How Strong Is Your Booze?

There should be an image here!Both legitimate brewers and distillers — and authorities on the track of illicit alcohol from home stills — will soon have a helping hand. Measurement experts have unveiled a portable device to determine the strength of alcoholic drinks quickly and easily, almost anywhere. Published in the open access Chemistry Central Journal, the researchers show that their technique is just as accurate, and more sophisticated, than widely used lab-based methods.

Along with his colleagues, Dirk Lachenmeier of testing agency Chemisches und Veterinäruntersuchungsamt (CVUA) in Karlsruhe, Germany, decided to use a simple, patented multiple-beam infrared sensor combined with a flow-through cell for automated alcohol analysis. His team tested the device, which is portable to allow for on-site measurements, on a range of alcoholic samples.

Their tests on 260 different alcoholic drinks showed that the flow-through infrared device was much easier to handle than typical reference procedures, while time-consuming sample preparation steps such as distillation weren’t necessary. Their sensor was equal to or better than current densimetric or Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) methods: repeatability, as determined in six different wine samples, was 0.05% vol and the relative standard deviation was below 0.2%. They also tested wines partway through the fermentation process, and unrecorded (non-commercial or illicit) alcohol samples, with good results. The test took less than a minute per drink.

“The device gives the opportunity for mobile on-site control in the context of labeling control of wine, beer and spirits, the process monitoring of fermentations, or the evaluation of unrecorded alcohols,” says Lachenmeier. He adds that the device can also be used easily in developing country settings, with results that compare well to a more sophisticated lab set up.

Only beers and other sparkling drinks need more time-consuming preparation, to first remove the fizz, which can interfere with measurements.

The authors say that not only does unrecorded alcohol account for a quarter of all alcohol consumed worldwide, but in most cases, “not even the most basic chemical composition such as alcoholic strength is known for these beverages.”

Ever since French chemist Gay-Lussac’s work on alcohol-water mixtures, scientists have measured alcoholic strength by volume (% vol) using distillation and then a pycnometer to measure the liquid’s density. Infrared spectroscopy is a more recent, popular method, but typically requires expensive equipment, and complicated calibration.

Charlotte Webber @ BioMed Central

[Photo above by Federica Marchi / CC BY-ND 2.0]

[awsbullet:alcohol proof]

Microsoft Vista – The Hacks Continue

Well there was some assumptions that the new Service Pack #1 for Windows Vista would make it harder for pirates to hack. But it seems for some who have already received the first RTM copies of SP1 this may not be the case. With a little research and some minor know how, one is still able to find a hack that still works with SP1.

Before Windows Vista was released to the public, Microsoft was to toting the fact Vista was going to make it hard for pirates to hack. It was also stated that illegal copies would not be updated. Than it was SP1 improved the anti-pirate mechanisms. On one of the forums one person left this comment:

I’m not sure who MS thinks is stealing vista. I don’t put a padlock on my garbage when I put it out to the curb and by some miracle it doesn’t get stolen unless the robbers come just before garbage pickup.

Yipes! That was cruel. But it does make one wonder. It seems like it has been about 7 years or so that Microsoft has been trying to stop the hacking of their software. For every step they take in adding protections, the hackers find a workaround. The only ones they get stuck playing this silly game is we consumers who must tolerate the verification game.

One would think that a company as large as Microsoft with the resources at hand, they could find a simple way to authenticate our software as being genuine once and not every time we want to download a Microsoft fix, patch, update and so forth. This is getting to be almost as silly as UAC with its  nag screens asking me if I am sure or not.

I am sure I am tired of being nagged and I am sure I am tired of having to provide proof my Windows are legal. How about you?

Comments welcome.

[tags] microsoft, vista, hacks, uac, verification, proof, sp1, hacking, pirates, [/tags]

An Upbeat Advocacy

To make this column interesting and attractive, I try to maintain an upbeat advocacy for the use of rational thought and decision making based on proven techniques. Although the subjects of these columns are often arcane and based on formal mathematical development, I always plead for readers to avoid separating these ideas from their everyday life. This week I almost gave up on my quest to help spread rationality. Overcoming the ingrained habits of our society is too big a task.

Don Imus, a commentator who is paid to be provocative , was fired for being provocative. One of his attackers, Al Sharpton, who is probably not paid to be provocative, was not fired for insulting the exonerated Duke Lacrosse team. Al said some pretty provocative things about them. Don Imus acknowledged and apologized for his error. To the best of my knowledge, Al Sharpton has not acknowledged or apologized for the damage he did. This is not a case of liberals bashing conservatives. No part of the political spectrum has an exclusive on inconsistencies. President Bush publicly chastised Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic member of Congress for visiting Syria, but I’ve seen no comment from him about the similar visit to Syria a week later by Darrell Issa, a Republican member of Congress. In both of these examples, I might be at fault for failure to find all the relevant facts in the news, but even if sharp-eyed readers shoot down these apparent inconsistencies, I can easily find others from celebrities of all political and religious stripes.

Bill Maher draws criticism because he ridicules revealed religion, but my local newspaper prints political cartoons ridiculing secular humanists and doesn’t attract a single outraged letter. [BTW, I seem to have misplaced the number of the pro-humanist television channel. That’s strange because I had it sitting next to the list of pro-religious (primarily Protestant Christian) television stations.] My company once shared a building in San Diego. The other half was a closely guarded video studio for the Rev. Tilden. From there he would broadcast his demands for contributions from poor believers. Most people think he broadcast his show from Texas. I’ve seen him drive into our shared parking lot in his black Mercedes 600-class accompanied by an interesting young thing dressed in red satin. That lasted until he was busted by the IRS. None of this makes sense to me.

As always, I insist that this is not an attack on organized religion. I try to understand and correct inconsistencies, but I respect people’s rights to resort to faith when events have no rational explanation. The rational thought and religious believe are not necessarily inconsistent. One of the smartest friends I ever had was a Jesuit who could wrap your head around any logical conundrum and still never waver in his faith.

Trying to promote rationality is a bit like collecting garbage. No matter how hard you work to get rid of the trash, more of it piles up next week. And it piles up in strangely mixed up ways. For instance, people use computers and the Internet to study astrology and the power of pyramids. The results of concerted thought and design leading to our outstanding ability to communicate as never before doesn’t mean a thing to true believers who will dismiss the results of biological research leading to the highly successful theory of evolution in favor of superstitious acceptance of creationism.

Maybe next week I will find an illuminating and fun puzzle to share with readers. That will cheer us up.

In response to the interest my original tutorial generated, I have completely rewritten and expanded it. Check out the tutorial availability through Lockergnome. The new version is over 100 pages long with chapters that alternate between discussion of the theoretical aspects and puzzles just for the fun of it. Puzzle lovers will be glad to know that I included an answers section that includes discussions as to why the answer is correct and how it was obtained. Most of the material has appeared in these columns, but some is new. Most of the discussions are expanded compared to what they were in the original column format.

[tags]decision theory, puzzle, fath, proof, religion, science[/tags]

How About Them Padres?

Readers occasionally challenge me on my supposed rejection of all things spiritual and faith-driven because I advocate rational thinking and the study of statistics and probability. In fact, quite the opposite is true, and that paradox sometimes takes some time to get across. Rational thought does not supercede the need for a belief system. In fact, rational thought teaches that we cannot answer all the questions of interest to human beings from first principles. We can even engage in nasty arguments over just what constitutes first principles and even what constitutes rational thought.

Given that we cannot rationally derive answers to all the questions that bother us, the conclusion is that we must decide to take some things on faith. But here is where I differ with my religionist friends. I believe those things that we take on faith must be both self-consistent and constantly challenged.

One can easily imagine a living code which does not require either standard. In fact, most codes of conduct address the self-consistency issue by insisting that true believers accept both sides of contradictory statements if they come from a “revealed” source. The ability to overcome common sense and believe in highly unlikely events is often considered a virtue. As to challenging core beliefs, the memes behind all organized religions look to protect themselves and propagate by preventing questioning of the underlying tenets. The means used for this protection can be serious.

About this point in a casual discussion with a well-meaning friend who is a religionist, the traditional defensive rebuttal to rationality is to say something like, “Well, the things that you talk about are just another form of religion. Your decision theory and fancy mathematics is no more justified than my belief in… (fill in the blank). If you find yourself in this position, I suggest thinking long and hard before answering. Your colleague might not be discussing, but is simply intent on conversion or self-convincing. If that is the case, you are both better off by responding something like, “If that is what you believe, then who am I to question? How about them Padres?” With luck, you can preserve your friendship and learn something about baseball.

On the other hand, if your friend is truly engaged, then you might point out the gulf that distinguishes science and rational thought from what we normally label “religions.” The two systems occupy different spaces and serves different needs. You can follow this up by also pointing out that many scientists are devout followers of the various sects around the world. Being rational does not preclude being a religionist – it just sets limits.

What it comes to the crunch, the things I write about here are valuable tools that have been developed over thousands of years as people learned how to learn. These tools are different than the tools that preceded them. Mathematically based modeling is highly successful at describing the physical world. Science is self-correcting on a much faster time scale than any correction in organized religions. But utility does mean ultimate truth. I don’t know what ultimate truth is. You could hit me over the head with it and I probably would not recognize it. Decision theory is a tool just as calculus, cell phones, silverware, and automobiles are tools.

And as we saw in the last couple of postings, one can conjure up some fun puzzles and games based on rational thinking. After all, all work and no fun makes for a dull life.

In response to the interest my original tutorial generated, I have completely rewritten and expanded it. Check out the tutorial availability through Lockergnome. The new version is over 100 pages long with chapters that alternate between discussion of the theoretical aspects and puzzles just for the fun of it. Puzzle lovers will be glad to know that I included an answers section that includes discussions as to why the answer is correct and how it was obtained. Most of the material has appeared in these columns, but some is new. Most of the discussions are expanded compared to what they were in the original column format.

[tags]decision theory, statistics, puzzle, science, religion, proof, faith[/tags]

Why Some Skepticism May Be More Valid Than Others

Bernhard Muller writes:

You say: “Skeptics get a bad and undeserved press.” I submit that it depends on what one is skeptical of whether the bad press is undeserved, or even bad at all. There are, of course, evolution skeptics. But there are also global warming skeptics, immunization skeptics, fluoridation skeptics, man walking on the moon skeptics; and yoga skeptics, and acupuncture skeptics, and chiropractic skeptics. You might devote a column to the basis for skepticism and why some skepticism may be more valid than others.

Your wish is my command. The paragraph Bernhard refers to is:

…For some reason people who accept the most outrageous assumptions on faith are often valued while their colleagues who question the basis of that faith are held to be in a lower social status. This tendency goes all the way back to Socrates and beyond. Doubting Thomas was a proto-scientist, and Icarus was an enthusiastic test engineer. Everything we learn starts with a skeptical thought.

Bernhard and I seem to agree on the value of healthy skepticism. Even more important, we agree that the quality of being a skeptic is an analog parameter. Bernhard indicates this when he writes “more valid than…” In other words, skepticism comes in degrees. Remember that simple fact and don’t let people try to pigeonhole you into being either a believer or skeptic: that is a classic way of attempting to win debates. Instead of being suckered into thinking of skepticism as a digital parameter (yes or no) imagine a parameter that varies from abject unquestioning belief at one end to total rejection of anything that is not proven absolutely true for all times on the other. A healthy skeptic lives in a range somewhere on the disbelief side. A healthy skeptic moves back and forth on the scale for each idea and for each new bit of data gathered about each idea. This is in contrast to hardcore faithful who reject new data that does not support their beliefs and stubbornly cling to their end of the spectrum.

Many books have been written on faith, skepticism, scientific induction, and epistemology. Attempting to survey the whole field in this short note would not do justice to the topics. Those who want to follow up should visit this site or simply google on some key words. If you are interested in reading a book that attacks sloppy thought, try The Transcendental Temptation: a Critique of Religion and the Paranormal by Paul Kurtz. This book is rather dated now, but still interesting. Any book by him would probably be interesting. A more recent book with a different and more inflammatory thesis is Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Dawkins tells you where is coming from right up front.

I think that a reasonable skeptic’s position is to say that anyone is welcome to believe anything that happens in their head and stays there. But if you make statements about how things in your head affect the world and other people outside your head, then your ideas must submit to scrutiny for me to accept them. An internal revelation to you is hearsay to me. Your unsupported word that you have been talking to God and she is mad at me carries no authority, but might be fun.

The same applies to global warming, acupuncture, and the other topics Bernhard mentions. Skeptics have contributed positively to each topic. We have a better understanding of the causes and likely course of predicted global warming because we had a lively debate over it sparked by skeptics. I turned from suspended belief to believing based on reviewing the data. That debate will likely continue until the issue is tied down and understood as well as we understand evolution.

Skepticism, like any other tool used by humans, has a range of application where it is valuable. Attempting to use it in the wrong place is counterproductive. Alexander Pope says “Be not the first by whom the new is tried nor be the last to lay the old aside.” In a way, that captures the idea that new truths do not enter a society all at once, but grow like an organic thing. A good skeptic accepts nothing at first glance, but looks at it critically. If a reasonably firm decision cannot be supported by physical data, then a new idea must be held tentative until it is either supported or disproven. The difficulty is that false physical conjectures can often be disproven, but true ones can only be supported to some degree of probability. But that is another column.

In response to the interest my original tutorial generated, I have completely rewritten and expanded it. Check out the tutorial availability through Lockergnome. The new version is over 100 pages long with chapters that alternate between discussion of the theoretical aspects and puzzles just for the fun of it. Puzzle lovers will be glad to know that I included an answers section that includes discussions as to why the answer is correct and how it was obtained. Most of the material has appeared in these columns, but some is new. Most of the discussions are expanded compared to what they were in the original column format.

[tags]skepticism, skeptic, proof, faith, The Transcendental Temptation, The God Delusion, Socrates, Doubting Thomas, Icarus, global warming[/tags]