06/19/12

The Decline of Information Quality


Huff Post 01I’ve been troubled the last year or so by the increasing amount of trivial crap that is being presented on media sites as news, rather than what it really is: shallow gossip, pseudoscience, trivia, anecdote, voyeurism and personal experience.

As titillating as some glitterati’s wardrobe malfunction might be, it is not front page news. In fact, it isn’t worthy of the description news even when relegated to a more appropriate location, buried deep inside the site. Gossip belongs with the horoscope, cartoons and word-search puzzles.

Nor is a cute animal in some anthropomorphic posture news. Kitten and bunny wrestling? Why is there a front page link to such inane pap? But there is was on the HuffPost.

Who a “reality” TV star marries, what she ate, the condition of her dress or how much cleavage she shows is not only not news, it is not important in any sense of the word. It is an insult to the readers’ intelligence to put it on the front page.

Huff Post 02It is, in the dietary sense, empty intellectual calories. It seems to fill a space, but it is empty, void of content, just wasting bandwidth. Like doughnuts, soda pop and candy bars, it fills without fulfilling. It provides no cerebral nutrition. In short, it is material for the hard of thinking.

I never thought I’d say this, but there are actually TV shows with more intelligence than this crap. Not, of course, many; some BBC, TVO, PBS and CBC shows – not the American Picker, Swamp People or Jersey Shores nonsense, mind you. Both History and Discovery channels have become broadcasters of excremental trivia, dropping documentary for mediocrity.

There is, of course, a place for gossip about the haberdashery and sex lives of the glitterati. Supermarkets have racks of such irrelevant tabloids for those who thrive in the shallows of the intellectual pond. But it does not belong on the front page of an allegedly national or international media publication (like the Huffington Post).

National PostNot that the HuffPost is alone in dumbing down its content for a less discriminatory, less intellectual audience, although it is arguably the worst, with more pure crap on its front page than any other news site I visited.

The National Post has a section called “arts” in which it places front page trivial pap about Lindsay Lohan in a car accident, a legal dispute between two actors and an “open letter from Elvis Presley.” Gossip and minor events in the lives of actors is not news and it isn’t anything to do with the arts. Car accidents may be entertainment for some twisted souls, but the majority does not see them as having any cultural or artistic merit.

Canoe 02Canoe, the Quebecor home site, opens with some minor news pieces, but uses a media player to move you quickly to trivia categories like showbiz, movies (why this is not in showbiz is a mystery), swimsuits (an entire category of stories!) and “tearjerkers” where dumbing down is elevated to a new standard. The front page has stories about garage sales and movie trivia. The main news story today is “Man killed in B.C. goft cart crash.” Yes, it says “goft” cart, not golf cart. You have to actually hunt for real news like the latest massacre in Syria.

None of this reduces my impression of Quebecor as the bottom of the intellectual barrel in the Canadian media industry, of course. Just reinforces it. My overall attitude is that QMI is the only news agency that makes the trashy Fox network look moderate, and the old News of The World look relevant.

Toronto Sun 02The Sun newspaper is, well, just what I expected from a newspaper that has more about sports, gossip and sex than it has news or anything important. I’ve never had a high opinion of the Sun ever since it started, mostly because of its uber-right editorial stand. But unlike most traditional media, it hasn’t gone downhill in its content. Of course, it hasn’t improved, either. The Toronto Sun’s website features several irrelevant front page “celebrity gossip” pieces, and more sports than news. Sports may be important to some, but it isn’t news and should not push out real stories.

Huffpost is, unlike the NatPost or the Sun, mainly a news aggregator, so it pulls stories from other sources, and doesn’t create much of its own (blogs are opinions, not news). In that, it can’t be blamed for the quality of the items, but simply for the choice. Similar aggregator sites like National Newswatch and Bourque exist, with varying amounts of crap pretending to be news. Midway down the National Newswatch page is a story in the “E-zone” (for e-diot?) is a fluff piece with the headline, “Stop everything: Selena Gomez is talking about Justin Bieber while wearing a bra,” followed by links to other, similar pap. To be fair, though, the site has a greater news-to-crap ratio than the HuffPost. Bourque sticks to the headlines and pushes the fluff way down to the bottom.

I’ve heard the argument that the media only provides what people want. That’s nonsense and one of the bulwarks the increasingly right wing, ideologically-fixed media depends on to continue its war on intellectuals and non-right thinkers. Media provides either what it THINKs the public wants, or what it thinks the public SHOULD want.

No one wakes up in the morning thinking they want to get more stupid. Media corporations provide this trivia not to meet demand, but to create it. Ideologues don’t want informed, intelligent consumers. Informed people make better choices than uninformed ones and are not as likely to follow the script. The right’s entire argument about Medicare in the US has been phrased in terms that make it a hate crime to reason, to think critically and to question the “authority” of the right’s pundits who decry providing public medical services instead of holding people hostage for basic medical care.

Information diabetes. That’s what the right-leaning media has, and wants us all to contract through an obesity of irrelevancy. To be fair, there are well-informed people on the right, but not as many as there are on the left. That’s because of the basic difference in how each political stripe sees information. The left sees it as something to share and exchange. The right sees it as proprietary, private and secret.

A recent Gallup poll highlighted the effect of dumbing down media with tripe: only 15% of Americans believe in the evolution, but 46% believe in some form of creationism. That would not happen with a better-informed public. People are not usually intentionally so stupid, but there are those in power who intentionally try to make people stupid. Rather pointedly, the vast majority of creationists also side with the right, while those on the side of science and fact are mostly on the left.

Dumbing down is done through the media by replacing content with fluff, by pushing pseudoscience and superstition, gossip and salaciousness to the front page instead of science and research, or instead of hard news and empirical data.

Who will pay attention to climate change, the oil sands, or the civil war in Syria when the front page has voyeuristic shots of some almost-dressed starlet showing cleavage, or something salacious about a TV wannabe with a childish name like Snookie? Who will turn to images of civilians being shot or streams awash in toxic oil spills, when you can look at a star in a bathing suit? Thinking people, of course will, but the point of this dumbing down is to hide the real content under a torrent of irrelevant pap, deep enough that the average person – with an attention span conditioned by TV watching to be shorter than a gnat’s – won’t bother looking that deep.

As Johnson writes in The Information Diet, there’s no such thing as information overload; it’s more like an imbalance of information quality. The good data is in shorter supply than the dreck. In the same manner, obese people get that way not necessarily because of the quantity of food they consume; rather it’s the result of the quality of the food-like substances they eat.

Newspapers aren’t alone, of course; it started with TV. Channels like Discover and History promised content only to quickly become broadcasters of unbelievably stupid and anti-intellectual content. Just a look at the crap that TV dishes out daily can give anyone with an IQ over 80 a headache: Natural Born Dealers, Canada’s Worst Driver, Cash Cab, Believe It or Not, Storage Wars, Cake Boss, What Not to Wear, Pawn Stars, Canadian Pickers, Jersey Shore… just a few of literally hundreds of TV shows meant to dumb down the audience and keep people in an uninformed stupor. There are so many truly inexorably bad TV shows like these that I can’t even begin to list them all, let alone comment on how bad TV has become. I’ll have to leave that for another post.

But is there a cure for information obesity? Yes: focus, stop wasting time on crap, turn off the TV, exercise your mind and go back to reading books.

06/16/12

Verify Source Before You Post


I recently joined a small but dedicated group on Facebook. It’s called “Verify Source Before You Post.” Every reader of this blog and my older Mumpsimus Blog will recognize this as a favorite topic of mine. I’ve written perhaps a dozen posts over the last five years trying to correct numerous bad quotes or mis-attributions. It’s a losing battle, it seems.

When I say small, it is, by FB standards, tiny: 17 members right now. But that will, I hope, grow as time progresses. Surely there must be more people out there concerned with fact, with accuracy, and with the quality of information.

Of course, these groups are a lot less interesting to the masses than the usual “I-Love-Snookie” or “Lady-Gaga-Is-A-Godess” fan groups where members can endlessly prattle on about absolutely nothing of merit or importance. In VSBYP, you need to be engaged and contribute something meaningful.

Yes, there are groups on FB that are similarly intellectual, and I don’t want to downplay their importance to creating dialogue and debate in many spheres, from science to grammar. FB plays an important role – as does all social media – in engaging people in all fields, all disciplines, all sciences, all studies and all philosophies.

But as everyone on FB knows, the vast amount of chatter is more of the what-I-had-for-breakfast sort than comments on, say, the relevance of the hunt for the Higgs Boson particle to current cosmological theories.

While some might see it as an obsessive and pointless task to try to verify and confirm all of the many quotes posted on FB and other sites, to me it’s as important and relevant as trying to confirm scientific data. But it’s also cultural.

And judging by the number of times a mis-quote gets shared, it seems I am in the minority of people who actually pay attention to what they pass along to others.

If someone attributes “She Loves You” to the Monkees or the Beegees in a post, you would get rightfully upset, and question the intelligence of the poster. You would feel compelled to correct the poster and point out that the song was written by Lennon and McCartney, and performed by the Beatles. If someone posted that Plato wrote the Illiad, or Tolstoy wrote The Brothers Karamazov, or Edward de Vere wrote Hamlet, you would likely feel equally compelled to correct them and state the actual author’s name.

I feel the same when someone attributes a saying to Albert Einstein, Shakespeare or Machiavelli that I know is incorrect.

Anyway, if you are both interested in this sort of intellectual activity, and have a Facebook account, I recommend you join the group and help build it into something stronger.

06/12/12

More Facebook Mis-quotes


Facebook imageSaw three images (“posters”) on Facebook today with “quotes” I’m pretty sure are mis-attributions. As usual, I feel compelled to check out their validity.

First is one allegedly by “St. Francis of Assisi.” This would be simply “Francis of Assisi” if you’re not Catholic or don’t believe in saints or canonization. One day I’ll post a blog piece about canonization and its politics, but not now.

The quote is: “What we are looking for… is what is looking.”

That seems one of those gooey, touchy-feely New Age thoughts, and Francis never said anything even remotely close to that. The late 12th-early 13th century Francis said some very profound things, almost all of which are very specifically Christian and very Medieval in tone. One properly attributed quote is:

Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance. Where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor vexation. Where there is poverty and joy, there is neither greed nor avarice. Where there is peace and meditation, there is neither anxiety nor doubt.

A very little amount of digging showed that the quote in the image is actually from a book on consciousness by Stanley Sobottka, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Virginia. Here’s the whole piece:

When we are identified with the thinking mind, there is emptiness, frustration, dissatisfaction, anxiety, and boredom. Our security cannot be found in what is ever-changing. It can only be found in what is never-changing.
What we are looking for is what is looking. We are the home of peace and fulfillment and everything We really want. When we rest in Awareness, We see directly that there is no doer. We are not a concept or object because We are What is aware of them. The activities of the body-mind and of the rest of the world continue but they do not affect Us. The more time We spend resting in Awareness, the more peace We feel. If we were suffering before, we might even forget why we were.

It’s less saccharine and much more empirical when you read it in context. That’s one of the problems of taking comments out of context.

Facebook imageThe next one is a “prayer” attributed to “Queio Apaches.” (That should be “Quero” Apache, but the poster’s creator mistakenly wrote “Queio”). It reads: Looking behind I am filled with gratitude. Looking forward I am filled with vision. Looking upward I am filled with strength. Looking within I discover peace.”

In the sense that a prayer is a supplication to a supernatural entity, this isn’t one. It’s more a meditation. But it isn’t Apache either way.

That’s another one of those feel-good New Agey-style pieces that you expect to read in a poster in a homeopath’s or “psychic’s” dwelling. I have a lot of respect for Aboriginal wisdom, but I’m pretty sure they would not have penned such soppy sentiments. Like the other “prayer” I wrote about last April, it sounds like something a Hollywood writer would have written to mimic stereotypes of native speech.

A little digging and the source is a book by Maria Yraceburu, called “Prayers and Meditations of the Quero Apache.” Yraceburu is described on Amazon as, “…an Apache idealist Tlish Diyan philosopher, educationist, painter and community council.” In a quote from that book, the author writes:
“In Tlish Diyan philosophy, humanity is understood as living in a shared cosmos that is mysterious and expresses profound spiritual evidence of the divine power behind all natural phenomena. While all nature is considered sacred and its mystery and beauty appreciated as a bridge between human consciousness and the Sacred, the purpose or mission of human life is to be that of acting on behalf of ihi’dah (life force), and the understanding of this concept is found through life affirming ritual.”

My New Age Warning antenna crackle when I read something like that. Nothing I read identifies whether this is a traditional meditation or something Yraceburu either wrote herself or paraphrased. I suspect the former.

There is no “Quero” Apache tribe and it seems to be solely the product of her imagination. I found this piece about the author:

The White Mountain Apache Say She’s a Fraud, July 15, 2008
The White Mountain Apache nation says Maria Naylin (her real name) is a fraud. Yraceburu is not even an Apache name, it’s Yaqui. The White Mountain nations say that nothing she claims is anything close to Apache tradition, and they have no record of her enrolled and no one had ever heard of her until they received many complaints about her. The tribal offices also tried to get her to quit using the White Mountain tribal seal without their permission.
Her main concern is to make money over in California, far away from the people she falsely claims are her own. She also has her partner, a Gypsy woman, falsely claiming to be an Apache healer.
One of the people Naylin says trained her, “Rolling Thunder”, was a white man claiming to be “Chickamauga Cherokee” who sold ceremonies in Europe and set up a commune for white hippies in a Nevada brothel. She claims training by another fraud, Twyla Nitsch, who is a woman with a small amount of Seneca blood kicked off the reservation for being a ceremony seller. Naylin also claims to have been trained in Kahuna. Kahuna is a white exploiter’s false version of Hawaiian traditions.
She falsely claims to be “Quero Apache,” a tribe that does not exist. The Quero are a tribe in South America with many false claims made by them by New Age charlatans, no relation to the Apache.
Think of this book as pure fantasy, not anything to do with actual Apache tradition.

This site calls her a “culture vulture” and reprints a letter from real Apaches:

The White Mountain Apache Tribe then conducted research into the historical and cultural foundations of Ms. Naylin / Yraceburu assertions and publications, including consultations with Apache elders and cultural specialists who are
members of the White Mountain Apache and San Carlos Apache tribes.
The inquiry failed to discover any reliable evidence suggesting the historical or cultural legitimacy or accuracy of the work of Ms. Naylin / Yraceburu. All indications available to the Tribe are that she and her works are among the latest in a long line of misguided efforts to make unauthorized and inappropriate use of Native American culture and history — cobbled-together half-truths and fabrications intended to deceive and derive profit from the hopes and fears of those seeking to understand themselves and American Indians.

More on this controversy can be found here and on other sites.

All of these I sourced with perhaps no more than 10 minutes of searching each. Yet they are repeated tens of thousands of times on other sites without anyone bothering to check their validity or confirm a source. Too many people have too little critical thinking.

Facebook imageFinally we come to something attributed to Samuel Clemens, one of my favourite authors (writing under the pseudonym of Mark Twain): “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” Wikiquote – one of the best sources online for valid quotes – doesn’t list it.

I’ve found several properly attributed Twain quotes, including this one from an 1873 speech titled License of the Press: “The trouble is that the stupid people–who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations–do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper.” Great quote. Today we’d replace the words ‘a newspaper’ with ‘the internet.’

But I have not found anything with the exact wording of the quote with anything more than a generic attribution. That told me it isn’t a valid quote (valid quotes include the source). Certainly it doesn’t read like anything I’ve read by Twain. So I kept looking. This site attributes to author Greg King, as do several quotation sites (some which which also attribute it to Twain). I’d bet on the King attribution.

All of these quotes are repeated ad nauseum on many, many other sites, including those allegedly reference sites for quotations. Which proves (as do all of these mis-attributed quotes) that these sites are NOT authoritative, merely collectors of anecdotal errors.

06/9/12

Diablo III: Hype or Gaming Excellence?


Diablo III gameplayThe hype was huge and long. Diablo III was rumored, hinted at, promised, delayed, and even denied for years. Then it was embraced when it finally arrived after more than a decade’s hibernation since the success of Diablo II, released in 2000 (and 16 years since the original, released in 1996). Good technique for raking in the money: the anticipation meant huge sales initially.

The spammers love it, of course, because it provides a wonderful, accessible platform for scams through its live in-game chat system that allows them to post text ads promising in-game gold and experience points in exchange for real money. This sort of scam has plagued World of Warcraft for years. Electronic Arts has not learned much from a that lesson, it seems.

There are reports (see this article from Forbes magazine) that D3 has been hacked and scammers have stripped accounts of gold and items.It may be that EA’s battle.net is being hacked instead, which means all your accounts with it including WOW are vulnerable. If you read some of the game forums you can find these stories in abundance. Even if you use one of their authenticator dongles, you may still be hacked, as this story notes. The threat is not merely losing virtual items in a game account – but that it will let the hackers into your other services, like email accounts, or other online places where you may use the same name, email or password. Like PayPal, online banking or eBay.

EA has denied widespread hacking. Having had my WOW account hacked, I can testify to the stomach-wrenching sensation of logging on and finding all your gold gone, your stash empty and your character naked (except for some politically correct but underwear). There are unconfirmed reports of players being hacked even through they use EA’s authenticator.

I figure I report at least a dozen spammers every time I play the game. Which is, because of their ubiquitous presence, increasingly seldom. It doesn’t appear reporting abuses makes any difference. It’s hard to tell because spammers change their identity almost daily and their usernames are never the same, although the scam sites they tell you about remain the same.

This is Electronic Arts’ fault. You need a constant Internet connection to play the game, even when you’re playing solo. That means the spammers and scammers are there with you, sending message after message after message – often five or six of the same multi-line crap – through the general chat network. No, it doesn’t affect your game, just your perception, as your attention is continually drawn to the part of the screen where their messages appear.

Had EA set up the system so that solo play was local, not linked to the Net, spammers would not be such a huge problem. As it stands, you are deluged with their annoying ads during gameplay. These may not be harmful per se (until you fall for one and go to their phishing site), but they break the immersion, and draw your attention from the game to the bright blue letters of their message on your screen.

Diablo 3Back up a bit. For those of you not familiar with the Diablo franchise, it’s a role playing fantasy game (RPG) with an overhead, third-person orthogonal view. Everything you do – move, fight, trade, repair, talk – you do with the mouse. It’s a clickfest. A typical session is one mouse click after another after another: click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click and then a whole lot more and faster in combat.

Suggestion: buy a good gaming mouse if you want to play D3. A Logitech gaming mouse can withstand the constant clicking. Your typical, cheap $20 mouse will break. Spend the $100-plus on a good mouse if you like this game.

Like the title suggests, Diablo is about demons, evil, devils, angels and their ilk, although not taken wholesale from Christian mythology. It’s more Hollywood than Biblical in its inspiration. The story line is thin, even simplistic, but sufficient to explain most of the action.

The bad guys are caricatures of evil, but it’s a game, not a novel or even a movie. The differences between D2 and D3 are more in the polish, but nothing that can justify a decade’s effort. The scenery is pretty, gritty and gloomy in turn – all good eye candy, if a bit stereotypical and cliched. Particle physics are good; monsters lose limbs in gory splats, and explode satisfyingly.

Diablo was an original concept in the 90s, and, although cloned by many other games, it was still great fun in 2000. In 2012, D3 doesn’t offer much more or newer than its competitors (like Dragon Age). In fact, following a move seen in WOW, D3 is simplified (dumbed down if you’re a hardcore gamer) from its previous versions: skimpier skill trees, fewer character classes (no more paladins…), fewer combat options. However, this allows players to concentrate more on gameplay and less on micromanaging their characters.

Buy a good gaming mouse if you want to play D3. A Logitech gaming mouse can withstand the constant clicking. Your typical, cheap $20 mouse will break.

It’s not a very deep or challenging game, but rather an entertaining time waster. It’s more beautiful than solitaire and it’s more fulfilling to kill monsters than drop a jack on a queen. But it’s not in the intellectual foreground like chess, go, or even the solitaire mah jong. It’s pretty heavily scripted and the paths you can take and means to fulfill a quest are limited and very linear. Some areas are large open zones you can explore; others are fixed paths you are forced to stay within. Each quest has to be done in order and completed the way the game dictates; it’s not an open-ended system with multiple quest-trees like Skyrim.

Replaying it with different characters, even different classes (wizard, barbarian, witch doctor, etc.) doesn’t change the game. Rather it simply changes some of the tactics and weapons available to the character class. It also changes a few, but not all, lines of dialogue you’ll hear. Along the way, you’ll get a companion to fight beside you. There will eventually be three you can choose from: templar, enchantress and scoundrel. The main difference between them is the tone of their repeated comments during play. You’ll want to play in silence after you’ve heard the same lines a few dozen times in an afternoon.

D3 gameplayStill, wiping out a whole platoon of Orc-like creatures, zombies, or demons does give some satisfaction. More than, say, clearing a screen full of cards. D3 is like Cheezies: addictive in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. You want something more cerebral, play Civ 5. Or Fritz chess.

Diablo III has other issues, not all of them EA’s fault. The scammers apparently broke part of the in-game auction system and forced EA to close down the part that used real money to buy virtual goods (why anyone would do this baffles me, but it’s done in other games like Second Life). The real money auction is offline right now, while EA works on a fix. My suggestion: drop the idea entirely and stick to the virtual gold system. That way no one gets hurt.

Auction prices are another thing that bother me. The auction house system works well in WOW but in D3, it seems like insane gremlins have taken over. Items that can be sold for 200 gold at any in-game merchant are being offered for 10,000, 20,000, even 100,000 and more! I’ve seen some in the millions of gold range. Obviously the sellers suffer from some sort of Midas ailment because these prices are not merely unreasonable, they are stupidly, egregiously high. No thinking adult would put these prices that high. Children must be muddying the auction system. Why isn’t there some sort of cap that limits players to auction prices a mere 100 times the in-game sell price, rather than allow it to be posted at thousands?

Diablo 3Non-player characters are generally as stupid as auctioneers when they fight with you. They can be inept or ineffectual during a battle (why do they have such a hard time killing a single monster that I can dispatch with one hit?). Sometimes they get stuck in rooms or at other points outside the action (poor path-finding programming I suppose). They say inappropriate things (like shouting wildly about a battle success when only one enemy was slain).

Static characters like merchants have a limited, series of lines they repeat every time you visit them (which gets stale within minutes of your first game). The repetition of lines makes players like me avoid all but the essential NPCs after the first hour of play. You must, however, visit merchants often, because your main source of income is selling the weapons and armour you pick up along the way. Since you can’t expand your packsack as in WOW, you can only carry a small number of items. That means frequent trips back to town to sell the crap you’ve collected. You get between 2 and 150 gold for a find, but mostly between 2 and 10. It takes dozens of hours of play to get 100,000 gold this way. So why would you waste it all on on weapon that you might as easily find falling from some chest or dropped by a monster?

Going back and forth between battlefield and town every 10 or so minutes to unload your pack gets old fast.

When you quit and start again, the monsters are back in the areas you just cleared out, respawned so you can kill them again. This is good for dungeon crawlers and grinders who play the same field, ruin or cave over and over to build up experience points and collect loot, although returns diminish as you gain levels. However, the ‘big bosses’ don’t respawn, so you can’t rake in massive loot and XP by killing them again. Too bad. However, on the plus side, most of the dungeons and fields change when you restart, so the geography is somewhat different, if not the result.

Diablo 3 wizardOnce you’ve taken your character through the basic (normal) level of play, you can replay it in harder modes. That means you deal less damage, and monsters are tougher, and loot may even be better, but the game doesn’t change otherwise. It’s just more of the same.

There is a multiplayer mode where up to four people can play in a public game online in co-op mode. Not sure how loot and XP work, but I always like co-op games. Not sure if public games give hackers and scammers any advantages, though, since they can discover your username in co-op mode.

Is it worth $60 (plus taxes and monthly Internet charges)? Without the spammers, I’d say yes, if you want a fast-paced, mindless, time wasting game. No if you’re looking for depth, high replayability, serious challenges or intellectual stimulation. But for basic fun and a month or two of entertainment, it’s not bad, assuming you are willing to risk being hacked and don’t mind taking frequent breaks from the action to report spam. I’d give it five stars if it didn’t require a constant Net connection for solo play, but with it, I’d give it 3.5 out of five.

It took me about 30 hours to finish one character on the basic level, so at $2 an hour, it’s not a great per-hour expense. Figure spending at least twice that time on the game, solo, if you want to try all the character classes. If you’re a fan of online MP games, you will probably play that much in coop mode. Value for the cost is good when weighed solely in playable hours. Throw in the spammers and the threat of hackers, and it’s worth somewhat less.

So to answer the question posed in the headline: it’s a more hype than excellence, but that hasn’t slowed sales. D3 doesn’t set any new standards or break any old ones, but it manages to be sufficiently entertaining nonetheless.

06/2/12

The Tin-Foil Hat Brigade in the Lab


Tin Foil hatsYou have to admire science. Nothing is beneath its inquiring eye. When I read that students at Berkley U had seriously investigated the nature of the ubiquitous-in-the-wingnut-community tin foil hats, I had to smile. Once again, science saves the day.

Bad news for the wingnuts. While research didn’t prove tin foil hats will stop the aliens from eating your brain, it did suggest that the hats may amplify certain frequencies that may be in the control of either governments or corporate interests.

According to the researchers at berkeley.intel-research.net/arahimi/helmet/,

The helmets amplify frequency bands that coincide with those allocated to the US government between 1.2 Ghz and 1.4 Ghz. According to the FCC, These bands are supposedly reserved for ”radio location” (ie, GPS), and other communications with satellites (see, for example, [3]). The 2.6 Ghz band coincides with mobile phone technology. Though not affiliated by government, these bands are at the hands of multinational corporations.

Then with what can only be tongue-in-cheek seriousness, the authors of the study conclude,

It requires no stretch of the imagination to conclude that the current helmet craze is likely to have been propagated by the Government, possibly with the involvement of the FCC. We hope this report will encourage the paranoid community to develop improved helmet designs to avoid falling prey to these shortcomings.

Gawds, I love this sort of thing. Unfortunately, the video of the research and results has been taken off YouTube. I can only hope someone restores it.

In the mean time, any creationists or self-described psychics among my readers should be concerned that your tin foil hats are actually allowing the evil government spy agencies access to your thought waves… better turn on the microwave to scramble their signals…

Thanks to Haggle for posting the link!

05/29/12

A Pyramid Hoax Reappears on Facebook


Ain't Photoshop wonderful?This Facebook headline caught my skeptic’s eye right away: “Energy beam coming from the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun.” After I finished guffawing at the gullibility of some folks, I decided to spend a little time researching how widespread this silliness had become.

As expected, and sad to relate, it was all over the Net. Seems every psychic-New-Age-crystal-therapy-astrology-aura-UFO-conspiracy-theory-Atlantis-Elvis-is-alive obsessed wingnut site has repeated the claims, usually copying and pasting them directly from the original source without even bothering to investigate the claims:

A team of physicists detected an energy beam coming through the top of the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun. The radius of the beam is 4.5 meters with a frequency of 28 kHz. The beam is continuous and its strength grows as it moves up and away from the pyramid. This phenomenon contradicts the known laws of physic and technology. This is the first proof of non-herzian technology on the Planet. It seems that the pyramid-builders created a perpetual motion machine a long time ago and this “energy machine” is still working.

In the underground labyrinth, in 2010, we discovered three chambers and a small blue lake. Energy screening shows that the ionization level is 43 times higher than the average concentration outside which makes the underground chambers into “healing rooms”.

Even a grade school education will see through this. First of all: perpetual motion. Doesn’t, can’t, won’t ever exist. period. Entropy is a basic law of physics. Then “non-herzian technology”? I assume the writer means non-Hertzian. That claim makes little sense unless you know what the author means by Hertzian. I assume he means that the power of the wave diminishes with the distance transmitted.

Nikola Tesla was experimenting with non-Herztian waves in the late 19th century:

Nikola Tesla advanced the electromagnetism theory into new dimensions, further than Hertz and other scientists of his time could conceive. He described his “wireless” waves being far superior to Hertzian waves, which diminish with distance. Tesla foretold of a brilliant new future for humankind, using his non-Hertian “wireless system,” including the ability to generate power and transmit it to various parts of the globe.

However, the author does not mention the power of the alleged beam, merely its frequency: 28kHz, or 28,000 cycles per second. That’s above the average human’s top end for high pitches (20kHz), but well within the hearing of dogs and many other mammals. This sound would be like a constant, annoying, high-pitched whine to them. Like a shrill dental drill to us. It would effectively drive most animals away from the site.

Healing rooms? Ionizing radiation is a known carcinogen. Negative ions can be a mood enhancer, and reduce air pollution, but I’ve never read any credible research that proves they heal anything. even so, calling a rough pit of sand and gravel a “healing room” is a bit of a stretch. And who are these “physicists” he claims investigated the site? None are named, no labs or universities noted, no test results posted to back up these claims.

Alleged This block of stone is one of the alleged “ceramic sculptures” found under one of the hills. It has been dubbed “K-2″ and weighs approx 18,000 lbs. For an advanced society capable of building perpetual motion machines, they seem to have had a remarkably primitive sense of aesthetics. Their “sculpture” looks remarkably like a glacier-polished rock, or perhaps a big limestone accretion. I can easily understand why, if it is man-made, it is buried underground instead of being on the surface for all to see: it’s pretty ugly. These “sculptures” play an important parapsychological role, Semir writes: “Ceramic sculptures are positioned over the underground water flows and the negative energy is transformed into positive. All of these experiments point to the underground labyrinth as one of the most secure underground constructions in the world and this makes it an ideal place for the body’s rejuvenation and regeneration.”

All the right phrases to convince the New Age crowd that this is real magic, not that hokey-baloney fake magic called science. Woo-hoo for positive energy.

The author of this nonsense is Semir Osmanagi, a metalworker and contractor with a degree in sociology (not archeology). Before he started promoting these rocks as “pyramids,” he wrote a book called Alternative History in which he claimed that Hitler and other leading Nazis escaped to an underground base in Antarctica. In his book, The World of the Maya, he claims the Maya had a “mission it is to adjust the Earthly frequency and bring it into accordance with the vibrations of our Sun. Once the Earth begins to vibrate in harmony with the Sun, information will be able to travel in both directions without limitation.” he also claims Mayans descended from the mythical Atlantis.

Osmanagi writes on his site:

The pyramids are covered by soil which is, according to the State Institute for Agro-pedology, approx. 12,000 years old. Radiocarbon dating from the paved terrace on Bosnian Pyramid of the Moon, performed by Institute of Physics of Silesian Institute of Technology from Gliwice (Poland) confirmed that terrace was built 10.350 years ago (+/- 50 years). These finding confirm that the Bosnian pyramids are also the oldest known pyramids on the planet.

Archeology, a respected magazine, takes exception to that claim of age:

Construction of massive pyramids in Bosnia at that period is not believable. Curtis Runnels, a specialist in the prehistory of Greece and the Balkans at Boston University, notes that “Between 27,000 and 12,000 years ago, the Balkans were locked in the last Glacial maximum, a period of very cold and dry climate with glaciers in some of the mountain ranges. The only occupants were Upper Paleolithic hunters and gatherers who left behind open-air camp sites and traces of occupation in caves. These remains consist of simple stone tools, hearths, and remains of animals and plants that were consumed for food. These people did not have the tools or skills to engage in the construction of monumental architecture.”

The Smithsonian reported:

…Osmanagich… points out various boulders he says were transported to the site 15,000 years ago, some of which bear carvings he says date back to that time. In an interview with the Bosnian weekly magazine BH Dani, Nadija Nukic, a geologist whom Osmanagich once employed, claimed there was no writing on the boulders when she first saw them. Later, she saw what appeared to her as freshly cut marks. She added that one of the foundation’s workers told her he had carved the first letters of his and his children’s names…

On another site about these alleged pyramids Osmanagi says:

Almost everything they teach us about the ancient history is wrong: origin of men, civilizations and pyramids. Homo sapiens sapiens is not a result of the evolution and biologists will never find a “missing link”, because the intelligent man is product of genetic engineering. Sumerians are not the beginning of the civilized men, but rather beginning of another cycle of humanity. And finally, original pyramids, most superior and oldest, were made by advanced builders who knew energy, astronomy and construction better than we do.

So what are these structures? Simply natural formations called “flatirons”, possibly used at some point by Romans or others as hilltop encampments, but otherwise not unusual. The European Association of Archeologists has called for an end to the digging because it is ruining real archeological finds, and wrote, “This scheme is a cruel hoax on an unsuspecting public and has no place in the world of genuine science.”

Meanwhile, Osmanagi continues to dig, because, as he says, he needs to “break a cloud of negative energy, allowing the Earth to receive cosmic energy from the centre of the galaxy.” It’s entertaining stuff, but it isn’t science.

04/29/12

A Delightful Farce Called Anonymous


AnonymousWatched a delightful, satirical farce last night, called Anonymous. It’s a spoof about the conspiracy theory that the Earl of Oxford (Edward de Vere) wrote the works of William Shakespeare.

This conspiracy notion has a pop following, but lacks significant scholarly and any historical support. Like other conspiracy theories, it has gained ground on the Internet from the simple fact that most people are naturally superstitious and suspicious, and would rather not apply critical thinking or do any serious research to prove or disprove outlandish claims.

As theories go, de Vere-as-Shakespeare is up there with the Elvis-is-still-alive, JFK-survived-the-Dallas-shooting or the-American-government-was-behind-the-9/11-attacks. Even a movie that attempted to treat it seriously would have to stretch the facts beyond reasonable belief.

Anonymous is to the de Vere theory what Jim Carey is to acting: an over-the-top, madcap, histrionic and sometimes painfully exaggerated performance. It weaves together a series of improbable events, relationships and characters so intricately that it almost collapses from its own excessiveness. Only the superb acting and sets make it hold together. However, even a casual knowledge of the history of the era, or of Shakespeare’s life, pulls the whole tale into tatters. You can’t even begin to take it seriously. But the silliness is part of the fun.

Anonymous is from director Roland Emmerich, who also directed the rather thin spoof on prehistory, 10,000 BC, which I commented on previously. The script was written by John Orloff, previously known as the author of the brilliant, Oscar-deserving documentary, “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.” Combined, the two make a potent force in satiric film making.

Historically, however, it’s a mess. Start with the fire in the theatre, early in the movie. It wasn’t the Globe. That theatre burned down during a performance of Shakespeare’s play, Henry VIII, in 1613, when fireworks hit the thatch and roof beams. The movie has a theatre being burned down by Robert Cecil’s men as they hunt the playwright Ben Jonson, hiding under the stage.

The theatre might be the Rose, but there is no indication from modern excavations that it burned down. It was used by theatre companies until at least 1604, and was apparently pulled down in 1606.

The film then jumps back in time five years to show Elizabeth I’s court… but that would make it 1608 if this was the Globe, five years after she died. But the year we go back to is actually 1598. No London theatres burned down in 1603.

The movie suggests Shakespeare was an illiterate, womanizing, greedy drunkard – he could read, but bizarrely could not write. But that would be very unlikely in the Elizabethan era schools which Shakespeare attended. This characterization is based on imagination, not any historical source. Shakespeare’s signature exists on several documents and many scholars believe the fragments of the play about Thomas Moore contain notes in his hand.

The Earl of Oxford is portrayed as a brilliant writer who has to keep his talent secret – well, it’s an open secret, since just about everybody in the court seems to know about his writing, including the Queen. That he was a writer is true – he was a respected albeit rather ordinary poet and playwright in his day, and a patron of the theatre as well.

There is nothing to indicate any social stigma attached to his or any other noble’s writing. Some of his poems survive today, although none of his plays seem to have. And as for being a well-educated man, his degrees from Oxford and Cambridge were honorary degrees, the sort handed out in great numbers to royal attendants by Elizabeth when she visited those institutions.

Elizabeth herself wrote poetry, as did Sir Edward Dyer, Sir John Harrington, Sir Philip Sidney, and others – including Raleigh, Grenville, Robert Sidney, and Essex. So why being a poet and a playwright in a literary and cultured court that fancied such artistic achievements would be taboo is never explained. Plus, there is not a single word in all the documentation from the era, that connects de Vere with even one of the plays he supposedly wrote. Yet Shakespeare is mentioned in documents in association with his writing years before the movie makes him pretend to be author (as early as 1592).

As a young man in the film, de Vere has an affair with the sexually active and promiscuous Elizabeth and fathers what seems to be one of a litter of bastard children with her. But later in the film, we learn de Vere was actually himself one of Elizabeth’s bastard kids, her eldest. Messy. But of course there is no historical evidence that de Vere nor any other courtier bedded Elizabeth, let alone that she had illegitimate children from the union.

When we learn de Vere allegedly fathered a son on his mother, Elizabeth, this is the movie’s “jump the shark” moment. It’s a groaner for sure, and you wonder if the author needed to go so far to ridicule the de Vere theorists.

Christopher Marlowe is found murdered in an alley in the movie. Oops, that event happened five years earlier, in another location and another wound. From Wikipedia:

The death of Christopher Marlowe plays a small but significant role in the storyline. Marlowe is portrayed alive in 1598, while in fact he died in 1593. The slashing of Marlowe’s throat occurs in Southwark with Shakespeare as his suggested murderer, whereas Marlowe was killed by Ingram Frizer with a knife stab above the left eye, in Deptford. Marlowe is shown mocking Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday in 1598, although it wasn’t written until the following year. Marlowe dies on the same day Essex departs for Ireland. These events actually happened 6 years apart. Another writer shown to be alive after his death is Thomas Nashe, who appears in a scene set after 1601. He is known to have died by that year, though the exact date is uncertain.

It’s just one of those scenes that underscore the film’s satirical nature. The writer makes so many glaring historical errors merely to mock the Oxfordians who probably can’t see they are being teased.

A high point in the film’s action comes when Essex (apparently another of Elizabeth’s bastards) returns from Ireland to try to save his reputation, then tries to lead an armed rebellion in 1601, with only a handful of men. Anonymous doesn’t bother to tell you Essex was placed under house arrest for a full year after returning from Ireland, and his anger was sparked not by some injustice of Robert Cecil, but by the queen not renewing his licence to collect taxes on sweet wine, which hurt his income. Even then, it took months of brooding for him to spur himself to act.

What the film also doesn’t tell you is that Essex took several members of the Privy Council captive and held them as hostages. He then took 300 armed men into London. The citizens did not rally to support his cause, and there was no army shooting unarmed civilians as shown in the film. When Essex found the gates into the city locked, he fled ignominiously, abandoning his followers, and headed home to burn any incriminating documents. He was captured at his house.

Essex also went to trial – he wasn’t beheaded right away, as the film suggests.

In the film, de Vere saves his bastard son with Elizabeth, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, who had been captured among Essex’s men and sentenced to death. Actually it was Robert Cecil who had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. He was released three years later, by James I, who restored him to honour and a court position.

In Anonymous, Shakespeare’s stage troop are hired by de Vere’s men to perform the play, Richard III, which is used to stir the audience into mob action in support of Essex (the detested Richard III appears as a hunchback in Shakespeare’s play – without any historical proof – and Robert Cecil was also a hunchback). It was actually Southampton who hired the players at the Globe Theatre to revive Richard II, not Richard III.

Elizabeth’s funeral procession is shown walking along the frozen Thames. Not so: it took place on land because the Thames did not freeze that winter.

Elizabeth, both young and old, and the older de Vere are all powerfully played. The two Cecils, are also well portrayed, although the younger Robert in particular comes across as more Machiavellian than history shows him to be.

Shakespeare, Johnson, Marlowe and the other playwrights are less convincing as artists than as con men. As one might expect, only de Vere gets any recognition for talent; the others are all hacks at best, frauds at worst.

The nobles who are trying to save England from the imposition of a foreign ruler (James VI of Scotland) are all blonde; those looking to put James on the throne (the Cecils) are dark-haired.

de Vere is shown watching a performance of Macbeth on stage – but the play was likely never staged in his lifetime (some scholars argue for a first performance date of 1605).

All in all, Anonymous is a historical and dramatic failure, but it’s a wonderful period-piece farce, flitting somewhere between swashbuckling and slapstick. It’s absurd, wildly fanciful and at times downright silly, but the masterful English cast, the stunningly well-created sets and the action-style pacing keep you glued to the TV. Watch it for the sheer fun of seeing the Oxfordians and their wacky theories lampooned so thoroughly.