Baloney Detection Kit

Friday, 30 October 2009 12:52 by salim

These are the days when dubious science and other “scientific” claims fills our media and information space. For e.g., if we look at the programming in Discovery Channel or History Channel, which by name implies a rational approach to things around us, we will find large number of them actually deals with issues like Big Foot, UFOs and End of World in 2012 etc.

How would a common person who is not well versed in all these branches of science figure out what is good science and what is just baloney? It turns out that one does not need to be an expert in science to figure that out.

There is always a pattern that is followed by the peddlers of pseudoscience that with some effort can be identified. The key thing is to be Skeptical. Not just about things that are out there like Big foot, but also about science itself. Well, that is one of the main characteristics of scientific investigation. Do not believe anything just because it comes from a respected source or a respected person.

So, here is a very nice video that describes a ten step toolkit that we can use to detect Boloney.

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Categories:   Science
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The Rainy Rainy Fall

Thursday, 29 October 2009 00:58 by salim

This probably is the rainiest fall that I have seen after coming to the US. But, coming from one of the rainiest place in earth, I have always had very different feeling towards rain than most of my colleagues and friends here.

Kerala gets an average of 3000 MM of rain an year mostly from two monsoons. One of the main things that fascinated me when I first came here was the very distinct seasons. Back in Kerala we have only two seasons. The rainy season (monsoon from June to November) when it rains all the time and the dry season when it rains only every other day.

The South-west monsoon comes to Kerala almost always the day when schools open after midsummer vacation (one of those British legacies which we still continue for reasons beyond my comprehension, but that is in another post). The correlation is actually uncanny. If the government decides postpone the school opening for any reason, the monsoon will also get postponed! Anyways, when it starts, it rains for several days without a gap. One of the main things between the monsoon and the rain is the noise level. Well, I wouldn’t quite classify it as noise. It is very loud, but it is also quite rhythmic and sometimes even melodic.

When I listen to rain, even here, I try to identify the different sounds it makes when it falls on different surfaces. Each kind of leaf has a very distinct sound when the rain drips falls on it. The long tender closely weaved coconut leaves makes an almost hissing sound. The huge oily Taro leaves makes a very bass ringy tone. The leaves of jackfruit tree makes a sound almost like a kettle drum (well more like a Chenda). it is like a huge percussion orchestra. May be that is how we got our affinity towards percussion.

The rain while continue unabated for several days, it changes it intensity from time to time. Almost like waves. The sound rise and fall periodically. Sometimes, the rain becomes almost a shower and the rhythm becomes very truncated. Soon, there will be a rumble, almost like a train coming from a distance… the next wave of rain. One can feel it comes closer and closer, soon the sound engulfs everything else. Yet another wave….

Sometimes I do miss the monsoon rain. So, these periods of fall rain, while much less in strength makes me feel home.

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Categories:   Nature | Self
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Simply, absolutely fabulous

Friday, 23 October 2009 23:20 by salim

Guerilla Singers at the AHP meeting.

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Categories:   Politics
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Why I don’t use an anti-virus

Wednesday, 21 October 2009 00:26 by salim

For the last three or four years, I have not been using any anti-virus software in any of my machines at home. We have two laptops and a few desktops all of which are continuously connected to the internet. Both me and Shobha are very active internet users. Our primary communication mode is email and instant messaging. But, after Vista/XP SP2, we made a decision that the cost of licensing an antivirus software and performance penalty that it causes is not worth the protection it provides. Furthermore, we are the only people who use the computer. In the last 20 years or so that we have been using computers, we believe that we have enough behavioral protection against malicious programs and social engineering kind of attacks. My primary browser is still IE (8).

I used to have both Symantec and McAffe antivirus thingies. I also tried a couple of freeware versions as well. The first two are extremely intrusive and makes all sorts of issues during normal operation. It was impossible to run such intrusive and resource hungry background processes in my Audio Workstation. The same with Shobha with her graphic workstations.

Today, just for the heck of it, i downloaded and installed MS Security Essentials. I have been reading about it from the beta stage. The reviews of it were not all positive as we know. But the overall rating was that it is not too far behind in detecting malware. A lot of people praised its small footprint and conservative resource usages. So, installed it and ran a full check of the system. Of course it used between 20-40% of the processor (one core) but very low memory footprint (50MB during full scan with UI open). As I expected, it did not find any malware. So, after 3 years of 12-16 hours of online exposure without any “security” other than my common sense and the basic protection provided by the OS and browser.

I already turned off the live protection. In a few days I will eventually uninstall it as well.

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Dubious shadows that live in the holes in our knowledge

Friday, 9 October 2009 02:09 by salim

There are so many dubious hypotheses and proclamations that solely live in the holes in our knowledge. You can see them in many areas. For e.g. the (tragically) popular Creationist interpretations of life (recently dubbed as Intelligent design), many “alternative” medicine ideas like Homoeopathy, acupuncture, naturopathy etc, various self healing/self help methodologies in various names, UFOlogy and so on

One common thread that links all these fantastic ideas is that rely almost exclusively in the holes in our current knowledge. All of them directly or indirectly complains about a large scale conspiracy in which all the scientists, governments, school and college teachers and peer reviewed publications are deeply involved with the sole aim to desecrate or dismiss the claims of these fantasists.

Recently there were a whole bunch of buzz about Ardipithecus Ramidus, a Hominid that lived before Lucy the Austrelopithecus and potentially one step closer to the common ancestor of humans and large apes like Chimpanzee. This prompted me to see what Discovery Institute had to say about this new development. Strangely enough, my various searches could only produce a commentary about a the Texas school board testimony from March this year. This is quite understandable. If one reads the books and articles that talks about creationism (or its hip name Intelligent Design) instead of providing proof through scientific rigor, it only points out to the gaps (in many cases erroneously, but in some cases, actual gaps like lack of completeness transitional fossils) in the current body of knowledge.

A popular technique that is used by a lot of “new age” thinkers is to use (or misuse) popularized notions about higher science and then try to correlate it with half baked notions of ancient philosophy. One such hilarious attempt is the one to explain the efficacy of homoeopathy, which essentially dispenses distilled water as medicine. The homoeopathic “medicines” has been tested by various high sensitivity tools and methods by both proponents and critics to find any trace of the original substance these medicines are allegedly derived from. There has been no evidence. One can use simple high school chemistry to prove that the repeated dilutions will eventually remove even a single molecule of the substance that we originally started with. There are several “theories” that suggest molecular reorganization of water because of the presence of the substance, or the mysterious transference of the “spirit” of the substance to the water by repeated dilution and vigorous shaking. While these are amusing, i would say the funniest one is this. This explanation uses quantum entanglement as a potential cause of efficacy of homoeopathy. It states “Homeopathy could be a macroscopic analogue to quantum teleportation..”. For a person whose basic quantum mechanics knowledge comes from science channel shows where quantum entanglement is pictured by huge balls or people, this might seem plausible. It is like after seeing the gravity distortion pictured as a rubber sheet and bowling balls in the TV and trying to hypothesize that the reason why my bowling ball always goes to the gutter is because of the space time curvature created by the ball.

Another technique is to use the concepts of zero point energy and dark energy as analogous to the mysterious energy that a lot of ancient texts talk about. Many self help, life coaching techniques as well as spiritual healers claim that their idea works due to a mysterious energy that is unmeasurable by us. What is the proof? Well, it is the zero point energy and/or dark energy.

If anyone try to question them, they will immediately revert to the global conspiracy that try to prevent any of these “novel scientific” ideas from becoming public.

While the Discovery Institute has a very specific political and religious reason for fighting theory of evolution, these spirit healers, UFOlogists etc. are primarily eying for the money they could make from healing workshops and book publishing.

Skeptoid has a very nice article that lists a 15 point test on how to spot pseudoscience. It is a very good checklist to refer if you want to test someone’s dubious claim.

Being a skeptic is an evolutionary necessity!

Story of Dawn

Monday, 5 October 2009 17:12 by salim

Dawn is determined to face CIGNA face to face to demand an explanation to why they denied her required care for her treatable brain tumor for 2 years. CIGNA changed their position recently after a huge movement by Moveon.org and other progressive organizations and people.

Dawn is driving down to CIGNA HQ in Philadelphia to face the CEO in person.

All the best wishes for her. She is a brave soul and is doing something that each one of us should do. Healthcare is not a privilege, it is a fundamental right.

Read about Dawns journey at her blog here. http://www.itcouldhappentoanyone.com/2009/10/05/hitting-the-road/

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Categories:   Freedom | Politics
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