Archive for the 'woo' category

What the heck is a DNS amplification DoS attack?

Apr 08 2013 Published by under Basics, woo

A couple of weeks ago, there was a bunch of news about a major DOS attack on Spamhaus. Spamhaus is an online service that maintains a blacklist of mail servers that are known for propagating spam. I've been getting questions about what a DoS attack is, and more specifically what a "DNS amplification attack" (the specific attack at the heart of last week's news) is. This all became a bit more relevant to me last week, because some asshole who was offended by my post about the Adria Richards affair launched a smallish DoS attack against scientopia. (This is why we were interrmitently very slow last week, between tuesday and thursday. Also, to be clear, the DNS amplification attack was used on Spamhaus. Scientopia was hit by a good old fashioned DDoS attack.)

So what is a DoS attack? And what specifically is a DNS amplification attack?

Suppose that you're a nastly person who wants to take down a website like scientopia. How could you do it? You could hack in to the server, and delete everything. That would kill it pretty effectively, right?

It certainly would. But from the viewpoint of an attacker, that's not a particularly easy thing to do. You'd need to get access to a privileged account on our server. Even if we're completely up to date on patches and security fixes, it's probably possible to do that, but it's still probably going to be a lot of work. Even for a dinky site like scientopia, getting that kind of access probably isn't trivial. For a big security-focused site like spamhaus, that's likely to be close to impossible: there are layers of security that you'd need to get through, and there are people constantly watching for attacks. Even if you got through, if the site has reliable backups, it won't be down for long, and once they get back up, they'll patch whatever hole you used to get in, so you'd be back to square one. It's a lot of work, and there are much easier ways to take down a site.

What you, as an attacker, want is a way to take the site down without having any kind of access to the system. You want a way that keeps the site down for as long as you want it down. And you want a way that doesn't leave easily traced connections to you.

That's where the DoS attack comes in. DoS stands for "denial of service". The idea of a DoS attack is to take a site down without really taking it down. You don't actually kill the server; you just make it impossible for legitimate users to access it. If the sites users can't access the site even though the server is technically still up and running, you've still effectively killed it.

How do you do that? You overwhelm the server. You target some finite resource on the server, and force it to use up that resource just dealing with requests or traffic that you sent to the server, leaving it with nothing for its legitimate users.

In terms of the internet, the two resources that people typically target are CPU and network bandwidth.

Every time that you send a request to a webserver, the server has to do some computation to process that request. The server has a finite amount of computational capability. If you can hit it with enough requests that it spends all of its time processing your requests, then the site becomes unusable, and it effectively goes down. This is the simplest kind of DoS attack. It's generally done in a form called a DDoS - distributed denial of server attack, where the attacker users thousands or millions of virus-infected computers to send requests. The server gets hit by a vast storm of requests, and it can't distinguish the legitimate requests from the ones generated by the attacker. This is the kind of attack that hit Scientopia last week. We were getting streams of a couple of thousands malformed requests per second.

This kind of attack can be very effective. It's hard - not impossible, but hard - to fight. You need to identify the common traits of the attackers, and set up some kind of filter to discard those requests. From the attacker's point of view, it's got one problem: price. Most people don't have a personal collection of virus-infected machines that they can use to mount an attack. What they actually do is rent machines! Virus authors run services where they'll use the machines that they've to run an attack for you, for a fee. They typically charge per machine-hour. So to keep a good attack going for a long time is expensive! Another problem with this kind of attack is that the amount of traffic that you can inflict on the server per attacker is also used by the client. The client needs to establish a connection to the server. That consumes CPU, network connections, and bandwidth on the client.

The other main DoS vector is network bandwidth. Every server running a website is connected to the network by a connection with a fixed capacity, called it's bandwidth. A network connection can only carry a certain quantity of information. People love to make fun of the congressman who said that the internet is like a series of tubes, but that's not really a bad analogy. Any given connection is a lot like a pipe. You can only cram so much information through that pipe in a given period of time. If you can send enough traffic to completely fill that pipe, then the computer on the other end is, effectively, off the network. It can't receive any requests.

For a big site like spamhaus, it's very hard to get enough machines attacking to effectively kill the site. The amount of bandwidth, and the number of different network paths connecting spamhaus to the internet is huge! The number of infected machines available for an attack is limited, and the cost of using all of them is prohibitive.

What an attacker would like for killing something like Spamhaus is an attack where the amount of work/cpu/traffic used to generate the attack is much smaller than the amount of work/cpu/traffic used by the server to combat the attack. That's where amplification comes in. You want to find some way of using a small amount of work/traffic on your attacker machines to cause your target to lost a large amount of work/traffic.

In this recent attack on Spamhaus, they used an amplification attack, that was based on a basic internet infrastructure service called the Domain Name Service (DNS). DNS is the service which is used to convert between the name of a server (like scientopia.org), and its numeric internet address (184.106.221.182). DNS has some technical properties that make it idea for this kind of attack:

  1. It's not a connection-based service. In most internet services, you establish a connection to a server, and send a request on that connection. The server responds on the same connection. In a connection-based service, that means two things. First, you need to use just as much bandwidth as the target, because if you drop the connection, the server sees the disconnect and stops processing your request. Second, the server knows who it's connected to, and it always sends the results of a request to the client that requested it. But DNS doesn't work that way. In DNS, you send a request without a connection, and in the request, you provide an address that the response should be sent to. So you can fake a DNS request, by putting someone else's address as the "respond-to" address in the request.
  2. It's possible to set up DNS to create very large responses to very small requests. There are lots of ways to do this. The important thing is that it's really easy to use DNS in a way that allows you to amplify the amount of data being sent to a server by a factor of 100. In one common form of DNS amplification, you send 60 byte requests, which generate responses larger than 6,000 bytes.

Put these two properties together, and you get a great attack vector: you can send tiny, cheap requests to a server, which don't cause any incoming traffic on your attacker machine, and which send large quantities of data to your target. Doing this is called a DNS amplification attack: it's an amplification attack which uses properties of DNS to generate large quantities of data send to your server, using small quantities of data sent by your attackers.

That's exactly what happened to Spamhaus last week. The attackers used a very common DNS extension, which allowed them to amplify 60 byte requests into 4,000 byte responses, and to send the responses to the spamhaus servers.

There are, of course, more details. (For example, when direct attacks didn't work, they tried an indirect attack that didn't target the spamhaus servers, but instead tried to attack other servers that spamhaus relied on.) But this is the gist.

7 responses so far

Audiophiles and the Need to be Special

Dec 30 2011 Published by under Bad Physics, People, woo

I love laughing at audiophiles.

If you're not familiar with the term, audiophiles are people who are really into top-end audio equipment. In itself, that's fine. But there's a very active and vocal subset of the audiophile community that's built up their self-image around the idea that they're special. They don't just have better audio equipment than you do, but they have better appreciation of sound quality than you do. In fact, their hearing is better than yours. They can hear nuances in sound quality that you can't, because they're so very, very special. They've developed this ability, you see, because they care more about music than you do.

It's a very human thing. We all really want to be special. And when there's something that's really important to us - like music is for many people - there's a very natural desire to want to be able to appreciate it on a deep level, a special level reserved only for people who really value it. But what happens when you take that desire, and convince yourself that it's not just a desire? You wind up turning into a sucker who's easy to fleece for huge quantities of money on useless equipment that can't possibly work.

I first learned about these people from my old friend John Vlissides. John died of brain cancer about 5 years ago, which was incredibly sad. But back in the day, when we both worked at IBM Research, he and I were part of a group that ate lunch together every day. John was a reformed audiophile, and used to love talking about the crazy stuff he used to do.

Audiophiles get really nutty about things like cables. For example, John used to have the cables linking his speakers to his amp suspended from the ceiling using non-conductive cord. The idea behind that is that electrical signals are carried, primarily, on the outer surface of the wire. If the cable was sitting on the ground, it would deform slighly, and that would degrade the signal. Now, of course, there's no perceptible difference, but a dedicated audiophile can convince themselves that they can hear it. In fact, this is what convinced John that it was all craziness: he was trained as an electrical engineer, and he sat down and worked out how much the signal should change as a result of the deformation of the copper wire-core, and seeing the real numbers, realized that there was no way in hell that he was actually hearing that tiny difference. Right there, that's an example of the math aspect of this silliness: when you actually do the math, and see what's going on, even when there's a plausible explanation, the real magnitude of the supposed effect is so small that there's absolutely no way that it's perceptible. In the case of wire deformation, the magnitude of the effect on the sound produced by the signal carried by the wire is so small that it's essentially zero - we're talking about something smaller than the deformation of the sound waves caused by the motion of a mosquito's wings somewhere in the room.

John's epiphany was something like 20 years ago. But the crazy part of the audiophile community hasn't changed. I encountered two instances of it this week that reminded me of this silliness and inspired me to write this post. One was purely accidental: I just noticed it while going about my business. The other, I noticed on boing-boing because the first example was already in my mind.

First, I was looking for an HDMI video cable for my TV. At the moment, we've got both an AppleTV and a cable box hooked up to our TV set. We recently found out that under our cable contract, we could get a free upgrade of the cable box, and the new box has HDMI output - so we'd need a new cable to use it.

HDMI is a relatively new standard video cable for carrying digital signals. Instead of old-fashioned analog signals that emulate the signal recieved by a good-old TV antenna like we used to use, HDMI uses a digital stream for both audio and video. Compared to old-fashioned analog, the quality of both audio and video on a TV using HDMI is dramatically improved. Analog signals were designed way, way back in the '50s and '60s for the televisions that they were producing then - they're very low fidelity signals, which are designed to produce images on old TVs, which had exceedingly low resolution by modern standards.

The other really great thing about a digital system like HDMI is that digital signals don't degrade. A digital system takes a signal, and reduces it to a series of bits - signals that can be interpreted as 1s and 0s. That series of bits is divided into bundles called packets. Each packet is transmitted with a checksum - an additional number that allows the receiver to check that it received the packet correctly. So for a given packet of information, you've either received it correctly, or you didn't. If you didn't, you request the sender to re-send it. So you either got it, or you didn't. There's no in-between. In terms of video quality, what that means is that the cable really doesn't matter very much. It's either getting the signal there, or it isn't. If the cable is really terrible, then it just won't work - you'll get gaps in the signal where the bad packets dropped out - which will produce a gap in the audio or video.

In analog systems, you can have a lot of fuzz. The amplitude of the signal at any time is the signal - so noise effects that change the amplitude are changing the signal. There's a very real possibility that interference will create real changes in the signal, and that those changes will produce a perceptible result when the signal is turned into sound or video. For example, if you listen to AM radio during a thunderstorm, you'll hear a burst of noise whenever there's a bolt of lightning nearby.

But digital systems like HDMI don't have varying degrees of degradation. Because the signal is reduced to 1s and 0s - if you change the amplitude of a 1, it's still pretty much going to look like a one. And if the noise is severe enough to make a 1 look like a 0, the error will be detected because the checksum will be wrong. There's no gradual degradation.

But audiophiles... ah, audiophiles.

I was looking at these cables. A basic six-foot-long HDMI cable sells for between 15 and 25 dollars. But on the best-buy website, there's a clearance cable for just $12. Great! And right next to it, there's another cable. Also six feet long. For $240 dollars! 20-times higher, for a friggin' digital cable! I've heard, on various websites, the rants about these crazies, but I hadn't actually paid any attention. But now, I got to see it for myself, and I just about fell out of my chair laughing.

To prolong the entertainment, I went and looked at the reviews of this oh-so-amazing cable.

People who say there is NO difference between HDMI cables are just trying to justify to themselves to go cheap. Now it does depend on what you are connecting the cable between. If you put this Carbon HDMI on a Cable or Satellite box, you probably won't see that much of a difference compared to some middle grade cables.

I connected this cable from my PS3 to my Samsung to first test it, then to my receiver. It was a nice upgrade from my previous Cinnamon cable, which is already a great cable in it's own right. The picture's motion was a bit smoother with gaming and faster action. I also noticed that film grain looked a little cleaner, not sure why though.

The biggest upgrade was with my audio though. Everything sounded a little crisper with more detail. I also noticed that the sound fields were more distinct. Again not sure exactly why, but I will take the upgrade.

All and all if you want the best quality, go Audio Quest and specifically a Carbon HDMI. You never have to upgrade your HDMI again with one of these guys. Downfall though is that it is a little pricey.

What's great about it: Smooth motion and a little more definition in the picture

What's not so great: Price

It's a digital cable. The signal that it delivers to your TV and stereo is not the slightest bit different from the signal delivered by the $12 clearance cable. It's been reduced by the signal producing system to a string of 1s and 0s - the identical string of 1s and 0s on both cables - and that string of bits is getting interpreted by exactly the same equipment on the receiver, producing exactly the same audio and video. There's no difference. It has nothing to do with how good your ears are, or how perceptive you are. There is no difference.

But that's nothing. The same brand sells a $700 cable. From the reviews:

I really just bought 3 of these. So if you would like an honest review, here it is. Compared to other Audio Quest cables, like the Vodka, you do not see a difference unless you know what to look for and have the equipment that can actually show the difference. Everyone can see the difference in a standard HDMI to an HDMI with Silver in it if you compare, but the difference between higher level cables is more subtle. Audio is the night and day difference with these cables. My bluray has 2 HDMI outs and I put one directly to the TV and one to my processor. My cable box also goes directly to my TV and I use Optical out of the TV because broadcast audio is aweful. The DBS systems keeps the cable ready for anything and I can tell that my audio is clean instantly and my picture is always flawless. They are not cheap cables, they are 100% needed if you want the best quality. I am considering stepping up to Diamond cables for my theater room when I update it. Hope this helps!

And they even have a "professional quality" HDMI cable that sells for well over $1000. And the audiophiles are all going crazy, swearing that it really makes a difference.

Around the time I started writing this, I also saw a post on BoingBoing about another audiophile fraud. See, when you're dealing with this breed of twit who's so convinced of their own great superiority, you can sell them almost anything if you can cobble together a pseudoscientific explanation for why it will make things sound better.

This post talks about a very similar shtick to the superexpensive cable: it's a magic box which... well, let's let the manufacturer explain.

The Blackbody ambient field conditioner enhances audio playback quality by modifying the interaction of your gear’s circuitry with the ambient electromagnetic field. The Blackbody eliminates sonic smearing of high frequencies and lowers the noise floor, thus clarifying the stereo image.

This thing is particularly fascinating because it doesn't even pretend to hook in to your audio system. You just position it close to your system, and it magically knows what equipment it's close to and "harmonizes" everything. It's just... magic! But if you're really special, you'll be able to tell that it works!

89 responses so far

Autism, Vaccines, and Ghouls

Feb 18 2008 Published by under woo

A bunch of us today are trying to point out some incredible
hypocrisy and downright despicable slime being spewed by the idiots
who want to blame autism on vaccines.

The blame-vaccines crowd likes to use publicity stunts to try to
build up their case. It's the only tactic left to them, because study after study after study has shown that there is no correlation - not just no causal link, but no correlation at all - between vaccines and autism. There's no science on their side; no evidence; nothing but anecdotes.

So they milk the anecdotes for everything they're worth. Jenny McCarthy parades around on TV talking about how she knows that vaccines caused her son's autism, and that she knows that the crackpot interventions that she used cured him. She doesn't need any scientific evidence; she says that her son is her science.

Generation rescue runs ads full of stories about how autism is caused by vaccines; they push endless stories about parents desperate to find a cure for their childrens parents. They parade parents like
Jenny McCarthy around to gather every possible bit of publicity for their cause.

The end result of this is to create opposition to vaccination. And that is a horrible thing.

Most people my age have never seen a person with polio. It was wiped out long before we were born - by vaccines. No one in the US has seen anyone with smallpox in decades. There are so many diseases, which we have no experience with anymore - because they've been rendered almost entirely harmless by vaccines. When's the last time you saw someone with the measles or the mumps? When's the last time any of us saw someone suffering from complications of one of those formerly common childhood diseases?

But thanks to people like Generation Rescue, that's changing.

Earlier this month, there was an outbreak of measles in San Diego - the first outbreak of measles in 17 years. None of the infected children were vaccinated. Why not?

There have been recent outbreaks of the mumps in Iowa - started by
people who weren't vaccinated, and later transferred even to some who had been.

When we hear about one of these outbreaks, the most common response is: "Big deal? Measles is no biggie." Not true at all. Measles can, in a significant number of cases, lead to blindness (via corneal scarring), encephalitis, and brain damage. Similarly for many of the other childhood diseases that have been nearly eliminated by
vaccines - these diseases aren't trivial things. They're potentially serious diseases. Vaccines have eliminated things that used to be major scourges, that crippled huge numbers of people. We've forgotten that, because the diseases have almost disappeared.

Until these autism frauds managed to get themselves in the news. Thousands of parents have refused vaccines for their children, in the name of protecting them from a phony risk of autism, and as a result, diseases that should be unheard of are making strong comebacks.

Naturally, the doctors who care for children are concerned about this. They're seeing parents put their children at risk, and they're seeing children come in with diseases and complications that should never happen anymore.

So they've decided to take action. Through the main professional organization for pediatricians, the AAP, they're putting together their own publicity campaign - trying to remind people of the fact that vaccines save lives. They're looking for people who didn't vaccinate their children, and who as a result have suffered from preventable illnesses with serious consequences:

From: Susan Martin
Sent: Wednesday, February 13, 2008 2:29 PM
To: SPOKESPERSONS@LISTSERV.AAP.ORG
Subject: parent spokespersons

Hello,

As part of our ongoing response to media stories regarding autism and vaccines, the AAP communications department is compiling a list of parents who support the AAP and are available for interviews. We are looking for two types of parents who could serve as spokespersons:

Parents of children with autism spectrum disorders who support immunization and who do not believe there is any link between their child's vaccines and his or her autism.

Parents of children who suffered a vaccine-preventable illness. This could be a parent who declined immunization, whose child became ill before a vaccine was available, or whose child was ineligible for immunization.

We are asking for your help identifying parents who would be good spokespersons. They do not need to be expert public speakers. They just need to be open with their story and interested in speaking out on the issue. We will contact candidates in advance to conduct pre-interviews, to offer guidance on talking to reporters and to obtain a signed waiver giving us permission to release their name.

If a parent were placed on our list, we would offer their name and contact information to select media. We hope to build a list of parents from a wide range of geographical areas.

As the Jenny McCarthy and "Eli Stone" stories illustrate, this issue is likely to recur in the national and local media. The AAP is committed to doing all we can to counter such erroneous reports with factual information supported by scientific evidence and AAP recommendations.

The anti-vaccine groups often have emotional family stories on their side. The ability to offer a reporter an interview with a similarly compelling parent who is sympathetic to the AAP's goals is a powerful tool for our media relations program.

Please contact me if you have any questions or to suggest a parent to interview.

Thank you,

Susan Stevens Martin
Director, Division of Media Relations
American Academy of Pediatrics
847.434.7131

The autism frauds are reacting with faux outrage. How dare the AAP do anything so horrible as to put together
a publicity campaign? How dare they remind people of the consequences of not vaccinating?

When the autism frauds want to publicize their belief that autism is caused by vaccines, that's absolutely OK. No moral issue, no problem at all. It's just simple the right thing to do.

When people start to get sick with diseases that should be
unheard of, because they're entirely preventable by safe vaccines,
that's nothing to be concerned about. It's got nothing to do with
the autism frauds and their wretched attempts to scare people.

And when doctors, upset at seeing the resurgence of diseases that
should be completely eliminated in 21st century America, do their best to remind people that these diseases are serious, and that they can protect their children from the risks of catching them - then the doctors are being horrible, unethical, disgraceful, despicable ghouls.

The ghouls are people like JB Handley - who are deliberately
playing games, moving goalposts, and propagating lies. They're frauds whose actions are putting lives at risk. And based on the way that they've been changing their stories as evidence accumulates, they know that they're frauds.

Deliberately, knowingly encouraging people to put their childrens life at risk from preventable illnesses? Now that is evil.

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Bad Homeopathic Differential Equations. Yech.

Aug 16 2007 Published by under woo

My friend and blog-father Orac sent me a truly delectable piece of bad math today. It's just
astonishing: a supposed mathematical model for why homeopathic dilution works, and for why the
standard dilutions are correct. It's called "The octave potencies convention: a mathematical model of dilution and succussion", and I got a copy of it via the Bad Science blog. The only part of it that's depressing is the location of the authors: this piece of dreck was published by someone from the Harvard medical school.

To give you an idea of what you're in for, here's the abstract:

Several hypothesized explanations for homeopathy posit that remedies contain a concentration of discrete information-carrying units, such as water clusters, nano-bubbles, or silicates. For any such explanation to be sustainable, dilution must reduce and succussion must restore the concentration of these units. Succussion can be modeled by a logistic equation, which leads to mathematical relationships involving the maximum concentration, the average growth of information-carrying units rate per succussion stroke, the number of succussion strokes, and the dilution factor (x, c, or LM). When multiple species of information-carrying units are present, the fastest-growing species will eventually come to dominate, as the potency is increased.

An analogy is explored between iterated cycles dilution and succussion, in making homeopathic remedies, and iterated cycles of reseeding and growth, in bacterial cultures. Drawing on this analogy, the active ingredients in low and medium potency remedies may be present at early dilutions but only gradually come to 'dominate', while high potencies may develop from the occurrence of low-probability but faster-growing 'mutations.' Conclusions from this model include: 'x' and 'c' potencies are best compared by the amount of dilution, not the amount of succussion; the minimum number of succussion strokes needed per cycle is proportional to the logarithm of the dilution factor; and a plausible interpretation of why potencies at approximately regular ratios are traditionally used (the octave potencies convention).

What you find in this paper is both an astonishingly bad example of mathematical modeling, and
a dreadful abuse of differential equations. It's pathetic to realize that anyone thought
that this piece of dreck was not too embarrasingly bad to publish.

Continue Reading »

22 responses so far

Fractal Woo: Video TransCommunication

Jul 11 2007 Published by under woo

alien.gif
This is a short one, but after mentioning this morning how woo-meisters constantly invoke
fractals to justify their gibberish, I was reading an article at the 2% company
about Allison DuBois, the supposed psychic who the TV show "Medium" is based on. And that
led me to a perfect example of how supposed fractals are used to justify some of the
most ridiculous woo you can imagine.

Continue Reading »

11 responses so far

What happens if you don't understand math? Just replace it with solipsism, and you can get published!

Mar 13 2007 Published by under Bad Physics, woo

In the comments to another post, Blake Stacey gave me a pointer to a really obnoxious article, called "A New Theory of the Universe", by a Robert Lanza, published in the American Scholar. Lanza's article is a rotten piece of new-age gibberish, with all of the usual hallmarks: lots of woo, all sorts of babble about how important consciousness is, random nonsensical babblings about quantum physics, and of course, bad math.

Continue Reading »

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The End of PEAR

Nov 25 2006 Published by under woo

PEAR is gone. Yes, I know I'm late with this news; folks like [PZ](http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/11/shhhdont_tell_deepak.php), [Orac](http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2006/11/news_too_good_to_confine_to_just_one_sci.php) and [Jeff Shallit](http://recursed.blogspot.com/2006/11/pear-has-finally-rotted.html) reported this
great news days ago. But I wanted to add my two bits, by explaining just why this is good news. So I'm going to take this news as an opportunity to remind you just what PEAR was, what they did, and why it's so good that they're gone.

Continue Reading »

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Deepak Chopra is an Idiot

Nov 15 2006 Published by under woo

As [PZ](http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/11/chopra_go_play_with_steve_irwi.php) pointed out, Deepak Chopra is back with *yet another* of his clueless, uninformed, idiotic rants. This time, he's written [an article trying to "prove" that there is an afterlife](http://www.intentblog.com/archives/2006/11/what_happens_af.html). Normally, when PZ comments on something like this, I have nothing to add; he does such a good job fisking
credulous morons. But this time, I actually have something to add.

Continue Reading »

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Woo Math: Steiner and Theosophical Math

Nov 08 2006 Published by under woo

While waiting for I was innocently browsing around the net looking at elementary math curriculums. I want to be able to teach my kids some fun math, just like my dad did with me when I was a kid. So I was browsing around, looking at different ways of teaching math, trying to find fun stuff. In the process, I came across woo-math: that is, incredible crazy woo justified using crazy things derived from legitimate mathematics. And it's not just a bit of flakiness with a mathematical gloss: it's big-time, wacky, loonie-tunes grade woo-math: the [Rudolph Steiner Theosophical version of Mathematics](http://www.nct.anth.org.uk/counter.htm). And, well, how could I possibly resist that?

Continue Reading »

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PEAR yet again: the theory behind paranormal gibberish (repost from blogger)

Jul 12 2006 Published by under woo

This is a repost from GM/BMs old home; the original article appeared
[here][old]. I'm reposting because someone is attempting to respond to this
article, and I'd rather keep all of the ongoing discussions in one place. I also
think it's a pretty good article, which some of the newer readers here may not
have seen. As usual for my reposts, I've fixed the formatting and made a few
minor changes. This article was originally posted on May 29.
I've been looking at PEAR again. I know it may seem sort of like beating a dead
horse, but PEAR is, I think, something special in its way: it's a group of
people who pretend to use science and mathematics in order to support all sorts
of altie-woo gibberish. This makes them, to me, particularly important targets
for skeptics: if they were legit, and they were getting the kinds of results
that they present, they'd be demonstrating something fascinating and important.
But they're not: they're trying to use the appearance of science to undermine
science. And they're incredibly popular among various kinds of crackpottery:
what led me back to them this time is the fact that I found them cited as a
supporting reference in numerous places:
1. Two different "UFOlogy" websites;
2. Eric Julien's dream-prophecy of a disastrous comet impact on earth (which was supposed to have happened back in May; he's since taken credit for *averting* said comet strike by raising consciousness);
3. Three different websites where psychics take money in exchange for psychic predictions or psychic healing;
4. Two homeopathy information sites;
5. The house of thoth, a general clearinghouse site for everything wacky.
Anyway, while looking at the stuff that all of these wacko sites cited from
PEAR, I came across some PEAR work which isn't just a rehash of the random
number generator nonsense, but instead an attempt to define, in mathematical
terms, what "paranormal" events are, and what they mean.
It's quite different from their other junk; and it's a really great example of
one of the common ways that pseudo-scientists misuse math. The paper is called
"M* : Vector Representation of the Subliminal Seed Regime of M5", and you can
find it [here][pear-thoth].
The abstract gives you a pretty good idea of what's coming:
>A supplement to the M5 model of mind/matter interactions is proposed
>wherein the subliminal seed space that undergirds tangible reality and
>conscious experience is characterized by an array of complex vectors whose
>components embody the pre-objective and pre-subjective aspects of their
>interactions. Elementary algebraic arguments then predict that the degree of
>anomalous correlation between the emergent conscious experiences and the
>corresponding tangible events depends only on the alignment of these
>interacting vectors, i. e., on the correspondence of the ratios of their
>individual ''hard'' and ''soft'' coordinates. This in turn suggests a
>subconscious alignment strategy based on strong need, desire, or shared purpose
>that is consistent with empirical experience. More sophisticated versions of
>the model could readily be pursued, but the essence of the correlation process
>seems rudimentary.
So, if we strip out the obfuscation, what does this actually say?
Umm... "*babble babble* complex vectors *babble babble babble* algebra *babble babble* ratios *babble babble* correlation *babble babble*."
Seriously: that's a pretty good paraphrase. That entire paragraph is *meaningless*. It's a bunch of nonsense mixed in with a couple of pseudo-mathematical terms in order to make it sound scientific. There is *no* actual content in that abstract. It reads like a computer-generated paper from
[SCIgen][scigen] .
(For contrast, here's a SCIgen-generated abstract: "The simulation of randomized algorithms has deployed model checking, and current trends suggest that the evaluation of SMPs will soon emerge. In fact, few statisticians would disagree with the refinement of Byzantine fault tolerance. We confirm that although multicast systems [16] can be made homogeneous, omniscient, and autonomous, the acclaimed low-energy algorithm for the improvement of DHCP [34] is recursively enumerable.")
Ok, so the abstract is the pits. To be honest, a *lot* of decent technical papers have really lousy abstracts. So let's dive in, and look at the actual body of the paper, and see if it improves at all.
They start by trying to explain just what their basic conceptual model is. According to the authors, the world is fundamentally built on consciousness; and that most events start in a a pre-conscious realm of ideas called the "*seed region*"; and that as they emerge from the seed region into experienced reality, they manifest in two different ways; as "events" in the material domain, and as "experiences" or "perceptions" in the mental domain. They then claim that in order for something from the seed region to manifest, it requires an interaction of at least two seeds.
Now, they try to start using pseudo-math to justify their gibberish.
Suppose we have two of these seed beasties, S1, and S2. Now, suppose we have a mathematical representation of them as "vectors". They write that as [S]).
A "normal" event, according to them, is one where the events combine in what they call a "linear" way (scare-quotes theirs): [S1] + [ S2] = [S1 + S2). On the other hand, events that are perceived as anomalous are events for which that's not true: [S1] + [S2] ≠[S1 + S2].
We're already well into the land of pretend mathematics here. We have two non-quantifiable "seeds"; but we can add them together... We're pulling group-theory type concepts and notations, and applying them to things that absolutely do not have any of the prerequisites for those concepts to be meaningful.
But let's skip past that for a moment, because it gets infinitely sillier shortly.
They draw a cartesian graph with four quadrants, and label them (going clockwise from the first quadrant): T (for tangible), I (for intangible - aka, not observable in tangible reality), U (for unconscious), and C (conscious). So the upper-half is what they consider to be observable, and the bottom half is non-observable; and the left side is mind and the right side is matter. Further, they have a notion of "hard" and "soft"; objective is hard, and subjective is soft. They proceed to give a list of ridiculous pairs of words which they claim are different ways of expressing the fundamental "hard/soft" distinction, including "masculine/feminine", "particulate/wavelike", "words/music", and "yang/yin".
Once they've gotten here, they get to my all-time favorite PEAR statement; one which is actually astonishingly obvious about what they're really up to:
>It is then presumed that if we appropriate and pursue some established
>mathematical formalism for representing such components and their interactions,
>the analytical results may retain some metaphoric relevance for the emergence
>of anomalous mind/matter manifestations.
I love the amount of hedging involved in that sentence! And the admission that
they're just "appropriating" a mathematical formalism for no other purpose than
to "retain some metaphoric relevance". I think that an honest translation of
that sentence into non-obfuscatory english is: "If we wrap this all up in
mathematical symbols, we can make it look as if this might be real science".
So, they then proceed to say that they can represent the seeds as complex numbers: S = s + iσ. But "s" and "sigma" can't just be simply "pre-material" and "pre-mental", because that would be too simple. Instead, they're "hard" and "soft"; even thought we've just gone through the definition which categorized hard/soft as a better characterization of material and mental. Oh, and they have to make sure that this looks sufficiently mathematical, so instead of just saying that it's a complex, they present it in *both* rectangular and polar coordinates, with the equation for converting between the two notations written out inside the same definition area. No good reason for that, other than have something more impressive looking.
Then they want to define how these "seeds" can propagate up from the very lowest reaches of their non-observable region into actual observable events, and for no particular reason, they decide to use the conjugate product equation randomly selected from quantum physics. So they take a random pair of seeds (remember that they claim that events proceed from a combination of at least two seeds), and add them up. They claim that the combined seed is just the normal vector addition (which they proceed to expand in the most complex looking way possible); and they also take the "conjugate products" and add them up (again in the most verbose and obfuscatory way possible); and then take the different between the two different sums. At this point, they reveal that for some reason, they think that the simple vector addition corresponds to "[S1] + [S2]" from earlier; and the conjugate is "[S1+S2]". No reason for this correspondence is give; no reason for why these should be equal for "non-anomalous" events; it's just obviously the right thing to do according to them. And then, of course, they repeat the whole thing in polar notation.
It just keeps going like this: randomly pulling equations out of a hat for no particular reason, using them in bizzarely verbose and drawn out forms, repeating things in different ways for no reason. After babbling onwards about these sums, they say that "Also to be questioned is whether other interaction recipes beyond the simple addition S1,2 = S1 + S2 could profitably be explored."; they suggest multiplication; but decide against it just because it doesn't produce the results that they want. Seriously! In their words "but we show that this doesn't generate similar non-linearities": that is, they want to see "non-linearities" in the randomly assembled equations, and since multiplying doesn't have that, it's no good to them.
Finally, we're winding down and getting to the end: the "summary". (I was taught that when you write a technical paper, the summary or conclusion section should be short and sweet. For them, it's two full pages of tight text.) They proceed to restate things, complete with repeating the gibberish equations in yet another, slightly different form. And then they really piss me off. Statement six of their summary says "Elementary complex algebra then predicts babble babble babble". Elementary complex algebra "predicts" no such thing. There is no real algebra here, and nothing about algebra would remotely suggest anything like what they're claiming. It's just that this is a key step in their reasoning chain, and they absolutely cannot support it in any meaningful way. So they mask it up in pseudo-mathematical babble, and claim that the mathematics provides the link that they want, even though it doesn't. They're trying to use the credibility and robustness of mathematics to keep their nonsense above water, even though there's nothing remotely mathematical about it.
They keep going with the nonsense math: they claim that the key to larger anomalous effects resides in "better alignment" of the interacting seed vectors (because the closer the two vectors are, in their framework, the larger the discrepancy between their two ways of "adding" vectors); and that alignments are driven by "personal need or desire". And it goes downhill from there.
This is really wretched stuff. To me, it's definitely the most offensive of the PEAR papers. The other PEAR stuff I've seen is abused statistics from experiments. This is much more fundamental - instead of just using sampling errors to support their outcome (which is, potentially, explainable as incompetence on the part of the researchers), this is clear, deliberate, and fundamental misuse of mathematics in order to lend credibility to nonsense.
[old]: http://goodmath.blogspot.com/2006/05/pear-yet-again-theory-behind.html
[pear-thoth]: http://goodmath.blogspot.com/2006/05/pear-yet-again-theory-behind.html
[scigen]: http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/

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