News Briefs 02-03-2017

Walking under a canopy of trees beats any type of psychotherapy.

  • These tiny fossils could be the oldest evidence of life on Earth.
  • 'Best ever' view of what a dinosaur really looked like.
  • US scientists find a way to safely thaw cryopreserved tissues. Just wait a bit longer, Walt!
  • Professor David Nutt: Psilocybin does in 30 seconds what antidepressants take 3-4 weeks to do.
  • The Israeli army is enrolling people on the autistic spectrum, with surprising results.
  • On the latest episode of Skeptiko, Ed May explains why, despite having run the Stargate psychic program for 10 years, he remains an unapologetic materialist and scoffs at any notion of consciousness surviving death.
  • Making (religious) sense on the possibility of life in the TRAPPIST-1 system: The Baptist approach, and the Catholic approach.
  • Scientists from the University of Central Florida want to become the first Martian bricklayers.
  • Space tourist Richard Garriott forewarns future SpaceX tourists about the Overview effect.
  • Tom DeLonge: From Blink 182 to "the world's leading UFO hunter." Srsly?
  • My bud and colleague, Robbie Graham, doesn't buy the DeLonge Delusion [Part1] [Part 2].
  • Unsolved UFO case in Houston still bewilders former police officer.
  • Recently-disclosed CIA document reveals Carl Jung accused the government of withholding UFO information.
  • Rediscovering 60 years of Sasquatch stories.
  • Military officers in Chile spooked out of haunted house.
  • Red Pill of the Day: If you love doing laps in your local public swimming pool, then you DO NOT want to know how much urine was found by a recent scientific test.

Thanks to Conan & Bill Paxton --game will NEVER be over, man!

Quote of the Day:

"I was so glad I had it yesterday when my boss demanded that we allow the White House lawyers to look at our phones to stop the leaks. I just sat there on my secret and smiled."

˜Amazon customer review for the Beat The Boss 3in1 J8 World Smallest Mobile Phone, which is so small it could be easily concealed in somebody's rectum.

News Briefs 01-03-2017

Welcome to Spring/Autumn (apply hemispheric orientation as appropriate)!

Thanks to @Gordon_White and @AnomalistNews.

Quote of the Day:

Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups…So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.

Philip K. Dick

Updating Conspiracy Theory: The Rise of Weaponised Narrative and Manipulation Via Social Networks

Online manipulation

The past few months has seen a proliferation of think pieces about 'fake news', much of it overstated or wrong-headed, and much also ignoring the fact that fake news has been around as long as news has. But there is certainly some truth at the centre of it all, and it may be more a case that the rise of social networks has allowed for a new type of 'personalised' manipulation via fake, hyperbolic and/or emotive stories, and it is that which we are noticing.

For those wishing to better inform themselves - in order to protect themselves against this manipulation - I heartily recommend two articles in particular. The first is a DefenseOne article titled "Weaponized Narrative Is the New Battlespace":

Weaponized narrative seeks to undermine an opponent’s civilization, identity, and will by generating complexity, confusion, and political and social schisms. It can be used tactically, as part of explicit military or geopolitical conflict; or strategically, as a way to reduce, neutralize, and defeat a civilization, state, or organization. Done well, it limits or even eliminates the need for armed force to achieve political and military aims.

The article hits the nail on the head, I think, by pointing out the 'information overload' we are now experiencing makes us vulnerable to oversimplified, emotive narratives (a key component also in the rise in 'populist' movements):

Cultures, institutions, and individuals are, among many other things, information-processing mechanisms. As they become overwhelmed with information complexity, the tendency to retreat into simpler narratives becomes stronger.

Under this stress, cultures fragment. Institutions are stretched until they become ineffective or even dysfunctional. Individuals who define their identity primarily through the state – such as Americans, Russians, Chinese, or Europeans – retreat to a mythic Golden Age nationalism, while those who prioritize cultural and religious bonds retreat to fundamentalism.

...By offering cheap passage through a complex world, weaponized narrative furnishes emotional certainty at the cost of rational understanding. The emotionally satisfying decision to accept a weaponized narrative — to believe, to have faith — inoculates cultures, institutions, and individuals against counterarguments and inconvenient facts. This departure from rationality opens such ring-fenced belief communities to manipulation and their societies to attack.

While the observations in the DefenseOne article are mostly about a new type of battleground between nation states, the second article I recommend takes this one step further, and shows how any rich and powerful individual can push their own political view by manipulating us via weaponized narrative that uses our own social data against us. The article, "Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media", starts off rather blandly, discussing one of the biggest funders of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, Robert Mercer - "a billionaire who is, as billionaires are wont, trying to reshape the world according to his personal beliefs". It is the later part of the article, when it discusses how Mercer is doing this, that we should all be paying major attention to:

there was another reason why I recognised Robert Mercer’s name: because of his connection to Cambridge Analytica, a small data analytics company. He is reported to have a $10m stake in the company, which was spun out of a bigger British company called SCL Group. It specialises in “election management strategies” and “messaging and information operations”, refined over 25 years in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. In military circles this is known as “psyops” – psychological operations. (Mass propaganda that works by acting on people’s emotions.)

On its website, Cambridge Analytica makes the astonishing boast that it has psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters – its USP is to use this data to understand people’s deepest emotions and then target them accordingly. The system, according to Albright, amounted to a “propaganda machine”.

...[According to the communications director of the Leave.EU (Brexit) campaign], Cambridge Analytica had worked for them...it had taught them how to build profiles, how to target people and how to scoop up masses of data from people’s Facebook profiles.

Facebook was the key to the entire campaign. A Facebook ‘like’, he said, was their most “potent weapon”. “Because using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert.

Facebook profiles – especially people’s “likes” – could be correlated across millions of others to produce uncannily accurate results...with knowledge of 150 likes, their model could predict someone’s personality better than their spouse. With 300, it understood you better than yourself.

According to an expert in the field, Professor Jonathan Rust:

The danger of not having regulation around the sort of data you can get from Facebook and elsewhere is clear. With this, a computer can actually do psychology, it can predict and potentially control human behaviour. It’s what the scientologists try to do but much more powerful. It’s how you brainwash someone. It’s incredibly dangerous.

It’s no exaggeration to say that minds can be changed. Behaviour can be predicted and controlled. I find it incredibly scary. I really do. Because nobody has really followed through on the possible consequences of all this. People don’t know it’s happening to them. Their attitudes are being changed behind their backs.

Quoting short sections doesn't really do either of the articles justice - I heartily recommend reading them both in their entirety to understand how vulnerable we all are to manipulation in the 21st century. But how do we combat these types of strategies? Your suggestions are more than welcome in the comments section!

Link: "Weaponized Narrative Is the New Battlespace"

Link: "Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media"

News Briefs 28-02-2017

Fly me to the Moon!

Quote of the Day:

Utopian movements produce dystopias.

Dennis Prager

Handle: A New Boston Dynamics Robot That Has Legs with Wheels

Just when you thought you could survive the coming robot revolution by outrunning them, Boston Dynamics have released video of their latest invention, 'Handle': a 6 and a half foot tall humanoid style robot which can travel 9mph via the wheels on the end of its legs. Oh, and it can jump 4​ ​feet vertically while its motoring along too...

​It uses electric power to operate both electric and hydraulic actuators, with a range of about 15 miles on one battery charge. ​​​Handle uses many of the same dynamics, balance and mobile manipulation principles​ found in the quadruped and biped robots we build, but with only about 10 actuated joints, it is significantly less complex. Wheels are efficient on flat surfaces while legs can go almost anywhere: by combining wheels and legs Handle can have the best of both worlds.

Joking aside though, this latest robot looks to have amazing potential for simple carrying/moving/delivery jobs.

Related stories:

News Briefs 27-02-2017

We're on an express elevator to hell...going down!

Quote of the Day:

You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic.

Robert A. Heinlein

News Briefs 24-02-2017

"The Tao is like a well: used but never used up..."

Quote of the Day:

“...It is like the eternal void: filled with infinite possibilities.”

Lao Tze

Felines are Fine: New Research Finds No Evidence that Owning a Cat Might Make You Psychotic

Toxoplasma gondii

In recent years there has been a surge in interest in the idea that human behaviour might be sometimes manipulated by microscopic parasites, as this has been observed happening in many other species. Perhaps the most famous example is the brain parasite toxoplasma gondii, which manipulates rodents' behaviour to make them less fearful of cats. It does this because toxo only reproduces inside a cat's stomach - by making the rodents less fearful, they are more likely to be eaten and 'deliver their payload' to where it needs to be.

Some have suggested that humans too might be affected by toxo, an idea that sounded even more plausible when last year researchers found that chimpanzees with toxo seem to be less fearful of a feline predator, the leopard. Previous to that study, other research had implicated toxo as the possible cause of a range of psychological effects in humans, from delayed reaction time right through to suicidal thoughts.

But a new piece of research has now thrown doubts over that idea, with scientists finding no evidence that cat ownership contributes to mental health problems in teenagers:

Congenital or early life infection with Toxoplasma gondii has been implicated in schizophrenia aetiology. Childhood cat ownership has been hypothesized as an intermediary marker of T. gondii infection and, by proxy, as a risk factor for later psychosis. Evidence supporting this hypothesis is, however, limited.

We used birth cohort data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) to investigate whether cat ownership in pregnancy and childhood (ages 4 and 10 years) was associated with psychotic experiences (PEs) in early [13yo] and late [18yo] adolescence, rated from semi-structured interviews. We used logistic regression to examine associations between cat ownership and PEs, adjusting for several sociodemographic and socioeconomic factors, household characteristics and dog ownership.

Cat ownership during pregnancy was not associated with PEs at age 13 years or 18 years. Initial univariable evidence that cat ownership at ages 4 and 10 years was associated with PEs at age 13 years did not persist after multivariable adjustment. There was no evidence that childhood cat ownership was associated with PEs at age 18 years.

The researchers concluded that while pregnant women "should continue to avoid handling soiled cat litter, given possible T. gondii exposure", overall the study "strongly indicates that cat ownership in pregnancy or early childhood does not confer an increased risk of later adolescent PEs."

So there's one less excuse to use when your child asks you for a kitten...

Related stories:

News Briefs 23-02-2017

Our lives are always the prelude. What comes next is up to us.

Quote of the Day:

"I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death."

˜Robert Fulghum

News Briefs 22-02-2017

My daughter Isis reviews fantasy genre books from her viewpoint as a teenager - check out her blog 'The Book Goddess' for some cool recommendations (both old and new).

Quote of the Day:

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.

Martin Luther King Jr.