are relatively smell-blind, at least to effects that subtle), and some of them have been proven to have gender-specific effects. (My personal favorite one is the male pheromone that gets other men, but not women who remain oblivious, to avoid particular restroom stalls.) There’s a pretty good, and pretty exhaustive, review of the literature on human pheromones and sexual attraction here; if you are interested in the subject I highly recommend it, as it’s a good primer on what’s been done so far and what the strengths and weaknesses of the obtained results are. The upshot is that some strong evidence of pheromone effect on menstrual regulation has been found, but the sexual attraction results are either negative, inconclusive, or positive but riddled with methodological issues. If one were to apply the same tactics to researching the arousal potential of Nora Ephron movies, one would likely find a similar or stronger correlation.

The thing of it is, though, that if human pheromones really worked like Ringo seems to think they do, it would not be an even slightly mysterious phenomenon or a recent discovery. This would be a gross, obvious effect that everyone had known about since the beginning of recorded history. The only animals that pheromones actually work this way on- provoking strong, reliable sexual attraction that produces an immediate behavioral effect- are, for the most part, insects. If humans worked like butterflies and flies do Ringo’s scenario would be tantalizingly plausible; but they simply don’t, and we know this not because of the research that’s been done on pheromones so far, but because no known humans actually act like this, nor have they ever that anyone’s ever reliably witnessed. Even mammals for whom definite and strong pheromonal signaling effects are known don’t work like this; for mammals, pheromones seem to play a strong role in estrous and menstrual cycles (and indeed, that’s the only effect in humans that convincing and reliably reproducible evidence seems to come for), but not so much in direct sexual attraction and mating.

Boringly, it just doesn’t make any evolutionary sense for a mammal to work like this, especially not a mammal like humans that lives with lots of other members of the same species and has a wide pool of mates to choose from at any given time, and whose true reproductive bottleneck isn’t mate availability or quality but the sheer amount of resources that must go into raising each and every offspring. When your reproductively mature life stage lasts only days or even hours, it makes sense for mating to be a powerful overriding drive that completely hijacks all of your behavior and is controlled primarily by chemical signaling; the life history of insects that work like this is driven by very brief periods of frantic activity with the nearest available mates that result in big population booms of which only a few will survive, by good luck, to reproduce themselves. If you invest years of your own life and massive amounts of energy and nutrition merely to raise a single offspring to reproductive maturity, it makes no sense at all to be chemically compelled to fling yourself at the nearest correctly-smelling mate- especially if you are surrounded at nearly all times with a wide variety of perfectly workable options. This isn’t a barrier that Moore’s law can overcome; in order for increasingly precise and powerful technology to be viable, the underlying structure that it works on has to exist in the first place. Ringo’s scenario is no more plausible than the idea that it’s possible to engineer lobsters into an army of coordinated stealth underwater computer hackers.

What’s worse, the only thing individual about pheromones that we’ve really found is the major histocompatibility complex; even if one were to target that in their “love virus”, the only thing it would actually accomplish is making the targets particularly interested OR particularly DISinterested in you depending on their current phase in menstrual cycle and whether or not they were on hormonal birth control at the time.

It’s a fun scenario. Given that Ringo tends to be infectiously readable, and he’s right enough about the nature of male biogeeks (which is why there’s two to three times as much research on the response of women to male pheromones as the other way round, even though the research on men that’s been done has shown as much measurable effect), I’d probably read it, though maybe not pay money for it. But as a “I’m totally not kidding, this is how the zombie apocalypse will happen” scenario… sorry John, blonde cheerleader sex zombies are no more plausible now than they were in seventies exploitation drive-ins.

*Although the one human genetics researcher of my actual “I can just ring you up and explain my latest wild hair” acquaintance ranted for several minutes on the subject of RACIAL GROUP GENETICS DO NOT WORK THAT WAY! as well how pretty much everything Ringo’s describing as target traits are massively polygenic affairs that simply can’t be targeted that way or any other remotely plausible virus-engineering way. So, you know. Take with an entire pillar of salt.

Science Update

December 18, 2012 - 6:30 pm 14 Comments

Just so we’re clear, we’re not dropping the hot dog bun thing. Unfortunately, they take a while to go properly stale. Gonna set up a pipeline this time.


November 1, 2012 - 11:55 pm 11 Comments

Today I found the best thing on the internet, which are these excerpts from a letter Charles Darwin wrote to Charles Lyell in 1861.

For those who aren’t experts on Charles Darwin and can’t make out his handwriting, which appears to have been developed on the theory that if one is having difficulty forming a word one should simply press on and eventually it will all be over*, the quote is this:

“But I am very poorly today and very stupid and hate everybody and everything.”

Oh Charles. Buddy. I can so relate.

It goes on like this:

“I am going to write a little book for Murray on orchids, and today I hate them worse than everything.”


*Which, not to bash on Darwin, everybody who’s ever had to quickly take notes develops awful handwriting regardless of how beautiful their penmanship began. Mine looks like it was written by someone who is having a seizure, or possibly jotting something down quickly during an earthquake. I worry someday someone who has to deal with my checks or credit card slips will notice my signature is never the same twice.

Sex != Fitness

May 25, 2012 - 6:42 pm 15 Comments

Hey, kids, it’s time for another round of Bullshit Evo-Psych! YAAAAAAY!

Title of article: Do Men Find Dumb-Looking Women More Attractive?
A new study says yes.

Oh, you know this one’s going to be fun. It’s also another entry in the classic genre of “equally dim views of men and women”.

In an article soon to be published in Evolution and Human Behavior, University of Texas–Austin graduate student Cari Goetz and her colleagues explored what they called the sexual exploitability hypothesis. The hypothesis is based on the differences between male and female reproductive strategies as humans evolved. For ancestral women, casual intercourse with an emotionally unattached man who had no clear intention of sticking around to raise any resulting offspring constituted a massive genetic gamble. By contrast, for a man with somewhere around 85 million sperm cells churned out every day—per testicle—the frivolous expenditure of gametes was far less detrimental to his genetic interests.

An classic framework. Kind of a bit too classic, given that this basic assumption can suffer a lot when the life histories of species or entire groups are taken into account. As I will go into in further detail.

Goetz and her team began with the assumption that—because our brains evolved long before prophylactics entered the picture—female cognition is still sensitive to the pregnancy-related consequences of uncommitted sex and women remain more reluctant than men to engage in it

You don’t need… “female cognition” to understand that random sex can have more potential negative consequences for her than for him. Not all of them or even most of them have anything to do with pregnancy, either. What’s foremost in a woman’s (or, well, a female North American college student, but at least the two study demographics were the same) mind when considering accepting or rejecting casual offers from men actually seems to be the twin questions of whether he presents a physical threat to her safety, and whether he’s likely to be any good in bed.

I mean, you can and apparently these authors are making the argument that it’s actually our primitive ladybrains evaluating the chances of pregnancy completely outside our consciousness, but assuming we do things for secret hidden reasons rather than conscious reasons that are actually perfectly sound and utilitarian is questionable at best.

They set out to test the idea that any indication that a woman’s guard is lowered—that she’s “sexually exploitable”—is a turn-on for your average man. “[T]he assessment of a woman’s immediate vulnerability,” surmise the authors, “may be central to the activation of psychological mechanisms related to sexual exploitation.”

Fill in the appropriate square on your “misogyny and misandry are buddies” bingo card.

This is an inflammatory hypothesis, of course, and the language employed in the field doesn’t help matters. It’s worth noting that in the evolutionary psychology sense, the word exploitable simply means that a woman is willing or can be more easily pressured into having sex—which takes her own desires, rather disturbingly, out of the equation. Even if she’s the aggressor, a prostitute, or a certifiable nymphomaniac, having casual sex with her would still constitute “exploiting” her (or at least her body), according to this model.

Thank you, author, though I’m not going to be very nice to you in this post, for at least acknowledging that if not continuing to think it through- specifically that it assumes the viewpoint that a sexual encounter that doesn’t result in marriage involves the man “winning” and the woman “losing”.

From a strictly biological viewpoint, this worldview is baffling. Translated into terms evolution actually operates on, the strategy makes one party more fit and another party less fit or no more fit. In order for the male to increase his fitness, the mating has to result in offspring and the offspring have to grow to become reproductively successful themselves, which is exactly what needs to happen for the female to increase her fitness. There is no scenario in which the male increases his fitness but the female does not. There are scenarios in which the male gains fitness at less cost or risk to himself than the female and vice versa, but none in which, biologically speaking, all sexual encounters that result in a fitness gain for the male are exploitation.

Underlying this entire model (not to mention article) is a conflation of mating events with reproduction. This is a frequent weakness in sexual selection research, but at least researchers studying wild animals have a somewhat plausible excuse in that the difficulty of observing their target population makes definitively tying matings with offspring by parent, event, and identity difficult, but no one studying humans has this excuse. We have geneaology, interviews, and DNA tests to answer nearly any possible question we may have about someone’s grandchildren, lack thereof, and what in their life path led to children, grandchildren, or none of the above. Which is one of many reasons why making your study demographic one that almost entirely consists of people who aren’t yet ready or willing to reproduce* for the purposes of this kind of study insane.

Using matings and offspring as interchangeable things with any hope of producing useful results depends on several things about your target species: you need the window in which its members are willing to mate and the window in which they are fertile to be identical or nearly so, and you need the cost of raising offspring to be relatively low, so that an individual who mates is pretty much the same as an individual who reproduces. If you are studying, say, snakes, this model is fine and dandy. If you are studying (most) birds, you have half of what you need; an obvious window of fertility and matings, but costly offspring that are by no means guaranteed to make it to reproductive age without a great deal of investment. If you are studying humans neither is true; humans are willing to mate regardless of fertility status, and the cost of raising offspring is extremely high.

So high, in fact, that it would have been impossible for a lone woman to raise an infant to adolescence on her own during our evolution. So high that some anthropologists estimate it couldn’t be done in the environment we evolved in with just the mother AND the father alone, either. “WOOP FOOLED YOU SURPRISE BABY OFF TO SPREAD MY SEED KTHX BAI” would have been a complete nonstarter as a reproductive strategy just because the only way the baby would actually survive would be if the child had substantial investment from other people besides the mother.

Chimpanzee mothers don’t need or want paternal investment from the males because the period of dependence is much shorter and the nutritional needs of the infant are less dramatic; they raise their babies entirely by themselves and are very protective, and possessive, of them. Human women, in all cultures around the globe, seek out helpers to help them with their children- and also unlike chimps and most other primates, are vastly more willing to abandon or kill a baby, especially under stress. (And even the devoted single moms of primatehood have their thresholds.) It’s not just us, either; in birds with very high investment requirements to raise offspring, abandoning eggs or chicks when confidence in the mate’s investment (or, more compassionately, confidence in the odds of raising them being possible) drops sufficiently is a common thing.

This is not to say that promiscuity cannot be a perfectly workable reproductive strategy, for a male OR a female; the mother simply needs to have sufficient investment from other sources, like relatives, a social network of friends (who like as not are mothers themselves), or those who will help with childcare in trade for something else. Under this model, however, what should make a woman attractive to a promiscuous male isn’t her exploitability, but rather her support network, especially if she’s successfully raised at least one other child to prove she can do it. A promiscuous male seeking out a female looking for strong paternal investment a isn’t win/lose fitness arrangement if he gets her pregnant, it’s lose/lose. Promiscuous men/promiscuous women in which all the men invest a little bit and family helps is win/win. Highly invested man/highly invested woman is win/win. Some blend of the two in invested polygyny or polyandry is also win/win. Humans are very flexible like that, and each arrangement as its advantages and disadvantages; but promiscuous/low or no investment plus individual seeking high investment is a combination that’s much less effective for anybody**.

Back to the article.

So how did this team put their sexual “exploitability” hypothesis to the test? Goetz and her colleagues planned to call a bunch of undergraduate males into the lab and ask them to rate a set of women in terms of attractiveness based on their photographs. But first they needed to pick the appropriate images. To figure out which sorts of women might be deemed most receptive to a sexual advance or most vulnerable to male pressure or coercion, they asked a large group of students (103 men and 91 women) to nominate some “specific actions, cues, body postures, attitudes, and personality characteristics” that might indicate receptivity or vulnerability

I see no possible way in which this line of approach could be compromised or confounded by cultural variables. How bout you guys?

These could be psychological in nature (e.g., signs of low self-esteem, low intelligence, or recklessness), or they might be more contextual (e.g., fatigue, intoxication, separation from family and friends). A third category includes signs that the woman is physically weak, and thus more easily overpowered by a male (e.g., she’s slow-footed or small in stature). According to the authors, rape constitutes one extreme end of the “exploitation” spectrum—cheesy pickup lines the other.

The sad part is this would function just fine as a study of how people seeking to actually sexually exploit someone select victims. It’s just a complete failure as a study of evolved reproductive strategy.

By asking students for the relevant cues, the experimenters reasoned, they’d keep their own ideas about what makes a woman “exploitable” from coloring their study. When all was said and done, the regular folks in the lab had come up with a list of 88 signs that—in their expert undergraduate opinions—a woman might be an especially good target for a man who wanted to score. Here’s a sampling of what they came up with: “lip lick/bite,” “over-shoulder look,” “sleepy,” “intoxicated,” “tight clothing,” “fat,” “short,” “unintelligent,” “punk,” “attention-seeking,” and “touching breast.”

Attempting to keep out confounding variables fail. The next paragraph is also pretty much just a quick and dirty anthropological review on straight male undergraduates’ ideas of which women are “easy”. Although the fact that they took their study images off the internet is possibly relevant, in a “their study was pulling people’s photos off Facebook and OKCupid” kinda way.

Now it was time for the test. A fresh group of 76 male participants was presented with these images in a randomized sequence and asked what they thought of each woman’s overall attractiveness, how easy it would be to “exploit” her using a variety of tactics (everything from seduction to physical force), and her appeal to them as either a short-term or a long-term partner. The results were mixed.

That should not be surprising.

Physical cues of vulnerability—the pictures of, say, short women and hefty ones—had no effect. These women were not necessarily seen as easy lays, nor were they judged as especially appealing partners for either a casual fling or a lifelong marriage.

I’m… glad we had a study to determine this.

On the other hand, the more psychological and contextual cues—pictures of dimwitted- or immature-seeming women, for example, or of women who looked sleepy or intoxicated, did seem to have an effect: Not surprisingly, men rated them as being easy to bed. But more importantly, they were also perceived as being more physically attractive than female peers who seemed more lucid or quick-witted. This perceived attractiveness effect flipped completely when the participants were asked to judge these women as potential long-term partners. In other words, the woozy ladies were seen as sexy and desirable—but only for fleeting venereal meetings. They lost their luster entirely when the men were asked to rate these same women’s attractiveness as prospective girlfriends or wives.

One might almost take this as a hint that sex is actually not the same thing as reproduction, psychologically speaking.

The possible evolutionary logic behind this interaction is fairly straightforward: In the latter case, the man would risk becoming the cuckoldee, not the cuckolder. (Of course you could also argue that men might rather marry a woman who looked like she could hold up her end of the conversation over French toast.)

Oh, obvious and non-hateful explanation, you so crazy. Alternatively, there’s an important and substantial difference between what people seek when they’re after the pleasure of sex itself and what they seek when they’re after a partner to relate and reproduce with- and this need not be complex evolutionarily produced psychology, but rather basic observation and reasoning skills.

In a follow-up study (that ended up being published first), the authors tried to add some nuance to their sexual exploitability hypothesis. Graduate student David Lewis led a project to narrow in on the specific type of man who would be most alert to the sort of “exploitability” cues outlined above. Not every man, it seems, is equally proficient at homing in on these weak spots in women. So he and his colleagues asked 72 straight men to evaluate the same photos as before, and in the same way. But this time, the researchers also measured some key personality traits in the male raters, as well as the extent to which they desired and pursued uncommitted sex. The students were asked, for instance: “With how many different partners have you had sexual intercourse without having interest in a long-term committed relationship with that person,” and, “How often do you experience sexual arousal when you are in contact with someone you are not in a committed romantic relationship with?”

Again, this would be an excellent sociology study of sexual exploitation.

The main finding to emerge from this follow-up study was that the more promiscuity-minded men who happened also to have deficiencies in personal empathy and warmth were the ones most vigilant and responsive to female “exploitability” cues. Men without this critical calculus—say, a disagreeable man who prefers monogamy, or a caring one who likes to play the field—are more likely to have these cues fly right past their heads and miss the opportunity to capitalize on an “easy lay.”

….Framed this way it almost seems like some sort of defect in these guys.

o rather than the sexual exploitability hypothesis summing up the male brain as one big ball of undifferentiated stereotype, the caveat here is that there are multiple subtypes of reproductive strategies in men. Not all men are pricks, in other words.

Happily I didn’t need either the author of the article or the architects of the study to tell me that. And the exploitative men are still much likelier to be the losers in the fitness game. Sadly they won’t disappear in a few generations as a result, because evolution almost certainly didn’t directly create them in the first place.

It’s easy to see the sexual exploitability hypothesis as misogynistic, but I don’t believe the authors are advancing a chauvinistic ideology

Nah, I just think they’re using a chauvinistic ideology to inform their ideas of what constitutes fitness instead of thinking through the reproductive math and taking into account what raising children requires for a savannah forager*** instead of a North American youth.

Take those kinds of complaints up with natural selection, not the theorists untangling its sometimes-wicked ways. The authors are trying—admirably, I think—to decipher an implicit social algorithm in the hopes of better understanding gender relations.

Why is it the people saying “IT’S JUST SCIENCE YOU CAN’T ARGUE WITH IT” are almost always citing lazy, shoddy science?

I’m not going to bother fisking the rest of it; the upshot is the author takes some stabs in the dark at recognizing that there’s more to fitness than mating events, that their “easiness” variables are hopelessly muddled, and also that evolutionary psychology is cripplingly prone to just-so storytelling. Read the rest of it if you like (it may make you think better of the author), but as for salient points to make, I’m done right here.

*This is not the same as “young people”, see also, rates of teen pregnancy in which the parents willingly set out to have a child. But these people don’t usually go to college, at least not then.

**Bear in mind I’m talking about African hunter-gatherers and NOT modern North Americans. The environment in which we developed our reproductive behavior did not contain any form of social services, food banks or food stamps, orphanages, easy long-distance travel, charitable organizations, free clinics, or anything else that makes an unintentional child with minimal paternal/family investment possible to raise to adulthood. Infanticide of children whose needs were beyond low available resources was a sad, unfortunate norm until we developed civilizations- and our sexual psychology must have evolved millions of years before that happened.

***Another thing missing from this model is that humans don’t occur in lone, ranging patterns outside of civilization, they form small, tight communities. Exploitative behavior of all kinds tends to have a very high social cost unless it’s embedded in the structure of the culture itself. (Which sometimes happens, but generally only in cultures richer in resources that can afford to outbreed the loss of children due to neglect.) In other words, a serial deceiver generally isn’t fooling anyone after long at all.


May 17, 2012 - 8:58 pm 15 Comments

Busy busy light content. Have visitor, had league meeting, yeah.

You had baby teeth when you were a kid. Then you had adult teeth and the baby teeth went away. Have you ever stopped and thought about what was actually, physically going on in your skull while that happened?

Now you have.

They're Light Years Ahead Of Us In Ass Technology

May 10, 2012 - 4:23 pm Comments Off

There’s really no way to set this up or lead in gently, so I’ll put it bluntly: it’s an emotional robotic ass. Its whole reason for existence is to be a butt that conveys emotions the user can perceive, although I think they have not entirely succeeded in this given that my ass does not vibrate when I’m scared or pulse when I’m happy. Or at least I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. I’ve never noticed anyone else’s ass do this either, although I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it in cartoons drawn by John Kricfalusi.

If I had to take a guess as to why someone has gone to the effort to create an interactive emotional mechanical ass, I’d speculate that gluteal muscles are a lot easier to simulate mechanically than the tiny muscles in the face responsible for expression, and thus it’s an easier target. This is pretty much just wild speculation, though, as the subtitles explaining the robot ass seem to take it as self-evident that users would want to interact with a buttbot and read its feelings. I still really, really want to read the grant proposal for that, though.

Question as posed by the subtitles: “And second is to raise the argument as to what perceptions will be manifested in the minds of people who communicate with SHIRI”

and answered by Stingray: “I think topping the list will be ‘why am I talking to this ass?’”

They’re Light Years Ahead Of Us In Ass Technology

May 10, 2012 - 4:23 pm 18 Comments

There’s really no way to set this up or lead in gently, so I’ll put it bluntly: it’s an emotional robotic ass. Its whole reason for existence is to be a butt that conveys emotions the user can perceive, although I think they have not entirely succeeded in this given that my ass does not vibrate when I’m scared or pulse when I’m happy. Or at least I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. I’ve never noticed anyone else’s ass do this either, although I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it in cartoons drawn by John Kricfalusi.

If I had to take a guess as to why someone has gone to the effort to create an interactive emotional mechanical ass, I’d speculate that gluteal muscles are a lot easier to simulate mechanically than the tiny muscles in the face responsible for expression, and thus it’s an easier target. This is pretty much just wild speculation, though, as the subtitles explaining the robot ass seem to take it as self-evident that users would want to interact with a buttbot and read its feelings. I still really, really want to read the grant proposal for that, though.

Question as posed by the subtitles: “And second is to raise the argument as to what perceptions will be manifested in the minds of people who communicate with SHIRI”

and answered by Stingray: “I think topping the list will be ‘why am I talking to this ass?’”

Good Luck With That

May 1, 2012 - 6:54 pm Comments Off

A ways back in the week when I was pretty crunched for time and motivation, Blunt Object ranted about an article on Slate badly misunderstanding genetics and what we can know from it. It’s pretty typical boilerplate biology-is-scary stuff, or at least the part he’s ranting about is; there’s essentially one paragraph of raw stupidity in the middle of an otherwise reasonable piece talking about the implications of fetal genotyping. The relevant paragraph:

What fetal genes might one day suggest about a baby’s eye color, appearance, and intellectual ability will be useful to parents, not insurers. But with costs coming down and insurers interested in other aspects of the fetal genome, a Gattaca-like two-tiered society, in which parents with good access to health care produce flawless, carefully selected offspring and the rest of us spawn naturals, seems increasingly plausible.

Well… no, not really. To put it mildly. If the world worked like this I’d be able to write poetry in Linear A, but merely finding something that does something in particular and making some more or less educated guess as to what it does does not translate into being able to use it for engineering.

The analogy Blunt used was programming, and it’s a pretty good one; I set out to quote it for effect but wound up concluding it really just needs to be read in its entirety. It’s not long, and is resistant to excerpting.

The only issue with his analogy is that it doesn’t even capture the impossibility of pulling off something like the Slate author’s scenario adequately; at least a piece of computer hardware and its programming were produced via a process we could find relatively intuitive. Genomes were produced by evolution, with no one on hand trying even remotely to ensure that the code was efficient or clean, let alone commented. Kludges and elegant solutions exist side by side, sometimes in several different copies, some of which are broken and others of which do subtly different things in each version. Much of the information is if-then instructions and operating instructions, sometimes to provide for cases that are remote or no longer exist. If your computer were equivalent, it would have every operating system and program you had ever used installed at once, with the instructions for which pieces work for what and are active at any given time being completely hidden information. All possible hardware styles and protocols are present as well, and which ones are active or not is equally obscure.

Among the list of what the fetal testing is meant to do: determine Rh-factor, sex of child, presence of Down’s syndrome. Testing for any of these things is not like looking for a line of code in a computer program; it’s like seeing if a hard drive rattles or not when you pick it up, or how many USB ports there are. The number of chromosomes as well as what kind there are at pair 23 is determinable by technology we’ve had since the early part of the twentieth century; it is to genotyping as correctly naming a shape to be a square is to polygonal geometry.

Let’s tackle the first line in the author’s GATTACA scenario piece by piece:

What fetal genes might one day suggest about a baby’s eye color, appearance, and intellectual ability

1. Do you know we currently have no idea how eye color genetics work beyond two genes that happen to handle “blue” or “brown” relatively straightforwardly? Beyond that we know that there are many more genes that affect eye color, that there are two more genes that definitely do something though we’re not positive what, that there might be as many as 16, and that green and gray and hazel are handled somewhere entirely different, but you’re simply not going to know what color a baby’s eyes are going to be based on even its entire genome- because we only know what two genes are going to do and can’t even find the rest to see if they’re present and what they’re going to do.

2. You can know everything about a baby’s appearance that is determined by a single, stand-alone trait that we know about, understand to be a trait influenced by a single gene or at least a manageable handful of them, and know exactly which gene does that. Compared to all factors of a baby’s appearance, the number of traits this describes is teeny tiny. If the driving force of your curiosity is knowing whether a baby boy’s ears will have attached pinnae, you’re in luck*.

3. We don’t currently even know what intellectual ability quite is. We can’t nail down a single test accurately measuring “general intelligence”, all the tests we currently have produce wildly different results from one another, and while we know more or less that there are different cognitive domains and skills, we can’t nail any of them down particularly well either. Worse than that, we understand vaguely that intelligence is more of an emergent property of many systems and skills, but we can’t quantify or measure it well. For something like a car, “speed” is an emergent property with no corresponding part of the car that develops out of nearly every other part of the car- but we can concretely and easily measure speed.

Most of what we know about genetics and intelligence can be summed as this: 1)It seems to be, broadly, heritable, and 2)cognitive impairments are much, much easier to detect and quantify than variations in normal intelligence or extremely high intelligence. This is, in fact, what IQ tests were originally designed for- picking out those sufficiently impaired to need different schooling. We can expect legitimate bioethics issues surrounding the ability to detect those sorts of cognitive impairments caused by developmental disorders that are known and genetically quantifiable- not engineered superbabies versus dull “naturals”.

So, of the author’s three projected super-baby traits, one of them is a simple thing that turns out very much not to be on the genetic end, and two are emergent gestalt qualities we cannot even quantify, let alone reverse-engineer. Provided we develop the ability to directly engineer in the first place, which currently we can’t.

As science-fiction-come-reality scares go, I’m not that impressed.

*Actually I’m lying. This old chestnut of simple Mendelian genetics, as well as sex-linked traits, turns out to involve multiple alleles of opaque effect as well. Surprise!


April 23, 2012 - 8:36 pm Comments Off

Dear Federal Government,
Lick the private sector’s taint.
Everybody who wants off this asshole-choked rock (and the less misanthropic group who just think space exploration is really really cool)

Private space-mining possible by 2025? I could drive railroad spikes with this erection.