Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The iPhone test.

For reasons I can only speculate upon - after attending TAM 6.0, I am convinced a lot of skeptic-types have iPhones.  They were everywhere.

Ok - maybe lots of people have them and I just haven't recently been in a group large enough for long enough to notice how many.  I've had mine for a while now (almost 13 months...) and I notice while a few other people seem to have them in general....it seemed like a sizable increase in the TAM crowd.  More than normal?  Perhaps not and I'm not sure really I care.  I'm just saying, I would guess more.  

I don't have definitive proof for my Skeptics use iPhones theory - but I do have a picture I took on my iPhone, of James Randi talking about his
iPhone.  So perhaps this is a good place to find people who have iPhones.  Besides, I have like .5 posts and need to talk about something.

So....my question for follow skeptiPhoners is - what do you have on your Purchased Playlist?   I checked mine tonight while playing with the remote app (it's really good, in case you haven't heard) and I saw that I have only purchased 73 songs from the iTunes store on my computer and 1 song from the store while using my iPhone.  (Which is to say, I use Amazon MP3 store, mostly - but I digress)

I wondered, if other generic iPhone users tend to still purchase
over the computer, or if the ability to buy directly from the phone was more popular - and I just don't happen to use the feature.

At the least, I thought it would be interesting to see what other iPhone users have as their 'Purchased' and 'Purchased on iPhoneNameHere' playlists.  In addition, we get to see what you named your iPhone.  As you can see, mine is Ziggy.

If you own an iPhone  (I suspect if you got this far in the post, you might)  you can use the super cool 'screenshot' feature in 2.0 to post your own similar photos here.

Just navigate to the playlists from your home computer on the Remote app -and push both the top Sleep button and Home button at the same time to get screenshot.  It flashes at you, and then saves the screen grab in your photos and you can send it along via e-mail or grab it later when you sync.  Yeah, the screenshot feature is pretty hip too.

In an extra special touch of geekdom, you can see the 
 1 song I purchased on Ziggy.  I also did see at least 1 "Code Monkey" t-shirt on display at TAM - which is at least a hundred too few.

So, I'm a skeptic geek - and I used the feature.   If you have an iPhone, what have you bought on iTunes from your iPhone?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

At least they get some of it right.

When we recently registered the domain richmondskeptics.org - prior to redirecting it, we had the standard default "here's a bunch of links kinda like what you may have been looking for" which the domain registrars use to pimp out your domain for some ad revenue until you put up a real page.

And one of those links on our site was for Richmondghosts.com because as we all know - skepticism and ghost hunting are about as closely related as creationism and evolution.
I suppose it could, or more likely was, the Richmond part of the link that lumped us together....but that's just not as interesting.

Before I dive into the reasons that I think the folks over at Richmondghosts.com might not really have any proof - at all - of anything close to their magical ghost claim.  I would like to take a moment to recognize the things they get right.  Really, I was almost surprised.

First off, they openly acknowledge some of their investigations are clearly not conclusive.   This is good - generally folks that believe in "woo" are not open to rational explanations for the phenomenon they claim to have observed or otherwise professed a belief in.  It also opens the door to the idea that they may be willing to reconsider their position, given further rational opinions on the data they have collected.

Secondly, they openly warn against paying someone to perform the types of investigations they enjoy performing. This is at the bottom on their page for contacting them to preform a paranormal investigation.

And finally, they are clearly in this activity for the fun of it.  And I can respect that.  I am writing this blog for the fun of it - so we see eye to eye there.

Now, let's discuss some of the things about their site I find to be misleading, or at least potentially harmful to people with diminished critical thinking skills.

The most obvious problem with their activity is that there really is nothing new here.  They recycle the same-old ghost hunting arguments and tactics.   For instance:

-Misusing electronic devices to measure things which they believe to be "proof" of ghosts.
-Pretending to have an established protocol to follow which aids in the detection of the ghosts - which sounds kinda science-like, but is just made up crap.
-Investigations are typically ripe with post-hoc analysis.  That is, they record everything and anything and then dig for 'evidence' later.  Typcially, effective scientific claims involve hypothesis that predict the observed behavior - not just rationalizing anything that happened after the fact as a 'hit.'

So, they have some of the typical problems most skeptics like to poke holes in around these sorts of claims.  It's just for fun, right?  There's no harm here!

Well, no - there is plenty.  You just may not have seen it yet, therefore - it may not have affected you or your family personally.  Even then, you should still be concerned.  There are other issues here - real, falsifiable and demonstrable ones (unlike the ghosts) that one should consider before calling the Ghost hunters - and professing a real belief in ghosts.

A silly belief  (such as ghosts) can lead to other silly beliefs.   If there is an implausible claim which someone is "shown" to be true by a local groups of hobbyists - then perhaps a believer (or Victim) might just start to believe in other implausible claims in their day to day life.  Other similar claims that ignore the protocols of the scientific method - and have the very real potential to do very real harm.

The Victim may move further down the long trail of self-delusion - into belief in those other things.   Things like skipping vaccinations for their children, giving money to other psychic frauds, or even forgoing standard medical care in the name of the poorly "proven" woo - resulting in a likely early death.

My problem with Ghost hunting is that it attacks the skills people use to avoid these and other frauds.  Gateway woo, if you will.  And it's right here, in our backyard.

This is important.  

Monday, July 14, 2008

The amazing copper.

Part of being a skeptical - is to question. It's almost the whole part. Claims made, need to have evidence to support them. Easy. Well - not so much. 

At a young age, I first questioned the coolness and utility of having air pumps in my shoes - until around about the first time I saw a pair actually worn by someone. Then - at that moment - decided that I needed $110 for a pair of shoes.

I wanted them - really quite badly. And worked doing odd jobs, until I made enough money to buy them. As I recall - it took an exceptionally short amount of time. About 4 days or so, if I can trust my own memories.

When I finally worked up enough scratch to make the big purchase - my mother took to buy them.  At Cloverleaf mall - for those who care to know.  Upon trying them on - the salesmen seemed to think that somehow a 12 year old boy - who walked into the store with his mother, and cold hard cash - needed further persuasion to make the big purchase. Yeah, right. Those shoes we sold at least 5 days before I actually got there.

In his sales pitch, he mentioned that the pump really did make your shoes fit better enough - to help you jump higher. His reasoning, was because there was less 'space' in the shoe from the tounge to the top of the foot. You know....where they put the pump. How handy.

In addition, he claimed - in a normal shoe you get a massive top-of-foot to tongue-of-shoe 'gap.' You know - the ever perplexing ToF to ToS conundrum - perplexing shoe makers everywhere. And that this 'gap' hindered your ability to jump.  Oh really?  By how much, exactly?

Well - maybe, he was just full of shit.

Yeah, I think I knew it was crap when he told me.....but I bought it. All of it...the shoes - and his STUPID idea about why they would make me jump higher. I then repeated his lie to everyone who cared enough to listen as they checked out my super-cool new shoes for the next 3 weeks or so. Until, at which point, they were dirty and everyone else had a pair just like em.

But in that fit of emotion, making my first significant purchase of my young life - I was out and out lied to by a Salesman. Go figure, right? Yeah, this was before I knew they were all gonna lie to me. Wow, I hate me a salesman.

But soon my critical thinking won me over. I noticed there wasn't really any gap, no matter how fancy the show.  And surely the weight of the pump and bladder would offset any jumping ability increased caused by the tighter fit.

I hope similar reflection will soon spread to another group of folks who are also being lied to. People in this group come in a few flavors including - those who know they are being lied to.....and those who don't.  I'm out to help convert the ones who just don't know.

This group of folks - who haven't given it much thought.  Perhaps some of them are just currently caught up in their own self-delusion (similar to my 12 year-old pump-wearing self).  This group of folks are most broadly defined as the Audiophiles.

I'm not talking about the people who just like their stereo and have made it a hobby.  I'm talking about the Audiophiles who take their love for accurate sound - and basterdize it with claims that they, or anyone, just can not show to be true - in the form of  $7,250 Pear Anjou Audio Cables. 

I know....I'm the one generally sketpical about claims......so...WHERE'S MY EVIDENCE?

Yeah...it's coming - and it's from Google, so suck it.

Choice quote for those not into following links:

"I can't begin to describe how much effort Google spends maximizing performance at every level. We would tear down our data centers and rewire them with $500 ethernet cables if you could prove that it would reduce latency by 1%"

What is awesome about this quote, is that it comes in the wake of Googles open sourcing of their Protocol Buffers. Which is cool - because it certainly underscores on a very real and technical level why they care so much about that there 1%.

I'm not saying I understand it all perfectly....or that you need to either....but I'm geeky enough to know that Google takes latency (for any reason) in their data centers very seriously. It's important (again, see their work on Protocol Bufffers).
Denon (the makers of the $500 ethernet cable AND high-end audio gear) are claiming something that cost $500 is better than something that really should cost less than $5. And it's something Google uses quite a few of - they have lots of computers and I'm sure at least a few of them use copper wires to talk to each other. Copper wires they would gladly pay top dollar for if they could be demonstrated to show supierior ability to plain-old boring, inexspensive, copper wires inside the basic ethernet cable the rest of us use. Google has the need (if there is any meaningful advantage) - and the money for this product.
And I'm sure it costs Google damn near nothing compared to the $101.49 a FOOT Denon is charging. But Google would likley be among the first to pay for it.....if it Denon's performace claims even threaten to be worthwhile.
So one needs to ask the question.....if it's not worth it for Google (who processes WAY more data daily than I can even fathom).......perhaps - it's just not such a good deal for my data processing needs.

When it's important (anything really - Ethernet and Speaker Cables, Life, The Universe and Everything) you need to get it right. To get it right, you have to test the claims.  And testing these claims is fairly easy.  Either you get better data rates - or you don't.  Meaningful results - are not hard to achieve.  

If you want good datacenter performance, one should not expect to just purchase the most expensive unit available for each part and hope that alone makes it the 'best.'  You need to test each part to ensure the preformance is real and optimal.

In the case of super expensive Ethernet cables - and Audio cables....the conclusion I seem to find is that if you think these expensive products outperform standard cables.....you are wrong.

And if someone tells you they do - then you are being lied to. Possibly, but not always - by some sort of Salemen.

I guess, it's possible one would that understand these types of super-cables aren't actually better and buy them anyway. However, I think that is the exception - not the rule. Most folks just don't know.

So I ask those folk to look around a bit - see what the evidence is...don't trust me - go do the research. Or look to the folks who deal with these sorts of claims on some level, in the real world - like Google.

Google tests preform their tests everyday. I've performed a few of my own several times myself constructing this very post. And you know they are good at it (whatever it is...but it seems they have the potential need for lots and lots of Ethernet cables).

$500 ethernet cables are STUPID. And if you don't understand WHY - then perhaps you should look somewhere for an opinion on the matter. Let's see....where would I go to look something like this up? I've got some books around here somewhere....

And why we're making shit up....you did you know that if you type google into google - you'll break the Intenet. Go on....try it!

And for those of you reading this who do understand exactly WHY $500 ETHERNET CABLES ARE STUPID - perhaps you should read up on the Protocol Buffers, they seem pretty hip.

So there you have it....Google wouldn't pay to replace their ethernet cable in their datacenters with $500 dollar Ethernet cables (because they aren't worth it)......and the CEO of PEAR Audio Cables, wouldn't test their Speaker Cables to earn a free $1,000,000. Surely the jerk at PEAR would have the common decency to take a 30 minutes test (of his own product) and give the free money to a good cause.

But no. He can't do it....he can't go into a Google-like Lab (or any other controlled setting) and perform a simple test to verify his super-audio cable quality claims. Much like the makers of the $500 Ethernet cable CANNOT DO.

If they could...they would. They can't do it - because they don't have the ability to do what they claim. At least, not in any meaningful, testable way. And if you can't test it - then the effect become rather questionable. Always - that's how Science works.

The questionable claims at hand become even more dubious - when you consider the undocumented nature of the claimed improvement over standard products of 1/500th the cost (or even less). If you have a claim....let's see your data. Give it to Google - let them see it....you'll make a BIG SALE.

But I think I can safely predict Denon would never sell Google on the need to pay obscene amounts of money for their Ethernet Cables.....And likewise - it seems unlikely anyone could sell them a truckload of $7,250 Pear Anjou Audio Cables. No matter how well the Salesman manages to lie to them.

So, the next time someone makes claim about the incredible nature of their amazing copper wires - perhaps you should ask them to show you the data.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Today at lunch, I mentioned the idea that as we grow older, time 'seems' to speed up - because, naturally - we have lived and experienced a longer and longer period of time.  So each day of our life represents a smaller total of the whole.

To say it another way, the more days you are alive, the smaller amount of time a single 24 hour period represents of your total life so far - relative to the whole.  It is getting smaller and smaller with each passing, additional day.   This reminds me of the fantastic description of the natural log (and e) I found here. 

I think the same process also applies to the tournament chips used in poker games.  Big stacks have less value for each individual chip - because they have more of them.  The short stack with 5 - $100 chips places a much greater value on each chip than the guy with 180 $100 chips.

Anyway - you can start sounding like a nutball when you start talking about time and the natural log, so I wanted to make sure I shared the link, in case someone interested in it comes along.

The blog starts here.

Hello all.

And so it begins - after a chance encounter at the truly amazing TAM 6.0 - we find ourselves at the start of something new, back home in Richmond, Virginia.

We had a fantastic meeting with the RAFT group - and now we are off and running.  Domains are registered - websites are in progress - and the meet-ups are starting.  Why not bring a blog along for the ride?

Most importantly - everything about the folks we are reaching out to has been excellent!

See - we are but a small group so far, and are currently on a quest to find other similar local groups.  We all had to go to Vegas to meet each other - so we are currently on a quest to further explore the groups already around us.   Today we met some amazing folks from the RAFT group in Richmond.   I truly look forward to a chance to get to know each of them.  

We spoke about many sources of our Skeptical nature.  We talked about the content online - webpages, blogs, podcasts, and tv shows we loved.   We talked about authors and  stage performers.  And some of the people, places and events in our lives which have on some level shaped the people we are today.  This is currently leading to our second website update.  A page which will serve as a repository of all the things that have influence our lives and our skeptic ability.   

(Note: for those reading this who think the word "skeptic" means - one who can see the future - because I put it in-front of the word - ability or for any other reason.  WE ARE GLAD YOU FOUND US!  Please read more about us and our material.  Learn what is means to 'cold read.'  And then come meet us and talk about it!) 

Link, to our favorite stuff coming soon.  And if you think of a clever name for this information - let me know.

This blog will serve as a place we can all stay in touch - and comment on our day to day, week to week ventures as part of a Skeptics group in Richmond, Virginia.

Who are we?  Jennifer & John, Patrick and John.   Want to know more?  Read our blogs, check out our site - and come meet us at an event.  We look forward to meeting all of you.  We hope to find more folks willing to join up in the Richmond Skeptics cause - wherever our efforts and ideas may lead us.