Global Whining

The scientific method is the greatest invention of the modern age. For centuries, its practitioners have transformed civilization using rational systems revealed through careful observation. Theories which have succeeded not by virtue of their popularity but because they correctly predicted unknown phenomena are especially awe-inspiring. However, predictions without rational justification or those vague enough to be confirmed by any number of observations should not earn the same recognition. I’m a huge fan of Karl Popper regarding falsification, the idea that a scientific theory must predict some observable event which would prove it wrong (if the theory is wrong). This principle eliminates uncertainty regarding how specific a valid theory must be. Unfortunately, it has been ignored by some academics who claim to be scientists so that people won’t laugh at their ideas. You might have already guessed that today I’m targeting the low-hanging fruit of global warming alarmism. Prepare to be offended.

I won’t waste your attention picking apart the various temperature series, criticizing the IPCC models, or citing evidence of misconduct, not because those arguments have already been made by more qualified individuals, but because they shouldn’t even be necessary. Fundamental problems with any apocalyptic hypothesis make the whole enterprise seem ridiculous. This is what Popper says about scientific theory:

1) It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory – if we look for confirmations.
2) Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected […] an event which would have refuted the theory.
3) Every “good” scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.
4) A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.
5) Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.

The scenarios published by climate modelers don’t qualify as scientific predictions because there is no way to falsify them – updated temperature measurements will inevitably correlate with some projections better than others. And fitting curves to historical data isn’t a valid method for predicting the future. Will the IPCC declare the CO2-H2O-feedback warming model invalid and disband if the trend in the last decade of HadCRUT3 data continues for another decade or two? How about if the Arctic ice cap survives the Summer of 2014? I’m supposed to trust these academics and politicians with billions of public dollars, before their vague predictions can be tested, because the global warming apocalypse they describe sounds more expensive? This riotous laughter isn’t meant to be insulting, we all say stupid things now and then.

Doesn’t the arrival of ScaryStorm Sandy confirm our worst environmental fears? Not if we’re still talking about Karl Popper’s science. Enlightened by the theory of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming, academics were reluctant to blame mankind for “exceptional events” only two months ago. They probably didn’t expect a hurricane to go sub-tropical and converge with a cold front as it hit New York Bight on the full moon at high tide less than six weeks later, because that kind of thing doesn’t happen very often. Informed news readers might have been expecting some coy suggestion that global warming “influences” weather systems in the rush to capitalize on this disaster. But in a caricature of sensationalism, Bloomberg splashes “IT’S GLOBAL WARMING, STUPID” across a bright orange magazine cover, and suddenly enormous storm surges threaten our infrastructure again while the seas are still rising slowly and inevitably, all because of those dirty fossil fuels.

I don’t mean to say that we should actually expect scientific integrity from a stockbrokers’ tabloid, but Mike Bloomberg has really sunk to a new low. He spoke at TechCrunch Disrupt a few years ago and seemed like an average business-friendly mayor, not a shameless propagandist. I guess the soda ban was a bad omen. It’s a bit discouraging to see another newspaper endorse the panic, but then the organizers of our climate crusade have been pushing their statist agenda on broadcasters for a long time.

On Sunday, the New York Times doubled down with this ridiculous melodramatic lament, written by one talented liberal artist. Where’s a prediction about the next exceptional event, folks? Is it going to be a tornado or earthquake, or does it matter? Are there actually any rules for preaching obnoxious hindsight to believers? Can anyone suggest an observation that would falsify the theory?

What will the temperature anomaly or the concentration of carbon dioxide measure in ten years? How about one solid date for the eradication of a low-lying coastal city? If you must predict the apocalypse, it is only somewhat scientific if you can rationally argue for a deadline. And the science is only settled when the world ends (or doesn’t end) on time.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Happy 2012.


If you like music at all, take some advice from me and sing whenever you have a chance. It’s good for your soul, whatever that means. I’ve played music for many years, but I recently discovered how much singing affects my mental health. Live shows don’t count, because the crowd and the amplifiers drown you out. Sing when you’re alone in a quiet room, and fill it with your voice. Sing whenever you’re driving alone. Sing at work, as long as you aren’t disturbing anyone who can punish you. Just sing – you can probably play your own vocal cords even if you can’t play another instrument. If you sound awful, don’t worry about it. Nobody is going to harass you for singing poorly in private. Many people are too insecure to try it at all.

I’m saying this because something wonderful happens when we hear ourselves sing. It helps the brain. Matching pitch forces us to listen to the sounds that we produce, and quite possibly to produce sounds that we are not entirely comfortable hearing. This is a good thing! It teaches us to be more comfortable whenever we use our voices, and more confident in general. The sooner you get accustomed to hearing yourself make unfamiliar noises, the sooner you will be able to make noise in public with absolute confidence. Sometimes, that is absolutely necessary. Why not be prepared?

The Value of Education

Last week I wrote an aggressive piece criticizing non-technical education. I’m not backing down from that stance, but as my sister is currently studying for her MBA, I’d like to offer some reassurance to anyone who might have been intimidated by those words. I wasn’t trying to say that the Business School isn’t valuable or necessary. The piece was intended as a warning to anyone with misplaced confidence in accreditation. I’ve seen far too many graduates with egos disproportionate to their actual value in modern society. The world is changing very rapidly, and anyone clinging to outdated definitions of achievement and success will not make it very far in the future.

My advice is radical: Disregard the metrics that your teachers provide, and come up with your own as soon as possible. If you’re dutifully completing your schoolwork to earn a degree that will make someone respect you or be proud of you, don’t abandon that. However, don’t let yourself think that those credentials will matter to everyone you meet in the professional world. Nobody seems to care where I went to school anymore. Having a degree got me to this point, so I can’t disregard its importance, but at the same time my degree doesn’t guarantee me very much money, power, or prestige.

From Latin, education is literally the process by which a teacher “leads out” knowledge from a student. We haven’t figured out a better way to motivate young children, but there comes a point in every student’s life where knowledge must be willfully sought. Unless you’re enrolled in a trade school, that point is now before the end of college. Your professors are trying to help you, but they can only grant you legal accreditation, which is necessarily someone else’s definition of success. That’s not enough anymore. Even if you’re going for your PhD, it won’t bring you a good job that doesn’t require advanced mathematics. The harsh reality is that you will almost certainly have to work towards excellence on your own. Start now, before it’s too late.

The Programmer and The MBA

I’d like to write about higher education today. My BS is in Multidisciplinary Studies, a custom blend of classes that I found interesting enough to finish. I received it from RIT after failing out of one college for lack of motivation. In fact, I had earned a full ride at Fordham University, and had selfishly ignored my homework to spend quality time in the greatest city on Earth.

I’m lucky enough to have studied CS at Fordham, and while I was never officially enrolled in a computer class at RIT, the name is associated with technical excellence so my degree ended up being very impressive on paper. I don’t mean to say that I can’t program computers – I’m an extremely gifted engineer and I know Xcode as well as the next startup founder. However, my course of study included media and entrepreneurship classes, so I have a unique perspective on the Business School vs. Engineering School argument currently raging across this country.

As you might have guessed, I’m on the side of the engineers. I’ve always been a bit of a nerd, so of course I have sympathy for other introverts, but that is not my reason for joining this argument right now. I’m blogging today because computer nerds know how to make software, they tend to get exploited by people who don’t, and it is ruining America for everyone. Our economy is completely dependent on computers at this point, and I am astonished that so many of our “leaders” still haven’t figured out how to use Microsoft Outlook.

The members of the Business School claim that they’re learning how to work with other people and building skills that are needed by large companies. I’m skeptical about this. A company won’t grow large enough for these skills to matter until it has built something profitable. An MBA assumes that large companies already exist and demand specialized management skills. It is only useful as long as those assumptions are true.

Unfortunately, another problem is not affected by economic conditions. Computers follow instructions, but humans do not. A student can’t really learn how to manage people by listening to another person. The student must discover those skills by herself. Don’t forget, especially if you’re training to be a manager in the Ivy League. Every empire ends.

Why I Pay for a Social Network or: The Money Really Is a Red Herring

Interestingly, and almost right on cue, the free police have descended on Dalton Caldwell for following through with something as original and outside-the-box as his audacious proposal, the supremely interesting alpha community (and associated API). These doubters are mostly, I don’t know, anti-technology-business-experiments or something, and I’ve decided that they simply do not understand its significance yet.

If I may hazard a guess, what these late adopters aren’t grasping is the fact that right now, is a lot more expensive than the sticker price seems to suggest. The cheaper options are still closer to $1000 on the cost side for I’d say the dominant majority of its users. Do you know why? Most of them seem like they’re busy hustling some kind of profit that they can live off of, and even participating in this network, to say nothing of developing for it, is an enormous time investment! We’re putting our money down to give Dalton food and motivation, because he’s convinced us that 50 bucks a year does not matter anymore for a network with as much potential as this. I’d pay twice as much every year just for the publishing functionality, regardless of how many users stick around, and especially if they maintain this superb commitment to the product. Think about what you are actually using your money for, people! This is starting to look ridiculous – I think it’s rather undeniable that Dalton has touched one heck of a nerve here!

There is only one way that the community can ever shake off the rather myopic “elitist Twitter” label that naysayers seem to be gravitating towards, and start something that I think a lot of people around the world will want. That is to prove to them what a network of interested parties can do. To that effect, I’m working on a new Chrome extension called AppAnnotate that uses the API to let people annotate any web page and share notes with friends. The way of the future!


This new iOS project is essentially an experiment in direct-selling digital goods, so I’m not especially hung up on all these gnarly new questions about ads and their value, on Google and Facebook but offline as well. Yet it would be very wrong to assume that I can disregard business stuff like ad-based marketing, because ideas like MixBall will always need the attention and support of customers or fans or patrons or investors, and now that I’m pondering unanswered questions about promotion and consumer behavior, here are some random weekend advertising ideas:

– Why is the sound always overcompressed in video commercials? I mute the stream and therefore this does not seem to have the effect that the producers are intending. The only explanation I can imagine is that a lot of people walk into the next room or have a chat during commercial breaks, and either the proportion of those people is greater than the proportion of people who get annoyed by obnoxious audio quirks, or those people spend more money on advertised goods.

– I guess the colors are usually all blown out too, does that annoy visual people? Should sponsors care about this stuff?

– Can advertising work? Of course. Does most advertising work? Very different question…

– I’m not that nervous about Facebook spying on and then advertising to me based on my personal life (maybe I should be), but aren’t they something like 50 years behind with this idea that canned social advertising can convince me to spend where a straight commercial would fail? Isn’t it already uncool to buy the same stuff as the other people that I know?

– Is anyone else annoyed when ads and media have that obvious sort of glossy, meatless focus-group quality to them? Rows of brilliant-white, picket-fence teeth sparkling from inside diverse and demographically-precise protagonists, an awkward and asinine cliche grafted here, an agreeable slice of the Generic American Songbook cued there, and I slip right right into “uncanny valley” mode. It bothers me more than the hypothetical NSA archive of my Facebook timeline, because it feels vaguely as if the culture I belong to is being imitated by an alien entity in camouflage. I stare at this grotesque parody of human interaction, and my animal brain recoils at the knowledge that it is about to be tempted with yet another inappropriate way to spend money. Needless to say, the experience does not put me in a buying mood. The worst offenders of this kind seem to be movie previews, and I can’t tell if the effect is actually more noticeable these days, or if I’m just more likely to perceive it after brief exposure to film school. How can advertisers prevent this problem, and again, would they even want to?

– I’m thinking mostly about video ads, even specifically the kind that pop up for a mandatory 30-second interruption. Does anything else work, online? Do unexpected things work with small and/or weird subsets of the population? I suppose market researchers have answered many of those questions already, and I could probably buy access to some of the answers.

– Does that information matter for every product? Is anything more effective than a personal recommendation? Does anything else even come close?


I’m obsessed with content lately, because on average, its value seems to be falling as fast as the cost of production and distribution technology. I’m incredibly excited that the barrier to entry for an independent musician has never been lower than it is right now, for example, but this situation is causing other problems. Promotion is now far and away the largest investment that a typical media producer has to make, so quality suffers. And because fans now have essentially unlimited access to content, they are becoming jaded to the considerable effort that still goes into actually creating it, and are less willing to give their money to media producers as a result.

Those who believe that content curators don’t actually need to own and care for their music, or books, or videos, or software (or that the Internet can conjure up all of these things and more, indefinitely, by virtue of its very existence) will eventually realize what happens when an algorithm or a social phenomenon is trusted to organize and archive ideas. Specifically, it still does not work very well.

The “Netflix problem” is a good example: I can access a massive library of motion media at any time, bought from established studios and streamed through the Internet to my TV, and yet almost every time I simply want to pick out a movie to watch, I can never find it on Netflix. If I always knew that I was going to be interested in “mind-bending foreign thrillers” or maybe “goofy critically-acclaimed comedies” then I would have much less of a problem finding appropriate content, but that is never what I am actually looking for. In general, when I take the time to watch a movie, I want to see ideas that are important, and useful, and novel, and skillfully presented. Basically, I want to see the “good” movies by my own definition of “good,” and Netflix doesn’t provide more than 10 mediocre recommendations in that category.

Of course it really couldn’t be any other way, because scientifically, the whole Internet is just a bunch of smartass humans who wired their computers together for efficiency! More people need to understand that idea. I see a lot of what I’d almost call disappointment, because Facebook wasn’t actually able to save the Middle East, or because the next Instagram will sell for a lot less than a billion dollars, or because Justin Bieber is still famous, and it doesn’t really sit right with me at all. In fact, it seems rather naive and entitled.

Although the ponzi schemers may say otherwise, there has never been any magical voodoo behind this Internet business. Even if there was, Newton and Maxwell never could have done Einstein’s work by crowdsourcing it. The Internet only matters because the people who built it and use it have done great things with it. It will never be great or profitable or world-changing for any other reason.

St. Jobs

I’m sure there will be glowing biographies about Steve Jobs and his many accomplishments in time, but that guy deserves every single bit of the massive praise that is heaped upon him. Some of the most interesting comments come from the journalist disciples who all but compare Jobs to Jesus at every opportunity, and from the corresponding messiah-doubters who say that Jobs was nothing more than a savvy businessman who understood timing, manufacturing and product placement. However, other contrarians are understandably uncomfortable with his role in the commercialization of independent software and his control over the iUniverse, like a charismatic sort of software dictator type figure. Many of these people have Apple on their “modern hypocrites list” and might tell you so if the conversation wanders in that direction.

Here’s maybe the one valid way I could compare Steve Jobs to Jesus: Jesus was all about ideas that could outlast and defeat humans, no matter how powerful they might seem at the time. Steve made computers and computer systems that will outlast their owners. I can’t possibly imagine a day when my iPad (2) is any less useful or amazing than it is today unless it smashes, no matter what the next ten versions look like. We are going to have to explain to our kids that this is a weird new thing! Computers used to be rickety, noisy boxes with all these wires and different parts sticking out everywhere, and they used to break all the time when a competent engineer wasn’t available to keep things working! All you early majority consumers of a certain influential desktop operating system know exactly what I am talking about…

Somewhat ridiculously, the very approach that allowed Steve and Apple to end this massive problem with casual computing was his uncompromising, even autocratic management of the platform. It feels like I might be stepping on the dreams of the free and open software communities a bit here, but I think I’m starting to understand the actual logic in favor of Apple’s paradoxical mecha-fascism, if only because I program sounds and other fast things. Not every computer has the luxury of being some genius freedom-fighter’s personal data management device. Many computers have to control cars, and medical machines, and all those other things that can’t break or otherwise present an end user with some unpredictable software issue that needs debugging. When my grandma is trying to call me on video chat, it has to be the same way. That was his reasoning, I think, and I have to agree that it makes a lot more sense than it used to.

One day, when we’re donating these old tablets to needy kids or whoever, we might remember Steve by understanding what he wanted to create: a world united by its magical and powerful technology – technology we can use to do formerly impossible things, without losing all of our time in the process.

What is Art?

Art is not about overpriced images, inaccessible music, or boring film. The general concept, which has no useful word, describes efficient communication, where in every case the artist has managed to fit some “large” idea into a comparatively “small” package for distribution. If a given thing is to be called “Art” then this efficiency must exist in some sense. However, no objective standard can determine whether a candidate message is “efficient enough” to qualify. As with comedy, each individual might arrive at a different answer to that question, depending on which new and useful ideas are communicated to and understood by that individual.

Reality should not anger creative people or create conflict between them, but alas, it is sometimes ignored by “Artists” busy in denial about the long-term sustainability of their ideas. These creatures have never sought efficient communication, instead occupying themselves with the construction of a grand strategic agreement bubble, in which obscurity or inaccessibility to anyone outside the bubble is painstakingly interpreted as an ideal outcome. I suspect their logic goes something like this: Because other smart people behave like my Art means something to them, my Art must mean something to the universe. If anyone behaves like my Art means nothing to them, they must be stupid and wrong.

This insular, counterproductive attitude seems to grow within a creative community as a new medium goes mainstream and the associated production industry matures, evidenced by the fact that painters and poets live in the most oppressive bubbles of all, while filmmakers and programmers have only recently arrived and started to network with The Machine (historically speaking). Politics infect everything, revenue becomes the new quality, and the real creators who decide to stay with their craft are neglected and abused.

One can only hope that this regrettable outcome is not inevitable, or even that it is a relic of capitalism, mass production and the necessary physicality of early distributed media. But a lot of people are still out there buying crap and calling it Art. Maybe that will be the case until they or we are all dead. It’s not very encouraging to people who produce ideas in exchange for anything other than money.

As artists, what can be done? Well, we can always rush into some unexplored, newfangled hi-tech medium, and try to keep the quality alive by virtue of diversity and evolution and all that. However, there is also no reason to think that the “old” media have been lost to the barbarians just yet. Great writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers, and other craftspeople are still out there, dreaming of amazing things that nobody has ever seen or heard or touched or tasted. Some will find ways to turn those dreams into reality. The only question is whether media producers acknowledge this reality, or die in some bubble.


Today I want to talk about comedy, because it is an absolutely amazing subject. The fact that an entire dynastic profession exists to make groups of (hopefully drunken) strangers laugh on command just seems kind of unbelievable. Clearly there is something deep and transformative about laughter, but what does it really mean when a person is compelled to laugh at something? For any aspiring jokesters out there, how can a comedian create this situation and get paid?

Well, in scientific terms, laughter is probably caused by something that behaves like a central pattern generator in the nervous system. These neural structures generate rhythmic output patterns without relying on any external feedback, so it is a bit strange to apply this concept to laughter (a person has to hear or see every joke, for example). However, the laughter usually happens only after a person gets the joke, at which point the “joke input” has ended in almost every case.

Therefore we should probably be conceptualizing laughter as an internal rhythmic feedback loop that can be started by some “funny” input. The challenge then is to define a “funny” input. I’ll pause for a second here so you can try that…

But wait! Doesn’t the very incomprehensibility of the challenge suggest something profound about how we should understand humor? Everyone knows that jokes are hard to write because an original comedian has to be the first person to notice that a certain thing is funny. The whole art of comedy revolves around having some of that uncommon and funny knowledge, and choosing to reveal it in the most entertaining way possible. Knowing this, is it possible to imagine something that all funny things must have in common?

Well, sure. They’re all “correct” in some abstract sense. Comedy is the process of being so profoundly correct that other people are compelled to laugh as soon as they realize what is going on. Us college-educated folk can scoff at low-brow humor, but almost any example of “bad” comedy still does reveal more than a few simple truths to more than a few tragically underinformed people, and therefore it can still make a lot of money. The fact that a thing is not funny to every person does not mean that it is not “funny” in some platonic sense. Somewhat disappointingly, there is no such thing. That makes good comedy very hard work, but at least we don’t ever have to fear the funniest joke in the world.

(From this perspective, slapstick humor is a special case where the truth being revealed is basically how badly it must suck for the victim…)

Generally speaking, this is not a new idea at all. A government document says this:

The American comedian Will Rogers was asked how he conceived his jokes. He answered: “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.” See what I mean? Sometimes the truth is funnier than “comedy.”

Several Woody Allen bits are included as example one-liners, like this one:

I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.

It’s funny because it combines and reveals several truths in a clever and efficient way:

  • Wagner was a German imperialist.
  • Music conveys emotion.
  • Germany conquered Poland (and murdered millions of Jews) in World War II.
  • Woody Allen is Jewish.

The joke actually depends on the audience already knowing all of these things, and the “trick” is that he alludes to each in such an efficient and thought-provoking way, in the space of two short sentences. When we realize, all at once, the absurdity contained in the idea of a modern American Jew savoring hypnotic war hymns that ushered in the Second Reich, the effect is very funny for a lot of people, even if they don’t want to think about it!

I’m particularly interested in this method of “humor analysis” because it seems to emerge so naturally from a feedback-dominated model of intelligence. Laughter happens when a person notices something that is interpreted as “true enough” to activate an unconscious neural feedback loop, forcing them to externalize their acknowledgement and understanding. That is the sole evolutionary function of laughter, a phenomenon which almost certainly had a pivotal role in the building of every human civilization.

This is not saying that Adam Sandler is the greatest American ever, or even that we should all start studying Internet memes for the sake of science. But it does mean that we should take a moment and bow our heads in respect to every person who has ever wanted to make another person laugh, and in recognition of the great things they have accomplished for the sake of humanity. Because when a country of people stop what they are doing and start laughing (against their will) at the same idea at the same time, you can probably trust it a bit more than usual.

How would I define a “funny” thing? Funny things are true enough to make people laugh.

Here is someone else’s definition:

There is no simple answer to why something is funny… Something is funny because it captures a moment, it contains an element of simple truth, it is something that we have always known for eternity and yet are hearing it now out loud for the first time.