Linky-Links: Geek, Science, and Technology Edition

My browser has a ridiculous number of windows open yet again, so here we go with another List of Linky-Links. This episode features some neat science and technology links, polyamory (of course), and some lovely eye candy thrown in for good measure. The eye candy is all the way at the bottom, I’m afraid.

There’s even a bit about hacking your own brain. Well, hacking toys to read your mind, anyway. Well, hacking toys to read your EEG, more like.

Ready? Then off to it!


First up, we have this article about what happens when you combine a car with a Segway. The result is a bit goofy, but I’d totally drive the black one.

Next up, courtesy of figmentj, a VERY cool new technology for making permanent brain electrodes that dissolve onto the surface of the brain. Conventional implants are stiff, brittle, and prone to damage when the brain moves around, which it does by a surprisingly large amount.

And while we’re talking brains, here’s a quick reference guide for hacking toy EEG devices to do all sorts of other cool stuff, like interfacing with a computer. I love living in the future! I still want Google implanted in my brain.

Speaking of brain hacking, the Scientific American Web site asks, When will we be able to build a brain like ours? Given the complexity of the brain, and how much we still have to learn about it, plus the complexity involved in modeling it, I’d venture to say the answer is “not yet. Not never, but not yet.” We are to doing that what the Wright Brothers were to building a Stealth bomber, I reckon.

From the Department of What The Fuck, someone has modified an old Apple //e computer to be a Twitter feed reader. It doesn’t actually access the Twitter Web site directly–just writing a TCP/IP stack for an Apple II would be a horrifying undertaking–but instead it does something even weirder. It pulls data from another computer through the joystick port.


Someone recently emailed me from my transhumanist Web page (or maybe it was my grammar page, I don’t recall) with this link to Less Wrong, a blog about rationality and skepticism. It’s an interesting read. joreth, zensidhe, datan0de, emanix, seinneann-ceoil, peristaltor, I think you guys might like this place, if you don’t know about it already. I particularly like this quote about the value of introspection: “The road to harm is paved with ignorance. Using your capability to understand yourself and what you’re doing is a matter of responsibility to others, too. It makes you better able to be a better friend.”

From Mashable comes this neat little infographic, Online Dating Is Bigger Than Porn. Really. Once again, I’m in the wrong damn business.

Someone on the Polyfamilies email list posted the link to this graphic showing the trustworthiness of different beard styles. OMG funny. Work-safe too. A rare combination in my world.


Polyamory’s been all over the news lately, and not in a good way. The Religious Right is beginning to take notice of us, in sometimes bizarre and always negative ways.

From the “Americans for Truth About Homosexuality” Web site, which might better be described as “We’re A Bunch of Closeted Self-Loathers,” we learn that the Gay Task Force (they have one of those?) is making polyamory part of the Gay Agenda. Funny–last time I looked, a lot of GLBTQ folks didn’t like us poly folks, ’cause we mess up the “Gays are just like normal folks” message.

The “” folks, who still use Russian-looking letters in their logo and are still fighting the Cold War, produced this gem called All The Broken People. They aren’t quite sure what “polyamory” is, but they’re damn sure they don’t much like it.

Just For Fun

Understanding general relativity well enough to explain it to someone else is hard. Understanding general relativity well enough to explain it entirely in words of four letters or less is amazing.

The Internet is a neat toy, and sometimes people do bizarre things with it. One very cool Internet toy is the World Of Text. It’s a scrollable Web page that goes on to infinity in all directions (click and drag to scroll), where you can click and start typing anywhere you like. Everything you type is recorded and other folks on the site see it. Pretty cool!

Read the EULA before you buy: GameStation recently added a clause to the EULA claiming ownership of ther customers’ immortal souls…and almost nobody noticed.

Eye Candy

The explosion of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland shut down air travel across Europe and also made for some amazing pictures. This page of gorgeous high-resolution photos (which takes a while to load) is just absolutely spectacular. A small sample:

Volcanic ash plumes tend to be filled with very dramatic lightning, because the ash itself is electrically charged.

Ning: Where security is something we consider.

A few days ago, I wrote about what appears to be a massive breach at Ning, a social networking platform that allows people to create their own niche social networking sites. The Ning security appears to be compromised, and the social networking sites they host are overrun with automated spam advertising links and redirectors to computer viruses–over a million of them, in fact.

As a good Internet citizen, I dropped an email to Ning alerting them to the problem. I’ve since received back what appears to be a stock form email in response:

Hi there,

Thanks for bringing this to our attention. As you may already know, Ning is a platform that enables individuals to build their own social networks. We aren’t involved in the decisions relating to content uploaded or published by Network Creators or members. In addition, we aren’t involved in the management of the social networks on our platform, or in any of the decisions relating to the focus of social networks created on our platform. That said, we’ll look into this and take action if we determine that our Terms of Service have been violated.

Thanks again!
The Ning Team


I’ve checked, and the problem still exists. Google is delisting the virus redirectors pretty quickly, but they’re being added even more quickly. Right now, Google shows about 600,000 virus redirectors on various Ning-hosted sites, with many more existing but not listed in Google.

It seems that Ning either does not understand or does not care about the scope of the problem they face.

In a way, I’m not surprised. iPower Web took over a year to fix their security when they were hit with a massive, ongoing server security breach, for example.

But it is disappointing. An executive at Verizon recently wrote an essay deriding security researchers who talk about security issues publicly as “narcissistic vulnerability pimps” who “solely for the purpose of self-glorification and self-gratification – harms business and society by irresponsibly disclosing information that makes things less secure.”

But considering how poorly ISPs and software vendors tend to respond to security problems, and how cavalier they seem to be with the safeguarding of their users’ data, it’s hard to see this essay as anything more than the whining of a crybaby managers who would rather play Quake III Arena than take care of fixing gaping security holes in their systems.

Meantime, I still suggest that anyone hosted on Ning seek hosting elsewhere.

How religion has let society down

In 1977, a guy named Stewart Parnell founded a company called Peanut Corporation of America. Parnell built the company into an enormous supplier of peanut butter, primarily for candy makers, that eventually was responsible for about two and a half percent of the nation’s total production of peanut butter. He had a very simple strategy for business success: underbid everyone.

Peanut Corporation of America made tens of millions of dollars a year but ran on a shoestring budget. In fact, Parnell Was so cheap that some of his processing plants were unlicensed and unregistered; he ran a plant in Plainview, Texas, that the state government didn’t even know existed.

Which is an awesome money-saver, if you think about it. You can’t be forced to comply with inspection results if the facility is never inspected; you don’t have to worry about FDA regulations or compliance with OSHA mandates if the FDA and OSHA don’t know you exist.

This is actually a post about religion, and not, say, Libertarianism. Hang on, I’m getting there.

Anyway, as you might expect, this approach to business had a predictable result. In 2008, nearly 700 people had food poisoning from peanut butter produced by Peanut Corporation of America, and nine of them died. A massive recall was launched, the government started inspecting Peanut Corporation of America facilities and discovered a horror show (peanut butter that was shipped even though the company knew it was contaminated with salmonella, leaky plant roofs, air conditioning systems that sucked bird shit from the roofs and sprayed it over vats of peanuts, that sort of thing. The plants were closed by the government, the company went bankrupt, and there are still Federal investigations pending against our hero, Mr. Parnell.

All this did lead to one humorous moment, when he was called to testify before Congress and took the fifth when he was asked to eat some of his own peanut butter. Mad lulz aside, though, it seems Mr. Parnell is a very bad man.

He’s also a very bad man with an unimpeachable religious pedigree. He belongs to that particular school of Evangelical Christianity prominent in his home town of Lynchburg, VA. His sister was married to a relative of Jerry Falwell’s family, and he himself was a conservative Southern Baptist.

Now, one of the things we hear about religion is that religion serves a valuable social function by providing a framework of morality. Morals, the religious say, are codes of conduct created and sanctioned by God to direct human behavior toward one another, and indeed some religions claim some morals which are, in fact, good ways to behave.

The problem is that the moral values promoted by religions, especially conservative religions, tend not to focus very heavily on things like “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you”–a value claimed by many religious tradition but not really advocated very strongly by most of them. Instead, the moral values are more often, it seems to me, promoted as arbitrary lists of things you’re supposed to do and things you’re not supposed to do, with no coherent underlying logic to them.

And it seems a lot of them are about sex.

When you look at the major organized religions in the United States, and examine their moral teachings closely, you can’t help but come away with the notion that God is nothing short of obsessed with what goes on with our crotches.

This obsession with sex extends to social ideas about morality. If someone tells you “I have strong morals” or “I believe in good moral values,” you can be pretty sure that what they’re talking about is sex.

And they’re probably not going to follow those statements up with “I believe that people should do unto others as they would have done unto them,” either. For all the fact that religion likes to give lip service to notions like that, I doubt many “moral values” folks actually say “That’s why I believe in people making their own choices about who they have sex with, because I want them to let me make my own choices about these things.”

There are all sorts of reasons why institutional power structures are obsessed with sex. It’s a great hook; control people’s basic drives and you control the people. It’s an inevitable outcome of the way our brains work; fMRI studies have suggested that people who hold socially conservative ideas are strongly motivated by feelings of disgust, and tend, by and large, to believe that if something makes them feel an emotion of disgust, their emotional response is proof that the thing itself must be inherently wrong. It’s a characteristic of the way we form social bonds; we are strongly driven, as part of our evolutionary heritage, to divide social groups into “in” groups and “out” groups, and to seek differences to delineate those groups.

And so on, and so on. None of those things is really all that interesting, I think; it’s all just part of the tedious and yucky parts of how social power structures flow, as disagreeable but inevitable in its operation as the flow of sewage through a city’s pipes, and often just as pungent.

That’s not the bit I think is important. The drab banality of institutionalized power isn’t, for me, the most disappointing thing thing about organized religion. The most disappointing thing, to me, is the way that such organizations have seized the mantle of moral authority and then utterly fumbled it, to the detriment of society as a whole.

So many religions have made such vigorous claim to the throne of moral arbitration that there are actually people who believe that without religion, a person can not be moral. People ask ridiculous questions like “Can atheists be sexually moral?” Commentators claim that without a god, a person can not have “morality in his heart;” and some people even point to the fact that the non-religious are less obsessed with sex than the religious as proof that those without religion are less moral.

But having successfully made the argument to a great many people that they and they alone can protect and promote morality, what do they do with it? That’s the part that disappoints me.

You can argue, of course, that men like Stewart Parnell are driven by greed, and would not behave in moral ways regardless of the teachings of their adopted religions. And that might be true. But the fact is, the major religious organizations tend to focus so heavily on sex as the beginning and end of morality that other lessons are let slip by the wayside.

When a person adopts the idea that morality is primarily about the goings-on in his crotch, a dangerous thing happens. That person can very easily say to himself “I m a good person; I don’t cheat on my wife, have premarital sex,lie with other men as I lie with women, or do her up the poop chute. I am a moral person; immorality is about my sexual behavior, and I keep my sexual behavior confined within the proper parameters.” And once a person says “I am a moral person,” he may stop watchdogging his decisions. He doesn’t question the moral nature of his own actions, because, after all, morality is about sex, right?

I’m not saying that religions don’t talk about the moral dimension of things besides sex. But I am saying that, by and large, so much emphasis is placed on sex that they don’t make the case for an overarching, coherent foundation or morality; they don’t argue that morality is ultimately founded on the notion that you should treat others with compassion and respect, and not make decisions which adversely affect the lives of others.

By, for example, selling them contaminated peanut butter.

And they can’t. They can’t make this case, because if they do, many of the constraints they place on sex begin to look like anomalies, arbitrary rules not founded in any sort of notion of treating others with compassion and respect.

Looked at through the lens of treating others the way they want to be treated, there is nothing immoral about, say, oral sex. Or sex with two partners, if all the people involved are on board with that. Or masturbation. These things don’t fit the notion of morality as a framework that prevents people from doing harmful things to one another; they aren’t harmful.

In fact, if you assume that framework for moral choices, prohibitions on masturbation begin to look downright stupid, and a god who would send someone to an eternity of suffering simpy for touching herself begins to look vicious and petty.

Especially if you accept that it was that very same god who put our wibbly bits within arm’s reach in the first place.

Morality is not about memorizing a set of rules. It is, when it is most properly applied, an entire system of ethical decision-making, one that places a watchdog within us which examines our choices in light of the way those choices affect others. It is an internally consistent set of checks and balances, which reminds us to place ourselves and our actions within a larger context and take responsibility for the effects of those actions on other people.

Masturbating isn’t immoral. Poisoning seven hundred people with products that you know to be contaminated because you can make money by doing it, is. By creating the perception that morality is first and foremost about sex, the large religious institutions have consolidated social power and, in the act, destroyed their own moral credibility. They have failed to teach morality as more than a list of rules about who to fuck, when to fuck, and in what position to fuck, and in so doing they have exerted a harmful influence on society as a whole. The Catholic church, for instances, focuses so heavily on ideas of sex that they condemn the use of condoms in AIDS-ravaged Africa, a moral teaching which helps promote the very human misery and suffering they then spend millions to try to relieve. Conservative Islamic teachings on sex are so repressive that to a Fundamentalist Muslim, paradise is a seedy gang bang out of a 70s porn flick, where the pious can look forward to the awkward ministrations of 72 sexually inexperienced women.

This weird, obsessive-compulsive fixation on sex will have to end before any religious institution can really become the moral authority they all claim to be.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some peanut butter eggs to eat. I hope the company that made them isn’t owned by a conservative Christian.

Another day, another massive computer hack attack

Note: followup to this post at

I run quite a number of WordPress blogs:, the Whispers blog at, the Skeptical Pervert blog (which I haven’t actually started doing anything yet, as I haven’t started my podcast yet), and so on.

These blogs all run comment spam filtering software, because automated WordPress comment spam is a big problem with any WordPress blog. A lot of the automated comment spam contains, of course, redirectors to malware, mostly disguised as porn links.

I occasionally trawl through the spam comments on my blogs; it’s an amazing early warning system to see what the malware writers are up to these days. Recently, I found a spate of malware spam advertising URLs hosted on a Web site called; the spam promised all sorts of free sexual delights if I would but go to such Web addresses as

and so on.

I did some poking around on and discovered that it has been compromised like a Senator with a gambling addiction; at the moment, it’s hosting somewhere around 4,200 phony profiles, all of which are redirectors to sites that try to download malware. Each phony profile leads to the same place: a URL at

which is a traffic handling Web site that works the same way that the traffic redirector sites used by malware networks I’ve talked about before do.

So I decided to be a good citizen and drop a line to the owner of, and his Web host, letting him know he’d been massively breached.

That’s when things got interesting.

The Web site is a “community site,” a small niche social networking site hosted by an outfit called Ning.

Parsing input:
Routing details for
“whois” (Getting contact from )
Found AbuseEmail in whois –
Using abuse net on
abuse net =,,

Ning is a personal social networking site founded by the guy who started Netscape, Marc Andreessen. It basically lets you create your own mini MySpace or LiveJournal or whatever you like–a small social networking platform aimed at whatever niche you want. It’s had a checkered past, and has struggled to make money; three days ago, Ning announced that it would become pay only and would cancel its free services. It also fired 40% of its staff.

But that’s not the really interesting part.

The really interesting part is that it looks like all of Ning, with all the social networks and online forums it hosts, has been pwn3d from balls to bones.

A search for some of the exact words and phrases used by the virus redirectors on, one of Ning’s social networking sites, produces 1,060,000 results…and as near as I can tell, they are all on Ning.

Now, a conspiracy theorist might come up with all kinds of conspiracies to explain this–disgruntled employees, knowing what was coming, leaving the back door open; executives of a foundering company, desperate for cash, turning a blind eye to Russian malware writers; whatever. I suspect that the reality is what it always is–incompetence, someone asleep at the switch, management that doesn’t appreciate security and doesn’t want to pay for it…the same sorts of things that seem to be behind this sort of thing almost every time.

But if you use Ning, or you know someone who does, my advice is to leave.

Some thoughts on choosing relationships

One of my sweeties has a policy never to get involved with someone who has never had his heart broken. She believes quite strongly that there are certain things about yourself that you can only learn when your heart is broken, and that having your heart broken is the only way to discover whether or not you’re the sort of person who can pick himself up, put himself back together, and move on with courage and joy, or if you’re the sort of person who is destroyed by it.

I think there’s some value to that notion, and I’ve written about it in my journal before, though I don’t use it as a rule.

A few years back, I had a really painful breakup with a woman I fell very hard for and then, after investing a great deal in the relationship, discovered was a very poor partner for me. That relationship really brought home for me a lesson that I knew intellectually but didn’t know emotionally, which is this:

It is possible to deeply, sincerely love someone and still not be a good partner for that person.

That relationship also caused some nontrivial damage to one of my other relationships, and ended up changing the course of my life in ways that I still feel. I can’t say that if I had to do it over, I would never have gotten involved with that person at all, though I can say that I would have made different choices about what to do with that connection. But I digress.

There’s a socially sanctioned myth that says that love conquers all. It’s a deeply and profoundly silly thing to believe; love is a feeling, and a feeling can no more solve problems than it can refinish the sofa or put a new circuit breaker box in the attic. A feeling can impel action, can influence the way you make choices, but it can’t, of and by itself, do anything on its own. And making a relationship work requires more than just a feeling. It requires that the people involved make choices that are compatible and work toward a common end–which is extraordinarily difficult to do when those people have different goals, different priorities, different expectations, or even different internal templates about what they want their lives to look like. No matter what they feel.

And the feeling of love isn’t the only thing that influences our decisions. Other feelings, like fear or anxiety or anger, have a vote, too, and it’s not always the feeling of love that casts the deciding vote–even when that love is genuine.

The lesson that I can really, deeply love someone and we can still not be good partners for each other was probably the most expensive relationship lesson I’ve ever learned, and it’s completely rearranged my approach to choosing partners.

The approach I used to use, and I suspect the approach that many people use, was to keep a sort of internal list of “dealbreakers” that I’d refer to whenever I met someone who seemed interesting to me and who seemed interested in me. I’d kind of run down the list–Is she monogamous? Nope. Is she giving me the psycho vibe? Nope. Does she hold conservative religious ideas? Nope. All the way down the list, and if I didn’t hit a dealbreaker the answer would be “Cool! We should totally start dating!”

That isn’t the way I work any more. The dealbreaker approach “fails closed;” it assumes that if no dealbreakers are hit, then we should start a relationship, so if something later comes up that I didn’t know was a problem…well, I find out about it after I’ve already started to invest in a relationship with this person.

The approach I use now isn’t to keep a list of dealbreakers. Oh, there are some, to be sure; I’m not likely to date someone with a history of violence against her past partners, for example. But instead of keeping a list of dealbreakers these days, I keep a list of things that I actively look for–things that light me up in another person.

If I meet someone who seems interesting, and seems interested in me, I am more likely to ask the question “Does this person really light me up inside and bring out joy in me?” than “Does this person have some disagreeable trait that I don’t like?” That approach tends to “fail open”–the default is *not* to start a relationship unless there’s something very special about the person, rather than to start a relationship unless there’s something disagreeable about her.

That approach takes care of a lot of “dealbreakers” on its own, because a person who has the qualities that really shine isn’t likely to have the qualities that would be dealbreakers for me. For instance, a person who has demonstrated to me that she favors choices that demonstrate courage and integrity isn’t likely to be a liar.

It’s more than just taking the dealbreakers and flipping them on their heads, though. There are a lot of qualities on my “must have” list that wouldn’t have been reflected on my “dealbreaker” list.

So all of this is kind of a longwinded way to get to the qualities that DO light me up about someone. The things that really attract me to a person, without which I’m unlikely to want to start a relationship with her, include things like:

– Has she done something that shows me she is likely, when faced with a difficult decision, to choose the path of greatest courage?

– Has she done something that shows me that, when faced by a personal fear or insecurity, she is dedicated to dealing with it with grace, and to invest in the effort it takes to confront, understand, and seek to grow beyond it?

– Does she show the traits of intellectual curiosity, intellectual rigor, and intellectual growth?

– Has she dealt with past relationships, including relationships that have failed, with dignity and compassion?

– Is she a joyful person? Does she value personal happiness? Does she make me feel joy?

– Does she seem to be a person who has a continuing commitment to understanding herself?

– Does she seem to be a person who values self-determinism?

– Does she approach the things that light her up, whatever those things may be, with energy and enthusiasm? Does she engage the world and the parts of it that make her happy?

– Does she seem to demonstrate personal integrity?

– Is she open, honest, enthusiastic, and exploratory about sex?

– Does she communicate openly, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so?

There are probably more; the things that attract me to a person are in some ways a lot more nebulous than my old list of dealbreakers used to be.

In some ways, the approach I use now is an approach that relies on a model of relationship that’s based on abundance, not on starvation. A person who holds a starvation model of relationship, in which relationships seem to be rare and difficult to find, is not likely going to want to use an approach that fails open, on the fear that if he doesn’t take a relationship opportunity that presents itself, who knows when another person might express interest? If relationships seem rare, then why not jump at an opportunity if there seem to be no dealbreakers standing in the way?

The approach of seeking positive reasons to start a relationship, rather than looking for reasons NOT to start a relationship, means that I say “no” to opportunities that come by more often than I say “yes.” I have found that, for whatever reason, I tend to have a lot of opportunity for relationship, so there may be something to the notion that I have adopted this model of relationship because I can afford it.

But I do believe that holding an abundance model of relationship tends to make it true. I think that people who hold a starvation model of relationship often seem to be always searching for a partner, and that can really be off-putting; whereas in an abundance model, if you simply live your life with enthusiasm and joy and instead of seeking partners you seek to develop in yourself the qualities that you desire in a partner, then other people will tend to be drawn to you and relationships will be abundant.

I call Godwin!

Godwin’s Law holds that in any conversation on the Internet that gets heated enough, eventually someone on one side of the issue (whatever it may be) will compare the people on the other side to Nazis. As soon as a reference to Nazis comes into play, according to convention, the conversation is deemed to be over and whoever mentioned the Nazis has lost.

I would like to propose that this same rule be applied in the real world, and furthermore, I would like to suggest that Us magazine be declared the world’s first losers. Apparently, there’s some Hollywood star in some kind of broken, dysfunctional relationship with some guy who cheats on her a lot. And, since she’s cute and sexy, he’s wrong. (Which he is anyway, but not for that reason, though I digress).

Anyway, we stopped at a truck stop on the way back from Atlanta to Tampa last night, where I found this gem. Us magazine, I hereby invoke Godwin and declare you the loser: