Skeptic News: Happy Valentine's Day. Yeah... Nah!

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

 

Happy Valentine's Day. Yeah... Nah!

I hope everyone is having a great Valentine's day, and that none of you are stuck in a muddy field somewhere dealing with sanitation issues ;)

Before we get into our stories for this week, I'm happy to let you all know that Craig, Bronwyn and I have managed to record and release the first episode of our new podcast, which we've decided to call "Yeah... Nah!". The podcast will be biweekly, and we'll be mostly be covering the items we write about in our newsletter. The website for the podcast is podcast.skeptics.nz, although you'll probably find the easiest way to listen is just to open the podcast app on your phone and search for "Yeah Nah" - our podcast is listed in most of the major apps (including Apple, Google, PodChaser, Stitcher, iHeartRadio and even Spotify!), although if we've missed any please let us know.

It was a lot of fun recording the first episode, and we're looking forward to using the podcast as a way to let more people access local skeptical news. For those who take the time to read our weekly newsletter, you might want to give the podcast a go as well - we won't just be reading out our news stories from here, but instead we'll be chatting about our stories, sometimes going into more depth, sometimes going on tangents, and occasionally straying into new stories that haven't been featured here.

Anyway, let's get on with the newsletter and find out how those soggy protesters are doing.

Mark Honeychurch

Convoy 2022

I’m sure everyone is aware of the convoy that headed to Wellington on Tuesday. This collection of cars, campervans and the occasional truck has descended on our capital, supposedly as a protest against the vaccine mandates that our government has put into place over the last few months. On my way into work in Wellington on Tuesday I hit the motorway a little before the first of the groups of vehicles did, and was greeted with the depressing sight of a hundred or more supporters on the bridges between Porirua and Wellington, many of them holding signs created by Voices for Freedom.
 


On Tuesday afternoon I headed to parliament during my lunch break, and spent an hour or so in the crowd, both listening to the speeches given by faces that would be familiar to skeptics (Dr Emanuel Garcia, Dr Matt Shelton, etc), and checking out some of the signs the crowd were waving and the conversations people were having. The crowd were friendly, and apart from some weird stares (and one man with a microphone who chose to challenge me - which led to a fun conversation for a few minutes), nobody seemed unhappy that I was about the only one there wearing a mask.

However it was apparent that many in the crowd were unhappy with the amount of religious content the Destiny church staff were trying to push on everyone. Brian Tamaki was mentioned more than once, as a champion of freedom, and a speech about the life of Jesus seemed to be particularly badly received by those around me. The crowd were also unhappy with Destiny staff telling them that they would need to move their cars and be gone by 5pm, to allow commuters to get home.
 


 

Just before I left, I bumped into an old friend. I’ve seen her posting medical misinformation about the pandemic on Facebook recently, so I wasn’t surprised to see her at the protest. But it was still a little awkward trying to have a pleasant conversation when we’re worlds apart, and it was pretty obvious that I was not there to protest.

When I left Wellington on Tuesday evening, I made sure to drive past Parliament to see how many people had heeded this advice - and, unsurprisingly, it seemed that not many people had packed up and left. In fact, people had started pitching tents on the parliament lawn, and a camp kitchen had been erected on Molesworth Street.

I said supposedly when it comes to the reason for the protest, as it seems that as Destiny church faded into the background, there were no clear organisers - just a collection of groups and individuals each there for their own reasons. This is apparently making it hard for the NZ Police to deal with the crowd and negotiate with them. It’s also scary that the protest includes some scary, angry groups such as the National Front and the conspiracy programme Counterspin - the kinds of people who often talk about violent overthrow of the government.

Thursday’s stand-off with the Police was interesting watching, from afar via a web browser. It pains me to say it, but I found the up close and personal live streams from people like Chantelle Baker to be much more engaging and useful than the telephoto streams from the press up on a balcony of Parliament. That being said, with the amount of “corrupt media” rhetoric being thrown around, I don’t blame real journalists for choosing to film from a safe distance.

One piece of news that surprised me, and not necessarily in a bad way, was that infamous psychic Jeanette Wilson was one of the 120 or so people taken away by the Police. I’ve since watched her last live stream before she was nabbed, and in it she was berating the Police for working for the government, as it’s a “corporation” and not a legitimate authority. She repeatedly told the Police in the line in front of her that they needed to “bend the knee” to God.

One of our panel speakers from last year’s Skeptics Conference, Sanjana Hattotuwa, was interviewed by Marc Daalder for a great piece on this extremist, conspiratorial element at the protest. It makes for sober reading.

On Friday evening I was in Wellington again, this time for our regular Skeptics in the Pub meeting. After our meeting, at about 10pm, two of us decided to visit parliament again. That afternoon the speaker of the house, Trevor Mallard, had ordered the sprinklers to be turned on, and the crowd had come up with some inventive ways to redirect the water, using lengths of pipe, traffic cones and trench digging. By the evening the sprinklers had been joined by bouts of rain, which have since become a cyclone. My visit was brief, but I managed to get a picture of the protesters’ makeshift sprinkler solution.
 


Watching the live streams this weekend, and reading online, it seems that the conspiracy theories are starting to come out. I’ve heard that all of the violent or abusive protesters are actually Police plants, agitators who are being used to give the Police a pretext for trying to shut down the protest. And I’ve read that the bad weather we’ve had this weekend is a result of the government using its ability to control the weather. If you’ve heard of other weird conspiracies related to the protest, please let me know!

NZDSOS Stars

The other day I noticed that the medical misinformation site NZDSOS - where a few anti-vaccine doctors promote their “alternative” COVID ideas - had changed its look. This is an issue for me, as a few months ago I created a spoof site called NZD-SOS which I made to look like the original site. My site pointed out that there are more doctors called Sarah, Michael or Kate, for example, that have signed an open letter in support of COVID vaccination, than there are doctors who have signed the NZDSOS open letter warning against vaccination.

The original site has changed its look several times now, and each time I dutifully change my parody site to look the same. So, to this end, yesterday I started to update my site’s HTML and CSS to match this new facelift. While I was working on this, I clicked on one of the articles on the NZDSOS site and noticed that at the bottom it had a voting system where you could give the article between 1 and 5 stars. Interesting, I thought, and then I gave the page a one star review - bringing it’s overall score down from 4.4 to 4.3.

I then tried to give the page a second vote, just to see what would happen - nope, there was a system in place to ensure you could only vote once. Hmmmm, I wondered, what if I opened the article in an Incognito window? Could I vote again? Yes, I could! Once I’d voted a second time, both of my votes showed up and the page was now at a rating of 4.2. If I wanted to vote again I would need to close the Incognito window and open a new one, which seemed like a tiresome task.

Now, I’m an upstanding citizen and so I let this be and didn’t take things any further. But, if I was more of a skeptical activist, and if I happened to have a background in developing software, what could I have done with this information? Well, maybe I would have started by using the Chrome Inspector to view the request made to the web server whenever a vote is cast. I’d imagine that might have looked something like this:



And maybe I’d have noticed that the only protection against someone voting multiple times was a nonce, a 10 character hexadecimal string that the site uses to fingerprint you, and check whether you've voted already. The kind of string that might be randomly generated with a Javascript function like:

function nonce() {
    return [...Array(10)].map(() => Math.floor(Math.random() * 16).toString(16)).join('');
}


I guess if I wanted to write a script that would downvote all of the posts on the site, I would first need a list of post IDs. And given that the NZDSOS website appears to be a Wordpress site, I’d probably look to using the Wordpress API to request as many posts as possible, and then keep asking for pages until there were no more posts left. If I’d read the documentation properly, I’d imagine the URL for the first page would probably look a little like this:

https://nzdsos.com//wp-json/wp/v2/posts/?per_page=100&page=1

Of course, if I was trying to be shrewd about it, I’d probably want to randomise things a little and not just cycle through the list of posts, hammering the website with thousands of one star votes for each one. If I gave each post a set of totally random scores between 1 and 5 it would only bring the average score down to around 3, but maybe a weighted average, heavy at the one star end, would work well. Possibly from something like this formula:

min + round((max - min) / ((<random number between 0 and 1> * (max - min)) + 1)) - 1

I could then use this to not only randomise the vote score a little, but also randomise the time between casting votes. I’d do this not only because it’s important to limit the rate at which you access an API so that you don’t overload it or get blocked, but also so that your votes look organic - like they’re coming from more than one person.

I’d also want to pick a random article each time, rather than running through the same list sequentially. And I’d probably then tell my script to print out its progress, so that I could see it working. Here’s a mock-up of what I imagine that output might look like:



Finally, once a script like this had been running for a little while, I’d expect to see the voting pattern for an article start to show a weighting towards 1 star votes, with a few votes with more than one star. And, of course, any article that’s already received a set of 5 star votes from people would also still have those votes as well.



As I said, this is all theoretical, but I reckon that given an hour or two I could probably throw all of that together into a small script, probably around 150 lines of code - a script that might end up looking a bit like this:



And, who knows, if someone ends up doing something like this and leaving the script to run over the course of several days, and if the site administrators aren’t paying attention and/or have no way of recording and blocking IP addresses, maybe we’d slowly see the score for each and every article on this misinformation site receiving the one star ratings they so obviously deserve.

The Brothers Bogdanoff and the Jadczyks

It’s funny how things come around. Last week I watched a fascinating documentary on the Bogdanoff brothers. For those not in the know, the Bogdanoffs are a fascinating case study - two brothers who became celebrities via a TV show promoting science, and then somehow bluffed their way into receiving PhDs in physics despite their theses being nonsensical in places. Many of you might recognise the brothers from their later years, where they used extreme plastic surgery to radically alter their look.
 


I highly recommend that you take some time to read up on these brothers, including about their recent deaths in the middle of our current pandemic - I bet you can guess what their stance on the COVID vaccine was!

At one point the documentary I was watching mentioned that someone who helped the brothers to create a fake university, which was part of their effort to use “sock puppet” accounts online to defend their reputations, was called Arcadiusz Jadczyk. Huh, I thought… I recognise that name. Now bear with me while we go on a short skeptical detour…

Many years ago, when I worked at a bank, I had a colleague who was into all sorts of conspiracy theories. As a fairly new skeptic, I had tried to engage him and his claims. For example, he told me he had built an over-unity device - a perpetual motion machine. I asked him to bring it in for me to see it working, and, sure enough, a few weeks later he brought in a converted magnetic hard drive with the cover taken off, and nails and coils of wire attached to it. When I asked if I could see it working, I was told that it only works when there’s a battery attached. 

Now, you might think this is a weird thing for an over-unity device to require. For one, your skeptical brain is probably screaming that the battery is going to provide power to the device, and it’s not an over-unity device if it needs a power input. And two you’re going to be thinking that this is the daftest thing ever. But, it may surprise you to know that many supposed physics-defying devices like this need a battery to work. For the builders of these devices, their usual claim is that a battery is needed to “smooth” the current coming from the energy generating part of the device, so that it can be fed back into the device to keep it working. The proof of over-unity is given via measurements made with multimeters and a little maths.

Those in the know understand that this is where the trickery happens. Most multimeters have some quirks that mean that they aren’t great at showing average voltages/currents, especially for the kinds of fluctuating electrical flows created by generators and alternators. If a meter over-estimates an average reading, the resulting power calculations will give a higher value than the amount of power actually being generated. And, as I’m sure you already suspected, the battery in these devices is the power source that actually keeps the machine running, not the power fed back into the system. And, of course, nobody with one of these devices keeps it running for days on end, as it’ll eventually run out of power and come to a stop.

Other ideas I heard from this colleague included that drinking bleach will unlock the surface of bad bacteria and kill them, using a “key” of five electrons. I also heard that earth’s twin, planet Nibiru, was going to usher in the age of Aquarius, a new age of global stability, peace, prosperity and new technology, and that 9/11 was a controlled demolition. And I was told that there’s a secret cabal of psychopaths who run every major company in the world. For these last two ideas, I was given books to read - and the book about psychopaths was written by none other than Ark Jadczyk. Finally, we’re back to the Bogdanoffs and their partner in crime.

After reading Jadczyk's book about psychopaths, many years ago, I did some background reading on him. It turns out he’s married to a fascinating woman called Laura Knight-Jadczyk. The more I read about her, the weirder things became. She has been involved in spreading so, so many weird and wonderful conspiracy ideas, around Nibiru, free energy, 9/11, the New World Order, weather modification and much, much more. It was obvious from this that my work colleague was consuming all of this drivel and swallowing it hook, line and sinker.



So how did Laura receive all of her information about these conspiracies? Did she have an insider leaking information to her? Nope - she used to run regular seances at her house, where she used a Ouija board to communicate telepathically with an alien race called the Cassiopaeians. These aliens would relay the information to her through the Ouija board. I read a great description of how this used to happen: Laura sitting at a table in front of the Ouija board, with a glass of whisky and a cigarette in one hand, and the planchette in the other. The planchette would move around the board so rapidly that she would have several of her male followers standing over her with notepads and pens, furiously trying to note down the sequence of letters as they were pointed out. And then this information was posted to an internet forum, which is where my colleague was reading it uncritically.

It was frustrating at the time that no amount of evidence I could give to the contrary would convince my colleague that the things he was reading from a woman in the US channelling aliens were nonsense. I’ve occasionally wondered how his life has been since I worked with him - believing in so many paranoid ideas must be tiring. I’ve just searched for his name, and although I can’t find him on LinkedIn, when searching his name in Google the only result that looks likely to be him is an obituary from two years ago. So maybe he’s no longer with us, which is sad.

Speaking of Ouija boards, a good friend made one for me recently! It’s taken pride of place in my collection of skeptical oddities, which include reflexology socks, an electroacupuncture device, divining rods, placebo pills, and a can of Yeti Meat. Maybe I’ll see if I can contact the Cassiopaeians and finally find out the truth about Area 51.
 

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