Archive for the 'net.kooks' Category

Appelbaum on T. Mills Kelly’s (and Students’) Failed Reddit Hoax

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

From Yoni Appelbaum writing in The Atlantic: How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit.

But it took just twenty-six minutes for a redditor to call foul, noting the Wikipedia entries’ recent vintage. Others were quick to pile on, deconstructing the entire tale. The faded newspaper pages looked artificially aged. The Wikipedia articles had been posted and edited by a small group of new users. Finding documents in an old steamer trunk sounded too convenient. And why had Lisa been savvy enough to ask Reddit, but not enough to Google the names and find the Wikipedia entries on her own? The hoax took months to plan but just minutes to fail.

Parts & Labor’s ‘Knives and Pencils’

Saturday, April 28th, 2012

Continuing my streak (now at 2!) of posts that are not primarily about global warming:

Michael DeHaan is someone I had not heard of before a few days ago, but now he’s a hero of mine twice over. He heads an open source software project, Ansible, which is focused on creating a simple configuration management and deployment tool. Having beaten myself into a pulp trying to use Puppet for that purpose, I am very taken with the design intention of Ansible, which seems to consist largely of “do the things Puppet (and several other tools) do, but do them simply and straightforwardly, without sucking incredibly hard.”

Ansible is unlikely to interest much of the readership, I realize. But what I really wanted to post about was the Parts & Labor song “Knives and Pencils,” which I learned about from a recent post on Michael DeHaan’s blog, What I’ve Been Listening To Lately. DeHaan, it turns out, is a fan of Jónsi’s Go album, along with several other things I really, really love, so when he mentioned Parts & Labor’s MapMaker album in the same breath, I knew I had to give it a listen.

Wow. Just wow. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but man, this stuff is absolutely for me.

Here are the lyrics, as best I can make out. (I bought the album, which included a lyrics sheet, but the actual lyrics of “Knives and Pencils” depart from the sheet somewhat, and I’m making some guesses in the middle section.)

a slow prince handed knives and pencils
carving up his maps
landscapes drawn in blood and stencils
borders traced in black

his handlers tell him
that the sun will shine
on his paper country
just give it time
the soil below does not see his lines

we will occupy our time
by occupying yours
burn their gardens burn their gardeners
we’ll settle for his wars

his keepers tell him
that the sun will shine
on his paper country
just give it time
the soil below does not need his lines

the maps that you and I have made
will all fade

The Mysterious Ticking Noise

Friday, April 27th, 2012

This is the bed where my wife and I sleep. I often sit there reading (okay; or playing Draw Something) for a little bit before I turn out the lights.

It was a few nights ago that I first noticed the mysterious ticking noise. Picture me sitting on the right side of the above photo. Linda was on the left side, asleep. As I sat there, I became aware that I was hearing a soft, rhythmic ticking, barely audible, apparently coming from the wall above her head. It was the sort of creaking-house noise one hears from time to time and immediately dismisses.

Except this time I noticed something strange: The noise was repeating. Every 15 seconds or so, a rapid-fire series of clicks could be (barely) heard. Each series of clicks lasted a second or two, starting off fast, then slowing toward the end.

Random household creaks are nothing special. But creaks that exhibit a repeating pattern? What was that?

I leaned over, careful not to wake Linda, and after some cupped-ear investigation I concluded that the sound was coming from the lower right-hand corner of that painting you can see in the photo above. The sound was clearly audible when my ear was within a few inches of that point, but faded when I moved away.

I was intrigued, but I couldn’t figure out what the sound was, so after a few minutes I gave up and went to sleep.

But the next night I heard it again. And when I heard it again on the third night, I mentioned it to Linda.

She was skeptical. This sound was really quiet, and she wasn’t hearing it.

I told her where to put her head, and after a minute she said she thought she heard something, maybe. But she also raised the possibility, half facetiously, that maybe I was imagining it. (TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad?)

The next day, when she was out of the house and things were quiet, I went into the bedroom. Sure enough, the corner of the picture was still ticking. After some experimenting with the my phone’s Voice Memos app and Audacity, I was able to get some decent recordings.

Here’s a two-minute stretch of the best one:

The Mysterious Ticking Noise

I came up with two theories for what it might be:

1. It was some kind of sympathetic vibration from a mechanical rumbling too low for me to hear. Some piece of machinery or electric equipment (or something) was sending out a vibration that just happened to be resonating just right with the wood and glass of the picture frame, causing it to make that audible clicking sound.

2. It was an insect of some kind. I’d heard of a “death watch beetle” that supposedly makes a tapping sound in walls; maybe that’s what this was?

Further research has pushed me very much into the latter camp. I think it’s a beetle (or a beetle larva, or some other bug).

Here’s my reasoning: A mechanical source would likely be very regular in the timing of its clicks. A biological source, on the other hand, would show more variation. And these clicks do, indeed, show variation in their timing. Using Audacity I was able to get extremely accurate timing of the clicks, which I put in a Google spreadsheet. It shows the following:

  • The number of clicks in each set varies. Most of the sets featured 22 clicks each. About a third of them, though, only had 21 clicks, while one had 23.
  • The duration of each set, and the interval between sets, also varied. The shortest set lasted 1.263 seconds, while the longest lasted 1.612 seconds. The shortest set-to-set interval I measured was 9.350 seconds. The longest was 13.811 seconds.
  • There were some interesting correlations in the numbers that seemed to support a biological explanation. For example, the longest sets of clicks tended to come after the longest interval from the previous set. That is, a clicking bug that had rested a little longer was primed to produce a more vigorous, longer-lasting set of clicks.

It was neat to be able to examine the clicks with Audacity. By zooming in I could see lots of detail. I’ve included some screenshots below; if you click on them you can see larger versions.

Here’s a view of the whole 2-minute recording. Each set of clicks is represented by a thick line. You can see how the sets of clicks have slightly variable intervals between them:

Here I’ve zoomed in to show three sets of clicks. The individual clicks have started to separate. You can see an interesting shape to each set: The first clicks are quieter (as indicated by the shorter vertical lines representing those clicks). Then they become louder, then quieter, then louder again at the end of the set.

Here I’ve zoomed in to show a single set of clicks. You can clearly see how the clicks slow down over the course of the set, and how they get louder, then quieter, then louder again.

Here I’ve zoomed in to show five successive clicks from within a single set. At this scale something new becomes visible: Each click is actually three clicks. There’s an initial relatively loud click, then a quieter click an instant later, then a barely detectable third click an instant after that.

Here I’ve zoomed in tight on a single click. You can really see that “triple click” nature of the click, and can make fine measurements of the timing (the scale at the top is reading in ten-thousandths of a second). There’s the first (loud) click, then there’s a quieter click 2.4 milliseconds later, and a much quieter click 1.4 milliseconds after that. I wonder what’s causing those. Are they echoes? The sound of secondary impacts, as insect bodyparts strike against each other? Artifacts of my recording process? I have no idea.

I verified that whatever it is is actually inside the picture or its frame; when I moved the painting to the other side of the room, the sound continued to emanate from the painting’s lower righthand corner. We’ve had that picture and frame for just over 25 years, which I know because I bought it for Linda for our third anniversary, and we recently celebrated our 28th. So the wood and paper and fabric in there has had time to get good and old, and presumably tasty to wood-eating insects.

From the Death watch beetle article at Wikipedia:

The death watch beetle, Xestobium rufovillosum, is a woodboring beetle. The adult beetle is 7 millimetres (0.28 in) long, while the xylophagous larvae are up to 11 mm (0.43 in) long.

To attract mates, these woodborers create a tapping or ticking sound that can be heard in the rafters of old buildings on quiet summer nights. They are therefore associated with quiet, sleepless nights and are named for the vigil (watch) kept beside the dying or dead, and by extension the superstitious have seen the death watch as an omen of impending death.

The term “death watch” has been applied to a variety of other ticking insects including Anobium striatum, some of the so-called booklice of the family Psocidae, and the appropriately named Atropos divinatoria and Clothilla pulsatoria.

If you’ve read this far you really owe it to yourself to view the video at of Xestobium rufovillosum making its ticking noise.

Although the sound produced by that beetle is similar to my mysterious ticking noise, the pattern is not a perfect match, making me suspect I’m dealing with a different species. One possible suspect is described this way in my copy of Evans and Hogue’s Field Guide to Beetles of California:

The Deathwatch or Furniture Beetle (Anobium punctatum) (2.7 to 4.5 mm) apparently arrived from Euorpe as a stowaway in imported furniture. It is now established along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America.

I’m going to pester my online friend Charley Eisemen, co-author of what may well be my favorite field guide ever (which is saying a lot, given the way I feel about field guides), Tracks & Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates. If anyone’s likely to be able to track down the identity of my mysterious noise-maker based only on the sound, it’s Charley Eisemen.

Finally, if you’ve made it this far, and if you’re somehow not among the 125 million who’ve seen it already, I give you the original Mysterious Ticking Noise:

Update: Lang Elliot, co-author of the awesome book Songs of Insects, was kind enough to respond to an email I sent him as follows:


That’s a longhorn beetle larva chewing on wood inside the frame. Before transforming into adults, they are big white grubs with black heads and mouthparts, yummy to eat for woodpeckers at least:

Google Images link


Russell to Daisey to Gleick

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

There’s a weird synchronicity in all these stories floating around lately about people, nominally good guys, trying to raise public awareness about nominal bad guys, but doing it by exaggerating or outright lying. When the nominal good guys succeed in raising that awareness, and a wider audience is suddenly up in arms about the nominal bad guys, what does it mean when it emerges that while those bad guys really are pretty bad, they’re actually not bad in the particular way or to the particular extent that the nominal good guys made them out to be?

The nominal good guys should have been more honest, right? Ideally, they would have raised awareness without resorting to deception. But what if being honest about the bad guys means that the narrative exposing their wrongdoing is not compelling enough to go viral and get the kind of traction that leads to real pressure for change? Is it okay in that case to stretch the truth a little, to embellish the storyline? Is it okay to stretch the truth a lot? Where do you draw that line? And if the nominal good guy does stretch the truth, only to have the deception come to light later on, is it all just “pearl clutching” for the nominal good guy’s nominal allies to call foul at that point?

I don’t actually know the answers to any of these questions. I’m curious what you think. In particular, I’m curious about the following three cases:

Jason Russell: This is the guy who made the “KONY 2012″ video via his nonprofit, Invisible Children, Inc.:

I still have not watched KONY 2012, though with 81 million YouTube views (and counting), I’m apparently one of the few who can say that. Among those who have viewed it, there exists a subset of people who have checked into the claims it makes, and pointed out that while this Kony guy really is a legitimately bad guy, the monstrous depiction in the video glosses over or outright misstates some important facts. Like, Kony is not currently operating in Uganda, and hasn’t been since 2005. He doesn’t have an army of 30,000 child soldiers; that number in the video apparently was based on an estimate of his actions over several decades. And so on.

From an article by Demian Bulwa in (Kony video quickly raises awareness, skepticism):

In a response to criticism on its website, Invisible Children highlighted its education and rehabilitation programs in the region and said it had “sought to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format.

“In a 30-minute film,” the group said, “many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked. The film is a first entry point to this conflict for many, and the organization provides several ways for our supporters to go deeper.”


Sean Darling-Hammond, a 27-year-old student at the law school, said he was becoming skeptical about all the skepticism.

“Criticizing the efforts of others has become the currency of relevance in social media,” he said. “If this video had been about the group’s cotton project in Africa, they would have gotten 200 views. The sad reality is that narrative sells, and catch-the-bad-guy is a classic narrative.”

I guess. But apparently the stress of his newfound success in selling a not-quite-factual bad-guy narrative — or maybe the pushback from people who want to hold the video to a higher standard of accuracy — has been having a negative impact on filmmaker Jason Russell. From the NYT (Police Detain Maker of Uganda Video):

SAN DIEGO – A co-founder of Invisible Children, the nonprofit organization whose video “Kony 2012” has become an Internet sensation, was detained by the San Diego police on Thursday, after they said he was found in the street in his underwear, screaming and interfering with traffic.

The police found Jason Russell, the filmmaker behind the video, after responding to calls about a man who was acting irrationally, including one call that alleged he was naked and masturbating, a San Diego police spokeswoman said. He was taken to a hospital for evaluation and treatment, and the police have no plans to charge him.

“It’s our belief that a medical condition would explain his irrational behavior as opposed to criminal intent,” said Lt. Andra Brown, the spokeswoman. “If we thought he was under the influence, we wouldn’t have taken him to a hospital; we would have taken him to jail.”

The 30-minute “Kony 2012” video has been viewed nearly 80 million times on YouTube since March 5. It has thrust a sudden celebrity upon Mr. Russell, 33, who narrates the video and appears in it with his young son, appealing to viewers to bring more attention to the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and advocating his arrest.

That success has brought criticism of Invisible Children for the way it spends its money, for a photograph of its founders, including Mr. Russell, holding rifles, and for other matters.

That criticism took its toll on Mr. Russell, according to his wife, Danica Russell, who released a statement Friday.

While the attention the film has drawn has brought increased awareness of Mr. Kony, Ms. Russell said, “it also brought a lot of attention to Jason — and because of how personal the film is, many of the attacks against it were also very personal, and Jason took them very hard.”

Mike Daisey: Because I’ve switched to mostly telecommuting lately, I don’t listen to nearly as much This American Life. As a result, I missed an episode, aired back in January, in which reporter thesbian Mike Daisey gave a first-person account of his investigation into the surreal and horrible working conditions at Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturing company where my iPhone was probably made.

The episode became the most-downloaded TAL episode ever, and apparently played a role in a massive petition campaign that pressured Apple into pressuring (some) of its Asian suppliers into improving working conditions for (some) employees, or (some)thing.

Except it turns out that many of the “facts” narrated by Daisey were not, in fact, factual. This weekend’s This American Life episode consists of an apology, including a detailed account of what went wrong: Retraction. See also this blog post (and attached press release) from TAL host Ira Glass: RETRACTING “MR. DAISEY AND THE APPLE FACTORY”.

Some of the falsehoods found in Daisey’s monologue are small ones: the number of factories Daisey visited in China, for instance, and the number of workers he spoke with. Others are large. In his monologue he claims to have met a group of workers who were poisoned on an iPhone assembly line by a chemical called n-hexane. Apple’s audits of its suppliers show that an incident like this occurred in a factory in China, but the factory wasn’t located in Shenzhen, where Daisey visited.

“It happened nearly a thousand miles away, in a city called Suzhou,” Marketplace’s Schmitz says in his report. “I’ve interviewed these workers, so I knew the story. And when I heard Daisey’s monologue on the radio, I wondered: How’d they get all the way down to Shenzhen? It seemed crazy, that somehow Daisey could’ve met a few of them during his trip.”

In Schmitz’s report, he confronts Daisey and Daisey admits to fabricating these characters.

“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” Daisey tells Schmitz and Glass. “My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”

Daisey’s interpreter Cathy also disputes two of the most dramatic moments in Daisey’s story: that he met underage workers at Foxconn, and that a man with a mangled hand was injured at Foxconn making iPads (and that Daisey’s iPad was the first one he ever saw in operation). Daisey says in his monologue:

“He’s never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, “he says it’s a kind of magic.”"

Cathy Lee tells Schmitz that nothing of the sort occurred.

Here’s Daisey’s response, as posted on his personal blog (Statement on TAL):

I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.

Peter Gleick: You don’t really need me to summarize this, right? Just go back and read the last 50,000 words of drivel I’ve spewed in this blog. Note that for the purposes of the current comparison, I’m crediting Gleick with having forged the 2012 Heartland Climate Strategy memo. I’m also crediting him with having created at least some degree of heightened public awareness of what Heartland is up to, awareness that would have been less if he hadn’t “sexed up” his document leak with the forged memo.

So, here’s my actual question: Were these guys (Russell, Daisey, and Gleick) in any sense right to do what they did? All appear to have been willing to deceive the public as part of crafting a more-compelling narrative fiction. And in each case it appears to have worked (at least in a certain sense). Their acts of public deception gave their stories “legs,” making it so more people heard about them, were outraged by what they heard, and were motivated to pass the stories on. The fictions contributed to, and may actually have been essential to, the stories “going viral.”

With the benefit of hindsight, was that a good thing? Is the “it’s not journalism; it’s theater” defense valid?

Party Like a (With a) Movie Star

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

Just in time for the Oscars… I want to party with this guy: everetthiller’s Holiday Party 2011.

The Cytokine Storm

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

Credit: NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL)

After the season 2 finale of Downton Abbey on PBS last week, there was a “making of” featurette that touched on the 1918 flu outbreak that was part of the plot. They mentioned a fact I’d heard before but had forgotten: In severe flu pandemics, a disproportionate number of those who die are otherwise-healthy young adults. They’re prone to a particular kind of immune system response known as a cytokine storm. From Wikipedia:

When the immune system is fighting pathogens, cytokines signal immune cells such as T-cells and macrophages to travel to the site of infection. In addition, cytokines activate those cells, stimulating them to produce more cytokines. Normally, this feedback loop is kept in check by the body. However, in some instances, the reaction becomes uncontrolled, and too many immune cells are activated in a single place. The precise reason for this is not entirely understood but may be caused by an exaggerated response when the immune system encounters a new and highly pathogenic invader.

A healthy immune system is a good thing, normally, but the positive feedback loop of a cytokine storm can lead to fever, fatigue, nausea, and death. In the 1918 pandemic, between 50 and 100 million people died, making it one of the deadliest disasters in history.

While obsessing this week over the events of the Heartland leak, it occurred to me that in a way, we’re going through the cultural equivalent of a cytokine storm. For those of us who accept the mainstream scientific views expressed in IPCC reports, climate change is an existential treat. For Heartland to be working to forestall action on climate change makes them, in the eyes of climate activists, the equivalent of a “new and highly pathogenic invader” that provokes an exaggerated response.

Ignore for the moment the fact that the released documents show Heartland to actually be a pretty small, and in some ways unimpressive, cabal of supervillains. For Peter Gleick and his more ardent supporters, the stakes are so high that when combatting Heartland virtually any ethical breach (including lying) is permissible, even heroic. Like Barry Goldwater addressing the 1964 Republican convention, their view could be summarized as: Extremism in the defense of climate is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of consensus is no virtue.

I first thought of the cytokine storm analogy while reading this post by DeMelle and Littlemore at DeSmogBlog: Evaluation shows “Faked” Heartland Climate Strategy Memo is Authentic. Having studied the contents of the strategy memo, and the arguments for and against its authenticity, my reaction to DeMelle and Littlemore’s argument was immediate and unequivocal: they’re wrong, and obviously so. They must either be actively lying or passively bullshitting (that is, willfully disregarding the truth to assert a position they favor, without bothering about facts).

The argument about the strategy memo’s authenticity began last week, before Gleick’s confession. Heartland’s first public response to the leak, on February 15, denounced the strategy memo as “fake.” McArdle argued against the memo’s authenticity in her February 16 column, Leaked Docs From Heartland Institute Cause a Stir – but Is One a Fake? At DeSmogBlog, Littlemore wrote a piece the same day asserting that Heartland was trying to change the subject from their own wrongdoing by focusing on the forged memo, and saying the onus was on them to prove it was a fake.

McArdle followed with more criticism the next day: Heartland Memo Looking Faker by the Minute. And really, she was right. The deeper one dug into the document, the harder it became to believe it was genuine.

All of which made DeMelle and Littlemore’s February 22 post a real eye-opener for me. Whether they were knowingly lying or were merely burrowed so deeply into their ideological bunker that they no longer recognized the truth, they were fatally compromising their credibility in the eyes of anyone other than their most committed followers. As McArdle wrote of Gleick in her February 21 column (Peter Gleick Confesses to Obtaining Heartland Documents Under False Pretenses):

After you have convinced people that you fervently believe your cause to be more important than telling the truth, you’ve lost the power to convince them of anything else.

It was true in the case of Gleick, and it’s true in the case of DeSmogBlog: The overreaction to their ideological opponents has had the effect of destroying their credibility. It’s the cytokine storm. Faced with the threat of the Heartland pathogen, the DeSmogBlog bloggers’ impassioned immune response has carried them beyond the point where they can effectively win the hearts and minds that their larger mission requires.

Greg Laden, an anthropologist blogger at Science Blogs, quickly endorsed DeMelle and Littlemore’s defense of the strategy memo’s authenticity. He linked to it from this item: “Faked” Heartland Institute Doc is Authentic, writing:

This memo is so embarrassing that Heartland has been insisting that it is fake, but a new evaluation of the document demonstrates that it is not.

It doesn’t demonstrate that, and by endorsing that view Laden undercuts his own credibility. He’s simply accepting DeMelle and Littlemore’s characterization at face value, because they are on the same side in the fight against Heartland, and they share the belief that a vigorous immune response requires them to attack the Heartland infection uncritically.

Commenters questioned Laden’s position. I enjoyed this comment, by jumm33:


and now this.

(Knarlyknight, in particular, will appreciate the second link.)

I weighed in as follows:

So, are you asserting that Heartland actually did prepare the strategy memo for internal distribution, and distributed it? That seems extraordinarily unlikely to me.

I think this might be a case where the willingness to engage in motivated reasoning and confirmation bias to defend an untenable position (“the strategy memo is legitimate”) ultimately will do damage to the reputations of those who engage in it. It would be a tragic irony if this became another incident like Climategate in terms of actually lessening public support for action to address climate change, but I see a real risk that that’s where this will end up if people on the science side indulge in defenses of Gleick’s actions that are perceived as irrational by the general public. And that’s how a defense of the strategy memo as legitimate is going to be perceived, I suspect.

Another user made a comment about people “trolling” (without singling me out, but I assumed he was including me). I wrote this in reply:

I’m not trolling. I’m a sincere advocate for taking climate science seriously. I believe, though, that taking it seriously includes thinking about how we’re going to deal with the sizable chunk of people who are politically conservative and get much of their information from dubious sources like Fox News. If we can’t peel off a significant number of those people and get them to recognize the truth about climate change, we don’t have a chance of implementing the kind of collective strategy climate change requires any time soon.

We’re not going to get those people with dubious arguments like this. And dubious it is: If we can’t divorce ourselves from what we want to believe long enough to appreciate the evidence in the strategy memo that argues for it being a fake, then in my view we are falling short of the requirements of honest skepticism.

Yes, the denialists (the worst of them, at least) are legitimately villainous. It’s understandable that the combination of fear and anger that their actions provoke would push anyone toward a polarized position and a desire to push back against their lies with assertions like the one being linked to here.

It’s an understandable temptation. But the temptation must be resisted. If Peter Gleick’s mistakes teach anything, it is that the consequences of succumbing to an ends-justifies-the-means erosion of principles can be severe. Yes, we need to confront the fallacies, mistaken beliefs, and outright falsehoods coming from the denialist side. We are in a battle for hearts and minds. But if we get so caught up in the battle that we are willing to treat the flimsy arguments offered by DeMille and Littlemore as compelling, we will lose the war. The vast majority of currently-undecided third parties are not going to look at the evidence and conclude that the strategy memo is authentic. They are going to conclude that we are irrationally committed to our position, and that the denialists are probably right when they say that the scientific consensus is a sham produced by people who are being similarly irrational.

They will be wrong to conclude that. But by the time the climate has worsened enough for them to realize it we will have lost valuable time to address the problem.

I see the response to the denialist’s dishonesty as being analogous to a cytokine storm. We’re like an immune system reacting to a pathogen. But in the case of Peter Gleick’s actions, and of those who now defend him to the extent of calling his actions heroic and arguing that the faked strategy memo is authentic, our reaction threatens to do more harm to the patient than the pathogen ever could.

I recommend what Megan McArdle has written about the strategy memo. I don’t agree with everything she’s written about it, but she’s got a good take on the degree to which the defense of Gleick’s actions by climate activists threatens to undermine our position in the larger debate.

I don’t know if Gleick forged the strategy memo himself. But I think it’s clear that someone forged it, and that whoever committed the forgery had access to the legitimate documents. I remain intrigued by the idea that this was a false flag operation, in which someone who had access to Heartland’s internal documents leaked the fake memo to Gleick hoping he would release it, after which he could be denounced and neutralized as an opponent. I don’t think that scenario is nearly as far-fetched as McArdle seems to think. But I don’t actually know. And neither do most of us, at this point.

The only people who know for sure whether Gleick is telling the truth about the fake strategy document are Gleick, and, if Gleick is telling the truth, the person or persons who forged it and sent it to him. If this ends up in court, and if Gleick has evidence to corroborate his account of the timeline, this could get really interesting, since that would mean he could mount a pretty convincing case that he was, in fact, set up by someone with access to internal Heartland documents.

I don’t know what the chances of that are. But I know that being skeptical means I need to keep an open mind about the competing explanation favored by the denialists: That Gleick is just lying, and that he forged the strategy memo himself as a way to try to make the document leak “sexier”.

MikeB made a substantive response, but I took exception to this part:

Stop pearl clutching – at best it looks weak, and at worst it looks like concern trolling.

This prompted me to respond as follows:

I’m not sure what pearl clutching or concern trolling are, but if I’m engaging in them I apologize. From where I sit, I’m just being as honest as I can about how I see the issue.

I haven’t “made my mind up” about the strategy memo, except that after considering it carefully, I do believe McArdle’s assertions about its implausibility are compelling. The specifics of what it says and the way it says it don’t pass the smell test. It simply isn’t credible as an actual internal Heartland document intending to lay out their actual strategy for some sort of limited internal distribution. There are plenty of good analyses of this question out there already, so I don’t think I need to go into them. If you disagree, that’s fine, and it’s your prerogative, obviously. But if you haven’t examined the question in detail, I encourage you to take another look, beginning with McArdle’s arguments from last week.

I’m not simply crediting Heartland’s claims that it is “fake”. But their willingness to make that claim, early and often, does factor into my thinking in this way: If the document were legitimate, and was actually prepared for its described purpose, then it would presumably have been distributed to multiple people within Heartland. That raises the stakes for Heartland to denounce it as they have. If there are other copies of it, perhaps other versions of it, floating around within Heartland it becomes a much greater risk for them to make the statements they have, since at any time one of those copies could come to light.

The people running Heartland disagree with me, and are willing to baldly assert things that are untrue; I’ve seen them do it. But they’re not stupid. Taken together with the content and style problems of the document itself, their willingness to put themselves out there calling it a fake and making it the centerpiece of their response to the leak is enough for me to conclude that yeah, they’re probably telling the truth, at least in a very narrowly construed sense, when they say that.

As I’ve said repeatedly, I think the question is still very much open as to who it was who forged it, and for what purpose, so in that sense my mind isn’t made up about the document at all. But I do believe that the position being endorsed by Greg Laden in the item above is dubious. So I guess you’re right about my mind being made up on that point. I’d be interested in hearing counterarguments, but I don’t think those made by DeMille and Littlemore in the linked-to item are compelling. I think their confirmation bias is showing.

I think I had convinced myself that we were making progress toward some kind of collective shared insight. (Heh. On the Internet.) The next comment, by user elpsi, brought me back to reality:

John Callender…

See Douche, that is what actual skepticism looks like

Sigh. I realize it’s just one person, and random drive-by nastiness is a fact of life online. But it bugged me, in part because I’d thought (naively) that I was among the like-minded, on a blog sympathetic to “my” side.

The item he (or she, though I think the balance of evidence strongly favors he) linked to was one I’d already read, in which Laden reproduced Shawn Otto’s experiment with content analysis as a means of identifying the strategy memo’s author (which itself was inspired by Anthony Watts’ post on WUWT). As I wrote in a previous post, I found the “methodology” employed by both Otto and Laden to be fairly ridiculous. The results were kind of funny, but not anything to be taken seriously. I assumed that was the spirit in which Otto made his post, but with Laden I wasn’t sure; coming off his credulous endorsement of DeMelle and Littlemore, it seemed like he may have thought the analysis was actually significant.

The cytokine storms of the climate debate operate at multiple levels. I just finished reading James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia; Lovelock would argue that the planet itself is a metaphorical superorganism, and that the warming feedbacks we’ve triggered are the equivalent of a planetary cytokine response. In more human-centered terms, the warnings of scientists like Mann and Hansen are frightening to people like me, producing a reaction in which we organize and pressure government to act quickly, without waiting for a broader societal consensus. On the other side, pressure for carbon pricing is viewed as a profit-threatening pathogen by the fossil fuel industry, and the big-government programs that would implement those policies as freedom-killing pathogens by free-market advocates. So they activate their political T-cells and macrophages (e.g., Heartland, and legions of snarky online deniers) and rush to the site of infection.

Gleick saw the Heartland Institute as a deadly infection, and ramped up his immune response to a breathtaking degree. Those who defend his actions by asserting ridiculous things are doing the same: responding to the threat with a fervor that I fear will lengthen the time until we can act on the climate problem with a common sense of purpose.

The only way we will successfully combat climate change is if we act in unison. Not just as one ideological camp, or as one nation; in Lovelock’s view, not even as one species. We need to unite as one planet, or at least as one planet-wide superorganism, with a willingness to balance human needs against the needs of the larger biome’s climate-regulation function. Which is… a daunting requirement.

We’re not going to get there like this. We’re not going to get there as long as those concerned about the problem are willing to sacrifice their credibility in the name of fighting the other “side.”

Medical researchers are working on ways to counter cytokine storms. From an article by Shaoni Bhattacharya in New Scientist, New flu drug calms the ‘storm’:

To dampen down the immune reaction, the researchers targeted a specific molecule present in the inflammation response called OX40.

Normally, when the lungs are under attack from a virus, the body’s T-cells are activated. These migrate to the lungs to attack the microbes but they also initiate a second immune system attack called a “cytokine storm”. This surge of chemicals causes inflammation and when severe can seriously harm or even kill the patient.

“After one or two days, the T-cells increase production of OX40,” explains Hussell. “This molecule gives the T-cell a ‘survival signal’ – which makes them hang around in the lungs for a lot longer.” But new cells are arriving all the time, says Ian Humphreys, who led the study, so this prolonged presence is not needed, and exacerbates the cytokine storm.

The new drug, an OX40 fusion protein called OX40:Ig, works by binding to the OX40 receptor and blocking activated T-cells. OX40:Ig, supplied by the company Xenova Research, stopped the symptoms of flu in mice.

We need to dampen our over-the-top immune response. We need to be less strident, less virulent, in response to the other side, so we don’t close off the conversations that need to take place in order for us to build consensus and take action.

I’m saying “we” and “our”, but I’m mostly talking about me. I’ve lost my cool in the comments here a few times lately, saying some nasty things to a certain global warming skeptic that I would never have said to his – or anyone’s – face. It wasn’t Gleickian in degree, but my willingness to treat shcb as a second-class citizen on a blog where he’s probably contributed more content than I have was certainly Gleickian in tone.

I’ve spent time over the past few weeks on web sites I wouldn’t normally visit, places like and Judith Curry’s blog and even WattsUpWithThat. There are views and attitudes being expressed there that are as misguided as anything I’m criticizing here. But there are also a lot of thoughtful discussions by people who are clearly quite rational and interested in getting to the bottom of things.

Here’s a post I made at Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit blog:

I’m very interested in the question of whether Gleick forged the strategy memo, vs. his having received it anonymously via mail prior to the phishing attempt (as he said – or at least strongly implied – in his HuffPo confession). I realize that there are lots of fingerprints in the memo itself pointing to Gleick as the author. And I realize that there are enough similarities between the fake strategy memo and the legitimate documents to make it implausible that the strategy memo could have been forged without the forger having access to those documents.

Basically, I’m looking to list the evidence for and against the “honeypot” scenario, in which someone other than Gleick who had access to the internal Heartland documents forged the memo, intentionally inserting real information, fake information, and clues that would tend to implicate Gleick as the forger, then mailed it to Gleick hoping he’d publicize it, after which it could be used to discredit him.

I’m not trying to suggest that the honeypot scenario is more or less likely than the more straightforward explanation, that Gleick forged the document himself in an attempt to “sex up” the document release. But I’m interested in the arguments for and against both explanations.

I’ve got some commentary on my blog at that explains more of where I’m coming from. Disclosure: Anyone going there will quickly discover that I have a history as a warmist liberal who complains about people ignoring the “scientific consensus”. For which I actually want to express a certain amount (but only a certain amount) of sincere chagrin. This whole incident, and some of the actions by my warmist fellow travelers (including, but not limited to, Peter Gleick) have created what might be termed “a teachable moment”.

Anyway, I’m looking to be taught, and I’m impressed by the quality of analysis I’ve been finding in threads like this one on a bunch of blogs I never paid much attention to before. So feel free to cut me a new orifice if you feel the need. But if you’d also be willing to comment on the question I ask above, along with your reasons for thinking the way you do, I’d appreciate it. Thanks.

I was bracing myself for a hostile reaction, but it didn’t come. Instead I just got people politely offering me their views. Elsewhere in the same thread I came across a comment by Richard Betts that included this:

But I guess maybe the whole thing is just symptomatic of how this so-called “Climate Wars” business is getting completely out of hand. The militants on both sides need to rein it in before someone actually gets hurt (I mean for real, not just their reputation).

We now need Radical Moderates to step forward and distance themselves from the extremists (at both ends). Let’s talk it all through like grownups instead of banging on about alarmists, deniers and conspiracy theories. It’s all very childish.

In response, Steve McIntyre wrote:

I agree that the situation has gotten out of hand.


If I were the CAGW sales manager, I would view one of my key missions as focused marketing to the precise sort of people that make up the audience at Climate Audit, Lucia’s, Jeff Id and to a portion of Watts Up: highly educated professionals, including scientists from other fields, who are interested in the climate debate, who are technically competent and who haven’t reached an opinion on whether climate is a big, medium or small problem (including me.)

The audience has to be treated more like investors than high school students i.e. if you’re pitching to investors and they don’t invest, you can’t “fail” them or tell them that they’re stupid or tools of the fossil fuel industry; you have to think about why your pitch failed and what you can do better, and leave on good terms with the investor and maybe you’ll have another chance later on. It’s madness to condemn this audience as “deniers” or “ground troops” of the fossil fuel industry – madness both on the part of the activists who do so and madness on the part of the broader climate “community” that tolerates and even honors such conduct from its activist wing.

Also too many of the self-appointed sales people for CAGW are too wrapped up in their own self-importance and are unlikable to an extended audience. Indeed, if I were CAGW sales manager, I could hardly imagine a sales force more unlikely to succeed. This is quite aside from whether the message is right or wrong. If it’s important to actually persuade someone on the fence that CAGW is an imminent danger, then it’s important to talk to people on the fence or even in opposition (to get them on the fence.) It’s also probably important to retire some of the self-appointed sales people – thank for their service politely but get spokesmen who can build trust with a wider community.

I think Betts and McIntyre have a point.

As I was sitting down to write this, I saw a new post by Michael Tobis on his Planet 3.0 blog. Tobis has been one of my favorite voices commenting on this whole affair from the perspective of “my” side. I can’t really summarize his post adequately; you really have to read the whole thing to get the feel of his confused, exasperated, but oddly liberated tone: What a shiny damn penny! Here’s a taste, at least:

What a couple of weeks! Amazing stuff everywhere!

I have rethought it and I concede that the Wattsians and McArdle are right. The disputed memo is not plausibly from Bast or directly from Heartland. Nobody who speaks English would plausibly use “anti-climate” to describe themselves under any circumstances.

But Peter Gleick. Who? You’re joking, right?

I have thought some more about it and this is what I think. When he was first accused, and as I and many others thought, wildly and implausibly accused, I expected a strong performance from Peter Gleick in the mode of Santer or Mann. Really better than Santer or Mann, who didn’t expect it and didn’t have the personality to easliy endure it. It didn’t cross my mind for a second that Peter was guilty.

But he is guilty, so now the question was, was it worth it? My first response was, along with everybody else’s, no, no way was it worth it, but surely Peter didn’t compose the Disputed Memo.

The publication of the emails by Heartland on have changed my mind. Peter made no attempt to be anonymous. As soon as they realized they were being spoofed, it was obvious. They looked ridiculous and got a lot of eyes trained on them. Then totally unexpectedly, Peter confessed!

Actually, he had to yank their chains pretty hard before they even noticed. What a transparent hack! Nitwits!

I don’t necessarily agree with the conclusion Tobis arrives at; read it yourself and see what you think. But I’m impressed at the mere fact of his movement. Speaking from experience, changing one’s views is hard. If Gleick’s self-destructive cytokine storm makes it so people like Tobis (and me) are forced into an honest re-evaluation of our deep-rooted beliefs, maybe there will be some good that comes out of this after all.

Galef on How to Be More Right

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Julia Galef has some good advice for anyone who finds himself (or herself) frustrated in the course of online arguments:

(Note: It actually is good advice. The fact that she’s young and female and therefore will annoy the crap out of shcb is merely a happy accident.)

Communicating About (Climate) Science

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), who have fought the long fight to keep creationism out of public school science classes, are expanding their focus to include climate change denialism. See this article in the LA Times: Climate change skepticism seeps into science classrooms, and this blog post from NCSE’s Josh Rosenau: NCSE takes on climate change.

Lately I’ve been reading Randy Olson’s Don’t Be Such a Scientist. Olson was a tenured science professor who left academia to attend USC Film School, and has since made a career of helping scientists do a better job of communicating. One of the things he talks about is the need to move beyond listeners’ heads, to try to engage their hearts, guts, and (if possible) sex organs. He mentions NCSE, and how the organization eventually just made a blanket recommendation that scientists not debate creationists publicly. They came to that position reluctantly, after realizing that in almost every case, the cerebral, fact-based presentations favored by scientists were losing to the emotional, intuitive, sexy presentations of their creationist opponents.

It’s very hard, Olson writes, for scientists to give up the idea that being right, having more and better facts on their side, should convince a lay audience. He talks about the years he spent attending science presentations, then coming back to them after film school and realizing how incredibly boring and ineffectual they were.

Most of the time. There are the occasional exceptions, though. Olson’s bloggish site recently had an item that I really loved, and meant to share, but then forgot about until Boing Boing reminded me. Anyway, here it is, as published in the British Journal of Urology: How (not) to communicate new scientific information: A memoir of the famous Brindley lecture.

This lecture was unique, dramatic, paradigm-shifting, and unexpected. It is difficult to imagine that a similar scenario could ever take place again. Professor Brindley belongs in the pantheon of famous British eccentrics who have made spectacular contributions to science. The story of his lecture deserves a place in the urological history books.

As someone who has sometimes struggled to communicate complex technical information in a way that is compelling and memorable, I’m in awe of Professor Brindley. I’ll never be in his league, but I’m inspired by his example.

Dads and Their Daughters

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

I actually intended to include this video in the previous post about the whole gender-differences-on-the-Internet thing, but then forgot and was too lazy to go back and add it. But then my daughter Julia mentioned that I should post it, and I’m a pushover where she’s concerned. So here it is (if you haven’t seen it already, which you probably have; it was making the rounds):

If you find Riley adorable you should check out her puppet show, too.

Next up is a video that actually came up as a Public Service Announcement promoting fatherhood during a Lakers game I was watching the other night. Apparently there’s a whole genre of “homecoming soldier surprise videos.” (I originally wrote that as “homecoming soldier surprise porn,” but that just felt wrong, and then I realized that there’s probably lots of that, too, though I didn’t look.) Anyway, I’ve spent the last few days watching too many of these, but this one is still my favorite:

Finally, I wanted to conclude with this one. See what you get for encouraging me to post things?

Gender Specificity and the Internet

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

For some reason I noticed a series of items today concerning male-female differences on the Internet. Enjoy.

Ryan at Mad Art Lab (hobbies include fencing, armor smithing, and D&D) has spent a lot of time thinking about female-specific armor. This post is the happy result: Fantasy Armor and Lady Bits. It includes the following image of a breast(s)plate made by Ryan himself:

Ryan writes:

Note also that it seems almost perfectly designed to guide sword points and arrows into her heart. They still have to penetrate the armor but, honestly, that’s a design flaw. However, it looks good and makes her feel sexy and badass at the same time. That’s important too.

Author Seth Mnookin (whose name I can’t pronounce, but fortunately I don’t have to read this post out loud), in an otherwise interesting and piece at PLoS Blogs (Context and corrections in writing about autism and vaccines: A case study in misleading your readers), quotes from this fun correction that ran recently in the New York Times:

An article on Monday about Jack Robison and Kirsten Lindsmith, two college students with Asperger syndrome who are navigating the perils of an intimate relationship, misidentified the character from the animated children’s TV show “My Little Pony” that Ms. Lindsmith said she visualized to cheer herself up. It is Twilight Sparkle, the nerdy intellectual, not Fluttershy, the kind animal lover.

This reminded me of “bronies”, whom I learned about some time ago from my Internet-meme-obsessed 14-year-old son, but whom I’d never googled before. Shortly thereafter I was reading this fun piece by Katie Notopolous on Gawker: Hasbro Crushes Dreams of Grown Men Who Love My Little Pony. Notopolous observes:

If you think bronyism sounds like something only a serious pervert living in his mother’s basement would be into, you’re only about 30% correct. To address your immediate question: it’s not ironic. It’s nerdy guys who genuinely enjoy an animated series about ponies. The show has a legitimate appeal to older audiences — high production values, snappy dialog, and a heartwarming message. But the online fan culture of bronies grew out of 4chan, so they have a computer nerd vestigial tail of Mountain Dew, anime appreciation, chronic virginity, and cyberbullying.

The mention of cyberbullying brings me to the last item in today’s round-up of gender-themed links: Rebecca Watson (who is awesome, btw) on how reddit makes her hate atheists. In particular, Watson dissects how the reaction to a 15-year-old girl posting this photo of a book her “super-religious mother” got her for Christmas made her hate them:

Happy New Year, dudes and dudettes (and redditors and bronies and conspiracists). See you in 2012!

Moran on the Stages of Climate Change Denialism

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Daniel Keys Moran (heh) on the stages of climate change denialism.

I enjoyed the comment thread, too. +1 your favorites!

Why I’ll Be Among the First to Buy an AbigailAndI Album

Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

I’ve got a thing for plaintive, breathy female vocals. Deb Talan’s voice is a big part of what I love about The Weepies, and Nataly Dawn’s voice does the same thing for me with Pomplamoose. So I’m not very objective about this. I just know what I like, and would like more of.

I would like more of Abbey Snarski singing stuff like this:

And this:

And this:

As it stands, I’ll take what I can get, recorded cheaply with bad acoustics in laundry rooms and stairwells. But in a perfect world, there will eventually be an AbigailAndI album that I can buy and download, at which point that is exactly what I will do.

You have been warned!

Lessig on Striking at the Roots

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Awesome talk by Lawrence Lessig:

McGowan Schools a Jehovah’s Witness on Scripture

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

As someone who has occasionally invited a door-to-door Jehovah’s Witness (or Latter Day Saint) in to discuss the Bible and/or Book of Mormon, I liked this piece by secular parent Dale McGowan:

She looked down and nodded once. “I can see you’re struggling with this…”

“Ma’am, one of us is struggling, and I don’t think it’s me.”

Tim DeChristopher’s Pre-Sentencing Statement

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

I Do Not Want Mercy, I Want You To Join Me.

I’m not saying any of this to ask you for mercy, but to ask you to join me. If you side with Mr Huber and believe that your role is to discourage citizens from holding their government accountable, then you should follow his recommendations and lock me away. I certainly don’t want that. I have no desire to go to prison, and any assertion that I want to be even a temporary martyr is false. I want you to join me in standing up for the right and responsibility of citizens to challenge their government. I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience. If you share those values but think my tactics are mistaken, you have the power to redirect them. You can sentence me to a wide range of community service efforts that would point my commitment to a healthy and just world down a different path. You can have me work with troubled teens, as I spent most of my career doing. You can have me help disadvantaged communities or even just pull weeds for the BLM. You can steer that commitment if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it. This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow. The choice you are making today is what side are you on.

After turning down a plea offer that would essentially have let him walk away in return for making a public apology, Tim DeChristopher is serving a 2-year sentence at a federal prison. More about Tim here: Frequently Asked Questions about Tim DeChristopher.

(Un)funny Videos

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Someone in my google+ stream thought the following video was “OMG, way too funny”:

I watched it and could only think, OMG, that mom is a sadist, and I feel really, really sorry for that little boy.

Fortunately, another person I follow online pointed the way to this item, which helped cleanse my palate:

‘Perform This Way’ with Visuals. Disturbing Ones.

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

I’ve been on something of a Gaga kick lately (late to the party, as usual; sorry). So I think I was in a better position than I otherwise would have been to appreciate the jokes in Weird Al’s “Perform This Way” parody. And I enjoyed the whole story when Gaga (or her people) refused permission for Weird Al to use the song after he’d recorded it, so he released it anyway, and shamed her into reversing herself and granting permission.

But all that was before I saw the video. And man, that Yankovic fellow really outdid himself on this one. Gaga’s whole shtick is weird and transgressive already, but throw Weird Al on top of that, and it’s just… I don’t know. Something.

Nature Documentary Done Right

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

I had not seen this (unlike everyone else), until commenter Anithil pointed it out to me. In honor of her, then:


Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Posted without comment (courtesy of Janus/Onan/Conner):

And on a thematically-related note, from Josh Marshall’s Funniest thing I’ve heard all day:

Chris Hayes tweets that Spitzer, Vitter et al. should record “It Gets Better” vid for Anthony Weiner.

Alamo Drafthouse’s Angry Texter Rant Ad

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

I really, really loved this: