Online content & services worth paying for

I get a lot of ‘free’ stuff from the Internet – everything from news and entertainment to email and online storage.

By 'free', of course, I mean ad-supported (in most cases) so while I do technically pay for these services with my time, attention, and user profile data I don't directly pay for them in cash.

There are, however, a bunch of online services that I do explicitly pay for with my own money.

Paid Services

These include services you can't access without a subscription, such as:

I only recently signed up with MOG, by the way, and chose to pay them over their competitors for two main reasons: they stream high quality music (320kbps over WiFi and 4G) and, since they’re a Telstra partner, streaming music from them doesn’t count toward your mobile data bandwidth. Being both an audiophile who values high quality music and a Telstra mobile customer both of these are excellent reasons.

Payment Optional & Freemium Services

The other online services I pay for/contribute to are the kind that you can access for free but can also support financially if you so choose.

These include the news, information, and editorial services like:

With the exception of Wikipedia, to which I donate annually, the rest I support through automatic monthly micropayments.

The freemium services (products, really) that I pay for include:

  • Online information management from Evernote
  • Online photo storage from Flickr

Oh, and depending on how Fairfax rolls things out, I’ll probably subscribe to The Age Online, too, once they set up their paywall. And, speaking of news outlets, I also used to subscribe to the Economist but, much as I loved their content and editorial, I wasn’t getting enough of a return on my investment.

So that’s my list. What online services – content services or products – do you pay for?

Use the Web to Be a Better Skeptic

Lifehacker recently published a skepticism-for-beginners type article called 'How To Determine If A Controversial Statement Is Scientifically True':

Every day, we’re confronted with claims that others present as fact. Some are easily debunked, some are clearly true, but some are particularly difficult to get to the bottom of. So how do you determine if a controversial statement is scientifically true? It can be tricky, but it’s not too difficult to get to the truth.

The article features advice from Phil Plait (Bad Astronomy) and David McRaney (You Are Not So Smart) and, even though it's a little long, it makes for a good read.

tl;dr for Lifehacker article: Search the web (Google, Snopes, Wikipedia, Science Daily,, search scientific journals (Google, Google Scholar), and ask science advocates. Also, beware of confirmation bias and don't forget to think critically.


TAM Australia Day 1

I’m back in my hotel room after attending the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (SGU) Dinner on Day 1 of the TAM Australia conference in Sydney. And what an awesome day it’s been.

For starters, the venue is very impressive. The conference is being held at the Sydney Masonic Centre which is the unusual looking in the middle of this photo:

Most of the talks are taking place in the largest auditorium there called, as you would expect, the Grand Lodge:

Today’s sessions (mostly panel discussions) were really a preamble to the official program of talks that kicks off tomorrow morning. Here’s what happened.

Paranormal in Australia

After a quick welcome, we launched straight into a panel discussion on the paranormal both in Australia and elsewhere. Here are James Randi and Barry Williams at that panel:

Some interesting points from the discussion:

  • Not all people who witness “paranormal” events want you to explain what it was that they saw; they almost prefer it to be a mystery that “has the experts baffled”
  • Some of them do this because they want to feel special or self important while others just like having mystery in their lives (e.g. they want to believe)

Skeptical Activism 101

I then attended a workshop on skeptical activism (instead of the one on science based medicine that was running in parallel). This was a fun and informative discussion despite the really irritating buzzing coming from the speakers for the first hour or so. (And by ‘speakers’ I mean the audio producing equipment and not the panelists!)

Some of the resources mentioned during the workshop included:

James Randi

After a quick break we reconvened in the Grand Lodge to hear James Randi talk about his life in skepticism. Very inspiring stuff. He even did a couple of magic tricks :)

Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki

Dr. Karl’s talk was (as expected) hectic, crazy, funny, random, and informative. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to take a photo of him while he was speaking.

George Hrab

We closed the day’s program with a brilliant performance by the multi-talented George Hrab.

I look forward to seeing him perform in Melbourne on 30 November :)

SGU Dinner

The after hours events for tonight were the SGU Dinner and the ‘Pieces of Mind’ performance by Simon Taylor. I would have loved to attend both but SGU is one of my favourite skeptical podcasts so it’s to their dinner that I went.

Here are all the podcasters in attendance at that dinner standing up on stage for a photo opportunity:

And here are the members of the SGU answering questions (left to right: Bob, Evan, Rebecca, Jay, and Steve):

It was really strange to hear such familiar voices coming from faces I hadn’t seen in-person before!

No one from the SGU actually made it to our table to talk to us (there were lots of tables there!) but some of them were wandering about the room so people went over and talked to them.

Overall, it was a fun event and I really enjoyed talking to the people at my table. Interesting stuff I learnt there:

  • Astronomy seems to has a higher proportion of women than do other fields of science. However, as you go up the career/experience hierarchy, the proportion shifts pretty drastically to mostly men.
  • The NeoCube is quite awesome.

The Fun Continues Tomorrow

So that’s it for day 1.

Tomorrow we kick off at 9am with Brian Dunning (from and end with a harbour cruise (called ‘Skeptics Afloat’) so I’d better rest up. There is much to do this weekend.

Things to do in Sydney

I’m going to Sydney next week to attend TAM Australia which is this year’s annual conference of the Australian Skeptics.

I haven’t spent much time in Sydney before so I’ll be heading there a couple of days early to do some sightseeing.

I was going to do some research on stuff to do while there but, a couple of months ago, Lifehacker and its readers solved that problem for me via the Ask Lifehacker question: ‘What Should I Do On A Sydney Staycation?’.

Now I have too many things to do in the day-and-a-half before the conference…but that’s okay, I’d rather have too many than too few choices :)

Recent Life Recap

My blogging has been sporadic of late (I’ve been very busy at work) so here’s a quick catch-up on all the exciting things that have been happening in my life recently. This works quickest as a Q&A.

Q: How’s life?

A: It’s going well:

  • We’ve moved apartments so we’re closer to the city. Nadia can now walk to university and my daily commute to work is shorter by 20 minutes each way.
  • We now have high speed, large bandwidth broadband Internet (ADSL2+) at home thanks to awesome iiNet. This also means we have a land line telephone, which is nice.
  • We have a bigger TV (inherited from my sister) and Foxtel have added new channels to their line-up. I’m particularly enjoying SciFi+2 (which is the SciFi Channel time-shifted by two hours) because I can now watch shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: The Next Generation at more convenient times. I’m also watching a lot of Inside the Actor’s Studio, which I’m really enjoying.
  • Work is going really well. Melbourne Water is an awesome place to work and I love my job (I’m the Websites Manager there). Importantly, I’m having lots of fun.
  • Over the last six months I’ve had much dental work done from the excellent dentists at East Melbourne Dental. And, though this had hit my wallet quite hard, it has made me a much more pain-free (and, therefore, a much happier!) person.

Q: What have you been up to?

A: Plenty!

Last month Nadia and I visited the Gold Coast for the first time.

Beach at Surfers Paradise

We stayed at the excellent Watermark Hotel & Spa in Surfers Paradise and, though were only there for three days, we had lots of fun. Our trip to Sea World was particularly enjoyable.

Polar bear at Sea World Underwater life at Sea World


I’ll upload a photo gallery from that trip to my PicasaWeb account some time soon. We hope to go back for a longer trip in the future.

Right after the Gold Coast trip we attended the Australian Skeptics National Convention in Brisbane (hosted by the Queensland Skeptics) which was both exciting and hugely inspiring. More on this in a later blog post.

We also saw the fabulous Tim Minchin (official site) perform at the Palais Theatre in St Kilda. In a few days’ time (3 Jan), I’ll be going to see Moby (official site) perform at the Palace Theatre on Bourke Street! :)

Q: What else is happening in your life?

A: Well, starting with the geeky side of life, I’ve made a few excellent purchases.

For backup and media storage, I bought Western Digital’s My Book World Edition external hard drive:

WD MyBook World Edition Home NAS

This gives us 1TB of storage and lets us do daily backups over the network. It’s a fantastic network attached storage solution for the home.

I bought a 7” digital photo frame (via the brilliant Catch of the Day website) which we’ve placed in our living room.

I downloaded and installed Amazon’s Kindle for PC software, though I’ve only bought one book for it so far (‘Groundswell’ by Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li). I’ll probably buy more once I get myself an actual Kindle device (which I hope to do some time in the near future).

Finally, I went ahead and bought two pieces of software I’ve been meaning to get for a long time: WinAmp Professional (my favourite media player) and Webcam Saver (my favourite screen saver).

On the music side of life, I joined the Melbourne Water Choir (which was lots of fun) and I bought myself a drum kit. That drum kit is the really basic Roland HD-1 V-Drums Lite:

Roland HD-1 V-Drums Lite

I bought an electronic kit because an acoustic one, no matter how muffled, would be too loud for the apartment. I bought this particular one because it’s the quietest, most acoustic-like in its price range. It’s also one of the cheapest electronic kits available :)

I have discovered since that not playing the drums for about a year makes you a little rusty!

Q: What else?

A: That’s about it, I think (though I will probably remember more later). Well, other than the fact that we’ve been watching lots of movies, listening to lots of music, hanging out with lots of friends (including one who was here from overseas), and generally doing stuff we enjoy.

All in all, life is really busy (mostly because of work) but it’s going well and we’re having fun.

An evening with the Victorian Skeptics

So yesterday I finally attended a Skeptics Cafe event with the Victorian Skeptics :)

The Skeptics Cafe is held on the third Monday of every month at the La Notte cafe in Carlton. It’s a three-hour affair which features a relaxed two-hour dinner/meet-up (6-8pm) followed by a talk and discussion (8-9pm). About 30 people attended last night’s event during which I got to meet some of the Young Australian Skeptics folk, a couple of other newbies like me, and a whole bunch of long-time skeptics. [FYI, you can follow what went on (or goes on) via Twitter’s #VicSkeptics tag.]

Last night’s talk was by Ian Robinson, who is the president of the Rationalist Society of Australia, and was about ‘Rudolf Steiner and the Anthroposophy Cult’. Scary stuff, that. Next month is the Fifth Annual Vic Skeptics Trivia Extravaganza which should be lots of fun and, if you’re going to be in Melbourne at that time (19 May), I hope to see you there.

Skeptical Resources

My previous blog post was the story of how I set off on my skeptical journey. Here are some resources to help you along yours:

These are some organizations whose websites you should explore:

Here are some good blogs to read:

There are many, many more out there and they’re very easy to find.

You need to listen to the following podcasts:

Also check out Hunting Humbug, Skepticality, and the Pseudo Scientists.

The following are excellent resources on critical thinking and logical fallacies:

Here are some excellent general resources on skepticism:

These are a few good YouTube channels to subscribe to:

Here are some magazines worth subscribing to:

And, finally, here are a list of books worth reading (all but one as suggested by Dunning in Here be Dragons):

If you can think of any other resources that are worth adding to this list, please let me know. Thanks.

How I Became a Skeptic

I knew from an early age that I was going to be some sort of scientist. Inspired in the mid 80s by Carl Sagan and his television show Cosmos – and with both a genuine interest and an aptitude for the field – I went and studied physics and chemistry in both my O’ and A’ Levels. Around the same time I was also introduced to computers, starting with the Apple IIe in 1984 and an IBM Portable PC soon after. So when it came time to go to college I basically had to pick an area of science – pure or otherwise – that I wanted to pursue further. In the end, computer sciences won out over my second choice of electronic engineering.

My first foray into skepticism, meanwhile, came with the advent of the Internet to Pakistan in the mid 90s. I spent countless hours researching and then debunking myths, urban legends, conspiracy theories, phishing scams, and all the other crap that found its way – and still finds its way – into our inboxes. Indeed, during this time, the fast-growing Urban Legend Reference Pages on became one of my favourite and most-quoted websites.

Outside of my life on the Internet, however, I wasn’t skeptical at all: I was religious; I believed in ghosts; I was a proponent of homeopathy and energy healing; I was all for the ‘scientific’ healing techniques of acupuncture, acupressure, and reflexology; and I was quite happy to believe in all the ‘ancient’ treatments, cures, and healing methodologies advocated by ‘experts’ or ‘healers’. I didn’t know back then that ‘experts’ and ‘healers’ meant people who had a vested interest – financial or emotional – in promoting that type of healing.

That said, there were a few things I was skeptical about and these included astrology; transcendental meditation type stuff; pyramid schemes that sold healing pills and devices; and blanket claims like “these are things that large pharmaceutical companies don’t want you to know about” – all of which neither made sense nor were supported by any evidence.

Why Did I Believe in all that Other Crap?

I think the main reason I was so gullible was simply because I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe that there were exciting ideas on the fringe of established and tested science that would one day become real and widely-accepted science if only someone would take the time to investigate them properly. I didn’t know at the time that scientists had done exactly that before rejecting almost all of those ideas as crap.

I was also operating under a very dangerous assumption: I didn’t think I was particularly gullible. In fact, the reason I supported things like homeopathy and Reiki was because I had actually seen them work. What had happened was that, back in the mid 90s, my family was looking after my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s disease. We were treating her with real medicine but also, as an experiment, with homeopathic medicine.

Now the way homeopathy works in complex disease situations is that the ‘doctor’ tries out different ‘medicines’ and combinations of medicines till he finds the most suitable combination for treating and, eventually, curing the underlying problem. As a result, the medication keeps changing in order to treat and cure whatever needs to be treated and cured at the time. I understand now the brilliance of this treatment-with-no-end setup but, at the time, all I saw was that my grandmother’s illness varied from week to week and that the doctor gave her different medicines to treat her as she progressed through it. It was because the manifestation of her disease changed every week that I thought it was the homeopathic medication that had caused that change. I know now, of course, that was a case of false cause or a situation in which I confused correlation with causation. That is, just because my grandmother’s homeopathic medicines and mental state changed every week, didn’t mean that one was caused – at all – by the other. Nor did I realize that it was the medicines that were being changed as a result of her existing mental state...and not the other way round.

My point is that, as far as I knew, homeopathic medicine was science because I could see the treatment working (or not working) in front of my own eyes. In other words, this was a case of observational selection or confirmation bias on my part. Further, the doctor was a great authority figure and all the homeopathic medication that we bought was from a large, multinational company – that too, a German one – so naturally I saw it as real, proper, established medical science.

What I didn’t know at that time, however, was what homeopathy actually was. Had I known that the underlying concepts behind it were water memory, increasing the potency of medication via dilution, and the idea of like-cures-like, I would probably have laughed. Instead, all I saw were medicines that had dosages just like other, real medicines did and so I didn’t even bother to question how it all worked and, importantly, whether it worked at all. [For more, download the Skeptic’s Guide to Homeopathy pamphlet (88kB PDF file) from the Australian Skeptics]

In other words, I expected a result – as you would of any real medication – and so I saw one. The sad fact is that, thanks to the confirmation bias that I was operating under, I’m pretty sure I would have seen a ‘result’ regardless of what happened or how my grandmother’s disease progressed over the years that we were looking after her.

This pattern of confusing correlation with causation and seeing results because I expected to see results continued over the next few years. During those years I picked up some new bits of quackery and dropped others. I wasn’t particularly passionate about or really even interested in ‘alternative medicine’ but I did easily accept that there might be something in it and that it might be worth investigating further.

Things Change

My ideas about pseudoscience, quackery, woo, and religion all began to change over the last year or so. This happened for a number of reasons that, funnily enough, started with three fantastic courses that I took during my MBA:

Consumer Behaviour was the MBA-equivalent of Carl Sagan’s fantastic book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. It was all about consumer psychology and influence and it taught me about human perception, cognition, and decision-making. In it we covered topics such as subliminal influence and Pavlovian conditioning, creating and changing people’s attitudes, how people are influenced (both consciously and unconsciously) by their environment, how culture plays a role in consumer behaviour, and what the ethical concerns around influencing people are. It was awesome.

Brand Management took that a step further and taught me how loyalty to brands, concepts, and ideas works in the real world. I learnt how brands are created, constructed, maintained, and killed and, as promised by our professor, I have never seen brands or the world of marketing the same way since.

Finally, Leadership taught me how to take a long, hard, honest look at myself and it gave me the capacity to analyze and then, assuming I wanted to do so, change what I saw.

Enter the Skeptical Movement

Around the time I was taking those courses, I really got into blogging and listening to podcasts. My primary areas of interest were technology and science (including astronomy) so, as you would expect, I eventually came across Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy Blog. In June 2008, Plait linked to Brian Dunning’s excellent video on critical thinking called Here Be Dragons. That video blew me away and I spent the next few weeks listening to all the episodes of Dunning’s brilliant Skeptoid podcast.

Then, from July onwards, Australia’s Channel 7 broadcast a show called The One: The Search for Australia’s Most Gifted Psychic (which you can find on YouTube) and it featured as one of its judges Richard Saunders, Vice President of Australian Skeptics. With all that I’d learnt during my MBA and my interest in film and television – because of which I know how TV shows are made, edited, and marketed – I had a pretty good idea of what was going behind the scenes in this show. So when, despite all the show’s obvious biases, the psychics proved themselves to be incredibly poor performers under even minimally reasonable scientific conditions things started to fall into place a little quicker than they had before. (There’s nothing like the power of television, huh? Funnily enough, I doubt the producers of The One expected it to have a de-converting effect on even one of its viewers!)

After some basic research into logical fallacies and cognitive biases – with Skeptoid episodes 73 and 74 as my starting point – I spent the next couple of months going over my entire life and analyzing everything I’d ever believed in, assumed to be trued, presumed to be true, or simply not thought about all that much. I remember having discussions with my wife during which I would try to come up with non-pseudoscientific explanations for whatever had been happening and finding that, as expected, the pseudoscientific explanation seemed incredibly unlikely and, in most cases, quite silly. Oh, and there were many, many more cases in which I had confused correlation and causation.

I also started listening to two awesome podcasts: the New England Skeptical Society’s Skeptics Guide to the Universe (SGU) and the Australian Skeptic’s The Skeptic Zone. Meanwhile, I started subscribing to The Skeptic magazine and, as suggested in Here be Dragons, bought and read Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World. I also read and watched all I could about James Randi – who I’d always known about but had never really looked into – and the James Randi Education Foundation. All this research was, of course, supplemented by reading lots of skeptical blogs (there will be a whole list of them in a subsequent blog post).

With all that going on in my life and in my head, it wasn’t long before the deal was sealed and I could safely say that I was a proper Skeptic (complete with a capital ‘S’ and the letter ‘k’).

Since then I have started to see the world through a completely different filter – a clear one this time – and boy is there a lot of crap out there. Just knowing a handful of logical fallacies, for example, has helped me unravel stupid arguments, see through cheap tricks (particularly marketing-related ones), and call people out when they’ve needed to be called out (even in unrelated situations).

I’ve also started to learn a lot more about science, skepticism, argumentation techniques, cognitive biases, and all the other things that help perpetuate and sustain quackery and pseudoscience throughout the world and across the generations.

Overall, my life has changed dramatically and the world now makes much more sense. I am also much happier and much more settled than I have ever been before.

So What Next?

Where I’ll go from here, I’m not sure. I know I have a lot more learning to do and, in the near term, I intend to attend the next Skeptics Cafe with the Victorian Skeptics. I’m also going through the list of things in the book What Do I Do Next: 105 Ways to Promote Skeptical Activism (edited by Daniel Loxton) to see where that can lead.

I have started to talk to other people about skepticism and why it makes so much sense but that’s going slowly. I’ll ramp it up once I’m more confident about my abilities to counter pseudoscience in real time as opposed to via e-mail and after a round of detailed Internet-based research!

In the meantime, I’ll start being much more skeptically active on my blog. (I’ve even created a new category called ‘Skepticism’ for doing just that.) The first step in that direction was writing this blog post. The next step will be listing a whole bunch of skeptical resources that are really useful regardless of whether you’re already into skepticism or are just starting down that path. I might go ahead and make that into a separate page on my blog as well.

Whatever happens, though, I’ll keep you updated.

BBC Radio Programme on Carl Sagan

During the late 1980s – when I was 11 or 12 years old – there were only two TV shows that I was allowed to stay up beyond my bedtime to watch: Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Next Generation and a re-broadcast of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Both were hugely inspiring and, ultimately, led me to study the sciences. (I finally settled on computer science, by the way.)

And over the last year, it was Sagan’s book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark – as recommended by Brian Dunning in Here Be Dragons – that sped me down the path of skepticism (much more on this in a later blog post).

So I owe a lot to Dr. Carl Sagan and count him as one of my few heroes and people I aspire to be like.

Coming to the point of this blog post, though: Phil Plait writing on the Skepticblog just alerted us to a radio programme that physicist Brian Cox made for BBC Radio 4 called Carl Sagan – A Personal Voyage. The programme is about Sagan, the impact he had on people (indeed, a whole generation of scientists), and the messages he was trying to get across in everything that he did. It’s awesome and I highly recommend you take a listen.

Modern-Day Sagans

Following on from that, it is my opinion that both Cox and Plait – as well as a whole bunch of others, particularly those in the skeptical community – are modern-day equivalents of Carl Sagan.

Take, for example, Plait’s two books:

And two of Cox’s media appearances:

There’s more to come from these two, I’m sure, and it’s awesome to have others carrying from where Sagan left off.

More to Come…

By the way, I’ll give you many more science-education related links when I do finally write the blog post on skepticism that I’ve been meaning to write for a long time now. For now, though, check out:

(FYI: I first heard of Here be Dragons via Plait as well!)

Why is Science Important?

Why is science important?

Physics teacher and film-maker Alom Shaha decided to ask a whole bunch of scientists and educators that question, the answers to which he compiled on the ‘Why is Science Important?’ website that he had created for this purpose.

He then put all those answers – including, of course, his own – into an awesome video that is now available online:

Why is Science Important? from Alom Shaha on Vimeo.

Enjoy :)

[Via the Bad Astronomer]

Free Tibet?!

With all the China-bashing and Tibet-praising that's been going on in the media over the last few months -- what part of not politicising the Olympics do they not get, I wonder -- it was great to listen to Brian Dunning's recent Skeptoid podcast titled 'Should Tibet be Free?'.

Dunning probably knew he was going to get bashed regardless of what he said but I'm really glad he said all of it anyway. Too many people are going around shouting "Free Tibet" without knowing the history or the details of the situation and it's really easy to take the moral (or "we are more civilized") high ground on something that, at first glance, seems very cut and dried but, once you start examining critically, ends up being much more complex.

[Note: This bears repeating: Watch Dunning's 'Here be Dragons: an Introduction to Critical Thinking' video. Teh awesome.]

Here Be Dragons

I don't have the time or the energy to write more about this, though I really want to. Instead, all I'll say is that you really must watch Brian Dunning's 'Here Be Dragons' video. Here's what it's about:
'Here Be Dragons' is a free 40 minute video introduction to critical thinking. It is suitable for general audiences and is licensed for free distribution and public display.

Most people fully accept paranormal and pseudoscientific claims without critique as they are promoted by the mass media. 'Here Be Dragons' offers a toolbox for recognizing and understanding the dangers of pseudoscience, and appreciation for the reality-based benefits offered by real science.

'Here Be Dragons' is written and presented by Brian Dunning, host and producer of the Skeptoid podcast, author of 'Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena', and Executive Producer of The Skeptologists.

It's awesome. Enjoy.

[Via the Bad Astronomy Blog]