Monthly Archives: January 2009

Hilarious out-of-context Simpsons picture

Here. The potential ingredients + the fingers = hilarious.

Check out the rest of the site for more nostalgic Simpsons hilarity.

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Sometimes I just can’t believe our species is this dumb

So apparently when a million or more people watch something, and 18 people complain, that’s enough to set off a huge investigation that wastes a bunch of time and money. Ok then. So even though we live in a society where majority rules in terms of deciding things (such as elections), the minority of people (those who get a case of the vapors upon hearing the word “shit” on a news show) get to decide who gets fined for what on TV and gets to determine what we should all think is “offensive”. Riiiiight…

Um….I dunno how I feel about this

Some drug farmers in Switzerland got themselves epic pwned by Google Earth satellite view. Justice? Gross violation of human freedoms? Light to moderate violation (if there is such a thing…)? I don’t know how I feel about this, but I know I don’t like it.

Ok first off: I get this is another country, so I’m aware that the laws are different, but Google Earth and its abilities apply to all of us regardless of where this particular story took place.

On the one hand, these people were doing something illegal. On the other hand, typically, people have a right to privacy unless they voluntarily give permission or there is some legal decision made to force “permission”. The question seems to be: Would they have been found out, if this arguably invasive technology hadn’t been used? However one could argue that this is simply another tool that would have always been used, provided we’d always had it — it just “seems” invasive because it’s new. For example, DNA testing is still controversial because collecting the samples can be done through subterfuge or other seedy means and people consider their DNA to be their property. Or at least part of their right to privacy. However, DNA evidence is often used to convict and clear suspects who are accused of committing crimes, with good results.

Should we get over this sense of “privacy” we all have for the greater good? Because, after all, if we aren’t doing anything wrong, what do we have to hide? Or is privacy an important protection from the prejudices and otherwise nosiness of other people? I don’t know that I’m entirely comfortable with this use of Google Earth by the authorities, but with changing times and technology I feel like “privacy” may become an antiquated notion – the way we conceive of it now, anyway. Should we change what privacy means? To what end?

For example, if Google street view hadn’t been used to catch drug dealers and had instead been used to, say, spy on a local business to survey the security or whatnot in order to break in, would that be ok? That may be a ridiculous example, but my point is that accessing people’s private/secure information for the purpose of doing something illegal certainly can’t be justified. Although, with Google Earth such a thing might be possible.

Personally I don’t think it’s right to invoke an “ends justifies means” attitude about this. Just because it was criminals who were caught in this case doesn’t mean that other people can’t use the same program for illegal purposes. However, it’s not best to argue based on what people might do unless there’s good evidence that there’s a high probability of the behaviour. I simply don’t have enough data to make a more concrete statement.

So, I don’t know the answer to this, but I know one thing – this gives me the willies. I just don’t know if they’re sensible willies, or if they are based on an out-dated attitude that I should re-evaluate and change.

Video of the Week – The Japanese will take over us all

This is just about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

"What This Headline Should Have Read" Inaugural Post

I’m going to start a new regular topic called “What This Headline Should Have Read” for when I see particularly ridiculous news items. The rules are that either the headline is way off from the actual story, or the story is in in some way shamefully ridiculous with the headline being laughably erroneous or euphemistic.

Today’s offending item is a news item from imdb.com that reads:

Hewitt’s Ghostly Encounter

27 January 2009 11:10 AM, PST

Jennifer Love Hewitt is a firm believer in the afterlife – the actress is convinced her grandmother has spoken to her from beyond the grave. The 29-year-old stars in spooky TV show Ghost Whisperer, in which she plays a woman who can see and communicate with ghosts.

And it was a chance encounter with the show’s producer, James Van Praagh, who is also a psychic, that put Hewitt in touch with her late relative.

She tells Britain’s Ok! magazine, “We had an evening with James where he kind of did this thing, and my grandmother came through.

“She just wanted to say hello and tell me that she was looking out for me. It was really nice.”

In my job when people see things that aren’t there (i.e., hallucinate), talk to them, and make elaborate stories about these figments of imagination (i.e., delusions), we call a psychiatrist for a consult.

For any news to take this at all seriously without a shred of irony is laughable. Even though it’s just some lame internet news site, is that some sort of license to throw their brains out the window before writing these things? James van Praagh is a crook no better than Sylvia Browne (save that he’s not got quite the empire she has) with no abilities that are demonstrably real or able to withstand any scrutiny. He warps people’s brains by manipulating the memories people have of their loved ones and the emotions they have surrounding their deaths. John Edward may be the president of Douche Island, but he’s got to be President Douche of someone – enter: James van Praagh.

But anyway, to the headline itself: How is a report from a 2-bit psychic at all the same as a “ghostly encounter”? Both are imaginary, yes, but a “ghostly encounter” typically involves the person believing they actually encountered someone. As opposed to some merciless fatso telling them what a dead person allegedly said.

This headline should have read: “James van Praagh has Schizophrenia” or “…is Heartless Crook”.

Remember that time journalism had standards? Me neither. But just to stick it to the people who deserve it, I will be commenting on those I come across more often, rather than just snarking about it to myself.

[Edited for formatting – was trying to decide the best way to do this…I’ll leave it this way and see if it works out.]

Nerd of the week/Wikipedia rant

It’s about time I got back to my list of nerds I respect. My first example was Batman, who, although definately fits the bill, is fictional and perhaps somewhat undermines my point that nerds can still be “cool”. Today I bring you the first REAL LIFE example of nerds that have created something that is considered “cool” in popular culture.

Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger – Founders and co-inventors of Wikipedia.

Now, Wikipedia gets a lot of flack from people. Because of its open content people feel it is vulnerable to contamination by vandalism or hoaxes and thus untrustworthy. This cynicism is fully warranted and, as a hard-core skeptic, encouraged, but one should not totally discount a source of information based on a few bad examples. All to often, I hear people dismissing Wikipedia all-out as a “worthless” source and should, in no way, be used when conducting serious research. This is actually far from the truth. When used correctly, Wikipedia can be an extremely helpful and powerful tool for researchers.

(As those of you who are not new to this blog have already figured out, I tend to write long articles and this will be no exception. I thank you for your patience if you read the whole thing. The reason behind this is that a) I like to be thorough and b) I write about subjects that I am passionate about and about which I have much to say. This article, while officially is about Wales and Sanger, is really about the topic of research. I love research. I think the internet is the greatest invention in the history of the world. And I HATE people who resort to asking other people questions when they could’ve easily looked it up themselves. Wikipedia (and similar sites) have combined all of these things together in a beautiful package that, when I first discovered it, gave me an orgasm er.. Nerdasm.)

In the now famous experiment by Nature, a small sample size of articles in Wikipedia were compared to analogous articles in the more trusted Encyclopedia Britannica. What they found was that the accuracy of articles and the number of errors contained within them were comprable with Wikipedia having slightly more minor or major inaccuracies. That experiment didn’t really show anything conclusive and is the subject of great contraversy but it tends toward showing that maybe the standards and practices of Wikipedia aren’t as laxidasical as people think. Another, more recent experiment, had experts rate the accuracy of articles within AND OUTSIDE their field of expertise (ie. In one group, a behavioral psychologist was asked to rate the accuracy on an article about behavioral psychology and, in another group, a professor of geology was asked to rate an article about, for example, particle physics). What this study found was that experts tended to rate the articles within their areas of expertise as acceptable or “credible” while rating the non-related articles as less so. The author of the study concluded that people tend to be very cynical about subjects they don’t know much about AND that Wikipedia isn’t really that bad.

While most people tend to think of Wikipedia editting as “some guy edits the page to whatever he wants and then it stays there” it’s actually quite a bit more organized than that. The “community” or more dedicated users/experts routinely review changes and edit accordingly. If they come across something that is not cited or is extraordinary or contrary to established facts (or is obviously vandalism) then they quickly change it back or flag it as contraversial. It’s the same peer-review process that many respected and recognized authorities have used for years. The community does admit however, that no matter what, there will always be errors that users should be aware of. The same goes for the entire research community as a whole beyond Wikipedia.

As mentioned above, even something universally recognized as the Encyclopedia Britannica has been shown to contain a number of factual errors. A number of reputable scientific journals, conferences and articles have been the victim of similar “vandalism” incedents such as The Sokal Affair and the SCIgen program. That’s why there is a peer-review process and articles are not published willy-nilly without thorough vetting. Sure, cases emerge where the reviewers/publishers come out with egg on their face, but those incedents are rare and notable BECAUSE of the sheer number of accurate, factual articles they stand out against. And no reasonable person would ever suggest that we completely discount the entire scientific community/methodology because of these rare examples where the system failed.

But I realize not everyone is reasonable. Some people, under the guise of being a skeptic, make sweeping statements that all science should be considered suspect and/or untrustworthy. I made mention earlier of being a “hard-core skeptic”. I do not want that statement and the previous few paragraphs to confuse you, dear reader, into thinking that I believe all science should be discounted because of these frauds. Quite the opposite. Those incedents, no matter how embarrasing, serve to strengthen (in the long run) the peer-review process by forcing reviewers to be extra cautious and thorough before accepting anything. Being the person who signed off on an article that turned out to be randomly generated by a computer program, or purposefully faked in an attempt to dupe publishers is NOT something you want to have on your C.V! It also serves as a means of “waking up” researchers to think more critically about what they read and do further research instead of just reading one article. One site that I know of that prints fake articles on purpose, for these very reasons, is Snopes.com. Because they investigate urban legends, they have published a handful of articles that are complete bullshit in order to demonstrate how easy it is to fall prey to these types of things. This serves as a reminder that maybe not everything we read is completely factual and you should always follow-up on research, lest you look like a complete jackass.

Back to Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger did a great thing. Before Wikipedia, research was either costly or reserved to physically going to a library and searching through long shelves of literature. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but for the average person, that much effort/time/money is generally off-putting resulting in the dreaded “asking the person next to you” syndrome. Oh my FSM, I cannot tell you how much I hate it when people do that. In fact, while I’m on this tangent, I would have to say that the absolute worst thing that has happened to the internet is Yahoo! Answers. What a terrible, terrible idea. I think that is what people who diminish the usefulness of Wikipedia THINK Wikipedia is like when in fact it is just about as far removed from Wikipedia as anything can be. Maybe I’ll save the rest of this rant for another article in the future.

What confuses me the most about people who are overly-critical of Wikipedia is that these are generally the same people that have no problem relying on whomever is in the same room as you when you have a question rather than looking it up. How can you chide people for looking up information on a site that you believe is merely written by some stranger while at the same time being lazy and asking a non-expert that happens to be physically close to you?

Wikipedia makes doing research fun and easy and allows everyone to benefit from everyone else’s effort on even the most obscure of topics like TV shows and small towns. It serves as a great starting point when doing research that, usually, has links to sources that are more “acceptable” for citing purposes. It (hopefully) will slowly convince the world that relying on the person in the room next to you to answer all your questions or quoting a single source is just plain stupid compared to quickly looking it up yourself. Yes, it has its limitations and should never be directly quoted, but it should not be completely dismissed
and outright forbidden as I have seen done in the past by my educators.

So kudos Wales and Sanger!! Being nerds has led to the creation of something that even the most anti-nerd jock would agree is cool and something that us nerds can use to more easily increase our nerdiness.

Video of the Week – nominate a video for a Streamy

Go vote for your favorite web series at streamys.org. Some suggestions to check out:
The Guild (comedy series)
Why do People Laugh At Creationists? (educational – reality)
Edward Current (hosted)

They can be nominated for best show, best host, best whatever…

If anyone bothers to read this thing, let us know about some shows you like in the comments.