Archive for category Skepticism
Last Friday, a storm erupted when someone noticed Amazon were selling t-shirts bearing offensive slogans like “Keep Calm and Hit Her” and “Keep Calm and Rape a Lot.”
This discovery provoked a strong reaction, leading to outrage on Twitter and critical articles from CNN, The Guardian, The Daily Mail and more. The slogans were condemned in the strongest possible terms, with criticism directed at both Amazon for selling the shirts and at the US firm Solid Gold Bomb for creating them.
The following day, a blogger named Pete Ashton argued that the slogans were likely generated by computer and “nobody made, or approved, the design.” He claimed a combination of the Amazon Marketplace, a print-on-demand service, and a simple piece of software could result in the offending t-shirts appearing online without any human approval.
After reading this article, my wife asked me how likely Ashton’s explanation was. Could a product really go on sale that no-one had ever seen?
I’ve been a web developer for fifteen years, working with many of the technologies required. The chain of events seems plausible enough to me. It would be trivial to write a program that took words like “drink” or “carry”, and combined them words like “on” or “beer” to produce thousands of t-shirt slogans. It would be trivial to use something like ImageMagick to create images of what t-shirts might look like and upload them to Amazon. I could probably do it in an afternoon. So the explanation makes sense, but is there any evidence that it’s true?
If the “computer did it” hypothesis is correct, I reasoned, I should be able to analyse the products still on-sale and calculate the original words used to create them. I can generate a list of slogans with those words and check if they appear on an SGB product. If every possible slogan is on sale, that supports the theory that this was an unsupervised computer program. If some are missing, it could indicate a human editor.
I quickly wrote a program that fetched any SGB product featuring the words “Keep Calm and”. It picked apart the description and recorded which verb had been used and which words terminated the sentence. Within minutes, I had a list of 759 verbs and eleven terminators.
The Merseyside Skeptics Christmas Party is TONIGHT at the View Two gallery on Mathew Street. Everyone is welcome (even homeopaths… So long as you’re nice!)
Is the clumpiness of your blood affecting your athletic performance? Do your blood cells suffer from poor communication? Might your blood be travelling through your capillaries at sub-optimal speed? These are questions few people have ever asked themselves, and with very good reason. They’re also questions posed to consumers by Shuzi Qi – the sports performance technology manufacturers whose Nano Vibrational Technology claims to relieve the detrimental effects of your sluggish, uncommunicative, clumpy blood.
Read the rest of this entry »
Having a rare weekend free, and having the need to pop into town in order to buy secret things for my girlfriend’s upcoming birthday (July 22nd if you want to wish her a happy birthday, by the way), I chanced into St John’s Shopping Centre and came across the rather charming ‘Dr & Herbs’ Traditional Chinese Medicine outlet. Which I immediately dived into and immersed myself in, obviously.
I’d like to say up front, before I get into any real detail – the two people who seem to run the shop were helpful, kind and friendly. Unfortunately, they were also entirely wrong in a number of ways…
The first thing that struck me about the shop was the crude (and rather awfully-designed) posters in the window, listing various ailments and how TCM can help – the list was reasonably long, and didn’t include any more wild and dangerous ailments to treat, but I was able to grab shots of the claims for Thrush, Stress, Eczema and Asthma.
Thrush: TCM treats this as a problem of damp in the body, usually internal damp caused by an infection or fungus; herbs are a very effective treatment.
While it’s true to say that thrush is caused by a fungus, it’s vague and bewildering to claim it a problem of ‘damp in the body’, and the bald assertion that herbs are a very effective treatment is an outright falsehood, unsupported by evidence.
Stress: According to TCM, Stress is due to too much dampness and heart heat from internal and external pressure. We can treat this by clearing the dampness as well as regulating your Qi (vital energy) through a natural process).
Here the issue is somewhat more fundamental – the notion of ‘stress’ is something favoured by pseudomedical practitioners because of its dual properties of vagueness and ubiquity. Many people believe they have stress; very few of them could quantify what they mean by the term. Fortunately, Dr & Herbs seem to know, and they’re pretty sure it’s to do with dampness – although, in fairness, dampness is their go-to diagnosis. That they can regulate this invented dampness – both internally- and externally-caused – via the regulation of Qi is neither here nor there, given that Qi adds one more invented element to the pot. All in all, their claims to fighting stress don’t stand up to scrutiny. Read the rest of this entry »
It is oftentimes the case that a poll appears on the Internet. Something like “Is the Earth flat?”, or “Should the government fund a state astrologer?” or whatever.
What happens next? Someone skeptical notices, and puts a link to the poll on twitter or Facebook. Other skeptics forward the link (it usually gets back to PZ at some stage) and we all go and vote to make sure the poll ends with the right answer*. At the same time, other skeptics pipe up (not unreasonably) saying, well, it’s only an Internet poll. The truth is not a democracy, it’s not really important, who cares if someone on the Internet is wrong, etc.
And the poll closes. Sometimes with the right answer, sometimes not.
Oversized wolves, persecuted Christians, cheating artists and damned dirty scientists. Plus charismatic televangelists, cancer, TED and France. With surprisingly few oral sex jokes, it’s Skeptics with a K.