Saturday, December 31, 2011

Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam Spam...

So someone has decided to ruin it for everyone, defecating spam all over my comments boards. As a result, I'm stepping up security around here. Sorry for the inconvenience. If you find this guy, punch him in the face for me.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sangomas In Suits

So, a few weeks ago I was given the awesome opportunity of participating in the 48 Hour Film Project with a team of amazingly talented people. The movies were premièred this past weekend, and now ours is up on YouTube for everyone to enjoy:

(don't worry, it's only 7 minutes long)

A glance at the credits will show you that I was lucky enough to be able to help out with the project in several different ways. It was enormously gratifying to be given the chance to do that, and cringingly awesome to see myself on the big screen.

Thanks to the team for including me in such a memorable experience. Thanks to Director Bianca Bothma for giving me jobs to do. And thanks in particular to the film's talented and lovely Art Director, Manders, for recruiting me.

If you enjoyed the movie, be sure to Like our Facebook page!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Episode #22: Ape Evolution, Mars and Poisonous Rats | Consilience

Episode #22: Ape Evolution, Mars and Poisonous Rats | Consilience

Every time you listen to an episode of Consilience, the Flying Spaghetti Monster gives a kitten a little tickle on its tummy.

White Kitten


Saturday, July 23, 2011

Meatspace vs the Cybersphere

For as long as I can remember, I've had to deal with a kind of elitism from certain people: these people are the ones who are not what I would describe as 'net-natives'.

Net-natives, such as myself, are people who feel at home on the Internet. We get what the technology does for us, how it enriches our lives and makes us smarter, faster, more productive and more social.

But these other people - I shall henceforth refer to them as 'meat-fascists' (I resisted the urge to call them 'troglodytes' or 'Amish') - don't get it. They're generally at least marginally familiar with technology, and many of them use it all the time (I know a number of meat-fascists who own, and are addicted to, Blackberries), but they either can't understand or refuse to acknowledge the inherent benefits that arise from technology in general, and communication & information technology in particular.

An argument I hear from meat-fascists all too often is one that sums up their general approach pretty nicely, and it goes something like this: "Electronic communication and the Internet are not adequate substitutes for face-to-face, personal communication."

On the surface, that argument sounds self-evident. But a net-native (or other rational person), given a moment to think about it, can easily recognise that argument as complete bullshit.

There are several unstated major premises wrapped up that argument:

  1. Face-to-face communication is the best kind of communication, and electronic communication should aspire to be as good or better in order to be considered a viable substitute;
  2. Electronic communication aspires to be considered a viable substitute to face-to-face communication;
  3. There is a clear, unambiguous means by which one method of communication can be measured to be superior to another.
And probably a few others that I don't care about. The first two are largely dependent on the third, so I'll address that one.

Objective Comparisons

The problem with this is that there are a number of different factors upon which the usefulness of any given communication medium can be considered appropriate for any given situation. Meat-fascists seem to imply that inter-personal relatability is the only one worth considering, but it's not. As is so often the case, it's more complicated than you think. The way I see it, there are at least four different metrics against which any given medium should be measured:

  1. Speed. Simply, how fast can the relevant information be transferred from one person to another. 
  2. Fidelity. How likely it is that the content of the message will survive intact.
  3. Cost. How much energy, time or money must be spent in order to transmit the message.
  4. Persistence. After the message has been sent and received, for how long can the content of that message still be accessed for later reference?
There are, of course, other criteria that may come into play under certain circumstances. Things like discreteness, privacy and propriety are relevant sometimes. In any given situation, a communication medium must be considered against all of these different criteria before one can be chosen.

Let's go for a hypothetical example.

You're sitting in a library in Cancun, and you suddenly realise that you need to tell your friend (who is at work in Syndey) something important and urgent. Face-to-face communication, in this case, would cost you hours (if not days) to arrange (flights either to Cancun, Syndey or some other destination) and a small fortune in real money. And when you finally arrived in the same room, after you'd told your friend what you needed him to know, the information would only be stored in his brain (which is unreliable, as all human brains are at the best of times, and more so when jet-lagged). 

So, in this case, Speed would be terrible, Fidelity would be pretty good (assuming the two of you met in a relatively quiet room), Cost would be prohibitive and Persistence would be only slightly better than nothing.

Compare this to an email: Speed - awesome,  Fidelity - perfect, Cost - nothing, and Persistence - infinite.

"Yes," says the meat-fascist "but what about the human element?"

Well what about it? Is the content of your message dependent on the need to look the person in the eye, hold their hand and deliver it in a soft whisper? Sometimes, sure.

It's probably less pleasurable to whisper sweet nothings into your sweetheart's ear over IM. The gravitas of your doctor informing you you have a terminal illness might be lost somehow if he did so in a 140-character tweet. Getting to know your grandchildren via Facebook probably sucks.

This is why it's so important to choose the right communication medium for the message you're trying to deliver. Imagine if a representative from your bank showed up at your front door to notify you each time you performed a transaction on your account - is that really better than an SMS? Should your friend really print out every lolcat he sees, and race over to your office in the middle of the day to show it to you, instead of emailing it, or posting it on Google+?

Of course not. That would be retarded.

The Telephone's Exemption

There is one electronic communication medium that seems to have earned exemption from the meat-fascists' ire, if only by its longevity: the telephone. Somehow, it seems, the magic of hearing another person's voice makes communication more meaningful. 

Again I grant that under certain circumstances, that may be the case. For example, if your spouse has gone away on a business trip for a few days, you may well prefer a chat on the phone to an exchange of SMS's. But that's probably because in that case, the phone call isn't about communicating a message, but is rather about just hearing their familiar voice, and being comforted by it. The content, in that case, is probably largely irrelevant. 

Meat-fascists often tend to overlook the fact that a video-chat (while not always available) is probably a superior alternative to the telephone. So why does the phone get a free pass, while Skype is lumped together with email and the rest? 

Now it should be noted that I have a personal beef with the telephone. Working, as a student, in an outgoing call-centre, I've developed a seriously crippling, emotional aversion to using the phone. But even I can acknowledge its utility under these, and a few other, circumstances. What I can't concede is that it's somehow fundamentally different to other electronic communication media. Just because it's been around longer, doesn't grant it any special status as anything other than 'just another communication medium'.

Virtual Reality

Pictured: The Internet
A fundamental misunderstanding that meat-fascists seem to have about communication technology in general and the Internet in particular is the perception that it's somehow unreal. Clearly they've seen too many bad NCIS episodes, and they've bought into the notion that the Internet is some kind of virtual world, populated by virtual people doing nothing of any value to anyone outside, in the "real" world.

That is, of course, absolute crap.

The Internet is a real thing, used by real people to do real things: have real conversations, maintain real relationships, do real work, make and spend real money and engage in real communication. 

Of course there are things out there that help muddy the water somewhat: the popularity of online games like World of Warcraft, the existence of a panoply of artificially intelligent programs called "bots" designed to fool you into thinking they're real people, and the propensity we net-natives have of talking about the Internet as if it were a place as opposed to a network of computers.

Those of us who know a thing or two about technology understand that virtual worlds like WoW and Second Life, while designed to create a fictional world with which users can interact, are also filled with real people. Real people engaging in real communication and real commerce. Real. Not virtual at all.

And as for describing the Internet as a place, that's just a limitation of a language that's existed since before the notion of an Internet ever occurred to anyone. Although it's sometimes useful to think of the Internet as the "8th Continent", it really isn't anything of the sort.

The Internet Is Made of People

What the Internet (and the people who build it, like you and me) has done, is provide us with an ever-growing wealth of new communication media, never before devised. Communication platforms like email, instant messaging, video-chat, Facebook and Twitter have not only allowed us to be connected to more people, but they've allowed us to be connected in so many more ways! We're now having conversations, every day, that wouldn't be conceivable a decade ago!

Imagine trying to explain to the version of you living in 2001 that you can now take an article from your favourite website, post it on a different website where all your friends, colleagues, family and acquaintances can see it, and then engage in a public conversation about it, right there on the website! It's like magic!

Things like Google Latitude and Google+ Hangouts were considered the purview of governments and big business as recently as five years ago. Now we have access to those same kinds of tools on our desks and in our pockets, for communicating, sharing and building real relationships with the real people who are important in our lives.

Can the Internet replicate the experience of cuddling up on the couch with your significant other for a DVD on a cold winter's night? Not quite. But can you search for a hashtag, reshare a YouTube video or click "like" in meatspace? Nope. 

Fact is, the Internet isn't designed to replace face-to-face communication, nor should it be. It's mostly different, and in a lot of circumstances, more useful.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Privacy for Privacy's Sake

With all the Facebook and Google+ discussion flying around the Internet, one word keeps popping up over and over again: "privacy".

One phrase in particular keeps slamming my ear-drums: "I know privacy is important, but..."

So here's my question: why is privacy important?

Of course if you're a criminal or something, and you genuinely do have something to hide, privacy would be important to you. But for the rest of us who don't do anything of particular interest to anyone (even our own loved ones), why does privacy matter?

In a world where Twitter and Facebook are flooded with people broadcasting to the world what they had for breakfast, and nobody gives a crap, is privacy relevant at all?

I should point out that in general I'm a pretty private person. I feel a natural inclination towards keeping things private.

But why? What's the benefit to keeping things private? Assuming there is a rational reason for privacy, where does one draw the line between what should be kept private and what shouldn't?

Episode #17: Killer asteroids, killer apes and Dr. Adrian Tiplady | Consilience

Episode #17: Killer asteroids, killer apes and Dr. Adrian Tiplady | Consilience

The universe is trying to kill you! (and bushbabies!) Find out how!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Consilience Episode #6: Justice & snacking, fine wines, and the Big Bang

Episode #6 of Consilience is out!

Go! Quickly! Before we run out of electrons to send it on!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Consilience Episode 2

Angry Monkey says "GO NAO!"
Is out!

This week we talk about space, dinosaurs, monkeys, birds who pilot missiles and chat to Steven Novella some more.

Go to the Consilience blog now! Hurry!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Consilience: An African Science Podcast

I'm very pleased top announce that as of today, I am an official contributor to a real podcast from Africa, by Africans, about science!

That's right, ladies and gentlemen! This afternoon we officially launched with the very first episode of Consilience: An African Science Podcast. 

My esteemed co-contributors (co-conspirators?) are, as you might expect, Michael Meadon, of Ionian Enchantment, and Angela Meadon, The Skeptic Detective.

Unfortunately due to Apple's regulations you won't see us in the iTunes podcast directory yet (it takes a few weeks), but feel free to subscribe to our RSS feed for your weekly dose of African scienciness!

(Better yet, use Google Reader and Google Listen. Just sayin')

Thursday, March 10, 2011


I don't know what this means.
If you've ever been anywhere near a gym, personal trainer or fitness magazine, you have, no doubt been exposed to the notion of Body Mass Index (BMI). It's a simple calculation that produces a number that allegedly defines how fat (and therefore healthy) you are. Awesome, right?

What Is It?

In essence it's a proxy, a rough way of estimating how much of your body-mass is made up of fat tissue. It works like this:

Your mass in Kilograms divided by your height in Meters squared:

Ideally, the result should be between 20 and 25. Otherwise you would fall somewhere on this scale:

It's that easy!

Smell too easy to you? Yeah, me too.

What's Wrong With It?

Well the most obvious shortcoming is that it tries to quantify something (body fat percentage) without actually measuring that thing. This would be understandable if it was prohibitively difficult to measure body fat. If that were the case, it would make sense to use some other trick as a proxy - an alternate measurement that can provide reliable information about the thing you're interested in.

So we have two claims now:

1. Body fat is too difficult to measure directly.
2. BMI is a reliable proxy for body fat.

Let's take them one at a time.

Measuring Body Fat

As with most things, the whole idea of fat is more complicated than we might think. Firstly, there's more than just one kind of fat. Actually there are three kinds. When it comes to the kind of fat which, when found in excess, is strongly correlated with all sorts of health risks, the one we're talking about is Abdominal or Visceral Fat. That's also the one that piles up on your belly (or hips & thighs if you happen to be of the female persuasion). So that's also the one that will most likely be of interest to people going to the gym.

Visceral Fat
When it comes to measuring the fat content of your body, there are actually quite a few different ways of doing it, ranging from the impractical to the useless. And some others.

On the impractical side of things, we have the Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry technique. This method involves a full body scan using two different X-rays in order to construct an image of your body's composition. Although this is an excellent tool for finding out exactly how much fat you've got, it's cumbersome and expensive. It's not exactly something you can do at home, or even at the gym. A qualified radiologist has to do it, not a personal trainer. And access to this sort of technology is better reserved for people who need it for medical purposes - like measuring bone density in patients suffering from Osteoperosis. Chubby-checking is probably low on their list of priorities, unless you're in obvious danger.

Skin-fold technique.
On the useless end is the skin-fold technique. As the name suggests, a section of skin is pinched with a pair of calipers, and its thickness is measured. While this is a perfectly good way of measuring the quantity of Subcutaneous Fat in your hypodermis, that's not the fat we're looking for. Visceral Fat doesn't live there.

But there is a ray of hope, and it comes in the form of a infra-red light! A beam of old-fashioned IR light can penetrate the skin and muscle tissue of your upper arm and, in doing so, reveals the quantity of Visceral Fat stored inside the muscle! Now, as we said, people tend not to store much fat in their biceps, but it's a pretty reliable extrapolation from the quantity of fat in your bicep (as compared to a statistical average) to the quantity in your abdominal region.

Fat Scanner Booth
The clear advantage of the IR beam technique is that it's reliable, inexpensive and easy. it can be done with a hand-held device, by a chimpanzee wearing spandex (or a personal trainer). Although it's not the sort of device you'd be likely to buy for home use, odds are your gym has at least one lying around. (If you live in South Africa and go to Virgin Active gyms like I do, that little Discovery Health booth that measures you in all sorts of ways, and records the results on your account, has one of these devices built in.)

Right, so, measuring body fat isn't really all that hard. Although getting a precise reading is difficult, it's easy enough to get a good, reliable result.

Reliability of BMI

Here's the thing: BMI was originally developed as a statistical heuristic for comparing relative body fat levels in populations against each other. And it seems to be pretty good at that. But it wasn't really ever intended for use by individuals as a diagnostic tool.

Firstly, it's based on some pretty heavy-handed assumptions about distribution of body fat in relation to height and mass. While it may describe the average person fairly well, outliers (like athletes, for example) will be poorly represented: weight-lifters generally register as "Obese" on the BMI scale (30 and over), while marathon-runners register as "Underweight" (BMI 16 - 18.5).

In addition, the BMI classification difference between Overweight and Normal doesn't seem to be supported by epidemiological data. There's no difference in life expectancy between those two groups.

The list goes on. BMI has its uses, but it's not really meant to help you track your own, personal health. It sucks at that.

So Then?

Essentially, if you're interested in tracking your body fat percentage as a metric contributing to your own health, it's probably best to steer clear of using BMI. Rather go with direct body fat measurements instead.

Better yet, talk to your doctor about what steps you can take to manage your health. Ask how much exercise you should be be doing, and whether or not you should see a Dietitian (NOT a Nutritionist!) about managing your diet. No website or magazine can give you a reliable estimate of how healthy you are.

And please remember that personal trainers, however muscly they may be, are not medically trained. If they were, they would be working in medical practice, not in your gym. That usually doesn't stop them from offering all kinds of advice on nutrition, supplementation and even medical interventions. You should take their advice on how many reps to do on the leg-press machine, but take everything else with a grain of salt. And when in doubt, check with your doctor.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Exercise Your Right to Vote!

So you Joburg sceptics are probably all aware by now that we're coming up to another Sceptics in the Pub next week. What we haven't yet decided is where we'll be doing it.

For those who have been coming for a while, you'll have noticed that we've made a habit of jumping around every month to give people from different parts of this enormous city a chance to make it who might otherwise not have been able to. Last month we had it at Cresta Shopping Centre in North-western Joburg, so we're looking to change it up again. Probably somewhere East of centre.

So where should we do it? Have your say! Tell us where you'd like to be sceptical in a pub by submitting your suggestions and voting on others over at our Google Moderator board.

And don't stop at just once... more suggestions are being thrown up there all the time. Keep coming back and voting so we know the will of the people!

(We won't necessarily use the top-rated suggestion every time though. Like I said, we like to keep it varied. But we'll try to pick from the top five at least.)

Yay! Democracy!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cell-phones and the Brain

I know it's popular to pick on established institutions and point out how much they suck lately. I'm going to resist the urge to do that, and simply point out on example of how a generally good institution, Scientific American, seems to have lost the plot.

(before I start it's disclaimer time: although I no longer work for a cellular operator, I'm a fan of cellular technology in general. So while I may have some emotional bias in this area, I try very hard to be rational about it - it's not like my livelihood depends on it or anything.)

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last ten years, you've no doubt come across the claim that cell-phones are somehow bad for your health. The most popular claim is that it somehow causes brain cancer.

While there's still scope for long-term epidemiological studies to provide further insight, the best data we have so far suggests that there is no such effect. And if there is an effect, it's probably so small as to be virtually indistinguishable from chance.

Not only that, but the whole idea that cell-phones could do any kind of damage like that is highly implausible. They just don't work that way.

For a more comprehensive look at the issue, head over to Steve Novella's Neurologica Blog. He knows way more about this than I do.

However data never got in the way of a good health scare, and misinformed people have been making a fuss over the health risks of cell-phone radiation as long as there have been cell-phones. And it's not a small fuss either - people have been losing their goddam minds over this. It's becoming a real problem!

Given that the whole cell-phone health concerns thing is such a hot-button topic right now, why the hell would a publication that has a reputation for being a bastion for reason and rationality such as Scientific American publish a steaming pile of bullshit like this: "Cell phone emissions change brain metabolism - By Katherine Harmon"?

What's the Story?

In summary, this reports on a study being published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (how they got into that publication is a mystery to me). The study is an experimental one in which they expose healthy human subjects to cellphone radiation for a bit, then run them through a PET scanner to see what effect it had on the brain's glucose metabolism. And guess what? They found an effect.

Wow! That's hectic, right?

No. It's bullshit, and here's why. Without going into any deep analysis on their results, I see two huge problems with this study.

Problem the First

This was an experimental study in which they recruited volunteers to participate. Not 100 000 volunteers. Not  10 000. Not even 1000. Those would be pretty good studies. No, they recruited 47 volunteers. Forty seven.

I don't have to be a professional scientist to know that a sample of 47 is way too small to produce any meaningful results. All you need is one anomalous result and the whole graph is thrown out of kilter. That's not enough people!

Problem the Second

They found that the brain glucose metabolism in areas of the brain close to the active antenna were"significantly higher". What do they define as "significantly"? Seven percent. That's right, seven percent.

I don't have to be a professional statistician to know that 7% is not significant. It's around what you'd expect to see with random noise in the result. And considering they had such a small sample (forty seven!) that noise ratio would probably be even higher!

So What Am I Saying?

This study has produced practically nothing. At best this might be considered an interesting preliminary result, prompting further study. But I think even that would be generous. I don't think it's interesting at all - it looks like a negative result to me.

That said, I can't really fault the researchers here. Despite their willingness to speculate wildly on all sorts of ways cell-phones might be killing us, at least they're doing science (albeit bad science).

I don't even blame Katherine Harmon. While her piece was a little alarmist, she at least made an effort to include some sceptical opinion in there. While I think it leans a little too far towards the false balance side of things, at least there was balance of some sort.

No, the person I blame is the idiot Scientific American editor who put that sensationalist headline on the piece. It's clearly deliberately provocative. And thanks to that guy (or girl), the cell-phone radiation cranks will be all over this shit like teenage white girls on Justin Beiber. We won't hear the end of it!

Thanks for nothing, dumbass!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Holy Crap! 2012!

Yes, I know, this topic has been done to death elsewhere, but I thought it might be fun for me to try my hand at it too. Hopefully it'll be fun for you also.

Okay, so what's the deal about 2012?

There's a popular belief that the world as we know it will end next year, in 2012. Some versions of the story suggest that it will happen specifically on the 21st of December. While doomsday prophecies are nothing new, this particular date, 21/12/2012, seems to be acting as a lightning-rod for a vast array of different foretellings of disaster.

I'll look at some of the more popular predictions in depth, but first let's try and figure out why this date in particular seems to have gotten into the minds of the eschatological amongst us.

The Mayans Predicted the End of the World

Right, so, centuries ago, ancient Mayans kept a calendar that is still regarded as being a very good one. It was all very complicated and clever, and even included a fancy decimal system for measuring smaller units of time within larger ones, and so on.

That calendar comes to an end in the 21st of December 2012. Obviously that means the world is ending on that day, right?

Long Count
Let's think about that for a minute. In Western society we use the Gregorian Calendar. It's also a pretty good one; it's complicated and clever and even includes a fancy decimal system for measuring smaller units of time within larger ones, and so on. About eleven years ago everyone in the world who uses the Gregorian Calendar had to stop writing the current year as "1999", and instead had to use a different digit to represent the thousands column of the date: "2000".

A thousand years before that, the Gregorian Calendar didn't exist yet, but it's predecessor the Julian Calendar did. One day, roughly 1011 years ago, everyone who used the Julian Calendar had to add an extra digit to the date in order to express the current year: they went from "999" to "1000". The hundreds, tens and units columns rolled over to zero, and a new column, the thousands, clicked over to 1.

That's what happens to the Mayan Calendar on 21/12/2012: the Long Count Calendar's largest column (called the B'ak'tun) ticks over to zero, initiating a new, previously unused column to click over to one. That's all. It's just a function of the decimal system in action, clocking over to a new column. No biggie.

But it's the Mayans' calendar, right? Maybe we should ask them whether they think the ticking over of the Long Count is a prediction of the end of the world.

Right, so the Mayans didn't predict the end of the world. Not in 2012 or at any other time. Doomsday prophecies clearly weren't as important a part of their culture as it is a part of ours. Interpreting the "end" of their calendar as a prediction of the end of the world is foolish at best, and an outright lie at worst. So knock it off.

But Planet X!

One of the many apocalypses (is that the correct plural?) predicted by some to take place in 2012 is the appearance of the mysterious Planet X - a major planetary body somehow bound to our Sun that will pass through the inner solar system wreaking havoc upon the Earth, either by a direct collision or just gravitational or tidal perturbation.

This isn't a new idea, in fact 2012 is just the latest in a long line of dates put forward for this inevitable catastrophe. So what is Planet X?

Not a Planet
The term "Planet X" is one used by some astronomers to describe a planet in our solar system that was predicted to exist, but had not yet been observed (and therefore not yet named). In the past, both Neptune and Pluto were referred to as Planet X before they were observed and officially named. The Planet X referred to in these prophecies is neither Neptune nor Pluto, but rather another supposed planetary body that real scientists either haven't discovered yet, or are somehow keeping a secret from everybody.

Some sceptics might recognise this Planet X is the one often called "Nibiru" by the Ancient Astronaut Theory cranks (although as far as I know, the big names in Ancient Astronauts, Zecharia Sitchin and Michael Tellinger, aren't involved in the whole 2012 thing, a lot of their cohorts and fans most definitely are). The Nibiru notion goes that our sun has a companion object, either a large, massive planet or a brown dwarf star that's on a large, highly elliptical orbit. That orbit brings Nibiru into the inner solar system every so many centuries, and while it's here, it causes all manner of catastrophes.

That all sounds very interesting and terrifying. But what does the science say?

Nada. Not a thing. There's no evidence whatsoever of such an object existing. And if it did exist, and it was only a year away, not only would professional astronomers be able to see it by now, but amateur astronomers (such as myself) would be able to see it too. On any given night there are literally thousands of telescopes pointed at the sky, all of which would be capable of detecting such an object. Yet not a single person has reported seeing it. Not one. Are all those amateur astronomers also in on the conspiracy? Are they all just missing a giant fucking planet in the sky? Or did someone make this planet up?

Occam's Razor tells us which answer to go with. (Someone made it up.) Of course the cranks have plenty of photos of what they claim to be Nibiru, but to date, every single one of those has been shown to be either fake, or a misinterpreted image of something else entirely.

(It should be noted that there is an ongoing question as to whether the Sun does have a far-out, massive companion object, often referred to as Nemesis. But that object wouldn't ever come close enough to the Sun to cause any trouble to the other planets. If it exists, it's so far away that its existence is still in question... that should tell you something)

But There's an Alignment of Things and a Polar Shift!

There's a cluster of different claims about the Earth coming into some sort of "alignment" with the other planets in the solar system, the centre of the galaxy or all sorts of other things which will either cause some sort of "polar shift" or bathe us all in deadly radiation or something. This is the one that was the basis for the movie "2012".

Variously, this story goes that in 2012, all or most of the planets in the solar system will line up, causing an unprecedented effect of combining all the gravitational fields in a row, which will exert a torque on the Earth, flipping it over on its side. Which would obviously be a bad thing.

Okay, so there are two ideas wrapped up in there. Let's pull them apart.

Idea 1: There will be a major planetary alignment in 2012. Nope. That one's just wrong. These sorts of alignments are pretty common, and they've happened a number of times during history, but there are none scheduled to occur in 2012... just the usual conjunctions that happen every year.

Idea 2: A planetary alignment of this kind could change the rotational axis of the Earth by exerting a torque on it. I'm not a physicist, so I stand to be corrected here, but the Earth is a sphere (more-or-less). Its own gravitational pull has forced it into that shape to ensure a pretty even distribution of mass. In order for another object to exert an appreciable torque on the Earth, there would need to be something for that force to grab onto - a major inequity of mass distribution. But there isn't one. There just isn't.

Of course there is some effect that the moon has on the Earth with its tidal forces, but that effect is so small it takes millions of years to become noticeable. The only reason we know about it at all is through very precise measurements using lasers bounced off reflectors on the moon's surface.

And, as mentioned in the previous point, these alignments have happened millions of times in the Earth's history. This effect has never happened before... why would it happen now?

Okay, but there was another aspect to this whole "alignment" thing - the alignment of the Earth with the centre of the galaxy or something. What does that even mean?

The thing is this: if you take any two objects and draw a line between them, they are aligned. By definition. So yes, the Earth will align with the centre of the galaxy in 2012... because it's aligned with the centre of the galaxy all the time. Even right now! Oh noes! It's an alignment! Run!

But Betelgeuse Will Explode!

This is a fairly new one. In the last couple of weeks there's been a news story circulating through the mainstream media that the star Betelgeuse will explode in 2012, fulfilling the Mayan prophecy.

Okay, so what's the deal here? Will Betelgeuse explode? Yes. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star, one of the largest and brightest stars known, and in the top ten brightest objects in the sky. If you look at the constellation Orion, you'll notice that the star on his left shoulder has a reddish glow... that's Betelgeuse.

Red supergiant stars are stars many times more massive than our Sun that are nearing the end of their lives. They've spent most of their nuclear fuel and lost a lot of their mass... their gravity isn't strong enough to balance out the energy produced in their cores, so they puff out to many times their previous size. This is the last stage in a star's life before it explodes in a spectacular Supernova.

Will Betelgeuse explode in 2012? Maybe. The red supergiant phase of a star's life typically lasts for about a million years or so. The problem is we don't know if Betelgeuse has just entered the phase, or if it's been in that phase for a million years already. We just can't tell at this point. So, the odds of Betelgeuse going supernova in 2012 are around one in a million. If you want to narrow that down to the day, the odds of Betegeuse going supernova on the 21st of December 2012, that's about one in three hundred and sixty five million. You have way better odds of winning the lottery on that day.

When Betegeuse explodes, will it cause the end of the world? No. Paleontologists do theorise that some of Earth's mass extinctions in the past may have been caused by nearby supernovae, but Betelgeuse isn't close enough to us to pose a threat. Betegeuse is, however, close enough to give us a brilliant show. When it does blow, it'll likely be comparable in brightness to the moon, and may even be visible during the day.

Okay, So There Will Be Some Sort of Spiritual Change in 2012

Spiritual Person - Probably
This is an amusing claim. What's happening here is that some of the former doomsday prophets have started to see holes in their own prophecies. They recognise that when the 22nd of December 2012 rolls around, and the world didn't end, they'll have a lot of explaining to do. So they're backing away from making hard, testable claims, and instead are softening their predictions.

One that I've heard several times is that there will be some sort of "spiritual change" or "shift in consciousness" on that day, that will somehow have lasting consequences that may not be felt immediately. You see what they did there? They've made their claims so vague and wishy-washy that they've become completely untestable - in fact, they've become entirely meaningless. They can't offer evidence to support their claims, but also we can't disprove them.

These sorts of claims are what we like to call "not even wrong". They're just not sophisticated enough to even examine critically. So sure, there may well be a spiritual change or consciousness shift on that day... whatever those things mean. But you can make the same claim about any other day, and be just as right, wrong or not even wrong.

So Then What?

Since none of these predictions are likely to bare any fruit, I'm willing to offer a prediction of my own. December 21st 2012 will be a day like any other: the sun will rise, the sun will set. The tides will go in and out. People will die, others will be born. Just like every day before it, and every day after it. I, for one, will probably spend that day thinking about the fact that it's the summer solstice here in the Southern Hemisphere, and probably doing some Christmas shopping. Care to join me?

Friday, January 14, 2011

The "Google Sucks" Meme

You may have noticed a meme doing the rounds lately, gracing the front pages of many of the most popular technology blogs. The gist of this meme is that Google is sucking hard: their new products are dropping like flies and even Google Search is returning worse results than ever.

I find this meme particularly objectionable since I'm an admitted Google fanboy. It's bad enough when people point out Google's failings, but when they attack Google using arguments based on speculation, ignorance and hyperbole, that pisses me off a bit. Having read one too many of these ill-informed diatribes, I feel compelled to put out a response.

Nothing I'm about to say is new, and you can find all these arguments articulated far better by Jeff Jarvis (author of What Would Google Do?) in the last few episodes of the This Week in Google podcast.

Let's look at the claims.

Google's New Products are Failing

The most oft-cited examples of this are Google Wave, Google Buzz, Google TV and the Nexus One. Let's look at each one.

Google Wave has failed as a product. It's true. Few people are more disappointed about that than I am, and I pray to the Gods of Google all the time in the hopes they'll reconsider. That said, Wave was a very ambitious project that introduced a raft of new technologies in one glorious package. All that novelty came with a pretty steep learning curve, which was intimidating to new users. Wave didn't pick up as many users as Big G wanted, so they decided to pull the plug.

But Wave isn't dead. For starters, it's still up and running. I, and many other users, still use it on a daily basis, and will continue to do so until the day Google switches it off. Secondly, Wave's new technologies are being adapted for use in Google's many other products, most notably Google Docs and Google Shared Spaces. Thirdly, the Wave project itself has been handed over to Apache, who will be releasing their own scaled-down, open-source version of Wave in the near future. So while Wave may not have met everyone's wildest hopes, it's far from dead, and isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Google Buzz hasn't failed. It's still up and running, and has a dedicated, if small, user-base. To date Google has made no statements about any intent to discontinue the Buzz service. There was a considerable amount of controversy surrounding Buzz's release, which has marred it somewhat from the start. But Google has acknowledged that the way they rolled Buzz out was a deviation from their standard procedures. This was a calculated risk, and one that backfired a bit, but nobody can fault Google's intent to continue their high pace of innovation, and empirically testing their own prior assumptions by deviating from their own norms from time to time.

Google TV is brand new. The first Google TV devices were only released a few months ago. Although they met with some pretty poor reviews, it's not that hard to think back as far as the first Android smartphone: the G1. The G1 also received some scathing criticism. Only a couple of years later, Android is out-selling Apple in the US smartphone market. Given that precedent, I reckon it would be a mistake to count Google TV out just yet.

The Nexus One didn't fail. It sold pretty well, actually. It was discontinued due to Google's intent to release its successor, the Nexus S, not due to poor sales. What did fail was Google's experiment in smartphone distribution. Google set up a way of buying a Nexus One on contract without going through the cellular service provider. That didn't work out, but it was worth a shot.

Given the sheer volume of new products Google releases every year, it's a statistical certainty that a  proportion of them won't meet expectations, and some might fail altogether. It happens. What makes Google awesome is that they learn from their mistakes and keep rolling out new and better products all the time. Only a small-minded, headline-focussed person (like most tech journalists, actually) would conclude that a few floundered projects equate to a downturn in awesomeness.

Google Search Sucks

The problem with this argument is that it seems entirely based on anecdotes.

Remember kids: the plural of "anecdote" is not "data".

How does one measure the quality of search results? Relevance, right? One would hope that the most relevant result to what you're looking for would automatically be the first one on the list, right? How could Google know what the most relevant result be? Is Google psychic?

No. Google is not psychic. Google's search results are determined algorithmically, and Google's algorithm is their intellectual property. We, as users, have no visibility into it. Trying to make assumptions about Google's search algorithm by looking at search results is a bit like trying to predict the weather by looking up. Sure, you might be able to draw some broad, fairly reliable conclusions, but you'll never be able to make precise predictions.

Google's search algorithm (which includes, but is not limited to PageRank) isn't cast in stone either. There is a dedicated team of engineers at the Googleplex whose job it is to examine, refine and tweak that algorithm. When they come across a dodgy search result (which they do every day) they try to fix the algorithm to make it better. Google Search, like most Google products, is a perpetual work-in-progress.

But since relevance is a largely subjective concept, deriving actual data on the matter is difficult. There is one alternative to anecdote we can use though: a blind trial. If you're so convinced that Google Search is falling behind its competitors, I invite you to put that assertion to the test: Blind Search is a tool that compares the results of Google, Bing and Yahoo with all the branding and ads removed, allowing the results to speak for themselves. Do a random sample of a few searches (say ten or twenty diverse searches) and record the results. I predict that Google's results will be the best at least 50% of the time.

Google's Real Problems

The "Google Sucks" meme has a few more arguments that pop up in various incarnations, but the two I've dealt with here seem to be the biggest. I may decide to address the others in a future post.

What I want to be careful about here is creating the impression that Google is perfect. It's not. (Oh Googly master, please do not strike me down! Forgive me for this blasphemy!)

One particularly troubling issue is the Google/Verizon net neutrality controversy. I don't pretend to understand it all, but if it is what I think it is, it's both out of character for Google and worrying.

Another is Google's delay in rolling out international services. For example: Google's Android Market uses Google Checkout for billing purchases of Android apps. Google Checkout works in South Africa (I use it to renew the subscriptions for my various Google Apps domains), but for some reason South African Android users aren't allowed to purchase apps through the Market. No explanation is offered and no timeline given for solving the problem, which is a pain in the battery cover. There are plenty of other examples of this sort of thing: Google Books for Android, Google Voice, Google Earth for Android and so on... services that are inexplicably unavailable to non-US users.

Another gripe of mine is the fragmentation of features across different clients: Picasa Web and the Picasa desktop client are vastly different, as are Google Maps (web), Google Maps for Mobile and Google Earth (desktop)... and don't get me started on all the different Google Talk clients, no two of which have the same feature-set.

My point is there's plenty to criticise about Google. And that's good, because Google has a track record of listening to and acting on criticism. But if we're going to start attacking Google, let's get our facts straight first, okay? There's no use reading a bunch of inflamed and sensationalist headlines and then using that as a basis for an opinion... all you're doing then is making yourself look like a blithering idiot.

(Here's a little further reading on why Google is still awesome.)