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May 3, 2013

Dowsing For Dynamite
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:20 AM * 86 comments

When some guy loses his life savings playing a carnival game, you just say, “Hunh?” When a government ministry lays down millions to buy pixie dust, you have to say “Wow!”

If you’re going to have security theater, you need props. Allow me to introduce Mr. James McCormick, sentenced yesterday in the UK to three ten-year jail terms (to be served concurrently, eligible for parole in five), for selling magic wands.

The ADE 651 is the device that made Mr. McCormick’s fortune. ADE stands for Advanced Detection Equipment. It’s the fourth device in the series, following the ADE 100, the ADE 101, and the ADE 650.

Let’s back up a bit. Allow me to introduce the Gopher. This is a gag golf-ball detector, sold in joke-and-party stores in the US for under twenty bucks. What it is, is a plastic handle with a metal rod attached to the front on a hinge so it can swing left and right. When your golf ball goes into the rough and you can’t locate it, pull out your handy Gopher and the rod will swing to indicate which way it lies!

This works by the same principle that moves the planchette on a Ouija board. Tiny involuntary muscle movements make your hand tremble, causing the rod to swing. As to how well it works, the words “random chance” should appear in your mind.

The War On Terror brought a huge market for bomb-detection technology. McCormick saw his chance, bought up a bunch of Gophers, peeled off the labels and replaced them with labels of his own. He repackaged them, and sold them for $6,000 and up (up to $30,000-$60,000 each) to security forces in twenty different countries. It was proved in open court that mold-marks and imperfections in the Gopher handles were identical with the mold-marks and imperfections in the handles of the ADE 100.

Over the ten years that McCormick sold the things he made improvements. To make the device seem more trustworthy he made the handle heavier. Later versions came in hard-sided carrying cases with pre-cut foam packing. The device now had two parts; the handle with the swinging rod attached by a cable to a belt pouch where the detector box was located. That box had a slot into which you’d put a plastic card identifying what it was you were looking for. The box, though, contained no components. The cards, colorfully printed on one side and with an RFID pasted to the other, were just pieces of plastic.

As to how Mr. McCormick sold the things: A combination of high-pressure sales tactics and sleight-of-hand. He claimed that his detector could find any explosives within a kilometer; through lead; through ten feet of earth or twenty feet of water; or from an airplane. The detectors could also supposedly find bank notes, ivory, blood, and a wide variety of drugs. He used fancy words like electrostatic ion attraction and electrochemical (Thermo-Redox) detection to describe how they supposedly worked.

The ADE didn’t have any apparent power source. McCormick explained this by saying it was powered by the static electricity generated by the operator.

He also used old-fashioned bribery. He supposedly sold $122 million worth of the devices to the Iraqi government, but at the cost of $65 million in bribes, leaving him with just $57 million in profit (from which he’d have to subtract the manufacturing cost of up to $60 each).

McCormick bought a house and a yacht. Not just a house, an $8 million house in Bath, England. And a vacation home in Florida. And another in Cyprus. That’s a pretty nice-looking yacht, too.

Let us suppose that you are trying to sell the Card Color Detector 5000. The most advanced Card Color Detector in the world, operating by Heisenbergian Macro-Wave Format Vibration. Here’s how you make one: Take a length of thread. Tie on a finger ring. There you go! Now explain that the CCD 5000 will swing in a straight line over black cards, and in a circle over red cards. To prove it, lay down a series of playing cards face down. Hold the CCD 5000 above each in turn. It works every time! (It’s lots easier for you to do this demonstration if you use marked cards.) Now allow the person to whom you’re selling it to try. Each time it correctly determines the color, say, “See how well it works!” Each time it doesn’t, say, “You weren’t relaxed enough.” Put it in a nice box, include a four-color glossy brochure, and slap a five-figure price tag on it. Remember: A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demonstration.

The “not relaxed enough” line was the actual excuse for why the thing didn’t always function: The operator wasn’t relaxed. Nothing says “relaxed” like “trying to detect terrorist bombs at a police checkpoint in Pakistan.”

As Judge Richard Hone at the Old Bailey said:

“The jury found that you knew the devices did not work, yet the soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere believed in them, in part due to your powers of salesmanship and in part the extravagant and fraudulent claims made in your promotional material.

“After a six-week trial, I am wholly satisfied that your fraudulent conduct in selling so many useless devices for simply enormous profit promoted a false sense of security and in all probability materially contributed to causing death and injury to innocent individuals.”

Worried that you won’t be able to detect explosives now? You can smile! The GT200, manufactured by a different conman company is still on sale! They’re being used right now today in Mexico (among many other countries) to find weapons and drug caches.

And, presumably, golf balls.

Comments on Dowsing For Dynamite:
#1 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 12:17 PM:

Reportedly the government of Jordan required hotels to employ the ADE 651 to sweep cars entering underground parking garages for bombs.

#2 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 12:38 PM:

Which circle of Hell, O Vergil, would this damned soul be committed to?

#3 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 12:51 PM:

Reportedly one of Mr. McCormick's employees worried that the device couldn't possibly work. Mr. McCormick replied, "They work exactly as they're supposed to: They make money."

#4 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 12:52 PM:

Barnum underestimated, apparently.

Here's the thing: does NOBODY think it's important for kids exiting school to have (1) a basic grip on the answer to "how do we know what we know?", i.e. what constitutes evidence; and (2) any goddamn curiosity?

Yes, this asshole is an asshole and doubtless contributed to deaths and injuries, and he deserves far, far less than he's getting. But did NOBODY try to test this gizmo, or even open one to see what was inside??

Particularly pissed off today after one of yesterday's clients was calling everyone they knew to tell them they MUST take (ruddy) (plume-topped tree) oil because Dr. (place with wizard) said so!

(Let's see if my gnome evasion strategy works.)

#5 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 12:53 PM:

(clarification: deserves far less mercy than he's getting)

#6 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 12:56 PM:

If your boss paid $60,000 for a plastic box are you going to saw it open?

#7 ::: Ken Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 12:57 PM:

"find any explosives within a kilometer"

If this actually worked, would any member of the Armed Services stationed in a combat zone ever feel safe? Would any procurement officer worth his or her pay grade ever acquire one??

Or, given that we're talking about twelve street blocks in either direction, any DHS branch or police precinct working in Manhattan?

#8 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 01:03 PM:

Jim: I was more thinking prospective buyer of several million bucks' worth of the damn things.

#9 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 01:16 PM:

Apparently the ADE 651 worked perfectly during demonstrations. They were sold in developing countries without national testing labs, where purchases would be made based on someone's say-so.

"Prove it works!"

"Here's a million dollars for you, General."

"Works fine. We'll buy a dozen."

#10 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 01:27 PM:

When I heard this on the BBC last night I could not bloody believe that somebody could put so many lives at risk in such a blatantly evil way for mere money.

#11 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 01:29 PM:

Jim Macdonald #9: For "dozen" read "ten thousand".

#12 ::: Lighthill ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 01:39 PM:

Lila@4: But did NOBODY try to test this gizmo, or even open one to see what was inside??

The thing is, dowsing rods appear to work perfectly well you test them, so long as your test is unblinded or inadequately blinded. They even appear to work well in the field, so long as you have a little intuitive sense of geology and a target-rich environment.

#13 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 01:40 PM:

Lila, #4: does NOBODY think it's important for kids exiting school to have (1) a basic grip on the answer to "how do we know what we know?", i.e. what constitutes evidence; and (2) any goddamn curiosity?

There are several partially-overlapping circles of authority and influence for whom the answer to that question is not just no, but hell no. Students who understand critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning may question what they're being told by said authority figures. (cf. Texas having officially called for BANNING the teaching of critical thinking in their public-school curricula.) Students (or anybody) with curiosity may decide to perform evidence-based testing or other experiments which might call into question the Absolute Rightness of what the authority figures are telling them.

This all slots in with the gradual feudalization of America. The 1% want serfs who are smart enough to do what they're told, but not smart or curious enough to ever question why things are the way they are. (AKA "I'm so glad I'm a Beta!")

#14 ::: Lee has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 01:41 PM:

Probably for a link.

#15 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 01:44 PM:

My sympathy on living with the crazies in the Texas GOP. They're apparently living in some kind of alternate universe.

#16 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 02:02 PM:

Texas Democrats have known for decades what other folks are only now finding out.

#17 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 02:07 PM:

There have been news stories about this thing going back years.

Usually along the lines of "Military advisers warn that useless device is useless waste of money; told to take a hike by local authorities."

Now we know why the local authorities were so anxious for the scam to continue. They didn't want to miss out on the next bribe.

Ten years isn't long enough. McCormick needs to lose everything. Maybe leave him one car, so he has a place to sleep when he gets out of prison.

#18 ::: Chaomancer ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 02:22 PM:

It's a rare case that makes me actually wish ill on someone, but *this* -

McCormick shouldn't spend time in jail. He should spend time mine-clearing, with only the very best equipment his company sold.

#19 ::: john, who is incognito and definitely not at work ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 02:29 PM:

A part of me--which is much more enraged than fair--thinks it would be poetically just to release him from prison onto a field riddled with land mines, with one of his devices to help navigate it safely.

The more sensible part of my mind shudders at the thought, and feels gross for even having had it.

#20 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 02:45 PM:

The link in the third paragraph to an article about the device is bad. I think the 'http://' is missing, and it's being interpreted as a relative link within your site.

#21 ::: Chaomancer ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 02:50 PM:

john #19 - yeah, on reflection I feel that same horrible feeling for having the thought.

#22 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 03:00 PM:

"My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time --
To let the punishment fit the crime,
The punishment fit the crime..."

#23 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 03:09 PM:

Matthew Brown #20 -- Fixed.

#24 ::: D. Potter ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 03:16 PM:

Fragano Ledgister @ 10: How about money and expediency?

Or, y'know, it'll cost less to replace the bad bolts and open the bridge later than it will to pay off the judgments of the lawsuits when the bolts snap in the earthquake. (I also have to love when a reporter states that the worst-case scenario is that "The bridge’s scheduled Sept. 3 opening could be delayed." as though crumbled bridge was a trifle.)

#25 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 03:23 PM:

D. Potter #24: One sees, with great force, why the ancient Athenians had a punishment of ostracism for their public officials.

#26 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 03:52 PM:

They shouldn't have been using the bolts at all, since the standards had changed so they weren't acceptable. Someone apparently missed that news.

I don't know how it will break in the next biggish one; the failure last time was where two different structures met.

#27 ::: runeghost ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 04:01 PM:

Everyone keeps missing the point of these things. Sure, they're fake. But they give the police and military a wonderful 'scientific' excuse to stop/harass/detain anyone they please. "We didn't stop him because he was of the wrong tribe/race/party/whatever. We stopped him because our $6000 Bad Guy Detector(tm) said he had explosives/drugs/guns or other banned item of the week." Such an excuse can be very nice in the pseudo-free places that countries like the U.S. seem to support.

#28 ::: Juha Autero ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 05:40 PM:

In Egypt they also use these or similar devices to detect hepatitis C.

#29 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 05:50 PM:

I very strongly suspect that a great deal of the technology sold to the US and other first-world governments to detect bombs, terrorists, etc., is based on principles no more sound than this device, but with much more expensive manufacturing and better-chosen buzzwords and far more genteel and subtle forms of bribery used to close the sale.

#30 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 06:33 PM:

Proceedings are underway to take all the assets off him that are clearly the result of criminal proceedings. Which is a good idea.

That bridge with dodgy bolts, that's insane, writing as a sometime chemist/ materials scientist. The general issue with hard/ brittle is explained reasonably well though. And it also goes to show how you can fiddle your own quality system by changing the specifications.
Wikipedia suggests hydrogen embrittlement might be the problem, which, IIRC, means they should just replace every single bolt.

#31 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 07:23 PM:

fidelio @2: Very obviously the eighth circle, with the Fraudulent. Which of the bolgias exactly could be argued; I'd say the tenth, where go the alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and impostors.

#32 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 08:36 PM:

guthrie, they probably will have to do that. I've been following it, and it was a manufacturing defect meeting specs that should have been updated before it got that far. (I also have to say that it's a gorgeous bridge.)

#33 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 10:34 PM:

The US Navy tests Sniffex (another of the dowsing-rod explosives detectors). (PDF)

#34 ::: Matt ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2013, 11:59 PM:

Section 3.3 of the Sniffex Report is an amazing bit of bureaucratic writing.

Safety Concerns:
Aside from misleading an operator to believe that explosives are or are not present and the hazards that go along with that information, there are no safety issues with the sniffex device.

#35 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2013, 12:16 AM:

D. Potter @24 -- that's the worst-case scenario on replacing the bolts, not the worst-case scenario if they don't replace the bolts. That certainly is part of the worst-case scenario if that happens -- but the reporter seems to be ignoring the politically bad case that replacing the bolts will cost more money than not replacing them. For a politician, that's a very bad scenario, much worse than delaying.

And your first-linked article says that the USPS is selling the Berkeley Post Office building, with its lovely wood and brass POBoxes and WPA murals -- which is a tragedy of a different sort.

#36 ::: The Raven ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2013, 03:05 AM:

It seems to me that this ought to be a crime, but I am not sure what crime it is, beyond fraud. But when fraud endangers life, surely that verges on homicide?

In another area, "Some bespectacled twenty-something comes along, and for a term paper–a term paper!–tries to replicate Rogoff and Reinhart’s study, he perseveres, gets some solid guidance from his profs and BOOM!"--Jared Bernstein

#37 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2013, 05:37 AM:

Oh yeah, the cooked the books of that Debt Crisis paper good and proper, and got caught when somebody tried to work through their data. According to the BBC report I read, the student even got a copy of the Spreadsheet they used from the original authors, and couldn't get the same answers.

The Family Statistician does not approve of doing scientific papers with spreadsheet software. The error-checking is inadequate.

Thing is, here in the UK, with a coalition government, one of the Liberal Democrat government ministers went public with the question, "This policy doesn't appear to be working: are we doing something wrong?", and the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer told him not to be silly.

We're not in a recession, honest.

No, we seem to be bumping along on the bottom, with minute growth figures that can be considered noise.

I'm not sure that any of the parties are worth voting for, but they're all too used to the idea that they can stay in power. It does look like a sort of con game: selling us some useless geegaws while they live the high life.

#38 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2013, 07:44 AM:

Jim, I have been enjoying this series on frauds and scams.

I wanted to mention one aspect of scams that I have seen so often that it now triggers my alarm-bells. There's probably a standard name for it among cons, but let's call it, for now, "the confirmatory flaw", or "too powerful for its own good."

The idea is that when you are selling some inert ingredient under the pretext that it has awesome powers to produce desirable effects, you should include a warning or caveat about how it can produce undesirable effects as well, which effects also attest to its power.

"Just one teaspoon a day, men, just one teaspoon a day of Growzit, and in three weeks your head will be covered by thick luxurious hair. But I have to caution you: don't overdo it. We had a patient in Tuscaloosa who drank the whole bottle right after we left, and the next morning his whole left side was covered with hair, from shoulder to knee. Don't ask me why it was his left side--maybe he slept on it that night. All I want to emphasize is: don't be a damned fool like he was. One teaspoon is the correct dose; any more and you are playing with dynamite."

If you are clever, you can present this with some reluctance, as an unwilling admission, and it will still have the result that your audience takes it as confirmation of the thing's power.

Certainly if I were "demonstrating" the ADE 650 I would have a stock of these caveats ready at hand: "...but I should warn you, it can sometimes give false results if there are explosives in the distance. Oh: there *is* an ammo dump 5 miles west of here? Well, that explains that last false reading--that shows you how sensitive it is."

Of course, some powerful things *do* have side-effects, and some beneficial things *do* have harmful side-effects, so it's not as though every warning of this sort is evidence of a scam.

But it is such a prominent feature of so many scams that I would like to hear whether the pros have a special name for it.

#39 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2013, 08:26 AM:

#37 ::: Dave Bell

What gets to me is that apparently no one had bothered to check the numbers for years, even the people who disagreed with the policy.

#40 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2013, 10:27 AM:

Dave, it's worse than that. None of the errors were the kind that spreadsheets could check, or even find. All of them were made by humans (and some look very much like cherry-picking data when the first run or two didn't produce the desired results).

#41 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2013, 10:51 AM:

re 34: I'm pretty sure that passage is written what us ex-GSers refer to as the "bureaucratic sarcastic mood".

#42 ::: The Raven ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2013, 01:55 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz, #39: actually, no. The Reinhart-Rogoff paper was known to have problems for years—no-one could reproduce its results. But, somehow, it was Herndon's term paper that broke through the denial. It helped that Herndon was able to persuade R-R to give him a copy of the spreadsheet. While the spreadsheet error isn't the biggest problem of the paper, it is an easily-grasped, simple error which can easily be explained in a sound-bite.

The whole fiasco has sparked more discussion of scientific discipline in econometrics. The R-R paper was not peer reviewed, since it was published in conference proceedings rather than formally reviewed as a journal paper, and it is possible that peer review would have caught its problems and led to a correction. Or perhaps not. We have here an instance of a published paper where one of the reviewers actually caught a computational error in the work of a now world-famous—cough!—Fed president--which was not corrected before publication. This would never have passed muster in a physical science journal.

BTW, both of the famous and often-cited studies of firearms defense from the 1990s which claim to show that firearms prevent crime also cannot be replicated. One looks forward to their intellectual collapse, as well, presumably, pigs flying.

#43 ::: Narmitaj ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2013, 05:23 PM:

" Not just a house, an $8 million house in Bath, England."

Not just any old $multi-million Bath house - Nicolas Cage's old house in Bath.

#44 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2013, 09:55 PM:

Oldster @38: I've actually used that argument (only half-seriously) against various "alternative approaches" to medicine. For example, if accupuncture is so powerful, why aren't there any cases of its misuse causing harm? Or of it being abused?

#45 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2013, 10:02 PM:

Jeremy Leader @ #44:

Natural remedies don't have side-effects, doncherknow. It's only those nasty chemicals that cause problems.

#46 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2013, 10:10 PM:

Jeremy Leader @ #44, or if reflexology works, why doesn't stepping barefoot on a bee (which I've done, as it happens) make your gallbladder explode?

#47 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2013, 05:57 AM:

Jeremy Leader @ #44 -- I seem to recall malevolent acupuncture use in some oriental martial arts films, but it's been a while.

#48 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2013, 08:24 AM:

lila @ 46... stepping barefoot on a bee

"You know, you got to be careful of dead bees if you're goin' around barefooted, 'cause if you step on them they can sting you just as bad as if they was alive, especially if they was kind of mad when they got killed."
- Walter Brennan in 'To Have and Have Not'

#49 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2013, 09:40 AM:


One additional factor in unreliable research results may come into play with those studies: If lots of people are looking for some nonexistent effect for some reason, then it's pretty likely that an occasional honestly-run study will seem to find the effect by chance.

#50 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2013, 01:35 PM:

Serge @48: Thus leading directly to the subject matter of Lene Lovitch's hit single, "Bee Stiff".

(I'll just get my coat now ...)

#51 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2013, 01:39 PM:

Charlie Stross... Heheheh...

#52 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2013, 05:02 PM:

re 47: Perhaps you are thinking of Dim Mak, an ancient Vulcan, er, Chinese, no, make that back-of-the-comic-book martial arts technique.

#53 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2013, 05:04 PM:

Concurrent sentences? They can do that? And it doesn't affect parole? Should be consecutive. Or, better yet, repeated.

#54 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2013, 05:25 PM:

Decades ago, when psionics was a big thing in Analog Magazine, a high school buddy made a set of the double metal rod dowsing things. He believed in them, but they didn't work for him.

Most psychic divinatory devices are amplifiers; dowsing rods, pendulums, ouija boards, even (in a different way) honestly used tarot cards. They can be actually useful if your subconscious is trying to get a message to your conscious and can't get through the filters. Otherwise, not so much.

#55 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2013, 06:03 PM:

They worked for my father. They seemed to work for me, too. I have a pair around, somewhere. (Mine are re-bent wire coat hangers. My father used something like welding rod.)

#56 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2013, 06:38 PM:

And here's another example for you, this time in your own field, Jim: search and rescue equipment.

#57 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2013, 07:09 PM:

They can be actually useful if your subconscious is trying to get a message to your conscious and can't get through the filters.

Unless you yourself hid the explosives while sleepwalking, that seems unlikely to be helpful.

#58 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2013, 07:16 PM:

Lila, sometimes the message is "you really need to break up with that person" or some key insight too unpleasant to come easily. All those subliminal cues and things you talk yourself out of can come bubbling up if you give them an excuse.

#59 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2013, 07:17 PM:

Xopher, I was speaking specifically of using dowsing rods to locate explosives. I have no beef with asking your subconscious things your subconscious is in a position to know!

#60 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2013, 07:18 PM:

Oh, sorry. Lost context there. Duh.

#61 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2013, 07:45 PM:

Lila @59:
"And I mean, if I were to go on a trip, on an airplane, and I got a fortune cookie that said "Don't go," I mean, of course, I admit I might feel a bit nervous for about one second, but in fact I would go, because, I mean, that trip is gonna be successful or unsuccessful based on the state of the airplane and the state of the pilot, and the cookie is in no position to know about that."

Wallace Shawn, from My Dinner with André.

"The cookie is in no position to know!" became a catch-phrase for us for a while.

#62 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 01:30 AM:

Tom Whitmore @ 56 -- I looked this up on Google Patent Search, where the illustration seems to indicate usage for finding enemy combatants on the other side of walls. The description and illustrations of the device, and the list of patents based on and deriving from, are amusing in themselves and horrific in their implications. And the money people are getting for these things....

#63 ::: Mishalak ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 01:34 AM:

Oldster @61
On the other hand if you live in a comically ordered universe you should Never. Mock. The cookie. Fortunately we do not live in a universe where it pays to be genre aware.

#64 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 05:18 AM:

Don @62

How on earth did this thing get awarded patents?

I mean, the whole point of patents is that you tell everyone how to do whatever is being patented, in exchange for a temporary monopoly. How ignorant of science and engineering were the patent examiners?

#65 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 06:15 AM:

Dave Bell #64 - others will know the details, but the short summary is that the US patent office gave up requiring patents to have anything to do with reality maybe a century ago. Thus turning patent protection into a marketing tool for the unscrupulous and fools.
The most famous examples are perpetual motion machines. All based on the fact that they don't require any proving that your patent works.

Plus the patent office gets far too many applications for it to actually check that they work.

#66 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 08:00 AM:

albatross @ 49: ObXKCD.

Juha Autero @ 28: Because I'm in biomedical engineering myself, that article had even stronger head-explodey effects on me than the original post. I'd like to see the "studies" of the Hep C dowsing rod. I really would. I would love to see a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of this thing (placebo in this case being a wooden classroom pointer or something).

Electromagnetic vibrations of the virus, indeed. This reminds me of the time someone was telling me about the ways you could heal people by sensing and modifying their "waves," attempting to sound very scientific about the whole thing. I asked what kind of waves. The person responded "…Frequency waves."

(At least they didn't say "Quantum waves.")

#67 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 08:17 AM:

Caroline @65--

Ah, but were they oscillatory frequency waves, or undulatory frequency waves? That makes all the difference!

(It must be scientific: it's polysyllabic!!)

#68 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 08:25 AM:

Caroline, it might make you feel better to read about the elegant study commissioned by Louis XVI of France to investigate Mesmerism. The commission was headed by Benjamin Franklin and included Lavoisier and Guillotin. Their experimental design was admirable. (Full report here; scroll down.)

Oddly enough, Mesmer used the glass harmonica (invented by Franklin!) to get his subjects in the mood. He also commissioned Mozart's first opera.

#69 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 09:17 AM:

The Mesmer study is fascinating reading.

It uses the term "hypochondria" as a noun, a place on the body. I hadn't run across this before and research is only turning up the modern usage.

Where was the hypochondria - anyone?

#70 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 09:58 AM:

@43 Narmitaj: "I am James McCormick. Millionaire. I own a mansion and a yacht."

#71 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 11:00 AM:

Carol: Hypochondriac region (Anat.) a region on either side of the abdomen beneath the cartilages of the false ribs, beside the epigastric, and above the lumbar, region.
See also: Hypochondriac
--Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, published 1913 by C. & G. Merriam Co.

The Virtual Linguist has a discussion of the change in meaning here. (Turns out it's related to "hipped" which occurs frequently in the Aubrey & Maturin books.)

#72 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 11:37 AM:

Lila @71: Interesting! I always parsed "hipped" as a polite way of saying "I've had it up to my arse with this nonsense."

#73 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 12:01 PM:

Thanks, Lila.

Any wonder why I enjoy hanging out here?!

#74 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 12:07 PM:

Is Hypercondria where Conan the Barbarian came from?

#75 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 12:35 PM:

Lila, #71: Would that be related to the expression "in the hips" that I've encountered in Heyer books, which appears to mean mopey or mildly depressed?

#76 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 01:18 PM:


I love the way scams and a lot of SFF both borrow their applied plebotinium from the assumed limits of their marks'/readers' study of science. See energy, quantum[1] , waves, radioactivity, nano-, DNA, genes, genetic engineering, lasers, brain structure/imaging, biofeedback, hypnosis, etc. Some older fiction used "atomic" or even "electric" in the same way. More recent fiction used computers this way, though these days I think most readers have too much experience with computers to make them all-purpose magic plot bandaids.

All this ties into Bruce Cohen's wonderful quote about sufficiently misunderstood technology being indistinguishable from superstition. At some point, the technology might as well be magic, for all that the reader or mark understands of how it works and what it can and can't do. Even most relatively educated people have a very lame science background, and so have a hard time reasoning about some claimed new technology.

[1] I'll admit that quantum stuff always feels like the next best thing to black magic, to me. My understanding of quantum things probably can't be distinguished too well from superstition, either. Wait, the computation is kind-of in all possible 2^N states, but after 2^{N/2} operations you can measure it and get the right one to solve your problem? WTF? Was there some chicken blood involved in that somewhere?

#77 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 03:01 PM:

albatross: here is a great collection of quack cures involving radium, from the Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

Re: basic scientific literacy, only 47% of respondents to this science quiz knew that na ryrpgeba vf fznyyre guna na ngbz. (Rot-13'ed for those who'd like to take the quiz without spoilers.)

#78 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 03:47 PM:

Lila -- the question that only 20% got right was the biggest surprise to me -- these are all pretty basic questions. I'd expect that most people here would get 12 of the 13 or better....

#79 ::: John M. Burt ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 04:25 PM:

"When the buckled girder lets down the grinding span
The shame of loss or murder is laid upon the man"

#80 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 06:11 PM:

Tom, #78: 13 out of 13 -- and yes, most of those questions were things I'd expect anyone with an 8th-grade education to know. Only one of them was something I wouldn't have known by that time, and for that one you'd need a little awareness of current events.

#81 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 06:26 PM:

Albatross #76 - I just read Ken MacLeod's "Intrusion". One of his POV characters is in to post-structuralist neo-Marxist cultural theory (AKA as "theory", unqualified). I wonder how many of Ken's readers have ideas like subject positioning within the discourse of a community of practice somewhere on the edge of their familiar jargon.

#82 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 06, 2013, 07:23 PM:

Lee @ #75, I'd be willing to bet it was.

#83 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2013, 12:28 PM:

Tying in to other current events, this time the three young ladies who recently turned up in Cleveland after having been kidnapped a decade ago, here's a professional psychic in 2004 telling one young lady's mother that her daughter is dead.

#84 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: May 13, 2013, 06:55 AM:

Jim Macdonald @ #83:

That is quite common, for good or bad (psychics making bad predictions in general and falsely saying "X is dead" when X is still very much alive specifically).

#85 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2013, 02:00 PM:


I'd say the psychic was playing the odds, there. By far the best bet was that the disappeared girl would never turn up alive.


Yeah, I often find it really striking how ignorant of the world the average person is. And yet, I'm at least that ignorant, it's just that my ignorance is distributed differently.

For example, I know who the secretary of state is, but couldn't tell you the name of the local NFL quarterback. I'm very clear on the difference between viruses and bacteria, but couldn't pick most current TV and musical stars out of a police lineup. I try to follow a little of what's up with the supreme court, but don't know what's going on in any of the notorious crime stories and trials that make up a whole category of news coverage with lots of viewers. And so on.

In one sense, I'm extremely well-informed--I usually know more about the kind of news I find interesting than almost anyone among the very smart and educated people I spend most of my time around. In another sense, I'm shockingly ignorant--most of what the majority of people in my culture think is important bores the hell out of me.

Politics and science and economics and the rest do have a big impact on the lives of people who have no interest in them, and I'm sure I'm a much better-informed voter than the average. But on the other hand, popular culture also has a huge impact on the lives of people like me who ignore it as much as we can. So who's ignorant?

#86 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2013, 02:58 PM:

albatross, #85: Politics and science and economics and the rest do have a big impact on the lives of people who have no interest in them, and I'm sure I'm a much better-informed voter than the average. But on the other hand, popular culture also has a huge impact on the lives of people like me who ignore it as much as we can. So who's ignorant?

That's a good point. OTOH, which kind of ignorance is more likely to lead (directly or indirectly) to actively damaging the lives of other people?

Ignorance of pop culture doesn't do anyone any harm but me, and it's rather stretching the definition of "harm" to say that much. Ignorance of history and of current affairs leads to things like basing your vote for President on somebody seeming like the sort of guy you'd like to have a beer with.

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