Tuesday, 24 May 2011

So it was a spiritual coming

Well none of us ascended to heaven on Saturday and it was rain falling from above instead of fire and brimstone. I've been excitedly waiting for Harold Camping's statement since he was proved wrong again and it's pretty special.

You can see a video of it here and here but essentially what he says is that it was a spiritual coming, rather than a physical coming as he had understood it would be, but that we are now being judged. A merciful god spared us the pain and suffering of five months of hell on Earth, but the world is definitely still ending on October 21st. Great how he managed to turn that one around isn't it but what's he going to do in October in the wake of a 3rd failed prediction? And the end of the world sure would ruin my birthday plans.

Amusing as the whole thing was on the face of it, there are a lot of his followers now left with nothing having donated large sums of money to his station to finance the billboard campaign, left their jobs or not made adequate plans for the future they thought would never come. A few reports muse over the possibility of suing, but it seems unlikely since it was a "charitable" cause and they used the money on billboards as intended.

The sad thing is a lot of those people will believe him again and find themselves in an even worse position on October 22nd. The fact that people still believed him despite his failed prediction in '94 really goes to show that no matter what evidence and precedence is there, some people won't be swayed. (I've got to think of Bill Hicks portraying a playful god planting dinosaur fossils to mess with us)


P.S. I particularly like when he says "I don't have spiritual rule over anybody. Except my wife." Poor woman.

Monday, 23 May 2011

The guys had fun at the fortnightly Galway Skeptics meet up this evening. Sadly, donal was stuck at work.

Some interesting links for you to peruse!

Michael Marshall of the Merseyside Skeptics has been tapping away at the concepts and conceits behind the bad use of PR in news and the media. The run through of his most recent "case" was a backbone of the most recent episode of Skeptics with a K. If you're not into podcasts like myself, he did a write up in this blog post here which touches on some really egregious use of "stats" in the news recently.

The Skeptics Guide to the Universe had some great news articles this last week, but it also had a fantastic interview with Jon Ronson about his new book, The Psychopath Test, which I am *really* looking forward to.

That's it for neow. Galway Skeptics out.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Our Lady of A-Stump-tion.

Apologies for the brevity of my previous post, but now that I’ve conquered the Manflu (using the traditional remedies of my people; tea, strepsils and Flat 7Up) I can get back in the skepticmobile for a spin around the neighbourhood of superstition and ignorance.

If you’ve ever looked up at the clouds drifting across the sky, you’re sure to have noticed a cloud that looked like something familiar: a rabbit, a dragon, perhaps an iPhone or a piece of fruit. Seeing shapes in the clouds like this is a popular clich√© in film and television, often with a foreboding or prophetic element to it. The reason for this is a phenomenon called Apophenia, or as Skeptic Michael Shermer calls it, Patternicity. Humans are pattern seeking animals, it’s one of the many reasons why we survive and adapt to new environments so well. It makes sense that the animal with that’s at least a little bit paranoid and good at finding patters would be a good survivor; if you mistake the stick for a poisonous insect it’s no big deal, but it could cost you your life if you mistake the poisonous insect for a stick.

Speaking with Richard Dawkins in his 2010 documentary, Faith School Menace, Dr. Deborah Kelemen of the Child Cognition Lab in Boston College said that young children have a propensity to offer purpose based explanations for the origin of objects. One of the examples given in the documentary was the posing of the question to young school-children “Why are rocks pointy? Because lots of stuff pilled up over a long time, or so that animals could scratch themselves on them?”. The children typically elected for the purpose driven explanation. For me, that drives home the fact that the oft touted religious assertion “Everything happens for a reason” is genuinely puerile. When you combine this with our natural disposition towards pattern seeking, it’s no wonder that in the past, humans placed such an importance on divination and religion. Astrology, Palm Reading, Phrenology, and other antiquate curiosities are all based on the assertion of meaning or intent in meaningless patterns. The Roman Senate, once the most powerful government in the ancient world, would not sit if their Augurs saw the gods’ disapproval in animal entrails. Our species has such an aptitude for perceiving intention in randomness that it once frightened governments into inaction! Crucial decisions were taken by generals based on the flight path of birds or the position of the planets in the sky at that moment in time. Sheer lunacy!

This unfortunate combination of traits can explain various paranormal phenomena from UFOs, to ghosts, to Martian structures, and to the oh-so-frequent apparition of Biblical figures on toast. The best and most cringe-worthy example of this in recent memory being the Holy Stump of Rathkeale, Country Limerick. Some locals believe that the Virgin Mary and Jesus appeared in the stump of a tree that was being chopped down outside the Parish Church. You’ve honestly got to worry about these peoples’ higher reasoning faculties. The question has to be asked, what is more probable, that omnipotent super-beings and a bimillennigenarian¹ Jewish woman have a penchant for making appearances on burned pancakes and tree stumps or that humans brains are pattern seeking and have a childish disposition towards seeing purpose and intention in random events?

¹ Bi means two, millennial means thousand, and -generian √† la octogenarian, an eighty year old. So it’s an obscure but perfectly cromulent word.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

So I have an upcoming birthday :D and the lovely Yolande O'Brien may have bought me a Kindle! I've been super excited about the idea of getting one since a friend paraded one around in front of my nose. Well, I've been excited about the idea of getting one for years.

So obviously, when you sync up your account to your brand new unit to your Amazon Account, you go browse their offers and see what you can get cheap! There's the usual Amazon catagories - Recommended for you, and Bestsellers. Now, poking around through the bestsellers, there is a lot of woo & religion. A LOT. Probably not as much as the General Fiction stuff, but a lot none the less. Worse is when it turns up in the "Recommended for You" list. I buy a lot of stuff through Amazon. I rate it all, accurately. I put up reviews & rate Authors I like, as well as "liking" books on Facebook that are important to me. You'ld think it would be fixed by now, although I know its all to do with behind-the-scenes "meta"-tagging that I can never influence.

There's been a lot of talk recently about who's "winning" the attention and mindspace of the general populace in the Skeptics/Woo Spectrum. Even in articles like this one from the ScienceBit, shared on our Facebook group by the redoubtable John Birrane, while purporting that Science and Skepticism is winning, holds the implication, in Ben Goldacre's tweet and other date, is that it is a little more complicated than that. Brian Dunning put up an article on Skepticblog that goes with his vote is that "we" are "losing".

I'm naturally inclined to assume the best in my endeavours & the causes I support (although I do usually prepare for the worst). My optimistic side is quite dominant these decades. So, what do I think? Let's say, what do I think of the transition in the last decade, 2001 to 2010 or so? I think the biggest percentage gain in terms of starting position has *definitely* been made by the Skeptic end of the equation. There's Skeptic groups appearing everywhere. NUI, Galway is even home to our sister group, The NUIG Skeptics. When I was there, that would be an unthinkable proposition. It just would never have gained ground. There is a lot to celebrate, and the journey undertaken has been immense. I personally think Mike Hall's point that Skeptic groups need to flourish to give the community spirit to rational thinkers that church gives to the religious, and I think that that part of the movement is expanding like crazy. Just have a look around, or indeed at the Birmingham Skeptics Groups Page.

But I do agree with Brian, mostly, sort of. While not expanding at the same rates as the Skepticism movement (and indeed being beaten back in places), but man, there is a lot of money in being "alternative". It's frickin everywhere. The prices paid to alternative therapy vendors, magic talisman wielders, church bats ad nauseum, gives them a lot of clout. If anyone tries to convince you that they're the friendly, down-home option when compared to "Big Pharma" or whatever, be in no doubt that they're a GIANT INDUSTRY. A giant, very profitable industry. Maybe individual proponents represent a mom-and-pop version, but they are holding the minority stake in the practises of selling hope to the gullible.

I'm economically liberal. If you work out a way to profit from what you preach or peddle, more power to you. The woo sells on message. Even as a sort-of-founder of a Skeptics group (this one), I can't imagine selling Skepticism on message. As Brian says in his piece, our message is usually don't give away your money.

So I suppose I'm mostly winding up to a question here, and that is, what do you think? Which way do you think the spectrum is heading? To be honest, I think the vast majority of people have no opinion in either direction (with the exception of religion, which is still very dominated by pro-church sentiments). To follow up on my starting points, I bought a copy of Flim-Flam for my Kindle and skipped on the "Recommended for You" Randi's Prize (What?) and Heaven is for Real (C'MON AMAZON).

PS - don't forget our next get together is next monday, the 23rd of May!

PPS - I'm still writing a bit on some academic... things... and some courses that have attracted my attention. Proper institutions are, as I said last time, slow to respond over the summer. Another, less proper place, seem to have googled me and refused to send me information. Highlarious. One fake email address later, I fixed that and had what I needed. Maybe so many of my social network profiles shouldn't say "skeptic" in the descriptor. :D

Tuesday, 10 May 2011


Well I didn't have time to research anything but it occurred to me that I should simply write what I know. As an archaeologist it amuses me when people show superstition regarding ringforts, and I've encountered it with some intelligent people.

Attributing natural features and ancient constructions to kings, heroes and mythological beings is something that we find in the mythology, such as the Giants' Causeway, Black Pig's Dyke, the five principle routes etc. It's understandable that in the past people attempted to make sense of the world around them by concocting stories, many of which served the dual purpose of glorifying particular families through their ancestry.

Ringforts have had this treatment through the belief that they are "fairy forts" and linked to the Tuatha De Danann. But if we take a moment to actually read the sources or assess the results of excavations we find that ringforts were used right up to the 17th century where Gaelic influence still prevailed. Far from being mystical, ringforts are nothing more than medieval farmsteads. Some are small and quite mundane, while others are stunning examples of multi-vallation and would have been the residence of someone of wealth and importance.

The evidence is in the records and lying in the ground so why does this belief survive? Thankful as I am that it is this superstition which has protected archaeology from damage for some time it is still counter to what archaeologists are trying to achieve in their study of the past. We are trying to reconstruct the past and understand the lives of the people in it. To deify and glorify our predecessors makes it impossible to come to objective and logical conclusions about their lives.

All I can say is that those people who persevere in this belief must be lacking in the information which proves ringforts to be simple and mundane (though at the same time still fascinating if like me you're into that sort of thing) constructions. This information is not that hard to find, nor even to understand, so it makes me think that there are people out there who will continue to believe in quacky medicine, seances, horoscopes etc. If you believe the first things you learn and never set out to question it, or lack the facilities to understand work which proves it wrong, then that's that really. It's impossible to reach everyone, but as far as superstition is concerned, this one isn't really hurting anyone...


Thursday, 5 May 2011

Carl Sagan - Pale Blue Dot

Sorry for the brevity of this post, but I'm struggling with an unholy combination of exam preparations and manflu.

This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest and inspiring orations in human history. It's Carl Sagan's reaction to the famous "Pale blue dot" image from the voyager satellite. I once used a picture of this as a Christmas Card and captioned it "This is the only photo I could find of everyone". The speech reminds us of the fragility of our world, our duty to preserve our planet and the importance of showing kindess and solidarity to our fellow human beings, as our blue pixel drifts through a lonely cosmic void.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

What's your pornstar name?

So, what's your pornstar name? Way back in the age of the early commercial internet, it was a big meme on forums and bbs etc to have a thread going around asking what people's "pornstar names" were. There was usually a few varieties of how this was posted or authored, but it was usually your first pet's name followed by your mother's maiden name. This meme came and went - actually, a quick search on Boards.ie for 'pornstar name' - reveals the idea has been revived there several times over the last few years.

So while sitting around drawing and casually watching Facebook update as Twitter ticks along pleasantly - my new triumvirate of hobbies :) - I noticed that the idea has come around again in the Facebook generation. Suprising, but I looked into it. There are Facebook pages dedicated to "What's your pornstar name", apps that "work out your pornstar name for you" and groups where people just post their pornstar names, with no other connective thread between users.

And it can be funny. It produces odd results, non-sequitur type of titles and phrases that you have then to imagine yourself, or other people you know, using those names as a sort of "Nom du Porn" in the title credits of some hideous third-rate porno to attempt to disguise your presence out of shame. An Alan Smithee shield for you, the pornstar.

My crudely photoshopped Facebook results.

Scams are weird. Scams as a way of life involve long, tedious trawling of thousands of people for that one or two that fall for it. Now, you can go for the "Bar Scams" that Brian Brushwood - a good skeptic, btw - popularises on Scam School to get a free drink or small change, but I'm talking about the long term idea, the attempt to hit it big, or even hit it medium enough times that it could feasibly be a living. Your Nigerian 419 Scam is one of those. Skimming or ripping off credit card numbers for small fees by the hundreds theoretically makes you thousands, all that kind of thing. Perhaps that was the aim of the recent PSN security compromise, perhaps not.

As an example, a colleague was recently trying to sell a relatively new car through an online sales service. Contacted by someone abroad, he was sent a cheque for far more than his asking price, in the wrong currency. This is the kind of thing that would take a couple of weeks to clear to his bank. He got an email from the buyer professing that it was an accident, and could he send back a cheque for the change, after which the buyer would arrange to collect the car. Luckily he had some good advice - not from me, but from another workmate who has enough common sense to urge caution. Sure enough, the original cheque wouldn't cash when processed. But if even a few people selling expensive, new cars online "bite" on that kind of scam, you make a few hundred or - in this case - a few thousand per bite, and spend minimal amounts setting it up.

Pretty tawdry though, right? Really time consuming and tedious, checking out sellers, making new accounts on online sales sites, getting barred, posting cheques, lather, rinse, repeat. But there has to be enough in it to keep it rolling. And I would imagine, as outlined in the fantastic book by Mishy Glenny, McMafia that it takes organised crime to make so many small amounts with so much effort "pay off", although there must also be many amateur efforts in play as well. So many looking for information about potential targets that if you leave information publicly available, one of them is bound to find it.

That's the usual side of finding a way around security, that we've all heard about or experienced many, many times. Trawling through morasses of data until you find the point where human error or laziness lets down the system designed to keep other information safe. It becomes easier and easier when the stakes are low, or the amount of people many. And there are a lot of people on Facebook. 500 million, according to their stats.

So, who cares about Pornstar names? Well, cast your mind back to registering your email account. Or maybe your Amazon account. Or your online banking details. They probably asked you to supply a security question. That was probably your mothers maiden name, the name of your first pet or your first address. Now, I'm no computer genius, although I'm certainly more than literate. Within 5 minutes of searching Facebook for "pornstar names" under "posts from everyone" and then checking the profile of the first couple of individuals who posted theirs, I could go to their email addresses, ask for the security question "forgot my password" access and - in 2 of the 5 cases I checked - be in a position to enter one part of their "pornstar names" for access.

I didn't though, I emailed them instead. So, if you see a friend post their pornstar name on a social network in particular, tell them to delete the post. Or at least make sure their security question doesn't match either part of the meme. Way back in 1995 or 1996, I registered for my first free web-based email, at eircom.net. It was the account that suggested my internet moniker when my real name wasn't available and my security question was my mothers maiden name. Years later, in a context where only acquaintances were privy to an online conversation about "pornstar names", my account was hacked and used for a tiny, malicious misdeed or two. Painful. But if it happened now, with my new account, the person would have passwords and confirmation codes for real money, as opposed to whatever detritus was in my webmail account.

Someone with some minions, internet access and patience could do some damage to, anecdotally, 2 out of 5 Facebook users. The moral of the story? Always be a little skeptical of even the most harmless-seeming memes, especially if they're being posted publicly.

PS. If you're free on Thursday and want something to do, the outstanding Dublin Skeptics only have BLOODY RICHARD BLOODY WISEMAN talking, FOR BLOODY FREE in The Exchange, Dublin at 21:00. If you're running there from Galway, you can hop in a Go Bus and be up within 3 hours or less. And if you're not keen on staying in Dublin, you can be on a bus back just after! Exciting. It's unlikely I'll be there because of work, but that's a great evening for 20 europes worth of travel money.


PPS. This post was also thrown together while I'm waiting for certain institutions to write back to me with information on certain questions I put to them. I guess you have to expect colleges etc to be somewhat slower during these summer months. But it is annoying.