Hogwash probably caused by cosmic rays

Once again, I’ve come away from listening to an episode of RadioLab convinced that they sometimes play dumb for effect. In this episode, “Bit Flip”, they went on for some minutes about how none of them had any idea what the significance of the number 4,096 might be, even as someone started going through the powers of two for them. The rest of the episode was devoted to detailing how not one of them had ever heard of the rare but real effect cosmic ray hits can sometimes have on electronic equipment – a good amount less rare at very high altitude and in space. They seem to have never heard of cloud chambers, either, and, after building one and seeing the effect for themselves, announced that yes, it seems those cosmic ray dealy-bobs really do exist. Pardon me?

I do like RadioLab, but my bullshit detector has clanged loudly more than once in the past as I listened, in maybe eight or ten episodes over the years. Their ubiquitous and multiple exclamations of “What?! I can’t believe it! But how?” have long fallen flat on my ears – not just because they always go over the top with their supposed disbelief/shock/surprise in this scripted show, but often because I know the topic at hand actually came up at some length in mainstream science news stories years ago. When this happens, I say to myself, in Ray Goulding’s voice, “Wattaya, dumb? Don’t you know anything, you people?” (I’m quoting from the Bob & Ray sketch below – Ray’s on the left.)

But I don’t think that; I think they’re well aware and perhaps hope and trust that everyone has forgotten about them by now. Some of those news stories have occurred within the lifetime of RadioLab itself, but even for the older ones, Robert Krulwich especially, co-host of the show and also science correspondent for National Public Radio, is of an age that surely he remembers most of them. He’s the one I most suspect of putting on an act in such episodes. I can imagine him saying, “Yes, of course I heard of that back in the ’90s, but look, we gotta stick with the show’s M.O.: Salient facts are scripted as surprises known by none of us.”

Also galling about this episode is that they seemed to conclude that all the cases they talked about must have been the result of cosmic ray hits, something which is certainly if minutely possible but, since there is no evidence after the fact, is certainly impossible to prove or even say with any level of confidence unless you’re experimentally set up to detect the particles as they hit. Particularly egregious was their strong implication that an Australian Airbus in-flight upset was likely caused by a cosmic ray hit. (See? Can’t even trust airplanes!) Mushrooms would thrive in this steaming pile of horse potatoes. The Australian Transport Safety Board’s entirely opposite conclusion, after exhaustive study, was that Single Event Effects, the catchall name for such cosmic ray hits, were “very unlikely” to have been the cause of the malfunction.

“Yes, even I am dishonest. Not in many ways, but in some. Forty-one, I think it is.”
– Mark Twain in a letter to Joseph Twichell, 15 March 1905

My Kickstarter project will be an invisible & completely silent horse potato detector

Because people really will believe anything:

As the Bio Ceramics collect odors, dirt and waste from your laundry, they need to be ‘recharged’ in order to make sure the pH levels of the laundry water continue to be raised.   To recharge Crystal Wash you simply put them in the sun for an afternoon.

I’m pretty sure they’ve optimistically infused sunlight with a power it does not actually possess. The reason I sigh a lot some days is that it seems there’s no collective memory, none whatsoever, past two or maybe three years ago.

On the bright side, it appears people are cottoning onto their scheme – in a negative and non-wallet-opening way, I mean. Since I first viewed that Kickstarter page several hours ago, they’ve at least removed the claim in one graphic that their device would “re-structure” water, a pretty good baby step toward what I hope will be an embarrassingly drunken series of stumbles that end in the  scrapping, or maybe even the crashing and burning, of the whole thing. Unfortunately, their project wasn’t in the Wayback Machine, so I can’t include that image here, but comments on Kickstarter verify it was there. I’ve added their current version to Wayback so I can, if I wish, note further changes as they make them.

In any case, consider the fact that when people of a commoner sense started examining their claims, they immediately got rid of the most blatant quackery that had been on their Story page for months, and then did not mention this deletion, or the reason behind the edit. This should tell you everything you need to know vis-à-vis the “Honest but perhaps a bit naive, or criminally fraudulent?” question that may have been floating around in your head.

I’m reminded of a relevant letter by Mark Twain:

Nov. 20. 1905

J. H. Todd
1212 Webster St.
San Francisco, Cal.

Dear Sir,

Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.

Adieu, adieu, adieu!

Mark Twain

On a tangentially related note – gullibility the common thread – here’s a fun quote regarding the Keurig K-Cup ‘coffee’ system:

I don’t have one. They’re kind of expensive to use. Plus it’s not like drip coffee is tough to make.
– John Sylvan, inventor of the K-Cup (now with DRM!)

As to my horse potato detector, invisible and silent it may be, but I’ve been hearing it incessantly today inside my head. This post and this picture I just pasted together may quiet it a bit.

Horse Potato Wash