De omnibus dubitandum
15 Feb 2012
The other day my eye caught an AdWords ad for a book called “The Final Theory” by Mark McCutcheon, an author previously unknown to me. This book allegedly solves all of the existing scientific conundrums and supposedly introduces ‘a new scientific perspective’ that ‘radically re-thinks’ all we know about how the universe works today.
Now, as you may know, I’m a bit of a science geek. I’m also a sceptic. De Omnibus Dubitandum, and all that. The description of this book in the ad and on its website set off all kinds of bullshit alarms in my head. The book’s marketing material focused purely on how this new final theory would overturn all established science and revolutionise our understanding of the laws of physics, casting in to doubt centuries worth of scientific advancements.
I’ve seen similar tones struck in many different promotional materials, usually those published by creationists, homeopaths, energy healers, and other similarly delusional quacks. So I did what any physics geek of sound mind would do: I went to Amazon.com and looked at the book’s reviews.
Amazon tends to be a place where works of atrocious quality are skilfully eviscerated by a horde of merciless reviewers who will destroy a work if it lacks merit. At least, that’s what I thought.
As it turns out, the vast majority of reviews for this book on Amazon are overwhelmingly positive, with no fewer than 71 five-star reviews at last count. According to the Amazon reviewers this book is at least on a par with Stephen Hawkin’s “A Brief History of Time”.
That, too, set of further bullshit alarms. I’d never heard of this Mark McCutcheon fellow before, and I try to keep myself at least moderately informed of what’s going on in the world of science. As this book was originally published in 2003, if it truly had such amazing scientific merit as is claimed by these countless Amazon reviewers, there should by all accounts have been quite a shockwave going through the scientific establishment. And there most certainly was not.
So I dug deeper. Wikipedia was, mysteriously, devoid of any mentioning of the book and its author. In fact, Wikipedia was so diligent in not mentioning Mark McCutcheon and his Final Theory, that I suspected it was a deliberate deletion. That turned out to be the case, as is evident from this administrators’ discussion page (search for ‘McCutcheon’ on that page to find the relevant passages).
Also there are various sceptical forum threads and blog posts dedicated to the book, specifically to how negative reviews on Amazon are mysteriously and inexplicably deleted, leaving only a vast bulk of four- and five-star positive reviews. These positive reviews are themselves rather suspect, as they seem to be posted by new Amazon users without any significant review history, and many of them use very similar phrasings and writing styles.
The last damning piece of evidence comes from a forum thread on a physics community site where the book’s ‘Final Theory’ is thoroughly slaughtered for the nonsensical quackery that it so obviously is.
What is most disturbing about this whole episode is Amazon’s complicity in the whole affair. There is, for all intents and purposes, deliberate censorship at work here in an effort to promote a book that espouses such an obviously farcical concept. Genuine criticism is being silenced in favour of a commercial message, trying to get you to buy a book that contains patent falsehoods, distortions, and lies.
I suppose when there is money to be made, truth is entirely optional.
21 May 2010
The hot news today is how a team of American scientists have managed to create a bacterial lifeform using nothing but synthetic genes. This is, essentially, artificial life.
To say that this is a big deal would be a monumental understatement. We likely won’t be seeing any real world applications of this biotechnology any time soon, but the implications are mind-boggling: from cells that eat carbon dioxide and shit petroleum to customised cancer-eating bacteria, this technology has the potential to radically change our lives.
Of course the technology has its critics. As usual the loudest voices come from religious organisations who, without a hint of irony, shout down the progress of science from the comfort of their air-conditioned homes with HDTV and broadband internet connections.
And then there are the environmentalists denouncing everything even remotely reeking of biotechnology and genetic engineering. These are just as bad as the religious nutcases, because likewise their entire argument is based on disinformation and ignorance. If these eco-hippies were really serious about not using any artificial biotechnology, they’d all starve to death in a matter of weeks and die horribly of all kinds of diseases.
Because, you see, the moment humans started cultivating crops and breeding animals, we started to artificially engineer life. From mixing stronger types of crops for better harvest yields, to breeding sturdier and more milk-producing cows, biotechnology has been around for as long as agriculture has.
On top of that biotechnology has given us some monumentally important medicinal advances, from penicillin to aspirin, from vaccines to heart-transplants.
So denouncing biotech is a pretty fucking stupid thing to do. Instead we should embrace it and ensure that whatever we end up doing with this type of new technology, it doesn’t just end up as the playthings of the rich and powerful. We should strive to make it benefit those who need it the most: the invisible masses of poor and starving people across the world that with their low-wage slave labour enable the privileged west to live its decadent lifestyle.
12 May 2010
Airport security event:
Customs Official: ‘May I know your name?’
Passenger : ‘Batman’
Customs Official: ‘What’s your name?’
Passenger : ‘My name is Batman’
Customs Official: ‘Trying to be funny? What’s your surname?’
Passenger : ‘Superman’
Customs Official: ‘So you’re telling me your name is Batman Superman?’
Passenger : ‘Yes’
Customs Official: ‘Arrest this guy’
When they had him in custody, he was asked to show his identification card:
(I know this is an oldie but it’s still so damn funny.)
1 Feb 2010
Last weekend I spent about 10 hours playing Mass Effect 2. I won’t bore the non-gamers out there with superlatives on how fantastic it is, what a totally immersive gaming experience it provides, and how utterly compelling the story is.
Except I just did, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make today.
For most of videogame history you as the gamer didn’t have any moral choices to make in a game. You were the Good Guy and the goal of the game was to defeat the Bad Guys.
This gradually changed as gamers grew up and videogame designers got more comfortable with moral ambiguity in a game’s storyline. Now a lot of games allow the player to make choices that directly or indirectly affect the plot and outcome of the game.
Back in the day when these types of games first came out, I always chose the ‘evil’ options. In any Star Wars game I was the Sith Lord, choosing the Dark Side of the Force while betraying friendships and killing good guys.
In the first Fable I was so thoroughly evil that halfway through the game my character had already spawned horns and caused entire villages to evacuate at the first sight of me.
When World of Warcraft came out I only chose an Alliance Night Elf because my buddies played Alliance, but I really wanted an Undead Warlock to wreak havoc with. (I’ve since become totally committed to my NE Druid but that’s mostly because of the class’s überness.)
And don’t even get me started on one of my all-time favourites: Carmageddon.
But games got more refined, and what started out as simple black & white choices between good and evil has now turned in to a landscape of shades of grey. The Bioware game studio is considered a master of games with moral choices, and their latest product has left me feeling rather, well… confused.
The game I’m talking about is of course Mass Effect 2, and the confusion stems from a sudden inability on my part to make ‘evil’ choices.
Mass Effect 2 is a sequel (of course), and I played the first Mass Effect twice – one as the ‘good guy’ and one as an evil bastard. I thoroughly enjoyed both versions. The ending of the game wasn’t affected too much, but the whole feel and mood of the game changed. Overall I wasn’t too bothered by the choices I made, I just wanted to play the game to its full potential.
Mass Effect 2, however, has changed things. ME2 offers abundant opportunities to make moral choices, and many choices are pretty straightforward – kill or let live, steal or give back, lie or be truthful.
But some choices you have to make aren’t so monochrome. Do I intimidate and hurt this man to give me vital information that can save lives, or do I go easy on him? Do I kill this repentant bad guy, or do I let him go and trust he won’t commit more crimes? Do I shoot the frightened hostage aiming a gun at me, or do I try to talk him down from his panic?
And those are just the direct choices. The game is rife with choices that have deeper meaning and longer-lasting repercussions. Do I take the quick and often violent way through missions, bullying and intimidating my way around, generating more money for myself and my team members so the better, bugger guns are available faster and I can save the universe more efficiently? Or do I walk the straight and narrow path which invariably makes it more difficult and challenging, but the trail of corpses and devastated lives in my wake will be considerably thinner?
What used to make these choices so easy is the realisation that it really was just a game I was playing. Pixels on a screen, bits and bytes, lines of code, all that jazz. But Mass Effect 2 is such an advanced game, graphically and gameplay-wise, that you don’t feel like you’re playing a game. You become immersed in it, you are part of the game, and the choices you make in the game somehow reflect on you as a person.
And because of this I find myself unable to make any choice in the game that could be considered ‘evil’. Sometimes the morally grey choices leave me almost paralysed because I can’t figure out what the best option is. Occasionally I loathe myself for shooting the bad guys, even when they’re shooting at me, because the game succeeds so magnificently in painting its characters as real living beings. Even the aliens seem real, which is a truly amazing feat of game design.
So I’m confused. As with the first game I want to play Mass Effect 2 twice, making radically different choices in each session.
But I already know I won’t. Not this time. The game is too good, the voice-over acting too convincing, the digitally generated facial expressions too real. A part of me wants to be the bad guy again, rampaging my way through the gameworld, uncaring and unfeeling.
But that’s not who I am in the real world. And because of that, in Mass Effect 2 I can’t be that person in the game world either.
8 Oct 2009
You know, I really want to distrust Google. They’re so pervasive and omniscient, I would really love to see them as the Big Bad Bully of the internet world.
But they keep doing these superb things that make it very hard to conjure even a mild dislike for them. They shower web geeks like me with free tools such as Analytics, Webmaster Tools, Website Optimizer, Conversion Optimizer, Internet Stats, and so much more…. And all for free!
Today Google launched a website aimed not at technophiliac internet addicts like yours truly, but at every day users. You know, people who don’t know what SEO means, how to change the homepage of their browser, or even know what a browser is:
This is undoubtedly part of their insidious masterplan to rule the world, but if this is how they plan to rule it, I say let them!
26 Sep 2009
When I saw this bike today parked outside a pub in Belfast, I just had to take a picture. A Guinness-themed Harley Davidson bike:
30 Aug 2009
I’m not a fan of Apple. They make bloated, overpriced, overdesigned fashion statements. But that’s not what I hate about Apple – Nike makes similar products but I have no particular animosity towards them.
No, I hate Apple because they make closed, proprietary systems and insist on maintaining absolute tyrannical control over what its users are allowed to do with it.
But closed systems are stupid, counter-innovative and evolutionary dead ends, and anyone who supports that kind of thinking deserves to be punched back into the stone age.
Jason Calacanis, a somewhat notorious Internet entrepeneur, apparently shares my loathing: