Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Skeptoid

I recently discovered my new favourite podcast – Skeptoid. From the web site: "Skeptoid is a weekly science podcast dedicated to furthering knowledge by blasting away the widespread pseudosciences that infect popular culture, and replacing them with way cooler reality." Host Brian Dunning created this podcast back in 2006 and has done over 250 episodes. Each is 8-12 minutes long and covers a single topic such as an unexplained phenomenon (like spontaneous human combustion), outrageous claims ("ionized bracelets" will cure all your ills), urban legends (plastic water bottles leech poison into the water), conspiracy theories (doctors and researchers cover up cures for diseases because it's in their best interest to keep people sick), and pseudoscientific alternative medicines (diluting a tiny drop of toxin billions of times until there's none of the toxin left in the solution will cure all your ills). Dunning investigates each topic, its history, the claims made by its supporters, and most importantly, its scientific plausibility.

Note that the idea of this show is critical thinking, meaning thinking for yourself, using proper scientific procedures to investigate and evaluate these claims, not attempting to prove or disprove a preconceived notion. The idea is not "anything mystical or supernatural is bullshit", and he does not begin a podcast on such a topic by assuming that it's bullshit. It may appear that way though, because pretty much all of the mystical or supernatural claims he's investigated have been bullshit shown to be either wrong or untestable.

Something that should seem obvious but wasn't at first is the first question he asks about any phenomenon. When talking about some unexplained phenomenon, the first question is not "how does it work" or "how do we explain it", as I would have expected. The first question is "does it actually happen?" There's no point in trying to come up with a scientific explanation for something if there's no evidence that it's ever happened. How is it possible for a human body to suddenly burst into flame? Well, who cares how if it's never happened? You also need to watch out for implicit assumptions – trying to answer the question "is there a curse on King Tut's tomb?" assumes the existence of curses. But "have an inordinate number of people involved with the opening of King Tut's tomb died under mysterious circumstances?" is a valid question which can be investigated.

Things I've learned from skeptoid thus far:

  • Homeopathy is hogwash (I already knew that)
  • Astrology is hogwash (that too)
  • Most "near death experiences" can be explained by a lack of oxygen to the brain. People who experience oxygen deprivation but are in no danger of dying report extraordinarily similar symptoms.
  • No documented cases of spontaneous human combustion that cannot be explained by a normal fire followed by slow burning have ever occurred
  • Nostradamus was a noted plague doctor who made lots of predictions that were no more reliable than anyone else's at the time. There has never been a case of a specific incident predicted by Nostradamus that later came true.
  • The people who were involved with the opening of King Tut's tomb didn't die of unusual circumstances with any higher frequency than any other group of people
  • Your hair cannot turn white because of stress or something frightening
  • Reading in the dark will not hurt your eyes
  • You do not need to drink eight glasses of water a day
  • Subliminal advertising does not work. The famous experiment where ads were displayed during movies for a fraction of a second and a huge increase in concession purchases was seen never happened.
  • Nothing toxic leeches from plastic water bottles
  • You can't die from "skin suffocation" by painting your entire body. Even if you paint it gold.
  • Claiming that a health product is effective because it's "all natural" is meaningless. Cyanide, salmonella, and E. coli are all natural; Tylenol is not.
  • Chiropractic was invented over 100 years ago by a man who had never been to medical school. It was based on "innate intelligence", a spiritual essence that flows through the body and can be affected by magnets and spinal manipulation. Many chiropractors no longer believe this, but they are essentially unlicensed physical therapists. Chiropractors are not medical doctors and cannot write prescriptions.
  • In a crisis, a rush of adrenaline can give you more strength than you would usually have, but it cannot give you "super-human" strength, eg. enough to lift a car.
  • Aspartame is not a government mind-control drug, nor does it cause multiple sclerosis or any other disease

A couple of the episodes I especially liked were the ones on logical fallacies – describing the straw man argument, appeal to authority, ad hominem attacks, slippery slopes, and the excluded middle. I have to admit that I've used some of those same types of arguments myself from time to time, so it was good to get a description of what they are, how to recognize them, and why they are not useful. In fact, they're worse than "not useful", they're actively counterproductive. If you resort to one of these logical fallacies in your arguments, it's likely that you don't have a strong position to begin with, making your argument look even less compelling.

When you do a podcast with over 100,000 listeners talking about how a particular alternative medicinal practice cannot possibly have the effect that it's claimed to, someone will inevitably send you an email telling you how that particular practice saved him or someone he knows from certain death, and it's too bad you're so closed-minded. Dunning gets lots of these, and every now and again he reads and responds to them in a show. His responses are generally funny, but can be snarky and disrespectful, and sometimes downright mean and insulting. You can hardly blame him though, considering the insults he receives. He even did an episode on who's more closed-minded – the skeptic or the true believer? The answer: both. And neither.

I haven't even mentioned the biggest debate of all – creationism vs. evolution. I've written on this topic in the past, though not in a few years. In general, Dunning's biggest problem with creationism is the faulty arguments many creationists use against evolution: "It's just a theory", "it can't explain the eyeball", "life has never spontaneously been created inside a jar of peanut butter", etc. Some arguments against evolution are laughingly silly: "Evolution is wrong because atheists believe it, and we know that Hitler was an atheist" (which he wasn't). "Evolution is wrong because it doesn't explain how galaxies and stars formed." Even the unbelievable "evolution is wrong because some evolutionary scientists are overweight". And of course, there's the "excluded middle" argument – either evolution or creationism is "right" and the other is "wrong". These are not the only two options – perhaps God created the initial building blocks of life and let them evolve. Not to mention that evolution is a fact. We know it happens. It has been observed in laboratories. The claim that there is debate among scientists is false – there is no debate.

OK, I was wrong. The faulty arguments against evolution are not Dunning's biggest problem with creationists. His biggest problem with creationists are the so-called "young earth" creationists, who believe that the Bible is literally true and scientifically accurate. The earth was created in six 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago. Humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. Carbon dating (and geology in general) is wrong. Take any piece of actual science that contradicts this and throw it out and say "God did it all". When a scientist shows you scientific proof that you're wrong, just tell them that "God did it in such a way that all your tests are invalid." And who's closed-minded?

So what?

You may say "What's the harm? So some people believe that an alien spacecraft crashed at Roswell in the 1940's. Even if they're wrong, so what?" and in that particular instance, and many others, you would be right. But one of Dunning's biggest pet peeves is alternative medicine. If you pay big bucks for some "detoxification" pills that have no actual medicinal value, you're getting ripped off by a scam artist. Even worse, if you believe that every illness you have is caused by undetectable misalignments in your spine preventing some undetectable mystical field from flowing freely through your body, you may decide that seeing a chiropractor is of more value to you than seeing an actual doctor. If I had used alternative medicine instead of going to the hospital when I had my pancreatitis attack in 2010, I would be dead. My mother, mother-in-law, and sister are all cancer survivors, and I assure you that they are survivors thanks to modern medicine. No amount of spinal manipulation, copper bracelets, wheatgrass juice, crystals, homeopathy, or all-natural herbal remedies derived from ancient Chinese wisdom would have helped them without real doctors practicing real medicine. This is one of the biggest dangers of pseudoscience.

All 250+ Skeptoid episodes can be downloaded or the transcripts read from skeptoid.com, or you can subscribe through iTunes. Watch out though – there are a number of ironic ads on the site for psychics and various alternative medicines because of Google's logic in deciding what ads to place there. I have an upcoming article on one of those.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

At least he's not blogging

My 11-year-old son Ryan isn't on facebook yet, so he has to find other ways to waste time on the internet.

 

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Plot of Every Episode of Criminal Minds

Criminal Minds is a cop show police procedural drama that deals with the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) of the FBI, and how they profile and catch serial killers. It's well-written, interesting, action-packed, and has a great cast. During the 2010-2011 TV season, it was the tenth-highest rated primetime show – and if you consider just the dramas (removing American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and football), it's number 4 behind NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, and The Mentalist. Gail loves this show and I enjoy it as well, but some episodes seem a little formulaic. If you've never seen it, fear not – here is a plot summary of the majority of episodes thus far:CriminalMinds 

Opening: We meet the psycho killer (usually a man) and his most recent victim (usually a woman). The victim is killed and the body dumped.

Cut to someone finding the body and the subsequent police investigation. Hey, this killing is similar to that one last week, and that other one three weeks ago. We better call in the FBI.

Opening credits.

Fade in on a small airplane in flight. Someone, usually Hotch or Rossi, does a voice-over of a meaningful quotation. It's a little-known fact that Thomas Gibson, who plays Hotch, is contractually forbidden from smiling on Criminal Minds – he's been really grumpy since Dharma left. Joe Mantegna (Rossi) is the older veteran who frequently gives advice to his younger colleagues. He doesn't seem old enough to be grandfatherly, but he's at least friendly – he replaced Inigo Montoya Mandy Patinkin after a couple of seasons because it was decided that having two actors who weren't allowed to smile was a total downer for the audience.

After the quotation, we cut to the plane's interior, where the members of the BAU are examining how the victims were abducted and the locations of the body dumps. I'm always impressed at how they can talk about whatever town they're going to like they've lived there all their lives. They can look at a map and know what the locals call each part of the town, and whether a particular section of town is industrial or residential or new or old or rich or poor. They talk about the "unsub" (short for unidentified subject) and what's making him do these terrible things based on who he's selected as his victims and how they are abducted, tortured, killed, and disposed of.

Cut back to another person who is vaguely similar to the first victim we saw – usually in looks, occasionally in some other way like occupation. We see the killer stalking and eventually abducting her.

The BAU has arrived at the crime scene and is finding all sorts of clues that the local police missed. Police across the country must hate this show, since they are frequently portrayed as well-meaning and willing to help but not very effective on their own. The team adjourns to a meeting room in the local police station, where they find links between the victims with the help of ├╝ber-hacker Penelope Garcia. If you ever watch NCIS, Garcia is the Abby of this show – both are sweet, extroverted women with mad haxor skillz and an outlandish wardrobe. Abby loves all her co-workers like family while Garcia is flirty with the men and never talks to the women. Garcia seems to be just a hacker, while Abby is a general forensic scientist with advanced knowledge of other things like chemistry, molecular biology, and weapons. Just like all other computer forensic people on TV, Garcia types queries in English and never uses a mouse. She can instantly cross-reference things in any database in the world, with vague references like "look for someone with an unfinished degree in American literature, who owns a gray or silver Honda sedan, and whose mother died of lung cancer in the mid-90's."

After another glimpse of the killer and his next victim, we have a big meeting with all the local police officers and the BAU team. The team explains the profile to the cops, telling them what kind of person they are looking for, and giving hints as to what kinds of behaviours they might see. "We're looking for a white male, 40-45, probably tall, say 6'2" to 6'4". He's confident but not very friendly; not the life of the party, but not a loner either. He may work as a welder or in construction. When eating an Oreo, he doesn't pull it apart and scrape the filling off with his teeth. ["What a psycho" says one of the cops.] His victims are tall dark-haired left-handed women 25-30 with glasses. He meets them at Citibank – they start to talk when she borrows his pen."

Back to the killer. We get a little bit of insight in to how he thinks or why he's doing this, usually a flashback to his childhood as he remembers something his mother / father / teacher / caregiver did or didn't do, or some traumatic event like when his brother died in a bizarre gardening accident.

The team splits up. Some go to interview people associated with the crime – hotel managers, store owners, taxi drivers – while some stay behind and continue analyzing the existing evidence. Some of the people interviewed are quite obviously innocent, but at least one matches the profile and seems shifty. Another major clue is found – a link between the victims or crimes that wasn't noticed before. The suspect pool gets pared down, but they still don't have a name.

Another cut to the unsub and his victim. His torture is almost done and she realizes she's likely going to die soon.

At this point, Derek calls Garcia again asking for more information, and she flirts shamelessly with him, usually on speakerphone. Strangely, none of the other team members is uncomfortable about listening to this, even though her version of "flirting" might get her fired from most jobs that don't involve phone sex. Someone on the team has has just discovered some little tidbit and when Garcia adds that to her query, she finds the unsub's name. He's either someone they have already talked to (but not the shifty guy), or he works or used to work at the same place as someone they've already talked to. Another query and Garcia finds his address. They go there. He's not home.

Now that they know the killer's identity, they try to figure out where he might be holding his next victim. The killer, who usually doesn't know his identity has been discovered, sticks to his MO thus making him easier to find. He's generally holed up in the house he grew up in, or a cottage or business left to him by a dead relative, or an abandoned building near where he used to work, before he was fired a few weeks ago. Eventually Derek searches the house with his gun drawn, showing off his sculpted muscles. Hey Derek, you're obviously an XL, so you really should stop buying those L sized T-shirts.

After a standoff with Derek and/or Hotch, the killer is cornered and usually arrested. Unless: he's not just a killer, he's a sadistic torturer and general whack-job, in which case he's killed. Unless: he's a sadistic torturer and general whack-job who gets under the skin of someone on the BAU team, in which case he's arrested and will escape from custody in a future episode.

Regardless of what happens to the killer, the abducted person survives and after another meaningful quotation, the team flies home.

So there you go – six seasons of Criminal Minds in one handy place. You're welcome.

Postscript: When this article was mostly done, I decided to watch an episode of Criminal Minds from beginning to end while paying attention to what I'd written, just to confirm the order of events and such. We didn't have any recorded, so I started looking through the PVR guide for upcoming episodes. For two weeks I looked for one that might match my "summary", but I couldn't find one. "Nope, that's a season finale with a cliffhanger, that's an episode focussed solely on Reid, that's one where one or more members of the BAU are themselves kidnapped, that's one where they know who the killer is from the start, ..." Here I am with an article on how formulaic this show is, and then I couldn't find an episode that matched the formula. More irony for you.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Knock knock

I saw this picture the other day and just had to share it. It's one of the first jokes I remember telling when I was a kid.

knock-knock-590x306

Saturday, June 11, 2011

And Dustin Pedroia is short

I went with my dad to the Jays/Red Sox game tonight. Four observations:

  1. Clay Buchholz is the slowest pitcher in the history of the world. I'm sure he waited ten or fifteen minutes between pitches.
  2. Rajai Davis doesn't have anywhere near the outfield range of Vernon Wells. One inning, a ball dropped in front of him and took a high bounce. Davis jumped and cut it off before it went to the wall, keeping the batter to a single instead of at least a double. Pretty nice play, but Wells would have caught it.
  3. Kevin Youkilis has unbelievable bat speed.
  4. Food and beer at Rogers Centre is really expensive. One hot dog and two small Keith's: $21. Instead of a $5.25 hot dog in the stadium, have a $5 Italian sausage outside the stadium beforehand. Bigger, thicker, tastier, and cheaper.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Parental Control Software and Big Boobs

My kids (ages 11 and 9) are getting more and more familiar with the internet, and enjoy spending time on the computer. Mainly they play games and watch funny YouTube videos ("Simon's Cat" is their favourite), but a few times Ryan has mentioned facebook and chat rooms and instant messaging and such, and they are both heavily into a game called Minecraft, which is all the rage these days. They have gone to message boards and watched videos on how to mod the games, and recently Nicky wanted help in downloading a mod which required modifying .jar files. There's enough scary stuff on the internet that I'm getting less and less comfortable with them just perusing at their leisure, so I looked into various parental control software packages.

Step one was made a couple of years ago and was amazingly simple. I set up a free account on OpenDNS.com and changed my router to use it for DNS rather than my ISP. Not only is it faster, but they have controls that filter various categories, so I selected things like porn, nudity, adware, dating, gambling, hate, and a few others. It doesn't mean that it's impossible to get to these sites, just that if you try to get to bigboobs.com, the DNS server will simply not tell you where it is. (bigboobs.com is just an example I grabbed chose at random. Not surprisingly, it turns out to be a real web site.) The DNS setting is done on the router, which means it applies not only to the computers, but the Wii, Ryan's iPod Touch, and anything else we add in the future. That was a very easy first step and blocks a fair bit of the stuff I don't need my kids seeing. As part of research for this article I actually went to bigboobs.com to make sure OpenDNS was blocking it. It wasn't, so I had to fix my OpenDNS settings. I guess I will have to visit bigboobs.com periodically from now on, just to make sure everything is still working. With OpenDNS, I mean.

Step two has been ongoing for a while, though it seems to be at least temporarily solved. I'm looking for a software package that will allow me to monitor and limit my kids internet usage. I first tried a free solution from Blue Coat Software called K9 Web Protection. It looked pretty good, but I couldn't make it work at all. I installed it, rebooted the machine, and got nothing. I wasn't able to connect to the internet at all, and every time I tried to run the administrative program, it crashed. During the uninstall procedure, it brought up a window and asked me why I was uninstalling, so I told them. To their credit, a Blue Coat support guy responded via email within a day or two and sent me a newer version to try. It had the same problem only this time when I uninstalled it and replied to the original email, I got no response. Strike one.

The next one I tried was Kidswatch. I installed the trial version and it seemed pretty extensive. It allows you to limit exactly what times you are allowed to log on to the machine, what times you are allowed to use the internet, what web sites are blocked, what types of web sites are blocked (i.e. social media, online shopping, etc.), all kinds of stuff like that. The list of options is actually pretty impressive. It can also send you daily or weekly email reports of internet usage – which web sites were visited, how long was spent on each of them, stuff like that. It can send you immediate emails if a site is blocked or certain keywords are found on web sites, chat rooms, or IM sessions. This sounds great, but I started getting false positive reports all over the place - unless Ryan is doing google searches for "Megan Fox boobs" while sitting right next to me. It reported that he went to facebook when he didn't, it reported all kinds of other web sites he didn't visit and searches he didn't perform. It ended up being more trouble than it was worth.

I had been using the free trial of Kidswatch for a week or two, not sure yet whether I wanted to buy it or not. It's not that expensive – $45 allows you to install the software on up to three computers. But then I got an email saying "we've noticed you've downloaded our software but haven't bought it. If you use this code, we'll give you a $10 discount". I know this is standard practice in many industries, but it seemed backwards to me -- if I had originally been thrilled with the software and had bought it right away, I wouldn't get the discount? It's the same with banks – the loyal long-time customers who never consider switching banks pay the highest mortgage rates, while the people who threaten to move to another bank pay less. That doesn't seem fair to your best customers. Anyway, I didn't end up buying it because of all the false positives. Strike two.

There's another package called NetNanny which is supposed to be good, but I haven't looked at it. It's the most expensive though - $40 per PC. I was almost ready to install this one when I asked around on Twitter and someone said that they were "just using the free Microsoft one". I didn't know there was such a thing, but there is – Windows Live Family Safety.

Vista and Windows 7 have parental controls built in, so you can limit when you can log in to particular user accounts as well as the total amount of time they are logged in per day or week. This package adds more stuff, allowing you to set up multiple computers to have the same limits, modify these limits from anywhere, as well as adding web filtering (general categories as well as specific sites), game and program restrictions (eg. I have Skype and the webcam software blocked) and contact management if your kid uses Windows Live. It can monitor IM activity if you use MSN Messenger, but not other IM software. It would be nice if you could allow the child to log onto the computer at certain times but not use the internet, but that doesn't seem to be an option. You also can't combine the time restrictions with the web restrictions, so you can't say "Allow minecraft.net on weekends but not Monday-Friday".

So this is what we've been using for a few months, and it's pretty good. If I run into problems with the Windows Live stuff or I need more functionality than it provides I may give NetNanny a try, but I'd want it on at least two computers, and I'm going to have to be damned sure that it's going to do what I want before I spend $80 on it.