No means, no motive, and no suspect

I don’t want this to become the ‘Cuba’s sonic weapons are bullshit’ blog, and I apologize for my readers who are just here for the Volvox. But there is a massive failure on the part of major news organizations to apply the most rudimentary skepticism to outlandish claims of mysterious weapons, and there’s every reason to think that it’s affecting United States foreign policy toward Cuba.

The story is starting to change as news organizations acknowledge what their experts have been telling them from the start, namely that sonic or acoustic weapons are not a plausible explanation for the reported symptoms of U.S. embassy personnel in Cuba. CBS, one of the least skeptical sources right from the start, is desperately clinging to the magic sound gun narrative:

Investigators are now probing whether the attacks were caused by something more than just mysterious sonic devices after U.S. government personnel complained about hearing loud, bizarre and unexplained grinding and insect-sounding noises in homes and hotels, sources tell CBS News.

“My own multiple sources are saying that some of the evidence, medical evidence, being shown by the patients that have been affected could not all be related to sonic waves,” said Dr. Andy Gomez, interim director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “What other measures did whoever the perpetrator was committing these acts do to cause these health issues with our U.S. personnel in Havana?”

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Cuba’s “magical sci-fi sound gun”

Finally, a major news source is applying some skepticism to the claims of acoustic attacks on U.S. embassy personnel in Cuba. A new article in Wired by Adam Rogers acknowledges that acoustic or sonic weapons are not a plausible explanation for the reported symptoms:

Most of the reporting on this story so far has talked about some kind of a “sonic weapon” or “sonic attack,” maybe a side-effect of a surveillance technology. The problem is, physicists and acousticians don’t know how ultrasound (high frequency) or infrasound (low frequency) could do what the State Department says happened to its people. That leaves two possibilities: a new, sci-fi sound gun or something else.

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I can usually one-up most anybody when it comes to my first computer (anybody except my mom, that is…more on that later). Around 1981 or 1982, I got a Sinclair ZX81, probably for Christmas or my 11th or 12th birthday. My dad says that ‘we’ assembled it from a kit, which undoubtedly means he assembled it from a kit and I watched as long as my 11-year-old attention span allowed.

The ZX81 rocked a Zilog Z80 8-bit CPU at 3.25 MHz. For those of you who grew up in the 90’s and never saw an ‘M’ in front of the ‘Hz’, that’s three and a quarter megahertz, just about 11000 the speed of today’s PCs (if a cycle got the same amount of work done, which it certainly didn’t). The operating system was BASIC, and programming was accomplished using the pressure-sensitive membrane keyboard (sort of like the pin pad of an ATM or gas pump). The keyboard was only about six inches wide, so typing was strictly a hunt-and-peck affair; even my 11-year-old fingers wouldn’t fit on ASDF JKL;.

Sinclair ZX81 with 16 kb RAM pack and thermal printer. By Carlos Pérez RuizFlickr: ZX81 + rampack + ZX Printer, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

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PLoS ONE responds

PLoS ONE logo

PLoS ONE is a strange journal. Until recently, it was the largest journal in the world, publishing as many as 30,000 papers a year. It’s definitely the low end among the Public Library of Science (PLoS) stable of journals, but opinions of its quality vary over a wide spectrum. PLoS ONE‘s mission is explicitly different from most journals, as they say impact (i.e. significance) is not a consideration:

Often a journal’s decision not to publish a paper reflects an editor’s opinion about what is likely to have substantial impact in a given field. These subjective judgments can delay the publication of work that later proves to be of major significance. PLOS ONE will rigorously peer-review your submissions and publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound. Judgments about the importance of any particular paper are then made after publication by the readership, who are the most qualified to determine what is of interest to them.

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“It may seem the stuff of sci-fi novels”

This Associate Press report is almost two weeks old, but it reinforces my impression that the alleged ‘sonic attacks’ on the U.S. embassy in Cuba are imaginary:

New details learned by The Associated Press indicate at least some of the incidents were confined to specific rooms or even parts of rooms with laser-like specificity, baffling U.S. officials who say the facts and the physics don’t add up.

“None of this has a reasonable explanation,” said Fulton Armstrong, a former CIA official who served in Havana long before America re-opened an embassy there. “It’s just mystery after mystery after mystery.”

As I said yesterday, sonic weapons are not a plausible explanation for the range of (often contradictory) reports and health complaints of the affected diplomats.

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Sonic stupidity

You and I may disagree about politics. It’s a near certainty that we disagree about at least some political issues. But I hope we can agree that United States foreign policy shouldn’t be based on pseudoscientific claims with no plausibility.

The Executive Branch is flirting with doing just that. Whether or not you think reversing Obama-era warming of relations with Cuba is a good idea, I hope you agree that we shouldn’t do it based on phantom attacks using a non-existent weapon. I’m talking about the so-called ‘sonic attacks’ that, until recently, were being touted as a reason to close the U.S. embassy in Cuba:

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A cautionary tale on reading phylogenetic trees

I have written before about the perils of naive interpretations of phylogenetic trees (“Extant taxa cannot be basal“). Others, notably Krell & Cranston and Crisp & Cook, have pointed out that this is not just a language issue; such misreadings can cause substantive problems in the way evolutionary history is understood.

A new paper in PLoS ONE, “A tree of life based on ninety-eight expressed genes conserved across diverse eukaryotic species,” contains several instructive examples. PLoS ONE is open access, so you can read the original paper without an institutional subscription. A tweet by Frederik Leliaert got this paper on my radar, and it piqued my interest because of the startling observation that the inferred phylogeny shows Chlamydomonas as sister to all other eukaryotes.

It made me frown, too.

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