Reimagined and Revamped. Fighting the spread of nonsense often feels like a Sisyphean task. However, the joy is in making the information available, not the hope of conversion.

Coded without Intelligence

I've recently seen a lot of references to the idea that codes are impossible without a codemaker, a designer, and ultimately referring to God's existence. I never really understood that. Sure you need intelligence to understand a code, but you certainly don't need intelligence to create a code.

This recently came up at Skeptico's, and again at ERV, and I am sure it has been brought up in 100 other places.

So, may I present to you a list of codes that do not require a codemaker.

Tree rings
Tree rings can be seen when a tree is cut down. No one designed those rings but they are a very accurate method by which to encode the age of the tree.

Ratio of Carbon-12 to Carbon-14
This ratio encodes how long ago something died (good to about 50K years, after that there are other methods that work on similar principles). No one controls this ratio, it is a natural process by which carbon-14 decays into carbon 12.

Color of Hydrengea
The color of this plant encodes the Ph of the soil and the presence of aluminum.

Fraunhofer Lines
Fraunhofer lines encode the presence (or absence) of a set of elements based on the spectra of the light source. These can be used to find elemental information about stars in distant solar systems.

X-Ray fluoroscopy
When an element is hit with an x-ray and a photon is energized and released. The individual component wavelength of this emissions encodes the elements that were present.

Lightning and Thunder
The time in seconds between seeing a flash of lightning and hearing the thunder, divided by five equates roughly encodes the distance, in miles, the flash was from the observer (divide by three for kilometers).

This is probably my favorite one because it looks so random. To the trained professional bloodspatter can encode a wide variety of things, including:

  • Type of damage (arterial or not)
  • Direction of Action
  • Height of wound
  • a number of other aspects of both the victim and the attacker

(big thanks to Big Al at Skeptico's for providing a couple of those)

This is but a small list, there are lots and lots of examples of things that are encoded, not because some great codemaker encoded something one way or another, but because we as humans understand the mechanisms behind the encoding.

Feel free to enter you ideas for Coding without Intelligence...

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Apparently it's not required

So I have been following somewhat closely these two terrorism suspects in the news recently. The most popular one is about Najibullah Zazi, the 24 year old shuttle driver and coffee server,who apparently is at the center of an Al Qaeda cell that tried to launch a domestic terror attack on sept 11. In brief:

An FBI affidavit says Zazi admitted under questioning to receiving weapons and training from al-Qaeda, and a series of searches in New York City turned up evidence that Zazi may have been looking to manufacture either truck or backpack bombs.

Apparently they found videos of how to make a make on his computer and he hit up hair supply distributors in order to get chemicals to make a liquid bomb. (ignore the dumb articles saying the bomb was made out of hydrogen peroxide - thats idiotic, H2O2 is not explosive, how it IS a reagent for making triacetone triperoxide).

Meanwhile another couple of kookoos had their goals set for blowing something up. Michael Finton and Hosam Maher Husein Smad, separately, and unrelatedly also wanted to blow some shit up on sept 11.

How were these guys caught?

Well Zazi had decided to go to Pakistan (ok, guess what, if you are born in Afghanistan and are going to travel to Pakistan for "pleasure", you are getting flagged). Then while under surveillance, he started hitting up places where you can get hydrochloric acid, pure hydrogen peroxide (consumer H2O2 is only about 30% pure), and acetone. After that he rented a car and headed for NYC where he was intercepted. I'm sure between wire taps and other surveillance methods they had plenty on this guy.

Finton had a different story. He got out of jail for robbery and aggravated assault. He had told the guards that he had converted to islam, then he received money from someone in Saudi Arabia for a plane ticket. Finton spent a month there.

Finton had been monitored by this time. At this point the feds seem to have a standard procedure that they keep using. You and I would call in entrapment, probably because we are not familiar with the intricacies of the law. they do this as a practice so i doubt its illegal. Nor do I care. I think this is OK.

Basically they passed themselves off as al Qaeda operatives and got him a bomb to blow up in a federal building. Finton went ahead and did it. The bomb was fake. When Finton called the number that was supposed to blow up the bomb, he just called the FBI.

Anyway, I didn't really intend on rehashing the news.I dont even want to jump to the conclusion that these three people are actually guilty. The FBI have made plenty of mistakes with regard to terrorism. I just wanted to point something out here. They were able to catch three terrorism suspect, who may have caused a lot of damage.

And they did it without any torture.

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My weekend at NECSS

First off, I am a tardy, tardy, lame blogger. I am sorry I have not gotten around to this for so long. Real life caught up with me in such a big way. A new kid is really getting in the way of maintaining my outlet for stress relief.

Second off, sorry I couldn't Tweet. The auditorium was underground and there was no cell service. However I have very few followers on Twitter, so I doubt it was really a big deal.

So lets get started... The North East Conference on Science and Skepticism!

The night before the conference there was a skeptic's in the Pub event at a place called Dewey's Flatiron in NYC (uh, because it was near the Flatiron building). I'm originally from NYC, it was not really a problem to find it.

Well, I showed up alone which is always a weird feeling. Upon enetering, I noticed it was relatively empty. Strange for a friday night at 9:00, but whatever. After asking a waitress, it turns out the skeptics had, for the most part, parked themselves upstairs. So, even after 500 years of college, its still weird to jump into a large group of people you don't know and start mingling. I'm afraid my method is to make scene and point at people who are going to be stuck with me for the short term. It works pretty much every time because people are generally nice and everyone is basically in the same boat.

At the bar I met a few skeptics, but of course the one guy I end up talking with was brought there by his skeptic friend. This guy, who I will call Sam because I have completely forgotten his name, was a proud Catholic and obvious (after a short amount of conversation) libertarian. Nothing wrong with that, except his unbelievable pomposity was abhorrent.

We started out with some small and somehow we got on to Joe Wilson, you know the "You Lie" guy. I simply mentioned that it was such a weird thing to risk your career on when he was easily demonstrably wrong.

Sam, was like "What do you mean?"
I pointed out that part of the bill (the house version at the time), that stated simply that benefits for paying for insurance was not to be given to unauthorized residents. The rest of the plan is what we have now, anyone can buy insurance if they wish.
Sam said that there was not enough teeth, no verification.
I said, that it's irrelevant how it is enforced as far as this bill goes, its illegal to give benefits to illegal immigrants under the bill and Wilson is demonstrably wrong.
Sam entered into a litany of how its so horrible that we don't enforce our laws, democrats want ACORN around to give them votes, etc etc. I pointed out that being illegal and enforcing the laws are two different issues, Obama would have won with or without any of the folks ACORN signed up, etc etc.

But then he got to the good part. Socialism is bad. His point was that, in theory, socialism simply can not financially work. I have no idea if that is right or wrong. So I said, "OK, which country is purely socialist?" My point obviously being that it doesn't matter if something doesn't work in its pure form if that isn't what anybody is actually doing and not something anyone is proposing.

Same thing happened later. He told me he was the head of something or other that represents 28 biotech firms and that America has the best healthcare system. I pointed out that he was conflating healthcare technology and healthcare system. And even at that, its quite disputable that we have the best healthcare when so many countries have longer lifespans than we do (and at half the cost for healthcare). But he was adamant...we have the best healthcare in the world. So fine, I asked him how his 28 biotech companies are primarily funded.

Lets just say he got quiet for a moment. I knew that they exist on government funding. It was an easy win. Regardless he was a true believer, it didn't really matter what I said. Socialism is bad in any form because in theory pure socialism is financially unsound.

It's pretty much par for the course for me to get hooked up with someone like that during an event that is supposed to be fun. I didn't see anyone else getting in a heated conversation.

Anyway Sam left, I spoke with a few other skeptics in a much more calm way on more interesting topics. I even met Rebecca Watson. From her tweets, Skeptic's in the Pub seems to be her element. She was very friendly and nice. Sadly I was too drunk by this time (3:00 AM) to be anything even close to witty. Oh well. I'm long past the age where I can do this more than one night in a long while.

I have no idea how I got up for the conference (felt I had to be there by 8AM since I had misplaced my ticket), but I did and I was pretty chipper too. It was at the French Institute which has a pretty good auditorium. However, as is typical for NYC theaters the freaking rows of seats are too close to each other which sucks for the long legged members of our society like me. after an hours my knees we killing me. For the second half I changed seats to a place where there was a little more space.

One more little note: Its such a strange feeling to see these people who I have been listening to for over a year every single week. I saw the Novella Clan on the street while they were arriving to the event. I couldn't help it but I made a crack about them being early (they were) as if I knew them. They must get this all the time, but still, I had a hard time not being an ass in that way. I'm glad the skeptical community is generally made up of truly nice people.

Bios for all the speakers can be found here.

Jamy Ian Swiss
Mr. Swiss was our host for the day. He was energetic, amiable, a little dorky like the whole audience, and a good choice for this event. He said he was a magician by trade and cofounder of the New York City Skeptics. He got the ball rolling with our first presenter.

Dr. Paul Offit
I didn't know what to expect from Dr. Offit. Would he be angry at his treatment by antivaxxers? Was he this evil character the nut jobs have made him out to be. No, he was a very eloquent speaker and really hammered home many of the issues of science in the media that we are all familiar with. It was during his presentation that I realized I didnt really learn anything. I got a dull pang of worry that this whole event would be worthless if I was not going to learn anything.

During his talk I couldn't help but think, "Why the hell are you preaching to the choir?". His presentation contained a lot of information that people who are on the fence need to hear. Happily he addressed that and pointed out that he is simply not invited to speak at events that pander to the woo. Further he doesn't get to go on shows like Oprah to provide a little sanity. They specifically said no to him. Its a pretty sorry state we are in. Anyway, it was a good talk, but not one in which anyone in this audience actually needed to hear.

I did learn one thing. He mentioned CAM and in particular about how the Gonzalez protocol for treating cancer was recently belatedly reported to be utter bullshit. Orac really covered the same thing afterwards and in much greater detail. But I heard about it first during this presentation.

We then got treated with a live presentation of Skeptics Guide to the universe.
After almost all of them coming out poorly timed, we were treated to Dr. Richard Wiseman as being part of their panel for the day.

I have to say this right now: if you ever get to see something with Dr. Wiseman in it, Go! He is very funny, charming, superlatively optimistic and enthusiastic and really adds to anything he is part of. I say this in light of the fact that while I also listen to his podcast, I am not that enamored with it.

OK, by the way, I found this picture of the event from Tim Farley's (of Facebook page. There is me with my shiny head.

When Steve Novella came out he took a picture of the audience with the camera he has mentioned a lot in the podcast. But I don't see it posted anywhere. So you are stuck with this one. Sad, I was hoping to see it somewhere.

Anyway, the SGU talked about a number of topics as the always do. I gotta say, Rebecca was on a roll that night, Bob, not so much (was he hungover?). She was very charming and funny. Some jokes went on and on too long (like the overdone joke mentioning Dr. Wiseman's new book 59 seconds). It was far more juvenile than normal (lots of penis/sex jokes), but still funny for us geeks.

Their latest podcast is the one they did at NECSS, so I wont rehash it here. I just wanted to say that it went well but Bob novella was having an off day. It really appeared that he didn't do his homework. Steve had to step in to clear up his topic.

There were questions, some were good, but only one was memorable. Someone asked about dealing with a talk that Robert Kennedy was about to give and what they thought he should ask him. Steve rightly pointed out that there was not one question tht would ruin the day for him, that Kennedy would simply weasle out some lame answer and move on. Rebecca hit it on the head with an excellent suggestion, which I think is the only way we can deal with this sort of thing.

The goal is not to change the mind of the speaker, the goal is to put information into the heads of the audience. She suggested that the best thing to do would be to get a group of skeptics to go to the meeting and barrage him with a number of questions that include data (like your body makes more formaldehyde naturally than is being injected in a vaccine and why should it matter, or that there is a difference between ethylene glycol and polyethylene glycol and so forth). That way, the audience would know that they were fed a bunch of bull.

I can't stress enough of how good I think this idea is. She was right on.

George Hrab
I finally got to see George. He just did songs, was totally cool about people leaving for lunch. I stuck around for "Skeptic" and left because my stomach was hurting from lack of sleep and hunger. Sorry George.

After lunch (which I had at some fancy schmancy place with the guy who sat next to me during the first part, but the food was very good), Mr Swiss came back out and showed us some weird optical illusions. I'm not going to describe them in detail, but apparently your brain is weird enough that if you stare at a spinning spiral for 30 seconds or so and then look at someone's head, it will puff up. If you look at the ame spiral spinning the other direction and do the same thing, the head shrinks. We are weird animals.

Panel: Rachel Dunlop, Howard Schneider, John Snyder - moderated by John Rennie.
I had never heard of Schneider or Snyder, but it was neat to see Dr. Rachie and listen to John Rennie. Mr. Rennie wrote "15 answers to creationist nonsense", one of many sources which I used to create my Creationist Bingo.

It was a good panel discussion. Dr. Rachie and John Snyder both took the side that "balance" in the media is truly hurting the advancement of science and the proliferation of knowledge. They also pointed out that the media never distinguishes between scientifically controversial and socially controversial.

Dr. Schneider took the side that presenting balance is in fact a responsibility of the media. However, I couldn't help thinking that he was presenting some No True Scotman fallacy there as he was obviously distinguishing between news, and newslike programs like Bill O'Reilly. I don't think a lot of america actually makes that distinction and that to me is a big part of the problem.

I wanted to ask about this, but here is a tip: If you are going to a conference and are the type of person who would like to ask a question, dont sit in the center of the row. The effort to get out far out weighs the desire to ask a question.

I really thought this panel was going to be a bore. I found it pretty interesting in the end.

I was really looking towards the next panel.

Panel: Why is it so difficult to be a skeptic?
Richard Wiseman, Massimo Pigliucci, Kaja Perina and moderated by Michel De Dora

First off it was nice to see such a young dude being a moderator. Mr. De Dora is currently involved with the Center for Inquiry. While there was some nervousness, he did a really good job.

Its too bad the panelists were such a bore. uh, except Dr. Wiseman. Maybe I misunderstood the title, but I really was hoping for some insight to quandries like I have written about before. But Alas it was not to be found. I think the academics don't really find being a skeptic in a normal life to be very difficult. I don't think these guys truly encounter poor critical thinking on a day to day basis. At least it didnt seem that way.

Massimo read notes off his iPhone. I could swear he wrote them on his trip down from wherever he lives. I didn't glean anything valuable from Ms. Perina.

Only Dr. Wiseman really got the topic. He mentioned some stuff that I have directly experienced, like when I told someone about the conference. Dr. Wiseman asked "What do you say, when asked what this is?". And he went on to explain that while its hard, and while its frustrating, its working. I dont know how we measure this (for another post one day - are we doing anything?), but he is really able to delineate true enthusiasm and honest optimism on what we are getting done. I really want to believe him, but I'd really like to know how we measure progress. As you can tell by the name of my blog, I am not as optimistic as he is (although I am a very optimistic person).

Finally we came to Carl Zimmer.
Dr. zimmer gave a great presentation on skepticism in general. He pointed out a lot fo the good work bloggers are doing and covered a lot of typical skepticla issues. He is a clear speaker and a great asset to the skeptical movement.

I finally asked a question. Here is what I wanted to ask:

"What things would you suggest that we, as fellow technology literate bloggers, can do to help the non technically oriented to discern the scientifically supported subject matter we present from the nonsense dressed up like science?"

What came out was something far longer, mentioned my PhD, mentioned my Techskeptic pseudonym, mentioned Skeptico and Skeptiko, mentioned my wife, mentioned a host of other things and I'm guessing, from his response, I was completely unintelligible. In my head at the time it sounded great, as I was saying it my head is going "What the fuck are you trying to ask, moron?"

He pointed out that this is not a new issue. James Randi has been dealing with it for years. Yeah, duh, thats why we are all here. Are non professional bloggers helping or not? So to Dr. Zimmer, I'm sorry I was a rambling moron.

I have left out tons of funny and interesting stuff from this event. While the anti-vax issue dominated the entire event, it was still widely varied and I enjoyed it. I will most certainly go again next year. Especially if Dr. Wiseman chooses to participate again.

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My upcoming weekend

Well I was not one of the lucky thousand who had time and opportunity to go to TAM. However, the upcoming NECSS is actually within reach for me both financially (I grew up in NYC, mom still lives there) and timing-wise (Lady Tech has agreed to watch the homefront and corral the kiddies). So I am off to the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism!

Looks like a good gamut of speakers. Here is the schedule:

09:30 AM - Doors open

10:00 AM - Welcome

10:10 AM - Speaker: Paul Offit - Communicating Science to the Public

11:00 AM - Live SGU Podcast taping (w/guest Richard Wiseman)

01:00 PM - Break for lunch

01:10 PM - 01:40 - George Hrab lunchtime musical performance

02:15 PM - Panel: Skepticism & Media - Rachael Dunlop, Howard Schneider, John Snyder, John Rennie (moderator)

03:40 PM - Panel: Why is it So Difficult to Be a Skeptic? - Richard Wiseman, Massimo Pigliucci, Kaja Perina, Michael De Dora (moderator)

05:00 PM - Speaker: Carl Zimmer

06:00 PM - Exit

Looks like fun. James Randi was supposed to be there, but looks like he is going to have to take a pass on this one until his health gets better. To add to the grooviness there is a Drinking Skeptically event at Dewey Flatiron on friday at 8, which I will also be attending. I want to see how this is done, so I can start a Skeptic's in the pub in my area (albany area in NY).

Anyway, if there any questions or things you might be interested in at this event, leave a comment and I'll be sure to follow up for you.

I'll also twitter anything useful I see from this event. You can follow me if you wish at TechSkeptik (yeah careful of that last letter, i'm pissed someone took my normal handle).

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Religion and Crime

Lets just be clear....

Garrido was religious BEFORE he kidnapped, raped and held Jaycee Durgard captive for 18 years.

I know, I know...not a REAL Christian. But can we please just get this part set down: Religion has nothing to do with morality. Its doesnt encourage moral behavior and it doesnt prevent immoral behavior.

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Skeptical Blog Anthology 2009

I love the idea of taking the best skeptical posts of the year and committing them to ink and paper. I dont have the readership of even some of the more moderate blogs, but I would enjoy knowing that you do in fact enjoy my writing and feel some of it may be up to snuff for such an endeavor.

In this vein I'd like to run my own version of a skeptic's circle right here and review some of the posts I've enjoyed writing this year. I hope you will read them and nominate them. I'll put one of the nomination badges on each of the posts to make it a little easier for you. So without further adieu...

The first one may not qualify because it was actually written in December of 2008, but it continues to be a well read post. It covers the dangers of radiation and the lack of danger associated with wireless devices, in particular DECT devices.

Another recent post of mine discussed celebrating vaccinations. Now I wrote this tongue in cheek, but I am sort of warmed by the idea of actually following through with something like this.

A post I rather like was about abortion. It questioned wether pro-lifers actually act in a way that follows from their claims of the start of life.

I spent a lot of time on a post that discusses the historical nature of government funded programs, but mostly with respect to alternative energy. I contrasted new energy research utilizing government funds with how throughout the history of man, poop was mostly dealt with in a "socialist" fashion.

I had seen some advertising and news on "electrolyzed water", and its amazing antiseptic and cleaning abilities. I didn't really believe it mostly because they didn't actually measure antiseptic and cleaning abilities of the "water".
Discussing energy is one of my specialties. This year I examined the claims of scientists (or worse, science journalists) who were talking about the possibilities of converting CO2 to fuel.

I discussed some of the hardships we have as skeptics in a non-skeptical world. As skeptics we tend to qualify our claims, this ends up appearing to most people as being noncommittal or wishy washy on a subject.

I did a quick post contrasting skepticism to denialism and where the differences really are.

I analyzed the claims of a calcium removal device. This one claimed to be ridiculously easy to install, used almost no power and no chemicals, was cheap and worked great. I showed how using their own literature, all was true but the last claim about working great.

Well I have more posts of course, but these are the ones that don't rehash the same stuff on tons of other sites (like homeopathy, acupuncture, bigfoot and so on), plus I enjoyed researching them and putting them up. I hope you liked them too. I'll put a nomination badge on each of the posts mentioned, if you like em, please nominate them.

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Are Skeptics Immune?

No, this is not a vaccination post. Today I was reading about yet another Ponzi scheme that took some people for a ride and wiped many of them out. But this one had its own unique flavor to it.

Tri Energy’s investors had something in common. Many were Mormons and born-again Christians who shared dreams and prayers on nightly conference calls.

Like the Madoff scam, which started out swindling Jews, this one pointed its cannons at another religious group. It occured to me that these groups all have faith in common. They not only use faith in something to guide them, but for the most part are proud of the fact that they have faith in the unknowable, unprovable, and as far as I can tell, the non-existent.

So, some guy comes into their group, claiming to share the same faith, have the same values, and builds trust that way.... only to swindle this group of people out of millions of dollars, 50 million to be exact, from over 700 faithful rubes.

But it occurred to me, are skeptics immune? We as a group tend to distrust everything that sounds too good to be true (we call those extraordinary claims). Here, lets look at this scam in particular.

...they said they were using [the $50 million] to broker the sale to Arab buyers of 20,000 tons of gold owned by a group of Israelis.

If I was told this, my alarms would have gone off. Would yours?

  • I would have asked questions about why that much gold was being sold
  • I would have asked what the gold was being used for.
  • I would have asked about how the money is getting used to "broker the deal".
  • I would have asked exactly who the "Arabs" were.
  • I would have asked how Henry Jones became involved in the exchange and what his relationship was to both parties.

And even if there were decent answers to each of those questions, I still would have been skeptical of the opportunity. 20,000 tons of gold (40 million pounds) is a LOT of gold! All the gold mined in the whole world last year only comes to just over 3 million pounds. So we are talking about an amount of gold that represent hoarding all the gold produced everywhere in the world for 12 years. I guess not impossible (the Arabs could have been hoarding it for centuries), but truly far And yes, I would have questioned that immediately.

So, I'm wondering, if someone was promoting a get rich quick scheme, would skeptics (as opposed to the larger groups of atheists, who I do not consider to be automatically skeptical thinkers), be immune to fast talking sales pitches with promises of an easy life? What if this guy displayed good critical thinking skills? What if he had verifiable answers to the questions I posed above? What if he actively participated in skeptical blogs and events like TAM?

I honestly think it still wouldn't work. Taking a quick look at any skeptical blog, you can see skeptics challenging each other on claims they make in posts and in the comments. We constantly challenge ourselves to back up our claims and not use fallacy laden thinking. It more than herding cats with us, we cats need good reasons to move in certain directions and I like to think that those very same eccentricities we display would prevent us, for a large part, from falling into this sort of trap.

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