Skeptic News: Live from the Christchurch Home Show

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

Live from the Christchurch Home Show

There’s some classic skepticism in this week’s newsletter - numerology, an American conspiracy theory and a scam that looks, walks and quacks like a Ponzi Scheme. And, as well as my usual ranting, we have a report from Barry Lennox. Barry was a committee member a few years ago, and he recently visited the Christchurch Home Show. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that Barry found several stalls pushing unproven nonsense in amongst the spa pools and heat pumps.

Mark Honeychurch

Russell Tomes
Those who would like to pay tribute to Russell, long-time skeptic and valued member of our committee who died suddenly a couple of weeks ago, are welcome to join a remembrance event on Sunday the 1st of August at 1:30pm, at the Bandsmen's Memorial Rotunda in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.

Fun With Numbers

While trawling conspiracy websites and videos, as I tend to do for fun, I stumbled across a recommendation for a local kiwi numerologist. But the recommendation said that, unlike the usual mystical nonsense, this particular numerologist uses science and maths to find real patterns that are actually useful.

Peter Vaughan is a modest man - modest enough to have named his technique after himself (the Vaughan Method). Peter writes of himself on his website:

“He’s often thought of as having a ‘gift’ but say’s he’s no more gifted than any other person”

Anyway, on to The Vaughan Method. Peter believes that the sounds within your name affect you as a baby:

"emotions are directly connected to the sound of your name from infancy to about four years old. As a baby, you experienced a range of positive and negative emotions. As each emotional experience was experienced, it was always connected to the 'sound' of your name."

Having argued that the sounds in your name will be connected to emotions you had as a baby when you heard your name being said, he then says that the inverse is also true - knowing the sounds of your name is the key to knowing the emotions you would have had. This makes no sense! But, in Peter’s world, anything goes. Our next logical leap is that knowing your emotional states during your formative years allows him to figure out exactly what your personality is.

One of Peter Vaughan’s websites, numerology.net.nz, charges $75 for a full reading, but has a free name analyser that can tell you your personality from a first name alone.

So, as skeptics, how can we test this? Well, first I tried to get to the source code for the website, but unfortunately someone’s turned off access to PHP source files on the server.

Then I tried inputting different text to the PHP file to see what would happen. CAPS or lowercase? Same results each time. Spaces in a name? Breaks the website. A very long name? Works. Punctuation is ignored, giving the same result as without the punctuation. Numbers in a name are not ignored, producing a different result when numbers are added.

Well, what about names that sound the same but are spelled differently - homonyms? Sean and Shaun, Aiden and Aidan, Isabel and Isobel, Graeme and Graham, Mark and Marc. It turns out that the generator produces different results for each spelling, despite the fact that they would sound the same to a baby, and presumably therefore trigger the same emotions. And of course all of this is ignoring that each baby will hear their name at different times, and with different accents, and many will be called by shortened names or nicknames at times. None of this idea makes any sense!

So I’ve put my first name into the analyser and have an accurate reading. Here’s just the first half of my reading:

You have great depth to your personality and may appear somewhat reserved around others, but this is not the case. You listen and observe a lot more than most and do all the work in your head which means you may not express yourself as much as others do. This alongside a potential quality you have where you feel people may not fully understand you as you'd like, so you might find that working or being in your own space is more comfortable at times as you are quite happy in your own company.

You appreciate it whenever you do a good job or task that others will show their appreciation one way or another and not necessarily just getting paid for a job. Personal satisfaction and the quality of your work or efforts are generally above others.  You also have a creative streak and any hobby or pass time you may take up will show the scope and quality you have inside. This comes from emotional involvement of which you have naturally.

You have an eye for the attractive and for things being well presented, hence you will put a lot of thought into your activities and you will check things out, make sure all is correct, cross reference and research at times to find out more about things that capture interest as you have an inquisitive nature. Not only that, but you have a fondness to help and do things and like the idea people will respond in kind for what you give out, however, it is often later in life that you learned, or will learn, when you expected others to respond in kind to the way you think, you discover that not everyone is like you.


Now, to the uninitiated these may feel like hits - wow, they really feel like they describe us so well. But, as I’m sure most skeptics are aware, it turns out that we’re seeing nothing more exciting than a set of Barnum Statements - part of the Barnum, or Forer, Effect. This effect is named for both the circus showman who used to use these statements, and a psychologist called Bertram Forer who used these kinds of statements in a simple experiment to show that most people will rate them as a good fit for their personality.

Sadly it all gets weirder from there. Peter has invented a new technique called lettrology, and for only $6,000 you can learn his secrets, which will allow you to read the “state of a Stock on the Market”, figure out “which party will win national elections” and “detect fraud”. Apparently the letter A “causes people to have major changes in their life at certain times”, knowing someone’s birth name and date of birth allows you to calculate their “Ultimate Destiny”, and “yellow”, “death”, “Jesus” and “covid 2019” all equal the number 2. What?

Peter’s YouTube channel includes testimonials from clients who are happy with his $75 readings, but I’m hoping nobody has been sucked in by the $6,000 course. Not only is it a waste of money, but it would mean there are more people out there perpetuating Peter’s method of fortune telling, and trying to take people’s money in return for a set of feel-good, but useless, platitudes. And let’s just hope that nobody’s making any investment decisions based on his stock market predictions.

Christchurch Home Show

by Barry Lennox

 

Last weekend I visited the Home Show in Christchurch. All the usual suspects were there, Bioptron, Shuzi and the Magnetic and Titanium healer. This was surprising as I had scanned the exhibitor list in the morning and they did not appear.  So I suspect they are on some hidden/covert/backdoor list.

 

Anyway, once again it was Shuzi. I have crossed swords with this lot before, a few years ago they were doing the power balance stunt first exposed by Richard Saunders in Australia, Google "richard saunders exposes the power balance trick" for several versions of the trick and countermeasures.  I did this to the demonstrator who was most unhappy to be messed with! I then entered a discussion over their patented NVT (Nano Vibration Technology). It was trivial to defeat his every statement, but I was dismissed as "having a closed mind". My last riposte was the old "I've an open mind but not so open that my brains fall out". But it's a waste of time, and it's much more satisfying to talk to the pot plant on the corner!

 

Next year I was armed with Australian media reports that essentially ran them out of Australia. So I walked up and requested a comment.  He hotly denied it, tried to grab it (but I was far too quick) and after a few short exchanges he got out his cellphone and called security, or so he claimed. I like to think I spoiled a couple of potential sales.

 

So now I wander up and mention to all those hanging about, that it's woowoo nonsense, based neither on science nor evidence. What is also interesting is that in previous years they have had many (hundreds?) of brochures there. Not one to be seen this year. 

 

Here's a bit more from the Australian skeptics, including an abortive attempt to get Shuzi to front up for a real test.

https://www.skeptics.com.au/2012/08/13/if-you-knew-shuzi/

Birds aren’t real

I recently learned about the absolutely fun conspiracy that is “birds aren’t real”. According to the theory, the CIA in the 1950s were trying to solve two hard problems. Firstly, they wanted to be able to secretly spy on the entire population of the United States. Secondly, they needed to stop birds pooping on their cars in the CIA headquarters car park. These two seemingly disconnected problems gave birth to the genius idea to replace all the birds in America with flying camera drones that look just like birds. As the Birds Aren’t Real twitter account states:

“Birds Aren't Real. They used to be. Until the U.S. Government replaced them with identical drone replicas designed to spy on the American public.”

Following the CIA’s decision, the birds were slowly, secretly replaced with robot surveillance birds until JFK became aware of the plan in 1963 (when he was shown the Turkey X500) and ordered the closure of the project. A month later he was dead. Since then the CIA has ensured only anti-bird presidents have been elected. There’s even a promotional video online from way back in 1987.

Of course, this whole thing is nothing more than a stunt pulled by a student called Peter McIndoe. Peter started it with a protest sign at a women’s march in 2017, which said:

“Birds are a myth; they’re an illusion; they’re a lie. Wake up America! Wake up!”

Soon after he started selling a range of T-shirts, hats and stickers on the birds aren’t real website, which now even sells Birds Aren’t Real face masks.

Beyond just being a way for someone to make a living, this parody serves as a good example of Poe’s Law, which states that:

“without a clear indicator of the author's intent, it is impossible to create a parody of extreme views such that it cannot be mistaken by some readers for a sincere expression of the views being parodied”

In this case, the kinds of views that are being parodied include QAnon and the Flat Earth movement. The idea that America’s birds have been replaced with drones is no dafter than the idea that the earth is flat, or that Trump is secretly still president of the US. And many people in this country believe that the COVID virus doesn’t exist, or that the vaccine contains a tiny microchip from Bill Gates.

What I love is that Peter doesn’t seem to ever break character, as can be seen in this interview from a couple of years ago where, true to Poe’s Law, it’s obvious the TV presenters aren’t sure whether or not he’s sincere in his belief.

Earth 2

I enjoy playing computer games, and own both a gaming PC (RTX 3060 Ti, i5-10400) and a VR headset (Quest). So when I heard about an ambitious new game for PCs, VR and phones, it piqued my interest. The game is called Earth2, and is pipped to be a 1:1 copy of earth, with a faithful reproduction of the entire planet in software. Their website makes comparisons to the movies The Matrix and Ready Player One, both of which feature VR environments that are indistinguishable from reality. This sounds pretty ambitious... maybe too ambitious.

Gaming is a large industry - in fact, the global gaming industry makes more money every year than the global movie industry. Triple A titles, as they are known - the biggest and best titles - cost millions of dollars to make, and take years to complete. Earth2, however, promises to be bigger than anything that’s come before it. All you need to do is trust the developers, and of course invest your money before seeing the product. And this is where it starts to get a little weird.

So, what have they created so far? Just Phase 1 of three phases, which is an online marketplace for buying and selling plots of land in the new virtual world. They have created a website with some mapping software that allows you to pick a 10m x 10m square anywhere in the world, and buy it - land in more populated areas is more expensive. People can offer to buy land from you, and you can make money off your land if the land around it is also populated. Plus you get 5-10% of anything other people spend if they use your promo code - which starts to make this sound like a Multi Level Marketing scheme.

And that’s all there is. People are speculating by buying virtual land and hoping that its price will go up if/when a game is ever released. Although there are no official figures, one estimate I’ve seen is that to date around US$46 million of real estate has been sold - and looking at their map, that’s just a small fraction of what’s available. Given there is no tangible asset here, it’s starting to look like a Ponzi scheme. Some early people have managed to make a small profit by buying up popular tourist spots in the VR world and then selling them on, and pulling out their money - but the ability to withdraw real cash through PayPal has been turned off recently, and replaced with a promise of something new to replace it.

Given the inexperience of the people running this project, and the gaming industry’s history of crowd funded projects either delivering a very bad product or no product at all (known as Vaporware), I suspect that this game is never going to see the light of day, and when everything crashes a lot of people will have lost their money. Just reading the promises they make sets alarm bells ringing:

“The Earth 2 terrain engine is able to render the entire Earth with extreme terrain and vegetation details not seen before in any game, where movement is without loading and popping artifacts at scale. This all with high performance and the ability to down-scale to lower hardware.”

This description just reads like the holy grail - and apparently a group of inexperienced developers in Melbourne, some with a history of making big promises and delivering sub-par games, are able to deliver this amazing product where the world’s largest, most experienced game development companies can’t.

And I’m not the only one who thinks this - a game reporter on YouTube, Big Fry, has made a series of videos showing that the Earth2 Emperor has no clothes.

So, what’s my recommendation? Don’t pre-order this game. Stay away from it, and others like it (such as Crowd1/Planet IX), at least until there’s an actual released product you can play, and reviews from trustworthy game reviewers. A web based map where you can buy tiles is not a game, and neither is a YouTube video of pretty looking terrain. I can speak from experience here - I backed a crowd funded console years ago, the Ouya, and it definitely under-delivered on its promises.

There’s a game I’m really interested in at the moment, that’s being developed in Auckland, called Icarus. But I know not to pre-order, and to wait until release (and after a few reviews have been written), because people who don’t wait tend to end up disappointed. I’m looking at you, No Man’s Sky.

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