Something to be said for Snake Oil

One of my favorite quotes on comparing homeopathic remedies with herbal medicine:
At least snake-oil has the decency to contain some snake.
Matt Parker
This comes from Parker's excellent article in TimesOnline in which he shows mankind has not accumulated enough money to buy even one molecule of Arnica at current homeopathy rates: Homeopathy by the (mind boggling) numbers.


Mass Suicide Attempt as Protest Against Homeopathy

This is clever. Some 300 (or more) people in the U.K. will be protesting outside the Boots stores by overdosing on homeopathic remedies!
Boots hit by mass homeopathy 'overdose'
The protesters will drink large quantities of homeopathic fluids to illustrate their claim that the potions are too diluted to have any impact on the body.
Since homeopathic remedies do little more than cure thirst, no lives are at stake. However, some homeopathic medicines are not always truly homeopathic because they do mix in some chemicals, typically taken from some obnoxious plant. These are pseudo-homeopathic, and they can cause harm if taken in large quantities. This group, however, is an offshoot of the Merseyside Skeptics Group, so I'm pretty sure they will be well informed.

In case things go south, I suggest they have professional homeopathic medical personnel standing by. You know, the ones without legitimate degrees or any training whatsoever.

The event is planned for 10:23 on January 30th. See the 10^23 site for more details.


Unidentified Floating Object?

Not quite - it has been identified:
Mystery surrounds the death of a UFO expert who was found dead in the sea.
An inquest into the death of Paul Vigay failed to conclude how he came to drown off Eastney Esplanade, Eastney, Portsmouth.

No-one saw the 44-year-old father-of-one enter the water and he left no suicide note.
As you read the full article, you'll find that the "mystery" is not much of a mystery and he did leave a note which can be interpreted as a "suicide note". But the author of this article tries very hard to shamelessly weave an air of mystery/conspiracy when it is clear that the issues that led to Vigay's suicide are personal ones.


Katie Spotz Rows the Atlantic

Did you know that somewhere on the Atlantic there is a young woman in a row boat attempting to cross the ocean solo? I've been watching her tweets, photos and blog posts (via satphone) over the past week. It's an amazing and dangerous journey. Of course, the rowboat is a high tech affair, complete with sleeping cabin. Still, she has a long way to go. It's a woman against nature.
Now that I am in the trades, I have been rowing in much bigger waves making for one salty ride. Yesterday there was a 20 foot wave that broke on me while rowing – enough to get the heart pumping! For a moment I thought the boat might capsize but luckily came away only losing some bits of gear. Into the sea went my sunscreen, water bottle, sheepskin seat, and rowing gloves (plenty of extras).(link)


It's nice to see we have our priorities in order.
‘Lost’ Fans Can Relax
Fans of the television show ‘Lost’ have no fear. The White House does not plan to schedule the President’s first State of the Union address on the same night as the premiere of the popular ABC series.
What do people think Obama's been doing in Hawaii all this time if not taking onsite tours of the 'Lost' production sites?? And what better way to tease the State of the Union address than saying it will contain a spoiler or two? Or having Hurley sitting between Pelosi and Reid?


Dark Energy and Neutrinos - Coincidence?

Could neutrinos present at the Big Bang have kicked off dark energy? It's an interesting idea, but maybe it's just coincidence. From Discovery News,
The idea sprang from calculations showing that the density of dark energy is comparable to the value of neutrino mass, said lead researcher Jitesh Bhatt, with the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, India.
But what does "comparable" mean? Same order of magnitude? And how many neutrinos are there really? It's only been within the past decade or so that we solved our solar neutrino problem (in which the sun seemingly only produced 1/3 the number of neutrinos that theory predicted - turns out that neutrinos change their type as they travel, and we were only looking for one type at the time). Up until this time, one could have been forgiven to presume neutrinos massless. Yet here we are today saying the amount of dark energy is comparable to neutrino mass. Both are notoriously difficult to measure and, again, comparable may mean neutrino mass is half of the dark energy equivalent.
"It will take much more work before we can pin down the nature of dark energy," Bhatt said. "Without knowing the nature of the dark energy, our knowledge of theoretical physics would remain incomplete."


Bertrand Russel on Skepticism

From Bertrand Russel's On the Value of Scepticism, the following is something to keep in mind when considering 'science by consensus':
The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this:
(1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain;
(2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and
(3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.
These propositions may seem mild, yet, if accepted, they would absolutely revolutionize human life.
(h/t the quackometer)


Why Randi, Why?

I have the utmost respect for James Randi. He has done the most of anyone on this planet to promote skepticism and fight the woo. I had the opportunity to meet and talk with him on a couple occasions and he left me with the impression of a man who chooses his words carefully, demanding precision in language. I think he believes that one must be exact in their arguments because the other side is often so inexact. In fact, their main tactic is to twist words and meanings creating purposeful misdirections to pull off their particular brand of magic.

Randi seems to have departed from this rigorous standard in his initial posting about Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) on The Swift Blog. In AGW, Revisited, Randi created a storm of controversy among skeptics when he "turned his skeptical eye" to AGW. I think by now he is having regrets. Although he claims that this Global Warming is not his area of expertise and freely admits that he is only an amateur, even AGW amateurs like myself can see that he is still only on level 1. It became painfully obvious that Randi did not have enough experience to weigh in on this topic. While I understand not knowing the science, I don't understand how he could have so easily gotten in to trouble. After all, it is well known that AGW is contentious even among skeptics. He should have known that more in depth study was needed than what he evinced on his blog. He made several obvious mistakes that are understandable for an AGW amateur though not for a professional skeptic.

Thankfully, Randi responded to the criticisms a day later in his post I Am Not "Denying" Anything. His response seemed more geared towards the extremists who misinterpreted his earlier posting, or perhaps read something into it that wasn't there - namely that Randi denied global warming or AGW. He does well defending himself, though it doesn't take much to dispatch his most hardcore detractors. But this second post really doesn't do much more than this. Sure, he admits mistakes were made, and he reiterates that "the importance and impact of this phenomenon is well beyond my grasp", but he still makes himself available to AGW denialists (or 'skeptics' if you prefer):
As I've indicated, I do not deny the finding of GW. AGW, to me, is less clear, though I accept that it is likely true.
OK. Wait - what? It appears he's leaning towards AGW, but it also sounds like it wouldn't take much to switch his vote. To be or not to be an AGW proponent. That is the question. But it's one I wish Randi would have never answered. At least not at this point in time.

Here's a roundup of some of the more distinguished blogs commenting on this:


Fun Science

Perfect for parties and sure to get you a date! Richard Wiseman presents fun tricks for the holidays:

(thanks Phil, always with the best posts!)


Randi on Global Warming - Shockers!

James Randi is the world's most renown representative for skepticism. As such, his opinion is highly valued by skeptics from all corners of the globe. Recently, he posted AGW, Revisited - a short discourse on his doubting anthropogenic (man-made) global warming (AGW). But he does it very carefully, noting several times that he is no expert, that he is an amateur in this area. He rightfully rejects 'science by consensus', but by doing so he leads one to believe that this is how we arrived at AGW - by consensus. It's not. It is an argument bandied about on the news as a way to convince others, but it has never been used in a scientific article as proof that AGW is occurring.

Randi argues that throughout the ages, throughout the many shifts in climate change, the biosphere has survived. This is a confusing point because no scientist argues otherwise. If AGW is occurring and we do nothing to stop it - even if we accelerate the effect - the biosphere will still survive. Whether man will or not is another question. Certainly, whole civilizations will change dramatically.

He writes
In my amateur opinion, more attention to disease control, better hygienic conditions for food production and clean water supplies, as well as controlling the filth that we breathe from fossil fuel use, are problems that should distract us from fretting about baking in Global Warming.
In other words, he is saying we have other things we should be worried about before getting to Global Warming. Of course, we are worried about those things. The spectre of Global Warming does not diminish our more immediate concerns. However, what's the point of stamping out a few small fires in your room as the house continues to burn?

I was disheartened to know Randi's stance on this issue, but I understand that it is a divisive one even among skeptics. Or perhaps, especially among skeptics. Skeptics have a particular drive to ignore ideology and focus on facts and data. That this particular community can be so divided illustrates how difficult the issues are surrounding Global Warming. For one, GW is not immediate. It occurs over hundreds of years. Also, high quality data does not exist. The past history of climate change has to be obtained via proxies - e.g. tree ring growth, ice core samples, effects on corals, etc. These are fraught with many variables and often times run counter to what the GW proponents theorize. Lastly, computer models do not still adequately address a variety of feedback mechanisms, not the least of which is low and high altitude cloud formation, which can have a significant effect on GW.

Yet with all these problems, the vast majority of scientists (aka the consensus) has discerned that GW is occurring and man is largely responsible. Does Randi think they are wrong? It certainly sounds like it. His opinion goes against the grain of science, yet he has shown in the past how scientists - especially scientists - are easily fooled by charlatans and tricksters who depend on deception and human fallibility. Nature, however, does not engage in premeditated tomfoolery. It does not actively seek to trick the scientist. It may hide its secrets very well and require the construction of a large hadron collider to tease them out, but it does not purposefully evade detection. So, I do not understand how Randi arrived at his conclusion. His post makes vague references and cannot stand alone as validation of his convictions. It merely states what he believes and alludes to 'common sense' as justification. As for myself, I don't buy it.

(first seen at Pharyngula)

Climate Scoreboard


Evil Dead to be Rereleased

Bruce Campbell returns to the silver screen in the role that made him famous as Grindhouse pictures rereleases The Evil Dead in 2010.

Release dates are

– January 8-9: Uptown Theatre, Minneapolis
– January 15-16: Esquire Theatre, Denver
– January 29-30: Sunshine Cinema, New York
– February 5-6: Egyptian Theatre, Seattle
– February 19-20: River Oaks Theatre, Houston
– February 26-27: Inwood, Dallas
– March 5: Nuart Theatre, Los Angeles

Pure awesome. I see a trip to New York in my future...

(via Reelz Channel)


14 Days in History

The following editorial was originally printed in the Guardian newspaper on December 7, 2009 and is freely reproducible under a creative commons license.


Copenhagen climate change conference: 'Fourteen days to seal history's judgment on this generation'

This editorial calling for action from world leaders on climate change is published today by 56 newspapers around the world in 20 languages
Today 56 newspapers in 45 countries take the unprecedented step of speaking with one voice through a common editorial. We do so because humanity faces a profound emergency.

Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting and last year's inflamed oil and food prices provide a foretaste of future havoc. In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world's response has been feeble and half-hearted.

• How the Copenhagen global leader came about
• Write your own editorial
• The papers that carried the Copenhagen editorial
In pictures: How newspapers around the world ran the editorial

Climate change has been caused over centuries, has consequences that will endure for all time and our prospects of taming it will be determined in the next 14 days. We call on the representatives of the 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen not to hesitate, not to fall into dispute, not to blame each other but to seize opportunity from the greatest modern failure of politics. This should not be a fight between the rich world and the poor world, or between east and west. Climate change affects everyone, and must be solved by everyone.

The science is complex but the facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to 2C, an aim that will require global emissions to peak and begin falling within the next 5-10 years. A bigger rise of 3-4C — the smallest increase we can prudently expect to follow inaction — would parch continents, turning farmland into desert. Half of all species could become extinct, untold millions of people would be displaced, whole nations drowned by the sea. The controversy over emails by British researchers that suggest they tried to suppress inconvenient data has muddied the waters but failed to dent the mass of evidence on which these predictions are based.

Few believe that Copenhagen can any longer produce a fully polished treaty; real progress towards one could only begin with the arrival of President Obama in the White House and the reversal of years of US obstructionism. Even now the world finds itself at the mercy of American domestic politics, for the president cannot fully commit to the action required until the US Congress has done so.

But the politicians in Copenhagen can and must agree the essential elements of a fair and effective deal and, crucially, a firm timetable for turning it into a treaty. Next June's UN climate meeting in Bonn should be their deadline. As one negotiator put it: "We can go into extra time but we can't afford a replay."

At the deal's heart must be a settlement between the rich world and the developing world covering how the burden of fighting climate change will be divided — and how we will share a newly precious resource: the trillion or so tonnes of carbon that we can emit before the mercury rises to dangerous levels.

Rich nations like to point to the arithmetic truth that there can be no solution until developing giants such as China take more radical steps than they have so far. But the rich world is responsible for most of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere – three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emitted since 1850. It must now take a lead, and every developed country must commit to deep cuts which will reduce their emissions within a decade to very substantially less than their 1990 level.

Developing countries can point out they did not cause the bulk of the problem, and also that the poorest regions of the world will be hardest hit. But they will increasingly contribute to warming, and must thus pledge meaningful and quantifiable action of their own. Though both fell short of what some had hoped for, the recent commitments to emissions targets by the world's biggest polluters, the United States and China, were important steps in the right direction.

Social justice demands that the industrialised world digs deep into its pockets and pledges cash to help poorer countries adapt to climate change, and clean technologies to enable them to grow economically without growing their emissions. The architecture of a future treaty must also be pinned down – with rigorous multilateral monitoring, fair rewards for protecting forests, and the credible assessment of "exported emissions" so that the burden can eventually be more equitably shared between those who produce polluting products and those who consume them. And fairness requires that the burden placed on individual developed countries should take into account their ability to bear it; for instance newer EU members, often much poorer than "old Europe", must not suffer more than their richer partners.

The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance — and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing.

Many of us, particularly in the developed world, will have to change our lifestyles. The era of flights that cost less than the taxi ride to the airport is drawing to a close. We will have to shop, eat and travel more intelligently. We will have to pay more for our energy, and use less of it.

But the shift to a low-carbon society holds out the prospect of more opportunity than sacrifice. Already some countries have recognized that embracing the transformation can bring growth, jobs and better quality lives. The flow of capital tells its own story: last year for the first time more was invested in renewable forms of energy than producing electricity from fossil fuels.

Kicking our carbon habit within a few short decades will require a feat of engineering and innovation to match anything in our history. But whereas putting a man on the moon or splitting the atom were born of conflict and competition, the coming carbon race must be driven by a collaborative effort to achieve collective salvation.
Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness, of what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature".

It is in that spirit that 56 newspapers from around the world have united behind this editorial. If we, with such different national and political perspectives, can agree on what must be done then surely our leaders can too.
The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history's judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.

This editorial will be published tomorrow by 56 newspapers around the world in 20 languages including Chinese, Arabic and Russian. The text was drafted by a Guardian team during more than a month of consultations with editors from more than 20 of the papers involved. Like the Guardian most of the newspapers have taken the unusual step of featuring the editorial on their front page.

This editorial is free to reproduce under Creative Commons


Mandating Religion In Schools?

In an effort that is destined to go nowhere, a woman in Redding, California is getting signatures on a ballot to mandate the singing of Christmas carols in public schools. Merry Hyatt, apparently unable to comprehend the concept of 'Separation of Church and State', is seeking to actively promote the expression of one religion in her local schools.

She is a recent transplant to Redding and quickly installed herself in the Redding Tea Party Patriots. Tea Party Patriots, as we all know, are really starting to feel their oats. They have a particular fundamentalist view of what America should be based on their interpretations of a mythical American history. Meryy Hyatt is no different.
Hyatt, a substitute teacher who moved to Redding from Riverside, said her motivation for the initiative was to help restore children's moral compasses by inviting Jesus to school Christmas parties.

"He's the prince of peace; he's the only one who can get these kids to stop being so violent," she said in November.

Hyatt said she believes it is Americans' First Amendment right to worship.
"It's our right to have freedom to worship," she said. "That's why we came to this country. They came to be Christians and they're trying to take that away. They're out of line; we're not." (link)
Once these efforts fail, I expect her next initiative will be to mandate circumcision.

You can find the text of the initiative here (pdf warn).


How Did Those People Get Into Heaven?

Sarah Trachtenberg brought up a good point I hadn't thought of before in a comment she left at The Hypatian Shore. Supposedly, Christ died for our sins. Even if you were born and led a godly life, you still were stuck with original sin. So, you can't get into heaven without worshiping Jesus as the one true Son. So, as Sarah pointed out, what happened to everyone who came before Christ? How the hell did they get into heaven?

And while we're on the subject, did everyone killed in the flood go to hell? You would think so - after all, God didn't seem to like them very much. Seems like there have been huge swaths of people denied entrance to the party.

I'm sure the Christians have a convoluted explanation involving the fall and original sin. But I'd like to here one that uses the analogy of God as bouncer and everyone else trying to pay the cover charge.


T-bagga? What is Nordlinger Thinking?

Jay Nordlinger, a senior editor of National Review, addresses in his latest article Rise of an Epiphet the term "teabagger" and how conservatives should handle it. He gives both the colloquial definition as well as what conservatives intended it to mean when they adopted it last April 15. Of course, after the middle-aged gun-totin' white guys found out what it really means, they back-pedaled and attempted to shift to "tea partier" or "tea party patriot". However these don't quite roll off the tongue as easily as "tea bagger". Nordlinger senses the quandary and suggests conservatives simply take ownership of the term, eventually to change its definition. He offers "Yankee Doodle" as an example, offering that "doodle" "probably relates to the male organ". The colonials took over "Yankee Doodle" and they made it their own. Think "Yankee Doodle" and "American patriot" immediately comes to mind - not 'yankin' a doodle'!

Nordlinger also provides us with "scumbag" and "putzhead" as past examples that were used in political arenas, though not with their intended meaning (i.e. "used condom" and "penis head", respectively). Like "Yankee Doodle", these are no longer the vulgar pejoratives of old. Unlike "Yankee Doodle", they still are derogatory.

Nordlinger seems to have neglected simply googling "doodle" for he would have immediately found that it doesn't mean what he thinks it does. From the Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology:
doodle simpleton XVII; larva of tiger-beetle (also doodle-bug, applied in 1944 to the ‘flying bomb’) XIX; aimless scrawl on paper XX. In the first sense — LG. dudel- in dudeltopf, -dopp simple fellow; the connection of the other senses is doubtful; the last is prob. rel. to dial. vb. doodle fritter time away.
and from Wikipedia,
As a term Doodle first appeared in the early seventeenth century,[4] and is thought to derive from the Low German dudel or dödel, meaning "fool" or "simpleton".
Nordlinger should take a lesson from Condrad's Heart of Darkness - venture too far into the jungle and you just might turn native.

Most delicious and ridiculous of all, Nordlinger goes so far as to suggest "teabagger" could be the new N-word:
What about a special case — the worst word in American English, as some of us see it, namely the N-word? When I was growing up, in Ann Arbor, Mich., there was a little debate: Should school officials try to prevent black students from using the N-word? I don’t believe the issue was ever settled. And this brings up the question of whether “teabagger” could be kind of a conservative N-word: to be used in the family, but radioactive outside the family.
Think of that for a moment. Teabagger = T-bagga? It's kind of catchy. You know, Michael Steele is trying to "urbanize" the GOP. And this idea is so crazy, it just might work!

Bring it, JayNord! All the T-bagga's in the house go HIP HOP HIPPITY HOP, HIP HIP HIPPITY HOP. The roof, the roof, the roof (of the socialist hospitable where grandma lies dying) is on fire! We don't need no water because it's all OBAMA'S fault! Can I get a what what?



P.Z. Myers on Geoffrey Simmons

One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from P.Z. Myers regarding Geoffrey Simmons. I had forgotten about it until recently, so I thought I'd record it here, just so I can come back and dust it off every now and then.
This is a man who thinks the fact that he isn't drooling and feces aren't dribbling down his leg is a miracle from god.
The original can be found here.


Great STS-129 Shuttle Launch Highlights Video

I thought this was a very cool video. It captures the STS-129 mission launch from the many different cameras and a variety of angles. You can follow the solid rocket boosters from separation to splashdown. You can watch the ignition of the main engines and SRBs and follow liftoff from both fore and aft directions. It's a little long with the credits and I couldn't get sound...but who needs sound in space? Eh?

(h/t Nasawatch)


1.18 TeV and counting

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) set a new particle collision energy record at 1.18 TeV, surpassing Fermilab's Tevatron record of 0.98 TeV. And the LHC is just getting started! It is designed to ultimately accelerate beams of protons to 7 TeV. The beams run in opposite directions and head-on collisions occur when the beams are steered into each other, for a total collision energy of 14 TeV! That's 14 million million electron volts! That's a heady number and it's very difficult to grasp the enormity. But think of it this way: if every person on earth had just one electron volt, you would need 14 million million people! Crazy - I know.

Or, here's another way to imagine it. 1 TeV is about equal to the kinetic energy of 1 flying mosquito. So the LHC is like sending 7 mosquitoes one way and 7 t'other, and having them collide head-on in midair. Do it enough times, and one of the mosquitoes will poop out a god particle. At least that's what the physicists will be looking for. Like I said - crazy! I may crap a god particle just thinking about it.


Darwin at the Throne

Besides introducing one of the greatest theories in history, Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species apparently makes for great bathroom reading.
A first edition of Charles Darwin's Origin Of Species, which was kept on a toilet bookshelf, is to be auctioned.
It is hoped the book, which was bought about 40 years ago in a West Country shop for a few shillings, will reach £60,000 in Tuesday's sale.
The book was kept on a bookcase in a guest lavatory at the owner's family home in Oxfordshire.(link)