Sunday, January 30, 2011

Doghouse Science #1: Hypotheses and Alternate Explanations

"Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

With all due respect to Emerson, I prefer to say something different: "Common sense is science in its working clothes." All too many woos think that science is something that people do in sterile white rooms with funny-shaped glasses full of bubbling, colorful liquids while wearing a long white coat and pocket protector. You know, just like they do in Hollywood movies.

Those may be common trappings of science, but that is the shadow, not the substance. Wearing a long white coat with an ID tag ending in "PhD." is not a sign of authority in itself. The authority is in the diligence in conducting experiments and recording observations. Today, I'll be writing a post about how I used science to solve a mundane problem.

This story takes place about a year and a half ago when I moved into my apartment and started turning it into a swinging bachelor pad. Which is to say, after getting all the matching furniture I bought in place, I needed to get all my electronics fitted into a rather large entertainment stand. I'm a geek, after all. I decided to get my local cable company's TV and Internet bundle.

There were a few problems with the installation, but that wasn't entirely unexpected. The new guy on the installation team messed up some connection out there in the apartment complex, so I was without television for a few hours, but that got sorted out.

Over time, I started getting internet outages where I would either nothing would come through or the connection would be as slow as molasses. They gradually grew worse. They mentioned going through maintenance and expansion here and there so I accepted the first of it as transitory. Eventually I had an outage that lasted over 24 hours and showed no sign of being fixed. I was going to call tech support and give them a piece of my mind.

But first, I had to get down to work. One common joke among tech support groups is "Problem exists between keyboard and chair." The vast majority of technical difficulties are the result of user error, and if I didn't do everything I could to prove it wasn't my fault, they would have no reason to suspect the problem was on their end. If I didn't go through all the common mistakes I could think of, I would look like a lazy fool to the customer service representative. This is what I thought up:

Hypothesis0 (Null hypothesis): It is not the cable company's fault.
---Hypothesis0A: My laptop has a problem.
---Hypothesis0B: My wireless network has a problem.
---Hypothesis0C: My router has a problem.
---Hypothesis0D: My router is not hooked into the cable modem.
---Hypothesis0E: The cable modem is unplugged.
---Hypothesis0F: The cable modem is not connected to the splitter.
---Hypothesis0G: The splitter's input is not hooked up to the cable output.

Hypothesis1: It's the cable company's fault.
---Hypothesis1A: The apartment connection was set up improperly.
---Hypothesis1B: The company's internet service was down for my region.
---Hypothesis1C: They provided me with faulty equipment.

Notice all the parts of the null hypothesis: If it was my fault for any of those reasons, they would be justified in forcing me to go through a script, and I'd have to go through the tangle of wires AND be on the phone, wasting the support person's time.

So I got to work. I checked my laptop's connection. It reported being connected to the router, but with no internet connection. I turned on my Playstation Portable and attempted to connect to the wireless router. It succeeded, but still failed when I tried to browse the web on it. 0A down: My Windows Laptop and PSP work on very different systems. It is highly unlikely they would both share the error if something was wrong with my laptop.

This also provided evidence against 0B, the wireless connections being the problem, since they both recognized the connection. I went one step further, turning on my PS3 and attempting to sign onto the PSN. I also turned on my old desktop and attempted to browse the web. Both of them had a physical connection to the router instead of a wireless connection. Both failed. The problem was unlikely to be in the wireless connection. 0B down.

I reset my router and watch it when I send an internet request. The lights blink at the same time. The router appears to be working. 0C appears unlikely, so I dismiss it until given evidence to the contrary.

I follow the cables. The router is connected to the modem. 0D down. The modem is plugged in, and its LEDs are blinking. 0E down. The modem is hooked into the splitter's output. 0F down. The splitter is hooked up to the cable in the wall. If it weren't, I wouldn't be receiving my cable TV, and I was. 0G down.

Hypothesis0 (Null hypothesis): It is not the cable company's fault.
---Hypothesis0A: My laptop has a problem.
---Hypothesis0B: My wireless network has a problem.
---Hypothesis0C: My router has a problem.
---Hypothesis0D: My router is not hooked into the cable modem.
---Hypothesis0E: The cable modem is unplugged.
---Hypothesis0F: The cable modem is not connected to the splitter.
---Hypothesis0G: The splitter's input is not hooked up to the cable output.

Hypothesis1: It's the cable company's fault.
---Hypothesis1A: The apartment connection was set up improperly.
---Hypothesis1B: The company's internet service was down for my region.
---Hypothesis1C: They provided me with faulty equipment.

Now that I did a thorough check, it's now much more reasonable to entertain the hypothesis that the cable company is at fault. Only after I addressed those known concerns do I call customer support. Thankfully, I got one who didn't blindly follow a script and listened to my description of the problem, and my troubleshooting efforts. He noted that no one else in the area complained about outages, so hypotheses 1A and 1B are down. He asks me for more information about how I have my television and modem set up: Wall cable -> Splitter -> Modem on the left, TV on the right. He proposes an experiment that will test two hypotheses, one of which I had not considered:

Hypothesis0H: The cable connection to the splitter's left output was loose, but not visibly so.
Hypothesis1C: The cable company provided me with faulty equipment. (Specifically, a splitter with a failing left output).

The experiment is simple: Unscrew both the TV and modem cables and switch their places, making sure they're tightly screwed on. If hypothesis 1C was correct, it predicted I would regain my internet connection but lose my good television signal. If hypothesis 0H was correct, it predicts I would have both working television and internet signals.

The result: I turn the TV on and get a clear signal. I refresh my laptop's browser and get my pages to load properly at a good speed. Hypothesis0H alone predicted this outcome. I was justified to suspect, but ultimately wrong to think the cable company was at fault. But I'm happy with the result. The problem was solved, and I learned that a loose cable connection can provide a poor internet signal instead of no signal at all. It's possible I ended up shifting or loosening the connection while sorting through all my game systems.

Conclusion: My internet outage was most likely due to a loose connection.

That's how science works. It doesn't matter if you started out right. You use science to become right. Because I went through all the trouble of eliminating the other problems, someone who knew more possibilities was able to arrive to the real answer much more quickly. I didn't waste his time, and thus I didn't waste any of mine.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Update: Texas: Still DOOMED

Here's part of the story. Hat Tip to PZ.

It's bad enough that we've got psuedoscientists and revisionist spin working their way into the textbooks. Texas has enough last place awards as it is.

ADDENDUM to the ADDENDUM: Poe's Law strikes. Of course, it wouldn't be subject to Poe's law if it didn't sound like a plausible quote. Texas is, after all, near the bottom in education.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Barking Up the Right Tree: No Sale

There's one thing that needs repeating for the sake of theists who ask why we're atheists, what proof do we have that their god doesn't exists, etcetera: Atheism isn't a belief in itself, it's a lack of belief. It is a negative belief.

Theism is a positive claim, the idea that something called a "god" has some form of existence and an effect on the world. The burden of proof lies on the person making the positive claim. It's the theist's job to sell their idea of god. We're atheists because we simply aren't buying it right now.

Imagine you answer the door, and find it's a salesman with a box covered in question marks. The first thing he does is ask you is for a good reason to not buy his product. That's what it's like to be an atheist.

1. Every theist has their own definition of "god." I don't keep a list of all of them. To put the exchange in other terms:

Theist: "What proof do you have that god doesn't exist?"
Atheist: "Which god?"

And even then, the answer isn't clear: Some Christians, for example, believe in a fire and brimstone god while other Christians believe in a peaceful, merciful god.

2. The burden of proof is on the 'salesman' to convince me his product is worthwhile, and to do that, he has to be able to define and demonstrate it to someone. I don't need to have a disproof. He needs to provide proof that his product works. Until I find a god who has predictable, repeatable effects on the universe, I'll simply file them all into the same drawer as other unproven entities like unicorns and psychic powers and do something more productive or entertaining with my life.

3. A lack of belief in something is supposed to be the default position in logic before evidence is presented. Theism has not earned this position due to its merits: From where I'm standing, theism is falsely elevated to the default assumption because of peer pressure, fashion, tradition, and other social pressures. I don't assume that those things automatically follow logic because I know human beings can rationalize just about any mistake they make with logical fallacies.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Very Silly Show

During a recent visit with my folks, my mother was watching a series called NCIS, which apparently was playing "follow the leader" with all the CSI series. I don't know how good the series as a whole is, since I only have a sample of two episodes to go by, and boy was this one a stinker. Funnily enough, it falls into a subject I have taken classes for: Remote Sensing.

So, story involves a guy who worked at radiology at the local hospital, and has security clearance for the radioactive materials involved. He gets shot, and the investigation team finds this odd residue on him. They dig in, and meet up with a US intelligence officer who tells them it's a chemical marker they use to track terrorists by satellite.


Somehow, these spy satellites can even identify which individual is being tracked.


And tracking is "spotty" indoors.

Only spotty?

And the satellites can track in real time on their monitors, which is how they track the guy (it turns out he wasn't a marked terrorist, just that a paranoid guy who designed the system was marking Americans he considered suspicious with a spray bottle.) when the terrorists who originally shot him steal his head to get past the retinal scanner to pick up the radioactive material.

Anyone who's paid the slightest bit of attention to middle school science should have some decent guesses with what's nonsense about this system.

1. The obvious one: Only geosynchronous satellites can "hover" over an area to monitor it, and outside of a certain zone, the view gets too tilted to be all that useful. Thus, you can't track something in real time by satellite unless you specifically put it in orbit in the general area ahead of time. That lack of mobility would severely limit the utility of a spy satellite.

2. How does the satellite sense the chemical? The chemical would need to generate or reflect some form of electromagnetic radiation. If it generated enough energy to be seen by satellite, it would eventually run out of chemical energy for doing so. And for a small spray of the stuff to be seen from orbit, it would need to generate a LOT of EMR. Additionally, it would have to emit this EMR at some frequency that stands out against all the background noise. Gamma/X-ray radiation? Would poison the terrorist and the people around him, and raise the chemical energy demands straight into nuclear reactions like radioactive decay. Ultraviolet? Would have trouble getting a clear signal out of the atmosphere, much less through the roof of a building. Visible light? Yeah, a glowing spot is going to be unnoticed. Near Infrared? How does the satellite tell the difference between that and plant life?
Middle infrared? Moisture. Far infrared? Would get lost in any heat source, not to mention it'd be a warm spot on the body. Microwaves or Radio waves? It would generate interference with other devices and be lost in the noise of those devices. You might as well start inventing Minovsky particles to explain it.

3. How does it tell one marked target from another, assuming you could get some magical signal? If it's just a chemical, I don't see how you could get it to emit a unique signature unless you tailor made each mixture for each target. Supposedly, you could get around that by telling the system "this spot is terrorist X, and this spot is terrorist Y." and it could track the spots as they change positions over time. But what if X and Y get close to each other? Then their "spots" would blend into one.

This nonsense goes off the deep end of "Big Brother" scenarios. They put a little token objection to the use of this sort of monitoring ability, but it comes across as half-hearted, even with the paranoid control freak, who decides to help them gain access to it to solve the case. This episode was just a wish fulfillment exercise, treating technology as if it were a magic tool that solves problems without any mental effort on the part of the humans. The computers do it all. The computers and satellites will catch the terrorists for us, and the only work we have to do is punch a few buttons instead of, you know, outsmart the people who avoid security for a living.

I'm glad my mother knew enough about science to be embarrassed by the show.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

You Know What's Bullshit?

I think to spite Gabriel, I'll try once again to get back to regular blogging. Since it broke his brain to find out that I don't fit any of the stereotypes seen on his sitcoms, I'm going to list a lot of stuff that I consider nonsense, and thought so for most of my adult life. He'll probably return to whine about my disbelief in some other sacred cow of his. So anyway, here goes the list, subject to updates...

Oh, wait. Fair warning: There's a little bit of mild language below the fold. Not a whole lot.

Acupuncture: Bullshit, but not just any bullshit. It's Maoist bullshit, for that double bullshitty taste.

Alien Spacecraft and Abductions: Why would some shitheads from another planet build causality-defying FTL engines and fly a ship all the way over here to investigate our shitholes?

Area 51: The alien story is bullshit. Probably an old air force testing base that may have turned into an illegal waste dump for the government to throw away its really nasty shit. After some officer goofed by denying the place existed, they used the bullshit alien story to bullshit the Communists into wasting intelligence resources investigating the shithouse. And some of their gullible shitheads probably fell for it.

Atlantis: Bullshit that got flushed down the toilet when no one was looking. In fact, they want you to take their word for it that it was ever there.

The Aurora Stealth Aircraft: Possibly bullshit, possibly a development code name for an existing, publicly known aircraft, or possibly a project that got canceled for being shittier than the other stealth aircraft.

Ayurveda: Bullshit, with a hint of arsenic and mercury.

Bigfoot: Bullshit so steamy, all attempts to photograph it end up coming out fuzzy and indistinct.

Communism: Bullshit that stinks so bad, you'll be made into an unperson by The Party if you point it out.

Creationism: The bullshit belief that nothingness randomly shitted out a perfect, complex, sentient god, who made the universe and somehow did a shitty job on designing our eyes, despite allegedly being perfect.

The Crocoduck: Textbook example of bullshit the Creationists should be looking for if they want to be taken seriously. I'm not holding my breath.

Distant Healing: Bullshit you can smell from miles away.

Dragons: Cool bullshit that's fun to pretend to slay with polyhedral dice, but despite Creationists attempts to argue otherwise, are completely bullshit in reality. Besides, dinosaurs are cooler because they were real. Even without the fire breath. We have the fossils. We win.

Fairies: Bullshit that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in because he didn't think it was possible that some girls could cut out pictures and pose for photographs. Therefore, he bullshitted, the fairies, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

Faith: The bullshit belief that you're an infallible god, thus you can't bullshit yourself, therefore you are right. Period.

The Flood: Bullshit story about a family who somehow rounded up all the animals of the world in a boat. When Flood believers were faced with the logistics of handing all the food and shit for so many animals on such a tiny boat, they made up a bullshit Super-Duper Evolution theory (but decided not to call it that because someone might call them on being inconsistent with their other bullshit) where the animals could super-mutate into multiple species overnight and somehow gain enough genetic diversity to make it look like nothing happened at all. Oh, and some bullshit about land plants being able to live underwater, and salt water magically knowing not to mix with fresh water so as to not kill all the fish.

Hitler, Adolph: Anti-Semite bullshitter Creationist who believed God commanded him to perform eugenics and burn books like The Origin of Species for not buying into his bullshit. Had a line about bullshitting so big, no one would believe someone could bullshit so big without evidence... Which turned out to be bullshit. Inspired by Martin Luther, a guy believed reason was evil because it gave people bullshit detectors, and you can't have that. Adolph entertained bullshit fantasies about joining the Catholic and Protestant churches together, trying to put his religious bullshit into school curricula and mandate state-led prayers in class.

Homeopathy: Bullshit that isn't watered down.

Iridology: You won't believe your eyes when you see this bullshit.

The Loch Ness monster: Bullshit that stinks so bad, you could make a profit from building a tourist trap around the spot where someone allegedly smelled it.

Lysenkoism: Bullshit with Joseph Stalin and Sarah Palin's seals of approval, so you know it's quality bullshit.

McCarthy, Joseph: Bullshitting witch hunter who was inspired by Stalin to save America from Stalin by trying and failing to turn America into an authoritarian Christian Communist State. Got publicly called out on his incompetent, illegal authoritarian bullshit and lost all support. Now, Texas is trying to bullshit us into thinking he's a hero.

Nationalism: Bullshit pretending to be patriotism. Nationalists are happy to let their country go down the toilet and still call it the greatest on Earth and throw feces at anyone who dares to suggest the country isn't as great as it used to be. Patriots actually care enough about their country to get their shit together and work to make their country great.

O'Reilly, Bill: Bullshitter who doesn't know what causes the tides. No, I'm not shitting you. He really doesn't.

Psychics: Bullshitters who often don't realize they're bullshitting you with cold reading and similar shit like that. A bunch of real gullible shitheads in America tried training soldiers in their techniques because the Communists fell for this bullshit, and you just know Communist science can't be bullshit.

Race: Quite often a bullshit excuse self-entitled lazy high school dropouts (it doesn't matter what race they are) use to feel better about themselves for not doing anything and blame The Other for their inability to get a job or an education. Also, with hopefully increasing rarity, a bullshit excuse an employer uses to give special privileges to a high school dropout who looks like his phenotype instead of hiring the guy who can actually do a full day's work to actually earn a full day's pay. Doubly bullshit since blood groups are probably a much better indicator of race than skin color.

Reflexology: Bullshit, freshly stepped in.

Reiki: Bullshit that's not touching you! It's not touching you!

Theraputic Touch: Bullshit that rubs on smooth.


This is easily the most profane post I have ever written. Want to add your own?