If you have any finger at all dipped in the vast ocean of blather that is social media, you can’t fail to have noticed yesterday’s flurry of hand-waving over some comments made by internet luminaries Will Wheaton and Matt (The Oatmeal) Inman. For those who aren’t mainlining Facebook and Twitter, and didn’t catch it, the whole thing revolved around the Huffington Post doing what it does – sucking content from anywhere it likes without paying for it, and then regurgitating it to the world – and Wheaton and Inman getting on the wrong end of that deal (the ‘without getting paid’ end).

In Wheaton’s case, the Huffington Post wanted to use a previous post from his blog, but declined to offer any compensation when he asked for them to actually fork out for it. Wheaton wrote about it, quite reasonably, in a piece entitled “You Can’t Pay Your Rent With “the unique platform and reach our site provides”” riffing on his earlier Twitter comments “Writers and bloggers: if you write something that an editor thinks is worth being published, you are worth being paid for it. Period.” and “This advice applies to designers, photographers, programmers, ANYONE who makes something. You. Deserve. Compensation. For. Your. Work.”

As for Inman, the HuffPo hotlinked one of his Oatmeal strips, and he then quickly link-spoofed them with an image that said “Dear Huffington Post. Please don’t hotlink images without permission. It costs me money to host these. Here’s my monthly bill”, with said bill attached. This morning, he followed it up with an amusing cartoon commentary.

At least they asked Wheaton whether they could use his stuff. They just pinched Inman’s. Well, the internet version of pinching, anyway.

Now, I’ll say right off the blocks, that I like and respect both these guys. I’ve been a fan for years. If the internet is about anything at all, it’s about the kinds of things they do: Inman amuses, makes admirable social commentary and raises money for good causes. Wheaton entertains, makes admirable social commentary and, well, entertains. And yes, he also uses his geek celebrity to aid worthwhile causes too.

In a general philosophical sense, I also agree with what they’re saying here; it’s reasonable to expect that if a money-making venture such as the Huffington Post wants to use your artistic content to help their advertising revenue, then it’s worth more than just their fond appreciation for your efforts.

In my opinion, there is, however, something of a problem with the high moral ground that both Wheaton and Inman are occupying here. They are being just a teensy bit disingenuous. It comes about because of the stature that each of them has gained from the currency that they are dismissing with such disdain. That currency is exposure.

From where I stand, the equation looks very different to what I expect it does to Will Wheaton or Matt Inman. If I was given the same deal as Wheaton, and the HuffPo asked if they could carry this very article, what am I going to do? If they offer me the ‘exposure’ deal, my options are to take it and get exposure or don’t take it and reach my usual two dozen readers. No-one doubts that the best outcome would be to get paid and get the exposure, but likewise, it should be obvious to pretty much anyone that the worst deal is to end up with no money and no exposure. It’s all very well for Wheaton and Inman to tell other people that they should accept nothing less than proper recompense for their efforts, but they are not other people.

As I said some years ago in my post The King is Dead! Long Live the King!, we are now in an age where creative content is worth – in monetary terms – exactly (and only) what people are prepared to pay for it. You can put whatever pecuniary value you like upon it, but that’s completely arbitrary in the eyes of anyone else.

The problem is not an easy one to parse. I’m a creator, and my stuff is indisputably worth a few coins. Isn’t it? But what? Is it worth as much as Will Wheaton’s stuff or Matt Inman’s stuff? No? Then why not? You see what’s going on here, don’t you? There’s a level of artistic value – and corresponding monetary value – assigned to the work of those guys, but how do you calculate the worth of that? I’m going to put it out there that it’s not just value based on the work itself, but rather a combination of things including how much exposure they get. Sure, they do good stuff, but without the exposure, the good stuff is only worth something to the two dozen loyal followers of their blog/band/comic/games-club newsletter. LOTS of people do good stuff.

And that’s the crux of it: with so much stuff being done – and so much good stuff being done – with so many artists and musicians and writers doing their thing, it’s very very hard to rise above the noise. Money is nice to have, but in the great big ocean that is the internet, without exposure, you’ve got nothing. Proper compensation depends a lot on where exactly you are in the food chain. Matt and Will can afford to say no to the HuffPo because it really doesn’t matter to them – they need neither money, nor exposure.

Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m defending the Huffington Post here – I’m really not. I think that they’re unprincipled opportunists (there goes my chance of HuffPo glory) and that they’re wrong to exploit the talents and hard work of others in order to line their own coffers. As long as people are willing to provide them free content, though, this exploitation is never going to go away. I think you can work out, without me putting it down in detail, that there are a lot of reasons that people will continue to provide their content – good content – for free. As I have said in the past, if you are an artist or a writer or a musician, the people doing that are your competition. It’s just entirely irrelevant insisting that your art is worth something if no-one wants to actually pay for it. Whether you like it or not, that’s the world in which we now exist, and it’s simply pointless raising a fist and shaking it at that fact.

It comes down to basic commonsense and survival strategies. Sure, your efforts have value, but the value might not necessarily be financial. If that value can be parlayed into money, great. If it can’t, then decide whether there is other opportunity to be had. If that opportunity is exposure, and you could use some exposure, then take it. If that opportunity is connection, and you need connections, then take it. If there is no advantage in making a deal, then don’t make the deal. The only bad exchange is one where you feel an inequality exists. But don’t let someone else tell you what that inequality is.

Matt Inman and Will Wheaton undoubtedly have your best interests at heart. They’ve just forgotten that as you’re attempting to get your head above the crowd, you sometimes don’t have the luxury of insisting on your principles.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a naturally skeptical person such as myself, when hanging around on Facebook, tends to become somewhat unpopular with their friends. This is because it is simply in our nature to feel obliged to point out hoodwinkery when it is being deployed and propagated. And on Facebook, that’s a daily occurrence.

Seriously, I just can’t help it. It’s in my blood.

Today, we are going to dissect one such incident, and attempt to determine why it bugs me so.

If you are a frequenter of Facebook, you cannot have failed to have been inundated over the last few weeks with pictures of the so-called ‘blood moon’ (a phenomenon which used to be simply called an ‘eclipse’). The blood moon gets a shitload of mileage on Facebook whenever it occurs, with people sharing-on dozens of photographs of it, occasionally even without the anguished wails of imminent apocalypse.

The following image is one such example which drifted through my feed, with a caption that read something like “A beautiful photo of last night’s blood moon!”

Except that this is not ‘a beautiful photo’ of any such thing – you can immediately see that it’s fake. You can see that, right? Not only is it fake, it’s a particularly poor fake. In this age of incredible powers of photo manipulation, there is no excuse for such a major fail, and even less excuse for anyone to fall for it. But SO many people did fall for it (it was shared some five thousand times off the link that came to me, with comments that were almost universally in the manner of: “WOW, that is so beautiful. God is amazing!”),(i) that I feel compelled to record here, for all to witness, a forensic deconstruction of this image.

I want to say from the outset that you don’t need any photo manipulation skillz to see some of the things wrong with this picture. All you need is to have actually taken the time to observe how things look in real life. First of all – and MOST egregiously – the moon is sitting so low that it appears to be in front of the horizon. It’s entirely unnatural looking. We can make that easier to discern by racking up the image’s midrange values:

You can clearly see that the very defined lower edge of the moon is sitting a little in front of the far edge of the ocean. This enhanced image also shows you another thing: except for a little fuzziness around the moon, the luminance values of the sky are exactly uniform, right across the image. This screams fakery. That kind of thing never happens in photos of real skies. It tells you that there was something else there, and that the person who manipulated the image took it out and replaced it with fill. It also explains why the overall image is so dark – it’s much easier to hide that kind of trick if you crush the black areas right down.

Aside from this hocus-pocus, the moon in this image just looks wrong. It is way too round. If the moon was really that close to the horizon, it wouldn’t look anything like that – it would appear distorted and squashed, due to its light travelling obliquely through the atmosphere. The moon we see here is a moon that should be high in the sky, away from atmospheric refraction.

Another indicator that something funny is afoot is that to get a moon to appear to be that big on a horizon, you need to use a very long lens. A very long lens and an image taken by moonlight means a very shallow depth of field. We know that the DoF is not shallow, though, because the waves in the foreground are in focus.

That creates something of a paradox; if the image was taken on a long lens, the waves would be out of focus. If it was shot on a wide lens, then the moon would be tiny in shot. A single photograph simply can’t have both.

Also, because there is very little movement blur on the waves, and they are backlit (as opposed to a flash from the front) they give us another clue: the exposure is quite short and that means the shot was therefore most likely taken in reasonably bright light. Sunlight, for example. In other words, the moon does not belong to the same image as the bottom part of this photo. It’s just been amateurishly glued on.

For an experiment, let’s take that cropped image of the waves and do a reverse image search… hmmm… lots of shots of the blood moon photo and then, after a few pages of results, a hit on a page on a photo aggregator called Scoopers, containing this:

Well, what a surprise! I believe that is a fairly resounding QED. I suspect also that the ‘blood’ moon used in the shot is also just a normal moon with the colour altered, but, even though there are ways we could examine that hypothesis, it’s entirely unnecessary so I won’t bother. The supposed ‘blood moon’ photograph is, I think you will all agree, a complete phony.

But why does this bother me so much? Well, the thing is, it’s just another example of the insipid crap that pollutes the reality of the world. It’s the Photoshop version of religion; a thing that’s completely fabricated in order to create the illusion of wonder, when in fact it’s entirely superfluous because reality is MUCH MORE WONDERFUL. Here, take a look at some actual photos of last week’s blood moon:

Some very talented and dedicated photographers got you those images, and they are real, and they are WAY better than the miserable cut & paste of some lame hack. Mr or Ms Hack’s efforts dilute the value of proper creative people. And they get away with it – and are even rewarded for it – because of the credulity of the undiscerning.

When I pointed out, to the friend who posted the image, that it was fake, her reply was ‘Well, it’s a nice picture anyway.’ NO IT’S NOT. It’s a crummy, ham-fisted Frankenstein’s-monster-of-a-picture. Someone spent five minutes on it while waiting for midget porn clips to load. It belongs in a folder called ‘Failed Experiments’ on a fifth-grader’s computer. It’s too lousy to feature on a peeling poster on a tar-stained wall in a Chinese brothel. This is the 21st century, people. If you’re going to fake an image, there is no excuse to be less competent than a 1950s Russian propagandist.

In the next TCA post, we will examine another of these cheap pieces of social buffoonery. And one that involves science, so you can really expect we’ll have fun with it. Stay tuned.


  1. That’s an actual comment []


Too soon?

I have come to believe that the whole scope of what’s wrong with the human condition can be represented by the microcosm of shopping trolley behaviour. What insights into the baser human instincts can be glimpsed by the observation of how people interact with their metal transport baskets! Here are some variations for you to consider:*

[Advisory – Trolley Trolls, as far as I’ve been able to observe, are equally represented by both sexes. I have alternated the sexes in the following examples, and nothing should be read into whatever gender happens to be associated with any particular category]

The Dumper:

The Dumper has no feeling of obligation to anyone. Once The Dumper has finished with his trolley, he abandons it right at the place where the last grocery item has been removed. This is probably in the last available parking space in the supermarket parking lot, or behind your already-parked car. Does he care that you’ll need to move his trolley in order to be able to go about your business? No he does not – that’s your problem pal.

The Pig Pen:

The Pig Pen thinks her shopping trolley is a mobile trash receptacle, and abandons it along with discarded items including – but not limited to – empty crisp packets, squashed muffins, spilled McThickShakes, soiled baby nappies, empty Coke bottles, used tissues, unwanted vouchers and fliers, and half-full cups of coffee. In some cases, three or more of the above at the same time.

The Fuck You:

The Fuck You takes the trouble to return his trolley to the trolley bay, but backs it in, linking his chain to the next trolley, but making it impossible for you to attach your chain and thus retrieve your coin. This person is probably a politician.

The Fuck You and the Horse You Rode In On:

The FYATHYRIO can’t be bothered to walk all the way to the end of the trolley bay, so attaches the trolley to the chain in order to retrieve her coin but leaves the trolley outside the bay, in such a way that it protrudes into the pedestrian walkway or the traffic transit lanes.

The Plague Vector:

As soon as your hands touch the trolley handle and feel the clammy dampness of bodily fluids, you know he’s been there.

The Rally Driver:

You never see the Rally Driver in action, just the long deep scratch down the side of the line of cars on the way to her destination.

The Magellan: You live half a kilometer away from any supermarket, but there it is: a trolley abandoned in your driveway. The Magellan plainly does not have a car – hey, I’m fine with that. BUT WHY IS THE TROLLEY IN MY YARD? Why is he not doing what a sane person would do, and keeping the trolley in his own yard to wheel back to the supermarket on the next trip?(i)

The Jammer: The Jammer takes the IKEA trolley back to the Woolworths bay, and despite the fact that the IKEA trolley is a completely different shape and size to the Woolworth’s model, jams it right in there, preventing any other person from docking their trolley. Thanks jerk.(ii)

The Choker: The Choker takes her trolley almost all the way back the trolley bay, but inexplicably abandons it about three paces away. That last little effort is just… so difficult. It’s evidently the ‘near enough is good enough’ philosophy.

The Utter Bastard: The Utter Bastard removes his trolley from the bay and then, inexplicably in terms of anything rational any sane person on the planet may consider, squashes chewing gum in the coin slot of the next available trolley, preventing any further trolleys from being used. I mean, WTF? Really, WTF?

The Complete and Utter Fucking Shithead Bastard: The CUFSB finds your trolley unattended in a quiet aisle (while you’ve gone off trying to find out why polenta isn’t in any sensible place you care to look) and attaches another trolley to it in order to steal your coin. This is a minor inconvenience if you have another coin, but if you don’t it’s a right royal pain in the ass.

*Lest you think I’m having a bit of a leg pull with all this, let me assure you that I’ve personally encountered every single one of these at some stage or another. It probably doesn’t need to be said, but you never actually see anyone carrying out these acts of despicable ratbaggery – indisputably because they know they’d be up for a public flogging if they were caught in the act.


  1. I’ll tell you why – because he is a fuckwit, and once he abandons the trolley it’s not his problem. He can always pick up another one next time. []
  2. And seriously. Shopping stores: WHY DO WE NEED DIFFERENT SIZE TROLLEYS IN THE FIRST PLACE??? For fuck’s sake. Just adopt the same fucking standard as everyone else you cretins. []


In recent times in my adventures in the social media universe, I’ve started to see more and more prevalently, a certain riposte to arguments that champion science. It comes in the form of “…but science can’t be a hundred percent sure of it, right?” You’ll have seen the same thing I’m sure: you proffer that global warming is a serious problem, with over 95% of scientists working in climate science attesting to its seriousness, and someone chimes in with the argument that because there’s that 5% for whom the jury is out,(i) then there is some question of validity of the great weight of the argument in favour.

It’s difficult to get most non-scientific people to understand the philosophical cornerstones on which science is built, but the one that provides the most problem is, perhaps, the scientific idea of falsifiability. Simply put, it works like this: a question of science is posed in such a way that it is held up to scrutiny for its robustness against pulling it down again.

Let me give you a very basic example. Let’s suppose that one day I leave an apple out on the bench in my back yard. The next day, I notice that the apple has been knocked to the ground and there are bites out of it. I advance to you an hypothesis: fairies at the bottom of the garden have a love of apples and they are the culprits. If you chose to disagree with this interpretation of the situation, and were to approach this scientifically, you might question my hypothesis and devise ways to show me that my suggestion(ii) is not the best explanation for the facts. You might, for example, decide to leave out a new decoy apple, stay up all night and, from a hidden spot, observe what happens to it. You might rig up a camera to photograph the apple if it is moved. You might put out a plastic apple and see whether it gets eaten or moved. There are numerous things you might do to chip away at my hypothesis.

Together – pending the evidence you gathered – we would establish the likelihood of my hypothesis being correct, and in the event that it started to seem unlikely, gather additional evidence that might set us on our way to a new hypothesis involving another explanation. Possums, maybe.

You might think that this is a simplistic, and perhaps even patronising, illustration. But consider this: you can never, ever, prove to me definitively that fairies weren’t responsible for that first apple incident, or any subsequent incidents that we weren’t actively observing. This is because we have no explicit data for those times.

The philosophy of scientific process unequivocally requires it must be like this. It seems like a bizarre Catch 22, but the very idea is a sort of axiom built into the deepest foundations of science, and an extremely valuable one, because it allows everything to be re-examined by the scientific process should additional persuasive data appear. It’s a kind of a ‘don’t get cocky, kid’ reminder. It’s a way for the scientific process to be flexible enough to cope with the possibility of new information. If we didn’t have it, science would deteriorate rapidly into dogma.

The problem is that people who don’t understand science very well tend to think rather too literally about this ‘loophole’ of falsifiability. They take it to mean that, if we did a thousand nights of experimental process in my backyard, and 999 of those nights we got photos of the possums chewing on the apple, then the one night where the camera malfunctioned it’s possible that the apple actually could have been eaten by fairies. Worse than that, they mistakenly go on to extrapolate that the Fairies Hypothesis therefore has equal weight with the Possum Hypothesis.

Even worse still, this commitment of science not to make assessments on the data it does not have is frequently wheeled out by an increasing number of people as if it’s a profound failing – a demonstration that ‘science is not perfect’.

But here, I will argue to the contrary. At least, I will say that science may not be perfect, but it does its very best to strive to understand where the flaws in its process might arise, and take them into account.

This should not be taken to mean, however, that nothing in science has any certainty, and everything is up for grabs. Why? Because science is all about probabilities. If you are not comfortable with talking in the language of probabilities, then you should really butt right out of any scientific discussion.(iii)

Of course, in the fairies vs possums scenario, we’ve already factored the probabilities into account: our brains can’t help but favour the hypothesis that we think is the most likely, given the observations that have accumulated over our lives: we know that possums like fruit; we know that they are active at night; we have seen possums. On the other hand, we have little evidence for the predilection of fairies for apples, or even for the existence of such beings. Taking into account all the things we know, it’s much more likely to be possums eating the fruit than it is to be fairies. But I will reiterate – because it’s important – that the thing to remember is that there is no way that anyone can ever scientifically prove to you that the one time out of a thousand when you weren’t looking that it wasn’t the fairies who took a chomp on the apple.

But you still know it wasn’t, right?

This is the point where it gets frustrating for real scientists doing real science. Fairies vs possums is a reasonably trivial scientific case, and most(iv) people have the educational tools to make a proper and rational assessment of the situation. However, in the case of a non-scientific person arguing that because 5% of scientists don’t agree with the rest on global warming there’s a cause for doubt on the whole thing, this looks to scientists – the people in possession of the greater number of facts and understanding of those facts – like someone arguing that the fairies ate the apple.

It’s not just the Climate Change discussion that suffers from this problem. A large part of the reason we now get into these kinds of debates is that our scientific understanding of the world has, in this age, become so intricate and detailed that it’s very difficult for non-specialists to properly grasp the highly complex nature of certain subjects. Climate science is one of those areas. Evolution is another, and vaccination one more. Because most of us don’t have a lifetime’s worth of education in any of these highly complex fields, and our brains don’t have the tools we need to assess the required data in any meaningful way, we tend to fall back on thinking patterns that are more attuned to the solving of simple, easily defined problems. We then superimpose those simple-to-understand patterns on subjects we don’t understand. Everyone does this, whether it’s in an effort to understand economics, or politics, or even our phone’s data plan. We just can’t help it.

What’s truly sad and frustrating is that when scientists tell us things that are hard to understand, don’t fit with what we know, and are not things we want to hear, many people (including, it has to be said, far too many of the politicians who make the decisions that rule our lives) start to try to find reasons why the scientists MUST be wrong. I’m sure you’ve heard all the variations: scientists are in it for their own agendas (the Frankenstein scenario); they’re being paid to give false results by Big Pharma/Agriculture/Data/Tech/Whatever; or, as we’ve discussed, because they don’t know everything.

Science doesn’t know everything. The thing is, contrary to what a lot of people seem to believe, it knows that it doesn’t know everything, and this understanding of its limits is built into its very structure. As such, it is not a weakness, but a very great strength.


PS: This is the very first time on TCA that I’ve deployed a clickbait headline… and I’m not sorry.


  1. And that’s an important thing to remember here: the 95% figure that’s often quoted are the scientists who are certain, but that does not imply in any way that the other 5% are just as certain global warming is not happening or not of concern. Some of that 5% just don’t think the data is in. That’s a very different prospect to having an unequivocal position against. []
  2. For that’s really what an hypothesis is; a fancy kind of ‘suggestion’ []
  3. If you can’t think in probabilities, you almost certainly have a heck of a time living your life too, because – hear me – nothing is certain. []
  4. But not all, trust me… []


This morning. Atlas pointed me to this rather curious piece on International Business Times, in which Florida pastor (or ‘associate’ pastor if you read the fine print) opines that he thinks it would be quite a jolly idea to introduce Artificial Intelligences to the idea of Christianity, once they reach the requisite level of sentience. [Warning: supremely irritating re-booting self-play video in the sidebar on that site]

I truly can’t decide whether the concept is thigh-slappingly hilarious, or mind-numbingly depressing.

“If AI is autonomous,” says Reverend Christopher Benek, “then we should encourage it to participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes in the world.”

To which I’m pretty sure a sufficiently autonomous sentient AI is likely to respond:

On his blog, Benek writes:

“Stephen Hawking is afraid of AI but he’s forgetting one very important fact. …if they are actually more intelligent than humans then they should have a better understanding of morals and ethics than us — as well as the understanding to enact them.”

To which point I say, yes, very likely. And I don’t think Hawking is actually forgetting that. Because if it’s correct, then the very first act the robots will undertake is to eradicate us from the universe. It would be the most intelligent and moral thing to do. Especially if we can’t rid ourselves of this plague called religion.

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