Clickbait headlines claiming there is poop in people’s beards whipped around social media this week. It’s junk science based on common misconceptions about bacteria.
These headlines are shite: “Some beards contain more poo than a toilet shocking study reveals” – the Mirror “Shock new research reveals some beards contain more poo than a toilet” – news.com.au “Some beards are so full of poo they are as dirty as toilets” – metro.co.uk
Of course, I wanted to read the evidence for myself, like I do with all outrageous, suspicious claims. I couldn’t even find a study cited in any of the articles. All I found was some pretty crappy journalism~!
If there was no legitimate study by respected microbiologists and no instances of unintentional poop in people’s beards, where did this story even come from? As far as I could tell, the story originated from a local tv news segment out of New Mexico, wherein a reporter swabbed some random men’s beards and sent it to a microbiologist to culture for microbes.
To some readers that might sound like legit science. Here’s why it isn’t:
That’s a very small sample size. The reporter pretty much stayed vague about how many beards he swabbed but it was a “handful”. All it would take is a couple unwashed faces to make a petri-dish grow some gross stuff. So, yeah… bad science.
Just because a microbe lives in the guts doesn’t mean it isn’t on your face. Microbiologist, John Golobic called some of the bacteria found “enterics”, meaning bacteria that normally live in the intestines, “the types of things you’d find in faeces,” he said, without telling the reporter or audiences how unbelievably common it is to find these microbes on various surfaces in everyday life, including shaved and unshaven faces. That’s all it took to get the rumor started and people rewrote, retweeted and reshared the story.
Most of the headlines and editorials about this left out that it was merely a bacteria that can also be found inside the intestine, and reported that actual poop was on people’s face, which has nothing to do with the original story and beyond bad science – it’s bad reporting.
Scientists in the microbiology field and pretty much anyone who has followed current thought on the subject know that the human body is home to vast diversity of microbes. Bacteria like E. coli is commonly found all over the body, inside and out.
Readers might remember a similar viral story about unidentified DNA found on swabbed subway cars, implying there are millions of unknown microbes people are being exposed to. In reality everything in the world is covered in millions of microbes, and there isn’t any real danger from being exposed to them everyday.
If you are looking for media that debunks the dangers of microbial paranoia, check out NPR’s articles about probiotics and Mythbuster’s entertaining critique of the “five second rule”.
Bill Maher threw softballs at the most famous anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on”Real Time”
Kennedy isn’t the only prominent vaccine denier but he’s the current media darling for whatever reason. After several hints in the past about vaccine paranoia, Maher took it to the next level and had a notable anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist on the show for a one on one interview. His normally pro-science stance and no-bullshit interview style was strangely abandoned and at one point Maher himself actually went on an anti-vaccination rant, falsely claiming the anit-vaccination crowd has some kind of legit point. I’ll unpack the rant after the video, below.
“Why can’t we have a kind of grand bargain on this?”
Because a lot of people will die, many of them children, if we don’t act appropriately. The anti-vaccination rhetoric isn’t just easy to fall for, it’s catchy. People hear the soundbites and repeat them, or share articles off of persistent tabloid sites that feed off of the traffic it causes. Spreading false or controversial medical data isn’t without it’s consequences.
“It just seems like we’re calling each other kooks and liars.”
That’s because spreading fear about vaccines is a kooky lie, since there isn’t any data supporting the accusations that vaccines are dangerous. That’s crazy, and if you participate in the lie, you are, in fact, lying. On other subjects, like, say, Climate Change Denial-ism, Bill Maher would be first in line to tell an anti-science arguer they are being crazy or outright lying. The point is that the pro-vaccine side of the debate has an abundance of reliable data supporting it’s efficacy- so much that neither Maher nor his guest tried to make a case that vaccines don’t work. Vaccines aren’t just safe, they are saving people from untimely, rather unpleasant deaths. Denying that is kooky at best.
“It seems like common sense that vaccines, even thimerosal, probably don’t hurt most people — if they did, we’d all be dead, because they’re in a lot of vaccines that we all took — but some do.”
Saying Thimerisal “contains” mercury is like saying table salt contains a dangerous explosive just because one of the atoms in the molecule is sodium. Sodium explodes violently on contact with water. Is there an anti-table salt movement? nope.
It’s hard to even follow this because Maher’s conversational grammar is confusing. His grasp of the topic isn’t really demonstrated. It appears he thinks thimerisal is the name of a vaccine. Or maybe he left some words out? It’s hard to decipher a position that is illogical and wrong in the first place.
Marketed under the trade name Merthiolate, Thimerisal can be used as a preservative in vaccines. It has several other uncontested uses: immunoglobulin preparations, skin test antigens, antivenins, ophthalmic and nasal products, and tattoo inks. European Union, and a few other countries freaked out about it after an erroneous report of its link to autism back in the 1980’s. The current scientific consensus has repeatedly assured the public that it isn’t dangerous but the rumor of mercury poisoning and other ailments has persisted.
Obviously some minority gets hurt by this stuff.
Uh, no, actually it’s not obvious. What stuff? Thimerisal? Vaccines in general?
I don’t understand why this is controversial?
Because an embarrassingly ignorant internet meme successfully increased every American’s exposure to measles. It’s making people sick, dude.
Why we have this emotional debate about something that– there is science there.
No, There is no science supporting the anti-vaccine side. None.
It astounds me that liberals, who are always suspicious of corporations… and defending minorities, somehow when it comes to this minority that’s hurt…
It’s not about corporations. Liberals want people, including corporate entities to behave ethically. In this situation, the unethical behavior is not on behalf of a corporation. Secondly, there is no wounded minority. No one is getting hurt. Just the opposite.
It’s like, ‘You know what? Shut the fuck up and let me take every vaccine that Merck wants to shove down my throat.’
No, it’s not like that, obviously. If there was any alarming study demonstrating a dangerous aspect of vaccination the anti-science vaccination deniers wouldn’t be able to tell. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. By putting anti-vaccination talking heads on tv and lending legitimacy to their wolf-cries, Bill Maher is helping to confuse the general public. Bill Maher references a vague minority that doesn’t actually exist. There is no evidence of anyone being hurt by vaccines. Liberals might defend oppressed minorities but there general public, the mainstream are the ones being threatened by a dangerous minority opinion in this case. If liberal America impartially stood up for all minorities, they would be defending climate deniers and Ku Klux Klan members. The fact that the anti-vaccine rhetoric has to put words in an imaginary opposition’s mouth should speak for itself.
I’m surprised Bill Maher took this position but he did hint at it last February, when he told guests and audiences he’s an “anti-flu shot guy” and has a problem with anti-vaccinators being told to “shut the fuck up” and “don’t ask any questions.” It might be appropriate to tell someone in a crowded theater to shut the fuck up if they keep yelling fire, or persistently asking the audience if the theater is on fire despite no smoke or alarms. Yelling fire is dangerous and gives people wrong information that may lead to a percentage of the hypothetical crowd being injured or killed in the ensuing panic.
Back in February, Real Time guest Marianne Williamson, agreed with Maher and objected to anti-vaccination supporters being called “anti-science” or “kooks”, which is silly because it is a blatantly anti-science position and that makes it pretty kooky to give it airtime.
the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.
People tend to trust their own intuition. Has there been much formal study about the veracity of intuition?
Brain science itself is a young field, and the terminology has yet to mature into a solid academic lexicon. To further increase your chances of being confused, modern life is rife with distractions, misinformation, and addictive escapisms, leaving the vast majority of society having no real idea what the hell is happening.
To illustrate my point, I’m going to do something kind of recursive. I am going to document my mind being changed about a deeply held belief as I explore my own cognitive bias. I am not here to tell you what’s REALLY going on or change your mind about your deeply held beliefs. This is just about methods of problem solving and how cognitive bias can become a positive aspect of critical thought.
Image: “Soft Bike” sculptiure by Mashanda Lazarus http://www.ilovemashanda.com/
I’m advocating what I think is the best set of decision making skills, Critical Thought. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. (I’m torn between the terms Critical Thinking and Critical Thought, although my complaint is purely aesthetic.)
Ever since taking an introduction to Logic course at Fitchburg State college I have been convinced that Logic is a much more reliable, proven way to make decisions. Putting logic to practice when decision-making is difficult, though. Just like a math problem can be done incorrectly, Some logic can even counter-intuitive. My favorite example of intuition failing over logic is always chess. Even as I write this I can’t convince myself otherwise: I have regretted every intuitive chess move. It’s statistically impossible that all my intuitive moves have been bad moves yet logic works in the game so much better that my mind has overcompensated in favor of logic. In the microcosm of chess rules, logic really is the better decision-making tool. Often the kernel of a good move jumps out at me as intuition but then must still be thoroughly vetted with logic before I can confidently say it’s a good move.
In high school, I was an underachiever. I could pass computer science and physics classes without cracking a book. My same attempt to coast through math classes left me struggling because I could not intuitively grasp the increasingly abstract concepts. The part of my mind that controls logic was very healthy and functioning but my distrust for my own intuition was a handicap. I would be taking make up mathematics courses in the summer but getting debate team trophies during the school year.
I’m not just reminiscing; everyone’s decision making process is an constantly-updating algorithm of intuitive and logical reasoning. No one’s process is exactly the same but we all want to make the best decisions possible. For me it’s easy to rely on logic and ignore even a nagging sense of intuition. Some people trust intuition strongly yet struggle to find the most logical decision; everyone is most comfortable using a specially-tailored degree of intuition and logic. People argue on behalf of their particular decisions and the methodology behind them because a different method is useful in for each paradigm.
In chess, intuition is necessary but should be used sparingly and tempered with logic. It’s my favorite example because the game can be played without any intuition. Non-AI computers are able to beat the average human at chess. Some AI can beat chess masters. So, I’m biased towards logic. Chess is just a game, though. People are always telling me I should have more faith in intuitive thinking.
“But,” you should be asking, “Isn’t there an example of reliance on intuition as the best way to decide how to proceed?”
At least that’s what I have to ask myself. The best example I found of valuable intuition is the ability to ride a bike. It is almost impossible to learn to ride a bike in one session; it takes several tries over a week or longer to create the neural pathways needed to operate this bio-mechanical device. Samurais trained to feel that their weapon was part of themselves, or an extension of their very arm. The mechanical motion of the human body as it drives a bicycle becomes ingrained, literally, in the physical brain. The casual, ubiquitous expression, “It’s like riding a bike”, is used to idiomatically describe anything that can be easily mastered at an intermediate level, forgotten for years, but recalled at near perfect fidelity when encountered once again.
The Backwards Brain Bicycle – Smarter Every Day episode 133
Destin at Smarter Everyday put together a video that shows the duality of intuitive thinking. It is completely possible to train the human mind with complicated algorithms of decision making that can be embrace diversification and even contradictory modes of thinking.
After watching this video, I embraced a moment of doubt and realized that there are very positive and useful aspects to intuition that I often don’t acknowledge. In this case of reversed bicycle steering, a skill that seems to only work after it has been made intuitive can be “lost” and only regained with a somewhat cumbersome level of concentration.
The video demonstrates the undeniable usefulness of what essentially amounts to anecdotal proof that neural pathways can be hacked, that contradictory new skills can be learned. It also shows that a paradigm of behavior can gain a tenacious hold on the mind via intuitive skill. It casts doubt on intuition in one respect but without at least some reliance on this intuitive paradigm of behavior it seems we wouldn’t be able to ride a bike at all.
This video forced me to both acknowledge the usefulness of ingrained, intuitive behaviors while also reminding me of how strong a hold intuition can have over the mind. Paradigms can be temporarily or perhaps permanently lost. In the video, Destin has trouble switching back and forth between the 2 seemingly over-engaging thought systems but the transition itself can be a part of a more complicated thought algorithm, allowing the mind to master and embrace contradictory paradigms by trusting the integrity of the overall algorithm.
Including Confirmation Bias in a greater algorithm.
These paradigms can be turned on and off and just as a worker might be able to get used to driving an automatic transmission car to work and operating a stick shift truck at the job site and drive home in the automatic again after the shift.
This ability to turn on and off intuitive paradigms as a controlled feature of a greater logical algorithm requires the mind to acknowledge confirmation bias. I get a feeling of smug satisfaction that logic comprises the greater framework of a possible decision making process anytime I see evidence supporting that belief. There are just as many people out there who would view intuition as the the framework of a complex decision making process, with the ability to use or not use logical thought as merely a contributing part of a superior thought process. If my personal bias of logic over intuition is erroneous in some situations, can I trust the mode of thinking I am in? Using myself as an example, my relief at realizing data confirms what I have already accepted as true is powerful.
That feeling of relief must always be noted and kept in check before it can overshadow the ability to acknowledge data that opposes the belief. Understanding confirmation bias is the key to adding that next level to the algorithm, in the video example from Smarter Everyday, steering a normal bike is so ingrained in the neural pathway that the backwards steering’s inability to confirm actually fill in the blank and the mind sends an incorrect set of instruction of the mechanical behavior to the body. Understanding the dynamics of confirmation bias would enable the mind to embrace the greater thought system that would enable the mind to go back and forth between those conflicting behavioral paradigms. I’m positing that it should be possible to master a regular bike and the “backwards bike” and be able to switch back and forth between both bikes in quick succession. The neural pathways between both behavior paradigms can be trained and made stronger than the video shows.
I believe that with practice, someone could alternate steering mechanism quickly and without as much awkwardness as we are seeing in the video just as my initial confirmation bias, now identified, doesn’t have to dictate my decision and I might be more open minded to an intuitive interpretation leading to the best decision in certain situations.
An inability to acknowledge that one’s own mind might be susceptible to confirmation bias paradoxically makes one more susceptible. Critical thinking is a method of building immunity to this common trap of confidence. Identifying the experience of one’s own confirmation bias is a great way to try and understand and control this intuitive tendency. No matter what your thoughts are regarding logic and intuition, examining one’s confirmation biases and better embracing them should lead to better decision making skills.
Stephen Hawking says the only way we’ll survive will be if we colonize another planet. “We must continue to go into space for the future of humanity,” Mr Hawking said. “I don’t think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.” He was filmed by two cameras in his office to create… Continue reading →
We live in a time where auto theft is incredibly impractical. Criminals in 2015 struggle to figure out how to get past electronic security and alarm systems, reflecting an over 90% drop in NYC auto theft since the early 90’s. These days, even a successfully stolen vehicle can be recovered with GPS tracking and incidences of theft are often caught on video.
It might seem like convenience is weakness but since car theft is way down, this might not hold true at the moment. The security holes that seem most vulnerable to exploitation revolve around a key fob. Fobs are those small black electronic keys that everyone uses to unlock their car these days. They work by using A pre-determined electronic signal that must be authenticated by the CAN system. If the authentication checks out, the doors unlock. In newer cars, the engine will start via push button if the fob is in the immediate vicinity of the car so the driver doesn’t have to fish them out of her pocket.
Etymology of the word fob: Written evidence of the word's usage has been traced to 1888. Almost no one uses a pocket watch these days but a fob was originally an ornament attached to a pocket watch chain. The word hung around as an ocassional, outdated way to refer to key chains. In the 80's, the consumer market was introduced to devices that allowed a car to be unlocked or started remotely. The small electronic device was easily attached to the conventional set of carkeys, and within a few years the term fob key was generally used to describe any electronic key entry system that stored a code in a device, including hotel keycards as well as the remote car unlocking device usually described by the word.
Let’s take a look at three ways a fob key can be hacked.
Recording FOB signals for replay. This is one of those urban legends that’s been around since at least 2008. The story goes: thieves record the key fob signal and can later replay it with a dummy fob. The car can’t tell the difference and unlocks/starts as if the correct key fob has been used. It’s easy for the thief to control the schedule and catch the victim unawares because it doesn’t have to interact with the fob in real time. Sounds like the most effective way to hack a key fob, right? Problem is, each signal is unique, created with an algorithm than includes time. If the devices are not synchronized the fob can’t open the lock. A recorded signal played back wouldn’t open the lock. The conventional wisdom is that the devices, proprietary knowledge and experience needed to make this method work are not worth a stolen car’s worth of risk. Secrets leak but honestly, a team organized enough to steal a car this way would be able to use the same skills to make a lot more money legally. Lastly, if you could reverse engineer and record fob signals the FBI would already be watching you. The demographic that used to steal cars in the 90’s were largely not like the fast and furious franchise. The idea that a huge tech security op could be thwarted isn’t necessarily far fetched but there are no recorded cases. Not one. For that to change, someone needs to figure out how the sync code is incorporated into the algorithm and apparently no one has.
Amplifying FOB signal to trigger auto unlock feature. Not only is this method genius but it is rumored to be already in use. Eyewitnesses claim to have seen this in use and it sparked theories about the methodology. Unlike recording a signal, amplification is a lot cheaper and requires almost no proprietary knowledge of the code to pull off. It works like this: A device picks up a range of frequencies that the key fob is giving off and increases the range. Some cars feature the ability to sense the authentic key fob in a five foot range and auto-unlock or autostart their ignitions. With a signal amp, the engine can theoretically be started if the real key fob is within 30 feet. So, the keys can be on your nightstand but the car thinks you are at the car door. The thief can then open the door, sit in the drivers seat and the ignition can be pushbutton triggered as if the key fob was in the car with the thief. I thought about repeating some of the anecdotes I found online about this method but none of them are confirmed. No one has tested it but it looks like a signal booster can be bought online for pretty cheap if you know what to buy($17 – $300). Last week, NYT ran a piece about signal boosting. You can read that here.
Random signal generator. So unique frequency codes means you can’t record the signal and reuse it without a proprietary algorithm but signal amplification might not work on some systems in the near future. The rumors of it working successfully already have car companies working on a sensitive enough receiver that it would be sensitive to distortion and interference caused by the amp. But there are exceptions, where the signal is not random, such as a service codes. Manufacturers have overriding unlock codes and reset devices to assist with lost key fobs and maintenance/emergency cases. When these codes are leaked, they often open up a brief but large hole in security, during which thousands of cars can be swiped. The main reason it isn’t happening already is more about organized crime not being organized enough to plan and exploit that security hole. Or, you know, maybe the codes just haven’t leaked yet.
Constructing the hardware components needed takes specialized knowledge of hardware. Searching for information about this stuff if bound to attract NSA attention when followed by parts being ordered. The kind of guy who likes to sit in a workshop ordering parts and tinkering all day isn’t always the one who wants to go out and take risks with newer, higher-end cars. That is the kind of multifaceted thief NYC was famous for back before the numbers plunged in the 90’s but the hardware is becoming more and more esoteric. People are not as apt to work on devices that have such small parts on projects that run with such high risk. For that reason, there is more money to be made in producing a bunch of low-cost black market devices that are already calibrated and tested to work. Buying this device on the street and using it before selling it off again might leave a smaller trail than building it in a sketchy apartment-turned-lab that is sure to be searched if a heist goes wrong.
Paper trail & identity theft.
Technology has made it really difficult to even take the car int he first place but once you have a stolen car they are almost impossible to get rid of these days. There can be multiple tracking devices and serial number locations in one car and if the operation isn’t extremely current, the likelihood of the car being found in red hands goes up quickly.
Once the car is stolen, a tech-savvy thief would need special equipment to access the on-board computer and do things like disable the GPS system, take any additional tracking system offline, and disable tech support from manipulating the vehicle’s electronics. Equipment to hack the car’s CAN system has been expensive and shrouded in mystery for the last couple decades but in recent days the internet has united hackers and security researchers to create custom hardware like CANtact Device Lets you Hack a Car’s CPU for $60.
Humans can only perceive three dimensional space but theoretical math works out just fine when manipulating objects in four or more spacial dimensions. Mathematicians, scientists and philosophers still debate whether higher spacial dimensions actually exist.
It’s hard to imagine higher dimensions. Even one additional spatial dimension is hard to see with your inner mind’s eye. If you want to imagine six, seven or eight spacial dimensions it isn’t just hard – no one’s even truly conceptualized hyperspace. It’s what makes the subject compelling but also what makes it frustrating to talk about. The examples theorists are able to use to help people “visualize” what can’t be seen must work within human limitations, and are thus second and third dimensional examples of a higher dimensional concept or object.
“Wait a second,” some of you are wondering, “Isn’t TIME the fourth dimension?”
This article is about spacial dimensions only. Personally, I agree with Amrit Sorli and Davide Fiscaletti’s work which I feel adequately proves that time is NOT a spacial dimension. If you want to debate this issue further, you can read my reasoning in my follow up piece, Time: fourth dimension or nah?, also available on Cosmoso.net
One of the most basic exercises in multidimensional theory is to imagine moving in a fourth. The distance between you and everything around you stays the same but in some fourth dimension you are moving. Most people can’t truly do this imagination game because there in nothing in our three spacial dimensions to compare the experience to.
In the famous book about spacial dimensions, Flatland, living, two-dimensional beings existed in a universe that was merely two dimensions. A being with three dimensions, such as a sphere, would appear as a circle able to change circumference as it moved through a third dimension no one in flatland has ever conceptualized.
Humans evolved to notice changes in our three-dimensional environment, inheriting our ancestors ability to conceptualize space in three dimensions as a hardwired trait that actually stops us from conceptualizing other aspects of reality that might nonetheless exist. Other people see hyperspace as a theoretical construct of mathematics that doesn’t describe anything in reality, pointing to the lack of evidence of other dimensions.
Tesseracts Predate Computer-assisted Modelling.
A Tesseract. Many people in the advanced math classrooms of my generation of high school students struggled to wrap their heads around tesseracts without moving diagrams. If a picture is worth a thousand words are we talking animated gifs and words used to describe three dimensional space or should we make up a new saying?
We are able to conceptualize three dimensions in the abstract when we watch TV, look at a painting, or play a video-game. Anytime we look at a screen we watch a two dimensional image from a point outside that dimension. Having an outside point of view for a three dimensional space could give us a way to artificially understand a higher spatial dimension. Until that time comes, we are sort of stuck explaining fourth dimensions by demonstrating how it would look on a two dimensional screen which we view from a third dimensional viewpoint.
It’s kind of like imagining “one million”; you can prove it mathematically to yourself, you can count to it and you know how valuable it is but you can’t truly picture one million of anything. Trying to explain this conceptualization problem with words is pretty tough because your brain is not equipped to handle it. Humans try to wrap their minds around it and dream up ways to explain hyperspace to each other anyways.
4D Rubix Puzzle
A rubix cube is particularly compelling as a multi-dimensional teaching tool, because it puts spacial dimensions in the abstract in the first place, and then gives the cube the ability to change the dimensional orientation of a third of it’s mass. It’s hard to wrap your head around a normal three dimensional rubix puzzle. By adding another dimension and using the same principle, one can ALMOST imagine that fourth spacial dimension. Most people can’t solve a three dimensional Rubix puzzle but if you think you are ready for the fourth dimension, you can download it and play it on your two dimensional screen, here: Magic Cube 4D
If you don’t think you’re ready to try and solve that puzzle but you want to know more you can watch this roughly 1/2 hour video about it:
While Miegakure is still under development, it’s set for release in 2015. Interactive games like this can spur collaborative thinking from a larger pool of collaborators – and make game developers tons of money.
If you want something a little less abstract than Rubix, check out this prototype for Miegakure, the surreal PlayStation 4 game that lets the user explore a four dimensionally capable world through three dimensional spaces that connect to each other through higher dimensions. It’s a great idea that makes everyone have the initial thought of wondering how the heck they coded it. Then the idea sinks in and you realize they wrote the code first and played with the visual manifestation as they went. It’s a great metaphor for the idea in the first place; begins as a concept rather than an observation. The essence of the argument against hyperspace actually existing is the lack of physical evidence. Unlike a ghost story or a spiritual, religious attempt to explain the supernatural, there is actually mathematical evidence that seems to make higher dimensions possible. It has logical evidence as opposed to empirical data. There are ways to observe without using human senses but it’s difficult to prove an observation of something the majority of humans have trouble even seeing with their mind’s eye, so to speak.
One day we might be able to use technology to increase our understanding of this abstract concept, and manipulate an entirely new kind of media. For now we are stuck with two and three dimensional visual aids and an mental block put in place by aeons of evolution.
Could emerging tech present new forensics in the suspicious early demise of controversial Rolling Stone reporter, Michael Hastings? How cheaper hardware and open-sourced coding could shed new light on a murder as the possibility of remotely hacking today’s cars gains traction.
Hacking your car might already be possible. This tweet by NYT tech writer, Nick Bilton, is a great example:
Just saw 2 kids walk up to my LOCKED car, press a button on a device which unlocked the car, and broke in. So much for our keyless future.
Weeks back, I wrote a short piece about CANtact, a $60 device that enables you to interface with a car’s onboard computer through your laptop’s USB port. Eric Evenchick presented CANtact at Black Hat Asia 2015 security conference in Singapore. The onboard CPU of a motor-vehicle is called the CAN, for Controller Area Network. Evenchick hopes his device’s affordability will spur programmers to reverse engineer the firmware and proprietary languages various CAN systems use.
I got feedback on the CANtact story about a seemingly unrelated topic: The Death of Michael Hastings. Hastings was Rolling Stone and Buzzfeed contributor who became very vocal about the surveillance state when the U.S. Department of Justice started investigating reporters in 2013. Hastings coined the term “war on journalism” when the Obama Administration sanctioned limitations on journalists ability to report when the White House considered it a security risk. Buzzfeed ran his last story, “Why Democrats Love to Spy On Americans”, June 7, 2013. Hastings is considered suspicious by many Americans after he died in an explosive, high -speed automobile accident, June 18, 2013, in Los Angeles, CA.
Check out one of the last interviews with Michael Hastings and scroll down for a description of the oft repeated conspiracy theory surrounding his untimely death.
The Michael Hastings Conspiracy Theory:
Unlike a lot of post-millennium conspiracy theories, which usually start online, this one actually began on television. Reporters were already contentious about the limitations the Obama admin. were attempting to impose and it seemed like extremely suspicious timing that one of the leaders of the criticism against censorship was suddenly killed. The internet ran with it and some Americans considered the crash as suspicious at the time. Public opinion is often without the merit of hard evidence, though, and this case was no different. Not everyone considered the media coverage unbiased, considering the political stake journalists had in the issue.
The first solid argument that Hasting didn’t die by accident came from Richard A. Clarke, a former U.S. National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism(what a title~!), who called the crash “consistent with a car cyber attack”. The conspiracy theory gestating around water coolers and message boards was truly born when Clarke went public with this outright accusation:
“There is reason to believe that intelligence agencies for major powers—including the United States—know how to remotely seize control of a car. So if there were a cyber attack on [Hastings’] car—and I’m not saying there was, I think whoever did it would probably get away with it.”
Next, WikiLeaks announced that Hastings reached out to a Wikileaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson only a few hours before the crash.
Army Staff Sergent Joe Biggs came forward with an email he thought might help in a murder investigation. The email was CCed to a few of Hastings’ colleagues, stating he was “onto a big story” and planned to “go off the radar”. Perhaps the most incriminating detail is that he warned the addressees of this email to expect a visit from the FBI. The FBI denied Hastings was being investigated in a formal press release.
LA Weekly admitted Hastings was preparing a new installment of what had been an ongoing story involving the CIA. Hastings’ wife, Elise Jordan, confirmed he had been working on a story profiling CIA Director John O. Brennan.
The case against foul play:
I have to admit, I got sucked in for a second but Cosmoso is a science blog and I personally believe an important part of science is to maintain rational skepticism. The details I listed above are the undisputed facts. You can research online and verify them. It might seem really likely that Hastings was onto something and silenced by some sort of foul play leading to a car accident but there is no hard evidence, no smoking gun, no suspects and nothing really proving he was a victim of murder.
The rumor online has always been that there are suspicious aspects to the explosion. Cars don’t always explode when they crash but Frank Markus director of Motor Trend said the ensuing fire after the crash was consistent with most high-speed car crashes. The usual conspiracy theorist reaction is to suspect this kind of testimony to have some advantage or involvement thus “proving” it biased. It’s pretty difficult to do that in the case of Frank Markus, who just directs a magazine and website about cars.
Hastings’ own family doesn’t seem to think the death was suspicious. His brother, Jonathan, later revealed Michael seemed “manic” in the days leading up to the crash. Elise Jordan, his wife told the press it was “just a really tragic accident”
A host of The Young Turks who was close with Hastings once said Hastings’ friends had noticed he was agitated and tense. Michael often complained that he was being followed and watched. It’s easy to dismiss the conspiracy theory when you consider it may have stemmed from the line of work he chose.
Maybe the government conspiracy angle is red herring.
Reporting on the FBI, the Military, the Whitehouse, or the CIA are what reporters do. People did it before and since. Those government organizations have accountability in ways that would make an assassination pretty unlikely.
If it wasn’t the government who would have wanted to kill Hastings?
A lot of people, it turns out. Hastings had publicly confirmed he received several death-threats after his infamous Rolling Stone article criticizing and exposing General McChrystal. Considering the United States long history of reactionary violence an alternate theory is that military personnel performed an unsanctioned hit on Hastings during a time when many right wing Americans considered the journalist unpatriotic.
Here’s where the tech comes into play:
Hastings had told USA Today his car had recently been “tampered with”, without any real explanation of what that means but most people in 2013 would assume it means physical tampering with the brakes or planting a bug. In any case he said he was scared and planned to leave town.
Now it’s only two years later, and people are starting to see how a little bit of inside knowledge of how the CAN computer works in a modern vehicle can be used to do some serious harm. We might never know if this was a murder, an assassination or an accident but hacking a car remotely seemed like a joke at the time; two years later no one is laughing.
Controversial hero of the information revolution to some, traitor to the American empire to others, Edward Snowden is popping up in headlines again.
A lot of Cosmoso might have caught the John Oliver interview.
The interview is an instant classic and will be talked about for a long time but it was also genuinely funny, with some unexpected chemistry between Oliver and Snowden. It also featured probably the second best extended tech metaphor involving dicks.
That’s right. I said second best.
Other superficial highlights include John Oliver losing his mind during the half hour before Snowden showed up late, the alarming but totally unsurprising ignorance of Americans during the man-on-the-street interviews about privacy and a concise but fleeting description of Snowden’s Patriotism for the layman.
The morning after the interview aired, another iconic moment in revolutionary journalism happened. Three, anonymous street artists erected a bust of Edward Snowden in Brooklyn, video and still pics documented exclusively by AnimalNewYork. The work was covered with a tarp and removed within twelve hours because it was put atop an existing war monument, and done without permission.
A hologram of Snowden is currently being shown in the spot where the bust was removed, courtesy of The Illuminator Art Collective who used two projections and a cloud of smoke to show a likeness of Edward Snowden at the Revolutionary War memorial, releasing an accompanying statement:
“While the State may remove any material artifacts that speak in defiance against incumbent authoritarianism, the acts of resistance remain in the public consciousness, and it is in sharing that act of defiance that hope resides.”
A lot of people really want alternate universes to make sense but they don’t. It makes for great sci fi and it’s a fun thought experiment, but alternate universes might be based on too much assumption to be considered good science: back in October, 2014, Wiseman and Deckert suggested a new take on the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum theory: Many Interactive Worlds. It’s hard to see what sets their work apart from predecessors.
I was initially excited by their work, published Winter 2014, but the more I read about the Many Worlds Interpretation the less I bought it. Quantum theory is hard for most people to understand, which makes sifting through conflicting theories and rationalizations a daunting task. I’m going to try and be concise but thorough in my critique of Wiseman and Deckert’s work. I’m sure they are fine people and they’ve certainly put a lot of thought into a very abstract, difficult concept.
First let me get this superficial complaint out of the way: Wiseman and Deckert seem to have just dropped the word “interpretation” from their interpretation. Why? well it certainly wasn’t for clarity’s sake. The Many Worlds Interpretation and Many Interacting Worlds have awkwardly similar acronyms, MWI and MIW. Because quantum theory isn’t confusing enough~!
The Many Worlds Interpretation was the work of Hugh Everett III back in 1957. It gets called the parallel universe theory, the alternate universe theory, and the “many universes” interpretation. It comes back up in science fiction periodically but most quantum physicists don’t count it as a viable explanation of quantum mechanics’ many unanswered questions. Everett postulated all possible outcomes happen causing reality to branch at each decision or quantum observation, creating infinite parallel universes as more an more branches are formed. Everett imagined the observer splitting into what he described as “clones” who live in the different universes. It’s really easy now, in 2015, for a version of the Many Worlds Interpretation to gain traction, because so many people are familiar with the concept from decades of science fiction examples.
So Wiseman and Deckert didn’t make up the idea of multiple universes. What are they saying is different about their new interpretation? In the Everettian model, universes branch off like a tree, never to meet again. Wiseman and Deckert describe a multiverse where particles seem to be able to influence each other and interact despite existing in separate universes. It makes a more classically physical math work out in the examples they chose. Many Interactive Worlds explains “Ehrenfest’s theorem, wave packet spreading, barrier tunneling, and zero-point energy—as a direct consequence of mutual repulsion between worlds.”
The equation they provided can successfully calculate quantum ground states and explains the notorious double-slit interference phenomenon. It sounds so impressive that most science news outlets ran with it despite there being absolutely no evidence of these other universes.
So the Griffith University academics turned heads but they kind of sidestepped the work of many foundational aspects of quantum science. Physical Review X published the work, which is basically a proposal that parallel universes not only exist, but that they constantly interact. They explain this interaction as a force of repulsion between alternate universes. Their equations show this type of an interaction explains some of the most bizarre parts of quantum mechanics – and that is a mathematical breakthrough. It just doesn’t really have any explanation of what this “force of repulsion” is or how it can be measured. They are basically talking about philosophy, not science, but it’s really hard to prove them wrong because it’s so complicated and most people want a solution to the century of unexplainable quantum dynamics.
The bottom line: There is still no experimental evidence to support any multiple universe model, and the Many Interactive World interpretation didn’t change that.
Update: I found a video that explains my point~! Check it out.
Quantum theory can be misinterpreted to support false claims.
There is legit science to quantum theory but misinterpretations justify an assortment of pseudoscience. Let’s examine why.
Quantum science isn’t a young science anymore. This year, 2015, the term “quantum”, as it relates to quantum physics, turns 113 years old. The term as we know it first appeared “in a 1902 article on the photoelectric effect by Philipp Lenard, who credited Hermann von Helmholtz for using the word in reference to electricity”(Wikipedia). During it’s first century of life attempts to understand quantum particle behavior have lead to a bunch of discoveries. Quantum physics has furthered understanding of key physical aspects of the universe. That complex understanding has been used to develop new technologies.
Quantum physics is enigmatic in that it pushes the limits of conceptualization itself, leaving it seemingly open to interpretation. While it is has been used to predict findings and improve human understanding, It’s also been used by charlatans who have a shaky-at-best understanding of science. Quantum physics has been misappropriated to support a bunch of downright unscientific ideas.
It’s easy to see why it can be misunderstood by well-intentioned people and foisted upon an unsuspecting public by new age hacks. The best minds in academia don’t always agree on secondary implications of quantum physics. No one has squared quantum theory with the theory of relativity, for example.
Most people are not smart enough to parse all the available research on quantum physics. The public’s research skills are notoriously flawed on any subject. The internet is rife with misinformation pitting researchers against their own lack of critical thinking skills. Anti-science and pseudoscience alike get a surprising amount of traction online, with Americans believing in a wide variety of superstitions and erroneous claims.
In addition to the public simply misinterpreting or misunderstanding the science, there is money to be made in taking advantage of gullible people. Here are some false claims that have erroneously used quantum theory as supporting evidence:
Many Interacting Worlds
The internet loves this one. Contemporary multiple universe theories are philosophy, not science, but that didn’t stop Australian physicists Howard Wiseman and Dr. Michael Hall from collaborating with UC Davis mathematician Dr. Dirk-Andre Deckert to publish the “many interacting worlds” theory as legit science in the otherwise respectable journal, Physical Review X. This is the latest in a train of thought that forgoes scientific reliance on evidence and simply supposes the existence of other universes, taking it a step further by insisting we live in an actual multiverse, with alternate universes constantly influence each other. Um, that’s awesome but it’s not science. You can read their interpretation of reality for yourself.
Deepak Chopra is a celebrated new age guru whose views on the human condition and spirituality are respected by large numbers of the uneducated. By misinterpreting quantum physics he has made a career of stitching together a nonsensical belief system from disjointed but seemingly actual science. Chopra’s false claims can seem very true when first investigated but has explained key details that Chopra nonetheless considers mysterious.
‘The Power’ and ‘The Secret’ are best-selling books that claim science supports what can be interpreted as an almost maniacal selfishness. The New York Times once described the books as “larded with references to magnets, energy and quantum mechanics.”
The Secret’s author, Rhonda Byrne, uses confusing metaphysics not rooted in any known or current study of consciousness by borrowing heavily from important-sounding terminology found in psychology and neuroscience. Byrne’s pseudoscientific jargon is surprisingly readable and comforting but that doesn’t make the science behind it any less bogus.
There isn’t anything in quantum physics implying a solipsism or subjective experience of reality but that doesn’t stop Scientology from pretending we each have our own “reality” – and yours is broken.
Then there is the oft-headlining, almost post modern psuedoscientific masterpiece of utter bullshit: Scientology.
Scientology uses this same type of claim to control it’s cult following. Scientology relies on a re-fabrication of the conventional vocabulary normal, English-speaking people use. The religion drastically redefined the word reality. L.R. Hubbard called reality the “agreement.” Scientologists believe the universe is a construct of the spiritual beings living within it. The real world we all share is, to them, a product of consensus. Scientology describes, for example, mentally ill people as those who no longer accept an “agreed upon apparency” that has been “mocked up” by we spiritual beings, to use their reinvented terminology. Scientologists misuse of the word reality to ask humans, “what’s your reality?” There isn’t anything in quantum physics implying a solipsism or subjective experience of reality but that doesn’t stop Scientology.
The struggle to connect quantum physics to spirituality is a humorous metaphor for subjectivity itself.
If you find yourself curious to learn more about quantum theory you should read up and keep and open mind, no doubt. The nature of a mystery is that it hasn’t been explained. Whatever evidence that might be able to help humanity understand the way reality is constructed is not going to come from religion or superstition, it will come from science. Regardless of the claims to the contrary, quantum theory only points out a gap in understanding and doesn’t explain anything about existence, consciousness or subjective reality.