Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Cryptic Codes

From the development of language and communication there has been the need to restrict those who receive this information from those you would choose not to share it with. This was the beginnings of encryption, a method of disguising the information, so that only you and the desired recipient knows what it written. Many ingenious methods have been employed, some for the purposes of war and others used to scam or to just confuse.  This week’s New Scientist explores “Unbreakable” 1; a set of articles discussing unbroken codes and ciphers. It is a fascinating look at a variety of codes which have remained unbroken, even in the face of sophisticated analytical software and computer algorithms designed to break the most complex ciphers. One of the most famous code machines, the Enigma machine still has many codes which have remained unbroken, the article discusses how the codes are created and how modern code breakers that are taking on the challenge in the hope of finally decoding them. More disturbing is the still undeciphered message left by a serial killer during the 1960’s who became known as the ‘Zodiac killer’ 2, where even modern attempts to decode the messages have failed.  What is fascinating is that these codes have grabbed the imagination of people through out the generations and the ingenuity of the creators has inspired many more people to follow in their footsteps, both in designing new codes and in developing ways to crack them, this has lead to a competitive one-upmanship, in so doing leading to safer encryption for online communications and maintaining personal privacy.

The book Codes, Ciphers, Secrets and Cryptic Communication 3 is a wonderful read for anyone interested in codes and ciphers. It discusses the history of early attempts at encryption and examines how these have evolved over time and to cope with different challenged from advancing decryption methods. It explored a variety of different unbroken codes and why they have been so successful, as well as why many are likely to simply be fakes because there structure is consistent with that of nonsense. It is a wonderful book, written in a lively style and with plenty of explanations and examples. The reader gains a firm understanding how the different types of encryption work and can have a go at designing their own coded messages.

1 http://www.newscientist.com/special/unbreakable-codes
2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zodiac_Killer
3 http://www.amazon.com/Codes-Ciphers-Secrets-Cryptic-Communication/dp/1579124852/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1306779591&sr=8-6

E Markham (2011). Cryptic Codes Blogspot

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Rapture Recalled

Recently yet another ‘End of the World’ prediction has been taking over the media and internet, this time in the form of Harold Camping, an evangelical broadcaster who used a ‘mathematical equation’ to determine the end of the world. Apparently the equation goes a little like this:
“Camping dated the Great Flood to 4990 BC. Taking the prediction in Genesis 7:4 ("Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth") to be a prediction of the end of the world, and combining it with 2 Peter 3:8 ("With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day"), Camping concludes that the end of the world will occur in 2011, 7000 years from 4990 BC. Camping takes the 17th day of the second month mentioned in Genesis 7:11 to be the 21st of May, and hence predicts the rapture to occur on this date.
Another argument that Camping uses in favor of the May 21st date is as follows:
According to Camping, the number five equals "atonement", the number ten equals "completeness", and the number seventeen equals "heaven".
Christ is said to have hung on the cross on April 1, 33 AD. The time between April 1, 33 AD and April 1, 2011 is 1,978 years.
If 1,978 is multiplied by 365.2422 days (the number of days in a solar year, not to be confused with the lunar year), the result is 722,449.
The time between April 1 and May 21 is 51 days.
51 added to 722,449 is 722,500.
(5 × 10 × 17)2 or (atonement × completeness × heaven)2 also equals 722,500.
Thus, Camping concludes that 5 × 10 × 17 is telling us a "story from the time Christ made payment for our sins until we're completely saved."
In Camping's 1992 self-published book 1994? He predicted that the End Times would come in September 1994 (variously reported as September 4 or September 6). When the Rapture failed to occur on the appointed day, Camping said he had made a MATHEMATICAL ERROR.” 1.

What is surprising is that so many people believe Camper, and are willing to over look that fact that he already made predictions in the past which did not come to pass, so why should he be right now? Apparently 41% of American’s believe that rapture will occur before 2050 2. I find this hard to believe because only 76% of the population identifies themselves as Christian 3, and of those it would be fair to assume that most are quite rational and don’t hold extreme beliefs. Also, who is to say that the numbers he has chosen are the correct numbers? Clearly they are quite arbitrary and so anyone could look at the bible and get some numbers that seem to be suggesting something, carry out an equation and come up with a different day of judgment 4. So why is it that recently there has been a plethora of apocalypse predictions? Everything from the Mayan calendar to solar flares changing the magnetic poles of the earth, but in fact this is nothing new. During all of human history there have always been predictions of death and destruction 5, and sometimes these predictions coincided with natural disasters and achieved credibility. Unfortunately, predictions like this are not harmless, they often have unseen consequences, like many people euthanizing their pets before the event or committing suicide because it did not occur 6.  But surely in the 21 century, with all the science and technology available to us, we should no longer need these primitive prophecies in order to explain the world around us. Would it not be better to see the world as it truly is rather than hide behind some illogical explanation?

E Markham (2011). Rapture Recalled Blogspot

Monday, 23 May 2011

Misleading Magnetism

Recently a 6 year old boy called Ivan Stojiljkovic from Koprivnica, Croatia is being hailed as “Magnet Boy”, because apparently metal objects can stick to him. This story has been picked up by a variety of news providers including CBS 1 Reuters 2 and The Daily Mail 3. The same images and information are used by almost every version of this story, and it did initially look impressive. 
However, the claims made are illogical at best. Firstly, many of the objects he is seen being magnetized to are non magnetic. Secondly, apparently he can only magnetize objects if they are in direct contact with his skin, but that doesn’t make sense, because magnets are able to be attracted to metal even if there is thin cloth or paper in the way (and one would assume that this ‘magnetism’ was already traveling through his skin, so it shouldn’t make any difference if he wore a shirt). Thirdly, when looking up this story on the JREF website 4, it outlines how this effect has been repeated by many people due to the natural oils in the skin building up and becoming sticky if a person sweats and goes without washing for a while. The ‘magnetism’ effect can be cured by the application of talcum powder to the skin.
E Markham (2011). Misleading magnetism Blogspot

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Climate Criticism

Global warming is a complex issue, because there is no one single cause to blame. Many different events combine to influence the global temperature and so early attempts to explain the causes and what we should do to combat it have often been over simplistic. However, recent articles like “NASA gets caught faking climate change data again”1 are not helpful. They simply make out that the government is trying to deceive everyone and hide mistakes. Predicting future climate change and modeling it is a very complex job and unfortunately it is not always accurate, that is why it is a prediction not fact. Scientists at NASA use advanced algorithms in order to model climate changes based on past climate data. However, many other factors need to be taken in to account; solar activity, release of other green house causing gases and ozone damaging substances (venting refrigerants, aerosol use), levels of smog and volcanic eruptions. With so many variables, many of which are just unpredictable or erratic, how can it be constructive to criticize attempts at such difficult predictions with comments like “The climate change hoaxers use computer models to predict that sea levels would rise… But Mother Nature was never good at computer science”. Of course there will always be people who are skeptical about climate change, and a minority of people promoting conspiracy theories about it, but their uninformed opinions should not be given a voice in the media where is can masquerade as fact. There are regulating bodies and peer review systems in place to check the validity of scientific claims, if someone feels strongly that a mistake in the data has been made then they could contact the journal and original author in order for the relevant changes to be made and published, not write alarmist attacking articles in order for their voice to be heard. One thing is clear, action needs to be taken.
E Markham (2011). Climate Criticism Blogspot

Monday, 16 May 2011

Symbolic Stupidity

Everyone feels an importance to have their voice heard, but increasingly the way this is achieved is through opinion polls and online petitions rather than actual actions. These online petitions do make it easy for many people to feel that their opinion will make a difference, however if anything, they make opinion less significant. There are so many websites that will take your information, but what will they do with it? How will they achieve there goal? Obviously putting pressure on governments who are creating and changing laws, which will directly affect many people’s lives is important, but what difference will sending the government an email, which will be filtered and have an automated reply achieve? If someone really cared that much and really wanted to have their opinion heard why not protest or go out and physically do something?

Recently social websites and personal emails have become inundated with requests to sign petitions to stop the proposed anti-gay changes that are occurring in Uganda. Dozens of websites have taken this cause on and are giving it their support, many offer you a letter outline which you then sign and send to the government officials.1, 2. But thinking logically, why would the government respond to this? Especially an African government in which the email address is likely to simply be set-up to receive this kind of petition, and is not actually causing any inconvenience or even be received by the staff within the government itself. People should not ignore this violation in human rights because your email won’t make a difference, however contacting the United Nations or Amnesty International, which are both large organizations which have the power to make governments take action or impose trade sanctions etc is likely to be far more effective. Is it simply because online petitions are easy and fast, giving you an instant feel good factor, rather than something that involves a lot more time and effort in order to achieve actual change. Other problems with online petitions is there is no guarantee that it will get to the correct person, and then this needs to be someone who can actual make the change demanded for. In the Ugandan situation, it is unlikely there will be anyone within the government or top political party that the petition will actual be sent to or have any effect on at all, an email is simply a message that can be deleted with a click, it is not inconvenient to the life of the person reading it or the government as a whole, and is highly unlikely to change their current opinion. Just because lots of people are angry about the same thing does not mean that complex problems will be solved just because they all send one email.

Furthermore, online petitions can easily be forged and so are essentially useless. It is fine if the signee just wants to vent frustration, but expecting actual social change to come about just because they added their name to an online list is unrealistic. This is a form of Slacktivism -which is the feel good result from supporting an issue without actually having to physically do anything.3 This not only includes online petitions but joining Facebook groups and the wearing of awareness ribbons and bracelets. The rationalists Penn and Teller have a show called Bullsh*t, which addresses the futility of the pink ribbon campaign in the episode entitled Breast Hysteria, they discuss the way companies actually use breast cancer to sell things and to target buyers, the money raised is often used to underwrite the costs of events or just raise awareness, and is not used in a coordinated way in order to actually focus money towards one goal, like research, which will in the long run be the only way to really improve the treatment and detection of cancer. Why then does it have so much support and publicity? Because people can use the fact they wear a pink ribbon or have joined a Facebook group as a way to show the people around them that they care about a certain cause.

Of course the wearing of symbols can be motivated by a variety of factors including social and political reasons, for example the presidential candidates are expected to wear patriotic pins, and this is being used as a symbol, which in no way reflects or is proportional to how patriotic that person actually feels. The same can be seen in the seasonal wearing of poppies in the United Kingdom and Canada during the run up to Remembrance day (Nov 11), which is seen as a patriotic act, a recognition of the lives given during the war and the money raised is supports the troops and their families, but why should people be made to feel guilty if they do not wear a poppy even though they may feel very strongly towards the cause? Why should we want to publicly show we support a cause? Could it be because we want to be congratulated on it and to show we are a moral person, and so gain social standing and acquire friends and relationships with people who also care about the same things. So the motivation for wearing a symbol or being seen to support a cause is very different from actually helping the cause itself. Of course every action a person takes in life has a motivation; otherwise no one would do it, because in some way that action needs to be beneficial to that person, true altruism does not exist. Maybe this can explain why online petitions are so prevalent, it is because we want to be seen to be supporting moral causes and supporting social change, when in fact we really don’t want to invest very much effort in to bringing about the desired changes.
1 http://www.avaaz.org/en
2 http://www.allout.org/
3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slacktivism
E Markham (2011). Symbolic Stupidity Blogspot