Thursday, 31 January 2008

Amateur Transplants

Via the badscience forums I was reminded of this video (warning - contains references to paedophilia and the music of James Blunt):

Check out some of their others, sad and offensive joke medic songs, nice.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Web 2.0

"...this web hype was presentation layer people trying solve system level problems, all the while hiding behind a lot of New Age marketing guff"
Reading Andrew Orlowski review Nick Carr's 'Big Switch' I stumbled upon this:
"Honestly, how fucking embarrassing that some of you are gullible enough to buy into these notions that YouTube, Facebook and MySpace provide the citizenry with
a louder, more vibrant voice. Those of you supporting such ideas should be disgusted with yourselves. You've done little more than embrace another facade. Only this time it's delivered via TCP/IP instead through a pamphlet or phone bank."
Warms the cockles of my misanthropic old heart.

"...the deaths of these five women is no great loss"

Want more reasons to hate vile Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn? Then look here.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Atheists worse than terrorists?

Following on from the revelation that atheists are as bad as gays and Jews, we learn that: "
Far worse than the threat from international terrorism is the aggressive process of secularisation that has gripped our country, and most of Europe"
That's Peter Mullen, chaplain to the Stock Exchange. His article is amusingly bad tempered and contains some real gems, I'll share a few of his insights:
"it is against the law for state schools to teach the Christian faith as true...This is atheism by decree...

"...the many people who believed that homosexuality should be decriminalised never intended that this should create the proselytising Gay Liberation the love which once dare not speak its name, shrieks at us in high camp from decorated floats along the high street.

"...the public was told by its supporters that legalised abortion would abolish the damage to women's health at the hands of the back street 200,000 embryos every year are ripped, untimely, from the womb just because people fear that a child would interfere with their lifestyle.

"...the devout Muslim reproaches the secularised for their valueless consumerism and reckless hedonism...What do we reply? “No, thank you. We've got our own values - and if you don't like them we'll fire a salvo of condoms at you.”

"How truly Nietzsche prophesied that, after the death of God, crass utilitarianism would result in “pig philosophy”. "

I don't even understand the Muslim-condom bit, and I'm always annoyed at being accused of being a consumerist hedonist just because I'm an atheist. As the chaplain to the stock exchange you'd think he'd realise that, at least for some, Christianity appears to be (disturbingly) compatible with a selfish and greedy capitalist outlook, indeed this particular branch of evangelical Christianity is supposd to be the one part of the Anglican church that is on the rise - and one need only look over the pond to see it firmly enmeshed in a highly consumerist culture and possessed of real political power.

Conversely, I was always assured by my Gran that university would turn me communist, atheist, vegetarian, and gay - and while not all of those came true there's certainly an affinity between leftist politics and atheism that suggests that atheism is not inextricably connected to consumerism.

Finally I'm not aware of any law preventing Christianity being taught as 'true' (there should be mind you), indeed there is a legal obligation for a daily act of worship of a Christian character (a law fortunately mostly ignored) as well as schools of an explicitly Christian character. Presumably in religious education classes you aren't allowed to teach Christianity as true, just as you can't declare socialism as true in politics classes. The only area I can think he's referring to is science, where you can't teach children that creationism is true, and evolution by natural selection is false, because, you know, there's no scientific evidence for it whatever the Bible says.

"You can prove anything with facts"

Just read this in the Telegraph:
"What Miss Smith means is that crime measured by the British Crime Survey has fallen; and while many statisticians claim this to be the best measure of offending, it appears to bear little resemblance to reality."
Reminded me of this:

"I'm not interested in facts, I find they tend to cloud my judgement"

Wifi rots your brain!

The latest mobile/wifi scare story:
"Radiation from mobile phones damages sleep and causes headaches, according to a study by telephone makers."
is covered by gimpy:
"This is interesting as it implies the authors assessed a wide range of variables and possibly rushed the strongest results out in this paper. I can’t help but wonder if they fell victim to selection bias and discarded a whole series of measurements showing no difference. So this paper has enough weaknesses and oversights to throw doubt on its conclusions."
Not much to add to gimpy's analysis, if you read the paper it is clear that they measured a cornucopia of things (self-reported symptoms, cognitive symptoms, stress hormones, cognitive and memory tests, and subsequent sleep and EEG), yet they only report data for latency to deep sleep and amount of stage 4 sleep, so there were clearly a wealth of other comparisons performed, for example, latency to stage 4 sleep and amount of deep sleep, but presumably many many others which are not mentioned (and are therefore likely to all be negative). I don't suppose I need to even mention the problems of multiple comparisons. They also report a random effects logistic regression for headache (finding an increased incidence with exposure) and that 'electrosensitive' types were no better at judging exposure than normal people.

I don't want to be too hard on them, there is always a trade-off between doing lots of experiments to find things that might be affected by your experiment in order to generate hypotheses, and limiting the number of comparisons in order to maximise statistical power and falsify those hypotheses. It also sounds like this paper was derived from a conference presentation and is thus likely incomplete, preliminary, and ever so slightly dodgy (I hate to think how many 'groundbreaking' conference abstracts I've seen that have subsequently failed to be published as full peer reviewed papers, or have been published showing the opposite result).

The NHS Knowledge Service's "Behind the headlines" covers this story:
"This experiment has several important limitations and does not provide sufficient evidence to suggest that mobile use at night is a risk to health. The study only had 71 participants and 38 of them reported suffering from problems that they attributed to mobile use before they entered the study. The small group size and high proportion of people who reported sensitivity to mobile use are unlikely to be representative of the population."
Their emphasis differs from mine, in particular I disagree that the sample size was very small, it isn't bad for lab based studies of this kind. They don't mention the issue of multiple comparisons or cherry picking data.

I don't think their objection that this was an artificial situation is particularly relevant - sure the exposure was quite high, and sure they were trying to get to sleep in a lab, but the whole point of the experiment was to see if there is any tangible biological effect from microwave exposure. I'm also not sure that I agree that the use of allegedly radiosensitive individuals, who are thus unrepresentative, is a problem - because the experiment demonstrates that they actually can't detect when the signal is on, and because current evidence suggests that they aren't actually radiosensitive (i.e. it is a physical response to the belief that there is a microwave signal) - if it turned out that they were in fact radiosensitive then this again would demonstrate what the study sought to discover, that mobile phone signals have a detectable physiological effect.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

More wikipedia

Following on from my last wikipedia post, there's some interesting stuff from the wikipedia 'reliable sources noticeboard' (because in wiki land being stated in reliable sources makes stuff true, not, you know, actually being true - see Ronnie Hazelhurst as Andrew points out in the comments to the last wiki post).

So there's a discussion as to whether well known online tech paper The Register actually counts as a reliable source, it's started by longtime wikipedia admin Phil Sandifer:
"...a willfully tabloid source, not reliable surely, right? Phil Sandifer (talk) 16:39, 7 December 2007 (UTC)"
After some to-ing and fro-ing, someone says:
"I think we are not seeing the forest for the trees. Or lets cut to the chase.
1. Was there ever a concern about the Register as a source before the current batch of Wikipedia stories? If so, please cite evidence here.
2. Disregarding the current batch of Wikipedia stories that we dislike, what is their journalistic reputation? Please cite evidence and facts.
3. Let's leave out personal stakes.
We can't exclude a source because it gave us a succession of bloody noses. Lawrence Cohen 16:14, 15 December 2007 (UTC)"
But worry not wikipediaphiles, here's another longtime admin JzG to confirm that we just can't count on media sources that embarrass wikipedia round here:
"The Register is reliable enough for techie stuff, but individual journalists pursuing some kind of muckraking "investigative" journalism with a pretty obvious failure to even attempt to look at dissenting opinions is not going to be reliable in any publication unless it has independent corroboration...a story about the Durova incident sourced entirely from an editor giving one side of the story (and a side which had been repeatedly rebutted at that...None of these shines out to me as an example of critical review, just Wikipedia-bashing. We should stick sources which draw form a wider base than one or two editors pushing a heavy barrow uphill... Guy (Help!) 17:36, 19 December 2007 (UTC)"
So that's fine then, we can't trust these internet publications anyway, can we? Oh yes, it looks like we can, because on the same page we see that someone isn't too impressed by Pajamas Media (no relation!):
"Is a collaborative blog like Pajamas Media a reliable source? // Liftarn (talk)"
Well another longtime (and high up) admin Jayjg (mate of the SlimVirgin mentioned in the last post) explains that apparently, unlike the evil extremist Register, Pajamas Media is the very epitome of fact checking and impartial journalistic values:
"In its "About Us" section it states "Besides adding to its blog network, through its portal, PJM now provides exclusive news and opinion 24/7 in text, video and podcast from correspondents in over forty countries. Pajamas Media also has its own weekly show on XM satellite radio – PJM Political – and syndicates its original material like a news agency." That seems to be more than a "collaborative blog". Jayjg (talk) 3:18, 10 January 2008 (UTC)

Right-wing yes, but "extremist" - that's just hyperbole. Pajamas Media appears to be the right-wing counterpart of Common Dreams. Currently Wikipedia links to Common Dreams 1435 times. Admittedly, the majority of these are not actual references in articles, but certainly a significant number are.
Until we have a new policy that covers these kinds of sources on both sides of the political spectrum, we're going to have to be a wee bit more even-handed. Jayjg (talk) 02:52, 9 January 2008 (UTC)"
And this level of hypocrisy is just on one page I read today. Previously the rantings of Mad Mel at the Daily Mail have been promoted as a reliable source while both the BBC and Guardian have been dismissed as propaganda! (here is just the first example I came across when looking - the above uber admin Jayjg comparing the reliability of a Mad Mel blog post to the Guardian - any Israeli-Palestinian article is a good place to look for this sort of thing, and I've just found this article, which is an absolute hoot).

The problem is less the hypocritical flouting of their own, usually inflexible, rules by wikipedia true believers just because some news source is critical of wikipedia. Rather it is just how easily these bureaucratic rules can simply be bypassed by the insiders of the wikipedia community. Then all the pretentions of WP:NOR, WP:RS, and WP:V become a smoke screen to allow the partisan slanting of supposedly objective and encyclopaedic articles.

Amusingly the Wikipedia Review people picked up on my last post and were worried at my dig at their SlimVirgin obsession - I should probably reassure them that, while they are indeed completely obsessed by the woman, my perusing of wikipedia talk pages, and indeed personal experience, confirms that she is indeed the preeminent master of all the 'wikilawyering' and assorted dodgy techniques I'm talking about.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

More blasphemy

Via Black Triangle, various luminaries (including the genius that is Stewart Lee) write to the Telegraph about revoking the UK blasphemy laws:
"In the light of the widespread outrage at the conviction of the British teacher for blasphemy in Sudan over the name of a teddy bear is it not time to repeal our own blasphemy law?The ancient common law of blasphemous libel purports to protect beliefs rather than people or communities. Most religious commentators are of the view that the Almighty does not need the "protection" of such a law...We call on MPs to support the amendment proposed by Evan Harris, Frank Dobson and David Wilshire tomorrow to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill and on the Government - which rightly criticises countries like Sudan for their blasphemy laws - to give it a fair wind."

Stephen Green from Christian Voice replies:
"...the blasphemy law seeks, primarily, to maintain simple respect for Almighty God, Jesus Christ and the Bible...Of course, the law against blasphemy discriminates in favour of Christianity, because historically, culturally and constitutionally, Britain is a Christian country, as Professor Dawkins himself conceded only last month. That being said, the existence of the blasphemy law should engender a proper respect for the sacred and so provide an umbrella of protection for the deeply held religious beliefs of others. As the Bishop of Rochester said at the weekend, we need to affirm the Christian roots of British society. We need to start standing up for Christianity, for God, Jesus Christ and the Bible, before it becomes illegal to do so."

Friday, 4 January 2008

Wikipedia imploding?

I'm not a big fan of wikipedia. Don't get me wrong, it can be a useful starting point to find out the basic facts on non-controversial topics. But it is now ubiquitious and relied upon far too uncritically*. That makes the flaws in the systems behind the scenes important.

Anyone who's contributed more than a few lines to wikipedia will be familiar with the outpourings of acronyms from wikipedia regulars, be it WP:AGF, 'sockpuppet', WP:NOR, WP:SNOW, or WP:OVER, and these are just the tip of the iceburg of a bureaucratic and hierarchical administrative system.

In reality the day-to-day running of wikipedia is by the lowest administrative tier called, unsurprisingly, 'admins'. They are supposed to be trusted and productive long time regular editors, not that these regular editors and admins necessarily write the bulk of the content, rather they are responsible for tidying the whole thing up (number of edits = social status in wiki-land, so correcting minor typos is a quicker route to kudos) which might explain at least partly the uneven quality of article content. Admins are 'elected' by other registered users (or at least those following the various bureaucratic processes in action at any one time (including WP:AN, WP:AFD, WP:DRV, Arbcom, and many many others) and and have the power to stop articled being edited or to ban registered users or whole IP addresses from editing wikipedia.

It is probably unsurprising that factional fighting has arisen from time to time among these thousand or so individuals, but there have also emerged prominent and powerful players on the scene, some with positions in the higher echelons of the wikipedia administrative structure, but many merely important as part of the social structure, not least the much loathed 'SlimVirgin' who seems to have created an entire subculture dedicated to her true identity and supposedly nefarious goals. Because these individuals essentially run wikipedia among themselves the startling bureaucracy is actually surprisingly flexible when it comes to allowing the actions of their favoured ones, however hypocritical that might appear to the proles.

As with any other social enterprise conflicts on controversial issues (be they the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or internal wikipedia policies) result in conflicts between different power bases, and admins in particular have access to solutions (banning) and allies (other admins) to gain the upper hand - all a far cry from pretentions towards being a 'real' encyclopedia.

But wikipedia is also in conflict with those outside the wikipedia society, in particular those critical of wikipedia itself (such as websites Wikipedia Review and Wikitruth, the former created by banned former wikipedia members, and the latter by anonymous wikipedia editors and admins opposed to various cases of articles being 'censored').

The latest little spat in wiki-land highlights how far the internal social life of wikipedia has come to dominate the thinking of its members and heirarchy. As described here in El Reg:

"Controversy has erupted among the encyclopedia's core contributors, after a rogue editor revealed that the site's top administrators are using a secret insider mailing list to crackdown on perceived threats to their power.
Revealed after an uber-admin called "Durova" used it in an attempt to enforce the quixotic ban of a longtime contributor, this secret mailing list seems to undermine the site's famously egalitarian ethos. At the very least, the list allows the ruling clique to push its agenda without scrutiny from the community at large...

Durova continued to insist that she had some sort of secret evidence that could only be viewed by the Arbitration Committee. "I am very confident my research will stand up to scrutiny," she said. "I am equally confident that anything I say here will be parsed rather closely by some disruptive banned sockpuppeteers. If I open the door a little bit it'll become a wedge issue as people ask for more information, and then some rather deep research techniques would be in jeopardy."

Then someone posted a private email from Durova in which she divulged her evidence - and revealed the secret mailing list. Basically, Durova's email showed that Bang Bang was indeed a wonderfully productive editor. She was sure this was all a put-on, that he was trying to gain the community's "good faith" and destroy it from within.
This sort of extreme paranoia has become the norm among the Wikipedia inner circle. There are a handful sites across the web that spend most of their bandwidth criticizing the Wikipedia elite - the leading example being
Wikipedia Review - and the ruling clique spends countless hours worrying that these critics are trying to infiltrate the encyclopedia itself.

Bang Bang was a relatively new account. Since this new user was a skilled editor, Durova decided, he must be "a vandal" sent by Wikipedia Review. "I need to show you not just what Wikipedia Review is doing to us, but how they're doing it," she said in her email. "Here's a troublemaker whose username is two exclamation points with no letters: !! It's what I would call [a] 'ripened sock'...Some of the folks at WR do this to game the community's good faith."

Former Arbitration Committee member Kelly Martin confirms that this bizarre attitude is now par for the course inside the Wikipedia inner circle. "Anyone who makes large changes to anything now is likely to get run over by a steamroller," she says. "It's not a matter of whether your edit was good or bad. All they see is 'large edit my person not known to me' and - boom! They smack you on the head because vandals are so bad."
Recently, in another effort to quash "harassment," several members of the wikipedia elite tried to ban the mention of certain "BADSITES" on the encyclopedia, and naturally, Wikipedia Review was on the list.
Dan Tobias was one of the
many editors who successfully fought this ban, and as he battled, he marveled at how well organized his opponents seemed to be. "Over the months that I've been fighting people over issues like the BADSITES proposal, it looks like a lot of these people I was fighting were on this secret email list - at least I suspect they were," says the Floridia-based Tobias. "They always seemed to be show up in right place, at the right time, to gang up on people."

...Wales and the Wikimedia Foudation came down hard on the editor who leaked Durova's email. After it was posted to the public forum, the email was promptly "oversighted" - i.e. permanently removed. Then this rogue editor posted it to his personal talk page, and a Wikimedia Foundation member not only oversighted the email again, but temporarily banned the editor.

Then Jimbo swooped in with a personal rebuke.

"You have caused too much harm to justify us putting up with this kind of behavior much longer," he told the editor.

The problem, for many regular contributors, is that Wales and the Foundation seem to be siding with Durova's bizarre behavior..."

And sadly this is just the latest in a long run of embarrassments for wikipedia where the ruling elite have sided with their own even at the expense of the reputation of wikipedia itself: examples include the Essjay saga where Jimmy Wales backed a wikipedia employee pretending to be an academic to gain dubious authority and thus the upper hand in disputes over the content of wikipedia pages, and where Jimbo dispatched his minions to rewrite history to make him sole founder of wikipedia when Larry Sanger left to form his own online encyclopedia. And that is just the tip of a huge iceburg that is there if anyone has the energy or the stomach to look.

As wikipedia moves from new articles to pointless lists I think we can expect that the wikipedia community will increasingly create further drama from its infighting, but somehow I doubt it will implode because most people have no knowledge and little interest in what goes on behind the scenes.

* Here's a terrifying thought:
"Wikipedia is one of the most common sources cited and used by my (1st and 2nd yr) bioscience students. This is at a Russell Group Univ where you need As and Bs to get on the science degrees. It is not uncommon in 1st yr essays to find Wikipedia listed as the SOLE source. Second yr students are a bit more “catholic” in their tastes and tend to cite multiple web sources, plus the occasional textbook.

Of course, it is just as common to find the students have cut’n'pasted most of the essay from Wikipedia without sourcing (i.e. acknowledging) it at all.. For this yr’s first yr essays I read plagiarism of this kind was in about half of the essays I read.

Anyway, however you cut it the students clearly have great faith in Wikipedia as a source …!"