Friday, February 26, 2010

Predicting the Future

Predicting the future with accuracy isn't easy. I've tried it before with limited success. But today I'm going to make three very specific predictions about the near future. In less than a week, we'll know how accurate I will have been.

Let's begin.

Prediction #1

Tomorrow morning (Saturday the 27th of February 2010) the Johannesburg contingent of the USS Dauntless (or "Away Team Alpha" as they are known) will be getting together to donate blood en masse. Here's the best part: you're welcome to join us!

If you'd like to donate blood with us, or just share in some awesome Star Trek conversation, meet us at McDonald's in Bruma for a hearty breakfast at 10:00am. After breakfast, we'll head across the road to the local SANBS branch and donate some blood.

Hope to see you there!

Prediction #2

On the evening of Wednesday the 3rd of March 2010, there will be a gathering called Joburg Sceptics in the Pub! Yay!

We'll be meeting at Dros in Cresta Shopping Centre at 19:00. We've been seeing new faces at SiTP every month. This time we hope to see yours!

Prediction #3

In the next few days, Simon Halliday over at Amanuensis will be posting the next edition of Carnival of the Africans. If you've written something sceptical or sciencey either in or about the African continent recently, please head over there and send it to him.

Right, so, give it a week and let's see how well my predictions hold up!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Google Buzz

In case you're some kind of Luddite and don't yet know what Google Buzz is (in which case, why are you reading this?), it's Google's new venture to crack into the social networking space currently dominated by the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

Its launch a couple of weeks ago has been surrounded by some controversy, as many people were taken by surprise by some of Buzz's features. And they were loud an obnoxious about it. And Google were pretty surprised about that. So was I.

As a long-time Google user, the way Buzz worked was intuitive to me. It made perfect sense, and still does. Although I can see why some people may have been upset about it, for the most part my response has been "These things have been standard in various Google products since forever. There's no point acting all surprised about it now."

Controversy aside, I really enjoy Buzz. The way it so neatly plugs into my pre-existing Google services makes me happy. Although I'm using it enthusiastically, and now consider it my primary social networking tool, I'm not ready to delete my Facebook or Twitter accounts just yet. Here's why.

Mobile Access

I'm a big mobile user, but I don't yet have an Android device (and I'll never be buying an iPhone). As a result, my options for interacting with Buzz are severely limited: I can post and read geo-relevant buzzes via Google Maps for Mobile, I can submit new posts via email, I can read (but not respond to) my friends' comments as the notifications appear in my Gmail inbox and I can share (and comment on) items via Google Reader's mobile interface. (I use the iPhone/Android version of that, not the standard one. My Nokia's browser handles it just fine). Problem is I can't access my full Buzz feed anywhere via mobile.

In contrast, mobile access to Facebook and Twitter are pretty strong. The Facebook mobile site, while not fully featured, at least allows me to interact with my contacts at a basic level. The Twitter mobile site is also adequate, but a 3rd-party app, Gravity, gives me almost as much Twitter power as Hootsuite (my desktop Twitter client of choice).

I assume Google Buzz will be rolling out a more comprehensive mobile interface in the near future. If not, I expect to see some 3rd-party apps to handle it.

Event Planning

Facebook's Events feature is unparalleled in the services I've seen. I use it often. Google Calendar, while a good alternative to Microsoft Outlook (particularly within the context of a Google Apps domain), lacks the social features Facebook Events include. While practical, Google Calendar is pretty cold and business-like, not social. All of that is academic, since Google Calendar doesn't currently interface directly with Buzz anyway.

I hope to see Google Calendar including some more social features, and/or perhaps an "Add to Buzz" button. I expect we'll see something like that eventually... I just hope it's soon.


When it comes to running the USS Dauntless, we have a strong presence in the social networking space. Our strongest is in Facebook where we have both a Group and a Fan Page. Lately the fan page has seen the most action, since it's hooked up to our Twitter account, making content syndication practically effortless.

Twitter's Lists feature, while nowhere near as useful as Facebook's Groups and Fan Pages, is a start, and we use that too.

Buzz currently doesn't have anything like it. In order to replicate the functionality in Buzz, I'd have to create a new Google account under the Dauntless's name and switch back and forth between it and my own account. Which would be a pain.

I hope to see Buzz introduce some kind of groups feature. Perhaps using a model similar to FriendFeed's (since Buzz is so much like FriendFeed in other ways already). It might even be cool to see some sort of integration with Google Groups (which we also use) along the lines of how Google Wave has done it.


Over the years I've built up a sizable list of friends in Facebook. While a fair number of them are also linked to me via Google Buzz already (via the auto-following feature borrowed from Google Talk), most of them are not. It would take quite some effort to migrate all my friends across from Facebook to Buzz. Especially since a few of them either don't have Google Accounts (I know, right?) and others have some sort of moral objection to using Buzz because of the privacy controversy.

I'm hoping that this is something I won't have to deal with. If either Buzz, Facebook or some third party developer produces a nice integration tool that effectively puts all my Facebook tools inside Buzz, I'll be perfectly happy. I predict, however, that at some point I'll have to decide whether or not to cut loose those of my friends who refuse to move over.

If you'd like to avoid being one of those, I'd suggest you head over to my Google Profile and follow my Buzz stream.

What are your thoughts on Buzz? Are you planning to leave Facebook and Twitter at some point too?


A few months ago, in a private forum, I tried to engage in a debate with conspiracy theorist and climate crank Ivo Vegter on the subject of his nonsense climate change denialist rants.

I quickly found myself out of my depth. A combination of my own lack of familiarity with both the climate science and denialist pseudoscience, and Vegter's skill with the combo of logical fallacies Changing the Goal Posts, Gibberish and a bunch of others thrown in forced me to back down.

Fortunately, there are those among us who are more skilled than I at this sort of thing. Such a person, Michael Meadon of Ionian Enchantment, has stepped forward to engage Vegter on his nonsense.

Although I missed the initial exchange of fire on Twitter (cos I was on a beach somewhere when it happened), I recommend you read Michael's first broadside. And then Vegter's frenzied and limp response. (a game of Name That Logical Fallacy, anyone?)

Although I'm certain that Vegter himself is too ideologically bound to his position to budge, I do look forward to seeing a balanced, well-informed and rational counterpoint to his ravings being available on the Internets.

Grab the popcorn, folks. This one's gonna be awesome!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Nerdies 2010 - The Results

Well, it's over. Nerdmag's 2010 Nerdies awards have come and gone, and the winners announced.

Congratulations to @BecauseI and @NickHuntDavis! It was a rough contest, but you guys performed excellently. Enjoy those awesome prizes!

To my readers: thank you all for the support, forwards, blog posts, retweets, arm-twisting, and most importantly, the votes you guys offered. I had no idea my cause would be taken up so strongly by all of you, and I reckon I owe you all pretty big :)

To whoever may or may not have been cheating on my behalf: I don't know who you are or condone your actions, but I do appreciate your intent. Thank you for your apparently dedicated, if misguided efforts. I never thought I'd see the day when someone (or perhaps several someones) would be willing to hack a poll to get me to win (assuming that was the goal). Who knew?

Thank you also to The Skeptic Blacksheep for giving me the push to enter the competition. Thanks to my running mate, The Skeptic Detective, for sharing her publicity with me. Thanks also to @SheeBeeGee for running the whole thing.

I hope we'll see another Nerdies contest in 2011, and I hope we'll get a chance to do it all again (hopefully with less drama next time).

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Monday, February 08, 2010

Nerdies 2010 - Final Round

Okay gang, it's the final stretch. Thanks to you awesome humans I managed to get into the final round of the contest. Woohoo!

I'm going to have to ask for your indulgence one more time, and this is the time when it really counts.

To read the announcement about the final round, go here.

If you'd like to skip the announcement and go straight to the voting make like thus:

Thanks again, gang... I owe you all multiple high fives!

In case you're new here and doubt my worthiness, check this out.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Put This In Your Face

Michael Meadon over at Ionian Enchantment has published a sceptical tour de force: In Praise of Deference.

Money quote:
The scientific method, far from denying human failings... exists exactly because of them: it is because the human mind is so prone to error and bias that we need this vast, expensive and seemingly inefficient set of institutions, norms and practices we call “science”.
Go on. Put it into your eyes. It will make them happy!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Cheers, ZA Tech Show

I hate unsubscribing from things. I especially hate unsubscribing from podcasts. I dunno, I guess I feel a sense of loyalty to a show once I've added it to my list. I'll patiently put up with a fair amount of crap before I'll consider going through the effort of removing it from my Google Reader. After all, it costs me nothing more than the time it takes to listen to it... time that would otherwise have been spent unproductively anyway.

So it was with a heavy heart that I unsubscribed from the ZA Tech Show podcast this week. I've been a listener of theirs pretty much since the beginning.

At first I particularly enjoyed the show because it offered a much needed portal into the South African tech scene. It provided useful and valuable information and filled a very empty niche. Awesome podcasting.

But as the show has "progressed", it's changed. They've mentioned on the show the oft-repeated criticism they've received for harping on Apple products all the time. The "ZA Mac Show" was the term used. Not being an Apple fan myself, I found it kind of annoying too. But I was willing to look past it for the good stuff. Besides, I'm a also a fanboy, if not for Apple. I get it.

But at some point in the last few months the quality of the content tipped the balance. The Apple Fanboy Circle-jerking started occupying a larger and larger portion of the show, with the grandiose claims being made about Apple and its products growing in grandiosity from one episode to the next. The giddy fawning over the Apple iPad in last week's episode was the culmination of that.

The rest of the content simultaneously deteriorated in quality, with more and more major errors creeping into their reports and with little or no attempt to correct or recant bad information given out after the fact. If I, a layperson, can spot their errors off the top of my head without having done any deliberate research into the matter, surely something is amiss? And these are professional technology journalists!

Once it gets to the point where I'm shouting at my phone in the car because the voices coming out of it are saying nothing but crap, it's time to say goodbye.

So, goodbye fellas. But before I go, there's one last thing I want to say for the record: Apple didn't invent the touch-screen smartphone. The iPhone was not the first smartphone capable of running downloadable third-party apps. Let's do a little research before stating things as fact, okay? You know, journalism.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

My Nerd-Cred

As part of the 2010 Nerdies hoopla, fellow nerd-sceptic-blogger Angela, the Skeptic Detective, has tagged me to present my nerd resume, so here goes!

If this post is too long for you to read, you should know only this: I have actually used the following statements in real-life online conversations:
  1. "[James T. Kirk] never pursued a J'Naii or a Vissian cogenitor... they're both vaguely female. [He only pursued] species that have a clear male/female dimorphism with human-like female characteristics."
  2. "Ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny!"
In case you need more convincing, here goes:

First: Star Trek

I am very likely the biggest Trekkie you'll meet. And yes, that's "Trekkie". True Star Trek fans don't bother with the whole bogus Trekkie vs Trekker nonsense. To prove this, I present the following:

I own, and often wear, several Starfleet uniforms. I even got married in one of them:
Yes. My wife is awesome.

I run a Star Trek fan club, the USS Dauntless. I also sit on the board of directors of the Dauntless' parent organisation STARFLEET the International Star Trek Fan Association Inc. I hold the rank of Fleet Captain, (one higher than Captain) hence the five gold pips on my collar in the photo above. Don't believe me? Check out my STARFLEET CV.

I speak Klingon. I'm not quite fluent, but I did once have a short-lived, regular spot on Christina Knight's show on 5fm giving Klingon lessons.

I've been an invited guest speaker at several Star Trek conventions, where I gave a series of lectures on The Transporter, "Treknology", character archetypes in Star Trek and Exobiology. I also helped to run a Star Trek convention... and I hope to see you all at this year's TrekCon SA.

I was once a Tournament Director and "Ambassador" for Decipher Inc's Star Trek-based card game. I directed and played in the first Star Trek CCG National Tournament back in 2002.

I know Star Trek trivia better than you. Go ahead... ask me anything.

Next: Scepticism And Stuff

After being inspired by Phil Plait, Richard Dawkins and others to abandon my beliefs in the supernatural, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience, I incorporated a lot of what I'd learned into this very blog.

My adventures as a sceptic and blogger include being zapped by Scientologists at a Mind, Body, Wallet Festival (the article I wrote about that one has sadly since been taken down), a Homeopathic Suicide Attempt documented for posterity on YouTube (long before those 10:23 guys did it :P) and playing multiple roles along with some fellow nerds in the satire series God Idols produced by my awesome wife Heidi.

I've been going to our local Sceptics in the Pub for some time, participating in the South African Skeptics forum from time to time, and picking on Homeopathic "doctors" who made the mistake of mentioning my name.

You may recognise me from the Skepchick blog where I'm known as "some South African skeptic".

As part of all of this, I read science books for fun. I know most of you guys probably do too... but that just gives us all some awesome nerd cred. High fives all around! I'd rather read The Demon Haunted World or The Ancestor's Tale over Harry Potter or Twilight. Awesome.

Generic Geekness

I am a Google Fanboy. More than you can imagine. Probably the only Google service I don't use is Google Voice... and that's only until I can figure out how to set it up from outside the US.

I try to read the whole Internet everyday. Srsly. I have over 300 feeds in my Google Reader. But I'm not selfish... I'll share with you.

I was a Boy Scout. I can identify most South African bird species by sight. Also, I can track larger animal species, survive in the bushveld indefinitely, make a raft out of sticks and start a fire without a match.

In high school, I didn't play sport. I was in the debating team, the pipe band and I worked in the tuck-shop. I still don't play any sports. And I don't watch any either.

I can think of more things... but I'm guessing my point is made. I am probably one of the biggest nerds you'll ever come across. So go ahead! Vote!

Probably the only other nerd I know of in my nerd-league is Angela, the Skeptic Detective. You need to vote for her too.

The Skeptic Detective

For starters, she's a far more prolific writer than I am. Seriously, follow her blog for plenty of good reading. I wish I had the dedication to produce that amount of content.

And not only is her content voluminous, but it's also high quality: loaded with nerdy goodness! In browsing her archives you will find a broad variety of sciencey and sceptical topics from Organic Farming to Boobs. Also, you will find references to at least two Star Trek Captains (other than me, of course). Go look!

Also, Angela (along with another good, nerdy friend of ours James) founded the Johannesburg Sceptics in the Pub back in 2008. She was one of my co-stars in God Idols and she's gotten link-love from none other than Phil Plait himself!

So? Why are you still here? Go vote!

Monday, February 01, 2010

Nerdies Semifinals... Apparently

So last week my comrade-in-reason, The Skeptical Blacksheep, nominated me for the 2010 Nerdies run by Moralfibre's Nerdmag. Awesome.

By some random interdimentional anomaly, I somehow made it into the semifinal round of the competition. Awesomer.

I'm gonna need your help now though. If you've got a few seconds to spare, please head over to the semifinals page and post a comment voting for me either with my name or my Twitter handle (@owenswart).

While you're at it, please consider voting for another South African sceptiblogger who's in the running: The Skeptic Detective.

If all goes according to plan, I'll begging again next week you guys to vote for me in the finals, so stay tuned!