Skeptic News: Happy New Year!

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

 

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to you all, and thank you for your support over the last year. We had a very successful conference late last year, and our membership has been slowly increasing, which is great! If you’re a paid-up member, thank you for your financial support and you should be receiving a reminder to pay your (very reasonable) subscription soon. And if you’re not currently a member, you can always rectify that situation by joining us.

This year we’re continuing our monthly national Skeptics in Cyberspace meetings, where we all jump into a Zoom meeting together - and the next meeting is this Friday evening. If you would like to join us for a chin wag and some BYO beer, just ensure you’re a member of one of the Meetup groups below and RSVP to the next “Cyberspace” meeting:

https://www.meetup.com/Auckland-Skeptics-in-the-Pub/events/283005439/
https://www.meetup.com/Wellington-Skeptics-in-the-Pub/events/283005428/
https://www.meetup.com/Christchurch-Skeptics-in-the-Pub/events/283005445/

First up in this week’s newsletter we have another great Why are You a Skeptic segment, this time from Lance Kennedy. Please keep them coming! I for one am finding the telling of your Road to (Skeptical) Damascus moments fascinating, and each of them so far has included at least one topic that’s been new to me and I’ve enjoyed reading up on. With that, over to Lance and some UFO photos.

Mark Honeychurch

Why are You a Skeptic

Lance Kennedy

 

I can blame my skepticism on George Adamski.

For those who do not know, that unworthy gentleman made money writing books about non-existent aliens. He even went to the extent of writing that his alien friends in their miraculous space vehicles took him on joy rides around our solar system. To back up his claims he published, in his books, a photo of a circular flying saucer against a cloudy sky.

To my shame, I was taken in. My excuse is that I was in my early teens and somewhat naive.

The turning point came when I encountered a magazine article about George Adamski, which very effectively debunked everything he had written. Of note is the fact that the article had a photo that was almost identical to the one Adamski had published, of the flying saucer. Except that the background sky and clouds were totally different. The author of the article had taken the photo by the simple expedient of throwing a steel rubbish tin lid into the air, spinning, and then snapping his picture against the background of the sky. It was immediately obvious that Adamski was a cheat.

Frankly, I was utterly mortified. My horror was that I could be so gullible. Since then I have been a lot more discriminating in what I am prepared to accept as true and correct. Like every good skeptic, I now require credible evidence. My standard is that if something extraordinary is to be believed, the evidence must be strong enough to get it published in a reputable and peer reviewed research journal such as "Nature" or "The Lancet." Any claim not so published is to be taken with a mountain of salt.

Lotus-Heart fined for “taking a stand”

The Lotus-Heart restaurant in Christchurch has chosen to take a stand against vaccine mandates, by refusing to let customers know if they require a vaccine pass, not promoting use of their COVID Tracer QR Code, and not having any system in place to check vaccine passes. As a result they have been fined $20,000 dollars by WorkSafe.

Other people and businesses have been doing well when it comes to raising money for their COVID weirdness on the popular fundraising site Givealittle. This includes an Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) gym who were given a $12,000 fine, and have since raised over $40,000 to help fight (no pun intended) in court what they claim are unjust mandates, and Casey Hodgkinson who claims she has been injured by the Pfizer vaccine and has raised over $12,000 to fund alternative treatments.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar Givealittle page popped up soon for the Lotus Heart, although presumably this kind of fundraising will only inspire generosity the first few times it’s attempted. Once a few more companies have used this method to help pay the consequences of their bad decisions, I suspect they’ll start to find it get harder and harder to enthuse people enough to donate their money - especially as many of those who are likely to donate are also likely to be unvaccinated, with a good chance that this has affected their employment and subsequent financial status.

And I fully expect to see some of the usual names pop up when and if these cases end up in court - Sue Grey, Liz Lambert and Ashleigh Fechney (who you may hear more about in an upcoming newsletter) all spring to mind, as they all seem more than happy to take money in exchange for bad legal advice or representation. Stay tuned for more.

An unusual vaccine endorsement

A surprising endorsement of COVID vaccines came out recently - from none other than Donald Trump. Trump has a spotty history when it comes to supporting good science, and he’s well known to skeptics for touting several unproven cures (including that particularly confusing press conference where he talked about bleach and an internal UV light).

However, Trump recently said (in an interview with another dubious character, Candace Owens):

“The vaccines work, but some people aren’t taking it. The ones that get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones who don’t take the vaccine. But it’s still their choice. And if you take the vaccine you’re protected. The results of the vaccine are very good and if you do get it’s a very minor form. People aren’t dying if they take the vaccine.”

So, given Trump’s often tenuous grasp of reality, and the many dangerous Republican policies around COVID in the US, why would Trump be boasting about how well the vaccines work? Well, it’s because he thinks the vaccines are his achievement. From the same interview:

“The vaccine is one of the greatest achievements of mankind… I came up with three vaccines… in less than 9 months. It was supposed to take five to twelve years.”

I’m not sure how the many scientists who worked tirelessly on the vaccines for many months feel about this, but personally I’m inclined to let this one slide. Many of the Republican rank and file still look up to Trump, indeed many somehow believe he is still their rightful President. So if Trump is able to convince some of these vaccine hesitant Republicans to get themselves vaccinated, that’s a win in my book.

Nuclear Gandhi

As a programmer, I love a good story about buggy software. Maybe it makes me feel better about my own mistakes! So when I recently heard about a fun bug in the strategy game Civilisation, from way back in 1991, I was intrigued. Apparently the fallout from this particular code error (no pun intended) was that the peaceful world leader Mahatma Gandhi would suddenly become very fond of amassing and using nuclear weapons - a quirk that has been named Nuclear Gandhi.

The source of this problem has been described as an integer overflow (or underflow) bug. In software, integers (and other data types) are often saved with a certain number of bytes. A byte is made up of eight binary bits, making a byte able to hold one of 256 possible values. To store an integer using one byte, we could store a value between 0 to 255, or, if we want to be able to store negative numbers as well, a value between -128 and 127. These are called unsigned and signed integers respectively.

Now, sometimes if you try to store a number larger or smaller than the limit of your data type allows, it will roll around. So for an unsigned integer (from 0 to 255), trying to save the number 256 would actually just store a 0. And an attempt to store a -5 would end up saving the value 251.

And so we come to Civilisation. As Wikipedia describes it:

Civilization is a turn-based single or multiplayer strategy game. The player takes on the role of the ruler of a civilization, starting with one (or occasionally two) settler units, and attempts to build an empire in competition with two to seven other civilizations… Before the game begins, the player chooses which historical or current civilization to play... The game begins in 4000 BC, before the Bronze Age, and can last through to AD 2100 (on the easiest setting) with Space Age and "future technologies".

Obviously a game like this uses a lot of variables in code to store values for many different attributes for all of the game’s mechanics, including those of how each world leader will act. 

The bug that caused Gandhi to gain an affinity for nukes was apparently related to an unsigned single byte integer used to store each leader’s aggression level. These levels could be anything from 1 to 10 (or maybe 12), with numbers above that (up to 255) not being used.

The story of this bug is that Gandhi was the only world leader assigned the lowest possible value of 1 for aggression. But, whenever a nation moved to democracy, this was seen by the game as a peaceful step, and the leader’s aggression level was dropped by 2. For Gandhi, this would put his aggression at -1. But, because an unsigned integer was used, this would end up being saved as an aggression level of 255. And Gandhi with nukes and an aggression level 20 times higher than anyone else in the game was not something you wanted to have to deal with.

This particular bug is frequently used as a warning to programmers of the perils of not using the correct data type for storing your data, including in courses at Harvard University.

However, if that was all there was to it, it wouldn’t be much of a skeptical story. Not only did I learn about Nuclear Gandhi only recently (strategy games aren’t really my thing), but I also learned that the bug is almost certainly not real - despite the fact that many people have attested to having experienced it.

This video from a few years ago does a great job of delving into the details, including contacting creators Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley:
Spoiler: it looks like the bug didn’t exist at all. Brian Reynolds, one of the game’s coders, remembers there only being 3 aggression levels (not 10 or 12), and that the lowest level was assigned by default to all world leaders. Additionally, he thinks the code engine for the early Civilisation games wouldn’t have suffered from a wraparound integer bug causing variables to become extremely large. Instead he suggests that other factors were likely to blame for people’s recollections of Gandhi being aggressive with nuclear weapons in the game. The game had code to make any leader with nukes become aggressive, and this, coupled with how surprising it would be to see peace-loving Gandhi suddenly become aggressive, likely left an impression in people’s minds that other leaders becoming aggressive wouldn’t. So Nuclear Gandhi is more about people’s preconceived notions of how Gandhi should act in the game, rather than a glitch in the code.

An interesting point is that ensuing Civilisation games, starting at Civilisation V, ended up programming Gandhi to have the maximum values for both building and using nukes. This was balanced in game by assigning a fixed role of Peacekeeper to Gandhi’s character, making his predilection for nukes a rare but real possibility (depending on which other roles he acquired). This retrospective adding of the non-existent Nuclear Gandhi bug as a feature in later games may have cemented the idea in many people’s minds that the original game also had this peculiar behaviour.

 
If you have any news or thoughts you would like to see published in this newsletter, we would love to hear from you at:
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