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Saturday, November 29, 2014

University of Pennsylvania study suggests bedbugs can transmit Chagas disease

Disclaimer: At this time there have been no proven cases of bedbugs transmitting Chagas

Researchers have known about Chagas disease for over a century, but a recent study may have identified a new carrier of the deadly disease which poses a unique risk for humans. Chagas is a parasitic disease which attacks major organs and is responsible for approximately 50,000 deaths each year, mostly in Mexico, South and Central America. Now, a report published Nov. 17, 2014 in the American Journal ofTropical Medicine and Hygiene indicates that the disease, which is also known as American Sleeping Sickness, may potentially have a new form of transmission via bedbugs (Cimex Lectularius).

The study is a result of a joint project between the University of Pennsylvania and a major medical school in Peru, Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia. The study looked at the possibility of Chagas disease being acquired by bedbugs through contact with mice. Prior to the study, researchers had believed that Chagas was only transmittable through the fecal matter of its primary vector, commonly referred to as the “Kissing Bug”. This new research proves that just like the kissing bug, bedbugs can also transmit the protozoan parasite through its feces. Trypanosoma cruzi, or T. cruzi as it is more frequently called, is the parasite which actually causes Chagas disease.

6 life stages of Triatomine-"Kissing Bug"
Photo courtesy of  Thierry Heger

About Chagas disease

Chagas disease gets its name from its discoverer, Dr. Carlos Chagas, who first discovered the disease back in 1909. Chagas was a Brazilian scientist, clinician and researcher with a field of practice primarily focused on improving sanitary conditions and studying bacteria. For most of his life Dr. Chagas worked at the Oswaldo Cruz Institute in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In 1909, the Oswaldo Cruz Institute sent Dr. Chagas to investigate an outbreak of malaria which was hampering the construction of a new railroad through a remote area of Brazil covered with thick forests and jungles. Dr. Chagas arrived at a small city called Lassance near the São Francisco River in the Amazon and began searching for the cause of what was responsible for killing those railroad workers.

Dr. Carlos Chagas at the Oswaldo Cruz Institute Rio de Janerio, Brazil

Over a period of two years Dr. Chagas observed the lifestyles and living habits of local people. Many people were living in ramshackle tin roofed hovels or in temporary camps which used canvas tents set up next to the railroad tracks as primary shelters. He soon discovered a bug which he suspected had something to do with what was causing sleeping sickness among the locals and railroad workers.

Locals had many names for the bug. They called it the “Assassin Bug” or “the Barber”, primarily because the bug had a habit of feeding on the faces of its hosts, usually at night. Today, most people refer to that insect either as the “Kissing Bug” or Triatomine. Dr. Chagas eventually discovered the link between the bug and its victims by examining the bug’s feces and the blood of a sick three-year-old girl.

Dr. Michael Z. Levy of the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, credits Dr. Chaga’s intuition about suspecting the kissing bug as a possible vector, noting that over 100 years ago Chagas located the parasite in the bug long before actually seeing a single case of the disease. Eventually, Dr. Chagas saw a flagellate protozoa under his microscope in samples of the girl’s blood which were identical to ones found in the feces of the kissing bug. He named the parasite after his mentor Oswaldo Cruz, hence the modern name for the parasite; Trypanosoma cruzi.

T.Cruzi Protozoa
Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A deadly protozoa

Dr. Chagas believed that armadillos were the natural “reservoir” for the parasite. He suspected that kissing bugs were primarily feeding on their armadillo hosts while also occasionally biting humans and thus transmitting T. cruzi. Today, we know that kissing bugs feed on a wide variety of mammals including opossums, raccoons, wood rats, mice, dogs and etc.
According to the Chagas Disease Foundation, the T.cruzi parasite affects about 20 million people in Mexico, Central and South America. The Foundation says that the disease is especially prone to affect younger people and those living in rural or semi-rural areas. Those factors make it exceptionally deadly amongst people living in impoverished areas.

Transmission of the parasite

Debris of temporary immigrant camp near the Arizona-Mexico border
Perfect breeding ground for the Kissing Bug
Photo courtesy: of Lance Altherr

The U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that approximately 8 Million people have Chagas disease throughout Mexico, Central America, and South America. The CDC also estimates that as many as 300,000 cases of Chagas could be in the U.S. today. According to the CDC, many people who have been infected with Chagas are unaware that they are carrying it until it becomes life-threatening. It is not uncommon for people to actually have Chagas for many years with little or no symptoms until heart and digestive muscle damage eventually gets noticed.

Where Kissing Bugs have been spotted in the U.S.
Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Because of its ability to remain hidden in its hosts for many years, Chagas is especially worrying for people receiving blood transfusions or organ donations from infected donors. Chagas can also be transmitted from mother to child through birth or via breast-feeding.
A typical transmission of T.cruzi involving a kissing bug and human usually begins at night. Kissing bugs generally hide in crevices in the walls or roof of a structure by day and then climb onto their host at nighttime while they are sleeping. The kissing bug will then feed on its host, usually near the eye, lip or nose. As the insect fills its body with blood from its host, the increased fluid pressure pushes excrement from its abdomen. A sleeping person who has been bitten may inadvertently scratch the feces into the wound site or onto their mouth. A common indication of a kissing bug bite is known as the Romaña sign. This is expressed as a general puffy swelling around the eye caused by scratching or rubbing the kissing bug’s feces into the eye.
Romana Sign - Chagas- T.cruzi
Photo courtesy: Falcultad de Medicina UNAM

What this research means for victims of bedbugs

Arguably, the most important finding in this study centers around the research regarding the transmission of T.cruzi between mice and bedbugs. That is because one of the researchers from the team in Peru, who is also a veterinarian, said that mice actively hunt bedbugs. Another Peruvian researcher, a biologist, mentioned that T.cruzi grew exceptionally well in the guts of the bedbugs they studied for their experiments. That combination poses a very real chance that that bedbugs infected with T.cruzi can eventually find human hosts.

Hypothetical T.cruzi transmission to humans
Property of Products for Peaceful Operations

Understanding the legal concept of habitability and how it relates to this research

Throughout America most state courts handle disputes between tenants and landlords using contract law. Those courts will often use a lease agreement between a landlord and tenant as the standard contract on which they will base most of their decisions. The lease agreement usually forms the contract which memorializes an exchange of money from the tenant to the landlord in consideration for the use of a habitable dwelling for a prescribed period of time.

The key word here is habitable. In American contract legal theory each contract must contain the element of “consideration” or it is not enforceable. In other words, a landlord cannot receive money for a dwelling which has no commercial value. Traditionally, rental properties are considered uninhabitable when there are substantial defects within the dwelling which render the property unsafe, or otherwise adversely affect the health of the occupants.

Some examples of habitability issues could be an apartment with no running water, no heat during the winter, large holes in the ceiling or roof and etc. Basically, any defect which would convince a reasonable person to avoid paying any money for the privilege of occupancy. Courts will typically void any contract between a landlord and tenant whenever the dwelling is determined to be uninhabitable. In the eyes of the court, such a dwelling has no commercial value and thus, there can be no “consideration” in the formation of that contract. A landlord would be ordered to return the tenant’s money and any other fees associated with that property.

Traditionally, American courts have not recognized bedbugs as a habitability issue. Many courts allow landlords broad discretion when it comes to enforcing pest-control clauses which have been inserted into lease agreements. Unfortunately, most tenants do not understand that they can be harmed by signing a lease agreement which contains provisions which exclude the landlord for pest-control liability.

This new bedbug research could potentially change traditional notions regarding habitability. That is because bedbugs have now been proven to be a potential vector of a deadly disease. A court must now decide whether the presence of bedbugs represents a potential danger to the health or safety of a prospective tenant.

Sadly, the American legal system is rigged against low-income tenants. In larger cities rental properties are often owned by large consortiums or corporations with considerable legal power. It is not uncommon for a group of wealthy property and real estate business owners to join together and purchase multiple- dwelling rental properties.

Those property owners often contribute substantial donations to the election campaigns of local judges. Those judges are therefore often reluctant to enforce policies which might be more favorable towards tenants. Although those judges will not openly deny most valid habitability claims, they will not grant tenants the advantage in most bedbug cases. Unless there has been clear, documented proof of misrepresentation by the property owner, most tenants will not prevail in lawsuits involving bedbug claims.


The Big Homie Joel Z. Williams
Director: Products for Peaceful Operations

Personally, I feel that it is very unlikely that bedbugs will transmit Chagas to humans. That being said, if it ever does happen you can bet that some poor tenant made ill or killed as a result of Chagas disease will be in large part because a landlord was simply too cheap to treat a bedbug infested apartment. My hope is that public outcry will eventually become so strident that courts will have no choice but to recognize the presence of bedbugs within a dwelling as something which adversely affects the health and safety of its occupants. Until that time, please use the Williams method to apply CimeXa desiccant powder, make passive monitoring pitfalls, create Co2 bedbug traps and practice mattress and furniture encasement using contractor’s plastic sheeting. Learn how to do that here:

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Secret Sentry, the untold story of the National Security Agency

 Author: Matthew M. Aid, Bloomsbury press 2009

I just finished reading a seminal work on the National Security Agency written by Matthew M. Aid. It should be noted that perennial anti-hawk commentator Seymour M. Hersh went so far as to say about the book, “by far the best book ever written on the national security agency, it’s outside operations and internal struggles”.

Although I am a little more sanguine about the writing, I will say that I did learn quite a bit about the historical leadership of the NSA. I realize that most Americans could not care less about the list of generals who have run the NSA since its inception back in 1943 but I think it’s important to know how one of the most feared and hated federal agencies came into existence. Many would be surprised to know that the NSA as we know it today basically started after U. S. Army Brigadier General Carter Clarke ordered cryptologists to begin secretly cracking Soviet codes at a former girls’ preparatory school named Arlington Hall in Arlington, Virginia. 

Later, Clarke became convinced the Soviets were working on obtaining an atomic bomb. He kept a sharp ear tuned to the inner workings of the Soviet bomb program to prevent what he called, “an atomic Pearl Harbor”.
Still, beyond the rather stilted prose and long-winded dissertations, the book still manages to reveal many stunning revelations which I had not previously found in any of the equally well-researched words by James Bamford, author of “The Shadow Factory”, nor by the excellent documentary news program, “Frontline”. Here are some of those stunning revelations:

Matthew M. Aid
see his book discussion on C-SPAN here

  • The so-called, “switchboard” in Yemen which acted as a relay station for many of Al Qaeda’s conversations had a phone number (011-967-1-200-578). Americans learned of this house in Yemen from an FBI interrogation of a bombing suspect in the East Africa attacks on U. S. embassies. The NSA tapped the phone line for years to keep tabs on Al Qaeda. The telephone intercepts remained ongoing until Yemeni police, acting on their own initiative, raided the home and arrested everyone inside effectively ending the NSA’s only window into Al Qaeda operations inside Afghanistan/Pakistan. I was half tempted to call the number myself just to see if anyone would answer, but fear of being placed on some secret NSA watchlist prevented that.

  • U. S. Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith was largely responsible for the push to supply bogus information about the links between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Al Qaeda leadership. We now know that almost all of the material provided in the National Intelligence Estimate was either made up from whole cloth, or purposely distorted to give the U. S. a Casus Belli for war in Iraq. In fact the distinguished British defense corresponded and military historian Max Hastings has described the Iraqi WMD intelligence fiasco as, “the greatest failure of Western intelligence in modern times”.

  • On Oct. 18, 2002 the NSA director at the time, General Michael V. Hayden, ordered a 29 person unit stationed at the NSA listening post in Fort Gordon Georgia to focus their attention solely on obtaining SIGINT on WMDs in Iraq.

  • On Dec. 3, 2001 a U.S. Army Grey Fox signals intelligence (SIGINT) team near Gardez, Afghanistan picked up walkie-talkie communications which indicated Al Qaeda, and indeed UBL, was hiding out in the Tora Bora mountain range. In what can only be described as a monumental tactical failure then U. S. CENTCOM commander General Tommy Franks ordered his subordinate Major General Franklin “Buster” Hagenbeck to engage in Operation Anaconda to surround and trap the Al Qaeda command structure. Perhaps for political reasons, Franks and Hagenbeck did not enlist the help of a nearby elite 2, 300 man U. S. coalition Special Forces unit known as Task Force K-bar. Instead, the Army relied on a hastily assembled team of local militiamen and other Western alliance Afghans to do the important job of cornering and capturing Osama bin Laden. The result was that even though the CIA had paid the fighters hundreds of thousands of dollars, those fighters would not actively participate in killing other Muslims. In fact, many of the fighters referred to UBL as, “the Sheik” and grew excited like giddy schoolgirls whenever they came close enough to hear his voice over their handheld walkie-talkies. The result was a missed opportunity to decapitate Al Qaeda quickly and efficiently.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           
  •  NSA was virtually blind to activities conducted by the military apparatus of Saddam Hussein’s regime because Iraq had hired European contractors to install fiber optic communication lines to link their military units. Apparently, the NSA had no way of conducting SIGINT capable of penetrating that technology. In fact, some of the first airstrikes in the opening salvo of the Iraq war were to damage those fiber-optic nodes in the hopes that Iraqi leadership would begin using less secure communications. This made me wonder if this is one of the reasons why Google is currently experiencing so much difficulty and government push- back in rolling out its Google Fiber program which uses fiber-optic cable to conduct Internet and other communications at extremely high speeds.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               
  • The American SIGINT community is now scrambling to find and keep qualified operators because of the military’s “Stop-Loss” policy. Stop-loss prevents military members with specialized skills from separating from military service during times of war or emergencies even after they’ve served their enlistment commitment. Many specialists fled the military because of stop-loss forced extended tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, others with Arabic, Pasto, Urdu, Dari language skills are purposely not enlisting because they know that a stint in the military can lead to multiple forced deployments working long hours for extended periods of time. The NSA was reduced to lowering its security clearance standards and scouring for recruits in the streets of Fremont, California which is known as the largest concentration of Afghan expatriates in the U.S.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
  • the actual NSA building and support facilities in Fort Meade, Maryland sucks up so much electricity that they can hardly keep the computers inside running. This shortage of electricity often results in brownouts which leaves some portions of NSA computer facilities down for hours at a time. The NSA routinely racks up electrical bills from Baltimore Gas and Electric which averaged about $30 million in 2007.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
  • The NSA director’s office is considered one of the best offices in all of the federal government. The spacious and well-appointed office is nicknamed, “the penthouse”. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Williams Method-Bedbug Co2 Trap for Free.

Hello, if you have bedbugs and you also have limited funds then this may be just what you need to get some sleep.WATCH THE COMPLETE VIDEO FOR FREE HERE: The Williams Method

The Williams Method- Bedbug Trap and Lure Construction
Items you will need:
·         2-Quart Pitcher- something to mix the yeast, sugar and water in. This can also be a 2-liter bottle with the top half cut off, or even a large pot or bowl in a pinch.
·         Stirring spoon- To mix up the yeast, sugar and water.
·         2-Liter bottle with its cap. To serve as the lure, choose a darker bottle as that will reduce the amount of sunlight getting to the inside of the bottle which will speed the fermentation.
·         Granulated sugar-Brown sugar is better.
·         Active dry yeast. Fleichmann’s is probably the most common, but Red Star, Redi-Rise or any generic dry yeast will also be suitable. You will find this in the baking section of the grocery store. I prefer the strip of three individually sealed ¼ ounce packets which sell for about $3.00. That’s because each ¼ ounce packet contains exactly 2 1/2 teaspoons of yeast. Just enough for one 2-Liter Bottle. (There are 3 teaspoons in every tablespoon in case you only have a big spoon).

·         Flexible straws. Plastic tubing is better. I like clear vinyl tubing. ¼”x .170”. A 20 ft. roll cost me $3.00 on Amazon.
·         Smooth Bowl. or similar container to act as the pitfall. A shot-glass works best. If you have kids then select a plastic container so that it doesn’t shatter if someone accidentally kicks it when you place it under the bed.
·         Paper towel. Fabric or tape will also work for this as well to serve as the ramp for the bedbugs to climb up to the pitfall, also known as the ascension platform.
·         Tablespoon.
·         Measuring cup.
·         Funnel.

·         Scissors-something to create a hole in the lid of the 2-liter bottle. This can also be an Exacto knife, a hammer and a nail, even the sharp edge of a steak knife. Basically anything which will create a small hole in the center of the lid about the diameter of a toothpick.
·         Glue. This is used to seal the hole cut into the bottle when using flexible straws or vinyl tubing. This prevents the Co2 gas seepage. Silicone adhesive sealant (RTV) works best. You can find this at Walmart. A small dab of strawberry jam will also work in a pinch.
·         Baby powder, corn starch, diatomaceous earth.
·         Petroleum jelly. (Vaseline).

Co2 Generator Recipe for 2-liter bottle
STEP 1) The Proof:
Begin with “kick-starting” or proofing a small amount of yeast, sugar and water in a separate clean glass. For this let’s use the average-sized drinking glass which is about 12 ounces or the same amount as a can of soda.
·         Add about 6 ounces of lukewarm water to the glass, or until half full. Lukewarm means that the temperature of the proofing water should be around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 C), or about the temperature of an average human. Think about this as if you were preparing a bottle for a baby. The reason for extreme caution in this process is because most of the yeast you are able to find in the store is called active dry yeast. This yeast is dehydrated and often coated with a thick jacket of dead yeast cells which allow it to be stored for over a year at room temperature and nearly a decade when frozen. What you are doing in the proof process is gently rehydrating the dried, but still living, yeast cells so that you don’t have a massive die off of the active cells.

·         A cause of many CO2 generator failures is because people shock the yeast by using cold water which kills off many of the active cells. You need to be able to gradually, rehydrate the yeast without killing a lot of the active Saccharomyces cerevisiae fungi in the process.

·         Now add one tablespoon of sugar to the lukewarm water.

·         Next, add a full ¼ ounce packet of the active yeast to the drinking glass which now contains sugar and water. Stir the mix vigorously using a clean spoon. It is important to keep your proofing tools as sterile as possible.

·         Let that mixture proof for about 10-15 minutes. You will know it is proofing correctly if you begin to see it creating frothy bubbles similar to a head on a beer.

Step 2) The Lure:
·         While the proof is developing you can begin adding 2 cups of sugar to your 2-liter bottle. Brown sugar is best if you have it, yet regular white granulated sugar is sufficient.
·         Fill the bottle about ¾ full with lukewarm water.
·         Put the cap on the 2-liter bottle and shake the sugar/water mixture vigorously.
·         Remove the cap from the 2-liter bottle and create a hole in the center of the cap about the diameter of a fat toothpick (1/16” in.) which will allow the gas being generated inside of the lure to escape at a slow rate. An X-acto knife, steak knife or even a hammer and a nail will make short work of this. Please take care not to cut yourself.
·         Using a funnel, pour the contents of the now proofed yeast mix into the 2-liter bottle and replace the cap onto the bottle.

Step 3) Creating and attaching the ramp to the pitfall:
·         Use three strips of duct tape to connect the floor to the center of the lip of the bowl. The concept here is that you want to create a ramp so that the bedbugs will be able to climb up to the top of the bowl, after being attracted by the scent of Co2, and then fall into the pitfall. A good ramp can even be made out of a bandanna or similar strips of cloth. Make sure you create your ramp just right on the lip of the bowl so that the bedbugs will essentially “fall over a cliff” into the bowl, but not be able to use the ramp to get back out. This step is the primary reason why most of these traps fail. A poorly constructed ramp negates the effectiveness of even the most accurately assembled lure.
·         Apply a liberal coating of baby powder or corn starch to the interior wall of the bowl to make it extra slippery and prevent bedbugs from crawling out of the pitfall.
·         For added lethality you can also dab petroleum jelly in spots along the inside of your pitfall. The bedbugs will get “stuck” in place and exhaust themselves faster after they come into contact with the jelly.

Formulas for smaller lures:

For 1 liter or 32 ounce bottles:
Follow the same steps but reduce your proofing yeast amount to ½ of the package (1.25 teaspoons) of yeast, and ¾ cups of sugar in the lure. This assumes that your yeast package is one of the most commonly sold strips of three individually-wrapped packets containing ¼ ounce of yeast or 2 ½ teaspoons per each packet.

12-16 ounce bottles:
Follow the same steps as before but reduce your proofing yeast amount to 1/3 of the yeast package or (0.8 teaspoons). Use 1/4 cups of sugar or 4 tablespoons or 12 teaspoons in the lure bottle. This assumes that your yeast package is one of the most commonly sold strips of three individually-wrapped packets containing ¼ ounce of yeast or 2 ½ teaspoons per each packet.

Please be sure to post back to this site about your progress and any successes you want to brag about.

I will post congratulations to anyone capturing bedbugs and posting a pic of them in a ziploc bag.

Gold Medal= 100 bedbugs captured.
Silver Medal= 50 bedbugs captured.
Bronze Medal= 25 bedbugs captured.

Thank you for visiting my site. My name is Joel Z. Williams. People in my neighborhood call me the poor people's advocate. You will recognize me by my white hat, but you will know me by my virtuous ways.

Friday, August 8, 2014

"Google is not a synonym for research."

I just ran across an interesting quote that at first intrigued me, and then pissed me off. The quote was taken from author Dan Brown’s 2010 novel, The Lost Symbol 

“Google is not a synonym for research.”

At first, I got a chuckle out of the “off-the-cuff” statement. As a man in his 40’s, I appreciate the basic sentiment of what Dan Brown is talking about. Far too often during encounters with my younger friends I discover they only think they know about an issue related to current events. More often than not the case is that they only actually possess just a cursory knowledge of the matter.

Photo courtesy of Amazon

I believe its a product of our younger generation's reliance on their handheld devices for the bulk of their information. Seriously Millennials, how much detail can you glean about the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa, for example, by only using twitter as your primary means of news? When I was in my 20’s most people subscribed to weekly periodicals such as Time, Newsweek or U.S. News & World Report and etc. At the bare minimum, everyone at least read a newspaper daily.

Then there were the evening news shows. Growing up, and even into my young adulthood, I made it a point to watch Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings go over world events each night. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but I was being suckled at the teat by some of the most experienced news journalists of that time.

The younger generation's concept of news

Flash forward to today. One of my best friends is 27-years old. He never reads a newspaper or magazine, seldom watches television news or listens to objective news radio. Almost all of his news consumption is done using the 2.31 x 4.5” screen of his iPhone. I have a running joke with him in which I tease him about the way he gets his news: “if an event is not reported in less than 140 characters it might as well have never happened.” In fact, a recent study says 2/3 of Americans aged 14-30 get their news from social media sites like Twitter or Facebook. We're talking about 68% of that demographic!!!

"I just finished reading a tweet about Ebola. Good, now I can skip the News-Hour on PBS...so boring."
Photo Courtesy of Zimbio

This problem came to a head recently when I got into an argument with that same friend surrounding the West African Ebola outbreak. He made a statement in which he unwittingly repeated a GOP political talking point, erroneously believing it to be the truth. I’m paraphrasing of course, but he said something to the effect of, “it’s just a matter of time before Ebola gets to America… Hell, there’s a doctor in Guatemala that has it already.”

I immediately challenged my friend on where he gathered that information because I knew it to be erroneous. In fact, the statement actually has its link to a Georgia Representative Phil Gingrey, who was on a conservative talk show trying to stoke fear of young unaccompanied minors entering the 
U. S. illegally. Here is an excerpt from what Rep. Gingrey (R) actually said:

"It's been said that the United States has found over 70 people from Ebola-stricken African countries entering our country from the southern border since January of this year,"
"We gotta stop them illegal children from bringing ebola into our country!"
Photo courtesy of Rawstory

When pressed about where he got that information, Gingrey’s handlers pointed reporters in the direction of the conservative news site Breitbart, a favorite among conservative millennials who favor its cell phone app because of its pithy, bite-sized summaries of topical news items.
That’s the problem in a nutshell that Dan Brown is talking about when he says that Google is not synonymous with research.
But is Dan Brown only partially correct in his assessment?

Could anyone without a secret security clearance have actually researched America's clandestine spying on its own citizens before Snowden's leaks became public?

Consider the recent revelation of widespread unauthorized National Security Agency wiretapping of Americans by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Dan Brown is legendary for his work on his bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. It has been reported that Brown spent hours of exhaustive research at the Vatican archives and other facilities researching primary sources for his book. Brown would argue that the amount of depth and detail which characterizes his work would be impossible if he had limited his research to only Google searches.

But what are we to make of that argument when we compare it to the thousands of documents leaked by Edward Snowden? Because of their sensitive nature, it would be impossible for a novelist to have access to the information Snowden leaked which is now widely available and accessible via Google search. In fact, an argument could be made that a Google search of what information the NSA gathered from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone would be superior to a request to the NSA using a Freedom of Information Act request. So yes, in that case Google is synonymous with research.

That brings me to my next point in this debate and why Dan Brown’s statement made me so angry. Many people have already forgotten about the tragic story of Aaron Swartz.   
I don't want to get too preachy about what Aaron Swartz was all about, I will leave that to you to figure out on your own. What I will say, however, is that Aaron Swartz represented the Millennial’s best chance of making Dan Brown and his “deep dive” type of archive research obsolete.

"Look at me, I'm researching"
Photo courtesy of The return of the modern philosopher

For those who are unaware, Aaron Swartz hung himself after he was arrested and about to be tried for breaking into a computer server located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Swartz was allegedly downloading academic journal articles from JSTOR. JSTOR is essentially a network of digitized academic journals and other highbrow research documents which are stockpiled behind a pay wall. So, to make a long story short, what Swartz was trying to do was to circumvent the JSTOR paywall being enforced by MIT. He attempted to do that by downloading the documents from the MIT server where the government-funded research was being parked, and then re-uploaded them on another server bank located elsewhere so that anyone using the internet could access the files for free.

Intellectual elites cling to knowledge and share it grudgingly with the American public despite receiving taxpayer funding for their pet projects.

Aaron Swartz
This man died for our collective internet sins
Photo courtesy of Flicker via Wikipedia Creative Commons

The reason why Dan Brown’s comment, “Google is not synonymous with research”, is still valid is precisely because most of the important statistical records and data are still currently being stored behind a pay wall or some other limited access point. In essence, Aaron Swartz was about to level the intellectual playing field between those elite few who possess the knowledge and only mete it out to the general public for a fee after it has become obsolete, and the unwashed masses who could stand to benefit from that knowledge in a timely fashion. A true democracy of knowledge.

It reminds me of advice once given by the legendary pimp Filmore Slim. Slim is widely regarded as one of the most studied pimps of all time and is rumored to be the inspiration for Snoop Dogg's persona. Slim was notorious for charging up and coming would be pimps for "consultation fees" regarding the pimp game. Slim's rationale is that if he could control the knowledge on his competitive San Francisco, California turf he could limit his competition in the streets. 

The good news is that Aaron Swartz death was not in vain. The U.S. Congress is now investigating a bill that would mandate the accelerated release of taxpayer-funded research to the public. The proposed bill is called the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR). The overall concept of FASTR is that research that has been funded by taxpayer money should not be restricted from taxpayers by a pay wall.

"The Game is to be sold...not to be told!"
Photo courtesy of  Flixist

Perhaps the biggest offenders are the private universities which recieve federal funding to conduct experiments in the form of  research grants. Those same institutions then take their research, publish it in a university journal, and then lock it away in JSTOR where only other universities or academics who pay JSTOR fees can access it.

FASTR will break down several paywall barriers and go a long way toward crowdsourcing academically collaborative projects around the globe.

In conclusion, hopefully one day intellectually sound, peer-reviewed and scientifically relevant information will be ubiquitous and free. Hopefully, the light of truth will eventually reveal all that is still shadowed by ignorance and deception. One day truth on the internet will become so commonplace that it will disprove Dan Brown's statement. We will know for certain that day has truly arrived when  a simple Google search offers the same benefit of traditional research. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Russell’s Teapot, the God Debate, and Cunningham’s Law

Back on Feb. 4, 2014 I got into a heated conversation with one of my friends (let’s call him Phil for the purposes of this story) about the absurdity of the Bill Nye “the science guy” vs. Ken Ham religious debate. In case you didn’t watch it, what transpired was the classic argument about whether science and the study of evolution through natural selection is superior to the belief that all life on Earth is a result of a divine entity (in this case protestant Christianity).

Side note: Bill Nye is a former aerospace engineer and one of America’s leading champions of the teaching of science in its public schools. Ken Ham is the curator of a Christian themed museum which, inter alia, attempts to show through physical evidence and the dispute of accepted scientific methods that the Earth was created in the manner described in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible (more specifically, the book of Genesis).

What transpired was a nearly 3 hour debate involving one of the world’s oldest questions: “How did we get here?” As a person who considers himself intellectually flexible I attempted to set aside my personal biases and beliefs to consider both arguments equally with as much neutrality as possible. Both sides acquitted themselves fairly well using the now very predictable Power-Point slide show and lecture combo which has become de rigueur at such modern venues. Point and then counterpoint, followed each other like a well-choreographed dance. Argument and then rebuttal. It was really standard stuff for any debate. In fact, it wasn’t until the contest was half-way finished before I had an incredible insight which I later shared with my friend. I told Phil that the debate really wasn’t about which origin story is more valid, but in fact was really about a deeper and more insidious argument. The real story, which I believe was getting lost in the weeds, was about who bears the onus of proving an origin story? The person stating it? Or the person attempting to call BS?

Here is where my friend and I disagreed about who actually won the argument. According to Phil, Ken Ham had “beat the socks off” Bill Nye because Nye failed to produce a single physical specimen or other similar example of “the missing link” between human beings and other primates. I said, “what about the Tiktaalik (first example of a “walking fish”) that Bill Nye demonstrated in his Power-Point slide as proof of evolution through natural selection?” My buddy Phil wasn’t buying it. He said that the connection between the Tiktaalik and modern man was too distant, and therefore evolution and, by extension, natural selection fails. So then I said, “what about when Bill Nye brought up the fact that we share almost 98% of our genes with chimpanzees? As far as Phil was concerned, if it were true that humans and chimps share much of the same genetic code then somewhere on the planet there would exist a chimp capable of speech. In other words, Bill Nye’s arguments fell flat on their noses and the moderator should have rung a bell and rushed to lift Ken Ham’s arm into to air as if he had just won a 15 round heavyweight boxing match simply because Bill Nye failed to produce a talking chimp.

That’s when I told my buddy about Russell’s Teapot and although it did not forever change his opinion about the origin of the world, I think Phil gained a new found respect for my ability to analyze current events.
This post is already much too long so I won’t bore you with details that you can learn on your own by clicking on the hyperlink. (It’s basically a theory posited by one of the best logicians of the modern era in which he is calling BS on religion. Russell compares modern religions as behaving like people who make a claim that a porcelain dish is floating somewhere in space, yet invisible to even our most sensitive telescopes. Furthermore, the fact that nobody can prove that the teapot does not actually exist is therefore proof, in of itself, that the teapot does exist. Confused? Here’s Russell’s Teapot (“RT”) put even more succinctly:

The burden of proof is on the claimant, not the disclaimer.”

Bertrand Russell  at 44 yrs. (1872-1970)

That is when it dawned on me that this debate was doomed from the beginning because both sides were working towards different goals while using different sets of tools. For example, Ken Ham’s debate technique could best be described as a variant of a phenomena that I wrote about last week called “Cunningham’s Law” (“CL”). Here is that theory in short:

Ken Ham had essentially rigged the debate by saying, “Prove my improvable assertions wrong using evidence which cannot exist.” So in a sense Bill Nye entered this debate operating under the perception that Ham had somehow “posted the wrong answer onto the internet” and therefore it was Nye’s duty to attempt to “fix Ham’s code” by giving him the right answers.
Whereas, Ken Ham was operating under the principles of Russell’s Teapot. From his perspective, whatever evidence produced by Bill Nye, and the community of scientists that he represented, could never sufficiently convince him that a Christian God did not create the Earth in less than 6,000 years. Primarily because Ham knew going in, that “even the most sensitive telescope Nye could produce would invariably still be unable to detect the teapot that he had claimed was floating out in space”.

(please comment, repost and donate a dollar or two if you like this, thank you for your support!)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Cunningham's Law and the Williams Corallary (+playlist)

Cunningham’s Law and the Williams Corollary

                 Ward Cunningham, Wikipedia Pioneer
(Photo by Carigg Photography and courtesy of:Wikipedia Creative Commons.)

                  Cunningham’s Law: “The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer." As quoted by Cunningham's friend and former Intel Corp. executive Steven McGeady

 Williams’ corollary to Cunningham’s law: "It's not enough that the question posited be incorrect; said question must also be so egregiously erroneous as to compel even the laziest of smug, know-it-all bastards to get off their judgmental haunches and chime in with the correction.” Taken from a comment posted on Reddit, March 8, 2014

Joel Z. Williams
Creator of the "Williams Corollary" to the Cunningham Law

In a discussion held on the popular news and information site Reddit, Joel Z. Williams responded to a comment left by "rockychunk" who stated that Cunningham's Law was fairly good but that it did not apply in situations where it was unclear as to whether the answer put forth was accurate or true. Joel Z. Williams agreed with "rockychunk" and expanded this concept to say that any answer put forth must deviate substantially from any plausibly correct answer in order to compel persons to intervene.

For example: Joel Z. Williams published an article a year prior to his discussion with "rockychunk" wherein he posted a formula he named the "Williams Peak". Although not a scientist, Joel Z. Williams created the formula using plausible variables such as the numbers of insecticide resistant bedbug cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control, the numbers of licensed Pest Control Operators in the U.S. and etc. Yet despite the article receiving heavy viewership for over a year, no scientist or other expert questioned his formula or otherwise called him to account. Joel Z. Williams attributed this phenomena to the fact that his formula contained all of the normal hallmarks of scientific legitimacy. Indeed, his correct use of letters to denote time, distance, costs, and etc., in his formula discouraged critical analysis from people unfamiliar with such fields of study.

 Joel Z. Williams pointed to the tactics employed by Nigerian con-artists working what has come to be known as an Advanced-Fee Fraud, or "419 Nigerian Prince Scam". These con artist purposely send out thousands of emails to potential victims which are peppered with misspelled words and poor grammar in an effort to weed out the more critically thinking victims. This process saves the Nigerian Prince scammers time because of a process called "self-selecting".  Victims who overlook the glaring "red flags" and do respond are usually more feeble-minded and therefore more pliable to their schemes. 

In other words, the majority of people would  immediately notice if a correspondence sent to them did not bear the hallmarks of legitimacy. Readily apparent  indicia of fraud such as bank notes bearing the logos of unfamiliar institutions, hand-written text on a supposedly legal document and etcetera. Smarter people would instantly say: "See? that's a scam, there's no longer any need to read further or otherwise concern myself with the intricacies of that person's sad story." whereas the more gullible person might ignore those obvious signs and say: "OMG that person is in extreme peril and I must act now to save them.".

In summary, if Joel Z. Williams wants to get the right answer on the internet regarding his formula for the Williams Peak, then he needs to rewrite the equation using obviously unscientific terms and other wildly inaccurate and unsubstantiated claims. That should sufficiently upset someone in the scientific community to the point that they would feel compelled to right a wrong and correct such an obvious and unforgivable error. (Note: The Williams Peak article is posted on this site in an article called "The Missouri Method").