Archive for category Technology

“Kills trees” is the new “causes cancer”

(Edit: Angry Mob has a good post on this subject)

The Daily Mail has a doozy of a headline today: Is wi-fi radiation killing off trees? Study blames computer signals for dying leaves.

As if our magnificent trees didn’t have enough problems, they’re now being threatened by our emails.

When they’re not being assailed by some foreign bug or moth, there’s often a council official looking for an excuse to cut them down.

Now researchers say radiation from wi-fi networks that enable our burgeoning online communications may be their latest enemy.

Damn those foreign bugs and those council officials and those emails threatening our magnificent trees!

The study is – of course – unpublished, and the press release is so far only available in Dutch. The gist of it, according to the Dutch Antenna Agency (via Google Translate), is that researchers grew various plants in a climate controlled room. Of these, ash trees appeared to have brittle, discoloured leaves if grown close to a wireless access point – by close, we’re talking on the order of 50 cm, and maize and thale cress seemed to have delayed flowering. However, since the experiment is unpublished (indeed, it won’t even be presented to a conference until February of next year), all we have to go on is the press release. We don’t know how the experiment was controlled – after all, all the symptoms could have been disease or dehydration – there’s no mention in the press release of control groups, and we can’t know how statistically significant this result is.

The Antenna Agency also mentions previous studies showing that wi-fi had no effect on the growth of beech and spruce trees, and paraphrases the researcher thus:

He warns strongly that there are no far-reaching conclusions from its results. Based on the information now available can not be concluded that the WiFi radio signals leads to damage to trees or other plants

So in other words, this study (which has not yet been published) may make some interesting observations, but it most certainly does not blame wi-fi for killing trees. Oh well, Daily Mail, it’s just that the lead headline in your science section is completely wrong and will scare people unnecessarily, it’s not like that’s a big deal or anything.



Churnalism? There’s an app for that

The DNS servers seem to have made a terrible mistake today, and accidentally swapped the Daily Mail‘s site with that of the Apple app store. How else am I to explain the fact that today’s main science story is “Ugly Meter: The 59p iPhone app that tells you how good-looking (or not) you are“? There’s not really a lot to the story. Our intrepid friend “Daily Mail Reporter” downloaded the app and then input the faces of various celebrities into it, just to make sure we know “scientifically” who the most attractive X Factor judge is and what insults the app decided to throw at Christina Hendricks (according to the program, the ugliest person who has ever lived).

It should be reasonably obvious that attractiveness, being an extremely subjective quantity, cannot be measured by holding an iPhone up to an old back issue of the Mail, and that the app has all the scientific value of mobile phone X-rays and nude scanners (both links go to Youtube videos). In case you didn’t guess, the app simply generates a random number and then throws an insult at you. In other words Daily Mail Reporter didn’t even double check their results; they just found an old showbiz magazine, took some photos of it with a 59p program running on their phone, wrote some sneering copy about Brat Pitt, David Cameron and Christina Hendricks (because what articles these days would be complete without a Mad Men reference), clapped their hands and clicked “Publish” with the glowing satisifaction of a job well done.

That’s what journalism has become. iPhone apps and Mad Men. Good job, world, good job.



Express says dealing with complaints “a waste of money”

The Daily Express finds it risible that the BBC  has a guide telling staff how to deal with complaints. Actually, it’s not the BBC at all, but an entirely independent company subcontracted to run a call centre for TV Licensing, but apparently they’re basically the same thing so whatever. It’s not really a guide to dealing with complaints either, but a general guide for call centre staff, which mentions complaints among the many things they may have to deal with.

Anyway, a guide for dealing with complaints! How bizarre! Of course, we all know the Daily Express never has to deal with complaints ever, so they’re entirely justified attacking the BBC about this.

The Daily Express claims that “Much of the advice in the 964-page book appears to state the blindingly obvious – including warning staff that the words “idiots”, “shambles” or “useless” may mean people are unhappy.”

Well, you can read the book online (warning, massive page) at What Do They Know? (a site which collects Freedom of Information requests) and in fact, much of the advice in the book explains the finer legal points of TV licences – how diplomatic immunity affects TV licensing, for instance* – and a good chunk more of it explains the codes used on the call centre’s various computer systems. Only two pages – 238 and 239 – explain how to recognise a complaint, and do so only for the sake of bookkeeping , so the call centre staff know whether or not they should log a call as a complaint or just a combatively worded question.

The Express also claims “It also includes prepared answers to regular objections to programmes considered offensive“, which since this is a TV Licensing call centre guide, not the BBC complaints department one, seems a bit odd. In fact, there is only a single mention in the whole book of offensive programming: the hypothetical complaint “The BBC is producing poor programmes, some are offensive. I am only going to pay a proportion of the fee“**. Still, never content with attacking the BBC on one front, the Express can’t resist going for the old “The BBC is offensive and out of touch” comment too.

The closest article comes to actual analysis is another churned out comment from Martin Sinclair of the TaxPayers’ Alliance (of course the TaxPayers’ Alliance commented):

There probably are lots of complaints about the unfair and expensive licence fee but ordinary families would expect that staff can identify an obvious complaint without lengthy guidance and training, at more cost. There might be fewer complaints if the BBC kept costs under control.

I wonder if the TaxPayers’ Alliance was aware that the Daily Express had completely misrepresented the nature of the guide when they churned out that comment? Or that the advice, covering a single sheet of paper in a very large typeface, was hardly lengthy nor costly? Or that the document was actually produced by the outsourcing company Capita, not the BBC itself? Perhaps the TaxPayers’ Alliance has found the key to “keeping costs under control” – don’t waste money looking into a story before shooting your mouth off about it.

* Diplomats are expected to pay the TV licence but if they refuse, or an embassy has unlicensed televisions on its premises, TV Licensing are powerless to do anything about it.

** The suggested reply by the way is masterfully tactful:

The licence fee is not payment for BBC services, it is payment for a legal permission to install and use a television receiver. The full fee prescribed in law is payable regardless of which channels are viewed. We (and the BBC) are not allowed by law to accept any payment other than the prescribed fee for a licence. The BBC do wish to know the views of the public and these can be made to BBC Information, PO Box 1922, Glasgow, G2 3WT.



Antisocial Networking

The latest Daily Mail Facebook Scare TM claims that “Using Facebook ‘can lower exam results by up to 20%’“.

In fact, a study found a correlation between Facebook use and lower grade-point average. This doesn’t mean that using Facebook lowers your exam results. As the article itself later admits:

Those who did not use the site also said they devoted more time to studying, spending an average of 88 per cent longer working outside class.

The correlation implies causation fallacy is one of the best known, and this article is a textbook example. The students who work hardest are less likely to have Facebook profiles, for any number of reasons, but that doesn’t mean Facebook played any role in actually lowering students’ scores.

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39.34 metres per second, Marty!

This cat is a time traveller. From Wildstray on Flickr. CC by-nc-nd 2.0

Finally, after nearly two months, I get to write a post on my actual subject of study: physics!

The Telegraph today gives us the startling headline “Quantum time machine ‘allows paradox-free time travel’“. There were precisely two pictures that could have illustrated this article: the TARDIS and the Delorean. This time, the article is headed with a still of Doc Brown and Marty McFly climbing into their car.

The “time machine” described effectively allows you mess with quantum probabilities, choosing or “postselecting” the history you want to have happened by making it as likely as possible.

Now I’m torn on this one. On the one hand, the article is about a complicated topic which is hard to explain in layman’s terms, and they have tried to find academics to help analyse it and the central point of the paper – that quantum postselection won’t let you kill your granddad (or indeed become him) – still stands clear. On the other hand, the article is so sensationalist that the actual science behind it is a little lost behind all the “Whoosh! Back to the Future!”. Let’s go through the article point by point.

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Hooked on Phono


There’s a story I’ve tracking for a few days now, hoping and praying it would make it to the British press, and today, it finally has. I-Dosing is, supposedly, a way of inducing a mental high from listening to sound files, and my if it doesn’t have the tabloids up in arms – or at least The Sun and The Daily Mail.

They put on their headphones, drape a hood over their head and drift off into the world of ‘digital highs’.

Videos posted on YouTube show a young girl freaking out and leaping up in fear, a teenager shaking violently and a young boy in extreme distress.

This is the world of ‘i-Dosing’, the new craze sweeping the internet in which teenagers used so-called ‘digital drugs’ to change their brains in the same way as real-life narcotics.

Quick! Someone build a time machine and fly back to 1995! Film of the year right there. I mean, it’d be better than Hackers at any rate.

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Books! Books! Bullshit!

Johannes Gutenberg downloads the Bible to his prototype Kindle.

Johannes Gutenberg downloads the Bible to his prototype Kindle.

Literature totally counts as science, right? Anyway.

E-book sales outstripping real books for first time, claims Amazon

Really? Really? Bear in mind that there are 3 million E-reader users in all of the USA, and probably fewer than 5 million in the entire world. If this was true, E-reader owners must be reading – or at least buying – hundreds of books a day just to keep up with their more traditional counterparts.

E-book sales have in fact simply outstripped hardback book sales on Hardback books do not make up anywhere near the bulk of book sales by volume, which is what the numbers in the article are based on. Hardback is a prestige format used mostly for books that are likely to win awards, sell extremely well on release, or can be sold to a captive market (*cough*massively overpriced physics textbooks*cough*). It’s also big – i.e., annoying to order online. Paperbacks can be mass produced and stored far more cheaply, and are much more convenient for carrying, which is why they sell by the hundred-thousand, especially at airports and railway stations.

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1 person = 2.5 million people. 6 fans = 1.6 million fans.

One quick post before I go to London for the weekend.

Today’s Daily Mail carries the story “More than 2.5m Muslims threaten to leave Facebook after four Islamic pages are taken down“. Really? 2.5 million Facebook users all co-ordinated as one? Bearing in mind how long it took for the Guinness World Record group to reach 1,000,000 users, 2.5 million users all coming together in a few days to demand anything seems a bit unlikely.

So have 2.5 million Muslims demanded anything? Well, no. Four pages were closed for spamming. Then someone – presumably an admin of one of the groups – sent another spam message across Facebook claiming to represent 2.5 million Muslims, all of whom were so incensed by the deletion that have threatened to move to (a fundamentist Muslim social networking site). Quite where this figure comes from isn’t clear in the Daily Mail report. There aren’t 2.5 million Muslims threatening to leave Facebook, there is one. Fox News claims that this is the sum of the number of fans the pages had… except that that’s just as big a lie. For instance, they take at face value the claim the deleted page (now deleted, obviously) had 1.6 million fans, making up the bulk of this 2.5 million. In fact a quick peek into Google’s cache shows it had 6 fans. Glad to see hard-hitting investigative journalism isn’t dead.

Basic maths: 6 < 1,600,000

So the net result of all this is that an obscure social networking site got some free advertising, Facebook got a chance to act tough (this story comes the day after they announced the Paedophile Panic Button, after all), and the Daily Mail and Fox News get yet another chance to portray social networks as an ill thought out flash in the pan, and all Muslims as an unthinking hivemind who complain whenever they don’t get their way (the right wing press’s favourite representation of any oppressed minority). Good job.

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