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January 8, 2014 | 19 Comments

Do Dogs Poop In Alignment With The Earth’s Magnetic Field?

Ready, aim, fire.
Ready, aim, fire.
The scientific life is not as glamorous as its propaganda would have you believe. It isn’t all jetting from luxury hotel to tropical island conference to plan the next round of grants (which include line-item funding for travels). No, sir. Some of it is hard work.

Like following dogs around and watching them poop. As did Vlastimil Hart and a slew of others, publishing their results in “Frontiers in Zoology” (pdf).

Hart figured that because birds do it and bees do it—even educated plebes do it—that dogs ought to do it, too. That is, make use of the earth’s magnetic field. Plebes learn to work a compass at the academy, and our canine pals surely “work the lines” when making deposits.

So, plastic baggies and scoopers in hand, Hart and friends set off behind 70 dogs of varying breeds and took pictures of their body postures (as above) when they released. Results? “Dogs preferred to excrete with the body being aligned along the North—south axis under calm [magnetic field] conditions.”

What fun if it were true! You’d no longer need fear being lost in the woods miles from your GPS, batteries, or sextants. Just bring along Sparky and when the tree you just passed looks just like the one you passed ten minutes ago, you command “Make!” and voilà!, you’re out of the woods. As long as the magnetic field is calm.

Conversely, you don’t need fancy expensive equipment to measure the hystericity (my own term for the level of anti-calmness) of the magnetic field. Just trot out Roofy and have him go. If he ends up facing east, or his end ends at west, then you know a storms a brewin’, electromagnetically speaking.

Alas, the results do not appear true. The paper is very shoddily written. It contains few details of how the dogs were measured, like how they handled departures from perfectly straight backs (especially when peeing), or how they accounted for the error in measuring the dog pointed in this or that direction, and so on. They used hand-held compasses. The study was therefore not blinded. They were vague to the point of opacity about the difference in the magnetic field’s intensity, inclination, and declination, especially its local variations. They used the Kp-index to ascertain magnetic calmness, but this is a global and not local scale. There are numerous typos (which are no strangers to this blog, but rare in professional journals).

Each dot is a dog?
Each dot is a dog?
Then there were problems with the dogs. What in the world happened with “M07”, a 40-kilogram 4-year-old male Borzoi, who during the course of this most scientific study peed 2,478 times? Why, “M63”, a 25-kg 5-year-old Husky-Australian Shepherd mix, didn’t pee at all—though he pooped 46 times. The average looks to be (I did this by eye) around 50, um, efforts. All the authors said about this was that, sometimes, M07 was “analyzed separately”.

And then the analysis itself is a hodgepodge. The picture with blue dots is part of their main story. Each dot is some kind of pooling across dogs pooping (by averaging?). This one was from the time period “20:01 – 8:00”, i.e. eight at night to eight in the morning. It was plotted once for all periods and once for “quiet [magnetic field]” periods.

Now if all the dots were in line, it would show dogs have a preference for which direction they point when unloading. The dots are not in line, not here nor in any of their other plots. Further, there is no consistency in the dots for time periods or other breakdowns. There is enormous variation in pointing directions.

So how did they come to their conclusion? How did they have the guts to write, “Our findings open new horizons in magnetoreception research”? Lots of statistics (on mean directions; this and that classical hypothesis tests). Which gave them wee p-values. What else?

The study was picked up in the press, uncritically as all scientific studies which have nothing to do with politics are. “The new findings have important implications in our understanding of magnetoreception in mammals.” Sure there are. Hey, if it was done by scientists using the scientific method, it must be right, right?

The danger in these studies is that they plant anchoring biases, to lapse into the jargon. You might never have before thought of your dog pooping in alignment with the magnetic field, but after hearing scientists said they do and thinking on it for more than a moment, you will henceforth have the suspicion that Oscar knows which way is north. A harmless belief, surely. No, the real damage is the strengthening of the belief that science can do anything.


Thanks to Rexx Shelton and Willie Soon for bringing this study to our attention.

January 7, 2014 | 23 Comments

The Closing Of The Scientific Mind

Brother in arms David Gelernter
The title was swiped from Commentary Magazine’s piece of the same name by David Gelernter, which all should read. Since today is a busy day at the Briggs Ranch, just a few words of comment.

[T]he chaos was on display in the ugliness occasioned by the publication of Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos in 2012…He explains why Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the emergence of consciousness—the capacity to feel or experience the world. He then offers his own ideas on consciousness, which are speculative, incomplete, tentative, and provocative—in the tradition of science and philosophy.

Nagel was immediately set on and (symbolically) beaten to death by all the leading punks, bullies, and hangers-on of the philosophical underworld. Attacking Darwin is the sin against the Holy Ghost that pious scientists are taught never to forgive. Even worse, Nagel is an atheist unwilling to express sufficient hatred of religion to satisfy other atheists.

The usual spittle-flecked, forehead-vein-bulging, religion-is-child-abuse-chanting, Utopia-or-bust, barking mad, snot-nosed suspects. Dawkins, Dennet, etc. Best take on this brouhaha is by Ed Feser.

The Kurzweil Cult teaches that, given the strong and ever-increasing pace of technological progress and change, a fateful crossover point is approaching. He calls this point the “singularity.” After the year 2045 (mark your calendars!), machine intelligence will dominate human intelligence to the extent that men will no longer understand machines any more than potato chips understand mathematical topology.

Yes, Kurzweil borrowed the “singularity” from science fiction writer and mathematician Vernor Vinge. And, yes, it’s always a dangerous thing to say “It won’t happen” with matters of technology. But, and I say this without any humility, it won’t happen. There will be no singularity.

There will be artificial limbs and ever-sophisticated electronified prostheses, but since what makes us us isn’t ultimately material, we won’t be uploading our minds to machines. Immortality of sort Kurzweil preaches isn’t just unlikely, it’s impossible.

Searle writes, “the subjectivist ontology of the mental seems intolerable.” That is, your states of mind (your desire for adventure, your fear of icebergs, the ship you imagine, the girl you recall) exist only subjectively, within your mind, and they can be examined and evaluated by you alone. They do not exist objectively. They are strictly internal to your own mind. And yet they do exist. This is intolerable!

It still astonishes that there exists a small cadre of bizarro scientists who are keen on telling us that they, the scientists, don’t really exist. And that if we would only believe that they don’t exist, then the world would be a better place. Oh, they also assure us we don’t exist, either. In place of our existence are mindless meat machines. Subjectivity, they say, is only an “illusion.” Who is there to suffer the illusion is, of course, never explained.

The dominant, mainstream view of mind nowadays among philosophers and many scientists is computationalism, also known as cognitivism. This view is inspired by the idea that minds are to brains as software is to computers.

Our minds are not software running in brains. A mind is self-aware. Software doesn’t understand what it does, it just does. Software can’t look at itself and say, “Hey! I’m software. What do you know.” Software—lines of computer code, no matter how long—can’t feel pain, love, envy, hate, pleasure. It can’t feel anything. Gelernter goes into much greater detail.

That science should face crises in the early 21st century is inevitable. Power corrupts, and science today is the Catholic Church around the start of the 16th century: used to having its own way and dealing with heretics by excommunication, not argument.

In apology for the Church—first noting that metaphysics is not physics and religion not politics—it only excommunicates those who are provably, assuredly wrong. Scientists slaughter any who won’t toe the political line, pace:

Science is caught up, also, in the same educational breakdown that has brought so many other proud fields low. Science needs reasoned argument and constant skepticism and open-mindedness. But our leading universities have dedicated themselves to stamping them out—at least in all political areas. We routinely provide superb technical educations in science, mathematics, and technology to brilliant undergraduates and doctoral students. But if those same students have been taught since kindergarten that you are not permitted to question the doctrine of man-made global warming, or the line that men and women are interchangeable, or the multiculturalist idea that all cultures and nations are equally good (except for Western nations and cultures, which are worse), how will they ever become reasonable, skeptical scientists? They’ve been reared on the idea that questioning official doctrine is wrong, gauche, just unacceptable in polite society. (And if you are president of Harvard, it can get you fired.)


Update This is tangentially related. Swap out “global warming” for any number of “scientific” problems and the truth remains.

January 6, 2014 | 39 Comments

On Defeating The NSA: Privacy In A Time Of Government Overreach

We’re spying on you for your own good.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

We may be nearing the anticipated and dreaded point where our government cares more about its perpetuation than in its original and limited charge. Nowhere is this more evident than in the actions of the National Security Agency which is and has and will continue to engage in wholesale, warrantless spying on citizens.

The bad news is that the courts, being part of government, have generally sided with the other branches of government and against the plain meaning of the Constitution and have declared this spying “lawful”. The bulk of the people also support this spying, having ever on their lips the cry But what about the children!

NSA statement does not deny spying on members of Congress.

Any state with a government strong enough to vote itself more powers will eventually turn tyrannical. It will call its tyranny benevolence: our Big Brother. The innocent don’t fret because they feel that they have nothing to fear, nothing to hide. But they forget that in a tyranny everybody is guilty.

The government has infinite resources compared to the citizen; nevertheless, there are some things the citizen can do to slow (probably not stop) the growth of Leviathan. One of these is frustrating the NSA. Here is how.

I don’t assume much knowledge on the part of readers. This is only a rough guide. After people comment, I’ll expand the list. A communication means any electronic method of information transfer, such as emails, phone calls, chat, text messages and the like.

Code is not cipher

If I tell you “The duck backed the third horse” and you understand that to mean “I’ll be over for a beer at six”, then we have communicated in code. If instead I use some system to transform the same message into a string of characters like “FJI88PODJH…” and you use the same system to turn them back into English, then we are speaking in cipher.

Most of your emails and other communications are encrypted, which means you’re talking in cipher. For example, look for an “https” on the address bar of the web email service you use; the “s” at the end means secure. Not that secure, though. The systems that encrypt your communications are not always sophisticated and the NSA can break them; i.e. the NSA can and does read emails and listens to phone calls. They are also building ever-sophisticated computers to do this spying more efficiently.

Most ciphers can be broken, but many codes cannot. Codes confuse and obfuscate. For example, if I were to put in a Gmail the code “Eagle 27”, the NSA will be able to break the cipher and read it but it will not understand what I meant—unless I were silly enough to put in another communication (email or phone) what “Eagle 27” meant. Obviously, never do this.

What can you do? Start by putting nonsensical code into your communications. End emails and calls with phrases like “Dogpatch running on the water” etc. The NSA will never know this code is nonsense. More importantly, the statistical algorithms which necessarily must sift through the billions of daily communications will not know what to do. This adds only a small annoyance to the government’s burden, but every little bit helps. If you really have something secret to communicate and even if you’re using cipher, do as much as possible in code. Best to use code which mimics typical spam keywords.

One-time pads

There is one and only one method of encryption that the NSA cannot break. This is the “one-time pad”. In essence, each bit or character in a communication is separately encrypted. This code is mathematically impossible to crack, even with quantum computers. So why doesn’t everybody use one-time pads? Two difficulties.

The biggest is “key sharing”, i.e. the swapping of information that allows the encryption and decryption of messages. In one-time pads, the keys must be shared in person. They cannot go out over communication channels. If they do, then the NSA will know what the keys are and be able to decrypt your communications. Thus before you and I can communicate, we must first meet. And after we meet, after we communicate, the key must be eradicated from all memory forever, which is not always easy to do with many computer storage systems. These are burdens with infinite return, however.

The second is in “key generation.” The key must be truly “random”, which is to say unpredictable. This is certainly possible, such as in quantum mechanical systems, but it’s (as they say) not as easy as it looks. If there is any, even the merest scrap, of regularity in the key then the jig is up. Laptops or phones used to generate keys probably won’t work.

A third, really now trivial difficulty given the size and speed of computation, is in key reuse. If the key is ever reused, NSA can break the cipher.

What can you do? I’m trying to get my number two son interested in developing a system like this for smart-phone emails, but he thinks his old man is nuts. However, I believe I’ve heard of others who market one-time pads. Use them.


SIGINT is signals intelligence. This is the “meta-information” you’ve heard about. With phone calls, this is where the NSA collects who you called, how long the call lasted, where you were and where the person you called was when the call was made, what day and time you made the call, etc. And when the NSA adds who else you called with who else the person you called has called and so on, the NSA has a fairly complete picture of who you are and what you are up to even without listening in on the calls.

However, it’s worse than just this. Your cell phone tracks wherever you go and when you go there. The government thus knows what you’re up to even if you don’t make a call. In some cases it can do this even when the cell phone is “off.” The same SIGINT goes for emails and other communications, such as purchases and searches on the Internet. It’s easy to tell a good story about you even without the actual content of your communications.

What can you do? Stop carrying your cell phone everywhere. If you’re really nervous, remove the SIM card when not using the device. Occasionally borrow somebody else’s phone or account to make calls or email, even if you have your phone or account handy. The idea is to add noise to the system. Change your anonymous email account if occasionally; or create junk ones. Use anonymizers when searching. Do not tell any social media site your birth date. Avoid calling or emailing when you can meet in person. Use landlines when possible, as long as these are not Internet lines. If you have an entity with which you regularly communicate, keep the channel between you continuously open (as on the Internet). The NSA will only with great difficulty pinpoint at which times actual content is being passed.


In our case, this means fooling the NSA into thinking a communication has taken place when it really hasn’t. Send emails to or call random people. Send emails and texts with gibberish in them, characters which resemble encrypted texts. If everybody did this even just once a week, the additional burden on NSA would be immense.

Caution. NSA is intercepting hardware and installing their own buggery inside, so unless you’re homebrewing your own equipment you can’t be sure the government has defeated you before you’ve begun. If you can buy your equipment out of country, do so. Or buy mass produced equipment from retail outlets. Use “burner phones”. Again, meet whenever possible in person. The government can hack into your home wireless network, so use hardwires when yo can.


This goes by other names, but the idea is that even if you’re using the best encryption, talking in code, and have been careful in all other aspects, your electronic system can still let you down. For instance, every time you hit a key on your keyboard it sends a characteristic signal into the air which can be intercepted. The signals which “paint” the images on your screen are also “out there” in the air. And if you have your cell phone, it is child’s play for a hacker (like the NSA) to listen even when you’re not making calls. This has been used by the FBI, too, so it’s not only the NSA you have to watch out for. I believe this is also possible for your computer’s and television’s camera and microphone. Unplug and take the batteries out of any device when you can.

What can you do? I’ve read the Russians have in some cases returned to manual typewriters and personal couriers. The only way to intercept these messages is to (of course) physically intercept them. Especially crucial information should be handled in a similar manner.

What next?

Any spy worth his weight in water knows these tricks and many more. So why highlight them? If just ten percent of us were to implement them, then the government would be fighting an uphill battle in its war against its own people. It is our duty to make unconstitutional spying as difficult for the government as possible.

Update Robert Samuelson does not understand the difference between the voluntary surrendering of personal data and its illegal theft.

January 5, 2014 | 17 Comments

#ICanChangeThePast2, Or, Tweeting Time Travel

My #twin went to the #past and all I got was this #LousyHashTag
You’re a time traveler stuck in July 2012. How depressing. You have time on your hands. Time to kill, that is. How to pass the time?

Twitter, naturally. Great time waster. A true time sink. What to tweet about? Maybe the death of Ernest Borgnine or the Syrian uprising? Nah. Who wants to spend time reading that kind of thing? Why now tweet about stuff nobody yet knows about, stuff you do know about since you’re from the future!

You’d lead off with, “How about that #popefrancis?” followed by “Nobody saw #cometison coming. Heh.” And, because you’re a playful sort, you’d mix topics: “#cometison. A harbinger of #popefrancis?”

Of course, since Comet ISON wasn’t discovered until 21 September 2012 and Cardinal Bergoglio wasn’t made Pope until March 2013, nobody would have a clue what you’re going on about. You’d gain no followers. People would think you, like so many others on the interwebs, had slipped a knot.

But late in 2013 if we were to search for people using these hash tags, we’d be able to figure you were a time traveler, because how else could you know?

This kind of searching was the idea of Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson from the Department of Physics, Michigan Technological University, the true winter wonderland, in their “Searching the Internet for evidence of time travelers.

Only it didn’t work. No time travelers came back to 2012, or slightly earlier, to tweet about a yet-to-discovered comet or yet-to-be-installed Holy Father.

The authors called the kind of tweets they did not discover “prescient information”, figuring only a time traveler would know about future events and then blow his cover on yakking about himself.

[T]ime travelers who want to advertise their presence may do so ineffectively, those who want to hide their presence might make a revealing mistake, and those indifferent might or might not leave traceable Internet content…

Were a time traveler from the future to access the Internet of the past few years, they might have left once-prescient content that persists today. Alternatively, such information might have been placed on Internet by a third party discussing something unusual they have heard.

What about the comet and pope?

Not being time travelers ourselves, we cannot know for sure what present-day labels will remain popular into the future, but focusing on modern renditions of terms used by historically long-standing and internationally known institutions seemed pragmatic. Based on these criteria, two main labels were chosen: Comet ISON and Pope Francis.

So there. Incidentally, why did they use Twitter and not Google?

Although providing the ability to sort identified content by date, several exploratory tests on Google found an initially surprising number of web pages that contained seemingly prescient information. Upon further inspection, however, all potentially-prescient content on those web pages was clearly non-prescient.

Anyway, all that passive searching didn’t work. Why not something bolder?

A post was created in 2013 September…[and] time travelers were requested to respond with a communication including either the hashtagged term “#ICanChangeThePast2” or “#ICannotChangeThePast2” on or before 2013 August.

If a time traveler saw the message and then came back he’d surely admit whether he’s there to see who won this year’s World Series and so alter his bank account. Right? Consider: “in a plastic history universe, a time traveler might have the ability to go back and change history so that the Wars of the Roses never occurred”. I’d rather the time traveler stopped World War I, but we all have our favorites.

Bad news, though. “Unfortunately, as of this writing, no prescient tweets or emails were received.” But the good news about science is that the research never ends. “[W]e will continue to search, on occasion, for active tweets and emails involving potential time travel.”

I don’t see how time travel tweets don’t involve the standard and well known time-traveling paradoxes, but I’m willing to be educated. Maybe there’s some other way to use the Internet to smoke out the time travelers among us. You guys have any ideas?