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De omnibus dubitandum

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Fair Search in Europe

For a while the FairSearch organisation has been fighting in the USA against Google’s anti-competitive behaviours. Now finally FairSearch has crossed the Atlantic and has a European presence: fairsearcheurope.org.

While many Google advocates dismiss it as a marketing tool for competitors like Microsoft, what FairSearch actually does is incredibly vital to our continued enjoyment of a free and unfiltered internet. In Europe this is an even more pressing concern than in the States, as here Google enjoys marketshares of well over 90% in most EU countries.

So an organisation with some economic and political klout behind it, fighting for search neutrality and limitations on Google’s anti-competitive practices, is a good thing. See the slideshow below about why FairSearch matters:


The Case for Fair Search

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.

5 Reasons I Will Unfollow You On Twitter

I will unfollow you on Twitter without hesitation if you…:

1. Send me an automated DM after I follow you.

Seriously, cut it out.

2. Tweet a series of +K announcements.

If you care about your Klout score enough to tweet about it and what you’re doing with your +K’s, you’re not the type of person whose insights I value.

3. Use a URL shortener that hijacks the page with a piece of shit toolbar at the top.

Avoid craptastic URL shorteners with this lame ‘feature’. There’s plenty of shorteners that don’t do this, and you can always create your own.

4. Call yourself a ‘expert’, ‘guru’, or any of the other hypewords that indicate you’re just another lame-ass bandwagon jumper.

The latest buzz in SEO land is ‘inbound marketer’. Don’t use it – unless you’re OK with looking like a douche. If you’re so intent on expanding your SEO job title to be more inclusive there’s a perfectly good one already available: digital/internet/online marketer. By inventing new job titles you’re just showing yourself to be all about vacuous crap instead of actual substance.

5. Take yourself too fucking seriously.

You should never forget that your entire existence, in the grand scheme of things, is as close to meaningless as makes no difference.

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  • Filed under: internet, web 2.0
  • “Scott Adams” Syndrome

    "Scott Adams"-syndrome: a form of cognitive dissonance; the realisation that the artist responsible for a specific piece of art that you really like is actually a colossal douche. [See also: Dan Simmons]

    Shortly after Scott Adams started blogging, I stopped reading Dilbert. Because I quickly realised that the man behind Dilbert is actually a very unpleasant person.

    And when I say unpleasant, I mean that he’s an arsehole of galactic proportions, obsessed with his own ego, uncannily petty and so far up himself he views the world through a murky haze of his own shit.

    Latest case in point: He wrote a pretty horrid article for the Washington Post, and when criticised he pretended to be someone else and attacked his critics – and patted himself on the back by proxy.

    He then outed himself as the commenter who shone light up his own rectum, which was a Really Bad Move, and after catching more flak he then went on to explain it all in this amazingly profound way: I’m smarter than you, nyah nyah nyah.

    [Sidenote: that “genius-level IQ” the man is boasting about is courtesy of his former membership of Mensa, which is not really that boast-worthy. I should know – I’m a member too.]

    If you think that this is all amazingly childish, stupid, and embarrassing, you’re right. I’m not particularly surprised though, because Scott Adams has been pulling shit like this for years. Especially on his own blog, which is such a supreme showcase of the man’s apocalyptic delusions of grandeur that it should serve as reference material in every psychology class. Particularly useful for lessons discussing the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    Update: apparently revelling in the bad image he’s creating for himself, Scott Adams has now proceeded to write about rape and gender roles in one of his latest blog posts. Following on this he’s had an exchange with a female Salon writer, which I interpret as him getting his arse handed to him upon which he capitulated ungraciously.

    That’s the thing about Scott Adams, it seems: his mouth keeps writing checks his arse can’t cash.

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  • Filed under: internet, webcomics
  • Belfast City Airport’s Dirty Tricks

    Since a few weeks I’ve been helping the Belfast City Airport Watch organisation with their online stuff – updating their website, posting on Facebook, doing some tweets, and sending out the odd email now and again.

    I signed up for this because I live very close to the Belfast City airport, and the noise pollution really is quite impressive.

    It’s funny how when you don’t live near an airport, you are quick to judge people who complain about aircraft noise. “They shouldn’t have moved close to an airport then!” is an often heard rebuttal, as is the claim that these regional airports have enormous economic benefit and the comfort of a few residents in the area is a small price to pay.

    I used to be one of those naysayers who dismissed people who complained about aircraft noise. But my perspective changed radically now that I’m personally submitted to noise pollution on a daily basis.

    It’s hard for people who don’t live near airports to understand how incredibly overwhelming aircraft noise can be. For a few seconds when the plane passes over you have to stop your conversation, put down your drink, stop watching TV, and in the case of big jets even stop thinking for a wee while. The noise is more than just sound reaching your ears – you feel it in your bones and it scratches at your brain.

    Unsurprisingly, noise pollution is actively harmful as a recent WHO study has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

    In the case of the Belfast City airport, their rebuttals can easily be, well, rebutted. As if the dangers of noise pollution wasn’t sufficient reason to lobby against expansion of the airport (what price do you put on the health and well-being of tens of thousands of local residents?), the economic value of the airport is limited. It employs only a handful of local residents, and with a perfectly fine larger International airport just a few miles outside Belfast (in a rural area where noise pollution is not an issue) flights and jobs can easily be moved without having a negative impact on the local economy.

    And the people affected by the noise didn’t choose to live near a busy airport. The City airport has seen enormous expansion in recent years. When people first moved in to their homes in east Belfast and Holywood it was perfectly quiet. Not so now.

    The first thing that struck me when I started helping out the Airport Watch residents association – which is a purely not-for-profit organisation run by volunteers – is that this is a dirty fight. The City airport has powerful backers and deploys sneaky tactics.

    For example, from the moment the BCAW twitter account was launched, it was being harassed by ‘egg’ accounts – Twitter accounts without a proper avatar and thus showing only the default egg icon – who were protesting about what the BCAW tweeted, casting (baseless) doubt on facts tweeted by the BCAW, even going as far as tweeting blatant lies about the BCAW.

    Also in the comments of articles on news sites like the Belfast Telegraph, certain commenters always applaud the City airport and criticise the BCAW every chance they get – using the same lies and distortions. It’s nothing short of a social media smear campaign, intended to make the BCAW look bad and cast the City airport as a saviour of the Northern Irish economy.

    It is also all done in quite an amateurish fashion. Egg accounts on Twitter have no credibility, as they have no history and are easily recognised as the spammers they are. The comments on news sites are always posted under the same usernames, and they only comment on airport-related stories and always with the same anti-BCAW pro-City Airport message. They’re transparently obvious PR spinners with zero credibility. I even managed to retrace one account back to an actual City airport employee.

    But despite this ineffectiveness, it does demonstrate that the City airport and its backers – lobbyists and politicians with fingers in relevant pies, no doubt – will and do play dirty. Truth is the first victim of any conflict, and this is no exception. The City airport is deliberately polluting the debate (pun intended) and using dirty propaganda tactics to oppose valid criticism.

    And that’s pretty sad. The quality of life for tens of thousands of people is at stake, and the greedy money-grabbing capitalists behind the scenes of the City airport care only for their own continued enrichment. The welfare of people doesn’t matter, and every dirty trick is allowed to ensure that the rich get richer and the poor stay poor and uninformed.

    This is not a surprise, of course. This is what capitalism does, this is how it operates. It’s a zero-sum game, with winners and losers.

    But sometimes I wish that I wasn’t being confronted with such blatant evidence of moral bankruptcy and unbridled greed quite so often. Sometimes I wish people would just be nice to one another and stop polluting and abusing the world for their own temporary and ultimately fleeting gains.

    I’m afraid that’ll always be just wishful thinking.

    There is a lot I want to write about WikiLeaks and the current scandals surrounding it, but professor John Naughton has done a superb job of capturing nearly all of what I want to say anyway – and much more eloquently than I ever could – in this excellent opinion piece in the Guardian:

    Live with the WikiLeakable world or shut down the net. It’s your choice

    “On 21 January, secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a landmark speech about internet freedom, in Washington DC, which many people welcomed and most interpreted as a rebuke to China for its alleged cyberattack on Google. ‘Information has never been so free,’ declared Clinton. ‘Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.’

    She went on to relate how, during his visit to China in November 2009, Barack Obama had ‘defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity.’ Given what we now know, that Clinton speech reads like a satirical masterpiece.”

    Please go and read the whole piece. There’s one more thing I want to add to it: The governments under threat here – the USA, Sweden, the UK, and others – are trying to twist and distort the public debate in to one about Julian Assange.

    Whatever character flaws Assange might have, it is not his person that should be the focus. Whatever he has or has not done is a side-show, mostly irrelevant to the real issue: we are being lied to on a massive scale. Almost everything we are being told by our elected politicians is a lie.

    That is the real issue, and that is exactly what is now being hidden under this mountain of trumped-up scandal reporting on Julian Assange. Don’t let the corporate media shift the debate away from what really matters: not Assange’s sex life, but the lies and distortions we are being spoon-fed by our politicians.

    Our freedom and the very foundation of our democratic society are at stake.

    Fight to Save the World Wide Web

    In December 1990 Tim Berners-Lee launched what would become the World Wide Web. That means that next month the web will be 20 years old.

    For this 20th anniversary, Tim Berners-Lee has written an impassioned defence of the web in the December issue of Scientific American. He celebrates the web’s success but also warns of the dangers that are now threatening all that has made the web so successful:

    “The Web as we know it, however, is being threatened in different ways. Some of its most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles. Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web. Wireless Internet providers are being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals. Governments-totalitarian and democratic alike-are monitoring people‚Äôs online habits, endangering important human rights.”

    He is, of course, entirely right. The web is being threatened. Facebook is essentially a walled garden – what goes on within is nearly invisible to the rest of the web. Apple’s iPads and iPhones give you a filtered, appified version of the web to play with, thus limiting your freedom. Governments block certain websites and ISPs throttle your bandwidth when you download stuff.

    All of these things stand in direct opposition of what made the web so great: it’s an open, standardised, non-proprietary, free platform that is accessible to all.

    If we allow the web to become compartmentalised, filtered, and censored, we will lose that which made it so special in the first place. We will, essentially, lose some of the freedom the web gave us in the first place.

    “Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium. It brings principles established in the U.S. Constitution, the British Magna Carta and other important documents into the network age: freedom from being snooped on, filtered, censored and disconnected.”

    What can you do to help save the web? Support net neutrality. Don’t buy products from companies that want to force-feed you an appified and filtered web experience. Delete your Facebook profile and start a personal blog instead. Donate to your local digital freedom organisation, such as EFF, the Open Rights Group, and Bits of Freedom.

    Don’t let corporate and government interests take the web away from us. The web is worth fighting for.

    Adamus


     Adamus

    Adamus is the online identity of Barry Adams. A Dutchman living in Northern Ireland, Barry / Adamus is an internet fanatic, skeptic, technophile, gamer, and geek.

    On this personal blog he provides his unpolished view of the world and its insanities.

    Identity 2.0


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