Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The Importance of Critical Thinking

Why is critical thinking important?

We live in an information-rich society, surrounded by almost instantaneous access to more data than ever before. As a child if I wanted to know something I would have to go to the library and look for a book. If I could find a book on the subject that I wanted I would then have to search the index, scanning for words pertaining to the aspect that had spiked my curiosity. This is a long winded process if all you wanted to know was who scored the winning goal in the FA Cup in 1956.

Just here now, in my house, I have four computers that can connect to the Internet. My phone can connect to the Internet. My Nintendo Wii can connect to the Internet. My iPod can connect to the Internet. And soon, I am sure, I will be able to have the Internet imprinted on the inside of my eyelids so that all I have to do is blink to access the Internet. Millions upon millions of bits and bytes of digital data cramming the information byways vying for our attention.

It used to be that you had to remember things, that a major part of the currency of intelligence was who could retain the most facts. I don’t think that this is the case any longer. Certainly its important to remember stuff. Its much better if, in the heat of debate, you can remember some important piece of evidence, but its no longer the be all and end all.

Peruse the Internet on any number of subjects and you will find about a zillion hits some saying one thing and others saying quite the opposite. How do you know what to believe? Which are the credible sources? What arguments stand up and which ones should be dismissed? The ability to differentiate bullshit from fact is an essential skill when presented with conflicting arguments. And once you have discerned the nugget of gold within tons of dirt intelligence can really show itself in how it uses it to make connections and to be creative.

These are the skills that children need to be learning in school. The problem is that they are not necessarily the skills that the teachers themselves have. We all of us fall prey to erroneous thinking and believe stuff for no better reason than it’s what everyone else thinks and that’s what I’ve always thought. The challenge is to accept that we need to not only question all that we come across, but to hold our own beliefs up to the same exacting scrutiny. And when the children in our care challenge those beliefs to respond in a way that doesn’t show impatience or intolerance but teaches them the value of inquiry and curiosity.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

WIfi Hassles

I've become an iPod bore. It's sad but true. I have a slightly obsessive nature so that the instant I get something that is new and techie such as the iPod Touch I have to find out all that I can about it to make it the most effective gadget it can be. I do have limits to what I will do though. I'm not interested in "jail breaking" the Touch. That's the process of hacking the machine so that you can install non Apple approved software. Ok, I'll admit it, there is a bit of interest. As an inveterate tinkerer I love messing around with bits of hardware and software. My usual machines of choice for this though are old cast off pcs that have cost me nothing and not nice shiny new gizmos. The thought of invalidating my warranty and then installing dodgy software is more than I can stand to risk. Call me an old scaredy cat, I don't care.

So, at the moment, I'm quite passionate about the Touch and want to talk about all the things I can make it do. However, it'd be fair to say that the majority of people around me don't share that enthusiasm. I can see that forced smile come over their lips and the glaze drop over their eyes. So, since no one reads my blog I can vent my zeal here and describe some of the tricks and tips that I've discovered on this wee thing. For those that may happen to read my blog I will apologise now as the iPod entries may push me even further into the sphere of geekdom. I've been encouraged to do this by talking to people that have one but don't know how to use it. Perhaps they'll stumble across the blog and get some useful pointers. Maybe I will even direct them to it.

Ok, first thing to address that one of my friends highlighted as an issue was connecting to the Internet. His home is connected through cabled LAN. This means that without wifi at home he and his wife couldn't connect up their pods (Although that’s not strictly true as I will point out in a future blog.) They had tried various coffee shops purporting free wifi access; they would open up their browser and then nothing. When they tried to connect through the settings, nothing again. I haven't got my hands on their Pods but for the sake of this blog I'm going to assume that there is nothing wrong with the hardware. The fact that they both have identical machines and are both experiencing difficulties makes me think that it’s not likely that there is a hardware fault.

First thing you need to do is find a signal. If you have the wifi optio "Ask to Join Networks" switched on in your settings then it should automatically do this for you. You can also do this manually through the wifi option in settings. Selecting wifi will give u a list of available networks; those that are locked will require a password. I myself tend to use an app called WifiTrak. From where I am sitting now the inbuilt wifi software in ‘settings’ picks up five networks, WifiTrak picks up nine. My friend’s frustration was that he couldn't even connect to such networks as Bt Openzone when in and around town, and so in the spirit of investigation I took my Ipod Touch into Birmingham City Centre to investigate the situation.

Bt Openzone is virtually ubiquitous. I could pick it up nearly everywhere in the city centre let alone Bearwood and most places that I go. They now have a system whereby companies and individuals signing up to BT are encouraged/forced to provide a portion of their bandwidth for hotspot access. This can show up as BT Fon on the network. They are installing hotspots in Starbucks, cash machines and all over the place. Where the signal was strong enough when I selected Bt Openzone and then opened my browser a log in page appeared. This also happened for the less prevalent Cloud network when I was in the Bullring. I also kept picking up free-Birminghamfiz network. This apparently is a free utility whereby you can access a lot of information and services relating to Birmingham council through the BT Openzone network. I didn't know what it was and couldn't get it to work but I shall try again next time. Here is the URL for the info: http://www.digitalbirmingham.co.uk/itools-resources/birminghamfiz.

To use BT Openzone access points you need to have credit with them. There are various deals but the most tempting is 500 minutes for £5 with a 12 month tie in. For around £6 you can buy a 90 non-consecutive minutes ticket and I might do this to test it out. There are a couple of factors though that put me off the deal. One is that I quite like the thrill of hunting and finding access points that for some reason haven't been locked off. I've recently accessed the Internet in several places walking down the street, sitting in the swimming baths, the bus shelter on Bearwood high street and earlier today in Clarks shoe shop on New Street. I find this slightly illicit access of the Internet appealing in the sense that its a bit naughty but doesn't do any real harm. Like shoplifting from Tesco.

So there are free access points out there, its just knowing where they are. In terms of the City Centre McDonalds has recently announced that they will be providing free wifi in their restaurants (I'm not convinced that's the correct term for these eateries). I quite like Mcdonalds coffee and could happily sit in there with one of their cheaper than Starbucks injections of caffeine and use their free Internet access. It might even be possible to lurk outside and do the same, leeching off the signal if it’s strong enough. It will depend on the deal; you may have to ask for a logon code when you purchase your food.

Anyway the basic process is, for unlocked signals:

1. Scan for a signal
2. Select the network
3. Connect
4. If successful then browse away.

For something like BT Openzone, if the signal is strong enough, you should just have to open your browser and wait for the log on screen to appear and then enter your access codes if you have bought them. One point that has crossed my mind is that if I do buy Openzone time I will possibly select to forget that network each time I disconnect. This may be a bit of a pain but I'd be annoyed if my iPod connects automatically without me knowing and I use up my time that way. It might be that I have to log on each time anyway through the initial page and I'm just being over cautious. I'll find out if I opt in to the scheme.

I know that it's not always this simple but with some trial and error it's not going to be impossible to work out. It might be that the signal that you're trying to log onto isn't strong enough to allow access and this is the issue. It's easier to judge this with WifiTrak as it gives you an indication of signal strength. I've not had much success unless the signal has registered -80 or more. Keep on trying and if there are any questions then feel free to post them on the blog and I will see what I can do.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Testing Out My Ipod

I'm typing this on my
new toy, an Ipod Touch. I've had it about a day now and am loving it. I was a bit worried that because I was looking forward to it so much I might be dussapointed. It is however even better than I expected. It is so fast on the Internet and easy to use that it is a pleasure. Add to that the entertainment capabilities and pound for pound it is more fun than any small thing I've held in my hand for a long while (excuse the innuendo).
I'll write something more purposeful when I have something more to say. This was just to test out the blogging app.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Addendum to the Last Blog

The office of Shifa Herbs is now vacant. The misleading medical imagery removed from the boards, and the flashy sports car no longer parked outside. It would be too much to hope that the Dr of Naturopathy has seen the light of reason and laid down his bottles of water and assorted tools of mumbo jumbo for a more honest occupation. I do hope however that it does at least indicate that the tides of gullibility and desperation in the area were not high enough to make sustaining the office a feasible affair.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Local Quackery

You would have had to have your head buried deep in the sand to be unaware of the current economic situation around the country. A general feeling of doom and gloom that pervades the financial news,

reflected on the high street by the loss of some old friends. My own local shopping area has said goodbye to Woolworths, Adams Clothes, Salisburys and others. What might spring up to fill these commercial voids? Something that reflects the needs of the community of Bearwood perhaps. Well, lets have a quick peek at the new shoots of revival in the area.

We have an ever expanding number of fast food outlets. Don't get me wrong, I am as partial to a kebab, burger or dodgy saveloy as the next drunken carnivore on my way home from the pub. Such a plethora of choice could be seen as a bonus I suppose, bit I can't help thinking that ten such places within a short high street might be a bit of overkill. Still onwards and upwards with our expanding waistlines and diminished nutrition.

Once out of the pub though there may be no need to stop drinking. I noticed an application for a 24 hour off licence on the High Street yesterday. Just the ticket when you've finished your last pack of Tennents Super and you need something to see you home after buying your Not Exactly Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But never fear! The alcohol imbibing, junk food eating residents of Bearwood are being offered a chance to buy their way back to health. We now have a Holland and Barratt providing at remarkabley reasonable rates all sorts of potions, pills and quackery for the less discerning consumer. Just what you need when you have a vague feeling of not quite rightness that modern medicine can't seem to help you with.

There is one other recent opening that I have been intending to blog about, and will possibly be the subject of future blogs. A naturopath has opened up virtually on my doorstep. For anybody unfamiliar with naturopathy it is a collection of unproven, worthless pseudo-medical mumbo jumbo. It incorporates everything from iridology, mad diets, homeopathy and herbal preparations. Your first consultation will cost you £60 for the hour and should it be deemed necessary subsequent half hourly visits will be £30 a go. Of course any herbs, homeopathic remedies or other placebos will cost extra.

I'm sure that the treatment will be good and fully medical as there is a picture of a stethoscope on the sign. Also the personalised registration plate on the very smart sports car parked out side has been styled to read "The Dr". Perhaps he' a science fiction fan? Have a look at what is on offer at:


Tuesday, 8 September 2009

When placebo is not enough

I sometimes find myself thinking about my current interest in alternative medicines and therapies and wonder if I am getting a bit carried away. I have a number of friends who subscribe to various, what I would consider, sham remedies all of whom believe in the healing properties of needle pricks, positive thought and expensive tiny bottles of water. All these people are doing okay and it doesn't seem to be causing them any problems.

Then you read articles like this http://allbleedingstops.blogspot.com/2009/09/human-cost-of-woo.html. This is not a one-off case either. There are multiple accounts from bloggers, physicians and others of the preventable death, illness and suffering caused by and to those who prefer magic and hope over clinically tested remedies. A good source of such stories is http://whatstheharm.net/

Many people feel that they should never have aches and pains, that they should always be on top form and that general weariness is symptomatic of a health problem. Often this is a mistake for what is in reality the effects of lifestyle, aging and just being human. For those people, on the whole, exposure to crystals, aromas and the like is not going to do them harm. When you read about homeopaths exporting their practice to Aids stricken Africa and herbalists treating cancer you have to question any thought that this is essentially a harmless hobby.

Real illness needs real treatment. Science based medicine is by no means perfect but it is constantly reviewed and when something proves to be ineffective there are systems in place to check, improve or remove failing remedies. There is little or no evidence that this is the case in any of the alternative treatments proffered by the woo mongers.

When people are really ill they want hope and they want it fixed. They are scared and they are vulnerable. They don't need people to tell them that it will be alright if they believe hard enough, take sugar pills and avoid the use of anything that might make them feel better.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Even Less Random Than I Thought

I've started keeping a little notepad with me to jot down ideas that I have through the day. They are few and far between but even so they disappear into the ephemera, consumed by the essential mundanity of getting through life. Some people I am sure have memories that would allow them to capture the thought for later reference, not me though. I therefore come to my blog site, when finally I have a bit of time, armed with little more than the frustration of knowing I had a good idea but I can't quite reach what it was. That is why I now pin those thoughts onto paper.

I figured that I would try my hand at a skeptical or scientific type blog. My confidence in this area is just emerging and finding a subject to do a bit of research and analysis on would possibly help to coalesce some ideas in this area. I wondered about a topic and came up with one. The Top Ten Things to Lose Sleep Over. I hadn't actually got ten but I thought that this wouldn't be a problem as the purpose was to make me do research. I had a few in mind. In no particular order:

1. Asteroid Strike
2. Super Volcano
3. Sun Going Nova
4. Time Dimension becoming a Spatial Dimension
5. Reversal of the Magnetic Poles

You can see the type of thing that I was going for, catastrophic but not necessarily likely to happen in the very near future.

As soon as I started the research though I came across this book by Phil Plait. It does what I was going to do but much better and in more detail. All my main astronomical ones are there and a few more. Ah, a coincidence maybe. In a huge random world coincidences have to happen at some point and this is just one of those times in the continuum when one has occurred. I would agree with that except that I am a fan of Phil Plait and dip into his life and thoughts reasonably often. I listen to him on podcasts, read his blogs and follow him on Twitter. I'm not stalking him but I must have heard him talking about this book and about the ideas in it. Somehow though I buried this in my memory and then resurrected it as a blog idea.

Ironically its provided excellent skeptical material for a blog because one of the main points about approaching life in a skeptical fashion is to be aware of the fallibility of memory. We are all capable of being fooled by others and by ourselves because we often erroneously believe that we have total recall when we don't. I'm currently reading an excellent book called "How We Know What Isn't So" by Thomas Gilovich. It explores many of the hardwired mechanisms and fallacious tendencies of human reason that cause us to believe things that just aren't true, for example, and topically, that celebrities die in threes and that I always leave the toilet seat up! It's a good cautionary tale against personal smugness and I am happy to admit that I am capable of being wrong.