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Category Archives: Skepticism

Cloud computing. It’s a term that has become so pervasive that it’s easy to imagine it as the next logical, progressive step in computing. I, however, find myself agreeing with Richard Stallman more and more. Cloud computing is, perhaps, the least needed, least thought out and, potentially, most dangerous “improvement” in modern computing history. I’m also aware that I am in the minority among tech-savvy users when it comes to this position. With that in mind, I must acknowledge the potential benefits. Moving applications and data storage onto servers has it’s advantages. The operating system is no longer a barrier. A person wouldn’t have to choose their software based, in large part, upon their operating system. Data storage becomes more convenient as online storage solutions such as Amazon’s S3 service enable ordinary users to essentially operate their own, mostly hassle-free, web servers. Even seemingly innocuous services like web e-mail and hosted blogging services illustrate the ability for “cloud computing” to makes previously complicated services simple. Anyone can run their own internet-connected file server. But only a few have the technical knowledge or desire to successfully do so. So why don’t I like cloud computing?

There are three main reasons why I’m luke warm on cloud computing. Cloud computing requires the user to depend upon a machine, run by someone else, whose only connection to him is through the internet. Cloud computing means sending to and storing data on a server that you don’t control, and whose security measures you cannot be sure of. Cloud computing also has the potential of being less secure than traditional desktop computing.

Reliability

Reliability is an essential aspect of any system. A computer is only useful as long as it continues to function. A website is only useful as long as it continues to run and have bandwidth and resources available. When you consider cloud computing according to these simple requirements, it ought to seem obvious that computing in the cloud will be less reliable, everything else being equal. An application depends upon a single workstation having enough resources available and, at a lower level, functioning hardware to run. Cloud computing requires the same thing from a server, which is most likely being accessed by multiple users, and a functioning internet connection with sufficient bandwidth. Increasing the point of failure will inevitably lead to an increase in potential that such services will be degraded or even fail.

But what of hardware failures? Isn’t it true that a business will use better hardware and employ people who are more knowledgeable than the average consumer? Won’t these considerations tilt the scales toward the cloud? Simply? No. Hardware performance and quality have been increasing while the cost has been decreasing. This inverse relationship allows the average consumer’s desktop to be more capable than it ever was before. It is true, however, that in the rare case of hardware failure a cloud application will have built-in redundancy and people capable of fixing such problems. This prevents most breaks in service. Yet, this fails to be a strong argument. Most consumers have multiple computers, a fact that will become increasingly more widespread as the cost of hardware goes down. That, coupled with a prudent back-up plan, would allow most consumers to avoid serious disruptions.

Control

I was originally planning to focus exclusively on the privacy implications of moving and manipulating data on a “foreign” server. The truth is privacy seems to be important only to a select few people, myself included, and the consequences of cloud computing really extend to the concerns over control. Cloud computing leads to a fundamental loss of control. Our data is stored on someone else’s servers, in someone else’s building. By doing work through a cloud application, the user is fundamentally placing undeserved trust in the honesty of the application owner and it’s employees. In all cases the user is put into a situation where he lacks actual physical control over his data.

Why does this matter? Data is malleable. It can be easily changed. Data is also easily copied. In this situation, someone else can more easily copy and/or modify your data and monitor you. It also opens up the further possibility, suggested by recent events, that you could even be locked out of access to your data and applications. Some of these risks can be mitigated through the use of encryption. Encryption is no panacea though. Most people choose weak keys/passwords. This makes the encryption much weaker. Also many application providers offer secondary means of access, often in the form of “security questions”, which are usually even weaker than the key or password in use.

Security

Cloud computing, currently, is potentially less secure than traditional desktop computing. Web applications are typically available at any time of the day, and any day of the week. That means it is available to attempted exploits at any time. The database and/or data behind the application are continually available to any one who is able to gain access. Contrast that with a desktop application. A person who gains access to that desktop will have access to the data on that specific machine. If the network which the computer is on happens to be unsecured, then the person could gain access to them at well. At it’s worst, the damage is limited to specific instances—specific machines. In other words, it is easier to limit the damage caused by penetration through a flaw in a desktop application than it is with a cloud-based application. A cloud application is, then, a bigger target than any individual user would be. That combined with the current current vulnerability which modern web applications have shown to attacks by malicious users, ought to inspire caution.

A fine young atheist.   I have to join P.Z. Meyers in giving gogreen18 a godless clenched fist salute for this lucid, passionate explanation of the reasons why atheists need to speak out.

Thanks to P.Z. and Pharyngula.

Science Is…

Science is…

Science is hard.

Science is a profession.

Science is a way to understand the world.

Science is being wrong, and still succeeding.

Science isn’t a religion.

Science is the feeling you got seeing “The Pillars of Creation”.

Science isn’t a panacea.

Science is a means, not an end.

Science is the love of wisdom.

Science is a candle in the dark(Thanks Sagan).

Science is a hope for the future.

Science isn’t arrogrant.

Science is wonder.

Science.

Science is…

With the impending bailout of the financial sector, it’s hard not to consider the implication of the U.S’ current economic policy.   I want to mention, specifically, the policy of bailing out large, failing, businesses.   The phrase bandied about so often is that a business is simply “too big to fail”.   That can mean a lot of things, not all of them meaningful.   Following close on the heels of the events of September 11th, 2001, the major U.S. airlines found themselves in a dire financial situation.  In reponse, the government poneyed up fifteen billion dollars of tax payer money to prevent their collapse.   This wasn’t the first time the government has had to bail out a large industry in the U.S.

If you consider the government’s bailouts of other luminaries such as Lockheed Martin, Chrysler, and even the City of New York, a pattern starts to emerge.   One of corporate welfare paid by the tax payers to failing businesses   In each case, the business, or businesses, were failing and, in each case, the government deemed the companies to be too “big”, to be too important, to fail.   That is a problem, and all we need is to consider how a capitalist free market is supposed to work to understand why.

The fate of a business is closely tied to how it is run.   If I run my business into the ground through some combination of bad business practices and/or poor financial foresight, then I have only myself to blame.   Nor is it right to blame natural disasters, necessarily, for the failures of large businesses.  A small business might not be able to pull in enough capital to reopen.   But a large business which fails due to a natural disaster failed because they did not plan for the future properly.  Natural disasters, whether natural or man-made, are a regular occurance.   Even if you disagree with my contention, I would still argue that there are very few good reasons to help out a failing company–most of which are a combination of philosophical and pragmatic concerns.

A company fails due to poor business decisions.   This is not necessarily a good thing.  However to bail out the company would usually be a far worse action.   Each time you bail out a company, you set a precedence for doing so again.   The more businesses feel that they are immune from failure, the more willing they are to pursue reckless or near sighted strategies.   This collective unwillingness to allow certain businesses to fail must be partly blamed for our current situation.

Beyond such pragmatic concerns, there is something rather disconcerting about the idea that we should spend tax money to prop up failing businesses.   Business so often demand as little regulation as they can possibly get away with, and for good reason.   It is easier to succeed if you don’t have someone telling you what you can and can’t do.   Yet, few businesses would reject a bailout opportunity from that very same government.  It’s selfish.  But that’s not bad.  Acting in one’s self interest is that idea which most of our markets are built upon.   Instead, just as strong markets are built upon strong competition, innovation relies upon the free competition between companies.  What we get when large companies are backed up by federal dollars is the exact opposite of competition or innovation.   If an uncompetitive business can depend upon it being propped up, it has an unfair advantage over it’s competitors.   Yet not only are these payouts fundamentally unfair, they are also responsible for prolonging inefficient and uncompetitive businesses at the expense of their competition.

Thomas Friedman in an interview with Scientific American suggested that no free markets actually exist anymore, and I for one would tend to agree.  He stated the position as an argument for regulation.   I would, perhaps, use it in a slightly different manner.   Conservatives in the U.S. are fond of preaching the religion of free market economics.   The truth is however more complicated.   A truely free market is dangerous.  Few consumer safety and fraud protections are built in.   The Gilded Age of the United States provides a handy reference for such a market.   A completely controlled market isn’t the answer either, as the woes of the former Soviet Union, following the collapse of the berlin wall illustrated.   So what is left?   That answer is far from easy to give.   However, if we are to have a market that can be called anywhere near free, we must allow for business to succeed or fail based upon their actions.   If we are unwilling to stomach the rough seas of the free market, then we must not persist in continuing with these half measures and combine tougher regulation with these government bailouts.

Which brings me to the thought which prompted this whole thing.   Considering all of the corporations which were “too big” to fail, what businesses out there might also qualify for such dubious protections.  I came up one very good example.   Microsoft.   Microsoft is a corporate behemoth.   Their operating system encompasses over 90% of the PC market.   It is also a major player in smart phones.   Beyond that, they have their hands in sectors as diverse as video games, digital music players, and web advertising.   Not that Microsoft would seem to be anywhere near bankruptcy, but it is certainly interesting to consider the question: “What would we do if Microsoft was gone?”

Well it seems as though we all made it through the first firing the of the Large Hadron Collider.  But before we get complacent, we still have one more hurdle.  They still haven’t actually done any colliding yet.   The beams circulating through the LHC today were only going in one direction, meaning no chance of a collision.   While this isn’t a particularly important point to most people, it is for those who afraid of CERN’s new particle accelerator.   I’ve read estimates on CERN’s site that the first collision may be as early as October.  But who knows.

Looks like we have months more to wait before the “real” threat of the LHC occurs.  One can only wonder how long before we hear forecasts of death by mini-black hole, and it will occur.   As with any of these theories, the proponents never seem to go away, at least in my opinion.   So we will probably be hearing from them up to, and even after, the first collisions. The beauty of the situation is that even if nothing happened last time, there’s always the chance that things may be different. Irrational fear is just that, why would reason change anything? On a side note, it’s all well and good to joke, but the “threat” of simply turning on the LHC elicited death threats. One can’t help but wonder, perhaps somewhat morbidly, what the knowledge that CERN is actually going to do something unique with their new toy will cause.

Carl Sagan was likely more responsible for the popularization of science than any other scientist in recent memory.   His series Cosmos, in spite of it’s now dated graphics, still has the capacity to draw in it’s viewers.   What I am not certain about is how many are aware of Carl Sagan’s position within the modern skeptical movement.   I personally feel that Carl Sagan, as a popularizer of science, was also one of the most important figures in modern skepticism.   His book, “The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark”, reads as a manifesto of the skeptical movement.   I recently had the pleasure of reading through it and besides his arguments for the importance of skepticism and critical thinking in the modern world, I found one good point about the skeptical movement itself.

“And yet, the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs Them – the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption.   This is unconstructive.  It does not get the message across.  It condemns the skeptics to permanent minority status; whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted.

If we understand this, then of course we feel the uncertainty and pain of the abductees, or those who dare not leave home without consulting their horoscopes, or those who pin their hopes on crystals from Atlantis.  And such compassion for kindred spirits in a common quest also works to make science and the scientific method less off-putting, especially to the young.”

When dealing with pseudo-science and supersititious beliefs it’s easy for us as skeptics to become frustrated.   But the point of skepticism isn’t to teach what’s “true” or “correct”.  Skepticism isn’t a belief system, so much as a way to understand the world around us, and come to provisional beliefs.   As Sagan pointed out, we all use skepticism in our lives.  If we buy a used car, we certainly don’t accept whatever the seller tells us.  We examine the car, test drive it, and maybe even take it in for an inspection.   That is skepticism.  If we would do this when you buy a car, why not use this when looking for a source for medical treatment, or when you see that ad for an all new, all natural cure?   The goal of the skeptical movement ought to be the elimination of the skeptical movement.

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I had the distinct pleasure of watching M. Night Shyamalan’s newest picture, the enigmatically titled “The Happening”, last evening. Flashes of 50’s party scenes and leather jacketed greasers aside, the new flick’s plot centers around high school science teacher Elliot, played by Mark Wahlberg, and his wife Alma, played by Zooey Deschanel. One by one, cities and towns are being attacked by an unknown chemical which cause the person to stop whatever they’re doing, and then promptly kill themselves. The Happening begins with alternating scenes of death and panic. We initially begin with the first “attack” which takes place in New York’s Central Park. Construction workers jump off of buildings, a girl impales her neck with a chop stick. It’s compelling stuff, if you like that kind of thing. I happen to enjoy gore, individual mileage may vary. We are then transported into a high school science class being taught by Elliot. He brings up the mysterious disappearance of bees, prompting his class for possible answers. The students suggest several different causes including a virus and global warming. I personally found that the best answer was the last answer. A kid, after being egged on by the teacher, suggests that the disappearance was a force of nature which we would never be able to understand. Elliot responds to that drivel, not by pointing out the intellectual laziness of it, but rather by applauding him. He goes on to say that defining certain phenomena as unknowable as a good scientific belief. He apparently defines science as giving up when it’s difficult to explain things. From that point onward the movie descended into depths of weirdness unheard of. Plants attack people, lots of people act like their drugged up, some guy claims to be able to calculate a time table for an event which he doesn’t know anything about, and Mark Wahlberg talks to a plastic tree. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The movie eventually decides on a cause as well as a potential meaning for the strange events. About halfway through the movie, we are told, through Elliot, that the strange events must be caused by plants. He justifies it with a couple points. Plants are able to release toxins when “threatened” or attacked. The “neurotoxin” responsible for the symptoms is described as a natural, airborne compound. (Though there is a perfunctory “government did it” theory) The coup de grace, though, is that the attacks first took place in…of all places…a park! Astounding. Luckily this is where the comedy part of the movie picks up, since a man can only live on so much gore before he yearns for something new.

The plants deliver their neurotoxin through the air. Which plants are responsible is never specifically stated. An astute reader would have figured a problem with this. How do they attack with the neurotoxin when they are dependent upon the movement of the wind? It wouldn’t be a very scary movie if all you had to do was stay upwind. Well here’s the rub. While this is never explained, it appears that the plants are capable of invoking wind at will. I know. This is a strange theory, but it is the only one which matches the evidence. In each case, the wind appears, seemingly at the beck and call of the plants, right at the moment when the plants are attacking! Scary stuff. Luckily when confronted with such a heinous threat, one can always run away. Yes. That’s right. They run away from the wind. There is a scene where Elliot and his group are running towards the camera while the wind “chases” them through a field of grass. It was at this point that I had to restrain myself from laughing out loud. It was also at that point which I realized that “The Happening” was a comedy. I beliefe Mr. Shyamalan has been stealing, err, studying from South Park, as their global warming episode featured a crowd running from “global warming”. Beyond running from wind, one can, according to this movie, simply close doors and windows in order to prevent an airborne neurotoxin from entering the house. Indeed, it is little known fact that houses, no matter how old or well maintained, are absolutely air tight as long as their doors and windows are closed. It was this little known fact allowed both Elliot, Alma, and Elliot’s friend’s daughter to survive the attack.

In the end, the movie explains the whole…well…happening as a “warning” to humans to stop messing up the environment. Leaving aside the fact that the movie attributes both supernatural abilities and a consciousness to plants, it seems ironic to me that the final plot point simply parrots the moral endings of the alien movies of the 60’s. Luckily though we have a token skeptic to bring us home. He doubts the nice “scientist”(an old guy who is really tightly wound is a scientist?) and his explanation. What happens? He’s shown to be the dirty skeptic which he is. The final scene brings the whole movie back round as a new attack takes place in France. See!!! You dirty skeptics!!!! WE TRIED TO TELL YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! oh. Sorry.

I must be honest that while I try to use critical thinking and skepticism I am always willing to temporarily accept wacky things during movies. The point of movies is ostensibly to entertain. If critical thinking must be left at the door when watching, well that’s the price of telling an interesting story. So, I have nothing against “The Happening” being totally unrealistic. I have a problem with the movie being completely ridiculous. The problem was that the plot and the basic ideas underlying the movie were ridiculous. “The Happening” is a decent movie but it suffers from the same flaw that all of M. Night Shayamalan’s films have suffered. Whether the movie’s about ghosts, or aliens, or a haunted village, or evil trees, they begin with an interesting, promising premise and end with a flawed execution. If you don’t mind goofy premises, the movie is watchable. Otherwise the movie is rather forgettable.

A little bit of news round up is in order.  Two major news items caught my attention during my perusal of the various news items.   First up, Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference started this monday and featured CEO Steve Jobs’ keynote speech.   As per usual with Apple conferences, the internet was abuz with rumors and hype surrounding the potential new porducts that might be unveiled.   Despite my complete lack of a mac, and perhaps due to my current interest in a macbook pro, I sat in on the Gizmodo and Engadget live coverage of the keynote speech.   What ensued can only be described as a string of completely uninteresting revelations.  There’s going to be a new version of OS X eventually?  Well duh…   And it’s going to be called Snow Leoperd?   Ok.   Look! Iphone games, medical apps, et cetera.  Perhaps the strangest app of all though was an ebay app(are you too impatient to just log in to the web based ebay?).   The mobileme(.mac 2.0) seemed vaguely interesting, though it would seem to make more sense to see what free cloud based apps show up to compete with it.   I’ve personally voiced my own apathy towards cloud based solutions, but I must admit I can see benefits to the use of some of the apps shown off in mobile me…though I can’t help but ask if Google couldn’t do the same thing minus the cost.   Finally, there was the big announcement of the day, a 3G or HSDPA, based iphone.   I’m sure this, along with the announced price cut for the iphone, excited quite a few.  But I must ask…so what?   The iphone is still locked to AT&T, which requires any non AT&T customer to pay several hundred to just get out of their old contract.  Going along with that complaint, I wonder why would you buy an iphone if you could get, for example, a new Blackberry Bold, HTC Touch Pro, or any number of other smartphones without having to replace your current provider, especially if that provider offer you good reception?   In the end, the keynote speech for WWDC fell flat.  I think Paul Thurrot put it best when he described the speech as “Microsoftesque”.

Going from the boring to the inane, we have the “Green our Vaccine” rally.   One of the organizers, the strangely labeled TACA or Talk About Curing Autism, (Haven’t we been doing that?) features a recap of the rally which took place June 4th in Washington D.C.   The anti-vaccine, or anti-toxin, movement is certainly nothing new, but it has certainly been aided by the influx of celebrity support. The rally itself featured such notables as Jim Carey, Robert Kennedy Jr., and Jenny McCarthy.   The movement has traditionally consisted of attacks against vaccines for ingredients, such as thiomersal which is a preservative which contained mercury, which they claimed to have caused autism in their child.   All of this sounds very scary especially when you mention chemicals like mercury being in vaccines.  The cold blast of reality is that there is no evidence that these chemicals cause autism.

In general, the movement tends to describe itself as being against any “toxins” being in vaccines.  I would ask, facetiously, who is FOR placing toxins in vaccines?   But that point being put aside, I imagine these people are well meaning but mistaken in their beliefs.  What’s more troubling is how the movement seems to be more interested in eliminating vaccines in general, rather than concerned with certain non-essential ingredients.

David Gorski of the Science-based Medicine Blog has a great write up about the event, the “controversy” and the truth about vaccine safety.   What’s interesting about this rally is how it shows the evolution away from the failing argument that mercury causes autism towards the more general anti-toxins argument.   I don’t think this is all that surprising.  The use of the anti-toxins argument is used throughout the pseudo-sciences.   The argument often that we’re ingesting too many toxins and we need to get rid of them in order to allow our bodies to heal naturally.   As if that wasn’t bad enough though, they’re combining the anti-toxin message with a “green” or all-natural message in some cases.  Consider a quote from a mother of two autistic children featured in an article via the science-based medicine blog found here.   “But Mason, who has two autistic children, warns that autism is on the rise, and that something has to change. ‘ideally the legislators would enact legislation that would force companies to use natural ingredients‘, she argues. ‘Not what they’re using now.'”   What is this ideal world which she is positing?   While I obviously feel for her and understand that she’s sincere in her beliefs and desires, I can’t help but point out that ingredients being natural doesn’t make them better.  After all consider that mercury and lead are natural but are in fact toxic to humans.

In the end it’s hard to not feel for the troubles which a lot of these mothers have faced, including the heart rending feeling that they might have been directly responsible for their child’s autism.   However we shouldn’t ignore that there are people trying to eliminate childhood vaccines, which are responsible for saving many lives from diseases, with a campaign which is thoroughly lacking in any real scientific evidence.  The best scientific argument they had was that mercury caused autism and that has been investigated and shown to lack any evidence.   After that, all that is left is faux green, faux consumer choice, and faux science.

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Image borrowed from Science-based Medicine Blog

On a lighter note I’d like to submit Jim Carey’s analogy.  When I read this, it simply floored me.  I have a degree in literature and, really, this is probably one of the best analogies ever.   “If on the way to a burning building a fire engine ran people over, we wouldn’t stop using fire engines. We would just ask them to slow down a bit. Well it’s time to tell the CDC and the AAP that it’s time to slow the fire engine down. People are getting hurt on the way to the fire.”   Truer words have n’er been spoke.   Oh.  And I’m being sarcastic.