Comic #2 - The Uncanny Valley

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Say you are making an artificial life form. As you get closer to 'human' your robot eventually enters a region called "The Uncanny Valley" where it suddenly become extremely repulsive. Ben Goldacre recently wrote in his miniblog that the maybe the same reasoning could be used to explain why nutritional therapists are more disgusting than really out there people like homeopaths.

I can't have been the the only one to think that The Awful Poo Lady manages to satisfy both cases? Especially after that daily mail article.

Sorry, I couldn't help myself. My apologies.

Amorth Watch: He's back because he's got himself a TV show to help separate possession from psychiatric problems

The last time Amorth got mentioned in Skeptobot was way back in August 2006, and then he fell off the radar. So to pop up again a year and a half later he's got to be up to something, and indeed he is. Obviously most news reports about him are in Italian but I've managed to find this report that states he's making 'a television and Internet report series'.

Oh goody! The San Francisco Sentinel apparently watched the first episode as they've got some quotes from it.

“Normally when a person experiences these conflicts and problems, the first thing he does is see a doctor and psychiatrist,” he said. “It is very difficult to distinguish the devil’s action from a psychological problem. The person goes to a psychiatrist and after years of therapy obtains no result.

“Then he begins to suspect that the problem is not a natural one and goes to a conjurer from whom he obtains even greater harm. This is what normally happens. At this point, it is possible that someone more experienced in these matters suggests an exorcist.”

The main crux of his show appears to be about getting respect for exorcism and urging Italy to separate possession from psychiatric problems. Call me old fashioned but tying a person with very real mental problems to a bed and telling him the devil has possessed him is probably not a very good thing to do.

He also claims “Mariology" is his field, and The Virgin Mary is Satan's great foe because she is very pure and Satan is filthy. I know I shouldn't find that funny, but I do.

I'm going to keep an eye on this, and see if I can dig up the shows, to work out what is going on. Hopefully he won't turn into the Gillian McKeith of Exorcism.

The Pope's Exorcist Amorth is back on the case of the literal devil

Skeptobot is a long time fan of Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican's Chief Exorcist. Because he's insane. He thinks that Hitler was possessed by the Devil and that possessed people have superhuman strength and can levitate. So I guess he thinks Hitler can fly. But to be fair to Father Amorth, that's pretty awesome.

Anyhow Amorth has been quoted recently saying

"There is a greater openness towards the devil"
and that that medicine and science can’t solve all illnesses, but some are resolved by exorcism, and his colleague Father Pedro Barrajon says:
“Satanism and the occult are in fashion.”

So much so that the article I'm getting this from says
Italy has an estimated 800 satanic cults, with more than 600,000 followers
Who in their right mind believes that Italy has half a million devil worshippers? And more so, if Amorth and co believe that the devil is literal and runs around making people do bad things why doesn't he prove possession if it's so common? Why doesn't he film one of his levitating devil men? Or is faith less fun when you've proved you were right?

It boggles my mind that the Pope is a-ok with this.

Actually, no it doesn't.

Where do they get the time? Gin and Sitcoms in units of Wikipedia.

Gin carts kept society ticking over when the industrial revolution brought people in from the fields and gave them lots of free time in the company of others. It was a hole to dump the excess social time that society wasn't complex enough to consume. With time city life gained complexity to soak up this excess, and with it the Gin consumption fell. Clay Shirky argues that this process is repeating itself today with the hours after work, with the massive time sink that is the TV being carved into by creative time on the internet. That's a very poor summary of Shirkey's blog post - which is well worth your time - if only because he uses Wikipedias as a unit of free time.

"Okay, we're going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever." That wasn't her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, "Where do people find the time?" That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, "No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you've been masking for 50 years."

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

This makes sense to me at the minute as I've been rather busy recently and I've been thinking about how I have too many things to do, and too many other things to consume.

Via BoingBoing

Ted Sunday #003: Steve Jurvetson on the joy of rockets

I don't know anything about this guy except that he seems to come across as a bit arrogant in this. But then you would if you were rich enough for you hobby to be blowing up massive rockets. Worth it just for the shot at the end. A hobbiest proving the world isn't flat by shooting a big rocket into the air is always cool.

Just a quick one this week, as I'm racing about.

"Every Scientologist" is taking to the streets this weekend

Various sources are suggesting a huge show of force from Scientology this weekend. "Every Org, every Mission, every Field Group, every Scientologist" will be... selling books. Here's the leaked flyer*

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I'm bringing it up because the total number of members of Scientology is a closely guarded secret. Sometimes 8 million is mentioned, where their critics say 80,000 or less. So presumably this weekend we might get a better picture. 

As I've written up this little update, it's become more of a non-story though. I've found out the 2001 census of the uk had 1781 people declare themselves a scientologist. Which is shockingly small. So small infact that I suspect almost every member in the UK could fit in their massive headquarters in London.

Still they'll all be on the streets this weekend, no doubt in a show of strength against the protests (which I suspect have more the 1781 anonymous members over the whole of the uk) so keep an eye out!

Oh and whilst we are on the topic here's another horrible internal flyer:
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"[W]hen I found her ruin?" you've got to be kidding me!

* can an advert be leaked? I don't think so.

Scientology vs Anonymous III: The best protest leaflet ever.

The third protest against Scientology happened this weekend, and unfortunately I was only able to briefly pass through the area. As such I was handed a bunch of brilliant leaflets and flyers detailing the Disconnect policy Scientology uses to make its members abandon their families. The best though was this absolutely brilliant card:

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The aim of this protest was to get Scientology members reconnected with their families who they typically abandon as they progress through the church. As such the genius creator of this card had managed to beautifully detail the policy of whereby if a family member ever chooses to leave Scientology then the members still within Scientology have to abandon all contact with that person or face being removed from the church.

And at the very same time they've managed to rickroll you.

From what I saw it seemed another very successful protest that manage to weather the rain brilliantly. They had (unfortunately rather inaudible) speakers who had lost family members due to the disconnect policy to sever all ties with friends and family members that are deemed to be antagonistic towards Scientology, as well as ex-members who had first hand experience.

TED Sunday #002: Johnny Lee creating marvels out of a $40 toy.

Johnny Lee's work is a beautiful example of what can happen when technology is open and hackable and so allows the public to take it far further than the original designers could ever have imagined. I've yet to watch this video, but I've seen the clips he's put up on his site, and despite a rough start he quickly won me over with his genuine enthusiasm for his work, so stick with it. After I've watched it I'll post what I think in the comments thread.

Slighty outside the remit of Skeptobot I admit, but I liken it to a sorbet to freshen the palate before another week of tat.

TED page for the talk

Randi is in the UK (plus a troll just made my day)

So a crazy loon troll just emailed me about how he has systematically destroyed The Amazing Randi in a forum. I'm not feeding him by reproducing it as he's just trying to get people to resurrect his dying thread. Still I'm over the moon because the troll decided to include this little old site alongside much better people like pzmyers at pharyngula, Simon Singh, David Colquhoun , Ben Goldacre, Quackometer, Gimpy, and many more. Normally a troll just singles me out, never before I have been deemed worthy of being cc'd on such a list!

You've made my day Mr Troll!

I only mention this as it gives me an opportunity to 1) boost my own ego, 2) link to some much better sites than this and 3) because he seems to have emailed everyone who is going to see Randi in the UK next week, and that means I can advertise the event again.

Seriously £11/£5.50 to see James Randi, Prof. Richard Wiseman, Prof. Chris French, Dr Simon Singh, Dr Ben Goldacre and Dr Susan Blackmore? It's bargain of the century.

Details here and I'll see you there.

The Daily Mail asks "Can we really transplant a human soul?"

Unfortunately they don't answer "No. Of course not. You twat" and leave it at that. Instead we get a nice long ramble.  The crux of their argument is as follows:

For a few brave scientists have started claiming that our memories and characters are encoded not just in our brain, but throughout our entire body.

Consciousness, they claim, is created by every living cell in the body acting in concert.

They argue, in effect, that our hearts, livers and every single organ in the body stores our memories, drives our emotions and imbues us with our own individual characters. Our whole body, they believe, is the seat of the soul; not just the brain.

And if any of these organs should be transplanted into another person, parts of these memories - perhaps even elements of the soul - might also be transferred.

There are now more than 70 documented cases similar to Sonny's, where transplant patients have taken on some of the personality traits of the organ donors
This article has come about thanks to the recent story of  Sonny Graham, a 69 year old man who received a heart from man who had shot himself. Sonny went on to marry the wife of the deceased man, and then tragically commit suicide in the same manner. Emotional stuff that isn't to be trivialised.

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Sonny Graham and his wife Cheryl, who he met after he had her deceased husband's heart transplanted.

They then back up these propositions with a series of anecdotes. Like this one, which gloriously also manages to promote the Daily Mail view of 'The Family Unit'.
Take the case of Lynda Gammons from Weston, Lincolnshire, who donated one of her kidneys to her husband Ian.

Since the operation, Ian believes he has taken on aspects of his wife's personality. He has developed a love of baking, shopping, vacuuming and gardening. Prior to the transplant, he loathed all forms of housework with a vengeance.

Thankfully they go on to admit that "tens of thousands" of transplants have taken place so you would expect these events to come about by chance. Unfortunately they take this argument down the 'Arrogant Scientists in their Ivory Towers can't understand the human spirit' route:
If Professor Schwartz and his ilk are right, it would destroy one of the foundation stones of modern biology. But then again, modern biology has a guilty little secret: it has, as yet, no viable theory to explain how we store memories and how we produce consciousness.

In fact, scientists haven't even managed to define what exactly consciousness is, let alone managed to pin down where it comes from and where it is to be found within the body.

So maybe, just maybe, the poets, romantics and mystics throughout the ages were right: the heart really is the seat of our emotions and of our souls.

It's not a guilty secret you little shits, it's an exciting and huge area of theories and thoughts that's vibrant and alive and interesting and rigourous. Any scientist who's entered the field want to unlock the secrets of the mind. So stop it with that crap. Scientists aren't ashamed when they don't know the answer. That's what they go to work for. 

But what's really disappointing here is that (despite my initial flippant dismissal, that I stole of Lee and Herring ) this is a really interesting area. The Daily Mail could have written an interesting article about the psychological effects of a transplant. Walking around all day knowing you are being powered by a dead mans heart must effect you. It would deeply and significantly alter your life. As can be seen when a 69 year old man and the much younger widow find each other in the fall out.

It's a powerful, and appealing, belief that the transplanted heart bind them. And in many ways it did. But you demean both the science and crucially the human experience of the people involved when you propose it can all be explained with a fucking "soul transplant."

Skeptobot has an official mascot, Skeptobot - the skeptical robot.

A Super Internet Chum by the name of Dimrill has been kind enough to create a super-duper living* mascot for the site. A Robot with a Top Hat and a Monocle. And he's looking skeptical of something. Do you see? It's perfect and I love it.

Skeptobot - your Skeptical Robot Chum (click to 'bigify')

Dimrill's artistc talent helped inspire my embarrassing attempt at getting some of that xkcd and Wellington Grey mullah, in the post below this. Expect a quick succession of updates as I try and push it out of sight and mind. Oh and anyone wanting to point out I've used the American spelling for this British Robot (and site) can shut up. 'Sceptic' just makes me think of a septic disease.

For more of Dimrill's excellent shenanigans visit his website. (The little animated gif people are my favourite.)

*not living

Comic #01 - Internet Drama

misguided attempts at xkcd style insight/humour, comics #1 - Internet Drama: Comment threads inherently probe the edges of the bell curve.
1 of a series of 1.

Paxman and Charlie Brooker humiliate Brain Gym.

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This headmistress must be feeling quite embarrassed right about now.

Ooooh this is a good, good day. Our main man Ben Goldacre has been defending the castle of reason from the pseudo-science bullshit that infests our schools in the form of Brain Gym since 2003. And now in Space Year 2008 it seems it that we've finally reached the critical mass needed for all hell to break lose about the biggest con story in school education this decade.

First up we got a great Newsnight investigation into Brain Gym. If you don't know why this nonsense should make you blood boil with righteous fury then watch it below:

Now that your seething with righteous indignation I'll continue, as you see it doesn't end there. Next we get an interview with the inventor of Brain Gym. Who needs to be made as visible as possible because he's a rambling idiotic meathead who could bring down Brain Gym on it's own if all the people using it were ever to meet him. His main method of arguing seems to be gibbering incoherently whilst hoping he's so quiet and slow and dull and tedious and tiring to listen to that you'll just take his word for it if it means he'll leave you alone. So when Newsnight put him up against Paxman it becomes about the best definition of overkill as you are likely to find.  You must watch the glory below. It is radiant.

And there is more! Charlie Brooker (who is right about everything) heard the cry and has written one of the most scathing attacks on Brain Gym I've ever read. It is awesome and you must read it.

Look, this is how awesome it is:
[W]e, the adults, don't just gleefully pull the wool over our own eyes - we knit permanent blindfolds. We've decided we hate facts. Hate, hate, hate them. Everywhere you look, we're down on our knees, gleefully lapping up neckful after neckful of steaming, cloddish bullshit in all its forms. From crackpot conspiracy theories to fairytale nutritional advice, from alternative medicine to energy yawns - we just can't get enough of that musky, mudlike taste. Brain Gym is just one small tile in an immense and frightening mosaic of fantasy.

Still, that's just my opinion. Lots of people clearly think Brain Gym is worthwhile, or they wouldn't be prepared to pay through the nose for it. If you're one of them, here's an exciting new kinesiological exercise that should dramatically increase your self-awareness - and I'm giving it away free of charge. Ready? OK. Curl the fingers of your right hand inward, meeting the thumb to form a circle. Jerk it rhythmically up and down in front of your face. Repeat for six hours. Then piss off.


But wait its not over! There is indeed more! This News round up states that the Brain Gym 'scientific' claims are going to be withdrawn:

Paul Dennison, a Californian educator who created the programme, admitted that many claims in his teacher’s guide were based on his “hunches” and were not proper science.

Lets make it clear, no ones against doing group exercise in the classroom, it's a great way for a teacher to get the attention and focus of a class. When I was in primary school, my teacher would makes us all go through a routine of putting our hands on our heads and so on before a lesson, and it stopped us talking and it made us pay attention. It's just he didn't need to whore science and pay £800 odd quid to do it.

Thanks to Schrödinger's Pig for uploading the youtube vids, and read an excellent post about all this here.

TED Sunday #001: Larry Lessig on "How creativity is being strangled by the law"

I've just discovered that the truly excellent TED conference talks can now be embedded off site, and I can't think of a better way to spend a lazy Sunday than getting some fresh ideas eloquently explained by an excellent mind. So, if you want to join me, each Sunday I'll cherry pick a superb TED talk that we can watch and digest, before putting up with another week of idiocy stinking up The News Fart.

The first talk had to go to one of my favourite speakers Larry Lessig. He's a Professor of Law at Stanford, and for every public figure who doesn't understand this interweb future we live in we've got we him to stick up for us. If you don't know him, then I'm sure you've consumed or even created media licensed under his Creative Commons copyrights.

And even if the future of IP doesn't interest you his style of presenting, nick named the Lessig method, makes this talk worth watching (and stealing). Proof, if ever it was needed, that Powerpoint doesn't have to be the bullet point riddled, thought diluting, brain clamp it often seems to be.

I don't want to get all political, but the fact that Obama turned to Lessig to work out where he stands on all these damn Internets fills me with a flicker of hope.

Good news: I've a new Job! Bad news: it means the Blog has to end.

I wanted my 100th post to be a celebration, but unfortunately I've been doing a lot of thinking the last few days and I've decided to end the blog. As some of you know I'm coming to the end of my PhD and I've been thinking about what to do next.

I'm doing an Astrophysics PhD you see, and thanks to the £80 million deficit that has hit UK astronomy since PPARC merged with the STFC Astronomy in the UK is almost dead in the water.

Combine this with a blossoming commercial exploitation of astronomy that currently in a vibrant upswing and I've inevitably had to leave academia.

But thankfully not science!

Massive datasets are a great commercial asset at present (think google maps), and I've a new job where I'll be using my scientific and computational modelling skills to combine the Sloan digital sky survey with user data, to work out positional vectors between the earth (at a specific time) and the vast numbers of celestial objects in the catalogue, including galaxies, quasars and stars. I'll even be utilising WMAP - the earliest image of the structure of the Universe ever taken.

This will lead to a radical improvement in various fields of predictive science. One I feel I can be at the forefront off. Hence I'll be involved with the launching of the first Astrophysical Prediction Survey service to combine tried and tested astro-psychological research with the massive datasets Astromoners are returning like Sloan and the WMAP survey.

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The idea that your nature can be predicted by the motion of 9 planets will look quaint and positively ridiculous once I've finished processing the 200 million celestial objects in the Sloan Catalog.

That and Astrology pays better. But it's contradictory topic to the blog, so I'm afraid i've got to let the blog go.