181 stories

Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

2 Comments and 3 Shares

  • An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
  • Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
  • Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.

Evolutionary anthropologist and Boston College post-doc, Dorsa Amir, started the whole thing with a series of eight tweets, and boy did she start something fun. Amir laid out a list of weird, once-useful details of the human anatomy that we continue to carry around within — and on — us. Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.

Natural selection, after all, has no reason to clear away unnecessary traits if they pose no evolutionary disadvantage. And when we say "started the whole thing," what we mean is that, this being Twitter, some arguing was inevitable. Some people took issue with Amir's use of the word "vestigial." One issue with the word is that early traits may still be beneficial in ways we don't yet know — the microbiome-managing appendix and the immune system's tonsils were both considered among these for some time. A trait's stated assumed value is also always just our best guess, so a certain amount of uncertainty is understood to be baked-in. It's important to remember, too, that if a mutation just happened to happen and persisted because it was useful, it's not the same thing as saying it has a reason to exist. The reason was randomness, unless one doesn't believe in evolution.

Which gets us to the second type of argument Amir's posts generated. Some creationist-intelligent design believers seem to be patrolling Twitter to shout down references to science where it arises. Probably this post will also get them going. Amir has nonetheless started a list and a conversation that is totally worth checking out, hair-splitting aside. Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.

The plica semilunaris

At the inner corner of our eyes, closest to the nasal ridge, is that little pink thing, which is probably what most of us call it, called the caruncula. Next to it is the plica semilunairs, and it's what's left of a third eyelid that used to — ready for this? — blink horizontally. It's supposed to have offered protection for our eyes, and some birds, reptiles, and fish have such a thing.

Palmaris longus

We don't have much need these days, at least most of us, to navigate from tree branch to tree branch. Still, about 86 percent of us still have the wrist muscle that used to help us do it. To see if you have it, place the back of you hand on a flat surface and touch your thumb to your pinkie. If you have a muscle that becomes visible in your wrist, that's the palmaris longus. If you don't, consider yourself more evolved (just joking).

Darwin's tubercle

Yes, maybe the shell of you ear does feel like a dried apricot. Maybe not. But there's a ridge in that swirly structure that's a muscle which allowed us, at one point, to move our ears in the direction of interesting sounds. These days, we just turn our heads, but there it is.


It's not entirely clear what purpose made goosebumps worth retaining evolutionarily, but there are two circumstances in which they appear: fear and cold. For fear, they may have been a way of making body hair stand up so we'd appear larger to predators, much the way a cat's tail puffs up — numerous creatures exaggerate their size when threatened. In the cold, they may have trapped additional heat for warmth.


Way back, we had tails that probably helped us balance upright, and was useful moving through trees. We still have the stump of one when we're embryos, from 4–6 weeks, and then the body mostly dissolves it during Weeks 6–8. What's left is the coccyx.

The palmar grasp reflex

You've probably seen how non-human primate babies grab onto their parents' hands to be carried around. We used to do this, too. So still, if you touch your finger to a baby's palm, or if you touch the sole of their foot, the palmar grasp reflex will cause the hand or foot to try and close around your finger.

Other people's suggestions

Amir's followers dove right in, offering both cool and questionable additions to her list.



Hypnic jerk as you fall asleep

This thing, often called the "alpha jerk" as you drop into alpha sleep, is properly called the hypnic jerk,. It may actually be a carryover from our arboreal days. The hypothesis is that you suddenly jerk awake to avoid falling out of your tree.

Nails screeching on a blackboard response?

Ear hair

Nervous laughter

Um, yipes.


Twitter should always be so much fun.

Read the whole story
3 days ago
Don't let Marie Kondo see this
Share this story

Damning court docs show just how far Sacklers went to push OxyContin

1 Comment
Damning court docs show just how far Sacklers went to push OxyContin

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

With the opioid epidemic raging, you may at this point be familiar with Purdue Pharma. It makes the powerful painkiller OxyContin and has been widely blamed for igniting the current crisis.

After debuting OxyContin in 1996, Purdue raked in billions using aggressive and deceptive sales tactics, including ratcheting up dosages of the addictive opioid while lying about its addictiveness. As OxyContin prescriptions soared, opioid overdose deaths increased six-fold in the US, killing more than 400,000 people between 1999 and 2017. Of those deaths, around 200,000 involved prescription opioids specifically.

In 2007, Purdue and three of its executives pleaded guilty in federal court to misleading doctors, regulators, and patients about the addictiveness of OxyContin. The company has seen a flurry of lawsuits making similar allegations since then.

What you may be less aware of is the wealthy, philanthropic family behind Purdue: the Sacklers. Before the opioid epidemic, the family name was mostly associated with museums and prestigious universities, including art galleries at the Smithsonian Institution and Harvard. The Sacklers have worked to keep their good name and mostly stay out of the spotlight. But new, explosive court filings in a case brought by the state of Massachusetts stand to further thwart the family’s efforts.

Documents released this week (PDF) allege—and include new, rather damning evidence—that members of the Sackler family not only knew about the illegal and loathsome activities at Purdue, but they personally directed them. Members of the Sackler family, particularly Richard Sackler, aggressively pushed for extreme sales figures—and profits—which they accomplished in part by bullying their sales representatives; targeting vulnerable patients, such as the elderly and veterans; suggesting that the addictive opioid was an alternative to safe medications like Tylenol; and encouraging doctors to write longer and higher dose prescriptions, according to the lawsuit. All the while, the family allegedly dismissed evidence of OxyContin’s addictiveness and blamed patients for their addictions—referring to them as “reckless criminals.”

Brewing storm

When Purdue first planned to sell OxyContin (oxycodone), the Sacklers pitched the idea of downplaying its abuse potential and selling it as an uncontrolled drug in other countries, according to documents referenced in the lawsuit. This spurred OxyContin developer Robert Kaiko to email Richard Sackler, a senior vice president at the time and the billionaire son of the late Raymond Sackler, who bought Purdue in 1952 with his brother Mortimer.

Kaiko told Richard Sackler that he was “very concerned” by the idea of selling OxyContin as an uncontrolled drug. “[O]xycodone containing products are still among the most abused opioids in the US,” Kaiko wrote. “If OxyContin is uncontrolled... it is highly likely that it will eventually be abused.”

Richard responded to Kaiko, asking, “How substantially would it improve your sales?”

At OxyContin’s launch party, Richard was optimistic about the drug’s market potential, saying that  “the launch of OxyContin Tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition. The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense, and white...”

In 1999, Richard became CEO of Purdue, and the company hired hundreds of sales representatives. They were trained to tell doctors that the risk of OxyContin addiction was “less than one percent,” the lawsuit alleges. In the subsequent years, it became clear that the statistic was a lie. In 2001, when a federal prosecutor reported 59 OxyContin overdose deaths in one state, Richard wrote in an email to Purdue executives: “This is not too bad. It could have been far worse.”

With the realities of addiction and overdose becoming apparent, Richard suggested blaming the patients rather than the company’s drug. “[W]e have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible,” he wrote in a confidential email. “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”

As federal prosecutors closed in, Richard and other members of the Sackler family resigned from their positions at the company and tried to distance themselves from the company’s efforts. In 2007, the family voted that Purdue should enter a plea agreement on the federal charges of fraudulent and misleading OxyContin marketing, agreeing to state that “Purdue is pleading guilty as described above because Purdue is in fact guilty.” Yet none of the Sacklers were accused of wrongdoing in the case nor have they faced any legal penalty.

Deadly blizzard

After the guilty plea, the Sacklers were ostensibly less involved with the company, which was supposedly working on cleaning up its act. It agreed to enter into a Corporate Integrity Agreement with the US government, for instance. But according to the lawsuit, the Sacklers were secretly still just as involved as ever, and the company violated its integrity agreement with continued deception.

The more-than-300-page legal filing goes on to document repeated instances in which members of the Sackler family pestered Purdue staff and set ever-increasing targets for sales and profits. Richard in particular would demand frequent sales reports and figures, often on holidays and weekends.

From 2007 to 2016, Purdue increased its sales force from around 300 reps to 700 reps, apparently to meet the demands of the Sacklers, according to the suit. The family pushed for reps to sell more and more opioids, at higher dosages, despite the fact that these were more dangerous. They also required sales representatives to meet an average of 7.5 prescribers a day and get those prescribers to commit to prescribing more and more opioids.

In 2011, Richard even wanted to shadow two reps as they went out to doctor office visits. The vice president of sales, Russell Gasdia, appealed to Purdue’s chief compliance officer to try to block Richard’s involvement, arguing that it was “a potential compliance risk” in an email. The compliance officer, Bert Weinstein, responded, “LOL… We agreed Richard needs to be mum and be anonymous.”

Meanwhile, the Sacklers continued to pour money into university ties, specifically the Massachusetts General Hospital Purdue Pharma Pain Program and the Masters of Science in Pain Research, Education, and Policy (“MSPREP Program”), the lawsuit notes. This enabled Purdue to garner good faith from budding doctors and favorable views of opioid use in pain treatments.

But as the opioid blizzard Richard had predicted reached a blinding epidemic of overdoses, the Sacklers again began to retreat. Richard and other family members resigned from Purdue’s board of directors last year. At the same time, Purdue agreed to stop aggressively promoting OxyContin.

In a statement emailed to Ars by Bob Josephson, executive director of communications at Purdue, the company said that the lawsuit misrepresents opioid prescriptions and cherry-picked unflattering quotes from internal documents.

Massachusetts’ amended complaint irresponsibly and counterproductively casts every prescription of OxyContin as dangerous and illegitimate, substituting its lawyers’ sensational allegations for the expert scientific determinations of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and completely ignoring the millions of patients who are prescribed Purdue Pharma’s medicines for the management of their severe chronic pain.

The statement noted that the FDA had determined that Purdue’s opioids were safe and effective for their intended use and that the company had fulfilled the requirements of its Corporate Integrity Agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services.

It went on:

The Attorney General has cherry-picked from among tens of millions of emails and other business documents produced by Purdue. The complaint is littered with biased and inaccurate characterizations of these documents and individual defendants, often highlighting potential courses of action that were ultimately rejected by the company.

Purdue and the individual defendants will aggressively defend against these misleading allegations. In the meantime, we continue to fight for balance in the public discourse so that society can simultaneously help pain patients in need and create real solutions to the complex problem of addiction.

Last year, Richard Sackler obtained a patent for a drug that can be used to treat opioid addiction. The patent application notes the addictiveness of opioids.


Read Comments

Read the whole story
3 days ago
Eat the rich.
Share this story

Someone please cancel 2019 already?


So last night a British government was handed the biggest defeat in modern parliamentary history (since the middling-late 19th century, at any rate) in its attempt to systematically disenfranchise three million EU citizens, violate the Good Friday Agreement, generate a requirement for a racist and invasive population tracking system (hint: that's an implicit corollary of the NI border backstop, and the Home Office has had a hard-on for a National Identity Register since the 1950s), and irreparably damage the British financial, services, and manufacturing sectors ... all in the name of preserving Conservative Party unity.

(Lest we forget, in a 2015 poll of how the public prioritized different political issues, EU membership came tenth out of a field of ten.)

In the USA, the Republican-induced shutdown of government spending has resulted in Coast Guards being paid out of a charity, Air Traffic Controllers being fed pizza paid for by the Canadian counterparts, and diabetic civil servants desperately rationing their insulin and just hoping to wake up in the morning. If it goes on much longer, a lot of those civil servants won't be around to come back to work: they'll have had to go looking for jobs elsewhere. And yet, the shutdown continues because the mafia shill in the big house desperately needs a distraction from the 17 different investigations into his crime ring, and "build a wall" rallies his party base.

It's almost like these were two sides of the same coin, isn't it?

I'm trying to remember if I said this on my blog some time over the last 20 years, but: one of my working principles is that the event horizon in politics in a democracy is no more than 5 years. (Or: the maximum time between elections.) Consider Germany in January 1934, and how outlandish and dystopian the situation would have sounded if you'd described it to a German citizen in January 1929. (30% unemployment! A dictator and a state of emergency! Concentration camps! Anti-Jewish laws!)

Here's a reflection: the value proposition of democracy is that it provides for a peaceful transfer of power, once an incumbent regime loses its political legitimacy. If you have a working democracy you don't need revolutions to get rid of incompetent leadership. As Enoch Powell said, "every politician's career ends in failure" (unless they die unexpectedly): in a democracy they agree to step down, and life goes on.

But when you get a faction, party, or regime that no longer subscribes to the idea of democracy and refuses to back down gracefully, you get back the old problems: pressure for change builds up and when it erupts the effects can be devastating and unpleasant--especially, as we've had a crash-course reminder in recent years, when the tools of communication make it really easy for dangerous demagogues to draw a following.

I think we can safely say that since 2013, the grip of the beige dictatorship on the western system has been broken. Unfortunately, we're now living through a period of turbulence analogous to that which followed the collapse of the Age of Monarchies in Europe, 1917-1919 (during which pretty much every monarchy in central and eastern Europe went down like a row of dominoes). It took until 1945 for the dust to settle and a stable, broadly social-democratic new order to emerge in the west: I just hope our current turbulence settles down before 2045, because otherwise our planetary climate and biosphere is fucked.

Read the whole story
6 days ago
Share this story

Propaganda and the Weakening of Trust in Government

1 Share

On November 4, 2016, the hacker "Guccifer 2.0,: a front for Russia's military intelligence service, claimed in a blogpost that the Democrats were likely to use vulnerabilities to hack the presidential elections. On November 9, 2018, President Donald Trump started tweeting about the senatorial elections in Florida and Arizona. Without any evidence whatsoever, he said that Democrats were trying to steal the election through "FRAUD."

Cybersecurity experts would say that posts like Guccifer 2.0's are intended to undermine public confidence in voting: a cyber-attack against the US democratic system. Yet Donald Trump's actions are doing far more damage to democracy. So far, his tweets on the topic have been retweeted over 270,000 times, eroding confidence far more effectively than any foreign influence campaign.

We need new ideas to explain how public statements on the Internet can weaken American democracy. Cybersecurity today is not only about computer systems. It's also about the ways attackers can use computer systems to manipulate and undermine public expectations about democracy. Not only do we need to rethink attacks against democracy; we also need to rethink the attackers as well.

This is one key reason why we wrote a new research paper which uses ideas from computer security to understand the relationship between democracy and information. These ideas help us understand attacks which destabilize confidence in democratic institutions or debate.

Our research implies that insider attacks from within American politics can be more pernicious than attacks from other countries. They are more sophisticated, employ tools that are harder to defend against, and lead to harsh political tradeoffs. The US can threaten charges or impose sanctions when Russian trolling agencies attack its democratic system. But what punishments can it use when the attacker is the US president?

People who think about cybersecurity build on ideas about confrontations between states during the Cold War. Intellectuals such as Thomas Schelling developed deterrence theory, which explained how the US and USSR could maneuver to limit each other's options without ever actually going to war. Deterrence theory, and related concepts about the relative ease of attack and defense, seemed to explain the tradeoffs that the US and rival states faced, as they started to use cyber techniques to probe and compromise each others' information networks.

However, these ideas fail to acknowledge one key differences between the Cold War and today. Nearly all states -- whether democratic or authoritarian -- are entangled on the Internet. This creates both new tensions and new opportunities. The US assumed that the internet would help spread American liberal values, and that this was a good and uncontroversial thing. Illiberal states like Russia and China feared that Internet freedom was a direct threat to their own systems of rule. Opponents of the regime might use social media and online communication to coordinate among themselves, and appeal to the broader public, perhaps toppling their governments, as happened in Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

This led illiberal states to develop new domestic defenses against open information flows. As scholars like Molly Roberts have shown, states like China and Russia discovered how they could "flood" internet discussion with online nonsense and distraction, making it impossible for their opponents to talk to each other, or even to distinguish between truth and falsehood. These flooding techniques stabilized authoritarian regimes, because they demoralized and confused the regime's opponents. Libertarians often argue that the best antidote to bad speech is more speech. What Vladimir Putin discovered was that the best antidote to more speech was bad speech.

Russia saw the Arab Spring and efforts to encourage democracy in its neighborhood as direct threats, and began experimenting with counter-offensive techniques. When a Russia-friendly government in Ukraine collapsed due to popular protests, Russia tried to destabilize new, democratic elections by hacking the system through which the election results would be announced. The clear intention was to discredit the election results by announcing fake voting numbers that would throw public discussion into disarray.

This attack on public confidence in election results was thwarted at the last moment. Even so, it provided the model for a new kind of attack. Hackers don't have to secretly alter people's votes to affect elections. All they need to do is to damage public confidence that the votes were counted fairly. As researchers have argued, "simply put, the attacker might not care who wins; the losing side believing that the election was stolen from them may be equally, if not more, valuable."

These two kinds of attacks -- "flooding" attacks aimed at destabilizing public discourse, and "confidence" attacks aimed at undermining public belief in elections -- were weaponized against the US in 2016. Russian social media trolls, hired by the "Internet Research Agency," flooded online political discussions with rumors and counter-rumors in order to create confusion and political division. Peter Pomerantsev describes how in Russia, "one moment [Putin's media wizard] Surkov would fund civic forums and human rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West." Similarly, Russian trolls tried to get Black Lives Matter protesters and anti-Black Lives Matter protesters to march at the same time and place, to create conflict and the appearance of chaos. Guccifer 2.0's blog post was surely intended to undermine confidence in the vote, preparing the ground for a wider destabilization campaign after Hillary Clinton won the election. Neither Putin nor anyone else anticipated that Trump would win, ushering in chaos on a vastly greater scale.

We do not know how successful these attacks were. A new book by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck suggests that Russian efforts had no measurable long-term consequences. Detailed research on the flow of news articles through social media by Yochai Benker, Robert Farris, and Hal Roberts agrees, showing that Fox News was far more influential in the spread of false news stories than any Russian effort.

However, global adversaries like the Russians aren't the only actors who can use flooding and confidence attacks. US actors can use just the same techniques. Indeed, they can arguably use them better, since they have a better understanding of US politics, more resources, and are far more difficult for the government to counter without raising First Amendment issues.

For example, when the Federal Communication Commission asked for comments on its proposal to get rid of "net neutrality," it was flooded by fake comments supporting the proposal. Nearly every real person who commented was in favor of net neutrality, but their arguments were drowned out by a flood of spurious comments purportedly made by identities stolen from porn sites, by people whose names and email addresses had been harvested without their permission, and, in some cases, from dead people. This was done not just to generate fake support for the FCC's controversial proposal. It was to devalue public comments in general, making the general public's support for net neutrality politically irrelevant. FCC decision making on issues like net neutrality used to be dominated by industry insiders, and many would like to go back to the old regime.

Trump's efforts to undermine confidence in the Florida and Arizona votes work on a much larger scale. There are clear short-term benefits to asserting fraud where no fraud exists. This may sway judges or other public officials to make concessions to the Republicans to preserve their legitimacy. Yet they also destabilize American democracy in the long term. If Republicans are convinced that Democrats win by cheating, they will feel that their own manipulation of the system (by purging voter rolls, making voting more difficult and so on) are legitimate, and very probably cheat even more flagrantly in the future. This will trash collective institutions and leave everyone worse off.

It is notable that some Arizonan Republicans -- including Martha McSally -- have so far stayed firm against pressure from the White House and the Republican National Committee to claim that cheating is happening. They presumably see more long term value from preserving existing institutions than undermining them. Very plausibly, Donald Trump has exactly the opposite incentives. By weakening public confidence in the vote today, he makes it easier to claim fraud and perhaps plunge American politics into chaos if he is defeated in 2020.

If experts who see Russian flooding and confidence measures as cyberattacks on US democracy are right, then these attacks are just as dangerous -- and perhaps more dangerous -- when they are used by domestic actors. The risk is that over time they will destabilize American democracy so that it comes closer to Russia's managed democracy -- where nothing is real any more, and ordinary people feel a mixture of paranoia, helplessness and disgust when they think about politics. Paradoxically, Russian interference is far too ineffectual to get us there -- but domestically mounted attacks by all-American political actors might.

To protect against that possibility, we need to start thinking more systematically about the relationship between democracy and information. Our paper provides one way to do this, highlighting the vulnerabilities of democracy against certain kinds of information attack. More generally, we need to build levees against flooding while shoring up public confidence in voting and other public information systems that are necessary to democracy.

The first may require radical changes in how we regulate social media companies. Modernization of government commenting platforms to make them robust against flooding is only a very minimal first step. Up until very recently, companies like Twitter have won market advantage from bot infestations -- even when it couldn't make a profit, it seemed that user numbers were growing. CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg have begun to worry about democracy, but their worries will likely only go so far. It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his business model depends on not understanding it. Sharp -- and legally enforceable -- limits on automated accounts are a first step. Radical redesign of networks and of trending indicators so that flooding attacks are less effective may be a second.

The second requires general standards for voting at the federal level, and a constitutional guarantee of the right to vote. Technical experts nearly universally favor robust voting systems that would combine paper records with random post-election auditing, to prevent fraud and secure public confidence in voting. Other steps to ensure proper ballot design, and standardize vote counting and reporting will take more time and discussion -- yet the record of other countries show that they are not impossible.

The US is nearly unique among major democracies in the persistent flaws of its election machinery. Yet voting is not the only important form of democratic information. Apparent efforts to deliberately skew the US census against counting undocumented immigrants show the need for a more general audit of the political information systems that we need if democracy is to function properly.

It's easier to respond to Russian hackers through sanctions, counter-attacks and the like than to domestic political attacks that undermine US democracy. To preserve the basic political freedoms of democracy requires recognizing that these freedoms are sometimes going to be abused by politicians such as Donald Trump. The best that we can do is to minimize the possibilities of abuse up to the point where they encroach on basic freedoms and harden the general institutions that secure democratic information against attacks intended to undermine them.

This essay previously appeared on Motherboard, with a terrible headline that I was unable to get changed.

Read the whole story
56 days ago
Share this story

Grand Theft Auto V: Torture Time With Uncle Trevor

1 Share

For reasons I’ve explained before, I have a firm “no politics” rule here on the site. There are lots of places to have the standard Red v. Blue debates, and most of them are sewers. The last thing I’d want is to play referee in that never-ending screaming match. Having said that, I’m going to break my own rules and make a political statement:

I think government-sanctioned torture is a bad idea and – inasmuch as I have any say in the matter – I’m firmly against it.

I apologize for the breach of etiquette. I’m not announcing my beliefs to pick a fight or in the hopes that I can sway you to my thinking. In fact, I don’t really have a stake in what you think and I’m certainly not interested in trying to change your mind. If you disagree, that’s fine. We’re still friends as far as I’m concerned.

The only reason I bring this up is because I want to make it clear that I am ideologically in agreement with the author of this scene. My objections to this mission aren’t because I don’t like having “someone else’s opinion” shoved down my throat. My grievances here aren’t based on party politics or tribal thinking. My problem here is that the GTA V argument against torture is so childish and inept that it made me want to disagree.

Of all the things in Grand Theft Auto V that don’t work, the torture scene is the not-workingest. It takes a rare skill to be simultaneously sanctimonious and incoherent. This scene is fractally wrong. As you zoom in on a mistake you’ll see it’s made up of smaller mistakes that are just as misguided as the whole. The last time I was presented with something this dense with problems was the hotel scene in Hitman: Absolution. It’s actually hard to analyze this in an orderly way because the problems are so thick and interconnected. But I’ll do my best.

The Setup

Why is Trevor not killing the FIB agents right now?
Why is Trevor not killing the FIB agents right now?

The FIB summon our antiheroes to a creepy warehouse on the edge of town. The FIB have a prisoner and they want to torture him for information, and then use that information to assassinate someone. Or rather, they want our protagonists to do these things while they stand back and pretend to not be involved.

This is already a bit thin. If they’re trying to make it so they’re not blamed for the human rights violations you’re about to commit, then why are they hanging around the crime scene?

The problem here is that we’re about to go through a fully interactive torture scene. The player will choose from several different torture implements and then use the controller to apply the chosen device to the victim as he screams and pleads for mercy. This is something a lot of people are not going to want to do, which means a lot of people are going to be asking for a solid justification for it, which means you need to make sure the whole thing stands up to scrutiny.

When I go on one of my rants about the lack of logic in a given situation, a common (and more or less reasonable defense) is to say, “Shamus, you’re over-thinking this. Just go with it and enjoy the gameplay.” That excuse doesn’t work here because the game is demanding we think about the situation, and we can’t “enjoy” the gameplay because it’s actively, deliberately unpleasant.

What makes this really awful is that the victim is the only explicitly innocent person in the entire game. Oh sure, there might be other people in the cast that you find sympathetic or likable. Tracey, Amanda, and Jimmy qualify as non-combatants. But everyone, and I do mean everyone in the world of GTA V is some combination of shallow, cruel, vindictive, toxic, greedy, abusive, manipulative, gross, hateful, bigoted, or nihilistic. Everyone except the guy you’re about to torture, who makes it clear up front that he’s willing to answer any questions and just wants to go back to his family. This is a very sensitive topic, and the game is going to engage with it in the most blunt-force way possible.

Agent Steve gives Trevor the job of torturing our victim while Michael and Agent Dave go to the other side of the city to do the assassination. The problem is that Trevor has no reason to go along with any of this. We just spent an entire (overly long) chapter establishing that Trevor is fearless, single-minded, and capable of violence on a shocking scale. He hates being bossed around, he hates when people are rude to him, he hates the government, and he’s basically unstoppable. And now he’s taking orders from a condescending government jackass in a polo shirt and the story doesn’t even give us a fig leaf excuse for why. It doesn’t even look like agent Steve is armed!

Left: A totally annoying prick who we want to kill the moment we meet him. Right: The only sympathetic guy in all of GTA V. Guess which one we torture?
Left: A totally annoying prick who we want to kill the moment we meet him. Right: The only sympathetic guy in all of GTA V. Guess which one we torture?

Yes, you could argue that maybe Trevor is in the mood for some torture. I can believe that. Except, wouldn’t he torture Agent Steve instead? The designated victim is a complete stranger to Trevor and means nothing to him. Meanwhile, Steve is smug, irritating, and deliberately going out of his way to piss Trevor off. Yes, the FIB has leverage over Michael. But they have no such leverage over Trevor.

The moment Trevor doesn’t strap Steve into the torture chair and go to work on him, this entire scenario collapses. This is not at all a plausible sequence of events. Sure, we can come up with some fanfiction that might explain Trevor’s behavior. But if you’re going to force the player to do something really unpleasant as part of some sanctimonious lecture / mission, then the reasoning behind it needs to be airtight and not reeking of contrivances.

Just to make it all as pointless as possible, the victim pleads with you to ask him questions because he’s already willing to talk. The writer is railroading us through this ridiculous mess so they can beat us over the head with the idea that “torture is bad”, and their presentation of the topic gives us a nonsensical strawman scenario that undercuts their point. Even a pro-torture thinker will readily admit there is nothing to be gained from torturing this guy. Which makes it feel like the writer doesn’t actually understand the debate. If they were actually going to take some sort of coherent swipe at the topic, then they really ought to present it in the context of the usual “ticking time bomb” hypothetical[1].

Either torture this guy or turn the game off. Those are your options.
Either torture this guy or turn the game off. Those are your options.

You must torture the subject several times, with the game encouraging you to try a different implement of torture each time. Your available tools are:

  • Use pliers to rip out one of his teeth.
  • Use a massive pipe wrench to crush his knee / balls / arm.
  • Car battery to the nipples.
  • Waterboarding.

There are even optional things you can do to make the whole thing more sadistic, like sparking the battery connections right in his face to terrify him. The game won’t let you go easy on him, but it will allow you to be even more cruel. For some reason.

Pointless Yet Mandatory

A scene protesting the lack of accountability in government-sanctioned extra-judicial killings has accountability built into it. For some reason.
A scene protesting the lack of accountability in government-sanctioned extra-judicial killings has accountability built into it. For some reason.

After each bout of torture, Steve asks another question about the guy they’re trying to assassinate. As we go we learn he’s an Azerbaijani with a full beard who smokes a lot and is left-handed. While all of this is going on, Michael is up on a hill overlooking a house party, peering at the guests through the scope of a sniper rifle. Once you have all of those facts, you can switch over to Michael and shoot the guy in question[2].

This is supposed to be commentary on how torture yields unreliable information and that there’s not enough accountability in the system, yet the mission itself undercuts this entire idea because the monomaniacal game designer can’t let go of their precious DIAS gameplay for one stupid mission, no matter how badly it clashes with the heavy-handed sermon the writer is hitting us with. If you shoot the wrong person then somehow everyone clairvoyantly realizes they’ve made a mistake and you fail the mission.

Imagine how much more sense it would make if you just had to kill someone at the party, and nobody was much concerned with fact-checking. Maybe players would torture the guy, only to realize later that it didn’t matter. Other players would just shoot someone at random and get a free pass, underscoring how easy and tempting it is to abuse a system with no accountability. There’s your message right there!

The Writer Thinks You’re Stupid

This is how subtle the messaging is in this scene.
This is how subtle the messaging is in this scene.

Once you’re done with the torture and Michael kills his target, Steve orders Trevor to kill the informant. Trevor finally begins acting in-character and disobeys this order, instead taking the guy to the airport to “escape”.

It doesn’t make a lick of sense, of course. Regardless of what you did in the torture room, this guy is in no shape to fly. The game sort of assumes you used each torture implement once. So the informant is shirtless, covered in blood, slurring his words due to the missing tooth, and limping badly. He has no money, no ID, and no way of obtaining these things. What is he supposed to do at the airport? I have no idea. He tumbles down the steps in what I’m assuming is supposed to be “slapstick comedy” and that’s the last we see of him.

Turning this gruesome ordeal into a pratfall isn’t the writer’s big sin here. No, the really obnoxious thing is that after this blunt-force message, the writer turns Trevor into a sock puppet and has him explain to the informant (and to the audience) the point the writer is trying to make! I don’t know which is more disappointing, their lack of trust in the audience, or their lack of confidence in their craft.

And just to make it as bad as possible, Trevor’s “explanation” is wrong and incoherent. He correctly points out that they got no useful information out of the victim. Ok, fair enough. But then he goes on to say that torture is for the benefit of the torturer, or their boss, or their boss, etc.

Of course they made the tooth-pulling completely interactive. You can't cut corners on stuff like this!
Of course they made the tooth-pulling completely interactive. You can't cut corners on stuff like this!

This makes no sense. The US government didn’t adopt a torture program for the benefit of a handful of agents who get off on it. That’s the opposite of how power dynamics work. To say more would get into politics and involve pointing fingers, but the machinery that brought us here is a lot bigger and a lot more powerful than the will of a few CIA agents. Furthermore, if this was true then the FIB would have wanted to torture this guy themselves and not outsource the job. The only thing worse than explaining the lesson is the fact that the explanation disagrees with what we’ve been shown.

So the FIB brought in Trevor, a guy that is personally dangerous to them and has no reason to cooperate and they have no means to control. They did this so they could outsource a job they should have been able to do themselves, in order to extract information they had no means to verify from a guy who was already willing to tell them everything. This is all done in service of making an overt political statement, which is undercut by both the actions of the characters and the ingame mechanics. In doing so they take a real topic involving real human suffering and turn it into an incoherent slapstick farce. Then at the end the writer decides to just explain the lesson to us and gets it wrong.

*Slow sarcastic applause.*

Way to go, Rockstar. You managed to offend me with my own opinion, and I didn’t even know that was possible.

Read the whole story
103 days ago
Share this story


Drew DeVault: I don't trust Signal:

I expect a tool which claims to be secure to actually be secure. I don't view "but that makes it harder for the average person" as an acceptable excuse. If Edward Snowden and Bruce Schneier are going to spout the virtues of the app, I expect it to actually be secure when it matters - when vulnerable people using it to encrypt sensitive communications are targeted by smart and powerful adversaries.

Making promises about security without explaining the tradeoffs you made in order to appeal to the average user is unethical. Tradeoffs are necessary - but self-serving tradeoffs are not, and it's your responsibility to clearly explain the drawbacks and advantages of the tradeoffs you make. If you make broad and inaccurate statements about your communications product being "secure", then when the political prisoners who believed you are being tortured and hanged, it's on you. The stakes are serious. Let me explain why I don't think Signal takes them seriously. [...]

Truly secure systems do not require you to trust the service provider. This is the point of end-to-end encryption. But we have to trust that Moxie is running the server software he says he is. We have to trust that he isn't writing down a list of people we've talked to, when, and how often. We have to trust not only that Moxie is trustworthy, but given that Open Whisper Systems is based in San Francisco we have to trust that he hasn't received a national security letter, too (by the way, Signal doesn't have a warrant canary). Moxie can tell us he doesn't store these things, but he could. Truly secure systems don't require trust. [...]

And here comes the truly despicable bit:

Moxie forbids you from distributing branded builds of the Signal app, and if you rebrand he forbids you from using the official Open Whisper servers. Because his servers don't federate, that means that users of Signal forks cannot talk to Signal users. This is a truly genius move. No fork of Signal to date has ever gained any traction, and never will, because you can't talk to any Signal users with them. In fact, there are no third-party applications which can interact with Signal users in any way. Moxie can write as many blog posts which appeal to wispy ideals and "moving ecosystems" as he wants, but those are all really convenient excuses for an argument which allows him to design systems which serve his own interests.

No doubt these are non-trivial problems to solve. But I have personally been involved in open source projects which have collectively solved similarly difficult problems a thousand times over with a combined budget on the order of tens of thousands of dollars.

What were you going to do with that 50 million dollars again?

It is clear from its design and behavior that Signal's priority is to be a social network first and an encryption tool second. Growth at any cost.

Last year I gave Signal a try and it immediately spammed all of my contacts with my non-public phone number. So I was already aware that Signal is sketchy as fuck.

But abusing Trademark law to circumvent the checks and balances that open source development normally provides is just appalling. They get to pretend that it is open source, get the bullet item on the pitch sheet, get the good press associated with that, while still maintaining absolute control. It's no less a vertically-integrated, untrustworthy data silo than any product from Facebook or Google.

Previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously.

Read the whole story
154 days ago
Seeking good cross-platform alternative.
154 days ago
If you can live without a desktop app: Threema.
Share this story
1 public comment
152 days ago
Shit. Signal is spamming all of my contacts who install Signal, right?

What ever happened with keybase.io?
New York, NY
152 days ago
I don't know about the "spam" part. Signal does notify you if people (phone numbers) in your contact list have joined and vice versa, but it's not what I'd call spam. I think this person is being a little hyperbolic about that aspect of Signal's behavior, at least. This is how (I believe) Signal handles contact discovery and what it is doing with your contact list access: https://signal.org/blog/contact-discovery/ and https://signal.org/blog/private-contact-discovery/ Or maybe not...I'm not sure as I have not looked at the code, etc. to see what they actually are doing.
152 days ago
Spam is a little harsh, but you get little notifications in the Android app which are indistinguishable from interpersonal Signal messages. This forces you to open Signal to see if someone new has actually joined Signal or just sent you a message. That counts as social-network-spam in my book.
143 days ago
I had no idea they had a chat
Next Page of Stories