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Aggregating Skeptical Thought

Rhinestone-encrusted cigarette lighter/tape recorders

Like any good Skeptic a large part of applying skepticism comes down to understanding to some extent human psychology.  Understanding how people think or why they think the way they do can go along way to understanding someone else’s beliefs.

Any good Skeptic should also be fully prepared to turn their critical eye on themselves. Knowing common logical fallacies people make can be used to improve the quality of your own arguments but also highlight weaknesses in other’s arguments.

When evaluating medical claims of herbal supplements I usually apply a “back of the envelope” litmus test to such claims. Failing this litmus test doesn’t inherently disqualify something 1) because its not a fool-proof system 2) I’m not a medical doctor but it does raise some red flags.  Some of those tests are:

“Kitchen Sink” claims
Does this [insert alt med herb/treatment] claim to cure all known diseases, like cancer, memory loss, toxicity and diarrhea simultaneously?

Argument from Naturalness
Does it seem like the biggest thing this [insert herb/claim] has going for it is that its “All Natural”. It shouldn’t need to be said but the claim “natural” is a meaningless term. I’m sure you love your All Natural Wheatgrass/Guava/Arsenic fruit smoothie but I’ll pass.

Does it have Side Effects?
If it doesn’t have any side effects it probably doesn’t have any *main* effects either.

I’ve never really compiled a list of these little litmus tests before and this is certainly not complete. I’d be interested in hearing anyone else’s tests or if someone has already put together a list of these before.

Just like “alt-med” claims there are other little litmus tests that could be applied in specific areas such as investments. Certainly all claims should be thoroughly understood but sometimes you need a cheat sheet.

Here’s a list from U.S. News & World Report on investment scams, The Psychology of Investing Scams. Below is a brief outline to a rather brief article.

While the old adage “if its too good to be true” should always be followed, here are some specific variations on a theme.

The “Phantom Riches” Tactic
If you are guaranteed decent (or extraordinary) and steady returns on an investment, you could end up in a Madoff-style investment/Ponzi Scheme.

The “Source Credibility” Tactic
Anybody can claim to be a financial planner but his she really? Is she registered with an accredited/recognized trade group, like the National Association of Personal Financial Advisers. Are the products sold/marketed registered with the SEC?

The lack of credentials or the registered status of an investment doesn’t disqualify it from being a sound investment but you’ve just removed some level of independent verification and you really, really need to understand how the investment vehicle can generate capital including the risks. You’ve certainly increased your homework.

The “Social Consensus” Tactic
This is fundamentally peer pressure. Everyone else is investing in mortgage-backed securities. Why aren’t you? This is a tough one because in many instances because, “I invested in something because [insert person whose judgment you trust] invested as well.”

The “Reciprocity” Tactic
I call this the “there’s no free dinner” rule. If you are given a free dinner at a nice restaurant and all you have to do is sit through an investment seminar, be prepared for the hard sell. You’ll see this with Buyer’s Clubs where you’ll get a key to a “new car” and all you have to is sit through the sales pitch. The Nigerian Email scam is a grandiose version of this, although this one plays very much to someone’s greed.

The “Scarcity” Tactic
Just as you might assume, “this opportunity will only last for the next 10 minutes so CALL NOW!!!” I think QVC or HSN have perfected this tactic, there’s a reason they show a running clock and slowly dwindling numbers of “items left in stock”. Any long-term investment (and most short-term ones as well) worth being involved in will not disappear overnight. The rhinestone-encrusted unicorn cigarrete lighter/tape recorder on the other hand is only available While Supplies Last.

Cross-posted at FreeThought Fort Wayne

Filed under: Health, Internet, Skeptic, , , , ,

What is RSS?

This is the first in a series of posts for FreeThought Fort Wayne to assist its members (and readers) in being able to get the most out of their internets.

Who is this for?

You’ve probably heard the term RSS before but haven’t been able to get any clear direction or information on what it is exactly. This first post will be dedicated to the non-geeks out there. You know who you are and I won’t hold it against you 😉 I will publish a second half of this discussion that will delve a little deeper into some advanced features of RSS, despite how simple RSS really is there is an incredible amount of power in the protocol. 

What is RSS?

Any good discussion of RSS would be missing something if it didn’t at a minimum discuss what the abbreviation RSS stands for. RSS currently means Really Simple Syndication and there is a reason for this rather untechnical name. You’d expect RSS to mean Robot Super Scripting or include some kind of Star Trek reference but you’d be disappointed (or not). 
The idea behind RSS is to provide a standard and universal way in which to describe and distribute content. I use the term “Content” very deliberately because RSS can be used for just about anything on the web such as web site articles, news articles, blog posts, podcasts, advertising and even weather updates. Virtually any kind of information you want to distribute via the Internet can be “packaged” into an RSS feed and distributed to anybody with an RSS reader. 
The name can be broken down to describe exactly what RSS does. First, for the Syndication part, think of syndication like TV. When a show like Seinfeld is in PrimeTime, the timeslot and advertisers are tightly controlled, however when its sold for syndication a network like the CW or WGN can air the syndicated Seinfeld episodes whenever they want with whatever advertisers they can get. When an organization like the New York Times decides to “syndicate” their articles on the web via an RSS feed they are largely giving up the ability to decide when that content can be “aired”. If I have an RSS reader (which is nothing more than application or website that knows how to read RSS feeds) I can get to that content whenever and wherever I like. 
The “Really Simply” part of RSS means that the way in which the content (i.e., articles, blog posts) are described is pretty basic. In fact, if you were “look under the hood”; RSS includes a title, description, website link and some basic information about the publisher of the content. That’s it!
With such basic information you can put just about anything into that like the following (all information is made up):
Publisher: CarReviews.com
Item #1
Title: 2009 Hyundai Sonata Limited
Description: This is a very nice car, yada, yada, yada. Gratuitous Seinfeld reference.
Date: 8/1/2008
Item #2
Title: 2009 Toyota Prius
Description: You might not be sure if you are driving a car or toaster but it gets great mileage.
Date 7/30/2008
The above example says that the Publisher of this feed (CarReviews.com) can be found at http://www.carreviews.com and that they have 2 items in their RSS feed, Item #1 describes a 2009 Hyundai Sonata and Item #2 describes a 2009 Toyota Prius. Imagine using that same format for describing a news article at the New York Times:
Publisher: The New York Times
Website: nytimes.com
Item #1
Title: Obama unveils his housing stimulus package in Phoenix, AZ
Description: yada, yada, yada
Date: 02/19/2009
So even though RSS is a “web” thing it can be used to describe pretty much anything. I say “pretty much” because there’s probably something out there but I can’t think of anything that can’t be described but I’ve been drinking and well, you know…
 
What do you mean RSS Feed? Or RSS Reader?
I’ve touched on them a bit earlier but to be specific an “RSS Feed”  (or simply “feeds” or “news feeds”) is a list of items (like our car reviews above) with some information about who is publishing those items. An “RSS Reader” is a stand-alone program (like Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes) or a webpage (like NetVibes, Google Reader, Bloglines), either way it’s simply a program or website that can translate an RSS feed into something that is easily readable by you and me. RSS Readers are also referred to as Aggregators or News Readers. 
As an example, click on the NetVibes link (http://www.netvibes.com) and fill out the little bit of information they want to know like your city and your interests and they will generate an entire website of information. The website they generate in my opinion is crazy and chaotic but every single bit of information was generated as a result of an RSS Feed. In fact, it’s fair to say that NetVibes.com is an entire website of RSS feeds and that it is one big RSS Reader. I show you this not to scare you ( or give you a seizure) but to show you what can be done and all the different kinds of information that can be syndicated, like stock tickers, youtube and vimeo videos, Wired.com articles and Google calendars, Oh! and the current weather. 
Now that we have talked about the “idea” of RSS and some ways in which it’s used, i.e., syndicating car reviews or articles on nytimes.com, as well as some common terminology that you might find out there on the Internet,  let’s talk about how to use these things. 
How to use RSS?
128px-feed-iconsvgBefore you can use RSS you have to be able to find an RSS feed. Any decent website, blog or podcast will very clearly label their feed. It will be labeled as “Subscribe to our feed” or “Subscribe via RSS” or simply “Subscribe” (like FreeThoughtFortWayne.org, look in the upper right hand part of the webpage). Often times the RSS feed will be identified by an orange icon with white “radio” waves (See the image to the right).
Most RSS Readers that you use will ask you to setup new RSS Feeds. To setup a feed you will need to copy the URI (or URL) of the RSS feed into their program.This is usually the address in your web browser (see below).
Using Google Reader as an example, in order to “subscribe” I have to type in the URL (website address) of an RSS feed to subscribe to it. 
So to subscribe to the RSS Feed for The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast I will need to type in the following URL:
http://www.theskepticsguide.org/feed/rss.aspx?feed=SGU (to find this URL go to http://www.theskepticsguide.org and click on the “Subscribe via RSS” link)
Another great example is the news site for the BBC. I’m an avid watcher of BBC news. I don’t watch FoxNews (optionally Faux News) or even MSNBC or CNN. I watch the BBC. When I want to see the “high level” news for the day I go to the website http://news.bbc.co.uk/. And what do you think I see in the upper-right hand corner of their website? You guessed it, our familiar “orange icon” from above and the words “News Feed”. When you click on the icon or link it opens the current news feed. Here’s what it looks like right now using Apple’s Safari web browser
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So to take advantage of RSS feeds like the Top News from the BBC, sign up for a webpage like BlogLines.com or Google Reader and begin finding blogs, websites and news organizations you want to get information from. Make sure once  you have found an RSS Reader you like  such as BlogLines and “subscribe” to the various websites URL’s.
Why Use RSS Feeds?
Actually that’s a good question. If I can just go to the NY Times or the BBC or the FreeThought Fort Wayne blog, why bother with all the complication of an RSS feed and something to read it with on top of all that? The question you ask actually highlights the very reason why RSS feeds are increasingly popular. How often do you just go to 2 or 3 websites? After all your question asks about 2 or 3 websites (the NYTimes, BBC and FreeThought Fort Wayne). What happens when you want to know about new articles on 43 different websites*? Now you are talking about a bit of a headache aren’t you?
What an RSS feed and a subsequent RSS Reader allows you to do is tp subscribe to multiple (and many) websites and quickly go through the articles for only those stories that interest you. I love Slate.com but they publish 100 articles a day. Without some mechanism to filter or quickly list recent content there’s no way I would be able to stay on top of the most interesting (to me) content being published.
Another option is the ability to save “searches” in various search engines. For example, I frequently search Google for the following, “Fort Wayne” and “Skeptic” (or “atheism” or “humanist”). I basically want to know anytime Google sees a news article that combines Fort Wayne and the word Skeptic (or Atheist or Humanism). This is a tedious task to type this information into Google on a daily basis. What if I could save my search criteria and with the click of a button perform that search. What if I could simply open an RSS feed that automatically lists the search results? That would be really cool. Guess what!? Subscribe to the following URLs and they do just that. 
Conclusion
There is really nothing inherently scary about RSS. It’s just a very easy way to share any kind of information. RSS is largely seen as a “web” thing but it’s really not. In my professional career we use RSS as a way to universally (and securely) share information between the company I work for and our clients. What I find most ironic about RSS is that for many getting information via a website is “cutting edge” but for many in the business world that is “so 2005”. If I can’t provide our client’s data in RSS we are really behind the times.
* I personally subscribe to 43 different RSS feeds. That includes all saved Google searches, blogs, news feeds and podcasts. And in all honesty I’m not really tyring. There’s really a lot of content being generated by various blogs, etc. that I’m just not taking advantage of.

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The Paperless Office and Staplers

I believe the hallmark of a company that will have the greatest difficulty in adopting a “paperless office” paradigm is it’s commitment to the use of Staplers.

Think about it

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What I’m reading…

I know this stuff is random but I feel compelled to blog about it anyway…

And in case you didn’t know the Republican National Convention is going on as we speak

  • Welcome to John McCain’s Party (Salon.com) I believe the commetntary last night talked about the surreal nature of Joe Lieberman’s speech, I agree, wtf? But then I find out that McCain wanted to pick Lieberman as his VP until the social conservative members of his party overruled him. Wait? I thought McCain was a party maverick and would kowtow to the Party*.
  • Gustav, global warming and Sarah Palin (Salon.com) That’s funny, Sarah Palin has the same last name as that Bristol girl.

*  Subject to approval by The Party, apparently

Filed under: Science, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The new science of Genography

Science is reporting, “Genography” puts European ancestry on the map, on recent research out of the University of California.

Population geneticist, John Novembre (cool name, btw), plotted the genetic fingerprints of 1300+ Europeans on a map and found that our DNA provided a “sort of global positioning system” for where your genes originated. Check out the map that accompanies the article, it vaguely looks like the continent of Europe.

Now they had a highly prejudicial sample population, specifically that each person tested was clearly associated (through to their grandparents) to a specific region. So the likelihood that “foreign” DNA wouldn’t likely be introduced for several generations but still an interesting process. This process could simply look at your DNA and not only tell you that you were from Switzerland but likely what village or set of villages you came from.

Filed under: Science, ,

Obama answers your science questions

As reported by ABCNews and Wired, Obama answers your science questions.

At this point it appears that neither candidate will be participating in the ScienceDebate2008. So the fine folks trying to get at least some information on each candidates science policy offered up 14 questions for each campaign to answer. No word yet on McCain’s answers.

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Random Stuff I Read

Every wanted to know what I read on a daily basis? I’d like know myself. So I kept a browser up all day and every time I read something online I just left the article up just to see the kind of stuff I read in one day.

Here’s the analysis of the 54 webpages I left up and running (holy crap!).

1) Roughly half were skepticism or freethought related (No surprises there), sites like

2) I did have about 4 articles up from my new favorite blog, thelongrunblog.com. It’s an economics plus skepticism blog from one of the SGU Rogue’s Gallery bloggers, Jon Blumenfeld.

3) About a quarter of my articles were local or national news items

4) and then just a bunch of random stuff that I don’t even know how to classify,

So there you have it, the semi-eclectic readings of Skep

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I’m being Framed by Mark Souder

I’ve recently received a mailer from my Congressman Mark Souder (R-IN). Besides the typical, “I’m doing this for you” type propaganda is a survey. And just to give you an idea of what the survey is like let me choose at random, well, let’s just pick Item #1 shall we,

If forced to choose, would you support more federal spending on education or alternative energy?

____ Education                                          ___ Alternative Energy

Well Mr. Souder, I pick alternative energy because I don’t really care if my children can’t read as long as they can’t read by solar powered lamps. Obviously this is a political stunt that as a taxpayer I’m paying for but nevermind that.

Ever since Matthew Nisbett and Chris Mooney authored there little article about Framing, I’ve become keenly aware of how the framing (or context) of a question or statement can dramatically affect my perception of an issue or person. Just in case you don’t know what I mean by framing and don’t care to follow the above links since they do go on a bit. Essentially “framing” is the term describing the different ways in which you can present your message to elicit (intentionally or otherwise) the desired response and that the “framing” of the message often bears more on the response than the message or content itself.

Now I won’t point out the obvious False Dichotomy that Mr. Souder is choosing to employ because quite frankly I’ve never accused Souder of even being a logical or rational person. Hey Souder, can’t wait to see what other road in Fort Wayne you can put Ronald Reagan’s name on. Ooh maybe you should try putting his face on the dime. Anyway.

Ready for more? Well you asked for it but this time be extra aware of the choice of words he uses,

Which of the following do you believe is the best strategy to reduce gas prices?

___ Drill for oil

___ Force further size reductions in vehicles

___ Nothing, the current strategy is working

___ Other

“Drill for oil” is put forward in very neutral terms that almost begs the question, “Aren’t we already doing that?” or “Why wouldn’t we do that?”

But the next one, “Force further size reductions in vehicles”, is an example of using both perjorative phrasing and quite frankly a misleading statement (my grandmother would simply call it lying). First notice the use of “Force”, just in case your not clear ANY government regulation is force, just see what happens when you choose not to comply. The statement “further size reductions in vehicles” to my knowledge doesn’t make any sense. I’m unaware of any regulation or law that currently requires the reduction in the size of vehicles. I’m not nearly as aware of regulations as Mark Souder but I’d like to see some proof of legislation or even a bill proposal on this. Clearly he’s referring to raising the CAFE standards on vehicles which says nothing about how big a vehicle has to be only the average miles per gallon that a fleet of vehicles from a car manufacturer must achieve.

And to cap off the idiocy, the third option is “Nothing, the current strategy is working”. Do I even need to comment.

You want more? You people are glut tons,

Would you support higher taxes on all taxpayers to fund government-run health care?

___ Yes      ___ No      ___ Maybe

Well at least I get a maybe. 2 words, oversimplification.

Mark Souder has been criticized for spending too much time working to help veterans, including by working to save the Fort Wayne VA hospital. What do you think?

___ I agree with the critics that he has spent too much time on veterans issues

___ I agree with Congressman Souder’s effort to boost veterans spending and save the hospital.

Personally I think once a veteran has gone past their usefulness, either they are too injured to fight or too old, they should all be shot and then their bodies should be recycled into a food product, and we should call it Soylent Green.

Seriously what kind of question is this? I hang with a fairly liberal group of people and I hear a lot, I mean a lot, of criticism of Mark Souder, spending too much time on veterans affairs is not one of them. Again, the question is used to paint Souder as a victim of partisan politics and is a pathetic attempt to cast him as a champion for the common man.

I have a new criticism though. How about Souder’s wasteful taxpayer spending on direct mailers that could otherwise go into processing old people as a renewable food source. Is Mark Souder’s 3-terms* in office up yet?

Now that I’m done ranting about Mark Souder**, let’s get back to the question at hand which is Framing. I can’t find an online version of this survey so I can’t send you off to see the whole thing but needless to say each question is carefully phrased and each response is carefully guided to a particular “right” answer. But the attempt to guide the reader to the right answer is so thinly veiled that it, at least to this harmless blogger, puts me into one of two frames of mind. Either I’m put off by the level of political hackery that’s involved or Mark Souder clearly does not understand the issues he’s being presented with.

Of course, being a rational person, and therefore unintelligable to people like Souder, I’m going to assume that this is just a political hack job. Quite frankly the other proposition is too depressing to think about. Plus let’s be honest Mark Souder didn’t put this survey together, he’s got a guy who does this stuff, he probably rubber stamped this thing without a second glance but if I were Souder I’d be checking on what image you are portraying to your constituency. This survey presented two Mark Souders, one of a Partisan Hackjob or an Incompetent.


* One of Mark Souder’s campaign promises, Gingrich’s Contract With America, was that he would only run for 3-terms in office. He was elected to Congress during Republican Revolution of 1994.

** In case you need additional reasons to conclude that Mark Souder’s grasp on reality is tenuous at best here’s his press release bragging about his recent appearance in the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. If you movie is about the lack of intelligence then Souder is your man.

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Do Fort Wayne car dealers care about your identity?

Like many cities in the U.S. we have several local network affiliates, ABC & NBC are IndianasNewsCenter and CBS is WANE. These local affiliates have short news segments that do investigative journalism. The most notable report recently was an expose on whether or not you are really getting the fish you ordered from local restaurants.

The journalism is good if not a bit wasted on the frivolous. True, I want the fish I ordered not some generic whitefish at tilapia prices but granted not something that would ruin my life or finances. However, recently WANE ran an investigative report on online fraud via CraigsList or eBay. This is certainly an important report if nothing else it raises awareness and gives people some critical thinking tools to use. Unfortunately the Internet in this case is nothing more than a new mechanism for the same old kinds of fraud.

What I think is a bit more interesting when it comes to online fraud is the new ways businesses can cut corners and therefore become grossly negligent. It was recently brought to my attention that several local used car dealers have online credit application forms. Nothing unusual there. However these dealers are asking for extremely personal financial information and are not providing any security for your information.

Before I continue let me provide just some of the most basic online security information. When you fill out a form on the internet, for example, an online credit application and click the Submit buttton you are packaging your information into an envelope (technically a whole bunch of little ones) and transmitting it back to the retailer, in our instance the car dealer. However, in order for your letter to go from your computer to their computers your envelope must pass through a whole bunch of intersections, highways and traffic cops, we’ll call them “hops”. Most legitimate “hops” will simply look at the address on the letter and send it on it’s way, however, anyone of those “hops” has the option to actually open that letter and read the contents.

Well that’s obviously not very safe for private information, so someone invented a way of sharing a password or key between your computer and the car dealers computers. This password is then used to scramble the contents of the envelope so that now your letter contains a bunch of gibberish. The only thing anyone is allowed to see at those “hops” is the address, if they look inside the envelope all they see is gibberish. When your envelope arrives at it’s destination the car dealer’s computer knows which password to use and it unscrambles the message into something readable. Your private information is being transmitted securely through a public space. Think of it like a Brinks armored truck, the most you could ever find out is that something very important is going from Point A to Point B.

So what I tell people when they ask me how do they know whether their online transactions are “safe” is the following:

  1. Do you trust the company you are doing business with? Are they well known?
  2. When you are putting your credit card or personal information in the computer, does it say https:// in the address bar? And, most importantly, does it have the Gold Padlock?

If you answer No to any of these questions then I would not proceed. The answers to #2 aren’t quite as black and white but for the average Joe, I say “It’s a no go!”. It rhymes so it must be so. Ha, I rhymed again. Doh!

So now that you are armed with that bit of information let’s continue our conversation about our local car dealers. In order to provide this level of security your car dealer of choice must set themselves up to swap those passwords or keys between your computer and their computers. This method generally involves the exchange of an SSL certificate (this is the secret password or key). But because of how important these certificates are they can be a bit expensive and require some special setup to get them to work on a car dealers website.

I did an informal survey of local car dealers with a website in the Fort Wayne, Indiana area. Most of the used car dealers (even some dealerships like O’Daniels) simply provide a downloadable form that you print out and fill-in. Some used car dealers provide a secured, online credit application Best Deal Auto Sales and Preferred Auto Group. I give them kudos for providing excellent customer service even if their customers may not know it.

Bart’s Car Stores, a fairly well known local dealer, appears to be trying but fails to give me confidence that their online credit application is actually secured. When you go to their online credit application you get a warning that both secured and unsecured content appears on their credit application and no padlock is provided in my browser (which means my browser does not believe this is a secured transaction), despite the https:// in the address bar. As an uber-dork I can tell this page is actually protected but the average Joe could easily get scared off.

Dimension Ford provides a secure online application form but does it in such a way as to actually hide the fact that their form is secure. It is but it sure doesn’t look like it. Sure you can scroll to the bottom and it tells you it’s secure. I’m also a rainbow-farting unicorn.

But by far the absolute worst offenders and I would say the most negligent are the following, Instant Auto Finance (the one my friend told me about) as well as State Automotive Group and Professional Auto Sales. Each of these 3 websites appear to be professionally-created so one of 2 things has happened (or both), either the professional web development companies that were employed to provide these websites are unaware of the risks in transmitting people’s social security, address and employee history through Internet, which I doubt, or the individual car dealers “opted” not to pay for this additional service.

Gross negligence and the cutting of corners will always outweigh the overt frauds in the world. At least in a fraud situation there is an obvious victim and bad guy. When it comes to negligence, there are only the uncaring and uninformed.

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Polish UFO video

I just stumbled upon this site that shows a UFO in Gdansk, Poland. Very cool, oh btw it’s not real. Surprise!

It’s an art project by Peter Coffin and Cinimod Studios. Very cool photos of how it was put together. That would’ve been great to be involved with

Filed under: Science, , , , ,

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